Thank You for Your
It was on the Geary bus, getting on at 25th Avenue was a soldier in full uniform, not a thing you see every day in San Francisco, but you could still love San Francisco for the way that each day it gave you something you didn’t see every day.
The soldier moved down the aisle and the man sitting in front of me came to attention. He looked like old San Francisco. These guys who are proud of San Francisco’s progressive history, but to a degree. I had a soft spot for them because of Denny and Lon, two guys I would see at the Royal Ground. They were old-time San Francisco Sunset District guys and they would tell me stories from their boyhood and youth. Denny had been in Vietnam and I always remembered how he told me that if America ever had a draft again, he would send his son to Ireland. He had such a wonderful fire when he said he would send his son to Ireland, and then a great sorrow when he said his son would probably fight him on it. I missed the hell out of those guys.
The man sat up straight when the soldier passed him.
“Thank you for your service,” he said.
The soldier smiled and I hoped the man would go back to looking out the window, because then I could trust his words at least and I could imagine he might be a guy like Denny, someone who actually knew what war was and had respect for a soldier but would still send his son to Ireland if he got drafted, but the guy didn’t do that at all, and instead he looked around to see who’d heard him, as if to challenge them, as if to say, I know this is San Francisco, but it’s America before it is San Francisco, and the thing to do when you see a soldier in uniform is to thank them for their service. And I had just a flash of a moment when his eyes met mine that I thought his words might be directed at me, an Iranian man, and for just a moment it unlocked the part of me that worried every day that America is going to attack Iran, and I’m going to hear people thanking soldiers for their service of attacking my country, and then how the hell am I supposed to live in America, let alone write American stories that sing? But somehow the memory of Denny and Lon saved me, because I knew those guys, and the guy reminded me so much of them in the way he was trying to say that San Francisco was still the San Francisco of his boyhood and youth, and he had a desperation in his eyes that made me think he would’ve said it and looked around the way he did whether I was there or not.
Still, I went traveling through all my different ages when he said it like that, to my own boyhood and youth, when I would have felt it was directed at me, when I would have understood it as the voice of authority, an authority that I did not necessarily want to fight against, as much as I wanted to fight against the notion of war as service, because I liked service. I did not have the first thing against service, but I looked around me and thought, we’re not possibly that scared, are we, to think that war is the only service? Because what do you do if you like service but hate war? Well, you can write stories that you hope can be of some service. I wrote a short story collection called Better Than War. I wished I could give a copy of it now to Denny and Lon, but I had been out of touch with them for a while. I wished I could give a copy of it to the man who’d thanked the soldier for his service. Here, I’d say, this is just to balance things out. That would be nice. I’d probably be too scared to do it if I had a copy with me. You got a problem with the American soldier? he’d say to me. No, but I got a problem with war, I’d say. Maybe then he would say, Me too, and then we could look at each other and angrily agree with each other. I like to think that I could get to the point of angrily agreeing with anybody. That’s what I was trying to do with the stories in the book. I was trying to say that a bunch of American soldiers and a bunch of Iranian soldiers shouldn’t kill each other, because there are magnificent lives that Iranians are living and there are magnificent lives that Americans are living as well. Every story can be an anti-war story, in my opinion, if the lives of the people in those stories are shown to be wonderful. I had no doubt just then that the life of the solider on the bus was wonderful, and that the life of the man who had thanked him for his service was wonderful. He had all of San Francisco, for one thing, new and old, and he was in the struggle of trying to make a straight line between his present and his past, which was a beautiful struggle to be in. I didn’t have an idea for the next story I was going to write, but I looked around the bus and thought, it has to be something that is talking to all of the people on this bus. It has to be something that is talking to all of them, written in plain language, with no tricks and only very humble flourishes.
That was a good start for now. Keep them all in mind when you sit down to write, and something will grow out of that, I told myself. Keep yourself in mind too, and laugh about the funniness of an Iranian man writing stories that Americans will recognize as their own, as coming from a place inside them that they didn’t know was there. Laugh because it is funny. Even if it is only funny today and might be any number of things tomorrow. A writer has to put a great deal of faith into today anyway.
I got so lost in my own thoughts that I almost didn’t notice that among the passengers getting on at 10th Avenue was a Buddhist monk. I used to pass by their temple when I lived over there on Funston. He walked toward the back and then a young white kid, whom I hadn’t noticed till now, turned to him and said, “Thank you for your service.”
The kid didn’t look at the soldier, or at the man who’d thanked him for his service. He went back to looking out the window, like he was carrying war and peace inside him before he’d said it, and he would be carrying them after.
That’s how you thank someone for their service, I thought.
The monk smiled, like he’d known for a long time that life was already happening before he stepped into any particular moment of it. He sat down next to the soldier, who moved over to make space for him in the back row.
The man who’d thanked the soldier for his service looked like he wanted to say something, but the kid made it clear that he was done, that he’d said his piece, and anyway all it was was balance. You couldn’t say the monk hadn’t been of service, and you couldn’t say he didn’t deserve to be thanked. Anyway the solider had gotten a kick out of the whole thing, and the man couldn’t say anything without showing that what he was actually reaching for was his own boyhood somehow, and I wished him luck that’d be able to find it some other way, and I loved the hell out of San Francisco for wearing its heart on its goddam sleeve, for wearing its heart on all its goddam sleeves, and I told myself that if you can’t make stories out of this city, it’s on you.
Siamak Vossoughi is a writer living in Seattle. He has work published in Glimmer Train, Missouri Review, Kenyon Review, West Branch, and The Rumpus. His short story collection, Better Than War, received a 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.