It was July 4th, 1967. Steven rode in the limousine with the rest of the pallbearers, following the hearse that held the body of his best friend. The windows were closed tightly to keep the air conditioning in, but it locked the stench in, too. The car reeked of guilt and regret. They choked on it in silence. Wayne died in Viet Nam, and was being buried with hero’s honors. The pallbearers: brother, friends, and cousins to the dead soldier had all sat the war out. They were all eligible for the draft, and like so many others, had made a vocation of avoiding it.
Steven sat in the front seat, apart from the others, resting his head on the window. He watched the Utah desert pass by, unchanging in its desolation. He had taken the easiest route out of the draft, student deferral. He was a full scholarship athlete who played baseball in the sun, while Wayne bled to death in a rice paddy. Some best friend. They had grown up next door to each other, practically inseparable. They had been baptized together, pledged the Boy Scout oath together, played ball every summer from little league through high school. Then after graduation, they had gone their separate ways. Steven went to college and Wayne to Viet Nam.
It had only been one year since Wayne enlisted. Steven remembered the summer day when Wayne hopped the fence between their yards, waving his enlistment papers in his hand.
“I did it!” he said his face beaming with pride. “I joined the Marines.”
“You fool!” said Steven. “They’ll send you to Nam!”
The smile fell from Wayne’s face. Steven’s approval meant everything.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that,” said Steven. “I’m proud of you. Really, I am.”
“Don’t think I haven’t thought this thing through, because I have. I know what I’m doing. This is the right thing. You know I’ve always wanted to be a soldier.”
“This isn’t like when we were kids,” Steven protested. “This isn’t pretend. This is for real.”
“Don’t you think I know that, man.” Wayne grew angry. “I want to do this. I want to serve my country.”
“I’ll be careful,” Wayne assured him.
‘But he wasn’t,’ thought Steven. A lifetime of Fourth of July’s spent with his best friend, watching fireworks and raising hell was coming to an end. He would bury Wayne today, and that would be that. This was the last summer day they would ever share.
Last night had been a restless night. Steven tossed and turned. His dreams were disturbing. In his dreams, Wayne was alive, waiting for him in the front yard the way he had every Fourth of July. He had his same-old buck-toothed smile, same-old scabby knees, and the same-old red cowboy hat he always wore. He looked exactly as he had when he was ten.
“Man, these things are for sissies,” said Wayne as he tossed his cap gun into the irrigation ditch. “All they do is go snap, crackle, pop, like a bowl of Rice Crispies. Ain’t good for no one but sissies and girls. I’m gonna have me some real fun.” He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a box of caps. He took an entire roll of caps and laid it on the sidewalk, then walked to the ditch to pick up the biggest rock he could find. Wayne hoisted the rock high into the air, pinched it tight with his fingers, and stood tiptoe in his red cowboy boots to raise his scrawny body to its fullest height. Then he sucked in his breath, and slammed the rock against the sidewalk with all his might.
With a sound like the crack of a whip, the whole roll of caps exploded leaving a charred, black spot on the sidewalk. A black pillar of smoke rose up into the blue sky, Steven’s lungs filed with the bitter taste of burning sulfur.
“What a gas, man,” said Wayne, clutching his sides and giggling hysterically in a helium-induced little-boy voice. “What a gas.”
Wayne was laughing so hard he was sobbing, rolling on the ground, doubled with laughter, tears rolling down his cheeks. Steven walked to the ditch, and bent down to fish the cap gun out of the water. In the ditch, he saw the severed stumps of Wayne’s legs float by, torn from the kneecaps with zigzag edges. Blood gushed from the open stumps, leaving two trails of blood floating down the ditch like red bicycle streamers.
Steven realized Wayne wasn’t laughing. He was rolling on the ground, howling in pain. He rushed to him, untied the bandanna from Wayne’s neck and quickly secured a tourniquet around his left knee. He ripped the shirt off his own back and tied another knot around the right knee.
In his dream, Steven had been able to save Wayne, but not in life. Wayne went to Viet Nam alone, with no one to tie a tourniquet around his bleeding legs because Steven was a coward, playing baseball when he should have been a man.
In the backseat Wayne’s brother, Bob, put a pipe to his lips and held a lit match to the bowl. His lips pulled on the pipe and he drew in a deep drag of smoke. Like Wayne, he was tall and thin with fine red, red hair; but Bob wore his hair in a long ponytail that fell below his shoulders. His eyes were swollen and red from a night spent crying with rage. Bob had escaped the draft by getting his girlfriend pregnant, and arranging a quick wedding so he could claim the fatherhood exemption.
“Want a hit?” he said as he nudged Steven on the shoulder.
“You make me sick,” said Steven. He had never gotten high, and considered anyone who did weak. “Have you no respect for your brother?”
“Lighten up man,” said Bob. “I’m just trying to get through this day.”
“Wayne would’ve kicked your ass, if he could see you now,” said Steven. “How do you think he would feel if he knew his brother was a worthless freak.”
“Man, where do you think I got this shit,” he said. “Wayne sent it to me from Nam. Damn good shit, too.”
“You’re a liar,” said Steven.
“Believe what you want, asshole. I only hope my brother was as high as a kite when he stepped on that mine. I hope he didn’t feel a God-Damn thing.”
The picture of Wayne’s bloody legs floating down the ditch flashed through Steven’s mind, followed by a photograph of Wayne as a toddler in his birthday suit. It was one of those embarrassing baby photos that always annoyed Wayne whenever his mother pulled it out. “A perfect baby boy,” his mother beamed proudly. “Ten perfect little fingers and ten perfect little toes.” Then Steven, too, hoped Wayne had been as high as a kite when the mine ripped his ten perfect little fingers and ten perfect little toes from his body.
“This is a senseless waste,” said Bruce from the back seat. “He didn’t have to go.” Bruce was a conscientious objector who was fulfilling his duty to country by emptying bedpans at the state mental hospital. He walked a fine line between the politics of the day. He could not support the war, yet he could not defy his country. His hair, which fell below his ears and above his shoulders, reflected his inability to take a stand.
“He did what he thought was right,” said Steven.
“It’s not our war,” said Bruce. “We don’t belong there.”
“His father served in a war…his grandfather… He believed it was his duty,” said Steven.
“Don’t give me that shit, man,” said Bob. “It’s my duty to see my kid grow.”
“What are you gonna do if they repeal the fatherhood exemption?” asked Bruce.
“I’ll take my family and go to Canada.”
“You’ll never see your parents again,” said Steven.
“They can visit,” said Bob.
“Man, my family would disown me,” said Richard who until now had sat quietly in the rear seat. “It’s one thing to avoid the draft—but to leave your country—that’s just wrong.”
“Easy for you to say,” said Bob. “Your old man pulled strings to get you in the Reserves. You can be as noble as you want ’cuz you’ll never go overseas.” Richard’s father had called in every favor ever owed to make sure his boy was sent to the Reserves. They all watched the war from the safety of their living rooms. They saw bodies carried off the battlefield, ripped apart and bleeding. And they prayed, “Please God…not my boy.”
“You can unpack your bags, Bob,” said Steven. “You don’t have to run to Canada. Wayne’s death makes you the last remaining son in your family. Uncle Sam can’t touch you.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Bob said. He sat in silent shame. Wayne’s death had saved him from the draft, but he wasn’t worthy of the sacrifice.
The funeral procession pulled into the cemetery. Bob hid the pipe under the seat and cracked the window slightly to let the smoke seep slowly out of the limousine. The faint smell of pot mixed with the bitter scent of sage. The six pallbearers filed out of the car and lined up behind the hearse. Steven saw his parents standing next to Mary Ellen, his girlfriend.
Steven’s parents had learned of Wayne’s death first and were waiting in the driveway when he came home. His mother’s face was streaked with black mascara and he knew immediately the worst had happened. Wayne spent so much time at their house when they were kids that his mother referred to him as her second son. When his father was finally able to put words to their sorrow he said simply, “Wayne is dead.” He wrapped his arms around Steven and held him tight then whispered into his ear, “I’m so grateful it wasn’t you.” That was the first time Steven thought maybe he should have gone to Viet Nam. They were blood brothers; he shouldn’t have let Wayne enlist alone.
Steven felt in his pocket, for the Swiss army knife his father had given him the day he advanced from Cub Scout to Boy Scout. He carried the pocketknife with him when they went on a Boy Scout survivalist trek the summer they were sixteen. They’d been dumped in the desert with two blankets, one canteen of water each, a compass, a flint, the pocketknife, and a flare in case of emergency.
They had grandiose dreams of snaring jackrabbits and roasting them over an open flame; of lying on their backs, staring up at the stars, and generally taking it easy for a week. They soon found out how naive they were.
Finding water was easy enough. They drained the morning dew from the underside of cactus leaves like they’d been taught. They laid snares for rabbits, but soon discovered they were too slow and too loud to catch one.
The days were scorching hot and their skin burned. The nights were bitter cold and their muscles shivered underneath hot flesh. At home, under the protection of the carport the flint had sparked easily. But in the whistling wind of the desert, fire eluded them. They shivered in their blankets and shuddered as wolves howled in the distance.
By the third day, Wayne’s skin was as red as his hair; his lips were parched and split down the middle. They hadn’t eaten for days and were weak from hunger. Wayne found a nest of grasshoppers in the tall weeds. He grabbed the biggest bug and held it firmly between two fingers. He raised it above his open mouth, watched its long legs struggle, and pronounced it lunch.
“You can’t eat a bug,” said Steven.
“Watch me,” said Wayne and he dropped the bug into his mouth and swallowed it whole. “Mmm, mmm good,” he laughed. “Now you try one.”
“No way. I ain’t that hungry.”
“Eat this,” he demanded and shoved a green grasshopper towards Steven. “You’re gonna die without food.”
“I’d rather die.”
“Wimp,” said Wayne.
“What’d you call me?”
“I said you are a pussy—a weak little girrrrl! Now eat it.” He pushed the bug into Steven’s hand. “They don’t taste half bad. Sort of like chicken.”
Steven held the wiggling bug above his open mouth, closed his eyes, and dropped it down his throat. “Yum, yum,” he said with false bravado. “I think I’ll have another.”
The boys feasted on bugs and laughed and joked until their bellies were full. They found a cool spot in the shade of a large rock and stretched out for a long afternoon’s nap. That night they split the skin on the palms of their hands, and mixed their blood. They swore they would be blood brothers for life. They laughed about how corny it was and acted like it meant nothing, but they both knew it meant everything. Steven rubbed the scar on his palm; ‘I was not there when he needed me.’
He looked beyond his parents to the crowds of people gathered around the graveside. Wayne was the first local boy to die in the war and hundreds of people had come to honor him. Steven saw Wayne’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Phillips, seated closest to the open grave. Wayne’s father looked lost. His mother had aged a decade in the past week, new gray hairs had sprouted on her head in patches and she was too weary to rinse them away. Her face was wilted and she had dark bags underneath her eyes. Her lips were clinched in a pained straight line, neither a smile nor a frown. She looked toward Steven and nodded. He turned his eyes from hers, unable to face her. ‘I’ve let you down,’ he thought.
The funeral director rolled the oak casket out of the hearse and each of the pallbearers grabbed a handle. They walked slowly, one small step at a time, shifting the heavy weight between them; dreading the moment their footsteps would lead them to the black hole; and the moment they would loosen their grip on the sturdy box and lower it into the ground. A lump rose in Steven’s throat. His fingers loosened from the brass handle. The coffin rested on a metal frame, poised over the open grave. He touched the casket one last time.
Steven stepped back from the open grave and joined Mary Ellen; her blue eyes were red and swollen. He had been in love with her since the summer when they were both fourteen years old and she’d pretended his house was on her way home from the public pool. She rode her bike past his house every day at five o’clock, her swimsuit covered by a pair of blue jean shorts and an unbuttoned shirt that blew open in the summer breeze. He’d been unable to remove his eyes from the small patch of tanned skin that lay between her belly button and the metal snap of her shorts. From the beginning, she’d chased him. He had allowed her to catch him and took her love for granted. He realized he had been running from her, too. He was stringing her along with promises of someday, when what he should have done was marry her. He was afraid to make a commitment, afraid to grow up. He took her hand and held it tight.
The Bishop walked to the head of the grave, opened his Bible and read, “Who so ever believeth in me shall not die, but shall have Eternal Life.” Wayne’s mother bowed her head, dabbed a handkerchief to the corner of her eye, then raised her face toward the sun and pasted a false smile onto her face.
Steven placed his hand on the back of Mary Ellen’s neck and pulled her closer. She was a willow of a girl with long, tanned legs that made every dress she wore look indecently short. Her head rested right below Steven’s chin and he buried his nose in her soft, blonde hair.
“Wayne has not died,” the Bishop continued. “His soul has left his body for a better home. His soul will live forever.”
Steven looked across the graveyard to where Bob was standing; rocking his son in his arms, and blubbering like a baby.
“We must not mourn the passing of Wayne,” the Bishop said. “But celebrate his passing into the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Steven lifted his face toward the sun and smiled feebly.
When the funeral was over, the mourners were invited back to the house for a luncheon. Steven, not able to face the family, postponed the inevitable. “If we hurry,” he told Mary Ellen. “We can still make the parade.”
Mary Ellen and Steven spread a blanket on a grassy hill in Pioneer Park and watched the parade. The park was filled with families laughing and shouting. Picnic tables were pushed together and filled with hot dogs and chips, gallon jugs of Kool-Aid, and cold watermelons cracked open and dripping with red juices. On the sidewalk, children pushed through grown-up legs and fought for front-row space.
The afternoon sun scorched the black asphalt and created a shimmering vapor that distorted the High School Band and made them look like an army of elastic marching legs. Tubas with golden halos glimmered in the sunlight. Silver batons were thrown high into the blue sky, and caught by blue-eyed blondes with toothpaste smiles that floated through the vapor on white, patent leather go-go boots. Rows of drummers marched past, eyes focused straight ahead, clutching wooden drumsticks in their hands, and pounding cadence relentlessly on yellowed drumheads, as trickles of sweat seeped out from underneath their tall, plastic hats.
Steven breathed deeply. He wanted to commit this day to memory. He wanted to remember the way the air stung his lungs like tiny razor cuts along the pink of his throat. How the scent of sage blossoms evoked of the taste of his first grade yellow-green crayons; and the hot winds of the desert rubbed against his cheeks like grainy sandpaper. This was the scent and taste and feel of Utah and they belonged to a place and time sheltered from the wars and riots tearing apart the outside world.
He watched the floats roll on by. First the Zion First National Bank float, with a pool made of blue-tinted foil and surrounded by bathing beauties in one-piece swimsuits. Next the Utah Tourist Bureau float with cotton-ball mountains, skiers dressed in hats and shorts, and silver tinsel letters proclaiming “Ski Utah”. Then the local beauty queens perched on the back seats of open convertibles wearing full-length gowns with long, white gloves pulled to the elbow and waving to the crowd.
“You’re blaming yourself for Wayne’s death and it’s not your fault,” said Mary Ellen who always knew when he was troubled and why.
“If not mine…whose?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe President Johnson…maybe congress…maybe the whole damn government. They’re to blame. They’re the ones who sent him to be slaughtered.”
“I can’t believe that,” said Steven. The high school band turned the corner and was marching along the south end of the park. A hush fell over the crowd as the drums ceased their cadence and the musicians raised their instruments to their lips. They played “Stars and Stripes Forever.” The music filled the streets and drifted through the park.
“Then blame the Viet Cong…they started this war. They planted the mine. Not you.”
“I should have been there.”
“Why? So you could both be dead?” Mary Ellen could see where this train of thought was leading, and she was frightened.
“I could have helped him.”
“How do you know that?” She too questioned the government’s involvement in the war, but kept her opinions to herself. She didn’t believe it mattered a fig whether a country on the other side of the world was communist or not. It didn’t effect her world and wasn’t worth sacrificing soldiers for, especially when the soldier was the boy next door.
Steven rubbed the scar on his left palm. He took Mary Ellen’s hand in his, and she leaned her head against his shoulder. He nestled his nose into her soft, blonde hair. Her hair always smelled like fresh snow, even on the hottest summer day. She represented all that was good in his life, all that was clean and beautiful.
Clowns with red balls on their noses, two-foot long shoes, and curly, fluorescent wigs shimmered down the street. They dug deep into their pockets and pulled out handfuls of Tootsie Rolls and bubble gum and threw them into the throngs of children who dove onto the sidewalk, tackling the candy as it hit the pavement. The mass of children were a pile of bodies, writhing and wiggling as one, with bare legs poking out of the pile, squirming and wiggling like a can of night crawlers. A clown with a white-painted face and twinkling star eyes bent over and placed a piece of candy into the palm of a small child in a wheelchair.
Then the Army marched past, waving the red, white, and blue of the American Flag. Steven looked into the faces of the soldiers and saw they were boys, barely old enough to shave, with innocent eyes. The crowd of parade watchers rose to their feet and placed their hands over their hearts.
A young man with dirty, blonde hair down to his waist elbowed his way through the crowd. He had a fresh pink scar across his forehead. He wore a ragged tie-dyed tee shirt and tattered jeans covered with patches: a thumbs-up on his hip; a marijuana leaf on his knee; and the American flag on his ass. He cursed at the soldiers and spat at their feet.
A middle-aged man with a crew cut and black-frame glasses broke through the crowd and shoved the protester.
On the corner, two uniformed policemen noticed the scuffle and ran towards them.
“Fascists!” cursed the hippie.
The man wrestled the hippie to the ground and sat on his chest. “Love it or leave it!” he said as he pounded his head into the pavement. Three men quickly surrounded them. Two of the men tried to break up the fight. They put their arms between the men as they rolled on the ground and tried to separate them. The third, a big-burly man with a scraggly beard, took advantage of the opportunity to kick the protester in the ribs with the tip of his steel-toed work boot.
The policemen pushed their way through the crowd and lifted the middle-age man off the hippie. They yanked the hippie to his feet and pinned his arms behind his back. The hippie took one last look toward the soldiers and spat, “Baby killers!” One of the policemen raised his nightstick high into the air and brought it down soundly on the protester’s head. Blood splattered the young man’s face. He spat at the policeman and said, “Oink! Oink!” He went limp at the knees, and became dead weight for the policemen to drag from the street. The crowd cheered and several people slapped the middle-aged man on the back.
“He’s bleeding,” said Mary Ellen.
“He deserved worse,” said Steven. “I would have liked to knock his teeth down his throat.”
“A lot of people are against the war,” said Mary Ellen.
“Are you defending him?” he asked angrily.
“No. I’m just saying…”
“Wayne was not a baby killer. And I’ll fight anyone who says he was!”
“Calm down,” said Mary Ellen.
“People like him don’t belong in this country,” he said the anger in his voice rising to a boil. “This is a day to honor America.” The depth of his feelings surprised him. Until today, the war had been something so far removed from his life that it seemed unreal. Today it touched his life, and he could no longer be neutral. Steven’s shoulders tightened, and a lump rose in his throat. He felt a tiny shudder run down his spine as the Marines in dress blues with gold buttons marched by, shiny sabers hanging at their sides.
After the parade, Mary Ellen and Steven joined the family back at the house. The backyard was filled with people. They spoke in hushed tones while sitting on metal chairs and balancing paper plates on their laps. Neighbors had arrived with food and condolences. The picnic table was filled with stuffed cabbage rolls, macaroni and tuna casseroles, Jell-O molds, potato salads, and dozens of pies and cakes. In the center of the table, was a punch bowl filled with red juice and floating fruit. Bees circled the sweet scent. Children swung on swings and darted among the trees as if this were any ordinary Fourth of July barbecue.
Mary Ellen helped herself to a slice of yellow cake covered with peanut butter frosting an inch thick. “Want some?” she asked Steven in a soft, soothing voice.
“Not hungry,” he replied wearily.
Inside the house, were Wayne’s parents and the immediate family, his brother, Bob, two sisters, and both sets of Grandparents. The shades were pulled and the house was dark. The living room was stuffy and smelled of flowers cut too soon. The American flag that had draped his coffin was folded neatly and displayed in a place of honor on the mantel, next to a picture of Wayne in his Marine dress blues. Wayne’s sisters were junior high school age. They were in their bedrooms, crying. Both grandfathers sat on the couch while their wives busied themselves in the kitchen. Bob and his father stood on either side of the mantel while Wayne’s mother rested in the easy chair.
“I’m so sorry,” said Steven as he stooped to hug Wayne’s mother. Mary Ellen stood by his side not knowing what to say on such a miserable occasion.
“Thank you for coming,” Mrs. Phillips said. She had fixed her face since the funeral, but the strain still showed. “Thank you for helping carry…for helping us bury him… I know it was difficult for you. But it would have meant so much for Wayne…”
“It was nothing…really. I wanted to do it.” He was embarrassed she was making such a big deal out of it. “He was a good friend,” he said. “He was like a brother to me.”
“Where’ve you been? I would have thought you would have been here hours ago,” said Bob weary of the favored position Steven held in this house.
“We stopped by the parade,” said Steven.
“That hardly seems appropriate,” said Bob.
“Life goes on,” said the paternal grandfather. He was sixty-seven years olds. His skin was soft and wrinkled, his bald head covered with liver spots. “That’s an important lesson to learn.”
“Wayne would have wanted you to go.” said Mrs. Phillips. “It’s important to move forward.”
“There was a protester at the parade,” said Steven. “He spit on the troops and called them “baby killers.” The cops arrested him, but not before a couple of the men in the crowd got in some good licks.”
“Good for them,” said Mr. Phillips.
“He looked a hippie,” said Mary Ellen. “I’ll bet he was from California.”
“Probably one of those SDS agitators running around the country stirring up trouble,” said Steven.
“My great-grandfather came to this desert more’n a hundred years ago to get away from all the ugliness in the world. But it’s found us. We ain’t even safe in Utah,” said the paternal grandfather.
“Damn hippies are ruining this country,” said the maternal grandfather. He walked with the aid of a cane and still limped from the shrapnel in his leg from World War I. “In my day, a young man was eager to defend his country. Boys today are so cowardly they spit on the flag of their own country.”
“Not all of us…” interrupted Steven.
Mary Ellen tugged at his hand and whispered, “Stay out of it.”
“Damn hippies should be lined up and shot,” continued the grandfather.
“The war is wrong,” said Bob. “Somebody’s got to speak up.”
“You hush your mouth, boy,” said Mr. Phillips. “Your brother died fighting for this country and I won’t have you speaking ill of it. Not today!” He touched the tip of Bob’s nose with his shaking finger.
Bob’s face grew red with anger. He looked his father in the eye and said defiantly, “Wayne should not be dead. This war is wrong and Wayne died for nothing.”
Mrs. Phillips rose from her chair and moved towards them.
Mr. Phillips raised his hand as if to slap Bob, then stopped in mid-air, and held it there. “Leave my house.” His body trembled and his voice quaked as he spoke.
“No,” said Mrs. Phillips as she stepped between them. She placed an open hand on each of their chests and pushed her men apart. “Not today. Please don’t fight about this damn war again. Not today.”
The father studied his hand as if it were unconnected to his body, then lowered it slowly to his side.
“He’s the only son we have left,” she released her hands from the men and cupped them over her crying eyes. She stepped away and turned her back to them. “I can’t lose him, too.”
“I’m sorry, Daddy.” Bob wrapped his arms around his father and patted him gently on his back to soothe him. “I didn’t mean it. I’m just so damn angry.”
“So am I, son. So am I. It just hurts so much.” Mr. Phillips bent his head into his son’s chest and let out a long, low sigh. “I hate this war as much as you do. Wayne died for this country… we have to support it. It’s what he would have wanted.”
“I lost my brother in World Ward I,” said the maternal grandfather from the couch. “It weren’t no easier then. He died on the very day the Armistice was signed. It was a tragic loss. I was angry then, too. But I didn’t place the blame on my country. What’s making this war so hard is the damn protesters. Neighbor fighting neighbor. Sons fighting fathers. Colleges being torn apart. How’s any of that gonna help our boys defend our country?”
“It’s not our country were defending,” said the paternal grandfather next to him. “It’s gooks fighting gooks and we got no business being there.”
“Hush,” said Mrs. Phillips. “I won’t hear any more of this.” She broke down in tears and ran from the room. From the living room, they could hear the sound of her bedroom door slamming and the snap of the lock as it clicked behind her, but the fight continued on.
“Even President Johnson said we ain’t otta be sending American boys to do what Asian boys otta be doing for themselves,” the paternal grandfather said. “Seems like he forgot all his fancy promises now that he’s shipping our boys over by the boat load.”
“Enough! Enough! I won’t hear anymore of this talk in my house!” said Mr. Phillips and he slammed his fist against the wall with such force that he rattled the family portrait.
“He’s right,” said Steven. “Wayne was a brave man who died a hero’s death and that’s all that needs to be said today.”
“No more fighting,” said Bob. He offered his hand to Steven and they made peace.
That night, Steven and Mary Ellen parked the car on Carterville Road to watch the fireworks. They sat on the hood of the car and leaned their backs against the windshield. They listened to the steady beat of rock and roll—The Beatles, The Doors, and The Stones—rattling out of the AM radio.
They heard the laughter of children as they ran through the darkness, spelling their names against the black sky with silver sparklers. Fires made of hickory chips burned in backyards and the scent of roasted marshmallows filled the air. The breeze blowing off the desert was cool now. Mary Ellen shivered slightly and snuggled up next to Steven.
“I love this country,” he said as gold and red fireworks exploded in the sky. A child ran past the car, his face sticky with marshmallows and driveway dust.
“Don’t,” she said. “Hush—” She wanted him to be still and say no more. She wanted this day to be over—and the next—and the next—so he would forget this pain and go on with life.
Steven heard a rat-a-tat-tat and smelled burnt gunpowder rising from a silver cap gun as a boy in a red cowboy hat ran by. A bottle rocket whizzed past his ears. This was the Fourth of July in each of his childhood memories. He remembered sucking watermelons to the rind, letting the juice dribble down his chin, and spitting the seeds into the dust. Remembered running in the dark without a care in the world, and the green taste of bugs as they flew down his throat. He knew this life was worth protecting.
“I’ve been a coward,” he said.
“No. No, you haven’t.”
“I’ve been running away from my duty like a boy. It’s time I faced my responsibilities like a man.”
“I don’t want to hear this,” Mary Ellen said. She looked at his face and saw that his jaw was clenched. She recognized the look of determination in his eyes and knew it was too late. He had made up his mind, he was leaving and there was nothing she could do to stop him. In the distance, crickets chirped. She felt the breath expel from his chest and the dampness of the night upon her cheek.
“It’s time to grow up. Time to quit running.”
“This is the wrong decision—made for the wrong reason,” she said.
“This country is worth fighting for…worth dying for,” said Steven.
“Don’t,” she begged.
“I’m going to enlist tomorrow,” he said. The fireworks display reached its finale, dozens of rockets burst into the air, lighting the two lovers on the hood of the car. The noise was deafening. Steven pulled Mary Ellen closer, leaned over and whispered into her ear. “Marry me before I go.”
There was a silence between them. He turned his face to hers, looked into her blue eyes and saw they were filled with tears. She turned her eyes from his and lowered her head. Tears trickled down her cheeks.
“I won’t be a war widow,” she whispered.
He took her face in his hands and gently brushed away the tears.
“I won’t die,” he lied.