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Folding Chair Heroes
He’d always been a shuffler, dragging his feet as he trudged through the fearful paths of a twisted childhood down to the recruitment center on his seventeenth birthday. He came in through the metal doors, pushing on the locked one first, pausing for a moment as if to reconsider trying again, and then he reluctantly entered. He needn’t bother to fill out the “What made you interested in joining the military?” section or ask any questions after scanning the required literature. As he impatiently jumbled his fingers in a continuous pattern, he scooted his dismal, slumped figure into the folding chair on the side of the entire world opposite me. There I was, a volunteer, who was supposed to be assigned to “office tech support” and instead was given a pair of cynical spectacles and personal files stacked miles high of poor young men who fled from their troubled childhoods to find refuge in a war zone. And he, was a shuffler who took his time. And never looked, only to see that perhaps I’d have smiled at him, lighting his dark days enough to see the right road.
I gathered the boxes of inconsequential paperwork for my latest endeavor as a junior partner and rushed to gather all my essentials before I rushed to the train. I’d been promoted to partner status just a few months ago just after I became in engaged to my fiancée, Jane. I have to admit I was over-exerting myself to make an admirable impression in my new field of work, but it’d all recently played out.
I half-galloped through the underground station, juggling cardboard boxes filled with hours of mental devotion. I was near a full paced run as I heard the train cars scrape against the stained cement. The train doors were just about to close as I threw my slim frame in between the sliding doors known as heaven and hell. The train car was full, so I kicked my boxes across the aisle to the nearest railing where I stood pinned on either side by homelessness and hunger. After a few stops though, the nameless crowd reduced to a few as I slid into a window seat on the near empty car. I placed my boxes on the seat next to me, subconsciously creating a few more inches of schism between a stranger and my life.
At the next stop, the few sleepers left had toddled off onto the city trains, and I was the only one left, as the train would hit the suburbs. The doors were closing swiftly, but a man thrust his shadow through the sliding gates and forced his way on to the car. He was a gruff young man, with slumped shoulders and an evenly-paced shuffling gait. His clothes were worn, but neat none the less. Up his right wrist was a small tattoo of the yin-yang symbol, and on his left were three stars, each engraved with the designs of which I did not recognize. The man sat down across from me, looked down at the garbage encrusted platforms and then slowly and with quite uncertainty moved his gaze to meet my eyes. And I knew at that moment, that the shuffling gait rung with familiarity.
“Hello.” I said hesitantly, nervously adjusting my white-collared shirt and loosening my knotted tie.
He looked at me, or at least it seemed that way. He studied the changes, the boy with the cynical spectacles and inexperience coursing through his veins and how he had grown a white-collar and an ego, or so should have been thought. Then we locked eyes, like a sniper locked with its rival equivalent. He rolled up his sleeve to reveal his starred tattoos even more. He began, glaring down at them and whispered.
“This one is for my sergeant, shot and killed on my second tour.”
I looked down and twiddled my thumbs.
“This one is for the psychiatrist who advised honorable discharge due to post traumatic stress disorder.”
I put my hand behind my neck and felt the sweat seep into my palms.
“And this one,” rolling his sleeve up ever so slightly, revealing an elegant star with beautiful colors which was obviously meant to be different from the others, “is for you.”
I immediately raised my gaze and at that moment, the small boy whose future I signed away in a folding chair while he couldn’t even tell me why he wanted it. This was the first time I had seen his eyes and this time, I didn’t feel the mile of ignorance in between us, I felt like my heart rubbed against his started to feel the roads he carved a place for.
Shaking, I paused for a moment, and then mumbled, “Why me?”
He hesitated, as if he hadn’t really thought of the genuine answer, if there was one at all. Then, his icy blue eyes staring straight through everything I’d built up and around me, he said, “Because I would have never looked up if I hadn’t.”
I felt stunned, and looked that way too apparently. So he continued, “ Once you’re there, you have to look up or you’ll miss everything that was there…”
“And reflect on everything that isn’t,” I finished.
For an infinite time, we just saw. I saw him slumped over, his broad shoulders hunched next to his neck. His feet rubbing against each other, as if they itched constantly. But then, I really saw. I took my peephole into his heart, through my permanent resting place on his wrist and switched places with his navigator and began to unmap and remap his heart.
As the train dragged its limp body into the station, I reluctantly gathered my boxes. As I reached for the last one, it wasn’t there. Because by then, the shadow had moved by my uniformed hero, an illuminant figure, with a shuffling gait.