Featured Work: The Greeter

chantwood magazin_kathy mirkin_greeter

When Ruby Gold heard a motorcycle zoom up the driveway, she peeked through the front window’s lace curtains. On her stoop, knocking on her door, stood a man in a black leather vest and combat boots, with a black bandanna wrapped around his head, and beyond him, parked on her driveway, a red motorcycle. She yanked the drapes closed. Was he a Hell’s Angel? What the heck could he want?

The doorbell rang. She parted the curtains again to take a better look. The man had a shaggy beard and appeared as if he were in his late sixties, like her, and his oversized biceps popped out of a white muscle T-shirt. A hooligan? Rabbi Susie had jerked her out of sleep around six this morning with a call to warn her that some hooligans may have been at the Jewish cemetery last night and messed with her family’s graves. Who were the scumbags out there who would do a thing like that? She imagined men in leather jackets, knee-high black boots, with nails or spikes on their heels, swastika and skull tattoos on their arms. Ruby had told the rabbi that she wanted to jump out of bed and drive to the cemetery right away. Wait until we hear from the police, said the rabbi. Ruby twisted the phone cord round and round. But my heart’s thumping out of my chest, she said. Wait, said the rabbi.

The doorbell rang again. Well, risks were for the living, and she wasn’t dead—even if it did feel like living each day was killing her. A deep fury burned in her; if he were one of those beasts who bashed graves, she’d give him a piece of her mind. She opened the door a crack to see what he wanted.

“Captain Buck at your service. Ready to go welcome home our troops?”

You’re Captain Buck?” she said. The man’s eyes were cobalt blue, like her boy’s eyes.

He nodded and extended his hand, but she didn’t shake it. She opened the door, looking him up and down. How could he be the fellow she’d spoken to on Thursday? She’d fought off tears when she’d read a newspaper story about soldiers coming home from overseas. Near the end of the article, it mentioned the group that welcomed home the troops. A photo showed flag-waving, smiling people. It didn’t say much about them, but it gave a phone number. Sorry to bug you, she said when she called, but could someone drive her from LaGrange to the Reserve Center in South Bend? She wanted to help greet soldiers on Saturday when they were supposed to be coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. A man told her that they didn’t have a group scheduled for the South Bend Reserve. They’d be in Indy that day. But we’re happy to send Captain Buck at 1:00 pm to escort you personally, he said. He chortled and added, “That’s me. Good old Captain Buck.” He hadn’t said anything about a Harley.

Ruby pointed at the cycle. “No way we’re going on that dang thing. It’s February.”

“We sure can’t giddy up there on a horse and buggy. You’re in luck. It’s almost fifty degrees today.”

“For heaven’s sake, I could fall off and crack my head open.”

“Naw. I’ll give you a helmet. Now you coming or not?” His eyes were clear and friendly-looking. He tilted his head, waiting for her response.

She hesitated. Maybe it was kooky to go with him, but it sure beat staying home and driving herself crazy worrying about bashed up graves. She nodded, then grabbed her rain coat and scarf. She stepped out, locked the door, and followed Buck towards the cycle. If only she’d found out more in advance about who these greeters are. You bet the guy had broken beer bottles and subscriptions to Hustler stashed in his trailer home. He could be anybody; he could work at the zoo with the apes, he could be related to Charles Manson! But his eyes looked gentle. She stumbled on the cracked bottom step where a chunk of concrete had fallen off, catching herself, fuming that she hadn’t fixed it, or any of the other broken things around the stone home where she lived alone. At least the gabled roof didn’t seem as if it were likely to cave in, well, not any time too soon.

Buck pointed at her rusty basketball stand, with its ragged net, toward the end of her driveway. Jeepers—would you take a look at those fire-breathing dragon tattoos on his biceps! “You’re going to need a new net for your son,” he said.

“Who said I have a son? Mind your own beeswax.”

“Don’t get all huffy,” he said, shrugging. “Most of the ladies I escort have boys off in the military. But maybe you shoot,” he said, grinning. “You’re sure tall enough. What are you, six feet or so?”

“I’m in no mood for small talk.”

Buck pretended to dribble a basketball. “Me and my brother Stevie used to shoot baskets together when we were growing up. I wish we still could. Like we did until Vietnam.”

“You must have served—”

“Nope. Not me. Stevie.”

When they got to his motorcycle, he rubbed the Harley’s back seat and said, “Meet Buck’s Wild Bull. Ready to get aboard?” Ruby frowned, took a step back, examining the cycle; those seats looked wide and comfortable. Buck pulled a rag out of a pack attached to the cycle and wiped down the gleaming machine. An American flag was posted by the rear seat and a teddy bear, wearing fatigues and a cap with the name “Steve” imprinted on it, poked out of the pack. Buck handed her a helmet, but he didn’t put one on. “All right, hop on up,” he said, offering his hand. She grabbed it, stepped up, and squished her wide rump onto the seat. “Where in Hades is the safety belt?” she said.

“Naw. The Bull’s got none. Now you ready for a ride?” He didn’t wait for an answer before starting the motor, and revving the engine, but then, stopping it cold, he turned to look at her. “Steve got blown up into nothing. Nada. Zilch.”

Before she could say anything, he jerked around, started the motor again, and yelled something over its roar that Ruby couldn’t hear. What a horrible thing to tell her and then to take off without another word. Maybe he thought he was Evel Knievel and would try a crazy stunt. Maybe he might drive his cycle across a cemetery, breaking things up until it was nothing, nada, zilch. They took off down the driveway. She wrapped her arms around him and sniffed in a whiff of gasoline and manure from the pastures as they swerved onto the county road. Sunshine splashed out from the rain clouds and spun the cut-down corn fields into gold. The wind rip-roared against her as they passed the Amish on bicycles and in horse-pulled buggies, the RV factories near Shipshewana where their men often worked, past handwritten “Jesus Saves” roadside signs, and on through Elkhart with its mansions facing the St. Joseph river, then down another county line road.

As they headed through Mishawaka, the breeze felt warmer. Her ear drums pulsed from the Harley’s clatter. They passed a military plant—four, one-story brick buildings protected by two layers of chain link fences topped with barbed wire. Humvees in straight rows lined the side of a building, the steely vehicles saluting a darkening sky. It hurt to think of young people getting in those things and driving around somewhere dusty and horrible and far away.

South Bend was next to Mishawaka, almost indistinguishable. As they zoomed through it, along the roadside by a cemetery, in the shadow of oak trees, Ruby saw men dressed much like Buck, holding large American flags, their motorcycles parked behind them. Buck slowed down, honked, and waved. They didn’t wave back. They were as stiff as the tall flag poles they held. A hawk circled high above them. Grayish clouds punctured the horizon as the sun slipped away. A thunderstorm? A few raindrops slicked her arms. Would the men stand there if the storm came closer? What were they waiting for?

Neal used to stand like that sometimes on the Fourth of July, her little sentinel, ramrod straight watching the parade marching down Main Street. She tried to imagine the expression on his face if she could tell him that she was zipping around with this scruffy guy, but lately, especially when she longed to see her boy, it was getting difficult to picture him without her favorite photograph that she’d lost last week: Neal dressed in his soldier outfit. She’d looked again for it this morning in photo books, in drawers and cupboards, in every crevice and corner of her messy house, but it was gone then and it was gone now. If only she could see it, hold it, see him again—her little tin soldier—if only he were coming home. Ever since she’d glanced at the newspaper’s photo of homecoming soldiers, she’d been driving herself berserk trying to imagine how her boy might look if he were coming home now in military fatigues. Her little tin soldier, he’d been gone too long.

They followed a line of honking cars, vans, and a bus into the army reserve’s parking lot and parked near the western edge. After she got off of the Harley, she rubbed her lower back and stretched. “That contraption sure got my old blood going,” she said.

“You look flushed,” he said, smiling. “The Bull’s as deluxe as they come. Real cushy.” He patted the front cycle seat, then asked if she was ready to go join the greeters. She nodded. They headed toward the crowd in front of the Reserve. A light rain sprinkled more than a hundred people, mostly families, gathered before the two-story, red brick compound. People took Welcome Home and We Support Our Troops signs and American flags from their trunks. Girls in fancy dresses with bows pranced around. A group of pregnant women huddled together—don’t think about the hours those ladies spent alone, apart from their loved ones. No. Look at the greeters dressed in red, white and blue clothes like they’re ready to celebrate the Fourth of July; and the strange scarecrow dignity of an old WWII veteran who stood posted in his threadbare uniform.

Some South Bend firefighters unfurled a massive American flag and hung it above the reserve’s gate. Soldiers arrived in buses and a few Humvees, raindrops drizzling down the front windshields, police cars with blaring sirens trailing behind. People cheered and waved signs. Buck hollered, God bless America! Ruby wanted to yell but her voice felt tight and locked. Young women and men in camouflage fatigues and combat boots leaped out of the vehicles, and strode through the lot. Cameras flashed. Everywhere, people cheering, sobbing, hugs and kisses and cries of joy.

“Get a load of that fellow with his little boys,” said Buck, motioning at a soldier who picked up twin boys, lifting them into the air to kiss them.

“Lucky him to have two boys,” said Ruby. When Buck moved in front of her and blocked her view, she lifted onto her toes, straining to see each passing soldier. She tapped Buck’s shoulder. “Could you move out of the way? I’m hoping to see my bo—,” she said, stopping cold, regretting saying anything about her son.

“So your son is coming home today. You want to wave my flag? You two probably been Skyping to stay in touch.”

“Stop talking about my son.”

Buck scratched his head. “Why—”

“Just get out of my view.” She wanted no questions asked about Neal, no comments made, then she wouldn’t have to tell his story or give explanations. Buck moved, then they both lined up with about twenty people to shake hands with soldiers hurrying by, who were quickly losing any military order, duffel bags slung over their shoulders. What a stampede home, those young-faced soldiers, beautiful buffaloes, set wild and free at last!

Ruby searched their faces. She tapped a passing soldier, his sleeve rough to the fingertips, and he tipped his hat and smiled. She closed her eyes, hummed Humvee, Humvee, and imagined Neal driving through the gate. Wouldn’t he love to steer a Humvee? When Neal was six, Hal, her ex, bought him a camouflage outfit. She tried to remember Neal’s image in the lost photo; wearing his fatigues, standing in the backyard by his favorite plant, the cascading spirea with its small white blooms, a red scarf wrapped around his neck, a toy bayonet rifle in one hand. She couldn’t see his face, but his words came to her: “Mommy, will you play war with me?” She must have pretended to be dead, dropping onto the grass when he bayoneted her, then jumped up and told him she was the ghost of mommy past and never, ever, do that again. She tickled him; they laughed and rolled on the grass while cicadas clattered. Neal would bring her their green-winged bodies, asking why they’d died. They are dead and gone, there’s nothing to be done, she’d told him; their wings will crumble to dust in your hands.

The rain kept drizzling. Ruby looked up, hoping to spot some blue sky, but she saw only gray clouds. Although it was a light rain and her raincoat and scarf protected her, she felt a chill and she rocked from side to side to keep warm like some nearby men in leather jackets were doing. They looked like the fellows who had been standing outside the cemetery. Glancing toward them, Ruby asked, “Are those guys over there the motorcycle men we passed on the way here?”

“Nope. The guys we passed are the Patriot Brigade, not greeters. They stay at the cemetery. They wait till the hearse comes by, then they’ll follow behind,” he said. “To the funeral.”

“How terrible.”

“Excuse me?” he said, his face reddening. “You think it’s terrible to show some respect for soldiers who give their lives? A soldier’s family asked them to come.”

“Calm down. I meant how terrible for the soldier’s poor mother and father. How many funerals do those guys go to?”

“Whatever family needs and wants them. Funerals, memorials.” Buck kicked some gravel. “It never stops.” He took out a hanky and blew his nose. They both grew quiet, shuffling in the dirt for a few moments. Ruby’s feet felt wet in her canvas shoes, and heavy, as if they were weighted. She shivered and said, “When’s it ever going to stop? Boys getting beaten up. Boys going off to wars. Cemeteries bashed up.”

“Now hold on,” said Buck, stamping his feet. “Those brigade guys go along to make sure nothing and nobody starts trouble at the cemetery. The soldiers can rest in peace.”

“Are you so sure?” she said, wringing her hands.

He wrinkled his brow and looked bewildered, and when the crowd began to cheer, he turned away, and joined in. She didn’t cheer. She looked at her cell phone. No messages. If only the rabbi would call. She imagined her family’s graves in ruins, muddy, wrecked. For a fleeting moment, her son’s image came to her, his face pale, his arms reaching, pleading for her help. She felt desperate to take him in her arms. A bolt of panic shot through her. She searched the crowd until a red-haired soldier passing by caught her eye. She had to stop herself from calling out. He looked so serious, like Neal. She grabbed his arm. He stopped and offered his damp hand. She held it longer than he must have expected, and he said, “Something wrong, ma’am?” His expression was blank and innocent, as if war had barely touched him.

“Sorry. You remind me of someone.” Ruby let go of his hand. He moved on. She had so much to say to him, beyond thanking him for risking his life. Had he been scared? Did he feel that he’d protected anyone? She tried to remember her son more clearly, but her memories were watery, cracking ice; then she noticed Buck next to her, watching. He patted his heart. “Don’t you worry. I’m sure your son will be along soon.”

“Stop saying that! Go buzz off with your Hell’s Angel buddies,” she said, pointing at the leather-clad men.

Buck looked struck. “Whoa, now. Hold your horses.” He raised one hairy eyebrow. “Hell’s Angels? Are you pulling my leg?” He shook his head. “Now look here, I’m Buck Cedarbaum. I’m a podiatrist. It’s about time we made proper introductions.”

You’re a podiatrist?” She wiped the raindrops from her eyes and studied him: his long beard dripping, his wet leather vest and muscle T-shirt. “Cedarbaum?” she said. “You’re Jewish?”

“Yup,” he said. “I thought you might be, but I wasn’t sure. It’s pretty strange for a Jew to be living way out in LaGrange.” He stood closer to her, their shoulders almost touching. Her eyes met his; she held the gaze for a long moment, then said, “Well, it’s not like I live in Timbuktu. And I’d wager it’s pretty strange for a Jew to be dressed up like it’s Halloween, riding around on a Harley.”

He laughed. “I’m a mensch on a motorcycle. Now aren’t you going to introduce yourself properly?” He extended his hand.

She shook his hand. “I’m Ruby Gold. A secretary at the LaGrange Courthouse.”

She was going to ask him whether he knew what had happened at the Jewish cemetery, but then the crowd whooped, whistled, and waved their signs, their voices booming like bombs, or was that sound coming from behind her? Ruby turned to see a few protesters beating drums and waving banners with red-lettered slogans: “We Need Jobs and Healthcare, Not War.” They looked young and earnest, their fresh faces shining with raindrops. Thinking she spotted a familiar face, she rushed toward them, with Buck trailing after her, but when she came closer, she recognized nobody, until a boy who looked like the red-haired soldier she’d greeted earlier— but dressed now in jeans and a rain breaker—suddenly stood before her. “What were you doing over there?” he said, pointing at the flag-waving crowd, his hair flopping over his brow. “Cheering for war?”

“Now, wait a minute,” she said. “I’m here to greet—”

“Yeah, right,” he interrupted. “You probably say you support the warriors, but not the .war. Like my mom and the creeps she works with at the plant pumping out Humvees.”

His angry face stunned like a punch. Surprised that he wasn’t the boy she’d talked to earlier, Ruby squinted, examining him. “So young people going off to fight is your mother’s fault?”

“You’ve got to face it sooner or later, lady,” he said, shaking his finger at Ruby.

“Face what?” Ruby said, grabbing his sleeve. “Sonny, you don’t have a clue what I’ve got to face.” The young man grimaced and yanked his arm free. He pushed his wet hair off of his forehead and turned to walk away, but Buck waved his flag in the boy’s face, saying, “You leave this lady alone.” The boy whipped out his cell phone, clicked at Ruby, and marched off. Ruby groaned, picturing her image on Facebook and Twitter, her mouth hanging open, her face livid.

What had made that boy so furious? His mother? Maybe he’d once been a soldier. What terrible battles did he endure? She’d never wanted Neal to be in any fight, but she remembered when she sat him down on his bed and told him to stand up to bullies and protect the helpless after he told her that his friend Billy was getting beaten up. Kids could be cruel; she didn’t want him to stand by. Neal had listened, quiet and solemn. Hal blamed her when Neal fought those damn Weaver boys, who were roughing up Billy one winter day on the icy pond behind their house. The boys thought it funny to taunt Billy when he slipped on the ice. When Neal rushed to protect his friend, they smacked her boy up until he plummeted down, his head banging against the ice. The police called it an accident; the Weavers got off Scot-free; and Neal, he was hurried to the hospital in an ambulance, and never left. If only someone had tried, convicted, and locked her away for the crime of telling her boy to defend the vulnerable. Well, hadn’t Hal punished her? When she couldn’t stop talking about what happened to Neal, when she talked at the A&P, talked at the dry cleaners, talked in the morning as Hal drank his coffee, and talked at night when they lay in bed, then a few months later, Hal moved out, saying she would drive him out of his mind with her talk.

So she stopped talking about her boy.

Maybe she still heard Hal’s voice blaming her; but no, it was Buck saying, “Hey, don’t let that kid get to you.” He tried to speak to her, but she couldn’t say much. She longed for her son, and whispered to herself, It’s not right.

“What’s not right?” asked Buck.

“What?” she mumbled. Composing herself, she said, “It’s not right that my son can’t be here.”

“But he’s on his way.”

“Where? Where is he on his way?”

Buck scrutinized her, raising his brow in alarm. She was going to tell him the truth about her son, but he looked away at a new car crowded with soldiers coming through the gate, and then he joined in with the cheering greeters. When it got quieter, he turned and asked Ruby why she wasn’t cheering.

“He’s not coming.”

“But he’s—”

Ruby shook her head.

“Tell me what’s wrong. What is it?” His temple veins swelled.

Ruby shrugged. Her voice felt gagged.

“I’m hurting, too,” he said. “I swear I still see Steve in my dreams like he’s here right now. He knew I was a jerk. When he got drafted and I didn’t, I laughed. Jesus! I laughed.” His face seemed to cave in on itself. He touched her lightly on her forearm, hesitating before taking her hand. She wanted to tell him he had no right, but his gentleness surprised her. When she didn’t pull away, he lowered his head and rested it against her shoulder. Then he wept, muffled, choking sounds.

She cleared her throat. “There’s nothing you could have done.” Lifting his head, he stroked his beard, then took a deep breath. “Jesus, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to lose it. You’re a knock-out strong lady.”

“Baloney,” she said, wiping her eyes.

“Oh, don’t cry.”

“I’m not. Just some sprinkles in my eyes.”

She scanned the parking lot. The greeters, the cheerers, the protesters were getting into their cars. The massive flag sagged from the gate. She longed to see more boys, but no more came.

“Where’s your son, Ruby?”

“He’s never coming.”

He opened his arms as if he wanted to hold her, but Ruby turned and walked away. A gust of wind knocked against them as they headed towards the motorcycle. Ruby’s ankle twisted and she fell forward, her body halfway down when Buck caught her. You’re shivering, he said, we should get some coffee and dry off. She told him she was fine, but would he please drive her to the Jewish cemetery in Mishawaka? No, she wouldn’t explain, would he please drive her, it’s only minutes away, please, right this second, let’s go, and if he wouldn’t, she’d take a cab.

“We’re sopped. Can’t it wait?”

“Don’t you know,” she said, “the cemetery’s been banged up.”

“What?” His eyes widened and he raised his eyebrows.

“I’ll explain later. Are you taking me or not?” she said, motioning toward the cycle.

Nodding, he wiped down the cycle seats. Puddles pooled around the cycle. The water splashed over them as they sped off through South Bend.

***

They parked next to a chain link fence outside of the cemetery, then walked through the gate toward a brick prayer house shaped like a Star of David. Buck pulled the wooden door to see if they could go inside and dry themselves, but it was locked. How could they just walk into the cemetery? Where were the police? Seeing no officers present, Ruby doubted that the rabbi had called them. The small cemetery, next to a railroad track, was quiet, as it usually was except for the rare times when a cargo train chugged by. The rain had ended and patches of pale gray sky opened up between clouds. They approached the lawn where the graves were, and stopped. Ruby gasped. She clenched her hands against her chest. About a dozen headstones near the railroad track were overturned. Some were cracked or broken into pieces and strewn across withered grass covered with twigs and scattered brown leaves. She turned to face Buck. “You son’s buried here?” he said, softly.

“That’s the rotten truth.”

“Oh, God, Ruby.” He glanced at the graves. “You knew about this?”

She nodded.

“It makes me sick to my stomach. We should call the cops.”

“For crying out loud, why bother! They’ll just say it was an accident. The rabbi supposedly called them. Maybe they just haven’t showed up yet.”

“I’d say it’s a hate crime, for sure. Crazy nutcases. We need to clear out of here.”

Ruby shook her head, and strode off, bending over now and then to look around for pebbles to leave on graves. “Stop!” called Buck, but she kept going, roaming among the overturned headstones. Two of them were shattered, indecipherable. Trickles of water flowed through the grooves in the dirt where the stones had stood. Squirrels scampered nearby. A brown headstone with the name “Julia Wiseberg” was cracked and chipped at the sides. Morris Blattstein—a survivor who’d smoked Cuban cigars—his stone with its Star of David, was knocked down. She stifled a cry. Oh God, her old friend Molly Roth’s stone was split in two, a long crack between “beloved mother” and “wife.”

She approached the edge of the cemetery, near the railroad tracks, and then she glanced back to see Buck hurrying toward her, his eyes wide with concern. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go back.” She waved him away. Damp air rushed into her lungs when she hovered over her parents’ overturned stones. Her heart pounded and she began to cry. She crept towards the edge of Neal’s grave, the last one before the railroad tracks. “Your boy’s?” said Buck, opening his tattooed arms, and she turned and collapsed in his embrace. His face was warm, blotchy, freckled, his soft beard brushing against her cheek, his palm against the back of her head, warm. She shut her eyes and tried to muster up Neal’s face: happy, drenched, freckled— how could she have forgotten his freckles?

She let go of Buck, opened her eyes, and stared at the mangled clumps of brown grass, the headstone toppled over and crushed into large pieces. Neal’s Hebrew name, Gabriel, the letters shattered as if a sledge hammer had struck them. She dropped down on her knees, struggling to put the letters together, and Buck tried to help, but it was no use. She lowered her forehead against the ground and, sobbing, sank onto the muddy grave, laying there for a long time. She longed to hear Neal’s voice, begged God to send her a sign that he was safe from harm, and prayed that he knew nothing of this cold stone shambles.

If he could see her now, he would put his arms around her, bring her a tissue, and tell her to go home. Exhaling deeply, she tried to wipe her eyes with dirty hands. As she raised her head and upper body, Buck’s hands, the fingers surprisingly long and delicate, lifted her up. He gave her a tissue and said, “Let’s take you home.” When she stepped away from the grave, her knees cracked and her legs felt wobbly. She took his arm and asked him to escort her to the motorcycle. She paused by several spirea bushes planted against the cemetery fence and touched their mucky branches. “I bet the roads home will be slick and dark,” she said.

“Naw. It’ll be okay. Now let’s get the mud off your coat before we take off.”

She let him brush her coat off as she gazed at the dried up spirea, her arms dangling by her sides, as if she were helpless as a small child who believes those bushes will be ghostlings when they bloom, white on black branches, in the coming spring.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kathy Mirkin writes fiction and poetry for adults and children. Her writing awards include: a Highlights Foundation Writers’ Workshop scholarship and the SCBWI-Illinois Words in the Words scholarship. She is working on a novel featuring Ruby Gold and short stories, poetry, and picture books. For more information, visit her at www.kathymirkin.com and follow her on Twitter@kathymirkin.