by Kate Spitzmiller
Chris came home with the other POWs of Operation Homecoming in the spring of ‘73, but he didn’t really come back. He had been away for six years by then, two combat tours at Khe San and four years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi. His auburn hair had gone grey, even though he was only twenty-four. His cheek bones were sharp, like the fine edges of Japanese carving knives. The hollows beneath held dark shadows, as if he had been punched repeatedly and the skin had not bounced back. And those hazel eyes were always fixed on something vague off in the middle-distance, as if nothing close to him held his interest or mattered.
He didn’t talk much. I don’t suppose he thought anyone wanted to hear what he had to say. The war was basically over by then, so I guess he was right. The country had moved on. Not even the war protesters cared anymore. Watergate was in the news, not Vietnam. People wanted to hear about the Nixon Tapes, not the Hanoi Hilton.
I tried, as best I could, to be the girlfriend he’d left behind. I bought new makeup and curled my hair and put on colorful gypsy skirts and tight blouses. I cooked him dinners in my small studio apartment—vegetable lasagna usually, his favorite. But he barely ate. He spent most of his time on the fire escape, chain-smoking Camels, Jimi Hendrix blaring from the stereo. We’d have sex—I figured it was the least I could do for him—but it was always quick and loveless. He’d go back to the fire escape afterwards, wrapped in my patchwork quilt and smoking, while I was left behind in bed with the echoes of his scars on my fingertips.
He got a job, briefly. Down at Sunny’s Autobody on First Ave, near the Falls. He had no experience and didn’t seem interested in getting any. He also didn’t have a car, so I drove him to and from work in my shitty little VW Beetle when it was running. When I’d pick him up, he was usually sitting on the big pile of dead tires in the Sunny’s pot-holed parking lot, smoking. His blue pin-striped uniform shirt would be just as clean in the evening as it had been in the morning. When I asked him how his day had been, I’d get a grunt in return. Sunny fired him after two weeks.
I went to Mass at St. Mary’s with Chris and his mom on Palm Sunday. Chris looked positively skeletal in a dark grey suit and black tie—more like an undertaker than a churchgoer. We sat in the front row—a seat of honor for the returned hero, I suppose. In his homily, Father O’Rourke read from Ephesians: Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Chris stood up and walked out. I followed him, hustling down the aisle as the good Catholics in their Sunday best whispered and stared. Outside, I found Chris under a naked maple tree, baby daffodils trampled beneath his feet, sucking on a Camel. “Forgiveness,” he said. “What bullshit.”
It was the afternoon of Good Friday when they found him. He’d put on his dress uniform—the one he’d bought with his back combat pay at Pearl Harbor on his way home. “Everyone looks good in Marine Corps dress blues,” he’d said when he returned from Parris Island. Not him, though. Not this time. He was hanging from the Liberty Falls bridge, two miles from my apartment. He’d used an oversized American flag as a noose. The State Troopers argued for an hour about how to get him down. No one wanted to cut up an American flag.
I wasn’t sad exactly. I was relieved. He had come home, but he hadn’t really come back.
Kate Spitzmiller writes historical fiction from a woman's perspective. Her work has appeared in Approaching Footsteps, On the Premises, Cleaver Magazine, and Typishly. Her flash fiction piece, "Brigida," was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her debut novel, Companion of the Ash, will be released in December of 2018 by Spider Road Press.