This is what Allen packed himself: His gnarly, grey razor covered in dried blue foam. A bottle of shaving cream which he and his father shared. A single box of Irish Spring Soap. A nearly full bottle of my Dove shampoo, which would have to do. A half-empty bottle of his father’s Old Spice conditioner, which would have to be discarded. A one-way airline ticket. A hotel confirmation number scrawled on the back of a Six Flags coupon. An unopened pair of white tube socks that my sister gave him for Christmas. A pair of black, Nike running shoes-- size 13, narrow. Two sea-foam colored bath towels. A thousand promises from his recruiter that the war was “pretty much over,” and Allen would, “probably never even leave Missouri.” My clear shower caddy that I kept under the sink. That’s how Allen woke me up-- by dumping its contents (my least used makeup) on the bathroom counter. He offered little by way of apology or greeting when I opened the bathroom door. The buzzing, yellow globe lights made me smash my eyes shut so I couldn’t see him, but I could hear him. And smell him. He smelled strongly of sour mash and the fresh-cut-grass scented sweat that belonged to some teenage girl I suppose I’ll never meet.
“Hey, Mom? Where’s my birth certificate?” When I was able to open my eyes, I saw Allen had a fresh, but badly executed buzz-cut-- presumably, the handiwork of one of his crew. I nodded and stumbled towards the walk-in closet in the study.
Here are the things Allen almost forgot: A certified-copy of his birth certificate. A calling card with ‘A. FERGUSON’ etched across the top in even, block capitals. Two combination locks, unopened. His barely earned high school diploma. A bank envelope with thirty-dollars cash at the top of a neatly packed cardboard boot box.
When I returned with the box, Allen was on his knees in his room shoveling the contents of our bathroom into a red, NASCAR duffle bag. His suitcase sat gaping on his twin bed.
“Did you remember to get your birth certificate notarized?” I decided to let Allen look sheepish for a moment. For all I knew, it might be the last time he ever felt enough like my child to be apologetic to me. I savored his eyebrows frozen upward over his open mouth. The way his cool, hazel eyes seemed to be studying his thick, black lashes, before I sat the boot box containing the certified copy beside him. He laughed through his nose, which was as good as ’Thanks’ to me. I sat on the bed behind him and studied his new haircut. On second look, his friend had done a pretty good job-- just one tiny knick over his left ear. I realized the unevenness I detected wasn’t the work of the clippers, but Allen himself: His slightly unsymmetrical left side. The roll between his ears near the back. A Klingon-like cluster of knots near his crown. The landscape of a skull I hadn’t seen since he was an infant.
Allen joined me on the bed and started lacing a pair of Caterpillar work boots he had taken to wearing religiously after he graduated high school in May. I brushed the top of his newly bare head. My fingers still prickled from his scalp long after I took my hand away. “You know,” I said to Allen. “I think they would have been happy to do that for you once you got there.”
Allen smiled. Though, it was that new smile he reserved for his father when he said that Allen would never get himself up at five to go jogging. Or, that Allen would never get used to eating shit on a shingle after pounding filet mignon every Sunday at Logan’s. I hadn’t quite deciphered the full meaning of that newly-minted, closed-mouth grin. All I knew for certain was that Allen was being awfully patient with me right at that moment. “Yeah? Well, I wanted to do it myself,” Allen explained.
Right then, my husband’s alarm went off. I knew it would wake him on the first ring. I knew he had laid his keys and wallet by the bedside and hung a change of clothes on the shower rod in the bathroom. I knew we only had minutes before my husband would be standing in Allen’s doorway, impatiently strangling his keys.
“Did you say goodbye to Grandma Ferguson?” I asked Allen.
“Yeah, I went by this afternoon. She said it was a good thing I came by,” he said before shrugging his eyebrows and returning to his left bootlace. He raised his voice slightly and added my mother-in-law’s recently acquired tremor, “Lord knows I might not be around much longer.”
“Good,” I said with a nod.
Allen froze before repeating my absent-minded reply, “Good?” And then we both laughed.
I was right. I looked up to find Allen’s father hovering in the doorway. With suitcase zippers whizzing in the background, my husband studied me-- not in the tracksuit I had laid out the night before, but still in my magenta bathrobe and fuzzy socks. His gaze asked, What are you thinking? I was thinking of the multiple missed exits and the countless circles we would take around the terminal. I was thinking of purpose driven crowds and the constant roar of suitcase wheels. I was thinking of how I would have to simultaneously hug my firstborn goodbye while he tried to balance his duffle bag and suitcase. I was thinking about the awkward ride we would have on the way home. My tears, which Allen’s father would try to talk me out of, saying, though not believing, “There’s nothing to cry about. They’ll send him back in a week.”
I was thinking of all of that when I closed my eyes, shook my head, and told my husband, “I can’t.”
These are the things that Allen left behind: Half-opened drawers and empty hangars. A wrinkly, over-watered cactus he picked up two spring breaks ago in Mexico. A string of skull-shaped party lights that appeared one Halloween and remained tacked around his window all throughout high school. An application to Ohio State University stamped all over in Mountain Dew rings. A dried rose in a Mason jar he wouldn’t let me throw away, but wouldn’t bother to tell me about either. Two inch-long, freshly cut hairs that must have leapt from Allen’s neck to my fingertips when I reached up to kiss him goodbye. A half-read copy of Leaves of Grass which Allen said he “couldn’t put down” in June, but complained he “couldn’t focus on” when he started drilling with his recruiter in July. A half-empty bottle of Ritalin he stopped taking two weeks before his drug test. A wastebasket full of Marlboro Menthol boxes and Five-Hour Energy vials-- both, habits he started a week after quitting Ritalin. One, lone Hot Wheels Corvette that stayed hidden in his top desk drawer save those unusual sulky days that Allen would lie on his bed, a silent phone glowing by his side, and run the little, rusty yellow car over his palm, studying the spinning wheels. Those Saturdays I could open his bedroom door and let the Hoover hiss and growl under the bed while Allen never once stirred. A proud and terrified mother weeping on his bed. A father, dubious that a drill Sergeant can accomplish what we, and countless other school officials tried to do. A bedroom door my only child closed firmly behind him and blinds that he left wide open.