“It was so cold that the bodies were frozen solid. When they picked them up, they were like wooden planks being loaded into the back of a truck. What? No, no, no. Don’t put that in there. I’m setting it up for you. Huh? No, I’m painting you a picture, don’t you understand? I’m trying to put you in my shoes. Get you to understand what it was like. Don’t you get it?. No, no. Don’t write that down.”
Cole put down his cigarette in the dirty, brown ashtray that sat on the desk in front of him.
“Well why would you call me asking for a story if you’re not going to listen to me tell it? Listen. Just listen. I’m… No! I’m trying to tell you how it happened. Look, if you’re not going to let me tell it then you might as well just…”
He picked up the cigarette, took a long drag from it, and slammed down the phone.
“Jesus Harold Christ,” he said to no one in particular, but his secretary knew he was talking to her. “Joyce, I’m heading out for the day. If I get any more calls from that man, tell him to…”
“Yes, Mr. Massey. Tell him to ‘Go to hell.'” She plucked the pencil out from behind her ear and wrote ‘Go to hell’ on a yellow note pad. She underlined it three times.
Cole Massey walked towards the door to his office and held out his arms, waiting for his secretary to drape his jacket over them. She did. She then handed him his hat, which Cole presently put on top of his head. He picked up his briefcase from beside her desk, and then walked out the door that Joyce had opened for him.
The office of Canit Publishing was slow that afternoon, especially for a Thursday. Cole passed by 23 desks on his way to the elevator; each one of them inhabited by nameless goons that he had grown to loathe throughout his 14 years with the company. He arrived at the elevator door, lit a cigarette, and pushed the ‘down’ button.
The door opened. He entered. He let out a puff of smoke and hit the button for the lobby.
Just my luck, he thought. The elevator stopped at every single floor on its way down. But finally, after a three-minute ride, he arrived at his destination. Cole walked out the doors of the building onto the crowded New York street, immediately being pushed to one side by a gust of wind that almost took the hat clear off of his head. When leaving the building, he usually turned right, heading toward the subway line that took him uptown back to his modest apartment. But today, Cole Massey decided he would turn left out of the building and head towards his favorite watering hole.
It didn’t have a name. It didn’t even have a sign out front. It was merely a doorway tucked quietly at the bottom of a basement staircase. Passersby wouldn’t have known it was there. Cole trotted his way down the stairs and opened up the door.
A thick layer of smoke enveloped him as he entered, but he didn’t mind. There was a cloud of smoke hanging over much of New York in the 1960s, and to Cole, it felt like home. He walked over to the bar and sat down, taking off his hat and putting it on the stool next to his. Without even asking, the bartender placed two pieces of ice into a glass, poured out two fingers of whiskey into it, and handed it to Cole.
“Thanks, Sam,” Cole mumbled. He took a sip from his glass, contemplated setting it down, but took another sip again. This back and forth went on for about thirty seconds until he finished his drink. He finally put it down on the bar and pulled his slim, silver cigarette case out of his breast pocket. Cole packed the cigarette with marksman-like precision and brought it up to his mouth. Before he could reach into his pocket for his lighter, a white mesh covered hand held one out in front of his face.
The woman clicked the lighter and the small, delicate flame danced inches from his face. He drew from his cigarette and she clicked the lighter shut.
“Something on your mind?” she asked, putting the lighter back into her handbag.
He set the cigarette down. “Huh? No, no.” The barman filled up his drink once more. He picked it up and took a swig, looked at it puzzlingly, and then took another sip to make sure it was alcohol. As he took a third sip, he decided that it was.
“It sure seems like something’s wrong,” said the woman. “You’ve just come into the bar and had more drinks in two minutes than I have in two hours. What’s on your mind?”
He took another long drag from his cigarette. “Today’s the day they sent us home from Korea. Well, sent me home from Korea.” The smoke danced gently out of his mouth as he spoke, gingerly falling downward in the still bar air. “It’s always a tough day for me, thinking about those boys I left behind.”
“Why’d they send you home?” the woman asked as she grabbed his glass and took a drink. This normally would have bothered him, but today he didn’t even notice.
“I took a bullet to the thigh. The Chinese were coming at us from the north and surprised us all. My unit saw me go down before they left, thank God, or I would’ve frozen on the side of that mountain like the rest of ’em.”
She didn’t know what to say. Her dad had been in World War II and she’d heard horror stories before, but she still wasn’t comfortable talking about war. Especially one she didn’t know too much about.
Korea was one of those things that most people had forgotten even happened. The men who were there didn’t want to remember, and the rest of the country had other things to worry about: civil rights, the business that’s starting in Vietnam, the Russians.
“A man called me just before I left work. I guess he was doing a writeup in the paper about Chosin and wanted to get an account of the battle from someone that was there. I usually try to forget about it when it rolls around, but he… He stirred something up.”
Finally, after a couple minutes of silence, the words “I’m sorry” found their way out of her lips. He’d finished another drink by now and slapped a $5 bill on the bar. “It’s fine,” he said. “It’s not your fault. I’m still here, aren’t I? Could be a hell of a lot worse.” He picked up his hat from the stool next to him and placed it firmly on his head. “It was nice talking to you.” He walked out of the bar with no destination in mind. Perhaps I’ll head back to the office, he thought.
“Well wait a minute,” she said as she chased him out the door. “Don’t you want some company or something? It’s a heck of a day to be alone. Let me walk with you.” As she ran through the door she put her arm around his. This was strange, but not too strange. Cole had seen her at the bar before, always alone, just like him. Their eyes had met a few times but they never talked. He guessed now was as good a time as any to finally get to know her.
They walked a few blocks without saying a word. Not that he didn’t want to, he just didn’t have anything to say, and neither did she. They made their way down to Battery Park and sat on a bench, watching the boats go by at the muddy intersection of the Hudson and East Rivers.
Cole finally spoke after a few more minutes of silence. “So many people forgot it even happened. It’s like it was for nothing,” he said. “We were there and then we were gone. Not fighting for freedom, not fighting for our country. We were just fighting. So many people died. Not just on our side, but on theirs, too. And for what? For a news story 15 years later? For a war that never actually ended?” He pulled out two more cigarettes, lit them, and gave one to her. “I almost lost my leg. I almost lost my life. And then I come back home and nobody even remembers.”
She was looking up into his eyes with wonder, shame, and guilt. A single tear began rolling down her cheek. She wiped it away before he could notice.
Her arm still around his, she rested her head on his shoulder and they continued sitting there in silence until the sun began setting behind the New Jersey skyline.