They answer the fading green door side by side, like a scene out of an old sitcom. Leave it to Beaver, maybe? They’re smiling, but their smiles aren’t Beaver big. They’re just…there. The only kind of smile you can offer, sometimes. Richard Hanlon reaches out a hand to me and I shake it firmly. Melissa Hanlon puts her hands on my shoulders and just looks into my eyes. It couldn’t be more than a second or two, but it’s too much. I want to look away. Need to look away. To look anywhere else. I hold her gaze until she says, “Come in.” I follow them into the house and close the door behind me. The paint is a much fresher green on this side of the door, and the entryway smells of flowers. Lilies, maybe.
Inside the house, they shake my hand again and hug me and ask how I’m doing now that I’m home. They don’t ask about Peach. I start to give the same rehearsed spiel that I’ve given everyone so far when they ask me how I’m adjusting: I’m good, everything’s good, feeling good, glad to be home. I don’t get far into it, though, when I stop.
Peach’s parents are more or less how I’d imagined them to be, a good mom and dad who seem genuinely friendly and personable. They’re incredibly nice to me, and it’s probably not simply because of the reason for my visit. Peach was always a good guy, and I figured he’d probably learned it from someone. These are people who would be nice to visitors regardless of circumstances. It would have been a good family to grow up in. I don’t want to lie to them. I tell them the truth. I tell them how I’m really doing. They hug me again.
None of us seem to know what to do after that. We don’t want to talk about what we wanted to talk about. Not yet. Richard coughs and says something about the kitchen before turning and walking away. I ask Melissa if he’s all right.
“He’s fine, sweetie,” she says. “He’s just…” Her voice catches, and she turns to watch him disappear into the kitchen. “He’s fine,” she says again. Her smile brightens as she turns back to me, and she says, “Want to see some pictures?” I nod and she takes me to the mantel over the fireplace. It’s festooned with photographs they had of Peach from his time in the Army. He looks good in all of them, naturally. Tall and strong like his father. Blond and beautiful like his mother. There was his basic training platoon standing in ranks, there he was by himself in front of the flag right after entering basic, another of him in his dress uniform with all of his awards right before deployment. I’d told my mom that I lost my photos to keep her from asking for them.
Richard’s still gone in the kitchen, so Melissa leads me upstairs. I trail my hand along the worn railing, squeezing the varnished oak with each step, wondering if it would slow my ascent. When we reach the top, we turn into the first room on our right. The door’s open, though I think they usually keep it closed. The carpet in the room is thick, and the door has dragged a fresh semi-circle through the lush pile.
The room is neat and tidy, considering how full it is. A bookshelf lined with mysteries and thrillers sits next to the door, two bulky dressers monopolize the wall at the foot of his bed, and a cheap metal and glass work desk sits under the window on the other side of the bed. I doubt anything has changed since he’d left it when he drove to the airport after that last block leave before deployment. Melissa points out more pictures of him on the wall and closet door. Peach the high school track star, Peach the prom king, the Salvation Army volunteer. Ribbons and medals and plaques adorn his walls, joined by movie posters and concert handbills. This was the room of a person who had done so much with his life and had had plans on doing so much more after coming home from overseas. He was going to be a doctor, a lawyer, an astronaut, President. Someone who mattered.
I consider telling her about my own spartan childhood room, bare of almost any decoration or affirmation. The room of someone who was always planning on leaving, to get away and be alone somewhere else. I just tell her that everything looks really nice, just the way I’d expected it to be.
As we’re leaving the room, a picture on the dresser catches my eye. The picture is of Peach and me standing next to a Bradley in the motor pool down at Fort Hood, months before we were scheduled to leave for Iraq. The background is bright and sunny, and we’re both squinting and smiling in the sun. My smile looks forced, while Peach’s seems to come from the deepest part of himself. His smile dared the world, and it was obvious that the world would not accept it, not the dare of such a perfect person. That would be cruel. I can’t remember who’d taken the photo. At the stairs, I ask Peach’s mom where the bathroom is. She tells me, and I say I’ll meet her back downstairs in a minute.
The worst thing might have been when I finally came down the ramp at the airport after customs and re-entered the “real world.” The banners, balloons, and oh-so-earnest supporters of the troops were pleasant but annoying, though not as much as my inability to do anything about it. One older man stopped me as I was walking and shook my hand, thanking me for my service. He explained that his son never came home, so he made sure to be here for those that did. His eyes kept tearing up and his glasses fogged as he spoke, his mouth quivering slightly with the words. He didn’t let go of me until I gave a tight nod, as though my acceptance of his gratitude was a requirement for me to go on living my life. I steered around the rest of the crowds after that, my eyes gripping the floor in front of me, my hands tight on the straps of my bags.
I probably should have told my parents I was coming in, but then I would have expected them to be at the airport, and I would have been disappointed. The cabbie put my bags in the trunk without saying anything to me. Either he wasn’t thankful for my service, or he’d done this for too many other young men back from the desert and was now immune to the spectacle. Either way, I was grateful he ignored me.
Mom and dad were surprised when I rang the doorbell, of course. “Why didn’t you call ahead?” Mom asked. “We would have picked you up,” Dad said. I told them I’d forgotten their work schedules and didn’t want to leave a voicemail. We were all lying, but did we all know it? They sat me down in the living room and asked me all the important questions that didn’t actually matter: how was the flight, how long was my leave, what did I want to eat for dinner. I said I was good with whatever they had already planned on eating. We had meatloaf. It wasn’t good, but I smiled and took a second helping.
We laughed and chatted about the things that had changed in the old neighborhood, what had stayed the same. “The Rileys moved out and a new couple moved in last week,” Mom said. “Foreigners,” Dad said, as he took a drink from his third can of beer. I nodded in understanding and sighed inwardly.
When I went to bed that night in the bedroom I’d grown up in, I stared at the interplay of light and shadows on the ceiling as I tried to fall asleep. The noises in the walls and vents which had been so familiar while I was growing up were strangers now, dark voyeurs that watched and waited, plotting against me in their alien tongue. Even as I thought this, I knew that it was untrue; that was the kind of thing a crazy person would think. Then I remembered hearing once that crazy people don’t think they’re crazy, so I must be sane. Another hour went by before the voices in my walls had died down enough for me to fall asleep.
The next day at lunch with more of my family, my brother Dave shook my hand, clapped me on the back, and gave me hugs, like I was someone to look up to. Like I was someone he actually cared about. I never got along with him before I joined the Army. Being the younger brother, I was always the target. In high school, I weighed a hundred forty pounds at six one. Dave outweighed me by at least forty pounds, making me the easy mark, the dope, the punching bag. Now, after the addition of thirty pounds of muscle during basic training and another thirty-five from the deployment, I was the big brother. It felt good for a little while.
Until Dave said, “Did you ever kill anyone?” I must have given him a strange look because everyone at the table was staring at me. That, or they wanted to know, too. I didn’t say anything, just looked away and took another bite of sandwich made from leftover meatloaf. Dad changed the subject to college football, and I was forgotten for a while, which I appreciated. I was tired of the fawning and the pawing, like I was some idol to be worshiped. I didn’t ask to be treated like that, but there was nothing I could say. Blood bonds are strong.
I heard Mom on the phone later that afternoon as she called friend after friend to let them know the good news, that her boy was home from the war, safe and sound. “My little hero,” she said, over and over. After the third time hearing her recite the line, I wanted to slap the phone out of her hand and yell at her that I wasn’t a hero, I was lucky. I wanted to tell her that there’s nothing heroic about luck, about being two feet away from a guy who was laughing and eating just a second ago, but isn’t there anymore because he wasn’t as lucky as you. I wanted to tell her about Peach, about the screaming, about the blood, but I couldn’t do that to her. I kept my mouth shut and let her have her hero, if only over the phone lines with people I might never meet.
When I make it downstairs, Richard and Melissa ask me to join them for lunch, and I accept. Melissa asks if I like turkey sandwiches. They’re not my favorite, but of course I don’t tell her that. I just smile, say yes, and eat the sandwich and chips that she sets in front of me with as much gusto as I can manage. I imagine that my eating her food acts as sort of a surrogate for her feeding her own dead son, and I don’t want to deprive her of that. If she’d asked me to eat a lightbulb right then, I might have assented.
To Peach’s family, of course, he was just Steve. Steve the hometown hero, the great son, the future of the family. They might have known the story of the peaches, might have read it in one of the many letters he sent home, but they didn’t say anything about it. I like to think he didn’t tell them, that he kept at least that part of himself private, even if he seemed to tell them everything else. I sometimes made fun of him for writing home so much. It wasn’t that I thought he shouldn’t, but that I was jealous of the easy way he had with pen and paper, the way he was able to let out everything onto the page and put it in the mail. About a week before he’d died, he told me that he had sent home a letter almost every day, and two on the days following those that he missed.
I wrote five letters home my entire deployment. I know because the letters that I kept getting from my family became very insistent after a while for news from me, reminding me over and over that I needed to write back, that I hadn’t written enough, and how were they supposed to get any sleep if they didn’t know what was happening with me? I never knew what to say. “Dear Mom and Dad, it was hot again today, I didn’t die, love you.” Just didn’t have the kind of ring to it that I felt warranted a sixth letter. But Peach found something new in everything that we did, and he wrote it all down and sent it back to the states, a herald of his return in epistolary form.
I sometimes wondered if he was writing everything down so that he could maybe write a memoir someday, to let the world know what had happened to us over there. I hoped that wasn’t his plan. I wasn’t a fan of that kind of book. I always felt like the people who wrote them were capitalizing on the pain and hardships that their friends had gone through on the battlefield. The things that happened to us out there should have stayed with us, or else what was the point of our bonds of brotherhood? If the world hadn’t stood next to us on that line, why should the world be allowed to be a part of our pain?
We eat in silence for a while, everyone concentrating on their sandwiches, no one asking me what everyone knows is going to be asked. Finally, they exchange a look, and Richard asks if I could tell them about what had happened when Peach died. The Army had apparently just given them a canned response, saying he died a hero in service to his country. No other details. I’m not sure what to say, and I’m at last filled with regret for coming here in the first place. I can’t tell them what had happened, that the only reason I’m here instead of him was because of random chance. That wasn’t something people needed to know, was it? But why had I decided to visit them if not to tell them what had happened? Weren’t they entitled to some closure? Pat Tillman’s family had finally found out what happened, so shouldn’t the Hanlons?
I decide that I have to tell them. No. I was always going to tell them. But I can’t just start with that night. It would have been cruel to come into their home, eat their food, and start with how he died. Instead, I go back, back as far as I could remember, to the beginning of the deployment, and tell them everything I can recall about all the things that we’d been through. They nod here and there and allow me to digress into other stories as I remember details from previous events and have to backtrack to fill in gaps. Sometimes they add information that I don’t know or that had slipped my mind, things that they had gotten from Peach’s many letters.
We talk this way for hours, collaboratively patching together the story of Peach’s deployment, telling each other out loud the memoir that I would have hated to see on a shelf at the bookstore. Eventually, we reach the night he died, and I’m the only one left with anything to say.
I used to sleep like the dead. My head hitting the pillow was like a switch, and nothing would rouse me for eight solid hours. I don’t know if it was being back in my old house or just the memories of what had happened, but sleep would no longer embrace me. I lay awake in bed again, but this time the sounds I heard weren’t coming from the walls, they were coming from the desert, carried through my room on a dusty wind that only I could feel. They were whispers, memories, ghosts.
We had been on a mounted patrol for about three hours, outside the wire as soon as the sun went down behind the brown hills. The lieutenant decided it was time for a rest-and-recon, so we pulled the four Bradleys together into an iron cross, each armored personnel carrier pointing out from center. The vehicle gunners and commanders stayed in their turrets, scanning the surrounding area with infrared and thermals, while we dismounts sat in our troop compartments and chatted quietly or grabbed quick naps.
We called Specialist Hanlon Peach because, during our first drive into Iraq on our first deployment, he’d eaten an entire #10 can of peaches. Those are the big, bulk-weight cans they use in restaurants. He’d found it stashed in a field mess truck and spirited it away, packing it with the rest of his gear before we left Kuwait. Once on the road, he bet us he could eat them all in one sitting. Being bored, with nothing to do but sit for the next six hours, we took his bet and watched him down every bit of fruit in the can. Turns out, it’s not as difficult as you might think, once you drain all of the syrup. Of course, that’s still a lot of peaches, and since no one had offered the stipulation that he keep all of them down, we paid him his money as he sat in his seat, laughing and puking the chewed-up peach carcasses back into the can.
All we had for food during that nighttime patrol were MREs, though. There hadn’t been any peaches for months, but Peach didn’t care. He always attacked every meal as though it were his hated enemy, something to be put down without mercy or hesitation. No food was safe from his hunger, regardless of taste or temperature. He was the kind of guy that would trade you your unwanted side-dish pouches for his highly desirable dessert pouches. He said once that he never planned to eat another MRE again once he got back home, so he might as well eat as many of them as he could while he was in. I still think about that a lot. More than most things.
No one wanted to trade anything that night, everyone happy to be eating whatever he was holding. I don’t remember what I had. I think it was some kind of pasta, but I’m honestly not sure. I think about that a lot, too. Peach was biting into a cold beef patty, a smile on his face from a quiet joke told by one of the guys across from us when the RPG sliced through the Bradley’s hull and into Peach’s chest. He fell to the floor with the tip of the explosive protruding from the front of his body armor, the plastic-wrapped beef still clutched in his hand.
Our Bradley’s main gun opened up instantly, a staccato thumping that was soon joined by the other three vehicles’ guns. The 25-millimeter round is small compared to a full-sized tank round, just an inch wide, but it still does a lot of damage. I could only imagine the devastation the four guns were painting across the countryside as we sped away, back to base.
Within our vehicle, I could barely see or breathe. The RPG obviously hadn’t exploded, but its passage through the hull filled the crew compartment with acrid smoke, which suffocated and blinded us as it diffused across the red glare of the compartment’s night lights. I heard people shouting to each other, the turret crew asking for status reports from the dismounts, my squad leader wanting to know what was going on in the turret. I had fallen to the floor and now tried to cradle as much of Peach in my lap as I could. He still had part of a smile on his face. Not a big smile, though. I didn’t realize I was screaming until someone kicked me in the head.
Back at the FOB, it required a bit of convincing to allow the medics to take Peach’s body from me, but I eventually relented and watched as they carried him away on a stretcher, like they were just taking him to the med hooch to patch him up and he’d be right as rain. Someone put an arm around me and said something that was probably meant to console me. I don’t remember the words.
I tried to get Peach’s blood out of my uniform from that night in the following days, but there was nothing I could do. I thought about throwing it out, but it felt wrong. I just buried the shirt and pants at the bottom of my duffel and did laundry a bit more often than everyone else after that.
I didn’t realize I’d fallen asleep until I felt the sun shining on my face in the morning. Luckily, thinking about Peach before drifting off did nothing to affect my sleep, once I’d finally reached it. I didn’t have any dreams, which is better than I’ve heard from other guys I was deployed with. I wondered if I would eventually start having them, seeing the faces of my friends around me during horrible situations that I couldn’t do anything to change. Since I was already seeing these things while awake, I figured also seeing them in my dreams might push me over the edge into actual psychosis.
I decided to go for a run, maybe clear my head. It didn’t always work, but sometimes I could drown out the things in my head with the outside world. I didn’t have any civilian exercise clothes, so I pulled on my PTs and headed out the door. I hadn’t made it a block before someone gave me a shout and an encouraging thumbs-up. They might have said thanks. I didn’t want to know. I ran faster and didn’t look back. I tried to leave everything behind me as I ran, all the things I didn’t want to have in my life and my mind, tried to just let them ooze out of me with my sweat. The problem with running in circles, though, is that eventually you end up where you started, and as I got home, the things I’d been running from were waiting there patiently for me.
I ran up to my room, stripping off the PTs as I entered. I threw them towards my duffel bag next to the bed, but instead of landing on the dirty green canvas, they hit the faded gray carpet. My duffel was gone. I knew immediately what had happened. It was Saturday, which had been laundry day at my parents’ house since long before I was born. My mom must have taken the duffel downstairs to the laundry room to wash my clothes, the way she’d done for me as a child. I was home safe, things were getting back to normal, and she was going to make sure that they stayed that way.
When I got downstairs, the laundry room was vacant, my mom off on some other errand. The empty duffel lay on the tile floor, its yawning mouth open in a silent shout of protest. The dryer was running, and I could hear the familiar sounds of my uniform shirts and pants tumbling against the steel drum as it turned. I opened the dryer door and my clothes spiraled out towards me. Most were faded from the sun, but one set was dark and fresh-looking, having been worn and laundered only once before being stuffed into the bottom of my duffel. I held the shirt up to the light, but I couldn’t see Peach’s blood anywhere in the fabric.
I tell Richard and Melissa about the patrol, about stopping to rest, our conversations, the cold MRE beef patty. I tell them about the RPG and how senseless it was. About how I sat on the floor of the Bradley with their dead son’s head in my lap, my tears on his face. I don’t tell them about the blood on my uniform, about trying to erase that stain, about being unable to remove the last evidence of Peach from myself. I don’t tell them about my mom doing it for me without asking, oblivious to what her help was destroying.
We’re all crying at this point, holding each other as I relive the trauma once more, only this time they’re experiencing it themselves and are there to help me through it. If I couldn’t have Peach there to hold me, his parents would have to do. They are him because he was them.
Then Richard asks what I’ve been dreading most, and I don’t even know why. “Did Steve say anything?” he says, his voice catching. “Before…” He can’t finish, but it’s obvious what he means.
I hesitate, because I don’t want to cause them any more pain, and because I don’t know how to say what I want them to hear. But they insist, plead, and I relent. I tell them that he tried to say something to me, but that he wasn’t strong enough to get the words out before he died. They cry a little more, and I cry because they’re crying, and we continue to hold each other. It’s nice, something I didn’t know I needed, but now that I have it, I don’t want to let go.
When we’re done crying and hugging, we release one another and dry our faces, putting on small, but honest, smiles for what we’ve gone through together.
“Do you want to stay the night?” Melissa asks. “Or, at least, stay for dinner?”
I do, I want to stay here forever, I want to live with these people that created Steve and his smile, but I decline, saying that I want to get back on the road. They understand and send me away with more hugs, a bag of homemade cookies, and a promise from me to keep in touch with them. I tell them I will before I get back in my dad’s car and drive away from the Hanlons’ house.
As I turn the corner at the end of the block, I pull the photo of Peach and me out of my pocket. They had so many other pictures of him, and this one seemed like it was meant for me. Everyone deserves to have the memories that matter to them, and this was mine. I don’t think they’d mind me having it. They’re genuinely nice people. That might be why I still feel bad about not telling them the truth about Peach’s last words. It might have been good to tell them the words that he was able to whisper into my ear as his life slipped out of him and into my arms there in the acrid, red darkness. But that was my memory, and it had nothing to do with them. It was my pain, and Peach’s, something we shared with each other and no one else.
Damion Meyer was an infantryman deployed to Iraq for two tours from 2003 to 2005. He received his Master of Arts in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and is currently working on a semi-autobiographical novel about his experiences during deployment. He has had work published by Action-a-GoGo, Six Word Memoirs, and The Wrath-Bearing Tree. He can be reached on Twitter at @dpaulmeyer80.
© Variant Literature Inc 2021