A light snow fell as Walter Gentry stepped out onto the stoop of the brownstone. Looking up into the gently swirling flakes, he smiled, turned up the collar of his coat, and descended the steps to the snow-covered street below. Touching down on the sidewalk, he slipped, quickly regained his balance and stepped gingerly as he started down Fourth Street.
Making everything look so clean and bright, Walter always liked taking his late night walks in fresh fallen snow. Holding his gloved hand out, he marveled at the beautiful shape of the big flake that fluttered into his palm. But, it would all be short lived though, for the snow plows would be out in the morning and the dark piles of plowed snow would replace the picturesque scene.
Coming to the deserted intersection, he crossed against the light, walking backwards a few steps to see his lonely footprints in the snow, turning in time to step up on the curb. Slowing his pace, he walked by the dimly lit window of Jansen’s Department Store, looking to see what old man Jansen had on sale this week. Probably something the old skinflint found stashed in the storeroom that he couldn’t get rid off six months ago.
Turning from the window, he saw an old man sitting on the bus stop bench in front of the department store. Altering his course, Walter walked over to the bench.
“May I sit down?”
The old man, wearing an army fatigue jacket and a green woolen cap pulled down over his ears, looked up at Walter and pulled his bulging green backpack closer to him. “It’s a free country, suit yourself.”
Walter brushed the powdery snow from the bench and sat down, clapping his gloves hands together. Looking over at the old man, Walter found him looking back from beneath the woolen cap.
“My name’s Walter,” he said, extending his hand. The old man looked at the outstretched hand and then up at Walter. Finally, the tattered, gloved hand reached out and grasped the extended hand.
“Name’s Eddie,” said the old man, surprising Walter with a firm handshake.
“Well, Eddie, I don’t know about you, but I could use a hot cup of coffee. If you come with me to the diner across the street, I’ll buy you dinner to go along with your coffee.”
“They won’t let me in there,” replied Eddie.
“They will if you come with me, Eddie,” Walter said, standing up, waving Eddie to join him. “Come on.”
Hesitating for a moment, the old man stood up, slinging one strap of his backpack onto his shoulder. Together, the two new friends stepped off the curb and walked across the street to the all night diner.
Walter held the glass door of the diner open, letting Eddie walk in ahead of him. The only customer in the diner sat at the counter talking to the night cook. Sitting on a stool behind the counter, the cook waved at Walter as he came through the door.
“Anywhere you want to sit is fine with me, Eddie,” said Walter and followed Eddie to a booth on the far side of the diner. Swinging his backpack onto the seat, the old man slid in next to it. Walter hung his coat on the tree at the end of the booth and slid onto the seat across from Eddie. Coming from behind the counter, the waitress carried two white coffee mugs in one hand and a steaming pot of coffee in the other.
“Hiya, Walter,” said the gum-popping waitress, setting the two mugs on the table and slopping coffee into them. “What’ll ya have?”
“Margie, you look as gorgeous as ever,” complimented Walter, getting a smile back from Margie. “I’ll have a piece of apple pie and give my friend, Eddie here, whatever he wants.”
Eddie removed his woolen cap and tattered gloves, setting them on the seat next to his backpack. Taking a quick look at the menu, he ordered a breakfast of eggs, fried potatoes, ham and a short stack of pancakes.
“Been a long time since I had breakfast food,” said Eddie, sipping his coffee.
“That you, Eddie?” asked Walter, pointing at the name over his jacket pocket.
“Yes sir.” Eddie nodded, running his fingers through his tangled hair. “United States Army Special Forces.”
Eddie nodded again. “Did three tours in the Nam.”
“For going over there. For doing what you did.”
Tears welled up in Eddie’s eyes and he looked down into his mug. “Nobody ever said that to me before.” When he looked up again, a tear escaped his left eye and slid down his cheek onto the table.
“All they did was spit on me and call me a baby killer,” said Eddie. He wiped his eye with the sleeve of his jacket, as Marge walked from behind the counter with their food.
“That why you went back, Eddie?” asked Walter after Marge left.
Eddie nodded as he forked some pancakes into his mouth. “They were the only ones who understood.”
Nothing more was said until Eddie sopped up the last of the egg yolk with the corner of jellied toast, shoved it in his mouth and sat back on the seat.
“That why you went back a third time?” Eddie wiped his mouth with his napkin and laid it on the table.
“My wife told me if I went back for a second tour, she wouldn’t be here when I got back. She was true to her word. I came back to an empty house. She took everything, including my daughter Shelly. I ain’t seen either since. That was over thirty years ago.”
“Did you look for them?”
“Far as I knew my wife’s only kin lived in Saint Louis. I sent her a letter there, but it came back to me address unknown. Had no idea where else she would go.”
“So you went back to Nam a third time.”
“And didn’t care if I come back or not. I went out on every patrol I could and volunteered any time they asked. Maybe that’s why I survived. I didn’t care.”
Eddie unbuttoned the jacket pocket under his name and pulled out a wrinkled dog-eared photo. “I never forgot about ‘em,” he added, handing the photo to Walter. “Shelly was about three years old in that picture.”
Walter straightened a dog-eared corner of the photo of a young woman sitting on the stairs of a porch holding a curly haired girl between her legs.
“That was taken just before I left for my first tour. She has a birthday coming up soon,” Eddie informed his new friend.
Walter handed the photo back to Eddie and the old veteran put it back in its place in his pocket. “Eddie, come home with me and get a hot shower and a good night’s sleep,” invited Walter.
Eddie smiled and shook his head. “Thanks, Walter, but I don’t want to put you out, so I’ll just head on back to my shack below the bridge by the river. Besides, the boys would miss me anyway.”
Eddie put on his woolen cap and tattered gloves, dragging the backpack by a strap as he slid from the booth. “I’d like to thank you for the good food and good company, Walter, I’ll be on my way now.” Eddie slung the backpack over his shoulder.
“I eat here every night, Eddie, come back sometime and I’ll buy you dinner,” said Walter.
Eddie smiled again, pointing his finger at Walter. “That I will take you up on.” Waving at Walter, he turned and waved at Margie and the cook as he walked out the door. He waved a final time at Walter through the window and walked down the street toward the river.
Walter saw Eddie periodically, in the months that followed and even talked him into that hot shower and a good night’s sleep once or twice. One evening while Walter was eating his dinner, a tapping on the diner window got his attention. Tony, one of Eddie’s friends who’d eaten with them one night, motioned to him. Wiping his mouth with a napkin, Walter went outside.
“Mister Walter, you gotta come, something’s wrong with Eddie,” blurted the old man.
“Where is he, Tony?”
“In the park, hurry.” Tony hurried down the street with Walter in tow toward Riverfront Park.
Walter found Eddie sitting on the ground against a big oak tree, his backpack next to him. “What’s wrong, Eddie?” asked Walter as he approached his friend. Getting no response, Walter bent over placing his finger against Eddie’s neck.
“He’s gone, Tony,” said Walter, not finding a pulse. Tony removed the old, battered fedora from his head, holding it over his heart.
“What happened, Mister Walter?”
“I guess he just wore out, Tony. Things like that happen.”
After making a phone call, Walter waited with Tony until Eddie was loaded into the black van of the Medical Examiner.
“What’s going to happen to Eddie now, Mister Walter?” asked Tony.
“I’ll take care of everything, Tony, you just make sure all of Eddie’s friends are there.” Walter put his arm around Tony’s shoulders.
“Everybody liked Eddie, Mister Walter, they’ll be there,” said Tony.
Three days later, with a small gathering of his friends looking on, Eddie Collins was buried in the veteran’s section of West Ridge Cemetery. The local American Legion officiated the small memorial service that included a flag draped coffin and twenty-one gun salute. With Taps sounding, Eddie was laid to rest. Being the closest thing Eddie had to next of kin, they gave Walter the folded flag from Eddie’s coffin.
Waiting until everyone left Eddie’s gravesite, Walter tucked the folded flag under his arm and walked back to the brownstone. Putting the flag on a shelf in his closet, Walter spotted Eddie’s backpack in a corner on the floor. He’d brought it home the night he found Eddie.
Taking the backpack into his living room, he set it between his feet when he sat down on the sofa. Going through Eddie’s meager possessions, he found a key on a key ring in an inside pocket of the backpack. Not finding anything else, Walter returned the key to the backpack along with Eddie’s possessions.
After returning the backpack to the closet Walter went to his desk, retrieving a pad of writing paper from a drawer. Writing a short letter, he folded it over the dog-eared photo, and slid it into an envelope. Addressing it to Shelly Collins, address unknown, Saint Louis, Missouri, he sealed it and put a stamp in its corner.
* * * *
Waving at Margie when he entered the diner, Walter slid into his favorite booth near the window. He turned over the white coffee mug when he saw Margie come around the corner of the counter.
“Somebody was in here looking for you today,” informed Margie, slopping coffee into Walter’s mug.
“This somebody have a name?” asked Walter, reaching for the sugar packets.
“She said her name was Shelly Collins.” Walter stopped in mid reach and looked up at Margie. It had been two months since he’d mailed his letter to Saint Louis. Considering it a long shot, he hadn’t been expecting a reply. “I told her you ate here every night and she said she would be back,” added Margie.
Walter ordered a cheeseburger and fries and while he waited for Margie to bring his food, he thought about what he would say to Shelly Collins. He slipped the last bite of his burger into his mouth, when a blond, looking to be in her thirties, entered the diner. After a brief conversation, Margie pointed her in his direction.
“Mister Gentry?” she asked, arriving at his table. “I’m Shelly Collins.”
“Please, sit down, Miss Collins,” said Walter, motioning to the seat across from him. “Would you like some coffee?”
“Yes, thank you.” Walter got Margie’s attention and pointed at Shelly’s mug.
“ You knew my father?” asked Shelly, waiting until Margie poured her coffee.
“My mother told me my father died in Vietnam.”
“I assure you that was not true. Your father was buried a couple of months ago.”
“I would like to visit him.”
Walter looked at his watch. “We’ve got some time before it gets dark, I’ll take you now. It’s a short walk from here.”
“Did you know my father long?” asked Shelly, walking beside Walter.
“I knew him long enough to know he never quit caring about his little girl,” replied Walter. Shelly fought back the tears and didn’t say another word until they walked through the gate of West Ridge Cemetery. Following behind Walter, they stopped at a small headstone with a small red, white and blue flag stuck in the ground in front of it, waving proudly in the breeze.
The name EDDIE COLLINS was etched in broad letters across the headstone. Below it were three question marks where Eddie’s birth date should have been and then the date Eddie died. Shelly knelt beside the headstone, putting her hand on it just above Eddie’s name. Walter put his hand on Shelly’s shoulder when she bowed her head and let the tears flow free. After a couple of minutes she rose, wiping her tears with a tissue from her pocket.
“Can I see where he lived?” she asked.
Smiling at Shelly, Walter put his arm around her shoulders. It was almost dark when they reached the bridge over the river. A fire burned bright under the bridge and they carefully walked down the narrow path that led to the river’s edge.
Tony met them as they neared the encampment. “Howdy, Mister Walter, what brings you down here?”
“Eddie’s daughter wanted to see where her father lived,” said Walter. Tony removed the old, battered fedora from his head, squeezing it between his hands.
“This is Eddie’s daughter?” asked Tony; a slight smile touched his face.
“Tony, meet Shelly Collins. Shelly, this is Tony, Your father’s closest friend.”
Shelly extended her hand to Tony. “Glad to meet you, Tony. Thanks for being friends with my father,” she said gratefully.
“It was easy being Eddie’s friend,” replied Tony, shaking Shelly’s hand. “Eddie was everyone’s friend. Come on over and meet the guys.” Tony led Shelly and Walter to the fire blazing in the big oil drum under the bridge.
“Fellas, I want you all to meet Eddie’s daughter Shelly. Shelly, these are the guys. We were all Eddie’s friends and we miss him a lot.” The men standing around the fire removed their hats and murmured greetings to Eddie’s daughter. “And you already know Mister Walter,” added Tony. They all waved greetings at Walter.
Shelly looked around the encampment at the assortment of tents and shanties. “Which one was my father’s?” she asked Tony.
He walked them to a wooden shack at the edge of the bridge. “Nobody’s bothered it because we knew Mister Walter was looking for you.”
Walter and Tony watched while Shelly walked up to the shack and lifted the hook, opening the door. Two mattresses covered by an old olive green blanket were against the back wall and an old table and two chairs under a makeshift window were the only furnishings in the small one room shack. On the table, with a couple of old magazines, sat a battered, gray lockbox. Not finding anything else in the shack, she picked up the lockbox as she turned to leave. Not being able to open it, she tucked it under her arm and walked out of the shack.
“This was the only thing I found,” said Shelly, showing the lockbox to Walter.
“That was Eddie’s secret box,” said Tony. “Nobody but Eddie knew what was in it.”
“I think I have a key to it,” said Walter, “I found one in Eddie’s backpack that might fit it.”
After thanking Tony and his friends for their hospitality, Shelly and Walter walked back to the brownstone and up to Walter’s apartment. Taking the lockbox to the kitchen table, she waited while Walter retrieved Eddie’s backpack.
“All that Eddie owned is in this backpack,” said Walter, setting it on the table next to the lockbox. “The key is in the inside pocket.”
He sat in the chair across from Shelly while she went through her father’s possessions. “He didn’t have much, did he?” asked Shelly, taking the key ring from the backpack.
“He knew he had a little girl out there somewhere and that’s what kept him going,” replied Walter.
Shelly slid the key into the lockbox, turned it and opened the lid. Taking out four blue boxes, she laid them side-by-side on the table. She opened each box in turn revealing a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. She looked up at Walter and reached back into the box. She unfolded two documents and read about her father’s actions “in the face of the enemy” and “without regard for his own life.”
“Says my father was a hero,” she said, handing the documents to Walter. She reached back into the box, lifting out an old picture of a group of soldiers dressed in fatigues and wearing green berets. She spotted Eddie kneeling in the front row with his arm around another familiar face. She slid the photo in front of Walter.
“Recognize the guy next to my father in the front row?” she asked.
Squinting his eyes, Walter concentrated on the face next to Eddie. “Tony?”
Shelly nodded her head. “He knew all along what we would find.”
“There’s one more thing in the box,” said Walter, peeking into the box and pointing to an old wrinkled envelope with Shelly’s name on the front. Opening the envelope, Shelly read the letter inside. Tears streamed down her face as she folded the letter, putting it back in the envelope.
“I wish I would have known,” she said, wiping the tears from her eyes, “ I would have come back.”
Returning the medals and papers to the box, she stuffed it back into Eddie’s backpack. “Thank you for letting me know about my father, Walter.”
“It was the least I could do for Eddie to try to find his little girl.”
Shelly smiled and hugged Walter. “I’ll be going back to Saint Louis now.” Shelly picked up Eddie’s backpack and Walter walked her down to the foyer.
“I hope to come back sometime, can I look you up?” asked Shelly.
“I’d be upset if you didn’t,” replied Walter, getting a smile and wave from Shelly as she walked down the brownstone steps.
Tony rose from his knee, as Walter approached Eddie’s grave. A Green Beret hung on one side of the small flag. On the other side was a bouquet of flowers left by Shelly.
“How’d it happen, Tony?” asked Walter, walking up beside the old veteran. Tony looked up at Walter, then back down at the grave.
“It was supposed to be a routine patrol,” started Tony, “we were supposed to go out about a klick and set up. But, the gooks was waitin’ for us. They caught us in a cross fire and there was nothin’ we could do but try to fight our way out of it. I took two hits right off, but Eddie stood there like he was bulletproof, firing back at them gooks. When he got clipped in the arm, he figured it was too hot and grabbed my collar and drug me through the bush. He finally threw me over his shoulder and got us out of there. We was the only two that made it back. I owed Eddie my life. We worked at the factory when we came back, but when they shut down we didn’t have nowhere to go. So we joined the rest of the boys that lost their jobs under the bridge. But, he never forgot his little girl.”
They stood in silence for a couple of minutes, and then Walter slid his arm across Tony’s shoulders. “I don’t know about you, Tony, but I could use a cup of coffee. What say you and me go down to the diner, I’ll even buy you dinner.”
“Think they’ll let me in there?”
Walter chuckled. “I think they will.”
Copyright 2010 by Larry Payne