Monday, September 7, 2009

The 17th of Never

It was a rainy Saturday afternoon the day I found the diary. My mom had just left for work and my grandmother was downstairs watching some old black and white movie with a bad soundtrack. I wandered through the old house trying to amuse myself, all to no avail.

“Gran, I’m bored,” I whined flopping down on the couch next to her and letting out a deep sigh.
“I’ll pay you ten dollars to clean the attic,” she replied flippantly.

“Really?” I asked eagerly.

Gran looked at me, gauging my seriousness. After she realized I was, indeed, serious, she nodded her head. “Yes. It’s dusty and dirty. Wash the windows, dust and sweep the floor and I will pay you ten dollars.”

I never in a million years thought I’d find something as interesting as the diary when I started. When I first entered the attic, I choked on the dust that floated in the air.

I crossed the creaky floor boards and opened the window on the north wall. The rain had slowed and there wasn’t anything near that wall, so I didn’t have to worry about anything getting wet.
The fresh air kicked up more dust, but made it a little easier to breath in the stuffy space. I started sweeping collecting giant piles of dust bunnies in small piles. I made my way toward a dark corner with the broom. As I swept the broom hit something in the corner.

“What the heck?” I wondered aloud. I hit the object again with the broom. It didn’t move, so I guess that was a good thing. I got on my hands and knees and crept toward the object under the low eaves. Reaching into the darkness my hands touched upon something square and very dusty. I grasped it and gently pulled it towards me.

It was a medium sized box and it was very old. The cardboard looked like it would fall apart under any type of rough handling. I circled the box looking for a label; most of the other boxes in the attic spouted labels like Christmas Decorations or Easter stuff; things like that. This one said nothing.

I shrugged and opened it. It looked like someone’s personal stuff. An old army hat, small books that could be diaries, and letters, all bound together by a yellowed length of ribbon. I sat down on the floor and emptied the box’s contents to the floor in front of me.

There was a faded black and white photo of a handsome dark haired man with perfectly aligned teeth. If not for the military uniform I would have thought him a movie star. I turned the photo over hoping there was a name or a date written on the back, but if there was it had long since faded.

Setting the photo down, I reached for one of the small diaries. The spine of the dusty book made a crackling sound and I opened it. The pages were yellowed and the edges were slightly curled, the writing faded but still legible.

May, 1944

My dearest Robert,

The days seem long without you near. The summer is in full swing. I went to the lake with Mother and Father yesterday and all I could do was sit on the shore; my heart aching with longing. When will you come home? Why does this war not end? I miss you so much that my heart feels like it will break into a million pieces before I see you again. Promise you’ll come home to me.

I put the diary down and scooted away, unable to read anymore. I had no idea who Robert was or who even wrote the diary, but it was painfully obvious that whoever she was, she missed Robert a great deal. I stood up, about to go back downstairs, when I spotted a procession of cars turning into the cemetery.

Yes, I lived across the street from a cemetery. It was creepy, especially during thunderstorms and Halloween, but other than that, it was just a cemetery.

I went downstairs to get a drink. Gran was still watching that jittery black and white movie.
“Camilla?” she called as I opened the fridge.

“Yes Gran?” I called, my head still buried in the fridge.

“Will you bring me a glass of water dear? And my medication, too please?”

I grabbed a bottle of juice and two glasses out of the cabinet. I poured my juice and poured Gran some water. I grabbed her medication, slid the slim orange bottles in my pocket and grabbed our drinks.

“Here Gran,” I said, offering her the sweating glass of water. She gently grasped it and set it down on the end table next to her.

“My pills?” she questioned.

I reached into my pocket and extracted the two bottles. “Right here,” I said and handed them to her.

“Thank you dear.”

“Hey Gran, can I ask you a question?”

Gran swallowed her tiny yellow and orange pills and glanced expectantly at me.

“Who is Robert?”

Gran’s face whitened at the mention of the man in the diaries name. “Wh- where did you hear that name?” she stammered.

“While I was cleaning the attic I found a box shoved under the eaves. There were letters and a diary in it. His name was in the diary. And this,” I reached into my pocket and pulled out the faded picture.

Gran gasped. “Put that away Camilla Belle, right this instant!”

I slid the photo back into my pocket. “Who was it?” I asked in a small voice.

Gran rocked on the couch, on the verge of tears. I felt horrible for dredging up obviously unpleasant memories. “Get your slicker. We’re going for a walk,” she ordered.

I bounded to the foyer and shrugged on the neon pink and white polka dotted slicker Gran had just bought me. Slowly, Gran shuffled into the foyer and pulled on her orange traffic cone colored slicker. We probably looked like we escaped from an acid trip, all neon and bright in our slickers.
Gran pulled open the front door and shuffled down the rain slick steps.

“Where are we going?”

Gran didn’t say anything, just marched toward the street. I followed a few paces behind her wondering where we were going. She crossed the street and entered the cemetery. I shivered and followed her.

“Gran where are we going?”

“Just follow me,” she instructed.

We walked toward the back of the cemetery; back towards where all the people killed in war were buried. She walked four rows back and twelve stones over then stopped and glanced lovingly down at the headstone.

I stopped next to her and glanced at the name engraved on the gray stone.

Robert Barrett.

Then the second line, December 4, 1922 – June 17, 1944.

I gasped. He was so young. I glanced at Gran. She was wiping her eyes. “Who was he?” I asked in a small voice.

“He was my first love,” she whispered. “He died during the invasion of Normandy. I begged him not to go, we would run away together. But he went and he died not even two weeks after the invasion.”

A little ways down was a break in the stones, a cluster of trees grew, a marble bench sat under the canopy of flaming crimson and ocherous fall leaves. We sat on the bench, the leaves dripping fat drops of rains on the hoods of our rain slickers.

Gran sighed. “Robert was my childhood sweetheart. He grew up just a few houses down from where we live now.”

She smiled and took a deep breath. “We were engaged with plans to marry after the war; World War two, but it never happened. Robert signed up to be part of the Marine Corp and he didn’t make it back alive.”

* * *

“Robert, please,” I begged. “Please don’t do this.” Tears spilled down my porcelain cheeks, creating tracks in the rouge I’d rubbed on before heading out of the house that night.

Robert grasped my hand. “Betty, sweetheart, please. It will all be alright. The Corp will offer us a good life after I get back. You’ll finally get your chance to see the world. Finally see all those exotic places you’ve always dreamed about.”

“No Robert,” I sobbed. “I don’t care about all that. I’d gladly give up that dream if you’d just reconsider. Just stay here with me.”

“I can’t Betty. I’ve made a commitment and I have to honor that commitment.” Robert glanced at me, frustration etched into every line of his angular face.

I stood and stared down at Robert. “And what about me Robert Barrett? What about the commitment you made to me?”

Robert’s mouth opened as if to make some excuse, then he shut it knowing I was correct. He made a commitment to me and just reneged on that commitment without as much as a second thought.

“Elizabeth,” he sighed. I knew he was upset with me. He never called me Elizabeth. “This country needs men and women right now to go out there and stop all this nonsense that is going on in Europe. What would you have me do? Sit at home and play pinnacle with your father? If we do nothing, if we sit back and continue to think that this is France or Great Britain’s problem, soon the enemy will be upon our doorstep. Wreaking havoc on our cities, pillaging towns; destroying everything all those who have come before us worked so hard to build.”

I wiped a tear from my eye. I knew what he was saying was true, but I still did not want to hear it. Robert continued.

“I’m doing what I have to do to ensure your future safety. I hope you can accept that.”

I sat back down. The crickets chirped in the near twilight. Across the park children screamed, the shrill sound of their delight echoed off the trees around us. Robert handed me a monogrammed hankie. I accepted it and delicately dabbed my eyes.

“I understand Robert. You must do what you feel is right,” I finally relented.

Robert exhaled. “Thank you for understanding, sweetheart.”

“Just promise that you will return to me,” I said softly.

Robert gazed lovingly into my eyes. “There is nothing in this world that could keep me from you,” he said earnestly.

* * *

I glanced at Gran. “You let him go?” I asked incredulously.

Gran nodded. “Camilla, there was nothing else I could do. Robert was very right in what he said. If the United States did nothing, the enemy would be upon us like wolves on a wounded deer. He only did what he had to.”

Something in the way she said it made me believe that she didn’t really believe that; just that she had said it so many times that it was like a mantra to her; something to be repeated whenever the subject was broached.

“What happened next?” I asked.

* * *

The day Robert left for training it was dark and stormy. A hurricane was just off the coast and it was wreaking havoc with the weather. I refused to go to the train station to say goodbye. My oldest brother, Roger, convinced me that if ever there was a time to say goodbye, this was it.

Grudgingly I put on my best dress, curled my hair and plastered a fake smile on my face. At the station I stood back from Robert and our families. I wouldn’t say goodbye. I had come, but I wouldn’t do it. I would not say goodbye to the only man I had ever, could ever, love.

I was a young and foolish girl who thought that I could get my way if I pouted about it long enough.

As the conductor called for all passengers to board the train I felt my control slip; a bit of hysteria escaped. I clung to Robert like a bird to a worm.

“Please, don’t go. Please, Robert, please I am begging you. If you never do another thing for again, do this. Please stay here, please. We’ll leave, we’ll go somewhere, anywhere it doesn’t matter, please don’t leave me!”

Roger and my father pulled my clinging body from Roberts. He gazed at me sadly as I stood there, crying, trembling and begging.

His warm fingers gazed my jaw. “Betty,” he whispered. “Please don’t worry. I’ll be back before you know it. I’ll write to you every day and I will think of you so much more than that. I love you, my sweet.”

And with that he was gone. It was the last time I ever saw him alive. He boarded the train; cracking the window he flashed his trademark boyish grin. “Next time you see me I want you to yell ITMA as loud as you can!”

Robert disappeared from the window, and then reappeared again. “ITMA!” Roger yelled.

“Come on Betty, I didn’t hear you!” Robert called.

I faked a smile and said sadly, “It’s that, my, man again.”

“That’s my girl!”

At the front of the train, the whistle howled loudly. Robert pulled his head back into the window and waved as the train began its slow crawl out of the station. Our families drifted back toward the station. I however, I stood on the platform until the train disappeared from sight.

* * *

I sat there stunned. “Gran I had no idea,” I murmured.

“No one does,” she replied.

“And he never came back?”

Gran shook her head sadly no. “He died a few months after that. I’ll never forget the day the dark blue Marine Corp car pulled onto our street. They were such a regular sight in those days.

It slowed in front of the Barrett’s house. Roger and I were standing in the parlor window. Roger kept murmuring, “Keep going, keep going,” over and over again, as if he could will the bad news away.

They stopped and got out, that tell tale little yellow envelope in hand and I knew. I knew what had happened. Part of me died that day. I packed up all Robert’s things, all his letters and all my journals with his name in them and shoved them up into the attic. Sometimes I forget they are up there, and some days I can feel their weighty presence.”

“Gran I’m sorry I brought it up. I didn’t mean to drag all those painful memories up,” I apologized.

Gran patted my knee. “Its okay, Camilla. All things happen for a reason. Come on now, my old bones can’t take too much more of this rain.”

I rose and helped Gran up off the bench. “Thank you for telling me that story,” I said as we walked back home.

“Thank you for listening,” she replied.

Copyright 2009 by Elizabeth James as Common Law Literary Property.

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