[“Take Care” began as a writing exercise: take a minor character in a story you like and develop him or her more fully. I chose Martha, the girl Lt. Jimmy Cross receives letters from in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” The complete text of that story is widely available online. It is well worth the read. “Take Care” was originally published in A Community of Writers: A Collection of Short Stories, Sunbury Press, 2012, and reprinted in The George Street Carnival, a publication of the English department at Millersville University, Spring 2013.]
This story is given in memory of Pfc. Henry Ezra Teasley, a member of the Class of 1965 of Bishop McDevitt High School. He was born on May 14, 1946 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and died as a result of hostile fire in Kontum Province, South Vietnam, on January 13, 1967.
Susan had the idea when she got a letter from Greg Campbell and a boy she knew in high school on the same day a month before school started. She wasn’t surprised to hear from Greg. He told her was joining the army and he told her he’d write. The letter from Robert, the boy from high school, was a surprise, and if he hadn’t mentioned POD class she might not have been able to place him. He was the boy who sat in front of her and had a stammer that got worse when he had to give an answer. Mostly she remembered how patient their teacher was, and how she wanted to be like that when she was a teacher.
She got some names from her pastor and from the campus chaplain, and the other girls in her prayer group got some too. Since they got back to campus in September they have been meeting each week to pray for all the boys over there. On their own they pray for one or two boys specifically and write them letters. Susan prays for Greg and for Robert Hughes, the boy she knew in high school. She writes to Greg twice a week, but to Robert only once a month or so. The letters to him are shorter and less personal than the ones she writes to Greg because she doesn’t remember him very well.
The chaplain calls what Susan and the girls are doing a ministry, and that made it sound so important that she bought special papers just for this. The kind she uses for the letters to Greg comes in a box of twenty-five decorated sheets, five plain sheets, and twenty-five envelopes. The paper is thin and crinkly and printed with rosebuds. It has a fragrance card wrapped in cellophane that you are supposed to open and slip between the sheets, but she hasn’t done that. The paper is too thin to use both sides, so she has learned to write small so that she can say a lot. She is half way through the second box and has three undecorated sheets from the first box left.
The paper she uses for Robert’s letters is plain, not as thin as the Greg paper and with a slightly slubbed texture. It comes in gummed pads. The envelopes are packaged separately and she doesn’t have to be so careful to match the number of sheets to the number of envelopes. Because she has less to say to Robert she makes her handwriting slightly larger, so that she can often use two sheets and the letters look like more than what they are.
The letters follow a pattern. She begins with where she is while she is writing. (“I’m at the front desk of the dorm on phone duty tonight.” “I’m upstairs at the Rat before I go to European Novels of the 20th Century.”) She talks about the weather, about the authors she’s reading and the papers she has to write. She gives Greg news about people he knows on campus but she doesn’t tell Robert those things because it wouldn’t mean anything to him. Sometimes she reports that she’s gone to a movie (“They showed The Birds again on Saturday night.” “We went downtown to see The Graduate. I bought the album.”) but she doesn’t say that she’s gone with a boy from her creative writing class or her friend’s older brother. Sometimes she comments on things Greg or Robert have written to her. (“Sounds like you guys did your best to have a Merry Christmas.” “I like the names for your scout dogs. We had a Blackie when I was little.”)
She mentions the war only obliquely when she ends each letter, “Greg (or Robert), you take care.” On Robert’s she puts just her name, but Greg’s she signs, “Love, Susan.” She’s not sure what she means by that. She likes Greg a lot and she cares for him in a way that is more meaningful than the way she cares for Robert, of whom she has only hazy memories of his round face and his stammer. If he had not written to her she probably would never have thought of him unless he came to their class reunion, still two years away. She would have thought of Greg even if she hadn’t heard from him, of the way he touched her knee during the gunfire at the end of Bonnie and Clyde, the way he kissed her on the cheek at the door of her dorm.
She has not written to either boy since before spring vacation. She is on phone duty again tonight. The phone isn’t ringing much but it is too noisy in the lobby of the dorm for her to concentrate on Sartre’s Nausea, whose main character she finds boring and whiny. She wonders if his self-absorption might sound better in French and regrets, albeit briefly, that she took German so she could be in the same class with a tall, handsome aspiring journalist named Dan who transferred to another school after one semester, before she had a chance to get to know him.
She takes out two undecorated sheets of what she thinks of as the Greg paper.
“April 17, 1968, Dear Greg,” she begins.
“Sorry I haven’t written for almost three weeks. Over Easter break I went with Tracy (the girl I told you about that I did the diagramming of “The Silken Tent” with for Dr. Price) to her family’s house on Long Beach Island. It was too cold to go in the water, of course, but walking along the beach was nice when it wasn’t windy. I’m sending you a stone I picked up on one of my walks. Archibald MacLeish says that what you see when you hold a stone in your hand is what has fallen out of the water. The water and the stone come together and separate, come together and separate. The little white patch in the crease of the stone caught my eye. While I was walking I was saying the names of all you boys over there that I pray for and I had just said your name when I saw the sun catch the white patch as the tide went out. It reminded me of the white patch of hair behind your right ear, the patch I saw every day when you sat in front of me in Ed Psych. You turned around one day to ask me if I knew Dr. Huzzard’s office hours and I said, ‘Do you know you have a little patch of white hair behind your right ear?’ That was the first thing I ever said to you. I remembered that when I saw the stone. I picked it up and carried it in my shirt pocket for the rest of the time I was there. I thought you might like to have it, to think of me when you touch it, and remember that I’m praying for you.
“I think Tracy and I are going to live at the beach house this summer and work at Playland. Her brother is graduating and in the fall he’ll be teaching at Long Beach High, like he always wanted, and we’re going to fix the house up so he can live there all year.
“That’s all for tonight. I have to work on a paper about Hebrew mysticism for Dr. Spotts’s class. It’s really interesting stuff.
“Greg, you take care.
She slips the stone and the letter, which she has written on two of the undecorated sheets of the Greg paper, into a padded envelope. The glue has a sour taste, and when she presses the flap down hard to seal it, she can feel some of the bubbles in the padding pop, as they did when she wrote the address on the front. She will have to take this to the mail room tomorrow to have it weighed for the proper postage.
She sets the envelope aside and draws out the last undecorated sheet from the first box of Greg paper. She chooses another stone from the bag she has brought back from the beach. This one is round with some orange streaks. She turns it over several times. Then she picks up her pen again.
“April 17, 1968. Dear Robert,” she begins.