apist at the VA was that our brains have a way of protecting us that can
sometimes only be described as “parental.” Sometimes, when they don’t
want us to see scary things that could immobilize us, they redact them.
Which erases a stream of potential reactions—potential choices—that
could imperil us further. This gives us a no-choice choice.
“I passed it on the opposite shoulder,” he said in a much slower and
calmer tone. “Until now, I only remembered the mortars because they
were farther away.” He exhaled a long stream of smoke, and I heard a
shiver convulse his body. “My brain didn’t want me to see how close I
was to dead. It had to lie to me so I wouldn’t get scared. So I’d get out of
that serpentine alive.”
I leave the funeral home and drive home. First I set the medical examiner’s sack on the kitchen table. Oils have seeped through the outer paper
layers and bloomed, a meadow of dark spots. Then I slide it off the table
and set it on the seat of a chair. I unroll the top, open it, and reach inside.
First his underclothes. Then his pants. Next his tan T-shirt and long-sleeved camouflaged shirt. He called this uniform his ACUs, but I don’t
know what those letters mean, only that they describe the army’s new
pixelated camouflage pattern. Last, I pull out the fleece jacket he’d worn
to cut the early-morning chill and his combat boots. None of the clothing items have been folded, and bits of shattered glass shake free of the
fabric and patter all over the floor. It’s then that I remember it all.
That morning I was sitting at my table in the corner of the kitchen
when I heard the staircase boards squeak against their nailed joints. His
leaden steps echoed off the walls in the back of the house. It was five
o’clock in the morning, and he let his full weight drop through each
foot. The steady scrape of his wedding ring against the wooden handrail
unzipped the night’s veil, and he rounded the corner through the living
room and came into the kitchen. “Mornin’,” I said with my back to him,
but I didn’t turn around.
I smooth out his pant legs that lie before me on the table. There is no
blood on them. Not one drop. And I hear things again. As though I’m
hearing them for the first time.
The ceramic mug of coffee that I’d brought to him in bed that morning clatters sharply against the cast-iron sink; he rummages in the dish
drainer and slaps the lid of a travel mug down on the counter next to the
coffee maker. And, as though he’s standing right next to me, he jerks the
glass carafe from its hot plate, pours, and rattles it back into place.