A slate grey morning framed Washington, D.C. as I skipped up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Fog wrapped its wispy cloak around the buildings. The city lay dormant as the throngs of camera-clad tourists and suited businesspeople were not yet buzzing and bumbling along the streets. The isolation offered ample canvas to calm my rattling thoughts. They had provided an ill companion during the train ride to the capital. I wasn’t any surer of my professional future. The long-lasting bonds and career contacts I developed the previous three months had collapsed in two days’ time. For all the rites of passage I had endured, a bit of unworked clay remained inside me.
As I watched the Washington Monument ripple and stretch across the Reflecting Pool, an impulse pricked my core. It hooked my attention and turned my gaze to the distance. I grabbed ahold of the magnetic pull resonating from beyond the tree line and drew myself down the steps and across the lawn. Water beading the grass burst underfoot and splashed the tops of my sneakers. The silence was stifling and as my mind questioned the solitude, I quickly reclaimed the moment and savored the gift that likely would not last within the hour.
A dark granite shape blossomed through the thinning fog. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was not what I had imagined. It sat draped in a gauzy veil that lent to its solemnity. Although surrounded by open lawn, it was cloaked in mystery. Come and see, it beckoned.
A replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial parades into town in a trailer made for the circus. “Traveling Wall” is spray-painted across its matte-black surface in psychedelic lettering that starts small, balloons wide and long in the middle and then, pricked by its own ostentation, deflates. The scene is near enough to a sideshow as the grizzled carnies congregate near the trailer, bedecked with bronze stars, purple hearts, and medal bouquets dripping down their chests.
The trailer looms near the entrance of Pfennig Park. Cars passing by on the street behind it are swallowed up and vanish. Those that escape pour into the adjoining parking lot. Every other vehicle is a pickup truck or motorcycle trailing American and Gadsden flags that flutter in the wind like patriotic confetti.
It has been a week since the 2016 presidential election. The nation is emboldened to preach about us Blacks and Arabs, raping Mexicans, and The Wall the administration will build in the south to keep Them away from Us. An invisible wall is also assembling throughout the country and despite my American heritage, I am being divided away. The day after the election, two white men watch me from their red pickup truck as I pump gas. Their baseball caps are pulled low, cloaking their faces. Their truck paces menacingly in time with my footsteps when I finish and walk toward the convenience store. My throat burns from straining, but I know that exhaling will spark my worst nightmare.
I pause at the glass door and enter once I see the truck’s reflection streak across and disappear. Fear collects at the nape of my neck in a flurry of goosebumps then transmutes into white-hot rage at the slow extraction of freedom from the spaces around me. It burns from being cowed by these men and others like them. I have lost control of my body and its ability to navigate private and public spaces. Trucks rumbling past our house spook me. I have nightmares about white men and women accosting me at the grocery store. My trust wanes.
Hope stutter-steps in my heart when I see The Traveling Wall advertised in the community newspaper. It lights a naïve belief that visiting the replica will help me overcome my budding fear of crowded public spaces. I will reclaim control of my personhood and break through the stronghold that my unflinching enemy has erected around me. Uniting with others to honor our national heroes will assure me that I belong to the community as much as anyone else.
The Vietnam Memorial stilled me to quiet. The massive structure started low then grew taller as it lengthened. It bowed out in a V at the middle and then began its slow descent to the other side. The western panel began with names of servicemembers who died at the war’s start. The sleek walls gradually inclined to delineate the growing number of those lost over the years.
Sunlight punctured the grey clouds and streaked the burnished granite to halo the names in light. I skimmed them as I walked along, outlining the crosses and diamonds engraved at the ends with my gaze. The loudness of my footsteps embarrassed me. This was sacred ground and I did not want to mar it. I muffled my steps by altering the length of my strides and the amount of pressure I gave each footfall. I tiptoed along like a cartoon villain for a few seconds before self-consciousness reigned me back to normalcy. It was just as well. Voices resounded in the distance and I did not want to scare off any interested visitors.
I finished my self-guided tour minutes later at the eastern wall. That’s it, I thought then strode toward the gardens. A greasy feeling bubbled up and weighed down my stomach. It didn’t take long for me to pinpoint the source. I had taken the memorial for granted. I didn’t know any family members who died in the Vietnam War. Death was an abstract concept to me, as the earth had not yet swallowed anyone I loved or cherished. But the memorial still had something to offer me. It was not a place to walk through. It was a place for reflection.
I offer to drive my husband Kevin, our daughter, and me to the park. The anxiety roiling inside me can only be quelled by intense focus. The task calms my nerves and I imagine arriving on a scene with people in the throes of mourning. A thread of conviviality underlying the grieving. I drive us forward hoping we will be embraced in our mutual honoring of the fallen.
When we exit the car, I instinctively scan the premises for other people of color in hope of identifying potential allies in case I am met with hostility. It’s a habit I have not dropped since marrying my husband. Being Black in white spaces doesn’t change in an interracial marriage. This habit has only heightened post-election.
I cannot bear to make eye contact with anyone. Their facial features blur and seep into the landscape’s edges. The sun-withered grass at my feet entertains my focus instead. It hurts to be outside. Despair clings to me like suffocating kudzu. The breeze strips away my skin. The sunshine burns the rest. Every stare from a white stranger plucks a taut string in my mind that vibrates painfully. Leave. Leave. Leave. People in media shout about our collective moral failures and chastise the hoard of liberal snowflakes—I must be one because I am melting under the pressure.
Volunteers have erected the memorial replica in a field that smells like manure. Soft earthen trenches made from tire tracks belie the muddy trap awaiting anyone who steps in them. The wall is far from impressive. The sun renders the muted black tiles dull. The replica is four-fifths the size of the original and the gathering crowd further dwarfs it. What it lacks in size, the wall makes up in decoration. Miniature American flags demarcate where one tile meets another. Four large flags crown its highest point. There is one for the United States, one for the Marine Corps, and others that I later learn are POW/MIA and Vale of Tears flags. Fake red roses dot the ground in front of the wall at regular intervals.
Visitors crawl out of their vehicles and form weaving insectile lines that stream to the western wall panel. Despite the growing number of people, the park is unnervingly quiet. It is difficult to distinguish whether the silence is a mix of tension or reverence. The former hums in warning in my mind. Paranoia stalks me like a beast with hackles raised, ready for the slightest infraction. My taut muscles remain poised for flight. Every white face is one I’ve seen on television praising a divisive political agenda. Their faces reflect those reported in the news as attacking minority communities around the country. I wait for the white people at the park to shout me down and chase me away.
But I belong here as much as anyone else and I am determined not to be felled. I grasp my daughter’s hand and lead her where no one else is—toward a lone object in the field’s center. Kevin follows behind us. The object reminds me of a makeshift roadside memorial. A rifle stands upright with its barrel planted downward into the earth. A helmet hangs off the stock at an angle. Regulation combat boots stand upright on either side of the rifle. Someone has laid flowers in front of the boots.
“Ah. A battlefield cross,” Kevin delivers this information as if recognizing an old friend. He clasps his hands behind his back and slowly circles it. He grunts a final hm then stares at the replica. I give the battlefield cross a wide berth. I am unsure how close I should get or if my husband’s army affiliation affords him permission that I do not have. “You ready?” Kevin interrupts my thoughts to take our daughter’s other hand. Together, we walk toward the wall.
Facing the western panel again, I closed my eyes. I inhaled then let my breath flow out to rest in the silence. After a few seconds, I inhaled again then opened my eyes. The names of the dead lifted off the onyx-colored stones and gathered around me as I breathed life into them. As the names increased in frequency, I stopped reading them and instead closed my eyes to focus on who they might have been. I thanked them for their service and prayed for their descendants. Sometimes I focused on the surrounding space and listened for an invisible resonance emitting instruction or knowledge.
The full weight of the moment arrested me several times. I wanted to touch the names and imbue them with my compassion, but I worried that I’d set off an alarm. When I did brush my hand over the dead, I was afraid that sorrow would stain my fingertips.
“Excuse me, miss,” came a honeyed voice. “Can you please take our picture?”
I stumbled at the soldier’s presence and folded in on myself. I never heard his footsteps over the roar in my mind. A smile quickened across his sharp, mahogany face. I blushed as I stared up at him, sending the corners of his mouth farther upward into a devouring grin.
“Will you take our picture,” he asked again. I murmured yes then took the digital camera as he rejoined a jostling group of soldiers waiting nearby. I peered at them through the camera lens. The men formed a chain of bodies as black, brown, and white arms draped across shoulders and around necks to form a unified mass clad in neatly pressed camouflage. The second before the click, I paused as an image impressed on my mind: seven servicemen with their backs reflected across the dead and my reflection projected next to theirs. How I yearned for my own semblance of camaraderie.
Mementos are scattered along the panels. There is the occasional bouquet of flowers, both real and fabric. A teddy bear sits propped upright in a pile of churned earth. A hedge of balloons, loose notes, and greeting cards spills out a foot from the replica—where it is the tallest and lists the most names.
People kneel. Some touch a name and give thanks. Others pause to pray. Many of the visitors point their index fingers at a name as they gather in front of it to take a picture. Every conversation is whispered. Thoughts clamor in my mind and stifle the susurrus of words gathering across the field. A resounding absence of emotion encapsulates me. Sympathetic tears do not fall from my eyes. My heart does not well with sorrow.
“Do you want to take a picture?” Kevin asks.
“Why?” I scoff, but I know that he’s really asking if I want to preserve the memory of having been here. We are part of the pictures-or-it-didn’t-happen generation no matter how much we attempt to push against it.
“I dunno. I thought maybe just to say that we came here.” Dejection stains his words and I regret that I have offended the one person here who I trust the most. What I am unable to tell my husband is that I am struggling to identify with a valiant past generation I don’t know, while standing among another generation of unknowns who hate people like me.
I imagine viewing the picture later to see us shrouded in the names of the dead and the remnants of fear rising like bile in my stomach. That is a memento I do not want.
We view the replica in reverse chronological order by starting at the eastern panel. We stumble upstream against the flood of visitors, too haphazardly to pay sincere attention to the names typed on the wall. I am not sincerely reading them, but I can’t will myself to stop moving. My heartbeat echoes in my ears. My chest aches from holding my breath.
I release the gathering tension in my body and dwell in front of the replica. The crowd flows around me. People smile and nod hello. I return their courtesy in kind. When we reach the beginning of the memorial, we stand in silence to watch the people milling around us.
“Well, what next?” Kevin asks me. A frown tugs at his face in disappointment. Like me, he was expecting more, and I am relieved that we are in one accord.
As we move toward the exit, I turn around and give the wall one last look. I spy a middle-aged woman sitting cross-legged on the ground. Strands of her blonde hair float and fall in the ebbing breeze. Passersby scrunch their faces at her in curiosity. A crumpled tissue moves from her lap to her eyes and nose then back to her lap again. She stops a passing man and they exchange words. Across the stinking grass field, I somehow know what she’s asking him even though I cannot hear her. My chest tightens, a sort of spiritual recognition.
I turn to my husband and call out a hurried “I’ll be back.” I don’t realize I am nearly panting until I am a few steps away from the woman. I slow my breathing. Deep inhale. Exhale. Then I take a step forward.
“Excuse me, ma’am.” My stomach somersaults and doubt crests in my throat as a few people turn to listen. “Were you asking about the crosses and diamonds?”
“Yes!” Her watering eyes brighten. “Do you know what they mean?” She has so much hope.
“… well…. the diamond means they were killed in action….” Her reddened eyes tell me that if I continue, I may further unspool what little hope she has left. Yet, I have to deliver the final blow. “The cross means their body was never found.”
Her shoulders fall in time with her face. “I don’t know anyone who died in the war,” she says. “It’s just so sad, you know?”
I stare at this woman and recognize a previous version of myself. I nod to reassure her, but no, I don’t know. For the first time, I realize that the girl who stood at the original Vietnam memorial a decade ago is gone. I have shed parts of myself I didn’t even know were missing until I stood in that field struggling to fit myself in the framework of it all. My empathy is shredded down to fine gossamer. I am struggling to grasp the emotional transcendence I need, but what resonates is the sincerity in the woman’s pain. The need to protect her suddenly overwhelms me.
I linger beside the woman as her sobs catch in her hands. Fear ensnarls mine in invisible tendrils that keep me from reaching out to her. I want to hug her, to crouch down and wrap my arms around her until we are a single crying, rocking being in a twister of teddy bears and shimmering Mylar.
But I am afraid of what that would do to me. Instead, I stand there, clenching and unclenching my fists as she weeps in the dirt. I release the last dreg of fear to step aside and shade the woman while she mourns. She rocks herself and dabs her eyes. I pray. My shadow crawls over her little by little with the setting sun until it finally casts itself onto the wall.
DW McKinney is a writer living in Las Vegas, Nevada. She currently serves as the reviews editor for Linden Avenue Literary Journal. Her essays have appeared in Narratively, [PANK] Magazine, Stoneboat Literary Journal, Boston Accent Lit, and TAYO Literary Magazine, among others. You can learn more about her at dwmckinney.com or follow her on Twitter @thedwmckinney.