The veteran

When she came along, he was already quite old – and he had been away in the service when her older siblings were growing up. When he retired from the military, she was the last one left of the chaotic mess of girls they had.  But now he was just an older veteran struggling to patch together a living for his family.  For quite some time after his retirement, he lived in his head, numbly sitting in his white undershirt at the kitchen table drinking cup after cup of coffee. Even in the night, she would sometimes wake up to find him sitting at the kitchen table, the dark small space illuminated by his white shirt and the burning red ember of a cigarette.  

Her mother got a job to make ends meet – as a dishwasher at a restaurant – and worked long tiring hours.  She was basically left somewhere between alone and sitting silently with him at the kitchen table.  

When he found work, she asked to come and he took her.  And soon, he crafted a stream of work for himself.  He gathered himself together again incrementally, and turned into a man who had strong discipline and humble habits. She later felt this was his effort to structure his loosely configured days and to save himself from drowning in bad coffee at the kitchen table. Even then, though, fathering was not his central focus and he treated her more like a curious companion than his child.  He took her everywhere he went when he could – even places that might have made other parents pause.  She became a part of his work routine, his sidekick during the day – and she joined in his other rituals, too.  She was simply grateful not to be left alone in the cramped kitchen. She kept quiet and out of his way and tried to be helpful when she could.  He came to rely heavily on her silent presence to keep him steady. 

***

She went to the post office with him nearly every Saturday to check the small glass-faced mailbox he kept for business. He had asked for a low box so she could peek in herself without having to be held and when she got older, she could turn the key herself too.

***

When she stopped coming along, he had to bend his tall frame quite low to reach the tiny box and sometimes the postmaster – seeing the man’s painful effort – would simply have the mail waiting for him in a bundle when he came in each Saturday.

***

In the summer, she would come with him on the nights he sat at the local diner drinking rounds of coffee with the other “regulars” at the counter – other men who were also looking for a place to belong in this post-military existence. The men would sit around and talk about their war days, car repairs and other minor personal misadventures and family troubles.  They would stir endless packets of sugar and plastic thimbles of lukewarm creamer into murky cups of burnt coffee and sometimes get this far away look in their eyes. She would sit and listen to their stories.  If it were late enough, she might even order a second dinner – a bacon cheeseburger with french fries – a secret they both kept from her mother : her because she thought her mother would not want her to eat so much and him because he thought her mother would want him to save that money.

***

She eventually lost interest in bacon cheeseburgers and old stories. Around the same time, all of her father’s diner friends seemed to die or move away, and then because he had no one with whom to trade tales over bad coffee, he sank into a silent remembrance of his own at the kitchen table.

***

In the winter as a child, she and he would sit elbow to elbow in pajamas in their tiny kitchen and have a bowl of cold cereal before bedtime. They would not exchange any words, just share the sounds of crunching up of bowls brimming with corn flakes or shredded wheat against the loud steady tock of the wind-up cuckoo clock mounted on the wall.

***

When she was an adult, he switched to bowls of salty soft vanilla ice cream.  He said he could no longer taste food, plus he had lost a good number of teeth.  And as his work dried up, sometimes he forgot to wind up the clock too, and those nights he ate alone at the table in a white undershirt in pure silence, no pendulum or companion against whom to mark his cadence.

***

She was not at all surprised when they called her in the middle of the night to say he had died alone in a field.  She was not even alarmed when they suggested he might have killed himself.  It was almost what she had expected.  She had not sat at the kitchen table in a very long time. 

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