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Robert Kelly had constructed the argument to put his wife on the defensive. It worked, as he knew it would, which, in a way, was even worse than having done nothing at all. So after Irene stomps around the bedroom, gathering together the stray pieces of clothing for tomorrow’s laundry, Robert grabs her arms and pulls her toward him. She beats against his chest, then succumbs to his lips and tongue pressing against her neck. He yanks the straps of her dress down her arms, pushes up and sucks on her breasts, pulling hard on her nipples with his teeth. “Ow,” she says. “Don’t. Don’t stop.” He grabs her delicate hands in his giant paw and locks them behind her back with his grip, then nudges her toward the bed with his knee against her crotch. “Keep quiet,” he says. On his knees, he pushes aside her underwear and laps the juice from her pussy, reaching up to put his fingers in her mouth when she starts to moan. Her legs shudder. He grabs her up from the bed and holds her like an offering. With his thick, hardened quadriceps, he pushes open her legs and enters her, gently at first, then harder, working as though with every thrust he adds another brick to a wall he is about to destroy. The veins in his arms pulse as he presses his fists down into the mattress, and his calves burn as he maneuvers his pelvis to reach the spot that makes her body quake, feeling himself grow thicker as she shouts the first syllable of his name like a cheer—Ra-Ra-Ra.
But Robert Kelly is no longer a fighter, a ballplayer, a soldier. Now he runs and plays golf and sells three-bedroom homes near the ocean in Wequaquet, Massachusetts. He only competes against himself.
After he comes, he rolls onto his back, and Irene moves to his side, her leg across his. She wipes the sweat from his forehead, plays with his chest hair, and picks at the dry skin on his nose. He lies there with his eyes open, spent, waiting for Irene to fall asleep.
When had they last made love like that? It felt like it had been before the children were born, twelve years ago. Nathan, then Andrew. Neither of them planned or expected, simply inevitable, Robert thought, whether he wanted them or not. He was glad they were boys.
But since the children, there were no more restaurants, no more visits to the city or late nights walking the sidewalks in New York, buzzed and careless, talking about their lives before they met (all those stories had been told and retold by now), or uninterrupted lovemaking (now they usually did it on their sides, faceless, quick, and because she said it felt slimy between her legs, he came in his palm to avoid ruining the sheets). They are directed toward the children, by the children, who don’t know how good it had been for their parents, would never know, as long as they lived, how free and happy they once were.
But today was different. Today he had come home to the house a mess, and Irene in the carriage house, sketching a bowl of fruit—plums, maybe—and the boys covered in mud, lying half-awake in the living room, with the television so loud his own shouts for them to get in the bath barely reached them.
“That’s enough, Robert,” Irene had said, yelling back at him as he began to threaten the boys with a smack.
“What do you do all day?” he said to her, his mind wild with an unmerited madness. The site of dirt, dust, and the occasional bug in the kitchen made his head buzz and boil. He felt it was a sign of disrespect. The kids didn’t respect him. His wife didn’t respect him. The bugs didn’t respect him.
“Me? That’s supposed to be a joke, right? You’re gone day and night, and the one afternoon you come home unannounced and the house isn’t cleaned to your liking, now I do nothing?”
“Look at yourself, anyway, dressed in … what do you even call this? A smock? What are you trying to be? Some kind of artist? Still?”
“I’m not trying to be anything, Robert.”
Because that was long ago now, fifteen years at least, when she had been an artist, and he sat on the edge of their double bed in the apartment above the Cuban restaurant they first shared in New York, listening to the yipping dog next door combined with the blaring horns outside—peaceful, the noise, something you could get used to if you were sleeping with a beautiful woman—and she finally revealed her work to him, and he reluctantly expressed interest, may have said, “This one is intriguing,” not because it wasn’t, but because he didn’t know if it was, and when she had asked him why, he grew red in the face and she kissed him on the mouth and neck, and bit at his ear and said, “I love you for not knowing why.”
Full of love then, full of a kind of disgust now.
He said with a kind of cool indifference, “You’re a phony, that’s what you are.”
He barely felt the blue and white porcelain creamer strike his forehead until later, after his brow took five stitches, and the lump throbbed with pain. But he remembered how quick Irene had been, to grab it from beside the coffeepot and fling it across the kitchen island. And just as quickly as he went down, she was there beside him with a wet cloth, helping him to his feet, to the car, to the emergency room. She had called to the older of their boys, Nathan, to take care of the house while they were gone.
Now, in bed, after the boys had fallen asleep, and Robert had taken advantage of Irene’s repentant guise, exhausted from the sex, the arguing, the childish fear he had of emergency rooms, Irene crossed her leg over his, and he could smell the thick perfume of her after-sex, the taste of him on her breath as she spoke.
“Let’s agree again never to fight like that, especially when the children are in the house.”
He knew they had heard them from the bathtub, saw the blood on the hand that had covered the wound when he had thrust his finger out and shouted for them to stay in their rooms.
“We’re so lucky, Robert. Aren’t we?”
Weren’t they? They didn’t have to worry about money or their sons’ health or civil unrest. They were sheltered in the best way.
“But maybe that’s the problem,” Robert said. “Maybe we need a spark.”
“Those stitches weren’t enough?” Irene said, and smiled.
“You know what I mean.”
“I don’t, Robert. I’m not happy. But I’m not unhappy.”
To say something like that was worse than being a phony, Robert thought. It meant you didn’t care what you were.
When his father’s health had begun to fail two years ago, she had been the one to push Robert to take control of the family building business. She had been sure then that settling down on Cape Cod would bring stability to their lives, order, and with stability and order, happiness.
For Robert, crossing over the Sagamore Bridge was like crossing from one world to another, and to return to the Cape was to deny every natural instinct in a body crying for him to stay on the other side.
Ever since he had graduated college in ’74, Robert had been selling paper products for Mobile Corp. He used the same tools of salesmanship his father had taught him when he was a kid, the ones he had used to convince restaurant managers and hotel owners that they needed his supplies.
“Let’s say you suddenly run out of tissue paper and towels,” he’d proffer with a young and winsome smile. “Now you have everyone’s germs on your tables and bar stools, infected food goods, sick workers, health code violations.… I could go on. Point is, your future could be full of glory or garbage. Really, I shouldn’t have to convince you to keep clean. You look respectable to me.”
He had made a decent living as a single guy in a studio apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. But once married and with Nathan on the way, Jesus, decent wasn’t good enough anymore. He took higher-paying sales jobs with Mobile Corp that allowed him to work from an office but meant they had to move from one uninteresting and depressing city to another. In Richmond, Virginia, they rented a house for nearly half what their apartment cost in New York, a brick rancher with a big yard and a carport. But it was summer, and the local stores had run out of air-conditioning units, and the fans only made them hotter. One day, while Robert was at work, Irene started on the laundry that had been piling up in the corner of their bedroom. After dropping the whites in the washing machine, twisting and pulling the knob, her clothes stuck to her bulging stomach and fattened breasts. She pushed back the wet hairs that stuck to her forehead. She had the sensation of walking through the shallow end of a pool as she tried to make it to the freezer to cool down, and fainted just in time for her head to miss the edge of the counter. Robert found her on his lunch break and called for an ambulance. She woke in the hospital, panicked about the baby, was assured everything was fine, just heat exhaustion, happens all the time here in the South.
“Well, guess where I’m never living again?” she said to the doctor, while looking at Robert.
They moved to Dover, then Camden, then Hartford, and finally had spent most of the past year in Rochester, in an apartment not unlike the one in New York, only larger, and above a Laundromat. Irene had gone to the local Goodwill and asked to have the necessary pieces of furniture delivered to their new apartment; then, with careful planning, and three or four cans of paint, she built a space for bright colors to combat the stillness created by whoever had lived or died here last. She painted and repainted the walls, put up new wallpaper, changed the curtains. All of these changes had little effect on Robert. He recognized a new pattern, but the vibrancy of color was lost on him. He sensed Irene’s unhappiness, her moving away from him into busying herself with never-ending projects. She’d begun to exclude him from plans with the kids. Saturday mornings she would be up early, the boys dressed, already at the door when he woke, saying, “We’re going out to the lake for the day,” and leaving him there to wonder if he should follow or stay put, if he was part of his own family or not.
Robert’s future, what Irene would accept as a future, was as clear to him as a silver star at twilight: first the house, then furniture and kitchenware and linens, country club gatherings, clam bakes, college tuition payments, one week all-inclusive resort stays, life insurance, retirement, bird watching or some other type of bullshit hobby, a condo in Florida, and a grave beneath a flat stone. He shivered.
“They want me in Kansas City,” he had told Irene.
“Missouri? Do I look like a woman who belongs in Missouri?”
“I don’t know. Do you?”
“You know how they pronounce Missouri in Missouri? Mis-ery. Because that’s what it is.”
So it was settled. He could see it in her eyes. He had started this life with her and, up until now, hadn’t been tested. Robert still remembered in New York after they had first met, how she could get a cab by standing off the curb and letting her elbows fly out behind her, like wings rising. In 1988, just before Independence Day, Robert had handed in his two-week notice at Mobile Corp.
The kids then were ten and eight. Andrew, the younger one, had his eyes closed as they crossed over the bridge. His older brother, Nathan, punched his arm.
“Quit being such a pussy,” he said.
“Nathan!” Irene shouted. Then to Andrew, “Honey, look at the boats down there. Whoever counts the most wins a prize.”
They sat up and watched the sails sink in and puff out, the flumes of white wash in the wake of churning motors.
“How many do you see?” Irene asked, and in his nervous excitement—at a prize, a treat—Nathan stretched his neck and scanned the water, shouting out, “Four, five, six.” He knew Andrew wouldn’t be able to see past him, while also trying to count the boats on his own side.
Irene passed back the last doughnut from the half dozen they had bought in Milford, a jelly cream. Nathan ate his prize with regret—he felt his father’s eyes scan the bulge of his stomach in the rearview mirror. But also his brother knew he had cheated and that he was only trying to impress Mom and Dad. Nathan offered the last bite to Andrew, who took the piece, crushed it in his palm, and threw it out the window.
The Wagoneer was stacked so high with suitcases and bedding and small pieces of furniture, Robert had to use the side mirrors in order to see the cars to their left. As they descended onto the peninsula, there was a drumming underneath the hood, then the sharp tapping like a clunky washing machine as the Wagoneer picked up speed. To Robert, the noises of his old Wagoneer made it sound as though the bridge were collapsing behind them. Technically, the Cape is an island. Without the bridge, you would need a ferryboat to take you across to the mainland, where each village has its Main Street and Sea Street and old barns renovated into antique stores or pricey restaurants with stuffed quail on the menu. The farther out you go, the narrower the roads get, the closer the ocean, so that at night, when there are only one or two cars passing by, you can hear the sloshing of the fishing boats in Wequaquet Harbor, hear the waves roll and crash and draw back into the sea.
Irene rolled down her window and stuck her arm out, letting the wind push back on her hand. The smell of salt and hot sand swept through the car. She inhaled and exhaled, relieved. Then she looked back at the children, Andrew with his arms crossed and eyes closed, Nathan sucking the powder off his fingers.
The wood-paneled Wagoneer hit the dip at the end of the bridge, then whipped down the tree-lined highway, sand swirling in its wake.
Robert and Irene were at peace for a while, still in love, gracious and kind to each other. Then they grew angry and aggressive, urging each other toward bitterness. Now, though, what lingers is a stale emotion, a sense of love he recognizes in the way Irene smells when she gets out of the shower, or, still, even with an extra thirty pounds, the careful way in which she dresses, slowly, so that none of the clothing bunches or wrinkles. Sometimes she kisses him just so, and he feels what it was like to kiss her, Irene Duffy, the girl he had met in her father’s bar, when he welcomed uncertainty. Embraced it. And fell in love.
All the following week it rained. Robert took the week off to nurse his head, and he slept the best he had in years—he took two Nembutals before bed and said peace to the world. The boys were in and out of the house, making a mess Irene eventually let be. Her nerves had never been stretched so tight. She had felt the violence in her when she threw the creamer at Robert’s head, and it gave her power.
When Robert finally decides to rejoin the family, it is Sunday, and again it is raining. There has been flooding near the shore but no reports of structural damage to houses or boats. Irene reads him yesterday’s paper, as she has done the last four mornings after he had complained of headaches, even though the headaches had weakened and were met by a slow throbbing ping he welcomed over the noise of the kids and his wife’s complaints about things needing to be done or things that hadn’t been done when needed. Irene reads him the story of a tourist who had gone missing. His family was stuck in the Farley House Bed and Breakfast on Sea Street. But it turned out he hadn’t been missing. He had jumped aboard a fishing boat leaving from the harbor two days ago. The captain, once aware of the man’s identity, informed the authorities the man was safe. He had just needed a break.
“Can you imagine?” Irene says.
Robert knows better than to answer.
After breakfast, he drives to the Dunkin’ Donuts on the other side of the Sagamore Bridge and sits with the New York Post, examining the point spreads for the NBA games. He’s been on a monthlong losing streak. He feels he’s due. When he finishes his coffee, he calls into Barney the bookie, an old curly-headed, cigar-smoking ancient who has been around since Robert’s father was placing bets on the Irish. Then he drives along the canal, and into Sandwich, where much of the land is untouched. Ruthless zoning restrictions have been put in place to protect the habitats of plovers and terns. Birds, for Christ’s sake, Robert thinks. What about people?
When Robert returns home, the boys have taken their mattresses off their beds and stacked one on top of the other, then placed their pillows in front of the mattresses. He notices the Magic Marker Xs on the cotton pillowcases, and they pause in their made-up game when he comes down the hall. His childlike curiosity allows them to proceed to hurl their old stuffed animals and action figures at the Xs. The boys soon begin pushing each other into the pillows until Nathan, who is big for being only twelve, gets too rough, and Andrew, two years younger, small and thin, smacks his head against the top mattress and falls to his knees.
“Dad?” he says, looking up at Robert through his fogged glasses.
“That’s what you get,” Robert says and walks outside.
Irene has lost her patience and is sitting on the back step smoking a joint, which Robert has asked her more than once to think about giving up, now that they are settled for good. He begins to say something, but having heard the door open, Irene throws up her free hand.
“Please, take these kids out of this house,” she says. “I need a friggin’ break.”
“Where do you want me to take them?” Robert asks.
“I don’t know. Somewhere. Anywhere. I’m losing my mind.”
“Okay, calm down. I’ll take them to the movies.”
“Not some R-rated movie, either. Last time Andrew had nightmares.”
“Well, I refuse to pay money to see a bunch of cartoons whacking each other off.”
“It doesn’t have to be a cartoon, Robert.”
“I’ll check what’s playing.”
* * *
The boys sit in the backseat during the ride to the theater, battling for head room in order to see the handheld video-game screen one or the other taps at furiously.
The two films playing at the Cape Cinema Double are Ernest Goes to Camp, which is about some yokel, a grown man who, as the title aptly states, goes to camp, and the other is Full Metal Jacket, which, according to the Herald, is supposedly one of the most accurate depictions of the Vietnam War. After reading that review three weeks ago, Robert has been eager to see the film, but Irene hates violent movies, especially war movies—she had vomited a quarter of the way through Apocalypse Now.
Not that Robert had been in the war.
Close enough, he tells himself.
One night, when he was seventeen years old, his father had given him a choice. He was standing in the hallway, in his grass-stained baseball uniform, with his sweaty ball cap under his arm. His father stood and turned and looked at him.
“Did you win?”
His father didn’t care for baseball, said that if one of your greats of all time was a three-hundred-pound sack of fat who could barely run the bases without coughing up a lung, then you couldn’t call yourself a sport.
“Get cleaned up,” he had said. “We need to talk about your future.”
Robert nodded and jogged upstairs.
In the shower, he got the water so hot it scorched his skin until he was numb all over. His younger brother, Brian, was out with friends, drinking cheap beer and flirting with girls. Red had no faith Brian would end up anything other than a cog. He didn’t have brains, or discipline, or a sense of timing. “You got your mother’s genes,” he had said more than once, and Brian would grin, not understanding his father meant to insult him. Robert, on the other hand, wasn’t allowed to leave the house unless his father said so, and always it was to play sports or help out at a job site.
Robert’s sister, Maureen, was standing in the doorway of her room with a towel wrapped around her breasts and her hair bunched up under a shower cap. She’d been growing her hair for the past year, and when it was down, it went nearly to her thighs. She was tall and lithe and moved through the house like a force no one knew how to rein in. Robert envied her. The scented candles she had burning were unable to cover the ripe odor of weed sneaking into the hallway from behind her bedroom door.
“Leave any hot water for me?” she said.
“I can smell it in the hall,” Robert said.
“You look like a lobster,” she said and got closer and put her hands on him and gripped his arms. “I’m going to crack you open and eat you all up.” She nibbled at his skin and grinned mischievously as he pushed her away. When the bathroom door shut and the lock was applied, he heard her start to sing something, something, how did it go, that song she was always singing back then?
“The way I see it,” his father started as soon as Robert pulled the chair under him at the kitchen table. The two were separated by the corner at the table’s head and side, which still had the scratches from the stray kitten Brian brought home a decade ago. He had found it in the woods one Sunday, lost, frightened, and had brought it home and kept it with him through the night. She had slept docilely, occasionally pawing behind her ear, and he had thought she’d be a welcome addition to the family. But after being fed, she clawed up the furniture and pooped on the rug and made her last stand there on the table’s edge, hanging on as his father tried to wrench it loose. Then, frustrated by its pathetic cries, he had squeezed her stomach until her paws hung over the edge of the table, limp, like wet leaves from a tree branch. He had looked at the children and his wife and the mess on the floor and table and said, “Most strays get much worse.” Then he took the kitten’s body, yet unnamed, out in back to the brush pile, tossing her there like a sack of grass clippings. In the middle of the night, Robert had woken to use the bathroom and, through the hall window, saw his mother in the backyard, shovel in her hands, digging a hole.
“Look at me,” his father said.
Robert moved his eyes from the scratches in the table and followed his father’s sun-reddened neck to his thinning, gingery hair and back down the slope of his forehead to the tiny crease between his eyes, where he kept his gaze.
“The way I see it,” his father continued, “is you have two choices. Either you get into Notre Dame or you sign up for the army. I won’t pay for a school I don’t respect and the army needs strong boys who can’t find a place in traditional sport.”
Robert had argued then about his shoes and equipment, the Pennsylvania basketball his father bought him that always lost air after a few dribbles, the cleat-less cleats he wore for baseball, and the holes in his socks that helped to breed a terrible foot fungus that he battled all through football season. After the Thanksgiving Day game that year, he spent a week lying on his bed with his feet propped in the air by the A–B and G–H entries of the encyclopedia set no one in the house had ever read. His mother rubbed liniment oil between his toes, letting the fungus cook like a frying steak until it was dry and peeling.
“Which would you prefer?” his father asked now.
“School,” Robert said.
“You’re not as stupid as you look, you know that?”
His father gave him the application and told him to fill it out and said he would mail it the following Monday.
“Make sure your handwriting is clean and your grammar’s correct. The way those gooks are fighting us over there, you’ll wind up dead if you don’t get in.”
College had been a fearless time, at first. He excelled in statistics, advanced calculus, and courses in pre-law and finance management. The language of his professors was exact. But he could not grasp the writings of Saint Augustine or the nineteenth-century impressionists. They spoke to him about a kind of love in something he had yet to comprehend, if he ever would at all. Sitting in his dorm room, with his roommate, Frank, writing in a notebook at his desk, Robert read, “What, then, is my God? What, I ask, unless the Lord God? Who is Lord but the Lord? Or who is God but our God?” He flung the book across the room. Frank shot up out of his chair.
“For fuck’s sake, man,” Frank said.
“Exactly,” Robert said.
In high school, he had trained himself to run and dive and hit. He needed to feel that aggression again. So he joined the rugby club, first as a lock, then as a fly-half. He bulldozed over the other players. His legs were cut and thighs bruised. That night, at the captain’s house on the top of the hill near the lake, he stood in the loud cry of hairy beasts shouting “Oy!” and crushing beer cans against their foreheads, while girls slid topless down the hill toward the lake, and John Bonham beat the hell out of “Moby Dick,” and sensed a kind of peace that never came with prayer or study.
He was part of a tribe, fearless and unaccountable.
In early November, during a game against Michigan, he broke his wrist on another player’s kneecap during a scrum. His hand limp, he lost his balance and rolled over to protect his wrist. Then the player on the other team drove the metal spike on the sole of his shoe into Robert’s leg. When the other player ripped his foot away, it tore the skin back like a thin peel of apple.
The following week, the team brought over girls from Saint Mary’s. They gathered on the beach at St. Joseph’s Lake drinking from kegs they’d rolled down hills and set up in the light from church candles. Robert made out with a tall, blond girl named Brittany. She played with the curls in his hair and let him put his fingers inside her. Someone finally got a stereo hooked up in the boat house. It was 1969—“Crystal Blue Persuasion,” “Bad Moon Rising,” “Get Back”—every song a dream or a warning. Even before his injury, Robert couldn’t dance on two legs, let alone one. Brittany found someone who could. By the time he realized he was drunk and alone, the cops raided the party. Slowed by the pain in his leg, Robert was caught and brought up for dismissal for disorderly conduct unbecoming of a student of Catholic values.
He was disciplined with academic leave for the spring. But he wouldn’t go home. He stayed in South Bend washing dishes at Corby’s. Why be afraid? he thought. Fear of the draft was spurring crying jags from bull-necked boys, fights between men young and old, survivors of the last war and the soon-to-be-dead, protests through the pedestrian suburbs of South Bend.
On July 1, just as he tied the apron around his waist to start his shift, he heard the dates being called on the radio in the kitchen. Someone turned up the volume. Robert stood brave against the numbers. Everyone was trying to avoid Vietnam; he had decided to embrace the fuck show. “Call it,” he said, catching from the corners of his eyes the turning heads at the bar. “Don’t provoke the sons of bitches,” someone said. But, by urging his number to be called, he felt the opposite had happened. He had shielded himself from the massacre with his own insanity. “Whatever,” Robert said, and, as he turned to start on the dishes, he heard the announcer call his number. He paused in the kitchen doorway to catch his breath, then turned on the water and started washing the large plates first, then the smaller ones, then the beer mugs and glasses. Walking back to his room in snow on the other side of the lake, he passed two priests with their hands clasped in front of them, solemn in the eyes. He stopped by a bench, put his hand on the cold wood, and vomited.
In the morning he called home and explained to his father what had happened in South Bend and why he thought the army would be good for him.
The call was short.
“I can’t say I’m surprised,” his father said.
“When I return, I’ll do better,” Robert said.
“If you return,” his father had said and hung up.
Vietnam was a death sentence. Robert knew it even then. If you made it home in one piece—or most of your pieces—the person you used to be was gone. Once back in the world, Jake Cunningham lingered near the football field and smoked cigarettes. He’d been two years ahead of Robert in high school, played linebacker, had a knockout for a girlfriend. He had gotten into dope over there and had a bullet graze his ear. Now he was part deaf. All his fame had disappeared. Then he disappeared.
Robert’s injury had healed fully by the time his group finished basic training and was preparing to get their assignments overseas. He had already written his brother and sister and told them how he loved them and that he hoped they loved him, too, and that he didn’t have any regrets (which was a lie). He did not say everything he wanted to say because there was still a part of him that believed he would not be killed—the same part that had embraced the show. He sealed the envelope and asked one of the sergeants to send it if something were to happen to him. The sergeant said that if something were to happen to him it would only be a result of not paying attention during training (which was also a lie).
Robert was easily the worst shot in his class, if he was even able to put together his rifle in time to get a shot off during marksmanship training. He often had his rifle in pieces like a sad child unable to fit together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. You needed a certain kind of grace and rhythm to assemble a weapon used to blow people apart. And when he finally did get the thing built, his shots missed left and right and high. His drill sergeant was keen to say that ammo was a much more important commodity than life, before ordering Robert to give him fifty push-ups, which he gave and gave, day in and day out. So many, that by the time basic was over, his chest was the size of an ape’s and he’d added three inches of solid muscle to his biceps. Because of his size, Robert was a nightmare in a barroom brawl, though at that size, putting together his rifle had become near impossible.
The day Robert’s troop was given their assignments, they took a knee in the barracks and waited with violent restraint. He remembered the sounds of heavy breathing, cracked knuckles, and a dripping faucet in the adjacent latrines. No one moved when their name was called and they were given their posts. Already Robert had begun to design a more complete kind of afterlife than the one he was taught in catechism school, one where he had his pick of beautiful women and there was plenty of beer and he could watch movies and play sports and never get old, which he thought was an advantage to dying young.
Then he heard the executive officer say, “Robert W. Kelly, Stuttgart, Germany,” and with his giant hand, he covered his face and spread his fingers, as though donning a torn mask.
Later someone asked him if his head hurt from the bag of horseshoes he’d been hit with. Someone else took a dump in his footlocker. Not until many years later did Robert think about those young men, with whom he had gone through training. By then he couldn’t remember most of their names or faces. But he remembered their eyes when they were told where they were going, and this is what truly scared him, not their lean, trembling bodies but the roomful of eyes.
* * *
In the pubs and dives and basement card rooms of Stuttgart, Germany, Robert felt free and unaccountable—one and the same in his mind—and he’d fight and fuck and stumble over the snow-covered cobblestones with bruised ribs, scraped knuckles, and a warm heat in his groin, making his way back to the garrison, slipping the guard five bucks, until the MPs were on to him for continuously violating curfew, and, because nobody wanted the job Robert had, the MPs gave him a few knocks in the ear and a demerit that would stay on a record he would later have pulled up for the first and only time, when he was on his way to prison, and this by the state’s attorney, who, being a Vietnam veteran himself, used it against Robert’s lawyer’s plea for leniency.
Robert spent most of his days working behind a raised school desk, like Bob Cratchit, in an office the size of a Datsun, handing out six-month job notices to soldiers returning from Vietnam. One morning, a man named Reynolds came in and sat down in the chair across from him. His face shined with sweat, and his eyes bulged out of their sockets. Robert had seen others like him, men who needed something to erase the recent past. Robert only had janitor duty at the gymnasium left for this work cycle. Reynolds didn’t look like a janitor. He was bullnecked, muscles strained tight in his white T-shirt, and a torso as strong and thick as a red oak. He looked like he was in the business of destroying things and not cleaning up afterward.
“You got something else for me, pal?” Reynolds said.
“I’m looking.” Robert flipped through a file full of blank paper, an act he learned early on, followed by, “Don’t see anything, unless you want my job,” which no soldier did because, to them, what Robert did was a joke.
Reynolds lit a cigarette. He smoked a quarter of it in one long inhale and flicked the ash on the papers on Robert’s desk.
“You think you’re lucky, don’t you?” he said, his gaze like a weapon.
“It’s out of my control,” Robert replied. This, he felt, was the only explanation he could give that wouldn’t further the confrontation.
“You’re unlucky,” Reynolds shouted. “Hear me?”
Robert looked at the man. A long, snakelike vein ran from his forehead to his left eye.
“I killed everything. I killed frogs and gooks and birds and boars. You don’t know how that feels, man. To walk across the earth with all this death around you and see the sky’s just the same sky.”
Reynolds stubbed the cigarette out on the sole of his boot. He took the card from Robert and then spit on his desk and walked out.
* * *
Outside the Cape Cinema Double, Robert lets his cigarette go down to his fingers and the slight burn against his nail causes him to flinch and drop the butt in a puddle. The boys are waiting for him to pay the lady at the ticket booth. They kill yellow and blue and red creatures every day, Robert begins to reason. What’s the difference between killing something in a video game and seeing someone get killed in a movie?
The lobby is filled with children in wet boots chasing after each other, under and over the ropes, until one plump kid no more than six or seven catches his foot on the rope, smacks his face on the ground, and rolls around screaming until his father picks him up by the collar and drags him out of the lobby like a piece of dry cleaning. The madness stops as the rest of the children wait for the four-thirty showing of Ernest Goes to Camp while the fathers sit on benches under the awning outside and smoke. If Hollywood really wanted to know what hell was like, Robert thinks, they’d be in the Cape Cinema Double on a cold, rainy Sunday afternoon.
“Three for the camp movie,” Robert says.
He pays the lady at the counter and takes the tickets and shuffles the boys over toward the restrooms.
“Now listen, we’re not going to see that dopey movie, okay?”
The boys’ eyes grow wide with delight and, possibly, fear. The word “dopey” has some magic effect on their brains, and even though they do want to see Ernest Goes to Camp, they’re now entranced by Robert’s secret plan.
“We’re going to tell your mother we saw it, but we’re really going to see this other one. It’ll be a lot better, trust me. And there’ll be a camp, too. A boot camp, which isn’t the same, but in this camp you get to shoot guns and say bad words. Doesn’t that sound better?”
The boys nod like puppets. They don’t fully understand all that has gone into this open disregard for their mother’s wishes. Not that they need to. They’re his boys. If he wants to take them to a war movie, then for fuck’s sake, that’s what he’s going to do.
The movie has already started and the theater packed with big, long bodies. The three of them have to hunker down in the very last seats in the front row, directly opposite the giant screen.
“It’s like having the theater all to ourselves,” Robert says, ushering the boys into their seats.
He takes the aisle seat and hunches down. This close, it’s like the soldiers are firing their rifles right at them. The noise is so loud that at one point Robert turns and sees Andrew with his fingers in his ears.
“Put your hands in your lap,” Robert whispers harshly.
“What?” Andrew says loudly.
Robert grabs his hands and presses them down onto Andrew’s thighs.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” Andrew says.
“It can wait.”
“But I really have to go, Dad. I won’t get lost. There’s no missing where we are.”
“Fine. But make sure you use a stall.”
Nathan, transfixed, doesn’t register his brother’s exit. The drill sergeant is yelling at the soldiers, saying bad words Nathan knows but putting them together in ways he’d never heard before. Then a group of soldiers beat Private Pile with soap because they had to do extra push-ups. Robert shares some of his Junior Mints with Nathan and whispers that he had a drill sergeant just like this one, a real prick.
Is it over his son’s head? Robert thinks. Some of it, sure. “This is my rifle, this is my gun. This is for fighting, this is for fun!” But when the audience laughs, Nathan laughs, and at least he’s having a good time and will probably remember that line so he can use it in school to make friends. Robert knows it’s cool when kids say they’re allowed to see R-rated movies, and part of him would still rather be cool than loved.
Robert is so lost in thought that he doesn’t catch on to what’s happening in the latrines toward the end of the first half of the movie: Private Pile on the toilet, shouting at no one, those dead eyes and the rifle at his side. But he sees it now, as though the images of the film from beginning to now have caught up to him in one whole burst of light, and when Private Pile presents the gun barrel to his mouth and pulls down on the trigger, it’s too late for Robert to cover Nathan’s eyes before the blood and brains hit the wall. Nathan screams and bats his ears. The sound is worse than the gunshot. Both theaters can hear it. Robert tries to hold him still, but Nathan won’t stop batting his head and even strikes Robert in the nose. Robert picks him up as he used to when Nathan was an infant. He holds the back of Nathan’s head against his shoulder and looks toward the fuzzy theater wall half-jogging up the aisle and outside under the metal awning.
For a while, Nathan cries and snorts and rubs his chubby face on Robert’s shoulder. Then Robert stands him up and swipes his thumb under Nathan’s eyes. He’s been crying so hard his face is red and puffy. Robert tries to apologize. He tells him what he saw isn’t real, it’s just a movie.
“But,” Nathan says, “someone must’ve done that for it to be in a movie, or else someone thought it up in their head and isn’t that real, too?”
Robert doesn’t have an answer. Perhaps because the answer is too simple. A grown man can go to camp again just as a private in the army can blow his own brains out.
On the ride home, Nathan sits in the backseat staring out the window. Even when Andrew has topped his own high score on the Game Boy and tries to show his brother, Nathan doesn’t react.
“You didn’t come back to our seats,” Robert says to Andrew.
Robert looks in Andrew’s eyes in the rearview mirror sternly, and his son’s face twitches. Well, shit, he thinks, not you, too.
“Go ahead,” Robert says, “tell us what Ernest did when he went to camp. We need to get our stories straight.”
* * *
Later that night, Nathan eats his food in silence, while Andrew architects brilliant, absurdist buildings out of the starches on his plate, then uses his spoon to knock them down.
After an episode of Cheers, Robert and Irene move about the house as though preparing it for another family who will be arriving in the morning. Irene tidies up the newspapers and magazines, and stuffs the Nintendo set and controllers behind the television. She is back to being a homemaker, which makes Robert feel even more guilt than the day before. He doesn’t know what he wants her to be anymore.
After she empties the half-full glasses and puts them in the dishwasher, they smoke a last cigarette on the front step under starlight.
“This has felt like the longest day,” Irene says, taking a drag.
“The rain finally stopped,” Robert says.
In bed, Robert feels Irene’s leg rub against him. Already her legs are prickly again. She says something. Then she says, “Kiss me, Robert.”
But it isn’t the same as last week: there’s nothing at stake.
“Not tonight,” he says.
“You’re such a bore,” she hisses, then turns over.
* * *
Robert spends the following morning in the trailer at the subdivision going over blueprints and piles of documents from council meetings.
There’s a knock at the flimsy trailer door.
“It’s open,” Robert says.
Candice Dunning, the wife of his foreman, Mike, stands on the last wooden step, her head peeking inside. Robert sees the glow of her face in the rectangular light shining through the trailer windows. She’s a pretty thing, but so are certain flowers and pop songs and moonscapes. Otherwise, she’s Mike’s wife, the hot blonde Mike brought to the company’s first Memorial Day cookout. She’s a married woman who up until recently Robert had maybe two or three conversations with in the last eighteen months he’d known the couple. She is soft and sweet, and a mother. She makes decent pasta salad and has an annoying cackle for a laugh. Her daughters look healthy. Robert is proud of that.
“I went to the model first,” she says.
“Mike isn’t here,” Robert says.
“I know. I wasn’t looking for Mike.”
Robert realizes that now. She is inside the trailer. She has never been to the subdivision before.
“What can I do?”
“Be quick,” she says, and he smells her cinnamon-flavored gum and something else, something distinct and overpowering, like boxes of ripe fruits stacked together at a farmer’s market.
He stays seated, lifts up her dress, and pulls down her panties over her cross-thatched shoes. Then he breathes in as much of her as he can stand. It’s that smell, rare and fleeting, he’s trying to take home with him, because, as before, this, he tells himself, is the last time.
Copyright © 2017 by Patrick Dacey