When the car began its turn and the headlights moved into our eyes I was there. A halo rose through Molly’s seldom brushed hair — a halo of my fear, not her grace. She was between the car and me. It shimmered , yellow light through misting rain. “Molly!” I called. She was a lanky girl, seven years old, and was happily handing out leaflets with everyone despite the late hour. “She’s a big girl now,” her mother Dale had said. “She can decide. She can sleep in the car or come with us.” They had come with me even though Dale and I had lost the idea of being a couple a few months before. Molly hadn’t lost it. “I’m going with him,” Molly said, so Dale came along. “It’s not a big deal,” she said. “There are bigger things than us.”
We were mid-way along the line of cars. Dale was behind us, near the mailbox where hands were extending out of windows, pushing the big envelopes of their just-in-time tax returns though the night and into the jaw of the blue USPS box, their faces grimacing –against the drizzle, or the pain of payment. Beyond her, on the far side of the box was a folding table with a white poster-board sign: Recruiting Office: Stop the War. Sign Up Here! Two youngsters had clipboards in their hands for those who might volunteer. Not many that night, but for some with us it was the first time. We were twenty or so, not too far from midnight, with signs and leaflets, reminding them what their taxes were paying for. Some encouraged us with smiles and thumbs up. One gave Roxie twenty dollars. “Keep it up,” he said. Others shrugged with Italianate eloquence — “What can I do?” Two had given the finger, one held it straight up, a bar across the open window as Dale leaned forward to hand him a leaflet. Another had raised her arm up and out, pointing it towards the sky and jabbing. She didn’t laugh either when Billy, glancing upward, said, “I don’t think He deserves that.”
The line was long, longer than the year before. Maybe the rain, now blowing east, had delayed the procrastinators even longer than usual. Maybe the truth of the war was sinking in. We had taped, stapled, glued and flown as paper airplanes over hedges and walls, leaflets that said Tax Day! Don’t Pay! Twenty thousand dead! 47% of every dollar goes to war, past and present! We had phone numbers for counseling, suggestions not to pay the telephone tax, with the title and the date of the bill congress had passed, imposing it entirely for the war.
When the driver-side headlight pulled out of the line I was puzzled, bordering on elation. Maybe a mind had changed. As I called her name I reached out to Molly’s shoulder and tugged her towards me. Several others saw the strange movement of lights and backed away, giving him room to make a U. The far-side light followed the first. We reached out across each other, pressing back. Billy popped out of the crowd and took charge. “Give him room! Give him room! He wants to go home, think the whole thing over!” It was a big car. We couldn’t see all of it with the lights in our eyes but heavy tires scrunched gravel on the edge of the parking lot. The engine had a deep rumble, out of place among the higher faster whines of the small cars, their owners more irritated at the reminder of their small incomes than at any tax they might be paying. The rumble suddenly rose to a roar as though he had gunned the motor. The car jumped forward, then stopped in a lurch, the headlights dipping as the hood nosed down. He was not just trying to get out of line, I thought. I glanced down to double-check. Molly’s jacket was laced in my fist.
The lights flicked bright, to high beam, no longer swinging out of the line but coming straight at us. Molly turned into me and gripped my arm. She was strong, already a fierce competitor in after school gymnastics. But her seven-year old’s hand was small, smaller even than her small body, thin in her brother’s hand-me-down pullover. “What’s he doing?” she asked with alarm and turned to look again, pulling in closer to me.
Everyone else turned, not instantly, but as birds in murmuration do. “What the fuck!” came a voice. Dale called, “Molly? Molly?” her voice rising. Billy, who was closest, stepped forward and put his hand over the rolled down window. “Sir? Sir? Are you all right?”
We could see the man’s face now, lit from below by the green dashboard lights and from above an amber street light hanging over the mail box. It was a big face, sagging like a months old melon, painted in inchoate greens and oranges. His chin fell over a wide chest. Both hands were on the top quarters of the wheel, attached to large, sloping shoulders. It looked like he was having trouble breathing, his shoulders and elbows lifting and falling. Spume burbled at the edges of his grimaced lips. The car began advancing again.
Billy put his left hand through the window and over the man’s left hand on the wheel. He was now more or less perpendicular to the car, bent over, half talking, half-shouting. “Sir! You don’t want to do this! Sir. Take your foot of the gas!” Four or five others in the group had pushed forward from the retreating crowd and were pressing up against the wide hood, pushing back, as though by sheer muscle and will they could bring him to a stop. They were leaning at sharp angles, pressing hard, but backing up. step by step. Someone, it must have been Rainbow, was yelling, “give us a hand, give us a hand! He won’t run over all of us.” Others, back in the dark, were yelling “get away, get away. He’s crazy!” The driver in the car ahead of him, turning his head out and backwards to see what was going on, began to lean on his horn. The car behind him, creeping up to take his space, added hers. The one ahead had a bobble head of a Peace Angel in the back window. The one behind had faded window decals for Proud USMC Mother.
Molly was astride my left hip now, her arms wrapped around my neck. Someone behind us, or several, I couldn’t see, shoved me in the back and we stumbled forward a step. I caught myself against the door frame. My head grazed Billy’s as I bent and peered into the car. “Mister! I’ve got a little girl here! Slow down! Slow down, we can let you through.”
His trance seemed to break. He looked up. Molly looked in. His breathing was ragged. The noise of it filled the space he occupied. The car lurched again, forward and then to a stop, again the slow menacing rocking forward and back. The loud rip of rubber and gravel stopped all the voices for a moment. A radio, somewhere else in the line of cars, was playing something sad, something Mahler. The big man looked out at us, his hands still on the steering wheel, his breath wheezing through the troughs of his throat.
“You fucking communists! You filthy goddamn communists,” he said “I fought in the second world war! I lost toes at Ardennes! And you’re out here…” His train of thought stalled and guttered. “You can be here only because of what we did! You god damned cowards!” He was looking directly at us now, a long, long ago healed scar running down the right side of his face. Molly released her hold around my neck and slid down my frame. She stood in front of me, facing the man, face at an equal height to his. “Thank you sir.” The wipers made an arc and stopped. “For stopping,” she said softly. She cocked her head and looked at him, taking in his scar, his flaring nose, his leaking lips. “Sometimes, when I get mad, I just have to go to my room for a while. To think about it.” Just then Dale pushed up next to me, squatted and wrapped her arms around Molly. “Sweetie, Sweetie You OK?” The man looked uncertainly between the two faces, reality seeping back to his eyes. He turned from us, looking out through the misted window and the young faces leaning against the hood. The wiper made another arc.
“We’re out here to talk to people about the war,” Dale said. “You don’t have to listen. Can I take your envelope to the mailbox for you? I don’t think they’ll let you back in line.” He didn’t answer. He didn’t look at her. Molly turned out of her mother’s arms and pressed against the door. “You can have my doll,” she said and held it up, a dark yarn head, a gingham dress and noticeably missing her left leg. She thrust it through the window. “She lost her leg from a war bomb,” she said and looked at it tenderly. “But she’s really nice,” she said and pushed it under the man’s left arm, still ramped to the steering wheel, and dropped it on the manila envelope on his lap. Printed in black block letters was: IRS, Fresno, CA. “Be nice,” she said to the doll “Her name is Betty,” she said and backed away, pressing against her mother. The man’s shoulders jerked, as though startled by the name, but said nothing. He didn’t turn his face towards her. He began turning the wheel to left and eased the car forward. His eyes were squinting and blinking, his wrists trembling near the wheel. People backed away. Someone out on the fringes waved him around, across the soft wet earth of the field.
“Get your hands off my window, please,” he gasped to Billy who was still walking with him. He did. “Thanks for what you did, sir,” said Billy. “But the Vietnamese are not the Germans. We’d like everyone to stop the fighting.” “Don’t,” whispered the man, his eyes leaking hard now. “Enough.” He lifted his right hand and wiped his eyes with the back of it. Billy dropped a leaflet into the back foot well and stepped away. The Cadillac, white with a strange cream interior picked up speed. The doll was in his lap, untouched.
“Be well, sir,” Billy called. The others grouped together, arms around each other, facing one way and another. Some could see the line of cars, others, the dark trees in the field, branches reaching out against the dark sky. Most of us were veterans at this sort of thing but I can’t say we weren’t rattled. We’d seen plenty. Heard more. I’d been punched a time or two, Roxie had been pushed up against a tree and threatened with rape. Even so, something about tonight had been different — the drizzle of rain, the lateness of the hour, the strange light, the relative tolerance of those in the cars, then the attack, Molly so close to it. People were looking at each other. Some put their hands over their hearts. Two of the newest exchanged incredulous giggles and ferocious embraces. Dale had taken her off a little ways, squatting on her haunches, talking to her as I’d often seen her do, something like, “You OK, sweetie? Well, good, because your mama’s not.” Pulling her into her, Molly putting up with it because, you know, moms. Someone started humming, a low, steady note. Others joined, exhaling slowly to get control of their breath. Slowly an uncertain hmmmmming lifted into the night air. The rain had stopped. The hum grew more certain and steady. Someone added Mahhhhllllyyy in harmony, until several were doing it. Molly Mollllly lifted and floated over the low, steady hmmmmmmm. Thank you. Thank you, began to appear, now in three-part harmony. The car next in line to drop in an envelope stopped, the driver staring out. The car behind her tooted, not too impatiently. She began to move, a blue Honda wagon, with a tricycle in the back. She drove past the mailbox without stopping, waving an envelope briefly before bringing it back into the car.
The crowd was now moving slightly to their own music, swaying, davening, giving short hugs and tugs at each other’s arms and hands, shaking off the black spiders of fear and spreading out along the line of cars. Molly and Dale held hands, passing out leaflets with the other, pulling from a cloth purse slung around Dale’s neck. Billy picked up a white poster board sign and stood by the mail box. Every bomber = half a million college tuitions! Every bomb kills a football field of people! A picture of a mutilated body was on the bottom. I picked up an armload of discarded signs and walked them to the car, trying to settle my racing heart. The Cadillac was stopped at the exit from the parking lot, it’s turn light blinking red. Red, red. There were few cars on the road this time of night. Some, at the far exit, having dropped off their envelopes were turning his way but most were heading back into town. He just sat there. Blinking. I walked the twenty yards or so to the car, opened the trunk and laid the signs in. I closed it and began to walk back towards the group. The turn light was still blinking. Waiting. Suddenly the two rear lights flashed white, bright and frightening. I began to sprint. “Hey Billy!” I called, searching the dark heads to find him. “He’s got it in reverse, I yelled. “Look!” And turned my head back towards the car. It was gone. The exit was empty. The street was black. A dark hedge ran along the far side of the road. Nothing moved. I came to a stop and turned to look at the space he had been in. “He was sitting out there,” a voice in my head said, “thinking about something. Then for a second… He thought again, I guess.”
“Just ten minutes to go,” Billy called. “It’s almost midnight.”
I’ve thought about that night many times. Was he sick? Or was he certain? Did he move in fight or flight? Were the back-up lights a second run or did a one-legged doll raise another memory of war? He was my father’s age –who has been going through some changes of his own. I didn’t know in which direction. We hadn’t talked since my first arrest. Molly was asleep before I got her into the back seat, lying across three laps. We pulled out with all the others, blinking headlights, pressing exhausted peace signs against the windows. No one had too much to say in the car going home. We never knew whether the horns were sounding for us or against us, but were always optimistic. Dale reached out and touched my hand, and let it stay. “Do you think she knows what she did?” I asked. “I think so,” she said. “She has that gift.”
It was late. Thursday morning now. I had to be at work in five hours and we weren’t home yet. We had a rally to plan in the City Park for Saturday and a big march a month away. Molly would turn eight that very day. She would be sixteen before the war was over.
Molly’s Gift – A Story
© Will Kirkland, 2015
As life begins to give way before long desire, I’ve turned my attention — with some effort– from the daily information shrapnel storms of life to concentrate on writing –fiction, short and long, perhaps longer yet, essays, a poem or two if grace descends. The themes will come from the stories that have filled many of our lives, those thousands of efforts, large and small, to stand up and witness, to throw voices and bodies against the scary wobbling of the world.