By J.R. Angelella
Dad's office is an altar—immaculate, symbolic, final.
I sit in his high-back, black leather office chair and it swivels without having to push or set it in motion at all. My feet don't touch the ground as I spin around and I feel like a kid again. I don't give the chair any acceleration or gas. It just goes, unattended. Must be a slant in the room. An uneven floor. I scoot to the edge of the chair and plant my feet on the hardwood, wait to gather my bearings, and then shove off, spinning fast, whipping around, the wheels grinding against the floor. Then, calculating the end, I grab for the desk and come to a dead stop.
A teenaged, Marine version of Dad stares at me from the wall—an American flag behind him, no smile, dead eyes and a shorn head. A grunt. He looks so much like Jackson, something I maybe only recognize now. His Purple Heart has a purple ribbon with a gold heart shape medallion with the profile of George Washington on it. Dad has never confirmed that he was ever wounded in Vietnam, which would have been the only way for him to receive the Purple Heart that I know of.
I remember when Dad told Mom that no man or woman was ever going to tell him what to do unless they could match what hung on his office wall. They stood in the kitchen, Mom chopping lettuce for a salad, Dad washing plum tomatoes. I set the dining room table with plates, forks, knives, and cloth napkins held together in a cigar-shaped roll with silver napkin rings. I finished and sat at my Cherub-backed chair and waited. Dad followed her around the kitchen and asked her if she knew what a man had to do to get a Purple Heart and she replied as she always did about sensitive topics, which was to execute ZSC #1 and ZSC #2—avoided eye contact and kept quiet. Mom filled a teakettle with water when Dad finally said, "Match my wall and I will do whatever you want and whatever you will."
James Dean and Jayne Mansfield hang on the wall behind his desk under framed squares of glass. James Dean is wearing a red jacket with his collar flipped up and a white T-shirt underneath. He is leaning forward, narrowing his eyes. What was he looking at when the picture was taken? His arm crooks in an L-shape, hand en route to lips with a lit cigarette pinched between two fingers. Dad loves James Dean. Dad says James Dean was a real man. Lived fast and died young. Died in a car accident. Yeah. Dad says the same thing about Jayne Mansfield. He says Jayne Mansfield was a real woman. Died in a car accident. Her head was cut off clean from her body. That's called decapitated. Yeah. But, goddamn, she was sexy!
In her poster, Jayne Mansfield wears a sparkle dress. It's black and shiny and she is leaning back on a chair, holding a cigarette like James Dean except her cigarette is stuffed inside one of those thin black cigarette holders that all those super-rich women used to smoke through. Anyway, Jayne Mansfield is leaning back and smoking and her hair is super, super blonde and curled up in the front. You can't see any cleavage. Her tits are pushed down under the dress but she is wearing these gold bracelets and necklaces that show off her pale skin. Dad says that Jayne Mansfield is what all women should be.
I wonder why he married Mom. Mom has brown hair and doesn't smoke and doesn't have a Purple Heart.
I pull myself closer to Dad's monstrous wood desk and examine it like a crime scene. Yellow Post-it notes stick to the desk pad—each with a date, a number, and names.
7/25 4 Beekman, Rogers, Santiago, Williams
8/15 2 Holdsworth, Giorgiano
8/29 6 Andersen, Trout, Druller, Mapleton, Ott, McDowell
9/5 ? ?
Doodles cover other Post-its, drawn in dark, heavy black pen, carved into the paper like they'd been traced hundreds of times. The doodles look crude and violent; body parts wearing Windsor knots—a foot, an arm, an ear, a tongue. Everywhere I look I see more body parts with fat knots. More numbers and more dates. Older dates going back before July and more names.
Everly, Kleaversdorf, Vaille, Goodwell, Robison, Price, Young.
The handwriting is small—no, not small, tiny.
There is an open book, a dissected face diagramed and cut down into specific parts, showing the layers of muscles and nerves and bone. I flip it closed with my thumb as a placeholder and run my fingers over the red fabric of the cover: Christopher's Textbook of Surgery. I push back from the desk and open his desk drawers, descending, starting at the top and moving down with increasing speed. I dig through pens and legal pads, a calculator and realty brochures and business cards with Dad's face and fake fucking smile, a home office medical kit filled with Band-Aids, gauze, a tiny bottle of iodine, and medical manuals on emergency field surgery. I flip through hanging folders, mostly bills and birth certificates, social security cards, and bank statements, but also Dad's not-so-secret collection of seventies Playboys. Mainly girls with hairy bushes and big hair. Dad doesn't know that I know about his handful of old man magazines because Jackson showed me once when I was asking him questions about boobs and why they all had different sizes. The pages are fragile, stiff and wrinkled from water damage. These magazines were the magazines that Dad carried with him when he was in the shit, as he likes to say, soaked through from the torrents of rain.
His magazines are nothing like my magazines.
I open his office closet. It looks like an evidence locker in the basement of a police station. A floor-to-ceiling shelving unit bursts at the seams with boxes of all sizes. Thick black words mark boxes in years—1987, 1996, 2001—or in names and associations—Jackson/College, Corrine/Medical Rehab, Jeremy/Sum-mer Camp, Ballentine/Brochures, Dog/Veterinarian. Minimal, cold, exact.
I thumb through the more accessible boxes at the bottom of the closet marked in years. Boring shit mostly—incomprehensible financial paperwork with tricolored pie charts and line graphs and percentage numbers. I move on to a few boxes marked with names and associations, but they really interest me less, that is except for one.
It's clearly the largest box in the closet—unmarked, anonymous, a plain brown box. I slide it off the shelf and place it on the floor. The box is deep and heavy and long. I unfold the flaps and find that the box is marked along the inside flaps, with tiny lettering, to be kept a secret.
Ballentine Barker's Box of War.
Inside, there's a story. First, a canteen. I shake it. It's empty, but I unscrew the top anyway and am hit with the smell of some kind of alcohol. Whisky, I think—something Dad said he always asked my grandparents to send him. An envelope holding a necklace with two silver tags, dog tags. Folded, faded maps—absolutely nothing recognizable to me. A stack of Polaroids. Young Dad holding big guns. Dad standing with other Marines, holding their own big guns. Dad and other Marines with their big guns at the camera. Other Marines with their big guns at each other. Smaller guns to their own heads. Their big guns at photos of naked women with big bushes taped to the wall of their barracks. Dad looks thin and clean cut, wide-eyed, but not in a scared way, instead in a wide-eyed, let-too-much-light-in kind of way. He smiles in most of the photos, a similar smile to the fake fucking one he has in all of his realtor materials. Dad wears a green T-shirt and camouflage, smokes a cigarette, his arm around another Marine, a blond guy. They stand in front of a jungle that's completely in flames. The caption reads: oblivion. In another picture, Dad drinks a can of beer, standing over a dead body—face down on the ground. The dead body is missing an ear, like it had been cut clean off. Dried blood caked around the wound from where it dripped down the side of his face. It was so clear that I could even see flies that had landed on the body. Pictures of foreign women in bars barely dressed—whores or hopeless women in short skirts with a lot of make-up. Some make kissy faces at the camera. Two girls French kiss in a blurry haze of red and green neon light. A girl hangs on Dad's arm and the girl isn't Mom. The girl is Asian. Another picture of Dad, sitting on a cot in a tent, shirtless, dog tags dangling down—above him a sign written in red paint: fuck this shit. The last picture is a profile picture, like George Washington in the Purple Heart. Dad is sticking out his tongue through a smile.
My hand brushes up against something cold. It looks wet or frozen or recently shined. Resting there. If it had teeth, it would have bitten my hand clean off. Black handle. Pinky-finger-sized hole. A body and a chamber. Curved angles. Masterful arcs of steel. I flip it over like it's a dead fish—not wet or frozen. Heavy and recently cleaned as a streak of grease rubs onto my hand. I feel the weight of the gun in my hand. An electric charge races through my body, etching under my skin. I raise it and aim it at Young Dad. I hold it steady, not ready to let go, locking it away into my own personal prison. I release the air from my body in a long controlled exhale, a smooth and single stream, and when I don't have any air left in my body to keep me alive I pull the trigger.
The front door—bang.
The gun isn't loaded.
The gun is still in my hand and Dad is coming through the door, struggling with Dog's leash. Shit. I tuck the gun back into the Ballentine Barker Box of War, slap the flaps down. Shit. Dad couldn't be making any more noise in the foyer if he tried, coughing, grunting, walking, moving, breathing, whatever-the-fucking. His presence sounds immediate, like he's on top of me. Like he's in the office. Like he's standing over me, towering. Shit. Dog scrambles across the hardwood floor, released from the leash, her nails scratching as she moves through the house—foyer, dining room, kitchen. She drinks her water, her tongue slapping the water—a tired dog after a hard run. I stop moving and listen for him but don't hear anything until he calls out my name. Shit. The hardwood floors creak and tremor under his heavy steps as he sweeps the first floor looking for me like I did him. Shit. I lift the box of war back to its shelf and slide it into place, pushing it against the wall.
Zombie Survival Code Three.
Erase, forget it, get gone.
Never knew a thing.