I'M IN NO HURRY to leave the close-spaced security of the bus, so I lean back in my seat and wait until everyone is out. Then I walk to the front, take two steps down—back in the “real world”.
After four years, three tours in Iraq, and two days of military psych-docs attempting to drive out the bad times with clever talk and good intentions, I am discharged—officially cut loose from a surreal world of free-fire zones and indiscriminate killing.
Citizen X: deprogrammed, purified, and deposited on easy hometown streets.
I am uncomfortable in the uniform, a costume that has defined me for so long—now meaningless. I am a phantom in an empty coat. It’s clear, that in this place, I am lost. Scenes cataloged in heartbreaking detail have no place here. Stories that once burned blood red—gone cold as the ghosts who breathed them.
The low hum of the idling Greyhound mixes with the fumes of diesel fuel to fill the night air with noisy poison. A skinny panhandler wearing a camouflage T-shirt sits crumpled like lost luggage outside the depot. One of those forgotten people living a half-life just beyond anybody’s caring.
At his side, a wrinkled square of cardboard—a kind of faded-brown American business card. Scrawled across the front is the familiar graffiti, “Out of Work.” One look at this guy and I know he’s done for. The whole fucking story is right there in his eyes—like looking at the floor of the ocean.
He looks up at me as if I could save him.
Standing just out of range of a street lamp, I watch the shadows of tree branches move along the empty avenue. Almost every night, I come to stare at this vacant lot on the corner—the spot where the Lighthouse Baptist Church once stood.
One drunken Saturday night back in 1975 my father, lonely for God, broke into the little wooden sanctuary and doused the whole place with gasoline. Then he took a seat in the front pew, lit a Lucky Strike, and burnt the son-of-a-bitch down around his ears—the last “Zippo Party”.
My father spent most of his life in a rage. When the whiskey was talking, the old man would rave about “search and destroy” patrols wiping out entire Vietnamese villages. When there was no one left to waste, they’d flip open their cigarette lighters, and burn everything to the ground—“Zippo Party”.
“Another shithole gone—a few more “dink” hearts and minds pacified.”
There was a time when I believed my father was a mad man. There was a time when I believed in simple right and wrong. There was a time when I believed in all of the “necessary illusions”. Enough to put my soul on the line. Enough to go out and confront things I did not understand.
by James Carney