Laurel by Private+Rickmers
Rating: 92%, Read 14713 times, Posted Jan 28, 2016
Fiction | Non-Erotic, Romance, Violence
Fog covered the top of the Washington Cathedral that Sunday afternoon in fall as I climbed the steps beneath the North Rose Window. I remember hearing the Cathedral bells, high above, lost in fog, announcing the beginning of the Evening Worship Service. I was also aware of the wound left by an AK-47 round when my platoon was nearly overrun in Vietnam. That sounds heroic. It felt differently. When I was in the field I was tired, uncomfortable, and afraid most of the time. I simply tried to survive. I also tried to remember why I had gone. What I went over to prove about myself did not matter when I came back. What I went over to escape from was waiting for me when I did.
As I reached the top of the stairs an elderly gentleman gave me a program for the day’s services. He wore a dark blue topcoat over what I somehow assumed to be a three-piece suit. He seemed to have lost weight as he got older, and what had once been craggy, aristocratic good looks now appeared tired.
I took the program and entered the Cathedral. The floor, which I remembered from childhood to be concrete, had been recently paved with brown and tan marble tiles. The Cathedral does not have pews, but wooden chairs. I reclined into one of them feeling an exhaustion that sleep could not cure. The Cathedral choir was singing "Bogoroditse Devo" from the Rachmaninov Vespers. I still have the program for the service. The ethereal strains rose to the ribbed ceiling of the Cathedral like souls of the dead rising above a cemetery.
Closing my eyes I remembered a time in Vietnam when I regained consciousness on a battlefield after the guns had gone silent. The sounds of birds, monkeys, and insects, which disappear when the shooting starts, merged with the scents of vegetation, both alive and dead. There was also the heat, always the heat, and my thirst.
I did not want to call out, because I did not know who had won the encounter, and who, as a result, owned the field. I was afraid that if I tried to move part of my body, that part would turn out to be no longer part of me, or else horribly damaged. Then I considered that the only pain I felt was an ache in my head. That made sense, because I had been knocked unconscious. When I tried to move my toes, I felt them move in my combat boots. I knew I had toes, feet, and legs. Doing that with my fingers, I learned the same about them, my hands, and arms.
Quietly sitting up, I drank from my canteen, and located my M-16. The magazine still had twenty rounds. I removed an extra magazine from my belt, so that I could get to it in a hurry. What I did not have was any enthusiasm for more fighting. Nevertheless, Charlie rarely took prisoners. I did not want to be killed without a fight. I turned the selector lever forward from the SEMI to the AUTO position. That way, I could be sure of getting one or two of them. Considering my circumstances, I did not need to save my ammunition.
For good measure, I fixed my bayonet to the end of my rifle.
It would last a minute. I would empty my magazine, and try to load the next one. If they gave me a chance to surrender, I would. If they did not, I would fight. If I fought, I would die. I could not shoot them all.
I thought of what they would do to my body. For me, there would be no funeral in the church where I grew up, no burial at Arlington National Cemetery, no taps, no rifle salute. Worse yet, there would be no closure for my parents. I would be missing in action. As long as they lived, they would hope against hope that I was still alive, that I would come home.
I lay on my back, cradling my rifle. It felt like hours. It might have only been thirty minutes. I heard men walking through the jungle. When I heard English in the accents of the American south, relief poured over me like the Potomac River at Great Falls. Corpsmen were looking for lives to save.
The only other man they found who was still alive was a Viet Cong. He was wounded more seriously than I was. Because the U.S. Marine Corps does take prisoners, the corpsmen patched him up, and put him in the medevac helicopter that took both of us to a field hospital.
All that I needed were a few stitches in my forehead. They kept me at the hospital two days for observation. The second day I was there I asked a nurse to get me a package of dried fruit. I walked over to see how the Viet Cong was doing. His doctor told me that he would recover, “except for a few picturesque scars to show the folks back home.”
I gave him the package of dried fruit. He took it with the hand that was not bandaged. Understanding what I was doing, he relaxed and said, “American. Thank you.”
That may have been all the English he knew. If I knew Vietnamese I would have told him that I lacked enthusiasm for the orders I was required to carry out. I would also have said that my presence in his country was the result of a number of mistakes, including my own.
I envied him. He would not be treated gently in a prisoner of war camp. He would not be killed. Unlike me, perhaps, he would live to return to his family. For him, the war was over.
For me, the war ended 153 days later, when a passenger jet took me to Washington National Airport. Out in the field, when I was counting down the number of days until my return to “the world,” which was what we called the United States, the bar at Washington National Airport attained mythic proportions. That was because I stopped there before leaving for Vietnam. For me, that bar symbolized surviving the war. I kept trying to remember what it looked like. I imagined myself sitting there, drinking a glass of wine, telling people about my exploits.
Now that I was there, everything felt anti-climatic. Contrary to urban legend, no one spit at me, or called me a baby killer. I might have appreciated the attention. There I sat in my freshly laundered and ironed Marine uniform, with my lance corporal stripes. My shoes were so shiny you could see your reflection in them. I had my campaign ribbon from Vietnam, a marksmanship badge, a National Defense Service Medal, a Combat Action Ribbon, a good conduct ribbon given somewhat gratuitously, and a Purple Heart with a Gold Star. I earned that.
No one cared. When I got to the bar, a pretty girl was sitting by herself. Because she did not look back at me, I tried, with considerable effort, and less success, not to look at her. Her boy friend came for her. He was a civilian, wearing a modish business suit, with a broad, floral tie. They shared a drink, and a kiss, and left.
Another pretty girl walked by without stopping. Because she made a point of looking straight ahead, I did not try to talk to her.
A young man about my age sat down. He looked the way I thought a student radical would look, with longish hair, a mustache, a blue worker’s shirt, and worn, blue, bellbottom trousers. I smiled at him somewhat awkwardly, and said, “Hi.” I wanted to tell him that I more or less agreed with the opinions that I projected onto him, or was at least willing to consider agreement. He also avoided talking to me.
Finally, my father came to drive me home. Dad had fought in World War II. He was good at controlling his emotions. So was I. “Hi, Rodger,” he said, shaking my hand.
“Hi, Dad,” I replied, “How’s Mom?”
“She’s fine. Do you have everything?”
“It’s over there,” I said, pointing to my sea bag.
I tipped the bar tender with a one dollar bill. The bar tender tapped it on the counter twice, and said, “Welcome home, Marine.” He had short, blond hair, a white shirt, open at the neck, and looked the right age to have fought in Korea. He knew.
As the service began I became aware of a young lady about seven rows of chairs ahead of me. Her reddish-blond hair flowed over her shoulders like the Potomac River at Little Falls. In an Episcopal service one frequently changes one’s position from sitting to standing, to kneeling, and back again. Thus I was able to observe that her skin was fair enough to seem translucent, and that her body was almost too thin, but well-proportioned. This was covered by a modest blue dress that turned her appearance into a tasteful advertisement.
While putting on her coat when the service was over, she unexpectedly turned around and looked at me. She even seemed to like what she saw. I was not sure why. I was wearing a white shirt and tie, but they obviously had not been purchased at Woodward and Lothrop. My Navy pea coat showed its age and origins in an Army surplus store. Our story happens during the late 1970’s. Poverty, being less obviously a choice than it had been ten years earlier, was no longer fashionable.
Also, I was embarrassed by my behavior. I had been staring at her. Turning away I walked in the opposite direction. Sometime later I found myself in the Cathedral Museum Shop that is underneath the nave of the Cathedral.
Walking along the shelves of books, crosses, and icons I found Why I am Not a Christian, by Bertrand Russell. I had discovered Russell when trying to make sense of the War in Vietnam and my experiences in it. Because I admired his political writings I removed the book from the shelf and began to skim the contents.
“You might find it interesting.” I looked up and into the eyes of the woman I had admired upstairs. They were as grey as the fog outside. Her face was as beautiful as the Cathedral itself.
“Did you enjoy reading it?” I asked.
“I found it interesting.”
“Do you agree?”
“I have reason to hope he is wrong.”
“So do I,” I said.
“What is it?”
“I would like to see my parents again, and Steve Reed.”
“Was he a friend of yours?”
“My best friend in Vietnam. He risked his life to save mine. Several days later I was unable to do the same for him.”
“That must have been terrible,” she said. “Are you angry about the way the War ended?”
“I’m just glad that it ended. Let’s say, I fought in Vietnam and lost.”
“You don’t look like a loser.”
“No man you smile at can feel like one. It must be getting dark outside. May I walk to your car with you?”
“Yes.” When I put the book back on the shelf, she asked, “You aren’t going to buy it?”
“I might come back for it.”
“I have a copy.”
“Where are you parked?”
“Along 36th Street.”
Together we climbed the circular stairs to the South Transept, and crossed the main floor to the North Entrance. The congregation had greatly thinned out, but some people were still inspecting statues and stain glass windows. I wanted them to think we were a couple.
I opened the door beneath the North Rose Window for her and we stepped out. The sky was darker. The fog was thicker. The air was colder and smelled like the inside of a refrigerator.
We walked along 36th Street passing the stately, early twentieth century homes. “Are we getting far from your car?” she asked.
“Actually I don’t have one,” I answered. “I walked over from Adams Morgan where I live.”
“A car can be a nuisance in the District,” she said. “You can always take a bus. Metro will be open in a few years.”
“I work the graveyard shift at the Airport Motel in Arlington. Usually I can ride my bicycle. Sometimes I walk.”
“Isn’t it dangerous to walk that late?”
“Compared with what?”
“Yes, I guess you’ve faced greater dangers.”
“I am not thinking about them now. What I am thinking is that this is a tony neighborhood, but it is too dark and foggy for a woman as beautiful as you are to be walking alone.”
She looked down at the sidewalk. “Thank you.”
Finally we came to her car, a dark blue Volkswagen station wagon. “My name is Roger Bancroft,” I said.
“I am Laurel. Laurel Armington.”
“May I call you sometime?”
She opened her purse, retrieved a business card, and wrote on the back of it by the light of a street lamp. “This is my phone number at home. If a man answers he is my father. I will have told him about you.”
“When may I call, Laurel?”
“Anytime you wish, Roger.” After smiling at me she turned around, got into her car, started it, and drove away. I stood in the street and watched until she disappeared into the fog.
Soon later I was walking along Connecticut Avenue on my way home. I did not, and could not know the people in the cars who drove by. Nevertheless, they were suddenly dear to me. The fog had grown so thick that I could not see them distinctly. In my mind’s eye I saw a portrait of Laurel on the horizon in front of me. That I could see very distinctly.
I continued to walk south along Connecticut Avenue, crossing Taft Bridge over a stretch of Rock Creek Park, which meanders through Washington as an urban wilderness. Then I turned left to get to my apartment in the Adams Morgan district.
I lived in what had been during the nineteenth century a town house for an upper middle class family. Now it was a rooming house. I served as manager for reduced rent. Each of the tenants had one room. We shared bathroom and kitchen facilities, and a pay telephone.
One of the tenants was Ken Johnson. He was in late middle age, and had spent much of his life in reform school and prison. The passions of youth, which had burned destructively for him, were ashes. He worked at an all night diner, and tried to salvage what remained of his life.
Bill Donnelly was an Army veteran of the Korean War. Like me he had been wounded. Unlike me he suffered from post traumatic stress disorder. Combat affects men differently. Some enjoy it. Some are permanently scarred psychologically, even if they are not hurt physically.
In my case, I simply did not want to do it again. Also, I no longer enjoyed watching war movies. Finally, I did not want to have anything more to do with guns. It may have made sense for me to buy a twelve gauge pump action shot gun. The Adams Morgan district had not been gentrified yet. Sometimes criminals would kick down the door to a house or apartment, kill everyone inside, and loot the place.
There were three other men whose names and circumstances I have forgotten. All of us worked for minimum wage, or little more.
Thomas Van Someran was a graduate student at Georgetown University. His social understanding and social skills were more useful in an academic environment than in a rooming house full of low income men who did not much give in their personalities. Sometimes I had to intervene in a situation that was becoming dangerous for him.
I liked Thomas. He seemed to like me. After all, I had taken courses at Maryland University. I read good books. I shared his love for classical music.
I never told them about Laurel. Thomas might have become a successful rival. The others might have said something coarse.
When I got into my room, I looked at the card Laurel had given me. It was a business card for the Episcopal Ministry to the Aging, which had an office in what had been the Bishop’s Mansion next to the Washington Cathedral. Laurel was a social worker there.
Several days later, when no one else was in the rooming house I called Laurel’s telephone number. Her father answered. He had been told about me, and said, “Laurel will be glad to hear from you.” She was. We agreed to have lunch together the next week.
I was a little nervous walking to the Bishop’s Mansion where Laurel worked. My wardrobe, you understand, was limited. I wore what I had worn to the National Cathedral. So did she. I guess I was presentable. The receptionist actually seemed to look enviously at Laurel.
We walked four blocks to an Italian restaurant I knew that was on Wisconsin Avenue, and which played arias from Italian operas. When we entered, the restaurant’s music system was playing “E lucevan le stelle E " which I recognized from Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca. In this Cavaradossi, who has been unjustly sentenced to death, thinks of the woman he loves, and sings:
After we entered the restaurant the maitre d’ greeted me and said, “Well, hello Roger.”
“Hi Ben,” I said. “We would like a table for two.”
“Of course,” Ben said. “Come this way please.”
When we were seated, but before she looked at the menu Laurel looked around and said, “I love this restaurant. Everything is so tasteful and elegant. I had no idea this restaurant was so near my office. I am impressed.”
“Actually, the people who work here are impressed,” I said. If I may say so, they are impressed with you.”
“They know me, but in the past I have come alone.”
“Do you come often?” Laurel asked.
“Not really, only enough times for them to remember me.”
“That should have only taken one visit.”
“Tell me about your job.”
“The Episcopal Ministry to the Aging helps elderly church members who lack other support systems. I make home visits, and visits to hospitals, nursing homes, and senior citizens apartments. Sometimes I am the only visitor they have. I have held several while they died. I find it satisfying. I think I would enjoy growing old.”
“There have been times when I wanted to get one day older.”
“I can imagine. Tell me about your job.”
“There is not much to say. I work the graveyard shift at the Airport Motel in Arlington. When I get there I compute the daily transcript while listening to Johnny Carson. Then I read while listening to music on WETA or WGMS. Customers usually stop coming after about 2:00 AM. The owner lets me take a nap behind the counter until people begin to check out around 6:00.
“If I stay at the job I will try to take courses in hotel management.”
I did not tell her about the time two teenagers walked in and robbed me at gunpoint. They only had one pistol. If I thought the youth with the gun was going to use it I was going to try to grab the barrel, and bend it back against his finger, breaking the bone. I probably could have taken both of them. Fortunately, all they wanted was the money in the cash register.
After that happened, the owner of the motel fixed up things so that I could take money or credit cards from guests and give them keys without letting them into the motel office.
A week later I was asked to come to a police station and look at photos of possible suspects. There were several who looked similar to the robbers, but I was not sure.
I have also been mugged several times. Once, two police officers beat me up in South East Washington, near Capitol Hill. I never knew why they did it. I wore a beard back then, and my hair was longer than it has been since. Maybe they thought I was someone else. I never reported the incident. There were no witnesses. They had taken off their badges, so I could not identify them. Low income people live dangerous lives.
When I walked back to the Bishop’s Mansion with Laurel I asked if I could see her again. She said I could.
Two weeks later I learned that Mitch Snyder of the Community for Creative Non Violence was going to speak at the Potter’s House. This was and is a coffee house on Columbia Road near Sixteenth Street. It was started in 1960, and served various kinds of coffee like cappuccino and café au lait. Before Starbucks there was the Potter’s House.
The Potter’s House used to have half hour talks by various people on various subjects. These would begin at 7:00 PM. They would be followed by a half hour question and answer period. The talks were recorded, and broadcast later on in the week on WETA.
I had learned about the Community for Creative Non Violence at an earlier talk at the Potter’s House. At the time the CCNV was, if you can imagine such a thing, a Roman Catholic urban commune engaged in anti war activism. They lived in a brownstone mansion off Washington Circle near George Washington University. Sometimes I would attend folk masses there on Sunday afternoon. More recently they had moved to 14th Street, NW.
When I asked Laurel if she would like to listen to Mitch’s talk she said it sounded interesting, and said she would like to introduce me to her father.
I could have borrowed Thomas’ car, but Laurel and her father drove to the Potter’s House by themselves. Mr. Armington had a lively face that projected intelligence. He was lean. Although he may have been about sixty years old, his body had an energy that seemed to emanate from his mind.
When we entered the Potter’s House the sound system was playing “In the Early Morning Rain,” with Peter, Paul, & Mary.
When we were seated Laurel told me that her father taught classical languages at Georgetown University.
“When I was at the University of Maryland,” I began, “we read Homer’s Iliad in a literature class. I liked the part where King Agamemnon said to the Greek soldiers, ‘Men we’re never going to take Troy. Our families fear for our lives. Too many of us have died. Let’s go home.’ That was the way a lot of us felt in Vietnam.
“The soldiers started to run back to their ships. Of course, Agamemnon did not really mean that. He expected his men to demand to stay and fight. As they ran he ran with them and said, ‘Hey wait a minute.’
“One of the things I appreciated about the Iliad is that Homer did not take sides in the Trojan War. You would expect him to side with the Greeks because he was Greek, but he portrayed the Trojan War as morally complex, tragic, and futile. My favorite character was Hector, the champion of the Trojans.”
“That is an interesting aspect of the Iliad,” Professor Armington said. “You should compare it with The Song of Roland. That is about a battle that happened in the eighth century between the Franks and the Muslims who had conquered Spain. The Muslims are described as barely human.
“The Greek tragic dramatists agreed with Homer about the Trojan War,” Professor Armington continued. “My favorite Greek play is The Trojan Woman, by Euripides. The Greeks have taken Troy and killed all the men. The women and children are waiting to be taken back to Greece as slaves. The play concerns the fate of Astyanax, the son of Hector. Although Astyanax is only a boy, Odysseus talks the Greeks into killing him so that he will not avenge the death of his father.
“The convention of ancient Greek and Roman writers was that serious literature should concern the period of time from the creation of the world, to the immediate aftermath of the Trojan War. However, the old stories could be told in ways that conveyed contemporary messages. For example, The Trojan Women was written during the Peloponnesian War, which was fought between Athens and her allies and Sparta and her allies. The Athenian forces had just recently sacked the city of a Spartan ally, killed the men, and carried off the women and children as slaves. The Trojan Woman was Euripides’s message of protest.
“It is easy for us moderns to condemn the Athenians. That kind of behavior was universal back then. What made the Athenians different was that they did not punish Euripides for writing his play. They performed it and honored him. Unlike everyone else at the time with the possible exception of the Jews they were morally evolved enough to examine their behavior.”
Mitch Snyder’s talk was about the ways the Community for Creative Non Violence was helping the homeless population in Washington, DC. When it was my turn to ask a question I said, “The Community for Community Non Violence began as an organization protesting against the War in Vietnam. The anti war movement was fashionable because fashionable young men studying at fashionable universities did not want to risk their lives in Vietnam.
“I’m not criticizing them,” I continued. “I wish I had their opportunities. However, the homeless are not fashionable. Do you think you will be as successful in your new cause as you were in your previous one?”
Mitch Snyder looked down at the table in front of him for a long time, and began, “If we in the Community for Creative Non Violence were mainly interested in being successful we would probably be doing something else with our lives.
“Thousands of people in Washington, DC are sleeping outdoors tonight. Hundreds of thousands share their situation nationally. Many are combat veterans of Vietnam. They do not know where they will eat tomorrow, and where they will be when the sun goes down.
“When Evangelical Christians are faced with a moral dilemma they often ask themselves, ‘What would Jesus do?’ We in the Community for Creative Non Violence have asked ourselves the same question. What we are doing in the Community for Creative Non Violence is our answer.”
Mitch was loudly applauded. Laurel, her father, and I joined the applause.
When the question and answer period was over, Father Ed Guinan, who had founded the CCNV in 1970, and who I had known from my previous association with the CCNV, introduced Mitch Snyder to Laurel, her father, and me. Father Guinan and Professor Armington already knew each other. I had read about Mitch Snyder in The Washington Post, but I had never met him before.
“When I saw you in the audience I told Mitch to get ready for a tough question,” Father Guinan said.
“I hope it did not sound like a hostile question,” I replied. Everyone here agreed the answer was better than my question.”
I walked with Laurel and her father to their car. Then I returned to the Potter’s House for a cup of cappuccino, before walking to work.
Two weeks later as I was walking home from work I passed the Circle Theater. That used to be on Pennsylvania Avenue several blocks to the west of the White House. The Circle Theater featured classic movies, many of them made in other countries. I saw that they were going to have a series of Soviet films made of classics of Russian literature. I took a program. As I walked further I stopped at a flower shop, and bought a flower bouquet.
When I called Laurel at her office there was chilliness in her voice that I did not like at all. When I mentioned the series on Soviet movies, she said she had become busy of late, and did not have time for it. When I asked if she would be interested in something later, she said, “No I really don’t think so Roger. I’ve gotten back in touch with my boy friend. I don’t think it would be a good idea.”
When I did not say anything, Laurel said, “I’m sorry Roger.”
“Don’t let it bother you,” I said before quietly hanging up the phone. I looked around quickly. Fortunately, no one had heard our conversation.
I walked back to my room, entered, and locked the door. The flower bouquet was on the table in the middle of the room. I sat down at the chair in front of the table. “It don’t mean nothin’,” I said softly. That was the laconic sentence we would sometimes say in Vietnam when something reminded us that nothing we attempted mattered. Women want to marry up, not down. What was I thinking?
I wanted to throw the flower bouquet away, but my room was fairly barren. On the wall was a glass case with my medals from the Marine Corps. Actually, they were not the medals I wore at the bar in National Airport. I threw those away at the Dewey Canyon 3 demonstrations. Six months later I missed them. I wrote a letter to the Pentagon telling them I had lost them, and asking for replacements. I received them with no questions asked. On the wall there was also a photograph of my parents and me, and one of several friends of mine including Steve Reed, and me in Vietnam. There were also two book shelves.
I wanted to go to a bar on 18th street and get blitzed. I thought it would be a better idea to calm down for a day. No matter what else happened to me I had to go to work every night and smile at the customers.
The next day after a nap I walked to a bar on 18th street where I knew the bar tender. He had fought in Vietnam with the Army. Sometimes we talked about the War. Usually we tried to forget. When I walked in, the television was on, but no one was watching it. “Hi, Bill,” I said. Is it OK if I play the jukebox?”
“Sure Roger,” Bill said, before turning down the television, opening the cash register and giving me several quarters. “Here. You make good selections.” I played several songs, sat at the counter, and ordered a glass of wine.
“Did you watch the game last night?” Bill asked.
“No, I missed it.”
“You didn’t miss much. You’re not much of a football fan are you?”
“I watch it when I come here. I like boxing. Keep your eyes on Sugar Ray Leonard. He is making boxing history.”
“He has a lot of fans here.”
I wanted to talk to Bill about Laurel. Women seem to have an easy time talking about that kind of thing. Men want their friends to think that they only problem they have with women is one of selection. I don’t know why. We don’t want to think that of anyone else.
I tipped generously, and left.
A year passed. The flower bouquet dried and turned brown. I never threw it away.
On the anniversary of Steve Reed’s death I met with members of his family at the church they attended in Anacostia in South East Washington. Together with their minister we visited Steve’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery. They left flowers. I planted a small American flag next to the tomb stone. Once a Marine, always a Marine. Semper Fi – Always faithful.
I did not go back to the Italian restaurant.
One evening I was at the Potter’s House, sitting next to the bas relief of St. Peter portraying him as he realized that he had just denied Jesus three times as Jesus told him he would. The sound system was playing Joan Baez singing “Wayfaring Stranger.”
While I was sitting there drinking an espresso, Professor Armington walked in, and sat next to the window. I did not really want to talk to him, and wished I could have left through the rear exit. The Potter’s House does not have a rear exit.
When Professor Armington noticed me, I had no choice but to walk over to his table. He stood up. We shook hands. “Professor Armington, how do you do?” I asked.
“Quite well, Roger. Please sit down. I had hoped to see more of you.”
“I would have enjoyed it too,” I said, before asking, because there was nothing else to ask, “How is Laurel?”
Professor Armington looked serious. “I guess you wouldn’t know. We always knew she had a heart ailment. We never expected her to live as long as she did. She passed away two months ago.”
“I am sorry to hear about it,” I said. “Her boyfriend must have been devastated.”
Professor Armington looked at me with an expression of vague understanding. “You were the only one I knew about,” he said. “We wanted to tell you, but we did not know what your address or phone number was. Before she died she wrote a letter to you. Do you want it?”
Trying to control my emotions I said, “Yes of course.”
Professor Armington drove me to his house, which was off 16th Street near Maryland. The house looked much older than the late nineteenth century row houses next to it. “My house was an eighteenth century farm house,” he explained.
We walked inside. Everything had the appearance of aged elegance and durability. The walls were covered with book shelves containing books in five different languages. Over the hearth was a large photograph of a teenage Laurel, a younger Professor Amington, and a woman who could have only been Laurel’s mother.
When Professor Armington gave me the sealed envelope he said, “Laurel is interred in our family mausoleum in Rock Creek Cemetery. The Armington family used to be economically and socially prominent in Washington. We lost most of our wealth in the Panic of 1893, and the rest of it in the Stock Market Crash of 1929. Fortunately, I have always had a gift for languages. I was a translator for the Army during the War.” He paused for a moment, before adding for me that that was the Second World War.
“After the War I got a PhD at Georgetown in Latin and Greek, and a teaching position there. Laurel got a Master’s Degree in social work there.”
“I want to visit Laurel’s grave,” I said. “Could you write a map for me?”
“Of course,” he said, getting a piece of paper. It is easy to find. Take the main walkway toward the church. Veer toward the left when the walkway forks. The Armington mausoleum will be past the church, on the left. It is made of red bricks into the hillside.
“I am a member of the congregation at the church. I hope to see you at church sometime.”
“Which service do you attend?”
“I will see you this Sunday.”
“I will look forward to it,” Professor Armington said. After a pause he added, “Don’t stay a stranger. This has become a lonely house for me. After my wife died I still had Laurel.”
We hugged each other gently. Then he drove me to my rooming house. I felt a vague apprehension about the letter I could not understand, and did not want to read it quite yet. First I lay it next to the flower bouquet. Then I thought my room might be broken into, so I put it in my Bible, and put the Bible back in the book shelf.
That night, at the Airport Motel, when I took my nap I dreamed about Laurel. In my dream we watched Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment at the Circle Theater.
The month was January. The weather was very cold with a brisk wind. When I got back to my room I still hesitated to read Laurel’s letter. I got something to eat, and went to sleep. When I woke up I washed and dressed. Finally I was ready to read Laurel’s letter.
I locked the door to my room, and sat at my table, looking at the envelope next to the flower bouquet. I cut open the envelope carefully with a knife, and read:
“Ever since I was very young I have known that I would never grow old…”
Well, I will not share the entire letter with you. I will say that she told me she tried never to become involved with anyone, knowing it could not last. When she saw me at the Washington Cathedral she sensed a kindred soul. Then she thought it would be unfair to encourage me. When lying in the hospital bed she wanted to communicate with me.
She ended it with, “I have tried not to fall in love with any man. If I did, he is reading this now.
I folded the letter, put it back into the envelope, and put it on the table. “It does mean something,” I said out loud.
I put on my Navy pea coat, and a Russian style hat, took the flower bouquet, and left my rooming house. Soon I was walking along New Hampshire Avenue to Rock Creek Cemetery. The sky was overcast. The air was bitterly cold. The wind was over twenty miles an hour in my face. I had to step carefully to avoid slipping on a patch of ice from the last snow storm.
As I approached the necropolis I looked at the grey tombstones, mausoleums, and statues under the grey sky. I thought of a poem I remembered:
Who takes away the sins of the world,
Give them rest.
Lamb of God,
Who takes away the sins of the world,
Give them rest everlasting.
After I entered the main gate of the cemetery I had an easy time finding the Armington mausoleum. I looked into the door. Most of the plaques were old and difficult to read. I could read:
1930 – 1972
1954 – 1979
I do not cry often. I cried when my parents died. I cried when a madevac helicopter disappeared into the sky with a body bag containing what remained of Steve Reed.
I cried now. “Laurel,” I said into the mausoleum. “I could have made your last year a happy one.”
There was no container for flowers, so I left Laurel’s bouquet on the ground next to the door of the mausoleum. I walked out of the main gate as an attendant was preparing to close and lock it. The sun had set. The wind had died down. Snow was beginning to fall.
Rating: 92%, Read 14713 times, Posted Jan 28, 2016
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