I arrived at the Rochester airport at five p.m. I had just returned home from the war. There was no sign of snow. It was late October, and the leaves were turning that last dark shade before they go dead and flake off. My friend, David, was picking me up. He was late so I sat in the airport bar cutting into the twenty thousand I’d saved over my four years of service, getting a start on my time home, moving in the direction I’d travel for the better part of that year. But this was the beginning and I didn’t know that yet.
After a few drinks I went outside to smoke and wait for David. When he arrived he rolled up in a brand new Ford F150. His second tour in Iraq had ended a year ago and now he was working at a home for the mentally and physically disabled, making $2,400 a month and living in his mother’s basement.
“What do you think?” he asked as I climbed into the cab.
“Of what?” I said.
“Of my truck? Jesus.”
I lit a Parliament, looked around the cab. He had already taken out the factory stereo and installed a custom CD player. The guy in the car behind us leaned on his horn. We sat ignoring it. He beeped again and David turned the music up.
“Not bad?” he said, smiling, inhaling his Marlboro and letting the smoke roll out in a giant fog.
I wanted to ask him about his sister, Emma, because I had had a thing for her in high school, had even kissed her before I left for basic. I wanted to know what she’d been doing, if she was single, because I was thinking, even though I hadn’t seen her in a long time, that I was in love with her.
The guy behind us kept leaning on his horn. David waved him forward and the man pulled alongside us, rolled down his window and yelled something I couldn’t hear over the music.
“This fucking guy,” David said.
He turned toward the car, flicked his cigarette through the open window.
“Fuck off,” he said.
Then he gunned the engine, slid out in front of the guy, pointed us toward the nearest bar, punched me in the arm as we rounded the corner and merged into traffic.
“Welcome home, fucker.”
All my old buddies had come out to see me. It was a Thursday night and most of them had to work in the morning, some at Kodak, others at Xerox, the less fortunate ones at Palmers, the meat packing plant. For the most part it was good, everyone was happy to see me. “Welcome back,” “Made it in one whole piece,” “Lucky fucking bastard,” that kind of shit. No one wanted to talk about the war yet. Right now they just wanted to let me know I was missed, let me settle back into the routine of it.
The crowd made me uneasy. The sounds and heat of people overwhelmed me. But then Emma, David’s sister, was there with her new boyfriend, George, and everything else felt irrelevant. I just wanted to put my arms around her, get her alone so I could tell her how much I’d been thinking about her.
“So this is the Marine I’ve been hearing about,” George said. He reached to shake my hand.
I hated him instantly.
“Hey,” I said. “It’s nice to meet you.”
George was the type of guy who made loud jokes, had opinions about everything. I was sitting on a bar stool moping, watching Syracuse take a beating, listening to his analysis of the game. Every part of me tingled as if all my limbs had fallen asleep. My friends were getting me drunk, clapping me on the back. David sat down next to me, said, “Don’t let him bother you. No one likes him.”
I looked over at Emma, who was standing next to George. She was smiling and listening closely like every word he said was full of meaning. I sipped at my beer while old Irish men screamed at the television.
David elbowed me, smiled. “You keep staring like that and George is going to think something’s up.”
After a few hours the guys left and it was just me and David and Emma and George. Emma was the only sober one. By then I may have been looking to pick a fight. Because, I was thinking, George had come in and taken the woman I wanted while I was away fighting a war. He had shown up to my homecoming and talked the whole time. I felt, now, like he owed me something.
“Tully, what do you think about the war?” George said.
“Honey,” Emma said. “Now’s not the time.”
It wasn’t, but I was ready to have it out with him.
The bar had grown quiet and David sat next to me, refilling both our glasses.
“Yeah, Tully,” he said. “Tell George about the war.”
I knew by the way David said it that they’d had this discussion before, could tell he was happy to have another Marine there to take George down a peg. I thought a good fistfight might make me feel better. There was George and then the jukebox and then pieces of conversation. It all moved in and out, bits of sound, like trying to find the right station on the radio.
“What do you want to know?” I said, looking past George at Emma.
“Is it right or is it wrong?” he said.
“A matter of perspective,” I said.
“Perspective?” he said. “Isn’t it really a matter of justice?”
“Justice, how?” I said.
David had his hand on my shoulder, like he was coaching me through it. “Semper Fi,” he whispered.
Emma put her hand on George’s arm. Maybe she thought that David and I were about to gang up on him. Or maybe she knew that David and I would only humor him to a point, and that the next thing he said could set us off.
“Justice as in, how can you justify the murder of so many innocent people?”
“Murder?” I said. “Are you referring to collateral damage?”
David had already told me what to expect. People back home were no longer interested in the war. We weren’t going to have the parades the World War II guys had had, but we weren’t going to see the protests, be called baby killers, like the Vietnam guys either. Generally people didn’t care. Because of that I wanted George to get angry.
“Collateral damage?” he said. “This is human life we’re talking about.” He was standing now, almost looking down on me as I sat finishing off the last of my beer. Emma looked at me. David giggled.
“Georgie,” I said. “Calm down.”
“It’s George,” he said and then held his beer in his hand before setting it down again without drinking any.
I had read books, On Killing, The Art of War, anything that might make sense of what I was seeing in Iraq, of what I was doing there. Everything I read confirmed what I knew and what George was trying to say. The whole thing had been a waste. We all knew this, Marines and citizens alike. But that didn’t mean I had to admit it, not to him.
“You’re getting angry, George. You’re letting your emotions control you,” I said. I was feeling lightheaded.
“Murder,” George said, “It’s murder if you ask me.”
The room was spinning a bit but I kept looking at Emma, trying to figure out which side she was on.
“And for what?” George asked. “Nothing has changed, no one is better for it.”
Maybe he was right, maybe nothing had changed, but I didn’t want to talk about that.
“Are you trying to call me a murderer, George?”
George stared at me for a second. He didn’t want to answer the question, I could see that. David finished off his beer and stood up, coming around to stand beside me.
George looked back at Emma and then turned to face me again. He opened his mouth to say something but David stepped forward and grabbed him before he could, took him by the collar and spun him to the floor. He twisted George’s arm behind his back, pressed his knee into his spine.
“What the fuck are you thinking?” David said.
Emma stood up.
David pressed his knee in harder, gritting his teeth.
I thought, briefly, about letting David do whatever he wanted. But people were watching us.
“Bardsley,” I said. “Let him go.”
David looked at me, smiled.
Then he leaned in, put his lips to George’s ear.
“This conversation,” he said, “is over.”
After that, they left. David and I went outside for a smoke and he showed me restraining techniques, the things we’d been trained to do during basic, the type of move he’d just used on George.
“A guy grabs you like this,” he said, putting my hands on him. “And then you do this,” he said, guiding me to the ground. “Never let ‘em catch you off guard.”
David told me he used these techniques every day at his new job, when he was trying to calm a patient down. It was funny thinking of him tackling one of those people, most of them so zonked out they didn’t know that they had done something wrong. The next thing they know a six-foot-five-inch giant has them pinned to the floor, telling them over and over with that cigarette scarred voice, “Calm down, calm down.”
I could taste the fumes rolling out of David’s mouth as he pressed me to the ground, as he spun me around and gained control of my arms and hands. It reminded me of watching that show Cops and it made me laugh. David thought I was laughing at him and tightened his grip.
“What’s so funny?” he said, twisting the muscles in my arm so hard I thought they’d start oozing blood.
I could not stop laughing.
At some point we stood side by side, the first flakes falling, puking beautiful streams of liquid onto the fresh snow. After ten or fifteen minutes David turned to me.
“Don’t worry about that fucking guy,” he said, wiping his hand across his mouth.
I rose up, ran some snow over my forehead, put it in my mouth, and spit it out. It was coming down fast now and it wouldn’t be long before everything was buried.
“Yeah,” I said. “No worries.”
Already any sign of our sickness had been erased.
It was late, close to last call, but I could see in David’s eyes that he wasn’t ready to go home. “I have something to tell you,” he said.
“Okay,” I said. We stood six feet apart in the manner of men preparing to draw, wobbling a bit as the wind picked up.
“Let’s get another drink, before we head out,” he said.
But we stayed there for a few minutes, snow getting stuck in our hair and melting into our faces.
“I hate to be the one to tell you,” David said, “but this is it. This is what it’s like to be home.”
David was driving. I remember falling asleep. Snow was coming down like great clouds of dust from imploding buildings, and then there was a sound that shook me from my dream just long enough for me to realize that I was alive. I was thrust into the passenger side airbag, my head slamming back and forth. My eyes began to water and a warm pool of blood trickled from my nose. When everything settled I sat there, bloodied, but otherwise unaffected. I looked to my left. The driver side was smashed in, pinning David against his seat. In its place the hulking trunk of a willow tree; the tendrils draped around us as if it were trying to swallow us whole. Beyond that, it was dark and the cab was filling with snow. There was the sound of fluid spilling to the ground. As my eyes adjusted I saw that David had been pressed flat. His right hand and arm lay limp between us. He didn’t make any noise.
Before my dream I remember David saying, “Don’t fall asleep, Tully. Don’t fall asleep.” He had both hands tight around the wheel, his face pressed toward the window. He kept blinking and opening his eyes wide and blinking again. It looked like we had driven into the static of a TV screen. The sound of the snow crunching underneath us, the heat from the vents, all of it worked on me something like sleeping pills. I had no idea how long I was out, no idea how close we were to home. I only knew that we were in a field somewhere along route 33 headed to or from someplace I’ll never know.
I told the police that much when they came to see me. They sat with me as I went in and out of consciousness. I was at Rochester General Hospital. No one had said anything about my friend or about my condition. I lay in bed, my body hooked up to machines, a monitor beeping over and over again. I wasn’t sure which parts I’d dreamed and which parts I’d lived.
“Your buddy’s dead,” the uniformed cop said after awhile.
“Been dead for some time now,” said the one wearing a blazer.
I could see, through the cracked door, that there were people waiting in the hallway, but I couldn’t tell who.
“Son, are you listening?” the uniformed officer asked.
“Yeah,” I said. But I wasn’t sure how they wanted me to respond. The light coming from the hallway reminded me of Sunday mass at St. Margret Mary, where my mother took me as a child.
I felt a sudden and overwhelming urge to confess.
At David’s funeral Emma didn’t say a word to me even though I stood next to her. Instead George talked the whole time.
“Jesus, kid lived though a war only to die like this.”
I tried to ignore him, tried to focus on the funeral and the Marines who stood in their blues holding David’s coffin. But George wouldn’t shut up.
“So this is what you get for joining the United States Marine Corp,” he said.
I stared at him, thinking about how I would have liked to beat him bloody right there in front of everyone. I wondered what David would have done. I thought about that night and him taking George to the ground. I kept balling my hands into fists, opening them and closing them, lost track of time. But then there was the sound of gunshots, three rounds fired into the sky. Emma reached over and held my hand, kept her eyes straight ahead, and every time those Marines pulled the trigger, she squeezed harder, dug her nails deeper and deeper into the palm of my hand.
Later that night everyone went to a bar and drank and told stories about David, his family and his friends, and some of the Marines who had served with him. I sat alone, drunk. Emma was with a group of friends, girls she worked with. George had gone home at some point. I watched her from across the room. Her lips were a dark red, a red so deep that it made her mouth look like a separate entity. We didn’t speak to one another, in fact did not acknowledge one another, until late, near last call, when she came up and took me by the arm.
“Come with me,” she said. “I want to talk.”
I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to go. I was afraid to go. I didn’t say anything.
“It won’t be so bad,” she said, and then she guided me the four blocks back to her apartment.
When we walked through the door she took off her clothes without saying a word. I leaned into her then, pressed myself against those red lips. I wanted to tell her everything.
After we slept together, a violent and sad kind of collision, something I’d never felt before, we lay in her bed, the cold of winter pressing in on us. Her room was lit by a single candle. I could make out the shape of her in the dim light but could distinguish none of her features.
“You can talk to me, Tully,” she said, running her hand through my hair. But I wasn’t ready for that.
If I were I would have told her about her brother, the way he looked just before he died, how the snow started piling up around him and on him and how I wanted to reach over and brush it off, but couldn’t. I would have told her that I was afraid to move or maybe even more afraid to touch him. I wanted her to understand.
Jon Chopan is the author of the novel Pulled From the River, which was published by Black Lawrence Press in 2012. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in such places as Glimmer Train, Post Road, Hobart, Hotel Amerika, and Redivider. He teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, FL.