by Christine Rice
The first thing Marine Guard William Goynes, Jr. noticed when he stepped off the plane and onto American soil for the first time in four hundred and forty-four days was his wife’s belly. It strained the buttons of her cream wool coat like she’d squirreled away an enormous nut for the winter. He wanted to ask, Who knocked you up? But how do you ask your wife such a delicate question with a flag-waving crowd of family and friends and hangers-on chanting “USA! USA! USA!” and cameras and mics and that hot brunette reporter from Channel 12 now inches from your face and Gwen throwing her arms around your neck to plant a wet kiss on your lips?
Issue #127 soundtrack: Rick Rude “Sap”
On the way home from Bishop Airport, the glow from the hero’s welcome melting in the furnace blast of reality, snow falling outside like he’d become trapped on the wrong side of a snow globe, his dad driving, his kid sister in the passenger seat, he and Gwen both tucked in the back of the old Buick Roadmaster, she talked a blue streak. It was nervous talk and he knew, from the looks his dad shot him in the rearview, that she wouldn’t stop until they got to Ponderosa. As Gwen’s grackle-chatter continued, his sister turned to fix an insistent stare at Will and he noticed that, during his absence, she’d transformed from a slouching, angry teen into an elegant woman.
Breaking her stare, he buried his face in Gwen’s hair, breathed in the powdery scent of it, felt its silkiness on his lips. Everything was coming at him too fast. He wanted to cry. He wanted to confess. He wanted to tell her what he’d done. He wanted to know what she’d done. He wanted to be forgiven and to forgive her.
His dad’s gnarled farmer’s knuckles, big as walnuts, gripped the steering wheel as he turned into Ponderosa, in front of a restaurant. Throwing the Roadmaster into PARK, he turned to his son. “You two have a nice dinner. Talk. Pick you up in a few hours.”
Alone, side by side at the salad bar, Will stared at his wife’s pregnant profile and wondered who she was. Besides her body, he knew little about her. They’d met only two months before he left for basic training, and, immediately after that, he became the youngest Marine assigned to the Iranian Embassy.
The night they met, he and his buddies used fake IDs to get into a popular yet skanky disco and, because he knew nothing of hard liquor, he pounded gin gimlets. With every drink, the floors glowed brighter. A huge disco ball reflected diamonds of light and Donna Summer’s voice, like sex through speakers, became his personal soundtrack. He’d fallen into a fabulous, almost unbelievable dream where Gwen appeared suddenly, insistently, as if she’d been there forever. After he bought her a few drinks, she dragged him onto the dance floor where her tits bounced magnificently (when she wasn’t rubbing against him) and, later in a dark corner of the bar, she let him pop one in his mouth.
The next day, his head delicate as an eggshell, he found her phone number in his jeans pocket. From the moment she picked up, she talked too fast—like a used car salesman trying to divert your attention from a busted frame. He kept asking, What? and only hung up after requesting a proper date the next night.
Everything with Gwen moved fast. Having sex with her felt like being tossed off a cliff; gravity evaporated until he hit the water hard, went deep, tumbled uncontrollably beneath the surface. He willingly lost himself in the tumult until, oxygen starved and weary, he clawed his way back to the surface. Sadly, he mistook this direct flight to sex heaven for love.
It wasn’t until their third date that he noticed her eyes: bright, clear blue, and big with dark black lashes. The rest of her seemed relatively unremarkable: small lips, stringy hair, a high forehead, stooped shoulders, thick ankles. But those eyes and breasts were something else.
Today, at Ponderosa, Gwen wore a gold locket. The size of a silver dollar, it rested in the very pale indentation just above her sternum, between two perfectly curled tendrils of hair.
It looked new so he asked, “Who gave it to you?”
Gwen’s head snapped to him, her eyes darkened, “What?”
“Oh.” She relaxed. “Got it for Christmas.”
“Yeah? From who?”
“My sister. It’s our wedding picture.”
He smiled quickly. He didn’t like his teeth. They were too small and closely set.
She opened the locket for him. His head had been sliced in half so that just the right side of his mouth smiled down at her. Her entire face looked not up at him but off to the side as if there were someone more important, someone who’d just walked by and taken her attention.
They made their way back to the table and sat across from each other. And then Gwen did something that Will did not expect: she bent her head to the pale mound of iceberg lettuce, motioned for Will’s hand, and said, very quickly:
Thank you for the food we eat.
Thank you for the birds that sing.
Thank you, God, for everything. Amen.”
Without lifting her head, she immediately began stuffing salad into her mouth. Will watched the perfectly straight part in her hair move up and down like a fishing line over the salad.
“So—” Will knew it wasn’t the right question, that it was the coward’s question, that it was too open-ended and wouldn’t produce the desired results, but he asked anyway, “What’s new?”
Gwen looked up, panicked, and stood too suddenly. “Excuse me! Everyone!” She tapped a knife against her water glass. “The man sitting across from me, here, is Marine Guard Will Goynes, Jr. just now returned from Eye-raq!”
A bald man, wedged tightly in the booth behind Will, asked, “Eye-raq?”
Will turned, “Iran.”
Gwen continued, “Held four hundred-some days by the Iraqians. A real American hero!”
The customers, about thirty folks intent on choking down some U.S.-standard bovine, looked up from their plates. Within seconds, they’d pushed themselves away from their meals to give Will a standing ovation.
Soft-spoken and polite, Will raised his hand as if waiting to be called on in school. Gwen nodded, “Go ahead, Will.”
Will stood. Everyone cheered. He wanted them to stop. He wanted to tell them what had really happened: that, as the youngest Marine at the Embassy, his captors targeted him to supply information. When he repeatedly gave his name, rank, service number, and date of birth, they handcuffed, blindfolded, and threw him in solitary. They told him they would gouge out his eyes, boil his feet in oil, chop off his thieving American hands. After a few months, they knew his sister’s address at nursing school and promised to dismember her and send her body parts to his father’s farm. After eighty days in a pitch-dark, freezing cell, he started hallucinating, crying, screaming to get out. After more than a hundred days, he stopped moving—just curled in a ball and tried to stay alive. They let him out after two hundred and fifty-one days on two conditions—that he rat out the hostages who spoke Farsi and promise to reveal the code the other hostages used to communicate.
Gwen tapped her glass with her knife to quiet the crowd, leaned over, and demanded, “Go ahead, Will. Say something.”
Will stepped forward—all six-foot-three of him with a freshly-shaven head of dark stubble, round, sweet, freckled cheeks, and huge ears—and cleared his throat. He couldn’t look up from the white and black tiled floor and realized he had nothing to say. Finally, after a prolonged period of licking his lips and swallowing hard, he managed, “It was Iran. Not Iraq.”
The crowd waited expectantly and, when nothing more seemed forthcoming, the embarrassment folded them back in their seats. When Will sat down, Gwen clapped enthusiastically until everyone joined her. To his ears, the clapping sounded uninspired and slow, like the tapping he had been forced to decode. It triggered a dull, pulsing migraine he’d been fighting all day. Will looked at the bloody remains of his porterhouse—the too-white gristle, the curly, charred fat around the edges—hung his head, and began to cry.
His mother, who’d died when he was fifteen, always said, Know thyself.
When he left for his assignment in Iran, he’d thought he had. Now, he didn’t know who he was. Or what he’d become. He kept seeing his interrogator, the one with the sleepy eye and corn kernel mole above his lip. He kept hearing himself telling that guy the secrets he knew about the people he was supposed to protect. He’d lost himself in those tellings. Didn’t recognize himself at all. Now, he realized (and not for the first time) he didn’t know Gwen. Couldn’t tell you her favorite color or dessert, if she drank tea or coffee, if she smoked, if she was a side-sleeper, what she feared. He’d only known her body, and certainly not even that for very long. And after what he’d learned about himself, that didn’t seem nearly enough.
He’d ratted out the CIA guys posing as diplomats. But how did his captors know about his family? Who’d ratted him out?
On the drive home, in the back seat of the old Roadmaster, with the snow falling more heavily now, the wind bullying it into commas that straddled the center line, Gwen shared the patriotic scene in Ponderosa. Every once in a while, Rebecca turned to look at Will. They were Irish twins born one year and one month apart. Shared the same smattering of freckles across their noses, the wide, doe-eyed stare some mistook for stupidity, the widow’s peak of black hair neither could tame no matter how much of their father’s Brylcreem they used.
The story kept going until Rebecca hooked her arm over the seat and looked from Gwen to her brother, “Now, who’s the father of that baby? It can’t be Will. Unless you froze his sperm and turkey basted.”
Gwen gasped as if she’d been hooked in the cheek. “Yes. This. Well …”
Rebecca made a dramatic half-moon with an open palm and pointed to Gwen’s stomach, “Yes. That.”
There was no heat in Rebecca’s voice. No righteous anger or indignation. She knew her brother hadn’t asked. Wouldn’t be able to.
They hit a slick patch and, for a split second, the Roadmaster pointed slightly off-course, became suspended, in motion but motionless, gliding, weightless.
Gwen dug her fingernails into Will’s forearm and didn’t let up, even when the tires firmly gripped the road. He knew how she felt. He’d been sliding, unanchored for what seemed like forever.
“Yes,” Gwen kept her eyes glued to the back of Mr. Goynes’s gray head, “Well, while you were gone, I found Jesus—”
“Jesus?” Rebecca rolled her eyes, “Well that explains it.”
His Dad piped up, “You don’t say?”
“Please,” Will began, “let her finish.”
“I met someone and I’d like a divorce.” As soon as she said it, she adjusted herself away from Will as if he might pull her back into him. “I just didn’t want to ruin your big homecoming. I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know. After all you’ve been through. I’m—”
Will held up his hand. He didn’t need to hear it, didn’t want an apology. Didn’t know how to accept it. He wasn’t angry or hurt or humiliated. He didn’t hate her. He simply wanted Gwen and her worn overnight bag out of the Roadmaster. He wanted to crawl into his own bed and sleep until the pounding in his brain, the vice grip of revelation, the sidelong looks from his fellow Marines, the slaps on the back from his captors, the whispering of the diplomats, all of it, simply faded into the terrible, hazy mist of yesterday.
Christine Rice is the author of the debut novel Swarm Theory (University of Hell Press/April 2016). Stories from Swarm Theory have been published in Roanoke College's Roanoke Review, American University of Beirut’s Rusted Radishes, Farleigh Dickinson University’s Literary Review, Chicago Literati, and Bird’s Thumb. Her essays, interviews, and longform journalism have appeared in the Big Smoke, the Millions, the Chicago Tribune, Detroit’s Metro Times, the Good Men Project, the Urbaness.com, CellStories.net, and F Magazine, and her radio essays have been produced by WBEZ Chicago.Christine is an adjunct professor in the Department of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago, the managing editor of Hypertext Magazine, and the director of Hypertext Studio Writing Center. For more, visit christinemaulrice.com or follow her on Twitter.
Max Passler is a poet and artist. He lives in a village near Waterloo, Belgium. He earned his B.A. in Music, Creative Writing and Art History at The Open University. For more, visit the artist online at maxpassler.com.
Rick Rude is a four-membered creature based in Dover, New Hampshire, whose tattered robe, four-string guitar, and sand-filled shoes are surrounded by a haze of sweet smoke and empty beer cans. The band is currently on tour; check out rickrudeparty.com for dates/locations, and visit the band on Bandcamp or Facebook.