Monty watched through the glass of the front door as the men in uniform got out of the jeep. Margaret was still in the kitchen tidying up from breakfast. It was a bitter November morning, she had remarked on it, the harsh breeze scudded the shriveled ground-strewn leaves across the walk. Monty idled a moment in the front hall on his way to the living room, thinking it odd to see a jeep here at this hour. It was parked by the curb between their house and the Sullivan’s next door. The first officer, he could see the stripes, paused, waiting for his companion, his impatience obvious as he stood at the end of the driveway.
Monty had a moment of envy, seeing them in their neat Army uniforms. It always made him a little nostalgic, even though you saw so many soldiers now, in 1943. Monty had received his discharge right after the Armistice in 1918, but he had enjoyed his Army days. He loved the excitement, the danger of being “over there”, hearing the shells landing, being the sergeant and looking out for his men. When it was over he was ready to be at home with Margaret and start a family. He went back to his old job on Wall Street, and got right back into harness. Jimmy was born in the summer of 1919. Monty felt hugely satisfied to be the father of a son. When he sometimes trundled the baby around in the carriage, to give Margaret a chance to rest, he day-dreamed about the future.
It would be the way it had been with him and his old man. His father had his ways, but he was always ready for a game, whatever game it was. So it would be with him and Jimmy. He would teach him how to play ball; they would lob tennis balls back and forth, later he would get him into playing golf. They would be a father/son team. He always secretly felt sorry for guys whose wives gave birth only to girls. There just wouldn’t be that camaraderie you could have with a son.
Margaret half expected Monty to want to join up for the regular Army after the Armistice; she could see how much he had enjoyed his Army life. He never suggested that, but he did think about the Reserve. She wasn’t very strong after Jimmy was born, so he let that go. He helped her a lot with Jimmy, but he seemed to have trouble recognizing that he was only a baby, not a recruit in boot camp. Games were the center of Monty’s existence; Margaret wondered how they had ever gotten together, since she was anything but athletic. She could see by the time Jimmy was a year old that he was going to be more like her than like his father.
When Jimmy was about three Monty took him out to play ball. It didn’t go well. Instead of trying to catch the ball he would duck any time it got close. Margaret hovered on the side-lines.
“He doesn’t understand,” she said. “It’s too soon.”
Jimmy’s brightened when he understood they were giving up the game. Monty obviously felt that Jimmy wasn’t measuring up.
Later it was the same thing. By that time they had a dog who loved to follow them out in the yard. Monty didn’t think he was the smartest dog in the world, but he got the idea about catching the ball in the first five minutes. He had a wonderful time grabbing it when Jimmy missed, which was almost every time, and running around the yard with it. It was great exercise for the dog, but you couldn’t call it a game. Margaret saw that for Jimmy it was much more of a game – he loved seeing the dog racing around after the ball.
Why doesn’t Monty see that? Margaret thought, seeing the barely disguised look of annoyance on Monty’s face every time Jimmy dropped the ball. Why doesn’t he forget the game and just enjoy playing with Jimmy?
One day Margaret was sorting through a box that had been brought from the old house in Halifax, and unearthed a boy doll wearing a sailor suit that she had had when she was his age. She was amused by it, and showed it to him when he awoke from his nap. He took to it immediately, his face crinkling in amusement when she walked it back and forth on its ungainly legs. When Monty came home she showed him.
“Look, Monty, my old doll.” She said, “Jimmy likes it too.”
“You best put that thing away, Margaret”, Monty said.
She was offended by “that thing” but didn’t make an issue of it because his voice was sharper than it needed to be.
Jimmy found the doll the next day and clutched it as he fell asleep. She removed it from his loosened fingers before he woke up and put it in the back of her dresser drawer.
As Jimmy grew older and got into team sports Monty did all those things a father is supposed to do. He volunteered to coach volley ball, baseball, football. He did his best to project a lot of enthusiasm and fun into the games. He thought Jimmy would be impressed and inspired that his own father was there in charge, but if he was he didn’t let on. Jimmy never tried to take advantage of rank. He was content to be at the bottom of the line-up, whatever game was going. If he could have been invisible he would have chosen that.
Margaret remembered how she had dreaded any line-up for sports, knowing she would be last chosen, hoping it would be over before they got to her.
Monty was finally forced to admit that the sports gene was missing in his son. He just wasn’t interested. Monty left off coaching – what was the use? It was not making for any bonding between him and Jimmy. He couldn’t help feeling irritated at Jimmy’s missing those easy catches. He couldn’t stand Jimmy’s hang-dog look when he did some other dumb thing, like taking so long to run a base that he made an out. Monty knew that the kid was trying but that made it worse.
Jimmy came to recognize the tight expression on his father’s face when he made yet another error. He knew his Dad thought that if he just put his mind to it, and practiced, he would get it. His Dad put a practice net in the backyard.
“He spent a lot of time out there, throwing balls,” Margaret would report when he came home from work.
“Atta boy, that’ll do it,” Monty would say.
But it didn’t. Jimmy could see his Dad stopped believing he could do it, and finally he stopped believing it himself. “Good catch”, his Dad would say, admiring, to one of the other kids. Or “That was a great play” to another, a certain enthusiastic tone in his voice. They didn’t talk about it, he and his Dad. They drove home in silence after the practices. When his mother, getting dinner, asked how it went, one or the other of them would say “Fine” as they went on by to get ready to eat. He had gone with one of his friends after one practice, and his family talked about it excitedly all through dinner. It was different if there was something fun to report.
When Jimmy was ten they got him a soldering outfit for Christmas, so that he could make tin soldiers. He and Jimmy did the soldering together. Actually Monty did the soldering while Jimmy watched. They built up a good collection of soldiers, with artillery and arms to go along with them. Together they painted them, so that there were opposing companies. Jimmy was serious about the painting. He held the pieces carefully, close to his face, gripping the tiny brush with intense concentration, paying close attention not to drip the colors. After the paint was dry and they were lined up row on row, Monty noticed that he never actually played with them. He spent his time in the playroom with his nose in a book, or fiddling around drawing something.
That summer he went to his first real sleep-away camp. Jimmy packed his gear according to the instructions, giving it his serious attention the way he did everything. He seemed to look forward to going but Margaret was really worried about him getting homesick
“If he gets homesick he’ll just get over it,” Monty offered, feeling some anxiety himself. “It’ll be good for him.”
“What if it’s so bad we have to go pick him up?” Margaret asked.” That happens sometimes.”
Monty was mortified at the mere possibility. He assured Margaret that it wouldn’t be the case, but after they dropped him at camp they were on tenterhooks for fear the phone would ring. Margaret wouldn’t step out of the house for two weeks in case he got sick or had an accident and they would call. Jimmy was a quiet kid, you would think it wouldn’t make much difference with him gone, but the house was so lifeless even the dog was out of sorts.
Monty stopped making suggestions about Jimmy’s activities by the time Jimmy got to high school. Jimmy was definitely not a joiner. He not only did not go out for any of the team sports – no surprise in that – but he didn’t sign on for things like the Dramatic Club either. There were never mobs of kids around, you didn’t have to worry about that, always just a couple of friends. He was a serious kid, a model kid in a lot of ways. His homework was always done on time. If he had a project he would spread his books across the kitchen table; he’d bend over them, chewing on a pencil, sticking with it until he figured it all out. He didn’t win medals, but he plugged along.
Monty thought back to his own youth. It had been a bumpier road. He remembered a lot of uncomfortable sessions with the school principal. His parents were after him too, when there were complaints. But he had made it, hadn’t he? It was all part of growing up. Boys shouldn’t be saints. He sometimes wished that Jimmy would once in a while be a little more rambunctious, but could hardly complain about him not getting in to trouble.
Monty didn’t like to think of Jimmy as a Mama’s boy, but he and Margaret definitely had an affinity. He would see them sometimes, at the kitchen table as he came in, exchanging smiles about something they had been talking about.
Margaret was always trying to get them together, himself and Jimmy. The trouble was their interests were so far apart. There was no point in asking Monty to help Jimmy with any of his school projects – Jimmy worked them out in his own way, acting polite if Monty offered to help, but not really needing him.
When the war in Europe came along Jimmy was just out of high school. Monty couldn’t wait until America got involved. He would have enlisted himself in a minute, but he was too old, they didn’t want him. Jimmy was the right age, he should sign up with the National Guard and get some training, get a head start. Of course Jimmy didn’t see it that way. He didn’t outright refuse, but he didn’t go do it, either. He had to be nagged into it.
“We’re going to be in it, sooner or later,” Monty would start the conversation as they sat down to eat, “The ones that go in the National Guard now are the ones who’ll have a leg up.”
Eventually he wore Jimmy down. On his own Jimmy went down to the National Guard unit and signed up. A good thing, because the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor, and the National Guard was mobilized. Margaret was distressed that they were at war, and that Jimmy was in it, but Monty was relieved. He never thought Jimmy would be a draft-dodger, but best to get in right away, not wait around to be drafted. He would have been happier if Jimmy had shown more enthusiasm.
Margaret was taken by surprise when Jimmy went and signed up. She thought Monty was probably right, but like every mother she was filled with nameless dread that it put Jimmy closer to danger, beyond her protection. Monty always accused her of babying him, even if he didn’t actually say it she could see he was thinking it. But he was barely grown, why was it demanded of him that he go off to war? She saw how happy Monty was about it; she resented the self-satisfied way he spoke of it, as if it was a personal satisfaction to him, never mind what it was to Jimmy.
Jimmy dreaded his parents trooping down to the train station with him when his unit went off to the Florida training camp. He feared his Dad might see some of the kids he had coached, and rush up to them to congratulate them about going. The thought embarrassed him. He knew he could count on his mother not to cry, that would have been equally awful, as if he was going into the front lines, not just to slog around in boot camp. Fortunately they didn’t see anyone they knew at the station when he boarded. He endured his mother kissing him on the cheek, and saw his Dad extending his hand.
“Write to us”, his mother said. She suddenly looked forlorn, Jimmy thought maybe he was wrong about her not crying. His Dad looked like he was going to say something, but instead clapped him on the shoulder, in a man-to-man gesture.
Monty noticed that Jimmy was at a window by himself, awkward, unsmiling, while the other boys were in groups, laughing and horsing around. Maybe when he got to the base down there with the other guys he would get more into it. The Army would make a man of him, he would be different when he came back, Monty was convinced. And the future would be different, after the war was over. He and Jimmy would have more in common, they would understand each other better. He’d marry some nice girl who would take him in hand. There’d be grandchildren growing up around them; it would be a happier time after the war was over.
Funny what made all that go through his mind at this moment, standing there in the hall. It was all so long ago, hard to believe it was almost three years since he and Margaret had been at the station saying goodbye to Jimmy, seeing him off. Monty’s own war had been over so soon, he was in and out while it was still fun, but this one seemed like it would never end. The officer was looking up to see the numbers on the porch posts, scowling against the morning sun, glancing back at the papers in his hand. Just as the second man joined him the officer waved toward Monty’s door.
In that moment Monty’s heart constricted painfully in his chest, as if he had suffered a blow. It was like a camera clicked and the two officers were frozen at the end of the walk, the one scowling with his arm raised, pointing at his house, the other just behind his shoulder. The picture would be there forever in his mind’s eye. He knew with terrible certainty now what was coming. They sent telegrams to tell you when your son was wounded, but if he was killed they didn’t put it in a telegram. Killed in action. It was a phrase you heard often enough now-a-days, but he never paid attention, because he never really imagined it happening to Jimmy, to him. Killed in Action. They sent two officers, always two, to tell you in person. They told you how they regretted to inform you, and then they went back to their jeep and drove to the next address.
He moved to the door just as they pressed the bell. He felt sick to his stomach and his legs were without feeling. Margaret was behind him in the kitchen door.
“Someone calling so early?” she asked. She looked faintly anxious, a dish towel crumpled in her hands. He half-turned to look at her. He wanted to give her some warning but he couldn’t think of the right words. The bell pealed a second time; he reached out to open the door.
The scene played out just as he knew it would. The two visitors brought in the cold air, scraping their feet on the mat as they came in, filling up the narrow hall. The lead officer did all the talking. The second one had a mournful, respectful look on his face, like they always had in funeral parlors.
Monty couldn’t concentrate on anything after the words “killed in action”;. He wished he could do something for Margaret. She was deathly pale. He helped her sit down. Why doesn’t she cry, he kept thinking, it would be better if she cried.
It was a relief when the officers finished what they had to say and went back down the walk, the two of them. He watched them until they got back in the jeep. It was like he was looking at them from a great distance. He pictured them making a neat check mark against Jimmy’s name as they drove away. Mission accomplished. In the hall it was so quiet he could hear the clock ticking in the kitchen.
Margaret stirred. “I’ll go call Mother,” she finally said, but she sat a few minutes more before she pushed herself from the chair.
Monty wanted to help her, he felt he should be doing something. He was tired in a way he had never been tired before, drained, full of a numbness that had settled into his bones. He went into the living room, passing Jimmy’s army photograph on the corner table. He’d always been proud seeing it, the thin unlined face, the uniform, the bars just showing. He sat down in the armchair nearby, in the sun that was coming in from the side window. He was able to see the picture from where he sat, but he couldn’t look at it. It was curious how he didn’t feel anything right then, just this overbearing sense of emptiness. How could he be so full of such emptiness?
Catherine Mathews is a Foreign Service retiree who has lived abroad in Paris, Rome, Tel Aviv, Athens, Frankfurt and Istanbul. She has published her memoirs, and is now writing short stories.
© 2015, Catherine Mathews