From Armies of God: Earlier Draft
He woke miles from the sun, at sea, again, and chasing a dawn that cut along the horizon like light beneath a door. Woke early because this was the time one might be alone with the dark, for—he realized this as he rose from the musty recliner and walked toward the front windows that opened over the porch—for there was no sun, no dawn, and he was not at sea but alone, hours from light.
He collapsed back into his chair.
Christ. It was starting. It was starting and they were back in the Higgins boats and on the way to the island. He watched a plume of water tower and spread in a fishnet of dull light and knew that in a few minutes Pete Harris would be dead, decapitated by a .30 caliber round, headless and bleeding in a slosh of diesel and seawater, and when the old man shut his eyes tonight Harris would die again, and tomorrow the same still, his dreams a billion acts of resurrection. He sat there and thought: Watch. No, don’t watch. He forgot which. And then Pete Harris’s head separated cleanly and instantly from his body. And then again. And then—
He needed to get up.
He needed get up and stop this shit before it made him any crazier. He reached for the TV remote but did nothing with it, thought he might find the highlights of a ballgame, but knew all he would find was another war. Three Marines dead in Fallujah. A car bomb in Baghdad. Another woman crying while some ambulance with its Red Crescent wailed up another street. Enough already. He shook the sleep from his body, stood, stiff as a rake, and made his way to the kitchen to put on the coffee.
From the window, the old man could just see the roofline raked against the flint of the morning sky, stood there over the sink with a Styrofoam cup of orange juice and watched the lights diffuse through the distant trees. Someone was up at the old place, Dallas, he supposed, though the old man had no idea why his oldest boy would be out at this hour. When the lights disappeared, he poured out his juice, rinsed the cup, and placed it in the drying rack. His dead wife sat at the table and spooned cornbread out of a glass of buttermilk.
“You hungry they leftovers in the Frigidaire,” she said.
“I ain’t hungry.”
“Let me fix you something.”
In the living room, he stared for a moment at a portrait of his sons—Dallas, Tillman, and Malcolm, stair-stepped and smiling—then walked down the hall to the bathroom where he washed his face. He tried to pray but couldn’t find them, whatever words he sought, standing so still he could hear clouds pass overhead. He dried his cheeks and stared at his reflection. He looked disgusted with himself.
“Say something,” he said. “You old fool.”
He fixed a cup of coffee and fought with the door chain, hands nerved with shallow pain so that he undid the lock with his thumbs, took his mug onto the porch, settled into a rocking chair, and covered his legs with a throw. She was near. He couldn’t see her, but she was near. Her fragrance today was White Shoulders and baby powder. Other days she was woodsmoke and the cool dirt in the crawlspace beneath the house. That was the smell the night before she died, the night he had brought her a glass of buttermilk only to find her mounted up in her four-poster bed as if already gone to that place across the water. The smell always came first, sometimes days before she arrived. But he was a patient man.
It was not yet daylight though moonlight moved a single cloud shadow across the open fields. Along the road a pickup pushed its headlamps, the highway ghost-lit and then not.
When the truck passed he closed his eyes and was back in the dim troop hold, sweating machine oil and sitting still enough to feel the submarine groan of the ship’s engines. East, aboard the USS Hermitage. Pulling dawn from the horizon and watching it falter and fail in the convoy’s green wash. Seven thousand marines two days out of Pearl Harbor on the way to New Caledonia. The old man two weeks shy of his eighteenth birthday and sleeping on the third tier bunk beneath a tangle of metal pipes.
There were days he would wait out the steady unclocking night only to watch the blue figures rise from the dust to walk again. The yard full of ammo crates and the beach lined with dead children dressed in fatigues, a long row face down as far as he could see. Graves Registration brushed sand from their faces, while up and down the beach the children washed up like driftwood. There were days he watched them scurry along the sand asking about mammas and buddies and had anybody seen their outfit? Half-men, columns of nerve and heart’s blood. Dead fish floating in shell craters foamed with rainbows of diesel while the children wash ashore.
Oh, God. Oh, Jesus.
But Christ is not with him.
Christ comes later, wading ashore at Okinawa, the Son of God headshot and caught by the incoming tide. For years the old man drank his Early Times and thought of Jesus in the pink surf. He watched his wife and sons toss in their beds while he slept in the cool insect mud then woke to shoulder his rifle across another barren ridge. The dead SeaBees wearing the blush of three-day beards. The dead Japs curled fetally, burnt out of pill boxes by demo teams, and charred until they were nothing but zippers and the melted eyelets of boots. Their hands clawed inward like dead spiders.
Okinawa. Them cliffs, son. It got ugly there.
He understood death on a cellular level, and put one hand on his abdomen to feel it circulate, just as he had felt it circulate for the last sixty years. He was dying. That much wa s clear to him. When he stood in front of the bathroom mirror and probed his abdomen he felt a ridgeline of tender bulges. He had pretty much ceased eating, and when he slept he was back on the island, crawling over the volcanic rock that shredded his hands and knees, so he was pretty much done with sleep, too. He tried to stay awake and found he didn’t have to try so hard.
Another old son of a bitch, he thought, gone and outlived his usefulness. The gutter clogged with leaves and not a damn thing he could do about it. Besides the land, he didn’t even own anything worth fighting over. In the shed were a few tools no one would ever touch. In the deep freeze, a box of corndogs no one would ever eat. But it wasn’t the obsolescence that bothered him. It was the diapers he feared most, the adult undergarments matted to his bony shanks like he was an infant, the green shit running down his leg. He’d put a rifle slug in his head before he let that happen. He knew enough to know it had to be on your own terms. You had to own it.
When he looked over he found his dead wife beside him, a shawl across her dead legs. Of course—today, his son, his youngest boy was returning. He had almost forgotten, but now it broke in him like a star, all crooked silver light.
“He’s on his way by now,” she said.
“Probably,” he said.
“Getting him a bus ticket. Be here in two day’s time. And let me tell you something,” she said. “I’m glad it come out like it did.”
He drank his coffee, addressed the cold dark that seemed to both begin and end a few inches from his face. “Getting yourself half killed don’t make you no more a Christian than the next man.”
“It don’t make you no more in the eyes of God.”
“You hush that talk,” she said. “You think the Lord ain’t got you both on His mind?”
“The Lord ain’t never said boo to me.”
“The Lord ain’t never said jack shit.”
He could sense the island beginning to coalesce out of the lifting fog. He would be on the beach soon. He would be needed.
“You got a black heart,” she said.
“You got the devil in you like a worm.”
“It don’t matter no how.”
“No,” she agreed, “not now it don’t.”
It was freezing and what mattered was coming. Day was coming.