“Damaged Goods”: A Short Story by Jason Randolph

Posted: June 1, 2013 in Vol. 3: Spring Essays 2013

file0001004907422I imagine the walls of the room are covered with either cheap wood paneling or wallpaper printed to look like a deep chocolate wood grain.  The ceiling is that sprayed-on shit that looks like rough sandpaper.  The whole place looks like it was built back in the Seventies.  I’m imagining this, but in actuality, it probably isn’t too far off the truth.  They don’t really concern themselves with keeping VA hospitals up with the latest design trends.  Or hygiene standards.  I’m probably lucky if I don’t have a family of rats as roommates.

I imagine all this, but I have no way of confirming it.  I don’t even know how long I’ve been here.  Days?  Weeks, or could it be months?  I can’t imagine they would keep me alive that long.  All I know is that I’m still breathing (though it doesn’t feel natural).  I’m trapped between the blackness of sleep and some crimson fucking wolf that breathes and shows his face out of the darkness once in a while, as if to remind me that he’s still here.  The breathing.  That constant, rhythmic, breathing.  He looks hungry.  They must be giving me some good drugs.

I haven’t always been here.  I guess you could say, though, that I put myself here.  And I saw it coming.  The only blank left to fill in was where and when it would happen.  Sooner than my parents, later than my big brother.  I just hope my old buddies will step up and take care of the dogs.  They’re the only thing more loyal than my Marines.  They deserve better than some washed-up jarhead who could never avoid confrontations with the county constable who seemed to have a hard-on for fucking with servicemen.

What do you do with a Marine when the Marine Corps decides they no longer want him?  I’ve been asking myself that question for about four months now, but it seems longer than my time in the Corps (20 years, one month, and 19 days, to be exact).  One day, they just show you the door and tell you where to pick up your pension check.  And don’t let the door hit you on the ass.  Sure, your buddies throw one last kegger to let you know that you mattered to someone while you were there, but beyond that, you get a three-day course on how civilians function, then they send you on your way.  You’re welcome, America.

They even gave the ex half of my retirement.  How fucked-up is that?  The lying, cheating bitch.  Files for divorce while I’m in theatre, then the judge gives her everything she wants because her husband is a no-show at the hearing.  Never mind the fact that he’s half a world away defending the people who are royally fucking him right now.  Fucking whore told me she’d been cheating on me since the first deployment.  And for that, she gets fucking half.  At least she hasn’t shown her face here.  I think that would piss me off enough to open up my eyes and lips, spit in her face, see her reaction, and then fade away.  Some things are better left undone.

Since the last rites were paid to my liver one night that wore into the daylight hours, I’ve been laid down to rest in this stale room where familiar voices come and go.  Or maybe it was all part of the same sick play going on in my mind.  I think I recognized the subdued voices of Danny, Moe, Brian, and Jimmy.  There may have been more, but I can’t remember.  I miss those guys.  They really did feel like long-lost brothers.  But their tone disgusted me.  They all whispered as if they didn’t want me to hear.  Judging from the pathetic display of emotions that us jarheads normally leave at the door, it probably would’ve been best if I hadn’t been able to hear.  But a funny thing happens when you become a drooling vegetable.  Your sense of hearing is amplified.  Probably because you can’t see shit.

“At least one case of Bud, two fifths of Jim, a pint of gin, and I think they said there was an empty bottle of something they couldn’t identify.  Probably moonshine,” Jimmy was saying.  I couldn’t tell if he was upset or impressed.  That wasn’t all of it.  None of them could do half of what I did that last night.  They never could keep up.

“Fuck, dude, I’m amazed he still has a pulse.”  That had to be Moe.

“Some chick over at his house panicked and dialed 911 when she couldn’t wake him up.”

“Who was she?” Danny asked.

“Hell if I know.  She was long gone by the time the medics showed up.”

“How much time does Doc say he has?”

“He’s amazed he’s held on this long.”

“He always was a fighter.”

Hell no; not this time.

“Fuck, dude.”  Brian was never a man of many words.

“I told him this would happen.  VA warned him right after he retired.”

“Frankie, buddy, if you can hear me, we’re here for ya, pal.  Hold on.  We’ll help you out of this mess.”  He grabbed my arm as he said it, his grip firm.  A Marine’s grip.

They had pity in their tone, and it made me want to scream.  If I wanted pity, I would’ve asked for it.  No one could ever get it through their heads that I’m done.  They’ll realize it soon enough.

How it happened is pretty simple.  When you get out, you have to go to the VA so they can process you into the system.  Kind of like when you join the military, but this time it feels like you’re watching the time clock on your life run out.  And they’re in no hurry to get anything done.  You’re damaged goods to them.

“Mister Davis, we found a problem.”  I hated people calling me “mister.”  After being called Gunny for the better part of the last decade, I felt like I’d been court-martialed and demoted to Private.  The doctor continued.

“Your liver looks as if, well, as if you spent twenty hard years in the Marines.”

“…meaning…”

“…meaning that you have essentially lost all liver function.  I’m sorry.  I really hate to tell you this, but you have about a year to live.  If you clean up your act, you may be able to extend that number, but your body has taken a lot of abuse.”

So much for retirement.  Half of me thinks that’s why they promise a pension after twenty years.  Most of those dumb enough to stick it out for twenty won’t live enough to collect much of a pension.

One year.  Twelve months.  Looks like I’m gonna prove him wrong.  I’ve had longer deployments.  As it turned out, it wouldn’t take me a year.  I’ve still got two months to spare.  And I’d rather go out on my own terms than die like a bitch.  What’s left for me?  Lying here on a feeding tube.  Pretending like I give a fuck.

When you have all the time in the world to think, you really don’t want to.  You have to face the harsh reality that you really weren’t that important.  In fact, sometimes you think that the world would’ve been a better place without you.  Some of my boys died heroes.  Died with honor.  Died for their country.  Not me.  I just attended their funerals, dressed in the high-collar blue coat and fighting off the tears.

That fucking wolf.  Can’t even die in peace.  He’s driving me nuts with that breathing, non-stop and in perfect rhythm.  His visits seem more frequent now, like he’s circling an injured fawn in the woods.  I’m more annoyed than frightened.  Marines don’t feel fear.  They create it.  Only a matter of time.  Bring it on, you bastard.

I think there were a few cousins that came by.  Not much emotion from them.  I really wish I could’ve said something because just the feeling in the room while they were there was torture.  Like it was a chore.  Like they cared.  My Marines cared.  They always cared.  These people?  They might as well be strangers.  They’ll attend the funeral, feigning mourning, accepting condolences like we were good friends.  No loss to them.

If I hadn’t joined in the first place, I probably would’ve avoided this.  I could’ve been normal.  I could’ve knocked up Mary-Jane, bought a house, had our 2.5 kids, raised them up to be all-Americans, and retired happily at sixty-five after a long life of fixing old Ford pickups whose owners refused to pull them into the junkyard for their last road trip.  Instead, Daddy said I had to do my duty.  I had to do my time.  I had to stand there at attention in Parris Island, South Carolina, sweat rolling down my temples and soaking the back and armpits of my camouflage utilities, rigid as a statue as the sand fleas attacked my sunburned arms and some dude with a Smokey Bear hat yelled at me that I wasn’t Momma’s boy anymore.

I wouldn’t have seen my bunk-mate in boot camp fall thirty feet off the rope climb, his forearms giving way from a day’s torturous training, hitting the ground with a dull thud.  They said he didn’t feel it.  Sounds like a line some bureaucrat made up to make the news easier for his mother to digest.  Just another day in the suck.

I’d be lying though if I said I didn’t enjoy my service.  You meet a lot of guys who come from all walks of life but wind up chewing on the same dirt, rolling through the same mud and sand, dealing with the same stupid games as you.  You really do become brothers, and you learn to rely on every one of them.  They are all unique pieces of the same fucked-up puzzle.  They are all Marines.  The few, the proud.  All that recruiting poster bullshit.

It took me seventeen years before I saw a war.  You can train until you fall to the ground, but nothing prepares you for the first barrage of bullets from non-friendlies.  It didn’t even take a full day before those raghead fucks had taken out four of my guys.  They didn’t have time to acclimatize before bombs were separating my Leathernecks from their trigger fingers.  We weren’t even grunts.  We were air-dales.  Some guys said we weren’t even real Marines.  Sure, we were trained for this.  Back in boot camp.

How many days you’ve been in the suck usually doesn’t matter; they’re all the same.  Some live, some die.

Like this day.  It seems like yesterday, but I can’t remember how long ago it actually happened:

“Gunny, she ain’t gonna fly today,” Jones said.  He’s one of those guys who could rig up an ice machine to work in the desert with a barrel, a pair of pliers and a roll of duct tape.  He was sitting up on the wing, wearing his olive drab shorts, t-shirt, and steel toe books scuffed to the point that they’d never shine again.  He’d almost always get passed over for promotion, but could get an entire squadron of aircraft out of a bind.

“She is gonna fly today, and it better be before evening chow.”

“Unless you can shit me a turbine and an igniter, this bird’s down.”  Of course he was right.  Made no sense to risk a flight crew’s life just to refuel a couple fighters in mid-air.

Fuck.  Back home, you could leave a plane on the ground if you didn’t have the parts to fix her.  You had to take an ass chewing if she was grounded for more than thirty days straight, but you could do it.  Tonight was a mission-critical flight.  She had to fly.

“I don’t care what happens after she takes off, but there’d better be four props spinning by sixteen hundred.”

We didn’t make the 1600 deadline, but shortly thereafter, she was taxiing down the gravel-strewn airstrip.  She took off, and we never saw her again.

Reports said the number 3 engine blew after taking a few stray bullets.  They had to shut her off, leaving the starboard wing with one engine.  With a turbine that was ready to fail and one igniter short of a full set.  I don’t think that part was in the report.  We chopped down a couple trees on the desolate mountain top where they crashed and made a makeshift memorial.  It would probably be the only one they’d ever get.

All men were lost.  All seventeen of them, including Ronnie.  We went through boot camp and flight engineer training together.  That dude could drink like a fish.  I should’ve been the one who donned the dress blues and drove out to his house in the middle of bumfuck-nowhere, North Carolina, to tell his wife that she was now a widow.  At least she was still young enough to find someone else.  Hopefully not another jarhead.

I buried too many of my boys.  Some were hardly half my age.  So fresh you could still smell the boot polish.  Most died horrible deaths, some instantly, but too many suffered before they couldn’t fight anymore.  They don’t teach you how to deal with that in boot camp.  Or maybe I never developed that leadership trait.  At least I won’t have to live through that ordeal again.  I don’t miss that part.

What does a Marine do when the Marine Corps no longer wants him?  Danny moved on to the railroad.  Tim moved over to the Army.  One of my guys even became a squiddy.  Some left on their own terms, others were handed the same shitty deal as me.  Most of them made peace with their time in the suck and stashed their memories in a sea bag stashed in the closet, never to see the light of day again.

I guess things are different for me.  Die like a bitch?  Hell no.  Marines are fighters.  But I threw my last punch on this earth.  There are other battlefields ahead of me.

You know that line in the Marine Corps Hymn, If the Army and the Navy ever look on Heaven’s scenes, They will find the streets are guarded by United States Marines?  I wonder if hell is the same way.  I’m guessing I’ll find out real soon.  That rabid, red-eyed wolf is back.  That rhythmic, constant panting is gone.  Now it’s a low guttural snarl, and he’s salivating.  You ever tasted Devil Dog, wolfie?

Fuck him.

Written for Dr. David N. Odhiambo’s ENG 313: Creative Writing

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