Fiction by Linda A. Prince
Norah waited six months for her husband to return from Vietnam. Every morning, she wondered if David was alive, or half-alive, or if he was a corpse, or the remains of a man who couldn’t be identified because David was always losing things and had most likely lost his ID tag in the depths of a jungle which, in one of her nightmares, had swallowed David whole.
She relied on the News for doses of optimism until her younger sister, Bonnie, always eager to share bouts of wisdom, told Norah she heard from Carl’s employee who knew a journalist who said the war wasn’t going nearly as well as what they were saying on the radio, and what was shown on television were photographs of marines on vacation from the war, drunk as Cooter Brown and all sexed up.
“They don’t tell you that, of course,” Bonnie said, returning to Norah’s couch with a fresh glass of lemonade. Bonnie only started visiting after Norah married. As she put it, it made her sad to see Norah all alone in the house they’d grown up in since their parents died. Norah had no intention of marrying just to pacify other people, but she also had no intention of meeting someone like David. “They don’t tell you about the sex part,” Bonnie repeated. “What’s worse, do you think? Your man coming home without legs or coming home with both legs and a severe case of gonorrhea?” She eyed Norah above the rim of her glass as she drank. Norah met her sister’s stare without a response, but as Bonnie lowered her glass to the table, Norah feared she might have more to add.
“Please, Bonnie,” Norah said and slipped a marble coaster between her sister’s glass and the polished wood. “I know you think I’m wallowing, and you’re just trying to distract me, but you’re really bad at making me feel better.”
Bonnie was David’s age, and at twenty-five, she was only a couple years younger than Norah. Her skin radiated youth and her sun-bleached hair draped like satin over the relaxed shoulders of a girl who married money, and that’s exactly what she did when she gave up her faded jeans to became Mrs. Carl Borgogni. Norah, in a third-day bathrobe and with unwashed hair that had seen far less sun, felt ancient and haggard beside her sister. Were it David there instead, she would feel no shame.
Sometimes she forgot how young he was. David moved through life with the assurance of a man who already lived once and decided to try it again without fear or doubt. Norah didn’t remember saying yes before the ring was on her finger. One day he went out to buy a car and came home a car salesman. When the draft found its way to their little corner of Corbin, Kentucky, he held Norah while she cried, held her until sunrise, held her until they took him away. She was left with no one as Norah had never been one to warm up to people. It didn’t occur to her how few friends she had until, in his absence, she found no reason to leave the house.
“I’m not trying to bum you out,” Bonnie said, shifting her body away with pouted lips. “I just think you have the right to know that what you see and hear isn’t necessarily what is. You’re a dour chic, Nor. But you’re also too optimistic for your own good. You make things up in your mind so you don’t have to deal with reality. You did it when Mom and Dad… like they never really…”
“Can you stop, please?” Norah said. She twisted a silver charm around the chain of her bracelet and tried to imagine a large gun in David’s arms. It seemed too heavy for him, and she worried about his aim.
“Okay,” Bonnie said, and she spoke nothing more of it.
It was July, and though David had been home for three weeks, it seemed he hadn’t yet returned. Norah didn’t expect things to be normal the first day. It wasn’t like he was home from the dealership. She couldn’t sit across the table from him and ask him about his day. He ate what she cooked for him, nodded approvingly at how she’d rearranged the bedroom and let her play his favorite records while they sat in silence on the sofa. When he rested his feet on the coffee table, she didn’t nag him. She didn’t say a word. His socks were worn thin and discolored. She pictured them inside blood-spattered boots and thought how lucky they were that the blood she imagined wasn’t David’s.
Norah did all she could to remind her husband how much he loved her. It wasn’t that he didn’t say the words. He said them every day, but they came from somewhere far away and evaporated before they reached her. He listened to her stories. He never volunteered his own. Those six months of secrecy became a void. It wedged itself between David who’d lived them and Norah whose image of war was a hodgepodge of hearsay from bitter protesters, sunny radio voices, and the friend of Carl’s barber’s lover, or through whatever vine Bonnie had picked up the latest gossip.
David didn’t leave the house but to check the mail or walk to the corner store for the occasional smoke, which he lit up and finished on his walks back. Norah didn’t know how she knew, but she knew, and she didn’t care that he’d picked up the habit. It seemed to calm his nerves, and, in a way, it calmed hers, too. She found solace in knowing at least that about him.
On the couch, her back was against David’s chest. She was cloaked in his arms when the music of Tony Orlando & Dawn faded to needle static. Neither moved, yet Norah didn’t feel still inside. She smelled the cigarette in his clothes like the onset of a future filled with all the things he wouldn’t share with her. The man who held her now was not the man whose embrace once made her feel invincible, whose touch went deeper than skin, whose hair she pushed back when they kissed, onyx tufts so thick she lost her hands in them.
This was just a body playing the part of Norah’s husband as well as he could with arms too unfamiliar to sink into. She didn’t feel he was any more present in his arms as she did when he was in another room. No, this was a shell of a man who may never be home again. Norah knew whatever the truth was, it was in there with him, and it made her wonder whether the place it came from was haunting her husband or beckoning him.
Norah didn’t remember answering the door when Bonnie and Carl came by that Sunday afternoon as if she’d just woken to find her sister sitting across the table asking her why she wasn’t at church that morning. Carl stood tall where the kitchen counter met at the corner. He wore his gray suit and held his coffee mug close as he took a tiny comb to a thick mustache when he thought he wasn’t being watched.
“It isn’t the same without David,” Norah said into the cup of coffee she didn’t recall having poured herself, or pouring anyone else, or even brewing, for that matter.
“I know,” Bonnie said, and her hand was suddenly stretched across the table to rest on Norah’s who now regarded the open archway to the den.
“I don’t know where he is right now,” she told Bonnie.
Bonnie followed the direction of Norah’s eyes, and Norah saw a glint of confusion in her sister’s face. Curiosity, in fact, in both hers and Carl’s. When Bonnie turned her attention back to Norah, she tilted her head with sad eyes while, behind her, Carl fidgeted with his lapel. “I know,” Bonnie said again with a firmer hold on the back of Norah’s hand.
Bonnie didn’t know. Norah hadn’t told them. She hadn’t said much at all about David, and Bonnie hadn’t seen him in the three weeks he’d been home because when she came over – when anyone came over – David made himself scarce.
“Do you think war can make a man fall out of love?” Norah asked them, taking advantage of a rare moment when it seemed her sister’s focus was not completely inward. Bonnie removed her hand to rest her chin in her palm. She didn’t answer right away but drew her mouth tight, her coral lips tucked inside.
“I don’t see why not,” Carl said. “My Grandpa didn’t seem to like anyone very much when he came home.”
“Why are you even asking this?” Bonnie asked.
Norah glanced through the archway again, then shook her head and drank her coffee, now cold and bitter. She wrapped her hands around the mug as if the idea of doing so would bring the warmth she craved despite the summer heat. “I don’t know,” she said.
She hated the way her sister studied her now. It was the way her neighbors started looking at her after she apologized for David’s absence when they visited. It was if people thought she was imprisoning her husband, but it just wasn’t true. David rarely left the house. He never returned to work. She put the bills in plain sight. He ignored them.
“I don’t feel like he’s here with me, you know?”
“Well,” Bonnie said with a timid shrug, already asking forgiveness for her next words. “He isn’t here, Norah.”
Norah briefly let her eyes fall and, after an extensive exhale, she patted her hand against her own chest. “I mean here, Bonnie. Like, really here with me.”
“Wow,” Carl said, and returned his mustache comb to the inside of his pocket and looked at Norah with what she perceived was veneration. “You two really had something special.”
Bonnie turned her neck to face him, and though Norah couldn’t read the look, it was all it took to keep him quiet.
“It’s hard right now,” Bonnie said, back to Norah. “It takes time. I’m really sorry, but we should be getting on home now.” With that, Bonnie was on her feet. She adjusted her barrette and smoothed her hair as though her few minutes there had taken a physical toll on her. “You’re coming to the cookout later, right? Maybe you’ll feel better if you put on a dress.”
“Maybe,” Norah said if only to appease her sister.
Carl rested a hand on Norah’s shoulder. “Booze heals all wounds,” he said.
“For God’s sake,” Bonnie huffed.
“David won’t be there,” Norah said.
Bonnie stared at something passed Norah’s head from where she stood beside Carl who slipped his hands into his pockets. Bonnie then lowered her eyes to meet her sister’s and nodded the way she did when she lost patience with people. “I know.”
A few hours later, Norah stood in front of the bathroom mirror while, on the other side of the door, she assumed David was still rested against the headboard of their bed where he always read. He’d been reading the same book since his return. She never saw him flip the page.
Norah ran her palms down dreary brunette locks and she puckered her thin lips. She saw nothing of her mother’s beauty in her own reflection the way she imagined Bonnie could. Norah had only photographs in a box at the back of the broom closet and wondered – were she Bonnie – would she have buried her mirrors as well?
A coat of makeup did nothing for her dowdy complexion, so the red lipstick at the back of the drawer beneath the sink was her only hope. She applied it carefully, paused when she heard the bedspring creak, and contemplated her reflection in the silence that followed. It was a silly color, and she was too aware of her bare calves below the hem of a floral sundress. The colors were bold. It was Bonnie’s dress.
David was on the bed when Norah came out of the bathroom. She stood near his feet and gestured down the length of her body. His eyes didn’t follow her hand. He smiled, regarding only her eyes. He closed the book, set it to the side and held out his arms. Norah joined him atop the cover and pressed her face against his shirt. She breathed in while he held her, and she continued to breathe in until she couldn’t possibly breathe a moment longer. It was his scent, and though she savored it, it was like his voice – emitted from a place impossible to reach.
“I wanted to look nice for you,” Norah said, gazing at the pillow between their faces where a touch of her lipstick had painted the white linen. She brought the side of her head down below his and stared at his socks. The same socks. “Are you sure you don’t want to come? It’ll be good for you, I think.”
His chest filled with air and all words she didn’t expect he would say, and then it fell. “Okay,” Norah said. “I love you.” She only rose from the bed when she heard him say it back.
Bonnie and Carl’s house was in perpetual motion with blend of neighbors and coworkers migrating in and out the sliding door. From kitchen to patio, to grass and back again. At the far end of the chopping table, Norah held a carrot stick in front of her chest and watched the action through a haze as her thoughts capered to its rhythm. She knew so few of those people. David made a better impression on people in one afternoon than Norah had throughout her whole childhood. Getting to know people was uncomfortable, and thinking about it now, she was even more grateful to have David in her life.
As the scene came into focus, Norah caught Bonnie eyeing her from the other side of the kitchen. Bonnie broke free from the small circle and crossed the room until her look of displeasure was mere inches from Norah’s face.
“Go talk to people,” Bonnie said. She leaned against the counter and pooched her belly out below the silk halter.
Norah tapped the carrot stick against her lips as she surveyed the room. “I don’t know,” she said. “I think I might go home.”
“Don’t go,” Carl said. He appeared behind them with a glass of scotch. “It’ll be a better vibe when we get the fireworks going.” Bonnie raised her eyebrows and waited, but Norah wasn’t convinced. “Fireworks,” he said.
“She heard you, Carl,” Bonnie said. They turned to Norah.
“I feel bad that David isn’t here.”
“You can’t let him not being here keep you from living,” Bonnie said.
“He just needs time,” Norah said.
“I don’t get it,” Carl said. “What does that mean?”
“You mean you need time,” Bonnie said.
“No, I’m fine. It’s David. Something is different about him. Sometimes I wonder if he still wants to be with me. Something changed him.”
Carl opened his mouth, but words didn’t come. Bonnie didn’t share his confusion. She softly touched Norah’s arm and guided her to the door. On the front porch, the party was a distant echo. Norah relaxed, but something bothered Bonnie who now fixated on Norah’s eyes.
“Norah, where’s David right now?” she said.
“He’s at home. Why? What’s wrong?” The intensity fled from Bonnie’s eyes by her sister’s response, and her lips drew tight and trembled. “Tell me.”
“You’re doing it again,” Bonnie said and cast an eye to the door and back. Norah shook her head. “In high school, when Mom and Dad were kil – when Mom and Dad died, you swore to me you kept seeing them in different rooms of the house, doing all the things they would have been doing if they were actually there. But they weren’t, Norah. You remember?” Norah continued to shake her head, though not to say she didn’t remember. “You went to their funeral, so it was easier to convince you they were gone, and you were just making yourself believe they weren’t. But David -.”
“No,” Norah said, the word like bullet shot from her gut.
“You seemed so down all the time, I thought you were just dealing. That’s why we left you alone. I’m so sorry.”
“No. I mean, no. It isn’t true. There was no funeral. And David, he’s been there. This whole time. I talk to him. We were just lying in bed together. Just earlier.” Norah couldn’t seem to lower the pitch of her voice. The words rolled out in a stream of desperation. “He started smoking. I smell it on him.”
“I smell it on you, Norah,” she said. Norah went silent. “When do you think David returned home? What day? What were you wearing?” Norah said nothing. “Remember a few weeks ago when I was at your house and you got upset because I was talking about the war ?” Norah nodded. Her head seemed to be the only part of her that would move. “I answered a knock at the door, but they asked for you.”
Norah’s body could have crumbled to bits on the porch floor. Bonnie wouldn’t lie, but Norah knew what she saw. It hadn’t been like her parents whose presence came and went at any moment’s notice. David had been there, he’d talked to her.
No, she talked to him. She only heard him reply. Heard him say all the things she hoped he would say, things he’d said before. Words which echoed from another time, a voice replaying itself. Still, she had to know. She assured her sister she was going home to process, but the concern didn’t leave Bonnie, or perhaps it was skepticism.
There was tension in Bonnie’s arms as Norah hugged her, as if to keep warm on this most humid Fourth of July. Norah left and Bonnie watched from the porch until Norah was out of sight. Maybe longer.
Norah returned home, and suddenly it felt strange to call out to David. She held her stomach and reached for the stack of mail accumulated in a wicker basket on the kitchen counter. Unpaid bills she was now less concerned with, unopen letters from David’s uncle and mother in Colorado whom Norah never met. Near the bottom was a Western Union telegram.
Death notice. The words morphed as she read again and again. David’s death notice. David’s death. David’s dead. Compound… grenade… hostile forces… ID tag… confirmed.
She studied the telegram with vigilance, not the words, but the item, itself, as it left her hand and rested back on the counter. Part of her hoped it was this day she imagined, this moment, and not the last three weeks. But the telegram was there, it hadn’t changed or moved when she blinked. With that, Norah paced the house in a stupor as real memories overshadowed ones she’d somehow created. The plates of food she made for David and scraped into the trash. The most recent still in the sink. And she hadn’t made the food. The rest remained in her neighbors’ casserole dishes, and they filled her refrigerator. Did she thank them?
In the den on the arm of the sofa was David’s denim jacket she’d rested her back upon, the sleeves disheveled from when she’d wrapped them tightly around her body. Norah lifted the jacket and felt inside the pocket to find the pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes she bought from the corner store and smoked in secret the way she always knew David had. In the next room, Norah sat at the foot of the bed and turned to spot where she last saw David. When she heard him say he loved her because that was what she would have wanted him to say. She lay back beside the large pillow with the red lipstick smudge and brought it into her body. She held it tighter and remembered how it once felt like David and nothing like him at all. But he’d been there, even if he hadn’t really, and now he wasn’t there at all.
Norah pulled the pillow in closer and hugged until her muscles couldn’t hold it any tighter. David wasn’t coming back. Not in any way. She silently wept herself into a dream.
Linda A. Prince holds an MFA in fiction. She is an editor as well as a member of the Hub City Writers Project where she lives in Spartanburg, South Carolina. She writes primarily of America’s Southeast where a dark twist compels her characters to defy their own morals or put their sanity into question. Her stories appear in Under the Full Moon’s Light: A Short Story Anthology, Owl Hollow Press; and Big Pond Rumours Magazine, Big Pond Rumours Press.