Richard Boes – My Blue Block of Wood

“He who learns must suffer
And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget
Falls drop by drop upon the heart,
And in our own despite, against our will,
Comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

From Agamemnon by Aeschlyus

It was a plane full of strangers, a hundred and fifty of us maybe, but no one I remembered or seemed to know from a year ago. Just this deafening silence like the kind that stops you at the moment somethin’ or someone dies. Jesus, it ain’t me anymore reflected in the window glass but ghosts, faces I’d known, Buttkins, Henderson, Walsh, Casey-fuckin’-Jones. A backdrop of flares, tracer bullets, an explosion here and there like fireworks across a black screen, a black sky, a black hole we were shooting out of as we taxied down the runway.

Even in this pressurized cabin, the heat still clung to my flesh, the stench, the taste of burnt, rotting corpses still permeated the air. You couldn’t wash it off, there hadn’t been time, no debriefing, besides it was stuck in my throat, suspended somehow between home and my gut.

We were all in jungle fatigues, worn and faded green, muddy, some ripped, others bloodstained. As was the practice, I’d crossed off days on a pocket calendar, sealed tight in a personalized, plastic, First Cav, waterproof wallet. Still, though the ink bled, eventually I called myself “Short!”

“Short! Three days and a wake-up,” Brown yelped. Now this here was the fuckin’ wake-up, I was in tow, goin’ back to the world. Thinking, couldn’t stop myself, all the things I’d truly missed, all the things I’d do. Still, I sat in disbelief. Why me?

I couldn’t stop my legs from moving, up and down, side to side, in and out of time. There was a chorus stirring about me, a rustling movement goin’ nowhere. That final fear resonated in everyone’s eyes, what if we take a fucking rocket? What if we crash? After all this shit, the irony, Jesus, wouldn’t it be my luck? I continued my search back and forth, front to back as if scanning a perimeter, a fuckin’ treeline. It wasn’t the enemy I was looking for, not this time, but someone, anyone I might recognize. No one, it seemed. We’d all been abandoned by a meaningless war, forsaken on all fronts, both sides, both for and against. Even to ourselves we were strangers. God was absent. I was alone.

A tour of duty was a year, troops coming and going every day like a shift-change entering or leaving a factory. Dispersed, replaced, gathered up, and sent off. This was very much an individual war. I’d left everyone in my platoon, my company, behind as others had previously left me. I wasn’t supposed to care. I didn’t! When Myles left a few months earlier, he cried and held me in his arms. He was drunk. O’Brien borrowed ten bucks he was gonna mail to me, but six days back in the world he deliberately drove off a bridge in his brand-new red Corvette. And Casey, Casey re-upped for the fuckin’ dope. This war was about getting me out alive, and up to now I’d been victorious.

The pilot broke the silence announcing over the PA, “Gentlemen, we’ve just cleared Viet Nam airspace.” We all cheered, but it was like someone trying to laugh who can’t stop crying, like trying to make small talk at your best friend’s funeral. Quickly, the silence returned. I couldn’t stop my legs from pumping. There in the glass were only shadows of who I once was, who I didn’t recognize anymore, a fuckin’ ghost.

I do, I do believe… I do. Smacking my knees together, these muddy boots like ruby red slippers. It’s over. I’m going. I’m goin’ home.

We stopped twice briefly to refuel, once in Thailand, then Hawaii, and eighteen hours later landed in California. We were bused to a military base. No wire mesh on the windows anymore to repel explosive cocktails, no fires in the skies like when I got to the war. No heat, no stench clinging to my flesh, but this one, this taste I’d brought home in my mouth like the promise of milk and honey gone sour. There wasn’t any fanfare, there was no one. We walked through a barn door, the back door of a building, a basement entrance, down a long corridor of bare bulbs and concrete, what looked like a warehouse, a slaughterhouse, or even a fuckin’ prison… like I was gonna be interrogated, tortured, or somethin’, somethin’ bad. And over the archway was a sign that read, “Your Country’s Proud of You.”

“Fuck you!” shouted someone. Others laughed, or tried to.

“The joke’s on us,” I told the guy to my right, who tossed up a middle finger. Some officer in clean-starched khakis, donning a blonde, butch, stuck-up haircut, broke us down in columns and pointed us in which directions to go.

“Welcome home, welcome home, welcome home,” he whispered as we passed in rows of two. No one saluted, and I could tell we made him nervous.

Welcome home motherfucker! was my only thought, as I pretended to trip and bumped him up against a wall. “Excuse me, Sir.”

I took a shower, a fuckin’ hot shower, and got me a change of clothes. Goddamn dress greens! I wasn’t thrilled about having to wear a uniform. Besides the stories of being spit upon and the name-calling, a rumor was circulating that a woman approached a soldier in a commercial airport, identified the patch on his arm as being the same as her son’s, same as mine, he’d been killed. She wailed, “Why are you still alive?” pulled a gun from her purse and shot him dead.

Some spiffy soldier, a fuckin’ paper-shuffler, sat behind a desk and asked if we had any wounds he needed to make note of. “Speak now, or forget about it.” His name tag read “Pilot,” all the hair he’d left on his head like cotton balls was in his ears. God was here, alive, and laughing.

“I’m fine,” I told him, ignoring the shrapnel that was still in my leg. “I just wanna go home.” There was a free steak dinner, but no one I knew of was hungry for food. I collected my things, and soon enough was on a plane back East, and homeward bound.

It was sometime after midnight and the airport was practically empty. In a day’s time, I’d traveled from the hellish jungles of war and was just a forty-five minute car ride from home. I’d called Jimmy, my best friend since childhood, and he was en route. My family expected me sometime during the month, but had no idea I was soon to arrive. It felt strange wearing dress greens and not jungle fatigues, bright ribbons and patches instead of camouflage. These new shoes only hurt my feet, I missed my muddy boots. Still, I couldn’t sit still and wait, but had to walk around.

All the shops were closed. I was too young for the bar, too young to vote, too young for anything, but not to die. So few people around, and those who did pass avoided eye contact. I wanted so badly to celebrate, to yell out as fucking loud as I could, I’m home! To grab some girl and dance, dance the fuckin’ skies like an angel, to sweep her off her feet with a passionate kiss. Like that photograph, that other war, a war that meant somethin’, but no one seemed to notice me, no one cared. I was fuckin’ invisible. I didn’t fit. I didn’t belong here. I might even welcome someone calling me a bad name, at least to show I’m alive. Me, the keeper of a lost war, a war no one seemed to recognize, or desired any knowledge of. Jesus, it’s all that I’m about anymore. And if I could I’d fuckin’ disappear like you wish I would. If! If only I could. And the enemy was silent, and the silence was killing me.

I tried saying something to someone, anyone, say anything like, what time is it? Nice weather we’re having. Have you change for a dollar? Excuse me, Miss, my name is Lazarus, I’m back from the dead, and I ain’t got a fuckin’ clue.

This underwear I hadn’t worn for a year, buttoned-up collar and tie, irritated the jungle rot, the pimpled sores that oozed in a straight line from the base of my neck to the balls of my crotch. There’s too much starch in this shirt. I itched like a fuckin’ leper on parade, a bad case of mistaken identity, and, and I had to pee. Where’s the men’s room? I could ask, but fuck it. I’d find it myself.

I lost the tie and unbuttoned a few buttons down my shirt, took the bayonet strapped to my leg and cut my underwear off. The bathroom was empty, so I thought, standing at the urinal having a good scratch, taking a leak, caught unawares as the janitor came out from the toilet area and dropped a large trash drum to the floor. Incoming!

Shrapnel flies up and out, hot and screaming, so the lower you get the better your chances. In a split-second’s nosedive, I was flat against the earth sucking up warm wet tile in a puddle of my own piss. A moment’s flash and I’m back there, had I ever left? Where the fuck am I now?

“Sorry boy, you’s okay?” A soft, black, gray-whiskered face was leaning over me.

“Yeah,” I said, “guess so,” feeling only grateful it wasn’t a rocket. He handed me a towel from around his neck.

“Dry’s yourself,” he winked a surprising sky-blue glass eye, scratched with fat nervous fingers atop his thinning hair. “Sold, it’s the first four letters of soldier, a four-letter word,” he laughed, a disheartened-like punch-drunk fighter’s wheeze. “And your sellin’ price,” shooin’ a fly from his face, “wasn’t even our freedom. My name’s Elijah,” he took up his mop. “There’s no good wars to speak about, but at least my’s generation, our war had a purpose.”

“Thanks,” I said as he took back his towel, and shook my hand.

“Wars is fought by us poor folk, us soldiers, is niggers, and all niggers is trained to die.” He itched with a flurry of pokes at his nose. “Don’t you let them make it your fault. You’s hear me boy?” I just nodded my head and made my way for the exit. Elijah fumbled twice, dropped his mop to the floor. I wanted to catch it, but was too far off, too slow, too late. He called out as the door closed between us. “You’s be a survivor.”

Me and Jimmy were both more than tired. He was against the war, an accountant now, not much for words. I didn’t know what to say, or how to say it. We talked sports some, the Mets had won the World Series, the Jets the Super Bowl, the Knicks were NBA champs. Other than him reading every street sign, billboard, storefront we passed, we were mostly quiet. “Shop Rite,” “Two Guys”, “Kool, come up, all the way up.” Yeah, I was feeling anxious, afraid, guilty I think about coming home.

Elijah was right. It wasn’t my fault, it wasn’t up to me. I didn’t choose to be there, who would die, and who would come back. And there ain’t no more Stockwell, Abrams, Smyth, or Donny Gains. Jesus, and Rodney Brown who stood where I stood just moments before. “Short! Three days and a wake-up,” he yelped in a black man’s drawl. “I’s goin’ back to the world! I’s one lucky motherfucker!” and Betty, Bouncin’ Betty, she’s a goddamn landmine, bounced up in his lap, cut ‘im in fuckin’ two! And a B-40 rocket swallowed what was left into tiny little fucking pieces.

“Don’t mean nothin!” Myles said.

And I’ll never know by just how much I missed her. Half a step maybe, If! Guess I’m one, one lucky motherfucker! Just these shards, bits of metal in my leg. And one, Rodney’s one patch of black hair sunken in behind one eye swimming in a sea of brain matter, all pink, and blue, and gray. We collected him in a black bag, “I’m in pieces, bits and pieces!” Me and Myles kept singing, stomped our feet, scattered the fucking bits that weren’t even pieces anymore.

You’re really alone during a rocket attack, there’s nothin’ anyone can do. You’re really fuckin’ alone, when the other guy’s dead. If! As if he’d taken my place. And if you’re one of the lucky ones you get to do it again. And again. And the repetition, over, over, and again. And the pieces that won’t fit together like Humpty Dumpty didn’t have to pick himself up. And all the King’s horses wear blinders, and all the King’s men believe their own lies. “Don’t mean nothin’!” And the fucking fear that resonates, echoes back and forth, gnaws and eats away at you, over, over, and again. It’s worse than death. I do believe, I don’t believe you. And who’s the lucky motherfucker?

We sat at the tracks waiting for the train to pass. Its whistle and pulsing bark put me on edge, my feet on fuckin’ trampolines. Here I was alone again, with Jimmy in the driver’s seat, still waiting. I tried counting cars, seven, seventeen, seventy-eight, how many more before I’m home safe? The face in the windshield was Rodney’s. All I really wanted was to be held, for someone to hold me.

Me and Jimmy met some twelve years ago, he was a few years older and my family’d just moved into the neighborhood. I had this old beat-up glove that was my Dad’s and a blue block of wood I was using for a ball. I was throwing it high up against the side brick of the house and making basket catches like Willie Mays. The whole game was alive in my head, both teams, a miss was a run and it was one-one, in the bottom of the sixteenth. Jimmy approached unnoticed until he sneezed, a giant fuckin’ sneeze. He was a tall skinny kid with a face like Goofy, a dried mop of brown hair, and a big long tweaked nose. I’d made a bad throw, and just missed catching it with a diving attempt into the bushes. “Nice try,” he said, and goofed up a laugh like a jackass hee-haws. “That’s it, game’s over, you lose!” Jimmy invited me to join him and his friends up the block, the Dick Street Bombers. They had a real ball, and needed a center fielder.

In a few weeks I was to be the best man at Jimmy’s wedding.

Sure we were happy to see each other, but something was missing, it just wasn’t the same. Yeah, guess it was me who’d changed. I wanted to tell him about the war, about Rodney, what I’d seen and done, but didn’t know how, couldn’t find the words. Anyway, I didn’t think he’d understand.

We were just a few miles from home and I had to say somethin’, flush this spin-cycle circlin’ my brain, break my fuckin’ silence. I mentioned meeting Elijah, him helping me up off the floor, and the conversation that followed. Suddenly and without warning, Jimmy’s Mustang jumped the curb. He’d fallen asleep on me, and we were headed straight on for a telephone pole. The second thu-thump of the back tires woke him the fuck up. “Jesus!” he shrieked, but was slow to react. In one sweeping motion I reached over and cut the wheel to the left landing us back on the street. Jim was a bit shaken up, squeezed tight. “Sorry,” he said, “coulda killed us.”

“Don’t mean nothin’!” I told ‘im, and for a moment I was baggin’ Rodney again. “Just stay awake, Jim. We’re almost home.” I never called him Jim. Something felt good inside, this wasn’t like a rocket attack, there was more I could do than just be a passenger.

“See ya man, thanks for the ride.” I closed the car door, Jimmy drove off. The house was all dark, no porch light left burning. Bones, my dog must of come home, but there ain’t no barkin’. I climbed the steps, hit all the fuckin’ cracks down the walk, another flight of steps. They never locked the front door, but something stopped me from opening it. I turned myself around, gazing up at the streetlight. A pair of my old sneakers still hung by their laces over telephone wire, deep blue shadow sifted through naked tree branches like distant fingers, reaching into, grabbing at a big thick slice of pitch-black, heavenly mud-pie. No stars. Still no Bones.

Mom, Dad, my two younger brothers and sisters were inside sleeping. I felt this knot in my stomach like the whole fucking war was twisting up inside me, might I just fuckin’ implode! I wouldn’t wake them, I’d go quietly upstairs and go to bed. I’d see them come mornin’. I opened the screen door, stopped, and had to close it, opened and closed it again. Walked round the side of the house, doubled over, body doubled up, holdin’ my stomach, leaned into some bushes and started throwing up. Once, twice, over and again until there was nothin’, nothin’ but bile, yellow sauce, until all of me was empty, inside and out. And there, right the fuck before my eyes, peering out at me, out from under dead leaves and a fresh spray of vomit was my blue block of wood. I scooped it up as if I’d found lost treasure, gold and silver bullion, and cleaned it off with a few swipes against the grass. I clenched it in my fist, couldn’t help but smile. Bones came running up, his blackness all a-glow, excited and welcoming me home.

I looked in for a moment at my youngest brother Billy, my godchild sleeping peacefully. As a child I was a sound sleeper, I once fell off the top bunk of a bunk bed and didn’t wake up. Hearing the thud, my parents came rushing in from the living room and found me sleeping on the floor Now I had to put my mattress on the floor, and it was a good thing that my room was the smallest in the house, most like a bunker, less of a target, it provided a false sense of security. Accustomed as I was to the constant barrage of noise a war makes, now the silent night of suburbia was keeping me awake.

After only a few weeks in Viet Nam, I knew every sound of darkness like a blind man knows his own home. What was incoming and cause for alarm, and what was going out. I slept on a thin dime, and the faint whistle of a distant rocket would call me out from a crowded dream. I’d be hugging mother earth like a babe for milk, sucking up mud like wanting breath, steel pot and flak jacket on. I’d have a fuckin’ cigarette lit before the first round hit, before any siren ever sounded. If! And if it let up long enough you ran for a bunker.

I came to know with acute precision, like a fine-tuned instrument, the difference, the distinction in every sound the blackness made. What were rockets, mortars, short rounds, a.k.a. friendly fire, snafu! Fred took one in the shower. Small-arms, M-60s, M-79s, quad-50s, B-52s, and oh how the ground shook. Flares, Claymores, bounce, fuckin’ Bouncin’ Betty, fuck! Fuckin’ B-40! If! A sapper left a satchel charge in a hooch two doors down. Don’t mean nothin’! A luring Loach, whoop, whoop, whoop, draws out enemy fire, a seething Cobra and other gunships closin’ in. Woof! Napalm jet streamers, and Puff, Puff the Magic Dragon, whose mini-guns from on high could infiltrate every fuckin’ square inch of space the size of a football field in a matter of seconds. Every twenty-seventh round was a tracer, and we watched cheering atop a bunker as the red whip, the red whip waved on, and on, and fuckin’ on like hells bells rainin’ down.

We were the supreme, ultimate firepower of the skies. Absolute, all-powerful, like God I thought, like God lacks humility. But the enemy was underground, tunneled in beneath the earth, at the core of believing, beyond extinction.

Now I scanned about my room by the gray-blue shadows of moon, and filtering streetlight, beads like tears patterned upon embroidered curtain lace. In the wake of the battle, tired enough, but unable to sleep. The rug was sky blue and grape-juice stained, the walls needed more than paint. Jesus was missing limbs on the crucifix above, at the back of my brain, broken off by a touchdown pass that should have been caught. Dust collectors on bookshelves posing as trophies, old posters, banners, signed baseballs and other sports memorabilia. My bruised blue block of wood I’d placed on the dresser, my bayonet sheathed, asleep under my pillow. That picture, without any glass, a gentle boy laid back on a hillside, all blue-jeans, white button-down shirt, red-vested, black shiny curls, an arm up shielding his eyes from the sun. Tell me, tell me again… please, tell me your dreams?

Football is the precursor to war, the training fields, the same language. Kill, kill, kill! War is the ultimate sport, the culmination of sport. Kill, or be killed! Kill the Giants, Jets, Patriots, and Eagles. Kill the fuckin’ Yankees, Braves, and Angels. Kill Babe Ruth! Killroy, he’s not here anymore. Kill Jim Brown, John Brown, Charlie Brown, and Rodney Brown. ‘‘I’s one lucky motherfucker!” Kill the fuckin’ Gooks! Kill the Japs, the Krauts, the Commies, and the Jews. Kill Goliath! John the Baptist, John the Catholic, his brother Bobby, and Martin Luther King Jr.!

“My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” Kill Jesus! And like Cain slew Abel, I am the plowman, the keeper of a bad uprooted seedling, maimed and forced to wander. And Abraham, what of Isaac? Kill me!

Bones rests his head on my belly, looks up at me, gives me a stare like what the fuck man, like he knows my thoughts like he feels bad for me because I’m a fuckin’ nut job! “Good old Bones.”

It’s raining now, a soothing rain, rap, a pat, tap, and the occasional swish of a passing motorist endeavoring to lull me to sleep. It’s not that hard monsoon rain that blinds the sky, or the sound of hot screaming metal cavorting off tin roofs, that piercing screech that howls and rips through tent canvas embedding itself below the heart at gut-level.

Uncle Ho’s birthday, I couldn’t stop the thoughts. We were hit five times during the night with over ninety rockets. Every time I’d fall asleep. Again, over and again. We got no fuckin’ sleep. From side to side, closer, overhead, then passing. Back and forth like walking giants. Giant steps. Explosive, deafening! Fe, fi, fo, fum! If! If one hits the roof you’re dead! Away, and back again. Approaching, closer, fi, fo, fum! If! If one hits the roof, and again! Over and again like the buttoning and unbuttoning of shirts until all the buttons fall off.

I’d promised God I’d go to church every Sunday for the rest of my life. If! If he’d just get me the fuck outta here alive. The hooch in front of us was hit, and all twelve guys obliterated. The tent to the right, the one behind were all gone now. And still came the giants. Fi, fo, fum! And Casey, Casey took one in the shithouse while shootin’ up at the war. Happy fuckin’ trails! Swishhhhhh.

My eyes pop open, toothpick wide! This ain’t no fuckin’ war, this is my room, there’s Bones asleep on the floor like old paint. Please, dear God, but for thy grace, grant us some fuckin’ sleep. Rap, a-pat, tap. Fe, fi, fo, there are no giants anymore. Swishhhhhh.

We sat on empty ammo boxes under a sweltering sky in twelve rows of five. It was Palm Sunday, my first Sunday in Viet Nam and the last time I attendedMass.A Major, a priest who resembled Elijah, stood before us in bloody, torn jungle fatigues and addressed us as a group. The blood was blue. “I haven’t time to hear your confessions, so just think of your sins, and you’s forgiven.” He made the sign of the cross pendulating his rifle muzzle through the air. I hadn’t sinned yet, my uniform was clean. I was nothin’, an FNG, a fuckin’ new guy. What the fuck did I know? Was this ammo box really empty?

The Major’s face commenced to shed, and words fell out in drools of blue spittle, his flesh peeled back on sheets of wind and fell like raindrops into pools of blue blood. Everyone was going blue, bleeding, and crying blue tears. My arms, my hands, my fingers like tree branches sprouting blue streams. The Major’s hair in one fell swoop burst into bright orange flame, arcing out across an orange sky, orange as if a sunset had swallowed it whole. I put my hand to my face and my nose came off in my hand, blue lips impressed upon a blue palm. In a swishhhhhh of orange blue vapor, the Major, Elijah-priest was all gone.

I could feel my ears dribble, dripping off, my eyes leaking out of the sockets, waist deep in a whirl of blue bubble and torrent I was thrashed and spun about. From the heavens came a blue rain, rap, a-pat, tap, and blue stoned hail the likes of hot screaming metal chunks, fi, fo, fum! A murderous raging pain in my chest gashed forth, bone-pierced flesh like the great sea had been parted, and split me in fucking two. “My God,” I cried out in slumberous garble. “Take all of me.”

Slam, “Fuck!” Into the wall, I’d kicked the dog. Smack! Against the window pane, cast down like a bad, scorned, forlorn angel into the bottom of the dresser, and out across the fuckin’ floor. Low crawl, belly drag. I’m fuckin’ belly up here now. Awake! Cold with sweat, naked, free, freezing. I’d bruised my head, my fist and rug burns to my knees and chest. My side hurts, and the curtain is torn. It’s raining harder now, and the sky splits, flash, spits, rat-a-tat-tat like machine-gun fire. Kerplunk, plunkety, plunk into buckets, drain pipes like blood gutters, bullet holes, buttonholes, and this empty hollow feeling at the pit. I’d been pitted, gutless, so fucking vacant. Whose sins are these? Are we all really dead? What the fuck did Elijah want? And the moon’s a grayish hint of blue hue, and shadows by streetlight upon the rain-beaded window glass, silhouette on the wall like black tears. Jesus, where’s my blanket? Afraid to sleep anymore, but I need so badly, so bad, to get warm.

Three days back in the world and I’m up before the birds, before the trees, before the sky and branches reaching. Waiting, waiting for the sun to begin, for the heat to come up before I come out from my blanket. A train whistle off in the distance, up the block, two clicks. It ain’t that kind of whistle or siren, and the fuckin’ streetlight goes out. Again I’m in blue-gray shadow, still waiting. Church bells, and the wind chimes off the back deck. Newsprint hits the front steps, the workings of a bicycle chain. Squawk! A squawking blackbird sounds reveille. I’m an empty Bat-Car, third car from the rear. Three hundred and sixty-five of’ em. Stop counting, stop waiting. It’s Easter, Easter fucking Sunday! Beyond the torn curtain lace there are only shadow limbs groping for the sky. Other blackbirds squawking now like a party of thieves. Fresh road kill, I heard the brakes an hour ago, screech and thu-thump! Fuckin’ Rodney never knew what hit him! If! Another fuckin’ whistle, another train in the opposite direction.

Me and Jimmy, brothers Don and Jeff, Johnny, Mule, Gonzales, Worm, and Billy Gibbons, us Dick Street Bombers, we played on them tracks. We played war, Get-the-Bag, Kick-the-Can, Hot-Beans. We built forts under the bridge, dammed up the creek, hit homers over the fence, over the rails. We smoked cigarettes, sipped wine, talked sex. We showed each other our dicks, Johnny had the biggest. “You idiot, babies didn’t never come from fuckin’ storks!”

There are other birds talking now, red, blue, and gray. A coo, cooing mourning dove takes Bight. The rhythmic hammer of that train passing, the heat hiss, hissing up. My cigarette ash falls to my chest. A neighbor’s car whines, starts, grinding gears and drives off. I’m safe here, without really thinking, not consciously, but the night’s fuckin’ over. And again, we get to do it again.

I come out from my blanket, push up from my hands to my feet and stand naked before the window. There are no faces in the glass, but mine; what’s only me is scary. We stretch. I’m five-foot-ten and all of 135 pounds. I’m apart, a part of, superimposed upon that tree, without leaves like lines of bark my ribs can be counted. When I left for the war I was 160 and flawless, but the heat, sweat, bad water and food, C-rations, and constant diarrhea made me as thin as a communion wafer, lean like a manhole cover. My eyes sunken-in like a sewer rat’s, more black than blue anymore, my face long and narrow and missing teeth. Who is it? It ain’t me, these puffs of white steam. Is it breath? Am I breathing? Or am I just a broken limb, a cut branch, kindling for the fire? Is this cover about to blow, and who will receive me?

I put my pajama bottoms on and realize I’ve put them on backwards. I’ve stopped pissing out my asshole or I’d be politically correct, could be fuckin’ president. I need to make myself laugh, me and God share a laugh. There are no bunkers here, but for an old sparrow’s nest under the eaves of shingle next door. I’ll go ahead now and turn myself around.

Squirrels padding, pit-pat, pit-pat on the roof above, voices down below. Too much fuckin’ TV. The front door creaks, and the screen door grates. My father retrieves the paper, his mumblings about it having blown apart. Yes, I have seen the pieces, bits of brain matter, all pink, and blue, and gray flesh. Just one, one patch. “Jesus,” he snaps at my little brother watching cartoons, “Turn it down!” His life’s so fuckin’ simple: work, drink, eat, drink, sleep. “Let the dog out.” Oh, and how he loves his crossword puzzle as he makes his way across the dining room, shuffling pages, into the kitchen, into his coffee cup.

The bathroom is pink and gray tiles, and too fuckin’ bright. Kill the light! This piss is freedom, emancipation from one’s inner demon: a moment’s bliss like a yawn or a sneeze. Only with these bodily functions is there any reprieve. A good dump is king, but for a shot of dope. If! What Casey already knows. I splash some water on my face, but still come back orange. It’s that clay, red dirt, those convoys in an open Jeep, too much fucking sun.

My mother’s voice rises up from the kitchen, a wafted aroma of coffee, eggs, and bacon, sizzle, pop-pop. No small-arms fire here, just appetites. Mom’s cooking will soon enough fatten me up. Only one night we feasted on steak, Shrimp Scampi, Brussels sprouts, my favorite, and wild rice. I had two pieces of strawberry shortcake. “How was it?” she asked, and without thinking I blurted out, “Fucking great! Best fucking meal I ever fuckin’ ate!”

My youngest brother and sister, Billy’s seven and Marianne’s nine, sat there dumbfounded, mouths agape. Everything stopped as if a rock had hit, like someone farted in church, but you’d better not laugh. Shay, eighteen, and John, fifteen, took to snickering; even Dad was holding back a hoot.

“Well,” said Mom, attempting to rise above the muzzled snorts, ‘‘I’m glad you enjoyed it, but I don’t like that word.” She tittered, giggled and we all broke loose in wholehearted laughter.

I made my way down the stairway, downstairs, Bugs Bunny askin’ “What’s up, Doc?” Doc took one tiny piece of shrapnel in the temple sitting on his cot reading a letter from home, just a head above the sandbag line.

If! Nothin’ was up, but fucked up, and Doc’s world stopped six days short of leaving. Don’t mean nothin’! Still I couldn’t stop the thoughts, the sleepless nights, the fuckin’ nightmares. This wasn’t the place I thought home would be, the war hadn’t been silenced. Still, I was bored, I missed the goddam excitement, the killing game. This world had no meaning, no life and death consequences. Yeah, it was me who’d changed, everything else was the same only a year older. A year of hell, how could I ever again lie on a beach and tan myself?

I opened the door and stepped from the stairwell into the living room. Marianne was hiding between the upstairs and foyer doorways. Elmer Fudd was about to kill that cwazy wabbit. “Boo!” she screamed, this high-pitched screech like a rocket whistles when it’s in your lap. I went up like a prizefighter does from an uppercut to the jaw, then down, down for the floorboards, stopped! Stopped myself, than snapped, snapped right the fuck out of myself! She was laughin’, God was laughing. I jacked her up off her feet by the threads of her pajama top like a dog would shake a rag-doll in its mouth, pinning her shoulders back up against the wall. Her eyes met my stony-cold, blackened rage! It wasn’t her but the enemy I saw.

“Never, never fuckin’ do that to me, never! Do you hear me?”

My mother ran in from the kitchen, spatula in hand, waving it like a scepter, a magic wand over a pimply frog, “Put her down! Put her down this minute.” There were all kinds of whistles screaming in my head.

“Put her down!” My father’s voice reverberated, pinging off walls, and out the back of my brain. He threw his pen and crossword puzzle at me, spilling his coffee. I’m an empty flat-car, third car from the rear. Bones was snapping at my PJ’s. “Now!” He bellowed from a safe distance and looked to my mom as if asking, what are we gonna do now?

Billy sat bug-eyed, amused, gawking at me from the couch, this was better than any cartoon, I was cwazier than that fucking wabbit. Tears were streaming down my sister’s face. What? This fear, it’s mine, I thought, from the depths of the dead and the missing. My God, my God, but couldn’t say it. I’d brought the trauma home. I’m the fuckin’ enemy here.

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