Patton drinks warm Budweisers on the steps of the double-wide, looks over a glossy brochure for Meadowbrook. That’s the old folk’s home where they might take war-torn, irate invalids––walking nightmares like his brother-in-law Frank.
It’s too dark on the porch to make out the small print, but the brochure’s cover shows two old coots beaming. They’re pawing each other. Their faces are stunned-elated, like they each just shat a bucket full of Krugerrands. That was to be him and his wife Christy, one day. But Christy’s filed for separation, and left Patton in charge of her brother.
The weather’s bad, black ice, frozen blackness wrapped around the edges of the porch. Slush builds up over dark blacktop, and the streetlamps this side of the trailer park are broken. Sleet patters tin, taps darkened windows.
Inside, Frank must be napping. He is most the time since Christy left. Or maybe he’s looking for his cat in the dark. Or staring out a window, waiting on a convoy of Humvees to crest the hill and file down the cul-de-sac like army ants to channel him back to war.
Lights flick on inside. Before Patton can finish his beer, Frank’s hollering, “Hello? Christy?” and rumbling room-to-room, throwing lights like a poltergeist.
Patton checks his cell, and then he hooks it up into the rain gutter and goes inside.
Frank’s menacing the threshold like a bear. He’s blinking, doesn’t recognize Patton. He won’t move, says, “Intruder,” and lunges.
They wrestle. Frank yells, but to no one, since the neighbors know his voice by now. He wraps his saggy arms around Patton, hoists him up. Says, “I got you,” then yells, “Nine-one-one, nine-one-one,” like he’s forgotten about phones.
Patton wriggles free, but he slips on the rug and twists his ankle.
The door is standing open. Frank stands over Patton. His gut jiggles in his huge Farm Bureau t-shirt. His thin legs jut out from boxer shorts. He’s put on so much weight, but his legs are thin because of all the time he’s spent in bed since the explosion.
The heat leaves the trailer and Frank offers no help. He only shuffles an apologetic little dance. “I’m sorry.” Then, he starts in blubbering.
Patton is going to call the nursing home.
It’s been time.
It’s only that, they were kids together. Frank was tall and strong. You could get by anything just standing in his shadow. And when they went to the war, Frank was the specimen. You could follow him the same shadowy way safe into battle. Unless he got blown up.
“Frank,” Patton says, “close the door.”
After the accident, Frank is all the way deformed. He’s got a patchwork face lumped like mashed potatoes, transversed by pig-stitch scars. He shies from mirrors, scares the children.
But what children? It’s only the pair of them, the wrestler dolls like an audience around their trailer, their trips to the doctors, and Frank’s wrestling shows. Somewhere in all of that, Patton’s crawled inside and emits silent whimpers. He’s whimpering at his phone, but Christy’s not calling.
It’s Sunday night, and there’s no getting around it, Patton’s promised Frank a match. Things don’t go well if Patton doesn’t keep a promise. Most promises, Frank forgets, but never when they’re going to wrestle.
Dr. Tina says hobbies are good for Frank, who started watching wrestling in the hospital and hasn’t stopped. So Patton’s built this wrestling world for him—ordered boxes of wrestling shit off the internet and spent a fortune. But seeing Frank open all those boxes made Patton feel a little better, not that he’s responsible, and not like they have the money for a trailer full of toys.
Patton finds his whistle, which means it’s on. Snap your fingers, Frank is in his gym shorts over a spandex body suit. He’s lugged the mannequin out and already bouncing off the walls before Patton can get good and settled on the couch.
This guy’s name is Badman Charlie. They’ve been through a few, already.
Patton whistles Frank off when he gouges or bites the mannequin, whistles when Frank brings a hammer into the mix (and thinks to hide that sonofabitch first chance he gets). Frank pins the dummy, has it buck him off. Abashed, Frank seeks support from some imaginary crowd.
He never would have guessed it, but somehow Patton’s finally gotten used to the way the dolls never make a sound. He keeps it noisy with the whistle and a few cheers.
All the same, the show is hypnotic. Buzzing pretty hard, Patton’s mixing it all up: he’s thinking the tears in Frank’s eyes, the sweat trickling down his face, are little dew drops beading on sunbeat branches, droplets sweating down a canteen outside Kandahar, leaking into thirsty sand. They’re a morphine drip while German surgeons drop meatball hunks of ruined, gray brain jelly into a kitchen trash bag.
Naturally, Frank wins his match. This late in the month, it’s ramen for dinner. Patton has sprained his ankle, but he’s drunk and doesn’t give a shit. He’s drinking his own dinner and going through the bills. He’s wondering how to stretch Frank’s checks from the Army.
Frank slurps his noodles. They smear across his cheeks. Patton can’t eat while Frank dribbles like a baby, plus the pink scars across his bare scalp, the convex absence in Frank’s skull from the hemispherectomy. Finger-press divots left along his throat from shrapnel make food stick in his gullet. Or something in there does.
But at least he’s eating. Most nights, Frank refuses anything but sweets. He asks, “Where’s Christy?”
Patton raises his beer. “Gone.”
“Gone?” Frank scans the room like she’s hiding in the cupboard. “When is she coming back?”
“Goddammit, Frank. She ain’t.”
Frank skids back on the linoleum, deepening gray gouges. He flaps his arms. He’s pounding on the table scattering globs of dinner on the Formica. “Ain’t!” he’s shouting. They’re having her goodbye party, like any other night.
Shouting gets him going and Frank starts flinging bowls and forks across the kitchen. He huffs and puffs and knocks his chair down. Goes back to the living room and turns on his wrestling show.
Patton brings to the living room a conciliatory box of Hostess, finds Frank in final throes of masturbating.
“Boy! You can say that again,” says an announcer, slickly.
Frank says, “Don’t you tell Christy,” and then the twitching eyes, then seizing.
When Frank wakes up he won’t stop going through the trailer like a zombie rifling cabinets, looking for his pills. Patton has them, rattles bottles in Frank’s face until he settles. Now Patton has to calm him down, explain everything backward—the seizure, seizures, the surgeries, the injury, the IED at Sarpuzen, the war. Everything. This time Patton’s telling him about growing up, them and Christy cutting class and tossing bottles in the quarry, when Frank’s eyes narrow, and whatever passes for his memory now, it settles like a storm.
This is the worst part. Until now, things must have been like a dream for Frank.
He’s with it now enough to ask, so Patton tells what he knows about the explosion at the check point, about the slivers of aluminum from the road sign that pierced Franks’ neck and jaw and temporal lobe.
The seizure means Frank goes down easy, but Patton’s up with intermittent nightmares of Christie in a loft downtown, lithe long arm interlocked with Joe’s, her boss. They’re sharing champagne in flutes, toasting a textbook evacuation.
And he knows: that sort of catastrophic thinking only pushed her out the door. She’s only hiding. Who could blame her?
Patton. Every hour ‘til he dies.
Seven in the AM, they’re at Frank’s doctor’s setup in a strip mall in Green Hills. She nods at Frank and packs a box of Doral Ultra-Light 100s against her palm. Sometimes she steps out a side door into an alcove for a smoke on the clock when Frank won’t participate. Patton doesn’t blame her.
The book cases are filled with dusty journals, and he doesn’t blame her for that, either: if Patton had to do this job he wouldn’t want to read about it in the down time. Hard to flip pages and chain smoke Dorals and keep the gun in your mouth, all with just two hands.
Frank’s calling everyone and everything a faggot, and Patton wants to bring up Frank’s masturbating to guys on wrestling shows, but he’s not supposed to speak. Or listen, really. He’s only there to protect the doctor in the worst-case.
But Frank’s not been scary that way for months, truth be told.
Frank tells her about the cat. About the scratches, but not what happened after. He holds up his forearm and pinches his scars at her. She says she’s sorry. She should be sorry for the cat. Patton wants to tell her: Dr. Tina, this is Frank. This is duty. There’s no fixing this. And then salute her. Walk out through her smoking nook and march headlong into rush-hour traffic.
Pow. Your turn, anybody else. Not that Patton ever feels sorry for himself.
Somehow, now, Frank’s livid, shouting about how nothing’s fair. News to no one. But the doctor gets him breathing. She talks to him in a low voice. It’s some kind of hypnosis.
When Frank settles, she tries again. “Anger is also a manifestation of fear, Frank. And you have so much to be afraid of.”
“Hulk Hogan used to get stage fright. Bad, he couldn’t feel his hands.”
The doctor says, “Really? Where did you hear that?”
Above the parking lot a hawk’s chased figure eights by tandem crows. Although they swirl, the way to tell them apart is the crows look small for once. The black span of the hawk is like a vortex, all suck and danger, but the crows caw and circle back along its flank, so they go in circles. It’s in their blood.
“Look up there,” Patton says.
“I see it.”
For a minute they watch birds. Patton admires the teamwork of the crows, how they’re smarter than most other birds. He gets Frank in the truck and sees the doctor smoking outside her office. The complex is nice and shady, in rosy bricks and beige sconces. The doctor is looking up, but he doesn’t think she’s watching birds. He tells Frank to wait a minute.
“Sorry to bother you,” he says from too far away, and startles her. She drops her smoke, fumbles for it in the blue grass. She asks him what he needs.
Patton doesn’t know. Then says, “My wife is going to get our house.”
“Sorry. Is she visiting Frank?”
He shakes his head. “It’s more like she’s divorced him, than me. But I don’t see her either, so that’s stupid.”
He tells her about what happened the night before, and she says all manner of changes are normal after hemispherectomies, and Patton says he knows that.
She says, “Well,” and looks away again.
“It’s not that I care what he likes. But if the changes are, if he is ashamed, should we work him back? Does that make sense?”
She shrugs again, bends and stubs her cigarette out in the grass. Really mashes it up, and Patton wants to show her how to field roll it. But he says, “Should he be put away somewhere?”
She roots around for her pack and lights up again. He thinks she hasn’t listened, but she says, “I’m not sure that he does. I don’t think so. When was his last real outburst?”
Patton wants to say the night before, but doesn’t. He’s not sure he could call it an outburst.
She turns and looks him in the eyes. “He can stop himself. He’s getting better. Believe me, that’s rare.”
“Well, Frank wants me to tell you that he’s sorry.”
“No, he doesn’t.”
Fucking Frank has bolted. Patton takes a few long breathes. He sets a perimeter in his head. Then, he limps around for blocks. He’s fully panicked. Traffic is busy and he pictures scraping Frank off the road with his hands: the final mush of Frank.
Patton checks inside two convenience stores before the smell circles him back to a bakery. Frank’s inside lunging over the counter at a woman in aprons. The woman is shielding a girl cashier, who has shrunk back into the wall. The girl is clutching the apron strings of the woman who has flour on her cheeks and in her silver hair. High flour like a halo.
The woman’s cupping a phone receiver to her middle, but she’s chattering at Frank, and wearing a big smile.
So maybe it’s OK. Except, Frank’s starts pounding on the counter. And then Patton sees that his other hand is shoved down into the front of his pants. Frank is stuttering at the women. “Red and yellow. Not yellow, gold.”
“Hey, buddy,” Patton says and yanks hard on Frank’s elbow. Patton keeps tugging, but Frank’s really got a hold of something down there. Frank stops stammering at the women. He looks at Patton, says, “What?” and he’s ready to start swinging, but he pulls his cinched-up hand out of his pants.
“Calm down,” Patton says.
Now, Frank’s confused. He wells up.
A man, also dusty and in an apron, comes out from aluminum double doors. He’s of an age with the woman and they must be married. The girl might be their kid.
Frank is muttering to no one, now. Patton shrugs to the girl cashier and the bakers, says, “He’s a veteran. We both are.” To Frank: “Come, now,” hissing.
Frank hits the counter. “I want a cake. I want John Cena.” He pushes out his chest. “I deserve it, for my progress. Dr. Tina says I’m better.”
The front of Frank’s jeans is poking against the counter and Patton’s scared he’ll start to mount it like a stag, so he pulls Frank back toward the door.
Near the door, Frank grabs a table bolted to the wall.
“Let’s just get out of here.”
“No.” Frank won’t let go of the table.
They have a scuffling match, but Frank’s too strong and starts to yank the table out of the wall, its fixtures squealing.
“Please.” The woman has ventured over to them, but she’s shaking. Frank looks at her and gives it up.
The woman puts a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t go. There’s a cake. We had an order cancel. Just Angel’s Food, but it’s big.”
Patton tells Frank to wait outside, and he does.
“Let me pay you for the table and we’ll go.”
The lady glances at the table, smiles at him. “Did you say that man is a veteran?”
“He is.” Patton doesn’t repeat that he is, too. Over there, he mostly worked on trucks.
“Well, so is Ralph. Ralph said he can put John Cena on the cake. We found a picture. Cell phones.” She shrugs and smiles like what a world.
Patton hasn’t heard him, but Frank is back inside.
“I understand Mr. Cena is a real patriot,” she says to Frank, who nods and sniffles.
“How much?” Patton asks.
“Please. He’s paid enough.”
Patton can’t look the woman in the eyes. “Thank you. I think we’ll wait outside.”
“I think that’s best. Shouldn’t be long. Ralph’s already started.”
Headlights play across the kitchen window. She’s outside. Patton is setting the table, sees her headlights in the glass of the microwave. Frank goes crashing through the trailer yelling, “Christy!”
The voice in Patton’s head is shouting: Go! His scalp tingles. His palms sweat. He’s strides outside, numb with panic in Frank’s blubbery wake.
She’s parked across the street and peeping. He catches her eye. She smiles at him before she looks at Frank. Her hair is different. She’s not wearing makeup. Her face is red. Patton has something for her. Where is the necklace—it’s inside, under the silverware. She’ll like it.
Frank’s wobbling down the driveway. He is calling out. He trips and skins his knees on the gravel. Howls skyward.
And it’s too much for her. She goes. Pulls away out of the trailer park. She doesn’t look back. He watches her in the rearview until she’s too pretty to look at. And he says, to no one, I know you’re scared. I know he hit you. I bought you a necklace.
He says, to no one: tomorrow morning, I’ll come home.
Inside Patton cuts the cake—Cena’s rendered pretty well and saying, “God Bless America,” in a word bubble. Plus he’s flexing fit to bust. Patton goes for plates and hears Frank start to seize in the living room, hears the crash that means he’s fallen. There is wrestling on and blaring. Patton’s heart jumps. He is afraid he’ll find Frank compromised again, but his pants are zipped and buttoned. Patton rolls him over, and goes around the room stuffing dolls and belts in a cardboard box. He calls Meadowbrook, but he’s on hold when Frank wakes up. He’ll call them later.
Frank thinks it is Patton’s birthday. He keeps telling Patton happy birthday. Patton stops correcting him. He waits for Frank to ask what happened, but he never does. The cake is good.
Frank has icing on his lips and chin. He says, “Before. Did I? Was I jacking off?”
“Does that make you have a seizure?”
“Well, maybe, then, you shouldn’t.”
“I know I shouldn’t.”
“At least do it lying down.”
Frank laughs. Patton can’t remember the last time Frank laughed. Frank wipes his chin half-assed, smears icing across his cheek. Patton could say that Frank is a hero, but he won’t understand. “I think you’re getting better, buddy.”
Frank nods. Says, “I can’t remember.”
Patton gets a beer. Frank’s welling up at the table, staring at the cake.
“You don’t like it?”
Frank shakes his head. “I love it. I want one for my birthday, too.” But he’s not thinking about birthdays. He’s poking the table like he’s got something big. “It makes me feel like I can do it.” He pierces the middle of Cena’s chest with his pointer. “Do you think I can do it?”
Patton pops his can. “By God, I do.”
Now pointing to his freakshow head, he asks Patton, “Why did they do it?”
“I don’t know. No one does.” Patton takes down most of his beer. Saying it to say it: “I wish it had been me, sometimes.”
“No.” Frank shakes his head. “They wouldn’t.” He stares long at Patton across the table. “You’re my brother. I wouldn’t let them.”
After a while, Frank feels better. He gets up with his plate and fork and puts them in the sink. He can see into the living room, and asks about the boxes. Asks, “Patton, are you moving out?” Like Patton would take Frank’s wrestler dolls.
“I was only cleaning up. I’m not going anywhere, buddy.”
Frank nods, takes his pills, and stumbles off to bed. Patton has another piece of cake. Leaves the phone on the hook. Takes a belt from the wall and wraps it round his middle. Snags a wrestler pillow from a box for his ankle, changes channels like a champ.
Lucas Flatt teaches first year composition in middle Tennessee. His work has appeared in Sundog Lit, Ellipsis, and Fiction Southeast. He reads fiction for Green Briar Review.