The Casualty Assistant
                    Fiction by Scott David

      You go because you long to be tested.  You imagine there’s something
over there that’s going to deliver a cleaner, more definitive verdict on your
manhood than this paralyzingly slow descent into the soft life, into
compromise and humiliation and puniness and oil changes and paying the
cable bill and scratching your testicles and endless episodes of
Family Guy,
with no real consequence or commitment or hard edges of any kind, where
whatever worth you might once have possessed as a young man—on the ball
field, in the bedroom—is bleeding out in a slow neglect of slackness and
dishonor, bodily pudge, endless talk, and fantasy football.  
       You go through training, you acquire skills, you develop confidence.  
You find friends among those who have also elected to serve.  You fly
overseas and land in the desert among a hostile people and hole up in a sun-
beaten forward operating base stippled with prefab housing and ringed by a
perimeter all but the truly crazy prefer not to cross.  You’re not without
apprehension, but you cross that perimeter when you are ordered to do so
without the slightest hesitation.  The guys on their second and third tours see
through you, but they’re well beyond the point of finding it necessary to curb
your enthusiasm or expose your fear.  You find it shocking that the
opportunities you have to prove your mettle in the field are few and far
between, that you fail some tests (in your humble opinion), that most
outcomes appear generated by luck rather than character, and that you find
yourself yearning to be back home in the good old US of A.
      Yet when the tour ends and you’re back home, you continue to subject
yourself to that precise set of magical rituals you developed at the FOB:
three hundred sit-ups at the crack of dawn, six scoops of coffee in the filter,
fifty strokes of the razor with the grain and twenty against, and exactly ten
minutes no more in the steaming hot shower where you jack off each
morning with no particular girl in mind.  
      You know how stupid this routine is.  There are no IEDs in this state-
side life.  There are no angels looking out for you, nor any demon steering
you wrong.  You button yourself up in your dress blues and you look fine.  
Anonymous.  Competent.  Fierce.  The very picture of a fighting man.
      Were someone to challenge this reflection, you could point for additional
evidence to the medals, service ribbons, and other insignia on your chest:
Silver Star, Distinguished Service Medal, Afghanistan campaign medal, a
unit citation, a combat action ribbon.  Listing them is like counting coins.  It
makes you feel like a miser.  You remove the awards and decorations one
by one and only then do you feel like you’re getting closer to the real you.  
      You know it’s luck that determines who gets a medal and who does
not.  Luck and witnesses.  You feel most lucky that you made it out in one
piece.  And therefore you also feel guilty.  Guilt and luck go hand in hand.  
This war seems to have no more tested your manhood than crossing the
street, and this lack of closure gives you an impulse to go back, try again, do
better next time, be less lucky and more worthy.
      Your first stops when you get home are the houses of men you knew
who have not come back with you.  The visits to families of the MIAs are the
worst.  Inevitably, the family members sit on the edge of an overstuffed living
room chair or a kitchen stool wringing the bejesus out of some personal
effect (lucky underwear, worn photo with a fellow warrior, a page from a
jewelry catalog with a ring circled in red) of the missing brother/son/father/
sister/cousin/wife/daughter as if that last vestige of the missing were a
powerful talisman of an exotic religion whose mysterious tenets were not
their own.  
      You remain uniformly upbeat and disciplined.  You assure them if
anyone can make it, it is the missing brother/son/father/sister/cousin/wife/
daughter.  The slightest lack of confidence would be utter disloyalty.  
      “We bring ours back,” you say, because you have heard it elsewhere
said.  “That’s the difference between them and us.”
      Later, you are pressed into this service professionally, as a casualty
assistance officer.  You visit strangers, and you feel closer to the wives of
strangers than to those you called friends.  The words come more easily.
      “May I call someone for you?” you ask.
      You promise, “I’ll stay as long as you wish.”
      Because the latest surge produces so many dead, chaplains are in short
supply, and they’ve begun sending casualty assistance officers out solo
instead of in pairs.  You prefer it that way.  You don’t want to be watched
and judged when you knock on a door and deliver the obligatory
I regret to
inform you, Ma’am. . . .
 You don’t want piety intruding if it’s unwanted.  
      This morning, a child answers your knock.  Behind the boy are other
children making mayhem.  Frazzled, the wife emerges from the kitchen where
she has obviously been preparing dinner.  Her gaze locks on yours.  Her
knees buckle slightly.  She reaches for support from the wall.  She summons
strength, threads her way among the children, and offers her hand.          
      “I wondered how long it would take you to get here,” she whispers.  
“I’ve been waiting for you.”
      This is no surprise.  The wives of the dead almost always already know.  
They describe having awoken in the dead of night, or having noticed an
absence they couldn’t at first explain.  By contrast, the children never know.  
You change their lives forever.  You sometimes imagine you have the power
to prevent the heartbreak by never uttering the words,
We lost your father.  
Your father is a hero.
      The wife seats you in her tidy living room.  She makes you coffee.  The
children crowd around.  They want to know whether you’ve seen their father.  
The wife frets about housework undone, a scatter of toys, an empty cereal
bowl and old issue of
Redbook, her children’s misbehavior.  She barks a
word and they scatter instantly.
      She sits at the edge of a chair across from you.  Her hands are folded in
her lap.  She has ramrod posture.  She indicates there’s no need to tell them
yet.  
      She says, “I’ll tell the boys first.  Together, the boys and I will tell the
girls.  I already have their outfits picked out in black.”
      You offer to stay to help with the children, and she thanks you, but says
this is something she needs to do on her own.  Then she unravels before your
eyes.  Sheets of breath pull tight.  Her spine bends.  Her shoulders shake.  
She wonders what on earth she’s going to do.
      You move to move, but she holds up a stop-sign palm and freezes you
in place.  Behind her palm, she composes herself, loses it, composes herself
again, and looks up.
      “This can’t be easy,” she says, “coming into my home, others’ homes,
with this news.”
      “It’s my duty,” you say.
      She nods.  She blinks.  Finally, she says, “So you’re one of
them.  A
true believer.”
      Her tone is mocking, but it’s not you she’s mocking so much as the
dead one, the husband, a man with whom she had clearly argued about duty.  
And it is gentle, loving mocking, so you stifle the urge to defend the dead and
yourself as a matter of honor.
      Instead, you think completely discreditable thoughts.  
      You think: Here is a woman you could love.  Here are shoes of a man
you could step into.  You could leave off this duty you have been assigned
and shoulder the duty of another, as if another’s duty would carry lighter or
be a better fit.
      You present a letter from the husband’s commander.  You unfold an in-
country map, but you’re unable precisely to show her where her husband
died because that’s classified information.  
      You think: what difference does it make anyhow?  She’s not looking for
truth.  She’s looking in geography for some glimmer of understanding,
looking forward to a day when she might stand at the spot where her
husband breathed his last and get some peace for herself, some reassurance
that this was a worthwhile death, a creditable death, something to be proud
of; that he died neither in pain nor in fear, that her suffering and the children’s
was for a good cause; where she could listen to what the rocks say, the sand,
the wind, the air, touch what he once touched, judge them sacred.  Bow
down before simple objects as if they were something bigger than herself, as
if they were somehow to blame, as if they had decreed this holy suffering,
dispassionately, without animus, in fulfillment of a larger meaning she could
not begin to comprehend.  And all the while no doubt fighting off the
persistent sense of meaninglessness that must tear at her thoughts, but that she
has never dared fully to let take hold, for fear it would never leave her.
      You’re thankful that hers is an off-base house, where no audience of
knowing wives can interfere and judge and suborn.  You’re pleased she’s the
kind of wife who acts as if she has gone through this before.  On occasion, a
wife will think the service sent someone who knew her dead husband
personally, who witnessed his final hours, so she keeps asking for stories and
is bewildered all over again when you have none to offer.
      “You’ve been over there?” she asks.
      You nod.
      “You have a girlfriend?”
      You shake your head.  Since you’ve been back, you’ve thought about
dating and longed for normalcy, but you haven’t quite been able to pick any
particular girl.
      “Guess God made me to be lonely,” you say.
      “God,” she sneers.  For an instant, she looks ugly, full of blame and
resentment and why-me.  You think she’s about to tell you a thing or two
about God.  A God who allows a good man to bleed into the sand three
thousand miles from his family, who leaves a woman with five children on
her hands and no obvious way to feed them, who ignores the prayers each
of those left behind prayed without fail every night on their knees.  
      But she says none of this.  She catches your eye.  You don’t succumb
to the urge to look away, make your excuses, and leave.  She seems to be
looking for some glimmer of recognition and understanding and sympathy.  
Maybe even some vestige of kinship, though clearly, she doesn’t really
expect you to respond to what’s troubling her.  In fact she doesn’t even
expect you’re capable of responding, though she’s willing to be surprised.
      She surprises you by admitting an affair while her husband was abroad.  
She knows it’s wrong on some level, but she admits she doesn’t believe in
Jesus, not
that Jesus anyhow, that softer emissary of a harder Father, who
prescribes swallowed rage and turned cheeks; who has no idea what it’s like
to clip coupons and forgo her own portion of hamburger meat so her
children get their daily recommended amount of protein.  She admits she’s
stopped looking at life as a big knock-knock joke: there is nothing to get, no
overarching point, she’s not naturally religious because she isn’t forever
seeking meaning in an act or event.  
      “It all just is,” she says.  “And here I am: the smart girl who got
knocked up in senior year by a handsome charmer and who would do it all
over again, who showed an insufficient amount of contrition for her parents
and pastor, and now has nothing to her name but a brood of kids (who are
everything) and substantial credit card debt and this folded flag on my coffee
table and a little baby forever ignorant of who her father was, and a country
no better off than if he had gone or not, and, oh, yes, a pair of Blahniks I fell
in love with last year and concealed their purchase from my now dead
husband, and which I’ll resist turning over to the pawn shop until it’s a choice
between his Purple Heart and my heels, and then going to let them go
grudgingly, I swear to God.”
      She shakes her head and breathes deeply, as if she were taking a hit
from her first cigarette in an age.  
      “At the funeral,” she predicts coldly, “they’ll fete me and my kids for our
sacrifice but nobody ever asked us whether we wanted to sacrifice.  You
might as well fete us for being hit by a bus.  And after that, the inevitable
descent into cheap hooking and chain-smoking and alcoholism and a growing
conviction that I probably deserve what I got for being a crappy wife, who
gave up hope on his ever coming back and so he didn’t come back.  And
then there’ll be a new president and a new war and a moth-eaten flag
because of course I’m a thoroughly bad person and I forget to store the flag
carefully, with moth balls.  And my mascara will run streaks down my face
and over my double chins, because I still won’t have lost the weight from the
last pregnancy, and when I run into animal shelter volunteers begging for
change at the supermarket, I’m going to be the one getting in their face and
shrieking,
Don’t you people have better things to do?  There’s men dying
out there!  There’s orphans going hungry!
 
      “And people like you will stare at me, thinking,
Christ Almighty is this
broad ever going to be all right?  Is she ever going to get over it?
 And
I’ll hate you and them with every ounce of my soul.  I’ll blame those animal
shelter volunteers who don’t know what my family has suffered for not
knowing and I’ll blame all those of you who do know for their pity.  
      “Can’t eat pity, you know.  Can’t send a kid to college on pity.  Can’t
buy a box of Cheerios with ignorance.”
      You’ll nod your head as if you follow this diatribe, but you don’t really
follow.  She stares at you fiercely, as if she alone were responsible for giving
you life, and she wasn’t going to shoulder the blame if you stubbornly refused
to take it from her.  You were going to damn well do what you were told, if
the two of you had to sit there all day.
      You feel a sudden kinship and camaraderie with the dead man.  You
are nostalgic for the easy banter about wives that you never shared with him.  
No doubt there had been many rich compensations, but living with this
woman wouldn’t have been easy.  
      “Oh,” she says.  “Oh, he was a bastard.  A good bastard.  
My bastard.  
He loved those kids so much.”  She sighs heavily. She tears apart a paper
napkin with her fingers, and you sense she wouldn’t mind picking apart the
world strand by strand.  “You know what’s going to happen tonight?  Six of
us in a bed, but older boy so damn much like his dad, stand guard all night
by the door.  Nine years old.  I thought I would be proud and instead I’m
just pissed.  How could he leave us alone?”
      She’s older than you and you feel inadequate to console her.  To
console anyone.  You have so little native talent for it, so few resources to
deploy, and you suspect maybe you
do think she deserves it, and the thought
is so alien and awful to you that you have to look away.  
      “Life’s now all going to be about everything I don’t do, won’t have ever
again,” she mutters.  She’s somehow ashamed of the helpless futility of her
widowhood.  
      “Make believe to be strong until you’re strong and all that happy
horseshit,” she says, as if she’s quoting him or some other disciple of
optimism.  Maybe even quoting herself.  
      “It’s amazing the hooey we find ourselves saying to our children,” she
adds.
      She summons a smile.  She tilts back her head and laughs, but it’s such
a thin and fragile sound that your teeth ache.
      “Oh, listen to me.  Just
listen to me.  Who’s full of horseshit and self-
pity now?” she asks.
      You fold your hands in a tent of prayer, but you don’t pray, or even
think of praying.
      She apologizes.  
      “You see now why I don’t live on the base,” she says.  “I wouldn’t be
very popular.”
      To the contrary, you sense she is very popular indeed among the wives,
who’d like to be a lot like her, but who should thank their lucky stars they’re
more easily contented.
      “You’re the first person I’ve ever told,” she says.  “And the last I’ll ever
tell.”
      She zips her lips and throws away the key.
      “So you’re saying you’ll have to kill me now?” you hear yourself say.  
“To make sure I keep your secret.  Leave no witnesses.”
      She doesn’t smile.
      “Sorry,” you say.  “Just a joke.”
      “It just doesn’t seem right under the circumstances,” she says.  “
Kill, I
mean.  Y’know?”
      You know.  You know.  
      Dusk is falling.  Dust stirs.  You sense you should be offering an equal
and opposite reaction to her long confession.  If you had the courage, you
would admit you have a hard-on.  
      But instead, you begin by saying, “You go to be tested. . . .”
      And it goes round and round again.           





                         ____________________________


Scott David has published novels, a memoir, a guide to wine and cocktails,
and numerous short stories under various pseudonyms, most recently in
Evening Street Review, Entasis, Ray’s Roadhouse Review, and Fiction
Fix
.  He lives in Boston and Provincetown, Massachusetts.


On “The Casualty Assistant”:   
Although I have now published half a dozen stories dealing with the
fallout of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I knew another story would
come to me from the moment I first heard the term “casualty assistant”
applied to the soldiers who delivered bad news to families in the States:
the term was both rich with military-speak and bureaucratic
understatement, but also pregnant with a recognition that casualties
extend beyond the particular dead or missing soldier.  What I wanted to
avoid were perfect upright people experiencing feelings entirely
appropriate to the grave situation, and instead to capture the absurdity
of the encounter with stray, vagrant, and discreditable thoughts.  My
Catholic upbringing often prompts me to look for confessional moments,
when two strangers fleetingly find themselves almost knee to knee in
close quarters, and this story is no exception.  Indeed, I “heard” the
characters’ confessional voices so clearly that I became a scribe,
scribbling so quickly that, prior to editing, the text reflected the
mistaken substitution of multiple homonyms (e.g., metals for medals) for
the correct terms because sound rather than words drove this tale.  


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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Contemporary Literature
 

ISSN 1931-3888

Volume 8, Number 1
(Spring 2013)

Copyright © 2013
by Leah Browning, Editor.

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