Short Story: A Hero’s Welcome

The falling snow slowly drifted side to side with the help of the wind, coming to a halt on the ground where it first covered the footprints of men, women, and children that had gone before him and after that, it melted, wetting the stairs which he climbed towards the open doors of the Branchwood community center.

Once inside he handed his coat to the boy working at the front desk who quickly went in the back and through the glass window in the wall, he saw the boy deposit his coat into a locker and came back with a red slip in his hand with the number twenty-two written on it. He thanked the boy who stared at his uniform and the patches on his right arm with wide eyes barely acknowledging his words for the uniform spoke louder.

The boy said ‘you’re welcome, sir.’

As he stepped through the main door of the hall, his ears were filled with the sound of drums and a saxophone and the deep voice of the man singing in the corner of the room. No one was on the dance floor yet except for little children dressed in their Sunday best. They looked like little grown-ups and not by their choice. The open hall was lit by the various chandeliers and also by candlelight, one candle placed in the center of every table around which people gathered, drinking and conversing.

Before he could take another step into the hall a hand reached out towards him and he shook it. The man introduced himself but he quickly forgot the name. He was mesmerized for a moment by the man’s thick grey mustache as he thanked him for his service and said something about how proud he had made them all. The attention drawn by the mustached man caused a small queue of people to quickly surrounded him. Some of them wrapping their arms around his shoulders as if they were long-lost friends but his friends were all long lost. He looked over the head of the little black-haired man who owned the butcher shop to see where his mother and father were. He spotted them standing beside the Mr. Felmond the president of the community. They saw him and waved. His mother’s tiny hands were kept warm by the gloves, she always suffered badly during the winter. 

He excused himself from the others who were still surrounding him and made directly for his parents. Before he could get to them, he found his path blocked once again and this time the touch was gentler and the perfumed scent of cherry wood brought back memories of his sister and he remembered he had one and he embraced the woman tighter.

“How have you been?” He asked her as he took her in. She wasn’t a girl anymore but to him, she was too him. She wiped her eyes, green like those shattered trees broken into pieces by bullets and artillery, their evergreen branches sticking out of the snow-covered crowd, limbs of wood, limbs of flesh and the green of the trees reminded him of his sisters eyes at first but slowly he had forgotten those eyes and now they were staring into his own. She mumbled something trying her best to hold back her tears and he simply nodded as if he understood her. He hugged her again and together they went up to their parents. 

“Oh!” he heard his mother say before she buried her head in his chest.

“Let me get a good look at him.” His father said and his mother reluctantly let go. “You’re a man know aren’t you. Look at you.” His father studied him from head to toe as his mother and sister stood side by side. He wore the black boots that were given to him when he first entered the service, they were only to be worn during special occasions which came far and few during the war but now that was all he wore because ever since the war ended he had been chaperoned from one dinner to the next. His pants were simple and navy colored with no a crease on them for he had ironed them himself and under his uniform, he wore a button up that was too big for him and the coat was too big around his shoulders as well. He stood with his hands behind his back holding his officer’s hat, his thumb tracing the brim of the cap, his hair neatly parted to one side. He tried his best to smile and for once he didn’t find it difficult for his father and mother were there in front of him. His sister was taller than his mother now, he had missed so much. His father grabbed his shoulders and squeezed them, the man was old but his grip was still strong and his father laughed, as his eyes grew brighter. He looked away and wiped his eyes.

“He’s a man know.” He said again this time to his mother who nodded in agreement. “It’s good to have you back.” The two of them shook hands awkwardly. He hadn’t known his father to be emotional. When he left for Europe three years ago his father had shaken his hand then too and told him he was proud of him. It was the first time he had heard his father say those words.

“You made us all proud.” He said as he let go of his hand.

It was Mr. Felmond’s turn now to touch the man of the hour. He had turned to expect a handshake but instead found Mr. Felmond’s arms wrapped around him.

“Welcome home, welcome home.” Mr. Felmond said. “You look too thin. What were they feeding you over there.” He smiled looking around at his parents. “Don’t worry now, son, you’re going be begging us to stop feeding you by the time this nights over.”

He merely smiled and nodded. His throat was dry. The shot of whiskey he had in the car had left him desiring more and he could feel the weight of his flask in the inside of his uniform and also the letter. His father had never seen him drink so he felt guilty doing it in front of him. Even now, after all that he had been through, he could not gather the courage to reach inside of his uniform and take out the flask so he stood there as Mr. Felmond and his parents talked about how proud they were of him.

“Are you hungry?” His mother asked.

“I could eat.” He replied.

“I’ll show him where the food is,” his sister said driving her arm in between his right and holding him tightly in fear of losing him again and he liked that. She led him away from their parents and Mr. Felmond.

“That Felmond still talks too much.” He said and his sister laughed.

“Would you mind grabbing me a plate? I wished to listen to the music a little while. Its been too long.” She left as he sat down near the band. Even mediocre sounds sound wonderful once deprived of music. His ears were used to the shouts of his commanding officers, the untimely cries, loud claps that mimicked thunder, whistles that impersonated trains and the unsilenced silence.

He preferred the old man who sung now over anything he had ever heard. To him he was as good as it gets. He hoped that at night it would be this old man’s voice that meets him in his dreams but those hopes were shallow ones for he knew what awaited him when he closed his eyes.

He reached inside his uniform and turned his back to everyone that was looking at him. Watching the man play the saxophone he took a deep gulp of his flask and the whiskey washed down his throat and his thirst subsided for now. He put away the flask and closed his eyes momentarily. When he opened them again his sister was there with her green eyes and a plate of food and a cup of juice.

“I saw something very interesting while I was over there.” His sister said.

“What might that be?” If his father had said those words his mind would have jumped to the flask and he would have felt guilty having his father see him drink. His sister was different. She would understand but at the same time, he didn’t want her to see either.

“That Jessica Owens can’t keep her eyes off of you.” He slowly turned around and glanced at the table where four women sat in the center was Jessica Owens who quickly looked away when she saw him looking and then slowly brought her gaze back to him and hesitating for a moment before waving. He turned his back to her and went back to his food.

“What’s wrong?” His sister asked. “Go over there and talk to her.” He was used to taking orders but for once he didn’t have to follow them.

“What’s the point? Besides I’m not in the mood.”

“Not in the mood! I thought you liked her too.”

“That was years ago.”

“What’s so different now?”

He quickly drank his juice and stretched back watching the drummer play with his eyes closed as he saw through his fingers and the tips of the drumstick. 

“Tell me about the war.”

His sister was leaning in towards him with her chin resting on the palm of her hand. “What did you see? How pretty was France? I always wanted to go there. Did you go to Paris? Is the Eiffel Tower like the pictures? I bet its even better in person right? I can’t wait to see it.” She stopped to take a breath and waited for his response.

“Only saw Paris briefly and yes the tower is better in person.”

“I’m so jealous. I wish I could have gone too.”

“I didn’t go there to see the sights.”

“I know but they were there. I bet you’ll never forget them.”

“No. I’ll never forget.”

He felt a hand on his shoulders and heard Stephen Cornberry’s voice. He shook hands with the man he had known before. Stephen lived on the same street as him when they were kids and the two had grown up together.

“It’s been too long.” Stephen took a seat beside him. “I’m sorry if I’m interrupting.”

“No, not all. You two catch, for now, I’ll have him later.” His sister said rising from her chair and leaving the two of them.

For a moment neither of them said anything. 

“How have you been?” Stephen broke the silence.

“Good. And you?”

“Can’t complain. I work for a bank now you know, as an accountant.”

“Is it good money?”

“Can’t complain about that either.” He looked the same as he did before but just taller. Stephen adjusted his glasses and swiped the hair on his forehead to one side. “Man I wish I had a drink right about now.” He said.

He reached into his uniform and pulled out the metal flask and handed it to Stephen who let out a short laugh. “You always had the answers.” He said before undoing the top and taking a swig.

“Later some of us guys were going to go out. You should come along.” He took the flask from Stephen and looked to see where his father was and when he saw him talking to his sister he took a sip himself and put the flask back inside his pocket. “What do you say? It’ll be on me. I know you can’t turn down a free night.” He smiled and patted him on his leg as if the two knew each other.

“I’ll think about it.” He said.

They sat in silence. Stephen’s foot tapping along with the beat of the music. There were a few more people now on the dance floor and Jessica Owens was one of them. The two of them caught eyes once more, her eyes, her lips, her look, her hips, all calling him to come join her.

He looked away again.

“Heard about poor Barry. His parents are here somewhere.”

He clenched his jaw, watching the windows behind the drummer fog up, it looked like mist.

“What was he? 19? 20?”

“18.”

“Terrible. So young. A good boy I guess, good man I should say.”

He stayed quiet.

“I always envied the two of you. Here I was sitting in a classroom while you and Barry had an adventure of a lifetime a real mans journey you know. Nothing like it can be duplicated from inside a four-walled room with some old man teaching you about numbers you know what I mean?”

“Suppose so.”

“You’re braver than I’ll ever be that’s for sure. I could only dream of going over but you and Barry did.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“Huh?”

“Don’t call me brave.”

Stephen raised his eyebrows and sucked in his lips. “Whatever you wish.”

The music played and people talked and laughed around him and he watched the snow fall.

“How was it over there?” Stephen asked once the music stopped the players took a quick break to rest their hands and throats. A waiter brought them each a drink on a silver tray and the people dancing also rested their feet with a slight glisten of sweat on their foreheads and back of their necks. “I mean…how are you really doing?”

“Fine.”

“Good. That’s good to hear. I met another veteran on a business trip not too long ago and to tell you the truth he seemed a bit off if you know what I mean. It was his eyes really. They were hollow. Drawn in. Lost.” He noticed Stephen was staring at the cloth that was spread over the table rather than looking at him. “Even the way he talked was different.”

“I’ve seen it too.” The same eyes stared back at him each morning. “It’s different now for them. For us. Things are different but they’ll get used to it.” Used to the beds and the food and the peaceful sounds of life.

“Yeah. Come out with us tonight then. Get back to the normal. We’ll show you how we do things now.” He patted him on the shoulder.

“I’ll think about it.” He said again.

“Anyways,” Stephen let out a belly full of air as he got to his feet, “have to make some time for the wife before we go out.” He said. “It was nice catching up and make sure you think about it okay?”

He nodded and the two shook hands and Stephen left.

The snow fell sideways now as the wind picked up causing it to slant away from him as he stood near the footsteps of the community center with his jacket unzipped so that his uniform was still visible in the middle. The smoke of his breath mixed with the smoke of the cigarette and together it drifted towards the dark skies before being cut through by the wind. The mist leaving him and not crawling, inching towards him. One thing he liked about the war was that at night he could see the stars. Standing outside now he couldn’t see anything but the pale that fell and the dark that blanketed them. He used to count the stars when he was on gunner duty at night. He would count them over and over again distracting his mind so that it would not hear the mercy cries of the soldier wounded in the middle. They cried not for help or rescue but for simple death.

He had gone over wishing that he would make it back with stories of grandeur. Then he wished to simply stay alive, then he was content with his passing as long as it was a quick death, then he prayed for a painful one and now for a simple one.

Beside his flask, he felt the letter he had written filled with false excuses of why he didn’t make it. But the look of disappointment on his mother’s face formed in his mind as he wrote the lies and he couldn’t bear to let her down. He had come after all but now he wished he hadn’t because each time he heard someone praise him he saw the suffocated face of Barry Andrews.

The door of the community center opened and he turned his head to see who it was and he found himself surprised to see Jessica Owens in her red dress the same as her lips and her black heels that clicked on the wet concrete the clicking soon stopped as she stepped on the thin layer of snow at top of the final step where he was standing smoking.

Am I interrupting?” She asked.

He let out smoke from the corner of his mouth away from her.

“No, ma’am. Just getting a little smoke. Would you like one?”

She shook her head.

“I don’t smoke.”

“Oh.”

They stood there, as snow fell away from them neither talking both waiting for the other to say something. He just wanted to smoke in peace but even that was taken away from him.

“Aren’t you cold ma’am?” he said looking at her bare arms.

“Its Jessica. And no. Dancing always makes me hot.”

He nodded, confirming her statement.

“Can I ask you something?” She said.

“Sure.”

“How come you didn’t come talk to me?”

He was glad that he had his coat on. His uniform would not have hidden the redness around his neck.

“Was I meant to?”

“I suppose not. I guess it must be difficult getting back into the norms of things because from what I know when a pretty girl smiles at you it usually means she wants to talk to you.”

“I’m sorry. I guess we’re talking now.”

“That we are. So, ask me how I’m doing. That’s the normal thing to do you know.”

“How are you doing?”

“Not well for a while but better now that I’ve finally got this man’s attention.”

He finished his smoke and dropped the last nub on the ground where she crushed it with the heel of her shoe.

“Aren’t you going to ask me to dance?”

“I’m not much of a dancer.”

“I can teach you.”

“I don’t want to be a burden.”

“Its nothing. I teach kids and I’m sure you’ll be easier than a five-year-old.”

“I think you’ll be surprised.”

She laughed. He managed to smile to and for once it didn’t feel forced.

“You know I am getting cold now.”

He made to take off his coat but she stopped him.

“No, it’s all right. I’ll be going inside now and I expect my dance Mr. hero.”

He didn’t say anything.

She leaned closer and kissed him on the cheek. She wiped the red lipstick stain left behind with the palm of her hand before walking back. The clicking sound returning and for a brief moment the muffled noises grew to coherent tones and the door closed and with it, the muffled sounds returned.

She was sitting with her friends and the band was playing a new song. Faster than the one before. He looked around for his mother and father. He spotted Stephens talking to a woman who he assumed was his wife. Beside them was a little boy, their son he thought. He found his sister with a group of girls chatting and drinking wine. At last, he spotted his mother and father. For the first time, his parents were alone. They were seated in the front of the hall under the bright lights of a chandelier eating steak by the candlelight. He was making his way towards his mother to let her know he wasn’t feeling well and that he had to leave when he heard his name called. He turned to see where the sound came from and when he did see, he felt his throat close up. Mr. Andrews called for him, and his wife Martha was there too. Without willing, his feet carried him towards the old married couple. Mr. Andrews’s white hair was neatly combed to the right and his black suspenders were visible underneath his white shirt over which he had his unbuttoned coat. His wife stared at him through her large glasses and Barry did too for the mother and son both shared the same blue eyes the ones that he saw the life fly out off but not the accusation. She had a sad smile on her face as she leaned on her walking stick having broken her hip a month before or so his mother told him over the mail.

“How are you?” Mr. Andrews asked as he sat down beside the tired couple. There was a dark ring underneath Mr. Andrews’s eyes.

“Very well sir.” He said staring at the flickering candle flame.

“Its good to see you again.”

“You too sir.”

“Samantha and Lenard must be so happy to have you back.”

From the corner of his eyes, he saw Mrs. Andrews raise her wrinkled hand to her face.

“What are you planning on doing now?”

“I haven’t thought much about it, sir.”

“I hope you’re still reading son.” He had once been his English teacher in another lifetime.

“I’m afraid I have fallen behind. But I’ll do so now.”

“That’s understandable. You always had the eye for a good sentence.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“If you need anything you can always come to us.”

“Thank you.”

“Barry wanted to be a fireman.” Mrs. Andrews said softly.

“Yes dear. He did.”

“He would have been a good one too.”

“Yes dear. He would have.”

He swallowed hard the spit in his mouth and it hurt going down his dry throat. He wanted his flask and whatever was left inside.

“You know he was given a medal for his service.” Mrs. Andrews said proudly.

“I know ma’am.”

“Was he a good soldier?”

“Come on dear. Don’t ask such things.”

“I just…wanted to know.” He saw her raise her hand to her face again. Mr. Andrews took a deep breath and asked him how the roads were coming here and he told them they were fine.

“He was a good soldier and a brave one too ma’am.”

The elderly couple lamented over those words. He was sure they rather have the boy here with them and be called a coward instead of being buried in a nameless grave on some piece of dirt in France with a bravery tag to his name. But in the end, they had to find contentment somehow and if it made them content that their boy was a good and brave then so be it.

“Is it still snowing?” Mr. Andrews asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“Oh dear, maybe we should leave before the roads get any worse.” Mrs. Andrews said.

“Would you mind walking us out to our car? I imagine those stairs are awfully slippery and Martha with her hip…”

“It’s not a problem.” He stood up and without looking at Mrs. Andrews he helped her to her feet and the old woman clutched to his right arm as she walked with her walker in the other. It was a motherly embrace he had known of it from his own mother and he dared not look at either one of them.

“You know we always liked you, son.” Mr. Andrews said. “Barry did too.”

He wished they would stop calling him son.

“When we heard that you were coming back we were so happy. Tell him, Martha. We were happy weren’t we?”

“Yes dear, very happy.”

The elderly couple got their winter coats from the front desk. The wind was harsher now and he carefully helped Mrs. Andrews down the steps and over the slippery sidewalk and the wet parking lot floor to their black Volvo.

“Be sure to come by now.” Mrs. Andrews said squeezing his hand and he stared at the black shinning concrete ground and nodded.

“We are your family too okay? Don’t forget that.” Mr. Andrews said through the open window of his driver’s seat. “Come by anytime.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did you hear dear he said Barry was a good soldier and brave too.” He heard Mrs. Andrews say once the old couple was inside.

His neatly combed hair was stuck to his head as the melting snow lay wet on it and he could not feel the tips of his fingers or the top of his ears for the cold came harshly now that his mind was no longer concerned about the old couple. He reached into his uniform for warmth and found it as his hands wrapped around the cold metal of the flask and the warmth spread through his mouth down his throat and reached even as far his toes as he placed the empty flask back in his uniform. He felt the letter beside it and took it out. Here was the clear evidence of his cowardice. The reason why the medals that were given to him or the officer’s cap did not belong to him. Why bravery was a term left for the dead for the likes of Barry Andrews. He crumpled the page in his fist and threw it aside and watched it get wet as the snow fell on it.

He made his way back up the concrete steps, wet and slippery so he had to use the railing to carefully climb them. He wanted to tell everyone what had actually happened. What he had actually done over there. He had to tell someone.

As climbed the last step the hall doors opened.

“Oh, here you are, my man, we been looking for you,” Stephen said putting his arm around his shoulder. “Did you think about it yet? We’re all going now. Come on man, join us.”

He looked at the faces of the other two men who were with Stephen and he knew the men but he could not remember their names.

“It’ll be like old times. You, me, Abe and Marshall together again. Just come and have a drink with us.”

Abraham Donovan was a tall man with broad shoulders and his tie was loosely hanging around his neck. “We won’t take no for answer.” He said smiling his toothless smile. The front tooth knocked out when he was thirteen and he broke his fall with his mouth outside of Stephen’s house. Since than Abraham had left it broken because he preferred the way he looked in the mirror.

Marshall Hannigan, on the other hand, had his shirt neatly tucked and his tie properly worn and he took off his glasses and wiped them using the brim of his overcoat and put them back on his face. “What do you say? Old times sake.”

“Hell Marsh is even coming and you have no idea how hard it is now to get this old man out of his house. Or should I say his wives house.” Stephen and Abraham laughed and before he knew it he was walking back down the steps that he had so carefully climbed moments before along with the three men.

“I should tell someone that I’m leaving.”

“I already told Anne,” Stephen said. “She said to take it easy on her brother and I told her I can’t promise nothing. So don’t worry about it.”

He was trapped. On one side Stephen held his arm and on the other Abraham. Marshall led the way down the sidewalk as snow swooped sideways crashing into the side of their faces and all of them walked with their heads tucked slightly looking to their right. Marshall flagged down a cab and they all jumped inside. Marshall sat in the front beside the driver and told him where to go.

“Things have changed mighty since you left,” Abraham said when he asked them where they were going. “We’ll take you to a nice little spot a bit outside the town. Don’t worry. It’s great.” He winked at Stephen who smiled and looked outside.

“Tell us something then, how many Germans did you kill?” Abraham asked.

“Don’t ask him things like that,” Marshall said from the front seat.

“I don’t know.” He answered.

“But you killed some right?”

“I guess so.”

“Goddammit, I knew I should have gone too. You got no clue how boring this town is.”

“And you got no clue how horrible war is,” Stephen said.

“And you do?” Abraham said.

“No, but I’m no fool either. Hell, I rather be here than be there. Don’t be delusional Abe because if you went there you wouldn’t be here.”

“Enough about that already,” Marshall said.

“You’re right. Instead of asking him about killing we should really be asking him about the French women.” Stephen nudged in the side with his elbow. “Are they as beautiful as the pictures?”

“Depends on the picture.”

“HA!” Abe slapped him on the knee “there’s the old boy we knew. You still go it.”

“They must have been throwing themselves at your feet. Hero from far away lands come here to save them and all.”

“It was nothing like that.”

Stephen failed to hear him. “You’re a lucky dog, my man. If only we had what you and Barry…”

The cab fell silent and the slight patter of wet snow hitting the windows could be heard.

Abraham cleared his throat and asked him if he saw Barry pass and Marshall protested once more to Abraham’s questions. 

“I did.” He said.

“Was it peaceful at least?”

“It was not.”

“Yeah.” Abraham shook his big head. “We read about Ypres. The gas. How awful. Damn those German bastards.”

Stephen mumbled something that sounded like what Abraham had just said.

“I have killed only one man who I know of and probably others too but with all the shells flying I could never be sure if it was my shot or someone else’s that made the boys across from me fall. Damn the Germans but they were no different from Barry and I and damn them and damn us and damn the whole thing.”

“I hear that,” Abraham said looking out through the dark window.

“You think much about what’ll you do now that the wars over and done with?” Marshall asked.

“Yeah, some.”

“We’re always looking for new workers at the mill,” Abraham said.

“I don’t think I’m much suited for that.”

“Come work with me at the bank,” Stephen said. “Good job. Good pay. Respectable. Besides I’m sure I can get you in.”

“Yeah maybe.”

“No one is going to deny a veteran. Once I tell Mr. Pressfield everything you did overseas and your promotions and the medals you won I’m sure he’ll be begging me to get you.”

“Yeah? I’ll think about it.”

“We’re here.”

In flashes came the memories of that night as he climbed the wooden staircase led by a woman who held his hand. Everywhere he went they told the bartender who he was and what he had done and they were all given drinks on the house. He had failed to take out his wallet at all the whole night as the other men at the bars offered to buy him shots and he could not refuse the offers for it helped him forget why they were buying him the drinks.

The woman smelled nice and he heard others downstairs talking. They came upon a hallway and he passed a door that was still ajar and he saw Abraham inside it with another woman. He felt hot. Snow fell as he passed a darkened window. He saw himself taking his uniform off to show the shrapnel scars on his left arm to a group of men crowded around the dim light of the Irish pub. That had gotten him enough drinks to forget that he had ever stepped foot in France.

Whatever this place was it smelled heavily of perfume so much so as if it too was hiding its true scent, masking it with a false aroma. He heard Stephen voice through a closed-door and he called out for his acquaintance. Right in here, sweetie, he heard the woman tell him and he followed her hips inside the room. I need to take a bath he told her and she made no protest as if she had been asked such services before. That’ll be extra she said and he didn’t know why a simple bath in his home would cost him money but the headache erased any thoughts of protest.

“Come right in here General,” the woman said, “and take off your boots.” He took them off and then his socks and he felt the coldness of the bathroom tiles and he heard the tap squeal and rush of water drain into a white tub.

She undressed him. First taking off his uniform coat and hanging it over the bathroom door. After, she proceeded to untie his tie and unbutton his buttoned shirt. Both went over the coat and he wanted to tell her that’s not how his uniform is meant to be put away but the soft touch of her lips on his made him forget everything he was thinking. She twirled her finger around the crisscrossed pattern of the shrapnel scar left on his arm and she asked if it hurt when he got it and he nodded. Very much he said. She got on her knees and began tugging on his belt and he told her he could do the rest but she batted his hand away. Not every day do you get to service a war hero she said smiling and for a moment her red lips reminded him of Jessica Owens and he asked her if she was Jessica and she said she can be whoever he liked. He asked her if she can be his mother and she hesitated before replying. I didn’t take you for a man with such requests but can’t say I haven’t had that one before she said. Mother, he called out for her, as he stood bare in the middle of the bathroom. He looked himself in the mirror and noticed how frail he looked. He held his mother’s hand as he carefully stepped into the bathwater that was lukewarm and slightly steaming. The warmth spread this time from his toes to his neck as he submerged himself up to his ears. Mist rose from the bath. He saw the red lips moving but only heard muffled noises until he sat up.

“I never slept with a hero before. The closest I ever got was this one man who said he saved his nephew from a fire but I don’t believe him.” His mother stroked back his hair.

“I’m not a hero, mother.”

“Of course you are dear. You’re mommy’s little hero.”

“No. No. No.”

“Don’t be so stubborn. Of course, my boy is a hero.” She felt his scar on his back this time. “Proof right here. Here too.” She touched his arm.

“No. No. No.” He shook his head each time. “I’m just a coward, mother.”

“You’re friends told me that you’re a general or something.”

“Captain.”

“Well, would they make a coward a captain?”

“They did.”

“Here sit up straight so I can wash you’re back.”

He did what his mother asked him.

“I need to talk to God.”

“What’s that dear?”

“I have to talk to someone. Make a confession of my cowardice.”

“There’s a Church not far from here. The old Priest comes in here every now and then trying to save our souls as he puts it.” His mother laughed. “Never leaves until we save his first.”

“Is he coming in today?”

“Who knows. Maybe.” The palm of her hands made circles on the mid of his back. Soft hands for what she was. The hands moved up his back and caressed his neck.

“I hope he comes. I must confess.”

“Confess to me, dear. I am your mother you know.” He tilted his head back and saw her red lips grow as she bent down to kiss his forehead.

“Okay.”

“Tell me what you wish to tell God.”

“You remember Barry, mother?”

“Of course dear.”

“I saw him die.”

“Well, that doesn’t make you a coward.”

“I saw him die because I was too cowardly to die myself. I took his, no I stole his mask I had to please believe me I had to. The mist was coming and he was going to die anyway. A had been struck in the stomach and in the leg and maybe the shoulder too. He was going to die anyways but why should I die too? Those bastards shot my gas mask and forced me to do it. Please understand. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise. But the mist was coming.  We needed the masks and Barry had one. He was going to die anyway. Why should I die too? I took his. I pried it from his hands. He begged, mother, he begged for his life and I begged for my own and he was hurt, bleeding bad, the green around us stained with his blood he was going to die anyways mother please believe me. I took the mask from him and he crawled towards me and I crawled away from him and he clawed at my boot and I kicked him away. He kept staring at me as the mist came towards us and he still stares at me at night and I need God’s forgiveness to make those blue eyes close and the pain behind them go away, I need him like Barry needed that mask when the mist took us. Those pained eyes grew larger still and he clawed at his throat this time trying to breathe. I should have shot him but remember, mother, I am a coward. Useless. He was going to die anyway he was bleeding worse now. He scratched open his throat and I see it mother, at night I see it again I see it ever since. He talks to me each night but he can’t talk no more for his throat is closed from the chemicals but his eyes talk still. Disappointed. Coward. Murderer. They call me but he was going to die anyway, mother. Please. Make him go away.”

The water was cold and his mother had left him long ago. He was alone with the sound of his tears dripping into the puddle of water his drip creating a small ripple that he watched grow and disappear just for another one to take its place. His knees were stuck to his chest and his arms wrapped around it a babe lost and scared looking for his mother waiting for her to return.

Outside the snow drifted silently with the dead wind gone. It buried the pathways and the roads and the prints of those that came before. A fresh blanket but underneath it was the same grey streets.

He got out of the bath and dried himself. He got dressed and left the money on the dressing table for the woman was asleep in the bed. The church bells rang. Snow fell on the brim of his officer’s hat and on his uniform and he walked until the sound of the bells died away. There would be no sleep tonight but he hoped for some one day.

Short Story: Senior

The day of the promotion Junior felt a surge of excitement which he had not felt in a long time. Last time might have been when he was accepted into his college program, which he still hoped to complete one day. He still kept the acceptance letter in his desk drawer at work, occasionally taking it out and reading it over again, thinking about how it would have felt if he had been able to graduate. Now, however, he had another letter, one that informed him of his promotion. He carried that with him in his breast pocket so he could show his father.

He knocked on his father’s door and waited. No one answered at first so, he knocked again. This time he heard his father’s footsteps which fell upon the floor with authority, whose verdict he heard under his own boots, as he felt his father come closer. The steps were not hurried. They were always in control. The door sprang open and his father stretched across the gaping door. Junior could tell his father had dressed quickly for he simply wore his robe with no undershirt and he could see his father’s broad chest and specks of grey hair that covered it. Junior found himself lowering his head as if he were bowing, a natural reaction in the presence of his father.

“Is it Friday already?” His father voice was deep and his lips barely moved. There were hints of facial hair on his father’s chin.

“No pa, it’s still Wednesday.”

“Of course I know what day it is, you think I’m that far gone?”

Junior smiled, embarrassed at taking his father’s question literally. His father often joked and asked questions that didn’t need answers but he found himself answering them anyway.

“I thought you only came to see your old man on Friday’s?”

His father stepped back, allowing Junior space to come inside. Junior squeezed past his father who closed the door behind them. His father was a big man, Junior had to look up to speak to him. His shoulders were still strong for someone his age, his chest still stuck out further than his belly even though men his age often had a fuller belly. But his father had always taken care of himself. His father pulled him in for an embrace. There was a musky smell to him as if he had just been exercising. His father let him go and like a little child, Junior found himself staring up at his father.

“So, what’s the special occasion?” He asked.

Before Junior could answer his father started for the kitchen and Junior hurried to keep up with his father’s long strides.

“I was just making some coffee. You want some?”

“Sure.”

“You like sugar in it?”

“Two teaspoons.”

“I don’t have any. The doctor said to lay off so I’ve been having it black. It might be too bitter for you.”

“I think I can handle it.” He said.

“You sure? I guess you’re a grown boy now.”

Junior sat down on the kitchen table and watched his father pour two cups of coffee. He felt for the letter in his breast pocket and waited for the right time to show his father.

“How’s Emily?”

His father joined him at the table, placing a cup of coffee in front of Junior.

Junior felt the warmth through the mug as he lifted the cup to his lip. His father was not lying when he said the coffee was bitter but he could see his father watching him so he took another sip and acted as if it was good.

“Better now, she’s almost over her cold,” Junior said, lowering the cup down to the table.

His father spread out on the chair and faced towards Junior. Junior felt as if he was back in school, in the principle’s office having to answer for something he did wrong. That feeling quickly passed but before he could bring up the letter, his father spoke.

“I have been meaning to thank her for letting an old man like me stay with you for those few months.”

“Oh, there’s nothing to thank. It was the least we could do.”

“I must have been a real nuisance for you to get rid of me so quickly.”

His father smiled before taking a sip of his coffee.

Junior could not meet his father’s eyes as he stared at the table top where his coffee cup was, watching the steam rise. Although his father had been a difficult house guest for he needed so much attention, Junior could never bring himself to tell the truth to his father. Instead, he had told his father that it would be better for him if he had his own place, a sense of independence. Of course, his father must have seen through the partial lie as he often hinted at the truth.

“No, it was never like that.” Junior’s voice was soft, barely above a whisper, it was as if his father’s gaze could change his tone, manipulate his words, cause the letters to come out quickly, in a hurried manner as if he were out of breath.

“Come on, I’m only joking,” his father’s strong hand struck Junior on the shoulder, “we can joke with one another, can’t we? That’s what men do. Your mother never understood it but I told her that it’s all play between us.”

Junior replied with a smile and a soft, “yes,” that was barely audible and sounded more like a deep exhale.

“But I must say, I would like to see my boy and his bride more than once a week, you know, I’m an old man now, not much left for me in this life, if I can’t even get my blood to come to see me, what am I still doing here?”

The truth in those words could not be ignored. They were true because they were Junior’s own thoughts. He had often felt as if he had not been doing enough as a son. His father had done so much for him that he felt a sense of debt to his father which he was not sure he could ever pay back.

Junior always felt the burden of his father’s shadow. He carried in his heart the notion that he had failed to live up to his father’s sacrifices. He had watched his father slowly change as he lost his youth, working, taking care of Junior, waiting for the day Junior would be able to take care of him. But that day had taken too long and in the meantime, his father had become wasted. He still recalled the day when his father got sick and could no longer work. He had a bad heart and the doctor told him he needed long periods of rest. Junior offered his help, he felt obliged to do so after all his father had done for him. Junior understood his father’s hesitation to quit his work. How could his boy run when he had never even learned to walk?

Which was why the new promotion meant so much to Junior. With the new promotion, he felt as if he had finally arrived in life. He had concrete proof that his father’s sacrifices were not for nothing. More so, it was proof that he could do something good with his life. He had often wondered if he was capable like his father if he could work as hard as his old man, for he had never been much of a worker. It was a comfort that his father had provided him. In such comfortability, he felt softened. Such thoughts had plagued Junior’s mind for a long time.

“I know pa, I’ve been meaning to come more often but work’s got us busy—”

“Ah yes, how are you liking my old job?”

“About that—“

“Do they still talk about me or have they forgotten about the old workhorse?”

“They remember, pa, how can they forget someone like you?”

“What good is a horse if he can’t gallop,” his father said, his voice flat and toneless as if he were making a statement to himself.

Junior had quickly found work as a manager in a company. It was the same company his father used to work at. The workers often talked to him about his father. At first, they simply asked about his father’s health but as they started to know Junior and get comfortable around him, they would tell him about how intimidating his father was. This often happened once they had a few drinks after work. One of the workers, George, even said that his father had made him cry one day. Many recalled his father’s stare when the work wasn’t done properly. The workers were glad Junior was not like his father. However, Junior, upon hearing such complaints felt he needed to speak on his father behalf and he told the workers that his father was just under a lot of stress especially after his mother had passed away.

At work, Junior quickly gained the reputation for working hard, something that he had desired for he was not sure he had such a trait in him. For two years he sacrificed his vacation times and most weekends to put in extra hours at work. He felt as if he owned the company that which had been generous enough to provide him with work when he was desperate. However, such sacrifices came at a cost. His wife had to take a back seat to his ambition. However, Junior felt as if his ambition was not selfish. It was a selfless ambition to make his father’s life more comfortable and also his wives.

His father finished his cup of coffee.

He stared at Junior’s almost full cup, knowing he had been right about his son’s taste. He took his own empty cup to the sink and started to rinse it.

“I can do that for you,” Junior said, joining his father at the kitchen sink.

“I’m not that old yet,” his father replied.

“I didn’t mean that,” said Junior whose voice was drowned by the flow of the tap water. His father shut it off and placed the cup to dry on the side of the cloth placed beside the kitchen sink.

“So they still remember the old bull?” He asked.

“Oh, very much, in fact, Mr. Johnson was talking to me about you just this afternoon.”

“My works got you looking soft,” his father poked Junior in the belly. “Here, look at mine, still solid,” he slapped his own stomach with an open palm, “now you must know how hard I used to work to keep in shape.”

“I guess Emily’s been keeping me too well fed,” Junior smiled.

“That’s no excuse. A man has to stay tight. Softness is an illness to his character. How can you expect others to follow you if they see this belly of yours? You can’t lead men if you can’t even control what you put in your mouth, son.”

“I guess that’s true.”

“Of course I’m right, I’ve been doing your job much longer than you have.”

“About that—”

“I saw the doc the other day and you know what he said?” His father didn’t wait for an answer although Junior opened his mouth to reply. “He said I’m in the top percentile of his patients when it comes to my physique. I told the doc I’ve never missed a day of exercising. Every morning I exercise. You should do that too or else you’re gonna fall apart when you become a geezer like me.”

There was a hint of a joke in his father speech and so Junior smiled, weakly. His father patted him on the shoulder and said, “don’t worry, boy, you’ve got plenty of time to straighten up.”

“But listen, pa, I got some good news for you.”

His father turned towards him, leaning onto the kitchen counter, arms folded across his chest.

“What’s that?”

Junior reached into his breast pocket and pulled out the letter from his supervisor.

“I’m being promoted, pa.” He said, presenting the letter to his father.

His father did not accept it.

“About time we got that position.”

He turned his back to his son and picked out a glass bowl from the cabinet above. “The son always eats the sweet fruit of his father’s labor,” he said, as he poured cornflakes into his glass bowl.

“I am very grateful, pa.” Junior’s arm hung beside him now, his hand still holding the letter.

His father spoke, as he poured mike into the bowl, “I suppose that is what the purpose of being a father is. I lay the foundation, build upon it, make it nice and pretty for you to come and see further than I ever did. Congratulations son.”

“Thank you.”

His father took a spoonful and aggressively shoved it in his mouth, some of the milk dribbled down his chin which he wiped with the back of his hand.

“I was thinking,” Junior said, “this new position can allow me to hire some help to look after you the days I can’t come.”

His father chewed, his jaw flexing and relaxing, his eyes staring right at Junior and Junior’s own shifted back to the tabletop, where his coffee had lost its steam.

“So you’ll be coming to see me even less?” His father asked.

“No, no, nothing like that, pa, I just felt it’ll be good for you to have someone around to talk to and be with.”

“Why can’t that someone be my own boy?”

Junior felt his voice soften. “These past few months I’ve been neglecting Emily too much and I just thought the two of can spend more time together, maybe go on a trip.”

His father did not reply. Instead, he quietly finished his bowl of cereal, the metal spoon scraping the glass bowl after each bite. Once the bowl was empty, he let out a sigh and leaned back into his chair.

“It makes sense, more time for your bride and less time for your old man. Don’t worry, I’ll be gone soon, you’ll have plenty of time after that.”

“Please don’t talk like that.”

“All these years I spent working, I only did that so I could see my boy do good in his life. So, I’m happy for you, son and now, if it means to watch you from afar, then I suppose I’ll do that, I’ll clap for you from the stands.”

He stood up, towering over Junior, “you do what you think is best, after all, you’re the man of the house now, right?”

Junior looked down, staring at his father’s strong legs and feeling the weight of his father’s touch as he lightly patted him on the cheek. His father picked up the coffee mug and carried it with the empty bowl to the sink. He poured out the coffee, which was cold now, into the sink and rinsed out the cup before cleaning the bowl as well. He left both the cup and bowl to dry beside the other mug.

He seemed to be waiting for Junior to say something, perhaps apologize, to take back what he had said, thank him for the promotion but Junior stayed silent, his voice caught in his throat.

“Well you must be a busy man these days,” his father said, “I shouldn’t keep you away from your bride much longer.” He started for the door and Junior stood up without a word and followed his father’s strides.

His father held the door open for him and Junior stepped through.

“It was good seeing you.” His father said.

“Pa, listen, I would come more often if it wasn’t for Emily and the work—”

  His father smiled, quieting Junior with his look.

“Your grandfather would not tolerate such words, in fact, I think he would hate you for saying such things. I’m different than my father, I don’t judge like he used to. He would have judged you to be a lousy boy, inconsiderate. He was a hard man from a different time but I still loved him and took care of him because that’s the duty of a son. But I me, I don’t judge you. You do what you think is best and send my regards to my workers and also to Emily.”

The light from the sun cast his father’s shadow upon Junior whose gaze was fixed upon his father’s feet, unable to raise his head and meet his father’s eyes.

“I’ll try to make it work.” He said.

“You do what you like, son, you’re the man now.”

His father closed the door.

Truth & Storytelling In The Things They Carried

The importance of storytelling is explored throughout The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. In doing so, the author raises many questions about the aspect of storytelling. Can a story be truer than the happening true? Why do we tell stories? Does it matter how a story is told?

The storytelling technique the author, Tim O’Brien, uses blurs the line between what really happened and what is simply a story. This is achieved by naming the narrator of the story after himself. With this, the text can be read almost as a memoir instead of a fictional piece. For instance, the narrator, Tim O’Brien, considered his participation in the war to be cowardly because he did not want to be shamed by his parents and neighbors and other people in his town for avoiding the war. This notion is expressed in the story called “On the Rainy River”.

This raises the question if the author, Tim O’Brien, felt the same way and if not, then does that take away from the narrator’s feelings or does one simply accept the fact that similar notions of cowardice must have circulated the minds of other soldiers who ultimately accepted their enrollment in the army.

The narrator also goes through a transformation, from being an anti-war student with the hopes of going to Harvard, to wanting revenge on a medic who he felt wronged him in the story “The Ghost Soldiers”. When the narrator points out this transformation, one cannot help but think of how war changes the individual. No matter who you were prior to the war, you were going to be someone else afterward. To me, this transformation is made more real because of the author’s choice to blur the line between fact or fiction. Having read other war novels where the main character is changed due to the war, the effect does not seem as concrete as potentially having the author himself be changed. The novel does a good job at eliciting emotions that perhaps only a memoir can do.

However, what if all of it is just fictional? An exaggeration of what really happened. After all, the text is still a novel. The idea of truth is brought up in the novel and how the different ways of telling a story can have an impact on the truth. Can a story be truer than what really happened? If it didn’t really happen does that mean it isn’t true?

The feelings elicited by the stories seem to be real. When the narrator Tim O’Brien describes his first kill and the disfiguration of the Vietnamese soldier in the story “The Man I Killed”, one cannot help but feel sorry for not only the individual who has died but also O’Brien himself for by killing the soldier, he kills a part of himself. However, it is then revealed that the narrator never killed the man but rather he walks up to a corpse of the disfigured individual but to him, it was the same thing. He had played a role in the killing by participating in the war. However, by having described the scene as if he was the one who had killed the Vietnamese soldier, it adds an extra layer to the storytelling, a realistic coat and although we have two accounts of what happened, they both still feel real and both are believable. A soldier did kill that Vietnamese soldier and a soldier did wake up to find the disfigured body and have feelings of guilt and sadness.

The narrator suggests a true war story cannot be written, which calls into question the point of this war novel. Perhaps this is why certain passages are exaggerated, stories that come into the realm of fictional, that cannot be believed, maybe that is the only way to actually tell a true war story. One such story being the “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” where a soldier flies in his girlfriend from America and in the course of a few weeks, the girlfriend transforms from an innocent girl from the Midwest to a savage soldier who disappears in the Vietnamese forest. Such a thing may have never happened however, there were countless soldiers, innocent themselves, who fought and got lost in Vietnam. In that sense, the story about the girl is as true as anything else.

Or perhaps the only way to tell a war story is by shouldering the responsibility of the war and with it, the death of the soldiers. This can be seen with the death of Kiowa in the story “In the Field”. Several soldiers believe that it was their fault that Kiowa died. In the same way, the narrator believed that it was his fault that the disfigured Vietnamese soldier died. By assuming responsibility, one may be able to explain what happened, why it happened, how it happened, even though that individual was not at fault. In this way, the truth is different than the story however, the story could still be true.

Furthermore, the narrator explains why he is writing this story. To me, the narrator’s explanation seems to be the explanation of the author, Tim O’Brien for the reason behind the novel is that through storytelling, one is able to capture the soul of the individual who is not there anymore. In the story, that individual gets to live. This notion is expressed fully in the text “The Lives of the Dead”. The story keeps the soul alive. Which may be the reason why the author decided to name all the characters after people he knew. The soldiers that had passed away were still alive in this text. The girl that he loved when he was a kid is still alive in this text for in the story, she is dancing and laughing and the two of them can talk to each other. Perhaps the reason why the narrator is named Tim O’Brien is so that after the author has passed, his soul still lives on through this story.

Short Story: Remeber To Run

I run a lot. A younger me would never have believed I would be a runner one day. It’s funny how things work out. When I was younger in P.E. class we had to run around the soccer field every Monday morning. I hated those Mondays because I hated the cold but even more, I hated to run. Ten steps into the run my lungs would start to burn and with each breath I would feel a sharp pain in my chest and with each step my mind would tell me how awful this was and that I should simply stop running. I would think that I was breathing too loudly and the kids around me will look at me like I was weird. I also thought that my strides were too short and I looked awkward running and the girl I liked would see me or I would think that if I stopped everyone will know I’m a loser, so it’s best I kept going. Those were simple days when nothing really mattered.

But now, a quick lap around a field doesn’t seem enough. I could go round and round till my legs begin to shake and still, it doesn’t feel like it’s enough. It’s not until I am mindless that I find running to be worth it. Although that can take a long time and some days I never reach that point where there is a void in my thinking. Those days I feel like a P.O.W. my mind acting like a prison and my thoughts as torture devices, depriving me of rest. Those are tough runs but I know I’ll have another shot at escaping next morning and that keeps me sane.

A younger me would have never believed that I would kill a man one day either. Of course that me didn’t know anything about the world or how it worked. He was too busy thinking about if Jemmy had seen him looking at her in class or if he’d get that red bicycle he wanted for his birthday so he can show off to his friends. He had just seen war on movie screens and in his mind. The younger me loved killing in his mind. That me always imagined himself as a soldier, as he played with his toys, and when the toys fought, in his mind he was fighting too, he killed and the toy soldiers fell down, easy and bloodless death but real death was never that pretty. Those were fun times, especially when my brothers and I played together. If only that younger self knew that one day his hands would know the grip of a real gun, the familiarity of the handles, the understanding of the trigger, the sight of men falling as their consciousness leaves them, the sound of men crying as they claw at the dirt trying to stay alive, trying to stop their dreams from leaving them, that younger me wouldn’t know anything of that and he will never know. That younger me still lives a peaceful life, playing with his toys.

I am a runner now. I wake up early, before the sun most of the time. I make sure not to disturb my wife as I get changed into my running clothes that I had laid out the previous day. A pair of black shorts that I had worn for years now which my wife got for me for my birthday when we first started dating. She had got me a shirt to go with it but that had been used and discarded by now, yet, the shirt I did wear looked years old. Along with that, I had my socks, my gloves, my cap and my cd player with the cd already inside it. I changed quickly and went downstairs to the lobby where my running shoes were waiting for me at the front door.

Most days I put them on without a thought and then I was gone. Somedays I stared at the shoes thinking why I am not in my bed with my wife, hearing her snore peacefully as the warmth took me back to some dream that I once had. Those days are rare but they do come and every time they come I stare at my shoes, distracting my thought by forcing myself to remember how long ago I had bought these particular pair of shoes. I would even imagine myself walking into the running store and purchasing them and I would recall how snug they felt the first day I wore them for a run. I had worn these particular pairs of shoes for sixty-two days and the threading had started to come undone in the front and the shoelace was beginning to lose its tightness. The ones I had previous to this pair had lasted me eighty-two days before the sole of the shoes broke. Sometimes these little tricks is all you need to overcome that initial weakness, tricks to occupy the mind, after which, I put on those shoes and leave my house.

I know the exact day when I became a runner. I had come home from work and my wife sat me down. I knew it was something serious by the way she spoke to me. She usually spoke in a soft and quiet manner, something the doctors had told her to do but that time, she could not hide the anxiousness which she was feeling, she wasn’t able to cover up the possible effect her words could have on me. She told me my mother had passed away. A letter came in that morning while I was away and it said that she had died peacefully in her sleep and the funeral will be held in three days time. I thought how could they decide when to bury my mother?

My wife was pregnant at the time and she could not travel so I went alone. She kept on asking me how I was feeling and I found that to be odd. My mother had just passed away and I felt nothing, nothing good, nothing bad and the more my wife brought it, the worse I felt about my nothingness.

At the time I used to go running every now and then, whenever I felt like it, which was not often. The doctors had told me that strenuous exercise might trigger bad memories. So that was a comfortable excuse to stay in my bed or on my couch. But, for some reason, I brought along a pair of running shoes when I went to go see my mother. They were old, just a random pair that I had bought from the store one day, I couldn’t even recall how old they were.

Mother spent her last few years living in a home with her friends and others like her. My wife and I had tried to accommodate her with us but it was difficult when you took into consideration her condition. She had never been the same since my brothers passed away. After that, she would often look at me and call me by my brother’s name. First my older brother and then my younger brother and then a blend of both of them and finally she’ll remember who I was. She’d smile and say how much I looked like them and how I reminded her of them. At the time father was around and he could take care of mother but then he passed too and his name got added to the mix of names. Soon she started to forget more things than just my name. One time we found her walking down the side of the road near our home, still in her morning robe and slippers. She said she was just going to go see my brother off at his school. It was after that we decided to put her in a home where she could get proper care.

I took a bus which left the city at midnight. My wife came to see me off. I figured it’d be easy to just sleep the night and wake up in a different town but that wasn’t the case. The cool air that leaked in from the windows kept me awake. It was as if a fan was blowing cold wind right above my head. Instead, I tried to remember the last time I went to go see her and nothing came to my mind. I remembered riding the bus down another time but I couldn’t remember meeting my mother or talking to her. I remembered the small field outside of the home where the rose petals were and I could see the gardener watering the plants in his green overalls but I couldn’t see her there, nor hear her, I couldn’t even remember her.

There was a man waiting for me at the bus stop. He worked at the home and he tried to carry my one small suitcase for me but I told him I could manage and I placed it in the trunk of his old Volvo. The brown leather seats were cracked and the air conditioning didn’t work. We rolled down the windows. The man offered his condolences and that was kind of him. He asked me if my brothers were coming too. I couldn’t blame my mother for wishing they were still here. I just shook my head and told the man that they won’t be able to join us.

At the home, they settled me into a nice room. I could tell it had been cleaned that morning. The bedsheets were perfectly laid out and the pillows arranged in order, I felt as if I would be doing a disservice by sleeping here, by ruining their constructed image. A man came up and ushered me down to the hall where my mother was. Everyone was dressed in white, those were the mourning colors here, not black but white because they believed death to be pure, a part of a process, something one shouldn’t be sad about. For them, death was cleanliness and order because it completed one’s life, without death life would be incomplete, a singular wrinkle on a bedsheet that is otherwise perfect, that single wrinkle drawing everyone’s attention to the incompletion of the task, or something like that I guess. I suppose that is the attitude you have to have when all your residents are waiting for completion.

My mother lay on a white bed at one end of the room. White cloth covered the floor and the metal chairs, there was a narrow path in between the set of chairs so one could walk directly up to my mother. Few people sat on the chairs silently and I thought that to be odd. Couple of the women sat at the front row, crying without making a sound. I took a seat at the back and watched the side of my mothers face. The bed bent due to her weight in a manner that I could only see the tip of her nose and her forehead which was partially covered with her greying hair. I figured her hair would be greying, my own was but for some reason, I felt as if that was wrong. She shouldn’t be this old. I was but she should be younger like she was when she was waving us goodbye at the train station.

One of the women from the front turned around and saw me. She was old too. She came and sat down beside me.

“You look just like your mother.” She said.

I just smiled.

“I’m sorry for you and your family. She really was a great woman, always making us laugh. You can see how loved she was with all these people here. Not everyone gets the same attention.”

“That’s nice.”

“Would you like to go see her?” She asked.

“No, thank you.”

My answer seemed to surprise her.

“In a little bit,” I added.

She pretended to understand, “okay, take your time honey.”

She went and joined the other women at the front.

I waited for a while and a few more people drifted in, all wearing white. They said their condolences to me, some asked where my wife was and I told that she couldn’t travel, many asked where my brothers were and I told them they couldn’t travel either. After some time I decided to go for a run. People didn’t notice me leave and I went to my room and put on my shoes. The home was a gated lot but the watchman at the gate let me out for I didn’t look like I belonged there just yet.

The run was simple and easy. I kept the pace light, there was no need to rush, I had nowhere to be and the path was simple as well. Flat and straight with the occasional little dip or small incline, nothing that I couldn’t handle. It took me a little while to get my legs loosened up and once they were loose I felt my strides lengthen and my lungs stopped to burn and rather, they took pleasure in inhaling the cold fresh air. I tried to think of nothing when I was running but I didn’t know how to do that at the time. I didn’t know how to get to the edge of the cliff and carefully run alongside it and wait for the perfect moment to step off and fall into the void. Now I had a better hold at getting to the void. The void was emptiness, it was without thought and without feelings. It was just alive and it took pain to get there.

At the time, I was just trying to be thoughtless. Whenever a thought came to my head I let it pass through like one of the cars on the road that seemed to be in a hurry to get somewhere. There were no lights or stop signs for thoughts in my mind, it was an open highway for them to keep on going. It was the void that I was trying to reach but at the time I didn’t know that. Now, when I run I don’t think of anything and with it, I don’t remember anything either.

Like Bean, I don’t remember him either. Bean, that boy who I fought with, who was still a boy. His life already completed. He would tell me stories about his mother all the time. He would tell me how she had him young, too young and how she didn’t know anything about raising kids and she would slap him when he did something wrong and then she would give him sweets to make up for it. Bean would tell me how his mother shouldn’t have been a mother yet, she couldn’t handle the responsibility, she was a kid herself. Just like us, he would add. Bean would tell me how his mother was his best friend. How the two of them would tell each other everything. They would watch movies together, they would go on walks together, she would do his homework for him, he would do the dishes for her and the two of them were one. Bean talked about his mother until he was killed. Then, I remembered his mother. I remembered his mother when I saw my own. When I saw my own mother, I saw Bean’s mother and when I saw Bean’s mother, I remembered Bean and with it I remembered that look of surprise he had on his face when his life was completed. What I remembered afterward doesn’t let me dream anymore.

I kept running that day. Easy, comfortable pace and soon all I thought about was the sky or the tree that I passed by or the crack on the pavement.

Haruki Murakami On Writing

There are many articles written on the do’s and don’t’s of writing. I don’t know if such a thing exists for each person who wishes to write must write their own way. Through the act of writing, they will come to discover what they like and what they don’t like and in doing so, create their own do’s and don’t’s which may be contradictory to the public consensus. If that is the case then so be it. Contorting your writing in order to fit into how someone else thinks, takes away from the uniqueness of your own thought and style. So, one has to be comfortable with their own writing and write for the purpose of writing and not to become popular or to sell a bunch of books. At least that is how I view it. Writing for the sake of writing.

In his memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami expresses similar notions. The book is a combined effort on his views on running and on writing and how the action of running has influenced his writing.

What’s crucial is whether your writing attains the standards you’ve set for yourself. Failure to reach that bar is not something you can easily explain away. When it comes to other people, you can always come up with a reasonable explanation, but you can’t fool yourself. In this sense, writing novels and running full marathons are very much alike. Basically a writer has a quiet, inner motivation, and doesn’t seek validation in the outwardly visible.

It is an inner standard that one must aim for and not some external validation. In running, you are trying to beat your previous time even if it is only by one minute or trying to go further than you have gone before. Similarly, with writing, you are trying to create something that is approved by your own standards and limitations. Text that pushes you slightly further than your comfort zone and it doesn’t matter if one person reads that or a million, the inner validation is all one needs.

Specifically, when it comes to writing itself, Murakami believes that there are three important factors. The most important being talent and below it are focus and endurance. Talent being innate, it is something you have or you don’t have. Focus and endurance are what one can build and increase with time and effort. These two factors are in your control.

In every interview I’m asked what’s the most important quality a novelist has to have. It’s pretty obvious: talent. No matter how much enthusiasm and effort you put into writing, if you totally lack literary talent you can forget about being a novelist. This is more of a prerequisite than a necessary quality. If you don’t have any fuel, even the best car won’t run.

If I’m asked what the next most important quality is for a novelist, that’s easy too: focus—the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment. Without that you can’t accomplish anything of value, while, if you can focus effectively, you’ll be able to compensate for an erratic talent or even a shortage of it. I generally concentrate on work for three or four hours every morning.

After focus, the next most important thing for a novelist is, hands down, endurance. If you concentrate on writing three or four hours a day and feel tired after a week of this, you’re not going to be able to write a long work. What’s needed for a writer of fiction—at least one who hopes to write a novel—is the energy to focus every day for half a year, or a year, two years.

Naturally, in order to increase one’s focus and endurance, you have to be patient. It takes time and effort to develop these two qualities. Murakami relates these factors to running throughout his text. The idea is that just how one works his or her way up from being able to run 1 mile and then 2 miles and then 3 miles as their muscles adjust and grow and their cardio improves and their running technique gets better and so on. Similarly, one has to slowly work the focus and endurance muscles for writing. Perhaps you may have to start with 30 minutes of pure focus where all you think about is writing and then after a week of that, you increase that to 45 minutes and once your body adjusts to that speed, you increase your focus time to an hour. Endurance works the same way. Three days out of the week for writing and then four days and then five days and you may keep the five days for a few months until your body and mind have adjusted to this new level and then you increase it to six days.

It is in the practice of your routine that you get better as a writer and also as a runner. Murakami shares a funny story about the writer Raymond Chandler who seemed to share Murakami’s belief in endurance and focus.

In private correspondence the great mystery writer Raymond Chandler once confessed that even if he didn’t write anything, he made sure he sat down at his desk every single day and concentrated. I understand the purpose behind his doing this. This is the way Chandler gave himself the physical stamina a professional writer needs, quietly strengthening his willpower. This sort of daily training was indispensable to him.

In doing so, writing then becomes a form of manual labor and not some creative output that seeps out of your pores and that one just needs to write it all down and that’s it. Furthermore, it may be through the grueling task of focusing every single day for weeks on end that one may discover that they have some talent. Your talent may not be known to you until you start your work. Murakami himself is an example of this. It was not until he was in his late 20s that he even got the idea to write and it would not be for a few more years until he discovered his own writing style and understood what kind of novels he wished to write.

This discovery was simply aided by writing. The more effort he put into his work the better he understood it and clearer his vision became. He had an understanding that his talent was not enough and that he needed to supplement the talent he did have by building up his focus and endurance. Murakami gives credit to running for building these two qualities that could then aid the talent he did have.

Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day. These are practical, physical lessons. How much can I push myself? How much rest is appropriate—and how much is too much? How far can I take something and still keep it decent and consistent? When does it become narrow-minded and inflexible? How much should I be aware of the world outside, and how much should I focus on my inner world? To what extent should I be confident in my abilities, and when should I start doubting myself? I know that if I hadn’t become a long-distance runner when I became a novelist, my work would have been vastly different. How different? Hard to say. But something would have definitely been different.

Talent may be out of your control but focus and endurance are not. You can set yourself up for success if you build up those two qualities. Furthermore, the action that aids in this growth will help your understanding of writing, what you wish to say, what you wish not to say, your own do’s and don’t’s and perhaps even discover that talent that is within. In fact, such an action will benefit you in all aspects of life and not just writing.

For me it is hard to say if I have a talent for writing or not, I just simply know that I enjoy it and that it brings a sense of fulfillment and achievement into my life. It is a freeing notion, knowing that focus and endurance are under my control. If I am able to improve these qualities perhaps then my writing will continue to live up to my own standards.

Charles Bukowski & The Use Of Conflict In Storytelling

Conflict is typically central to a story. It can be some internal conflict that a character is trying to resolve, it can be a conflict with another character that needs to be addressed or it may even be a conflict regarding meaning or purpose in life that the character is trying to figure out. It is a need that the character must face and has to face.

In some ways, writing is about having a character and understanding what the character dislikes, hates, what he doesn’t want to happen, what he is avoiding, what makes him uncomfortable and then, having the character confront all of these things constantly throughout the text and see how he reacts and changes.

Knowing this, when one reads The Post Office by Charles Bukowski, the simple narrative structure gives rise to constant conflict, resolution, conflict, resolution cycles. As the reader, we follow the life of the main character, Chinaski, who attempts to find a stable job, a good relationship and to do something meaningful in his life while his self-sabotaging tendencies create conflict with other characters and ruin different aspects of his life which he then attempts to either mend or simply move on to some other woman or line of work, while still harboring conflict creating attitudes.

The idea of conflict is what sticks out as you read the text. Sometimes the conflict is resolved in a single page and other times the conflict runs the course of the text. Whether it is Chinaski’s conflict with the Jonstone, his boss at the post office, conflict over the placement of a hat at the workplace, conflict with his girlfriend’s father, conflict at the funeral over flowers, conflict caused by the schemas he has to learn, conflict with his coworker Janko, conflict with a pimp, conflict when he gets his girlfriend pregnant, the fire at the workplace is another conflict, the decrease in water fountains acts as conflict too and so on.

The text is riddled with minor and major issues that the character has to deal with and confront. These conflicts are either caused by other characters or they are a result of Chinaski’s character flaws. An example of such a flaw being the issue of the hat. Whether it is Chinaski’s attitude, pride or ego, he rather come into conflict with his supervisor instead of abiding by the new rule of placing hats in one’s own locker.

The story is driven by the main character but, it is the interaction of that character with people, things, feelings, emotions that cause conflict that fills out the text. In the Post Office, one is reading about a degenerate womanizer who is drunk most of the time however, it is still interesting and captivating because, through the resolutions or the lack of resolution of these conflicts, the reader can reflect on their own choices and decisions and take away either how to act or most likely in this case, how not to act.

Short Story: Could Have Been A Boxer

Jack was leaving. He wasn’t dying or anything, he had just got another job in a different city and all of us were going to go have some drinks later and say our goodbyes. I didn’t care much about Jack. He talked a lot but he was a good guy, I guess. I rather go home but I had gone home one too many times and now they insisted I should come. Besides, its good to see people off, I heard.

I waited for the clock to let me out. My thoughts are so meaningless, I think. They are always the same ones and I try to think of different things, try to imagine a different life, a life in which I did not rest as much but then soon, my thoughts regress and settle back to what I want for lunch. That question took up much of my time, especially when the work becomes tiresome. I can sit in my work chair and stare at the same spot on my desk and think about all the different things I could eat for lunch. The forty-five minutes that I have to eat. I thought those forty-five minutes to be so precious before I got to them but when I get to them, those minutes seem to go by so quickly, as if I forgot to use them. But before I get there, I think and think of what I want to eat and always after so much of my time has been wasted, I settle on the same meal and then I go on with my day.

I eat with my coworkers. Usually the same three. They would talk and I would sit there and eat, occasionally agreeing with something one of them said. It was not that I did not like them but rather, I could care less if they were there or not. Either way, I was always thinking. I thought of all the other things I could be doing with my life. I thought of the work I still had to do. I thought of how much I hated my work and how much I hated myself and my life and I thought that I should have gotten something else to eat. At least the bar had the television working and I could stare at the men playing football or tennis. Sometimes the television showed the news and I would read the lips of the anchormen as the news headlines crawled at the bottom of the screen.

The clock told me I could leave and Jack and the guys put on their winter coats and stood talking to one another by the exit. When I approached them, Jack confirmed with me the time and place and I nodded.

Glad you can make it today, he said.

Wouldn’t miss it for the world, I replied.

Jack patted my shoulder and he and the others left.

I waited a few moments, pretending to have forgotten something on my desk so I didn’t have to walk with them and keep the conversation going. When I was sure the guys were far away, I followed their path to my car.

My coworkers were good people. At least I thought them to be good. None of them had killed anyone or anything like that so, they had to be somewhat decent. I always thought about what they really thought. I heard them speak about clothes and who slept with who and who bought what and heard them make jokes that weren’t that funny but people smiled anyways because why not, better than not smiling but then, I would think, what did they think about when they were alone?

I thought when I was with people and maybe that’s why people didn’t really like me. They could sense that I was never there. But these people were there. They were engaging one another, building upon the conversation, being human beings. But when they were all alone, driving home, taking the bus, walking, whatever, whenever it was just them and their thoughts, did they hate themselves too? I didn’t hate myself because I didn’t achieve what I wanted in life. I learned long ago that there was nothing that I really wanted in life. Of course, money is good and expensive cars are nice but I didn’t work hard enough to get them, so, I didn’t really want that stuff. These people were living the same life as me so, did that mean they were as hopeless too? If they were hopeless then why did they talk so much?

Perhaps what is my permanent, is just there temporary. They were not like me. They were better and that’s why Jack was leaving. I was here because what else was I going to do with my life? You had to do something.

I thought about the bar we were meeting at later and I thought about how crowded it would be because it was Friday. I thought about the drinks and I stopped thinking.

They called me the silent type. At least one of my coworkers did. He had read some personality test and forced the rest of us to take it too and I got the silent type and they all agreed that the test must be accurate but then, some of the others got told they were something that they were not but they believed it because they wanted it to be true. I thought then that either I was too honest with my test or that I was even more disconnected with people than I had believed myself to be.

But because the test proved what they all thought of me, they did not bother me much when I didn’t talk. They probably thought I was just being me. However, I wasn’t being silent for the sake of silence. I didn’t know what to say. All I thought about was how I wish I had done something different in the past. No, that’s a lie too. That thought came and went but it never lingered. What lingered was my memory of me hitting the punching bag. I did that every morning and then, the rest of the day I would think about myself and visualize myself hitting the bag as if I were watching tape on myself. I would imagine my foot twisting, my hips turning, my fist connecting with the bag and feeling the bag wrap around my strike and then hear the metal chain creak as the bag swung and I hit it again and again. I don’t know why but I thought of this often. I thought of the different combination I can throw, about my foot placement, about my head movement and all this shit that didn’t really matter but I couldn’t get it out of my head. The one-two combination, I told myself I needed to use my jab more, use it to set up the combination and don’t forget the body, you never dig those hooks into the body, you gotta start practicing that, getting better at that. It always came to me. When I showered, when I drove, when I worked and when there was silence. Always these useless memories of me playing some game or doing nothing and a thousand different ways to become better at being useless. Yet, when I did improve, when I did strike the bag better, I felt some surge of accomplishment.

This accomplishment was just a joke. I would think how pathetic my life must be to feel good about something so useless. I should be doing something else with my time. Getting more work done. I should care about my future. I should be a good boy and overachieve so I can get promoted and make more money and move to a better neighborhood and make my parents proud and buy Anne some nice diamond earrings. She would be working late tonight and sometimes I thought she was cheating on me and I don’t even know why I thought that. It just came to me when there was silence and then I would start hitting the bag in my mind.

That evening I joined my coworkers at the bar. Jack embraced me like we were old friends, the kind who knew everything about one another but I barely knew his last name. I suppose leaving does that to people. Or perhaps it was just what his personality test told him. Maybe it said he was a hugger, a good guy, so he’s playing his role. I thought I should play mine so I started drinking.

I didn’t think much that evening for the liquor kept on coming and when I drank I did not think. That was a good night. We drank and we laughed about things that I can’t recall and then when it came time to say our goodbyes, Jack took me aside and said that he can get me a job at his new place as well. To think, he had seen me staring at one place for hours and believed I was hard at work the whole time. He listed the benefits, the pay increase, the better neighborhood, the school district, he said he knew Anne and I want children someday and I thought how the hell did he know something I didn’t even know.

I said I would love it and I thanked him.

When I got home, Anne was already asleep. I thought even if she were cheating on me she’s still a good person. Most cheaters keep their partner up all night worrying about where they are but not mine, mine is sleeping safely. I went downstairs and had another drink and when the drinking stopped I started to think again.

My life wasn’t so bad. I had a good house, Anne was good, had some friends and work wasn’t overbearing. I thought how it would be if I went to the new city. What if Anne couldn’t make any new friends there? What if she made too many new friends? Then, the new house would need new furniture and I liked the furniture I had for it knew me and I knew it. I also liked the painted walls and the wooden floors, I had gotten used to the creaks of the floorboards, I knew which ones to avoid in the middle of the night when I went out for a quick smoke so as not to disturb Anne. I also was used to the work. It was the right amount for me to spend most of my time thinking and dreaming.

Here people already knew me. They knew not to talk to me. They didn’t think it odd that I didn’t talk much because they knew I was the silent type. Everything was routine here to my liking. Then, why did I hate it?

I turned the television on and switched to the sports channel. They were playing some old boxing match. I vaguely remembered seeing it and I knew who won but I watched anyway. I turned the volume down so Anne would not wake up. I got another bottle out from the fridge and sat back and drank as I watched these two men beat on one another for my satisfaction. Once the bottle was finished I was on my feet. I thought I was one of them. A fighter that came from nothing who had everything going against him and yet, he made it through, he fought through it all and won. That man was prideful. He had accomplished something and I mimicked the footwork of the boxer and I threw a jab when he did and I ducked when he did and I put up my guard and eyed my opponent over my knuckles, eyeing my opponents movement and I slipped and countered and I slipped and countered and I was thinking how great I am, that this man doesn’t know me, that I got some fight in me and he could never match my fight.

The round ended and the channel cut to a commercial break. I was breathing hard so I sat down. I thought about how I should have gone for the body.