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"Winston Knew the Secrets"

by Susan Anderson 

I can’t sleep at night for the dreams. Scared to wake my wife with screams. Men who survived the trenches are like me; unable to rest. I open the door to them, souls needing to confess. Sarge, they whisper as they enter. At my kitchen table they spit up words of shame. I am the receptacle of secrets, burning with what they name.


Sunlight carries my wife to the kitchen. The others have fled its glare. Fingers tingle to touch my wife’s soft cheek, but my hand is no longer there. Sunday morning, and she’s off to church, wishing that I would go. Her belly looms with our future. For once, I don’t say no.


Ah, the sweet haven. Preacher looking over the heads of the congregation. Wool trilbies and homburgs top the men. The women’s wide-brimmed hats are swathed in marabou and ribbons. My wife sits tall by my side. The sleeve of my dress suit is pinned under my stump, sewn at the end, and bubbled like a sausage.


Before the war, I had two good arms. Played trumpet in this very church. The organ groaned as I stood in the choir stall. The hurtin’ I put on the Concerto in D Major would have made Handel moan.


Every day there were lynchings. Birth of a Nation screened in the White House. A. Philip Randolph and Owen Chandler published sedition in The Messenger. Patriotism has no appeal, only justice. For that they went to jail. I joined the colored 369th, convinced that bravery would serve our people well.


The U.S.S. Philippines docked at Brest. From shore came greetings, people shouting Bienvenue to our regiment band. On deck we wailed our syncopated tunes. They had never heard such sounds. We turned their minds inside out with our music, bringing jazz to France.


We traded our instruments for Browning rifles, and wore the Adrian helmets with pride. From Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood we fought to the Rhine. Days of brutality. Deafening cannon fire. Crawling on our bellies in mud. We never lost a man to capture. We gave not a foot of ground to the enemy. The Germans called us hell fighters, as we advanced through blood.


My wife stares at me, pity in her eyes. I must have exclaimed aloud. The church is silent, ushers at attention. Back in Oakland, I had to pawn my medals. Nobody gave me a job. Can’t hold down food. Even sleep is snatched from me. These people think I’m crazy, for sure. 


Preacher gives the benediction. The peace of God. The organ grumbles, and I weep. Memories assault me of what our kind has done. The lies that conquered us, the war we won. The secrets a soldier must endure.

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