On the Zac
You can only miss your freeway exit so many times before you know that Prozac isnt the drug for you. Sometimes important things just dont register when youre on the zac, and thats a hard way to live. Let me give you an example: One day my girlfriend says she wants to eat at a restaurant where they give you two spoons and two forks and the linen napkins are folded to look like crowns. She wants a waiter to grind fresh pepper on her salad, she says, and to go to a place that doesnt serve beer nuts. I think, OK, whatever. On the zac you say whatever a lot. Somebody could mug you with a rusty chainsaw and youd say whatever and hand over your money and pat the guy on the back. But Maria is serious about this restaurant thing and I say OK, lets go to the German restaurant downtown, the one next to Rudis bar, where they still smoke inside, even though smoking is banned in bars and on boats and near dams, and all those other places where Sam refused to eat green eggs and ham.
But Maria says she isnt talking about German cuisine. Shes in the mood for something more civilized. I say Germans arent civilized? Dont they make Mercedes and BMWs and Audis? And Maria says that industrial production isnt a good way to judge the quality of a nations cuisine. Theyve only been a country for a little while, she says, but maybe theyll have good food in a few hundred years or so. She says this as if she was born in ancient Mesopotamia, but I let it go. I ask her what she wants and she says she wants French. I say French what? She crosses her eyes and says she wants some French foooood. Snails and frog legs and protein sources like that? I ask, and she says yes, and I say OK, Im game, but Im trying not to think whatever.
We get dressed up. Maria looks like a million bucks, her breasts trying to squeeze their way out of her tight dress, and me cheering them on like its a race or something. If I wasnt on the zac, wed be having French with no doilies and folded napkins, let me tell you. But Maria pushes me away when I try to kiss her. She says lets go.
Im the perfect gentleman. I open the car door for her and she gives me her mandatory glare, but theres a twinkle in her eye. She gets back out of the car and opens my door for me. We laugh at ourselves and at The Way Things Are. We do that a lot. I can feel the zac doing its thing, but hey, at least it doesnt hurt. These days I leave 20 percent tips and I follow at a safe distance. I keep both hands on the steering wheel and I hardly ever bitch about anything anymore, but Im beginning to wonder whether or not Im missing those freeway exits on purpose.
cure for depression is far better than the disease, in my opinion, but
all of the side effects aren’t listed on the bottle.
Love Meal #3009
His knife enters the Maui onion. He minces garlic and applies heat to pan and melts sweet cream butter and browns the garlic first and then he adds the onion and more heat but its the time that will surely carmelize them. Salt and pepper and splashes of wine for the pan and others for their souls, his and hers. Meat, then, in the heat of the night. Bay shrimp and wisps of chicken. Bean sprout whimsy and soy and noodles. Cabbage sliced and tossed and another benediction of wine and another and she watches him cook and he hopes it makes her hot. The chardonnay teases and marches inside them with its naughty parts on display. Outside, coyotes wail and foxes slink and tomcats scratch through the leaves of Indian summer. Dogs bark and planes depart and the TV is tuned to nothing but off, baby, off and the food is almost ready. He adds a challenge of habenero. A clatter of cashews and a gasp of orange peel. He mixes everything into the plenty but the sweet pain of waiting and then they stop waiting and fuck if it isnt just as fine as the first time of yes could ever have been.
For Sabra, my wife.
Cold and rain and wind. A man walking in that. Walking without a coat or a hat. Walking to feel it. To atone for something by submitting himself to it. Fifty-mile-an-hour wind and driving rain. Its cold, but he doesnt feel it. Hes soaked to the bone, but walks steadily into the gale. He needs to get out of the house. Something has just happened. Hes lost his job, maybe. Drank too much the night before and said hateful things. Something. Something. What? Why is this man walking into the teeth of the storm? Just because. No reason, really. Hes always wanted to walk in a storm, and this one seems as good as any. No. There must be more to it that that. Love is involved, somewhere. Wife, girlfriend, kids, mother, father, grandparents, aunts, and uncles? What has driven him out into the gale? Into the tale? Its all too much, whatever it is. Hes at wits end about something.
He walks and the storm grows stronger. He has to lean into it and fight to make progress. The trees are beginning to creak and crack. The power lines are whipping back and forth and its only a matter of time before they start to come down. No birds in that sky. No cars on the road, so he walks down the centerline. Head up, letting the rain sting his eyes. Soaked clothes skin-tight. Is he laughing? Singing? Hes not drunk, but he might appear that way to others. Yes. Hes stone sober and walking down the middle of the street in a howling blow. Hes alive, but he almost died. Recently. Twice.
Hes just back from Iraq. He survived two ambushes. RPGs. Improvised explosive devices. AK-47s and mortars and grenades. He crawled out of two blown-to-shit Humvees in as many days. He returned fire and counted the bodies afterward. He lost his buddy, Pete Jacobsen, and two new kids who were always grab-assing around and reminding him of his younger brothers.
The medics patched up the shrapnel holes in his arms and legs. They stopped the bleeding, but it didnt stop the mission. Hes home now, but it hasnt sunk in. Hes still on patrol. Hes walking into a storm, looking for signs of danger. Bad people are everywhere, he knows. Hes walking down the road and doing his job. Keeping the peace. He has a cell phone and a nine millimeter Baretta pistol. The trees start to come apart in the blow. Limbs tear and fall. Power lines let go and arc blue fire, but he doesnt stop. He walks his post from flank to flank and doesnt take shit from any rank.
His wife goes out after him in their minivan. She has no babysitter, so she packs the kids into the car and drives slowly in the flooding streets. The four-year-old is frightened, wants to go back, but the two-year-old is laughing like a monkey, as if all the world is bouncing around for her amusement. Laughing and crying. Driving around the fallen oak limbs. Driving her mad. Stupid, shes thinking. Stupid man and stupid her for taking the kids out in this.
She finds him, finally. He marched five miles, but then he sat down to rest. Hes sitting with his back to a palm tree. His pistol is at the ready. He has a good field of fire to cover the road. Hes sitting and crying and laughing, just like the rest of them. The enemy is nowhere in sight. Another patrol comes to relieve him, and he gets into the van and goes home to get some hot chow. The company commander is a woman, and she tells him that he did a good job. She says that he kept the world safe for another day, but now its time to take cover and let this storm blow over. Its the worst sand storm hes ever experienced. The sand is in his eyes and ears and mouth. He shivers in the heat of the desert and thanks God that hes still alive. He puts his arm around the company commander, and she turns into his wife, and he hears the kids laughing and crying in the back seat, and he cant wait to get the fuck out of Iraq.
I’ve been thinking
about the transition our people are forced to make when they return from
war— the dislocation of leaving comrades and
coming home to wash the dishes and take out the trash in neighborhoods
where people are enthralled by celebrity criminal trials. Most of our vets
seem to adapt well, without calling attention to the enormous life change.
But in Iraq and Afghanistan, extreme distrust of the local population is
I hope that our sailors, soldiers, airmen, and Marines are given whatever it takes to rejoin us.
John told me that he knew a few things. He pulled the pistol from his waistband and jacked a round into the chamber. He told me he knew that Id knocked up Nikki, his girl. He knew that our visit to the free clinic in Portland had nothing to do with him, even though the two of them were engaged to be married, for Gods sake. He said it was clear that I wasnt his friend, because people dont do their friends like that.
His words were a flat recitation of fact, but they were burned into the air. I had nothing to say in return and the cab of my truck felt very small. We were at the end of an unmarked logging road where wed planned to do some target shooting. John had found a way to get us perfectly alone, and I didnt want to go out that way. Anonymous. Disappeared. Or just another accident. No, I wanted to get my own gun from the glove box. I wanted to wrap my hand around the grips of that cannon, get John to come to his senses, maybe make a sick joke of it. But the skin around his eyes was red, and I began to believe that my time was almost up.
I noticed the pits and cracks in the trucks windshield, the big firs swaying in the wind, the thin spots in the overcast that couldnt fully conceal the blue sky above. I saw a deer walk out of the woods. It moved toward us. The thought entered my mind that if John was going to shoot me, at least there would be a witness. I could see with the clarity that adrenaline brings. The does belly was swollen. She was pregnant, and I watched her graze on a lush patch of grass. A ray of sunlight reached through the clouds and warmed her back and she looked happy. I smiled because it wasnt a bad last thing to see.
But then John followed my line of sight and saw the deer. He narrowed his eyes and he jumped out of the truck. Before I could say anything, he fired once, twice, three times. I saw the deer take a hit down low in the guts. She stood still for a few seconds, then she ran for the timber. I could see that she would get away and go into the trees and bleed and hurt before she died, and I knew what I had to do. John was still shooting, but he seemed to be having second thoughts. His shots were going low and only kicking up mud.
I got my hands on the .44. I leaned out the window of the truck and put the sights on the bounding deer. A few yards from the treeline she slowed and turned so I could see her flank. She turned as if she had a question and I pulled the trigger. My shot took her through the lungs. She fell on her side and kicked a few times and then lay still. Her breath condensed in the cold air. A wisp of steam came from her nose, and then she only appeared to move when the wind ruffled her hair.
I held the big revolver loosely. I let the muzzle wander. I waited for the ringing in my ears to fade enough for me to hear my own voice.
I cant sleep nights, I said to John.
Too bad for you, John said.
We didnt have much of a choice.
Maybe not. But you made some choices before that last one.
I wasnt exactly pointing the Magnum at John, but he stood up straighter. I got out of the truck, the barrel of the .44 moving like a divining rod. Johns knuckles were white on the grips of his pistol. We looked at each other, standing tense and grim at close range, but then John let some of the air out of his lungs. I didnt waste any time. I took the pistol from his hand and unloaded it and put it in my waistband. I hiked across the clear-cut to the doe, just to be sure she was finished, and it was rough-going through the stumps and piles of slash. I was breathing hard because of the adrenaline and the altitude, and it took some time for me to get there.
When I saw the size of the spoor spreading beneath her, I knew she was dead. I dropped to my knees and pressed my palm against her pregnant belly. My hand came away wet with a clear fluid. The does swollen flank moved once, a small kick from inside, and then it didnt move anymore.
There was nothing else to do. I dragged the carcass into the trees. I covered it with brush, tucking it carefully into its final bed, and then I scrubbed my hands with cold, Oregon mud until they didnt seem to be made of anything so disposable as flesh and blood.
This is a tip o’ the hat to William Stafford’s poem, Traveling Through the Dark. It didn’t start out that way, though. The initial scene poured itself onto the page seemingly of its own accord, and it was only in revision that I saw WS’s influence. It had been 20 years since I read Traveling Through the Dark. Ah, the power of words.