The epigram and first quote are from ‘Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France’ by Alan Seeger.
The final quote is from ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’ by Walt Whitman.
Be they remembered here with each reviving spring
… and 'tis meet to strew
With twigs of lilac and spring's earliest rose
The cenotaph of those
Who in the cause that history most endears
Fell in the sunny morn and flower of their young years
Memorial Day. Frankie hadn’t been looking forward to it. First, he was going to have to listen to them complaining about Monday holidays. He’d had to last year, even when the last Monday in May that year was, in fact, the thirtieth, so the date was right. That hadn’t stopped Face and Hannibal from complaining about the principle of the thing. It bothered Hannibal more, of course, because he was older and had had more Memorial days – Face had only been 21 the year they changed it, while Hannibal had been 40 - and was from New Hampshire. That state, which Frankie had never visited, was apparently well nick-named the Granite State, as stubborn as Hannibal; it had refused to go along with that "wishy-washy, convenient 'nearest Monday' crap", as Hannibal put it. BA was a decade or more younger than Hannibal - Frankie wasn't sure - but enough older than Face that he was equally unhappy as Hannibal, but since he confined himself to the occasional growl, he wasn’t so bad.
Besides, Frankie had come to some sort of understanding with BA in the last half year or so. He wasn’t sure exactly how it had come about, unfortunately, so he couldn’t try to replicate it with Hannibal. But BA didn’t growl at him more than at the others now, and even spoke to him in complete sentences in the field, helpful ones. It was a relief, but he wasn’t expecting it to carry over to this. They weren’t any of them in a good mood.
They’d been in Ecuador for eleven pretty unpleasant days, which hadn’t helped Face or Hannibal’s mood. And when they’d come back, well, it was almost Memorial Day. Frankie had always kind of liked Memorial Day – it wasn’t his favorite holiday (Christmas was, with Halloween a close second), but he’d enjoyed going to the cemetery and fixing up the uncles’ graves. But evidently the A Team hated it.
Last year they had been all pissy the whole weekend. Apparently anybody who hadn’t been in the army didn’t have any business talking about Memorial Day. Or maybe it was just him who didn’t – he wasn’t sure, and last year he hadn’t been about to ask. But this year – maybe he would this year.
Or not. Face was as touchy as the other two. Veterans Day hadn’t been an improvement over last year but Frankie had made allowances. First, he and Temple had only been together a couple of months in November, and the other man was still emotionally fragile, not to mention not completely back from being shot. Second, Veterans Day was for vets – in a manner of speaking. They’d spent a year and half telling him that he wasn’t up to snuff since he’d never served, and as he’d made no secret of his feelings about that – a cross between joy and relief – he wasn’t ready to argue with them over it. But Memorial Day – he felt entitled to observe Memorial Day.
He didn’t understand them.
Which was kind of their point.
So Frankie had not at all been looking forward to Memorial Day weekend. And he hadn’t been disappointed. Hannibal had run them off their legs all day Saturday, insisting that they’d all been off their game in the jungle. Sunday BA and Face had both rebelled and then both had gone off by themselves. Murdock had been around both days, and he’d spent most of Sunday hanging around and – to Frankie’s appreciation – running interference between him and Hannibal. But Monday he was gone – he was too new in his current job to get the holiday. Hannibal and BA had spent Monday together, drinking and reminiscing (Hannibal beer and BA milk); Face had started the day with them but by afternoon he’d been restlessly pacing the house (he wasn’t going outside in Virginia’s humid 95 degrees) and then he’d disappeared.
When they’d noticed the Corvette was gone, Hannibal had just shrugged. He’d been pretty mellow by then, but the edge he never lost had been evident, and BA had warned Frankie away non-verbally. Frankie had gone to the kitchen, staring uselessly out the window and trying to think where Face might have gone. Drinking, maybe, but there were so many places…
“He gone to a cemetery.”
Frankie had turned around to see BA opening the fridge. He’d pulled out a beer and the milk and poured them both before speaking again. “Hannibal got too many dead. He go to new graves, if they around, but if they ain’t he don’t. But Faceman, he always go to a cemetery. Last year he an’ Murdock went. He shoulda axe you this year.” He picked up the glasses. “You coulda waited for him.” He hadn’t waited for an answer.
Frankie had thought about that for a minute. He thought that BA was telling him to go look for Face; BA couldn’t leave Hannibal alone, and there wasn’t any doubt that as far as Hannibal was concerned, Frankie equaled alone. The question was which cemetery? There was a little one down the Leesburg Pike – no.
Arlington. Of course, Arlington. Because Face was just reckless enough to go to the most visited national – read, federal – cemetery in the country on the day more people went to cemeteries than any other. Because that was where people he knew would be buried. And that’s where Frankie would find him, if he went.
Of course, he still didn’t have a car. His Cutlass had been a write-off after the shooting and there wasn’t any way for him to collect on insurance, of course. He didn’t need one, usually; he and Face went off together, mostly, and he’d taken the van a couple of times (another sign that BA was warming up to him). But this afternoon he’d thought twice about the van; if BA was to want to go somewhere it would be bad for the van to be gone. So instead he’d hotwired one of the sedans.
Because he didn’t know what the Abels would do, and because he had no particular desire to fight with tourists and traffic on a holiday weekend, he parked the sedan at West Falls Church and took the Metro. At Arlington he’d stopped inside the main gate, having never been there before, and now he was standing there wondering what the hell to do next. It was bigger than he’d thought, and so, though it was not more crowded per square yard, there were a lot more people than he’d expected. He could wander around here the rest of the day – well, until 7, when it closed – and not find Face. It wasn’t like he knew any names, to look them up and see if Face was there; Face never talked about the war except in the most general terms, not with him. He could just stand here till they closed… And then he realized where to go.
The Tombs of the Unknowns.
He hiked up the hill towards the Amphitheatre and the Tombs, scanning the crowd coming down as he did. He spotted Face almost as soon as he got close enough to see the marble slabs marking the last three wars. He stood watching for a while, wondering if perhaps that was the best thing to do: just watch until the other man left, follow him and make sure he was going back to Langley, and never let him know he’d been there. But then the crowd shifted and he got a good look at the blond’s face.
I’m so lonely, Face had said to him the first time they’d kissed. I’m so lonely… You have no idea. And he’d promised Face You don’t have to be lonely. So he threaded his way through the crowd, watching Face. You’re gonna yell at me, he thought, but at least you won’t be here alone.
Face didn’t react to his presence; he wasn’t trying to sneak up, but Face wasn’t paying attention. That was dangerous; Frankie was doubly glad he’d come. Looking at Face’s expression, one of the poems he’d had to learn for school came to his mind. “No human presences their witness are, But summer clouds and sunset crimson-hued, And showers and night winds and the northern star. Nay, even our salutations seem profane, Opposed to their Elysian quietude.”
Face had whipped his head around at the first line, but he waited to speak. “How did you get here?”
That sounded about as welcoming as he’d expected. “I took one of the sedans,” he said, “and then the Metro.”
Face regarded him with a jaundiced expression. “That’s not what I meant. What are you doing here?”
“I can come here,” Frankie said, nettled by the tone despite his intentions. “I have war dead in my family, after all.”
“So you just happened to come here?”
“No,” Frankie regretted his first response. They might end up fighting but he didn’t have to go there right out of the gate. “No. I thought you might be here.”
“If I’d wanted you to come with me,” Face said, “I’d have asked you.”
“I know you didn’t ask. But I came anyway. You’re not a big asker.”
“Not here,” Face said, looking around the crowd. “We’re not talking here.” He turned without waiting for an answer, heading down the hill, not stopping at the gate but continuing towards the Potomac. He was walking so fast that Frankie had to trot to catch up, and he ignored every attempt Frankie made to talk to him, even when he was held up by the traffic on Jefferson Davis. He didn’t stop until they were well inside Lady Bird Johnson Park, with the river close enough to smell, off the track and away from anyone else foolish enough to be out there this close to dark. And then he faced Frankie with an angry expression, closed-off and balanced on the balls of his feet like he expected a physical fight.
Frankie made an effort and ignored the threat signs – it’s Temple, he’s not really going to attack. He’s just pissed off; it’ll pass – and sat down on the grass. After a moment Face sat next to him and the tension mostly faded, though Face was still clearly angry. Frankie made another effort and relaxed, wrapping his arms around his knees and waiting for Face to speak first.
“What?” Face demanded. “You think I can’t be out alone?”
“I think you shouldn’t have to be,” Frankie said carefully. “Not today.”
Face shook his head. “I don’t believe this. Did Hannibal send you?”
“He didn’t – it was,” he changed his mind in mid sentence, “my idea.”
“So what’s so damned special about today?”
The swearing was a bad sign. “You tell me. You’ve been acting weird all weekend, and you won’t talk about it – you’re pretending right now it’s normal for you to be here like this.”
“You don’t understand.”
“Then explain it to me. I’m not stupid, I could understand –”
“Don’t talk,” Face said, putting his hand on Frankie’s mouth. “Just shut up.” Then he moved his hand.
The kiss was hard, almost desperate. Almost? Frankie thought as Face pulled his shirt over his head, pushing him over backwards onto the grass, warm against his naked back. He was not a big fan of sex outdoors at the best of times – while straights could (mostly) get away with it, gays took their lives in their hands, and the furtive inside-the-bushes sex you could have with a hooker had never appealed to him. But this was Temple, and he couldn’t stop his body’s response – didn’t want to, to tell the truth.
He unbuttoned Face’s shirt while they kissed, but Face forestalled his plans by kissing his way down Frankie’s chest and stomach while unbuckling his belt. The next thing he knew Temple had taken him in his mouth. He arched his back, his right hand clenched on his discarded shirt and his left in Temple’s hair. It was more than the two weeks since the last time they’d made love that made him come so quickly; he was reacting to Temple’s need and urgency as much as to his own, a need that drove the other man to cover Frankie’s body with his own, kissing him hard again as he pulled down Frankie’s khakis enough to push between his thighs. The whole thing was over in a few minutes – shorter than the first time Frankie had ever had sex, as a randy teenager – but left them both drained. They lay quietly without speaking or moving for longer than the sex had taken, but finally Face rolled over and they both began pulling their clothes back into order in silence.
Frankie pulled his polo shirt over his head and thought about whether to say anything. He didn’t think he could pull off pretending that this day was normal. In fact, that’s what he’d say, because, well, it wasn’t, was it? “Tell me this is normal. I mean, I’m not complaining, but tell me it’s normal.”
“It’s summer,” Face said.
“You know that’s not what I mean.”
Face looked at him and then away, buttoning his own shirt. “Please, Frankie,” he kept his eyes on his buttons. “Let it drop. You shouldn’t have come out here – I mean, I’m glad you did, but you don’t understand.”
“Temple, you keep saying I don’t understand – I can’t understand. That’s probably right. But I can try.”
“That’s something else you don’t understand.” Face took a deep breath. “No, let me talk.”
Frankie shrugged and glanced at Face out of the corner of his eye, looking more directly when he saw that the other man was staring straight ahead across the river. The setting sun behind them painted the water crimson and gold, and burnished Face’s hair to deep bronze with gold highlights. His profile was clean and beautiful against the indigo sky. Temple was so good-looking it hurt – like the faint ache lingering in his muscles – just another reminder of how precious what he had was, and how much it would hurt to lose it. Christ, he did not even want to think about how hard it would be to live in the same house with Face if this went badly. And yet… nine months. Didn’t he deserve something more than shut-up sex? Like maybe a conversation? Though was being told there was even more he couldn’t understand a good thing? And how could he stop it? Could he? At Christmas Face had sounded like he wanted to be around even after they shook loose of Stockwell; now he sounded like he didn’t. Except the sex. Oh, God, why had he come here? Why was he so pushy? Why did being in love have to be so confusing? And was Face ever going to say something?
“I don’t want you to understand,” Face said finally.
“I got that.” Damn, why had he said that? And what could he say to take it back? He didn’t get much time to think about it.
“No,” Face said. “You don’t. Not really.” He looked out over the water again, visibly hunting for words.
Abruptly Frankie wasn’t sure he really wanted to hear whatever was coming next; it wasn’t too late to stop this, put things back the way they had been this morning. He didn’t mind the clubbishness, not really; it was part of who they were, and eight months wasn’t enough to change anything decades old. There was always next year. “It’s all right, Temple.”
“It’s not. No,” he interrupted. “Let me talk, Franklin. I have to say this now or it won’t get said.”
“You don’t have to say it. I do get it.”
“You don’t. You really don’t.” Face looked away again. “You don’t get it at all.”
“It’s not what you think. It’s not at all what you think – not what Hannibal probably said to you. It’s not some fraternity that you haven’t been initiated into. Well, yeah, it is kind of, but that’s not what I think. It’s not what I mean.” He was quiet again, looking out over the river, and then he turned back towards Frankie. “I don’t want you to understand what it was like; I don’t want you to understand what we talk about. It’s not that I’m trying to keep you out, or pushed away. I don’t want to push you away; I want you close.”
Frankie leaned against Face’s shoulder. “I don’t push easy.”
“I know. Thank God. The thing is – I’m glad you don’t understand. I’m glad you haven’t been there and done that – I’m glad you’ve never seen the dark or what’s inside it. I like it that you have no idea what we had to do, and I love it that you never had to do any of it.”
Frankie sorted through that for a minute. “I could handle it.”
“Of course you could; that’s not the point.” Face paused; Frankie waited and after a minute Face said, “You’d handle it better than a lot of people I knew did.”
Dangerous ground, that. Avoid it. Say something. “I would have hated the army, though.”
“I expect you would have. I don’t know if they would have even kept you.”
Frankie put his hand on Face’s shoulder. “Probably not. Unless I wanted to stay in.”
“You are a good liar.”
“Takes one to know one.” Enough light talk – ease back in. “If you could make it, I could.”
“I know you could.” Face turned to look directly at him. “That was never the point. And it wasn’t that you didn’t have to handle it. It’s not like I was drafted. You didn’t have to, and that’s not your fault, and in fact even Hannibal doesn’t think everyone should. He doesn’t think less of you – he says that’s part of being a soldier. He and BA, they think like that. Soldiers fight so civilians don’t have to.”
“Johnny and BA think that.”
“Well. They’re soldiers. I’m not.” He paused, swallowed, and then said, “I don’t have some big philosophy about soldiering, and protecting people I never met. I’m not against it, but, uh, you know, that’s Hannibal’s gig. For me, it’s a lot simpler: take care of the ones you care about. There aren’t very many for me, and I’d kill the rest to save those few. And that’s not talk. I’ve done things… things I’m not proud of, things I didn’t enjoy, things I wish I couldn’t remember. And I am so goddamned glad you don’t know – you can’t know – what that’s like.”
“When I look into your eyes I do not see Hell. I don’t want to see it in you. I wish you didn’t see it in me –”
“Then you don’t recognize it.”
“I see darkness,” Frankie said. “But it’s not you that’s dark; it’s where you’ve been. I wish I could share that –”
“You don’t know what you’re wishing for.”
“You. I’m wishing to know you better. There’s a part of you I can’t get near.”
Face had begun reaching for him before he’d finished the first sentence, and he cut off the rest of Frankie’s declaration with a hand on his mouth. “You’re already closer than I’ve ever let anyone else get,” he said. “If you get closer, what you see will drive you off.” Frankie shook his head under the hand Face hadn’t moved. “It will.”
Frankie pulled away. “I’m not a complete idiot, Temple. I read the papers, I watched the TV.”
“You were a kid.”
“A teenager,” Frankie exaggerated but only slightly: 14 was a teenager. “I had to register for the draft, you know; I was paying attention. I still do. I can guess. And it doesn’t matter. I don’t care what you tell me you did. You did rob the bank; you were an assassin – My Lai. It doesn’t matter.” Face’s eyes widened. “It made you. And I love you – you, not some fictional character you make up. You.”
“I don’t want you to know the darkness. I want you to be what you are, how you are – who you are. You’re a beacon. You show me the way out of the darkness. You bring me home.”
Well, you couldn’t keep on arguing with that. Or maybe you could, but who’d want to? Frankie pulled Face closer and rested his cheek on Face’s dark blond hair. “You’re home now. You are.” They sat like that while the sun disappeared and the dusk thickened around them. The moon rose over the river, competing with the lights of DC underneath it. Whitman had been on his mind all day, and Frankie found himself reciting. “O moon immense with your silvery face you soothe me!”
“What?” Face asked, peering up at him.
“It’s from a poem I learned once, for Memorial Day.”
“Another one? I don’t picture you learning poetry,” Face said, relaxing against him once more.
“I had to in school,” Frankie said. “And my mom was big on it, too.” He looked up at the moon and said, “The moon gives you light, And the bugles and the drums give you music, And my heart, O my soldiers, my veterans, My heart gives you love.”
“Ummm, nice,” Face said. “Who?”
“Whitman,” Frankie said.
“Of course. They didn’t let us read him.”
“Of course not. And me.”
“I know.” Face sighed. “You and Whitman are a dangerous combination… I could stay here all night.”
“Me, too. But I think…”
“We can’t? You’re right. I wish we could…” He sighed again and, pulling away, stood up, offering Frankie a hand up. “Come on, Franklin. Let’s go.”
“Where’d you leave the Vette?”
“East Falls Church.”
“The sedan’s at West… I didn’t want to drive here, today at least.”
“I hate driving in DC anyway.”
Face sighed. “Too damned many idiots, that’s who. Which way to the Metro?”
“This way.” Frankie pointed towards the bridge. “Just over there.”
“Come on, then,” Face said. “And listen. We can leave the general’s car at the station. I want to go back together.”
Frankie smiled. “No argument from me, Temple. No argument at all.”