I can tell Joe is looking to hit someone. He keeps bumping up against me, talking to the guy next to us a few stools over. We are at a bar along the river, a place called McGregor’s, a place we only go when one or more of us has a good amount of money to spend. I hear Joe say, “I’m a fucking marine, motherfucker,” see him take a drink from his pint. “I’ll fucking kill you.”
My brother is talking to Joe. “Calm down, man,” he says. “What did the guy do?” But it’s clear the guy didn’t do anything. “Let’s go out and have a smoke,” my brother says.
While they are outside Brendan and I explain it away: Just got back from a second tour in Iraq. All fucked up man. Doesn’t mean anything by it.
We don’t linger on Joe long. We distract the guy with sports. He’s a Cubs fan, like Brendan, and they have that misery to share. But mostly we move off the subject, our friend, because we have no clue what’s “wrong” with him and it’s not so much him we’re ashamed of as our own inability to describe things or make sense of them. We have no clue what our friend is going through, and, though it shames us to say it, we’re comfortable not talking about it.
Outside Joe takes a swing at my brother, which isn’t a safe thing to do. My brother is 5 inches taller, ninety pounds heavier. Joe misses and falls. He lays in the parking lot, cigarette dangling from his mouth, Atlanta Braves hat clinging to his shaved head. He starts crying, his pint glass a splash of shards stretching a few feet in front of him.
When Jeff comes inside again he is alone. The details of the conversation, cloudy. The war. Dead buddies. The kind of things we all imagine a vet might say but something Brendan and I don’t have the stomach to go outside and witness ourselves.
“He’ll be fine,” Jeff says. “He just wanted some air and some time alone.” Jeff refills his pint. “I’ll go check on him in a minute.”
I am thinking, when my brother comes back and reports the situation to us, about violence and how it has changed my friend. Or maybe, more accurately, I think it is something closer to love. How he loved the men in his company and how it broke his heart to watch them die. How it made him feel a deep and unshakeable guilt, being happy, if only for a second, that it was them and not him.
Of course I am guessing at this. I would never ask Joe the sorts of questions that could give me answers. And Joe will never say it, not like I have. He is a soldier. He is my friend, and we do not talk like that, not to one another. These are the types of things that we say to women we love, or it might be something Joe would only say to another soldier. There are things my friend will never say to me.
I remember another night when Joe beat a man bloody in The Ale House parking lot. I am thinking of all that love and all that hate and all those other things that are working through him as he pounds another man’s face into the pavement.
It is a mess, this other man’s body and Joe standing over him, people watching from the windows because it is snowing out and it is safer inside, but it doesn’t last long.
As soon as it’s clear it’s over Joe reaches his hand down, and for a second, if I’d just gotten to the window, it might look like one friend helping another up. Joe pulls the man to his feet, wraps his arm around his neck, and carries him into the bar, where me and Joe’s brother and my brother are waiting. We finish off our beers, getting a full glass for Joe’s new friend. We drive the guy home. When we get there, Joe comes around the car, helps the guy out, bears the weight of the body as they limp together to the front door.
Later that night, after the beating, my brother and I return to the bar to clear things up with the bartender, who is always good to us. We want to make amends for Joe’s actions. We want to make sure he’ll be allowed back.
There we meet our friend Kim who is having a drink at the bar. Our friend wasn’t there when the fight happened and so the bartender is filling her in. When he is done he turns to my brother and me and says, “Why would you guys want someone like that in your life?”
Before I can say anything Kim cuts in. “I think they just want to love him, even though they know he can’t or won’t be what they hope.”
When we come out of McGregor’s to end the night we can’t find Joe. Brendan and I start calling out his name. Our voices echo off the river. We walk around the whole of the parking lot, back behind the dumpsters. He is gone.
“Don’t worry,” my brother says. “He probably started walking.” Which is to say that Joe gets it in his mind sometimes, like he gets it in his mind to fight, that he should up and walk off.
“Where would he be walking to?” Brendan asks, a little drunk.
“Home,” my brother says, which I find somehow comforting.
We get in the car.
“It’s six miles,” Brendan says. “What the fuck is he thinking.”
“He isn’t,” I say, pulling out of the parking lot.
We get a mile down the road, heading up a hill, when my brother spots Joe. It is cold out and Joe is only wearing a t-shirt and jeans and his baseball cap. His arms are tucked into his sleeves. He is visibly shivering.
“There he is,” my brother says.
I pull over. My brother gets out. Joe and him are yelling at one another on the side of the road. My brother points to the car telling Joe to get in. He says other things about it being cold and something about why not take a ride. He goes back and forth between commanding and pleading. It feels like a long time. But the only thing I remember, even now, is Joe saying, “I’m fine man,” saying “I just want to go home.”