He doesn’t think he’d have ever made the trip if it hadn’t gotten to the point when it didn’t matter to anyone that he did. It had been 20 years after all. Nobody kicks up much dust for old marines who can’t leave the war behind or get it all the way shoved into a bottle. His marriage to the railroad had ended the one he had to a woman, and the two kids that union produced had had enough broken things and hard, beefy fists to not even think about looking to the east in the direction he’d gone. Choo choo and good riddance was pretty much what they had to say to that.
The writer didn’t know any of this of course; his friend was careful not to talk about that ugliness, or any ugliness really. There was the one time when the writer had seen the old marine eating lunch in a hotel restaurant on Thanksgiving. The writer had approached him in that rambunctious manner that always seemed to be expected, only to catch the man crying. Not only was he crying, but he was so lost in it that he had no idea he was about to be discovered, and both of his cheeks were wet with tears. He wiped them away quickly enough, but not before the writer had seen them.
It was enough to start the conversation, which was not much of a conversation; rather, it was just a couple of assurances uttered repeatedly “You can’t begin to understand the things I saw over there,” and “Pray to God you never have to go.”
When the writer asked him if he wanted to talk about it, the Marine assured him that he couldn’t tell him. “I have to shield the people I love from it. I can’t let you know what happened over there. You can’t know what we lost and what it cost.”
And then at the suggestion that he talk to someone, that look of sheer terror. “No,” he said, drawing the word out and slowly shaking his head, as if the very notion were taboo and you better just hush your mouth when you’re talking about stuff like that. Then he had a burst of laughter and a moment of self-chastisement over how he could laugh at anything, that which evidenced no honor of the memory, and no memory of the honor.
“That’s about the only funny thing about this whole mess, the only people you can talk to about it are the ones that were there, but none of us who were there want to talk about it.”
That was the only chink in the armor any of them ever saw, and the writer was the only one who saw that. Everyone else had just seen good ol’ happy Junior, never had a bad day in his life.
The writer has always thought that he was less surprised by the suicide than any of the rest of them; he had been there on Thanksgiving.
And while they had grown close in the few months their worlds bumped up against one another–the one working on trains and the other writing about them–none of them knew anything about his people back where he came from. Maybe at some point they had looked westward toward the home the train had taken him to, and said “God’s speed, old son; and thanks for the service.”
And all of that was 20 years ago, long enough for the writer to no longer know any of the people who knew Junior, and why would anybody be kicking up dust?
But still he does. All he has is the name of a town, so he goes there, and all he has is the name of a man, so he goes to bars near the lines until he finds a bartender who was here when Junior was still coming in. The bartender tells him that all of his fears were founded; Junior hadn’t been able to let go of the war or the bottle, and his fears made him mean, and there was no love lost when he left.
The bartender gave him good enough directions to where Junior had lived, the house his ex-wife still lived in, and said he didn’t have any idea where the kids had ended up, but he felt certain their mother would have that information if he wanted to talk to them.
The writer tipped the bartender with a fifty, he had a sip of whiskey, and then he went back to the station to see if he could grab an earlier train back. He didn’t see any reason to talk to the ex-wife and kids; he knew what they were going to say, and he was sad enough about his friend as it was.
His luck was good, and he was headed back home inside of an hour, traveling east, because that’s one of the directions men are sometimes called to go.