Friday, January 29, 2016

Through the Screen Door

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By: Emily B.

Setting: 1970, January 17, New Orleans

Christopher gaped at the poster, taking in the announcement that had intruded upon his life.  "The first drafting lottery held since 1943!" The words were everywhere. The radio, his high school, and on telephone poles all around town, reminding him of the reasons why he should be lying awake at night. 

"It could be me," he whispered to himself, dreading the idea. His friends had reminded him that going to war only emphasized bravery, but it was different for them. Christopher knew that deep down he wasn't brave. War was like starvation. It took the innocent, the weak, the people who dreamed of peace. He turned his head away from the advertisement, adjusted his school bag on his shoulders, and kept walking. 

The afternoon rays of the Louisiana sun reflected against the windows of familiar houses, causing him to shield his eyes. Beads of sweat trickled down his forehead and soaked the ends of his overgrown hair. Christopher needed a real barbershop haircut. He wanted one, but war times were pressing and all the family money went towards food. 

Food. Just the thought of it made Christopher's stomach rumble. He stuck his hands into his pocket and felt for spare change, not that he had much of it. The cold surface of a dollar coin brushed against his fingers. He pulled the coin out of his pocket, and smiling, he flipped it with his thumb. The sun reflected off of it radiantly as it fell into his palm. 

Then, his smile instantly faded when he was reminded of doing simple things like flipping a coin when he was a little boy. When he had a dad. 

Mr. Hartley had volunteered for war in the blink of an eye. He was a history teacher at the public high school and was Christopher's biggest inspiration. When he was told two years ago that his father was lost in combat, he had nearly lost it. Christopher’s world crumbled.

"Maybe he's not dead," adults told him "Maybe he's finding his way back to camp right now. It's going to be ok." 

"Maybe for you," Christopher thought, remembering how much their shallow words had hurt. 

He turned onto the next street and kicked a stubby looking pebble that was in front of him. It skidded across the cracked sidewalk and rolled into the grass. Christopher looked ahead and saw his home. It was the pale yellow bungalow on the corner of Scott Street. It had white shudders and the paint was starting to chip off. A brown rocking chair was next to the ripped, screen door and his thin dog was lying down and panting underneath. He turned his head and started walking away from the house and to the po-boy restaurant down the road.

Christopher knew that the sandwich was an extravagance and that all his money should be going towards groceries for his mom and little sister, but it was his comfort food and he couldn’t resist with the meaty smells wafting down the road and into his nose. 

When he walked through the door he was immediately assaulted by the scent of different seasonings and broths. Waiters carried sandwiches, seafood, and bowls of the best gumbo by his face. When a young man came up to him and asked if it would be “his regular,” Christopher had to swallow before responding “yes.” The familiar man smiled then walked away to inform the chef of a new order. By the time his po-boy had arrived he had nearly cried out of hunger and impatience. 

He took his sandwich to go so he wouldn’t have to pay a tip then headed back home. Regrettably, he walked back out into the humid air to make his march back home.

By the time he walked onto his street the sun was starting to set and Christopher was going to be interrogated by his nosy sister if he didn’t get home in the next ten minutes. Though he loved Bianca very much, she could be a real pain at times. He could hear sounds from a TV coming from the inside of a house near him. He knew that he should walk the next 30 feet to his front door, but the TV was on, the window was open, and he couldn’t resist. His family had sold their TV the week after the news of their dad’s absence had shown up. He remembered the day clearly.

“We need to save money!” Christopher’s mom had said, “I’ll try to find work at da’ local store and maybe we can sell some of Grandmother’s china, but ‘til then the TV goes.”

“But Ma," He complained, “how am I supposed to watch the games?”

“Use the radio, that’s what plenty o’ boys  do.” She suggested, throwing up her hands in aggravation. Christopher knew he had to adjust, but the radio? That was pretty excessive. He hadn’t known until now that everyday with a loaf of bread on the table was a gift. 

So here he was sneaking through the neighbor's bushes to see what was on the TV. His head was nearly by the window when their silvery gray cat swiped his paw at Christopher. Christopher backed up just in time as the cat flew out the window. He tried to back out of the way, but tripped over a particularly large root and fell down. He sprung back up to his feet and sprinted to his house. 

“Stupid cat,” he muttered under his breath, wiping the dirt off his knees. Bianca’s rosy cheeks and electric blue eyes were staring at him from behind the screened door. Ever since their dad had left she suffered immensely from separation anxiety. Even when she was at her elementary school Bianca nervously tapped her finger on her desk and nibbled on her pencil. 

“Bee,” Christopher groaned. “I’m not late you didn’t have to worry.”

“If you weren’t home in the next two minutes then you-” Her eyes wandered over to Christopher’s sandwich bag. “Ya’ have anything for me?” Her stressed disposition melted away as she stared up hopefully into Christopher’s eyes.

“I’ll cut it in half,” Christopher agreed, handing her the bag to take into the kitchen. He opened the door and walked into the parlor. An unpleasant scene greeted him, as an unpleasant scene usually does. His painfully thin mom was tracing the pattern on the sleeper sofa. Her eyes had glazed over with a distant and far away look. The news of Christopher’s father had nearly broke her and it left him broken to see her. The radio was on and Christopher knew that it was most likely set to the station where the drafting lottery would be announced. Mayberry RFD would be canceled that night to broadcast the lottery. Christopher felt his stomach grow tight thinking about the odds of it being him.

“It’s not gonna to be me,” he said aloud. His words snapped his mom’s head back to reality and she smiled weakly.

“What’s that sweetie?” She asked.

“Nothing, I was just saying how my birthdate will probably not be called. I mean there’s so many to choose from.” Christopher knew that over 200 cards would be pulled, but he couldn’t lose hope. If you let go of hope, then there’s nothing that you have left. He shuffled over to the radio and leaned in, trying to pick up on the words that were being broken up by the radio. He got words like riots, local, and college. Enforcements, drafting, and angry. 

“More riots?” Christopher asked, turning to his mom. “They’re popping up everywhere.”

His mom nodded, but didn’t respond. At times like this, Christopher knew that it would be best if he left her alone. Christopher walked to the back of the house where his bedroom was. It wasn’t painted and had no doors so he didn’t have much privacy. But he wasn’t complaining, he had a shelf full of his dad’s old books which would keep him occupied for hours at a time no matter how many times he reread them. He grabbed one from the bottom shelf, remembering that he hadn’t reached that far down for while, and flipped it over so he could see it’s cover. A black and white picture of an alligator met his eyes. He was just about to open it to the first page when his mother’s voice yelled from the parlor.

“Christopher! Bianca!” He heard and feared what words would come next, “It’s on. It’s ‘bout to start!” Christopher wanted to fall to the floor, but knew he didn’t have time. This was it. He was about to listen to see if his birthday would be called. It was ironic really. The day you were born might be called for how you you might die.

“Fitting,” Christopher thought, jogging back to the parlor. He took a seat in a old chair with uneven legs that they had picked up from the side of the road one day. His dog was pacing by him and Christopher could tell that he could feel the tension in the air. 

His mother turned the volume up in time for Christopher to hear the start of what was about to be probably the most intense moment of his life. He took in the static sounds coming from the cheerful people on the  radio. He noticed how his family was so  quiet, with big eyes and short, rapid breaths. Christopher heard the first birthdate pulled.

“First number,” the man said. “The birthdate is September 14.” Christopher gave a sigh of relief, it wasn’t him.

“Maybe I have a chance after all,” he thought, but focused again on the whir of voices from the radio. 

“Second number, the birthdate is April 24.” The man went on quickly and said more numbers, but Christopher couldn’t hear them. He could only hear the blood flow and slight ringing in his ears. He saw his mom sink down to the floor and Bianca’s eyes fill with tears. He knew that he too should be crying, but no tears came. It was as if he was a stone statue. He wondered for a moment how hurt someone had to be to lose the ability to cry. But maybe this was all for the better. He was stupid to think that hope could get him through anything. It was ludicrous for him to think that hope could prevent this from happening to him. This was it, Christopher was going to war.


Epilogue

A sudden knock on the door made Bianca jump from where she was sitting. Putting down a book that she had picked up from her brother’s room she slowly slid her slid her back up the wall as she started to stand. She knit her hands together and folded them up in her ratty shirt.

“Who is it?” She said in a shaky voice. They didn’t get many visitors anymore. Ever since her brother Christopher had gone to war two years ago they never got much of anything. 

“Is Ms. Hartley present at the time?” He said through the screened door. Bianca felt uncomfortable speaking to the stranger, but he seemed hospitable enough to trust. 

“Not at the time,”She said, peeking her head around the corner to meet his eyes. “Would you like me to leave a message?” Bianca knew that she would dread the stranger’s next words.

“I hate to have to give you this message, but at your young age, I think it’s best you know that all things happen for a reason. Last night your brother Christopher took a bullet for a comrade in battle. I’m sorry. Your brother is dead.”

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