My name is Francis Joseph Cassavant and I have just returned to Frenchtown in Monument and the war is over and I have no face.
So I offer up an Our Father and Hail Mary and Glory Be for Larry LaSalle. Then I am filled with guilt and shame, knowing that I have just prayed for the man I am going to kill.
I knelt there like a knight at her feet, her sword having touched my shoulder. I silently pledged her my love and loyalty forever.
Why hadn't I answered her? Did she now think I was stupid, unable to start a conversation? Had she merely been teasing me? Or had she been really afraid that I might fall off the banister? The questions left me dazed with wonder. I never knew that love could be so agonizing. Finally, the big question: Had Marie told Nicole that I liked her?
I have places to visit now that I have returned and one of them is Sixth Street and the gray three-decker where Nicole Renard lived with her mother and father on the second floor at number 212. I know she doesn't live there anymore and I have nothing to gain by going there but it's inevitable that I look at her house again.
Here is the point where my life becomes a lie. "Raymond" I tell her, using the name of my dead brother. "Beaumont," I add. My mother's name before she married my father.
In the alley that day I encountered the German soldiers, all right, but my bursts of gunfire killed the soldiers quickly, no exploding head no body cut in two, although one of them did cry Mama as he fell. When I looked down at them…I saw how young they were, boys with apple cheeks, too young to shave. Like me.
The Wreck Center became my headquarters in the seventh and eighth grade, a place away from the sidewalks and empty lots of Frenchtown. I had never been a hero in such places, too short and un-coordinated for baseball and too timid to join the gangs that hung around the street corners.
Dazzled by his talent and his energy, most of us didn't dwell on the rumors. In fact, the air of mystery that surrounded him added to his glamour. He was our champion, and we were happy to be in his presence.
"There are lots of medals," the big bartender croaks, "for outstanding service, but only the Silver Star is for heroism." His old voice is suddenly formal and dignified. "For gallantry."
Never before had I known such a sense of destiny. I felt invincible, impossible to defeat, the ball always under my control.
Like a dream coming true, Nicole took the trophy from Larry LaSalle and handed it to me, the radiance of her face mirroring my own. The crowd grew silent as I pressed the trophy to my chest, my eyes becoming moist
"Heroes," he scoffs, his voice sharp and bitter, all signs of drunkenness gone. "We weren't heroes. The Strangler and his scrapbook. No heroes in that scrapbook, Francis. Only us, the boys of Frenchtown. Scared and homesick and cramps in the stomach and vomit. Nothing glamorous like the write-ups in the papers or the newsreels. We weren't heroes. We were only there…
Larry LaSalle stood before us that afternoon at the Wreck Center, the movie star smile gone, replaced by grim-faced determination. "We can't let the Japs get away with this," he said, anger that we had never seen before flashing in his eyes. As we were about to cheer his announcement, he held up his hand. "None of that, kids, I'm just doing what millions of others are doing."
Taking a deep breath, I said: "Would you like to go to the movies sometime?" The earth paused in its orbit.
The Movietone News brought reminders of the war that was raging around the globe, as the grim narrator spoke of places that had been unknown to us a few months ago—Bataan in the Pacific, Tobruk in Africa. We cheered our fighting forces and booed and hissed when Hitler came on the screen, his arm always raised in that hated salute.
We always did what Larry LaSalle told us to do. Always carried out his slightest wish…I saw Larry raising his eyebrows at me, the way he looked at me when I made a stupid move at table tennis.
"Are you all right?" I asked. “No, I'm not all right" she answered anger flashing in her eyes. "I hurt. I hurt all over." I could only stand there mute, as if all my sins had been revealed and there was no forgiveness for them.
I could not die that way. Soldiers were dying with honor on battlefields all over the world. Noble deaths. The deaths of heroes. How could I die by leaping from a steeple? The next afternoon I boarded the bus to Fort Delta, in my pocket the birth certificate I had altered to change my age, and became a soldier in the United States Army.
I am calm. My heartbeat is normal. What's one more death after the others in the villages and fields of France? The innocent faces of the two young Germans appear in my mind. But Larry LaSalle is not innocent.
I had always wanted to be a hero like Larry LaSalle and all the others, but have been a fake all along. And now I am tired of the deception and have to rid myself of the fakery. I look away from him, out the window at the sun-splashed street. "I'm not a hero” I tell him.
Everybody sins, Francis. The terrible thing is that we love our sins. We love the thing that makes us evil
Downstairs, at last, after what seems like a long, long time, I pause at the outside door. The sound of a pistol shot cracks the air. My hand is on the doorknob. The sound from this distance is almost like that of a Ping-Pong ball striking the table.
"Okay," she says. "If I’m not exactly all right, then I'm…" She screws up her face, searching for the right word. "I'm adjusting. Getting better at it all the time.
My good Francis. My table tennis champion. My Silver Star hero." Hero. The word hangs in the air. "I don't know what a hero is anymore, Nicole." I think of Larry LaSalle and his Silver Star. And my own Silver Star, for an act of cowardice. "Write about it, Francis. Maybe you can find the answer that way."
I remember what I said to Nicole about not knowing who the real heroes are and I think of my old platoon…I think of Enrico, minus his legs, his arm. I think of Arthur Rivier, drunk and mournful that night in the alley. We were only there. Scared kids, not born to fight and kill. Who were not only there but who stayed, did not run away, fought the good war. And never talk about it. And didn't receive a Silver Star. But heroes, anyway. The real heroes.