THE OTHER WAY AROUND
MY BROTHER-IN-LAW, BO, just got sent home from Iraq because he got his hand cut off. He and his wife, Becca, are on their way over to our place, and Jacie’s all worked up because she can’t remember if he likes coleslaw or potato salad better. I told her he just got back from the desert. He doesn’t care if he’s eating yesterday’s meatloaf as long as he doesn’t have to do it in a tent worrying about whether some towel-head’s going to walk in with a bomb strapped to his chest.
She shoves a bowl of potato chips at me and flings herself back to the kitchen. Even though I’ve got the TV on loud, I can still hear the pop of the chicken she’s frying, and I know she’s wishing it was me she was dipping in that oil.
I hadn’t even mentioned anything about giving up our tickets to the game. It’s Saban’s first year at Alabama, but we’ve got nine returning starters, so we’re practically handing him a winning season. And it’s not like we haven’t seen Bo yet. We went to dinner at their parents’ a few nights ago. Don’t see why we have to do it all again so soon, and during the first game of the season.
JACIE COMES BACK in just before kickoff. She heads straight for the TV, turns it down, and stands in front. Her arms are crossed over her chest, so I know to let her speak.
“Ethan, my brother has been through more than we could ever understand.”
I take a sip of my beer before speaking. “I’m sorry the kid got hurt. I really am, honey.”
“Just show a little sympathy for what he’s going through.”
“I’m sure Becca’s taking good care of him.”
“Oh, please! She’s too wrapped up in her career to pay attention to anyone but herself. If I see one more of those awful commercials…it’s so embarrassing. I swear you can see her nipples.” When Jacie uncrosses her arms, she shifts just enough so I get a glimpse of the screen. Both teams are in position. Bama’s going to kick. She’s still talking. “If Bo needs time to figure things out, I think he’s earned a right to do it.”
“I thought that’s what the army was for,” I mutter so low she can’t hear me. But I don’t repeat myself. “You turn up the TV now, and I’ll be in a better mood when he gets here.”
She scowls but gets out of the way. “Don’t stare at him or say anything weird.”
Like, what kind of dumbass drops a crate of dinner plates on his hand? But I don’t say that out loud.
The kick drops around the five-yard line, and Bama stops them at the twenty-five. Saunders should have had him at the fifteen, but he went for the ankles and missed.
My beer’s empty, and I’m trying to decide if it’s worth it to ask Jacie to get me another when the doorbell rings. She blows by me to answer it, messing with her hair the whole way, then takes off her apron and throws it across the chair in the corner.
“Get over here,” she hisses, then swings the door wide enough I can see Bo and Becca on the front porch.“Hi, sweetie.” Jacie kisses Bo’s cheek and pulls him inside. “Becca. Come on in.”
She glares at me so I stand up. Becca’s closer, so I give her a hug and pat on the back then offer Bo my hand. Jacie shoots me a look like I’m the world’s biggest asshole. Becca turns away, asks if she can duck in the little girl’s room. Bo seems the least bothered. Just pats my shoulder. “Game started?”
“You look great, Bo. Just great.” Jacie prods me with her eyes. “Doesn’t he look great, Ethan?” Everything seems about the same as it did last week. His hair’s shorter than when he left but not real short. His face might be a little thinner, but he was always kind of wiry. I always had trouble picturing him in desert camo holding an M4 carbine, but he was only a truck driver, not exactly in the thick of combat.
“Sure. Great.” He looks me straight in the eyes, moves in a little closer, almost like he’s going to head-butt me or something, but then he grins and walks around me to look at the TV. He smells like booze and Vaseline.
“Carolina’s got it on the twenty-five,” I tell him.
“You think Saban’s going to pull this off? Everyone in this town’s treating him like our next lord and savior.”
“We’ll see. He couldn’t ask for a better group of starters. It’s not a great year to pick up FSU, but Bowden’s losing his touch.”
He points to my beer. “Can I get one of those?”
I look at the TV. Third and three. Jacie comes up behind us.
Pass is complete at the forty-five. “Oh, come on. Where the hell was Gray? He should have been right there.”
Jacie pinches my arm. I turn to Bo.
From the kitchen I hear Jacie trying to get everyone settled. I can’t tell exactly what she’s saying, but her voice has that high pitch it gets when she’s talking to the neighbor’s dog. Surely Bo notices it too. He may be a lot of things, but stupid’s not one of them.
“Aren’t you going to offer me one of those?” Becca asks, taking off her jacket. Underneath she’s wearing a Thompson Tractor T-shirt that is tight enough across her breasts I can see the outline of her bra. In the back of my head I can hear what Jacie is going to say once they’re gone.
“We got light if you want it.”
“You worried about my figure?” She smiles and takes one of the bottles I’ve already opened. Sips slow.
“That’s for your husband.”
“Well, I guess he’s going to be thirsty then. Unless you’ve got something else for me.”
I reach around in the refrigerator and find the bottle of white wine Jacie picked up this morning. “Corkscrew’s out there on the bar. Jacie’ll probably drink some too.”
“I thought she was…”
“Not yet. We’re still trying.”
She puts her hand on my arm and looks into my eyes like she sees her reflection. “Oh, I’m sorry, Ethan.” I shrug, pull two wine glasses from the cabinet. “The fun part’s trying, right?” She cradles the bottle in one arm and picks up the stems of the glasses with the other. “Come on, we shouldn’t leave them alone so long. Might start to team up against us.” She uses her hip to push through the door and backs out and lets it swing wide behind her.
OUR DEN DOESN’T hold four people all that well. I’ve got my easy chair, but the other three are on top of each other on the couch. Bo in the middle. Becca’s sunk into the back cushion, picking at her nails, while Jacie, shoulders squared towards Bo, fires off a million questions .
“Can I get you some more coleslaw, sweetie?” Jacie asks.
“Nah, I’m stuffed,” Bo says.
“But you’ve barely touched anything.”
“I’ll take some,” I say, not looking away from the game. Carolina’s receiver runs deep into the end zone, but Saunders goes up and strips him on the way down. “Hell yeah!” I jump out of my chair.
“You’re up. You can get it yourself.” Jacie puts her plate on top of Bo’s. “Take these when you go.”
Becca looks up at me and grins. “Mine too.”
Bo leans back into the couch and puts his arms around the women. Jacie’s on the side with no hand, and she looks at the empty sleeve like she’s about to cry but covers herself with a strange smile. I don’t know why he’s so stubborn about not getting a prosthetic. It sure would make people more comfortable.
“Will you grab me a beer, buddy?” When I get back with two beers, Bama’s got the ball on their own forty-five.
“You missed a great return. Arenas dodged three tackles before he was pushed out of bounds.” I hand him his beer. He takes a big swig and puts it on the coffee table. No coaster, but Jacie doesn’t say anything.
“Have you thought any more about going out to Mama and Daddy’s tomorrow night? They’ve invited a bunch of people who want to see you.”
“Nah. I think we got other plans. Don’t we, Bec?” He rubs her thigh. She looks up from her magazine and smiles big.
“Thompson’s sponsoring a charity softball tournament. Breast cancer or something. I have to be there to autograph posters.” She pats Bo’s arm. “But you don’t have to come, sweetie. You should be with your family.” He grins bigger than she does. “We’re quite the celebrity couple around here. Speaking of, are you all coming to my parade next weekend?”
No way in hell, I think. “I’m working,” I say.
Jacie doesn’t even look at me. “Of course we are. But, Bo, Daddy’s frying fish, and Mama says they’ve hardly seen you.”
“There’s nothing for you to do at the tournament, honey, except sit around and watch a bunch of middle-aged men make fools of themselves.”
“And sign autographs. Not only am I a war hero, I used to be the best baseball player in town.”
“But, Bo! Daddy…”
“Shhh. I want to watch this.” The ball is kicked and just makes it through the uprights. “Hell yeah! I think we’ve got this one in the bag. Excuse me a minute.” He stands up, walks around to the back of the couch, and stretches both arms above his head. The sleeves on his shirt fall towards his elbows, and his stub shows out the top. The skin’s got three white lines, so you can see how they sewed it together over the forearm bones just shy of where his wrist would be. I can’t stop looking at it.
“Where you going?” Jacie asks.
“Jesus! Can’t I even take a piss without the third degree?” He walks down the hall to the bathroom. Becca leans in towards Jacie.
“Your new curtains are fabulous. I’ve been trying to talk Bo into letting me redo our den.” She takes a sip of wine. “But he wants to start having kids, which is just crazy.”
Jacie’s flinch is so small that if I hadn’t been watching for it, I might have missed it. But I don’t. Neither does Becca.
“I mean, it’s great for you,” Becca says. “You’re the kind of people who should have kids. But we’ve got other things going on.” She looks at Jacie, then me, then back to Jacie. “You know what I mean.” I decide this might be a good time to jump in.
“Jacie’s going to be a great mama.”
She smiles at me like I haven’t seen in months. It’s small and a little shaky, but it’s there. She stands up. “I’m going to get more chips.” When she passes my chair, she kisses the top of my head, and I squeeze her thigh before turning back to the game.
“Did I miss anything?” Bo asks, walking back in the room.
He coughs from deep in the back of this throat like he’s about to hack up something, but instead he taps his chest with the stump and takes a sip of his beer. “I hate that shit.” He turns up his bottle, drains it, and slams it down and leans back into the couch, propping his feet up next to the row of empties.
AT THE HALF Bama’s up 38-3, and between that and the six-pack I’ve finished, I’m feeling good. Bo’s had a six-pack too, so I announce I’m going to make a beer run.
Bo stands when I do. “I could use some air. You ladies want anything?”
Jacie looks at me, then Bo. “You all better hurry. Game’ll be back on soon.”
I pick the keys up off the table and kiss her on the forehead. “We’ll just go up to the BP. Won’t take long.”
SOON AS WE’RE out of the driveway Bo digs a pill bottle from the pocket of his army hoodie.
“Wouldn’t mind being a fly on the wall in that house right about now.” I snort and watch him struggle with the cap, but he pulls it off pretty good with one hand like he’s done this a time or two. “Wonder who’ll crack first. My money’s on your wife, especially if Becca gets going about that damn job of hers.”
“We saw the new commercial the other day. Not bad. Bet they’ll sell a hundred tractors this quarter.”
“Money’s not a problem right now.” He pops two big white pills in his mouth and swallows them whole. No water or anything. “Oxycontin. Best part of this whole thing,” he says when he catches me looking. “Want one? Buddy of mine sends them to me. I can get as many as I want.”
“Nah, I’m good.”
He shrugs, puts the bottle back in his pocket. “Too good for me, is that it?” He punches me in the arm. “Only playing, brother. You know I got a lot of respect for you.” No one’s on the road, but I keep looking straight ahead and act like I’m concentrating on driving. Bo keeps talking.
“It takes real stones to work for my dad. I sure as hell couldn’t stomach that.”
“There are worse things to do.”
He pulls a pack of cigarettes from the pocket where he put the pills, shakes one into his lap, sticks it between his lips, and lights it. All with the same hand.
“Catfish are gross little fuckers. No offense.” He blows smoke right in the cab. Doesn’t even crack his window.
“Don’t deal with the fish much. Books mostly.” I open my window.
“My bad,” he says, waving the smoke with his handless arm. He cracks his window, then turns and stares out. It’s dark, but I guess it’s more natural for him, somehow, than facing forward.
THE CASE OF beer won’t fit on the floorboard, so we keep a couple in the cab with us and put the rest in the bed. I’m opening my door ready to load up when Bo comes around to my side. “Let me give it a whirl, will you, bro? Becca’s been doing all the driving. It’s making me nuts.”
“I don’t know. Jacie’d skin me alive.”
“You work the gearshift, and I’ll handle the wheel. It’s a straight shot. Not more than two turns.” I’m trying to figure if that’s right, picturing us wrapped around the oak at the corner of 11th and Queen City.
“Come on, man. Give my balls back, just for a few minutes.” He looks me straight in the eyes, and I can see he’s serious. I hand him the keys. He has to reach around the gearshift crank it. He shifts to reverse, then turns the wheel. Steadying the wheel with his knee, he shifts to drive, then grabs for the wheel again and we’re on the road.
“Whooo-whee!” He rubs his hand around the wheel. “This is better than jerking off.”
“I want to drive down the strip.” He turns up the radio. “Still commercials.” He makes the turn down University before I can say anything either way. There aren’t many cars out, a few kids on the sidewalks between the bars. At the end of the strip we can take a right on Jackson, right on 16th, and take that back up to Queen City. But he keeps going straight, and we’re heading out of town.
“Hey, you missed the turn.” I figure maybe he just got confused. He’s been gone the better part of two years. “Take the next right, and we can hit Bryant Drive.”
“Becca wants me to see a shrink. Says it’ll help me readjust. She doesn’t want to deal with me.” He keeps going straight. We’re about to the quad, which will be full of tailgaters. Then there’s the stadium. No way we need to be around all those cars.
“Look, buddy. You need to turn around.”
“She also suggested coaching. But I don’t have much of an arm anymore.” He laughs. “So I’ve decided I’m going to write a book, and I want you to help me.” We’re swerving in and out of our lane because he’s looking at me more than the road. I’m trying to figure out how to take control of the wheel and not wreck us when blue light fills the cab and a siren bleeps behind us. Bo pulls over and turns to look me straight in the face. “I met a guy in Maryland, lost his leg to a roadside bomb. A publisher in New York’s already paid him $250,000. And he hasn’t even written a word. I figure, with you helping, we could double that. What do you say?”
I’m more concerned about the cop and getting Bo to calm down. “Yeah, sure, whatever. Just be cool.”
He grins. “Super.” He rolls down the window and leans his head out. “Howdy, officer. How’re you doing this evening?”
“Where you boys in such a hurry to get to?”
“We’re just trying to make it home before the second half. Didn’t think I was speeding though.”
The cop shines a light into the cab. Lands on the cup holder with our open beers. “You were swerving all over the road.” He shines the light in my face, then Bo’s, but Bo doesn’t even flinch, just props his arms against the wheel, lets his sleeve fall down. Turns his torso so the A-R-M-Y letters are facing the cop.
“Just got back home. Wanted to see what I’d been missing.”
The cop turns off his light, looks around at the street. “Aren’t too many people out.” He pats the window frame. “You boys head on home now.”
“Yes, sir. We sure will. Roll Tide.” The cop touches the bill of his hat, nods, and walks away. His car pulls out around us, and Bo slaps my shoulder.
“Can’t beat that Army cred. Bet I could get away with murder.” He cranks the truck, but I get out, and walk around to his door.
“I’ll take it from here.”
“We got off scot-free.”
“Jacie’ll be watching for us. She’ll have my head if she sees you pull up.”
He slides out of the cab and I climb in. “I’ll keep your secret if you keep mine.” He shakes the pocket with the pills so I can hear them rattle.
I’M IN BED waiting for Jacie to turn out the light on her side, but instead she taps me between my shoulder blades and puts her hand on my shoulder.
“I’m worried about him, Ethan. He’s acting tough, but I know he’s hurting.”
I roll onto my back, and she hovers above me.“He’s fine, honey. He couldn’t be happier. He’s back home, and he’s rich and famous.” Son of a bitch is better off than we are.
“Did he say anything to you?’
“Yeah, he said, ‘Don’t tell Jacie, but I’m going to slit my wrists.’”
“That’s not funny, Ethan. Not even a little bit.”
“I don’t know what you want me to say, honey.” I sit up. “The kid is exactly the same except now he’s got more of an excuse to dick around. He’ll probably never have to get a real job, and he’s got us to show off to.”
She scoots back and presses her palms into the mattress so her shoulders are up around her ears.
“You can be a real jerk, you know. His wife is too self-absorbed to even notice he needs her. You heard what she said about having kids? He wants a family, and she wants to be stared at. She told me Ethan wanted to buy a bigger house, but she convinced him they should get a convertible instead. If that isn’t the most ridiculous thing you’ve heard. He could have had any woman in town.”
“And she could have had any man. They’re perfect for each other.”
She lays back against the headboard and grabs the covers and pulls them hard so they come off me and around her.
“I’m sorry you’re upset, honey.” I lean over and put my hand on her leg. I’m not sure how much longer I can keep my eyes open, so I’ve got to end this quick and do it well so I’m not on the couch again. “But he’s a grown up. We’re here if he needs us, but right now he’s got to be independent and prove to himself and everyone else that he’s okay.”
She puts her hand on top of mine. “I just hate that there’s nothing we can do.”
I WAKE UP with the phone in my face. I look at the clock. “What the hell?”
“It’s Bo. He wants to talk to you. I think he’s drunk.”
She turns on the light, and I can see how serious she is. I sit up and take the phone. Because Jacie’s practically on top of me, I do my best to sound like I’m not about to throw it against the wall when I say hello.
“Ethan, get down over here, man.” He’s yelling over what I assume is loud music.
“Where the hell are you?”
“Gillette’s. I need you, man. ASAP.”
I’m about to tell him to fuck off when Jacie puts her hand on my arm. “Give me ten minutes.” I hang up and throw the phone on the bed. Jacie jumps up and reaches for a sweater.
“I’m coming with you.”
“No. He’s fine.” I put my hands on her shoulders and ease her onto the bed. I pull on a pair of pants from the hamper and grab my jacket. “Just too cheap to call a cab.”
I HAVEN’T BEEN in Gillette’s since college. It’s on the strip and mostly full of sorority girls and older guys looking to nail one. Jacie hates me going down to any of those bars, saying it doesn’t look good, that people will think I’m one of those dirty old men. I can’t figure how Ethan ended up there or why in the hell he’s calling me, but I do know the strip will be packed and that I’m likely to snap on anyone who comes close to touching me.
I park on Jackson and cut through the alley to hit University. The sidewalks are swarming with students in crimson and white. Would have been like this almost any Saturday night, but because of the game people are louder and more rowdy. And even though it’s almost last call, they’re still going strong.
The bookstore next to Gillette’s has enormous speakers blasting the fight song, which gets drowned out by the music in the bar. A guy inside the front door, twice my size and probably half my age, looks like he’s put out by my being there. I stare at him hard, daring him to ask for my ID. He just nods.
“Roll Tide,” I murmur on my way up to the bar, which is crowded except for the end where Bo is sitting.I walk up behind him and wait for him to turn around.
“Hey! Ethan! You made it! What do you want?”
“To be in bed with my wife. Where’s yours?”
“She left almost as soon as we got here. I think she’s bored of me already.” He grins and slaps me on the back. “One drink before last call. Bourbon?”
“How about you tell me why I came down here.”
He leans his face closer to mine, and I can see how big his pupils are. “The book, brother. Things have been hitting left and right. We need to start writing this shit down.” He pats the stool to his right, beckoning me to sit.
“You’re fucking crazy. You got me down here—got Jacie all worried because you think I’m going to help you with some goddamn book?”
“Man, we’re gonna make a killing. I’ve been talking to people all night. Everyone wants to know what happened, what’s it’s like over there.” His eyes are real wide, and he’s talking fast but slurring every other word.
“You don’t need me to write the goddamn thing.” I look down at his arm propped up against the bar. “Get a computer and type it. You can do that with one hand.”
“Come on, man, you know you’re smarter than me. You studied English.” He looks straight at me and doesn’t blink. “I didn’t even go to class. I need your help.” His forehead’s sweaty and his eyelids droopy, but there’s a severity to his stare.
“It’s so fucked up over there. I didn’t even want to come home.”
The bartender, a dolled-up undergrad, comes over. Bo points to his empty glass and holds up his index finger. She looks at me, and I shake my head. The bartender puts a new bourbon in front of him, and he smiles and sits up straighter. “Thanks, sugar.” She smiles too and even glances back and smiles again when she’s halfway down the bar. He takes a swig, sets the glass down, and faces me straight on.
“Come on, man. What else do you have to do?”
“Run your family’s business and keep on my wife’s good side. I stay pretty busy.” He smirks. Something about the way he looks at me, not blinking, I can feel in my spine.
“I know you think I’m a jackass.” He leans in closer. “But look at yourself, man. You married the first girl you screwed more than once. Now you’re in bed with her father. You got nothing of your own.” His words are slurry, but his eyes couldn’t be more clear. He takes another sip. “You can’t even get her knocked up, for Christ’s sake.”
He leans in so close his nose almost touches mine, but he turns and whispers into my ear, “You must not want it bad enough. Bet you could get my wife pregnant.” He slaps the bar, throws his head back, and lets out a cackle that, if I hadn’t been staring at him, I wouldn’t have believed came from a human being. Then he puts his hand on my shoulder. “Bet most men in this town could get my wife pregnant.”
I shove his hand off and grab the front of his shirt. He staggers back and leans his face in close and grins. “You don’t have the balls.”
I stare back, my fist clenched so close to his chest I can feel the thud of his heart, heavy and dull like a rubber mallet against a concrete wall. He smirks with both corners of his mouth, smug as all hell. I drop his shirt and spin my stool to face the bar. As he reaches for his glass, he laughs again. I spin back and swing my fist smack into his face.
He falls backwards off his stool and crashes to the ground. Except for the screeching music of the stereo, the room goes quiet. But not for long. Low murmurs break into muffled laughter. Bo, on his stomach, his stump under his torso, tries to push himself up with his good hand, but he just keeps collapsing. Each time his nose flattens on the wooden floor. I climb off my stool and offer him mine. He shoves it away, rolls onto his back, and leans forward into a sit-up until he’s seated.
“It’s time to go,” I say.
Before I can make a move, the bouncer comes behind Bo and grabs him by the back of his neck. He pulls him onto his feet and without saying anything drags him to the exit and throws him out the door.
I find him on his feet, clutching the bad arm to his chest, and there’s blood on his shirt. I put my hand on his shoulder and try to get a better look.
“Don’t fucking touch me.” He rolls his shoulders back and winces as he tries to straighten himself. The left side of his face is red and swollen. He turns so his back’s to me, but I can tell he’s looking at the injured arm.
“Let me see,” I say.
“Go home, Ethan.”
“Is it bad?”
“Leave me the fuck alone.” I look down at the sidewalk and see splotches of blood.
“I think we should go to the hospital.”
“What do you know?”
“Just let me look.”
He turns to face me dead on. “You want to see it? Fine. Here it is.” He thrusts his arm towards me. “Think you can make it better? Or you just want to see how fucked up I am?” When he holds it still I see the sutures have broken open and flesh and bone are exposed.
“We’ve got to get you to a doctor.” He looks again, winces.
“Fuck, man.” He lowers the arm, and it looks like it’s all he can do not to cry. “Yeah, let’s go.”
WHEN WE GET to the truck, I shed my jacket, take off the T-shirt underneath, and reach over the bed to hand it to Bo. “It’s pretty clean. See if you can slow the bleeding.”
As soon as we’re in, he pulls out the pills and pops two. He looks like he’s struggling to keep it together, so I start talking. “What’s it really like over there?”
He keeps looking straight ahead. “Hot.”
“What’d you do?”
“Did you see any fighting?”
“One time our convoy’s lead vehicle hit an IED. I was way far back and couldn’t see anything but smoke. Some poor bastard was screaming in Spanish. You could hear him over all the engines and radios and everything, howling in Spanish. Couldn’t understand a damn thing.”
“How’d you know it was Spanish?”
“I just did.” He wipes sweat from his forehead with his good hand. “You got any water?” he asks.
I glance behind his seat. “There might be a beer or two back there.”
“I want water.” I feel him staring at me, and then he turns back to the road. I see a gas station and pull in. Bo goes inside with my T-shirt wrapped around his wrist. I get out too, and standing there on the asphalt under the yellow lights of the canopy, waiting, I can hear the insects in the trees calling out in all their different voices. I know it’s ridiculous, but I swear I can hear each of them as clearly clear as I’ve ever heard anything.