'/> Uncommon Hours: WAR IS OVER!
Blogging on culture, politics, and the environment since 2008.

Monday, December 8, 2008

WAR IS OVER!



My modest fictional tribute to John Lennon appeared in Cantaraville Three last April. I've included it here, on the anniversary of his death, along with the New York Times photo that inspired the story.





Plaza Light

(a short story)
by

Bob Sommer

Bev sniffed like the burst of air when you check the tire pressure. Her lips barely moved as she hissed, “You still always have to be the first one there.”

Ron decided the best thing he could say was nothing. He drew a short easy breath and waited for the light as a couple in scarves and woolen hats hurriedly crossed in front of the car. The man clutched a sign under his arm, which Ron couldn’t read because it faced inward. Curious, Ron watched him, hesitating after the light changed, waiting for the man to turn his sign to the street as he joined the raucous protesters who lined the sidewalk and snaked around the corner. Finally the man raised his sign and pumped it under the street light.

War Is Over!
If you want it

Bev sighed. Not sarcasm now, but irritation. A few feet from her window, a squat woman in a bright floral Nepalese hat with dangling ear flaps shouted, “No more war! No more war!” looking straight at Bev, who looked stiffly ahead at the colorful, festive lights of the plaza, across the intersection. A horse-drawn carriage turned the corner on its plodding and frigid tour, while here, at the edge of darkened Nichols Park, the rowdy clutch of protesters chanted and shouted.

“No more war! No more war!”

Ron lingered, holding up traffic, allowing the chant to thump away at Bev’s window. Behind them horns blew for him to go, and now Ron honked too as he rounded the corner, waving to the protesters, chuckling as the chorus of angry horns became unintended honks of support for the small group gathered beside the fountain.

Ron smiled. “Remember?”

“What?” Her irritation had metastasized.

“That sign. I know you do.”

Bev shrugged, shifting in her seat, glancing over at him as the chanting receded and he pulled into the parking garage across from the park. A smirk escaped through the mist of her anger.

Ron thought about the couple who crossed the street with the sign, probably close in age to him and Bev—also old enough to remember John Lennon buying billboard space in dozens of cities all over the world in 1969 for his faux headline, War Is Over!—the chorus to his “Happy Christmas” song. Ron still had a grainy three-by-three photo of himself in front of the Times Square billboard with those words towering above him.

Bev had snapped it.

She was right. They were early. The table wasn’t ready, and now they stood in the hot restaurant lobby, Ron stuffing his hands into his pockets and Bev making a fig leaf with hers.

"Bevy!”

Only her sister Peggy ever called her that. She waved from the bar, “Hey, Bevy!”

Peggy’s husband Mark grinned beside her, his large teeth glowing through his beard, one hand wrapped around a bottle of Heineken, the clean, unused glass in front of him. Ron always thought that Mark’s beard and shaggy hair looked wrong on him—too professor-like for his grinning, toady manner. Bev and Peggy’s father, Harlan, thought he was smart, but to Harlan anyone who had money was by default smart. Not that Mark had much. He supposedly owned some land up in Idaho, always vaguely referred to—by him, by Harlan, now by everyone—as “some land up in Idaho.” Peggy said she’d been there and seen it, but Ron sometimes wondered if Mark hadn’t just strutted around a corner of some public land and told Peg it was his. With a grin like that, anything was possible. Even Bev had her doubts when Mark first came along some years ago, but Ron hadn’t heard any more about those doubts lately, and Mark was a fixture now.

“Guess we weren’t first,” Ron said, as they angled around the bar stools.

“Just us, so far,” Peg said, missing the jibe, hugging Bev. “Good to see you again, Ron.” She offered her hand, looking away as he took it.

“What’re you havin’?” Mark asked, now the host, making six-shooters with his hands. The beard and shaggy hair were just all wrong.

Bev ordered a martini and Ron asked for a beer.

Frank Sinatra crooned through the overhead speakers, infecting them with Rat Pack joviality.

“How’s it feel to marry off a daughter, Ron?” Mark asked.

Marry off a daughter?! Did people still say things like that? Ron wondered. He suddenly felt as if they were guests on a sixties variety show. “She’s not married yet,” he said.

“No stopping her now,” Mark chuckled.

Ron imagined the lights dimming as the piano softly cued a ballad and Dean Martin moaned, You're the end of the rainbow, my pot of gold. You're daa-ddy's little girl to have and hold...

“Have you talked to Dad?” Bev asked Peggy.

“They’re on the way, with Kristy and Dan. He sent me a text!”

“Harlan did?” Ron asked.

“Can you believe it?!” Peggy exclaimed, watching herself exclaim into the mirror behind the bar.

Mark said, “We got him a new cell phone for Christmas and once Kristy showed him how to text, all of our phones started beeping and buzzing with messages.”

Ron stifled the temptation to say that the texts would stop as soon as Harlan saw his phone bill.

The hostess approached Peg, who turned and announced, “We’re all set. Let’s take our drinks in.”

They followed the hostess along a wood-planked aisle, past the dessert chef, lining up a row of tarts behind a shield of glass, and then past clouds of smoke erupting from sizzling grills as the line cooks slid platters onto warming shelves. Now they stood aside as servers rushed by, and they caught up with the hostess in the back of the restaurant, where the dining room overlooked Nichols Park, and Ron thought of the protesters again. He stepped over to a window as the rest of the group went to a long table with a white cloth. They were still there. A small circle held vigil in the shadows of the park, visible only by a quivering rim of candlelight, while a handful remained on the sidewalk, pumping signs and shouting to the traffic. They looked small and distant, even desolate from up here in the bright warmth of the restaurant, with Tony Bennett now singing and the dining room clattering with talk and dishes. Ron caught up to the group.

“What’s goin’ on out there?” Mark asked.

“A protest,” Ron said, “about the war in Iraq.”

“Oh, them,” Peggy wagged a hand. “They’re out there every weekend.”

“Buncha kooks!” Mark added, grinning. Ron would understand.

Ron glanced at Bev and saw the hint of a smile, knowing that she now avoided looking back at him.

She had taken the grainy three-by-three photo with Ron’s Instamatic camera, standing on the corner opposite the sign, at 43rd Street and Seventh Avenue in Times Square, as people bustled around her with Christmas packages and shopping bags, nameless, untraceable strangers, now forever preserved in Ron’s snapshot.

He and Bev had gone to New York City on an insane whim that seemed like a great, a fabulous, an unbelievably brilliant inspiration while they smoked some Colombian in Ron’s dorm room in Lawrence just three days earlier—a flash trip to New York! They’d never been there, never been farther east than Saint Louis, either of them. They both grew up in tiny rural towns that were now part of the vast suburban patchwork quilt that surrounded Kansas City—Bev in Overland Park and Ron in Olathe—far, indeed, from the madding, protesting crowds they saw in TV footage from Washington and Chicago and New York. “We’ll do it!” they declared in the crystal inspiration of the dope’s glow. “We’ll drive to New York and be home in time for Christmas.” Five, maybe six days! Over and back! They could do it!

And they did, after telling their families they were each, separately, with friends of the same sex, going to Colorado to ski for a few days before they came home for winter break. The idea seemed thin, even dubious, by the time they reached Illinois on I-70, but they pushed on, sharing the driving, eating sparely, sleeping in the car as they traveled and in a dirty yellow hotel room on the lower East Side for two nights when they arrived.

They went all the way to New York City.

Insanely.

Not knowing where they’d stay, what they’d do when they got there, or where to find anything.

In Ron’s Chevy Belair, they cruised warily along 125th Street between Lexington and Lenox. They missed exits on the Cross Bronx Expressway and found themselves on Long Island. Bev asked a pedestrian standing at the corner of Bleecker and Sullivan Streets for directions to Greenwich Village. On the subways, they had the happy fortune to find their way to Rockefeller Center and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and the Empire State Building, and then to see John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Christmas greeting on a billboard in Times Square.

“I don’t get it,” Ron said, leaning back, squinting at the sign. “The war’s not over.”

But Bev shook her head with a laugh and panned Ron’s camera around to find a good angle. “It’s like a headline, like…you know that phony radio broadcast they did back in the thirties about Martians landing?” He nodded. “Like that. What if that was the headline? ‘War Is Over’? Forever! All war! Forever.” Her smile was rich, warm, devoid of irony.

He looked forward to another night in the dirty yellow hotel room.

Ron said, “Yeah, cool!” Recognition swarmed over him, and he smiled at the sign.

“Go on over and I’ll take your picture from here.”

He turned and nearly bumped into a tall black man who strode past in a straw fedora hat with a narrow brim. Ron stepped aside for the man, grinned at Bev, and then danced through the traffic to the opposite corner, where he waved to her between passing buses and trucks, as she captured him, a faceless human shape in a Navy pea coat and jeans, beneath a Coca-Cola sign, with the strident, bold words on the Lennon billboard up above him, and a neon sign for Chop Suey with missing letters at the edge of the photo.

They made it home for Christmas, barely, exhausted, filled with warmth and brimming with their great secret, and to this day Harlan did not know that Bev spent part of her winter break in 1969 in New York City, with Ron.

“Here they are!” Peggy exclaimed.

Kristy glowed, shiny blonde curls, rhinestones and spangles shimmering on her sweater, a glittery something in the make-up on her cheeks. Her fiance Dan hadn’t shaven—in days. Ron wondered if your engagement dinner wouldn’t be an occasion for a shave, but that seemed to be a style thing now, not shaving but not actually growing in a beard. A dense tattoo of indistinguishable design crawled out of Dan’s collar, along his neck, threatening his ear.

Harlan followed, still muffled in his scarf, his hounds tooth hat, his gloves, kissing his daughters, offering a gloved hand to Ron, asking “How are you?” but not using his name.

“Fine, Harlan,” Ron said. “Good to see you again.”

They settled at the table, ordered drinks, ordered wine, ordered appetizers, ordered dinner. Ron sat across from Bev and beside his daughter, keeping her close, suddenly fearful of the young man with a tattoo on his neck. Ron had liked Dan when he first met him and liked that he was an art student. The tattoo—what he’d seen of it then—seemed benign. He feared more from business majors and pre-law students; he feared monotony, sound-bite opinions, a life without passion, without impetuousness. But that was before they were engaged. New fears now arose. Had they gone on some vast adventure about which he’d never know—to Alaska? to Quebec? maybe to New York? They would fly if they did. It would appear on charge cards. There’d be cell phone records. Ron would find out. He wouldn’t stay in the dark past the next billing cycle.

“How long are you here for, Ron?” Mark asked.

Ron now feared that an arctic round of golf might be in his future if he gave the wrong answer. Mark didn’t care what the temperature was as long as there wasn’t snow.

“Just a couple a days,” Ron said.

Bev smirked, loud enough to draw Mark’s glance, but he looked back at Ron. “Too bad,” Mark said. “I have a tee time on Saturday.”

“A little chilly for me,” Ron said.

“How’s work?” Harlan asked.

“Busy,” Ron said. “We’re installing a new I.V. system for the hospital. All computerized. Tracks everything—drugs, billing, medical records. All integrated.”

“It’s already too integrated for my taste,” Harlan muttered. “It’s like everything. People used to do this stuff. You could talk to a person. You ever try to call an airline? Even when you get to talk to an agent, they’re in Bangladesh or New Delhi, or god-knows-where.”

Ron nodded, agreed. Yes, his work, buying everything from bedpans to computers for a hospital in New Jersey, made him part of it. Over the past two decades, he’d worked for half a dozen hospitals in the East and knew all the suppliers, all the sales reps, all the specs for everything from latex gloves to plastic flatware; he’d attended seminars on video equipment for operating rooms and on gurney beds for emergency services. So now he was part of the problem, thickening the mesh of bureaucracy and computerization, enabling the insurance companies to screw patients, rationalizing why hospitals couldn’t take care of the uninsured.

Peggy now told a story of her own—of a trip to the emergency room after she slammed her finger in the car door. She was mistreated, milled about, dehumanized, turned into a number, worse yet, a bar code to be scanned. Ron knew the story was for his benefit, a back-handed slight. But he let it glance off him. That seemed to irritate her more—that she couldn’t get a rise out of him.

It’s not like he’d just recently separated from Bev. They’d been divorced for nearly fifteen years. They had lives. Ron had a family in New Jersey, and Bev had recently divorced for the second time, and now she was trying to start over again—in her fifties—as a financial advisor for a brokerage firm. She even wanted Ron to make some investments with her. Her anger in the car was because he’d just told her he couldn’t see clear to send her any money for a stock or a mutual fund. He’d put Kristy through college, bought a house in Bergen County, was raising two children with his second wife. There’d be college for them, too, he hoped, he feared. Five or ten thousand wouldn’t help Bev’s business. She needed to gather millions to build a book. This venture didn’t look promising if she was already that desperate.

She held her glass out as Mark refilled it with Chianti—maybe her third since they sat down, plus the martini—no, she’d also had another at the table. Ron studied the familiar waves in her hair, still familiar, still the same cascades that fell away from her part, a rich chestnut in 1969 that tumbled below her shoulders, now short and permed, salted and stiff. Her makeup seemed harsh, and sorrowful, maybe because she thought she needed so much now, as if she was hiding beneath it. It seemed as desperate as asking him to make an investment. He was sorry that she didn’t know how lovely she still was without it. He wanted to tell her—but that would come out wrong—he couldn’t. Yet, in the glow of the wine and the chaotic emotions that surrounded him now, he still saw her, smiling in her wool cap, her hair spilling out from it, explaining the billboard, full of wonder at the strange place to which they’d traveled. He hadn’t understood the way John and Yoko framed the words on the billboard, but the meaning was instantly clear to her, obvious—an imaginary headline, imaginary news, the ultimate news. War Is Over! Maybe he would ask her about setting up a college fund for his kids. She would take good care of the money. She would see, would recognize what that meant too.

Ron tinkled a spoon against his glass, and as everyone quieted, even some at nearby tables, he held up the glass, looking over the small gathering, and tried to decide what he would say as the impulse to toast his daughter’s marriage suddenly took hold of him.

© 2008 Bob Sommer. First published in Cantaraville Three, April 2008.

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