Westwind

Unkind

Josh Aichenbaum

We were at an Army airport hangar in West Virginia.

Unkind, the mother said. The plane should have been cleared for landing by now, but a mechanical issue with an F-27 kept it at bay. A truck towed the broken F-27 off of the tarmac. I pictured a child in place of the truck and a red wheelbarrow in place of the F-27. It was a lifeless thing. The daughter pinched my fingertips, with the intention to hurt. She was a mourning woman, and so was her mother. Her mother repeated, unkind.

Later, the daughter would tell me unkind reminded her of children. She had grown up in Reading, pronounced Redding, which can be found on the Monopoly board. There, her ancestors had spoken Pennsylvania Dutch. And growing up there, the daughter learned words like kinder, which translates to ‘children.’ As far as I know, there’s no difference between Pennsylvania Dutch and German, and kinder is pronounced with the same sound as in kindling and kin. Later, I asked the daughter if she knew the Pennsylvania Dutch word for plane. I had to look it up in German. It’s flaishe, and that reminds me of skin.

The plane landed. Her mother waited by her daughter’s side and mine while the plane landed. She continued to make the word unkind dull with repetition. The way she said it— unkind— it was a searing mantra but not a criticism. It wasn’t a criticism. I never met the man. I only knew of him, and I do and don’t know why they let me come along.

We waited for the body bag to be carried out.

A flag masked the man we waited for, with red and blue and white, with honor, but not distinction. The other bags were marked the same, with red and blue and white, with honor but not distinction. Having read war novels, I now joke in poor taste, they were all kinder. Just children sent off to war. He was in his early thirties when he died.

A man in uniform handed the daughter a Ziploc bag. There were five items inside. She fingered the gold wedding band that matched her own. Then a hard clump of yellow dirt. He might’ve pocketed that rock thinking it was special. I think it landed in his pocket by mistake like magic. Boom. And alakazam. Her mother wept now, so far away.

From the Ziploc bag, the daughter withdrew a handkerchief speckled red. There was no pattern to the splotches, although I looked for one. She withdrew a billfold. It had an elastic ‘x’ that held a yellow card inside. The card was tattered and old. It read, Community Chest. In the chest, I thought. The card promised, Get out of jail, free.

In my apartment, the daughter would later tell me he carried the card for years. He would joke he’d keep the card until he landed himself in a jail cell or until a buyer would take it off of him for a fair price. The card promised him that right with the words, until needed or sold. The story goes he smoked dope with a friend in the eighth grade. His friend insisted they carry the card just in case someone caught them smoking. Just in case. That was the extent of the story she told me. There was a fifth item in the Ziplog bag, which looked like a letter he had written to her. She hid that letter before her mother or I could see it well. Her mother gripped her shoulder and asked if there was anything more. Her daughter told her, no. The mother looked past her daughter.

The first time I saw her, I stared at her from across a white tablecloth and a round table of assigned seats.  We were at a wedding not too far from Reading, pronounced Redding, and she was all curves in a floral dress. She looked like everything I imagined the 1950s were, which is mainly kindness or a façade meant to portray kindness. She was only 19 at the time and pretending she wasn’t blonde. Her hair was dyed brown and so were her eyebrows. I forced her to the dance floor with smiles. They were unrelenting smiles. They showed her how to twirl and dip. They pulled her close and told her we were having a good time.

She left the dance floor in tears. Her friend ran over to me and apologized, partially for having to apologize.  Marriage, the friend explained. My girl was married—I may have seen the band and ignored it. The point is her husband had just left for war. The two of them had been married for weeks, not months, and then he had left—this was the friend, going on, explaining. They had known his departure was inevitable, although they didn’t expect it so soon. She would be waiting for him. She might be waiting a long time for him to come home. She would be waiting tours. There would be three in total when it was all said and done. I let the friend know there was no need to explain. I understood quite well.

Somewhere, a mother said, unkind.

During her husband’s second tour, my girl told me repeating’s a bad habit. I said, so don’t. The way she said it again was reckless and sad. Repeating’s a bad habit, she said. It’s how bad habits get started, by repeating things you never meant to do but once. She was no longer the shy girl I danced with just west of Philadelphia. With cherry red lipstick, sometimes she’d write his name on my bedroom mirror. She’d write it with a j, and then with a lipstick kiss, and an e. She’d tell me, Take a look in your mirror. 

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To this day, I keep Joe’s tattered, yellow card in my wallet. I plan on keeping it until needed or sold. I don’t expect to find a buyer, but I keep it anyway, just in case.

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