Ida catches his neck in the clasp of the tunic’s high collar.
“Cut it out!” He pulls back, topples slightly, steadies himself.
“Stop fidgeting,” she says, reaching for the next hook. Then in a much louder voice, as if he can’t hear, says, “Oh, Charlie. You look just like you did at the end of the war.”
He hears her fine. Soft or loud, he hears her, but he rarely responds fast enough for her liking, so she’s scolding, always yelling at him. She’s talking about when they met. She didn’t yell when they met.
He runs his fingers through what’s left of his white hair and sucks on the painful insides of his cheeks. Goddamn cancer. He’s certain it’s spreading now, from his mouth to his stomach, probably heading for his bowel. He’s become so thin.
He didn’t realize how thin, until last night in the childhood bedroom his sons shared when he pulled his army doughboy uniform out from the closet and was able to button the trousers. They were even a little loose, so he fixed them by cinching an old boyscout belt around them. Then he sat down on his older boy’s bed, underneath the glossy photos of big band leaders: Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, The Dorsey Brothers and Glenn Miller for whom son number one was was named before Miller was lost in that missing plane. He painstakingly laced each legging up the side then tucked their straps beneath his shoes.
“Won’t they be surprised,” he said to his reflection in the dresser mirror. Odd things still remained around the room, on shelves and in drawers, possessions his sons long ago discarded but things he decided couldn’t be thrown out. Still useful, never know when you might need them. The belt proved his point exactly. A perfectly good cloth belt with a brass buckle and teeth that caught the web of the belt to cinch it. The buckle had Glenn’s initials etched skillfully on the smooth surface. Charlie bought the boys the etching tool to protect their bikes. He’d told them, “You write the serial numbers and you write your names. When the police find them you’ll get them back, otherwise they’ll sell them at an auction and you can beg and beg but you’ll have to pay like everyone else.” Michael had no interest in the tool, but Glenn initialed and identified everything he owned: All his clarinet cases, his record player, radios, the belt buckle, his reel, his tackle-box and the bottom of Michael’s bunk above his. Years after the boys had moved out he and Ida occasionally found GMH on some unexpected surface.
“Go on.” Ida gives him a little shove. “They’ll be coming soon.” He pushes open the screen, goes down the one step, then up the sloping sidewalk to the curb. He thinks he can hear the cacophony of the band, a mile away, warming up. Children waiting for the parade are everywhere. So many of them. Some of them must be the same children who cut through his yard all the time, racing through the flower beds, tearing up the lawn. He can never get them to stop. Yelling doesn’t stop these kids, the little ones run and the older ones jeer at him. Not like when he was a boy; just a look from an adult would immobilize him, and if it went as far as his father finding out, he’d get the strap. If he talked to the parents of these kids, there’d still be no consequences. Princes and princesses, all of them.
He looks up and down the street wishing the whole thing were over, wishing he were a young man again, the man he was when he really wore the uniform, wishing he had a cigarette, wishing he still smoked. He pats the pockets and feeling something there, pulls out an old matchbook. When he opens it he sees, along with four last matches, Ida’s address. He picked her up so many times at this address, and seeing it now, he thinks of the hot summer day they rode bikes to Manhattan, round and round Central Park, then back to South Brooklyn. He recalls the salty kiss when they said goodnight, remembers pedalling home to his rented room on West 53rd St., then the desperate ride back again, across town, across the bridge, to her front door, where he knocked until she opened it. She laughed right out loud when, out of breath and sweating, he got down on one knee. She said yes, before he even asked the question.
Decoration Day. His two sons, draft-dodgers both of them, now 38 and 40, their wives, and his four grandchildren, another wild bunch, have come from out of town. Memorial Day they told him when they called to say they were coming for the the long weekend. He said he didn’t see the point in changing the name from Decoration Day anymore than he saw the point of adding that under God bit to the Pledge. He didn’t say he knew it was his cancer bringing them home.
As far back as he could remember, they only came for visits in order to use their childhood home like a free hotel close to the train station. They couldn’t get into New York City fast enough. This time it felt different. Early this morning his sons carried folding chairs, a few blankets and a couple of empty coolers to the curb to save some places. They sent their kids to the neighborhood store for candy and sodas and wallet-sized American flags on sticks, while their wives made sandwichs, boiled up deviled eggs, and gossiped, he supposed, in the kitchen.
He’s relieved that yesterday’s fiasco with the spray paint has evidently blown over. He was only trying to help. Glenn’s car had rust spots around the back wheels and the door bottoms, so he spray-painted them using the aluminum paint he kept in the garage. Glenn acted like his car was brand new for how angry he was. He’d tried telling Glenn the paint might not look so hot but it would help. Glenn said something about never helping him out when he was young, so why start now? He asked Glenn what the hell he was talking about, then Mikey got into it, siding with Glenn for some goddamn reason, then the wives were there saying they were taking the kids to Tappan Beach and slipped out the front door. Ida got in the middle of it all, yelling how it always happens, everything’s always ruined, why couldn’t they be like other families? In the end the boys went on the back porch with some beers and Ida started frying chicken. He lay down on the couch.
Later, after the wives and grandkids came back from the beach, after the children had been fed and sent off to watch television, Ida served the grown-ups dinner. Everyone came to the table, no one saying anything until he said, as he often did, “It’s not a godamn funeral, let’s have an Irish Wake.” And this time the boys laughed.
It was the first year in 30 he knew he wouldn’t be able to walk the mile to the start of the parade at the Glenwood fire station. The last three years he’d walked down, then been driven the five mile route with the other old-timers instead of marching with the rest of the Legionaires. He, the oldest and only veteran of The Great War, perched up on the convertible’s back seat along with his friends, Eugene and Douglas, who were World War Two vets. They’d all three gained too much weight for their original uniforms so wore bits and pieces: Garrison caps, blue ties, lapel pins, all they could afford of the Legionaire’s uniform, except for Douglas who had money and decked himself out in full military regalia like a goddamn dictator. Two younger fellows, Korean War vets, sat below them on the seat and actually asked if they needed their legs held so they wouldn’t tumble off. It was a five mile parade at a snail’s pace. They were old, not toddlers.
Because he knew he couldn’t walk to the start this year, he thought about skipping it altogether. But once he’d tried on his old uniform he reconsidered.
After dinner he returned to the closet to get the uniform. His pajama-clad grandchildren, all together in the room, were jumping on the beds, picture books bouncing with them. They sat quickly and fell silent, when he entered.
“Come here Fen,” he said to his oldest grandson who was the six-years-old.
“My name is Fenton.”
The children slid to the floor and came closer. They all had precious names. What was wrong with Tom or Jane?
“Watch carefully now.” He reached into his pocket then held out both hands. “Pick a hand.”
Fenton tapped the right one. “Nope. Try again.” Fenton tapped the left. It too was empty. He quickly reached behind Fenton’s head, touched his ear then opened his palm to reveal the quarter. “Well would you look at that?” He handed Fenton the money. “Keep it,” he said, then added, “to remember.”
The three others begged him to do it to them too. By the time the last quarter was pulled from last ear he was finished with the game and sorry he’d started in the first place.
“Enough,” he said to their demands for more. “Get to bed.” He climbed the stairs to his bedroom where Ida, tucked in, sat up against a pillow waiting.
“No need to walk down to the station tomorrow, Charlie. One of the boys can drive you.”
“I’ll have to stand around too long. Damn thing takes forever to get going.”
“You can wait in the car.”
“Hotter than hell, too much ruckus.”
“So why don’t you wait here, at home, outside?” Ida said, after a few minutes. “Parade passes right by. You want me to call one of them so they’ll pick you up?”
“Who are you? My mother? No, don’t call anyone. They’ll see me.”
They were quiet then. He didn’t like being obstinate. He wanted to be agreeable like he remembered his grandfather. His grandfather was a farmer who’d fought for the North then fallen in love with a girl from the South. They’d raised 5 daughters. Maybe it was easier with girls.
“Don’t worry,” he said, patting Ida’s arm. “They’ll pick me up.” In the morning he’d dress in the old uniform, wait by the curb and ride the last four miles to Memorial Park. They’d drive him back home after the honor guard shot off rifles, ending the ceremony with the 21-gun-salute.
“I got this many bullets,” Mickey would say, when the boys were little, showing his fistfuls of casings. Glenn would boast he had more although he wouldn’t let Mickey see how many, always taunting him.
He’d tried to referree in those days, tried to reason with Glenn, reminding him Mikey was smaller, but it always ended with his whacking the back of Glenn’s head and saying, “Stop tormenting him, goddamn it.” Mikey was his favorite, named for his grandfather, Michael. It was Ida, the music lover, who’d named their first born Glenn
“Can’t you see what you’re doing, playing favorites?” Ida would ask lying under their freshly ironed sheets at night. He couldn’t. They fought about it year after year, and he would turn it all around saying she was the one, she pushed them too hard, Glenn had a stutter because of the way she drove him and Michael was rebelling against her, turning into a juvenile delinquint. He’d continue, often until she was in tears, until he was sorry, until he made her say she forgave him and once again fell asleep in his arms.
“You’re still doing it.” Ida said, after he told her he’d wait at the curb.
“Playing favorites.” Michael and Glenn had argued about the number of games played in last year’s World Series. “You didn’t even know the answer and you still sided with Michael,” she added.
He didn’t bother to argue. They were all grown men. He didn’t tell her Glenn had surprised him earlier, giving him a hug, saying, “Sorry I got so bent out of shape, Pop. I know you were just trying to help with the car.”
Before noon, after dressing for the parade, he explained the plan to his sons. They were remined then of the gun salute and said they couldn’t let their kids miss it. They told him it was a great plan and he looked terrific in his uniform and they’d watch for him at the park. Glenn’s wife kept saying it was a really cute uniform and asked him twice if being the doughboy was the same as being the cook. He didn’t answer. He just watched as his sons hauled the blankets and chairs and coolers off the curb and packed them into the trunk of Michael’s car.
At the last minute they asked if Ida wanted to go with them but she said she was staying home because she wanted to see their father off. He said he didn’t need seeing off. Ida insisted she didn’t mean it like that, she just meant she wanted be there to take a photo. When he turned back to his sons, he could see it in their eyes. They couldn’t get away fast enough.
He can hear the bands approaching. He feels now as if he won’t have enough energy to climb into the car when it gets to him. But he’s a Legionaire. He needs to show some pride. He needs to make them remember. Not many of us left he thinks and is amazed how quickly he has become his dying father and his dying father before him and his dying father before him, on and on, in the snap of a salute.
He stands taller as the first band, mostly drummers, marches past. He waves to a pretty girl on a float.
“Charlie! Hey, over here, Charlie.” They’re calling from the convertible, which this year is decked with red, white, and blue bunting, moving down the street behind the marching Legionnaires. Girls in cheerleading outfits are tossing and catching, tossing and catching batons in the air as they high-step alongside the car. They are right in front of him. The new Post Commander, barely home from Viet Nam and enlisted fast by the Legion, whose numbers are dwindling, is sitting with Eugene and Douglas. The front passenger seat is empty. He salutes and quickly steps back so he can walk behind the car and around to the passenger side when it pulls to the curb.
“Hey, Charlie, looking good!” The driver calls as they roll by. The three in the back salute. They are past him now, waving to onlookers. The car speeds up just a bit at the corner. Gone. He stands only a few seconds longer then turns and walks into the house.
Ida is rushing out with the camera. “What are you doing? Why aren’t you going?”
“I changed my mind,” he says, uncinching Glenn’s old belt, heading for the couch.