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On Being Asked for a War Poem

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When I volunteered for the tour in South America, my captain had told me: "Son, this will change your life." He'd told me: "You'll never be able to brag to the girls about this. You'll never get thanked for your work. But you will have kept the country safe."

Nowhere in that steaming pile of lies and understatement had he mentioned: "Son, the US government is going to file you so deep they can't dig you out of the paperwork mountain with explosives. Good luck getting your GI bill."

I was lucky. I'd survived that tour. And after the tour, in that first shock of helplessness, faced with a mire of red tape between me and my benefits, my last check, and the bonus I'd been promised when I signed up, I'd had somewhere to go besides a friend's couch, or a shelter.

Mom had bought a little brownstone in Marine Park when my brother and I had left home; a quiet, older neighborhood not far from the park itself, populated by a mix of retired professionals who'd lived there since they were young professionals, more recent severely upper middle-class retirees, and a few ambitious young renters.

It wasn't the kind of neighborhood where you got down-on-their-luck younger sons. Most people my mother’s age had gotten their children securely squared away as dentists, doctors, lawyers, bankers, or spouses, and a few computer types who were apparently doing big things for themselves with the internet. My older brother was in advertising-- doing well, almost inevitably. I'd gotten mom's hair. He'd gotten everything else.

And I was the Deadbeat Army Son. There was a cluster of gossip around me, most of it centering around what they politely called Combat Fatigue.

My mother, only a few years out of being 'The Single Mother' in the neighborhood, failed to give a damn, and put me up in the guest room and co-signed my college loans while I grappled with bureaucracy for the education that they'd lured me in with in the first place.

Mom hadn't agreed with me going into the army in the first place; she'd done well enough, she told me, that her kids shouldn't have to fight for a decent life. I'd been young and dumb and full of principle and told her that I wasn't going to make her pay for a degree in philosophy. I was less of all of those things now, but goddammit, the government had made promises, and they were going to make good. So I called the VA every other day, did the bus-and-two-subway commute to the NYU campus, and listened to my lecture notes during a weekend security job I was hilariously overqualified for.

I was going to Do Things. I was going to write great papers. I had a half-formed thought about a book of modern war poetry, put together during a career with some prestigious non-profit, followed up with the doctorate and post-doctorate, the teaching position. I was a few years behind most of my classmates, but our family stayed healthy and strong; look at Mom. I had lots of time. I still felt penitent enough about South America to be considering postgraduate law, but I wasn't so idealistic that I didn’t recognize that my urge to do penance could fade, over a few years of takeout dinners in Mom's guest room and bad analyses of Kant.

It seemed like destiny. Comfortable. Warm.

Then, one Tuesday when I didn't have classes but did have unethical amounts of homework, Mom stuck her head into the guest bedroom.

"Nate, sweetie? One of your army friends is here. John?"

There weren't any men in my squad named John. I tried not to freeze up in front of Mom. I'd been so sure that nobody we’d been on the wrong side of down there had the kind of reach that extended to nice neighborhoods in New York. That I'd been just another anonymous face. That it hadn't been personal.

I hadn’t been so sure that I didn’t keep a sidearm in a footlocker under the bed, though, so once I’d managed to swallow my mouthful of takeout and asked mom to stall ‘John’ while I got a clean shirt on, I got it out, checked for a round, flipped on the safety, and tucked it carefully in my waistband, hiding it under a fresh polo shirt, because I hate lying to Mom more than I have to.

I walked down the stairs, put on a bland expression even as I was prepared to see Mom at gunpoint.

She was serving a finger of brandy to a man in a suit; an unassuming, mildly handsome guy with a spattering of grey in his hair, and grey-green eyes so pale they looked like they could have been made from glass.

The grey and the lines around his eyes were new in the past year and a half. I released the breath I’d been holding, slowly, through my nose.

“Corporal.”

“Nate!” He looked up at me, fixed me with a warm smile that hit me almost like a physical force, like it had a battering ram or a few pounds of C4 behind it. “We both got out at the same time; call me John.”

I wasn’t about to say ‘why the hell would I do that’ in front of my mother. “Sure thing. Haven’t heard from you in a while. Thought you were heading back to Chicago.”

“I did; got a job and got underwater with work on day one. I’ve been meaning to meet up with you, but it was never the right time.” His accent had faded, and it almost had to be deliberately. Along with the way he was wearing that suit, with how old he looked, suddenly. He was only a year older than I was, for Christ’s sake, had looked like he was at least five years younger, and suddenly he could have passed for forty if he’d wanted to.

“You should’ve called,” I said, deliberately casual so that Mom wouldn’t wonder why I was being rude to an old army buddy.

“I’m sorry; I didn’t know when you’d be in. I know you’re busy. But if you’re free right now, want to grab a bite?” Deliberately casual right back at me, friendly and folksy but not so much that the suit looked like it didn’t belong on him. ...Benevolent. I’d never seen him this way. It was damn creepy.

“Sure thing,” I grunted. “Sorry, Mom--”

“Don’t worry, hon.” She kissed me on the cheek. “Go have fun with your friend. You could use a study break, you’ve been locked up there all day.”

The corporal didn’t bat an eyelash, seeing a man almost thirty getting shooed around like a teenager. He’d gotten better at polite, at some point. It bothered me more than the grey in his hair.

I followed him out-- there was a sedan idling outside, a driver waiting in it-- but he hopped out as we approached. I knew him. A man about my size, a few inches taller, even, and six years too old for the amount of product in his hair. He opened the driver’s side passenger door for the corporal, and the other door for me.

“Thank you, Mister Silver,” the corporal said. So at least some of us were going by our actual names.

“Rick,” I greeted him, with a chinjerk.

“Nate,” he said, flashing a smile. “Mister Marcone.”

I gave the alleged ‘John Marcone’ a dour look, but didn’t make an issue about it; I slid into the leather interior of the sedan, my pistol a cold metal weight against my hip. I didn’t buckle up; he did, settling in comfortably. “How does sushi sound?”

“You hate sushi.”

“But you enjoy it, don’t you, Nate? And I want you in a good mood. I have a business proposition.”

“You sound like a bad mob movie. Or a CIA recruiter.”

I’d never had any trouble with PTSD, combat fatigue, any of the relevant acronyms or euphemisms; backfiring cars barely broke my sleep, and certain smells brought up unpleasant memories but not debilitating flashbacks.

But being on the other end of that green stare had my guts twisting, stretching like elastic between Then and There and Here and Now and that made me angry. These two men had been with me when I went through hell. We’d saved each other’s lives. The balance was on John’s side, for me, probably for Ricky, too. I hadn’t been ready for what they sent us into down there. John’d pushed me to the depths of what I could accomplish, radically altered my knowledge of my own moral limits-- and then hauled me back when the need passed. He’d taught me to be ruthless, and kept it from ruining me. I wasn’t ready to see him again. I hadn’t wanted to see him again.

He’d been all carefully controlled violence, a real dangerous little shit, worryingly good with knives, even more worryingly good with people. A good tactician, a decent strategist. He hadn’t had a safety net, a parent left to take him in, a brownstone in the city; he’d only had Chicago and a hinted at youth in street gangs, but I’d known that he’d manage; that in the end he’d either settle down comfortably or flare in a blaze of glory.

“I was talking to your mom,” he said, casual, his voice grounding me. “Master’s degree, huh? That’s impressive. But Nate... what are you going to do with a Masters in Philosophy?”

“Teach,” I said shortly.

“Is that before or after you stop speaking in monosyllables?”

“It’s on the agenda.” Public speaking had never been my strong suit, it was true. I like to have all the facts before I open my mouth. And you know the old Twain quotation, about being silent and being thought a fool.

“I want you to come work for me. I need a personal assistant; I’ve taken over a big operation, and I need a strong back and a stronger mind. I need you, Hendricks.”

“What project?” I asked, warily.

“Chicago.”

There was a long silence.

Finally, I took his bait: “Chicago what.”

“Just Chicago.”

“You’ve taken over Chicago.”

“Largely. There are a few loose ends, but I have people on them.”

“There’s a mayor and probably at least one crime family that would disagree.”

“Oh, I’m not trying to steal Dick’s job,” he said with a chuckle, interrupting me before I could tell him to drop the name from a little higher up next time with: “and Antonio and Marco aren’t an issue anymore.”

“...John.” I stared dumbly at him. “What have you done.”

He told me.

I stared at him for a while longer.

How do you articulate a disagreement to something so obviously stupid? Is there any other way to say ‘taking over the criminal underground of a large metropolitan area is probably a bad idea’ that doesn’t just obfuscate the facts with a bunch of rhetoric? When the hypocrisy self-evident in cheerfully running drugs and murdering political rivals and then balking because one of the corpses under the wheels of commerce was under the age of ten and died in front of you instead of in the shadows you’d helped cast doesn’t seem to be evident to the newly crowned crime lord across from you, what do you say?

Apparently, it’s: “You stupid asshole.”

“I know. I need you on this one,” he said, and I could see it in his eyes. How necessary I was to him, how essential, how worthwhile. And there is no preparing for how flattering it is to be told that you are necessary for the maintenance of a conquered city.

I looked to my instincts.

“No.”

“You’re having trouble with your GI bill, aren’t you? All of the boys from the squadron are. That’s going to go away, whether you sign up with me or not.” He smiled. “Come on. Let me buy you a pizza if you aren't up for sushi-- that place you always talked about, all those times we were trying not to think about what we were actually eating.”

“I’m full.” I wasn’t, but my appetite was somewhere back in ‘95.

He went on like I hadn’t said anything: “And then I’ll take you home. And if you’re not interested, it ends here. I sic a few lawyers on the VA for you and then I’m out of your life. But... Nathan. We can fix Chicago. We can minimize the hurt. Root out all the stupidity, the old traditions, the hedonism, keep the necessary evils from becoming unnecessary violence. But I’m not deluding myself, of course the cash and the power is going to change the way I think; I’m not that good of a guy. I’m not a good guy at all, Nate. I need a man who’s fundamentally decent. To the bone. You.”

I’d known him for years and I still felt it, the way he can make you feel when you have all of his attention. It’s like being in a spotlight. It’s like the world is holding its breath for you. Why the hell couldn’t he have just been a used car salesman.

I looked to my instincts.

“If you ever cross the line. ‘Johnny.’” He could be the most dangerous private citizen since Capone. A modern day tyrant. The gun seemed heavier, pinned between my side and the seat cushion. “Don’t expect me go with you.”

He knew what I meant. And the smile he gave me was almost beatific.

“You’re in.”

Destiny. The warm feelings as I imagined my papers getting peer reviewed, fantasizing myself into moving first amendment and anti-discrimination cases in court, that was destiny the way your first crush on a movie star is love. This was the real thing-- all man-made, nothing to do with the stars or the hypothetical deities that might be guiding them, but real and present and concrete. I felt the gears grinding, great slabs of my future rearranging themselves, uncertainties grinding down under the weight of inevitability.

“I’m in.”