A picture of J D Bergman--for one of my readers
Jack stepped out of the cab and took a look at his mom and dad’s house. He hadn’t seen it in almost three years, and it hadn’t changed much. Jack’s brother, David, owned the place since Mom and Dad had died, and he’d kept things pretty much the same.
The evening was glorious in the way things were in Middleboro in the late spring. There was a softness to it. Warm but not too. The grass was sprouting and the trees had that light green color they had before the harder greens of summer came on. Middleboro was so different from the browns of Afghanistan. The light there had been hard and direct. Here, the soft pastels of a northern spring gave everything a weird, painterly glow.
Jack hoisted his bag over his shoulder and went up to the front door. At first he thought he’d just walk right in, the way he’d done a million times in his youth. But he was a man now, and this was his little brother’s house. He rang the doorbell. Knowing his brother, he was probably either planted in front of the TV or downstairs in the basement, wrestling with friends. Either way, David would never hear a knock.
It took a few minutes, but then David opened the door, wearing just a pair of jeans he’d obviously just pulled on. He looked flushed and a little sweaty. His chest was more defined than Jack had remembered, his arms a little bigger, but he was still David, and he burst into a wide grin and threw himself into Jack’s arms.
“Jack! God, I’m so glad to see you! Why didn’t you…you should have told me you were coming! Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?”
Jack tousled David’s thick brown hair and laughed. “I didn’t want you to…”
“Make a big deal of it? Dude…” David pulled away and gave Jack a friendly shove that was a little stronger than Jack would have expected. “You’re my big brother…home from fighting the evil Taliban…Jack, damn, I’d have thrown you a party. I’d have called the press. Contacted the President. Where’s your Congressional Medal of Honor?”
“Strangely, they didn’t give me one. It’s not like they just hand those out to everyone…”
David hugged Jack again, and then he gave Jack a look. “Some of the guys are downstairs. Wrestling…Foster, Carl…and…uh…”
“Are you pinning everyone?” Jack asked. David was a year younger than Jack, and they’d both been on the high school’s wrestling team. Carl had been on the team, too, although Foster…well…he hadn’t been.
“Nah…I’m mainly wrestling with Carl and…uh…Foster’s here. You haven’t seen him in a while…”
Jack followed David inside and through the living room to the kitchen. “I haven’t seen anyone in a while, Dave. Been away…remember…?”
David grinned and scratched his head. “Yeah…ha…” Before he could add anything, Foster came up the stairs from the basement. Jack almost burst out laughing. Foster was heavier than he’d been in high school, but still short. His skin was pale except for a couple of bright red blotches where he’d been grappling with Dave or Carl. Foster had never been much to look at and he wasn’t now, either. His belly extended over his tiny thong and he didn’t appear to have worked out at all in three years.
Never-the-less, he threw himself on Jack. “Jack! Oh…my…Jack. I am so glad to see you. Welcome home.” Foster wasn’t just hugging Jack; he was hugging Jack. There had never been anything but friendship between them and this display of affection sort of shocked Jack.
“Hey…Foster…” Jack gently pried Foster away from him.
“You look so handsome in your uniform…” Foster was almost gushing, but luckily Carl came up the stairs just then and gave Jack a reason to turn his attentions away from Foster.
“Hey man,” said Carl. He sounded so nonchalant that Jack could almost imagine that they’d seen each other yesterday. “How’s it hanging?” He gave Jack a fist bump and leaned against the kitchen counter. He was wearing a blue Middleboro singlet that was dark with sweat. Carl was still in pretty good shape although Jack thought he had more hair on his chest than the last time they’d seen each other.
“So…does he know…?” Carl directed this question to David, who suddenly looked stricken.
“Jack…” David said. “Uh…listen…”
The sound of the voice caught Jack by surprise and he spun around to see Chris stepping out of the hall bathroom. He was tucking a long-sleeved t-shirt into his faded jeans and looked like he hadn’t shaved in a day or two.
Jack suddenly felt like his face was red and he self-consciously wiped at his forehead.
“Sorry I don’t have time to stay and humiliate you in front of your brother and his friends but…” Chris held up his cell phone as though that was explanation enough. “Work.”
“Uh…hey, Chris.” Jack managed to get that much out.
“I should have told you he was here…” said Dave, more to the linoleum floor than to Jack.
“He still thinks he’s a stud,” offered Carl, who’d gotten a glass from a cabinet and was filling it with water.
“I pinned your fat ass, didn’t I?” Said Chris, shooting Carl a middle finger. Chris had lost his boyish look; he was a man now, with a man’s face. His broad shoulders and muscled arms strained against the fabric of his long-sleeved t-shirt and a pair of strong legs obviously filled his faded jeans. Jack wanted to see Chris strip off his shirt, wanted to stand in front of him, like they had used to do, and measure himself against him. But instead, Chris pocketed his cell and headed out the door.
“Jack…let’s go down and wrestle…” Foster had laid a hand on Jack’s arm. “Let’s see if you can take me…”
But Jack hardly heard it. “Hey…” he said, after Chris, but it sounded strangled and weird. Chris didn’t look back. He just opened the front door and walked out.
“Let’s go Jack. I’ve been waiting years to wrestle you…”
“Are you okay, Jack?”
Foster and Dave’s voices were disembodied and remote. All Jack could think about was how Chris’ back looked so muscled as he’d walked out the door.
Jack dropped his backpack to the floor and bolted after him. He caught Chris as he was opening his car door. He’d apparently traded his Camero for a Volvo.
Chris’ expression didn’t change, and Jack realized that his had probably been a mistake.
“What, Jack? What do you want?”
“I just wanted to…” He wasn’t sure now what he wanted to say.
Chris just looked him over. “You look like you’ve put on some muscle. The Marines look like they made you work.”
“Yeah…” Jack felt like his tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth. They stood there, facing each other for what seemed like hours but must have actually been only a second.
“What?” Asked Chris. “Am I supposed to hug you or something? I’m not the one who took off, fucker. Remember?”
“Chris…c’mon…I had to…you know that…”
“I don’t know anything, asshole. You were going to be my roommate at State, remember that?”
Jack almost didn’t know what to say. He’d had to enlist. There was no way he was going to be able to afford to go to State.
“Chris…can’t we at least talk…?”
Chris looked down and his look softened, a bit. “Look…I gotta go…I’m working…but…” He nodded to himself. “Maybe we can talk.”
Just then Foster caught Jack by the arm. “C’mon, Jack, let’s go in and wrestle.”
“Fost…just a minute…”
But it was too late. Chris had used that distraction to get in his car and close the door. Jack reached across to…what? He wasn’t sure. He just wanted one final gesture to demonstrate that his discussion with Chris had ended on a good note. But Foster pulled on Jack.
“Let’s go. C’mon, wrestle me, Jack.”
As Chris’ car pulled out down the driveway, Jack yanked loose of Foster.
“Let go of me, Fost. Goddamn it. Can’t you see I’m trying to talk to Chris?”
“Fuck him. Come wrestle me.”
Jack leaned in close to Foster’s face. “No! Get the fuck away from me.”
As Jack walked past Foster and into the house, he heard Fost mumble behind him. “What’s wrong with you? I just want to wrestle. Jesus…what a grouch…”