It was just after midnight on a Sunday morning in March, in the late days of the war. I barely knew dates, and none of us in the Warrior Recovery Center––WRC, we called it––could imagine an end. Days of the week I knew from tracking the daily schedule, because that was what you did in there. Making sense of one day at a time, Doc said, was one way of learning to get home.
“It’s about learning to return to the world,” Doc said. The WRC, as Doc explained it, was about finding a place to start. It was not a destination retreat; if you were there, it was because you’d run out of options. Doc called the project “returning to the known world, but on different terms.” His words made me think of a folded map. I was hoping if I learned to look right, I would find––something. A series of IEDs had detonated through the bodies of the men who had anchored me in the world, the last time I knew how to be. That was another world.
Whatever the terms of this one, I needed to get ahold of them. Trina had stopped asking when I’d be home. I had ruined Chloe’s eighth birthday celebration by ripping the door to her bedroom off its hinges, thinking she was trapped inside. I’d dropped Grady, the baby, before he could sit up. He was walk-running now, but still not speaking, and this was the source of a lot of the things Trina and I couldn’t say.
I hadn’t seen them since a few days after Chloe’s birthday, which was a few days before Trina found me in the truck with my lips around the barrel of the .22 contemplating the logical next step, calculating the angle and wondering how much I’d need to compensate for recoil. That was four weeks ago.
Sunday meant friends and family day, which meant a bunch of us were about to pile in a van and ride to the aquarium to whoever was still wondering when we would make it back. The idea was to practice being home before we were back in the actual spaces that we’d haunted. We would pretend to be casual patrons of the aquarium for a few hours and practice assuring ourselves and others that we were getting our bearings, that we would be home soon, that things would be some kind of normal, someday.
Doc said to practice just looking. He said don’t worry about the past, we’d deal with that in our one-on-one sessions, and the future when we came to it. For now, Doc said, the point was to practice taking stock of what was, just as it was, without trying to change it.
What else was there to do? I reviewed coordinates, surveyed surroundings.
I was in a single room on a residential hallway on the third floor of the WRC. Above the bed, a yellowish light fixture rounded from particleboard ceiling. The walls featured nondescript prints in frames, leaning abstract. There was a small desk beside the bed. My pants hung over the chair. To my right, a heavy door with an exit map posted eye level, beside a fire extinguisher.
“Nurse!” I called out. What did you have to do to get one to come?
It was a pretend call, the sort I was supposed to make if I found myself waking in a moment of panic on the floor. The idea was that if you called, certain symptoms would be alleviated.
I didn’t have it in me to keep calling. I was a far cry from the rage of bootcamp, from wanting to spit in the drill sergeant’s square red face. I had returned from a third tour a year ago. The invitation to the WRC came about six months after that.
“Fuck that,” I said, for Trina’s sake.
“I wish someone would offer me a vacation,” she said. She had her reasons. There was no room for hearing them, yet.
“It’s about finding a place to start,” Doc said.
It was 1:45 a.m. It was unlikely I would be the only one. There was a waiting room at the end of the hallway. I would walk down the hallway. I would not wait alone.
When I got here, the first real person I met, beyond the bland-faced personnel who checked my paperwork and walked me to my room, was Magic. After I got tired of staring at the ceiling waiting for my intake meeting, I walked to the waiting room to get a soda. The waiting room, shaped like the bow of a ship, had floor-to-ceiling windows facing out. Magic stood at the bowed joint of the windowed walls. His head was framed by a thick corona of grey-white hair, and there was a crown nested in it, small enough to fit one of those bottom-tier county fair stuffed animals and just as cheap. But there was something about the man’s bearing that said he either didn’t know this or didn’t care. At the clang of my can in the machine, he turned to look at me. He wore a patch over his left eye, and he held my gaze with the other, which glowed the deep brown of charred earth. His plush bathrobe was untied over a thin white t-shirt and track pants, and its color suggested the royal red of a 1970s church carpet, dyed to match the wine.
He nodded slowly, and raised both arms, one holding the cane, above his shoulders. In the gravelly voice of a bluesman, he boomed, “Welcome to the WRC!” I don’t know what my face looked like, but he chuckled and said, “Yeah, it’s okay. They all look like that at first. Stay awhile.” Moving his free arm open toward the window, he added, “Can’t beat this view,” and he laughed.
The view was desert and freeway and strip malls as far as the eye could see, stretching to the west. On my drive out, the greens of the coast had given way to wider and wider expanses of asphalt and shale, brown dust punctuated by sage and juniper, ocotillo and freeway signs, to mile after mile of billboards and motels and drive-thrus, currents of cars running back and forth between San Diego and Las Vegas, Victorville and Death Valley, Barstow and the Mojave preserve; between nowhere and the 40-East connector, past island after island of 99-cent strip malls and discount tire shops, Walmarts and Paylesses and car lots with no interest and zero down for ninety days (“Bad credit, good credit, no problem!”) where the billboards promised reverse vasectomies and Jesus is Watching and Come Stay Play, with red lips appearing over a stack of poker chips, and the world’s tallest thermometer, and it didn’t take any special sort of insight to get the message, and it was Move, Anywhere But Here.
Shortly after my welcome, Doc called me in. We had spoken on the phone once or twice before I arrived.
“What’s up with the old guy?” I asked him. Doc had told me that this was a short-term “transitional care facility,” serving only recent veterans. How long had this guy been in transition, and from what war?
“That’s Magic,” Doc said, “goes by Mag.” Doc smiled like he was talking about a brother of his. “We were in the same unit in Nam.” This is why I could deal with Doc, because he had done multiple tours himself.
“He’s been here since then?”
“This place hasn’t been around that long. But when Mag ran into some trouble awhile back, I brought him here.”
“Keeping watch, right where you saw him. He’s good for morale, actually. You’ll see.”
I don’t know when Mag slept, but he was the reason that I knew, four weeks after my arrival, that when I woke up not long after midnight, that I wouldn’t be alone in the waiting room.
Sitting up was a matter of concentration. Everyday things felt like solving a riddle, where you alternate between wrapping your thoughts around a thing and then relaxing your grip. It was like looking at one of those Magic Eye posters, where you look, blur your vision, look, let go again, and there it would be, the image that was right there all along, which nobody could see at first unless they got lucky or learned how.
The bathroom light was on. I walked five paces to the sink, opened the faucet, splashed water against my face. Towel, teeth, slippers under the bed. Look, blur, look. I was trying to learn to hold onto things like this so if I slipped when I got home, I could catch myself before I heard Trina’s voice screaming my name, or saw Chloe’s scared eyes, backing away. It had to be possible, to live without waking up shouting, making the babies scream.
I opened the door. The hallway was industrial white with track lighting and emergency exit signs. The only lights on in the waiting room at this hour were those glowing from the machines in the nurse’s station against the back wall, and near the elevator and the sliding glass doors by the entrance. The chairs in the seating area were angled to face out. Mag was there, standing with his cane at the joint of the bowed windows, looking past his own reflection, over the lights and traffic of the desert floor, toward an invisible ocean.
“That you, Woz?” Mag called out without turning as I entered.
“Hey Mag, when do you sleep?”
“It’s a few hours ‘till sunrise still.”
As Doc explained it, he had been with Mag in a similar facility in the decade or so after they left Vietnam. I had to ask around for the rest of the story. According to legend, Mag had been out for a little while in the seventies, then back in when he got into some trouble with the pipe, then back out when he got cleaned up, and that’s where he got into magic. He had cards, dice, wand, rings, even a white rabbit.
Now it was just a wand, collapsed to the size of a pencil and narrow, which he wore tucked behind his ear or above it, nested in his gray-white mane. He used to save the rabbit out of the hat trick for last because the kids loved it and when the kids were lit up the tips were good. He was doing well in those years––getting clean, a few trips and false starts, but you never know. Apparently, one day he went to pull out the rabbit and came up instead with the severed head of his best friend, the shock of which was fatal to the rabbit. It became clear, after that, to Mag and anyone who would know him afterwards, that his audience was not the tourists and the Sunday families of Seaport Village, just in from church and waffle cones.
It would be a few hours before the others were up and gathered around the room in their usual poses: Picker with his guitar, Rev with the good book, and Candy Crush hunched over his phone. I’d been up at this hour more times than I could count, and usually after the initial greeting with Mag, I would just sit and stare out, past my own faint reflection in the window, into the freeway lights and the shadows of the mountains in the distance. If I was going to be awake and staring out, it was better to do it here than alone in a room, facing the ceiling. Mag seemed to know this, and more than once I had found myself waking up in chair around sunrise.
This time, Mag spoke.
“You know,” he said, still facing out.
I leaned forward. “What’s that, Mag?”
He pulled the wand from his hair and turned toward me with his single eye. Holding it up, he said, in a low voice, “it’s just a prop.”
When I was a kid too old for Underoos and too young for facial hair, I had a beginner’s magic kit and a cape. I even had the hat and the wand. It was one of the only things we’d ever spoken about, one-on-one. This was after Mag called me out, on day two, which I later learned was how he welcomed most of the new guys in. I was seated at an angle, behind him on the wall opposite the vending machine.
Holding a finger to his good eye and looking right at me, Mag said, “I may have one, but that’s enough to see you watchin’ me.”
Trying to play cool, I only nodded, “I hear you.”
He was quick to clarify. “Nah, son. I mean I left my goddamn nuts in a jungle hole.”
“Hah! Like a goddamn squirrel saving up for a long winter!”
After that introduction, it was impossible not to have a certain kinship with Mag. It was about two weeks after that when we’d talked about magic, at an hour like this one, before any of the others were awake.
A magic act, when it worked, had three parts. First came The Pledge, where you show something ordinary. Present a box tall enough for a woman. Tie her wrists to the top. Get a dollar from an audience member and mark it. Hold up a simple piece of rope.
Then came the Turn. Here, the ordinary thing become something else. Divide the box with the woman into four pieces and pull it all apart. Insert swords at various angles. Rip the marked dollar in pieces. Knot the rope and cut it.
We’d been interrupted at that point. Now, Mag picked up the loose end. Punctuating the air with the wand he’d pulled from his hair, he said, “Okay, so you got your pledge, then you got your turn. What else you know.”
I had been thinking about this. “That’s the thing, Mag. I don’t remember. I never really did it.”
Mag waited, holding his eye on me. Then, slowly, he tucked the wand back behind his ear, and nodded slow. “That’s alright,” he said. “Takes some time.”
I didn’t remember going back to my room, but a few hours later, that’s where I was. The sky through the blinds was predawn purple and it was still Sunday. I would have a brief one-on-one session with Doc and by late morning we would be driving west in the van, to the aquarium. I thought about Chloe, how she told me over the phone that she lost a back molar, and how quick she had been to announce, “I don’t put them under my pillow anymore.” I thought about asking her why, and then thought better of it.
I hadn’t been sure about the aquarium trip, but Trina, who had pretty much given up asking for anything, had strong opinions.
“Dammit, Woz,” she said, when we spoke the week before, “It’s the fucking aquarium.”
Apparently, third grade had gone at the end of last month, just after I left, and Chloe had been asking to return ever since. But Trina couldn’t get off work on discount days and she couldn’t send Chloe by herself and there wasn’t anywhere near money enough for three tickets.
“It’s what, two, three hours? You better fucking go,” she said, “I mean it.”
So now it was Sunday, and I was going, and I was reviewing my reasons why.
This week’s focus, Doc had said in Thursday’s group, was recapitulation.
“It just means going back,” Doc said, “In time. Not to dwell, though. To look.”
“To frame it. Then you can carry it and move it where you need it to go.” The unframed images, as Doc explained it, just floated around like flammable gas.
After the blast in Kabul, I carried Mennick down the narrow stairway. He had taken it to the head. Later that night, I spat his blood in the sink when I brushed my teeth, and watched it go down the drain. “Instantly,” was the only answer I could offer when Mennick’s wife showed up at the airport, wanting to know how he died.
Review reasons: the point of being here, the point of the meetings, the pills, the waiting in place, the industrial building, was, as Doc put it, “to buy you a little time.” Doc didn’t focus much on adjusting, which he said everyone was already doing in their own way. “The goal is management of what’s getting in the way,” he said. In my case, what was getting in the way was the endless looping slideshow: man halfway to the ground with a hole in his forehead, a little girl watching, the bullet-ridden wall behind her. Moreno’s body in flames. Check for a pulse, twenty rolls of gauze around his shattered pelvis. How many explosions? Time to move. Then the new refrigerator was dented where I kicked it and chow mein spilled across the counter, with Chloe’s door off its hinges and the dog afraid to come near me.
In Tuesday sessions, Doc had been saying that one of the ways to get home was to find the story to land you back in it. He had examples that made sense in the moment, but later, when I tried to do it myself, I had the beginnings and endings exploding like IED’s under the shawls of old women and in the bellies of roadside goats. As Doc told it, “You can’t find peace when you’re carrying a war.” His idea was that a story, if you could frame it, could hold you in place when needed, and be a bridge back home. The known world was split into more dimensions than I could count.
I got up to shower and shave and put on my best t-shirt and good jeans. Real shoes instead of slippers. We wouldn’t leave for several hours, but I wasn’t going to be waiting around in my room. I headed down the hall.
The early risers were a regular group. Picker sat with his back to the wall, closest to the nurse’s station, below the clock, guitar in his lap. Mag was in his usual spot at the window.
I resumed my earlier seat. Across the way from the windows where Mag kept watch, at a chair by the vending machine, beneath a single light, and across from the glow of the nurse’s station––efficient clicks and buzzes, opening and closing of doors––sat Rev, a pimple-faced boy old enough to be called a man but not convincingly. There was something about Rev’s face that called to mind certain cartoon rodents. I couldn’t tell you a time when I’d seen him without his leather-bound Bible in his hand. He arrived a day or two after I did, and he didn’t speak at all for at least a week. When he finally broke the silence, it was to mutter mostly under his breath while rocking back and forth in a rhythmic chanting wave, and occasionally exclaim a coherent line of scripture. A few early mornings, it had been only me, Rev, and Mag in the room. I’d tap my foot and Mag would hum sometimes, real low and deep. Rev read his book and looked up every so often to proclaim.
“Let the sea resound and everything in it, the world and all who live in it,” he cried out.
Picker started picking on his guitar beneath the clock, which appeared to be broken.
“It’s not broken,” Diaz was saying. “Look.”
The second hand was moving.
“It’s just off, which does no one any good. completely broken clock is at least right twice a day. One that’s off is never right.”
Picker resumed his customary refrain, “Sing it now, muse!”
“We the city,” Rev said.
Listening to Rev went hand-in-hand with wondering what part of the riddle was yet to fall into place. Picker continued.
“Get to tellin’ me, muse, the story of–––
Rev went through the motions of thumbing the pages of his bible to find the verse but by then it was clear that already knew most of them by heart.
“Tell it muse, break on through, give it up and bring it new!”
“City doesn’t need the sun,” Rev called out, in his pulpit voice.
“Give it to me, give it to me, give it to me, muse––
We all nodded: Diaz, Picker, BigMac, even Candy Crush, who had never looked up from his phone. Rev might be batshit crazy by outside standards, but the boy knew his scripture.
Some time passed. Maybe an hour. It was hard to tell.
“Sing it to me, Muse,” Picker started again.
T-Bone wiped his brow with his finger, shaking his head with a quick sideways twist.
“Sonofabitch,” he said. “That motherfucker don’t get on up offa that tune, Ima put a piece of muse up his ass.”
T-bone would eat anything that came his way, but he almost never failed to comment on his preference for something else.
“Wish this was a steak,” T-Bone would say, at most meals.
I had only been in church on a handful of occasions as a boy, at the Union Methodist on Spring Street, but I was familiar enough with the movements of a traditional service to recognize it when a hush would fall over the room and you could feel the breaths of a whole congregation of neighbors waiting in silence for something to come and move them.
I felt it then. A voice among the congregation answered.
“What muse you know, T-Bone? A-1? Leave him be. He already got enough shrapnel in his ass to cut your dick to judgement day. His song ain’t hurting you none.”
Picker kept on. “Give it to me ––
Mag uttered a low Amen.
“Lay it over me, Muse––
Picker strummed a few more bars wordlessly, dropped the progression, and started again.
“Just wish it was a whole song, that’s all,” T-bone commented, but softer.
“Well, so does he,” came Diaz. “Ain’t you been listening?”
Rev, walking to the john, repeated a familiar verse. “He who has ears, let him hear.”
The familiar hush fell again. Doors opened and closed. A few new guys arrived, heading through the back door for their intake evals.
Stacey C. Johnson writes and teaches in San Diego County. She is a graduate of the MFA program at San Diego State University and creator of The Unknowing Project. Her work appears in Oyster River Pages, Pacific Review, and Fiction International, as well as various other publications. Her poetry chapbook Flight Songs is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press (February 2024). You can find her at staceycjohnson.com and on Twitter @StaceCJohnson. Stacey recommends Homeboy Industries.