The Birthday

Based on a True Story

“Soldiers don’t always come back the same,
Don’t always come back to the same place from where they left.”
~George D. Gordon, III, VFW, 2017.

I hadn’t watched the news lately, “Not since the murder of my step-son,” I told my caller. I told her I’d listen to the police tape as soon as I got into the office, but I no sooner had I hung up then I began looking for it online. It wasn’t hard to find, the news happening just yesterday.

I immediately started the tape on the assignment I was about to accept: sell a home in which a violent crime had occurred. Given that I had no other work to do and hungry, I couldn’t see how I couldn’t accept it, this home sale.

It wasn’t a sign from god but it felt as if what I might discover here would help explain what happened to my own son. What was it like to be the victim of a murder? What preceded it?

Surely how one has lived is always a testament to a person’s life, but death? Your life flashes before every eye that has to touch any part of you after you’re technically gone, even long after you’ve already left. That’s what I learned when I listened to the tape, took the assignment, then marched the next day to a home that spoke in detail the hell that was the lives of so many people.

My caller’s son was a soldier who had returned to his home in Florida after a violent operation in Iraq. He had come home about three months before the murder, arriving in an out-of-the-blue appearance on the first day of a deadly summer heat. In 90 days, it’d be his birthday.

He quickly picked up income as a door-to-door salesman for a water purification company, but the first weeks’ successes, his apparent culling of already toasted customers, quickly become not enough income. He struggled for confidence with work.

His house was on what I came to know as a pathologically silent street named Pantheon. Its melting blacktop meeting the swales fronting perfectly built homes, some shade of beige, conservatively landscaped, scattered figurines tossed on a few lawns. A freshwater canal lined the rear of the street, which likewise fronted a lifeless wildlife preserve.

As I parked, I passed by Catholic Home, I called it so for a concrete saint of The Virgin Mary welcoming visitors. It was located just under their street-side mailbox. Such a strange place for a virgin, I thought.

I pulled into the carport. The garage door didn’t appear damaged. The concrete wasn’t damaged. The entry was dusty with a few swollen phone books leaning about. I didn’t see anything that would’ve indicated that right here, the night before, was a struggle.

“Was there police tape anywhere?” The answer was, “No,” as I initiated my journey on the outside.

I noticed two women, dressed in white casual clothing with sneakers, across the street, staring at me as I made my way around the soldier’s estate for the first time. I introduced myself briefly to them and waved lightly as I left; they waved the same, like they were saying, “Thank you for coming.”

I walked around the back, kissed by the most delicate white lilies along one side of the soldier’s walkway while on the other side I glared at a sea of cigarette butts as plentiful as the blades of Bahia barely living on their lawn. The canal out back wasn’t particularly low. Actually, it was the only place at the home that was green.

I turned the corner to a Gorilla play set broken, a skeleton of its former structure; a hose was disconnected, slightly melted and dangling from inside an open BBQ; and a sliding glass door was open with a heavy curtain blowing out towards the canal. I turned the next corner and all was normal again, except for my rear view vision of The Virgin Mary.

I returned to the double-hung entry doors, convinced there would not be much damage inside. I was wrong.

I peered in and around to face a majestically tiled foyer with a wide, circular stairwell reaching into a balcony, and a blotch of blood just inside the door. I inspected its angle, its length, then headed toward a sunny room when I began to notice a spiritual change in the demeanor of this home.

The beauty my eyes had just beheld in the foyer became eyesores. The hallway was riddled with toy magnetic alphabets in all the primary colors, but mostly red. As I tip-toed around the letters, a room with a vomit of toys in every conceivable space, crevice, drawer, and cabinet opened to me. It was the family room.

A kaleidoscope of crayon marks was scrawled at the bottom two feet of every wall. The heavy curtain was still blowing out as I gazed at luggage on the floor, unzipped and unbuckled. It was men’s clothes, half wet, a smell of liquor emanating.

It was impossible to tell if someone had been packing or unpacking. A ski jacket being blew out the door. It reminded me that the soldier’s parents lived in the mountains of Colorado and were expecting my response. How could I possibly make any sense of what happened here? What preceded it?

All the furniture everywhere in the house was new: a white sofa with all the accompanying accoutrements of a wealthy family; a large TV; and a wall of oak shelves with nothing on them. I ambled into the kitchen area with its granite countertops and oversized breakfast nook.

I opened the refrigerator, which shed something that I could only describe as oozing goo. There was nothing inside that I recognized as having been former food. The goo was mostly royal blue and English rose, dripping in long strands.

Next to the fridge was a cooler overflowing with the stenched remnants of hard liquor and beer. Who was the drinker: soldier or wife?

I entered the formal dining room with its humongous ceiling was suddenly shaken by the sound of a sonorous, grinding bellow. It sounded like something was turning on.

I followed the sound that led me to a full bath with a ceiling that was easily 15-feet high, whirlpool bath, separate shower, toilet and a bidet. Such a magnificent house, but the sound began again in the wall and it was approaching fast. I couldn’t take it, fled, slammed the door, and found myself in front of a path of lemon drops. In wonderment I followed them up the stairwell into the baby’s room.

That’s right. The baby’s room. I had forgotten about that baby. Those two women across the street told me about that in our brief encounter. They said the soldier had come across the street and knocked pretty firmly on their door. The man of the house greeted him but noticed he looked exhausted, maybe exasperated. The soldier said nothing more than the command, “Take the baby.”

Stunned, he did. Without another word, the soldier walked back across the street. Minutes later, they heard the sound of catastrophe. The older lady mentioned in a hush as I left, “He lost his job.”

I turned into the master suite adjacent to the baby’s room. There I saw a card on a heavily blood-stained carpet. In fact there was blood splattered everywhere, all over their Wayfair end tables, super-sized bed, bureaus, lamps, and curtains.

It was a birthday card. It was peaking from underneath a lavender T-shirt with a yellow chick on it that pouted “Chicks Rule.” On one side was embossed Sweet Love Almighty; on the other, a handwritten scrawl asking, “why R U such an ass.”

I had seen enough. As I followed the lemon drops down their exquisite staircase, I saw the blotch of blood again near the door in the foyer. He had paused there, I thought, on his way out, maybe with the baby. He crossed the street, gave the baby away and returned home, upstairs, and where his wife lay in bed whimpering, perhaps, gurgling. He had gotten her right at the base of her neck.

The soldier picked up his cell phone and called his mother some 2,000 miles away. “Mum,” he ordered, “Get Isabel,” a woman from the deep woods of Mississippi.

He had ordered a conference call with the whimpering one’s mother. It wasn’t long. It was commando style and he had identified the enemy.

As soon as Isabel got on the line, she knew something was wrong. “What’s happening? What’s going on?”

The soldier, all he said was, “I shot her.”

His mom didn’t speak. The other one howled. I stopped the tape. I didn’t want to know if we could hear him shoot himself.

In commemoration of Memorial Day. If this story made you think about the reason for Memorial Day or any veteran, please LIKE.


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