It’s been 10 years since the post-9/11 wars began. Both Iraq and Afghanistan are miserable failures—over there and at home. Vast numbers of the veterans are returning wiped out, depressed, suicidal, or some combination thereof. Public radio aired a story of a sergeant, a hero by all accounts, who returned from Iraq and moved to the suburbs to resume a normal life. He hung up his uniform and promptly started drinking. One day when he was good and wasted, he packed his wife off to her parents’ house, set up a patrol base in the woods behind his property, and waged a gun battle with the local sheriff’s department. The cops laid siege to his bantam fortress and took him alive, unharmed. Immediately, the focus turned on the war. Psychologists said he suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. A police officer suggested the sergeant was seeking “death-by-cop.”
I have my own diagnosis. The sergeant, in the sudden absence of danger, was filling a violence vacuum.
To leave a war zone and return home to America—an oasis of peace in comparison—is an honest to goodness motherfucker. You find yourself avoiding Coke cans in the road because they might be hiding an IED; you mumble curses at the fresh, shining faces of Americans apathetic to the war; you yearn to settle arguments with a buttstroke from your M-4 and a verbal threat, spoken in Arabic, with a heavy American accent.
Still, it’s a mistake to lay all the blame for the behavior of soldiers at the feet of our embarrassing wars. A nasty conflict with lots of killing helps grease the works psychologically, but soldiers don’t need a war to do violence—it’s built into the profession, so to speak. I spent years in the so-called peacetime Army, before September 11, 2001. There was plenty of violence to go around—a more casual variety, and often self-inflicted, but brutal nonetheless.
It was Fayetteville, North Carolina, that I found particularly hazardous to my health. “Fayette-Nam,” as they call it, is a rough town in the southern part of the state, famous for being home to Fort Bragg. Fayetteville was no Baghdad, of course. Nor was it Fallujah, Kandahar, or any other war-torn city. But it sustained a kind of simmering violence, just beneath the surface. If you were to scratch it, even accidently, you’d find yourself staring at the business end of a 9mm, or worse.
Fayetteville, by the laws of supply and demand, cultivated an extensive network of businesses dealing in depravity, scandal, death, and salvation, in order to serve the hundred thousand soldiers stationed there. On Bragg Boulevard alone you could find the offices of slumlords and DUI lawyers (often the same person, as both professions are cut from the same oily cloth), churches with white steeples, used-car dealers, check-cashing outlets, a healthy sprinkling of gun shops, strip malls, gay discos packed with closeted servicemen and women, massage parlors, fast food, a jack-shack with $40 rub and tugs, and a handful of topless joints. Dive bars occupied every corner, wretched places stinking of beer and piss enough to make you shudder when you first walk through the doors. A few months of living in Fayetteville, though, and the scale by which you measure normal is recalibrated. The aberrant smells become familiar, almost welcoming. The sparingly toothed, bikini-clad waitresses transform from anonymous speed addicts to your dearest friends, and eventually your live-in lovers. The bartender with the knife scar across his throat stops watering down your drinks. The bikers who threatened to stab you for running the pool table become your dearest pals. All in all, a desolate landscape, yet warmly seductive, and well suited to the pursuit of illicit thrills.
One night that stands out in my mind is the time Larry Shepstone returned home to Fayetteville during the great ice storm of 1994. I was in sniper school at Fort Bragg when I received a message from Larry. The note was pinned to the bulletin board in the lobby of our barracks on the day before I was to graduate. I hadn’t expected to hear from him. Although he was stationed at Bragg, I knew Larry had been gone for months, training to become a Ranger. I called him right away, from the pay phone in the mess hall.
“I finally finished Ranger School!” Larry shouted, fighting to be heard over the din of a hundred soldiers eating dinner. Larry had been recycled twice, spending an unbelievable six months trying to earn his Ranger tab. A lesser man—or smarter—would have quit straight off, myself included. “Stay an extra day after sniper school is finished,” Larry suggested. “We’ll have a little party in honor of us. For graduating. I’m sure we’ll find something interesting to do.”
You could hear the wink and nod in his voice. Larry never did anything little, especially a party. After three months of Ranger school, he was ready to have a good time. Of course, there was the chance I’d get in trouble if I didn’t head straight back to my unit in Germany. There were a few tight-asses over there who’d love to nail me for showing up late. I slept on it that night. The first thing I thought when I woke up was “Fuck them!” I changed my ticket, went to the graduation ceremony, and took a taxi to Larry’s.
I had met Larry a few years before, while training for Special Forces. I passed, he failed. When Larry failed, the Army shat him out like space trash, leaving him to satellite Planet Bragg until he was assigned a new unit, which took years. His roommates were two other guys who’d failed as well: Dave and Bashar. Of the three of them, Larry was the only one still in the Army. The other two were unemployed and mooching off Larry, who was as generous as he was strong. He was a great big bastard, with a huge smile, who could knock your head off in one swipe, if the mood took him. He was smart as hell, and he was black, which I suspect had something to do with why they failed him in Special Forces School. Bashar was small and also dark skinned. Dave was white, but he got the ax for failing the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, which for all practical purposes meant he was insane.
I rang the doorbell and the door swung open and there was Larry, that smile plastered across his face. He’d lost 30 pounds since the last time I’d seen him, thanks to Ranger School. His scheming grin, once couched in fleshy cheeks, was now more wicked than jovial. He grabbed my arm and dragged me inside, slamming the door shut behind him. “What the hell?” I asked. “I have something to show you. I don’t want the neighbors to see,” Larry said. He opened the freezer and pulled out a baggie, which he waved in my face. Inside was a half-eaten sheet of acid. Dave and Bashar walked in from the living room.
We exchanged hellos.
“What’s the plan?” Dave asked. He was wearing cutoff jeans and a rugby shirt from New Zealand.
“I’m bored and it’s only noon,” Bashar put in. With his hands cupped in front of him like a bowl, he looked a bit like Gandhi with an afro.
“First we’ll eat lunch, to strengthen our stomachs,” Larry said. “Then we’ll eat the acid in the car. As we drive to Trisha’s work. And then.”
I didn’t bother asking who Trisha was or where she worked. Larry only dated strippers, as a rule. And he always insisted he was in love with them, Trisha included. “Honest to God, she’s the woman for me,” Larry said. “I’m monogamous. I haven’t been laid since I left for Georgia. Except for that hooker on Victory Drive, but she doesn’t count.” Dave and Bashar nodded to whatever Larry said, as if it were the holy gospel. They were both sweet guys, but lacked backbone. As for Larry’s claim that sleeping with prostitutes didn’t violate the tenets of monogamy, I ignored it entirely. It didn’t matter if Larry slept with a dozen whores or one, it wasn’t monogamy, but you’ll drop dead before convincing him of that.
After lunch, we climbed into Dave’s car. Dave and Bashar sat in the back seat, Bashar cutting the acid into little squares with scissors. Dave, Larry, and Bashar ate four straight away. I took two smallish looking tabs. I was wary of hallucinogenics. A few months prior, Tony Stephenson and I had sat for 10 hours at a table at La Roca in Amsterdam, staring mutely at the walls after a friend recommended a strong dose of mushrooms. I had no desire to repeat that experience.
As we drove to the strip club, named Bottoms Up, Larry grew increasingly animated. His grin had a forced gaiety to it, his conversation overly jocular. Underneath it, he was nervous to see Trisha again. It’s not easy dating strippers, as any soldier can tell you. They can be fickle with their allegiances, surrounded by so many adoring men. I doubt Larry had any delusions about her remaining chaste during his absence—she was a stripper, after all. Still, he was counting on her missing him as much as he missed her. And then there was the acid to consider. An energetic reception would set the right tone for his trip; a blow-off might send him spiraling.
We walked into the darkened bar to hear Guns N’ Roses playing loudly. A few steps inside, Larry froze, a look of hope and anguish crossing his face as he stood mutely staring at the girl on stage. Trisha, as it turned out, was a ravishing beauty—no wonder Larry was twisted in knots. Her legs were fluid and muscular, her arms lithe and billowy. She moved like a ballet dancer with a lascivious twist. And she was wearing nothing but silky white lingerie and red high heels. She strutted forward, her arms slipping behind her back to unclip her bra, the spotlight following her to the edge of the stage. A row of peach-faced young Joes, not one of them older than 19, crowded beneath her, tongues wagging, and waving dollar bills. Trisha rolled her shoulders, letting the bra drop to the stage, with her hands still covering her breasts. At that moment, her eyes swept the audience and landed on Larry.
“Larry!” Trisha shrieked, throwing up her arms. She raced offstage and leapt into his arms. Larry was so happy I thought his knees would buckle, and he would fall to the ground right there, crying. “Oh baby, my baby!” Trisha cried, smothering his face in kisses, tears on her face. She was almost as beautiful close-up, ripe and innocent and raunchy, the way only an 18-year-old stripper can pull off.
Larry introduced us. I held out my hand but she gave me a bear hug, her pink nipples indenting my chest. I kept switching my hips from side to side so she wouldn’t feel my hard-on. I didn’t want her to think I was some kind of pervert who got one every time his buddy’s girlfriend hugged him.
I was saved by a young weasel-faced guy who appeared out of nowhere and ordered Trisha back on stage. She made a face at him as he skulked away. “Chris, my boss.” She said it like he was a cyst in need of lancing. Trisha grabbed Larry. “I have one more song in my set and then you’re mine,” Trisha breathed in his ear, her eyes never leaving him as she slowly walked up the staircase to the stage. Larry was grinning ecstatically. His eyes, I noticed, were beginning to bug out from the acid.
“You see that? That’s my girl. Damn it, that’s my girl.” He grabbed me by the biceps, squeezing so hard I nearly cried out. “That’s my girl!”
We found an open pool table at the rear of the bar, as good a space as any to ride out the acid trip. Larry peeled off a few twenties and told Dave to bring us beer. Dave was very humble with other people’s money. He came back with three pitchers of Budweiser and a few bags of potato chips and counted out the change to the penny. “Keep it!” Larry roared, his strong teeth glinting in the fluorescent lights. Neither Dave nor Bashar had a dime to their names. Bashar was out of the Army. He spent his days studying for the GMAT and mooching off Larry. Dave was divorced with two kids and all his money went to child support.
With Larry’s money in hand, Dave made a beeline toward a skinny little waif in Daisy-Duke shorts and a lacy bra. Bashar racked the balls on the pool table. Larry was just about to break when the lights in the bar suddenly switched on. If you’ve never been in a strip club when the lights come on, it’s a terrible thing to witness. Like shining a flashlight in a subway station at night, only to find a mother rat on her back, a writhing mass of pinkies sucking at her teats. The girls on stage, as if suddenly aware of being naked, covered their breasts and ran for the dressing room. The crowd, all pasty and squinting, shouted profanities. Over the crackling PA system, the weasel-faced boss, Chris, informed the crowd that a freak ice storm had hit North Carolina and the club was shutting down immediately. In disbelief, all of the patrons ran outside to assess the situation. Sure enough, a light hail had started, and in the distance, furious black clouds threatened on the horizon.
As for our acid trip, the storm was awful news, on the scale of disastrous. We were on the cusp of losing our minds and we had nowhere to go but home. No bar. No strippers. No pool table. The four of us stood there in the hail, assessing one another. Eyes bulging, teeth grinding, sweating, especially Dave, who was naturally diaphoretic.
“I can’t drive,” Dave said. “I can’t even count my fingers.” He waved his hand in front of my face leaving a long, shimmering tracer hovering in place. I looked back at the other guys, but they were still staring at the tracer.
“Do you see that?” Bashar asked.
“I do,” Larry said. He sounded embarrassed.
“Me, too,” Dave said.
I took the keys from Dave and started the car. We had to wait on Larry, who was having a minor fight with Trisha. Larry wanted Trisha to come with us now, but Trisha insisted on meeting him later. She had a private show scheduled for a man from Southern Pines who was on his way, despite the storm.
Larry reluctantly gave in. “She needs the money,” he explained, climbing in the front seat. “It’s a lesbo act and the poor guy’s a quadriplegic. And a millionaire. He can’t get it up. He just pays to watch.”
Bashar, who was waving his fingers in front of his face, suddenly screamed, “Can you blame him?” Then he folded his arms and started crying. Dave put his arm around Bashar’s shoulders. “There, there. There, there.”
I drove out of the parking lot and onto the street, with the hazard lights on. Cars were swerving in every direction. The hail was followed by sheets of ice the size of dinner plates. Within minutes the roads were soldered together in a single frozen carapace. A tractor trailer fishtailed in front of us, sliding off the road into a ditch. The last sliver of sun was sinking, and the reds and yellows pinged off the falling ice in a kaleidoscopic nightmare. The real world was out there, I was certain, but the acid made it shift past in rotating scaffolds, light shooting out in every direction. I found myself hopping from frame to frame to keep from crashing the car and killing all of us. Every now and then Larry tried to help me drive by reaching over to grab the wheel, a clown grin fixed on his face.
“That’s not helping,” I said, shoving him off. A minute later he grabbed the wheel again and again I shook him off. I don’t know what he saw on the road that he was trying to avoid, but it wasn’t the same as what I was seeing.
An eternity later, we were huddled around the front door of the apartment, the ice dumping on our heads as Larry tried to work the key into the lock. “Let me try,” I said. No luck either. We all took several turns. Eventually we decided the ice had frozen the lock and the only alternative was to break the kitchen window and push Bashar though, which we did. When Bashar was safely inside, we walked around to the front door. None of us spoke as we waited, teeth chattering, our thin shirts encrusted with ice that melted as it touched our skin, only to refreeze a moment later.
I heard something from inside the apartment.“Wait a second,” I said. “Is that the stereo?” I put my ear to the door. Ice T was playing. I turned the handle. Locked. “Wait here,” I said to Larry and Dave. I walked around to the kitchen and looked through the broken window. Bashar was sitting on the couch, staring at the wall, tapping his feet and playing drums on his thighs.
Bashar looked up as if he’d heard something.
“Hey, Bashar, are you going to open the front door for us? We’re freezing out here. I think Dave’s got frostbite. He keeps sucking his lower lip.”
Bashar stood up, frightened. “Who’s there? I hear you. Who is it, dammit?” He was six inches from the speaker, talking directly into it. I walked around to the front door. Larry and Dave were in the car. The engine was on and Larry was backing up slowly. I knocked on the window. Larry rolled it down. “Where are you going?” I asked. “We have to send Dave through the kitchen window. Bashar is a lost cause.”
Larry stared at me for a moment and then pounded the dashboard with a fist. “Oh shit!” Larry cried. “I totally forgot about the window. I couldn’t find you or Bashar. I was driving to the bar to find you. Come on, Dave! We’re home!” Larry pulled Dave out of the car behind him. The three of us walked to the kitchen and peered through the broken window. Bashar was nowhere to be seen. We helped Dave through the window and walked back around to the front door. Bashar was standing there. He had a beer in his hands.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I said, pushing past him. “Forget about it.”
I got a beer from the fridge and sat down on the couch, shivering. The world had grown dark so we turned on a few lights. Bashar insisted on lighting candles.
“Does anyone want some ecstasy?” he asked, pulling a baggie of pills from his jeans.
“No,” Larry said. “That’s only good with chicks around.”
“I’ll take some,” Dave said. So he and Bashar ate ecstasy. Fifteen minutes later their eyes were bulging.
“God,” Bashar said. “Do I feel goooooooood. Come here.” He held out his arms to me.
“Seriously, Bashar,” I said, backing away from him. “We’re stuck in this apartment. If you keep wanting to touch me, I’ll freak out.”
He turned to Larry with his outstretched arms. Larry shook his head.
“I told you not to take that ecstasy. You always do this on pills.”
Bashar dropped his arms. Dave caught me watching him and held out his arms. I walked over to where Larry was sitting.
“Is there anywhere we can go? Things are getting cramped in here.”
Just then, the ice storm redoubled its assault on us, crashing against the roof and windows at a menacing pace. The lights flickered on and off several times. I knew that if I didn’t chill out, I was in for a very long night. So I went upstairs and took a hot shower and put on dry clothes. When I came back downstairs, the music was on and Larry was passing out beers. Dave took to standing in the kitchen with his hand out the window in order to give us regular updates on the weather. For quite some time, everything went smoothly. I talked about living in Europe. Bashar went on about which business schools he had applied to. Larry told stories about Ranger School, and of course, his passion for Trisha, who was set to arrive within the hour.
The trouble didn’t start until the acid peaked. Gradually, slyly, dangerously, we lost the ability to distinguish between our stories and real life. It started when Bashar interrupted Larry while he was telling a story about a patrol he led during Ranger School.
“Hey, Larry,” Bashar said. “How much money do I make when I graduate from business school?”
Larry paused a minute. “Let me think. I read it somewhere. I think a Harvard graduate makes a hundred thousand a year, starting.”
My jaw dropped. “You make a hundred grand a year? That’s incredible!” I had a newfound respect for Bashar, as I was perpetually broke. “Our own Bashar, a Harvard grad!”
A confused look passed over Bashar.
“Ummm, Larry, did I go to Harvard?”
Larry was at the fridge, opening beers for everyone.
“I said, I went to Harvard right?”
Larry passed on the beers. “Harvard, that’s right. Now tell him how much you make after graduating from Harvard b-school.”
Bashar was suddenly shy. He blushed.
“Wait, I feel like I know this one,” I said. I searched my memory. “Sorry, it slipped me.”
“Go ahead, tell him!”
Bashar took in a deep breath. “One hundred thousand dollars a year.”
Dave sat down cross-legged on the floor and stared in amazement at Bashar.
“You make a hundred grand a year?”
Bashar looked at Larry. Larry nodded.
“For how long?”
“Forever,” Bashar said. His face was shining like a prophet. He was shrouded in light and dignity. Still, I was suspicious.
“Where is all the money?” I asked. “I want to see it.”
“Me, too,” Dave said. “Let’s see it.”
On an impulse, Bashar decided to give us all his money. “I want you guys to have it. I mean it. Every cent.”
“All hundred grand?” I gaped.
Dave, who was whimpering already, leaped into Bashar’s arms and hugged him. Out of all of us, Dave was the poorest.
“Maybe we should divide it up now,” I said. I loved Bashar for offering, but I would love him more when the money was in my pocket. A silence ensued that threatened to unwind our shared neurosis, until Larry broke in.
“What, you think he keeps a hundred grand under his mattress?” Larry mocked. “Who does that?”
We cracked up at the thought of a hundred grand stuffed under a mattress.
“So where is it?” I asked when the laughing died down. I wasn’t going to let it go. I needed that money.
“In the bank,” Bashar offered hesitantly. “Tomorrow we can go and get it.” He looked at Larry, who nodded. That was a huge relief for me.
“I gotta tell you,” I said, gripping Bashar’s shoulder, “I’m glad you gave me that hundred grand. I’ve been thinking lately how I could never get out of the Army. I mean I’m so broke. This hundred grand.”
It was my turn to shed a few tears. Bashar smiled lovingly. Larry, on the other hand, was flabbergasted.
“What? You want to get out of the Army? You?”
“Yes,” I said. The words were shocking to hear, even for me. It was the first time I’d ever admitted it. “I would get out tomorrow if I could. Honestly, I think I hate the Army.”
Larry struggled to understand. His faced was contorted, as if trying to form an algorithm in his head. “But…but you just finished sniper school! You’re a Green Beret!”
“So what? We never do anything.” That was true. In those days there were no wars to fight, and nothing on the agenda. “But with a hundred grand…” I couldn’t help giggling at my good fortune. “Maybe I’ll get out of the Army and live in Amsterdam for a few years. Maybe I’ll become a DJ.” I was ecstatic at the idea of being free again. “Why stay in the Army if there is no war?”
Larry looked at me strangely. He reached over and poked me in the sternum with two fingers, testing the flesh, to make sure he was hearing the real me speak. When he was satisfied it was me, he stood up and paced the room, mumbling to himself, his big muscular arms swinging back and forth. Bashar and Dave watched him obsessively. Under normal circumstances, Larry was the leader of the pack; on acid, he was some sort of demigod. They hung on his every word and movement in search of some kernel of enlightenment.
“That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard, Matty!” Larry proclaimed.
“Of course there’s a war!”
Bashar and Dave nodded like automatons.
“A war?” I looked around the room. Maybe there was a war going on and no one had told me about it.
“Yes, a war. Come on, don’t you remember?” Larry asked. “You were there with me. I was with the Rangers on patrol and there was an ambush. They came at us from the jungle…and you were there with the snipers! Don’t you remember being a sniper? You had your sniper rifle and you were…you were…hey, were you standing up or lying down?”
“Lying down,” I said confidently. I was definitely shooting lying down. That much I remember. I was a sniper and I shot lying down. I called the winds. I dressed in Ghillie suits. I calculated minutes of angle. Holy Shit. Maybe there was a war. I rubbed my hands together, to feel the callouses on my trigger finger. I saw the enemy from the prone position. Though in my mind, the enemy looked suspiciously like a cardboard cutout.
“I’m not sure. …”
“Sure you’re sure!” Bashar said. “You’re a sniper and Larry is a Ranger and I went to Harvard and we’re rich.” Bashar jumped off the couch and jammed the air guitar.
“And I got the girl, right Larry?” Dave asked. He was feeling left out. “The girl who dances with Trisha? The one in the short shorts?”
Larry redoubled his pacing, his eyes lurching from one side to the other. He pounded his fist into his palm. “...I know we were there. I remember it perfectly. There was Matt on the sniper rifle and there I was on patrol with the Rangers. Shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot to kill! That’s what we sang. And then the ambush came and that guy, he said you have to be ready to kill.”
“What guy?” I asked. Larry ignored me. Dave was still waiting patiently for Larry’s answer concerning the girl. Bashar tried to help him out. “What do you think, Larry? Did Trisha get Dave a date?”
“And then we saw Trisha on a date,” Larry said, picking up where Bashar left off. “There was an ambush and it was Trisha on a date and he said you have to be able to kill.”
Larry was raving now, his pace frenetic, his mighty limbs, racked with madness, heaving to and fro. The ice storm raged outside and the movie in his head raged on the inside.
“We were on patrol and Trisha ambushed us and he said you have to be able to kill.”
We were all stopped now, staring at Larry. A terrible fear descended on me. Something awful was close, so close. The war, the money, Trisha, it was all mixed up now, for all of us, but mostly for Larry. He looked wretched, insane, as he tried to find the words and then, abruptly, he turned and looked at us. He was smiling again, but the teasing look was gone, replaced with a look of pure lunacy.
“I remember now! Man-oh-man, remember! Hoooyaaaa!” He smashed his hands together, rubbing his knuckles, flexing his hands obsessively. “We were on patrol. Matt was a sniper. Trisha ambushed us. And that guy said…”
Larry took a triumphant breath.
“…you have to be able to kill your girlfriend on patrol!”
Stunned, I sat down. Dave and Bashar were about to cheer for Larry, but the cheer died on their lips. Even they realized something was amiss. Larry went from face to face, looking for affirmation.
“Don’t you get it? We’re at war. We go on patrol. And you have to be able to kill your girlfriend on patrol. That’s it. That’s all you have to do.” He looked pained, as if he were explaining a simple concept to child who can’t understand.
Just then it occurred to me that Trisha could arrive at any moment.
“Larry,” I said gently. “I’m pretty sure there is no war.”
“Of course there is!”
“No, there isn’t.”
“No ambush?” Bashar asked.
“No patrol?” Dave asked.
I shook my head. “And Trisha is on her way over here.”
“I know!” Larry shouted. “And when she ambushes us, you have to be able to kill your girlfriend on patrol.” He folded his arms. “I know that much is right.”
“No, you don’t. And you won’t, you hear me?” I raised my voice to get my point across. Larry stormed into the kitchen and pulled a beer from the fridge. “Fuck!” he cursed. “Where’s the opener? Forget it.” He reached under the sink and pulled out a hammer and popped the lid. I stood ten feet from him. Dave wiped sweat from his face. Bashar ground his teeth stridently. Larry glowered at me.
“Listen to me. We are not on patrol.”
“Yes, we are.”
“No, we’re not. Look around you.” Everyone looked around. “We’re in Larry’s apartment. Look over here.” I walked to the couch and kicked it. “Is there a couch on patrol? Think about it. Why would there be a blow-up couch on patrol?”
Larry was transfixed by my words. His mouth opened but nothing came out. The other two looked anxious. I kept at it.
“See this? This is a CD player. It’s playing Nirvana right now. Do you hear it? Do you hear the music?”
We all listened.
“Now why would there be a CD player with music on patrol? There wouldn’t be, that’s why. Because we’re not on patrol. We are in Fayetteville and there is an ice storm outside and Larry’s girlfriend is coming over.”
“And…” Larry started, squeezing the hammer tightly. He was sweating again, unsure of anything. “And…your girlfriend…on patrol…”
“Listen, goddamnit! We are on acid! LSD! There is no patrol.” I was afraid I’d need to hit him to bring him around.
“I…” Larry stumbled. “I …don’t have to kill my girlfriend on patrol?”
“We are not on patrol!”
“You mean, I don’t...”
“No, you don’t.”
Larry smiled hesitantly, almost bashfully. I was about to force the point home when the doorbell rang. Larry jumped, a look of pure terror on his face. Nobody moved. The doorbell rang again.
“Remember what I said,” I told Larry. I nodded for Bashar to open the door and Trisha rushed in, her hair frozen wet but still beautiful as a wood nymph. She gave everyone a hug. There was whiskey on her breath. Larry froze when she kissed him, but she was tipsy enough not to notice. Trisha opened the fridge and pulled out a beer. “Will you open this, baby?” She turned around, chatting away mindlessly. Larry lifted the hammer behind her. I rose to my tiptoes, my mouth open but too dry to speak. The steel head gleamed in the light. Larry gripped it tighter. “Larry,” I croaked. Larry let his hand run down the back of Trisha’s wet hair, his fingers coming to rest lightly about her slender neck. “Mmmmmm,” Trisha said, leaning back into him. Larry firmed his grip.
Trish opened her eyes, staring right at me, two perfect green eyes filled with…uncertainty.
“Larry,” I said.
“We are not on patrol.”
The hammer inched upward. Larry looked at me inquisitively.
The hammer dropped a notch. Trisha giggled nervously. She grabbed Larry’s fingers and, one by one, pried them away from her neck. With each finger she loosed, Larry’s resolve lessened, though not his madness. When Trisha was free she turned around and looked Larry in the face. Then she laughed. “Oh my god! You are so wasted, aren’t you? Your eyeballs are popping out of your face.” She took Larry by the hand, leading him up the staircase. “Come on, baby. I’ll take care of you.” Trisha led Larry upstairs. I followed them to the foot of the staircase. Larry kept glancing back at me. He looked like a little boy. Only he was a great big man. And he still had the hammer in his hand.
The last time he looked back, I shook my head no. He nodded and the two of them disappeared.
I took a six-pack from the fridge and handed out beers. We sat on the couch, listening. It was eerily quiet upstairs. For a long time, not a sound. Then, suddenly, a thump. And then silence. “Jesus Christ,” I thought. “What have I done?” I walked to the staircase and advanced slowly, one step at a time. The bedroom door was shut. I stood outside the door. Another thump sounded. And then another. And then another and another, the pounding growing steadier and steadier. I heard Trisha groan. I waited. Then she moaned. Still I waited at the door until I heard what I was waiting for—the sound of her gasping, “Oh, Larry.” And then I heard Larry grunting, and muttering mindless phrases, total gibberish. The pounding grew and grew. “Jesus,” I thought, “he really will kill her if he keeps that up.” Trisha sounded like she was enjoying it, though.
I went back downstairs. Bashar and Dave were still staring at the wall. I laid down on the floor with a wool blanket, conscious every now and again of the endless pounding coming from upstairs. Time passed. I opened my eyes to a red glow coming through the windows. I shook off the blanket and looked outside. The storm had stopped. The entire world was frozen over, glittering in the rising sun. Music was still playing on the stereo. Upstairs was quiet. Dave was snoring on the couch. Bashar was standing in the middle of the room, playing air guitar.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he asked, meaning the dawn. His eyeballs were still huge.
“There’s no hundred grand,” I said. It was a statement.
“Sorry about that.”
Dave woke up when he heard us talking. He stood up, rubbing his jaw as he meandered over to the screen door. He slid it open and stepped outside. The wind blowing inside felt almost warm. “Hey, I just remembered that thing about Larry and Trisha,” he called, relieving himself on the frozen ground.
“I say we drop more acid,” Bashar said. “We’ll go all day. They say that’s the best thing to do when you miss a night of sleep.” He set down his air guitar and started rummaging in the freezer for the baggie.
Dave zipped up his pants. “The whole thing about last night, you know? Strange as it is, it makes you wonder.” He stood in front of the couch and examined it, a hand on his chin. “It really makes you wonder.” Dave put the cushions back in their proper position and sat down. The next thing I knew, he was asleep again with all his clothes on.
When I think about that night, what really bothers me isn’t the violence. We were young, bored, and stupid. And nature abhors a vacuum—especially a violence vacuum. What really sticks in my gut is the money. There was no hundred grand. Even now, I can’t get it out of my head. Me, lying there on that dirty carpet, staring at the ceiling, waiting for the sun to rise so we could drive to the bank and I could grab my money. Grab my easy way out of the Army. For a moment, I was home free, a bird in flight, soaring away from my cage, to build a nest somewhere new, unsullied. But it was just madness, that’s all.