by Ruth Draves
A Writer's Cramp Contest Winner, a story of a New Year's Eve spent far from home.
|“They say that home is where the heart is,” slurred the man in the barstool next to mine.
Carefully ignoring the drunk, I swallowed the last of my overcooked buffalo wing and tried to get the bartender's attention for my check.
“So, darlin',” drawled the boozy voice close to my ear, “where's your heart tonight?”
I coolly leveled my gaze at the speaker. He was closer to my age than I had originally thought. His dress greens said he was a Major, 8th Army. Same as my uncle.
“If you really want to know,” I spat, “try the Cemetery's Visitor Center. It got buried in Section 60 today.”
I reached into my purse and threw down on the bar what I hoped was enough cash to cover my tab. The Army had wanted me to keep receipts to have my meals comped, but I didn't care at that point.
The icy Arlington air pierced my lungs as I lunged out of the crowded bar. Growing up in sunny California meant I had no idea if the wet stuff coming down in blobs was sleet or freezing rain. My hotel's sign glowed just up the block. I paused to wrap my pathetic scarf tighter around my neck to try to keep warmer when a hand touched my shoulder. I spun around to face the major from the barstool. He was holding a wad of cash.
“Ma'am,” he said, much more soberly, “I am truly sorry.”
“What do you want with that?” I said, nodding to his outstretched hand.
“I paid your bill,” he said. “It's the least I could do after being such as ass in there. This is yours.”
“Well, thanks, I guess,” I said, warily taking the money from him.
“Ma'am, if I may,” he started as I turned to go. “What are you doing here tonight?”
“Why do you want to know?” I demanded.
“Well, I'm a Casualty Assistance Officer,” he said. “Don't you have one assigned to you?”
I recognized the title. The Army had assigned me a Sargent who had helped me arrange my travel plans for the trip and to be a liaison for me. She hadn't been the warmest or most helpful person I had met.
“My CAO is probably with her family or friends,” I said. “She's local.”
“Lucky her,” he grinned ruefully. “I'm with a family from Seattle. My name is Adam. Major Adam Keillor.”
“Shouldn't you be comforting your Seattle family?” I asked.
“They wanted to go to bed early,” he said. “Some families want you to be with them every step of the process, from the time you meet them to the time you pack them on the plane home. This one,” he sighed and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, “It's an older couple. Their grandson. Afghanistan. They want nothing to do with the Army right now.”
“Yeah, I can see that,” I said.
“Look, you're freezing,” the Major said. “Come back in, let me get you some real food. I promise to be good.”
“Why should you care?” I asked, trying not to slip on the slick sidewalk as I took a step back.
The Major took a deep drag on his cigarette and looked at me. “The interment was today, you said?”
“Nine thirty this morning,” I answered.
“On New Year's Eve,” he shook his head. “Who else from your family was there?”
“No one,” I admitted. “Uncle Ray was my last relative.”
“Then that's why,” he said. “You're alone, I'm alone. I may have been a jerk earlier, but I am an officer and gentleman now.”
I was about to say no when he added, “Let me do my job for someone.”
Against my better judgment, I found myself sitting at a corner table across from the Major, telling him all about my uncle.
“He raised me after my parents died,” I shouted over the noise of the crowd. “He was better than a real parent in some ways. I was more afraid of disappointing him than of him, if you know what I mean.”
“When did he serve?” the Major shouted back as our food – real sandwiches, not the over-fried garbage I had managed to score earlier – arrived still steaming at our table.
“World War Two, believe it or not,” I said as I picked up a fry. “Ray's really my great-uncle. My grandfather's brother. He lied about his age to get in the Army. He made it through flight school before they found out he wasn't eighteen yet.”
“And he didn't end up in the stockade?” the Major said between bites. “How's that happen?”
I found myself telling Major Keillor more about Uncle Ray than I had ever told anyone – not a friend or boyfriend. I told him about how he convinced the Army to keep him, and how his crew called him “Junior” from that point on. I talked about his time in England, how he loved the greenness of the land, the appreciation of the people, and even the cheese and warm beer. The party around us wound up and then down as I told of Ray's final mission, the bombing run to Berlin that saw most of the B-24s in his unit never come home, how he had died with shrapnel from that mission still in his legs over sixty years later.
We walked out to a quieter sidewalk well after midnight. Major Keillor held my arm gently as we slipped and slid to the hotel.
In the elevator, Major Keillor watched me quietly. When the elevator stopped at my floor, he held the door open for me.
“Thank you,” he said as the doors closed between us.
It wasn't until I was alone in my room that I realized the Major didn't even know my name.