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Father of an American Soldier
The press of bodies all around the father and son as they stood in line at a Walgreens, barred in by thick, black tape like the kind they use at airports. There was a 70-year-old woman with graying hair in front of them, barely keeping herself standing upright with a cane in her gnarled hand, and a woman along with a set of twin boys, urgently tugging on her skirt as they asked if they could go look at the Super Soakers the next line over. Eyes glazed over, the woman just looked straight ahead at the counter where the receptionist took a middle-aged man’s prescription and found his medication. Her stray hair flitted in the half-hearted breeze of the slowly rotating fan just off of the counter. The air conditioning had broken, leaving the air stagnant and everyone sweating, and the repairman wouldn’t be coming until later that week.
“Steven,” the son’s father said, tugging his attention at the shifting line. Now they were third in line, behind the wheezing old lady and the fidgeting man in shorts in front of her who almost shuffled to the one open receptionist. “So, how do you feel after your first year of college?”
“I thought it would be more intimidating, but so far it hasn’t been too bad. I mean, I missed you guys,” the son said, straightening out a wrinkle in his tee. “But I Skyped you and mom almost every weekend.” Steven looked up at his father, who was fairly stout and balding, with the remains of a handsome man in the cracks of his laugh lines. He wasn’t smiling now, though.
“Hmm,” his father mumbled, barely heard over the whining of the twins behind them.
“I am so happy to be home,” he added hastily. “I was really excited over seeing everybody again.”
“That’s right. Your mom told me you went out last Saturday. A little reunion?” the father asked, looking at Steven with piercing blue eyes. Steven immediately focused on the mole on his dad’s left cheek, on the scar right under his eye from where he was cut by a knife in Iraq, at the dimple on his knee. He had taken a bullet there, which could be seen by the hidden stumble of his gait, and which had earned him an honorary dismissal from the army. Steven had signed that form too, the one which allowed him to be drafted to the army.
“Yeah, Amy and Joey were there…” Steven started.
“Oh, well that’s nice,” he said generically. And then as an afterthought, “How’s Amy?”
“She’s fine. It’s like she doesn’t remember her boyfriend dumping her at all.”
“Didn’t you used to have a crush on her?” the father asked, gently sliding the question into the conversation.
“Um,” Steven hesitated, glancing down at the floor. The line moved and now the old woman had managed to crawl over to the counter. A loud “WHAT?” came from her lips and the receptionist had to almost scream before the old lady could hear her.
“So who else was there?” the father asked instead.
A loud clank brought silence to the entire room. The old granny’s walking stick had escaped her grasp as she reached for her alligator-skin purse, and it fell against the ceramic floor. After pushing a handful of coins towards the receptionist, her hands shakily fished for the handle, but it was out of reach.
“That…friend you talked about?” the dad asked nonchalantly, walking up to the counter with his son.
Not answering, Steven instead picked up the cane and handed it to the old lady, who just snatched it huffily and murmured under her breath, “Don’t want anything to do with people like you.” She hurried away.
“I can’t wait to see you in your military fatigues,” the father said instead, quickly mumbling out his name and address for the receptionist. “We’ll be the same, then. Mom will have to take a picture of us together.”
“Dad, I know you wanted me to apply – and I did – but…” Steven started, looking at his father’s sinewy hands as he thumbed out his credit card. “They will reject me, you know.”
“Why?” his father asked, patiently moving over as Steven went next, reciting his own information to the receptionist, who gave him a flirty wink. She was blonde and buxom, and her bored-to-death look had brightened upon seeing him.
“You know why,” Steven grumbled out. “You know perfectly why they won’t accept me, Dad!” he gasped out loudly, once again causing the talking clientele to fall into a shushed silence. “Three years, and you still can’t accept it, can you?”
The father, bright red with anger, said nothing.
“You know the policy they have – and it’s not like I’ve got any secrets to hide!” Steven added with a sharp bang of his other purchases, which the blonde receptionist eyed keenly. Among the plastic wrap were two boxes of condoms, both different sizes.
Steven slid a twenty over to the girl, who quickly fingered in the digits, and handed him his change. He left without another glance towards his dad, whose hands were clenched in fists. The distant ring of bells and the whooshing motion of the fan were the only sounds that penetrated the father’s eardrum.
“I want to ask, but—” the girl started.
“Don’t. I won’t tell,” the father said with finality, glancing outside of the window to his side. There was a Toyota, empty, with Steven beside it, peeling off a sticker that had “Father of an American soldier” blazoned upon it.