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"Mother and Child" by Richard Stimac

For the first few years, when his father and Addie went to the Barracks, his father would stop by the welcome center and ask a volunteer for the grave location. The kiosk attendant would take a pre-printed map and outline in blue pen the roads and then unironically mark the grave with an “x,” like a treasure map. After a while, his father remembered what curves to take, what loops appeared to lead in the wrong direction, what low stone walls acted as landmarks. By the time Addie was in high school, his father had remarried. The yearly pilgrimage to the grave had ended, though the shrine with the folded flag, medals, and insignia still took an entire shelf of a bookcase.

Addie hadn’t been to his mother’s grave since. Now, the locator was electronic. No need to speak to one of the old people in blue vests who used to staff the desk. After punching in the last name on a screen keyboard, a printed map fell into a waiting tray. Visiting the dead had become colder. Even with the map, Addie missed two or three turns and circled back to the front gate to begin again. Finally, he found the correct section and parked the car.

You’d think it was odd to see people sitting in their cars in the middle of a cemetery, but it’s not. Addie was one of those people. With the windows up and the A/C on, he watched clouds drift across an Edenic blue summer sky. Patchwork shadows crisscrossed over the trees. Through the branches, he could see the bottomlands on the other side of the river. He felt like the car was submerged in that river and if he opened the door, even cracked the window, water would fill the car and he would drown. The asphalt of the road shimmered in the heat as if to prove the point.

Finally, after three deep inhales, Addie held his breath and opened the car door. Nothing happened, except the June sun’s heat that he could feel pressing on his skin. As the heat pushed him downward, the humid air held him up. He let out that breath.

The location of each grave was chiseled on the back of each stone, with name, rank, birth and death dates, medals, campaigns, on the front. Addie followed the sequence and stopped at times to read the names of loved ones he never loved. So many from such distant wars. Who comes to visit them, now, after so many years? Addie felt dizzy from the heat and knelt. From a distance, he appeared in prayer.

He stood and continued and found his mother, her resting date so much nearer to this day than the others but so distant from the present. He took his finger and outlined the date, five years after he was born. He traced all the letters, all the numbers, as if he were tracing a route on a map.

He could not remember her. His memories, if they were memories, were a collage of photographs his sister made for the funeral. His mother as a schoolgirl. At high school prom. The wedding. Holding her daughter. Then her son. Smiling on a trip with her husband to the Ozarks.

Addie closed his eyes and tried to force himself to remember his mother, something, some word, smile, lullaby. He sat on the grass in front of the stone and began to cry. He hadn’t forgotten his mother. There were no memories to forget.

He took out his wallet from his front pocket and then he took out a picture of his son from the wallet. The boy was happy, smiling, a joy in his eyes, oblivious to the absence of his grandmother in his life.

“Here he is,” Addie said. He held the small image before his mother. “Your grandson.”

For a moment, Addie was jealous, even bitter, at his son’s ignorance. Pain comes only from memory.

Addie wondered, what if he died, now, today? His grandchildren would know him only as a myth, stories told at bedtime, or at holiday meals, with faded photographs, or images stored in a cloud. And what of great grandchildren? And after them? So many futures, each with their own past. Addie looked at the rows of graves, some of them two-hundred years old. So many dead, only known in books, or, today, electronic files, no longer in anyone’s heart.

That was it, wasn’t it? Addie thought. And lightness overcame him. Maybe it was the humid heat and the oppressive sun. Or maybe, it was the knowing that his life, all our lives, are destined not to be forgotten but not even to be a memory to be forgotten. Whatever it was, he felt a calm as he put his son’s photo back in his wallet.

Addie tried to stand but wobbled a bit. Reluctantly, he put his hands on the curved top of his mother’s stone. As he pushed himself up, his eyes caught movement in the section across the road. A doe and two fawns wandered among the graves and the trees. The doe nervously peered here, then jerked her head there, and froze while her nose trembled. The fawns mindlessly grazed, in full trust of their mother.

The three deer headed straight towards Addie who stood ramrod straight. Thirty yards, then twenty, ten years, finally ten feet. The doe knew something was there. She could smell it. Addie’s knees ached from his sitting on the ground and he flexed them, ever so slightly, to alleviate the pain. At this small movement, the doe straightened, her fawns with her, then all three sprang into the undergrowth along the fence.

Addie watched them go, and then, after a moment, he started his car and he, too, went on his way.

Richard Stimac has published a full-length book of poetry Bricolage (Spartan Press), over forty poems in Michigan Quarterly Review, Faultline, and december, and others, nearly two-dozen flash fiction in Blue Mountain, Good Life, Typescript, and three scripts. He is a poetry reader for Ariel Publishing and a prose reader for The Maine Review.


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