A PLACE TO BE
by David C. Metz

His brother’s grave was in the northwest corner of the cemetery and after they’d finished loading the equipment, Randy paid his respects. That’s how he described it to Doug, “pay my respects.” Doug stayed with the pick-up truck, while Randy crossed to the far corner and stood in front of Ted’s grave. He didn’t say a prayer or speak to Ted, he just stared at the gray headstone and its inscription: Theodore “Ted” Franklin / Lance Corporal USMC / June 14,1992-May 23, 2012. Ted had been laid to rest six years ago, when Randy was twelve. There was an honor guard—two Marines—one of whom gave Randy’s mother a folded flag. A bugler played Taps. A week before the funeral his mother had taken him to the Sears in Chesterton, the next town over, and bought him a black suit and tie and a white dress shirt. The sleeves of the suit clung to his arms in the heat and the shirt collar scratched his neck, but he didn’t complain. Nor did he cry. He watched the casket being lowered into the ground and thought how it would piss Ted off to end up here, less than a mile from where he grew up. Ted had joined the Marines to get out of Millwood, Illinois and the Marines had sent him back.

Randy looked up from the headstone to the fence ten yards away and the cornfield on the other side. A late afternoon breeze cooled the sweat under his T-shirt and filled his nostrils with the smell of fresh cut grass. He came here each time he and Doug mowed the grounds of St. Paul’s and the adjoining cemetery because it felt like the right thing to do. But he always ended up staring across the cornfield towards the flat horizon. He didn’t believe in prayer and didn’t know what to say.

He walked back to the truck, where Doug was sitting sideways in the driver’s seat, feet propped on the running board, smoking a cigarette and sipping from a sixteen-ounce bottle of Mountain Dew.

“That shit will kill you,” Randy said.
“Which?” Doug held up both hands, Mountain Dew in one, cigarette in the other, a smile spreading across his beefy face.  
“Both.”
“Everybody dies.” Doug nodded towards the cemetery. “In case you hadn’t noticed.”

Randy smiled and went around to the passenger side.

They cut grass from April to November for St. Paul’s, two businesses in town, and half a dozen residents. Doug called it lawn maintenance and talked about starting a landscaping business. Randy saved almost every dollar he earned. A landscaping business meant staying in Millwood and he wanted out as much as Ted had.  He was headed to college in the fall.

Doug eased his truck onto Main Street and down the hill to the intersection with Spring. The buildings lining both sides looked worn—two-story structures of brick, or wood with vinyl siding. Ted used to say the buildings looked as bored with Millwood as he was. He only said it when he and Randy were alone, never in front of their parents. As they passed through the second intersection, Randy saw his father’s Ford Taurus in an angled parking space in front of a vinyl-sided building on the corner. The wood sign above the door said Franklin Insurance / Home, Auto, Life.

“What’s up tonight, anything?” Doug asked.
“I don’t know, hadn’t thought about it.”
“I’ll probably go by the lake and see if anything is happening.”

Randy nodded. If anything was happening at the lake it would involve beer, probably weed, the possibility of a hook-up. It would also involve the same people: high school kids, those who had just graduated in June, like him and Doug, and older kids–home from college for the summer and the ones who had never left. Summer nights in Millwood.

After the third intersection the downtown gave way to a series of residential streets. A three stop-light town, Ted used to say. Doug turned right onto Randy’s street and pulled up in front of his house, midway down the block.

“Call me if you want to hang out later,” he said.

Randy nodded. Doug pulled away from the curb, then swerved hard right and back left in a looping U-turn, giving Randy a thumbs-up as he went by.

He called hello to his mother as he passed from the mud room through the kitchen.

“Hi, sweetie,” she said, turning from the kitchen sink. “How was your day?”
He shrugged. “Same old same old.”
“And Doug?”
“Same old Doug.”

By the time he’d showered and changed his father had come home. Randy found him sitting in the living room in his brown leather Barcalounger, sipping his nightly scotch and watching the news. He smiled as Randy took a seat on the sofa.

“How goes the lawn maintenance business?”
Randy smirked. “You sound like Doug.”
“Nothing wrong with a little entrepreneurial spirit.”
“This is Doug we’re talking about.”

His father shook his head, went back to watching the news. Randy thought if left for ten years and came back on a weeknight at 6:00 PM, he’d find his father sitting in the same chair, sipping scotch, watching the news.

After the news, they took their places around the dining room table, his parents on each end, Randy in the middle. There was a chair opposite him, Ted’s chair, tucked neatly in place. For the first year after he was killed, his mother set a place for him each evening, as if he were just late for dinner and would arrive at any moment. His father said it was an expression of grief, like laying flowers at the grave. Randy worried it was something more serious. But he grew accustomed to seeing the placemat and folded napkin, fork, knife and spoon set opposite him until one evening the space was empty, the dark wood shiny and bare.

Now his father asked Randy how his day had been.

“Fine.” Randy reached for the bowl of new potatoes and ladled several onto his plate where they settled next to two slices of ham.
“Good,” his father said in the deliberately cheerful tone Randy imagined him using with clients. “What did you do?”

Randy said he and Doug had taken care of the church grounds and the cemetery, mowing and pruning. The words rose out of him begrudgingly, as if the question had invaded some private space.
Ted always knew how to talk to their father, how to answer his questions without betraying the slightest hint of the annoyance Randy struggled to suppress. Ted made everything look easy. If he were there to ask how he did it, Randy knew Ted would just shrug. “It’s not a big deal.”

It’s what he had said when he announced his intention to enlist. He did so over dinner, dropping it into the conversation as casually as he would plans for a weekend fishing trip.

“I’ve been talking to a recruiter.”
“What?” Their father had set down his fork and rested his elbows on the table.

Their mother had stared at Ted. Her older brother had been drafted during Vietnam and killed three months after being deployed. Lingering sunlight from the dining room window fell across her face.

“There is no draft,” she’d said. “You don’t have to do this.”

Ted shrugged and said he had to do something. When their mother flinched, absorbing his flippant reply like a slap across the face, he slid his chair to her end of the table and took her hand in his. “Mom, I’ll be fine. It’s not a big deal.”  

Now his father asked his mother about her day and told her about his, leaving Randy to finish his meal in silence. After dinner, he helped clear the table and load the dishwasher, then called Doug. Predictable.

***

“Let’s skip the lake,” Randy said as he got into the passenger side of Doug’s truck.
“Seriously? Shit, I procured us a six-pack.” By procure Doug meant stole from the ready supply his father kept in their garage refrigerator—from what Randy had observed, never less than a case, often closer to two.
“So? It’ll keep. I’m not up for the lake.”
“What do you want to do?” Doug asked.
“I don’t know. Go over to Chesterton, or up to Sangamon.”
“Sangamon? Dude, that’s fifty miles.”
“Let’s just get on the road.”
Doug shook his head as he turned onto Main Street. “You’re fuckin’ weird sometimes, Franklin. You know that, don’t you?”
“Just drive.”
“Okay. Reach into the back and pop open one of those beers for me.”
Randy frowned. “Really?”
“What? I have a cup holder.”

They headed east on the state highway, a two-lane road running between fields of corn and soybeans. Randy opened a beer for Doug and got one for himself. He knew it was weird, but it felt good to be moving, to watch the fences and utility poles whiz by. He popped the tab.

The week before Ted shipped to Afghanistan they had driven to Chesterton for a movie and dinner afterwards at Applebee’s. Just the two of them. It was Ted’s goodbye gift. He’d done something with each of them—taken their mother to dinner at her favorite restaurant in Sangamon, risen early on his last Saturday in Millwood to go fishing with their father. In Applebee’s people who knew him stopped by their table to shake his hand and thank him for his service. Ted smiled and said he hadn’t done anything yet. When Randy asked him if he was nervous about going to Afghanistan, Ted laughed and rested his arms on the table, looking at Randy across the clutter of empty plates and glasses.

“You’ve got to make your own luck. I didn’t see that happening in Millwood.”
“Yeah, Millwood sucks.”
“Not for everyone,” Ted replied, and when Randy frowned, added, “just for guys like us.”

Randy wanted to ask him again if he was nervous, but Ted signaled for the check and the moment passed.

Now Doug lifted his beer. “Here’s how we lost the farm.” It was the same lame toast he made every time they drank. Randy figured he had heard it from his father who had heard it from his father, although neither one was a farmer. He touched his beer can to Doug’s.

They slowed to pass through Chesterton, a town not much bigger than Millwood but with a small outdoor mall including a Target, a Home Depot, a Taco Bell, and a few local stores. Cars surrounded the Applebee’s where he and Ted had eaten dinner, light and movement visible through the windows under the red awnings. The Sears where Randy got his suit for Ted’s funeral was abandoned, ghostly, the doors and windows gaping black against the white facade.

“So, when are you leaving for college? Soon, right?”
Randy nodded. “Three weeks.”
“Shit.”
Randy looked at him. “You should have applied somewhere.”
“I don’t know.”
“You totally could have gotten in somewhere if you’d applied.”
Doug shook his head. “College is not my thing, okay?”
“But Millwood is?”
“Kind of. It’s not so bad.”
“Seriously?” Randy laughed.
“Yeah, dude. Seriously. Not everyone is as anxious to get out of Dodge as you.”

Randy had known Doug since kindergarten. They’d been in the same classes, played Little League and high school baseball together, seen each other, Randy realized when he thought about it, almost every day of their lives since they were five years old. Yet he sometimes wondered how they had remained friends.

After they pulled onto the interstate, Doug asked for another beer.

Randy handed it to him. “Take it easy.”

“Whatever.”
The fields were further away and nearly invisible in the dark. In the distance lights from farmhouses and an occasional gas station punctuated the blackness.
“You really serious about starting a landscaping business?” Randy asked after a few minutes.
“Why not? I’ve got a lot of the equipment and some customers. I like working outside.”
Randy nodded.
“The world’s a pretty fucked up place right now, in case you hadn’t noticed,” Doug said. He took a long swallow of beer. “We’ve got illegals all over the damn place, ISIS bastards that want to kill us. Why do I want to get mixed up in all that crap if I can make a nice life for myself in Millwood?”
“And you think you can make a nice life for yourself in Millwood?’
“Yeah,” Doug nodded. “Yeah I do.” He glanced at Randy. “You think you can make a nice life somewhere else?”

Randy shrugged. “I guess I’ll find out.”  He didn’t have a plan beyond leaving for college, not even a half-assed one like Doug’s. All he knew was he couldn’t stay in Millwood. At Ted’s funeral, Father Baker, who had been the parish priest at St. Paul’s for as long as Randy could remember, said the death of such a young man was a great test of faith, but we must trust that God had a purpose and a plan for each of us. Randy wanted to believe that but couldn’t. He was pretty sure Ted would have called bullshit too.

As they got closer to Sangamon, farmhouses and fields gave way to strip malls and office parks.  Black and white speed limit signs read 45 and then 35, and a green sign marking the city limit read “Pop. 103,234.” Ten times the size of Millwood. Randy had been to Sangamon with his parents and Ted for special occasions like Mother’s Day or Easter brunch, or to visit the history museum. His favorite exhibit was the diorama with carved figures behind plate glass depicting Native Americans around campfires and teepees, bears and buffalo, and the early pioneers with their covered wagons and horse-drawn ploughs. Ted thought it was lame, but Randy stood for long stretches in front of each window studying the figures: bare-chested Indian men, Indian women in buckskin shifts, their hair black and shoulder length, with headbands and feathers. The pioneer women wore long cotton dresses and white bonnets, the men dark cotton pants and loose, long sleeve shirts. The bodies were perfectly proportioned, posed at some task, unblinking expressions on the carved faces. Except for the lifeless eyes, they were like real people, frozen in time and space.

They drove to the downtown area, the older part of Sangamon, and around the courthouse square.

“Abe Lincoln argued cases in that courthouse.” Randy pointed to the old sandstone building in the center of the square.
Doug snorted.
“Don’t be a moron,” Randy said.
“Don’t be a fucking tour guide.”
Randy lifted his left hand and extended his middle finger.
“Nice. Real nice. So now that you dragged us here, what do you want to do?”
Randy shrugged. “I don’t know, man. I just felt like driving.”
“You mean riding.” Doug grinned at him, then said the first thing he had to do was take a piss.
“And maybe get some coffee.”
Doug nodded. “Yeah, okay.”

They stopped at an IHop and were seated in a booth. The blonde Formica tabletop glowed yellow in the overhead light and smelled faintly of disinfectant. Besides coffee, Doug ordered a short stack. Their waiter was an Asian kid with a sprinkle of acne on his forehead who nodded the entire time he was writing their order. The restaurant wasn’t crowded. Two couples who looked as old as Randy’s parents were seated at a table, and three college-aged girls were seated at a booth along the adjacent wall.  Doug lifted his chin in the direction of the girls and raised his eyebrows.

“You wish,” Randy said.
The waiter brought Doug’s order. Randy sipped his coffee and glanced at their reflection in the window: Doug bent over his plate, slicing his fork through the pancakes; Randy’s own face pensive, staring back at him from out of the dark.

Doug dipped a forkful of pancake into a puddle of syrup. The door of the restaurant opened and two couples entered, the men wearing turbans and the woman long head scarves. Doug looked up from his food and watched as the hostess seated them in a booth next to the college girls.

“Damn,” Doug said softly.
“What?”
Doug screwed his face into a look of disbelief. “What do you think?”
“Seriously? C’mon, man. Chill.”
“I’m fine. Just not used to eating in the same place as Muslims.”
Randy shook his head. “Dude, they’re not Muslims, they’re Indians. From India. Sikhs.”
Doug set his fork on his plate. “They look like Muslims.”
“But they’re not, I’m telling you. There have been stories about them getting shot because some crazy redneck thought they were Muslim.”
“You calling me a crazy redneck?”
“I wouldn’t call you crazy.”
“Fuck you.” Doug grinned and sat back, pushing his plate away. He lifted his coffee mug and sipped while stealing glances at the Indian couples. After a moment he set his mug down and leaned across the table. “Doesn’t it bother you at all?”
“What?”
“Just look around. Our waiter is some kind of Chinese guy, the hostess is black, one of those couples at the table is black, I bet all the help in the back are black or Mexican. And then you have the Muslims or Indians or whatever. I mean, I like people, but I don’t know.”
“It’s the world.”
Doug nodded. “You’re welcome to it, college boy. I’ll take Millwood.”

Randy drove on the way back while Doug went to work on the remaining beers. He finished one soon after they were back on the interstate and popped open another.

“Take it easy,” Randy said.
“What? You’re driving, and besides, those pancakes gave my stomach a nice coating.”

There was little traffic on the interstate. The road unspooled before the headlights in smooth, mesmerizing chunks, and Randy shifted his gaze to stay alert. Doug stared out the passenger window. They drove in silence until Doug chugged the last of his beer, crumpled the can and dropped it behind the seats. “Sometimes I miss Ted.”

Randy nodded.

“Remember that game his senior year when he returned the interception for a touchdown? Everyone went crazy, cheering their asses off. That was so cool. Ted was so cool.”
“Yeah, he was.”

Doug folded his arms, leaned against the headrest. “I used to wish he was my brother. I got stuck with an older sister who can be such a pain in the ass. I always wanted a brother.”

Randy didn’t tell him that being Ted’s brother wasn’t always as cool as it appeared. Living in Ted’s shadow, being ignored for long stretches between those moments when Ted remembered he existed and turned his attention, his effortless charm, to Randy. Little things: playing catch, taking him for ice cream, letting him tag along when he went swimming at the community pool, showing him off to his girlfriends. They were too far apart in age to be really close and Ted died before time could close the gap.  But in those moments Ted made Randy feel they shared an unbreakable bond.

“It’s so fucked up that he got killed,” Doug said.

Randy remembered the May morning he was told to gather his books and report to the principal’s office. His father, dressed in the tan cotton suit he wore each spring, his face rigid and pale, stood next to the principal. The clock on the wall read 11:17.

“Your dad is here to take you home, Randy,” said the principal.
“Why?”
His father shook his head once and managed a smile that was more of a grimace. “I’ll explain when we get home.”

Fear settled over Randy like a chill. Through the office window, beyond the green lawn, a white delivery van moved silently down the street in brilliant sunlight. The red sweep hand of the wall clock ticked off the seconds. He walked silently to the car with his father, who rested a hand on his shoulder. Whenever he thought about that day, he felt his father’s hand. Solid. Warm. The grip tightened as they walked, as if his father was trying to contain his own fear as well as Randy’s.

“Dad,” Randy said when they got into the car, “what is it?”
His father shook his head.

They drove home in silence, past the cemetery at St. Paul’s where Ted would be laid to rest the following week, down the hill along Main Street past the stodgy buildings. Randy didn’t recognize the car parked in front of their house. After parking the car in the driveway, his father sat for a moment staring out the windshield, hands gripping the steering wheel. He drew a breath as if to speak when a sob burst out of him. Randy sat frozen before starting to cry himself, as much out of fear as grief. He felt his father’s hand on his shoulder and they leaned across the center console in an awkward embrace. After a moment they collected themselves and went into the house. Randy’s mother met them at the door and hugged him, her face flushed and streaked with tears, then she collapsed into his father’s arms and the three of them made their way to the sofa. Two Marines were standing in the living room. They offered condolences. They explained how Ted had died. IED. It was fucked up.

Glancing at Doug, Randy said, “He wasn’t afraid of the world.”
“He was a brave dude, for sure. Marines aren’t pussies.”
“I mean he got out of Millwood because he wasn’t afraid of the world.”
“What are you saying?” Doug shifted in his seat to look at Randy.
Randy shook his head. “Nothing.”
They drove in silence a few minutes, the only car on the road.
“I’m not a bad guy,” Doug said after a while. “Just because I see things different from you doesn’t make me a racist or some shit.”
“Did you say you’re a dumb shit?”
“Bite me.”

She came into view suddenly, emerging out of the dark—a woman standing behind a car, leaning over to look at the rear tire on the driver’s side. Randy pressed the brake, slowing the truck as they went by. The woman snapped backwards, shielding her eyes with one hand while grasping the trunk of the car with the other.

“Jesus,” Randy said. He looked in the rear-view mirror, continuing to slow down.
“You could have hit her.”
“We should stop.”
“Why?” Doug asked. “She’s probably called a tow.”

Randy pulled onto the shoulder and started to back the truck up, slowing when it was about ten feet in front of the car, then cutting onto the highway and pulling in behind. He turned on the flashers and looked at Doug. “Then we wait with her until the tow truck comes. It’s a woman alone at night on the highway. What if it was your sister?”

Doug smirked.

“Okay, smart-ass, your mom. Whatever. You can stay in the truck if you want.” He checked the side mirror before opening his door.
“Shit,” Doug said as he yanked his door handle.
The woman was still standing behind the car, an old blue Corolla.  The rear tire on the driver’s side was flat. The woman crossed her arms as they approached, stepping back from the highway. She was short and slender, with black hair that touched her shoulders. Her dark eyes widened as they reached the rear of the car.
“Do you need help?” Randy asked. Standing on the side of the highway in the middle of the pitch-black countryside illuminated solely by the headlights of Doug’s truck, he suddenly felt foolish. They’d probably scared the hell out of her. The woman’s eyes shifted from Randy to Doug and back to Randy. She didn’t speak.
“It’s okay.” Randy smiled. “We just want to help.” From behind him Doug asked if she had called anyone. When she looked puzzled he held his hand to his ear, pantomiming a phone, and said, “911?”
The woman shook her head. “No.” Her voice was small and had a Spanish accent. Randy asked the woman if she needed help, pointing to the tire. From behind him, he heard Doug exhale. The woman nodded. Randy turned back to Doug who shot him a quizzical, furrowed-brow look and whispered, “You know why she hasn’t called for help don’t you?”
Randy shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. We can’t leave her.”

Doug exhaled a second time. “Shit.” He went back to the truck to retrieve a flashlight, walking wide and veering a little onto the highway.  Randy called to him to be careful, then gestured to the woman to open the trunk.

It took them twenty minutes to change the tire. The jack in the trunk of the Corolla was rusty but functional. Randy worked it until the flat tire was a few inches above the pavement, then held the flashlight while Doug removed the lug nuts. There was no hubcap, the nuts were also a little rusty, and Doug fumbled a few times getting the socket in place. But once secured he powered them loose with sustained, red-faced tugs, muttering curses. As each one came off, Randy nodded approval at Doug, who mumbled “Fuck you,” and “I can’t believe you got me into this,” but smiled when he pulled the tire off. A couple of cars went by, one in the left lane, the other in the right, sending a backdraft that lifted Randy’s shirttail from the back of his jeans and rippled through his hair.

The spare went on quickly. Doug tightened the lug nuts while Randy put the old tire and the jack back in the trunk. Doug stood and handed the lug wrench to Randy, before arching his back in an exaggerated stretch.

“I could use a beer,” he said. He grinned at Randy then looked at the woman, who was standing at the rear of the car on the passenger side. She offered a timid smile. “Gracias.”

“You’re welcome.” Doug held her gaze as he stepped backwards. He made a sweeping bow and spun around, the momentum carrying him onto the highway just as he was lit up by the high beams of an oncoming car. The light froze him. Randy bolted forward, shouting to him. Doug stumbled back a step and lurched sideways as Randy reached him and drove him against the side of the truck. The car sped past without slowing, its horn screaming angrily into the night air.

“What the fuck!” Doug gripped Randy by the shoulders, looking at the taillights of the speeding car as they were swallowed by darkness.
“Jesus.” Randy leaned against the truck. It was that easy. That sudden. He looked at Doug and shook his head. “Damn.”

Randy drove the rest of the way while Doug polished off the last beer.
“I could have been killed.”
“I know.”
“Shit.” Doug leaned against the window.

They exited the interstate onto the state highway, riding in silence through Chesterton, where only the yellow-orange parking lot lights were on as they passed the mall. Doug had slumped against the window, mouth slightly agape, empty beer can held loosely in his lap. Randy glanced at him, shook his head, and continued towards Millwood. When he reached Doug’s house, he woke him. Doug sat up, rubbed his eyes, allowing the beer can to tumble onto the floor.

“I’ll drop the truck by tomorrow, okay?”

Doug nodded. He pulled the handle and let the door swing open. Randy asked if he was all right and Doug nodded again, then pivoted and eased himself out of the truck. He turned and stood for a moment, one hand on the top of the door, a slow grin spreading across his face.

“See what you’re going to miss?”
He pushed the door shut, slapped the window and walked unsteadily towards the house.

Two weeks later he and Doug cut the lawn at St. Paul’s and the cemetery for the last time before Randy left for college. Doug drove the riding mower up and down the big expanses of yard and in the rows between the graves, head bouncing to the hard rock coursing through his ear buds, while Randy used a push mower to trim around the graves and the buildings and along the fence. It was late afternoon when they finished and sat on the tailgate of the truck, Doug with a cigarette and Mountain Dew, Randy with a bottle of water.

“I’m going to be screwed without you to do the trim,” Doug said. “I fucking hate doing trim.”
“Sorry.”
“Might have to hire me a Mexican.” Doug grinned and took a swig of Mountain Dew.
“Not funny, dude.”
“Chill, I’m just kidding.” He stubbed his cigarette on the tailgate and flicked it onto the gravel drive.
Randy screwed the cap back onto his water bottle and slid off the tailgate. “I’m going to pay my respects.”

The sun threw light and shadow across the cornfield and sparkled off tombstones as Randy walked down the row of graves until he reached Ted’s. He was leaving in two days and felt like he should say something. It was stupid of course, he wasn’t going away forever, and it wasn’t like Ted could hear him. Still, as he’d been mowing it struck him that today marked an ending. He looked at the headstone, at his brother’s name, but no words came to mind. He inhaled the sweet smell of the newly mown grass and looked across the cornfield spread before him like a vast green ocean. He knew what Ted would say: “It’s not a big deal.”

Yes, it is, Randy thought. It is.    

About the Author:

David Metz is a writer and member of the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD. His stories have appeared in “Bull”, “The MacGuffin”, “New Plains Review” and “Downstate Story.” He was born and raised in Illinois and graduated from Illinois State University.  After college, he did a stint in the U.S. Army in Germany before moving to the Washington, DC area, where he earned a law degree, made a living and helped raise a family.  He lives with his wife in Damascus, MD.  They have two grown daughters.

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