by Gerry Wilson
My two sons ride their tricycles up and down the motel courtyard, around the unfenced swimming pool, back and forth in front of our cottage. July, and the Texas heat shimmers off the uneven concrete and the dry, sparse grass; the water in the pool is tinged green with algae. My thighs stick to the metal chair on the porch.
The boys, four and six, demand to wear their Army camouflage outfits even in the heat. Hell-bent on playing Army, they look like miniature infantrymen. The rat-tat-tat of their toy machine guns makes me queasy.
We rented this place on the outskirts of San Antonio, a north-south strip of motels, pawnshops, and bars. The cottages are dingy gray stucco outside, and inside, there's pine paneling everywhere, the varnish sticky in the heat. A light like a disco ball hangs in the living room. The boys make a game of switching it on, off, on, off, the reflections on the ceiling like facets of diamonds.
We’re here for my husband Jack’s six weeks of basic training before he deploys to Vietnam. He’s an MD, fresh out of his surgery residency, so this is the extent of his training before he dons his Major bars and the Army puts an automatic rifle in his hands for real. Jack swears he won’t be in a MASH unit; he’ll be in a permanent hospital because he’s a trained surgeon, for God’s sake, out of the worst of the action, mostly. Yes, mostly, he assures me, and when he says it, he gets a wistful look and I know the action is where he wants to be.
There are other military families here. Every morning, the men don their uniforms and leave as though they’re going to work, but the women know they’re only playing army. We wives are getting to know each other just as we are about to part ways and probably will never see each other again. We laugh at our accents, our jokes, and the antics of our children, but if you look closely, you’ll see the women’s eyes go vacant, lost and fearful.
Every day, Jack takes the car and leaves the boys and me stranded. Mornings, I let the boys play on the rusty swing set. Then they swim. Then we walk to the motel office to see if we have any mail (usually we don’t), and sometimes I buy postcards in the office and write cheery messages back home to my parents and to my friends whose husbands aren’t going to Vietnam. We’re all doing fine, Texas is hot and dry, the boys miss you, yes, we saw the Alamo. Twice. Afternoons it’s back to the pool, and this time, because of the heat, I go in the water with them, and we stay until it’s almost five, almost time for their dad to come home, and I make them get out and go inside even when they wheedle and whine. I put them in the tub and start dinner.
We are eating in the kitchen when I take a bite of hamburger and the meat sucks down the wrong way. I can’t breathe, can’t even cough to try to dislodge it. I wave my hands in the air, rap on the table, turn to Jack, mouth help me!
He drags me out of my chair, his arms around me from behind, fists tucked below my breasts, and he pulls back hard. Nothing happens. He tries again, still nothing, and again, before he lets me go, and I’m standing alone, gasping for air that won’t come, and he goes into a kitchen drawer and takes out a paring knife. I back away, shake my head, no, mouth try again. He does, and this time the bite of meat flies out and I start to cough.
He looks at the knife in his hand. “Jesus, Amy,” he says, “I thought I’d have to do a tracheotomy on you!” He drops the knife in the sink as though it cut him, puts his arms around me from the front this time, holds me. I can’t stop shaking, but it’s not about the choking, the threat of the knife.
I pull away. “Get me a drink,” I say, my voice coming out hoarse and wobbly.
The boys scramble out of their chairs and throw themselves into my arms. Their army uniforms smell of boy-sweat. I will see if I can get them to let me wash the uniforms tonight. They'll be dry in the morning, I’ll tell them, but they'll balk anyway. Promises are scary. The promise of a dry uniform. The promise of a dad who’ll return at the end of the day, who’ll come back from the war and stay forever.
“It’s okay,” I say, running my hands through their wild hair, kissing their sunburned faces.
* * * * *
Gerry Wilson’s debut short story collection, Crosscurrents and Other Stories, was published in November 2015 by Press 53 and was nominated for a Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Fiction Award in 2016. In 2015 Gerry received a Mississippi Arts Commission Literary Arts Fellowship. Her stories have appeared in numerous journals. “Mating,” the first story in Crosscurrents, won the Prime Number Short Fiction Award in 2014 and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is currently at work on a new novel.