After the Fight
by Joe Schneller
Rob woke throwing haymakers. His first thought: we’re overrun. He dropped to the deck and reached under the rack for his weapon. Nothing there. Wait, his hand felt cord. He pulled. Light flared and Rob thought he would die.
Shielding his eyes, anticipating flame, a room came to view: white wall, hardwood floor, a nightstand. A cardboard sign against the base of the wall read,
Rob you are safe.
Rob blinked. He looked at the cord in his hand, followed it to a pulley in the ceiling, saw the small loop at the end for the light switch. Then, in two seconds, he traveled 8,000 miles. All the way from Kabul.
He leaned against the bed and sobbed into his hands while part of his mind reviewed war-horror, and another part—as though standing by the dirty clothes pile and looking down at himself—wondered if his stifled convulsions were good for the abs.
Rob wiped his face and exhaled. He stared at the wall until his heart slowed. Pushing through the apathy which always followed the fight after the dream, Rob moved to a squat and patted his boxers. He hadn’t urinated this time. That was good. He reached for the sign. In the corner, he read the recently penned addition:
Two beers max.
Rob looked at the clock on the nightstand. 12:02 a.m. He knew the half-fridge in the corner contained no beers. He would head to town. Yes, he needed to get up and moving. He would head to town and decide along the way.
Rob walked the center of the gravel road from the rented farmhouse. He pulled his cap low and pushed his hands deep into the pockets of his Carhartt. He looked at the moonless heavens, remembering somehow his childhood notion that the night sky was a black blanket and the stars pin-holes, their lights really the light from one big source on the other side. And that made him think of Jimmy.
Jimmy had been with the Marines. He’d been driving a 5-ton in convoy outside of Fallujah when two IEDs detonated at roadside, the second blowing the top half of his body into a shallow ditch. Later, the dogs had come and tore at it until a PFC beat them with a shovel, killing one and wounding the other. Another PFC had said they should finish the wounded dog, but they both just watched as it dragged its back legs into a rocky field.
Rob had learned all this from the corpsman in Jimmy’s unit, but told none of it when he visited Jimmy’s family east of Stillwater. He’d summoned the guts to see them and then sat dumbly in their living room with a glass of tea dripping in his hands and looking at Jimmy’s mother whose mind had fled. Finally he’d said, “We all died in that war, ma’am, it’s just that most of us came back.”
Jimmy’s sister Rebecca had followed Rob to the porch that day, and when he turned he realized that he hadn’t really seen her in the house. She was full grown though hardly sixteen. She’d leaned against a post and he’d stood at the step while chickens pecked and a goat with a bell wandered the yard. The evening sun had come down at an angle, and Rebecca was very beautiful and very sad. She’d nodded toward the barn and raised an eyebrow, and Rob had known immediately what she’d meant. For this was not the first girl who’d misread his haunted gaze for something like danger.
He’d said, “You’re worth more than that.”
“Am I,” she’d said as her eyes went distant and she no longer saw him.
Then he had turned, crossed the cattle guard and walked up the road.
Warm now but dream-weary, Rob crossed the cattle guard, turned up the road, and began walking the two-and-a-half miles to town. He’d thought of that moment with Rebecca ten-thousand times. Most times he remembered it as it had happened. He remembered the light and how she’d looked on that porch and what had been said in the different ways there are of saying.
Sometimes, though, he changed the memory and turned toward the barn. Later he would apologize to Jesus and to Jimmy.
Rob used to think that Jimmy would understand and that had made him feel less soiled. Lately—based mostly on things Augustine said—he reasoned that Jesus understood fully and yet still had done what He’d done, and this somehow made Rob feel new. He tried to fathom that, dying like that for the undeserving. Choosing to do so.
So he tried to stay clear of the barn and wondered, as he stepped into the pale yellow pool of the first streetlight on Main Street, if maybe he should write her. Just write her a little note and say thank you for the tea. Maybe ask how her mother was.
But then again that didn’t seem so wise.
There were two bars on this end of Main Street: The Fox & The Crow and Little John’s. As Rob passed, he heard the thump and whine of live bands, and realized it was Saturday night. These places were like black holes to him, collapsed supernovas pulling him in, for he had lost many moons to them. But he pressed on and came to an old stone building at the corner of Garfield and Main. A small neon cross glowed in the window near the door. Rob opened this door, trod up the foot-worn stairs, and knocked.
Augustine answered. Gray-bearded and keen-eyed, he was dressed in Harley attire. He never seemed fatigued. He was perhaps many things, but acknowledged none of them—some said a psychologist, some said a veteran of Vietnam, some said a former felon. But he opened the place to the broken warriors of this town, and always answered the door on any day, at any time, in any weather.
“Robert,” said Augustine, looking fully and calmly into his eyes. “You’ve had the dream.”
“Yes, I have.”
“Do you want to tell me about it?”
“I never want to tell anyone about it,” and they sat in the first room with the straight-backed chairs and the reading lamp with the deer on its shade. Rob told Augustine the dream in a thick-tongued monotone. He left nothing out, even the part when he tried to reach the grenade pin.
Augustine was quiet. Rob was quiet. They let the quiet grow. Then Augustine reminded him, “You are here now, Robert, and that is in your past. It is not in your now, and it is not in your future. The dream is not the thing itself, nor is it a monster. The dream is the echo. The more you speak of it, the more it will fade.” They read Psalm 6, which Rob had nearly memorized, and Augustine prayed for him.
“So be it,” said Rob, and lifted his eyes. He felt calm but alert. “Who else is here?”
“Come see,” said Augustine.
They entered the large room. Zeke and Tom watched an old Steve Martin movie. Caleb racked out on a couch. Jerome sat in his wheelchair hunched with a novel. In a moment, he would see Rob, raise his hand in that guileless wave, and ask if he
wanted to play chess.
“We’ll leave for church at nine, if you’d like to come,” said Augustine. “Breakfast is at eight.”
Augustine turned for his chair while Psalm 6 worked in Rob’s mind: The Lord has heard my cry for mercy; the Lord accepts my prayer. He exhaled slowly. It was always so simple and innocent here—none of the brash talk and warm intoxication of the bars, none of the reckless but failing attempts to forget, none of the local girls whispering close in his ear as he leaned against a pool table. Rob stood feeling the peace of this place, then hung his Carhartt on a coat peg by the others.
Joe Schneller is a former Marine who served stateside from 1997-2001. Since that time, he has worked in a variety of industries, currently in Aerospace/Defense. he has published approximately 100 articles and short stories with nationally distributed magazines.