June 7, 2019


This story first appeared in the Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Spring 2019

My name’s Ian Coyle. You may have heard of me. Until recently I wrote spy novels and was good at it. At least that’s what my agent and my publisher told me. A couple of my books made the tail-end of obscure best-seller lists and my latest, King’s Bluff, received a few almost-decent reviews. Understand, I’m not bragging about my success. I’m just trying to say my recent panic-inducing bout of writer’s block was unusual. 
April Fools’ Day began just like all of the days since the start of the new year. The early morning fog embraced the bay and the town of Monterey, one of California’s great and beautiful gifts. I’ve lived here alone for the past six years, ever since my ex-wife Kassie left me. I can’t say she broke my heart, but she left a hole which my one-eared tabby cat, Muscles, couldn’t quite fill. She returned to Chicago; I stayed, too crippled to do anything else. 
By now I’d settled into a satisfactory routine playing a little pickup basketball in the park with other mid-life heroes, drinking coffee at Coco’s Cafe on the wharf, or more often volunteering at the pet rescue shelter where I originally found Muscles, an abused kitten. Lately, a female veterinarian named Jill who worked there had attracted my attention and vice versa. We’d gone out several times and there was potential. Jill was nice - comfortable, unpretentious, and wholesome. She never used makeup and wore her sandy brown hair sensibly close-cropped. Her natural look appealed to me. Best of all, she accepted me just as I was, a trait much appreciated after Kassie’s unrelenting criticism.
I still made my home in the comfortable remodeled duplex that Kassie had picked out. My best pal Paul teased that it was way too neat for a bachelor’s pad. My second-story office looked out on a stately strand of eucalyptus trees. With the windows open, I could hear the waves pounding the beach five blocks away and smell the scent of salt and sea life. 
Most days my writing uniform consisted of a pair of shorts, moccasins, and my favorite gray T-shirt with the Wile E. Coyote cartoon character on the front holding up a sign that says Help. This morning was chilly enough that I slipped my Santa Clara sweatshirt on top, loaded my Nora Jones playlist and opened the browser on my computer. Muscles joined me, assuming his position atop my antique cherry bookcase. First thing I checked my sales numbers and fan emails – nothing of much interest in either. Then I scrubbed out my oversized coffee mug and refilled it. 
Since no more diversions came to mind, I opened the blank page of my word processor. That’s when the anxiety gnawed the hardest at my gut, the natural response to a brain barren of even a vague idea for a new story. Everything I was capable of writing bored me, and what didn’t bore me had already been written by better writers than me. The barren computer screen mocked and frightened me. 
I rested my fingers on the keys waiting for inspiration. Nothing came. I searched again through the twenty-three possible storylines I had explored over the past ten weeks, but every one of them seemed stale and basically worthless. 
After another cup of coffee, I gave up and decided to go for a jog long enough for the pain in my legs to exceed the pain in my brain. Today instead of heading up the hill on my usual course, I impulsively turned toward the ocean, then left toward Cannery Row. The tourists still weren’t out in force on a Monday in April, so after laboring by the aquarium I doubled back in the direction of the wharf. I didn’t stop until reaching the park behind Custom House Plaza panting, wheezing and aching, hands on my hips trying to catch my breath. My sweaty Wile E. Coyote T-shirt clung to me beneath my stinky sweatshirt. An old blue baseball hat covered my wet brown hair. I emptied my water bottle and then walked over to the water fountain to refill it.
A very old man sat on the nearby weathered redwood bench, the only one in the shade of a mature Monterey cypress tree. By now the day had warmed up, but he still wore a dated double-breasted tan trench coat and a gray fedora hat with a red feather sticking out of the black band. I might not have paid any further attention except that I needed to sit down and rest. 
The bench was long enough to maintain a comfortable distance between us, which was good because I must have smelled worse than a rotting seal carcass. He uncurled his crossed legs, a pleasant expression on his face. A polished mahogany cane with a decorative pewter ball on top leaned against his knee. Brown, yellow, and orange pajama bottoms stuck out from beneath his coat, brown leather slippers adorning his feet, but no socks to cover his veiny ankles. 
His gaze fixed on the squadron of squawking seagulls overhead. After a moment of silence, he spoke, his voice a strong baritone with only the slightest quiver. “I love the smell of morning,” he said.
I grunted, preferring the privacy of silence.
He reached into the inside pocket of his trench coat and pulled out a small silver flask. He unscrewed the top, eyes still fixed on the traversing seagulls, and took a quick swallow. He let go a sigh of satisfaction as the liquid went down.
He turned toward me and held out the flask, his sparkling eyes as crystal blue as the high sky. “Have some,” he said.
I mumbled a “no thanks,” never taking my attention from the seagulls.
He didn’t get the hint. “See the initials on there,” he said turning the flask so I could see the engraving. “Says ‘to RH from DM.’ Know who that is?” When I didn’t answer, he kept going. “The DM is Douglas MacArthur, and the RH is me, Richard Holby. Ever hear of General MacArthur?”
“Sure. Everyone’s heard of MacArthur.”
“Ever hear of the Inchon Landing?”
“Vaguely,” I answered, little interested.
“September 1950. Korean War. One of the greatest military moves ever. MacArthur conceived it and led it. Our amphibious assault caught the gooks by complete surprise. Risky but turned the whole conflict around. I was his liaison officer on Green Beach. Went in with the second wave of the Fifth Marines. The greatest man I’ve ever known. He should have been president. Then Truman turns around and fires him. That’s when I decided to get the hell out of the army.” He took another short slug from the flask and then stuck it back in the pocket of his trench coat. 
“That’s some story,” I said.
“I’ve got lots of ‘em,” he responded. “I’m ninety-one years old last week. Didn’t ever think I’d live this long. Life hasn’t been much since Lalita died. That was three years ago. Been living in that seniors’ retirement home over there on the other side of the park. It’s filled with old people. Hell, half of ‘em don’t know their own name. Senile. I sneak out every Monday morning when they have their staff meetings. They don’t even know I’m gone.” He laughed, proud of himself. “Better get back before they miss me.”
He pushed himself up with the help of his cane. He doffed his fedora, and then marched off along the cement path with a strong stride for an old man, erect like the military officer he once was. I walked back home, no more ready to face a blank page than when I left.
The rest of the week went no better, oft times my limited concentration broken by the chaos coming from my next-door neighbors. The Ucelli’s engaged in unrelenting mortal combat eventually culminating in loud, long, sensuous sex. On Thursday, an idea emerged for a satirical story about barnyard animals. About three pages in I realized George Orwell had already done this story back in 1945. I hit the delete key. It was gone, and with it, any hope for a breakthrough this week. 
At daylight on Monday morning, the ringing telephone startled my cat Muscles and sent him scurrying off my bed and into the hallway. It was my agent, Stella Rothstein, reminding me I was already eight weeks behind schedule. “Just send me the first chapter,” she said. “That’ll help me keep the pirates at bay.” That’s what she called the publishers. When my writer’s block first struck, she had been patient. Not any longer. “You know in this business you’re only as good as your last book,” she warned. Before she hung up, she reminded me that she had to eat too.
As if on cue, twenty minutes later the phone rang again, sending Muscles down the stairs. This time my publisher, Andrew Harkin, was on the line, agitated, demanding to know where the first three chapters were for the new book. I wanted to tell him the truth, but instead told him I was on the verge of a great plot line and a new set of characters that would knock his socks off. “I’ll expect to see something by next week,” he warned. Nothing like a little pressure to freeze the brain cells. 
By this time the best hour of the morning for writing was gone. After stuffing a banana down, I set out on my morning jog. A bit of fear nipped at my toes. My writing had provided Kassie and me with a comfortable enough living while we were married, but she couldn’t accept the limits of my talent, constantly prodding me to write more serious literature. I never had as high an opinion of myself as she did, though I suppose every writer believes they can one day produce the next Grapes of Wrath. I wrote unoriginal tripe that sold reasonably well. That’s all. Now and then the ache to write something better, something with meaning, pricked me. When it did, I’d remind myself that, all in all, life wasn’t bad. No mid-life crisis for this forty-four-year-old guy. But now I worried even my meager talents had deserted me.
Without thinking much about it, today I took the same route I had the previous Monday down past Cannery Row, perhaps hoping Steinbeck would take pity on me and lend me one of his unused plots. I hadn’t thought about the old man, Richard Holby, since last week. But when I reached the park behind Custom House Plaza, there he was, sitting on the same weathered redwood bench clad in his fedora, trench coat, and pajamas. I sat down next to him. 
He didn’t take his glistening blue eyes off the squawking seagulls overhead. “I love the smell of morning,” he said, just as he did the week before.
I grunted, still catching my breath, and took a swallow from my water bottle. 
“So what do you do? Seems like a working man shouldn’t be out running around in the middle of the morning.”
I proceeded to give a short biography, concentrating mostly on my career as a novelist. 
“Written anything I’d of heard of?” he asked. “What’s your name?”
“Ian Coyle.”
“Ian Coyle,” he repeated as though committing it to memory. “Ian Coyle.”
For some strange reason, I then told him how sometimes writers got writer’s block, and that I was in the midst of one such episode right now. He hardly took notice and turned the conversation back to himself.
“So when I got out of the army is when I went to work for the Yankees,” he said, picking up right where he left off from last week.
“The New York Yankees?” I asked, momentarily intrigued by this unusual turn.
“That ’57 team had some real howlers. George Weiss, the general manager, hired me to look after them. Thought because I was a former army officer they’d respect me and I could keep ‘em out of trouble. No way you could keep Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Billy Martin out of trouble. Yogi and Bauer either. Hell, they blamed everything on Billy, but it was all of them. They sure could raise hell. Mickey was the best damn ballplayer that ever played the game. No telling how good he could have been. I remember one Saturday night, it must have been in Cleveland, or maybe Chicago, we stayed out till four in the morning raising hell. Next day we play a doubleheader. Mickey wins the first one with a homer in the ninth, still drunk as a skunk. In the nightcap, he hits two more, hungover.”
 “Are you serious?” I said, my doubt evident. First General MacArthur, and now Mickey Mantle? 
He continued to fix his hazy gaze on the movie he was seeing play out before him. “Did you ever hear about the Copacabana incident?”
I shook my head no.
“It was in the middle of June ’57. The whole gang was at the Copa celebrating Billy’s twenty-ninth birthday. Mickey, Whitey, Yogi, Bauer, Johnny Kucks and their wives. Sammy Davis Junior was performing and a couple of jerks from a bowling team start heckling him and calling out some awful racial words. Made some wisecracks about some of the guys’ wives too. Next thing you know some punches were thrown. Cops were called and all hell broke loose. Needless to say, the press got a hold of the story and it was all over the newspapers the next morning. I don’t know who started it, but as usual, Billy Martin took the blame from management. A month later he was traded to the Kansas City A’s. Can you imagine Billy Martin in a place like Kansas City? It drove him mad.”
The old man tapped his cane repeatedly against the side of the bench. He paused and looked over at me to be sure I was buying all of this. By now I was so engrossed in the story I didn’t even care about its authenticity. 
He continued: “So George Weiss, the GM, fired me too. Said I was a bad influence, no better than Billy, which was true. Fortunately for me, one of the Yankees’ owners, Del Webb, took pity on me. He got me a job in Los Angeles with one of his companies. Best thing that ever happened to me. That’s how I met my third wife.”
“Third? How many wives did you have?” I asked.
“Seven,” he said without hesitation.
“Seven? Can you name them all?”
He paused. His lips moved, but no words came out. He took off his fedora and ran his fingers through his thinned white hair. “Let me see. There was Margo, the first one. Then the model. I think her name was Lorraine. There was the Brazilian dancer. Can’t remember her name. The Norwegian flight attendant.” He paused again, stuck. “Hell, what difference does it make. The last one, Lalita, she was the one I really loved. She was twenty-five years younger than me. A real dark-haired beauty. We were married for twenty-eight years, Lalita and me. None of the others lasted more than three. She gave me my only child, my beautiful daughter Inez. She’s the only one who comes to see me anymore, all the way from Colorado.” He sniffled and wiped his nose with the back of his wrinkled arthritic hand. “I miss Lalita,” he said, his voice cracking. “It still hurts like hell.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said, a feeble response to his pain. 
“Poor Billy died too young,” he went on, regaining his composure. “It was 1989 in an auto accident. I should have gone to the funeral, but I was otherwise occupied. Off in Iraq trying to butter up that butcher, Saddam Hussein, for one of the oil companies.”
He dropped that last bomb with such nonchalance it barely registered until I was halfway home. MacArthur, Mantle, Saddam Hussein. Who was this man named Richard Holby? As soon as I got to my computer, I googled him but found nothing of interest, and no one who even came close to meeting his description.
 That evening over a veggie pizza and beer, I related to Jill the chronicle Richard Holby gave me of his life. She listened patiently with an amused smirk on her face and an occasional roll of her brown eyes. Between bites, she issued a less-than-inspiring “uh huh, uh huh.” Mostly she concentrated on eating pizza. The waiter cleared the pie tin away about the time I ran out of things to say about the old man.
“You don’t really believe all of that, do you?” she asked.
The old man captivated me, and I wanted everything he told me to be true. It dawned on me before now that it might have been me that encouraged him to exaggerate, if not outright fabricate. But right now, I felt protective. “I like him,” I answered her. “He’s interesting and he’s lonely. He misses his wife.”
“Then you should keep seeing him,” she said. I intended to do just that.

THE FOLLOWING WEEK was no more productive for me than the week before, or the weeks before that. I thought about the old man, wondering how I could turn any of his stories into one of my convoluted spy novels, but nothing worked. Nonetheless, when Monday rolled around I headed out on my new route that ended in the park by Custom House Plaza, eager to see him. This time I got there first. I watched him stride down the path from the direction of the Sunbrook Senior Residence as though he were still a young army officer on MacArthur’s staff, using his polished mahogany cane more like a swagger stick than a supportive device. His blue eyes lit up and a smile crossed his lips when he saw me waiting.
“Ah, the famous author Ian Coyle,” he said. “I’ve been reading your books. Got them from the library.”
 “And what did you think?” I asked when he sat down, pleased he made the effort and hungry for him to like them.
“They’re very good. You have a vivid imagination and a wonderful way with words. I was entertained.” He reached into the pocket of his trench coat and pulled out his silver flask. He held it out to me. When I shook my head no, he unscrewed the top and took a slug. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and let out a satisfied sigh. “So what’re you writing next?” he asked.
I again explained my writer’s block and the failed ideas. 
“Hemingway used to say the reason he lived such a full life was that he had to have something to write about. Or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, writing and living go together.”
“And I suppose you knew Hemingway?” I asked, bemused doubt in my voice.
“Cuba, sometime around 1958. We drank together, though Hemingway could no longer hold his liquor very well. Castro was causing real troubles at the time, and most Americans were getting ready to skedaddle.” 
“Did you meet Castro?” I asked, skeptical, anticipating the answer.
“What year is this?” he asked, turning from me, his flickering eyes, searching the sky.
“Then that was a long time ago.” 
I could no longer be sure whether or not he was pulling my leg with his stories, but he proceeded to tell me more. He killed a bear while climbing Mount Everest. Pirates kidnapped him in Somalia, but he escaped. He sailed the remote reaches of the Amazon and tended bar in Rio. That’s where he met his third wife. Or was that his fourth or fifth? He was thrown in jail in Shanghai, but his employer, an influential currency trader, bought his way out. He made his big money with one of the early tech startups in Silicon Valley.
In between, he asked me about my marriage to Kassie and why it failed. Then he asked about Jill. My description revealed more admiration and affection for her than I realized. Lately, our days together began with our volunteering at the animal rescue shelter, proceeded to dinner at one of Carmel’s cozy restaurants, and ended at my house. I liked waking up with her next to me – her warmth, her smell, her dark hair on the pillow, and Muscles curled up between us.
“You like this Jill person, don’t you,” the old man said.
“I guess I do.”
He cast his eyes toward the ocean, his face contorted. “Well, don’t let her get away then.” 
We sat there in silence for the moment listening to the barking of the colony of seals by the boat landing. “Did you have one who got away?” I finally asked, sensing a loss.
He clasped both hands on the pewter nob atop his cane. “Ava,” he said. “Problem was I didn’t have the guts to go for it.”
The old man was in a zone, and by now I’d learned that another good story was on its way. The best thing for me to do was keep quiet and listen.
“Ava Gardner. The actress. Most beautiful woman in the world. The day we met she was wearing this bright red dress that matched her lipstick, a little bit of cleavage showing. It was on the way down in an elevator in Beverly Hills. She had just been to see her gynecologist. By the time we got to the ground floor, we’d struck up a conversation. One thing led to another. We’d sneak away some weekends up the coast, away from Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper, and the rest of that Hollywood gossip crowd. She was a few years older than me, but that didn’t matter. She’d gone through three divorces by then, and me about the same. We needed each other. But Sinatra couldn’t get over her. They’d been divorced a year or two before we met. He hovered over her, keeping track of everything she did. One of his goons visited me. That’s not why I left. I just didn’t think I could measure up. She was too much woman. I was afraid to take a chance.”
He sniffled and wiped his nose on his sleeve. “Ava warmed me like the sunshine,” he said quietly. He reached into his coat pocket. The silver flask trembled in his hand when he pulled it out. This time he didn’t offer me a slug. I put my hand on his shoulder. He looked over and smiled a sad smile. 
With that, he leaned one hand on his cane and the other on the bench, and pushed himself upright. Then he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a paperback copy of Steinbeck’s East of Eden. “Have you read it?” he asked.
“It’s my favorite.”
“Well, read it again,” he said. “He’s waiting for you, just down the road.”
He tottered off, leaving me to wonder how we jumped from him and Ava Gardner to me and John Steinbeck.

JILL SPENT THE next four nights at my place. Whether because of her more frequent presence in my life, or the old man, my stress dissipated like smoke in a windstorm. Developing a plot for yet another spy novel no longer seemed so urgent. My agent called. I ignored her. When my publisher couldn’t reach me, he texted with a threat to withhold the advance on my next book. I didn’t care. I contemplated taking up my friend Adam’s offer to give me a job teaching English at the state college. Adam was head of the department. If Jill and I had a future together, this might not be a bad life. 
When Jill left for work Tuesday morning, I pulled out my own tattered paperback copy of East of Eden and began reading it for perhaps the fifth time. Every time I did so, the whole of it struck fresh and new. In this novel, Steinbeck did what he often did, going to the old testament for his story’s theme. But the bible hardly seemed like the place to find inspiration for the plot of a spy novel.
That afternoon the sun shone and the weather warmed comfortably into the low sixties. I went to visit Steinbeck. Tourists had begun their seasonal invasion, but Cannery Row beckoned. Then I followed the coastal trail for less than a mile into Pacific Grove where Steinbeck lived for a while with his first wife, Carroll. The ocean shone particularly deep blue against the vivid cloudless sky, waves lapping against the cliff. The aroma of sea life blended with the fresh scent of the Monterey pines. 
If I expected somehow to commune with the great departed author, his ghost failed to materialize. But a message of his did: We humans have choices. Whatever I did next, it was my choice. Unfortunately, I wasn’t much good at anything except writing spy novels. Still, I recognized when a story begins to form in the far latitudes of my mind. One was forming now, but it made no sense. 
High drama next door greeted my return home. My noisy neighbors were in the midst of an epic eruption. She stormed out the door with a suitcase in hand. Through the curtains, I watched her throw it in the trunk of her crippled gray Honda and roar away. In the days that followed, things were strangely quiet. I imagined the tattooed guy sitting by himself, lonely. Occasionally I heard the television set or country music playing softly

RICHARD HOLBY WAS an old man from the moment I met him, yet one still with a military bearing and no self-pity. This day was different. His shoulders sagged; the deep wrinkles, bulging purple veins in his hands, and puffy bags under his eyes seemed magnified. Perspiration pooled on his brow, but he still wore that fedora and heavy trench coat on this warm morning.
“Here’s the question,” the old man began as soon as I sat down. “If you could change one thing in your life, what would it be?” 
“I never thought about it,” I answered.
“Well, think about it. This is your life we’re talking about, and you only get to live it once.”
I didn’t know where this was leading, but by now I expected such statements to lead someplace interesting.
His chest labored with each deep breath. “I read two more of your books. I suspect you have great talent, but your stories are all the same, your characters aren’t real. They’re invented to amuse the reader.”
“What’s wrong with that?” I asked a little more defensive than I intended. 
He summoned the momentary strength to answer in kind. “Write for yourself, for godssake. Let your characters live life. And for that to happen, you have to live life!”
“You sound like my ex-wife.”
“What are you afraid of?”
“I’m not afraid of anything. It’s just that spy novels are what I’m good at.”
“And that’s your ultimate ambition? To write more spy novels just like the ones you’ve already written?”
He didn’t say anything more. I stewed, glaring vacantly at the circling seagulls. When I, at last, looked over, his hand was shaking so hard the head of his cane wobbled fitfully.
I laced my fingers together and composed myself. “Nobody starts out to write hackneyed spy novels. I wanted to be John Steinbeck, or Hemingway, or any of the great ones all aspiring writers think about. But one of my professors at Writer’s Workshop, the famous Dr. William Lonsdale, told me I couldn’t write worth a damn, and to find another line of work. Maybe I should have listened to him. Instead, I lucked into this gig. It’s not so bad, you know.” I’d carried that encounter with Dr. Lonsdale around with me for years, hurt but grateful he had warned me of my limitations. 
“Let’s look at it as preparation,” he said, ignoring my defensive edge. “This is the time for change. Big change. Write, don’t write, teach, or go fishing. Whatever you do, do it so you won’t look back with big regret because you didn’t have the courage to change the one thing you should have changed. You have the choice. So choose.”
I nodded as though I had taken his words to heart. But it was a lot easier for him to say it than for me to do it. Nonetheless, he was trying to tell me something important, learned from his own wounds. “And you?” I asked. “Is there one thing you’d change if you could?”
He didn’t answer right away, examining his shaky hands resting on his cane. Then he said wistfully, “Yes, of course. We all have that one regret. Mine involved a woman, as so many of these stories do.” He paused again to take a deep breath, staring toward the ocean as if searching for some distant land at the horizon. “Her name was Lalita,” he said.
“Wait. I thought Lalita was your last wife.”
“No,” he answered. “That was Ava. A good woman. But I never loved anyone like I loved Lalita.”
I was confused. Was he mixing up Ava Gardner with his last wife, Lalita?
“We met when we were in college. There weren’t many Hispanics going to college back then, particularly Hispanic women. We were madly in love and planned to get married as soon as we graduated. I had a good job with an accounting firm waiting for me in Salinas. I could have supported her. She was gorgeous and good. Don’t know what she saw in a fool like me. When we told our parents of our intentions, all hell broke loose. Remember, this was 1949. In those days, a Mexican Catholic girl didn’t marry a white Protestant boy from Pacific Heights.”
“So what happened?”
“Both of our parents broke it up. She married some grape grower from the valley. I wanted to die heroically, so I joined the army. Went to OCS. Got a commission as a second lieutenant. You know the rest. MacArthur. Inchon.”
“That’s a sad story,” I said, unable to think of anything more appropriate to the moment.
“If there’s one thing I could go back and change, that would be it. I’ve regretted it all my life. Should have stood up to my parents, and hers. I think she would have run off with me if I’d asked. I didn’t.” His eyes misted. His whole body shook. I moved closer and put my arm around him.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
We sat like that for a while. When he spoke, his voice was soft, gentle, and firm. “You’re a good man, Ian Coyle. If I had a son, I would be proud if he were like you.”
He leaned his head against my shoulder. I could feel every bone in his body. He might have fallen asleep for a moment, then he startled. “I better get back before the wardens realize I’m missing,” he said. “Monday morning staff meeting’s just about over.”
“Would you like me to walk you home?” I asked.
“I can make it,” he answered. With my support and a grunt, he stood up. “I hope someone shot that professor of yours. You can be a great writer, the writer you want to be. Take it on my authority.” He put his arms around me and gave me a hug. I hugged him back. 
He tottered off down the path toward the Sunbrook Retirement Home. When he disappeared behind one of the houses by the park, I walked home, my heart aching for him and my mind swirling from his lofty assessment of me. His message resonated like a warning: Leave no regrets!

THAT NIGHT I tossed and turned, alone in my bed. I missed Jill next to me. At dawn, I sensed a story forming, a warmth creeping up my leg and into my subconscious. It had something to do with the Bible. Maybe David and Goliath. I know. That’s already been done, but so has every other story.
What if a young man – David – fights and defeats not one, but many present-day evil giants – a corrupt politician in a small town, a narcissistic corporate baron without a heart, a drug lord who profits from human misery. Along the way, David meets a dark-haired beauty named Delilah, who looks and acts a lot like Ava Gardner. In the end, good triumphs over evil. I wrote a synopsis down as fast as my fingers moved. I could see David. I could smell Delilah. I heard the giants’ final wails and felt satisfaction each time David cut off another Goliath’s head.
I texted Jill to tell her lightning had struck and that I would be in my hole for several days. My phone binged almost immediately with her response: Fantastic! I’ll be waiting whenever you come up. Go get em!” 
By the end of the first page, there was no doubt something good was happening. My mind found that rare spot where I inhabited the place and the characters I created, the writing effortlessly recording what they said, what they felt, and what they did.
I put on some jazz and, like a cloudburst, for the next five days the words materialized as if by themselves. I couldn’t be bothered with showering or changing clothes. My Wile E. Coyote T-shirt could have walked away by itself if I ever took it off. My teeth grew moss from lack of brushing, and my hair needed a grease job. Burnt toast and black coffee sustained me, along with an occasional apple or hunk of provolone cheese. The distinction between night and day went unnoticed. My cat Muscles hovered nearby, unsure what was going on, but aware something changed. The writer’s block dissolved.
By the time the initial rush of mania ran its course, I’d finished the first four chapters. I took a hasty shower, and then called Jill. We had dinner in, at her place. Mine looked like a torpedo hit it. I could talk about nothing but the story. She tried extra hard to plug into my rapture, without the benefit of elixir, and I loved her for it. 
When I got home, the message light on my answering machine was blinking. “Ian, it’s me, Stella,” my agent began, controlled excitement in her voice. “Ben Forrester, the movie producer, just called. He’s interested in taking an option on King’s Bluff. He wants to make it into a movie.” Of course, I might have said to her that that’s what movie producers do. She rattled on: “He’s even got the actors picked out to play Vic King and the Mermaid.  Best part, he wants you to write the screenplay. Call me back as soon as you get this. Ian, this is the break we’ve been waiting for.” And a big paycheck for her.
A year ago, or even a week ago, this would have been the dream of my life. Every author would die to see his work on the big screen. I was no different. But what I was working on now wasn’t just another novel. I was finally writing something serious I could be proud of that called for all of the talent I had. Maybe it was the change the old man pushed me to make, the big one I would always regret if I didn’t go for it. Besides that, a screenplay meant moving to Hollywood and leaving Jill behind. After no more than an instant’s hesitation, I hit the delete key on the answering machine. 
I got back to writing, quickly finding that secret part of my brain where only I could go. New ideas for plot twists or character revelations popped off like unexpected starbursts on the Fourth of July. The world I created became more real than the life I led. All that mattered was what happened next to the characters I was coming to love, and the villains I despised. This was fun! 
There were some chilling moments when the Devil whispered in my ear that my life would be just as dull if I wrote biblically-inspired novels as it was writing spy stories. I heard the old man warning me that I had to live a huge life if I was to write great literature. But the moment of doubt passed when I put on my earphones, turned on my playlist, and dove back into the vivid imaginary world I created with my words.
When Monday morning fog rolled through, I awoke early, showered, and dressed in a pair of clean chinos and a blue twill shirt. I printed out a copy of everything I’d written, put it in a three-ringed blue binder, and headed for the park by Custom House Plaza. I was so eager to show the old man what I’d done that I arrived ten minutes before our usual meeting time. A classroom of little girls in their school uniforms stepped off a yellow school bus and paraded toward the historic museum, their teachers and parent escorts on patrol. 
Every five minutes, I looked over in the direction of the Sunbrook Senior Residence, expecting to see the old man marching toward me, mahogany cane in hand. I opened the manuscript and read the first few pages for the twentieth time. A few words here and there needed fixing, a sentence cut or added, but overall it read well. Very well. The old man would like it. More than that, he would appreciate that I’d made a choice, one he had prompted. I’d opted to take a chance on writing a serious piece of literature. And while I was sitting there, I began to think something should change with Jill, one way or the other. 
Time passed and the old man didn’t show. Something had been bothering him last week. Maybe whatever it was had found him. There was no denying he was old and vulnerable, disaster always skulking right around the corner. The thought rose to concern and then to alarm. I nearly broke into a trot as I hastened down the path toward his nursing home. A couple walking the opposite direction stepped aside to let me pass.
This was my first venture into a warehouse for old people. I held my breath, opened the door, and stepped into the Sunbrook Senior Residence. The living room resembled a 1950’s Sears catalog – serviceable, sterile, overstuffed floral patterned couch and side chairs in rose and blue, light purple-gray institutional carpet, heavy gray drapes with gold fringe, and mismatched dark wooden coffee table and end tables. It smelled of old age. A roll of laughter came from a room off the side; two old men and six old women congregated around tables playing cards. Three of the women were in wheelchairs. 
A young woman sat behind a reception desk straight ahead. She looked up. “I’m looking for Richard Holby,” I said.
“Welcome to Sunbrook,” she said with a huge smile, a little too cheerful. “Are you friend or family?” she asked.
“Friend,” I answered. “He was supposed to meet me this morning but didn’t show up. I wanted to make sure he was okay.”
She gave me a quizzical look. “Oh, Richard is fine. I just saw him.”
“Could I look in on him?”
“Certainly. And your name is…?”
“Ian Coyle.”
She wrote it on a nametag and handed it to me. “Down the hall and take the first left. You’ll see a sign to the memory wing. There’s another reception desk there, and then a pair of secured doors.” I peeled off the tape on the back of the nametag and placed it on my chest.
The reception nurse outside the dementia wing unlocked the door with an automated card and opened it. I followed her in. “This is recreation hour,” she said. “Many of our guests like to sit here by the window in the sun.” Ten or so inmates occupied a big room with a giant overhead skylight. Some sat alone by the large windows. Others were at tables with what must have been family or friends. Two attendants circulated. Some residents emitted low moans. Their caregivers answered in soft voices. A scent of wintergreen tried unsuccessfully to cover the smell of disinfectant and urine.
“Richard is over there,” she said, pointing to the left. “I’m sure he’ll be glad to see you. His daughter should be dropping in any minute now. She comes every day.”
“That can’t be Richard Holby,” I said, my repulsion with the scene in front of me surely showing in my voice.
The man she pointed to looked something like the old man I knew, but it couldn’t be him. This person slouched in his wheelchair, strapped in, body rigid, staring off into space. His mouth hung partially open, a slight bit of drool seeping out of the corner. I moved toward him. The crystal blues eyes I expected were covered with gray. His shaggy hair looked like it had been combed with a rake, his sideburns badly in need of a trim. A disobedient tuft of white stood up in front. I might have turned around, certain this was the wrong person had I not spotted his brown, yellow, and orange pajama bottoms sticking out from beneath his tan terrycloth bathrobe. The same leather slippers he wore since the first time I met him covered his feet beneath his veiny ankles.
I wanted to leave, to run, but couldn’t. The short walk from the door to his side, the manuscript tucked under my arm, was like slogging through molasses. I pulled up one of the chrome and blue plastic chairs next to him. “Hi, Richard. It’s me, Ian,” I said softly, cautiously. Nothing. He continued to stare off into space. I touched his gnarled arthritic hand. Still, he didn’t respond. I held out the manuscript for him to see. “Look what I wrote. It’s the start of my new story. I did what you said. From the Bible. I think it’s going to be good.”
I was startled when he let out a long low gurgle.
“He liked that, whatever you said,” a nearby male attendant remarked. “First time he’s responded in weeks. Keep it up.”
So I did, telling him what the story was about, flipping through the pages and reading him paragraphs here and there. He didn’t move, and he didn’t make another sound. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I got up to go. I kissed him on the forehead and said: “thank you.” He gurgled again. I touched him on the shoulder and left.
When I exited the secure doors, I stopped to exhale, confused by what had happened, my heart aching for the old man I’d just seen. Someone was certainly playing a horrid joke. That decrepit old man couldn’t be Richard Holby no matter the pajamas he was wearing.
“Mr. Coyle?” An attractive, shapely mid-aged woman stopped me. “I’m Inez Holby-Perez,” she said. “I understand you know my father.” Her black hair, magnetic dark eyes, and almond skin were clearly Hispanic, but her high cheekbones and square chin could only have come from Richard Holby.
We sat down to talk on a couple of comfortable chairs in a secluded alcove, a coffee table between us. I leaned across and handed her my business card, as though identification as a writer of novels would somehow attest to my sanity and veracity. 
“How do you know my father?” she started, her voice gentle as a feather.
I proceeded to tell her about my meetings with her father and about the interesting life he led. She let me talk, but her stern face and crossed arms told me she didn’t appreciate what she was hearing. “I have to tell you,” I concluded, “I’m confused. The man I just saw was him, but it wasn’t him.”
“Mr. Coyle. Ian. You seem like a very sincere person. But you’re mistaken. You’ve seen the condition my father is in. It must have been someone else, not him.”
“Your mother’s name is Lalita, right?”
“That’s right.”
“And every Monday morning there’s a staff meeting here, am I right?”
Her eyes flickered when I said that. “How did you know about the Monday morning staff meetings?”
“He snuck out every Monday morning during staff meetings,” I said. “We met in the park across from Custom House Plaza.”
Now she was the confused one. She tapped her fingers on the coffee table in front of us, deciding where to go next. She pursed her lips before continuing. “Let me tell you about my father,” she began. She told me her father and mother ran off and got married right after they graduated from San Jose State in 1949. None of their parents ever came to terms with their marriage. His parents would accept no one who wasn’t a Protestant from Pacific Heights, and her parents wouldn’t accept anyone but a Catholic from Guadalupe. Richard took a job with an accounting firm in Salinas, became a partner, and stayed there until he retired in 1995. 
“Everyone in town knew my father,” she said. “They liked him and trusted him. He was involved in everything, always ready to help someone out. Growing up, he was a softy. My mother provided the firm hand we needed. There were the five of us kids, my four older brothers and me. I was the baby, a surprise. Mother was in her early forties when I came along. 
“They lived a peaceful life in Salinas. I think Dad would have loved to have traveled, but Mother was content. The furthest we ever got was Disneyland. They lived in the same house, a rambling rancher not far from town, ever since 1959. They moved here to Sunbrook when Mother contracted her cancer. She knew Dad was going to need a lot of care when she was gone.”
 Her breast heaved, her voice quieted to barely a whisper. “Anyone who knew them even a little saw the devotion and deep love between them. They had been married sixty-five years when she died.” She took a deep breath and leaned back in her chair, drained. 
She assured me that either she or one of her brothers came to see the old man every day. His thirteen grandchildren dropped by often. Everyone lived nearby, between Mountain View and Salinas.
We parted, mutually confused. She promised she would call me if his condition changed. I promised to stop in again to see him, a promise I wouldn’t keep.
By now you must be thinking what I was thinking. What happened? How did it happen? Was I a little bit crazy? Did I imagine the whole thing? But I couldn’t have. My head was spinning around and around. 
After I walked, or more likely wobbled, out of Sunbrook Retirement Residence, my disobedient legs carried me back to the park and the weathered redwood bench under the old cypress tree, my manuscript clutched under my arm. The seagulls patrolling the plaza screamed from above. Seals barked in the distance, and tourists chattered nearby. Three little girls in matching blue plaid skirts raced across the red brick courtyard. The fresh smell of Monterey pines and salty sea spray did little to clear my nostrils of the reek of human decay.
That moment the afternoon western sun broke through the morning clouds. Light glittered off a small silver flask laying on the bench. Next to it sat a gray fedora with a small red feather stuck in the black band. I picked up the flask. It was engraved with the inscription ‘To RH from DM.’ I looked around to see who could have placed it there. No suspects revealed themselves. Then I unscrewed the top expecting to be greeted with a whiff of brandy or bourbon. Instead, I smelled Lipton’s Tea. I put the hat on my head and let the vertigo spin through my mind.
Reason did not prevail. No explanation made sense. I gave up trying to understand it in rational terms. Then came the big question: which was the real Richard Holby, the one who met me Mondays on the bench, the adventurer? Or the one in the memory ward who lived a long stable life with a loving wife by his side. Whatever the truth, there could be no doubt the man I saw an hour earlier was my friend. Or was he? Whoever he was, pity and loss tore at my heart. 
I sat there for hours until the approaching sun began its daily descent, fog inching in across the ocean’s horizon. A light chilly wind raised goosebumps on my exposed arms. I rose from the bench, the fedora on my head, and the flask in my hip pocket. I headed home to where Jill would be waiting, a grocery bag full of dinner fixings in hand. I would tell her about the strange events of today. And I would tell her that I had to live my life with no regrets. 
She wasn’t going to like it when I told her Muscles and I were moving to Los Angeles  ̶  alone. I would write the screenplay for my last spy novel, King’s Bluff, and see it made into a movie. And maybe I would find my own Ava Gardner. 
Only after I’d lived life in full could I write the best novel that was in me.

February 15, 2019


This story first appeared in the Avalon Literary Review, Winter 2019 edition

Can you remember the last time you had a really good day at the DMV? Me neither, and I work there. At first light, the hungry hoards press against the double glass doors clamoring to get in, mercilessly seeking photo ID’s, drivers’ tests, auto title changes, and learners’ permits. Mondays are the worst, particularly in June when every sixteen-year-old in California is hell-bent to get behind the wheel.

On and on they come all day long. And there I am, the bitch sheepdog charged with herding these lambs and goats into their proper lines, with paperwork filled out completely and correctly. In truth, my real task is keeping the wolves from eating the livestock.

There are some dedicated public servants here at my DMV office. Well, actually only one, Maria Cortez who helps driver’s license applicants take their written test on our fancy new electronic system. She’s a saint. On the other hand, Bob, Mercy, and Melanie are as enthused as a deflated tire, waiting out their years until retirement. Melanie’s response to customer complaints is always, “This ain’t Nordstrom’s, honey.” Most of the rest of us do our jobs as best we can, but little more.

My first inquiry on this one particular day came from a middle-aged woman who obviously felt it important to wear her favorite flowered yellow dress to come to the DMV, complete with pearls, spiked black heels and a heavy coat of hairspray. “Por favor,” she said, in a sugary half-assed attempt at Spanish. “Cama hay yamo.”

“Good morning,” I said nicely. “May I help you?” She must have thought that because I look Hispanic I mustn’t be able to speak English well, even though I was clearly an employee of the California Department of Motor Vehicles. Otherwise, why would she expect me to know the answer to her question about whether it was legal to haul green bananas in the trunk of her car? Well, that might not be exactly what she asked, but something just as wacky.

Now that I think about it, maybe I do look a little Latin with my dark skin, dark hair, and long Salena Gomez bangs. But I’m actually Greek. Or at least my grandparents are. My name is Yolanda Giannapolous.

Our reputation at the DMV precedes us. So the crowd behaved, civilized, though most of them figured out they were going to be here a long while, including those with appointments for a specified time. A muffled buzz arose as those in line got acquainted with each other, sharing their still-tolerable frustration. A confused gray-haired Asian woman who spoke limited English engaged in conversation with a young Indian woman in an artichoke-green sari and a vermilion dot on her forehead. Their command of English was mutually mangled. The only thing they could seem to connect on was that the DMV sucked.

A hot young blond in clingy gray running shorts and a violet tank top tried to help them out. In between, she took slurps of coffee from her Starbucks Grande cappuccino. I was close enough to catch a whiff of her dank odor. By the time she reached the front of the line, those around her might wish she had stopped to take a shower after her morning jog. But then she would have missed her assigned appointment time, an offense the DMV does not take lightly.

An interesting looking grease monkey from one of the nearby auto repair shops joined the back of the line. I handed him a clipboard with a form to fill out stating his name and the purpose of his visit to the DMV. His lips gave me a charming smile while his eyes gave me the once-over. That always builds up a girl’s ego, particularly at nine o’clock in the morning. The DMV is a good place to work for a young woman who’s looking for some action. The younger men are always on the prowl, with pickup lines nearly as suave as George Clooney. Not! For laughs, my best friend, Nura, and I share the top ones every day over lunch. But I have a boyfriend, Josh, who keeps me well-satisfied. We’re getting married as soon as he finishes college next spring. Nura is a different story. She’s mostly saving herself for a Muslim man her parents will approve of, but once in a while, she scores and then shares every breathless detail with me.

 The people who walk through our glass double-doors every day come in a scad of colors, sexes, shapes, and flavors. Most of them are nice. But every once in a while, there’s an asshole. The assholes also come in all shades, sexes, shapes, and flavors. I’ve been here long enough to sniff a skunk before I even see him. Just such a mammal strutted in the door now, a boringly-brown-haired middle-aged man in a classy business suit. He wasn’t wearing just any off-the-rack suit. No, this one was definitely a custom-fit navy blue gabardine from someplace like Nieman Marcus. He glamorized his get-up with a power purple tie and a blue pin-striped shirt.

This guy took one look at the long unmoving line and made a beeline for me, the clipboard on my arm a sure sign of authority. “I have a nine-thirty appointment, miss,” he fumed.

“End of the line, please,” I said, pointing with my finger, never looking up from my clipboard. This was not going to be fun.

“You don’t understand. I have an appointment.” He enunciated slowly, clear and loud, suspecting my English wasn’t too good. Or my hearing.

Si seƱor,” I answered. “End of the line.”

“I have a board meeting in an hour. I’m only here to remove the lien from my car title.”

He touched my arm, threatening or pleading. I couldn’t tell which. He dropped his hand when my hot glare moved from his flushed face to his unwelcomed fingers. “All these people ahead of you have appointments,” I said.

“But I have a nine-thirty appointment, and it’s nine-thirty now.” He looked down at his large, expensive watch, tapping its blue face.

I turned away from him and walked over to a confused Hispanic woman. I used every word of Spanish I knew to explain how to fill out the form she would need to get her driving permit. When I meandered back, Mr. Blue Suit came at me again. He took out his wallet from his back pocket and held up a twenty-dollar bill. “Will this help?” he asked.

“I’m sorry, sir. We’re not allowed to accept tips.”

“Let me speak to your supervisor,” he demanded, stuffing the money back into his pocket.

“I am the supervisor,” I lied. His cheeks turned so red I thought he was going to have a coronary. Something like that had never happened in my line before.

“Do you know who I am? I’m Larry Winkle, president of Smiley Ice.”

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Winkle,” I responded, trying my hardest to look fearless, chomping harder on my spearmint chewing gum.

“We’re the largest distributor of ice cream in the Bay Area.” The strength of his voice asserted the importance of his position. I nodded, unimpressed. Then I turned back to help a confused teenager.

My friend Nura manned the in-take desk these people in the long line were queued up to see. She checked their paperwork and assigned them to one of the twelve customer service desks. Some people around the office called her Judge Judy because she passed judgment on every customer as though they were defendants at trial. Others called her the Grim Reaper because of the punishment she inflicted on those she found wanting, usually in the form of eternal entanglement in the bureaucratic swamp. I hated to think what she would do to my new friend Larry Winkle if he didn’t change his attitude in a hurry.

The line was moving only a little faster, but there were still seven people in front of him. I caught a last whiff of the blond female jogger with the ponytail before Nura finished with her and she moved on to her assigned service desk.

“Hey Nura,” I said before the next customer got to her. “Don’t look up, but see that guy in the classy dark suit?”

“Ah, another asshole?” she asked. I nodded. She gave me the fetchingly twisted smile I so adored. Nura ate self-important assholes alive.

The line had grown and now circled out the door onto the sidewalk. Halfway back, a beautiful coal-dark woman in blue jeans held a whimpering infant in her arms, trying to comfort it. I’m a sucker for cute little babies. I want one of my own, but that’ll have to wait. Going to school nights at San Mateo JC keeps me busy trying to get my associate degree. I want to be a radiology technician and earn enough money to give my parents the new Prius they’ve always wanted but can never afford. After that, Josh and I will start saving for a house.

“Anything I can do to help?” I asked the woman with the whimpering baby.

“She’s teething, I’m sorry she’s making such a fuss.”

“No problem,” I said. “What are you here for?”

“A photo ID.”

“Follow me,” I led her to the front of the line. Her abundant gratitude alone would have made my day. But even better, the frustrated Mr. Winkle glowered at me, showing his snarling teeth, helpless. I went around the other way so I wouldn’t have to contend with him. He was no happier when he saw me lead a frail old man to the head of the line. He shoved a small Hispanic man aside and advanced toward me again.

“Do you realize thousands of children depend on me and my company to deliver happiness to them every day?” Spittle sprayed from his rabid tongue. He sounded as though he was quoting from the company’s advertising brochure. “Do you people have any idea how sad they will be if they don’t have their ice cream because I’ve been held hostage by the DMV?”

I hated to think I would be personally responsible for making every kid in the Bay Area unhappy, but rules are rules. What could I do but pray that Nura would bring justice?

The column inched forward minute by excruciating minute. Larry Winkle stood apart, isolated, wanting no part of the humanity swarming around him. He jiggled his iPhone in one hand and jiggled his car keys in his pants pocket with the other. He bounced back and forth on his toes as though he had to visit the men’s room. Finally, Nura motioned to the person in line right before Winkle, a teenaged boy on crutches with a grungy cast on his right leg. He made his way painfully, slowly toward Nura.

Winkle was next. I wanted to cover my eyes, but like a car wreck, it’s hard to turn away. The moment Nura finished up with the teenager, Winkle dashed toward her. “Wait!” she barked, holding up the palm of her hand. He stopped dead. Then she took her time arranging some papers on her desk and checking some imaginary forms. She pushed a few loose brown hairs back under her hijab. “Next,” she finally called, beckoning impatiently at Winkle with her extended hand.

Wouldn’t you know it. Just at the moment of reckoning, an urgent call came over the loudspeaker for me to report to the other end of the hall to pick up a bunch of unimportant new customer forms. I was only gone for five minutes, but by the time I sprinted back, Nura had another client at her desk. I raced to the double glass doors in time to see Winkle charge by, cursing out loud, arms waving, sweating abundantly, threatening to call the governor.

Hasta luego,” I called after him. “Have a nice day.”

He kept walking until he reached the curb out front. That’s when he saw his big shiny black Cadillac being towed from the No Parking zone. Nura had passed her sentence. The pitiful wail emanating from Mr. Blue Suit sounded like a lamb trapped in the jaws of a ravenous wolf.

When will they learn? You don’t mess with the DMV no matter who you are.

+ + + +

September 7, 2018


This story first appeared in the Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Summer 2018 edition

La Mancha

In 1937 I went to Spain to save the Republic and keep my friend Marty alive.
A small band of us arrived in Albacete on a rickety train after days on the sea, hours in the back of a bouncing truck from Paris to the French border, and a numbing climb by foot over the Pyrenees in the dark of a freezing April night to avoid French border patrols. Marty and I were here on the brown plain of La Mancha to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in a just and important cause.
After all that, the man in the uniform seated at the field desk in front of me insisted women couldn’t fight. He said I could be an ambulance driver, cook, or nurse’s aide changing bedpans and bandages.
“No sir,” I answered, staring straight ahead like a soldier. “I came here to fight.”
“They must have explained to you before you left America,” the man in the uniform said.
“I know how to fire a gun,” I lied. “And I can clobber any man here with my fists.” That part was probably true. I was bigger and stronger than most of them, with broader shoulders but fewer curves than most girls. Back home I usually covered myself in pants and men’s shirts, and when we reached Paris, I had my mousy brown hair cut short as a guy’s.
I stared at the man behind the desk and he stared back at me, his pencil suspended over the log of new recruits. A barrel-chested man in a brown officer’s uniform and black riding boots, who had been watching from nearby, came up behind him and whispered in his ear. Then he moved on. The red star on his field hat identified him as a Russian.  The man behind the desk nodded and made a mark in his log. “Alright, Potter,” he said. “You’re in A Company.”
Marty struggled down the dusty street toward the granary, our temporary home for the next nine days, weighed down with the full knapsack, uniform, and bedroll we’d each been issued. He was a small man who couldn’t have stood more than five feet four or weighted more than a hundred twenty pounds even with rocks in his pockets. About halfway there I asked him to pause so I could catch my breath, really an excuse to give him a break.
He lit a cigarette. “You shouldn’t have insisted on carrying a rifle, Frannie,” he said.
“That’s why I came,” I answered. “To fight.”
Well, I’m not going to be able to take care of you once we come under fire.”
“So who asked you to?” I shot back. I was the one, after all, who was there to take care of him.
He snuffed out his cigarette, and we continued walking toward the old granary, joining the other nine new recruits. We changed into our uniforms – brown flannel shirts, khaki trousers, and v-shaped caps. Marty turned his head away, too embarrassed to see me stripped down to my drawers. He would have liked to throw a blanket over me to shield me from the eyes of the other men. None of them paid any attention. I was just another soldier in the group: four pale Jews from New York City, a Negro truck driver from Chicago, a sharecropper from Tennessee, a union organizer from Cleveland, a bank clerk from Buffalo, a coal miner from Pennsylvania, Marty, and me. None of us had yet reached our twenty-fifth birthday.
That evening the two of us sat by ourselves under a Linden tree eating our plates of beans and bread with carrots and onions fried in olive oil.
“That’s not thunder you’re hearing,” Marty said. “It’s artillery fire.”
“Are you glad you came?” I asked.
“You know why I came.” He gave me that adorable puppy dog look that made me wonder why I couldn’t love him the way he wanted me to love him. Instead, he made me feel guilty all over again.
Marty was cute as could be, but it was his brain that fascinated me right from the start. The first time we met, I thought he had his eye on my best friend, Dolores Brown. We were just starting our second year at San Francisco State College, rare for a girl, and even rarer for a desperately poor longshoreman’s daughter. State was possible if I worked part-time. I wanted something more than my mother’s dull, desperate life of survival. I wanted to roam the world and achieve some great purpose. Every day when I entered campus through the big door on Haight Street, I felt I moved one step closer to escaping Rincon Hill. That’s where we lived, in a rundown, weathered-gray clapboard house not far from the Embarcadero where Daddy worked on the wharves.
Dolores lived down the street from us in a house no better than mine. We had been best friends for as long as I could remember, joined at the hip, my mother used to say. On the opening day of the fall semester in 1936, we headed into our first class and found seats toward the front.
Doctor Jefferson Drummond looked the part of a history professor: middle-aged, pipe smoking, thinning blondish hair, and a sonorous voice. Everyone said he was a socialist at best, and maybe even a Communist. “Who knows what’s going on in Spain right now?” he challenged before everyone was even seated. Twenty-three sets of eyeballs stared at their shoes, praying he wouldn’t call on them. He waited and waited some more. No one replied. I wondered if I was the only one sweating.
When all seemed lost, one voice spoke from two rows behind me. “Spain became a republic in 1931 when the people threw out their king. Then the election this past April was won by a coalition of republicans, socialists, Communists, workers, and peasants. That threatened the old order of generals, large landowners, and the Catholic Church.” I turned around to see this adorable little teddy bear taking control. I later learned his name was Marty Hornstein.
“Go on,” Drummond encouraged.
Marty explained that in July fascist generals led by Francisco Franco launched a civil war against the elected Republican government. Hitler immediately sent German-manned bombers, fighter planes, and transports to help Franco, along with many of their newest tanks and armaments. Mussolini did the same. Great Britain, the United States, France, and the other western democracies refused to help the elected government, their excuse being that this was an internal Spanish matter. The Russians snuck some antiquated equipment through the Italian naval blockade to the Republicans but not enough to be decisive.
After class, I caught up with Marty in the quadrangle and thanked him for saving the rest of us from humiliation. Dolores, a petite blondish temptress, immediately gave him her coy, pinky-in-the-mouth come-on. She knew how to flirt with guys. Me, I was nineteen and had yet to have my first date.
I asked Marty a couple of questions about Spain. He asked my opinion about the war and nodded his head in approval when I let him know that any side Hitler was on I was on the other. He finally glanced at Dolores and invited us both to continue the conversation over coffee in the school cafeteria. We accepted. I didn’t even think about it, but if I had, I would have assumed Marty’s only interest in me was to get to Dolores. That’s the way it always worked before.
During the weeks that followed, Professor Drummond’s lectures concentrated on the war in Spain. Nationalist forces under Generalissimo Franco took Toledo from the loyalist Republicans and closed in on Spain’s capital of Madrid. Untrained Republican rag-tag militias held out. By now, I was a committed Republican, ready to back Spain’s cause.
Marty, Dolores and I met nearly every day for coffee. We followed the war and commiserated over the Republicans’ desperate plight. Then Dolores, receiving little of Marty’s attention, became a less frequent member of our little group.
The two of us must have been a strange sight walking across campus, this monster of a girl in second-hand clothes alongside a fragile, collegiate young man in his natty sweater vest, bow tie, and gorgeous curly black hair. I didn’t think much about it. We were buddies and that’s all that mattered. Marty was a Jew, so I never mentioned him to Daddy and Mother. Daddy didn’t like Jews much. I had never known one before Marty, and it didn’t matter to me. I wasn’t about to ask him over to the house anyway. I didn’t want him to see where I lived.
One day, Marty asked me to a movie. “A Farewell to Arms,” he said. “Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes. You’ll love it.” I paused, confused. Marty was a friend, my little teddy bear. For a moment I thought he might have something else in mind, like a date. When he saw the look on my face, his natural grin shriveled into a bruised smile. “You can bring Dolores,” he said without enthusiasm.
OUR DAY AT the movies was months ago, and in a place as different from Albacete as Oz and Kansas. The enormity of what I was doing didn’t fully bite me until my first full day as a soldier. The brigade quartermaster issued us each a rifle and a bandoleer containing a hundred cartridges. We only simulated firing. There wasn’t enough ammunition to spare for the real thing. During our nine days of training, we learned to march and to follow simple commands in English and Spanish. None of us questioned the adequacy of our preparation for battle against a professional army.
Camila Castillo, our Spanish company cook, adopted me right from the start. I needed it. She had a thin black brush above her upper lip and the sagging breasts of an older woman, though she was probably no more than my mother’s forty-three years. She told me, through gaps in her broken browned teeth, how to take care of a woman’s needs in the field. She also warned me not to get involved with men with whom I shared the trenches. The later advice was advice I didn’t need. I hadn’t come to Spain to find a boyfriend. But if I had, the odds were good. There were only 80 American women among the three thousand American men in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
Her advice about fascist prisoners was more malevolent. She said in fractured English, along with exaggerated gestures, “if you capture one of those dog lovers you cut off his cojones and stuff them in his mouth. Then you poke out his eyes and shoot him immediately.” A Nationalist force overran Camila’s impoverished farming village. They did to her uncle exactly what she described. They suspected the poor illiterate farmer of being a Communist simply because he was wearing a red kerchief tied around his neck. She lost two of her three sons in this war. The third son and her daughter now fought for the Republic in the north.
Every day we heard the booming of cannon from the front only a few miles off. Occasionally trucks carrying troops sped toward the front or returning ambulances raced toward the hospital down the street. One time a fleet of about twenty German Heinkel bombers crossed above us in the high blue sky, headed toward Madrid.
On the evening of our ninth day of training, we were fed a huge pile of Camila’s chopped potatoes, vegetables, and a chewy but tasty chunk of goat spiced with garlic, peppers, and parsley. Wine flowed from the wineskins until anxiety waned. Tomorrow we were to be put to the fire.
Small wonder I couldn’t sleep that night. I lay awake thinking about the first time I heard of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade when Professor Drummond brought it up in class. He told us the unit consisted of American volunteers who traveled to Spain to join in the defense of the Republic. Their gallantry helped save Madrid for the moment.
When we came out of class that day, Marty carried a printed blue flyer Drummond had handed him. JOIN THE FIGHT it said. An illustration of a muscled man, a rifle raised above his head, dominated the top of the page. It advertised a meeting to be held Thursday evening at 7:00 pm at the Workers’ Hall off Van Ness Street.
“Let’s go,” I said impulsively.
“I’m not going to Spain,” Dolores grumbled.
“Maybe we can help in some other way,” Marty said. “Let’s hear what they have to say.”
“Okay,” Dolores relented. “But I’m not going to Spain.”
I was no longer so sure of that, so I kept my mouth shut.
The room was set up to hold about fifty people, but only nine showed, six young men plus Marty, Dolores and me. The small audience did not diminish the zeal of the two men up front. One was a well-spoken, modestly dressed middle-aged American in a suit. The other was a slender, handsome, mustached Spaniard in black pants and a white shirt opened at the collar. A few tufts of dark chest hair showed. He was gorgeous, and I was captured, not so much by him as with what he said.
First, the American gave a short speech about how the Republic had been democratically elected to serve the workers and peasants, and how the fascists with German and Italian help were trying to overthrow it.
Then the Spaniard rose to speak, his English fluent but with a decided accent. Dramatic gestures punctuated his every fervent word. He showed us a movie of fascist bombs destroying Spanish cities and killing innocent people. Rows of Franco’s goose-stepping regular army soldiers contrasted with the brave Republican militias of armed workers and peasants. There were shots of determined Americans in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade undergoing training before moving into battle. When the film ended, the Spaniard closed with an impassioned plea for us to come to Spain to join la causa – the cause. “We fight not just for ourselves, but for ordinary people everywhere,” he said. “Por favor, we cannot let democracy die, murdered by tyrants.”
By the time he finished, my blood pumped like water through a fire hose. I realize now that I had been searching for a way to fight back against injustice ever since Daddy was badly beaten by police during the 1934 longshoremen’s strike. How helpless he and the other workers were to resist the power of the shipowners, the mayor, the governor, the police, and the national guard arrayed against them to break the strike. Here in Spain, a whole people were going through something even worse.
Two young working men signed up immediately. The others milled around talking to the Spaniard or the American. I pulled Marty and Dolores into a corner in the back of the room.
“We’ve got to go,” I said, about to burst.
Dolores looked at me as though I had flipped my lid. “You’ve got to be kidding. I’m not going to Spain, for godssake.”
“Let’s settle down,” Marty said. “This is serious business.”
“Real people are dying,” I shot back. “And did you see those Americans over there ready to fight? They have courage.”
Marty said nothing. Neither did Dolores. I stood there, erect as a soldier, hands on hips, my glare fixed on Marty until he looked away.
“You’d better think this over, Frannie,” he finally said.
“I’m signing up right now.”
He took a deep breath. “Alright. I can’t let you go alone.” So, the two of us signed up.
Dolores refused to speak to me all the way home until we got off the streetcar and walked the last few blocks to our neighborhood.
“If he’s killed it’s going to be your fault,” she said, spite in her voice.
“What are you talking about?”
“Are you so blind?” She sniffled and wiped her nose on the back of her hand. “He’s been sweet on you since the first day he met you. That’s why he’s going. For you, not for some stupid cause.”
I was speechless and as blind as she said I was. Witless nineteen-year-old girls like me thought the only kind of love was the romantic love one sees in the movies. I didn’t know there was any other kind. Marty and I had a special friendship, I knew that. But not a romance. Yet the moment Dolores said it I knew she was right. He was willing to risk his life because he loved me. And I couldn’t return that kind of love. That’s a lot of guilt for a young woman to carry around in her knapsack. But it’s how we ended up in Spain together in the middle of a civil war.
Marty snored in the cot next to mine. I envied him. Tomorrow we were going to take on the fascists in battle, and I was supposed to keep Marty alive, as well as save the Spanish Republic. And the hell of it was I didn’t even know how to fire a rifle.


The morning we were bloodied for the first time broke humid and gray. People would be killed, but I never thought I might be one of them. Our company was ordered to hold a strong point protecting Madrid against attack by a fierce force of Moroccans from the Spanish African Legion. “Stay close to me,” Marty commanded when we jumped down from the back of the truck. I nodded. I had no intention of being anywhere else.
Artillery explosions shocked my eardrums and shook the ground worse than a San Francisco earthquake. Thick smoke burned my eyes and gunpowder stuffed my nostrils. The rat-a-tat-tat from a machine gun nest resounded to my right. Whatever I expected war to be, I never expected it to be so loud and haphazard.
Our group crouched behind a stone parapet in an unplowed field. A sunburned road ran down to our left. I grabbed hold of Marty’s belt to make sure he was within arm’s length. The menacing Moors in their terrifying turban headdress moved from one trench and hill defilade to another with well-trained precision. Our side fired and fired, but the rounds from our antiquated Russian rifles died a hundred yards out, worthless. The fascists had new, modern German Mauser Karabiner bolt-action rifles that can hit a man at three hundred meters. The enemy crept closer and closer with deadlier and deadlier fire. One of the Jewish kids in our group from New York fell on his back, his legs bent under him, a big messy hole in his stomach, and a surprised look on his dead face. In the confusion of their assault, I lost sight of Marty. I shouted his name but with all the noise it was like shouting into the wind on a stormy night.
One of the bearded Moors, now nearly upon us, showed himself, his black eyes fixed on me. I took careful aim and fired my rifle for the first time. He suspended in mid-stride, paused, and toppled over. I felt the exhilaration a big game hunter must feel when he bags his first lion. Then I did it again and again and again. Each time I pulled the trigger a man fell and my heart pounded in celebration.
My last round stopped one of the bearded bastards not fifty feet from our wall. His Mauser rifle lay near his outstretched hand beckoning me. I had to have it. I crawled over the wall and made a run for it. The ping-ping-ping of rounds landed near me kicking up puffs of dirt. They barely registered. I wanted that rifle. I grabbed it, yanked the cartridge belt from the dead body, and then turned and scurried back.
I was nearly over the wall when a deep burn bit my calf. I fell to safety, blood on my pants. I’d been nicked. It hurt a little, but not much - a slight tingle, followed by a little hot and a little cold. Marty crawled over and poured water on it from his dented canteen, then wrapped a gray bandage around the wound, tying it in place.
“Are you nuts?” he yelled. “You could have gotten yourself killed.”
“Look at this rifle,” I answered, sticking out my new weapon for him to see.
We held our own that day until three German tanks smashed into our lines. An antitank gun knocked out one of them, but the other two advanced, firing on the Spanish company on our right flank until they broke and ran. We had no choice but to withdraw and regroup on the next hill behind a clump of farmhouses. The fascists did not pursue us.
A cluster of us sprawled beneath a tree in front of the lone remaining wall of an ochre casita smoking those long Russian cigarettes with cardboard tips and sharing a canteen of raw red wine. An essence of bull testes swirled in the air. Men who have been in battle smell like men in heat. A woman is little better. The Soviet officer who interceded on my behalf the first day ambled over. He had the broad forehead, bushy eyebrows, and squinty eyes of a Siberian Tatar. I learned his name was Oleg Veselov, and he was a major.
“Good shoots Comrade Potter,” he said in a tainted Russian accent. He nodded at my Mauser. “Nice rifle. Kill more fascists.”
I saw men die that day for the first time, and I killed. None of it bothered me as long as it wasn’t me who died, and it wasn’t Marty. After the battle, our Spanish interpreter, Diego Valera, gave me the nickname of la asesina – the assassin. Everyone soon called me that except Marty. He still called me Frannie.
In the second and third battles that soon followed, I felt I wore magic armor that protected me. But by the fourth or fifth battle, I prayed to God I wouldn’t be the one to die. And I didn’t even believe in God. By then, I hardly paid attention when my brethren shot a few Nationalist prisoners after the fighting died down, routine vengeance repaid in kind.
During the months that followed, my muscles grew hard as a bull’s behind, my skin turned the color of dark earth, and my hair bronzed under the Castilian sun. It was much the same for Marty except his black hair remained black, and he grew a handsome mustache. He looked healthy for the first time since I met him. The Spanish women of Madrid couldn’t keep their eyes off him; the prostitutes would have served him for free if he were willing. At least that’s what the other guys in our group teased.
We were now under an unrelenting barrage from the Nationalists’ artillery. Fleets of German and Italian aircraft terror bombed civilians in the center of Madrid without letup. The Republican air force could only respond with old bi-planes, and not enough of them.
We no longer had any illusions about the limits to which Franco, Hitler, and Mussolini would go. It made me angry, but for Marty, it ignited a frightening fury and despair that had no bottom. I worried about the heedless risks he took when we got into vicious firefights with German units. After such battles, he sought out German prisoners to execute.
I wrote home to Daddy and Mother whenever I could, telling them often about the brave and noble Spanish men, women, and children I had quickly come to love. I assured them with lies that, being a woman, I was kept safely behind the lines, out of harm’s way. “I’ll be proud of you no matter what the result,” Daddy wrote, “for standing up for the little guy.” He was following the war closely, he said. Mother, on the other hand, rarely wrote, and when she did, she told me how worried she was. She reminded me of the heartache I caused by sneaking off to Spain in the middle of the night without even saying goodbye.
Marty’s frequent packages from home usually contained a few luxuries and a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle. He shared his Lifebuoy soap with me, good enough to wash off some of the lice and fleas. He shared his mountain of candy with the children. I’d never seen him so happy as when he was playing with the little ones, or so sorrowful as when one of them was killed.
In early July, our battalion moved to the west end of Madrid and some of us were granted overnight passes to roam the city. We deceived ourselves into believing we were on vacation though hand to hand combat went on only fifteen blocks away amidst the library book stacks at the university. An occasional artillery round landed near us in the street spewing plaster and stone in all directions. We ducked in a doorway, and when the dust settled continued on our merry way.
Marty, two guys from Brooklyn, and I toured the Plaza Mayor, hung out at cafes, ate in a restaurant, and strolled by the Florida Hotel hoping for a glimpse of Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, or any of the other celebrity journalists covering the Republican side of the war. I swore I spied Hemingway, but Marty insisted it was only another Spaniard with a mustache trying to look the part.
Spotting luminaries was something of a game. Everyone but Abe Lincoln himself came to Spain to support the cause. I fell in love with Errol Flynn as soon as I saw him, even if I couldn’t get close enough to ravage him. Paul Robeson, the blacklisted Negro operatic star, sang to us. Dorothy Parker, George Orwell, W. H. Auden, and John Dos Pasos wrote about us. Parker gave me the once over when we met. She took a puff on her cigarette and blew the smoke out her nose. “Guys don’t make passes at girls who kick asses,” she smirked. Then she gave me a genuine smile and a pat on the shoulder. “Fuck ‘em. You keep kicking, sweetheart.
When our twenty-four-hour holiday ended, we returned to our quarters in a church emptied of all religious relics and all furnishings. The thick stone walls provided the best shelter from Madrid’s scalding summer heat. Late that afternoon, our battalion commander, with Soviet Major Petrov by his side, briefed us on the big offensive to begin the following morning. The Republican army, with the help of Russian military advisers, prepared to launch a surprise attack designed to relieve Nationalist pressure on Madrid and cut their lines in two.
When the briefing ended, Marty and I grabbed a bundle of hay and found a corner of the church where we could bed down for the night. Four or five Jews from New York City in black skullcaps prayed nearby, muttering chants in a language I could not understand. Half of the young men we met were Jews from New York City. Some of them tried to speak to Marty in Yiddish, but he only understood a few words and could speak even fewer. So, he smiled and nodded a lot. They weren’t even sure he was Jewish until they confirmed he was circumcised.
 “They’re praying in Hebrew. Saying Mourner’s Kaddish for themselves,” Marty said.
“What’s that?”
“It’s a prayer to honor the dead. They’re expecting to die tomorrow. I should join them.”
That made me mad. “You’re not dying tomorrow. And neither am I.”
Marty shrugged his shoulders and went back to cleaning his rifle. He examined the trigger housing and blew away a speck of invisible dust. “Why do you think so many on our side hate God?” he asked, changing the direction of our conversation.
“They don’t hate God. They hate the church for serving the landowners, not the people.”
“So they went out and murdered the village priests.” Marty inserted the trigger housing into the rifle’s stock. “And you? Do you hate your church?”
“I don’t have a church,” I answered. “We aren’t a religious family.”
Marty laid the assembled weapon to his side and turned toward me. He seemed momentarily taken by our spiritual sanctuary. “I don’t think I can live up to the goodness of these people we’re fighting for,” he said quietly, a catch in his voice.
“You? You’re a Boy Scout,” I laughed. “I can’t imagine you doing anything worse than sneaking into a movie.”
“You don’t even know what I did last night,” he said, dropping his gaze.
“You mean your roll with that prostitute?” I was just taking a wild guess, but Marty’s mouth dropped open, embarrassed. I must admit I found it hard to picture Marty with one of those busty women with the painted lips and fake flower in her coal black hair. It didn’t take much to imagine this was Marty’s first time. I was peculiarly jealous, though at least if he died he wouldn’t die a virgin.
“Please,” he begged. “Don’t tell anyone back home.”
I laughed again. “For Chrissake, Marty. What makes you think we’ll even be alive by this time tomorrow?”
He averted his eyes. Then he smiled. “You’re right. Still, I don’t want you to think less of me.”
“For being with a whore? That’s what you’re worried about?”
“You’ve done worse?”
I paused, not wanting him to think the less of me either. Then I proceeded to tell him about my favorite black and white saddle shoes I stole from the Emporium Department Store on Market Street back home.
“That’s it? No wonder I love you.” The adorable way he said it made me want to grab him and hug him. But soldiers don’t do that the night before a big battle. I reached over and grabbed his hand tightly in mine. He gripped back and held on.
By now the church was largely dark, most of the men asleep, some snoring loud enough to wake a saint. “This could be ugly tomorrow,” Marty whispered just before I nodded off. “The Nationalists kill any foreigners they capture, you know. But they torture them first. Promise me if I’m wounded and about to be captured you’ll shoot me.”
“I promise. You promise me the same.”
He squeezed my hand harder. “I promise.”
BRUNETE LAY NOT more than twenty miles from Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, but it may as well have been on the outskirts of hell. From the first day to the last, nineteen in all, we baked like snakes in the sands of the Sahara. Thirst tortured us as much as Nationalist bombs and bullets.
For a change, we were the ones on the attack with tens of thousands of troops, over a hundred tanks, armored cars, and heavy artillery. Some of our equipment was new and modern, each piece bearing the red star of our Soviet benefactors. We surprised the fascists, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade once again given the honor of leading from the center of the assault. The Italian forces opposing us broke and ran.
In the first skirmish, we found a handful of our comrades who had been captured. The fascists had executed them all, but not before torturing them alive and desecrating their dead bodies in the foulest manner.
Wave after wave of our brave fighters fell in our attacks like wheat stalks before a thresher. Wildfires burned across the dry yellow hills, ignited by the artillery explosions. The sun, the heat and the smoke dried my throat to a bitter cinder; wind-blown dust caked on my nose and lips. When on the fourth day there were few of us left, we made a desperate drive on Mosquito Ridge. We mustered the strength to charge the fascist trenches only because someone said they had water. Marty and I stuck to each other like salami and cheese.
A few of us fought our way to one of their bunkers. I threw a grenade into the slit killing everyone inside. A survivor in the trench outside raised his hands in surrender. I saw two canteens dangling from his belt, so I raised my Mauser rifle and fired three shots into his belly, relishing the terror in his face. He dropped. Marty watched, his lips grizzled as the grim reaper, then raised his rifle and fired three more shots into his face, demolishing his expression. We took the dead man’s canteens and paused long enough for a couple of good slurps of warm water. By then the assault had stalled. Our dead comrades lay in piles, among them the Abraham Lincoln brigade commander, Oliver Law, a Negro.
Nonetheless, we relieved the fascist siege of Madrid. We held our own against Franco’s best troops and pushed them back in fierce house to house fighting. Then we occupied trenches and emplacements on the heights protecting a major highway into Madrid. “No pasaran,” Diego, our interpreter, yelled. They will not pass.
The best part of our short-lived victory came hours after the last of the Italians retreated. Camila pulled up in the cook-wagon. She passed out huge pieces of beef, perfectly seasoned, cooked on two field grills, the first piece of beef to fill my stomach since I crossed the Pyrenees.
“Where did she come up with this?” I asked Diego, licking the last of it off my greasy fingers.
He smiled an elfin smile broad enough to count every one of his few remaining teeth. “We do not need bulls right now if we do not have bullfights.” He reached into the pocket of his baggy pants and pulled out the end of the black tail. “A gift,” he said, holding it out to me.
I politely declined.  “No hace falta.”  There’s no need.
He shrugged his shoulders and stuffed it back in his pocket. I loved my bow-legged friend. If Camila was my absent aunt and Marty my brother, then Diego was my uncle. His hunched back bore the mark of a laborer who had hauled as much material in his lifetime as an overburdened donkey.
Too bad about the bull. I had not yet had the opportunity to enjoy the most Spanish of spectacles. I would never be able to fully understand these people without understanding their passion for the sport, but fighting bulls were finding their way to the slaughter. Better the peasants should enjoy their first taste of beef.
THINGS DIDN’T GO well after that. Many more Nationalist troops and those from the German Condor Legion poured into the battle. High above, the German fighter planes knocked our outnumbered, outmoded planes from the sky. After nearly three weeks of hell, both sides ceased major operations. Every one of the original eleven in our group was dead except Marty, me, and the son of the kosher butcher from Brooklyn.
In the following months, the Republicans lost vital battles at Bilbao, Zaragoza, and Gijon in the north. As the year of 1937 drew to a close, many of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade survivors were ready to go home. Not me. And as long as I stayed, Marty stayed. I wish he hadn’t.
By now I was so much the soldier that I could have forgotten I was a woman except for the sex. It was an available, uncomplicated diversion. I found I quite enjoyed it and maybe was even good at it. With so few American women in the country, I was a unique commodity, a curiosity if nothing else. I had never even spoken to a Negro man before I left home. Then I let a Negro man have me, in just the way you think. His name was Luther Hodges, the first man I ever slept with. After that came a Polish volunteer, and then a Spanish anarchist from Valencia. He smelled like a pig sty with onion breath strong enough to kill a bull. But I liked him. I didn’t get around to a normal white American Christian until near the end.
Sex with Marty was out of the question. You see, I wanted his respect more than I wanted the respect of any person alive. In those last few months, Marty and I shared everything: our food, our ammunition, and even our underwear. We shared our most awful secrets, our brightest hopes, and our passion for the Spanish people. We convinced each other we were going to survive this.


For the first two months of 1938, we battled on bravely winning a small victory here and there only to be crushed in the end by overwhelming Nationalist counterattacks. We lost more people. We retreated. Franco’s army kept attacking, giving us no rest. By mid-April they reached the Mediterranean Sea, cutting the Republic in half. The remnants of our brigade withdrew into the collapsing Catalonian pocket.
Marty hadn’t smiled in weeks, his good nature replaced by sacrilegious sarcasm. A leather wine bag tucked in his knapsack was now a constant temptress. We continued to eat together and sleep next to each other, but he rarely talked to me or anyone, his eyes hollow and his face a milky gray. In the next battle, and the two after that, he took reckless chances, daring the fates or fascists to kill him. I didn’t know how I was going to keep him alive if he didn’t want to stay alive. Then the devil took a hand.
This one particular afternoon in August, our trucks unloaded us in a small farm town a hundred miles to the west of Barcelona. Its one paved street ran down to a narrow wooden bridge over the Ebro River. Our group found a spot in the dark barren cellar of a pock-marked two-story building.
Marty and I slung our knapsacks and rifles to the floor, exhausted. He set to cleaning his rifle and sharpening his bayonet, his dry, cracked lips fixed in a stony grimace. I pulled a stale piece of bread from my pack and offered half to him. He shoved it in his mouth and took a squirt of wine. “Enough of the wine,” I said, perhaps a little too sharply.
He glared at me through red-veined eyes. “The son of the butcher from Brooklyn deserted.” His eyes swiveled, trying to remember his comrade’s name through his inebriated haze.
“Abe Leopold,” I said. “And he didn’t desert. He just went home.”
“They’re going to hunt us down and kill us all. Hell, even the Russians are bugging out.”
No, they’re not. I just saw Major Veselov.”
Every muscle in Marty’s body tensed, resenting the increased attention the Russian was paying me. “It’s time we went home,” he snarled.
“You go home,” I answered. Then I said it again, quietly. “Please. Go home.”
“Come with me.”
“I can’t.”
He lifted his wine bag above his head again and squirted a long stream down his throat. About then our company commander descended the open wooden steps and called my name. “Potter. Can you run these dispatches up to battalion headquarters?” he asked.
Yes, sir.” I leaped to my feet, glad to be out in the air and away from my morose friend for a while.
The battalion staff always picked a nice palacio for its headquarters. I delivered the leather pouch with the dispatches to a lieutenant and then lingered around chatting, trying to pick up the latest gossip. They didn’t know any more than I did. I was about to leave when my old friend, and I use that word loosely, Major Oleg Veselov entered through the front door.
“Ah, Comrade Potter. You are still with us.”
“By luck,” I smiled.
“And your friend?” he asked, referring to Marty.
“Still here.”
“Such a pity,” he said, suggesting other possibilities if Marty were gone. He smiled in the tortured way Russians did when they tried to cover their insincerity. He paused a moment, and then touched my face. “Hermosa,” he said. Beautiful. His Spanish had improved a little, but not his bullshit.
An unlikely thought crossed my mind. “Major. I need a favor. A big favor. Not for me. For my friend Marty Hornstein. He is not well, but he insists on fighting the next fight. If he does, he will die.”
“And what would you ask of me?”
“Assign him to the battalion staff. Away from the fighting. Just for a little while. Until he gets well.” I was begging and I knew it, but I had no choice.
“And what do you have to offer for such a favor?” He put one hand in his pocket and one on his hip, examining me up and down.
“What can I offer?” I asked. “I have nothing but what you see.”
Mujer. That is enough.” 
He had called me a woman, though I looked like a dead rat and smelled like one, my hair in tangles, and my dust-covered uniform in tatters. I couldn’t believe what I had to offer could pay for what I was asking. He seemed to think it did.
We went down a hallway to a room in the rear of the house, a single bed with a filthy mattress in the corner. The major unfastened his high buttoned tunic deliberately and dropped his pants. It didn’t take him long to finish. He seemed as satisfied with our bargain as I was. He even tried to be a gentleman, not the usual Russian brute. True to his word, he immediately sent orders for Marty to report to headquarters. Then the major treated me to some Russian honey cake. He said his mother had sent it, but I suspect it was his wife. I savored the cake, chewing each bite slowly.
Ten minutes later, I was on my way out the door. The street was oddly quiet and still. My boots thudded on the dusty cobblestones, grating on a sore spot outside my little toe. The major’s smell floated from my body and into my nose. Halfway back to the company, Marty trudged toward me up the middle of the street, his knapsack, bedroll, and rifle slung over his sagging back. When he saw me, his face twisted into a scowl. I stopped, my arms outstretched to him.
“You whore,” he growled when he was nearly upon me. “Who asked you to butt in?”
My heart sank when I realized my sacrifice earned me no grace. “Marty, please,” I pleaded.
He brushed past me and kept walking.
I turned to see him enter the battalion headquarters just about the time I recognized the drone of approaching German Junker bombers, many of them. Our machine guns and antiaircraft guns opened deafening fusillades from the rooftops. Still, the bombers churned toward us. I ducked in a doorway when I heard the whistles of falling bombs.
A cloud of powdered cobblestone rose in front of me with the first explosions. Another hit down the street, and another around the corner. A child screamed and then a mother. I crouched lower in the doorway but could not make myself small enough. A machine gun and antiaircraft gun ceased firing when an explosion ripped through the roof of a nearby building.
The flotilla of Junkers passed. Dust and debris covered me. I was ready to bolt when the next wave of Heinkel bombers let loose their cargoes of high explosive ordnance. I ducked in my doorway again and covered my ears.
One explosion burst close to the headquarters, a near miss. The next three were right on target, so precise and devastating the bombardiers must have known the palacio was the command center. Marty was in that building.
I raced down the street and through the open door. Plaster dust blew down on me. Broken glass and crumbled bricks crunched under my feet. A wall was gone and blue sky glimmered through the shattered roof. I tripped over a body. Across the room, the dead Major Veselov lay against an unscathed field desk covered with rubble. He was missing half of his head. He seemed to stare at me from his one remaining eye. The foul odor of explosives and gore churned my gut.
Other bodies scattered the room. “Marty,” I screamed. “Marty.” No one answered. Then from the far corner near the hallway, I heard my name called ever so faintly: “Frannie.”
Marty was on his knees, his rifle by his side, blood streaming down his forehead and across his crust-covered cheek. His hands rested on his thighs. He turned and looked at me without expression or recognition. Then he toppled over.
I picked Marty up, carried him out of the building, and down the street to the medical aid station. It was like walking through the main boulevard of hell, fires burning, smoke obscuring the light of day, acrid high explosive gases choking, bodies sprawled on the cobblestones - two of them little girls holding hands. Some survivors ran, some walked like zombies. Some voices shouted commands and others pleaded for help or salvation. By now the bombers had passed. Crews rushed to rescue those from beneath the wreckage.
“Don’t you die, Marty. Don’t you dare die,” I shrieked at him. His eyes sunk back into his head, unresponsive.
When I burst into the aid station, Marty lay lifeless in my numb arms, one dangling leg nearly severed. The big lobby of the town’s only hotel churned with the dead, dying, and those trying to thwart the flow. “Help me. Help me.” I screamed it over and over, hysterical, until a scrawny Spanish nurse ran over. She took one look at Marty and shook her head. “Get a doctor,” I threatened, “or I’ll kill you.” She must have believed me because she ran off.
A red-headed doctor with an Irish brogue raced over, the scrawny Spanish nurse behind him. “Put him there,” he said pointing at a blood-splattered table. I lowered Marty as gently as I could. He moaned when his dangling leg dragged on the table top.
The doctor checked his breathing with his stethoscope and shined a flashlight in his eyes. He tore away the remnants of Marty’s pants leg and checked the grievous wound. “You have to save him,” I demanded, my heart hammering like a cannon.
The fatigued doctor turned his burned-out blue eyes on me. “We’ll try,” he said. “Now go wait outside until I come and get you.” 
I did what he said, taking a seat on the sidewalk, my back against the wall. I smoked one cigarette after another. What I really needed was some whiskey.
It may have been an hour later, or two, or maybe only fifteen minutes when the Irish doctor came out. “He’s going to live,” he said. “He’s a lucky fellow. You saved his life.”
“Can I see him?”
“There’s one more thing,” the doctor continued. “We can’t save the leg. We’re going to evacuate him to a hospital where they can amputate it.”
“Oh my god. Save me.”
Marty was still unconscious when I went in to see him. The pandemonium had diminished to mere frenzy, the dead removed and the damaged placed in makeshift beds. Some of his color had returned. His head was bandaged. I held his hand and bent down and kissed him on the lips. “You deserved better than me,” I whispered.
Stretcher bearers carried him out to a waiting ambulance where he was loaded on, along with two other men. The scrawny Spanish nurse climbed in behind him. They closed the doors and sped off. Marty was gone. But he was alive.


Our battalion was no longer the assembly of idealistic young Americans I had first known. We took so many casualties the ranks had to be filled with Spaniards, many of them women younger than me. With Marty gone, I felt all alone except for my Spanish friends, Camila and Diego.
One day a Nationalist onslaught overran our lines. A Guardia Civil in his leather three-cornered hat ran Camila through with a bayonet, killing her. Diego fell the same day, a grenade hurled into the trench where he manned a machine gun. Our counterattack pushed the fascists back far enough to recover their bodies and give them a proper burial in the hard-packed red clay, their graves marked with a large rock rather than a cross. Neither would have wanted a priest, so I said a few words of farewell. I could no longer cry.
A few weeks later in September of 1938, the Republic’s prime minister, Juan Negrin, ordered the withdrawal of all foreign fighters from the country. He had nothing to lose, wagering the international community, through the League of Nations, would then pressure Franco to remove all German and Italian forces. Negrin lost his hollow wager. One day I was spending all I had in frantic fighting, killing all the fascists I could, my own life no longer of much importance. The next day my war ended abruptly, with a whimper, our battalion pulled out of the line.
On October twenty-ninth, the men, women, and children of Barcelona gathered to bid farewell to our international brigade, volunteers who came from all over the world to save their republic. War raged nearby, but it didn’t stop what must have been a million people from turning out on the streets, on the balconies, and hanging out of the windows above. Spanish units in their finest uniforms paraded before us, but when the crowds lining the Diagonal saw us marching by in our tattered garb, they screamed and roared like a storm sweeping down a canyon.
We marched with our heads high and our arms raised in clenched-fist salute. Mothers held up their children for us to see and to see us. One little girl with big black eyes caught mine and threw me a kiss. I smiled. Flowers carpeted the street a foot deep. Tears ran down the cheeks of my new friend, Yvette Bisset, a pretty young French-Canadian volunteer from Montreal who marched at my side. She had seen her own share of mayhem in the past year from behind the wheel of an ambulance. 
When the parade was over, we were taken by bus through the terraced mountainsides to the town of Ripoll north of Barcelona, twenty-five miles from the French border. There we waited for nearly a month, the cold biting at us through dark skies. The food was meager, some of it with the odor of rot. Representatives of the U.S. government at last verified we were Americans entitled to repatriation and issued us the necessary certification. These officials considered us all Communists and were none too eager to have us back.
Still in a raw state of confused despair, I ended up in Marseilles with my new-found friend, Yvette Bisset. We rented a small, dingy flat above a rowdy bar near the docks. Rats and cats kept us company, but at least it was warm, dry, and free of gunfire.
In early February, I finally boarded a ship for America. I kept to myself during those eight days on the sea, gazing into the churning waves and mist, the skies above a grim gray. Every morning began with rage in my gut, ready to fight again. Every evening ended in dark solitude, haunted by the sad weathered brown faces of Spanish children and the piles of enemy dead. Sometimes I felt sorry for myself for still being alive, but much of the time I was too exhausted to care.

IF I THOUGHT I was escaping from Nazis and fascists by coming home, I was mistaken. A few days after I landed in New York City, the American Nazi party held a massive rally in Madison Square Garden. Over twenty thousand homegrown goons in their brown shirt uniforms and swastika armbands raised their arms in salute to their American Fuhrer. Anti-Semitic propaganda from the popular radio broadcaster, Father Coughlin, filled the airwaves. I read in a newspaper report that my idol Charles Lindbergh, and also Henry Ford, personally met with Adolph Hitler and received medals from him. They admired him, as eager to appease him as Chamberlain at Munich. 
No hero’s welcome from our government awaited me. I knew no one in New York, so I sought out the butcher’s son in Brooklyn, Abe Leopold. He fidgeted, nervous, when I showed up at his apartment door. He didn’t invite me in to meet his folks. He said right after he returned home, the FBI had paid him a visit. They did the same with other members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade he knew. It seems FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover suspected all of us of being Communists. He cared more about catching Reds than catching Nazis. I left Abe alone and moved on.
Not everyone felt the same as Abe, or I might have been forced to head home to San Francisco. I wasn’t ready for that. You see, I couldn’t face Marty. There was a lot I needed to figure out first. But everywhere I went, I found a union hall where the members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade were heroes. These big, burly union men knew of the casualties we suffered and our bravery. I let them believe I was an ambulance driver if they couldn’t imagine a woman fighting in the trenches, even a woman like me who could never pass for Vivien Leigh. An ambulance driver was good enough for them. Whenever I asked, they found me small temporary jobs to sustain myself.
First I grabbed a train to Philadelphia, and then after a while moved on to Baltimore. In mid-March of 1939, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. Two weeks later, Republican forces in Spain surrendered and the United States recognized the Franco government. A week after that, Mussolini seized Albania.
After Baltimore, came Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis. In each place, I looked up a few comrades from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade when I could find them, or their parents if they were dead. The grieving mothers and fathers embraced me like an unexpected visitation from the beyond. I lied to them when I told them how bravely their sons had died, and how painlessly.
On the Greyhound between Kansas City and Chicago, I started a letter to Marty. Twice before I wrote him telling him about the final months in Spain, my special feelings for him, and how sorry I was for what happened to him. But the letters sounded like self-pity so I threw them away unmailed. This one was no better. I crumpled it up and tossed it in a trash barrel during a rest stop in Springfield.
The truth was I could never give him back his leg or his soul. And I couldn’t give him the kind of love he wanted. Yet I loved him deeply in my own special way, in a way maybe even better than the way he wanted me to love him. In the good times, away from battlefields, he made me happy and content, and I made him happy and content. We were best friends. What could be better than that?
By the time I reached Chicago, I admitted something had to change. I went into Marshall Field’s and bought the first dress I had worn in nearly three years. It was gray with pink and blue flowers, buttoned up the front, with a big collar. Next, I had my hair done, my nails painted, and I applied some subtle red lipstick. When I first walked in the beauty shop, the beautician took one glance at the mess and said, “honey, you look like you’ve been in a war.” Then she went to work, all the time gossiping about Bette Davis, Greer Garson, and Henry Fonda. I exited the shop feeling pretty. A few men gave me a healthy examination, and one gave me a whistle, the first time that ever happened.
In late July, a letter from Daddy caught up with me in Omaha. He simply said, “Come home, Frannie. It’s time.” The next day I bought a train ticket to San Francisco on the California Zephyr.


For nearly four days, loneliness and anticipation rode with me across the prairies, across the rivers and over the Rocky Mountains, lost in thoughts of San Francisco, Mother, Daddy, my little brother Ernie – and Marty.
Again and again, I came back to Marty. Remember, this was 1939. Good Protestant girls like me didn’t get mixed up with Jewish boys. Still, here was this wonderful man who loved me so much he was willing to follow me into a war. I prayed he would forgive me for everything. And if he did, what then? Life would be unimaginable without him in it.
Daddy was so glad to see me alive he would have forgiven me anything. Mother forgave nothing. She still hadn’t gotten over my running off to Spain in the middle of the night without telling her. Ernie, my little brother wasn’t so little anymore. His voice was changing and he was nearly as tall as me. Ernie was the only one brave enough to ask me about the white scars on my leg and my neck. No one could see the other scars with my clothes on.
For the first few days home, all I did was sleep, wallowing in the cleanliness of the bed and Mom’s cooking. Meat appeared on our plates more often than before I left. Daddy twice took me to meet his buddies at the longshoremen’s union hall. A few checked me out, but most treated me like a celebrity, a respected war veteran.
I was not welcomed home a hero by everyone. A couple of months earlier, while I still wandered America, the FBI rapped on our door inquiring about me. They wanted to know if I was a Communist. “She ain’t here,” Daddy said. “Don’t live here no more. Now get off my front porch.” When I heard the story, I gave him a big hug.
Coit Tower, Telegraph Hill, the Ferry Building, and the bay were more beautiful that late summer than I can ever remember. I woke each morning smelling the fog drift in. The city of San Francisco was so normal it felt oddly dull. Crowds on Market Street and Union Square went about their business without a care in the world. Daddy worked nearly every day now for good wages, and Mother no longer had to serve us watery soup. Yet everything seemed without purpose. The opening of the International Exposition on Treasure Island captured more attention than the death of democracy in Spain or Hitler’s threats of war in Europe. I wondered if anyone in San Francisco was reading the newspapers.
A few weeks passed. The end of August neared and still I hadn’t let Marty know I was home. I was afraid he wouldn’t even see me. Fear collided with yearning. When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I did what every coward does. I sought an intermediary.
My old friend Dolores Brown worked at the Rexall Drug Store on Mission Street. It was close to quitting time when I stopped in. She tried hard to act glad to see me, but she never was much of an actress. I asked her out for a cup of coffee at the big Woolworth’s on Market and Powell. On our walk over, we struggled to pick up the loose thread of an old friendship. She was disinterested in my ordeal in Spain, or about much of anything of substance. She was entering her senior year at San Francisco State College. All she talked about was her dull classes and the goofy boys she hung out with. I gathered she was still a virgin, so her life couldn’t have been all that thrilling.
A waitress in a pink and white uniform brought us the coffees we’d ordered. Dolores filled her cup with milk and two pounds of sugar. I took mine black as tar. I lit a cigarette, and stared off into space, my arms locked around myself.
“You’re different since you’re back,” she said.
I didn’t respond until my comprehension caught up with the sound of her voice. “What do you hear about Marty?” I asked.
“You haven’t seen him yet?”
“No. Should I?”
“That might not be such a good idea,” she said. “I don’t think he wants to see you.” Her smug look suggested she enjoyed saying it.
“How do you know that?”
“Because he told me. I saw him when we were signing up for classes. He showed me his wooden leg and said you gave it to him. He wasn’t joking.” Then she delivered her big shot. “He also told me he has a serious girlfriend. A Jewish girl his mother fixed him up with.”
I didn’t much like Dolores after that. Maybe I never did. Still, her message about Marty rang true. I could hardly blame him. Why hadn’t I been able to give him the words of love he wanted to hear? That’s all it would have taken.
Two days after my conversation with Dolores, I woke with a pit in my stomach, not an unusual feeling for me these days. Another nightmare must have visited me in the night. When my head cleared, I recognized the smell of bacon coming from the kitchen. The sun was up so Daddy mustn’t have been going to work today. I put on my robe and went downstairs. He sat alone at the kitchen table reading the front page of the Chronicle. A dirty plate of what had been eggs and bacon sat in front of him. Smoke curled from the cigarette between his yellowed fingers. He looked up when he saw me, a troubled expression on his wrinkled face. I poured myself a cup of coffee from the metal pot sitting on the stove and sat down beside him at the table.
“Not good news this morning, Frannie,” he said, handing me the newspaper.
The large headline across the front page screamed:  NAZIS, SOVIETS SIGN PACT; HITLER TELLS BRITISH IT’S TOO LATE FOR PEACE; ALL EUROPE ARMS!
I scanned the articles about the crisis. Hitler demanded Poland capitulate to German terms under threat of invasion. The British and French repeated their pledge to defend Poland and began mobilization. Roosevelt hurried back to Washington from a vacation cruise to urge peace among the belligerents.
“Where were these assholes in Spain? Hitler could have been stopped there,” I fumed. Daddy cringed at my coarse language.
“This ain’t your fight, Frannie,” he said, gently placing his rough hand on my arm.
 “I didn’t know much about Hitler before Spain,” I said. “I know him now. He isn’t going to stop.” I pulled my arm from under his hand and took a cigarette from his pack of Chesterfields.
“You’re not thinking of doing something stupid, are you?”
“Stupid? You think what I did was stupid?”
“I didn’t mean it that way honey.” He took a last puff and snubbed out his cigarette in the metal ashtray. “It’s just that I look at those scars on you and I want to weep.”
I covered the white blotch on my throat with my hand. “What am I going to do? Just sit here and wait for Hitler to sail into San Francisco Bay?”
The next afternoon the mailman knocked on our front door to deliver a letter with an international postmark. “Thought it might be important,” he said, tipping his hat to me. The letter was postmarked Montreal from my friend Yvette Bisset. It’s time to fight again, she wrote. Canada will be in it. America won’t. Come join me. She signed it: Your comrade forever, Yvette. I stuffed the letter in my dress pocket.
That night I tossed and turned until the early hours. When I went downstairs in the morning, Mother, Daddy, and Ernie were huddled around the radio. “Warsaw is under bombardment by German Heinkel and Junker bombers,” the agitated British announcer chattered. “Nazi troops and tanks crossed the border at dawn this morning at many points and are now rolling through the Polish countryside.” Mother looked up at me with the long ashen face of a woman whose child is soon to be taken from her. She held Ernie’s hand tightly. Daddy stared at the radio as if beaten dumb. The radio station cut to its correspondent in Berlin and then to its London correspondent where the British moved to a full war footing.
I picked up Ernie’s baseball bat and would have smashed the radio with it if Ernie hadn’t rushed over and thrown his arms around me. “Don’t go away again,” he begged. I hugged him and ran my fingers through his hair.
I needed room to breathe, away from my family. I wandered downtown. The usual Friday crowds weren’t there. The few men and women I passed looked sober as morticians, hands buried in their pockets against the crisp overcast morning and the chill of war. I decided to escape to one of the bars on Market Street but none of them were open yet. In front of one of them, a huge poster advertised the exhibit of Pablo Picasso’s already-famous Guernica at the Museum of Modern Art, the first stop on its American tour to raise money for Spanish war relief. The huge painting depicted in stark black, white, and brown the fascist terror bombing of the town of Guernica in northern Spain during the second year of the war. Sixteen hundred women, children, and old men died helplessly in the attack.
The museum exhibiting Picasso’s masterpiece was in the War Memorial Veterans Building, a short walk past city hall and across Van Ness Avenue. I pulled my coat tight around me and followed my feet without much thinking.
When I stepped off the elevator and into the room, Guernica surrounded me, massive, from the floor to the high ceiling. I looked but did not see Picasso’s wild-eyed bull, the terrorized woman, the tortured horse, or the flame in the lamp. Instead, I saw my fallen comrade, Diego, his arm severed at the elbow, his hand still gripping his rifle. I saw a mother in front of me who died screaming in Zaragoza, with her dead baby in her arms. I saw dead Americans from my group with their guts and their brains oozing out onto the streets of Villanueva. I saw bombs from German planes exploding on innocent children and old women. And, at last, I saw Marty covered in plaster, his body limp, a leg dangling by threads. All of this at the hands of barbarians - fascists. No one came to help my noble Spaniards except those of us from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Now it was happening again, bombs whistling down on Warsaw in the early morning light, the Nazi blitzkrieg poised to sweep across Europe and to America. Who was going to stop them?
The room began to spin. I stumbled backward, staggered over to an oak bench in the center of the room and collapsed onto it. For the first time since Spain, tears fell in unrelenting cascades. I shook all over, as feverish as at the battle of Brunete and as frozen as at Teurel. Still, I could not take my eyes from Guernica. If anyone else was in the exhibit room, I didn’t see them. I slumped over and closed my eyes against the horrors. How long I lay there on the bench, in a stupor, I do not know.
I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder, a familiar hand. “Frannie, it’s me, Marty.” It couldn’t be, but when I came to my senses, there he was. I threw my arms around him and kissed him hard on the lips. He kissed me back and held me tight.
We pulled away, our arms still around each other. He looked at me with kindness I did not deserve. “I knew I would find you here,” he said. I hugged him again so hard I could have hurt him. He was all flesh and bones. He gave me his handkerchief to wipe my blotchy face and blow my red runny nose.
“Come on,” he said. “I think we’ve had enough of this.”
He struggled to his feet leaning on a dark wooden cane. I wanted to help him but resisted the impulse. We took the elevator down and exited to the gardens next to the Veterans Memorial Building. He held on to my elbow all the way. He winced once, and we stopped for him to catch his breath. “I’m still getting used to this new leg,” he said without self-pity. But I pitied him.
He said he was starting school again at San Francisco State. He was thinking about becoming a college history professor. I told him about my little brother Ernie and the novel I was reading. Both of us talked nonsense as if it were any other ordinary day. The German invasion of Poland made it anything but an ordinary day. Neither of us mentioned Spain.
His mustache was gone. He again looked like the preppy young man with the adorable smile I first met. Only now the indelible sadness of Spain etched itself in premature worry lines and a sag in his shoulders.
We walked a little further along the dirt path into the garden. Then I helped him sit down on a green wrought iron bench nestled between a couple of leafy poplar trees. Pink, yellow and white chrysanthemum flower beds scented the air. I sat beside him, a safe distance between us. When he was settled, he rested his hands on the curved top of the cane. The sky was now a vivid blue, the fog gone, the warming sun glittering off the dome of city hall across the street. No one else was in the garden, and only a few people walked Van Ness Avenue.
“I’ve got to say it, Marty,” I began. “I’m sorry for ….”
“Stop,” he said firmly, anticipating what was coming. “I went to Spain for you, but I went for myself too. And the longer we were there the more I believed in what we were doing.” He said it with the conviction of one who’s earned the right. “If I had the chance I’d do it all over again.”
I lowered my head. “I’m so ashamed,” I said.
“We all did things we’re ashamed of.”
“At least I never lied to you.”
Marty stretched his wooden leg and rubbed the stump, then settled back. A near-empty streetcar clanged its bell as it pulled away from the stop on Van Ness. An odd hush suffused the usually bustling street. “That Spanish nurse told me you saved my life,” he said.
Thoughts of the Russian major snuck back into my mind, so I changed the subject. “You know what bothers me most is I don’t like losing to those bastards. I want a rematch.”
He chuckled.
“I’m serious.”
“I’m sure you are.”
“More children and women and old men are going to be killed,” I said referring to the coming conflict. “And many young men.”
“I’ll do something to help when America gets in it,” he said. “If it weren’t for this,” he tapped on his false leg with his cane, “I’d do something right now. You? You don’t have to wait.”
As so often happened when I talked to Marty, what must be done became evident. “Canada is going to fight with the British now. I’m going to join up.” The way I blurted it out must have sounded as if I’d thought everything through already. I hadn’t. But as soon as I said it I knew it was right.
“I wish I could come with you,” he said. He took my hand in his and looked at me with those deep dark eyes.
I hesitated, reluctant to speak what was in my heart. But if I learned anything, I learned you had to say what you had to say while you still could. I kissed him lightly and tenderly on the lips. When he kissed me back, everything in the world finally felt right again.
“There are all kinds of love,” I said when I pulled back. “I’m only starting to figure that out. What I know is I’ve never met anyone as good as you, or anyone I loved more.”
“Please Frannie. You don’t have to….”
“Don’t stop me. I need to say it. I love you. When this is over and I come back, I want to marry you if you’ll have me.”
He ran his fingers across my cheek, then kissed me on the forehead. He smiled. “I’ll never stop loving you, no matter what. But you can’t come back here, at least not to stay. There will always be another war, another righteous cause, and you will always need to be there to fight it.”
I wanted to argue with him, to tell him he was wrong, to tell him I loved him and would come back to him to live our lives together forever. Instead, I wrapped my arms around him and hugged him desperately.
I wished he wasn’t right.

* * *