A quiet crash, but nonetheless a crash, had amounted to nothing more than jostled lemons, their bright yellow skins withstanding force to prevent flesh from damage.
Lemons, innocuous victims placed in a cage not by their own choosing, had slammed into the cage’s wiry edge, thrown forward by an action of two parties who preferred to look up and around rather than straightforward.
Forward was nowhere to look. He had self-acknowledged, or more so self-diagnosed, there was no forward. Lemons weren’t going to jump out and try to kill him, but that message ran counter to his thoughts. Thoughts produced action as the crash had sent him scurrying for cover, propelling him into a frenzied flight. He took off, running zigzag down the back aisle to void further conflict. First came the meat. Red pulsed, running rivulets through his head where three decades prior blood broke his bandage.
He passed the second section unencumbered, the deli where stood a delightful strategic order of processed meats and cheeses. Security caught up to him before he got too deep into produce.
One never knew what was around the corner. Ever. Could be complicated procedures where one would need to perform duties in an expedient manner in order to save the union, freedom for somethings or someones or merely to save oneself. Could be anything and anything was everything; everything was nothing for which he could feel.
Tight quarters lead to open spaces and open spaces had him running for tight quarters, those where he could feel the most comfort where each movement could be seen by him as he threw himself into a corner. He was cornered and had been for fifty years, each year going by after honorable discharge becoming more and more constricting in his movement. Every movement after war had to be carefully orchestrated for there was no maneuver unplanned that could ever go well again.
The tunnels had done him in.
He had been, at the time, five foot four. Perfect for twisting his boy body into a hole to ferret out the enemy from their labyrinth of underground tunnels, tunnels running this way and that with no definable explanation given to him by anyone above ground be it commander or Commandments.
Tunnels, twisted narrow passageways dug under damp jungle floor, had been built for their size – his size – created to hide; created to skirt around and under enemy camps; infiltrate enemy lines. Tunnels, a soppy social morass of wartime, ran the gamut of functionality – meeting rooms, training centers, triages, hospitals.
Every slip and twist entering a tight spot at age nineteen brought forth a pandora’s box of perils. Spiders, scorpions, bats, poisonous snakes, non-poisonous snakes used as live bombs, their lithe slippery bodies planted with explosives. Everything could be potential harmful, but humans were the main thrust of concern. The enemy was not one to be taken lightly. They would surprise around corners or stay in thinly-veiled niches off main tunnel’s expressway in order to attempt an impaling.
His sole duty was to wreak temporary havoc, create chaos to get the tunnel vacated whether by killing, taking prisoners or collapsing without Viet Cong collapsing him. Running created chaos. Crawling created vulnerability. He learned via exposure and experience to pace it; eyes peeled; breathe shortened, heart rate stable.
Narrower went the tunnels; slogging through water and dirt, caked in dust and mud. Narrower they would run, some to an enclosed point as if someone took a pencil, bored it into the earth and reversed it out. Sharp U-bends, those chicanes of hell, were often flooded. He had heard fellow soldiers being sucked into the swamp desperately flailing for survival. Rarely did they make it for once they had announced they were struggling, enemy soldier calmly finished flooding the sharp corner with poison gas.
He had a requisitioned gas mask but never wore it. Too constricting. Their utility was limited for while creating salvation from one danger, their limited visibility and difficulty of breath created a far more dangerous situation.
You took your chances.
You took your chances.
Rare occasions, when timing persevered, had one been able to discover an ending point without resulting in their own. His timing, the one solitary motion where he had found himself in such a perilous point, was impeccable. Enemy, a forged moniker supposedly meant to incense, had taken a right to escape. He took a left.
What silenced him was the bang. Crashing metal, a shock, created little ring, but the ringing would return with vengeance. A solitary filed shot from his government-issued 45-caliber pistol rang through his skull. He had fired one off once, but once was plenty. Deafening, disorienting, the single shot sent him quietly sweating, profusely in panic he had rushed back to where he slipped underground. A bayonet, slid out from the wall, scraped blade across the right backside of his helmet, reached underneath to catch his neck muscle enough, taking a sideways chunk from the back of his head. His screams, heard from above, were never heard within his own head.
The shot has been his sole wartime miscalculation. Coming home, back to farm and family, miscalculations had rushed forth. Soon after his return, miscalculation took his youngest brother. Surviving two tours without incident, his brother had taken a job at a brewery only to have a beer keg jump the rails and kill him. The baby was gone.
Miscalculation. Older brother took the role of military lifer, bruising his way from ship to ship, rank through rank, only to be felled by a heart attack soon after retirement.
Miscalculation. Was size one? Could height, or lack thereof, be something he could commit to miscalculation? Genetics? Did genetics create his lot?
He combined the mess, reasoning that by taking his chances he was stepping high into other miscalculations. It’s how he entered any opening after the age of twenty – Laundromats; grocery stores; convenient stores soon to become inconvenient due to their tight-fitted aisles. Where did entering anything get him? Where was he? Where was his end point? Where was the mysticism so perpetrated by family and country to the point where there were zero movements not dictated by the church as movement necessary for one’s soul; one’s survival?
The past thirty, forty, now going on fifty years, his purported salvation had been buried in a book of complexities and overriding rules, regulations and innuendo. Those who buried themselves within it fought to the death over interpretation. Interpretation is what tunnel rats did best.
In order to achieve appeasement, he had pushed through mountains of paperwork after unwillingly pushing his body through ordered underground jungle work. Despite a spate of professionals with names long forgotten, doctors in numbingly too many niches, there was no answer; or none had been given.
The ever-constricting life so built for him by him through experiences no one could fathom had pushed within so deep any shallow movement was considered a threat. Store runs never dared to be Saturdays, morning afternoon or evening. They began after his tour as weekday evenings and the occasional Sunday evening before he had to seek out the 24-7s. Once found, his forays went deeper and deeper into the night; earlier and earlier in the morning. Laundromats, for him, became extinct. Washing machines rolling to spin echoed off cement block walls as if hovering helicopters without a signal to land, floating in air, wide open for target practice.
The crash sent him back further than he had ever dared to consider. Home, once inside corner-glued to keep a watchful eye out on the front door, barely contained enough memory of the final time he would ever go out in public. Two parties without concern for one another sent him retreating to the finality of a studio apartment where sustenance would now be delivered by those who he felt intimate enough to regard as trusted allies. In the beginning there were a few women, night sweat companions there long enough to attain their own sense of self before tunneling out. In the end nothing but close family had been welcome.
Whether it was a miniscule half-hour after the crash or two decades later, he barely remembered the shrink-wrapped meat oozing blood. The neat rows of processed meats didn’t show; the dank dyed yellow of deli cheddar never materialized. What did were the lemons. They toggled there, a pair of caged young yellow dimpled beings as two grocery carts casually pushed perpendicular into one another, t-boning at 2 a.m., an innocent meeting of metal between strangers who waved it off without issue as he took flight from the fury of nothing.
The lot of them, a cocktail of psychosis described by a mixed bag of professionals, stirred by the poisoned swizzle-stick of what was now simply tossed about in casual peacetime party conversation with four easily-recalled letters: PTSD.
He never knew what was around the next bend. No one did. Dark. Light. Didn’t matter. It’s the not knowing. Anticipation of some God-forsaken horror, a tiny innocent hilt-strapped with explosives or a young child holding their arms outstretched begging to be lifted up; held for comfort; for safety.
But there wasn’t any. Ever.