Night Driver

Written in 2006 and excerpted from a previous manuscript, this another snippet that didn’t make the cut for my book, Nothing In Reserve.  As mentioned previously, I’d like to put a couple of these out there during the week before Veterans Day (during which Nothing In Reserve will be on sale in recognition of veterans).

Please note that, although written in the present tense, this represents pieces of my past. Current circumstances are warmer, healthier and substantially safer for all parties.

Hope you find something worthwhile here. Thanks.

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After the Lewis Companies cratered and I landed in a job as a hardware store clerk without savings or a résumé, I found myself abruptly hyper-sensitized to life’s little planning issues. And my beautiful and exceedingly frank wife was on hand to critique every step of the journey.

“Look, I can understand that you’ll miss me if–”

“I’m not going to miss you.”

“Fine, I–”

“What do I need you for?” She arches her eyebrows. “I think we should be honest with each other. This isn’t working out.

“I think we should talk about a divorce,” she adds, matter-of-factly.

There it sits, the “D” word, aka the nuclear option. Our dialogue degrades further.

Although I have been threatened with divorce more than a thousand times by this time, passed nights on my seven-foot workbench and across the bench seats of three different pickups, this juxtaposition always strikes a dissonant chord with me.

“You’re going to divorce me over enlisting to serve part-time?

“For Christ’s sake, there’s a war on!”

“And I don’t want you to go!  How selfish can you be?,” she hollers. “How about staying here, and doing some work around the house for a change!”

I don’t take this bait, this time. Experience tells me that for me to point out that I’ve built much of our furniture, repaired drawers and windows, built a shed, cleaned the gutters twice a year and even re-caulked the bathrooms from time to time, will only end up with her crushing me under the endless litany of my uncompleted honey-dos, my sins of omission stacking up daily like Hell’s own inbox.

“Look, they’re not going to send me–”

“Oh, you don’t think so?  This could go on for years. Why do you think they need you, anyway?  You already served your time. Grow up!”

“Can I finish a sen–”

“You’re almost forty years old!”

Well, there is that.

“Fine. If I flunk the physical, then that’s it, I guess.”

This is purely disingenuous. I’ve already passed the physical. Like the world’s dumbest boxer, I stick my chin out.

“If I pass it, I’m going in.”

“You’re making this decision for both of us,” she observes.

“I’m making a decision as a citizen,” I assert pompously. “You, me — ever think maybe we’re not the only important people in the world?

“I still know how to do this stuff. The army’s busy right now, and I’m going to put my hand in and help out.”

“I don’t want to be an army wife!”

This strikes me as both snobby and ridiculous; wives of part-time soldiers rarely live the “army experience,” staying on or near a base, shopping at the PX and wearing last year’s fashions. A veteran corporate executive, she’s main breadwinner of our dysfunctional little family and about as far from being an army wife as it’s possible to get and still be possessed of a dependent ID card.

“Dependent” — now there’s a word that sticks in her craw. She hasn’t depended on anybody since she was fifteen. People depend on her, because they can. Possessed of an adamantine resolve, my wife is as highly dependable as she is difficult to argue with.

I shove my mug in her face and growl quietly, “You don’t want to be any kind of wife. You deal the divorce card 200 times a year.”

“I didn’t sign up for this!”

“Yeah, well I didn’t sign up to live with a dozen cats. I didn’t sign up to sleep in my GODDAMN TRUCK!

“I guess life is full of disappointments!”

And then it turns ugly(er). It’s easy to tell when she goes over the waterfall. First her pupils dilate to the edges of her corneas, then her breath takes up a sulfurous acid stench that wrinkles my nose at ten paces. Dialogue may continue, but communication has ended.

“I don’t need you for anything, you worthless, pathetic motherfucker!  Fuck you!  Go fuck yourself!

“Even your brother thinks you’re a loser!  Even your father says so!  Why do you think they never let you handle any of the money, Jack?  Hunh?”

I put up my hands, palms out, trying to win by losing under control.

“That’s it. I’m outta here. You always have to push it all the way, don’t you?”

“I’m packing up your tools!,” she rages. “You can come ask me to get them out of storage!”

FINE.”

My heart feels cold in my chest, a feeling more gratifying than terrifying. I’ve gone where I can’t be reached, and closed the door behind me. I don’t even have to slam it. Without orders from headquarters, my mouth smiles on its own initiative.

“Do what you want,” it says to her. “I’m leaving.”

“Don’t you dare walk out on me!,” she bellows. “Why are you doing this to me?”

She is leaning against the door with a wild look in her eye. I open it slowly against her body weight, and repeat, “You can do what you want.”

Banging out the door go I, once more into the night while she stands on the front porch and bellows, “Don’t come back, you fucker!  You coward!”

“Whatever. Do you what you want. I’m tired of it.”

As I stomp up the drive, she adds a shout-out for the neighborhood’s edification. “I will, you bastard!  You fucker-fucking-fuck!  Don’t be surprised if the locks are changed when you get back.”

I’m pretty sure she won’t do that. Locksmiths cost a C-note, and that would cut (slightly) into the pigeon seed, raccoon chow and cat food budget.

“What the hell difference would it make?,” I yell back, going over my own waterfall. “What this house needs is less cats and a lot more pussy!”

God, the neighbors must love us. Four college degrees in one suburban household, and we produce trashier entertainment than a reality show set in a trailer park. The local constabulary has made three visits to our house on DV calls, although our fights are never physical. It just sounds like people being hurt.

Or panthers mating.

She’ll call me in about ten minutes, respecting the pattern, and I’ll ignore the first dozen messages before pounding the green button and yelling, “What?”

Ritualized as kabuki theater, we white-knuckle masks over the faces of our discontent. I fear dying a failure. Lily fears my dying without her permission, alone and bleeding in a foreign land. We fear admitting that this is the life we’ve chosen, this flawed fortress that we’ve built with our own hands and imprisoned ourselves within by choice.

So I tootle down the blacktop in my old yellow truck, watch the road scroll by, let my temper deflate and wonder what comes next. If makeup sex were a part of it, this pattern might almost make sense. But my wife’s been sleeping on the couch for years now.

Driving at night relaxes me. I’ve driven in Europe and Asia, operated big trucks and high-output sports cars, all kinds of motorcycles, boats and a few aircraft (night flying is best, too). Lollygagging smoothly along State Route 527, I feel as dully comfortable as a pianist running scales.

It’s cake to drive here, easing through light traffic under the urinal glow of  suburban American streetlights, where the only areas not brightly lit are the darkest corners of the heart, secrets kept from lovers and lawyers and parents and children, perhaps even from ourselves. Where the only explosions come from the gaseous buildup of carefully husbanded resentments. Easy to drive away from conflict, into the velvety, welcoming night.

At home, I always run from the fight. Sometimes, I end up further away than I planned.

———-

We’ve been stuck on the perimeter of our sweep area for about two hours. Blackjack’s coffee is getting to me, and I hate to piss in water bottles. I push up out of the hatch and stand with one foot on the jerry can holder, concentrating on not locking my knees while irrigating the desert at the edge of town and balancing carefully in an armored vest that has two frag grenades, 300-odd rounds of ammo and a rifle strapped to it.

Something moves, too big to be a fox. Buttoning up while trying not to teeter off the truck, I ease back down into my hatch, flip down my NVGs and reset them.

Somewhere, out there...

One of Iraq’s big feral dogs trots along just below defilade on my side of a series of hummocks. Hunting, he noses the ground every couple of feet, flying his big, fluffy curl of a tail alertly up over his back like a pirate flag.

These dogs must all be related to the desert foxes, to have such tails. They’re nearly as big as chows, though. Inexplicably, they wear coats like Malamutes, and they must suffer sorely when summer sun broils the land.

Four more dogs come over the berm while I’m watching, then another six or seven. With my goggles up, I can’t see them at all. Flipping them down, I see a couple of dozen eyes staring straight at me, burning with a green and fiery greed. Unconsciously, I finger my carbine.

Feral dogs scrounge everything here, and are strangely well-fed. These aren’t future pets flirting at the dog pound, hoping in their faithful hearts for a warm blanket near the fire. Arabic people think of dogs as foul and fearsome, and rarely allow them in their homes. The pack’s flat-eyed stare is pure calculation, estimating the quantity of meat and guessing at the difficulty of obtaining it. Sentimental as hammerhead sharks, these gritty survivors are to Scout the Happy Puppy as cougars are to house cats.

Small wonder there’s no night life here. Kind of justifies the Muslim proclivity for rapid burial of the dead.

Scanning the pack, I realize I could kill them all if I were quick enough, and deadly accurate. “We Own The Night,” one of our many slogans goes. We have NVGs and light-gathering optical sights, powered surveillance gear atop armored reconnaissance vehicles, driver cameras and even infrared survival beacons if everything goes to Hell on a roller skate. I’m also ten feet off the ground with my feet planted in an armored vehicle.

No dogs on the FOB -- safe as houses under General Order #1

Yet without a fistful of loaded magazines and a reliably cycling rifle, the outcome would never be in doubt. Jet Li movies notwithstanding, no knife or fist work could match the slashing power of two dozen flashing jaws. The only brief obstacle to lunch break on the graveyard shift would be my armored vest. Or another, faster dog.

Long after we’ve left this pockmarked land of sadness and anger, when we’re home — safe or otherwise, but anyway home and far from here — the dogs of war will still hunt. They don’t howl. They never whimper, wag their tails, or frolic and yip. More so than any Fayetteville tattoo of paratrooper bravado, death is their business, and business is good.

Finding no forage, they won’t mill around here aimlessly. They’re on-shift and there’s work to be done. As one, the war dogs turn. Their curly tails rise to the top of the berm and swiftly disappear down the far bank. To them, we’re obnoxious, bumbling, serviceable aliens — but they are all business.

They own the night.

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