He snuck out of the house around 2 a.m. He tested each step so his wife, MaryAnn, would not hear it creak. He wore a camouflage back pack and camouflage pants and top. It was the dead of winter, unseasonably cold, down to minus one, it said on their outdoor thermometer. He had a plan, as he always did. This time, though, he would march to the finish.
March to his death.
Vic was a decorated United States Marine. He was given the Purple Heart when he threw himself on an I.E.D. – improvised explosive device – and saved the lives of three good buddies in his platoon.
They were in terrible shape. One had his entire hand blown off. Another had his knee blasted and was a bloody mess. A precious knee. They’d all joked about going down on one knee and proposing to Private First Class Ronny Abrams. The last Marine was unhurt except for a deep cut on his face that looked like lipstick.
Women! Vic could not do what he was supposed to do with MaryAnn. Images of the war flashed in front of him, as if Afghanistan, lousy, stinking Afghanistan, was right there in his bedroom.
How the men had talked about their homecoming. They would eat pizza with pepperoni and hot peppers. Guzzle down beer after beer. Such joy they took in naming their favorites: Budweiser, Coors, Rolling Rock, Schlitz. And imagined the beers with big heads on them when they poured them into tall glasses.
Little Richie said, “Me? Never liked beer. Give me a cup of coffee. Set ‘em up on the bar. Cup after cup. You can get a buzz, ya know?”
Vic began to shiver in the cold night. He looked above where the planets and constellations shone as bright as diamonds. He breathed from his mouth as if he were smoking. Such beauty! In the Afghan, they saw the very same stars. Would come out of their warm pup tents and stare at the glorious heavens. “Why, have I never appreciated them before?” he thought. “What a fool I’ve been.”
Of that he had no doubt as he walked quickly to banish the cold and the terrible thoughts running like reindeer through his head.
He banged his hands across his chest, one after the other, to warm himself up. Frostbite. One of the guys in the platoon forgot to wear his gloves and his frostbite spread to the rest of his body. In three months, DeShawn was dead. Stone cold dead. A good man.
Vic was all of 38 years old. In the rec room of their three-bedroom house, behind a glass case, were medals he had won. His 10-year-old daughter, Samantha, enjoyed dusting the case.
“Daddy? You make me so proud!”
The Purple Heart was surprisingly small with a profile of General George Washington. Below that, was a brilliant color purple, the likes of which he had never seen. Purple was the color of royalty in ancient Greece and Rome.
A tall silver statue of Arthur Ashe, swinging a tennis racket lay on the next shelf. Vic was a champion tennis player at his suburban Philadelphia high school. There was even a first place medal for soccer. Such muscled legs and thighs he had.
He told the men in his platoon, “When it came to dances, the girls had to take tickets, as if they were at a bakery.”
What a brilliant future awaited him.
Or did it?
Was it love at first sight?
MaryAnn had big brown eyes and shoulder-length blonde hair. They met at the CVS Pharmacy in the cough drop aisle. He felt like walking straight into her arms and never letting go. If hot soup and mashed potatoes are comfort foods, MaryAnn was a comfort woman.
He grabbed her hand and walked her to the small jewelry aisle. He pointed to a ring with a blue stone.
“Shall we?” he asked.
They each moved out of their family homes and put a down payment on a small bungalow, which would be a “starter home,” as it was called.
Then Vic made the worst decision of his life. He did talk it over with MaryAnn, who said, “If that’s what you really want, darling, then God bless you and do it.”
Basic training was at Parris Island, South Carolina.
Sweat poured off every pore of his body. His clothes stank and so did he. But he loved his country – that’s what they all say – and he would serve proudly and do whatever he was asked to do.
And proudly die for his country.
Such a contrast to his night march now. He walked stiff as a corpse down the sleeping streets. The lights were off in every single house. Darkness mirrored the contents of his heart.
He walked past the house of a former girlfriend, Eileen, whose circadian rhythms were all messed up. The lamp was on in the living room. What was she doing? Reading, he supposed. Or watching Netflix.
Suddenly, her head popped out the door.
“Who goes there?” she said with her breathy voice.
“No one,” he answered. “No one.”
“Get your ass inside my house, mister,” she insisted. She pushed his camouflaged body into her living room.
The brightness shocked him. He began to remember all the fine times they had before he broke up with her.
Had she ever married?
Rings were on her thumb: a gold one – her third finger – bright silver – and a tiny one with a star like a sea shell hugged her ring finger.
She gave him an enormous back-clapping hug to warm him up, patting him up and down, up and down.
“Sit here,” she said, rubbing a place next to her on the furry blue sofa.
“Funny,” she said. “I just heard an owl and stuck my head out the front door.
“Whoo! Whoo! Whoo!” she cooed.
She went into the fridge and brought out a six-pack of Coors Beer.
“Drink it down, love,” she said. “Nothing makes you feel better than Coors, made from high mountain waters and water falls, you can’t find nowhere else ‘cept in the Rockies.”
Vic gave a hearty laugh.
“Nowhere, except on the plains of Afghanistan,” he laughed, as he popped open the cap and guzzled it down.
“Maybe I should have married you, Eileen,” he said, staring at her soft brown curls, baby blue eyes and puckered upper lip.
“As the song goes, ‘You saved my life tonight.’”
“Sweet Elton John,” she whispered. “But not half as sweet as you, you goddamn bugger, you!”