‘Veteran’ by Valery Krupnik

soft cartel may 2018

The devil must have created the cactus in his own image. Good for marking graves… Unattractive. You can’t get away from them in Texas. They’re everywhere, the nature’s “do not trespass” sign, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” Still, they manage to eat them, to make tequila; they’ve outsmarted the devil. So did Texas. You may hate it with all your guts and still stick with it, as you’re stuck with your signature, ugly as it may be, which is how you get stuck in this Sonora desert hellhole, where the gravitation force must be at least twice of everywhere else on Earth, and where your sweat makes you limp and heavy like a soaked-wet cotton ball, so unfitting this parched land of cactus and wind. We took it by the strength of arms and ambition. They are taking it like vegetation moving inch by inch toward the source of water, putting out a myriad of crawling sprouts wherever there’s space to squeeze in, sucking the water from under lush orchard trees to see them wither, crack, and eventually fall, succumbing to the unyielding gravity of desolation. Not even a bird will set on a cactus but will travel an extra mile to the nearest tree crown, so unattractive it finds them.

 

The sun is streaming through the corner window blinds, picking out beams of dust, the ultimate state of matter, the final solution, each particle to itself neither too close nor too distant, a perfect image of eternity. The sun blazing over the corner window means afternoon, the supervision time. Fifteen thirty. Samantha’s turn. Supervision, so they say. One has to at least have a vision, wouldn’t you think, but then again, who cares? Someday she’ll be a supervisor too; Samantha is a serious woman; she’s trying, opening a door after door with a stubborn and blunt curiosity, driven by the blind notion of up and down instilled in her since she stepped out the crib or even earlier, in the womb, as her mother strained her soul and overburdened pregnant body, striving upward as far from the dark of the bottom as she could along with the family and the neighbors, and their families like a school of fish in their dash for the light upper crust of the sea rich with oxygen and fat algae. Like a milling water donkey that goes round and round in a stubborn belief that it is on a path to the pastures of Eden, we will all have our food and shelter, and a stall with a mate for the lucky at the end of the day. The donkey is unattractive; an ugly duckling of the horse it fits the hellhole of Sonora as does the cactus, the desert’s crawling scab. Fifteen forty. Ten minutes late. I’m always late, but she doesn’t mind it, I think she doesn’t; she has patience, the inborn patience of a crawling root gnawing at the rock-hard unyielding soil, making its slow and silent way to the dabs of water sipping in through the unattended cracks in a remote, aging and once bountiful well. She’s a serious woman, who knows more than she knows she does, as she pushes on to catch up to the knowledge she is carrying over like a relay runner, until one day she finally catches up and stops dead in her tracks, breathless, befuddled, and directionless, looking to drop the baton into her children’s doubting and doubtful hands. Today, though, I know something you don’t, Samantha. Not yet, that is.

 

“Hi Sam, may I come in, what’s up?”

 

Catching up on her notes. Nice fingers, smooth like polished candies and swift, scattered over the keyboard like raindrops, drumming quietly up the usual, the usual and tired but not for her; she’s determined to get it right not yet knowing the truth of the usual and tired; there is no right. She always has this sweet vanilla smell around her, a half-bakery half-pharmacy smell. Too sweet, Samantha, must be your makeup or something… “You overdo it, Sam.”

 

“What, my notes? Just want to get them right, to make sense, in case someone reads. Could be helpful, right?”

 

Always smiling, like there’s always something to be happy about. Last time I checked, it’s still many months till Christmas, and there’s no Christmas in Texas, unless you want to fancy these cacti into fir trees and dress one up in lights and angels, and frosted balls… At least it’s cute with those moist lips parted and the teeth glistening like a slice of honeydew melon.

 

“Your hour, Sam; what do you want to talk about?”

“Uh-huh, there’s something I wanted to talk to you about. Just this morning I had a session with Silvia, remember Silvia, the one that always-“

“Let’s talk about Frankie first.”

“Frank?”

 

Alarmed. An intuitive woman she is, like so many of them.

 

“Yes, Frankie. When was your last appointment with him?”

“Just yesterday. Why? Is something-“

“Let’s analyze that session, Sam. Can you tell me about it, the way you remember?”

 

Her tits bob in a funny way, as she shrugs. They look heavy as overgrown pears.

 

“Um… don’t really know where to start. He was his usual self. I mean, he sat back with his arms folded, as if he owned this place. His legs stretched all the way like yours, only his are longer, and he wears those army boots with thick rubber soles. Oh no, you can sit as you’re pleased, I don’t mind yours at all.”

“Thanks a bunch. You were saying…”

“I mean, you know how he is. That smile that means nothing; he just wears it everywhere like his boots. Only the boots fit … And then his habit of playing with cigarettes.”

“Cigarettes? Does he know this is a non-smoking place within hundred yards of the premises or something like that?”

“He does; he just likes playing with them. He’d take one out then put it back in or take it to his mouth, or start his lighter; he’d do everything but smoking. He likes aggravating me, he says it himself… and smiles, but that one is a good kind of smile. I mean, you can’t get mad at him or anything; it’s you just smile along kind of smile. It makes you feel good.”

“Testing your boundaries kind of smile?”

“Uh-huh. He does it all the time, even when he doesn’t do anything. Just sitting there, leaning back and stretching his legs out. Feels a little creepy but hard to get mad at; you’re just willing to go along with it, if that makes any sense.”

“Yep, looks like testing the boundaries. What was the session about, Sam?”

“Um… Nothing special… Sometimes it’s even hard to say. He’s always shifting, hard to pin down. Let me think…

“Why don’t you just walk me through the session step by step? It’s easier that way.”

 

Her thick hair offsets nicely that smooth tender skin with a thin peach-like fur at the hairline around the ears, making one fancy youth, fresh and ripe, and dewy; just as sight of a lemon slice sends a light shiver under one’s tongue and stirs up the temptation to lick it, to taste it not out of hunger or a craving for sour but out of the unquenchable curiosity of senses, whose very existence requires a steady stream of impressions, without which a parch brown hue sets in and quickly spreads all over on the inside that turns into a hard-beaten desert suitable only for the cactus and an occasional lizard. Had someone watched us from afar or form above, what would he have thought about these two idle people milling words, going round and round trying to get to the end of the circle, where there was no more words left to mill and nothing to do but to take a break till next time, when the supply of words was replenished? Milling words while out in the yard those fungi-peppered cacti waste neither words no time, doing the only thing that matters, sucking the water and sun, reaching ever farther with their root sprouts to feed and ripen the purple bulbs pregnant with armies of hard seeds in waiting, ready to be released for the conquest that never stops, never takes a pause to catch breath, to think and reflect. The creeping, the crawling, the slithering need not reflect.

 

“Well, like I said, he came in, sat down, and folded his legs out and arms in, like I said. He then stared me in the eye with that crooked smile of his, waiting for me to talk.”

 

Can’t blame Frankie. Those eyes are a spectacle.

 

“And you?”

“I asked what he wanted to work on today, and he asked back what I thought he should work on, and I felt… I felt impatient and told him that it was his therapy.”

“You felt impatient…”

“I felt on the spot. He always does it to me, though.”

“What does that tell you about him?”

“That he… That he too feels on the spot, coming here? But it’s he who comes here for help…”

“Yeah, he was…”

 

he was coming for something… or maybe just coming… Even when you have nothing to do and nowhere to go, you’ve got to be somewhere. “Wherever you go, there you are,” they say. Does it mean that to be there, you need to go there first, or does it mean that to go there, you need to have already been there, or does it mean anything at all? My nodding means nothing, Samantha, never mind; I’m just nodding.  Just go on, Samantha, I’m listening, it’s your supervision.

 

“So I started asking pointed questions. The stuff I always ask like how his sleep was, how his anxiety was, the mood and stuff. He gave his one-word answers, like he was doing me a favor, and I confronted him on that. I said, ‘Why do you give me an attitude,’ and he said he didn’t give an f, and I said, ‘Well, then what is that you don’t give an f about?’ Then he just sits there awhile and goes, ‘How about smoking this cigarette, may I please?’ and starts his lighter, daring me, but I know better, I go, ‘Then why didn’t you smoke it out there waiting?’ He then falls silent for a moment, looking down, then says, ‘Who said I was waiting?’ ‘I know you were.’

“You, did?”

“Of course, he always comes early. You can tell he’s been sitting there waiting. He gets up all stiff, you can see his back’s hurting, and he pauses before taking a step. You almost hear his joints creaking, like he was sitting there some time”

“Very good, Sam, very observant-”

“I don’t know; it’s so frustrating. He just comes here to sit and wait, wait and stare at you with that saucy smile and a cigarette. If you let him, he would do it all day. Our sessions are so long… and creepy too, I must say.”

“Remember how we talked about silence, its therapeutic role? The power of unspoken word…”

“I know, but he makes me uncomfortable, testing the boundaries, like you say. It’s not even therapy.”

“How so?”

“Because he’s staring at my breasts.”

 

Can’t blame him. These are a spectacle. Firm and full, bursting with the juice of a young flesh stretching its skin thin, a cherry-like tender thin, a yellow cherry that you want to dig your teeth in and suck the juice out. Your blushing makes it feel warmer. “Did he touch?”

 

“No, but he was looking straight at it. Boldly.”

“Were you tracking his gaze?”

 

My voice is turning raspy, as if I’m drying up on the inside.

 

“No, but I felt it. I have full breasts.”

 

She blushes more, looking wary. Indeed, Samantha, they are full, full and creamy like a banana split with the nipples showing through your tight shirt, and that blushing coming strong, and your wariness close to panic, a subdued silent kind. “What did he say?”

 

“Nothing, just stared…”

 

Can’t blame him. Can’t blame Frankie at all… Your nipples do feel touch and your breasts are warm and pleasing when squeezed, and he was right; there is nothing to say, just to press harder, as you’re getting all dewy, your sweat not yet showing, just oiling your skin at the hairline. Warm to the touch, boy, do you look frozen, lost between the heartbeats with your lips parted and your breath breaking. “Scoop up on the desk, Sam, please, please.” Yes, there. Never saw your face like this before; flat on its side in the circle of your raised softly bent arms clasping the desk’s brim; still and frightened, and resigned with a faint flare of the nostrils, big and dark inside. Too big nostrils, Samantha. I find it unattractive. It’s ok in a horse, not a human face. “No, no, straighten your legs up.” Yes, there. So moist and slithery down there. It is not sweat, not at all. Hot and juicy, ready-juicy. Here you go, Samantha, here we go. Am I testing your boundaries? Doesn’t it feel good? Am I testing mine? Am I testing yours? Am I testing? Am I? Am I? Am I? Am I? Am I Am I Am I Am I-I-I-Iiiiii…

 

“So, where were we, Sam?”

 

My voice. It doesn’t sound right, not like mine. It’s awkward. Did she even like it? You can’t tell. Is she mad? What the fuck has just happened? Makes you wish for a smoke, but it makes no sense; this is a non-smoking building, and I don’t even smoke… Talk to me, Samantha, damn it, don’t just sit like this, talk!

 

“You know where you were.”

 

Whew, this is cute. Love your sense of humor. Didn’t know you had it. We’re friends then, aren’t we? I appreciate that, Samantha, I do.

 

“So, Frankie wasn’t too forthcoming, was he?”

“No.”

 

She doesn’t know what to do now, and neither do I, Samantha; just take your time, collect your thoughts, and put them back on track somehow… Could use a pause myself. You’re not a looker, but your blushing, your sheepish smile… I think you’re sweet, yeah that’s what it is, sweet.

 

“So, what did he say, anyway?”

“He said he didn’t give an f.”

“And you?”

 

Still frowning, trying to see through the fog, through the very same cloud I’m trying to blow off with a matter-of-business tone; the cloud as sticky as a cobweb on your face, invisible and irritating… Is she feeling the same? What is she feeling anyway, does she even know?

 

“I said… umm… I said I was there to help.”

 

Looking at me intently like a child for an answer, waiting for me to do something, to pull her out of the sticky swamp we waddled into, to pull her out and clean, then dry with a thick soft towel and comb and do her hair, though she knows I can’t but still knows I can. Let it go, Samantha, and move on. That’s the best we can do, believe me; it’s easier this way.

 

“And he?”

“He said, ‘What for?”

“And you?”

“I said it was up to him to figure that out, and that I was there only to help.”

 

You are here to help… Aren’t we all? I guess not.

 

“And he?”

“He said what if he didn’t know anymore. ‘How do you mean that,’ I asked. He said he used to know. That he had been a fighter but was no more. That he had dried out, and there was nothing and nowhere to suck life from. He said it must have been for a reason that he found himself in this hellhole of a cactus land. He pointed out the window, and then stared back at me… but I said that already, didn’t I?”

“Did he really say that? About the cactus and all…”

“He did, he said that much and then went silent again, and I said that he felt that way, because of his past, his war experience, and he got angry.”

“Angry, how so?”

“He got all upset at once, like I challenged him or something. ‘This is the thing with you,’ he shouted, ‘You don’t get it, do you? I don’t feel, I don’t feel this way or that way, or any way, I just don’t. What part of ‘not’ don’t you understand?’ ‘Because it’s your post-traumatic syndrome,’ I said. That made him even angrier.”

“No kidding.”

“Post-traumatic my ass,’ he mocked me. He said it’s post-traumatic stress disorder not syndrome, and that there was no such thing anyway, just a fancy word for people to talk fancy about other people, who aren’t like them, to stake them out like potholes and leave them sag. ‘I’m a fighter, I’m a wolf without a pack, what do you want me to do?’ And I said it only proved my point, that it’s his past experience, the memories, and he again went, ‘Experience my ass, lady, what do you even know?”

“Whoa, that got to him going. What did you say?”

“I challenged him. I probably should not have, but I did, anyway. I said, ‘You killed people, I know you did, and that must have changed you with every life you took.’ I said, ‘I can’t even imagine what it’s like to take a life.’ I just don’t. Then he gets totally pissed, he goes, ‘There’s nothing to imagine. You aim, breathe, squeeze, follow through, then aim again, squeeze… until there’s nothing to aim at. There’s nothing to imagine. Want to know what it’s like? Go to a fucking range shoot targets or shoot yourself some birds or cats, or fucking squirrels. You’ll know then and won’t be asking stupid questions.’

“He surely laid it into you, Sam. How did you take it?”

“Ok, I think. I was ok with that.”

“You were?”

“I was, really. He didn’t mean bad, he just was upset, upset and hurting, I think; and it was hurting even more that I was seeing him hurt, and there was nowhere to hide. I think that’s what it was, because after he blew up, he kind of slumped in his chair and went quiet. A hollow cactus.”

“What?”

“That’s what he mumbled, ‘A hollow cactus, eaten up and dry on the inside, all spines and no core.’ ‘There is an army of real ones out there,’ he said, ‘They come on in a big wave; they crowd me out and push me by the wayside, overgrowing, using me as a substrate.”

“What? Did he say substrate?”

“Yes, why?”

“Just sounds odd coming from him. I’d rather expect him to say fertilizer or compost, or something.”

“He likes precision, he’s a soldier through and through, I guess.”

“You guessed wrong, Sam. Not anymore.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I’ve got bad news just before coming here. Had a call from the county. Frankie was shot by an old lady. She was scared and she was old.”

“I don’t understand… what happened?”

 

That lonely widow in a tucked away small ranch house her husband built with his friend all by themselves, they say, sleeping out in the open until the roof beams were in place and the shingles were laid. They lived there all their life, that is the lady and her husband; the friend eventually went away, no one knows where and why, although rumors swirled in town awhile after he had left, but in the end they too went away, and the quiet set. She’s stayed there after her husband’s death, without going anywhere farther than the local shopping plaza, as if leashed to the decrepit house in a yard taken over by the cactus and bush, the house she was struggling to maintain, always behind on her property tax, going without electricity when her social security just wouldn’t stretch far enough. Last night she did have electricity, though, because her TV was on, while she was sitting on her couch with a wet martini in hand and her dead husband’s shotgun by her side, where she’s always kept it, as the husband had taught her to do. She was watching TV coming not through a cable or a satellite dish but an old tilted by time and wear antenna her husband had fixed to the roof, when Frankie waddled into the house, happy drunk and confused, since confusion was the only state of his mind capable of holding that light and warm homemade chicken broth of happiness for his homeless soul. Frankie waddled in her house unimpeded, as the lady would often forget to lock the door, since no one would bother her for years, and the ones who would were the few helping hands showing up less and less as time went by. No barking dog tried to stand in his path either, since the family dog had died many years ago right after the husband’s death, as it probably thought that with the old man’s passing there would be no cause for it to stick around and in keeping its loyalty chose to follow the old man to the other side of time. Sketchy as it is, the preliminary report has it that the lady wasn’t scared at first, watching Frankie bulk in her doorway with his staple hard-to-read grin across the haggard face like a medium or a courier from another world, with which the old widow felt ill-disposed to establish a rapport yet. “Where are you going?” she allegedly called out to him standing her martini glass on the coffee table and turning the TV volume down, and then again, “Just where do you think you’re going?” What the report alleges Frankie answered was that he had just seen his shrink and had his head shrunk to size, and that it was a bad ass whiz shrink, who said, “Wherever you go, kid, there you are,” and his grin allegedly grew wider and meaner. The widow allegedly drew the shotgun close to her hip and went again, “Just where do you think you’re going,” and he allegedly went, “Wherever I go, there I am, so here I am, ma’am,” approaching ever closer with his drunk giggle. So she shot, just how her old man had taught her to shoot, aiming straight and fast but without hurry. Preliminary as it may be, the report alleges it was a good shot; Frankie must have died in an instant hardly having had time to comprehend what had just happened. The report, though, could ascertain nothing about the train of thought dashing through the foggy space of his rapidly dimming mind, trying madly to reach the next station in the few milliseconds that the smithereens of his consciousness still had left in the smashed by the bullet brain to carry the locomotive of his thought forth to its destination, while the wagons were silently falling off on the other side of time with their wheels still spinning in the emptiness before seamlessly turning into nothing.

 

“Tell me, though, did you say it?”

“Say what?”

“The ‘wherever you go there you are’ thing.”

“I didn’t. Why? I don’t even know what that means. Is he… has Frank died?”

“He’s dead, Sam. He’s a soldier no more. He is no more.”

“He may be no more, but he’s still a soldier.”

 

Her voice is trembling, and the eyes are glistening, as if her tears were about to burst. She looks better in shame and confusion, if you ask me; the softer hues look better on her, smoothing out her strong facial features. Please don’t, Samantha. If you’re going to cry wait till I’m gone. Tears will puff up your eyes and will make your nose swell, turn red, and running; I find that unattractive.

 

“People die, Sam. ‘And unto dust shalt thou return,’ as they say. Just look at all those cacti out there. They rot and fall, and turn into dust, and from the dust grow others even uglier… and nobody cares…”

“I do, I care!”

Valery Krupnik is a New England expat residing and working in CA. Over the years, his stories have appeared in such literary magazines as Emry’s, The New Renaissance, Kalliope, SlugFest. He is working on putting together a collection of short stories.

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