Uncommon Mercy by Joseph Hirsch

I had really tried to keep things under control, but after a while I had to face it: Every time I got into my car and went to the grocery store it meant a war for me. I did my “five-twenty five” checks, scanning the sidewalks for improvised explosive devices whenever I turned a corner. If I saw roadkill on the highway I would swerve like a madman to avoid the carcass, which I knew was not packed with explosive, a reality which my reflexes unfortunately refused to accept. I would occasionally look up at the sunroof of my little Honda and think: Why the hell can’t I make that into a turret, mount my m249 up there, and grab a little ammo can? The ammo can would be filled with rocks, which I would throw at any civilian vehicle stupid enough to get within shooting range of my car. If they didn’t stop riding my bumper after I threw a rock, then I would escalate my force according to Geneva Conventions, and-

I couldn’t turn my mind off, couldn’t relax, and I felt myself on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

I drove to the local VA facility, told them I was suicidally afflicted with PTSD, and that I needed to spend some time in the hospital on an inpatient basis. I signed some forms and traded my civilian outfit for some pajamas, nonskid socks, and a little bit of nametape they wrapped around my right wrist.

They brought me upstairs in a wheelchair (a formality) and I was processed onto the ward by a creepy RN who wore a bolo tie and exuded the air of someone who had more problems than the patients. He asked me a series of questions, including whether I heard voices. I pronounced a series of “No’s” to pretty much everything he asked me, and then I was led to the linen closet. The creepy RN gave me some sheets, a blanket, and a pillow. Then we walked down the hall, to the last room on the right.

There were three beds, two of them filled by other men who were already asleep. One snored loudly and an acoustic guitar was propped against the footboard of his bed. I spread out my linen on the torn rubber mattress, and I plopped down on the hard bed.

I tucked my hands behind my neck and stared up at the dimmed fluorescent light fixture above me. What the hell, I asked myself, are you going to do with your life, other than contemplate suicide and perhaps commit the same once you get out of here? I had been out of the Army for several months, which meant I could collect unemployment for a little while longer. After that, I could go to school on the GI Bill, which gave me a BAH (Basic Allowance for Housing) of thirteen hundred dollars per month, tax-free, for up to four years. Between that and the money I saved up while deployed to Iraq, I stood a good chance of avoiding the job market, the cold reality of American life, for the foreseeable future.

I could read books, watch movies, play videogames, and occasionally get drunk in order to pass the time, but we (me and my mind, that is) both knew that I was just delaying the inevitable. I had committed no war crimes, slaughtered no Iraqi children, but I had seen and done enough to have the stink of the war on me for the rest of my days. Finding a woman and settling down, having children and a career, was out of the question. Women could smell insecurity and the scent of defeat was an even ranker odor. I was a broken toy that reminded people of a bad memory for America, whose impression would only fade once me and people like me were out of the picture for good. Maybe, I thought, I can stay in this hospital forever. I drifted off to sleep drowning in bad thoughts which volunteered themselves one after another to my aching mind.

In the morning I met my two roommates. Both were Vietnam vets. Lancer was getting discharged that afternoon, and he carried a clear plastic bag filled with his civilian clothes in one hand, the guitar in his other.

Foxwood was my other roomie, the one who would remain with me over the course of the next week or so. He had a long gray beard and mustache which covered most of his face up to his cheekbones, and though this masked most of his features, every bone in his head was so sharp and narrow that I guessed that even if he were to shave with a straight razor, there wouldn’t have been much chin hiding under there. He had a cane with a steel tip and a handle shaped like a green mallard. He was thin, short, and he trembled like a terrier trapped in the pound with several feral and rabid Pit-bulls.

“Name’s Mitchell Foxwood,” he said.

“Hey…”

I stuck my hand out to shake his. He gripped my palm and his milky eyes gazed into mine. I thought maybe he had cataracts. “Can you do me a favor?” He asked.

“Sure,” I said. I didn’t see why not.

“My knees are bad, especially in the morning. You think you can bring my breakfast back here?”

“As long as it’s okay with the staff.” I shrugged.

“It will be.”

Someone stuck their head into the doorway. He looked to be about my age. His pajama top was opened so that his naked chest was exposed, a globe & anchor tattooed against pale skin. He pointed at my new roommate. “You’re my boy, Blue!” Then he looked at me. “Don’t get him shit. The old cocksucker’s too lazy to hoof it to chow, that’s his problem.”

My roommate lowered his eyes, smiled faintly, a weak expression that seemed to say Now you know I’m the local joke around here. I didn’t have balls enough to start a fight with a marine on a psych ward, but at the same time I didn’t feel obligated to pick on Foxwood. I also didn’t understand why the marine had called him “Blue.”

Then I remembered. In the movie Old School with Will Ferrell (very popular around the barracks in my unit) there was an old man who pledged to the fraternity run by the characters played by Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell. This old man’s name was Blue, and occasionally the Ferrell character would shout “You’re my boy, Blue!”

I thought that marine was a cruel dickhead (maybe most marines were), but now that I looked at Mr. Foxwood, he did sort of resemble the character from the movie. I suppressed a smile, tensing my jaw muscles, and then I walked down the hall. I followed the other sleepy psych patients through a door which was opened from a buzzer at the front desk, where one of the nurses watched a series of monitors and fielded incoming telephone calls.

A massive steel scullery on rollers was at the far side of the dining room. Two obese women with hairnets and latex gloves read the names off the trays in the steel shelf, one by one. “Mr. Bowman!” “Mr. Gordon!” “Mr. Alwood!”

One of the two women called my name and I took my tray from her. I remained standing in front of the woman and her shelves, rather than sitting down like the other patients who had received their food. One of the lunch ladies looked at me. “Whatchoo doing?”

“Mr. Foxwood said he wanted his meal in his room.”

She rolled her eyes toward the ceiling, and then she glared at me. Still, she took his tray out and stacked it on top of mine. “Mr. Foxwood got diabetes, so don’t give him none of your meal, you hear me?”

“Yes ma’am.”

I balanced the two trays and walked slowly back to the ward. I buzzed the intercom once, and the RN on duty spied me in the fisheye mirror in the corner of the hall. He hit his switch, an alarm sounded, and I was allowed back onto the ward. I turned down the corridor into my room, where Mr. Foxwood sat on the edge of his bed, resting his grey sliver of chin on the mallard’s head. He gazed off into the distance.

Lancer had changed into his civilian clothing in the time that I had been gone. He wore an old field jacket covered with air assault rockers and 101st Airborne patches, along with some paint-spattered jeans. He stuck his hand out to Foxwood. “Foxy, it’s been real and it’s been fun, but it ain’t been real fun.”

Foxwood grunted, came back to reality, and shook his comrade’s hand. He looked up toward me, and at his tray balanced on top of mine. His filmy eyes brightened, the diaphanous milk scattering away from the irises. “Thank you, sir.”

“No problem.”

I leaned down so that he could take his tray. After he had unburdened me, I sat on the edge of my bed and dug into my breakfast, which consisted of three hard flapjacks and two curled slices of rubbery bacon. I was hungry enough not to care about the poor quality of the food. Lancer gave a quick, crisp salute, and then departed.

“See ya on the hill!” Foxwood shouted to his friend’s retreating form. I figured it was some sort of inside joke that only Vietnam vets understood.

I scarfed my breakfast quickly, and thought of Iraq for a moment. I thought not of the bad times, but the gentle bits, of which, believe it or not, there were quite a few. I thought of the Iraqi Jundhi who would lay his rifle on the ground and then tell me, “He is sleeping, my rifle, he sleeps.”

I remembered the MPRI (Military Professional Resources) contractor who would wake up every morning, put on his vest and fill it with heavy sappy plates, and how he would then run through an Iraqi village unarmed and throwing candy and Gatorade at Iraqi children. I remember once when he was returning to the base gate, and I turned to the two Iraqi Jundhi guarding the gate with me, and I said, “He is crazy.”

Normally in a joking mood, the Iraqi soldiers turned to stone and shook their heads. “Abu,” one of them said. “Abu” translated as “father.” He meant that I shouldn’t make fun of an old man. It was strange, sitting in that hospital and eating my cold food, to think that as violent as that country was, Iraq in many ways was saner and less cruel than the United States of America.

I realized, as I finished my breakfast, that I was probably too weak for this life, and suicide would undoubtedly look even better by the time lunch rolled around.

“What are you thinking about?” Foxwood asked. He spun his cane and pointed the mallard bill at me, as if he expected me to discuss the subject with his duck.

“Tell me about Vietnam,” I said, and regretted my words a moment later. There was a certain etiquette that I should have been observing. I truthfully didn’t want to talk about Iraq, so I had no right to ask him about Vietnam. Foxwood didn’t seem to mind, though.

“Generals always fight the last war.” He shifted on his crinkly unmade bed, and pushed his half-finished meal to his side. “They prepared us for wave fighting in Hawaii. Oh, they had the climate sort of right, Vietnam was hot and rainy, but we didn’t fight any waves. We fought holes.”

“You fought holes?”

“Tunnels, to be exact.”

“Oh, you were a tunnel rat?”

I had become fascinated with Vietnam during my last year in the Army. My uncle had been a Marine in the war, and I had always looked up to him when I was younger. I thought that I could perhaps unriddle my own attraction to war if I came to understand things through the prism of previous conflicts. I had read probably a hundred books on Vietnam in the space of a year, everything from No Bugles, No Drums to Joe Haldeman’s 1968.

“Of course I was a tunnel rat. Look at me.” He opened his arms wide to expose his thin frame. “I was in Cu Chi. We found all kinds of crap down there, believe you me. We found a Forty-Eight Patton tank down there in a hole once.”

“Patton tank?” I wasn’t too familiar with heavy duty tanks, especially those of the past. I knew about Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and we had armored Humvees, but that was about all I knew.

“Yeah, you’re talking twelve feet wide, thirty feet long, damn near about fifty short tons of steel.”

“No shit,” I said.

“No shit.”

“What would they need a tank underground for?” I asked. I couldn’t imagine them being able to turn the barrel in a tunnel, let alone firing through several layers of soil.

“They didn’t need the firepower,” Foxwood said, shaking his head. “They needed the battery energy. They had lines running from the tank to their little underground TMC.”

“No shit,” I said again.

“I wouldn’t shit you, son, you’re my main turd as of this moment.” He nodded toward the food I brought him. “One thing I’ll give Cronkite is that he was right that the war was unwinnable. Know why?”

I shook my head. “Well, when I followed the lines from that tank to the source, like I said, we stumbled onto this little Ho Chi Minh TMC. And I saw a gook, sorry, a North Vietnamese, doing surgery on one of his little yellow buddies who had been shot in an engagement earlier that day.”

Foxwood spun his cane once, so that the mallard’s head rotated three-hundred and sixty degrees. “The soldier doing the surgery had gotten two of his fingers shot off earlier. He’d taken some shoestring and tied the two finger stumps together, I guess to give him a better grip on the scalpel he was using to extract that bullet from his little friend.” He leaned closer to me. “Now, tell me son, you think you’re going to beat someone who’s got that kind of piss and vinegar pumping through his bloodstream?”

He removed one hand from his cane and stroked his chin. “No,” I said, “I guess not.”

I spent the rest of the morning in the room, listening to him tell Vietnam stories. All of the group meetings were done on a voluntary basis, and since I had no desire for my condition to improve to the point where I would be discharged, I continued bringing Mr. Foxwood his meals, and listening to him tell me about Khe Sahn and the Perfume River, and the Ia Drang Valley, and how his friend had forgotten to bend back the pins of his grenades and as a result turned himself and every man within a twenty-foot radius of him into bacon bits one day. He used the steel-capped end of his cane to draw diagrams on the floor, as if the waxy tiles were a sandbox in which he could demonstrate the movements of various elements and air support units. He had a desultory opinion of Operation Rolling Thunder and he spoke especially disparagingly of Lieutenant William Calley and the My Lai Massacre.

Occasionally, someone would pop their head into the room to harass old “Blue” and break his balls about using me to get him food, but for the most part, we were left to our own devices. Once there was a psychiatrist who came into our room bearing a clipboard. He sported a hideous silk polka dot tie, whose cravat hung ragged and loose, like the first leaf on a single-ply roll of toilet paper. The shrink glared at me: “So aside from free meals and turndown service, do you think you’ll be availing yourself of any therapy at all?”

I just ignored him, tuning him out in order to listen to Mr. Foxwood tell me about the checkered keelback (Xenochrophis Piscator) that would come swimming alongside his aluminum patrol craft when he was cruising through the delta. He turned his cane sideways and waved it along the floor to simulate the motion of the snake. After a couple of minutes of this the psychiatrist stormed out of the room in a huff.

Eventually, however, the day came when Mr. Foxwood had to leave. On the morning of his discharge, he stood over my bed. He patted me once on the shoulder and said, “Thanks for listening to me ramble on. Also, thanks for the meals on wheels, my good man.”

I scratched the rheum from my eyes. “No problem.”

And then, apropos of nothing, he said, “I want to go back.”

I knew to where he wished to return. “Okay,” I said, still half-asleep.

“I mean it. I just need someone to go back with, and my only good buddy’s got a son with cortical blindness from the dioxin.”

“You mean Agent Orange?” I asked, sitting up.

“Agent Orange, Dioxin, defoliant, call it what you will. The point is, no one will go with me and I don’t want to go alone. My niece is a kind sort, but I don’t want to take her with me. I don’t want her to see me cry.”

“Fuck it,” I said. “I’ll go.”

“I’ll pay.”

“I have money,” I said, which was true. I had managed to save twenty-thousand dollars while in Iraq. I had been stationed at an out-site, a tiny base where occasionally some Finance personnel would land in a Blackhawk to dole out money, but my needs were very nominal. The Iraqis sold bootleg DVDs (I bought fifteen seasons of The Simpsons for twenty dollars) and since I ate in the dining facility, my only other real expense was for hygiene products. Even as a lowly Spec-4 there was only so much money I could spend on things like toothpaste and soap.

“We’ll do it, then.” Foxwood stabbed his cane along the paraffin covered floor. “Direct flight to Hanoi. My niece will give you my telephone number and address.”

“Your niece?”

“Yes, she’s here to pick me up.”

Mr. Foxwood walked out into the hall.

“YOU’RE MY BOY, BLUE!” Someone shouted.

I heard Foxwood let go of a resigned sigh. “Very well,” he said. “I’m your boy blue.” I didn’t think that he got the reference. His pop culture catalogue probably stopped soon after Merle Haggard recorded the “Okie from Muskogee” and the Duke wrapped filming on The Green Berets.

I stood up and walked out into the hall. I wanted to wish him well on his journey. Foxwood took his clear plastic bag from an RN who sat behind his command center with its monitors and buzzers. To his right there stood an unbelievable creature, the kind of woman who would have been well within her right to mace me for making eye contact with her, the kind of woman seen in a club where I wouldn’t have been allowed entrée to do so much as clean toilets.

Her hair was an aureate corn shade, something approximating the color of the sun before factories had filled the sky with smog and occluded our view of the holy star. Her breasts were large, bouncing out of her raglan white halter-top, at once confrontational and maternal. She embraced her uncle, both of them oblivious to her breasts, the rest of us on this ward less so.

“Holy shit,” the marine with the chest tattoo said, his voice a half-whispered exhalation borne on disbelieving breath. “Look at Blue’s niece.”

I personally couldn’t look at her anymore. I went back into my room and sat on the edge of my bed. Women were out of the picture for me, permanently now. I remembered once walking through an open air bazaar near Besmayah Range Complex, the small post where I had spent the most memorable months of my year-long tour in Iraq. Among all of the items on sale, the pirated DVD box sets and the souvenir ashtrays made from camel bone, there were bottles of Viagra.

I laughed and pointed. “Why do you sell this?” I asked the shopkeeper, a man in a red keffiyeh.

He saw nothing humorous. “Because too many boom! in Bagdad means Iraqi man can no more fucky fuck his wife.”

It took me awhile to appreciate what he was saying. When I finally redeployed to Germany, I noticed my first gray hairs sprouting on my head. Late one Saturday night, bringing a girl out of the Irish Pub and back to my barracks room, I also noticed that my penis would not do what I told it to do, what both my date and I needed it to do that evening. Too many boom! had indeed ruined my ability to fucky fuck.

I could still masturbate, but that night had been so humiliating that I avoided women as often as I could, and I tried to even avoid thinking of them. Now, as I sat on the edge of the bed, I prayed that Foxwood would not ask me to meet his niece. I didn’t want to feel the warm flesh of her palm grazing my own hand. I damn well couldn’t make eye contact with her, not without her seeing my weakness, not without registering her disgust. Women needed men, not leftovers.

I thought back to my time in Germany, before deploying, before I had known what war was. I remembered walking across the parade field with Santana, a Dominican from the Bronx who used to go to the gym and play handball with me sometimes after afternoon formations on the quad. We had stopped at the shoppette, the little miniature PX on post.

Soon, I thought, I’ll be a war veteran; I will have the same sort of secret, the same dark beauty as my uncle, who taught me to fish with authority in his voice and alcohol on his breath. I remembered picking up some beef jerky and a copy of Army Times from that shoppette. I opened that Army Times to an article about a Special Forces soldier who had committed suicide shortly after redeploying from his second or third tour of Iraq. His father was interviewed for the article, and recalled his puzzlement the night his son took his life. His son had come down the stairs from his bedroom, and had asked to sit in his father’s lap, which his dad naturally thought was odd. The father accommodated his son, however, and read his boy a story while cradling him awkwardly.

I quickly threw the newspaper in the trash, wishing I hadn’t read the article. A dark coal began to glow in my stomach, my uneasiness churning as if my death in Iraq was now predestined. If war could do that to him, a real Special Forces soldier, what the hell could it do to a line unit pussy like me whose job was basically fixing SINCGARS radios and programming frequencies and communication security?

I couldn’t even finish my beef jerky that day.

The door to my hospital room opened a moment later, bringing me away from that quad in Darmstadt, Germany, that field of green with its old Sherman tank at one end of the lawn and a billowing American flag at the other end.

It was Foxwood’s niece.

I tried to say “Shit” and swallowed a mouthful of spit, choking. “Stand up,” she said.

“What?”

She brushed a golden slice of her bangs away from her face. “Stand up.”

I stood up. “I need to get Mr. Foxwood’s number, and I think we’ll take a direct flight to Hanoi. I have the money to-”

“Shut up.”

I stopped speaking. She pushed me back. “Go into the bathroom. Quick.”

I backed up. My heart was pounding hard enough for the sound of the blood rushing in my ears to resemble the waves of the ocean slapping against the sand of the beach at high tide.

“I think you’ve got the wrong guy.”

“You’re the one who talks to my uncle all day, who brings him food, the one who doesn’t call him ‘Blue’?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Good then. Shut up.”

She closed us into the bathroom. I stood along the far wall. I was about to speak, but she held up a finger as she knelt down. “Don’t say ‘You don’t have to do this.’ I know what I do and don’t have to do. I want to do this. Okay?”

I closed my eyes. Truthfully, I would have preferred to perform cunnilingus on her, but that is hardly comparable to the combat expedient ritual of a quickly executed blowjob. Before my hair had turned gray and my manhood had evaporated in a cloud of mortar-induced impotence, I had enjoyed going down on girls, found that it put a pacifying end to the charade of a “war between the sexes” and the little mating rituals and struggles for power that go on in bars and on dance floors. My feeling is that I came out of a vagina, and that therefore the vagina wins, and I always enjoyed communicating this deeply hidden feeling of female superiority (something I could have never admitted to any of my male friends in the barracks) to a girl’s clitoris and clitoral hood with alternating strokes of my nose, tongue, and chin.

But I also have to be honest and say that I could have never done for her what she did for me in less than three minutes. I remembered once reading a book about Civil War surgery, possibly called Gangrene and Glory, in which a Union veteran recounted the loss of his leg to a minie ball. He described in agonizing detail the working of a single-blade amputation saw as it sliced through the outer layer of skin and muscle in a process called a “circular amputation,” after which a tenaculum, a sort of hook, was used to snag loose arteries and pull them away from the bone so that they could be tied around the bloodied stump where the gangrenous limb had been removed. I remembered how this veteran said that through the ether fumes he could no longer feel the pain past a certain threshold, and as strange as it was, the thought came to me during this blowjob, the first in many years, the first successful contact I had experienced with a woman since my dance with death had begun under that hot sun, that she was moving so fast and mercilessly over my penis that I had no choice but to surrender, to let go of my fear that she would judge me less than a man. She revived me and freed me and she didn’t stop until semen with the consistency of an egg’s uncooked yoke squirted out of my body and into her mouth. She spit a mouthful of sperm cells fortunate enough to find no fertilizing purchase (imagine being my kid) into the toilet, and then she smiled at me.

“Women,” I said, “are one of only two or three good things about life.”

She grinned. “What are the other ‘good things’?”

“I’ve forgotten,” I said. “I guess women are the only good thing about life.”

I also forgot, as it turned out, to get Mr. Foxwood’s phone number and address. I hope he got back to Vietnam okay.

Joseph Hirsch’s novel Rolling Country was published by Moonshine Cove. His book Ohio at Dusk was published by Damnation Books. His short stories have appeared in 3 AM Magazine, and he has sold fiction to Underground Voices, The Western Online, and Zahir: A Journal of Speculative Fiction. He was a finalist in a Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers competition, and he previously served as a sports journalist with Fight Hype, covering boxing matches around the globe. His novel War-Crossed Eyes was published by Melange Books, and his forthcoming novels The Last Slice of Pizza and Flash Blood will be available this summer.  Websites: www.thelastsliceofpizza.net www.rollingcountry.com

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