(Inspired by Ander Monson’s “To Reduce the Likelihood of Murder.”)
If I were brave, I would put down my window blinds and house paint and march straight to customer service. I would tell them about the seduction going on in aisle five. Or, better still, I would tell you — should tell you — how to avoid the toothy grin of the handsome Marine in uniform carrying a business card and a sack of possibilities in his pockets.
There are things you can do or not do. First, do not get a job at the local Home Depot next to the marine recruiting station just so you can buy your sweetheart a charm bracelet and add mag wheels to your’96 Mazda. Do not take smoke breaks outside the employee entrance where Lt. Recruiterman hangs. Do not talk to Lt. Recruiterman or smoke his Newports. Do not talk to Lt. Recruiterman about the North Ward or the 9-millimeter your brother keeps stashed under the floorboards of the abandoned house on the corner. Do not talk to Lt. Recruiterman about your charmed sweetheart or the black spot on your Daddy’s lung. Do not tell him how much you make an hour or that you used to take computer courses at night and kinda liked it. Look away from the array of government-issued jewelry pinned to the front of Lt. Recruiterman’s perfectly pressed dress blues. Do not marvel at your reflection in the polished gold buttons that divide his chest into left and right. Lie to Lt. Recruiterman when he asks you, do you like the uniform?
Ask Lt. Recruiterman about his other uniform. Ask him about the uniform he was wearing when a sniper’s bullet passed through his buddy Dale’s skull before tearing through the soft flesh behind his own knee and exiting out his kneecap. Ask Lt. Recruiterman about the blinding pain from his no-longer-there knee as he crawled on his belly, dragging Dale’s heavy, and limp as-a-sack-of-cornmeal body. Ask Lt. Recruiterman about the shards of bone and curds of brain that littered the sandy road like crushed shells and bits of jellyfish deposited along a shoreline. Ask him why he no longer enjoys walks on the beach.
From March, 2003, to March, 2006, the death rate of military personnel in Iraq was lower than the death rate for an African American man aged 20 to 34 in Philadelphia. Do not pay attention to statistics about urban neighborhoods. You are young and black and healthy and possess more potential than opportunity. You are a thing made for recruiting posters, and choruses of OohRaa! You are the target.
Listen to your sweet-faced girl when she begs you not to sign up. Do not sign the papers. When you sign the papers, ask to be trained as a cook; cooks stay in the rear and grill sirloins for visiting senators. After you’re trained as a sapper tech, arm yourself. Cover yourself from head to toe in Kevlar. Salvage the plating from the vehicle graveyard and weld it to the sides, bottom and top of your hummer. Wear the St. Christopher medal your grandfather wore in Vietnam and carry scripture from Reverend Hamilton’s bible. Make sure to keep your little sister’s rabbit foot in the right pocket of your fatigues and your Uncle John’s lucky harmonica in the left. Do not wear Superman’s cape. Remember you are just a boy with nothing to prove. You must wear the armor of Achilles and carry the sword of King Arthur.
If we were brave, we would storm the streets with placards and prayers and light fire to the fuse of protest with the heat of our voices. But bravery is a lost art, and the only people taking to the street these days are white-haired folks more concerned with the green in their bank accounts than red blood in the desert. Besides, we have so much shopping to do. So you will die. Hometown headlines will be written and flags lowered. There will be a moment of silence in the heavy tools department.
You will die a good young man from a not-wealthy neighborhood because you were born for it. Your life was an atom meant for splitting, the heat and light of a not-so grateful nation.
Raised in Pennington and now a Ewing resident, Jo Ann Povia worked in the hotel industry and now works for Mercer County.