“With Distinction” (July 2016)

Verne could not remember the last time he was this happy. His brother, Bowden, was coming home from the war in Afghanistan after eight long years. Delays and reassignments added up like layers of dust, further covering over even the possibility that he would ever come home.

But there it was, on paper, on the letterhead of the United States Army: “Corporal Bowden Lucett has been honorably discharged, having served seven years of active duty, and has served his country with distinction.”

Verne relished those last two words: “with distinction.” Everything the Lucett family did was with distinction, whether it was the weatherproof shed his mother, Mary, built in the backyard, where she grew her award-winning onions, or his uncle Guy’s twice-reprinted poetry books which seemed to sell so notably despite the poor sales of poetry these days.

Verne’s father was Acton Lucett, who’d helped invent the basin wrench, while Verne’s older sister Pan, and her husband Marty, had put together the most successful machine shop in Hudson County. The things those two could make out of steel, when they put their heads to a task….”distinct” was too weak a word.

In fact, it was only Verne whose distinction was taking a distinct amount of time to pronounce itself. His music, his painting, his skills in the kitchen, they had been pronounced, as were people’s delight in them, whether of the ear, the eye, or the tongue. But for some reason, Verne felt like he would never receive such a letter of recognition after such a long effort, or that he might never even commit himself to one.

Still, Verne felt what distinction he could feel rising within him: the love for his brother, and more than once, he considered that perhaps his distinction was to be found in such love for other people, his selflessness, his desire to see only other people find happiness and merely to facilitate their travels, never to embark on such a journey himself. Perhaps that was his place, and once he found the right partner, he would find his purpose.

But it seemed too easy, too little, too light a task for someone upon whom great visions were thrust like sudden storms. No one else could translate their jagged lightning bolts into delicate brushstrokes on a canvas, or their howling winds into notes on the sheets of his music book, never to be heard beyond the acoustically flawless confines of his mind.

His distinction had even cost him his place at college. Far be it from Verne to clarify and centralize his existence around the demands of others when invariably purer, better, bigger, stronger ideas arrived in his mind at a rate mental pedestrians could hardly hope to fathom.

The world had always stood against him, defying him to put aside his haughtiness and simply do something, not somethings; one thing, and to keep doing it indefinitely, without his interest in that thing falling like a dead leaf into a lake, to be dissolved and evaporated, absorbed and regrown months later. He sometimes wished he could comply and obey, like Bowden had done, like all of them, and reap the rewards of doing so. And he tried.

But he could not, so it seemed. He could not focus.

One fine day in Mid-August, Bowden arrived at the train station, his green duffel in his hand and a fresh haircut on his head. Verne stood with his family and began to revisit another recurring idea, his preoccupation: that perhaps there was nothing else for him to dedicate his life to than the well-being of others. Maybe that was the goal that he should seek. Maybe his heart would not be complete until he did so; maybe it would never be complete.

“Hi brother,” Bowden said, tossing aside his duffel and wrapping his arms around Verne. Verne slowly approached, soon clasping Bowden close to him like a blanket.

“Did you get taller over there?” Verne asked.

“It’s just my posture,” Bowden said. “We have to look confident to the enemy, after all.”

Their father, Acton, said, “My two boys!” and came in to join the embrace. Mary sauntered over from where she’d been standing contrapposto, her denim jeans coated with a fresh layer of garden dirt. “I’m dirty,” she said, dusting the dirt from her hands and coming in next to Acton.

“Get in there, Panny,” Marty said, taking his Nikon F from its case with professional speed. Pan was only tardy because, leaning against the steel pillar, she was crying; it had been so long, and even when you know your siblings are okay and safe and well, it is still very easy to forget the sensation of their physical presence, which is almost like an injury. Pan pushed her hair out of her eyes and went up to meet her brother after eight years, while Marty took a picture.

Verne was at the middle with Bowden, and for that moment, surrounded by those who loved him and whom he knew did not judge him, and holding the one person in his life that made it seem clear, he felt like nothing was wrong, and he reminded himself to ask Marty for a copy of that photograph. He was curious to know how he looked when nothing was wrong and thought it would make a great self-portrait, as soon as he finished the other three.

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