Iwas driving a '69 Chevy Nova 370 four-barrel with mag wheels and a dual exhaust. It's a kick-ass car. I took the muffler out so it sounds like a Harley. People love it. I was staring at myself through the window into the driver's-side-mirror; I do that all the time. I'll stare into anything that reflects. That's not a flattering quality, and I wish I didn't do it, but I do. I'm vain as all hell. It's revolting. Most of the time when I'm looking in the mirror, I'm checking to see if I'm still here or else I'm wishing I was somebody else, a Mexican bandito or somebody like that. I have a mustache. Most guys with mustaches look like fags, but I don't. I touch mine too much, though. I touch it all the time. I don't even know why I'm telling you about it now. I just stare at myself constantly and I wish I didn't. It brings me absolutely no pleasure at all.
My fingers were frozen around the steering wheel. Albany in February is a black sooty slab of ice. The woman on the radio announced the time and temperature: eight-forty-two and twenty-three degrees. Christy and I had broken up fifteen hours earlier, and I was in a tailspin. I had my uniform on, the dress one; it's awesome. Military uniforms make you feel like somebody, like you have a purpose, even if you don't. You feel special, connected to the past. You're not just an ordinary person, a civilian–you're noble. The downside of this Walk of Pride is, it's a lie.
This is my story.
My orders were unbelievable, my lieutenant is an out-of-control high-speed prick. This was his
job. I had to inform some dude's wife that her husband had been shot in the head. The soldier's name was Private Kevin Anderson, and he'd been killed outside of Paradise the night before. Paradise is a bar where all the black dudes hang: probably drugs or some kind of bullshit high jinks. I didn't know him at all.
Not to mention, I was all cracked up myself. I hadn't been to sleep, doing speed all night: crystal meth. Breaking up with Christy had been a giant mistake; I knew it the minute I walked away.
The army is more lamebrain than you can even imagine. My lieutenant sometimes has me and my men go into town and stand guard over parking spots: securing position. I joined up because I wanted to be of service to something. I'd tried college, Kent State, for two years but screw that. Who wants to pay all that coin just to drink beer and get VD? My dad had been in the army, and I grew up constantly drawing pictures of machine guns and soldiers killing the hell out of one another other–shit like that–so I thought joining the army made sense. I figured it was my destiny, and it was, but just because something's your destiny doesn't mean it's gonna be any good.
I thought maybe someday I'd be in a Dairy Queen and some bonzo lunatic would whip out an automatic and start wasting people, and I'd be the one guy there who'd be able to stop him, who'd show some signs of personal heroism or integrity. There are a lot of people in the world. It's difficult to find a way to set yourself apart. When I was twelve, I built a working crossbow with bolts I could sink into a tree. That's about the coolest thing I've ever done.
Now, the only thing interesting or worthy of remark about me was my car. It was tits: silver with bold black racing stripes straight down the center. I never had any trouble getting laid.
I was hauling ass through north Albany into the "darker" part of town looking for this Anderson kid's address: 23761/2 Hawthorne, apartment B. I had all his information in a folder on the passenger seat. The streets were icy and lined with piles of crusty pollution-stained snow. I found the house easy, a big old place divided up into eight apartments. All the homes on the block were done the exact same way. Once upon a time this was the swank part of town–about eighty trillion years ago.
I sat in my Nova under a tremendous barren old sycamore tree that grew adjacent to the Andersons' driveway. Trees are wonderful. My dad was a tree man. He planted and trimmed trees for a living. Sometimes he'd be 180 feet up in the air rappelling around with a spinning chain saw, dead and sick branches bombing down onto the ground. I loved my dad. If I could give you the sensation of being eight years old watching him up in some magnificent maple singing to himself and talking to the branches–if you could hear him yell down, "Jimmy, when you're thirteen and you come live with me, we'll have ourselves some laughs then, pal, you can bet your sweet ass on that!"
–if you could be inside my guts for that moment, you'd know exactly what it is like to be me. Summers, growing up, I worked with the ground crews, chopping and clearing. I was Mr. Know-It-All about landscaping. This sycamore in front of me was close to two hundred years old. Unless some ding-a-ling cuts it down it'll be right there on Hawthorne Drive long after I'm dead. Can't tell you why, but that makes me feel good.
I checked my nose to make sure it wasn't bleeding. Four hours before, I'd blown my last line with Tony, Eric, and Ed. Ed brought the crank. I wasn't gonna do any, but they started chopping 'em down, and like I said I'd just broken up with Christy and–bada-bing bada-bam
–next thing you know I've been talking about Patrick Ewing, John Starks, and the rest of the New York Knicks for nine hours. Tony, Eric, and Ed are a bunch of numb-nuts, but I hang out with them all the time anyway. It makes me sad to think I'm like them. "Better to be alone than to wish you were." My father used to say that, but I never listen to anybody. I don't say that with any pride. It's good to listen to people.
In no way did I want to get out of the car. My lieutenant is a motherfucker. When I think about him, my body palpitates with rage.
Only eight-thirty in the morning and already things were going terribly. THE ARMY. WE DO MORE BEFORE NINE O'CLOCK. Isn't that the ad line on TV ?
I'd always considered the military, but that movie Top Gun
put me over the edge. Tom Cruise on that Nija, banging that girl. Fuckin'-A. That was me. Sounds idiotic, and I'm savvy to that now, but walking out of the dark theater into the mall parking lot, the blazin'-hot August sun screaming down, I felt that film move me like a calling from God.
Needless to say, I'm not among any elite faggy batch of specialized pilots. Drugs were by far the most invigorating thing in my life. At first, I had aspirations. I wanted to go into Special Forces, Airborne Rangers, eventually maybe the FBI. Now my confidence was broken. Christy had been responsible for all the best elements of my life. I missed her. I wished I'd never met her. I wanted to die, so the unavoidability of my disappointing her would be avoided.
"You're leaving me, aren't you?" Christy had asked.
She worked in the hospital, and we were on the seventh floor sitting in the cafeteria breaking up, both of us dressed in our uniforms. She was in her usual hospital garb, a blue skirt and blue blouse with her Social Services ID badge pinned to her chest, and I was in my normal office greens. Her tall lanky body was awkward in the small red metal chair, her skin was translucent, and her big apprehensive gray eyes were trapped underneath tortoiseshell oval glasses. God, I didn't want to hurt her.
"Come on, Jimmy, you're leaving me, aren't you?" she asked again.
"Yes," I said.
"You make me sick," she whispered. "People have always told me about this feeling, but I've never had it. It's awful." She spoke with empty eyes, as if it were already two years later.
We'd been going together for about eighteen months, and I don't know why but she loved the holy hell out of me.
"When you go back to your pea-brained friends and tell them how you've left me and how unstable I am, and they tell you what a psycho bitch I am and all that garbage, just remember that all they are is glad you're back drinking beer with them. They don't know you. They don't give a shit about you. And I do. I love you with my whole soul best, and if somebody else ever loves you as good as me, please remember there's nothing you have to do
, just let them." She choked out a short laugh. "You're my greatest disappointment." She didn't kiss me good-bye, she just gave me another empty half-cocked smile, turned, and walked down the hall, her black leather shoes clacking on the shiny hospital floor.
A family was coming out of one of the neighboring houses and strolling onto Hawthorne Drive all dressed up in suits, dresses, and matching cute little outfits. They were heading off to church looking genuinely happy. I liked them. It's easy to like strangers, but difficult to like people you know well. I was sure I'd like the Andersons. Jesus, I didn't want Kevin to be dead.
Iowa University, my lieutenant went to Iowa University, that's all. Anybody can go to Iowa University. This was his job.
In one quick motion, I got out of my car and shut the door. I could hear how cold it was by the way the metal snapped shut. My body felt delicate, like if my fingers touched anything too hard, my whole hand might shatter. My head felt like a tarantula was gonna crawl out my nose. Things appear differently to me when I'm coming down off of drugs, like the kids climbing on trees are connected to the branches, and the tree is connected to the blowing breeze, and the breeze is connected back to me. If someone asks me if I believe in God, I shake my head like I couldn't give a shit, but the truth is, I do. I just don't know what to do about it.
The Andersons' front yard looked like a frozen-over version of Satan's lair. There were places the snow had melted and then frozen again in thin waves of ice. Weeds were poking their way through the ice out into the air. I could hear Ed's obnoxious laugh mocking me like a skipping CD inside my brain. What a moron. Walking up the driveway, I checked again to make sure my nose wasn't bleeding. The next drug test was in a couple of weeks. I was boned. Always, I had to push it. I tried not to be too mad at myself right then. There'd be plenty of time later.
The driveway was loaded with green bags of garbage. I wondered if the sanitation department was on strike or if Kevin had simply spaced on trash day. I didn't want to go inside. The front porch was loaded with broken toys–a Big Wheel with the front plastic tire worn through, action figures twisted with their legs curled up around their shoulders and wrapped around their backs in impossible positions. All kinds of pathetic playthings in neon colors were half buried in the icy snow.
The front porch was made of wood and had started rotting probably thirty years ago. Stepping up, it seemed to be held together by a half inch of ice. Somebody was bound to slip and crack their head wide fuckin' open. Why didn't Kevin shovel his front walk? He was obviously not an outrageously gifted soldier. Being dead should've been my first clue.
It was unfathomable that I had to do this. Ridiculous.
Recently, I'd been having a problem where I couldn't stop crying–more like weeping, really. The realization that I was not someone I was proud of would slap me in the face. I'd be in the Blue Sunrise laughing or drinking or smoking a joint, or rambling on about boats or cars or guns or pussy or some newfangled anything, and then I'd just go into the bathroom and sit in the stall and bawl my eyes out. I wanted to be alone, but I leaped at every bullshit opportunity to surround myself with more people.
There was this empty hole in my chest; I could almost hear it. Sometimes I'd think I was hungry, or that I had to take a shit, or that I needed to get laid or have a cigarette, or maybe if I drank five shots in rapid succession I could wet it and fill it up, but I'd do all that and this desolate hole under my rib cage would still be there: right above my stomach and below my heart.
If I sat still and took a deep long breath I could grab it or touch it–almost. But when I did that, I'd get scared like there was some big lie about to burst open.
God, I don't want to change, I thought. I just don't.
Turn on the radio, go to the movies, drive out to the drop zone, and jump out of a friggin' airplane. Do anything you want. Just don't sit still.
As I knocked on the screen door with my bare cold knuckles pain shot through my hand. I wondered what I'd do if Jesus Christ himself answered the door. My dad loved Jesus; he talked about him all the time, about the value of powerlessness.
For a moment I considered my appearance, brushing off my pants and jacket, running my fingers through my cropped hair, softly patting my mustache, checking again to make sure my nose wasn't bleeding. The wind blew through my rayon uniform, and my teeth started chattering. I knocked again, this time with the butt of my fist. There was the faint sound of cartoons coming from inside. When I was a kid, they didn't have cartoons on Sunday.
An older black woman with a long purple down parka hanging over a crimson dress opened the front door but left the screen door closed. Nobody'd put up the storm windows yet. A welcome mat at my feet read GO AWAY. The old woman had thick gray wool socks on over her black stockings and no shoes. She was overweight, with healthy bright skin. Her eyes were extremely light brown, the whites a faint yellow. Two children, a boy of about four and a girl barely old enough to feed herself, were seated behind her in the kitchen munching on Honey Nut Cheerios and watching a sixteen-inch television that sat on the plastic tablecloth.
"Yes?" she said. She had a soft rich voice, probably sang in the church choir.
I didn't say anything.
"Who is it? Who is it?" the elder child shouted out.
"It's nobody!" she yelled back. "Eat'cher breakfast and watch the TV." She turned back to me and smiled. "If you're looking for Kevin, he's not here."
"No," I said, "I'm looking for his wife. Is that you?"
"No, sweetie, I'm his mother. Tangerine's upstairs asleep, but I wouldn't recommend waking her up for no reason." She smiled, expecting me to leave.
"Well, that's OK. I guess I can talk to you if that's all right?" I didn't have the first idea how I was going to go about doing this. This wasn't my job.
"Sure, come on in," she said, pushing open the screen door. "Is everything OK?"
"Yeah, sure," I lied, quickly concealing Anderson's folder.
"Well, you don't look too good, darlin'."
"Oh, no. I'm just cold." I checked my nose again. It still wasn't bleeding.
"Kevin's not in any trouble or anything, is he? You're not with the MPs?"
"No. No, I'm not with the MPs." I laughed, as if it were nothing very serious. The heat inside their place was oppressive, I thought I might pass out. My head began to swell, and I was forcefully aware of its weight.
"Does this mean we don't have to go to church?" the little boy asked hopefully, looking up from the television.
"Does WHAT mean WHAT?" the old woman said, looking back over at the kid.
"You said if there was someone here to watch us, we wouldn't have to go to church," he said simply.
"This man ain't gonna save you. Your only hope was your father, and it don't look like he's gonna show up in time." She took the kid's head in her hand and rotated it back toward the television set. "Have a seat," she said, turning to me and removing some newspapers from one of the chairs around the table.
I sat down next to the boy. The table was littered with lottery tickets.
"What's your name?" I asked the kid. He looked up at me, handsome with cropped hair, light brown skin, and huge black eyes.
"Harper," he said.
"That's a cool name."
"I know." He nodded.
"So, what's your business?" the old woman asked me. She was standing by the refrigerator lightly rubbing her arms over her parka. The kitchen was pretty clean. The walls were painted blue. There were too many knickknacks and junk, but overall the house was well kept.
"I used to hate to go to church too," I said, smiling.
"And now you go all the time?" she asked cynically.
"No, I still don't go too much. Not at all, actually, but I would like to go sometime." In that moment I seriously contemplated the possibility.
"You might should try," she said. She was from the South. I wondered how she'd made her way this far north. "Why are you here, son?" she asked again. There was only a slight trace of impatience in her voice. The sound of the imbecilic television seemed to be growing in volume. It's amazing how immersed children can be in cartoons without laughing at all.
"Could I have something to drink? Would that be all right?" I asked, touching my face. There was something wrong with my mouth. That always happens to me when I do drugs, like I'm trying to chew my own face off from the inside out. I can't stop cranking my jaw around and gnashing on the inside of my cheeks.
"All we have is tomato juice," she said, without moving.
"That would be great."
"You want tomato juice?" she asked incredulously, forcing me to meet her eyes.
"If you don't mind."
She opened up the fridge, took out a bottle of tomato juice, and poured me some in a small blue cup.
"Harper, take your sister in the other room."
His grandmother gave him a sharp look. "Are we not going to church?" he asked softly.
"Maybe not," she said, looking at me.
"Yes, yes, yes!" he cheered and grabbed his and his sister's bowl and put them both in the sink. "Hot-diggity, dog-diggity, boom whatcha do ta me,"
he shouted at his sister, and then grabbed her hand and dragged her into the other room, chattering to her the whole time about the benefits of blowing off church.
"Uh, look, here's the deal," I said, the millisecond we were alone, opening up the army file I had tucked under my arm. "Your son Private Kevin Anderson was shot and killed last night outside the base in an altercation that occurred in the parking lot of the Paradise Bar. His body is being held at the Medical Center, where the exact time of death, complete medical outline, and profile of any criminality are waiting for you." I was doing good, looking down at Kevin's folder and occasionally back up at her. "Kevin is owed a military funeral provided for by the U.S. Army. Other benefits and outstanding information will be given to you with the body. It is army priority and policy to inform the next of kin at the earliest possible conven . . . opportunity. And uh . . . that's my job today." All that crap jettisoned out of my mouth. I've been living with the army long enough that their whole mumbo-jumbo vocabulary comes pretty easy to me, even when I'm swishing my mouth around like a coke fiend.
There was a long silence as this woman looked me square in the eyes. I tried to sit still.
"Do you do this all the time?" she asked, with no visible reaction to the information I just gave her.
"No, it's no one's job. It rotates. This month the responsibility falls to my lieutenant, who in turn assigned it to me. In fairness, however, I should explain this is not supposed to be my job." I checked my nose again and took a sip of tomato juice. The juice was warm and gnarly-tasting. The refrigerator must've been on the fritz. "I'm awfully sorry," I added. I was feeling a tiny bit better.
"Are you on drugs?" she asked me.
My whole body tightened as if I were about to have a seizure. I shook my head no.
"Are you on drugs?" she asked again.
"Yes." I nodded meekly.
"Is my son really dead?"
"Yes," I said.
"GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY HOUSE," she shrieked, and threw the bottle of tomato juice at my head. It bounced off the table and rolled onto the floor without breaking. Violence is so tame in real life. The cap had fallen off, and there was tomato juice everywhere. The mess would take forever to clean up. Quietly, the two children crept up the hall behind their grandmother, grabbing her leg and the bottom of her parka.
"What's wrong, Grandma?" Harper asked, looking at me.
"Get out of my house," she said, this time quietly and sternly. I didn't move. I couldn't. I wanted to tell her I understood how she felt–I never wanted to be in the army, it was a whim that'd turned into two and a half years of drinking. I was better than this. This was the worst day of my life.
My father had committed suicide, and the life I was supposed to be living had died with him. I promised myself that if I lived till tomorrow, and if my nose didn't fall off my face, I would change. The first thing I'd do is get Christy back, and she'd help me figure out a way to make all this better.
Kevin's mother walked over to the door and opened it for me to leave. With the file still in my hand, I moved over to the door and went to step out. I turned around to tell her one more time how I was sorry, and she bitch-slapped me hard on the side of my head. My nose started to bleed. I stepped out, pushing open the screen door. The cold air numbed my throbbing face.
"Hey, you," she called out, pissed-off tears welling up in her eyes. I turned around. "What's your name?" she yelled through the screen.
"What?" I said, still holding my nose. Any second, I was gonna start sobbing.
"You never told me your name. You never even introduced yourself."
"James," I said. "Staff Sergeant James Heartsock Junior." My father would've been so disappointed in me.
"Well, Jimmy Heartsock, I will never forget you."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Ash Wednesday by Ethan Hawke. Copyright © 2002 by Ethan Hawke. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.