“Be direct. As if your life depends on it.”
Hamovit brimmed with advice. He hopped twice in place, taking three breaths while touching thumbs to each finger in turn. “Be rooted, find your ritual.” He passed the telegram right, left, right and checked the level of his hat by placing a cherry on the brim; it balanced, and he consumed it, savoring the gory sweetness before spitting the pit far off the porch into the petunias. Perfection. “Don’t let them surprise you like you have surprised them,” he said to himself, rehearsing for later, when he would talk to Reed.
He looked at the telegram again, and practiced the message in a whisper:
The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret that your son, specialist four Aaron Filmore died in Huế, in Vietnam, on 10 February 1968, from wounds received while on a drill. Please accept my deepest sympathy. This confirms personal notification made by a representative of the secretary of the army.
Sgt. Hamovit felt the ink of the telegram mixing with his adrenaline, the sad news infusing him and pouring out in an offensive sweat. Pvt. Reed had stayed behind in the passenger seat of their assigned Oldsmobile eating cherries two at a time, fingers wrapped tight around the beads of a secret rosary he hid on his ankle.
Hamovit gave three knocks, each firmer than the last, a crescendo that was audible but not urgent. Inside, high heels stabbed the floorboard with rhythm. It took focus to stop the unusual tremor in his leg, so he appreciated the quiet beauty of the petunias around him in desperation for calm. He then apologized to them for his coming disturbance.
The woman who answered was a rifle-barrel, frosted with spongy, mustard hair. The hall around her was unlit and silent, and Hamovit suspected that some part of her was already in mourning, living in the dark like that. She reached forward, gaunt digits crooked in the air, beckoning a handshake that Hamovit did not want to give.
“Ma’am,” he began, reaching slowly to accept her token embrace, afraid he was already making a mistake in protocol.
“You’re not him!” she scolded, snatching his arm and pulling him across the threshold. “Go hide, or you’ll give it away.” Placing her skeletal palms against his back, she kneaded him down the hall into a large parlor. By the softer candlelight he could make out a floor iced in thick carpet and every edge of shelf glinting with knick-knacks. A crowd was stuffed behind sofas, chairs, tables and a grand piano in half-assed crouches. In the field they would be pinged by snipers in an instant. Upon seeing him, they all sighed and stood again, chandeliers flickering to life.
“It’s not Bobby, everyone,” said the man closest to Hamovit, who then stroked one-half of his wide, asymmetric mustache. Now lit, the frilled partygoers re-donned their paper hats began to mill about. The woman who answered the door shooed Hamovit across the room. He couldn’t defend himself.
“Over here, you’ll spoil it,” she said. “He said his army friends would come on time, what a joke! Come on.” She placed Hamovit beside the fireplace, between a man, tweed soaked and hunched over a thick cane, and what may have been his wife, whose many layers of lace and pale yellows stank of grass and pie ingredients. “Stay here, yell ‘Surprise!’ when he comes in.”
She nodded as if he agreed, and marched off with a smile at such a pace that he could not catch her with a single word. Her mole reminded Hamovit of Marilyn Monroe, but her grin was a sergeant’s grin. Decorum.
“You are a handsome one,” said the lacy woman, barely holding up a glass of champagne. “Uniform.”
“Paris, show some manners.” The man in tweed stretched to try and match Hamovit’s height.
“I’m sorry, you must be one of Bobby’s friends.” Paris passed her glass from her turbulent left hand to the practical hurricane of her right. “I am Paris, I am Ms. Filmore’s neighbor. I mean we. We are the neighbors, the both of us, my brother and I. Jameson?”
“Yes, Jameson Toddswell,” said the man in tweed, fiddling with his cane. “The third, if you are counting.”
Jameson alone found himself funny. Paris slapped her brother on the hand. The woman, presumably Ms. Filmore, wasn’t in the room anymore, and Hamovit began to ruminate his patent strategies. Perhaps, he thought, she had recognized the message he must have. Many loved ones did so, even crying before heeding his knocking. One time a mother never opened the door, and asked Hamovit to slide her the telegram. Ms. Filmore was likely already accompanied by that impish specter of mourning; innocent, afraid, clutching her heart for dear life.
“You know, our father was in the War,” said Paris, glancing around before taking a sip of her drink, “He was a cargo man. Balanced the stuff in the hulls of ships to keep them straight. He learned that from construction. What did you do before signing on up?”
“Park service,” said Hamovit, moving out of the way for a servant of some sort, eyes floored, who offered Hamovit a fresh drink while refilling the impending drought of Paris’ glass. The telegram maneuvered to Hamovit’s left hand, the less preferred and unorthodox of the two. “Which war was this?” the soldier asked, placing his champagne on the mantle. The Toddswells looked at each other with crooked grins, cocked and loaded, and shot each other full of laughter.
“Was that Ms. Filmore? The hostess?” Hamovit asked. “I need to speak with her about her son.”
“Have you not met dear Bobby’s mother before?” Paris adjusted her grape-sized rings and fluttered her hand before her face, as if she were faint. “Boys these days, they get so ashamed of their mothers. I wonder why they don’t all end up running off to the army.” Hamovit felt his teeth grit.
“That Graham never says a word about his mother,” she continued. “Did you see the petunia’s outside? Ms. Filmore got them all pretty for today. I told her Graham was quite the gardener, and look at that. Honest work, that kid does. She took my word on it. Rightly so.”
“If you had any more words you would be publishable,” said Jameson. He mumbled it again to himself in a whisper, reliving his comment with a chuckle.
There was a knocking from the distant front door. A hushing occurred amongst the jungle of guests; the champagne glass fruits stopped dangling. The lights snapped off, and all the tipsy figures shuffled behind armchairs half their size.
“Still not Bobby, lovelies!” Ms. Filmore called out. Reed was hustled in, arms crooked and back bent over the parquet flooring. He straightened himself out, and made his way to Hamovit. Ms. Filmore mused as she disappeared again. “More soldiers? With this war on? Goodness!” Reed leaned into Hamovit’s shoulder, to speak out of earshot of the leering Toddswells.
“Sir, if I may ask, what is going on in here?” He was still clutching the civilian beads.
“You can return to the car, Private.”
“This seems public, sir. Could we return another day?”
“It has already been three days. We will deliver our news in private when we get the opportunity. To leave now is to disobey direct orders. It would disgrace Aaron Filmore.”
“With all due respect sir, we can just leave. This isn’t the time, all these people…”
“Abandonment,” breathed Hamovit. He pushed his back to grow longer, his shoulders broader, as if to use his mere bulk to trap the smaller Reed. “Return to the car. I will be there soon.”
“Yes sir, but you don’t have to take this shot.” Hamovit was silent, and Reed retreated, arms swinging like clockwork. The real world, thought Hamovit, may be more foreign to that kid than boot camp.
There was a deep grunt and a tap on Hamovit’s shoulder that made him flinch. “So how do you both know Bobby? The Filmores are not too adoring of the war.”
“Don’t be a nuisance, Jamie,” said Paris, stealing another sip.
“I must speak to Ms. Filmore about her son Aaron,” said Hamovit. “If you may excuse me.” He began to turn and leave.
“Aaron?” asked Paris, running a finger about the rim of her glass. She turned to Jameson. “Does Bobby have a middle name? Is it Aaron?”
Hamovit stopped to skim the telegram for the fiftieth time. It was addressed to Phoenicia Filmore, mother, and Robert Filmore, twin brother.
Another tap brought Hamovit back to the Jamesons. “Are you two here from ‘nam? Is this something with the draft? Bobby is in school, you can’t draft him. They called his birthday last year on the radio but he has the papers.” Hamovit realized as Jamie spoke that is was Aaron’s birthday, as well as Bobby’s. “He ain’t going, not with the future he has.”
“Is someone drafting Bobby?” asked a man with a sleek, white hat. “Are you asking about the draft, my friend? To hell with the draft, you can’t take him. He is going to be a great lawyer, you know. He’ll take you to court himself.”
“We aren’t here for Robert Filmore, exactly. We are here to talk to Ms. Filmore, and if he comes, we can talk to Bobby as well.”
“No ways, no hows,” said Paris, plunking down her empty glass. “They lived on this block four years, they got just one boy, just the one and you aren’t taking him away. You have the wrong house, dear. Sorry for the trip for nothing.”
“If you don’t mind, I would like to go and speak to Ms. Filmore,” said Hamovit, holding his heels tightly together for focus. He would leave if the white-hat man would stop talking.
“Martial types make their demands. Can’t ‘spect them to listen, maybe to an officer though. Be courageous, follow orders, all that. You know, I knew this soldier, Irish boy, who just got back from ‘nam.” He paused to see if Hamovit had a comment, who chose to not say anything to complicate the matter. “See, you know what I’m talking about. This kid was useless, he was. Couldn’t carry a brick. He would shake in drills and never pull the trigger. A mess, I tell you. Complete mess, and over there…” He gestured at the windows as if battles were in the backyard. “…he was a catastrophe.”
“So this one day, yeah? One day, he is on a patrol with two others, and the people over there, even the kids, they are really vicious. They will shoot you the moment they see you are stars and stripes. This kid always looked at his feet because he never wanted to be shot in the face. So he saw the grenade first. And you know what he did?”
Hamovit guessed in the back of his mind. It was the kind of story that lands a corpse covered in medals. “You wouldn’t guess what he did,” the man continued. “He saw it, the other two saw it, and he acted first. He jumped right on it.” Silence overtook the room. No more jingling, just quiet breathing and sipping as everyone tuned in on the story. It felt almost respectful.
“So this kid, this city-boy, is just laying on the ground, shaking and curled up like he was gonna nap. Nothing happens, and he is just there like some putz. It wasn’t a grenade at all, it was just some piece of fruit. Smart ass kid carved it up to look like a grenade!”
Everyone began to chuckle, and they told each other their quiet opinions of the tale. The storyteller kept going.
“It’s my favorite bit, yeah? He was ready to be the hero, but instead he was useless. Isn’t that funny, army man? That would be some good news for you, if it wasn’t a grenade? Some kid’s pineapple?”
“So he came back?” asked Paris, grinning in anticipation.
“Oh no. Poor shit got his foot blown off the next week!”
The laughter shook him like a mortar shell. Hamovit hopped twice in his head, then took three deep breaths, touching his fingers in order and passing the telegram back and forth. He noticed Ms. Filmore by the archway, and she was not laughing.
“Excuse me, ma’am, but you are Ms. Phoenicia Filmore, yes?”
Her smile widened. “Yes, yes I am. How did you hear about the party? You are a friend of Bobby’s from school?”
“I am afraid not. I am Sergeant Gregory R. Hamovit and I am here to deliver a message about your son Aaron.” Hamovit, hand unstable, began to present her the telegram. “The Secretary of the Army…”
“Oh no,” she said, “You must be mistaken.” Her hand danced as if to show him his seat in an auditorium, “I don’t know an Aaron. I thought you and the other one were friends of Robert.” Her feet tried to drag her away, “If you excuse me, I need to talk to the Toddswells. You can show yourself out.”
“Ma’am, I am here by order of…”
Hamovit didn’t bother to finish because she had gone to answer the latest knocks. It must have been Reed, still concerned, wondering with his little secret beads why bad things happen to the good. This time, no one hid; the party had momentum, and the friends and family of Bobby were ready not to surprise him, but instead enjoy the spoils of good hospitality. A heavy cackle was the only standout in the static.
Instead of Reed a young man walked through the archway in a fine suit, face trimmed of his dark hair and a bag slung over his shoulder. As everyone noticed his arrival, they yelled ‘Happy Birthday’ at him without unison or force. He, nonetheless, seemed pleased, and his mother began to present him like a medal, while simultaneously shaming people for not hiding.
“Oh Michelle, you could have just bent down behind… Oh! Yes he has one more year but he is going to join a firm. New York City! I know. So far.”
Hamovit’s fingers were clutched so tight that the telegram must have been destroyed. “Ms. Filmore,” he said, calling to order the straightness of his spine, but not letting crack the dam of his spirit. “The Secretary…”
“Excuse me, sir, you must leave right now, before I call the police,” she said, holding up her glass as if to defend herself, still grinning, but now to show feral teeth. The Toddswells looked down on Hamovit and pouted their sibling lips in solidarity against him. Bobby said nothing, having only just noticed Hamovit.
“I cannot leave yet, ma’am. Your son…”
“No!” she said, the fresh and real force in her voice calling the attention of the room, “This is Bobby’s day. Please leave.” Her spindle body trembled and twisted as she pointed out of the polished room. Everything was still. She looked around, and then waved with whimsy.
“No drama for mama!” she sang and downed her champagne.
Everyone laughed and carried on, but there were many extra eyes tracking Hamovit. Ms. Filmore excused herself, and disappeared, leaving the defeated soldier, straight as a board, slight tears etching the rigid muscle of his face as though a sweet and gentle acid. Hamovit approached Robert Filmore, unraveling the telegram. Rather than even read it, or recall it from memory, Hamovit remained silent, and handed the telegram to Bobby. All he had to say and more arrived without formation in his throat and perished there.
“Is this about Aaron?” Bobby asked, too late and too quietly. Hamovit has begun to march, faster and faster, rushing from the room, his feet pounding the floor into creaking submission. In the hall he straightened his coat and relaxed, stretching his shoulders.
“Well, you made your mess,” said Ms. Filmore. She was above him, at the top of the stairs, overlooking the bannister. She looked at Hamovit, but not at the unevenness of his cap or the splash of alcohol staining his cuff that he had failed to notice. She looked at him, both their eyes pinned narrow and immobile, as if a blink would shatter each of them. There was a cheer, and Hamovit looked away. He regretted it immediately.
Hamovit exited the house, called upon again by the smell of Graham’s petunias. The flowers looked like the ones next door, at the Toddswells place. He imagined dressing up in silk and fine cottons, enjoying the frivolity of neighborhood parties. As he did he felt more tears collect about his vision, and he wiped them away in one motion. It was then he noticed the stain on his cuff, and he ignored it, crossing the street and getting in the car beside Reed. They sat there and said nothing for a long time, Hamovit gave no speeches, and Reed gave no sympathies, and in due time they left, ready to deliver the rest of the telegrams.
Jono Naito is an MFA candidate and game designer stationed in Syracuse, New York. Jono’s work is recently found in StoryQuarterly, Cosmonauts Avenue, and elsewhere, as well as online at jononaito.com.