The War for Me

 Jennifer Peterson

The day I came upon Linda Ellen’s mother crying in the kitchen was the day the war became real for me. Before that moment, it was just parties and parades, fundraisers and patriotism. The soldiers were young and vibrant and strong. It wasn’t death. It wasn’t pain. It wasn’t real.

It was not real until that afternoon when I found straight-laced Mrs. Eleanor Pineberg, who was quick with a Kleenex if I so much as sniffled in church on Sundays, standing with her hand pressed painfully against the green linoleum countertop, as silent tears poured down her face. The phone hung off the wall, the receiver dangling from its curly cord, bouncing up and down, up and down, in tune with the silent heave and fall of Mrs. Pineberg’s shoulders.

I’d only come up for a glass of water. Linda Ellen was still downstairs, hunched over the checkerboard, scrutinizing the pieces, trying to outmaneuver me this time. I knew my way around the Pineberg house, being Linda’s best friend and all. I’d taken the rickety old basement steps two at a time, thinking I’d burst through the door into the small neat kitchen with the floral curtains and a proudly displayed new dishwasher. The Pinebergs had a pastel blue phone with a black dial track. It wasn’t like ours. Ours was a dismal custard yellow with enameled numbers more rubbed off than on.

I’d always thought of the Pineberg telephone as blue like the ocean, blue like the sky. But when I saw Mrs. Pineberg clutching the counter as her blank eyes blinked desperately, all I could think was that it was blue like sadness, blue like tears.

“Mrs. Pineberg…” I said slowly. My voice was almost a whisper, but I don’t think she would have heard me if I’d screamed. “Mrs. Pineberg, are you okay?” I asked, stepping closer, but her eyes looked right through me. I blinked, trying to figure out if I was hallucinating. My carefully rounded fingernails pressed into my palms, hard enough to leave little half-moon marks behind. My heart was pounding in my ears and I was terrified. I knew it was something serious. I knew there was something very wrong.

Mrs. Pineberg’s face was… desolate. Just empty. Crushed, broken. Her carefully curled hair was slipping out of its rigid, familiar updo. I knew she must have been pulling her fingers through her hair because the carefully sprayed blonde beehive was skewed and frizzy, as if all the bees inside had suddenly gone into a frenzy, swarming out towards the walls.

I stood there staring at her, watching her stare right back at me without seeing.

“Linda Ellen!” I cried at the top of my voice. “Liiiiinda!” I screeched, flinching reflexively away from Mrs. Pineberg, sure she was about to scold me for my banshee-like behavior. Nothing scared me more than her lack of reaction. She didn’t so much as blink.

“Golly Mel, what’s wrong?” Linda asked, bolting up the stairs, the door slamming against the wall as she threw it out of her way.

She froze in her path when she saw her mother standing there, bulbous tears dripping down her face. They left glistening tracks in the powder on her face, over her cheeks, past her nose and lips. Tiny trails of tears, shapes of sorrow we didn’t understand.

“Dad! Daddy!” she hollered, looking just as horrorstruck as I.

Mr. Pineberg burst into the kitchen, probably alerted by my first scream. He didn’t spare a look for us, his eyes were drawn straight to his wife. He stepped into the kitchen towards her cautiously and it seemed to awaken her. Her face went from hollow to hopeless as her knees buckled and she crumpled into a tragic heap on the floor. Mr. Pineberg was at her side in two strides and down on one knee, taking her face in his hands.

“Eleanor?” he asked, the question clear in his voice.

Mrs. Pineberg avoided his eyes, trying to seek whatever emptiness she’d been seeing before. Her hands clenched and her thin fingers floundered on the floor, looking for something to cling to. Mr. Pineberg gently picked up the still swinging telephone and put it to his ear.

“Hello?” he asked, but there was only the fuzzy noise of the gloomy gray gauze, scraping its way through the line. His long arms reached up to the wall, dropping the receiver back on its hook.

“It was the war office…” Mrs. Pineberg said suddenly, so softly I hardly heard. Mr. Pineberg had eyes only for his wife, but mine snapped to Linda Ellen.

“Georgie,” she mouthed to herself, raising a timid hand to her lips as her mother said the same.

“He was… they said he’s been killed,” she said, closing her eyes slowly, like she was too weary to hold them open any longer. She sighed, from the energy spent holding back all her tears. “There was a surprise attack… Vietcong… soldiers disguised as villagers… hidden in the forest. I don’t know more. I don’t care,” she said harshly. “I want my son back!” she screamed, her voice raw and sharp.

Mr. Pineberg’s shoulders drooped and he wrapped his arms around his wife, falling from his crouch on the floor to the ground beside her. The sadness in his eyes wasn’t liquid. It didn’t run smoothly down his face like his wife’s had. His sadness was sharp and blocky behind the thick glass of his squared off spectacles. His eyes weren’t dead. They were alive and tortured, in disbelief as he looked at Linda. He had one child now, not two.

Linda walked to her parents, but I couldn’t see her face. I turned away. I walked out of the kitchen, slowly down the hall. I didn’t look at my reflection in the antique, silver framed mirror that hung there as I passed. I didn’t want to see how I wore my sorrow.

At first I ran home, pushing my little legs faster and harder as I leapt over the lines in the sidewalk, trying to get as far away as I could. But slowly the blades of grass spilling over the sides of the lawn and onto the hot pavement grew into dark bushes, then jungly trees, reaching out at me from the depths of hot humid rainforests. I ran faster and faster trying to escape them, until I wondered whether Georgie had run, whether he’d tried to escape the Vietnamese soldiers. The thought hit me like a punch to the gut, and I skidded to a stop, my hands on my knees. My heart beat quickly, and my mind flew halfway around the world in an instant. I could hear the screams and smell the smoke. The whirr of airplane propellers beat in my ears.

A million miles away, the boy next door had fallen and I was helplessly imagining it. I was trapped in my mind, trying to shut the images out. But it was too late! They were locked in forever.

The soft waves of children’s laughter swept through the back of my mind. It was unreal to look up and down the streets and see children playing, grass growing, sun shining, when I knew that somewhere across the sea, Georgie Pineberg was dead.

I walked back through my front door with a quiet sigh of disbelief. Was this war? Not glorious flags and marching songs, but a broken family, crying together on the floor, just beneath a now silent phone that had brought the war to them. I was eleven, but I felt like I’d lived through one hundred tiring years in that moment.

I stand in front of the vast black wall a whole lifetime later, running my finger over the carefully carved ridges of his name. White and sharp and proud in a black block of anger, loss, and pain.

George Leo Pineberg.

Three simple words aren’t enough to represent him. A big heart, a lopsided smile, a promising future- all lost. All squeezed into three rigid words. Six inches on a midnight black wall reserved to honor and remember Georgie among all the rest. The names run together to the left and the right. So many names, each one someone’s brother, son, sweetheart.

I run my fingers over the name one more time, thinking back to the day when I ran up those stairs to find the war was at home.

I drop my flower in front of the monument and step back. I wonder where Linda Ellen is now. It’s been years since I’ve seen her. But whenever I’m in D.C., I walk the wall and I remember. I never know what’s more real, which really symbolizes the true pain of the war and what it meant to me. Is it this cold sleek scar covered in names, or the sight of Mrs. Pineberg sobbing in her kitchen because she knew her little boy was never coming home?