From WTP Vol. VII #4
By Elizabeth Hamilton
If you’re a woman and you want to join the U.S. Army, the first thing the recruiter at the Army Recruiting Office in Dallas will tell you is to drive across the city to talk with the Air Force guys. The Army won’t turn you down, he says, but the Air Force is better for women.
He might be joking, but if you’re eighteen and nervous, you smile shyly and, after lingering near a brochure rack, unfolding and refolding one without reading it, you return to the parking lot. You climb back into your father’s truck which he lent you for the afternoon and find directions to the Air Force Recruiting Office on your phone. What sounded reasonable when you stood in front of the recruiter suddenly seems incredulous as you drive across the city. At every stoplight, you consider making a U-turn regardless of what he said. You’ve wanted to join the Army since you were thirteen and your father taught you how to shoot a .22 long rifle at the indoor shooting range down the street from your apartment.
Instead, you continue driving and when you reach the Air Force office, which is wedged along a strip mall between a donut shop and a laundromat, you’re relieved that the small, fit woman who greets you at the door smiles kindly. Why join a branch that doesn’t want you? The Air Force recruiter offers you stale black coffee in a Styrofoam cup and leads you into a musty room with hard plastic chairs to watch a ten-minute promotional video where pilots in fighter jets scream over the Pacific Ocean and smiling intelligence officers in sharp, pressed uniforms stroll through the white halls of the Pentagon.
Afterwards, you fill out the yellow entrance application on a clipboard while sitting beneath a metal air conditioner that clicks. Every so often, the recruiter looks up from the papers on her desk and smiles. When you’re finished, she shakes your hand.
“The aptitude test is June 3,” she says. “After that, we’ll schedule your physical.”
The recruiter’s hand is soft and warm, though her grip is strong.
You climb back into your father’s truck, the dreary spring sky dribbling a fine mist that chills.
Three weeks later, when you show your father the contract with your signature beneath the Air Force insignia, he looks confused.
“I thought you wanted to join the Army?” he says.
“I changed my mind,” you say, shrugging.
He looks at you curiously, like he’s about to ask why, but doesn’t. Instead, he sinks back into his worn lazy boy, the gray light from the muted TV flickering on his face. Your father is tired from a long day at the plant where he works twelve-hour shifts as a machine operator making polyethylene products. When he comes home to the apartment, he smells like iron and gasoline.
“I’m proud of you,” he says, patting you on the arm. “You’re a good kid.”
That’s all you say to each other. You hardly ever say more than ten words to your father each day. He eats his microwaved dinners in the lazy boy in front of the TV, watching Fox News and reruns of sitcoms. You order greasy Chinese takeout and eat the noodles straight from the cardboard container on your narrow twin bed.
That evening, you study for a calculus test you have at the community college in the morning, the used textbook fanned open on top of your pink bedspread. You don’t look at the Go Army poster taped to the opposite wall, but every few minutes, fear about your future fires up in you so bright you can’t see through it to the numbers and symbols on the page. You’re tired but can’t fall asleep, and you wake too early the next morning from the dread flaring in your chest. You worry you’ll fall asleep during the test and chastise yourself in your head. The Air Force is still the military, and there’s nothing you can do about it now.
Basic military training is hard, but it isn’t the hardest thing you’ve ever done. Harder was watching your mother die of breast cancer when you were eight years old.
You don’t have many happy memories of your mother. Before she knew she had breast cancer, she was angry and sad. You remember the day she got so angry at your father she swept an entire stack of dishes off the kitchen counter. A knife landed deep in the back cushion of your father’s chair. A fork thwacked into the dry wall beside your bedroom door.
After the diagnosis, you remember your mother sleeping on the couch, a pink bandana tied snug around her balding head, her lips thin and gray as newspaper, the skin hanging loose off her hairless arms. At least she wasn’t as sad or angry then. You remember her smiling painfully at you, scooting over on the couch to make a small cove for you to lie against her belly, resting her weightless arm across your shoulder as the two of you watched TV.
You knew your mother was dying before you knew what dying was. Your father told you. “Mom is dying,” he said, tears leaking silently out of his eyes. To you, dying was a word that meant everything that was wrong with the world.
In basic training outside Omaha, you bunk above a black girl named Kelly. Kelly is nineteen. She’s from New Orleans, but grew up in Houston thanks to Hurricane Katrina. In high school, she played every sport: softball, basketball, soccer, volleyball. She was on the swim team too until they kicked her off for punching another swimmer in the nose. You like Kelly because Kelly likes you. She calls you spider legs because you run fast for a short, skinny, white girl.
Kelly is the opposite of you: she is loud, funny, strong, clever. The two of you sit next to each other in the mess hall and she tells stories that make the other recruits laugh. You sit quietly, smiling to yourself, sharing an occasional sideways glance and wink with Kelly. At night, Kelly tells you stories about growing up in Houston’s Third Ward, about sleeping on the floor with her kid sister in case bullets flew through the windows, about the crack house down the street and the prostitutes lying slumped against rusty trashcans.
Kelly has a plan. She’s going to becoming an Air Force pilot and make enough money to send her sister to medical school. “If I don’t, who will?” Kelly whispers into the dark.
“Why did you enlist?” she asks you.
You lick your lips. They taste like steel.
“I like shooting,” you say. “My dad took me to the gun range a lot when I was a kid.”
“We never did shit like that,” says Kelly. “Go to a gun range—fuck. Cops would be suspicious.”
When another recruit makes a wisecrack about you and Kelly being lesbos, Kelly shoves the recruit into a wall and the recruit sprains her wrist. A panel of military training instructors transfer Kelly to another unit, threatening discharge if she acts out again. Before Kelly leaves, she grabs you by the shoulders and glares at you fiercely.
“Don’t fuck up, spider legs,” she says.
After Kelly is gone, you pour all your attention into the drills. You run faster, pump heavier, shoot straighter. You study hard and it pays off: your instructor recommends you for intelligence analysis. When your father arrives at the end of the training to watch you receive your badge, you tell him you’re deploying to South Korea at the end of the month to work with a team of intelligence specialists. He smiles proudly and pats you on the shoulder, then removes a pack of cigarettes from the back pocket of his jeans.
“That’s my girl,” he says, fingers crinkling the plastic wrapper.
Before the deployment, you text Kelly, but Kelly never responds. Later, you find out from another enlisted woman that Kelly was discharged for fighting over a spot in line for the shower.
“They didn’t give her a second chance,” the woman says. “You can’t blame them.”
Outside Seoul, you live in a dank barracks that smells like kimchee. When you open your wardrobe to retrieve your black combat boots, cockroaches scuttle across the tile floor. Your father mails you a birthday card with a sparkly pink cake on the cover, and you tape it to the ceiling above your bed. You know nothing about South Korea, and you never expected it to be so cold.
Your intelligence team is seven other Air Force guys on their second, third, and fourth tours of duty, and you. On the first day, one of the guys, Steve, stands an inch from your face and says, “How’d they let you through tech school?” You think about Kelly, punching a girl in the nose. You say, “You do your job, I’ll do mine.” If you can do your job, you can stay here. Staying here is the goal.
In a windowless building, under dim fluorescent lights, you stare at grainy black-and-white photographs of North Korea, searching for anything. “There,” you say, focusing on a greyish square, and you’re correct. The commanding officer, Lieutenant Reyes, claps you on the shoulder. “Well done.”
Lieutenant Reyes invites the team to Thanksgiving dinner. Instead of turkey, he grills hamburgers and hot dogs on the back porch of his apartment. You bring the only dish you know how to make: homemade macaroni and cheese, your mother’s recipe. The guys play ping-pong on Reyes’ table. Steve drinks a beer in the corner. It’s freezing outside, but Reyes leaves the door open so everyone wears their jackets. You’re glad; you feel safe all bundled.
Nobody eats the macaroni and cheese, but when Steve challenges you to a game of ping-pong, you say, “It’s on.” Half an hour later, you’re sweating in your long-sleeved wool shirt, even with the sleeves rolled past your elbows. Steve curses when he misses the ball, losing the game. The men cheer. “Mother fucker,” says Steve, flinging his racket to the ground. But he’s grinning too, and when he returns from the kitchen, it’s to hand you a beer.
Back at the barracks, there’s a voicemail from your father. He sounds tired and old as he wishes you a happy Thanksgiving. You retrieve another beer from the fridge, even though you’ve had too many. Fuck it, you think, it’s Thanksgiving. You sit in the dark fiddling the metal bottle cap, drinking the cold beer. You’re thinking about Steve, about the way sweat streaked the sides of his face, the way his black hair curled around his small ears, the way he knew just how to hit that ping-pong ball. The beer is icy, but you feel warm.
You admit it: you would like to sleep with Steve. You imagine meeting him at a bar, sipping a glass of bourbon, sliding into his lap. But you won’t do any of that. Instead, you work harder. For every photograph Steve deciphers, you decipher three more. For every morning Steve arrives early, you arrive an hour earlier. For every beer Steve drinks at the bar on Friday nights, you order the same without getting drunk until the guys know you as the girl who can drink any one of them under the table.
“You’re one of us,” they say, laughing. “You’re one of the guys.”
A week before your tour ends, you get a phone call from a number in Dallas. It’s a nurse at Parkland Hospital.
“Your father had a stroke,” the nurse says. “You should come home.”
As you pack your desk into a cardboard box, Steve appears and sticks out his hand.
“Good work, chump,” he says.
You take his hand.
“See you stateside,” you say.
He grins. “See you.”
Your father is in bad shape. The stroke paralyzed the right side of his body. When he sees you leaning against the hospital door, he tries to smile but only half of his mouth lifts. Drool drips from the other corner. When you rest your hand on his, the skin is dry, the blue veins unnaturally thick. He speaks slowly, opening and closing his mouth several times before forming the thick words with his soft tongue. You squeeze his hand, kiss his forehead. You tell him everything will be okay.
You drive home to what is now your father’s apartment. You want to pack what remains of your childhood before your next deployment. It only takes an hour to pack what little you want to keep: a few delicate golden necklaces your mother owned, a battered lamp, some warm clothes.
You want to go somewhere but you don’t own a car and your father’s truck is still at the hospital. You open his bedroom door, walk straight to his bedside table. Inside, beneath a stack of old crossword puzzles cut from the Sunday paper, is the Ruger 9 mm pistol. It’s heavy and solid in the palm of your hand. Underneath the bed, you find its black plastic case and a box of extra bullets.
The gun range is five blocks from your father’s apartment. It’s drizzling when you arrive, and you’re the only one there besides the middle-aged man behind the counter who sells you a second box of bullets and five paper sheets of red targets. It’s cold in the indoor range, and you’re glad you brought gloves, even if they are the frayed knit gloves you wore as a child.
You pick a lane, clip a target to the stand, send it sailing downrange on the motorized conveyer. The Ruger is cold and firm. You stand with your hips angled left, your right eye balancing the bullseye above the rear and front sights, like your father taught you. “Deep breath in, half a breath out,” you hear him say. He stands back. “Now, squeeze the trigger.” You squeeze, confident. Boom. The smell of gunpowder and the golden shell flies, clatters to the concrete. Five more shots and you empty the chamber. You leave a hole in the center of the target, where a red circle should be.
Elizabeth Hamilton’s work has appeared in s/word, Cordella Magazine, and The Dallas Morning News, among other publications. Currently, she is working toward her MFA in Fiction Writing at Seattle Pacific University, WA. This year, her fiction will be featured at the Dallas Museum of Art. She lives in Dallas, TX.