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Letters From War
The rest of the headline was blurred in the woman’s eyes by the name JAMES McNIECE printed in large black letters at the top of the page. Around her the noises of the city surrounded the tiny square, and she squinted in the sunlight of the early afternoon, making sure that she was seeing things correctly. Yes. It was McNiece. The woman’s mind stirred feebly for a moment. Then she looked at the name again, and her mind began to race.
August 15, 2003
I got your letter yesterday, but I only have time to write to you now because the guys and I were in the middle of a really intense card game.
Things are great here. We play cards to pass the time since there isn't any combat going on right now, but when we’re not doing that, it's great to just have time to read (thanks so much for those magazines, they're awesome) and hang out together. Sometimes we play baseball, too. The guys I'm with right now are terrific, and even the Sergeant is pretty relaxed. I know you probably heard about the car bomb explosion in Baghdad, but it's not going to affect me because we’re farther west.
Even with the heat there’s kind of an ancient beauty here, and I’ve met a lot of new people. The only rough part is missing you of course, Ma, and I can't wait to see you. I doubt that I'll be here much longer since a lot of troops are being moved out or farther to the northeast and they won't need us on this end. It'll be great to get home for Christmas and see you and Amy. Tell her I miss our pillow fights, and she better be prepared for a good one when I get back!
I wish I could keep writing, but we're being called for dinner—chicken and potatoes!—so I have to end it here. I know you'll worry about me anyway, but I don't want you to because I've made so many friends and we're having a great time out here.
All my love,
In the quiet square, the steady trickle of the fountain rained down on the adoring angels as they looked up at the copper woman above them, her body green with age and her hand resting over her stone heart as she gazed down at them. Pigeons perched on the angels’ wings, jerking left and right with their sudden movements. Occasional cigarette butts and bottle caps dotted the stone pathways, and squirrels scurried from end to end, darting between the hurried feet of passersby.
The woman’s heartbeat quickened and her eyes strained to make out the words below the headline, but it was too far away. On the other side of the fountain, the old man whose fingers the newspaper rested in was sitting back stiffly on the otherwise empty grey bench. His spotted chin lifted slightly while beneath his unkempt grey eyebrows two baggy eyes shifted steadily across some hidden patch of words. His dry lips moved almost imperceptibly as he kept up with each sentence.
September 30, 2003
How are you? Things here are just fine. Actually, everything is pretty quiet. We just had a fantastic meal of the local falafel, but of course it wasn’t as good as your home cooking!
I’m sure you’re worried because you’ve seen in the news about the attack on the UN Headquarters and the bombings in some of the local markets. You don’t have to be, though, because we’re pretty far from all of that.
Tell Amy I hope she’s behaving herself. I’m sure I’ll be home pretty soon, and then I can tell you more! You might not hear from me for a while, but I don’t want you to worry—I’ve just been assigned some more chores around camp.
All my love,
The woman’s breathing began to escalate once more and she closed her eyes for a moment, calming herself. Then she extracted a book from her red bag, barely noticing its title, “Without an Alphabet, Without a Face: Selected Poems” by Saadi Youssef. She brushed her fingers against the hand-written note on the inside cover, and flipped to the first poem. Every so often, she glanced up as discreetly as she could, exhaling when she saw that the old man remained. By the time the woman had turned seventy-four pages without reading them, the old man finally began to fold up the paper with slow, arthritic hands. The woman’s own hands began to tremble.
She peered over the cover of her book and watched as he placed his leathery palms on the edge of the bench, curling his fingers around the gum-covered underside. He pushed himself up mechanically, tucking the folded paper into his back pocket. The blue elastic cuffs of his jacket closed around his wrists like fetters. A moment later, the woman glanced at her watch. She rummaged around in her bag and put the book back inside. Then she slung it over her shoulder and followed the old man.
November 28, 2003
Happy Thanksgiving! I have a lot to be thankful for over here—a warm room to stay in (even though it’s not kept as neatly as you’d make me keep it), many friends, and that delicious turkey that we just finished. We had a great dinner today and I thought of your mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie that you and Amy must be enjoying. Save some for me, okay? I am so stuffed right now, but I always have room for your cooking.
You probably saw in the news that the President visited Baghdad for the holiday. I thought that was pretty nice of him, but good thing he didn’t come to Fallujah—it would’ve been too crazy. This week we’ve had a lot of training exercises, but don't worry, because it's nothing too serious—we’re just trying to fill up all the extra time we have. I like the book of poems that you and Amy sent me. I was never one for poetry much, but I like "An Eastern Ballad." I'll try to see if any of the local shops have a book for you, but it might be hard to send it.
I bet I'll be one of the next guys sent home, and I can't wait to see you. Tell Amy I better not come home and find her dating some guy she likes better than her older brother! I promise I'll bring you a great Christmas gift.
All my love,
The newspaper. The newspaper. The newspaper.
Blood pounded in the woman’s ears as she maintained a safe distance behind the old man. Perhaps he would step into a coffee shop and she could get in line behind him and ask him casually where he got it. Could she just slip it carefully from out of his pocket? Old guys like that got the paper every day—it wouldn’t be that big a deal. Or perhaps he would finish reading it, then get up to throw out his coffee cup and leave it on the table. But what if he threw it in the garbage! Could she dig it out without anyone asking questions? She pondered this with the numb ambition of a scheming murderer as she wove blindly between a pretzel cart and a fawning couple. Taxicabs blared at her as she swerved across the disheveled street. The newspaper. The newspaper.
Ahead of her, the old man was bobbing in a crowd of people. All the woman could hear was her own heartbeat. It grew louder and more insistent with every moment, echoing through her bones and muffling her hearing—the newspaper! I have to get that newspaper! For a moment the man completely disappeared into the colored mass, and the woman's heart lurched in her weighted chest. She couldn’t lose him. She began to jog, all thoughts of other people fleeing from her mind as she forced her way through the blocks of bodies. The newspaper. The newspaper. The newspaper!
Where was he going? When was he going to stop? A Starbucks sign emerged on the approaching corner and her heart lurched again—this had to be it! But to her dismay, the old man passed the Starbucks and began to descend the darkened stairs to the subway.
December 19, 2003
I'm sure you saw in the news that they finally captured Saddam Hussein. I’ll definitely receive notice of the end of my duty any day now. I know it will be hard not being home for Christmas, but I want you to enjoy it just like we always do, and not miss me too much. Of course I’ll be thinking of you and Amy. And since I don't know when I'll be able to write again, I've enclosed your gift, as promised. Saadi Youssef’s work is a bit different from Allen Ginsberg’s, but hopefully you’ll like it.
I know it's hard for you not having dad around, but he would've wanted you two to be happy and he would've told you not to worry about me.
I'm sorry I have to cut off this letter now, but I'm helping with dinner (I don't know if you'd think I'm a good cook, though). I’m thinking about you guys every day.
All my love,
She followed him, merging into the rush, her breaths growing more rapid as she dashed down the steps. The newspaper, the newspaper. The old man walked in steady but pained paces, and soon all that stood between him and the woman were just a few people as they waited for the train to arrive. She was so close. All she had to do was walk up behind him, clasp her fingers around that paper in his back pocket, and remove it with a gentle tug. He would never be able to catch her.
She stood, thinking, and in her stillness everything grew still around her. The weighty darkness of the station seemed to relax, and the people around her seemed to recede, leaving her to stare at the folded headline, where “JAMES McN” was still visible above the brown seam of the old man’s pocket. But as quickly as the silence seemed to have come, it vanished as someone stepped between the woman and the old man, and in the same instant the train roared into the suffocating tunnel.
The old man was right behind the thick yellow line. The woman was two bodies behind him. She took a step forward and extended one quivering hand toward the paper. The old man took a step toward the opening doors.
“Sir!” she cried. “Sir, please!” Her hand grazed his polyester sleeve.
He turned slightly, one green eye looking at her in partial alarm.
“The newspaper!” she yelled.
The pressure of rushing people closed around her on all sides. She tried to take another step forward but the jostling crowd of passengers diffusing toward the train held her back. The old man was being sucked into the chaos. He looked at her again, this time quizzically, and then turned away.
“Please, sir!” she begged him. “The newspaper! Where did you get that newspaper?”
The doors of the train slid shut with a whoosh.
“The newspaper! Sir, please, my son! My son’s alive!”
But the old man had disappeared, and the train began to move again.
February 13, 2004
I’m sorry I haven’t written in a while, I’ve just had more going on than usual. Don’t worry—it’s nothing bad, and nothing that you have to be concerned about. I know that you’ve been checking the news all day, and that you’ve seen all of the crap about an Iraqi civil war—don’t even give it a second thought, Ma. They just need an excuse for why we’re still over here. But excuses run out after a while, and I know it won’t be long before that happens and I’ll be on my flight back home.
I love you guys so much, and you’re in the back of my mind every second of every day.
Take care of yourself, Ma, and I’ll see you soon.
All my love,
In a blur of yellow and white the train rushed past the woman, shrieking as the passengers who had just gotten off gravitated toward the stairwell and up to the sunlit city.
The woman turned and looked up through blurred eyes. A lady of about thirty stood watching her with concern.
“Ma’am?” she asked again. “Is everything all right?”
“The newspaper,” she rasped. “I need that newspaper!”
“You need a newspaper?” The lady appeared slightly baffled by this statement. “Ma’am, there’s a newspaper stand right here.” She pointed, and the woman blinked. A teenager sat behind a metal stand, sipping a can soda, his eyes swiveling lazily from one end of the station to the other. In one of the racks was a newspaper, and at the top of the newspaper was the name JAMES McNIECE.
APO 877, C/O Postmaster
14 April 2004.
Mrs. Sharon L. McNiece
New York, New York.
Dear Mrs. McNiece,
It is with great sorrow that I write to inform you of the death of your son, Private First Class James A. McNiece, ASN 90043827, at 4:00 in the afternoon of 6 of April 2004.
James was killed by artillery fire during the performance of his duty. He was providing aid to comrades in defending a local building from Iraqi rebels when a van nearby exploded within range of his location. His death was instant and he did not experience any suffering. Our Reverend conducted services and James’ body is being flown home to the U.S. via cargo aircraft.
The loss of your son, who was known in our unit for his positive spirit, thoughtfulness toward others, and intelligence under pressure, is felt deeply by all of us. The officers, the men of this Unit and I express our sincere sympathy for your loss. He was one of us, and we, his friends and comrades with whom he shared experience since July, now share in your grief.
Yours most sincerely,
Arnold J. Foerster
Captain, Unit 401
Mrs. McNiece sucked in a ragged gasp and staggered toward the stand. She fumbled around in her pocket and scattered a pile of loose change onto the table in front of the teenager, then grasped the newspaper, tears streaming down her face.
“October 5, 2009. AP. BROOKLYN—James McNiece, 40, of Brooklyn was arrested Sunday…”
Mrs. McNiece’s heart stopped beating, and for the first time, she looked at the picture that accompanied the article. Then she re-read the first sentence. Then she looked at the picture. It was not of the face of a young, playful boy. It was the face of a middle-aged man, and it was dark, and empty. The subway station grew still again.
This was not her James McNiece.