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War Stories

Beloit Fiction Journal, Spring 1999

© 1999 amy purcell 

The enemy is coming for Christmas. There is no sense fussing over it. Mama has her mind made up even though Daddy is trying to talk her out of it as he scrapes the car windows. He’s in his undershirt, the snow sticking to his bald head, melting and collecting along the creases of his neck.

“You’re the only one who thinks this is a good idea. Would ya stop pumping the gas,” he yells over her revving. “You’re flooding the engine.” He presses his face against the window. “I know you can hear me.”

I crouch down in the back seat in case the neighbors are looking, which is likely with Daddy yelling. Mama looks at me in the rearview mirror and I pretend I don’t see because I am watching my breath fog up on the window. I write “help” backwards in it so people will read it when we drive by. If someone stops the car and asks Mama who needs help, I will say it’s me because Uncle Walter is coming for Christmas.

“I’m not shoveling this driveway, Ruth. Just try and make it back up here the way the snow’s coming.”

“I’ll park at the bottom,” Mama shouts over the engine.

Daddy pulls his undershirt to his face to wipe off the snow. The tattoo on his chest moves up and down with each breath so it looks like the dagger is pointing right into his heart. Above the dagger is a red rose and a swirl of thorny vines with “Till death do us part” written in blue. Daddy said he married the army. You have to marry the army.

I pull my hood tight around my head so it covers everything but my eyes and start my beauty parlor. The ashtray cover is the mirror and the seat belt is the hair dryer. Binky is my first and only customer today. I brush the new purple fur Mama sewed over Binky’s holes. It falls off in clumps. I untie the hair ribbon that’s holding his leg and put the leg in my pocket. I whisper to Binky that I am sorry to tell him this, but he has polio. I tell him it’s just a hunch because I’m just a beautician.

Mama puts the car in reverse while Daddy is still wiping, still growling, and we roll down the driveway. He wags his arms at us, kicking clumps of snow.

“He even makes snow look furious,” says Mama, laughing. She pumps the gas one more time.

Roosevelt barks and runs between Daddy’s feet, hoping he’ll get a snowball thrown to him. Roosevelt is our dachshund. He has three legs instead of four, as one got caught in a trap and the vet cut off the trap and the leg. Sometimes Roosevelt licks the stump. Once, me and my brother Lenny took turns licking it to see if a human leg would grow there.

“Wave to your Daddy, honey,” Mama says. She rolls down the window and sticks her whole arm out. Daddy doesn’t wave back. Across the street, I see Babs Cleary looking out between lace curtains. She waves to us, but we pretend not to see her.

“Does Uncle Walter have to come for Christmas?”

“Don’t you start up, too.” She throws her cigarette out the window and pushes the car lighter into the dashboard.

“I think Binky has polio.”

Mama rests her chin on the steering wheel and grips it hard so the veins in her hands pop up. We drive to the Institution with the window open even though I don’t think the cold air is good for Binky.

When she honks the horn, Uncle Walter comes, his medals pinned to his shirt, the ones he got for being a prisoner of war. His hair rings his head like a horseshoe, only a few greasy strands cover up that zipper scar. Lenny said the scar will open some day and we’ll get to see what’s hiding in there. Mama said something happened to Walter in the war, but Lenny said the war just made him crazy and he’s the enemy. When I asked Lenny if Daddy was crazy, he said Daddy just does what sergeants do.

When Uncle Walter turns to say hello, I hide behind Binky. Binky’s got special powers only I know about.

Mama’s watching me in the rearview. “Say hello, Maggie.” I lay down in the backseat.

“I just got tired,” I say and watch the sun and tree shadows bounce and flutter over Uncle Walter’s head, and when I shut my eyes tight, his blue-purple outline burns under my eyelids.

* * *

Once, in the early morning when Mama left for work and Daddy locked us out for the day, me and Lenny played under the willow tree. We played Mama and Daddy in a fight. We pretended it was about Uncle Walter.

Lenny walked back and forth, waving his BB-gun. “Why do you bring him here? Don’t we have enough troubles?”

“Family is family,” I said.

Roosevelt was lying in the sun and his legs were moving like he was running but he was only dreaming about digging up moles with Daddy. Even his stump was moving. The dew spit at my ankles as I circled the trunk of the tree. Smoky lines of fog floated above the grass hiding Lenny’s legs.

“You know what else, Ms. Smarty Pants?” Lenny said.

“What pearl of wisdom are you going to offer me now?” That was Mama’s favorite line.

“You want to know about Walter?”

“Do tell,” I said, pretending I was smoking a cigarette.

Lenny spit in the grass and Roosevelt got up and rolled on the spot.

“The Japs took out his brain and put in a short-wave radio so they can give him instructions. He’s on the enemy side now. We should be careful.”

Lenny climbed up the tree where I couldn’t reach him. He pointed his BB-gun at me, closing one eye, taking aim.

“Are we still pretending?” I picked a dandelion and rubbed it across my wrist to see if I was boy crazy yet. I wasn’t.

“Want to know what else?”

“Do tell,” I said, trying to keep up the pretend part.

“When he gets the signal, he’ll blow up and the Japs will come back for you because you are connected.”

Lenny jumped from the tree and I started running and Lenny yelled

“AMBUSH,” chasing me all the way to the porch.

He pretend-shot me with his BB-gun. He pretend-pressed the trigger over and over, screaming DIE! DIE! until I ran up to the porch. No one got shot on the porch. Not even the Japs or pretend-Walter. I pounded on the door but Daddy didn’t come.

* * *

Daddy’s got his head in the Christmas tree. We bought the tree last night at Woolworth’s because Roosevelt kept peeing on the real one. When we finished putting the ornaments on Mama rearranged them. Daddy thinks the tree is lopsided because of so he’s fixing it. She can never leave well enough alone, he said.

Mama is hiding in the kitchen so we can’t see that it’s her ringing a bell and telling us Santa Claus in on our street. She doesn’t see Uncle Walter holding his hands over his ears. Me and Lenny know there is no Santa, but I pretend and go look out the window and say I don’t see anything.

Next year, when I’m eight and Lenny is ten, I’ll tell Mama I don’t believe anymore. She rings the bell so hard, Uncle Walter bangs his fists on his head, whispering, “please hurry, please hurry.” It’s what he says when his brain doesn’t know what else to say.

“Make him stop,” I say.

“He can’t,” says Lenny.

Daddy pulls his head out from the tree and looks at Walter. He walks into the kitchen to make Mama put the bell away. Walter looks at me, his eyes have tears in them and I want to run but my feet won’t move, like when I’m stuck to the side of the Tilt-a-Whirl.

Daddy comes back with two beer bottles. He gives one to Walter. Lenny asks if he can have a taste, and Daddy says sure he can, it’ll put hair on his chest. I don’t ask. I don’t want the hair. Mama calls for me, but I run to my room instead.

I reach under my bed and pull out the box of Walter’s letters that Mama gave me. Some parts are crossed out in black ink. Mama said the government had to do that for protection. There’s a picture of Walter, too, and he’s standing by a bomber, smiling, his face smooth instead of crooked like it is now, and I think, wish, that maybe they gave us the wrong uncle back.

Lenny comes in and I shove the box under my bed.

“You love the enemy,” he says.

“Babs Cleary said he’s not the enemy, he’s our uncle and he’s readjusting.”

“He’d kill you if he could. That’s what makes him crazy; no one lets him kill anything anymore.”

I get my angel wings out of the closet, the ones I wore in the school play. Sometimes, me and Binky fly around the room and pretend we’re in heaven. Roosevelt is there and so is Babs and Mama. And we fix each other’s hair in braids and drink lemonade and decorate clouds which are the pillows on my bed.

“Daddy almost killed me last night,” Lenny says, pointing his finger like a gun and pretend-shooting at Binky.

Lenny got spatula swats last night and had to sleep on his side. Daddy heard us pretending we were Walter, laughing and talking in sputters. You never make fun of a soldier, Daddy said, no matter what.

He got the spatula from the kitchen and when Lenny didn’t cry, Daddy hit him harder. I put Binky over my head and waited for Daddy to find me too.

Outside, the snow came down in windy swirls, the willow branches throwing shapes across the wall like big bony hands reaching in, rescuing me and taking me to heaven with the canopy bed and pink-painted walls. That’s where I go when I am fake. It’s what me and Lenny do when we get the swats. If you stay fake through all of them, the swats don’t count.

Lenny came into my room and climbed into my bed. I felt the heat from his legs and thought they must have been as red as Mama’s lipstick.

“Did they hurt?” I asked and he said “I’m fake, remember.”

“Do you think we’ll get our presents?”

“I hate him,” he said, but when I asked if he meant Walter or Daddy, he pulled the blanket over his head and pressed his legs against mine.

In the kitchen, Mama stares at the bowl where she put the butter. I ask her what she’s looking at and she says nothing at all, but she wipes her face with the back of her hand so I know she’s crying. Her eyes have dark circles around them, like big gray moons.

She looks up from the bowl and sees my angel wings, and her hands go up to her mouth and her eyes get watery. When I ask why she’s crying, she says it’s just so nice to have butter in the house again, after the rations and all. I start to say I love her but instead I tell her I’m going to fly away to heaven some day.

“Look at our Christmas angel,” Daddy says. He’s in his uniform coat now and his gun is sticking out of his pocket. He’s taking Walter outside. He’s starting up a war story. I watch him draw a map in the snow with a stick and Walter starts marching across the yard. Daddy yells, “This is not a drill.”

Lenny comes up behind me and grabs my wings. “I’m going out there.”

I don’t want to go but I follow him. I scoop up snow and throw it at Lenny’s back.

“You throw like a girl.”

“That’s because I am one.”

“You don’t look like one,” he says, grabbing his shirt and pulling it out like he’s making boobs.

“Where are yours?”

I punch him for that one, sticking my knuckle out like he taught me, but Lenny says girls can’t hurt boys ever. That’s why girls stayed home from the war.

When Daddy tells war stories, he forgets who we are and calls us names like Jack or Eddie. His face turns tomato red and the vein in his neck pops in and out. He gives us shovels and we chase moles across the yard and Daddy pounds the grass yelling, come out you blind bastards, telling us how he flushed out all kinds of Germans all across Europe. We don’t stop until Daddy says it’s time for someone to die and he shoots his gun in the air.

Some nights after the war stories, he goes down into the cellar and stays there until Mama gets after him. Their shouting rolls up through the vents and I run to Babs Cleary, their voices following me down the street.

Babs turns on the television and makes Shirley Temples and I take off my shoes and she paints my toenails bright red and she fixes up my hair in curlers. We put our feet on the coffee table and eat pineapple upside-down cake with our fingers. We watch Uncle Milty and when Babs laughs, I think her laugh sounds as strange as Japanese. I curl up under her arm and listen to her breathe and say I want to live there and when I wake up later, there’s a blanket over me and Lenny is there, sleeping with Roosevelt in the gray glow of the television.

I run across the yard, my angel wings catching the wind, the snow hitting my face. I hold out my arms and pretend I am flying, over the yard, the house, the willow tree. I fall through the clouds and land on my back moving my legs and arms across the snow to make an angel.

Then Lenny is on top of me, shoving snow in my face and I kick my legs and scream for Daddy. Lenny’s tickling me and my breath comes in coughs and my legs are wet and cold and I think I will get polio for sure.

I feel Lenny come off me and Uncle Walter is standing above me, holding Lenny by his shirt.

“Don’t kill me!” Lenny yells.

Daddy shoots his gun into the air and Walter drops Lenny.

I hide my face in my hands and put my shoulders up by my ears.

“Surrender!” Daddy yells.

I say it before Lenny can.

“He was gonna kill me,” cries Lenny.

Daddy laughs, spins the gun in his hand and walks to the cellar door.

I get up from my angel. It’s ruined with footprints except for one wing. I press my foot down hard there.

Uncle Walter follows Daddy to the cellar and Lenny grabs me to go, too. Daddy drops his gun on the cot, sitting down with a grunt. The furnace comes on and Uncle Walter shudders. There are monsters behind it but I don’t tell him.

“Want to hunt the enemy down?” Lenny whispers.

I pretend I don’t hear.


“Am not.” I push into his chest.

“Chicken shit.”

“Roosevelt shit,” I say, glad I thought of it.

Lenny shoves me and Daddy gives us the evil eye. I hold my breath and make myself fake. Daddy goes up the steps and I hear the icebox open.

“That’s the fourth one,” Lenny says. He picks up Daddy’s gun and runs up the steps and turns off the light, but I can see his shadow. He’s crouching down, the gun pointed near Walter’s back.

Daddy’s voice is coming through the vents. He’s fighting with Mama. He’s giving commands and Mama is laughing because she doesn’t know what else to do. I hear Mama scrape the fork against plates and Roosevelt’s nails scratching on the linoleum. Everything is loud and dark. Mama is saying “You’ve had enough” but I don’t know if she means Roosevelt or Daddy.

Lenny moves closer. He’s got the gun right at Walter’s back.

“BANG! BANG! You’re dead,” he yells.

Uncle Walter’s arms fly up and he covers his head. He runs behind the furnace.

Lenny keeps the gun pointed at him. “I’ve got you right where I want you,” he says.

I run behind the furnace. Uncle Walter’s head shakes so hard I think his scar will burst open. He’s rocking back and forth, saying, “Please hurry, please hurry.”

“Lenny,” I say, but nothing more comes out.

“You’re the enemy now,” Lenny says, running back outside.

I get on the floor next to Walter and press my back against his so my wings touch his shoulders. We sit, rocking back and forth together.

I take Walter’s hand and he doesn’t pull it away so I just stay that way, watching Lenny build his fort, listening to Daddy march across the kitchen floor and Mama crying in little hiccups. I try and make myself fake, but Walter’s hand is hot and his breath comes in huffs, so I pretend we’re trapped in a foxhole, the kind in Daddy’s war stories, and I think there is no hiding from the enemy.

From the open cellar door, I see Daddy step off the porch, the spatula tapping against his leg, only Lenny doesn’t run. He calls to Lenny in his war story voice and he pretend-shoots Lenny, holding the spatula like his gun, and Lenny points Daddy’s gun at him and I think, yes, please hurry.