John Billings limped out through the double doors of the VA hospital and took a taxi to the ‘prescribed’ Thirsty Tortoise Tavern. Planted himself on a barstool and ordered a bottle of Jack. The burly bartender with a jagged scar on his forearm provided the truth serum. The jukebox was blasting Creedence Clearwater Revival. And that was the day Johnny Billings confessed the atrocities of Vietnam to a bartender named Leroy. Leroy with arms the size of tree trunks could handle the truth – that’s what everybody said. From that point on Johnny never spoke of Vietnam again –or drank Jack.
He slept on a bench at the Greyhound station. At daybreak he entered the restroom, washed his face, and disrobed. He bundled his uniform into a ball and stuffed it into the duffel bag. Relieved to be in his jeans and Peter, Paul and Mary T-shirt he entered a phone booth, phoned his folks and told them – “I’m coming home.”
He sat in the third seat, threw his head back and slept for 500 miles. Each time the smoke-filled bus pulled over the sound of the doors opening took him to the life he once knew - when his heart was young and tender.
Her name was Lily Anne Lewis and she loved the color purple. He remembered the first time he saw her board the school bus in 1955, her long ebony hair shining like black licorice. She sat down next to him; her notebook was covered with purple hearts. She smelled like jasmine – not licorice. A lavender ribbon was tied gracefully at the top of her head. Johnny Billings had found the love of his life on bus #99.
They grew up together. Their favorite pastime was riding bikes to Paradise Point and having picnics. Lily always had a basket filled with treats. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Fritos and animal crackers. Johnny would bite the heads off and Lily would say, “Johnny, don’t be cruel.” Lastly, they would ‘down’ purple pixie sticks until their tongues were purple.
At age thirteen they shared their first kiss beneath the lighthouse. Every day at sunset they would stroll along the shoreline - it was heaven on earth.
Their senior year Lily got the measles and couldn’t leave home to attend the senior class picnic; so Johnny showed up with a picnic basket and they ate lunch on the purple shag carpet in her bedroom.
A baby cry stirred Johnny from his slumber. ‘Have You Ever Seen the Rain’ was playing on the radio. He remembered Lily crying in the rain the day he left for boot camp. She was holding a purple umbrella with white polka dots but she never opened it. The bus pulled away from the curb and she just stood in the downpour – motionless.
He reached down into his duffel bag and pulled out the bundled stack of letters from Lily – they still smelled of jasmine. He hadn’t written to her in months. War had deadened his soul. War wasn’t picnics – war was kill or be killed –war was a dying buddy pounding on heaven’s door.
The bus station in Mackinaw City, MI was stuffy; he walked outside to breathe in the cool autumn air and began his trek home.
A shoeless man with a limp approached; Johnny offered him his cane – the soldier smiled and gave him a hug. It was then Johnny noticed the tarnished dog tags.
Halfway down Eden Avenue he saw a kitten lying dead in the road – he gently picked it up and placed it on a patch of fresh grass – a futile attempt to soften deaths blow.
Once home his parents hugged him so long he thought they would never let go.
That afternoon he walked to Mackinaw Elementary and entered the school. He stood in the hallway and watched Lily distribute graham crackers and cartons of milk to her kindergarten class. Lily looked over her shoulder and saw Johnny standing in the hallway holding a picnic basket and a bouquet of irises. There was love in her eyes.
That night they drove to Paradise Point. Lily opened the basket and discovered a box. She opened it tenderly. Puzzled she looked at Johnny. He choked back tears before speaking. “Lily, I want you to have it - because if it wasn’t for you - I would have lost all hope in the madness.”
The Purple Heart medallion shone bright in the moonlight.
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