In college, I tried to avoid going to Ruth’s liquor store if I was in a hurry. During the summer before senior year, I’d made the mistake of dropping in to buy a bottle of Yellowtail for a cookout I was already late for. Forty-five minutes later, I stepped out of the store, with a brown bag in hand, a bunch of pamphlets for Six Flags and Niagara Falls and a head swimming with war stories.
On the days when I had some time to spare, it was off to Ruth’s. The older man behind the counter, slightly rotund with a flare in his eyes, regaled me with stories of Vietnam.
“Who’s that in the photograph?” I asked one day, pointing to the frame above the boxes of Captains. It depicted a young man, early 20s, in an old weathered photograph, luminous with faded promise.
“That’s my brother-died in the war,” he responded, his dog smiling up at me with sad, goopy eyes and a wagging tail.
“I’m sorry,” I said. All war photos look the same until it’s someone you know. On the news when they flash pictures of soldiers who have died in the war, the faces seem to blend together. Your eyes are at attention for someone you know. The rest are a blur.
In the store then, I wondered where my cousin was now. He had joined the Marines a few years before, and in doing so he’d shocked me. All I had been able to think of was our trips to the Boston Aquarium when we were younger. We’d eat chewy gooey pizza at Pizzeria Regina and then, swinging held hands, we’d sing an old Irish song:
In Dublin’s fair city, where the girls are so prettyI first set my eyes on sweet Molly MaloneAs she wheeled her wheel-barrowThrough streets broad and narrowCrying cockles and mussels, alive, alive-O!Alive, alive-O! alive, alive-O!Crying cockles and mussels, alive, alive-O!
We usually skipped right to the cockles and mussels part and took turns with the alive, alive-o verse.
He’d gone off to the Marines, a bit lost, and had returned severe and stamped with an ever-growing number of tattoos. “Marshall, that one looks like a pretzel. Why would you get a tattoo of a pretzel?” his sister had asked reproachfully on one of the few occasions he was on leave. “It’s a cross this way and a rose if you look that way,” he said, tilting his arm. Julie hadn’t argued further.
“Anyone in your family fighting right now?” the man said, bringing me back to the present. “You had that far away look that tells me yes.”
I nodded and smiled, “My cousin-can’t tell us where he is, though. I guess I understand.”
He harrumphed in agreement and bagged the rum. I left.
When I got home, I took out the photograph of my cousin that my aunt had emailed recently; in it he was handling large, anonymous machinery in a plane. He could be anybody in the picture, I thought, under all that camo. I recalled the last Christmas where both he and my uncle had been off in unknown places fighting. We’d celebrated the holiday at Uncle John’s house and done one of those holiday swaps where everyone buys a present and pools it in the middle. Nearly all the gifts had been associated with the war: a bird cage made out of a Marine Corps license plate, a stain glass of a billowing American flag, a Marine blanket.
I’d felt removed from him – unable to connect my cousin with his new reality. I’d wanted to know what he was doing over there in those unknown sandy places. But when I’d talked to him on the phone that Christmas, the reception was poor and I’d had no idea what to say.
“So, what are you up to over there?”
“Oh, you know… nothing much.”
“Oh, okay, Marsh. Well, I love you.”
“Love you too, Saz.”
And then I’d passed the phone onto my nearly deaf grandpa (he called it selective hearing) who said, “Okay, buddy, we’re proud of you.” And the telephone was passed.
I thought, as I looked now at his photo, unable to see his eyes behind the opaque shades, that it had been years before that ten second holiday phone conversation when I’d first told my cousin that I loved him. I could hear us singing Molly Malone through the narrow streets of Boston, and something broke within me.