John Gifford

His wife, Sharon, is away more often now, her reserve unit keeping her a week or more at a time in preparation for its upcoming deployment to Fallujah. And after three or four days of making lunches and driving the kids to school, dragging himself to work and back home, and then dinner and homework and baths and teeth brushing and, finally, bedtime, Larry begins to feel hollow and insubstantial, like he might float away with the breeze, drift off into the clouds, into irrelevancy. Nights are the worst. Isolation rings so loudly in his ears that at times it seems they may burst. He turns the television on and invariably dials up alcohol to chase away the monotony of these one-sided conversations. Sometimes he tells himself he should be the one deploying to the Middle East. More often, another voice wells up from the basement of his mind, a voice that won’t be silenced, won’t be washed away with the beer, telling him the kids have to be up by seven, that school starts at eight-thirty, that Lucy Jane, his youngest, prefers peanut-butter crackers in her lunch, that the kids need to be at school no later than eight-twenty, that he should take the left carpool lane because it’s quicker … Then his usual response: I’ve got it. Everything will be fine.

*    *    *

It’s Friday and after a long, dry week at the office, Larry stops off at the Git-n-Go for a twelve-pack. Back in his car, he darts across the street to the Army-Navy Surplus he’s been itching to explore, the tripwire entry triggering the cowbell on the door, which clatters as he enters to an explosion of rubber and canvas, the somber sight of leather combat boots lined up in row after pointless row as if filled with the cold feet of dozens of attention-standing Sharons of different sizes, and yet of a singular, stony disposition, one indifferent to the tip of his index finger tapping, flicking, touching toe after toe as he examines the boots like some overzealous lieutenant inspecting his troops, one whom, in the absence of any discernible discrepancies, makes the same banal remarks to each soldier.

*    *    *

He spreads a formation of Triscuit crackers on a cookie sheet, tops them with spaghetti sauce and cheese, and places them into the warm oven. Five minutes later, when the cheese is bubbly, he serves them. “Hold on,” he says as the kids hover over the tray. “Let them cool.”

Lucy Jane, the eight-year-old, shakes her head and says, “This isn’t how Mom makes pizza.”

*    *    *

His boss has been talking for the better part of an hour. The company’s value proposition. Its competitive advantage and position statement. The need to diversify. Etc., etc., etc. Sitting in the leather chair, directly across the conference table from Katie, his bony-kneed colleague from sales, Larry’s mind is like a static-filled radio cycling through the same dozen or so stations as it pulls in disparate frequencies, conflicting signals that crackle and flash momentarily before fading into obscurity: the e-mail he received this morning from Helen Krupps, his son’s math teacher, who said Cam has missed turning in several homework assignments this week; the feasibility study he’s been working on; sex with Sharon; the presentation he’ll give to the executive committee two Mondays from now; the thought of sex with Katie; the overtime he’ll have to put in to finish the presentation, now two weeks overdue; groceries he still needs to buy; the nagging feeling that his car might break down if he doesn’t get it serviced; (groceries!); Sharon’s voice: I didn’t ask for this war (and his typical reply: “I didn’t either!”); the thought of kissing Katie’s bony knees …

*    *    *

The gadget on the surplus store’s counter is shaped like a black question mark. It has three propellers and a remote-control unit with a full-color screen. “What’s this?” Larry says, feeling as if he’s been teleported back to his favorite toy store from childhood.

The Vietnam-era shopkeeper snuffs out his cigarette and flips his gray ponytail over his shoulder. The look on his face says he’s explained the same thing to the last ten customers who asked about it, but at great pain and inconvenience, he’ll do it again. “It’s a bitchin’ new toy,” he says in a gravelly voice. “They call it the Phantom, but the name doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. This is what’s important,” he says, pointing to the list of features. “Twenty minute flying time. Check,” he says. “Sixteen megapixel camera for stills, check, and videos, check,” he says. “And this is the best thing,” he says. “You can watch everything right here on the remote, in real time,” he says. “Check.”

“Do you need a license for something like this?” Larry asks.

“It’s like Dodge City out there, dude,” the shopkeeper says as he inverts his cigarette pack and taps out a smoke, “before all the damned tourists showed up.” He jams the cig into his lips, lights, inhales, squints, then lets loose with a long, smooth stream of smoke. “Just stay away from the airport and you’ll be fine.”

*    *    *

Sometimes, late of an evening, Sharon calls and he hears the contentment and tripod-steady purpose in her voice and he’s both envious and frustrated. “So what do they have you doing?” he says.

“Same stuff,” she says. “How are my babies?”

“They’re fine,” he says. “Sleeping.” Then, “I miss you.”

“Miss you too,” she says.

“So when do you think you might be home?”

“Can’t say,” she says. “And even if I knew, you know I can’t tell you on this unsecured line.”

“Right,” he says. “I know. I knew that.”

“They’re calling all the shots here, Hon,” she says. “I’m just doing what I have to do and you’re going to have to do the same. You know?”

“Yeah,” he says as he imagines the afternoon heat weighing on Sharon, the sun’s sharp rays carving crow’s feet around her eyes, signs of her exposure, her commitment, scars she’ll carry the rest of her life, which will remind both of them of her sacrifice. “I know,” he says.

*    *    *

After the kids are in bed, he settles into the recliner, beer can in hand, and watches news coverage of the ongoing military operations in southwest Asia. The helicopters fascinate him, especially the Marine Corps’ Super Cobra with its protruding twenty-millimeter cannon, which reminds him of the hornet he’d once encountered as a child. It descended on him from the rafters in his parents’ garage, swirling, buzzing, causing Larry to flee in terror, screaming, swatting, although the hornet never stung him. Still, thinking about it now makes him sweat.

Gradually, his breathing accelerates along with his rate of consumption until, at some point, anxiety parachutes into the room and he finds himself worrying for Sharon, for her safety, while fighting the guilt that tends to pin him down and fire on him right there in his own living room nearly every night, volleys of incendiary thoughts lobbing back and forth in his mind: What if? What if? And, occasionally, that familiar voice: You should be the one …

*    *    *

It’s the television that awakens him. When he opens his eyes, it’s as if he’s dreaming. Yellow, blue, and red lights converge on the wall beside the recliner, animated, animating. Cartoons, he realizes. He watches for a few seconds before a noise in the kitchen startles him. Cam and Lucy Jane are eating cereal at the kitchen table.

“You all want some juice with that?” Larry says, walking into the kitchen, feeling dizzy and disoriented, desperate for coffee, wondering if he should call in sick today.

“I don’t,” Cam says. Then, a moment later, “Dad, can we walk to school? It’s not very far, and Kevin and Eric get to walk. Lots of kids walk,” he says. “I’ll watch Lucy Jane and make sure she gets there okay.”

Larry looks at his daughter, who surprises him by saying, “Come on, Dad. Let us walk.”

*    *    *

He waits until the kids are two houses down before sending up the Phantom. From the recliner in the living room, he watches the procession of backpack-toting children ambling along the walkway like a column of colorful ants. Now a couple cars come into view on the screen, followed by a school bus, which from three hundred feet in the sky looks a bit like a yellow landing strip. There’s a blip on the screen as something shoots by. A bird? Another drone? He descends for a better view and spots a woman leaving her house. He hovers above her as she walks to her car, opens the door and gets in.

His phone rings. It’s Sharon.

“I wanted to say hi to the kids real quick,” she says.

“You just missed them,” Larry says as he leans back in the recliner. He extends the footrest, telling himself he’s going to take a sick day. “They were up early this morning.”

“Wish I’d called earlier. I’ll try to call tonight,” she says. “How’s everything going?”

“Fine,” he says, cradling the phone on his shoulder, eyes focused on the remote in his hands. “Everything’s fine.”