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Whose Boots on the Ground

military boots against the background of small identical tombstones
Illustration by Homestead Studio

Kiley Bense | Longreads | November 2019 | 14 minutes (3,580 words)


What I notice are the boots: two pairs in worn black leather, lined up beneath a bookcase, their heels pressed against the turquoise-painted baseboard. They look as if their owner had stowed them there in one careless motion, after yanking them off his feet. The toes of one pair turn slightly into each other, just kissing, and the others face off-kilter toward the corner of the room.

This room is a shrine made by freezing the contents of a life in time. It belonged to a French soldier, Hubert Rochereau, who was killed during World War I at the age of 22. His parents sealed off his bedroom intact, and when they sold the house the deed included a stipulation that the new owners leave the room untouched for 500 years.

The wallpaper in the room is a pale pink-and-white stripe, the bedspread a fading snowflake-patterned lace. The books have cloth covers and paper labels taped over their spines. There are framed photographs on the shelf, and on the desk sit an iron-wrought key and a tarnished pipe. A tattered soldier’s coat hangs beside the desk, all its brass buttons dulled with age, the blue fabric fraying.

I got stuck on those boots and on this room vibrating with the memory of a man gone more than a century, because here was a memorial for a soldier that didn’t erase him as an individual: a young man with a serious gaze and dark hair.

When we remember our war dead, we often do so en masse. We visit fields where rows of white headstones radiate outward in straight lines, touching the horizon. We pin red poppies to our lapels and stick yellow ribbons to our bumpers, hoping to express our collective grief. We hold a minute of silence, or two, marking thousands of vanished souls with an absence of sound. We leave a wreath at the base of a monument inscribed with so many names that it would be impossible to linger on any one of them, let alone understand and feel the pain that each of their deaths meant to those they left behind.

Last month, at a rally in Minnesota, as he talked about his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, Donald Trump invoked the deaths of service members and his own feelings about meeting their families as they waited to greet the coffins of their loved ones at Dover Air Force Base. He called visits there “a very tough experience.” “We meet them, and we talked to them, and their son or daughter is being flown in from some far away place in a coffin, and these things are just impossible. I don’t know how parents can do it, even […] I see parents make sounds, that were just 20 minutes ago absolutely fine, make sounds, scream and cry like you’ve never seen before,” he said. Trump noted how surprised he was by this display of emotion, how he hadn’t expected it because the mourners seemed “okay” before the caskets arrived. He didn’t mention any of the families or soldiers by name.
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The Occupation of a Woman Writer

Bettmann, George C. Beresford / Getty, Photo Illustration by Homestead Studio

Kiley Bense | Longreads | August 2019 | 12 minutes (3,056 words)


I woke up to the sound of someone speaking. It was late on Saturday at a large writing conference, nearing midnight. A man was performing a stilted Ginsbergian ode to the empty hallway outside my hotel room, his voice so loud that my eardrums were rattling with couplets. Headphones and pillows couldn’t block the noise out. I shifted and frowned. He must not realize I can hear him, I thought. I shrugged off the sheets and called the front desk.

The receptionist assured me that security would come upstairs soon. A pause in the man’s rambling followed, and the silence held for a few minutes. Then it was broken; again he began to boom. I cracked open the door so that I could just glimpse a sliver of him at the end of the hall, a sheaf of papers clutched in his hands. I sighed, guessing that he had seen the security guard and cut off his reading before he could be identified as the culprit. I called again and again. It took four times before the security guard finally caught him bellowing and asked him to stop. By then, it was four o’clock in the morning.

I heard the elevators contract. A beat. And then: “Fuck you!” he screamed. “Fuck you! You’ve never heard great poetry before! You fucker!”

Alone in the suddenly quiet room, I marveled at the arrogance of this man, surely another writer at the same conference I was attending. How much ego was necessary to power that level of misplaced rage? How would I feel if I realized that I had forced a floor of strangers to listen to my cluttered first drafts? I knew: embarrassment, guilt, distress. His reaction was so foreign to me that I had trouble comprehending it. And yet there was some part of me that had suspected he might not go gently into the night. That inkling had stopped me from confronting him myself. Men can be combustible creatures. Better to wait outside the impact radius, if you can.

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