by Siobhan Fallon, Army spouse
The woman reached into her bashed up car and pulled out a Kleenex. ‘Jesus in blue suspenders, you must be having a bad day,’ she said, handing it to Lucy.
Yes, we definitely want a magician. Wait-how much for a clown? Does he make balloon animals? This is awkward, but do you have a clown who isn’t, I don’t know, creepy?… Uh huh. OK. He sounds… nice.” Lucy adjusted the telephone and spotted her sister leaning against the kitchen door.
“That’s right, we want the bouncy castle with the huge Barney on top.”
“What’s going on?” Val asked as soon as Lucy hung up.
“We just had a birthday party for June. You made me dress up like Cinderella and blow bubbles at 4-year-olds for two freakin’ hours. I distinctly remember pink cake.”
“No, this is a Fourth of July party. And a welcome home party for Jim. Freedom and America, homecomings and fireworks. Everything he loves.”
“Don’t you think he’d prefer something low key? I mean, a magician and a clown? Lucy, this sounds weird. Why not just catch the fireworks on base?”
“This is not weird. It’s a celebration. An unforgettable celebration to make 8up for every holiday Jim missed for the past nine months.” Lucy felt her eyes start to burn. Jim was only seven days out from coming home, and she was suddenly crying at the slightest mention of him.
“Hey, I didn’t mean to upset you,” Val said. “It’ll be a terrific. But if you change your mind, if you want to lock him in the house all week, force him to play salon with June or give you back rubs, and watch fireworks on TV, I bet he’d love that just as much.”
Val glanced at the clock. “How about I take June for a few hours? I’ve been craving beignets-” June, supposedly doing “quiet time” in her room, was suddenly cheering in the hallway and putting on her new Dora sandals. “Let’s GO, Aunty Val!”
“That’d be great,” Lucy said. “I can plant the red, white and blue pansies and little American flags out front, or start on the posters.”
Val hesitated. “Lucy, relax. The house looks great. The yard looks great. You look great. Don’t worry, his homecoming is going to be perfect.”
Lucy continued smiling until her sister ferried June off. Then her face crumpled into the state of low-grade terror she’d been in for the past few weeks. She didn’t know why she was suddenly such a mess. She was a Navy spouse, for goodness sake, made of stronger stuff. This had been their relationship since day one, having Jim away on training cruises and sea duty more often than he was home.
But this time it was an Individual Augmentee, or IA billet, in Afghanistan. Jim, a Surface Warfare Officer, was the lone Navy officer working in an intelligence shop with an Army unit. He was out of his element in so many ways, land-locked rather than on a carrier, a nine-month deployment rather than the usual six, and a new list of potential disasters burned into Lucy’s brain: IEDs, snipers, suicide bombers.
She could endure six months, had done so for years. But once the six-month mark hit, she’d felt herself start to unravel. The longer deployment and new worries threw her rhythm off. She began having nightmares, waking up in cold sweats, and during the day she would find herself staring off into the distance, her mind chanting “please let him come home, please let him come home, just let him come home…”
She shook herself, wanting to snap out of this funk, wanting to lose herself in an all-consuming activity. She had already scrubbed the tile floors, steam-cleaned the carpets, washed the couch cover and curtains and tablecloths. She had gotten her hair cut and highlighted (always something to do at least a week in advance, in case the hairdresser botched it), found a homecoming dress, and bought sexy new lingerie.
She planned out the menu for Jim’s return down to the type of cookies she and June were going to make (macadamia nut chocolate chip), the appetizers (bacon wrapped scallops), and his first dinner (rack of lamb, roast potatoes, corn pudding). Her grocery list for the party was three pages long; all Jim’s favorites.
It made her nervous looking at that list, made her want to go out and buy everything NOW, yet she knew she had to wait to get the freshest produce, juiciest meat, softest rolls. But the preparations had become a kind of compulsion for Lucy- every block she checked made it seem like she was that much closer to him, every task she finished felt like she was hurrying time along, urging the homecoming to happen sooner.
She surveyed Jim’s truck in the garage. She rarely drove it, and though it had been kept safe from the sun, there seemed to be a haze of dust on its front windshield. She should get it washed.
The stick shift made her nervous, one of the reasons Lucy did not drive the truck unless she absolutely had to, like when she helped the wife of a young seaman (also deployed with Jim) move into new quarters a couple of months ago.
She took it to TJ’s Auto Body and Paint a few miles from base. She sipped bad coffee and flipped through car magazines in the waiting room, but it was worth it when the truck pulled around. She got inside and was enveloped in that new car smell, the leather seats bluffed to such a degree her thighs slid all over the place. She gripped the steering wheel tightly and drove back onto Belle Chasse, wanting to stop at the AAFES gas station to fill up before returning home.
It was at the intersection of Olson and Chambers, just when she was starting to feel good behind the wheel, that she glanced up and realized the light 10 feet ahead was suddenly yellow instead of green.
Lucy slammed on the brakes.
And felt the car behind her crash into Jim’s shining truck.
The car was a BMW, a very nice BMW, whose grill seemed lost up the back of Jim’s muffler.
A woman, perhaps in her late forties, got out in a teal dress and high heels. “Why in the world did you stop like that?” Cool-headed Lucy would have straightened her shoulders, got out her license and registration, called the military police and started swapping insurance information. But today she stood in the street and started balling her eyes out.
The woman reached into her bashed up car and pulled out a Kleenex. “Jesus in blue suspenders, you must be having a bad day,” she said, handing it to Lucy.
“My husband is coming home from Kabul next week,” Lucy gasped. “He is going to kill me when he sees this.”
Suddenly the woman was holding Lucy by the shoulders. For a moment, Lucy thought she was about to shake her. Hard. “He most certainly is not,” the woman said sternly. “He is not going to give a damn about a silly old truck. He is going to be so proud of you and all you have done to keep it together while he was gone.” Then the woman hugged her and Lucy cried right onto her shoulder.
The MPs showed up, had the ladies pull over to the side of the road and out of the intersection, and Lucy and the woman >> exchanged their info. Though the BMW grill was crooked and the truck’s bumper smashed, neither vehicle needed to be towed. The woman, the wet spot on her shoulder visible from her car window, honked and waved as she drove off. Lucy signed the MP’s traffic report.
“Well, that should be everything, ma’am,” he said. He stood there, trying not to smile.
“What is it?” Lucy wailed, imagining she had a long trail of toilet paper dangling from her pants or maybe one of June’s lollipops stuck in her hair.
“Ma’am, you do know that was the new base commander’s wife, right?”
Lucy got into the truck without a word and buried her face in her arms.
When she got home, her cell phone started to ring: UNKNOWN NUMBER.
“Hello, hello?” she said.
“Babe? It’s me.”
Lucy sat down inside the front door, on the floor, her purse spilling its contents. “Everything OK?”
“The good news is we just got to Manas, Kyrgyzstan.”
Lucy let relief seep in. “Thank God. You’re safe.”
Jim continued, “The bad news is we are running a little behind.”
“What? You’ve been extended?! Damn it, Jim. How long?”
“No, no, nothing like that, we’ll be home the week after next. The weather sucks, some aircraft broke and others got retasked, and there are a shitload-sorry- a bunch of units who’ve been waiting here for awhile.” He chuckled. “I’ve been trying to work on my cursing but I think these Army guys have corrupted my Southern gentleman charms.”
“Darling, every time you come back you swear like the quintessential sailor, so let’s not go blaming the Army,” Lucy said, feeling a shadow of her former cheerful spouse-self emerge. “OK, I understand. I know that can happen.”
“That’s my girl. I’ll be home in fourteen days, twenty one tops.”
Lucy closed her eyes, amazed that one week of waiting could transform into two, then three, so casually in his mouth. The only bright side was she now had plenty of time to fix his truck.
He continued. “Hey, do you have any plans for when I got back?”
She opened her eyes and saw clowns. “Well…”
“I was thinking we could go camping. A buddy of mine was telling me about Lefleur’s Bluff in Mississippi, just outside Jackson, overlooking Mayes Lake. There’s a pool, a playground, trails, grills, golf. I can’t imagine anything better, just me and my girls, no phones, no TV. Watching June chase butterflies.”
His voice was full of the kind of excitement Jim usually reserved for the Nawlin’s Air Show. “I miss you both so much. I want to be able to concentrate on you, and only you. No distractions. What do you think?”
Lucy thought of mosquitoes, pit toilets, a sore back from sleeping on their leaking air mattress, and June getting poison ivy. She thought of the elaborate recipes she’d been planning on cooking, the new satin sheets for their bed, her lacy lingerie and the bottle of champagne in the back of the fridge waiting for romantic nights ahead.
And the man wanted to go camping.
“I know you’re not a fan of the great outdoors,” Jim said into her long silence.
She thought of the party. A magician! A clown! A Barney Bouncy castle! But could a magician create lost time? There wasn’t any party that could make up for all Jim missed: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, their anniversary, Mother’s Day, her dad’s wedding, June’s birthday, and now Fourth of July.
And yet, she imagined them sitting around a campground, the marshmallows to roast, the stones to skip, the sunrises and sunsets and crickets chirping. All those quiet hours to fill, not with fireworks or magic, just their words and stories piecing together the memories the other person had missed.
“Lucy? Forget I said anything. Let’s do something you want.”
“No. I love it,” she said. “Let’s go camping.” She smiled, and for the first time in the past few weeks, it felt natural. Her husband was safe. He was really coming home. Maybe a little late, but he was on his way.
For the first time in a long time, she felt like she could handle anything.