Scene from a Small Town Near the Front

Contributor: Lee Wright

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“What will we do when they come?” she asks.

I don’t know if she means the government troops, the rebels, the secret police, or one of the many militias. But it doesn’t matter; they all want essentially the same things, and they’ll employ similar means to get them.

I want to ask her, “What do you want to do?” But that’s not fair. She has made enough hard decisions in recent months. And, after all, broken or not, I’m the ex-soldier.

I go to the doorway of the room where our son and daughter play. They don’t seem to notice as I ease the door shut. Glassy eyed and lethargic from lack of food, it would take a close mortar strike or a screaming klaxon to get their attention.
I turn to my wife. As beautiful as the day I met her, she sits in the rocking chair that belonged to her mother. Her dark hair hangs limply in her face, hiding one of her wide, brown eyes. Pale skin hangs loosely from sharp cheekbones. Her lower lip has not yet healed.

“Maybe they won’t come at all,” I say. But we both know this is foolish. Even now, we can hear the rumble and crack of artillery beyond the ridge. If the windows were not boarded, we would be able to see the flames rising high into the night and the flickering pinpoints of automatic gunfire. It’s only a matter of time before someone pushes through or someone falls back. Our town is now on the patch of retreat and the path of advancement.

Already, various units, platoons, and barely-organized bands of armed teens have moved through on the way to the fighting beyond the ridge. The town bleeds behind them, but time and again we have bandaged the wounds. It’s all we can do. No one here talks about leaving. Even if we were lucky enough to make it past the checkpoints, there’s nowhere left to go.

“Maybe it will be better when the fighting is over,” I say. “It can’t last forever.”
She looks at me for a moment then turns away, says, “Neither can we.”
“Our side still might win,” I say, trying sound hopeful.

She smirks. “And which side is our side now?”

I can’t answer. The soldiers don’t come every day, but they’re here at least two or three times a month. Sometimes, they throw bread and bottles of water from the backs of their trucks. Sometimes, they spray bullets indiscriminately. On occasion, they do both. The flags flying from the fenders are never the same two times in a row, and it’s getting damned hard to keep track of the ideologies represented by the various color combinations. At our house, we fly no flag, but even that makes a bold and risky statement.

“If only they hadn’t taken your guns,” she says.

I don’t respond to this immediately. I suspect she knows the truth but doesn’t want to say so. Eventually, I admit, “I still have one. It was my grandfather’s.”

“The old revolver with the long barrel?”

“That one. Yes.”

“And do you have bullets?”


“Then it’s no good to us, is it?”

“I can get bullets,” I assure her. “There are still things a man without pride can do in exchange for goods and services.”

She stands, comes to me, takes my hand, kisses me on the cheek. Tears well in her eyes. “You have pride,” she whispers. “It’s hope we’ve run out of.”

I kiss her tenderly, careful to avoid the broken lip.

For a long while, we hold each other, our hearts beating in perfect synch. Then, she stands in the doorway and watches as I hurry down the street in search of four bullets. I’m glad my back is to her so she can’t see the tears in this ex-soldier’s eyes.

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Lee Wright is a fat, surly, bald man who lives near Chattanooga, Tennessee, with his beautiful wife (who is only a little surly) and son (who is not at all surly and has made his parents considerably less surly).
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