"Good morning," he says, an act of civility that some days takes all of his might. Not that she doesn't know, but he betrays nothing until he goes outside and sees that the neighbors have once again tied up their dogs on short leashes and that the dogs are tangled up and howling.
"God. People," he says with disgust, and that is enough to loosen this morning's version of the leash that Saskia finds herself bound by every day. Now her own storm begins over what her life has turned into, and there's no sure way to stop hers, either.
"They have a forty-thousand-dollar car, and they live like shit," she says, getting into the driver's seat of their car, an aging SUV with a cracked windshield and balding tires. "That's what this town is, forty-thousand-dollar cars and people who live like shit."
The town, called Junction City, population twenty-five thousand or so, is adjacent to Fort Riley, the post where Adam deployed from and returned to three times during his seven years in the army. It is in the part of Kansas between the populated east and the wide-open rest of the state, a geography that tends to evoke in people who don't live there idealized notions of America's heartland and the poetry of the plains. As for Junction City itself, it has long had a reputation as a scruffy place, and the downtown neighborhood where Adam and Saskia live bears that out. Across the street is a convicted sex offendera pedophile, Saskia suspects. Nearby is a drug dealer, and a few doors down is a parolee who keeps coming over and asking to use the phone. Poetry in the heartland: while Adam was gone, Saskia slept with a gun.
Their own old house is small for four people and two big, sweet, sloppy dogs, but it is what they can afford. It cost a little over a hundred thousand dollars. It has two small bedrooms on the main floor, and another bedroom in the basement, carved out of the grungy furnace room. Their bedroom is the one with three hidden guns. The baby, whose name is Jaxson, sleeps down the hall, and the basement is for Zoe, the six-year-old, who at bedtime has to be coaxed again and again to go down the steps.
Saskia found the house and bought it during Adam's final deployment, the one that wrecked him. This was where they would claim the life they both had expected to have by his enlisting in the army: house, kids, dogs, yard, money, stability, predictability. She knew he was coming home ill, but she also knew that he would be better once he was away from the war and back with her, that just by her presence he would heal. "That fairy-tale homecoming" is how she thought of it. "Everybody's happy. Kind of like an it-never-happened kind of thing." When he got home and wasn't happy, she told him she understood, and when he said he wasn't yet ready to be around a lot of people, she understood that, too. Her patience, she had decided, would be bottomless. They rented out the house she had fixed up for him and moved to a vacated farmhouse out in the country. It was beautiful there in autumn, but less so in winter, when the fields turned to stubble and the gray sky lowered on them. The isolation finally became too much when one of their cars broke down, so they came back to Junction City, and Saskia decorated the bedroom with a wall stenciling that said "Always Kiss Me Goodnight."
He did. Then, dulled by prescriptions for anxiety and depression and jitteriness and exhaustion and headaches, he didn't. And then she didn't, either, not always, and gradually less than that, and one day she confided to a friend, whose own husband had also come back ill from the war: "My mood changes every day. One day, it's: He's really hurting. The next is: Stop this. Get over it. Get your ass up."
"Nothing will get better," her friend said of what she had learned. "Nothing will be as it was before. Nothing will be the way I want it to be. So I have to come up with reasonable expectations of what can be."
Copyright © 2013 by David Finkel
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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