There is no crime of which I cannot conceive myself guilty…
I’m in no hurry to leave the close-spaced security of the bus. So, I lean back in my seat and wait until everyone is out. Then I walk to the front, take two steps down — back in the “real world.”
After four years, three tours in Iraq, and two days of military psych-docs attempting to drive out the bad times with clever talk and good intentions, I am discharged — officially cut loose from a surreal scene of free-fire zones and indiscriminate killing.
Citizen X: deprogrammed, purified, and deposited on easy hometown streets.
I am uncomfortable in the uniform, a costume that has defined me for so long — now meaningless. I am a phantom in an empty coat. Brutal scenes, cataloged in heartbreaking detail, have no place here. It is clear that in this place I am lost.
The low hum of the idling Greyhound mixes with the fumes of diesel fuel to fill the air with noisy poison. A skinny panhandler wearing a camouflage T-shirt sits crumpled, like lost luggage, outside the depot. One of those forgotten people living a half-life just beyond anybody’s caring.
At his side, a wrinkled square of cardboard — a kind of faded-brown American business card. Scrawled across the front is the familiar graffiti, “Out of Work.” One look at this guy and I know he’s finished. The whole story is right there in his eyes — like looking at the floor of the ocean.
He looks up at me as if I could save him.
Standing just out of range of a streetlamp, I watch the shadows of tree branches move along the empty avenue. Almost every night, I come to stare at this vacant lot on the corner — the spot where the Lighthouse Baptist Church once stood.
One drunken Saturday night in 1985 my father, lonely for God, broke into the little wooden sanctuary and doused the whole place with gasoline. Then he took a seat in the front pew, lit a Lucky Strike, and burned the son-of-a-bitch down around his ears — the last “Zippo Party.”
My father spent most of his life in a rage. When the whiskey was talking, the old man raved about “search and destroy” patrols wiping out entire Vietnamese villages. When there was no one left to waste, they’d flip open their cigarette lighters and burn everything to the ground — “Zippo Party.”
There was a time when I believed my father was a hero. There was a time when I believed in simple right and wrong. There was a time when I believed in all of the “Necessary Illusions.” Enough to put my soul on the line. Enough to go out and confront things I didn’t understand.
Bent under the weight of things that can never be set straight, I slide a shaky right hand inside my jacket pocket and retrieve a half-pint of I.W. Harper. I raise a toast to the Lighthouse Baptist Church.
Somewhere a lost dog howls. I step from the curb — a windblown bird into the crazy night.
Room 105 is hot. Shades and curtains are drawn. Fractured light from the muted television. The air conditioner hums but puts out nothing.
I stand naked, staring at my flickering reflection in the bathroom mirror. My hair is growing fast, and I haven’t shaved since the day I became a civilian. I do not recognize myself.
I turn on the cold water, bend over, and drink from my hand. I smile at the idea of trying to get clean with the tiny bar of motel soap on the sink. I let the water run through my fingers and watch in a trance — round and round and down the hole. Feeling a little lightheaded, I turn off the water, walk into the bedroom, and sit on the edge of the bed.
Each day I draw a new plan in my head. I imagine impossible strategies that I will carry out before tomorrow. I try to picture blueprints for a cause. Something pure, that will fill this hole inside.
How long since I’ve been out of this room? When was the last time I ate? Two days, three days, more…
I’ve lost track of time. I no longer feel any obligation to the clock.
I wonder how “time” became so goddamn important. Humans trying to stamp order on chaos. And then, once we’re on the clock, we spend the rest of our lives worrying about how much time we have left before we’re dust — clicking the remote control, desperately searching for a sacred channel that will save us all. How many more bullshit distractions until… poof — and a pile of ashes.
I lie back in bed and close my eyes. I try to empty my brain. I wait for the thing that I can feel coming.
In a half-sleep, I can feel the emptiness that stretches out from my body in every direction — 360 degrees of nothing — as dead as a disconnected phone.
I open the back door to my mind and dream-walk through the wreckage scattered across the floor of my memory. A dark room of unrecognizable images. My brain is out of control. Dreams have become one with the dreamer.
A dull thumping in my head — the dragon is at the gate. I open my mouth to call out — to give myself up. My vocal cords are paralyzed. The thumping grows louder against the heavy silence.
I wake up in a sweat. Someone is knocking hard at the door. Still confused, I stumble, naked, across the room, unlock the door, and throw it open.
Standing in the night rain — five men. All dressed in the same strange uniform — white coats down past their knees, black shirts, and military-style berets with an official-looking silver badge on the front. Two of them are noticeably young — grim, steely-eyed boys armed with short-barreled, pump-action shotguns.
The man in front has a graying beard and seems to be the leader of the group. He raises his right hand, takes a short step forward, and says, “Sir, I arrest you in the name of the Virtuous Circle.”
Unshaken, I stand in the open door and stare past the group into the empty, rain-slicked streets — mute. The traffic light at the intersection blinks yellow.
The honcho points toward the two men stationed to his left. They move quickly. One takes out handcuffs and secures my hands behind my back. The other slips a dark canvas hood over my head.
Raindrops cool my bare body as I’m led across the motel parking lot. I am helped into the back of a van. The door slams shut. Rain comes down harder, clattering against the metal roof, drowning out any other sounds. For the first time in years, I can breathe out.
When the hood is removed, I am standing alone on a small stage in what appears to be a long-neglected theater. Totally dark, except for a single footlight directed at my face. The two shotgun-wielding kids are positioned on the floor directly below me.
I can make out an audience of silent, shadowy figures standing with arms raised above their heads in a mock-religious pose. The air is hard to breathe — saturated with the sickening, sweet smell of incense. I have a strange feeling that I have played this scene before.
The recognizable voice of the bearded leader comes out of the dark.
“The defendant may now voice his plea.”
If my heart were made of stone, I could resort to the fine art of denial and deflection. I could say that I was just doing my job. I could say it was all about getting even. I could say how fucking tired I was — because I could never let up. Constantly wired together tight, because there was no way to tell the enemy from the innocent civilians until, eventually, they became one-and-the-same.
But for me, there is nothing left except for the desire to be finished.
I’m about to speak when the quiet is interrupted by a sharp, metallic click. The flare from a cigarette lighter draws my attention toward the balcony. Caught in the light from the flame, the outline of a man’s face. Eyes on fire, he lights a cigarette.
He looks down at me and nods a greeting.
I have an inexplainable urge to smile, but I just nod in his direction. Tick… Tick… Tick… nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, no falling to the floor and crawling inside myself.
I glance down at my nameless accusers — back up toward the burning face in the balcony.
FLASHBACK — the face of a young boy humming to himself as he plays alone.
With some effort, I manage to say the word.
Instantly, and in sync, the armed guards rack their shotguns.
The cigarette lighter clicks closed.
The room goes completely dark.