What would you call it: a favorite childhood memory? No, I have many of those—unforgettable moments like a rotten tomato fight in the high dusty loft of a barn—mushy red grenades splatting with a nasty juice that oozed and clotted like blood but smelled like an ape’s ass; the more you were hit, the deader you smelled. Dad was forced to take us home from our friend’s farm in the bed of a borrowed pickup truck. I remember launching a heavy fat one at my brother and hitting him in the center of his birdy twelve-year-old chest; the pulpy fruit made a popping sound and eviscerated like a real flesh wound. I was delighted. Daniel cried out and fell, almost gracefully, from a wooden ladder into the hay. He kept screaming after he landed, like he was dying. I started to compliment him on his realistic death sounds but stopped short when I noticed he was covered in bees. I yanked him by the hand and we both fled from the barn, welted with swollen eyes and shiny clown lips. We stared at our misshapen faces in the mirror and laughed through the pain.
Fifteen years later, my face is throbbing again. Sclerae reduced to cherry slits. A boxer in a box.
I’m a Navy man. Hell. Let’s call it a damn anchor. A mental anchor to ground my sanity.
The thirty-two-inch, horizontal line of light at the base of my bedroom door.
Mom always tucked us into bed with a soft hand and a Snow White voice. Goodnight, she’d say, and close the door slowly—dimming, dimmer, dark—until the heavily-draped room went suddenly black with a gentle click.
Afraid of monsters, I’d climb down from the top bunk to the shag carpet to find the only light in the night: a glowing strip of yellow between the floor and the door. I’d curl up with my blanket and press my face into that tiny space. I could feel cool air and smell fresh coffee; I could hear a tablespoon stirring cream and sugar, and then the predictable xylophone eighth notes at the end: tink, tink, tink. Dad always carried a cup to mom. His heavy footsteps made the floor creak between the kitchen and the living room. But it was the deeper sound of adult voices that I needed most. The stability and security of two loving parents married for more years than I could count. A team brave and strong enough to chase away the evil presence hiding in the closet or whispering from underneath the bed and inside my head.
I really need a team like that right now.
My parents are aging rapidly with worry. The last time I visited them I was shocked. But, together, they are stronger than an army. They believe in God and whenever two or more are gathered in his name, anything is possible; that’s what they say. My dad told me that if he ended up losing every physical function except for his mind, he’d still be more powerful than the devil himself through prayer. Later, alone in some nasty motel full of hookers and reprobates, I opened my sea bag and discovered a note jotted with dad’s smudgy, left-handed hook; he reminded me of that bittersweet conversation with a verse or two chosen from Psalm 18 and it made me think of the comforting light just beyond my bedroom door. I’m glad I took the time to memorize it:
- You light a lamp for me.
The LORD, my God, lights up my darkness.
- In your strength I can crush an army.
with my God I can scale a wall.
The problem is the rest of the chapter. The problem is something inside of me. Those victories belong only to the righteous and I don’t qualify. I’m in deep darkness—physically and morally—utterly helpless, unable to turn back time, pressing into the thinnest, weakest line of light. As an innocent child, I remember listening to my parent’s intimate conversations without being able to make out the words; it was like the pleasant rumble of a distant thunder. I imagine them praying for me. I hope that they are. I can’t pray for myself.
Please, please rain. I need a bath. I need a drink.
I’ve never been so thirsty. Somehow, I’m still sweating.
Must find a way to survive. If not, I’m on the fast track to the next level of hell, just below this Hanoi Hilton—or whatever it is—Satan’s Green room for sinners before the final show. I mustn’t die yet because no immoral person has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. I belong to the devil. I speak his native language. He’s the father of lies and a murderer from the beginning. I’m Lucifer’s child—I believe that much is true. My personal statement of faith: I’m damned.
Once upon a time, the insignia on my uniform was two feather quill pens. I was proud of that patch. As a senior yeoman, I became a flag writer; after that, a military journalist—a part of public affairs and not propaganda—but somehow ended up in the tricky business of PSYOP. Now I’m suffering a slow death in this proto-coffin. Buried alive. All liars shall have their part in the lake of fire.
Our helicopter went down in flames.
Somebody knows where I am.
Nobody knows where I am.
Does God know? Is there a God?
I hope not.
I hope so.
Don’t panic, don’t panic, don’t panic. Shh… close your eyes. Concentrate. Breathe. You’re trained for such a time as this.
. . .
Mrs. Montgomery! What the hell is she doing here? Hello?
She’s teaching her class out of doors today, standing behind the charred wing of an A-4 Skyhawk, smack dab in the middle of the jungle. Leeches are pulsing and wriggling on her cheeks. She doesn’t seem to care.
I want to thank her, but she can’t hear me. She’s largely responsible for my entrance into what has become a dangerous career in writing. Literature 101: she told me the best writers are the honest writers. How ironic.
“Okay, class, we have forty-five minutes. Take out some paper and a pencil and describe your most embarrassing moment.”
A class full of sixteen-year-old students. Hmm . . . yes, let’s all relive our most dreaded moment. An exercise in literary masochism. Testing our honesty.
I was caught masturbating with my best friend’s sister’s silk panties. The door opened and there was her mother, standing there, motionless, mouth moving, trying to say something but producing only a strange wheezing sound. I went scrambling for cover, stiff as a pipe, dripping and stringing with something pungent, sticky, and undeniable. The only possible remaining worst-case scenario was if she happened to recount the situation with humiliating detail to my own mother—and she did.
I’ve been addicted to sex for many years—well, honestly, until confined in these tight quarters—and I’ve hurt a lot of people along the way. Everyone has their own drug of choice. Mine isn’t diet Coke. I need orgasms. My fix requires that I cheat, deceive, charm, and fib my way in and out of hookups (I never call them relationships). My only excuse is that I’m not allowed to settle down; I’m always on the move and required to carry false identification (I don’t even know who I am anymore and it’s easy to deny any personal accountability or responsibility); I might die today or tomorrow and need, need, NEED to experience the strongest biological urge next to breathing. At least my addiction keeps humankind alive; it keeps me alive. But all liars and fornicators will be judged; these are two sins on a much longer list of recurring whoppers, huge locks on the gates of heaven; I’m guilty of both and much more, even murder; I’ve left no sin stone unturned. Woe unto those who cause the innocent to stumble. It would be better if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea—or locked in a stove until well-done and forgotten.
If I were a saint, I would be Augustine. “Lord make me pure but not yet.”
I would masturbate right now if my knuckles weren’t broken. Greedy for a final lucid dream of that one in a thousand whom I genuinely loved. She was my perfect fit and I should’ve never left her. She was beautiful in every way, from her limber body to her muscled soul, she was my skjaldmær.
I’ve got to get out of here!
Stop it! Get control of yourself. Put your nose to the breach and breathe. Remember! Imagine cool air rushing in from the line of light. The scent of Folgers. A sense of happiness and well-being. Childlike euphoria.
Or on that gusty winter day. The best day. When Christina’s hand was still squeezing mine and no one else’s. French vanilla coffee was on her breath when she kissed me. From a deserted seaside boardwalk, closed for the season, we tossed three loaves of white bread to the seagulls. I pointed to the farthest part of the ocean. There’s another line—one that divides the water from the sky. The offing. That transparent crack between the floor of reality and the door of dreams.
I had a ring in my pocket. She never knew.
. . .
Supposedly, God is omnipresent. If I ascend to the heavens or make my bed in the grave, he is there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn or settle by the remotest part of sea, he is there. Darkness is not dark to God and the night shines like the day.
There was a line of sunlight peeking through the barely divided thick drapes of my childhood bedroom window. The day before I left for the Navy, I was sitting at my writing desk. I parted the curtains further to discover my then raven-haired father with a superman curl sticking to his sweaty forehead; his white tee shirt was stained with perspiration; his pants were riding low to a plumber’s crack; his arms were so much harder than his belly. He opened the door to the shed and pulled out my bicycle. I watched as he repaired a flat tire. When he was finished, he spun the wheel. He wiped the rims with a rag until they both gleamed in the sun. He oiled the chain and sprocket. He straightened the handlebars. He tightened the seat. He put the tools away. This was his private way of saying goodbye.
I started to cry. He wore the face of remembrance with an empty expression of loss.
Time flies until you’re in the grave. There is no clock in Sheol.
Sunrise. Sunset. Sunrise. Sunset. SLOWLY flow the days. One season following another . . . Fiddler on the Roof, playing over and over and over on an endless loop in my aching head, muffled and suffocated somewhere in the blurry wasteland between delirium and heat stroke.
I would do anything to touch my father’s face just one more time. Feel that Fred Flintstone shadow. Tell him that I love him. Show him the respect he deserved and never received. Beg his forgiveness for being such an ungrateful bastard. Thank him for faithfully loving my mom for all those years and together producing that yellow line of protective light just beyond the door of my childhood fears. All those potential nightmares had disappeared because of him, because of them. Until I was fully grown and on my destructive own.
Now I’m a seasoned adult who knows for certain that monsters are real. Maybe it was my own demon spirits hiding in the closet all those tender years; maybe it was my parent’s righteousness that kept them away. My mom and dad were the light in my darkness. God was their light.
Christina was my shield-maiden, protective, yes, but politely admitted she never liked that term. She told me she wasn’t a Viking. One day she wore a homemade headpiece with feathers and beads—feminine, Bohemian—and encouraged me to think of her more as my personal dream catcher. I should have listened. I should have taken her by the hand and entered the transparent horizontal line of happily ever after, that magic portal of unbreakable togetherness.
And now what?
Petty Officer Harewood died a few days ago in the enclosed structure next to mine. A flat line for him, not yellow, but green. They tortured and killed him. He screamed much like my brother did in the barn. They wanted me to hear it.
I hope he’s better off. Maybe heaven is real, maybe it isn’t. We are PSYOP, after all, with many sinful secrets but the best of intentions. Either way, prayer hasn’t worked for us.
I’m a talented master of deception. It’s what I get paid to do. To confuse the enemy with lies, allegedly for God and country. But now all I want is the truth.
Truth is I should have been an English teacher, diagramming sentences on a chalkboard instead of counting the days in a one-man prison. Instead, I’m staring up at the claw marks left behind from all those who’ve gone before me; those who eventually lost the will to live, then ultimately snapped, crackled, and popped. I’m almost there.
But I’ll continue to anchor my sanity in love. I’ll force myself to think of that yellow line, my mother and father, the unseen evidence of their presence just beyond the door. I’ll close my eyes and channel my blue-eyed dream catcher; she’ll separate the good dreams from the bad. With one powerful kiss, this nightmare will end. She’ll conquer all my demons and we’ll enter the offing together.
. . .
Is God my Father? Is he just beyond the door of time and space? Or is the devil’s nasty breath waiting in my face? Knock, knock, who’s there? That’s my prayer.
God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. When it comes my time to die, which won’t be long, I hope to go toward the light.
The sun has set again. I’m a captive of many months; boxed in the blackness of darkness; trapped in sorrow and fear; drowning in regret; imprisoned and festering in my own excrement. Almost dead. The only illumination comes from the very dim and dehydrated synapses of my brain. My mind is slipping into irreversible madness.
Blind people can mistake warmth for light. Human beings are so prone to deception.
The slightest crack at the lid of this sweat box. Why am I able to see it at this hour? An illusion? Am I a victim of my own trickery? Wanting to believe in something that isn’t true, like everybody else, to my own detriment?
Something red. Coming closer, getting brighter. A rotten tomato? A flare?
A creaking sound. Christina and I making love on a box spring mattress.
I press my sore nose to the line of light.
A sour smell. Not coffee.
Adult voices. Vietnamese soldiers. Talking rapidly. Scrambling.
A surprising flash and pop, pop, pop of deadly gunfire. Ten minutes. Maybe twenty.
A team. From the front line. Entering the darkness. Killing monsters.
I listen through the ringing in my ears, tachycardic in the silent aftermath.
An American, with a Boston accent booming from the lungs of a man who’s still a boy, “UNITED STATES MARINES!”
With three violent, powerful clunks from the butt of a rifle, the lock is broken. The door opens from the other side.
I’m curled up like a child, physically unable to move. My skeletal frame is pulled by strong arms into the brightest light I have ever known.