Saturday morning in May, Michael walked into the garage to
find a magnetic yellow ribbon affixed to the tail of the
Honda. For a moment he regarded the loop, its bottom ends
crossing in the pantomime of a fishtail, as a person might
examine a dent delivered by a runaway shopping cart. After
touching it experimentally with his fingertips he decided
to leave the magnet on for his errands in town. It made him
part of the crowd in Northrup, New York, where many
vehicles were bedecked with ribbons and flags, but
nonetheless Michael felt self-consciousness as he traveled
from the post office to the bank to the Citgo to fill a gas
can for the lawnmower. It was as if he were walking around
with a sign reading KICK ME! taped on his back. As soon as
he returned home he asked Elizabeth where she'd gotten the
"Axtell's," she said,
naming the local hardware store. She sat at the kitchen
table, arranging peonies she had clipped from the bushes in
the backyard. Her long hair was pulled through the back of
an old Expos cap. "That okay with you?”
thought we didn't put things on our car," Michael said
carefully. They'd once had a discussion about the semiotics
of bumper-stickers, the shrillness and desperation of EAT
ORGANIC! or CHARLTON HESTON IS MY PRESIDENT, and especially
the pathetic misfortune of being unable to remove the name
of a candidate who, though admirable, had been slaughtered.
It was fatalistic, that kind of loyalty, Elizabeth had
said, and a little trashy besides, like tattooing the name
of a month-old boyfriend on your shoulder blade.
not permanent," she said without looking up. "It's
true," Michael agreed, trailing off, trying to find a
new line of reasoning.
may not like the guys in charge." Elizabeth looked at
him hard. "But guys like Trev are just doing their
jobs. Don't you think that's important to remember?"
right," Michael said, rebuffed. "It is."
It began a month ago, when Michael found her
sitting at the desk in the study where they kept the
computer, distraught. He thought maybe one of them had
overdrawn the checking account. Speaking quietly, Elizabeth
told him it was Trev Donnelly, a friend of hers from
college who had paid his tuition through the ROTC program.
For the last two years he had been stationed in Germany,
where he worked with a team—platoon-division. Michael
didn't know the right term for soldiers who maintained the
vehicles. Trev included Elizabeth on a list of friends and
family to whom he e-mailed brief updates every few weeks.
He talked about his eagerness to leave the military, how
the Germans acted deliberately rude to him when he wore his
uniform off-base, but at least he was completely safe, even
comfortable. He had bought himself a Porsche in Stuttgart
and spent his leave-time blasting across the Autobahn,
visiting auto factories and breweries. He had a girlfriend
in the States named Gina. He brought her over to Germany a
few times a year. Now Trev had received his orders; his
group was leaving for the Middle East.
be fine," Michael had said, sitting down beside
Elizabeth. "Doing what he does, he'll be stationed
well behind the lines."
a few moments Elizabeth sat in a silence Michael had come
to recognize well: it meant she had made up her mind to be
worried, and he could not comfort her. "There aren't
any front and rear line in this war, Mike. And the military
seems to be making things up as they go along."
their wedding three years ago they had been living on New
York's uppermost border with Canada. Michael worked for a
small college where he maintained the computers; Elizabeth
was a research librarian. They did not have a television,
so they gathered their news from the radio: NPR and also
the CBC, whose signal strayed over the border and whose
accounts of the war seemed much more honest and
frightening. In the evening, they sometimes listened to
speeches and reports that left Michael picturing the Middle
East as a humming hive of violence. Elizabeth's brown eyes
turned sad and she sighed, as if to say, So the world is
that much bigger than us after all.
be home in seven months," Michael had said. "That's
not too long."
Michael knew from photographs
and from what his wife had told him that in college, Trev
had been like a brother to her. Blonde and
broad-shouldered, Trev looked like he spent his winters
chopping wood and his summers bailing hay. He had a round,
fleshy face and the bright eyes of a practical joker.
Before leaving for Germany he had sold his black Camaro, in
which he had probably given Elizabeth rides. Once, rolling
her eyes, she described Trev as a redneck playboy. Not her
type, not studious enough. Had a maturity problem. She
meant to assure Michael that she hadn't fallen in love with
Trev, but Michael wondered if she had in fact fallen in
love with him, even for a little while, and hadn't admitted
it. He wondered also if Trev had loved her. Since the news
of his deployment Michael wanted her to take her name off
Trev's e-mail list. Instead of asking he chastised himself
for being petty. The man was thousands of miles away,
living a life of unpleasantries that Michael could hardly
That was the spring and summer that songs,
maudlin assertions of patriotism and reminders of soldierly
sacrifice, filled the country-radio airwaves. In a small
town like Northrup, populated by farmers, mechanics, and
tradesmen, there was no escaping the songs: Michael heard
the twangy aggression and self-righteous pride of the
singers, who were always male, in the grocery store, the
hardware store, the bank. He thought the songs ridiculous,
bad, and even propagandist, as if Nashville and the
Pentagon were in cahoots. Elizabeth used to agree, but
since Trev's deployment, she took an embarrassed interest
in the songs. Sometimes, driving into the Adirondacks for a
hike, a cowboy came on and sang a tribute to American
soldiers, or, worse, a ballad from the point of view of a
dead soldier, and the corners of Elizabeth's eyes
involuntarily teared up. Michael gripped the wheel with
both hands and stared straight ahead at the glare off the
hood, trying to give her privacy.
He felt surrounded.
The Army kept a base only eighty miles away, and people in
Northrup were inclined to hang flags from their living room
windows, affix them to their cars, and make their own
banners with bed sheets and cans of Krylon: THESE COLORS
DON'T RUN; FREEDOM DON'T COME FREE. Since before the war
began it had been a relief to drive into Canada for
dinner-- as if in crossing the St. Lawrence their wheels
came down on more rational, reasonable ground. The
Canadians were a proud people, always flying flags and
affixing maple leaves to everything, but Michael wasn't at
all bothered. Perhaps it was the lack of sheer stupidity in
their expression, the demure politeness, even dullness,
he'd come to ascribe to Canadians (probably incorrectly, he
knew). But six months of winter, he said to the other
technicians on campus, could mellow a country out: Look at
the Swedes, and the Finns. You never heard of them making
any trouble. It was cold in Russia, but the Russians were
different somehow. Michael put the joking away when he came
home. He knew Elizabeth would be angry to hear the way he
talked, and came home feeling as if he had committed some
act of infidelity.
wasn't jealous of her distraction over Trev. He didn't
doubt they were happily-married. When he saw her crying
beside the radio he knew it was out of fear for a friend,
and what he felt instead of jealousy was shame. In a
strange way he wished he was over there, deployed. He
wondered if Elizabeth, had comparing him and Trev in her
mind, had stumbled upon the conclusion that he, Michael,
was weak. Not less of a man, because she wasn't the type to
think military service made a man a man, but maybe not as
strong as Trev, or as brave. Lacking.
She had been
raised in a household where these ideas – duty,
honor, patriotism – formed central values. Her father
was hawkish, an avid listener of conservative radio shows.
He had once said to Michael that all things considered, he
thought serving in a war was a pretty good experience (he
had never been to war himself, though he had been of the
right age and background to be drafted into Vietnam;
Michael wondered about that). And Michael had once seen
Elizabeth's mother wearing a shirt silk-screened with a
picture of an American flag and a whole apple pie. They
knew what it meant to be American, the burdens and
martyrdom their citizenship demanded, the resultant pride.
They had also known Trev, and Michael was sure that they
had indulged in some pretty unflattering comparisons; they
would have been honored to have a solider-son-in-law.
Elizabeth's father, a Baptist and a teetotaler, might even
buy him a beer.
would have gone too.
weeks Michael wanted to say this to Elizabeth whenever he
saw her crying, or when she read a new e-mail out loud to
him, or when the radio droned with stories from embedded
reporters: more violence, bombings, the cheapening of human
life. He would not have volunteered, as Trev had in going
through ROTC, but if told to report he would have gone. If
there were a draft. I would do that duty. He carried the
words, heavy in his mind, for weeks. I would show valor
seemed an insecure, foolish thing to need to say out loud.
Furthermore, Michael thought, he should not have to say it.
He should not have to defend himself. More importantly, in
his heart, he doubted whether the words were even true.
Once his mother had said that if there were ever a
draft, she would send him, her only son, to Canada. He was
sixteen; they had been talking about her high-school
friends who went to Vietnam; she took his face in her hands
for so long he grew uncomfortable. She did not make fleeing
to Canada sound like cowardice; instead she seemed to be
making an asseveration of life's rich gift. And though she
said it only once, her words affected him deeply: whenever
Michael tried to imagine himself in Trev's place, he could
see no further than the arrival of the letter from the
draft board. He could not imagine what would follow in any
detail: getting a physical, being issued equipment, going
through basic training, vanishing into the belly of a jet
as huge as a whale.
he saw himself living in a small apartment in Ottawa,
Ontario, just across the border. Off Dalhousie Street, say,
half a mile from Parliament and only a few blocks from the
American embassy. The apartment would have hardwood floors
and receive good light. It would face a Lebanese bakery.
Michael saw himself carrying a coffee in Canada's bitter
cold, skating the canal, buying berries and asparagus at
the Byward Market when spring arrived. The vividness of
this life against the vagueness of war told him that his
departure to Canada would naturally come to pass. He loved
the world too much to be accessory in his own departure
from it. He only regretted that he would have to leave his
wife behind, perhaps sneak out in the middle of the night.
Elizabeth would never move to Canada with him.
weeks he carried these ideas on his walks to work, through
the quiet streets and across the campus, empty of students
for the summer. When confronted with the question of how he
would get back into America when the war ended, Michael was
only mildly ashamed to realize that returning did not
matter; he could happily live in Canada. Expatriation
presented no serious loss that he could see. He supposed he
liked his country, but he did not love it. This shamed him
too, but not greatly. He removed his hat when the national
anthem played at baseball games, as his father had taught
him, but he did not sing. He liked the Canadian anthem
better, and sometimes, at a hockey game, he sang along with
the gentle melody.
But what about a war on American
soil, he asked himself? That would be different. Then he
would do what he had to do. Deciding this, Michael felt a
kind of redemption.
His grandfathers were both
veterans of the Second World War. Recently they had died of
ailments associated with old age; military honor guards
brought an eerie solemnity to their funerals. Sometimes,
thinking of war, Michael missed them terribly. It seemed to
him that he could have used their guidance, or simply their
stories. About his one grandfather's service, his father's
father, he knew next to nothing; apparently he had been a
quartermaster in the European Theater, far from the front.
He used the GI Bill to get a good education when he
returned and became an engineer. Perhaps this is what Don,
Michael's father-in-law, had in mind when he said that war
could be a good experience. His other grandfather, though,
had been deployed in the Pacific, then loaded onto a troop
ship bound for Okinawa, an infantryman with orders to storm
the island and take it. A few days before the mission he
came down with yellow fever. When his unit departed he was
still in the infirmary. The Japanese, well-entrenched,
decimated the entire platoon. None of his buddies returned.
The bout with yellow fever left him weakened, emaciated,
and permanently bald, but alive at least. He was given a
medical discharge and sent home to New Jersey. This
scenario seemed ideal, Michael thought: to answer the call
and go, and to be spared at the last minute by something
entirely beyond your control. A legitimate deus ex machina.
Summer continued; the tomatoes fattened on the vines
behind their house; the days became too hot for hiking;
Michael and Elizabeth walked to the river and paddled their
canoe or swam, and sometimes they returned to find e-mails
from Trev. Two, three per month. Elizabeth read them out
loud, and though they were never personal, never mentioned
the past she and Trev had shared at college in Ohio, their
power over her still bothered Michael. On the days the
messages arrived she was silent and restless and would not
listen to the radio; in the evenings she had to get out of
the house, walk the streets. Michael stayed behind, unable
to concentrate either, trying to imagine her responses: I'm
praying for you; Take care of yourself; You'll be home
soon. The things anyone would say to any soldier at war,
and yet Michael felt, illogically, insulted.
in the mornings, the windows open to the birds and the
breezes, he ate his breakfast and tried to imagine eating
MREs in the desert. He tried to imagine the explosions, a
sudden jolt upward into weightlessness as his truck drove
over a bomb, was struck by a mortar. Pierced by light,
shredded by a hot, jagged wind. He knew what to picture but
couldn't make the picture real.
Trev's death was
easier to envision: silence, like static on a radio. How
would they know? Sometimes the announcers read the names of
the American KIAs, but often they did not. Trev's parents
would not have access to his e-mail account; only close
family and friends might be invited to the funeral. Instead
of news, instead of e-mails, the air around them would
freeze, and Elizabeth, and Michael with her, would know
it was November, and Trev's tour was completed. Perhaps the
Army would try to lure him back in, but as far as he was
concerned, he said in his last message, which came from
Germany, he was finished. He'd had enough. As soon as he
returned to the States he and Gina were getting married.
should go," Elizabeth said from the study when the
a ten-hour drive," Michael reminded her.
the least we can do."
return for what? Michael wanted to ask, but he knew better.
found Trev taller and broader and stronger-looking than he
remembered from the photographs. To Michael's relief, he
wore a suit to the wedding since being honorably
discharged. At the reception the DJ presented a slide-show
of the bride and groom, including shots of Trev in his
military dress, and his fatigues, his blue eyes squinting
into the desert glare. In the background the DJ played a
popular country song about the bravery of American
soldiers; every time the military pictures came on, the
guests cheered and hooted.
They danced a little
during the party, but Elizabeth was tired, and people she
knew from college kept walking up to her for conversation
and introductions. He had always been proud of his career,
which began in graduate school and continued to cedar
college, where he was an administrator, but that night, in
the atmosphere of a parade, it seemed a small, even
frivolous thing. At eleven o'clock they drove back to their
hotel. A light rain was falling; a familiar smell of wet
leaves filled the car. Michael's ears rang from the
aftermath of the loud dance music, and he felt an upwelling
of desire to say it again: I would have gone too. I just
want you to know that. It seems an important thing to say.
knew, though, that his wife would only dismiss what he
said, might squeeze his knee and say he was being silly,
she knew he would go, of course he would go, her emphasis
underscoring her doubt. And this would only make the
awkwardness he felt around her worse. In their hotel room,
in bed, he wanted to make love, wanted assurance, but
exhausted by the ride and the day, Elizabeth quickly fell
the wedding the e-mails stopped coming. The last message
Trev sent, which arrived on the night of the first snow in
Northrup, had him moving out to Wyoming with Gina, where
the both of them found jobs with the National Park Service.
war continued to enter into Michael and Elizabeth's living
room – by radio, by newspaper – but now the
firefights and car-bombings felt impersonal, almost
history, a tragedy without a face. Oddly enough, Michael
noticed as he shopped in the Big M Market or pumped gas,
the country songs which had come in swarms when the war
first began slowed to a trickle, as if Nashville had grown
bored with the war too. Now the cowboys and pseudo-cowboys
sang of small-town pride and Jesus. Elizabeth switched to a
jazz station they picked up from Montreal.
morning, after shoveling the driveway, Michael removed the
magnetic ribbon from the trunk of the car. Elizabeth either
did not notice, or, if she did notice, did not object.
Thoughts of shame and cowardice and patriotism receded from
his mind. He did not have reason to speak or think about
how he would have fought in the war ever again. His
capacity for valor, at least of the soldierly variety,
remained forever untested, and this was a relief.