So the first thing is I get out the gate and there’s this big crowd. Mostly it’s women and kids. But also there’s. I mean. Parents. And signs. And everybody’s yelling and everything. And. You know. Welcome back! Our Hero! Stuff like that. So I’m looking for Trudy, and it’s like there’s so many people, and everybody’s jumping up and down, screaming. So for a long time I can’t see her. Then all of a sudden, there she is. She’s. You know. Just like all the rest. Her hands up in the air. Her mouth open. Like this is after some football game, and we’re the victorious players coming out the locker room. Like we won the championship and everything. And when I get closer, I see that she’s crying. Her cheeks are all shiny with her tears. And. Well, here’s the thing. I just hate her when I see that. I just. Well. Hate her.
And she comes running up to me. She doesn’t even say anything. Just. You know. Throws her arms around me. And she’s squeezing herself up against me. And finally she whispers in my ear, “Oh, Davy, I’m so glad you’re home!” So I put down my bag and I wrap my arms around her too. And I’m squeezing her and squeezing her. “Me too,” I say. And then I say it again, “Me too.” And I think if I just say it enough, it’ll start to be true. I’ll feel it, I mean. I’ll feel it like it’s really true. Something in me will just. I guess. Open up. But it doesn’t. And I got my arms wrapped around her ribs. And. Even though I already seen how she lost weight and everything. Been running herself ragged, like she said in her e-mails. And she looks good. Practically like she did when we was in geometry class. But all I can think is how she’s like this big bundle of. Like organs and everything. Bones and muscles and. Well, meat. That’s when I have to let her go. And I’m like, “I love you, Trude. I’m just so—" But the words cut off in my mouth. I just can’t say them.
So now we’re standing apart and everything. And she wants to hold my hand. So I let her. But at the same time I bend down and pick up my bag, hoping that maybe. You know, she won’t notice. But she does, of course. She knows me too well. So then there’s like this big kind of silence. And I’m like. You know. I want to tell her I love her. Just say it. Cause I can see she’s all like, Aw fuck. Like when we’re just about to have a fight. And I can see her tears. She’s wiping them off her face with the end of her sleeve. I know she isn’t crying just because she’s happy to see me. I know that she’s, you know. That she’s fucked up too. That she’s been going through her own thing while I was away. That I’m not the only. But the thing is, I just don’t care. You know? I mean, I know I should be compassionate and everything. That I should feel her. What she went through too. But I was just. Well, what it really is, is. Well. Shit. You know? Just shit.
So finally I’m like, “Where’s the car?” That’s all I can say. I mean, I noticed Ashley and Clarry aren’t there and everything. But I can’t even say, you know, “Where are the girls?” Just, “Where’s the car?” And she’s got this worried kind of hopeful little bad dog smile on her face. And she’s like, “This way,” she says. “This way. Over here.” And then she reaches up her hand and puts it along my cheek, and she’s like, “It’s okay, ma-honey.” And she’s. I mean, she’s really trying. And I can see how. Well. We had our problems and all. But I can see how we were right to. You know. Married and everything. Kids. But I don’t say anything. Just silent. A rock. I mean, how can a man tell his wife he can’t stand the feeling of her hand on his cheek? How’s a man gonna say that?
In the car it’s better. Mostly I pretend to sleep. That way I can give myself a talking to. You know: This is a whole different situation, man. You’re home. Ain’t nothing can happen to you here. Shit like that. Turn over a new leaf. And after a while. I don’t know. Maybe it just starts to seem like it’s true. I mean hope and everything. The only thing is Trudy says, “Do you have to do that?” And I’m like, “What?” “Your leg.” And that’s when I realize I been bouncing my leg up and down like it’s the end of a diving board after somebody jumped. So I’m like, “Sorry.” And I stop it. But after a while it just starts up again. All by itself. I can’t do anything about it. So it’s like this really long time and she’s not saying anything. And I’m pretending to sleep. And finally she just says it like we been smack in the middle of a conversation. Just, “I don’t want to hear about any of it until you’re ready to tell me.” That’s what she says. But I know that what she really wants is for me to start talking right then. You know? Like, “Explain to me what the fuck’s the matter with you.” So I just don’t say anything. Just pretend like I didn’t even hear her. Asleep and shit. And then there’s this other big long silence. Until finally she’s like, “I only want to know why you stopped calling. Not even any e-mails.” I just let that set there in the air for a little bit. Then I say, “You just told me you didn’t want to hear about it.” And that’s pretty much it for the rest of the drive. Maybe an hour after that.
Trudy already told me my parents was there. Picked up the girls from school and everything. Taking care of Jimmy. So I’m like prepared for it and all. But still. You know? I mean, man! So, anyhow we’re not even in the driveway when the door pops open, and there’s little Clarry running down the steps, that white-blond hair of hers flapping around her head like the color of spaghetti. And I don’t know what Trudy is. You know: doing. Cause she just swings around into the driveway and doesn’t stop. And there’s Clarry running right in front of us. And I’m like, “Trudy!” And she’s like, “Sorry! Sorry!” And I’m like, “What the fuck!” And the car’s already stopped and everything. You know: The dust we drug up the road is already blowing past us. And Trudy’s got her head down on the steering wheel and she’s like, “Sorry.” But Clarry’s just standing there shouting, “Daddy! Daddy!” She don’t even know how close she come.
So I get out the car and I say, “Hey there, Clarabelle! You got to watch out little Ding-Dong!” And, I don’t know. Maybe that’s the second Clarry figures out what nearly happened. Or maybe it’s just. You know. Finally seeing the real me. Too much for her, I mean. Anyhow, she just suddenly gets all quiet. Looking down at her sneakers. And I’m crouching down. Gonna. You know. Take her in my arms, give her a real hello. Then boom! Something hard hits me from the side. All I can see is like this spidery blackness. And I’m like. It’s like. You know. I mean it just nearly sets off something inside of me. I almost.
And then I see it’s Ashley. And I just let myself be knocked right over. Just fall down flat on the dust and gravel. And Ashley’s all, “Daddy! Daddy!” And I’m just lying there looking up at the sky. Thinking. You know. Until finally it’s like Ashley’s voice gets a little funny. And I see Trudy just standing there looking at me. So I hold up both my arms and say, “Ash-Trash! I fooled you, hunh? I fooled you!”
And she throws herself on top of me, just like she rammed me from the side. She’s only five, but she’s all muscle and bone and wiggle. And her headbone knocks my cheekbone. And I’m like, “Whoa! Watch it there! Gonna have to call you Ash-Bash from now on! You watch what you’re doing.” So I get up on my knees and I scoop her up. And then I scoop up little Clarry. And I’m like walking toward the front steps. And, you know. That really does feel good. Makes me feel like I’m a real father. I look over at Trudy. And she’s just standing there. Still looking at me. And I give her this smile. And she gives me this smile back. And then my parents are all over me. Dad’s got this Abraham Lincoln thing going. With the beard. Trudy wrote me about that. And Ma’s face. It’s just like a plum exploding with its redness. It’s just like tears exploding out from her eyes. And she says, “Look, Davy! Look! Little James!” And she holds up this blanket that’s all wrapped around this other exploding red thing.
What it looks like to me. I mean, I know he’s just having a poop and all. But what it looks like to me is a heart. A human heart. Only it’s more like raw muscle, just kind of twitching around itself. You know? And my ma is like, “Look, little Jimmy! Meet your daddy! That’s your daddy, little pea!” Then she’s holding up the blanket for me to take. And I’m like, “Hold on a second, Ma.” And I bump up the two girls I’m already holding. My arms’re full and everything. And she’s like, “Oh.” And I’m like, “Let’s go inside.”
So I lead the way and there’s. I should have known it. But still, it’s like this shock. I mean. First there’s this big sign going all the way across the living room. It’s like all Christmas colors and everything. Every letter cut out of a different piece of red or green paper. My mother must have done it. Not Trude. That’s not her. You know. And it’s like, WELCOME HOME DADDY. And hanging off of the H and the O are these two drawings. One’s just an orange and black scribble. The other’s got these blue stick people holding hands. Three have skirts on. And the other one’s holding what looks like a broom with a trigger on it. And they’re all crammed up into one corner. In the other corner, way down at the bottom. There’s like this red stick figure, lying on its side. A big red dot for its mouth. Two little dots for its eyes. And there’s this smoke coming up from its mouth. Just like these two letters over and over—WAWAWAWA—going right up to the top of the page. But that’s not the shocking thing. The shocking thing is in the middle of the table. There’s like all these glasses and silverware on it. Set up for lunch and everything. And then there’s this photograph of me in my National Guard uniform. In this shiny brass frame. And on the top it says AMERICAN in these sort of like fat psychedelic letters. And at the bottom it says HERO.
So the first thing I do is put the girls down, pick up the photograph and stick it in the drawer where Trudy keeps the dishtowels. And everybody’s like. I mean. You know. But nobody says a word. So then my mother. Her face is like she got this really bad news for me. And she’s holding up little Jimmy. And I’m like, “Hold on a second. I’m all dirty. You know? Better go wash up.” So then I’m walking out the room and I hear Trudy saying in this soft voice, “Dave’s kind of tired. Long flight.”
I get to the bathroom. And. I mean, I don’t even know what I’m doing there. Don’t even have to pee. So I pee anyway. Then I wash my hands. Just. You know. For the hell of it. And that’s when I notice how much I changed. I look in the mirror. And. Well, I’m twenty-six. But that dude in the mirror there. He’s forty-six. All bones and sunburn and these little lines and everything. Stubble. Sweated off every drop of fat in that 120-degree heat. You know? And that awful food. So I been seeing that face for months, of course. But this is the first time I really see it. I mean. Like in my own bathroom mirror and everything. With those same old purple flowers on the wall behind me. This is the first time I see how much I changed. And what I’m thinking is that what I got is the face out of a mug shot. You know how those faces always look a little tilted? Like the bones don’t line up exactly. And there’s always something off about one of the eyes? That’s how my face is looking to me. So I decide, Fuck my hands, I’m gonna take a whole damn shower. And that’s a good idea. You know? Like it’s a cleansing or something. Finally getting all that sand out of me. Out my ears. Out my hair. Out my asshole even. That sand’s not like real sand. It’s like this dust. Gets in everything. It’s in your spit and your snot, twenty-four seven. So I wash my hair three times. Even rub in some of Trudy’s conditioner. Then I use her armpit razor. All my shaving stuff is still. You know. In my bag. In the living room.
So then I get out the shower and I can hear Jimmy’s wailing. But not just like normal crying. It’s like some kind of cosmic. I don’t know. Rage. And then I’m thinking, Oh shit. I bet he’s colicky. I bet that’s what Ashley’s picture is all about. The red baby going WA and everything. Shit, you know. Trudy didn’t say anything about that. But shit. Fuck! That’s all I need. So then I’m turning around in circles. And finally I just stuff my uniform into the hamper. Thought about burning it. Wanted to burn that motherfucker. But. Well. So now I’m out in the hallway in my bath towel. And Jimmy’s still crying. But not. I mean. All the time. It keeps being interrupted by that Three Stooges noise. You know? That gnargnargnargnar babies make when they’re feeding. So I go into the bedroom and there’s all my clothes hanging in the closet, all neat and skinny. Like Trudy sent them to the dry-cleaners while I was gone. You know? And my underpants are all folded up in stacks. And my tee shirts. And it’s like she did all this work for me. Like she put in all this effort. And I’m thinking I got to thank her for that. I got to remember to thank her. But what I like best about what she did is that they don’t seem like my clothes anymore. It’s like they’re the clothes of a different me. A better me. The me I would have been. If. I mean. So, I put on a pair of black jeans and a black Pantera tee shirt. Pantera, man! Home.
By the time I get out there, everything’s quiet. And everybody’s just sitting at the lunch table. You know, waiting for me. “Jimmy got tired,” Ma says. And I’m like, “I know. I heard him.” And Trudy’s like, “Perfect timing!” She’s up by the stove, putting the chicken on people’s plates. “He’ll be down for at least a couple of hours,” she says. “We’ll all have time to talk.” And she looks at me. But I can’t really tell what’s on her mind. So, anyway. There’s my usual place set for me. At the head of the table. Between my mother and my father. So I sit down. And soon as Trudy sits down, my father. He takes hold of my left hand. And my mother grabs hold of my right. And my father’s got. You know. His deacon voice on. And he says, “I think we all need to say a special grace today. Cause the Good Lord’s seen fit to bring our Davy back to us.” And soon as he says that, it’s like my head starts pounding. Cause I know just what he’s going to say. But I don’t say anything, cause Trudy fires me one of these looks. Like, Just you hush! And I figure, you know. She had to make her own kind of peace with these people. With them helping her out and everything. And me being away. So I’m just like, I can sit through this once. Just once. What the fuck does it matter anyway? What the fuck does it matter?
And so, of course, my father says everything I knew he was going to say. Talking bout fighting terrorists and everything. Saving the country. And of course he’s like, “American Hero” this, “American Hero” that. Even my mother thinks that’s. You know. She just does this little thing with her breath. But he keeps at it. The usual God-bombing that he’s always doing. In that Abe Lincoln beard of his. And I just keep my mouth shut. Don’t say a word. But also I don’t say amen when he’s finished. And he gives me this. You know. Like this glance. Like he used to do when I was little. The kind that meant, Just you wait! And sure enough. Soon as we’re all eating, he’s like, “I hope you was talking to Jesus when you was over there, Davy.” And I just keep chewing on my chicken, even though it’s making me sick and I can hardly swallow it. “Cause you know, that’s the time a man needs His guidance most. When the bombs’re falling and there’s an enemy on every side.” My mother hisses, “Henry!” And my father puts on this boogle-eye look that’s supposed to be all innocence and everything. Like he’s shocked, you know. Just shocked! But really it’s like that’s almost his most angriest expression. And he’s, “What! What did I say?” And my mother’s like, “I just think maybe Davy doesn’t want to talk about such things his first day home.” And my father’s like he’s more shocked than ever. “Can’t a man even talk about his son’s mortal soul? Can’t a man talk about things that matter? Davy knows what I’m talking about. He knows how a man can get so confused in the heat of battle that he can’t tell what’s what and what’s not. And how, ‘less he asks for Jesus’ help, he can carry that confusion home.” Trudy sees what’s was coming, and she tries to stop it. She’s like, “Grampa, there’s a time and a place—“ But I had enough. I had all I can stand. So I’m like, “The thing is, Dad, you don’t know what you’re talking about. You don’t know one blessed thing about what happened over there. So I think you should just keep your mouth shut and let me eat my chicken.” And my dad’s working himself up to be shocked all over again, but my mother won’t let him. She’s like, “Give it a rest, Henry. Give it a rest. We should just all be happy we’re together again.” My father’s mouth opens and closes a couple of times. Finally, he just starts gnawing on his chicken bone and doesn’t look at anybody. My ma pats my hand. And I look at Trudy, who’s got a headache on her face, but seems relieved. Ashley’s looking all big-eyed over her chicken leg like she’s hiding behind it. And Clarry’s waving a thighbone in the air. You know, conducting an orchestra and everything. Trudy grabs her hand and presses it down to the table. “No.”
So after a while the girls can’t stand it any more. And Ashley’s like, “Can we go outside?” And Trudy’s, “Sure, honeybun. You just take care of your sister, okay?” And I sit there a little longer. Trudy and Ma talking about how Tiffany Delgado made so much money last week selling baskets to the neighbors. How her son’s, you know. Biggest pothead around. And my father’s just chewing on his bone, staring into space. Like he’s having this private conversation with Jesus. And Jesus is telling him, “Don’t you worry, Henry. They’re all going straight to hell. I got it all worked out. Just straight to hell.” Finally, I stand up. Bring my plate to the sink. And I’m like, “You know, I think I’m gonna go outside. See how the girls’re doing.” And Ma is like she thinks that’s a great idea. You know: Spend some time with your children. Her head going up and down. And Trudy looks at me with this like, Don’t abandon me! But I can see how she’s resigned to it. You know: Spend time with the children; that really is what he ought to do. So, I’m, “Don’t anybody touch those dishes. Okay? I’ll get to them myself when I get back inside.” And, of course, my ma makes this kind of click in her nose like that’s ridiculous.
Soon as I’m out the door, there’s. Well, it’s like this big noise cuts off. Like a motor or something. A car alarm. Then suddenly there’s just this quiet. It’s like the quiet’s this thing suddenly. You know? And you canappreciate it. Instead of it just being. I don’t know. Just another kind of nothing. Also there’s the air. It feels like that’s the very second I take my first breath of American air. Fresh. Cool. And since as it’s about halfway between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the air’s not. You know. So hot anymore. And there’s this smell of grass. Peat moss. Trudy’s planted these four skinny trees at the edge of our property. Put peat moss all around them. I never realized how much I like those smells. And water. You can feel the water in the air. Soft on your skin. Comfortable. Not like that sandpaper air. You know? Like the wind out of an oven. Not like that. So I just stand there for a long time. Just. Well. Breathing. And I’m thinking, Maybe this is how it will begin. You know? Me, I mean. I don’t know. Normal and shit.
Ashley’s like jumping up and down on this itty-bitty trampoline thing she got for her birthday. Trudy told me about that. Like a truck inner tube with this cloth across it. Like a rolled up condom is what it is. And I’m thinking. You know. About this girl there. Another soldier. From Florida. I suppose I got to tell Trudy about her. For a while there things started happening. But. I don’t know. That’s all over with. That girl got. You know. Fucked up. This guy’s brains all inside her mouth. Sniper. Maybe I don’t have to. You know. It’s all over with. So anyhow. Clarry’s just sitting there in the sandbox. Bucket between her knees. Shovel in her hand. But, not doing anything. Just sitting there. Like somebody turned her off. And Ashley’s just going up and down, up and down. Ash-Trash. Both of them are looking the other way. So neither of them knows I’m right behind them. Watching. “Hey you two!” I shout, like they’re in trouble. That makes them look around. Ashley just turning around slowly, one jump at a time. Sort of like she’s one of those spin-around ballerinas on the top of a kid’s jewelry box. “You wanna go to the playground?”
Normally we drive over there. But this time I just feel like walking. Of course that means I got to carry Clarry most of the way. Half a mile. Playground’s over to the new middle school. Behind the ball fields. Where the old Armitage place used to be. And while we’re walking, it’s already getting dark, you know. Gray sky. It’s not even four. But there’s already like this definite change going on inside the clouds. You can feel how there’s just a little more darkness in there. And a few minutes later there’s like. A little more. Night comes so early this time of year. So, even before we get to the school, I’m thinking this is a mistake, you know. Walking home in the darkness. Cars going so fast and everything. But the girls just love this playground. Swings. They got this whole jungle gym there. Made out of tires and such. Chains. Really, it’s like this mountain of tires. All made into tunnels, rooms. Some of them hanging off like swings. One time I spun Ashley around so much on one of those tires she got sick.
So anyway. We get there, and the place is like. Deserted. First thing is the girls run straight over to the regular swings. And I’m, you know. Pushing them both at the same time. Pushing them really high. Like, “Can you touch the sky? See if you can put your feet right up against the sky!” And I never really pushed Clarry this high before. But I’m watching her hands. And I can see she’s holding on just fine. She’s like three and everything. And she’s loving it. Laughing and laughing. But then they had enough of that and they’re off to the tire mountain. I sit down on one of the benches there. And I’m wishing I brought along a basketball so I could shoot a few hoops. Cause one thing I already know is it’s no good when I got nothing to do. Got to keep my mind occupied. Just do stuff, you know. All the time. So after a while I hear Ashley calling out, “Daddy! Clarry’s going on the top.” “So what?” I say. And she’s like, “She’s not supposed to go on the top.” “Don’t be such a spoil-sport,” I say. And she’s, “But she’s not supposed to.” “You’re just jealous!” I say. And at that very instant I see Clarry’s little blond head stick up from the mountain. You know, like she’s this little burp of yellow lava coming out a volcano. “Hey, Clarabelle! Look at you, big girl!” And. I don’t know. Maybe she was going to wave at me or something. But soon as she looks up over the edge of that tire, her head disappears. And Ashley starts screaming. “Daddy! She fell! She fell!”
And what really scares me is I can’t hear Clarry crying.
I’m up those tires in half a second. And it’s, you know, like basic training. I’m ready to dive in one of those holes soon as I know where she is. But I don’t see her till I’m right at the top, looking down through the hole she disappeared in. And she’s just lying there on her back. Six-eight feet down. Not doing anything. You know. Her eyes all filled up with blue and just staring at me. And she’s maybe twitching her hands a little bit. And I’m. You know: Fuck! Shit! It’s like for a second I just die there. I go all weak. Can’t move. Fuck! Shit! My little baby! And then it’s. I mean, boom! Kicks out her foot and starts crying. You know, like she just got the wind knocked out and shit. So then I’m down there hugging her. And I’m all quivery and everything. Way over-reacting. Like I’m gonna faint. So Ashley helps me get her out. And then we’re all rocking on the bench and I’m saying, “It’s okay little Clarissa-pie! It’s okay my little Ding-Dong.” Her little fluffy head right up against my chin. And I don’t know. Even though she’s a big girl now. Her head’s still got. Especially when she’s all crying and everything. Hot. It’s still got this baby smell. That’s the most beautiful smell there is in the world. I always loved that smell. But I don’t know. This time. Somehow. She's still crying and I say to her, "There, there. Got to stop crying now. Be brave. Got to be brave like a soldier.” And that’s when it starts.
I don’t know why I say it. Sort of like I can’t help myself. But I know exactly what I’m saying. So, I’m like, “You know, where I just was, the little kids was soldiers too.” That does it. Her tears stop just like that. She’s all ears to what I’m saying. Ashley too. I can feel it. So I say, “It’s true. They was soldiers. Just like the grown-ups. Only thing is, they was enemy soldiers. And sometimes they stepped right in front of your truck. To make you stop. So that their daddies. Or their brothers. Could shoot you. Or blow you up. That's what they wanted. That’s why they would stand in front of us. And. So, you wanna know what we did? We just ran them right down. Like they weren’t even there. Their mamas too, sometimes. And. Well. We just had to. If we didn't, they'd shoot us. And we would die.” I stop talking then. I can’t say any more. And it’s like the whole world. It’s like God takes this big deep breath, and he’s holding it. And he’s not going to let it out. It’s. You know. Like long as he’s holding his breath, nothing is going to happen. So then I say, before either of the girls can make a sound. "Ice cream time! Let's all go home and have some chocolate ice cream! You girls haven't even had dessert yet. You all deserve a treat!”
I watch the girls as we walk home. And mostly they’re pretty much normal. Maybe a little quieter. I have to carry Clarry most of the way. And she falls asleep on my shoulder. When we get home my parents are just leaving. So there’s goodbyes and everything. Then Trudy doesn’t want the girls to have ice cream. Says it’s too close to dinnertime. But I say I promised. You know: a special treat. Daddy’s home. So she gives them both bowls and puts them on the floor in front of the TV. Pete’s Dragon. Ashley’s favorite. Soon as they’re settled, Trudy goes to the cabinet over the refrigerator and gets out the china bowl with the rolling papers in it and the weed. “Thank God,” she says. “That was a torture.” I just shrug my shoulders. “I swear,” she says. “For a while there I wanted to hit Grampa over the head with my fork. I’m serious! Wanted to stab him in the cheek.” “He’s a trip,” I say. I don’t want any marijuana, so I go to the refrigerator and get myself a beer. Tecate. My first real beer in six months. I sit down at the table opposite Trudy. She lets these jets of smoke out her nose and smiles. “So now you’re really home,” she says. I raise my bottle. You know: sort of a toast. She reaches across the table and rubs the back of my hand. “You doing okay?” I shrug. “Don’t worry about it,” she says. “I been talking to Lucile Gordon. I told you about how Pauly’s come back? Only one leg? She been telling me what it’s like and everything. Said there’s this wives group I could join if I want to. You too. They got all kinds of groups for soldiers.” She takes another long toke. When she lets it out she says, “We’ll get through it.” Then there’s this sadness on her face. She looks like her mother. Then she smiles. “Come with me!” She takes my hand.
Just before Jimmy was born, my father. He’s always been like a handyman. He builds this wall in the girls’ room. Right down the middle of the window. You know. So both rooms have light. Air. So, anyway. Jimmy’s room is hardly bigger than a closet, really. Just big enough for us to squeeze in next to his crib. And his changing table. Trudy takes a last toke on her joint before going in. Puts it down on the bathroom sink. Then she’s like, leaning over the crib. “Look,” she says. The room’s all. You know. Baby-breathing, diaper cream. So then there’s this little guy lying there with his butt up in the air. His cheek’s all pressed down against the sheets. And he’s got no nose worth mentioning. Know what I mean? So Trudy’s like, “That’s our son. We did that! That’s our little boy.” Then she points again. “You see that? That’s your ear! That’s exactly what your ear looks like.” And I’m like, “Oh yeah,” even though I don’t have a clue what my ear looks like from the side.
So then, you know, most of the rest of the evening’s not so bad. Normal mostly. Me and Trudy have time for another beer and a joint. Then Jimmy wakes up. And I get to feed him a bottle. I’m holding him. And it’s just like when I used to hold the girls. I can do it, you know? What was I so worried about? And then I’m changing his diaper too. Which isn’t really like changing the girls, of course. I realize, smack in the middle of it, that this is the first time I’m like. Touching somebody else’s dick. Which is. You know. But anyhow, it’s just this little pink thing. So then there’s dinner. And more TV. And then the whole family’s in the bathroom. The girls are having a bath and everything. And I hold Jimmy out over the water. And he’s kicking it with his little pudgy feet. And the girls are all laughing and. You know. Loving it. And I’m thinking. Just. I mean I’m thinking. Maybe. Just maybe. You know?
Then finally, the day’s over. It’s like ten-thirty. Me and Trudy are sitting on the couch and she’s opening up her shirt. Getting ready to give Jimmy his last feeding and everything. But then Clarry calls out from the bedroom. She’s like, “Mommy! Mommy!” And Trudy’s like, “Go to sleep! You should have been asleep hours ago!” And Clarry’s like, “I can’t sleep. Ashley’s crying.” So Trudy gives me like. This look. And she puts Jimmy in my arms. And she’s, “Hold him for a second. I’ll be right back.” But this time I can’t hold him. I mean I can’t stand to. I just got this. Like this whole feeling in my body. And I guess he can tell. Or maybe it’s just he’s hungry. So he starts wriggling around the way babies do. Cranking his head around. Looking for titty. His arms working. You know. All spastic. His legs peddling back and forth. And he’s getting all red again. And I can tell he’s just about. You know. So I’m like, “There, there, little Jimbo. There, there, little man. It’s gonna be all right. Mommy’s coming.” But he’s not having anything of it. And I don’t know what I’m going to do if he starts to scream. Crying and everything. So I stick my pinky in his mouth. And for a while, that’s okay. For him, I mean. That satisfies him. But me. I’m starting to get that feeling. I’m shaking all over with it. You know. What I can’t stand is how hot the inside of his mouth is. How slippery. Wet. How he’s just sucking on my finger.
So, finally I pull it out. And that’s when he starts to cry. It’s just a little at first. Just cranky. And I’m, “Shhh, shhh.” But it’s no good. And then he’s wailing. You know. Screaming. And that’s it. I just can’t stand it any more. So I get up. And I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m just. You know? Walking around the room. So that’s when I see his playpen. And I put him down inside it. And then I go out the back door. I just have to get out. Get some air. Get away. But even outside I can hear the crying. Jimmy in the living room. And now Ashley and Clarry in the bedroom. I don’t know. Maybe Trudy too. The whole house is just full of noise. So I don’t know what to do. And I’m running around in circles. Then finally, I just grab on to one of those skinny trees Trudy planted. And I’m like trying to rip it out of the ground. You know. Then I’m trying to break it off at its roots. But I can’t. It’s just too strong. Too green. So then I just sit down on that trampoline. My back to the house. And I’m trying to cry. Trying to make the tears come out my eyes. But I can’t do that either.
That’s where I’m sitting when Trudy calls my name. She calls it again but I don’t answer. I don’t look around. She goes back inside. Jimmy’s still crying. But then he’s quiet. And the girls are quiet too. And now I can hear this one cricket doing his deedlydee next door. And in this big old black oak tree at the corner of the yard, a squirrel makes that kissy-laughing noise that I always used to think was a rattlesnake when I was little. And far, far away. Like it’s coming from everywhere. Like it’s the sound of the whole world. There’s this big, quiet. Like roar. From traffic on Route 57. Maybe Route 36 too.
After a while the back door opens again. And I hear Trudy walking toward me. Fast. Like she knows exactly where I am. I don’t turn around, but she keeps walking till she’s standing right in front of me. “What did you say to those girls?” She says that in a whisper, but it’s like the sort of whisper that rips out your mouth. At first I don’t answer. Then I say, “Nothing.” And she’s like, “What did you say? They wouldn’t make that up! Why did you say that?” “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I didn’t say anything.” I was sitting down when I started saying that, but now I’m standing up. And that’s when I notice she’s carrying Jimmy. You can hear these like. These little cat noises he’s making. But I don’t know whether he’s sucking or just dreaming. It’s too dark. All you can see is like these sort of gray clouds. You know: Faces. Shoulders. And then Trudy makes this noise deep in her chest. It’s like the closest to a growl that a human being can get. And she says, “David, I’m willing to put up with a lot. I figure it’s my duty. As your wife. But I am not! Do you hear me? I am not going to let you do anything to harm my children!” “Shut up!” I say. “Just shut the fuck up! I didn’t do anything! I don’t know what you’re talking about!” “I will not let you harm my children!” “Oh, Jesus, Trudy! Jesus Christ!” And then she says it: “It’s true what they said. That is what you did. You did do it, didn’t you?You did it!”
And that’s when there’s like this explosion of whiteness inside my head. The whole night sky lights up with whiteness. The house. The trees. Everything. Everything burning in white fire. And it’s like. You know. I’m not there. Or I am there, but it isn’t me. And I don’t know what’s happening. Or what’s going to happen. But I know it’s going to be. You know. Very bad.
© Stephen O’Connor
"White Fire" appears in the short-story collection Here Comes Another Lesson, Free Press, a Division of Simon and Schuster, 2010. This electronic version is published by kind permission of the author.
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Stephen O’Connor is the author of two collections of short fiction, Here Comes Another Lesson and Rescue, and of two works of nonfiction, Will My Name Be Shouted Out?, a memoir, and Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed, biography/history.
His fiction and poetry have appeared in The New Yorker, Conjunctions, Electric Literature, TriQuarterly, Threepenny Review, Black Clock, Poetry Magazine, The Missouri Review, The Quarterly, Partisan Review, and many other places, and his story, “Ziggurat,” will be featured in the coming season of NPR’s Selected Shorts. His essays and journalism have been published in The New York Times, DoubleTake, The Nation, Agni, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, The New Labor Forum, and elsewhere. He teaches in the MFA programs of Columbia and Sarah Lawrence.
author website: www.stephenoconnor.net
Photo: Joanna Eldredge Morrissey