Mr. Larsen settled into his wheelchair and arranged the blanket over his legs. “How long we been doing this?”
“Eleven — no — twelve years. Started when I was thirteen. The first year you had to use a wheelchair. I missed the last two years.”
He tucked the blanket in beside his thin calves. “Your brother covered for you.” He gave me a bleak smile. I handed him his World War Two Veteran cap. “Stevie came around a lot. Not just on Veteran’s Day. Like you used to do.”
I nodded, remembering. “You warm enough?” It was chilly, with a light breeze. Even with a jacket and his blanket, he might get cold.
“I’m okay.” He ran a hand through his sparse gray hair and settled the cap in place. “Hell.” One hand moved along his jaw. “I forgot to shave.”
“Nobody will notice.”
He shook his head. “I don’t want anyone thinking I’m a homeless derelict. You know where my razor is.”
Nobody in our town would think Mr. Larsen was homeless, but I didn’t argue. While he ran the electric razor over his face, I sat on the steps. A few people were out already, heading downtown. Some carried flags. My sister Irene lived two houses down, in the house I grew up in. She was probably already down at the VFW, making coffee.
He finished shaving. “Okay, Bill. Let’s go.”
I put his razor away, then grabbed the canvas bag holding my chair and placed it in his lap.
He grinned. “Who carried your junk last year?”
“I carried my own junk in Iraq. Last time I took you to the parade you carried that same chair in your lap — and bitched about it then, too.”
“Well, hell. If the troops ain’t bitching there’s something wrong.” He gripped the bag with pale, nearly translucent hands. “Careful on the ramp.”
“No sweat. It’s a good ramp. Irene’s husband made it, didn’t he?”
“Yeah. He did okay — for a swabbie.”
“Not everyone can be a Marine.”
“That’s the damn truth.” He fell silent. I knew he was remembering another place, thinking of those he left behind. My own memories were of sand, mud brick houses, a relentless sun, and fellow Marines lost along the way.
Our usual spot in front of Tinker’s Hardware was available. Mr. Tinker has a RESERVED sign he puts on the sidewalk to keep strangers away. It’s a good place for watching the parade.
I parked Mr. Larsen and unfolded my chair. The day was gray with a high overcast and no rain in the offing. I unfurled the two flags we liked to display. Old Glory, of course, and the Marine Corps banner.
There was a constant drift of people moving along the walk. Some, usually former Marines, stopped to exchange a few words.
Mr. Larsen pulled a small flask from his jacket and knocked back a slug. He handed it to me. “Where’s your brother now? He was just out of boot camp last time I saw him.”
His memory was an uncertain thing, but Stevie was a Marine. Mr. Larsen wasn’t likely to forget that. “He’s in Afghanistan. Should be home in a few months.”
I sipped the contents of the flask cautiously and was surprised by a decent blended whiskey. I handed it back.
“Stevie will be okay,” he said. “And I’m glad you made it home in one piece.”
His response was drowned out as the band leading the parade struck up a lively tune. That was my cue. I stood up, drew a flat box from my pocket and opened it.
“Damn you,” he said. “I thought you’d forgotten that.”
“I didn’t forget.” I lifted the medal from the box and lowered it into position. Mr. Tinker came out of his store, like he always does, and arranged the gold medal on the old man’s chest as I secured the clasp on the blue neck ribbon.
“If I had one of those,” said Mr. Tinker, “I wouldn’t be ashamed to wear it.”
Mr. Larsen touched the five-pointed star with trembling fingers. “I ain’t ashamed. It gets so damned heavy.”
He earned it on Iwo Jima. I’ve read the citation. The one time I asked him about it, he just shrugged. “I should have died on that damn island. I think they gave me the Medal because I done something damn foolish and lived.”
The head of the parade neared our vantage point. Mr. Larsen grabbed both arms of his chair and tried to get up.
“Sit,” I said. “You’ve earned it.”
“Help me up, damn you.”
Mr. Tinker and I got him to his feet. I was surprised at how light he was.
The band stopped and played the national anthem. We steadied the old Marine. He held a hand salute throughout the performance. As the music died away, he sank slowly into the chair and sat, eyes closed, breathing hard.
He fumbled for his handkerchief, wiped tears from his cheeks. He looked worn out, worn down, as if the Medal really was weighing him down.
Irene brought coffee. We watched the parade then had pot luck at the VFW.
Mr. Larsen died two months later. We buried him in a corner of the cemetery set aside for veterans. The Corps laid him to rest — tired old veterans and somber active duty Marines. They came to stand at attention in the January cold and pay their respects.
We buried him wearing the Medal. I think I understand what he meant now. It was heavy because he bore it for all those unsung dead. For them he carried it out of the bloody hell of Iwo and down the decades to a small plot of ground, a pine-clad hill, and peace.
Because it was what he wanted, his grave marker is plain white marble, just like the man on his left and the man on his right.
JR Hume is an old Montana farm boy who writes science fiction, a little fantasy, some weird detective tales, an occasional poem, and oddball stories of no particular genre.