It was almost nine o’clock when Mike pulled off the seven-ten freeway on to Olympic Boulevard. He had made good time on the Pacific Coast Highway from Orange County to Long Beach, but an accident between an SUV and a semi-truck right after he got on the seven-ten had cost him almost an hour’s delay.
Since it was so late, he would not stop at the Hernandez home tonight. Just make a quick run by the place to make sure he knew where he was going tomorrow. Mike had learned not to completely trust any GPS, especially the one on his phone. After this trial run, he would check into a local motel for the night, get up early, and visit the family before the service tomorrow.
But, as he turned right onto the quiet residential street filled with stucco faced homes in an array of pastel colors, Mike noted that the road was packed with cars. A group of young men congregated on the lawn of a pink house halfway down the block. The loud beat of music and Spanish words cut through the oppressive heat. Bright lights shone from every window, and the porch light cast a glow in the late summer dusk.
Mike double-checked his GPS. The address matched the Hernandez home. Mike pulled into the driveway next to a black SUV and behind an older model family van. He took off his helmet and stored it in one of the compartments on his bike.
He felt his heart racing and dampness gathering in his palms. He wiped them on his jeans as he practiced what he would say. He had not gotten any further in his rehearsal than “Hello, I’m Master Sergeant Mike O’Malley. Manny served with me,” when a teenage girl in jeans and t-shirt ran up to him.
“Sergeant Mike? Is it really you?” asked the young woman with brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. Mike opened his mouth to correct her, Master Sergeant. But then he reminded himself that in the civilian world, such things made no difference. And he was now part of that world. So, he let it go.
Even in the dim light from the porch lamp, Mike could tell that her soft brown eyes were red and swollen. But excitement laced her voice as she extended her hand. “Come. Come. Mama and Papa will want to meet you.”
Mike nodded and lifted his leg over his bike to dismount. The girl looked at the shiny machine and turned to the group of young men gathered on the porch. She uttered something in Spanish, waving her arm towards ‘Esther.’ Mike had picked up quite a few words of several different languages over the years, including Spanish. Still, she spoke so quickly that he caught little of what she said before she grabbed his hand and raced towards the house.
The moment they burst through the front door, Mike felt the change in atmosphere. The lights in the living room were dim. The place was packed with older people. Every chair was in use, and other people stood about the small space. Everyone spoke in quiet tones.
In a large recliner, off to one side of the couch sat a woman. Her head was bent forward. Her shoulders were stooped, and her frail body shook with silent tears. She clutched a tissue in her hand, her fingers twisting the paper in one direction until it was wound so tightly it would go no further. Then she would stop, reverse it, and turn the tissue in the other direction.
On the arm of the chair sat a man, not much older than Mike, but his dark face was lined with wrinkles from too many days spent in the hot Southern California sun and too many worries. His arm was about the woman’s shoulders as if trying to lighten her burden, comfort her, or even just hold her up. His greying hair curled about his features as he whispered something to the woman. She sobbed louder and shook.
The girl slowed her pace, pausing as they approached the couple. “Mama, Papa. Les presento a sergeant Mike.”
Mike stood still, uncertain of what to expect as the couple looked up. Their eyes traveled almost as one up and down him. Then the much smaller man stood and stepped forward. His arms wrapped about Mike, and he squeezed tightly. Though Mike was not the touchy-feely type, he relaxed enough to pat the other man’s shoulder.
“Sergeant Mike. Manny told us so much about you,” he said in heavily accented English. The woman stayed in her seat but nodded.
Mike forced words past the tightness in his throat. “Thank you, Señor Hernandez. I am so sorry for your loss. Manny was a fine young man.”
His words sounded trite even to his own ears. What did you say at moments like this? How could anyone express the pain and anger at such a loss? A young man, who had barely begun to live, was gone. And for what?
Mike watched the woman twist the tissue tighter. He wished for his own. Something to do. Anything. As pain and a million questions washed over him like the waves of the ocean breaking upon the sandy beaches along the Pacific Coast Highway. The sound roared in his ears.
Releasing him from the bear hug, the man stepped back and gripped his hand, pumping it firmly up and down as he spoke. “Gracias. Thank you for coming, Sergeant Mike. This would mean so much to Manny. He admired you very much.”
Mike quickly took a small step back, needing a bit more space. He nodded at the man’s praise as it sailed over his waves of guilt. This was not how he had wanted to meet these people. When Manny had spoken of his family, Mike had never thought that his first encounter with them would be at the man’s funeral.
Of course, they all knew that the job they did in the service of their country was dangerous. That some might never make it home. But it was a reality that did not bear deep thought. Glossed over with laughter and stories of home until one of them made the ultimate sacrifice. Then all would pause and, for a moment, remember their friend and their own mortality, before pushing it aside once more until the next time.
But this was different from those times. The mourning here was not for a soldier and friend. These people did not see it as just part of the job. Something that could happen to any of them. These people felt the loss of promise. A son. A brother. A young man, who would one day return. Who would go to college. Have a family. Do something with his life.
As Mike considered the dark brown eyes of Manny’s mother clouded with tears, he realized that, to her, this was not the loss of a soldier, but a baby. The little boy that she had fed, loved, and mended scraped knees was gone. His injuries, this time, too deep to be fixed with her love and a Band-Aid.
Mike released the man’s hand and crossed the few steps that divided him from the woman’s pain. He knelt in front of her and enveloped her trembling hands in one of his. “Manny loved you all very much,” was all he could find to say.
This woman did not care that her little boy was a good Marine. She did not need to know how he fought bravely. None of that mattered. Not in the grand scheme of things. Not now.
The woman nodded her head at his words. Her eyes met his, and the pain that Mike saw in their depths froze his heart. He had seen so many men die over the years. He had held his two best friends in his arms as they drew their last breaths. He had mourned their loss and carried a part of them in his soul. But, until this moment, Mike had never really understood what that sacrifice meant. This woman had lost her only son.
It was impossible not to think of another woman, another loss, as he faced this harsh reality. He sighed as he pushed thoughts of her away at this moment.
The woman looked away, capturing the gaze of her young daughter. She spat out long strings of words in Spanish, few of which Mike could catch. Comida, cocina, and por favor was the limit of his expertise this night.
The girl stepped forward and translated. “Sergeant Mike, Mama says we have forgotten our manners. You must have come a very long way and be tired and hungry. She insists that I take you to the kitchen and feed you.”
Food was the last thing on Mike’s mind at the moment. The thought of it felt like a rock in his gut. But he smiled at the woman and nodded his head. Grateful for the chance to retreat from this new level of pain, to regroup. He nodded, and with a final shake of the man’s hand, he followed the young woman out of the room into a brightly lit kitchen teeming with more people.
The smell of food hit Mike. As if on cue, his stomach growled. He realized then that he had not eaten anything since breakfast that morning in the mess hall at Camp Pendleton. The young woman nodded at the sound and led him through the crowd of mostly middle-aged women that scurried about the room, cooking, puttering, cleaning, and jabbering in Spanish.
She took him to the countertop next to the stove that was laden with dozens of pots, pans, and dishes. Opening a cabinet overhead, she pulled out a plate and began piling it with food. She spoke in Spanish to a couple of women near the stove. They stared at Mike and nodded. When she put the plate in the microwave and set the timer, she walked over to the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of beer. Opening it, she handed it to him as she pulled the now steaming plate from the microwave.
With a wave to the women, she led him out the door to a table. Another crowd of young people milled about the yard. They chatted in small groups. A mixture of Spanish and English drifted to Mike’s ears until it sounded like nothing more than a drone of bees. Mike was grateful to be out in the open once more, breathing fresh air, even if there was no breeze to speak of this far from the ocean. Lately, he had noticed that he was finding crowds like the one in the small house a bit overwhelming. This was a nice respite and a chance to regroup.
“Have a seat, Sergeant Mike.”
“Thank you.” Mike paused. He had seen several photographs of Manny’s family. He knew that the man had two younger sisters, Maria and Lupe. With barely a year between the young women, the sisters so closely resembled one another that Mike was not sure which young woman had served as his hostess.
As if realizing her error, the girl spoke. “Lupe. I’m Lupe. Maria is probably in our room. She does not like this many people.” It was a sentiment that Mike could most definitely empathize with.
Mike only nodded as he took a seat on the bench in front of his plate. He looked at the food and smiled. Since he had arrived in Southern California over twenty years before, Mexican food had become one of his favorites. He favored it even over the rich Italian fare that he had grown up with in Boston.
How many times had Manny boasted that he had never tasted “real” Mexican food until he ate his mama’s cooking? As Mike raised his fork and brought the first bite to his lips, he thought of the young man. As the mixture of spice and flavor hit his taste buds, Mike swore agreement with his friend’s assessment. He had never tasted anything quite this good before.
“Good, si?” Mike nodded his head as he brought another fork full of heaven to his lips. His earlier assessment of food being nothing more than a rock sitting in his gut was forgotten in the wake of the smell and taste.
“I’ll leave you to eat then. I’m just going over there to talk to my cousins. Call me if you need anything.” She walked away to join a group of teenagers standing near a metal storage building.
Mike ate the food as he watched and listened to the young people about him. He guessed that some of them were in their early twenties like Manny had been. But most were younger, teenagers like the girl Lupe. The young men all seemed to be wearing a uniform of sorts, baggy khaki pants and extra-large white t-shirts that hung off them. Some had bandanas tied about their foreheads or arms.
The group laughed and joked. A couple of the boys even pushed one another about. Some of them lifted beer bottles to their lips. He noticed Lupe drinking and chatting with one young man in particular. The boy stared across at Mike. The couple broke off from the others and crossed the yard just as Mike finished his food.
“Sergeant Mike, this is Hector. He is our primo, our cousin. He wanted to meet you. He is going to be a Marine just like you and Manny.”
Mike stood and held out his hand to the young man. The boy was stocky, filling out his t-shirt a bit more than the others.
“Manny told me all about you, Sergeant Mike. He said you were the best.”
Mike nodded at the praise. If he were the best, would he be standing here now? At the wake of a young man who had served under his command? If he were the best, couldn’t he have done something to prevent this? To keep Manny alive? Manny. Billy. Tommy. All their blood stained his hands. But he said nothing as the young man took a seat in front of him.
They talked for half an hour, maybe more. Several others drifted in and out of their conversation until, at last, the food, the long day, and a lifetime caught up with Mike. He could not stifle the yawn.
Lupe stood up. “Hector, it’s getting late. Sergeant Mike probably needs to go,” she offered with a smile. Mike nodded his thanks. Gripping the young man’s hand, he promised they would talk more tomorrow.
He followed Lupe back into the kitchen. It was almost empty now. The food cleared from the countertops that gleamed in the bright lights. Lupe led him back into the living room, but the recliner was empty now. Only a few people gathered around the couch, talking quietly. Lupe walked over to a large woman that Mike recognized as one of those from the kitchen earlier. They spoke quietly for a moment. Lupe nodded and walked back to him.
“Papa took Mama to their room. Follow me.” They walked down a dimly lit corridor to the room at the furthest end. Lupe knocked softly and exchanged a few words in Spanish with a deep voice on the other side of the door. It opened, and Manny’s father greeted them with a weak smile.
“Come in, Sergeant Mike,” he offered, stepping back and motioning them into the room.
Mike noticed the woman sitting on the edge of the bed. She was still twisting a tissue in her fingers. He wondered if it were the same one from earlier.
“Gracias, Señor Hernandez,” Mike replied in his best Spanish. “I just wanted to say good-bye before I left. And ask if it would be all right if I attended the funeral service tomorrow.”
“Of course, Sergeant. Guadalupe and I were talking. We were wondering if you would like to carry the casket. Some of Manny’s cousins will, and I know Manny would like it if you did too.”
Mike fought back the moisture that pooled in the corners of his eyes. He nodded and managed to choke, “It would be my honor, Sir.”
The man slapped him on the back and pumped his hand once more. “Thank you, Sergeant.”
The woman looked up from her tissue long enough to whisper, “Muchas gracias.”
“De nada,” Mike replied as Lupe led him from the room.
She spoke a few more words of Spanish with her parents as Mike stared at a painting in the hall. The Virgin Mary, with a golden halo, held the baby Jesus on her lap. Mike thought of this mother and imagined a baby Manuel in her arms. How empty must she feel now? Did she identify with the woman in the painting? Sacrificing their sons for others? Somehow Mike imagined it did not help alleviate any of the pain.
Lupe led him down the hall. Only the large woman from the kitchen remained in the living room. She was picking up plates, cups, and tissues.
“Tia Manuela, this is Sergeant Mike,” Lupe introduced the woman.
“Sergeant Mike, this is my Aunt Manny. She is Hector’s mama.”
Mike extended his hand. “It is a pleasure to meet you. I spoke with your son earlier. He seems a fine young man.”
A shadow crossed the woman’s face as she spoke, “He is. When he stays away from those friends of his.”
“I know the feeling. I was once just like that.”
She smiled broadly. “Really? There is hope? I worry so much about that boy. Since his papa left, he has fallen in with a bad crowd. Only Manny seemed able to reach him.”
“I’m sure he will be fine,” assured Mike. “Lupe says he wants to join the Marines after high school. It isn’t an easy life, but I promise you he will learn discipline.”
The woman made the sign of the cross before she spoke. “If that boy makes it to graduation without being shot, I will drive him to San Diego myself.”
Mike’s brow furrowed. He had never really considered the degree of danger that young men like Manny and Hector faced, even at home. His own crimes were petty enough, certainly, nothing that was likely to get him shot. But that was over a quarter of a century ago. Gangs these days were more organized and more dangerous, it seemed.
Was it possible that had Manny remained here, he would have faced a similar fate? It was not something he had considered. An honorable death in Afghanistan seemed better than being gunned down by a rival gang. Or life in prison.
Or was it? Manny was just as dead. His family was still grieving. Although at least, Mike supposed, they could take some solace in their son’s sacrifice for “his country.” Which reminded Mike, he had emails to send this night.
“It was a pleasure, Señora. I will see you tomorrow?” he shook the woman’s hand as she smiled and nodded.
Lupe led him back onto the front porch. There were only a few young men still hanging about. They nodded at Mike as he and Lupe walked over to his motorcycle in the driveway.
“Thank you for coming, Sergeant Mike. You don’t know how much it means to Papa and Mama to have you here. Manny wrote so much about you in his emails. Mama always smiled and said she knew Manny would be all right as long as he had you.”
Mike choked on the woman-child’s words. He longed to scream to the universe at the injustice. Manny was not all right. He was dead, and there had been nothing Mike could do to stop the bullet that ripped through the side of the young man’s head, tearing the smile from that face forever. His heart shuttered at the memory of watching another of his men fall.
Mike lifted his face to the dark night sky. Not a star shone in its expanse. He cursed whatever was out there anyway. Cursed Fate that left him alive to face the Hernandezes while their son lay in a cold casket somewhere in this city. ‘Why?’ rang like rusty, old church bells in his ears as he shook the young woman’s hand and promised to return the next day.
It was a promise he would keep even if it killed him. Well, something inside of him anyway. This sacrifice was the least Mike could do for Manny. And Billy. And Tommy. And all the others. Tomorrow Master Sergeant Michael Thomas O’Malley would face the reality of death and sacrifice in a way he never had before. Tomorrow he would attend his first funeral since he was just a boy of seven.