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Among the Ashes

I. The Birth of Innocence

Charles Anderson had been born to a small-town family in a time when living in a small town actually meant something; at least he liked to think so. His father was a butcher; his mother was not. She never forgave him for that. Charles had met Patricia Ellington in their sophomore year of high school. At first glance, Patricia thought her future husband was fairly handsome but that was all, which was fortunate because poor Charles really didn’t have much else to give. That’s not to say he was an unintelligent man, he was just a store-front kind of person: what you saw was what you got. The second impression Patricia had received from Charles was that he was surprisingly soft-spoken for his enormous stature, which she had decided would complement her own personality quite well. You see, Patricia had a terrific way of making her opinions well publicized, which under the right conditions would have been the ideal recipe for success. Unfortunately for her, the universe is indifferent to those personal details and life goes on. Their first interaction was highly uneventful, almost as if to model what would be the rest of their lives. Patricia said hello. Charles said hello. She asked him his name. He asked for hers. They both grinned. Patricia spoked, Charles listened and the rest was history.

Charles would be deployed about three months after his wedding day. The war was everything that he expected it to be and was everything that is left out of the history books. Army days are always filled will mind numbingly mundane and structured tasks with scheduled breaks for unplanned activities, like terror and gore. He made memories that were always fleeting and friends that departed even faster. Much like those friends, his memories would haunt him for the rest of his life. In a year’s time, that small town boy had turned into a man, his soft-spoken personality had turned to reservation, and the newlywed was now a father; it was time to go home. Patricia decided that their child be named after her father Francis. Charles wanted to name his son Robert, to honor a lost war buddy but Patricia decided that Francis was a more dignified name for their inherently middle-class child. She did decide that it would be much more suited as a middle name anyhow and ultimately declared that they could call him Frank. Charles lovingly conceded; the time for fighting had past. He was just happy to be home.

It wouldn’t do Patricia much justice to call her a bad person; she tried her best all things considered. After the crash of ’29, in an attempt to show the community what happens when a person defaults on a loan, the banks perused her family with such aggression that the next two generations would continue to pay off the debts of their ancestors. In other words, she definitely knew what it meant to struggle and she understood what the pain of hunger could do to a person. It was this pain that put something inside of Patricia, a specific trait that would also find its way into the lives of her offspring. That pain had created a desire for something better. Unfortunately, given the nature of this desire, it could never truly be satisfied; which has a nice way of saving the impoverished and an even better way of condemning the privileged.

There were times in Frank’s life when it would have been easy to paint Patricia as this cold, calculating, and at times heartless figure. And there were times when it would have been within his right to do so. But Frank never did that. He understood that he could have and was never really sure why he didn’t. It could have been because he realized the sacrifice his mother had made for him at such a young age. It could have been because the one person who was supposed to love and support him unconditionally had failed to do so and the pain of knowing that was just too much for him to handle. Either way, Frank loved his mother immensely and would continue to do so long after she was gone.

Charles and Patricia were in their early twenties when the lines of life had already begun to show on their faces. The lines on Charles’s face were much more defined though. War tends to do that to a person. At that time, they both had brown hair that would naturally lighten with age. Charles had brown eyes; Patricia’s were green. Frank was, as Patricia would often brag, a delightful combination of both of his parents. Frank was about four years old on that calm fall evening and was playing with a red fire truck. Patricia didn’t like him rolling around in the dirt; Charles did not care. Frank was wearing a tiny red polo shirt neatly tucked into a pair of elastic-banded khakis. Patricia would often reflect on how dapper Frank was as a child. Part of her was always disappointed that this would stop once he reached adulthood. The yard was quiet, with just the sounds of Frank’s childhood occasionally breaking the silence. Charles put out his cigar and got up from his chair. He leaned over and kissed his wife, then his son; the lines on his face grew deeper when he smiled. He walked over to the shed, as Frank obediently followed behind, and carried the grill over to the chairs. He sat down for a minute with Frank on his lap. In that moment, the Anderson’s were reaping the benefits of comfort. In that moment, life was still simple.

The Durand’s would be due to arrive with their son Joey a few minutes later, which meant that the Santulli family would find their way into the Anderson’s backyard and before anyone would know it, the neighborhood would be having a cookout.

Charles enjoyed having people over. A lot of things didn’t come naturally to Charles, but in the very least he was good at people. That was actually one of the reasons he was such a successful tailor, he found a way to make suit alterations enjoyable. The secret to his social success was actually quite simple: since Charles never really had that much to say, he was always more than happy to listen. People always seem to forget that. No matter how much a person is willing to say, sometimes all they really need to do is listen. Patricia often forgot to follow this practice, which did just about as much good as it did bad. Regardless of all this, the Anderson’s liked people and people liked them in return.

In just a short amount of time, the Anderson yard was full of laughter, friends, and the embodiment of what it really meant to be a part of their community, life was good and innocence floated throughout the air. At least everyone pretended like it did.

“You make a damn good burger, Charlie. I’m really getting my money’s worth.” John Durand was standing next to his boyhood friend by to the grill.

“John, I have a better chance of seeing my dad smile before I see a dime from you.” Charles retorted with a smirk on his face.

The two men laughed and let the sound of the burgers on the grill fill the air after the moment had passed. John took a sip from his beer as the worry began to find its way onto his face. No matter how hard a person can try, fear will always find a way to show itself. John leaned in closer to Charles.

“Have you been watching the news lately? The things they’ve been saying about the war?”

Charles flipped the burgers. He nodded cautiously.

“Charlie, do you think it’s true? Everything people are saying? I mean it really couldn’t have all been for nothing, right? I just don’t get it. Our fathers did the same shit and they got a parade for it. What did we do differently? What did we do wrong?”

Charles stiffened a little, he had suddenly become very mechanical; almost robotic. He caught himself. He thought it was funny how someone can really rub off on a person; he thought about Patricia and snuck in a quick smile. John was looking at Charles, hoping to hear the answer he needed. “I think it’s better not to think about it, you know? What’s done is done. We’re home now.”

John looked down for a second, tightened his jaw, and looked back up. He did his best to smile. It was good enough for Charles. They were both silent for an eternal minute.

“Hey Charlie, Jeanie’s pregnant.”

The burgers kept sizzling on the grill. The inferno in the sky was extinguished by the arrival of night. The laughter in the Anderson yard slowly died with the comfort of knowing more was still to come. Frank grew up in a small town when living in a small town actually meant something; at least he liked to think so.

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