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Fallen Soldier
by Em Kersey

Grandpa McLeod, or "Pop," as everyone called him, didn't miss his wife, Elsie, but now and then when he happened to think about her, which wasn't often, he would look up cagily at whichever of the children or grandchildren happened to be visiting him at the Sugar Creek Nursing Home, and say, "Oh, my, how I miss Elsie. She was the light of my life, and now it's gone out."

He knew he was lying, but he wanted to keep up appearances for the family's sake. He guessed people believed him. Why wouldn't they? What he really felt--now that was different. Never in his life had Pop revealed his true emotions about anything or anyone, and especially not about Elsie. He'd married her seventy odd years ago because he wanted regular sex. That was behind him now--except when he thought about Mona.

Mona was his grandson's wife. When she and Howard came to visit, Mona would cut his hair while he sat in the wheelchair as still as a fallen soldier in a foxhole. The clippers would whir and the scissors snip, and her lovely hands would flutter all over his bony old skull, smoothing a strand here, ruffling another there, and she'd gently, carefully clip his bushy eyebrows, her breath intent and sweet on his forehead. Then, with his eyes closed, he was lost in the presence of her and the faint, faraway stirring in his loins. Oh, how he loved Mona! More than anybody in the whole world, but he would never tell her. He was a bit ashamed of it--this love that came from his withered gut. He wished he had money to leave her, but he knew there wasn't any left.

Pop yearned to see the features of her face again, but he was going blind. After losing his left eye to glaucoma, he'd made do with the good one. Now it was giving up, apparently from the same disease. Pop wasn't sure, since he'd stopped listening to the numskull doctors. Some days he could see shapes--black and white and gray, never any colors--but on bad days the veil would descend. Even if he turned on all the lights in the room, he saw nothing but haze.

Two desires kept him from longing for death. He wanted to outlive his roommate, Will. Pop was younger than Will by a couple of years, and he was determined to outlast "the old man," as he called him. Will had to die soon because as far as Pop could recollect, Will was ninety-eight. Lately, he had stopped paying attention to everybody. He never left the room, or sat in his wheelchair, and hardly ever spoke, except to yell out at night. Pop figured he'd croak pretty soon.

Pop's other desire was to live to be a hundred. There was a word for people who reached the century mark, "centurion" or something like that. Boy, that would make him special. There'd be a celebration, and Howard and Mona would be sure to come.


He was in bed when they arrived one evening at Sugar Creek. He hadn't been expecting them, but he sat up confused and disoriented when he heard their voices.

"Wake up, Pop," Howard said. And Mona chimed in, too. "It's us, Pop. Can you get up?"

"Uh," he said. "Let me get my glasses." He fumbled in the nightstand for the worthless things.

"Put your hearing aid in, too," said Howard. "Do you want to sit on the patio? We'll wheel you out. It's cooled off some."

Pop couldn't hear Howard. "What'd you say?" he asked. Howard repeated his words, while Pop tapped on the hearing aid. It made a zinging sound. He sat on the edge of the bed directing his gaze toward the voices. He could make out their shadowy forms, but their features remained Indistinct.

"How are you?" he asked.

"We're fine," said Mona.

"How are the boys?" asked Pop.

"Oh, they're fine, too," answered Howard. "Glenn had his first real date last week. I had to drive him and his girl to the movies. You should have seen that kid, he was so nervous."

Pop didn't care a whit about most of his great-grandchildren, couldn't remember their names, let alone whether they were boys or girls. He'd ask after them for appearances sake. How are the kids, he'd say, feeling crafty. But it was different with Mona's sons; he knew they were boys, even remembered their names--Glenn and Abe--made himself remember because they were Mona's.

"Uh-huh," he said. "How about that?"

Mona pushed a bag into Pop's hand. "I brought some cough drops. Have one."

Pop's mouth watered. It had been a long time since he'd had a Hall's. He tore at the plastic bag. "Damn thieves around here steal all my cough drops." He put one in his mouth and looked up at Mona's dim shape. "Thank you," he said.

"Here's your housecoat, Pop. Put it on, and we'll sit on the patio." Howard drew the wheelchair close to the bed and held his grandfather's arm until he had propelled him into the chair.

"Where's my cap?" asked Pop. He wore a baseball cap during his every waking hour. Howard handed it to him from the nightstand, and Pop put it on with the bill turned backwards. In his youth, Pop had been a catcher for a farm club run by the St. Louis Cardinals. Wearing the cap turned around was not just an old habit; it was what made him somebody. By profession, he'd been a machinist in a factory all his life, but having played professional ball, if only for a couple of years, gave him stature.

Now that he was ready to go outside, he began to get excited. He hardly ever left his room. The smell of the evening, of earth cooling and night creatures waking met him at the door. By god, he could still smell as good as ever. It was like coming to life after living in a fruit cellar. He sucked the air noisily into his nostrils. "Still a mite warm out here," he said. He could feel his bones ungluing. It was so goddamn cold in the room. The setting sun was a colorless ball of light, blazing through the cloud of his eye, burning it. He blinked. "Too bright," he said.

"I'll get your sunglasses," Howard said, and he went back into the nursing home, leaving Pop and Mona alone.

Pop tried to think of something to say. Finally the words came out. "Oh my, how I miss Elsie. She was the light . . ."

"We know, we know," said Mona. "So, how have you been feeling?"

Pop wasn't sure he'd heard her correctly, so he didn't answer. He tried to make out her figure seated in a nearby lawn chair, but it was like a flash bulb had popped in his face.

Howard came back with the glasses. "Here you go," he said, handing them to his grandfather.

"Thanks," said Pop. He put them on, and the harsh light softened into its customary gray haze. "You know, I think I need some new glasses. Maybe you and Mona could take me to the eye doctor sometime soon."

Howard was a long time answering. "Well, we'll see," he said. "We got something to tell you, Grandpa, but let's get your hair cut first."

Pop perked up. "Okay. Yeah. I need a haircut." They hadn't been outside more than ten minutes.

Howard wheeled the chair inside and down the long hall. Pop was eager to get to his room, even though old Will lay there mutely dying. It was his room by right, having occupied it first, but mostly it was important to him because it was the place where he waited. All his life, it seemed, he had waited in that cell, timidly, tremulously waited for the touch of Mona's hand.

Howard removed the baseball cap, and Mona put a sheet around Pop's shoulders, tucking it into his robe and pajama collar. Pop lifted his head, ostensibly to give her room to pin the cloth, but all he wanted was to be able to see her now that she was so close. With all his might he willed the fog to lift.

"Take out your hearing aid, Pop," said Mona. "You know the clippers make it whine."

"Uh-huh," said Pop, and did as he was told. Then he lowered his head and closed his eyes. It was no use. The veil wouldn't lift. It was from going outside. It was from the sun.

Mona wheeled Pop into the bathroom and went about her task. Pop felt her run the clippers over the fringe on his neck and the few stragglers on the crown of his head. She used her fingers to ruffle the hair and whisk away the short clippings. Sometimes, when her hand didn't quite do the trick, he felt her breath on his bald head. Lastly, she cut his bushy eyebrows.

"All done," she said, and after removing the sheet, she wheeled him back into the bedroom where Howard was watching TV.

"I'll pick up the clippings from the floor. Howard, you have to tell him," she said.

Pop sat hunched over in his wheelchair. Slowly he put his hearing aid back in and tapped on it. Then he put on his glasses. He couldn't find the cap, but he didn't ask where it was. Something was the matter. Something was up.

"Pop, Mona and me, we got to tell you something," Howard said haltingly. "We're moving to California. I've been transferred."

Pop couldn't believe what he'd heard. He just couldn't have heard that. "What'd you say?" he asked.

"We have to move away from St. Louis. My company's transferring me."

"You're going away? To California? For a long time?"

"Yes, Grandpa. I'm sorry, but we won't be seeing you for a while."

"You're going to California?" Pop repeated. He had to be sure he got it straight.

"Who's gonna cut my hair when you're gone?" he asked.

"They've got a beauty parlor here, Pop," said Mona. "We'll tell them to be sure and cut your hair."

Howard stood up and clicked off the TV. "Let's get you back into bed," he said. Between the two of them, they helped Pop remove his robe and slippers.

"Where's my cap?" asked Pop.

"You can't wear it in bed," said Howard. "It's on the nightstand."

"Okay," said Pop.

"Your cough drops are here in the drawer," said Mona, patting the top of the stand. Pop reached out and found her hand. He squeezed it. "Thanks for everything," he said.

Mona leaned over and kissed the top of his bald head.

"You're welcome," she said. "Now you get into bed, and Howard will put up the slats."

Pop crawled under the covers. He felt cold all over, except for the spot on his head where Mona had kissed him.

Howard raised the metal railing and secured it. "We'll come back to visit, you hear? Stay well, now."

It was quiet after they'd gone. Pop lay in his crib listening to Will call out from some troubling dream. He guessed he would outlive the old man, but for what?

He closed his eyes and spoke one truth into the darkness. "Oh, my, but I'm gonna miss you, Mona. You were the light of my life and now it's gone out."

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