Wrapping a towel around her wet hair, Abby tossed her head back, pulled her bathrobe on and headed into the kitchen. May handed her a mug of freshly brewed coffee and together they plopped down in the breakfast nook.
Abby, a professor of bioengineering at UC San Diego, had taken a three-day weekend out of her hectic life to visit and relax with her best friend. “May is so lucky,” Abby sighed. “Marrying a fireman. Staying in the same small town where she grew up.”
“Say,” May interrupted Abby’s thoughts. “It’s been a long time since we visited the old neighborhood on Crestwood Lane where we grew up. It’s early and not too hot. The park will be quiet like it always used to be in the early morning when we were kids before all the babies showed up. I’ll pour us some ice tea, fix up some bagels. We can go have breakfast there and relax for awhile.”
Abby never wanted to say “no” to one of May’s ideas. May had always been the bossy type since childhood, but in a good way. Her job as supervisor of a handicapped village let her use all her ideas without interference, and everyone loved her. “Pep, energy and brightness. Like a walking, talking fizzing soda, that’s May,” Abby thought. “Me? I’m tired. Tired of thinking, commuting, trying to stay near the top of the intellectual heap.”
Everything May ever did was fun. She was a natural, and on this bright early June day she assumed her role to perfection. Cooler in hand, May steered Abby out the door before she could even put her makeup on. “Who cares what you look like? The birds? You KNOW I sure don’t!”
“Nothing’s changed much since I’ve been gone,” Abby thought to herself as May drove every side street she knew of to get to the other side of town. Leaving the car parked at the curb on the shady side of the street, the two women slipped off their shoes and felt the cool moist grass between their toes. Finding the perfect picnic table under an ash tree, they sat down.
Ice tea and bagels efficiently taken out of the cooler, served with napkins, straws and left over birthday party plates set squarely in front of each of them, the women ate slowly and visited. When they were done, May suddenly chirped, “Hey, I’ll beat you to the swings!”
As always May ran. Abby walked behind her. May was well up in the air by the time Abby sat down on her swing. May slowed and stopped swinging, following Abby’s gaze to the now very tall hedge at the edge of the park straight ahead of them. “I’m sorry, girl! Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to come back here.” May was remembering what happened that day right along with Abby.
“Come on now, Abby! I can see over the bushes into Mrs. Mapleton’s yard. She’s digging in her flower beds. Look, their dog had puppies! I can see them playing. Her grandbaby is in the playpen. Come on, Abby! You can’t see anything from down there where you are!”
May was pumping as hard as she could, swinging high above where Abby sat far below. “What’s the matter with you today, Abby?”
“I don’t feel like playing,” Abby finally yelled up to May. “My daddy’s going away to Chicago tonight. He’ll be gone a whole week. Mommy says he has to go because that’s his job. I should go home,” Abby ended. “I have to go see him before mommy takes him to the airport. I want to see him before he goes away.”
“Oh, come on, Abby. Don’t be such a baby. He doesn’t leave for hours and we need to have some fun now! Come on up here! I bet you can’t do it!” May was 10, two years older than Abby. She knew Abby could swing just fine. She just needed to get her to do it, so she tried another approach. “Abby, you know your daddy has to leave because that’s his job. We’re kids. We have to play. That’s our job. So do your job. See how long it takes you to get up here as high as I am.”
That ploy evidently worked. Pushing off with her feet, Abby worked as hard as she could to catch up with May. Before long she could see the golden lab puppies May had been talking about. “Oh, they’re so CUTE!” Abby smiled. “And look, they’re painting Joseph’s house yellow. I wish my ……….” Abby never finished her sentence.
At the highest point in its arch, the chains of Abby’s swing let loose from the top of the swing set. Abby was on her way to the ground before either girl knew what had happened. She hit hard and did not move.
“ABBY!” May screamed, “ABBY!” She stopped her swing by kicking gravel into the air as she braked on the ground, leaping off as soon as she dared. Racing to her friend’s side, she knelt down and saw that Abby’s leg was strangely twisted under her. Tears were streaming down Abby’s face. At least May knew she wasn’t dead.
“Help! Help us, somebody, HELP!” May shouted. Nobody was in the park besides them. They liked to come early so they could pretend the park belonged to them, but right now the fact nobody was around sent May nearly into a panic. “Just a minute, Abby. I’ll run to Mrs. Mapleton’s yard. We know she’s there. She’ll help you. Just a minute.”
By the time May ran around the end of Mrs. Mapleton’s shrubs the woman was already on her way, running toward the sound of the screaming. The ambulance was called, Abby’s parents arrived, grown ups surrounded fallen Abby by the time May got back, blocking her from view.
“Boy, you sure knew how to get your daddy’s attention and get him to stay home, didn’t you?” May teased Abby as she chewed on the straw sticking out of her now warm tea. “Do you think Mickey was ever sorry he loosened those bolts?”
The town found out who shimmied up the swing set poles, crawled out to the bolts and loosened them just enough on one swing to make sure sooner or later they’d fall out and the swing would crash to the ground. It had been Toby, Mickey’s 3-year younger brother who had told their father not long after Mickey had bragged to him that he “sure knew how to take care of girls.” Mickey, the town’s paperboy, lost his job immediately. Everyone knew why.
Abby hadn’t thought about what happened at the swing set that day 30 years ago for a long, long time. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to say. Finally she commented, “Nobody ever found out what made him do that. What was he thinking? He was 12 years old! He had to know that someone could have gotten killed, certainly hurt very badly when those bolts let loose. And it was me! I never thanked him for that. I’m glad he told someone at least or we would never have known who to blame for what happened to me.”
“Well, if he wasn’t dead from Vietnam we could ask him why he did it. Maybe Toby knows. We could go ask him.”
Abby looked at May like her head was on fire. “Do what? Are you nuts? How could you even think of doing such a thing? And what for?”
“Well, you’re the one with the worst half of this memory, Abby. Toby works at Matchley’s Furniture Store over on Main, and I bet he wouldn’t mind at all if we just stopped by to talk to him.”
Abby could think of nothing useful that could possibly come from talking to Toby, yet May was becoming insistent. Abby felt as if she had to defend herself. “We don’t need to know what happened inside of Mickey after that, even if we could find out. Maybe he was really sorry. Maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he was being malicious. Maybe he wasn’t. How well did he really think through what he did before he did it? Boys will be boys.”
Abby was not feeling relaxed now. She pulled the plastic lid off her tea cup, dumped the now hot tea into the gravel and sand under the swing, and stood up. “Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough of this swing set. I’m going to the car.”
May had decided herself as she drove home through town that they were going to see Toby and that was that. Abby didn’t realize her decision until they pulled into Matchley’s Furniture Store parking lot. “You’ve got to be kidding, May! I’m not going in there! I’m not getting out of this car!”
“Oh yes you are, doll baby! Now get out.” May already had Abby’s passenger side door open and was tugging her arm. “We have to do this. I don’t know why, but I know we do. ESPECIALLY you.”
The women had settled comfortably into over-stuffed rocking chairs across the store isle from the couch Toby had chosen for himself after he greeted them. The store wasn’t busy. Amy was at least glad for that.
“So, what brings you ladies in here today,” Toby asked politely.
Abby would rather have fallen through the floor than answered him truthfully, unless she simply told him, “May made me do it.”
May had other intentions, and she spoke them. “Abby is just visiting here for the weekend from San Diego. We decided to go hang out at the park over on Crestwood Lane where we grew up. We ended up on the swing set, and of course that got us thinking about Mickey.”
May watched Toby’s face as it changed like a dark cloud cast a shadow over it. His eyes were pained, and he looked down at his hands in his lap. But that didn’t stop May, although Abby wanted to crawl under her chair and disappear. When May was on a mission, nothing would make her let up until the end.
May knew that the death of his brother in Vietnam had to be heartbreaking. But she also knew somehow that it was OK to go on. “We just wonder if Mickey every told you what he was thinking when he climbed up on those poles. I have sons of my own, and I know they did some crazy things when they were young, but they never did anything like that, nothing that could have hurt anybody. I was there with Abby at the park when she fell. It was really awful. She got hurt badly.”
Toby had quit listening to May, lost in thought. He remembered how shocked he had been when his brother told him what he had done, how hard it had been to tell their father and to watch Mickey tumble down in his life, which is exactly what he did after he lost his paper route. Their father had been so ashamed, humiliated and embarrassed he never looked at Mickey the same again. Toby thought that was probably what made Mickey join the Marines. He hadn’t been in danger from the draft.
Toby knew his whole family had been different after Abby’s fall. His brother was too quiet. Toby always wondered if he was mad that he had told on him. But mostly, it was the information Toby had found a month ago on the internet that he felt he needed to say. “I really can’t tell you what Mickey was thinking when he did that. He never told me and I never asked. But I do have something I want to tell you.”
Toby went on to describe to the women how he had recently done an internet search for his brother’s 1st Radio Battalion that arrived in Vietnam in the monsoon season, winter of 1967. “I searched for Mickey’s name and by the date of his death February 18, 1967. I found a story written by the only man who survived what happened the day my brother died.”
Toby told how his brother had been riding shotgun on the front right side of a convoy truck carrying a load of ammunition up a slimy, muddy hill. The driver was trying to keep out of the deep ruts when he slid to the right. At the same moment a small young girl of about 8 years old leaped suddenly out of the bushes on that side with a grenade in her raised hand ready to launch it at the truck.
The man who survived had been riding at the identical position as Mickey’s on the driver’s side. He described in his story how he turned his head at the exact instant the girl appeared. He screamed at Mickey to shoot her, but in that split second that Mickey was making up his mind, the grenade was thrown, the truck exploded, and seven men, including Mickey, died. Somehow the survivor had been miraculously thrown clear from the blast.
What Toby did not say is what all three understood. Never can anyone who is not a veteran of war understand what soldiers endure. Nobody else can know what having to make this kind of a decision takes. At the same time, the sole survivor had no way of knowing how that little girl may have reminded Mickey of someone else from long ago, and neither did anyone else.
As Toby told the story of his brother’s death, all of them wondered if the last thought Mickey had was of Abby. If it was, it had probably been enough to keep him from firing his gun.
Abby and May were quiet and somber as they returned to the car. Both of them knew there were no words to ever speak again about what happened at the swing set. There are simply some things in life that are bigger than words. Now, without a doubt, they knew one.