A Long Time Passing

by Rick Beck

Chapter 23

Proof & Pudding

The tea was steeping on the kitchen table and there were sandwiches ready in the fridge. Kathy went about setting things out, including some fresh cut fruit. It was still relatively early and I was still processing what had taken place while I was at Dr. Jordan's office. It all seemed quite complicated, and yet there seemed to be an acceptable simplicity to it.

I wasn't ready to bet the farm that it would all end as soon as I made arrangements to meet Mrs. Pruett and invite her to attend the yet to be scheduled funeral of the man that was with her son when he died. It wasn't a meeting I wanted to have. It didn't involve me but it did involve the last request of someone I had loved dearly at a time when I loved nothing at all.

Kathy listened with her usual patience, holding back any comment or questions until I'd finished with John Morales' call to Dr. Jordan while I was in the office.

"So Dr. Jordan thinks it is all connected to Keith's return from Vietnam?"

"I think he does, yes," I said.

"I find this all very hard to believe, Thomas. He's been dead twenty years. Why now?"

"Exactly! There is only one explanation. His spirit was disturbed and once he was back home, he wanted to finish what he started all those years ago."

"Who was that kid? How could he have Keith's fingerprints? I don't understand?"

"Of course you think I do. Dr. Jordan said there are things no one can explain and trying only deepens the mystery. I don't care who he was. If we can put all this to rest by following through on what was put in motion twenty plus years ago, I'm willing."

"It's been hard on you, Thomas. It would be nice if you could put it all behind you. Do you want me to go to New Jersey with you?"

"No, I think I need to do this alone. I'd like you and the kids to come to the funeral. Would you do that?"

"Certainly, Thomas. I'd be hurt if you hadn't asked. We'd want to be there. Your friend was quite a man," she said.

"I don't know. I only knew him as a boy. He became a man in a jungle ten thousand miles from here," I said.

"I don't suppose he was very far from what he had always been. He had a tough childhood and it took him a bit to get it all together while he was fighting for his life," she said.

"A fight he lost," I said.

"Maybe, maybe not, there are guys alive out there who he saved. He gave his life for them. I suspect they'd want to known he was coming home. I suppose they'd want to know about his funeral. Perhaps they have families and futures and pasts because Keith died so that they might live," she said in the quiet eloquent way she had about herself.

I may have been the writer but my wife was the romantic. We held hands at the table after the talking was done.

"Hey, Pops, what's up? You haven't been working lately," Tom Jr., said, heading straight into the fridge. "Got any lemonade, moms? Kool Aid? You going to eat all those fancy sandwiches?"

"Help yourself, son," I said. "If you find teeth marks on your hand, someone else was eating it."

"Ouch! Not even. I eat faster than that. What's up?"

"Nothing much. How are you doing at school?" I asked.

"School? That place? Got any desert moms, cheese cake, pudding, anything?"

"Eat the sandwiches, Tommy. You've had enough sweets for today," Kathy said.

"Moms? Someone's got to eat it. All those kids are starving… where is it? You wouldn't want to waist food. Cookies? Anything?"

"Sandwiches, Tommy," she said.

"Quit aggravating your mother. Eat and beat it," I said.

"That's my Pop's. I was starting to worry about you. You finished with that fruit," he said, reaching for the plate.

I slapped his hand and he withdrew it in a hurry before I slid the plate over in front of him while he risked his fingers, gnawing sandwich after sandwich faster than I could keep track of them.

"You have a girlfriend, Junior?"

"Dad? What kind of question is that?"

"The kind a father asks his son?" I said.

"Well it isn't the kind a son feels like answering," he said. "That's my private stuff. You get your own girls."

"He has the one and only girl for him," Kathy said, leaning over and kissing me on the lips.

"Oh gross!" Tom Junior said, grabbing some fruit and retreating to the door. "Ice cream? Cake? Candy?"

"What's her name?" I asked.

"That's for me to know and you to find out. I've got homework. I'd love to stay and chat, but you know how it goes? Hey, you two aren't about to spring the little brother or little sister thing on me, are you?"

"No, Tommy, we have our hands full with you," Kathy said.

"Thank, God. You had me scared there for a minute," he said, disappearing from the scene.

"You're curious about his girlfriend?" She asked.

"Does he have one?" I asked.

"I don't know. He's only fifteen, Thomas. He doesn't act like he has a girlfriend. Only boys call for him," she said. "You were a late bloomer as I recall. Like father like son."

"I'll make a day trip to New Jersey. I hired a firm to locate Mrs. Pruett, Tray's mother. Having the address from Keith should make it easier if they've moved. They might still be there but it was a long time ago. Dr. Jordon is going to call the lieutenant that put him in for the Silver Star. He's going to see about making arrangements for his burial since the relative thing is a dead end."

"It'll be us and the army people. Intimate and respectful," Kathy said.

"Dr. Jordon and Morales," I said.

"They're coming?" Kathy asked.

"Yes, they both said they were."

"Why? They didn't know him."

"They were both there. The way this has all worked out, well, they both want to attend his funeral."

"That's nice," Kathy said.

It took two days for the phone call to come. Mrs. Hester S. Pruett now lived in Tom's River, New Jersey, a pleasant seaside town on the Jersey shore. It was the kind of drive I didn't mind too much. Straight up 95 to the Parkway that passed Tom's River. It took me three hours to be in the town. I followed the instructions given me over the phone until I sat in front of a modest house with flowers still blooming in the front yard.

I'd told the woman I talked to that I was a friend of a friend of Tray's and that it was important I spoke with her in person. I told her there was a message I knew she would want. It wasn't something I could say over the phone. She did not question me and directed me to her door.

She was a large woman with her hair graying but still a vivid black. She wore a flowered dress and had a white shawl that covered her shoulders. She led me into a living room with wide windows to admit the sun. There was a piano and a large sofa with several easy chairs in the spacious room. On the walls were an array of pictures, diplomas, and awards. She sat on a corner of the sofa beside a huge knitting box. There was a half complete Afghan on the cushion beside her that I suspected was a Christmas present for someone in the family.

"You knew my son?" She asked, without hesitating.

"No, I didn't. I read about him. Do you remember his friend Keith? They were together in Vietnam."

"Keith? Keith? No, I don't have any recollection of that name."

"Tray used to give him half the socks you'd send. He loved your chocolate chip cookies. Keith loved chocolate," I said.

"Michael Clark! Mike! Oh yes, Tray and he were quite close. I always wondered why we never heard from him," she said. "He seemed like a sweet boy."

"I'm the reason," I said.

"I don't understand," she said, sounding somewhat confused.

"Keith was my best friend. He was a few years older than me. Went to Vietnam while I was still in school. I never went. He wrote me letters. He wrote about Tray all the time. They were close," I said.

"Yes, I know. Tray had quite a fondness for Mike. Your friend Keith, I mean," she said.

"I was supposed to do something after your son was ah… when he died. You see, it's difficult to explain. He wrote me about Tray. He described it. I had been reading about him for most of a year. He was afraid to tell me Tray was black because where we come from, well, white's and black's didn't mix," I said.

"Where I came from too," she said without malice.

"Do you have someone here, Mrs. Pruett. This isn't an easy story to tell you," I said.

"Good gracious, Mr. Brittle. I've raised eight boys and a girl. Nothing I hain't seen or heard by this time. We lost Tray a long time ago. I always wondered about how it was for him. I know he had to be scared and I wondered if he suffered, if he was alone, if he met his maker being brave. A mother thinks she knows her child, but how can a mother know about a thing like that Vietnam? So many boys came back in pieces. All worn out from it. Just little boys but already old. I just never quite knew how Tray was when it came time."

"Mrs. Pruett," I said, trying to build up some steam.

"Please, Mr. Brittle, call me Hester. Everyone does."

"Yes, Hester, my name is Thomas."

"You're Tommy. Keith wrote about you. Tray said he felt like he knew you he heard so much about you. You must have been close. What happened to Mike? I always thought I'd hear from him. Just wondered all these years why he never once wrote."

"He wrote me, Hester. He wrote me about Tray. That last day. I knew how close they were. I suppose I was a little jealous of Tray because Keith, Mike, was my best friend. Tray took my place out there. When I read about Tray, I couldn't read any more. I'd been reading his letters for most of a year, and I just couldn't read any more. I didn't open any more of his letters. I still wrote him. I just didn't read what he wrote me. It had gotten so bad. It wasn't even Keith any more. Just this guy living in hell and telling me about it. I didn't want to know. I was only a kid. I suppose I wasn't very strong then. I don't know I'm any stronger now.

"To answer your question, Keith never contacted you because he died a few weeks later. Tray was on patrol with him. I just learned this in the last few days when I finally opened the last of Keith's letters. They'd been put away all these years. The very last letter he said, "Promise me you'll go see Tray's, momma if I don't come back. I haven't been able to write her and I think it is something I've got to tell her in person. You've got to promise me that if I don't come back, you'll go and tell her how her son died."

"Oh my, God, I'm so sorry to hear that. Mike too! Mike too! So sad. Such a nice boy," she said, using her apron to wipe tears from her eyes.

"They were on patrol. There were mortars. Three came in quick, Keith said. One hit right in front of Tray. He was hit in the chest. Keith was right there. He said Tray didn't even know he was hit. He thought the explosion had only knocked him down. Keith said he knew right away it was bad. He died in Keith's arms, Hester. Your son died peacefully in my friend's arms. As he died he said, "Momma." Keith said it was so fast he couldn't believe it. He was gone in a minute. No screams, no pain, nothing. He even laughed just before he died."

Hester sat there with her apron up to her mouth, her eyes glazed, and her mind some place other than there in the room with me. I suppose she saw her son as a little boy, growing up, and doing the silly things little boys did. For a second he was back there with her, small, safe, and her little boy.

"Thank You, Thomas. You've answered my prayer. I needed to know how it went. We got all the official papers, but no one knew how he died. Wasn't a mark on him, not his face. He still looked like my little boy when he came home. It was a bad war, Thomas. We all lost something in that war. Everyone lost."

"Keith's body was recovered recently. He's going to be buried at Arlington, probably in a few weeks. I don't suppose you'd like to attend his services. He and Tray were so close. I wanted to mention it to you," I said.

"How is it he's only now being buried. Didn't you say…."

"His body was lost. They'd evacuated his squad. Keith had been killed and they were under fire and had to leave him. The Vietnamese have just turned over his remains," I said.

"A nice jester, Thomas. It's time for it to end. Now you get to bury you friend," she said, smiling through her tears.

"He had no family. He really loved Tray because Tray gave him family. He felt close to you. He mentioned you in a lot of his letters, the cookies, the socks. How kind you were to send extras for him. You were the only family he had," I said.

"And you," she said.

"And me, but he died alone, trying to save his squad and he never came home until now."

Talk about this story on our forum

Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead