“My daughter-in-law believes it’s wrong. She says it would be taking blood money.”
“You don’t have to take it, Mrs. Levesque—”
“Call me Aline, s’il vous plait, please.”
“Thank you. You can donate it, Aline. You can give it to whatever charity you want. Whatever charity your son would want it to go to—”
“Of course. He would love to support volunteers. He would also love for you to keep a little—”
“If Richard wasn’t a soldier, he would have been a peace worker. I know this.”
“What I’m saying Mrs., Aline, ma’am, is money isn’t the point. It’s not why you returned my call.”
“Excusez, pardon me, the phone.” Aline presses her palm on the sofa cushion and stands. As she shuffles away, her visibly exasperated guest closes his eyes and rubs his forehead.
The phone hangs on a wall in the kitchen. The kitchen is through a doorway and the wall is red brick and jaggedy. More than once, Aline has scraped her knuckles against it when rushing to answer the ring. She did no harm to her hand this time, because she didn’t rush. In fact, she hasn’t rushed for a very long time; months, if she will let herself count. Call it experience or just knowing better. Aline takes her time and no longer carries a watch, a fact that lately results in phone calls like this one, from her sister, who tells her she is late.
“Il est maintenant ici,” Aline says and tells her sister she will be even later for dinner, and no, she hasn’t decided if she will sign the papers, and no, Richard’s father hasn’t called. He’s on the other side of the country, what does he care?
She replaces the phone and spots a tray of cookies and biscuits. The silver plate is dented in the middle, causing the snacks to slide to one side or the other when she places it in front of her guest. He is a lawyer — an American named Charbonneau, a surname Aline finds both curious and displeasing for the same reason: he doesn’t speak a word of French. He says thank you and, to make room for the tray, bunches his documents together on the table, a utilitarian box with drawers and a wooden top with so many scratches and imperfections Aline is certain a bright man like Charbonneau will suspect it was bought used. She again asks if he would like coffee, tea, any beverage, and with a wave of his hand, he again refuses, and Aline retakes her seat.
He presents her with a form to sign and an outstretched pen held between his thumb and index finger to accomplish the task. Aline accepts neither. Rather, she chews a soft cookie while once more listening to his banter, his assertions that it’s the absolute right thing to do, for the simple reason no one else should ever have to endure what her son did, no parent should again have to suffer in the position she finds herself.
The form creeps toward Aline, pushed by digits that are long and smooth, without the calluses that marked her son’s hands. With a feeling of surrender, of acquiescing to stubbornness, Aline presses her palm on top of the document and pulls, easily freeing it from Charbonneau’s tenuous grip. She rebuffs his pen, which is closer to her chin than she would like. A ballpoint is next to the cookies and biscuits. With no other goal than to relieve herself of this episode, she uses it to scribble her name beside the red “X” that sits on the legal paper like a target. The page ruffles as she thrusts it back across the table to Charbonneau without looking up. Her eyes rest off to the side, to a spot on the floor where sunlight radiates through her fern and philodendron and other flowerless plants, and their leaves cast shadows on the floor, bare hardwood.
Sue them, she says to herself. Take their damn money.
Her body shakes, as if breaking out of a trance. Aline places her palms atop her knees with an audible pat and asks, “Is there anything else?”
Charbonneau appears to want to say Yes, but he can’t get the word out, instead he wails. Aline flinches and watches his face contort animatedly into a panic-stricken grimace as he cups his left hand under his right and trembles like he’s been wounded. Aline’s eyes drop and she sees black liquid seeping into his hands, and onto his nice khaki pants. Charbonneau knocks his knees like a proper schoolgirl and Aline is pleased. He is kind enough to save her area rug and floor from the refuse of his exploded pen.
“Mon dieu,” Aline says and shoves a handful of tissues under the tip, stanching the leak. She then tells him to follow her.
He hurries from his seat, stomping on the inlaid panels, and beats her into the kitchen, where he stands over the sink with his hands wet and covered in ink, and with tissue that’s stained and disintegrating. His gold pen sticks out from between his fingers, still leaking, until Aline takes it, twists it open in the middle and dumps out the remaining liquid. She shakes out the two halves over the sink and places them on the Formica counter, near the cracked, black burn mark — a scar from a boiling tea kettle removed a year ago in haste. The ink fumes begin to bother her, and she flicks up the faucet and cold water bursts from the tap, plummeting to the sink and splattering into droplets before her American lawyer dams the flow with his hands. He cleans his palms under the tap until they are ubiquitously pink again.
Aline gives him a towel and leaves him to swipe at his Dockers and to reassemble his pen. He does so while complaining about a discount airline’s new policy, an insistence on checking his small suitcase full of papers and office supplies. She ignores his words and shuffles back to her spot on the sagging sofa and thinks about men and stains and how often they tend to make them.
She rubs then folds her hands, and catches her right moving over the fingers of her left as if searching for something lost. She stops immediately. Without thinking of who she is speaking to, Aline asks, “Ca va bien?” There is no response and she immediately shifts to her more accommodating tongue and asks Charbonneau if he is okay.
He says yes then returns to the living room, still fretting over his pants. He dabs and smudges at the stain and only makes it worse, yet he can’t seem to stop. Aline kindly and quietly offers to give him a pair of Richard’s jeans. Give, not lend.
“You’re about his height,” she says. “You might need a belt. I have one of those, too. I have many of his things still, from before he was married.”
Charbonneau whispers no and points to Aline’s ballpoint and asks, “May I?” She nods and with fluid strokes he calmly signs and dates the form, which, Aline sees, he had flipped over to protect from the dripping ink.
Four more papers remain for Aline to autograph and all are for the courts and affirm that yes, Aline Levesque of Montreal is indeed suing the government of the United States. Suing for $750 million in punitive and exemplary damages. Suing because a bomb was dropped on her only child. A five-hundred-pound casket full of leaden ammunition and electronic gadgets and a laser-guided honing device that somehow honed in on her son after it was fired from a “friendly” plane and whistled to the ground somewhere near the caves of Kandahar, detonating in near enough proximity to Corporal Richard Levesque that he was obliterated and buried, ripped apart at the joints like he’d been sewn together schematically and, therefore, could be easily unraveled. Not a single particle of his skin was found unsinged, not a strand of hair. So little of him was unearthed, in fact, that the decision was made to return to both his mother and his wife vials of dirt from the spot where he was last seen firing at a practice target, an old, rusted and impotent Russian tank, a killing device from another war over what.
[To read more of “Protection From Friends”, send an email requesting the rest of the story.]