Three weeks before Christmas, my sister-in-law left her husband for another man. When Robin made her grand exit -- slamming the door so hard the Sears family portrait trembled, then seemed to leap off the wall -- my wife’s heart went out to Jerome. She homed in on his pain like it was an emergency distress signal blinking from a glacier’s crevasse. Jerome has always been Elizabeth’s favorite brother because, she says, he reminds her of me -- or vice versa, I guess.
My other brothers-in-law, Zeke and Sam, were always cruel to her, playing tricks, never telling the truth about anything, always keeping an emotional distance. Typical males. Elizabeth told me: “They never talked about anything but sex -- you know, what they were going to do to all the girls we went to school with. When I was in the bathroom, I’d catch them looking under the door with those little mirrors dentists use to examine your teeth -- except they were trying to see me pee. I’d scream and holler for Mom, but they’d keep right on sticking those mirrors under the door.”
Jerome was the sensitive one, easily hurt, “but still macho to the core,” Elizabeth said in the kind of voice that pinched a nerve inside me. “He would have knocked the crap out of Sam and Zeke if he’d known how they were harassing me. But I never told him because I knew he’d only fight them for my sake. He’s always hated conflict.”
His marriage to Robin was rocky from the start. Both of them were Jehovah’s Witnesses -- Jerome an elder in the church, Robin the first name on the prayer chain. But if you ask me, she’s always been a mental case. Moods like a swing set. She reminds me of some TV actress. I’m not sure which one, but it’s one of those has-been stars with blonde stringy hair. She always plays psychotic housewives who get addicted to painkillers and then take afternoon lovers and then try to commit suicide by jumping off the freeway overpass. The two-hour movies usually end with her being carted off to the hospital on a stretcher, the red lights swooping over the tangled cars on the freeway, her understanding husband holding her hand until she’s loaded into the ambulance. He always says something like, “Don’t worry about me and the kids. We’ll wait for you.”
Well, Jerome waited. He waited through the roller coaster days. He waited through the no-holds-barred, open-to-broad-daylight adultery she committed with another of the church elders -- a situation that brought Jerome dangerously close to excommunication. The man, shame-faced, later moved his family to Milwaukee and that only left Robin more eager to give adultery another whirl. Jerome bided his time, praying for Jehovah to wash her clean and return her mended and ready to start fresh.
He was still waiting when she left him for a cowboy she met down at the stables. This other fella was shiftless, mucked out the stalls and earned $5 a day -- not an hour, a day.
Jerome let her go. None of us could understand why he did what he did. He just opened his hand and released her. Maybe he knew it was the end. Maybe he no longer felt anything -- not even shame.
She left him with the kids, taking nothing but a saddle, her clothes and the jar of coins they kept in the kitchen cupboard. This other guy didn’t even have a place to live. He and Robin slept in the stables like bums.
The rest of the family -- Charles, Rita, Zeke, Sam, Elizabeth, me -- we’re all sitting around scratching our heads. We hadn’t known how deep she’d descended. Jerome had kept all this to himself over the years.
Now, here comes the kicker: Robin came back to Jerome two days before Christmas. Since they’re J.W.’s, that doesn’t really mean anything -- at least not in the same painful way it would to the rest of us.
She just walked back into their house without ringing the doorbell. She made herself right at home as if the bitter split was a bad dream of Jerome’s. My brother-in-law stood there in the middle of the living room watching the two of them like they were a team of interior decorators he’d hired. Yes, the cowboy was with her. He was a skinny little runt who kept ducking his head, as if looking for a place to spit.
When Robin went into the kitchen to make the three of them tomato-and-cheese sandwiches, Jerome told the cowboy, “You don’t know what you’re getting into. You’re already in over your head.”
After he got over the initial shock of seeing his wife parade her new lover through his living room and the three of them sat down to sandwiches together, Jerome actually felt calm, calmer than he’d been in years.
“Like that moment after you cut your wrists before the pain sets in and you’re watching all the blood pulse out of your arm and you know you’ve done the right thing.” At least, that’s what he told Rita who told Elizabeth who told me. None of us had ever heard Jerome talk like that. What did he know about slicing wrists?
At one point, Robin came back into the room with an armful of Jerome’s clothes she said might fit the cowboy. Then, while Jerome was still staring at the shirts draped over her arms, she asked him for some money and he handed over $6,500. Just like that, he wrote a check. It was enough, he said, to maybe buy themselves a car and put down a deposit on an apartment.
Again, the family is standing around scratching their heads. “Why?” Elizabeth said. “Why would he give her that money? That’s two months’ salary for him down at the lot.”
Jerome sells used mobile homes in Scottsdale, Arizona.
“He has a big heart,” I said. But it’s hard for me to imagine any human being, short of Jesus Christ Himself (who Jerome doesn’t believe in anyway), having that big of a heart for a woman with so small of a heart.
The next day, Christmas Eve, he received an eight-page letter from her, written on the riding stable’s stationery. “Reading that letter,” he told Rita who told Elizabeth who told me, “I guess I finally saw how just crazy she was. I have this feeling, Ma. Someday, something’s gonna happen. I just know it. She’s either gonna hurt herself or somebody else.”
I pictured the cowboy stroking her hand in the back of the ambulance. Or maybe he wouldn’t even be there. Maybe he’d be the one sprawled and bleeding on the side of the road.
I would have called somebody, the operator maybe, to get connected to 911 in the town where Jerome, Robin and the cowboy all live together, a thousand miles away. But I didn’t. I didn’t reach out. I should have done it for Elizabeth’s sake, if nothing else. But I couldn’t. I thought, Maybe I only have a medium-sized heart.
Besides, I had other things on my mind at the time. Mainly, the Army and my upcoming role in world peace. I was due to leave for basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, in less than a month. I’d been working for just a little on the high side of minimum wage as a short order cook at Mr. Steak and Elizabeth and I both thought the Army sounded like a good idea. Being a cook wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. When I came home at night, Elizabeth wouldn’t let me near her until I stripped off my brown T-shirt because it was so clogged with the smell of grease. Then, after I showered (the grease was in my pores, too), we’d lie in bed naked, staring at the ceiling. We thought about the bills, both of us playing with calculators in our heads, trying to figure out how far we could stretch the Mr. Steak paycheck for that month. Sometimes, our life looked so grim we’d start crying. She’d let loose and then I’d start crying because I thought I was such a disappointment to her and before you knew it both of us were sobbing and rolling to opposite sides of the bed.
But most nights, we were too depressed to cry and we’d lay there with the bile eating at our stomachs. We wouldn’t even touch each other. I’d stare at her body and she’d stare at mine, then we’d turn out the light and lay in the dark.
That’s why the Army sounded good. A steady job, college money, maybe even a chance to see Europe -- which, to us, sounded like the most romantic place in the world. The day I got home from the recruiter’s office, I danced around the house singing, “It’s April in Paris.” I’d promised to take her to France for a second honeymoon someday when I was rich and famous. I made her that promise on our first honeymoon three years ago cooped up in a motel room in a fishing town on the Oregon coast. We were rained out from the day on the beach I’d planned. Later, we took the switchback streets down to the docks but they smelled like rotten fish. So, I promised I’d take her away from all this. “Someday, we’ll spend a month eating baguettes on the streets of Paris.” And you know, any promise you make on your honeymoon is a promise for life.
Still, Elizabeth and I got shaky whenever we started talking about basic training. It wasn’t just the three months we’d be apart at first -- that was bad enough -- it was what the drill sergeants and their Army might turn me into.
“You’ll be like every other man I’ve ever known,” she said, biting halfway through her lip. “All rough and hard. Tough as nails like my father. I never wanted to marry my father.”
“I’ll still have a soft, pink inside,” I said with a laugh that hurt when it passed over my tongue.
“You know what I mean,” she said. “Those drill sergeants will turn you into what they want you to be. This stoic, rock-faced man. Not the same person I married. Even the recruiter said you’d change.”
“But the security, the money--”
She dropped her head into her hands as if she was tired of holding it up. “I know, I know.” She sighed. “You’ve gotta give something to get something. That’s exactly what my mother always told us kids.”
I held her hand. “I won’t let them take anything that belongs to you.”
She and I both knew what we were really talking about. We were afraid the Army would take the Jerome out of me.
That’s why when Rita called to tell us about Robin and the cowboy, it was such a funny thing hearing about all this trouble just when I was about to lose what little shred of Jerome I had left in me. It all seemed to be happening at once.
When we found out what was going on down in Arizona, Elizabeth turned to me and said, “I think we should be there. I need to be there.”
It was easy for me to say, “Okay, then that’s what we’ll do.”
I was about to quit Mr. Steak anyway, so we rented a moving van then called up my recruiter and made the arrangements to fly to Fort Knox from Phoenix. When I went down to pick up the paperwork I was to hand the drill sergeants in Kentucky, my recruiter called me into his office and said, “Lemme give you one last bit of advice. Keep your nose clean and do everything they tell you to do and you’ll be all right. Don’t ever argue with anybody. They love to pick on guys who think they’re out to change the world.”
My recruiter had been in the Army a long time, so I figured he knew what he was talking about. He wore round glasses with delicate gold frames. Behind the lenses, he had hard little eyes that looked like they’d seen a lot of terrible things in the Army. I wondered if he was old enough for Vietnam. On the wall over his head, sandwiched between the grinning portraits of Ronald Reagan and Caspar Weinberger, was a recruiting poster showing a green-faced soldier carrying a rifle through the jungle. Printed in big white letters over the foliage were the words “BE ALL YOU CAN BE.” I’d seen that phrase so much lately I was starting to think it was some kind of cheerful mantra that nobody, including my recruiter, believed in anymore.
He removed his glasses, took out a pocket handkerchief and polished one lens before settling them back on the bridge of his nose. Then he looked up at me and said, “They’ll try and stuff you full of a lot of crap in basic -- some of it’s worthwhile crap, some of it’s worthless crap. Just remember, it’s all a game.”
“Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind,” I said.
“They’ll try and make you believe things that aren’t true.”
“Like things about your mother,” he said and laughed.
“Oh,” I said.
He stood up and clapped me on the shoulder. “You won’t have a thing to worry about as long as you keep your nose clean.”
“Thanks, I’ll remember that,” I said as I walked out of his office into the strip mall parking lot. My entire body was tingling, starting in my chest and radiating to my hands and feet. I wondered if this was how it began -- they start numbing you in the recruiter’s office.
Jerome’s place was a pigsty when we got there. He and Robin had three kids from their short, rough marriage. With her sliding lower and lower, I guess there’d never been much room for discipline in their family. The youngest kid was still in diapers. I smelled him as soon as we walked up to the front door.
We rang the bell and, when Jerome opened the door, the rotten stench of what used to be his marriage came rolling out and punched us in the nose.
“Oh, Jer,” Elizabeth said. It was a whimper, the sound she would make if she found a dead puppy by the side of the road. “Oh, Jer. What did she do to you?”
“Hey, kiddo. Welcome to Scottsdale.” He took my wife in his arms then winked at me over the top of her head. Loose strands of her hair flew up alongside his nose, as if they were both full of static electricity. His face was soft and puffy. Without his glasses, he looked strange -- like someone who’s just come up from an underground cave, all pale and blinking. His eyes were two little slits and I wasn’t sure how he could see anything through them. He held Elizabeth for a long time while she cried on his behalf and he kept winking at me as if to say, “She’s always been like this, she’ll get over it in a minute.” Then he gave her shoulder one final, rough hug and said, “Come on in. The kids have been waiting up for you.”
We hugged the children. There were Kool-Aid rings around the boys’ mouths and the girl, Kerry Anne, was wearing her pajamas backwards.
Jerome and I shook hands and he said, “How’re you doing?”
“Just fine, but forget about me. How are you doing?”
He shrugged and grinned. “Surviving. That’s about the best word for it, I guess.” His smile faltered, then he picked it up again and said, “I thought the two of you could take my bedroom and I--”
“No, no,” we protested, but it was only a half-hearted effort. It was late at night and none of us were in the mood to argue about sleeping arrangements.
He brushed his hand through the air. “Really. It’s OK. I can take the sofa. I’ve gotten got pretty used to it those last few weeks.” His mouth failed him again and we both knew what was going on inside his head.
The boys started chasing Kerry Anne, weaving in and out of our legs, squealing and shouting so that we couldn’t even carry on a conversation. Elizabeth immediately took charge. That’s what I love about her, one of the main reasons I married her, in fact. She was one of the boldest women I’d ever met.
“C’mon kids,” she said. “Aunt Beth will tuck you night-night.”
Jerome and I stood there, smiling first at Elizabeth as she left the room with the kids, then at each other.
“She’s quite a gal,” he said.
“She sure is,” I said.
“Listen, why don’t you throw your things in the bedroom and then we’ll all sit down and have something to drink.”
Jerome’s house is really a deluxe mobile home, but the only way you can tell the difference from a real house is the fake wood paneling and the narrow halls. When I walked back to the bedroom with the luggage, I kept scratching it against the walls, but there were already streaks of crayon running along at waist-level, so I didn’t worry too much about it.
Jerome hadn’t bothered to tidy up the bedroom before we got there. I put the suitcases in a corner and looked at the bed. The sheets and comforter were puddled at the foot. On the pillow, there were dried slobber stains and a few short curly hairs. I decided I’d let Elizabeth ask about fresh sheets. He was her brother.
When I walked into the kitchen, Jerome had already fixed us drinks -- three tall glasses filled with a thick, pulpy juice the color of squash.
“Carrot juice,” he said. “It’s great for the eyes. It’s all I’ve got in the house. Hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all,” I said. I took a tiny sip, then set my glass on the counter. “So, how’s business down at Trailer City?”
Jerome stared at me with his serene, puffed-shut eyes. “Mark, you didn’t drive all the way down here to talk about that. You want to know about Robin.”
At that moment, Elizabeth entered the room.
“Yeah,” she said. “Let’s hear all about it.”
“First, a toast,” Jerome said, picking up his glass of carrot juice. “To love. In all its forms.”
We raised our glasses and Jerome and Elizabeth took long, deep gulps of their juice.
“So?” Elizabeth said.
Jerome licked the carrot from his lips. “So, she kicked me right between the legs is what she did. Completely out of the blue.”
“You didn’t see any of this coming?”
“How could I?”
“What do you mean, how could you? It’s seemed pretty obvious to the rest of us. First the guy from your church and now this. You should have seen it coming a long time ago, Jer.” She looked to me for support on this and I nodded.
“Sorry,” I said to Jerome. “I’ve always thought Robin was a little off the deep end. Hope you don’t mind my talking about her like that.”
Jerome brushed his hand through the air. “Trust me, I’ve been thinking lots worse in the past few weeks.”
We fell silent. I listened to the wind push against the mobile home, making all the joints creak. Back in the bedroom, the kids tossed and turned on their beds, squeaking the springs. Out in the neighborhood, a dog barked. It made me think of barking drill sergeants and my heart started pounding so hard, my head went dizzy for a few moments. My arms and legs were tingling again. With an effort, I snapped back to the issue at hand.
“So, what will you do?” I said.
Jerome shrugged, drank some more carrot juice and stared at a litter of stray crumbs on the counter. “Pick up the pieces.”
“Are you gonna file?”
“I don’t know yet. I just don’t know.”
“Divorce isn’t the taboo it used to be.”
“It is to me,” Jerome said. A shaky tenor note cracked his voice, threatening to split his throat in a dozen pieces. “It’s just-- It sounds too final to me. I think I’d totally crack up if it came to that.”
Elizabeth went up to him and put her arms around his waist. “Well, we’re here to help put you back together.” We all three acknowledged it was a lame thing to say, but none of us had anything better. Elizabeth kissed her brother on the cheek.
He took a deep breath and said in a brighter voice, “Where’s that super glue when you need it?”
We all laughed, then rinsed out the carrot juice glasses before going off to bed.
* * *
Elizabeth and I stayed up late that night, waiting until we heard Jerome snoring on the couch in the living room. Then we made love, barely moving, trying not to excite the bedsprings. I only had a week before basic training. I don’t know if it was that looming over us or the fact that we were exhausted by the drive or the fact that we were in her brother’s bed (now with clean sheets), but nothing happened. No fireworks. Still, I was happy just being inside her and I think she took comfort in holding me there for those few loose minutes. There was so much clawing at us now -- not only basic training, but also this mess with Jerome and Robin.
Afterwards, we lay there panting softly until Elizabeth said, “I hope that bitch gets everything she deserves.”
I had never heard my wife talk like that before. I raised up on one elbow and stared down into her face, so dim in the shadows of the bedroom. “I’m surprised at you, hon. I thought you and Robin got along fine together.”
“We did until this happened. But look at what she’s done to him. He’s ruined.”
“I know what you mean, but I’m still surprised to hear you use language like that.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry.” She reached out her arms and pulled me to her. “I just feel so bad for Jerome.”
We lay like that for the longest time, my head cradled in her arms. Just before we slipped off to sleep, I heard her whisper, “I promise I’ll never ever hurt you.”
They threw a party for me the night before I left. They called it “Mark’s Army Eve Bash” and every friend of the family who lived in the Phoenix area was invited. When everyone was there, I found I didn’t know anyone outside the small circle of my in-laws.
The party wasn’t Elizabeth’s idea -- she kept apologizing to me all day long because she knew how I hated to be the center of attention. It wasn’t even Jerome’s idea, though it was held on the deck and patio behind his trailer. It was the other men of the family -- the ones who’d fought in the wars -- who decided to send me off to the Army with beer and barbecue rolling around my guts. Something like a military bachelor party.
Sam and Zeke had seen Vietnam from the deck of Navy ships and Charles had been in both World War Two and Korea. He would have made a career out of the Army, he said, if it hadn’t been for his cataracts.
“Eight years and then my damn eyes busted,” he said, waving at the grill smoke with the spatula. “That’s one thing you wanna do, you wanna make sure they put everything down on paper when they’re talking about your body. You got that?”
“Got it,” I said, squinting at him through the greasy smoke. I looked around for Elizabeth. She was on the other side of the yard talking to Rita, Jerome and a heavy-set couple I didn’t recognize. Charles and I were alone at the grill. “Everything on paper,” I said.
“Everything,” Charles said. “The Army’s one big paper trail. You gotta have plenty of paper behind you so you can find your way back out if you ever get lost. Eight years I was in and I musta had a four-inch stack of memos and lab reports on my eyes alone.”
“Is that right?” I said.
“You been doing pushups?” He prodded my biceps with the spatula. Warm grease ran down my arm but I didn’t flinch. He wanted me to flinch, but I didn’t.
“Every morning and every night,” I said.
He laughed. “You’ll be doing them every hour when you get to boot camp.” His dentures were stained yellow where they met his gums. He still cut his hair in a flattop and with the sun-wrinkled neck and the yellow clicking teeth, he reminded me of something artificial, like a factory full of pistons and hissing steam and clanging blocks of steel. I remembered hearing someone call the Army “a factory of misinformation.” I wondered how much I could trust Charles, even if he was Elizabeth’s father.
“But don’t let me scare you,” Charles said. “Boot camp probably isn’t like that anymore. I hear they’ve gone soft these days. Probably give you a teddy bear and tuck you in at night. Ha! Ha!”
Zeke, hearing his father’s laughter, walked up and slung an arm around each of us, pulling all three of our faces closer. “Hey, whaddaya say, Private Mark?” His voice was a bullhorn and smelled of beer. “This old coot been telling war stories?”
“He’s been telling it like it is,” I said. Zeke pulled me off-balance with his neck-hold.
“Hey, Dad, tell him about Uncle Ron. Tell him whatcha did for Uncle Ron.”
“Ah,” he waved himself away from his son’s breath. “Don’t get me started.”
Zeke turned his face to me. “You ever hear about Uncle Ron?”
“I don’t think so.”
“He was in W-W Two along with Dad and--”
“Ronnie was in the Navy,” Charles said. His eyes grew small and hard as he took over the story. Smoke plumed behind his head. I saw a vein pulse like a worm under his flattop. “He was two years older than me. We always got along good -- fishing in the summer, hockey in the winter. Then came Pearl Harbor and we both got shipped out. I went to Europe and he went to the Pacific.” He stopped to cough away the barbecue smoke. His eyes watered. “Goddamn smoke.”
“You’re doing fine, Dad.” Zeke’s arm was still around my shoulder. “Go on.”
“Yeah, well there I was, moving along the French border when I heard Ronnie’s boat had been sunk, took three torpedoes in the side. I didn’t need to wait for the letter from home, I knew he’d been killed. So right away I got myself a little revenge, heh-heh. They even wrote me up in the papers back here. I killed fifteen Krauts at once. And I’m not talking about grenades, neither. I went berserk with the bayonet. I figured it was all the same -- Krauts, Japs, they were all the enemy.”
“That’s right, Dad,” Zeke said.
“Then I chopped up one of those Krauts and stuck his head on a stick and put it outside my tent. They wrote that up in the paper, too. Yeah, just cut it off and shish-kebabbed it on the end of a stick. There’s one for Ronnie, I said. They put me in the nut ward for five days until my company commander came in and found out why I’d done it. Then he told me to get dressed and go out and kill some more of those sonsabitches. His very words.”
Zeke and Charles laughed. I felt Zeke’s arm tighten around my neck like a vise.
“Now there’s one you can tell your drill sergeant,” Charles said. “I’ll bet he likes that one.”
“Maybe he will,” I said. My chest was tight from all the smoke swirling around Charles’ head. The back of my nostrils was bitter. I moved away from my in-laws and went over to Elizabeth. She was sinking her teeth into one of Charles’ hamburgers when I walked up.
“Hey,” she said. “You don’t look so hot.”
I forced a smile for her. “I’m just a little nervous about tomorrow, that’s all.”
“I’ve been talking to Mom about it -- asking her all kinds of questions since she was an Army wife, too.”
I winced. “Don’t say that?”
“Don’t say what?”
“‘Army wife.’ You’re still married to me, you know. You’re still my wife.”
Elizabeth frowned. “It’s just a term they use. I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“Well, I don’t like it.” I was feeling a flush of anger: anger at the thought of going away; anger at the thought of men with thick necks and tiny brains yelling at me for the next twelve weeks; anger at the mounting bills that had landed us here; anger at Elizabeth for already calling herself an Army wife.
“Don’t go around saying you’re an Army wife just yet,” I said. “What if I fail and get kicked out?”
“You won’t fail.” Elizabeth was wearing an expression I’d never seen before -- as if she was annoyed by my tension. And here I’d been thinking we were both going into this scared out of our heads. I felt like I was alone, stranded somewhere up in the Arctic without any matches. I say Arctic because I’d already lost all feeling in my arms and legs.
“How can you be so sure I won’t fail?”
“That’s what my mother said. She said it’s never as hard as you think it’s going to be. We will survive.”
Survive. Now she sounded like Jerome. I should have told her so -- I wanted to lash out with something nasty about her family, but I kept my mouth shut. I was about to take an all-expenses-paid trip to Hell for twelve weeks and I sure didn’t need this fight on our last night together. I kept my mouth shut for the rest of the party, even when my in-laws handed me a wrapped gift and made me open it in front of all the people I didn’t know.
It was a little wooden crate. Across one of the slats, Rita had written: “Boot Camp Survival Kit, Open in Emergency.” Inside, I found a razor, a bar of soap, a can of boot polish, a pocket-sized Bible and a pack of stationery bordered with teddy bears and purple hearts.
“Gee, thanks,” I said to everyone gathered around me. I was smiling, but inside I wondered what the drill sergeants would do when they found the teddy bears and hearts.
That night, when Elizabeth and I were in bed, we stared at the dark, shadowless ceiling, too tense to make love. We turned and held each other without speaking. I cupped the front of her breast in my palm, she eased her thigh over mine. We stayed like that, twined and sexless, until she fell asleep. I watched her face growing dimmer and dimmer the longer I looked at it. I thought my heart -- what was left of it -- would break. But I didn’t cry. I couldn’t. I lay like that for a long time. Her breath washed over my face, cooling my cheeks.
Three hours later, I opened my eyes, disoriented and feeling the tingling buzz. It had spread to my head, the static of busy-winged insects swarming in a cloud, a curtain dividing my head from my body. Moonlight slanted into the room, tilting the bed. I threw out my arm to hold Elizabeth against the mattress, but she wasn’t there. Nothing but a dent in the sheets on her side.
I heard a noise in another part of the house and sat up slowly. The insect curtain parted enough so I could see to find the bedroom door. I padded barefoot down the narrow hallway and stopped just short of the living room.
Elizabeth was holding Jerome. His head was in her lap and she was brushing his cheeks with the tips of her fingers. They were like two medieval lovers sitting by the side of a stream. All they needed was a wandering minstrel strumming on a lute.
When they spoke -- whispered -- I could tell they were both crying.
“You’re the only one who ever understood me,” she said.
“Aw come on, that’s not true.”
“It is, Jer. Even when we were kids, you were the only one I could run to. Zeke and Sam always put up this wall. They pretended like they didn’t feel anything. Remember how we used to call them the Novocain Boys?”
They both laughed through their tears.
“But you were always talking me out of doing things to them,” he said.
“Like the time with the BB gun?”
“Yeah, like the BB gun. You made me bury all the little beads in the back yard. You were always doing things for my own good. Why is that?”
“Well, somebody had to save you from yourself.”
“Even when I don’t deserve it, right?” Jerome started crying openly.
Elizabeth bent over him. “Shh, shh. You do. You do deserve good things. And now I’m here and things will be better.”
I don’t know what Jerome said in reply. I don’t know if I cleared my throat or if I made a sound as I backed away from the living room. I’d lost all feeling and all sense of direction.
* * *
The next day, Jerome drove us to the airport. Elizabeth and I sat in the back seat. She laced her fingers through mine and held our hands in her lap. My head was turned to look out the window, the hard, metal freeway signs blurring past the window without a sound. Even if I’d wanted to, I couldn’t read the words.
Once, she asked me, “What’s wrong?” but I shook my head without replying.
At the boarding gate, she gave me a long, deep kiss that sucked the breath from my lungs. I broke the kiss and backed away because I was already thinking about pushups and polishing boots and, yes, decapitated heads on sticks. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and turned away from her quickly, to get all the pain over with all at once.
I shook Jerome’s hand. “Jerome.”
He nodded, met my eyes, grinned. “Mark.”
Before I boarded, I turned to take one last look. Elizabeth had an arm around her brother’s waist. The other hand was pressed against his chest as if she was reaching for something or holding something back.
Jerome raised his arm and shouted across the airport, “Don’t worry about a thing. We’ll be waiting right here for you in three months.”
I turned, my heart pounding like a factory piston, and walked down the boarding gate’s accordion walkway. This was it. I was headed for a place where, if everything went right, I would come out a fighting man.
My heart was in my throat. If I opened my mouth and looked in a mirror, I could see it. If I coughed it up, I could taste it.