of shaving gel, disposable razors, toothbrushes and toothpaste. Three layers of toiletries, including sanitary wipes and foot powder. Some day soon, her own brother would be stationed in Iraq, brushing his teeth then shaving with cold water in a canteen cup, swiping his left hand over his cheeks occasionally to check for wayward bristles. She imagined him lifting his chin, sliding the single-edged blade up his thick neck braided with bulging veins. A perfect target for the crosshairs of a sniper’s scope.
“Avril, you get the last of the boxes filled?” Father Tom stuck his head around the corner of the door to the gym, his eyes sweeping over the parcels headed for the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit. He meant well, she suspected, but he had a subtle way of seducing you into doing more than you’d expected. Two hours, tops, he’d said, and now it was almost noon.
“Just finishing this one,” she said, closing the lid and sealing the flaps with strapping tape.
“Some of the other parishioners will be here soon to load them in the truck.” Father Tom’s narrow fingers pressed against the tape of the box she’d just finished. Soon he’d be telling her they’d better skedaddle if they wanted to make it on time to the send-off picnic for Brian, same as he’d warn her to do when she used to ask to wait for Brian after he’d served as altar boy at mass. “Brian’s going to help me tidy up in back,” he’d say while her brother studied his tennis shoes before adding, “I’ll be home soon.”
She slid the finished parcel near the others on the table and grabbed her purse.
She still found it difficult to accept that Brian had enlisted a week after graduating from high
school, surprising the family. And the Marines, no less. Yes, he’d been one of the top
runners on the Evans High School track team, but he was also a bit of a nerd, scribbling
poetry into spiral-bound notebooks, including one poem he’d finally shared with her: “In
the valley’s shadow/ the buck lies on a soft mat of grass / mist from the lake shrouding
him. / He lifts his head, / eyes wistful and wary/ inhaling the enemy’s scent, /sweet and
pungent with longing.” She’d asked him what it meant and he simply shook his head,
saying, “Someday you’ll understand.”
She’d dabbled in poetry a few times herself but gave up. Brian urged her to keep at it, but her attempts read more like Hallmark greetings. Besides, all she could hope for now from her brother was an e-mail now and then, maybe a call home to say he was fine when the commanding officer gave his okay.“You riding with me to the picnic, Father?”
“Yep, and so is Tony, if you don’t mind.”
The janitor who worked double duty for Saint Lawrence Church and the high school
hobbled into the gym and nodded at Avril. She glanced away, her face flushed. Tony
had always given her the creeps with his gelled flattop and a toothpick wedged between
his lower two front teeth. He smelled of cheap cologne and peppermint.
“Father,” Tony stammered, “ I told Jimmy Sayre you wouldn’t be needing him any more
“I need to speak with him about serving tomorrow.” Father Tom made his way to the
door, frowning and muttering under his breath.
“I’ll be in my car,” Avril said, heading toward the door just as Tony maneuvered his way
between her and the threshold.
“Your brother’s gonna make it home, don’t you worry none,” he managed to blurt out,
his milky brown eyes focused on hers.
She shook her head and pushed past him, shuddering. She’d once asked Father Tom
why he’d hired Tony and he’d told her, “He’s like a kid, harmless.”
Sure, harmless as a viper, Avril thought now as she made her way out of the front door
of the high school. A moment later, Tony plopped into the back seat and Father Tom
slid into the passenger’s side. Avril made it a point to avoid Tony’s eyes studying hers
through the rear view mirror as she drove.
Twenty minutes later, they finally made it to the picnic. When it came time to give gifts,
Avril handed Brian a pocket-sized notepad. “For your poetry when you’re in the field,”
she said, forcing a smile.
“Maybe. Send me some of your own, okay?” He stuffed the journal into a sack filled with
card games, chewing gum, and magazines, then hugged her. “Everything will be just
fine,” he said.
She nodded, the familiar words of encouragement he’d told her over the years not
nearly as comforting in this moment.
Avril drew a beer from the keg, bored. Music blasted from the portable stereo and
Father Tom had cornered Brian by the corner of the shelter. Avril watched as Brian
nodded, then lowered his head when the priest put one hand on Brian’s shoulder and
guided him towards the baseball diamond. No chance she’d get to hang out with her
brother for a while. She sipped her beer and glanced around at the crowd: family, close
friends, and parishioners who’d known Brian since elementary school.
“Wanna dance?” Tony stood beside her, sipping from a plastic cup that she was certain
was filled with whiskey and a splash of Coke.
“Uh, no. I’m waiting for Brian.”
Tony laughed, his toothpick bobbing up and down. Avril wished he’d choke on it. He
set his drink on the picnic table and grabbed Avril’s drink from her hand and placed it
next to his on the railing. He took her hand and led her to the open area where a few
older couples were dancing to rock-’n-roll. She pulled back but Tony tightened his grip
and dragged her forward.
He was surprisingly graceful on his feet considering his usual awkward gait. She tried
her best to follow him, his right hand pressed into the small of her back as he swung
her under one arm and twirled her. He grinned at her chest, his eyes brimming with
tears. When the dance ended, he mumbled, “Write to your brother, he’ll need that.”
He grasped her hand and squeezed hard before letting go.
She turned and bumped into Brian. “Having fun?”
She grabbed her brother’s arm and pulled him to the side. “He’s a weirdo. It
wasn’t my idea for him to come.”
Father Tom had drifted to the far corner of the shelter. “I’m glad he did. He’s the main
reason I enlisted,” Brian said as his eyes and Avril’s followed Tony shuffling up the trail
to the main path leading to entrance of the park, his body leaning to the left as if a
slight breeze would topple him to the ground at any moment.
That night, in her dream, Tony carries Brian to the rear, mortar and machine gun tracer
rounds lighting the night sky. He is crouched low, Brian slung over one shoulder, his
boots dragging through the sand when Tony ducks incoming rounds.
“Hang in there, buddy,” Tony manages to grunt around the toothpick in his mouth. He
wobbles under Brian’s weight. Only a few hundred feet to go. A grenade bounces in
front of them. He shoves Brian up higher on his shoulder, swoops down with his free
hand and grabs the grenade, lobs it in the direction from which it came.
A moment later, detonation. Sand and metal fragments rain down on them.
“See, you missed the big one,” Tony stutters, shifting Brian’s weight for balance.
“Those flesh wounds in your thigh, man, you’ll get over those.” He lays Brian on the
desert floor beside the armored tank and calls out for a medic.
“I’ll never forget you helping me and my two friends years ago. Now I owe you big time,
twice,” Brian whispers into Tony’s ear when he leans over to pat him on the shoulder.
“Like I told you then, keep the faith no matter what.” He grabs his rifle and heads back
toward the fire zone.
The next morning, Avril waited for Father Tom after mass, the scent of incense still
clinging to his vestment. After she had described her dream, Father Tom shook his
head and stared down at his clasped hands. “You’re probably just worried about Brian
and remembered Tony was a hero in Vietnam.”
“Him? I didn’t know.” She couldn’t imagine Tony as anything but a janitor, boozing on
the sly and dusting the altar with one eye trained on the crucifix.
“He earned a Purple Heart, has a steel plate in his head from shrapnel that took a chunk
of his brain when it exited his skull. That’s why he stumbles over words and walks with
a limp.” Father Tom glanced over his shoulder and nodded at Jimmy Sayre who stood
on the church steps still wearing his white robe. He turned and went back into the
church. “When he ended up back here six years ago after living on the streets, I gave
him a job when no one else would.”
“Do you think maybe there is something to the dream?”
Father Tom’s lips pressed into a fine line, his usual signal to end a conversation. “A
dream is just a dream, that’s all,” he muttered before scurrying up the steps of the
church, his head bent down and shoulders curved into a hump.
Tonight she is ten in her dream. Brian, two years older, waits beside the back door of
the car. They’re running late and Brian is serving at mass today. Her mom and dad yell
at her to hurry up.
At church a short time later, Brian offers the white linen cloth for Father Tom to dry his
hands before blessing the wine and wafers. Father Tom isn’t ready; he washes his
hands again and again, while Brian shifts his weight from one foot to the other, his face
flushed red, his eyes burrowing into the floor of the altar.
Finally, the priest turns to Brian, accepts the towel and dries his hands, slowly sliding
the cloth between each finger, across the palms, and the backs of each hand. He folds
the cloth, lengthwise, repeats, and then over and under until it is the size of a
communion wafer. He places it on his tongue and swallows.
Brian floats to the ceiling, waving down at them but only Avril is aware that he has
joined the cherubs high in the rafters, flattening himself into the ochre paint and
merging with the trio of pink smiling faces.
Her parents moved to one side when it was Avril’s turn to say goodbye to Brian before
he passed through security at the airport. Last night’s dream continued to gnaw at
her. She wrapped one arm around Brian’s shoulders and stood on tiptoes to kiss his
cheek. “Brian, did Tony talk you into enlisting?”
He hugged her tight. “Not really, but he used to tell me stories about the Marines and
stuff. This was my idea, Sis.”
She watched until he’d rounded the corner to Concourse A, and then headed toward
the window where she would wait until his plane took off. As she pressed her hands
against the pane and peered in the direction of the jet’s postage-stamp-sized windows,
she remembered a line from a poem she’d read in school: “I have slipped the surly
bounds of earth and touched the face of God.”
She prayed that her brother would experience a similar blessing during his flight, and
that he would return safe and whole from the battle others had chosen for him. While
he was gone, she would wrangle with words, /images colliding until she worked into the
poem what-might-have-been and what-should-have-been, her heart finally
acknowledging what the mind could not fathom.
Barbara Zimmermann teaches undergraduate- and graduate level fiction writing
classes and directs the yearly Creative Writing in the Community project at Ball
State University. Her fiction, poetry, and literary nonfiction have appeared or are
forthcoming in New Millennium Writings, Kaleidoscope, Pleiades, Rockhurst
Review, The Flying Island and other literary journals. Her nonfiction book,
forthcoming from McFarland & Company, is titled James Lee Burke and the Soul
of Dave Robicheaux: A Critical Study of the Crime Series.