A New Lease on Life

Jackson came home from Iraq with one leg. He also came home with a changed attitude. He was happy. He was carefree. Instead of the worrywart that went off to war. He and his brother sat in The Laughing Pony in a quiet corner booth, drinking their beers.

“It’s like the world has been lifted from my shoulders,” he told his brother. “I feel lighter than air.”

Montgomery was the older of the two. “When are you going to see Mom and Dad?”

“I’m not,” Jacks said. “At least, not anytime soon. I just can’t face the Night of the Sad-eyes.”

“What?” Montgomery couldn’t believe what his brother was telling him.

“I just can’t face the Night of the Sad-eyes.” Then Jacks called out to the waitress for another pitcher of beer.

Monty poured the last of the beer from the pitcher on the table. “The Night of the Sad-eyes?” There was anger in his voice. He knew how much his parents’ had worried about Jacks. When they got the call that he was going to live, they were so relieved. Then they turned their relieve into worrying some more about how Jacks would get along with only one leg.

When Monty saw Jacks walk into the bar, he knew their concern was all for naught. The VA had fitted Jackson with a prosthesis. After six months of therapy, there was little reason to suspect that he had a fake right leg. His gait was a little stiff as he walked over to Monty’s booth. But it wasn’t noticeable if you weren’t watching the walk closely. Sure, Jacks leaned a little more on his left leg but most of us favor one leg over the other.

“Guess what?” Jacks said when he got to the booth and took his seat. “I grew a new leg.” A boyish grin appeared on his face. He stuck his right leg out and pulled his beige khakis up to show off his prosthetic leg.

The waitress brought a new pitcher over and took their empty one. Jacks smiled at the waitress and touched her hand. “Too bad you’re already taken,” he said.

“I’m not taken,” she said and smiled.

“What time do you get off?” Jacks asked.

“Around eleven,” the waitress answered and carried the empty pitcher back to the bar.

Turning to his brother, Jacks said, “I think she likes me. Think it will matter when she finds out.” He tapped his fake leg.

“What do you mean ‘the Night of the Sad-eyes’?” Monty asked, frustration in his voice. He downed his beer. Then he slammed the mug onto the table.

Filling his mug, the smile dropped from Jacks’ face. “Careful there, bro. You know, those looks people give you when they’re feeling sorry for you. I saw a lot of that when I was in the hospital. I swore I wasn’t going to let that happen to me.”

Monty grabbed Jacks wrist. “You have to go see Mom and Dad. At least, for a few hours. They will be so upset.”

Jacks pried his brother’s hand loose. “I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do. And, I’m telling you, I am not going to see them. At least, not now. That’s why I asked you to meet me here. To tell them.” He dropped his brother’s hand onto the table.

“Are you kidding?” Monty’s hand hurt from his brother’s grip. “I can’t tell them.”

“Well, then they won’t be told. Now excuse me, I have to go take a whiz.”

Jackson stood up and made for the restrooms in the back, his slow waddle not calling attention to itself.

Monty stretched out the fingers of his hurt hand and massaged them to make the ache go away. “Shit,” he said and filled his mug again. He made up his mind to get drunk. When he received the call from his brother earlier that day, he hadn’t expected the meet to go this way. This just wasn’t like his brother.

He looked up at his brother across from him. He was back in his seat and he was smiling again.

“Boy, you sure are changed,” he said to the stranger across the table from him.

“Yes, I know. For the better I hope.”

There was a lack of understanding on Monty’s face.

Jackson took a big gulp of beer, then sat the mug back on the table and his face went serious. “I got to Iraq and then they sent me to Fallujah. I was so lost. Very disoriented. Every day on pins and needles. Guess that is when I screwed up.”

“Screwed up?”

“Yeah, you let down your guard once and suddenly an IED is blowing the shit out of you. I lay in the dirt, unconscious. All the time I am laying there, I am hearing this voice and it’s singing, ‘Rejoice, rejoice. Live each day and love.’ It sounded just like that old Beatles tune. You know the one?”

Monty’s face was a question.

“You know the one. ‘Love is all you need.’ I remember Dad used to play it for us when we were kids. Only the words were different. You know what I did when I woke up?”

Monty couldn’t imagine. So he didn’t answer.

Jacks took a drink of his beer, then, “I was laughing. I must have laughed for at least an hour. I was alive. I could not believe it. Right then and there I decided I was going to live my life as full as I could. And I wasn’t going to hang out with no Frowning Nellies. No sirree. Not me.”

He took one final drink. Then he stood up. He looked down at the surprise on his brother’s face. “So tell Mom and Dad I will be in touch. In the meantime, I plan to get myself laid tonight. And who knows I might just marry that waitress.”

Jackson walked over to the waitress and said a few words to her. She shook her head, said something to the bartender and followed him out the door.

Monty called over to a second waitress, “Janice, another pitcher please.”

Orchids

Wendy dropped her boy off at the airport on a Friday morning. He had an early flight out to Fort Benning and basic training. She went home and did not cry. She attended his orchids instead.

Ten weeks later, her boy came home a man, handsome in his uniform, quieter, more serious in his manner. There were hugs and a cup of coffee, then he was off to his orchids in the greenhouse he had built three years earlier. At the end of his two-week leave, Roy gave her some new instructions for the orchids. He gave her a hug and that big grin of his. Then he was off for Fort Hood and his unit.

There he phoned or emailed about once a week. The emails usually contained several snaps, Roy and friends, Roy with a new girl he had met in the town, Roy driving a jeep. Always he had that grin of his. He went on about this new buddy or that one, and always he asked how are the orchids doing. “They’re fine,” she would say, holding back her tears. The news was that his unit would be going to Iraq. He wasn’t sure when. After each call or email, she went out and tended his orchids.

Two weeks went by with only a couple of emails, then he skyped her. He was in Fallujah, he said. “Fallujah?” Fear was in her voice. “That’s in Iraq,” he said. “And I’m fine. I’m with my buds. We watch out for each other. How’s my orchids?” “They’re good,” she returned, holding her fears inside. Each time he would call the flowers by their names. She could never remember the names. All she knew was that the orchids were fine.

Her son’s body arrived at the funeral home on Tuesday. From Tuesday till Saturday, she could not stop her crying. She would stop for fifteen minutes, then tears were back like water breaking through a levee. The funeral was Saturday. The rifles for the salute to her son gave her a headache. Then the words the soldier spoke to her she couldn’t remember, and the flag laid in her arms, instead of the son she had once held.

Wendy walked back to the car between her married daughter and her ex-husband. Ed had flown in from Los Angeles. He seemed to be holding himself together, but she knew how hard he was taking his son’s death. When they got home, there was food and people. She wasn’t ready for all that. “Mom, why don’t you go upstairs and get some rest?” her daughter suggested.

“I’m going out to the greenhouse,” Wendy said. Alice shook her head, understanding.

She opened the greenhouse, turned the fogger on, then slipped on her gloves. In her mind, she went through the names he had given her for the orchids. Somehow she had remembered what she had forgotten before. Then through the mist, she heard Roy’s voice. “I’m okay, Mom,” it said. “I love you. And thank you for taking care of my orchids.” Then it was gone. She picked up one of the orchids, cut the flower off at the stem, and tenderly set it in the basket. When she finished the cuttings, she would have enough orchids for her daughter, her ex and Roy’s closest friends.