65 • War Games
“It is possible, Joe, that some stories are best not told.” Will twisted the white cap on his cup back and forth in his hand. He stayed standing, hung in the chill air between sitting back down and telling Joe everything and bolting for the door to get home and back to work without another word.
“It is something of a tragedy, then, don’t you think, that we are here in a coffee shop instead of a bar?” Joe dropped into his chair with a grunt and motioned Will back to his own.
“Sure. Coffee is not as effective for eliciting the reluctant story. Homer said so.” Joe tipped his head back and closed his eyes, reciting a little too loudly for Will’s comfort, even amidst the clanging of dishes and the continual roar of the espresso pumps.
It is the wine that leads me on,
the wild wine
that sets the wisest man to sing
at the top of his lungs,
laugh like a fool – it drives the
man to dancing… it even
tempts him to blurt out stories
better never told.
“So you would ply me with wine until I blurt out the story you think you want to hear.”
“I thought it might work, yes.”
Will remembered the night in his closet with Cameron. And wine.
“It is not impossible.”
“It might also be good to remember that it is one thing for a person to wish to hear a story. It is another altogether that a man’s story wishes telling.”
“Why are you so sure there is a story that wishes to be told?”
“I’m an old man, Will. We just know things.” Joe raised his cup to his lips, then set it back down. “So maybe just tell me this, and you can make it the short version: What happened to your arm?”
Will instinctively reached for his arm, massaging a hand over his scarred bicep. He grit his teeth against the buzzing in his ears. Who is this man, this Joe Murphy, who feels so free to insinuate himself into a guy’s life, to demand stories as though he is owed them? What had Joe ever done for Will besides cause him one headache after another, and if it were possible there were some miniscule debt owed, for something — but what? — surely it had been satisfied by now between dinner, the hospital, the bringing him to his house, the making believe to be his kin. Who is this man? Who does he believe himself to be?
He rubbed his fingers over the bumps and grooves on his arms, reminding himself to inhale, and to do so deeply. In the fog of his brain, behind the insipid acoustic indie music twinging out of the overhead speakers of the coffee shop, he heard Barbara cajoling. Always, she was cajoling.
“You light one now, Willie. Come on, I want to see yours blow up.”
Will was crouched in the tall grass behind the old water tower. The bluff overlooking the river was a favorite place for the neighborhood boys to launch bottle rockets and hot air balloons made from birthday candles and the lightweight plastic sacks from the one-hour Martinizing shop. That day, they had met up to engage in their own air strike of sorts, each of them having gathered their collection of model airplanes. David Kingsley had a pack of firecrackers they were plugging into the planes and lighting, then launching them off the bluff with slingshots where they blew to tiny bits of shattered plastic airplane parts over the river.
After a couple of rounds, the boys had grown bored. The explosions were not dramatic enough. Sure, the planes blew apart, but they wanted to see a burst of flame and imagine they were watching John Wayne and the boys in the Sands of Iwo Jima.
David had just the thing, he said, and had ridden home on his bike and returned with a can of gasoline and an old shirt of his dad’s. They drew straws, and Will lost, which always happened when they drew for long straw instead of short. Barbara would hold the sticks and they would each make their choice. Then the other boys would snap their’s in half between their fingers behind their back before holding it out to compare to the others. Will couldn’t — wouldn’t — do it, so he always had the long straw no matter which one he drew.
The other boys would be the pilots. Will would be munitions. He crouched down on one knee in the grass tearing off small strips of the checked cotton shirt, then soaking them in gasoline and stuffing them into the belly of the plane before plugging it with a firecracker.
It worked. Sort of. The explosions now had a brief, but dramatic, poof of flame before they dropped into the river below. If a guy laid on his belly and looked over the bluff, he could pretend to be right there on the beach watching enemy planes go down one after another. Absent the screaming and blood, of course.
The boys cheered with each round of explosions and subsequently jeered Will for his meticulous preparation. His caution with the gasoline was slowing down their assault, they complained, and surely they would lose territory if he didn’t hustle. He would be remembered for all history as the one who let Omega Beach fall into enemy hands, all because he was a scaredy cat about a little gasoline.
Will tried to move faster. He did not want to be remembered for anything, much less for being that guy, the one that would give the enemy Omega Beach. He tore off strips of fabric as fast as he could, dipped them into the fuel can and stuffed the long row of planes. Where did they keep coming from? He couldn’t imagine his friends having so many airplanes in their collections. And their dads were going to be furious when they saw the whole collections were destroyed.
Barbara knelt down beside him to help. Of course, the thing with Barbara was that she wasn’t much help. She should have been back by the fence with all the other girls, but she was here beside him making him even more nervous than the boys did. She was mostly suggesting and correcting and saying a lot of “Why don’t yous” that only got a guy more rattled. She thought it would save some time if Will would soak a larger piece of cloth first, then tear strips. “It’s that many fewer times you’ll have to dip into the can. Think of the time you’ll save,” she said.
Will protested, but Barbara pouted, and Will gave in. It was their way. Now he had a large patch of cotton cloth, soaked and dripping with gasoline. He held it to tear the strips, which was harder now that it was wet. He felt a trickle run down his wrist and arm and reached with his other hand, wet with gasoline, to wipe his sleeve on it and keep his arm from getting wetter. The smell of gas, which he had always strangely enjoyed when he helped his father pump gas and wash the windows of the old brown Monaco was now making him lightheaded and a little ill.
“You should really do one too, Will. It’s just not fair that you are only munitions. Tell David you want to be a pilot too.”
“But I don’t, ” Will told her. “I was just getting good at packing the planes just right. Did you see how that last Mustang fighter jet went off?”
“Oh, I don’t even know what these are, ” Barbara said, standing and smoothing her skirt. “I just think you should get to do one too. Stand up to those boys.”
“I don’t need to. I like my job here.”
“I wonder if you are afraid of the boys or afraid of the fire.” Barbara held a finger to her pursed lips, looking off over the river as if she were thinking very hard.
“Neither. I’m not afraid. I just don’t want to.” Will wiped his nose with the back of his hand. He thought the gasoline fumes might have burned all of his nose hair away. He shook his head. “Now let me work so they don’t run out of fire power again.”
Will reached for another plane and realized he had armed them all and their assault on Omega Beach would soon be done, once they blew up the last six planes in their fleet.
David and the others came and grabbed their choices, leaving the last Marauder jet sitting next to Will’s blue sneaker. “There you go, Will. There’s one left for you, ” Barbara said.
“Nah, they can have it.” Will stood and wiped his hands on his jeans.
“You are afraid, Will. I was kidding, but you really are. You’re afraid of a little fire.”
“I am not afraid, ” Will said, irritated.
“Not afraid of what?” Joe smiled his bemused smile at Will. “Not afraid of a little story?”
(to be continued)