Matthew Fiander

The Smell of Cordite

        Dan talked Jill into going to the Memorial Day parade with him and Dylan even though she’d just miscarried three days before. They had been taking Dylan since he was two — he was four now — and he loved walking around the town square to see the fleet of fire trucks, to smell the peanut oil from the fried dough vendors, to see the soldiers dressed up in Union garb to fire their guns.

        Dan thought, no knew, it would be good for Jill to go. He said so through the locked bedroom door. What he didn’t say was that he didn’t expect her to take it this hard. She hadn’t been out of the house. Yesterday afternoon, Dan found her asleep on the bed, Dylan’s old Fisher-Price stethoscope laid across her chest, like she’d been trying to listen for the lost baby. Dan sat on the bed next to her and picked up the toy, put the buds in his ears and held the chest piece to her stomach. He didn’t know why he did it, didn’t know why he concentrated so hard when he did. He heard his wife’s heartbeat, distant, up in the cage of her chest, but nothing else. He turned his head to hear better what wasn’t there and saw his wife’s eyes open, looking at him.

        “Silly, isn’t it?” she said. “I didn’t really think I’d hear anything.”

        “She’s not in there,” he said. And, since then, he kept wishing he’d said yet. She’s not there yet. He hadn’t known until that moment that his wife wanted a daughter. But the tears in her eyes, the way she curled up her legs and hugged them to her chest, closing off from Dan, told him that.

        He took the toy stethoscope with him when he left the room and his wife hadn’t spoken since. Not that she’d said much in the three days since Dan woke up to his pregnant wife screaming, to the blood on the sheets, that frantic trip to the emergency room, the flat look on the doctor’s face. His use of the word ectopic. Surgery. His wife, with a mask over her face, being wheeled down the hall away from him.

        When she came out of surgery, after they’d taken the embryo — that’s the word they used — out of her fallopian tube and stopped the bleeding, she didn’t cry. Not until she got home and laid down to sleep, then she shuddered in the bed. She sobbed and turned away from Dan, clutching the edge of the mattress. All he wanted in that moment was to hold her, to tell her they could try again if she wanted, to say it would be okay. But she stayed on her side and hadn’t moved much since. Dan felt like she was on the other side of some uncrossable border. He wanted her back.

        “It’s not fair to Dylan to miss the parade,” he said through the door. “We can’t just forget about him.” The room stayed silent for a moment until he heard the worn creak of bedsprings, then bare feet padding slowly across the hardwood. He knew she was up, so he went downstairs and when he got to the kitchen, Dylan was standing there in the doorframe, big grin on his face, hand held out for him to shake.

        “I’m Dylan, nice to meet you,” he said. When Dan went to shake his son’s hand, a spark of static electricity shocked him. He knew this was coming. It was Dylan’s favorite new game. He’d rub his socked feet like crazy in the living room then run and find you to shake your hand. When Dan pulled his hand back, shaking it in mock pain, Dylan giggled and ran back into the living room to charge up. But when his mother came down a minute later, in one of Dan’s old t-shirts and jeans, Dylan ran up to her but didn’t hold out his hand. He just smiled at her. “Hi Mommy,” he said.

        She smiled back and held out her hand. “Come on,” she said. “Get it over with.”

        When Dylan touched her hand, he laughed out loud at the spark, and Dan laughed too, putting a hand on Jill’s shoulder. “Let’s get your shoes on,” she said to Dylan, turning away from Dan.

        They only lived two streets from the square, so it was a short walk, and there weren’t many other people walking nearby, which meant they were running late. But Dan was glad they didn’t have to run into anyone yet, that they had this moment of quiet out in the world.

        “We’re going to miss it,” Dylan said more than once. “We’re going to miss them fire the guns.”

        “We’ll make it,” Dan said after waiting to see if Jill said anything. She just held on to Dylan’s hand and kept moving forward. They walked past Adrian’s Jeweler’s, owned by Adrian who, when Dylan was a baby, yelled at Dan for running his baby carriage up onto his meticulous storefront lawn, past the children’s library with its hard carpet and sweet book smell, past the drug store owned by the MacArthur brothers who had filled the prescriptions for Jill’s pain meds and antibiotics. Reminders, Dan thought, incidental reminders in all directions.

        They got to the square and found a spot on the corner outside Bob’s bakery. He thought Dylan might ask for a cheese danish, but he was staring down the street to see the parade come around the corner and up Main.

        “Is this spot all right?” he asked Jill.

        “It’s fine,” she said. Her arms were wrapped around her stomach.

        “You look cold,” he said. “You want me to run back and get a sweater?”

        She shook her head. “I should have taken another pill, that’s all.”

        Dan was about to tell her that wouldn’t fix anything when Joe and Stacy Hutch from down the street walked up to them. Stacy smiled wide and toothy and asked where they’d been hiding. “You missed our dinner party on Saturday,” she said.

        “Sorry,” Dan said. “Jill was sick.”

        “Well, are you feeling better?” Joe asked her.

        “Sure,” she said.

        When she didn’t say anything else, Dan added, “We’ll have her fixed up and back to one-hundred percent in no time.” He smiled as big as Stacy did.

        “I hope so,” Stacy said. “You all need to be there the next time. It’s no fun without you.”

        “You got it,” Dan said.

        After they left, Jill turned to him and frowned, mouthed the words I’m sick?

        “Should I have told them?” he asked.

        She shook her head. “You hate those dinner parties. We weren’t going anyway. Why’d you make me the excuse?”

        “What else was I supposed to say?” he asked.

        He wanted to hear her answer, hoped that she had one. That she could tell him what to say to make her feel better, to fix her. When she clung to the bed that first night home, far away from him, she seemed like a piece of his wife, a shard, something that was only a part, that needed to be reattached to some larger whole. He wanted to do that for her, but she wouldn’t tell him what was broken. With that oily smell in the air, he suddenly wanted to buy her some fried dough or a frozen lemonade. Something sweet and comforting. But before he could move the din of people milling and talking around them fell away and down the street a truck’s horn sounded.

        “Here they come,” Dylan said.

        “I’m sorry,” Dan said to his wife, but if she heard over the growing cheers it didn’t show on her face.

        The small procession always started the same way. A bunch of local women volunteered to dress as Betsy Ross and carry a large American flag down Main Street. They waved and smiled, the crowd applauded. Next came the Shriners in their tasseled conical hats, carrying a banner asking for donations. After that, some of the local firefighters rolled down the street on a couple of their trucks, waving and mugging the whole way.

        Dan lifted Dylan up because he knew his son liked to see the fire engine. Dylan nudged his mother’s shoulder. “Look, Mom,” he shouted, pointing at the ladder truck. “That thing is huge.”

        She looked up at him and smiled, put a hand on his knee and gave it a squeeze. Her smile was tired, but not pained in that moment, her eyes almost clearing.

        It all weighed on her. He saw it in how her gaze moved from Dylan to the street, the sidewalk, her hands, how the skin under her eyes looked like cray paper — it told Dan it was all too much. He wanted to take some of it from her, to feel the weight too. The doctors told them it could be harder to conceive after an ectopic pregnancy. It had already taken a couple years to get pregnant this time and Dan thought Jill wanted something to blame, something to explain it, the way he did. The way he got up that night they came home from the hospital and went through the bathroom cabinets, reading the side effects off every label, checking the soap and the shampoo in the shower for chemicals that had hazardous-sounding names. At one point, he woke up in the tub where he’d let the bottles scatter around him and had wrapped himself in Dylan’s ducky towel. Dan snuck back to bed and heard Jill grinding her teeth in her sleep. He wondered what her pain felt like, if it settled on her like a film the way his had. Dylan was the only thing that worked on the hurt, that static-electric charge from his son’s hand jolting the pain out of him momentarily. Even to hear him cry when he fell and scraped his palm on the driveway — it didn’t get rid of the hurt, but it softened it.

        “The grand finale!” Dylan shouted, because that is what Dad said to him last year when the Union soldiers came around the corner and up Main. Dylan stared silently as the soldiers came into town in five tight lines.

        Dan put his arm around Jill and when she looked at him he nodded up to his son sitting on his shoulders, and he smiled at her to show her what they had. She smiled, but only halfway, her eyes once again flat, staring at Dylan as if trying to figure him out.

        One of the soldiers yelled, “Halt!”

        “Wow,” Dylan whispered to himself, not noticing his mother’s stare.

        “Aim.” The group raised their rifles to their shoulders and pointed them into the sky.

        “Here it comes,” Dan said.

        “Fire!” And the entire squad fired a round. Dylan squealed and covered his ears. Dan thought he felt Jill flinch, until he realized it was his own body that did, jarring her in the process.

        “Fire!” Dylan laughed. Dan tightened his arm around Jill.

        “Fire!” The crowd erupted in applause. Dylan clapped loudly and the noise rang in Dan’s ears.

        “Company, march,” and the soldiers made their way up Main, away from the crowd, signaling the parade’s end.

        “Can I try to find some shells, Mom?” Dylan asked.

        Jill started to help Dylan down from Dan’s shoulders, but she winced so Dan set him down and he ran off with the other kids to find the cartridges the soldiers left behind. Last year, most of the kids found one but Dylan didn’t and he cried the whole way home. Jill was watching Dylan search the ground, her eyes sharp, clear all of a sudden. She wanted him to find a cartridge, and Dan realized he did too. That maybe this was the thing this day needed. That their son should find a shell, should run back to them, the shell in his palm, the coppery smell on his hands. Maybe that would be the start of what came next, what came after.

        Dan imagined his wide-eyed son finding a shell and bringing it over to him, imagined turning the shell over in his hand to show Dylan the black scoring inside. He would lean in close and inhale that sulfur smell, breath it deep into his nose. Dan would talk about the residue in the cartridge, how it was called cordite and it was the charge that made the bullet fire. He would use the word propellant. Dan would tuck his son’s hand around the shell and tell him to store it in his sock drawer. At night, when Dylan slept, Dan would go into his room and dig out the shell. He’d hold it to his nose, and look over his son, count his limbs and fingers and toes the way he had at the hospital, and he would inhale the cordite smell again and again, until it was gone.

        Some children were already returning to their parents, shells in their open palms. Just to their left a boy tugged on his Dad’s pant leg. Look Dad, a whole bullet!” He said. “It must have fallen out of the chamber or something.” A group circled around him to see, patting the young boy on the shoulder.

        Dan didn’t have to look at Jill to know she’d heard, that she was fighting back tears. He cringed to think something so trivial could upset her, make her mouth go cracking, winter-morning dry. This was how it would be, he thought. Every broken thing the world could truck out, big or small, was unshakably theirs now.

        He swallowed hard, all of a sudden wanting a glass of water, then caught Dylan’s eye and shot him a smile. “We’re going to be okay,” he said finally, not looking at Jill but keeping his arm around her. He said this to her whenever he brought her tea or cinnamon toast and climbed into bed next to her. He told her she didn’t have to speak if she didn’t want, he knew she was upset. It was okay to be angry, he whispered to her, the same way he had driving home from the hospital. Suddenly Jill broke away from him. She was crying openly now.

        “Stop saying that,” she said, her voice breaking some. “That everything is going to be okay. We’re at the Memorial Day parade, Dan. A stupid, rinky-dink town parade. This thing shouldn’t be able to make me cry.” She wiped her face.

        “We can try again, Jill. We can keep trying.”

        “I’ve been trying to tell myself that.” She looked away from Dan, hugged herself hard.

        “You’re upset,” Dan said. “We’re both upset.”

        “Upset, Dan? Upset is the best you can come up with? I’m hurting to the bone. Like pain is a part of me for good now. Do you know what that feels like?”

        He just stared at her, at parts of her face. Shrunken eyes. Shiny forehead. Limbs faintly quivering. The noise of people passing and shuffling their feet and talking and laughing rose in Dan’s ears, his throat caught and his arms went slack. Down the street the soldiers and the Betsy Rosses and the Shriners were sipping coffee from Styrofoam cups and eating donuts and it made anger run like a current across Dan’s skin. His hands shook and his eyes stung with tears. Jill looked murky, unrecognizable. This was what she’d become, someone to fill the space next to him. Standing small beside him in the light of day. A heaviness on the other side of the bed. He couldn’t hold her. She wouldn’t let him, and he wasn’t sure he’d know how. “I’m not sure,” he finally said, though he wasn’t sure anymore what he was answering.

        Dan looked in the street for Dylan. All the other kids had been called away by their families, and now that Dylan was alone he scanned the crowd for his parents. Dan met eyes with his son, saw Dylan look from him to Jill and back again. Dylan stood up straight and gave them a soldier’s salute. He stayed like that for a second, his hand to his forehead, then nodded at his parents and let it fall.

        Dylan stood there with no cartridge. Dan thought his son might cry. But he didn’t. He just dropped his head and kept searching while around him men with brooms began to sweep the sidewalks and street gutters. Dan reached for Jill and placed one hand on her stomach, the other on his. She didn’t pull away but looked at him, searching for something in his face. He stared off past her, focusing. He was feeling for signs — for a softness in her flesh, a coolness on her skin, maybe a hard, deep-set node. He didn’t press, but waited for whatever he was seeking out — the pain, the relief under it, even, miraculously, her — to reveal itself to him. He covered her soft belly with his hand for what seemed like forever, until she finally closed her eyes and shook her head. Dan looked at Jill and then at the crowd around him and then to Dylan still searching in the street. He wanted to get his son and go home.

        Gently, Jill lifted his hand from her stomach and, with the same tired care, let it go.



Matthew Fiander received his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from UNC-Greensboro and currently teaches writing and literature at High Point University in High Point, NC. His work has appeared in the Yalobusha Review and he contributes and edits for the online literary journal StorySouth. When he’s not writing fiction, he is also a music critic and editor for PopMatters olinne magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattfiander. bio-MatthewF