He didn’t even look at her when he’d said that. His eyes remained fixed on the black wall. But not Joy’s eyes – they stared at him shell-shocked. She was unable to speak or move, while everything around her froze accordingly: the trees and the birds and the wind and the clouds and the rain and the people and the city. And time; certainly time.
“Watch your fag,” he said and pointed at her cigarette, which fell from her fingers down to the ground and was still smoldering in the grass. So she quickly stumped her foot on it, crushing it with her wet sneaker. And then, gathering some strength from this simple act, she turned back to him and asked: “What you mean?”
“What I mean what?”
“That he ain’t dead?”
He smiled at her and laid his hand gently on her arm.
“If he ain’t on the wall, child, he ain’t dead.”
She just stared at him. Dumbfounded.
“Ain’t missin’, either,” he said, reading her mind again. And as if realizing that he didn’t convince her yet, he added: “I’m an expert, child, believe me.”
But she was yet to believe him. Her birth mother was standing in the way. And then she heard him saying, “Who is he, anyways?”
“You never met him?”
She shook her head. “He died in Vietnam on February eleventh, sixty-nine. The day I was born. That’s what my mother told me.”
“Yes. He was…” she hesitated to use the word hero. “He got a medal, too.”
“Of honor or something.”
He studied her for a moment, curiously.
“What else you know?”
She shrugged her shoulders. But then said, “He was a marine, nineteen when he died. Like I’m now. Never knew I was born, even.”
“Raymond De Rosi.”
He was quiet for a while, as if searching his memory. Finally, he shook his head and said, “Never heard of him.”
“So he ain’t on the wall.”
“’Cuse me,” she reacted quickly, “you know all the names on the wall?”
He nodded, smiling.
“All fifty-eight thousand something?”
“That’s right,” he said, a hint of pride in his voice. “Used to help people there myself, there by the wall.”
“Tell you something else, though.”
“If he ain’t on the wall, he ain’t dead.”
“You said that already.”
“Correcto, dear child, correcto. Because, you see, if he ain’t dead, he must be alive.”
He smiled at her and said, “Facto, if you ask me, facto. Must be kicking dust somewhere.”
She turned her back to him and looked away from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, her eyes stopping on a visible part of the Reflecting Pool, where she saw a reflection of a pair of big dark eyes. As if someone, deep inside the pool, was staring back at her, his eyes crying for help. But Joy, in horror, raised her eyes away from this frightening sight and looked at the city. A city unlike any other city she’d ever seen. Even more foreign to her now than when she first arrived here. And if her wishes at that very moment were to be granted, then that thick layer of dark clouds would have fallen over this city. Over the memorials and the buildings. Over him and her. And it would have buried them and everything else underneath it.
Instead, she heard his voice again: “Come with me, my child.”
And although she didn’t turn her head yet, she saw him coming into view in front of her, spinning the wheels of his chair on the wet grass. He didn’t look back and she knew that he wouldn’t. Deep down, she figured, he was still a proud soldier. But something – inexplicable as of yet – lifted her up from the ground, backpack and all, and pushed her forward until she reached him, until she placed her hands on the back of his wheelchair; leaving behind on the grass only her bouquet of red roses.
* A short story excerpt from my novel: Very Narrow Bridge.
To be continued next month on the 15th.