This is what happens when you join the Marine Corps: you go to Parris Island and you get sick. Colds, coughs, shit in your throat. You’re living on top of each other in these clammy barracks with spiders as big as birds, sand fleas, fire ants, chiggers, ticks; not sleeping, losing weight you didn’t even knew you had. So you get sick, and you don’t say anything. You don’t say anything because they’ll call you a pussy, but you also don’t say anything because if you really are sick, they send you to the hold platoon under med review until you get better. They’ll wait you out for two years—broken bones, syphilis, whatever—and all the while you’re at Parris Island, this place that exists where humans aren’t supposed to live.
So I got sick, about two weeks in. First a cold, that cough the whole platoon had; then shit in my throat so bad I couldn’t holler when they told me to holler; then fevers and what was probably bronchitis; and finally, at some point along the way, pneumonia. By my fourth week I was wheezing through PT, with fevers so bad I sometimes hallucinated (one night: giant sunflowers that talked, surrounding my rack like mourners), and I wasn’t going to say anything. How could I? Parris Island makes you almost prefer war, and I got to the point where I began to hope that our activities in the Middle East would escalate enough that they’d have to speed up our class, and I’d be able to heal at MOS, or in the desert, where at least I’d be dry.
Eventually, I passed out in the patchy sea grass during PT, and didn’t wake up as the Heavy bent over and frog-talked in my face for ten minutes. So they carried me in for med review.
“I’m fine,” I said, when I woke, hacking up fluid in alarming colors.
“You’re not fine,” the doctors said, a team of humorless, antiseptic career Marines. They worked like mechanics, poking and prodding at my body as if I wasn’t there, and running diagnostic tests whose names, like all things military and medical, were handed out in the efficient language of acronyms: the CT, the SCS, the MPT. They fixed their gray eyes on some monitor and instructed my lungs to blow, or to suck, or to hold the breath as long as they could between violent coughing fits. They showed me x-rays, which looked like those questionable photographs people take of ghosts: white wisps of the damage I’d done floating across the black hunks of my lungs. They were scarred, the lungs, permanently. I was told that my body, which had been operating at the pleasure of the United States Marine Corps, was to be returned to its former owner.
I phoned my fiancée, Bridget, from one of the phone banks they set up for efficient group calling, surrounded by grunts saying things like baby and momma and sugar in those newly acquired, pseudo-southern military accents. Bridget and I were to be married post-Basic, pre-deployment. That was the plan. She said that our marriage was going to be a military cliché: young and quickly done, followed by a period of separation. But it felt less like a cliché to me and more like a role to fill. Something ready-made for us to slip into. We would know its needs and demands. Its dangers and expectations.
On the phone, I played the pneumonia down and the leaving Parris Island up. I made lung-scarring sound like a technical snafu, like misaligned brakes. But she sighed, and said, “You’re kidding.”
“No kidding,” I said. “How do you think I’d be able to call you?”
Bridget thought that once you were in, you were in. She thought that if the Marines had scarred my lungs then they should be unscarring them and that I should soon be out of South Carolina to get shot at overseas and she should soon be out of Syracuse for some on-base townhouse in California, going to outdoor yoga classes with all the other twenty-year old newly minted military wives. She was a very serious person for her age—bird-like in her pragmatism, as determined to not stray from the paths she constructed for herself as one is toward a spiritual or political calling. This is the plan, her life would say to you. Stick to it.
“You signed those papers,” she said, as if she still didn’t believe me. “They bought you, they can’t just return you like that.”
But they could, and they would in about two weeks, and though I thought getting out of that shithole and returning home, to her, and avoiding getting my ass blown off, would be the paper-thin silver lining on all of this mess, Bridget didn’t see it like that. She didn’t say as much, but I could tell by the sound of her voice, which was buckling and rumbling like an engine stuck in low gear, that any attempt she was making to keep that paper-thin optimistic detail in sight was failing.
“So you come home?” she asked, and I could hear her fingers digging away at her temples, gouging shallow dents into her skull. “When? And then what?”
I broke into a coughing fit then, doubling over to my side, spewing little dollops of green phlegm onto the particleboard partition of the phone bank and feeling the air wheeze violently away from what was left of my lungs. One of the red-faced hicks next to me started yelling into his receiver to gain some volume above the racket, screaming to his girl about her thighs and tits and sweet Arkansas ass, and then he started coughing too, as if this were some sort of fucking contest. This went on for a few minutes, the two of us like a chorus of the ill building toward a violent crescendo. I bent over with my one free hand over the receiver, held up in the air like a prize above my bellowing. Below it, the tinny sound of Bridget’s voice fought to regain my ear, yelling, “Ray! Ray! What the hell is going on? When are you coming home? Ray!” Then I passed out.
I stayed in bed for the next week, on a steady regimen of Ultram and various gases breathed deeply through masks, and more tests and scans, and the pathetic looks from officers who passed my bed and silently shook their heads at my body’s utter failure to their God and corps and country. Every afternoon or so some shitbird in a uniform clipped briskly down the laminate floors and said, “Malone?” without looking up, and I’d wheeze out, “Yeah,” and he dropped these small-print IRS-looking forms for me to sign in front of a nurse as my witness. Invariably, this shitbird also dropped pamphlets with titles like Transitioning to Civilian Life and Coping With Chronic Disease; guides to my new life. Every once in a while he’d drop some even more inapplicable ones, like Resume Writing for the New Millennium, and Managing Your Military Finances, and Resources for Military Spouses, as if there were a pile of random publications on the passenger seat of his car and a blind sweep of his hand determined what bit of DoD wisdom I was to receive that day.
I called Bridget only once, to give her the proposed details of my return, which involved a Greyhound bus, my civvies, and a five AM arrival at the terminal in Syracuse. She was short on the phone that day, asked only once about my condition, and sounded as if she was standing at the outer edge of some wild, middle-of-the-day party. She said she was simply on campus, between classes, and that she had a lot on her mind. She would pick me up, with my folks if they were available at such a God-awful hour, and the rest of that conversation was a haze, if there was a rest of that conversation. By that point along my journey that was Coping with Chronic Disease, I had graduated from Ultram and gas-breathing to Demerol and Lortab and absorbing all stimuli on the same warm painless current that keeps the eyes of all-night television watchers glassed over in passive absorbance. If I happened to wince a little more loudly than the previous day, if a coughing fit happened to be caught by the right ears, the nurses took a glance at my chart and came around with those little paper cups, propped my head up with a cold maternal gesture, and dumped the delivery system for the warm painless current down my throat. They must have had a medical bunker beneath the sands and saw palms and sea grass of Parris Island, aisles with barrels of synthetic opiates for waste cases like myself. An armory for making zombies of the recently worthless. For the zonking out of washouts before they’re cast overboard.
I spent my air-conditioned mornings dribbling Jell-O down my chin and entire afternoons reading all ten colorful pages of Resources for Military Spouses. And I dreamt, or hallucinated, staring at the fluorescent fixtures on the ceiling and the procession of well-groomed faces that passed like ghosts at the end of my rack. I dreamt often that I had been killed or wounded overseas, and Bridget would get a phone call in the middle of the night, and knowing that a phone call in the middle of the night was perilous, she would answer it cautiously, and hold her tears back. I dreamt of this, the news about casualty, but I didn’t dream of casualty itself. And it wasn’t bad. There was something so comforting in knowing she would be upset. I don’t say that in a cruel way, but I guess it’s like a reminder that someone cares. A pat on the back.
This hallucination was often followed another one, which felt the same but was made of drastically different images: me coming home to a radiant Bridget in an all white summer dress with nothing underneath but the shadow of her slight girlish curves. The hem of the dress comes down just to the immaculately pale skin that tightens over the muscles of her upper thighs. Her freckles have been reddened by the sun and the auburn in her hair is sun-bleached and the whole thick crop of it pours out from behind her head like a wild animal. I’ve got medals on my barrel chest and a big Marine duffel over my shoulder and it’s so painfully white I can barely make out the edges of the room. It’s like what heaven always looks like in the movies, that overdone antiseptic glow, which makes you think that, despite its brilliance, eternity might be boring. Except we’re in a house, and it’s our house. Bridget is saying, sweetly and happily, Why didn’t you call first, Ray? as if I had been late. And I feel the pride of someone waiting for me, and of a job finished. Then I come to with an erection it takes me ten minutes to realize I have. I’m sweaty, struggling against the blankets, and the nurses roll their eyes and bend towards my bedside with some more of the little paper cups.
On the bus, a trip for which I carried not only my Marine duffel, but an arsenal of Vicodin, I tried to conjure that image of Bridget as we streamed past the rust-colored fields of the Carolinas and the blue foliage of middle Virginia, and those deep woods that look like Indians might walk out of them to reconquer Maryland. I thought, or willed the thought, of the specificity and inevitable presence of her body—that taught, impossible, athletic body—one I had only glimpsed these past two months under drug-induced haze. But the harder I tried to hold that body in my head, the more and more I regretted the inevitability of having to deal with it. Not like seeing her would be the regret, but what would come out of it, the sudden and real possibility of making a life together from the scraps of the one previously set before us—of my failed body in its tragically diminished state—was something I lacked both the physical and mental strength to conceive. I had derailed Bridget’s path, our path, and was beginning to think that it might somehow, under these certain circumstances, exist without me.
But the sight of her, finally, on one of the metal benches at the Syracuse terminal, staring blankly up at the CNN ticker on the television monitor, did not remind me of the tragically diminished state and the grim possibilities associated with it. I stopped, let the green duffel, which I had the strength only to drag, collapse behind me. I wheezed a bit, ate two pills, and dug in my pockets for my ring, the engagement ring she had given me, because, as Bridget insisted, if she was going to wear one, why wouldn’t I? I slipped it on, holding it in place with the surrounding digits on its too-thin finger. No parents there, but maybe that was best. Maybe we needed the moment alone.
She glanced back at me as I approached, smoothed a lock of hair from her forehead into her ponytail, and, not recognizing me, went back to CNN. Then the second glance, this one with some mild panic, and then the getting up, the quick and deliberate poking of those long legs through the mess of sleeping limbs and luggage, the face bunching up like a child’s and going red, the eyes glassing, the tears beginning to roll from her pink cheekbones, the shuddering look of not-quite disappointment, of lesser surprise, slight horror perhaps, at the withered away, gray body before her.
“Oh God,” was all she said, hugging me, holding my face between those immaculate fingers. “Jesus Christ, Ray.”
We didn’t leave. We sat in her aging Jeep, in the parking lot, as a soft purple light rose from the other side of the city and the hustlers and junkies sat staring like cattle under the eaves of the terminal.
She was serious in the car, but covering that seriousness was a kindness that made every gesture she used and every word she said seem like it was work.
She told me that this would be tough, that we were too young for a situation like this, but that we’d work it out fine. “A new plan,” she said, optimistically. “We’ll be okay.”
She could do that. Realign and put her shoulder into it as if that had been the plan all along. Pull up the anchor and ship off like we were never supposed be there in the first place.
She was wearing a scent—cocoa butter, I think, from the moisturizer she used—and the smell of it, trapped in the cockpit of her Jeep, sent me to that image of us in the clean bright house. Of the breeze and the glow and the muscles in her thighs, which were now hidden tightly in a pair of jeans, bouncing nervously on the driver’s seat.
“What does the rest of our life look like to you?” she asked, with a level of sobriety that, even for her, was surprising. I hadn’t the slightest idea. It didn’t look like anything. There was no image to put in that place.
“Do we really need to talk about this right now?” I asked. “Do we need to have this all figured out and on paper like? I’m just getting off the bus.”
She was looking over at me, eyes big as half-dollars, hand to mine, rolling that ring around and around in her fingers.
“Yes,” she said, “we do.”
I felt a faraway but noticeable sickness all of a sudden—that hollow plunk in the gut—and tried to think of the bits of Vicodin being carried off by my bloodstream, molecule by molecule. I waited for the numbing to kick in.
I began to speak, and the coughing came up. She handed me a tissue.
“I don’t know,” I said, with that itch still in my throat. “Right now our life looks like we’re sitting in a Jeep in a parking lot.”
She sighed. She ran her hand over her hair and tightened her hair-tie. She sat up in her seat and checked the mirror like we had been driving this entire time.
“Ray,” she said, pausing to raise her hand in front of her, as if the words could be plucked from the air. “I can take care of you if you need someone to take care of you. We can still get married, and without the rush and the separation afterward. You’re not going to get shot at anymore. That’s some good that’s come out of this.”
In front of the Jeep, a father and his two toddlers were walking past with luggage, all of them eyeing us as if they’d been listening.
“I’m not seeing it that way,” I said, suddenly conscious of my legs going numb. “I’m seeing me, sick, and that’s about it.”
Bridget rose in her seat.
“That’s not about it. You can get better, somewhat better. I’ve been reading about it. You can’t be a track star or anything, but you can function. There’s no reason you can’t function.”
“I think it’s worse than that,” I said, which was a lie, but at the same time not a lie. “I think I’d know, too.”
The snap of a bus’s airbrake went off all of a sudden, like a gunshot, and we both looked toward the terminal, startled.
“You’d think that if I could give it a shot, you could give it a shot,” she said.
I didn’t have an answer for that.
So I proposed holding off the wedding for a while, until all of this could get settled, but what I wanted to get settled was a mystery, and if Bridget knew that, she didn’t let on. She just clammed up and slid her sunglasses on. She started the Jeep, nodding, saying, “Fine, fine. That’s fine. Fine.”
And that is, more or less, how our conversations went that week. At my parents’, at her parents’, on couches and at dinner tables, on front porches and in backyards. I was cloudy from the pills and not wanting to talk, or to do anything at all, trying hard to make that come off as reticence. Bridget was wounded, obviously, walking tip-toed around me as if she might get wounded further. She would devise something to distract us—a movie or a television show—and I would eventually fall asleep and wake, semi-conscious, with my head in her lap, that smell of her moisturizer doing somersaults in my head.
I rented the first floor of a place my uncle had, one of those old Victorians that ran more deep than it did wide, the kind you could picture in Boston, or San Francisco, somewhere bright and stirring, where couples strolled together at night, walking tiny dogs. But this was in Syracuse, where the West End met the Near West Side, and no one strolled together at night. They hung from porches, strutted, ambled drunkenly, ran from thugs, or cops, walked slowly with desperate or determined or dark convictions. The cops were around every night, the helicopter buzzing the house as if we were a forward operating base. I didn’t do anything—read when I could focus, watched television when I couldn’t. If you kept to yourself, if you insulated, no one bothered you.
Bridget would stop by, between or after classes in those first few weeks, and each time seemed to be more difficult. She would bring me groceries and DVDs and CDs she had burned that I never listened to. I had become a zombie then, an approximation of life. The weighty dopiness of my limbs, the breathing like I was forever filling a balloon, the quick stinging in the chest, which swam in my own fluids like pickled eggs. The pain, which might have subsided by then, was being replaced by an itching need to treat it. I was so heavily medicated that further medication was based on an assumption of the previous pain, my body never getting a chance to reveal whether or not it had healed any. In those first three weeks I’d been home, I’d blown through my scripts way ahead of schedule, and just took anything Bridget could get: Percocet, Norco, Tylenol with Codeine, even 800 milligram Motrins, which at that point could only work as long as one inning worth of a Mets game. Three up, three down. Onto the next frame.
I knew no one in the neighborhood, except one person, but that doesn’t really matter when you don’t leave your apartment. The one person I knew was Ramos, and I wasn’t too thrilled about knowing him. We had crossed paths in our childhood, some cloudy memory that escapes me now, and always seemed to stay in touch since, just by chance, like someone you keep passing in the corridors at the mall. He was thick, with a paunch you’d expect from a man twice his age, and one of those afro-ponytails that, if untied and released, would fill up the front seat of a small car. He lived two doors down, in a nice place with his two kids and a woman he doted on. I didn’t like him that much, Ramos being the kind of guy who operated more with voice and gesture than sense and substance. And now he lived a few doors down. He came up to me as I checked the mail one afternoon, and said: “Ray Malone? That you?”
If he had been there when I first walked out, I hadn’t noticed. My mailbox was above the stoop that led to the upstairs apartment, and everything that existed beyond that—the sidewalk and the kids riding by on bicycles, the man, unseen, who was saying, Now ya’ll think I’m stupid, huh? Don’t fuck with me—was reduced to the same unremarkable current. It didn’t really exist, as loud and volatile as it was. Things don’t really exist until you have a reason to care for them.
Ramos opened his arms wide, from the sidewalk below the stoop. “It’s me,” he said, pointing back to his face with his thumbs. “Ramos.”
I hadn’t seen him in months, maybe years. It looked like he had grown in all directions.
“Christ,” I said. “You live around here?”
“Fuck yeah,” he said. And pointed in the direction of his place. “You live around here? I heard you went to the military, went to Iraq or something.”
I told him the story: the spiders, the pneumonia, the general hell that Parris Island was and the purgatory that Syracuse had become. I think it felt good, to stand outside and speak to someone, even if that someone was Ramos.
“Damn,” he said, “you’re in some shape.”
“I heard of dudes comin’ out lookin’ like shit,” he said, “but you look like you been a POW or something.”
I nodded, flapped a handful of junk mail in my hand, and thought of what might be on TV just then.
“Listen,” he said. “If you got extra pills and you’re looking to unload ‘em, I’m in that game, you know what I mean?”
“I know what you mean,” I said. “But no extras. I’m not in that game.”
“Well,” Ramos said quietly, smiling and checking over his shoulder before he continued. “I got an-y-thing you need then. Anything. I’m a fucking pharmacy now.”
“Good for you,” I said, with enough moral superiority for anyone but Ramos to notice.
He handed me a torn slip of legal paper with his number on it. He must have kept a few of those all ready to go, in his pocket, like business cards.
“You call me,” he said, putting a thumb up to his ear and jiggling it. “Whenever.”
When you don’t know what to do, no is the safe bet. “Let’s take a walk,” Bridget would say, trying, “or just sit in the backyard, whatever.” But I declined everything. Even going to see my parents, or hers, or any of the friends who would leave messages saying I heard you were back in town, man. I kept the phone turned off, the blinds drawn, the lights low. Bridget sat on the couch beside me on weeknights, reading her nursing textbooks, and occasionally looking up at me to sigh. Like myself, the presence of her body was becoming furniture. I slept for ten, fourteen hours a day, and between the sleep and the waking that was becoming more and more like sleep, Bridget stopped showing up. We might have had a conversation about it, and if we did, I performed my end semi-conscious from the couch. And I must have said something nasty. Or something with permanence to it. With bite. Or she might have just slowly disappeared, bit by bit, like a target on the horizon receding into nighttime. I was so far gone by then that I could only put together that she had been there at one point and at another she hadn’t, and that it wasn’t my fault. It didn’t feel like my fault. Her absence was—though I didn’t know why, or couldn’t, in that state, even loosely understand—comforting. Like a bed one falls into at the end of a harrowing experience now long put behind you. It felt safe.
A week went by, the days melting in and out of each other while I lay on the couch, the television blue flickering nonstop, the rising and falling of voices on the street taking on a private schedule in my head. She didn’t call. Didn’t stop by. The idea of leaving the apartment, of stepping out from under the warm painless current, was impossible to imagine, as if it defied physics, and in my mind this meant that I couldn’t see Bridget, or anyone else. It was unfeasible.
My parents, with five kids younger than me and full time jobs, and a whole lot more to worry about, didn’t stop by. The immediate neighbors, if they existed at all, must have existed under similar circumstances as I did. The friends who had left messages in those first weeks no longer left messages.
So when the last of the pills Bridget had been getting for me ran out, and I imagined the kinds of pain that would suddenly take over and invade my body, I had to call Ramos. As much as I didn’t want to, I had to call him. I didn’t have any real money, but I needed him there. And he came as if he had been waiting.
He had a backpack with him at the door, and I imagined it filled with pills, multicolored gel tabs and capsules, bags and bags of them.
“The lone Malone,” he said, walking in.
“Whatcha got?” I asked.
I moved some wrappers and dirty clothes, and we sat on the couch. Outside, sirens moved from one part of the city to another, and the daylight slanted through fences and leaves. I asked him how he was doing and he was doing good. He had come armed with Oxycontin, which costs twenty bucks a pill and makes Vicodin seem like children’s Tylenol. He was doing real good.
“Man,” Ramos said, looking around my apartment, which was more or less empty. “You need this shit, huh?”
“I’m in pain,” I said.
“We all are,” he said.
“They got me good down there,” I said, unsure if I believed it myself.
Ramos sat and nodded, obviously unsure of how to respond, occasionally looking at the muted ballgame on the T.V. I felt a tingling up my spine, an urge to shout, that went off like a mortar round inside me. I opened my hands like I was spreading the gospel. “Pills?” I said.
His face bunched up and he cocked his head in a way I’d seen him do before, to dozens of guys he knew were incapable of kicking his ass. “You got it bad, boy, don’t ya?”
“That’s some tragic shit right there,” he said. “Is it pain, or is it the pills? Take these long enough, you might as well be shooting heroin.”
“I thought you were a pharmacy,” I said, “not a doctor. I’m paying for them, right?”
He shook his head and clicked, or clucked, whatever that sound was Ramos made when he disagreed or felt something approximating pity, like a wet snap from his mouth.
“I thought I was your boy,” he said.
I swallowed the shoots of electricity that were beginning to take over my throat, moving up to my face, making the edges of my beard feel like they were being plucked, one by one, by a million tiny fingers. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m not jonesin’. I’m just sick. It’s good to see you.”
It was, actually. I hadn’t seen anyone in a few days, and Ramos had a way about him that made you feel like part of a team, however small.
“Ah, it’s all right,” he said. “You should just be happy the Army didn’t send you to Iraq. You got outa that. Get yourself killed out there.”
“Marines,” I said, pointing to my shirt, which I had been wearing for a week. “Marine Corps, and that’s what I signed on to do anyway. I volunteered. I was planning on going.”
“Whatever,” he said. “Army man, Navy man. It’s all the same shit. You go to Iraq, you get your ass blown off. ”
He stood up, smoothed his hair over with both hands and tightened his ponytail. It wasn’t the same shit. It was drastically different shit, and Ramos was beginning to make me regret calling him. He walked around the apartment, which only had that couch really, and a small table in the kitchen. The floorboards creaked underneath his combat boots and he sauntered around as if inspecting the place for evidence of a crime. I stood there in the living room like a jackass.
“Where’s your girl?” he said. “Didn’t you get married?
“Engaged,” I said, and started coughing, which took a considerable effort to stop. “She’s gone.”
“Damn Ray,” Ramos said, turning around, making a face as if something grotesque had happened. “What’d you do? Fuck around on her?”
Children were yelling outside, and somewhere a car was cruising slowly, blasting its bass loud enough that parts of it sounded like they were cracking. I could feel the bass in my stomach, like G-force.
“No,” I said. “Came home sick. That was that.”
“She was smokin’ too, what’s her name?”
“Bridget,” I said.
“Yeah, Bridget,” he said, and then looked off to an empty corner of the room as if trying to conjure an image of her there with her arms folded, shaking her head at our tragedy. “Bridget, Bridget, Bridget.” He started laughing then, flashing his teeth, which were immaculate.
“Like young too, right? Just outa high school?”
“No Rom,” I said, and though I knew he was joking, I very quickly felt like ripping his front teeth out.
“Don’t even joke about it. They taught me how to shoot down there.”
“All right, all right,” he said. “Too soon, too soon.” I began to nod, in place of saying anything else, and Ramos inhaled deeply, let the breath out, and started nodding with me.
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s get fucked up.”
He opened his backpack, fished around through CD cases and some clothes, then pulled out a gallon-sized zip-lock bag, half-filled with green tablets. There must have been two-hundred pills, a thousand dollars worth, enough to numb out an elephant. And seeing Ramos holding them between us, like a trophy, like Christmas morning in a bag, packaged and pressed into 80 milligram bits—I almost felt something close to joy, to real joy. If I cried, Ramos never noticed.
“Oxies,” he said, flashing those perfect teeth. “I brought the special forces.”
I don’t know how long we watched television for. First, the bullpen blew a late lead for the Mets, then Jeopardy! was on. I was being eaten by the couch, sliding further and further into the crease between the cushions, and Ramos was on his stomach on my dirty floor, with his chin propped up in his palms, answering the questions from Jeopardy! “What is protein binding?” he was saying. “Who is the Marquis de Sade?”
Or maybe the Mets won, and I was answering the questions, amassing dollars. It doesn’t matter. I had been high, numbed out at least, for a few weeks straight, but none of the Ultrams or Vicodins had come close to the kind of bodylessness that Ramos’ pills accomplished. My head felt like someone had unscrewed a nozzle and let all of the air out. My legs, which had been crossed at the ankle on the coffee table for however long it was, were no longer attached to my central nervous system. They were liable to break off and drift away, like chunks from an iceberg.
With the blinds still open, the daylight had disappeared without us noticing, lost as we were and semi-conscious in the intoxicating light of the television.
At a commercial break, Ramos peeled himself up from the floor, slowly, and asked where the bathroom was. I pointed, without looking, and listened as he moved down the hall, groping in the darkness. Then he stopped.
“Why’d you turn all the lights out?” he asked.
I looked up, but all I saw was an impression of the television imposed on the darkness in front of me, Jeopardy!’s marquis of screens over the doorway to the hall.
“I didn’t,” I said.
“You forget to pay the bill?”
I told him no, and then he told me not to take any more of his pills while he was up. “Shit’s expensive, man,” he said. “I’m feedin’ kids.”
I ignored him, watching as Trebek plugged the next day’s show. A contestant was returning. They were going to do the whole thing over again. Ramos stood in the dark for a second, clicked with his mouth, whatever that is, and then I heard him pissing from down the hall. While he was gone, I popped two more of his pills, which he had left in his backpack, which was open, next to me on the couch, asking, begging me to scavenge from it.
Then I must have slept. I dreamt, briefly, that I had never left Basic and was in the hold platoon, ready to start my twelve weeks over again, except I had lost my legs. Then Ramos shook me.
“Dude,” he said. “Ray. Get the fuck up, man.”
The gulf that normally separated my sleeping and waking lives had steadily diminished in the previous weeks, so that when Ramos woke me that night, it was less like walking out of a dark tunnel and more like fading into a soft and barely perceptible daylight.
“Why’d you wake me?” I asked.
He plunged onto the couch next to me, reached into his bag and took out a Snickers bar.
“Cause I’ve got to chill for a while before I get home,” he said. “And you haven’t paid me.”
“I will,” I said.
The television stayed on. The next show was something new, a hospital drama about a team of surgeons who saved everyone’s lives and then had to deal with various commotions and heartbreaks and joys, which resulted in hard-won, hopeful conclusions. Ramos sat cross-legged, enthralled, chewing his Snickers bar, pulling chunks off with trails of caramel following behind. He was playing along to the show, commentating. “You’re gonna regret that,” he said, to one of the nurses. My body felt gluey, molasses-like.
We heard pounding then, commotion, just beyond the walls. Around the perimeter of the small yard I never went in, there was a six-foot privacy fence, rotted, the color and texture of aged soap. Something was running into it, or attacking it, trying to breach my backyard. “What the fuck is that?” Ramos said, leaning forward, tightening his ponytail.
On the television, a pediatric surgeon was performing a tricky surgery, the nurses wiping his brow as he bent over the operating table. I muted the volume, and could hear, then, the roar and cut of a helicopter, that concussive drone rattling my windows.
“Heavies,” I said. “Shit.”
We dug out of the couch and I turned on the outside light and opened the door in time to see two Syracuse Police officers with flashlights sprinting toward the fence in the back, equipment rattling on their belts, hands tight on their holsters. An aging gold Honda sat in the middle of the street with its headlights on, and behind it were two patrol cars, their doors open, lights flashing.
Ramos freaked for a second, and moved as fast as he could back to the living room, which was still cast in that blue television light. I thought he was going to lose it. “Fuck man,” he said, throwing his hands in the air. “What the fuck, Ray?” He zipped up his backpack and brought it into the kitchen and stashed it in one of the empty cupboards. The cops were scaling the fence now with their flashlights, no doubt getting all splintered up. Another one, a woman cop, came behind them, running with a German shepherd pulling her on a short lead. I watched from the window.
“Okay boy,” she said. In the dark, the shepherd looked like it was one of those all-black ones, the kind that seemed to be bread for callousness, but it gave a little puppy yelp as it jumped over the fence, and you could picture it licking someone’s face just from that sound.
No one noticed us. The woman cop glanced at us, I thought, but it was as if we were another part of the landscape, like the fence itself, or the sneakers that hung from telephone poles in front of the house. I had vaguely felt that way—like furniture, like a part of the background—for hours, weeks, and the cops were there just to confirm it.
The woman cop scaled the fence, and I told Ramos to follow me to the back door, which opened into the yard. My body was still thinking it was on the couch, and considered giving up on all muscular activity. My left leg didn’t work, no feeling from the knee down, so I had to drag it, sliding across the hardwood to the back as if I had a role in a zombie flick. I opened the door in time to get blinded by the helicopter’s spotlight, which couldn’t have been flying any higher than the roof. We were in trouble.
When my sight faded into focus, I saw this: a guy, a kid really, fifteen maybe—shirtless and bone-thin and tattooed, flailing in the gravel as this massive German shepherd tried to take his leg from him. The kid was screaming but I couldn’t hear it over the chopper. Just his grimace and bared teeth in the antiseptic light. The red, horrified eyes.
There were three cops watching, ten feet in front of the kid. Their backs were to the house, where Ramos and I stood in the doorway, stoned. They were two men and the K-9 lady, hands on their holsters, catching their breath. One of them, with a thick mustache, spoke something into the radio, and the helicopter broke its circle and flew off into the city, leaving a silence that was quickly overtaken by the kid’s screaming. But the cops just stood there, catching their breath, shining their flashlights on the kid as he asked, “What the fuck, what the fuck?”
The K-9 lady finally moved up to the kid and leashed the shepherd, who had blood all over his snout. She yanked him back, stroking his fur. He sat, and she gave him a treat from a compartment on her belt. I turned on the floodlight around then, or Ramos did, or it had been on the entire time, but no one noticed. The one cop, who looked younger than the rest of them, was walking through the yard with his flashlight, poking at things on the ground.
“This is awesome,” Ramos said.
The cop with the thick mustache was creeping toward the kid with his baton, yelling, “Face down you fuck, face down!” over and over until the kid, who was covered in dirt and shit and blood, put his face to the gravel. His pants were torn from the dog, ripped up like he had stepped on a landmine. As mustache cop put one cuff on the kid’s wrist, he caught an elbow to the chin which knocked him backwards, like someone taking a shot of tequila, and the kid kicked to get up from the ground, sending dust into the thick air.
“Oh snap,” Ramos said. “Good for him.”
“This kid’s fucked,” I said. “Done.”
We braced for complications.
The shepherd, howling, let go across the yard and latched on to the kid’s ass in mid-air, tearing back and forth even before man and dog landed in the gravel. Everything repeated: the cops watching, out of breath, as the dog mauled away; the helicopter returning; then the K-9 lady taking the dog back, and the mustache cop, with the aid of the younger guy, approaching the kid with batons.
The cops turned him over without a fight, rubbing his face into the gravel. The helicopter hovered above, painting the scene in spotlight. Here, then, in this intense flood of light, brilliant as the nighttime reversed, turned in upon itself, the kid looked at me. One eye closed, his face bloody and covered in the dry gravel, bits of loose rock indented into his forehead like primitive jewelry. He stared at me, at this person I had become and then he opened his other eye. The mustache cop was leaning his head in fiercely, the veins in the back of his neck erect and defined underneath his skin. He bent over close to the kid’s bloody, dirty, bare scalp, speaking, then he looked at me too.
Radios hummed static, the helicopter circled, and I could feel it in my guts, the beating blades churning the air, the gaze of this uniformed man, the pain of this stupid kid, face down and bloody in my backyard.
I’m not really sure what happened then. The cop and the kid both looked at me as if I was supposed to do something. I felt the pebbles in the kid’s face, and the bloody wound on his leg, and the warm breath of the cop just inches away from his neck. The growling of the helicopter, the wet static of the radios, Ramos’s forced voice, and the stream of traffic, blocks away on Geddes street where people were living their lives—all of this swelled up together, like a twister kicking up in the desert when the conditions are just right. Like a sandstorm. All those bits moving as one.
The cops peeled out, and the helicopter disappeared into the shadow of this city, and Ramos and I watched, wordless, as the blue and red lights rolled silently down the block. Then he said, “That was some shit,” and shook my hand, and slapped me on the shoulder with a surprising amount of intimacy. I thought of his bag in my cupboard, and I thought, briefly, of the places I could hole up and finish off what was in it before he could find me. Before anyone could find me. But I said, “Wait, Ramos,” with a voice I wasn’t sure was mine, issued from a body that until then had seemed like someone else’s. “Wait here just a second,” I said.
A thought flashed, telling me to reverse what I was doing, to walk backwards onto the sidewalk and tell Ramos never mind, you better get going, you better get out of here in case they come back. But I didn’t. I walked to the kitchen, bent down and opened the cupboard, and stared for three long seconds at the half-closed freezer bag and the bits of anesthesia it contained. Then I walked his backpack through the house like I was escorting it out of a fancy restaurant it didn’t belong in.
“Oh, fuck,” Ramos said, when I threw it to him. “You’re a good man, Ray, you keep it real.”
And he was right; it felt real. The kind of realness that makes what came before it an extended hallucination. A mirage.
I walked back into the empty apartment, turned off the television that flickered blue in the darkness, and picked up the phone. I dialed. And as it rang and rang in the middle of the night at a dark house in the near distance, I saw before me the image of the auburn-haired woman who was going to pick it up, and I heard the sleep she would clear from her voice, and the sigh of hopeful resignation, and the simple, serious, cautious way she would say, Hello Ray. Hello.
Kevin Wolfe is a founding editor at Sweet, and a nonfiction editor at Sweet Publications. He has worked as a freelancer, as nonfiction editor at The Journal, and in corporate publishing. His essays and short stories have been published in Redivider, Under the Sun, Gulf Coast, Swink, Joyland, and other publications.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: It’s length. I usually end up trimming considerably, which I did with this story, but it found a way to still be on the long side.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: I’m fond of developing good habits of production and composition, treating it as one does athletics.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Too many. I’m reading of late a lot of Colum McCann’s work, but consistently inspired by Nabokov, Denis Johnson, Alice Munro, McCarthy, and Joan Didion.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: I work well in hotel rooms and in my home office. The benefits for each being uninterrupted time, and room enough to pace.