An excerpt from chapter seven of the novel Breakfast with the Dirt Cult by Samuel Finlay.
Walton sat at the window of the shuttle bus and watched the Washington Monument pass by under a midnight sky. The world was speckled with lights and activity and he regretted that the first sight of his country had to be one of modernity. The neon, and the concrete, and the billboards; there was something about it all that seemed foreign and garish.
However, he was home. And he was high. He smiled at the hazy feeling of the Morphine and surrendered to the sense of floating that the shuttle offered. There were other wounded soldiers with him and they talked about their injuries and how good the States looked and what they were going to do first, but he didn’t listen to them or even care about the fact they existed. He just wanted to float.
The shuttle stopped outside of Walter Reed Army Medical Center and he got off. He wore the track pants and sweater that he’d received in Landsthul, Germany (the latter he’d had to cut up to get his hand through). He could feel the cool of the pavement under the thin disposable slippers and found the sensation very appealing. He was tempted to open up the box of complementary Girl Scout Cookies in the Red Cross plastic bag, but decided it probably wasn’t the best time for it. He really wanted those Tagalongs, though.
A nurse welcomed him to the hospital and directed him to a lab where an X-ray technician took pictures of the bony pulp of his hand. Afterward, he walked to another room where a tall young doctor with glasses had him sit, and then began cutting off the dressing.
As the doctor removed the layers of cloth, Walton smelled the clammy combination of disinfectant and wound that came from his swollen hand. When the doctor freed the last layer of bandage and moved to throw it away, Walton began peeling yellow strips from off of the wounds themselves.
“You’ve done this before?”
“Yes, Sir,” Walton answered. He winced as he continued to pull the strip away from the gash. “This ain’t my first rodeo. I used to help my nurse clean my wounds when I was in Germany.” He then remarked with a grin, “Didn’t hurt quite this bad, though.” Of course, he supposed he just might not have noticed on account of the nurse from Germany having been so cute. She had given a mean sponge-bath. The spanky, brown-haired slip of a girl had no earthly business being single, and Walton had offered up a prayer of thanks that they still cranked out Wife Material every now and again.
The doctor finished removing the yellow strips himself then cleaned the wound. After he redressed it, he said, “Let me see your bicep.” Walton complied, and the doctor lifted the sleeve of the sweater to expose two lines of torn skin, both running lengthwise across Walton’s upper arm with stitches crossing them like train tracks.
“Those stitches should be ready to come out,” The doctor observed. He produced a small pair of scissors and went about cutting and removing them. As he worked, he told Walton, “I know it looks like the scar cuts through your muscle tissue, but with time and scar massage, you’ll have a normal bicep again. You could even do weight training and make it as big as you want.”
“What about the hand? Will I get to keep it?”
“It’s still too early to tell. Dr. Jones will see you soon and he’ll assess the wound and decide what to do next. You will probably have a debrisment in a few days where we’ll go in and clean it up from the inside some more.”
A nurse took him to a room where she started a fresh IV and left him to sleep. He drifted off, but four hours later another nurse came in to wake him up to take his vitals. When she did, he struggled not to throw something.
A few days later he sat across from his family for the first time in over a year. It felt odd being around them at first. He heard himself speak to them, but it seemed like it was someone else using his voice. However, this didn’t stop him from appreciating the way his brother Mike had gotten a Pass from the Navy and turned the hospital room into a party, even going so far as to smuggle in a Playboy and some books. His other brother Joseph looked taller than he remembered and had begun growing his first beard. His mother caught him up on family gossip, but his dad just sat there staring at his son’s hand.
Walton was soon on a bed in Pre-Op. He absently listened to the doctors explain the details of the procedure they were about to perform, and warn him of the usual possibility of death and infection. When the anesthesiologist injected the knock-out juice into the IV, Walton smiled. He would soon be enjoying a nice break from the world.
He stood near the ramp of the Shithook as she lowered to the ground like a giant beast outside of Miam Do. The prop-wash blasted the dirt on the ground and the bird danced under his feet like a boat on water. She touched down and he heard, “Go!” He sprang forward…
And was restrained by a nurse. He struggled against her, but as he looked around, he finally ceased. He was on a gurney, staring up at the ceiling with people and lights all around. Words like confusion and fear didn’t exist for him, just their meanings. He didn’t know what was real and began to cry.
Reality eventually found him and he calmed down despite the insubstantial feeling of the world around him. He missed the oblivion, but he resolved himself to his surroundings. He looked down to find a grotesque collection of rods and pins drilled into the bones of his hand and forearm.
“What’s wrong, honey?” asked his mom as he lay back in his room, hours later.
“It hurts.” He saw his mother’s brown eyes take on a pained, knowing expression and he said, “Could y’all please leave? We’ll talk tomorrow, if that’s alright.”
There was a look on his dad’s face that Walton hadn’t seen since his mom had almost died in a car accident a few years prior. “No, Son. We want to stay”
“Kenny, he wants to be alone,” his mom said gently, and Walton almost smiled at his mom’s uncanny grasp of hospital etiquette. She knew more about hospitals than she would have liked. “Son, we’ll come back tomorrow.” They hugged him and left.
Walton pressed the call button as soon as they were out the door and waited. No one responded. The pain blocked out everything, and went into the core of the mess of his hand and wrist, evolving and picking up intensity with each second. It somehow managed to be sharp and dull at the same time. He closed his eyes and pressed the button again in vain.
Time slowed down to a long infinity and the ache that gored into his bones violated his mind as if the doctors were still boring into his hand and arm. He writhed slowly away from, then back toward his elevated arm in a futile effort for anything resembling comfort. It was the worst physical pain he could remember. He made low guttural noises in anger at a world where such pain was possible. Again and again, he pressed the button and tried to breathe.
An Age of the earth came and went before a nurse stepped in, her dark skin contrasting with the bright pastel scrubs. “What’s wrong, baby?” she asked comfortingly.
He croaked with a pained voice, “It hurts, Ma’am.”
She recited the litany. “On a scale of one-to-ten, ten being the most intense pain you can imagine, what is your pain rating?”
“‘Bout an eight or a nine.”
“I’ll go see what the doctor has for you.”
She left and returned moments later, wasting no time in injecting something into his IV. She bore an apologetic expression and said, “I’m so sorry. They forgot to schedule any follow-up meds for you after your surgery and you caught us at shift change. This won’t take long to take hold.” She smiled at him and patted his hand. “I’m Ms. Burmingham and I’ll be your nurse for tonight. If you need anything just press the call button. Okay?”
He smiled with hope at the liquid that coursed through the tubes leading to his hand.
For the next few days, Walton faded in and out of sleep. Every now and again he shot a glance at the wound-vac that drew corrupted fluid from his wrist. The nurses continued to annoy him by checking his vitals every few hours, but most were pleasant, so he chatted and flirted with them when they came around.
He had forgotten just how good women smelled. It made him want to put his hand on them when they got near him with their crisp white uniforms. However, when they moved the things on his bed-tray to set down medicine or a bit of equipment, he had to restrain himself from yelling at them. The bed-tray was his, and they had no right to disturb his things so carelessly. When his IV beeped, he would almost lose it completely and want to break whatever was near, and from the corner of his eye, he wondered why his mom looked like she didn’t recognize him.
She sat in a chair next to him and watched the small TV that hung from an arm above the bed. Walton had made it a point to spend a portion of each day watching the news, or reading a paper or magazine to catch up on the world. He also wanted to keep his mind busy so he didn’t wind up sitting around and feeling sorry for himself like the clichéd “wounded vet” that seemed to be a staple of modern war movies. His mother, however, couldn’t be bothered with listening to a bunch of eggheads rattle on about “how they have a magic solution for other people’s miseries,” as she put it, but she loved her boys, and had learned to put up with Walton’s tendency to rant over current events long ago.
He’d noticed a reoccurring argument that kept insinuating itself into many of the media pundits’ narratives that disturbed him; namely, that the wars downrange were the result of Christians in rural states. The assertion that people like his parents were to blame disgusted him, and as a man who’d been wounded in his country’s service, it felt like a slap in the face.
Having spent the first nineteen years of his life deeply involved in the Church, he had never once heard in a prayer meeting, worship service, or even on a Wednesday night business meeting, anything whatsoever about putting the Middle East to the sword. No deacon had ever made a motion for the congregation to pressure elected officials to have the U.S. blow up Muslims. No preacher had ever said that he felt like The Lord had laid it on his heart to make the streets flow with the blood of the nonbelievers. No youth minister had ever told them that the greatest thing they could do for God was to kill Haji.
That there were adults who made a good living manufacturing such rubbish, and didn’t get fired for passing off such a shallow analysis of international affairs, was beyond the pale. They needed First Sergeant Wade in the worst way. They were ate up with The Dumbass. None of this really surprised him, though. People like his folks had been one of the country’s preferred whipping-boys since before H.L. Menken.
What Walton did remember from those years in the Church was a lot of people who were barely getting by, scraping together what money they could to donate to orphanages for children they’d never even met. Or they’d occasionally get together a group of volunteers to travel to some impoverished village on a mission trip to build a clinic or a bit infrastructure to help out the poor.
As far as the Middle East was concerned, Walton had the impression that the churches he’d grown up in had more or less adopted the foreign policy of the Governor from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, who’d said “that it behooves both the Jooz and the Aye-rabs to settle their differences in a Christian manner.” Other than a loosely-defined commitment to Israel, that was about as far as they went. Of course, there was also the constant praying for peace. No doubt in part because it would be their sons fighting in whatever war got cooked up; they were among the few remaining segments of the population that still believed in sacrificing for America.
Their yeoman ancestors, with their toughness, high degree of religiosity, and community-centered norms and values, had been handy to have around for whenever country had needed people to till the dirt, settle the frontier, bale hay, pick cotton, mine coal, turn bolts, work railroads, and fight wars.
However, their descendants in the brave new world were to be fitted with a yoke of shame, and to be unofficially branded as trash or vilified in their own home. They were to be fed a steady diet of dissension, entertainment, and dependency infrastructure lest they maintain some semblance of backbone and self-reliance. Didn’t the silly Proles know that the modern nation-state was now just supposed to be a market of “human capital” and not a sovereign country of citizens?
Looking at his mother, he wondered if their loyalty wasn’t misplaced. Given the tone of the bigots who wrote articles and mocked those like his family, who had been born and bred in “flyover states,” and made them into the cause of all that was wrong with the U.S. and the world, he didn’t think such “elites” were worth the blood it took to keep them safe and prosperous. While he still sympathized with the Church in spite of his many questions and uncertainties, he no longer valued turning the other cheek as he used to. Sometimes you ran out of peaceful compromises. Some people just had to be fought. Tooth and claw. The trick was figuring out who it really was that deserved the ass-kicking.
His mother interrupted his brooding. “Germany sure looks pretty,” she said as AFN ran a commercial featuring European Posts. “Did you get to see much of it?”
“No. I was in the hospital the whole time.” He didn’t tell her about the wifely brunette with the sponge-bath skills.
“They lost my records then had us all laid out in the entry way on our stretchers when we were leaving and there were all these kids and families lookin’ at us like we were in a freak show. When they finally did get us on our way, they drove us on the roads that I don’t think have been repaired since World War II. It was almost funny to see all us mangled up soldiers gettin’ all tossed about and groaning.”
She shook her head in a way that made Walton think he probably shouldn’t have said anything. “I can’t imagine. I’m pretty impressed with the hospital here, though.”
“I was too, until last night,” he said flatly as he recalled the night before. “That was horrible. Ms. Burmingham was great, though. She hooked me right up.”
“Well, Ms. Burmingham just made a new friend.”
They spent a moment watching TV, then he said from a need to converse, “I feel bad. Maw-Maw called last night and I got pissed and told her not to call me here. That I was wore out and that I’d call her. It ain’t right to talk to your grandmother like that. I think the drugs must make me cranky or somethin’. I feel sort of… angrier than I remember. And it’s like, all the time, it seems. Mom, your boy’s turnin’ all Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde on ya,” the last he said with a smile to try to put her at ease. “I should call her and apologize.”
“It’s okay, Son. You’ve been through a tough ordeal.”
The phone rang and they looked at each other. He picked it up, expecting to hear his grandmother. “Hello? Hi! How’re you doin’?”
“Who is it?”
He turned and smiled in a way that made him look as though he hadn’t been shot. “It’s Amy!” he said as he covered the handset. He entertained the notion that it was almost worth going through that whole experience if only to read the urgency and concern in her email after he’d told her, and to hear the eagerness in her calls.
His mother beamed. She wanted grandchildren and didn’t care how she got them. “Well, you tell Miss Amy I said, hi! I’m going to go get a bite at the cafeteria. Do you want anything?” “No, Ma’am. Thank ya, though.”
Walton closed his eyes and saw Amy’s face while she asked about how he felt, and told him how much she’d wanted to hear his voice. Hearing her somehow amped up the voltage on the caveman-ish feelings that crawled around inside him. He liked how powerful he felt with the growling thing within him. The bullshit was gone on some level and the world had gotten so simple that he could hardly contain himself. “I like your voice too, darlin’. It’s the highlight of my day. Say, have you been drinkin’?”
“Yeah, I drank a little,” she said with a faintly perky slur.
“I just got back from a funeral for my great-aunt and everyone got really drunk. I sat and drank Scotch and listened to my dad’s British cousin talk about how he used to say he was a member of the Rolling Stones so he could get girls to sleep with him. He’s awesome.”
“I’m proud of you. It’s still daylight and you’re tipsy. God, I wish I was there. I’d get drunk with you and we’d break shit. It would be fuckin’ awesome.”
“It would be, but I don’t know about breaking things.”
“Are you kiddin’? It’s the shit. Here, break a glass right now and you’ll see what I mean.”
The line went silent, then an eruption of shattering glass filled the phone, followed by their wicked laughter.
Samuel Finlay served as an infantryman in Bosnia and Afghanistan. He enjoys reading good books, listening to old music, traveling, and sitting on porches. He was born and raised in Oklahoma.