DESERT

DESERT

A Story by Tracey R
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This is a short story that describes the crude and visceral days following a father's return from war. It is the reflection of his daughter, and is told in first-person.

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   for leon & anny,                  

   regina & roslyn.                 

DAY   ONE               

I was imagining I was Dorothy as the air fell over our house like a tornado from The Wizard of Oz, as the wind blew off of the ocean and through the cracks in our doors and windows… when my father walked into the kitchen for the first time in five months.  Five long months had passed since we were notified that he had surfaced and been accounted for… has been badly wounded… is undergoing medical examination.    And my mother had said, “Daddy’s just a little bit sick, he has to get better before he comes home.” 

I knew what sick felt like.  I was a child and I knew what it felt like to have snot running from my nose to my lips, for the ocean winter wind to dry and burn the skin between them.  My mother would serve me tea and feed me Children’s Tylenol.  And then there was the time that my uncle came down with severe pneumonia.  My father took temporary leave and my mother pulled my brother and I out of school to visit him.  When we got to the hospital room, my aunt was conducting a quiet conversation with the nurse in the hallway.  My cousins were playing jacks on the floor while Tom and Jerry played cat and mouse on television.  In the afternoon, the five of us kids played volleyball, using my uncle as the net, with the colorful, half-deflated balloons that read “Get Well Soon!” and “We Miss You!” 

When my mother saw my father on the day he returned, the coffee pot slipped from her hands and the shattered glass knocked off the wall and settled beneath the kitchen table.  The brown liquid sprayed to the walls and onto my clean, white socks.  “My God!  I’m a mess!” she declared, massaging the soft dark skin beneath her eyes. 

I was nine then and I was sure my father was back.  He was standing there like my father.  He looked like my father.  He was thinner, but still tall.  His hair had been receding since about the time I was born and what was left of it was now the length of his beard.  I had never seen hair on his face before.  His face, long and thin, looked slightly older, slightly dirty.  He wore a uniform that hung from his shoulders and waist as if the clothes themselves were exhausted. I imagine now, that it seemed he had been disassembled and then reconstructed in a dark, damp bar as Billie Holiday sang Willow and Weep. 

And our house, our home that my father had built then eleven years before, was no longer foreign to me.  For months I had felt like a disoriented, jet-lagged tourist each morning as my mother woke me with the disposition of a distantly pleasant flight attendant.  It was in that time that each of us had lived in places unknown to one another, even to ourselves, places that couldn’t really exist to us because they were banned by us from permanence.

It was my father’s eyes on that day that have never left me, or rather the way they changed.  Each seemed to have held a dim light in its center when he entered the room, and I suppose I averted my eyes for just a moment, because when I looked again it was gone.  It was as if that vanished brightness of pupils had burned just long enough to reach us, but that was as far as it could travel.  I’ve wondered if he felt them go out.

 


DAY   TWO            

The next morning, my mother woke up early to cook breakfast for all of us.  It took her hours of preparation.   My father ate sincerely, but that wasn’t enough.

The surgery had repaired his intestinal lining insofar as digested food would no longer leak from internal wounds.  But still, he couldn’t eat much of anything.  When he did, he vomited, and his skin turned a sickly shade of green that resembled the color of a bruise, or of veins beneath thin skin on a forearm.   He left the table five or six times that morning to run, bracing his stomach, to the bathroom.  But he took seconds, and even thirds, and with each bite he gave the impression that nothing would stop him from enjoying that meal.  And each time he swallowed anything substantial, he emptied the contents of his stomach into the pipes. 

I think that I assumed that my father simply didn’t get sick, or maybe my logic told me that if he fell ill, something essential about my life would come undone.  But I’d never even thought about it until then.  I believe that on that morning, my father wished for the meal my mother had cooked for him would leak inside of him.  That he cursed the doctors who closed his wounds.  And a feeling came over me that I could not then identify but that I now acknowledge as morbidity.  I knew that my father truly felt like dying, and that he wondered why he hadn’t deteriorated from the inside weeks ago.

The truth is, my father had returned home in recovery from an operation that had done little to fix him.   The hernia surgery mended six separate locations in his intestines and the laparoscopic incisions were so small that it was easy for my mother to clot the truth.

When he woke up that morning, he clothed himself in a full body suit of fleshy armor, and beneath it’s surface, anguish heated and compressed.  I could not understand then why my father didn’t smile that day, or why I couldn’t recognize his expressions and felt myself behaving awkwardly; a stranger in the company of the man who had conceived me.  When he watched over me it was like he was looking after someone else’s child.  His eyes glazed over and settled on something far away, something too dark for me to see; something invisible but in my way and permanent between us.

 


DAY   THREE                

The letter arrived the next day. It declared that my father's physical injuries would heal to a full-recovery as long as he got plenty of rest and avoided over-exertion at any cost.  This meant he would have to stay home with us, and I found myself smiling.  Only, at that time I was not made aware of a different section of the document: “Psychiatric Evaluation.”   I knew then, only of the conclusion: …twenty-four honorable years of service… hard work and dedication… loyalty and patriotism… countless missions accomplished… companionship, brotherhood, and respect…  fought and served with diligence, intelligence, and then…you have been honorably discharged.

This was the final report from the military.  I hold it now in my hands as if I’m cradling my very own father.  It is mostly an evaluation of the effects of that final battle, the one that had been given a name in another language that I could never seem to remember.  It was drawn from invasive medical examinations conducted by foreign hands; it was in physicians’ notes scribbled in strokes heavy from the onslaught of grief-ridden confessions; it was an illegible signature announcing the time of death of my father’s dignity, hurtling him back to his family to choose between lies of victory or tales of tragedy.  And with it, framed in glass, was a certificate awarded for his fine service to the Commander in Chief of the United States of America, our President, Mr. George W. Bush; and my father has been looking at it ever since, nailed neatly to the wall, contained in a space too small for a man; and he squints as he peers through the glass to some universe where glory still exists.

When he opened that letter, my brother and I were out with my mother, shopping for new summer clothing.  But I can’t help but conjure the image of my father’s hands, tearing open the thin paper, pulling the letter from within like a prisoner starved of correspondence, unfolding it to read the story of the rest of his life.  I wasn’t there because we had neglected to buy new clothes while we waited for my father to return, and now it seemed we’d gotten bigger.

The department store had everything but nothing at all that I wanted.  I stalled at every rack and lingered around the mannequins clad with sexy women’s outfits, expensive scarves and fake breasts with perfectly placed n*****s.  My mother shoved me into dressing rooms and begrudgingly I put on what she gave me.  Irritated and predisposed to hate everything she chose, my hostility and anger shocked even me.

When my mother turned away, I disappeared in the store and hid beneath a row of hung dresses where I could see her still, calling my name, searching the isles frantically.   I must have waited almost ten minutes before I stepped out before her as if I had been there all along, waiting for her to come for me.  Still I wear the faded scar beneath my eye where the back of her hand, and her wedding ring, made contact with my flesh - a pale, half-inch reminder of the angriest I have ever seen my mother.

When we got home, the windows were open and the house was filled with the salty sea air, but the whole place was absent of my father.  I needed to find him, to cry to him, and I pushed open the back door and threw myself onto the porch.  From there I saw him, knees tucked into his chest, sitting on the sand where the dunes began their gradual decline to the water’s edge.  I ran to him, and approaching I saw that he clutched a piece of paper in both hands, breathing slowly, deeply, pale and silent.  I sat beside him. 

“What’s that?”  I motioned to the letter.  He said nothing, and I could hear the ocean rolling in as it always had, that same perpetual lull of the tides that had calmed me to sleep for the whole of my life.  He opened his mouth as if to say something, and then he placed his hand on my shoulder.

 


DAY    FOUR       

 The next night, I woke up to my father’s voice.  I didn’t check the time, but it felt late.  At the bottom of the stairs, I heard him.  He was on the phone.  I crept to the kitchen and picked up the line, still watching him in the dark.

“Well what exactly did they tell you?” said the voice on the line.

"Well what do you think they said?  PTSD.  I’m done.”

“So then what’s the plan now?”

“S**t, I don’t know.  Do I need a plan?”

“I don’t know man, you have to do something. You’ll go insane.”  

My father let out a chuckle. “Insane?  You want to know what the f**k insane is? People are smiling because they think they're in some sort of presence when they’re around me.  They would not be smiling if…." 

It was then that I caught a glimpse of my father’s eyes as they flashed at me in the dark.  I turned to run up the stairs but my socks lost their grip on the wooden floors that my mother polished earlier that evening after she brushed her teeth.  I began to fall.  Every so often now, when I’m alone at night, I think I can still feel my heart pounding, myself falling, terrified of my father’s mangled stare, the distorted vision of every line and wrinkle ravaged and wrecked.  My muscles disengaged and I lost control of my footing and made hard contact with the floor.  And then there was his voice, open your eyes, baby, it’s okay, open your eyes.  He was there, crouching beside me, and it seemed he was himself again, looking through me with his soft features.  He drew me into his arms and enveloped me, but he was freezing cold, and hard, and the chilled sweat on his skin caused me to shiver until sometime later, when I awoke in my bed with the heaviness of a bad dream.

 


DAY    FIVE      

 That following day was a mild and overcast one that brought the sky closer to the ocean by blending the colors of the sea and the horizon.  “A good day to get out,” my mother said that morning.  The room where all of us sat looked toward wall-length sliding glass doors to the beach and out toward the Atlantic Ocean, and if one’s eyes were good enough, to where the earth began to curve, and where ships and airplanes appeared to vanish into space.

We walked along the beach with no destination, staggered along the shore, each of us unaffected by of the time of day or the distance we’d traveled.  Some time had passed until my mother offered, “I’d like to paint the house light blue, like the sky.”  But my father hadn’t been able to hear her.  He was some twenty feet back stripping himself naked, wading into the tide, his clothes adrift in the surf.

My brother took off after him, pulling off his shirt, struggling with the button on his jeans and tripping on a pant leg before crawling on all fours into the current. “Dad!” he called, as he dove beneath the white water, surfacing with just enough time to call “Dad!” and take a breath.  But my father didn’t seem to hear him; he was already up to his shoulders, his head disappearing and reappearing beyond the swells.

My brother was fifteen then and for the first time he didn’t look like a boy; the misty beach turned everything the same shade of gray and my brother looked half my father, half the world that saturated him.  It seems now that he could have aged a decade in those days following the return of a man that I could not possibly believe was my father no matter how much he looked like him or what the papers said.  But he reached that man’s side and there they drifted for some part of the day, my mother and I watching from a distance.

The fog settled with greater density as the day rolled on, and if there were anyone else close by we wouldn’t have known it.  We stood on that piece of earth that not so long ago belonged to us, now strangers in the backyard of the world, all of us, eyes wide open staring into indefinite distance, now with masks upon our faces to keep us foreign to our enemies.  Because we could not be protected, not by a government that lies and sends families strange copies of fathers who are neither dead nor alive, that mistakes the identities of its very own sons.

I was nine years old.  And all I wanted so desperately was to swim until I met those who wander on the other side, those who never before existed but appeared to me for the first time, just then.  I wanted to ask them what they had done with my father and why they would ever want to make us suffer, and I wanted to plead with them to give him back to me.  But I also knew that I would tire on my way, and that I would die trying to get there.  There have been many years since, decades of crossing new oceans and meeting new lands.  It has been wonderful.  But every time I have stood on the shore and peered into the distance, I see the vastness of a desert that I fear will swallow us all into a sandy haze.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  


© 2014 Tracey R



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My only comment critique-wise. The very first sentence "felt" wrong. I can't really say it IS wrong, but it does "feel" wrong.

As for the story, I understood. 'Nuff said.

Posted 3 Years Ago


Tracey R

3 Years Ago

Hmmm. Thank you for reading. Can you say anymore about what it felt wrong?
Chris

3 Years Ago

The dual "as" seemed more of run-on phrases hiding within a sentence structure. Either one worked b.. read more

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Added on May 12, 2014
Last Updated on October 1, 2014
Tags: PTSD, childhood, war, loss, family

Author

Tracey R
Tracey R

New York, NY



About
Hi. I'm here to reunite with writing after some time. For four years now I have been studying and working in the field of Addiction Psychology. Prior, I wrote fiction and nonfiction in college, mo.. more..

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