I USED TO BE

By John Thomas Tuft

It is one more leg on a long, long journey. After humping out of the mountains in a faraway country, taking a Humvee across the desert, helicoptered to the airbase and onto the transport to ship back across the ocean, he is taking the train. Money is tight and, besides, he needs time to himself. Time to think, time to decompress. Time to find out if he can ever get restful sleep again. Time to sort through memories and decide which ones can be shared and with whom, and which ones remain secreted away. His train is called, and he leaves the vaulted chamber of the 30th Street Station and down the long stairs to the tracks. Finds his way to the right car and strolls down the aisle, stops at a set of seats, looks at his ticket and then to the middle-aged woman sitting by the windows.  He doffs his cap, tosses his rucksack into the overhead, and wonders at the journey ahead.

“Welcome back, Master Sergeant,” says the woman, in a friendly voice. “I hope your journey home has been good.” He self-consciously touches the new yellow and red patch on his sleeve. “Yes, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am.” He sits and clears his throat. “But I’m not going home.” Her eyebrows go up in surprise and a question. “I used to be a star athlete in high school, president of my class, tons of girls, you can probably figure the story,” he says quietly. “Won all the awards, sang in the choir at my dad’s church, helped at Bible school, the whole works. My dad thought I should use my gifts in the ministry like him, but it’s not for me. Even though I’m MyDad, Jr.–you know, named for him–I’m no longer who I used to be. I’m Seth, by the way. Seth, Jr.” He finishes with a smile.

She smiles in return, the true language of the heart. “I’m Helen. My Daddy was Air Force. I grew up all over the place. Home was wherever that old station wagon was parked in the driveway and the smell of Momma’s warm biscuits filled the kitchen. She always put a big blue bullfrog of a cookie jar in the middle of the table. It was her announcement that for now, this was home. This was her kitchen and God help you if you didn’t respect that fact.” Helen grew quiet and looked out the window as the train lurched into the beginning of the journey south toward Atlanta. “Did it have a name?” asked Seth. She turned back to look at him. “What, the blue bullfrog?” She laughed. “Zelda. Zelda watched over every home she made for us.”

Another pause. “Momma named everything. She picked Zelda’s name. She picked my name, she named each of the houses we lived in. She picked my brother’s name, even when Daddy wanted something different. Why’d you suppose she did that?” Helen didn’t wait for Seth to attempt an answer, but rushed on, her mind now filled with memories. “I used to be amazed at her. You know what she did? Seth, she took it on herself to name my stuffed animals. She named my dolls. When I got a Christmas present one year of the doll I asked for, she watched me unwrap it and then announced, ‘her name is Gilda.’ I just shrugged and said okay. My stuffed elephant, my teddy bear? Oscar and Sid? Those were the names I wanted, but she insisted they were Eldora and Constance. Names she picked for them.”

Seth sat with that for a moment. “Names are how we know our world. You lose your power to be yourself when someone else names your world. Names are the identity we own.” Helen shrugged. “It doesn’t matter.” Seth twisted around to be able to fully look at her. “Let me tell you why I’m not going home. I’m going to see my friend, Erica. She lives in Atlanta now.” He stopped, looking past Helen out the window at the passing countryside. “When I was maybe eleven or twelve I went off to summer camp. That’s where I met Richard. A dozen boys in a cabin, messing around, laughing and kidding like boys do, you know. Ricky seemed a bit different from the rest of us. Uncomfortable somehow. I tried to help Ricky fit in and get the others to make an effort.”

Night was falling outside the window, as Seth continued, “One day Ricky didn’t show up for swimming. I ran back to the cabin. When I stomped in I found Ricky sitting on the side of the bed, sobbing quietly. Wearing a flower print dress and girl’s sandals. ‘I used to be okay with hiding me,’ Ricky said through the tears, ‘But I’m not Richard. I am Erica.’ I’m telling you, Helen, it made my heart hurt. And it scared me.” Helen reached over and placed her hand on the Master Sergeant’s arm. “What’d you do?”  Seth blew out a long sigh. “At first I made Ricky get out of those clothes. If the guys saw that, there’d be nothing but trouble. I thought I was being protective. The rest of that week must have been hell for Ricky. Pure hell. I couldn’t even look Richard in the eyes. But my chest felt like I had that blue bullfrog cookie jar for a heart.”

The train whistle sounded its mournful wail as they reached a crossing. “On the last day, we were saying our goodbyes. I reached out my hand and said, ‘I’d like to stay in touch, Erica.’ And we did. We stayed in touch while Ricky transitioned to Erica and Erica kept in touch when I joined the Corps and shipped out to combat. I’m on my way to see my best friend now.” He stood up. “I’m hungry. Want to check out the dining car?” Helen held up her hand. “In a minute.” Then she breathed on the window until it fogged before busying herself tracing the name: GILDA…

Words are magic and writers are wizards.