The war machine was big, and well-armed, but it moved slowly. Jimmy and his cohorts were quicker.
He mailed a postcard to his mother every Tuesday, rain or sun or snow. She responded as soon as she received it, never forgetting to insert a ten-dollar bill into her envelope. She also included a written message, though not on stationary. Instead, her quaint penmanship filled both sides of a pale blue index card, as she told him of her week, the garden, the bridge club. Unwritten, but always visible, was her prayer for his health and her plea for his return.
She was at home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in the small brick house on Islington Street where Jimmy had been raised. Her husband, James, Sr., working with his father, had built the house, completing it in September of 1940, six months after their marriage. It took some time, but Jimmy was born just after the war, in March, 1946.
Jimmy was now twenty-one and far from home, way out west, bouncing between Wyoming and Washington, Idaho and Oregon. The words on his cards, cards which boasted brilliant color photos of vast lakes, roaring rivers, and snow-capped mountains, those words rarely deviated:
Hope you are, too
She read them twice, in case there was something she’d missed. And always, too, printed in capital letters, a General Delivery mailing address, perhaps the same as the week before, but just as often not, and the date:
July 3, 1967
July 10, 1967
July 17, 1967
July 24, 1967
A month with five Tuesdays was a good month.
When his father was 21, he was a corporal in the army. Later, he worked for, and eventually owned, the first roofing, heating and insulation company in Portsmouth. He died of cancer – asbestos, they said – in the Veterans Hospital over in Manchester, when Jimmy was sixteen.
Jimmy would not be a soldier. He could never understand how his father had been one, had enlisted, war or no war. Jimmy might do any manner of things, maybe even roofing, but he would never wear a uniform, never carry a gun. He hadn’t been the greatest student but he knew vocabulary and when Mrs. McClorg taught them “nemesis” he knew exactly what it meant and what it didn’t. There were schoolyard issues, and sometimes he and Rocky Soldavini were almost that, even “at loggerheads,” a phrase his mother liked to use, but he had no real nemesis, not then, not now, and certainly not across any ocean. He was not going to shoot another soul, whether in Vietnam or Vegas or Virginia or anywhere in between. He had but a single life to lead, and he would live it not “for his country” but for himself. No, not just for himself, but for the entire world. Somehow. His job now was twofold: firstly, helping others escape the clutches of the military, and, secondly — key to the first part — avoiding it himself.
If his mother were ever truly happy, he thought, it could only be a timid happiness. He wanted more. He was not going to scratch out days on a calendar, silent and stubborn, year after year after year, and then die, the way his father had, the way so many did. He was going to live without apology. He would surely fall a few times but that was to be expected with any real movement.
Her latest penned message, this time in red ink against the light blue, delivered far more content than usual. Two cards, each one packed with writing, embraced and protected the “sawbuck” (his father’s odd name for ten-dollar bills), and Jimmy almost spilled his beer, a tall, cold Falstaff, when he reached this section:
My goodness, Idaho. Your father served a year in Idaho,
guarding Italian prisoners of war. When he came home
in ’45 he swore he’d made a big mistake by enlisting.
“I should have been a C.O.,” he said, “a Conscientious
Objector.” He even told me he wished he’d been brave
enough to do that. Imagine.
And her final line:
He’d be proud of you, doing what you’re doing.
Jimmy was in Pocatello, working with a group of resisters in a town where such things were not done. In a few days, he was going to drive two guys up to the Canadian border, where they would cross and be met by somebody called “Alex,” though that probably wasn’t his real name. They’d met once, a few months ago, at a college campus in Spokane, Washington, and had spoken via pay phones on a weekly basis since then. In fact, “Alex” knew him only as Quincy (which was his father’s middle name, though not his).
Jimmy sat, long after Monday’s midnight, in a stained booth in an almost empty Denny’s. The sole waitress was leaning against the counter, talking music with one of the cooks. Soon, a series of Temptations hits poured from the jukebox. He fiddled with a packet of sugar but did not open it. He touched his dying cigarette to a new one and inhaled deeply. He sipped his coffee and began the postcard he would mail before noon.
There’s so much I didn’t know.
If I ever get back, I have so much to ask.
I love you.
Tony Press tries to pay attention and sometimes he does. He’d love to see his words return to Halfway Down the Stairs, and he’d be thrilled if people purchased his recent story collection Crossing the Lines (published by Big Table).
© 2018, Tony Press