Ashes in Autumn
The second in a series of novellas that spans the decades. Learn more about the reclusive Vietnam war veteran from Gold in the Days of Summer and The Last Letter in this installment, set in the 1960s and 70s.
I’m so lost in the corners of my own mind when the doorbell rings, I open it without caution—like I’m a teenager again ready to run outside to meet Jimmy or Donny or Karen at a moment’s notice and without a care in the world.
That’s not how it usually is. Usually, I’m stricken by a sense of dread anytime a car pulls into the driveway. But I didn’t hear the tires, didn’t hear the car door, didn’t hear the footsteps on the porch.
I didn’t realize my mistake until I was a second too late.
“Oh, there you are!” Betsy Harold from the church is standing on my front porch, a red, white, and blue handcrafted ribbon on its way back into her purse. “Was about to put this away.” She chuckles nervously. “Didn’t think you’d come to the door, but I thought, ‘what the heck, let’s give it a try.’ You do know what today is, don’t you?”
I know what today is. It’s the day every one of us dreads. They make a big deal out of it—out of us—like we should be honored to be remembered. I’d be honored if I didn’t have to be honored at all, how about that? How about if we didn’t have to have a day to commemorate those who served because no one would have to serve at all. What a world that would be, huh?
Maybe Donny would be married to Susie McClusky and he’d see the world like he always wanted to. He wouldn’t be a pilot. Donny was never one for a uniform, even when he served. But he was a hell of a mechanic. Maybe he’d be repairing airplanes for commercial flights instead of working on the engines of our convoy. And they’d give him a few weeks off and he’d take his wife to Switzerland or something, and when they asked business or pleasure, he’d be able to answer honestly.
War is never pleasure.
“It’s Veteran’s Day!” Betsy exclaimed. Before I could protest, she placed the ribbon against my heart and patted it like that would make it stick. “We at the church want to honor you and the other boys as a thank you for your service. Why don’t you come on down for supper? We’re having baked ham, mashed potatoes, greened beans, and pie for dessert—”
“You’ll understand if I don’t…” I’m trying to be polite, but I just want her off my porch. I want to go back inside with my simple meal of chicken and rice and broccoli and my Joni Mitchell record and not think about ribbons or engines or church dinners.
Betsy’s face fell into a frown. “But there’s pie…”
How do I make someone like her understand? How to make anyone understand? Maybe some people liked that sort of thing—being thanked and all—but it wasn’t for me. What was I being thanked for? I didn’t want to go. I didn’t have a choice.
Her eyes softened then. Maybe she saw something in my face. Maybe she knew what I was thinking. But it was like she could see my heart just then. “My husband felt the same way after his war. Different war, but same sentiments. He felt lost for a long time, like the world had forgotten him, going on without him. I can’t say I’ll ever understand what you boys went through, and I can’t say I disagree with how you feel about it. But we try to do what we can for you.”
She was like a different woman then. In the span of a few words, she’d transformed from the nosy old church administrator who used to scold me for stealing too many gingerbread men at the holiday bazaar to someone with her own experiences, her own story.
“I remember you when you were just a boy, you know. It hasn’t been that long.” She smiled gently, and I felt myself softening towards her. I didn’t say anything. “You always were more polite than you let on—moreso than those friends of yours. Don’t think I don’t remember you picking up trash and playing with the little kids after church service.”
I could tell her that it was my dad that made me pick up the trash and that I’d rather be playing kickball in the yard or coloring in the play center with the kids than hanging around the church cafeteria listening to one more sermon from the adults.
But I don’t.
“Your mother would be so proud of you.” She waved her hand, like she thought I was going to protest. “Oh, I don’t mean for that.” She gestured to the ribbon now in my hand. I glanced down at it, ran my thumb along the strands of fabric. “Whenever she spoke of you, there was a light in her eyes. She called you her greatest gift. She would have done anything for you. She was a special woman, that one.” Betsy blinked and cleared her throat. “Anyway. Supper is tonight at six. Jimmy McCarson will be there. Every year he comes by and helps serve the meal, you know.”
Penance. That’s all I could think that was. Jimmy avoided the draft by having a busted knee, compliments of a rough tackle when we were twelve and playing football in the field past the woods. But his brother Donny had to serve. That kind of guilt will eat at anyone if you pay enough attention to it.
“I appreciate the offer, Mrs. Harold, but I think I’ll pass.”
Betsy offered a disappointed smile, like she’d been holding onto a shred of hope. “Well, you just think about it. Take care now.”
I nodded and watched as she slowly made her way down the porch steps, gripping the railing as she went. I glanced down at the ribbon in my hand again, then called out to her. She turned around, already halfway down the sidewalk.
“Thanks for what you said about my mom.”
She smiled and nodded and then was gone.
I mowed the lawn. It didn’t need mowing—the temperature had dropped a few weeks ago and a fresh layer of leaves littered the ground—but it was all I could think to do. I didn’t want to stay in the house. I definitely didn’t want to go to the church dinner. So mowing the lawn seemed like a pretty safe way to pretend to be productive without doing much of anything—another way to escape the layers of thought within my mind.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of movement. I shut off the lawn mower and crossed the few feet to the simple wood post fence that divided my yard from my neighbor’s. He lowered the hand he was waving, his other hand holding a metal rake, and nodded towards my driveway.
“That Betsy Harold’s car I saw earlier?” He chuckled. “Stopped by here, too.”
His statement surprised me. James Summer and I shared a few conversations over the fence over the years, but the topic of the war never came up. “You fought?”
James shook his head, a grim line creasing his mouth. “Afraid you boys got the bad end of that lousy bet. I’d give anything to have traded places with you.”
I was amazed by my lack of anger at his words. Anyone else and I would have scoffed, cursed them out, maybe even decked them. But not James Summer. Maybe that was the old me. Or maybe it was the sincerity I heard in his voice—the regret of an older generation seeing children pay their price. James wasn’t much older than me—ten, fifteen years at most. But he was a father, a son, a good man. His intentions were honorable. His heart would have wanted to make that sacrifice, even if he, the man, couldn’t.
“No, you wouldn’t,” I said softly, and for a moment he looked ashamed.
“You’re right,” he said. “You’re right. I wouldn’t. But I wish I was the kind of man who would.”
“I’d rather you wish it never had to happen at all.”
He nodded slowly, his frown deepening. The evening sun was setting, the sky a tapestry of orange and purple. The light hit the pile of leaves so that it looked like it was ablaze. James opened his mouth like he wanted to say something, then shut it again and shifted the rake in his hand.
I didn’t blame him. I wish I could. I wish I could blame all of them. Maybe it would be easier to point the finger at everyone else, everyone who made the decisions that we were to blindly follow and the many who didn’t do a damn thing about it. But I couldn’t. I didn’t want to. Besides, James Summer didn’t know any better then. No one really did. It wasn’t his fault.
His back door opened and one of his girls called out that it was dinnertime. It was the older one—Addy? Audrey? Their dog—a yellow shepherd mix—edged his way between the girl’s legs and bounded across the yard. I couldn’t hide my smile at its joy. In the doorway, the younger daughter was scooting underneath her sister’s arm, saying something I couldn’t hear.
“Marmalade!” she chastised. “Come here!” She chased after the dog, but the dog was all-too happy to start a game of chase. He picked up a stray tennis ball and ran to the opposite side of the yard.
“Well, that’s my cue.” James patted the fence post as a goodbye and began heading back towards the house. “Annie, feed the dog when you come in, please.”
“If I can get him!” The girl shouted in frustration. “Isn’t anyone gonna help me? Audrey? Audrey!”
The back door closed in response. The girl groaned in frustration and continued to chase her dog. I chuckled, the lawn mowing all but forgotten, and stepped closer to the fence. Putting my fingers to my mouth, I offered a shrill whistle. Marmalade paused, looked around, then high-tailed it towards me as soon as he spotted me. I crouched down and reached through the empty space in the fence to pet him.
“Hey there, boy,” I said, scratching behind his ear. “Don’t you know it’s your dinnertime?”
The dog’s tongue lolled happily out of his mouth as he tilted his head closer to my hand.
Next door, I could see Annie slow her run to a walk as she approached the fence. I stood and handed her the tennis ball, and she wrinkled her nose, then slid her hand along the front of her jeans, relieving herself of its slobber.
“It’s a good bargaining chip,” I said, nodding at the ball.
“He never comes when I call,” she said, a slight pout on her face. “Sometimes I think he’d rather be anywhere but here.”
The words catch me off-guard. I don’t know why. Maybe because I don’t expect them at all. Maybe because I don’t expect them from this twelve-year-old girl. But I feel the weight of them—the sadness, the confusion, the wishing to hold onto something that really can’t be held onto. I felt that way once…
Once, when I had something to hold onto.
I looked up at her. She was staring at her dog, conflicting emotions passing across her face. She looked like she wanted to wrap her arms around him and never let him go, like she wanted him to be free all at the same time. Her face scrunched up for a moment, and I caught the glimmer of tears before she blinked them away. I cleared my throat.
“I think if he wanted to be anywhere else, he would be,” I said.
Her shoulders visibly relaxed, like the words brought some kind of comfort, and I felt something stir inside my heart—like something new being born where there had only been nothingness. Could words really mean that much?
“My best friend Ava has a cat,” Annie said, teasing the ball in front of her dog. “I think it would be cool to have a cat. I’d name her Jam.”
“Like the jelly?”
She nodded. “Marmalade and Jam—wouldn’t that be hilarious? I’d name her Strawberry Jam and call her Jammie.”
I laughed, the sound foreign and familiar all at the same time. “That sounds like a great idea.”
The back door opened again and her sister poked her head out. “Annie! You have to help me set the table!”
Annie rolled her eyes, then shook the ball in front of Marmalade’s nose to get his attention. Without a word or a glance back, she began racing toward the house, the dog not missing a beat as he chased her. I watched Marmalade wag his tail as he entered the house behind her, watched the door close as the sun fully set and the porch light turned on, watched the house that seemed so alive with warmth and family, and how long had it been since I’d felt any of that? How long had it been since I’d had a conversation with anyone, let alone something meaningful, and here in the span of hours I’d spoken to more people than I had in months, maybe even years.
I turned and pushed the lawn mower back into the garage, then climbed my porch steps and took a moment to survey the street. Cars were tucked into their spots in the driveways, porch lights keeping the impending night at bay.
Something was changing inside of me, and I didn’t know what it meant. Talking to that kid, her dad, Betsy from the church… It made me feel almost human again.
It made me feel real.