June 13, 2008

We sit at separate tables. It is a humid day but I am at an outside cafe where I read my paper and drink my coffee , and he does also. We never speak directly or make eye contact but I am close enough to hear him without intending to eavesdrop. His name is Noah.

A big boned man dressed in red, white, and blue comes walking past on the sidewalk. He carries signs and buttons and plops them down by the cafe. “LET AMERICA PREVAIL”, he says, “A war is on the rise and we need men, or boys we can make men out of, to come join in the fight. FOR FREEDOM! FOR JUSTICE! FOR PEACE!”

Noah is unfortunate enough to be at the table next to the man. He chuckles at the statement and remarks, “For peace?”

“FOR PEACE!”

“After I shoot a man?”

The man continues to preach to the crowd that has formed and yells, “It is evil we are defeating! This is justice, people!”

“No, this is justifying killing,” he mumbles sarcastically while continuing to read the paper.

“We need to show our country’s strength!”

“Ah, weak, weak, weak.”

The man can’t ignore Noah any longer. He turns to him and says, “Well what do you propose we do? Shall we sit back as you seem to be doing? Those men out there are the ones working towards something. They are the ones progressing rather than sitting here and talking nonsense.”

“Sitting around and fighting are the two excuses for avoiding a problem and I, sir, can say I do neither. “Noah stands. “People of America, after my cup of coffee, I will be going home to rebuild the schools that are falling apart right here in our backyard that reeks of crime and lack of unity. Now won’t that be working towards peace rather that fighting for it?”

The crowd doesn’t react. Rather, they walk to the nearest drug store or beauty salon because they hear and don’t listen. The recruiter leaves. And so does Noah before I have a chance to speak to him. A week later, I am traveling overseas with a gun in my hand and twenty pounds of ammunition on my back.

————–

That whole week before I leave, I think of Noah. I think of him when my Dad pats me on the back and asks, “Excited, boy?” I think of him as I am on the boat floating in the Atlantic Ocean with drunken men around me yelling “FOR FREEDOM!” And I think of him while I am out on the lines for the first time. I watch as grenades blow up around me, and gun shots mute my thoughts, and little boys run across the grey strip of land forgetting everything their mothers have ever told them. They are yelling at me to shoot but my arm doesn’t have the strength to hold up the gun. The next thing I know, I am lying on the ground shouting God help me.

————–

I open my eyes to a sterile, white room with beds aligned all across the way. A nurse hovers over me and asks how I am. I’m not well enough to answer.

“I bet you’re wondering where you are,” she says, “You got shot out there. I heard you went down pretty quickly. However, it doesn’t look too bad. Just a bullet wound.” My eyes widen.

It was in the arm. According to my nurse, that’s nothing they can’t fix. In order to retain feeling though, I have to write letters everyday for an hour. Everyday, I pick up the paper and pen and write “Dear Noah,”

————–

Sometime later, the man in the bed next to me asks me what my name is.

“Conner Mathers. Yours?”

“Pat Halloway.”

“What happened to you?” I ask.

“I was helping you up when I got shot right in my leg.”

“You were helping me up?”

“Yeah, I watched it happen. I watched you just stand there and welcome that bullet.”

“I’m sorry; I just didn’t know how to react.”

“Oh you were holding yourself back. I saw it. And now, you are holding me back. I should be out there fighting.”

“Well not me. They asked the wrong guy. I can’t go out there. I’m too screwed up about morality. Something did hold me back the other day, and I can’t deny it.”

“So boy, what is your pride getting in the way of?”

“O fuck you. It has nothing to do with pride. This whole world is so obsessed with killing people, and yet there is still a part of me that thinks maybe peace is possible. But I don’t know how or if so, but I do know you cant fight for peace by fighting.”

“You can’t fight for peace lying cold in the grave either.”

————–

I’ve been sleeping in long spurts with the medicine they have been giving me. One night, I awake to find Pat looking up and alert.

“Can’t sleep?” I ask.

“Never can.”

“Oh.”

“So you’re afraid of war, huh?

“Not afraid, just against it.”

“Same thing,” he remarks, “What’s this peace you talk of?”

“I know it’s not realistic but I figure, I’d rather work towards some strange outlandish dream than live this hell. At least I’m making a conscious decision to fight for a goal where I’ll be able to sleep at night. That’s a start. Maybe peace will follow.”

“Oh leave it to humans to screw up something good. If we are given peace then we will just complain about how blue the sky is.”

“You know why you can’t sleep,” I ask frustrated, “because you are too afraid of dreaming.”

”You know why you can’t get a girl? Too full of bullshit.”

“How do you know I don’t have a girl?”

“Well do you?”

“No.”

————–

I think the medicine has been affecting my dreams also. The next night, I am sitting on an ottoman with Noah beside me while we eat toast.

“Noah!”

“I’m sorry. Do I know you?” he says, staring at me blankly.

“No I, uh, I was there at that cafe that day with the war recruiter. He was a big guy, kinda hairy.”

“Oh yes I remember. Sorry about the scene I made.”

“Don’t be. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. Not even when I was carrying a machine gun toward enemy lines.”

“Ah, so you’ve been at war. How has that been?”

“I got wounded.”

“Bad?”

“Nah, I just couldn’t bring myself to shoot.”

“Because of me?”

“Yeah.”

“Huh.”

“I’ve wanted to talk to you. There’s so much I want to ask,” I confess.

“Well I don’t know how well I’ll be able to answer. I’m just a thirty-two-year-old from Buffalo, New York. But nevertheless, I’m here. Ask away.”

“You talked of peace.”

“Yes.”

“Do you think its possible?”

“Possible, yes. Probable, no.”

“How?”

Noah put his newspaper down and looks at me. “You ask that as if there’s an answer.”

“Well, is there?”

“A long one.”

“I would hope so,” I reply.

He takes a breath. “An end to war is an obvious step but that’s the furthest thing from peace.” He takes another breath and then continues, “I see people killed everyday. I see words beat down truly happy people. Words that, honest or not, should never be spoken. You see, being honest is the same thing as being an asshole. It’s a crappy excuse that doesn’t justify a thing. The times I inflict sadness on another, I have to walk with that guilt the rest of the day.”

He continued, “To me, I’d rather be the victim than the culprit. It’s a much easier role in life. I’d rather be hurt that be hurting someone else. Unfortunately, not enough people feel that way. So I don’t know how that will change, and I refuse lose sleep over it. I would advise you not to either.”

“Sleeping is never a problem.”

“Then maybe I’ll be seeing you around.”

————–

For a few years after that, I fought everyday waiting for my return home. I wrote each night about my plans for America — my plans to speak and educate and rebuild and give back. I never thought that I would grow up to be a bitter man who let their values deteriorate and in turn, love the feeling of a cold gun in my hands but hey, it happened.

So do I still think peace is possible? Yes. But I sure as hell don’t care either way.

 

Advertisements