Vincent Barry’s affection for creative writing is rooted in the theatre. More years ago than he prefers to remember, his one-act plays caught the attention of the late Arthur Ballet at the University of Minnesota’s Office for Advanced Drama Research and Wynn Handman at New York’s The American Place Theatre. Some productions followed, as well as a residency at The Edward Albee Foundation on Long Island. Meanwhile, Barry was teaching philosophy at Bakersfield College in California and authoring textbooks. Now retired from teaching, and living in Santa Barbara with his wife and daughter, Barry has returned to his first love, fiction. His stories have appeared in numerous publications in the U.S. and abroad.
For the Child’s Sake
One day out of the blue a girl who called herself Lily Dale heard a distant word as if from the eponymous magnet for mediums just south of Buffalo. The word read like a telegram:
DEAR YOU STOP IN TOUCH WITH GHOST OF HEART’S DESIRE STOP MORE TO
At first the flour loving flapper with bobbed hair and bound chest didn’t know what to make of the message, but then again few knew what to make of anything after the great disillusionment of the Great War.
Still, when not listening to jazz and frequenting blind pigs in short skirts and high heels, Lily Dale did dream dreams of her “heart’s desire.” And, if pressed, the unmanacled sheba, in sequins and lace and hemline to the knee, would admit unblushingly that, yes, she did believe in ghosts, of war—immaterial souls who had been lost in horror and futility, heroism and glory—, not because table rapping and speaking in tongues were all the rage, which they were, but because—well, she just had to, for the child’s sake, which, of course, wasn’t at all like a flapper--having to do anything. But what else could she do but make an exception, the charity girl with popping black eyes and red cupid’s bow mouth— for the child’s sake, what else could she do but to listen and dream?
So, you could say, I suppose, the word she got, a summons really, made little sense to Lily Dale, save for “heart,” “desire,” “ghost,” and “war.” They, to be sure, made a cruel kind of sense, which she spurned in juice joints and gin mills, in cloche and shift dress, doing drunken jigs till the sun came up.
Though she tried to silence it, the nagging message continued to hum in her head like an indocile earworm.
Then came the disclosure:
DEAR YOU STOP HEART’S DESIRE STOP HORN-MAD ABOUT DEATH STOP
His own death, it meant, met taking an eight millimeter bullet that pierced the chest wall and entered the heart. But for that single report of the Mauser in the brooding gloom, all was quiet when the unflurried youth fell—eyes fast shut, stiff before he hit the ground.
Lily Dale, for her part, sometimes mused whether her heart’s desire considered, as he fell, life not much to lose, as had he when his country said, “Son, there’s work to be done,” and gave him a gun, and marched him away to the roll of a drum and the siren call of whatever may come.
But it wasn’t any of that, any of the how he met his death that was vexing the spirit. It was the when.
THE SECRETARY OF WAR DESIRES ME TO EXPRESS HIS DEEP REGRET THAT
YOUR HUSBAND PRIVATE HECTOR DALE WAS KILLED IN ACTION ON
ELEVEN NOVEMBER IN FRANCE STOP LETTER FOLLOWS STOP WITSELL
ACTING THE ADJUTANT GENERAL
Being cut down on the eleventh day of eleventh month, nineteen hundred and eighteen—That, the spirit felt, was unfair, dying on the day of the peace.
“‘Husband,’” the normally unflappable flapper said with a shaking voice, her throat tensing in an aching spasm. Then, after an absorptive pause, she slipped a pale green potion of the Last Word in her garter, which was the color of her favorite bucket hat, sepia. And as she did so she said of Hector Dale, softly and affectionately, “My police dog with a flask who left me knocked me up without so much as a handcuff.”
Then she heard of trying to reason with him, Hector’s spirit, as if, she thought, bearing now “the tearful smile of Andromache,” you can reason with a ghost.
“Told him,” whispered truly, “though it might be ugly and senseless, the timing and all, it wasn’t a question of fairness but destiny. And destiny has nothing to do with fairness.”
At that her breath failed her and her lips twitched. Then, with the bite of her red-lashed eyes lengthening and her throat choking, the fanciful flapper pulled up with a frightful clarity from god only knows where:
“Destiny is no moralist, she’s an ironist with a wicked wit. Take up her droll and detached view and you’ll rest in peace, otherwise this dun and sinister world.…”
And she clung to that, as if to a lifeline.
It’s unclear whether that aforesaid leechdom ever cured the shade. But Lily Dale it succored and braced.
And that was that for a long while, so long, in fact, that Lily Dale forgot she’d ever received distant communication.
Then of a sudden there sprang upon her a message, hook-delivered.
Cold with terror, and now with Betty Grable pincurls and grey tuxedo blouse, Lily Dale knew, with her padded shoulders and “v” belted waist, she knew, the erstwhile flapper did, how it would begin, “DEAR YOU,” and she knew, too, how she must respond: as she had a lifetime ago, from within, for the sake of the child, now a young man with a hand gone missing in some forest afar they called the Ardennes.