“I would probably change the temperature.” Then silence, dragging the final syllable like a child to a bath.
He chuckled lightly, thinking his witticism something to be enjoyed. But I sat across from him, reigning in a velvet-clad arm chair, and stared. Just stared.
The man was a mere 66. But life’s undue chaos wrecked his eyes and shook his robust stature. He slumped in chairs now, ties curling at the protrusion of a bulbous belly. He wouldn’t make eye contact, unless to follow the chorus of laughter erupting after one of his many jokes. And in the background, leaning on the dining room table, wife Elise only shook her head sadly, retreating to make a pot of tea.
When I first asked him what he would change about the last 66 years, he giggled. His friends used to call him Captain Jonathan, but no Captain giggles when serious questions are asked. Elise brought the tea after the punchline faded and all that was left was my uncut stare and his sweaty awkwardness.
“I suppose I’d change a few things,” he soberly responded.
“I don’t know,” he stammered anxiously. “I suppose I lied… once or twice. Misled people.”
“I did, I did lie… I mean, not intentionally… always.”
“Does that matter?”
“Doesn’t it? I didn’t mean to cause harm.” The slump was corrected, back straightened, and the tie unfolded to reveal a deer bounding in a field. Cheap gimmicky crap.
“People still suffer because of you.”
“It’s not my fault!” he bellowed. Then, with a modicum of calm: “I didn’t have much of a choice.”
“Didn’t you? You were in control, weren’t you?”
“What are we talking about? The …” His voices trailed off and he turned his head to look outside the window, growing beads of sweat glistening on his brow. His hands fussed at his lap, picking at the point of his tie. And his knee wobbled unrhythmically back and forth beneath the desk. He couldn’t say it.
Slowly, he lowered his head to focus on the bounding deer. “I suppose… it could have been different.”
“How the hell should I know?!” he snapped. “I only knew so much then. It’s always easier to see things in the past.”
I nodded, looking down at my pencil and dog-eared reporter’s pad. He was right. I had come here to interrogate, to drag from a noble man an ignoble past. I brought him down from what he was to lie with his guilt, but I hadn’t imagined what to do once it had happened. Or even if I should be doing it.
“Tea?” Elise mutedly offered, reaching over the coffee table to fill my cup with a shaky drizzle. Everybody was on edge. Silence sat, uncomfortable, for several seconds, until I mustered: “It could have been worse, you know. More people might have died.”
Jonathan seemed to nod faintly, his eyes still following the wind-swept trees outside. “It doesn’t really matter, does it?” he pushed through a deep sigh. “They’re dead now. I can’t bring them back.”
I stirred awkwardly, starting to feel my own shame form in sweaty drops on my forehead. A solider, a husband, a father. And after 66 years of colorful service to humanity I was sitting here trying to undo him.
The silent pause lingered.
“Well,” I finally upped with a cough, standing, “perhaps I should be going.”
Elise eyed me quizzically. “But… you haven’t even—”
“No need,” I interrupted. “What’s done is done. Let’s not resurrect the past, eh?”
Jonathan sat unmoved in his leather swivel chair, not acknowledging the end of the interview. I looked over at him, weakly smiled, and headed for the door.
“Let us know if we can be of any more help,” Elise said as the door pulled to behind me. On the stoop, I turned around and grinned in recognition.
“You’ve done more than a good man would ask for, and probably more than a good man deserves,” I said.
With my pad tucked in my jeans pocket, I slowly wandered to my crumbling VW bug. Twenty years of hard-hitting, truth-finding journalism, and the only thing to share it with was a 1970s foreign car with a cracked rearview mirror.
What is service, anyway?