Volume 31, Number 1

A Surprise Proposal

Ian Woollen

Lawrence Halcomb, age 29, stumbled through an old-haunts tour of the harbor bars. One drink in each tourist joint. Lawrence was supposed to be on vacation. Halcomb men, blueblood workaholics, did not vacation well. He checked his two phones and listened in on a loud conversation at the next table about a drop in supply orders at a local tube-bending factory. “They claim we’re doing five million this month. I’ve only seen three pass through the door, so that must mean there’s a tube worth two million hiding somewhere on the floor.”

Lawrence made a mental note. A trader can never really take a day off. He finished his drink and marched down the gangway from the bar patio. Thanks to the moon and wharf lights, he recognized the female figure walking ahead of him on the beach.

Cindi Knapp. He whistled at her. It was like the old days, the summer kid chasing the townie slut. As Lawrence approached her, he paused to reorient. What was she wearing? A uniform, an army uniform. The chick had certainly been through her phases—tomboy baton-twirler, born-again daycare worker and now a barefoot soldier?

This was August, 2007, and the Iraq War was going full quagmire.

“Hey, Cindi, looking good,” Lawrence said.

She stared at him through her round glasses, the same pair she’d worn since forever.

“Hi, Lawrence. You up from the city?”

“For a week. They ordered me to take some time off. I’ve been working nonstop for a couple years.”

“Haven’t seen you around in a while,” Cindi said.

“What’s with the uniform?” Lawrence asked.

“Just my luck,” Cindi groaned. “I signed up for the reserves with Sergeant Buckner, the recruiting guy at the mall. He said it would be a few weekends in camp and a little regular cash, and, hell, now they’re shipping me off to Iraq next week.”

“That sucks,” Lawrence said.

“It bites royally,” Cindi agreed.

“That uniform reminds me of the summer you wore a cheerleader outfit all over the place.”


It went just like he hoped. They ended up back at her small apartment above the ship chandlery. Except she was way too into it. Cindi kissed and embraced him fervently, as if he might be the last body she’d ever touch. It disturbed him, although she’d always been too damn passionate. At age sixteen, after their first sweaty tryst in the V-berth of her brother’s shrimper, Lawrence adopted a brief, above-it-all celibacy for the rest of the summer.

“Did I scare you?” Cindi asked afterwards. She pinned back her hair with a clip.

Of course, he wasn’t going to admit it. He said, “What scares me is the look of your apartment. It’s empty. What happened to all your stuff?”

“Gave it away,” she said, “Couldn’t stand the idea of my no-good father and asshole brothers going through my things, if I don’t come back.”

“You’ll come back,” Lawrence said, “They don’t put rookie reserves out on patrol. You’ll probably just be guarding a base or something.”

“Who knows,” Cindi said, “Sergeant Buckner told me we’d be helping with natural disasters here at home, floods and tornadoes.”

“Look, if there’s anything I can do—” Lawrence offered vaguely.

“Spend the night with me,” Cindi said.


She yawned and rolled into his arms and slumped into a twitchy, dream-addled sleep. Lawrence lay awake confused. He eased a hand out under her shoulder to check the Asian markets numbers on his phone. Something was troubling him that he could not quite identify. In this empty, moonlit apartment, Lawrence Halcomb III struggled with a sad irony: a man comforting a woman before she goes off to war.

In the morning, Lawrence slipped out to the wharf and brought back pastry and coffee. Cindi sat up and mumbled, “Yummy, thanks.”

Lawrence said, “I don’t think you should go.”

“What? Huh?” Cindi asked groggily.

“Skip to Canada if you have to. Take the ferry up to Halifax. You shouldn’t go fight in Iraq.”

“Easy for you to say,” Cindi sighed. “Where did I put my glasses?”

“It’s just wrong,” Lawrence said.

Cindi squinted and asked, “Since when did Mr. Wall Street get all political?”

Lawrence shook his head. “It’s not that.”

Cindi laughed. Never the sharpest tool in the shed, but she could always read people.

Lawrence asked, “What’s so funny?”

Cindi sputtered, “I think the great Lawrence Halcomb is feeling guilty.”


They ran into each other later at the karaoke place. Lawrence liked to watch people embarrass themselves with off-key singing. Cindi danced and crooned a Madonna song, despite being heckled from the bar by one of her older brothers—Gary or Joe. Twin sonsabitches. Lawrence wasn’t sure which. One was a fisherman and one was a quarryman. Both strutted around town in hip boots, festooned with bandanas and knives.

Lawrence raised himself out of his chronic stoop to his full height and addressed the bartender and the crowd: “People, listen up! That lady is shipping out to Iraq next week, fellas. If she wants to get up there and sing ‘Jingle Bells,’ by God, I think we ought to give her a hand.”

Cindi’s gnarly brother, drowned out by applause, glared at Lawrence and stomped out of the bar. Lawrence ordered up a round.

Cindi came over and said, “Hey, thanks.”

Lawrence said, “I see what you mean about your brothers. Was that Gary or Joe?”

“Gary,” she said. “If that had been Joe, you’d be in the alley right now.”

“And not because we’d be sharing a cigarette,” Lawrence said.

“No.” Cindi shook her head. “Let’s get out of here, in case he comes back.”


Lawrence and Cindi wandered out along the seawall toward the lighthouse. The ocean spewed restlessly around the rocks. The ferry to Halifax, Nova Scotia sounded its horn and began to ease away from the wharf.

“Are you married?” Cindi asked.

Lawrence laughed. “Heck, no. What makes you ask that?”

“A lot of people our age are getting hitched,” Cindi said.

Lawrence added, “Won’t happen to me. I’m a card-carrying bachelor.”

Cindi found a smooth skipper and chucked it out across the shallows. She said, “I’ve got a special proposal for you.”

“Okay, let’s hear it,” Lawrence said.

“It involves my military life insurance policy. Every serviceman gets one, a hundred grand or thereabouts. If I’m killed over in Iraq, I don’t want the money going to my screwy family. They’d only drink it up.”

Lawrence said, “I’m sure you can designate your own beneficiary.”

“Gary and Joe would raise holy hell. They’d hound that person till he or she wished they’d never received the money. Plus, I don’t want to make it so obvious. The only thing my brothers might respect is a widower, because of what happened to my step-dad.”

“That ugly fuss after your mom died?”

“The whole town knew about it.”

“What are you proposing?” Lawrence asked.

“You and me get married,” Cindi said, “If I come home alive, we can get divorced, no problem. I’ll sign a pre-nup. If I don’t come home, you get a hundred grand, which may be chump change for you. Give it away to charity if you want.”

As a matter of fact, in regard to Lawrence’s current portfolio, a hundred grand was a decent sum, due to a bad habit of buying tech stocks on margin. He briefly thought about asking for a pre-nup, but, really, it wasn’t necessary. If she returned from Iraq and didn’t play fair on the divorce, it wouldn’t net her much.


Back in the city, Lawrence worked twelve-hour days. He avoided the war news. He kept the marriage a secret. He could not avoid her emails. She sent him playful “Dear Hubby” updates, including daily descriptions of the heat. She was curious about mirages. She wrote, “When I was a kid, the mirage scenes in the cartoons made a big impression, the thirsty guy wandering in the desert who thinks he sees an oasis.”

Lawrence wrote back, “That’s a funny question. Do mirages exist? I guess the answer is ‘yes and no.’ This whole thing is a fucking mirage, if you ask me.”

Electronic media blurred the distance between “war zone” and “back home.” Lawrence could not get Cindi out of his head. Along with that stupid Madonna song. Gazing out across the busy trading floor in his firm’s midtown headquarters—something about the afternoon light—all he could think was desert mirage.

He began siding with the contrarians, the guys who wore bow ties and believed in cycles. He went long in commodities and shorted the techs. His numbers went from bad to worse.


Cindi lasted about five months. She died in a helicopter crash during a sand storm, one of several victims on the ground.

“At least that’s over,” Lawrence told himself, or tried to tell himself repeatedly. But, of course, it wasn’t over. Never a sound sleeper, he became even less so. He gulped energy drinks through the day. He threw himself into work. Somehow, he made his quotas. His year-end bonus disappeared in Atlantic City.

Then came 2008 and the Lehman Brothers debacle.

Lawrence avoided his childhood turf and concocted a lame excuse for not attending his grandfather’s 85th birthday party at their summer cottage in Maine. He contemplated becoming a whistle-blower. The SEC was just a phone call away. He tried body-building and training for a marathon. He dabbled in anti-depressants. In a painful fit of conscience, he donated Cindi’s insurance money (which came through smoothly enough without a peep from her knife-toting brothers) to establish a cheerleading camp in her name at the high school in Boothbay. One hundred frigging grand.


Cindi’s urn was the real problem. He’d never expected to receive her ashes. She must have signed some paper, or checked some box. Maybe she did it intentionally, knowing he could dispose of the flag, but not her ashes. Cindi’s urn of ashes sat on a shelf by the front door of his apartment. He eyeballed it every time he came home. The urn began to attract other things to the shelf, like seashells and flowers. A vase of blue iris. Lawrence kept his corner grocer in business, buying up blue iris.


Finally, after an impulsive late-night train ride, Lawrence Halcomb III and Cindi’s urn showed up at Sergeant Buckner’s recruiting office. The brown metal urn was hidden in a backpack. Lawrence told the taxi driver to wait. Still in his business suit, Lawrence marched in and saluted.

“We don’t usually see young men like you here,” Sergeant Buckner said.

“I’m feeling very patriotic this morning,” Lawrence said. He accepted a cup of the sergeant’s coffee.

“That is, unless your lady has just run off, or you’re experiencing some kind of upset,” Buckner explained, patting his shaved head with a handkerchief.

Lawrence blurted, “You mean, I look too rich to sign up for the Army? You only accept the impoverished?”

“No, no, no,” Buckner laughed. “It’s just that I don’t like wasting time on people who are obviously going to change their mind tomorrow.”

“How soon can I be in Iraq?” Lawrence asked.

Sergeant Buckner smiled and replied, “Well, son, I’m sure we can accommodate you. But the Army has many needs and someone with your talents might be better suited to a different position.”

“Like what, disaster relief? Tornadoes and floods?” Lawrence said, “Wait, I want her to hear this.” He opened the backpack, pulled out Cindi’s urn and placed it on Buckner’s desk. “Okay, remember Cindi Knapp, local girl? Go on, give her your best pitch,” Lawrence said.

The sergeant shrugged and barked, “Jeez, another one of the crazies. Get out before I call the police.”


Lawrence spent the rest of the day on the beach. The cuffs of his trousers filled with sand. He was looking for the right spot or the right moment to hurl Cindi’s ashes into the ocean. It didn’t appear. He plopped down and slept soundly for a period that felt like five minutes but was actually two hours. He woke to find a group of tourists taking pictures of a man in a three-piece suit lying beside a brown urn and the encroaching tide. Lawrence draped an arm around the urn and smiled for the cameras.

He thought about taking the urn to the karaoke bar, but feared he would end up in a fight. “Here she is, bro,” Lawrence would say, “Your little sister’s ashes are inside.”

“What do you want us to do?”

“It depends, jackass,” Lawrence would say, “Maybe I want to go out to the alley. Maybe I want to get the shit kicked out of me.”

He imagined a confrontation with her rowdy brothers, who would desecrate the urn by prying open the lid and pouring in drinks. “Hey, man,” the brothers would say, “One heck of a girl, she was. They broke the mold when they made little Cindi. She was a firecracker. She’d come here on half-price shot nights and sing. I remember her up there singing her heart out on those Madonna songs.”

Tears began to ooze from Lawrence’s eyes. He wiped them away on his sleeve. He picked up the urn and chucked it as far as he could out into the high-tide surf.

That was that. Cindi was no longer with him. He felt a few pounds lighter. He ignored the phone vibrating in his trouser pocket. Lawrence Halcomb III wandered over to the ferry wharf and, what the hell, bought a ticket for Nova Scotia. A fogbank slowly enveloped the harbor, creating a different kind of mirage.