I woke to repeated hammering at my front door. I staggered through from my bedroom wearing nothing but a tattered pair of Army sweatpants and a three-day beard.
Dawn’s early light revealed a living room right out of an episode of Hoarders. Amazing how much garbage can collect on the floor in so short a time. A kick sent an empty plastic milk jug skittering across the floor, bouncing across the detritus of meals I didn’t remember eating. My bare foot squelched on the blood-soaked pad of a plastic hamburger tray. Clumps of raw meat still stuck to the torn-open cling wrap, sour and reeking. Meat wrappers made up most the garbage on the floor.
The pounding on my front door grew more insistent.
“Brother Lawrence,” called a muffled voice outside the door. “Are you there? Are you okay?”
My home teacher, Brother Knowles.
“Coming,” I mumbled, still zonked from my meds. Rows of plastic pill jars from the VA sat on the scratched-up counter of my breakfast nook. Daily maintenance pills and the pills the size of horse tranquillizers I take on my bad days.
I’d taken two last night.
I grabbed a key ring off the wall peg and began unlocking my front door. I fumble about trying to put key to lock, my hands clumsy with sleep and meds.
Each deadbolt I threw back sounded like the shot of a hunter’s rifle. All four of them.
The chatty locksmith who installed the locks and the reinforced steel-core door thought I must be a prepper. The high deserts of Eastern Oregon are full of them and there I was a new move-in buying an old farmhouse miles away from anyone else. Then he saw my Iraqi vet hat on the sofa, added two and two, and finished the job in complete silence.
All those movies about us, I guess. There’ve been a lot of them.
The movies are wrong, of course. Those of us who’ve returned, those of us who returned other than who and what we were when we left, we’re not Hollywood’s vicious killing machines. We just want be left alone, to live alone.
But human beings cannot live alone.
Not and stay human.
And I’d learned I wanted to be human.
I opened the door.
Night sky had brightened to a colorless grey. Stars had faded from few. The moon, though, still hung ghostly white on the horizon, just beginning to wane gibbous, the barest of slivers missing. “Visiting moon,” Brother Knowles once said. Something from a line in Shakespeare, he said.
Blue-black morning stubble on his chin, Brother Knowles stood on my porch in his rumpled Oregon Ducks t-shirt and Old Navy cargo shorts.
Shorts. I used to wear shorts. Only wear long pants now. Legs too scarred up, a real horror show. Went my entire rotation patrolling the narrow streets of Baghdad without a scratch. My last week, I get mauled half to death by a pack of feral dogs.
Mauled more than my legs. Mauled my old life to death.
Brother Bellamy’s Ford pickup sat parked in my driveway. Clattering diesel engine idling so the cab will stay heated. High desert nights are cold. Blue-grey diesel exhaust puffs upwards.
Brother Bellamy lay slumped over the steering wheel, asleep. They’d slept the night parked there in the truck, the same as they do every time I know I’m going to have a bad night.
They park there in case I ever did get it into my head during a bad night to unlock my door and go do something stupid, they’d be the first thing I’d see. They’d be there to talk me down.
“You okay?” The concern in Brother Knowles’ voice as real as the concern in his eyes. One human being to another.
“I should be okay now,” I said, talking to my feet because I can’t look him in the eye. “Thanks.”
He asked if there’s anything else they can do for me. As if they hadn’t done enough. A mechanic at the Ford dealership in town, Brother Bellamy would be dead on his feet all day. Brother Knowles works on the country road crew, he wouldn’t be much better.
And yet they came back time after time, month after month to sleep cramped all night in a pickup cab. For me.
I’d cried exactly once since Iraq, once in all the hospitals, the counselling sessions, the long lonely hours of the pitch black nights.
It was on their third visit, after I knew the difference they made in my life. They’d asked, just like now, if there was anything else they could do. I cried in frustration with my inability to express just how much they’d done for me already.
The VA and all their programs and fancy doctors gave me the means and the meds to cope. What they couldn’t give was a reason why I should.
These two men have.
They have given me back my humanity.
After muttered thanks and a brief prayer, they drive away. I watched their truck trundle down the long dirt road back into town, framed by the last fading glimpse of the pale, pale moon hanging on the horizon.
Somewhere among the Ponderosa pines behind my house, a wolf put back his head and cried, calling out to all his brothers to join him in the wild.
Instead, I turned and went back in my house. I got out a broom and mop and began to clean up the sorry mess I’d made of things.
Because that’s what human beings do.
A Q&A about this story with Lee Allred is available here.