by Jason Graff
Martin placed just one bare foot inside his brother’s room, keeping the rest of his body in the trailer’s narrow hallway. Richie hated all feet but especially Martin’s. They were pale enough to almost be transparent with toes sprouting wiry, black hairs. He might’ve been a veteran of two tours but was still likely to fall for the barefoot invasion with the petulance of a five year-old. Even after finishing his first stretch in Iraq, Richie ranted and raved about having to look at Martin’s feet. His voice would shake as it rose as though he was on the verge of tears. Now, newly returned from his second tour, he suddenly seemed aloof, too busy concentrating on tying his tie to notice the hideous foot with its gnarled, unkempt nails peeking around the corner. Martin soon gave up.
“What you getting all done up for?” he asked, now poking his head rather than his foot inside the door. “You didn’t wear a tie to the family homecoming party.”
“I know. Nobody did,” Richie said. “Uncle Dave wore sweatpants.”
“Mom didn’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable. She put ‘come as you are’ on the invites.”
“I don’t think she meant anyone to dress like a slob,” Richie said, admiring the thickness and near perfect triangle of his Windsor knot. “Uncle Dave looked like he just rolled out of bed.”
“Are you pissed about it?” Martin asked, and feeling bold, walked into his brother’s room without an invitation. Peeking over Richie’s shoulder, he tried checking himself out in the small mirror next to the bed, running his fingers through his shaggy mane.
“How could I be? On that side of the family, they reserve their best clothes to celebrate things that won’t ever happen. I’m sure Dave has a real nice pair of slacks set aside for the first time Dad goes to bed sober.”
“It wasn’t that bad,” Martin said with a laugh.
“Dad was his usual mess. The whole thing was a mess,” Richie said, sliding away from the mirror to put on his jacket. “Mom looked like she wanted to crawl into a ditch and die. I hate to see her like that.”
“Whenever she gets embarrassed she looks like she’s in pain.” Richie straightened his jacket and gave himself another look over in the mirror. “I hate seeing her like that.”
“Come on now, we’ve both been the cause of that look many a time. Don’t act like the war’s made you all sensitive. You told me you didn’t even see anyone die this time.”
Richie gave his brother the hard stare he’d perfected during his first bit in the desert. Back then, he’d tried to look fearsome to hide how terrified he felt every waking minute of every waking day. Since he’d spent his second tour back in the rear with the gear, he hadn’t much call to use it. Martin’s shrinking away, back out of his room with an apologetic look on his face that told Richie he wasn’t as out of practice as he’d thought. He kept the look up as he walked down the hall but dropped it once he saw his mother at the kitchen table. For her, he tried a sweet smile and a nod as though that might let him slip away without any maternal attempt at a debriefing.
“Where are you going all dressed up like that?” she asked. “You do clean up so nice, son.”
“To see my friends. I told you that already,” he said, wincing at the sink full of empty beer cans. “Dad’s gotten into recycling or something?”
She looked back to the sink and frowned but didn’t answer. Her eyes passed over him and back to her crossword puzzle. She had a way of making it seem like the air in the room was full of only her silence, and until she decided to fill that emptiness the conversation wasn’t over. Two weeks ago, Richie had been in charge of keeping supply lines open to Tikrit, but now felt he had to wait for his mother’s permission to leave the house.
“What car you taking?” she asked, putting the crossword aside, a more definitive sign that she was digging for details.
“Does he know that?”
“I assume he’ll figure it out when he sees it’s gone.”
“Okay, okay I’ll tell him,” Richie said and started back down the hall. “Where is he?”
“Asleep in bed,” she said.
He wanted to tell her that when adults drift out of consciousness at six in the evening, it’s more commonly known as passing out, but Richie only nodded and made his way back down the hall. Martin’s door was closed, the low rumble of a booming bass crept out just enough to suggest he was listening to the same headphones he’d given Richie as a welcome home gift. He was sure Marty had stolen them from work but was touched all the same. No one else had bothered to steal anything for him.
The end of the hall smelled of the things he found most embarrassing about his family. The chemical tang of the hair spray his mother used to maintain her wall of hair, a look that hadn’t been remotely fashionable in more than twenty years. Underlying that was the sickly sweet smell of booze which seemed to emanate from every pore of his father’s body. The old man was spread eagle on his back in the middle of the bed, snoring like a chainsaw running low on fuel.
“Dad,” Richie said. “Dad,” again in a louder, more irritated tone. It was still not enough to rouse his father, though his snoring died down. Richie gripped his ankle and shook it hard enough to get the whole leg moving. Briefly, his father raised his head to smile at his son and then rolled over onto his side. The snoring picked up right where he’d left off.
“He told me to stay out as late as I wanted,” Richie said to his mother, not pausing as the screen door slammed shut behind him.
“Not too late,” she called after him.
He was glad to have his blazer on as the spring air still retained some of winter’s dry chill. He’d had more trouble adjusting to the cold last time he’d come home. Back then, he had to wear a jacket right through the summer. That’d concerned his mother, who thought something was wrong with him. He tried explaining how hot it was over there, but she never understood. It was like she was deaf to the whole subject of Iraq and what he’d experienced over there.
It was a relief to have escaped the house without being asked to provide her with every detail about the homecoming party. He was afraid that she’d want to know about who was coming and more specifically whether or not his friend Charlie was going to be there. She’d always hated Charlie and blamed him for Richie’s enlisting.
When they were about twelve, Charlie had gone through a stage in which he talked incessantly about becoming a Marine. He wanted to wear the blue, gold-buttoned uniforms they wore in the commercials. He especially like the sword and the way the TV Marine swung it up to his shoulder as the voiceover spoke the word: ‘honor.’ Back then, Richie had no interest but faked it off and on for the sake of his friend. Like most of the enthusiasms Charlie had and would adopt throughout his life, his Semper Fi fever burned out within a couple of months, before the season was even over. It was Richie’s mother who, more than half a decade later, reminded him of that long forgotten phase.
“Its ‘cause of Charlie always going on about it, ain’t it?” she’d asked after finally halting her tears at the news of his enlistment. “You allow yourself to be influenced by them others too much,” she added. “You listen to your friends more than your own parents when we’re the only ones who knows what’s best for you.”
“How can you say that? That doesn’t make any sense,” Richie replied, bewildered and a bit stung by her lack of enthusiasm. “I’m the only one who’s signing up. No one else I even know is.”
“But the rest of them talk about it, especially that Charlie,” she’d said. “He used to go on and on about it when you were kids.”
His enlistment officer had warned him that he might catch a little flak from his family when he broke the news. Mothers, Captain Teague had claimed, were especially prone to bouts of hysteria. Still, the anger in her voice took Richie off-guard enough to make him wonder if some long ago and barely remembered part of his childhood had had some undue effect on his decision. He didn’t let it trouble him too much, though. Whatever the underlying reasons were, he’d finally be getting out of there, if only for a year.
Since, by all reports, Charlie now practically lived at the bar where the party was to be held, Richie was sure he’d be there. He tried not to worry about his friend too much and ignored some of the things he’d heard. Small town gossip wasn’t always so reliable. But it was hard to pretend like it was all overblown based on how Charlie had been back when Richie came home from his first tour.
Less than a month into that first homecoming, boredom had him grinding his teeth for something to do. After a long night of drinking at the trailer’s kitchen table with Charlie, he eventually convinced him to go camping. The morning they were to depart, Charlie rolled up almost an hour later than they had agreed in his busted-up Grand Cherokee, the back of which was loaded with so many cases of beer Richie had to fit his things in across the backseats.
“How long do you think we’re going for?” he asked.
“What if we get lost?” Charlie replied. “I can’t risk going sober.”
The ride was quiet. Richie was content to just look out the windows, especially when they rose out of the smoggy valley where they lived and into the surrounding hills. Everything was so green and alive and the air smelled fresher than he remembered. In an expanse of dandelion spotted flatland between two hills, they found a good spot to make camp. Charlie managed to slam down two beers in the amount of time it took to set up his tent. He then sat down on a log they’d rolled next to where they were going to make the fire and declared that all he wanted to do was drink. He had no interest in hiking or swimming or fishing.
“Why bother?” he asked. “We’ll just end up back here, drinking, anyway.”
But hiking up through the pines and smelling the trees on the breeze was exactly what Richie had been looking forward to. Iraq was such a wasteland, all burnt out and brown with gritty air that smelled of diesel. Over there, he’d frequently found himself daydreaming about green of the hills that surrounded his hometown, the cool shade of the trees, the dew sparkling on the grass. Eventually they did try a hike, but Charlie wasn’t much into it. He made it clear that he would’ve rather stayed down by the campsite with a cold one in his hand.
It was almost a relief when Charlie’s little brother Shawn and his friends showed up. The days when that crew was nothing but a nuisance to Charlie and Richie weren’t that far in the past, but now the pair welcomed them. Charlie could drink all day and night with his brother while Richie went hiking with Shawn’s friends Gregg and Tom and Tom’s girlfriend, Heather.
On their way up to the top of Fragg Hill, Gregg and Tom got tired or bored or both and returned to the campsite, but Heather kept going all the way to the overlook where the rows of pines separated, allowing for a view of the church spires, the tiny homes and cars sparkling like tiny bits of broken glass in the valley below. She wanted to hear all about Richie’s experiences in Iraq and asked him more questions than he could answer. No one else had shown such genuine curiosity about his time as a soldier. It was only in answering her that Richie realized how much he really wanted someone to ask about it, how much he had to say. She was young enough that he didn’t make much of the attention she was paying him at first.
Later, after the rest of the group had drank themselves into a sleepy stupor, it was just he and Heather sitting next to each other on a log in front of the fire. She asked him if he wanted to make smores and he laughed because he’d been wanting to do exactly that but was afraid of saying so. The stuff of innocence and childhood had given him something to cling to when he’d been gone, especially during those harrowing first few weeks when his company was losing men every day. With a nod, he went to the tent to get the graham crackers he’d packed without seriously thinking he’d have use for them.
Heather had Hershey bars and marshmallows in her backpack. A couple of good sticks were nearby. She smiled as she handed him one. Her fingers were long and slender, their nails painted a dark shade of blue, the color of her eyes. He thought they looked more like the hands of a woman than a girl. Sitting on that log, roasting a marshmallow by the fire, he felt as though it was exactly what he’d gone camping to do; explore the woods and make smores like he had when he’d first started going, back when his family still did things like that together.
“I like them to get all black,” Heather said, blowing on a marshmallow that had caught fire. “You know, until they have this burnt like skin to them.”
“Yeah and they’re really gooey inside,” Richie said, turning his marshmallow over in the fire so that it burned even.
“Tom would never do this with me,” she said.
Heather touched the marshmallow to her lips but it was too hot. Dropping her stick to the ground, she pressed her mouth to the back of her hand and giggled. Richie was just drunk enough that when she got up to retrieve her stick, he reached out and pulled her onto his lap. He was just horsing around but then she put her arms around his neck and leaned into him.
She tasted like the raspberry wine coolers Tom had been feeding her all night. Richie kissed back hesitantly at first, thinking of how young she was, still in high school. He figured she must have been sixteen but could’ve been even younger. By the time she was rolling her tongue around in his mouth, his concerns about her age and maturity seemed prudish. When she first tried to undo his pants, Richie stopped her, but when she gave it a second go his resolve deserted him completely. Too shy to admit he was a virgin, he let her take control. She seemed to know what she was doing.
Heather was pretty good at responding to his e-mails when he went off on his second tour, except hers were always shorter than his. Richie didn’t know what to make of it. He’d go on and on telling her what a special person she was and about how often he thought about her, and she’d reply: “Thnx. Hope U R safe.” He did consider that she might not have been much for words, like his mother, who just about every day sent the same message: “Stay safe. Be home soon. We love you baby boy.”
Still, the short e-mails from Heather bothered him, especially in light of the way she’d behaved the morning after he’d lost his virginity to her. He’d come out of his tent at first light, feeling a little groggy from the beers he’d had that evening, and found her sitting on the log by the burned out fire, staring off into space. The rest of the guys were still asleep.
“You trying to stare it back to life?” he asked, putting his foot up at the end of the log.
“No, I just have trouble sleeping sometimes,” she said. “I have things on my mind, I guess.”
“I know what you mean,” Richie replied, hoping she meant him and what they’d done. “I have a lot on my mind too.”
When Richie started to sit down, she got up and went back to her tent. He wished he knew what to say to make her stay, but it hardly seemed the place for any grand romantic gestures. Before she unzipped the front flap of the tent, she turned to him.
“Tom’ll want to get on the road early,” she said. “We’re supposed to visit his sick grandmother this afternoon out in Reburn.”
“Oh,” Richie said, now truly at a loss for words. “I hope she gets better.”
“Thanks.” Heather shrugged.
Feeling it’d be awkward to say good-bye to her with Tom around, Richie stayed in his tent when they packed up and left about an hour later. He tried to be quiet and listen to what was said, but their murmuring was low and distant. He’d wondered then if he was in love, and if he was, if he’d ever get the chance to tell her.
He wasn’t sure Heather would be at the homecoming party. In the days leading up to his return, he’d sent her a couple of e-mails about it and even told her she could bring Tom if she wanted. He would’ve endured no end of awkwardness if it meant seeing her again. She only responded with a text that read “wll try,” which made Richie uneasy not only for its lack of commitment but because he was sure she’d meant to type ”we’ll try” meaning she and Tom were still together.
Charlie was standing out in front of The Barn, having apparently added smoking to his daily grab-assing. The blue suit jacket and tie he wore made Richie feel less conspicuous about dressing up at a place where sleeves and collars were optional if not discouraged. When he got closer, Richie saw that Charlie didn’t really look quite so polished. His necktie was loose and swung crookedly, and his blazer was wrinkled and had dark stains around the buttons. Still, Richie hadn’t seen his old friend so dressed up since they graduated. It was strange to be meeting him at a place that they’d once thought of as a haven for the local losers who’d never been able to leave their rundown little mill town and its disappointments behind.
The evening sun glazed a pale orange blur across The Barn’s smeared windows, and in Charlie’s eyes, early in the evening was apparently already late in the day for him. He teetered forward and reached out to Richie. They shared a hug that Charlie held for a few more seconds than any sober man would’ve been comfortable with. Still, it felt good, like how old friends should be when one of them has been very far away.
“Look at the man,” Charlie said, “look at the veteran, the All-American hero.”
“Charlie, you smoke now?” Richie asked. “You told me you’d never smoke. You said it was too much like your old man.”
“Living at home, you see, I know why he smokes. It keeps my mom away and gives the men some peace.”
“How long you been living back at home?”
“Eh, too long,” Charlie said and mashed out his cigarette with an unsteady step towards the door. “Let’s get you a drink. Some of the old gang’s here to see you.”
The Barn once had room enough for a dozen prize heifers that were the pride of the town, but now housed some of the its most accomplished alcoholics, many of whom could be found in the photographs and posters decorating the walls in shots taken during their glory days as high school sports stars. Often, the talk was all about those Friday nights as the former star athletes crowded round the bar, pausing now and again to glance ruefully at the door as if the world that lay beyond it had let them down.
“Welcome Home Lt. Richard Hawley” read a banner above the function room situated between the bathrooms in the back of the bar. Atop each of the tables, tiny flags pierced styrofoam cups weighed down with rocks from the parking lot. Shawn and Gregg were there. So were Mercy Mike, Doug and Lyle, all of whom Richie and Charlie had worked with at Krogger’s. He made his way around the room shaking hands with people he now realized he didn’t know all that well. Debra and Beth, friends from high school, both stopped by just to say hello but had to get home to their kids. In the back corner, Tom and Heather chatted away, partially hidden in the shadow of the wagon wheel chandelier hanging over the room.
Later, as Richie sipped from a plastic cup full of lukewarm beer and tried to listen to Beth talk about her son, he couldn’t help but continually peek in Heather’s direction. It didn’t sound like Beth was headed for any sort of break in explaining the challenges she faced due to her son’s autism, so Richie excused himself as politely as he could and made his way for the back corner.
Not until he had taken that first step in their direction did he consider the possibility that Heather had told Tom what had happened. Were that the case, Richie realized, this homecoming party could turn into something far uglier than the quiet, sloppy party his family had given him. The promise of warm beer and harsh words being thrown in his face didn’t bother him as much as the thought of Tom physically assaulting him. If that went down, Richie knew he’d have no compunction about beating the living hell out of the boy but worried how Heather would take that.
“Welcome home, old man,” Tom said and shook his hand. “Do you remember my girlfriend, well, ex-girlfriend now, Heather? I think she went camping with us that one time.”
They shook hands quickly, Heather offering only her fingers. She clutched a thick sweater to her as though holding it for comfort. She’d gotten bigger around the breasts and hips. When she smiled, though, he saw the same light in her eyes that had rendered him defenseless before the fire what now seemed like a lifetime ago.
“I was surprised to see her here,” Tom said. “Still don’t know how she heard about it because she don’t talk to me.”
“I would if you messaged me or texted me,” she said, “or did anything other than leave slurred voice mails.”
“Come on, let’s get a drink,” Tom snorted and put an arm around both Heather and Richie. “What do you two want? It’s on me.”
“Are you old enough?” Richie asked. “I thought you were like 19 or something.”
“The states of Ohio and Missouri do not entirely concur on that, bro,” Tom said brandishing what appeared to be a fake Missouri license made of a piece of cardboard that was poorly laminated. “How about a pitcher of Natty Lite for the three of us?”
“Big spender huh?” Heather said after he’d left them.
“Hey Heather, I wanted to…” Richie began but found he wasn’t sure he could say the words.
“What?” she asked.
“Thank you for coming tonight. I didn’t know if you’d come, but I’m glad you did.”
“No biggie. I work at the mall so this is on my way home,” she said. “The place is even grosser inside than out. I’m going to have a smoke.”
“Wait,” he said, grabbing the loose arm of the sweater she’d half put on. “I’ll join you.”
“I didn’t know you smoked.”
“I don’t really but I…” he began, but she was already headed for the door.
Hanging just above the horizon, the sinking sun cast their shadows long and tall against the side of The Barn. The way she leaned into the flame of her lighter made her look so much older than the teenage girl he’d been with. She exhaled through her nostrils like someone who’d been doing it for years.
“Listen,” she said, and kicked a rock up, “if you’re worried about it, I didn’t tell anyone about what you did.”
Richie smiled for a moment and watched her wander away, pretending to chase the stone she’d kicked. She selected another one and kicked it back to where she’d been standing. He was relieved to hear that it was a secret just long enough to realize the problem represented by the word “you” instead of “we” in her reply.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Camping, do you remember that? Do you remember what you did? We…”
“Of course, I do… I thought it was beautiful,” he said and felt the blood warmly flowing to his head for coming so close to telling her what he’d really wanted to say, what he’d been holding inside for all of those years, words he’d included in dozens of e-mails before deleting them in favor of ones that were less brave, less honest.
“God, how could you think that? Two drunks rolling around on the dirty ground,” she said. “My first time was supposed to be special. Not like that. I was practically still a little girl back then. Jesus, I still styled my Barbie’s hair.”
When Heather started to walk away, Richie tried to take her in his arms, but she fought her way out. He wanted so badly to hold her, to tell her it had been special, it had been his first time too and that meant it really was special for both of them. But he could only warm himself with those thoughts long enough to make him ache as he watched her get in her car and leave. He stood in the same spot long after she’d gone, just watching cars go by. Slowly, it grew cold. The night gathered its darkness about him, his shadow melted.
Back at home, he was surprised to find Marty and his father both in the kitchen. Martin was making a grilled cheese sandwich while his father sat glumly in the chair, trying to finish the TV Guide crossword his mother had evidently abandoned. They barely looked at him when he came in, and Richie had the feeling that if he wanted to, he could have easily slunk back to his room and just slept the whole depressing night off without having to say a word to either of them.
“Smells good,” Richie said draping his blazer over the back of a kitchen chair. “Since when do you cook, Marty?”
“You’re back early,” Martin said, and flipped over the sandwich.
“Where were you with my truck?” his father asked.
“My friends had a homecoming party for me at The Barn.”
“Dang son, you dressed like that to go there?” His father chuckled. “You must’ve stood out in that crowd.”
“You ever go down there, Pop?” Martin asked.
“Nah, it’s for young people. Old drunks should stay at home. You weren’t drinking and driving in my truck were you?” he asked.
“I only had a couple. It wasn’t much of a party. Charlie seemed to be the only one who cared I was there.”
“I hear he practically lives there now,” Martin said, putting the plate in front of his father.
“It was good to see him,” Richie said.
“Any girls?” his father asked through a mouth full of gooey cheese.
“None for me,” Richie said.
“Charlie should’ve gotten some girls for you to meet.” His father used the back of his hand to wipe away a string of cheese that was hanging from his chin. “You coming back a war hero and all. They’d line up to meet you, son.”
“Maybe next homecoming party,” Richie said.
Jason Graff’s fiction can be found in Bosque Magazine, Per Contra, The Rampallian, The Vehicle, Sterling Magazine, Independent Ink, The Examined Life Journal, Thunderclap!, Narzar Look, Bloodroot Literary Magazine and will appear in upcoming Romantic Ruckus and Orbits anthologies. His poetry has appeared in In Parentheses, Subterranean Quarterly, Third Wednesday, Meat for Tea, Canyon Voices, Ol’Chanty, The Delinquent, Clockwise Cat, BrickRhetoric, Zingology and the Split Rock Review. He lives in Little Falls, New Jersey with his wife, muse and editor Laura, and their cat Shelby. (Twitter: @JasonGraff1)