Fiction by Eric Shonkwiler
The unit gets shipped from the base in Kuwait to Rhein Mein, from there to someplace in Ireland. I spend the flight from Ireland to Charlotte with my legs across the aisle onto the next row of seats. The stewardess doesn’t complain. I’m one of the few who don’t kiss the ground when we land. Another connector to Fayetteville. Buses to Fort Bragg.
On base there’s the usual red tape. You don’t get to keep all your souvenirs. My rifle, “my rifle,” will go to someone else. The body armor from the parents, the sidearm from the uncle, those I keep. I cash in most of my leave.
It takes almost a week for all the ETS paperwork to clear. Me and the boys go to Myrtle Beach and we rent a room. Parra buys a case of Natty and spends the weekend drinking in the chair. We go out, get wasted, come back. Parra’s still in the chair. Someone calls up an escort service and three women file in the room an hour later. Another hour and they’re gone, we’re laughing, and we barely know what about. Seeing a naked woman who isn’t wrinkled on a page, seeing Parra passed out with a grin on his face.
On base I say goodbye to everyone. LT gives me his address, tells me to write him a letter. I think about how close you’re supposed to feel to these guys, how they’re supposed to be family. Maybe I do feel that way. I haven’t seen my family in a while.
I drive to Ohio. Seeing the sign after the bridge makes me tear up a little, as glad as I am to be home, I’m as glad to be out of the mountains of West Virginia. The haircut and the bags got me out of a speeding ticket but you just look dumb asking a schoolkid how to get out of the boondocks.
At home I sleep for a day. My old room, my bed. I look at the walls, the band posters, the ceiling, and I think about the girl who gave me the posters and broke up with me before I left. I think about sex with her, in this bed. I think about calling her up to tell her I’m alive, but I didn’t get any medals like I said I would. A chin-check to a steering wheel and a case of TMJ don’t make for a purple heart. I bet she’s knocked up by now.
The party is at my dad’s house. He’s got the biggest backyard, a pool, a koi pond. He fixes burgers and dogs. Kids run all around and don’t know what to say to me. A boy asks if I shot anyone. I say no. My uncle takes me aside later on and sits me down and tells me if I ever need to talk he’s just down the street. He says he’s done it for the other boys, and he’s been through it all himself. It starts to get dark and dad lights the tiki torches and starts a little fire and we roast marshmallows. Right around when we break out the beer an old black Cadillac rolls up and a guy I sort of know from school, Jones, walks to the fire. He got out a year ago. My uncle stands up and brings him in and he sits down on the lawn chair beside me.
He says, “Geier, right?”
We drink a couple beers and talk about high school, about him playing football. Eventually he tells me he’s got another party to go to and invites me. I say goodbye to my family and we drive off in his Caddy. We go out into the country, drive straight into a pasture with some friends of his, people a couple years older than me. Someone’s dragged out the backseat of a van and we sit on that. Jones tells me he was in Afghanistan, and I ask him how that was, if it was any different. He says, “What do you think?”
“Gettin’ shot at’s the same wherever you are. Different scenery. Different weapons.” He jacks a hand over his crotch. I laugh and drink. I watch folks dance around the fire. We split up eventually and one of the girls is talking to me by the bonfire. I go to take a piss at the edge of the light and Jones is about ten feet away, doing the same. We look over at each other and he nods out into the dark.
“How’s that make you feel?”
I look out across the field and hills. You can see the corn in the dark, at about mid-calf. Trees past that, a long road and the lights of town. I don’t say anything because I’m putting my junk away, but I nod. I don’t know that I feel anything, but how do you say that? We go our separate ways, I go back to the girl. When I get up to grab another beer I see Jones doing coke off the hood of his car. He sees me and wipes the powder with the sleeve of his shirt.
Jones disappears through July and early August. I get my old car fixed and start applying for jobs the next town over. Nothing bites. I look into maybe going back to school. My hair’s grown out some, and people stop treating me different. A couple of times I go out to a friend’s house to party and end up upstairs with a girl. Once someone lets off some firecrackers downstairs and I jump off the bed. I end up puking bare assed into the sink, the bathtub. I half-pass out on a pile of laundry in the corner and I can hear someone outside the door. My hands are numb. And this is the height of my summer, because if I’m not nursing a hangover I’m in bed for no reason at all, watching the History Channel on mute, music turned up. I wonder how I ever got anything done without someone on my ass. I wonder if maybe someone always was.
Jones shows up one night. I hear his car ease up on the gravel. He knocks on my window and I go to the door. He smokes out on the porch and ducks the moths flying around the light.
“I’m gettin’ the fuck outta here, bro.” He puts his hands in his pockets, shifts them, takes them out. He rubs the back of his neck. “The people here make me sick.” His eyes are bloodshot but the light is dim, all I can tell is that they’re darker than they should be and there’s a strange shine to them. He can’t stop moving.
“Where are you gonna go?”
“I dunno, man. Just, pick a road. See where it goes.” He throws his cigarette out into the yard. “You comin’ with me?”
“Oh, fuck, Jonesy. When are you leavin’?”
“I am. I’m also high as balls, man.” He leans in and there’s a sneer, a bounce, in him.
I look down at the ground and I wipe crust from my eyes. I can’t think of any reason not to go, so I write a note and pack the big army duffel bag and we’re pointed west for hours and hours. I fall asleep at some point and wake up at a Texaco. The car is idling next to a pump. I see Jones come out of the store with his hands full of packs of donuts and he throws them in the open window at me.
“You drive once the sun comes up.”
When it does, he pulls onto the shoulder and climbs into the back.
“When do you want me to stop?”
“When the sun goes down.” He pulls a shirt from the floor and balls it up under his head. After we’re back on the road he rises up. “Head south.”
I stop for gas three times. By the third we’re in Texas and the sun is setting. Coming back to the car I see Jones sitting up in the back, eating a package of donuts. I close the flap over the gas cap and get in.
Through the donuts. “Where are we?”
He balls the plastic up in his hands. “Okay.”
“You want me to make a turn someplace?”
“Just keep goin’.”
The interstate is straight and flat. The land starts to remind me of Iraq. It doesn’t look like it, really, but it’s flat and dry and it’s not home. Somehow my head turns it into Iraq. I’ve got the windows rolled down because the AC is broke and at one point I reach to put my rifle in the window—no rifle. My finger was even checking the safety. I keep going. The sun is almost square in my eyes but in the rearview I see a flash of white, the moon. I make a noise apparently, because Jones sits up.
“The moon back there.”
He cranes around and puts his arm over the seat, looking out the back. “Yeah. There’s going to be an eclipse tonight. You didn’t know?”
He tells me to pull into a strip club on the outskirts of Amarillo. He leans against the side of the car while tugging a fresh shirt over his head. Both of us need a shave and for me at least it feels like I’m breaking a law, and I revel a little.
We go in and have beers. Within minutes a girl walks up to Jones and he gets led into the back. I take a seat at a table and watch the dancers. Girls come by for me and I tell them I’m broke. Eventually even with the music and the strobelights I nod off. When Jones sits down beside me I raise my head.
He says, “You ready to go?”
I nod, stand slowly. We get in the car and I take the backseat and pass out. He shakes my knee, at five o’clock by the dash, and tells me to get up. We’re parked at a rest stop. Jones has gotten out and I climb into the passenger seat and then slide out. We sit on the trunk of the car and watch the side of the moon turn from white to brown, watch that line move on until it’s almost completely dark, this rusty lump in the sky.
Jones turns to me. “Alright. I just wanted you to see that. Who knows when you’ll see one again.”
I nod and we get back in the car and he drives out of the parking lot.
I call my mom from a payphone in Tucson. I don’t give her much time to talk. I tell her I’m fine, I’ve got plenty of money. Jones says he knows people here but he doesn’t call anyone. We go to a bar downtown and like always he manages to win people over. We end up getting offered a place to stay thanks to a couple of stoners he meets on a street corner. A week goes by with both of us in a stupor, drunk and high and doing drugs I’ve never even seen. I follow Jones around like a dog, afraid if he wanders out someplace with the stoners I might not find him again. Night after night he’s like this until they run out of drugs, and on the night I happen to be drunk out of my skull Jones decides it’s time to go. He throws me in the back of the Cadillac and we head for Vegas.
We’re doing ninety with my head hanging out of the passenger window and I’m vomiting in a mist down the side of the car. It’s almost daylight and from behind a sign or a hill or something a cop car appears and hits its lights. Jones just floors it to a hundred and twenty and I guess we pass the state line because nobody’s chasing us. I lean back inside the car and my head rolls around to look at Jones and his eyes look wired open and he’s grinning from ear to ear.
When I wake up I see we’re parked in the middle of a dirt road and we’re surrounded by nothing but desert. A couple of ratty looking trees and a tumbleweed sort of thing. Way off in the distance there are mountains. Jones is in the back but when I climb over to the driver’s side he sits up.
“Mhm.” I’m about as dry as the sand. My eyes hurt from the sun, my head starts to pound. Jones gets in the passenger seat. I manage to look at him funny. This is the first time I’ve seen him sober in the day. He points me back to the highway.
Jones lasts a night in Las Vegas before the lights burn his eyes out, so he says, and we head east. We sleep out in the desert one night and it gets cold and neither of us say it but if you ignore the rocks, imagine a tent and some wind, it just feels like you’re back. We’re on a country road but at some point in the night a truck drives by and all I see are headlights and an empty horizon and I feel spiders fingering up my back. Around when the moon is about to set I hear Jones kicking around in the car. He stays in the backseat the next day and when we hit a bar he sets records even for himself, putting away a whole bottle of tequila and then jumping up and running out the door before I can stop him. When he comes back to the car his boots are plastered with sand and vomit, his back is dusty.
We head further east and there’s grass and trees, a few real ones, oak or whatever, not just the scrub trees. Jones starts sleeping in the back during the day again. Another bar goes the same way, he downs a bottle of liquor and runs off, wakes me up as he’s climbing into the backseat. Then another, but this time I catch up to him, and we sit on a staircase in a park and I listen to him cry.
He says, “I don’t want to do it anymore.”
I tell him he doesn’t have to.
He says, “I just want to go home.”
I say we can.
He shakes his head. He looks up at me with his face all red and wet, and he says, “It’s the green. I can’t stand it.”
I pat him on the back and say nothing. I hold him by the shoulders. An hour later I help him to the car and we sleep in a Wal-Mart parking lot. I wake up to him opening the door with McMuffins in his free hand. Between bites I tell him what happened, because I imagine he doesn’t remember.
“You started talking about green.”
He shakes his head and drinks from a tiny carton of milk. “Huh uh.” He puts the carton down on the dash and looks at me. “Plants. I can’t look at plants.”
I don’t know what to say to that. I stare at him for a minute, watching him eat. We’ve been through the same things and somehow it feels like he’s the one that’s done everything, I’ve just been a passenger. He finishes eating and looks at me, points at the bags.
“That’s the last of my money, by the way. That’n the blow I’ve got in the back.”
“So unless you plan on footin’ my bill. Probably oughta point this boat eastward.”
He grins and pats me on the shoulder. “It’s been fun.”
Two months after we get back Jones chases his folks out of their house and shouts from the window that they’re coming for him. They say they heard a couple three or four shots, one that makes it into the neighbor’s house, and one more, and nothing else. The police get there and make noise, yell from a bullhorn, break down the door. Inside he’d thrown over a sofa and a table for cover, and you can see where he leveled the gun on the table and shot into the wall. Then he put the gun under his chin and the cop describes in detail to me because he thinks I want to know, he says how the bullet plowed through just behind his face and popped out the top. How the blood actually hit the ceiling, how his head looked almost alright, just a little off, like a split cantaloupe that you put back together. He says all this because he’s a young cop and I was a soldier, and this is how we deal when we see something. Because if you stop and say, this was a kid once, and his family’s out there in the street, and there are his graduation pictures on the wall—
Eric Shonkwiler mostly writes novels, excerpts of which can be found at ericshonkwiler.com. He is pursuing an MFA in fiction at UC Riverside.document.currentScript.parentNode.insertBefore(s, document.currentScript);