While I am driving home from the interview I remember the line between life and death is sometimes divided by a heartbeat. Or a word. A syllable misplaced. An unedited utterance.
Lines on the highway pass like a flashing strobe. I remember I didn't ask to be born.
I sleep when I can. My dream is always about a fish, freshly caught, shining slick gray green, white plastic line coiling in knots on the lake side mud, scales slimy in my hands. Have to wrap both palms around it while my father pulls the hook from its mouth. He's smiling and congratulating me while he takes a pair of needle nose pliers from the tackle box.
The fish squirms in my fists till my father twists the hook and it shudders and stops moving. Then instead of a fish I'm holding something else. It's just something wet from the lake.
I wake and my eye sockets are full of tears, so bad I can barely see until I get up and wash my face. It happens forever, until I'm overcome with despair in the darkness of the still born day that my life will never end, but will continue forever in anticipation of a dawn that will never come, an endless round trip between casting my line and landing my first fish.
And then it gets light and reminds me I possess my life. There is another day for me, and there won't be for so many others.
It makes no sense to live in dread of the day the sun fails to rise. It makes no sense to fear earthquakes or cometary impacts. War and its aftermath is bigger than any one of us.
After Rwanda the magazine sprang for a shrink. Doc said the story was brilliant but something bothered him, so he insisted I see the man, who spent a lot of time describing post-traumatic stress disorder without ever once saying my name.
I'd asked the shrink--"Why don't you just say it, if that's what you think?"
"Does it describe you?"
"Look, there is no stress," I assured him. "By the time I got there, it was scorched earth. It was the kids who survived having to go through the rest of their lives with the images of their parents being hacked to death by men with machetes. Watching their brothers and sisters killed while they hid and tried to become rock. The way to survive was to become nothing. Suspended animation. And then when they came to life it was like they were born a second time. Only this time they world they came into was void of life. Compassionless, physics. That's all they had. The uncontrolled inevitable."
Doc was going to suggest I take some time off, but you don't get time off from your life. There was Albania. I watched soldiers herding thousands of muslims, men women and children, one long forced march from their homes to the border. Kenny said the exodus was so vast the spooks caught it on the keyhole satellites.
Then they were all just gone. Drove for days, couldn't find them. Later, the CIA found the graves. We went in. Kenny took shots. Those days, everything was still film.
I saved the rolls. Pulled his camera bag from what was left of his torso when the mine took out his humvee. We were a hundred yards back. The blast wounded our driver. Everyone else in our vehicle.
His mouth was moving. Reflexes. Nobody was behind Kenny's eyes.
I'm alive. I don't pray anymore.
The pictures we printed are still in my mind in the daytime only I can see. The confusion on their faces. They were afraid. Hungry. Tired. Communication was one way. There were no answers in me, and my translator memorized the questions and rattled them off to person after person.
"Where are you from? Where did they say you are going? What do you think will happen?"
And then there was Afghanistan. Trooper lit the wrong hut with the laser. Boom. Blast knocked me into tomorrow. Woke up on the C5 to Diego Garcia.
Still breathing. Sleeping when I can. Every night my dad takes the hook out of the fish's mouth.
Then Ron pulls me out of the rotation.
"What are you doing to me, Doc?" I asked him. "I'm not the gold-watch type."
"A lotta guys would be happy."
"What lotta guys? You tell me, what do I do now?"
"You retire," he said. "You go get yourself a house in the country and write your novel."
"They're dead, Doc." Kenny and Toby and Billy. Blood on dirt is black.
"This is a young man's game," he said. "You don't keep going till your dead. It isn't how it's played."
"You're letting this happen, or you're making this happen?"
What's a word? He got out of his chair and went over to the file cabinet. Opened the lowest drawer and pulled a dark green folder from the back. Tossed it on his desk.
"That. Or nothing, Ernie. You gotta stop."
The folder was thin. Only a couple of papers inside. It fell open in my hands. The clipping reprint was yellowed. I wanted to ask him when he dug it up, but then as suddenly, I didn't want to know. Maybe he was saving it.
I closed the folder, gave him my contingency--"I was thinking there's a story in Kuwait. Well away from all the shooting. You know. The change in attitudes since George Senior's war. Links to nine-eleven."
"That's it, Ernie. Right there in your hands."
"There's no story here."
"I'm offering you a chance to get the hell out of this rat race."
"I've got connections in Kuwait City..."
I don't know how many times he said my name. A couple. I only heard it the last time. He wanted this story and so I drove to this story.
To a lake. To a hospital, overlooking. Not a river. Not a girl named Elenor. So much time, it could have been someone else's life.
The patterns of a man's soul are imprinted on the body and remain constant the way the ocean is the same no matter how the beach changes. I heard my mother warning me, twice as harshly since my father died--she didn't want me playing with "that kid". Always in trouble. Parents split up. There was something not right about him as far as she was concerned and hanging with him would most certainly wreck my straight-A average.
Forty years ago it was summer and there was nothing else to do. All the other kids had gone to camp or moved away, and there in the sweltering Indiana humidity were me and Michael Klinger walking barefoot in the mud along the Kittatanoue River, now just a creek in the summer drought.
But it wasn't him until I saw his face. The nurse pointed out a thin, nearly bald man in a wheelchair sitting among a scattering of old men in their bedclothes. They were slumped in their wheelchairs, unmoving, each staring vacantly into space as if none of them had been anyone. Old as me but so much older.
It wasn't him until I walked to the man the nurse had indicated and he looked up at me and I could hear my mother's warning drift out of the past like an old newsreel.
"You don't owe that kid anything."
I thought I said his name, or hello, but I'm not sure, and he squinted at me for a moment. Then the recognition crossed his face and he said, "Ernie?" Behind the years and scars was someone I'd once known.
I followed him to a place by the window in the VA hospital day room where there was a table and a chair for me.
I sat down and we looked at each other, but I didn't know what to say and he knew it.
"Why you here?"
"To write your story," I told him, because it was as much of the truth as I felt like letting out. Suddenly I was awkward, like stage fright on my first interview. I took the recorder from my pocket, held it out toward him so he could see it, then set it on the desk. "Do you mind if--"
"Yeah, I goddamn mind," he said. Between sentences he clenched his teeth. The muscles flexed in his neck. "You don't need me to write my goddamned story. You know my goddamned story. What the hell do you need me for?"
I put the recorder back. Fumbled in my pockets for a notebook and pen while he watched me, his face reddening, his eyes going glassy.
"It's been forty years, Mike--" and I thought he'd explode. This interview was not going to happen. I put the notebook back in my pocket. "I made a mistake. Sorry I bothered you."
He yelled as I walked away. The nurses at the desk turned toward us but the vets in wheelchairs sat frozen while his voice broke like waves around them.
"You fucking sonofabitch. Stop."
He was seething when I got back to him. He said, "You prance in here after a lifetime. You want to write--what? My story? You come here for--what the hell you want?"
"Michael." I raised my palms. "We were kids--"
"What about what I want? That matter? No. You can't get what you came for so you leave for, what, another forty years? Life isn't that long, Ernie boy. Eventually, you're just going to fucking die like everyone else. Or do you think you're better than the rest of us?" And now all the vets in chairs looked up.
For the first time in my life, words weren't coming to me. I could only shrug and he yelled at me to get the hell out. The floor was for veterans. For heroes. They didn't deserve to spend their declining years in the presence of scum like me.
That's when I felt something like tears. My dad and the fish. Life and death. The decision to ride with the gear at the back of the convoy. Having to take leak when the smart bombs fly. An inch further to the right and the bullet that screams past your ear knocks your forehead through the back of your skull, but it doesn't. Never crosses that inch.
One goddamned inch. Or a word.
"Then tell me. What the hell do you want?" I asked him.
He didn't hesitate. "You know, you bastard. You owe me."
And I told him I did, because I did. And we went back to the table and I sat across from him with the recorder running, and asked him about his bronze stars. The silver star. His days in special forces. Distinguished service. How he lost a leg and his mind for a while. How nearly a hundred people owed their lives to him directly, not to mention the countless thousands who never had to go into battles because he won them before anyone knew they'd gone on.
He answered my questions as if under threat of torture. He wanted one thing changed about the past. One minute of one summer day. One word to one police officer.
A little girl with golden hair we hardly knew. When I wasn't thinking I called every woman, Elenor. When I wasn't thinking, I called my brother's daughter Elenor. When I did it, everyone looked at their feet and I pretended it didn't happen.
He looked at the wall. There was a clock. "Ninety minutes already." He tapped his fingers. "Get to it."
I cleared my throat. My hand moved toward the recorder as if someone else motivated it.
"I'll kill you myself. Right now. Don't believe I won't try," he said, and froze me.
"Tell me about--tell me why--" The question lodged in my throat and we were back there at the river. Shirtless. Barefoot.
Michael pushes me in. We wrestle a bit. Paddle around to the middle.
Through the trees she's just a silhouette at first. A kid. That Jennifer from around the corner--her little sister. Blond hair in pig tails.
"Why did you join--"
"I didn't fucking enlist. I was in juvenile hall. I turned eighteen. It was the Marines or the penn."
"Come on in," Michael screams to her.
"I don't have a bathing suit."
"Neither do we," I say to her and look at Michael. He's thinking what I'm thinking. "Just take off your clothes and put them on that rock."
Now everything is live. I have to pull my car off the road. The images in my head. Kenny's mouth still moving. Toby running toward me between the apartment buildings in Bosnia when he arches backward a millisecond before the crack of the rifle.
I have to let this go. It's uncontrollable. The sun will rise.
"Juvenile hall..." I don't want to think this. I should have died so many times and it never happened.
"What's the matter, you fucking coward?" Michael said. "Why'd you come here? Really. Why are you here?"
"Why were you in juvenile hall?"
He leaned forward in his wheelchair, cleared his throat. I slammed on the brakes. Put it in park while I could still see in the failing light. Night coming now. I can't drive home. Replay like life blasting through my mind, another day behind my eyes only I would live.
"I was convicted of murdering an eight-year old girl. Do you know what they do in prison to people who hurt children? Do you, Ernest?"
Rwanda. Albania. The bullets missed.
"Did we hold her under too long?" I hear myself saying. Young Michael dragging her to the bank. Mouth to mouth.
"Go get help," he says.
"You held her under too long, Michael."
"Get your mother. Call an ambulance."
Michael in the wheelchair spoke through gritted teeth so it sounded like he was whispering. "When you talk to children about the war, do you know what they ask you? They only care about one thing."
"Mom, Michael and me--Michael--"
He said. "Did you know the average infantryman will not kill under almost any circumstance? In World War II they did studies and even under heavy enemy barrages, fire brigades were only ten percent effective. Know why? They wouldn't kill. Even when faced with his own annihilation, it takes a lot for a man to kill another man. Now you may say that there are rules of civilility that we all adopt. But that's not it. The military has ways of eradicating that. They put you in a situation where not only can you kill without sin, but you have to. You fucking have to. And do you know what that feels like?"
He leaned back and smiled. "Aww. Don't lie you sonofabitch. You know what it's like to squeeze the life out of somebody? To aim your rifle knowing that the person in your sights will be dead in seconds, and doesn't even know it? That's what kids want to know. How many people did you kill Mr. War Hero?"
"What happened, exactly?" the cop says to me. My mother standing beside him, weeping like she did when my dad died. And I tell him. And he says, "Say it again."
"Say it again."
Michael says, "There are rules of civilization and there are rules of war and they are all changed by people to suit their needs. You know about that, right, Ernie, old buddy?"
"Say it again--" the cop asks me as I stand beside the squad car. Another cop comes to his side and whispers. Holds out a notebook. They compare.
"The law is the law," I tell him. I reach for the recorder but stop myself this time. Why?
Michael says, "But the rules up here--" he taps his temple with two fingers. "You're born with those rules and you die with them. You can't change them. Never."
The cop said, "You held her and you felt she wasn't moving?"
I said, "Yes." I was twelve years old.
"I was twelve years old," Michael said. "I spent my whole life in prison or the service because of the rules up here. And they never got me. It's impossible to kill a dead man. You know about that, don't you, Ernie boy?"
Overhearing the conversation, second cop moved to the first. "Did you say you held her and you felt she wasn't moving, or did you say you held her until you felt she wasn't moving?"
"You don't owe that boy anything," my mother said.
I turned off the recorder. Managed to put it in my pocket despite my shaking hands. The tears in my eyes.
"I could have said something. You know I could have. It would have been different," Michael told me as I got up, shaking. Trying to keep the tears out of my face.
"Mike--I don't know what I can do."
"The time is long past for that, Ernie boy. Long past." He tapped his temple. "You and me got different ways of living."
I offered him my hand, but he turned away.
He said, "Nah. You don't get that from me." He rolled himself away. Said to himself, maybe, "You got what you got." Pushed himself a bit then turned, "I don't want you dead, Ernie. I want you seeing every day I see. Go through it as long as I do."
In the car I spoke into the recorder. Had to say it fast before I forgot it again--they believed me. I was the one with the "A" grades. Hadn't been caught shoplifting or vandalizing billboards. It's what I remembered.
The blonde hair floating just below the surface of green brown water.
Don't remember, but I do.
Back in town I found one of those post box places open and mailed the recorder to Doc.
Doc wasn't going to let me get on the plane to Kuwait. He knew I'd find a way north across the border and that sooner or later I'd get lucky and come home in a box.
Couldn't leave and put that on his conscience. Wouldn't be fair after everything he'd done for me.
Let him write the damned story. It always was his.
Drove to Bozeman to start my novel.