Editor’s Note: A pivotal World War II battle was fought on the beaches of France in the summer of 1944. The Normandy invasions by the Allied Forces resoundingly defeated the Germans, who occupied France, but the cost in lives was immense: over 425,000 lives were lost. Yet for the survivors, many more lives were “lost,” as Cindy Layton’s story recounts.
From the doorway I watched as Dad held the gun in his palm, inspecting it, not like they were old friends but business partners. It looked old but still deadly. Where did he get that? His bony fingers ran alongside the round barrel while his eyes traveled along the length of its metal frame. The door to the safe was open, exposing envelopes and a metal box. A purple velvet bag, showing the imprint of the gun where it had been stored, lay beside him on the sofa. Where was Adelene? I stood stiffly, unable to move toward him or away from him. Slowly, I held out my hand.
“Dad, could I have that?”
He was startled and looked to see who was there. Then his eyes shifted down and he shook his head. “No. I need it.”
“What for?” A feeble question, but I needed him to talk.
“We’re at war. But you wouldn’t know anything about that.” It had been a long time since he’d made a comment about me refusing to go into the army.
“Maybe Dad, but we’re not at war here.” I leaned in a little.
He raised his non-gun hand to wave me away. “I didn’t raise you to be so timid. When a man’s got a problem he’s gotta take action.”
I wracked my brain to figure what he meant. “I don’t have a problem.”
He looked at me with his glassy, bulging eyes. Those eyes had darkened over time. A little bit when I refused to go to Harold’s for another crew cut. More when I refused to stop protesting downtown, and when I said I was going into teaching, not law. Now, they’re black like a galaxy.
“Why is it you think everything’s always about you? It’s me,” he said, pointing to his chest. “My problem.”
“Right. The doctor’s going to help you with that. Remember?”
“He can’t help me. Some soldiers are too far gone to take off the battlefield.” His head nodded toward the safe. “That stuff’s for you.” He cradled the barrel against his chest. The weight of it was too much and it wobbled as he attempted to hold it in place.
I took a step to the right, a better angle to avoid the line of fire. My only option was to assume it was loaded.
He stared at my rigid, hesitant body. I was sure he saw my knees shaking beneath my pants. Surely he knew my lungs were constricted, my pulse racing. His upper lip rose slightly then turned briefly to a half smile. A smile that had nothing to do with happiness.
One summer, he had taken us to the carnival. Me and Jenn were about to get in line for the Zipper. There was a big, burly farm kid walking down the exit ramp. He leaned over the railing and puked his guts out. I figured I didn’t stand a chance, so I bolted over to the swings.
Dad left me there and took my place in line. He and Jennifer were locked into the metal cage. It rose up slowly, and as they reached the top they dropped down, then spun and tumbled around in a cascade, the lights flashing, girls screaming and all the riders clutching the steel bars. When they got off and started walking to the arcade I ran to catch up with them. Jenn gave me a shove with her elbow when Dad wasn’t looking and stared at me for an explanation.
He gave Jenn money for Skee Ball then he paid the shooting gallery guy a few bucks and held out the BB gun to me. I stared at him. Without a word, he held it by the barrel, a silent dare for me to take it. The Ferris wheel behind him flashed, turned a few more times, then began letting riders off. The kids at the top made their carriage rock and leaned their hands over the railing, pitching the seat forward until with a jerk the ride moved them down.
Music, sounding like a jack-in-the box, piped from behind the shooting gallery. Dad looked at the ground for a second, then hoisted the long rifle over his shoulder and mowed down the row of rabbits sliding along the conveyor. Ping! Pingpingping!
“Another winner!” The guy behind the counter handed Dad a huge stuffed animal, but Dad sneered at him and turned away. “Step right up, folks. Shoot with skill and precision!”
“Skill and precision, my ass.” Dad sulked off to find Jennifer. I remember the crowd folding in around us and, from time to time, I’d lose sight of him. I ran-walked to keep him in view but stayed out of the orbit of that mood.
He and Jenn used up the rest of the ride tickets while I hung out at the freak show, which was just a tent filled with posters of odd circus characters from long ago.
I hated him for hating me.
And here he was again, gun in hand, a sneer for a smile. Where in the hell was Adelene? “Hey, do you remember taking me and Jenn to the fair?”
Dad perked up his head. “Your sister won a prize for something, right?” He shifted in his seat. “She sure was a beauty back then. Too bad she went off and married that bastard.”
By the time Jenn turned twenty she was out of the house. Dad took it personally, like she abandoned him. He wasn’t the only one. Her leaving eliminated the last existing buffer between me and him.
“She won the talent contest. Remember the Hula-Hoop routine?”
Dad smiled a real smile, the smooth skin on his face wrinkling around the eyes, the darkness in them brightening a bit. “You ended up with your head in a barrel.” Despite my best efforts I had still managed to throw up by the end of the day.
“Bad hot dog.”
He took his hand off the grip of the gun and stretched his fingers, then rested them across the barrel. Would he even have the strength to fire it? Underestimate him at your peril, I thought.
Last week when he saw Dr. Langston, he complained about not sleeping. Said Adelene was keeping him up, walking around the house at all hours. She claimed it was him and his dreams.
“I’m telling you,” Dad said, “it’s that woman!” Dr. Langston prescribed an anti-anxiety pill but Adelene told me he’s still up at night.
Dad’s head began to droop a bit and his eyes fluttered. In the distance a helicopter approached. The sound of the turning blades echoed overhead and with a violent jerk Dad awoke, his eyes alert and his shoulders square. He grabbed for the gun and raised it with a wobbly hand. “Master Sargent!” He steadied himself with his other hand on the edge of the recliner and raised himself up. “Incoming, sir!” He tried to make it over to the window but each step made his knees buckle a little.
“Dad, come on.” I could tell he was descending into the whole “greatest generation” thing again. It usually started with him talking about the master sargent like the guy was some kind of hero. I reached out my arm for him to lean on. “Sit down.”
The sound of the helicopter faded and he looked around the room. A flicker of recognition crept back into his eyes. Then he let out a snort and made his way back to the recliner, holding the side of the gun up against his chest with one hand and steadying himself with the other. He shook his head adamantly when I tried to settle him down into the chair. With his free hand wiping the length of his face from his forehead down to his chin, he descended back into the dark mood.
After catching his breath he looked down. “Your mother hated this thing, God rest her.” He rattled the gun in his hand. “She told your Aunt Elena she wanted to throw it in the trash. I told her if she did that I’d kill her.” Another wipe of his face with the free hand. “Where is your mother?” Dad tapped the Naugahyde arm of the recliner. “She’s supposed to be back by now.”
“Dad, she’s gone. You know that.”
“She told me she was going to the store. It’s almost dinner time.”
“No. It’s not even time for lunch yet. Are you hungry?”
Dad shifted in his seat and grabbed for the remote control. “I know what time it is. Why won’t this damn thing work?” He pointed the remote at the TV and jammed his thumb over several of the buttons. It flickered and the news came on. “Isn’t it time for Millionaire?”
Millionaire had to be on some channel. I scrolled through and found another of his favorites, Jeopardy. I thought, I’ll take World War II for $500, please. This D-Day hero was the son of a famous president who also bore the same name. Who is Theodore Roosevelt Junior? Correct for $500.
“Get my book. My book!” Dad pointed to the drawer below where the gun had been stored, under the safe. I opened it and searched among the papers and found a scrapbook, which I brought over and placed in his lap.
He fingered the pages and opened them gingerly. Old photos scattered to the floor, the cellophane no longer able to hold them in place. There he was in his uniform, leaning against a jeep, smoking a cigarette, tall and trim, with a shock of dark hair curled on his forehead. The camera shot just caught the sideways glance in his eye. It made him look shy. Or devilish.
“Do you know who that is?” He pointed to an officer standing next to him in the photo.
I shook my head.
“Roosevelt, the son.”
“Wow.” I had no idea.
“That man saved my life. I was ready to hang it up. We were all sure we’d never make it off the beach. This guy’s standing in the water. He shakes my hand after I get off the boat and tells me to head over to the right. Bullets flying everywhere. Guys falling all around us. Him? Not a bit scared. Gives me a cigarette and tells me to get going. Instead of falling apart I joined the other men. Somehow I made it out alive.”
Dad wiped his hand across his forehead and paused for a few seconds. “When we got back, and for the longest time after that, nobody, nobody in the US would buy a German car.” He took a deep breath and shrugged his shoulders. “Now, nobody cares.” He turned to look in the kitchen. “Where in the hell is that Adelene?”
I thought back to my own Volkswagen from college, a green beetle with rusted-out floors. Then I was more interested in marching against the military-industrial complex, not boycotting some overseas automaker from long ago. Where was Adelene? I’d been here for fifteen minutes and hadn’t heard anything from her.
The book slid from Dad’s lap and I bent over to pick it up. Loose papers and more pictures fell to the floor. I sat facing Dad on the ottoman and together, we sorted through them. Dad opened the letters and scanned them, folding them back up without comment. Once in while he’d flip a picture over and point. “He’s governor of New Jersey. That one’s a four-star general in the army.” Some of the pictures were labeled on the back. “A lot of these guys never made it. Nothing to do but press on. Hear me? Press on.”
The gun slipped down and now lay cradled between his belly and his thighs.
I’ll take World War II for $1,000. The origin of this acronym was taken from the initials stamped on commonly used trash cans and buckets. What are GI, galvanized iron? Correct for $1000! I’ll take World War II for $400.
“GI stands for Government Issue. Government Issue! Not galvanized iron. Everybody knows that.” He fumbled for the gun, lifted it with two hands and pointed it at Alex Trebek.
He laughed a short laugh. “Why doesn’t he just shut up?”
I reached over and turned off the TV. “Let’s fix you some soup or maybe a sandwich.” I darted into the kitchen to look for Adelene. No sign of her or anything to do with lunch. I hunted around in the cabinet to see what I could find. “How about some tuna fish?”
“Where’d you learn how to cook?” Dad was standing behind me. He made his way over to the kitchen table and eased himself down into a chair. “Let your mother do the cooking.”
Where was the gun? Then I saw it, stuffed beneath his belt. “Tuna fish is not cooking.”
“Is to me. She puts that relish in it, a tiny drop.”
I searched in the refrigerator for relish and pulled out a bottle.
“Not that! The red kind!” Dad placed his hands on either side of the chair and began to lift himself up to move toward the refrigerator. There was the sound of a thud and a flash of metal spinning around on the linoleum floor. The barrel stopped at my foot, pointing at me as though I was the winner in a cynical spin-the-bottle move with no one to kiss.
My toe twitched inside my shoe. There was nowhere to look but down at that metal. It was mostly dull although there were glints of shine as it caught the fluorescent light of the kitchen. I stared at it, mesmerized by the possibilities.
A bullet to the foot wouldn’t be deadly. Maybe not even crippling. The body has an amazing ability to heal, right? And, anyway, laying there on its own, the gun couldn’t shoot by itself. It needed a partner, someone to hold it. Someone to become what the gun and the person decide to become. Together, what would we be? A bank robber? An FBI agent? A war hero? Things I would never dream of on my own.
I picked it up from the floor and held it against my palm. So cold. So heavy. Now, it was an instrument. I positioned the trigger against my finger and held it up to my line of sight.
“That’s right.” He looked at me, the gray in his eyes reflecting back like a mirror, his smile slight but meaningful. “Now you know.”
My hand shook, not from weakness but from excitement. I didn’t have a plan to shoot it. Holding the gun was enough.
The screen door slammed and Adelene’s voice travelled from the back of the house. “Sorry I took so long, Mr. Morrissey. I couldn’t find nothing of that tool box.”
I lowered the heavy metal and placed it back in his lap. He nodded and cradled it in his two hands.
“Mister Morrissey! Give me that!” Adelene’s full figure crashed in to the kitchen. “You storming Normandy today?” With one swoop she whisked the weapon away from him.
“Take care of this,” she said, handing the gun to me. “Take good care of it.”
Cindy Layton writes literary fiction, fiction for young adults, and is a contributor to the blog Acts of Revision (www.actsofrevision.com). She studied creative writing at the graduate level and at Grub Street, Boston. Her writing has also appeared in the literary magazine Peeks and Valleys.