The Light in the Kitchen
By Ruth Deming
My duffel bag is my pillow. A fluffy pink bathroom rug, my floor. And three upside-down cardboard boxes, snug on top of one another like a Chinese puzzle box, is my home. You see, when I served my twelve months in Kandahar, all I wanted was to be alone. A self-constructed solitary confinement is my home now in the woods. My music? The sounds of nature I hear when lying on the bathroom rug I pulled from the trash. Now I awaken to the early morning chirping of the birds I so missed in our housing units, custom-made for temperatures which, I’m sure you’ve read, can get up to 140 degrees, and then drop drastically when the ice-cold rains and snows fall from the sky.
Ever taste tepid water from a canteen when you’re thirsty? Don’t.
In my new home, I listen to the “tee-wip wip wip wip wip” of the cardinal or the swoop of an airborne hawk catching an early morning breakfast, an unprotesting mouse, I suppose, and the soughing of the maple trees – or is it the lone dogwood waiting to bloom?
Sure I miss the boys. Hell, I miss Ricky with his backslapping sense of humor; Bucky, (whose real name is Hubert), who shared his Jack Higgins paperbacks with everyone, while I was busy with my long-winded Dickens; and, damn, I miss Little Sammy, a wise-cracking Jewish boy who came from an Orthodox family in Brooklyn and loved nothing better than our sizzling bacon and egg breakfasts in the chow hall. I miss the way he prayed for us all before bed in Hebrew in his nasal sing-song monotone. And when one of us died, and, yes we did, for we were in one of the great danger zones, he sang the Kaddish over our fallen comrade’s torn-up body before it was placed in the bag from where there is no escape. Although I didn’t understand Sammy’s Hebrew, I felt swept away with a sadness I’d only felt when my father died.
I got out with my life and a head full of noise and memories. And I was not going back. You’ve read about the loyalty of men to their platoons. Loyal I am but if I was ever certain of anything in my life, that was it. Never Never going back.
Where in this Marine Corps staff sergeant’s brain of mine is the locus for the sounds that drone on and on? They only turn off when I’m asleep, which is when the nightmares begin.
When I awake, I hear myself moan and I’m shaking all over like an epileptic, sweat pouring onto the pink ruffled bathroom rug.
My dad had also been a Marine. His moth-eaten Marine dress suit was up in mom’s attic. I’d try it on as a kid and always knew I’d enlist. When he lay dying about four miles from here when I was fourteen, he said, “Bobby, take a hammer and knock the fuckin’ tumor out.”
I loved the dude so much I almost thought it might work.
I looked at this dying man, who was my father, and stifling a sob, I took off my red high school ring – St. Albert the Great – balled up my fists and started punching him with my knuckles, gently at first and then harder and harder until I was unintentionally playing a little tune on his shiny bald pate: “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”
He was dead within a year. But I ain’t going to die, that’s for sure. I’m going to live at least as long as he did. Forty-five years. I’m a miserable bastard, twenty-four years old, with a head full of noise and memories that won’t quit. The twins – Jeffrey and Alan – are in grad school and Mom has remarried. I don’t begrudge them. I owed it to my dad to enlist.
I roamed the back streets of the little borough of Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, after I flew in, like an unthinking zombie, from Bagram Air Force Base to Ramstein, Germany, then Dover, Delaware, where I saw the flag-covered coffins arrive, as if a flag could dull the pain, and then on to the Philadelphia Airport, wearing my civvies. I’d had enough of war until the end of time.
Declined to tell a soul I was home, although they sent mom a telegram I was back. Sorry, Mom, I do love you, but there’s some things a man’s gotta do by himself.
I set up headquarters in the pretty little suburb of trees and meandering creeks where a former girlfriend had lived. Shut-down train tracks, sprouting moss and grasses, provided a ready-made path toward my refuge which I christened “Tommy’s Place,” after a fallen comrade, who …..
Never mind. These are things best forgotten. If I shut them up inside, create a little bubble where they’ll never escape, I’ll spare everyone around me the sadness of when I talk about Tommy. Or Eric Dougherty or Burt Moran who died the day before he was to leave.
From the safety of “Tommy’s Place,” I make my way to a tributary of the Pennypack Creek, which flows all the way to the Delaware River, and plunge my naked body inside the gray waters to bathe. Because of the extreme temperatures in Afghanistan, I toughened up and developed freckles on my face and shoulders like father had.
Dunking my head in the water, I felt my chin-length hair swirl about me like spaghetti. I drew my fingers through my dark hair and rejoiced. No more cropped hair. I was as free as the river I bathed in. I had no plans except to keep clean, forage for food, and heal myself.
Damn, this hilly terrain. My foot was killing me from a stray bullet I’d taken in Kandahar. The medic removed the hollow bullet from near my left little toe, but it killed all the same as I hunted my food for the day.
I’d lost the soldier look – though people say you can always tell soldiers and cops just by the look of them – and wore a black turtleneck and some jeans. Walking down Huntingdon Pike, cars whizzed by. I couldn’t wait to get home to my box. I was not ready for civilization and the smell of gasoline engines and fumes emitting from the rear. The Toll House Inn was on my left. A good pick-up joint with good beer. A nice cold Guinness Ale. Nothing like filling your mouth with all them bubbles, swooshing it around, and feel it sting your throat all the way down.
A woman would only complicate my life now.
Anoosha was my woman back in Kandahar. Her father was a tribal elder who took a liking to our platoon. The moment I saw his daughter I fell for her dark skin and white teeth and the way her colorful Punjabi fell across her slender legs. At nineteen, she refused all the Afghans her father wanted her to marry. Soon my Anoosha would be an old maid.
The Akbars had relatives in Pennsylvania and had visited when Anoosha was a child. “Uncle Mo,” short for Mohammed, owned his own Afghan restaurant in Horsham, which served many of the traditional dishes I learned to love.
Before I enlisted, I knew nothing of Afghanistan, had no interest in their cuisine or their customs or their prayer rugs or close-to-the-floor furniture, more comfortable and cushiony than any of mom’s sofas or love seats.
In only a year, I came to understand them quite well, because I wanted to, even their Islamic customs like arranged marriages, prayers four times a day and wearing of the burkha. When she was outside the home, my Anoosha covered herself in a navy-blue gown, which hid her from head to toe. Of course it was easy to recognize her with her graceful walk that was like a swan on a lake and her merry black eyes peering from her headdress.
She became another person in the safety of her home, where I visited as many as three times a week. Of course we could never be alone, but were always accompanied either by her parents or her six year-old sister Ara. But I had seen her untented body, ostensibly by accident, she was a little flirt, my Anoosha, unafraid, self-confident as only the daughter of an elder can be.
At Tommy’s Place I could close my eyes and be with her again. Free and easy, laughing and joking with everyone, telling me in her broken English “You will forget me, Bob-bee, you will forget my family, and little Ara and happy Anoosha, when you go home to your land.”
Of course, we could only speak when her family was in the other room of their large two-story house. But they trusted me. How I wished I could touch my love. She barely looked me in the eyes, but when she did, I knew she cared about me. More than cared, I liked to think.
And I’m not going to lie and say I didn’t imagine sleeping with her, peeling off those multitudinous layers and seeing what lay underneath, while I kissed her face and the small beauty mark near her right eyebrow.
“Tell me again,” I asked her father, Mr. Akbar, whom I never referred to by name, “how did your people live through all the invasions of nations who had no business being here.”
In good English this husband and father of two daughters, who wore a burgundy-colored turban and had a full white beard, told me, “We must thank Allah for his blessings, even when we think they are travails, like the burning of our pomegranate orchard out back by the Russians, and now the suicide bombers of the Taliban,” which he pronounced “tolly-bah.”
The man never complained.
“With the help of Allah,” said Mr. Akbar, “our orchard was rebuilt pomegranate by pomegranate.”
Past the Toll House Inn was a new health food store, and then a flower shop. What changes twelve months had wrought. I certainly didn’t feel like the old Bobby Fitzpatrick as I walked these familiar streets. What interest did this beaten-down warrior have in drinking ale or getting laid? Or seeing my family and friends?
I walked inside Annie’s Victorian Village Flower Shoppe. I missed the gardens from mom’s house. Afghanistan was a colorless desert, smelling of dust and mud after the rains. When it snowed, I would tilt my head to the skies and taste the snow on my tongue.
I missed the smells and colors I found in this flower shop. Pushing my nose into a trumpet-shaped flower I inhaled like a honeybee and wished I could bring the flower back to Anoosha.
The Dumpster behind the flower shop was half full, making it difficult for a tall man such as myself to forage. Such waste! Afghanistan was such a poor country. Bucky told us the average yearly income was eighty dollars.
Eighty dollars! Americans could never understand this, with their bright and shiny new automobiles they bought every two years.
I saw many poor Afghans eating outside on the dirt, heads wrapped in soiled turbans, women wrapped like mummies, children, playful as they are everywhere, playing soccer, and everyone eating every ounce of food they had, believing their nonsense that Allah would protect them.
I plucked out a couple of Styrofoam lunch containers from the Dumpster. What I really wanted was a good ole cheeseburger on a toasted bun with ketchup drizzling down the sides. I moved next door to the new health food store. Healthy eating was something I’d worry about when I got older. My young years would be spent enjoying myself. I remembered eating sugary Pop-Tarts toasted in our toaster-oven at home. I could go for one of those now, especially when I pulled out a sack of soy nuts and some weird rice crackers, all of which I tucked into my backpack.
“Hello there,” said a long-haired young woman who emerged down the back stairs of the health food store.
“I saw you from the window. What’s with you?” she said, in a high, friendly voice. “Trash-picking right behind my store?”
“Howdy, ma’am,” I said politely. “Don’t know what to say. It’s a long story.”
“If it’s food you want,” she said, “come inside and I’ll give you fresh food.”
“I’m a lot of things, ma’am, but I ain’t no beggar,” I said, tapping my backpack.
She descended the steps, walked over to me, and took my hand.
“Your blue eyes look familiar. I can tell you’ve seen a lot of hardship. A lot of pain.”
“So have I,” she said. She wore no wedding band.
The two customers in her store were over by the cooler, staring at refrigerated soda bottles. You can bet a Coke or Seven-up never made it inside her store.
“Nancy Katz,” she said, shaking my hand. “Never thought I could raise enough money to open my own shop. I live on top of the building to save money.”
“Nice place,” I said and began to wander around.
“Whatever you want is yours,” said blue-eyed, electric-haired Nancy.
“Don’t suppose you’ve got any hamburgers?” I asked.
“Indeed we do,” she said, and I followed her to the freezer.
“We have delicious soyburgers that taste just like meat. In fact, I’m going to cook it for you right now in the microwave.”
Before I could say a word, Nancy lifted out a red package with a decidedly unappetizing burger on the front.
I walked around and gazed out the front door onto the street. Cars came in droves. The few trees I could see were bare of leaves but the sun shone bright and we were only weeks away from the explosion of spring, which always came, no matter if you were grieving, in love, on your death bed, or hearing sounds in your head like ceaseless ocean waves, rising and falling, rising and falling.
I could smell the burger cooking. Nancy presented it to me on a Valentine’s Day paper plate, dotted with hearts and clever sayings.
The veggieburger looked moderately appetizing. Like a real burger, its grease drizzled onto the plate and I bit in.
She was looking at me. She wanted me to like it.
“Mmmm,” I said, chewing. “Mmmm,” and I nodded my head.
It tasted worse than I had expected.
“Bet these are popular!” I said.
“Number one sellers,” she said. “I always know what my customers like.”
She went over to the cash register to ring up a man who had a few items and something that looked like licorice.
“Was that licorice?” I asked after he left.
“The best,” she said. “What did you say your name was?”
“Robert,” I said.
“Rob, you will love this. My treat.”
From below the counter, she selected something called Panda licorice, that was wedged between other things that passed for candy, but could never take the place of Jolly Ranchers, Milky Ways, or Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Of those, we had plenty in Kandahar.
I hadn’t realized how hungry I was for candy until I tore open the black and yellow box, with a picture of a cute panda on it, and reached for the tiny licorice nugget.
Licorice, of all things! It was the most delicious thing I’d eaten since the Akbar family fed me their Baunjaun Bouranee, a smooth grilled eggplant dish that the missus and Anoosha made together and the Mantu dumplings with yogurt, goat meat and mint, which grew luxuriously in the garden in their front yard.
I popped two pieces of licorice in my mouth, which drew mountains of saliva. And chewed it slowly. Every tiny bite. I was so thankful to be alive. I went over to the window to savor it as I ate. This was good. Very very good. And I had escaped with my life and I was in Pennsylvania in Nancy Katz’s health food store watching the traffic pass by, silver cars, white cars, metallic blue cars, vans advertising their products, and a slinky orange Corvette, a car that rivals a woman’s body.
“You’ve been very good to me,” I said. “You’re right that I’ve seen hardship. But your kindness….”
I couldn’t finish my sentence. Twenty-four years old and I began to cry.
“I want you to have more,” said Nancy, and handed me two more black and yellow Panda Bars. She hugged me and for the first time I realized I was in the presence of an attractive woman. Her hair smelled of peach shampoo and before I knew what I was doing, I kissed her on the cheek.
“I’ll be back, Nancy Katz,” I said, as I opened the back door. “You can count on that.”
Walking down the wooden stairway, I laughed at myself. What have I become, I wondered. A licorice junkie? There are worse things than that. Your appetite varied in Kandahar according to the climate and what you’d gone through that day. After heavy combat, I felt like puking, and did, so all’s I could hold in my stomach was hot tea or a sizzling Coca-Cola.
A nice little white plastic chair sat on the patio outside Tommy’s Place. Making sure I’m home by sunset, or else I might not find the place so easily, I sit and gaze at the violet and purple brushstrokes of the setting sun. I imagine them – and perhaps they are – floating inside my body, caressing all the hurt places, my major organs that were as severely shaken as those motherfuckers who shake babies to death, and that poor brain of mine that bounced around like a raw egg, the kind with a tiny droplet of blood inside.
I basked in the sunset. And when the moon came out, you can bet you’d find me in my patio chair, which I found waiting for me on trash night on Pine Road. The moon, I was certain, must have special healing properties, so I stared at the man on the moon and asked his help.
One moonless night, with a beautiful dome of sparking stars and planets, I was lying on the grass, chewing my licorice, when I felt emboldened. A lone house made of stone with great white columns out front stood atop a little hill. That house was a beacon to me. There was the sun, the stars, and the house atop the hill. My eyes wandered its way at every opportunity.
How we are drawn to light. As a kid, I remember a huge green luna moth pressed against the kitchen window. Such beauty!
Now it was time to find out who lived at the top of the hill. The last thing I needed, in the dark of the moonless night, was to be taken for a burglar. Grabbing my binoculars and slipping them around my neck, I carefully climbed the little hill, paying no attention to my throbbing little toe, and was rewarded by seeing a light in the kitchen. Since no dog barked upon my approach, I walked closer to the well-lit room and steadied my binoculars. For a quick moment, I expected to see the dusty streets of Kandahar and turbaned men with rifles.
No one was inside the kitchen but I did make out a large counter upon which fruit of all sorts was arranged in a bowl. I imagined there were shiny-yellow bananas and Bosc pears, furry kiwi fruit and misted-over purple grapes. A regular Cezanne still-life. Mom is an artist and our house a paradise of colorful reprints. Against the wall was a shiny stainless steel refrigerator like the one Mom had. From the cranked-open window I heard faint music playing. Easy to detect Bach’s Suites for Cello, but don’t ask me which one it was. Wonder what the boys back in Dead City would think of their gunnery sergeant listening to the Three B’s?
Drawn like a beggar to the bright light and wonderful music, I might have stayed there for hours. Then she walked in the kitchen. A lone woman. She wore a white floor-length bathrobe, cinched in the middle. She was a beauty with long blond curls falling onto her shoulders. And she was whistling. Not exactly to the tune of Bach but just a cheery whistle, maybe to keep herself company.
This woman must have a name. I walked closer to the stone house with the big white plantation columns, and saw “King” written on the mailbox. So the beauty was Mrs. King, a prominent name in Bryn Athyn. I’ll name you Bridget, I said under my breath. Yes, I do talk to myself as loners often do. And you shall be my queen, if you don’t mind. I stayed there a few moments, letting the peacefulness enter my body and my mind.
“Good night, Bridget,” I said aloud. “Have a slice of kiwi with its delicious black teeth and I’ll see you soon. You can count on that!”
Making my way back home, I froze in shock. A couple of feet away was a small and just about invisible herd of deer. They stood frozen at my approach, then bounded quickly away, white tails high and glowing in the darkness. One of the spotted fawns brushed my leather jacket as it disappeared into the dark grasses.
Look, I’d made more friends. Deer, squirrels, woodchucks, hawks, sparrows and songbirds. Problem was they were all afraid of me and I was afraid of none of them.
I slept well, peering out the little round windows I’d cut out with my pocket knife. The purple lady of dawn awakened my sleepy eyes. When I went out to take a leak, I realized I hadn’t had a single nightmare.
“See that, Bobby!” I whispered. “The first sign of getting better.”
And I had so many friends. Nancy Katz, Annie at the flower shop, and now Bridget King. For the first time, I relaxed and listened once again for the noises in my head. The ocean waves were not quite as loud.
What to do today? Slinging my blue backpack over my shoulder I let my feet decide where to go. They wanted to visit the cathedral to say a prayer and see what food I might find on the way. Bryn Athyn, you may not know, is the world headquarters of the Swedenborgian church. They built themselves a cathedral right there on the Pike. A high school friend of mine, Chuck Maggiotti, told me he used to drive past it every single day but never noticed it. He was one of those teenage drivers who was so intent on driving fast and passing every single car that he never noticed the beauty of the world.
“Look, Chuckie,” I said to him one day when I was a passenger in his red Grand Prix, “We’re not in a hurry. Make a left and I’ll show you the most spectacular sight you’ve ever seen other than firm titties and a spongy ass.”
The cathedral is a thing of beauty. A miniature Notre Dame made with granite from a nearby quarry, blue and purple and yellow stained glass windows, high spires, stone walls and benches, and flower gardens circling around the church. I took ole Chuckie out back to show him a huge wrought-iron door made of Monel, an alloy of nickel and copper and iron.
He was unmoved.
My dad had been friends with Mr. Walters, the man who built the door, so I knew a bit about the church. He had been an old man when we met him, smelling of garlic and liverwurst, and lived in a small house near the cathedral. I wondered idly where he was buried.
“Why don’t we join the New Church?” I had asked my dad.
“Son, we’re Catholic. But if it’s God’s will when you get older, by all means become a Swedenborgian, a Protestant or a Jew.”
I’d become an atheist is what I’d become. God did not exist on the plains of Afghanistan, though occasionally a chaplain would arrive and I’d go through the motions of praying with him and the boys.
As I walked through an archway of the cathedral, I saw the parking lot. Nearly every spot was taken. There was a beautiful wooden door, held open with a latch and I walked through. I ran my fingers through my hair to make sure I looked presentable. People were gathered in small groups in the high-ceilinged lobby. Towards the rear of the room, food was laid out on the table, and without hesitation, I walked toward it.
“Might a wandering pilgrim help himself to this feast?” I asked an older woman with short curly brown hair, whose name badge read “Sarah.”
“Of course,” she smiled, showing her white teeth. She handed me a paper plate upon which I piled slices of roast beef, ham, cheddar cheese, Swiss cheese, slices of rye bread, and potato salad.
Hmmm, I smiled to myself. Maybe I was meant to become a Swedenborgian after all. Sitting down in a straight-back chair I stared up at the vaulted ceiling. I’d been very religious as a child, praying constantly. Asking the Lord for this or that. I’d lie in bed with Mom and Dad down the hall and Jeff and Alan in their bunk beds, and could actually feel the presence of God. He would sort of float in through the window or under the closed door and no matter what problem I was having – a quarrel with a friend, a lousy grade on a math test, a thought that Sister Marguerite didn’t like me – and this God of mine would make me feel better.
I wondered if I cared any more about God, as I sat in the chair, balancing the paper plate in my lap and munching on a sandwich I’d made with the still-pink roast beef, ham, cheddar and Swiss, enveloped in the soft and fresh rye bread.
There was so much hugging going on in the room. That, and gentle chatter that was a far cry from the hatred I’d seen overseas. These were people who genuinely loved one another and it was not even a Sunday. I didn’t feel the need to retreat to my box. Instead I helped myself to more food and sat back down.
I took some food for the road and headed for the new Bryn Athyn library with its azure blue roof and brick driveway. For the first time, I had a flash of fear, wondering if perhaps my mother, who lived in nearby Huntingdon Valley, might drive down the road and see her long-haired boy walking down the Pike.
That night at Tommy’s Place, I looked at the first book I was ready to read. In homage to Bucky, I had returned from Kandahar with a Jack Higgins’ thriller called “Drink with the Devil.” The noise in my head was beginning to evaporate, but when I opened the book, I quickly put it down.
The book was filled with gunfire.
Nothing to do, then, but check up on Bridget King.
Sure enough, the light was on in the kitchen. Again, no one was inside. Was there music tonight? I could hear nothing, but I did see a crescent moon smiling over her house. I sat Indian-style on the cool damp grass and took off my jacket. I just had to see her again. Was this wrong? Was I a voyeur? At first I thought myself entitled to sit here because of my service to my country. I thought myself entitled to stay away from home because of my service to my country. I thought myself quite the martyr because I had gone to Afghanistan and put my life at risk and got my left toe nearly shot off and saw my fallen comrades hideously blown up in front of me.
The light in the kitchen mesmerized me. And for the first time, I felt myself wishing to be part of society again. What role would I play? I had no idea. In Kandahar, I could not contemplate life back in the States. My imagination had deserted me, so intense was the agony of the Afghan. So now I was at a loss. Three hundred million people in America, a black president, organic farming, three dollars for a cup of Starbucks at the airport, surely there was a place for me to fit in. My deer and my woodchucks and birds, they all fit in. They all had their space. They all found food.
And then she walked into the kitchen. I had been deep in thought so it was as if she were a ghost, a shadow. Her hair was wrapped in a white towel that matched her robe, cinched at the waist.
Pressing my hands together and blowing into them for warmth, I stared at her and the smiling crescent moon sailing just above her house. Whoever saw me would see a man, like a sparrow hatchling, named Robert “Bobby” Michael Fitzgerald coming back to life. A life that was not snuffed out by the normality of cocksure rifles and cocksure grenades and “do not resuscitate” if your balls are blown off.
I sniffed the cool air and the sweet smell of the dried grasses surrounding Bridget’s house.
Standing up, I bade farewell to Bridget King and walked back to Tommy’s Place. As I walked I looked up at the clear night sky and spoke aloud to the stars. “Thanks, guys, for taking care of me. Life. It’s senseless, really. You spared me but not Mazzini, not Dougherty or Moran who had one fucking more day before he was supposed to leave. Thanks, I do appreciate you’re keeping me alive,” I said.
Without even thinking I began to imagine what mother would say when I walked up the circular drive and knocked on the door.
Ruth Z. Deming, winner of a Leeway Grant for Creative Nonfiction, enjoys writing prose and poetry from her home in Willow Grove, PA, suburban Philadelphia. Her short stories have appeared in Ray’s Road Review, Haggard and Halloo, and Creative Nonfiction. A mental health advocate, she runs New Directions Support Group for people and families affected by depression and bipolar disorder (www.newdirectionssupport.org). Her father and first cousin served in the Marine Corps during World War II and Vietnam, respectively.