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Ashes to AshesTo John Sokol's previous piece

Season of Peace

Luke stared out his window at the frozen Hudson River, at that line of dark water where boats and barges had scarred an artery through the ice. At ten o'clock on Sunday morning he had already finished reading The New York Times. He sat at his desk in silence, drank a cup of coffee and watched swirling snow pile onto his windowsill. As he watched December's wind blow over the water and into the city, he thought bitterly of the past six months; the phone calls and petitions, and the exchanges of letters with the Veterans Administration. And he worried about his brother's wife, Evelyn. Again depressed by these thoughts, Luke reluctantly finished his coffee, put on his scarf and coat and locked his apartment. He walked down three flights of stairs and out into the cold morning. He trudged through the snow to Canal Street and took the IRT to 72nd and Lexington. From there, he walked to Lenox Hill Hospital.


Christmas Eve, 1954. Outside Luke and David's window, snow falls out of a black-and-blue sky, and like every Christmas the two boys can remember, a peculiar tension -- menacing in the subtle way of a bruise -- permeates their house. Luke is seven and David is five. They melt frost from the windowpane with their warm hands, only to see a few cars, sliding sideways, and tracking-up the snow-covered street below.

The party noise from downstairs drifts up through the heat registers. The boys' parents are entertaining guests. Luke can hear his father telling a funny story about the day he and Luke went for a drive to pick out a Christmas tree. "I drove Luke past that manger scene in front of the church the other day. When he saw the set, he said, 'Dad, there's Jesus and the Three Wise Guys.'" Luke then hears the guests laughing and remarking, 'Oh, how cute."

Soon -- armed with the pretense of having to visit the bathroom -- David goes downstairs. Luke can hear his mother asking David, 'What's the matter, baby? Can't you sleep?'

Luke then hears a lady's booming voice. "Well, of course he can't sleep; the poor little dear's waiting for Santa Claus."

Luke is certain that his brother has nodded and agreed to the woman's reasoning. "But David, Santa only comes when children are asleep," his mother says.

Fifteen minutes pass. After the guests have patted David on the head and laughed at how funny he is, he walks back up the steps with cookies he has snitched on his way through the kitchen, a full report of who is sitting in what chair and booze on his breath from sips he has connived from his father's glass.


Luke arrived at the hospital and went to his brother's private room. He found David sleeping. Needles were taped to David's arms and plastic tubes were draped from sacks that dripped fluid. Purplish-yellow bruises on David's arms made Luke think queerly of rotten meat. Luke sat in the armchair at the foot of the bed, stared at his brother, and occasionally, looked out the window at the people passing by on the street below. After he had watched them for a while, he curiously thought to himself how vulnerable and unaware people seem when they are looked down upon from above. As Luke looked at his brother, it didn't seem possible that six months had passed since Luke had first learned that David was dying of cancer. David had been exposed to herbicides and defoliants, years before, while fighting in Vietnam, yet now the government, despite the verdict of his doctors, denied this as the cause of his cancer.

David seemed to be sleeping soundly; his dreams unfettered by the visions that the knowledge of one's own death by cancer might hold in the unconscious mind. The needles and tubes, the sacks and accessories attached to David's body, seemed to Luke, like unneeded baggage, like props for an actor who was only pretending to be dying. David seemed out of place in the hospital, and his calm sleep belied the pain and depression Luke knew David suffered during most of the hours he was awake.

Luke stayed at his brother's bedside for an hour. He read through a few of the magazines scattered on the night stand, and occasionally called his brother's name, but David still did not awake. Finally, Luke asked a nurse to tell David that he had been in to see him. He would come by tomorrow after work.


Earlier in the day, Luke had been hanging tinsel on the Christmas tree, not one piece at a time, the way his father had shown him, but taking handfuls of the silver strands and throwing it onto the branches. Luke thought the loops and arches created a neat effect, but his father didn't think so. He slapped Luke on the head for acting a fool. Crying, Luke bent over on the floor and held both hands on his head. When he realized he had been hit for having fun, he threw the tinsel at his father, and shouted, "Here, you decorate the tree your way." When Luke started swearing, his father sent him to his room. In five minutes, Luke ran downstairs with his hat and coat and darted past his father and out the door. His father, wearing only slippers and a T-shirt, couldn't chase Luke. Instead, he stood outside in the snow, yelling, "Luke, come on! Come back here! I'm sorry! Come back," he pleaded. Luke kept running.


Monday evening, Luke went to the hospital again to see his brother. This time David was awake. Luke could see pain in David's face. He knew that the drugs they had been giving him at the hospital lately had caused David to hallucinate; he talked to himself when he was awake. The nurses said he sometimes screamed in the middle of the night.

Luke reached out and held his brother's hand. David stared at Luke blankly, looking through his brother as if at some distant dream.

"David, what are you thinking?"

"Oh, I was just thinking about that farm you and I always wanted to buy. Not now though, eh? At least not with me."

"Ah David, don't talk like that."

"Luke," David said after a long silence, "will you do me a favor?"


"Bring me a gun, or a knife, or a razor; pills -- anything. Please Luke. I want it over with. I don't have the courage for this."

"David, come on, you know I can't do that. Don't put that on me."

"Luke, I'm begging you. Please." David then began to cry. He pulled his hand out of his brother's grasp and covered his face.


The battle begins. "Keep your voice down," Luke's mother shouts. "You'll wake the kids." David is in bed now and Luke is still not home. David figures Santa Claus won't even bother dropping by if he sees all the fighting going on in the household. "If you wouldn't have hit Luke, he wouldn't have run off. He was only having fun." Now the swearing and name-calling. David can hear his mother crying and muttering, throwing drinking glasses and dinner plates against the wall.

When the arguing stops, David decides that his parents have remembered that tonight is Christmas Eve. Just as the house gets quiet, in walks Luke. His gloveless hands are white and mottled red, swollen with frostbite. His mother puts her hands over her face and begins to cry, mutters "what a life," then finds the composure to call the family doctor. The doctor arrives at three o'clock in the morning and the whole family is drinking hot chocolate in the living room, feeling sorry for Luke.

Luke's mother makes coffee and Luke's father sends David to bed. When his father goes downstairs, David can hear the doctor talking quietly to his parents in the kitchen. Christmas seems closer now.

Everyone is so tired they all sleep well past dawn. David and Luke wake up, put on robes and slippers, and walk downstairs, somewhat frightened. The broken glasses that were on the kitchen floor have been cleaned up, but the dirty dishes and ash trays from the party still identify once-seated guests. When the boys go into the living room, David sighs, "Thank God for Santa Claus!" Presents cover the floor under the Christmas tree and the boys' stockings are full to the brim. There are even a few presents for their parents.


On Monday, Luke took the subway to Evelyn's apartment on West 10th Street. He had accepted Evelyn's invitation to dinner. Luke walked into the apartment; he greeted Evelyn with a kiss and a hug that took her slightly off the floor. He then handed her a bottle of red wine. Evelyn had a double scotch waiting for him and eggplant parmigiana in the oven. "How are you holding up, love?" Luke asked.

"Oh, as well as can be expected, I guess."

"How's work?" Luke said, trying, at least initially, to guide their conversation away from the subject he knew it would eventually center on.

"Well, teaching gets depressing when you start to feel that you have more problems than any or all of your students. Here, let me take your coat. Why don't you sit down." Evelyn took Luke's coat and scarf and started for the hallway closet, but then, changed her mind and threw them over the back of a chair. She turned around, and hands on her hips, blurted, "I really hate them, really hate them, you know that, Luke?"

Luke nodded knowingly.

"I got another letter today," Evelyn said. "It kills me how they play so dumb, like they don't know who you are, or what you're talking about; like they don't even know where Vietnam is or what it was. They just used David up and spit him out Luke."

"Evelyn, don't talk about it. You'll just make yourself sick." Luke could see that Evelyn was on the verge of tears or rage from one moment to the next. "Where are the kids?" he asked.

"They went over to their friend's house next door for dinner."


The following Christmas, Luke is a raging giant. One day, he stomps along a beaten path toward newly constructed buildings. He feels a building prickle oddly against the bottom of his bare foot as he leans all of his weight, slowly, maliciously, down onto the crumbling structure. He crushes tiny innocent people and brushes cars and trucks aside without effort; he destroys a banal community of useless, barren lives.

Now David, helpless and frightened, cries out as he watches Luke tromp through his corrugated cardboard streets, killing the plastic people, tumbling and twisting model cars, and knocking over Lincoln Log and Tinker Toy buildings. Luke's father -- a bigger giant than Luke -- having heard David's crying, goes upstairs and smacks Luke hard on the back of the head.

"Who do you think you are, coming upstairs and wrecking David's things?" he blurts, leaning his big face down into Luke's, hands on his hips, head bobbing from side to side: a metronome.

"Answer me!" his father shouts. "Why do you think you have the right to wreck other people's belongings?"

"You do! You wreck things all the time."

Luke's father slaps him on the head again, this time on the front, balancing out the pain Luke feels from the slap he received on the back. "Don't talk back," his father commands, and goes downstairs with the final word.

Soon after, David and Luke lose themselves in a microcosm of plastic army men and battery-run remote-control tanks that plow over armies and fortresses. The two boys have everything they need to destroy one another; bazookas, machine-guns, fighter planes that drop Tinker Toy bombs, and tanks that plow over tin-can-and-cardboard bunkers and barracks. Scale is implausible. Three-inch soldiers fire one-inch Lincoln Log bullets. Planes are not required to take off or land, but may simply appear. At the end of the skirmishes, planes suicide-dive into fortresses, and as the frenzy increases, tanks are lifted out of the clutter by hand and dropped as huge bombs on any remaining structure. Finally, the area above the five square feet of territory over which they are fighting becomes an orgasmic flurry of flying armaments, bodies and equipment. When everything on the fighting field is leveled and lifeless, even the master controllers shoot one another. Everyone dies. The boys lie on the floor a few seconds, immersed convincingly in the big sleep. One begins to giggle, the other begins to laugh. They wake up, yet realize in their hearts that starting again is impossible; the games wouldn't be the same. Downstairs, the war, more insidious and ingrained than their own, rages on. Neither parent can surrender or retreat; they have no means of escape.

David and Luke are now faced with the problem, what to do next. Their remedy: follow suit and fight. They clear their room of war-games debris and Luke challenges David to a wrestling match. Agreeing to the challenge, David pulls the top mattress off his bed and onto the floor. He tackles Luke by surprise, jumps on his head and twists Luke's arm. Luke gets mad and beats the hell out of his younger brother. Their father tromps up the stairs again, and this time, sends Luke to bed.


"Evelyn, is there anything you need, anything at all, anything I can do?"

Evelyn looked at Luke and her voice cracked as she said, "No, Luke, thanks. That's nice." She paused, took a few sips of her drink, and then, all of a sudden, started to laugh. "You know what though, more than anything else, I could really stand to get laid. At this point, I think I'd feel a lot better if somebody just screwed my brains out."

Luke laughed out loud and felt himself fall through the ice that Evelyn had broken. He felt instantly more at ease.

"Yeah, that'd probably be the best solution of all."

"A lot of help you are." Evelyn forced a smile, took a few sips of her drink, and then said, "Luke, have you ever thought how things would have been if I had married you instead of your younger brother?"

"I've thought of that. Sure."

"You know, if I hadn't gone away with David that weekend after you and I had lived together for a year, things would probably be a lot different. David would probably still be dying of cancer, but you and I would be living happily ever after, well -- probably not happily; but it's funny, isn't it?"

"I don't know. It's futile to think about that kind of hypothetical chess game; so I don't."

"And then I think -- why in the hell did I fall in love with David? Well, you never would have married me anyway. You're just not the marrying type," Evelyn said.

"No, but David needed you more than I did."

"Needed me, yes. Loved me, no. I've always thought it ironic that David became a social worker when he got back from Vietnam. David never loved anyone but himself."

"That's not true. I'll admit he never loved anyone but himself, but only until you came along. He does love you, Evelyn. Let's give him that. Besides, David's love for people has always been hard to detect because of his defense mechanisms. You know, I remember when he and I were kids. We used to fight like mad dogs. I shot stones at him once with a sling shot when we were having it out in the back yard. He stuck his head out from behind a tree and I got him right between the eyes. When Dad got home that night, he got out his belt and nearly beat me to death. When we were kids, David looked up to me. He respected me. I didn't have the sense to know it then. No matter how many times I'd beat the hell out of him, he'd follow me somewhere the next day, just to be with me, just to go where his big brother was going. David was innocent and goodhearted when he was a kid. You know life picks us up and drops us off in funny places, and some of us just don't have the strength -- or maybe it's the will -- to get up after a bad fall."

Luke paused to sip his scotch. He then sat forward so that he was now sitting on the edge of the couch. "One night when we were in our beds in that attic bedroom, we started trading verbal jabs at one another through the dark; we'd been fighting that whole day. I started naming all the other kids in the neighborhood that I'd rather have as a brother than him. Oh, I must have named twenty different kids. Then David said, and he was crying; he said, "Well, you know who I'd rather have as a brother, more than anybody, more than anybody else?" "Who?" I said. "More than anybody, more than anybody?" he said again. "Who?" I said. He didn't say anything. Then I said again, "Who?" "YOU," he said, and he blurted it out, you know. I felt like I had been hit with a two-by-four. I pushed my face into my pillow and retched into it - retched -- I was crying so hard; I never made a sound though." Luke's voice split in two now, and he paused for a moment, as if deciding whether to continue. "Evelyn, I know David's done some asinine things to screw up your life, but I swear he loves you and those kids."

"Well, maybe," Evelyn said. "I don't know. What does it matter anyway. Ah, Luke, do you think David will live, and even if he does, what will life be like for him, for me, for the kids?"

"I don't know, Evelyn. I don't know."

At ten-thirty, Luke kissed Evelyn goodnight, walked two blocks through the snow and took the subway home.


Luke can hear three distinct variations on the same theme coming from downstairs: his mother crying in the bedroom, the droning sound of the football game his father is watching on TV in the living room and the sounds of the distant war David has reassembled in the pantry directly below.

David's sound effects seem amazingly authentic to Luke. "Pu-schew, pu-schew, nyrrrrrrrrrrowngg, Pggggggggggggggg!"

Lying in bed, thinking of what to do, Luke stares at the crossed German dress swords that hallmark the stairway to his bedroom. His father got the swords in Germany where he was doing his part to defeat Hitler and the Nazis. He traded a carton of rationed cigarettes for one sword and a B-52 model airplane that he had carved out of balsa wood for the other. One has a ruby eye in the brass, lion-headed handle; the other has a silver hand guard that reminds Luke of the Three Musketeers' swords. Both blades are nicked and scratched now and slightly bent from the times when his parents had been away and he and his brother had taken the history-honed weapons down from the wall for sword fights.

Staring at those swords reminds Luke of his father's army remnants, his scrapbooks and war paraphernalia stashed away in the cubby hole at the foot of Luke's bed. His father often tells David and Luke never to get into that box. He says they'll get hurt on the bayonets; and if they ever pull the pin out of the hand grenade, the whole house will blow up. Luke doesn't believe that. He thinks the grenade is probably a dud, and that his father says that to keep Luke and his brother out of the cubby hole. But Luke rifled through the forbidden box, anyway. His father has brass mortar shells and bullets of all shapes and sizes. He has an old German squirrel gun that has a heavy round barrel, and an elaborate carving on the stock, of a deer. He has three bayonets, an assortment of badges, buttons, medals, patches, knives, and a khaki-colored folding foxhole shovel. He owns a scrapbook filled with pictures of him and his army buddies -- boxing, clowning, posing, swimming, diving, drinking, dressed-up, undressed, with women, without women, fooling around and straight-at-attention. The beginning of the book is filled with pictures of the different cities he visited whenever he was on leave. Toward the end of the book are the pictures that Luke's father would never show him: bombed, burned and blown-apart Messerschmitts and tanks, dead soldiers and horses lying at the side of the road, rotting in the mud, the snow or the heat -- men blown out of their shoes, horses missing whole flanks and legs, their insides scattered across the road. Luke looks at the pictures of the communal graves from Auschwitz and Dachau, where men had urinated over the bodies of dead Jews before they buried them with bulldozers. Pictures of rows and rows of decomposed bodies, stacked naked in the open fields, make Luke feel as if he is wearing clothes made of lead. He can't stand up or move around in the heaviness.

Finally, Luke looks at his favorite object in that four-foot box -- the dog-eared, yellow-paged, Sad Sack comic book. Luke thinks that Sad Sack is such a loser, such a dimwit character, that he can't believe anybody in the Army was really like that. Once he asked his father if he ever knew anybody in the Army like Sad Sack. His father said everybody in the Army was like Sad Sack.


During the remainder of the week, Luke thought about his brother incessantly; in the context of the future, the present, but most of all, he thought about David in the context of the past. He thought of the days when they were growing up, when he and David had loved and hated one another; spitting, kicking, swearing and punching one minute; crying, embracing, joking and laughing the next.

Luke had gone to see David at the hospital three times during the week, and each time he came away enraged and depressed, morose with a mental vertigo that made him nervous and short-tempered. He drank during the week and he felt guilty for not having called Evelyn since the night they had had dinner. Friday night, after visiting David, Luke went to a bar and sat alone in a back booth. He drank one double scotch after another. As the evening progressed and the bar got more and more crowded, Luke became drunk. He sat at the booth crying, not audibly, but only such that tears occasionally dropped from his face. Then crying harder, soon, uncontrollably, he buried his face in his folded arms on the table. People stared at him and the chatter throughout the bar softened to whispers. Luke suddenly stood up from his booth, and with a great swoop of his arm, slammed his glass onto the floor; the glass did not break as much as disintegrate. As he staggered out of the bar, he screamed at the top of his lungs; no particular word or phrase, but a primal declaration of rage that left the patrons of the bar embarrassed by their own silence.

Luke went home that night and passed out on his bed with his clothes on. He slept all day Saturday, and slowly, but not easily, recovered from his hangover.


Out of boredom, Luke falls asleep and dreams of a snowy Saturday morning when David and he are downtown, walking toward the Arcade Market, leaning against the cold wind and the fat flurries, trudging through the drifts formed against buildings along the street. Having taken an early bus downtown, they spend the morning looking through the shops at all the paraphernalia of Christmas. They each have on buckle boots, two pairs of denims, two pairs of socks, several flannel shirts, various sweaters, coats, scarves, gloves, ear muffs and stocking caps. They have no idea that cold even exists. Up the street, the Salvation Army lady -- homely and stout, bundled in a heavy blue coat with a red and white arm band -- peers out through wire-rimmed spectacles. She stands next to a penny pot, ringing a brass bell as though she is trying to shake it from her frozen hand.


On Sunday morning, as he drank coffee and read the paper, Luke looked out his window at the dreary New York winter. He thought, as he had thought so many times before, about the farm he had always wanted to own and work with David. It was no particular farm, in no particular place; five acres or ninety, hilly or forested, in Vermont or Georgia. A hundred different variations confounded his dream, and he realized, as he had realized before, that this farm belonged to a person he didn't even know, and that finding that person or farm was highly unlikely. He knew, deep inside, that he would stay in New York for years, and he would continue to look out on the Hudson, and during the winters, imagne the rolling, snow-covered acres he would own in Vermont; and during the summers -- the fenced-in, kudzu-covered, flatland farm he would own in Georgia; and in the spring, and in the fall, every season of every year, he knew he would dream of a different, more distant farm.


Luke and David are standing at the big picture window of the Arcade, watching a cake decorator punctuate a green squiggly rose with an extra squirt from his goo gun. Fast with his hands and slow to smile, the man occasionally looks through the partially-fogged glass. He grins at David-and-Luke's appreciation of his craft and gives the cake a final spin for their inspection.

Steam comes up through the vents under the revolving doors as people spin in and out of the Arcade. Going inside, the boys feel a blast of warm air that shoots down from above. David and Luke wander through the aisles looking for the women who give out free samples of the Christmas specials. Near the meat counter, a woman fries sausages on a square, checkered-cloth table. The boys each take a tooth-picked sample. A few aisles down, they exchange smiles with the cheese lady for chunks of sharp cheddar capped over Euphrates crackers. They take bits of hard candy out of a small barrel at Phil's taffy concession. The Beck's Fish merchants never give out samples, but the boys walk by the glass case to look at the pearly scrod, the red snappers snipped of tails and heads, and the flounders floating on ice. Next, they go to the fruits-and-nuts section and pick up some health foods. Today, the merchants are giving out honeycombs shaped like stars. The boys pop the sticky stars quickly into their mouths, lick their fingers and suck all the honey out of the combs. They chew on the wax until it gets stuck in their teeth, then go to the lunch counter and reach between the customers for more toothpicks.


Luke went out into the cold morning and took the subway uptown to visit his brother. The sun was so bright that reflections off the newly fallen snow blinded him. The brightness hurt his eyes and he covered his face at times with his hand to shield his eyes from the sun.

When Luke got to the hospital and walked inside, the quick change of light caused him to see mottled sun spots and afterimages on the wall of the hospital interior. This phenomenon persisted as he rode the elevator and walked to his brother's room on the third floor.

"David?" Luke said softly when he had arrived at his brother's side.

David opened his eyes slowly, but did not move his head. "Luke," David mumbled, acknowledging his brother in a neutral tone.

"How are you, David?"

"This terrible nausea," David said, enunciating the words slowly, as though he were afraid he might not be understood. He then closed his eyes. Luke looked down on his brother for three or four minutes until David opened his eyes again.

"Luke, I'm dying."

Luke said nothing. He looked over his brother's body and stared at the accessories that were attached to David's left arm. The sack that dripped fluid through tubes into David's veins had only half an inch of fluid left in it. Luke took off his gloves and pushed them into his coat pocket. He stared at the sack of fluid for a long time. He then put his right hand on the sack and stared at his brother whose eyes were again closed. Luke felt numb. He felt nauseous, and he felt as though he had stepped outside himself so as not to be associated with his own impulses. He stared at his hand as he squeezed the plastic container slowly, tightly and evenly. He watched the fluid empty out, and when the last drop had left, he squeezed the sack violently. He looked at his brother, and as he waited for the small bomb of air to explode in his brother's heart, he felt an ancient, horrible guilt. Luke held the collapsed sack tightly in his hand. In a few seconds, David was dead.

Luke stared at his brother for the last time and then pulled the sheet over his brother's face and walked out of the room. He took the elevator to the main floor, walked slowly into the office of the director of the hospital and asked the receptionist there if he might speak with the director; it was important. Luke waited patiently as he sat in a leather armchair in the waiting room.


The Arcade is David and Luke's first and last stop downtown. After making the rounds of the free samples, they go outside and up the street to the sporting goods store. They look at basketballs, footballs, baseballs, barbells, jerseys, water skis and bows and arrows. After a while, the owner -- knowing the boys won't buy anything - kicks them out. The boys leave, trudge back to the Arcade and make another round of the free samples. The merchants handing out the goods aren't as friendly this time. "Boys, are your parents with you? . . . . these samples are for customers who want to buy something. You can't keep coming back here again and again and eating all the samples. If you're hungry, go home and eat." David and Luke decide to make one more swift trip through the Arcade and then leave, figuring by that time they will have overstayed their welcome. They walk briskly past the woman frying sausages, and without stopping, reach out and take the ones stuck with toothpicks. They make a third trip past the cheese and crackers counter. Finally, they pick up a few honeycomb stars before everything around them starts moving faster. The merchants are chasing them now. The boys run out onto the sidewalk. When they turn their heads around they can see the woman from the meat counter brandishing a butcher knife. They try to run faster, but people get in their way. Everyone is chasing them. Everything and everybody moves faster now, except for David and Luke. Their clunky boots make running through the deep snow difficult. When the boys turn around again, they see the woman who was handing out the honeycombs shaking a jar of swarming bees at them. The chunky cheese lady is threatening them with piano wire she uses for cutting cheese. The boys run and jump onto the nearest bus, but the Arcade merchants jump on the bus too. They catch the boys. They twist David's ear and shake him by the collar. Luke yells at them to stop but they don't seem to hear him. Luke can feel a hand on his shoulder and he can hear David's voice. "Luke, wake up. Wake up, Luke. Dad says you can come down for supper now."

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