March threw handfuls of clashing sleet at the rusty aluminum roofs of house and barn, drizzling reminders of the solid cold winter. Winter so ornery, that after seventy-five faithful years of ballerina pink blooms, the peony roots froze to death. A trajectory of needle-sharp ice stung Johnny’s nose, driving him deeper into his rattling shelter, where he nestled in the corner on mildewed hay. Soon it would be March then April. The chill would step aside for the redbuds, dogwoods, and woodsy morels; the peeper frogs would ascend the trees and start their eerie mating chants. Then summer, with swaying lilies and clover, and robotically moving lilacs, heavy with conical blooms. Johnny got sick of the redundancy.
The house, neatly packaged in its splot of acreage, secluded by a mish-mash of scrubby trees and time-ravaged fencing, was home, smelled like home, decade after decade, peppered with the scent of warm cotton waiting to be ironed, steaming oatmeal, and last night’s dinner. In the forest beyond the pasture, ghosts of Confederate soldiers harboring unfinished business, thumped through the shadowy woods and trails. The family cemetery in the far corner, was concealed in poison ivy and berry bushes. Modest chiseled markers, stones, for the miscarried and children. Roots of sassafras anchored them snuggly in the ground, cradling the coffins and wooden boxes. On the ground, crusted with half-melted snow, two faded, dollar store American flags.
The house belonged to Brian’s father, a Vietnam vet, and his father’s father, a Korean War soldier, whose body was never recovered, but indicated by dug grave that contained personal belongs and later, the bones of his beloved spaniel. The men’s uniformed photos hung, tilted with time, over the fireplace mantel. A dusty, triangularly folded flag rested beside them in perpetuity. Brian’s father died early from dioxin poisoning (Agent Orange) and at thirteen, Brian had a cigar box full of his father’s war mementos and an impressive record collection. After high school, he enlisted himself for the steady salary, and soon found himself smack dab in the middle of Afghanistan. He lasted ten months.
It was a humid, cloudy Monday, when the rumbling, propeller plane skipped drunkenly across the tarmac at Roanoke Airport. Janelle hadn’t been told much; she knew about the arm, was prepared, rehearsed. The stump hadn’t completely healed over. She stood by the terminal door, holding the baby, Sarah, in one arm and a diaper bag in the other. When the door opened, warm summer air suctioned into the terminal and her expectations rose. She could see him, taller than the other passengers, and recognized him by his walk; measured, but without the typical swag. But Brian didn’t come through that gate- only the visage of a weary, terrified, scarecrow. His eyes, vacant and troubled, dully searched the room past Janelle’s face. She approached him-he recoiled. In that awkward moment, she wished the plane could land again and the man she remembered replace this one. Finally attempting a response, Brian painfully adjusted his eyes, glazed with the narcotics he’d been given, to lock with hers. His safety-pinned sleeve fell off his shoulder, empty. She held him carefully but his body was rigid. His breath met the back of her neck, empty, vapid. She encouraged him to hold the baby, but he was awkward and emotionless. Sarah connected with his eyes but turned away.
The humble, Depression Era farmhouse was a shrine, a burial chamber, and a cocoon that ensconced the 1940’s furniture chosen by Brian’s grandfather; each item in its respective placement, sagging and worn, covered with the now colorless, antiquated, unlaundered afghan throws his grandmother had made. The dishwater blond carpeting had divots that indicated where each piece of furniture was supposed to stay. Janelle soon learned not to move anything, as it upset him. The familiarity was the only thing that seemed to soothe him.
After several months, Brian became acclimated, but the change in his personality was devastating. At only 27, the jaunty, gregarious, brown-eyed athlete was completely gone, and Janelle was lonelier having him home than when he’d been overseas.
Living in the country allowed him the privacy to engage in fanatical tirades and marital discord- no neighbors to call the police. Still, the house became a refuge from the judgment of others. He’d come back early with nothing to show but an empty shirt sleeve-no medals, no stories of glory; only unrelenting memories of an irrelevant and useless war. Daily, his mind was bombarded with kaleidoscopic imagery: blood and bone, faces stretched in fear and shock at the moment of death; children, dead as bloody plastic dolls, strewn in the endless beige sand and dirt, contorted and naked; civilians begging for their lives, calling to a God that never intervened; a dog in the gutter, its stomach blown out. At his weekly VA hospital visit, he had a brain scan that revealed at least one massive concussion. “Not sick enough to be infirmed.”
His rebuilt Grand Am sat undisturbed in the side yard, covered with tarp. His nerves were too shot to drive, so Janette took over. He decided she resented it and created arguments about his “making her unhappy-she’d be better off with another man.” He’d stare out the passenger window as she drove past places he’d known so well but were no longer integrated in his memory. He was indifferent and distant. If they had sex at all, she was some enemy he was fighting in his mind. He’d sit on the back stoop smoking joints, looking far past the trees and mountains at something no one else could see, and he receded deeper into his interior chaos. A mess screwed together in a blender on high speed, he had what Donald Trump called, “the sickness of weak soldiers:” PTSD.
They settled into a dysfunctional, albeit, predictable routine, but his torments came forth in unpredictable rage. Pots, pans, plates, knick-knacks, regularly smacked the walls, leaving dents and holes to make excuses for. Pictures were glued together multiple times. Sometimes she could sense when one was coming on and made sure the car keys were in her pocket, so she could get out until it was over. Or, she’d preemptively direct him to “go feed Johnny” (the family donkey.) If the phone rang in the middle of the night, she knew it was Brian, calling for a ride home from Billy’s Bar, where he’d no doubt become nasty and couldn’t get a ride home.
The house was a stone’s throw from the Confederate memorial at Hanging Rock, with its dubious Confederate flag that beat tattered in the wind. 311, now abash with commuters, sight-seers, and its steady stream of obnoxiously loud Harleys, sat upon mostly by fat, middle-aged men and their fat, chicken fried spouses, sped along the rocky ridge into Catawba Valley. The noise of a Harley seemed to be a clarion declaration of one’s masculinity. Deer slunk into the road, stared with virginal, innocent expressions at the oncoming vehicles, as if posturing themselves for the kill. Raw flesh of some kind was the usual morning offering. (The bear accident last year was a messy one.)
Johnny’s barn creaked and swayed, what was left of it, as though it might snap-and all the glued popsicle stick boards would fall inward like a house of cards on top of him. The donkey stood hunched in his darkened corner. Slim shots of daylight cut through the gaps in the planks. His hooves were caked with mud as was his neck, from rolling in the cool, wet pasture. Unlike Ed, he did not particularly like being on his own. The dog used to visit him, but he was gone. The stray cats did not interest him. A bad tooth gave him constant nagging pain. Death, although he could not wish for it, because he did not know what it was, never came. An aluminum garbage can containing soggy oats rotted behind the barn. He yearned for touch. After all these years, he’d forgotten what it felt like to be brushed and stroked by Sarah and her friends; the thrill his body felt as hairs were brushed and combed, the feel of a garden hose bath. He dreaded the summer and accompanying swarms of insects that riddled his body day and night. But the only thing that really concerned Johnny was losing his barn. It was an extension of himself.
The house had survived several remodels, and now groaned from the weight of them all. Some of the old farmhouse was barricaded off with plywood, too fragile to renovate, too costly to heat. One of Brian’s first jobs after his Iraq stint was to be remodeling the kitchen, which hadn’t been touched since 1945. While deployed, Janelle picked up samples of tile, wallpaper, and cabinet stains, leaving them around the house to remind him. He’d put his beer cans and coffee cups over them. She dusted around the samples and finally tossed them out. The years collected. Janelle, with the help of her father, put up a swing set for six year old Sarah. Brian looked out the kitchen window and watched them struggle with the instructions. He was useless and wished he were dead.
She had her cashier job at the corner store and relished her interactions with the regulars, who often whispered, “how’s he doin’…?” She started wearing makeup and eye shadow that matched her shirts, wore her scraggly brown hair loose, and got her nails done at the eight dollar Chinese joint. Brian pretended not to notice. Friends stopped coming by the house. Their daughter didn’t invite friends. He’d made himself a pain in the ass. When Sarah asked her mother why he’d become such an asshole, Janelle pretended her cooking or other “business” required complete concentration. The truth was, Janelle didn’t have an answer. It wasn’t that Brian didn’t have a reason to feel vengeful and gyped, but more that he’d never been able to get any worthwhile help.
At night, Janelle often calculated how much longer he might live, figuring in his autoimmune disease from the war. She designed a future for herself without him: she’d finally sell that musty, decrepit house and move back to Charlotte. She’d get a new job, an apartment, and buy new furniture. She started tearing pictures out of magazines. She’d only take Sarah and Sassy, the family dog. She was young enough to meet someone if she wanted. She died five years later of uterine cancer.
After her death, any vestige of familiarity between Sarah and Brian ended abruptly and disastrously, like a wild amusement park ride flying off the rails and hitting a wall. They co-existed, barely. His negative nature had matured bitterly, like uncorked wine. Her mother had been the only adhesive in the rocky familial configuration that modern times now coin as “dysfunctional.” The “hub of the wheel” was sitting on the mantel, in a cheap ceramic jar. When the family dog died, (who’d been a huge relational buffer between them, as animals can be) neither spoke of it. Sarah cried and covered him with a bath towel. A case of Miller later, mustered him into action. With his left arm and chin, he somehow dug a shallow hole and covered it Sassy with a rock.
Brian set his coffee cup in the sink and shoved the stray tiger cat, who had snuck in last night and slept with him (unbeknownst to him) back outside. In the day, Janelle was a magnet for scrappy strays, catering to them with bowls of milk and leftover, warmed-up bits of casserole. Brian hated them equally-scavengers: the smell; the mistaken sense of entitlement. They wouldn’t hesitate to feast on his flesh if he died on the kitchen floor. They’d extend their legs and curl their toes, draping themselves over Janelle’s lap, who gazed lovingly into her eyes; inebriated by affection, swaddling themselves in the easy folds of her nightgown. Cats of various colors routinely leapt onto the table, and made good use of the oft-open butter dish. Long after Janelle had been neatly sieved into an urn and placed over the fireplace, the cats continued to push into the house with their whiskered faces, asking for something Brian couldn’t offer.
But Brian found unusual camaraderie with Johnny; perhaps because he was also misunderstood and found verbal discussions useless. He’d purchased him at a discount at a yard sale, and given him to Sarah for her ninth birthday. (A lump rose in her throat- she had wanted a pony.) Johnny lived in the tick-filled field beside the garage, in his three-sided (once four-sided) pole barn he shared with the Grand Am. The barn leaned toward the house, as if the two structures were grasping for common support. Johnny’s date of purchase was scribbled on a barn rafter with a charcoal briquette. His health was surprisingly good considering he’d never seen a vet. Brian used to trim his hooves with a pocket knife. Frostbite had taken a swatch of his ear; toes overgrown, and his eyes were misty with cataracts, otherwise, he was good to go. His pasture mates included a rusty Whirlpool refrigerator, a weed-enmeshed 1939 John Deere, and a set of abandoned bee houses (Janelle was going to have a honey business.)
Johnny curled up in the manure and wood shavings, listening to the engagement of the new season as it climbed and sprouted over the pasture. The sleet changed to snow, and crystals fell from the sky like hungry summer moths. Brian’s deterioration concerned Johnny (about his oats, that is,) until the fence broke with a couple good kicks. In the morning, Johnny was at the kitchen door, cocked ears, pushing his nose into the screen along with a fat white cat. From then on, they had breakfast together. Brian never fixed the fence, but Johnny adhered to his boundaries. He ate whatever Brian was having-cereal, toast, pop tarts…. Brian started buying him Apple Jacks and picked up an old dog bowl at Goodwill. After breakfast, Johnny dutifully returned to his pasture.
Brian’s visits became reliable again. He brought down a folding lawn chair, sat by the creek, and smoked. Johnny sighed and reminisced: Sarah’s birthday parties: balloons tied to his ears, allowing cats rides on his back, baby carrots and Fritos; Johnson Baby shampoos, and colorful manicures. He’d been fine looking then. Now he was matted with dung. Spring’s reemergence was over-rated to him. Colors seemed faded now. Dead things accumulated in the garden (Janelle’s cherry tree, her half-price hibiscus, the parakeet, Jeremy; the obnoxious shiatsu, Betsy, and faithful old Sassy.
Brian got the mail most days. He’d walk carefully around the potholes in the driveway to the mailbox that jut out into 311. He’d cemented that mailbox in the rocky ground before leaving for Iraq. Having been hit by drunk drivers a couple of times, it now it stood at a thirty-degree angle. School busses swerved to avoid it. He had a vague, satisfying idea that it was annoying to people. Poking his head out from the barn, Johnny trotted over to the edge of the fence on his overgrown toes, to watch the mail routine proceed.
Sarah, now 28, paid bills online for him: electric, propane, newspaper; donations to the local rescue squad (although he didn’t know about that.) She called Sundays to make sure he’d answer (which he always did on the fifth ring-just long enough to make her think she was somehow inconveniencing him or that he had been deceased all week, leaking all over the kitchen floor.) He wanted her to wonder about his wellbeing. He ruminated on her ensuing, highly inconvenient twenty-minute trip to see if he was alive; the distress or happiness that would come over her…. Before the weekly call, she’d crack open a Coors and search her pockets for a Bic, exhale her Marlboro contemplatively, and wait for that fifth ring and his inevitably annoyed, “HELL-o.”
Likewise, she’d rehearsed the sequence of events should he not answer: the race down the road, finding him cold, stiff, and mottled; probably the smell of over-cooked coffee burning in the Mr. Coffee. Then she’d call 911 (as stated in Virginia law if such death occurs without notice,) and contact the local funeral home. After the coroner’s John Hancock, the remains would be zipped in a black plastic bag and plunked down on a gurney. She’d watch the funeral home van bouncing down the driveway and turn off down 311. After an afternoon of contemplation and a handful of calls, she’d pen a brief and gratuitous obit for the Roanoke Times that depicted him as an upstanding American. She’d include the photo of him at twenty-three, in his service uniform (when he had both arms and could crack a smile.) He’d be cremated like her mother. It simplified things. He didn’t want one anyway. He’d rant about “greedy undertakers injecting him with formaldehyde, super-gluing his eyes and mouth, jamming his swollen arm and legs into a creepy suit…. “Just throw me into Mason’s Creek.”
The house. It would have to be torn down if there was any chance of selling the property. Then there was, of course, Johnny. He’d just have to be put down, of course.
In his usual pained condition, Brian continued to shower left-handed, rubbing the soap bar over his stump, and make the effort to dress. He’d meet Johnny for breakfast and Good Morning America. The rest of his day generally involved coffee, pacing, yelling at the television, smoking, walking to the convenience store for smokes and beer, and staring suspiciously down the road. The beginning of wrinkles posted themselves around his eyes and forehead; wiry, telltale lines that, rather than harken “wisdom,” reminded him how intrinsically dissatisfying life was. Every month or so, he’d get a ride to the VA for a “check up.” The doctors told him he was beginning to have symptoms of Parkinson’s: “how and when did I get upstairs, what year is it?” kind of thing. A symptom of war chemicals. He dropped things, had to hold tighter to the railings. He seen the glossy pharmaceutical commercials for that, including the upbeat others, which covered every nasty condition the human body might present. The disease drew shadowy figures, lurking behind the furniture. But Brian was much too jaded to be afraid of specters- he’d seen worse. But he knew this enemy was coming fast and steady. He’d put a gun to his head before it incapacitated him. He had one in his nightstand that had only been used once, to scare off a black bear in his trash.
The last time Brian had seen Sarah was Christmas. (He usually went to the Moose Lodge on Thanksgiving.) She picked him up in the morning and he stayed with them through indigestible dinner chatter. Her kids got what they wanted for Christmas. Always. Their technology taxed his patience and he endured the stupidity of holiday movies, video games, and her husband, Dan’s disingenuous smiles and then glares at her that meant he was counting the minutes until the he’d be gone. Sarah returned him home before 8 o’clock. Bouncing up the beaten driveway in her used Subaru, a deer darted out of the brush and glared at her with red eyes. It snorted and winter vapor left a cloud of exhalation as it trotted off. She hadn’t been inside the house in a long time.
She helped him bring in his packages and leftovers. As she dropped his bags full of mostly useless stuff on the collapsed sofa cushions, she was overcome by the mustiness of cigarettes and dirty carpeting. She snapped the light string in the kitchen. Exactly the same: peeling wallpaper, discolored linoleum floor, and his few dishes, the same ones she ate from as a child, stacked neatly in the drainer, the same drainer her mother used 15 years ago- the same counter where her mother taught her how to sift flour and make scratch cakes and bread, and slice vegetables without cutting her fingers. The window over the sink was always cracked enough in the spring so her mother could hear the “voices of the birds,” she’d say: cardinal, blue jay, chickadee, nuthatch, and woodpecker. A light was out in the hallway. Sarah went to the drawer beside the sink where as always, there was a well-stocked collection of bulbs in faded cardboard G.E. boxes. She noticed a stockade of meds on the counter by a bottle of rye. “Don’t mix your meds with booze, dad!” she called, but Brian had disappeared into the living room and turned on the TV. As she left, she was chilled by the oldness of the house and the antiquity of drapery-like spider webs that served as hammocks for the snow. To her, he was stuck in some cinematic wrap- the main character in some old film that kept rewinding and never had a sequel. Johnny knew it was Sarah, and listened intently as the car as it pulled away. He had a vague, unwanted longing in his chest; a hollowness like a scraped-out jack-o-lantern.
Janelle had given Brian a new TV for Christmas that year so Brian had his choice of channels. He could watch “The Price is Right,” (which he kind of liked,) The Seven Hundred Club, which he despised; he could watch the History or Sci-Fi Channel, or HBO. He sort of liked Drew Carey, so it was The Price. With his toast, jelly and instant coffee, and of course, Johnny, (who was now let in the house for breakfast,) he squinted his eyes out toward 311. “Another fucking spring, Almost time for another goddam time change.”
The sun was still going down by 6:00 pm. The stream was high and Johnny was sleeping on his side, heartily snoring, in the last vestiges of the sun. Brian opened a can of Hormel chili, plopped it in a soup bowl, and pushed into the microwave. It was enough with bread and a Bud. After Wheel of Fortune was “Celebrity Wife Swap” and “some vampire shit,” he decided. Too early for bed, he slipped on his coat and sat on the back stoop. As he opened the back door, a large grey kitten bolted inside. The sky was black and cloudless, a weirdly, not-too-chilly March. It was the month snake eggs hatched and mother bears panted in expectation of their cubs; the month when the wild moved back into civilization to stake their territory and garbage cans. By May, the hummingbirds would be back, swarming the porch where Janelle’s feeders hung empty and brittle, clacking together in the breeze.
The kaleidoscope miasma of battle: the click of a hand grenade and its subsequent echoing thunder, the rattle of machine guns, the splintering of mortar shells, the sickening smell of burning flesh and chemicals, the taste and stickiness of blood and sweat- they never went away for long. Seldom was sleep free from their bondage. He’d bolt upright or fall off the bed, often feeling the weight of boots crushing his chest and kicking his head. Then there was the hum in his head that buffered all of it, before everything was blank. The benzo’s didn’t work completely. Nothing did. Fortunately, he’d magically “forgotten” the horror of seeing his arm come off and left dangling in its socket.
At 1:35 a.m. a cold breeze tossed the veils of window curtains and he startled. At first he thought it was Janelle coming to visit, as she sometimes did. He kept the ceiling fan going at night to help him breathe, and it spun making the sound of a dog panting: heh heh heh heh…. Round and round….. Then headlights lit the room. There was laughter, the squeal of tires, and the explosion of his mailbox as a car rammed through it. Brian heard it crash in the street. The war sounds were climbing over his back now getting into his head. His stump began to ache. He fumbled with the lamp and it fell off the nightstand. He got up and turned on the hallway light and pulled on his jeans. Out of the window, he could see a car doing a donut, knifing around, and coming back at another mailbox. Johnny cantered to the fence where the car was passing, braying as hard as he could, and was smacked with beer bottles. Johnny hopped over the wire fence and came at the car, but the car crashed into the mailbox and stopped, it’s engine hissing. It had uprooted the post which became a spike that impaled the driver, pretty much slicing him in half at the torso.
Johnny stood in the road, eyes wide and luminous in the night, like dull flashlights. Another car came up fast, its headlights fixed on Johnny’s eyes, and there was a nauseating thud. The car finished going over Johnny and pulled up beside the smashed car. Car doors slammed. Boys were screaming, “FUCK FUCK FUCK!!!” One was vomiting in the road. A far-off siren wailed dreadfully. The second car U-turned and rocketed back down the road into Catawba.
Brian grabbed his loaded handgun and came down the stairs trembling. He blasted out across the pasture toward revolving police lights. He smelled gas and wondered if someone had hit a deer. It was then he saw the grey lump in the road that was Johnny. The lights seared the darkness like hand grenades as more vehicles surrounded the car. He could hear the loud, muffled sounds emitted by their radios. Spotlights hit a pool of liquid reflected off the road. His throat went dry and started to close up as he went over the fence, gun in hand. His left hand with which he couldn’t aim anyway. He momentarily stopped, shaking, and pointed the gun at the policemen. One of them yelled, “It’s ok-don’t shoot! It’s just Brian!” They all knew about him, and one officer slowly approached. “Put the gun down, Buddy. Just an accident. Go home.” He lowered his gun, crossed the road, and looked down. Johnny’s eyes were open and dull. His tongue hung out of his mouth, bloody, as he bled internally. The donkey’s heals flinched as the heaviness of death set in. His eyeballs turned directly to Brian, as if for help. The officer, silhouetted by headlights, walked toward them, his radio cackling, as a continuous stream of emergency vehicles flooded the road, further illuminating the scene. “MY DONKEY’S DEAD YOU MOTHER FUCKERS!” Brian dropped his gun and fell onto Johnny, furiously stroking his face and kissing him. A strange, obsequious emotion came over him, as if Johnny had made his life bearable, and he owed him. That emotional pain throbbed in his throat. He felt of the slow rise and fall of Johnny’s chest as the animal relaxed, shuttered, and was dead.
The willow in the pasture swayed without concern, its graceful fronds electrified in the shock of white and red emergency lights. The light in Ed’s kitchen glowed far away-the smell of new coffee and oatmeal only a few hours away. But the back door hung open, and the callousness of the present invaded the house, infected it with some new poison. A neighborhood rooster on duty, was agitated, and his crow further split the night.