The rambling house sat on low-lying land, nearly surrounded by a grove of mature alders. The large, arched windows of one brightly lit room looked out onto a field, now covered by freshly fallen snow. No sound rankled the air of the darkening twilight, until the sharp cry of a single killdeer briefly pierced the quietude. Hearing it, the solitary figure of an elderly man standing in the warm window light spoke:
“Guess you missed the migration bus, buddy. Going to be a long winter for you.”
Arthur Buscomb turned away from the window and returned to his large desk. His laptop was open, its screen showing the poem on which he had been working. His study was nearly as silent as the outdoors, its only sound the persistent beat of an antique clock, and that was mostly absorbed by the few thousand books he had gathered over a lifetime of passionate reading. He pushed several piles of paper—correspondence with editors and authors, a contract for his current book, other ephemera he had hardly bothered to read—away from the machine, as if to create a more clearly defined field of vision. He held his head in his hands as he read over his work again, matting the leonine mane of grey hair that had been one of the hallmarks of his appearance for many years. In less than a minute, his immersion in his work was complete; he neither saw nor heard Madeleine, his wife of over forty years, enter his study.
“Art, so here are you are! You hardly ever work this late anymore.”
“I’m up against a blasted deadline. And, foolishly, I promised new work for this edition of collected poems. Big mistake. I’m stuck trying to retrieve a dactyl that means a spontaneous enthusiastic speech or rant—I know it exists. How’d things go in the lab today?”
“Oh, you know how geology works! We published something, somebody else has contrary findings, we point out that our data explain what their data can’t. There’s another go-round in the journals. Business as usual. Is it jeremiad?”
“No, good guess, but that’s not a dactyl.”
“Why don’t you just look it up in a thesaurus or something?” Madeleine parked herself on the edge of his desk, her attention drawn to the photo on the wall behind him, taken thirty years ago when he won the Pulitzer for poetry. The ice-blue eyes. How could it be that he was even better looking now, she wondered. As she perched on the corner of his desk, Arthur looked at her long shapely legs, still taut despite her age. But that was true of her whole body, really. She won her age division in every 5K she entered. Defeated younger women too. Some much younger.
Finally, he responded. “Well, I could look it up. But that wouldn’t be writing poetry anymore, now would it? Still, you have a point. I know I don’t have the retrieval I used to. And that means my lexicon is shrinking. Shrinking. And a poet without his lexicon is lost. But you: You’re not afraid of loss, are you, Maddie?”
They had been over this terrain before. His aging and his fears. And now it seemed those fears were increasing. Fear of dying. Or of being left. She thought it might be the latter this time.
“You know, Art, I happened to read an article recently in a sociology journal, of all places. Do you know what it said? There were findings showing that the idea that men die soon after the death of their wives is a myth. In fact, happily married men actually survive the death of their spouses better than happily married women survive their husbands’ death.”
“No, Art, that’s what the literature shows!”
“I don’t care what ‘the literature’ shows! In fact, I think ‘the literature’ can go to hell!”
Madeleine cocked her head and pursed her lips. She said nothing, but her expression nevertheless began a process. In a few seconds, Arthur reliably decoded several sequences of facework they had learned in their decades of partnership. He spoke next.
“Yes, well, yes, of course. I’m sorry. I let myself get worked up. It’s just that, all this ‘literature,’ these findings, results, reports: eat this, do this, think this, marry this one. But let me tell you, here’s how life really works. You look for someone and you find them. You know who they are. And here’s how you know: You hold hands with them and jump off a cliff. And then you find you fly instead of fall.”
Madeleine responded with her robust, pleasant laugh. “That’s lyrical and wonderful! Forget about the dactyl you were looking for, write about that instead!”
“Well, it’s not quite that simple. Poetry is kind of a ballistic process—once you’re launched, you need to land.” He eased back in his chair, seeming to relax. She watched the tension leave his face.
“Just before you came in, Maddie, I heard a killdeer, of all things, out at the edge of the alders. I was surprised; it’s been weeks since I’ve seen one. I don’t think he’ll come to our feeder, but I hope he makes it.”
“We’ll come up with some way to feed him.” Then she fixed her husband with an intense look. “Grab your coat, Arthur. We’re going out.”
“Tonight? With all that snow! What are we looking for?”
“An open restaurant. Or a cliff. Whichever comes first.”
Madeleine Boatwright was insistent. “Come on Art, it’s a beautiful January morning. What else do we have to do? And besides, our running shoes cost too much to just let them sit in the box.” Arthur, her husband and now reluctant running partner, looked out the window. The Minnesota sky was as blue as a Pharaoh’s lapis lazuli, the sun dazzling on the inch of snow that had fallen overnight.
“What about the snow? We’re older now; we might slip and fall.”
“Oh, tosh. Hardly more than a dusting. Let’s go, and we’ll have pancakes when we get back!”
“Okay. Wait—whose pancakes, yours or mine?”
“Yours, of course.”
The day was still and the country road empty of traffic. Every twig that snapped in the crystalline sky seemed amplified even as their footfalls were muffled. They ran silently side by side for two miles.
Finally Madeleine spoke up. “It’s a cliché, but even an inch of snow makes the woods and landscape look magical.”
“Well, even an inch would be a surfeit in Arkansas, for sure.”
She looked at him sharply, taking in the details of his face as if they told a story. Which they practically did: the hardscrabble childhood in Little Rock, escaping the abusive father by enlisting, the ambush on the Quang Tri highway, the undiagnosed PTSD, the drinking. Who could have foreseen that all of this was just the precursor to the flowering of a once-in-a-generation poetic talent? He had just started talking about Arkansas again after all these years. Was that past creeping back into their lives like a malignancy? Arthur didn’t notice her staring. His breathing had become a little labored.
She decided to lighten up the situation. “Breathe in that winter air! It’s invigorating!”
“You know, Maddie, this whole thing kind of hurts a little.”
“Of course it hurts. This is running, you silly man!”
“It’s just that it was lot easier to run before I acquired a certain embonpoint.”
“And that means exactly what, dear?”
“You know, having a somewhat rounded, fleshy form.”
“Not like you to use a French word. I would have thought you’d go with an old Anglo-Saxon word like pudgy.”
“Actually, the etymology of pudgy is uncertain. Still, you make a good point. Pudgy does have that slightly irregular orthography I crave.” He sucked in a quick breath. “Problem is, pudgy sounds like a word you’d use for a kid. And I’m no kid.”
“Maybe so, but still I’d rather be called pudgy than fat.”
“Hey, who’re you calling fat?”
Her quick laugh erupted like a pistol shot in the frigid air. “Knew I could get you to bite. You know that song ‘Irresistible You?’”
“A little before my time, but yeah: Tommy Dorsey.”
“I should write a takeoff called ‘Irascible You.’”
It was his turn to laugh despite himself. But now he was breathing heavily. “Had a perfectly lovely time running with you, but I have to stop. What about you?”
“I’ll be okay on my own for just a few more miles.” She paused for a second and looked at him. “And so will you, Art.”
“Debatable. But okay. See you back at the house.”
He stopped. He hadn’t noticed the sky clouding up and now issuing a few swirling flurries. He watched his wife’s purposeful stride into the sudden snow squall, her image graying out in less than a minute. She did not look back. He turned to trudge home, then shivered, and thought it might be a good idea to start running again to stay warm. “At a gentle pace,” he told himself. But once underway, he seemed to find a second wind. This isn’t that bad after all, he thought. He moved with a fluidity that surprised him. He was about halfway home when he heard the unmistakable, astringent cry of a killdeer. It could only be the one he had heard a month ago, the one that somehow, inexplicably, had not left in the fall. They had been feeding it every day since, with bait left out in a box of compost by the edge of the alder grove.
“Well, buddy, it sounds like you survived another winter night in Minnesota. Who would have thought it?” He started to whistle: “The Two Grenadiers.” The sun had already come back out. He picked up his pace.
Arthur was searching for a word, and he was stuck. Well, he thought with resignation, that’s happening a lot these days. He gazed out the oversized leaded-glass window of his spacious study. Spring had finally come to Minnesota. The stream was flowing freely; the alders on its banks were beginning to leaf out. It was no longer necessary to feed the solitary killdeer that had mysteriously overwintered on their property. As was his practice when stuck, Arthur got up and started to pace, absently looking at the titles on the built-in bookshelves. How many books did he own? He had never cataloged them. Must be at least five thousand. His eye came upon his beat-up copy of Strunk and White, and he smiled appreciatively. You just can’t improve on some things, he thought. He had circled the room and now he began to read the text of a framed citation mounted on the wall behind his desk:
On the afternoon of June 15th, 1968, on Highway 1 in Quang Tri province, Republic of South Vietnam, a convoy of the 4th Engineer Battalion (4th Infantry Division), under the command of Lieutenant Arthur G. Buscomb, . . .
Reading the reference to himself as “Lieutenant,” Arthur turned away, no longer focusing on the words, which he knew anyway. Despite his efforts, it all came back again . . .
Arthur tore yesterday’s page off his calendar and looked at today’s date: June 15, 1968. Another stinking hot day in the Republic of Vietnam. What was on the docket? It looked like his platoon of men and trucks was scheduled to transport rations and medical supplies from Da Nang, through Hue, along the coastal road to Quang Tri, where they would be off-loaded at 1st Cav’s supply dump. Arthur knew VC cadres were still in the area; they had attacked Quang Tri in the Tet Offensive, and again just last month. No question, it was dangerous that close to the DMZ.
The cruel sun of Vietnam was riding high in the sky when they saw the marker: Quang Tri, 10 Kilometers. Arthur rode shotgun in the lead deuce-and-a-half. Both he and the driver, SFC Michael Jones, were in full battle gear; Arthur cradled his M16. The third crewmember, Spec 4 Alfonso Lincoln, armed with an M60 machine gun, provided rear security in the truck bed. Now Arthur heard him clatter forward. Lincoln pushed aside the canvas curtain separating the truck body from the cab, and stuck his head and upper body over the seat bolster between Arthur and Jones.
“Whew! What a hot one! Shame we can’t grill out. I love to grill.”
Arthur kept his eyes on the road. “I bet you’re pretty good at it, too.”
“Yes sir! When we get outta this hellhole I’m gonna have everybody from this platoon down home to Mississippi. And we’ll grill out a whole mess of stuff—barbecue, catfish, you name it! What about you, sir? What’s the first thing you’re gonna do when you get home?”
Arthur had an instant image of his alcoholic father sleeping it off on a day like today. “I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m going to do.” He looked over at Lincoln for the first time and saw he was wearing a boonie cap. “Hey, Lincoln, get your helmet on! We’re the lead vehicle.”
“Yes sir, I will. But sir, that Victor-Charley? He’s nowhere in these parts, sir. I can smell him when he comes around.”
Then a susurration of air as if expelled from a pipe was followed by a concussive roar from the back of the convoy. In a second, a huge plume of smoke shot into the air.
“That was a mortar round! It hit the back of the convoy!” Jones called out as he jammed on the brakes.
Arthur looked in the rear-view mirror and saw the men of his platoon tumble out of their trucks and run in scared circles, their weapons drawn and blazing away at the enfolding jungle. And now an enemy machine gun opened up from a position on Arthur’s side of the truck. A bullet shattered the windshield. Arthur instinctively ducked under the dash. The bullet had whistled past his face by only inches. The machine gun played on the rest of the convoy. Arthur lifted up his head to see, with horror, that the bullet had shattered Lincoln’s skull. His upper body drooped over the seat bolster where a river of blood was flowing and making a puddle on the seat.
“Jonesy, grab Lincoln’s gun! I’ll get the bandolier.” In a split second, the two men burst out of the cab and tumbled to the ground together. Arthur hopped up instantly and set the machine gun on the truck’s hood, pulling Jones up and putting the gunstock in his hands. “Gimme suppression at two o’clock—the whole string.”
“Sir, you can’t—”
“Just do it.”
Jones inserted the bandolier and pulled the trigger. The gun began hopping all over the hood of the truck, adding its crazy chatter to the enemy machine gun’s bark, and the foomp of additional mortar rounds.
Arthur crouched down behind the left front tire as he calculated the time it would take for the VC crew to stop firing and get their heads down. Then he took off, sprinting up the road sixty feet before swerving into the jungle. The enemy position was barely visible through the thick jungle vegetation. Arthur removed a fragmentation grenade from his combat vest. Can’t lob it, he thought, the canopy is too thick—it’ll deflect it. It’ll have to be a baseball throw. Easy does it, just like tossing batting practice back in high school. He pulled the pin, counted three seconds, threw the grenade, and then dug his face and arms into the moist regur on the jungle floor. “Christ,” he said to himself, “it’s only been five years since I was in high school?”
Just as Jones’s machine gun reached the end of the belt, the grenade went off with a head-splitting blast. Arthur was about to jump up when a second blast wave passed over him, with even greater intensity, blinding white and oven-hot. Before the air stilled, Arthur sprang to this feet and ran to the enemy emplacement, firing short bursts from his M16 as he advanced.
In seconds, he was at the edge of a clearing in the jungle. The grenade had landed near one of the mortar’s WP rounds and cooked it off. Phosphorous—that was the second explosion, thought Arthur. His ears were ringing. He was concussed and disoriented.
Arthur entered the space created by the destruction he had caused. It was wicked hot. Small tongues of flame ignited by the incendiary round licked their way up the tree trunks. The light shifted spasmodically, diffused by smoke and dappled by the remaining leaves, some of them also crackling in flames. Something dripped on his shoulder. Then again on his sleeve. Arthur looked up into the remaining low branches of the jungle canopy. Tattered fragments of the enemy soldiers’ uniforms. Body parts too, in shreds of dark green uniforms, now black with blood. Dripping, spattering the jungle floor. Directly above him, Arthur saw a handless arm hanging neatly in the crook of a branch, blood from the wrist and shoulder drizzling onto his uniform, and now, as he looked up, onto his face. He closed his eyes, overpowered by the heat and death, the flames, and the blood. He wondered, Where the hell am I? Then another drop of blood fell on his face, and he realized where he was, and where he was doomed to be.
Arthur looked down at what was left of the mortar and machine-gun crews. All dead. Wait—one of them a few feet away had begun to move, first raising his upper body and then kneeling back. Blood was coming from his ears—no doubt he was concussed too—but other than that, he seemed miraculously unhurt. He couldn’t have been more than eighteen; there wasn’t a trace of a beard on his almost-girlish face. Arthur approached the soldier, who suddenly became aware of his presence but did not grab a weapon. Still kneeling, the soldier raised both hands in a gesture of surrender. “Tôi đầu hàng! Tôi đầu hàng!”
Arthur saw just the hint of a smirk on the young soldier’s face. Maybe that was what did it.
“Oh, now you want to surrender? It’s way too late for that.”
Arthur changed the fire selector of his weapon from short burst to single shot. He walked the final few feet to where the VC was still kneeling, pointed his gun at the soldier’s head, and fired a single bullet into the middle of his forehead. The VC rocked back onto the jungle floor, his body contorted impossibly. But his open, unblinking eyes stared back at Arthur. In death, his face looked even younger. The smirk was gone. But in its place, Arthur could almost hear a question from the full, half-open lips: “I’m just a kid. Why did you kill me?”
Arthur looked at the body and spoke. “I told you. It was too late. Understand? It was too late.” He continued to stare at the soldier’s corpse. Then he turned and walked out of the jungle and back to the highway.
He emerged into Vietnam’s naked sunlight to find Jones loping toward him from the back from the convoy.
“What’s our situation?” Arthur asked.
“Three dead, six more wounded, a couple pretty bad. Karp left a leg in the truck.”
“Yes sir. Choppers are on their way. Battalion advised us to get to Quang Tri as fast as we could.”
“No shit. Like we couldn’t have figured that out.” Arthur put his head down, as if to clear his mind. Then he lifted his gaze and spoke again. “As soon as the choppers are off, we’ll get back on the road.” He turned and walked to the back of the convoy, where two trucks were still burning. When he got there, he found Private Karpinski being tended by his truck mates. They had managed to stop the worst of the bleeding. Pieces of bone, muscle, and white fat were visible at the raw end of Karpinski’s missing right leg. He was ranting in pain and panic.
“Oh Christ! Look at me! Look at my leg! What’s that white shit? Oh Christ! This goddam place!”
Arthur knelt down and brought his face close to the wounded soldier. He moved his hand up to the man’s face, blocking his sight of the mangled and severed leg.
“Karp, listen,” Arthur said gently. “You’re going to be okay. You’re getting out of here, and you’ll never have to come back. They’ll fix you up. I’ve seen what they can do.”
“Oh Christ.” Karpinski was sobbing. “My mom told me not enlist, said I’d get killed. That woulda been better than this.”
“Karp, don’t talk like that. You’re going home. Home, Karp. And your mom is going to be so glad to see you, she won’t know what to do.”
Karpinski focused on Arthur’s face. “You think so, sir? You mean it?”
“Sure, Karp. It’ll be okay, you’ll see.” The roar of helicopter rotors now made it impossible to hear as the medevac unit landed on the road behind the convoy. Arthur stood up. A squad of corpsmen leaped out of the helicopters and immediately began to gather the wounded and the dead. The squad leader approached Arthur.
“Any more, Lieutenant?”
“Yeah. One dead in the lead truck.”
“We’ll get that taken care of right away.”
Arthur took off his helmet and squinted again at the implacable sun. Jones had something to say to him after the corpsman moved off to the lead truck.
“Sir, I’m going to write this up and put in for you, sir. We all would have been killed except for what you did.”
Arthur looked at him blankly.
“Sir?” Jones responded.
“All would have been killed?” Arthur looked down at the blood on his uniform. Lincoln. The VC squad. The unarmed boy. Arthur rubbed his face. “Sometimes I think we’re all dead anyway. Thanks just the same, Jonesy. But there’s really no need.”
Arthur rubbed his face and turned back to the citation.
. . . under the command of Lieutenant Arthur G. Buscomb, began to receive hostile machine gun and mortar fire from a concealed enemy position. Lieutenant Buscomb immediately ordered suppressive fire in response. With no regard for his own safety, he maneuvered to the enemy’s flank and single-handedly brought the enemy emplacement under attack with grenade and automatic rifle fire, silencing it, and thus saving the lives of the soldiers entrusted to his command. In recognition of his selfless devotion to duty, the grateful people of the United States of America do hereby present Lieutenant Arthur G. Buscomb the Bronze Star for valor in combat.
He hadn’t noticed Madeleine quietly enter the study. She walked up behind him and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. Leaning against him, she nestled her head between his shoulder blades.
“Take it down, Art. Take it down if it’s causing you trouble again.”
He turned around in her arms.
“Not that easy.”
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you so torn apart by what happened. Now, just in this last year, it seems like it’s all coming back again. You’re talking about Arkansas and brooding over that damned citation.”
He met her steady gaze and said quietly, “I don’t think you can possibly know what it’s like to wake up every morning with one question burning its way through your mind.”
“And that is?”
“Can I ever be redeemed?” He looked away but continued to speak. “What can I do to repay my debt? To make up for what I’ve done? One day I walked into the jungle and killed a boy in cold blood. What can I do to make up for that?”
“Art, listen,” she began with tenderness, “Who knows what you’ve taken out of this world? All we know is what you have put into it. And that’s your redemption, Art. As far as we know, whatever we do here is the most redemption any of us will ever get.”
He looked into her eyes again, and what he said chilled her. “I don’t know if I can accept that. But whether I accept it or not, death is back, Maddie. It’s in my nostrils. It’s in my brain. The whole thing, the blood and the body parts, the boy, I can see them, their eyes. I can hear them calling me back. And I can feel them; they never really let go.”
He held his eye contact with her until she looked down. Her eyes still downcast, she nodded, “I know Art. I know.”
As if emerging from a fog, Arthur looked up to see that he was standing at the entrance to a brightly lit dance hall. It must be Saturday night, he thought. The gentle warm breeze and the fragrance of magnolia told him he was somewhere in the South. He looked at his watch and saw that he was wearing his uniform. This didn’t surprise him. As if programmed, he went in. It was dark inside, the only light provided by a few garish bulbs. He stood at the edge of the room and glanced around self-consciously. The dance hall was crowded. He discovered without alarm that he seemed to have wandered in sometime during World War II. Most of the men were like him—soldiers, and young. A few older couples dotted the crowd. Almost all the women were taxi dancers, standing together in clumps waiting for a partner, ten cents a dance. The band was playing a hot, brassy, jazzy number.
Arthur noticed that one of the taxi dancers was an exquisitely beautiful girl. Tall, with shining brown hair, medium length, swept back from her face onto the top of her head, and ending in a flipped-up curl at her shoulders. The girl saw him too, and she left the crowd to walk toward him, smiling as if she knew him. As she approached, she began speaking in the melodious, soft consonants he remembered from the girls of his youth:
You and me--
Now, we go back.
Now don’t we?
She cocked her head just a bit, a faint smile on her voluptuous lips. She continued to walk toward him, her steps becoming lighter and more dance-like as she got closer. She seemed to float as she put her face up to his, smiling more broadly and, moving her hand toward her body, offering herself as a dance partner:
A bit blue?
Come over here!
We’re not through!
With her glistening eyes and forward expression suggesting that being alone was no way for a young man to spend a Saturday night, she spun with a surprising suddenness to cling to his left shoulder. Arthur stood rooted. A musical laugh escaped her as she coiled her body against his and spoke again:
A nice girl!
Just what you need!
I’m that pearl.
Then she gracefully swirled away from his shoulder with a dancer’s limber, light steps. In an instant she was leaning against his back, her beautiful face downcast in a frown:
Dance with me?
I wish you would.
Set you free!
Then she stood tall, drawing herself to her full height. Her right hand fluttered out from her body, and she tucked her left forearm against the small of his back, pirouetting on her left foot like a point guard driving for the basket. She interlocked her fingers on his right shoulder and, raising her supple body on tiptoes, she spoke into his ear. The breath from her generous lips, not an inch away, was arousing:
Feel how warm!
But Death it is,
In my form.
She separated her hands abruptly, drawing her fingers down the front and back of his body for just a second before spinning with balletic poise on her right foot to face him, shooting him a sidelong glance over her shoulder, her hair and dress continuing to move in slow motion entrancingly as she stepped up to him, her face almost touching his, and grabbed the lapels of his uniform, her beautiful mouth now twisted into a cruel smile:
Play for time?
Yer outta luck!
It’s my dime.
Arthur was making pancakes the next day when Madeleine came in the kitchen door, shedding her soggy running shoes.
“Hi, hon. How was the run? Muddy out there today?” His greeting was formulaic and toneless.
“Hi, Art. A bit muddy, yes, but it was fine. Those pancakes smell great!” She sniffed. “But there’s something wrong with the refrigerator—it smells electric-y for some reason, and Art, for the love of God, please don’t say it’s because it’s old like everything else around here.”
He ignored the invitation to chuckle, keeping his gaze on the pancake griddle. “Okay, I won’t say it. I’ll call Tony tomorrow morning.”
“What’s the matter, Art? A bit blue?”
He jerked his head in her direction. She couldn’t have known, but still, it was eerie. “I had the dream again last night.”
“Same girl. She had her hair done up a little differently this time, more like the bouffant Jackie Kennedy wore in the sixties. But it was her.”
“Yeah, same as always. She did something a little different this time, though. She made fun of poetry, speaking in a kind of degenerate terza rima.”
“I noticed you had Dante by the nightstand.”
“Right, I’m sure that was it.” He turned back to the griddle, and flipped the pancakes robotically.
She came up behind him, placed her hands on his right shoulder, and whispered in his ear. “Maybe it’s time to see Dr. Keffler again, Art. He’s helped you before.”
He turned his head and saw the worry on her face. “Okay, I’ll call him. But you know I can’t stand making two phone calls in one day, so which is it, Keffler or Tony?”
Hearing him joke about it melted at least some of her concerns. She smiled. “I guess I’d rather have a husband than a refrigerator.”
“A choice not all wives would endorse. But I’m happy you feel that way. Now let’s have breakfast, shall we, before the pancakes get cold.”
Arthur pedaled hard through the wan sunlight, well aware that the biting breeze out of the north was just a harbinger of what Minnesota would offer her residents in the months ahead. A small flock of killdeer by the road started a ruckus when he invaded their space. He stopped, wondering if the killdeer that had overwintered on their property last year was among them.
“Listen up, you simple-minded bastard, if you’re still out there. This time, when you see all your friends fly away, you go with them, okay? This winter is going to be hard enough without having to worry about you too.”
For a minute, Arthur remained there, one leg down, his gloved hands on the bicycle’s brake hoods. His eyes drifted up, reflecting the pristine blue of the cloudless sky. Then he clipped his shoe back into the pedal and cycled off, the killdeer’s petulant, piercing cries slowly fading away as he rode on.
There was no traffic on the country road. He found himself at the cemetery entrance in just a few minutes. He turned in, and slowly cycled through its lanes until he came to the row of gravestones he was already too familiar with. There he stopped, dismounted, and walked the bike to the most recently added stone in the row. He touched it, and the glacier-blue eyes went skyward again for a moment before he steeled himself to look down at the name and dates on the stone:
Madeleine R. Boatwright
May 1, 1945—August 16, 2017
De Terra Stabiliter
Arthur removed his bicycle helmet and held it in front of him. His signature mane of lank, plentiful silver-grey hair had been replaced by a military haircut. “Well, Maddie, seems I was right. Death did come back. But you had an idea it would, didn’t you? You knew what was up, way sooner than I did.” What did she know? And when? That thought had often set his brain on fire these last few months, but then . . .
“But then, what’s the point of trying to figure that out now,” he finished out loud.
He reached into his vest pocket and withdrew a pebble that he had hacked out of their backyard that morning, using her favorite rock pick, a wicked twenty-two ounces of composite steel. She had promised him once that she would bury it in the chest of any intruder who dared to break into their isolated home. He smiled. He didn’t doubt that for a second. He looked at the pebble absently: it was a piece of the Precambrian metamorphic rock known as Canadian Shield. It was not a rare stone—far from it.
“Right under our feet, from Alberta all the way to Maine,” she had told him.
He fingered the jagged slate-grey stone. “Well, if we were actually Jewish this would mean a whole lot more. I’m not sure it’s even going to work coming from a lapsed Baptist to an Episcopalian, but anyway, here you go.” He put the rock atop the gravestone and stepped back.
There was a crackling in his helmet’s earpiece. It was his longtime friend Henry Gaffigan, an emeritus historian. “I’m down at the cemetery gate. No hurry, Art.”
Arthur looked at his watch; it was time for their weekly ride together. He patted the gravestone. Then he walked the bike back to the lane and rode to the gate, where he met his friend.
“Hi, Art. Ready for some serious riding?”
“As serious as it pays two old men to be about anything, sure.”
They rode deliberately, exchanging only a few words. The singing spokes of their wheels, and the clicking and clacking of their derailleurs played a mournful obbligato to the birdcalls and lonely windsong of the Minnesota prairie. At an hour’s end, tired, but satisfied with their ride, they pulled up side by side at the lane of Arthur’s home.
Henry took off his helmet and looked at his friend searchingly. “Art, I must say, you’re doing well, considering how quickly Madeleine was taken. But I hope you continue to give yourself time. When I lost Nancy, I felt I had to throw myself into my work. And you, you’ve always been so driven. But don’t do it. Give yourself a break before you get back to the poetry.”
“But I’m not going to write poetry anymore, Hank.”
“What? Why not?”
“Don’t need to. I’ve said what I had to, or what I thought I had to. I’m done with poetry. But I’m not done writing. I’m going to do something different now. Not trying to imply anything about your profession, Hank, but I think I’d like to write history now.”
Henry smiled. “Well, if anybody could make that switch, you’d be the one. So tell me, what do you want to write about?”
“For heaven’s sake, Art! Nothing like starting off with the hard problems! So many people have worked on trying to understand Vietnam—historians, political scientists, writers, even poets, right? And are we any closer?”
“Hank, I don’t think I can tell people how to understand Vietnam. But I think I can explain when the understanding will begin. And that is, when we learn that we don’t have to see it through our pain anymore. When we realize that Vietnam was one more time in an endless march of times in which we discovered, too late, that we couldn’t stop ourselves from doing terrible things to each other. Understanding will begin when we learn that we no longer have to sing our sad lament about all those terrible things. Because the dead, all of them, have found their peace by now.”
As the sun slipped earthward, a cold wind rose up behind them, flapping their helmet straps and blowing debris from the harvested field down the road. Henry shuffled his feet, but said nothing. Arthur continued, “She told me something, right before the end. ‘Don’t you understand, Art? This will release you,’ she said. ‘You won’t be tormented anymore.’ I didn’t get it then. Now I do. She was trying to tell me about the paradox of death. Death destroyed people in Vietnam, but it created the poet Arthur Buscomb. Her death meant the end of the poet, but it freed this new me to be whoever I am going to be for the rest of my life.”
The sun’s final rays illuminated the prairie and all that was on it: the killdeer, the debris in the fields, the bicycles, and the two old men, their clothing, their faces.
Henry looked up, one tear shining in the last golden light. “Take care, Art. See you next week.”
“Sure thing. Same time, Hank.” Gaffigan saddled up and pedaled away.
Arthur watched his friend go. Then he pedaled up the soft lane to the large house next to alder grove and stream, the house that had sheltered them for over forty years. He parked the bike and strode up the front steps. Flinging the door open, he plunged inside. Dark as a crypt in here, he thought. He felt his way down the hall and into his office, where he turned on the green-shaded banker’s lamp on his desk. His gaze followed the pattern of light and shadows cast over the familiar contents of his office: the leather-bound first editions, the bric-a-brac accumulated over a career, the well-worn copy of Strunk and White, and finally, the Bronze Star citation. He gently lifted the framed citation off the wall, and held it in both hands for a moment. Then, just as gently, he slowly opened a bottom drawer in his desk, slid the citation inside, and closed the drawer. He exhaled. It was good to be home.