The call came during breakfast. “It’s happening again.”
“Okay,” I said.
“This is the third time this month. Talk to her. She listens to you.”
“No she doesn’t.”
“Make her go away. It’s part of your job.”
“I wouldn’t say that.”
“I would. Get rid of her. This isn’t a goddamn therapy center.”
“Okay.” I sighed and picked at my granola. “I’ll take care of it.”
The walk from the lodge was bright and quiet. The air clung to my skin like honey. Most visitors wouldn’t arrive for many hours; people tended to visit the dead at midday, even in summer. The path rose and fell softly through green hills and everywhere I looked, marble heads glinted underneath a fat sun.
By the time I got onsite, she’d already dug a hole. It was small and shallow though, not big enough for William yet. She wore a pair of violet gardening gloves and held a shovel that was much too tall for her.
“Morning,” I said. “Thought you might want an iced coffee.”
“No, thank you,” she said, taking off her straw hat to wipe sweat from her brow. “But I sure could use some help with this.”
“You know I can’t do that,” I said. “You know that.”
Her eyes narrowed and turned to steel – just as hard, just as gray. “Well then, could the big macho man get an old woman her sunscreen? It’s in the front seat.”
I put the coffees on the hood and grabbed the sunscreen. The inside of the car smelled like hot ashtray. I walked over to the hole and handed her the tube. She set down the shovel.
“Thank you,” she said. “I apologize for snapping like that. I am just so sick of the mugginess here. We Asheville girls need a mountain breeze to stay sane!”
“Not a problem, ma’am.” I paused. “You should’ve waited for a better day. One with an overcast.”
“Perhaps.” “Ma’am, I – ”
“Do you know why they chose this plot of land, Mr. Mitchell?”
“I don’t. Before my time.” “Because there is plenty of room, that’s why. It says exactly that on the website. It says that they didn’t know how much they were going to need when it all started, so they chose here.”
Her skin was as pale as smoke. She rubbed the sunscreen in as the sounds of the city roared from the highway and I stood there, unsure of what to say next.
“So, are you going to call the Old Guard soldiers on me again?” she said.
We laughed. She’d confused the hell out of those boys, telling them they looked too skinny and offering to bring them sandwiches next time. They’d shown up expecting a rioter foaming at the mouth with rage. Instead, they’d found a Presbyterian who asked about their families, wearing the saddest of smiles.
“I think I will take that coffee,” she said. I nodded and we walked over to the car, leaning against it.
“Twice in one month. You’re getting bold.”
“I’m getting desperate. William belongs here, you know that, but no one will help. No one will help us at all.”
“I’m just a groundskeeper.”
“And I’m just a mother.”
I sipped my coffee and watched a pair of songbirds fly from oak to oak. Except for her hole, the grass was full and green. The hedgerows were freshly clipped and uniform. I was proud of our work here.
“I bumped into the deputy super, he said it may take time, but that maybe, someday – ”
“Don’t talk to me about that man.” Her eyes flashed steel. “I know what he is.”
I’d heard about her run-in with him. The Arlington rumor mill was still spinning from it. Some people said it happened at the grocery store, others said the post office. Still others claimed that she followed him home one day and cornered him in his own driveway. There was no debate about what the incident entailed, however. After a heated argument, she’d slapped him hard enough across the face to dislodge a loose tooth. He called the cops in response, though his wife wouldn’t let him press charges.
“It’s absurd,” she continued. “Do you know what a woman from the VA told me? That I need to stop grieving! And to start healing! The gall of that woman! The absolute gall!”
“That’s pretty bad,” I said. “But, I mean, maybe ... you know ... those people, they usually know what they’re talking about. They’re professionals.” “I’ll never stop grieving, but it might help if you all let me bury my son.” I wanted to hug her but remembered that it would only make things worse. I walked over to the hole and picked up the shovel. A worm poked out of the soft earth. It didn’t move. I squatted down and saw that it had been cleanly sliced into three fatty pieces, all exactly the same size.
I returned to the car, handing over the tool. Sneaking a glance through the back window this time, I spotted a miniature flag. Next to it was the urn, small and spare and made of red clay.
“You served, didn’t you, Mr. Mitchell?” she asked. “I did.” My back straightened a bit. “Twelve years.”
“Did you see combat?”
I thought about the mud, the forests, the ten-day tank battles. It had all felt real. But the Old Guard called us ‘Cold Warriors’ behind our backs. This bothered me, though I pretended like it didn’t.
“No, ma’am. Different time. Different Army.”
“Then you wouldn’t understand.” She shook her head. “Will ... wasn’t the same when he came back. He didn’t laugh, he didn’t get angry, he just didn’t care. He was gone. Still over there. I prayed every night he was away, and when he came back, I praised God because it was over. But it wasn’t. Not at all. He died in the desert, just like the rest.”
“I know.” I chewed on my bottom lip and thought about how I didn’t understand, how I’d never understand, and how, more than anything else, I wanted to understand. “I know.”
“I think too much change did it. Will always needed a group, always took so much pride in being a part of one. The Army had that. And then it took it away. When he got out, he was all by himself, with no one to talk to. What could I do? It’d always just been the two of us, and then it wasn’t anymore. He ... he hated change more than anything. He cried as a boy when the scientists changed the name of the brontosaurus to apatosaurus. And you know what else? You know what my William said on his tenth birthday? He said, ‘Mom, I don’t want to be ten, I liked being nine!’”
I didn’t respond.
“More of these boys have come back and done it themselves than have actually been killed over there.” Her body shook in the heat, but her voice remained clear and strong. “What is going on? Why is no one helping them?”
“And girls, too,” I said. “Them, too. Lots of girls in these wars.”
“What am I supposed to do?” she said slowly. “He died of a wound. He died from battle. He belongs here, with his brothers. You recognize that. Why can’t boys like him come here?”
“I don’t know, “ I said. “I wish I did. Have you ... have you tried other military cemeteries?”
“This is Arlington. William is a Russell. And a Fitzhugh on my side. Both of his grandfathers lie here. His great-great grandfather fought at Chancellorsville and is just down the road. Another cemetery? No, I haven’t tried another cemetery.”
She took off her violet gardening gloves and put the shovel in the trunk. Then she got behind the wheel of her car.
“I’ll be back,” she said. “And one of these days, I’ll finish before you can stop me.”
“I hope you do.”
“Thank you for the coffee. Enjoy the day, Mr. Mitchell.”
“Same to you, ma’am.”
I stood in the road as she drove toward the far gate. After moving some of the shoveled dirt and grass back into place, I walked back to the lodge, taking the long way there. I stopped at the Tomb of the Unknowns and watched the changing of the Old Guard. They were as sharp as ever. A young boy sniffled and his father put his hand on his shoulder. The boy didn’t want to watch anymore but his father made him. Afterwards, I went back to work. We had a busy day ahead: four new headstones to ready and place.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Matt Gallagher is Senior Fellow at the nonprofit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He is the author of the Iraq war memoir Kaboom and coeditor of the forthcoming short fiction collection Fire & Forget. He is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at Columbia University.