Estimated reading time: 30 minutes
No one needs to hear what a tumultuous year this has been. This week's fiction excerpt harkens back to another time of political protest and uncertainty: Mary Grimm's characters face the uncertainties of the 1960s and the Vietnam War.
Masters of War
In his second year of college, Lewis McCann found himself on a Greyhound from Chicago to Indiana along with a group of students, mostly unknown to him. Henry from his history class was a supporter of Eugene McCarthy, and he had persuaded Lewis to come with him to work on getting votes out for the primary. “Aren’t you against the war?” he said to Lewis when Lewis had been reluctant.
They had been sitting in the coffee house sponsored by the women’s college next to Loyola, where he and Henry went. One of the girls who ran it, Annette, was sitting with them, ignoring the frat boys on the other side of the room who were lighting matches and burning napkins in a metal bowl which had held chips. The coffee house sold only coffee, made by Annette in an ancient urn which was never entirely cleaned out, and chips, delivered weekly in oversized cans.
“You should come,” Annette said. “It will be cool.”
Henry waved his hand at her to shut her up. “Do you want to go to Vietnam and kill people?”
Lewis did think about the war, although his thoughts were muddled. He hadn’t thought much about politics before. His parents had been divided on the 1960 election—his mother for Kennedy, his father for Nixon. It was understood that his mother voted for Kennedy because he was Catholic, as she was. His father had laughed when his mother wore two Nixon buttons, one above the other so that they could be read “Nix on Nixon.” It hadn’t seemed important to Lewis and his sister, just part of their family fun and nothing to do with deciding the fate of the country or the world. But this year, 1968, he’d had an argument with his father during Christmas break that ended with both of them leaving his mother and sister sitting with half-eaten plates of ham and scalloped potatoes. He didn’t know what he thought, but he knew he didn’t want to kill people, so even though he had a lot on his mind (his grade in chemistry, missing his girlfriend Natalie back in Cleveland), he agreed to go to Indiana.
The college kids on the Greyhound were wearing jeans and field jackets with peace signs drawn on the back, miniskirts, multiple strings of beads, sweatshirts silkscreened with the likeness of Che Guevara. Their hair was longer than last year, not as long as it would be the next. They were carrying Mao’s Little Red Book, their school notebooks, discreet baggies of weed, clean underwear, toothbrushes, condoms, pink plastic containers with a circle of small white pills, paperback books by Robert Pirsig and Kurt Vonnegut and Edward Abbey.
Henry was standing in the aisle, giving them an impromptu lecture on how to behave. “You’re going to be polite,” he said. “Ladies, you need to wear a skirt. Not too short. No makeup. Guys, you’ll be wearing ties.” He waved away their groans. “I’ve got extra for anyone who forgot to bring one. It’s all about the image, dig? We’re clean for Gene.”
“Don’t act like such a narc,” Annette said. She was sitting behind Lewis on the long back seat.
Henry lowered his voice. “Gene is the only politician in the country who is standing up to the corrupt administration. This is serious, friends.”
“But we can also have fun,” Annette said. She poked Lewis’s shoulder, and he turned around to look at her. She was wearing a necklace that he knew she’d made—a round piece of metal painted with the peace sign on a braided string. Whenever she moved, it slid around on her chest. Right now it was half hidden between her breasts.
Henry was passing out bundles of mimeographed papers and he shoved one at Lewis. “Everybody, familiarize yourself with the issues.”
“Homework, are you serious?” someone said.
Annette winked at Lewis. She yawned exaggeratedly and settled into the corner, closing her eyes. Lewis opened the packet, but instead of reading anything, he looked out the window. The scenery was flat and brown and wet.
He had called Natalie from a payphone in the bus station to tell her what he was doing. They had been going steady for seven months. They had slept together for the first (and only) time over Christmas break, in the basement of his best friend’s house during a party.
He thought he might be in love with her, but he was afraid to tell her. Not because she wouldn’t want to hear it—he was pretty sure she would—but it seemed so final, as if those words would start a process that would be out of his control. He had almost said it in his best friend’s basement, when they lay on the ratty couch, clothes still disarranged. He had looked at her profile in the dim light, his sweaty shoulder pressed against hers, and opened his mouth, but someone had started down the stairs to get beer from the basement fridge and the two of them had begun buttoning and zipping themselves.
“Tylersville?” she had said on the phone. “How come you can go there and you can’t come home for the weekend?”
“Henry got a group discount for the bus.”
“Oh, well, Henry,” she said. She had taken against Henry for some reason, although they’d never met. “Listen, I have to go. Some of the girls at work are going out. Don’t have too much fun without me, OK?”
Lewis leaned sideways, letting the motion of the bus bump his head against the window, which was cold and damp. Henry sat down beside him. “You’ll remember this all your life, Lewis. Helping elect the first radical anti-war president.” He punched Lewis in the arm.
Tylersville seemed very small, although they couldn’t see much of it in the dark. They had dumped their rucksacks on the floor of the storefront that was the regional McCarthy headquarters, furnished with ancient metal desks and decorated with half a dozen posters and a handful of flags in a beer mug. It was after ten, and the man in charge was trying to parcel them out among the locals who had volunteered to house them.
Lewis sat on the floor with his back against the wall. Henry was perched on a desk, still wearing his field jacket, his long thin legs stretched out, boots crossed one over the other. He had cut his hair last week, which made his head look smaller. The man in charge, the only adult present, started handing out index cards. Henry came over and gave one to Lewis. Written on it was “Nowak Farm,” in smeary blue ink.
“You’re with Annette and a couple of others. The guy’s going to pick you up.”
“A farm?” Lewis said.
“Yeah, out with the rubes. You’ll be picking hayseeds out of your hair.” Henry laughed, but then put on his serious face. “It’s all about the work, man. We’ve got to do what needs done, right?”
He and Annette and her friend from the coffee house got into a station wagon with two guys whose names he didn’t remember. As soon as they were out of the town, the dark closed in. Lewis fell asleep, and woke up to Annette’s friend shaking his shoulder. “We’re here,” she said, and he tumbled out of the car, remembering at the last minute to grab his backpack.
The house gleamed white in the glow of the headlights. He could see a great shadow beyond the reach of the light—a barn. When he followed the others inside, the man who had driven them was pointing out the rooms they could use, and saying where the bathroom was. Annette and her friend had one room, and the two boys another. Lewis started to follow them, but the man said, “Only two beds. For you, this one.” He opened the door of a third room, so narrow that the single bed nearly filled it. “You are in solitary,” he said, and grinned.
Lewis dropped his backpack. He went to the window and pulled the curtain aside. Without the station wagon’s headlights, the darkness was complete, thick as a fog. He heard a dog barking, not too far off.
He took off his pants and shoes and crawled under the covers. Usually he thought of Natalie before he went to sleep. He liked to imagine that she was going to bed when he did, that she had taken off her clothes, perhaps brushed her hair. He had an idea that women brushed their hair every night. He would think of her body in a nightgown and under the sheets. He had never seen her naked. But this night, he fell asleep before he had time for a thought or a wish.
He woke when it was still dark. The doors to the other rooms were closed when he went past them on the way downstairs. He could see the glow of a light and followed it to the kitchen. No one was there except the man, Mr. Nowak, who was drinking coffee. He held a mug out, questioning, and when Lewis nodded, he poured some from the percolator.
“You sleep good?” he asked.
Lewis nodded, too shy to speak. The man was tall and skinny. He looked a little like Abraham Lincoln, Lewis thought, big knobs of bone, a jaw that stuck out. His hair was wavy and dark, with gray in it. He hadn’t shaved.
“You want to be a lawyer?” he asked.
“I’m an English major,” Lewis said.
“A lot of these boys, they want to be lawyers. Casimir Nowak.” He held his hand out for Lewis to shake. “You want eggs?”
The sky was lightening outside. “You don’t want to be a lawyer.” He turned around to look at Lewis, his uncombed hair falling over his forehead. “You will not want to be a politician then. What will you do with your English literature? Write a book, perhaps,” he said, answering himself. “You are against the war.”
“Yes,” Lewis said into his coffee mug. He felt like a fraud. He was embarrassed that he knew almost nothing about Senator McCarthy. “You, too?”
“Yes, I am against it.” He spooned scrambled eggs on Lewis’s plate.
“Were you in World War II?” Lewis asked. “My father was. He went in after D-Day.”
Mr. Nowak stirred his coffee and the clink-clink of the spoon against the mug sounded loud in the silent house. “I was young, a student. But the war was all around us then.”
“I don’t know how people can do it,” Lewis said. “Fight.” He spread butter and jam on his toast, and Mr. Nowak watched him, holding his own toast but not taking a bite. It was the first time Lewis had ever said this, his true feeling about war, about fighting.
It wasn’t so much that he thought war was wrong, although of course he thought that. It was more a feeling of disgust and fright, that someone might want to kill him or that he would be expected to do the same. He was against the war because he was a coward. “World War II wasn’t the same, I guess. The Germans, the Nazis were different from the Vietnamese.”
Mr. Nowak shrugged. “The difference is not so great.”
Lewis ate his eggs, while the man across from him broke pieces from his toast and put them into his mouth one by one, chewing them dry.
There was a noise on the stairs and Annette and her friend sat down at the table with him, relieving him of the need to talk.
Annette made Mr. Nowak laugh. She asked a lot of questions, so by the time the others came downstairs, Lewis knew a good deal about Mr. Nowak. He was from Poland, now an American citizen. The farm belonged to him and his brother, who lived in Indianapolis where he had a store. They had come to America after World War II. He had chickens and cows and a big garden, but mainly the farm produced apples. Annette said she’d never seen an orchard, and he promised that they would drive through the orchards on the way to town, just for her, although there was nothing now except the bare branches. “If you are coming in May,” he said, “there will be blossoms.”
“The primary will be over by then,” one of the boys said, and Annette cried out. “We’ll miss it,” she said.
“Bummer,” her friend said, without much interest.
Henry came in the back door. “You ready to go, troops?” He shook hands with Mr. Nowak and then pounded him on the back exuberantly. “Cass, buddy. You got caffeine for me?”
In a few minutes, they were in the truck Henry had driven over. Mr. Nowak stood in the doorway, looking tense, but as Lewis watched, he turned and went inside.
Henry and the man in charge, a physics grad student from Northwestern, organized them into squads—two to work locally, knocking on doors, several more to drive upstate and downstate to do the same, one to man the phones, and one to work on mimeographing leaflets and making posters. Lewis was in the last, and although he complained along with the two guys from Notre Dame about doing the boring stuff, he was relieved. They didn’t talk about the campaign, but about the relative chances of Notre Dame’s and Loyola’s football teams. If it weren’t for the campaign posters on the walls and the red, white, and blue crepe paper that Annette and some of the girls were hanging, he might have been working on a school project.
Henry was enjoying himself, Lewis could see. They had met in a history class. Lewis had lent Henry his notes in the second week, and this had become a regular habit, for Henry skipped class as often as he could, “to do the real work,” he told Lewis, by which he meant protesting the war in as many ways as were offered on campus and off. At the end of the semester, he had gotten a better grade than Lewis, which Lewis didn’t resent too much. Henry was clear about what he wanted: to get a double degree in political science and history, move up in the power structure of the movement, evade the draft, go to law school and then into politics. Lewis couldn’t help but feel jealous. He had no ideas about his future, except that he didn’t want to give in to his mother’s fondest wish, that he would be a teacher. He didn’t know what to major in, or even what classes to take next year.
After they’d been there a while, Henry came over. “Come on,” he said to Lewis. “We’re going to get lunch for everyone.” They drove in the truck to a mom-and-pop restaurant a few streets over, and Henry ordered, leaning self-importantly against the counter.
Lewis guessed that he was waiting for the waitress to ask what he needed all this food for, but she didn’t. They gathered together the bags of hamburgers and a case of Cokes and started back.
“What did you think of Cass?” Henry said.
“He seems OK.”
“He’s a nutty old Polack, but he supports the cause, and he doesn’t care if we smoke a little pot. He’s crazy against the war.”
“He’s old though,” Lewis said, thinking of his father, who wouldn’t hear a word against Johnson even though he was a Republican.
“He was in Europe during WWII and it messed with his head is what I heard, so he took up for McCarthy when he came out against the war.”
He punched Lewis in the arm. “When you’re an old fart, you’ll be able to tell yourself you did something important for once anyway. You’ll be sitting in your office in a suit and tie doing some rich guy’s taxes, but at least you’ll be able to say, hey, I helped get Eugene McCarthy elected. I helped stop the war. Am I right?”
Henry had a persistent idea that Lewis was going to be an accountant. “I don’t even like math,” Lewis said.
“It’s in your future, man. I can see it in the stars.” Henry made an exuberant U-turn. “Have your fun while you can, Lewie-Dewey, before you get co-opted by the establishment.”
In the afternoon, he was moved to the phones. There was a script taped onto the desk, and he worked his way through as much of it as he could on each phone call, although often he got hung up on by the end of the first sentence. He had a nice talk with a woman whose grandson was in the army. Going off script, Lewis tried to assure her that if McCarthy was elected, her grandson would be able to come home, but she remained unconvinced. He wasn’t sure he believed what he’d said, that someone would become president and everything would change. Could it be that simple?
They worked until eight, breaking for dinner. Afterward, Henry herded them into the truck, the boys in the bed and the girls squeezed into the cab. Annette turned around and gave Lewis a finger wave which he was too slow to return. When they got back to the farm, the others gathered in the front room to watch TV. Lewis didn’t want to go to sleep, but he couldn’t stand another hour or two of sitting in one place. He put his jacket on and went to the back door.
Mr. Nowak was sitting at the kitchen table, this time with a beer instead of coffee. He saluted Lewis.
“I’m going for a walk,” Lewis said, and then felt foolish, as if he was a kid who had to get permission.
“Walk along the fence, so you won’t be lost.”
Lewis nodded and went out. After he’d been out a bit, his eyes adjusted—it was still dark, but he could see the ground, and some trees ahead against the sky. He heard a dog barking, and wondered if it was Mr. Nowak’s or someone else’s. The windows of the kitchen and the living room glowed yellow, but the house itself was almost invisible, another shadow in the night. He looked up, searching for stars, one hand on the fence to anchor himself, breathing in the cold air, but none were visible. No one knew where he was except for Mr. Nowak. If he walked down the road and hitched a ride, no one would know what happened to him, not Henry, not his parents or Natalie. For a minute, he let himself enjoy the idea, although he knew he would never do it. Maybe that was why Henry thought he’d be an accountant. Because he was boring. Because he hesitated. Because he would never take the next step.
Well, then, he said to himself. A formless cloud of thoughts floated through his head, images and words that he hardly paid attention to, and he started walking back.
He went upstairs early and read for a while before he fell asleep. The others made a lot of noise coming up which roused him briefly, but he slept hard and woke early, even earlier than the day before. Again, he dressed and went downstairs, and again, Mr. Nowak was in the kitchen. He had a cup of coffee and a bottle of whiskey on the table in front of him, which he picked up and pointed at Lewis in invitation.
Lewis, who had never drunk anything stronger than beer (most often 3.2), nodded, and Mr. Nowak poured an inch into a jelly glass. When Lewis had taken a cautious sip, he asked, “Could you not sleep? Were there enough blankets?”
“I just woke up,” Lewis said. “I thought I could do some homework.” He held up his American history book.
“History,” Mr. Nowak said, “the lesson is that it crushes us, over and over.” He took the book and paged through it. “And now you are working for the Senator, the man who will save us from war.”
“Don’t you think he will?”
“I hope for it. But war has the mind of its own.” He said “war” as if it had a capital letter. “Don’t let me talk you from your purpose though. You’re here to do a good thing, and I honor it.” He set the book down and patted it, as if he were sorry for it, or for America. He drank the rest of his whiskey and went out, taking his coffee with him.
Lewis listened to his footsteps going upstairs. Was he only now going to bed, he wondered.
The plan for Sunday was that they would all work on materials in the morning, the posters and flyers, because people would be at church. In the afternoon, everyone would canvas. Lewis was nervous about this, since he didn’t like talking to strangers, and also because, unlike the citizens of Tylersville, he wouldn’t be going to church. He’d missed a few Sundays since he started college, and every time he did, he imagined his mother’s face if she knew.
But it was surprisingly easy, the door-to-door duty. He was partnered with Annette, who had done it before. He knocked and when the door opened, he stepped back and let Annette talk. At each house, she introduced Lewis as her friend. “My friend Lewis and I wanted to talk to you about Senator McCarthy,” she’d say. She shifted personalities easily, depending on who answered, the sweet girl next door for the women, a little flirtatious for the men. For the elderly, she seemed to become shy, someone who had to be coaxed to speak. She knelt down to say hello to little kids if they came out from behind their parents. Lewis only had to hand out flyers and smile politely.
“You’re good at this.” They were on the last block of their territory. “Should we skip that one?” He pointed to the Nixon sign in the yard. “They’ve already made up their minds.”
“Those are the most fun,” Annette said. “We can at least make them feel bad.”
Lewis wasn’t sure how they would do that, but he didn’t find out, because no one answered when they knocked.
They started walking back to their pick-up point. “When do we leave?”
Annette was taking her hair down, pulling out the pins that held it up in a demure bun. “At five. So what did you think? Are you going to come again?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.” He looked sideways at her. Her hair was hanging around her shoulders now and partway down her back.
“What does your girlfriend think about it? Is she OK that you’re hanging around with a bunch of hippie radicals?” She was fussing with the waistband of her skirt, rolling it up so that it would be shorter. More of her thighs came into view, inch by inch. Her skin had the ghost of last summer’s tan.
“She doesn’t care.” He wondered what Natalie was doing now. She would have gone to church, and had dinner with her parents. They had dinner every Sunday noon, with aunts and uncles and cousins showing up. He and Natalie always sat on the bench on one side of the table, their legs pressed together, while he answered her parents’ questions about college or listened to her uncles talk about their insurance business. Natalie’s perfume would come to him in little drifts when she reached for something, or turned to talk to her grandmother. When he went to the bathroom, he would catch a glimpse of her bedroom through its half-open door. Usually her bed was made, the plaid spread drawn tight, but once she must have forgotten, and he had stood for a minute looking at the tumble of sheets and the imprint of her head on the pillow. Maybe she would be doing her homework now, he thought, sitting at the cleared table with her books and notebooks spread out. She was taking night classes, after her job at the bank. She had wanted to go to college, but her parents didn’t think it was important for a girl.
“So you’re really against the war?” he said to Annette, which was stupid, since why would she be here otherwise.
“Sure.” They were almost to headquarters. “Isn’t everybody?” She flipped out her peace sign necklace so that it hung between her breasts. “Make love not war, Lewis.”
The next time Lewis went to Indiana spring was farther advanced, the first week of April. Along with the others, he’d cut his Thursday and Friday classes so they could leave early—this weekend was the beginning of a big push, Henry had said. This time there weren’t enough seats at the back of the bus so Lewis let Annette have the last one. He took an aisle seat next to a guy in a field jacket and got out his English lit book. He had to read MacBeth for class on Monday.
“She your girlfriend?” the guy said. “I could trade seats with her.” His field jacket was the real deal. His hair was cut close to the skull and he had an army-green duffel bag.
“Just a friend.” Lewis kept his eyes on the page. “Let not light see my black and deep desires,” he read. He was still mired in Act One. “I’ve got a girlfriend at home.”
“In that case, how about you and her trade seats?” When Lewis turned to look at him, surprised, he held up his hands. “Just joking, cowboy. She’s the prime article though.” He pointed to the book. “College boy, right? You with all those long hairs?” he jerked his head toward the back of the bus.
When Lewis didn’t answer right away, he went on, “I don’t give a fuck if you are. You got a right to shoot your mouth off about the war, just like I got a right to go over and shoot Charlie.”
“You were in Vietnam?” Lewis almost whispered this, as if it were a secret he didn’t want his friends to hear.
“Was there, and going back after I drink at every bar in Tylersville and fuck the pants off my old lady.” He elbowed Lewis in the ribs. “You a protestor, Lewis?”
“Not exactly.” Lewis looked at the back of the bus again. “I’m working for McCarthy, for the primary. He’s, you know, against the war.”
“Good luck with that, but all this sign waving is just a lot of noise. The big guys, the higher ups, that’s who makes things go or stop.”
“The president, you mean?” Lewis put his finger in the book to hold his place.
He shook his head, looking out the window at the succession of brown sunlit fields. “The secret guys, behind the government. If they want the war, nobody’s going to stop it, no matter who’s elected. The president is just like a kid playing in a sandbox, you dig it?”
“McCarthy seems like a pretty good guy though,” Lewis said. “Maybe he can stop it, if he gets in.”
“You think that, and maybe he thinks that, too, but wait and see, my man.”
The bus was slowing down, and his seatmate gathered his belongings.
He pushed past Lewis and hefted his bag onto his shoulder. Tylersville came into view, its main street lined with brick buildings and cars parked diagonally.
“Listen.” He leaned over the seat and Lewis could smell his breath, tobacco and chewing gum. “If your number’s low, don’t go to Canada. I heard it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. They’re snooty up there. Sweden, now—I’d’ve gone there if I had a brain in my head. All those blondes.” He grinned and lurched up the aisle to stand by the door.
Henry came up and nudged Lewis. “Get your stuff together, chop chop.”
Later that night, after more canvassing, more phone calls, and a strategy meeting (because Henry said he needed to see how things worked on the inside), which was boring, Lewis was back at Mr. Nowak’s farm. All of the Chicago volunteers were there for a late dinner, even the ones who were sleeping elsewhere. The girls had helped Cass make chili and they had eaten it in the dining room at a long table, chairs from all over the house crowded in to fit everyone.
There were a few six-packs, and one of the Notre Dame guys started rolling joints. Some people were trying to get up a game of hearts or poker, but Annette wanted to watch That Girl, she said, and an argument started up over whether to watch Marlo Thomas or Ironside. Lewis sat on the couch and a minute later Annette sat next to him, squeezing in to make room for her friend on the other side. Her skirt pulled up when she sat down and her bare leg was pressed against his. He raised his arm and stretched it out on the back of the couch to give her more room. His skin burned at all the places where they touched or almost touched—on his thigh, his ribs where her elbow bumped whenever she moved, his cheek brushed by her hair, his wrist less than an inch away from her shoulder. He held himself still in a haze of feeling, his body buzzing and fizzing so that he thought he could tell how fast the blood was moving through his veins. When he looked up he saw that Henry was watching him with a knowing look on his face. He was just sitting here, he told himself. There was nothing wrong with sitting someplace, and having someone sit next to him. Even if Natalie walked through the door right now, there was nothing he should feel guilty about.
Mr. Nowak came into the front room bringing the cold spring air from outside, and it was as if their parents had arrived. The argument died down, and the card players went back into the dining room to organize their game. Henry switched the TV on. “What do you want to watch, Cass?” he asked, his voice overly polite.
The TV was fuzzing with static, and someone fiddled with the antenna so that it resolved into Raymond Burr, hunched in his wheelchair while he talked to his secretary. Mr. Nowak started to say something and suddenly Ironside’s cheery, ordered office disappeared and the CBS newsroom came on. Walter Cronkite was fussing with some papers. He looked nervous, Lewis thought, or maybe he only thought this later.
Later he imagined that he had known what Walter was going to say, that someone was shot, Martin Luther King had been shot, as if this had all happened before and he was just now catching up to what he had known all along. The president came on, standing in a doorway and leaning toward the microphones, looking mournful and old, his glasses catching a shine from the flashbulbs going off.
Annette and some of the other girls started crying. “King was against the war,” Henry said, as if this was the important thing. “McCarthy will have to comment about this. He has to hit the right note, you know, so as not to alienate the black voters.” Mr. Nowak stood in the middle of the room, his hands hanging down at his sides, shaking his head, and then he went out. Lewis heard the bang of the screen door.
Annette leaned her wet cheek on his shoulder. “This is so awful,” she said to Lewis.
Lewis could remember hearing about President Kennedy. He’d been in the gym at his Catholic high school, and the class had been told by their phys ed teacher, a priest, who had gotten down on his knees with them so they could pray for the president’s recovery. Lewis remembered the feel of the highly waxed gym floor under his bare knees, and the irreverent swing of the whistle that hung from the teacher’s neck. One of the boys behind him had been breathing heavily, and Lewis thought he might be crying. Their prayers hadn’t saved the president, of course. Annette leaned against him and he let his arm fall so that he was holding her.
“I want to go outside,” Annette said, “can’t we go outside, Lewis? Meet me out there? I’ll go first and you come in a few minutes. I need to talk, to someone who’s not all—” She waved her hands around.
“I don’t know,” he said, but after she’d gone out and he heard the back door slam, he got up to follow.
Mr. Nowak was in the kitchen, just standing there. He had gotten out the whiskey bottle but hadn’t poured any into his glass. He looked up when Lewis came into the room. “What are they saying?”
“Just the same things.” Lewis answered politely, although he was impatient. Annette was waiting for him. Out in the dark, he thought, which made him shiver.
Mr. Nowak held the bottle, cradling it against his chest. “He is a minister. A good man.”
“I guess. I mean, he was.”
“What will happen now?” Mr. Nowak asked, his voice soft.
Lewis dragged his attention away from the back door. He didn’t know what to say. Why does everything have to be mixed up, Lewis thought. He could hear the others in the front room, talking over the television. Someone was playing mournful chords on the guitar, and after a minute, started singing Phil Ochs’s “When I’m Gone” in a reedy voice. It seemed as if anyone might be shot, anyone might die now.
Mr. Nowak went to the sink and leaned over it, still cradling the bottle, his head bowed. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know.”
Lewis went out. Annette was a pale figure by the fence near the barn. He thought he ought to say something comforting, but nothing came to his mind. She was looking at him, and then she moved closer, pushing his chest. She wants me to kiss her, he thought. She wants me to—and he was leaning down, his chin bumping her forehead, sliding until he found her mouth, worrying until the last moment that she would push him away or laugh. But she put her arms around his neck and pressed against him. She opened her mouth under his, and she was saying something he couldn’t understand at first. “Come on,” she was saying. “Come on.”
She pulled his arm, leading him along the fence and into a door in the side of the barn. Inside it was dark and close, and he thought he could hear the sound of animals, cows maybe. She led him to another door, into a small room lined with cots. “Whose room is this?” he asked, but she didn’t answer. She was undoing her blouse, button by button, and he could dimly see the white skin of her breasts being revealed, her peace sign necklace dark against them.
They got onto one of the cots and Annette undid his belt, unzipped his pants. Her skirt was pushed up around her waist, and he thought of Natalie briefly when he touched her between her legs, but when Annette put her hand on him he forgot Natalie, forgot to think, hardly conscious of the scratchy blanket under his knees or the dust that hung in the air. He clutched Annette’s hips and pushed into her, burying his face in her hair, which smelled like perfume and cigarettes. A little part of his brain was still turning over the idea of dying, of being shot, of how it could happen to anyone now. You could be doing the right thing, but it wouldn’t matter, his brain remarked, but he dealt with that as he did with Natalie and the blanket and the smell of the barn, things that he couldn’t pay attention to right now.
There was another strategy meeting in the morning, but this one was more urgent. Lewis was across the table from Annette. What would happen now, or when they went back to school? He imagined himself at the coffee house, Annette pouring him a cup of coffee and coming to sit down next to him. He didn’t even know which dorm she lived in. Natalie was supposed to come and visit in April, he remembered, which made him start to sweat.
McCarthy had to make a move, Henry kept saying. He had to stand up and say something. Robert Kennedy had made a speech from the back of a truck in Indianapolis last night, someone said, in the middle of a riot. Or there had been no riot. Or he hadn’t been there at all. No one was manning the phones. Nothing was decided but suddenly the meeting was over. Not long after, they were driving away from the storefront, going out to canvas. Lewis had barely had a chance to say hi to Annette before they left in different cars.
By ten o’clock he was in a town even smaller than Tylersville, with a tiny main square and a net of criss-crossing streets around it. “It’s a two-dog town,” Lewis’s partner said. His name was Randy, a junior from Henry’s frat. He had a dark beard and was popular because he looked old enough to buy alcohol without being carded. “Like a two-horse town, except even smaller. Get it?”
They agreed to take turns doing the spiel, and they worked their way down one street and up another. Many of the people they talked to said something about the shooting, some asking questions, as if Lewis and Randy, by virtue of being involved in politics, had insider knowledge. “They’ll be unhappy now,” one woman said, “now that he’s dead.” Some muttered about the damned colored, about the world coming to this pass because they didn’t know when they were better off. One woman cried. Some said nothing, although the knowledge of what had happened was in their hard looks when they slammed the door, shutting out, Lewis thought, these two stupid kids who were pushing their way in, talking against the war, bringing trouble from outside.
At the beginning of their last street, a woman opened the door. She was wearing a robe and smoking a cigarette, her feet bare. “If you’re selling something, I don’t want it,” she said.
“We’re here to answer any questions you might have about Senator McCarthy,” Lewis said, since it was his turn.
“I don’t have any questions.” Behind her the TV was on for the noon news, and Lewis could hear someone on the local report talking about the shooting. She jerked her head back toward the TV. “I’ve had it all up to here.” She started to close the door, and then stuck her head back out. Her robe gapped and Lewis could see the flower print of her nightgown. “Go on back to Washington, all of you.” She jerked her head toward the TV again, where Martin Luther King’s face could be seen for a minute. “Go on to his funeral, and when you do, you can spit on his face for me. Spit on it,” she added, and slammed the door.
Lewis took a step backward and almost fell off the stoop.
“Everyone in this town is white as your mother’s sheets,” Randy said. “Get it? Like the Klan.”
“Shut up,” Lewis said. They had another half a block to go, and they split up, each taking a side of the street to finish faster.
When they got back to the storefront, Henry met them at the door. “You’ve got a visitor,” he said to Lewis. Randy smirked at him and went in.
“Who?” For a minute, Lewis thought that it would be Natalie, come to surprise him, and he felt himself flush with panic. Even though he knew it couldn’t be, that she didn’t even know where he was this weekend, because he hadn’t told her he was going to Indiana—he looked around, expecting to see her smooth dark hair. Instead, Henry pointed to the line of folding chairs. Mr. Nowak was sitting there, his head tilted back against the wall.
“He’s drunk out of his gourd,” Henry said, almost prissily. He gave Lewis a little push. “He wouldn’t say what it was about. Deal with it, will you? We need to get on the bus in half an hour.”
Mr. Nowak’s eyes were closed. He looked rough, as if he hadn’t slept or changed his clothes. When Lewis came up to him, he opened his eyes. “There you are,” he said, as if they were old friends. He smelled of alcohol and sweat. “Lewis McCann.” He righted himself, and brushed at the front of his shirt as if that might make it look cleaner.
“Um, how are you?” Lewis said. He noticed that Annette was across the room, talking animatedly on one of the phones. She was wearing the same skirt as last night, the skirt he’d pushed up as he lay over her. He wished that it hadn’t been dark, that he could have seen what she looked like under him, what her face looked like when they were about to kiss.
“I am—” Mr. Nowak shook his head. His hair was hanging down in his face, but he didn’t brush it away.
Lewis waited for him to say something else, but he didn’t. Instead, he looked around the room as if he had never seen it before. “There’s your girl,” he said, pointing a thumb at Annette, who had been watching them. She looked away.
“She’s not. I mean, I have a girlfriend back in Cleveland.” Lewis felt as if he’d said this sentence too many times. It had started to sound strange to him, as if it meant something altogether different now.
“I saw you go into the barn last night.”
“We didn’t,” Lewis began, “It wasn’t—”
“It’s no matter,” Mr. Nowak said. “It is your business. Thank you for making the room neat behind you.”
“Whose room is it?” Lewis’s face was burning.
“Some of the pickers sleep there, when we do the harvest.”
Henry was standing by Annette’s desk and they were both looking at him now. Henry tapped his watch.
Mr. Nowak waved to Annette, but she pretended not to see. “I didn’t tell you the truth,” he said. “I was in the war.”
“You were?” Lewis was only half listening. He would have to tell Natalie, he thought. He would tell her, because it was the right thing to do. This thought made him uncomfortable, for she would cry or she would be mad or both. Would she forgive him? Natalie might break up with him, which would be terrible.
“You asked and I should have answered like a man. But it is hard. Seeing him lying dead on the television.” He whispered these last words. “I was in the Polish army, and when we lost, they conscripted us. The Wehrmacht.”
There was a TV on at the back of the room and someone turned up the sound, although from here, Lewis still couldn’t make out the words. An American flag waved and then a group of people were singing a hymn.
“Why are you telling me this?” Lewis felt as if his voice was cold when he said it, but he couldn’t help it.
“We fought for them, don’t you see?” He wiped his hand down over his face. “We fought. Until we were killed or captured.”
“It doesn’t matter anymore now,” Lewis said. “I mean, it’s all right.” He could still feel the silk softness of Annette’s hair, the way her flesh moved under his hand. Would he and Annette be—he didn’t know how to finish this thought.
Mr. Nowak took hold of his arm and pulled him down to sit on the folding chair. “You will be a soldier. Somehow it will happen, you won’t know how. You will find yourself signing up or perhaps you will answer their call, even though you are here, against the war.” His eyes were bloodshot, and his face was gray. “You will have a gun in your hands and you will shoot it, over there, in the jungle.”
“Are you crazy? I’m not going to do that.” His voice had risen and he knew that people were turning to look.
Mr. Nowak shook his head slowly, as if it was suddenly heavy. “You think you are master of your life, but even so, you will find yourself there, where you didn’t plan and you didn’t want.”
There was a sort of general movement, as at the end of class when the professor goes on talking too long. People were pushing the phones back, shoving papers into drawers. shrugging on jackets. Annette held a cigarette to her lips, leaning toward the flame of Henry’s lighter.
Mr. Nowak still had his arm on Lewis’s arm, and he stroked it absentmindedly. “But then, what matter is it. The wind will blow.” Mr. Nowak got up unsteadily and turned toward the door.
Henry left Annette’s desk and started toward them. “Cass,” he called. Henry clapped Mr. Nowak on the shoulder, but he shrugged him away. He went to the door and half fell through it. In silence, they all watched him cross the street to his car, stumbling at every other step. A little buzz of talk started up, and someone laughed.
“Whoa, Lewis. That was heavy,” Henry said.
“He was upset, I guess.”
“He’s a crazy old guy, like I told you. People in town talk about how he goes off the rails every once in a while. Forget about him. Got to keep your eyes on the prize. Have you got your stuff together?”
Lewis nodded, patting his backpack.
“If you can tear yourself away from the lovely Annette, let’s talk on the bus. I’ve been sucking up to the guy in charge here, and he says that I can get a job in Washington if I play it right.”
“What about school?” Lewis said. “What about the draft?”
“Lewis, Lewis. We’re making it happen right here, right now. The convention is going to be in Chicago, and we’re going to be there at ground zero.” He clapped Lewis on the back. “You have to hop on before it mows you down. Get your stuff together, man, and let’s beat feet.”
Lewis stood there, watching Henry move around the room, almost dancing, from one person to another. Annette and her friend had their heads together, their long hair falling forward so that their faces were curtained. There seemed to be too much space in the storefront, and he felt light and hollow. He thought it might be possible to rise above the room, above the building, and to look down into it as if it were open on the top like his sister’s dollhouse, except that he was also there, one of the small figures that his larger self could reach for and move about, holding them between thumb and finger. He thought he could see the building and the town below him, all the houses he’d visited with Annette, the streets with their crisscross pattern, and Mr. Nowak in his truck, driving away from it toward the fields of America barely starting to be green.
Reprinted with the permission of the author
Mary had this to say about "Masters of War"
I started writing this story in 2017, in the aftermath of the presidential election. I was angry, frustrated, powerless, and I wanted to write something that would deal with those feelings. I started thinking about 1968, the assassinations, the McCarthy campaign—when what was going on was bad, but there was also some hope of better things. I read enough histories and biographies, watched enough documentaries and ill-preserved campaign speeches to fuel a novel, if not a trilogy, but it is all condensed (sort of) into this story, which is named after the Bob Dylan song.
Mary Grimm's stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Antioch Review, and Mississippi Review, among other places. She is currently working on a historical novel set in 1930s Cleveland, and teaching fiction writing at Case Western Reserve University.