As the rain poured down, Justin was not looking forward to getting out of the van. He was not looking forward to playing the fake, electric, bugle for the hero that he was being paid fifty bucks to honor. He was not looking forward to getting out there and potentially having to tell those grieving the loss of their loved ones that he was sorry and that this was his first funeral detail. He was looking forward to hearing Corporal Rosa’s next gruesome funeral story.
“Dude, the better you are the more they cry. If you don’t make the widow cry when you present the flag to them you suck. Staff Sergeant told me one time, and I didn’t believe him at first, but I tried it, and it worked, he told me that if when you’re presenting the flag you have to look them dead in the eye, then you salute cuz that’s what you’re supposed to do…” He took a break in his story to spit Mint Grizzly through the tiny hole of a Styrofoam coffee cup. “Then when you get your hand all the way up, you look them dead in the fucking eye and you say…” He turned to Justin and demonstrated the thousand yard stare. “Semper Fi.”
“Yeah, dude. Works every time. My record’s flawless. Ever since then I’ve been able to make everyone cry. I know that sounds fucked up but it’s not. I’m fucking good at this shit.” They both had a shameless laugh until a knocking on the window broke up their fun. Sergeant McMahon was standing there, in the rain unflinching. Justin grabbed his bugle and stepped nervously out of the van.
They took their positions, Rosa and McMahon near the canopy enough to be considered part of the funeral even though they were still outside of the family’s social circle enough to be left out in the rain. The other Marines that had served with the fallen back in the fifties saw the three young Marines, their brothers, and some of them decided to stand outside of the tent as well. From the far corner Justin saw this and took it in. He admired these men and hoped that one day he could still muster enough pride in his beloved Marine Corps to suffer the cold wet winds as they did now. He did the math in his head, their ages. One said he was on the rifle range at Camp Lejeune in 1950. Once Justin pressed the, “equals” button in his mind he decided that he had no right to feel the way he did about the cold rain soaking up into his dress blue uniform. He had no right to think of himself, only to think of the man whose death he was here to honor and the pride he should take in being able to be here. Plus it was an easy fifty bucks.
The priest must have felt bad for the Marines, the speech was short. Before Justin knew it the two others were unfolding the flag to be refolded. Once it had been “table toped” as McMahon had described, Justin about faced with more ease than he had expected in the mud, turned the bugle on and hit the button. He put the machine to his lips and pretended to blow. He actually pictured himself playing it. The honor of it caught his interest. He considered taking lessons and then quickly dismissed it. Yet another semi-good idea that he would never follow up on.
The flag was then folded and delivered. McMahon was a poor presenter, by Rosa’s definition. Justin asked more than once if he had cued the bugle properly. A round of compliments came from both Marines either to calm him or to shut him up.
The funerals piled up. Many old Marines waited through the winter for the spring thaw to meet Justin who volunteered himself for everyone. Everyday was a funeral after that. More often than not there were two, sometimes even three. By the end of the month he had paid off his credit card, his phone and other bills, and on the first Friday of May he had finally broken free of all his debt. He decided to celebrate by eating dinner. He had come to the point where he was snacking sandwiches between services but could never muster an appetite by the time he got home. He only wanted to sleep away the day’s events as unconsciousness sped up the time in between paychecks.
By the time he had arrived at the Hannaford grocery store parking lot he no longer cared. He considered leaving his car without his cover and his top button unsnapped but caught himself. The ghosts of those he buried that day would scowl at him and he knew it.
He dragged the heels of his shoes, the same heels he so proudly drove into the ground with forceful drill at each service, as if they were attached to weights unbearable to lift. The front of the blouse was no longer filled with the bulging muscle of a proud chest but folded over as he slumped forward as he had on the last mile of so many forced marches. He didn’t care if his cover was as perfect as he needed it this morning and he failed to wrap his keychain around his hand. The lanyard dragged beside him, like the dead arm of an unwrapped casualty hanging off of a seven ton truck. Only this time he pictured the lanyard as his own arm rather than that of some Iraqi in the truck in front of him. He drove on.
Not even fully in Hannaford’s door, he was greeted by a cheery teenage boy with a welcoming smile and a, “Hi. How are you doing?” Justin wanted ever so badly to tell him exactly how he was doing. He wanted to go off on a tangent about how he had been watching widows cry all day and evaluating the abilities of various Marines in his unit as they presented the flag. He wanted to tell the story about the woman who refused to accept the flag from a Marine, after he had driven six hours north (and then six hours back) to pay his respects, because he was black. He wanted to tell him how upset that made him feel or even that he thought he was going to crumble inside when the mother of a Vietnam veteran, who had just finally drank himself to death, clung to him. The twenty-five-year old Sergeant was a replica of what she had before he went over there, she would say. As her arms pulled him tighter, his mind debated between escape tactics and tried to create a way to comfort her while letting her know that he was not, in fact, her son.
Justin looked up at the clerk, who he judged had yet to see the horror of “real” life, and said with a certain coolness, “I’ve seen better, I’ve seen worse.” What he really meant was, “My life is fucked and yours should be too, you six-fifty an hour mother fucker.” The young man seemed to look in awe at what he saw as a hero walking into his store, fifteen minutes before closing. Thoughts of world destruction played with sexual fantasies for the bag girl and an inner inquisition to decide whether cinnamon rolls and Jameson would make an appropriate celebration dinner. The problem, as Justin saw it, with living alone was that he could live without parameters. He had no conception on what normal was and what was acceptable behavior in one’s own home. He often ate his cereal on the shitter in order to save time in the morning. Not having seen this on TV he assumed that he may have been doing something wrong yet had not the courage to ever ask a civilian. Marines had twisted concepts and thus could not be the basis for any research on socially acceptable behavior. He remembered watching a Marine, in Kuwait, guzzle twenty plus point-whatever NA beers to try to catch a buzz. He threw up and got something resembling a hangover but didn’t seem to catch his ride. The next day the same thing was tried only with more fake beer. Finally after the forth day his Corporal had told him enough and that it no longer amused the leadership in his command enough to allow his foolish behavior.
Justin, though having no control group to base his judgment on, decided that this behavior was not “normal” or “socially accepted” though some twenty plus Marines took part in it.
There was no one in this Hannaford to tell him to stop. No one to tell him that too much is too much and since he didn’t know what that was, he decided that he should protect these innocent civilians by reducing their exposure to him. He quickly marched to the frozen food section, grabbed the first thing that looked good and expensive and marched to the one open register.
“Now the Marines aren’t having their ball today.”
‘Some dumbass knew a little history.’ Justin thought. “Funeral detail.” Justin’s reply wiped clean the smirk on the man’s face.
“Oh, sorry to hear that.”
“Grounds thawed, time to burry our winter’s dead.” He felt so Viking, so Roman, so Ancient Greek. There was no real reply from the man in line, just some courtesies that were easily drowned out when the cashier rang up the bottle of Jameson. Justin showed ID and in the same movement grabbed the bottle.
Its touch was comfort, a known exit from his distress. It was delicious and soothing. It was a loving mother’s arms. It was, “$46.75.” The total for the bacon wrapped scallops, miscellaneous junk food and one bottle of mother.
Justin reminded himself that the money in his hand felt good. The lack of it felt horrible, yet his pessimism allowed no superficial joys.
The Hannaford stands there to this day. His thoughts of burning it down that night did not manifest and he went home to drink. It was Friday and he had an entire day off. He would try to drink enough to lose Saturday. He seemed to be counting down the days again. Before, it was until he could leave the Marine Corps. Now he was just counting down the days.
Justin sat in that same van with Corporal Rosa, as he had that first day. He wasn’t nervous, he was a seasoned vet. He wasn’t talkative and jittery. He wasn’t.
“You ever get like… this shit kinda sucks, you know?”
“Yeah,” Rosa said.
“Well yeah. It’s a fucking funeral. Specially when you’re doing as many as you’re doing. That’s kinda fucking nuts, Sergeant, you know that, right?”
“Usually they break it down so that everyone only does like one a week maybe two. You’re doing them everyday. You must be making megabucks.”
“Oh fuck yeah. Dude, it’s fifty a whack. I nearly made a G in one week that second or third week of April. Even after taxes it was still good cash.”
“That’s so fucked up, though.”
“This is kinda a weird way to make cash.”
“Better than dealing drugs, though. Right?”
The Corporal hesitated to answer. “Yeah, I guess.”
A knocking on the window ended what was becoming an uncomfortable situation, and with a nod they were off to pay another weeping widow their part of the trade, one husband for one folded flag.