I am proud to present you a story, writen by Joseph Grant – I asked him a couple of questions in our interviews section some time ago. The story is being translated at the moment for our Slovenian readers … Enjoy!
In God’s Country
There are many ways in which to kill. And in war this deficiency in man has been perfected to a horribly efficient degree. Besides the appalling experience from which one never truly recovers, one of the most difficult lessons of any war is the peace that follows. Not that peace is by any means difficult to endure, it is the fragility of it which must be maintained in order to avoid the next conflict that proves the most fleeting. This is also true in the serenity that comes in the form of peace of mind and to this end, Jack Spangler had made it home from the war, but not without leaving pieces of himself back out there, behind the lines.
This is not to say that Lance Corporal Spangler had gotten through the war physically unscathed, for he had not. He had been wounded twice, once seriously and recovered each time only to be sent back to the action. He was classified as “collateral damage” and reverted back with the rest of them. In the old days, getting wounded in such a manner was a soldier’s golden ticket home, but no one was going to the wars these days and the military needed as many men and women as could be mustered. With medical technology being what it is at present, Spangler was opened, reassembled, made new with titanium rods and screws and patched up with the military’s new idea that no IED or road-side bomb would ever again take the modern soldier completely out of the field.
The war was behind him now, he thought as he wandered the heavily fogged early morning streets of his hometown of Deer Creek, California, a small wedge of suburbia in an otherwise still rural Silicon Valley. He had gotten off the train at the station a mile back, carrying his suitcase and duffle bag, having been dropped off at Union Station in Downtown Los Angeles by a group of naval buddies who had also discharged out of San Pedro.
He was still drunk from an afternoon of revelry and hard partying at the first place he saw across from the depot, Olvera Street. The pedestrian area was a Mecca of little Mexico and he limped into the first bar he found, La Golondrina. It was deep and dark cavernous restaurant with a chiminera that held a fire almost as warm as the colorful frescos upon the wall. It was a lovely place, quite a find off of the touristy street, he thought and it seemed everyone there wanted to buy him a drink and every girl wanted to talk to him but did not want to sleep with him as he had hoped. If any of those beautiful Latinas had taken him to their place and welcomed him back to the United States the way he pictured, it would have been the ultimate soldier’s welcome home, he smirked, but those girls were far too Christian, he cursed and he was getting far too drunk to properly salute, if they had.
They were willing enough to let him buy them drinks and kiss him and run their hands through his buzz cut at the bar or run their hands up his dress blues, but that was as far as it went as his money dwindled, he groused. Maybe it was the celebrity of it, them being seen with a soldier just back from the war, the same way women behaved around police or firemen. He was just another man in uniform, it didn’t really matter who the man was, as long as there was a uniform. He could have been a serial killer for all they knew and in a sense he was, but he was sanctioned by and given absolution by the government to do so, so no one thought twice about it and called him a hero. That was the crazy part about it. No one even blinked when he admitted he liked killing the enemy.
It had taken him nearly the entire night to catch a train close enough in which he could transfer at two stations to get back home, but he was finally in the place he had dreamt about many nights in the foxhole. It was surreal being back, walking the quiet, sleepy streets once more and he wondered why in hell he had rushed back. As he walked further into town and passed by the closed businesses with the boarded up windows, he wondered what he had been thinking wanting to come back so soon to a place he had always planned on escaping first chance he got.
9/11 and the military had provided that chance. He was still in school when that whole catastrophe went down and his whole fragile mindset was shaped by seeing it happen on TV and its aftermath. His family, fracturing at the time, although he didn’t know it, rode the wave of fervent patriotism in shock and awe with the rest of the country. As soon as he was able, he kept a promise to himself and enlisted. Almost immediately after basic, he was shipped out and pulled an endless series of tours in places he had never heard of before. He would fight in historic battles that would soon become familiar to those that followed the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Battles such as Ramallah, Operation Base Lane in the Zabul province, Tora Bora or Operation Mountain Fire in Barge Matal; working with the CIA paramilitary in Operation Anaconda and to train the newbie ISAF’s that came onboard. Spangler remembered becoming annoyed in one of the bars when one of the embedded reporters, a well-known cable news correspondent, recounted the battle of Ramallah as if he’d personally been there when nearly everyone knew he stayed inside the safe Green Zone and even went to so far as to correct Spangler, just because he had read about it in Time or Newsweek!
Spangler shook his head at the memory as he hobbled the long, empty columns of sidewalk towards his old school which was due to open in a few hours, he smiled. He had spent many useless hours there in captive audience with many a failed orator and useless human being who sought to impart their curriculum by subjugation and cruelty resulting from their own shortcomings rather than by any intellectual means. Spangler recalled that the parking lot taught him more about life and what to expect, whether it was from the girls he scored with in his car between classes or the pot that was smoked or the fights he won and lost. It was terrible to think of school as just a building, but if it was filled with instructors who had already given up on themselves, how could they ever teach with enough veracity and get through to their impressionable students, he wondered?
He trudged along in the chill, as the seasons were changing and it was finally then that he spotted the house he grew up in and he contemplated how much had changed since he had last been home. While he was fighting for his country, his father had died of lymphoma, no doubt a souvenir of his days spent working with chemicals at the textile plant and his mother had been showing early signs of dementia. His brother had turned gay and his sister had married a so-called “bad boy” and as a result, had endured a rocky relationship that translated into an equally abusive marriage where she somehow managed to have a baby girl in the midst of this loser’s various prison stays. He left her for a lengthier sentence other than marriage and subsequently divorced her, but only after getting her hooked on meth. His excuse being that he had found God while in the correctional facility and as a result, couldn’t have a wife who was addicted to drugs. One man’s family, mused Spangler as he walked along. He recalled one of his brother’s letters saying his sister was now strung-out and living with some equally amped-up tattooed biker in Arizona and if he had read in between the lines correctly, she was now hooking to support both their habits. He sighed as he reached the front door. More had changed than just the seasons around here, he mused.
His mother answered the door or rather, a washed-out contrast of what once was. She seemed to have aged considerably since his last leave. She closed over her bathrobe, opened the door and gave him a quizzical look for half a second and then the old recognition returned to her face and she smiled and unlocked the door. Jack followed her down the hallway, his boots plodding noisily behind the patter of his mother’s silky slippers. As he reached the kitchen, pulled out a chair with a squeak and sat down, his mother began to prepare coffee.
“It’s so good to have you home again, Jacky, in one piece.” She said as he noticed how worn out she appeared in the stark fluorescent kitchen light.
“…’s good to be home.” He said quietly.
“I thought you were getting out next month.” She wondered aloud.
“No, it was yesterday, Ma. ” He sighed. “I wrote you all about it in the last letter.”
“Oh, you’re right, you’re right.” She smiled. “It’s good to have you home, Jacky.” She repeated.
Jack ignored her. “Hey, Ma…you got any of that French toast I like in the freezer?”
“Let me check.” She said and walked over to a freezer door that was covered with magnets. There was a child’s drawing of blue flowers in a field and an orange sun and what looked like a giant in blood red held up by a 9/11 magnet that read: “Never Forget”. Jack smiled at the drawing.
“You know, I could always make you homemade French toast.” She said as she looked through the freezer and started to unpack frozen corn and peas onto the counter.
“Nah, I don’t want you to go to any trouble, Ma.”
“It wouldn’t be any trouble, Jacky.” She smiled.
“If you have the store-bought, I’ll take that. I love that stuff.”
“Oh, but Nick.”
“Oh, yes, I’m sorry.” She said. “It’s uh, it’s probably old.” She said as she pulled out the familiar red box and turned it over to look for the expiration date.
“That’s all right, Ma. I’ve been eating C-rations for the last two years. I like the way this stuff tastes, old or not. I like the way you make it.” He smiled. “Reminds me of being a kid.”
“This is probably here from the last time you were on leave.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Please, let me make you home made. It’ll take me just a minute.” She said and started to unpack the refrigerator onto the counter.
“Ma, would you forget about the home made French toast and just use the store bought?” He snapped.
“Sure, Jacky, sure. You don’t have to raise your voice.”
“I’m sorry, Ma.” He said somewhat ashamed. “But you’re making a big deal about me being home and all and I just wanna relax, ya know?” He explained as his mother read the directions of the store bought. “Just put them in the toaster, Ma.”
She looked up and at him and put the box on the counter. She began to wring her hands. “How’re you doing, Jacky?” She asked. “They feeding you okay?” She said and pulled out three slices and put them in the toaster and pressed the button down. “You look a little skinny.”
“Yeah, I’m fine, Ma.” He nodded. “How are you? You still having that lady coming by looking after you?”
“I’m okay. I have my good days and my bad. The doctor’s got me on this new prescription. I’m okay, like anyone. You mean, Mrs. Mitchell?” She said as her demeanor changed. “I think I’m going to have to get someone else.”
“Why?” He said exasperated. “I thought you liked this one?”
“I think she’s stealing from me, Jacky. I can’t seem to find anything anymore. Little things. I’m finding them in the strangest places. Places I know I didn’t put them. Last week, I found fifteen dollars stuffed in the icebox. I think she’s stealing and then when she hears me coming, she shoves things where they don’t belong. The other day I found my bedroom remote in the sock drawer. Things like that.”
“What would she want with your remote?” He wondered.
“I don’t know, Nick, uh, Jacky.”
“All right, if it will make you feel any better, I’ll check up on it.” He said as the toaster dinged and spit out three slices of toast. Jack jumped up and prepared it the way he liked it, margarine and lots of sugar and cinnamon, but no syrup and then noticed the corn and peas still on the counter thawing. With the clock ticking loudly in the afterthought of silence, he quietly walked over and placed them back into the freezer as his mother stared ahead and tapped her fingers upon the placemat in front of her.
“Is this Caitlin’s?” He asked as the artwork taped on the fridge wavered with the closing of the freezer door.
“Caitlin?” He said. “Your granddaughter?”
“Oh, yes.” She turned and nodded. “I know who she is, smartass.”
“Yes, that’s my little granddaughter. Quite the artist. Just like her grandmother.” She sang.
“Uh-huh.” Jack said and slunk down again in his seat.
“So, have you thought about what you’re going to do now that you’re out of the service?”
“That’s okay, you still have time to think about things. Maybe I can get you to fix a few things around here.”
“Maybe.” He said and started to eat.
“I can call up your Dad’s old boss, Mr. Murphy. Maybe he can take you on.”
“Ma, the textile place closed down years ago. Besides, old man Murphy died years ago. He died before Dad did.”
“Oh, you’re right. What the hell is wrong with me? Honestly, I swear. What was I thinking, Jacky?” She said and shook her head. “Honestly, I don’t know where my mind has been lately. I guess I’ve been worrying about you.” She smiled and rubbed his hand. Jack genuinely returned the smile. For a brief while, it was if she had returned again.
“Have you heard from your brother?”
“Bryce?” Jack asked. “Yeah, he’s written me here and there. Talked to him just before I shipped out to come back. He’s doing all right.”
“I wish he would settle down. He’s still living the gay bachelor life, as we used to call it before gay meant something else. Him and his roommate, they should both grow up, settle down with nice girls, if you ask me.” She said pointedly.
“I’ll see if I can talk to him.” Jack lied. She was closer to the truth than she knew, he thought.
“You hear from Elaine?”
“She’s another one. I don’t understand that girl.”
“She sent you that drawing?” Jack said absentmindedly.
“Yeah, last year. The only time I hear from her is around her birthday or when her boyfriend beats the hell out of her.”
“Ma, she calls you on her birthday for money for drugs.” Jack said, no longer wanting to keep the big family secret.
“She told me she was clean this time.”
“That’s what she always says.” Jack griped. “Do yourself a favor, hang up on her the next time she calls, okay?”
“Well, when I start hollering at her, she threatens me that she’ll never let me near Caitlin again. Breaks my heart, so I have to try and remember to be nice to her.”
“I thought Caitlin was going to be in foster care or something?”
“Well, turns out the family changed their mind once they found out she was from druggie parents. Then, Elaine wanted me to take her but you know I can’t, so she pleaded and cried her eyes out to the judge and frankly, I don’t know who the bigger jerk is, her or that judge but the stupid judge awarded her custody.” She rolled her eyes. “She’s my only grandchild. It’s not like I can depend on you or Bryce before I die.” She smacked at Jack’s arm, making him drop his fork. “Come on, give Lisa a call.”
“Ma, come on.” He snarled, remembering all of the drama Lisa had put him through. She was beautiful, with what most women would call a cute figure but that was not what most guys called it, he recalled with a knowing smile. The smile faded as he remembered what a psychotic she was and how as an engagement gift, he bought her a ring and the 300 CCS of augmentation she had always wanted. He recalled how afterwards, she thought she was a centerfold-in-the-making and as a result, never let Jack forget it. She cheated on him while he was in basic and he broke off the engagement and dumped her and remembered how stupid he was to agree to get back together with her. They didn’t make attention whores any more desperate than this one and the less attention he could give her, the better.
“Why don’t you call her?”
“Leave it alone, Ma.” He said as scarfed down and he finished the last of his breakfast.
“Just call her, you’ll see.”
“I gotta get some air.” He said and stood abruptly.
“But the coffee’s not even ready.” His mother said absently. “Don’t leave. You just got here.”
“Later, I’ll have it later. I gotta get outta here.” He snapped and bolted tiredly out of the door. It was against his better judgment, but he needed to remove himself from the situation. He thought about what happened next as he sat with his psychiatrist a month later.
“I went to the bar and had a few more drinks until I could forget about everything for awhile.”
“What did you need to forget about?” The man interjected.
“The war, people getting blown up right in front of me, body parts.”
“And this bothered you, why?”
“What? What do you mean why? Are you even listening to me?”
“Do you think people don’t listen to you, Jack? Do you feel inferior and this is compensated by your need to lash out at those around you, so you can get noticed?”
“What?” Jack snapped. “I think you’re the one who’s crazy.”
“You think I’m paranoid now, huh?”
“If you say so.” The man smiled at his own in-joke.
“So, I was at this bar and this girl walked in.”
“And this excited you?”
“Well, sure, yeah, doc. Whatever. So, we started getting talking and comfortable and all and I wanted to get to know her better, ya know, but she wanted to dance and I couldn’t on account of my leg.”
“She started to mock me about my leg, saying I was probably lying about the war just to go to bed with her and that I probably couldn’t dance anyway and this was an excuse. She was a real weird sort of girl. Had a twisted sense of humor.” Jack shook his head. “I wanted to go home with her, but she didn’t seem too interested or I was getting too drunk again.”
“So, you don’t think you could have performed?”
“Huh? I don’t know. I guess so. I was getting pretty drunk.”
“Why do you feel the need to drink until intoxication? Can’t you drink socially?”
“I don’t see the point, if you ask me. I like the way it makes me feel. Like I said, I’m trying to forget about things.”
“Why? You knew you were going to be called into combat if you went in the military. It’s not much of stretch, Jack.” He nodded. “It must have occurred to you at some point-”
“Yes, thank you for stating the obvious.”
“Do you always feel the need to deal with situations that bother you or upset you with sarcasm?”
“Maybe.” He said caustically. “Well, it seemed appropriate.”
“So, getting back to this girl you met at the bar…what happened with her?”
“Well, we were talking and I turned on the charm and then the talking led to kissing and then we left in her car. We went back to her place and I remember her making fun of my wounds. Can you believe that?”
“People don’t owe you anything because you were wounded.”
“But I fought for this country!”
“I’m not saying that. I’m saying don’t expect people to give you a break. It’s not in their nature. So what happened next?”
“Then I woke up. There was blood but she was nowhere to be found.”
“How much blood? A lot? A little?”
“Like a nosebleed or something, but she was gone. I don’t know what happened. I’m not sure if she had a nosebleed or maybe it was her time of the month or maybe she was a virgin or something.”
“We both can say with an air of certainty she most likely wasn’t a virgin.”
“I guess.” Jack said confusedly. “I think she just split and went to work.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Her car was gone.”
“Do you think maybe you physically attacked her and then took her car and dumped her and the car somewhere?”
“Stick to what you do best, doc and it isn’t police work. Like I said, she was gone.”
“And this made you mad?”
“No, it made me feel completely alone. To answer your assumption, I didn’t hurt her. At least not that I can remember.”
“It’s interesting that you forgot. Just like with your mother and her dementia.”
“Oh, please. I don’t have ‘mother’ issues.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Well, I think that being in the war would bring that sense of abandonment to the forefront by your own admission of a distant father to some sort of closure, at least. What do you think? ”
“Do I think that he’d be proud of me? Yes. Did I join up to heal the wounds between us and close the gap? Sure.” Jack acknowledged. “He was in the war. But he never wanted to talk about any of it.”
“My father was in the war, too. I thought about joining up to be honest, you know, to make the old man proud, but I went to college instead, got my degree.” He pointed to the wall. “You and my old man would’ve gotten along famously. He always talked about his war effort.”
“We’re here to talk about me, remember?” Jack chided him.
The psychiatrist cleared his throat. “War is such a noble endeavor, brings out bravery in man, the cowardice in lesser men. Do you know who said that?”
“No and I don’t care. What would you know?” Jack exploded. “Sounds to me like you’ve never seen war except on TV or in the movies. Same with your old man. Anyone who has ever been in real combat doesn’t want to talk about it. Sounds like your old man was making up stories, if you ask me. Making himself bigger than he was.”
“My father was a great man, I’ll have you know.”
“Sounds like you’re the one with ‘Daddy’ issues.” Jack snickered.
“Mr. Spangler, that will be all for today.” He said and cleared his throat. “Until next time?”
“Sure, whatever.” Jack stood and walked out, slamming the door behind him as the flimsy wall shook. He was pissed. He didn’t even care if the hot MILF secretary he had always wanted to bang thought he was a psycho. The guy she worked for had no business glorifying wholesale slaughter like it was some heroic adventure.
As he walked out of the professional building, past the dry-cleaners, the movie rental store and the pharmacy, he noticed for the first time all of the flags flying and the yellow ribbons attached seemingly to every tree, their imitation silk shamelessly tattered and threadbare and forgotten as the country’s patriotism. Everywhere, banners waved with red, white and blue, but even though the expression that people once used was “These Colors Don’t Run”, the ink that the Made in China banners bore had faded with age and exposure to the elements.
He spotted his own banner hanging off of a light pole and climbed up and grabbed at it until he ripped it down. As far as he and the United States Government were concerned, his tour of duty was officially over and this was tantamount to false advertising. A passing police cruiser slowed down but kept going as Jack glared at the young recruit.
He wandered the town he had grown up in and felt alienated from it all. He had gone and seen the world and yet the world that shaped him to be that soldier stayed monotonously the same. Nothing had changed, except for him. The old men still congregated on the benches and watched the world go by and did nothing but age. The girls at the high schools made him think of the dripping, teenaged whores he and his regiment sought comfort with in Afghanistan and it made him turn his head in shame. Surrounded by people he knew all of his life, he never felt so alone in his entire existence.
The buildings, the schools, the shops, the houses, the narrow lawns and minds all stayed the same as if everything had regressed into some sort of Perfect Town, USA and all of them were blissfully unaware of the carnage just outside their border.
Innocuously, people were outside in oversized Havana hats and gardening gloves, watering their lawns or working on their cars wherever he went as butterflies were fluttering and birds chirping in the bright afternoon sunshine while a whole generation was dying overseas. It was if people were blithely oblivious by fault or comfortable design to what was truly going on in the world. Whereas this idyllic scene would have reassured the returning solider, it infuriated Spangler. The peace of mind he sought was nowhere to be found in the small town he dreamt about returning to while on the front lines. Even though he was barely old enough to drink, the worm was already turning inside his fevered mind. Sometimes, he wished he could shoot it all away.
He was unable to find steady work on account of his injuries and it depressed him. No one wanted to hire a veteran who would be out for months at a time because of corrective surgeries and the physical therapy that would follow thereafter. He hated the way people stared at his limp. Only a monthly government check kept his restless head above desperate waters.
He could always go back to the war. That was the thing with man. Man would always provide another war to go to. For the time being, ex-Lance Corporal Jack Spangler would remain a casualty of peace; a peace he helped foment. Peace was lousy and monotonous but that was the prize of war, controlled chaos. It was the peace that would prove to be the hardest battle he would ever face. The pills the psychiatrist gave him staved off the rage that boiled inside. He just hoped the war within him would not erupt in the meantime.