The guys who spoke at these meetings seemed to find it cathartic. They had to say it out loud, to hear the words and to see the bobbing heads to know they weren’t alone. Pernell Grant never spoke, not once in ten years. Though given his size and constitution, with his thick arms and healthy beard, his presence was certainly not ignored. Most would look at him and wonder, infantry or perhaps a gunny before time and the friction of living took their toll. No one pushed him to say anything. Lieutenant Guthrie, a gray-haired black man, a former Navy chaplain, would now and again ask if he wanted to speak and Pernell would smile with his eyes and shake his head. Pernell listened and looked at the other men feeling both thankful and guilty that he had his limbs.
The musty portable sat on the property of the VA hospital and the hollow floor suffered under Pernell’s weight when he walked around. There were seven men in attendance, and they sat in a semi-circle sipping on coffee or bottles of water, and a few, like Pernell, carried the faint smell of cigarettes and alcohol.
A man named Smalley spoke of the la Drang Valley as if he had been there the previous day. Some of the men looked at their shoes as he spoke or chose a spot on the worn brown carpet. Smalley stared into that void where memories burn. He’d held his confession for more than three decades.
Smalley looked like a little old man now, thin and bald with white hair above his ears, a bulbous nose and gin blossoms that spread like tributaries. He was fair skinned with scars on his face from patches of skin cancer that had eaten away at him. Probably a golfer, Pernell thought. Seemed to be the kind of man with hobbies to occupy his mind. He’d shared idle conversation with Smalley during coffee breaks and learned that the man had spent his life as an accountant. Smalley wore a collared, long-sleeve shirt with a mechanical pencil clipped in the front pocket and black dress shoes that looked uncomfortable as hell. Looking at him now, it was hard to imagine him in the jungle with an M16 shouting, “Hoorah!”
Pernell watched Smalley struggle through the story and wondered why the passing decades erased some memories and left others, and why this story, which sat quietly burning for so long, chose this moment to breath. In some ways, all the stories were the same and ran together like a jumbled river of letters and words. It didn’t make them any less true. Smalley didn’t think he would last another day. No one was looking. It was a small wound, self-inflicted, but he made sure it was enough to get him home. Heads bobbed without judgment. Pernell understood better than most and thought Smalley a brave man.
Pernell thought about the day Lindy got blown to hell and he stood abruptly, nodded to the other men and walked out. A sure giveaway that he was hiding something. But weren’t they all?
If Pernell were a barfly, he’d go find one to sit in, but then he’d have to justify the expense to Maria. He wondered if Johnny was at the shop. The shop was a good place to be. Pushing wood through that screaming saw, getting lost in the white noise. An activity that required total focus if you wanted to keep your fingers. Of course, Johnny wouldn’t be there on a Saturday night.
Pernell had just turned 18 and was out drinking beer with his friends when the fight broke out. It ended quickly when Pernell got involved and they took him downtown. The fight was over a girl who wasn’t even Pernell’s girl. Just a girl fending off advances from a couple of other Tuscaloosa boys who were too drunk to fight. One of the boys ended up with a broken jaw and the other a broken nose and Pernell’s hand puffed up like rising dough and throbbed. He could have been charged as an adult, but when the judge saw the size of him and heard about his family history and their time-honored service to country, he told Pernell to enlist and make his family proud.
The following day, Pernell and his father drove to the Marine Corps recruiting center in the strip mall near the Baskin & Robbins, and afterward they went to get some ice cream. His father tried to explain war over a couple of chocolate sundaes. His old man wasn’t much of a talker. He said, “War’s a roulette wheel and ain’t nothing can be done about that.” He stirred the chocolate into the vanilla until it all turned gray. “Some’ll walk though without a scratch, others won’t make it past day one. Them who make it out are the walkin’ wounded.” Then he stared into his ice cream, as if the words he sought were there and could be tasted. Pernell thought about that day eleven months later, on a night patrol under a canopied jungle, and he understood what his father couldn’t say and the power he’d missed in that vacant stare.
Butterflies fluttered in Pernell’s gut for the first month. A nervousness you could say, but no real fear and no real fighting. It was like camping in the woods with your buddies. You could hear the booms and see jets flying overhead and sometimes the earth would shake and there would be pops of gunfire, but the war, the actual fighting, was happening somewhere in the distance. Pernell hadn’t even clicked the safety off his weapon. All the evidence pointed to a conflict, but Pernell hadn’t seen it for himself, so the reality of it was merely speculation. Then one sunny afternoon, Mark Lindy, a blue-eyed boy from Mississippi, stepped on a Bouncing Betty, and lost his clothes, his legs, and his genitals. That was something, and the sight of it settled in deep.
Pernell removed his work boots on the front porch and carried them inside. Maria rolled herself toward the front door to greet him and she looked at his white socks when he walked in to make sure those boots weren’t on his feet. The television played some kind of cop show and cast a bluish light into the darkened living room. Pernell walked through the room without glancing at the screen.
“Don’t expect dinner to be warm,” Maria said, rolling her way into the kitchen behind him.
“Don’t matter,” he said.
“Nothing matters, does it?” she snapped back. “You’re gone from five in the morning until ten every night and now on a Saturday night, you want to go swap war stories. If you don’t want to be home, what’s the point?”
He couldn’t blame her for wanting something better. Five years planted in that chair thanks to a drunk driver. She had conveniently lost all recollection of the accident and the events surrounding it, but Pernell had not, and it burned, perhaps in the same way that Smalley’s story had for so long.
Pernell grabbed a piece of cold fried chicken from a dish on the stove. “It’s good,” he said as a morsel of chicken hit the floor.
“The goddamned house is clean, Pernell,” Maria said and told him to sit at the kitchen table so he wouldn’t drop crumbs everywhere. She rolled to the refrigerator to get the pitcher of sweet tea she’d made earlier, placed it in her lap and rolled herself to the table. He knew better than to try and help. He noticed the gray in her hair. She used to dye it but gave up on that a while back.
“I know you’re in a hurry to get to work in the mornings, but can you at least put the dishes in the washer the right way. Flat dishes in the back, bowls in the front. I’m tired of having to come around behind you to fix it.”
“Does it make a difference?”
“If you put bowls and plates together they don’t get clean. It hurts me to lean in there.”
He nodded and picked meat off a chicken bone with his front teeth, which made the hairs around his mouth shiny. She watched him and he knew she was thinking hard on something that she wanted to say, maybe a lot of things she wanted to say. He thought to when their conversations where breezy and sprinkled with laughter, with her feet rubbing on his beneath this very table.
“Macy’s got homecoming next month,” Maria said, abruptly. “The dress she wants is a hundred and fifty dollars. I gave her a limit of seventy-five.”
Pernell worked on a piece a chicken stuck between his teeth and chose his words carefully. “She’s been getting good grades,” Pernell said. He knew about the dress because Macy had told him, and he’d promised her the money. He didn’t have it yet, but knew he’d get it from Johnny. Money was owed.
“That girl breaks curfew every damned weekend,” Maria said. “And you’re going to reward her.”
“Maybe if we give her a reason to make good decisions,” Pernell said, then stopped when Maria abruptly turned to roll away.
Pernell looked at the half dozen prescriptions bottles on the kitchen counter and the stack of envelopes next to them. If there was something due, she’d have said so by now. Pernell worked as an electrician by day and a cabinetmaker at night. After the accident, he’d rebuilt the kitchen and lowered the countertops for Maria. Johnny had come over to help.
Maria turned back before she left the room and said, “The girl needs a car too, Pernell. You gonna run out and buy one of those? And then she’ll need money for college.”
“One thing at a time,” Pernell said. “We’ll look for something used.”
“I’m going to bed,” Maria said and rolled out of the room.
Maria was bitter before the chair, having lost faith in the life she thought they’d have together, and Pernell knew that. The look on her face said it all. “Is this all there is?” She’d gotten a taste of something different and it wasn’t a working man’s life. He’d thought of cutting out, maybe heading back up to the South. But afterward, after the accident, there was no easy way out of this battle.
Pernell poured a glass of vodka over ice, walked out to the porch and smoked an unfiltered Camel. The crickets and frogs filled the night air with their monotonous cadence and before long, his eyes felt heavy and he may have nodded out. Maria’s wheelchair squeaked behind him and he turned. She wore a nightgown, and in the moonlight, he could see the dark outline of her breasts.
“Pour me one of those, would you?” she said. “I can’t sleep.” Pernell kept the vodka in one of the upper cabinets.
“Shouldn’t have one with pain killers,” Pernell said and hesitated, then walked into the kitchen and poured her one anyway. A peace offering.
Maria took it silently and they drank and listened to the business of the night, a soundtrack of sorts to their growing tension. A series of bad decisions, Pernell thought. That’s how they arrived here. We all make hundreds, maybe thousands of decisions every day, like what bar to walk into on your eighteenth birthday, where to step when you’re on a trail in the jungle, or what road to drive home on when you’ve had a few too many, and every decision you make alters your life, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot.
He felt her gaze and turned, and their eyes met. You’d have to be a pretty goddamned good liar to keep someone from reading your thoughts at that point. At once he saw in her face a mix of emotions, anger, disappointment, desire, and in that moment of vulnerability he felt a primal urge, but it quickly faded, and it was just as well. Maria had neither the desire nor the sensation to act on that impulse. On occasion though, her legs would jump or stiffen without the conscious want to do so.
“Someone at the shop had been eating my sandwiches,” he began, just to break the silence. Maria looked toward him but said nothing. “Last summer, ‘round the time we drove up to the Smokies.” Maria nodded. “Not that I really need it.” Pernell rubbed a hand on his gut, which didn’t seem very big, but he could carry a lot of weight.
“Doctor say anything about that at your physical?”
Pernell shook his head. A lie of omission. Maria had her secrets and Pernell had his own. After three weeks of disappearing sandwiches, Pernell decided enough was enough and one afternoon, while he sat with Robert having coffee at the cabinet shop, he sprayed a sandwich down with glue; red, nasty, pungent stuff, wrapped it back up in tinfoil and stuck it in the refrigerator.
“Turned out to be Diego,” Pernell said, “a little, nervous dude who never could figure shit out.” Pernell smiled. “Diego had eaten the sandwich at lunchtime and gotten sick as hell and threw up all over the shop.”
Maria made a sound in her throat, and Pernell looked at the night sky as if searching for something there. “Point is, you have to want,” Pernell said. “You have to want something, anything. If you stop wanting.” His voice trailed off. He looked over at Maria and she was asleep in her chair.
“When I get home. . .” Lindy said to Pernell, while they were humping through the jungle. That was as far as Lindy got before he stepped on the mine. Pernell was behind Lindy and took shrapnel in his hip and thigh. It knocked him off his feet and burned like hell but didn’t hurt as bad as he thought it would. He dropped his gear, scooped up Lindy and ran with him. He was still young enough to think Lindy could be saved, even five clicks from camp.
In the darkness, Pernell ran with the burden of half a man over his shoulder but couldn’t move forward. His muscles burned yet he had no traction. He gasped for air like a fish on the shoreline. The stickiness of warm blood pulsed onto his chest in slow beats, ran down his torso, flowed into his open mouth and filled his lungs until he couldn’t breathe, and he drowned in it.
Pernell jolted up in bed and wondered what Lindy had wanted when he got home. He was in a flop sweat. That’s what they called it in the Corps. He looked into the darkness and could hear his heartbeat in his ears. Maria would be mad as hell that the sheets were wet. Pernell rose and dressed with Maria snoring softly. No reason to be quiet about it. The pain killers and vodka would keep her out. And Macy, hell, she’d sleep until noon. Pernell heard her sneaking in a little after two, well after curfew.
It was Sunday morning. The roads were quiet this time of day and Pernell was happy when the sun finally crept over the horizon. A man’s home should be his respite against the world and at one time his was. The air seemed thick there now. He couldn’t even load the goddamned dishwasher right.
Pernell pulled his Toyota pickup into a Dunkin’ Donuts and ordered black coffee and a jelly filled. The clerk, a young woman of about nineteen with a nose ring and red stripes in her mousy hair, seemed anxious at the sight of him, so he smiled to be less intimidating.
“When ya hit a certain age, you don’t sleep anymore,” he said to her.
“My mom’s that way,” the girl replied, placing his order on the counter. “Why does that happen?”
Pernell knew the answer but shook his head as if he didn’t. How do you explain life to a teenager? Or guilt that burns in your gut? He gave the girl a five, said to keep it, then sat at a table alone and thumbed through an old newspaper that someone had discarded. One day to the next it didn’t matter, all the stories seemed the same as those printed any other day of the week.
Pernell left the donut shop at eight-thirty. The shop would be open after nine. Johnny always worked a few hours on Sundays and Robert would stop by with Cuban coffee if he wasn’t in one of his little snits about money or whining about how hard his life was. Pernell had to remind himself the boy was only nineteen and didn’t know shit.
“General Grant.” Johnny saluted when Pernell walked in the shop, which always made Pernell smile. Johnny was a squat Italian, an ex-Marine with toes missing from his time in Korea, which made him walk like a penguin. The man was always happy when he was working. “Maria must have kicked you out.”
“Figured I’d get a few hours in if you need me,” Pernell said, and he told Johnny about the homecoming dress and the cost and Johnny said he was happy he had boys and he handed Pernell an envelope with three hundred cash.
Johnny never turned anyone away who wanted to work. The shop was loaded up, and cabinets in various stages of completion were stacked everywhere. Johnny handed Pernell a clipboard and said that if he could cut all the drawers and doors the guys could start gluing and assembling on Monday.
The place smelled alive and Pernell felt good being there. It was a place where things were built to last. Pernell thought it funny that in Johnny’s office there were photo albums loaded with pictures of cabinets and office furniture, but not one picture of the guys who worked here.
“You eat breakfast?” Johnny said. “I’ll call Roberto and tell him to bring egg sandwiches on Cuban bread.”
Pernell said that sounded good and he thought back to when he used to fish on Sunday mornings. It was peaceful, but Maria didn’t eat fish.
Pernell weighed two hundred thirty-two pounds when he enlisted. Eight months into his tour, with one wound, a bout of malaria, and dysentery that squirted out of him like lentil soup, he was down to one hundred eighty-seven.
His tour ended on a night that Pernell found himself alone, with most of his platoon silenced or screaming amidst confusion and noise and smoke. The enemy was everywhere and nowhere running through the jungle with those AKs shooting 7.62 rounds. Airstrikes lit up the jungle and rang in his ears. The jungle has a way of spinning you around. A thought flashed about his old man and the cigar box his mother handed him after the funeral. The box was stuffed with trinkets, some old black and whites, a letter from the Corps, and buried under it all, a medal. Pernell held his position, guarding a single trail in the dense brush. He decided that one way or another it would be his last night in that goddamned war. In the morning, he limped out using his weapon as a cane, with a 5.56 round from his M16 having destroyed much of his calf. A magic bullet.
Pernell came home before going to the cabinet shop for the evening. Maria was napping and Macy’s door was cracked. She was staring at a book and bobbing her head with earbuds in her ears. Pernell had bought her one of those iPods for her birthday and it was mostly filled with noise, though she did have some good country music in there. The girl was thin, like her mom and she had wavy, Cuban hair, but thankfully she’d inherited Pernell’s height. Tall for a girl.
Pernell watched Macy and thought back to the night of her first sleepover. She’d just turned twelve and begged to spend the night at a girlfriend’s house. A bunch of girls were having a sleepover and she’d gotten invited, which was a pretty big deal. Maria had worked late again and when Pernell dropped Macy off, he gave her a twenty, in case they went to the mall or a movie, said to have fun and to call in the morning when she wanted to get picked up. Macy gave him a hug and said, “Love you, Daddy. You’re my hero.” Pernell smiled at the memory. Didn’t get much better than that.
“What?” Macy said, with an air of indifference seeing her dad at the door.
Pernell stepped in the door and put a finger to his lips and Macy removed the buds from beneath her curls. “Your mom’s sleeping,” he whispered.
“What’s up?” she said.
“Got something for you,” Pernell said, pulling a bank envelope out the back pocket of his jeans. “It’s for the dress.”
“Thanks,” she said, and smiled taking the envelope without much enthusiasm. She thumbed through the bills then looked up with the expression of a lottery winner. “But mom said!”
“You get the dress you want,” Pernell said.
Macy jumped off the bed and hugged him with the envelope clutched in one hand. Pernell said he wanted her to start coming home before curfew. She promised she would and, in that moment, he was sure she meant it.
“If you can keep your word, we’re going to see about getting you a car.”
“Oh my God! Are you kidding?”
“Something used,” Pernell said.
“I’ll be on time,” she said and hugged him again. “I promise.”
Pernell squeezed his little girl and said he was going to work at the shop. Working two jobs had its benefits. Pernell and Maria fought less, because he wasn’t around to fight. He also brought in more money and the mood in the house changed significantly when there was more money to go around. He didn’t see as much of Macy, but moments like this one made it worth the time away.
On the way to the shop, Pernell thought again of the night Macy had the sleepover. That’s when the war began. Pernell dropped Macy off, went home, dressed in his good jeans, a checkered shirt that he ironed himself, and cowboy boots which he buffed to a military shine. He liked country-western music and had this crazy idea of surprising Maria and taking her out. They could listen to some live music and have a couple of drinks at the Dallas Bull over on 301. But Maria came home, said she didn’t feel well and walked straight into the bedroom. Pernell caught a whiff of alcohol, but otherwise, she smelled nice. She’d worn perfume to work. Maria went into the bathroom, shut the door behind her, locked it and turned on the shower. Pernell sat on the bed and stared at the bathroom door, then went to a little pub called Good Time Charley’s where he drank and played pool with strangers until two o’clock in the morning. When he came home that night, he pulled his boots off and slept on the couch.
Stay away. That was the message from Maria, though she never actually said the words. She wanted a confrontation. She wanted to share that burning guilt inside her, but Pernell would not give her the satisfaction. Speculating on something is one thing, but knowing for sure, that’s when the real damage gets done. Better to keep this war at a distance.
The call came on Pernell’s cell at 2:30 in the afternoon, while he was pulling Romex through a new build on a cold ass January day. A pick-up towing a trailer had run a stoplight. Maria’s boss died at the scene. Maria was in the passenger seat of his Porsche. Her car was found two days later in the parking lot of the downtown Hilton.
Pernell didn’t share the results of his physical with Maria. She just complained about his paycheck being short and wanted to know why he’d missed work. People often looked at him and thought because of his size and strength he was indestructible.
“You’re headed for a train wreck,” the doc at the VA said to Pernell, thumbing through the results. There was a growing blockage in one of his arteries. He gave Pernell a list of things to do, eat more fish and salads, exercise, and cut down on the coffee. Stop dipping tobacco and quit smoking. He prescribed blood thinners and medications for blood pressure and cholesterol and told Pernell he’d be wise to lose about thirty-five pounds.
After his doctor visit, Pernell pulled his truck under the shade of a live oak at a park. As he rolled to a stop, acorns crunched beneath the tires. He poured a cup of coffee from his Thermos and thumbed through the prescriptions. Same thing had happened to his old man. Congestive heart failure. The man filled with fluid and couldn’t breathe. He suffered. Too goddamned long. Bills piled up. He had to quit work and they lost their house. Pernell could see this happening to him and if it did, where would that leave Macy and Maria? He crumbled the prescriptions and tossed them on the floor of the truck.
The following Monday, Pernell was up as usual, at 4:30 in the morning, brewing coffee and making sandwiches. He filled his Thermos and he made four sandwiches with sweet ham, Swiss cheese, and healthy slathering of mayonnaise on both slices of the bread, and he wrapped them in tinfoil. Two, he would eat on his job as an electrician. The other two he’d take to the cabinet shop to eat during the evening, or store in the shop refrigerator. He put a cast iron skillet on the stove and fried eggs with bacon and had toast with butter and honey.
After breakfast Pernell thumbed through the envelopes on the kitchen counter. He grabbed one out of the stack, wrote the check himself and put a stamp on the envelope. It was the life insurance. Maria paid each bill on the last day it was due and Pernell didn’t want this one to be late.
Pernell felt winded before he’d even walked into the meeting, like he’d taken a flight of stairs at a full sprint or carried a friend’s dead body five clicks though the jungle. The feeling in his heart was carefree and he smiled at the other vets and said hello and they could tell he was in a good mood. Tonight, Pernell thought, he might share a story about how to beat death.
Before sitting with the other men, Pernell stood by the coffee with a hand in his pocket fingering the points of the star he’d pulled from his old man’s shoebox, and he recalled the words on that letter, for valor.
About an hour into the meeting, Pernell’s left arm began to hurt, more of an ache than anything else. This is how it starts, he thought. The pain radiated to his neck and he felt heartburn in his chest and cold sweat over his body. He knew what it was but didn’t feel as though something was being taken away. Not like Lindy, stepping on that Bouncing Betty while talking about wanting something. It could have been anything, a hamburger, a milkshake, or a girl. Lindy never got any of those things. He died randomly on that roulette wheel. He died wanting.
In the middle of another man’s confession, Pernell, out of nowhere, said, “Smalley.” The man who was speaking stopped and looked over at Smalley, who looked at Pernell confused, but saw in his face a man in distress. Smalley rose and went to Pernell, who sat across the semicircle. The other men leaned forward in their seats, as if it were a moment before an action should take place. Pernell leaned toward Smalley and whispered his confession and the men were kindred.
Smalley put a hand on Pernell’s thick shoulder. The war was over.