John, I can't watch war movies anymore. Full Metal Jacket and a screaming Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann; Apocalypse Now with a side of crazy Kurtz; Platoon and Willem Dafoe falling to his knees. All because of you, fuck you very much.
You announce it on Easter Sunday. The day we are supposed to dye eggs ugly pastels but instead settle for drinking a case of Schlitz. Dad sticks his chest out in boastful manly pride when we all know he hasn't done anything harder than smack us around the last few years, mom can’t get over your haircut, and fat Aunt Shirley keeps plugging away on that ambrosia fruit salad she brought over. No one likes that salad. We feed it to the dog after she leaves and he gets the runs on mom’s antique rug. Everyone looks at me like I should say something. Like I can save you. Instead I call you an idiot (everyone else wants to say it so why not me?) and I end up under your arm in a headlock. You always did like to beat the shit out of me.
Before you leave you issue words of warning. If I do drugs or blow off school you’ll break my arm. If dad puts a hand on me, you’ll break his throat. You both got that? you ask, like either of us have options.
Dad says, You’re in for a helluva fight, John. You laugh and lead me out of the room. You take me with you. Always.
Only Dad gets the raw deal. He’s afraid of you.
Sitting on the kitchen counter, smoking cigarettes on our last day together. We Febreze the hell out of that kitchen so mom doesn’t find out. I don’t know what I expect but it definitely isn’t the condom you pass me, or the confession that you’re only doing this to get away from home. It’s not to help the country or because you’re patriotic, you’d wrap yourself in the flag and tar and feather it if it would get you out of this house. Fuck the government, you say, Steve Earle style. You just want somewhere else to take your depression. A desert seems the place to go.
You make me promise to nail Chrissy Flanagan, a girl I’ve had a crush on since sixth grade. She looks good in yellow. With her red hair and curls, the two of us only imagine what else she has in store down there. You go through a stoic checklist. You’ll serve, do your time, and then come home. You’ll move me out, somewhere across town, into an apartment with you.
A good plan, Levi, you say. The best plan.
The letters I read in your room so they can’t haunt mine. They’re your words, I need your space. I get one a week. In these letters, pieces of scribbled script (you are the only guy I know who still uses cursive), you sound different. You aren’t angry anymore, just tired. Regretting going isn’t an option, but you sure as hell won’t do another tour. You miss pussy and beer too much. You miss me. Mom cries at night and dad drinks. But it’s not because you’re gone. It’s just because they’re assholes. I smoke your cigarettes in your room and it’s like you’re back. The stench seeps into the walls and your sheets. When they pound on the ceiling with the end of the broomstick I pound back on the ground with my fist.
I go down on Chrissy Flanagan after Sadie Hawkins. She asked me, how do you like that John? And she’s so pink and nice and tight. She touches my chin, brings me up to her level. She smells my breath and doesn’t pull away. She’s kind of awesome like that. You remind me of your brother, she says. I flinch and she stammers, Not like that, I didn’t mean it like that, Levi.
Nervous laughter as she slips her black underwear back on. It’s because you look like him, Chrissy says. I see you and I remember him in the halls of Johnson County High. Before he left.
He was so tall, she says, and I take her in my arms. She doesn’t remember what I do. You were taller than everyone.
We used to go down to Lake Elmo and catch catfish. You gutted, I cooked; I could never stand the blood and entrails. We’d get drunk and skip stones. You never talked a lot except when you drank. But when you really did talk, folks listened. I sure wish I would have. Because I didn’t know you were telling me the truth that day.
I got nothin left for me here, you said. Soon, I’m breakin ground, kid.
Where you gonna go, John?
Anywhere that doesn’t have my name on it. Anywhere that ain’t easy.
voice—soft and calm. I never took you seriously until you filled
paperwork. Enlisted like you were such a badass motherfucker. You even
skinhead haircut. That time at the lake, one of the last times, I
glancing at the sky and asking for rain. I had a bite but I never
reeled it in.
I get into a fight after class. You’re 10,000 miles away and I still can’t help shouting for you. If you were there you’d break the guy’s jaw. Instead I break his nose and get expelled for two days. When I get home, Mom sits me down and dabs my face with peroxide. She doesn’t say much except, You fight like your brother. You fight like a man. And she doesn’t sound proud about it.
When the letters stop, when they tell me how you died, I keep wondering if you have a face. And when I see the closed casket I know you don’t. I keep my head down the entire time because if I see one more person point and whisper, That’s the brother, like it’s some kind of curse, I’ll climb into the goddamn coffin with you, John. I really will.
He’s not supposed to talk like this but he does. Your friend, a big soldier with a broad jaw and tattoos across his knuckles, named Kurt or Mark or something equally forgettable, breaks down in the pew. I stand there awkwardly, wondering why I can’t cry like he can. He wipes his eyes, says, Aw, man. Fucking...Christ, man. I'm weeping here.
You looked for a hand signal, too slow, and they shot you down. That hospital bed was the first moment of peace you had in months. Kurt/Mark says you begged god to let you die. That you asked for me, screamed for mom, and then you just died. I think it’s funny because you hated god and mom. I call him an asshole and leave. I hear that guy in my nightmares.
When they give me your dog tags it really kicks me in the fucking chest. I shove the tags into the pocket of my jeans. The one thing you leave me with. A souvenir of cold metal in my pockets. I hate your guts, John. I’ll never forgive you for dying. The things I can’t do without you could fill a goddamn book.
Chrissy crawls through the window. She keeps her hand on my back while I’m a little pile of misery in your bed. She comes every night. Says, Levi, and rests that calming hand on my back. It puts me out. I may have nailed her once but just like that I already love her. It’s funny if you really think about it because every time I fuck Chrissy Flanagan I’ll think of you, John. It’s wrong but I will.
The sheets still smell like you. Diesel from your jalopy and fumes from your Marlboros. Streaks of grease from the beds of your nails. You gave up your job at the gas station to go and die. I hope you’re happy. I hope your car never runs again. I hope you liked the desert when you were there. I hope it was enough of the world for you to see.