sunday tribune logo
go button spacer This Issue spacer spacer Archive spacer

In This Issue title image
News   spacer
Sport   spacer
Business   spacer
Property   spacer
Tribune Review   spacer
Tribune Magazine   spacer


Tribune Archive

By Brian Kirk

THE man in the booth beside Jefferson says his coffee is cold, he wants it fresh and hot. The waitress bites her tongue, but Jefferson can hear the word she thinks real plain.

And when he finally puts on his coat and leaves, the glass door sprung back safely in its place, she mouths the sole word asshole at his retreating back. Jefferson sees this clearly, although he faces the other way.

These days he can see everything.

Now it is too late, all things have become paradoxically apparent from his lowly perspective, and he in turn irrelevant to the point of nonexistence.

He slides along the bench to where the man was sitting and takes the newspaper he left behind before getting to his feet.

As he leaves he feels the waitress's eyes upon him, and is injured once again by pity. The glass and metal door is heavy, awkward for him, with his one good arm, but no one stands to help him. They've met his kind before, they know the insults that await them if they patronise him. He stuffs the newspaper in his coat pocket (a difficult enough task in itself) and tries the door again, hot and bothered now, embarrassed by his lack . . . as if a right arm lost in combat, in the service of your Far off a star is dancing to the celestial music of the spheres.

A comet flashes past, meteors and meteorites rain down on worlds of ice or fire in distant galaxies.

Much nearer, man, or his machine, is falling through space, giving the appearance of conquering it.

Nearer again the ozone dissipates, below that cloud and rolling thunder, sparks of electricity visible in the night sky. At the coast, waves pound against the shore, while in the mountains volcanoes bubble forth hot gas, and on the western seaboard quakes are felt, first a trembling, later a rupturing convulsion.

But down in the dirt, underneath the grass, in a small garden in Rogers, Arkansas, a worm is toiling, busying itself for us, mankind, regenerating waste, turning bad to good, fearing only birds and salt. Yet no one seems to notice. country, was something shameful.

Eventually he manages it, but the heavy door swings back, catches his trailing heel and sends him stumbling across the sidewalk dangerously near the busy street.

A passer-by, an older man, deftly catches his good arm and steadies him. Jefferson glares at him but does not speak. Fifty pairs of sympathetic eyes are trained on him through the plate glass window of the cafe. He knows this without turning around.

The doctors say that his prosthesis will be ready in four weeks, that when it's fitted and he's grown accustomed to it, his life will be much the same as it was before. How could they promise that? He said nothing by way of a response, which he reckons is the best policy these days. He says nothing also to the guy on the desk at the Veterans' Hostel when another day passes with no disability cheque in the mail. When he came home first, honourably discharged, patched up and shipped out from that abattoir in Baghdad they called a hospital, he was so grateful just to be alive. He stowed his discharge papers, neatly folded, in his breast pocket and fingered them from time to time with his one hand, as a young wife might absently stroke the tear-stained letters from a far away husband in the service overseas.

He laughs, a breathy joyless laugh, to think that he considered himself lucky then. Once outside the war zone that feeling left him within days, and by the time he was back in Arkansas he blamed everyone for what had happened; his country, the Iraqis, the government, the people who voted for them, the officers of the 39th Brigade, the TV and the newspapers, and of course himself. He was the one who signed up after all. What was he thinking? He left his wife and two small boys, for what? To fight an unwinnable war in a country he could not even find on the map. It was the money of course, and he knew that. But more than that, he needed a job that wasn't in a burger joint or a poultry plant, the kind of places his Mom had worked in all her life.

Now he's staying in a veterans' hostel in Little Rock, waiting for the butt of his arm to heal enough so they can attach a prosthetic.

He's got no home now because Shirley's let their place in Rogers go and taken the kids to her Mom's in Cabot . . . for their own sake, she told him over the phone.

He hasn't even seen them since he got back, she won't let him and he knows it's because of the arm; he reckons she thinks he's different now somehow, broken, and sometimes maybe he thinks she's right. She's wondering how will he ever get a job, when he can't work a machine, hell he can't even drive! But he can, or he will, once he gets his new arm . . . he could be a cabbie or truck driver, Jesus, he'd go straight back to flippin' burgers for the kids' sake, but she won't see that. She just sees him in her mind with his right arm gone, like some kind of freak who might frighten the children. Who knows, maybe she told them their father died out there in the desert, fighting for freedom.

His mother wants him to go home to Rogers, but he won't. She thinks it would be some comfort for him now, to be with her and her memories and her photograph collection of family, mostly dead, and friends, now mostly gone, all neatly stored in albums carefully marked by year.

He can't stop thinking about the dead these days. The list of the soldiers of the 39th who were killed over there, the two in particular who died on the day he lost his arm in a mortar attack in Taji. We were bringing them food, water, medical supplies for God's sake! They didn't care who got killed, soldiers, American, Iraqi, civilians, women or children. He can still hear the inhuman screams of the women scouring the debris in search of their children, but the smell was the worst, that stays with him always.

He doesn't eat much anymore, survives mainly on coffee and cigarettes. In Rogers his Mom would spend her whole time cooking for him, believing as all her generation do that a full belly is the cure for most problems in this life. She had it hard, coming here to the chicken factories when she was no more than a kid.

Coming from almost nothing in a Mexican border village to find only hard work and long hours was enough for her however. The dream was always real, nothing could dispel it, not the premature death of her husband, the loss of a teenage daughter to crack, or the maiming of an only son in a war fought in the name of her adoptive country. God was good. Jefferson knew she would never change, never flinch in her strain of patriotism no matter what.

Jefferson Thomas Martinez she christened him, not after Thomas Jefferson the third president, but after Jefferson Thomas, one of the Little Rock Nine, black kids who in 1957 contrary to a Supreme Court ruling were prevented from attending Little Rock Central High by the local Democrat governor because of the colour of their skin. She loves to talk about that time, how they held firm and won out in the end with the help of the righteous . . . and federal troops.

She likes to look for hidden meanings and signs, and she found one in another more famous governor, a Democrat also, when Jefferson was in high school.

William Jefferson Clinton will always be a saint in her eyes no matter what they say about him.

She has a mind that can easily extract and digest those elements of a story that appeal to her outlook and discard the rest.

During the year following the conflict concerning the Little Rock Nine, not far away in Fort Smith, Elvis Presley started basic training. She always liked that boy as well; he wasn't white, he was mixed race just like you Jefferson, she used to say.

Jefferson was sitting on the sidewalk on Martin Luther King Drive with his head in his one hand when the cops pulled up beside him. He couldn't answer their questions, just kept babbling on about the kids, about Shirley, and how he just had to see them.

A half hour before he had caused a commotion in the lobby of the Children's Hospital around the corner. Somehow he got it into his head that his boys were in there, but they wouldn't let him in. He was confusing things again, mixing up the present with the recent past in Taji. He kept going on about a bomb, a bomb attack, he knew it wasn't right, but he just kept saying it, thinking they would let him see his sons. He knew it wasn't right, what he was saying, he registered the panic in the eyes of the security guards, he read their thoughts as they scrutinised his overcoat, incongruous in the late April sunshine.

The cops took him to the station, booked him in and made some calls. They knew exactly what he was . . . the amputation is a give away these days . . . so they were gentle with him. After some hours they led him to a room where an old white man was waiting for him. Jefferson didn't want to see him, didn't trust him, didn't like the way he whispered to the officer either as he left them on their own.

"They're gonna let you go Jefferson. Your Momma wants you home son, she loves you."

"Don't call me that!" Jefferson spat the words out, surprised by the violence of his emotion.

"Okay. I know I'm not your dad, but I'd do anything to see your mother happy. She wants you home Jefferson."

Jefferson sat down across the table from his stepfather, watching him silently as he spoke.

"Your mother just wants to help you. She has your room ready.

Don't worry, I'll keep out of your way. I spend most of the time in the garden anyway. Do you like flowers, plants, growing things Jefferson? No? Well, it's all I do now since I retired. Amazing the things you see when you look, little things that were there right under your nose all along. Like the worms, what they do, you wouldn't believe. They take trash, Jefferson, waste, and turn it into the good stuff. I used to think they were bad, like little snakes or something . . . how wrong can a fella be."

Jefferson had stopped listening to him, and was already seeing himself back in his old house, confronted by the silver-framed photos of his parents, his and his sister's Communion and Confirmation days, and the one of him in uniform with both arms still intact. And the kids, his kids' smiling faces beaming at him from all over the house, no hiding places there at all.

He looked at Bob Kelleher's skinny old frame with its excess of pink rubber skin, and not for the first time he wondered why his mother had chosen to marry him.

Each time he thought this, his father, tall, muscular, dark as mahogany, appeared in his mind, and he felt his presence there like the onset of a migraine.

They drove on out to Rogers in this beautiful April sunshine in silence. Jefferson was thankful that Kelleher held his tongue. He knew that he had lost a son in the war last year, and could therefore have legitimately used this fact to engage Jefferson in a direct discussion about the war and how it was being fought. But Kelleher had changed his mind about the war since his boy died, and no longer felt the urge to discuss it at all, no longer felt in a position to bolster this administration's stance in the face of escalating casualties.

He remained quiet also for his wife's sake, because he knew she was proud of her son, and what he had given for their country. She always believed he was a good boy even when he want off the rails as a teenager, hanging around with the 18th Street gang for a time.

While Bob was collecting her boy she had made her way down to the church, as she did every day, to light candles and say prayers. The list of intentions grew longer with each passing year it seemed, but she also had something to be thankful for she thought, happy that her son was coming home.

She loved this time of year best, when Christ was risen and the sun's heat increased day by day.

On Sunday she had sat beside Bob at mass and heard once again the good news of hope that Jesus brought to the apostles who were distraught and in hiding. Be not afraid. And then Thomas, the doubter, and his insistence on touching the scarred flesh. She thought of the five wounds on His body and remembered one summer years ago a boy from the gangs on the back of a pick-up, stripped to the waist, the crucified Christ cut into his hard chocolate back in blue ink, the wounds gouged in red. And she thought of her son coming back from the war with one arm, with no wife or kids waiting for him, and a lone tear fell onto her right hand. Bob Kelleher took that hand in his and squeezed it tight, and he thought of all the pain in the world and how his really wasn't so bad. The luckiest among us are worms, he thought, cut us in two but we still live on.

He squeezed her hand again and they rose together with the congregation to say what they believed in.

Brian Kirk was born in Rush, Co.

Dublin in 1964. He studied English Literature at Birkbeck College, University of London and has been writing poems and stories for some time. Last year he had a story in an anthology of South County Dublin writers, County Lines, edited by Dermot Bolger and published by New Island. He is currently trying to place a recently completed novel, Winter Journey, with a publisher. He is married with two children and lives in Clondalkin.

Back To Top >>



contact icon Contact
spacer spacer
home icon Home
spacer spacer
search icon Search



  Contact Us spacer Terms & Conditions spacer Copyright Notice spacer 2007 Archive spacer 2006 Archive