The boys drove up to Columbia, Missouri on a Friday night at the end of a scorching June, eight days before the party we’d started calling “Luke’s Going-Away Soirée.” Stief figured Luke needed a hero’s send-off before Basic. Stief was three years older than Luke, his big brother in the fraternity, and an adjunct family member. He had overcome Tourette’s at an early age. If Steif was going to do something, he was going to do it. So it was booze and a strip club to show they were men. I only heard about the strip club second-hand and after the fact.
They knew Debs wouldn’t approve, and they knew she’d find out because she always found out. They went anyway. I didn’t see them taking back roads up to the city or tossing back cans of Natty, crushed silver blue ducks in their wake, but I did see Debbie’s temper, still hot, six days later. Luke, her second youngest, was nineteen. He’d moved to college and into a fraternity just nine months earlier, and he wasn’t old enough, may never be old enough, to run around like that. Or wear a uniform. Luke has a baby face.
The Fourth of July came the next Wednesday, and I joined the Yarnell family at the Mud Hut, a little cabin on stilts, down by the Osage River. With the Yarnells, if you came often or came hungry, you were family. If you asked how they were and paused to visit, you were family. If you were close with any one of the children, you were family.
I learned this after rooming with their oldest daughter, Sammie, our sophomore year of college. She talked about her family like they were a unit, a sitcom with every type of character you’d need while a friend or a cousin circled in and out of the scenes. The cast: an older brother, Ben, who kept an eye on Sammie our first few years of school. Everyone, even Momma Debbie, calls him “Safety Ben.” He’s a movie buff, the self-described “responsible one,” and listens to more NPR than anyone I know. Luke, Sammie’s younger brother and third Yarnell child, is her best friend and source material for her ankle tattoo. Luke played sports in high school, worships Batman, and is quick to smile. When he pulls his normally passive face into a grin, his head tips half an inch to the side. You know he’s charming you and he knows you know he’s charming you, so there’s a little joke hanging behind the beam. Grace, the fourth and final Yarnell kid, is the youngest by several years and wants everyone to forget it. She’ll have me fooled for an hour or so and then I’ll hear squealing laughter or notice her trying to flaunt her height. At only thirteen, she is the tallest of all the Yarnell women. Ben, Sammie, Luke, and Grace belong to Debbie and Christopher and to one another.
Debs and I met when she came up to school to help Sammie paint her room. We lived in a house built before the Great Depression and remodeled in the seventies. It had wood paneling in the living room and foamy gold mold seeping out of ceiling cracks upstairs. At least the lease said we could paint our own walls. Debbie paused mid-pace in the upstairs hallway, paintbrush and a trim tray in each hand. She looked straight at me and said, “Tell me about yourself.”
Debs loves with purpose and passion. She says what she means and expects you to do the same. The first time she said she loved me, after I’d spent several lazy days down at the Mud Hut and in town with the family, I was simultaneously unsurprised and fulfilled. Christopher, or Toph – nicknames are affection— is more reserved. He shows his love by waking up early to make his specialty, biscuits and gravy, in a cast iron pan, just because you are in town. “Tophy’s making Bs & Gs in the mornin,’” Sammie will say. Amid loud, bouncing group conversations, Toph always finds space to ask how I am doing.
That holiday, the heat outside was a steam shower and before we made it to the water, we sat as a family up on the deck. Friends dropped by, hitched their pontoon, and ambled up to make plans.
“We’ll go up to the gravel bar—”
“The gravel bar or the sand bar?”
“The gravel bar. The water is low.”
“We’ll go up to the gravel bar, but we can’t stay too long. Steve can’t be in the sun for very long anymore if he’s going out on a job the next day.”
Steve nodded from the porch stairs. There were plenty of chairs, but he leaned on the railing, belly drooping a little over the makeshift dog gate at the top step.
“He’s had a heat stroke three different times—”
“Eleven times,” he corrected. “Do you think they’ll be here soon?”
Steve and Cindy’s daughter and her boyfriend were joining them.
“Well, three were the ones when you ended up in the hospital, that’s what I meant. Anyway, when it’s hot like this. And I’m sure they’ll be here—you told them 11:15.”
“Well, it’s 11:18.”
“It’s so hot.”
“So hot. That’s like Jim, he has to stay inside and drink water all day before he goes to work if he’s gonna be outside all day.”
“Drink water all day and then all I do is pee it out. In the bathroom every five minutes.”
“Well, that’s good– your body is staying hydrated.”
“Gotta eat fruit.”
“Gotta eat lots of fruit.”
About midday, we took the pontoon over to the gravel bar, waded in, and unfolded our bag chairs. As we sat, half in the current, cold Bud Light cans in cozies, the soft brown water licked by us and bent toward the Missouri.
Men and women have their own circles at the gravel bar. The women talked of children and neighbors and memories. I caught faint notes of Cardinals baseball downstream. Meanwhile, I sunburned my stomach and my waistline itched for a week.
At work the next day, I pretended to re-tuck my blouse to hide my scratching. Every itch reminded me of how easy the water felt: the eventuality of Osage meeting Mighty Missouri, down the Mississippi, through southern farmlands where it siphoned and weaned and grew things, and, after what seemed like years, the lifeblood found the Gulf of Mexico. Bigger waters.
The big time. What does success mean and how can I measure it? Is it dying for your country? Is it owning your own place? Is it paying off your loans? If there was a scale somewhere or maybe a dictionary we could figure out what it means to win. There is always the accumulation of small victories, the little things, they say, the moments of water kissing your skin and breezing by. Joy. The creation of memories. These scenes make up summer, make up a season, make up time. I can measure time, but never make sense of it. Memories are bookmarks in a timeline; they stick out and remind me of my place.
The river bluffs were full of trees and hills and peace and muffled our talk, but Debs still heard snippets of Luke and Stief’s adventure. Nothing is secret in the family. Her disapproval rang with Stief. She sent sidelong squints— different from the ones we all made into the sun that day—and she told him, I know.
“Know what? What are you talking about?”
Debs gave Stief arched brows and an assurance they’d talk later. With Debs, you could have fun, but a strip club was going too far. She couldn’t bring herself to lay into Luke; he was about to leave. Maybe when he got home from Basic.
Someone brought a canopy-style tent to the gravel bar and set up a grill half a foot into the water. The charcoal grill was fastened to the bottom of a metal bird feeder so it could get wet. Off to the side, there was a serving table with brats, dogs, buns, and chips. There were plates, but instead we walked around, handing out hot dogs and wading up to coolers on the boats to get each other refills.
Grace whirred the WaveRunner up and down the length of the gravel bar. Newly equipped with her water safety certification, she offered rides to friends – the next best thing to a driver’s license. Grace cut a momentary trail out of the gentle, steady flow before it patched itself up.
That night, Debbie lowered heavily to her knees. Prayers caught in the canopy of branches and hung outside with the leaves. Her upward glances the next morning were long. One day closer.
In this place, Debbie and Chris had worked hard to create a sense of tranquility. The front porch faced the river and squash and basil and mint and tomatoes grew in the garden by the road.
Follow the dirt road over the levy, turn right down Engineers Road, pass the boat ramp, there’ll be a field on your left, and their lot starts where the corn stops and beans begin. On that cusp, crop line so clear, black birds fly every morning (five, ten, forty, too many) and on a good day a breeze butterfly kisses the corn goodbye and lingers with us on the lot.
Earlier that summer, we’d gone to see the new Disney movie, Brave, while Luke drove up to Warrensburg for a physical. The moral of Brave was to be independent and to be nice to your mother. We hung around the house in town afterwards. Luke got back home.
“Luke, how’d it go today? What’d they have you do?”
“Oh, nothing too bad.” He lowered himself into a porch chair. “Do you know what alligator walks are? When you squat down and crouch as you shuffle back and forth across the gym? We had to do that. That was probably the hardest part.”
“How many, or was there a certain number?”
“Just until we couldn’t go anymore. I’d say there were about eleven of us there. I probably finished seventh.”
“Were there any women there?” I asked.
“No. Well, yes. You mean that checked us in? There was one woman that checked us in. Then there were two girls who were in my class—reserves like me.”
“So it went okay?”
“It’ll just be tough, but I can do it.”
Luke had played football and wrestled for four years in high school. In Jeff City, football was god; sports were king. After years of alternating between gaining mass to make tackles and cutting mass to make weight, Luke had learned his own body.
“The thing… the thing is— you won’t be in combat, will you?”
“With the Air Force Reserves, probably not. I’ll mostly be on a base and I probably won’t have to ship out unless I volunteer.”
“Would you— why would you volunteer?”
“The money. It pays real well, and it probably just depends on where I am in my life. I mean, if I’m dating someone seriously, and things are going good, then maybe I’d go if I think I could come back after a few months. Or maybe not, if I think it wouldn’t work. If I just started dating someone, then maybe not, because I might want to see where that goes. Unless I didn’t really think it was serious. Then…”
“Then you’d go.”
I kicked the porch swing back and forth a few more times. To succeed, to provide, was to be a man, sure, but that seems too black and white.
“The thing… the thing is, I just, I don’t know why we’re there. I don’t know why we’re still there, other than the fact that—”
“We can’t leave,” Luke said.
“Right. And that doesn’t seem like a very good reason.”
“Yeah, we’re only there because we can’t leave,” Luke said. I’d never heard him say it. He sighed.
“That’s it, really.”
“I just hope, even if you decide to volunteer, you don’t see much combat. Because… like that army sergeant who went crazy and killed all those civilians. You know the one– like six months ago?”
“I didn’t hear about that,” Luke said. He scrunched the elevens between his eyes.
“I didn’t either.” Ben said.
“Yeah, it was all over the news. They don’t really know what happened. One night, he just went into this village, and, well, women and children. I don’t remember all of the details. I think it was Afghanistan. But it was this Army soldier who left one night and shot all of these people.”
“Yeah, don’t tell Debs this, but I did hear about this one base that was attacked. These guys dressed up in the uniforms, so the guards couldn’t tell. But the thing is, when you walk in the base, you’re always supposed to have a hat on. And these guys didn’t have on hats. So one person caught it, he called it in—but by the time they could do anything, they had already stolen a jeep and blown it up. Maybe ran into something. I think a few people were killed. But that’s really rare.”
“No, we won’t tell Debs that.”
“Yeah, if Mom heard that, she’d freak out.”
“So who’s coming over tonight?”
A big reason Luke enlisted was the money. He’d hinted last Christmas when he made up his mind, that there was a financial side to his decision. After he officially signed, everyone had been frank. He was one of four kids. College was expensive. It took Ben almost seven years to pay off his student loans— and that was relatively quick. All the kids had chosen in-state, “good value” universities.
“But when it comes down to it,” Luke said. “It is a pretty sweet deal. They take care of the debt I racked up in the first year, they pay for the next three, and there’s a paycheck every month. And when I get out I have the experience.”
“I want to be either a cop around here or do something with military history. Military history—I’ve always been a big fan.”
“Oh, that’s right. You have all those books.” I said.
Luke rarely admitted it, but he loved to read. History, science, biographies—the small bookshelf in his room was stuffed with texts. Sammie always watched for on-sale history books for Luke.
“Yeah, exactly. And so to be a cop here you’ve got to have a Bachelor’s in Criminal Justice— which I’m getting—or be in the Army for four years. So really, I’ll have both.”
Job security. Pick a path. It’s unspoken, but the love here, so much love, transforms the city limits into boundaries. They’re elected boundaries, because who would leave the web if they could help it? The support, familiarity, tradition— staying was barely a decision; it was a happy assumption.
At Luke’s Going-Away Soirée, we gathered at the Mud Hut on the Osage River. It was three days after the Fourth. We hung flag banners from the lower deck and then strung them out back between the red, white, and blue coolers to keep anyone from parking in the grass.
“These were on mega-sale,” Debs said, handing me a clear plastic package of American flag pennants to string up underneath the deck. “So cheap. It was after the Fourth, so everything was on clearance. I stocked up.”
Luke’s fraternity brothers, high school buddies, family, friends, and neighbors came from all around. Sixty, eighty people drifted in and out.
When the guests left, we sat around the table on the back porch and took tequila shots in Luke’s honor. He joined us. It was one of the first times Debs allowed him to break her strict twenty-one-and-over rule. In Missouri, you can drive at sixteen and buy cigarettes at eighteen. Luke had two more years before he was twenty-one. But he had enlisted. The rules had stopped making sense.
Later, by the bonfire, I sat with Debs. She smoked a cigarette. So did I. She only smoked if she was drinking. Tobacco hung sticky in the river air and mixed with wood smoke.
“How do you feel about all of this, Debs?”
“Well, I think,” her words drew out just a fraction. “I think, financially? It’s great for him. I mean, graduating debt free? That’s huge.”
“And they’re getting rid of last year’s debt. Plus the money every month.”
“Yeah. Yeah, and otherwise?”
“You know, I think the structure will be good for him. The discipline, you know.”
“It’s not a bad deal. I really think the structure will be good for him.”
After Luke left for Basic, Debbie found an online forum for military mothers. Toph told me later how much the support had helped her. Months later, I see Luke’s graduation portrait from Basic framed in their living room. He is wearing his uniform. His teasing eyes are stern, jaw slightly clinched, side cap covering his short hair. I remember black and white pictures of my grandfathers in the same pose, but the past makes them seem older. Luke, Luke may look like a stranger in the frame, but he can’t hide his youth. The uniform is part of his identity now.
The next morning during clean up, we burned the trash like always. Outdoor centerpieces of garden daisies wilting in plastic water bottle vases. Little American flag napkins and Styrofoam bowls of Chex Mix crumbs. All of it went in. The paper flag wrapped around the foam caught first. The flames engulfed the bowl; white plastic shrank into red and blue paper, then blackened. Another half moment passed and the melted mush was gone.
I drove back home.
On the gravel road back from the river lay a petrified possum in the left tire track, his body half-curled on its side. Its arms were pressed against its middle, teeth bared, and its face frozen in half-grimace: shock.
My mind took a picture without my consent.
Tuesday morning, the Yarnells drove to St. Louis and parked in the hospital lot they knew from when Sammie was little and beating cancer. They took the Metro Link into Lambert International. Debs and Luke sat together on the train. Toph had taken him to Whiteman the day before for check-in; it was Debs’ turn to guard his side.
Debs crossed her legs and she leaned her cheek on her right palm, looking forward. Luke looked straight out at the city whirring by behind his family. Debs’ left arm fully covered Luke’s right, from elbow down to their woven fingers.
Before they got off the train, a woman she didn’t know came up to Debbie. She said, “The love of this family is in the air. He is gonna be okay because God is gonna watch over him.”
Luke survived Basic. In his letters and texts he sounded a bit bored, missing his friends, missing his social life, missing the normalcy he’d carved out in college that first year. Everyone drove down to Texas for his graduation from Basic. There was crying and hugging and the novelty of military rules that seemed like quirks. He wouldn’t jaywalk anymore. After his graduation ceremony, Sammie had started to cross the street fifty yards before the crosswalk to get to their parking space. Luke pulled her back gently and said they had to cross up there. No cars had been coming. It seemed silly at first.
“But when you think about it,” Debs said, “where you cross the street matters. I mean, if he was on a Base somewhere. You never know.”
A few months ago, we found out Luke was going to be shipped out. Afghanistan. He’ll leave in March and won’t be back until the late fall or winter. Debbie took the news hard. So did Luke’s girlfriend; they split up not long after he found out.
Earlier, I’d asked him what he did when he was serving on base. “Lots of stuff,” he said. “Load bombs.”
I don’t think anyone really thought he’d go. We knew he could go, we knew people who had gone, but we didn’t think he’d have to go. He’d be turning twenty-one soon.
I saw Debs a few weeks after Sammie told me he’d be shipped out. I didn’t know what to say. We talked a little and then I said, “Debs, we’re going to have to have a big party.”
“Yeah. When he comes home we will. I just don’t— I don’t feel like it’s good to do before. You know?”
“Oh yeah. Yeah, of course. When he comes home.”
~ ~ ~
Allison Coffelt is currently a graduate student in creative nonfiction at the University of Missouri. Her writing often centers on social justice issues and sense of place. She is a Midwesterner, who, after some hopping around, is back in her hometown of Columbia, Missouri.