by John Darcy
A flash of his ID to a gate guard that does not inspire confidence. His eyes water from the cold and the tears freeze as if winter wants to punish him for feeling it. The air is like a shocking temperature. Kenny salutes the triangle-bodied Station Commander and becomes certain of a long running suspicion that this isosceles still has not learned his name.
Kenny makes duplicates of the DA 4856-abridged Counseling Forms and moves down the hall to First Sergeant Lenore’s office. Little half-muted clicks from his boots against the floor follow him ever so quickly. The brightness of the lights here is intermittent and laptop-like, a sort of soda can fizzing to it. That sticky stale sweet smell of bad coffee threads through the black and white and yellow Reserve Station like a kind of allergenic dust.
“Go ahead and give that door a close if you don’t mind, Ken,” 1SG Lenore says. This is her way and Kenny is a fan. Behind a closed door she lets decorum slip away. She likes to set aside the starched-stiff uniforms, the insignias plastered on the walls and branded into the stocky metal filing cabinets like cross-cannon barcodes, the neatly formatted forms and counterforms resting on smooth desks beside commemorative coins aligned cleverly in specific holders, the framed awards and certificates of promotion written in an old-timey military speak that brings to mind notions of a vaguely lonesome kind of glory. Kenny believes that what Lenore wants most is to make this any other office in any other city, any other encounter between a superior and a subordinate where the male subordinate is not quite as onboard with the idea of serving under a woman as he would like to be but is just short of positive is something he will come around to.
“And nothing doing yesterday?” she says.
What happened yesterday was that it hadn’t gone well with the kid from Kenny’s first meeting, which is to say it had gone exactly how these things had been going since Kenny came down on Career Counselor Orders last April and got sent up to Milwaukee Station, put in charge of an AO spanning a swath of land described to him during a left-seat-right-seat as “at least two gas tanks’ worth, bucko.”
It had gone even worse with the second kid, who was hardly a kid at all, was maybe only a year or two off from Kenny. This was up in La Crosse WI, a real elbow of a town in Kenny’s view, an important joiner of two halves that never really got the credit it deserved.
“What’s going on, Kenny?” the kid who was hardly a kid said. “What do I gotta sign?”
“Sergeant Morrow,” Kenny said. “You’ve been out a while, I get it, nobody gets it better than me. But you’re still in, right? Let’s be sure not to lose our mind here.”
“You can’t be serious?”
“I really am.”
“What? Really am what?”
“Serious,” Kenny said. “Really am serious.”
“If it means that much to you.”
“Alright, alright. Don’t get all caught up in it.”
“I won’t,” Kenny said.
“Jesus Christ, please just tell me what you need?”
Kenny said his usual, “I want to tell you personally that the Army still considers you a great asset.”
The kid who was hardly a kid told Kenny that he would not, under any circumstance including but not limited to a Third Gulf War, a Second Korean Conflict, or a Chinese Invasion, re-up with the Army or Army Reserve, Inactive Ready Reserve, the fucking Boy Scouts of America.
“Not much for me to work with,” Kenny said.
“I could’ve told you all that on the phone, man.”
“Nope, just me.” Kenny paused for a laughter that didn’t come. “Okay, well, remember your time’s up for good in, let’s see, two-hundred days on the nose. After that it’ll get a whole lot harder to come back in, you know, if you change your mind.”
“Changing my mind.”
“Well, if you do,” Kenny said, camouflage-colored business card already slid across the coffee shop table.
Lenore shuffles in her swivel chair and takes a sip of coffee. From where Kenny stands at the pointed edge of the angled workstation her movements come and go in stages, a winding up of various gears and levers turning this way or that. Cold bits of sunlight drip through the blinds as if from a faulty tap.
“Nothing doing would be correct,” Kenny says. He sticks a pinky finger in his ear, twists it around and gets that compressed orgasmic Q-tip feeling.
“And to that I say no problem, not a problem in the world. Just file them away. Bag ‘em and tag ‘em.”
“What’s that?” Kenny says.
“You don’t like it? Bag’n’tag. I’m trying it out, you know? I’m trying it out like I tried out that new Chinese place––knowing I’m gonna hate it.”
Jo Lenore is two years younger than Kenny and it shows in her round face, in her long, unlikely smile. She’s told Kenny exactly once that she’s from “just down the way,” the rarest of gems in this line of work, somebody being from where they’re stationed. It lends to her person an air of unfinishedness, a dream to get the heck out of a place only half realized.
“I thought maybe for a second I had the kid up in La Crosse. I swear. He said he wasn’t into it, but I thought he might play. He seemed smart enough, still in shape.”
“Eh, you’ll get the next one,” Lenore says.
“This is where I say, ‘That’s what you always say.’”
“Yeah yeah yeah. But it doesn’t matter, does it? We act like it matters so much when we all know it doesn’t. We’re so far from the top and bottom at the same time, it doesn’t matter how we do,” Lenore says.
She has a kind of don’t-mind-either-way look about her as she props an elbow on the L-shaped desk, an unusual lowness to her voice that makes Kenny think she doesn’t actually care if he hears it at all.
“It doesn’t matter,” Kenny says. “Is that how I look. Like it doesn’t matter. This is not my kind of job.” He feels a gut-sized knot spreading like a nasty stomach bug. He knows he’s getting worked up and hopes to god Lenore fails to notice.
“Because you’re bad at it? That’s no reason to hate something,” she says. “Didn’t they teach you that in kindergarten?”
“No, it’s because I’m bad at it and nobody seems to care that I’m bad at it and I’m getting paid like I’m not bad it.” Kenny makes his fingers into a comb and brushes his shock of thin black hair from left to right. He is lean and stiff and what a nice old lady might call plain-looking. His face clings tight to a weak jawline as if about to fall, pink and fleshy from a good shave that morning.
“You’re getting paid how you always get paid. You’re good enough for government work or else you wouldn’t be here,” Lenore says. “What are you going all wobbly on me for? The winter does a good enough job making me depressed. I don’t need your help.”
Kenny wants to take a swig from his water bottle but he left it in the car. He gets a feeling, at this moment as a faint low click sounds from a heater going who knows on or off, of being very out of place: a crisp, base-level awareness of unbelonging he finds impossible to ignore, a nagging sense that he’s dressed up a little too convincingly on Halloween, tricked everyone, himself included, pulled the wool over his own eyes just to find himself at home in the deep blue dark.
“People just aren’t coming these days, not enlisting and definitely not reenlisting,” Lenore cuts in. “People are getting jobs, going to school, learning to fucking code or whatever. You’re thinking it’s your fault people won’t re-up. If you were out right now, would you come back in?”
Kenny is strictly ineligible for the bonus, age-wise, and if there are any hard feelings about this they’re simmering on a level Kenny hasn’t yet gained access to. But he does keep a running tally of lost-out-on cash in his head, as his re-ups always seemed to come an expensive one or two months before a new incentive program. He tries his best not to dwell on this for long.
“With the money they’re shelling out?” Kenny says, loud enough for him to reign his voice back down. “I’d reenlist to be a fucking bullet catcher. You know what one of the guys told me yesterday? He told me it’s not a good sign we’re offering such big bonuses. He said it’s too good to be true and too good to be true things usually are. He said there must be something going on, some scary secret defense contract just looking for a new war.”
“There’s always something going on,” Lenore says.
“I’ll tell you right now that I’m not going to make it. That it won’t turn out well for me in the worst way.”
There’s a knock at the door and Kenny and Lenore, without a word or much more than a quick stolen glace, fall back into character, into how this set stage is meant be acted upon.
Kenny finishes up for the day and makes off west towards the middle of the state, the flimsy, boneless center of that right-hand held upturned, driving half-tilt below a light frosting of clouds.
Kenny Morrow has a fondness for Wisconsin, or at the very least does not hate it – which in its own right is good enough – does not distrust its figure and the odd aliveness of its anatomical outline. He picked to live as close to the geographic center so as to cut down on driving time, to keep work and its galumphing miles as responsibly distributed as possible. Once, last October-ish on a Wednesday mid-morning, he pulled off the highway after catching sight of a sheet-metal sign strung up on a makeshift halyard clapping metallically in the breeze. It advertised a seer, a clairvoyant, and before he could register the whole scope of foolishness he decided to do it, to do the thing and walk right in because he knew he’d keep seeing the advertisement, over and over and over as he drove to meet with future non-re-uppers, and the weird unexplainable bug to check it out wouldn’t fade, would remain like a tic or a tremor, so better to get it over with, stop in and rationally deduct from his travel log whatever added mileage he might accrue, in order to get back to keeping separate things separate.
The psychic’s name was Melinda. A set of eyes on her like searchlights. She told Kenny she felt his palm’s aura through the trailer walls.
“Have you been doing this” – Kenny motioned grandly with his hands, feeling nervous and more than a little dumb – “all this, for a while?” he asked.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” she said. “I would and I wouldn’t. I’ve been here and there, on and off. Odd jobs? Sure. Harbor master’s assistant in Trinidad? That was me. But this, as you say, all this. I’ve been doing this for many lives.”
They sat down at opposite ends of a crescent-shaped table. Kenny held out his hand and she examined it closely, meticulously, giving the whole exercise a level of attention intense enough to feel fabricated, manufactured on some sort of drafting table for mystics.
“How’d you lose the pinky?” she said.
“Not how you think,” he told her. “A faulty fuse on a smoke grenade. Fort Pickett, Virginia.”
“You should’ve just said Iraq. Might have given you a discount.”
She traced his hand and whispered to herself, talking in tongues and a pebbly smoker’s voice. She shuffled from room without a word and when she came back she was holding a bundle of papers and breathlessly told Kenny that his lines, inch by inch, matched the highways that cross-stitched the state, as if by design, as if an overlay, his hand a blueprint that could take the place of a roadmap––his fateline a dead ringer for I-39; HWY 8 a copy of his heartline down to the switchbacked stop-start near his Jupiter Mount and the northeasterly portion of the state near Rhinelander, respectively.
“What does it mean, though?” Kenny said.
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen this. You should go. This is too much for me. How should I know what it means? This is outside my realm.”
“How much do I owe you?”
“I would please like for you to leave now,” she said, shaking nearly, a brush of sweat on her thick brow, hunched over with a sort of impendingness as if the slightest misplaced movement might disturb the balance of the universe.
And Kenny has not gone back to that trailer just west of Wausau because he couldn’t figure out what there might be to gain from a return, what advantage would be made possible to amass. The only place to go, there in his car outside the Station, was back home, to drive back home with the sky atremble, loose and grainy as if projected there from some false distance, a thrown voice of a sky, shivering like it’s just come from the pool. And Kenny, lost there for a moment, staring straight ahead at the every bit of two hours before him, imagines the road, leathery and pulled tight, cracked and caked with cold.
At home the hours pass as if bored. Call it midnight, the night just starting to fall away towards morning.
Kenny is out sitting in the sunburned deckchair he keeps on the back porch. Layers of dark are cut in sections by the toothpick birch trees; the moon is a low tangled mess and a cold front looms, the air thin against itself.
The chair: an Adirondack the color of a blue jay. Kenny bought it back in pre-9/11 ‘01, able-bodied and astir with predictions about his future, inhabitant of a world so foreign from this one it’s hard for him to believe anything could have survived, much less something as simple as a chair. He was a more than a wide-eyed recruit then, in the South Carolina National Guard, a member of the last batch of peace-time enlisters. Eighteen years and a pinky finger ago.
Lovingly he’d kept the chair around, or maybe it was the chair that kept nearby, servile, dog-like, always silvering in the sun like skin. He’d had it through the Active Guard and the Active Guard Reserve; it followed him when he flipped to Active Duty outright, back again and back one more time; the who-knows-how-many miles up to Wainwright AK, and the who-knows-how-many-more back down again, to Ft. Sam Houston TX. Forget about people, what journeys objects can take. But it was always there, never more than a few days behind in the government moving truck, the chair towed loyally along like a dingy fixed astern.
He throws his thoughts to the big three-seven, a hair over two months off, faraway but plenty close still, the way a birthday always seems to feel. He can’t take much more of the cold, the nighttime cold, itself something unique to be learned and studied.
There is no sunrise in sight and why should there be. The nighttime covers everything as if there isn’t anything at all. Kenny goes back inside because what the hell else is he supposed to do.
“But aren’t bachelor pads supposed to be dirty?” Lenore says. “Why aren’t there any empty rum bottles lined up on top of the cabinets?”
She’d hardly let Kenny rest after what she called the “slight office episode.” She kept it light and jokey, just irony-ridden enough to be brushed aside if he was willing to laugh at himself. But it was, Kenny knew, her way of being supportive, of showing the sort of unself-conscious concern which the Army for reasons good and not is famed for showing America’s rudderless men and boys.
“My theory,” Lenore says, still in uniform but with sleeves cuffed, “which by the way was shattered when I walked in the door, was that a clean office meant dirty house and, what’s the word.”
“Vice versa,” Kenny says.
“No. Yes. But you’re clean on both fronts. Where do you hide your victims? Is there a fridge in the cellar I should know about?”
“I’m a serial killer now, is that it? Or am I being too sensitive.”
“You’re not sensitive enough,” Lenore says. “That’s the problem. You should take it as a compliment. You’d be getting away with it in the days DNA databases and location tracking or whatever. No small feat. Hey, you’re the one who wants to be good at your job.”
Lenore looks around, her first time here. Kenny’s house is a standalone among a grove of whipgrass bordered by two swiss-cheesed highway signs. The nearest neighbor is a mile away, kind of house. On paper it’s one story but it has a cellar, which confuses Kenny and always has. An open floorplan on the main level, a flat expanse of twinkling laminate and lukewarm carpeting. The living room is interrupted every so often by broad-shouldered partitions. The rug Kenny’s mother gave him maybe a decade ago lies bluely near the front door.
“Is this an ‘I was just in the neighborhood’ type deal,” Kenny says. “Because nobody’s ever really just passing by here. I appreciate the mental health check, sure. But does that mean you red flagged me or something?”
“Help me out. My job aside, I’ve never understood why men take it so personal anytime somebody wants to make sure they’re doing alright,” Lenore says. “Enlighten me?”
“Did my change of duty station get approved?”
“Ever think of putting some pictures on the wall?”
“Come on. Is that why you’re here, to tell me it got denied? Yes or no,” Kenny says. Last light comes through the windows and bounces off the hardback couch, infusing the room with acres of dead light.
“Might help tie the place together, as my sister would say. You could even make it a buxom pinup girl, really lean into the whole bachelor theme. And no. No, it did not.”
“Which means two more years of trying to convince kids who don’t want to be convinced.”
“We’ll be in a different war by then,” Lenore says, “and people’ll be whistling America the Beautiful as they take your pen to sign on the dotted.”
“You don’t say? Two years is what’s on the paperwork. We can be on the lookout for something sooner, you know that as well as I do. But yes, two years, so no time is too soon to start getting okay with it.”
“And if I told you I’m not gonna make it two years,” Kenny says. “That I’m not even sure about tonight.”
“I’d tell you to watch what the fuck you’re saying,” Lenore says.
She scares Kenny with this, how flashbulb-fast she snaps back into rank.
“Because you’re saying some pretty goddamn dumb things, soldier,” she says. “These days, when you say stuff like that, things start moving, protocols and checklists. Big pieces get initiated. So if you say anything else like that. Do you see what I’m saying?”
“I get it,” Kenny says. “I’m sorry.”
“Because it’s not a fucking joke,” Lenore says. “You’re saying it all loosey-goosey. Like some teenage poem about suicide. But the Army doesn’t joke about it anymore. Guys who wear suits and lapel pins said they’d fix that sort of stuff. They made it a campaign promise. You have any idea how much money they’ve put into fixing all this depression in uniform? They’ll send you off to die in the desert just to keep you from killing yourself.
“You thought being in the Army would sign, seal, and deliver you a purpose. Couldn’t be more wrong. If anything it’s the opposite. And they have manuals on it now, official Pentagon field manuals on how to keep somebody from blowing their brains out. What, you think I’m being too harsh?”
“I didn’t say that,” Kenny says.
“I’m here as your friend and as your superior. It’s tough love without the love, copy?”
A pause comes over the room, a slow silent covering like dew across the ground. Kenny, in a way to get around setting his mind on what he’s really trying to say, instead does his best to focus on this woman, this pretty woman who is also his boss, standing in his house as night drapes itself across the sky. Her digital-camo blouse keeps him from going too far down that road, the way it seems to mastectomize ever woman he’s ever seen in one.
But really, mainly, he feels alone, alone as he sits on the couch in a room with the only person he would consider a real and serious friend within a thousand miles, a friend who is unhappy with him, disappointed in his quickness to speak, in his lack of judgement and forbearance with the weighty implications of his words, and this only serves to worsen his feeling of aloneness, because there really is no remedy for it, he decides, is there.
“I have to leave for the night. You alright with that?” she says.
“Yeah. I am.”
“Because I’ll stay.”
“No, you don’t have to do that. Really. I feel bad enough already,” Kenny says.
“Am I gonna get a call from the sheriff at four in the morning? I’m going straight from the manual here.”
“No,” Kenny says, not sure where this would rate on an honesty meter.
“Because I’ve gotten one of those before. About one of my soldiers.”
“And here I am, being about as straightforward as I can, not wanting to get another one,” she says. “That’s the only way I can put it.”
“I get it.”
Kenny will drive east towards a small pond he’s seen now and again, a cutout of water overhung by an outcrop of what he figures is sandstone, hoping the ice won’t be too thick down below, hoping it will open up just enough to swallow him whole or, failing that, hoping the crash from the drop off the rocky ledge, ice or no ice, an impact which he believes he can feel and hear already, will do what needs to be done.
He will drive on roads that are his hands, side streets and firebreaks that match the creases and folds of his palm; his hands that have known cold and dirt and the prick from a fishhook not quite rusted enough to cause alarm, the hell-heat of M-8 smoke grenade that singed his hand black though the fog it meant to ignite was red; his hands, ready to grip the wheel tight like a lover as he stomps the gas and takes the plunge; and how he plans to push hard, hard, hard against the steering column to keep his posture, to keep upright as if at his first piano lesson so when they find him there, waterlogged and icicled, he will appear serene and unknowing.
This is how he will think until he decides to turn around and go home, a decision he will not know the why’s and how’s of, but one which will happen regardless; and he will know he hasn’t reached the end of it, because in the likeliest of likelihoods he isn’t going anywhere for two years and he knows the little pond isn’t either, leaving the option open if he’s up to the task, which, with all the gratitude he can locate in his body, he posits he never will be. And how he will––and he’s still not sure about this one––but how he will or at least how he will want to call his superior, his boss, his first line of contact and friend, and she will ask How are you doing? and he will say Me? I’ll be alright. And how when he says that he will think of the pond, or of other means and methods, but will try to say it like it’s true, hope it’s true or might one day be the truth, because what else is there to do, really, when it comes down to it.