Green Hills Literary Lantern

The Liar's Card

 

“Forty-eight thousand dollars,” the woman in front of Les Whitfield and his wife said to the teller. “It was right there on the front page. That’s six thousand more than Marybeth Walker was getting, and she worked here for eight years.”

Forty-eight thousand dollars was exactly the salary Whitfield was about to be paid to be the new city planner in Paulsbury, NY. The old woman sputtered as she gathered up the stack of twenties and tens she’d received in exchange for the pile of rolled coins she’d passed to the teller. “Mayor Heffers should be ashamed of himself. You mark my words. This is a waste of money.”

She folded her bills into a change purse, brushing past Whitfield without any sign of recognition, but the teller said, “Don’t mind Priscilla. She thinks she’s the town conscience,” and Whitfield knew the newspaper had run his photo with the article.

“I’m fifty-nine and making a salary like a first-year school teacher, and she thinks I’m overpaid?” Whitfield asked his wife Delia as soon as they were outside.

“A public job, a public salary,” she said, not smiling.

“I wanted to work in a smaller city. I was tired of never being in charge.”

“And you were fired.”

“It was a new administration. They gave me six months.”

“Being fired is being fired,” Delia said with such finality that Whitfield thought she was working toward an analogy for their marriage.

“They did me a favor,” he finally said, ready to insist that scenario was plausible. Their three children were grown and gone, the youngest of them twenty-four and stationed in Iraq. Whitfield’s father had died last year and left him $75,000—not a fortune, but enough to put a safety net under his leap from Rochester to Paulsbury. It was only a $12,000 pay cut. The inheritance and the money from selling their house took up the slack.

Whitfield thought of following the woman and telling her in front of Delia that in his first two weeks on the job, he’d written two government grants and met with twenty business owners and had two meetings with the mayor. He’d hit the ground running. The Arbor Day tree planting was on the fast track; the façade and sign renovations were under discussion; the arts festival already proposed. He’d arrived in the middle of the Harvest Festival, a holdover from when the town was surrounded by thousands of acres of corn and onion fields. Only the onion fields were left within four miles of the town, the soil so particularly suited to that crop that it was still profitable, but the corn had moved out beyond the mall and the theaters and the big box buildings.

He’d wandered the nearly empty streets among thin corn shocks tied to parking meters and vowed to drop the festival from the town’s yearly calendar. He’d read the frayed banners at each end of town, both of them without dates so they could be reused. Sure, he could maintain the Christmas lights and the shoppers’ night that every town of fifteen thousand had, but he needed that promotion as a way of building good will by maintaining tradition. By the time all the decorations came down and the bleak, snow-drifted days of January and February settled in, he’d be ready with grant money and ideas.

During his interview he’d proposed the Arbor Day Market Street Planting, lining the streets with Goldenrain Trees. “They’re hardy,” he’d said. “Their root systems don’t ruin sidewalks.” He’d talked about razing the building that had held a drug store and a second floor of professional offices, which all of the tenants lost to the mall or an out-of-town complex of offices. “It’s been what, six years?” Whitfield had said. “Take it down and make a park. Be proactive, like it’s an opportunity instead of leaving that building to remind people about small city decline—the space will suggest community spirit.”

 The building came down in January, demolition starting the day after the Christmas lights were put away for another year. Throughout February and March, the old woman from the bank, Priscilla Hackenberg, wrote letters to the editor about how awful Paulsbury now looked. “The Revco Building was a veritable cornerstone,” she wrote, “and now the corner looks like a bomb went off. What’s next? The old courthouse? The library? The bank? And there’s word out about the veteran’s memorial being moved.”

Because the town, a hundred years earlier, had been the county seat, it had a block of stone and concrete fortresses that loomed over the undistinguished store fronts—a court house, a prison, a library, a bank, all of them constructed in the 19th century before a machine shop and a high tension wire insulator factory appeared on the eastern end of town where small, dilapidated houses merged with unlikely shops that featured palm readings and comic books and tattoos. In the center of town were four blocks of restaurants and clothing stores that were still holding on. At the western end of town, among more cheap houses, there was a war memorial of plaques and a cannon welcoming the rare out-of-towner from its isolated station in front of the long-closed bed and breakfast that had opened in the huge house that had once been owned by the VFW before it had moved to a more modest building a half mile from town.

The Goldenrain trees arrived in early April, and the next day it snowed. Mayor Heffers, with time on his hands because the ceremony was postponed, looked up Arbor Day for something to add to his speech and discovered Whitfield had the wrong date. It wasn’t the first Wednesday in April like it was in Maryland, where Whitfield had lived until he was thirty years old; it was the last Friday of the month, plenty of time for the sun and temperatures more than a few degrees above freezing to arrive. “Thank God they’ll keep,” Heffers told Whitfield. “Thank God they’re all packed in those fat root balls.”

Whitfield used the mistake as an icebreaker as he made the rounds of businesses to convince the owners to be unanimous with decorative new signs coordinated in the same fonts and finished wood. All they had to do was pay one third of the cost. He had government matching funds and a revitalization grant for the rest. Such a small investment in community image, he kept saying, laughing about his Arbor Day mistake to show some self-deprecating charm.

Whitfield had gotten acquainted with the men and women who ran the businesses in a town that had held out against every fast food franchise except McDonald’s and Subway . “Our pizza shops have done well,” Mayor Heffers had told him, “but sandwiches and burgers and the like, they were done for twenty years or more ago like the movie theater.”

“I’m surprised Arbor Day isn’t right around Mother’s Day,” the owner of Wade’s Pizza said when Whitfield stopped by. “We’ve had ourselves a snow or two here in Western New York at the end of April. It wouldn’t surprise me none if you had to postpone again.”

Wade Hackenburg was already on board for the new sign—“Mine’s shot to hell and back anyway,” he’d said—but Whitfield was there about his next idea for the drug store lot park—moving the war memorial from the edge of town and placing it there.

Whitfield shook Wade’s hand and nodded toward the sun-filled street outside of the pizza shop. “Right over there,’ he said. “The new park will cure the eyesore, but the memorial will make the park matter.”

Wade looked at Whitfield closely. “You in country back when?” he said.

Whitfield had figured Vietnam when he’d heard from Heffers that Wade Hackenburg was “about your age” and active in the VFW, a man he needed to carry the day for moving the memorial. “The war ended the year I graduated from high school,” Whitfield said, happy to use the dates he’d fabricated for his high school and college graduations, making them five years later in order to look younger on his job application.

Wade looked him up and down again, and Whitfield felt his shoulders and biceps and chest shrinking. “You a young man then.”

“Fifty-four.”

“Fifty-nine here. Five years makes all the difference, don’t it?”

“In this case, for sure,” Whitfield said, and he felt the memorial becoming enormous and immovable.

Wade stepped forward and lightly punched Whitfield’s shoulder. “But I heard you have a boy over to Iraq. That so?”

“Yes.”

“Our boys might just be acquainted right this minute then. When my mother finds out that rumor’s got facts to hold it up, she might just stop her poison pen.”

“Priscilla?” Whitfield said.

“Exactly. The town penny pincher in the flesh, but she admires them that serve and them that send them off to serve.”

“Mine will be rotated back home in June,” Whitfield said. He didn’t offer that his son was an officer, that he’d gone through ROTC in college over Whitfield’s objections.

“August,” Wade said. “My boy’s turned the corner, too. Come Labor Day, maybe we’ll have ourselves a party for the boys. Sound good?”

“Yes, it does,” Whitfield said.

“The boy needed some direction when he finished high school. You know how boys are. I needed the same thing when I was his age. Maybe you did, too, only there wasn’t something out there to fix your attention on. He didn’t see himself making pizzas, that’s for damn sure.”

“Let’s hope the new versions of them come back in one piece,” Whitfield said, and Wade shook his hand again, beaming.

The trees, when they were finally planted, looked artificial, all of them the same size with a bluish tint to their opening leaves. “Like we have a spring holiday season,” Wade said after the ceremony. “Like they’ll all come down in a month and be stored somewhere until next April.”

Mayor Heffers looked up and down the row of them with apprehension before he said, “You’re sure the roots won’t lift the sidewalks?”

“Positive,” Whitfield said.

“The man does his homework,” Wade said. “Surely he does.”

Whitfield made to laugh, but with Delia standing beside him, he could only manage a faint smile. “Wait until July. They’ll sprout bright yellow spiky flowers when everything else is just barely hanging on to green in the heat.” He turned to Heffers. “And I already told you they can put up with a lot of road salt.”

“You’ve lived in Western New York, for sure,” Wade said. “These streets get themselves a crust.”

“I’m having a couple of Norway maples planted in the new park. They grow fast and they give shade.”

“Listen to him, would you?” Wade said to Heffers. “He’s a regular Johnny Appleseed.” He glanced at his watch, “I gotta go. Mom’s waiting and it’s a hike out to her place.”

“We’ll give you a ride,” Whitfield said. “It’s barely out of our way.”

They rode in silence for the three minutes it took. “She’s getting up there,” Wade said when they pulled into the driveway. “You have a mother still alive, you know how it is about being expected.”

Before Wade reached the door, it opened, and Whitfield saw the old woman from the bank squinting toward his car. “Who’s that in the blue car?” she called out as Wade approached her, but Wade brushed past her without turning his head, disappearing into the house. The woman, despite the faint chill, held the door open until Whitfield pulled away.

“Why do you think a man like that attaches himself to you?”

“He’s looking for a friend.”

“A man like that’s looking for a soft spot so he knows it’s there when he needs it. Listen to him. He called it ‘her place.’ A man who lives with his mother when he’s sixty is a suspect. Ask your new buddy Heffers. He’ll tell you I’m right about this.”

Whitfield glanced in the mirror as if he could spot the old woman from a mile away. “He has a son. He was married once.”

“You’re doing the thinking for these people, Les. They may not appreciate it later.” And then, like an afterthought, she smiled, but Whitfield turned away before he said something bitter and ugly about how “important” it was to glamorize a town where thirty per cent of the people had worked, until three years ago, in the empty factory complex that marked the eastern edge of town like a fort at the entrance to a harbor.

 

* * *

 

A week later, while Whitfield was walking through his neighborhood in a light drizzle, footsteps began to approach him from behind in a hurried way that he was certain meant trouble. Suddenly, there were enough shadows to concern somebody spooked as easily as Whitfield was after years of living in cities. When whoever it was caught up, perhaps five feet behind him, yet didn’t pass, Whitfield tried to remember how much cash he was carrying.

And then those footsteps disappeared, the person behind him mimicking the pace and length of his stride so perfectly Whitfield couldn’t hear him. Nothing a thief would do, he thought, with little consolation.

He crossed a street. He counted six hundred steps, never once, after his first ten strides, hearing the other set of footsteps until his shoes touched the loose gravel at the end of his driveway. Without turning, he listened as the footsteps continued down the street. And then he pivoted slowly and watched as a man with the whitest crew cut Whitefield had ever seen seemed to still be in rhythm as he faded into the next block. Back inside, he explained the experience to his wife. For a few seconds Delia looked at him, and that pause seemed to him like those moments between old 45s, when the tone arm hasn’t returned for the jolt of pop and crackle just before the music begins. “He can’t be that good,” she said. “You’re exaggerating."

Whitfield shared his story with Wade the next day. “That would be Malcolm you’re talking about. He’s got your cadence in his head now. He knows you,” Wade said, getting excited. He looked across the street to where a truckload of crushed white stone was being spread in the vacant lot. “He’s got what my father used to call shell shock. They call it post traumatic shock these days, but a fancy name don’t change it none. He lives with his sister two blocks off the main drag and walks the streets until he finds somebody to march behind.”

“He’s good at it,” Whitfield said.

“For damn sure, he is. You know Malcolm was real smart before all that. Second in my class.”

“Salutatorian.”

“Yeah. Smart as fuck, and now look. If he’d tried, I bet he could have draft dodged. There was ways back then that some fuckers used.”

Whitfield nodded. He’d been coached about how to fail the blood pressure test for the draft, fueling himself with a bout of drinking the night before and a furious morning of coffee swilling. He’d called his temporary 4-F the red badge of cowardice, but now he was afraid Wade would find out that he’d lucked into an excuse to miss the war, buying himself a delay that covered the end of combat.

As if he could read Whitfield’s mind, Wade said, “Back then I knew this fucker who got a doctor to sign off on a shoulder problem. The doctor was his uncle-in-law or some distant shit like that. The guy could throw a baseball ninety miles an hour, but he had that arm in a sling, his story so full of shit and yet it worked. I wanted to kill him right then and there. You should know that motherfucker runs the insurance agency. You know the one—Cooper and Reed. He’s Cooper. A lifetime liar.”

There was nothing to be done about the past, Whitfield thought, except to understand it differently, and he made a gesture of having to go back to work. “Wait just one second,” Wade said, pulling a piece of official-looking stationery from his pocket. “Lookit here what I just got myself off the Internet. This tells you all about what they call the Liar’s Card hook-up for my phone.”

“How’s that work?” Whitfield said.

“Easy, it says here. A cheap-ass personal lie detector is what it is. Makes you think, don’t it?”

“A little.”

“You betcha it does. If you were after my wife and I called, you’d give yourself away and I’d come round and fuck you up.”

“I’m not after your wife.”

“Lucky you. She’s been long gone these twenty years. Left me with my boy in a crib, a trade I appreciate more every day.” Whitfield thought Wade looked pensive for a moment, as if he were considering the truth of his past, but then Wade grinned. “But wait until I call and we’ll see if the card says you’re a lying motherfucker.” Wade laughed in a way that sounded to Whitfield, just then, like a threat.

When Whitfield finally pulled himself away from Wade, he walked to the other end of town to visit with Cooper. The mayor had mentioned Cooper as one of the main opponents of change. “He gets his way most times,” the mayor had said. “He’s had these thirty years or more to build up a reputation. He went along with the sign business because it was such a bargain, but you’ll have to make good with him for this memorial idea.”

“You’re not from here,” Cooper said. “That makes it hard for some to listen.”

“It’s a common thing, coming from somewhere else. We don’t live in tribes anymore.”

Cooper looked surprised, like he wasn’t used to having people do anything but nod when he spoke. “If your kids were still around the house, that would be a help. If they were in the schools.”

“I still have company around the house. My wife says she’ll stay a while longer,” Whitfield said, and Cooper looked away as if he’d just noticed the first sign of water damage near the side window.

“Some of us live here, Mr. Whitfield,” he said without turning back. “Some of us call this home.”

 

* * *

 

The next morning there was a lengthy letter to the editor in the newspaper from Leonard Dobbins, the local expert on recent wars. Every word of the thirteen column inches was used to argue against moving the war memorial.

Whitfield had glanced at Dobbins’ weekly columns and only vaguely paid attention. The guy was a re-enactor. He traveled to Gettysburg every summer and donned a Union uniform. What had surprised him a little was how well done the columns were—oral histories from local residents—World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War. 

He even remembered a paragraph of talk by a veteran of Normandy. “There’s something in a man has to try and save his buddy no matter what. It’s not being brave so much as just following your heart.” A sort of specialized Studs Terkel, Whitfield had told the mayor, who’d looked puzzled. “Who calls himself Studs?” he’d said, and Whitfield had let it go.

Dobbins, when he inevitably summarized the oral histories, lapsed into a plain style: “Marvin Haslett proved himself a brave man when he exposed himself to enemy fire to rescue a badly wounded comrade. He received a wound of his own.” Normally, hardly any of Dobbins’ words registered with Whitfield, but for the past few weeks the man had encouraged readers to resist the moving of the monument because “it belonged where the men who’d erected it meant it to be forever.”

“He has people stirred up,” Delia said, watching him from across the table.

“Those people need to have their fucking arms twisted is all,” Whitfield said.

Delia frowned. “You don’t have to talk tough around me to get your confidence up. I’m not on your team. I’m your wife.”

“That’s only half of what I should sound like,” Whitfield said, but he felt himself floundering.

“If you have to act like your new buddy, that’s your business, but don’t bring it home with you.” She swept her hair to the side as if she needed a wider field of vision to locate him. “You can’t remake yourself, Les.  What do you think Wade would do if he knew you dodged the draft? That Mama’s boy is so full of rage it oozes out of him like sweat.”

“That’s not going to happen,” Whitfield heard himself blurt. “He thinks I was too young to serve.”

“What?”

“So does Heffers. I made myself younger on the job app. Nobody checks something like that, not for a job like mine in a town like this.”

“By how much?” Delia said. She looked suddenly furious, as if she shared Wade Hackenberg’s attitude about serving the country when the time came.

“Five years. It’s come in handy around Wade.”

“A man as damaged as Wade Hackenberg would hate you with all his heart if he knew. He’d take a swing at you, and then what?”

 

* * *

 

Dobbins, it turned out, didn’t live in town, and the mayor used that technicality to hold his ground at the meeting when the council was about to vote. “I’ve lived here all my life just five miles away,” Dobbins said, “and this man, who’s never served, a stranger, decides to move a monument and you support him?”

“That’s why we hired him—to maximize what we have,” Heffers said, and he called for more responses.

Whitfield saw Priscilla stand. “$48,000 for a heap of fuss,” Priscilla said. “That’s all we seem to be paying for.” She wavered, her hand on Wade’s shoulder.

Wade called out without raising his hand or standing. “I’ve gotten to know Les Whitfield, and he’s not to blame for not ever being in uniform. He’s an honest man.” Wade reached up and laid a hand on his mother’s back as she settled into her chair.

Whitfield opened up about the advantages of having the memorial in the park, how, after a year or two, everybody would get used to it, and there would be so much more foot traffic nearby that it would be the memorial it was intended to be, the inscriptions read by the young and by visitors to the town who were shopping there and eating in the restaurants because they’d discovered how attractive a town could be in the 21st century even though the businesses that had made it prosper had left town a decade ago.

Whitfield expected Cooper to stand. He knew a large part of Cooper’s antagonism was because if the memorial was left where it was, the rest of the renovation funds used to spruce up around it, the block where Cooper and Reed was located, might spring to life. He wanted that monument and all its foot-traffic building sentiment located near his business. But it was Dobbins, who had no selfish interest whatsoever, who rose again to speak. “The location of the memorial was decided sixty years ago when the men who fought the twentieth century’s two great wars placed it there,” he began.

“You don’t live in the city,” Mayor Heffers said for the second time in twenty minutes. “You don’t pay city tax. I’ve allowed you to speak out of courtesy and respect. I’ll ask you to sit down now and let those elected to decide to cast their votes.”

As if he hadn’t heard, Dobbins walked to the front of the room and eyeballed the six councilmen, sidestepping to keep eye contact until he was next to Heffers. Whitfield could feel the room leaning forward, but no one rose except Wade. “Let’s hope and pray that the council members vote their conscience, not their convenience,” Dobbins said, not moving until Wade walked up the aisle and whispered into his ear. As Dobbins walked back to his seat, Wade grinned in a way that terrified Whitfield.

When the council split three to three, Heffers cast the majority vote for moving the monument. Dobbins stalked out and Cooper sat with his arms folded across his chest for a full five minutes before he followed. “I put a bug in Dobbins’ ear,” Wade said.

“Thank you.”

Wade grinned again. “Some surely don’t take to being persuaded by word of mouth. You was a few years older and in country, you’d surely know.”

 

* * *

When the signs went up in the middle of May, the town looked like a place fit for tourists who would sit in the new park for a minute while they ate a slice of pizza or licked ice cream cones as they peeked into the bags full of souvenirs they’d bought after touring the ancient jail and the county museum. The monument was being moved in time for Memorial Day. The vacant lot was pitted with patches of crushed stone where benches were set, bolted into cement. The memorial was to be centered between the two shade trees.

The font Whitfield had let Delia choose for all the signs suggested less than manly, or so Wade said. “I’ll call two of my veggie pizzas gourmet, and maybe the out-of-towners will stop in when they see Wade’s Pizza lettered on that classy sign out by the interstate. The rest know what they want before they get here—extra cheese, pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms.”

“Wade’s,” Whitfield said, touching the sign.

Wade stared as if Whitfield would leave smears of jelly or chocolate. “You know what,” he went on, “my name was one more thing that unreasonable bitch wife of mine wanted me to change before she left.”

Whitfield dropped his hand to his side. “You don’t have to tell me about any of that,” he said.

“To Miller,” Wade said. “My middle name. My mother’s maiden name right where it belonged, so it was saved but never said, and she wanted me the rest of my life being Miller Hackenberg, a stranger to my own self. He leaned forward in a way that made Whitfield believe he was inspecting the sign for fingerprints. “Listen,” Wade went on, “I just heard these last few hours about my boy wounded over there.”

“How bad?”

“Nobody’s saying. It’s not life threatening is all.”

When Whitfield turned away, he saw that the memorial, newly installed, gleamed in the sun.  Delia, he was surprised to see, was crossing the street toward them. “I don’t imagine that stops the anxiety.”

“You don’t have to do no worrying,” Wade said. “Your boy is so short now, somebody will look out for him.” He looked at Delia as she closed up beside Whitfield. “What would you rather have,” he said, “your boy a dead hero or a crippled one?” 

“A kind of Sophie’s Choice,” Delia said, and Whitfield tried to gauge Wade’s recognition.

“A kind I hope to fuck I’m not having handed to me,” Wade said, but with Delia standing there, he seemed to be going slack. “You two read Cooper’s bullshit letter in the paper this morning?”

Whitfield nodded. Cooper had written a scathing letter to the editor about betrayal and greed. He demanded the town do something with the old memorial site—sculpture, he said, a fountain—some such expense to compensate those located where patriotism once flourished. “You can’t reach some men through kindness,” Wade said. “There’s nothing for it but to steamroll the fuckers.”

Whitfield could feel Delia listening hard. “There’s a story somewhere about a velvet-covered fist,” Whitfield said.

Delia smiled grimly. “There’s a rose in a fisted glove,” she said. Wade snorted, his eyes coming to life again. He made a fist with his right hand and smacked into his left palm. 

Whitfield noticed Delia nodding as if she were waiting for Wade to use his fists as soon as Whitfield admitted to being a fan of Crosby, Still, and Nash. “I just heard Heffers isn’t running for re-election in the fall,” she said. “There will be some who think he’s profited by all that Les has done.”

Wade stared at her. “Well?” he said. “Well?”

“I’m just putting it out there,” Delia said. “I came to get Les because Heffers called the house like a man who’d forgotten there are cell phones in this world.”

She tugged Whitfield’s arm, turning him away. A block later, she let go and said, “You hear how he talks when you poke him a little? He’d put a knife in your gut and twist it if he knew who you were.”

“His boy’s been wounded.”

“Exactly. What if the boy comes home without a leg and sitting in a wheelchair? You and your welcome home barbeque idea. There’d be our Conner without a scratch and ready for graduate school, and there’d be Wade Hackenberg wanting to kill the both of you.”

That night, when Whitfield answered the phone, Wade started right in without a hello. “If you were five years older, you’d hate that prick Cooper, right?”

“Yes, I would.” The truth because if he were five years younger, he’d hate Cooper too.

“You’re not giving that fat prick any small part of that grant money, right?”

Whitfield suddenly imagined Wade having his Liar’s Card plugged in, his pulse and breathing being recorded, a buzzer going off in Wade’s ear. “Maybe not.”

“Maybe doesn’t cut it. Maybe gets you fucked up in country.”

“OK. He’s on the shit list.”

“That’s what I want to hear.”

Wade hung up. Whitfield figured something as cheap as the Liar Card couldn’t measure levels of truth, but a year from now he could be out of a job because the new mayor would decide there wasn’t anything left to change worth paying him to come up with. The business district looked nice; the small park was attractive; the monument was moved and not about to be moved again. That mayor would take advantage of the $48,000 to be saved now that Whitfield had exhausted the grant money. He’d be sixty, for real, by then, and they’d never give him six months to look for another job the way Rochester had.

 

* * *

 

“What did you lie about in Rochester?” Delia said the next morning when Whitfield announced he was going to walk into town for the Memorial Day ceremony at the newly named Veterans’ Remembrance Park.

“I don’t want to be fighting about my little lie,” he said. “Everybody does stuff like that when they’re looking for a job.”

“You were older then and all cozy with that jackass boss of yours about dodging Vietnam because he showed you long-ago hippie pictures of himself. I bet you act all proud of Conner with Wade.”

“I’m not acting.”

“Lieutenant Conner Whitfield. Back there in Rochester you told him he was putting his life at risk for nothing.”

“That’s not what I said.”

“That’s what you meant,” Delia said. Breathing hard now, she held the front door open. “You go salute the flag, and I’ll stay here and pray this isn’t a holiday we’re going to hate for the rest of our lives.”

Whitfield had to fight the urge to duck as he passed her. “It’s business, Delia,” he said after he’d passed her. “It’s my job,” but she slammed the door.

It was a ten-minute walk, and Whitfield was happy for the time alone. He hadn’t been to one of these Memorial Day ceremonies since he’d played third chair trumpet in the high school band, marching behind thousands of men in uniform to an enormous cemetery that overlooked Hagerstown.

There looked to be two or three hundred people gathered in an irregular circle around the monument, so Whitfield slipped past the fringe and worked his way forward into the second row. Cooper, it turned out, was standing directly across from him. He held a baby. A grandchild, Whitfield thought, the young woman beside Cooper the mother. Whitfield scanned the men in uniform scattered throughout the crowd, but he couldn’t make out Wade. What would keep him at home except terrible details from Iraq?

At last, he lowered his eyes through a closing prayer and the first quavering notes of “Taps.” All he could do was keep his head bowed and stare at the sidewalk where it seemed to empty itself into the asphalt path that looped around the memorial.

When the bugler settled into producing long, perfectly shaped notes, Whitfield looked up and noticed Cooper hand the baby to the young woman and place his hand over his heart like a school boy. Whitfield kept his hands at his side.

Then he recognized that the horn player standing in front of the four plaques for the town’s war dead was Malcolm. He was in full uniform. He held the bugle exactly parallel to the ground and finished the song with such protracted clarity that Whitfield believed, for a moment, that Malcolm had recovered from his wounds, that he’d been practicing since the night he’d followed Whitfield home. Use this, he said to himself. The improbable is possible.

Malcolm snapped the bugle down to his side, came to full attention, and saluted so crisply Whitfield bowed his head again and stared at the grass until he was jostled by the first wave of the dispersing crowd. It was enough to send him back home to whatever news there was about Wade’s son. Even if Delia knew, even if she said, “Now what are you going to say to that man” after she described an amputation or permanent facial scars, he’d let her report without interrupting. The story he had was so astonishing he didn’t have to tell it immediately. He’d tell it slowly, including every detail, and she would have to believe him.

 

 

 

Gary Fincke’s latest collection of stories, The Proper Words for Sin, was published by West Virginia University in April. A paperback edition of a previous collection, Sorry I Worried You, which won the Flannery O’Connor Prize, was just released by the University of Georgia. A novel, How Blasphemy Sounds to God, will be published in early 2014 by Braddock Avenue Books. He is the Charles Degenstein Professor of Creative Writing at Susquehanna University.