No one was home. She was relieved. But they would have to return that evening.
At the next house on their list, there was no one home either. She would have a long first day.
She rolled down the car window, then carefully took off her cap, which she held in her lap as she drove. The chaplain looked out the side window and said, without prologue, “I wish I could do more.” She glanced at him, uncertain, and did not reply. When they got to the third house, a girl, about eleven, answered their knock. Her face looked well-scrubbed and serious.
Behind her, the foyer was furnished sparely, an antique table bearing an empty crystal bowl, and one portrait, a young man in uniform, on the opposite wall, in a frame as big as a window. The light from the open door set the crystal on fire. “Mother,” the girl called over her shoulder. Turning back to them, she said, “Come in, please.”
She could tell right away this girl had been very well brought up. And, for a moment, she allowed herself to think that the girl’s brother must have been well brought up, too.
The mother came down the hallway, her cotton dress crisp, grey hair secured by a practical clasp. She caught sight of them.
“Close the door,” she said to her daughter.
The foyer darkened. The chaplain coughed.
She began. “Ma’am, I have the sad duty to inform you—" She hesitated, but the trainer had said that quickness is kindness. “—that Sgt. Nathan Crandall—”
“Mom!” the girl cried. “Nate!”
She spoke over the girl, rapidly. “Sgt. Nathan Crandall made the ultimate sacrifice for his country during a firefight in Kandahar at thirteen hundred hours today.”
The mother walked to the nearest wall and put her back against it. After a moment, she slid down the wall like oil. The chaplain approached, hoping to give comfort, but the mother chased him away with one hand.
They waited. This, she had been taught, was shock. Be patient, she had been taught. They waited.
“Ma’am?” the chaplain finally said, deferentially.
The little girl trembled. Her hands, her soft stomach, her knees shifted, almost imperceptibly, in a series of tiny, escalating disintegrations. What was the chaplain waiting for? Quickness is kindness, she thought. He hadn’t yet given her the go-ahead, but she spoke.
“The Secretary of Defense and all your son’s comrades in the United States Army express their deepest sorrow and extend their condolences to you and your family.”
As she finished speaking, the girl sobbed and felt her blind way to the mother’s lap. The girl’s legs, even crooked sharply, proved too long to be held. They went wild and loose and hit the table. The crystal bowl flew out of the shadow to the table’s edge where it spun on a secret axis to an unpredictable, clattering stop.
A bowl, she thought, an ordinary bowl!
“Ma’am,” she said. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
A bowl, my God! One more inch and they could have been lacerated, an artery cut. It was all out of control. She hadn’t the right training for this. The chaplain was too passive. And there was more to do this evening, in the then-empty houses where no one yet knew.
She took a step toward the mother, quickly, intending to say goodbye and get out—quickness is kindness.
“Can I do anything for you? Anything at all?” She could hear her voice accelerating. “Can we call someone for you? A family member? Your doctor? A friend?”
They must leave, right now—but she somehow didn’t know how to do it. She couldn’t find the words and she couldn’t remember where she had parked. She couldn’t remember the name of this town. She had not been trained for this, only to do her predictable duty.
“Anything at all before we go?”
“No,” the mother said. Then, bitterly, “No, there’s nothing.” The daughter continued to wail on her breast, eyes closed, mouth open.
“If that’s what you want.” Even in the middle of what she feared was panic, she knew those were not the right words. “Whatever you feel is best.”
The chaplain murmured something indistinguishable and clumsily placed his card on the floor near the grieving pair. As they backed out of the foyer, she turned away from the soldier’s portrait, still protected by shining glass, hung at the level of his mother’s eyes. They walked to the car.
“Oh,” she cried, “I forgot it was nice out!”
The chaplain sighed and said, “I can never do enough.”
Afraid to learn that this might be true of herself, too, she ran to the car. “Let’s get moving,” she called.
Mary Clemens lives and writes in upstate New York. Her work has appeared in New World Writing, Upstream, and The Tishman Review.