I’LL FIND MY OWN WAY OUT
By Scott Kauffman
“Those two just threw themselves into everything, and we told each other that’s the pluck one must dig down deep to discover if you’re to play out the hand dealt you. Then this February the Frederick boy, Cody I think, spotted exhaust pluming out from under their garage door as he biked his early morning paper route and ran across to the Watsons. We have here only a volunteer department, mostly made up of us aging vets, and it was some minutes before we pulled our clunker of an engine up out front. Not that it mattered. Doc Morgan pronounced them dead since midnight. Such a waste. We needed them. Needed them indeed.”
The pastor leaned forward, hands folded before him on the glass desktop as might a man of faith not yet ready to relinquish his prayer. “So have you told their son yet?”
An iron-haired Marine Corp major looked up from his notepad. He shook his head.
“No. Not yet. Mission critical for us is first to get our facts straight. Absolutely straight. You said you served in the military?”
“Yes. As a chaplain.”
“Then you can appreciate. This isn’t something we want to fubar for our sergeant.”
“No. Certainly not. How’s he doing?”
“Ten times better than I’d be if they’d kept me locked up in solitary for five years, though our people say his English skills degraded, degraded considerably, but we’ve got our crackerjack speech therapist working with him.”
“He’s going to be all right then?”
“He’ll be better. Back to the way he was? Well, who’s to say. What with everything. They tell me it’s mostly up to him.”
“Isn’t it always. Up to us I mean.”
“That’s what we drill into them.” The Marine major’s thumb clicked his pen. “You seem troubled, Pastor.”
“I am. Troubled in my not understanding.”
“Why would their military lie? Lie he was dead.” The pastor shook his head. “Have we all wagered away our souls?”
“He managed to be the only one who dragged himself clear of the crash that fireballed. There may have been some confusion with their dog tags. Tough to say how heat warped the rest of ‘em were. Some I’ve seen come back got melted right around the bones of their ribcages.”
“Then how can you be sure? I mean, has anyone identified him? Face-to-face. Anyone who actually knew him?”
“No. Not face-to-face. We’ve got his dentals, though.”
“Then there’s no doubt?”
“That’s a big ten-four negative, Pastor. Even after he lost a handful with the rifle butt he took to his jaw, the forensic dentist we flew over voiced none whatsoever. It’s our sergeant all right. Almost wished it wasn’t with what he has to come home to.”
“Or not come home to.”
“There’s that. He’s going to ask when you last saw them.”
“The week before. Here in my vestry office. We had quite the hours-long talk, of that you can assure him, and I dare say the depth of their despair, of their profound pessimism and loss of faith, took me aback more than a little. Dear Lord, it had been nearly five years. I thought they’d made peace and put it behind them. Moved on. It truly seemed to me as though they had. Obviously they hadn’t. My own pitiful blindness. One common to man. To see only what one wishes to see; hear only what words one wishes to hear. Or what words one can bear to hear. A shortcoming I have wrestled to overcome even before I entered the ministry and, as you can see by this thistled garden wrought by my labors, I have miserably failed.”
“You’re being too hard on yourself, Pastor. After five years, most of us would’ve put it behind us and moved on.”
“They truly took it hard. After word reached us about their son we saw them little. Oh, they stopped in for services now and again, ill kempt and haggard. The two of them huddled together yet apart from the rest of the congregation on a back pew then scurried out before our last amen had died in our throats. Nor did we see them about as once we did. Not even puttering in their yard, which in summers past had been more of a manor garden than your run-of-the-mill Ohio yard such as my own adorned at best with a paint-peeling birdfeeder. Why, it seemed as though on that very afternoon when the last patch of snow surrendered to winter’s ghost we’d see them outfitted in their denim overalls and mud-slicked boots ready to restore His world to its right and proper order. Summer evenings she’d hold court, hoe in hand, and he’d be muling a wheelbarrow piled high with mulch or cow manure while murmuring muted responses to her bossy directives. Oh, but you should have seen their garden! Such a showplace for our village, what with its patches of purple bachelor button and black bryony. Twelve-foot-tall trellises climbing with thick virgin’s bower and bleeding heart. Row upon row of German periwinkle iris and sweeping Spanish jasmine. Some Jerusalem oak too, I think. Then wood sorrel, whortleberry, and resurrection ferns crawling up a white-picket fence and snaking along their brick sidewalk. They also somehow cajoled goats-rue, goosefoot, and these delicate coral-colored Flora’s bells. Flowerbeds bordered with thornapple and fuchsia trumpets. Indigo forget-me-nots everywhere, simply everywhere. From the rafters of their front porch laced delicate lady’s slipper and maidenhair reaching almost to the floorboards planted in a dozen painted terracotta pots and dear me, what else? Viscaria, of course, and some Veronica to boot. Oh, and they cultivated Indian cress, which always died on us whenever we dared the venture. Then there was Cattleya orchid, Ophrys spider, and orange milkweed. Some snowdrops clustered here and about. Sweet-William and Star-of-Bethlehem. A virtual Van Gogh explosion of color I tell you it was, and from spring almost to Thanksgiving my sister insisted we include their Eden in our evening pilgrimages notwithstanding she, seeing herself as quite our family gardener, grew livid green with envy, simply livid, and she’d go on without cease. Oh, I tell you such a garden it was! So much life. Holding so much, I opined to my sister, of His revealed beauty of life. Perhaps, though, in open-eyed hindsight, it was a beauty behind which He kept life hidden.”
“Their gardening ended, you said?”
“They let it go to rot that summer. Just let it die on them. Dead as in the depths of December. Deader even. Dead as Dickens’s nail in old Mr. Marley’s coffin. Weeds growing to your waist if you can believe it, if not higher. We – I really – should have organized some sort of committee. With enough hands dug in the dirt we could’ve done it all in a day easy-peasy. Never any lights, which also disconcerted us for sometimes when I suffered one of my brain ticks if I’d walked by at midnight a reading lamp often as not burned in their living room. Mrs. Urbschat told us they had not come in since the week before they’d gotten word. A four-foot stack of books weeks past due she hadn’t the heart to ring them up about.”
“When was it all that changed? When did they seem to you to have accepted.”
“On towards that first Thanksgiving. It was – if you’ll allow me to mix my holiday metaphors – like Gabriel had rolled away their great stone. They seemed to us to have gotten a grip; their spirits sprouted anew like the crystal amaryllis that bloomed in their window boxes at Christmas. Both participated as they had always in our nativity pageant, he one of the shepherds and she the announcing angel. On top of that they put together over a hundred baskets for our needy. Over a hundred mind you. Dug down deep into their own shallow pockets. You probably know from your records he worked as a meter reader for Ohio Gas and she as a stay-at-home mother for her two boys who were her life, her request of it but to be consumed by them.”
“I’ve always believed the charity found in our small towns to be one of this country’s great strengths.”
“Oh, their charity hadn’t even begun. Not by a Saratoga long shot I tell you. Just to give you a for-instance: Our carolers rotate. They’ll venture forth three or maybe at most four times during our twelve nights of Christmas. Even I miss at least once, but not those two. Every blessed night they caroled, and every night they carried with them in their fender-rusted Rambler at least five of these huge thermoses filled with the most delicious steaming Swiss chocolate and never did a drop return home.
“Then both participated in a Christmas Carol that our Village Players stage every holiday. She again Mrs. Cratchit. This time, however, he starred as our Ghost of Christmas Future, and I do mean starred. Cantankerous Cecil Cooke raved front page about his performance, simply raved, which is, was I guess would be more apropos now, quite the feather in his cap because as you know it’s not a speaking part. Such a stage presence he had up there. Granted us a performance worthy of Barrymore. Three times I attended, the second two to see him, and I have no doubt – especially not now – that when he raised his finger to old Scrooge’s grave he did indeed glimpse the future. Yet the future revealed surely had to have been a fog-drifted one. For if he had seen it clearly theirs would have turned out quite different. It may seem blasphemy to you, yet I find myself questioning on my midnight walks what was His plan in keeping it hidden?”
“Yes, I can see why you might think they’d accepted their loss.”
“Oh, those two were not yet nearly done! They made the rounds to our shut-ins, many more than once, always leaving behind one of their baskets, and the snow-drifted winter we suffered notwithstanding they braved the hours-long journeys to the homeless shelters in Canton and Akron and all the way up into the cannibal depths of Cleveland. At dawn on Christmas morning he drove off, returning with maybe a dozen of them, and it was quite the feast we heard with not only a twenty-pound turkey served with her grandmother’s secret recipe for apple sausage stuffing but two honey-basted hams and orange-peel cranberry sauce. Regular and sweet mashed potatoes and four kinds of green-bean casserole and her rye bread she baked from scratch that was simply to-die-for. Then they finished it off with her pumpkin pie, a la mode of course, as well as mince and apple and chokecherry. As if that was not enough, they gift wrapped packages for each of their guests holding gloves and red and white cashmere caps she knitted herself and toothpaste and soap and of course a little New Testament. It was everything a Christmas should be, let me assure you. Everything and more.”
“They must’ve been exhausted come New Year’s.”
“We thought so too. Hoped they would give themselves some sort of a break, but no. They kept right on – not wasting so much as a single breath – and not just here but with the Red Cross and at all of the VA hospitals within a hundred miles. Perhaps farther. The two of them put together quite the comedy skit. I saw it once, and they had those boys rolling off their beds, simply rolling, and I have to tell you my sides so split it was necessary for me to limp out of the ward or I would have cracked a rib.
“Come summers they flew off to Guatemala or one of the Solomons or Cameroon working with Doctors Without Borders or one or another of the United Nation relief teams. He took an early retirement yet even so we didn’t see where they found the funds until Will Ferrell, that’s Will Ferrell over at Union Bank, told us they had mortgaged their home – which up to then had been free and clear – to the hilt. To the very hilt and then some. They took their daughter-in-law along with them in the first year or so. She was having a hard time of it and her being able to give to others helped her come to terms. Helped her to heal.”
“She’s really the point for my visit. I mean she’s still his wife, isn’t she? If she never divorced him?”
“I guess. He’s not dead. Then again, perhaps in the eyes of the law. With the passage of time. Neither spoke of a death certificate. Never asked us to hold some sort of services. Always grasping their slender straw-of-Bethlehem hope.”
“When we couldn’t reach her at the address in our files, the brass sent me here to talk to them. Someone’s got their place boarded up.”
“Their other son.”
“Of course. His brother. That would make sense.”
The tall-case clock shadowed in a corner of the vestry office ticked; its silver pendulum arced.
“I saw what was of their garden you were going on about. Knocked on the door of a neighbor.” The Marine major flipped a blue-inked page. “May have been your Watson. Whoever the duffer was, he pointed me your way. So you say they were in to see you the week before?”
“Yes. Not more than a month after his wife remarried. If that’s what she is. They weren’t wringing their hands over it, of that I can assure you. She was, after all, yet shy of thirty. Our once homecoming queen you know. She very much wanted children. A dozen, she confided to me, would not be one too many, but they had put off starting their family until his enlistment expired.”
Dancing sun-stars rainbowed in the glass of the vestry desk.
“Never did we see a boy and girl so head over heels in love as those two. Never a couple so made for one another. Her remarrying proved his parent’s proverbial camel’s straw. Their blackjack bust-card the boys called it back when I served.”
“We still do.”
“They forsook their flicker of hope that their son was alive only when she did. I’m not blaming her, mind you. She had no way of knowing. Nor did they. Not until she – ”
The five-o’clock hour tolled.
“It must have been her who kept him going in the prison camp, don’t you suppose?”
“Oh, no doubt about it. Our ones who make it out find some strength somewhere to see them through.” The Marine major clicked his restive pen as he flipped the blue-inked pages of his notepad. “Now before I shove off, anything more you care to tell me?”
Through the double French doors that looked out on a garden choked with winter thistles a troubled light fell into the death-tenanted dark of the vestry office.
“I wish I could tell you how this is not a judgment.”
“On our sergeant?”
“On us all. I wish I could tell you how this is not one more of His signs of which John foretold. One more consequence of our endless wars. Our wars without end. I wish I could tell you how this is not His forewarning. His final reprieve counseling us to step back. Open our eyes to this garden of horrors our labors have sewn. Ask is this the price we in turn ask of our children and then of their children even onto the third and fourth generation?”
“Sounds like Revelations you’re invoking there, Pastor. Judgments. Signs. Wonders and what-have-yous. Much more a bundle to pack away in your kit than mine. Me, I just follow whatever orders a paper-pusher stuffs in my inbox.”
“No matter the consequences?”
“No matter. I learned me a bitter lesson a lot of years back. The consequences of not doing are less forgiving than the consequences of if I just go ahead and do.”
“Of that bitter lesson our Lord seemed less than certain when he asked if His cup could not be passed.”
Once. Twice. Three times, in tandem to the tick of the tall-case clock, the blue-inked notepad rapped the glass top of the vestry desk.
“One more question before I push on?”
“How close was he to this brother of his?”
“Very. He served as their best man. Gave quite the reception toast too. Quite. Left us all weepy-eyed.”
“I see. So how do you suppose our sergeant’s going to take it when we tell him it’s his brother – his own best man – his wife went and married?”
The pastor’s face grayed; the silver pendulum arced.
“You know, she dated him – the brother – first. Something of the village playboy he was then. Our renderer-of-hearts. A mob of village mothers would have banded together at the drop of the hat to tar and feather the rascal. When he dropped her for another, it was his brother’s shoulder she sought.”
“Obviously they were beside themselves when their son married his brother’s wife.”
“You would think so, wouldn’t you? They weren’t. They loved her as a daughter. Wanted her to be happy. Happy for them until what she had done sank in. Its coffin-cold finality.”
“Would it have made much difference, do you think, would they not have gone out into their garage, if she had married someone other than his brother?”
“Always difficult to say what another might do, to crawl inside their gray matter, their thoughts, but I think they would have ended it no matter who she married. I did my best to convince them they still had much to live for. Their other son. Their daughter-in-law. Perhaps a dozen grandchildren. I thought I had. I was wrong. As I have been so wrong so often about so much in my ministry. They were like the shepherd who abandons his flock to search for his lost lamb. It’s not what they had. It’s what they’d lost that preyed upon them. Now my fear is her remarrying, her remarrying his brother, may also have dealt him his bust card. Will steal from him the strength that carried him through.”
“Well, you may not be crediting the sergeant with sufficient resilience. A chaplain once ministered to me that He never burdens our shoulders by so much as a single straw we can’t bear to carry.”
“Yes. I told them that one myself. A wind-flickered flame to candle them through one more endless night in their endless winter of nights. Just one more. For five years it burned, at times twisting but always righting, giving them strength to struggle on, recalling for me when in the end their bust card fell all the same the Book of Job. Buried beneath its verses I picture a whiskey-sodden Yahweh, his foot-long beard ochred with spittle, deck in hand, Satan seated across the table, tangled-haired and eyes afire, egging Him on and egging Him on. Raising the stakes with each card dealt before raising them again.”
“That’s a purely pessimistic vision, Pastor.”
“Such is the fate that befalls even a man of faith whose eyes the pages of life at last opens. Such is . .”
The silver pendulum arced.
“Forgive me. The words I utter run to blasphemy. Upon Him and all I struggle to hold most dear in my heart. Giving voice to my own brain-ticked doubts. Doubts of His plan. A plan I have my doubts whether I will ever fathom let alone explain to those who look to me to make some sense of this garden choking our throats. Worse, I find myself walking midnight streets asking what if there is no plan to explain. What if there is only this garden cultivated by self-deluded fools? Does the Apocalypse fall upon us notwithstanding? Do the words of the Apostle become all the more inevitable?”
The Marine major ran a hesitant hand through his iron hair. He reached for his service hat and stood.
“I thank you for your time, Pastor. It’s much assisted us to fill in our dark holes.”
“Of course. I pray I’ve proved of some small service. He’s a good boy. Help him. Please.”
The oak floorboards screeched under the sliding legs of the pastor’s chair, but the Marine major waved him down.
“No need to get up. I see I’ve interrupted Sunday’s sermon. I’ll find my own way out,” and down the dust-moted gray of the vestry hallway his ramrod-straight back blued to midnight.
“May He give peace to their tormented souls, they at last found theirs.”
His sister bid the Marine major a cheery good evening after he declined her invitation to stay for supper. As their front door jingled shut, the first of spring’s over-optimistic robins pecking in the frozen-earth garden cocked expectant heads at the vestry window.
“I guess it will now be up to him – to the rest of us – to find our own way out too.”
Scott Kauffman is the author of the novel In Deepest Consequences, and his second novel, Revenants- the Odyssey Home, is scheduled for release in January 2016, by Moonshine Cove Publishing. He is a recipient of the 2011 Mighty River Short Story Contest and the 2010 Hackney Literary Award. Currently, he is at work on two novel manuscripts and a collection of short stories. To learn more about Scott Kauffman, please visit http://www.scottkauffman.net/