(© Chris Hondros)
I first met my friend Andrew in middle school. Our relationship, at first, consisted of me teasing him mercilessly, but eventually evolved into us, both self-appointed loners, sitting in the cafeteria every day senior year of high school, shooting the shit and laughing our asses off.
Andrew did a tour in Iraq as a Sergeant in the Infantry of the United States Army at the beginning of the war. Upon his return home, he started writing stories, some of which he’s sent me over the years. I’ve always loved them—Andrew has the lyrical tongue of an Irishman with the wit of someone who observes life from the outside.
I asked him if I could publish one of them on my blog, and he said yes. So it’s below. I’m really excited about it, and I think that you’ll think its as surreal, melancholy and jarring as I did the first time I read it.
(Photograph of Andrew with his Mother, Grandmother, and Great-Aunt Sally.)
By Andrew Ritchie
I walked into my grandmother’s apartment filled with anticipation. I passed through the living room which was covered in photos of Irish thatched roof houses. I felt like I was finally home.
Past the living room was the kitchen, where my grandmother was seated at an all metal Danish Modern styled table from the 1960s. Surrounding the table were four metal chairs with snot green upholstery. Grandma sat in the chair furthest from the kitchen door. That was her spot. When she wasn’t busy keeping house, sleeping, or out of the house you could always find her sitting there, watching TV, thinking, or late at night playing her acrostic puzzle and eating a frozen Hersey’s Bar. Her name was Margaret, but everyone in our family knew her as Bubby, a name given to her by my oldest cousin Joey in the early 70s.
“Hey, Bub,” was all I could manage.
“You’re back! Are you here to stay this time?” she replied.
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Good. We’ve all missed you.”
“I missed you too, missed this apartment, missed everything.”
Now I was looking around the kitchen. Everything was in its proper place. Her tube radio was still sitting on top of the fridge, and it was still locked to 710 WOR AM, where it had been tuned as a long as I could remember. Next to it was a cookie tin, the kind those cheap Danish butter cookies come in. Inside that would be whatever snacks she got on sale. The tin itself was older than me, and the original cookies had been eaten decades before.
Inside the fridge would be the usual assortment of food, plus a jar she kept her beloved ice water in. Behind that lay cans of Schaefer beer, which famously advertised as the “one beer to have when you’re having more than one“. She only put beer in when she thought she was having company. Afterwards, she would take it out and put it back in the closet. She did this with soda too. The constant change in temperature ensured that the beer would always be skunked and the soda flat. This lead to a running joke in the family that threshold of her apartment was like some sort of vortex which ruined any carbonated beverages that dared cross it.
“So, how was it over there?”
“It was rough.” I didn’t know what else to say.
“Is that why you never wrote me?”
“I don’t know. Writing home, calling, all that stuff, just made it feel worse.” I tried to explain.
“Worse? Your Grandfather wrote me when he was in Europe. And we didn‘t have all these fancy gadgets back then.”
“You don’t even have a computer.”
“Yes, but you could have called. You know after Joe headed overseas, I didn‘t hear his voice for more than two years.”
Grandpa Joe, as he was known, had been in the Army during World War II. He was a field medic with the Sixth Armored Division. Cancer got him around 1968, so I never got to meet him. But he was a big reason why I signed up for the Army. My parents separated when I was four, and during that time, my mother was diagnosed with MS. Eventually the disease made it too hard for her to look after me, so I moved in with Bubby around the time I turned five. I lived with her for almost five years before I left to go live with my father.
She liked to tell me all sorts of stories, usually cautionary tales when I was acting out, but sometimes she would just sit down and start talking about the old days. This usually happened after Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune had ended. She told me about old jobs she had, what it was like when she was a kid, how tough the depression was, and about Grandpa Joe and what a wonderful guy he was. She told stories about his time in the Army, his time as a fireman, or how he worked on the Chelsea docks. I always wanted to meet him, so short of that, I enlisted.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t as eager to write home as he had been. It always made things harder when I thought about my family. I had an opportunity to take two weeks leave and go back to the states mid-tour, but I turned it down. Those two weeks would’ve been hell, because they would have been spent hating the fact that I had to go back. So I stayed in Iraq and kept going out on mission. It actually made me less homesick.
“Yeah, well, you were his wife, and if he didn’t write you …” I continued.
“Well, that’s true. But you should make more of an effort to keep in touch. People worry, you know.”
“Well, no news is good news. Besides, I‘m here now, aren‘t I?”
When I lived with her, we always argued. Mostly because I was a tremendous pain in the ass, but she had her moments too. If you opened the fridge without knowing exactly what you wanted, she would start yammering on about how you were letting the heat in. If you made too much noise, she would protest that the lady downstairs was sick. That lady was sick for so long that my cousin Jen once asked why she hadn’t died yet, and what she was sick with. Bub couldn’t think of an answer quick enough, and we knew the whole story was bullshit.
Somewhat unexpectedly, the apartment door opened.
“Marge, you and I are going downstairs to sit in the park, and I don’t want to hear otherwise!”
The boisterous voice belonged to her sister, Sarah. But everyone called her Sally.
“I have company, Sally.”
Sally headed into the kitchen. She was 91, and still as quick witted as someone far younger. When she saw me she stopped dead in her tracks. A look of shock crossed her face just before giving way to a sly half smile.
“Who’s this?” She asked.
“Jesus, here we go again.” I started.
“Well, who the hell are you, and what are you doing blaspheming in my sister’s kitchen? Explain yourself, and do it fast before I find something to knock you on the head with.”
Sally was never one to pass up an opportunity to joke around. Whenever I was home on leave she would call the house and we would act out the same scenario we just had. She was very fond of threatening me, and just about anyone else, with violence, but she never actually made good on it. Out of all my family members, she was the least serious. Unlike my grandmother, she cursed—not to excess, and she avoided the heavy stuff—but she had some salt in her veins.
When I was about five, I was crossing the street with her when the Don’t Walk sign started flashing. I asked her why it always flashed before it went steady and she told me directly, “It means move your ass.”
“It’s good to see you, Sally.” I offered.
“You too, Andrew. But really, I had no idea you were back.”
“That’s because he never writes anyone, or calls” my grandmother chimed in.
“Will you stop?” I shot back.
“So when did you get back?” Sally said, ignoring our bickering.
“What the hell do you mean “just now“? Don‘t tell me you haven‘t seen your mother yet?”
“Ye-no … you know I haven’t been over there yet.”
“Do you still have that stick, Marge?” She asked referring to a souvenir shillelagh my grandmother brought back from a trip to Ireland.
“In the broom closet,” Grandma said, pointing to the back of the kitchen.
“Well, I suggest you go home, and see her this instant, before I get that stick and knock the daylights out of you.”
Mom lived only three blocks away, and seeing her should have been my first priority. But for whatever reason I went there first. I tried to think back to what prompted me to do that, but I just drew a blank.
“If you didn’t go to your mother’s, where did you get my keys?” Bub asked.
“I … had them.”
“Nonsense, you left all your keys the last time you visited, before you went overseas.”
“That’s bullshit, I just took them out.”
“Watch your language.” Sally warned me.
“If you haven’t been there, where are your bags?” Bub continued.
“I … um …”
I felt like a zombie. I couldn’t remember where my bags were. Did I leave them on the plane? I sat down and tried to retrace my steps from the airport. But I couldn’t remember what airport that was. Did I come into Kennedy, LaGuardia, or Newark? I usually came into LaGuardia, but I couldn’t remember whether I did or didn’t this time.
So, I tried to retrace my steps further, and I discovered that I couldn’t remember what flight I had arrived on.
“I can’t remember,” I confessed.
“You lost your bags?” Sally inquired.
“I think I’m losing my mind here, I can’t remember anything.”
“No. I don’t even remember what flight I came in on, or where it landed.”
“Sounds like all that heat really did a number on you.”
“I guess so, my short term memory is shot.”
The problem seemed to be getting worse the more I tried to remember. I was scheduled to get out of the Army roughly 90 days after my tour was over. But when I tried to remember those 90 days, or the flight back from Iraq, I just drew a blank. I tried to go even further back, and this time I was successful. I could remember being in Iraq very strongly. When I thought about being there, it seemed like I had never left.
With this train of thought, other things started to come back. And then it hit me.
“You’re dead!” I blurted out.
“What?!” They both said simultaneously.
“You guys are dead, both of you.”
“Nonsense, Andrew. What kind of talk is that?” My grandmother scolded.
“No, I‘m serious. You died four years ago, right before I finished high school. And Sally, you just died a few weeks ago, both Rob and Aunt Anne sent me emails about the funeral.”
With those words, my eyes opened and I woke up. It was June 26, 2004 the day I was originally scheduled to be discharged. Thanks to Stop-Loss, I was still in Iraq. It was early evening, and I had been sleeping after coming off a 12-hour guard shift on a nearby highway. Richardson, the kid who slept on the bunk above mine heard me abruptly come to.
“I just dreamt I was home.”
“Should have stayed asleep.”
“I realized that the two people I was talking to were dead.”
“Wow, that’s fucked up. Who were they?”
“My grandmother and her sister.”
“Sounds like your losing it. Do you want me to psychoanalyze you?”
“Eat a dick.”
“Not my fault you’re afraid to delve into your unconscious.”
“I hate that shit.”
“Huh? No, I don’t know anything about that. I mean I hate when you’re having a good dream and you realize it’s not real.”
“Well, what if it’s a bad dream?”
“That’s a different story.”
“Yeah … You gonna grab dinner?”
“When I get around to it.”
“You might want to hurry up.”
“How late is it?”
“Shit, I better move before they stop serving.”
I quickly threw my uniform on, buttoning up the jacket as I rushed out. When I got to the mess hall, I discovered, to my horror, that it was fish night. I really should have asked Richardson what they were serving. If I had I known ahead of time, I would have just grabbed an MRE out of one of our trucks. Deciding to go hungry, I made my way over to the phones and called home. I woke her up, but mom didn’t seem to mind.