Sharon Frame Gay
If you like underdogs, I’m your man. It seems like everything I do is a day late, a dollar short. When I get to the right place, it’s the wrong time.
So here I am, sitting in the lobby at the Veteran’s hospital, missing a leg, an ear, and most of my soul.
I went to Viet Nam reluctantly. That’s the day late, dollar short shit again. “I ain’t no Senator’s son,” as the song goes. Far from it. Grew up on a farm in Kentucky and barely made it through high school. The draft was waiting for me, salivating to grab hold of my young, able body and drag me from the rolling fields of bluegrass to the rice paddies of Nam.
If you saw a photo of me arriving in Da Nang back in the Sixties, you’d be hard pressed to pick me out of the crowd. We looked alike in our uniforms and shaved heads, our frightened eyes. Trembling hands holding rifles we didn’t want to carry. I was just one more potential body bag in a meaningless war I didn’t understand and still don’t.
As luck would have it, and I say this sarcastically, I got blown up my first week over there. Yep, that’s right. I was a rookie kid, wet behind the ears, walking behind another tenderfoot who tripped a wire, and we both went flying. I woke up missing half a leg. The other guy didn’t wake up.
I was laying there in the weeds, and somebody was tying a rag around my thigh and muttering “Jesus Christ” over and over again, only Jesus didn’t show up that day. Neither did my leg. In my mind, I like to think it hopped straight to heaven, where it’s dancing the jig by itself up there like a drunk Leprechaun.
The rest is a blur. The medic arrived, gave me a shot, and the next thing I knew, I was waking up in an Army hospital. I’ll be damned if my mangled ear didn’t hurt more than the missing leg. It throbbed like hell, rang like church bells in a Baptist town. I was so busy concentrating on the pain that I didn’t have time to mourn anything else.
That came later. I soaked up the grief by pouring vodka and whiskey and beer all over it. Just as soon as I was released from the hospital, I got drunk as a fool and didn’t stop that day until the jagged edges of sorrow softened. I still haven’t stopped, even when they’re telling me that my liver is shot to hell now, too.
That’s why I’m here, downstairs in the medical center, waiting for my ride home. The doctors wanted to see me last week because my blood tests came back wonky. They had very somber looks on their faces. No more drinking, they said, or you’ll die. Then they left me alone to digest the bad news, talk to a social worker, and here I am with a bunch of papers in my lap, clutching at the sides of the chair because my head is pounding, and life has taken another turn. Maybe I’ll follow my leg into the Universe soon.
I can’t help but wonder why any of that should matter anymore. I’m weary just thinking about it. Maybe it’s time to give up, I say to myself. Surrender. Except for one thing, just one thing that has kept me going, and the only reason I push forward.
She’s walking through the big double doors right now. Casting her eyes about the lobby until they find me, then they light up. Yeah, that’s right. They fucking light up, and my heart sings.
“It was bad up there,” I whisper in her ear when she comes to me, warm breath on my neck. I fold my arms around her. “I’m scared to death,” I admit.
She kisses the side of my face and wags her tail. My buddy, Mike, holds her by the leash and says, “Come on, Dan, it’s time to go home.”
He helps me out of the chair, and I poke along with my spindly fake leg. Misty, my dog, walks along beside me, just as gentle and easy as summer.
Home. Mike says it so nice, but the fact is, it’s a shit hole. A tiny apartment in a mediocre part of town, supplemented by the government, and filled with heartache and junk and dirty sheets. Misty’s bed’s in the corner, but she sleeps with me at night. The cupboards are empty except for a bottle of whiskey, a box of stale crackers, soup, and a few chipped dishes.
An old plaid recliner and a used television are in the living room. That’s where Misty and I spend our days. She’s trained to get things for me, pull open drawers, stuff like that, but I’ll be honest and say she’s mainly here to keep me company. Here to keep me from jumping out a window or swallowing a bullet. I trust my dog. She knows everything about me. I tell her all my worries, and she still wants to hang out with me.
The thought of dying and somebody taking her out of this apartment and placing her somewhere else fills me with terror. I’m seventy years old. Misty’s eight. I’m determined to outlive her, so I never have to worry about where she might end up without me because I promise you with a fierce heart, nobody on earth could love her as I do.
She came into my life six years ago. Her registered name is Miss Devine, but I call her Misty. I introduce her to people we meet on the street by her full name, though, proper and cordial. My heart swells with pride when children walk over and pat her on the head. She stands there like a goddess. Everybody talks about how beautiful she is. The joy I get from hearing it takes away thoughts of my missing leg, and I feel like a full man, if only for a while.
She’s from a therapy dog foundation for disabled veterans. It’s been the only thing I’ve ever followed through on in my whole life. I went to the classes, worked hard, did everything right, even cut back on the drinking. I passed all the requirements, and one day they brought Misty in to meet me. They said we were a perfect match for each other. I thought so, too. We worked together at the facility for weeks before I earned the right to keep her. The first night I brought her home, I sat and cried, I was that happy. She walked over, rested her sweet head in my lap, and saved me.
Every morning, I drag my scrawny ass out of bed and limp with Misty to the park across the street. She depends on me for everything, from her water and food to brushing her long, golden fur so that it doesn’t cramp up with knots. And believe me, I do it up fine. Wash her dishes every single day. Buy the best dog food on the market even if I have to scrimp. Groom her each morning until she shimmers.
Misty rolls over on her back and gazes at me with soft eyes, and it’s as good as talking to God. I tell her about all the years before she met me, and how sad it was.
I couldn’t hold down any job for long. Lost my wife and son because of the drinking and despair. They don’t want much to do with me now. I can’t blame them. For years, I peered at life through bottles dark with remorse and bitter with guilt, cut off from them in a prison of my own making. The last I heard, Sheila remarried and is living in Arkansas, and our son Todd graduated from college and took a job out West. I see glimpses of them in Christmas cards; sentences hastily scrawled in a cold hand.
I have disappointed everybody that ever stepped in front of me, or tried to help. Doctors, family members, the U.S. Government. Even the soldier that walked ahead of me in Nam. I’ve been rubbing up against that day for decades now. We were both only nineteen years old. I wonder if he would have carved out a better life for himself than I did if he had been the one who survived that morning. I look in the mirror and guilt stares back. I’m haunted, thinking there might have been a way to save him. Save us. I wish I’d done better with my life, so his life didn’t end in vain.
I’m not a bad guy, but I can’t seem to open up to the world. Be vulnerable. I harbored plans for the future before I went off to Nam. There were girlfriends, and the farm, and my parents, but afterward, there was a wall between me and everybody. A wall I built with bottles and cans, hiding away from those who wanted to help.
Nowadays, they call it PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There’s a label for that hollowed out feeling in your soul that needs to be filled with something before you eat yourself up from the inside out. An explanation for the fear and anxiety that jabs at me. A name for those nightmares I have that I’ll lose my other leg. Dreams taking me down to that jungle again, and again, the sound of war all around, even though the only noise in the apartment is the ticking of an old clock by the bed, and Misty’s gentle snores.
Yesterday was payday. My skimpy check arrived in the bank account, and I high-tailed it down to the local Safeway. Put a little food in the basket, and a lot of booze. A six pack of beer, a bottle of vodka, some whiskey, and even a pint of gin. It took a big bite out of my money. Then I tossed in a few bags of dog treats and a pack of cigarettes, even though I haven’t smoked in years. I bought a lighter, too, one with the American flag on it.
As soon as I got home, I lit up, sucked down some smoke, coughed and choked. Put it out under running water in the sink, then soaked the entire pack and tossed it all in the trash. Misty wandered over and sniffed at it, went back to her bed.
Then, one by one, I opened each can, every bottle of booze, and set it on the counter. Gazed at them for a long time. Inhaled their aroma like a sommelier in a fine restaurant. Poured some vodka in my hands and rubbed it all over my face, the way you’d caress a woman.
Then I poured every lovin’ ounce down the drain. Heard it fizz and gurgle its way through the pipes, me crying like a little kid that just lost his mother.
A nice lady at the Veteran’s hospital called around last week and found a rehab place that will take Misty, too. The lady told them I couldn’t function without her, and that’s God’s truth. She said Misty was my therapy dog, turned it into a sob story, which I guess it is. The facility said yes, and that made all the difference. Hope lit up the dark corners of the room and spoke to me in my good ear.
I’ve tossed a few things in a beat-up suitcase with broken locks and packed up Misty’s brush, dishes, and food. Stuffed it all in an old shopping cart that I took from the Walmart parking lot last spring, the wheels rusted and wobbly.
Then Misty and I will get ready, wander over to the park this afternoon, and wait for Mike to pick us up.
About the Author
Sharon Frame Gay grew up a child of the highway, playing by the side of the road. Her work has appeared in many anthologies and magazines around the world, including Typehouse Literary Magazine, Gravel, Fiction on the Web, Literally Stories, Lowestoft Chronicle, Thrice Fiction, Literary Orphans, Crannóg, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and others. Her work has won prizes at Women on Writing, The Writing District and Owl Hollow Press. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee. You can find her on Amazon Author Central as well as Facebook as Sharon Frame Gay-Writer. Twitter: sharonframegay