Denise Howard Long
He has forgotten the feeling of brushing his only daughter’s hair. Of plaiting the strands into tight braids each morning, a task that fell to him after her mother left. He has forgotten the way the smooth pieces of honey-colored hair twisted in his fingers and how he focused on the rhythm of the three sections of hair. Evenly placing them, pulled taut and strong. Stretching the brightly colored elastics three, four, five times around the bottom of each braid.
He has not forgotten the feel of his rucksack hanging from his back. The pull on his shoulders, just enough to be called “uncomfortable” but not so much he’d call it “pain.” He has not forgotten the rhythmic motion of loading his weapon. The smooth metal in his hand, oiled and heavy. The magazine of rounds in his fingers, silent in their weight.
He has forgotten the way his daughter, at age three, would brush the back of her hand across his cheek when he hadn’t shaved in a few days. Then, she would rub the soft fleshy pads of her dimpled fingers across his face, whispering, “Scratchy.” She would kiss his nose before running off to climb trees and catch frogs on his parents’ farm. The same land that carried him through childhood wrapping itself around her days and nights. He has forgotten how thankful he was, and is, for that.
He has not forgotten the first time he fired the weapon and the paper target he missed completely, his father’s face flashing through his mind. He has not forgotten the unreadable look somewhere between pride and fear that shadowed his father’s face months before when handing him the mail. The notice they’d been waiting for tucked into a smooth, white envelope. The way his mother had cried every night for weeks. Her voice so hoarse, as he boarded the bus, he could barely make out her words. “Come back to us.”
He has forgotten the syrupy smell of cherry bubble bath on his daughter’s skin as he pulled her nightgown over her head. The sound of her laughter as he tossed her into the air, skinny legs and arms splayed about, while he counts to three. On three, he would catch her again and swing her onto the Strawberry Shortcake bedspread, making room amidst piles of love-worn animals. A pig. A giraffe. A tiger. The warmth as he tucked the blankets tight, kissed her forehead, and shut out the light. He has forgotten how she was never once scared of the dark.
He has not forgotten the air of Khe San. The sulfur smell so intense it was as if it was coming from inside his body. He has not forgotten how he lost feeling in all of his limbs. How he was found hours after the enemy fire subsided, crouched in the fetal position with his eyes staring blankly into space. He has not forgotten his nickname earned that day. “Flaggos” from that point on, short for “Flag Ojos”—the whites of his once-clear blue eyes so riddled with blood shot lines.
He has forgotten the first night he was out alone with the woman who would become his wife. His hesitant hand found its way to her shoulder, hoping she’d lean into him, while they watched Jane Fonda and Red Buttons dance maniacally on screen. He had liked the way she laughed when no one else had. The movie’s moments of shock seeming to strike her in a way he’d never thought of before. Later, when he asked her what had been so funny, what had made her laugh so much, a sad smile had crept across her face and she’d whispered, “All that desperation.” Sensing the unease, sitting, waiting, just behind her eyes, he’d wanted nothing more than to give her balance, keep her steady, like a ship anchored to the shore.
He has not forgotten what it was like coming home the night his wife moved out. The house on his parents’ property so quiet, so still. How he’d stood on the porch and looked across the field to his parents’ house where he knew his daughter was waiting. How instead of heading down the lane to retrieve her, he’d found himself in the bedroom, rubbing his hands across the worn yellow quilt, fragments of shredded letters scattered at his feet, and an old shoe box half peeking from under the bed. He’d absorbed the quiet of the house. The house she claimed was haunted, complaining of noises in the night and things shifting from room to room on their own during the day. She had sworn the walls were moving. Voices were telling her to get out. “Get out now,” she’d spit through clenched teeth, her eyes darting side to side as she clutched the front of his shirt.
He has not forgotten what it felt like to sleep on the ground. How for the first few months he had pretended he was just camping. How he’d pictured his mom and dad nearby, tending a campfire. He’d lay on his tarp in the jungle and picture his father in a lawn chair, a beer bottle dangling from one hand, a cigarette loose in the other. He’d think of his father’s laughter, cutting through night air. His mother, giggling as she’d shush him. How he’d fallen asleep in their red nylon family tent, his parents’ smiles behind his eyelids, and the warm air lifting up and up around him still leaving him feeling safe and peaceful.
He has forgotten most of his wedding day at the courthouse. How his stomach felt empty and cold and his best friend kept wringing his hands. How the parents and brother she had insisted would be there never showed up and the way his father’s eyes had narrowed when he heard. The way his wife insisted she carry a flower from her bouquet between her teeth. How his mother shook her head and looked away. And despite the way his wife’s eyes darted and the way her hands trembled, he’d told himself this was just what it looked like to be young and in love.
He has not forgotten the face of the first man he killed, the body face up on the dirt. The eyes dark as night, but empty as his weapon. Eyebrows permanently raised. He has not forgotten how small the man looked, lying on the ground. His legs angled beneath him, his clothes wrinkled and torn. The unsettling desire to shake him out and fold him up and put him in a drawer. He has not forgotten how later his eyes had burned and his throat clenched. PFC Morales had thumped him on the back, “Him or you, man. Him or you.” He has not forgotten how, moments before he pulled the trigger, he’d thought of his father. Of the way, he’d said, “There’s always going north.” Both of them knowing that wasn’t what he would do.
He has forgotten the first time he experienced the forgetting, so much of it all quilted together creating the fabric of a life torn apart and stitched back together all wrong. Pieces of days mottled through his brain as he would dig to find footing, a moment on which he could see who he was and who he is and what will happen next. That first forgetting had been at his daughter’s wedding reception. He’d made it down the aisle despite a persistent ache in his throat. He’d given his little girl away, confident she was going where she should. Confident that her life was set on a course that was straight. As he’d settled into his third beer of the night, watching the guests dance and laugh, he’d suddenly realized he was in a room full of strangers. A young woman in white walked over to him. A wedding. A bride. And she wanted him to dance. He nodded and followed her to the dance floor, fear rattling through him, sweat bursting on his skin. She asked him if he was okay and he nodded and smiled because he wasn’t sure what else to do.
He has not forgotten how his mother railed against him when he said he wanted to get married before leaving for basic training. How she’d told him he was too young and it was nonsense, all the while, the gleam in her eye telling him she just didn’t think this girl was good enough. He has not forgotten how when he’d told her about the baby, about how this wasn’t something he was doing without thought, she’d deflated before him. The air evaporated out of her, and she’d suddenly appeared so small. He has not forgotten how his father never said a single word about the marriage. Or about the baby on the way.
He has forgotten how seamlessly he moved into the position of sole parent. The way that his daughter rarely asked about her mother. The uneasy way he told himself her lack of questions was a good thing. He has forgotten how much the quiet of the night weighed on him, the weight of the house pulling him toward the ground. He has forgotten the way that he convinced himself he was doing such a good job and she didn’t need a mother. He has forgotten how often he realized he was wrong.
He has forgotten meeting the young man, Stan, who would become his daughter’s husband. The way he’d watched him, making sure he pulled out her chair, held her door, and listened to her—really listened—when she spoke. He has forgotten how that evening, a dinner at their home, had silenced him. How he’d waited and waited for Stan to ask his daughter questions and then see the fear spark across his face when she gave him answers. But that never happened. Not once.
He has not forgotten what it was like to hold his wife down on the floor while the baby wailed in a nearby room. How he cleared all his hunting guns from the house, thinking what she might do when he wasn’t there had rattled his heart and took him places he didn’t want to go. He’d not thought of the steak knives in the kitchen. He’d not thought of the razors in the bathroom. When he’d come home to find his wife bleeding on the kitchen table, a smile of relief across her face, seemingly oblivious to the scratches gutting her arms and stomach, her tee shirt clinging in bloody stripes around her waist, he knew they’d hit a wall.
He has forgotten what it was like when Stan came to him alone one night, asked for his daughter’s hand, both knowing he was asking for so much more. How Stan had smiled too much and bit his lip between his words. How for one tortuous moment, he couldn’t figure out who Stan was and why he was there.
He has not forgotten the lime green walls and the scratchy chair on the downwind side of a desk. The man, a doctor, across from him, using words with too many syllables. He tried to wrap his mind around the words, reaching through the dark for a bit of clarity, focusing on different parts of the room. A young woman in the chair to his left. She stared at the doctor. Her teeth pulled at her lip as she nodded and “Mm-hmmed” at each statement he made. He felt a sense of familiarity toward the golden hair that spilled down her back. Before he could stop himself, he reached out and touched it, running his fingers along the strands. She turned and smiled. Something about her liquid blue eyes, rimmed in red, broke his heart, but he didn’t know why.
He has not forgotten the way Morales clung to every word in the letters he would read to him when he’d receive them from home. He has not forgotten the way that he felt so proud—a husband, a father—sharing these words with Morales, who never spoke of any family of his own. He has not forgotten how the letters came in strange fits and starts. Sometimes a page or two of rote updates, other times fat envelopes full of ramblings and rants. Letters scribbled out and pages torn from where pens or pencils pressed too hard on the page. Morales didn’t seem to mind. He’d point at the pages limp from the wet air and too much sweat and say, “That’s what matters, man. Not all this,” spreading his blackened fingers through the air around him. “Someday, this will be nothing more than recuerdos olvidados. Forgotten memories.” He’d smiled as he said it, his teeth blazing white against his greasy face in the night.
He has forgotten how the night before her wedding, his daughter tiptoed down the hall in the middle of the night, sobbing and fearful she was doing the wrong thing. How he held her and told her this was the right choice. She and him, they were the staying kind. How she’d clung to him, rubbing her fingers across his face. How she’d eventually calmed down, kissed his nose, and left the room. How he’d climbed from his chair and watched her walk back to her room, pretending he didn’t notice the hallway walls closing in around her.
He has not forgotten the moments he lives now. Moments where he’s falling and he waits to see what will catch him when he lands. He wakes sometimes to find a woman sitting in the chair near his bed. She looks tired in a way that comes from a place that has nothing to do with sleep. He wishes there was something he could say to make her smile. He watches her fingers move her hair behind her ear. Then pull it back out again, smoothing strands away from her forehead. Her hands never stopping their fluttering motion. Every time her eyes catch his, he tries to look away. The question always in the back of his mind, “Is she the one I left? Or is she the one who left me?”
Denise Howard Long’s fiction has appeared in Blue Monday Review, Gravel, Kentucky Review, Burrow Press Review, and elsewhere. Her story “Where It’s Buried” won first place in Five on the Fifth’s 2016 short fiction contest. In addition to working as a copy editor and fact checker, she also serves as production editor for Carve magazine. Denise lives in Nebraska, with her husband and two young sons. You can visit her online at www.denisehlong.com.