The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
When Ms. Denise starts scribbling on the chalkboard, Rodney Claremont turns behind him and pulls on Tully’s tie. Ms. Denise’s hand connects lines to the locations of monuments they will be visiting on the school trip, a weird reverberation comes off the board with her mouth so close to it, and Rowdy Rodney, as his dad tells his son to tell his friends to call him, pulls so hard on Tully’s school tie that his nose almost bounces off his desk. The knot is an atom ball of fabric, pulled tight against Tully’s Adam’s apple, too small for him to unfurl, so he pulls away while Rodney pulls forward. The kids around them are smiling and laughing behind their hands. Tully pulls back so hard that he feels the tug threatening to pull through his skin and spine, decapitate him it will, and his head will go rolling down the aisles and girls will kick at it and scream at his dead eyes to get away. The veins in Rodney’s forearms rise to the surface. He has a blonde flat top like his father, and he smiles at Tully struggling. He waits until Tully’s pulling with the most force he can muster before he lets go of the tie, and the momentum snaps Tully’s head back. His shoulder blades hit the seat rest with a thud and the two front legs of his chair actually rise and then slam back down on the tile. Kids in the front row flinch. The whole sixth grade turns back to see. Even Ms. Denise. Her long red hair swivels around her shoulders and she’s about to yell at whoever is causing the ruckus when she sees Tully looking down at his desk. His face is red and his hands work feverishly on the minuscule knot. In front of him sits Rodney, whose hands are folded as he looks at Ms. Denise, the only student staring back at her. “Alright everyone,” she says. “Settle down. Rodney, you’re taking the empty seat behind Janet.”
“But I didn’t even do—”
She side steps to her desk for a stack of graded history exams, looking at Tully the whole time, who can’t get his tie to loosen and keeps shaking his head, muttering quietly to himself.
“Rose,” she says, “Can you help pass these out?”
Rose, one of the girls sitting in the front row, takes the papers, reads the name on the top page and hands them out, walking between the rows, a static noise of hushed conversation now prevalent in the room. She gives Rodney back his test that’s riddled with red ink on the top page. Ms. Denise begins talking about the Washington Monument. Rose stands in front of Tully’s desk with her hand extended, but Tully doesn’t look up. Blood collects under the surface of his face. “Here you go,” she says, waiting for him to take the paper. The words come out like she’s talking to a rabbit she just found in her backyard, afraid the slightest noise will make it run away. Some kind of recognition would help, but she never gets it from him, so she slides the paper on his desk, and he moves his arm away like the paper can hurt him. Ms. Denise calls on Lisa Fitzgerald to start reading and the class settles down. When Rose is down the next row, Tully reaches for his test. His fingers grip the paper where Rose’s hand touched it, and his face tickles before going numb. The number 68 is circled in the header. Under that, in red ink, Ms. Denise has written, You can do better.
Rowdy Rodney and the other boys in the fourth grade have a nickname for Tully. They call him Shit Brow, because above his left eye, in the center of his thinned eyebrow, is a birthmark the size of another eye, slightly raised and dark like a sun spot, made even more noticeable because of Tully’s rigor mortis skin complexion.
In the lunchroom, Tully eats at the table nearest to the entrance. That way he stays within line of sight of the teacher’s table. He shares the space with a group of classmates that pretend he isn’t there. He sets down his brown paper bag, choosing to sit as far from them as he can, out of courtesy to their privacy. They’re not mean to him, and are kind enough to call him their friend if Ms. Denise walks by and asks if everything is okay, but otherwise he’s the cardboard background to their lunchroom stage.
He scratches at the side of his head because his granddad cut too close with the clippers again. The same old infantry buzz cut, when other kids in his class have faux hawks and graphics etched along the sides. He brings a cold lunch to school while everyone else buys food from the cafeteria. He peels the shrink-wrap off his tuna sandwich when he sees Rose get in line with her friends. Her family lives on the same block as him. Theirs is the only house with a driveway. Saint Jerome Elementary makes their students wear the same uniform, but for some reason, in Tully’s eyes, the plaid skirt just looks better on Rose. He keeps his head low to the sandwich, almost bowing to it, while straining to see from the top of his eyes so it doesn’t look like he’s watching the popular girls waiting to fill their trays.
Girls do something to his brain that make his jaw clamp shut. And if it’s his turn to help Ms. Denise hand out the graded homework, his hands turn into dog tongues and he struggles to keep from shaking when giving the papers back to a girl. It feels wrong just to look at Rose as long as he does, to look at any girl for that matter, which is why he hides it. This close to the sandwich, Tully thinks about hot lunch and Rose and her home with the driveway, and that somehow they’re all related but he’s not sure how. He just knows they’re the things he doesn’t have, that are not his to begin with.
Something catches his eye at the far end of the cafeteria. Rodney is standing at the far table, waving at Tully. When he has his attention, Rodney sticks a Reese’s peanut butter cup above his left eye and lets his mouth hang open a little. The kids watching laugh.
After the school day is over, Tully takes his ragged book bag off a hook from the back wall, where everyone hangs their things. The class is full of laughter and conversations about who’s doing what and where they can go to hang out. Tully lingers at his hook before pulling his coat off, stares at the chrome and waits for someone to ask what his plans are, if he wants to go do something, which he could, because he never does anything. But the wall thins out as other hanging book bags disappear, and kids put on their coats as they exit. He reaches for his jacket and rests it across his arm, right as Rodney walks behind him and slaps his hand across Tully’s back. It makes a hollow sound, like Tully is empty inside.
Rodney’s friends flank either side of them. “Shit brow,” he says, “you need a ride?”
Tully can feel something break inside him and begin to drip, but the drops never hit anything. “No thanks,” he says. “I’m just walking.”
The hand on his back climbs up his shoulder, and they begin walking into the hallway, towards the stairway. They’re enveloped with the rest of the student body leaving the school. Rodney massages the skin and bone in his palm, and Tully turns away so Rodney doesn’t see that the pain is registering in him.
“Shit Brow, you’re tense. You need to take it easy. I’ll ask my mom to take you home.”
The flow of conversations surges around them. Plans, hanging out. Tully squirms in Rodney’s grip. “No, don’t ask. I’m fine.”
“But it’s raining outside. You’ll catch a cold.” They reach the ground floor landing, and everyone’s standing by the main doors, waiting for their rides. Rose is talking with her friends.
“Wait a sec,” Rodney says in a voice louder than it needs to be, “doesn’t Rose live by you?”
The leak inside Tully turns from drips to a steady flow, spilling into a bottomless pit. “Please,” he says, looking at his shoes. “Don’t…”
The principal cuts through the crowd, making her way outside. Tully tries to break free but Rodney’s fingers are too strong. When the coast is clear, he calls out again.
She stops talking to her friends and looks for who’s calling, along with everyone else. They see Tully and Rodney and shut up because something good is going to happen.
“Rose,” he says, “can you give Shit Brow a ride home? It’s really pouring outside. His potato head might sprout.”
Everyone starts laughing. Rose smiles and shakes her head. “Quit it, Rodney.”
“What? Give him a ride home. He lives right by you.”
Tully waits before making eye contact with her, and he can see the awkwardness of the situation seeping into her face as she turns to the door and back at them, slightly bouncing in place. The wheels are turning in her head. “Well, I can ask my mom…”
Rodney slaps Tully on the back again. “There you go. You don’t have to be so scared all the time. I told you she’d say yes.”
“But…” Tully says, “I—I said…” Rose is looking at him. She’s not smiling anymore. She’s as nervous as he is, and Tully can’t talk because of what’s filling inside him. It fills his lungs and he can’t breathe. It rims along the bottom of his eyelids. Blood rushes to his face. Why does his body react like this? It makes him look like he’s crying when he’s not. A white sports truck pulls up, framed in the school doors, and Rose looks to Tully and nods at her ride, as if he doesn’t know what her car looks like, like he can’t pick it out of a parking lot full of cars, because that’s the car that passes him everyday after school on his way home. The hallway walls contract with kids watching them. He keeps his head down and hurries to the door like he has a stick up his ass. Rodney’s voice bounces off the walls behind them. “You forgot to thank me.”
When he reaches the doors, Tully breaks off to the right and sprints down the block. He never looks back. He doesn’t turn over his shoulder when a girl’s voice calls out for him, never sees that Rose is standing with the passenger door open for him. The trees bristle along the sidewalk, sprinkling down beads of ice water that splash on the back of his neck and hands. He turns off the main street and takes the alleys and people’s gangways to get home. There’s a man a few yards ahead of him wearing a housecoat and boots. He throws away some garbage and asks Tully, “What’s that you’re saying?” It’s only then that Tully realizes he’s talking, and the last thing he remembers coming out of his mouth is, “…always picking on me.” A car backing out of its garage almost hits him. The red brake lights are like eyes when the truck jerks in place. Tully puts his hand on the fender. “Jesus, kid,” the driver says. “I didn’t see you. Watch where you’re going.”
He keeps walking without acknowledging the man. It starts to come down hard.
The Buick idles half a block down from Saint Jerome. Steam rises from the two cups in the center console, one of them coffee, the other hot chocolate. Tully looks at the green numbers on the radio display. The old man sitting in the driver’s seat grabs his cup and blows on it before bringing it to his lips.
“There’s nothing to be nervous about,” his grandfather says. “If your teacher didn’t think you were up for it, she wouldn’t have picked you. How many boys in your class, you’re the one she picks.”
Tully has his own theory on why Ms. Denise picked him as the boy representative from their class for a wreath laying ceremony in Washington D.C. He knows she thinks it’ll give him confidence, and if he took such an honor that other teachers, even the principal, kept gushing over, that he could apply this newfound self-respect to the rest of his life. “We’re you ever scared of flying?” he asks his granddad.
He sips his coffee and looks out the windshield, at the neighborhood still mottled in pockets of darkness before the sun fully rises. “Hell, at the beginning, sure, everyone is. But you get used to it. After a while, it feels like one long bus ride.”
He looks in the rearview mirror and sees the school bus turning the corner that will take them to the airport. He pulls a pack of chewing gum from his flannel breast pocket. “This is for the plane, on takeoff.”
“Alright then. Your friends are lining up already. Go on.”
He can’t even look at his granddad. He knows if he looks him in the eyes, the glow from the dashboard will be marbled in his eyes and it will look like he’s fighting the urge to cry, even though he’s not, so he opens the car door and slips out while saying he’ll call him from the hotel.
On the plane, he sits next to Jesse Litmus, who has the window seat but doesn’t look out of it, who plays on his iPad with his headphones plugged in. Their class takes up a bulk of the cabin, everyone sitting next to their friends, Tully only sitting next to Jesse because Jesse’s best friend Peter is at home sick with chicken pox, which threw Ms. Denise’s room charting into a mess after she already figured it out. The popular boys who are also the good boys in the class, sit in the center rows behind the good, popular girls, talking between the seats, tossing unopened bags of peanuts at each other. Tully leans on his arm rest to look at everyone. He sees the popular bad kids like Fabian Dreary and Tom Wilkes talking to the popular bad girls like Stacey Tech, who tells everyone she’s not a virgin anymore and relights cigarette stubs she finds in public ashtrays. Tully chews on a wad of gum. The tip of his nose is pink and wet because Jesse’s overhead fan blows on him and it’s cold.
“Hey, Shit Brow, let me get a piece of gum.”
Rodney slips into the aisle seat next to him. The corners of his lips are red with chip dust. Tully does as he’s told. Rodney takes the piece and then eyes Tully’s face carefully. He squints at him, leaning in closer to Tully’s face, and Tully freezes not to make any sudden movement.
“What… what is…” Rodney points to Tully’s face. “Tulls, I think you’ve got some cum on your cheek.”
“Really?” Tully fears it’s the white stuff that accumulates at the corners of his mouth when he’s really thirsty, so he pulls on his shirtsleeve and wipes his lips dry. “Thanks,” he says.
Rodney rolls his eyes. “Fuck me. You. Are. Clueless.”
“You’ll just take it, no matter what I say.”
“English, Tulls.” Rodney says. “Why do you think everyone picks on you?”
“It’s so easy. You don’t defend yourself. Girls won’t like you if you can’t stand up for yourself. Like, where’s your self-respect?” Rodney’s eyes switch over to Jesse, who’s watching a movie on his iPad. His lips morph into a smile. “I’ll never bother you ever again if you muff Jesse right now.”
“Right now, right now, muff him, hit him right on the chin. No more titty twisters. No more Shit Brow. Come on—now!—he called you a fag to Rose. I heard him.”
Tully pears over his shoulder at Jesse, who pretends like he can’t hear them, even though the panel of the iPad begins fogging up around his hands, and he slowly scoots in his knees off the floor so his feet rest on the seat cushion, knees tucked against his chest.
“Crack him one,” Rodney says.
“I don’t want to,” Tully says.
Rodney leans in and speaks very carefully. “I’m saying you’ll never have to deal with me ever again if you hit him. You can stop getting picked on. Right this very moment.”
Tully thinks about all the bad things that can happen to him if he hits Jesse in the face or if he doesn’t, or if his fist barely registers any pain to Jesse’s face and him and Rodney both start laughing at his weakness, or if the plane nosedives into the farmland below and he’s the only one who dies. But Ms. Denise walks through the aisle before he has a chance to decide.
“Rodney,” she says, “this isn’t your seat. Move.”
“In a minute. I gotta see something first.”
He sucks his tongue against the roof of his mouth and gets up.
They travel through Washington D.C. in one big group corralled by Ms. Denise and three parents who volunteered as chaperones. The popular boys hang out with Colton’s dad who’s wearing a short-sleeved shirt, and everyone asks him what the tattoos on his arms mean. The girls in the class follow the two moms who tell everyone how they’re training for the marathon, so their fanny packs are filled with energy bars and electrolyte strips they put on their tongue as they visit Ford Theatre, where Abe Lincoln was assassinated. They visit the National Archives, and everyone crowds around the glass display of the Constitution. The first day wraps up with a visit to the McDonalds next to their hotel. Ms. Denise assigns Tully to room with Dave Forest and Cody Reynolds. They’ve never been mean to him, but when curfew rolls around, Dave and Cody grab their blankets and pillows and ball them under their arms.
“We’re just gonna go hang out in Mike’s room for a while,” Dave says.
“Yeah,” Cody says. “We’ll be back.”
The hotel hallway rumbles with footsteps running back and forth, pockets of giggling. If you put your ear against the wall, you can hear the room over, who’s Deanne and Rachel and Nisa according to the phone list Ms. Denise handed them. Tully gropes the wallpaper absentmindedly with his pink ear pressed against the wall, listening to the pockets of silence that are broken with explosions of laughter and someone yelling No, no, no, and some other girl laughing and saying Yes, yes, yes. If the phone list is right, then the rooms surrounding Tully’s are full of girls, and he decides he’s turning on the shower any time he has to use the bathroom, just in case they can hear him too. He wanders into the bathroom and hears more muffled conversation, and he doesn’t need to run for the list to know it’s Rose behind that wall, because the tiny blonde hairs on his arms are raising and pulling towards the sound of her voice.
He turns on the shower and undresses. His pale skin is matted with birthmarks, like he needed that many reminders to know he had been born at one time, that it always wasn’t like this. The showerhead is like stepping in front of an open fire hydrant, it’s so strong compared to the one at home. After a while the jets massage his skull, and it relaxes the knots he carries around his temples from constantly worrying about some fucking thing blindsiding him out of nowhere, a frozen lunch, a roll of toilet paper—Rodney’s favorite—pen caps, erasers. With a powerful enough showerhead, steam collecting against the glass partition, Tully’s mind drifts.
He knows Rose will never like him. It isn’t even something he pines over—he just knows, sees the logistics perfectly, that a girl like her doesn’t call herself a girlfriend to potato headed boy like him. Still, he thinks about her a lot. Not kissing her or anything like that. He’s not sure why he thinks about her, or what they would do together. None of it makes any sense. He knows it’s important to make sense. He can see it in his grades, in the notes Ms. Denise writes on his History and English homework. Review your work. Write in pencil first. Organize your thoughts. The getting picked on might be easier to deal with if he were smart, so he could have something to fall back on. Sometimes he feels like he gets it, when a textbook is cracked open on his bed, and the words on the page start to bloom something in his head, he reaches for a pencil to answer a question on the take home sheet, but somewhere between his eyes and his fingers the thoughts get brittle and fall apart. All he’s left with are the dried pieces of thoughts that don’t make sense when strung together. How does everyone else change thoughts into words? Feelings into words? Sometimes it feels like he’s one giant finger rubbing against the earth, all sensation and no way to interpret it.
The phone in his room is ringing. At first Tully freezes in the shower until it rings again, then he throws the shower door open while the water still runs. He swings a towel around his bony hips, treading wet footsteps behind him. Drips of water sprinkle the phone dock.
Muffled talking, then a soft voice comes on the line. “Uh, Cody?”
“Oh my god, Dave, yes! Shut up for a sec. It’s Cassy. Is Cody there?”
The room list next to the phone is damp with water dripping off Tully’s chin. This room still lists Dave, Cody, and Peter—not Tully, who was originally assigned a room with Tom Sandoval and closer to Ms. Denise’s room. The air conditioning kicks in, Tully going cold while half naked, the drops traversing the knots of his spine feeling like ice. Tully looks around the empty room to make sure he’s alone.
“Okay,” shushed laughter, “Okay, ask him—shut up, I’m telling him—ask him if he likes Rose.” He can hear Rose in the background, talking at a high pitch he’s not used to hearing from her. He stares at the empty bed across from him.
“Okay.” He waits a beat. “Okay, yeah.”
“Yeah he does?”
“Yeah. He does.”
Her voice is slightly faint when she relays the news, like Rose is standing off over her shoulder. “Then why didn’t he sit next to her on the plane?”
“Because… he was scared.”
“Whatever! Scared of what?”
“Uh, hold on.” The phone barely registers as something in his hand, his fingers have gone cold and numb, the air conditioning kissing his calves and the knots of his exposed spine, which is just enough of a sensory distraction that he’s just going with whatever is happening on the phone.
“He was scared she didn’t like him,” Tully says.
“He—he didn’t want to… He just didn’t know.”
When the sound of her voices trails off, Tully knows she’s talking to Rose. But when the silence stretches long enough for Tully to look down and see his towel damp and curled around his ankles, a new voice comes on the line and changes his DNA by entering through his ear, all calm and collected, asking him about tomorrow, if maybe, Cody and him wanted to hang out with them when they visit the Arlington Cemetery.
“You there?” Rose says, while Tully tries to remember how to use his tongue again.
“So yeah, then?”
“What? I mean, yeah, sure.”
“Cool.” They both say nothing. “Later then.”
“I said, ‘Later’.”
“Oh yeah, okay.”
The line goes dead, and Tully trembles.
White crosses are regimentally aligned and run along the rolling green downs in succinct rows. Herds of students and faculty trek through the hills, too silent for this many people in an open setting. The trees don’t even rustle. Rose walks next to Dave, and when Ms. Denise isn’t looking, when the chaperones stop and give out a thousand yard stare over the crosses that seem to go on forever, Rose fits her hand inside Dave’s, and Tully, at the edge of the group, close to Ms. Denise for protection, he brings his fingertips to his bottom lip, willing Rose to look back at him, even though making eye contact with her feels like it could turn him into marbles that would scatter in all directions.
He’s wearing the form fitting beige slacks that cling to his legs, a blue collared shirt and a blue clip-on tie. The shirt and the tie are two different shades of blue. When they enter the Washington memorial cemetery, and climb the stone steps that lead to a glass door where ribbed pillars outline the Memorial Display Room, and behind those glass doors is a uniformed man standing perfectly still, dressed in white pants and white gloves that make you squint from their vibrancy—when he speaks, his words have a way of not disrupting the silence of the grounds. All emphasis and tone is translated in the way his eyes are slit when he greets the children, how the knots in his jaw are permanently flexed. He introduces himself as the Relief Commander for The Tomb of The Unknown Soldier. He swivels to face Ms. Denise and asks if the students handling today’s wreath will please step forward. She turns to her class, and Tully’s fingertips are in his mouth. The class parts to leave only Tully and Rose standing in the middle. The guard takes a step toward them. He informs Tully and Rose that they will wait for him at the top of those doors over there, pointing to the other glass doors behind him, while the rest of the class stands in the galley. They are to stand shoulder to shoulder, and he will ascend the steps without pausing and then lead them to a designated position in front of the tomb.
The Relief Commander leads the class outside. They descend the steps where other groups and tourists have assembled as they watch the changing of the guard. Tully and Rose stand alone at the top of the steps. Not even the wind disrupts their clothing. Cameras flash without the shutter sound snipping through the crowd, and Tully can’t help feeling like he wants to scream. He can feel the magnetism of Rose on his right side. Some unmistakable pull, that if he relented to it, would hurl him against Rose or through her, be absorbed by her. He looks down and sees his tie rising and falling on his chest.
Rose is talking to him.
“Are you nervous?” she says.
He tries to think of something to say while he still has her eyes fixed on him, but the Relief Commander is already ascending the steps, and Rose quickly turns back. The Commander tells them to follow his lead, he will clue them in on movements before official commands are given. They are to touch every step. The Relief Commander turns and begins walking towards the tomb, and Tully and Rose follow as a guard is marching from the left of the landing. When the Relief Commander halts, he whispers to Rose and Tully to step forward. When they do, the tomb guard holding the wreath before them extends it and they lay their glistening palms on the white tulips and forget-me-nots. The tomb guard lets go. Rose and Tully are holding it alone. He leads them to the wreath stand before the tomb, and Tully reads the description carved on the stone, HERE RESTS IN HONORED GLORY AN AMERICAN SOLDIER KNOWN BUT TO GOD.