Mom and I pick him up from T.F. Green in Warwick. He’d left us at 195 pounds but now he’s around 165, face skinny and honed, chest puffed up to his chin like he’s got secrets smuggled from overseas in there. His eyes are shot straight threw, like a relapse to the brain, that first look before he thinks, “Right, family.” Maybe because we forgot, unlike the others, to make a poster that says, YOU’RE HOME scribbled in red and blue Magic Marker.
It’s when my dad tells me, “I shot missiles over the desert with buddies,” that my gut turns around inside and I realize war isn’t only on TV, turned off when you decide to look away.
I test him and say, “Dad, where’d you fight?” and watch his mouth say, “Gulf War, in full, Operation Desert Shield.” I notice the way the Marines prepared him. He’s clinging to his pack in the passenger seat, and in the review mirror I watch shoulders shift in his tan utility uniform.
When we get back to the house Mom kisses him hard again on his new, angular face. In the living room she pulls against his bicep and he does push-ups with her sitting on his back. I’m on our corduroy sofa, white Reeboks propped up on the glass coffee table, waiting for my turn. They’re laughing for a minute and I’m laughing for a minute. Then, “Get off,” Dad says.
“What happened?” Mom says.
And he says, “It’s nice here. A lot less.”
She says, “Good, we’ll try to keep it that way.”
This is a kind of language only they can understand. She’s known him longer than I have. I’m thinking, a lot less what? But Mom seems to get a handle on it, like Dad used to.
Anyway, I can see Dad move inside his boots and how he still needs someone to tell him okay, take them off now.
“I’m scared,” he says, and it seems more on accident than purpose. I feel closer to him for a moment and I like this. I ask him how he likes being home. Then he says, “Forget it, I feel fine.”
During dinner he eats differently than he used to. Smaller portions. More paced. His hand follows the same line of movement, fork going plate to open mouth. He eats first then gulps down a glass of water. Pours himself another, distracts himself, sinks it in one go. He puts the glass on the table with muscle and our plates rattle.
It’s when he blames Mom throughout the second night that the chicken is dry and the guys back in LC-fucking-E can do better. He says, “Logistics, Carol, its logistics.”
Mom says, “I get it.” Then, “I’m here. But we have to play nice.”
He says, “I’m in the wrong,” and we all look at each other, confused, sort of, by his kindness.
It’s when he says, “I can’t tell you.”
I say, “Come on, let me in. A number?”
And no one wants to say it, but death is what we’re really talking about.
Later, we visit the Roger Williams Zoo because the meetings he goes to in the afternoon at the Y on Hope Street say you don’t have to distract, but you have to move forward. You have to do the things you used to do, the things your family kept doing while you were away. He tells us the meetings are important to him and I imagine they give him the kind of authority he needs being home in Providence. He leans over one of the fences at the petting zoo section and taps a rough hand against a goat. He says, “I could eat you.” He doesn’t think we’re listening, because either no one really is listening or no one cares. This is new, and I’m worried we’ll hear more things we don’t want to, moments that show us him now compared to him before he left.
In the parking lot I sit in our mustard-colored Toyota. My mom bought it using Dad’s Family Separation Pay when he was gone eating MREs in the desert. I was surprised by how little they give you. It took five months—near the whole deployment—to save up. We have a Little Tree freshener in the car. It’s supposed to smell like an alpine forest but smells more like minty, synthetic grass and makes me nauseous. I stare at the side mirror on the passenger side and see them wave blaming hands too close to each other’s faces. Dad leans against a sign that says, YES, THEY ARE ALIVE. KEEP ON PATH.
When we get back home we decide we won’t eat dinner at the table anymore. We think it gives too much structure, my mom and me. Dad doesn’t need that kind of thing in the States. Not anymore. I sit on the velvet carpet in her bedroom and watch her pass an iron over his black dungarees—for his new job at Medina’s House Painters—when we decide this. He comes and stands heavy against the doorframe. I can see the imprints on the white velvet where he’s stepped with boots.
He says, “What’re we talking about?”
Then Mom says, “Nothing,” but she’s bad at lying, or Dad’s got too much practice being around guys who lie. He walks over to the rose-patterned board and takes the iron from my mom, moves the hot metal against his pants, leaves it in place too long and burns a dark patch into the denim. He says, “What’re we Carol?” and I think about the way he’s branded us, not unlike animals.
Later, he does pull-ups in the kitchen. He installed a bar in the doorway and we knew not to ask. He chants to himself. Every time his chin tops the bar he goes, “C’mon Jack-O, three more you piece of shit.”
I watch from the hallway. Tears hit the hardwood below him. I imagine most guys in his unit acted this way and what’s it to us? He drops to the floor and pulls his issued off-white tee over his head, wipes the floor with it, as if he can erase what happened. My dad, he says, “Your mess is your mess, and mine is mine.” I don’t know if I should talk, if he truly feels this way. He says, “Do I get in your business?” I stay quiet while he puts his cheek to the floorboards. I’m not sure why but I do the same. It feels cold—refreshing—and we both listen for a minute.
He says, “Do you hear them?”
I play along and scoot my head closer to his. I say, “Not yet, but it’s coming.”
Mom walks in and I stand to attention, rub the creases out of my flannel button-up. She says, “There’s nothing there.”
I say, “We’re doing simple things.” Then, “We need to do simple things.” And we all know, I think, it’s Dad I’m speaking too. We hope he listens.
Mom stands there and watches us, Dad’s ear still against the hardwood, and I imagine she wants to make us different from each other. Then she cries, and I can’t remember if she’d been crying the whole time. But I’m wearing desert boots before I notice, cut my hair close on the sides with number two clippers. High and tight.
At dinner, on the sofa, he says, “Carol, you’re lucky, some guys come out skewed and beating on people.” He’s talking to her like she’s one of his buddies, and I think what people? My dad wouldn’t touch us.
Carol, I think. Never thought of my mom as a name before.
She says, “Jack-O, you’re one sad man. What happened? What made this happen? And to you?”
Dad smiles, shows us the wrong side of his face in this wide grin we haven’t experienced yet. I pat his back and feel guilty for not doing the same for Mom.
It’s when he tells us, “During training they made us crawl in sand pits filled with bedbugs, or some relative to bed bugs,” that Mom itches under her wool cardigan and doesn’t stop, won’t stop, for a week. Dad catches this, each time says, “Feel what I feel,” but I know he can’t experience our side of life anymore than we can his. It all feels more separate now, and this is one thing I didn’t count on when I heard he was coming home. I thought we would pick him up and he’d be the same as when we dropped him off.
Then we start eating dinner at the table again, but Mom doesn’t cook anymore. Not again. Jack-O keeps telling stories, mostly because he can’t stop. We listen to the time he spent stationed in Greenland and Madison, cold weather training, one sandwich kept warm against their bodies for the week. He says, “We spent so much time banking on it not freezing.” Or the guys who forgot to change wet socks, and when they pulled off a boot their foot came with it. We watched my dad mime, make a snapping sound with his tongue against teeth. Or strike his palms against the table, recreating jets flying fifty feet overhead as he dropped to the sand on the beach: the crumbs on our kitchen floor. I can’t tell if he’s exaggerating, but it doesn’t matter, because these are things we have to deal with now. Between stories he picks at Prism White or Creekside Green, or whatever paint that’s crusted around his cuticles from work.
My dad says, “Or that shit-monger Collins.”
Collins is the guy Dad tells us about the most. They used to throw live grenades over this four-foot-thick cement wall for practice. Then someone named Russell, or Foster, or Spanish Hernandez, hit one off the wall, didn’t have the arm to put it over. Dad says, “I thought and thought about it, but thoughts take too long, and I couldn’t do it, be the hero. Instead, I’m putting on dress blues and carrying a casket on my shoulder.” Collins jumped on top, saved the others from potential threat of danger, like my dad says. It was a kind of coup de grâce for him when he saw it. Final life.
It’s around here Carol and me realize it’s only been a week. I imagine I might be able to black it all out and create distance from what I’ve seen. Instead I look at him, and for a moment I want to say it’s okay, things are different, but I say, “What happened to Dad?”
He shakes his head and Mom looks at me, and we all wish we were someone else.
Later, they go to the grocery store together and leave me at home. I imagine they need time to talk alone. I wander into the basement and look through a plastic bin full of old birthday cards and letters Dad sent us while he was away. I move aside a thick manila envelope and a roll of reindeer-covered wrapping paper. This is where I find a palm-sized notebook. Inside, I recognize my dad’s handwriting—the paper dimpled by a heavy pen:
After Foster fucked up throwing that grenade everything felt even more out of our hands. A few days later I came back from lunch. Foster and me were bunkmates. He always made his bed faster on call, folded his sheets over in a crisp line, better than anyone I knew. But I walked in after eating and found those same sheets on the ground, ripped to shreds. He tied the strips together, end on end, and hung himself from the metal rafters that pitched the oversized tent. I dropped to my knees. Hands planted against the earth. And puked my guts dry. That’s when it really hit me where I was, and I noticed you couldn’t even come back from lunch expecting everything to be the same. I always tell my family about the guy who jumped on top, Collins, but I won’t tell them the part about Foster. I don’t like to hear it out loud. I know what happened.
I want to tell him me too, I want to tell him, but I know when they get back he’ll walk through the door, look at me with nothing in his eyes, waiting for somewhere to go, somewhere other than home.
Emory Harkins grew up in Providence, Rhode Island and now lives in Brooklyn. He is completing his BFA in creative writing at Pratt Institute and has won second place in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers.