Ronnie’s breaths are labored; sharp gasps that sounds like he’s whistling through his nose, even with his mouth open and the few remaining teeth barely visible behind thick lips. He’s a little bigger in the midsection than he was years ago, when his health was better, legs and arms stronger. The green uniform doesn’t fit the same, a little snug in the middle. A contradiction of sorts being that his legs and arms never got much bigger, only his torso.
The cane goes out in front of him, the rubber stopper silent on concrete that looks as worn as he feels. His right leg pulses, his left one sends a shard of pain from knee to hip with each hobbled step. Ronnie reaches the corner, takes a deep breath, lets it out in a whistle through the hole in his throat. To the left, a crowd has gathered, men and women and children lining the sidewalks on both sides of the street. He straightens the best he can, a man in his late sixties who looks like he’s approaching ninety. Bones pop and a sliver of pain chides him for trying to stand tall.
He adjusts his VETERAN OF FOREIGN WAR cap and steps into the road, turns and limps along the sidewalk, passing families and groups of children, his eyes fixed forward as if none of them were there. He sees the small opening in the crowd—a place just large enough for a veteran of his size and stature. The sidewalk is barely six inches higher than the black top, but for legs that have seen a bullet in one and shrapnel in the other it is three feet or higher with no handrails to pull himself up with.
For several seconds Ronnie eyes the curb, steeling himself against certain pain that promises to eat away at him the rest of the day and into the night.
“Would you like some help, sir?”
He glances up at the young woman, her eyes soft and brown, her face a study of concern. “Thank you, Ma’am,” he says, sticks out a gnarled hand missing two fingers and places it in hers. With her strength and his cane, he gets onto the sidewalk, lets out a long whistling breath and nods at her. His face is pink with exertion and maybe… just maybe a little embarrassment. When he was younger, he wouldn’t have needed help. Ronnie looks back at her, gives a nod.
Her eyes linger on him a moment longer, something in them… something stronger than concern. Unease? Fear? Worry? All of them? The sound of a marching band pulls their attention from one another. He looks to his left. One of the local high schools’ bands proceeds toward them, the students in yellow and green outfits, feathers in tall caps. They pass with their eyes straight ahead, their instruments blaring, drums thump-thumping. Behind them a car—a Thunderbird, he thinks—inches along, the mayor on the back, his wife beside them. They are waving, broad smiles on their faces. He thinks of Kennedy on the day of his assassination, shakes his head and watches the car pass, his heart beating hard, mind praying for no such event today.
Another car passes, followed by a second band, then a third. A truck pulls a trailer decked out with a wooden platform painted green, brown, gray and black. A forgotten unit from World War II is painted on the truck’s door and along the side of the float. Ronnie switches the cane to the three fingered hand and raises the other one in salute, the fingers as straight as he can get them, arm rigid. His throat whistles.
Police cars trail behind the soldiers, followed by another band and a tribe of Native Americans, their dances being of war or peace or rain. He didn’t know. A smile traced along his thick lips as they paraded by.
Another band was followed by a lull of… nothing. In that nothing they began to appear, soldiers in muddied uniforms, their helmets covered in mesh and leaves, their arms carrying assault rifles. Some limped, others were helped along by their comrades. His eyes narrowed.
Is that Bobby Jenkins helping… Is that Leroy Wallace with a bandage on his head, a bloom of red decorating the cloth? Are those the Sullivan twins carrying Mike O’Rourke on a stretcher? But…
They stop, the soldiers of yesteryear, their battered bodies forming a rag tag unit of the deceased. They turn to Ronnie—a soldier long dead on the inside, cast aside by the country he stoutly defended—their eyes like yellow fire, their mouths straight lines drawn on haggard faces. Those being helped along or carried, stand and straighten their spines. One man—David Calao, puts his arm back in its socket.
Ronnie backs away, his legs barely holding him up. The building behind him keeps Ronnie from tumbling back and breaking a hip or arm or his skull. The people turn and stare, the woman, her eyes now full with fear. She approaches him. Ronnie waves her off, grunts at the stiffness in his arms, his legs, the weight in his chest, the pain in his shoulder and shoulder blade.
He looks back to the soldiers, his heart beating hard—too hard. They’ve changed. They’re bodies are no longer war torn, but the way they were before death charged the battlefields of Vietnam, waving It’s scythe in broad arcs, claiming them with bullets, bombs, mines and even arrows. With a whip snap of arms, they salute… him.
Ronnie’s eyes fill with tears as Bobby Jenkins steps forward, motions for him to join them. He lets out a pained laugh at the notion of joining the ranks of dead soldiers—men who died honorably, fighting for a country they loved in a war… in a war their people didn’t believe in, didn’t support. All while Ronnie went home, a medical discharge ending his military career before it really ever got started.
Tears spill down his face. The whistle in his throat grows louder with each painful breath. His heart hammers too hard. Ronnie straightens, the bones in his back sighing in relief. His legs don’t ache for the first time in forty years. His brothers wait, their voices lifting on the air, calling to him, beckoning him to join them. He takes a step forward, then another. The edge of the sidewalk greets him, but he steps off of it easily enough.
Just down the road another band was making their way toward them. Behind Ronnie, the woman screams as she and another man struggle to get Ronnie’s body to the ground. He looks back once, noting the world becoming silent. He takes a deep breath, lets it out. There is no whistle. Ronnie smiles, walks toward his fallen comrades, a soldier of honor, his war finally over…