Two Novembersby Frances Hay
Inside the large-windowed grey-shingled meetinghouse, Julie watches four young but nearly bald Marines carry the flag-draped casket past rows of pews, without trumpets or triumphal music to pierce through the grey mists of relentless Quaker silence.
Just as the Marines lower the pine box down on the coffin stool, the doors open, crashing against the blue-panelled walls. Two policemen grip the arms of a wire-thin woman with short, rough-cut grey hair and a white, empty face. They guide her stumbling feet into a pew close to the coffin.
Julie can’t help it, she reaches out to touch Pam’s deep-veined hand as they drag her past, but Pam’s eyes show no signs that she recognises the best friend she’s had for nearly fifty years. Her eyes are fixed on her son’s coffin.
Julie peels her gaze away from the suffering on Pam’s face. As Julie’s own tears begin to swell and she closes her eyelids to hide their wetness, this coffin fades and shifts into the first flag-swamped casket she ever saw, on the screen of the oak-framed television cabinet in the den of her childhood house in Connecticut.
On that other November day, fifty years before, Julie sat in the front row of her ninth grade English class, face to face with a large crustacean. Her new friend Alice, who’d just moved to Connecticut all the way from Alaska, was giving a speech about life back on Kodiak Island. As Alice held up a giant, seaweedy-smelling crab for everyone to see, the loudspeaker crackled and the Vice-Principal’s voice rang out, “The President’s been shot.”
A few kids started to cry. Others grinned, as if it were some kind of joke. Poor Alice froze, then burst into tears and threw her crab down on the floor. One of its spindly legs cracked off and skittered under Susie Sherman’s desk.
Julie sat stony still. She didn’t know what to think, what to feel.
Later that evening, Julie’s dad grumbled, “Those crying fools should get a grip. He wasn’t really President. Those damn Democrats stole Illinois. His bootlegger father paid them to vote every dead person in Cook County.”
“Not tonight, Drew,” said Julie’s mother.
He was my President, thought Julie. Ever since she watched his inauguration on that snowy day three years before, she’d asked herself on a daily basis, what could she possibly do for her country?
So far there didn’t seem much she could actually do. She yearned to join the Peace Corps but mainly she just tried to get good grades, empty her parents’ ashtrays and keep her temper with her little sister Diane. She always felt that JFK would have wanted more effort.
Two summers before, Julie had tried to learn a little Russian in day camp. She memorized the strange backwards alphabet. She learned all the Russian words to Midnight in Moscow. This didn’t seem like that much to do for her country but you never knew what might prove useful in the future.
Now that he’d been killed, she would just have to try harder.
She stood up jerkily, mumbled something about algebra and hurried upstairs to her room, followed by Belinda the golden retriever, whose long translucent toenails clicked on the polished maple treads of the stairs.
Once safely behind a closed door, Julie felt free to sob out loud. Tears and snot ran down her face. Belinda whimpered. Julie took off her glasses, reached for Kleenex in the crocheted box on her bedside table, blew her nose and then buried her wet face into Belinda’s fur.
She hoped her parents wouldn’t hear. Her mother might be disappointed. Her father would be furious.
Downstairs in the den, the television stayed on almost constantly for three more days. On Saturday they watched the long lines of mourners filing into the Capitol to pay respects to the dead President.
On Sunday they watched another murder take place in Texas, live on TV.
Julie had never seen someone die right in front of her eyes before. It made her feel sick, even though Lee Harvey Oswald himself must have been an evil man.
On Monday they watched the funeral.
Julie’s mother didn’t vote for JFK, but she was fascinated by his wife. Not that Jackie’s actions always met with her approval.
“Look at that poor little boy. That woman should have known better than to bring them. Children don’t belong at funerals.”
“Maybe when they grow up they’ll be glad they went,” says Julie.
“I doubt it,” says her mother. “Though she always puts them in nice clothes, I’ll give her that.”
Now, fifty years later, Julie remembers few details of John Kennedy’s military funeral. But there’s one image that has forever haunted her mind: the bucking and prancing of the lonely black horse, being dragged forward down the funereal street past loud, tearful crowds into an uncertain future, ridden only by a ghost.
Fifty years later, that ghost still haunts the country.
And the wounds from the war that John Kennedy wandered into have never really healed.
Now, in the chilly meetinghouse, the mourners shift uncomfortably on the hard pews. The Friends’ silence wraps around them all like a dew-soaked blanket. It has been explained beforehand, they can each say something or nothing at all, as the spirit moves them. It is not necessary to mention God.
But no one, soldier, guard or mourner, can think of anything to say.
Julie must try to say something. She has known the dead man since he was a toddler. She has known Pam and Tom since they went on their first date.
She tried to get their son psychological help, but nothing she thought of worked.
She surreptitiously pulls her well-thumbed copy of the Book of Common Prayer out of her oversized black leather handbag. She flips it open and studies a gilt-edged page for a moment. But no help comes forth from the Church of England, which the Quakers abandoned so long ago. This is too American a funeral.
She stares at the striped folds of the flag for inspiration; then, the spirit or maybe just her own memory-laden brain moves her, nudging her to her feet. She hears herself say, “When I was young, I always tried to ask what I could do for my country. So did he.” She gestures toward the coffin that contains most of the remains of Tom and Pam’s son. But not all of them. His two hands were left behind somewhere on a roadside in Kandahar, almost ten years ago.
“But the country…all of us…asked him for so much. To go out there in the first place and then to cope with being so badly wounded, with no hands and all that brain damage from the blast... He gave everything he had.”
“Fuck you, Julie,” shouts the prisoner, lurching past her guard’s khaki-covered knees, flinging herself out into the aisle toward the coffin. She seizes the flag by its clutch of stars and pulls it off the coffin. “This country asked him for too damn much and you know it!”
As both her guards leap up to restrain Pam, she wheels around to face her husband across the handmade pine box that holds their son’s body. “And you, Tom. How could you let them cover him over with that flag? In this meetinghouse? That’s against everything I believe in.”
Tom stands up slowly to face his wife. His thin white hair is scarcely combed, his voice cracked with grief. “You don’t get to make that call. You lost that chance. You stopped being the high-minded Quaker pacifist when you killed him.”
One guard clamps his hand around Pam’s right elbow while the other guard grabs her left shoulder. They wheel her around and march her away from the coffin, toward the door.
Pam twists her head back and cries out to Tom, “You’re the one who encouraged him to quit school, to enlist. You sent him out there to get blown up! But when he couldn’t cope with constant pain, you weren’t brave enough to help him end it.”
Julie sits as frozen in her pew as she’d sat fifty years ago in her high school classroom. She doesn’t know what to think, how to feel.
When a young man dies before his time, how can you ever count up all the bullets?
How can there ever be just one lone gunman?
Frances Hay is an American woman now living in Wales. She has written many
books and articles about children’s development and has just begun to
publish short fiction.