"Yes, ma'am," I reply, half listening as she launches her explanation.
"My name is blah, blah, blah,"..."I'm with such and so,"..."banners"..."soldiers"..."sailors"..."150 from NAS Whidbey and Fort Lewis, they can march 8 or so abreast."
"Yes ma'am, that'll be just fine. I'll e-mail you the application." "Lady!" I want to scream, "As long as you pay the entry fee, I don't care what you put in the parade. You're good to go!"
I am completely unprepared when she shows up at my office. She finds me seated at my reception desk. I have just finished selling carnival tickets to a family with boisterous young children when she steps between the side of my desk and the hall that leads to the back offices.
"Heather?" she asks. "My name is so-and-so, we spoke on the phone?" I vaguely remember.
And she unfurls the banner--an innocent 3' x 5' sheet of printed vinyl.
I find myself face to face with an enlarged image of a Marine. He was 20 years old, according to his birth and death dates, when he was killed in Afghanistan.
The woman's words sink in now. Her organization honors the lives of fallen Washington State soldiers, sailors and Marines by carrying these banners in regional parades. One hundred fifty faces of one hundred fifty fallen service members carried by one hundred fifty of their comrades.
I feel a tingling in my sinuses that tells me I'm about to turn into a blubbering mess. Paul is in the middle of a ten-day mission to Mosul, Kirkuk and Tikrit, and I haven't heard from him in a week. I'm scared and I'm tired, and I'm eye level with a death that could be his.
Instead of submitting to tears, I laugh. It's a nervous chuckle, and maybe a little unbalanced, quietly maniacal, but it pushes the woman to shock and a bit of outrage.
"Do you think this is funny?" she demands. Her face is cold and she glowers down at me.
My eyes burn as I swallow my laughter and I can feel my customer service mask drop away as my features rearrange to display the stricken emotions that devour me at that moment. "No ma'am." My voice shakes as I explain that Paul is in Iraq, and I haven't heard from him this week.
Her face softens, but she retains a touch of haughtiness. "Well I hope and pray that his face doesn't end up on one of these banners."
"Me too," I whisper.
After the woman leaves, I duck into the garage and lose my control.
For once, I am able to attend my own parade. The walkie-talkie on my hip squawks every now and then, but for the most part we are organized and calm. I sit on the cold concrete curb between my mom and Rob, the autistic man who builds his April around this parade.
Paul is back within the wire and safe, and I chat with him occasionally through the instant message function on my phone as I wait for the parade to start. I don't want to tell him again how afraid I was. "Baby," he'll reply, "I'm your gingerbread man. I fully plan on coming home to you."
I don't tell him about the banners. I wrote the parade line-up myself and I know when to expect them, but I still dread the entry.
But I forget to pay attention, and they do catch me off guard. Soldiers and sailors in their dress uniforms walk by slowly and solemnly, carrying faces with formally serious eyes that I can't bring myself to meet. I don't even bother to stop the tears that creep out from beneath my sunglasses--they fall too quickly. Rob glances at me, and away again, and his foot taps even faster on the pavement, his body rocks back and forth, back and forth in agitation, and he looks for the next entry.
My hand searches for my phone in my jacket pocket and I send Paul another message. "I love you."
And he writes back, "I love you, too, Baby."