The Asterisk Ring
I can't sleep. And I’m not the only one. The yellow light from the street pouring in through the front windows creates a dark outline of a dozen rows of occupied beds. No one is up. Usually by this time, long after lights-out, the room is noisy with snoring and heavy bodies shifting or turning over on creaky bunks, but tonight the barrack is quiet.
Tomorrow, we deploy.
I’m strong, plenty strong, well-trained, and I know everything about my rifle, including how to shoot it dead center. Yet, what about the others who went before me who were just as ready, but came home half their size or in a box, or that movie where vultures, maybe crows, descend on a quiet battlefield for a feast? I wish I'd never seen that movie. I squint at my dog tag in the yellow glow—Thomas W. Armstrong, Jr.—and think of my father who died when I was two. I long ago memorized his pictures and will always know them well, but I can’t remember the man at all.
I reach under the sheet to rub the ring on the third finger of my right hand and feel its smooth surface with the etched design. It calms me. The ring, homemade of stainless steel, has helped me many times.
I can’t stop the memory. I’m a seven-year-old boy, too big for the terrible way I acted. But, as always, I can’t go back now and change anything.
I was slumped in a big seat at the bus station with an exaggerated pout so my grandpa, who was sitting next to me, would notice and know I was mad.
"I don't want to live with you and Grandma. I want to stay with Momma."
Grandpa’s big scratchy hand took mine.
"Tommy, your momma can't take care of you right now."
"She's the sick one. She should be punished. Not me!"
"You don't mean that."
How did Grandpa know what I meant? I did mean it. My eyes began to sting and hurt, and I climbed down off the big seat to run away.
"Wait!" Grandpa called as I ran out the station door and around to the back to hide behind the dumpster. Crying, I muffled the sounds with my shirt so no one would hear me. I hated my mother, hated her for getting sick. And I hated my grandpa for taking me away from her. When a shadow covered me, I opened one eye to see Grandpa with his fists on his hips.
I stood up. Was he going to give me a switching? He took my hand and pulled me over to a tree at the edge of the big parking lot.
"I have something for you, Tommy,” he said with a soft voice.
It wouldn't be a switching. He wasn't mad. "Okay," I said, as the last sob jerked my body.
Grandpa made me blow my nose into his handkerchief, and then he took the ring off the little finger of his big hand. There was a white circle on his finger where the ring had been. "I made this," he said, "for your father when he graduated from high school, but you can have it now, if you want it, to help you be a big boy. Your father would want you to have it to be strong." Grandpa made a fist around the ring, bent over, and slowly uncurled his fingers for me to see it.
At first I didn’t know what to do. I picked it up out of Grandpa's hand: my daddy's ring. It was metal. I rubbed my finger over the decoration on the flat place.
"That was supposed to be a star design," Grandpa said, "but it looked more like an asterisk when I got through with it."
I liked it. I liked it a lot. I felt its cool surface and tried it on. It was too big for one finger and too small for two.
"We'll get a box of band aids," Grandpa said, "to make the ring fit your finger for our bus ride today."
I looked up and nodded. I loved my grandpa.
I shift in the bed to put my eyes deep in the shadow cast by the yellow street light. I’m getting sleepy now. The other guys are, too. Funny how when I first got to boot camp the noise kept me awake and now the quiet does. I twist the ring, flat side down, so I can rub the asterisk with my thumb any time I need to.