The child died in a sunlit market. The child died in a Vegas ring. Still, the years came and went. Wars and rumors of war. A decade of erosion that ended with morning. Maybe half past four and a taste in Bobby's mouth like dryer lint. He heard the dogs outside, nails scratching the porchboards, and raised his head to see the beer cans that littered the room, little aluminum barrels in a pasture of gathering light. Somehow he had fallen asleep beside a Coors tallboy, the warm glass bottle balanced perfectly in the mattress depression. The mattress otherwise empty. His wife and boy having not returned. His life having not been restored. Only the dogs to greet him.
He stood uncertainly, still a little drunk, and was halfway to the kitchen when he thought of his brother and remembered today was the day. I’ll be damned. So that was what the party was about.
He dumped Purina into several Kool-Whip bowls and filled a pie tin with milk for the cat he sometimes saw. It was two, maybe two and a half hours down to the prison but it was early and there was no rush, time enough to sit on the porch and watch his dogs eat, two beagles and a big one-eyed collie-shepherd mix. He was glad. He loved this time of day best, how fragile it was, the light a clean presence, not unlike that morning in Baghdad, the way it laddered into heaven. But soon—too soon—sun began to light the fields that fronted the house, broadened over the green grasses feathered yellow, and spread on down the gravel drive, past the shed to touch the swing set they had never come back for.
When it touched the wall of long leaf pines that marked the back of the property he knew it was over, and walked inside to undress in front of the mirror. Pulled off his shirt and stared at himself. He had gotten the tattoo in Colombia, a bald eagle with its white head and gold bill, talons ribboned with the slightest gleam of light, the most patriotic thing he could think of right there on his left pectoral, centered above the heart. It was meant to indicate some sort of gratitude, he thought, but he wore it now like a mark, a stain that would discolor and fade but never fully erase. He'd wanted that little shimmer he got when they played the National Anthem but wound up with a dead child—murdered child—and an air-brushed chest.
When his breathing drew shallow and quick he walked naked into the bedroom and in a small notebook beside his bed read the last entry, made last night in the midst of his sad and private celebration:
HAMBURG, DRESDEN, KOBE, TOKYO…
He flipped back a few pages.
FORT PILLOW MASSACRE (APRIL 12, 1864)
That was enough, his shame contextualized, weighed and measured, and he showered and pulled his clothes from the dresser Nancy had left. Some boys told him he should show up in his Class A's or at least his BDUs, get a little respect from the Corrections Officers running the joint, but Bobby knew what uniforms did—one motherfucker prodding another, comparing patches and campaigns—and didn’t want his brother’s release to turn into a pissing contest. He had the law on his side after all. For the last seven years Donny had been locked down at Lawtey Correctional in Raiford, a little nowhere town in the middle of a Florida pine range, nothing outside the prison but mobile homes and a skank-ass McDonald’s, all of it camped along the edge of a ten-thousand-acre National Guard artillery range. But today Donny was getting out. Didn’t matter what Bobby wore. He dressed in jeans and a button-down almost on principle, good Tony Lama boots, then, just as he was headed out the bedroom door, grabbed a ball cap with SEVENTH SPECIAL FORCES GROUP twilled across the front because if there was one thing he had learned, it was that you don’t ever know.
In the kitchen, he opened one of the Ripped Fuels stacked in the fridge, packed a thermos and cooler beside the box of Donny's CDs, the only thing his brother had asked for. His own mementos were as meager: a Swedish SIG 550 rifle and a single MRE (#4 Thai chicken), both in the closet along with a copy of The Koran in Persian Farsi. The rest was Nancy's. The kitchen full of knick-knacks and photos gone dusty and pale. His wife’s stuff. The way she had left it, as if all she had wanted was excuse enough to run.
I’m not the one who killed that boy, Bobby.
Those two boys, he heard her say. You and your brother both. But she had not said this. She had just loaded the Civic, strapped little Bobby into his car seat, and drove away. He rinsed his coffee cup and put it back in the drying rack, told the dogs he’d see them that night, and left for town.
Hardees was off Main Street and he turned by the sanctuary of La Luz del Mundo to pull into the drive-thru. It was the only place open and he bounced up to the bright menu, the cooler secured with a bungee cord but the other junk rattling, post-hole diggers and scattered ten-penny nails, crushed empties he dropped through the slide window.
“Arlo Phillips,” he said into the black box. “Quit snoozing on the job, boy.”
“Bobby Rosen.” The voice was scattered and loud. “You out early, sergeant.”
“Headed down to pick up Donny.”
“Is that right? Today's the day?”
“He'll be a free man by noon.”
“I thought I heard somebody say this was the big day but I never did know for sure. Well, good for Donny.” the voice said. “Good for him. You know I’ve always thought the world of old Donny.”
“I’ll tell him I saw you. Let me get some breakfast here.”
“Why don’t you come inside and eat? We’ll have us a pow-wow.”
“I better get moving.”
He took his food and pulled out. Plastic orange juice container. Steak biscuit. His jaw stiff and slow to comply, which was nothing new. There were mornings he felt himself growing old like a tree, long and gnarled, hands brittle from years of abuse. Everyone else was turning dumpy and pale, but not Bobby. He watched the housewives at the Dairy Queen, fifty pounds overweight and standing in line for biscuits and gravy, their fat kids hopping up and down. They would liquify. But one day old Bobby would just up and burn. Not that he didn't deserve it.
He left Waycross and headed south through fields of cotton and soybean, big irrigation rigs trussed across the furrows like suspension bridges. Hit the St. Mary’s River by seven and stopped just across the Florida state line to refill his thermos. He had the cooler in the bed of his truck, a few forties and a fifth of Jim Beam—a little something to welcome his brother home. It was for later, but he was nervous and took a nip off the Beam and a little more and before he knew it he was back on US-1 with a thermos half-full of liquor. Seven years was a long time. He had gotten eighteen months for a fight that went bad, not his fault really, an ugly night if ever there’d been one. Everything haywire and caustic.
Donny had almost served out his sentence when he’d gotten involved in an incident. Bobby sleeping in a metal shipping container in Baghdad when he heard. Fucking Donny. Got caught playing lookout while two men took eight inches of galvanized pipe to the head of a thieving CO. He could have walked away, fingered the men, cut a deal with the State’s Attorney, but wouldn’t say a word. Instead he lost his gain time and had another five and a half years tacked on. Bobby had shown up hoping to talk sense into him. Staring through the plexi-glass at the little jailhouse songbird tattooed on Donny’s throat. The one thing his brother would never be.
“What the hell’s my rush?” Donny had asked him. He leaned back and lit one of the Marlboros Bobby had brought him. “Besides, minute it even looks like I’m talking I slip in the shower, fall on a shiv that just happened to be there on the floor. Wind up with a four-pint transfusion and my name on a couple of organ donor lists.” He shrugged. “Where’s the fucking hurry there?”
Donny’s wife had already left him, his arrest not the reason really, just the last last thing. She had a kid with another man now, sick and shrunken headed, legs clattered down to almost nothing. Some sort of blood disease. Stephen, his name, a sweet kid, though Bobby wasn’t even sure the boy could walk anymore. For a while people had come like pilgrims thinking the boy was some sort of conduit of grace. But he just kept getting sicker and after a while folks left him alone. And of course Bobby’s wife had left him, too. He’d been at Bagram when he learned that, Skyping with his own boy when his wife walked in and told little Bobby to go in the other room for a minute, I need to talk to your daddy. She said some things about responsibility, about an absent father, but Bobby heard what was beneath it. In the end it was about her need, her want. And all of it stacked against the world. Which is why this is just so awful and hard. Yet she never shed a tear. Left it to Bobby to cry later that night on a cot while around him men snored and farted, dark for but the soft blue glow of men texting wives and girlfriends, in a fire-fight one minute and on Facebook the next.
After that, he'd come to the conclusion he didn’t understand the world. So fuck it, fuck every last one of them. That had been his answer at one point. Except it only went so far. You could only say it so many times before you were alone and what you meant wasn’t fuck them but help me, stay with me, be near to me. How we are all alone together—it had taken all four deployments for him to understand.
He stopped again at a rest area just north of St. Augustine. He’d veered too far east and knew it. Not unintentional if he was honest with himself. Which he wasn’t sure he was up for this morning. He hit the head and gulped warm water from one of the automated faucets. It was morning now, late enough for the sun to burn the fog from the wide lawn of wet grass that separated the parking lot from I-95, and families were out, piling out of mini-vans and walking dogs. Sun visors. Mickey Mouse ears. A boy maybe six years old, same age as his own boy. He hadn’t seen little Bobby more than once a month since his discharge, since the boys at CID had found no grounds for further investigation and he was quietly nudged out the door, his discharge honorable, his benefits intact. Today he was missing his son a little worse than usual.
He took a last drink of water and wiped his mouth on a paper towel.
He’d known what he was doing, then as surely as now.
When he got back on the interstate he almost immediately saw the mileage to Daytona Beach. Donny’s night of reckoning. The night was supposed to be a sendoff: Donny was finally married and Bobby was on his way to shoot a few camel-jockeys. They’d be drinking beer and watching the Bulldogs play football by September. Good times were coming. Better days ahead. They’d driven down for the 500 and after Earnhardt hit the third turn wall, they'd crossed the highway to the Hooters where they proceeded to get fucked up twice over—once for Old Ironhead and once for themselves. Donny was standing in a booth, pitcher in each hand, howling like a wounded animal while the rest of the restaurant howled back. He dropped singles from between his teeth into the cleavage of passing waitresses, which wasn’t really how it was done—it was a family place: Bobby could see several kids over near a bank of TVs playing ESPN—but no one seemed to mind, what with the pain, what with the unholy unfairness of their loss.
At least that was how it had appeared to Bobby. He’d sunk into the plastic banquette—drunk since noon—and knew he was beyond dislodging, crying and downing Bud. He was three weeks from Kuwait and then he would be downrange from those evil Iraqi fuckers and he sensed how tightly he scratched against the hard eyewall of the storm: there would be rage, and then quiet, and then his world would fly apart.
They were back in the motel parking lot when Donny got into it with a biker. Donny defending poor dead Earnhardt’s honor when the man pulled a switchblade from some hidden pocket and Donny hit the man so fast it seemed not to have happened. Then again and again, the man unconscious on the ground, a hairless side of beef with blood running through his nostrils and over the iron bolt fastened there.
Lawtey put him less in mind of the firebases in Afghanistan than of high school. Low cinder block buildings painted a piss-pale institutional yellow. A lot of unhappy people milling around the gate. Of course there had been no razor wire at his high school. Some mean-ass kids who probably could have used it, but no wire. Here there was roll after roll tangled along the chain-link that bowed inward as if shouldering an unbearable weight. It was the only soft shape to be found. The land flatter than Georgia. The highway a plumb line of hot macadam. The slash-pines in ordered rows. He didn’t see any gun-towers but knew somewhere men were watching.
The gate buzzed and he swung it open, walked to a folding table where a man in khakis and a Florida DOC hat sat with a clipboard and a Guardian hand wand. Early fifties, Bobby guessed. A patchy beard and eyes closing down in the corners. He gave the man his name and emptied his pockets, took off his belt buckle and walked through a metal detector. The man handed him what appeared to be a small pager with a large gray button in the center.
“Clip it to your waist,” the man said. “There’s a little clasp there on the back.”
“Something happens hold it down for three seconds. Somebody’ll come running.”
“I’m just here to pick up my brother.”
The man looked up from. “You Donny Rosen’s brother?”
“I'll be dogged.” The man almost laughed. “Good luck to you, buddy.”
He left his driver’s license at the control room and was escorted by a large black woman to a small sterile room. A metal table and chairs. An empty water cooler beneath a wire-grid ventilation fan. The bulletin board was tacked with fliers for worker's comp and third-hand camper shells.
“I’m gonna lock this behind me,” she said, “but you need anything you just knock. He's been out-processing all week. It’ll be a little while yet, but we’ll bring him in here as soon as we can.”
She looked at him as if she didn’t quite trust him. “There are some things you’ll need to sign.”
Sometime later the woman came back in carrying a cardboard box.
“His personal effects.” She dropped the box in front of him. “You can sign for em good as him.”
When she was gone Bobby removed the lid. Ragged Nike running shoes. A Braves ball cap. A t-shirt gone yellow with mildew. Donny’s wallet—his license had expired. Donny’s blue jeans—the Daytona International Speedway ticket stub was still in the pocket, folded around an illegible receipt from the Hooters. A time capsule on that night. And not a thing worth saving.
A little while later his brother came in wearing blue scrubs, his name and DOC number blanched off the front. He looked older, wizened, skin browned and smelling of sunblock. When he smiled—he was smacking bubblegum, smiling and smacking orange bubblegum—Bobby saw he was missing two incisors. Finally looked like the pirate he'd always been. He signed three forms—his official release, his parole agreement, some bullshit waiver—and a half hour later they were in the parking lot, not speaking until Bobby took two cold ones from the cooler and passed one to his brother.
“Happy fucking birthday to me,” Donny said. He popped the cap and sipped off the foam. Through the wire they could see the desk sergeant watching them, hands clawed through the links like a kid at a playground.
“Should we do this elsewhere?” Bobby asked.
Donny shook his head. “They ain’t saying nothing. They’re happy to see me go.”
“He keeps looking over this way.”
“They wouldn't have me back.” He raised his beer. “This ain’t even a misdemeanor in my book.”
He downed it in one slow swallow and when it was gone gasped and wiped his mouth on the back of one hand. “I appreciate you coming down for me,” he said, “but you know I can’t go straight home.”
“Mamma's looking for us.”
“I hear you, but that don't change nothing.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean you just can’t go from one to the other like that. You get edgy. You need a little in between time.”
Bobby looked back at the wire and off at the empty highway. “I think mamma’s planning some sort of welcome home for you.”
“She tell you that?”
“She kind of hinted around.”
Donny nodded. “I just need one night,” he said. “You could call her or something. You got any money on you?”
Donny took another beer from the cooler. “Call her and ask her to wait one night.” He opened the passenger side door. “Folks from church is all it’ll be. I don’t want to see them anyway.”
They ate at a Taco Bell out near the interstate. His brother looking older and meaner by the minute.
“For the last six months I’ve just laid in my bunk and thought about today,” Donny said. They were outside at a metal picnic table, cars stacked up by the on-ramp, a tour bus unloading in the parking lot. They were drinking forties from the silver cans but no one seemed to notice or care. “Then it gets here.” He shrugged. “Shit turns out just like everything else.” He pointed his burrito at the highway. “Let’s head south for a little. What’s the next town down?”
“Daytona, I guess.”
“Scene of the crime. That’d be perfect, wouldn’t it?”
When they were headed south Donny took his face from the window and looked at Bobby. He’d been snoozing since they pulled out, since Bobby had called their mother to tell her they wouldn’t be in until tomorrow, nothing big, just a snag with the paperwork.
“So you’re all the way out yourself now?” Donny said.
“Mamma never said much in her letters.” Donny with his eyes on the road, the forty clutched between his thighs. He had put on the old tennis shoes and jeans but left on the blue scrub top. Bobby was embarrassed he hadn’t thought to bring him anything. “Talked about the church mostly. She went on about Marsha for a while till I told her to just forget it. But I never knew for sure if you were all the way out or not.”
“That’s what the paper said.”
A few miles later Donny spoke again: “Combat Tracker. That’s the MOS, wasn’t it?” He sipped the beer. I-95 a green wash. Billboards and fruit stands. Cut-rate tickets for theme parks. Neil Young's “After the Gold Rush” was on and Bobby remembered Donny playing it over and over growing up, maybe seventeen and the music vibrating through the walls. “I never understood how you could call a man that,” Donny said, “and then he goes and tracks somebody in combat and they want to lock him up.”
“It wasn’t that simple.”
“And to bring up all the Vegas shit. Like we had planned the thing from birth.”
“It really wasn’t simple at all.”
“I never said it was simple. I just said I can’t understand it.” He turned in the seat and fumbled with the slide window. “Think I can reach that fifth? I meant to put it up here with us.”
“We’ll be in town in fifteen minutes.”
He turned around in the seat. “You realize I haven’t had liquor in almost eighteen hundred days. Had some nasty homebrew but nothing else. Liquor and pussy. I been dry on both counts.”
They took the Ormond Beach exit and drove down A1-A, the highway clotted with traffic lights and families at crosswalks, arms full of babies and beach chairs. Late morning by the time they got a room at the Beachsider. Twenty-second floor. A balcony overlooking what you could see of the white sand though it was mostly just jeeps and pickups. Sun flashing off radio aerials. Folks plopped down with their coolers and umbrellas. Bobby took off his shoes and lay on one of the beds while Donny took a shower.
“I need to get some things,” he said when he came out. He sat on the end of the bed and flipped on the TV. “Just maybe some jeans and a shirt. My underwear’s all right.”
“Get whatever you need.”
“Look at this,” Donny said. “The Spice Channel. That shit’s On Demand. I tell you some cat inside figured out how to rewire something or other and we had it going for maybe three days before they caught on? Every con in the joint packed into that sweaty little box.” He shook his head and killed the power. “If you can float me I’ll hit you back as soon as we get home.”
Bobby pointed to the dresser. “My wallet’s right there. Take what you need.”
“I’ll hit you back as soon as we get home. I got some money coming my way.”
He watched his brother count several bills, twenty, maybe thirty dollars.
“Take—” Bobby said, and watched him leave the bills on the dresser and slide the entire wallet into his pocket. When the door shut Bobby closed his eyes. He had about four hundred dollars on him after paying for the room. Four hundred dollars and a Visa that may or may not be canceled by now. He didn’t care. His only brother. Bobby had a job managing a giant pine plantation called the Farmton Tract. It didn’t pay much but it paid in cash. He could withstand the loss.
He went into the bathroom, pissed and swallowed the vitamins he carried everywhere. A multi, Omega-3, B-complex. A plastic spoon of granulated creatine chased with tap water. Closed the bulk curtains and shut his eyes. Could feel the creatine between his teeth, the grit. He slid his tongue along his gums. His notebook was on the nightstand but he didn't bother opening it, just lay there, tongue working the warm space of his mouth. Atrocity, he remembered, is defined as 1. atrocious behavior or condition; brutality, cruelty, etc. 2. an atrocious act. And 3.—the one he thought of the most, the one he thought of right now—a very displeasing or tasteless thing.
When he woke it was almost one and Donny still wasn’t back. Bobby was itchy and hot but lay there a moment longer, tried to sort the dream that was already fading. It was Nancy, he was sure of that much. Nancy that first time together, the way she looked at him, those liquid brown eyes rolling over his face, mouth twitching with the slightest hint of amusement.
Who is this man?
He was stationed at Camp Merrill in north Georgia and on their first date they took a canoe down the Chattooga in the middle of a drought—his idea, a terrible idea—and he remembered the way she looked at him after they dragged the sixteen-foot Old Town over the riverbed and were drifting in the warm waning light, the sun sinking slowly into the long evening, that languid sensuality as they floated past Russell Bridge. The day was hot and heady with the smell of laurel and jasmine and they kept having to stop to pull the canoe through broad shoals of egg-shell rock. But it was worth it to glide atop the deep pools, the surface a gauzy green and dusted with pollen. Bobby in the back and Nancy reclined into him, her head in his lap and bare feet on the gunwales. Her bathing suit was blue and clung to her stomach and when he took his face from her hair Bobby could see into the dark hollow between her breasts. They took out at Earl’s Ford and wound up making love on a stack of life vests in the bed of his pickup, calves sandy, shoulders pink with the first blush of sunburn, alone in the graveled parking lot while above the sun slid west, slow as an hour hand.
The rest came quickly. They married and bought the house in Fayetteville between his deployments to Colombia and East Timor, their wedding reception at a white-columned inn, a colossal birthday cake screened from the highway by staggered rows of Eastern Hemlock. Bobby in his dress uniform. Nancy in her mother’s A-line with its brocade corset and long train that spilled behind them as they hurried down the front steps beneath an arch of swords.
He put his hand beneath the sheets and slipped it into his boxers, held himself, thought of Nancy and waited. It scared him how monogamous he had been, all around him men and women hooking up in barracks or at resupply posts. Bagram one giant swingers club. The Green Zone. Eating in a KBR cafeteria before screwing some leggy second lieutenant in a back room at the motor pool. Body armor and a box of Trojans—he knew men who wouldn’t take two steps without both. But he hadn’t even looked, let alone touched, and wondered now if that had been his undoing, his failure to adapt. He gave himself a few soft tugs. When he fantasized it had been some incarnation of Nancy, Nancy younger or Nancy older, Nancy that summer they spent a week on the Outer Banks. Nancy the weekend they got snowed under in Gatlinburg, just the two of them and a big jug of red wine. But to hell with it. He took his hand away and opened his eyes. He could lie here all day and didn’t think it would happen.
He got dressed and drank down what was left of the Ripped Fuel, found a gym in the phone book and started walking up Beach Street past several surf shops. Farther along the street devolved into a wino seediness, better than half the stores shuttered, a shopping cart rusted on the curb beneath a sign marked NO PANHANDLING. Brown-bagged parking meters and trash that had blown against the boarded front of what had once been a beauty supply store. But it looked like a good gym, windowless and constructed from cinder blocks. The silhouette of a boxer crouched beside cursive script that read Olunsky’s Boxing and Fitness Emporium.
Bobby hadn’t been in a gym in years. He still hit the heavy bag out in his shed at home or out at the Farmtown tract, but somehow the gym was different, something about standing there, hands taped and gloved—it felt like coming home. He and Donny had grown up boxing. Donny was the one with the talent but Bobby had stayed with it. He knew now he shouldn't have. He was a patient and skilled practitioner, but that didn’t mean he could fight. He boxed his way through Golden Gloves mostly on guts, slipping through the lower rounds only to lose some bloody decision at another obscure regional championship in Jacksonville or Savannah. But he had never quit, and by twenty he and Donny were living in the Palm in Vegas, fighting Saturday night undercards for five large.
Bobby was lean and small-fisted but he was also a gym-rat, gorging on eighteen-mile runs and three-hour weightlifting sessions. Manny Almodovar had trained them before Manny’s Parkinson got bad and Manny had a conditioning circuit he ran his boys through called ‘The Gauntlet.’ Most fighters made it through two, maybe three times if they were particularly badass. Bobby ran The Gauntlet eight times and was on his way to number nine when he simply keeled over. This fantastically muscled body lying on the rubberized floor, twitching. Manny told him later it was like watching a horse die.
But intangibles can only float a fighter so far, and eventually it turned, just as Bobby had known it would. By twenty-one he was getting routinely knocked out. By twenty-two he was sliding toward complete obscurity. He took a bad beating one night against a left-handed Mexican and finally had the good sense to walk away. Donny agreed but wanted one last hurrah. The fight against the Puerto Rican was supposed to be it, a sort of rear-guard action, a last payday before he followed his big brother back home to Georgia. But the Puerto Rican wasn’t supposed to be seventeen, and he wasn’t supposed to be as narrow and lithe as a fawn. And Donny most definitely wasn’t supposed to kill him. But it happened because, as Manny told him, that kind of bad energy is always everywhere around us, lurking. Donny had just been unlucky. He didn’t mention the kid. Then everybody went home to try and pretend like nothing had happened.
What had followed in Iraq—Bobby was always thinking of the similarity in age, the same dusty skin glossed with sweat—had proven that it wasn’t so much bad luck as the mean edge of the universe, the certainty that violence would always and forever hang about him and his brother. An ugly avenging angel, but avenging what he guessed he would never know.
He hit the bags for maybe an hour, skipped rope and locked his feet into the sit-up board. It was almost three when he got back to the room. He showered and was back on the bed when Donny came in carrying a brown grocery sack and a shopping bag from TJ Max.
“I got some needed shit,” Donny said, and took out a bottle of Wild Turkey and a Ziploc of pills. “Met a girl, too.”
“You got something on you.”
Donny looked at his shirt front. “Blood.”
He changed in the bathroom and went up the hall to fill the ice bucket, came back and topped two plastic cups with Wild Turkey and ice. He handed Bobby a cup.
“This is the official cheers right here.”
“What are we toasting?”
“Everything,” Donny said. “Me getting out. You moving on.” He raised his cup. “This is to us getting over things.” He drank and dumped the plastic baggie on the bed. Xanax and Oxy 30s, Percocet and Celebrex. A few others Bobby couldn't identify.
“Now,” he said, “let me tell you about this girl.”
The girl had dropped out of Flagler College and danced at a club called Soft Tails. Twenty-one, maybe twenty-two. Half Seminole. Her family wealthy horse people up near Ocala. They were meeting her that evening but Donny wanted some food first, some by God real food. They passed the Speedway and drove a few miles to a steakhouse he had heard about. An old mafia joint where Capone was said to have stopped on his way back and forth to Miami. The building a white stucco monolith with a wide picture window along the back wall overlooking the Tomoka River. But no sign out front, no tourists. Just grass-fed Wagyu beef and a six-page wine list. They sat at a table and drank Johnnie Walker on the rocks.
“I need to get a cell phone,” Donny said. “I saw a Verizon place back up the highway.”
“How much of that money’s left?”
“Look here.” Donny turned his arm over to reveal a number scrawled in Sharpie. “She remembered to include the area code, just in case, I guess.”
“This the girl?”
“Kristen. You’ll like her.”
Their steaks came and they ate quietly, alone in the dark cavernous space, the restaurant seemingly abandoned but for a single elderly waiter and several ferns sprawling out of brass planters.
“Mamma wasn’t upset when you called her?” Donny asked.
“She was all right. Worried but all right.”
“What’ve people said about it? Me coming home.”
“They’re glad of it. They think you got railroaded.”
“I’m sure there’s plenty that aren’t so pleased.”
“The ones I talk to are glad of it.”
“Except I heard you don’t talk to anybody anymore.”
Bobby didn’t say anything.
“I'm not accusing,” Donny said. “There ain’t a soul I’d bother talking to either.”
They drove to a strip mall where Donny bought a cell phone. Bobby paid while Donny took the phone into the bathroom. They were getting in the truck when a message came in.
“That’s my girl,” Donny said.
He held up the picture of blurred flesh and smiled.
“What’d you send her?”
“Fuck, bro. What do you think I sent her? These kids know how to reciprocate.”
It was twilight by the time they arrived at the club, still early, the place empty and over-lit, the music quiet. A man kept walking onstage and gesturing for the stage lights to be raised or lowered. They sat at the bar and drank Jack and Cokes with several old men with comb-overs and boat-shoes, Donny’s fingers jumping as the volume gradually increased. Bobby watched his brother’s hands. His own hands throbbed and he clutched them in his lap as if they were warm animals, nearly-slain doves dying slowly, each in quiet possession of its own hurt. The pain was something he had come to accept, but tonight it was somehow worse. He realized all he wanted was to go back to the hotel.
“She ain’t here,” Bobby said.
“Give it time, brother.”
“You all right?”
Donny switched his eyes from the door to the stage and back to the door, fished through a bowl of mixed nuts on the bar. “What’s that?”
“Whose blood was that on your shirt?”
Donny smiled and motioned for two more drinks. “How’s little Bobby? I bet Nancy keeps him on a pretty short leash?” He laughed. “Both of you, I bet.”
“He’s doing all right. Seven years old. Will be on his birthday.”
“Seven years old. Goddamn.” He took a cashew from the bowl. “I heard Marsha’s boy’s dying. Some blood disease or something.”
“He’s pretty bad off. Some people claim he has these visions.”
“Is he dying?”
“I haven’t seen him in a long time. I don’t think he’s doing any good.”
“I tell you this, when we get back ain’t neither of us going round there. Me and you, we got the death touch. Everything we lay hands on turns to shit.”
A few minutes later the house lights went down. The place was filling up, dancers beginning to circulate. Young women in platform shoes and sheer dresses sat in laps or made the rounds with serving trays. One girl with a leg twined around a man’s waist, a braceleted arm hooked around his head, finger stroking his hairy ear. A dancer came on stage. Smoke and lights and more noise. The room was cold—it suddenly occurred to Bobby how cold the room was.
“The fuck's wrong with you?” Donny asked.
“Something wrong with your hands?”
“I’m all right. They just hurt.”
Donny reached into his pocket and came out with a pill. “Take this.”
“I'm all right.”
“Didn’t you just say your hands hurt?” Donny asked. “That’s only a 30. Don’t be so damn stubborn.”
“I knew a fella at Bragg took a couple one night and never woke up.”
“So because some asshole went and ODed you won’t ease your own suffering?” Donny put the pill between his teeth, lifted his drink and swallowed. “You are bringing me down on my big night, brother, which, I can't help but say, is a real dick move.” He looked for the bartender. “We both need us a Jäger-bomb.”
A little after ten Donny got another text.
“She’s going to pick us up out front. Just leave your truck and we’ll pick the piece of shit up in the morning. We're going to Pound Town tonight.”
She met them out front in a green Jeep, three girls, loud and drunk, and they piled in—Donny in the front, Bobby wedged in the back—and went wailing up the highway, drinking bottled Sangria and tossing the empties onto the shoulder, the stereo cranked.
“So what exactly were you two gentlemen doing in there?” the driver—Kristen, Bobby guessed—asked.
“Enjoying the sights,” Donny said.
“That place is sketch.”
“Like coochie city,” said one of the girls beside Bobby.
They crossed the intra-coastal waterway, the bridge a span of humped concrete and decorative tiles fashioned in the shapes of leaping dolphins, the land ahead a scatter of light, beyond that the dark ocean, a few harbor buoys winking. Bobby couldn’t get a good look at anyone until they pulled into the marina. They all three appeared in their late teens—better than a decade younger than Bobby. Kristen was tall and cinnamon in bikini bottoms and a yellow swim-shirt, the neoprene tight enough to flatten her breasts across her chest. Several piercings in her upper ear. The other girls were plainer through attractive, pale skin, bleached hair. Kristen introduced them: Jeanne and Destiny. They grabbed towels and Donny hefted a cooler. Kristen was already hanging all over him, kissing his neck, laughing.
Down near the dock they met two large Cuban men, older than the girls but younger than Bobby and Donny. One immediately began to wave his hands in front of him, palms down, as if signaling an incomplete pass.
“No way,” he said. “No fucking way, girl. The boat won’t hold that many.”
“Oh, come on, Sami.”
“Can’t do it. What’s the word I’m looking for? It won’t—What’s the word?”
“Displace,” said the other Cuban.
“It won’t displace that much weight.”
“Then I guess we’re leaving you two fat boys on the dock.”
Donny pushed past the men and threw his shoes into the boat. “We balling now, baby.” He cupped his hands around his mouth. “Fuck you, Daytona!”
“You in New Smyrna, dog,” Sami said.
“Well, fuck New Smyrna and fuck you too.”
Sami shook his head and stepped toward Bobby. “I’m cutting your boy some slack, but I don't mean to take his shit all night. He might want to cool out.”
“I got you.”
“I know Kristen say he just got cut loose and all, but he still might want to dial it down.”
A few minutes later they pulled out, all seven of them and the Boston Whaler riding low and slow past signs reading NO WAKE. Across the water was a seafood restaurant with flashing neon lobster claws that opened and closed. Bobby could see people moving along the broad deck. A band was playing and the sound carried loud but unintelligible. Sami drove and the other man—they weren’t Cuban, Bobby realized; he wasn’t sure what they were—stood beside him pouting and smoking a joint.
Bobby was in the back, seated between Jeanne and Destiny, the warm flesh of their thighs pressed against his jeans. They sped up and slowed again in a narrow channel. Houses and dock lights. Lawns right down to the cochina seawall where boats waited, tarped and raised on hydraulic lifts. He listened: the voices of children, folks moving inside screened porches. Bug lights. The steady chug of a sprinkler. Families: entire lives that were not his. The joint made a round, another, Bobby holding the smoke like a mercy, longer than he thought possible while Kristen yelled at Sami to go faster and eventually he pointed a flashlight out over the water and onto the sleek back of the manatee that swam alongside.
Donny put something in Bobby’s hand. The other Oxy.
“Don’t fuck up our night together. Don’t let it be like always.”
Bobby swallowed it with his beer. He could smell the girl beside him, her strawberry shampoo, and it was something about realizing how long since he had sat this close to a woman, something about the glossy manatee traveling beside them as if in blessing.
Don’t fuck up our night together.
Past the houses the channel opened into the backwater and the boat nosed up. The night air was warm and thick. Moonlight broke in the fold of their wake. They motored for another ten minutes and branched into a narrow channel where they idled toward a spit of sand. Sami cut the throttle and the second man jumped onto the beach and pulled the anchor line. The night suddenly quiet. The water like blood, warm and viscous, salt beading on the skin. Donny carried the cooler ashore and Sami dragged driftwood into a pile, lit a starter log beneath it. Long dancing shadows stretched over the water, the smell of woodsmoke, music from a tiny speaker. The three-quarters moon in and out of the high cirrus.
Bobby watched in merciful confusion. Inside the pill there was little sense. The gauze of Bobby’s brain. It was not uncomfortable. More like familiar: the state he had occupied since his discharge. The trance of days. The job out at the Farmton tract. The absent family. The dry rot eating his heart.
He lay on the sand with his feet up and his head propped on his hands, the tide running in and out so that his heels sank deeper. He could hear them laughing and dancing, drinking and running around the fire that was now a small blaze. Visible from space, he thought. Not the glow but his own perdition. He wondered for a moment what his mother thought. Her two boys violent men. The ruined apples of her eye. It was always Donny who had excelled. Donny who got the girls. Donny with the genius IQ who could’ve made all As and gone to Harvard if only he would apply himself, Mrs. Rosen. If only he would listen. But he would never listen. That was Donny's undoing. Bobby’s undoing was that he had listened too well. To his father and the men at the gym and later to Manny out in Vegas. To the drill sergeants and company commanders and finally to a puny PFC who, in the bright wonder of an RPG blast—a street in Sadr City strewn with plaster and destroyed fruit and, right there on the goddamn cobblestones, an entire human leg—had watched a boy flee from the chaos and screamed: somebody kill that motherfucker. It was Bobby who had chased him down and done it.
He raised himself onto his elbows and looked out at the dark water, something stirring there, the manatee, he thought. Then he saw the dorsal fin break. A dolphin maybe fifteen feet offshore. He climbed onto all fours and stood, staggered into the water. Toes into the warm muck. Jeans wet plaster. No fucking matter. He wanted to touch it. He thought if he could only touch it there might be not revelation but light. He put his hands out and waded, thigh-deep, waist, chest. The dolphin appeared untroubled. Playful. Breaking the surface and diving, breaking and diving. He would go home and tell his boy about this, little Bobby, still small enough to marvel at the world.
He reached but it slipped past him, dove. He turned to follow it when something hit him from behind and he staggered forward, collapsed beneath the water. He twisted, but it clung to him. He rose up gasping. The girl. One of the girls laughing into his neck with her legs around his waist. She slid off and he stood near the rear of the boat, gagging. Around them a rainbow of spilled gasoline spiraled from the outboard. She moved against him and kissed him and he pulled back to spit seawater.
“Come here,” she said, whispering, her hands on him, her mouth.
He moved again and she came forward and finally he pushed her back and she fell into the surf and was no longer laughing but screaming at him. What’s wrong with you? What the fuck is wrong with you? He didn’t know. He realized he was sweating. Standing waist deep and sweating and surely this was not right. She screamed again and he watched her go up the beach, wringing out her hair and twisting her hips. When she neared the fire he thought she was naked but couldn’t be certain. All that shimmer. All that shine.
He settled back onto the sand. It was okay now. He knew he would see things through, though it scared him to think of how far he was from morning, how distant from daybreak. But that was the pill. Knew a fella at Bragg took a couple one night and never woke up. Which was true. Knew a million fellas at Bragg that never woke up. But don’t fuck up our night together.
He slept then, or slipped inside the walls of sleep. When he woke Donny was on the sand beside him, a bottle of something in one hand. He waved a finger in front of Bobby. The finger sheathed with what appeared to be a used condom.
“That’s kind of a dick move, ain’t it?” he said. “Going after my girl’s girl.”
“She almost drowned me.”
“Big boy like you?”
“Scared the shit out of me. Dynasty.”
Bobby sat up. “She all right?”
“She bitched for a while then passed out.” He took a hit off the bottle and passed it to Bobby. Southern Comfort. “Get some of this.”
Bobby took the bottle and drank. “What the hell are we doing here?”
“Having the night of our lives. Celebrating my getting out. At least when you’re not assaulting the talent.”
“I mean with them.”
“Oh, you mean what are they doing with us? It’s the fucking novelty, man. On the beach with an ex-con. The sensitive dark-eyed beauty.”
“Kristen’s more like seventeen.”
“She wants to look into my damaged soul. She wants to heal me. Listen to what she told me: Call this a bamboo cane, and you have entered my trap. Do not call it a bamboo cane, and you fall into error. What do you call it?”
“You always were lucky with the girls.”
“Mamma always loved me more. That’s my thinking right now.”
“What about later?” Bobby asked.
“There is no later as far as I’m concerned. Later’s just the next thing down the line.”
“You didn’t learn a thing inside, did you?”
“No, I most certainly did not. Pride myself on that.” Donny pointed the bottle at the moon. “Actually one thing I learned inside—you’ll appreciate this—it’s that you can’t learn a thing. You don't step in the shit twice. You know what I'm saying? It just rolls past. The first time I got the shit kicked out of me. Wolfpacked outside the laundry room. I knew it was coming. Been looking over my shoulder for three straight days and all of a sudden they're on me and I’m right there with my face against the drain and I can feel a tooth come loose and all this fucking blood in my mouth, you know. I kept thinking: it’s happening; this is it right here.” He shook his head. “But then later—I don’t know—it was just gone, the whole thing. And what did I know? I couldn’t even tell you what it felt like. So later I’m thinking about it and some guy, I hear him say to somebody else, this is real, this is fucking real, bro. And I thought: no, it ain’t. This ain’t fucking real. Ain’t nothing real. You ever feel like that?”
“I don’t know.”
“I suspect it’s a lot of the same shit over there. You get bored. Sitting around waiting for something bad to happen. But then when something good happens.”
“It’s like it’s the sweetest thing in the whole world.”
“It’s like you didn’t even know sweet before, like you couldn’t even taste it. And then it’s fucked up but you start to think: maybe it’s worth it, all the shit for that one little taste.” He flung the condom into the water. “You ever think it was worth it?”
“I don’t know,” Bobby said. “Maybe sometimes.”
“I’d sit and think. Knowing all the time the thinking is all there is. You get out or you get home or whatever and it’s done then, that’s the end of it. Which is pretty much where we are right now.”
“I still can't believe that nice girl let you put your dirty old hands on her underpants.”
Donny seemed not to hear. “I want you to look up at the sky. You looking?”
“Man, I'm serious. Look up there. In a few days Mercury and Venus will line up with the moon. We won't ever see it like that again in our lives.”
Bobby said nothing.
“You know what we should do, man?” Donny said. “We should plan something fucking epic. I mean pack up, get a bottle of Jack and some good weed and just go cross-country with it. I’d like to see the desert. I want to see a desert again before I die.”
“I don’t know.”
“Why the fuck not, man? Name me one thing that’s tying you down?”
“Work?” Donny shook his head. “I heard you were sitting out watching trees grow. Listen to me. Kristen said she’d go with us. She’s going up to see her folks in Ocala. They’ve got some friends in Arizona. Supposedly got this house up on a mountain we could stay at. She said we could just pick her up.”
“We got families.”
“We got ex-fucking-wives is what we got. And let me tell you this: I don’t want a family any more than I want a wife. It all came to me inside. Domesticity tethers you to this awful mediocrity. Without wives men would either be great or terrible but with them we’re just all of us some kind of nothing. Just plain. It’s no wonder you ran off to war. You get a wife and a house and a kid and pretty soon you’re just drowning in that daily bullshit. No, sir. No, thank you.”
He raised the bottle but it was empty now, passed it to Bobby as if for confirmation.
“I could see us out there on the open road,” Donny said, “just pure velocity. A white streak down the highway. We could blow up the universe.”
Bobby laughed. “You’re gonna wind up in hell, Donny. We both are.”
“Shit,” his brother said. “We ain’t going to hell. We’re in hell.”
Mark Powell is the author of three novels, PRODIGALS, BLOOD KIN, and THE DARK CORNER, and has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Breadloaf Writers' Conference. He teaches at Stetson University in Florida.