FICTION October 2, 2020

Soldier: An Excerpt

“The words secret and sacred are siblings.”
― Mary Ruefle

PART ONE

Morning

You might have seen him walking the road in army fatigues that summer morning, eating gummy bears out of a bulk bag. 

On his mind, the black Corvette. 1977 model. T-tops convertible. He’d seen it from the road his first day home, the same car he’d seen in an AutoTrader magazine at Fort Campbell. He tore the picture from page forty-seven. Carried it with him into the clouds, across the water, convoyed it across the desert, lost it somewhere on a mountain where men on horseback had once called down fire from the sky.

Then like a miracle it appeared again, under a yellowing sign with red cursive letters. Little Jim’s Used Cars, Martinsville, Indiana.

He was going to buy that car.

*

A greasy salesman intercepts him at the edge of the car lot. Hear the geography in their voices. A soft twang somewhere between Southern and Hoosier. 

You tryin to get rid a that bonus, sergeant? You’d look real mean in this F-150 Raptor over here.

Across the lot, the soldier eyeballs another salesman, an aging slouch in an off-brand golf shirt. Recognizes him.

Look at this beauty, the greasy salesman says. 3.5-liter, twin-turbo, V-6, 450 horsepower, 510 pound feet of torque. Sixty miles an hour in five-point-one seconds.

The soldier cuts him off mid-sentence. Points toward the slouch across the lot.

I want to buy a car from that guy.

*

Martinsville, Indiana, where everyone knows everyone else and everybody knows everybody else’s business. Clearly this soldier knows this salesman. So why doesn’t this salesman know this soldier? 

Can I help you, son? Kelly says.

Last time I saw you, the soldier says, you said I was past help.

Do I know you?

Did you not teach fourth grade at Poston Road Elementary School?

Kelly fishes for a name. Raymond Reese?

Nope.

Terrance Kirby?

Nope, the soldier says, laughing.

Mitch Dubrow?

The fuck, man! the soldier says. It’s me. Matthew Haney!

Well, hell. Why didn’t you say? I knew it was you.

The hell you did.

You was in my fifth-grade class.

Fourth grade. Yessir, I was. You want a goomy bear?

Haney digs into his pocket. Pulls out the wrinkled bulk candy bag.

Kelly surveys the situation. Sweaty hands, plastic, gelatin, the prism of colors like after the rain. None of this is appealing. But also this soldier. He’s trying now to see Haney with double vision. The grown person maybe just back from some war, but also the fourth-grade child who sat in a wooden desk a few feet from Kelly’s lectern. 

The child wins. Haney sticks two fingers into the candy.

Don’t get one of them green ones, Haney says.

Don’t worry, I won’t.

Kelly grabs a handful. Drops them in his mouth like sunflower seeds. Haney does the same. I oughtta quit these goomy bears, he says.

They both chew heartily. A familiar sickly sweetness.

Naw, Haney says. I ain’t gonna quit these goomy bears.

They work at the candy for a wordless minute. It seems to Kelly that Haney is waiting for an invitation inside.

Well? Kelly says. Come on.

*

Someone has failed for decades to air condition Kelly’s office. He turns on the metal paddle fan. Already sweat beads at their earlobes and the tips of their noses.

Haney sits up straight. The job of the car salesman is to see into the hearts of men. Kelly looks him over, but there’s nothing to see yet.

You don’t want to buy a car, Kelly says. 

I got money.

I bet you don’t got two nickels to rub together.

Bull shit, Haney says. Saved every penny I made when I was in Afghanistan.

Kelly pulls a bottle of whiskey from his desk drawer. Bulleit Rye, small batch, green label, 95 percent mash. Water tank’s busted, he says, like an apology is needed.

I’m a little thirsty, Haney says.

There is a small equipment problem. Kelly is used to drinking from bottle or flask, but now there are two mouths. A possible solution is the one coffee mug (“#1 GRANDMA!”) on his desk. He holds it up for Haney’s examination. 

Bottle or mug? 

I’ll take the number one grandma, Haney says.

I’m sorry, Kelly says. It’s a little dusty.

I don’t mind.

All right then, Kelly says. He blows at the dust impotently. A puff of air from his mouth, that’s all. Sets the mug down in front of Haney next to the bottle like they’re performing a ceremony, which, he realizes, maybe they are.

You gonna pour?

Hold your horses, Kelly says. He measures a finger into the mug. Then he puts the bottle to his lips. They both drink. Inside Kelly, there is a necessary lifting. A relief of body and mind. He lets himself stretch out into it before he takes another.

Haney must feel it, too. He looks out the window.

You don’t wanna buy a car, Kelly says again.

My feet are fucking tired, Haney says.

I know you don’t want to buy that F-150. What you gonna do, take it to the 4-H Fair?

They got some good sheep at the 4-H Fair, Haney says.

What, you need to haul stuff?

Not really.

What do you want, then?

At this, a light comes into Haney’s eyes.

I want to go fast.

*

Then they’re going fast. 1977 black Corvette T-tops convertible on the country road, Haney driving, Kelly in the passenger seat, wind in their hair, nothing ahead but blacktop and daylight. 

Go ahead, Kelly says. Let the big dog eat.

Haney floors it. 

70, 75, 80 . . .

5.7-liter V-8, Kelly says, yelling to be heard. They made em fast in 1977.

85, 90 . . .

That’s the year my mom was born, says Haney.

95, 100 . . .

Jesus Christ, kid, Kelly says. How old did you say you was?

She was fifteen, Haney says.

105, 110 . . .

I see you over there, Haney says, doing the math.

You may want to let your foot off that pedal now, Kelly says. Softly he says it, calmly, like he can make his calmness into some kind of pillow where the adrenaline can lay its head.

120, 125 . . .

You’re gonna run out of road, Kelly says, his calmness almost militant.

130 . . .

Haney lets off the gas. 

The world slows to a manageable speed. 70 mph, steady. The cornstalks unblur. Trees and fences have a new clarity.

Whoo-ee! Haney says.

Kelly takes a pull off the whiskey bottle. Never hurry and never worry, he says.

Charlotte’s Web, Haney says.

Hot damn, you remembered!

I remember all the shit you taught me, Haney says. He beatboxes for a minute, then begins to rap. Fraction is a part of a whole. I’m telling you this from the depth of my soul.

Jesus Christ, the fraction rap! You remember any science?

No. But I remember some social studies. The first domesticated animal was a goat. All them country capitals? Hell . . .

*

A memory. They rise up in Haney all the time now. 

Khost Province, Afghanistan. The convoy rolling toward Forward Operating Base Salerno. Haney in the passenger seat of the Humvee with his people, Easy Company, 2nd Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. 

Rodriguez, asking what’s the capital of Indonesia?

Jakarta, Haney says. Come on. Something harder.

Gibraltar, Gonzalez says.

That’s a fucking trick question, Haney says. The capital of Gibraltar is Gibraltar.

I got one, Gibbs says.

No more city-states, motherfucker.

Uganda.

He won’t know it, Quach says.

No, I know it, Haney says. I got a mnemonic.

Twenty bucks you can’t spell mnemonic.

But Haney’s serious. He’s memorized his capitals the same way he memorized that Emily Dickinson poem, to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” Usually he mouths it, but here he sings it out loud. Kabul, Kampala, Kathmandu, Khartoum, Kiev, Kigali . . .

Kampala, he says.

Rodriguez consults his book. Again! he says.

He’s like fucking Rain Man!

And then, a few trucks ahead in the convoy, no warning like always, BOOM!, an IED explosion. 

The convoy stops for a long time.

*

Pull in here, Kelly says.

They’ve reached the parking lot of the Magic Wand, a kind of low-rent local Dairy Queen. 

Hit the drive-thru, Kelly says. 

At the speaker box, a girl’s voice, young, bored. Welcome to Magic Wand, seventy-three varieties of ice cream, two hundred varieties of sandwich. Can I take your order with pleasure and a happy smile today?

I’m buying, Kelly says. You like cheeseburgers?

Yeah.

Good. You’re getting the pork tenderloin. 

He yells across Haney into the speaker box. Two pork tenderloin sandwiches, extra lettuce. You got any a them crinkler fries?

Sure do, baby doll.

Two large crinkler fries. Two large Cokes.

Water for me, Haney says.

Make that one large Coke, one small water. 

Large water, Haney says.

Don’t get greedy now.

*

They eat their pork sandwiches in the Corvette, in view of the White River. A few discarded tires litter the riverbank. Trash. Rocks. Mud. Some fucked-up piece of tarp. An old woman bass fishing from a rickety aluminum boat.

What did you do in the army? Kelly says.

Radios, mostly.

What kind of radios.

For infantry.

Infantry? Kelly says. You got the short end of the stick.

No, Haney says. I picked it. I did my research. There’s a big difference between being, you know—and I’m not downplaying anybody’s job in the military—but being a cook for the army or being an infantry ground unit, man . . .

No, I get it, Kelly says.

I mean, I scored high.

Like the ASVAB?

Um, Haney says, searching. I’m not really sure what I scored high on, but I know I scored like a 113 on my GT score, which is relatively high for infantry.

What’s GT?

Piss poor as it sounds, I couldn’t tell you. I just know GT is like your final fucking score. And to be infantry, you have to score like super fucking low. I’m not calling the infantry stupid, because in my opinion, infantry is the smartest motherfuckers in the military.

Haney takes a big bite of the pork tenderloin sandwich. Some mayonnaise gets on his fatigues.

You want a napkin? Kelly says.

I got it, Haney says. He pulls a handkerchief from his pocket, dunks it in his water, fastidiously tends his fatigues.

A Martinsville cop rolls in beside them. Rolls down the window. Gives Kelly the nod that means they know each other. 

Smells like you got a goddamn still in there, the cop says.

Officer Dan, Kelly says.

You test drivin that car or makin moonshine in it?

Goddamn it, Dan, Kelly says. You gonna take us in for a little drinkin and drivin?

Might, the cop says. I heard somebody was tearin ass down 200 County Line in a Corvette hot rod. That wasn’t you, was it, guys?

We’re just eatin our Magic Wand, Kelly says, takin a good old test drive, you know.

The cop leans in, takes notice of Haney.

I see. A little joyride on leave, soldier?

Just got out, Haney says.

Matthew Haney, is that you?

Yeah.

How long you been out?

Thirty-seven days fresh from Fort Campbell.

You’re still wearing that uniform?

My tuxedo needed mending.

No need to be smart. Iraq?

Naw. I was at war.

My sister served in Afghanistan.

Where?

Bagram Air Base. She was a cook.

Is that right? Haney says, straight-faced. Everybody’s got to do their part.

We’re real proud.

Thank her for her service.

Thank you for yours.

Listen, Kelly says, we got to get on back to the dealership. I got to get a car sold before I get pickled.

All right, the cop says. I know you got a job to do, but you watch out, Kelly. Them state patrol boys? They been campin out on 37, and they ain’t as patriotic as me.

I know it, Kelly says.

Already, Haney’s putting the car in reverse. They’re in motion.

You fellas keep safe, the cop says. As the car rockets away:

Son, I think you’d look better in a truck!

*

Slow down a little, Kelly says.

I will, Haney says. He lets his foot off the gas. You know how many times that guy arrested me in high school?

Seventeen?

Three, Haney says. Handcuffs, knee in the back, whole nine yards. Now? All he sees is this uniform.

That’s how the world is, Kelly says.

Naw, that ain’t how the world is.

How’s the world?

Remember old Joe Yoder? 

No.

Me, Joe, Devin, Seely? This was ninth grade. We’d just met this new group of girls. That age? We just wanted to go terrorize the whole city, man.

You’re the motherfuckers that filled my yard up with plastic forks, aren’t you?

That was your house? Haney says. We meant to get the next-door neighbor.

You wonder why people quit teaching.

You know Harmony Automotive?

Old factory?

Yeah, Haney says. We had a spot out there we’d hit cars from.

Hit em with what?

Rocks. Eggs. Wet toilet paper. Balls of ice. Frogs.

You threw frogs?

Right there, Haney says. And we’d just run straight back. The only way you could get us? Was if you caught us on foot. We were fast. We were fucking athletic, and you weren’t gonna catch us on foot.

Sounds real dumb, Kelly says.

It was. It was great. So. Summer of going into tenth grade? There was a big, big flood in Martinsville. Put the whole fucking city under water, you wouldn’t believe.

No, I believe it, Kelly says. I was there.

And it was night? And they had that big Road Closed sign outside the American Legion? We were confused. We looked in the middle of the street, and what it was was a big-ass sinkhole. Looked like a fucking cake, dude. Of course my happy ass crawls down there. I’m looking around. And next thing I know? There’s a fucking flashlight shinin down in the hole.

‘Soldier,’ a novella by Kyle Minor and James Yoder, will appear in its entirety in our next print issue, Booth 15. 

Kyle Minor is the author of Praying Drunk, winner of the 2015 Story Prize Spotlight Award. His work appears online and in print in The Iowa Review, Esquire, The Atlantic, Best American Mystery Stories, and Best American Nonrequired Reading.

James Yoder lives in Indianapolis. "Soldier" is his first publication in a literary magazine.