A doctor’s waiting room. Manhattan. I’m here to get a shot in my funky knee. The chairs are arranged in a U. An Asian man comes in, with a thin, silver-colored cane and wearing a cap with “Vietnam Veteran” spelled out in gold braid. He sits opposite me, closes his eyes. A few minutes later a young girl in her late teens, early 20s, comes in, apologizing for being late. She exchanges a few words with Max, the office manager, then sits in the chair beside the Asian man. She’s wearing thick winter tights, work boots, a short rough jacket and a white knit hat atop the long dark hair that frames her pleasantly pretty face. Except for the hair, she doesn’t look particularly Asian, but she’s clearly a relative, probably his granddaughter. They like each other. That’s clear from the was he looks at her indulgently, half smiling, the way she speaks to him directlly, eye to eye, without condescension.
“Is this all you’re wearing?” She fingers the sleeve of his jacket. “It’s freezing out….” She asks him questions from the forms. His answers don’t satisfy her. “You have to try….you can’t just give up….13...it’s 13. Last year was 2012, this year is 2013….” Her voice doesn’t plead or get angry, but it has an edge, a goad, a demand that he not be unreasonable. She is sure that he can fight this … this … thing that’s robbing him of his independence and her of her grandfather, if only he will. He smiles at her. She is the loveliest thing in his world. And then he looks away. She urges him toward a magazine with a cover story about Heroes. He declines it, dozes, She retreats into her cell phone.
Max comes back. He knows this family. His sister’s children were friends of the girl, and he evokes memories of Sundays in the Bronx when the two families had barbecues. “Remember…? Remember…?” The girl is protective, almost kneeling on the cushion of her chair behind her grandfather, both of them in profile, turned toward Max. “You remember….Max is auntie Jean’s brother and their two sons are Rob and Jerry….” The man doesn’t say much, but he seems to, because she plays her role so well.
Max goes away and the man dozes again. The hems of his black jenas are frayed. His socks have wide red and gray stripes. He exercises his fingers, stretching them one by one, like a piano player. In another room,Max is talking about him on the phone. “…he’s cognitive … better off in a VA hospital….” Ah. So this is a kindly evaluation, among friends. And he and the girl are co-conspirators.
I wonder about him. When was he in Vietnam? Tet offensive? What branch of service? Was he a draftee grunt plunked down in the middle of an established unit where nobody wanted to be around a greenie because he was more likely to get killed? A West Point 2nd looie looking for a bump in his pay grade for active duty? Did he smoke pot in the jungle with the black-clad enemy, as young as he was? Did he see or do things so terrible that he’d rather foget everything,, slowly, than remember them? When he came back, did anybody notice?
My appointment is over, and I make a point of coming out into the waiting room to put on my coat. “Sir.” He opens his eyes, which are not empty, and looks at me “Thank you for your service.” “What service is that?” he asks mildly. I point to his hat. “You were in Vietnam.” The girl, who has become alert as soon as I spoke, laughs. “Oh, you forgot you were wearing your hat.” He smiles and for a minute I think I’m mistaken, he’s just an old man wearing a hat he likes. But then he gives me a jaunty salute, and I wonder if he was a flyboy. He salutes and smiles a second time as I leave.
On the street, I feel tears rise and a lump in my throat. I’m not sure exactly why.