pages Fourth of July

by Leonore Wilson

Published in Issue No. 52 ~ September, 2001

I’m on the lawn at the Veterans Home. Families wait, anticipating the routine in heaven — a wad of sparks, red-blue-white-yellow-blue-white-red, bop-bop-bop, and the shirr-rr of whistles. One little green beret, dead drunk, asks for part of my blanket. How can I refuse him as the bombs begin?

Next, his head rests on my shoulder, and he looks up at me with a big smile. He tells me he fought in four wars and — ah, ah — another cracker hits the stars.

Streamers ribbon the heavens. A shower of sparks. “My name is Cricket,” he says. “What’s yours?” Cricket is four eleven in a tidy suit, a fat wine stain on the front of his pants. He’s drunk too much, he knows that, apologizes, says that I have a beautiful face and could he touch it?

I say, “Yes,” and he starts to sob. Tells me the story of the sheets, how his mother couldn’t tolerate his bed wetting. So she hung his soiled sheets on the front porch for the entire town to see. He weeps.

“Why’d she do that?” he asks. “Why?” I shake my head. “I don’t know either,” he says. “I ran away, joined the army at sixteen, became the best damn green beret in the entire fuckin nation.” He sobs again. “How could my mama be so cruel? You wouldn’t do something like that, would you? Would you?” he says.

“Cricket, Cricket,” the voice of another vet chimes in. “Did ya see that?”

“See what?”

A burst of yellow crosses the sky, followed by red, white, blue. Cricket tells me he got his name for jumping out of airplanes and becoming invisible behind enemy lines.

Before I know it, the show is over and Cricket has his head in my lap, saying he’ll leave me everything, he is a rich man really, and could I escort him back to his room? He’s afraid, he’s ready to fall.

“I’m a millionaire really, I am really a millionaire.” He takes my hand in his, says, “Can I kiss you, please?” I let him out of pity or duty, and we hold hands across the lawn in front of all the families.

Why am I doing this, I think, why? He takes me to his room, where his deaf mute roommate looks up from the TV and starts to laugh a boisterous laugh, and Cricket shows me old photographs stuck to his wall, all three of his brothers, each one perishing in a different war. The deaf mute is still laughing while Cricket tells me he got the man to speak the other day, only one word, “water,” but he knows he’ll get more. All he needs is a little nurturing, the guy is shell-shocked.

“Would you sit on my bed?” Cricket says. “I’ll get you a cold one.”

I say, “No, that’s okay. Some other time.” My heart says, other time?

He says, “Ma’am, thank you, thank you,” and he weeps.

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Leonore Wilson teaches creative writing at Napa Valley College. Her work has been featured in such magazines as Quarterly West, Conversely, Third Coast, Madison Review and Laurel Review. She has been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize.