Bruce J. Berger
Lindsey Scompa felt her knees buckle and dizziness pass over her when she heard the radio report that "18 U.S. Marines have died in a helicopter crash today outside of Kabul, Afghanistan." Somehow she knew without knowing how that John had been killed, knew as certainly as if a lieutenant told her face-to-face at her front door. With six-month old Greg on the changing table gurgling at her and his bare bottom in need of cleaning, she could do nothing but try to keep him steady and not faint. She leaned over the baby who would now grow up without a father, touched him lightly with her forehead and red hair, closed her eyes, and waited until the lightheadedness had run its course. In minutes, she had him well diapered and clothed, then carefully placed him in his crib, face up, where he would soon fall asleep.
She thought they came together as a couple in a way that would have suggested fiction had it not really happened. She collided with John as he barreled down the aisle of Kendrick High and she turned abruptly from her locker in her effort to get to homeroom before being listed yet again as "tardy." Her books scattered across the floor, her Spanish notes flew in every direction, but before she could say "Damn!" she saw that it was none other than John Scompa who had blasted into her, and there stood, smiling with his jock good looks, begging her forgiveness.
He reached out and held her arm as if to steady her. "I´m so sorry. You´re Lindsey, right? Choral group?"
She´d wanted to meet him since her sophomore year had begun two weeks earlier. The deep dark blush suffusing her face forced her to turn away.
"I´m late. Talk to me after school." How she´d had the nerve to invite him to chat with her, when he was a popular tight end on the Keys´ football team and she was … well, no one … but yet she had. She considered it a miracle that John had thought of her as really someone worth talking to and he´d been kind and funny and so romantic. She knew within a month of their dating that she wanted them to be married, and their relationship had blossomed into true love. That´s what she told her friends when they asked her why she´d started to sleep with him so soon. He was the first and only lover she had ever known.
By the time the two "casualty assistants" appeared at her door at 5:30 the next morning in their dress green uniforms, Lindsey had prepared herself. She´d heard about the routine from other war widows. The two officers would speak about their "unfortunate duty" knowing that their mere presence conveyed the message more than words could possibly do.
"Mrs. John Scompa?"
"Yes." She leaned heavily against the door frame, casting her eyes downward. She imagined that they had seen every possible reaction.
"The President of the United States …"
She didn´t listen to the rest of their words, but fell to her knees, covered her face with her hands, and managed to squeak "Oh my God, no!" Fortunately, Greg and Thomas still slept. Someone helped her up and led her to her sofa. The major called her best friend, Alice, who could be there in a half hour. Lindsey had carefully written Alice´s number on a slip of paper the night before and handed it to the major when he asked if there was someone he could call for her. He did not inquire about why she happened to have such a slip of paper handy.
"The Marines!? You´re kidding, I hope?" Lindsey, just three months pregnant with Thomas, not yet beginning to show, stared at her husband.
"It´s the best service. I know I can do it."
"But, it´s dangerous, John, there´s a war on, and we´re gonna have a baby!"
"And I need a way to pay for you and the kid, and it sure don´t look like plumbing is working out. I´m kinda like all thumbs for plumbing, right? So that´s how it´s gonna be. Marines. I signed up, and it´s a done deal." He smiled, flashing his straight white teeth as if his good looks were the answer to life´s every dilemma.
"Well, then I guess I have no choice, do I?"
He moved towards her, kissed her deeply, started to touch her, and they walked together towards their bedroom. Pregnancy had not dampened her desire in the least.
A seemingly unending stream of people flooded into Lindsey´s house: her parents, his parents, Father Peter, friends from the parish, her sister, his brother, uncles, aunts, cousins, friends, and even people who said they´d been school friends long ago whom she could not recall. They carried with them virtually identical messages.
"Lindsey, we´re so sorry. John was so brave."
"Lindsey, John loved his country and gave his life for his country. We are so proud of him."
"Lindsey, have you told Thomas yet? Does he understand about John?"
She strove to keep her balance, needing to be alert and care for her sons but, at the same time, afraid to look too much in control, as if John´s death meant nothing to her. She adopted a voice barely above a whisper, spoke haltingly, allowed long pauses of silence to frame her utterances. Her visitors patiently waited through the lapses of conversation, hugging her, grabbing a hand and holding it tightly, offering tissues when they thought she was crying.
"Yes, brave. Thank you."
"Yes, very patriotic."
"No, I haven ´t said anything to him yet about not coming back. Just that ´Daddy´s away.´"
After a few days, the torrent began to subside. The freezer, filled with visitor-borne meals that Lindsey would never eat, could accept no more. When the stream dried up to a trickle, Lindsey announced that she was getting out of town for a while. She would return, of course, in time for the memorial service.
It had come out of the blue, that first time. One minute, she was arguing with John about something stupid. Try as she did to recall, the nature of the argument eluded her. What she could still feel even years after the event was the sting of his hand slapping her face, could still taste the tears that sprang forth in response, could still see John lifting his hand again to strike her a second and third and fourth time as she backed away, but not quickly enough to avoid his wrath and the degrading weight of his blows, could still hear his words splitting the air between them: "Don’t … you … ever … talk … to … me … like… that… again!"
She knew that she had done nothing wrong.
The church overflowed with people, including many that Lindsey did not know or recognize, but who all claimed to have known John. They approached her in various stages of distress, as if the trauma of his death had destroyed them more than it had affected her. She wondered where all these people were when John was alive.
No one had consulted with her about how a funeral and memorial service for a fallen Marine should proceed. Apparently, Father Peter himself had been a Marine -- why had she never known that? -- and had received a good conduct discharge after two years of service when he decided to enter a seminary. She assumed that he had consulted with the base commander and followed the prescribed order of such events. A choral group from a nearby high school sang "Amazing Grace." Then a coterie of speakers approached the altar to offer eulogies. Lindsey tried to turn off her brain to the words and still appear to any observer to be in the throes of grief. But as she glanced around her, she could see that everyone´s attention, even that of her parents, focused on the speakers singing John´s praises or on John´s casket at the front of the sanctuary. The listeners were transfixed. John the brave! John the loving husband and father! John the patriot! John the selfless hero!
"No!" The word first leaked from Lindsey as a whisper, but then she repeated it with more volume. Again, a third time, she repeated "No!" Finally, heads turned to look at her. "No!" she repeated as she rose, loudly enough for everyone to hear. The priest, who had been about to begin the High Mass, stopped and motioned to a church elder to approach Lindsey, presumably to comfort her and quiet her down. Lindsey sidestepped the elder and climbed the three steps to the altar. "I need to say something," she whispered to Father Peter, whose shock had momentarily immobilized him.
Tears streamed down her cheeks as she grabbed the lectern mike and lifted it towards her mouth. "You all have got it wrong." She paused for a second as the crowd murmured. "You didn´t know John like I knew him. He was a beast! He beat me! He beat me! He …" The rest of the tirade could not be heard beyond the first pew because Father Peter, recovering his mobility and sense of duty, had pulled the plug on her microphone. He tried to lead her back to her seat, but Lindsey pulled away, and, as the priest once again approached her, she pushed him hard in the chest. He stumbled backwards, tripped on the microphone cord, and fell. Parishioners rushed up to aid him, while Lindsey found the end of the microphone cord and plugged it in. No one else approached Lindsey to make her stop.
She raised her arms, fists clenching against the indifferent church air. "He slapped me! All the time! I´m glad he´s dead! Do you hear me? I … AM … GLAD … HE´S … DEAD!" As the stunned assemblage sat in silence, she crumpled to the floor of the altar, giving way to real grief for the first time: the grief of knowing that she had lived a lie, the grief of knowing that she could never tell her two children anything good of their father when they were old enough to ask.