Mickey rounded the end of the fence, stopping to take a long hard look down the narrow alley. His muscles tightened, his gut wrenched, his vision narrowed.
No alleys. Can’t do alleys.
He pulled his gloved hands—gloved if you don’t count the hole in the palm and the missing thumb—out of his pockets and rubbed them together as if sticks trying to start a fire. Really, all he was hoping to do was get some semblance of feeling in at least one.
Have to go around. No alleys.
He resumed his march, his eyes taking the occasional nervous glance back at the alley, all the while staying tight to the brick building. When he finally made Willow, the street that crossed along the front of St. Mary’s, he stopped again, this time leaning his shoulder and face up against the brick. From here he saw the line—easily longer than last year’s–winding down the stairs and stretching out onto the cracked sidewalk. In the chill of the late afternoon, they looked more like a line of locomotives, their steam-engine breaths filling the air above.
Closing his eyes, he stood, hands to the brick, searching deep inside for an excuse—any excuse–to go back to the shelter. Tuck back into his corner.
But hunger wouldn’t let his anxiety win, and he started toward the old church.
He wandered over to the procession and took his place to the back. There a few raised downtrodden faces with nods of hello. He searched those faces looking for anyone he might know, yet not one rang familiar.
But, really, who was he fooling? Good memory wasn’t one of his better traits.
Maybe in the long run, that wasn’t such a bad thing.
With the temperature continuing to drop and the daylight rapidly fading, Mickey stuffed his hands deeper into his pockets and willed the line to move along more quickly. That was not to be the case, and when he reached the stairs, which seemed in the cold to take just short of forever, the line behind him was every bit as long as the one to his front. By the time he finally reached the cover of the entry, the first flakes of snow had begun to fall just outside on the landing.
Yet at the same time, here the sounds and the aromas from the kitchen drifted through the open door, filling the air with warmth. Easing the cold from his bones.
Maybe even a bit from his soul.
He stepped into the lobby, where a tiny nun, wearing both her habit and a smile, directed him toward the serving table that seemed to stretch the length of the next room. The woman at the front, a plate already in her hand, waved him over.
“Evening, Mickey. Merry Christmas. Good to see you back again this year.”
For some reason he couldn’t remember her, though he thought he knew her voice. She was older, and yet young at the same time, and as she ladled a good-sized helping of mashed potatoes onto his plate he realized that her voice had captivated him. Pulled on him from so deep inside that he actually looked up and met her gaze.
He found himself frozen there, staring into eyes that twinkled with care. Staring at a smile that was as real as the spirit in which she gave. For that moment she could have been his mom. Maybe his grandmother. Maybe in that moment, just that very moment, she was exactly that.
“Merry Christmas,” he replied weakly.
“Eat well,” she said with a wink, and passed his plate to the man to her side.
A tall gentleman, someone Mickey sort of recognized – most likely a local celebrity who was giving back to the community – handed him his overflowing plate and a toothpick at the end of the line. “Forks and spoons right over there. Napkins are on the tables,” he said pointing.
Mickey took a couple of steps, but stopped to take in the sight. The dining room was massive, with tall stained-glass windows and a ceiling so high it seemed to disappear into the hanging lights. There was a clanking of silverware to plates blending with the low rumbles of conversations that gave the air a feeling of contentment.
A feeling of the season.
He’d been here before, felt this before, but it never lasted. Just a ship passing in the night.
Something was different tonight.
He moved out into the seating area, but most of the tables were full. After walking a little farther to the back, he finally found an open spot at a smaller table with two other men.
“Mind if I sit here?”
“Join in, friend.”
The invitation came from the man sitting on the other side of the table and came with a wave to the open seat and a nod. He was older, his whiskered face leathery and wrinkled from the sun. Or maybe just life’s cruel hand. A bird’s nest of gray hair poured out from under a ragged ball cap, and he wore a set of ancient fatigues and an Army field jacket.
Vietnam, Mickey thought.
The other man, about the same age, but not quite as worn down—or was he?–scooted over a bit to make more room for Mickey as he sat.
“Howdy,” he mumbled, shoveling in another forkful of food.
Mickey noted that while there was plenty of turkey filling that mouth, there were few teeth left. He’d been lucky, at least so far, in that his teeth were still pretty good.
But he was a lot younger than this guy.
The vet’s voice—at least he was still assuming him to be one—startled Mickey and he took a moment to nod in reply.
“Must have been Iraq.”
Another nod. He realized that despite being famished, he had yet to take a bite.
“At least two tours. And I’ll bet a dollar to a donut you were in that Surge thing, right?”
Mickey had come to eat and take the chill off his bones, not to reminisce. Not to regurgitate times better forgotten. He’d had enough of that with the VA shrink. That and the drugs that were supposed to help him “adjust.”
“Yeah…two tours. And the Surge. How’d you know?”
“I was in recon in ‘Nam. You learn to see things most folks miss.” The man reached out with an open hand. His nails were chewed down, and what was left was dirty, but there was some heart in that palm that pulled Mickey’s hand up to meet the vet’s.
“Craig. Morrison, if you care about that part. Out of Barstow. Cali.”
That seemed to grab the arm of the man on Mickey’s right, his spoonful of steaming peas frozen midway to his mouth. “Jeesh. Barstow. I’m outta Victorville.”
Craig swung his hand over. “Pleased to meet you, Victorville.”
“Dennis. Dennis Williams.”
The two both turned to Mickey.
“Ah….the ‘Mick.’ Bet you can swing that bat, eh?” said Craig.
“Oh, yeah, before your time. Mantle. Mickey Mantle.”
“Oh, the baseball guy. Yankees, right?”
“Is there any other team?”
Mickey shrugged. “Haven’t been following sports for a while. But, used to be football. The Packers.”
“A cheesehead, eh? You from up around those parts?”
“Not far south. Oshkosh.”
“You know the area?”
“Passed through once or twice. Drove a truck for a while.”
Mickey finally dug into his plate, forking a good-sized piece of turkey. Something on his face must have shown in how good the food really was, as a smile popped onto Craig’s.
“Merry Christmas, Mickey.”
He nodded and returned the smile.
After a few bites, his belly finally starting to feel the warmth, he looked back over to Craig. “You seem to know a lot about what went on in Iraq, but I have to admit, I don’t know a damn thing about ‘Nam. My dad was in Korea, but that was a different war.”
“Yeah, a different animal all together.” For a moment he looked away, then, with a long sigh, put down his fork and leaned his elbow to the table. “Lost a few buds over there, Mick. And, I’m sure, like you, most of it I’d just as soon not dredge back up. Not a lot of good stuff to talk about.”
“You said you were recon?”
“Yup. Not much good to say about it, either. But, I guess I’m thankful I was never a…a…tunnel rat.”
Mickey knew the term. Knew that the tunnel rats were the first down the hole leading to the system of tunnels dug by the Viet Cong. Knew about the booby traps. Knew about…
Well, he knew that was probably all that Craig wanted to say about it.
“Listen to me whine. I heard stories about the Surge. Kickin’ in the doors. House to house. It…” Craig trailed off, picking back up his fork and stirring it around in his corn.
“When you guys came back. Got home. Was it as bad as I heard?” Mickey asked, still chewing some turkey.
“Worse. Baby killers, they called us. Scourge of the Earth.” His head dropped a bit and he moved his plate aside, taking a long drink of his tea. “Couldn’t find a job for months. I finally quit tellin’ folks I’d served.” He looked up and met Mickey’s gaze. “At least that changed for you guys. And that sort of helped us in the long run.”
“Yeah, when I joined my folks were proud. My wife proud. The neighbors proud. And the town folk, well, you were just some sort of hero. I’d jumped in thinking I was doing the right thing, you know, fightin’ for the cause. All American boy. And man, joining the Marines, what a high, eh?” He looked away, as if searching for a thought or maybe just some lost word, then turned back to Craig. “Then, one day you’re home. Trying to find your place. All the while, somewhere in the back of your head the reality of what happened without really knowing why. And it just doesn’t want to settle in.” Mickey made a funny twist with his mouth, something he’d been doing since he was a kid, then looked back over to Craig. “Ever tried dealing with the VA?”
Craig slowly shook his head in an exaggerated nod. “Many a time, compadre.”
“I couldn’t keep a friggin’ job, man.” Dropping his fork on the plate – a sort of plop as it landed in the mashed potatoes – Mickey set his elbows on the table and buried his face in his hands. “My wife put up with me for a while, but you can only take so much, ya know?”
“And then one day you’re sleepin’ under a bridge, wonderin’ what the hell happened,” said Craig.
Mickey opened his hands and stared over at the vet. There was more to that story, and Mickey wanted to ask, but something in Craig’s eyes told him that was all he was going to say for now. Maybe, at all.
It was then, as if called for by the moment, or maybe a prayer answered, the group at the table nearest the back wall began to sing Silent Night. He thought for a moment about joining in, but instead found his fork, letting his belly enjoy the first real meal he’d had in a while.
Across from him, Craig had turned to watch the make-shift choir, while Dennis, to his side, was noticeably quiet, his food untouched since they had begun talking. Mickey turned just enough to get a peek, catching Dennis with his head bowed and his eyes closed.
“You okay?” he asked.
“I think I’d better find another table,” Dennis finally said, his words quivering and almost a whisper.
Wiping his eyes, he grabbed his plate and scooted back his chair, but Craig put a big calloused hand over his. “You’re welcome here, my friend. No need to go anywhere. Everyone in this room is grieving or regretting something in their past. Pretty sure no one drove up in a Porsche.” He leaned over to look past Mickey. “’Septin’ maybe that weather guy passing out the toothpicks there at the end of the line,” he said with a smile.
“You don’t understand.” Dennis wasn’t trying to stand, but he hadn’t slid his chair back up to the table either. “I’m not like you guys.”
Craig kept his hand on Dennis’s. “You, my friend, are the one who doesn’t understand. The three of us are sitting here having Christmas dinner thanks to the kindness of a lot of good folks. We’re here because something in our past didn’t quite work out. We each have our own ghosts, our own failings. Ain’t nothin’ to be proud of, but ain’t one of us any better than the other. We are alike, a lot more than you think.”
“No…you really don’t understand.”
“Well, then, help us to understand. We got nothin’ better to do than fill our bellies and take in a good story. We’re all ears. Ain’t we Mick?”
Mickey looked over at Craig, then shifted his gaze to Dennis and nodded. “All ears.”
Dennis let go of his plate and clasped his hands together in his lap, his gaze falling to the floor. He began to take in sobbing breaths, each a bit deeper and longer. “While you were in ‘Nam, fightin’ for your country in all that horror, I split. Went to Canada…” He broke into tears, no more words able to escape.
“Everything okay here, my sons?”
Mickey turned to see the petite little nun who had greeted him earlier at the door standing behind Dennis, her hand now on his shoulder.
“It is, Sister. Just a little confessional from the heart. You know, better than any of us, how that does the soul good. Sometimes we pray. Sometimes we cry. And if we’re real lucky, and I do mean REAL lucky, we sometimes get to laugh at our follies,” replied Craig.
She smiled a smile that settled in Mickey’s heart, then leaned down and whispered something into Dennis’s ear. He raised his head and looked her in the eye with the slightest of an upturn to the corners of his mouth.
“Let me know if I can be of any help,” she said as she stepped away. “God bless you all on this magical day.”
They sat in quiet for a moment, but Dennis’s words kept playing in Mickey’s head.
“I don’t understand. Went to Canada? Was does that even mean?” Mickey looked first at Dennis, then over to Craig, not sure who he was really asking.
“You volunteered, my friend. Joined the Marines on your own free will thinking you were doing the right thing. Helping your country.” Craig kept his hand on Dennis’s. “Back in our time there was a draft. Didn’t get to think things through like that. Right? Wrong? Good? Bad? Really didn’t matter. You got your notice and a couple weeks later you belonged to Uncle Sam.”
“So what’s Canada got to do with it?”
“Some guys, even in that time, like you, saw it as their duty and joined free will. But most of us were drafted. It made for one scary time, let me tell you. Here we were a bunch of 18 and 19-year-olds who’d never been out of the county, much less off in some stinkin’ jungle a million miles from home. We weren’t just afraid, we were scared shitless.
“But, you know, that wasn’t the half of it. There was so much we weren’t being told. Just weren’t being told. And Mick, you wouldn’t believe how much of what we were told was just a pile of BS. So, so many lies…”
Craig’s voice seemed to trail off, as did the look in his eyes. For a moment, Mickey could almost see a 19-year-old knee-deep in a rice paddy, mortar shells exploding close by. Way too close. He thought about that alley in Iraq. The ringing in his ears as the AK-47 fire filled the air.
“…but none of that mattered,” Craig continued. “Whether you were scared – as we all were – or just plain didn’t agree, it didn’t matter. You either went or you packed your bags and headed north to Canada. The guys that went there were lucky in that the Canadians, for the most part at least, turned a blind eye. Not the case down here in the States. There was a lot of animosity.” He stopped, sort of cocked his head, then snapped his fingers. “No, that’s not the right word. It was hate. Hostile hate for the draft dodgers. Especially from those of us who went over there. And maybe especially those that didn’t want to. And you can’t imagine what it must have been like for the parents who lost a kid over in that hellhole. There was no room for sympathy in their hearts for anyone who skedaddled off to Canada. No matter what the circumstance. No sirreee.”
“I – I never heard anything about this.” Mickey leaned forward, setting his elbows back on the table. He wanted to turn toward Dennis, ask him how he could have abandoned his country. His family. How he could dishonor those who made the sacrifice. But there were no words. And, who was he to say anything?
“It all happened a long time ago, Mick,” said Craig, shaking his head.
Dennis looked over to Mickey. “I can’t imagine what you must think of me. You went on your own. I high-tailed it.” He sucked in a breath, something that sounded more like a gasp, and then continued. “My granddad was a Colonel or something in World War II. My dad flew a fighter plane in Korea. And when it came to my turn, I ran. Couldn’t do it. I was so scared.”
Mickey opened his mouth, but words seemed to fail him. He felt the heat building in his face, his gut wrenching in a sort of angry twist. This guy RAN to Canada? He–
Craig shifted his hand from Dennis’s to Mickey’s, interrupting his thoughts.
“Hang in there, compadre. I know what you’re thinkin’, but cool them jets down a bit. Give this some real thought. Ain’t one of us here at the table that can stand up all holier than thou and just walk away. Watch them stones you’re casting, my friend. One of them may just bounce off and knock you in the head.”
“But, nothin’. You think Dennis ain’t dyin’ inside right now, having to spill his guts. Cut him some slack. He was a kid at the time. 19, for God’s sake.”
Mickey, pulling his hand from under Craig’s, slid back his chair and let his head lean way back against the rest. “Oh, God, Craig. You don’t understand.” His head fell forward and now it was his turn to cry.
Craig sat quiet, giving Mickey some space, but when the tears didn’t let up, he stood and moved around the table, leaning down next to him and wrapping his arm around his shoulder.
“Help me understand, Kid.”
“I ran, Craig. I ran from that alley. They all died…and I ran.”
Craig dropped to his knee and put his head to Mickey’s shoulder, tears filling his eyes. “So did I, Mick. They came out of the trees. They were everywhere. So I ran, Mick. I ran and ran.”
“Well, well. I see that the Spirit has joined you fine young men for Christmas dinner this wonderful eve.”
The voice was that of the nun, and when Mickey looked up, his head having been bowed, he saw that she had her hands on both Dennis and Craig’s shoulders. The three men held hands around the table, bringing a wide smile to the rounded face of the little nun.
“Just making our plans for next Christmas, Sister. We’ve decided that next time around, we’re all going to be helping behind the table, passing out to those less fortunate.” Craig gave her a wink, bringing that smile, though it didn’t seem possible, even wider.
“I’m going to hold you to that, you know.” She winked back at Craig, nodded at Mickey as though she’d known all along, and then, patting Dennis on the back, disappeared into the kitchen.
After a long career of tinkering in telecommunications, Jim Bartlett switched to tinkering with words, both, of course, requiring a stretch of the imagination. He has since been fortunate to have a number of stories, ranging from flash to novella, featured in Fiction on the Web, CrimeSpree Magazine, Short-Story.me, Ontologica, The Scarlet Leaf Review, Fairlight Books and a number of other wonderful publications. Most recently one of his stories was featured in the print anthology, The Best of Fiction on the Web, 1996 – 2017. While mentally he strolls along a warm California beach with his wife and golden retriever (shhh, she doesn’t know she’s a dog), physically they reside on a special little island in the Pacific Northwest.