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SUMMER: AN EXCERPT

Meghan took a deep breath, steadying her nerves, as she rounded the corner and walked onto Green Street, the main drag through Clarks, Nebraska. Everything was decked out like it was the Fourth of July—American flags hanging from storefronts and public buildings, miniature flags stuck into flower planters and front yards. And on either side of the wide, brick thoroughfare were motorcycles and muscle cars, all lined up for the ninth annual Lance Corporal Brent Zoucha Memorial Poker Run and Dance. Meghan waved and gave hugs as she made her way through the crowd outside the VFW hall, past people sitting on a bench engraved with Brent’s name and the date he was killed in action, past a group of women in fluorescent yellow t-shirts emblazoned with the words RIDE TO REMEMBER.

     Inside, it was loud with people crowded around the bar sharing pitchers of beer and getting officially entered into the Poker Run. As riders signed in, they were given the first card of their poker hand. From there, they would go on to the towns of Aurora, Harvard, McCool Junction, and Polk, drinking and getting a new card in each town. At the end, everyone would ride back to Clarks, compare poker hands to determine a winner, and then have a cookout and cap the evening off with dancing to a live band. Meghan found Brent’s brother to give him a hug and then sought out Brent’s mother, Rita. Rita was planning to go to the edge of town to see everyone off, but rather than riding along, she was going to head back home to let Meghan have some quiet time in Brent’s old room, which Rita still maintained as a shrine to her son.

     Precisely at 2:30 p.m., one of the organizers shouted that it was “clutches out.” Everyone filed through the narrow door, fanning out to their bikes. Then they zigzagged down Green Street, their engines grumbling and handlebars weaving as they rolled in low gear like pacing tigers. At the edge of the downtown, the Patriot Riders hung a left and crept down Millard Street, its rows of American flags marking the path, as it had nearly a decade before. One by one, the riders coasted to a stop at the city limits, where they were thanked personally by Rita. The sun was high overhead, the temperature well into the 90s, but she wanted to greet them and make sure they knew what this meant to her. She hugged those on motorcycles and shook the hands of those in trucks and cars. One by one, they roared out onto the highway and she would wave down the next rider.

     When the last had disappeared, Meghan went with Rita to her small house on the other side of town, on what was now named Brent Zoucha Lane, the place where Meghan used to go to hang out with Brent in high school, watching him play video games and smoke cigarettes. Rita unlocked the side door and chatted briefly with Meghan, but she never left the driveway. She had become an expert in the mechanics of grieving, and she seemed determined to let Meghan have her time alone.

     As Rita drove off, Meghan turned to me. “It’s okay,” she said, ushering me through the doorway.

     Inside, it was dark and icy with air-conditioning.

     “Wow,” Meghan said. “It’s so much cooler in here, right?” She walked around the kitchen and the living room a bit, just taking in the place. She studied the recent newspaper clippings on the refrigerator, checked out the new family photos, framed and hung up around the house. At some point, it dawned on me that she was putting off going into the room with all of Brent’s things. To let her know that I wasn’t trying to rush her, I ventured a single question.

     “Were you in this house often?”

     “Spent a lot of time here,” she said, looking over every inch some more. “As much time as I could. My parents didn’t want us dating. We probably started freshman summer, sophomore year. I was pretty young, and he was full of it, super ornery.”

     She took a breath again. “Okay,” she said, “let’s do this.” She fumbled through the keys Rita had given her, until she found the right one. She unlocked and then opened the French doors into the room.

     It was hot in there, cut off from the air-conditioning of the rest of the house. Meghan flipped the switch, and the track lighting suddenly bathed the room in bright light. The walls and floor were covered with memorabilia—Brent’s high school trophies, photos of him with Meghan at the prom, a picture of him after he enlisted. In death, every piece of him had become significant to Rita. One shelf held the contents of his shower kit sent home from Iraq: the last bar of soap he ever used, the last stick of deodorant and tube of toothpaste. Whatever scrap of his life remained, it was on display here, but there were also items sent to Rita after Brent was killed. There were letters from senators and the governor of Nebraska and all kinds of tributes—drawings of Brent and paintings of him by people who had never even met him, just people, crazy or caring was hard to say, who wanted to make a connection with a parent who had lost her son to war.

     And in the middle of the room, a lectern, positioned under a bright overhead light, held a 6-inch-thick photo album of still more memories.

     “This is the scrapbook that she made,” Meghan said. “She made one for all of us.”

     She flipped open to a series of photos of Brent in his basketball and track uniforms. At 6 feet 4, he had been the star of the High Plains High School basketball team and was selected to play in the Central Community College All-Star game in 2005. In track, he took second place in both the high jump and the 400-meter relay at the Class D state track meet. Everything was there in the room: the trophies, the certificates, the medals, the clippings reporting the results, all carefully arranged.

     Meghan felt deeper into the scrapbook, turning several pages at a time. “This is Gunnery Sergeant Philips. He’s the recruitment officer that signed him up,” she said, then shook her head at Brent’s serious expression. “He would never smile.” Meghan flipped pages again and found an article from USA Today, quoting a family friend saying, “Second place just wasn’t an option. I believe this drive to succeed is what led him to the Marines.” She turned over more pages, and the scrapbook fell open to the calendar page for June 2006. Torn from Rita’s wall calendar, the date for the ninth was circled and marked, “Brent’s accident.”

     “Accident,” I said.

     “I think it’s hard for Rita to talk about it directly,” Meghan offered.

     “Did you ever find out what happened?”

     “Not exactly,” she said. All the family had been told was that Brent had been part of a counterterrorism team operating along the Syrian border. While on patrol, one of the Humvees—whether it was Brent’s or not was unclear—hit an IED. They radioed for support, and the second wave of Marines detonated still more IEDs. Regardless of the sequence of events, the Humvee that Brent was riding in had been hit squarely, killing him along with two of his battle buddies, Lance Corporal Salvador Guerrero, a mortarman from Whittier, California, and Navy Hospitalman Zachary M. Alday, a corpsman from Donaldson, Georgia. The three had been close; the official Marine memorial said that they “ate, lived and worked together on a daily basis,” but Meghan didn’t know anything about the other two killed in the blast.

     “You know, I went off to Ireland, pretty much right after Brent’s funeral,” Meghan said. “I needed to get as far away as possible, and I think that trip saved me. But I also spent a lot of days over there searching online for stories about what had happened and any details of the guys he had been with.”

     One article featured a photograph of Sal Guerrero’s mother stretched in desperation across her son’s casket, as if she were begging that it not be lowered into the ground. Meghan left her email address, phone number, and home address in the comments section, hoping Sal’s family would see it and write to her. “I just wanted to get in touch with your family and find some things out,” she wrote, but Sal’s family was still in deep shock. Not wanting to worry his mother, he’d never even told her that he’d been deployed to Iraq; when he called from the forward operating base, he always told her he was on a training mission in Japan and would be home soon. Eventually, Meghan made contact with Laura Almanza, Sal’s girlfriend, who had known where he was all along.

     Meghan flipped another group of pages in the scrapbook and landed on the program for Brent’s memorial at the base in Twentynine Palms, California. “This is when we finally met,” Meghan said. “I decided to fly out with Rita, just to be there for her, and Laura came over from Whittier.” After the ceremony, some of Brent’s friends came up to introduce themselves, but they didn’t talk about what happened and Meghan didn’t ask. “I was just a girlfriend. I wasn’t a wife, and I wasn’t family. I think that’s why Laura and I bonded right away. We were in the same boat.” When the reception was over, they all went out on the town to blow off steam. “I was only eighteen, so I may or may not have had way too much Patrón.”

     At some point, they all decided to get tattoos. They spilled out onto the streets of Twentynine Palms, not knowing exactly where they were going. “But in a town with a Marine base,” Meghan said, “a tattoo parlor is never too far away.” When they found a place, Laura decided right away to get a cross on her back with a rose. Rita settled on a purple heart on her chest. Meghan still wasn’t sold on the idea and sat paging through the sample booklet, when she landed on a tattoo with Brent’s name. His friends had already been in. “So I decided to do it,” Meghan said. “I asked for the Marine Corps motto—Semper Fi—along with Brent’s jersey number in basketball.”

     She laughed and pulled up her pant leg, revealing the tattoo on her ankle. “The guy drew it freehand, but it didn’t come out too bad.”

     She closed up the scrapbook and looked up into the lights. “You know, I don’t know what would have happened between Brent and me. I’ll never know.” In recent weeks, Kyle had finally worked up the courage to formally propose. Meghan was wearing the engagement ring that he had given her. Rita was Meghan’s first phone call. It was hard, but the last thing she wanted was for Rita to find out from someone else. “She just said how much she likes Kyle. She wants to see my wedding dress and all that stuff. I know that none of this has been easy for her.”

     Before switching off the lights and locking up the room, Meghan took one last look around. There was nothing new—and never would be—but she studied the photographs of Brent, especially those of the two of them together, as if she were looking for some hint of the tragedy ahead. But there was nothing there but two kids, young and having fun. Gussied up for the prom. Goofing around at the driving range. Hanging out together on the same couch that sat just outside the room—Meghan perched on Brent’s lap and laughing, his arms slung around her.

     “That was the last time we were together,” she said, “around Christmas, right before he left.”

All photographs © 2017 by MARY ANNE ANDREI

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portrait of families in far flung fields, completely plugged in to the world.”
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