Short Story: The Wretched Hero

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I

The fading sunset could never compare to the darkness of living in the South. That evening, as the sun ended its descent across the sky, my son lay in bed coughing loudly. Bright spatters of red blood dripped from his mouth to his small hands.

No one knew what was wrong with him. It could have been the poisonous fumes of the Georgia coal mines. Or it could’ve been the cursed waters he swam in too often in the summer. Maybe the Ku Klux Klan poisoned him – got to him when I wasn’t looking. So much hatred for us Negroes here, maybe that got him sick. Hatred was a disease in itself.

Life wasn’t easy. From mornings to night, we were constantly hungry and isolated in a world that hated our kind. Just last week, Stevie, a buddy of mine, ran through the bar. In his hands he held a paper that seemed to come from a divine providence. I had been praying for answers for months. Answers as to how I could support my family, put bread on the table, and make my young boy well. I prayed I would have just enough money to pay one of those good ol’ white doctors downtown to take a look at him.

Money. It was always about money. Money could erase the racism here, it sometimes seemed. At least it could lower the white man’s ego and corrupt racist morals enough to fix my boy. Stevie, with his plaid shirt, thin brown pants and small hat had shouted, ”Look, look Roger, Imma sign up and enlist in the army, give to this country, and fight for something to live for. They want us to leave tomorrow. I want to give it my best.” He paused. “Maybe I can be a hero too. Maybe people will notice me, especially these fine white women…”

I looked at him. A mad man, I thought to myself. He and so many others had talked of the European wars, how thousands of thousands of Jews had been killed by firing squads and gas chambers. We saw the fleeting pictures, black and white, the stars of David they wore. The blacks, the gays, and the handicapped too, they said. Stevie grabbed me by the shoulders as I took another shot of whiskey, pounding my sorrows away. He strong-armed my broken spirit, my desperate need for a way out.

I could earn respect, away from all the killings and murder, the lynching and black bodies hanging from tree tops. I could stop living in fear. I felt it in my gut and my pulsing heart. I felt pulled by Stevie’s words and the ideals he promised like a powerful magnet. If I made enough money, I could save my dying son and support Suzie, my wife who braided hair for the black sisters in town.

I walked from the bar straight to church to give thanks to God, for he had answered my prayers. God wasn’t a stranger round those parts – he could be found at a small wooden building topped by a large wooden cross. Oh, how that cross stared at me. After Father Jimmy’s daughter had been found murdered many years ago, a revelation from the divine told him to build this church for the mourning community. And he did just that with his own bare hands. He opened its doors almost every day, risking his very life to do so.

The weekly mass became a refuge for many in our community. A part of me felt that God could not be contained within wooden walls, and if he ever had been, he’d long since abandoned us. These European Americans with their white Gods and white angels didn’t pray to the same god I prayed too, not the god I felt deeply for.

I kneeled down on the steps of that small southern church as its three o’clock bell struck against the burning sun, asking for signs that I wasn’t crazy, that I wasn’t about to sign my death certificate, sign it all to the hell of war.

II

The passing evening breeze of the Southern winds brought cool air to our house. Suzie uncomfortably held a blue and beige towel in her hands. She folded it on the counter of the tight spaced room looking worried.

“Why do you make that face, honey? What’s wrong?” I slurred drunkenly.

She moved closer and looked me directly in the eyes. She looked scared and spooked. It must be our sick boy, I told myself. But it wasn’t. She’d had a bad dream, a nightmare, and a real bad one it seemed.

She told me she still felt it strongly, deep in her stomach. “It must be the end of the world. This global war will be the end of us.”

I shook my head. Did she somehow know my decision to leave town?

“Look at the Bible, look at all these European nations and what they are doing! It threatens our livelihoods here!” she said.

“What livelihood did we ever have here!?” I asked angrily.

She held her fist firmly in the air. “They’re seeking to occupy this land. In my dream, I saw too many people dead. The end times are upon us, they must be. In my dreams, I kept seeing bombs explode everywhere. I saw them so close, large gigantic mushroom clouds above they ravaged cities and millions of people’s bodies, I saw them! All of them died in my dream.” Her voice was heavy and a small vein pulsed on the upper side of her left eyebrow.

I held her left arm tight and squeezed it. “Nothing can be worse than the hellish nightmares of these southern lands, because we can never wake up from them! Our brothers and sisters have been at war for hundreds years here – going back to slavery! For centuries, just because we carry this black body of ours! This skin color! I never met my mother or my father. These charlatans wearing white, these devils of the Ku Klux Klan killed them! Nothing will be worse than dragging your brother’s dead body from the noose last year. Remember that? Nothing will be worse than burying him. Burying one of our own, or have you forgotten!?” I shook her strongly to wake her up to the nightmares of reality. “We have always been at war here!”

I pushed her down against wall and she fell to the floor. After a moment, she crawled to the corner room next to the wooden table holding the flickering candles. Our sickly son coughed. I had probably woken him up. Suzie began to cry.

Immediately, I tried to apologize, but trailed off as I realized I reeked of alcohol. I thought the church would give me a peace of mind before I left. I thought God would sober me up. I was wrong. I sat down next to her, as it seemed like the right time to tell her that I was leaving, that I had found a way to help our son, to bring our war to an end. This war, this mutiny of color, it could all end.

“I found a way,” I said softly. Tears dripped down my face. She looked at me in disbelief. “I love you,” I continued, “and I’ve made the decision to enlist in the U.S Army, to go fight in this great war against the Axis of Evil.”

It was another war to end our war, our pains, our worries; a war to bring us peace, to heal our bodies, and give my boy a chance.

Suzie stood up fast. “No, no, no, no! You can’t leave me! You can’t leave us! This is not your war, Roger! No! Not your battle to fight!”

She moved her small head back and forth, her hair slowly flowing in opposite directions. Then, in a sudden rage, she threw a stack of folded clothes and then her shoes at me, screaming at the top of her lungs. Our son began crying in the next room.

“Did you not hear me! What I saw in my dreams is real. Dreams don’t lie. Remember the affairs with the white policemen? I predicted that, I have the gift of sight! How else do you explain it? Who will take care us if you leave? Who?”

I couldn’t look at her. I left the next morning.

III

That was over six months ago. Time moved in spirals here, in waves of horrors and strong emotions of lust. God stood as my witness. We had fought Hitler and his Nazi military troops for months now, stationed on the freezing beaches of Germany in a little town called Wilhelmshaven. We settled our camps not too far from the devil’s nest.

I was the only black man in my unit. Stevie and I had lost touch with each other after training. He had gone somewhere else. Last time I heard, he’d joined an all-black battalion.

The barracks were small. Our beddings, lice infected, gave us the only solace we could find amidst the deadly war acts of bombings, sniper shots, and small Nazi battalions that randomly patrolled our area. Too many of us had died along the way.

Bill was getting bald. With his prowess and go-getter attitude, he was the jokester of the group. He was the one we needed the most in these dire times when our green uniforms wet and muddy boots squashing through the mud. During the cold rainy seasons, under the constant cloudy sky, he was our light. If it weren’t for him, we would’ve gone mad. His obscene jokes were the glue to our brokenness. He spoke of the times he had sex with more German women than he could count, mimicking their accents and their screams. We always laughed hysterically; laughing amidst of the absurdity of War.

Bill died last week.

His body was never recovered; they told us a roof had flattened him. A bomb had been set and he’d had no chance of surviving. It seemed none of us did. Too many of us died, left and right, like insects and tiny bugs, like the hundreds of mosquitoes I swatted during the summer nights at my house in Georgia. Life became abysmal. Death was so close. She whispered in our ears and haunted our lives every day and our dreams at night. She followed us and listened to our heartbeats.

We had no choice. We drenched ourselves in German liquor anytime our commander allowed us to. I couldn’t hold back. I kept a single picture of Suzie that began fading away under the continuous snow and passing rain showers. Eventually, her photo disappeared and I was left with an empty piece of paper.

Prostitutes, sometimes German women and sometimes Russian immigrants were always around us wearing their short dresses. Our Commander paid them to dance for us at a small underground club. He also told a few of those gorgeous women to comfort us. Commander Alton would never admit it, but I knew it was him. So many of us were married and had left our families behind. But how could I hold myself back, never knowing if today would be my last day on earth? Suzie had seen it in her dreams and part of me believed it. That was the thing with dying. We were continually enthralled with oblivion and met face to face with eternity daily. But as eternity looks back at you, we realized we were all children to her, no matter how old we got.

IV

It was doomsday itself that our army was trying to stop. The allied forces were hoping to prevent it from happening in any way possible. The end of the world, my Suzie had called it. I wondered how they were doing, fairing for themselves. I wondered if they received my checks. The one letter I received from Suzie told me my boy had died. She got back to sewing, doing what she could under the racial terror of the south.

Race had disappeared for me. The color line was pushed away when you’d seen your thousandth body of the dried, frail Jews at the Neuengamme concentration camp. Eventually, everyone came to treat me like their own, like their brother. Our lives were connected, bound by our uniform, our scarifies, and our service to our nation.

At first, those southern boys, there were six, treated me with disregard, with the same looks and unease, the same arrogance of racial superiority, the same embodiment I was too familiar with. I remember eating my soup as I sat under the tent, alone with Chaplain George, a broth with cabbage, potatoes, and carrots, a hot meal much needed during the cold artic weather, when Freddy approached. Freddy slammed my food on the floor and called me a nigger. Unprovoked, he spat in my face, and walked out. George was not shocked at the racism but how I remained calm, how I stood my ground.

“Are you going to take that from him? You going to let this slide? Commander Alton will know of this.”

I looked at him, a tired stare. “I grew up in the south.”

Freddy was punished. He took long laps in the cold wind of the night on the beach, and was stuck at desk duty for a month, but with time, truly with the despair of war, the dead rising, the building smashing, and not having a proper meal for weeks, the racism stopped it’s growth. It was a disease in remission. Or maybe I had find a cure – white bodies.

Nazis decaying in the streets. Jews shot dead. Those racist men in our battalion realized something that too many blacks in the south had realized before reaching adolescence, that in the end our bones, our flesh, our hearts, and our minds will all rot. Flies and maggots will be the end of us all, they will not discriminate.

Chaplain George lost his legs in a mining explosion last week. We always prayed together, a group of us—humble Luc from Georgia, Peter from New York with his thick glasses. We gathered, huddled over a fire pit, almost like a ritual and prayed loudly for our families, for our wives that we had left. I prayed wholeheartedly that my checks were sent home, sent to Suzie who could also be killed at any moment. I had prayed she could find a way to our boy to Atlanta, so them doctors could check on him, yet he had died.

The stars above the night were cold and chilly, the sound of the shattering winds adding serenity amidst a deadly war. We were all tired, peacefully sleeping sometime lost deep staring back at the cosmos.

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