*This story was first published in The Congress of Rough Writers Flash Fiction Anthology Vol. I
My room was busy today. My son Tate with his kids, his oldest with a kid of her own. Waves of names crashed down on me. Noise and commotion, voices talking over top of each other. I could only nod along, lost in the speed of things as they went about their conversations.
When the chatter died down and they took to their phones, I knew it was almost over. Tate busied himself with the room, the kids, straightening pictures on the wall, so that I never got a moment alone with him. A stiff handshake on the way out was our only link, a cold squeeze to acknowledge blood and circumstance.
I don’t know this man who is my son. Hardly better than his brother who managed only a few precious minutes of life. And I was supposed to change all of that — I said that I would. But I haven’t the slightest clue how to go about it.
Elsie handled these affairs. I was left to nod and grunt. She’d known all the names, the birthdates, and the graduations. She cooked glorious dinners and baked cookies for the grandchildren, knitting us all together with her kindness and spirit.
When she fell ill they were devastated. Horrified glances fell to me, as though I didn’t know that it was a rotten deal, that it should have been me. It would have been easier that way, not that Elsie thought so. She was strong, and as always, working with all she could to her last days trying to connect me to them. So now we shake hands.
When Tate and the kids were gone, a hushed relief came over me. Oh, my sweet Elsie. I promised that I could do it. That I would have an honest talk with him and get to know my grandchildren. It’s the only lie I’ve ever told her.
Perhaps it’s because I’m more acquainted with the dead than the living. I stepped over it, through it, slung it over my back on that beach so many years ago. I’d held my best friend in his final moments, as a hail of mortar and gunfire came raining down on us, the taste of salt water and iron on my lips.
Now my lips were cracked and chapped as I looked over the bombardment of trash. Wrappers, diapers, soda bottles between the dented pillows on the couch. The trail of the disposables.
Oh Francis. You’ve become such an old crank.
At the sound of her voice I looked to her picture in the oval frame. Elsie at the fair, the night we met. Posed with her head back and her arms to her sides, the photograph so worn and riddled with scratches but seared into my mind. I knew then she was my light. With Elsie the ocean never turned on me. The sand was always clean. Soft and forgiving. Her laughter obliterated the groans and cries of men on their way out of life.
Why didn’t you talk to him? He wants you to talk to him.
“What should I say, Elsie?”
Nurse Vickie stood before me. “Good afternoon, Francis. Did your family come today?”
Her eyes fell to Elsie in my grip. I returned her picture to the shelf, wondering what Vickie had heard or how much I’d said. If all the old widows and widowers talked to their spouses.
“Do you need some time before dinner?”
Dinner. We’d just had lunch. Nurse Vickie’s eyes were wide and caring. She’s easily my favorite staff nurse at Willows, one of the few who doesn’t treat me like a toddler who’d pissed himself. “I’ll come back after I make my rounds. You need anything, sweetie?”
I needed to be in a picture frame — shown off in a photo album instead of peeked at like a stranger. Spoke about in the past tense instead of the present. But no, I didn’t need any apple juice.
When Vickie was gone I took the picture again, traced Elsie’s youthful face with a hooked finger. How long had it been, five years? What did it matter?
I rose, finding socks and fighting to get them on my curled feet. I peeled off the elastic, yanked my real pants up, and clasped my suspenders. When I did, my nose conjured up a rosy fragrance that sent me back forty years. A flicker of Elsie at the mirror, Glenn Miller humming over the room. In a blink it ended, and I found my overcoat and made my way. But she wasn’t finished with me.
Francis, no. Not yet.
Her hand fell on mine, like an amputee feels an itch. I stopped with my buttons and closed my eyes. Went back for her picture. Then I fixed my hat and walked right out of my door, charging down the hallway for the side door. With some commotion at the front desk, and all the fuss about the storm sweeping in, I simply slid out without notice.
The sky was milky gray, I pulled my coat tight against the biting wind and patted an empty back pocket as I thought about getting flowers. An old habit from a past life.
The bus wrenched to a stop. Cars whipped past the bus stop without warning. I hobbled aboard, my hip sending a blast of panic down my leg as I shuffled to a seat, winded and wincing and cursing my mind for overstaying its welcome. My body was an old vessel, one that could never walk the seven blocks to the cemetery.
When we started forward I was on that boat, with fifty other saps about to take fire. When that ramp came down I knew it was over for me. For all of us. I wasn’t yet twenty and I’d kissed Elsie’s picture a thousand times. I’d spoken to it then as I did now, my shield in a hail of iron and steel.
The bus doors opened. I crossed the street as I’d charged the shore, my gaze focused on the wrought iron fencing, the statues, so brave and stoic, unmoved by the years. I trudged through the gates as the first snowflake hit my cheek.
Inside those grounds my breathing returned to normal. A few lonely birds perched on stones. My pace slowed, and it occurred to me that I no longer remembered Elsie’s funeral. Who spoke or what wonderful things were said about the woman I loved more than anything on this forsaken planet.
Our gravestone lay somewhere up the hill. Slipping through the dust I was sure as the moon that my feet would take me to her. Through the barrage of snowflakes that blurred the landscape, touched my shoulders, muted the world of sound. Of all the things that had slipped my memory, the ring of gunfire and the groan of death were not among them. The cries of my fellow brothers, the blood-stained sand. It held my soul in its grasp to this day.
I stumbled upon her. Around the naked oaks, just past the weeping angel. I wiped clean our slab of remembrance.
Elsie Jean Pollard. 1926-2011
Francis T. Pollard 1925-
The dirt was unforgiving on my knees. My hands melted the new snow but did little to loosen the hardened soil of my own burial plot.
I’d failed us. I’d failed my family. Drowned in blood red waters where I’d defended my country only to lose touch with my countrymen. My son’s cold hand still in my grip. Without Elsie I was all alone on that beach, taking breaths I no longer wished to take.
“I’m sorry, dear. I’m sorry I never came out of it.”
The snow insulated those last minutes. Cold at first touch, then heavy and warm, like blood filling a wound. It covered a lifetime of horrors — war, Elsie in labor, a dying son’s screams, a living son’s resentment — like sand on the beach. I curled up next to my Elsie, using my unfinished marker for a pillow, closing my eyes as she whispered in my ear.
It’s okay, Francis. It’s okay.