Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Seeing The Light

Mark Jennings jammed on the horn and swerved into the adjacent lane. His front bumper cleared the white Hyundai with inches to spare. He glared at the young teen in the driver’s seat who only responded with a shrug and sheepish wave. Mark relished the thought of leaping from his vehicle and snatching the oblivious young man up by the nose-ring or perhaps his excessively long hair. A small amount of justice might be served should this twit experience a smattering of pain that he continued to endure on his behalf. Had the thought of spending Christmas Eve in a cold jail cell not crept into his mind, Mark would have certainly crossed the line.

Massaging the stub, where prosthetic met living flesh, no longer brought relief. The prescription for pain medication doled out by the VA hospital had become inadequate, even when combined with whiskey. The RPG that ripped through his transport claimed three friend’s lives and more of Mark than he realized. Physically he lost his mangled left leg somewhere in Iraq, but the poison in his mind grew daily and exponentially.

The difference between Mark and the young man in the Hyundai could not be measured in years, for the span could be no more than three. He couldn’t help but wonder; was this snot-nosed kid the kind that his fellow soldiers died for? No doubt the young man found himself in a hurry to attend a protest where they burned flags instead of saluting them; chanted words of hatred directed at their country rather than picking arms to defend it. He represented the most recent example of what this generation of complacency and entitlement had bred. America had become a place where youth were recruited and encouraged to dissent, where protestors spat upon those who served, and the only semblance of patriotism had to be scraped from the boot-heel of activism. Mark found it ironic that these renegades spent their days cursing the actions and motives of those that stood watch over them as they slept securely at night. In retrospect perhaps a night spent incarcerated did have some merit?

Mark reached the city limits and continued down the dark country road. Only one home lay between the city and his secluded trailer. The peeling paint and plastic-covered windows of an old shack was where Mr. Eldred had chosen to settle after his return. Karl Eldred, a Vietnam vet, had earned Mark’s respect with each tour he had served; three in all. Karl rarely ventured outside the boundaries of his forty acres except for Sunday church service and the annual Veteran’s Day parade. His first and last duties of the day were to raise and lower an oversized flag that stood proudly for all to see. Perhaps if there were more Karl Eldred’s weaved into the fabric of this country it would not be unraveling today.

In the distance an exceedingly bright light drew Mark’s attention. The glow sat just beyond the bare trees and cast eerie and strange shadows that danced upon the road. Mark soon came to realize the source of light was coming from Mr. Eldred’s porch. Certainly had he observed the light previously, it had never shone as brightly as it did tonight.

He made the hard right turn into the driveway. His headlights revealed nothing unusual. A rusty old Massey Ferguson tractor sat next to the wood shed, precisely where it had sputtered and come to a halt decades ago. A late seventies Chevy pick-up truck sat near enough the tractor so that neither looked out of place. Much like the decaying antiques around the farm, her exterior had been eaten away with time. The only sign of life came from a startled rabbit that abandoned his nest behind the rear tire for the safety of the woods.

After a series of raps on the screen door Karl appeared. The aging man answered in his overhauls, clutching a vintage double-barrel shotgun across his chest. His snarl soon gave way to a grin as he recognized the visitor.

“Mark…Mark Jennings, come on in, Son.”

Karl led the way to the living room, weaving carefully between the stacks of clutter.

“I apologize for the mess. Martha used to care for the house. So what brings you by my place, Mark?”

“Well, Sir, I thought I might check in on you. Truthfully, that bright porch light caught my eye.”

Karl’s brows narrowed. His weather-cracked fingers worked against the stubble on his chin, like the sound of sandpaper tasting fresh wood.

“Son, you must be mistaken. That light ain’t worked since the day we placed Martha to rest and I ain’t as steady on a ladder as I used to be. Anyhow—glad you come. I been meanin’ to have a chat with ya, since you moved in up the road.”

“Mr. Eldred, I sure was sorry to hear about Martha. You were a lucky man. Ain’t no finer woman in Crawford County; everyone said so.”

Karl sat silently for a few moments and when he spoke again his tone was changed. Like that of a swirling breeze, confused as to which direction it should choose.

“She put up with more than she deserved. Martha would be the first to tell ya I come back from Vietnam a changed man—and not for the better. These things you’re doin’, Mark; they’ve been done before. Movin’ way out in the country, hittin’ the bottle more often than not—just plain hidin’ from folks.

“Me and you felt a callin’ that some folks don’t never feel, but it don’t make neither of us better than them. We seen things so they didn’t have to. Make no mistake, despite the outcome, war’s a thief—takes valuable things away, things you never imagined.”

The old man stared at Mark’s left leg.

“Mark your time’s been served. She already claimed your leg—don’t let her have your mind.”

Karl pulled the curtain back and wiped the frost from the window. Without saying a word he moved toward the front door leaving his shotgun leaning in the corner.

Mark heard the screen door slam and the enthusiasm of a young voice as well as Karl’s.

“Mark, I’d like you to meet my grandson. He’ll be headed for California in a couple days—gonna make a Marine out of him they say.”

Karl’s eyes became troubled and the words trailed off into silence, “Then ship him off to Afghanistan or Iraq, I suppose.”

Mark stood and shook his hand firmly. The young man’s name did not stick with him, but the nose-ring and long hair were very familiar.

Karl sensed the uncomfortable air and glanced out the window again.

“Damned if I didn’t forget to take old glory down again. Don’t suppose you two might wanna help out an old man, would ya?”

As they exited the shack, Karl made a point to flip the light switch on and off again. It came as little surprise there was not even a flicker. Mark had been mistaken about a great many things.


kheywood said...

Hi Dan:

Just wanted you to know how much I enjoy your stories. You have a way of drawing the reader into your story-world that is captivating!

Keep writing,

Jo A. T.B. said...

My dad was in the war it changed him too! Funny how sometimess older folks look down on youth, a great story Dan. Love all your descriptions, wish I could write stories like this. Excellent!

Jo Janoski said...

The end took me by surprise. Great job on this, written from the heart, too.

Shirley said...

Dan, This one definitely comes from the heart and that's exactly where it hits the reader. Great story! Brilliant title too btw. :)

Dan said...

Thanks Karen. I'm still very new to the game. Many of the things Bubba told me and illustrated in his own works are starting to sink in.

Jo, I often find myself doubting the next generation, but in the end I realize it's my intolerance to minor things that's really the problem.

Thanks Jo...Shirley, my wife will be please to know someone liked the titles. I've let her come up with the last several.

Angel C. said...

Dan, this was really a great read. You always seem to keep your reader captivated.

paisley said...

you just never know do you???

a bit of magic,, a bit of longing,, and a whole lot of hope went into this story... i enjoyed it immensly....

Anonymous said...

Ohhhh, very nice indeed. It is so simple to believe what one thinks one sees... so humbling to realize when we are so wrong.

terrymcdermott said...

Thanks for commenting on my poems, And happy to find your site. It looks great. You are a good writer.