(page 1 of 2)THE STAIRWELL of the farmhouse was hung with soldiers, living and dead. Mostly dead. Carl Frieden could hear his grandson Kevin introducing them to his fiancée as the two young people made their way up the stairs. He strained his ears to catch more of the conversation as their voices rose to his second-floor bedroom, but it was no use. At 75 he counted himself blessed that his eyesight was still keen, his hands steady, and his bowels regular, but his hearing wasn’t what it used to be. Until the pair climbed higher, he could make out only a few scattered words.
“Battle of the Bulge…”
They’re looking at Walter, he thought. His older brother, forever 21, had smiled from that wall for half a century while Carl grew wrinkled and paunchy alongside Walter’s girl.
The soldier’s wall had been Ruthie’s idea. It featured military men from both their families, but Walter had pride of place on the landing halfway up. Walter’s photo wasn’t hung like the others; Ruthie had placed it on a small mahogany shelf, and beside it a crystal bud vase that never lacked a fresh flower in fifty-two years. Carl minded that longer than he should have. Years after there was a sag in the middle of the marriage bed and four children running up and down those stairs, Carl would pause on the landing to remind Walter that he was dead.
After Ruthie’s funeral two years ago, he’d paused there to deliver a different message: “Take care of her, you. Show her around.”
A photo of young Kevin, most recent in the line of family soldiers, hung at eye level above the top step. Carl heard Kevin’s girl exclaim, “Now that’s handsome!” as they reached it. A murmur, a feminine laugh, and a short but meaningful silence told him his grandson had seized the moment.
Good boy, Carl thought. Never a smart boy, that Kevin—he’d even been held back a year in junior high—but always a good boy. A kind one, too, using precious days of his Army leave to go hunting with an old man. What Kevin lacked in brains and sense, he made up for in heart.
Kevin appeared in the bedroom doorway, his fiancée, Mandy, beside him—both of them so fresh-faced and young it made the old man’s bones hurt to look at them. They were holding hands, Mandy’s right in Kevin’s left. They might have stepped out of a milk commercial, except that the girl’s nipples were up. Kevin wore his hunting clothes but Mandy was still in pajamas, a silky blue nightshirt over striped cotton shorts.
“What’s taking you so long, Grandpa?” Kevin asked. “It’s getting light. The biggest buck is probably strapped on top of somebody’s car by now.”
“I hope the biggest buck ran off to the next county,” Mandy said.
“Bambi-lover.” Kevin aimed a playful slap at her round bottom, but she sidestepped with ease.
Carl held up a leather belt, thin and pliable with age. “Can’t shoot if my damn pants are falling down, now can I?” He threaded the belt through the loops of his faded work pants, adjusting it below the doughy mound of his belly. “I thought the service would teach you some patience, boy. ‘Hurry up and wait,’ that’s the Army motto.”
“I saw your picture in the stairway,” Mandy said. “In your dress uniform. Were you in World War II?”
“Korea. Drafted in ’51.” Carl opened his top dresser drawer to extract two oversize red bandanas. He stuffed one into his right hip pocket, the other into his left. Atop the chest of drawers, Ruthie’s dark eyes reproached him from a silver-framed photo. “Wasn’t old enough to join up for the big war.”
Kevin leaned against the door frame. “Like my dad,” he told Mandy. “He was just finishing high school when the Vietnam War ended. That’s why he’s not on the wall.”
Carl grunted. “That’s why he’s still walking around breathing,” he said, reaching for the blaze-orange vest laid out on the bed. “Eddie would’ve got his fool head blown off for sure. Clumsiest kid I ever saw—even worse than you, Kevin, and you got two left feet.”
“Hey, now—” Kevin protested.
Mandy giggled. “It’s true. He mashes my toes when we dance. I have to lead.”
Carl was willing to bet she did the leading off the dance floor, too. She had a set to her jaw and a spark in her pretty eyes that warned a man he’d best steer in the direction she already wanted to go. Well, that was all right. Kevin was the kind who’d be apt to drift without a strong woman beside him. Look at how he’d drifted into the Army just because he couldn’t decide between an auto-repair class at the vo-tech school and trying for a job at the mill.
Carl zipped up the orange vest and turned to face his grandson. “Plan to stand here yakkin’ all day, or we going hunting?”
He didn’t look at Walter on his way downstairs. He didn’t look at any of them.
THE DEER STAND was two miles back in the pine woods behind the farm. The men made their way single file along the narrow dirt trail, Kevin striding ahead with his Remington and a backpack of provisions for the day; his grandfather following more slowly with his Springfield .30-06 slung across his back. Kevin made a godawful lot of noise, Carl noticed. That boy was about as stealthy as a harness mule.
By long tradition, they would talk a little in the first mile, then go silent for the second, approaching the stand without so much as a whisper between them. Kevin piped up somewhere around the quarter-mile mark.
“Who’s been shooting knotholes?” He pointed at a scraggly white pine leaning at a drunken angle toward the trail, then at a straighter spruce beyond.
Carl gazed up at the bullet holes, each dead center in a knot of wood. “Somebody’s target practice, I guess.”
Kevin gave a low whistle. “Man! Wish I had that kind of aim. There’s a guy who’s going to get his buck for sure.”
“Not if it hears him blasting away at trees.”
They moved on.
After another quarter-mile: “They’ll ship us out to Iraq soon, I guess. That’s what everybody’s been saying.”
“They’re likely right,” Carl said. “Mr. Bush got his green light from Congress, I don’t suppose he’ll wait long to stomp on the gas.”
“It could be mostly an air war, though. That’s what my buddy Duane thinks.”
“Could be.” Except that Duane was kissing cousin to a moron if he supposed there wouldn’t be troops on the ground. Infantry was the backbone of the Army, always would be.
Kevin paused long enough to point to another bullet-pierced knothole, this one just slightly off-center, then went on. “Mandy wants to get married before I go. Mom and Dad think we should wait till we’re older, have a big wedding after I’ve done my tour.”
Carl thought of Ruthie, bent double sobbing over Walter’s coffin. Not wife, not widow, but the grief was the same. They gave the flag to Ma.
“You and Mandy, you figure out what’s right between the two of you,” he said. “Parents look at a son your age, they don’t always see him straight. They see some little boy, barely out of diapers.”
Kevin glanced over his shoulder. “Mom, maybe. Dad keeps calling me the family warrior.”
His grandfather snorted. “Your daddy watches too many war movies.”
At Walter’s funeral, Ruthie had wept in Carl’s arms as the casket was lowered into the earth. “We shouldn’t have waited,” she had whispered as her tears dampened his neck. “Then maybe I’d have his baby to remember him by.” Carl had just stood there wordless, smelling her hair. It was three years before he dared to court her himself.
“You work it out with your girl,” he told Kevin. “Don’t you listen to anybody else.”
The mile mark came and went. In silence they passed under another spruce with a pierced burl. It looked like a blinded eye.