The Purple Heart
That evening Leon called Heather and they made plans for her to come to his apartment on Friday evening. This was preferable for Leon because it meant he didn’t have to stay in San Francisco, where Heather lived, for rush hour. Perhaps it wasn’t preferable to Heather. Who’s to say? But she’d agreed to it, in fact it had been her idea. It would be the first time they’d seen each other in eleven days, incontrovertible evidence that their relationship was drifting into no-man’s land. Leon wasn’t sure how, or even if, he cared overmuch to stop it. Sometimes they didn’t even have anything to say to each other.
The next few days passed. The dreams continued, waking him unsettled in the middle of the night. He saw Stuart at work, but avoided him, though Stuart’s eyes sought Leon out. Leon wouldn’t call him for lunch any more. This much he told himself. He obviously wanted the Quixote for himself. But Leon brought it with him everywhere he went now. It just felt good to have it on him.
Back home on Friday Leon found himself making dinner for two and listening to the PBS News Hour turned up loud in the living room. Heather didn’t show and she didn’t call. Eventually Leon sat down on his couch with his part of the dinner on the coffee table, and felt something uncomfortable in his pocket, reached in and found the Quixote, its awkward little angles. He brought it out of his pocket and put it on the coffee table. He watched the News Hour while he ate, but his eyes kept straying towards the Quixote. He kept marveling at how well, how naturally it seemed to be painted. There was something ageless about it that called to him.
Barack Obama was on the television, extolling the successes of his healthcare overhaul. At this point, it was hard not to think of Obama as anything but a disappointment. Even his healthcare reforms were written as if by the insurance companies. At least he, Leon, that is, hadn’t turned out to be one. He’d graduated from a good college, moved to the big city, and found a well-paying job at a firm with seemingly endless prospects.
There was one moment in particular that Leon found himself thinking of, watching the News Hour, with the Quixote. It took place at home, that is his parent’s home in Chico, California, a small town about two and a half hours from the Bay Area. He had been packing his bags with the extra things that would help him feel at home at college: books, a chessboard, a Gameboy. He was leaving his silent, brooding household behind, his parents’ strange relationship: if they loved each other they hid it well. Leon was imagining himself in an entirely different, perhaps more cheerful setting, surrounded by people that knew nothing about him, where he could make of himself what he wished. In the cutthroat arena of high school social life, Leon had become something of a blank space.
His father, tall and slump-shouldered, had suddenly appeared in his doorway. Leon had looked up from packing, and knew immediately that his father had something important to say to him, a very novel situation in the Ramble household. He had something dark in his hand. His father walked past him and sat down on Leon’s bed. He put his hands between his knees and hunched forward, staring at his son.
“What?” Leon asked, feeling like a prisoner caught in escape.
A few seconds passed while his father considered him.
“Do you know what this is?” his father asked at last, holding out the thing in his hand, which, on closer inspection, turned out to be a small glass and wooden box containing a purple and gold, heart-shaped medal.
Leon shook his head.
“It’s a purple heart, Leon.”
For lack of a better rejoinder, Leon asked, “Whose is it?”
“It was your great uncle’s,” his father responded, voice flat and factual. “It’s from World War II, when he was wounded in France, just days after storming the beach at Normandy.”
Leon didn’t say anything.
“It’s a part of your family history. I never told you about your great uncle.”
“What’s there to tell?”
His father’s eyes were as inscrutable as ever, but Leon forced himself to meet them. If this were to be the last time he’d speak to him as a ward beneath his roof, he was going to try not to be afraid of him.
“Your great uncle, my mother’s brother, fought the Nazis in World War II. He wasn’t drafted, he enlisted. We had family in France, communists they were, and your great uncle wanted to find them and save them, bring them back to America. He figured joining the army, going to fight over there… It was his way of doing penance for not helping them come to the US when he could have. He had a lot of fight in him, your great uncle. Even after he was wounded and earned his purple heart he kept on fighting, only this time by working with the medics in the base camps, supporting the efforts of his fellows. He was tireless, driven, passionate. Going to war was one of the best decisions he’d ever made. That’s how he felt about it.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Leon asked.
“Because I want you to have it.”
“You do?” Leon felt as if he’d seen it coming, but for some reason he dreaded it.
His father spoke in a monotone: “When you’re far from here, and I can tell you’re looking forward to being far from here, I want you to have this and keep this so you can look at it every now and then and remember where you came from, and how little you ever knew about it.”
Leon didn’t know what to say.
“People did stuff like that back then,” Leon’s father continued, his dull brown eyes boring into him. “They fought, died and bled in huge numbers, sometimes for no reason at all. They made life and death decisions at the drop of a hat because death was always close to them. They sacrificed themselves for things that were larger than them. Or sometimes they did it for their families in the hopes that their progeny would be more successful than they were.”
“I’m going to college,” Leon responded, as if that were a sacrifice of its own.
“Listen to me, Leon. Even after the war was over your great uncle stayed in France, even after he found his relatives. They were okay. They had hidden themselves and once the troubles were over they decided to stay, and your great uncle decided to stay with them. The war never ended for him. There were collaborators everywhere, and who’s to say they wouldn’t try to pull the same shit again, once they got themselves organized.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because I’m saying goodbye to you Leon, and I want to tell you something that no one else is going to tell you. I want to tell you that you’re insignificant. You play video games and laugh about it.”
“I’m trying to pack, Dad.”
“You are pampered, Leon. That’s how you grew up.”
“I don’t understand.”
His father’s eyes stayed duly stuck to his own, like they were having a staring contest. Leon ducked and went back to packing his bag.
“I want you to go forth with the knowledge that once upon a time there were Nazis, and your great uncle gave his life fighting them. You, on the other hand, have never suffered a moment in your life.”
“Thanks dad,” Leon said. “I don’t know what you want me to say.”
“I want you to say, I’ll take it. I want you to make me believe that you’ll make me proud some day, even though I know you can’t.”
“I’ll take it.”
“Thanks Leon,” his father said, motionless, the box in his hand on his knee.
Leon got to his feet and snatched the box out of his father’s hands. He stuffed the medal into his bag and zipped up the bag, even though he hadn’t finished packing. There were tears coming to his eyes.
His father, smiling now, appraised his son’s distress like it were a work of art.
“I’m sorry, Leon. I never told you what I think about how we raised you. That’s not to say you couldn’t correct yourself in my eyes, but it would take some doing.”
“I’m ready to go,” Leon said. “In a few minutes I’ll be gone and I’ll never have to worry about you again.”
“Oh yes you will.”
“No, I’m not. After college I’m not coming back. I’ll see you at Christmas just because the school will be closed. I mean that.”
“Good,” answered his father. “I’ve never heard you talk to me like that before. Your mother and I? We’ll be waiting. Just keep that medal and remember our conversation, every time you look at it. Now I’ll help you load the car.”
They loaded the car, and soon they were driving the several hours to UC Davis. Neither of them spoke another word, not until they’d unloaded the car at the dormitory, and his father said goodbye. Leon did not answer him.
This scene played out in his mind over the PBS News Hour. Leon wondered what had happened to that medal. Probably he had lost it on purpose. When it was in his bag, he remembered, unpacking in his UC Davis dorm room, the sight of it had affected him physically. After college he had stayed in Davis with friends until he landed a position at Stigel, Lewis in San Francisco, and soon after found an apartment in Oakland. His father died of stroke several years later, and his mother a few years after that. Their funerals were the only times he returned home to visit them.
Now, here he was, staring at the Quixote and thinking about the purple heart. He regretted that he’d lost it. He wished he could look at it now, and compare the two found objects and what they made him think about: one his family and their shortcomings, one about the thing itself and little else.
Something strange was going on, and it wasn’t just in his head. He was a little bit afraid, but of what he couldn’t quite say.
In time he realized that Heather still wasn’t here.
He picked up his phone off of the little table next to the couch, but she hadn’t texted or called. She had stood him up. He wondered sometimes if his indifference broke her heart. She was a lot younger than him.
Leon turned off the television, went to the kitchen and poured himself a finger of scotch, which he brought back to the living room and sipped, lying down on the couch. He picked up the Quixote and felt its weird energy course through his body.
Leon Ramble fell asleep that way, still dressed in his work clothes.
He woke to sunlight coming through the window and his cellphone vibrating on the coffee table. He answered it just in time. It was Heather. She was sorry for not coming over the night before. To make up for it she was coming over now. Leon, a little surprised, was glad to hear it. In fact he was actively looking forward to it. Unexpectedly, a change had come over him. He realized when he hung up his phone that his apartment looked different to him, brighter, as if his subconscious were telling him it was about to come time to prove to the ghost of his father that he was more worthy of his respect than they ever could have guessed.
When Heather showed up he resolved to make her feel how much he had really missed her.