While stripping sheet metal from the aft berthing compartment aboard the mothballed USS Iowa, a Fleet Reserve worker found a letter that had apparently fallen behind a sailor’s locker at some point in the past many years. The bottom corner of the envelope was tan with age or perhaps moisture, but everything else was intact. Official ship’s stationery with the blue outline of the USS Iowa imprinted there, stamped, and ready to go. The shipyard worker couldn’t remember how long it had been since he’d seen an actual letter, let alone wrote or read one. It was like a message in a bottle, except this had a specific name on it—a woman’s name. Curiosity tugged at the guy and he looked over his shoulder. No one was around. One side of the envelope’s flap was loose already, begging to be ripped open the rest of the way. He turned it over and read the woman’s address. Instead of opening the letter, the shipyard worker licked the loose flap and took it to the mailbox at the end of the pier. His arm shook as he dropped it in. He didn’t get many opportunities to make someone’s day. And now, because of him, somewhere very soon someone would get a surprise.
The knock at the door caught Charlie Oliver mid-sip and startled him. Beer spilled down his jaw and dampened the skin beneath the collar of his white t-shirt.
They didn’t get many visitors in the course of a month. Solicitors, generally.
He muted the TV. Francine was most likely on the opposite side of the house. They’d grown into the habit of passing their days with little interaction since the kids had left the nest.
The swelling in Charlie’s joints was down a bit, and his legs were less restless than usual. Pain-free days were rare, and usually temporary, and so each of his four prescriptions was in arm’s reach, the orange bottles arranged on a tray table. Two brands of pain pills made him hungry, so the doctor prescribed appetite suppressants, which made him jittery and inconsistent, so the doctor gave him mood stabilizers, which he didn’t like because they took the lead out of his pencil. He hadn’t taken any of them in months, but kept filling prescriptions and stashed them in the bathroom in case he ever wanted to take them all at once. He considers doing so at least once every day.
The knock came again and Charlie knew he’d have to get up. Doing so was the last thing he wanted. His chair was surrounded by everything he needed to survive another day. He read biographies. Had Bogart’s on the side table now, beside the banker’s lamp with its cracked shade. On another tray table, one Tupperware container held mixed nuts, another stored chocolate chips. Between them was a pimento loaf sandwich he was saving to eat until Judge Judy came on. At his feet sat a cooler of beer. He had the newspaper in his lap, the remote control balanced on the arm of the chair, and a red pillow embroidered with a white cat behind his head. He wasn’t big on the cat, but no other pillow in the house was as perfectly suited to the task.
This was his refuge. On and around the television was everything the kids had ever made or given him over the years. His first-born’s handprint in plaster of Paris. How little her hand had been. Hard to believe she’d grown into such a seacow. His son’s high school wrestling trophies. Hard to imagine that peacenik beating up anyone. A mug with his other daughter’s picture as a peewee cheerleader—chubby then, and with buck teeth taking up as much room as her pompoms. And in addition to the ties, robes, canes, and electronic gizmos that remained in his closet or in drawers, the kids also gave him a dozen figurines of monkeys reading books. And every Christmas, they got him a Snow Baby from Hallmark, which he kept in a curio along the wall to his left.
He had never been conventionally close to his kids. They showed their love with these trinkets and Charlie cherished every item. He was never what people might call warm, but he showed his love by giving them three hots and a cot under his roof, braces to straighten their teeth, new clothes every school year, and doctor’s visits every time one of them was feeling poorly. They'd each grown up with televisions in their rooms, mainly because he didn’t want them messing with his set, especially since he was in front of it most of every day. He couldn’t stomach the violence in cartoons and video games. And they never cared to watch the news or black and white movies the way he did. He had a grandkid now he hadn’t yet met, and he wondered if he’d ever receive stuff from him to add to his prized collection.
What was missing was any reminder of his life before the injuries. Nothing from his time in the Navy. The only thing that suggested he had once been something other than the half-busted-down father of three was his cane.
The cane had an eight-ball for a handle. The cane itself was made of a bull’s penis. Francine had given it to him on his first birthday after the explosion. She’d said it was better than the three-dollar cane he’d gotten at Walgreens, not because it had cost a hundred dollars, but because it was made of bull penis. One long one, stretched, sterilized, and shellacked. “The salesman told me how men brag about restored virility after using these things. The handle was my idea, of course.”
Charlie had blinked once and looked at Francine. “I told you, my virility will be restored once I’m healed.” He’d held the cane at arm’s length. “Is this thing even sturdy enough to support me?”
Francine had upended the can to show him the rubber foot at the end. “A steel rod runs from this end to the other.” She’d smiled then and handed it back to Charlie. “Ouch, right?”
The eight ball was a nod to the pre-injury days when he won pool tournaments. The money he’d earned with a cue was the reason he got kicked out of high school sports. He’d hated that cane when he got it, but decided to keep it because the roundness of the handle felt good in his hand as he labored to walk. Over the past twenty years, the form of it was no longer round, but rather the shape of his palm. Or perhaps the bones in his hand had malformed to the ball, but either way, it was like a joint in a socket and the union allowed him power and comfort more consistently than any other appendage.
Another knock on the door in three distinct raps.
He reached for the cane now. The eight ball was scratched in places, but held a uniform shine. The effort of retrieving it made him grunt with pain and resentment. Fucking Francine. If she hadn’t cheated on him, he’d never have needed the damn thing.
With the next round of knocking, three raps preceded two pounds from the side of a fist that vibrated the room. Charlie was out of his chair. He squeezed the ball of his cane and felt the surge of power up his arm. He placed all his weight on one foot and stepped cautiously toward the door with the other. He was thin, barely in his fifties, but due to crushed bones and orthopedic hardware he moved like a man two decades older.
In the months and years following the injuries, he knew something was wrong—felt things weren’t right in his ribs and with his back—but had accepted the pain as penance.
These days, the doctors tell him the multiple fractures and crushed pelvis didn’t heal properly, that his bones and vertebrae were as porous as a loofah. The metal parts were overdue to be replaced.
Charlie opened the door to see Casey, their mail carrier. She was a sturdy woman with gray shorts tight enough to accentuate her swollen camel toe. Charlie could hardly look away.
“Hey Mister Oliver,” she said.
She wasn’t the best-looking woman in the world—a lanky chick with kinky orange hair—but that honey pot was fat and calling him. Things in the bedroom with Francine had dwindled down to nothing but perfunctory stuff on birthdays and anniversaries. He was lucky to tug one out in the shower every once in a while, more out of necessity than desire. The beer and the pain pills were a powerful influence in that regard. “What do you want?” he said.
Casey usually left their mail in the box. In all her years on this route, she’d had only one package from e-Bay for them, and a letter from the IRS that had to be signed for. On both occasions, the missus had handled it. Casey had never really talked to him before. “Uh,” Casey said, waving the letter, “I’ve got this, but there’s nineteen cents postage due.”
“I’m not paying for something I don’t want.”
“It’s addressed to your wife.”
Charlie grabbed the envelope out of Casey’s hand and looked at the familiar blue outline of the USS Iowa imprinted on ship’s stationery, his wife’s name in handwriting he didn’t recognize. It was all that was necessary for Charlie. A high-resolution photo wouldn’t make things any clearer. The distinct curves of a battleship are unduplicated anywhere else—he sees her wooden decks and all three turrets intact, though the ship had been decommissioned for nearly twenty years. Almost as long as Charlie himself. He looked at the return address: “GM2 Tony Swanson.”
“That stamp looks pretty old,” Casey said. “I’m no expert, but I showed it to Aaron, this guy in our office. He collects stamps and knows everyone since the First World War. He says, with the eagle on it and all, it’s from the 1980s. Actually, he said from 1988 to ‘91, because they raised the price then.”
Charlie had tucked all thought about that period of his life into the upper cupboards of his mind. Now proof of that time was in his hands, in Navy blue ink. Charlie dropped the unopened letter and stumbled backward. His cane slipped from his grasp as he backpedaled into the sofa table, knocking over the seashell lamp they'd gotten on Sanibel Island during their honeymoon. The lamp crashed when it hit the floor. Charlie staggered to the side, took a few more backward steps, then sank into his recliner.
Francine spent her days outside in the garden quietly working the earth. She could have sat inside with Charlie and drank, but she’d never liked beer and, as far as she could remember, she hadn’t enjoyed his company. She ran inside when she heard the squeak of table legs across the floor and something big crash.
“What happened?” she said, pulling off her work gloves on her way through the kitchen and tossing her wicker hat onto the couch as she entered the living room. The front door was open and she crossed herself, said, “Dear God, we’re being robbed.” Charlie slumped in his recliner, his feet out wide, his cane on the floor and the sofa table pushed back. “Charlie!” she cried out.
Casey startled her by saying, “He just got white-faced and kind of stumbled backward to that chair. Like a zombie on rewind.”
“He bumped into the table there pretty hard, but it didn’t look like it hurt much. He landed in that chair and ain’t moved since.”
Francine looked at the lamp lying in two distinct halves. “Well, that thing is beyond repair.”
“Is he going to be okay?” Casey asked.
“I’m sure he’s fine. Charlie, you’re okay, right?”
He didn’t answer. He just sat there.
Francine looked at him. She imagined that she would not be surprised when, some day in the not-too-distant future, she finds him dead of a heart attack or stroke, sitting in front of the TV with a beer can spilled in his lap. She knows he will look very much like he looks right now: pale, mouth open, spittle in rivers down his jowls, his eyes rolled back in his head, his neck at a torturous angle. Francine settled up with Casey from change in the bottom of her purse. She then looked at the envelope for the first time.
Charlie and Tony Swanson had been two of the best gunner’s mates stationed aboard the USS Iowa. They both worked in Turret One and spent time together off the ship. They lifted weights. Drank. Played pool. Tony never beat Charlie at pool, but he came close, often. His game was so good it challenged Charlie, pushed him to be creative. Made him sweat. As much as this pissed Charlie off, all he’d ever say to Tony was, “You gave me a good run for my money.”
Out at sea one day, Charlie heard the news second-hand from a boatswains mate who had heard that somebody’s wife had seen Francine and his good buddy, Tony, out together. This woman thought they were a couple, according to the boatswains mate, especially when she’d seen them kiss. The news had almost killed Charlie.
He coped with the pain of the news by trudging down the ladders and slamming open the door to the aft berthing compartment. He skulked through three aisles of racks before he got to Tony’s.
“Hey,” Tony said from the other end of the aisle. Tony had just folded a letter he’d written. He looked up at Charlie as he licked the envelope and pressed it closed. “What’s going on, Charlie?” Tony laid the envelope writing-side down and slid it under his pillow, as if to prevent Charlie from seeing his own address, his wife’s name.
Bunks were stacked three high on each side of an aisle barely wider than shoulder width. Charlie didn’t speak, even as he walked down the aisle and got close enough to Tony. Instead, he threw an elbow into Tony’s jaw.
Tony covered his head with his arms, but didn’t defend himself, and there was nowhere to run.
Charlie stopped pounding Tony’s skull when he heard the signal for gunnery exercises ring over the shipboard announcing system. “This isn’t over, asshole.”
“I didn’t do anything,” Tony said. “You’ve got this all wrong.”
It was all Charlie could do to hold down the bile jetting up his esophagus.
When they’d first arrived in Norfolk, Francine and Charlie didn’t know many people in town. Charlie had made friends with Tony and had asked if he’d watch over her while Charlie was stuck on the ship every fourth day pulling overnight duty.
Every fourth day, Tony would check in over the phone, at first. Then he began coming over. Tony had a motorcycle he’d zip around town on. They both liked movies, and one night before Christmas they’d ridden into town to see Dangerous Liaisons. It was cold that night, but she’d wrapped her arms around his waist and held on. It was the most thrilling night of her life. Tony had slept on the couch that night and in the morning they read the newspaper and ate bagels. The vibration between her thighs wasn’t only from the motorcycle. She and Charlie had been high school sweethearts and were still newlyweds and she loved him, but nothing he did had gotten her revved up like being with Tony.
But until the night before Tony and Charlie were due to ship out, Francine had never even kissed Tony.
Three hours after the fight, while performing routine firing exercises, an explosion in Turret Two rocked the USS Iowa with a three thousand degree fireball that ripped through the ship’s reinforced steel doors and bulkheads as though they were made of paper. Deadly fumes exploded downward, filling the ship’s interior. Amid the fire, smoke, and bitter gas, Charlie and the other gunners mates from Turret One rushed to provide damage control and first aid. None of the sailors were prepared and hoses weren’t connected as if a fire was the last thing that could ever happen there. Charlie passed the corpses of dead men bent in prayer. It was like they knew they were about to die, like they felt it coming. And he wondered briefly, when his time came, if he would see the end coming. Would he feel it shaking the deck beneath his feet like an enemy attack?
Damage Control Central cut power to the section surrounding Turret Two. The interior of the ship would have been black if not for the blinding sunlight flooding in through the opening that the explosion had blown through the hull. Along with that light, water rushed in and they needed to secure the hatches before the space flooded completely.
Charlie had blocked out the smells of vomit and burnt flesh and ignored the anguished faces of the bodies he stepped over to get to the service hatch above an alcove that was filling up fast. As he went to lower the hatch, he heard voices. Two heads screamed up at him from the surface. The voices were almost lost amongst the barking of orders in the chaos behind him, but he focused on the two of them. The water was rising. He decided, though it happened so fast he didn’t even feel himself decide, that he had time to save only one of them.
He was right handed, but he reached down with his left to save the heavier man on that side of the hatch. The other guy was Tony.
Reading the letter's return address took Francine back. She’d been pretty hot stuff in her twenties, before the kids, before the vagaries of time and neglect and more time and more neglect, to the point that she resigned herself to a marriage that was barely verbal. It was fine with her at first. The man who had made her thighs tingle had died on the ship that day when she was still young and pretty, and though she missed him every day she felt in her heart that a near-loveless marriage was better than leaving Charlie alone.
In the beginning, she’d had three weeks to mourn while Charlie convalesced at the Roosevelt Roads Naval Hospital. When he came home from the Navy hospital, Francine had been so worried about his injuries that she’d catered to him. She got to the point where she could compartmentalize the anguish of losing Tony and only take it out and cry during private times in the shower.
The closest she’d ever gotten to shaking the grief was the first time she got pregnant. With one emotion dulled, she began resenting Charlie for being the one she ended up with. For the past twenty years, as she lay untouched in their bed, she thought of the man who hadn’t come home from that cruise. They should be together. She should be smelling his flatulence and morning breath, not her dirty old husband’s.
Francine ripped open the letter and read Tony’s words.
19 APRIL 1989
I suck at these things, but this is an important ocassion. I mean, riding with you and everything is really cool (especially the riding) but I’ve been thinking about you, and us. Charlie’s a great guy. You know? When we get back things have to be different. But like they used to be when we were all on the beach, laughing at the drunks. We can go back to that, right? Nobody knows the future.
Francine cried. She cried for the loss of her tormented love and for the years she’d wasted resenting Charlie as a result all the wrongheaded resentment of him being the one to come home to collect disability and suffer in pain most of every day all those years. She looked to the bowl on a table near the door where she kept her keys. It was a reflex, but she sat on the couch. There was nowhere to go. She tossed the letter to the couch and looked over at Charlie. She wiped her tears on her sleeve and said, “It’ll be okay, Charlie. Everything will be okay now.”
Charlie sat up after the ugliness in his head subsided. The images didn’t dissipate, but they calmed down like bubbling acid in a bucket. His face was wet as Francine swabbed it with a damp washcloth.
To this day, he didn’t know if the blame belonged to one of his fellow gunner’s mates out for revenge like the papers said or the negligent Navy brass, too stubborn to dispose of contaminated gunpowder. Maybe it was neither. Maybe it was both. But blame couldn’t bring back the forty-seven men killed and all the others forever fucked up, like him.
The door was still open but the mail lady was gone. Daylight fell around the room and the television flickered, the volume on mute. There was no sound in the room other than the rasping of his labored breathing.
Charlie got up without the assistance of his cane. His hips took the brunt of the force, and his legs were unsteady. Francine kept her distance. He felt naked without the cane, but he made it to the couch and bent slowly and picked up the letter.
The words weren’t perfectly clear, many were smudged: riding, really cool, different. But he understood their importance.
He wadded and threw the letter at Francine. It hit her in the midsection. “You disgust me.”
“It was nothing,” she said. “It was so long ago. We were so young. I was confused. It was nothing. Really. Just one kiss. I swear. That’s all it was.”
“You fucked him.” Charlie retrieved his cane and swung it like a baseball bat through the air and smashed the banker’s lamp. For the first time since the explosion he felt powerful.
“I didn’t fuck him,” Francine said with anger she’d forgotten she had in her. “You son of a bitch. In fact, I tried to, but he wouldn’t do it. Just like the letter says. And that only made me love him more.”
He didn’t allow himself to process that. He couldn’t.
If he had saved Tony instead of the heavier guy, he might have escaped the smoldering turret in time to avoid being crushed beneath a solid sixteen-inch round that fell from the damaged loading harness.
He raised the cane overhead to crack it down on the coffee table. The eight ball bounced off the slick surface of the table, and for a moment he thought he might lose his grip on the cane, that it might spin away from him across the room. The vibration made his palms feel as though they were being stung by wasps
“Put the cane down, Charlie. You’re scaring me.”
He assumed a batter’s stance. “I didn’t know,” he screamed out and then smashed a lower wall-mounted shelf with a line-drive swing. His first-born’s handprint in plaster of Paris, his son’s high school wrestling trophy, a mug with his other daughter’s picture as a peewee cheerleader, and a half dozen figurines of monkeys reading books. Each item crashed to the floor in its own time. Charlie watched them hit and then attacked each one individually as it lie there on the carpet, using the eight ball like the business end of a twenty-pound sledge hammer.
Francine huddled against the wall near the kitchen. The phone was close, but she didn’t know if she could dial 9-1-1 in time. He’d get irritable when he fucked with his meds, but he’d never been this crazed. “It was nothing!” she yelled. “You’ve got this all wrong!”
He bashed his way through the curio cabinet near the hall that held the Hallmark ornaments the kids gave him every year. Each glittery piece shattered upon impact along with the mirrored shelves. Shards of glass piled at his feet.
“I didn’t fucking know,” he said as he lunged for the table near the door with the bowl Francine kept her keys in. The bowl shattered and then the table went one leg at a time and toppled with the help of the eight ball. Every inch of carpet was covered with shrapnel. He swung at his beer cooler until it toppled over and cans spilled out. Charlie hammered one of the cans until it was crushed and beer fizzed in all directions and then he attacked the next, and the next. He hit the television tube with as strong a blow as he could muster. A crash of glass and the pop of blue and orange sparks filled the room. Extracting his cane, Charlie whacked the plastic casing around the broken tube until the cane got heavy and his arms grew tired. He whacked it from shoulder height, and then from waist high, and then managed a few half-hearted upper cuts like a crochet mallet. And then he stopped. Let the cane slip from his grasp. A wedge of broken mirror on the floor cracked beneath the heft of the eight ball as it fell. His breathing was labored and his lungs were unable to keep up.
He wished he’d done as much damage to wreck his own house as the turret had been wrecked, but this was still only his living room. There were no charred remains, no flowing seawater. There was only Francine.
She bent to retrieve her keys, but had to sort through shiny shards on the carpet. After a moment, she found them and stood, assessing the destruction. “Are you happy now? You just sit here and look at this fucking mess you fucking jerk.” She pulled the door closed behind her. She'd intended to slam it, but it opened in and her grip on the knob wasn’t solid. The effect she produced was nothing more than a woman leaving in a hurry.
Charlie had no idea where she’d go or how long she’d stay away. He wouldn’t have been able to see her even if he’d made it to the window because the sunlight filling the room made him squint. He breathed in shallow coughs. His cane was on the floor, but his bones ached too much to bend and pick it up. He stood there, without the benefit of his cane, blinded in sunlight, surrounded by the wreckage of his life, and listened as Francine started the car, and drove away. His pill bottles had to be somewhere on that floor, but then he had a medicine cabinet full.
Jeffery Hess is the editor of the award-winning anthologies Home of the Brave: Stories in Uniform, and Home of the Brave: Somewhere in the Sand (Press 53). He served six years aboard the Navy’s oldest and newest ships and has held writing positions at a daily newspaper, a Fortune 500 company, and a university-based research center. His writing has appeared widely online and in print and he holds an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. He lives in Florida, where he leads the DD-214 Writers’ Workshop for military veterans. His debut novel, Beachhead, is forthcoming from Down and Out Books.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: I began writing this as an action story set during the mass conflagration aboard the USS Iowa, which was in our battle group in the Caribbean at the time of their turret explosion. The form this story took surprised me. I never planned for it to involve a love-triangle, but I followed the trail of these characters and this is where it led. While it’s vastly different than what I originally intended, I feel is still honors the sailors wounded and killed that tragic day.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: The best writing advice I ever received is: “Write tired.” Those words were spoken by Pinckney Benedict, a gifted writer and teacher, with whom I’m lucky enough to be friends, more than a decade ago and I’ve never forgotten them. I’ve always interpreted that advice to mean, “Choose writing over sleep.” This is something I do to this day.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: It’s an eclectic assortment, but I discovered John Irving’s The World According to Garp and Steven King’s Christine while in high school and they made me want to write novels. In college, I discovered T.C. Boyle’s short story collection, Greasy Lake and it made me want to write stories. Since then, everything from the old noir and crime writers to current literary heroes continue to inspire me.
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 write mostly from a laptop, on my back porch, last thing at night, and from my dining room table, first thing in the morning. I begin each writing session by typing in a journal-type file. It’s not a journal in the strict sense of the word. Often I type up ideas, bits of dialogue, or I’ll pose myself questions there about a scene I’m working on and see if it develops. This warm-up works for me, probably because whether I’m writing an essay, a short story, or a novel, I never have to face a blank page.