There was blood on Scott’s army fatigues. He brushed at it, brow knit with irritation. The blood was still wet; it spread. He looked at his hand. There were three fingers missing, the thumb and the ring-finger and the pinkie. He sat down hard in the sand. The ringing in his ears was unbearable. He squeezed his eyes shut tight.
The robes of the dead Arabs fluttered in the wind. Women and men tangled together as though spent in coital exertion, now laying still and glistening wetly.
Later in the hospital where the army doctors dressed his wounds, Scott had a dream about his father. He dreamed that he was back home in Verden, back in High Gorge Park. His father was beating him.
His father who had flat broad hands stained as black as those of an old negro, his father who had worked at the foundry since he was a boy. The foundry had closed down years ago and every day that his father was without work he beat Scott. Scott remembered one time that his father had beaten him until his lips were split and his left eye was swollen shut. And then his father had snapped his pinkie like a dry twig. Scott didn’t go to school for a week and when he did he told everybody that he’d been attacked by a pair of immigrant workers. They’d probably all known the real truth. The finger never set properly – he supposed at the time that he’d probably be better off without it. The memory of that made him smile years later in the military hospital in the hot desert country and the smile cracked his broken lips as his father’s fists had once done.
He didn’t let anyone help him onto the airplane. It’s just my hand, dammit, he protested, I can still walk. And he’d glared at them until the pity slid from their faces and the disgust beneath showed through. Show me your true face. When the plane took off his throat closed shut like someone had wrapped their fingers round his esophagus. He’d always been frightened of flying.
He slept and when he woke the person in the seat next to him was shaking his shoulder and asking him if he was alright. His hand was bleeding through the bandages. He shoved it under his coat and said that he was fine and he turned back to the window and tried to sleep but he could still feel the hot liquid leaking out, working its way down his belly like hot worms creeping across his skin.
People looked at him differently when he was in America. Some of them came up to shake him by the hand, and they recoiled when he reached automatically to take their offered extremities in his mangled own. And he colored with embarrassment and snarled in their faces, his hate for them coiling like smoke in his mind. He took the bus to Verden.
The park was just as he remembered it. He went first to his father’s trailer, wandering the familiar path.
The trailer was gone. He stared at the empty patch of worn earth and his phantom fingers twitched maddeningly. He sat down on the hard gravel and stared at the bare earth, his insides sinking and his belly clenching.
He looked up, eyes filling with tears. His father was coming down the steps of the trailer, coal-blacks hands cupped plaintively before him like a cripple’s beggar-bowl, his craggy face twisted with sadness. He reached down to push his iron fingers softly into his son’s hair and he stroked it back from his son’s forehead and reached down to cup his son’s face in his callused hands and raise it up to his own and smile proudly at him. His father put his hands gently over the mangled afterthought at the end of Scott’s arm and he patted his son firmly and proudly on the weather-beaten shoulders and the two of them hunched together in the dust like a pair of gray-bearded old men.
Scott wiped his eyes and he stood up and he kicked angrily at the dirt where his father’s trailer had once been. That old bastard. Let him burn in hell for all I care. That fucker.
He walked aimlessly through the park. He’d been wrong: everything had changed. Sun-browned children ran naked in the long grass on the edge of the field, darting like nymphs in the mottled shadows. All the familiar filth had bred ten-fold throughout the park. Refuse slopping from torn bags, spilled from overfull trashcans, piled in every corner. The stench of soiled diapers and rotten food assaulted him. Broken glass glinted in every rag like cruel lures for the barefoot children.
All his friends were gone. Molly was gone. Andrew was gone. Trevor was gone.
He went to Jeffrey Burke’s trailer. One of Jeffrey’s brothers was playing in the dirt at the foot of the trailer, driving a broken plastic car on empty axles through the thick dirt and across the shards of gravel. His clothes were stained and his too-large shirt slumped off one shoulder. He stuck his tiny pink tongue out and spat an ugly imitation of a car engine from his throat.
Scott called out to him. “Hey kid! Your brother home?”
The little boy had reddish hair and dark eyes that looked sort of empty, like two pools of oil. He shook his head. “Are you a army-man?” He cocked his head like a dog, squinting up into the sun.
“Something like that.”
“Can I see your gun?”
“I don’t have a gun, kid.”
“I don’t need it now, I guess.”
The kid looked at his hand. “Is that hurt?”
He shrugged. He’d forgotten it for a moment. He kept forgetting it, like it was more a terrible dream on the edge of his conscious than a reality. “I guess it does a bit.”
“Did that happen in a war?”
“You could call it that, I guess.”
The boy nodded, satisfied. “I thought so.”
“Your brother isn’t coming back soon, is he, kid?”
“Why are you calling me kid?”
“Well I don’t know your name do I?”
“It’s Garrett. I’m seven.”
“So is he or isn’t he?”
“I don’t think so. He fought with mommy.”
“Uh huh. She cried.”
“That’s too bad.”
“Are you going back to the army?”
“Maybe. I don’t know.”
The little boy smiled. There were gaps in his mouth, too wide and dark to be natural. “I wanna be a army-man when I’m grown up.”
He left the kid there and walked around the trailer, eying it as he went, half-expecting to see something leap out at him.
Scott had never liked Jeffrey, but you couldn’t help but feel sorry for the guy. Whore-son, they called him behind his back. Some people made sideways jokes about it, but everyone knew better than to come out and say it. Some things you just didn’t tell a friend. Anyway, Jeffrey was an angry guy, and everyone decided that it would be best not to bring it up. Most of the blacks Scott had meet were angry at something or other. Better angry at someone else than angry at him, had always been his policy. He left them alone and they did the same, for the most part.
He’d been older than the rest of the kids from High Gorge Park. Held back twice was why he was in their grade. But he wasn’t dumb. School just wasn’t for him. And it hadn’t been easy, with Dad the way he was.
Scott had known a guy in the army who used to pray every night with his gun in his lap and it was almost like he was praying to his gun, and the gun stuck up between his thighs like a big steel prick. He’d been all kinds of nuts, even more than the usual praying sort. He used to kiss his gun and say that he hoped God would let him kill some Muslims.
Scott had always shared his father’s impatience with religion. Never seen how it was worth a goddamn in the end. Either you wound up in the good place or the bad place, and it didn’t matter worth shit if you said a bunch of prayers or not. At least if you never prayed you wouldn’t risk saying something to piss God off at you. The way Scott figured it was, God must be a pretty touchy bastard. He treated God the same way he had treated his father, just kept his head down and hoped not to be noticed.
God would probably fuck you up good if you gave him an excuse.
Scott went trudging up the hill towards Mike’s big house, his bags still slung over his shoulder. He’d never much liked Mike. Lucky fuck like a kid out of one of those books where the orphans always got adopted by the richest family in the story. And what had Mike done to deserve it? Just luck. Why was one person lucky and another person not? What had Scott done to deserve the life which had been given to him? Nothing.
He knocked with his good hand on the door of the big house. The wound had opened again and it was bleeding pretty bad. He wondered if maybe he should go to the hospital, but he didn’t know what he could say. He’d been taught not to tell the truth to doctors. The doctors all wanna take you away from me, his father used to warn him, and if they take you, you know I’ll come after.
He didn’t know what he could say now that Dad was gone.
Mike’s mom opened the door. She wasn’t wearing any make-up and she looked old and ugly. He thought that women should have to wear make-up all the time, even the ugly ones. That way you’d always know.
“Scott?” she said, and he was surprised that she knew his name. Her voice kinda shook, like Dad’s used to do when he was drunk, when his breath was hot and his hands were clutching and hard. He hated her now, he realized, though he had thought he was in love with her once. But surely this tired old creature couldn’t be the same person he’d once dreamed of undressing.
“Hi, Mrs Conner.”
“Oh, Christ,” she said, “your hand…”
“Yeah.” He shifted so that it was behind him a little, but not so much that she would know he didn’t want her to see it. “Is Mike here?”
She blinked at him. “I- I don’t know what…” she sounded like she was going to say more, but the words just died in her mouth. Her lips were pale and weak looking. He wanted to push her down and smear red lipstick all over her face. How had she ever fooled him into wanting her?
“Is he coming back?”
She started crying. Old women’s faces got so bloated when they cried. He’d noticed that. She sort of sank down and she didn’t answer him. She shook her head. She tried to talk, gasped half-formed words out through her weeping. He wanted to hit her.
He backed off. He went down the hill and she didn’t follow him or call after.
He walked out to stand in the road and for a while. He wondered if a car would come and run him over. He hoped that there was no afterlife or anything. He just wanted to sleep. His missing fingers twitched and bled. He gave up waiting and he crossed to the shoulder of the road.
He stood there a while with his bag over his shoulder, then he started down the road and he just walked. After a few good miles, his hand stopped bleeding.
* * *