Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Hard and Soft (04/23/09)
By Beth Muehlhausen
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Mr. Warbuck stood at attention with his hands on his hips. “This history class will be run like boot camp; we're strictly business, here.” He glared over the tops of his glasses as if scouting for potential defectors. “I’m a World War II veteran; I mean business.”
After the first week of the semester, I approached him after class. “Mr. Warbuck?”
“What is it?” His eyes remained glued to some spot on the back wall.
“I’m writing an essay for another class on World War II. Could I interview you?”
He froze, his arms striking perfect mannequin poses on the desktop – elbows bent, fingers slightly curved, as if waiting to reach for a cup of coffee. Seconds ticked by on the clock, and the question hung like a heavy blanket. The mannequin hands never flinched.
“Not now.” The words were clipped.
I looked down at the dirty ring on the back of his white collar, and thought I smelled a nauseating hint of cigar smoke. I wished I might escape somehow and forget I’d even approached him. Instead I shifted my books from one arm to the other. “N-no, I m-mean some other time.” I stuttered in spite of myself. “At the Sweet Shoppe – or wherever you like.” The suggestion came tentatively, as if flying in under the radar, hoping to find a place to land.
“Never been to the Sweet Shoppe. Don’t plan on starting now.”
My stomach flip-flopped. Had I offended him?
“But I’ll meet you in my office tomorrow at 1:00.” One hand finally moved, and shooed me away. “Now go on, I have work to do.”
The next day I stood outside Mr. Warbuck’s office at 12:55 and nervously drummed my fingers against my leg. Why had I gotten myself into this? He opened the door promptly at 1:00. “Come in.”
Tall stacks of books rose like skyscrapers atop his filing cabinets. I cleared my throat. “Thank you, Mr. Warbuck. I appreciate this.”
“Sit down.” He gestured to a metal folding chair. “What's your question?”
“I’m interested in knowing how the war changed you – how it shaped you.”
Encased in his typical emotional coat of armor, he seemed unmoved. I watched his face for clues, and thought I saw a shadow fall. The chair creaked in protest as he leaned back, clasped his hands behind his head, and stared at the fluorescent light.
“Mr. Warbuck, I don’t want to make this too awkward or personal.”
Finally, he spoke. “No one has ever asked me that before. But it’s a good question.” He sat up straight. “Do you want the truth?”
He frowned. “Your paper - it must be anonymous. You can’t use my name under any circumstances.”
Taken aback by his forthrightness, I croaked, “Sure, Mr. Warbuck. Whatever you say.”
The words tumbled out quickly, as if they’d waited years for an audience. “Before the war I was in love.” He paused; his eyelids fluttered, and then closed. “Her name was Susan. I’d finished school and was planning to be an elementary school teacher. I loved little kids.” His eyes opened; he looked at me sideways and raised an eyebrow. “Do you find that interesting? Or amusing?”
I smiled and shrugged.
“Susan loved beauty – she was an artist. I thought we’d marry and have a family after the war; she would have been a wonderful homemaker.”
His face darkened. “When I returned from the war she’d married someone else. I was gone for four years in the South Pacific. Too long to wait, I guess.”
“How did you handle that?”
“I didn’t. Can’t you see?” With a cynical chuckle he rubbed the whiskery stubbles on his chin. “I closed up. That’s what the war did to me – it hardened me.”
I didn’t know what to say. This was much more personal than I’d expected. “You became hard? As opposed to what?”
He smiled a faint, wistful smile. “There’s a soft heart underneath this grouchy old man’s exterior.” He leaned forward with a gleam in his eye. “It’s a well-kept secret, you know.”
“A soft heart?”
His typical frozen stare returned; it was as if a curtain fell at the end of a very short act. “The war – well, it took a hopeful young man and taught him despair. That’s all I have to say. You can leave now; I need to get back to work.”
I gathered my things.
He looked sheepish. “You can’t use my name.”
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