Soldier

“So what you know about this, neighborhood, huh?” I squinted over at the man who had sidled up next to me, eyes narrowed, the crevasses of his face deep, etched permanently into place, seemingly chiseled there out of stubbornness. A refusal to allow himself to believe that the world had won, had beaten him down, made him weary. So he stood, his face a badge of exhausted pride hinting at all he had lived through, had seen, possibly fought for…the exhaustion not reaching his shoulders. They were drawn back, his posture rigidly fixed. A neighborhood soldier. A cigarette hung from his lips sending wisps of intoxicating coils of smoke up, up, until they disappeared in the peerless blue sky. “Well, you one of them vegan latte drinking fools that’s gonna run me further out my own neighborhood?” I didn’t think it possible for his eyes to narrow any further, but they did. The ditch between his brows deepening in consternation as he waited for my reply.

I tore my eyes from him, looked down at the bagel in my hands, thick with cream cheese, dusted with granules of salt that would crunch deliciously between my teeth, pulled it apart, and bit down on the thinner half, chewing slowly, thinking…wondering how long I could stall. Wondering if it would be possible to go back to my day of solitude, back pressed against the brick foundation of the building behind me, the uneven edges of red stone scratching through my shirt, caught his eye again, blinked the remnants of my solitary breakfast away before responding, “I’m not vegan.” Waved the bagel in his face, “this is real cream cheese. With real milk from a most likely genetically modified cow.”

“Don’t nobody care if you’re vegan or not.” His words flowed from him in a huff, the end of the cigarette lit red, burning away as he took a long drag, “it’s the principle. I’m trying to make a point. Half them clowns out here buying up all the houses wasn’t here when things was bad, now they good, and here they come. I worked hard for my house. I earned that house.”

“You’ve still got it though, right?” I was unsure of what to do. Unsteady with this man who seemed somewhat unsteady himself.

He folded his arms across his chest, leaned back against the wall so we stood shoulder to shoulder, separated by inches, but close enough so I knew he smelled of more than cigarettes, but of woodsmoke and ash…a roaring winter’s night fire, in the middle of spring. Out of place, shy of having a home. Wanted only for a season. For but a short time. “They don’t appreciate it. None of ’em appreciate it. Sitting out here on that damned patio, drinking all them drinks like it was always this way.” As if on cue, a group of people burst into laughter, one knocked over a glass, shattering it on the unforgiving concrete, shard filled orange juice flowing from their table, inching towards our feet, and they only laughed harder as he shook his head in disgust, balled hands trembling at his side.

“You seem a little upset,” I slid the bagel into the paper bag I’d pulled it from, ready to make my escape. To slip back into my own internal fortress of solitude, “So, I’m gonna leave you to it.” He seemed harmless enough, but I knew a mask when I saw one. Knew what it was for a person to shield themselves from scrutiny, shelter in place where they could be visibly invisible, and his mask was beginning to falter, was crumbling there on the sidewalk, shattering like the glass and I didn’t want to pick up the pieces.

“I’m not upset. I’m mad. Furious. I fought in Vietnam, seen things shouldn’t nobody have to see, only to come home and have to fight in these streets, too. To fight and lose. Lose everything, my sons been buried a long time. My whole family damn near wiped out from drugs or locked up by these bullshit police, and the entire time I had my house. I earned that house. I was trying to do the right thing, raise my kids in a home, but they ain’t care about us. They ain’t care whether we had places to get food, or cops who came when you called. You know the city out here cleaning up graffiti now? We could barely get the trash picked up on time. I’m furious…” his words trailed off, his cigarette now nothing but ash, the fire within extinguished in them both, “and I’m tired.”

“I’m sorry,” the words hung between us, heavy and bloated. I opened my mouth to say more, immediately snapped it shut.

“What you apologizing for, ain’t like this is your fault all on your own.” He pushed off from the wall, replacing his old cigarette with one new, lit it with a flick of his thumb, the sparking of a lighter.

“You still got your house?”

He glanced crookedly at me, eyes pools of sadness that leaked down his face, before he brushed the tears roughly away, turned and spat on the ground, drew a deep, shuddering breath before looking back to me, and I watched as the mask slid firmly back in place. Watched the shaky pieces hammer themselves home, watched as he became as placid and proudly unmoved as when he first spoke, “young man, I ain’t had that house in three years. That house was the last thing I had. This city…it done took everything from me.” He laughed, broken and coarse, more of a bark, no amusement in the sound, “don’t let it do the same to you. Cause they don’t care…” The man walked away, then. Back ramrod straight once more, patrolling, the soldier slipping like a ghost through the streets of a neighborhood that had long ago abandoned him.

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