Lance Corporal Hank Willis came home from Iraq and wouldn’t stop talking. What happened to the bashful district champ wrestler, the one who couldn’t even smile for his picture in The Stony Creek Sentinel without squinting and gritting his teeth as if he was suffering from dysentery? Hank always had the look of a Marine—muscular build, cropped black hair, clean shaven—so there was nothing noticeably different the first time they saw him back at Riggs’ Bar. But instead of having to coax more than one-word sentences from him like in the old days, he launched into nonstop soliloquies about everything that had happened in Iraq, from grilling hot dogs in a hand dug barbeque pit outside the barracks on the Fourth of July, to how the blood sprayed like red dust in the dry air whenever someone was shot. It all came out in a blunt monotone, as if everything over there, the horrid and the mundane, had blended into a single experience, and his narratives were woven with disturbing connections and segues. He called the eggs in the mess hall dry as ash, then described a small village near Ramadi that had been hit by a stray rocket, incinerating some of the sleeping families. There was a small lanky skeleton that no one could identify. Some thought it was a jackrabbit or baby antelope. It turned out to be a three-year-old boy with polio.
Culture shock. That’s what his friends chalked it up to. Hank just needed to let it all out that first night back. But it only got worse. He seemed to have a dozen stories for every day he was over there. If someone tried to cut him off or steer away the conversation, Hank kept talking, and everyone felt obliged to stay and listen. You can’t walk out on a vet. Soon they couldn’t stand being around him, but Stony Creek was too small to avoid someone completely. A few bars, one movie theater, and not much else, so even after they stopped inviting him, Hank often showed up anyway. At Riggs they might have to hear about Hank crouching in a ditch during a mortar shelling, using a dead Marine’s body for cover. The next night at The OverUnder, it might be his squad leader, who got electrocuted in the shower because the water pump wasn’t properly grounded. A couple days later at Cabana, it could be Hank pinned down in a fetid trench for two hours and having to shit himself. The worst part, he said, was that the other guys might think it was because he was scared.
This went on for weeks. Until the others couldn’t take it anymore.
Bobby Carbone was a lean running back in high school who had ballooned to almost two hundred and fifty pounds and would be the first to tell you life had cheated him. He had pictured himself starting for a Big Ten college but wound up sulking on the bench at Fair Lawn State. When he complained to the coach, the curmudgeonly spectacled septuagenarian told him, “I don’t even know your first name, you think I wanna hear your opinion?” Bobby was booted off the team and lost his scholarship. He moved back home with his parents and got a job at Kinsley’s Sporting Goods. The last time he smiled was probably prom night, when he had sex with Tricia Peterson in the back of their limo. If he had known that would be his only time in a limo, he would have kept his pants zipped and savored the ride.
Jenny Gleave had her first son the summer before senior year of high school. Dad was a guy from a party who headed west the next day. She didn’t know or care where. Jenny tried staying in school but was exhausted by Thanksgiving. It didn’t help that none of her teachers showed any compassion. They only saw a scarlet W on her chest. She claimed to have no regrets about everything she missed out on. The prom was nothing but getting felt up to bad music, college was training for a career she would never have. Keith was almost six now, and Andy was three. Two years ago she married a man who was as reliable as he was unaffectionate. But he never raised his voice or denied the boys anything, and Jenny believed that meant he loved her.
Phil Richter was voted best looking in high school but didn’t have the nerve to flirt anymore. On a road trip to Montreal junior year of college, one of his friends, after too many Molsons, accidentally slammed the car door on his hand, and Phil lost his left pinky and ring finger. Since he was right-handed, all it crippled was his self-esteem. He kept his hand in his pocket as much as possible, sometimes even wearing gloves indoors and claiming he had a rash. He sold advertising space for The Stony Creek Sentinel, where he could sit alone in a closed office and never have to meet his clients in person.
Angela Durant couldn’t believe that after two kids Jenny still had a better figure than her. Angela wasn’t ugly, she just thought every woman was prettier. She also couldn’t believe she was teaching algebra at their old high school. It wasn’t until she had gone to Wisconsin for college that she realized how much she had needed to get away. But after graduation she couldn’t even get an interview with the schools out there, so when good old Stony Creek High welcomed her back with open arms, she made the long drive home.
Gary Castillo was a paralegal during the day and went to law school at night, and that was enough to make him the de facto leader of the group. Although he hadn’t told anybody, they all knew he and his wife were separated. Gary knew that they knew, but he still made up excuses for why Lisa hadn’t been around lately. For the last week she had been visiting her sister, who broke her ankle ice skating.
In high school they were The Ruling Body, christened by Bobby during one of their late night gatherings in High Bridge Park. Together with Hank, the six of them had staked out a clearing past the thicket of tall spruces where they would lie under the stars, their feet bare in the grass if it was still warm enough, with a case of beer from Phil’s older brother or a bottle of schnapps if one of them could swipe it from their parents’ liquor cabinet without it being missed. They had all grown up in Stony Creek and were mostly inured to it. Where was the bridge in High Bridge Park? No one knew. Where was the creek in Stony Creek? It was a town taken for granted, a town meant to be overlooked. But their senses were collectively heightened on nights The Ruling Body met, when the drone of the crickets and the lazy rustle of trees seemed like their own concoction, and absolutely nothing avoided their scrutiny. As the buzz of the alcohol fueled a sense of empowerment, they would single out and mock their classmates, condemning everyone for whatever minor imperfections they could find, and they could always find something. Laughter and derision snowballed into an almost despotic high that made them feel invincible, until it was time to go home and sneak into bed without their parents catching a whiff of their breath. The meetings were always spontaneous, like a sudden craving, and they ceased after only a handful when Jenny had her baby. But the name lived on, one of them occasionally uttering it in the hallways with a smile and a wink. After high school they lost touch until, in the same extemporaneous manner as those late night gatherings, they all unexpectedly found themselves back home.
Tonight it was’t High Bridge Park but Angela’s dining room table where they met in seclusion. And it wasn’t just any classmate whom they tore to shreds, it was their friend Hank. The five of them complained about Hank for over an hour, how uncomfortable they were around him, almost frightened. They probably exaggerated. Unlike back in high school, it failed to make them feel better. They were still tethered to their history with Hank, and no matter how much they denounced him, they made sure to interject some remorse. But I do feel bad about this. Me too. So bad. But I just can’t do it anymore. No, me neither. Still, I feel bad.
“What makes it worse is that he’s a hero,” Jenny said.
“Is he really?” Bobby asked. “All those stories, I never hear him saving anybody’s life or anything like that. Is everybody who goes to Iraq automatically a goddamned hero? Don’t you have to accomplish something?”
Nobody answered but they were all glad someone had said it.
Gary was the obvious choice to speak to Hank. Who better to be tactful than the one already living a lie? As soon as he accepted the task, it was as if the oxygen had returned to the room. Angela brought out an apple rhubarb pie she had bought that day at the farmers’ market and served each piece with a scoop of rum raisin. Jenny passed around her phone to show off pictures of the boys, something that normally would have grated on the others. They didn’t talk any more about Hank. They didn’t talk about anything from the past, and it was a relief to feel as if they had moved on. For once, Angela was happy to be back in Stony Creek, and even Bobby was laughing and enjoying himself, and when Phil stood up at the end of the night, he didn’t stuff his hand into his pocket but hugged Angela and Jenny with both arms. It was like the end of a second adolescence, and as with the first, they had gotten through this one with a lot of frustration and without much sense of what it all meant. Only Gary still felt undersized and pimply faced.
Friday night Gary called Hank and suggested they get together at Riggs. Not surprisingly, Hank was already there. Gary took a long, hot shower and ironed his favorite shirt before driving over. Even for Riggs it was a thin crowd, no one he knew well. The bartender tonight was the one with the gray ponytail. It seemed crazy that in all their times coming here no one had ever bothered to learn his name.
Hank was at the bar watching the Rangers game on the flatscreen in the upper corner. It was the first time since coming home that Gary had seen him so quiet and peaceful looking. But as soon as Gary sat down and asked the score, Hank launched into a tale about a Marine named Parker, a right winger at Michigan.
“Our squad’s patrolling the hills outside a village where there’s been sniper activity. There are eight of us, each with a hundred pounds of gear and ammo strapped on, and it’s always hotter in the hills. Closer to the sun, I guess. Out of nowhere Parker drops on his belly, grabbing the back of his neck and screaming he’s been hit. Me and O’Rourke crouch to check him out while everybody else circles around looking for the shooter. They’re shouting, ‘What do you got? What do you got? I got nothing.’ Meanwhile Parker’s squirming around like a fish, and O’Rourke and I are trying to hold him still so we can see how bad it is. When we finally pry his hand away from the back of his neck, there’s just a little pink bruise, not even any blood. ‘You’re not hit,’ we tell him. ‘The hell I’m not. I’m hit fucking bad.’ Then O’Rourke spots a little brown and yellow warbler spinning around near Parker’s boots, one wing flapping like crazy, the other not moving. Must have kamikazed straight into him. We make Parker turn over and see for himself, and he bursts out laughing, which gets me and O’Rourke laughing. Then the rest of the guys start laughing when we tell them, and now it’s like we’re having a party. Parker’s face is bright red. He feels stupid, but we all understand. You get so paranoid that even a mosquito bite or a muscle spasm freaks you out. The other guys come over and we stand around looking down at the bird going around in circles and making little squeaks. That’s when we stop laughing and one of the guys shoots it.”
The sound on the TV was low and muffled, and every clink, splash, and gurgle resonated around the wood paneling of the small bar, but Gary was certain he was the only one who had heard the story.
“You should write about it,” Gary said. “I don’t just mean that one. Everything from over there. You should write them all down.”
Hank gave a short reflexive shake of his head, as if he had already rejected the idea long ago.
“I really think you should. It would be good for you to get it all out. It would help you put it in perspective.” Was it too obvious what he was saying? Lock yourself in your room and don’t come out until you can shut up.
“We had a guy over there who was a good writer—”
“You should definitely do it,” Gary interrupted. “It’s not like you’re doing anything else right now.” That came out harsh, but it was true. As far as he knew, Hank hadn’t even been looking for work.
“Four more years inactive reserve,” Hank said. “They could still call me back.”
That sounded unlikely to Gary, but he held off saying anything. All along he had assumed Hank was suffering a kind of post-traumatic shock, but for the first time he sensed that it was actually nostalgia, that there was a part of Hank that wanted to go back, and Gary didn’t want to say anything that might spark that kindling.
They each had a couple more beers and watched the Rangers lose 5-1. Hank talked about the writer in their platoon, who made up superhero stories about each of them before he caught parasites from a sandfly bite and had to have his spleen removed. Hank’s superhero was The Incredible Hank, completely indestructible. Gary didn’t say a word. He listened to his friend, but all the while he thought about if they were back in high school, back at the clearing in High Bridge Park, how quiet Hank would have been, almost deferential, and how simple everything would have seemed, like nothing was beyond their control.
Gary took a long out of the way route through the back roads, but eventually he wound up home anyway. Only a small ranch house, it was still too big and too expensive for one person. Lisa took all her things when she moved out, and he had left her areas of the house untouched. Her half of the bedroom closet was bare, so were parts of the medicine cabinet and the desk in the living room where her computer used to sit. He even continued to sleep on his side of the bed. There were more than enough reasons to sell the house, but he refused to speak to a realtor until something was definite. Either Lisa would file for divorce or—no, there was no or. It was only a matter of when. Still, he would leave it up to her.
Despite a few drinks in him, he couldn’t sleep. He lay in the dark thinking of a dozen things he could have said to Hank, but they were all just as cold as not saying anything. To take his mind off Hank, he went back to Lisa—he could ignore one of them but not both—and because he felt like talking to someone, he talked to himself. You got married right after college because you had been with her longer than anyone else and were afraid it would end. Then you dragged her here to Stony Creek, even though you knew she only ever wanted to live in the city. You railed about the high cost of living and the muggers who would slash you for your sneakers, but the truth is that with so many things changing you wanted to hang onto something. She never considered a job around Stony Creek, only sending resumes to the city. Secretly, you hoped she would fail and have to settle for something here, but on only her second interview she landed a job with an accounting firm whose name you still can’t pronounce without stumbling. She would leave early in the morning and wouldn’t get home until late. Sometimes she stayed up there in a hotel for the night. On weekends, she wanted the two of you to go there for dinner with her co-workers, but you said why not have them come down here instead, so she left you behind with your friends. The last thing she said was, “This isn’t what I wanted,” but you didn’t know if that meant she didn’t want things to end this way or if she never wanted to marry you in the first place. Did it matter? In the end, relationships were like any other object: they wore down and broke; sometimes they could be fixed, sometimes they couldn’t. How many cars did someone go through in a lifetime? How many pairs of shoes?
He stayed home all that weekend and every night the following week. Calls, texts, and emails went unanswered. Jenny’s birthday party was coming up at Sabrina’s Restaurant, and they were scared of Hank finding out about it or happening by on his own. Finally he sent a terse email saying he’d been in bed with the flu, but he promised to speak to Hank before the party. That seemed to satisfy them, but not him. Why was he the only one capable of handling this? Let one of them deal with Hank if they were so worried. The more he thought about it, the more he hoped Hank would show up.
Sabrina’s treated them like celebrities. Four tables were pushed together to form one long banquet style table at the back of the restaurant, and a velvet green curtain was drawn in front for privacy. There was herb-stuffed lamb, grilled salmon, and a special butternut squash risotto that was off the menu; and there were fresh peas and asparagus and three different kinds of potatoes; and there was a chocolate cake with white frosting and strawberries; and there was Chardonnay and Riesling and even Champagne, which was supposed to be for dessert but Jenny couldn’t resist popping it open right away. “It’s Mommy’s birthday!” she said to her boys. They behaved well all night, especially Jenny’s warning not to stare at Phil’s hand. Jenny’s husband was there, too, and it was the first time since the wedding that the others had seen all four together. Everybody else came alone. This time Gary didn’t bother making up an excuse for Lisa, and nobody asked.
They had two different servers assigned to them, and Jenny was having such a good time letting someone else wait on her, she didn’t want to stop to open her presents. The others had to pull the glasses and dishes from her reach, and then she tore into the gifts without modesty. Sterling silver earrings from Angela, a sport watch from Bobby, and a scarf and a bottle of Pinot Noir from Phil, who couldn’t decide between the two. Gary gave her two tickets to Phantom in the city. Jenny and her husband thanked him, but he recognized those forced smiles and sideways glances. He wanted to snatch the tickets back and apologize, beg them to let him buy something else. It had seemed like such a natural gift when he bought them that now he wondered where the idea had come from. Then he realized it was the kind of gift Lisa would have liked.
Jenny donned her earrings, watch, and scarf and studied herself in her compact like a teenager while everyone else cheered or whistled. Gary was the only one not having fun. It wasn’t just the tickets. All night he had been keeping an eye on the corner of the green velvet curtain, and every time one of their servers started to come around, his heart sped up expecting it to be Hank. But Hank never showed up, and Gary couldn’t help thinking it wasn’t luck but rather that Hank chose not to.
Hank wasn’t at Riggs on Wednesday either, or at Cabana on Friday, and he wasn’t at The OverUnder for any of the college basketball tournament. A month went by Hank-less. No one appeared to miss him. No one even mentioned him. Gary kept his thoughts to himself, but he worried that something might have happened to Hank, that maybe the dolt had re-upped for another tour. Then again, maybe Hank had taken Gary’s advice and was holed up in his bedroom filling stacks of pages with everything that had happened to him, pages of horrible and extraordinary things, of young men and women who lost their friends over there and back here. Gary thought about calling or stopping by, but the others were so happy these last few weeks, happier than they had been in a long while, and he didn’t want to risk unraveling that. When he was with them, he smiled and laughed but hardly spoke, until he almost felt like a ghost. Would they notice if he disappeared, too? But there was nowhere to go yet, not while he was still waiting to hear from Lisa, waiting to hear about Hank. Eventually some news about Hank would get around. It always did in a town like Stony Creek. Someone would see him buying corn flakes in the supermarket or stopped at a long red light. Or else they would see his picture in The Sentinel, probably decked out in his uniform, unless it was the same clumsy picture from high school, the Hank they all remembered, except this time someone other than Hank would have to tell his story.