MAJOR TURNBUCKLE stared down the cylindrical hollow of his life like the barrel of a burned-out bazooka. Empty. Scorched. Spent. Ready for the scrap heap.
“A pile of discarded metal,” he said to his wife, Margaret, in the infernal heat of the morning, “that’s all I am.”
“Perhaps you’re making too much of it,” was Margaret’s distant reply. They were smoking cigarettes in the rumpled bed. Margaret’s breasts hung outside the sheet. Once again, it had been a failed mission on the major’s part.
“Making too much of what, exactly?” he asked.
“Your failure in life, the death of all your hopes, the utter hopelessness, in fact, of this very moment and all others to come.”
“Apparently not,” was his reflective response.
They lived in a high-rise apartment building in Miami Beach, the Atlantic Ocean nineteen floors down. Major Turnbuckle was forty-nine years old, a damn tricky age if ever there was one. Margaret was thirteen years younger, and she knew it.
She stubbed out her cigarette in an ashtray on the bedside table next to her. “Who gets the shower first?”
“I remember when we used to shower together,” he said to her long, finely grooved back.
“Water-conservation days are over,” she said, getting out of bed and walking naked to the bathroom.
The major leaned over her side of the bed and pressed his own cigarette into Margaret’s ashtray. He ground it out with his forefinger and thumb until the tips of his fingers were black. Major Turnbuckle was crushing more than his cigarette.
When his wife had left for work — she was an analyst with an international risk advisory firm — the major went into his study to resume the lonely task of writing his family’s military history, beginning with his great-grandfather, Captain Ulysses S. Turnbuckle, who fought valiantly with the 369th Infantry in World War I, continuing with his grandfather, Major General Hank U. Turnbuckle, who served meritoriously with General George S. Patton in World War II, his father, Colonel Van H. Turnbuckle, who was awarded the Bronze Star in the Korean conflict, and finally down to himself, Major Bill V. Turnbuckle, who served notoriously in the U.S. invasion of Panama, December 20, 1989.
The body of a little boy covered with bricks. An image he couldn’t get out of his mind. It was with him always.
He tried to talk to Margaret about it. She didn’t want to hear about it. She didn’t care. He had married her after Panama. After his first wife left him. After his son committed suicide. The famous Turnbuckle line of military men had ended right then and there. His only son shot himself in the head. Sometimes there’s too much tradition for a young lad. A tradition of violence. Kill somebody, kill yourself. A thin line.
“I want another child,” the major had said to Margaret. “A son.”
All she said was, “No way, José.”
A little boy buried under bricks. A bazooka shell hit an apartment building. Major Turnbuckle had given the order. It was his shame. Civilians blown to pieces to nail one man, General Manuel Noriega.
Major Turnbuckle had gone into the demolished building. A little boy, maybe five years old, innocent, beautiful, his arms and legs twisted under the bricks.
On the twentieth anniversary of the invasion, Major Turnbuckle wrote an Op-Ed piece for The Miami Herald about a little boy under the bricks, how it still haunted him, how terribly wrong it had been. The major packed a lot of emotion into those 950 words. It had been welling up inside him all those years.
A week later — it was the day Margaret made the crack about the death of all his hopes — the major received a letter from a Maria Santos. She said she had read his story in the newspaper and would like to meet him. She said she lived at the Sun Motel on Collins Avenue at 173rd Street. She gave her room number.
Major Turnbuckle drove to the Sun Motel.
He knocked on the door of the ground-floor room. It was opened by a tall, slender, olive-skinned woman in her late thirties. She had long black hair and wore a white silk dress. She was beautiful.
“Maria Santos?” he asked.
She looked him straight in the eye. She was expecting him. She said, “Come in.”
He went inside the efficiency. A bed, a chest of drawers, a TV, a kitchen alcove. They faced each other across a worn carpet. She stared at him.
“I wanted to see what you looked like,” she said.
“You said you read my article,” he said.
“I lived it,” she said. “While others died.”
“Oh, God,” he said softly, getting the picture, feeling uncomfortable. Perhaps it hadn’t been such a good idea to come. To face one’s accuser, for that’s what she was.
“I lived in that building,” she said.
He took a step toward her and held out his hands. “I’m sorry.”
She reached under a pillow and came up with a revolver.
“Don’t come any closer,” she told him.
She held the gun straight out, pointed at his chest.
“That was my son, that little boy under the bricks.”
He didn’t know what to say. He held out his hands. She kept staring into his eyes. She saw tears forming there.
“You read my story,” he said. “You must know how I feel.”
“And do you know how I feel?”
“I do,” he said. “My own son is dead. I do know how you feel. Shoot me if it will make you feel any better.”
She stood there and watched the tears fall from his eyes. A strong, broad-shouldered man, a soldier, a son of a soldier, grandson of a soldier. Father of a dead boy. Crying like that.
She lowered the gun. She sat on the edge of the bed.
“All these years,” she said, “I wanted to kill the americanos who did this to my little boy. Then I read your story and it moved my heart. And now I meet you and you are a fine man.”
She threw the gun down and buried her face in her hands. He sat down on the bed next to her. She looked at him. “I just want my son back.”
He put his arms around her. “I know,” he said.
She fell into his embrace. It was as though they had known each other for years, traditional courtship blown away by a bazooka shell, a crying need born of the loss of two sons.
She looked into his eyes. This is what she said: “Please, give me back my son.”
It all happened, then and there.
Originally published in the Miami Herald