Warrior noticed the blue and white CHIERS van before the bus crossed the bridge to downtown Portland. His bare gums showed where his teeth were gone, soon as he stretched his lips into a smile. He didn’t find anything particularly funny about a drunk being hauled off to Detox. No. That sly grin wouldn’t quit lifting Warrior’s lips because the poor old wino wasn’t him.
The bus crossed the bridge, as sunlight leaking through the window on Warrior’s side caused scattered silver strands in his hair to shimmer. Since Vietnam, where he got the nickname Warrior, he’d kept it long. On the streets, his hair let everyone know. He was still a warrior after everything that had gone down.
When Warrior got sober this last time, the city social worker moved him to his own apartment. A new approach we’re trying, the social worker said, after handing Warrior a thousand pages of forms.
Out on the sidewalk, under a dull, wet sky, Warrior couldn’t help but feel like punching somebody. This ain’t gonna work, he mumbled to no one in particular, and no one in particular responded. He palmed an unfiltered Camel, gulping puffs, until the cigarette singed his knuckle. Then he used the tip to light another.
A wide-hipped black woman named Leticia led him into the apartment building and down a dreary hall that smelled of food frying. In the kitchenette, on the back wall of the one-room studio, she turned the knob on the gas stove and flicked it off.
“Make sure you check before leaving the apartment,” she scolded Warrior. “Don’t want no fires.”
The place even had its own refrigerator.
Warrior tapped his right foot without planning to and the tapping traveled up to his hip, making it wobble. His head bobbed up and down. His hand shook, as he jerked the burning cigarette up to his mouth.
An hour later, in the crowded waiting room of the counseling office, his bones rattled in one continuous spasm. Smoking wasn’t allowed, so he turned and faced the wall, his fingers lifted to his mouth as he sucked in imaginary smoke. He couldn’t be bothered with what other folks thought. It was easy to slide down into his own private box, like he’d done on the street and in Vietnam.
“Are you Mr. Yazzi?”
He turned around, shaking the whole time, then followed the woman down a long, narrow hall, into a room that was dark.
“Where would you feel more comfortable, Mr. Yazzi?” the counselor asked, after flicking on the fluorescent light. “In the chair or on the couch?”
Warrior studied the room. His eyes blinked too many times. He took in the woman at his side. Her hair flowed straight down like a black waterfall. She reminded him of girls back home. Even made him think of Betty, his ex-wife.
“Could I just stand?” Warrior asked, his foot pounding a depression into the pale carpet.
“Sure. Whatever you like.”
“I’m Mary,” she said and held out her hand. “Mary Rivers.”
“Mary Rivers,” Warrior repeated, his head wobbling some.
They talked, and eventually Mary convinced Warrior to take a seat. His official name in the file was Thomas Yazzi. She agreed to call him Warrior and said she’d like to try something to start.
Once he’d dropped into the hard wooden chair across from her, she told him in the nicest way to put his feet flat on the floor and relax his hands that wouldn’t stop shaking in his lap. After that, she asked him to close his eyes, take in a deep breath, and imagine the breath pouring into his lungs, filling his belly, swirling around his thighs and calves and ankles, then shooting out his feet and his two big toes.
This crazy March day, it should have been pouring down rain and windy but the sun was out. Warrior wasn’t ready for what Mary had to say.
“I have some bad news, Mr. Yazzi.”
She scooted her chair close and rested her hand on Warrior’s wrist.
“It’s about your nephew, Justin,” she whispered.
“Your sister called. She was trying to reach you.”
The last time Warrior was on the reservation he’d stolen from his sister Lorraine. He’d barely seen his nephew Justin since he was born.
“Your nephew was killed in Afghanistan by a roadside bomb.”
The words came at Warrior like bullets. The news splintered his mind, even with his feet anchored on the floor.
“I’m sorry,” Mary said and patted his arm. “How are you doing there, Mr. Yazzi?”
How are you feeling, Mr. Yazzi? Mary asked all the time. Day after day, in this chair, his feet connected to the earth, Warrior scouted his body for the tight pinch in his belly that signaled fear or the ache that had to be sorrow.
“Mr. Yazzi. Are you all right?”
What did he remember about his nephew, Mary asked. Memories collided. Days he left his kids, Lilly and Robert, to party with friends, sometimes for days, over in Gallup. Waking up, sick as a dog, hearing those kids bawling, and smacking them ‘til they stopped. Last time he’d seen Robert all grown up, the boy scowled at him on the front porch, before he slammed the door.
“I feel,” Warrior said, trying to get a breath. His stomach clenched up. “Like it’s my fault.”
“How could it be your fault? Your nephew was in the Marines. He was fighting a war.”
“Everything I did. To my kids. My sister. Everyone.”
“It’s not your fault. It is not your fault.”
A few days that felt like a year went by before the breeze brushed Warrior’s forehead, as he stepped from the airport terminal into the bright sun. He stopped and let the breeze say hello. He wanted to tell the wind he had forgotten the feel of home. But everyone would think he was talking to himself, a habit from his drinking days he’d been trying to give up.
He moved his attention from the wind to the sky. His heart climbed up and scratched his throat. It was – well, what could he even begin to feel about it? Like no sky in Oregon or Vietnam. It was cloudless and blue, shimmering and wide. It was a sky that had no end and no beginning. It was a sky the Creator had dreamed of making. A sky that blessed all the children born under it. It was a sky Warrior had banished from his mind, to live where such a sky couldn’t survive.
He smiled to himself and looked around. Cars were circling the terminal. People dragged suitcases on wheels. Everyone was going about their business, as if the wind and sky had no meaning or purpose.
It was time, Warrior reminded himself, to go home.
The sun was low in the sky when Warrior pulled into the parking lot of the motel in Window Rock. He stepped out of the car, his back and shoulders stiff, his butt sore. The sorrow he felt, looking around at the red rock he’d only seen lately in car commercials, was enough to drown him.
Whenever you’re feeling on the edge, like you might relapse, call me, Mary Rivers had said.
The phone rang three times before she answered.
“Mr. Yazzi. Are you all right?”
He slipped out of the motel room before the sky grew light. The world was as quiet as a world gets. Few cars passed, as light gathered along the horizon in a thin bright line.
When he turned off the highway, Warrior heard Mary Rivers’ words again.
You must forgive yourself, Mr. Yazzi. The past is done and you can’t go back and change it. What you did before – the drinking, how you treated your family – and what you did in the war, those are things we have grieved here. Now, you must forgive yourself and go home. You must tell your family that you’re sorry.
Warrior drove until he was surrounded by red rock on all sides. He knew where he wanted to end up. But could he find it after being away so long?
All of a sudden, he slammed down the brake peddle and pulled the car over to the side of the road.
He stepped out into the cool, quiet morning. The sky hung overhead, like a throbbing heart. Smooth reddish-brown sand beckoned. He waited at the bottom of the dune for the sun to pop out.
The top of the dune was soaked in golden light. He became temporarily blinded.
At that moment, he heard the soft tinkling of bells. A goat cried, and he heard a sheep bleat.
His sight returned and the sun inched up. He watched the small goats and sheep step over the rise. Behind them, a man appeared on a horse. Like Warrior’s, his skin looked warmed and hardened by the sun. Atop his gray-streaked black hair, he wore a white cowboy hat, set a comfortable distance back.
Warrior waved his arms in two wide arcs. The animals moved down the sand, leaving a curved line of tender hoof prints behind. The man on the horse followed. Warrior waved again, and then, as if preparing to salute, he lifted a hand to his forehead, to shield his eyes from the light.
Suddenly, there was no Vietnam War. There were no cold wet streets to sleep on and no cramped jail cells. No waking up in his own vomit. The life Warrior forgot about had been waiting here all along. This life, with its sand dunes and red rock, the sky that went on forever and the people, his people, and their goats and sheep.
Feelings jostled inside, until his mind grabbed one he couldn’t remember having felt for a long time.
Happy, Warrior thought, and the tears streamed freely from his eyes. They dampened his cheeks and wet his mouth. He made no effort to wipe them off.
That’s what I feel, he whispered to Mary Rivers now.
Patty Somlo has received four Pushcart Prize nominations, been nominated for storySouth’s Million Writers Award and had an essay selected as a Notable Essay of 2013 for Best American Essays 2014. Author of From Here to There and Other Stories, Somlo has three forthcoming books: a short story collection, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil); a memoir, Even When Trapped Behind Clouds (WiDo Publishing), and Hairway to Heaven Stories (Cherry Castle Publishing). Her work has appeared in journals, including the Los Angeles Review, the Santa Clara Review, Under the Sun, Guernica, Gravel, Sheepshead Review, and WomenArts Quarterly. Find her at www.pattysomlo.com.
Read an interview with Patty here.