It’s definitely not the heat that keeps me up at night since, for the past two years, I’ve gone to bed in a barracks that was close to ninety degrees every night. Maybe it’s the tossing and turning that keep my blood flowing and my mind awake, but I’ve tried lying still for long stretches, and there I am, still awake, getting familiar with the tiles on my ceiling.
At first, I tried drinking myself to sleep. When my dad left for the detox facility in South Carolina, he left behind a trove of filled bottles in the liquor cabinet. He’s quitting so I figure I’m doing him a service by emptying them all by the time he returns. Sitting on the couch, six glasses a night, watching cable news on my laptop—not even this formula could knock me out.
To combat my insomnia, I’ve taken to patrolling the suburban streets, wavering from block to block, streetlight to streetlight. Without a job, I need a routine to keep me sane, and since coming back from my tour of duty, I need a daily—or nightly—regimen.
Jeans, sneakers, and a t-shirt are my uniform. Before I head out the door, I do a pants-pat check—wallet, cell phone, keys, Beretta—but I feel under-armed tonight since I’m out of smokes. It’s gonna be a long night, but it’s better than lying horizontal for hours.
This late, the suburbs outside the apartment are quieter than a nursery at naptime. The trees sway, and the streetlights hum, but other than that, it’s only me. I used to enjoy the silence, but now my eyes quickly notice the vantage points where a madman with a gun could fire at me, or innocent civilians, with an unobstructed view. A skilled marksman, American or Iraqi, could take out three or four non-combatants from the Grangers’ patio before the rest of them scatter. When I was a kid, Mr. Arnold Granger stole at least three of my soccer balls after stray kicks landed on his lawn, but even so, I can’t allow a bloodbath on his front yard.
Tonight, there’s no one on the Grangers’ patio, nor on the Raleighs’ fire escape, nor in the Yanceys’ bushes.
As I reach the intersection at Center Avenue and Fifth Street, my hand is conditioned to reach for a smoke. I play with the button on my holster and turn east onto Fifth. A white sedan with a driver and passenger roll past. The three of us make eye contact. I see a couple, both early thirties; the male has no beard, but I couldn’t make out any other features. They see one man, mid-twenties, shaved head, stalking the streets at night. They speed down to Eastern Avenue and turn left. I continue to play with the button on the holster.
In the war, carrying a weapon always felt like carrying an anchor, even with a shoulder strap, but there comes a day in every Marine’s life where you start to feel naked without even a small sidearm.
I was one month into my deployment, and we had just dropped into Kuwait that January. By this point, the Operation was nearly over, and we were picking up scraps in the country.
I was on a night patrol in a village ten miles west of Kuwait City. Our flashlights scanned along clay walls and around dark corners. Trailing behind my team was a Humvee for added armor, but with headlights turned off so as to not advertise our position.
Before the first blast, I remember getting distracted by my friend’s combat helmet. PFC Castellanos etched a Mexican flag onto the back of his helmet, with the eagle and the vines and all that shit. He was from Monterrey, but here he was in the Middle East, on behalf of Uncle Sam. When I asked him what his beef was with the Hussein, he got uncomfortable and eventually admitted that he was an undocumented migrant since moving to California when he was eight years old. He said, “Hopefully, I’ll make enough money from your government to move my family back to Monterrey.” I guess you could call it his last confession.
After a few paces, a rocket boomed over our heads and demolished a clay wall. It was an RPG fired from 3 o’clock. My team knew to sprint to cover behind the Humvee, but I threw myself over the fallen wall. I broke protocol.
Small-arms fire crackled from the northern end of the alley. Castellanos, along with Cpl. Ryans and PFC Zimmerman, embraced the Humvee as cover while Ryans radioed for a Cobra helicopter to give us close air support.
Castellanos gave the signal for me to sprint through crossfire—he’d provide cover—and join my team at the Humvee. I was safe behind the wall, but the Marines paid me to follow protocol in conflict scenarios, not to save my ass. I pressed forward when another RPG screamed across the road and ignited the Humvee, bursting my team into red bits. I was caught in the crossfire, covered in flesh that was not my own. Back behind the wall I went, patting my body to make sure everything was there.
It was only me and my rifle to fend off the Republican Guards before the
Cobra got near. There was foreign shrieking on the other side of the burning
vehicle followed by an Ali Baba with a little red hat-charging straight at
me, shooting from his AK. The Guard never trained these guys properly.
It was a clear shot, and I raised my M4, braced for the recoil, and pressed two shots into the kamikaze. His momentum kept his body moving forward, and his blood spurted onto my helmet.
The Cobra arrived and brought rain down on what turned out to be just three insurgents. As the air jockey circled above, I stood and waited for the transport to get me. My fatigues were stained with the blood of my brothers and my enemy. When I got a new set the next day, they felt lighter and thinner than before and always would unless I was armed.
* * *
The pharmacy at Fourth Street and Eastern Avenue is open twenty-four hours. The lights are damned bright and make the rainbow of cigarette packs behind the counter sparkle. A TV stacked on the counter plays the 11 o’clock news.
As I ask for a pack of Marlboros, I notice a familiar face behind the cash register—an old schoolmate, Jared Lessinger. We had PE class together both fall and spring semesters of our junior year.
“Hey, long time, no see,” I say to my old pal.
“Uh, yeah, hey. Good to see you … dude,” he says.
“How’re ya doing?”
“Um … good. Real good.” My name and my face have been completely erased from his memory. He has no idea.
On the TV, the anchor comments on a recent shooting where some guy named Zimmerman shot a kid in the suburbs.
“So … um … what do you think about the whole Martin shooting? Have you been following that?” I ask.
“The kid in Florida. You know.”
“I don’t really know about that stuff, dude,” he says. “That’ll be five
dollars, twenty-five cents.” We knew each other for a whole year, we are
now neighbors in the same town—I’m sure my face jogs his memory a little.
Maybe he’s uncomfortable because he hasn’t seen me in years. And, of course,
talking about murder isn’t a great way to shoot the shit. Lesson learned.
He’s a good citizen, that Jared.
The streetlight on the corner of Fourth and Center was where I snuck cigarettes when I was a teenager because it was orange and flickered every few seconds, so cars passing by didn’t notice me. The light has been replaced since those days, and now it beams a bright white light onto the sidewalk. Luckily, the streetlight on Third and Center has deteriorated to something like a moth collector.
Back to my old grind, I light up and study the houses. Around the corner, I hear lawn furniture crash, somewhere on Eastern Avenue. It’s not time for the Beretta, but I hunch and creep along the front lawns and peek over the Grangers’ wooden fence. A glass table and umbrella are knocked over, and there’s movement. Over there, running behind the house, more movement. My feet scramble before I can question what it was. I dash across the lawn and turn the corner and see a dark figure struggle to wriggle his way through a gap in a fence.
“Who are you?” I unholster my Beretta.
No response, but faster struggling.
“Turn around and peacefully give up.” I aim down the sights.
More struggling, then the perp throws garden stones at me—sharp little bastards that sting when they hit my torso. The perp lifts a brick that lines the perimeter of the Grangers’ garden. He must not see the pistol in my hand because he’s charging at me with the brick. I don’t know if this attack is a distraction from a knife hidden in his sleeve, or if there’s an accomplice ready to blindside me. My finger is on the trigger, but I hesitate.
This guy or aggressive girl could still be a neighbor. I can’t spill another’s citizen’s blood, but my body is so used to pulling the trigger. I turn my face away and blindly fire.
The round scrapes along the paneled siding of the Granger’s house. The perp shoulders me down, and he scurries away. I could have popped one in his back, but the Marines aren’t paying me for that anymore.
Bedroom and living room lights snap on throughout the neighborhood and yard
dogs bark. The cavalry should be here soon, so I sit on the curb of the street
and smoke another.
* * *
“So you’re the one that fired the shot?” asked the officer, writing it all down in a notepad.
“And that was the only one you fired?”
“You can check my magazine.”
It was only me and him, standing next to his cruiser, spinning blue and red lights on the darkened houses. Some faces watched our conversation from bedroom windows, but no one dared go outside. Can’t blame them.
“You said you were in the Marines, right?” asked the officer.
“Eighteen month deployment.”
“My brother is ten months into his, but they got him stationed in Korea.”
“I’m going to re-read your story to you, and let me know if you agree, all righty? You were patrolling the street on Center, you heard something at the Granger’s house, you ran over, saw a man trying to escape through the fence, you yelled at him, he threw rocks at you, he then approached you with a knife, you fired a warning shot, he knocked you down, then ran away toward Fifth.” I’m a terrible liar.
“He brought a knife to a gun fight, poor asshole.” But the officer doesn’t know I’m terrible.
“This could be a misdemeanor,” said the officer, writing out a ticket. “You should know better than to open fire in a residential neighborhood, even if you’re an expert, and especially with all that shit on the news.”
“We don’t need no superheroes in this town. Just call us next time, all righty?” He shows me the ticket, all the infractions in my face, and he tears it to bits. “Have a good night, and stay safe.” The officer steps into his cruiser and rolls away.
“You too,” I say.
The deep blue of the day was creeping over the horizon. I stood in the middle of the street and saw the concerned citizens observing me from their houses, still in pajamas. Anytime I made eye contact, they quickly stepped out of view and closed their blinds.
I was more useful thousands of miles away than I am here on Eastern Avenue.
* * *
The birds outside are chirping me to bed as I lie over the sheets. The sun will be up soon. I walk into the living room and tap around the bottles in the liquor cabinet. There’s two fingers left in the whiskey. I swig it from the bottle and the hairs stand on my neck.
In my underwear, I drag my feet to the living-room window. Mr. Granger’s son is the first one awake on the block since he got that job at the water treatment plant. He pulls out of his driveway, his engine crooning through street. It’s early morning for him and after-drinking time for me.