A fictional first-person narrative short about loss, family and the trauma of war.
“Always add the lesser measures first,” my grandma declaimed when I was eight.
She’d been muddling mint, sugar and lime together in a highball glass before flooding it with white Caribbean rum. Her unhurried Peach State cadence had a way of sewing grace into the darker quadrants of our family quilt. Especially after Mom passed, she and Dad used to sit on the back veranda and whisper up at all the blossoms on our big magnolia tree, sipping those tall, sweet drinks as earnestly as a pair of Catholics communing with the Pope.
I pour my tonic first. She’s not the ghost to mess with.
“Don’t you be too brave,” she’d scolded me on the concrete runway at my embarkation, her chocolate eyes melting in the heat.
Too brave indeed, I’d re-upped three times. It was the closest to manhood I ever got.
Now down at the V.A. Doctor Montgomery leaves plenty of room around his words to pretend he isn’t rushing me. He once said that expressing myself would unburden me; get me back on my feet. I brim my glass with gin and smirk at his idiom. No amount of his counselling ever brought my foot back from Fallujah.
“I’m having forty dreams,” I’d confessed to him during our first session, interlacing my fingers and rocking, elbows tucked, aboard a dinky plastic chair. “Each involves a different woman. Sometimes I get two or three a night. I know them all by heart.”
“Really,” he’d replied.
“Yes sir. It’s like having forty virgins or something – you know, like the Jihadi types believe – except I’m not dead and these women, they are definitely not virgins.”
That fetched a smile. But then he asked me carefully: “Are you by any chance, converting to Islam?”
“No, I’m talking about… In the dreams, sir, I’m not missing my parts, you understand?”
“I get that, Sam. But so; are you an atheist then?”
“No sir. The other one; where you don’t pretend to know.”
“That’s right. But anyway the thing is: these dreams are so completely… so completely real. I believe them. I believe I’m whole again. Each time I wake up it’s like finding out all over. It’s killing me, sir.”
“Sam… you need not call me sir. You’re not active duty anymore.”
“It’s just a habit. Look… I need you to get rid of these dreams!”
“Alright. Let’s go back to the beginning. How were you wounded?”
“Oh Jesus, sir. It’s in my record. I don’t remember. When I came-to I couldn’t feel a thing, not even the ground. Couldn’t hear… I was vibrating. The smell is actually what woke me up; made me look. That’s when I saw my fatigues were smoked. Just char, you know? I remember wondering why that didn’t hurt. That was the worst part.”
“Mm-hm. Anything else?”
“Uh… There was a bus. People leaning out the windows, pointing; kids I think. I was flown out of theater that night and strapped to a bed at Ramstein for a few weeks. My body was like a pine log in a fire; popping and spitting all over. I remember a nurse feeding me little bits of potato salad with a plastic fork. The drugs made my tongue furry, so I couldn’t taste it. Once I got transferred Stateside, my C.O. called my Dad and told him about the bus. He said maybe… maybe if I hadn’t got there first… maybe those kids would’ve taken the hit.”
“And how did that make you feel?”
“I’m not even sure there was a bus.”
“You said you remember it… kids in the windows, pointing.”
“Yeah. But that could’ve been invented… to make me feel better; like it was worth it.”
“Does it make you feel better?”
“Doesn’t matter. Either way I’m stuck here, right? Half my leg is gone.”
“Yes... and your other injuries.”
Teetering now against Grandma’s liquor cabinet in our silent home, I imagine that conversation might’ve made a normal person cry. The ice slides to my lips. Every day I think of her and wonder what she’d’ve said. At long last it’s time to find out. The checks have been cashed and the interviews are done.
Doctor Montgomery’s advice to write down my dreams unintentionally won me an audience. People debase themselves over my spectacle now. I am the maudlin, one-footed eunuch who wrote forty chapters of bestselling sleaze. What broadcaster wouldn’t want me on their talk show?
With a heavy scrape I drag my Dad’s old M1911 from its shelf and hobble out across the veranda, my eyes fixed on a nook at the base of the magnolia tree that has always suited my spine. Once settled against that familiar place I rack the weapon’s slide and stare, first at the house and then at the pristine blossoms on the copper and green canopy.
“Okay,” I mouth up at them. “I’m coming.”