Phil

Korean War Memorial in snow

Today is December 1, 1950. My birthday. I am now twenty-four years old. There’s been difficulty getting mail in what with the cold. Thirty below some nights, or so they say. Haven’t heard from Genevieve in weeks. No more, “Dearest Phil,” “My Love Phil,” “Sweetest Phil.” Nothing but the blinding cold here in this godforsaken place, this Chosin Reservoir. They call us The Chosin Few. Ha.

Most days are spent rotating between who stands in front of the tailpipe, our vehicles kept running most of the time just to keep them from breaking down. One day they gave us hot cereal over at regimental headquarters. The hot milk was frozen solid within thirty feet of walking away from HQ. I mostly just eat Tootsie Rolls now. They’re the only thing that’ll melt in your mouth, that won’t freeze solid.

The Chinese have been attacking for days now. Nights, rather. They wait till we’re sleeping, play recordings of babies crying, women screaming. Lie in wait till one of our men goes to investigate, gives up our position. They gun the poor bastard down, come for us. I’ve heard that the chinks get hopped up on morphine before they attack. Lets them take shot after shot before going down. Fucking animals. I got in a few firefights, tracers the only thing illuminating all that dark. No way of knowing if I got any confirmed kills, but I like to think I did. Hardest part about it was keeping your hands steady in the cold, heat sapped from your fingers in seconds.

I lie awake at night, my breath disappearing into the wind, icicles clotting my beard, my nose. In my breast pocket, frozen solid, is the letter where Genevieve first admitted she loved me. Whether it was out of fear she’d never see me again or something else, I’m not sure. But I know I need to see her again. Fucking terrified I won’t. They say the Chinese like to come in three waves. First one carries rifles. Second follows up with grenades. And the third. The third just scavenges from the dead. These chinks fight like it’s their homeland. You’d never know the difference.

I want to have children. Grandchildren. I don’t want to die alone in this frozen hell, eyes glazed over with ice. I want to see my mom. Even my drunk of a dad. All that petty bullshit between he and I doesn’t seem so important anymore. If I could just touch Genevieve’s hand. Last I heard from her, she’d been having more spells. No sleep for days. Screaming at her parents. No one knows what it is. They have her on pills, but they don’t seem to be working. If I could just be there with her, she’d be okay.

I don’t know how many more times I can survive these attacks. Seems I haven’t slept in days, each day melting into the next. Melting. If only all of this could melt. The cold’s worse than the Chinese, and it never stops coming. I take naps during the day whenever my superiors aren’t around. It seems like we’re all just waiting to die. They’ve surrounded us. We’re outnumbered. I don’t know if I’ll make it out of this, but I’ll sure as hell try.

It’s nearly dusk now, pepto pink Korean sky stretching out everywhere around us. There’s an eerie hush, the snow collecting all of the sounds and hiding them from us. I’m so hungry. Probably malnourished. But that’s okay. Just as long as I can operate my trigger finger.

I’m rested now. Ready. I don’t know how I know tonight will be it, but I just do. So I stand guard and watch as the sun disappears from the sky.

No recordings of babies crying, of women screaming. Nothing but less than silence, the lack of sound itself absorbed into the snow. I ready my M1 Garand. Exhale. Tap the letter in my breast pocket to make sure it’s still there.

And then their battle cries. And then their uniforms, tan against white, coming in from the shadows. Shots pocking snow all around me, sending drifts of it into the air. Crouching and taking aim. Firing. Watching a man fall to his knees, then his face. Features erased just as his life is. Drawing a bead on another. Dropping another. I will not go down today. Not today.

A man falls beside me, red already spilling onto white. I look at him, and within seconds his blood on the snow crusts over with ice. I go to him, and another shot tears off his jaw. He falls on his back, lifeless eyes stuck to pink sky that’s quickly fading to black.

I fire three shots. Create three dead bodies. The air is so cold I can almost taste blood. My legs shake so badly I think I might fall, but somehow I don’t. Somehow I take cover behind a vehicle just as bullets ricochet off of it. All around me there are men, good men, squirming and flailing in the snow. One among them pushes his boots against the ground to stand back up. I run to him. Pick him up, sling his arm over my shoulder. He calls to me: “Phil. Phil. Phil.” We make our way, the two of us, into the dark, to where I’ve heard there’s a medical truck.

We finally reach it. I stop to load the man in. He looks up at me: “Phil.” Goes limp in my arms.

I load him in. Turn to go. The corpsman tells me not so fast. I’m to get in too. I look down: a neat hole in my side, blood frozen, saving my life. I get in.

When I come to, the doc’s saying, “Phil. Phil. Phil.” At the foot of my bed’s a metal medical file. My initials and some numbers: “PGN–090190.” I look at the doc.

“Don’t call me Phil.

“Call me PGN.”

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Drew

Pink Sky

I’m on fire watch. It’s Fort Benning hot, humid, clouds of fly sex every five feet you walk. The barracks are quiet, everyone asleep, and I’m thinking of what to say. Mom tells me PGN is sick. She doesn’t want to say too much, but I can tell it’s bad. They keep moving his room in the hospital. It’s hard to get a hold of him.

I’m the only one on fire watch tonight. I’ve been waiting weeks for this, to be able to do what needs to be done. High fences box us in, open fields beyond them, no roads in sight. I remember staying long after Red Devil practice was over, still in my football pads, after everyone had left, and standing out in the middle of the field, surrounded by grass.

The phones aren’t supposed to be operational after sundown, but there are ways around this. I’ve got our phone number memorized, of course. Memories of me dialing with Waldo, turning it into a song to help him remember. He couldn’t have been older than two. Two, and tiny, and the way I’d prop him up under the armpits for one of Mom’s polaroids.

Who knows what my drill sergeant might say, or do, if he caught me doing what I’m about to do. He already put a guy’s head through drywall for defying orders. Made the same guy clean up the mess after a recruit attempted suicide with an M16, his face and jaw fragments sticking to the ceiling, unsalvageable, and by the time they did surgery on the poor fucker he was barely recognizable.

I go outside, look over the barracks, take in the fact that this will be the last time I see them. And there’s PGN at my age, in Korea, the details fuzzy now, him never quite wanting to relate them. The recruiter told me I’d be deployed at the DMZ, would never see combat. I’ll be shipping off to Afghanistan.

I make my way over to the comms room, shut the door behind me. I dial our number. Take my time on the last digit. Eventually press it. Ringing. And ringing. And ringing. Someone picks up. Waits a while. Breathes. Doesn’t say hello, but hell. Voice croaks on the last syllable. It’s Waldo. Even hearing it, knowing it’s him, it sounds like Roger, like a higher-pitched version of him. Maybe I don’t answer the phone like Roger because he’s not my dad. I wonder if I answer the phone like Joe, wherever he is, whoever he is. All I have to go on is an old polaroid, his arm around Mom like he owns her, a punchable smile, body all sharp lines and angles. Mom’s showing too much skin, clownlike makeup on, enough eyeshadow to droop eyelids till they can’t open back up again. I found his number once, snooping through Mom’s room. Never called. Now I’d never get the chance to. I’ll never be home again.

There’s a bruise on my shoulder from where the butt of the drill sergeant’s drilling rifle made contact, his idea of correcting the way I did jumping jacks. It’s like that one time Roger cut Mom’s eye open and we hurried to put ice on it, blood still flowing, speckling the bottom of the bathroom sink. Roger, drunk, punching himself in his own eye, asking if that was enough. Did he need to keep fucking going, or was that enough? His eye already blackening, blood trickling down the corner of it, like a statue of the Virgin Mary weeping blood. We didn’t bother with Roger, just tried to get Mom’s bleeding under control. And when we couldn’t, me punching Roger out so he couldn’t take the keys, us piling into the car. Waiting outside the hospital as they looked at Mom, Waldo and I jousting with tree branches and wheelchairs, bruises on shoulders no different than mine now.

Waldo doesn’t say anything else. What can he say? What can I say? I can see him now, sitting alone, Mom and Roger asleep. Maybe writing another one of those ridiculous stories. I don’t know. What I do know is that I can’t keep going. What I do know is that I need to hang up. So I do.

When I’m ready, I enter the arms room. I grab an M16 and take a seat. A seat, like strapping into a ride with Waldo, the kid nearly pissing himself on the Batman ride, Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose” playing in the background, the sealed-off floppy rubber Batsuit melting in the summer heat when we get back. Running back to the front of the line, waiting in nacho-stink till the front car opens back up. Here I am now, sitting with the M16 in my lap, reclining. Like all those days with Roger reclining in his chair, waiting till I’d get home to start his shit. Mom disappearing to the bathroom, running the faucet, probably trying not to let us hear her cry, eyes like black holes when she’d come back out. But more than all of that, it’s spinning Waldo by the arms in an empty field in Dee Park, and when I put him back down, him telling me the sky looked like Pepto-Bismol, and me saying he should use that in one of his stories. That it was pretty good, kid. Pretty good.

I put the M16 under my chin, barrel touching my neck. I don’t want to fuck this up. My finger touches the trigger. Nearly squeezes it. And there’s Waldo and Mom and Roger and PGN. Their faces at my funeral.

I put the M16 down. I close my eyes. I breathe.

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Down to the Water

Here’s a rough take of Down to the Water, a song I wrote based on guitar work by the very talented Andrew Lamb. This song deals with the end of the novel, when everything comes full circle. What do you guys think?

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Mona

Sink

It’s a quarter to two and Waldo gets home at three. Roger’s not back till six, and who knows when Drew will come home. There’s still time. The soaps are on, and there’s a funny word. Soap, like days when PGN would catch me swearing and wash my mouth out, it turning everything to itself the way tofu does, only soap milk or soap bread or soap orange juice. And the nights when PGN had to lock Mommy in her room when she Went Away, always going away in her mind and launching herself at us like a wild animal, snarling and telling us she wished we were dead. PGN locking her in her room and the way her fists would slam the door till well past midnight, PGN sleeping on the living room couch and me on the floor, his snores almost drowning out the pounding, comforting, and I’d get to sleep just as the first light of dawn sliced through the window.

But we’re here now. It’s a quarter past two and Waldo gets home at three. I turn the soaps off and the dog starts to whine. I tell him to shut up and he barks at me. Barks. I go to kick him but stop. I’m better than that. I’ve gotten better. I pick him up and lock him in the closet. When he pads at the door, I kick it and tell him to shut up. I reach into my robe’s pocket, pull out the prescription bottle, light coming through its bright orange, coating the pills inside. The pain stopped months ago, but I still get them filled. There are other kinds of pain. I take three: the father, the son, and the holy spirit.

And there’s another one.

Sunday school let out at a quarter past two. It was three, and PGN still hadn’t shown up. Father Felter took me to the back of the church and brought out a bottle of wine. Drank from it once, twice, three times. The sign of the cross. Gave me the bottle. I was to drink. I did, and he took me even farther back, to a closet. Turned the light on so I wouldn’t be scared. I was still scared. He told me to come in, that it would be our little secret. I said okay.

The dog’s barking. Okay! I tell him. Okay. I let him out and he runs behind the couch, pisses on the carpet. I chase him with the TV remote and he cowers at the patio door, tries to hide behind the blinds. Whines. I put the remote down and scratch behind his ears. He looks up at me, unsure. I yell at him, and he runs away. It’s quiet out–too quiet. Not even the rushing of cars down 294. If I listen close, I can hear a faraway freight train blare on its horn, trundle down the tracks. A train.

I was out on my own. In my pockets a razor and some sleeping pills. The el tracks sliced through Evanston greenery the way I’d slice through my arms. PGN was at work and Mommy was luded out on the couch, eyelids fluttering. I had time. I didn’t have enough to pay for fare, so I hopped over the turnstile when the attendant wasn’t looking. Waited till the coast was clear and got down onto the tracks, avoided the third rail. I didn’t want to fuck this up by half-electrocuting myself. I walked the tracks that stretched out over my city, vertigo every time I looked over the edge. No driving squeal of steel on steel. I was alone. My hand shook as I pulled the pill bottle out of my pocket. Shook so bad that I dropped half of the bottle’s pills once I opened it, the only word I knew then being fuck. Tossed the rest of the pills out and screamed at the sky. Produced the razor. Lifted my sleeves, skin like porcelain shining in the sun. Touched my forearm’s skin. Cold. Looked away. Scratched at it, but not too deep. Blood just barely surfacing, peeking its head out. Went to scratch the other arm but cried so hard that the tears blotted my vision. Tossed the razor away. Located a staircase meant for maintenance. Train whistle as I got off the tracks. Doppler sounds as the whistle went past.

Whistling. The kettle’s ready. Forgot I even put it on. I take it off the fire and turn the burner off. Grab the mug on the counter. Listen. The dog panting, cars down 294, a departure from O’Hare flying overhead. Burning in my head, but there’s no way to get it out. No way to stop the noise. I tip the kettle over my hand, watch the water touch skin, listen to the sizzle as I retract my hand out of instinct. Instantly red, splotched like an unusual birthmark. Listen some more. Waldo talking with one of his friends. Making his way to the door. I cross over to the bathroom and lock the door behind me. Turn on the faucet nice and loud. Go to look at myself in the mirror but don’t. I bring hand to mouth, enter finger inside and feel the contours of my palate, the place where gums meet teeth. I stick the finger all the way down and let everything come out. I rinse the sink till there’s nothing left, gargle and spit. Look up at myself. Past myself.

Freshening up.

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Intertwined

intertwined

We met in the psych ward, your hands shaking jello off your spoon, face mask covering everything but your eyes as you glanced at me, then back to the plate. I watched the birds as they flew past the window, wingtips grazing glass, and said what the hell. I introduced myself, put my hands in my lap so my bandaged arms were out of view. I asked about the face mask like an idiot. You told me you had chugged cough syrup and didn’t think you’d be getting a cold anytime soon.

We met in the common area after dinner, swapped stories of where we grew up: me in the torn-up part of town, you in the suburbs. I walked you through taking showers with microwaved cups of water when the gas got turned off, wearing your winter coat to bed when the heat went out next. You showed me cutting yourself in places out of sight since you were eleven, not eating for days, running away from home and sleeping in parks. We showed each other sneaking out of group therapy and setting up a game of Scrabble, fingers grazing as we reached for tiles, both of our hands stopping in place, and me looking at the way your blonde hair cascaded over your face, your eyes now watching mine.

It was waking to find you sitting at the foot of my bed, hair haloed by moon and pepto pink Chicago sky coming in through the window, whispering what you were up to so as not to wake up my roommate. It was making room on my bed for you and finding out what was wrong, covering your mouth as you cried so we wouldn’t be found out. It was yanking the blanket over our heads when the orderly came down the hall with a flashlight to make his fifteen minute rounds, breathing so shallow we could pass for the dead. It was the kiss we shared, silent, shifting our bodies so no part of us wasn’t touching the other.

They let you out first, you leaving me with your number and a hug that wanted to last forever. I spent the next couple of days holed up in my room, thinking of the things I’d say to you once they let me out.

You skipped your first therapist appointment to be with me once I got out, us biking the trails and cutting through Chicago alleys, riding down the middle of barren streets and reaching out hands till our fingers intertwined as we rode. I staved off suicidality with our weekly hangouts, breathed through dissociation and panic attacks that left me incapable of completing even the most basic of tasks.

I went off my meds ‘cause I couldn’t afford them, walked miles to your apartment and buzzed you out. We snuck up to the roof and lay supine, legs intertwined. Watched the sky’s tentative blue segue into the pink we once knew. I told you of the unreality of my days and you said you’d collect my thoughts into a great pitcher, that you’d drink them up for me. I told you I didn’t want you to bleed with me, and you opened your mouth to say something but nothing came out.

I took you down to my old neighborhood, charted the places that made me. The exact plot of dirt in a barren baseball field where the bullies held me down and taped firecrackers to my body before lighting them all with an old Bic, losing feeling in my hand for a half hour, ripped-paper skin that bled onto dirt. I showed you the manhole I used to pry up, the one that led to a city-wide tunnel system. Where I’d go when the AC gave out in the summer, or else a place outside of M & D’s verbal assault jurisdiction. I showed you the convenience store I used to rip off honey buns from when there was nothing in the house and even the Catholic charities weren’t willing to help.

You took me to your old neighborhood: immaculate lawns and empty houses, parks you used to populate late at night, us sitting there and you pulling down socks to reveal ankles dotted with constellations of scars, your inner arms tallied like an inmate counting down the days till their release. So much scar tissue it almost looked like regular skin.

You kept me out of the psych ward and I kept you out of your head, escaping the places that housed us to be out on the road together, peeking over shoulders to make sure no cars were coming, everything around us buzzing too fast, never stopping, and the way you would laugh out loud and remind me of taping playing cards to spokes to make motorcycles of bikes. It was like that, those summer nights together, just the two of us, pedaling off and into the darkness.

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