A Soldier's Story
Howard Havenshaw stood at a bedroom window over looking his cul-de-sac. He wanted to skip the morning run, but the snap hooks pinging against the naked flagpole reminded him of his lie. Routine—he had read—was the trademark of a disciplined, military man. So, at a quarter to five, regardless of weather, he was seen in a matching gray sweat suit stretching on his front lawn. When neighbors inquired about his ritual, he’d salute and say, “Five at five.” The residents of Vintage Woods Court believed the phrase was an Army thing. Truth be told, Howard wasn’t sure of the phrase’s origin. His dad said it once, so, he’d supposed it was an Air Force thing.
After he checked his e-mail for correspondence from the Scuro boy, he took a folded American Flag from an empty closet in an empty bedroom, save a mirror that had come with the house. An embossed Army cast backward in the reflection. He closed his eyes and stood in the center of the room and imagined Vera’s face. After the divorce was final, Howard sold his Indiana coal company to the first bidder. He probably could’ve gotten more for his life’s work, but Vera hated that coal company and had begged him to sell it and move out of the ‘Ton while they were married, maybe retiring in Weiser, Idaho, where she was from. Vera referred to Washington, Indiana as a place that didn’t understand the existence of other zip codes. “I feel suffocated here, Howard.” Howard thought he’d die in the ‘Ton. He supposed there was still time.
The snap hooks pinged in the morning darkness as Howard reached for his toes. The phantom pain in his left leg flared. He looked up. “Damn that flagpole.” Howard’s curses moved from the flag to a neighbor crossing the street. Don Longstreth dressed in a blue running suit with yellow reflective stripes along the legs and sleeves and back and chest waved as he approached.
“Howard! Hey! Right on schedule.”
Howard Havenshaw didn’t move an inch, making the civilian come to him.
Don pointed to the lit porch, where the flag rested on a chair. “Why isn’t the flag up? Shirking your duties this morning?” He laughed. Howard didn’t.
“We wait till morning’s first light.”
“That’s the rule? Huh. I never knew that. Learn something every day.”
“I can see you have an agenda, Longstreth, so out with it.”
“Right. Military men don’t small talk…well…um…well…I’ve, uh, I’ve been doing some soul searching, you know, because, well, I’ve finally forced myself to see that my life is spiraling towards perpetuate misery, and I want to, you know, stop that.”
Howard did not comment.
“Any-who…I thought, that I needed to shape-up. To be a better me, you know? Get my life back. Second chances and all that.”
Talking reveals weakness. Longstreth is so weak.
“So…I want to enlist.”
“In a sense. I want to enlist in the Howard Havenshaw training program.” He smiled. “Whatever it is you do to look like that, I want to do it too. Seriously, you look like you were carved out of a redwood. How old are you?”
“Age is a construct.”
“Yes! Yes. That’s the stuff I want to learn from you. Think of me as your cadet.” He stood upright and brought his right hand limply to his forehead.
“First thing that needs to go is that lazy salute.” Howard kicked Don’s feet together and pushed on his lower back. “Stretch the neck. To the sky. That’s it.” Howard stood in front of him. “Look me in the eye, soldier. Don’t blink. Show me trust. Show me respect. Show me attitude that will never beg for forgiveness in letting me down.”
Don’s entire body shifted. His eyes gained focus.
“You’re twenty-five pounds overweight, Longstreth. Twenty in your gut and five in your chin. Looks like a dough mold is glued to your jaw. Is that what you want to look like for the rest of your life? A chinless, fat punch line?”
Howard nodded as he circled Don Longstreth.
“What’s the real reason you want to enlist, soldier?”
“I’m tired of feeling worthless and helpless.”
“A quick and terse response is an honest response.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Don grinned, slipping from role-play back to reality. Howard moved to his ear.
“Laughter is lazy focus. It will ruin you. Remember the Scuro kid?” Don nodded. His grin left. “He was a budding delinquent before he met me. He scuffed up our sidewalks with his skateboard. He was caught peeping in Karen Whitings’ window. He stole clothes from the mall. Was a ‘C’ student. When I was done with him, he was a chiseled warrior. Now he fights for your freedom from Afghanistan. Do you want me to do the same for you?”
“Sir! Yes, sir!”
Howard swiveled Don. He pointed at Don’s home. It was dark. Lonesome.
“The first day you screw up, you go back to the that emotional dungeon, you get me? I don’t want to hear about your wife leaving you. I don’t want to hear about how messed up your kid is. Only the weak live through an exposition of excuses. Army men act. Army men are not weak! I don’t train the weak. I leave weakness for the enemy to define. Understand?”
“Sir! Yes, sir.”
Howard nodded and lightly jogged to the mouth of the cul-de-sac. Don followed. Howard jogged in place, waiting for Don to find his rhythm.
“We jog for conditioning and pacing. Not speed. We will run side by side. This will simulate unity and show the denizens of the Estate of Tall Pines that we are a unit. We will only speak to pinpoint suspect happenings.”
“Do you really consider yourself the protector of the neighborhood?”
Howard stared at Don. Don’s posture became more rigid and exacting.
Howard followed his usual trail. Don ran beside him. After the first mile, Don began to suck wind and slowed and Howard slowed with him, which encouraged Don to keep going. By mile two it was more of a walk with the motion of running, but Howard stayed right with Don as he panted and gasped and spit. Don vomited. “Get it out, soldier. Better to expel than to dwell.”
Don continued to run. Howard stayed with him. This was the first time Howard and Don had talked since the incident at school. After the Scuro kid enlisted, Don—being a guidance counselor at the high school—asked him to speak to students to promote the military as a career option.
Howard wasn’t told that other veterans would be there. He was last to speak and in listening to the younger soldiers talk about Kuwait and Iraq and Sudan, a hollow pit formed in his gut. Talking to Adam Scuro, a naïve audience of one, was a simple task. As he stood at the podium he turned to the soldiers and saluted them.
“You are all so brave. Each one of you chose to enlist. So brave. I was drafted. I was scared at first. Timid. But then something happens after basic when camouflage and a rifle is your outfit.” He made eye contact with the students. “Death and blood and guts are all part of it. Once watched a commie bleed out to calm myself. Smoked me a cigarette and watched his life leave his eyes as his guts left his belly.” He paused. “You’ll get the itch to kill, because there’s power in it. There’s power in not being a civilian. There’s power in serving your country. Can you imagine? Your mom and dad can no longer tell you what to do. You enlist to protect them and then, by default, you are free of them. Being an Army man is the ultimate taste of freedom because you grip that rifle and you look at your brethren dressed just like you, and know freedom is power. You give that power to citizens of this great country. That gift will make you feel like a God.”
That evening when Don talked to Howard, Howard was five scotches deep. He shrugged when Don told him he’d had angry parents call about his presentation. “Couldn’t you have held back a little?”
“People want truth, not a show.”
“Well you’re barred from the school.”
Howard shrugged, and mumbled something as he squeezed a cell phone.
“Is that a flip phone?” Don asked.
Howard nodded. He held it up. “Burner phone. CIA shit here. I got all the gadgets.”
“You drunk, Howard?”
Don sat down next to him. Silence overcame them.
Sometimes at night, after Howard had stopped thinking about his wife and his brother and his dad and his mind matched the stillness of the dark, the silence allowed him to think as himself. He hated those moments.
“Spy shit, huh?” Don finally said.
Until he came over in his ridiculous running outfit, that was the last Howard had spoken to Don Longstreth.
“Holy shit. I’m out of shape,” Don said, leaning against Howard’s mailbox. The sun was finding its place in the sky. Howard motioned him to the flagpole.
“Okay, soldier. We are to unfold the flag and attach it to the pole. The flag cannot touch the ground. The flag is to be raised briskly. You will salute while I raise it. Copy?”
They raised the flag.
“Good first day of training, Howard. Thank you for the pain. I’m gonna go and take a long hot shower, so I can cry in private. Man, I hurt. I think the peace treaty I had negotiated with a sedentary lifestyle has officially been broken. My body has engaged in Civil War.” Don smiled. Howard cracked a grin. “Until tomorrow morning then.”
“Soldier, you’ll see me at precisely nineteen-hundred hours for the twilight’s last retreat.”
Seeing the Scuro boy twice a day helped build trust. It would do the same for Longstreth.
“The flag only flies in the light. See you at dusk, soldier. Dismissed!”
As Don limped across the street, Howard considered his recruit. His wife ran out on him and his daughter Nikki five months ago. Nikki was already acting out, dying her hair red, then purple, now blue. Her wardrobe consisted only of skin tight, ripped jeans and tank-tops without a bra. She had piercings in each eyebrow, her nose, and another in her bottom lip. She snuck weed while she walked her dog. Don had a lot of problems, and people with problems rarely saw things through, but Howard would change that. He was destined to save Don Longstreth, just as he saved Adam Scuro.
Howard had created his own code for when to call Rich Clemons. Any month divisible by two and he would call on the date of the next prime number in sequence. Today was October twenty-ninth. He dialed the Idaho area code on his burner phone. After a few rings Rich Clemons answered. “Hello?” Pause. “Hello?” Pause. “It’s you, isn’t it? I figured out your code. I served thirty-four years in the Navy. Don’t think I wasn’t expecting you today. Gonna say something this time? Coward?”
Howard pinched the phone closed.
He moved to the other empty bedroom. In the middle of the room was a card table. A laptop sat on top of it. He opened his email. Nothing new. He clicked on “Drafts.” Everyday had an unsent letter to Adam Scuro. He opened a new e-mail, addressed it to Adam Scuro, and began typing.
Howard checked his watch at the kitchen table. He huffed. He looked at his liquor cabinet, but didn’t move. He changed his voice. “A disciplined man doesn’t indulge until the duties of the day are done.” He turned from the cabinet and faced his back yard. “I need to rake.” He shrugged, his voice back to normal. “Adam used to rake my leaves. Maybe a neighbor kid would do it.” He thought of his reputation and how Adam’s mother had turned everyone against him since Adam enlisted before telling his parents. “I’ll do it myself,” he said, but didn’t move. His gaze returned to the liquor cabinet, his only decoration in the kitchen.
~ ~ ~
Don stood at the flagpole, facing his house. “You really can see into every house from here can’t you?”
Howard licked the inside of his cheeks, tasting the mouthwash. He positioned Longstreth under the flag, told him to salute, and began pulling the line. Don caught the flag and backed-up. Howard unhooked it and directed Don how to fold it. To Howard’s surprise the corners were clean and straight and smooth.
“Well done, soldier.”
Don shrugged and said he was a Boy Scout when he was little. Howard said he was an Eagle Scout.
“See you tomorrow at 0500,” Howard said.
“Got time for a drink?”
“COs don’t cavort with new cadets.”
Don gave a weak nod and headed home.
“Cadet Longstreth. Come inside for a scotch. That’s an order.”
He poured them both a scotch, neat. Don sat at the kitchen table. Howard handed him the drink, then sat across from him.
“Smooth.” Don held the glass as if it were a hot chocolate. He looked around. “You’re a minimalist. No clutter. No art. No pictures.”
“Pictures are for nostalgia. Nostalgia’s for the absentminded.”
“Kelly was the clean one. Nikki and I are both slobs. The house currently looks like we are in the middle of either packing or unpacking.” He laughed and took another sip. “This is good. What is it?”
“Isn’t that expensive stuff?”
Howard said the only things worth money are freedom and good scotch. Don laughed, then nodded and swallowed. Howard could tell he was building to something.
“So, Howard, you still got all that spy gadget stuff?”
“Like if I wanted to know what my daughter does in her room, is that something you could install?”
“What do you want to know?”
“Nothing. It’s stupid. Dumb. I’m being dumb. She’s in her room all them time, you know. She never sleeps. Never. I mean, my prostate wakes me up twice a night and I can hear her laughing in her room at two in the morning. I hear like weird ‘pings’ too. Like ‘ping, ping, ping.’ Then she laughs. It’s…you know…forget it. Forget I said anything. It’s dumb. I should just ask her or open her door. It’s my house right? I can open her door. I don’t need a bug or a spy camera—do you have that—no, she would never talk to me again. It’s dumb. I’m not talking anymore.”
Howard didn’t mention that when he rises at 4, he sees Nikki’s bedroom light on. Anymore it’s rare to not see it on. Howard kept silent. Don went silent. They drank the bottle empty.
Howard walked Don to the door.
“If I ever bring that spy shit up again, just hit me. She’d never forgive me, you know. Spying. That’s a deal breaker. It’s dumb. I’m dumb.”
Don gave a weak grin and stumbled home.
Howard switched to drinking bottom-shelf scotch and soda. He reread some of the letters his twin brother Joel had sent him while in Vietnam. Howard couldn’t serve on account of his busted leg, but he never stopped wondering: had he served, would Joel’s foot missed that landmine?
Their father had favored Joel, and didn’t hide it. He was a bomber in World War II, and he talked about what a great privilege it was to light up the German countryside by pulling a lever. When he’d tell these stories he’d lock eyes with Joel, ignoring Howard. Howard was the second baby, a surprise. This led to complications and his mother died. With all the fictional stories of glory that Howard had spun over the years, the only life he had ever really taken was his mother’s.
Against Vera’s wishes, Howard visited his father often at the nursing home. He had dementia in his final days. He rarely recognized Howard, always calling him Joely. The last time Howard saw his dad alive, his dad was sitting in a chair by the window. When Howard bent down to ask him how he was doing, he grabbed Howard’s arm and said, “Howard, you won’t endure. You’re weak. I’m a mass murderer. Women. Children. Soldiers. All dead because of me. I endured. I outlived a wife and a son. I outlived my shame. I endured. You killed the only person that would’ve loved you. Can you endure that?” All Howard could
think to say was, “Dad, it’s me. Joely.”
~ ~ ~
To Howard’s surprise, Don Longstreth was stretching at the flagpole. The sun had yet to peak above the horizon. The morning was windless. The snap hooks were at ease.
“Thought you might not make it this morning, soldier.”
“Today’s an important day. I need this today.” Don exhaled. “Do you have any kids, Howard?”
Howard shook his head. Vera wasn’t able to have kids. Ironically, this led to a fight because Howard was fine with it. Vera couldn’t believe she married a man that didn’t want kids. When Howard told her he was trying to be supportive in a difficult circumstance, Vera said she was relieved she couldn’t have kids, because if they did, Howard would find a way to manipulate them to make them something they didn’t want to be. And although they remained married for decades, Howard felt that every fight afterwards was actually about his indifference to her infertility.
Don struggled with the morning run, as did Howard. They were both hungover.
“Holy shit! Is that a wolf?”
It was a coyote. A sickly looking one. It trotted from trashcan to trashcan, sniffing. The click of the paws against the pavement grew louder the closer it got. It had a scar across its face. Don moved behind Howard. That subtle movement was all it took to stare at both of them.
“What the hell is a coyote doing in suburbia?” Don said.
It ran towards them.
“Oh shit,” Don said.
The coyote charged. Howard kicked it in the face. It squealed a high pitch cry and backed-up. It regained it senses and snarled. Howard made a violent gesticulation and screamed. The coyote scampered away.
“So, that was the scariest thing that’s ever happened to me!” Don said.
Howard agreed with him, but said, “Nothing is scary after you’ve been in the shit.”
Howard sipped coffee while Longstreth talked to the police.
“I don’t know how big. I don’t run with measuring tape and a scale on the off chance I can chart suburban wild game?” He turned to Howard. “What? Howard? At least 60 pounds, right?” Don shook his head. “I didn’t put a beacon on it. How am I supposed to know where it is now? I just know it was here, in the Estate of Tall Pines. There are a lot of little kids in this neighborhood. At the very least put out some sort of amber alert or something to notify people…Thank you.”
He hung-up Howard’s landline and shook his head. “He thought I was lying. He thought it was just a dog. So pleased to know that the man who wasn’t there wants to tell me what we saw.”
Don began to laugh. He laughed so hard Howard found himself smiling.
“Howard, you jacked that thing in the face.” Don yelled, mimicking Howard, and kicked the air. “Holy shit! I think you saved my life. Rule number one of jogging in the suburbs: always run with a war veteran.” Don looked at the time. “Shit! I gotta go. See you tonight? Last retreat?”
“Full disclosure, I might be a bit off tonight. Personal shit. So, if you have any training that can help someone block emotional pain. I’m all ears tonight. Thanks again for saving my life.”
Long after Don left, Howard was still smiling. Even while raking the leaves in the backyard, he was still smiling.
~ ~ ~
Howard sat on his porch, watching the flag flap in the oncoming twilight. Six years ago he asked the Home Owner’s Association for permission to put that flagpole in his front yard. “I’m aware that the bylaws of our particular cul-de-sac state our street needs to be congruent and such. No fences. No other landmarks creating aesthetic disagreement, but I do believe a flagpole at the front of the cul-de-sac will make this the most patriotic street in the Estate, reminding outsiders of our virtue and integrity.” Then he slapped his heels together, stretched his spine, and saluted, which was the first time he had ever made such a gesture in public. Colleen Kellerman and the Homeowner’s Association showered him with gratitude, thanking him for his service and dedication to the country.
And so the lie began.
He patted the small box in his pocket. He’d even wrapped a bow around it. The audio bug was a gesture, that’s all. Don wouldn’t have to use it. Not at all. Just a gesture.
He looked over his cul-de-sac. Over the years he’d seen things, suspicious events that he kept to himself, just in case he needed to trade secret for secret one day. Lance Reynolds was having an affair with Colleen Kellerman. Recently, Ginny Scuro broke into the Whitings’ home during the day. Bruce Whiting spied on Lance Reynolds urinating at a party with a lecherous stare. Frances Burnish snuck cigarettes, although she said she’d quit years ago. He knew all sorts of secrets. He patted the small box. Now he’d know Don Longstreth’s.
A little before seven, Don Longstreth pulled into the driveway. Howard walked to the flagpole and waited. Twilight had taken its place in the sky.
Don gathered groceries from the trunk and walked to his front door. He fumbled for his keys as he balanced the bags. The keys hit the porch. Don cursed. Howard walked over. Don was drunk. He dropped the keys again. Howard picked it up, put it in the door and opened it.
Don saluted Howard and told him to come inside for dinner.
“Or we could both eat alone.”
Don was right, his house was a mess.
“It’s my anniversary,” Don said, unpacking the bags. He held up a package. “I had never had salmon before I met Kelly. She ordered it on our first date and told me to take a bite. After I did I was like, what have I been missing?” He unwrapped the package and dropped the fish in a bowl. He poured seasoning on it and added a dash of olive oil. He rubbed it all together. “I was going to make this meal for Nikki, but when I called her, she told me to stop trying to replace mom with her.” He exhaled. “So much fun to be her dad.”
The dinner was great, but Don didn’t talk until he removed their plates.
“Kelly didn’t talk during meals. Just something I’ve gotten used to.”
Howard thought about Vera and how she’d try so hard to learn about his day or his thoughts while they ate. He’d learn not to speak at the table for fear his father would ridicule him.
Don made Manhattans. Howard took a sip and scanned some pictures of the Longstreth family all together, smiling, happy. Don pointed at the picture. Kelly had her hands on Nikki’s shoulders—she must have been twelve or thirteen at the time. A silver cross hung at the end of the wife’s necklace.
“You can ask.”
“Not my business.”
“Don’t you want truth?”
“Kelly’s parents were very religious. Practically fundamentalists. I think she married me to spite them. And it worked. They didn’t come to our wedding and became estranged. I forgot they existed, to be honest. They both died last year. Dad went first. Then mom. Both heart attacks. Nikki never knew them. Kelly went back for the funeral. She told us to stay here. We did.
“When Kelly came back, I could tell something was different. She was never one to communicate much. Not really.” He took a drink. “She was gorgeous. Still is. Nikki is too. Thankfully she looks just like her mom.” He moved to the picture. “Look at me. I’m a nerd. Unattractive. Unremarkable. I think Kelly chose me because she knew I wouldn’t say no. And then…” He took a drink. “If she wanted out, she knew I wouldn’t be able to convince her otherwise. When you can’t barter with love in a lost marriage, what can you use?”
“What happened at the funeral?”
“She rediscovered God. Then that Evangelist came through town and she thought it was a sign or something. Get this: she told Nikki mother’s can’t leave, even if they are absent, a mother’s love is eternal, like God’s. Then she left.” He sniffed. “She sends Nikki postcards. Stupid ones with religious crap on it.”
“Does she send you anything?”
Don shook his head. “I don’t think I was ever part of her actual life, not really.”
“I don’t understand religious fanatics,” Howard said, wanting to comfort Don. “To believe so blindly in something in hopes to redirect the errors of life to absolution. Phonies. All of them.”
Don grinned but didn’t look back. He tapped the picture.
“Kelly’s wearing a cross necklace. I don’t think I ever noticed that. This picture is five years old. What would you say about that, Howard?”
Howard shrugged. “Every end has its clues.”
Nikki Longstreth entered. She stopped and saluted Howard, almost as if she suspected to see Howard sitting there. She walked by her father to the stairs. A door slammed, followed by loud music. Howard rubbed his hands over his pants, feeling the gift.
“I just don’t know what to do with her,” Don said, gulping the rest of his Manhattan. He pointed to his head. “This week’s flavor is blue.” He cried. “I’m pretty sure she’s doing drugs. And she’s up all night doing God knows what. I’m at a loss. Kelly had a way with her that I just don’t.” Don aimed his glass at the ceiling. “Kiddo, we might as well be strangers.”
They sat in silence for some time. The bass of Nikki’s music and the ice crackling in their glasses were the only sounds. Don made another Manhattan.
“Before Kelly said ‘liquor is the devil’s blood,’ this was her favorite drink,” Don said, examining the fresh Manhattan. “I have one of these every night. After I’m done, I make another and leave it on the table, thinking that maybe Kelly will come back; and if she does, she’ll be like, ‘What was I thinking? I need a drink.’ But, every morning it’s still there, just as full. This is the last night I do this.”
Circles from the glass’s condensation were marked all over the wooden table. Howard thought it had been part of the table’s design.
“I’m tired, Howard. Need to get to bed. Duty calls early in the morning. Five at five.”
Don set the drink on the table and walked Howard to the door. Howard thanked him for dinner.
Upstairs, the music grew louder. Don looked up. “I wish I could see through the floor.”
“I almost forgot.”
Howard presented him with the bug.
“Wow. You weren’t kidding.” Don smiled and then handed it back. “She finds this and she will never talk to me again.” He sighed. “I’ll trade her not hating me forever for the mystery.” Don widened his eyes. Tears streamed. “I left work early today. Started drinking around one. I thought about that damn coyote. Being that scared was the first time I’ve felt alive since Kelly left. Made me want a life. Maybe not the old one, but a life you know. Thank you, Howard. You saved me. Thank you.” Don smiled. “Why not save all of us and hunt that thing down.”
Don saluted Howard. Howard saluted back.
“Until the morning.”
Don winked and shut the door.
It smelled like fall, but it felt like an early summer night. As Howard crossed the street a coyote howled. He picked up his pace, looking over his shoulder as he passed the flagpole.
There was a package on the steps, a burner phone. This one had a South Dakota area code. He made himself a Manhattan while he waited for the phone to boot. He checked his e-mail. No new messages. He started to write Adam a letter, but stopped. Instead he drank the Manhattan. When the phone was ready, he dialed.
Vera sounded the same.
“Hello? Are you the person who keeps calling my husband? Hello?” There was a pause. A bed creaked. Footsteps patterned themselves in quick formation across an old hardwood floor. “Hello?” The voice was softer now. Gentle. “Howard? Howard is this you?” She paused. There was a gasp. He knew this tone. “Is this really how you want to use the time you have left? You were always, obsessing, Howard?” He analyzed her breathing, trying to ascertain concern. “Please, Howard. We loved each other once. Remember me then. Remember me from then saying this to you now: do something. Please. Just do something.”
He walked to his garage and smashed the phone with a rubber mallet. He dropped it in a metal bin containing other broken phones. He pulled keys from his pocket and unlocked a storage unit. He removed a false bottom and pulled up a rifle with an infrared night scope and loaded it.
Howard stood on his lawn, overlooking his street. “Let’s change the scenery,” he said, moving across his lawn to the cul-de-sac’s mouth. Above him, the twisting flag’s snaphooks knocked against the metal pole.