Rougarou (December, 2013)
Nick was six foot three, heavily muscled and tough. He had killed many times, but not yet murdered. Ranger training taught him how to do it: Be quiet, be stealthy, do it quickly then escape. He had earned a sharpshooter badge for pistols and automatic rifles. Back then, in Iraq, it had been survival, them or us.
The Army discharge papers included a questionnaire seeking out symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder:
Do you feel jumpy or startle easily?
Do you have difficulty falling or staying asleep? Recurrent nightmares?
Do you have outbursts of anger?
He answered “no” to those questions. What combat soldier doesn’t have those symptoms? he thought. Why the hell should I reveal anything about myself that someone might use against me?
He came home, got a job as a welder, and tried to forget the bodies, the blood, the close calls. He wanted to fit in again, to enjoy a normal life, but Baghdad images took over when he tried to relax.
Four weeks after leaving Iraq, Nick was living with his parents in the small house where he had grown up, a faded white clapboard on a busy commercial street. But Nick still carried a loaded .38 revolver and slept, wrapped in blankets, on his bedroom floor. His bed felt smothering. His parents, in their bedroom below, could hear his floor creaking most of the night as Nick paced sleeplessly. Sometimes he practiced quick draws of the pistol in his room; looking in the mirror, crouching down, reaching under his left arm, pulling the .38 rapidly out of the holster with his right hand and pointing it at his reflection. Just like De Niro in Taxi Driver, he thought, smiling and laughing softly. If anyone was after him, he would be ready. Some nights, he never came home.
After work, on a cold, rainy November afternoon, Nick walked the wet streets of East Boston, looking for a place to unwind. He turned up the collar of his frayed army jacket, the sharpshooter badge and ranger insignia still attached.
The door of Sullivan’s Tap was open. He stepped into the tavern where the warmth pushed away the chill. There were only a few drinkers in the dimly lit room, old men bent over their glasses at a small table, their rough, subdued voices mixing with the drone of sad country music.
Nick sat at the deserted, wooden bar, on one of heavy, high-backed chairs bolted to the floor. The bartender was washing glasses in the sink, rows of amber whiskey bottles rested against a long, cracked mirror behind him.
“Can I get you something, soldier?”
“Jack Daniel’s on the rocks.” Pulling a large roll of bills from his pocket, Nick added “Double it.” He drained the glass quickly. “Another.”
The bartender tried not to look surprised at the quick chugging and poured the glass full again. “Easy man, easy,” he said.
Nick smiled and stared at the second drink a while. He felt the whiskey burning deep in his chest. He liked it. Drinking hard liquor was something he hadn’t done in Iraq.
The bartender continued washing glasses.
A young woman entered the tavern, looked worriedly behind her, walked to the bar, and sat beside Nick. She had an inviting smile but appeared disheveled, as if she had hurriedly dressed. An old jean jacket with missing buttons over a formless blue sweater, a Live Strong yellow bracelet in place of jewelry, no lipstick. Her hair was fine and red and clung uncombed to a freckled face, framing her soft gray eyes.
“I haven’t seen you here before,” she said, her voice quivering gently.
“First time here,” he replied, moving closer to her and empting his second glass of whiskey. She was something he had missed: a softness, a cautious smile, full lips, nice perfume. He imagined the freckles spread closely over her body. The dimly lit mirror behind the bar reflected the woman, her head turned toward him. Also, there was an image of himself that he refused to recognize.
She saw a tired, lonely man, too old for his years and turned to look at him more closely. He appeared to be in his mid-twenties. A ragged scar slashed straight across his neck just above the collar of a blue work shirt. His face was weathered with deep wrinkles cleft into his forehead and around his eyes. She noticed the tight black stubble; he hadn’t shaved in a week. It didn’t make much difference working in a body shop.
When Nick looked in the mirror, he saw a warrior, dressed in camouflage and helmet, a bandolier of bullets slung around his neck over a flack vest. He held an M60 machine gun in his hands; there was a bullet crease along his neck from the last patrol. He was squinting in the painful sun and blowing dust, scanning rooftops and doorways as the patrol advanced in twos and threes along a broken street in the Dora neighborhood of Baghdad. There had been plenty of firefights, five of thirty in the platoon had been killed. Nick had seen enemies’ heads explode in red bursts when he fired at them on rooftops and in doorways, the blood cascading down, pooling on the ground, dark and coppery in the sun-dried dust. Twisted, robe-shrouded bodies scattered the streets. He remembered a child pulling on her mother’s bloody clothing, trying to drag her through loose dirt into the shadows. The tears, the wailing—it all clung to him.
“ Are you all right?” the woman asked. She reached over and touched his hand. “You sort of blanked out there for a minute.”
Mouth open, surprised, Nick turned and stared. Her earlobe was torn, and she was pale and wrinkled with a large bruise on her right arm, another, deeply purple, on her cheek.
Moving closer to her, he softly touched her arm. She flinched.
“Looks like I’m not the only one with troubles,” he said.
In the background, Johnny Cash sang, his voice heavy and gnarled.
Maybe I’ll never believe in forever again
Darling, love needs no reason for ending, come kiss your baby good-bye
They both listened a while, then she replied: “Good marriage gone bad. He was someone I thought I could trust. Like we could love each other damn near forever. But things happen. They just turn to shit sometimes.” She turned away from Nick and stared at her drink. “I’m not going back this time though.” They were both silent then, thoughts mingling with the country music droning on about cheating and lost love affairs.
Nick thought about his old girlfriend. How their love had seemed perfect until he joined the Army and they began drifting apart. Then the letter telling him she was getting married to someone at work. At the time, it seemed logical for her to end their affair. After all, the many close calls, the months he still had in Iraq, it was unlikely he would return home. Nick remembered their embracing, the clinging together, her blond hair entangled in his hands. The promise; so easy to make then. God damn it, why don’t at least some things work out?
The woman beside him was still silent when he continued. “All I want is a little peace. But I see terrible things. People are after me. I see them coming. I know how careful you have to be.” His hands began shaking and he looked up from his drink. “You know it’s dangerous to sleep. Someone you trust has to be on guard if you do.” He looked at her face. “Can I trust you?” Her eyes widened, she sat more erect, brushed back strands of hair, and looked around the bar—still just the old men and the bartender. Then, their eyes met and he continued:
“And always plan an escape. Never get boxed in. Sometimes I think awful thoughts—like I might suddenly do something terrible. Like my mind might explode.” He sipped more whiskey. “Can’t help myself, I relive the close calls, the killings. People were after me every day.
“Maybe we can help each other. Can I trust you?” he said again.
Now it was dark outside, a few dimmed lights lit the bar. Nick held out his hand and touched her face, her neck. He brushed away tears from her cheek. Her eyes were sad, her lips quivered. She looked down and moved away from his touch.
* * *
A man entered the tavern and, after hesitating, walked slowly over to them.
He stopped behind the woman. Grabbing her arm tightly, he shouted, “Marie, get the hell away from that guy. You’re coming home with me.”
Marie pulled free and began rubbing her arm. “Brian, for Christ’s sake, leave us alone. We were just talking about problems, something you and I never do anymore. Just trying to ease our minds.” The bartender and the old men, sensing danger, disappeared into the night.
Nick remained slouched over his drink, staring at the mirror, but unbuttoned his jacket and closed his fingers silently around the handgrip of his .38. He didn’t turn but began talking, his voice firm and hard, like giving orders in Iraq.
“She’s not going anywhere with you tonight. Just walk away now and get the fuck out of here.”
Reflected in the mirror, Brian angrily stepped closer. “We’ll see who’s going to be with her, you son of a bitch.” His hands were tightly fisted.
Nick looked for Marie—but frightened, she too had run from the tavern.
He drew the .38 from the holster under his arm, spun in the chair, pushed the gun against Brian, and fired twice into his chest.
Then Nick looked down at the body through the spiraling gun smoke. He leaned against the bar until his hands steadied and wiped perspiration from his face. He began laughing loudly. Somehow that helped relieve tension.
“Brian, you want to try that one again?”
He checked that the used shell casings were still in his revolver, emptied them into his pocket, reloaded, and shoved the gun back in its holster. He looked for Marie, again, but she had disappeared.
“Oh, Brian, Brian, Brian, what were you thinking?” Bursts of laughter. The platoon had usually laughed after a dangerous patrol too; he didn’t know why. Perhaps it helped clear the mind, to reset it for whatever was next. Nick ran to the rear of the tavern, out the back door, down the wooden steps and disappeared into a rainy night. Still laughing, he sprinted through the dark alleys, stopping, crouching in doorways and behind trash containers at intersections until he saw no one, before running again. There were sirens in the distance.
He came to a river, where walking home from work, he had seen men keeping warm with small fires under a bridge. Tonight, two men stood with hands held over a rusted barrel filled with burning rubbish. One wore Army fatigues. Nick turned to him; they shook hands. Nick pointed to the man’s jacket. There was a large star sewn on a sleeve, the American flag just above it.
“Baghdad, reconnaissance,” the man said. “You’ll be safe tonight, soldier. We stand guard. Anybody comes we don’t like, we get rid of ‘em. Cops come, we get up and run. They haven’t caught any of us yet.”
Nick lay down under the bridge beside the others, wrapped himself in a dirty blanket. Someone then walked under the bridge, approaching slowly in dim light. Nick unbuttoned his jacket and grasped his gun. Then the person found a space and lay down with the others. Nick relaxed and stared at the dark arch above his head, where images floated across blackness. He saw brilliant grenade flashes, his friend Bob, disappearing in a bloody flash. There was Ted climbing into a Humvee with him, the tourniquets Ted had wrapped loosely around his own arm and leg before sitting close to the Jeep’s door. Nick had tightened those rubber straps above bloody flesh after the explosion. He saw his mother crying, the neighbors holding up a Welcome Home sign, then he was hugging his kid brother, who was so impressed with Nick’s uniform.
There was his father from years earlier, then a young Boston cop returning from his beat, looking exhausted. He looked at little Nickie who had opened the door.
“Whatever you do, don’t become a cop, son.” he had said. “Do something safe.”