The Structural Integrity
He wakes to the morning sun squeezing its way through the blinds. The light doesn’t fill him with happiness nor dread. It doesn’t make him feel at all. He knows that if a doctor were to call him and tell him he was terminally ill, the sun would look different. The day would feel different. Life, he thinks, would push its way through the mundane like a 3-D puzzle. He’d look at life through a lens of appreciation and wonder and awe. He would look at it the way he looked at the Christmas tree surrounded by a mountain of presents, when he was a kid. He’d believe in magic. Because he’d know it was dissipating.
And he hates that he can’t feel that way now. It shouldn’t take a slow dance with death to appreciate the music of life. But it does. Christ, it does.
His wife stands in front of him, momentarily shirtless as she changes from her pajamas to her work clothes. Her eyes are still puffed and red from another verbal bout the evening before. A fight that now in the morning, as she tries desperately to avoid eye contact with him, seems beyond ridiculous. A fight about nonsense. But a fight nonetheless. And the more they had, the more the structural integrity of their marriage weakened.
Last night’s fight had been the first one where she said, “I don’t think I can do this anymore.”
And in an instant, he wanted to take back everything negative he ever said to her. He wanted to grab her, and hold her. He wanted to love her. And touch her. Taste her. He wanted to cry with her. And watch a movie with her. Laugh with her. Eat with her. Drink with her. He wanted to do anything but fight with her.
And they had children. Two beautiful children. Two beautiful, shit-disturbing children, that in the moment of their fight, he both loves and loathes them. He both blames them for his happiness, and blames them for the cracking of his marital dam.
The fight went back and forth for an indeterminate amount of time. Again, he ranted and raved. Talked without meaning. Spoke without words. She looked at him, anger and sadness, sickness and regret, all visible in her blue eyes.
He realized that the argument was about life. And what it does to people. What it does to new and exciting love. And how many empty promises they told themselves and each other, about how they would be years down the road.
But of course, it's a lie. It’s a lie that doesn’t appear all at once, rather in tiny pieces until it forms the full picture. The full truth.
She turns on her “nothings wrong with mommy” voice, as she goes to wake the kids in their rooms.
Another day of silence between them.
More weakening of the integrity.
A deep breath. Another long day.
And so it begins.
Fool Me 300 Times, Shame On Me
But I love you
No, you don’t, James. I don’t think you ever did.
Well that’s just bullshit. I did everything for you. I quit school for you and moved back home so that I’d be there for you when you graduated and we could come back to school together the next year. I lived with my drunken grandmother after my folks left. I did that for you. Shit would have been much easier for me had I just stayed.
And you’ve taken every opportunity to remind me how I ruined your life, although I never once asked you to do that.
Jenny. I-I can’t live without you. I won’t make it. I need you. Jesus. What do I have to do? Do you want me to get on the floor and beg? Get down on my knees and beg you?
Not at all. I just want us to be apart, James.
Jenny, please. Don’t. We can make this work.
How many times have we had this exact same conversation? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me 300 times, shame on me, I suppose. For myself and my self respect, I can’t listen to you anymore. You’re a liar. You’re just a liar.
What have I lied about?
I have to go.
No wait. Don’t get up. Tell me, Jenny. What did I lie about? Christ. What did I lie about?
Just a bit of advice. Next time you go out with the guys, logout of your accounts, alright?
A Fantasy For A While
I had a short stint as a small town reporter a couple years ago. It was nice while it lasted, though it didn’t take me long to see that job security was non-existent. In a few months I’d seen reporters with decades of experience here one day, gone the next. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that I’d be on the chopping block soon. So, enjoy it while it lasts. All good things come to an end, I suppose.
During this time, I was the sole reporter in a city of about seven thousand people. My closest boss was a four hour drive away, and as long as I had pitches during the morning conference calls at 9, and submitted a couple stories a day, no one said boo.
So, being new to the scene, I stuck with some smaller local stories in the beginning to get my feet properly planted before I started diving into some municipal budget controversies which were certainly beginning to take root in the city, or the burgeoning drug problem.
I interviewed a senior named Judy, who held an annual Cranberry Festival at her little farm on the outskirts of town every fall. I interviewed local business owners who were partaking in the community through generous donations to our start-up music program, and a lot of music interviews for bar bands making their way up north. Stories that were nice, clear cut, and not strenuous to write.
The stories went well, and then during mid-November, I got a call from my boss telling me that November was Domestic Violence Awareness month, and that I needed to track down a survivor and get an interview for next week’s paper.
I instantly felt nervous at the prospect of speaking to someone who was nearly killed by their partner, and I wanted to come up with a reason not to do it. But going back to job security, I needed to write articles that were good for the analytics. The analytics showed whose stories were getting the most clicks, and leaders on the board had better chances at keeping their positions. Plus, I knew these stories were important. The hard ones usually were.
So, I told him I’d find someone, and during an interview with the owner of a consignment shop on the boardwalk, Patricia Owens, who was putting purple lights outside of her boutique for Purple Light Nights, said that a friend of her mother’s was a survivor of a brutal attack from her boyfriend. She said she travels the country telling her story. And that she would most likely be comfortable doing an interview. She gave me her name and number, and I went back to my home office, and despite crippling anxiety, made the call.
Her name was Natasha, and her voice was sweet, calm, and mature. She was well spoken, and instantly made me feel at ease. I said, “I completely understand if you’re not comfortable, but I’m uh writing a story about domestic abuse survivors, and I was wondering if you’d be interested in telling me your story?”
She said, “Sure. Ask me anything you’d like.”
“Can you tell me the story from the beginning?”
“Of course.” She seemed so calm. So at ease, like she was reading from a teleprompter.
“I met a guy in the summer of 96,” she said, “He was handsome, funny, athletic. He was just amazing. A real gentleman, you know? That’s what some people don’t understand. They always say why do you stay? And we say firstly because we’re scared, and secondly because oftentimes we know there’s a beautiful side to them. A side that’s fantasy and love, and we just want them to keep that side forever, you know?”
I told her I did, though I wasn’t sure I was convincing.
“And after about six months or so, he started to get physical. It was just an arm grab in the beginning, or a push during an argument. Red flags began to appear, but I wasn’t ready to ask him to get out. But then it got a little worse and little worse, and eventually a lot worse. He punched me in the nose during an argument, breaking it. And I told him to get out. Just get the hell out. That was the final straw.”
“And then what happened?” I asked, feeling my heart beating fast, at the realism of this story. This wasn’t a movie. This wasn’t a book. This was a real woman, telling a real story to a green reporter with no experience.
“He left. He left for nearly a year. But then on June 26, 1997, at 11:00 pm, a time I’ll never forget for as long as I live. I was laying in bed with my eight year old son, when the door was kicked open. I jumped up to check it out and there he was, standing in the doorway. And he said, tonight I’m going to kill you.”
She paused after this, waiting for me to ask a question. Wanting me to take part in the interview, but my mouth was dry and it seemed unable to move.
After a few seconds, I asked. “What did you do next?”
“I tried to run out of the house, but he grabbed me. He stabbed me over 30 times. I eventually broke free though, and started running through the town, trying to get him to chase me and get him away from my son. It worked. My son called the cops, and I was taken to the hospital.”
“Wow,” was all I could manage to say. I had been taking down notes of her story and writing at lightning speed, trying not to miss a single word she said.
Then she said, “It was a fantasy at first. A true fantasy. I thought he was the greatest man I’d ever known. That’s what makes it so hard. You spend so much time asking yourself how you could have missed the signs? But these people are experts at their craft. Though their craft is pain.”
“Did he get arrested?” I asked, feeling more confident now that the worst of the story was over.
“Yes. But not for long enough. That’s why this legislation needs to go through.”
Again, feeling like such an amateur, I had forgotten to look up the new legislation of domestic abuse. I went silent for a while, trying to look it up on my laptop quickly, and I’m sure she sensed my nervousness and unprofessionalism.
She said, “this act will allow background checks to be conducted on partners. If I would have had access to this, I would have known that he had a history of abuse. A brutal, violent history.”
I marked down in my notebook, look up new legislation, and told her thank you.
I wrote my story about her, and it’s still my proudest accomplishment as a reporter. They let me go a couple weeks later, and I should have been mad, but I just said thanks for the opportunity.
About a year later, I received an email from her, which read.
Hi! How’s everything going? I heard that you got the axe. I’m sorry about that. You deserve better anyway. I just wanted to say how much your article helped me. A lot of people read it, and now I’m working on a book, and a documentary about my story. None of this would have been possible if not, for you.
I doubted that was true, but it still gave me butterflies to read it.
That’s so great to hear. I’m so happy for you. And as for the job, all I can say is it was a fantasy for a while.
Not So Funny Anymore
The first time I got drunk, I was 14 years old. It’s a vivid memory. At least, I think it is. Memories are strange that way. You can never really tell how accurate they are, but I’m going to tell this story as though these memories are to be trusted.
I had a friend, and for the purposes of this story, I’ll call him Nate. Nate had an exotic look to him. Extremely tall, slender, and hair so blonde it was almost white. So, you can imagine in our small industrial town, that the albino jokes flew like south bound birds during the chilly seasons. To add to that, his father got murdered in a drunken poker game, and then his mother quickly moved on to a woman she worked with. His sister took that news with such difficulty that she spent that Christmas in the hospital getting her stomach pumped after a suicide attempt of vodka mixed with sleeping pills. All of this is true, and it adds to the reason that we were drinking at such a young age.
Nate lived close to the skatepark, where we spent most of the time that we weren’t in school, shooting hoops, laughing, swearing, getting overly competitive, and the odd time, throwing hands. It was a strange place, but we were bored and there was really nothing else to do. This was during the onset of the housing market crash, where all the businesses in town were falling like dominos, and with that so did all of our folks’ finances. This created a strange sense of restlessness that could be felt through the town like a thick malevolent fog. It also created a desperate need for a hangout that didn’t cost a cent. Just a basketball and some friends.
One Friday, Nate and I and a couple other buddies were sitting on the grass behind one of the nets, when I mentioned that the Flagship Bar downtown was starting a teen night every Friday, or every second Friday, I don’t remember now, but I’d heard it from my older brother. This was a desperation move by a bar owner whose business was flatlining, because all of the regulars were out of work. Obviously, no alcohol was to be served, but all the teens were going to find ways to get sloshed before heading to the bar. So, it was going to be an underaged shitshow to say the least.
Nate tells me that Janie, who was likely the most beautiful girl in town and happened to be a friend of his because their parents were close growing up, that her boyfriend, Aaron, goes across the bridge all the time to get beer cheap and sell it in town to teens for loan shark mark-ups. He says all we have to do is chip in a few bucks each, and we can have a 24 of Budweiser. Me and my buddies say yeah, that’s great. Let’s do it.
So Friday night rolls along, and me, Chris, and Danny, head over to Nate’s with our money, and hand it over to Aaron, who gives us the beer. We stuff a few bottles in each of our bookbags and take off for the dugout behind the high school.
There the four of us drink six Buweisers each, and head for the bar.
Now, at 14 years old, never having drank a sip in my life. Six Budweisers had me feeling like a foreigner invading my own body.
The world looked different. Our shitty small town looked fluorescent and glowing. We stumbled our way to the bar, laughing, momentarily forgetting about our broken town, our fighting parents, or in Nate’s case, a dead parent. Forgetting about big Tarzan, who was a double sleeved full bearded senior who punched us freshman in the gut every time we walked past him in the hallways at school. Forgetting about all the things that kept us awake at night.
At the bar, we walked in and it was packed. I mean, we were squeezing our way in. Maybe, Tommy, the bar owner, was on to something. Or maybe, like most of us suspected, he was just an old perve, trying to find a legal way too eye fuck underage girls. Either way, the place was bumping in an otherwise deserved ghost town.
So we waltz in like we own the joint, find a table to stand behind near the dance floor, and laugh. We just started laughing. We saw two girls dancing together and I said, “Look Nate, it’s your mom and her lover.” and he bursts out laughing. We see a tiny, gangster wannabe with a New York Mets flat cap on sideways, a baggy shirt, and jeans that were showing 90 percent of his underwear, and Nate says to me, “You never told me you had a twin.”
Those six beers sat in our bellies, like liquid courage. We felt strong, and we felt good. There was nothing that could be said to us that hurt our feelings. Or so, I thought.
The guys eventually started razzing Nate to the point where the smile started to dissipate. He was just an easy target. All the shit that was going on with him seemed too easy to pick apart. A suicidal sister. Lesbian mother. Drunken dead father. For three first time 14 year old drunks, the jokes continued until Nate lost his temper and flew out of there.
The buzz left instantly, and the strong feelings of courage, and laughter, all dissipated with it.
Then my stomach started to turn with guilt and the foreign liquid. I went outside, and in an alley beside the bar. I threw up my lungs.
All these years later, I still have moments of deep quiet where I’ll think about what a colossal asshole I was. How back then, I’d do anything and say anything for a laugh. A laugh was as precious as gold. A laugh was more important than the hell my best friend was living in.
Then I think about Nate, who I know, that still to this day, is in deep pain over his life.
He messaged me not long ago, just to say
“Hey. Do you ever think that life just isn’t what you expected?”
And I answered, “Yeah, man. All those things that seemed funny then, just aren’t very funny anymore, are they?”
And he said, “Nope. Not at all.”
There’s an insanity brewing in him as he watches the steady rhythmic blinking of the cursor on his screen. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. The more he stares, the more hypnotic it becomes. Dylan wonders if he’ll ever write this story, or if the blinking of the cursor will drive him into insanity like some kind of linguistic Chinese water torture.
Why do ideas have to be like mirages in the desert? Something that seems so real in the distance. Real enough to touch. But as soon as it gets within reach. Poof. It’s gone. And once again, he’s staring at the barren landscape. Nothing for miles and miles.
The pressure he feels isn’t one put on him by a publisher with a deadline. No. He could only dream of getting there with his writing. This is a self-imposed pressure put on by himself and his own mortality. Dylan is only in his thirties, and in a perfect world he’d live another fifty years. But anyone who’s spent a New York minute on this spinning rock could tell it isn’t perfect, and each day was avoiding a thousand different ways to die.
So he stares at the cursor. Blink. Blink. Come on, God. Give me an idea. Anything. Please. But the ideas that come are nothing new. Just regurgitations of stories he’s already written, or stories that were written better by far more talented authors.
A working man sits in a bar drinking beer. Done that.
A father feels insecure. Wow! Real original.
The mob. No.
A gun. No.
A twist. The guy was dead all along. Dear God, No!
Something different, man. Something different, something new. But what’s new? Is anything new? Hasn’t it all been done?
Dylan takes a deep breath as his fingers hover about the keyboard. He’s scanning the letters. The letters. The story is hidden within these letters. It’s a code. A story is simply a code, he thinks. The perfect combination. The perfect sequence of letters into words, words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into pages, and boom! Voila! A masterpiece. A legacy. Something he can pass on to his kids and their kids when he’s grains of sand in a floral patterned clay urn.
He’s no religious man. He’s sure there isn’t anything after death, because ideas and faith stem from electricity in the brain. And once that’s shut off, then there’s nothing. Nothingness, like the days before he was born. Not darkness. Just nothing. But the idea of a book. A hard copy story that was written with his hands, and filled with his ideas. Something that is only his, a selfish manifesto where no one else deserved the credit except for him. Something like that makes him less afraid of death. A lasting legacy.
But he’ll never get there if his fingers don’t start typing. Nothing was ever gained with idle hands, except pressure.
But there’s still nothing there. Not a single word. So he scans his bookshelf filled with great stories, good stories, bad stories, but stories nonetheless. The shelf is filled with writers who wrote, imagine that? Writers who had a dream chased that dream and succeeded.
Dylan still stares at the blinking cursor. Mocking him. Beckoning him.
Come on, write something. Write the story about the drunk in the bar. Sigh. Like that’s never been done. Or better yet, write the one about the misunderstood father who tries his best, but people don’t see that. Eye roll. Wonder who that’s about, eh? How about this? Write about the guy who can’t write. The guy who is so lonely and desperate for companionship that he talks to a blinking cursor on a blank page. But no. That wouldn’t be believable. Would it? Only crazy people do that. Just write something!
So he does. He writes a sentence, then deletes it. Another sentence, then deletes it. He wants to fast-track past all the drafts. All the bad writing that only turns into good writing after hours of editing. He just wants to write it all in one soft, smooth go.
You belong among the Wildflowers. You belong in a boat out at sea.
Why did that pop into my head? He thinks. Then he remembers the Tom Petty documentary that he just watched. Somewhere You Feel Free, he thinks, is the title of it. In that documentary Tom Petty says that the song Wildflowers was the only time in his career where he sat down with his guitar, wrote and played the whole song in one go. Wow! What a masterful piece of writing that is.
Maybe he can write the Wildflowers of short stories or novellas or novels, or whatever his non-existent piece of writing is going to metamorphosize into.
The pressure from his internal deadline is still beating like the thumping of a temple migraine. Thump. Thump.
And it isn’t just coming up with a story. A story with mini-stories placed inside like Russian nesting dolls. It’s trying to figure out the style that will help him expertly weave all these stories together.
Dylan again scans his bookshelf. Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, Dennis Lehane, Stephen King. Some of his favorite authors. Great stories. Great characters. Writers with a strong understanding of the task at hand. Writers who knew that they had to write, even before a single soul knew their name. Writer’s with their own deadlines.
And like magic, an idea appears inside his head. It’s clear. It’s right there. Please don’t be another mirage, he says to himself. Please, be the real thing. He types. One sentence, into two sentences, into a paragraph. A paragraph into a page. A page into two pages. He’s off to the races now. He’s smiling. This is the drug right here, he thinks. This is the high of all highs.
Then, after a few thousand words, he stops.
He looks it over. As he continues to read what he’s just written, the smile slowly fades from his face and continues downward into a frown. This is garbage.
He highlights all the words. Delete. They’re gone. And again it’s just him and the blinking cursor. Another mirage.
Blink. Blink. Blink.
You belong among the Wildflowers. You belong in a boat out at sea.
Thump. Thump. Thump. The pressure in his head.
Have You Seen Birds?
It’s one of those days as I walk the kids upstairs to get them ready for bed that I know it wasn’t my best as a parent. I was there, I just wasn’t present. And sometimes that’s worse.
Now, as they brush their teeth, laughing at some made-up language they’ve come up with, where every word needs to start with a C, I feel that old familiar hole in the pit of my stomach growing with guilt.
They finish with their teeth, get themselves all snug in their jammies, and we read books in my son’s room. My daughter picks a Pete the Cat story, which I’m sure I’ve read a hundred times, but she always smiles like it’s the first. So, I never say no.
She laughs when Pete says “groovy” and looks over at her brother and says “croovy.”
Then my son is next. He picks one called Have You Seen Birds? A book he’s borrowed from his school library. Last week, it was a deep dive into the lives of gulls, and this week it’s a whole plethora of other birds. Autumn birds, garden-summer birds, winter birds, spring birds, tall birds, town birds, woodland birds, you name it birds, they're all in there.
I’m reading along until I get to the night birds. The move-by-moonlight bright birds. There’s a full-page picture of an owl flying in with wide yellow hunter’s eyes. And this captures my son’s attention.
I’m about to turn the page, when he says, “I wish we had owls around here.”
I tell him we do. He says, “Well, how come I never see them?”
“Because they’re nocturnal.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means they sleep during the day and they’re awake at night, and I don’t plan on taking any night trips into the woods anytime soon, my boy.” I tousle his hair, and he giggles.
“They stay up all night?”
“I bet I could do that.”
“I’m sure you could.”
After I finish the book, I put my daughter to bed. Tuck her in tight, give her a drink of water, kiss her and tell her how much I love her. She says I love you too, daddy. And I say, croovy. She’s quick to let me know that I’m not supposed to speak their language. I apologize and close the door.
Then I head back to my son’s room where he’s laying with his hands interlocked behind the back of his head, like a pontificating middle aged man. Deep in thought. Trying to figure out the mysteries of the world. He’s so smart. He’s going to know more than me before long.
“They stay awake all night?”
I laugh. “Yes, they do.”
“I’m going to try that tonight.”
“Go right ahead. I love you, buddy. I’ll see you in the morning.”
I take a quick shower, and by the time I’m finished, I peek in to see my son softly snoring. Already a thousand miles away.
Better luck next time, kiddo.
Searching For His Voice
The evening is cold and black. The type of darkness that could swallow a man whole. A black river howls an angry hymn called the sting of a thousand knives. John is bundled in a coat, work pants with tights underneath, and work boots with spiked covers pulled over the top. He’s wearing work gloves with his fingers pressed tightly against his palms. His jagged fingernails piercing the skin as the salt crawls into the open wound like an impregnated invader, birthing bundles of pain that spread through his hand. But he can’t stop, because when his fingers enter the holes of his thinly insulated work gloves, the numbing begins, then the throbbing. Then he needs to take them out and press them against the open wound once again. Lather, rinse, repeat.
A balaclava is draped over his face, and he thinks about the radio station telling its listeners that exposed skin in an evening like tonight was susceptible to frostbite in a matter of minutes.
“Better stay in bed, folks. Wrap yourselves in a nice warm blanket, and watch a movie. Do not go out there tonight.”He said, before segueing into the Stones, She’s So Cold.
Do not go out there tonight.
Boy, you’d have to be nuts.
Yes, yes you would.
There’s danger in the way he’s feeling. He knows that. There’s guilt as well. The shadow of his father follows him through the freight yard as his heavy steps crack the ice and snow like shards of glass. He’s disappointed in him because he knows the decision he’s going to make, even though it has not yet been made.
“What are you going to do for money, huh?”
“I don’t know.”
“I stuck my neck out to get you this job. You’re making me look bad. Are you even a man?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, what do you know?”
“That I don’t want to be here for Chrissakes.” He yells into the darkness. “That’s what I know! That I want to be home with my kid! I know that too!”
But the shadow isn’t even his father. It’s an incarnation of his father, sure. It’s his mind traveling back through time and like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, picking out the worst of his old man, and making a villainous, sociopathic, and relentless mental torturer, that lives only in the moments where he wants to veer off the family path, and create one of his own.
John is 23 years old, and as the tears from the wind freeze just above his cheekbones, he thinks about the age-old adage, “life is short.” And at that moment, he thinks that’s the biggest crock of shit he’s ever heard.
Life is long. Life is a long, sweltering fever dream, unless you can get a grip on it. Those who believe life is short are the lucky ones. They’re the ones wrapped in a big thick wool blanket, like the radio man says, watching sitcoms with their lovers, as the baseboard heat is cranked to ten. They’ll watch a show or movie they enjoy, then maybe they’ll go upstairs and make love to their partner, and fall asleep in an embrace of warm naked skin.
Sure, that life is fast.
This, on the other hand, is a marathon race through quicksand.
His mind quickly shifts to a book he read about a soldier in the Vietnam war. This man gets drafted and loses his shit. So, he decides to travel to an isolated cabin a short canoe ride away from Canada. He looks out and sees how close it is, how close he is to a new life. A life far away from the war. But it isn’t that easy. It never is.
So as he sits in a boat with the 80-year-old proprietor of the old cabins, he cries. He cries because it’s right there. It’s close enough to touch, but too far to ever reach. And that scares the hell out of him. The brutality of not being able to make a decision that you know is right in your heart, for fear of ridicule, disappointment, and cowardice.
He knows that his fate is much different. It even feels silly to compare the two, but he isn’t really comparing his life to the veteran in the Vietnam book. He’s comparing the thought process behind fear. And the similarities feel much the same.
Because he’s in his own boat, staring at his house instead of the mountains of another country. He’s walking inside quietly up the stairs, trying to keep the floorboards from creaking, but always making it worse. He’s in his bedroom, where his son sleeps in a bassinet beside his wife. John’s staring at his son’s soft face. He’s reaching out to touch it, but then there are the voices.
They start off low and singular, but they build like a symphonic crescendo. There’s his father, then his mother, his brother, and even his university friends. There’s his wife. His In-laws. Everyone joins in.
His mother says, I knew you’d quit. I always knew you were a quitter.
His father says, this is your blood. It’s in your blood. How can you leave behind what’s in your blood? Your grandpa would be rolling in his grave.
His wife says, I’m scared, John. What will we do for money? There’s nothing here. You moved me out to a wasteland with only a couple of good paying jobs. What are we going to do?
His father-in-law says to his wife, you shouldn’t have married him. He isn’t a man. He isn’t a provider.
Jeremy from college says come on, pal. You’re not a worker, man. You drink. You party. You don’t work. You don’t provide.
They build and build, and he searches for his own voice, but it’s lost in the noise. His voice is too soft and delicate and it’s being trampled. It’s being beaten and thrown into the black abyss of a northern January night.
He’s searching to find it. Searching for his balls. Searching for a voice loud enough to drown out the noise and the pain.
His hands are numb. He’s left them in the finger holes for too long. When he clears his mind for a moment, his hands throb.
He continues down the freight yard. His voice still nowhere to be found.
Maybe It’s Time To Start Praying
They christened me North, by virtue of being Canadian. It was Preacher who settled on the name, after Collins opted for Canuck, and West, for Hockey Puck. North seemed fitting. He told me it was a cross to bear. And that like a shadow, it would follow me wherever I should roam. I said, “North, it is, Preach.” He smiled and said, “There it is. There it is.”
Preacher was from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Born the son of a preacher man, like the song by Dusty Springfield, he said as he rolled a homemade cigarette. “Being a poor black man, I made my peace with God that they’d send me here. Acceptance is a hard thing to let into your soul. But once you do, you become indestructible.” I told him that was a nice way to look at things, but that I didn’t believe that kind of acceptance would ever find me. And then he asked me what the hell was rattling around inside my head when I made the choice to hop the border and enlist? I laughed and told him, “in my town, your future is written in stone. So, I decided to grab that stone and throw it in the fucking river.” He laughed, and said, “Boy, you’re batshit.” And I joined him. During boot camp, I spent many nights looking up at the springs of the cot above me, thinking that I’d never laugh again. I’d never smile again. I’d never experience another moment of joy. But somewhere a few miles north of Chu Lai, in a hole in the ground, my gut hurt from laughing with Preach.
On another evening in late March, I spoke with Preacher again. This time, though, the air was filled with solemnity, regret, questions of morality, and of retribution. He was flicking through his tiny black Bible and jotting down a verse on his helmet that he found particularly profound. This one he told me was Jeremiah 51:20: “You are my hammer and weapon of war: with you I break nations in pieces; with you I destroy kingdoms.”
“Can I ask you a question, Preach?” I asked. Without looking, he said, “Shoot, North.” And I asked about The Bible. About life and death. And what he figured his God would think about what we were doing here?”
He said, “When I was a boy, no older than six years old. I was sitting in my daddy’s church listening to him talk about love for your fellow man. All he did was preach about love and understanding, and I’d look around at the congregation and see hope in all their eyes. You know? But one day during mass some white folks from the other side of town decided to throw a molotov cocktail through the window. It killed a couple folks, hurt some more, and the church had to be torn down. We eventually rebuilt it, but that night, I laid in bed and asked my daddy how God could let that happen to us in a place of worship? And you know what he told me?”
I shook my head.
“That it wasn’t for us to understand. That no matter how many times you preached, and you prayed, bad things were still going to happen. But that He had a plan, and what you can’t do is turn your back on Him. And when I got drafted, I prayed for weeks and weeks. And I said, Now after all I’ve been through, I never turned my back, and I’m about to do some bad things. But I believe in my heart that these things need to be done. And I’m praying now that you don’t turn your back on me.”
“Do you think He’s turned his back on you?” I asked.
He shook his head and smiled, picking his teeth with a toothpick, and said, “No, North. He ain’t turned his back on me. But if I’m being honest, I don’t know if He’s even here. I think war is something He leaves to the animals, because even He knows it’s the nature of the beast.”
“Well, He made us in his image, right? He must be a master of war Himself.”
“Oh, he’s vengeful, North. He’s vengeful. That’s why it pays to be on His side.”
He took a drink of water from his canteen and threw it over to me. “Look, North. You ain’t the first soldier to question your role in all this shit, ya know? But you’re here, brother. And the law of the jungle is kill or be killed. There ain’t no other way out.”
“Remember the Laotian border?” I asked more as a rhetorical question, because I knew there was no way in hell we’d ever forget that place.
“Yeah, sure do.”
“I remember being so goddamned scared, Preach. Scared, like I’d never been scared before. Because I knew we were flying right into the shit. Right by the DMZ, entire platoons were getting decimated. There was no reason our trip was going to be any different.”
“I hear that.”
“And I remember you were praying, Preach. Calm as a fucking cucumber, rubbing your rosary and praying. And all I could think about was how much I wished I believed in something after this. What was it you were praying about?”
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”
Then I started to laugh, and Preach asked me what the hell I thought was so funny.
“Sorry. Sorry. I just remember listening to you and from behind Gaffy singing the Stones. I see a yellow Gook, and I want to paint him red.”
“Gaffy. That was one sorry ass.” Then Preach started laughing.
“But man, there must have been a hundred, Christ, maybe more. I remember firing blindly. Just firing and screaming. I couldn’t even think. I would have shot up a baby, an old woman. Jesus, I would have shot you up, Preach, if you would have been in my line of fire. Scared the hell outta me. Then after the reckon by fire, we went to see who we hit, and I looked at this kid. He might have been 14, man. He was looking at me with such hatred. A hatred I’ve never seen before made my blood run cold. And then Preach, he started to pray, ya know? I mean, I couldn’t understand a word of it. But it seemed like he was praying. And I thought, to him, we’re the villains, ya know? Then I wondered, is God American?”
Then Preach smiled and shook his head. “Well, if He is, it ain’t gonna do you no good, North. You crazy canuck. You could be laying in bed with that sweet little blonde that writes you all them letters, and instead you’re sitting in a foxhole with the son of a preacher man from Louisiana, talking bout morality and God.”
“Ah, Preach. I’d be underground, working in the mines like the old man. It’s still death, just slower is all.”
“165 days till I’m home.”
“190 for me, Preach.”
“Why don’t you get some shuteye, North? I’ll take first watch.”
Preach walked out, and I stared at the sky. 190 days until my DERO. Christ, if I wanted to make it through that, maybe it was time to start praying.
There’s Gold In Those Hills
Tên tôi là Giang
Let’s di di mau!
Come on, let’s fucking di di mau
Robert Lindsay woke up on the carpeted floor of room 103 at the Super 8 motel. A couple hours of restless sleep plagued by bone chilling nightmares of artillery fire and burning hooches, was still the best he’d managed since returning home five days ago.
The night had been for ambushes, and the day for shut eye. He'd been nocturnal for so long that rising and setting with the sun was proving to be a difficult task. One thing about boot camp was that they knew how to program folks into killing machines, but by God, they didn’t offer a hope and a prayer when it came time to reintegrate them back into society.
You’re a gook killing machine! A gook killing machine!
A lot of good that did when the gooks were seven thousand miles away. A lot of fucking good.
Robert got up, laboring his right leg that had taken shrapnel during a mission deep in A Shau Valley, and made his way to the small breakfast hall, where he poured himself a lukewarm cup of coffee and nibbled on a stale bran muffin.
Weighing heavily on his mind were his folks and Jenny Fitzgerald. In another life, another time, he stood stone faced in front of his old man, filled with piss and vinegar. Standing tall, chest puffed up with pride, as his father told him the stupidity of the decision he was making, and the lasting effect it would have.
You’ll never be the same, boy. No matter how hard you try to be normal, you’ll never feel right again. And for what? A losing war? Do you even know why you’re going over there in the first place? You think this is some John Wayne Gung Ho shit? You could die. Jesus, son. I went so that you wouldn’t have to. I sacrificed so that you wouldn’t have to!
Despite this, Robert hopped the Canadian border and volunteered in Plattsburgh, New York. A friendly recruiting officer shook his hand and told him about the importance of the decision he was making. He told Robert that a lot of Americans were defecting and crossing the border into Canada to avoid active duty. And that it was nice to see the reverse happening, too.
A Canadian fighting a war that wasn’t his to fight. Well, from what he was told, the damage of Communism spreading was a global threat. And last he checked, he was living on this spinning rock, same as everyone. So why wasn’t it his fight?
But now, he knew all too well how frighteningly right his father had been. Even after a few days, he watched out the window of the motel as folks carried on with their day as though their brothers, sons, cousins, friends, fellow human beings weren’t being blown to bits halfway across the world. Kids who weren’t even old enough to have a beer or place a bet were coming home in body bags. Old enough to die, but too young to live. He remembered Danson writing that on his combat helmet.
He couldn’t look at his father. He couldn’t look for fear of what he’d see looking back at him. Dead man’s eyes. That’s what Rickshaw and Devin called them back in Nam. And he knew he had it because once you saw the things you saw, you couldn’t unsee them. You couldn’t unfeel them. You couldn’t unbreathe them. You couldn’t wash them away like a great baptism. Those images, those thoughts, were projected out through your eyes. They were tattooed there like permanent damage.
Instead of going home, he walked down Main Street and stopped at Anderson’s Antiques. The proprietor of this dusty rank smelling antique shop was an old pal of his father’s, Reggie Anderson.
Inside the shop were old chipped rocking chairs, milk crates of vinyl records, toys, sofas, paintings, and at the back left-hand corner was Reggie, smoking a cigarette and reading the paper.
“Well, as I live and breathe. Ain’t you a sight for sore eyes” he said, coming around the counter with his arms spread out. He wrapped them tightly around Robert and followed the mauling with three hard slaps to the back. “A bona fide hero, in my little antique shop. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“It’s good to see you, Reg. I was thinking of the apartment upstairs. Could I rent it out?”
Reggie let out a long laugh before telling him his money was no good here. “Look kid. The apartment is yours, free of charge. A soldier’s discount. Mind you, the place is falling apart a little. But it’s fine to rest your head for the night. What are your plans anyway, now that you’re back in town?”
“I appreciate it, Reggie. And to be honest. I haven’t thought that far ahead.”
“Taking er a day at a time. Ain’t no sin in that. Have you been back to see the old man?”
“Uh, no. Not yet. I will though, soon.”
“Yeah, yeah, no doubt,” Reggie said. “You can take this here rocking chair, kid. There’s a mattress up there but nothing to sit in. We’ll get you a sofa too, in due time.”
He slapped Robert’s back again and held his hands there for a few seconds. “It’s good to have you back, kid. It really is.”
Robert looked at Reggie, whose hair was thinning and graying. His back was beginning to hunch. And he thought about coming into this shop with his father when he was a kid. How they would laugh and laugh, and even though young Robert hadn’t a single clue what they were talking about, he’d join in. He’d join in because they were men, and as a kid, all he wanted to be was a man. A strong, working class man like his father. Like Reggie.
The two of them would tousle his hair and Reggie would say, “You got yourself a good kid there, Billy. A real good kid. He’s going to do great things,” and his father would look down at him with a face filled with pride. A slight rise of the left side of his lip was all it took for the inside of Robert to feel like it was filled with a thousand butterflies that could lift his body off the ground.
And when the war came along, Rob watched his father eating his supper on his La-Z-Boy, bitter rage forming creases on his forehead. Walter Cronkite talked about the carnage in a place he’d never heard of. There were explosions, gunfire, grenades, and yes, there were body bags, too. But Rob was too young to think he could die. And now he realized that was how they got so many soldiers. Young kids who didn’t believe death would ever come knocking. But boy, did it ever.
Billy told the family how ridiculous the war was. How Ho Chi Minh wasn’t planning on taking over the world. How colonists had their foot on the throat of that country for so long that they were fighting back. That we would act the same way if colonists came into our country and tried to have their way with us. It was just Goddamn Lyndon Johnson who was in so deep that he couldn't pull them out now for fear of making him look weak.
He made a good point, but Robert didn’t want to serve for political ideological reasons. He wanted to serve because it was his time. And after his band The Freaks played The Dollar bar to a crowd of exactly three people, he wandered over to the closed antique shop and knocked on the door. Reggie answered, and there on that quiet evening, he told him he had to serve.
Reggie said, “Of course you do, son. It’s in your blood.”
That seemed like a million years ago.
How he wished he’d listened to his father
That evening he dreamed of the village in Quang Tri. How he looked around in disbelief that this was 1967, and not 1867, or 1767. These lives were so primitive, they were so simple.
There's a young woman named Giang, “tên tôi là Giang,” she says while offering a plate of rice. Robert gently waves his hand and shakes his head slowly back and forth. Schwarmy and O’Brien laugh as O’Brien slaps the plate out of her hands.
“Heeyyyy, Charlie. Come out. Come out, wherever you are,” Schwarmy is yelling with both hands cupped around his mouth. He puts his hands down and places them on the AK. He points it at women and children.
“Are you VC? What about you, kid? Are you VC? Hey O’Brien, do you think this little gook fucker is one of them?”
“Could be. They all look the same to me.”
They both bellow evil laughter. Robert is looking at Giang, who is attempting to pick up each individual grain of rice out of the dirt. By God, she’s beautiful, he thinks. And at that moment, he wonders if he’s on the wrong side of this thing.
He gets down on one knee to help, and she shrieks in fear. “No, no. It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you.” She nods her head quickly, then resumes, not wanting to lock eyes with this man. Not wanting to trust him.
They clean up as much as they can, and she stands up, brushing her long black hair out of her face and holding the bowl tightly to her chest, fearing that at any moment, this soldier, who is playing Mr. Nice Guy, will knock it out of her hands and join his soldier friends for some laughter at her expense. But he doesn’t. He looks at her and smiles, and in the distance he can hear O’Brien, and Schwarmy calling out for VC.
They’re telling villagers who don’t understand that they’re about to get zapped if they don’t disclose the location of the Viet Cong that are hiding somewhere in one of these hooches.
His rucksack feels like a thousand pounds on his back, so he takes it off and rests it against a hooch that he believes to be Giang’s. Inside there are two children running around, chasing each other with little pieces of bamboo, and Robert thinks of the beauty of childhood wonder. How kids could find the good in anything and how he wished that one day you didn’t wake up to find it all gone. Never to return. That warm feeling replaced with aching worry, anxiety, and a deep hatred for what you allowed the world to do to you.
He follows her inside, and she turns around. She thinks for a minute about what she’s going to say and then tells him in English that her grandfather worked in California. She struggles to get it out, but he’s happy. Her English is much stronger than his Vietnamese.
“He says there’s gold in the hills and the water sparkles like diamonds”
Robert says that’s beautiful. He’s never been to California himself but once thought about it. Like many kids who are called good-looking one too many times in school, he thought he could go to Hollywood and make it in the movies. But here he was, a long way from those corrugated steel letters that overlooked the La-La Land.
Outside, the sound of artillery fire shakes Robert from his daydream in horrific fashion. Giang jumps and looks behind her to shield her children, except they aren’t there.
She shouts with a primal screech that makes Robert feel like vomiting, and if he had anything more than half a C-ration and a couple sips from his canteen, he’s sure he would have spilled it all over the hooch.
Bianh! Dihn! Bianh! Dihn! Bian! Dihn!
Giang runs outside, Robert follows closely behind like a shadow. He fears the worst, because in his four months of humping through mountains, swamps, and fields of grass that grew far above his head that had to be cut with a machete, the worst that he could imagine happened. In many cases, it was even worse than he could imagine.
Now is no different as he looks at two lifeless bodies in the center of the village. They’re piled on top of each other in opposite directions, like a human X. Their bamboo sticks next to them. Schwarmy is standing next to the bodies, a smug smile draped across his face, and Robert has never wanted to take the life of another human being so badly in his entire life.
Giang is running to them, her hair flowing behind her as Robert watches, lifeless like a statue. O’Brien has a zippo lighter that he took from the Reverend when he fell on Hill 106. The Zippo says, Jesus Saves, and he’s burning the hooches with it. The dry heat erupts the homes in seconds. Clouds of pitch black smoke rise like a dark omen. As Robert watches the clouds of smoke and sees O’Brien winking, a homemade cigarette dangling loosely from his mouth, two more gunshots echo with the screaming of villagers. Robert feels his body, he’s rubbing up and down his chest, his neck, face, and back to make sure that the bullets aren’t lodged in his body somewhere.
He isn’t hit. But Giang is lying with her children. Still. Robert can feel the salt from his tears stinging his sweating face. He runs over to Schwarmy, eyes of hatred and blood that’s boiling so hot his entire body is in danger of combusting.
With the butt of the AK, he smashes Schwarmy’s nose. And climbs on top of him, delivering blow after blow to his face.
Behind him, he can hear O’Brien and the rest of the platoon. Walker, Cross, Frankie, and Lem, yelling out as the village goes up like Pompei.
Let’s di di mau
Come on, let’s fucking Didi Mau
There’s no VC here. I repeat. There’s no VC here. Let’s go. Come on, let’s go!
He takes one last look at Giang and the children, before he’s pulled off of Schwarmy by Walker, and his head keeps replaying her voice again, and again.
Tên tôi là Giang
There’s gold in the hills and water sparkles like diamonds.
Robert screams her name, and downstairs Reggie looks up at the ceiling with a somber look. It’s 3 in the morning, and he’s already on his second cup of coffee. He’s dusting and reorganizing. Moving a chair from one dusty corner to another. Piling the jigsaw puzzles of beautiful landscapes into perfectly neat stacks.
Robert is still screaming.
Reggie thinks about his time in the service. A little cafe in the south of France. A cute little nurse named Marie. Reggie, smiling so much that his face hurt. Marie laughing at all of his strange Canadian jokes, and strange Canadian humor. He remembers a small birthmark just above the right side of her lip that looked like an apple. Her smell. Lavender wafting off of her and into his nose, calming him and making him fall in love with her.
Then the tanks. The explosions and Marie.
He can’t go see Robert because there’s nothing to say. Nothing with any form of truth, anyway. He’d love to go upstairs and tell him that it will fade, and she will be forgotten, whoever she is. But it wouldn’t be true. No, sir. Not true at all, Reggie thought as he took another sip of his coffee. Smelling lavender, and thinking about the apple shaped birthmark.
Robert came down the stairs at a quarter past nine. Reggie was showing an old woman some China from the 1920s. She seemed interested in the floral designs on the aged white cups, and Reggie was closing in on the sale. A little flirting, touching her shoulder, and laughing like she was the funniest person on earth. Her cheeks were flushed, and she was waving her right arm at him saying, “oh would you stop it?”
Robert smiled and snuck behind the counter where a half-empty pot of coffee was sitting on a burner. There were paper cups next to it, and he poured himself one. The coffee was old, no doubt, but he still went back for a second cup.
After a few minutes, the old lady left and said she’d return with her grandsons, who would help her carry it all. Reggie said, “fine by me, ma’am. Looking forward to seeing you.” Again, she blushed and left as the bell above the door dinged.
“You’re a natural,” Robert said, raising his paper cup and smiling.
“Did you see that diamond necklace? The old broad has money. That’s when old Reggie has to turn on the charm.” He winked. “Say, what are your plans for the day, soldier?”
Robert knew what his plans should be, and that was to visit his father. But he was scared, something that Reggie read on his face instantly.
“Look, kid. I’ve known your father for a long time. And I don’t know what you’re expecting to happen when you see him, but he’s just going to be happy that you’re home. He’s going to want to crack a cold beer with you. And you won’t have to say a word about the war, kid. Not a word. Your old man and I have sat at The Dollar for over twenty years now, drinking, laughing, sometimes talking and sometimes sitting in silence. But always, always knowing that we understood what was floating around each other’s brains and knowing that just having someone who understands is a lot better than trying to forget it, kid.”
“I know, Reg. I do. But every time I’m about to head over that way, I think about the way we left things. Him screaming, and me standing with my chest puffed out like I knew a fucking thing about anything. He knew, Reg. He knew.”
Reggie placed his hand on Robert’s shoulder and said, “Of course he did, kid. But you know what? Your father stood in front of his old man too after Pearl Harbour and told him he was enlisting. Your grandfather spent two years in muddy fucking trenches. He had words for your father. Being young, kid. Being young means being full of pride. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to serve your country. Not a thing at all. And your old man understands that, kid. I promise you he does.”
And with those words, Robert left the shop. His father was likely working, so he’d wait until the evening to go pay him and his mother a visit.
That evening, as he headed down Main towards his folks’ home on Union, a cool fall wind blew, massaging his face and making him feel good for the first time in a long while. He passed the embankment that overlooked the freight yard, and he remembered parking his old man’s Ford and kissing Jenny deeply. Kissing her and thinking that life couldn’t possibly get any better than that moment, and now, he was sure that was right.
Jenny was off to college, and he remembered her Dear John letter. The one that said she loved him, but time didn’t stand still because he wasn’t around. The world kept moving; it kept spinning, and her life couldn’t pause. She was going away, and if he wanted to visit her when he returned, he was more than welcome. But it would be as friends. Not as lovers. And she had attached a picture of them, standing on his front lawn, getting ready for prom. Jenny’s long blonde hair, and big smile. She had to get braces the week before, and he remembered her crying because of it. And when she came to his house to show them off, her eyes puffy and red, he thought she had never looked more beautiful.
A grunt buddy named Damien had looked over his shoulder, and said, “you got yourself a beauty there, Jordan. Don’t let her get away.” And he responded, “I’ll try, brother. I’ll try my best.”
Every block formed a memory in his head about childhood. Bike rides, and comic shops. Georgie Flannagan’s little malt shop on the corner of Evangeline and Mill Haven. The candy stripe swirling in front of Paul’s barbershop. He thought about going in there with his old man to get a haircut. His father went first and when Paul asked what he wanted, he told he wanted the “Daddy Cut”. He laughed, and so did his father. They walked out that day looking like twins, and he’d never felt so much pride in himself, in his family, and in his town.
Before he knew it, he was crossing up Union Street. Maggie’s German Shepherd, still barking behind a chipped white picket fence. “Hey, boy,” Robert called, “How are you, boy?”
The dog responded with a couple of happy yips and yaps, and Robert thought he would like one and wondered if Reggie would let him bring a pup to his small bachelor pad.
Then he was standing in front of his childhood home. The three story, old Victorian that was built in 1890. Faded auburn Cape Cod siding, and brown shutters on his bedroom window. The garden stones that formed a snake formation up to the three steps that led to the front door. His mother’s garden of beautiful blooming flowers, bright purples, and pinks, whites, and yellows, all sitting neatly in a bed of red mulch.
Robert stood, unable to move for a few moments. Then he heard voices coming from behind the house. He recognized the sound immediately as Bob Collins, doing color commentary for the Red Sox game. His father was back there. He knew the old man was sitting on his favourite patio chair, with a cold beer in his right hand, and a cigar between the fingers on his left, or hanging from his mouth.
Robert’s heart was beating madly as he walked past his Ford truck, where he and Jenny loved each other, and talked about the future. And as he came around the corner of the house, he saw his father staring out at the river and the Appalachian mountain range in the distance.
He had a pair of jeans on, and he was still wearing a dirty work shirt. Robert walked up the deck stairs, and his father looked to his right and saw his son, for the first time in almost two years.
“I heard you were back in town,” he said. And Robert nodded. “You lost some weight.”
“Haven’t been eating much.”
Then he reached into the cooler that was sitting at his feet and hauled out a beer, placing it on the arm of the chair next to his. He didn’t say a word.
Robert walked slowly to the chair and sat down. His first beer with his old man. How many times he had asked to have one with him when he was a teenager, and his father replying that once he was old enough, they could drink beer and listen to ball games all night. But not a drop until then.
He popped the tab and took a long drink, nearly downing half the can before he took it off his lips. He let out an exasperated, “Ahhhhh,” and placed the can back on the arm of the chair.
“How are the Sox doing?”
“Down two runs in the seventh. We have two outs, but there’s a man on first and third. Johnny Curtis is pitching. Needs to stop throwing that damn curve. His fastball can’t be hit.”
“Who are they playing?”
“Milwaukee. Damn Brewers are streaky, but when they’re hitting, boy are they ever.”
“Yeah. It’s been a while. I’ll need a refresher course.” He swore he could see a hint of a smile form on his father’s weathered face.
“You came to the right place. Your mom is at Bingo with Wendy Alton, and Becca Sherman. Should be back in an hour or so.”
Then the two sat in silence for a while. Every time Robert’s can was empty, his father grabbed him another one and placed it in the same spot.
In his head, he could still hear the voices of the 103rd, but this evening they weren’t as loud. He looked over at his father and knew that inside his head there were voices, too. Good ones. Bad ones. There was always a war waging inside his skull, as there would be for him. But sitting there, he realized Reggie was right. He didn’t need to discuss what had happened, and his father didn’t need to tell Robert what he saw. The point was they had both been to different iterations of hell, and they both returned.
Robert looked at the view. The sun was a brilliant orange flame that was setting behind a mountain range that he had taken for granted his entire childhood. Smokestacks billowed from the paper mill as the water sparkled.
tên tôi là Giang
tên tôi là Giang
There’s gold in those hills. And the water sparkles like diamonds in the sun.