Voices

By
Lois Overton, aka Foxhole Filly
February 2002

The soldier stood at the bottom of the cement steps leading up the short embankment. Four steps to the upper walkway, then three steps up to the porch. Beyond that, the door. So many times in the past two years, he'd thought about that door and of walking through it again. Yet now that he was so close, he hesitated. It all seemed like a dream. A warm breeze carried sights and sounds that filled him with memories of all those growing up days when he'd run and jumped and played on those steps.

The boy sat beside Binky Jurdens on the top step, bent over cigar boxes full of marbles.

"Oh, wow, Binky, let me see that glassy. Where'd you get it?" The boy's eyes gleamed.

"You kidding? I had to trade my best cat's-eye and two steelies for it." Binky turned and leaned over the porch floor. Tongue clamped between his teeth, he placed a blue marble on the wood plank, jammed the glassy between his thumb and forefinger, and flicked it forward. The glassy knocked into the blue marble and sent it careening toward the door.

The boy's hand shot out and snagged the marble before it hit the knothole in the floor and disappeared into the void below. He plopped it back into the cigar box. "That is one neat glassy all right. Did ya see that action?"

"Yup. Sure did. This baby's probably worth... oh, a zillion dollars."

"At least. Sure wish I had somethin' like that."

"Tell you what, Saunders," Binky polished the glassy on his sleeve and held it out to his friend. "I'll let you have it. But I got dibs on it whenever I want. Deal?"

"Deal." The boys spat on their hands and slapped them together, as they fell back onto the porch, breaking into a discussion of the huge spider constructing its web between the ceiling beams just above their heads.

One frosty, winter afternoon, he'd taken his sled to the top of the porch. Holding the Flyer in front of him, he'd thrown himself forward, landing on it as it bumped down the snow-covered steps. The sled had wildly negotiated the first landing, then careened down the steps of the embankment. Although the gash at the base of the tree that bordered the street had long since grown over, he still bore a small scar on his forehead from that debacle.

"Chip, what the hell were you thinking about? You could have been killed." The boy's father paced back and forth angrily.

"I'm sorry, sir. I didn't think."

"No you didn't think. And what if Petey, or worse yet, Joey, had seen you doing such a dang fool thing and decided to try it themselves. Did you ever consider that?"

The boy shook his head.

"Well, maybe next time you will. I expect you to set an example for your brothers. I just don't know what I'm gonna do with you. Maybe I oughta send you off to the Army. See if they can make a man of you."

"Send you off to the army." He chuckled at the thought.

With the back of his hand, the soldier swiped the thin coating of moisture from his upper lip. It was hot and sticky, as only the Midwest could be. He could almost feel the close heat of July nights, as he and his brothers swirled sparklers in the blackness on those very steps, while his mother, baby Louise nestled in her lap, clapped her hands and laughed. His father rested his hand on her shoulder, and he was smiling.

There was the day he hit his first homerun down at the local sandlot. His feet had barely touched the ground as he flew all the way home to tell his father.

"Dad! Dad! I did it! You wouldn't believe! It felt so great!"

The boy shot up the steps. His father sat on the porch, forearms resting on his knees, taking a break from his mowing. He put up his hand. "Easy there, Chip. Slow down. What felt great?

"I did it! One swing and POW! Over the fence! I hit a homer!"

"A homer?" A cigarette bounced between his lips as he spoke. "What a man! Guess I'm gonna have to change your name from Chip to Champ." Dad put out his arms, and the boy fell into them, resting against his father's chest, breathing in the aroma of sweat, cigarettes, and freshly cut grass. His father smiled down and squeezed him hard.

It was good to remember his father smiling. He thought often of that day, wishing he could live it over and over again, hearing his dad tell him how proud he was.

But there were some days he just didn't want to remember, let alone live over. Somehow those were the kind of memories that kept coming back most clearly. He carried forever the picture of his father, strong shoulders stooped with pain, as the men from the church carried little Joey's casket into the house for the wake. But he hadn't seen his father walk down those steps in the middle of the night six months later, never to return again. He reached down and traced along the line of crude letters written in the cement. "Joey" and beside it, in the same handwriting, "Chip." He slipped his fingers into the handprint below the name Chip. Then he pressed his hand over the smaller print. Dad had never said the words, but the soldier knew that he'd blamed his son for not being there when the little boy had slipped into the open well. "Take care of Joey," his dad had always said...but he hadn't. Not that day. He'd gone off to play with his friends. Tired of his brother tagging along, he'd sent him back home.

Along the front of the house, lush clusters of petunias, daisies, and lavender stood as a testimony to his mother's constant attention. She had a green thumb. When he'd been little, he'd asked to see her thumb, surprised that it wasn't green at all. She had a knack for nurturing things. Like her three living sons, grown strong and tall.

The small strip of dirt that ran from the steps along the left side of the house, however, was bare. No flowers ever grew there, nor had any ever been planted. It was sacred ground. A row of small crosses marked what they referred to as the family burial plot. Dropping his duffel on the ground, the soldier squatted in front of the crosses and gently touched the first one. The faded word "Mickey" was scrawled on the crosspiece in black-now-grey-almost-white paint. Mickey was the salamander his brother Chris had found. He'd told Chris what would happen, but Chris insisted that he could keep it alive. It was the day his younger brother learned that things died. He'd helped the little boy bury the animal in an old cigar box they'd found in the garage.

There were a lot of cigar boxes in that flowerbed. He read the names down the line. Fast Eddie, the mouse; Elmer, the parakeet; and Cat, a stray that died under the porch but was given a decent burial anyway. He stopped at one cross that said merely "soljers." With his hand, he pushed the soil back, digging down until he found the small cigar box. Brushing the dirt off the lid, he opened it and smiled when he saw the two rows of metal doughboys nestled in thick layers of toilet paper, their weapons at the ready just as they had been the day Pete buried them. Their father had bought and painted them for Pete as a birthday present. They were his favorite possession. The paint had been almost totally played off. But on the day Pete realized that his father wasn't coming home, he'd buried them, and they were never played with again.

Fingering the metal, the soldier could hear the voices of the men he'd left behind...some in the fields of France and others as he'd boarded the train home. Shutting the lid gently, he placed it back in the hole, returning the past to where it belonged, covering it and smoothing the dirt on top.

There was the cross that said "Butter." It had been Joey's beagle. Mom had been incapable of dealing with the dead animal, so he'd had to be man of the family.

The boy carried the towel-wrapped bundle to the family burial plot and placed it lovingly on the walk. His mother wrung her hands a moment, and then dissolved into tears, wiping them with her apron. A moment later, he heard the screen door slam shut. Petey and Chris stood at attention on either side, facing the hole the boy had dug at the end of the line of small crosses. Dropping to his knees, the boy lifted the limp body and placed it lovingly in the shallow hole. He secured the towel around it, and then he raked the dirt into the hole with his bare hands.

"Anybody got anything to say, he better say it now," the ten year old announced solemnly, wiping his nose with his forefinger.

"He was a good dog." Petey announced.

"We gonna miss ya, Butter," Chris's thin voice added.

The boy patted the ground and then stood with his younger brothers. "Go find Joey, Butter."

The soldier wiped a bit of moisture from his eye as he remembered. Slinging his duffel over his shoulder, he stood and moved over to the steps leading up to the porch. The gray paint up the center was well worn from the scuffing of sneakers and leather soles over the years. Play shoes, church shoes, bare feet. All wearing away the layers of the house's life.

He looked up. Funny, he'd never noticed how small, faded, and tired the place looked. It was badly in need of paint, and a corner of the gutter hung precariously at the corner where his mother's bedroom curtains flapped lazily in the light breeze. A shingle here and there needed replacing. The scraggly bushes around the porch needed trimming, and an old collection of leaves that had woven themselves into and around the lattice beneath the porch needed a raking. And yet it looked like home to him.

At the top of the stairs, the wooden swing hung on rusting chains that were screwed into the ceiling. He sat down and pushed his feet back on the boards, finally lifting his legs to let himself swing free. At his side, the front room window...the banner with three blue stars. He reached out and touched the glass as if he could feel the silky material behind it. "Me," he whispered to himself, "Pete...Chris." Across the street at Jurdens's...the blue star had been replaced with a gold one. Binky wasn't coming home. Guadalcanal had seen to that.

The warmth, the sound of a bee inspecting a bloom, the easy back and forth movement of the swing, and all the tension he'd carried for the past two years began to melt away. It was hypnotic. He closed his eyes and smiled as he pictured himself trying to be so cool, taking the steps three at a time after asking Julie Hepplemeier to the dance...and she'd said yes. The same Julie Hepplemeier, whom he'd called Frog Face when she was twelve. Somewhere along the way, she'd changed for the better. Or maybe his perception of her looks had.

.

Julie Hepplemeier blew her sweet breath on his neck as she sat curled up against his shoulder.

"Come on, Chip. Let me try it on. Pretty please?"

He stuck his finger in his mouth to loosen his ring and handed it to her after drying it on his shirt. Julie slipped it on her delicate finger. She inspected her hand, turning it this way and that. The gold band slipped off and dropped onto her skirt.

"See," the boy said, "It doesn't fit."

She retrieved it quickly and tried it on the next finger. Frowning slightly, she moved it over to her thumb. "Well, it's close. You know, if I wrapped my hair ribbon around the shank, I bet it would fit fine."

"Maybe," he muttered.

Julie pulled an aqua ribbon from her hair and began to wind it round and round the band. "It sure is pretty. You know, Chip, Lizzie Hughes got a ring from her boyfriend. When a boy gives you his senior ring, it means you're pledged to each other. You have to be true blue. This here is what Lizzie did with Billy's ring to make it fit." She worked it onto her ring finger. Holding it out in front of her, she admired it, wiggling her fingers. She shook her hand gently, but the ring didn't move. "See? It does fit. Isn't it pretty?"

The soldier smiled. It was the last he saw of that ring. He wondered if Julie Hepplemeier still had it. And if her husband minded.

"Mama!" A high-pitched voice calling from inside the house startled him, "Where's my blue blouse? The one with the little roses on the collar?" He could picture his sister upstairs in her bedroom, clothes littering every corner of her room. Louise was not known for neatness. When he'd left home for the army, the clothes had been pedal pushers. Now evidently she wore blouses with roses on the collars.

"It's in your drawer where it belongs." The soldier stopped the swing with his feet, and he sat quietly, straining to hear. Closer. Downstairs. The voice was familiar to him. It was the first voice he'd ever heard. Only now it sounded more tired than he remembered. "When you get dressed, you come down and help me set the table. Chris is bringing his girl home for dinner."

"You mean, Patsy? Personally, I don't know what he sees in her. Her lips are too big and her eyes are squinty." Louise shouted down.

"Hush, Louise. She's a lovely girl."

He heard the heavy thud of feet on the stairs. Eight steps and a moment of silence followed by a louder thud. The Brat had never in her life hit all the stairs, preferring to jump the last two.

Some things never changed.

"Spaghetti again? I'll be glad when this stupid rationing is over and we get real meat again. I'm never gonna eat spaghetti again as long as I live."

The clink of china and silver could be heard from inside.

"Hey, Mom, when's Chip getting in?"

"Well, he wasn't sure when he'd be able to get a train out. They're so jammed with soldiers lately. I'm thinking he'll be here sometime tomorrow or the next day. I got so much to do. I want to put on fresh sheets and make something special for dinner and let all his friends know he's coming. And I want to bake a cake. I've been saving ingredients to make a cake for each of my boys when they come home."

"Chip will be back from France, and then as soon as we get Pete back from the Pacific, we'll be a family again." The sound of his sister's voice trailed off.

The soldier sat a moment longer, listening to the insects buzzing, the kids in the street running down to the sandlot with their baseball bats and gloves, a baby crying, Mrs. Abney screaming for her kids to come in to wash for dinner. On the street, a frowzy-haired yellow mutt moved slowly down the street, stopping at the fire hydrant and lifting its leg. A moment later, it disappeared around the corner.

The soldier hefted his bag and walked slowly to the screen door. It creaked as he opened it and stepped inside. "Mom...I'm home."