Only When I Think About It
"Does it hurt?" I ask while watching her.
"Only when I think about it." She winces.
"Oh, damn, I'm sorry."
She laughs, brushing a strand of hair behind her ear as she tosses her insulin needle in a sharps container. "It's fine. I'm used to the whole thing."
"You started when? At ten?"
"No, I was twelve. Right after this." She traces the line of a scar on her thigh. She was riding a horse, and it walked her into the tin eave of a low-slung shed. The cut was scary deep and crazy long, running from her hip down and across the thigh well short of the knee. "It was that trip to the hospital that we discovered the diabetes, so I guess it was a good thing I was nearly murdered by the horse."
"Was it the horse, or the roof?"
"I think they were in on it together." She grins, leaning in to kiss me on the cheek.
I smile back at her, and the kiss becomes a hug.
"Well. I'm glad they didn't succeed."
"Wow. That's just about the sweetest thing you've ever said to me."
"Not true. I've said you have fantastic tits, and that's a pretty damned sweet thing to say, I think."
It's true. She does.
"Wow. Remind me again why you haven't swept me off my feet?"
We both laugh, and I look away.
It's true. I have. I know it, and she knows it, but she knows that I've pretended I haven't. It's best that way.
Does it hurt? I never ask anymore, because we don't talk.
Only when I think about it I say to myself, as I scroll past her name in my contact list.
"Okay, pick him out of the lineup."
Not wanting to catch hell from the captain, the detective fumbles with the wrapper of a Mounds candy bar instead of the pack of Lucky Strikes in his chest pocket. Lately, the brass has been busting balls around the precinct about a no-tobacco-use contest, and each division has been keeping score on who pledges to quit. He'll never stop smoking, but he’s willing to pitch in with the team, even if it means little white lies while in the office.
She slumps her shoulders. The detective knows the signs; if he isn't careful, she'll wind up paralyzed by the idea that calling the cops was a huge error. He watches her body language; she stiffens when he tells suspect one to turn around slowly.
Each man on the other side of one way glass steps forward and spins on command, but number three tries to balk and whine about how they have the wrong guy.
There's a tear slowly rolling down her cheek, and the detective hands her a clean napkin dug out from his pocket.
He leans over, gently places a hand on her shoulder, and speaks reassuringly, almost like he's trying to calm a frenzied doe. "I know you have a lot on your plate. One of these dickheads did more than batter you. He took something from you. Don't be afraid to take something back for yourself."
She smiles, nods, and draws a shaky breath.
"It's number one."
He looks through the glass, nostrils flaring. Christ, he wants a cigarette.
"So do you want him arrested, or do you want him to never hurt you again?"
She grins with something that almost shines like joy, but her doe eyes become more like the cruel black diamonds of a hungry viper.
The angels of memory never were.
Wings were shadows, smiles were
That halo was the glint and glimmer of a glamour,
But the incantations were real.
How else to explain disappearing
breath barely catches?
Penitence and sin, forgiveness and spite,
our communion was
a twilight mass
in the shade of live oaks
a bed of dead leaves.
Sweet southern sunshine,
whispers of heaven
held back by leather and lace--
these were the prayers.
The angels of memory never were.
Devils are in details,
better than most.
A Seat at the Table
It was a Mother's Day. I can't remember the year, but I'm sure it was before anyone had ever heard of New Coke or Max Headroom.
All the matriarchs were there. My mother, grandmother, great grandmother, and great aunt. I can't remember if that one uncle, the son of my great grandmother's sister, was there with his wife or not, but his children were. It's possible he still lived under Pinochet in a country I couldn't identify on a map until my teen years.
I never did understand what took him overseas, but I never really cared much. Still don't.
We gathered at my grandmother's house at the river. Elevated, the mobile home sat on stacks of cinder blocks, and it hadn't been mobile since before Gerald Ford stumbled his into office. I remember playing with the wheels, spinning them as fast as they'd go. Somehow I got my fingers caught in the rim, and I scraped 'em up somethin' fierce. No permanent damage or serious injury, but I remember that it hurt. I can't recall the pain, exactly, and that's a blessing of the brain, I suppose.
Pain is dulled, but hurt never really fades.
Maybe that's the one thing I'd change, if I had the power. Now-me would pull then-me away from those spinning wheels, if for no other reason than to avoid the I-told-you-so's from my grandfather. He loved me in his way, but he was a hard man. The blue of his eyes never softened with age or in memory.
I miss him anyway.
Most family gatherings happened in the home of either my great-grandmother or her other daughter. The daughter had no children of her own and more than enough space; my great aunt loved to entertain. Honestly, I think her husband really appreciated the spotlight of his seat at the head of his fancy table.
This Mother's Day was unique, though, and all the tables were round.
There's a porch that runs the entire length of the old mobile home. It still stands, along with the house, on the banks of that river. From the outside looking in, it's holding up fairly well. It's smaller than I remember, but that's to be expected, I suppose. Lines blur and sizes get fuzzy, but feelings endure. That place is a fortress, a fairy-tale castle built of pine and aluminum along an idyllic clear stream, and the reality of rusted tin and rotten timbers bordering a tea-stained torrent can't compare to memory's impressionist strokes.
That porch is where tables were set and all the guests accommodated. A feast of baked ham and casseroles was served, and homemade desserts followed. I'm sure it was a bit of a pot luck, with everyone assigned general dishes to bring, but I'm equally sure my grandmother and mother did the heavy lifting.
They always did.
I wish the one who was left still could.
That Mother's Day stands out because we sat along the banks of a perfect river on a perfect screened-in porch, enjoying perfect weather beneath slowly spinning ceiling fans in a south Georgia May. Four generations of family gathered in the one place on earth I always felt peace, and the one place on earth I can never really return.
After dessert, we swam in that river, even though it was a little high and a little cold, even for late May. My toes barely touched the sandy bottom, but cousins cannonballed and dove without a care. The floating dock bobbed and bounced under our bare feet as we climbed out and leapt back in again, and laughter echoed in ripples against the live oaks arching overhead.
The cousins remain, scattered across the southeast, now patriarchs or matriarchs in their own right. The dynasty that ruled the castle by the stream is nearly broken; only my mother and I are left, but we've given up our claim.
I've forsaken children, my mother will have no grands, and I know this hurts her. We never really mean to harm those we love, but harm happens anyway.
Pain is dulled, but hurt never really fades.
If I could travel back in time, I'd go back to that day, and live in a place where harm and hurt are distant future concerns.
I'd change things so that I could once more have a seat at the table with the people time has left behind.
Two men sit in the crowded living room of a single-wide trailer. The front door stands open, kept ajar by a broken cinder block. The small screened porch keeps buzzing mosquitoes and irritating gnats at bay, and an early evening breeze wafts in. Night is quickly falling, and cigarette smoke drifts up to catch it. The smoker perches on a sturdy wooden kitchen chair turned backwards. He leans his elbows on the back, contemplating his companion.
The owner of the mobile home is handcuffed, bleeding from several cuts on his face and a split in his lip. His left eye is one large, swollen bruise. His breathing comes in ragged gasps, and there are tiny, bursting air bubbles in one corner of his mouth. He's pretty sure there are broken ribs in the mix.
The visitor stares at the man on the couch, and he quietly smokes his menthol.
"I fuckin hate Virginia Slims, did you know that?"
The man on the couch answers by spitting blood on the thick, green carpet that was new before Sajak ever spun the wheel. The smoking man's eyes dart down, observing the long matted fibers that remind him of a Grinch costume. "Nice place you got here, slick."
"I think I need an ambulance, man." His teeth are pink.
"Probably. But I'm feeling like we need to have a chat."
"Lawyer. Doctor. Doctor, then lawyer."
"Yeah? You workin' through the list of things your mama wanted you to be when you grew up?"
"Go to hell."
"Oh, buddy," He takes a long drag, and he speaks as he exhales warm smoke. "Let's talk about hell for a minute. You don't know it. It's real. Well. It's metaphysical, and it's physical, but only when you're, y'know, incorporeal, so, what is reality, right?"
His audience stares, out of witty retorts and laboring to breathe.
"So the hell that goes with you. Let's examine that. That's the culmination of your experiences, your trauma, as the cool kids say. My hell is way, way behind us, so to speak. Chronologically, anyway. You familiar with a little something called the la Drang valley?"
The man on the couch breathes, sighs, doesn't respond.
"Yeah. So, the thing is, I'm a lot older than you'd believe. Bet you have a hard time with the fact that a man in his seventies whipped your ass, right?"
This time the uncomfortable shifting isn't because of bruises or broken bones.
"Yeah. I get it. Jesus, you stink. Hang on." The detective fishes another menthol from his pocket and lights it with the clink of a Zippo. "My fuckin' partner thought it was cute to grab me these things when I sent him on a run this morning. Joke's on him, though. I'll smoke anything menthol." He puffs, stares, and rejoins his story. "La Drang. It's in Vietnam, shitheels. Damned thing of it is it's a beautiful country. Great food. Not such a good vacation spot for thousands of 18 year old American boys back when all we heard from our dads were stories of Patton or Rommel or Korea. When I showed up in 'Nam, I was a five-foot-two kid from Appalachia, barely 120 pounds. Hell, I basically looked like an ARVN, but paler."
He breathed in more tobacco and continued.
"Those were the good guys. Well. On paper. At least they only shot at us when we weren't looking, I guess. Mostly. Before they managed to just run the fuck away or skip a fight altogether. Anyway. When I finally came home, I'd hit my growth spurt, you could say. Six-three, 210, built like a goddamned running back, long and lean. Crazy, right?" Folded over on the back of the chair, it's hard to see that this description still largely fits the detective. He's grayer, a little heavier, and wisdom lines his face, but he is often mistaken for a man in his late forties or early fifties.
The man on the couch grunts in what almost sounds like agreement.
"Yeah. The thing is, my family, that little town I'm from? We're different up in those mountains, slick. Puberty, I guess, hits us harder than other folks."
"What the fuck are you goin' on about, old man?" But it comes out as "Whafah are you goggabbou, olemah?"
"Oh, shit. You're sounding worse." He smiles a wolf's grin and smokes like a fiend.
"Okay, okay, I'll get back to it. So, I'm this scared little kid when we go into the jungle, but when I come crawling out of that shit a week later, the only way they recognize me and believe I'm who I say I am is by my dog tags." Inhale. Smokey exhale. Grin. "That's funny, in retrospect." He shakes his head, chuckling, smoking. He uses the nearly spent cigarette to light another. It's a chain of stinking, burning vice that keeps him talking and his hands busy. "I went in with a fireteam, a squad, a platoon. I came out alone. Naked. Barefoot, covered in dried blood and other things people are made of, and none of it was mine. War is hell, slick, and hell is here with us right now in this trailer. My hell ain't your hell, but I'm sure as hell your hell."
"You got no clue yet."
"Gonna beat me some more?"
"I only beat you as much as I needed to. Ain't touched you since you got cuffed."
The guy on the couch grunts again, maybe in pain, maybe in agreement.
"What you don't get is I changed in that jungle."
"Yeah, boss, I got that."
"Oh! He speaks again. Does he roll over and fetch?"
The prisoner spits blood on the floor once more. Talking broke loose some scabs.
"I wanna thank you for being my therapist today. And thanks for the workout. For what it's worth, you were never going to win, so don't feel so bad."
"Take the cuffs off, let's go round two." Taggacuffoff lezzroundoo
The old man shakes his head. "Nah, you don't get it. See, I went into the bush a little kid drafted from North Georgia. I came out of the bush a grown monster. Overnight. In a day. Tuesday, I was a Yorkie. Wednesday, I was a fucking Rottweiler. But Tuesday night? When Charlie came to camp and he tried to kill me? Slick. I was somethin' else."
"Cool war story, bro."
"You don't fucking get it, and that's why we can have this little chat. I can't exactly tell this story to anybody else. So I picked you. You're a shitty little man in a shitty little trailer in a shitty little part of the world nobody will ever notice you're not in anymore, and I know what you really are. Monsters know our own, but some are much scarier than others."
"Oh, at minimum? I know why your sister doesn't invite you to her house.
Ever. She loves her kids."
The bubbly, wheezy breathing from the man on the couch stops for a beat.
"Yeah. Uh-oh, cats outta the bag, Chester. But don't worry, your secret is safe with me, just like I know my secret is safe with you."
"Ah shit man. Shit. Shit man, take me in, skip the lawyer I'll sign whatever you want. Shit man, what're you doin?"
The detective has finished his last cigarette that he'll smoke in this trailer. He stands, flicks the butt at the man on the couch, and slowly steps over, squats down in front of the prisoner. Leaning in, his voice becomes a whisper. "To this day I'm not sure who killed those men who were with me when I went into the jungle. Hell, I reckon the old me died, too. All I know for sure is that everyone around me ended up dead. I can confess that I was disappointed when we left in '75. Find something you love and you'll never work a day in your life, right?"
The prisoner's one good eye widens in horror as the detective's eyes glow amber and seem to flash. The change only takes a scattering of heartbeats, but where there was the smoker's-tooth grin of an old man there is now a mouthful of yellowed wolf's teeth, complete with snarling snout. Hands that end in razor-sharp claws reach, grasp, and tear as a gurgling scream is cut short.
No one is nearby to hear or care, anyway.
It was my first time in a canoe.
It was a green Discovery 16 by Old Town. He traded a motorcycle for it in 91. It had seen thousands of river miles, from the mountains of the north to the coastal plains of the south. He even took it to the open ocean a time or two at the end of some week long adventures by himself.
There was webbing that he had done by hand, stretched across the middle gunwales. Beneath the nylon was where he'd put an inflatable air bladder for whitewater.
"If you do well with me this weekend, we'll hit the Natahala before the end of the summer," he promised. "We're going to see a couple of little Class II's on our trip, believe it or not. I'll let you know what to watch out for and how to move."
"I'll take point," he continued. "You do the steering. I'll give commands, let's practice real quick."
I sat in the back of the boat, getting a feel for it. He sat up in the front, boonie hat in place, sunglasses lashed on like he'd done this a hundred times.
I put my back into it, and the nose turned nearly 90 degrees in an instant.
"Holy shit!" he exclaimed, laughing.
"What, did I do something wrong?"
"Hell no, kid. Dang! I'm not used to having someone who can move the whole damned boat like that. That's great! Let's try a few more."
He gave more commands, and the boat responded instantly.
"We're going to be fine, man. Just relax and enjoy the trip. We'll do some fishing in a little while."
I settled in, and he found a station that came in clearly. The whole boat acted like an amplifier for the little $20 waterproof radio he had lashed to the gear webbing. Tracy Chapman, whom I had never heard before, created the soundtrack of our adventure.
He occupied a strange space in my life. He was a former teacher, but a current friend. He was a former coach, but a current mentor. World History was his subject, and I was his star pupil. Defensive line was his specialty when he met me, and he tried to recruit me for a position on his team. In the end, I was more valuable as an offensive lineman, being larger than most men and all of my peers. He first noticed me when we were traveling to an away game on an old schoolbus, and I was reading The Prince while the rest of the team was playing grabass or shooting spitballs.
He took me under his wing. He taught me how to navigate the waters of a river I had known all my life, but never really knew until I'd paddled its length from one end to the other. He helped me navigate the more turbulent waters of adolescent women and social ladders. He hosted me at his house, had me over for dinner, welcomed me into his home and into his family.
He taught me to box.
He occupied a place in my life somewhere between father and older brother. At barely thirty years old, he had already seen the world in the Peace Corps. Originally, he was a journalist; the woman he ended up marrying anchored him in my little part of the world. He was one of the youngest teachers on staff, so that put him at having more in common with the students than it did his peers.
When he saw me, he saw himself.
Several times in the summer months, we took a trip along that river. Camping on sandbars and eating what was caught (but always prepared with PopTarts and canned chili in case things went sideways) we explored tea-colored waters and alligator slides. There was never much speaking on those paddles, because we didn't need to do a lot of talking. The silence was comfortable, when it wasn't being broken by Tracy Chapman or Alanis.
He never gave career advice, but he did tell me something that stuck.
"You have your life ahead of you. You're young. You need to leave before you decide that this is home. You need to go, before you stay, because you can always come back."
I haven't floated in that river since, and I did the Nantahala on my own.
The Devil and DB
“They’ve been looking in the wrong place all these years.” The old man sat across a steel desk in a concrete room. His hands were cuffed in front, and there was just enough freedom to allow for signing paperwork or picking up the cardboard cup that sat before him.
A suit with a slick haircut sat across the scratched and pitted stainless expanse between them. His own cardboard cup was slowly losing steam as the old storyteller was getting underway.
A digital recorder stood silent sentinel in the no-man’s land between coffees. A red light indicated that it was observing each audible detail.
The suit watched, absorbing everything he could about his interviewee. The man was grizzled; his face was a study in the topography of time-travel. No wrinkle was a shortcut, as each crag was a hardship years in the making and decades in the shaping of skin pulled taut and folded over in turn.
“Why do you people still care about this stuff, anyway?” Wizened eyes narrowed as black coffee slipped between cracked lips.
“It’s an urban legend. It’s unsolved. It’s stranger than fiction.”
“Is that right? You’re, what? Thirty?” Another sip.
“Forty-seven years. That’s how long ago this was. I killed him about a week after the first search parties started in on where they expected him to be. He nearly killed me; I was lucky to get the best of him. I’ve never been that close to the Reaper’s grip. In the end, I drowned him in the river.”
“So that’s it, then? You’re confessing to his murder?”
There was an uncomfortable silence as the man finished his coffee. The hollow noise of the heavy paper cup echoed as it was gently placed on the steel table.
“Coffee was one of the things I missed most. I had to make do with brewing acorns and chicory for tea. I understand that one of those fancy places down in New Orleans makes a lot of money by putting chicory in their coffee. That seems a crime against a good cuppa, if you ask me.” Hard black orbs beneath bright gray brows stared at the suit, daring the young man to ask more questions.
“Sir, I’m here because the Bureau was led to believe you had information about this man’s disappearance. You just told me you killed him. If this is true, I’ll need verifiable details.”
“Son, even if I explain where his bones are, how will you know I’m telling you true?” Amusement played at the crow’s nests to the east and west of the inmate’s eyes. “Maybe I just wanted a cup of coffee.”
“I refuse to believe you had me drive two hundred miles just because you wanted to have coffee.”
“I’m God-damned, boy. A dead man walking. What you refuse to believe is the least of my fears. The devil himself follows me wherever I go, I can imagine his footsteps each day I’m still alive. I just hope maybe it will take a while for him to catch up to me here. I don’t suppose he’s in a big hurry, maybe he’s still waitin to greet me at the Holler. I’ve slipped past him for decades, barely getting by his scaly fingers. Soon, we all know he’ll get his due.” An uneven smile spread across his face, and the effect was disconcerting to the young agent.
“Sir. I’m inclined to recommend a psych eval. You were found living alone in the hills of Tennessee, the remains of two hikers, partially eaten, were discovered on the property you occupied. We know that couple was reported missing six weeks ago. We know that one of those hikers has been dead for a month, and the girl was killed just last week. These are facts. You’re probably getting the needle for those murders, confession or no. What I’m here for, though, is the information you claim to have about Cooper. So, either get on with it, or don’t. I’m considering writing you off as just another mountain-man whackjob living off the grid, one who starts talking shit when thrown into a cage.” The monologue ended, and the young agent’s face blushed a deep crimson.
Laughter was the old man’s response.
“The hardest part was sneaking across the country. Roads were a pain in the ass, but we were able to travel at night. We bedded down during the day. The secret was a hearse, see. Nobody ever looks suspiciously at a hearse. The one time we had a close call with JohnnyLaw, and likely a bullet in the head, Coop crawled into the coffin I kept in the back. A real-life coffin! He closed it up tight and I talked my way right out of a ticket. You ain’t the only one looks good in a suit, kid. I haven’t always been old and leathery.” With that, the inmate helped himself to the agent’s untouched coffee.
Grimacing, he cursed. “Cold. And creamy-sugary-bullshit. But thanks.”
Leaning forward, the agent tried to get more details from the man in chains.
“Tell me about him.”
“What’s there to tell? He was bold. He was brave. He was stupid.”
“How was he stupid?”
“He trusted me.”
A few heartbeats passed before the FBI man stood. He recapped, “So let me get this straight. You picked him up somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, and you...smuggled him back here? To Tennessee?”
“He was on the lam, wasn’t he?”
“But why here?”
“Were you looking for him here?”
“We were looking for him everywhere.” The agent propped himself on the interview table, staring down at the old man.
“Boy. Do you have any idea how many acres of Tennessee mountainland is practically unexplored? The White Man has been here for a couple hundred years, but even with fancy machines and satellites, we have no idea what all is out there. Or Whom.” The man shuddered.
“Why play games with me? Just tell me what you want to say, and be done with it. You’re gonna spend the rest of your life behind bars anyway.”
“I’m 75 years old, kid. My mind is still sharp, but shit’s falling apart neck-down. As far as I’m concerned, you people did me a favor. This place is my old-folks home, my retirement plan. I’m fine out there on my own, I have been for years, but the money ran out a long time ago. Living is hard. Dying’s easy. I’m here to die, and ain’t no Preacherman can save my soul. I’m Hellbound. But at least I’m Hellbound with air conditioning in the summer, heat in the winter, and a doctor on call. Three hots. A cot. Clean clothes. You saw the photos of my shack.”
“How did you end up there? You’re educated. Your family was rich.”
“What can I say, kid? The sixties were crazy. 1971 ain’t that far from 1960-whatever. I was a little crazy. Maybe still am.”
“Obviously. You ate a hiker.”
“Hunger is a motivator. So is sex.”
“Let’s stick to why I’m here. Where is the money?”
“By the time we got to Tennessee, there was about $100,000. You know he lost some, because somebody found it. I understand that was big news. Anyway, we had to use some. Shit happens.”
“So you killed him because ... shit happens?”
“No, boy. I killed him because I was told to watch him drown. Like a perversion of the baptism. You won’t believe me if I tell you the Devil made me do it; told us both He’d side with the one left standing. So, just think on the fact that I wanted the money for myself. You’ll sleep better if you stick with that theory. I used cash here and there, setting myself up on that mountain. Mostly, nobody ever bothered me.”
“Did you ever go in to town?”
“Sometimes. It’s a mountain, not a deserted island.” He grimaced as he sipped the cold coffee again.
“You said you missed coffee. But you had money. And you went into town...”
“Money doesn’t last forever.”
“When did it run out?”
“What did you do after that?”
“Lived off the land. Sometimes I stole things. Sometimes I stole people. Every now and then, I’d find a hunter or a hiker. You won’t believe that the devil himself kept me warm and fed, so...consider this a grim little fairytale about a deranged cannibal lunatic spinning tall tales about skyjackers and stolen money.”
Ignoring what he thought was crazy talk, the agent pressed. “You had more victims?”
“So many labels. Is Bessie the Ribeye a victim on your dinner plate?” He chuckled, watching the agent. “You’ll find them near the man you’re looking for.”
“The Bureau will need you to take us to the bodies.”
“No. I’ll sketch you a map. I’ll draw you a fucking picture. But no. I’m never going back to that Holler.”
“Fine. Tell me where to start looking.” The agent pulled out a pen and a notepad, setting them both next to the inmate.
“Look for the devil. Maybe he hasn’t left yet, and he’s still waiting for me at Barton Holler. You’ll know you’re getting close when you hear him laughing.”
"You almost seem to admire him."
"In a way, I do. But I hate him, too."
There wasn't supposed to be any smoking in the small office that bordered the one-way glass, but the old man didn't care. He was too close to retirement to give much of a damn about petty rules and useless regulations anymore. He'd postponed several appointments with human resources to discuss his departure; he'd already trained a couple of Captains and several Lieutenants. They'd long since stopped trying to promote him or convince him to leave. He just stayed, and worked, and smoked.
The two detectives watched their suspect do nothing. He sat, impassive, staring at the scarred top of the cheap pressboard table. He didn't even fidget.
"So all we gotta do is get him to write it up, right? Even though his statement is on video." The younger man was experienced, but still relatively new to the gold detective's badge.
"Yeah. The DA's a stickler like that. Sometimes the assholes over at the Defender's office get the videos suppressed for one reason or another."
"Even if they do, it's a slam dunk. Easiest case we've worked in months."
The old man looked through the blue smoke at his trainee and squinted. "Yeah. We need to enjoy this one."
"Want me to run in there with a pad and pen?"
"In a minute."
Silence. Finally, it's broken.
"Tell me somethin, boss."
"How is it you have any sympathy for him? How can you admire and hate the guy at the same time?"
The old man coughed thickly and snubbed out the coffin nail in an empty drink can. The sounds of coughing and the *hiss* of fire against old Coke were the only sounds for a full twenty seconds.
"You and me, kid, we're killers. We had choices. We made 'em. One way or the other, we walked this path we're on. We're just lucky, is all. He ain't."
"How the hell do you figure that?"
"The only thing that kept us from being labeled murderers is the side we were on. The uniform we wore. The hunk of brass in our pocket now. That guy in the fishbowl doesn't have a team. He betrayed the Social Contract. There ain't room for that sort of thing in civilized society."
"What about intent? Doesn't that count?"
A rare smile passes across the old detective's weathered, wizened face. For just a moment, ice gleams in his eyes.
"Oh, I intended harm when I've done it, kid. Sometimes I just wish I'd been as free as that guy in there, and not given a fuck about the consequences when I've held back. And I've held back so much."
He lit another cigarette and sat down in a padded metal chair that saw the best side of life before Carter was elected.
He continued, staring through the glass and the man at the desk. "You will, too. You already have. Because that's the trust we have to live by." He paused, leaving the Marlboro dangling in the corner of his mouth, and he made eye contact with the young detective. "Monsters leave a stain, no matter how much we scrub. So I hate him. And I admire him." His gaze returned to a past that haunted every day of his present. "Because I've almost been him."
Candy for Strangers
“There was this one kid. Smaller than most of the others, but he had old eyes.”
The speaker pauses as his voice catches. He takes a deep breath, and looks through the other men sitting in a loose circle. The folding steel chair beneath his weight creaks a little when he shifts position.
“He’d always come up to me. He recognized me, singled me out. Every time we’d ride in to that little village, everyone’s yelling at us in Pashtu. Not him. He never raised his voice, not once. Not ever.”
His hand swipes away what may have been a tear. A man with one arm places his hand on the speaker’s shoulder, gripping. Encouraging. Reassuring.
“He always ran up to me and gave me this big goofy grin. It was the cutest thing, because I swear he had three teeth in his whole head, and none of them were in front. Questions, man. This kid always had questions. He knew a little bit of English, see. He was smarter than the other kids. He recognized ranks, and I think he could even read a little. The village was certified Green, no hostiles. So we relaxed a little. The elders were in our back pockets, hell, we even traded on the economy there with the Colonel’s blessing. This kid, I called him Barney. I’ve no idea about his real fucking name, yknow? He just wore this stupid purple shirt a lot of the time.”
The story stopped as sobs filled the empty space between shuffling boots and faraway stares. All these men had their own Barney, in one way or another.
Finally, the church multi-purpose room was filled with the man’s baritone once more.
“He always called me---”
“Hey Mister Captain! Mister Captain!” I smiled at the officer as big as I could. I know he liked me. I liked him, too. He was nicer than the other soldiers, and always took time to talk with me.
And give me snacks.
“Hey Mister Captain! Do you have any Ruth-Babies for me today?”
He laughed and shook his head.
“No, Barney. But I have Hershey’s.”
“Oh, Mister Captain, I like Hershey, too. Thank you, sir. Thank you.” I never waited to eat the candy he gave me. I learned a long time ago that the other kids would try to take it, if I got out of sight of the soldiers.
“Thank you, Mister Captain. Thank you. You make talk now?”
The group session listened, fascinated. His story wasn’t special, but it was his. They owed it to him to listen, because that’s all they could do. By hearing him, they shared his burden.
The speaker wiped away another tear and laughed.
“That kid. He asked about baseball. How does a kid in Kandahar know about Baseball?”
No one answered him. That’s not what they do. They don’t have answers to give, they only have time to listen, and hopefully peace to share.
“I Skyped home one night about Barney. My wife sent me a cheap little aluminum bat and a few baseballs. You shoulda seen this kid’s face when I showed up with that gear. I like to think I made that kid’s life better.”
Silence echoed off the cinder block walls and the old-school green chalkboard. A few scattered toys spilled out of the box in a corner, and the former Captain idly looked at a few words of a Bible verse tacked to the bulletin board.
“We controlled that village. Until we didn’t. Taliban took exception to our being so friendly with the locals. An elder disappeared, a few other people showed up dead. So we had to head back in, this time with our heads on more of a swivel than normal. Barney, though, he was still smiling. Still asking questions. Still hitting me up for chocolate. Until the last question he ever asked anybody.”
“Hey Mister Captain! You have the Snickerings for me today?” I smiled, and he laughed.
“Barney, it’s Snickers. And yes, I have a Snickers for you.” I reached for the brown and white wrapper, and I opened it.
By the time I had my first bite, the world went white.
When I woke up, the officer was standing over me, telling me I was going to be fine.
I didn’t believe him.
“Yeah Barney, it’s ok little man. Just don’t try to move, ok? You’re going to be fine.”
“Mister Captain, where are my legs?”
The speaker thought of Barney every day, but especially on days like this. His partner, a grizzled detective who’d seen it all, regarded the scene that unfolded in front of them.
The sound of the old-timer lighting a Marlboro broke the former Captain’s reverie.
Horrors of yesterday have to take a backseat to the horrors of today.
The two men went to work.
In the Land of the Blind
“How long you been on the job?”
The experienced detective looked up from the scene. It had been a while since the sight of blood had bothered him, but the smell still took him back to his time wading though rice paddies.
He stood, knees creaking, and looked into the eyes of his trainee. Reaching for a Marlboro, he sighed. The Zippo flared, and smoke carried away the scent of gore unfolding three steps away.
“Long enough, kid.”
“I’ve been with the department for seven years. Not a kid.” The new detective squatted down, staring at rusted pools of what should never meet dawn’s early light. “I saw worse in Kandahar, but sometimes surviving is just an accident.”
Inhale. Exhale and a “Yep.”
“We shouldn’t see shit like this here. I used to think I’d made it home for a purpose. To do something special. To help.”
“Nope. We’re just lucky, not gifted. One-eyed men with a kingdom.” Another inhale, deeper than the last.
Smoke plumes, and minutes pass. A cough punctuates an otherwise quiet exhale.
“Ever thought about quitting?”
He has. “If I quit, I’ll die. Retired is just another word for useless.”
“I’m talking about the smokes.”
The younger man looks up at the older one quizzically.
“The smell, kid. The smokes help keep the smell out of my nostrils.” He pauses, puffs, flicks ashes. “And dreams.”
Silence settles, and both veterans contemplate the dead.
Finally, the junior of the pair shrugs. “Any ideas, bossman?”
“Sure. Be careful on ML King Boulevard after dark.” As he walks away, he flicks the spent cowboy killer in the gutter, and it hisses in coppery mud.