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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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The War After

 

by Michael McGehee

 

 

 

                Dwayne Pulaski punched out of work early with an ache in the old wound. He leaned against the timeclock wall and massaged the right side of his lower back, fingers digging into scar tissue and belts of muscle inflamed from a hard day's labor, but it brought no relief. There was only one kind of relief that worked, only one person who knew about the pain. On the way out he passed Jimmy at his machine, his shirt darker than usual with sweat.

 

                "Crystal's in labor," Dwayne said, but the noise of industrial fans masked his words.

 

                "What?" Jimmy said.

 

                "Crystal's in labor," he said louder.

 

                "Who isn't?" Jimmy took off his gloves.

 

                "I'm not kiddin' around," Dwayne said. "Just got off the phone with Denise."

 

                "No shit!" Jimmy said.

 

                "Tell Rick I gotta go to the hospital, would ya?" Rick was the foreman.

 

                "For a fee," Jimmy said.

 

                "Once an asshole always an asshole," Dwayne said. "Besides, haven't I already given you enough money?"

 

                Jimmy grew sober. "Need anything for the road?"

 

                "Maybe a fix," Dwayne said.

 

                "Got some in my car. Cheap." Jimmy took off his goggles, and they walked into the army of cars in the parking lot, the sun glaring at them from every windshield. The pavement seemed soft as clay, and the shrubs in the islands that dotted the landscape utterly still, frozen in the windless heat. Seagulls crisscrossed a damp sky thousands of miles from any ocean. The two men finally stopped at a spartan Jeep reminiscent of the CJ4s Dwayne occasionally drove in the Marines, except this one enclosed them with a top that turned the inside into an oven.

 

                "Roll down your window, would ya? I'm cookin'," Jimmy said.

 

                "Almost as bad as the bush," Dwayne said.

 

                "Almost." Jimmy reached under the driver's seat and gave Dwayne a small pouch tied off with a rubber band. "Still does the trick, don't it?" Jimmy said.

 

                "Only thing I cared to bring back," Dwayne said.

 

                "Couldn't bring back the whores, I guess. Not at those prices."

 

                "They didn't hit hard enough, anyway."

 

                "Some could hit pretty damn good," Jimmy said.

 

                "Not like this shit." Dwayne handed over the cash.

 

                "Whatcha think?" Jimmy said, reaching into the glove box for supplies.

 

                "I'm already late."

 

                "Look at you," Jimmy said. "Already a picture of fatherly responsibility."

 

                "Go fuck yourself," Dwayne said.

 

                "Safest sex there is. You should know." Jimmy clapped Dwayne on the shoulder. "You'll make a helluva father."

 

                Dwayne opened the door partway. "What if I don't?"

 

                "The kid's coming no matter what."

 

                "You know what I was thinking about when Denise told me Crystal's water broke and they were going to the hospital?"

 

                Jimmy shrugged.

 

                "This," Dwayne said, holding the baggie between them.

 

                "So?"

 

                "I'll ruin them."

 

                "Says who?"

 

                "There's things you don't know about. Rick's talked to me a couple times," Dwayne said. He lifted his saturated shirt and fingered the mound of proud flesh gathered around the old ache. "I'm losing it."

 

                "Losing balance—a wobble, nothing more," Jimmy said.

 

                "You ever think of Ray?"  Dwayne lit a cigarette.

 

                "Not much. Gimme one of those."

 

                "I can still hear him," Dwayne said.

 

                "What's he saying? He still going on about Mohammed Ali?"

 

                "No," Dwayne said. "Just the screams."

 

                "Guy was a scream of laughter," Jimmy said. "And a damn good card player."

 

                "I don't think he ever had to buy cigarettes," Dwayne said.

 

                "What'd he smoke?"

 

                "These," Dwayne said, eyeballing the cigarette in his fingers. "Remember when he relieved Porter of his bike?"

 

                "Porter was a sore-ass loser," Jimmy said.

 

                "Only one thing that Porter hated worse than losing that bike."

 

                "The size of his own prick?"

 

                Dwayne laughed. "That—and losing it to Ray."

 

                "The better man, hands down," Jimmy said. "Luckier, too."

 

                "Ray was lucky. Till he wasn't." The dead end of the cigarette fell into Dwayne's lap.

 

                "It ain't your fault."

 

                "The screams don't go away," Dwayne said. He ran his thumb across an oil stain on the knee of his jeans, the biggest of many similar markings which Crystal had unsuccessfully tried to scrub away.

 

                "You can't do it," Jimmy said.

 

                "Do what?"

 

                "Go AWOL."

 

                "I'm not some fucking deadbeat."

 

                "Look. I saw you this way once before—after Ray, when you were laid up in Saigon. You know how close you were."

 

                "Close," Dwayne said.

 

                "You didn't run then, and you won't now." Jimmy hit Dwayne's shoulder with the back of his hand. "And yeah. Crystal and the kid will never really know about Ray and the rest of it, the shit we saw, the shit we did. They'll never get it. Would you even want them to, anyway? We find ways to handle it."

 

                "Ways to forget it."

 

                "All the same," Jimmy said.

 

                "I gotta go meet my kid," Dwayne said, putting out his cigarette in the ashtray beneath the radio. "Don't forget to tell Rick."

   

                "To fuck himself?"

 

                "That too." 

         

                "I'll stop by sometime soon to say hello to the kiddo," Jimmy said.