from the city of love suite: 2. tet

As he sat down on the subway car he flinched. He clenched his calfskin briefcase more tightly on his knees. Every time he sat down the same image came to mind. One of them knocked him on the back of the head and ran up the aisle laughing, daring anyone to stop him. Picking passengers at random–a taunting slap on the head. And always he was one of the ones they got.

***

On the two pieces of cardboard he found he had covered every space with writing. No one would read all he had written, because it was far too much to read without breaking your stride. But he had heard about the fake vets, and how someone was going around the country exposing them. And now there were starting to be vets from the newer wars as well. So he described the Tet offensive in detail, as much as he could remember, on the two pieces of cardboard. He wrote at the end: “even a smile helps” but he never really looked up at their faces to see if they were smiling. He was tired. He slept a lot, sitting up, behind the urgent sign and the paper cup.

***

He felt sick. It was as if he couldn’t enjoy life anymore. He was angry all the time. When he drove, people cut him off. He seemed to be on his phone all the time, but he had begun to suspect that no one was listening to him, any more than he, he had to admit, was really listening to them. And when he took the subway, always the same fear. That someday one of them: young, black or brown, in a big jacket, would come down the aisle and knock him on the back of the head, laughing.

***

He found a doorway, a grocery store that had gone out of business. He folded the sign and laid it under one of the two blankets he carried. He lay down and covered himself head to foot in the second blanket, his head on his duffel. He dreamed.

***

At home the children were already in bed, his wife watching television. He slumped down on the sofa. He dreamed. Sirens woke him, sirens on television. “It’s going to hell,” he thought vaguely. “You wouldn’t believe it, but it’s hell,” he mumbled to his wife. “What, dear?” she asked. But he wasn’t sure what he had said.

***

He drank when he could, even though it hurt his take. He didn’t spend his take on booze, but if someone he met had a bottle, he’d drink. It cut the cold, made the time go faster. There was too much time.

***

There was not enough time. He was always racing out the door, pacing in the office. He hated to sit still. If he sat still, he’d lose out, some opportunity would be missed. He seethed with anger when he had to wait. He was angry all the time. Something was wrong, something was not working. The traffic wasn’t working, and the people around him didn’t do what he wanted. His wife was diffident. Who were his children? Someone owed him. Someone owed him plenty.

***

He was ashamed. He had done something wrong. All these people passed him each day, they were moving along, they were clean, they were not asking for money. He had failed. He was alone, naked, in front of them, trying to use his sign like a shield, like proof, documented proof of–what? Something he was. Something he had been, lost or forgotten. It was like he had fallen out of the light, and couldn’t be seen any more. Maybe it was Tet, something to do with Tet. Something he had forgotten.

***

That day, emerging from the subway, his shoulders still hunched against the one who would come from behind, escaping the dreaded attack one more time, he had an idea. These people, these people underfoot, these people with scrawled signs and leering faces, these filthy, aggressive, drunken, vomit-stained, obscene people; they were at fault. They made a mockery of everything he stood for, everything he was trying to be. He was trying to be good, to do right, and here were these people who cared about no one but themselves, and they were laughing at him. They were laughing at his hard work and his cleanliness, all his efforts, and his misery. They thought he was a joke. They thought hardworking, decent people like him were a joke!

When he realized the truth of this, he felt bathed in light. His anger took on a new dimension. He knew he must act. The authorities were paralyzed. The government–hopeless! A man would know what to do, though. A man would take action. He was a man. He would prove it. It was easy.

He went home that night free from fear for the first time in many nights. He had a plan; he had the means. He kissed his wife, rummaged through some cupboards, and disappeared into the basement.

His wife was surprised to find him in the kitchen the next morning, making sandwiches. “What are you up to?” she said. “Just making lunch,” he replied. “Good for you,” she said, as she watched him clean all the utensils with meticulous care.

***

He dozed off again, then he woke, suddenly. The cup was still empty, or nearly. But he saw that some food wrapped in paper had been placed beside his sign while he was sleeping. He was hungry, and someone knew it!

He felt a sudden warmth fill his body, as if he had been seen and understood at last, as he undid the careful, thoughtful wrapping, and took out the homemade sandwich.

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