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A novel in verse … and the writing thereof
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War Stories by Candlelight

“So, what did you learn

     in the war?” I asked. After we ordered, the waiter

had set two glasses of wine and two

tiny bowls of peanuts on the white table cloth, and

     left us to ourselves.

I was holding the thin stemmed glass, conscious of my

     bare shoulders under my wrap,

and my dress (the blue silk again), feeling acutely

adult, but not knowing

     what to say. So I asked that question,

what had he learned in the war.

“More about dying than

     I ever wanted to know,” he said. “You?”

But I had

     another question. “Do you think it taught you

anything

     about living?”

He took a sip of

     red wine. Mine was white, and cool, and

smelt sharp and sour.

“It taught me to

     take my time.”

I stared. “That’s the opposite

of everything I’ve heard.”

“Me too. And please don’t ask me

     what I mean, ’cause I don’t rightly know.

But it’s not so rare, I suspect.

Times we weren’t under fire—or

exhausted—and there weren’t many—

     there’d be guys just

staring into a bunch of grass. Watching

a spider, or some ants. Watching

leaves move, or water. Taking their time.”

He shrugged, as though apologizing.

“Cory, that’s—that’s charming.”

He laughed quietly, his eyes meeting mine

and dropping, twice. Shy again, I thought,

     and my heart lurched.

“Want my peanuts?” he asked.

“You don’t want them?”

He didn’t.

“I have a thing for peanuts,” I confessed, as he

leaned across to pour his into my

     nearly empty bowl. Then his hands—

blunt-fingered, strong but spare—were gone, back on

     the other side of the table.

In the silence, he turned his wine glass, gently, by the stem.

I watched his face. “What?”

He set the glass down and leaned forwards.

“One afternoon—we were in ?? —gorgeous place. Palm

trees, white sand, the whole

     South Sea Island bit.”

The waiter bent beside me to set down a fork,

     a knife, a spoon; I never looked up,

never saw his face, even when he set

Cory’s place, right across from me. Cory

glanced up once, and leaned back till he was done,

then leaned forwards again

     over his clasped hands.

“It was right before Guam, and everyone was busy

     not thinking

     what might happen next.

We swam of course, but then

we spent the afternoon

     building sand castles.

The most elaborate structures, all brought down

     by the next tide. Which didn’t matter. When the tide came in

we jumped on the things we’d spent

three hours building. We played as if

we were ten years old.”

Mesmerized, I’d been lifting

single peanuts to my mouth

without looking down; still staring at him, I went for

another one, but came up empty-handed. Only on

the second try did I look down, confused,

the table setting translated suddenly

into a language

     I did not recognize.

“You missed the bowl.”

“What?”

He had his legs crossed, hand over

his mouth, as if damming his laughter.

“You missed the bowl,” he said again,

and looking down I saw it was true: my hand

was poised over the tablecloth. Centering my bowl,

I shook my head. “I’m not sure

     you’re good for me.”

He pulled back, eyebrows raised.

“Well, if I starve to death—!”

“It’s my fault if you

     try to eat the table?”

“Certainly.”

“Okay.”

We both leaned on the table now, turning the stems

of our glasses slowly, glancing up

now and then, and dropping

     our eyes again.

He spoke first.

     “What about you, Lindy? What did you learn?”

No soldier I’d met before would

     turn that question back to me,

     a woman, a nurse who’d never left Stateside.

“I wasn’t

     in the war,” I demurred.

“Don’t flatter yourself.

     We all were. So, answer the question.”

“Will you keep me on

     bread and water ’til I do?”

“Pickles and wine.”

“Ugh. That is a scary thought. I wonder—

     if Mac and Lewis had threatened you with that, instead of

keel-hauling, would you have broken?”

“Maybe. But we were rather short of

     wine. Now, don’t try to dodge the question, Linda.

“Okay, let me think.”

It took a moment. I remember flesh

cut from the bone. Cooked meat slides

off, but living flesh hangs on.

The surgeons wrestled with the stuff,

     in the O.R.

We are all and only body it seems:

a piece of lead smaller than your finger-tip

can knock you

     clean off the earth.

What can you learn from that?

“Get what you can while the gettin’s good,”

said Stu, but he was

     already mean.

He lived two doors down, and two years older

than me, he went off to war in the midst of it.

When we were kids, he’d push Andy off his bike

for fun, until I stood him down.

“Well,” I said to Cory, “I learned

if you’re mean already, war’s unlikely to

improve your temper.”

That made him laugh.

“Some guys,” he said, “want to forget. My buddy Mac

—you remember Mac—he’s going home

to marry his girl. She’s barely

eighteen. He wants to forget, so he marries

a girl with no memory.”

     “And you?” I asked.

     “Not me. It’s hardly a time I

               want to remember,

but I can’t pretend to forget.”

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