James served food instead of bombs now. Still, whenever he walked through the backdoor of the Bistro, he half-expected to see plywood walls and old faces. Mundy would sit behind the tall operations desk with his feet up and a plug of dip in his mouth, expectorating with some alacrity into an empty, Arabic-logoed Coke can. Above him were six large flat-screens, each showing a different video feed relayed via secure signal from respective aircraft. Most displayed one-story compounds with enclosed courtyards, dark figures pacing around aimlessly in and out of field-of-view or no figures at all, one or two tracked a moving vehicle, all were generally ignored by Mundy who had long ago lost interest in such spectacle or lack thereof. On a shelf to the right of the screen array and similarly ignored sat a green radio connected to a handset. Voices came from it occasionally, digitized and unclear, doubly unclear because Mundy kept the volume low so’s not to disturb his entertainment (football or movie on a laptop below the screens), but most of the radio traffic wasn’t directed at him anyway. On the rare occasion it was, he didn’t hear it until the fourth or fifth call, when the voice was, by then and understandably, yelling.
“Morning,” Adam said.
Opposite Mundy’s command center was a small gathering area. A sliding glass fridge stood against the plywood wall, its contents mostly bottled water and Rip It energy drinks. Next to the fridge, a set of boxed shelves housed the pilots’ night vision goggles. A colorless Rubbermaid table occupied the center of the space with five Herman Miller office chairs arranged at chaotic angles around it, one missing a wheel. Backpacks and flight bags littered the floor and leaned against the walls under whiteboards, the boards scribbled with various managerial notices and admonishments and the occasional humorous or lewd image. Half-empty water bottles everywhere. A microwave and coffee machine near the entrance, the smell of cheap coffee a constant. In the corner a public-use computer. Two small briefing rooms off the main area, each with a large LCD near the ceiling, plywood tables with print-out sheets of flight checklists and briefing items and weather checklists and survival checklists underneath a layer of glass or plastic. Usually weather information on the LCDs or latest surface-to-air threats. Crews set their elbows and coffee or dip cups on top of the checklists because the instructions were rote. The slightly muffled sound of aircraft taking off and taking off, always, the noise amplified when the door was opened.
“Good morning,” James said. “Busy yesterday?”
“Steady enough,” Adam said. The smell of the kitchen snapped time back into place. Sizzling meat and stale bleach water. Biscuits and bacon and coffee. Adam still slightly spectral, a lanky figure laboring over the flat top, particles of grease landing on the thick lenses of his large, prison-issue glasses. James had seen the same kind distributed by the military in basic training. Birth control goggles.
Sharon poked her head through the swinging door that separated the dining room and kitchen. “Four-top just walked in. You want it?”
James guessed the family of four just came from church. Three were well-dressed and sat like they were still in pews. The fourth was a small boy wearing a soccer jersey, and he bounced in his chair while drawing something with a crayon. James briefly imagined the boy’s future sins: the lies, the bullying, the unprotected premarital sex and subsequent abortion, the drug use, the filial disrespect, the drinking and domestic violence, i.e. the gamut of potential male adolescent-to-early-adult behavior. Then James thought of the rest of them, the family, pictured the measure of their lives laid out in a series of sermons, the platitudes and the promise of a post-church eggs benedict enough—just barely—to keep them hanging on to some idea of a better existence once they’re dead. When he approached the table, he saw a T-rex devouring a cerulean Jesus.
“Okay. So two egg Benedict with bacon, one French toast, and one shrimp-and-grits. Anything else I can get for you?” James tried to smile (it was a grimace).
“Hey,” Sharon whispered in the wait station. “My sister’s coming by this afternoon. You need a refill today?” Sharon was the designated restaurant drug dealer. Everyone bought from her: front-of-house, back-of-house, the prison work-release guys, even the owner. James figured she made more money selling to the restaurant staff than she did actually working here. Her sister’s supply system mostly depended on prescription drugs funneled from nursing homes. Products available for purchase consisted of various opioid painkillers (Percocet, Lortab, Vicodin, Oxycontin, etc.).
“Yeah. Vicodin. If she has it.”
Sharon lowered her voice even further: “Don’t go giving any to Adam this time. He’s up for early parole from work-release. Overcrowding or something.” James nodded. “Only reason I sell to you is because I know the VA isn’t giving you the medicine you need. My own way of a thank-you-for-your-service.”
“Order up,” Adam said.
James arranged the dishes on a tray: “Hand me that rag real quick.” He wiped a sloppy dollop of grits from the edge of one plate. Presentation, a voice echoed. Attention to detail.
The last time he ate grits was two years ago. Just chow-hall grits, not shrimp-and-grits, as tasteless and amorphic as the deployment itself. Outside the chow hall the air was stale and dry and dusty. The air of deserts and mountains, of a place that time forgot until its name was whispered in every home after one September and then forgotten again a while later except by the those who moved there to work for three or six or fifteen months. Molecules of jet-fuel mixed with the dust, the smell ever-present up and down Disney Boulevard and intensifying when James hooked a right and flashed a badge and strolled down the flight line, prop engines spinning up on the ramp, aircrews ready to go hunt, aircraft like birds of prey, some even with birds painted on their noses (one aircraft, a four-prop with artillery poking out its side, wore a grim reaper). James was extra vigilant should a pair of F-16s begin their tandem takeoff for, he had learned the hard way, the sound of afterburners during their vertical climb was a terrible thunder, sternum-vibrating and deafening. James walked like a cowboy ready to draw fingers for his ears. Even now, whenever some four-wheel-drive diesel monstrosity passes in olfactory proximity, he reflexively plugs his ears. The smells of that place were the only memories still tangible, the only evidence James had that the experience maybe wasn't a dream. The latrines. The no-flush urinals seemed not only no-flush but no-drain, and the concentrated smell of a thousand bladders’ worth of piss could hit a passerby like a brick wall at fifty yards out, never-mind the smell of the shit. The shit was vacuumed up and hauled away each day by a local national in a tank truck. They smelled too—the locals—which James found vaguely ironic since he thought Muslims were supposed to clean themselves three times a day or something. But then he figured they probably didn't know their own putridness since they all smelled equally funky and canceled each other out. To the Americans, though, especially those who had never really experienced a different way of life with regard to hygiene, the odor was something profound, the revelation that human beings could smell like barnyard animals. He wondered if the Americans smelled like anything to the Afghans and, if so, what.
“How is everything?” James asked.
“Yummy!” The young boy said of his French toast. His head barely crested the table, child’s bowl cut and wondering eyes, syrup dripping from his chin. He gripped his fork with a fist. His mother, blonde and wearing a floral dress, leaned over quickly to wipe the syrup before it threatened the boy’s outfit.
“Very good, thank you,” the father said.
“More sweet tea?”
One time, after orchestrating a kinetic strike, James’s aircraft stayed on station to watch the aftermath. With his video sensor, he watched several dark figures collect body parts and load them into the back of a Bongo truck. They drove to a nearby village and used a wheelbarrow to bring the remains into the courtyard of a walled compound. A woman flanked by two children emerged from the building and knelt next to the remains. Maybe he had been a good husband, James thought. Maybe they were all just pixels, really. James pushed play on an iPod attached to his headset and watched the Islamic wake with increasing disinterest. Don’t turn me home again, I just can’t face myself alone again. The smallest of the two children grew restless and retreated to a corner of the compound and kicked a soccer ball against the wall.
“Kick some ass out there today?” Mundy asked after James had landed and returned to the operations center.
When the brunch rush was over, James went out back to smoke. Adam was sitting on an upturned bucket, cigarette-hand on his knee, smoke crawling across a visage that looked beyond the brick walls of the alley.
“Light?” James asked.
Adam’s eyes came back. He handed James a lighter. “Any tables left?”
“Just one. They already paid.”
“How are things at the camp?”
“Bout the same as always, I guess.”
“You up for early parole?”
“Hearing’s next week.”
“Well that’s good news, isn’t it?”
Adam shrugged. “I grew up on a ranch not far from here, you know. Raised cattle. I’d get up early every morning with dad and make the rounds, check on the herd. I loved it. I was too young to imagine the animals would become food someday. One morning we discovered a bull calf missing. We looked all day and all the next day. Fence wasn’t broken. Then the neighbor—he ran a smaller operation, few acres and some cows—then he called us on the third day or so and said he found the calf on his property. He’d had a cow quarantined in a shed away from the others, suspected she had some bovine disease, was keeping her there ‘til she could be inspected. When the vet had come and they opened the shed, wouldn’t you know it, our calf was in there with her. Just like he was keeping the cow company or something. Nobody could explain how he’d got in there. Course, I was just a boy. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t bring the calf home.” Adam took one last drag and flicked his butt down the alley. He looked out at the street and watched dead leaves scattered by the wind. “I don’t know if there’s a place for me anymore. Out here, I mean.”
James exhaled. He fingered the oval shapes in his left pocket and watched the smoke climb and disappear in the graying sky. He imagined a speck there, in and out of the clouds, circling.
David Gambino served in the Air Force from 2006-2010 as an airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operator onboard various twin-prop aircraft in Iraq and Afghanistan. He continued this mission as a defense contractor for three more years after separating. When he returned home from his last deployment, he found work as a waiter while using the GI Bill to attend college. This story is inspired by that experience. It aims to illustrate the adjustment period a veteran faces when attempting to reintegrate. David is now a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Alabama in Huntsville where he writes fiction and creative nonfiction in his spare time.