My grandfather knew Hell was real, but he also knew better than to think it was underground. He had seen Hell in the eyes of many men, and eventually, in himself.
In the end we would drink bourbon and flip through his old letters and postcards. Pictures from
when he was in the war. “Look how strong I used to be. What happened?” Smiling, he would say it like an amputee patient might say well, guess my marathon days are over.
Like every aging mind, his was beginning to grow foggy. My grandmother, Marigold, had been dead for almost ten years, and sometimes he would answer the phone, Marigold, my darling, sad, Marigold. Where HAVE you been?
He would squeeze his bicep and then mine. Shake his head and tilt it back at his cracking ceiling. “You know, I used to have arms like that. Could carry a hundred men on my back if need be.” Near the end, he flipped to a page that was entirely filled with a photograph.
It was bordered with a fringe, like the kind that children's scissors make when they're cutting out misshapen hearts for soon-to-be-forgotten childhood valentines. There were twenty six men all standing under a cloudy sky. My Grandfather didn't stand out, until I saw the scar. He was one of the tallest, no wrinkles in his uniform, a fresh scar on the side of his head.
I pointed to it, under the clear plastic with my index finger. “What is that? How did that happen?” I'd never seen a scar on his head. I wondered if I had ever really looked at him before now. He didn't move, wasn't even looking at the picture, but at something beyond it.
After a minute, he looked at me, mind returning to his place in the living room, and rubbed his thumb over the place in his head where, I assumed, the scar would be. I couldn't see anything over his overgrown white hair. I could vaguely remember someone telling me that he had gotten it in the war, from a piece of shrapnel, but never believing it.
“Oh, this? It's nothing.” He smiled and flipped the next page of his photo album, he shook his head slowly, like he wasn't ready to admit that he was almost at the end of the book.
That evening after he poured us one too many drinks, he looked at me sadly. He poured our Bourbon differently that time, slower; he stirred his with his pinky finger and sipped it like it was the milk white medicine he hated.
In the summer before, I had asked him what he thought about me joining the Marines, he looked betrayed. He never discouraged me, but I could tell by the way he looked at me that if I chose to join, I would end up exactly like him. Lost mind at thirty three, right off the plane –hoping it could be found in the baggage claim before it was lost forever.
“Do you think – ” he asked, one afternoon looking down at his glass, swirling his finger around
the top, making it sound like there were a thousand muffled ghosts in the room. “Do you think my life is this way because I killed all of those people?”
He never told anyone about the Purple Heart. I had found it hiding in the depths of the kitchen closet after his funeral. Shoved in a cardboard box with a missing lid among faded polaroids and rusting bottle caps. When I kept digging, I felt with the edge of my fingers something strange. A rust spotted, cool hunk of old metal that could take a piece out of a man's head. It was smooth until I reached a canyon near its middle.
Even now, I can't remember what his scar looked like.
About the author:
Alexis Groulx is a senior at New Hampshire Institute of Art where she studies prose and poetry.