She didn’t think much of him when she first saw him standing on the other side of her street that morning, facing her house but not exactly looking at it—she didn’t think much of him other than he was inadequately dressed for the weather. He was wearing a light brown jacket more suited for early fall, tattered jeans that were not only too tight but too short for his lanky legs, navy blue flip flops, and no gloves to cover his large hands. The neighborhood was completely quiet except for the ghoulish moans of January’s coastal winds. The holidays had passed and the younger people—save for this man—were either off to school or work for the day. It was just her, curiously staring out her window, and him: the world’s most absurd-looking statue.
Her first thought—or rather, her hope—was that he was probably waiting for someone or something to take him away from the stabbing wind she could now hear thrashing outside her home. A man’s attire, no matter how unfit for the conditions, meant little to her in terms of his character, so despite his appearance he must have had somewhere to go, someone to see, something to do other than endure the North Atlantic’s harsh winter air just across from her house. Tea in hand, she would peer out her window every now and then to see if he had gone. He had not. It had been one hour. He had not moved. He was a scarecrow a season too late.
The woman removed two heavy coats from the downstairs closet and put on the smaller one. The larger coat was the exception to her rule of not judging people based on their clothing. Her husband’s coat, a pitch black, wool pea coat, had been his favorite thing to wear—and her favorite thing to see him wear—as long as she had known him. They, too, had met in the winter some fifty years ago in Cape Elizabeth, back when her hair was long and blonde and captured the falling snow like a thousand golden tongues. She was walking her dog through the thick snow at the bottom of a hill where her future husband, adorned in his pea coat, was taking two boys sledding. They could have been his sons but turned out to be his nephews—something about him just exuded “Father.” He was just below average height but had perfect posture and stood tall for his lack of vertical advantage. He readied his nephews’ sleds with vigor and caution, never once losing the unfaltering smile spread across his face. While descending, one of his nephews must have hit a lip or a rock buried under the snow and veered too far to the left. The boy and the sled came within a foot or two of her and the dog. Everyone was screaming and barking as soft powder exploded all over them and the boy’s sled escaped from underneath him, bound for the woods a good distance away. But they all came out unscathed, and the pea coat man had frantically raced down the hill, nearly stumbling three times before reaching the bottom, blurting apologies and “Jeepers!” to her all the way down. She didn’t know then that Howard, this handsome figure toppling before her had just returned from The War in Europe. It didn’t show on the terribly human expressions bouncing all over his face, nor did it show in the clumsy halt he almost managed just before knocking her over as the slope suddenly ended. Judging by his weight for the split second he was on top of her she should have assumed he was a soldier, a man’s man, a patriot—even if she had, at the time she would have loved him all the more for it.
The man outside hadn’t budged, though the wind was now teetering his frame back and forth to the effect of an indecisive domino on an uneven table. The woman reached for the door and walked against the dagger wind as fast as her bony, aging legs could carry her to the frozen man. As she approached, his eyes remained staring at everything and nothing as they had been an hour before and God knows for how long before that. He seemed not at all distracted by the pea coat being carefully lowered onto his still and lopsided figure. At this distance she could see a prominent scar between his right cheek and eye, brown and protruding, made all the darker by the shallow, pale skin that surrounded it. His long, blonde, unkempt hair that covered both his head and most of his distorted face glittered with the thick ocean snow and vibrated furiously in the wind as if in an attempt to detach itself from his poor visage. It was strange to see a young man out there during the day in January, stranger still to see one so disheveled and ill-prepared, and strangest of all to see anyone but her husband in that coat. It automatically made the bearded man look more dignified as his arms were still at his side and by default he wore it as a cape.
“Oh, you poor thing! What on Earth are you doing standing out here? You’ll freeze to death! Here, come with me, come with me. That’s it.” The woman spoke slowly and as softly as she could, lest the force of her words finally topple him over. She felt guilty that she had let him stand out there for over an hour. Half embracing this total stranger half dressed in her husband’s coat, she slowly walked him across the street to her front door. With her hand on his hunched upper back she could feel the deteriorating strength that must have resided in him not long ago. She asked him to come inside but led him in herself.
It had been two months and fifteen days since she last had a guest. Her two sons lived down south, the older one, Gary, in Texas for a broadcasting job, the younger, Mark, in Florida for the warmth. Gary had called her and Mark a week before Christmas to set up a family get-together. Gary wanted Mark to pick her up in Maine, then come back with her to Texas, stay for a few days, then bring her back North. Mark had a fit and said he had this and that to do and so-and-so to see and wouldn’t have time to even drive one way. So Mark reversed the proposal, asking everyone to have Christmas in Florida. Of course, this debate all happened behind her back, the way they always did after Howard died, and she didn’t find out until three days before Christmas that everyone was on their own that year. She suggested, sensibly, that the two of them just come up to Maine with their wives and kids. It was hard enough for her to travel in her age anyway. “No snow in those parts either,” she argued, hope in her voice. She spent that Christmas alone.
The man looked slightly less ridiculous now that he was inside her living room, but only slightly. His hair was matted and drooping like a dog’s that just took a bath. She walked to the bathroom to grab a towel for him as he gently removed the pea coat from his back. He hadn’t said a word. She started to wonder if he was a mute, and fought back her fear of what this strange, stoic (or possibly crazed) man was capable of doing. But something about him was unthreatening. His motions were slow and beneath the mess of hair on his face she could picture a timid, boyish face. And being accustomed to talking to the television and herself and the wind most days she figured she should attempt a conversation while she had an audience.
“My name is Grace.” She failed to say more for a few moments. The man’s eyes ricocheted about and he nodded subtly in a way that could have meant: “Yes, your name is Grace,” or, “I can’t easily reply to that.” Grace’s house was normally so barren she nearly forgot the rules of being a decent hostess, but her years of experience with having her husband’s brothers from the war over for dinner and drinks soon kicked in.
“I have tea if you’d like.” Trying her best not to stare at the pitiful figure before her, she took the coat and hung it back in the closet where it had lived uninhabited for quite some time. “Or coffee?”
The man was cautiously patting his beard with the towel, and his mouth quivered as if on the verge of speech. Nothing. Nothing but that look: a peculiar mixture of awareness, fear, and perplexity.
“Here, sit down. I’ll bring you something warm.” She gestured somewhat nervously to the love seat and started some coffee. She didn’t know an adult soul other than her who disliked coffee. It made her mouth dry, her breath bad, and her anxiety worse. But Howard had basically bled it. His pupils were black coffee floating in the brown mugs that were his irises. If there wasn’t a pot on in the house back when he was living she knew something had gone wrong, or gone worse. One morning when they had just recently bought the house in Maine, before they had the kids, she made a pot for him but deliberately used decaf. It was a cruel and loving prank, and it only took him fifteen minutes to find out he had been duped. With a groggy smile he chased her around the house until their legs failed them and they both stumbled safely, gently—he was always so gentle with her—onto the kitchen floor, embracing each other, still in their underwear.
When she returned from the kitchen with a mug in one hand and a creamer in the other she noticed the man gazing with great intensity at a frame on the coffee table: a black-and-white family portrait taken just after Mark was born. Grace always had to remind herself that the young, bright woman in the photograph was indeed her, long before her hair shrunk and thinned and grayed, before her posture slumped, before her bones showed through her loosened skin; Her hazel eyes, though gray in the picture, were one hint—perhaps the only one—that this young mother and proud wife was also Grace, and would somehow become the woman now staring at her ideal self.
In the photo, the four of them were standing in front of the newly painted, yellow house (also gray in the image) that Grace and the young man were now sitting in. Howard held Gary on his shoulders as she held baby Mark in her arms. Her husband was still whole then—she remembered how his ears would shift a few inches back on his head whenever he saw his boys. He had wanted nothing but peace for them. Soldiering was his burden to bear, not a legacy to pass on.
“That’s my husband and kids. He’s gone now, they’re all grown up, have kids of their own.” She placed the coffee and cream before the man and pulled up a chair to sit across from him. She couldn’t tell for sure but his mouth bent in a form probably equivalent to a smile. He directed his attention to the mug and his large hands encompassed it, embracing its warmth. She couldn’t help but stare at his scar when he wasn’t looking. It was shaped and colored like a gluttonous worm: long, pinkish-brown, glossy when it hit the light the right way. Considering the man would not or could not speak, she felt no harm in asking of the mark’s origin, though she knew she would never know. But to her surprise:
“War,” he said with rocks in his tone, not rudely, just in the way anyone would sound devoid of human contact for God knows how long.
“War,” she echoed, nodding slowly. “I’d ask which one but they’re all the same, aren’t they?”
His eyes stayed fixed on his black, still un-sipped coffee. He returned a somber nod.
“My husband was a soldier.” She pointed faintly at the family portrait. “World War Two and Korea.” She said it with mock pride and glanced at the corner of the ceiling while giving a slight unsmiling chuckle of reminiscence and pain. Korea was the one. If you’re lucky enough to escape one war alive you’d better not push it, loyalty be damned. But that was her husband: Mr. Loyalty. Never cheated on her once—hardly ever looked at another woman. Never missed his kids’ concerts or games. Never lied or stole or envied. He might have killed. She knew he killed. But he was at war, and he was fighting the bad guys, and the bad guys got killed, and the good guys did too but as long as the bad guys’ death toll was higher it all meant something. Mr. Loyalty was loyal to his family and his country, and she never knew which took precedence or if they were one in the same to him.