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NONFICTION - Today, there’s construction down

Main, and traffic creeps like spilled molasses across a countertop. As I wait at the intersection for the light to change, I watch the line of cars down Main Street passing slowly by the sign, solemnly even, as though Michael’s open-casket funeral were being held right out on the sidewalk.

I left this place to go to school and

so did he, according to the paper. The only difference is he enlisted for a chance at an education when I only signed the dotted line of a student loan. The article quoted old teachers and friends of his, and they all seemed to say the same things: he was nice, funny, adventurous, and a bit of a trouble- maker. Michael didn’t seem like the type of kid who’d embrace the strict order of the army. But then again, there’s always that itch to move on that everyone at some point in their lives must decide whether to scratch or let fester. I wonder, did he want out of this place for good, like me? Did he want something more?

I grew up hating my town, with its

steadfast ways and hollow conservative values. I vowed to be a writer, to transcend my upbringing with words. I worked through a Bachelor’s in English and decided to go the distance and get an M.F.A, to be a real writer. I researched schools tirelessly, entertaining internet fantasies of California, Oregon, and New York City. But the farther away my finger moved on the map the more I felt the grip of home clamping my hand fast, as though I’d never be able to escape it. The paper said that Michael took three bullets in a firefight before the fourth

one finally killed him, and maybe he held out so long because he knew that if he died he would be buried here forever.

But I can’t say for sure. I never knew

the kid. His sister and his grandfather both served in the military and he could have been proud of that legacy, could have loved this town, could have been a natural athlete who found the transition from shooting hoops to shooting a sniper rifle smooth and easy. He could have been bursting at the chance to prove those teachers who told him he was stupid and going nowhere dead wrong. He could have enlisted so that he’d have stories to amuse his drinking-buddies back at the local watering-hole about blowing the heads off of sand niggers and camel fuckers.

- I’m ten minutes late to dinner at the

house that I grew up in, and the light still hasn’t turned green. I keep staring at the marquee sign, waiting for the letters to rearrange themselves, for Michael to tell me who he really was and what he really wanted out of this life. I want him to tell me whether or not a soldier found that sense of moving on that a writer was still searching for. I want him to show me that it could be found in the desert just as well as here, just as well as anywhere else. But he’s dead and those letters up on the sign don’t mean a damn thing past what they’re made to spell out. I don’t even have to look back up at the light to know it hasn’t changed. I can feel it bob and sway in the breeze above me, burning red like a relentless desert sun.


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