When the streetcar halts at Woodward and Mack, the young soldier who climbs aboard with some difficulty—he looks new to his crutches—is surpassingly handsome. Everybody notices him. His hair, long for a soldier’s, is shiny black. His eyes are arrestingly blue. That gaze of his is slightly unnerving and suggests a sizable temper, maybe. Or maybe not, for the crooked grin he releases at seeing himself securely aboard is boyish and winsome. Everybody in this dusty car feels heartened by him. A nation capable of producing soldiers as stirring as this young soldier—how could it possibly lose the War?
Although she doesn’t allow herself to stare openly, nobody is more observant of the handsome wounded young soldier than someone called Bea, whose true name is Bianca: Bianca Paradiso. A tall girl wearing a red hat, she stands in the middle of the car. The War has been unfolding for what feels like ages and those tranquil days before the soldiers overran the streets seem to belong to her childhood. The olive drab and navy blue of the boys’ uniforms have reconstituted the palette of the city. Bea is an art student. She examines minutely the city’s streets and streetcars, parks and store-window displays and billboards, and of course its automobiles. Her teacher last quarter, Professor Evanman, spoke of automobiles as the city’s “blood vessels”— this is, after all, the Motor City—and he urged his students to view Detroit as “a living creature.” The advice struck powerfully: the city as a living creature. Bea is eighteen.
She cultivates these days an enhanced receptivity to color, including the heavy black of this soldier’s hair, and the hovering, weightless, gas-fire blue of his eyes, to say nothing of the emphatic fresh white of the plaster bandage encasing his left leg. Bea is heading home from a two-hour class in still-life painting. Her professor this term is Professor Manhardt, who would never counsel his students to contemplate anything automotive. Professor Manhardt is a purist. He, too, offers inspiring advice. An artist never stops mixing paint?.?.?. That’s one of Professor Manhardt’s maxims, and while heading home from class Bea typically entertains a drifting armada of colors without objects—big floating swatches and swirls of pigment.
Yes, servicemen’s uniforms have colored the city for a long time, but it’s only recently, in this sodden late spring of 1943, that you’ve begun to see many of the wounded. There’s a special light attending them, like El Greco’s figures. Each glimpse of a wounded soldier forces you into a fearful medical appraisal. How bad is he hurt? That’s always the first question in everybody’s mind. And Please, God, not too badly?.?.?. That’s the follow-up prayer. Please, God. Fortunately, nobody Bea personally knows has been wounded or killed, so far at least, although a high school classmate, Bradley Hake, has long been missing in action in the Philippines.
Well, this one, the very good-looking boy on the Woodward Avenue streetcar, isn’t hurt too badly. Though his leg is bandaged all the way above his knee, and though he grimaced on the car step, he exudes a brimming youthful well-being once aboard. It’s so good to be home, his grin declares. Good to be alive in a month in which, as the newspapers daily report, American boys by the hundreds are dying overseas. Yes, truly it is wonderful to be back in Detroit, on this last Friday in May, the twenty-eighth of May, after a record-breaking stretch of rainy days, riding a streetcar up Woodward Avenue, the city’s central thoroughfare, with a mixed crowd of people who are—men and women, white and colored—heading home for supper.
It’s approaching five o’clock and the streetcar is full, with recent arrivals like Bea left standing. Streetcars are always full, ever since the War started. Of course there’s not a chance in the world the soldier will be left standing. It’s only a matter of who’s to have the honor of first catching his eye and offering up a seat.
This privilege falls to a badly shaved, grizzled little man wearing a patched jacket and a tan corduroy cap. His hands, although scrubbed, are still grimed from a day at the factory. Bea observes everything. As he rises from his seat he instinctively doffs his tan cap, revealing a threadbare scalp on which a nasty-looking boil—his own modest wound—gleams painfully. If the young black-haired soldier had been his own flesh and blood, the grizzled little man couldn’t regard him with deeper paternal satisfaction. The man with the boil has been granted an opportunity both honorable and precious: the chance for a small but conspicuous display of patriotism.
The young soldier nods obligingly. He has a boy’s still-skinny neck, with an outsized, bobbing Adam’s apple. It isn’t just his crutches that make him gawky. If he weren’t so handsome, he might almost be silly-looking. He takes a step forward, on his crutches, halts and glances around the car. Decisively, his eye hooks Bianca Paradiso’s attentive eye.
And then—then, to the girl’s horror, to her crawling, incredulous, consummate horror—the soldier signals to her. She prays she’s mistaken, but there it is, undeniably: the soldier repeats the gesture and lifts a beckoning eyebrow.
No possible doubt what he intends: he means for Bea to occupy the seat vacated by the man with the tan corduroy cap. Instantly, Bea’s face blushes so intensely that her nose and forehead actually ache.
Everybody’s watching. It’s just as though the streetcar has halted. It’s as if the whole city has halted and everybody in Detroit is gaping at her, while she, so keenly susceptible to embarrassment, undergoes paralysis. She shakes her head once, vehemently, and with her free hand throws off a jerky motion of dismissal—a helpless, importunate gesture. Is she going to sit while the wounded soldier stands?
Don’t, her gesture says. It’s all she can say.
But resolution is written on the handsome soldier’s face. This boy isn’t about to retreat. Retreat? In recent months he has endured far too much to consider that. He has been shot at by absolute strangers, people doing their best to kill him, out in unimaginably strange lands. Is he now going to be fended off by a pretty girl in an odd red hat, standing in a Detroit streetcar with a notebook under her arm?
He continues to regard her with his charged blue glance, into which seemingly has entered a beseeching, indeed a vulnerable aspect. He is requesting a favor. Won’t she oblige him? Please? Or will she refuse him—refuse him a privilege she’d grant unthinkingly if he stood before her whole and unimpaired?
If he stood before her as the boy he used to be, not so very long ago, without crutches or bandages, wouldn’t she unhesitatingly take the offered seat?
The ghastly moment unfreezes itself, there is no way out except forward, and, stooping (she’s quite a tall girl, who tends to stoop accommodatingly), Bea slips into the empty seat. She plants her gaze on the gritty floor, where a couple of last-drag smokers have, on boarding, pitched cigarette butts. The true painter observes everything, and yet she cannot bear to meet anyone’s eyes. She vows not to look up again—not once—until her stop is reached.
It’s a pity Bea doesn’t look up, for the ensuing drama would naturally engage any artist’s eye. The delicate, tense pantomime of the handsome wounded soldier and the lanky, dark, strikingly pretty Italian-looking girl serves as a mere prelude. Once Bea has awkwardly swiveled, face aflame, into the offered seat, the rest of the car leaps into motion. Simultaneously, four, five, half a dozen men spring up, each volunteering a place for the soldier. He had their goodwill from the outset, of course, by dint of his uniform and his cheerfully wielded crutches. But something far more potent has been awakened: at the fatigued end of a hot day, and of a long week, he has restored for them the meaning of gallantry. They are abashed and upraised, and they all adore him.
Gaze steadily downcast, Bea holds true to her vow for two more stops. Her red hat is in her lap. She refers to it—a little joke—as her Hungarian beret. It’s neither Hungarian nor a beret; it’s something she picked up across the river, in Windsor, Canada. It’s made of bright red felt, almost scarlet, with a velvet rim of a different red, almost crimson. She’d chosen it after determining that it looked arty without looking too arty.
Nagging curiosity soon overcomes her, and she allows herself a few peeks out the window. The storefronts are, if possible, more patriotic than usual, in celebration of Decoration Day, which this year falls on a Sunday, two days from now. A holiday weekend is beginning, and the streetcar passes a movie theater advertising a two a.m. showing for defense workers, whose schedules might not otherwise allow a movie. The War has changed everything.
She permits herself a few darting glances at her fellow passengers. People are still peering at her. The soldier sits on the other side of the car. He has struck up a conversation with the colored woman beside him. Although Bea can’t hear what he’s saying, she appreciates the unself-conscious way he conducts the conversation. Bea can’t hear what the woman is saying either, although the phrase “My boy Hector” lifts into audibility. A moment later it surfaces again, “My boy Hector,” and a moment later. The handsome soldier nods attentively and cordially.
Because he seems so engrossed, Bea dares a full appraisal of his face. His eyelashes are long and luxuriant—evident even from here. His nose, prominent but fine-boned, with sharply contoured nostrils, calls out to be painted. (She worries, frequently, that her own nose is too long.) Suddenly, as if having sensed her gaze, the soldier throws her a glance . . . Bea drops her eyes.
This time, she keeps them on the floor for only one stop, and when she peeks upward her demure show of modesty proves sadly superfluous: a fat woman in a preposterous orange coat has posted herself directly between Bea and the soldier. Making the best of her obstructed view, Bea studies the soldier’s legs—the good one folded beneath him, the bad bandaged one, which he cannot bend, thrust out into the aisle. He has big feet, to match that big Adam’s apple.
The woman in the orange coat shuffles toward the back of the car and across the suddenly cleared vista the black-haired blue-eyed soldier stares straight into Bea’s eyes and grins.
So inviting is that smile—so seemingly innocent of the anguish he has inflicted—it seems a pity not to hold his glance. But Bea, flustered, again drops her eyes. She tries to think about the contents of her portfolio, today’s sketch of a hairbrush and a glass of soda water, but she cannot bring its reality to mind. And then—
Then something unfolds that she’s wholly unprepared for: the soldier stands. He is about to exit the car.
Before he does so, however, he has some unfinished business. Although Bea’s eyes are downcast, she feels his approach. And when he speaks— lightly, a little breathlessly—it’s as though she has heard that voice before: “Nice ridin’ with ya, miss,” he says.
Bea peers upward with a guilty frantic quickness, and this time, for a moment that opens into something far more amplitudinous than a mere moment, her eyes hold and negotiate his gaze. And this time, this time she uncovers more than genial innocence in his look. She finds hunger, and a wordless understanding. Bea experiences something never felt before—a new chapter in her life. It’s almost as though, until this afternoon, she’d never learned the trick of gazing into anybody’s eyes. It’s vertiginous, truly: her sensation of an instantaneous, fused, fated linkage. It’s as though she’s melting, but melting in one direction—his direction.
How long do they lock gazes? Once the connection is broken, there’s no saying, there’s only a belated recognition of his having moved on, and her tardy acknowledgment of gratitude, called out much too faintly: “Thank you, Soldier.”
She says nothing further, and once all the clocks on earth recommence, time grinds forward relentlessly: in just a few seconds, the soldier has maneuvered himself off the streetcar. Craning forward, Bea is able to see, as he makes his laborious way down the sidewalk, the crown of his bobbing dark-haired head and his profiled nose. And that’s all. Gone forever: the unreckonable glance that dropped so deeply into her own.
The streetcar clatters forward on its route, the soldier disappears into the bricks and asphalt of the city. The story cannot be finished before it has begun—can it?
“He didn’t even hear me thank him,” Bea says to herself. Though she’s whispering, she can hardly get the words out, for her throat’s a knot of aching emotions.
“He didn’t even hear me thank him,” she sighs once more, and this time, along with her remorse, she locates in the words a bittersweet beauty. Wasn’t the encounter perfect in its way? It’s one more poignant war story—one among millions of wartime poignancies—and Bea savors this sensation of having been enlisted in a sweeping modern military enterprise: she has shared something beautiful and touching with a handsome, unnamed, wounded soldier. She has plumbed the vulnerable eyes of somebody who just as easily might never have come back.
Everything changes—as it so often does—the moment she climbs down from the enclosure of the streetcar; time itself shifts, shifted. When, in the open air, she spoke the words once more, Bea felt a renewed sense of wistful impoverishment: “He didn’t even hear me thank him.” This time the phrase sounded dry and matter-of-fact, as though the soldier really did belong to the past tense and their story were over.
Eventually, Bea made her way down the only street she’d ever lived on, which had the oddest name of any street she knew: Inquiry. In all her novel reading, she’d never come upon its like. All the other neighborhood streets had streetlike names: Kercheval, Canton, Lafayette, Helen, Mount Elliott, Sylvester, Gratiot, Goethe, Mack?.?.?. Doubtless there was an explanation, but it seemed no one had made an inquiry about Inquiry; nobody in the neighborhood could explain why she was living on a street that—so she liked to declare— might as well be Question Mark Avenue.
Copyright © 2010 by Brad Leithauser. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.