A Speaking Engagement
The people who had come wanted to know the usual things: did he think we could win, did he think there were terrorists operating here at home, did he like working with the Americans?
But it was over now.
It was over, what little part he’d really had in it, and his hour had never come, and now he was going around talking about it. Today he had been invited to a speaking engagement at the community centre. He was most of the way there when a full bladder overtook him, so he pulled over at a doughnut shop. He got out of his car, stiff in his uniform, and stepped into a light snowfall. He had just reached the door when a woman he recognized came out. She smiled.
—Paulie Robak? Oh my God!
—Amy? said Paul.
It had been ten years or so since he had last seen her. She looked good. She was taller than he remembered and she had a bright and open smile.
—Paulie, said Amy, what are you up to?
—I’m just stopping for a minute. I’m actually in a bit of a hurry.
—So am I. I left my engine running.
She pointed to her car, a beat-up import on the other side of the parking lot. Sharp flakes of snow moved around them but an edge of sunlight was pearling through the clouds.
—Is that an army uniform you’re wearing?
Paul looked down at himself as though he had forgotten. He saw the polished oxfords and the pressed trousers and the tunic and the shining buttons. He adjusted his beret. He wondered if Amy was seeing the little star and the ribbon pinned to his chest.
—I have a speaking thing today, said Paul. I had to dress up for it.
—I guess you’d have some interesting things to say.
—I guess, said Paul.
The moment stagnated then, mostly because Paul was still at odds and couldn’t think of anything to set it right. Amy shrugged. She shrugged beautifully. She said again that it was good to see him, and she turned to go.
She was almost at her car when Paul called after her. He went over, taking care not to slip on the ice. He was trying to ignore his need to urinate.
—Amy, wait. I’m staying at my brother’s place. If you want to catch up more, you know, give me a shout. It’s in the phone book.
She nodded and said, Maybe I will. If I have some time. Work has me running around in circles usually. If it’s not work, it’s Becky.
—Becky, said Paul.
—My little girl.
Paul inclined his head, tried on a smile.
Then Amy was gone. Paul hustled into the doughnut shop. He felt eyes on him from all directions. He went straight into the washroom. When he came back out, he decided he had enough time to get a coffee. He was thinking about how good it felt to have an empty bladder. And he was thinking about Amy Tripp.
He went to the counter, ordered a double-double to go. But as he reached for his wallet, a man in line behind him intervened.
—Let me get that for you, son.
In the month since Paul had come home, he had given the presentation twice already, both times in the history classroom of his old high school. The presentation was ready made: you just told the chain of command that you had a speaking engagement, and then the public affairs people gave you the slide show and a deck of notes. There were facts and figures and little bits of narrative. Lots of good pictures. Everything had official approval.
This time, he was inside a room in the basement of the community centre. They had set up a projector for him, and the projector backlit the heads, mostly grey haired, of the fifty or so people who had come to hear him speak. He couldn’t see much except for the far wall and a shuffleboard table. The room smelled of coffee and floor wax.
The final slide of the presentation was a picture of a brown kid in ragged but clean clothes, grinning in front of a newly repaired village school. There was a caption that read, Questions??
The people who had come wanted to know the usual things: did he think we could win, did he think there were terrorists operating here at home, did he like working with the Americans? What was different from the presentations he had given to the high school kids was that these older people didn’t ask him if he had killed anybody.
A tiny white-haired lady raised her hand. She said, What a good thing you’ve done, you know. You must be so proud of your service. But I wondered, would you tell us, what was your very proudest moment?
Paul sipped from the glass of water they had given him.
—Well, ma’am, I guess my proudest moment isn’t one thing alone, so much. It’s more about being able to stand up here and tell you about the good work we’re doing. How I was a part of it. I hope that makes sense to you.
There weren’t many other questions. A man came up to the podium and thanked Paul on behalf of the civic association that had invited him to speak. The man was further pleased to show everybody an oversized honorarium cheque for $50 that was being donated to a charity of Paul’s choosing. The people in the room clapped. The kid on the final slide grinned his frozen grin with the village school behind him.
Some of the people milled around afterward to talk to Paul. Someone said the Legion might ask Paul to come give the presentation there. A woman asked if he would speak to her CFUW chapter, possibly next week. Paul smiled and nodded and passed along his contact information to anyone who asked for it. He felt sweat creeping out around his collar and rolling down his back.
It was late February and very cold, and the streets and sidewalks were grey and scoured with salt. He drove around a lot. He spent time at the library. He still had a few friends in town. One was a mechanic and one was a teacher. He went for beers with them a few times, and he could feel how they talked around their questions and gave him sidelong looks. Mostly he went about in a kind of daze, wondering how long it would take for boredom to set in, wondering if it already had.
A week after Paul spoke at the community centre, the woman from the CFUW called him. She asked if he would speak at a luncheon on the coming Friday, and Paul agreed that he would.
On the Thursday evening, Paul ironed his uniform and polished his oxfords. He looked at the medal and the little strip of ribbon it hung from. Then he went into the kitchen, where his brother Stu was cooking dinner. Stu’s wife, Janine, five months pregnant, was in the living room watching TV. Paul made a token effort of helping with the cooking, but he wasn’t much use. He sat down at the table.
Stu, working the frying pan, asked Paul if he had given much thought to what he was doing next. Paul shrugged. He said he had been thinking of going to see their mother for a little while. He still had another six weeks of paid leave.
The phone rang. Janine picked it up in the living room.
—Well, whatever you want to do, said Stu, you know you can stay here as long as you need to.
Paul nodded. Janine stuck her head into the kitchen and said, Paulie, it’s for you.
She gave him the portable phone. Paul said hello. On the other end was a female voice. He thought at first it was the CFUW woman calling again.
—Paul? It’s Amy Tripp. Hey, I wondered if you were busy tonight.
Stu lent Paul a nice collared shirt, and Paul cleaned up and then drove himself through town to a restaurant on the lakeshore. The restaurant had been renovated to look quaint and rustic, but Paul remembered when it used to be a seedy sports bar known for serving alcohol to minors. He got out of his car, hoping he hadn’t applied too much cologne.
Amy was already there, sitting at a table near a stone fireplace, and when she saw him she raised her hand in greeting. She stood up as he approached. She was wearing nice jeans and a dark cardigan. He hugged her and immediately wondered if that was an appropriate gesture.
—It’s good to see you again, said Paul.
—For sure, you too. I figured we could catch up without being in such a hurry.
At first, their conversation was politely spare. She also remembered what kind of place the restaurant used to be. Her high school boyfriend had gotten into a fight with Ryan Decker, a friend of Paul’s, right over there, where they had the wine rack now. She laughed as she talked about it. Her eyes flashed.
A waiter came by and asked what they would like to drink.
—Maybe some wine? said Paul.
Amy seemed to give it some thought.
—Sure. Why not? I don’t get out with old friends much.
They consulted the wine list and ordered a bottle of imported Merlot. It was expensive, but for now Paul was not worried about money. He wondered vaguely how long that freedom would last.
An old friend, she had called him. What did that mean?
Anyway, it wasn’t completely true. They had been acquaintances in high school more than they had been friends. They had taken a few classes together. She had always seemed to Paul to be a little out of his reach. He remembered a big summer party, after graduation, where he had seen Amy playing guitar. She had had bleached hair and a nose ring back then. He had no recollection of having seen her after that, or really having thought of her, until he ran into her.
—You’re going to have to tell me everything, said Paul.
—Yeah. We’ve got, like, ten years to account for. You said you have a little girl?
—Becky, said Amy.
She took a photograph out of her purse. Paul saw a little girl grinning around missing teeth. The picture made him think of the last slide of the presentation, the kid outside of the village school. Questions??
—She’s four there, said Amy. That’s two years ago.
—Where is she tonight?
—She’s with her grandma. They get along super-well. I can tell you, Paulie, I don’t know what I would do if my mother wasn’t around to help me out. I’d lose my mind.
They had salads to start, and then Paul had a steak and Amy had salmon. They drank most of the bottle of wine and when the waiter came around again Paul took the gamble of ordering another bottle. Amy didn’t say anything to stop him. After the new bottle came and they had refilled their glasses, she told him her story.
She had gone to university in Alberta. Fast-tracked a bachelor of science and then enrolled in pre-med. This surprised him. He was a little bit drunk and his words came out before he could stop them: I never would’ve pictured you as a doctor, Amy.
She laughed and shrugged her beautiful shrug.
—Well, there you go. I never would’ve pictured you as an army guy. Anyways, I’m not a doctor.
She had fallen on some hard times when she was twenty-two. Her dad had died suddenly. Her grades had slipped. She talked about heading in the wrong direction for a while. She made mention of someone named Todd, how they had lived together. He was this crazy, brilliant musician, ten years older than she was. But he ran around on her a lot. She knew he did, but she didn’t seem to know how to get herself out from under his thumb. All the wrong directions, Paulie. She was almost twenty-three when she found out she was pregnant. She didn’t mention anything about abortion or adoption. Paul stopped himself before he asked.
Becky was born in October six years ago. Amy said things changed after that. Things gained perspective and clarity in a way they hadn’t before. She couldn’t explain it, and she didn’t want Paul to take offence if she said that he probably couldn’t understand what she meant, but she thought it had something to do with being the one who physically brings life into the world. In any case, Todd didn’t share the awakening. He stayed around a year or so longer, and then one night he told Amy he was leaving, and he didn’t say why. A couple of weeks later, she had found out that he had moved in with another girl.
—I hated him for a long time, said Amy. I really did. I had no money, Paul. Do you have any idea how people look at you when they know you’re on welfare? God, I hated him. But I don’t, not anymore.
—Because it’s a waste, Paulie. It’s a waste to drag that crap around with you all the time. It will eat you up, man. Look at the world, how it is. Don’t you think there’s way too much of it everywhere?
—Exactly. Doesn’t a guy like you, of all people, know about that?
—I guess, said Paul.
She said she had no idea where Todd was now. She didn’t care to know. She had full custody of Becky, and that was all that mattered to her. When Becky was three, Amy went back to school. She studied occupational therapy. It was a difficult go, on her own, with Becky and school. Paul did not think she was telling him any of this to garner sympathy or to impress him. She was just speaking honestly, talking about what she had known.
Two years ago, she had come back to their hometown. She had applied for a business loan with collateral her mother had put up out of her retirement savings. With the loan, Amy had started a small clinic in town to treat and rehabilitate injuries. Everything you can imagine, she said. All the construction crews around here, the road crews, the guys who work at the quarry. She had started with two or three clients and now she had twenty.
—It’s going good, said Amy. Everything’s looking good. I love what I do. What else can you ask for?
—It’s true, said Paul.
—But you have to tell me, what about you?
Paul nodded. He took a drink of wine. The second bottle was two-thirds empty, and the restaurant had thinned out. He told her about his undergraduate degree in history. He alluded to some relationships from his past, one serious, one a little more serious. They had lived together, but the girl had been a few years younger and had departed suddenly, citing the need for some space to figure things out. What did people mean when they said that?
He told Amy how when he was midway through school he had joined the army reserves, commissioned as a second lieutenant. He joined initially because the reserves would pay for half of his tuition. And also because he liked the pictures: soldiers moving stealthily through the forest, that sort of thing. One night a week, Paul would go to the armoury and practise drill. Every fourth weekend, they would go out to a base somewhere and practise tactics. Paul took training courses when he could. They made him a lieutenant and gave him a platoon. It didn’t take him long to learn that only a small fraction of the part-time training was captured in the recruiting pictures, but by then he had made some good friends and had had a lot of good times.
Two years ago, he had filled out the paperwork to volunteer himself for overseas deployment with the regular force. All the junior officers he knew were filling out the paperwork. You signed it off, got the commanding officer’s blessing, lifted a beer in the mess to everyone’s courage, and then gave it no more thought, not thinking it would actually happen.
By day, he had worked in the human resources department of the university he had attended. It was contract work, nothing to do with his undergrad. He had lived in the student ghetto, sharing a place with some friends he played varsity soccer with.
Then the chief clerk of his reserve unit had called him at work one day. The chief clerk said there was a position on the next overseas rotation. Paul was qualified for it, and his voluntary application had been approved, so did he want to go? The chief clerk was detached about the conversation. Disinterested. He told Paul to let him know as soon as he could, because they would have to source the position to someone else if Paul didn’t want it.
—I don’t understand a lot of this terminology, said Amy.
—Don’t worry. I don’t either. The army runs on jargon. You just have to trust it. It’s like church.
—So they basically asked you if you wanted to go overseas, and…
—And I went. About two months after I said I’d go, I had to move to a base. I was there six months, training up. Then we hopped on a plane and went over and did business.
—Hopped on a plane and went and did business. Are you going to tell me about it?
Paul turned his wineglass in his hand. He fixed a look on the tablecloth, and then he met her eyes. He said: How about this. If we get together again, I’ll tell you about it, about being over there.
—Okay, said Amy. Fair enough. I can understand if it’s something you don’t want to talk about.
—It’s just hard to say it right.
—So what were you doing that day I ran into you?
—I had a speaking thing I had to go to. To talk about the mission and all that. These speaking things come up. Remember Mr. Carling? Grade ten history? I’ve spoken to his class a couple times. I’m going to speak at a lunch tomorrow for the University Women’s Club.
—You’re in high demand, Paulie Robak.
—The last one, the day I saw you, was a bunch of older people. This little old lady asked me what my proudest moment was, and I told her it was when I got to come and talk to people and tell them about the good shit we’re doing over there. I lied to her.
—You lied to a little old lady? That’s not good.
—I know. But you want to know the truth? The proudest moment of my life was when I got to walk into my boss’s office. This was when I was working at the university. I got to walk into her office and say, Hey, I think I’m quitting. And when she asked me why, I told her that I was going overseas with the army. For once, the whole time I worked there, she couldn’t think of anything to say for, like, a full minute. That was my proudest moment ever. How’s that for a cheap thrill?
Paul tried to pay the bill, but Amy insisted they split it. Outside, the night was clear and there were stars far above the street lights. Paul was debating what would happen next, whether he was okay to drive back to his brother’s place or if he should call a cab, but then Amy asked him if he wanted to come over for a drink.
—Oh, said Paul. Yes. For sure.
—I don’t usually… anyways, come on.
Her place was walking distance from the restaurant. It was a decent-sized two-bedroom above a law office. When they got inside, she turned on a lamp and put some quiet music on the stereo. Paul stood at the top of the stairs, thawing out from the walk. The apartment was neatly kept. There was a framed Monet print on the wall above the couch and a child’s scribbled artwork held by magnets to the refrigerator. Amy gently closed one of the bedroom doors. Paul guessed it was her daughter’s room. Despite the fact that the child was not there, it was better somehow that the door was shut.
—I don’t keep much booze here, said Amy. I have a little bit. I’m not sure what.
She opened a cupboard above the refrigerator. Paul caught sight of a couple of bottles. She ended up finding a twenty-sixer of Scotch, from which she poured two glasses. They took their drinks and sat on the couch. She curled against the armrest and when he looked at her she smiled and shrugged again and Paul put his glass down on the coffee table and took her glass and put it beside his and moved himself against her and that was that.
Goddammit. I’m sorry.
—Don’t be. Not at all.
—I guess I was just excited. I don’t know.
—I’ll take it as a compliment.
—Do you want to stay?
—Do you want me to?
—Sure. I’m not in a real rush tomorrow morning. Here, let me up to go to the bathroom. I’ll be right back.
He woke sometime later in the dark strangeness of the bedroom. There was nothing to tell him what time it was. His breathing was shallow and strained and he was hot beneath the covers. He could just make out Amy’s form beside him. He sat up and found that he was still drunk.
He went into the kitchen, taking care not to bump into anything. There was a night light on the wall, and by its faint glow he poured himself a glass of water and drank it down and poured himself another and tried to get a grip on his breathing.
Why this, why now? Here?
Because it came to him that he was the wrong man to speak for it. For any of it.
If Amy were to wake now and ask him why he had risen, what he was doing, was he okay, he could tell her how this happened sometimes. You know, it has to do with being over there, shit I’m just remembering. Can’t get out of my head. So take me back into your arms and care for me.
She would, he thought. She would do that. He had that sense about her. But his story would be mostly bullshit.
The truth was, he’d had a pretty safe tour overseas—as safe as it could be there. He had been a staff officer in the headquarters. The headquarters was tucked away in the middle of a vast and heavily fortified air base. His was a desk job where you took your pistol and your body armour and helmet with you, and mostly you stood on the receiving end of the gripes and abuses of senior officers. They bitched about incorrect file numbers or different interpretations of punctuation. They made you rewrite reports so that anything initially written as a tactical failure was rephrased as an operational challenge or a learning opportunity. Paul and the other officers he worked with quarrelled among themselves about who had used whose pen without asking, or who was shirking the number crunching on various reports, or who couldn’t spell for shit. A great deal of effort was expended on not looking incompetent.
It was a strange and petty environment to work in, but the trade-off was, supposedly, that staff officers like Paul were not outside the wire, getting shot at or blown up by roadside bombs.
The air base got rocketed from time to time. On Paul’s second night there, jet lagged and confused, when he was walking back from the mess to the transient quarters, he heard a shrill overhead whistle followed by a handclap explosion some distance away. He dove face first into the gravel and cut his chin, and then got up and scrambled into one of the concrete rocket shelters. Four or five people had reached the shelter before him. Immediately, he could tell by their relaxed postures and their cigarettes and their mundane conversation that they had been in theatre long enough to not be bothered by the rockets anymore. And by Paul’s second month there, he had also lost interest in the attacks.
Of course, the cup was eventually passed to his lips, that he too should go outside the wire for a little while. The major for whom Paul worked presented the opportunity to him one afternoon. You’ve been doing a lot of great staff work, Captain Robak. There’s not much we can do to say thanks here—we can’t give you a raise—but we can get you outside, maybe get you a bit of trigger time.
Paul was mildly annoyed by this prospect. He thought if his staff work was so great, why couldn’t he stay at his desk and keep doing it? But what he told the major was, Yes sir.
The major had a map of their area of operations tacked to the plywood of his office wall. Small red Xs had been markered wherever a roadside bomb had been detonated in the past couple of months. Paul’s eyes tracked along the map. In some places, the red Xs were so densely packed they almost filled the spaces between the grid lines.
Sounds great, sir. Thanks.
The night before he went out, what had started as mild annoyance degraded into terror. Sleepless terror, primordial terror. Masturbation had no effect. Paul kept thinking about the unknown persons who were already plotting his death. The mechanisms they could employ were endless.
Daylight came as daylight did, and Paul reported to the commander’s escort he was to be a part of for the next couple of weeks. The escort crew had been doing this already for several months, all over the AO, and they had seen misplaced junior officers like Paul come and go. They treated him with polite, even kind indifference, implying that as long as he stayed generally out of their way and pointed his weapon in the right direction, everybody would get along.
Paul took his place in one of the three armoured vehicles that made up the escort. He was sitting across from the commander’s interpreter, who was snoozing over a soft-core men’s magazine. The escort drove out of the air base. Paul looked at his watch and wondered what the hour of his demise would be.
But the hour never came. It never came, though he was certain that every bump in the road was a bomb exploding beneath the hull, though he was certain that every local driver was bearing down in a car laden with ammonium nitrate.
He saw the city’s squalor: the unrepaired buildings, the open sewers, the sheep carcasses dripping blood from corner butchers. Once there was a dead man in the street whom the locals were navigating around, the same way they might navigate around a small pile of garbage. He saw the countryside’s browns and greens and the mountains on the horizon. They came upon craters in the highway where previous bombs had gone off, and one time they came upon a huge, rusty bloodstain on the asphalt from a local police patrol that had been ambushed the day before. All six cops had been killed.
But nothing much ever happened to the commander’s escort, not while Paul was seconded to it. They never even saw wires or evidence of fresh digging or other signs that bombs had been laid.
And so other things that stayed with him reoccurred as sensory experiences. In the far west part of the AO, the sand was so fine Paul felt as if his boots were being sucked into the ground. There was a strange way that fluorescent tubes shone in compounds and shops as the evenings drew down. On the highway, there was always a smell of greasy exhaust.
There was the morning when the escort was driving to one of the most remote outposts for the commander to visit the troops and speak to them and tell them what good work they were doing. To get to this outpost, the escort vehicles had to drive down a secondary route tightly enclosed on either side by mud walls and foliage. Ambushes were known to be frequent here, so Paul was supposed to stand up out of the rear hatch to keep an eye open for anything coming up behind them. There were few signs of life. No local vehicles on the narrow road. No one working in the grape fields, despite the closeness of the harvest.
Then, after five or ten minutes, two men on a motorcycle appeared behind the escort. They resolved out of the dust and approached the rear vehicle steadily until Paul lifted first his hand and then his rifle. The motorcycle stopped. The men on it conferred with each other. One of them took out a mobile phone and made a call. Paul watched all of this through his rifle sights, with the reticle centred on the motorcycle driver’s chest. Then the two men turned the bike around and disappeared back the way they had come.
Nothing happened for the rest of the way down the road, but twenty minutes after the commander’s visit was complete and his escort had left, the outpost was savagely attacked.
Paul was back on the air base before long, reconfined to his desk for most of the rest of the tour, trying to find ways to make the hours and days and weeks and months go faster. One night he went for a run. He paused at the fence beside the runway to watch a large American cargo plane as it lifted improbably into the sky. The plane had climbed to about 3,000 feet when somebody way out in the desert fired at it. The gunner was well beyond Paul’s hearing, especially over the industrial din of the airfield, so the rounds lifted soundlessly into the sky. They were bright red streaks, maybe 200 or 300 of them, and they arced up and then vanished. They came nowhere near the airplane. Somehow, the gunfire was an oddly beautiful thing to behold, moving without sound and disappearing. Beautiful despite its purpose. Despite how it proved that in this place a will existed to bring down airplanes and detonate roadside bombs and blow up schools.
But Paul’s hour never came. He worked his petty desk job and let them pin a medal to his chest, and then he went home and agreed to go do speaking engagements.
He stood in Amy’s bathroom, studying himself in the mirror, wishing he was sober. He thought how a scar might suit his face. Something that would speak on his behalf. But he didn’t have a scar. And what little he had done was behind him now, and what was ahead was unwritten.
He got back into Amy’s bed. She was lying on her stomach, and in the faint light her naked back was inviting. He whispered: My story doesn’t stack up to yours. Everything you’ve been and done. Your little girl. Starting a business up here. My story doesn’t stack up. I’m a fraud, and sooner or later somebody’s going to figure that out.
She muttered something, shifted in her sleep.
—I’m a fraud, said Paul. Do you know that?
The morning had a hungover awkwardness about it. They were two people who by daylight realized how they were really strangers to each other. Amy, however, was making enough coffee and breakfast for two. She had already set two places at the table. She was wearing sweatpants and a T-shirt, while Paul was sore headed in the clothes he had worn to dinner. In the kitchen, he kept a polite distance while she fixed their toast and eggs. The radio called for snowfall in the afternoon. They sat down.
—Did you sleep okay? asked Amy.
—Not too bad. You?
—God, like a rock. I’m usually a light sleeper. Let me know if you need some Aspirin or anything.
She would go to open her clinic at 10:30, she told him. She had her first client at eleven o’clock. After work, she would go to her mother’s house and pick up Becky and take her to the children’s karate class at the YMCA. Just an ordinary, boring day around town. You know how it is.
Paul nodded that he did know.
He helped Amy with the breakfast dishes. After they were finished, she said she needed to have a shower before she got ready for work. He figured that probably meant it was time for him to get going, but Amy gave him a funny look, uncertain, and asked if he wanted to shower with her.
They started under the hot water, all the dripping and precarious configurations, and they continued in the bathroom against the counter, and they climaxed on the bedroom floor. It was better by far than the night before, and near the end she had tensed all the muscles of her abdomen and tilted her head back and let out a long exhalation.
They had a little bit of time to relax in bed, lying together between the sheets.
—Paul, this is going to sound really flaky.
—Well. It was nice. Really nice. But there was something about you. Like you were a million miles away.
—Hmm. I don’t know. I felt like I was right here.
Amy nodded. She stretched her body and yawned. She didn’t say anything else, but she had been right. Because while Paul’s body was joined to hers, all the rest of him was in the dust and the faint mountains and the friends and the fear and the quarrels over pen ownership and proper grammar and the absurdity of that other place. The will to destroy. The soundless gunfire in the desert, the red tracers arcing into the night sky and disappearing. And how it was that there was beauty in that.
And he was also in the history classroom and the room inside the community centre. The light of the projector, the backlit heads. And as he lay stroking Amy’s leg, Paul knew then, beyond a doubt, that no matter the invitation or the honorarium or a woman he might run into in a parking lot, he would never stand up and speak for it again. For any of it.
This appeared in the November 2012 issue.