Old Ironhead, novel excerpt from Mark Powell

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:

FIREBOMBINGS:

HAMBURG, DRESDEN, KOBE, TOKYO

He flipped back a few pages.

 

FORT PILLOW MASSACRE (APRIL 12, 1864)

DEAD: 297

 

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.”

Pan­ic but­ton?”

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?”

That’s me.”

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.”

Yes, ma’am.”

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?”

A lit­tle.”

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.

Bob­by nod­ded.

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.”

I am.”

Hon­or­able?”

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.”

Yours?”

Hell, no.”

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.

What?”

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.”

Des­tiny.”

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?”

Fuck you.”

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.”

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.

 

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