Continuing with this week’s theme of telling a story, here is the story which received an Honorable Mention in The Writer’s Journal (no longer in publication) for a story beginning with the words “about a million…”
So Long Ago and Far Away
About a million letters in the gold Schrafft Chocolates box. That’s what Sandra thought anyway, until she counted them. Only one hundred forty-seven, most of them on thin V-mails. It hurt to think of burning them, but she’d never leave behind words meant only for her. For now, she re-tied them with a frayed pink hair ribbon, the one he said looked like peppermint in her hair, and laid them back in the box.
About a million men. That’s how many they said stormed the beaches at Normandy that day. Pete was just one. He wrote to her later about how the Channel was so rough that the nets they used to climb down into the landing craft were almost parallel with the water. “I thought I wasn’t going to make it into the boat, much less to the beach.”
He’d made it in and even off the beach and onto the road leading inland among the hedgerows. That’s when the real trouble started, he said. He said that’s when he knew he wasn’t going to make it home in one piece, or maybe not at all. “It’s rough, Sandy,” he wrote. “I’m glad you’ll never know just how bad it really is. If I get home, don’t ask me to talk about it, because I won’t.”
Sandra lifted the lid and caressed the letters. It had taken her three days to read them all again, but she wanted him to be fresh in her mind before she made this trip. Had it been so long ago? He was as real to her now as he was the day he squeezed her one last time before making a dash for the train already beginning to move along the platform. As long as she lived, he’d never be older than he was that day—just twenty-two. She was seventeen.
“You’re in love with love and a uniform,” her mother said. “You’ll get over him.” Her older sister Yvonne said she’d wasted her life. Did two degrees and thirty years at the local junior college count as a waste? Sandra didn’t think so.
A lot of boys like Pete sat in her classes. She watched them go off to other wars and wondered how many came back, though she never knew. Mostly she tried not to think about it. It was enough to know the lessons of history: Men fought wars. Men died. Nothing changed.
Leaning her head against the crisp white cloth on the headrest of the train seat, she closed her eyes and thought about the first time she ever saw Pete. A lanky cotton-headed boy, his fair skin sunburned from working outdoors, he was living at the CCC camp just outside of town. He winked and called her a cute kid when she sat down beside him at the soda fountain where Yvonne worked.
She could tell he was interested in Yvonne, but it was equally plain Yvonne wasn’t interested in him. She had bigger fish to fry, like Milt, the captain of the high school football team which had just won the state championship. When Yvonne snubbed him, Pete turned his attention to Sandra, but in a brotherly sort of way. She was only twelve then.
He came into town every Saturday afternoon, always alone and with a willing ear to listen to her adolescent problems. He said he had a little sister of his own back home in West Texas. Yvonne tattled on her, and Mamma said it wasn’t a good idea for Sandra to sit in the back booth at Bramble’s Drug Store every Saturday afternoon with an older boy from that place out there, but she did it anyway. When the camp closed, and Pete went home, she felt like she’d lost part of herself.
It was funny how things worked out, running into him again four years later on the same stool at the soda fountain when he came back for basic training at Camp Payne. “You’ve changed,” they both said at the same time and then laughed. He didn’t even ask about Yvonne, who was married to Milt by then and had two kids.
She cajoled Mamma into asking him for Sunday dinner. He even showed up early, went to church with them, helped with the dishes, and then asked her mother if he could take her downtown to the movies. They went to see Holiday Inn with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire and afterwards danced all the way to her front door. Mamma heard them laughing and came out to see what was going on. When they told her, she said they were being silly.
The next time they met at the drug store, he asked about her father. “He left when I was a baby. That’s why Mamma’s the way she is.”
He didn’t say he was sorry, just, “I wondered.” Then he told her about his parents and kid sister and scribbled their names and address on a napkin. “I’d like for you to meet them someday.” She still had the napkin, and eventually she’d met his family, but without him.
The day he took the jewelry box out of his pocket, she knew what was coming. Not a proposal. They’d talked about that and agreed it wasn’t the right time. What he’d bought her at Dorner's was a heart-shaped locket. “It’s real silver, just like my feelings for you are real.” They went to Woolworth and spent a quarter in the little photography booth so she’d have pictures to put inside.
Without opening her eyes, she touched the locket beneath her blouse and smiled. She’d worn it every day for the last forty-five years and left written instructions with the funeral director that nobody should take it off. Yvonne or one of her know-it-all girls would try if someone didn’t watch them.
She felt the train stop and opened her eyes to green French countryside. A feeling of having come home to this far-away place stirred inside her. The porter, who’d been surprised at her fluent French, helped her with her luggage. He even carried her bags to the car waiting to take her to the inn the travel agency assured her was within walking distance of what she wanted to see.
It was good to sleep in a bed again after a succession of planes and trains. After a substantial breakfast which included plenty of strong coffee, she changed into her walking shoes and picked up the all-weather coat the travel agent told her she would need, even in June.
About a million graves, she thought as she paused to take in the white crosses and Stars of David spilling across the lush emerald grass. Well, maybe not a million, but too many. One too many for sure. From her purse she extracted a slip of paper with the exact location of the one she’d come to see.
All the graves faced west, toward the United States. It was as close to home as these soldiers would ever come. If they were to be reunited with their loved ones, it would have to be here, and here she was. Not to say goodbye. Not to find closure which seemed to be the buzz word today. None of that. She was here to keep a promise to herself.
By the time she stood beside the grave marker, she could feel the strain of the long walk. Supporting herself on the top of the cross, she lowered her trembling body to the damp grass and glanced around to see if she was alone. “Well, Pete, I came. I always said I would.”
With the tip of one finger, she traced the letters of his name. “I’ve had a good life. I hope you know that. We’d have had a good life together, too, but it just didn’t happen that way. We talked about that, how things might not work out, but it’s still all right.”
Sandra shifted her cramped legs into a more comfortable position. “I’ve always felt you were a presence in my life. Yvonne says I’ve lived with a ghost, but you’ve always been real to me.” Pressing her thin, almost-transparent fingers against the carving, she thought she felt his arms around her again.
“I’m not staying for the anniversary ceremonies next week. I wouldn’t want to get all weepy over the music and the speeches. Besides, that’s not why I came.”
She looked around. A million men. A million unfinished lives. A million shattered dreams. She put her lips against the cold stone. “Years ago I cried a million tears, Pete. I’ve told you a million times how much I love you.”
It was harder getting up than getting down. Her breath grew ragged with the effort, and she had to wait before she could speak again. “And I lived a million days just for this one more with you.”
Remember--Off the Shelf will be FREE on Friday at Amazon. So come back on Friday for a look at what else is inside. . .