Stained, Glass Survivors
by Adam Allegro
Jackson arrived early for his date so he could make sure they had a place to sit. If he could squeeze in a drink or two, well, that would just be an added bonus. He was still hung-over from the night before and had only been up a few hours, enough time to send out some resumes and nurse his hangover with video games and shame. It amazed him how Clay could bounce back so easily from a long night of binging. Jackson was just able to catch his friend for a recall and a pair of shots before heading out for another futile attempt at happiness. Between the Ultram and the Jamison he felt functionally numb, the pain gradually ebbing away like the tide. He wondered which discomfort he was treating now, his knee or his reality.
Jackson was staying with his friend Clay in San Francisco in a comfortable 1960’s row house in the sleepy Inner Sunset District until he could land his feet on the ground, get a job, find a place of his own to live. Three weeks had come and gone since he arrived and it felt like he was no closer to that goal. He went out for a few job interviews but no one had gotten back to him yet, not that he had wanted any of those jobs. He would be all right money-wise for another couple of months.
Before Jackson arrived in San Francisco he spent some time in his hometown of Oroville, California, an attempt to relax and process the previous eight years of his life. Jackson was excited to meet up with old friends and see where he could fit back into their lives, and where they could fit into his. Every moment out of the uniform felt new and then old, and previous habits and behaviors returned with haste. He had changed through his experiences in uniform and now felt lost among the familiar. The nightmares still visited him nightly.
Most of Jackson’s friends were still there, telling the same stories from the same bar stools, doing the same things. He felt himself getting sucked into familiar behaviors, that comfortable nature of being static. When Jackson spent time with them, he quickly realized that their dreams were still dreams, hollow and lacking starting points or roadmaps.
Jackson’s family did not do much to ease his transition and further contributed to his fantasies of flight. It was always difficult to spend time around them, his parents stuck in their beliefs and unwilling to join him in 2012. He was obligated to show up, as he did, but it was more of a check in the box than anything else. Jackson yearned for something else, even if he wasn’t sure what that was yet.
She had suggested Churchill in the Castro. Jackson hadn’t been there before but when he looked it up he saw it was dark and trendy with reclaimed wood and votive candles scattered about, subdued, flickering light revealing hints of detail here and there. He didn’t particularly care for crowds and figured if he was early he could find a place to sit where he could face the entrance, keep the wall behind him.
When he arrived, all of the seats he would be most comfortable in were taken and he was forced to pick between a circular stand-up table in the center of the bar or a raised, one-sided picnic-style deal facing the wall next to the front door. Neither was preferred so he took the only open seat at the bar and ordered a beer, hoping something would open up.
Jackson no more than took a sip before a pair of soft, bony hands snatched at his shoulders. “Are you Jackson?” The voice was deep and pleasant, but startled Jackson nonetheless. He quickly turned on his stool and was face to face with a virtually familiar face, one which had the fortune of actually looking more amazing than the picture. He never met a girl with a nose ring that big and shiny before, and it made her turquoise earrings look like little pebbles. She had faux-leather pants to match her faux-black hair, which ended in loose strands above a pair of striking brown eyes.
“I am. You must be Erin. You scared the shit out of me.” A guarded, cautious smile was forming on Jackson’s lips.
Erin giggled in turn and reached past Jackson to grab the menu. After a quick scan she asked, “Can you order me a Hefeweizen?”
“I can do that.” Jackson was slightly annoyed that she asked before he could offer. He turned around, ordered a Hefeweizen, then turned back to Erin and offered her his seat. She quickly plopped down on the stool, pulling both her feet off the bar floor. “Thanks for the beer. And the seat. I decided to walk tonight and I think these boots gave me a blister,” she said with one long breath. “I’m surprised you found anywhere to sit. I figured we could try it here and if it was too busy we could venture somewhere else.” Erin’s smile illuminated the otherwise sullen bar and Jackson couldn’t look away.
Just at that moment the businessman in the seat next to them stood up and walked away. Before Jackson could react, Erin slid over to the previously occupied barstool and dragged him back onto his original by his shirt, as if the movement had been rehearsed.
She asked about his job and he said he was looking. He asked about hers and she said similar. “I’m still figuring out what I want to do when I grow up.” He thought about those words and he realized he felt similar. He asked questions about music and movies and other safe topics. She asked about his family, Oroville, his regrets, his desires. Jackson couldn’t figure out if it was the pills or the alcohol or those patient brown eyes but he let his guard down and answered Erin’s questions honestly. When he asked where she was from she said lots of places but spent most of her time in LA for high school and college.
At one point in the conversation Erin remarked about a homeless man who asked her for money on her way to work yesterday. She felt bad that she only had a twenty-dollar bill and told him she would have to get him next time, and meant it. She said the old man barked at her in anger and frustration and it made her feel conflicted about the situation.
Not entirely on the same wavelength, Jackson jumped in, “Earlier this morning I almost tripped over our old homeless guy again.” He paused and Erin generously giggled, not sure where the story was going. “He’s such a pain in the ass. He sleeps on the first few front stairs and passes out drunk every night. There’s been more and more of them in our neighborhood recently. If you go downtown they’re everywhere. This city should do something about it.”
Erin’s face eroded from coy and happy to downright disbelief. “Do they inconvenience you?” She asked rhetorically. Without waiting for a reply, she continued. “You know I was homeless for a spell? My asshole landlord raised the rent three hundred bucks last fall and I couldn’t keep up. I was already working full time at the bar and waiting tables at another restaurant, helping out a non-profit part time and studying in the sleepy hours between.” Erin paused and took a sip from her beer. Jackson listened. “The numbers just wouldn’t add up so I had to break my lease and move out. The landlord wouldn’t even give me back my security deposit because some of the water soaked through my plant pots and stained his hardwood. Either way, I was out and ended up moving into my car.”
Jackson was speechless. He never really considered why someone might be out on the streets or to what to degree they were down on their luck. When he thought really hard, he found a thread of possibility where he could be the one playing musical stairs on the stoops of the Inner Sunset one day.
Erin continued. “It wasn’t all that bad. Negotiating the bathroom situation was the most challenging. You’d be amazed at what happens in the middle of the night around this city – racing, skateboard gangs, break ins, loads of sex, shady drug deals… assaults. Some areas are full of people sleeping in their cars. People are generally nice and everyone has their own story but you need to keep your eyes open.” Erin paused for another sip of her Hefeweizen, then continued. “You generalize the homeless experience and leave it there, but that would be like deciding on the ocean from a bucket of seawater.”
Jackson felt like an idiot for rushing judgment even though it was all he knew. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know… I didn’t see it that way. That makes sense.” He was searching for acknowledgement in her unyielding brown eyes and felt like he couldn’t say anything right.
“That’s ok, now you do.” Erin relaxed her scrutiny and flashed him a reassuring smile. “You didn’t know my story and you don’t know theirs, but you could. Get used to neighbors, man. More automation, more profits, more inequality… these streets are going to be full. Every staircase, alley and entrance taken up by people who look more and more like you and me. What’s the breaking point?”
Jackson thought that seemed a little dramatic but he got the point. “I guess I just kind of thought everything was fine. I’ve been gone so long and haven’t really interacted with many people like… like you.” He immediately regretted his phrasing.
Erin burst out laughing. Once she caught her breath she exclaimed, “One time this dude tried to break into my car. Big guy. When he had it unlocked I threw off my blanket and kicked open the door with everything I had and knocked his ass to the ground. Big guy. Shined my bright flashlight in his eyes with one hand and pepper-sprayed him with the other. He dropped his little robber-bag of nuts and tools and such on the pavement as he ran around in circles out into the mist.”
Jackson laughed and floated back into the exchange, taking another small sip from his beer. It was a different sort of date, he had to admit, but he wasn’t having a bad time.
Their discussion wandered all over the place; identity, scones, shit stories, sex stories, a combination of the two, Jesus, contradictions, military service, vets, being used, her worst customers, civil discourse, super heroes, immigrants, overpriced everything... She did more talking than him. He found what she had to say fascinating and doubted she felt the same towards him. As much as he hated admitting it to himself, she made so much sense. No one in his life saw the world this way, or at least they kept it to themselves if they did. Maybe we’re all scared, thought Jackson. Maybe he needed new friends.
Behind the bar was a flat screen broadcasting news about a hurricane that was headed up the East Coast. It had already barreled through the third world and was now on its way to wreak havoc on the first. Jackson wondered if the ships had gotten underway yet back in Norfolk. If they miscalculated and remained, the rising swells would snap the stretched mooring lines like they were cracked rubber bands and toss the massive warships ashore.
“Who are you going to vote for?” asked Erin. She inched closer on her barstool. The election was only a week or so away and Jackson had intentionally stayed out of it.
“I haven’t decided yet. I haven’t really been paying attention to be honest with you,” he said, hoping to avoid another uneven, uncomfortable debate. He was sick of hearing about red verses blue, right versus left, bad versus good - he was expecting an incoming barrage. He needed to pee.
Erin perked up on her stool. “You don’t follow politics?” she asked rhetorically, firing a warning shot.
“I just haven’t had the time with the transition and all to read up on the candidates,” Jackson lied. “Plus it doesn’t really matter, does it?” He desperately wanted out of this topic.
“And you’re a Veteran?” Erin blurted out. “I can’t… You’re right, you probably don’t need to worry,” Erin said in a resigned voice and lowered her head. A moment later she raised it and continued. “I do though. That guy does.” She pointed to the large brown-skinned bouncer at the front door. “So do those guys.” She nodded over to a pair of white men in the corner engaged in what appeared to be deep and meaningful conversation, the taller gentleman with his left hand on the smaller one’s right knee. They were leaned in in close, foreheads almost touching like they were the only people in the world. Erin continued. “You have an unrealized luxury, my friend, one that the rest of us don’t have.”
“And what’s that?” he asked, not yet defensive but close.
“Straight, white male, a country structured in your likeness. Its not like it’s your fault. But its still your responsibility to not be an insecure douchebag like most and get informed. You could have such a powerful voice…” She trailed off.
Jackson felt his blood begin to simmer. She had a point but he was not ready to concede. “We have a democracy, don’t we? We have people in congress who represent us, our best interests?” That was about as far as Jackson had thought on the topic. He expected a final volley from Erin with her annoyingly keen logic. Jackson braced himself.
“If they represent us, why don’t they look like us? Only 15 percent of Congress is women. This country is 51 percent female.” Erin paused for effect. “Would you want a room full of women deciding what you can and can’t do with your dick?”
“No…” Jackson stuttered, a bit shocked. She had him. He felt like this could be one of those reevaluate your life moments, like waking up in your own vomit or falling asleep in somebody else’s. Her adorable dimples made it difficult to get any more defensive or angry and he couldn’t yet decide if that was a good thing or not. He smiled at her and stared and it wasn’t weird to sit in silence with another person for once.
After a moment Jackson came to the realization that he had only had one beer and they had been talking for over two and a half hours already. The Ultram had worn off and he could feel his pain starting to creep back to his knee like a returning tide. He was usually able to balance the transitions with alcohol when he didn’t have pills - one numbing traded for another out of convenience and habit. He still needed to relieve himself and he knew his knee needed some movement. He used the silence to excuse himself and walked towards the bathroom in back.
Jackson tried to remember a time he had met someone like Erin but could not. She was completely different from anyone he knew. Spending time with her was both magical and agonizing at once. He flushed the toilet and the pink-colored liquid turned clear. He made a mental note to get that checked out at some point while at the same time hoping it would go away on its own.
Jackson washed his hands and looked at himself in the scratched and sharpied mirror. He did not entirely hate what he saw this time and was suddenly excited to return to Erin; maybe he was even giddy. Jackson dried his hands and let his mind drift over possible conversation topics to cover next.
When he finished, he walked out of the bathroom and saw Erin pass something to the bartender and heave around her jacket. She just paid the bill and was getting ready to leave. Jackson was baffled, embarrassed, and a little frustrated. Why had she played it like that? He sulked quietly as he walked back to his stool.
“I was going to get that,” he said disappointedly.
“Better be faster with your next date,” she said playfully, dimples reemerging.
Jackson returned a wounded smile and a hug goodbye. He asked for her number but she would only take his. As Erin turned to leave, Jackson wondered if he would ever see her again and a sudden panic washed over him as a breaking wave might. He was a mess of emotions but revealed little, pushing down the feelings the way he normally did. He could have told her that he enjoyed talking with her. He could have told her she was beautiful. He should have done something but he just stood there.
Erin walked as confidently as she spoke, each an attribute Jackson had never paid much attention to in a woman before. She looked more business than that businessman ever could, thought Jackson as she left the bar.
The flat screen behind the bar was now broadcasting something about a series of car bombings in Baghdad. He thought of those families and the hell they must be going through, the events leading up to that moment replaying over and over and over in each of their minds. It threatened to take him to a bad place. He could feel it creeping in and he didn’t bring any pills with him - he didn’t think he needed them on the account that he was at a bar and alcohol did the job almost as well. Jackson tried to make eye contact with the bartender to order another drink.
“Is she coming back?” said an incoming voice from the side.
“Doubtful,” replied Jackson instinctively, realizing he wished otherwise. He turned his head towards the voice to his left.
Where Erin was just sitting now sat someone else familiar. Not familiar in that Jackson knew the guy, just that he had a familiar face. It was one of those faces he felt at home with and he let his guard down a little bit.
“Name’s Ryan,” said the stranger as he extended his right hand. He had a jagged, pink scar that walked up the inside of his pale forearm. His grip was lighter than one would expect, which was awkward at first, but Jackson was gentle with his reception nonetheless. He wondered where the stranger had acquired that scar.
“Jackson.” He flashed a quick smile, not particularly wanting to talk, and turned to wait for the bartender. His foot was tapping on the railing under the bar.
“You look like you just got your ass kicked.”
“Yea man, we played kick the can with my heart, first time for me,” replied Jackson and they laughed together. He was warming to the stranger. “I don’t think she’s gonna call. She didn’t want to give me her number.”
“Did you give her yours?” Ryan asked, appearing to actually care.
“Yea, but how many times has that succeeded?” replied Jackson, mostly serious.
“Have faith, brother, I’m sure it’ll work itself out. Does any man really know what goes on in the minds of women?” With that they were both laughing and Jackson could feel his unease fade. It felt nice to connect with another man, even if it was only to be a brief interlude in an already unexpected evening.
Ryan checked the time on his phone and with resignation he said, “I was going to have another beer but on second thought, I think I’m going to pass. I still have to get back to Oakland tonight and then head back out here early in the morning.”
“You got a brunch date?” asked Jackson, half joking. Ryan didn’t look like the brunching type.
Ryan chuckled. “Naw, man. I run a group in the church down the street every Saturday morning at nine. I need to get up extra early so I can get across the bay and set up before people start arriving. This hair won’t do itself.” Ryan simultaneously slid his left hand back along the side of his head.
Jackson smiled and loved it because it was so corny. Was he making a friend? He forgot what that felt like. The only kind of group Jackson could think of that met in churches on Saturday mornings were Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and bible study groups. He was interested in neither, although one of them would probably do him good. He ignored the logic and decided to push a little, resisting his urges to retreat.
“What sort of group?” Normally he wouldn’t pry but tonight didn’t feel normal and he wanted to know.
The bartender interrupted them and asked if they wanted another round. Ryan refused with smile and handed the bartender two twenties. It must have been a generous tip because the guy’s eyes lit up. He realized he knew nothing about this Ryan. How long he had been there, with who he had been there? What that scar was from and what group was he running tomorrow? From looks alone, Jackson couldn’t place a profession or really anything at all. He accepted the fact that this stranger had slid in to his life in a time between the times you remember and quickly became a friend and was about to become a stranger again. He decided to call it a night and walk out with the guy. Jackson swung his stool around to leave.
“I think I’ll call it a night too. For all intents and purposes, this night is going pretty well and I’ve been known to turn a good thing sour more often than not,” he said.
“You smoke?” Ryan asked.
It had been a while. If he smoked one, he usually ended up smoking five hundred more over the next month. He missed that taste though. The first few puffs were really all he wanted. If only he could get those first three puffs with his morning coffee without it turning in to thousands.
“Fuck it,” he said out loud, fully intending it to be a thought. “I’ll have one.”
Jackson followed Ryan outside and to the left. After a minute they were in front of a church, out of place between a seasonal costume store and a Mexican restaurant. A vacant police car sat ominously out front, it owner undoubtedly hassling someone to move someplace different but similar. The clouds obscured the moon and stars above and all Jackson could think about was that smoke. His mind drifted to that first shaky cigarette after Rob’s legs were cut off in the Forward Bos’n Locker. It was the only constant he could rely on to calm him in times of stress, which was every waking moment it seemed. He traded vices like baseball cards.
Ryan reached in to his jacket pocket and pulled out of a pack of cigarettes. Instead of twenty-five Camel Lights there were twenty-five neatly rolled joints in their place. Do bible-study leaders smoke weed? Are AA members aloud to get stoned? Neither added up and now Jackson felt like he needed to know.
“So what was the meeting you were about to tell me about?”
Ryan tapped out a joint and placed it between his lips. He returned the pack to his pocket and pulled out a box of matches in the same movement. He lit a match and brought it to the joint and inhaled deeply.
Holding his lungs with smoke, Ryan struggled out three words: “Veteran’s support group.” He barely finished the third word before a minor coughing fit.
“I’m a vet,” Jackson blurted without thinking.
“I figured you’d seen something in your time. I didn’t want to pry. You should come. Its just a small group of guys and gals, all types of people, really.”
Jackson’s default mode was to desperately try and come up with an acceptable excuse for why he couldn’t go, but this time he drew blanks.
“I mean, since you’re going to get so much sleep tonight, you can get up early and come meet some brothers and sisters,” Ryan said with a smile.
There really was no good reason why Jackson couldn’t go meet some fellow vets. His Saturdays usually consisted of keeping up with Clay, which was a full time job for him and his liver. He decided he would break the cycle and venture in to the unknown. Ryan handed him the joint.
“Sure,” he responded. Stuck in an abnormal evening and without inhibition, Jackson raised the joint to his lips and inhaled deeply. The end of the joint grew angry and smoke billowed down Jackson’s throat and in to his lungs. The burn was familiar and almost as good as a cigarette. He only smoked cannabis once in his life, while he was on leave one summer from the navy. He saved his leave days for two years and was able take a full month off. He didn’t remember specifics of the experience but did remember enjoying himself and then worrying about drug tests the week he got back. He exhaled hard and coughed loud. A ringing began in his ears, low at first and rising quickly until it nestled itself inside the flow of this newly-acquired reality. It felt like the ringing after going to a rock concert, or shooting a gun with no protection, but without the fatigue. He took another deep hit, held it, exhaled. He coughed louder and longer this time and then blastoff. Jackson was stoned for the second time in his life. He passed Ryan the joint and looked up at the church and spoke. “I bet Jesus smoked a shit ton of weed back in his day.” Ryan burst out laughing and Jackson then joined him.
The cop walked out of the Mexican restaurant with a supreme burrito and strawberry shake and for a moment Jackson was terrified. He walked straight to his patrol car without even acknowledging the two of them or the robust haze of smoke hovering just below the clouds above.
Jackson looked at Ryan and both of them chuckled.
“So I’ll see you in the morning, yea? Nine AM, right here,” said Ryan, his left hand extended in offer with the joint.
“I’m good man, thanks. I haven’t smoked in a while and that fucked me. In the best way,” Jackson flashed a smile and paused a moment while he tried remembering the other thing he needed to answer. “Oh yea, I’ll be here tomorrow at nine. Thanks for the invite. And the smoke.”
“For sure, anytime. You good tonight?” asked Ryan with caring eyes. Jackson nodded, and for the first time in a very long while, he meant it. “Alright, I’ll see you bright and early. There’s a little coffee shop across the street if that’s your thing in the morning. Anyway, it was a pleasure meeting you, Jackson.”
Ryan extended his hand and Jackson took it in kind. He was tongue-tied and cloudy but he remembered the scar and Ryan’s light grip. This time he gripped a little harder, confident that he wouldn’t be able to hurt the wounded warrior if he tried. Both men turned around and headed their separate ways.
Jackson wanted to walk some and enjoy the crisp evening. It had been an odd night and he stopped trying to make sense of everything a while ago. He wandered and so did his mind, both wild and free, out in to the uncertain fog.
Jackson had to squeeze between Clay’s black Ford F-150 and a massive drying rack full of tools to get to his room in the back of the garage. He enjoyed the isolation that the not-quite-legal room provided him, even if he had to deal with the truck’s exhaust fumes from time to time. He was more concerned with the mosquitoes that would sneak in when the window was cracked to ventilate the exhaust, dive-bombing past his ears at uncertain intervals throughout the sleepless nights. He eventually discovered if he turned out the lights and scanned the side of walls with a flashlight, the mosquito’s elongated shadow would soon reveal itself. Those little shits couldn’t fly forever, he reasoned.
Although Jackson’s mind was drifting, he felt loose but sharp, the way being in the zone feels, only a little more sluggish. He took pleasure in relieving himself in the tiny half-bath toilet and then noticed his appearance in the mirror. This time he barely recognized the stranger in front of him but did notice thinning hair and wrinkles, the former of which was dotted with specks of grey. He lost himself in the reflection for some time and then walked in to his room.
The mess popped out at Jackson immediately. A week’s worth of dirtied clothes were strewn amongst other random items. A green Frisbee leaned against a Chinese takeout container from the previous night and notebooks with dozens of started-but-abandoned stories and ideas were scattered about. A broken fan sat silent and discarded in a shadowed corner like a stillborn calf, its cord devoid of electricity and life. His grandfather’s old Rolleiflex with the stuck shutter sat on top of a broken printer, unusable items that a giant might use for paperweights, one for giant documents and one for giant notes. He chuckled at the silly scene being constructed in his head and continued to clean.
The realization that he was ravenous began to soak into Jackson like an afternoon downpour. He craved food of any sort, immediately. Abandoning cleaning for the moment, Jackson walked through the garage to the right and up the creaky stairs to the kitchen. He was hoping there would be some leftovers in the fridge. Opening the door, he spotted a cardboard takeout box and snatched it violently from the beer shelf. He pried it apart and couldn’t believe his eyes. A whole burger! On the bottom was a note from Clay, “Enjoy buddy, see you tomorrow”, and that’s exactly what he did. He ate it cold in front of an open refrigerator and at that moment it was the best burger of his life. He also recognized that he could have warmed it in the microwave, but that thought didn’t come until his last bite. Must be the cannabis, Jackson concluded with a satisfied grin.
After tidying up the kitchen, Jackson walked back downstairs, tired and ready for sleep. He skipped brushing his teeth and instead swished and gargled some water before stripping, turning off the light and collapsing in to bed. His mind drifted at five hundred miles-per-hour in slow motion. He thought about Erin, about Ryan, about the homeless guy who sometimes sleeps on their stairs, about the hurricane, about the car bombing, about the inherent dangers of a naval ship at sea, about loss.
Jackson settled on Rob and his eyes welled up with tears. He never allowed himself to pause for more than a moment on his friend’s face but this time he allowed himself to sit with it a bit longer. The memories rushed in like hungry children from the cold, impatient and freezing, thawing and dripping. He embraced them as a good mother would and began to weep, quietly, so that no one around him would hear even though there was no one around.
He thought about when they met on their first day of basic training in the muggy June heat, smooth and shiny heads sweating in more ways than one. They were so naive then, and Jackson still was, he was beginning to realize. He floated from memory to memory like a bumblebee and eventually found himself face to face with that stormy morning in Naples. He let it unfold in his mind, fast and slow at once, like a freshly crumpled Polaroid would.
They went about their morning routine, preparing for port while the ship rocked back and forth in the early morning swells. Heavy weather was approaching and it was questionable if they would even be pulling in that morning at all. Their ship had been at sea for over thirty days and everyone on board was hungry and thirsty, both men and women, in more ways than one. Other than the communications acting up, everything else was in order. It was finally decided by the Captain and Executive Officer that the ship would pull in to Naples harbor that morning. There was supposedly an ‘important’ ceremony at the US consulate and the ship’s leadership was being pressured to attend by their superiors.
Jackson and Rob would be stationed in the forward Bos’n Locker for the detail, Rob supervising Jackson, hierarchy among equals. The space was directly below the main deck and was primarily used for storage while the ship was underway. When they entered or departed a port, the small space was filled with a line handler and a phone talker who were responsible for one of eight massive mooring lines. Tying up the ship that morning went fairly smooth, and commands had to be yelled between stations on the forecastle because the primary communications line was unusable. It was clumsy and not ideal but it worked.
After the ship was moored and everything seemed to be in order, the detail was dismissed. Jackson looked at the strained mooring line running through the cramped space and decided there was too much tension riding on it. Rob agreed and tested it with his foot, tapping down with just enough force to move the three-inch line, gauge the strain. The resulting vibration was tight and rapid.
“You better call the bridge,” Rob said, urgency in his voice. Jackson moved quickly inside the wedge-shaped room and found the secondary communications opposite Rob. He called the pilothouse to report the excess tension on the line and request permission to let some out. They told him to hold fast, that they were trying to find the Officer of the Deck to get permission, but didn’t know where he went. The two nervous sailors would need to act on their own.
Then there was a crackling, the sound a tree makes the instant it starts to fail. Jackson turned his head and his eyes met Rob’s, both fearful sets locked as the gunshot rang out. The mooring line snapped somewhere outside the ship, its newly bitter end shooting through the small porthole like the split end of a whip. It happened so fast and most of it was a blur, but Jackson remembered a sharp breeze kiss his left knee, then an icy cold feeling up and down his leg, then two blocky limbs flying through the heavy air from the other side of the space, red trailing close behind. Rob fell to the deck as if someone had pulled a chair from under him, his eyes still locked with Jackson’s.
Jackson dropped the phone and jumped across the space to Rob, collapsing under his own weight as he reached his friend. He said something to Rob that he couldn’t remember. Something like “Keep your eyes open, Rob” or “everything’s gonna be alright, buddy”, or maybe “oh my god oh my god what the fuck jesus christ rob what the fuck just happened is that my blood or yours…”. All he remembered was Rob’s face contorting in to the most wretched of shapes and his eyes rolling back to meet his brain.
That was all Jackson could take right now; the rest might break him. It was almost midnight and he was teary-eyed and shaken and exhausted. He had a feeling that this was one of those evenings that could change a man, if that man paid enough attention. He drifted from Erin to Ryan to discussions had and lessons learned, and there was no pain or stress, and sleep came with ease. That night Jackson didn’t have any nightmares. He didn’t dream at all.
Green-tinted light exploded through ivy-framed windows in the church meeting room as different shapes and sizes filtered in, a healthy representation of different colors and genders and generations. A distinct group of characters they were, veterans from all walks of life were represented in the nine-o-clock meeting room. Jackson watched the sun-kissed faces embrace one another as old friends do, catching up on the previous week’s happenings. They all spent an extra couple of seconds hugging Ryan and Jackson could tell that he was a special person.
Jackson found himself sitting at the far end of the room, opposite the door, in an oddly shaped circle. Although there was a dull ache in his knee, he felt clear and ready, nothing like the Saturday morning hangovers he usually battled. He felt good.
Metal chairs lined with soft, matured fabric made up the perimeter of the circle. Jackson felt the short, beige carpet under his shoes, the scuffs of ten thousand Sunday loafers to blame for the worn tenor of the fibers. What was once new and white was now dusty and soiled, taken for granted; the way life has a tendency to be.
Gold-framed portraits dotted the otherwise drab walls, faces full of light, some genuine and some counterfeit, all of them competing for someone’s grace (or competed at least, and now they would know if that all-in wager paid off). He would have felt severely uncomfortable in a place like this had he not been surrounded by so many with shared experiences, all bearing similar scars. In fact, when he considered it, he felt more at home with these strangers in this unfamiliar place than anywhere else in the unknown universe.
Once everyone took a seat, overflows peppering the outside of the circle, one of the larger vets stood up. He was dressed like a she, and although Jackson yearned to understand and be respectful, he felt angst trying to navigate an infinitely shaded universe with the lazy, binary compass he was given. Either way, this beautiful, larger-than-life man was dressed in Native American attire, modernized and customized, his red bandana reflecting the morning sun like a warm, bloodied scalp. Loose clothing hung from his wiry frame and three white stripes down his bulbous nose highlighted a pair of shadowed, blue eyes. His ponytail bounced like the end of a climbing rope against his darkly patterned skirt and his sandaled feet showed off ten battle-hardened toenails. If only those toenails could speak, thought Jackson. He wondered if this vet was homeless and wondered why it mattered and then thought of Erin, for a moment.
The big Native American walked around the circle, taking his time, shaking everyone’s hand and saying hello. He didn’t miss anyone, even waiting patiently and silently if two vets were engaged in conversation. The Native American stopped at Jackson and looked him in the eyes, taking Jackson’s hand in both of his.
“It makes me happy to see you,” he said.
“Thank you,” replied Jackson.
The big Native American finished around the circle and then took his seat. Two more people filtered in, an older man with a cane and a woman a few years younger than him. She had a t-shirt that read “Feminism Rocks” with an elegant hand clutching two evocative looking stones. They found chairs in the back and took their seats.
“I want to welcome everyone to our ninth meeting. A small group of us started this so we could help each other heal and now here we are, three has swelled to twenty-three. I want to thank you all for coming out on your Saturday morning. You could be sleeping right now, but you chose to get out of bed and be here for your brothers and sisters, so I thank you.” Jackson scanned the room as Ryan completed his opening remarks. Everyone was caught in varying degrees of attention, with the man to Jackson’s left slouched and half asleep.
Ryan continued. “Today I wanted to talk about loss. Every one of us has experienced loss to some degree and we all process that loss differently, in our own way. There’s no shame in that, ever. Loss has the ability to destroy and tear everything down. It can also be used as a tool to grow, meet inevitable change head on and confront it. We naturally suppress this behavior because its contrary to our biology, our programing – our self-preservation. We protect ourselves from unpleasant experiences, thoughts, and memories. It’s only natural to suppress our losses, fail to acknowledge the reality of the situation, especially if it’s someone who meant the world to us.
“I now invite you to all share, if you like, something in your life that you lost. You can share as much or as little as you want. There’s no judgment in this room, only compassion. Let empathy be your compass. Edward, would you like to begin?”
The man next to Ryan began talking about losing his daughter in a custody battle with his wife ten years prior and not having any contact with her since. That was two years after he was discharged from the army. He mentioned bumping in to Ryan a few months back and being inspired to search for his daughter. He finally found her, saved up some cash (the group had donated a good portion the previous week) and was flying to Chicago to meet her and her young family in the next few days.
The woman sitting next to him spoke briefly about losing a child but in a completely different way. She struggled through her sharing and stopped at one point so she could catch her breath from the sobbing. She was doing better, she said, but each day was still torture. It was a chore to push on. Jackson was beginning to realize that he wasn’t all that bad off after all, and there were other people out there struggling with their demons too, just like he was.
The man next to the woman who just spoke was more of a boy, with unblemished skin and a head full of shaggy, yellow hair. He was wearing a comfortable grey sweatshirt with Marine insignia large in the center and matching grey sweatpants, the lower-left pant leg folded around a pipe-like appendage that ended in grey cross-trainers.
“You all probably expect me to talk about my leg but I’m not going to. All I’ll say is that losing my leg forced me to look inward. It was a bitch at first but I’m a Marine and Marines run towards obstacles, not away from them.” There was an ‘Oorahhhh’ from the corner, pavlovian in its timing and tone. The boy was incomplete but proud. His strength was an inspiration to Jackson, whose whole body felt like half, most days.
Ryan invited the slouching man to Jackson’s left to speak. He straightened up in his chair, cleared his throat, and paused, appearing to recall something deep in order to reveal something profound. A few seconds later he raised his right hand, extended his pointer finger ponderously, and finally spoke.
“Pass.” The man slid back in to a reclined position and resumed his daydream. Ryan moved his gaze over to Jackson and invited him to introduce himself and speak. Jackson was nervous but pushed on.
“Hello. I’m, um, Jackson. I was in the Navy for eight years and just got out a couple months ago. Um, what else… I’m from Oroville in northern California and did some years of college at Chico State. I’m thinking of using my GI Bill to go back and finish my degree. I’m not really sure what I want to do yet, but,” Jackson realized he was rambling and felt embarrassed. “I’m sorry. I met Ryan last night and he invited me today and I’m a little nervous.” The circle of reassuring faces put him at ease and he continued.
“So, I lost my best friend. I’ve had nightmares about him for years until last night. Last night I didn’t dream at all. I woke up rested this morning for once. It was a new feeling I hadn’t had in years…” Jackson hesitated, took a breath, and went on. “It was a stormy morning in the Gulf of Naples and we were going to chance the weather and make an attempt to moor to the pier.” Jackson told the group about the morning Rob was maimed. It wasn’t easy sharing in front of others but it was a relief to say it out loud. He told the story the way he remembered it from the night before. After he described the part where Rob’s legs were severed, both of them in an awkward, bloodied pile on the rigid non-skid, he stopped, tears periodically falling down his cheeks. He hadn’t cried in public before and he wasn’t sure how he felt about it yet.
“You alright buddy? Want to leave it here this week?” asked Ryan, tender and compassionately.
“No, if it’s alright I’d like to continue. I think I need to get this out, I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it again,” replied Jackson, courage swelling in his gut. He continued. “So after the mooring line snapped, a medical emergency was called and stretcher bearers were on the scene in less than a minute. In the meantime I spotted a bag of coveralls at arm’s length and tied a set to each of Rob’s… thighs… and then one around my wounded knee. I still didn’t feel any pain. Rob was already in shock and just sort of mumbled and jerked around softly every few seconds. I barely kept my shit together. I was pushing on both of his legs trying to slow the bleeding. I kept trying to comfort him but I can’t remember exactly what I said. When the stretcher-bearers came and took him first, I surrendered and let myself experience the shock I had buried moments before. I don’t remember everything clearly but I do remember the blood. There was so much of it. I was covered in it. From my suspended stretcher on the bridge, I watched an Italian ambulance pick Rob up from the bottom of the gangway and drive away. They took us to different hospitals and that was the last I ever saw of him.
Jackson sat for a minute, regaining his breath and composure. It seemed as if everyone was hanging on every word. The slouched man next to him had straightened up again and appeared to be following along as well. Jackson steadied himself and told the rest of his story.
“So after we returned from deployment things were pretty shitty. Rob was back home in Los Angeles on all sorts of drugs. It took him months to come to the phone and just talk with me. When he finally did he was a shell of what he once was. The VA helped some, initially, but couldn’t give him the type of individual care he required. They would prescribe one pill on top of other pills and when he ran out, more pills. Opiates, anti-depressants, sleeping pills. His family couldn’t do anything to help. I couldn’t help...
“Later that year, in the fall, after a long day of repairs in the shipyards, I was racing the setting sun down a shivering pier to my car. My knee was aching after moving most of the day and I remember limping, counting my steps. My phone rang and I answered it after the fourth ring. It was Rob’s mother. She told me Rob hung himself from the hanger rod in his childhood closet the night before. His father found him when Rob didn’t get up for breakfast. Through her own tears she told Jackson that Rob’s dad had held him up, taking the slack out of the repurposed extension cord until the paramedics arrived. He had to be forcibly removed so they could take down Rob’s body. You know… I didn’t even cry at his funeral..…” Jackson lowered his head into his hands and wept. He cried like he had never cried before and the rest of the world fell away with those tears. It was as if a gigantic slab of iron was being lifted off his back. The pain he was carrying around in his heart lessened and his mind felt lighter. He pictured Rob’s face and didn’t panic this time. He still felt the pain but now it had galvanized within, molded in to something different, something useful. The previously slouched man now sat upright and rested a leathery hand on Jackson’s back. He felt love coursing through those fingers and began to experience what was previously subdued. All that was pushed deep could now come up to the surface, breath some air. He looked up through blurry eyes and was met in kind, his new family sharing his tears.
Jackson regained his composure by the time the man to his right finished. He caught something about a car being repossessed and a scratcher ticket in the glove compartment that was a “guaranteed winner” being stolen. The rest of the vets around the circle finished telling their own stories and then and Ryan stood up.
“Wow, that was amazing, guys. Thank you all for sharing. I want to tell you how much it means to me that you guys continue to show up and support each other. We share something deep, something real. We’re bound by blood and sacrifice you all and I, and I can pledge that I’ll always be there for you. No matter what time it is, if you need something, I’m there.” Ryan looked around the circle as he said this, pausing for a moment on each set of eyes he came across.
“Jackson, thanks so much for coming this morning, man. We all welcome you in to this group with open arms and hope you’ll come back next week.” Jackson felt like he belonged here amongst these other wounded souls and that made him feel warm and good. The unfamiliar sensation was a welcomed departure from the angsty numbness he normally experienced.
“Thanks for having me. Thanks for listening.” Jackson felt lucky for having run in to Ryan the previous evening and was proud of himself for coming today. Ryan nodded at Jackson.
“Alright guys. Let’s wrap this up. Thanks again for being here on your Saturday morning. We’ll see everyone next week at the same time. Have a great week guys.” Vets began to rise and filter out, most embracing for the first or second time that morning, sincerity and respect and love amongst killers. Jackson felt comfortable around these suffering heroes, these fractured survivors, for he was one of them, wounded and scarred, lost and now found.
Most everyone hugged Ryan and spoke a few words with him before they left. Jackson watched in amazement at the love these people had for Ryan. He hung back and waited so he could thank Ryan. A few of the vets came to greet Jackson, introduce themselves, give him a hug. After another couple minutes the room was empty except for Ryan and the slouched man from earlier. He was standing now, hands skillfully rolling a joint like someone who’s rolled ten thousand before this one.
Ryan looked at Jackson as a trusted friend would and said, “I’m really happy you came. Your story… I’m sorry for your loss. He sounded like he was a good man.”
“Thank you. I think I’m starting to realize that he wouldn’t want us to dwell on his tragedy. He’d want us to reach out and help others in need. People like him. Stuff you are doing” Jackson smiled.
Ryan raised his left arm and rested his hand on Jackson’s shoulder, looked him dead in the eye. “You’re now part of a group, one that will always be there for you. We stick together. We are a sleeping giant and when we wake our voices will be mighty and true.” Ryan grinned as he said the last part, alluding to something greater.
The slouched man licked the edge of his paper and finished rolling his joint. He handed it to Ryan who in turn handed it to Jackson. “Jeffrey here rolls the meanest joints around. How did that smoke last night treat you?”
Jackson took the joint and a lighter from Ryan. “It was… I needed something like that. It helped me out in more ways than one. Thank you.”
He lit the joint and inhaled deeply, more so than the previous night. He held in the smoke and slowly exhaled. It hit him immediately and he handed the joint to Jeffrey. Smoke filled the air, obstructing the view of those officials in gold frames who dotted the church’s side room walls. With one breath Jeffrey inhaled deeply, paused, and then inhaled even deeper. His eyes closed as his head went back mechanically. He blew out the heavy smoke, straight up, like an old steam locomotive train. When he was done he lowered his head with a childlike grin and passed the joint to Ryan.
Ryan held the joint and stared at it for a moment before looking up at Jackson. “I was addicted to opiates for years. Nineteen surgeries and all of the metal party favors those provided cause me pain every waking moment of my life. I started with Percocet for the first year, double the normal dose, just to numb the pain. The more I took the more I needed. I was numbing everything. The doctors switched me around, Morphine, Oxy, Hydrocodone. If it exists, I’ve taken it. The warm, fuzzy cloud thinned became rigid and eventually the doctors wouldn’t prescribe me medicine anymore. They cut me off one day and that was that. I was able to get some from friends for a while but it became too expensive and the only thing I could afford was Heroin. That was a dark time. If it weren’t for my support, some of whom were here this morning, I’d be dead, one hundred percent. They saved me. The other thing that saved me was this.” Ryan looked down at the joint in his hand. “Seriously. This has helped me more than any of that shit the VA doctors prescribed me. It was the only thing that kept me from ending myself when I was detoxing on my sister’s bathroom floor.”
Ryan smoked the joint and then passed it around once more. The side room of the church was dense with smoke, its form dancing seductively for the old men inside the gold picture frames on the walls. The three veterans were now laughing at Jackson’s retelling of his challenging date the night before. Jackson really did hope she would call him. Ryan finished the joint, snubbed it out on the bottom of his shoe and then tucked the spent roach in into his right shoelace.
“Well, it’s been fantastic guys but I gotta meet up with a friend and then get back to Oakland.” Ryan looked at Jackson and asked, nodding his head in the process, “So I’ll see you next week?”
“Yea, I’ll be here. Thanks again for having me. Its nice to belong somewhere again.” Jackson hugged Ryan and then Jeffrey, before he walked out the door and into a crisp, late morning full of electricity and promise. He could not remember the last time he felt this good.
He thought about walking but decided against it. He wanted to get back to the Sunset and catch up with Clay, convince him that they should go get Medical Marijuana letters together. Maybe he could get his friend to drink less, do less blow. He arrived at the MUNI stop and waited briefly for the N-Judah train. Not twenty seconds later, the train emerged from the tunnel and came to a stop in front of him. The side doors slid open and Jackson climbed aboard.
The seats were mostly taken so Jackson stood somewhere near the middle of the second train. He recognized the old homeless man from his neighborhood standing near the door. He was carrying a packed, heavy bag full of vegetables that read “Imperfect Produce Program”, with a lumpy, purple carrot hugging a misshapen golden beet underneath the text. The old man had dark brown skin and curly white hair that connected to his modest, white beard like a swing, his sideburns the ropes.
After the first stop they headed through a dark tunnel, lights flickering on and off in the train. When they exited the underground passageway, Jackson was blinded for a moment by the sudden sunlight that warmed his face. When his eyes adjusted he focused on the old man near the door. He was leaning against the metal railing as if he decided to take an impromptu nap in the sudden and temporary darkness. His bag was sitting quietly next to his ragged brown loafers, his arms slumped over the other side of the metal. Half of his weight rested against the door.
The train came to a rigid stop, the old man jiving back and forth like a puppet. The glass doors slid open and the old man fell onto the stairs, the lower half of his body protruding from the elevated exit. A woman stepped over him, hurrying somewhere important. A man in a suit pretended he did not see the old man and zipped past, his briefcase bumping the old man’s shoe on the way out, leather kissing leather for a brief instant, a momentary ballet of contradictions.
Jackson was already moving over to the old man when a young woman got up to help him as well. They both reached the old man at the same time. He slid further down the stairs and now was more out than in. Jackson put his arms under the old man’s armpits and dragged him off the train, figuring it easier than pulling him back on. He told the old man he was going to be fine as he moved him down to the street. The young woman grabbed the old man’s bag and followed close behind. There was a dog park next to the train stop that would have a bench to sit the old man down, thought Jackson. The old man was able to walk now and Jackson helped him to the wooden bench. His breath began to calm after he took a seat.
“Are you ok?” asked Jackson, deeply concerned for this ragged neighbor-stranger.
“I’m alright. This happens from time to time. I have bad circulation and sometimes I get light-headed. I was bringing this bag of vegetables to the shelter so the cook would have something fresh to make tonight. The last couple dinners have been, well… they could be better.” He paused a moment and smiled at Jackson, revealing uneven, yellowed teeth. “Thank you for helping me.”
Jackson was pierced by the gratitude and it infected him. He helped a stranger when others would not and that made him feel warm and rich. The young woman who had carried the old man’s bag needed to leave, as she was already late for her sociology mid-term at UCSF. Jackson and the old man thanked her and she caught the next train a few minutes later.
“You know you sometimes sleep on our staircase,” said Jackson without accusation.
“I thought you looked familiar. Everything’s pretty fuzzy by the time you guys step over me in the morning. Thanks for the stairs.”
“You’re welcome. My name’s Jackson,” He offered out his right hand and it was received in kind.
“Xavier. People don’t usually talk to me. It’s nice to feel seen. Before I was homeless that’s something I took for granted. So many things I took for granted...” He trailed off, lost in thought. “You got any change?” he asked sheepishly.
“I’ll do you one better. Hungry?” countered Jackson
“Always hungry.” replied Xavier, his eyes widening.
“Let’s get sandwiches from the deli down the street.” Jackson helped the old man to his feet and picked up the bag of produce. “Are you sure you’re ok?”
“I’m ok... Been ok. You take what life throws at you and you adjust. I’ve been adjusting for a while now. Might be adjusting into an early grave if I’m being honest with myself. I’ve got my wits still, when I’m sober. I’ve even got a place to rest my head, thanks to you and your neighbors, and the shelter. I like sleeping off my benders outside and usually keep sober around the shelter. It’ll probably be the death of me but for now, I’ll be ok.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” said Jackson, smiling now, and he truly was. They took their time walking to the deli, Xavier periodically steading himself on Jackson’s arm. Jackson felt like he was helping his father walk to lunch and it was a bittersweet thought. A fire truck went whizzing by, sirens blazing and screaming. Around the corner was a dog walker with 5 dogs, each a different size and appearing to pull in a different direction, a big fluffy Brown Newfoundland monster setting the group’s pace. Jackson’s mind drifted and eventually settled on his date from the previous evening. He entertained the fantasy of seeing her again and it made him giddy. The odds of that were slim and he had learned it was better to not set unrealistic expectations for himself.
At that very moment Jackson’s phone began to ring. He did not like to talk on the phone and he let it go through two cycles before getting curious and pulling out to see who was calling. It was a 310 area code. He didn’t think he knew anyone from Los Angeles when it dawned on him. Erin was from LA! He started sweating when they arrived at the deli, the incoming call on its fifth ring. Another two rings and the call would go to voicemail. Jackson pressed “accept” on the screen with his thumb and raised the phone to his ear, not knowing that this phone call might nudge him onto a slightly different course, one that may eventually grow into an infinite, winding road that fractured fools happily drive upon.