This is one of two short stories I submitted to the Richard Hugo House winter new works contest. The other is currently on the Stories page.
Morning in America
I’m a real American, the kind who was born here. Fought for my country in ‘Nam. Came back to rejection and scorn. Hit the bottle. Hit the streets. Hit the skids. Got picked up by a fellow vet, dried out, propped up, and got a job working for the V.A. Now I help other vets.
Had a wife, she couldn’t take it, and she split with our two daughters. I don’t blame her. Someday I’d like to see them again, but it’s up to them. I know what I did, and why they had to go. If I were them I wouldn’t want to find me, or forgive me, but I still hope they do. Soon.
My mother couldn’t take it either, she washed her hands of me after my third felony arrest (thank god they didn’t have three strikes back then, or I’d still be rotting in jail). My dad tried to stand by me, but his ticker blew up on him about fifteen years ago. I like to think he’d be proud of who I am now.
Booze and drugs were my friends for a while, but they don’t stick around very well, either. So now it’s just me, and my cat. General Westmoreland I call him. That’s ironic; if you don’t know why, go Google ™ it or whatever you all do nowadays to look shit up. I use the computer at the vet hospital because I have to, for my job. Otherwise it’s not for me. I’d rather read a book, or talk to someone – you know, face to face. In the real world.
My dad always used to tell me who the real Americans were. His father was Irish, and came over here when being Irish was like being black was later on. Not good. (I think I’m supposed to say African-American, not black, but that takes too long.) So my dad worked really hard to leave the Irish in him behind, and be a real American. It made him uniquely qualified, he said, to determine other real Americans. Real Americans worked hard, followed the rules, raised their families to be god-fearing, and didn’t ask the government for help. I think that was the hardest thing for him, when I needed “assistance” to pay my rent and buy food. He didn’t have enough money to help me himself, not very much, and it really hurt him to see me cash a government check every month. Still, he mostly kept quiet about it, at least to me.
Not that my dad feared god all that much, judging by the way he sinned regularly, but they were the usual sins – drank too much on weekends, slept with his friends’ wives once or twice, cheated on his taxes in small and petty ways. How did he reconcile that with “following the rules,” you wonder? I wonder that too, but I never asked him. We didn’t talk like that. If I had asked him, he probably would’ve smacked me upside the head and told me to mind my own business. Then he would’ve poured me a beer and put a football or baseball or hockey game on the television, and started in complaining about all the non-Americans on the teams. Baseball really turned his gut. “They’re all from those poor-ass tin pot dictatorships south of the border these days,” he’d say. “Not a real American on the field, and they call it the national pastime.”
I loved my dad, if you can’t tell. I don’t mean to imply I didn’t. Even when he’d offer me a beer and I’d remind him for the umpteenth time that I was an alcoholic, in AA, five or six or whatever years sober. He didn’t mean anything by it. He was trying to show that he loved me too.
Now my ticker’s running down, like his, they tell me. I had my first heart attack last year, and there’s not a lot they can do. I try to eat right and exercise but it’s not in my nature. General Westmoreland and I mostly hang out and watch baseball or old movies on television. For a cat, he’s pretty affectionate, and by that I mean he’ll curl up next to me on my couch if I promise not to touch him. The docs say I might have six months or six years. I know it might be six minutes. Still it doesn’t bother me much. I’ve done my bit, I guess, and if my heart gives out tonight, I can go in peace. General Westmoreland knows what to do – he’s already courting my neighbor, a widow who likes to put cat food out for the raccoons. Soft hearts. Cats can always spot ‘em.
I thought about my dad the other day, when a kid came into my office for a screening interview. This kid got back from Iraq about six months ago, and his wife sent him to the vet hospital, he said, because she’s just about at the end of her rope with him. His drinking, his anger, and his refusal to talk to her about any of it. It’s such a typical story, I still have a hard time not getting pretty fucking angry myself, the way we send these kids back to the regular world, leaving them on their own to navigate the road from hell to home without any help unless they ask for it. And everything we beat into them in training and on their tours tells them not to ask for help, not that kind, anyway. What do we expect?
This kid, he just had his twenty-fifth birthday, he sits down in my office and tells me about his wife, and his drinking, and his anger. My generation, we didn’t talk this easily, but he pours it all out for me. His buddies who died or were crippled for life after driving their ill-equipped Jeeps across improvised explosive devices. His guilt at leaving the rest of them behind. His pride at having defended his country, done what he could do. His fear that he’ll never be the guy he was before he went over there. His frustration with his wife, who doesn’t understand any of this, and just wants life to go back to normal. His terror that he wouldn’t recognize normal if he saw it, that maybe normal doesn’t even exist for him anymore. He tells me booze helps, but not that much.
And he tells me about his dad. His dad, who never thought he should go into the service to begin with, but is trying to help as much as he can. Giving them some money to tide them over until the kid can find a job. Standing by him while he tries to get his life back into some kind of order.
His dad, who was born in Mexico, and came here illegally with his wife and six-month old son about twenty-four and a half years ago.
Shit, I thought, this kid isn’t even a real American.
General Westmoreland is telling me he needs his cat chow. He’s wrong, of course, he’s already been fed once tonight, but these days, I don’t keep him on that strict a schedule.
I just hope we’ll both wake up in the morning.