As boys, Charlie Coughlin and Mike Benton knelt beside parked cars on the neighborhood's street curbs to twist small caps, no bigger than a pinky finger, off of tire valves and pocket them. Sooty with brake dust and sometimes cracked, cap collecting generated its own little trade economy between the boys. Red ones were rare; worth charmed bartering that seemed to tickle their young male brain stems in the same nerve patch that made crows fly off with pleasant little objects caught shining in the sun.
A few times they'd walk the long St. Louis sidewalks, crossing overpasses, following jagged tiles, all the way to The Galleria Mall in order to comb the indoor parking lot and fill an XL Ziploc—filched from Mike's kitchen—with caps. If the crop of parked cars presented the opportunity, they'd pluck Jack in the Box antenna heads from their stems and add them to the bag. Or peel a nice magnet off a trunk door, like picking a sticker off an apple. Anything removable was removed.
On the return home, if the bag wasn't full, the boys could hit every parked car along the way, but the risk of being caught—by police, or any representative of the adult world—increased the more there was to carry. So Charlie would loosen his belt and wedge the zip-locked bag between underpants and khaki shorts and cover it with his billowy tee shirt. Then, with hands needing something to do, Charlie might strip a branch off a tree and run it against the chain link, or clap his hands out front, then behind—back and forth like a human clacker—or provoke Mike into a foot race where Charlie would need to run with one hand braced to his back to keep the caps in place, like an old man suffering a running hernia.
By the time they got back to Mike's house through the side door, and into the massive garage attached to the Benton family estate, the afternoon was spent. The bag got squirreled away inside an old hockey mask (or a mildewed shoulder pad, beaten catcher's glove, or softball bag—anything in the mountains of ratty athletic equipment discarded by the five older Benton siblings). Shirt damp and exhausted, Charlie would walk down the street towards home, towards the part of the neighborhood where the houses were one story, and the front porches looked out over the interstate, bathed in its traffic noises. If Mrs. Coughlin wasn't home from work at the post office—which meant she had gone for drinks—Charlie would fry a slice of baloney for a sandwich, and watch TV in a beanbag chair till it was time to shuffle downstairs to his room in the basement for bed.
Mike and Charlie grew up and out of collecting caps. By high school, they matured to stealing street signs at night. The trick was to unbolt or knock loose the green panels clamped to their posts, and to do it quickly before a porch light came on and some old guy in boxers started hollering or called the cops. They got Hiawatha, South Euclid, Del Norte; anything with a compelling name, anything rich in unknown meaning that would mount well on Charlie's basement wall. Out of goodwill or guilt, Charlie sometimes looked at the wall of signs and considered placing an anonymous call. Just to the City of St. Louis, just to request replacements so no one would get lost. He never did. It was risky. But also, the white-hot spark of vandalism might lose its luster.
By senior year, Charlie and the school counselor figured he would go the next two years at the local community college. Almost every friend Charlie had was going away for university—everyone seemed to smile with bright scholarships and exotic futures ahead. For the first time, Charlie heard a classmate say they wanted to study Business Management, and everyone just nodded. As if that were something everyone might do. Usually that kind of talk was met with laughter, or at least an eye roll. From then on, Charlie didn't want to hear a word about it. He'd be the last man eye rolling and laughing if he had to. At least, that was the strategy until Mike came back from a visit to Fort Pendleton. From then on when asked what college he was going to, Mike simply said, "The Marines." He'd be joining his brothers and sisters in the family profession of shooting guns and blowing things up. His shaggy blonde Kurt Cobain locks were soon to be buzzed. His head would be pruned into the shape of a jar like his father's.
For Charlie, the Marines sounded as serious as a crisply starched shirt. There were commercials on TV, showing men in navy blue suit jackets with white gloves, lined up in a row on a seashore, and a desert, and a mountain. Guarding the country with sabers. Charlie thought the men looked fake. Actors, probably. But still: a sword and a suit. Not all at once, he decided he wanted nothing more than to be straightened out by the Marines.
As a kid, Charlie Coughlin thought of the highway as a strap that ran through the center of the city with overpass belt loops. He was lucky enough to live by the Bellevue belt loop which could be seen from the porch screen door. Lucky was the word his mother used. The year before boot camp, Interstate 64 needed to be widened. For a while, the grumble of tires on asphalt went silent, preparing for construction. Until one morning Charlie heard the beep of dozers backing up, and jackhammers pecking, through the tiny basement window of his bedroom.
Mrs. Coughlin hated the noise. Her complaints gathered momentum from the national nightly news, and distilled into the local, "Right outside my screen door." She would come home after work at the post office, watch NBC to gather complaints—like picking wildflowers in an abundant field—about Dubya. During the broadcast, she'd consume the first in a string of soda-laced gin tonics. Eventually she'd move from a foreign policy critique, to accusations that the highway rehab was a fat dumb waste. "It's for those rich, lilywhite people of the county. So they can come in for a ballgame and muck around the city, then retreat without ever feeling trapped. Or seeing anything that might upset their picture of what the city is," she would say, sipping from an icy plastic tumbler. "A bombed-out hell-hole. That's what they think. They won't spend anything on the schools, but if a new highway improves ballpark ticket sales, or helps us get tough on crime, well," she'd swirl the drink, "Sign us up! The Goldwater whistles never stopped going off around here, you know." Charlie did not know; he rarely understood the things his mother railed against. It was confusing to be white, but not lily-white, and it was much easier to file his mother's grievances away without debate. In any case, one or two refills and she was out the door, down to Kruger's on Forsyth for the night. She had boyfriends. She never claimed she didn't. She was popular, and Charlie didn't mind. It meant that most nights the house belonged to him, and he enjoyed the same kind of freedom since he was now older and boozy.
Most nights, Mike used his brother Aaron's expired license at the gas station. Friends, strangers, people Charlie didn't know or remember came and went on weekends. Girlfriends did the same—none of whom meant much until he met Laura. She was a nursing student with chestnut hair who got playful and handsy after some old country music and cheap beer—just as the new country music prescribed. Everything in Laura's life was nice and planned out. The product of good schools—Catholic academy, Catholic university, accepted to a nice Catholic nursing program, etc. She was organized about everything including her fall into orbit around Charlie.
A month before graduation, the construction was almost finished. With the new signs up and the old ones discarded, Charlie and Mike walked through his house's side yard towards the closed down highway. Drunk and underaged, they intended to carry off the neighborhood's old off-ramp sign—the last heist. But also, it was there for the lifting, and Charlie had been looking at it his whole life.
Lit by the garage flood light, they stepped through the sharp silhouettes of grass and out onto the pavement. Charlie heard his kitchen window open and Laura yelled that he would be sleeping by himself tonight, and, for that matter, neither of them should bother coming back. The window slid shut with a thwack. Charlie turned and waved goodbye, nearly tripping over a sewer grate.
"That's a real trailer park romance you've got going there," Mike said.
"Hush," Charlie said. He'd heard Laura's suppressed smile, nothing serious. "You shut that Yankee mouth little Mikey. Laura is a fancy lady."
"Yep, your fancy old lady."
"You know, some people say she's robbing the cradle. I say, I'm robbing the grave."
"Please stop saying that."
Charlie pushed Mike by the shoulder, "She's only a couple years older than us."
"Either way, the Jody calls are going to hit you close to home."
"The phone calls home?"
"No, no, Jody calls. The chants, you know? When you're running in boot camp? Use to own a Chevrolet, now I run every day.
"Oh," Charlie said. "Who was Jody?"
"It's like, a character. Jody's like, the guy who drives your car, and lays around your house, and sleeps with your wife while you're gone. Your baby was lonely as could be, till Jody provided the company."
"Joke's on him, I don't even have a car."
Down a dead-end street, they passed little dark apartment buildings leading to the highway and jumped the rusted chain-link fence. Trying to clear the thing in one hurdle, Charlie caught his palm on the twist-tie metal top and landed clutching his hand. "Fuck," he muttered. The blood slicked in his palm, alcohol thin. He wiped it on his pants and decided not to care. Mike and Charlie ran down the ridge through the thick crabgrass, speeding downhill like dogs let off leash.
They crossed the off ramp with the construction barrier at the top, past piles of white gravel, and a still Bobcat dozer. The exit sign lay in the grass next to a stack of construction zone boards. The thick smell of tar wafted up off of pavement.
"You kidding me?" Mike said. "There's no way we're going to carry this back."
"They did the unscrewing for us already," Charlie said.
"There's no way it's going to fit through the front door. Thing's twice as tall as me."
"That isn't saying much." Charlie stood on the edge and the big green sheet sunk in the grass, it bobbed as if it were a raft on a river. The white reflective lettering was bigger than his feet. "Nah," he said, even though the sign was twice as big as he had expected. Up close it seemed like an illusion, but it made sense—cars speeding past needed the lettering to be huge. Why did he think it would be no bigger than a coffee table? "We'll be fine," he said.
Mike looked up at Bellevue and down at the median below, "Let's have a smoke first. Under the overpass."
"Over under," Charlie said, fishing the two cans of beer from his back pockets.
Orange streetlights lit the newly poured asphalt, soon to be polished by stampedes of tires. Day in and day out. Mike whooped at the rafters above, looking for an echo, but none came. He pushed himself up by his palms to sit on the grey cement meridian. Charlie saw blood still traveling up the lines in his palm. It was drying though. He held up a hand and said, "Ow."
"Good work Marine," Mike said. "You injured yourself on the first obstacle."
"It's just a flesh wound," Charlie tossed him the lighter. He looked around following the line of soundproof retaining walls as they curved west with the highway, like blank scrabble tiles.
"Remember when Colonel Shiffert tore you apart for smoking during lunch?"
"He laid into me again about quitting the other day. On the last day of class."
"Really? Did he give you a big speech about the Marines too?"
Charlie coughed, "No. He was saying I should quit before basic. Then he told a story about Vietnam that I'd already heard."
"Which one? You know he gave Aaron a bunch of shit after he enlisted. That's why I never took his class."
"He didn't want your brother to go?"
"I don't know," Mike said. "It was right after they first went into Iraq. Shiffert thought Aaron was doing it because he was all riled-up A-mer-i-ca." Mike pronounced it like a caveman. "Something like that. I don't know, I don't think he knew we were all military brats. We were going in either way." Mike kicked his shoes against the median and smoked. "It's weird that he tells everyone who's enlisting to come and talk to him and then he, like, puts a bunch of pressure on them for no reason. What story did he tell you?"
"The one about the Huey."
"That's every Vietnam story."
Charlie cleared his throat, "It's the one with the little tin aimer and the guy that pops out of the bush."
"I don't know that one. Aaron told me one about stuffing the snake in the guy's sleeping bag. That's the only good Shiffert story I've heard."
Charlie took a drink and wiped his mouth on his shirt sleeve, "So, the way he told it, they touch down in this wide-open field, right? With the tree line a couple yards away. I think they were picking someone up or dropping off supplies. Anyway, Shiffert is getting everyone back in the Huey, there's absolutely no one around. Middle of nowhere, Vietnam. So he's the last one to get in, he climbs up and straps into the bench, facing out, you know, towards the edge of this clearing. And while they're sitting there, one single guy pops up, aiming right at them."
"Alright," Mike says.
"So the guy aims right at them," Charlie clenches his cigarette in the side of his mouth and mimes an invisible rifle. Smoke billows up from below his aiming eye, "and the VC guy hops over two counts. One. Two. Fires his whole clip off into trees. Completely misses the Huey."
"What the hell," Mike says.
"So yeah. I don't know if Shiffert killed him, or what. Someone did. They went over to check him out, I guess because they all thought they were goners. The guy had a little tin outline of a helicopter taped to the end of his rifle. So, some asshole had told this VC farmer, 'If you see a Huey, count two spaces out front and fire.'"
"Why?" Mike asked.
"So that he's leading his shots when they're flying over his farm. And so this guy saw a Huey, and that's what he did. That's what Shiffert said anyway."
A truck passed overhead and the bridge shifted with it. Charlie drank from his beer. Mike looked up and said, "So, like, are you the farmer in this story?"
"I don't know if it's that kind of story. And it didn't seem like Shiffert thought the farmer was just some idiot. Besides, all my papers are signed. And Shiffert wrote one of my recommendations, so..." Charlie dropped his cigarette and put it out with a boot toe. "Who did your recs? Besides your dad."
"Family members can't do them. Two sergeants; my dad's Marine buddies with sons in Aaron's class. They're going to the airsoft thing next week. They own both farmhouses. We're at Rainy Crick, team McCoy. And the other one's Hatfield."
"So we'll feud in the middle."
"That is right sir." Mike snubbed out his cigarette on the median. Charlie placed his beer can inside a girder, planning to spot it later when he drove on the new highway.
They walked back to the sign in the grass. The Bellevue lettering flashed, caught by the overpass lights. Mike sighed, "If we get caught, I'm going to book it into someone's back yard."
"We aren't going to get caught."
"Seriously though, I don't want something on my record when I'm filing the papers for officer's school," Mike said, picking up the top.
"I didn't know you were doing officer's school."
"I am if we aren't arrested tonight, jarhead—let's go, this thing's a monster."
Charlie grabbed the bottom, "Okay now, be safe and lift with harsh, jerking motions from your lower back."
The sign was enormous, like a filing cabinet pressed flat. Mike swore and both adjusted their grip. Charlie felt the cut in his hand made worse on the edge of the sign. "Okay, okay, let's go," he said, and then two of them jogged up the hill, over the off ramp, and up toward the chain link. Mike dropped his end and hopped the fence. They seesawed it, end by end, over the chain link and down the dark street.
With just another block to go, the boys spotted a police cruiser idling at the intersection ahead. Its blinker was on, ready to turn down their street, but Charlie couldn't tell if the cop had seen them yet. Mike slowly lowered his side.
"Hold on, hold on," Charlie said. The cop car wasn't moving.
"No fucking way," Mike let go of the sign and ran between two of the apartment buildings. The police car started to turn towards Charlie. He dropped the sign, which clapped on the pavement in one heavy whack. It lay in the righthand turn lane, beneath a streetlight off the intersection of Hiawatha and Del Norte, and Charlie followed Mike, sprinting between the buildings, through neighborhood yards and driveways, panting and grinning like madmen.
Rainy Crick was plugged into a little Missouri hill in the Ozarks, surrounded by alfalfa fields and woods beyond that, with a shoestring dirt road that ran down to a valley creek. The first thing Charlie noticed was that his on-loan airsoft rifle, and the others hanging from two dozen grown men's shoulders, looked real. They didn't seem like toy guns, but all they shot were tiny plastic pellets. He wanted to say something to Mike about the orange caps they use to complain about as kids, the ones on their Nerf guns. They made a lot more sense now that he was sitting on a deckchair in the middle of, what looked like, a backyard cookout armed to the teeth.
Charlie couldn't say anything though, because Mike hadn't left his brother's side since they'd arrived. The two of them were enveloped in a small platoon of military guys, blended together with buzz cuts, grey GI T-shirts, and dusty combat boots.
The second thing he realized was that the players had self-sorted and Charlie was firmly entrenched in the hobbyist side. Doughy older guys all around him were snapping pictures and pulling the packaging off brand new equipment: goggles, fatigues, spare clips with plastic shot that rattled inside. Mike was the only agent able to cross the threshold between, and he seemed pretty comfortable on the professional side.
But, Charlie thought, Mike didn't see his brother often, and once the game started they would meet up and Charlie could tag along—prove that he wasn't just a hobbyist. In order to avoid a clash in the center, the McCoy team had been divided between the hobbyists and military. Someone had handed Charlie a red handkerchief that he'd have to hold up if he got shot. Mike's team was headed out first, waiting on a flare from the valley that signaled the start of the game. Aaron yelled, "We're gon kill those God damned Hatfields!" and shot a dozen pellets out over the dirt road. The gun sounded electric, like it was printing a receipt. The hobbyists around Charlie gave a courteous laugh, pretending the joke was also for them.
It was hot and Ozark humid. Thick air, nerves, and the creamy smell of sunblock was making Charlie nauseous. He'd worn long khaki pants, because he wore long khaki pants everywhere. Sweat was running off his palms, soaking the gauze that Laura had wrapped around his hand. He went to the corner of the deck to undo the clips and adjust it on the bannister.
"I think it's infected," she said the night before. "You probably need a tetanus shot instead of going to play paintball in the woods."
"It's airsoft," he replied, letting her squeeze Neosporin into his palm and tear the gauze packaging open with her teeth.
"Whatever," she had laughed, "it's only so far away from running through Mike's backyard with pistol fingers, yelling bang bang!" Laura grinned, pretending to fire into the air like a cowboy.
He sat and grinned and too it. "It will be exactly like that," he had said, interrupting her by meeting her lips with his across the kitchen table.
She returned to unfurling the gauze, "What will you do without me?"
"The Marines have medics," he said, and the smile hung just a little between her freckled cheeks. It was getting harder to talk about the future. Without realizing, Charlie swore to the alfalfa field and re-hooked the clip that kept his bandage in place.
A group of hobbyists nearby applied face paint from compacts that could have been from L'Oréal. One of them, with his T-shirt tucked into cargo shorts, applied a thumb of eye-black just below his mirrored sunglasses. Charlie wondered if this Eyeblack guy would write bible verses on them when they dried, like some football players do—Exod. 20:13. Eyeblack snapped his compact shut and claimed that, as far as he was concerned, "this was the best kind of anger management."
Someone on the military side let out a rebel yell—the Hoosier sign for, "Hey guys, look over here." A Red phosphorous flare struck out of the valley trees, tracing a parabola in smoke. It was cue for the game to start. Someone shot a reply flare out over the field and the military team ran off the deck, formed a loose rank, and jogged down the dirt road into the valley chanting.
Eyeblack turned to Charlie and said, "Alright, alright, we're next. You mind taking a pic? Real fast," he pulled a phone from his armband and handed it over.
Charlie watched as the thirty-year-old man whipped his rifle around and pointed it into the air, posing like he was about to shoot the absolute hell out of a fluffy, passing cloud.
"Hey thanks," Eyeblack said. "Good one for the blog. Hey, is that the Carbine replica?"
"Y-yes," Charlie said, looking at his rifle. "I don't know much about fake guns."
"Well, most are modeled off of real ones. Back when I first started collecting in 99—"
"Is that a camera on yours?"
"Yessir, that's going on the blog too. Takes a couple weeks to edit but—"
"Hmm. Cool." Charlie watched the grey smoke overcome the flare as it fell. There was another on the other side of the valley from the Hatfield side. A little helicopter, way up, lingered before turning east. "So you do this for fun or, like, stress relief" Charlie asked.
"Sort of both. Had some anger stuff a while ago, I'm not ashamed of it. Managing gig at a little lake-side restaurant downtown, customer got riled up, and a table ended up in said lake. Had to go talk to somebody. They said, get a hobby. So here I am," Eyeblack grit his teeth and fired into the field, attracting some looks. "Anywho, those jarheads are going to jog down to the little bridge on the creek and get bottlenecked. It happens every fuckin' time. A couple of us are going down on the west side, cross the crick, and flank. You want in?"
The second valley flare was up. Two response flares—goggles up and on—they were off the deck, jogging in the midmorning heat downhill. Eyeblack, Charlie, and three others split off, leaping over a drainage ditch at the edge of the field headed west into the trees.
Eyeblack and the others didn't seem to be in shape, but they moved through the wood in quietly enough. Charlie had a hard time not snapping twigs or tripping through brush as they went quickly downhill. Through sunshine streaks in the tree canopy, another helicopter passed slowly overhead. More like a warzone, Charlie thought.
They arrived at the creek bank with a good view of the water, catching breath with guns pointed every which way. "I don't see anything—pretty quiet," one said. Everyone agreed.
"Alright, rock, paper, scissors for who goes first," Eyeblack said with his fist out for the others to join.
The guy next to Charlie dropped his guard and said, "Are you serious? The big plan is to rock paper scissors it?"
"Yes, we are," Eyeblack said. "What? You want to run out there all at once? In the open?"
One of the guys turned and laughed, "What a strategy."
"I'm not hearing an alternative here," Eyeblack said.
Charlie looked around again. The woods seemed empty. He crept down towards the tree line, still nothing. "Fine, fine," he said. "I'll do it."
The four looked at each other. "Hey great," one said. "Good luck guy, we'll cover."
Charlie had to jump down the embankment where the tree line ended. The opposing slope looked deserted, no silhouettes in the brush or figures in between the leafy tree branches. There was a way up on the other side, a little path into cover. He should have been on edge, but the sound of rushing water was pleasant. Ambient cool radiated up from the eddies. He checked down the bank once more and broke out, jogging on slick pebbles then splashing in ankle deep water, till he struggled against it at his knees.
It was when he touched the cakey middle, with the creek's flow breaking around his thighs, that the water around him erupted with pellets. Strays hit all around like pennies scattered in a fountain. A good deal ricocheted off him, biting his arms and chest, angry as horse flies. He waited—elbows tucked, head down—and just as quickly as they started, the tiny mechanical clicks were done. Little white beads floated downstream, tiny fishing bobbers without lines. He yanked the red bandana from his shirt pocket and waved it overhead. Branches shook along the bank, Charlie watched as a couple Hatfields emerged from cover and started moving further west. They probably planned to police the creek all game long, he thought, trudging back across.
Back on shore, he brushed a stray pellet from his shirtsleeve and grabbed a sapling to hoist himself up into the woods.
"Which way?" Eyeblack yelled.
"I'm dead," Charlie yelled back, waving the bandana.
"I know. That sucks. West or East? Which way did it come from?"
"I'm dead—I can't talk!"
Eyeblack flipped him off, turned back to the others, and headed West mirroring the Hatfields across the shore.
Charlie strapped his gun to his back and walked up the hill through the woods. He pulled the goggles suctioned to his head off; a slight relief from the heat. Trudging through the dead leaves that carpeted the ground, the walk uphill seemed to take forever. Charlie listened to the random chatter of birds over head as they fled from his movements. A woodpecker was somewhere nearby. He caught invisible webs between saplings, brushed them off his arms without ever being sure they were gone or there to begin with. The tree line along the field was thick with large oaks that hung over the field's drainage canal. He reached the edge, took the ditch in a couple quick strides, and stopped on the lip. No birds, no sound from the game. All at once he realized someone was standing in the ditch a dozen yards away, pointing a gun at his back.
"I'm already dead," Charlie announced.
"Don't move. Put your hands above your head."
"I'm already shot—" Charlie turned. It was a police officer in a tan uniform, both hands clutching a handgun.
"Sir, take the firearm by the band, slowly lift it over your head, and put it on the ground."
"Please co-operate, do what I said, sir." The officer chewed gum so hard his temples throbbed. Charlie lifted his gun by the strap and set it down. "Now back away." The officer pinched the radio on his shoulder and spoke to it. "Paul, I'm over on the west side of the road, in the brush. One of 'em walked right up behind me. He's carrying some kind of assault weapon. I don't see anybody up at the house but that's where all the cars are. Whatever training they're doing, they're out in the woods where this guy came from. Over." A fuzzy voice replied, too far away for Charlie to hear.
"It's a toy gun," Charlie said, trying to sound both calm and loud.
"Just a minute," the officer yelled, gun still on Charlie.
Charlie kept his hands up and waited. Heat wafted off the sunbaked soil. He looked past the officer at the row of alfalfa grasses. He could see their end and followed it over as the blended into one jade meadow. He thought to himself that this will all be straightened out.
The dense trees were sealing up the noise inside the woods, because Eyeblack emerged unannounced between Charlie and the officer. He had his red bandana out too, stuffed in his collar with gun cradled loosely in his arms, finger on the trigger. Eyeblack walked right past the officer without seeming to notice him, staring at Charlie in surrender across the ditch with an expression like, What, in the hell, are you doing? All at once Eyeblack noticed they weren't alone—so did the policeman. Eyeblack jerked his gun toward the officer, the officer aimed right back at Eyeblack.
The officer fired.
Like a grapefruit smashed with a sledgehammer, Eyeblack's knee burst just below his cargo shorts. He went down as if a crutch had been kicked away. The gunshot rang in Charlie's ears. Depth drained from everything around him: the alfalfa in the field, the soil lined ditch, the officer yelling into the radio, the trees with branches overhead, and the sun. A dimension slipped away. Like a painting, it all went flat.
Laura answered. "Who's this?"
"Me," Charlie said. "Did I wake you up?" His voice reverberated inside the cheap Nokia.
"Whose phone are you using?"
He was supposed to be on the bus. He was supposed to be on the way, out of contact with home for the next twelve weeks.
"I borrowed the recruiter's phone. It might die soon."
"Where are you?"
"Walking. In a parking garage." Charlie was climbing the cement steps, circling up and up to where there were no more cars. "A Holiday Inn parking garage. In Illinois, just across the river."
There was a long pause, then Laura asked, "Are you okay?"
He felt the deflated box in his jeans pocket. "I've smoked, like, a pack and a half of cigarettes in the last two hours." He had two left.
"Are you having second thoughts?"
Yes, he thought, but who could tell if it was normal to have second thoughts? "The guys, just… half of them are in there talking like they're in a fucking holy war. Like, half of them want to go kill a towelhead for Jesus."
"Do you think it's an act?"
"They're scared. I think." Charlie got out one of the cigarettes, lighted it, and inhaled.
"Is there anyone else you can, make friends with? Is there someone to talk to?"
"Sure, I mean. I don't know. The recruiter is cool, he understands…I don't know… I don't know," he said. He turned around to scan the empty parking garage, blowing smoke through his nose, certain he heard someone following. "What are you doing?"
"At your house still. Your mom stayed up late. We sat outside on the front porch and watched the highway. The fireflies were out. I'm staying in your bed, stealing it for the night."
He thought of laying in his bed. The last few cigarettes in the pack always seemed to burn fast and taste like raisins. "How drunk is she?"
"She cried a lot. Real crying. But she's, you know. Proud."
"I think—" She paused.
"I brought a picture of us."
"Yeah? Which one."
"The one from New Year's." She'd jumped into his arms and made him carry her around, a bottle of green champagne in her hand. "I think Mike took it."
"Have you tried calling him?"
"He's already in San Diego. No phones until after basic. I called my old teacher though."
"What did he say?"
"He called me a dumb sonovabitch, and then told me to talk for long time. So I did. But, you know, he didn't tell me what to do."
"Yeah. That's good I guess."
Charlie lit another cigarette.
"Did I tell you Mike is going right into officer's training? Just like his brothers."
"Is that what you are going to do?"
"Probably not. That's not what usually happens." He reached the top of the stairs and pushed the access door to the rooftop. It flew open with the wind, slamming against the wall behind it. "I could go through Parris Island and be in Iraq by the end of the year."
"You sound so sad."
He didn't want anyone to think he was a coward. He said this to Laura, turning his back to shield his phone from the wind.
"Who would think that?" she said.
"They'd fine me for signing the papers and then backing out," he said. "Maybe I could tell them my hand is still infected. That would buy me a few more weeks." The phone beeped in Charlie's ear. He was running out of battery.
"If I don't go, are we still together?" he said.
"That's not fair. You know that's not fair."
"If I do go, and I'm away for a long time, and then come back, are we together?"
"I don't know," she said. "That's not fair either."
He stood on the garage wall, looking out over East St. Louis. Factory buildings, razor wire parking lots, strip joints below in neon cursive. He could just see the river.
"Charlie. Do you want me to come pick you up?" Laura asked.
"I don't know what to do," he said.
"Are you coming home?"
"I'd be so ashamed."
The phone died and Charlie was alone. He leaned out against the wind, one arm wrapped around the burnt-out pole, and flicked the cherry of the cigarette out. The ashes floated down toward the quiet factory street below. He followed the line of sherbet-orange city lights to where the road met an empty intersection, linking a grid of streets that knotted and curved into exit ramps, resolving—finally—in the girder bridge that shot over the Mississippi. From there, Interstate Forty carried on through sleepy metropolitan arteries, past the park, the post office, past Bellevue, the hospital, the recruitment office. It breached the suburb's membranous edge, where the land opened wide through acres of moonlit soybean, and the ruler-straight highway traveled deep into the country.