An Excerpt of Tiny Little Thing
Cape Cod, Massachusetts
The first photograph arrives in the mail on the same day that my husband appears on television at the Medal of Honor ceremony. It’s accompanied by the customary note written in block capital letters. By now, I know enough about politics—and about my husband’s family, I suppose—to suspect this isn’t a coincidence.
There’s no return address (of course, there wouldn’t be, would there?), but the envelope was postmarked yesterday in Boston, and the stamps are George Washington, five cents each. A plain manila envelope, letter size, of the sort they use in offices: I flip it back and forth between my fingers, while my heart bounds and rebounds against my ribs.
“Tiny, my dear.” It’s my husband’s grandmother, calling from the living room. “Aren’t you going to watch the ceremony?”
She has a remarkable way of forming a sociable question into a court summons, and like a court summons, she can’t be ignored. I smooth my hand against the envelope once, twice, as if I can evaporate the contents—poof, presto!—in the stroke of a palm, and I slide it into one of the more obscure pigeonholes in the secretary, where the mail is laid every day by the housekeeper.
“Yes, of course,” I call back.
The television has been bought new for the occasion. Generally, Granny Hardcastle frowns on modern devices; even my husband, Franklin, has to hide in the attic in order to listen to Red Sox games on the radio. The wireless, she calls it, a little disdainfully, though she’s not necessarily averse to Sinatra or Glenn Miller in the evenings, while she sits in her favorite chintz chair in the living room and drinks her small glass of cognac. It drowns out the sound of the ocean, she says, which I can never quite comprehend. In the first place, you can’t drown out the ocean it flings itself persistently against your shore, wave after wave, only fifty yards past the shingled walls of your house, no matter how jazzy the trumpets backing up Mr. Sinatra.
In the second place, why would you want to?
I pause at the tray to pour myself a glass of lemonade. I add a splash of vodka, but only a tiny one. “Have they started yet?” I ask, trying to sound as cool as I look. The vodka, I’ve found, is a reliable refrigerant.
“No. They’re trying to sell me Clorox.” Granny Hardcastle stubs out her cigarette in the silver ashtray next to her chair—she smokes habitually, but only in front of women—and chews on her irony.
“No, thank you. I’ll have another cigarette, though.”
I make my way to the sofa and open the drawer in the lamp table, where Mrs. Hardcastle keeps the cigarettes. Our little secret. I shake one out of the pack and tilt my body toward the television set, feigning interest in bleach, so that Franklin’s grandmother won’t see the wee shake of my fingers as I strike the lighter and hold it to the tip of the cigarette. These are the sorts of details she notices.
I hand her the lit cigarette.
“Sit down,” she says. “You’re as restless as a cat.”
There. Do you see what I mean? Just imagine spending the summer in the same house with her. You’d be slipping the vodka into your lemonade in no time, trust me. The French doors crash open from the terrace.
“Has it started yet?” asks one of the cousins—Constance, probably—before they all clatter in, brown limbed, robed in pinks and greens, smelling of ocean and coconuts.
“Not yet. Lemonade?”
I pour out four or five glasses of lemonade while the women arrange themselves about the room. Most of them arrived as I did, at the beginning of summer, members of the annual exodus of women and children from the Boston suburbs; some of them have flown in from elsewhere for the occasion. The men, with a few exceptions, are at work—this is a Wednesday, after all—and will join us tomorrow for a celebratory dinner to welcome home the family hero.
I pour a last glass of lemonade for Frank’s four-year-old niece Nancy and settle myself into the last remaining slice of the sofa, ankles correctly crossed, skirt correctly smoothed. The cushions release an old and comforting scent. Between the lemonade and the ambient nicotine and the smell of the sofa, I find myself able to relax the muscles of my neck, and maybe one or two in my back as well. The television screen flickers silently across the room. The bottle of bleach disappears, replaced by Walter Cronkite’s thick black eyeglass frames, and behind them, Mr. Cronkite himself, looking especially grave.
“Tiny, dear, would you mind turning on the sound?”
I rise obediently and cut a diagonal track across the rug to the television. It’s not a large set, nor one of those grandly appointed ones you see in certain quarters. Like most of our caste, Mrs. Hardcastle invests lavishly in certain things, things that matter, things that last—jewelry, shoes, houses, furniture, the education of the next generation of Hardcastles—and not in others. Like television sets. And food. If you care to fasten your attention to the tray left out by the housekeeper, you’ll spy an arrangement of Ritz crackers and pimiento spread, cubes of American cheese and small pale rubbery weenies from a jar. As I pass them by, on my return journey, I think of my honeymoon in the south of France, and I want to weep.
“You should eat,” Constance says, when I sit back down next to her. Constance is as fresh and rawboned as a young horse, and believes that every thin woman must necessarily be starving herself.
“I’m not hungry yet. Anyway, I had a large breakfast.”
“Shh. Here they are,” says Granny. Her armchair is right next to my place at the end of the sofa. So close I can smell her antique floral perfume and, beneath it, the scent of her powder, absorbing the joy from the air.
The picture’s changed to the Rose Garden of the White House, where the president’s face fills the screen like a grumpy newborn.
“It looks hot,” says Constance. A chorus of agreement follows her. People generally regard Constance’s opinions as addenda to the Ten Commandments, around here. The queen bee, you might say, and in this family that’s saying a lot. Atop her lap, a baby squirms inside a pink sundress, six months old and eager to try out the floor. “Poor Frank, having to stand there like that,” she adds, when it looks as if President Johnson means to prolong the anticipation for some time, droning on about the importance of the American presence in Vietnam and the perfidy of the Communists, while the Rose Garden blooms behind him.
A shadow drifts in from the terrace: Constance’s husband, Tom, wearing his swim trunks, a white T-shirt, and an experimental new beard of three or four days’ growth. He leans his salty wet head against the open French door and observes us all, women and children and television. I scribble a note on the back of my brain, amid all the orderly lists of tasks, organized by category, to make sure the glass gets cleaned before bedtime.
Granny leans forward. “You should have gone with him, Tiny. It looks much better when the wife’s by his side. Especially a young and pretty wife like you. The cameras love a pretty wife. So do the reporters. You’re made for television.”
She speaks in her carrying old-lady voice, into a pool of studied silence, as everyone pretends not to have heard her. Except the children, of course, who carry on as usual. Kitty wanders up to my crossed legs and strokes one knee. “I think you’re pretty, too, Aunt Christina.”
“Well, thank you, honey.”
“Careful with your lemonade, kitten,” says Constance.
I caress Kitty’s soft hair and speak to Granny quietly. “The doctor advised me not to, Mrs. Hardcastle.”
“My dear, it’s been a week. I went to my niece’s christening the next day after my miscarriage.”
The word miscarriage pings around the room, bouncing off the heads of Frank’s florid female cousins, off Kitty’s glass of sloshing lemonade, off the round potbellies of the three or four toddlers wandering around the room, off the fat sausage toes of the two plump babies squirming on their mothers’ laps. Every one of them alive and healthy and lousy with siblings.
After a decent interval, and a long drag on her cigarette, Granny Hardcastle adds: “Don’t worry, dear. It’ll take the next time, I’m sure.”
I straighten the hem of my dress. “I think the president’s almost finished.”
“For which the nation is eternally grateful,” says Constance.
The camera now widens to include the entire stage, the figures arrayed around the president, lit by a brilliant June sun. Constance is right; you can’t ignore the heat, even on a grainy black-and-white television screen. The sweat shines from the white surfaces of their foreheads. I close my eyes and breathe in the wisps of smoke from Constance’s nearby cigarette, and when I open them again to the television screen again, I search out the familiar shape of my husband’s face, attentive to his president, attentive to the gravity of the ceremony.
A horse’s ass, Frank’s always called Johnson in the privacy of our living room, but not one member of the coast-to-coast television audience would guess this opinion to look at my husband now. He’s a handsome man, Franklin Hardcastle, and even more handsome in person, when the full Technicolor impact of his blue eyes hits you in the chest and that sleek wave of hair at his forehead commands the light from three dimensions. His elbows are crooked in perfect right angles. His hands clasp each other respectfully behind his back.
I think of the black-and-white photograph in its envelope, tucked away in the pigeonhole of the secretary. I think of the note that accompanied it, and my hand loses its grip, nearly releasing the lemonade onto the living room rug.
The horse’s ass has now adjusted his glasses and reads from the citation on the podium before him. He pronounces the foreign geography in his smooth Texas drawl, without the slightest hesitation, as if he’s spent the morning rehearsing with a Vietnamese dictionary.
“. . . After carrying his wounded comrade to safety, under constant enemy fire, he then returned to operate the machine gun himself, providing cover for his men until the position at Plei Me was fully evacuated, without regard to the severity of his wounds.”
Oh, yes. That. The severity of his wounds. I’ve heard the phrase before, as the citation was read before us all in Granny Hardcastle’s dining room in Brookline, cabled word for word at considerable expense from the capital of a grateful nation. I can also recite from memory an itemized list of the wounds in question, from the moment they were first reported to me, two days after they’d been inflicted. They are scored, after all, on my brain.
None of that helps a bit, however. My limbs ache, actually hurt as I hear the words from President Johnson’s lips. My ears ring, as if my faculties, in self-defense, are trying to protect me from hearing the litany once more. How is it possible I can feel someone else’s pain like that? Right bang in the middle of my bones, where no amount of aspirin, no quantity of vodka, no draft of mentholated nicotine can touch it.
My husband listens to this recital without flinching. I focus on his image in that phalanx of dark suits and white foreheads. I admire his profile, his brave jaw. The patriotic crease at the corner of his eye.
“He does look well, doesn’t he?” says Granny. “Really, you’d never know about the leg. Could you pass me the cigarettes?”
One of the women reaches for the drawer and passes the cigarettes silently down the row of us on the sofa. I hand the pack and lighter to Granny Hardcastle, without looking. The camera switches back to a close-up of the president’s face, the conclusion of the commendation.
You have to keep looking, I tell myself. You have to watch.
I close my eyes again. Which is worse somehow, because when your eyes are closed, you hear the sounds around you even more clearly than before. You hear them in the middle of your brain, as if they originated inside you.
“This nation presents to you, Major Caspian Harrison, its highest honor and its grateful thanks for your bravery, your sacrifice, and your unflinching care for the welfare of your men and your country. At a time when heroes have become painfully scarce, your example inspires us all.”
From across the room, Constance’s husband makes a disgusted noise. The hinges squeak, and a gust of hot afternoon air catches my cheek as the door to the terrace widens and closes.
“Why are you shutting your eyes, Tiny? Are you all right?”
“Just a little dizzy, that’s all.”
“Well, come on. Get over it. You’re going to miss him. The big moment.”
I open my eyes, because I have to, and there stands President Lyndon Johnson, shaking hands with the award’s recipient.
The award’s recipient: my husband’s cousin, Major Caspian Harrison of the Third Infantry Division of the U. S. Army, who now wears the Medal of Honor on his broad chest.
His face, unsmiling, which I haven’t seen in two years, pops from the screen in such familiarity that I can’t swallow, can hardly even breathe. I reach forward to place my lemonade on the sofa table, but in doing so I can’t quite strip my gaze from the sandy-gray image of Caspian on the television screen and nearly miss my target.
Next to him, tall and monochrome, looking remarkably presidential, my husband beams proudly.