This is, unhappily, an autobiographical story with just a few name changes, and maybe a few slight memory errors, as it has been a few years. The subject matter is decidedly dark, even by my standards, so you have been warned. This is deliberately in present tense because that is the appropriate voice here. Special thanks to Sbrooks and Crkcppr for editing and beta reading it for me. Any remaining errors are entirely mine -- probably added after their assistance. And thanks again to everyone for the encouragement and support
“You don’t have to do this.”
She doesn’t mean that. Not really. This is something we both know has to be done. I have a duty here.
I carefully scrape the last of my mustache off with the razor and rinse it off. It’s a straight razor, old school, but when you take off facial hair like mine, it’s a lot better choice than one of those Schick whatever-the-hell-they-are-calling-them-now with the five blades. I’ve been on relaxed grooming standards for almost a year, so the long, hooked, Winnfield mustache was pretty thick. Can’t have that in dress uniform though.
“Yeah. I know.”
She shifts against the doorframe where she’s standing, watching. There’s a little suppressed fear in her face. She doesn’t want to think about this, she hates thinking about this.
“It’ll be fine.”
She looks away. This is harder on her than it is on me, I think.
“It will be, I’ll be back this evening and we’ll get dinner.”
She gives a weak smile as she follows me into the bedroom. “How about if we just get pizza, the kids would love that.” She’s trying to be positive and upbeat, but it’s not easy.
“That will work.”
She watches transfixed while I pull on my shirt and tie, then my jacket. Then she walks over to her dresser and picks up a small silk sack. It’s just a little over an inch by two inches; it’s edged in black ribbon and has a tiny black silk drawstring. She sewed it last night, by hand. This isn’t something you use a machine to make.
Her breath catches as she hands it to me. She obviously can’t think of anything to say that won’t make things worse.
We make small talk, but it’s just filler until I see the black car pull up out front, and I have to leave. She hands me three brand new, precisely folded, starkly white handkerchiefs to tuck in my inside jacket pocket as I walk out.
Private Malone is just sliding out of the driver’s seat when I come down the steps. He barely has time to stand up before I open the passenger door.
I see her staring out the window as we pull away. I pretend not to see her, she pretends to believe I don’t. There’s a bit of silence before he starts talking. “We’re meeting the van at the church. I figured you’d want to get there ahead of time to take a look.”
“That works. Is the van on schedule?”
“Sergeant Callahan said to tell you he has everything locked and cocked over there.”
I nod. If Callahan says he has it, he has it.
It’s damn near a two hour drive to the church and Private Malone can’t make it that far without talking. “The Sergeant Major said you didn’t have to do this.”
“We all have to do this. It’s part of it.”
Maybe he’ll understand. If he does, it will make him a better Soldier.
“But he said you volunteered.”
“Not really.” I don’t want to make myself out to be better than I am. I didn’t seek this. I just didn’t hide from it. “They asked if I was willing to do it, and I don’t have anything more important.”
Actually, there isn’t much that qualifies as “more important.”
The conversation dies after that. Even he can’t find anything to talk about. For a guy who can talk for 20 minutes about the various cures for ice cream headaches, that’s saying something.
As we get closer to the church, I can see the neighborhoods grow bleaker and greyer. I wonder for a minute if it’s my imagination, but from the graffiti, it pretty clearly isn’t. We’re on the outskirts of New York City, in a particularly run down area. Everything seems grey and dark, even though, against all the oppressive weight of the day, the sun is shining.
As we roll to a stop in front of the church, I realize it’s even worse than it looked.
The church is a small square structure topped by a slightly askew steeple, with peeling white paint and steep steps leading to a narrow cracked door. Surrounded by an eight foot fence topped with barbed wire. It looks like all it needs is a machine gun nest.
Malone looks around and gets out to stand by the front of the car. There’s no reason to ask why I want him there. It’d be tough to drive the car back without wheels.
There’s a damn electric pole right in front of the gate, if the gap were any closer I’d have to turn sideways to slide past it into the church. That will be a problem.
I walk up the uneven steps to the front door and walk in. It’s just one big room, all decorated with black ribbon and dark purple flowers. A balding middle aged black man in a black suit is doing something at the altar and turns to watch me walk up. The wooden floor feels unsteady, sort of soft under my steps.
The Preacher eyes my uniform critically for a moment. I’ll get no credit from him for doing this. Like me, he sees it as my duty. He doesn’t waste time on introductions.
“You see the electric pole?”
“We can get by it, it won’t look pretty, but we can.”
“Can’t ask for more.” He goes on to point out the arrangement, where the casket will have to be set. I notice an alcove off to the side of the altar with a saxophone leaning in the corner. He follows my gaze.
“We don’t have a piano, but his Uncle Charlie said he’d come play. He’s pretty good, used to play in the clubs.”
I want to say something pleasant, something helpful, but all that comes out is, “That will do.”
He stops for a second, thinking. “Do you need him to play ‘Taps’?”
“No, we have a bugler, he’ll be waiting graveside with the firing party.”
I can tell by his face he doesn’t like the words “firing party.” I can sense that he really is a man of peace. Besides, it’s a reminder of how it all happened.
“Oh, yeah, I guess you would.”
We finalize the last few details of how this is going to be done before I head back out.
Malone is talking to an older gray-haired black man in a black suit. He’s obviously here for the funeral, but he has a red and black brocade vest on under his suit jacket. From my days in band in junior high school I recognize the smell of valve oil.
“You must be Uncle Charlie.”
He grins and extends a firm, calloused grip. “The Private here said you were the man.”
“I am for now, anyway.”
“I was telling your Private here that the car will be fine out here today.” He paused, shaking his head with a slight smile. “Wouldn’t try it tomorrow, but today? It’ll be fine.” He glances over at a small grocery across the street where a large man is sitting in chair. He wasn’t there earlier, I’d have noticed. There’s an axe handle leaning against the wall behind him.
“Thank you, Sir. I appreciate it.” There’s something about him, the way he looks at my uniform. “You served?”
“1967 to 1968. Pleiku in ‘Nam.” His face darkens. “Different shithole, same shit.” He eyes my ribbon rack critically. “Guess you’ve seen a few shitholes.”
He nods toward Malone. “He said you didn’t have to do this.”
“Like I told him. We all have to do this.”
A terse, joyless smile. “Thanks anyway. You have a bugler?”
“He’s already at the graveside.”
He nods and I can’t tell if he’s relieved or disappointed. Maybe a bit of both.
We wait silently, until the van shows up with my casket detail; I get them arranged and we go over the issues. None of them are happy about the electric pole, but we’ll do the best we can.
Family members and friends begin to pour in, funeral black clothing is the order of the day, a few sparks of color in pins or necklaces, but not much. My detail is waiting in the van, but I’m standing near the gate. A reminder of everything. A few of them stare curiously, especially the kids, but not just them. It’s hard to believe this many people will fit in there. I wonder if the Preacher will remember to keep the first pew on the left clear for us. If not, we’ll adapt.
After the stream of people stops, Uncle Charlie and I just stand together. He glances over at me with a raised eyebrow. “Don’t mind the stares, they don’t see many Soldiers around here. Or white people. You’re probably used to it.”
I smile at that myself. “Pretty much.”
We stand for a bit longer, watching a thin veil of clouds sliding over the sun, leaving it shining bleak and pale. The world seems to have finally figured out what kind of day this is. My assistant brings the detail over from the van, pulling on their white gloves. They form up and we wait about five minutes more. Right on schedule.
The hearse rolls to a stop in the perfect place. We have to wait for the immediate family to get organized. A couple of Aunts have the two kids in hand, but the Widow is shaky at best. Captain Keisha Parrish catches my eye and shakes her head just a little. She’s the Casualty Assistance Officer and she’s telling me the Widow isn’t handling this well at all. After hearing the story, I didn’t expect her to. A wizened, dignified woman notices the exchange between us, and moves to help the Captain get the Widow up the steps.
There’s supposed to be an OIC here, a Brigadier General from what I’ve been told, but he isn’t here and I can only wait so long before we start. Bringing the flag-draped casket past the electric pole and up the steps is less of fiasco than I’d expected. The hard part will be taking it out.
As the NCOIC, I trail the casket into the gloom of the church. Technically I’m there to give orders, but I don’t say a word. We’ve drilled over the last few days and the detail is following the cues of my assistant in the front. We’re moving at “Slow March,” half the speed of a standard march. There’s a dreamlike quality to it all. As if it’s taking place under water. It’d all be silent except for the floor; it groans with a soft dying sound with every step of the detail. I know without thinking that this sound will stay with us. Every man and woman on the detail will remember it forever.
With the casket placed and Honors rendered, my detail and I slide into the empty pew. The Preacher remembered it after all.
It’s a sea of black faces. The Soldiers of my detail are the only white faces here. I’m the darkest one of us, and that’s mostly sun blasted tan.
Out of the corner of my eye, I can see the Widow. Despite her family, despite Captain Parrish, she is as alone as it is possible to get. Even the family seems to unconsciously lean away from her, as if they are afraid to catch something.
I study the pictures of the Soldier to either side of the casket. I don’t know him, I’ve never seen him. Neither has any of my detail. But then, that’s why we’re here. That’s why the family shrinks from the Widow. That’s why the pall over this funeral is even darker.
He was a Sergeant First Class on his second tour in Iraq, unexpectedly extended with no notice. Stationed up by Mosul. A real hellhole.
I learned the rest from Captain Parrish, it had all spilled from the Widow in a horrible instant in her living room. Keisha wasn’t supposed to talk about it with anyone, but some burdens are too heavy to bear alone, and we’d served together in other places.
She’d been angry, alone, and scared. The last time her husband had deployed, three of his squad had been killed and she’d seen their families crushed by the loss. It ate at her. She irrationally blamed him for the feelings. They tried to talk when they could, but every talk ended in an argument. He was too distracted to care about her. That’s how it felt anyway.
He was probably too concerned with surviving the next day.
She was angry, alone, and scared. Maybe if she’d talked to a chaplain or a counselor things would have been different. But she hadn’t. And it wasn’t It started at, of all things, a church picnic. A charming guy; funny, a good listener. He was harmless, until he wasn’t. She met him for a couple lunches and he fed her compliments. Eventually, of course, it happened. She wasn’t thinking clearly, because she did the one thing she’d always thought she would never do. And as disappointed in herself as she was, she was still angry and fearful, though she didn’t feel so alone. So began months of surreptitious meetings, though she certainly wasn’t as discreet as she thought. She was as angry at herself as she was at her husband, and decided she needed to have it out with him. She wrote a letter, written entirely in one drunken evening, blaming him for everything, revealing the affair.
When her husband finally managed to reach a phone and call, it all boiled over. Over his protests, she exploded at him, demanding a divorce and slamming the phone down in fury.
She regretted it almost instantly, but there was no way to take it back, no way to even call back and try to talk calmly.
Across the world, an oddly calm Sergeant First Class walked to a reeking brown and white porta-jon, sat down inside, stuck the muzzle of his M4 in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
They can’t afford to ship new porta-jons in when this kind of thing happens so they take them away, clean them up and quietly slip them in somewhere else. Next time you’re in a porta-jon in a warzone, look up, if there’s a small hole in the top – probably near the back third of the roof, you’ll know. Sometimes you’ll find two.
The Widow, not knowing she was one, waited for him to call, so they could talk, maybe figure something out. Instead, a Colonel in his dress uniform appeared at her door; along with a Chaplain.
I don’t know how the details got out – maybe he had a friend in the unit, maybe people just pieced the suicide together with her not-so-discreet activities. It doesn’t really matter. In the end word got out.
People knew. The guy? He got in his car and headed out. I never found out what happened to him.
That’s why we’re here. Units don’t bury their own suicides. Suicide is contagious within a unit, less so outside. I don’t think anyone really knows why. Maybe it’s the kind words, maybe the imagery of the funeral. I don’t know for sure, but it’s true. So units ask other units to perform the last Honors for their suicides. That’s how we ended up here.