Homecoming at the WRC
Eventually, Mole called out, “Hey Mag, what’s good?”
Magic didn’t take orders. If someone pushed him for a show or a sermon, he’d say, “Lost it.” He sometimes acted like he was bored by the idea, but this was all part of Mag’s technique. He knew how to work a crowd for maximum suspense.
“A song, maybe?”
“That’s gone, too.” Mag only sang when the spirit moved him.
“Hmmm. Don’t have one, but I can tell you what happened, case you forgot.”
The congregation waited.
After a beat, someone called out. “Mag, whatchou waiting for?” This from a pear-shaped kid with squinty eyes and a tiny head. He had arrived the week before, and already he was Mole.
“Where to begin, Mole.”
What story do you tell when the main characters are still missing? Consider the still-breathing men in the belly of a tank, moments before the IED detonates directly below them. Is this a beginning, or is this the moment right before the end?
Where story do you give to Moreno, J-Dogg, Ruiz? Their bodies were shipped home in the pieces, but I had walked out on both legs. Only Trina was there, waiting. When she looked at me, I could feel her searching for something I knew she wouldn’t find.
“C’mon Mag, start anywhere,” someone called.
Mag’s stories, which tended to be the main events of the waiting room, took certain predictable forms, when it came to beginnings. A knock at the door, an unexpected call, someone waking up. Then a long pause.
“But what happened?”
This was the new kid with one leg gone, who spent most of the day glazed over his phone playing Candy Crush. He was starting to get the drift.
Mag looked at him, one eyebrow raised and half a smile curling over his pursed lips.
The sudden attention seemed to make him bold. He looked up, his face suddenly animated. “Seriously man. No bullshit, something!” Until that moment, I had never heard him speak.
Mag sent the gaze of his eye back over the horizon. “Okay, a phone call.”
Responses were supposed to follow in chorus. Mag would wait.
“That’s right, Mag. That’s the trick.”
“No tricks I told you,” Mag reminded.
A groan wound through the room. “C’mon, man!”
“Ain’t no spectators either,” he said. He took a breath, released it like a sigh. He turned from the window to the room, and the men bowed their heads.
“Yes, yes, that’s it.”
Mag rolled his eyes to the ceiling. “Okay,” he said. “Here’s how it goes down. Listen––
Rev nodded, “He who has ears, let him hear.”
“It goes like this,” Mag proclaimed. “You know the story.”
With four tours inside him, Mag had more jungle grenades in his memory and more shrapnel in his legs than ten men––not counting his nuts. He had a way of taking all this wreckage and molding it. His stories varied, depending on his mood and sense of what the room needed. It seemed like Mag was long past the point of trying to tell his story to himself. Leading his audience had taken the burden from him.
“A messenger calls. A woman picks up.”
“Mmmmmh hmmmm, that’s right.”
“A voice addresses her. It’s a stranger’s voice, but she knows in her gut it’s about as expected as anything she’s ever heard.”
“She clutches the counter, and the voice says, ‘He’s being Medivac’d,’ and the woman can’t help herself. She has to ask, ‘What happened?’ and the messenger has to remind her, ‘Don’t ask.’”
“The woman asks why, and the messenger explains.”
Mag bowed his head. I thought of the stages of a magic act, how you start by taking something familiar. He walked a solemn ten paces, slowly on his cane, away from the window. Now he’d turn it into something else. He paused, looked up at the ceiling lights again.
“Go ‘head, Mag.”
One hand on his cane, Mag raised the other before him like he was pointing to a rat on the floor. “He was a man.” As he spoke, he raised it up. “It was war.” Notch by notch until he got to five o’clock. His deepened with each word. There were no other sounds in the room. “Here was something to be.”
“Trying to avoid it was like trying to avoid being a food stamp kid from Podunk, Arkansas and still needing to fly.”
“See, his Dad once caught him, in superman Underoos perched on the back of a secondhand Lazyboy, ready to leap. ‘What the hell’re you doing?’ Pops shouted, like there was an answer to a need like that.”
Now Mag’s face assumed the scowl of the father in his story, and he strode three paces to his right, quickly now. He paused to stand over Candy Crush. Candy Crush looked up. Mag raised his arms, cane toward the ceiling, head cocked at an angle to the side. Still holding the voice and the face of the father he was conjuring, Mag stared down, and to look at Candy Crush beneath his stare, it was impossible not to notice how a boy could hide scared inside the body of a man.
Mag boomed, “Well?!”
His game abandoned, Candy Crush fixed his eyes on Mag. I recognized the look. He was trying to hold his face still. I’d seen it in Chloe before I left. I’d seen it in the mirror since I arrived.
Mag lowered his arms, letting his right hand hover for a moment over Candy Crush’s forehead, like he was about to drop a blessing.
Turning back toward the center of the room, Mag’s voice grew lower in pitch and louder in tone. “But there it was, anyway.”
“There it was.”
“The problem with Why is it’s a riddle you can’t solve.”
“It’ll hijack your dreams and nosedive them straight into nightmares.”
Magic raised both arms to the ceiling, fists clenched, and then he opened them wide, as the cane dropped with emphasis to the floor.
Candy Crush released a guttural noise into his hand, somewhere between a sob and a cough. Other men kept their heads down, rocking back and forth. No one looked. Mag gazed into the seafoam linoleum tiles, one eye slowly rising over the men, over the aluminum supports of the industrial-strength picnic tables, past the working clocks that wouldn’t tell time, and into the spaces between the perforations of the corrugated ceiling tiles.
“The question is, can you hold it still when–––
Now we were all leaning in.
“Can you hold it still when––
“Woz?” The name took a moment to register. It was Doc’s voice, calling me from the back of the room. It was time for my one-on-one.
I looked up. The spell was broken. There would be no more story for today. I went.
Meetings with Doc were called going to the bars, because to get to his private office you had to go through a barred entrance between the waiting room and the administrative and medical offices.
“That’s just a security measure,” Doc had explained the first time. “You know, protocol bullshit.”
Doc wanted to know how the recapitulation practice was going.
“Like a problem I can’t solve.”
Doc nodded. “What problem are you trying to solve?”
“Making it make sense? The story.” I was on my fourth week in and not meaning to come back, and still the best I could seem to do involved keeping the time of day by pills: three prescription vials, one at a time, three times a day: anxiety, nightmares, heart. The days I tracked by what meetings had been scheduled for me.
“Don’t solve it,” Doc said. “You can’t. Just make something new.”
“Something you can live with,” Doc said, “you don’t need to get back to some mythical Before.” As Doc saw it, that was a waste. There wasn’t any sense to be made about what happened over there.
“That’s the story?”
“You want a war story, read the ancients.” Doc would talk about them sometimes in group, and we could never get enough. He told a lot of the Greek ones. The hero Achilles, how he was paralyzed by grief before he was driven mad with vengeance. Ajax, driven to suicide. King Priam, who has to bow to Achilles to retrieve the body of his son. Odysseus, who was ten years in a war he didn’t want to fight, and ten more trying to get home, while all the while his castle was being overrun by the men who slaughtered his sheep, disgraced the home he had built, and tried to get with his wife. The thing we all appreciated about Doc was how he didn’t pull punches and he didn’t pretend.
“You’re starting all over,” he said. “Use whatever you can find from before. Hold on to that, but it won’t be the same shape.”
When our time was up, Doc said, “See you in a little bit.” He would drive the van to the aquarium.
I returned to the waiting room in a moment when it was clear that Mag was waiting for his last sentence to sink in. Picker picked his tune and Rev rocked over the book. T-Bone crunched corn nuts and wished out loud for a steak. I waited in my usual chair, my leg crunching the vinyl as it bobbed over my foot. The fingers of my missing hand still moved toward a fist.
Eventually, Doc came back into the room.
“Okay, boys,” Doc said. “Time to roll out. Who’s riding with me?”
“Where y’all goin’?” Mag asked like he didn’t know.
“Friends and family day, Mag,” said Doc. “Aquarium, here we come.”
“Mmmmmm,” Mag raised his chin toward the invisible coast. “Way out there?”
“That’s right, Mag. Gonna breathe some ocean air today.”
“Can’t nobody say they don’t take care of us when we get back, right boys? I mean, look––
He raised his right arm in a gesture of proclamation. Holding it high in the air, his voice echoed across the room.
Picker’s laugh in this moment was probably the first sound anyone had ever heard him make beyond his endless loop of half-finished notes. Those of us who were riding raised a hand at Mag and Picker and Rev and we followed Doc down the elevator to the main floor, through the double-glass doors to the parking lot.
Then came two and a half hours of desert freeway strip mall, fast food and new communities, the stench of cattle and the rapid fire of big-rig Jake brakes, and we crossed the pass and descended into green, through the valley, toward the ocean.
Trina would be there at the entrance, but just to say hello, hug, and send Chloe in. She would then wait outside with Grady who would prefer to spend his time toddling up to the fountain and laughing at the ducks.
Her skin looked sallow. Even through her makeup, there were dark circles under her eyes. She didn’t search my face anymore, for the thing that wasn’t there. I could tell it was hard for her to even look up, but she did, and she gave an eyeroll smile as Grady squirmed. It was something.
“How is he?” I asked, reaching for Grady.
“He’s okay.” Her sigh was barely audible, but I heard. “Still no words.”
It wasn’t clear if the delay in Grady’s speech had anything to do with the way I dropped him. That was a year and a half ago, before he could even sit up. I had fallen asleep holding him in the middle of the afternoon. I was jolted awake by a sound that might have been a garbage truck or a dumpster lid. Whatever it was, it sent me right back to al-Amin, climbing down the narrow stairs of a hallway smelling like cow shit, with mortar rounds exploding outside the window and the limp weight of Mennick draped over my back. I had him anchored over my right shoulder, and blood poured from his helmet, into my mouth. I slipped on the bottom stair and almost lost him.
A crack and a thud. “I got you, I got you,” I told Mennick. But there was so much blood. He didn’t respond.
Then the frame switched and I was back in the bedroom with Grady’s piercing scream. A crack and a thud. It must have been Grady’s head against the corner of the end table, then to his back on the carpet. Trina must have just gotten home. She came running into the room.
There was no blood. He had cried for a long time and then he stopped. Eight months later, he still didn’t talk. The drop happened a few weeks before I kicked Chloe’s bedroom door off its hinges. Soon after that, she went back to wetting the bed.
The last time I had gone to the Food4Less with Chloe, she wore a cape and a tiara. This was something she hadn’t done since pre-K.
“What’s up with the outfit?” I asked her. This was not long after I got home from the third tour. My head was bandaged and what was left of my left arm was in a sling. Minor injuries, relatively speaking.
Taking my good hand, she looked up at me and said, “So people stare at me instead of you.”
While I was holding Grady by the aquarium entrance, Chloe hung back, looking at her shoes and then up at me with a nervous half smile. I handed Grady back to Trina, who followed him after the ducks. I went to Chloe and got down on one knee, saying “Hey little Tiger.”
She pressed her forehead into the shoulder of my good arm and put one arm across that side of my back. Then she pulled back and reached into her pocket.
“I made you this.” She handed me a piece of white paper folded in neat squares.
It was a pencil drawing. The face looked like a wild pig, but the body was more like a horse. On the end of its wild pig snout was something like and elephant trunk. Wavy elephant ears framed its pig face.
“It’s a Baku,” she said. “It’s Japanese.”
“Is it a monster?”
“No, it’s good. It eats dreams.” She had a book she was reading for a class mythology project. “If you wake up you have to say three times, ‘Baku, eat my dreams.’”
I wanted to ask her to say more, but I didn’t think I could speak with a steady voice, and the last thing I wanted to do was scare her again.
I wanted to give her a story, but I didn’t have any that I could tell yet. A riddle, maybe. She used to love those. I had one about the ocean. I was trying to remember.
You’re on a sailboat, in the middle of the ocean––
We laughed at Grady chasing the ducks. The other men started to follow Doc’s hand signals toward the entrance. I reached out my good hand. Chloe took it, even though she’d told me over a year ago that she was really too old for that now. We went inside.
“My class came here. There’s this really cool exhibit.”
The exhibit was called Strange Creatures. There were different areas according to the categories of strangeness: the shapeshifters, the glowing ones, and the killers. It was geared for kids. The cards behind the specimen jars had comic book lettering and most of the descriptions were followed by exclamation points.
We stood before the embalmed creatures stored beneath a “DEADLY VENOM!” sign.
“The fugu pufferfish carries toxins 1200 X more lethal than cyanide!”
“Cone snail: tooth like a harpoon!”
“Stonefish: Spines like hypodermic needles; the most venomous fish in the sea!”
As far as I could tell, the point was to induce shock and awe at the fact that something that didn’t look like much could be full of so many surprising ways to kill.
Outside, near the tide pools, the view went down to the coast. Waves broke in the distance. Tiny people splashed and ran along the beach.
“Hey Dad, why didn’t the girl trust the ocean?”
“There was something fishy about it.”
We walked past the seahorses, the hammerhead sharks, the glowing jellyfish, and the tiny turtles. I was still trying to remember the ocean riddle.
You’re on a sailboat in the middle of the ocean. The boat has four boards on the side. They are two feet wide each.
We passed through another room with bigger fish, bigger turtles, and coral reefs.
“Come in here,” she said, taking my good hand again, and we entered a room where the window reached from floor to ceiling. Light filtered through the surface of the water, high above the ceiling. People whispered at the window.
“Kelp beds are my favorite,” Chloe said. She read from a card. “They grow best in regions of upwelling.”
We stepped back. There was a carpeted ledge behind us. We sat, and light moved through the water.
I wished I could name some of the fish. Chloe kept reading.
“The larger and stronger the rock on which it is anchored, the greater the chance of kelp survival.”
You’re on a sailboat in the middle of the ocean.
“A place for refuge from larger predators, and also a retreat from violent currents and winter storms.”
The boat has four boards on the side. They are two feet wide each. If the water level rises––
“They fall apart in the warm water, in the summer.”
I don’t know how long we were there, but then I looked up and Chloe was coming back in the room, wiping her eyes with a half-smile.
“Dad,” she said. “Mom’s at the concession stand. She says to find out what you want to eat. She says we have like thirty minutes.”
“Okay, tiger. Come here.” We looked for a little while more, her warm head tucked into my good side.
“Here’s a good one,” I said.
She looked up.
“You’re on a sailboat in the middle of the ocean. The boat has four boards on the side. They are two feet wide each. If the water level rises four feet, what board will the water reach?”
Her mouth fell open while she thought about it.
“Dad, we don’t do geometry in third grade.”
“Hint. It makes no difference if the water rises.”
I watched the idea working through her face.
“Now why is that?”
She clamped her jaw, chewed her cheek. Then her mouth fell wide open, and she looked me full in the eyes.
“The boat floats!”
After that, we ate some fried food and watched Grady with the ducks.
Then it was time, and I stopped trying to hold my face still. Chloe wiped her tears on the sleeve of her shirt.
“Don’t forget about the Baku,” she said.
“See you soon, tiger.” I didn’t know when. “Don’t forget the riddle.”
Doc stood by the van. We climbed in and drove away from the coast, over mountains and through miles of desert. It was during those hours that I remembered something Mag had said to me, about how he didn’t recommend wasting a whole lot of time remembering or making predictions. “All that matters now is keeping watch and making something in-between with whoever’s there with you. If you’re alone, making do.”
“Lemme tell you,” Mag had said to me when I told him I couldn’t remember any magic acts, “The last part is the hardest part to pull off.” The box is reassembled, the swords removed. The woman emerges unscathed. The magician produces a lemon, slices it open, and removes the marked dollar from inside the fruit. The knot is undone, and the rope appears restored to the original length. “It’s called the Prestige,” he said. “That’s where you take the thing you started with and bring it back.”
I must have looked a little too long when he said that because the next thing he said was, “But don’t go getting any ideas or drawing no metaphors, you hear? This is something else entirely. Ain’t no tricks about it.”
Still, it was a start. I would save that for next time I saw Chloe.
It was getting dark when we pulled up the ramp to the center. The sky was purpling and the stars had yet to come out.
The third-floor lights were on, and Mag stood in the window.
Doc parked, we walked across the lot. I looked up at Mag, his wild hair and steady pose.
He knew who he was protecting, and from what.
Cane in one hand, he raised his free hand in a wave as we walked toward the entrance. I stopped to meet his gaze. I opened my hand. Raising my good arm toward him, I held it there, aimed high at our waiting space.
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.