Fiction: The Veteran

December 6, 2017 Fiction , Literature , POETRY / FICTION

Rawle C Jackman photo

 

By

Jill Kiesow

 

 

 

A doughy man sits in the hot sun. He wears a baseball cap. It is clean – there is no trace of work or fun, no smudged fingerprints on the brim. Other people give him a wide berth, instinctively only, since he shows no sign of being someone to avoid. He sprouts from the bench like a fungus and is suffering in the heat like one, too. It looks as if he should be feeding ducks, but there aren’t any or even a pond. Nor would he have brought any bread.

There is a basketball court in the distance, and the thump of rubber on asphalt comes through the thick air: the bounce, then the sound. He scratches himself, looks toward the court, looks away, scratches himself again.

No one alive knows him, not really. No one at all knows his past, not the part that came before what he must talk over with Dr. Adams. Even he feels that he doesn’t really have a past, no history. He was born a baby, thirty years ago, mom and dad, grew up. It was all quite unremarkable – a life marked by nothing. He has no tattoos, no facial hair, no fillings in his teeth. He has never been with a woman of his own; not one he didn’t pay, anyway.

He was too old to try to start his life, but enlisted anyway because he didn’t know what else to do. He had run out of odd jobs, and he had to go somewhere and was happy to give that decision over to someone else when thinking about it made his head hurt. The bombs exploding like fireworks on the TV looked pretty. Iraq sounded nice, colorful, like it would smell spicy. Besides, that Saddam Hussein seemed like a real asshole. So, he went into the recruiting office bursting with jingoism. They took him. They told him they would provide a future for him, that from then on, he would be taken care of. His government cared about him; that was enough.

He killed people. He almost died. They tried to stick him with the Beretta M9, but he didn’t trust his life to that unreliable piece of shit. No, sir. He stashed it away. In the heat of battle, he got his hands on the .50 caliber rifle, that great big gun that will get the job done, thank you very much. That was a man’s gun. He showed them, he could do more than just lug the brute around. There were sand and sweat in the folds of his neck, and he pulled the trigger of the .50 cal from 500 yards away and down they went. They fell like leaves: soft, slow, silent. It bothered him afterward, but not too much. War is hell, old man, they said, and clapped him on the back for his good fortune of being born on the right side. The side with the .50 cal and Abrams tanks. They said they would keep in touch, but they did not. He said he would tell their families what they said as they lay dying in the sand, but he did not.

A jogger passes by, too close, and he starts to extend a leg to trip him. He would like to see the man fall, to watch the little speakers spill from his ears and onto the pavement, to see those tight, coordinated, shiny clothes seeped in blood. He would like to stop the man in his trivial quest for lean muscles and strap the packs on him: the weapons, the mob gear, the gas masks, the weight, the heat, the burden that came with the uniform. Go forth into the furnace, prick. You have no idea what’s been done in your name while you prance around here in ignorant freedom. He would like to show the jogger, show everyone, what lives behind his own eyes, in that place he cannot shut out. Closing his eyes just gives the horror a spotlight, and it stands there solo, lit against the darkness of the past where he wants to hide it. He pushes his leg back under the bench at the last moment. He won’t trip the man. Then he would have to tell Dr. Adams about it. He puts his hands in his lap and crosses his legs at the ankles under the bench.

The VA clinic looms nearby. He imagines waiting forever for the shrink in the cold air inside, breathing bureaucracy into his cells, pushing through those municipal hallways with their film from being mopped with dirty water, squeaking under so many shoes. So many people breathing, so much wasted breath. He specifically turned his back on the building when he sat. This view isn’t stunning, either, just the paved trail, weedy grass, and bushes that appear to be trying to be trees. He doesn’t mind; he doesn’t really notice. He sees small things – the busy work of ants along the cracks in the pavement, the bald heads of blown dandelions, a red-stained popsicle stick, a dog turd that someone is bound to step on.

The sun is straight above him when he looks up, and he feels hungry. He takes off his cap and looks inside. He wants to eat the grass left behind lawn mowers, butterflies stuck to windshields, cornstarch straight from the box. He likes to hear the crunch as he mashes his teeth together and sends the heavy powder between his molars, up to the gums, toward his brain. He wants to taste the sweet water that collects overnight in flowers. He still wants to drink gallons of cool water.

He picks at the American flag embroidered on his cap. One corner is starting to come loose. Encouraged, he picks more. He recoils then, as the line between decoration and actual stars and stripes blurs. He places the cap back on his head before he accidentally becomes a traitor, without bothering to first smooth his hair.

His hands work in his lap, taking apart and putting together the invisible .50 cal, like Dr. Frankenstein assembling his beloved, lethal monster. This was something he was very good at, a skill he wouldn’t have otherwise discovered. He never had to look to reassemble the gun. Light, dark, didn’t matter. The problem – the constant problem – was the sand. Sand jammed it up. Some guys had done seven, eight, nine tours, and said they found sand in everything once they got back home. Lots of guys said they were crazy for coming back. But he understood why they did.

He slides a hand into his waistband, feeling for his gun. Not the .50 cal, they wouldn’t let him keep that, but the .45 millimeter – his gun. It was cold and dead on its own, but it wasn’t often on its own. Usually, it was warmed into life by his own body. He reaches further and further around himself. It’s not there. He remembers then. He hocked it for cash. Damn lot of good that did him. He misses it like … he can’t think of a thing he misses more.

An unleashed dog races toward him and drops a soggy tennis ball at his feet. He palms the whole wet mess, rubs his hands around it, and hurls it as far as he can. The dog grins and runs off. He thinks about the dog he had as a kid. Just a boy and his dog back then. He misses that one friend. He slaps his hands together, and foamy dog slobber flies into the air.

The sun. It’s getting hotter, he’s sure of it. There is some thin shade, but it’s too close to the road. He won’t go that far, even though he is much too hot. He melted in Iraq. He’s sure of that too. Dr. Adams doesn’t believe it, but it’s true. There he stood, on that accursed sand, and looked down at the puddle that was himself. The desert camo all ran together into the ugliest brown color he had ever seen. It wouldn’t even reflect back the sky. There was nowhere to find relief from the heat.

Sure, he’d heard the rumors. How someone would go back to brief the command, and there they were in air conditioned tents playing video games, playing Wolfenstein, playing pretend war. While the grunts were getting shot without even enough bullets or food or water. And forget about showers. God, the sweat. If he hadn’t melted, he would have drowned in his own sweat. Sweat, blood, melted man: the sand drank it all up the same.

But how could that be? Air conditioning in the desert? Betrayed by his own leadership? Out there without sufficient body armor, melting, dripping, sent to die by men who hadn’t seen combat? He didn’t believe it then, and he can’t believe it now. He can’t let himself believe it. Who would ever go to war if such things were true? Who would ever come back? If they were true, it would have all been a scam, and he would be a fool. And that’s one thing he hates being.

He looks again toward the shade. The day wears on, and the shadow moves around, farther from the road. He decides to move toward it. He begins to push up, to shift his weight forward and propel himself off the bench. A motorcycle on the road. He shrinks back against the bench. No motorcycles, not even for shade. Too many guys were lost that way. Suicide bombers, passenger, man, woman, whatever. It was too easy to die when a cycle went by. He stays in the sun. It seems to have passed the worst of it anyway.

The sun seems to him like a literal clock. He knows that isn’t right, but it’s how it is in his mind. When the sun is directly overhead, it is noon. Eighteen hundred hours is when the sun hits the land. Therefore, it must be around fifteen hundred, because it is halfway between up and down. It seems too close to dusk for fifteen hundred.

He wishes he would see the dog again. He twists around, but they’re all gone: the dog, the jogger, the kids playing basketball, the mommies with strollers. Even the dog turd is gone, stuck to someone and smeared around. He hopes it is on the jogger’s expensive shoe.

Recovers his earlier momentum, he flings himself forward to stand. He stretches his back, tries to work out those kinks that will never leave him. He runs a hand under his hat, across the scar on his skull where the hair won’t grow. He rubs the shoulder where the shrapnel lives. He thinks about naming those biting metal pieces. He rocks a little on his heels, looks once more for the dog, frowns, and starts to walk out of the park. He looks again toward the VA building.

 

Memory returns in a sudden burst. There is no Dr. Adams. There never was. There is no one. After that first worthless appointment, he has never again set his soft-soled tennis shoes inside the VA clinic. He can’t, it is too demeaning, too worthless. Men without legs and doorways two feet off the ground. Men in wheelchairs and elevators permanently out of order, furniture stacked in front of them. Suicidal men made to wait months to see a shrink who, even then, won’t take the time. He can’t deny that betrayal. That promise of care and a job upon returning home was definitely bullshit. They gave their limbs. They gave their souls. They gave their Goddam lives.

He sniffs. I don’t need them anyway. Look how far I’ve come on my own. He turns his back on the building and begins the long shuffle to the doorway under the awning downtown where he will spend the night. The bench will be here tomorrow, waiting for him.

 

 

 

 

 

Jill Kiesow

Jill Kiesow writes fiction and poetry, and has pieces in The Matador Review, Ariel Chart, and 50-Word Stories, as well as one coming soon in Lunch Ticket. She is a longtime vegan and animal advocate, has worked at a shelter, and currently volunteers for a dog rescue. She and her husband, precocious toddler, rescued cats, and adopted shelter dogs live in rural Wisconsin.

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1 Comment

  1. Chuck Bartok December 06, at 16:58

    Telling it like it is. Great job. So many from the era are out there suffering the same. Found a short story of a similar topic, https://jamesstrauss.com/algiers-short-story-james-strauss/

    Reply

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