Ascent, Moorehead, MN, 2003.
Veteran's Day Emily lays carnations on the steps of the War Memorial. Bright as blood, they hold no fragrance. Carnations were once scented and carnal, seductive and prim, the way Betsy Toland's botany illustrations show them. These scarlet flowers seem only gaudy, fit for ceremonies and euphemisms that belie the butchering fields they commemorate.
Let them be scentless and cold. Better so. Who can abide the pain when young men die? And the pain after, the widows and parents who never recover, the robbed children. She comes here, year after year since Vietnam, but does not want to hear speeches. Pride. Patriotism. Contagious lies. Pull off the painted skin, and see. War is blood, mucus and crawling filth.
Her son lives in those lies. Right now he must be doing something full of blinding mumbo jumbo. Her own convictions have only pushed him away, into the maw.
It is done. Avoiding a puddle of last night's rain, she steps back, glimpses herself as an old lady, pulls erect and walks with vigor toward the parking lot. It is done and done ill, but that is spilt milk, too done to cry for. Spilt blood - please God, let him never see combat. Let him live neither killed not killing.
Faint martial music embroiders the clear air, the procession is beginning and will arrive here in the hour.
When Michael was little, she took him to a Memorial Day parade down the street here. At the time she did not fear the brassy call deluding another generation. Holding his hand, she stood on the sidewalk and they watched the Mayor and majorettes with long legs lead the band, barely in tune, the drummers with bright bandoliers, polished trumpets, cadets in uniform, the chief of police, firemen wearing curve-brim helmets, veterans still martial proud, though age cramped some. Open cars carried officers of societies, a delegation from the Chamber of Commerce, nurses walked, candidates for office shook hands. An ice-cream vendor on a tricycle followed the straggle at the end and she bought Michael a popsicle. Another vendor sold balloons and Michael chose red.
She was young and alone and did not imagine harm from it. It didn't look like war. It looked like a slightly messy display of civic institutions, of peace in a great democracy. Her dismay started when she passed the open door of his room and saw corpses scattered all over the floor. Bang, bang in the backyard.
When he brought friends home they played on the lawn and disappeared into the ravine at the millstream across the street and came back for brownies and hot chocolate. The house smelled of sweetness and carefree energy. Where are the cakes of yesteryear?
When his friends toted weapons that looked real, she said, no, and embarrassed him. Perhaps she should have let it go, harmless boy play. When he closed his door, she respected his teen privacy and worried. Adolescents must practice secrecy against their parents.
She relied on the Toland boys to keep him safe, especially Bill, almost a brother, though, blond and growing tall enough to seem overbearing, he did not look like a brother. Summer evenings, the boys pitched baseballs on the lawn, white sneakers catching evening light, or went to the Tolands, just down the hill. Her house fell still and she graded papers. When Bill stayed to dinner, in tests of strength like arm-wrestling, he contested her certainties - that American foreign policy bullied weaker countries, that nuclear power endangers forever, that science confers no right to choose people to be who we want. Demolishing apple cobbler to smears on a plate, he leaned forward, 'I'd sterilize people with genetic defects.'