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He languished there in the alleyway, streaked with dirt and old memories -- forgetting the hours, tracing pictures in the dust with one cracked and calloused fingertip. He drew faces, men he had grown to love then lost with bangs that smarted in his ears. When he outlined the beautiful woman whose smile quirked up to one side when she murmured "John," who cradled their baby boy in the soft folds of a blue cotton blanket, he always etched deep into the faded bricks with a stone, a smear of blood seeping from the raw skin of his palm.
John had only visited her once. A grin had been pulling at his lips as he'd surveyed the bright white shingles and glossy red door of the house, the SOLD sign still decorating the dewed green lawn. In that moment he had cherished visions of a chapel marriage, then for the rest of his life savoring three-course meals before wrapping himself between warm blue sheets, fearing taxes and weeds, not grenades. He had traipsed onto the freshly whitewashed porch and admired his warped but handsome reflection in the round doorbell.
As he'd filled his lungs from the warm breeze and hovered his worn but newly polished finger over the bell, a sleek black car had smoothed into the driveway, wafting muffled jazz music to his ears before the engine had faded to quiet. A black-haired man in an immaculate suit had stepped out, passing him a quizzical glance before turning to open the rear door so an eight-year-old boy could jump out, clutching the straps of his blue knapsack.
"Are you…?" John had faltered as the black-haired man had hoisted the boy onto his shoulders. But the white gold wedding band on the man's finger had been answer enough. John had stumbled away, barely conscious of his feet driving his inglorious retreat.
Those few moments passed through his hazy brain so many times that he wasn't sure if he only imagined seeing the red door open and her stand there, those unsmiling lips the only detail he could discern through the shadowed screen.
Just as the sun disappeared for the night it began to rain, a freezing drizzle that made his bones ache. He drew his neck into the threadbare collar of his overcoat and got to his feet. His fingers slunk into his right pocket as they always did when he moved -- four fingers grasping the warmed metal of his .45 while his ring finger stopped up the small hole in the bottom.
He dragged his feet to the nearest diner and tossed coins onto the chipped formica counter for a cup of coffee, but when it was poured in front of him he simply stared into the mug and let the steam dampen his skin. He felt capable of absolutely nothing, not even raising the black liquid to his lips. The television behind the counter with the drooping antennas blinked in and out as the waitress stood beside it.
The top-loading washer from General Electric is perfect for -- Static. She waited a few moments, then rapped impatiently on the wooden side until the picture flickered back on. -- while the Soviet Union's growing threat has -- again the crackle of static. She banged on the set harder and harder, only eliciting more hollow groans and a tired creak.
"Damn," the waitress muttered, slapping the side one last time before she switched off the set. "You can't trust any of this sh** these days," she said to John, her voice fading as he did not even look up. He watched his swirling reflection in his coffee and rubbed his thumb over the ridges of his gun. Four years tortured, blood-crusted, and weary, only to come home to another "growing threat."
Slumped in his alleyway the next morning as the sidewalk crowd swarmed back and forth in front of him, John saw his son. He was the man in the checkered sports jacket and gelled hair flashing his teeth at everyone who caught his eye, the adolescent blinking down at his shoes and mumbling apologies when he bumped shoulders, the worker sucking down a cigarette and tilting his head up to watch the smoke rings vanish in the wind. But if he stopped blocking out the thought, he knew his son's face wouldn't fit onto any of those passing figures. His son would be tarnished and destroyed by war, a mirror image -- another John, another of the many soldiers wiped from America's shining history. His remains decaying in muddy fields. Or worse, rotting against cracked, forgotten pavement as 58th Street rushes by.
John stood. His hand slipped into his right pocket.
He recalled the path to the school from the single time he had taken it, back when he had still wondered and hoped. Now he stood across the street, looking past his grim reflection in the passing cars' windows and at the boy with his blue knapsack. His right fingers twitched. He went through the motion in his head -- click back the safety and raise the gun. Swiftly, simultaneously. Click back the safety and raise the gun.
When he had been ordered to dispatch a fierce young German soldier with a pitiless shot, his hand had sent tremors rolling through his arm. But he had forced a single thought to keep looping through his mind: salvation. That young man would never grow up with regrets and nightmares and tears squeezed through clenched eyelids. He would never grow up disillusioned. He would never become depraved. The soldier had collapsed into the dirt. John had been lifted into the relief of an accomplished duty, of a merit to bring home to her proud quirked smile.
Click back the safety and raise the gun.
The boy kept his knapsack firmly on his back, one hand hooked through its blue strap, the other fishing around in the fresh green grass. When the mass of children dangling off the playground heard a chime from within the school, they scurried inside, scuffing their shoes on the mopped linoleum floors. Only the boy scouring the grass remained out, the corner of his mouth tweaked upward at his rebellion.
Click back the safety and raise the gun.
A young teacher taking long, quick strides toward the boy looked perplexed through his horn-rimmed glasses. The boy straightened as the teacher stood over him with eyes darting between his innocent face and the object he had sought out from the grass -- a small white locket. The boy readjusted his blue knapsack and let his arms make extravagant motions while his lips displayed a charming crooked smile. In acting out his wild search, he for a moment glanced toward John before flipping his head in the other direction. The grip of John's right hand faltered as he saw no spark, no recognition. No inexplicable sense of kinship.
In that boy John envisioned the greasy businessman, the shy kid, the rough worker, not the man whose losses seared through him and welded his fingers to his .45.
He clicked back the safety and rose the gun.
The boy flinched and his smile dropped as the unfamiliar bang of a gunshot stung his ears. He only saw a man in an old overcoat crumple before his teacher gripped his shoulder and wrenched him toward the building.
Soon he was ushered into the office. He dropped his knapsack on the floor and flopped yet again into the sagging black chair in front of the headmaster's desk. Having been surrounded by this room many times already, he simply examined the pale yellow stuffing peeking from each corner of the chair, no doubt coaxed out by years of young delinquents. But he only knew the chair because of the teachers that had pressed him into it with their concerns. After a while the words had blurred together, and today's gentle, "What did you see today?" was no different to him than, "Why don't you like your classmates?" or, his wry favorite, "Do you need to talk about your dad?" His dad was gone and probably dead. His uncle was doing the best he could outside of his own family to play father figure. They seemed incapable of understanding that if he wanted to chat about it, he would have already.
Gradually he had learned to humor them. He had opened his white locket and watched his reflection in the cloudy mirror inside until he could force the corners of his mouth up into that wonderful smile. Now he smiled until his cheeks ached and tears pooled in his eyes.