THE ART OF WAR
Margaret mixed pie dough more aggressively than advisable. She forgot to chill the bowl, and the kitchen was too hot, sweat trickling down her back. She pulverized the butter bits and added too much water; it wouldn’t be a flakey crust now. The ceiling fan whirred hair into her eyes. She swiped it away leaving flour streaks on her cheek, odd war paint.
“Then what?” she asked Lucy.
Her eight-year-old granddaughter sat at the table more interested in comics than pie, even if it was her dead mother’s favorite. She squinted at the front page where a map of the city was printed above the fold, President Bush’s motorcade route highlighted in red.
Margaret noted the squint. “Where are your glasses?”
Lucy hated the new plastic frames, but she tugged them from her shirt pocket and slid them in place. She traced her finger along the dashed, red line. “After Franklin Street he turns onto First Avenue.”
They both looked east toward the kitchen window, the Skeens’ carport in view. Four houses beyond it was First Avenue, a major artery bisecting their coal town that no longer mined coal. Just that morning police had set up orange barricades. Margaret had to take the back way to the grocery, another irritant that raised heat in her blood.
She wrapped the dough in plastic, tossed it in the fridge, and stirred custard ingredients together at the stove. Seventeen years ago that would have been her daughter Gwen at the table. Hair in braids. Painting by number. The fantasy unspooled, never mind the grief counselor’s caution that these reveries might stall the healing process. As if stages of grief also had a prescribed route that could be printed in the paper. But Gwen and Lucy looked so much alike at that age; twin overbites with no money to correct them. Both liked to hook their feet over the chair’s bottom stretcher. If Margaret stirred the milk and eggs fast enough, maybe she could undo what had happened. Superman had done it in that movie after Lois Lane died. Flew out of the atmosphere and zipped counterclockwise around and around the planet so his anger could reverse rotation and rewind time. Maybe Margaret could whip up a universe in her saucepan.
But Lucy sneezed three times in a row, little pipsqueak bursts, a peculiar trait Gwen never had. Neither did Gwen have weak eyes. Nothing to keep her from enlisting, because she had to do something after the father of her child disappeared. No goodbye, no forwarding address, certainly no child support. That was before 9/11, before Margaret could even point to Iraq on a map.
Margaret set the custard aside to cool and handed the wooden spoon to Lucy, the same spoon Gwen had licked filling from. She’d close her eyes to savor the sweetness. Margaret didn’t love making pies, but she relished that contented look on her daughter’s face.
Lucy said, “Why are you making the president a pie?”
Margaret wrung her hands on a dishtowel, a stall tactic. “Don’t you think he deserves one?” She had her own answer for that.
Lucy shrugged. “I guess. Does he even like pie?”
“Who doesn’t?” But to Margaret, it didn’t matter what Bush liked.
“You want to take him Mama’s photograph, too.”
As Margaret separated egg whites from yolks she recalled the day she stood ironing in front of the TV, Lucy napping on the couch. Suddenly an image of Bush inspecting the troops in Fort Stewart. There, third soldier down, stood Gwen, braids lopped off. Mouth pressed into a flat line. She was no longer the skinny child who had slept in a Cinderella dress for a solid year, but she also liked to hunt turtles and frogs, build forts in the woods. Margaret wondered if the male soldiers flanking Gwen were the ones her daughter cried about over the phone. Mattress, they called her, a thing to be laid. Taunts in the chow line, hands swiping her breasts, her crotch. When she complained, her CO threatened her career. But when Gwen’s image pulsed from the TV screen Margaret had gritted her teeth and shaken Lucy’s shoulder. “Wake up, baby. Your mama’s on the news.” Gwen had sent home a photo of that captured moment so her daughter wouldn’t forget her. Lucy picked out the frame herself.
Now, Margaret didn’t want Bush anywhere near her daughter, not even a glossy, two-dimensional one. “I’m sure he’s got his own copy.”
Margaret didn’t want him near Lucy either, not that the girl had any interest in lining up on the sidewalk to watch his car drive by. She was heading to the community pool with the neighbors.
Lucy scraped her chair back and stood. “When’s Grandpa coming home?”
Margaret whipped the hell out of the merengue. “Not until Friday.” Howard was on a long haul, though he’d thought his trucking days were over. He barely kept his resentment below the surface. “I’m supposed to be fly-fishing,” he said at least once a week. Maybe it was better he was on the road. Margaret didn’t know what her golden years were supposed to look like, but they might have included a bowling league, Red-Hat lunches. A wine cooler in the afternoon. As she whipped the merengue she really pretended it was Gwen at the table with a much longer future ahead of her. Screw the grief counselor.
The horn blast startled her.
Lucy darted toward the front door and scooped up her beach towel.
“Don’t forget the sunscreen!” Margaret called. At least she could protect her from that.
Ninety minutes later, Margaret backed out the front door with the pie in her hands. She wore a yellow apron and left the flour streaks on her cheek. Just a beholden housewife. The merengue was already sweating and she hoped it would survive the heat. Folks lined five deep along First Avenue. Gobs of neighbors, including the septuagenarians whose dog shit on everyone’s lawn. They never bothered to scoop it. Margaret tried to steady her pulse. “Hello, Estelle. Milt.”
Estelle nodded at the pie. “What a great idea. Wish I’d thought to bring something.”
“Like you can cook.” Milt often ignored his diabetes at neighborhood barbeques. “If he doesn’t take it I will.”
“Of course he’ll take it,” Estelle said. “Why wouldn’t he?”
“You can’t just hand the president a pie,” Milt said.
Estelle crossed her arms over her chest. “Maybe Laura will take it.”
“She’s not with him,” Margaret said, relieved. She had nothing against Bush’s wife.
“Maybe one of his secret service agents then,” Estelle said.
Milt said, “That’s just stupid.”
Margaret nudged through the crowd to the front and leaned into the street so she’d spot the two motorcycle police leading Bush’s convoy. At home, Margaret had watched his progress on TV from the minute Air Force One landed at the regional airport. A crowd gathered up there too. Bush stood in the plane’s doorway and held up his arms as if to offer a blessing before descending the stairs. Once inside the black limo, he rolled the window down and leaned his torso out so he could wave with both hands at cheering pedestrians. Theirs was a blue state turned red state. Margaret had been patriotic once. She’d even voted for Bush the first time. She wished she could go back and deselected him.
But now there was quickness in her blood along with the heat. She’d only imagined targeting a silhouette behind a darkened window, banana slices and merengue sliding down the bulletproof glass, the door handle. Surely some journalist would snap a picture of Bush’s humiliation to slap above the fold in tomorrow’s paper. Now, if Margaret’s aim were true, the disgrace would be even better.
Across the street, people held up camcorders. There was a reporter and cameraman from Channel 3. The Channel 8 team filmed a huddle of protesters. One held up a sign: The War is a Lie!
At least the sign was honest. Gwen truly had died for nothing. Not for God. Not for country.
Beside the protesters, a row of toddlers gripped tiny flags, the other hands holding onto a taut rope that kept them from slipping over the curb. Two daycare workers on either end kept the kids in line. They all behaved, except a little girl in the middle. Dark hair and eyes. She held neither the rope nor a flag. Instead, she hugged a stuffed penguin to her chest and fiddled with the barrette in her hair. She dipped one foot under the rope. No one reprimanded her, so she stretched her foot completely over the curb to touch brick, scuffed Mary Janes just like Gwen once wore.
“Mandy!” a daycare worker called. Mandy pulled her foot back inside the safe zone.
Margaret wondered if children lined the street when Gwen’s support battalion drove toward Baghdad. All those sand-colored vehicles not led by police on motorcycle. She’d read about how insurgents used children to carry IEDs. Improvised explosives hidden in watermelons, pop cans, dead animals. Maybe some Iraqi daycare worker tethered her toddlers by the roadside too, told them to smile at passing coalition forces, her finger on a detonator as Gwen’s Humvee drove over the devise. A stuffed penguin, maybe.
All Margaret had was a pie.
She heard the siren wails first, then the bright headlights of the two motorcycles driving serpentine toward them. The helmeted men guided the leader of the free world right past the church where Margaret’s daughter sat in the pew as Pastor Tom whipped his congregation into frenzy. It’s a holy war, he kept saying. God is on our side! Pastor Tom deserved a pie too, but after Gwen’s funeral, Margaret refused to step foot inside those hollow, hallowed walls.
“Can you spot him?” someone asked.
“I see his limo!” another answered.
There it was. Third vehicle in the line behind a car filled with secret service, then a military transport truck, the canvas tarp rolled up so folks could admire the soldiers sitting in the back, firearms by their sides. This was to honor the state whose children plumped up the armed forces in a higher ratio than much of the country. Some out of duty, but most for GI Bills and paychecks. Women soldiers were represented too, and Margaret wondered if they’d left children in the care of grandparents. If they’d also been harassed, or worse. Mattresses.
An American flag flapped from one fender of Bush’s limo, presidential seal from the other. Bush still leaned out his window facing Margaret’s side of the street. He would be an easy target. Her heart thunked so loudly she was sure surrounding pedestrians heard it.
Across First Avenue the protesters chanted: “Drop Bush, not bombs!” It was too late for that.
One of the daycare workers sneered at them and instructed her charges: “Sing, kids, sing!”
Out poured the national anthem, the tiny voices weak and off-key. Adults joined in to drown out the malcontents ruining the town’s big moment. But Margaret was focused on the children singing about rockets and bombs, wartime jargon that should never pour from their lips. Decades ago that would have been Gwen hugging her Barbie doll, mouthing words she would eventually understand too well.
Just that thought made Margaret lift the pie to shoulder height in one hand. Her breath stuttered, hand shook as the car neared. Soldiers in the transport eyed her, eyed her ammo, but she smiled to assure them it was just a pie. A banana cream pie. Gwen’s favorite.
Bush’s limo was nearly in front of her. Margaret inhaled deeply to steady her arm, her aim. Her throat was dry, but it was a small annoyance compared to what Gwen had endured. Stuck under that Humvee for hours, bleeding out onto Iraqi sand with grit in her mouth instead of a final, sweet taste.
The image inflamed Margaret and she hoisted the pie high over her head. She didn’t notice two secret service hop from their car, shoes shined to a high gloss. Didn’t see the soldiers pivot toward her as Bush neared, head turned away from her.
She yelled: “Mr. Bush!” She wouldn’t call him her president. “Over here!”
His head started to swivel and just when she was ready to launch, soldiers jumped from the transport and rushed her, a dozen of them. She hurled the pie as they shoved her to the ground. Someone screamed, Estelle, hand to her mouth. Folks backed away as Margaret hit the sidewalk, shoulder banging, cheek grating against concrete. She looked through the tangle of legs, shiny shoes and combat boots, for the motorcade, for Bush, but she saw only the limo’s rear bumper receding.
A woman soldier flipped Margaret onto her belly, yanked her hands behind her, pressed her knee into Margaret’s back. Cameras and camcorders filmed it all. But none of that mattered as Margaret scanned the ground for evidence. There, in the middle of First Avenue, was her pie, also facedown, that had never reached its goal.
Beyond it, the dark-haired girl stared at Margaret, toy penguin still pressed to her chest. Daycare workers had left her behind as they rushed away from the commotion with the obedient children, all screaming. Not Mandy, who stepped over the abandoned rope now limp in the street and walked toward the ruined pie. She knelt to dip in a finger, scooped filling and merengue and stuck her fingertip into her mouth. Her eyes rounded and she smiled at Margaret as if she’d made the pie just for her. Mandy closed her eyes and lifted her face to the sky. She could have been Gwen kneeling there, or some Iraqi child savoring the taste of innocence on her tongue.
U.S. native Marie Manilla is the author of The Patron Saint of Ugly, winner of the Weatherford Award, and Shrapnel, which received the Fred Bonnie Award for Best First Novel. Stories in her collection, Still Life with Plums, first appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Prairie Schooner, Mississippi Review, and other journals. Marie lives in West Virginia, her home state. Learn more at www.mariemanilla.com.