I wrote about him last week, the young man from Empty Chairs, Empty Tables. When he came into my office this week, he sat down and said, “Did you read what I wrote?”
I panicked. Good Lord, did I once again forget to do something that I had promised to do? I hemmed and hawed, only for seconds I’m sure, but long enough, apparently, for his proclivity to rescue to kick in.
“I just left the notebook with your secretary,” he smiled.
I at least had the decency not to break down into a muddled “Thank you.”
“It will be good to read it,” I stammered as I sat down.
“I’ve been looking at your blog,” he then said.
“So you saw the entry last week?”
“The Christmas one?”
I smiled. “So you haven’t seen the one about the movie?”
“No, sir. What movie?”
So I did what I so often have had the opportunity to do: I pulled up the site, and I read him the post. When I was finished, I looked up to see him staring at me, same smooth features, same big eyes, although with a different countenance now, not distressed, exactly, but not sanguine, either.
He swallowed, and then, without warning, apparently to either of us, the tear crawled out of the corner of his right eye.
“I . . .” He swallowed again. “I had no idea that you heard me. I . . . you listened.”
He was genuinely surprised.
I wasn’t sure what to say. I still find myself surprised when combat veterans tell me that they’re surprised that I’ve heard them. It’s not hard, after all. They talk. I listen. If I don’t interrupt them, they keep talking, I keep listening. Straightforward process, all in all, really.
“Would you . . .” I stammer again. “I’d . . . I’d be glad to go get the notebook if you’d like me to read what you wrote.”
He smiled, a welcome relief for both of us. “That’d be great.”
So I did. It was a standard-issue, bound, black notebook, the kind we used to use to record lab results in organic chemistry.
“I could only get out a few pages,” he said as I walked back into the room.
“No problem,” I replied as I sat down.
I was scarcely able to crack the cover before he jumped back in. “I . . . I just got so upset when I finished the first one, I had to put it down. But then when I came back later, I couldn’t get back into the scene to go on. I was so mad at myself. I guess that’s why I wrote the second one.”
I looked down at the page before me. His printing was sure, yet not overbearing. There were no scratch-outs, no revisions, just line after line, seemingly calling out to prepare myself for a momentum that awaited.
“May I read it aloud?” I asked.
So I did.
As I recall, I paused periodically as I read, occasionally stumbling over a misread word that he had to correct, but far more often simply . . . pausing.
That’s what I did when I finished reading. Paused. Not a short while.
“Is it . . .” he whispered.
I looked back into those eyes, into that facial smoothness that now I knew–knew what I had only intuited before–would never have the opportunity again to claim the trait of softness.
“Is it OK?” he asked.
I saw the apprehension in his features, that terrible fear each of us carries within us, inserted with such self-justified rectitude by some middle-school English teacher, the horror that our words that had tried so hard to express our deepest self just somehow didn’t pass muster. I knew I had to allay that apprehension–and quickly–but . . . well, I just hadn’t quite yet pulled myself back together sufficiently.
“It’s excellent,” I whispered. “Amazing.”
“Really?” he asked, with a single word mocking my very brilliance of having known, with the self-assurance of italics, even, that he could never find “softness” again. For there it was: a soft smile, the kind that inches its way onto a face when one realizes that, wow, you mean everything might be OK after all, really?
“Yes, really,” was all I could answer
That was when the thought hit me. Even at that moment, I questioned my motives, a doubt quite deservedly inserted into me by a generation of teachers who had warned me of the dangers of asking anything out of a patient except for payment for my time (the tab here for which the VA is picking up quite nicely). Still, I thought: this voice needs to be heard.
Yes, it does.
“What would you think,” I began, “if I published this on my blog and then published my response. If you’d like, you could then respond to my response, and I’d publish that, and the two of us could begin a kind of correspondence together–but again only if you’d like and only for as long as you’d like. You have a powerful voice, though, and I believe that it is important that people have the chance to hear what you and your fellow combat veterans have to say. If I can help make your voice known to as many people as possible, I’m glad to do that.”
At one point, I might have found it hard to believe that his smile could have become even softer and more surprised. But there it was.
“You mean that?”
“That . . . that’d be great.”
“You don’t have to wait until we meet next. You can e-mail something to me, or . . .” I paused as I realized what should have been obvious, given what I had just looked at as I had read. “Or you could write it down, too. Does it help to feel it coming out of your pen?”
“Yes,” he replied. “I like to feel it. But I could scan it and e-mail it to you, how about that?”
I’m old enough to have the right to say: what a world we live in.
“Sounds good. So what ‘name’ would you like to have for this correspondence?”
He sat back with the look of someone who’d just been granted an extra wish from the genie.
“Winston,” he eventually replied, quite satisfied with himself, obviously. “I’ve always like that name, Winston.”
I had to smile. What else could I do.
“Then Winston, it is.”
And so, for as long as Winston desires: it begins.
It was hot, the sun glaring down upon the sand. Looking out onto the horizon, the heat causing the air to be thick, boots pound the sand, dust flying all around me, the ground worn from so much war.
People say that sand is golden brown, but not here. It glowed red. All the blood for thousands of years stained the earth, ground into flour, fluffy to the touch. As the day goes by, the sun rotates over my right shoulder, setting off in the distance, as it looks like you can walk up and touch it. The earth breathes as the ground cools.
Water is of gold to this place. People line up for a chance to have cold water. A small boy and his father wait patiently in line. Sweat glitters his forehead like rain on a windshield, his feet cracked and bruised from all the dry hot air, his sandals, sacred to him, as he only owns one pair, his clothes solid white without a stain, the little boy with a deep thought beneath his eyes.
He ponders on how to approach me, at 190 labs, full body armor pressing against my body, my helmet heavy. Black is what he sees when he gazes into my glasses. My knife sits right below my chest, pistol on my hip, my rifle laying across my chest, slip sitting comfortably in the well, brass sets in the chamber, with the round held back by only the pull of the finger. Grenades line my belt, red white and blue on my shoulder. My hands kept tight beneath my gloves. The carbon fiber lays across my knuckles.
Watching as the crowd grows larger, the water almost gone, patience wearing thin with these fucking people, the smell of sweat and shit linger in the air. Standing to my right and left are 12 other guys ready to lay down their lives for me at any given moment, without hesitation.
The little boy tugs at my sleeve and asks me what is my name. As I bend to to tell him, his father’s hand slaps his face, dragging him back into the line. My blood boils as it pumps through my veins, my eyes cross as my fist clinches my weapon. Without a thought the man is laying on the ground as my fists pierce his face, the sound of his bone cracking. Blood pours from his nose. My mind is a fury.
The little boy grabs my arm and says, “Mister, please.” As I pull back my hand and stand up, the little boy stares into my soul. I give him my water, a pencil, and some food. He smiles as his dad pulls him away from the line.
I look back on those days that were so long, sitting in the guard tower, thinking about my life and what it meant. I thought about my wife and daughter and my friends and family, what they were doing, if they were okay. I tried to picture them in places I had been before I left.
I thought to myself that people all over the world have no idea what is going on. Why are we here doing these things? I thought about the first person to bring up the idea of going to war, the stupid fucking selfish lazy fucking dumbass politics. If you asked them to go fight for their country, they would hide like little bitches under their desks. I would like to line them all up and slap the fucking teeth out of their mouths. I hope they all suffer for their arrogant selfish mindless actions.
Thank you, Winston. Back with you as soon as I can.
Again: thank you.