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NORMANDY

Mr. Shortleigh said that it was late afternoon. He and Sergeant McCarthy and two other men were walking through a field of goldenrod and they met a patrol of four Germans. There was a brief exchange of fire, and all the Germans were killed. The Sarge was shot twice in the upper chest, slightly to the right. Kimball went to find a medic. Shortleigh and Lyons stayed with my father. They carried him under a tree and the three of them sat together on the dry leaves. Lyons told my father that everything would be all right, that Kimball would be back soon with the medics, and then Daddy would get to go home to Mother and I. Daddy said, yes, of course. They all knew that he was going to die. They had fought together in Tunisia and Sicily. They had all seen enough to know. Daddy said it's beautiful here. From where they sat, the mounded field looked like the bosom of a waking goddess. Lyons said that yes, it was, very beautiful. Shortleigh said you're lucky, Mac. Daddy said that yes, he was very lucky. Lyons said the medics would be there soon. Daddy said of course they would be, that they shouldn't worry. It occurred to Shortleigh that the Sarge felt that if he and Lyons were going to be polite enough to lie, the least he could do was go along with it. Daddy said he would like a cigarette, please. Lyons gave him a cigarette and Shortleigh lit it. Daddy said, god damn but you've got to love free cigarettes. He said you had to respect a nation that gave you free cigarettes. He said that this was the American dream, right here, manifested. Shortleigh and Lyons laughed. He grinned at them and told Lyons to lean forward and he spit a mouthful of blood behind the tree. He said that damn skippy, this was the American dream. He got out one of the handkerchiefs my mother had embroidered him and used it to wipe his mouth. He said dulce et decorum est to die with a free cigarette in your hand. Lyons said he would write my mother and tell her anything Daddy wanted. Daddy laughed, spit blood, wiped it away, said: No last words. He said last words were only for people who hadn't said the right things while they were alive. He handed the cigarette butt to Shortleigh, who stubbed it out on the sole of his boot and threw it into the hedgerow. Lyons said it wouldn't be much longer now until the stretcher bearers came. Daddy said it was nice right where they were. He said city boys like himself didn't get to sit under many trees. He said, nature's a wonderful thing, dammit. He said Shortleigh and Lyons didn't have to wait. He said they were nice to wait. He spit more blood. It dribbled down his chin and he didn't wipe it away. He shut his eyes and they said Sarge just hold on a few minutes more. Lyons said something about the medics. Daddy said, Jesus you two, I'm not dead yet. Almost but not yet. He said talk about something, will you. Anything, but not the fucking stretcher bearers. He said he just wanted to lie there and think, and he didn't want to talk, but that he wanted someone to talk. He said he liked voices. He was just going to be quiet for a few minutes and when he died they should go on back to camp and Kimball and the stretcher bearers would get him. Lyons said that it was a beautiful day. Shortleigh said that yes, it was. The sun was setting and they talked about the colors. Lyons said Sarge are you there? Daddy told him to look at the sunset. There was more blood. The sky was purple. Lyons said you chose a beautiful day to die, Sarge. Shortleigh said that beauty was truth and truth beauty. Lyons said don't be a fuck, Shortleigh. Shortleigh said that poetry illuminated the human experience. Lyons said that the human experience was a crock of shit. Daddy opened his eyes and said, when John Keats died, he was younger than I am now. Shortleigh said, hey get this Sarge, he had Fanny and you have Annie. Daddy smiled. He said that dying was a pain in the ass for everyone involved. He said he was sorry it was taking so long, and he appreciated their staying. Lyons said that everyone deserved to have someone else there when they died. Daddy said that that was true. He said he didn't want to be bad company, but that he was just going to close his eyes again and remember things, and that they should have a cigarette and not pay attention. Lyons said, do you want us to talk? Daddy said, not unless you have something to say. Lyons and Shortleigh lit cigarettes and watched the sunset. Shortleigh thought about the sun sliding backwards towards home. He thought about the English Channel and the Houses of Parliament and the North Atlantic, and the way light shatters against water. He remembered that the sun doesn't move, and he thought about the spinning earth until it made him dizzy. His ankle itched and he unlaced his boot to get a good angle at it through the sock. Lyons was lying on his back with his hands folded behind his head and a cigarette hanging out of the side of his mouth. The ash, Shortleigh calculated, had to be at least an inch long, maybe more. Shortleigh watched, mesmerized, until it broke and fell onto Lyons' neck. Lyons didn't move. He stared straight up towards the sky which was broken with leaves and branches. The smoke from his cigarette trembled in the still air. The sky went red and then pink. Eventually, it was dusk, and they looked back at Daddy and saw that he was dead.