Jimmy Reilly grabbed a worn flannel bathrobe off a metal hanger, put it on but couldn’t close it. Did his mother think he didn’t notice the belt cut into eight-inch strips and tossed in the trash? A worn, oversized chair sat in front of his small black and white TV, the quarter-folded Times lay on the side table—Nixon on the front page. He whispered, “Fucker,” to the halftone face.
He peered through the window at the Bronx night, waited for his heartbeat to slow, and willed his body to stillness. A few lights blinked on, off, or held steady, like eyes in flat faces. Concrete, metal, naked trees replaced Jungle foliage. He awoke at 2:17 a.m., same as last night.
Lifetimes ago his parents saw him off at JFK, their faces somber. They stood at the glass divide, smudged with fingerprints and lip prints of toddlers. Overhead speakers barked incessant arrivals and departures, fluorescence cast faces in stark, unnatural light. A woman in platform shoes wrestled an oversized bag. Jimmy’s eyes bore through his parents, as though to emblazon his face in their memory. In case they never saw him again. He’d turned his head away. And then I disappeared.
He wore civilian boxers and a sleeveless T-shirt under the robe but he sensed the fabric of his uniform on his arms, the sensation of jungle boots on his feet, clammy and part of him, a tactile memory.
Out of the corner of his eye, a small boy’s form materialized and when Jimmy reached out to touch the soft, dark hair, the boy dissolved. Jimmy sat, turned on the tube and stared into the illuminated, static-filled screen. His head chatter built up a heat within him and he feared he would combust, but the boy’s image blinked in, curled up on the floor asleep like a fetus, and soothed him.
Morning light came and Jimmy dressed in green fatigues and jeans. His mother, still in her nightgown, worked the coffee maker and her lips moved some time before he registered her voice.
“Did you hear me? Jimmy honey, where are you going?”
He smiled at her and slipped out with only a key in his pocket. His wallet sat buried in a drawer under more useful things—a hair brush, news clippings, and fading photos of his buddies. Outside noise made the hollow ringing in his ears bearable, so he walked among layers and layers of bland buildings that formed towering walls looming above and around him. Like an urban Minotaur, he looked to the sky and imagined.
Small clouds of breath puffed out in time with his pace. He walked the Earth into a spin, willed it round and round, until it revealed the sun above the horizon.
At the school playground he chose a sight line and watched the children, boys who yelped and pushed, and girls who ran and giggled, all pink and purple sweaters. Black iron bars separated him from them. A small brown boy sat on a swing, lonely and distracted, pushing off with one foot. Then he swung both feet forward and carried the momentum through to his toes. He pulled them back, forward, back, higher, higher.
“I’m flying to the sun,” the boy said and his head dropped back, mouth open, arcing through the air.
Two soldiers carry him and red rain, black rain streams down his face in steady channels. His head swings and bobs in rhythm with rapid footfalls and the sound of crushed vegetation. A muted and perpetual scream comes from somewhere. Time slows when he opens his eyes and it replays, that moment when Duke marches with determination, and the boy’s eyes, full of fear, ringed in black lashes, look at them, the face that knows ‘bad’ is coming. Jimmy reaches his hand toward Duke, sees his own tiny hairs on the top of his wrist, and it ends, with ferociousness. The force drives him backward in slow-motion, soundless flight, and he floats above his own body to see himself in the arms of his buddies.
He is on the swing. The sun’s rays wash over him and his long hair hangs toward the earth. The world is upside down—bright blue sky with white billowing clouds, and a canopy of buildings above it.
“Damon, time to come in” the teacher said.
Jimmy slept until 5:00 a.m. without a 2:17 a.m. awakening. Then the fog descended, landed with heft. He grasped for the lightness that preceded memory, before the weight bore down. Duke’s back always moved away from him, just out of reach, and the dead boy’s face floated into view.
His father hacked out a familiar cough through his closed door. Behind another his brother slept. They exhaled expectation. His family watched, waited for change, for anything he could give them, and he had nothing. In the foyer, stealth and silence, he slipped into the harsh fluorescence of the hallway.
Outside, he paced his route, sight aimed ahead, awareness sharp, spring at his heels. The sun poked one tentative finger over the edge of the Earth and assessed the day for safety. He trod as the sun, satisfied, stretched, yawned, exhaled and sat up. Life vibrated in the air. Vertical walls of buildings turned from black to gray to light brown angles and lines, and warm hues shook away the darkness. He pivoted, walked, took measure of his elongated shadow until it shrunk back to human proportions—a dark doppelganger that marked time.
In the distance, lights popped on at the small day school, where, soon, plastic jars of paint would waft smells of tempera and small hands would draw their kaleidoscopic visions in crayon. Like junior Atlases, they would toss balls decorated like the world back and forth between them.
A bird sounded; he assessed the chopper’s noise thickness, lift, drag sounds. Civilian. He’d done another recon, and swung back. Jimmy slowed, and the boy, Damon, came toward him, stood at the bars, and then turned his face to the sky.
“Walking Man,” he said to no one in particular.
The teacher spotted them and fear darkened her features. Bile, familiar and acrid, rose in his throat. I'm not a criminal.
He gasped for breath, 2:17 a.m. Again. Sprung to his feet. Naked. Poised to react. The images faded. Familiar walls came into focus. Echoes receded to the gentle ticks of the clock. Tick. Tick. Tick. Louder. Tick. Tick. Tick.
He crouched in his room, but the ghost smells of flowery cologne, mud, and incense hung in the air. Phantom heat weighed heavy on his shoulders, stagnant phantom cigarette smoke clung to phantom dampness. He turned as though his war brother sat squat beside him, and said,
“Duke, man, wish you were still with us. Case and Walker dragged me along. Hendrix blared out of little orange radios. Like plastic tangerines. I tell you, that place was all eyes and red mouths.”
“Man . . .” Duke replied, regret in his voice. Another thing he’d missed.
“‘I’m called Victory,’ she told me. She moved her red nails along my stubbly head. ‘No,’ I told her, ‘I’ll pay. Don’t touch me. Just get me high,’” and he had gestured to the ashtray with half-spent joints.
“Amen, brother,” Duke mumbled.
Jimmy got up and sat on his bed, legs pulled up to his chest in his Bronx bedroom—the way he had there. The frayed lace of her red and black panties had filled him with sadness.
She lit the joint, took a long drag, and leaned back on her rickety chair, one high-heeled shoe on the chair cushion, the other on the floor. Her legs fell open, the movement listless. She passed the rest to him, with heavy lids and a weariness he understood. His eyes darted to the fabric makeshift door, along the walls, to his own spiral of gray breath. Then he spoke—until there was nothing more to say. She listened through curls of blue smoke of an American cigarette.
“I told her everything,” Jimmy whispered to phantom Duke. “About the dusty boy. Fuck. His eyes—so hollow, so frightened. I started to go to him, remember?” Jimmy said to phantom Duke. “Case screamed ‘No!’”
“Smitty shouted, ‘Decoy—living bomb!’ phantom Duke said. “But the kid wasn’t rigged. I set it off when I stepped on it.”
“I reached for you. I saw it. Your foot, the kid, all at once, and I just needed another millisecond, one tiny bit more time, but then the blast took you, and,” Jimmy’s words caught in his throat. “How does a man become nothing in an instant? The kid flew back, tossed like a small rolled up newspaper, like a cloth doll.”
Jimmy sat with phantom Duke, remembering, and Duke considered him and said, “What happened there, maybe we’re better off.”
Jimmy sat back and contemplated, while phantom Duke toyed with a bootlace.
“I see it all, when I take a pee, or watch my feet—Left Right, Left Right—while I march and march. Never goes away. It burns on my brain. A fucking memory tattoo.”
Duke toyed. Took out a pocket knife and cleaned his nails.
“Taken in seconds. Life. Ripped out.”
Jimmy eyed his drywall ceiling, saw the slow fan in Nam. Round, and round. He watched it chop and splice molecules of air, of smoke. Heat shimmered off the edges, and the walls pulsated. His head swam.
“I cried. She pulled on a silk robe and her hand fluttered to my heart.”
Jimmy paused, then said, “Next few days we got a boot, nervous talker-type, followed me around like a pup. Saw my harp, and I thought he’d wet himself. He says, ‘is it a, an American-?’ And I said, ‘Ace, yeah. My dad . . . he gave it to me. Remember my harmonica, Duke? My good luck charm? The kid asked, ‘It work?’ and I told him, ‘I’m still here, ain’t I?’”
In the dark bedroom in the Bronx he felt the sun on his face, tasted the combination of sweet, saliva-soaked wood and old metal, the resonant sound he formed when he’d brought it to his mouth.
Victory stood in the distance. She wore a simple white, buttoned shirt, and plain, black pants, hair pulled back into a tight ponytail. Beautiful. The kid unfolded himself and sauntered over to a cluster of grunts. One cleaned his weapon, a reflex. Another pitched spent cigarette butts at his helmet. It rocked, like an abandoned, overturned turtle shell.
Jimmy got up, descended the hill, and went to her. She smiled and reached for him and he kissed her cheek, a quick unthinking reaction, as though they weren’t what they were. Warm, sweet breath like gossamer brushed his neck when she placed her arms around him, not quite a hug, more of an understanding. She spoke like a harp’s song, in rapid Vietnamese.
At the question in his eyes, she pulled out a worn photo of a young Vietnamese boy who stood beside an American soldier, pointed and said,
Tears formed in her dark eyes. She said in English,
The horror pushed him away from her, his throat closed, and he waited for the sensation of a boot crushing his windpipe to abate. Victory shook her head and her slim hands gestured a horizontal chop—‘not you, it’s okay’—and she moved his face to look at her again. Her gaze locked onto his and he took her hand. They ambled and the sky released a warm mist, like a caress, until the kid called to him. Jimmy inhaled her, and then she faded.
He shivered at memory, rooted, held like reeds in a frozen lake. Of slaughter . . . the village.
“The whole fucking village. Victory.” Jimmy searched for Duke, but couldn’t find him. “I look and look, and see, again and again, evil. Duke? You hear?” and Jimmy stopped, fell at break-speed into himself and registered now.
He smelled his own fear, with the day’s smells underneath. The blanket of numbness enveloped, immobilized him. He crept under the bed to safety, and slept, naked in his foxhole in the Bronx and clutched an invisible weapon in one hand. His other hand, a tight fist, held the stored up fury of a grenade.
Morning. In just days birds began to sing, the earth greened, the sun sat longer in the sky. Jimmy awoke with the day. He lay on his bed, on top of his blanket, and his eyes fluttered open and again closed, lulled back to a dream. Duke, the little boy, Victory, each lay on beds in a bright, white room, under sheets, peaceful, asleep. Ecstasy flooded him. A black and white clock face smiled down at him—linear time held no meaning here in the twilight.
“Goodbye.” His lips moved without sound.
The white room consumed him. Out of the brightness, two hands lifted a baby made of pure light. The hands released the baby, and it became a white bird and flew away. Its wings spread and it ascended like the Freedom Bird that took me home. As it rose, it fractured, into two, then three white birds, brilliant white against an azure sky.
Jimmy opens his eyes in his bed, in the Bronx; he sees a square hole, looks through and sees blue sky and clouds. He can sit on the edge of the hole, this gateway to the sky. He can hold on to the walled edges around him, grab freedom. Sounds bleed through the walls behind him.
He yanks the window open wide and breathes in the warm spring air, struggles to remember. Do I have my parachute? He thinks of the story of a seasoned jumper who flew through the sky so often he practically lived in his parachute. One day the jumper forgot he didn’t have it on.
Jimmy hears bus brakes squeal, a car, one solitary basketball player, thock, thock, an airplane above. He feels sunlight on his face. He looks down and sees green treetops and looks up and sees the rays of the sun, corpuscular rays that extend down from behind a cloud. The clouds part and he looks at the sun. It nods at him and beckons, Yes, Yes, it’s all right. Jimmy launches himself off the sill with arms wide in a graceful dive. A gust lifts and suspends him in the air, buoyant. He is on his back, his head hangs and he smiles. His bright white clothing flutters around his arms and legs. He spins.
K.V. Peck writes fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. A native of the Bronx, today Peck calls the Midwest home, and works as a freelance writer, marketer, and editor. Peck holds a Masters, Writing, Editing, and Publishing, from North Central College outside of Chicago. She has completed a novella, Time Unbound, and is expanding into a full-length novel.