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Nobody Sleeps in David's Room
There was and sometimes is a feeling in the general public of relief after a war. But grief rhymes with relief so people often felt this too. It is as if the whole population, the sea of thousands of bodies, takes one collective breath, and breathes out a sigh of relief. Some, those who grieve, hold the sigh longer than others, until the tune becomes so melancholy it is a dirge instead of a sigh. All the dirges were composed or dedicated to those lost. Collectively they were calling the lost souls back home; because the war created such gaping holes in families that they seemed too big to fill.
Margaret Lamb seemed to feel this way anyway. She was only thirty-nine, but she felt at least fifty with the death of David. She tried to be the supporting and grieving mother the world expected her to be, but she wondered whether Stu had the same bitterness for God and the war as she did. It was suppressed in her heart in a glass bottle, pretty to look at on the outside, but containing a bitter tasting substance within. Margaret prided herself in upholding her duties as an obedient housewife. She wore her pumps and pearls like all other late 1940’s housewives, but neither the pumps nor the pearls would ever be big enough to fill the hole inside her heart.
It was as if someone had shot her right in the chest. She kept living, but no one ever said she had to. David was gone. Every day, at some point of the day, whether she was vacuuming the carpets or helping Judy braid her hair, she wished that she had been fighting in the war instead of David. War is h---, pure h---, as she had heard. She at first only believed it was h--- for those on the battlefield; the helpless men crying out for their mothers and squealing when the sound of bullets ringed in their ears.
But only now did she feel the weight of “h---” on her shoulders. The ringing of the spade as it dug a hole to embrace her son into the earth. He was only nineteen, for goodness sake! He was practically a child! She hated God and she hated the war for being “h---.” They took him and now David was gone. The same sentiment was felt by other housewives, so suffocated within the strings of their pearls or the folds of their pantyhose that they forgot who they really were. Mrs. Annabell Johnson was one such strangled woman. Jim had been killed, and in trying to comfort herself, Stu had somehow replaced her Jim.
Not that Stu told his Maggie of course. That woman already seemed to have enough to do; cleaning the home, cooking his meals, making sure Judith behaved herself. And now with his beloved David disappearing into the mist of reality, Stu felt lost. He was searching for David, for the son he had played with in the backyard, for the boy who went fishing with him in the summer. That faithful boy was gone. Stu felt like a part of himself was gone too. David had taken it with him to Normandy and never returned it. Stu couldn’t take it back even if he tried. So he tried to fill in the absence with Annabell, as well as others. Maggie reminded him too much of David. He tried to love her, but with David’s eyes looking back at him and burning into his skin, it was as if he was looking at the Devil.
Somehow Margaret understood Stu’s distance to her. At the dinner table they didn’t talk about anything important. In bed they didn’t make love as they used to. Stu never said “I love you darling” to either her or Judy. Margaret’s heart felt so dried up that it seemed impenetrable. Stu’s lack of words or love could not shatter Margaret’s blue glass bottle.
Margaret began to create a world, trying to forget what happened. She tried to forget Stu; she tried to forget she was manacled into the life of the devoted housewife; she tried to forget David. And slowly, she could not remember him anymore. Sure there were pictures around the house of the freckled face boy, always with that crinkled, crooked smile of his. But Margaret tried not to look at the smile or the boy who owned it. Both were gone and she felt guilty, as if she killed David. She could not remember what her last words to him were and what he had said back. She hoped that he said “I love you,” but she couldn’t be sure. She never really quite remembered until Freddy Walters came.
It was if Freddy didn’t seemed affected by the war. He had fought in it sure, but he wasn’t part of the melancholy sighs. No, he floated above the sea of sorrow and with a hard driving ambition, fought for what he wanted to do. This in the end turned out to be working for Stu.
Margaret had always been proud that Stu had managed to avoid the war. Why David was called so late in it that it seemed like America needed Stu too they were so desperate. But Stu, being the ripe age he was and teaching at the college seemed to be enough to dissuade the government. Margaret rarely saw Stu except in the mornings. He kissed Judy and her and walked out. She made sure to have dinner on the table or in the fridge when he came home. He was a lenient enough husband to let her sleep instead of waiting for him.
Stu’s rendezvous kept him late anyway and he didn’t want Maggie upset. Besides, with a son gone, the last thing they needed was a divorce. And who would take care of poor Judith? Maggie could be a d--- good housewife, but she was a horrible wife. He felt she could never love him again, not after David died oh no. He felt as though Maggie blamed him for David’s death in some way. The way she didn’t talk to him or love him when they were in bed together. What could Maggie blame him for?
But Margaret blamed herself. David was gone and there was Judy to look after.
Judy didn’t know who to trust anymore. She remembered her mommy screaming at the telegram man when he gave her the starchy paper that made her turn as white as powdered sugar. She remembered wearing her little black dress with that twirling skirt to the funeral. And how, when she passed David, she made sure her skirt twirled nice and pretty and that she looked sad. He looked asleep and she thought that maybe if she would look sad enough, he would wake up and tickle her the way he used to. Freddy tried to tickle her. Mommy had stopped him though.
Margaret felt that she had every right to stop Freddy from tickling Judy. Freddy came a week after the funeral and Margaret felt it was much too soon for Judy to be tickled. But what did Judy know of sadness?
All she knew was that David was gone. The telegram man had told her mommy David wasn’t there and there would be no more piggy backs, no more picnics, and no more of David’s frog voice. But Freddy promised her some of those things. She though he might be her real brother. Mommy seemed so harsh to him though, and daddy was so nice.
Stu remembered bringing Freddy up the dimly lit elevator. He found Freddy looking lost on the street outside. The rain poured down heavily, making Freddy’s hair stick to his head. The rain looked like falling fragments of mirror glass, as if God was sending down slivers of his mirrors to tell his creatures: go on, look at yourselves. Or maybe it was just the rain; Stu didn’t know what to think of God. Maybe God was really the Devil in disguise. Maybe there was a purpose behind Freddy’s getting lost. Stu told him he could stay a night. After all, they needed the company with Maggie’s stony silence and Judith’s ignorance. Stu remembered Freddy’s wet face, looking down on him and breaking into a contagious smile. Stu hadn’t smiled since David left to fight. He didn’t even smile when he was with Annabell.
Annabell saw her Stu walking a giant into his house. She saw it from the window, and she knew. Stu was a real man.
He had to intervene when Freddy came in sopping wet and smelling of dog. His uniform was soaked. Maggie gave him that cold look that would have frozen every man’s heart. But Stu’s heart was impenetrable. It did not freeze. Maggie seemed polite enough.
But oh how he made a mess! She would be washing that carpet out at least twice. Everything was wet. She made him take off his shoes, coat, and hat. His suitcase fell with a thud, sending a shower of spray onto Stu’s pants. Margaret sighed inwardly. Why did Freddy come? How did Stu know Freddy? She led him to the dining room where Judy was setting the table.
A uniform sat down. Her hand stopped midway to placing a fork on the table when she saw his eyes. They were blue, like David’s. He smiled at her and asked her what her name was. He told her his and that’s when the uniform became Freddy. She could hear whispering from the kitchen and knew mommy and daddy were talking about him. She hoped that they wouldn’t fight again.
She had to save face. She had to put back on her mask and pretend everything was okay. At least the roasted duck was done. It was Stu’s favorite.
He knew she was p-----. He could tell the way she delicately served him his meat or how she poured Freddy his coffee. Her smile was one that held bitterness behind it. And she was aiming it at him. He tried to distract himself, asking Freddy things or talking to Judith.
Daddy left early that night. He said he had to go back and grab something from the office. Mommy tucked her in early. Her kiss was hard and short. She could hear mommy out in the hall. They were talking.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “you can’t sleep in there, that’s David’s room. Nobody sleeps in David’s room.” He fumbled for a nod and clumsily apologized. His shoes suddenly felt too big for his feet. She sighed softly and he knew how she felt. She led him to the living room.
The sheets were in the linen closet as she had put them there before. There were stacks of linen she had meant to send off to David, but never got the chance. The sofa made a bed easy enough. He thanked her and went to get his things. She watched him go. She wanted to be loved. Stu didn’t love her.
Annabell was a good listener. She didn’t talk much, and Stu liked that about her. Maggie was quiet, but she never listened to him. Maddie was good at pretending.
When he came back in the room with his things, she wanted to kiss him. She wanted someone to shower her with roses and compose songs just for her. She wanted to be kissed and fully kissed, to where she felt she couldn’t breathe. She said goodnight to him and kissed him on the cheek. His skin was smooth and smelled like rain. The kiss seemed to move from the cheek to his mouth. She closed her eyes. He pulled away.
Freddy had experienced pain. He had come out of the flashing, loud war with guilt. He bathed in it every morning, and lathered himself with it before he went to bed. She needed love, he could see that, but he knew the truth. And so he pulled away.
She knew. She knew what he meant. He could have been her son. If his parents were out there, they were the lucky ones. They did not belong to the dirge. Their Freddy was still alive. Stu’s and her David was not.
Stu came back late. He saw the sheets on the couch by the light of the pale hall light. The sheets were not slept in. Stu sleepily looked down the hall. Maggie dozed in their bed, alone. He breathed a sigh of relief. He didn’t distrust her, but he didn’t know Freddy. Judy was sleeping like an angel and she knew not what he felt. Stu felt like God was the Devil in disguise. Stu felt like he was the Devil himself. Freddy seemed to be a good boy. He was just like David.
He came out of the blood and screaming dripping with guilt. He knew the truth. Nobody slept in David’s room, she told him. But really they all did, cradling the memories to their chests. He touched the bed and wished the boy he had laughed with was laying in it. The crooked smile almost jeered back at him, taunting him. You’re dead old friend; he had to fight back the demons in his mind. They clothed him with guilt, in the crooked smiles. You jumped. You could have pushed him. He came out of the suffering and torture with tears and anguish. And that was the end of the boy David. And that was the end of the boy Freddy.