Free Drinks for War Heroes
Before Granddaddy Allen reached the beach, a Kraut sniper popped him in the left leg, just below his trick knee. The shot sent Granddaddy toppling into the cold surf, where he played dead for three or four hours, just bobbing in the waves while his blood snaked its way back to England. That’s the story he told us every Veterans Day after getting his complimentary bourbon at Tanya’s Jukebox, a dreary cinderblock building near the abandoned Frosty Morn Slaughterhouse. Granddaddy went once a year, wearing his black ball cap with the words “World War II Veteran” emblazoned across the front, because Tanya’s offered free drinks to war heroes. When he came home, grinning like a schoolboy, we’d try not to laugh while he talked about that German bullet rusting away behind his kneecap. Everyone knew the story was bullshit – either a way of saving face or a weaseling of free drinks from another unsuspecting Samaritan. If you want to know the truth, Granddaddy Allen missed most of the war because of his drunken dancing just before the D-Day invasion. On that rainy English night, my grandfather took a wrong step and fell off a piano, breaking his leg so bad that the bone came through his shin. The jitterbug injury, not a sniper, left the purple scar on his fishbelly-colored leg, earning him free cocktails and beers for the next five decades.
At Tanya’s, Granddaddy told the regulars how he eventually crawled onto the wet, bloody beach and, disguising himself in a dead German’s uniform, inch-wormed his way behind enemy lines. That’s where he killed the pesky sniper, cutting the man’s throat with a scrap of razor wire. Down below, those American boys, no longer pinned down on the beach, charged inland, eventually taking down the whole Nazi enterprise. The regulars at Tanya’s rewarded Granddaddy’s fiction with more free drinks, and it didn’t take long for my own father to exploit their patriotic generosity. The Veteran’s Day after Granddaddy died, Jeremiah Jackson tucked his long graying hair into a Vietnam Vet’s ball cap and took his place on his deceased father’s stool. After sheepishly accepting some Johnny Walker, neat, dear old dad regaled Tanya’s crowd with tales of his own hand-to-hand combat days, when waves of Viet Cong overran Camp Dodge City.
“I lifted this little guy and impaled him on a broken tree limb.” My father laughed sadly to himself. “Christ, I can still hear the guy’s screams.”
That story came straight from John Wayne’s The Green Berets, which dad and I used to watch on the Super Station when I was a kid. Like Granddaddy Allen, Jeremiah had been in the Army during a war, but also like Granddaddy Allen, he’d never come close to anything resembling combat. Instead of Vietnam, he served at Kagnew Station, a remote Army Security Agency outpost in what was then part of Ethiopia. That base’s shaggy-haired soldiers spent their days smoking dope and using a giant satellite dish meant for spying on the Russians to intercept proletarian pornography from the Eastern Bloc. The ragtag soldiers, one step removed from being spooks, rarely wore uniforms, rarely had any sort of military-style supervision, and as dad assured me, rarely had anyone buying them top-shelf liquor on Veterans Day.
Jeremiah now resides in the Alzheimer’s wing at Sunny Meadows – a bleak one-story nursing home poorly disguised as an old hunting lodge. Plaid curtains hang in the urine-scented lounge, and dusty lamps made of antlers fight off the facility’s ever-present dreariness. Whenever I stop by, the lodge’s overworked nurses gang up on me to complain about my father’s pitiful requests for a groin massage or at least a finger up his anus. The man I knew, the fake war hero, always prided himself on his modesty, swimming with a t-shirt on and subscribing to Playboy instead of Hustler, but as the years passed, something ate away at the thin membrane holding back his filthiest desires. Those once suppressed thoughts now flowed freely from his stuttering lips, and after an hour of sitting beneath a trio of stuffed mallards, apologizing for my father’s penis, I often headed home in desperate need of a drink. But my weekly trips to Sunny Meadows didn’t inspire me to impersonate a war hero. No, it took a long time for that family tradition to catch up with me, and it finally happened on the same miserably hot summer afternoon that Isis, my wife’s cat, was diagnosed with feline HIV.
The veterinary clinic’s staff, a somber group of ex-military men, bristled at the way Isis’s name reminded them of Islamic fundamentalists. I joked that the cat’s Christian name was really Osama bin Hitler, but after eighteen years of war no one in our town had a sense of humor anymore. Liz had named the tabby after the Egyptian Goddess because of the cat’s loving nature. When the vet mentioned that Isis was a boy, I said he’d have to take it up with my wife, if he knew where the hell she was living these days.
“You don’t let Isis outside, do you?” he asked. The veterinarian looked like an old U.S. Army colonel, with his shiny silver hair still cropped close to his pink scalp. He crossed his beefy arms. “He can’t go out ever again. He’ll infect others if he does.”
“How long’s he got?” It seemed like a reasonable question, but the colonel just blinked at me.
“We can put him down now,” he said. “Otherwise, keep him inside and keep a close eye on him. He’s got maybe two years, I’d say.”
I decided to let the little guy live, in case Liz came back. She’d moved in with a soldier from the Army post earlier that year. Not because she didn’t love me anymore, she explained. It was simply that, recently, I’d been unable to perform my husbandly duties in bed. She got tired of our kissing and petting, leading to a big celebration, only for the balloons to deflate before everyone yelled surprise.
After my visit to the vet, I took Isis home and left him locked in the house, despite his angry pleas for an afternoon of tomcatting. To cheer myself up, I went to half price day at Goodwill and spent an hour browsing the second-hand merchandise. I’d arrived too late – most of the good stuff was gone – but on my way out, I spotted a stiff black hat with the words “Operation Desert Storm Veteran” stitched on the front in gold letters. That brief war, if it was still considered a war, took place when I was in eighth grade, but there were so many wrinkles rippling across my forehead these days, as if the wind were blowing across a milky lake, I figured no one would notice.
I drove to Tanya’s, haunted by the sounds of Isis’s misery. The cat had followed me through the house that afternoon, pleading his case while I slipped on a collared shirt and spritzed myself with cologne from the local pharmacy. Before I left, he dug his claws into the couch, giving it a sort of violent, sensual massage, and then he let out this low, painful moan that had me picturing my father in tears while he exposed himself to some exhausted nurse.
I tossed the Desert Storm ball cap onto the passenger seat, and after my dented Ford slid to a stop in Tanya’s parking lot – the gravel’s white dust rising around us like smoke from a funeral pyre – I noticed the hat’s stiff posture, as if it were a reluctant accomplice in my free booze scheme.
I grabbed it by the brim. “You just let me do the talking, OK?”
The hat didn’t say anything, but the golden palm trees, stitched on either side of its lettering, stared coldly back into my face. The cap, like dad’s nurses and that veteran veterinarian, seemed hellbent on shaming me. They’d all perfected that pose of quiet condemnation, as if the local college offered a goddamn class on the technique. This self-righteous atmosphere put me in a pissy mood, so I took a deep breath and appealed to the hat’s fraternal nature.
“Come on, buddy.” I pulled it tight over my balding head. “We’re in this together.”
Tanya’s opened some time in the seventies, and forty-plus years later, it still looked half-finished – a square, unpainted box of a building with a flat roof. I imagined the original Tanya just scribbled a child’s version of a house onto a sheet of paper, forgoing an architect’s hefty fee, and handed it to some buddy contractor to build in his spare time. There wasn’t even a sign out front or a neon Budweiser logo to welcome thirsty travelers.
Inside, I struggled to pull my feet from the sticky floor, and the smell of spilt, stale beer took me back to my newlywed days, when Liz and I stayed out late playing pool all night and screwing in dingy, hole-in-the-wall bathrooms. The last time I saw her, pushing a grocery cart through Wal-Mart with one of America’s finest at her arm, she’d cut her long hair into something short and conservative, making me wonder if she was the same woman I loved all those years. It’s possible she glanced down at my useless crotch and asked herself the same thing.
“Is that what you want?” I asked, nodding to the sulking soldier she’d sent off to the dog toy aisle. He wore a too tight t-shirt with a desecrated American flag on it – tattered edges and bullets in place of the stars – in some misguided display of patriotism.
Liz shook her head. “I just want you to be fabulous, like you used to be.”
Well all right, time to be fabulous again. I sat at the bar with my head thrust forward, in case anyone had missed the shining, noble words on my cap. The place was empty, except for the sounds of the bartender in some hidden back room, struggling with Tanya’s glassware. The stools, the chairs, and the booths along the back wall were all covered in a shiny red vinyl that gave the place an anatomical glow, as if I were somehow sitting inside the very heart of the world. The giant organ, with no music playing or any other sounds other than those clinking glasses, didn’t sound too healthy, prompting me to touch my chest and wonder how many beats my own weary heart had left.
The bartender, a kid I recognized from the local college, finally came out with a rubber bin of freshly washed pint glasses. He set the bin on the bar and stared at me while I searched the blank walls, looking for some confirmation of Tanya’s fabled “free drinks” policy. Seeing none, I fiddled with my cap, as if I were adjusting the focus on a television, but this freckled bartender – Christ, was the kid even eighteen? – continued to gape at me.
“How old are you?” I tried to make my voice loud, like a war hero. “Were you even alive during the first Gulf War?”
Nothing. No smile. No nod. No, can I get you a drink sir? Bartenders are supposed to be chatty, which is why I hate them, but now I wished this kid better fit that old cliché. When there’s silence between two human beings, I can’t help but fill it, so I gave him an impromptu history lesson about that conflict in the early nineties, telling him how the U.S. Army spent months camped in the desert, drooling in its thirst for war.
“That first part, they called Operation Desert Shield,” I said, “but I never understood why they didn’t call the war Operation Desert Sword. I guess none of the generals were English majors with a sense of consistency, but it just makes sense that if you call one shield, you call the other sword.”
“And it was the first commercially marketed war. Bet you didn’t know that? The kids back home wore T-shirts like sports fans, supporting their local team off at an away game.” I was one of those kids, but I needed this mute barman to think I was over in the desert, fighting Iraqis. “My wife sent a picture of my nephew wearing a shirt with Saddam Hussein’s head on a spider’s body, as if his stockpile of chemical weapons had backfired. Below the Saddam arachnid were the words, ‘Iraqnaphobia: Nothing a little raid can’t take care of.’”
The bartender grabbed two pint glasses from the bin and bent low to store them under the bar. When the curve of his back broke the surface of my line of vision, like a humpback whale miles out in the gray ocean, I said, “You guys still offering free drinks to veterans?”
“Kenny can’t talk.” A voice like you’d hear on the radio, counting down pop hits, echoed from the far corner of the room, causing me to flinch. When I turned, I was shocked I hadn’t noticed the giant man, dressed in cargo shorts and a safari hat as if he’d just returned from Jurassic Park, sitting in one of the back booths. “He’s completely mute.”
“I was born without vocal cords,” Kenny, the kid bartender, said, confusing me a bit. But if you’re angling for a free drink, it’s best to just nod and agree.
The big guy made his way to the bar, groaning with each lumbering step, and after parking himself on the stool next to me, he squinted at my hat. “Did you know they originally called the second gulf war Operation Infinite Justice, but the Muslins thought only God could administer that, so they changed it to Enduring Freedom?”
I nodded. “Probably some overworked captain with a thesaurus came up with that one.”
“Kenny, get our friend here a drink. First one’s free for war heroes.”
First one? Not what I was hoping, but then I remembered Granddaddy Allen and my father, and how it was the other customers who kept them going after that initial complimentary beverage.
Kenny did a little maneuver with his hands, snapping and pointing at me simultaneously. I took that as the universal sign for, “what’ll you have?” so I ordered a Guinness and a shot of Jack, hoping that constituted one drink.
“Coming up,” the supposedly mute barman said.
“You’re not Tanya, are you?” I tried not to stare at the big buy, but his white, bristly mustache and bashful, kitten eyes – eyes that could be interpreted as sweet or pathological – rang all sorts of bells in my dry head.
“I’m afraid not. I took it over when she died. Murder-suicide.”
“Which was she?” I asked.
“She pulled the trigger twice.”
“Good for her,” I said, trying not to think of Liz, my father, or poor ole Isis.
Kenny set the beer in front of me, and after my lips puckered their way through the foam, I wiped my mouth and removed the Desert Storm cap. The hat seemed a little more relaxed, but I still turned it toward the row of liquor bottles behind Kenny in case it felt like shaming me some more. The bar’s owner ran his fingers through what remained of my sweaty hair, which was an odd thing to do, but I kept drinking.
“Hot out there?” he asked.
“Yeah. Felt like I was back in Kuwait.” A little too much, but what the hell.
“The TV guys fried an egg on the highway,” Kenny said.
The owner waved the kid away with two flicks of his fingers. “What’s your name, Mr. Desert Storm?”
“Madrid. Madrid Jackson.” Jeremiah, before his mind tried to make the world one large pornographic film, named me after the New Madrid fault line, the one people said was lying in wait, the one that would someday unleash a devastation upon Tennessee worse than any of those earthquakes in California or Japan. You pronounced it Mad-Rid, but most people addressed me as if they were talking about some glitzy city in Spain.
“Madrid Jackson? You married to Liz?”
Jesus. He knew Liz. The whiskey arrived, and I stared at it, wondering if I really wanted a drink and to continue this conversation. My unconscious mind probably didn’t take this debate too seriously because it’d be an insult to my ancestors to turn down a free drink. I shot the Jack, which gave me just the clarity I was looking for. When I turned back to my companion, the puzzle pieces in my head clicked together, reminding me who this man was.
“You’re the dean, aren’t you?” I motioned for Kenny to bring me another whiskey. “At the college?”
“Retired.” He said it quietly, as if the word still stung. Dr. Cy Phyllis – how could I forget a name like that? There’d been some controversy with him and a student – nothing sexual, but I think the young man ended up hurting himself, hacking up his own face and blaming the dean for scrambling the once pure thoughts running through his head. Liz said it was all a misunderstanding exacerbated by college politics, but I told her never to trust someone named after a venereal disease.
“Why’d that kid cut off his own nose, Dr. Syphilis?” I grinned to myself.
“Don’t be a shit.” Kenny hesitated with my second whiskey.
“I thought you didn’t have vocal cords?”
Kenny waited until Dr. Syphilis nodded, giving the OK for me to have another shot. While he poured, the old dean talked about the college, about how a bunch of its students came from the Army post and those long wars and how they were just looking for a bit of regimented peace in their lives.
“You can’t push too hard anymore.”
“Not all of us vets are fucked up,” I said, defending something I was never a part of.
“Is that what Liz would say?” A distressed expression warped his face, as if maybe he was about to break down crying. Why did that look bother me so? When he sniffed, sucking up his own tears, I couldn’t take it anymore.
“Liz left me. Left me because I can’t get it up.” Where the hell did that come from?
“It happens.” Dr. Syphilis rubbed his hand over his eyes.
“Your pecker?” Kenny backed away, as if impotence was contagious. “That for real?”
“My dad’s penis won’t go down. Just keeps standing at attention, trembling for someone to shout ‘At ease.’ And Isis is going crazy, wrecking my house, wondering if he’ll ever be loved again. I mean Jesus Christ, doc.”
Kenny disappeared into the back room, leaving me alone with the old dean. Dr. Syphilis stared straight ahead. I sipped my whiskey, wanting to savor it in case in was my last for the day. When it was empty, I thanked him and then, in a soft voice, said I was still pretty thirsty.
The dean went behind the bar. “Micah – that was the kid’s name – he never told me about the war. Never warned us that Hemingway and Tim O’Brien were too much to bear. What’d you see?” He took my glass and held it hostage, waiting for a story. It was time to make Granddaddy Allen and Jeremiah Jackson proud.
“I’ll tell you about Operation Desert Sword.” I tossed my cap into a far corner of the room, where he couldn’t trip me up. “Like I said to our pal Kenny, we marketed the hell out of it. The generals even dressed us in retro, World War II uniforms. No camouflage, no khaki colors. Just green fatigues, like the old G.I’s used to wear. They figured World War II was the last noble war, so why the hell not.”
“The Greatest Generation still firebombed women and children.”
“Not in this story, Dr.— ,” I struggled over what to call him. “Dr. Cy. In this one, our grandfathers are all still heroes, and we marched into Baghdad looking like we were some of Patton’s best and brightest.”
Dr. Syphilis poured me another Jack, and as he held the glass, I felt my cells reaching for it, like little plants that stretch their stems toward the light.
“There was this castle up in the mountains where all the Ba’ath Party higher-ups went to strategize and drink away their worries. Most people don’t know this – it was top secret – but since I was in the Army Security Agency, they sent me and eleven other guys to assassinate every last one of them.”
I figured he’d seen The Dirty Dozen, but I didn’t care. As I talked about my fake heroism, I felt the faintest of stirrings between my legs. It was time for liberation.
“We parachuted into the forest and then hiked our way toward the castle. Outside the front gate, I changed into a Republican Guard uniform, an officer’s uniform, and then I headed in to scope out the party.”
“They didn’t notice that you were Caucasian?” Dr. Syphilis asked. His question stumped me for a moment.
“My face and hands were wrapped in gauze.” I looked back, to see if my old cap had heard my recovery. “They just thought I was an officer who’d suffered burns during the war. Maybe I’d survived a coalition air strike.”
He nodded, his face contemplative, like you’d expect of a college dean.
“And then somehow the alarm gets tripped early. All these officers and elegant woman go scrambling through the castle, so I usher them down into the cellar for safety.”
“Let me guess,” Dr. Syphilis interrupted. “There are air vents leading up to the surface, so your crew dropped grenades and gasoline down the shafts and blew them all the hell?”
“No. We just left the poor bastards in there. Locked the doors and took off.” I pictured Isis, driving himself crazy inside the house, wanting to just escape and do what cats are supposed to do. “They’re probably still in that cellar, their hands bloody from decades of scratching at the door, trying to escape.”
“That’s horrible,” Dr. Syphilis said. “You think that makes you a war hero?”
He closed his eyes, and I waited for him to say something else. Then, I waited for Kenny to come back and offer me another drink or share his sufferings as a mute. I waited for the tingling in my crotch to become something more, to reawaken so I could go claim Liz as my wife, carry her in my arms across the threshold and love her greedily, as if I’d just returned from a long deployment to a war zone. I waited for the alcohol in my veins to whisk me away somewhere else, to make me feel as noble and worthy as the stories my family told, generation after generation. But in the end, I simply left Dr. Syphilis and Kenny inside Tanya’s Jukebox, left my hat too, and drove home through weather hot enough to fry an egg outside. I drove to my house and, before letting Isis out to love and infect the world, told him about Granddaddy Allen and Jeremiah Jackson and how they both helped save this country with their fictions, earning free drinks for the rest of their lives.