By Steve Finegan
Winter 1965 (Special for the 70th anniversary of the end of WW2)
“None came out unscathed …” — Eugene Sledge (1923-2001)
“No way!” cried Penny.
“Okay, I’ll buy a whole case … no, I’ll buy five whole cases of those Camp Fire Girls mints if you can sell just one box to Old Lady Parker,” said Charlie.
Charlie was Penny’s big brother, home on Alameda Street for the weekend from the University of Oregon to do his stinky laundry and fill up on home cooking before driving his old beater of a ’56 Chevy back down to Eugene, where he was a sophomore and lived in a fraternity house with a bunch of other guys he called his “frat brothers.”
“You will? Really?” said Penny. He was nineteen, she was ten. She wanted to make sure he wasn’t pulling her leg like he usually did, when he wasn’t pulling her ponytail.
“Swear to God,” he said. “And you only owe me one free box if you lose.”
Penny did some quick math in her head. There were twelve boxes of mints to a case. That was sixty boxes of mints. Sixty dollars! Way, way more than she’d sold last year going door to door. If she won the bet, and sold twenty or so boxes on top of Charlie’s, she might just earn a free trip to Camp Namanu that summer, or at least get an award. She tried not to look too excited. “If I lose, I only owe you one box?” she asked cautiously.
“Yeah, just one. Deal?”
“What’s the catch?”
Charlie smiled, showing all his straight white teeth (he’d worn braces during the eighth grade). “No catch. I just want to see you try to do the impossible.”
Hmm. Sixty whole dollars! How could Penny not try at least? “Okay,” she said. “Deal. Shake on it.”
Charlie stuck out his paw of a hand, and it was done. He walked away snickering. “Good luck selling a box of mints to the meanest old biddy on the planet, Pen.”
“Just get ready to pay up when you lose,” said Penny.
“What have I gotten myself into,” muttered Penny, sitting on the floor of her bedroom, a chocolate-covered mint patty melting on her tongue. Lined up before her were seven cases of boxed mints she’d asked her mom to order: two for her door-to-door sales and five for Charlie when she won her bet.
Penny remembered her mom’s arched eyebrows when she’d handed her the order form all filled out. Mom had asked Penny three times if she really thought she could sell so many boxes. Penny nodded each time.
“What makes you such a go-getter this year?” asked Mom.
Penny didn’t dare tell her mom about her bet with Charlie, so she said, “Charlie thinks he can help me get my foot in the door with his frat brothers.”
It wasn’t a lie, not exactly, and Mom had loved the idea.
Penny plucked another mint patty from the open box on the floor beside her and nibbled on it, all the while reciting an internal mantra that went something like, I’ll win this bet; I will, I will, I will … But she was only trying to boost her confidence. Deep down she was worried.
Old Lady Parker was a tough nut, and scary too—all old and wrinkled and mean. Sometimes she opened her front door, always just a crack, and ordered kids to “run along!” if they stopped for two seconds on the sidewalk or even in the street in front of her house—on public property! No one went near Old Lady Parker, let alone tried to sell her anything. Even Eric Martinek and his juvie friends egged her place from a safe distance. Now Penny had to actually walk up to that very door, ring the bell, and try and get the old lady to buy a box of Camp Fire Girls mints—and live to tell about it.
“That was a stupid bet,” she mumbled in a moment of weakness. Then her pride kicked in. No way was she going to have her mom send back all this inventory unsold. Especially not after she went and bragged to Mrs. Coleman next door about what a go-getter Penny was. I’ll win this bet; I will, I will, I will …
The Parker Place, as everyone called it, with it’s unbroken windows covered with cardboard on the inside (always had been), was surrounded by lots of out-of-control shrubs and bushes, and the overgrown backyard was enclosed by a tall, rickety, wooden fence. Neighbors took turns mowing and edging the front lawn, so the yard wouldn’t turn into a complete eyesore.
Penny’s mom and dad rarely talked about Mrs. Parker or her place, but everyone else did, so Penny knew that besides being run down and creepy, the old lady’s house had a sad history. The Parkers (Mrs. Parker hadn’t always been a wrinkled old widow lady) had once had two sons—the first born after the couple had given up all hope of having children—but both boys died during the war, on opposite sides of the world. Lester, the oldest, was killed at a place called Omaha Beach, which was in France, and which made Penny think of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, one of her favorite TV shows. She felt bad about that and about liking the sound Omaha made when she said it out loud to herself, because she knew that war was a serious business. According to Mrs. Coleman, Lester’s younger brother, Billy, was blown up by a hand grenade on an island called Peleliu somewhere across the Pacific Ocean.
Penny’s dad didn’t have much to say about the Parker brothers, but on the rare occasions he did speak about the far corners of the globe where they died, especially Peleliu and those other Pacific islands with weird-sounding names, he always did it without saying very much of anything except that “it was tough going for all those boys.” Then he suddenly stopped talking, cleared his throat, and looked around as if he wanted to find the fastest way out of the room, and usually did. Soon the whole house would be filled with the sweet scent of his Kentucky Club pipe tobacco, and everyone knew he was seated at the drafting table in his den, scratching lines and angles and doodads with his mechanical pencil. At these times, Mom always said he was preoccupied with designing a house, which Penny figured was for some super-rich family that lived up in the West Hills or in Dunthorpe, or someplace like that.
Dad was an architect now, with a firm called Wallin & Stevens downtown, but he’d fought in the war, too, and never, ever talked about what he did or how it was for him. All Penny knew was that her father had been a sergeant in an outfit called the First Marine Division during the Pacific War, although she had no idea where he’d been or what he’d seen out there in the middle of all that blue water. His old uniforms were packed away neatly in a mothball-smelling trunk in the basement, and sometimes Penny’d try on oversized bits and pieces: dungarees, hats, belts, leggings, whatever; she especially liked to pull on the fancy dress-blue tunic with its tarnished brass buttons—all the time admiring the red-and-gold chevrons on the sleeves and the indecipherable chest ribbons—and salute herself in the mirror.
There was another uniform, sort of, in the trunk. Nothing but faded olive-drab rags really. Faded and shredded and stained. The black-stenciled USMC and eagle-topped globe-and-anchor emblem were just barely visible on the pocket, and there was very little left of the sleeves. Some of the stains were rusty-brown smudges, and Penny knew the rusty-brown was blood, her father’s blood most likely, but she told herself it was there because he’d fallen out of a landing boat onto a coral reef or something—which accounted for how he’d gotten the limp you could only see when he walked fast or occasionally ran. Still, although these rags were folded like the rest and packed in among the other uniforms, Penny never, ever tried them on.
Penny knew better than to tell Dad she foraged in his trunk. Charlie’d never warned her. Nor Mom, for that matter. Never had to. She just knew better. Everyone but a few nosey neighbors knew how to tiptoe around the subject of the war with Dad. But he never got all emotional about it when some nosey Eddie—usually someone who’d sat out the whole thing in front of a typewriter or was too young to serve—did bring it up or started asking dumb questions, like “So, you ever kill anybody?” or “Where do you keep the samurai sword?” No, he never got all emotional, but he did look for an excuse to duck out on them as quickly as possible. Maybe he thought they sounded like morons, not having been there.
Fact was, Dad was steady (okay, he got a little jumpy on New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July) and never got overly emotional about much of anything. Take Sadie—part Golden retriever, all daddy’s girl. One rainy Saturday last April, during lunch, they all heard the cry of a dog and the screech of metal on asphalt out front and rushed outside—Penny with her heart in her throat—to see what had happened. It couldn’t have been worse. Sadie had escaped from the backyard and been hit by a dumb high school jock on a motorcycle, right in the middle of Alameda Street. Penny and Mom fell apart on the spot, but not Dad. Of the blurred events of that day, Penny remembered one: watching her father, cool as a cucumber, help the jock up off the wet pavement and over to the curb (he was shaken up, but okay) before he gently scooped up Sadie and trudged up the driveway, cradling her in his arms like a dad carrying a tired, limp little kid to bed. Thinking back, the only time Penny ever saw her dad get down on the floor and roll around like he was ten was when he’d played with Sadie. And “Sadie-baby” had always lounged under his drafting table while he worked, gobbling up the doggie treats he slipped her from his hip pocket. But Penny never saw her dad shed a single tear over Sadie once she was gone. But then everyone knew that men didn’t cry.
In addition to being steady, Dad was quiet a lot of the time. He often sat gazing at the open newspaper with the glassy eyes of someone lost in his own thoughts, but if Penny asked him what he was thinking about (“penny for your thoughts” was her way of making a joke out of it), he just smiled and said he was “musing” over a story he’d just read about the Oregon Ducks’ latest basketball game or something, or about the house he was designing, or her, for that matter; then he’d ask Penny how she was doing in school or Camp Fire, or even pull out the funnies so she could read them on the living room rug at his feet, while he snorted one-word editorials on the day’s news: “Ridiculous!” “Outstanding!” “Hmm!” and his favorite “Ha!” And at those times he was all there. Present and accounted for.
So, even though he didn’t like to talk about the war and limped sometimes, Penny figured her dad had come home from the Pacific pretty much a-okay, in spite of the ragged, bloodstained uniform in the bottom of the trunk in the basement.
The day before Penny began making the rounds to sell her mints, Charlie showed up at home with more dirty laundry. That night after dinner, and supposedly out of earshot of Mom and Dad, he told Penny over a game of Monopoly at the dining room table that the whole story of the two Parker boys dying in the war was a big lie, a whopper, that he’d heard about from Jerry Donahue and a few other kids whose parents knew the old man and the old lady. Charlie said the Parker boys had never even joined the service and had never gone to war.
“Truth is,” said Charlie, “the old man and lady hid them away in the house, and even creepier, they’re still hiding there over twenty years later, pale as ghosts from lack of sunlight. Ghosty boys! That’s why there’s cardboard in all the windows and all the screaming and yelling to ‘run along’ when anyone comes around. No one’s ever been in that house, not that I’ve ever heard,” he said.
Penny had to swallow the lump in her throat. Charlie’s story made sense, sort of.
But Dad had overheard, and to their surprise, he marched into the dining room and shouted at Charlie, telling him that he was just “regurgitating an awful rumor” and to “shut up and stop repeating it.” Then he did something Penny’d never seen him do before: took off his belt and went after Charlie (fortunately for Charlie, he was fast on his feet, and Dad wasn’t). Hot in limping pursuit, his voice quivering dangerously, Dad said he never wanted to hear his son say anything like that about the Parker boys again. Ever!
Penny and Charlie were both pretty shocked and shaken by Dad’s outburst. Still, after he settled down and went off to his den to light his pipe and pick up his mechanical pencil, Charlie told Penny, on the side, that Old Lady Parker was a fraud and that he wouldn’t believe the Parker boys had really died in the war unless he saw proof or heard it directly from someone he trusted.
“What kind of proof?” asked Penny.
“The official telegram,” he said.
“And whose word would you trust?”
“What about the newspapers?” piped up Penny. “There must be clippings from the Oregonian about the Parker boys.
“I’ve never seen ’em,” Charlie said. “Hey, maybe you’ll get lucky and catch a glimpse of those ghosty boys she’s hiding behind that door and settle it once and for all.”
Penny shuddered; her scalp tingled. She most certainly did not want to see any ghosty boys lurking in the darkness behind Old Lady Parker. She reminded herself that Charlie’s story had plenty of holes in it—for instance, they could settle it by checking the Oregonian archives in the library downtown. But he was right about one thing: Old Lady Parker kept to herself and didn’t like anyone snooping or coming around, and she did act like she was hiding something. Penny had seen that for herself.
Way back when Penny was in the third grade, Old Man Parker up and died of a stroke. After he was buried in the family plot in Rose City Cemetery—far from his two sons, who were laid to rest under white crosses in war cemeteries in far-away places, according to Mrs. Coleman—Penny’s mom, carrying a steaming casserole, dragged her along on a visit to pay their respects to the old lady. “It’s the least we can do,” she said as they set out to walk the block and a half to the Parker’s house.
Climbing the old lady’s front porch steps, Penny felt like she needed to breathe into a paper bag and clung to her mom’s free hand like they were going to the dentist for a needle jab in the mouth and then the drill. Nowadays, though, she figured it was more like approaching the gates of Mordor. Mr. McCallister, her fifth grade teacher, had read The Hobbit aloud in class last fall. After, he loaned Penny his dog-eared paperback volumes of The Lord of the Rings. Three months later, she was only in the middle of The Two Towers, mostly because the books were full of passages she liked to read over and over again and words she had to look up. Yep, in Penny’s imagination, Old Lady Parker was an orc-like, spider-like, shriveled creature as wicked as Gollum and with more than a hint of Smaug’s fire-breathing evil about her.
The old lady barely cracked the door for Penny’s mom, just the way people did if they didn’t want anyone to see inside, and peered out with cloudy eyes, huge behind thick lenses. Owl eyes, Penny decided. But a mean old owl. She had a turkey gobbler for a throat and short white hair all rumpled like she never brushed it, and there were streams and tributaries of blue veins just beneath the crepe paper skin at her temples.
“What do you want?” she snapped.
Penny’s mom tried to be nice, but the mean old lady refused to undo the little security chain that keeps bad guys from pushing their way in and told her mom to “run along” just like she was talking to a kid. But Mom was still nice and told her she’d just leave the casserole on the porch. Then she told the old lady how sorry the whole family was (ha!) that Mr. Parker had passed away, and that Mrs. Parker should call if she ever needed anything at all. With that, mother and daughter turned around and walked home—thank God!
What had possessed Penny to make that bet with Charlie?
She stood two houses down from the Parker place in her blue Camp Fire Girls skirt and red kerchief, clutching the white carry case of mints to her blue coat. The cold February wind was chilling her to the bone, but she preferred to put up with it over going through with this hopeless visit to Mordor. Well, as Sam Gamgee might say, nothing for it but to go on up to the gate and knock. Penny swallowed hard. She was more tempted than ever to throw in the towel and just give Charlie his free box of mints and fess up to Mom.
Even so, she dragged her feet down the sidewalk and stopped in front of the yellow house on the corner. Penny figured if she stood here long enough, she wouldn’t even have to knock. The door would open just a crack, and Old Lady Parker would tell her to “run along.”
But she didn’t wait for that to happen. Slowly, one step at a time, she walked up the short walk and climbed the four stairs to the small front porch. The door was white, but the paint was faded and peeling. Her heart racing, and in need of that paper bag, Penny raised her fist to knock … just as the door flew open and stopped against it’s rattling security chain. “What is it, girl? Why you at my door again?” Spit flew with the old lady’s words.
Penny stood frozen with her fist still poised to knock. The old lady remembered her, after all this time! “I-I … uh … Hello, Mrs. Parker,” she squeaked. Fortunately, there didn’t seem to be anything or anyone lurking in the shadows behind the old lady.
“I said, what do you want?”
Why hadn’t Penny brought her mom? Charlie hadn’t said anything about her going to Old Lady Parker’s house alone. Mom knew how to talk to the old woman. Penny didn’t. She took a deep breath and did her best to speak up like she did with everyone else: “Mrs. Parker. My name is Penny. Penny Warren. I live down the street.
“I know who you are, girl!” said the old lady.
“I’m selling Camp Fire Girls mints …”
“You’re what?” The old lady squinted at Penny’s red kerchief.
“Mints,” said Penny, lifting the case so Mrs. Parker could see it with her mean old owl eyes. “Would you like to buy a box? They’re only a dollar, and they’re good, real good. Would you like to try one?”
The old woman stood there for a moment, pursing her thin lips like old people do. Then the door slammed and the chain rattled. She hadn’t even bothered to shoo Penny away.
Penny stood facing the door, her eyes brimming with tears, half tears of disappointment, half of relief. It was over. She’d tried and failed, but she’d tried. Her shoulders heaved and fell with her sigh.
She turned and started down the steps.
Suddenly the door flew open and jolted to a stop against its noisy chain.
Penny gasped and whirled around.
Old Lady Parker was behind the door as before, but a pale hand, something like a big-jointed claw, was sticking out this time and caught in its back-curling fingers was a crumpled dollar bill. “Give me a box,” croaked the old lady.
Surprised and reluctant, Penny stood for a moment blinking her blurry eyes.
“Well, come on, girl. Don’t stand there catching flies. I owe your mother for that casserole.”
“Ah, okay.” Penny numbly climbed the steps, placed the carrying case on the concrete porch, opened it. Then she looked up. “Which kind, Mrs. Parker, dark or milk chocolate?”
“Don’t care. Any old kind.”
Penny pulled out a box of milk chocolate-covered mints. “I like these best,” she said. Was this really happening?
“Then that’ll do,” said the old lady.
It was really happening! Penny couldn’t believe it. She’d won! She could hardly wait to call Charlie down in Eugene and tell him she’d actually won her bet with him. She wanted to laugh and jump and pump her fists, but she had to hold on for just a few more minutes. “Okay. Here you go, Mrs. Parker.” With trembling fingers, Penny took the offered dollar and pushed the box of mints toward the waiting old claw, but the claw didn’t move to take it.
“That uniform, girl, why you wearing it? We go to war again?”
“No, Mrs. Parker,” said Penny. “It’s Camp Fire Girls. Like Girl Scouts. Only better,” she added with a forced smile.
“You got a brother, girl?” asked Old Lady Parker, out of the blue.
“Charlie,” said Penny proudly. “He’s nineteen going on twenty. He goes to the U of O.”
“Charlie,” mused the old lady, almost sweetly. “Well, he’ll be fighting in that new war they’re cooking up soon enough,” she croaked. The gnarled hand shot out and grabbed the box of mints, pulled it inside. “Just you wait and see. Your Charlie’ll go off to fight somewhere we don’t have any business being and come home in a box or not at all. You wait and see.”
The door slammed shut.
Penny felt the blood drain out of her face, leaving her so faint she had to grab the rail; then it all came rushing back in scalding hot.
“Hey!” she cried. “You can’t say that!” She did her best to hold in all the awful things she wanted to say, but here they came anyway: “You know what? You’re a mean, evil witch! You’re mean and I hate you! I hate you, and everyone hates you! Your boys didn’t even fight in the war! You’ve got them inside there with you now, twenty years after it ended! And everyone knows it! Ghosty boys, that’s what they are!” She suddenly shut up and looked around, blinking away the hot tears. She’d been shouting.
Neighbors all up and down the street were standing outside on their porches or on the sidewalk, staring at her. Some of the older people were shaking their heads and scowling or muttering to each other. Old Mrs. Blackwell was sobbing and holding both fists to her chest, like she was having a heart attack or something.
“What have I done?” mumbled Penny.
Still in her Camp Fire uniform, Penny was waiting up in her room for the ax to fall, but it hadn’t—yet. That afternoon, Dad had come home early from work, gone through the basement door, and locked it behind him. The last thing Penny’d heard from him was his tromping on the wooden stairs, then the house had fallen quiet. It was still quiet. No TV, no talking, no nothing.
Mom came upstairs around five and knocked on Penny’s door. “Pen, come down and get something to eat.”
“I’m not hungry, Mom. What’s Dad doing? Why hasn’t he come up here and yelled at me?”
Mom opened the door, came in, and closed it behind her. She was acting very strange. She sat on the bed, a foot or two from Penny, with her hands folded in her lap. “He’s better off where he is right now … Look, Pen, we can’t let this stand. You’re going to have to go back … You’re going to have to apologize to Mrs. Parker, and everyone else you offended.”
“But, Mom, she said Charlie was going off to war and coming home in a box. She sounded happy about it. Doesn’t she need to apologize to me, to us, for saying something that awful?”
“Dear,” Mom plucked at Penny’s bedspread, “Mrs. Parker is very old, and—”
“I don’t get it! Being old shouldn’t give her the right to say all those horrible things? It can’t!”
“Even so,” came Dad’s strangely gruff voice, “we will go over to her house and we will apologize. Understood?”
Penny hadn’t even heard him coming. She looked up and gasped, so did her mom.
Dad stood in the doorway in his dress blue uniform, its brass buttons gleaming. Penny had seen pictures of him in it, taken just after the war, and it fit exactly the same now as it had way back then, except for the gray streaks in his hair. Still, she hardly recognized him: He stood as stiff and straight as that guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier she’d seen a few summers before. He wore the same clamp-jawed, thin-lipped expression, and his eyes seemed to gaze across the room and out through the wall to some far-off horizon that she couldn’t see and probably never would be able to see.
Then that steady, far-seeing gaze drifted down and came to rest on Penny. Not moving to enter the room, he reached out his hand and he held it there, steady, offering it to her without another word.
Penny stifled the sob that rose in her throat and all the I’m sorries that she’d planned to blubber. Instead, she cuffed the tears from her eyes, rose up off the bed, and moved toward this man she knew but didn’t know, her father. Slowly, carefully she reached out and placed her small hand in his large one. He was wearing soft white gloves.
It was dusk, with a wind chill of around twenty degrees, still it seemed like half the neighborhood had come out to stand on their porches and in their driveways and stare as Penny and her father, hand in hand, walked to Mrs. Parker’s house. Penny was bundled up, but Dad wore only his dress blue uniform. His white cover—which is what he called his cap with its wide crown and once-tarnished but now shiny eagle-anchor-and-globe emblem—fit snugly and didn’t budge, even in the gusts.
When they’d left the house, Penny had been feeling small and flush-faced—a feeling she’d only expected to get worse as she ran a gauntlet of accusing eyes. But the neighbors who’d come outside into the cold weren’t even looking at her. They were staring at her father. Mrs. Blackwell once again sobbed and looked like she was having a heart attack, and even a few of the men had glistening eyes. No one spoke. Mr. Peterson drew himself up and saluted as they passed. Without stopping or changing his firm, set expression, Dad nodded in response.
Even at her father’s measured pace, it didn’t take them long to reach Mrs. Parker’s unlit front porch. This time, the door didn’t fly open before Dad could knock. Gently, he let go of Penny’s hand, reached up, and rapped on the door with his gloved knuckles.
As they waited, Penny could feel the staring eyes on the back of her head and neck, but those stares didn’t make her feel small and embarrassed anymore. She was still flushing in the cold, but it was a different kind of flush now. She pulled herself up straight and stood just like her father, at attention, ready to do her duty, ready to apologize to the old lady for the horrible things she’d said. Then she’d turn and apologize to everyone within earshot. They were all there—adults and kids, old and young. She could hear the front doors opening and closing as the last of them came out into the cold.
To watch, to witness.
But Mrs. Parker didn’t come to her door.
“Should we knock again?” whispered Penny.
Dad didn’t answer. He just stood there like that guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, hands at his sides, fingers curled in toward his palms. Penny’s chest heaved once, then she stood still, her heart beating out a loud, steady rhythm in her ears. But she didn’t feel like she needed to breathe into a paper bag, not with her dad so steady beside her.
After a minute or two, the few murmurs behind them faded, and it grew very quiet up there on Old Lady Parker’s front porch. Penny still stood straight, but she was starting to relax. The mean old lady wouldn’t come to her door, not for a real Marine, not for her father. Sure, Penny would still have to apologize to the people behind her, but it would be easier now. By not answering the door, the old lady was running away, admitting she was the one in the wrong, maybe even admitting that Penny, and Charlie, had been right.
Dad leaned closer to the door, his head slightly turned, listening. “Mrs. Parker … Ma’am,” he said. His voice was as firm as his set expression, but it was no longer gruff. Gentle even, just beneath the surface. And tired too. A gentleness and tiredness Penny had heard behind Dad’s voice all her life and never really noticed until now. Tired wasn’t really the right word, but she didn’t know how else to describe it.
Wait! What was that?
A sound. On the other side of the door. Sniffling. The latch moved with a harsh squeak, but the door didn’t open.
“Ma’am,” said Dad again. “It’s Sgt. Warren. Sgt. Paul Warren.” He waited.
Why Sergeant? wondered Penny. Come to think of it, why the uniform at all? But she didn’t have time to think any more about it before her dad spoke again.
“My daughter has something she’d like to say to you.” Penny watched him swallow hard. “And so do I.” He waited, while the muffled sniffling on the other side of the door turned into a kind of strangled wet blubbering that raised a lump in Penny’s throat.
A minute later Mrs. Parker was still blubbering, and Penny felt as if strong hands were wringing a wet towel in the middle of her stomach. Had she hurt the old lady that much? She was about to call out, to beg and plead for forgiveness, but then she felt Dad’s firm grip on her shoulder, squeezing, telling her to wait. She found herself hoping that he wouldn’t shout at the old woman for those horrible things she’d said about Charlie.
“Ma’am, please open the door,” said Dad. “You must know my name.”
Why? wondered Penny. Why should mean Old Lady Parker know the name of Sgt. Paul Warren? As far as she could tell, Dad had gone out of his way to avoid the Parker house. Hadn’t even gone to the old man’s wake or funeral. Hadn’t come along with mom to pay his respects. Hadn’t once offered to mow her lawn, or anything!
The door-dampened sound of blubbering continued. The latch squeaked again, but the door still didn’t open.
Dad spoke up again, “Ma’am. Billy wrote home a lot. I know he did. He must’ve told you about me. We served together …”
Penny’s gasp was so loud it surprised her. “You did?” She didn’t even bother to whisper. “You mean …”
One look from Sgt. Warren and she was quiet.
“Ma’am. I know this is hard, but it’s time we spoke. There’s something I need to get off my chest … something very important.” His voice had in fact gone down somewhere deep within his chest, almost into his stomach. “Very important,” he repeated, almost in a whisper.
Suddenly the squeaking latch stopped moving, and the blubbering died down to sniffling again, and there was a shuffling movement behind the closed door. The deadbolt clicked.
Dad and Penny waited. Penny’s heart raced and her breath seemed caught in the aching passage of her throat. The whipping wind was all the sound there was in the whole world.
The security chain rattled. The old lady was undoing it!
A moment later the door swung open. All the way open. A soft light burned in the entryway, backlighting the small hunched figure of Mrs. Parker, making her wet cheeks shine.
Dad quickly removed his cover. “Ma’am,” he said, bowing his head.
The old lady peered up at him, her cloudy, unblinking owl eyes swimming with tears.
Penny’s father raised his head, cleared his throat. “Mrs. Parker—”
“You said you had something important to tell me,” interrupted the weepy old lady.
Dad nodded, but instead of answering, he went stone silent like he sometimes did when the war came up in casual conversation. It was as if he was at a total loss for words.
Mrs. Parker sniffled and said, “My boy Billy mentioned a Sgt. Warren more than once.”
Dad cleared his throat and, after one or two false starts, found his voice: “Umm … Billy was a good Marine, ma’am …”
“So it’s really you,” she said, studying his face and uniform. “He wrote that you two were close. So, you were … with him when he…?” The old lady choked back a sob and pushed up her thick lenses to dab at her eyes with a crumpled tissue.
Suddenly Penny didn’t hate her at all, but wanted to take her hand and hold it, even if it was a claw.
Dad paused for what seemed like minutes, kneading his cover with stiff fingers. “Yes, ma’am. I was there … I wish I could’ve done something … anything, but I couldn’t, you see. I’m … I’m sorry.” His voice sounded strained to the breaking point, and he’d begun glancing around, as if he needed to find a way out.
Penny grabbed his elbow and held it tight. “Daddy, don’t say any more. You don’t have to. We’re here because I’m the one who needs to apologize. Not you.”
“Sgt. Warren,” said Mrs. Parker softly, as if she hadn’t heard Penny. “Will you come in? I’d like to show you something.”
Dad stiffened for a moment. Penny felt the tension in his arm and elbow. Then he nodded once. “That’s very kind of you, ma’am.”
The Parker house smelled like old people and rancid bacon grease, but what struck Penny most was how quiet it was: no TV, no radio, no old records playing—just the tick-tock of a clock nearby. Mrs. Parker led them past a cluttered living room and through a door on the right, where Penny found herself looking around some kind of den, furnished with a big wooden desk and leather chairs and a tall, wide bookcase. A big pendulum clock was mounted on the wall behind where they stood. The room was lit by a bright ceiling lamp. Cardboard covered the curtained windows.
On the upper shelves of the bookcase behind the desk were lots of photographs in standing frames—some were pretty fancy, with scrolls and curlicues and stuff—which Penny could see if she craned her neck. Some of the pictures were so old they looked like they’d been taken way back in the eighteen-hundreds. Pictures of straight-backed men and women and children, mostly, posing standing and sitting in uncomfortable-looking clothes with tight collars.
But Penny’s gaze was drawn to two framed color portraits, side by side, at eye level, smack in the middle of the shelf behind the desk: two young men with wavy brown hair and wide grins. Happy boys. Beside the picture on the right was a smaller one in a silvery frame: a smiling woman with dark hair, holding a baby; beside her, clutching her skirt, stood a boy of about two. Mrs. Parker? Penny thought it just might be—so she’d been young once, and pretty too. Also on the shelf were propped two U.S. Grant High School yearbooks, dated 1938 and 1940. And trophies: cups and ribbons and dangling medallions for basketball, baseball, and for track and cross-country. And framed diplomas and graduation tassels. And more: a first place ribbon for a science fair; two folded Alameda School report cards, signed by a strong hand in faded blue ink; a battered hardback novel, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells; a Buck Rogers coloring book; an old electric steam engine; a handful of tin Civil War soldiers; a small stuffed bear with threadbare fur; and a green conical birthday party hat with a silver-spangled six on it. There was other stuff, rocks and bird feathers and other knick-knacks mainly, which Penny couldn’t see clearly without getting a closer look, but everything was arranged just so. In fact, while the house was cluttered and greasy and dusty, every object on this shelf appeared as if it had been put on display only yesterday. The shelves below looked empty all the way to the floor.
Penny’s dad stood holding his cover, face rigid and set, eyes staring straight ahead, which meant he had to be looking at what was on that shelf. What was going on in his head? Penny wondered. At last he said, “Ma’am, you said you wanted to show me something.”
“This,” said Mrs. Parker, gesturing with her claw at the shelf. “You won’t find any war medals or letters of commendation, none of that here. Just ordinary life, the way it was lived. Till it was cut short.” She heaved a huge sigh that was almost a sob. “There’s room for more, shelves more … bookcases more … that’s how short their lives were.”
“Ma’am?” said Dad.
“My Billy wrote that you were the bravest man he ever knew,” said the old lady out of the blue. “Saved his life on more than one occasion at great risk to your own.”
Dad shifted from foot to foot, his cover gripped firmly in both hands, and said stiffly, “If Billy said that, it’s great praise indeed, ma’am.” For a moment he looked as if he might keep talking, but the moment passed and he just stood there with his jaw muscles working.
“Is that all you have to say?” asked Mrs. Parker.
Penny noticed how her dad’s once rigid back and shoulders were slumping, like a mountainside about to give way. It seemed like minutes passed, each second ticked off by the old wall-mounted clock. Old Lady Parker waited patiently. At last Dad spoke, but he seemed to have something caught in his throat: “You must know …”
“I know you have something you need to tell me,” insisted the old lady.
Silence. More long, drawn-out seconds ticked by. Dad held his cover like it was a lifesaver tossed to a drowning man. At last he looked down and whispered, “Billy gave his life … that’s why I’m standing here …”
Penny gasped. The old woman took a shuffling step closer to him. “So it’s true,” she said in a hushed voice. “You’re the one that war medal was all about.”
“One of them, yes,” said Dad, gazing at the old carpet beneath his feet.
“Yes, I suppose I knew that. I hope you can understand why that medal’s never meant all that much to me. But my Billy’s letters … What they’ve told me about you …” She shook her head and clucked her tongue. “Now that means something. Almost seems like God’s work, us turning out to be neighbors, now doesn’t it? That is, if you still believe in that sort of thing anymore.”
Dad nodded. To Penny’s amazement, tears were welling up in his eyes. He drew in a shuddering breath. “Yes, ma’am.”
“And you stand here alive because—”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry.”
“Hush! That’s not what I meant.” Then more softly: “Billy said you looked after him, like his big brother used to … He said that in his letters.” She paused to push her crumpled tissue up under her glasses. “Was it really like that between you two? Like brothers?”
Penny stood in shock and watched her father. Tears spilled over and streamed down his cheeks, but he said nothing.
“Stop it!” she cried at last. “He doesn’t want to talk!”
Mrs. Parker gazed at Sgt. Warren with her cloudy, wet owl eyes, while the clock ticked off almost a full minute. “There, there, boy,” she said at last, reaching out and running her gnarled knuckles down his wet cheek. “Never mind.” Suddenly Dad’s right hand leapt from his cover and gripped the old hand in his white-gloved fingers. Slowly, he bowed his head over it and held on as if for dear life. The old woman winced, but with a firm shake of her head she stopped Penny from reaching out to pull his hand away.
“Daddy,” piped Penny, “I wanna go home!” She clutched at his sleeve, but he didn’t seem to notice. Pushy old rhymes-with-witch! Nobody had ever pushed Dad this hard about the war before. Nobody!
But he didn’t answer, and the old woman ignored her.
“You’re a good boy, Sgt. Warren,” said Mrs. Parker. She didn’t sound mean at all now, not even a little. And as upset as Penny was she couldn’t help but notice that the old lady’s wrinkled, careworn face looked as gentle as her own grandma’s. Her thin lips quivered as she spoke again: “I understand. And I reckon you’ve told me all that needs telling. You hear me, son?”
Dad said nothing, but held on tight to her hand; a soft groan escaped from somewhere deep in his chest, and his shoulders shook from the force of a stifled sob. But try as he might, and it was clear he was trying, he couldn’t hold back the tears.
“Hush!” scolded the old lady, not so gently.
Penny’s mouth snapped shut, and she cuffed at her own scalding hot tears with the back of her hand.
With Penny quiet, Mrs. Parker’s tear-streaked face and puffy red eyes softened again, and she might have even smiled. “I want you to know, you have no need to seek forgiveness from me, boy, not you, especially not you. Others, well, there may be others I’d like an apology from. She shot a remarkably keen-eyed glance at Penny.
“Oh, Mrs. Parker,” blurted Penny. “I’m sorry for all those awful things I said.” She pressed protectively close to her father. That awful sob and the way he was gripping the old lady’s claw hand scared her more than any ghosty boy every could. “Just please don’t push him to talk about the war anymore. Please. You don’t understand …”
“What’s wrong, girl?” gruffed Mrs. Parker. “Never seen a grown man grieve?”
Penny shook her head, no, and stood with her chin wet and quivering.
“Well,” said the old lady, more patiently, “I’ve seen plenty of it for the both of us. Yes, plenty of it,” she repeated almost under her breath … But we’ll just leave well enough alone for the time being, hear me?”
Penny nodded, yes, and wiped her eyes.
Then Mrs. Parker, grimacing but making no move to free her hand from Sgt. Warren’s grip, went on talking to Penny like everything was right as rain with her father: “You were saying something to me, girl?”
“I was trying to say I’m sorry! And my name’s Penny, not girl.” Her voice cracked and sounded shrill.
“Well, Penny. You didn’t know any better.”
“But I did.”
“Then apology accepted,” said the old lady abruptly. “Will you accept mine?”
“What? … Why yes, ma’am,” sniffed Penny.
“And don’t worry about apologizing to those folks out there, waiting their turn. They’re all snoops and rumor mongers. One apology is enough.”
“Yes, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am.”
“Now don’t go expecting things to change, girl,” continued Mrs. Parker. “I’ll still run you kids off if you come snooping around. And don’t expect me to buy any more of your damn mints, or hold my tongue when I smell another war brewing, like I do, even if I shouldn’t of said what I did about your brother. But your daddy here … You’ll come visit me, boy, won’t you?” she asked, suddenly sounding like an old mother speaking to her only son, the only person in the world left to her.
It took a minute, but Dad finally nodded—you had to know him to tell he’d even done it. But the old lady knew, because she nodded back as if to say now then, that’s settled.
“And, Penny, you’re free to come with him if you like, although I don’t know why you’d care to. Your mama, too. Even that nosey brother of yours. Don’t look so surprised, girl. I’m old and shut in, not blind and deaf, not completely anyway. And bring lots of pictures and whatever else you like. Little mementos and whatnot. I’ve got room on these shelves for more ordinary life. I’d be honored if it was the life of this man here before me, and his family.”
“You hear that, Daddy? … Daddy?”
Sgt. Warren tried to say something, but the words caught and he cleared his throat instead. Slowly, his hand relaxed and he released his grip on the old lady’s claw; she didn’t pull it away and cradle it like Penny expected, but stroked his wet cheek and smiled blindly up into his glistening brown eyes. And even though he wasn’t smiling, his gaze wasn’t far off, but right there, searching her red old owl eyes with the expression of a man looking at someone who’s just saved him from drowning, and maybe the same went for the old lady. And Penny watched the fat drops run down her father’s face and drip off his nose and chin like clear rainwater, and in that moment she felt—no, she just knew down deep inside—that he was going to be a-okay.