But Korea took a part of him, a part of their kids, and a part of her: The price people pay for The Greatest Country on Earth. She was so lost in thought and the man sitting across from her was so elusive and quiet she barely heard him growl that he had been in the Gulf. He pointed to the scar and said, “Knife.”
The woman shook her frail head and stared at the man’s sandals and unkempt toenails. “I’m sorry.”
He was probably the same age her husband had been when he decided to return to the forces at the beginning of the Korean War. She imagined this strange man thrust forty years into the past, clean-shaven, wearing a perfectly fit uniform, tall, muscular, sturdy, marching with his powerful hands side by side with her husband along the Masan River. The man would watch in horror as his shorter, coffee-eyed Brother took one step too many with his right foot and felt a heart-sinking click under his boot. The momentum of Howard’s other leg would move faster than his brain and all would go white, then black, then blacker. He would wake up somewhere somehow worse than where he last remembered being, filled with frantic doctors and bright overhead lights. His eyes would see his legs were gone, but his mind wouldn’t comprehend. He must have been dead. No. But he was done. War had caught up to him, taken its fill, accepted its human sacrifices and spit him out as half the man he was the day before.
The morning had quickly become afternoon and the afternoon had more quickly become evening. The woman had fed the man and allowed him a shower and clean clothes. Her motherly instincts made her consider offering him the guest bedroom (which had been her sons’ bedroom ages ago), but her better judgment prevented her from taking that leap. The least she could do was offer him a ride somewhere, though she hadn’t the slightest clue where this man belonged, if he belonged anywhere. He was grateful for her hospitality and kindness but, with few words, refused her offer.
“I can’t let you out there in this weather at this time of night. I can take you anywhere you want. Anywhere warm.”
The man, who, despite his uncombed hair and beard, looked halfway presentable now in her husband’s argyle sweater and khakis (which were both a touch too small for his elongated figure, but better than the mosaic of clothing that he had on earlier), stood by the door hesitantly, before quietly thanking her once more and making his exit. She involuntarily grabbed the pea coat from the closet and started after him but he was already gone amidst the winter night. She closed the door, laid on the couch, involuntarily wrapped herself in the coat, and fell into a deep sleep.
She dreamt of water, the ocean she had come to know for so long. She was at the helm of a Victorian Era ship, her young sons riding their bikes on the deck. Howard was in the crow’s nest, holding a cup of coffee, wearing his pea coat. He looked at her and his ears moved back on his head and his cheeks expanded in a close-lipped grin. She returned a half-smile right as he began shouting something inaudible, terror in his expression. The crashing waves muted all sounds but she could see him pointing toward the sky, which had suddenly gone black as his eyes. The ship was now floating in air, approaching the oblivion above. Their children were laughing and climbing the mast toward their father, ignorant of the doom ahead. He was motioning for them to stop. They climbed and climbed. The ocean rose and formed walls around the ship—a bowl of sure destruction. The woman steered the ship this way and that but it ascended despite her command. She let go. The ship stopped in mid-air and her husband, now adorned in his fatigues, missing his legs, stared blankly at her as the crow’s nest detached from the mast and the mast detached from the hull in the descent. She watched her husband rise toward the black sky and her children remain suspended as she fell and fell and fell…
The first thing she did upon waking was check outside her window for the man. She only saw an empty road and the ocean in the distance. The sky was bright and she could almost see the snow evaporating, tiny particles disassembling and rising until the next winter storm.
She decided to take a drive. When she had first married Howard he always drove, and she preferred the leisure of staring out the window or falling asleep until reaching their destination. She was always safe when he was behind the wheel. This of course all changed after the army sent him home like damaged merchandise: No more use, irreparable, good while it lasted. It was her turn to drive from there on out. The man who had come back that day was not the man she had married. She could have gotten over his physical disfigurement over time (still, it was a horrible sight, unnatural, grotesque), but his demeanor had altered, his eyes had darkened further, his voice had lost its lightness, and his ears never moved back on his head again. The coffee was rarely on and when it was it quickly went stale. Their children grew up with a cripple for a father (had really only known him that way), and their classmates would not let them forget it.
Grace drove without purpose for a while, half searching for the mysterious veteran from the day before. She wondered if she’d hallucinated the whole thing. She’d seen programs on TV where people, if left alone too long, began conjuring up imaginary figures, talking to them for a change instead of themselves—though it was the same thing, she supposed. Her doctor warned her of these things. She needed more company, she needed someone with her for the majority of the day, she needed to eat more and do more as if she had control over these things, as if these changes would make her any younger, as if they would change the fact that the most attention she was now getting was from a man in a white coat whom she paid to tell her what she already knew. So she drove and drove and imagined Howard in the passenger seat, full of complaints and terse replies. She would tell a joke every now and then but the most she got out of him was a singular “hmph” of amusement and a sliver of a smile before he fell asleep and left her to amuse herself.
She remembered how they had all tried to make it work after he returned. He found a desk job at a contracting firm after several rejections from employers who were “Sorry to Inform” him that, essentially, they didn’t care that he was a veteran: he had no legs and it didn’t look good in general or, more importantly, for their company. But this job, though it strained them financially, at least allowed him plenty of time to support his kids’ extra-curricular activities, which they didn’t seem to appreciate at the time as it only fueled the spiteful language from the other boys.
But Gary and Mark loved their father and they brought some of the lightness back into his visage as they grew into men. That lightness faded once more as the conflict in Vietnam escalated and they approached the draft age. Howard was by no means old then, but the fear of losing his sons to an evil war, his lack of physical activity and overall depression had aged him at least ten years. She missed their intimacy, their lost youth together, their dejection not with each other but with the unchangeable circumstances before them. She knew he was approaching his end, and felt a horrible, sickening combination of grief and relief as his health slowly failed him.
He held on long enough to see the draft pass over his sons. She knew that he would let go only after this, and so he did. After his death, the boys became more distant from her and from each other. They had lived up to that point to make their father proud, to maintain the lightness in his heart. But now he was gone and they were grown and had friends who were dying and murdering overseas and so they went to school because it was the only other thing for boys their age to do. They came home during breaks but stayed out of the house as much as they could. When both had graduated they called less and less and barely visited at all when they finally settled down. And so Grace ended up alone, seen by her sons as the cold creature that never cried once in front of them when their father died.
They didn’t know, of course—they were too young to know—that she wept and wept for months on end when she heard the news of her husband’s injury and when only half of him came home. She wept so much that her tears had permanently frozen.
As she saw no sign of the man on her venture, she returned home. The pea coat was lying deflated on the couch and the chair she had pulled up the night before still faced it. She had left the coffee pot on in the kitchen, and for a moment she honestly thought her husband might appear from the living room to drink the burnt remains.
Spring was beginning to suck up the last of the slush in Grace’s town. Sunday was her grocery day. She didn’t live far from the store but every now and then she would drive the extra ten miles to the larger store the next town over. It had better produce, she told herself. She was halfway there when a familiar blur passed by her peripheral vision. Her eyes now focused on the rearview mirror and she saw a tall figure hunched over on the sidewalk, dressed in an argyle sweater and khakis, diminishing as if the road were taking him from her memory. She abruptly turned down a side street and drove back to see if he was still there. She slowed as she approached him, that man who once stood motionless across from her house. His hair had grown longer, his scar remained, and his gait was still unsure. She wanted to pull over, leave the car, and speak to him. She wanted him to see her, to smile, to grunt, to say anything. She wanted to know his name, what he was doing out there alone, wandering like a ghost in her husband’s clothes. She kept driving and rejoined the flow of traffic. She turned down another street and took a different route to the grocery store.
She wouldn’t see him again, and if she did she wouldn’t think of stopping. What would she have to say to him, and he to her? She thought of their conversation so many months before. The most he said after “War” and “knife” was that he didn’t know. Every now and then he said something mildly coherent, though concise and not memorable. Of course he said, “thank you,” a few times, and before he left. But he kept saying, “I don’t know. I don’t know.” She asked him his name. She asked him his age, where he lived, who his friends were. “I don’t know.”
And now she thought about all the men like him and like Howard, and all the women like herself, and all the children like Mark and Gary, who all didn’t know, who all had nothing to say, who all wandered the streets of their lives alone, only comforted by the knowledge that somewhere out there was another soul who might happen to wander down the same street and say nothing too.
Ethan Keeley is a sophomore creative writing major at SUNY Geneseo.