Monday, April 14, 2008

Conversation on the Bus

My brain held hostage the words I should have said, releasing them into my mouth too late to be heard. I suppose that’s the nature of a meaningful conversation: you need to swish around its content, tasting the sweet, salty, sour, and bitter before deciding whether to spit or swallow.

I did not expect to engage with anyone the day I met Dan on the bus. It was one of those mornings when I looked forward to work as a reprieve from my other responsibilities. Both drop-offs, at daycare and at school, had been ugly. Once on the bus, I realized I’d forgotten my book, and as I silently cursed, visualizing its location—on the small mail-table by the front door—I saw him board the bus. He was dressed in dark denim jeans and a gray polo shirt, with short salt-and-pepper hair, and thick, matching lashes that framed his honest blue eyes. Though he was handsome, I ignored him at first, turtle-ing into my shell of bad-day-self-pity. That’s when I saw his eyes searing the bus as if seeking answers instead of a seat.

“Good morning,” I said, resolving to be cheerful as he took the seat next to me. He narrowed his eyes, as if debating whether he could return my greeting with integrity.

“Um, not so good a morning for me, to be honest,” he said.

“Are you okay?” I asked in a soft tone. I searched his eyes for a reason to be afraid of the conversation this question invited, but I observed nothing but truth in them.

“My brother was killed in Fallujah four years ago today,” he replied, recklessly maintaining eye contact. My cheeks flushed with shame as I briefly considered my previous self-pitying thoughts.

And then I thought: Fallujah. Amnesia, Fantasia, Fallujah. A whimsical name for such a place.

Out loud I offered, “You can talk about him if you want. Your brother. I don’t mind,” then added, in a foolish attempt to garner a smile, “I forgot my book today anyway.” Immediately I regretted the words, which unintentionally dirtied his honest self-revelation with the stain of entertainment. He smiled almost imperceptibly, forgiving my faux pas.

“Well, his name was Kevin,” he began. “He was killed on his 38th birthday. You know, he was nominated for a Bronze Star with Valor the month before he was killed, but didn’t even mention it to the family? That’s how modest he was. He was full of contradictions. He always got good grades, but he had to work hard for them. At 6 feet, 4 inches, 220 pounds, he had this imposing presence. Yet he was one of the gentlest people I’ve ever known. In high school he was pudgy. But he was smart and motivated. He started running and lifting weights and poof! He transformed himself into this strong, healthy man.”

Dan laughed softly, staring down at his hands as if seeing Kevin’s there instead of his own.

Kevin had this strong sense of honor, even as a kid,” Dan continued. “This one time, he and I built this cool clubhouse in the woods near the elementary school. That was all good and well,” Dan laughed, “except that we’d stolen the wood from a nearby home-construction site. I’m not just talking a few remnants. We unwittingly took—and then cut and nailed—this custom-ordered beam that was supposed to be the centerpiece of this guy’s living room.”

“No way,” I laughed, feeling the solidarity that comes with remembering silly childhood mistakes.

“The homeowner followed us home one day and confronted us in our living room, in front of our dad. Totally like a sitcom from the 50s, you know? My dad’s face turned beet-red, and we knew we were goners. Then Kevin stepped forward—I’m not even joking—and said, ‘Dad, it was my idea to take and cut the wood. We were building something and just got carried away. It was my fault. I was the oldest and I was the leader.’ That’s what he said—‘It was my fault,’—his voice steady in the face of my dad’s rage. That’s just the kind of guy he was.”

I nodded and smiled as we sat for a few moments in comfortable silence.

“You know, he could have become anything,” Dan said.

Why didn’t he? I thought. Why would anyone join the military in this day and age, knowing we fight wars for all the wrong reasons, choosing death over diplomacy in our greedy quest for power?

Dan’s words interrupted my thoughts: “People have this image of military guys being all Rambo. Out for blood? Kevin wasn’t like that at all. He just wanted to help people. That’s why he went to the Air Force Academy. He planned to fly, but it turned out his eyesight wasn’t good enough. So he transferred to the Marines. He’d send these pictures to us from Iraq. Snapshots of him sitting with all of these Iraqi children, or meeting with the elders in Iraqi communities. For my brother, that’s what his career was all about. He just wanted to help with peace, you know?”

I nodded my head in silence.

“This next stop is mine,” I said, feeling the weight of my own insensitivity. I wished I could stay longer, to see this through. “I’m really sorry about your brother,” I said as I stood up to leave.

“Thanks. So am I,” he replied, looking me straight in the eye.

As I made my way to the front of the bus, opposing thoughts danced in my head. Sacrifice linked arms with Greed; Honor with Cowardice. Grief tipped his black hat as he ushered Gratitude onto the dance floor. They swirled and twirled, faster and faster, until I was unable to distinguish one from another.

As I descended the stairs, only one dancing thought remained, clothed in a gauzy white dress that seemed to absorb and obliterate the surrounding darkness. It was Gratitude.

I turned, too late, to say the words I should have said earlier.

“Thank you,” I whispered to Dan, as the bus pulled away and disappeared around the corner.

This was written as an assignment for a Creative Writing class I am taking.

**I would really appreciate any constructive criticism that you could provide about my writing. Are there gaps? Does it make sense? What would you change?**

Assignment #1: Interview someone in the class, and turn it into a story, advertisement, personal ad, or whatever. I interviewed Dan, who, in turn, told me about his brother Kevin. For the story, I changed the setting and filled in the gaps with research from the internet. If you have the time, please follow the links to the other pages about Kevin, because I know that when you hear his story, you will also want to say "thank you."


bgirl said...

wow. thank you ally. thank you kevin and thank you dan most of all.

Amy said...

I am sending you an email w/ my comments because they are too long!

Julie Pippert said...

Wow, what a story! I like how you switched the setting. And yes, thanks to them.

Summer said...

Wow, what a story. I have to admit, I was disappointed when I realized it didn't happen the way it's told in the story. It's such a great piece of human connection and I can just picture you having such an interaction with someone on the bus.

I didn't know you were taking a creative writing class. That's very cool! I will read it over again and send more comments.

Much love.

KC said...

I think this is wonderful. The words, the description of the intangibles, the sentiment.

It's so easy to forget or not feel the ravaging of this war. Many are insulated. Yet, it's a nightmare. Which is still going on.

Pate Family said...

It is beautiful writing. I was picturing it happening and was so surprised at the end. My complete lack of writing skills mean that I can offer no suggestions beyond that I thought it was wonderful and thought provoking. Your great writing skills mean that I can no longer blame my inadequacies on my High School... darn.

Lori said...

This is really well written, Ally. A very clever assignment, which you in turn handled in a very clever fashion.

I am terrible at critiquing other people's writing. I tend to take things too much at face value and either like it, or I don't. I liked this.

Thank you, Kevin.