This story is by James Hardesty and won an Honorable Mention in our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
“Is it okay to ask how you got those burns?” he asks, as he places a pint in front of me. Hot dogs come to boil in a battered stock pot behind the bar, permeating the stale air with the odor of cooked meat.
He seems interested, but I know the type. If I told him the story, he’d go on about that one friend in middle school who was burned in an accident. The question always ends up being a vehicle for their stories, and that’s fine.
He means well. Bartenders always do. They are better than shrinks; once they realize I’m not in the talking mood, they back off. There’s a kindness in being left alone.
He looks like he wants to press the issue. It must be the start of his shift; not one noticeable beer stain and his hair is combed just so. This is likely his first conversation of the day. He stirs the pot. I wonder when it was last cleaned.
“It’s fine, man,” I start. “It happened in Iraq.”
“I only ask because I have this friend…,” but I’ve stopped listening already. I know when to bob my head or change my expression.
I take a pull from the beer in front of me, something fresh in my mouth to rinse away the vomit. The straw makes it easier, but I still dribble some down my chin. He’s kind enough not to comment.
He’s talking about another soldier.
“…lost his fingers, too.”
I glance at my hands, my nubs and right thumb. Thank God for that thumb. I use both palms to bring the sweaty glass back to where my lips used to be.
“I bet you have a bunch of combat medals, don’t you?” he says, like pendants can make it all worth it.
“A couple, yeah,” I say. “I don’t like to talk about it.” A whiff of the electric burner brings bile to the back of my throat. I choke it down.
A lifetime ago, I stood, framed by the American Flag, while the President who sent me into battle told the television cameras my story before adorning me with the Medal of Honor. It’s the only time I’ve worn it. A hero’s trinket. It cost me my face, my hands. It cost the government $29.98 and my pension. I cash the checks, but I don’t talk about that day. The shrinks say it’s unhealthy. I lost my trigger finger and can’t tie knots. What the hell are they so worried about?
To tell it now, I’d have to mention the strangers lost as well as the friends who were saved. I’d have to see again the enraged eyes of the suicide bomber as I pushed him through an open doorway, away from my platoon and into the shortened lives of the parents and children who lived on the other side of it. I’d have to relive the shrapnel ripping my fingers from my outstretched hands and the fire that engulfed me. I’d have to face the accolades and thank-yous and the whispers of “he’s a hero.”
I’d have to close my eyes while I described the smell of those people, torn to bits by nails and ball bearings, melded into the upholstery of their sofa by flames that sucked the breath from their lungs without allowing so much as a scream. The same fire that would blister my skin into this scarred mess.
I’d have to recall the view from my back, lying in a dirty street as dust and smoke swirled from the doorway at my feet, the acrid electrical smell forever cemented in my psyche, the blood pooling from wounds I hadn’t yet felt, and the pain I could not yet imagine. I’d choke on the heat of the words, gag on the memory.
Worse yet, I’d have to admit to this stranger, my bartender and midday savior, that I am drawn to The Melting Pot because the only culinary offerings are those boiled hot dogs and all I think of is that family when I smell the element of the burner, the churning water, and over-cooked meat in the worn aluminum pot. I don’t want to think about it, but I have to. As long as I continue to remember them, the innocents who died because I saved my friends, they will retain a whisper of life. I owe them that.
His silence is palpable. I look up and find myself under careful and curious scrutiny as I snap out of my daydream. I’m sweating. His lips quiver but he’s no longer producing sound. I may have spoken out loud. I do that sometimes. His gaze breaks from mine, diverting to the bubbling pot with horror. An errant strand of hair hangs across the deepening crease in his brow, his wet eyes regretting the question.
I lift the pint, directing the straw to my mouth with an awkward, searching tongue. It’s nearly time to switch to bourbon, but I only drink beer in the afternoons. Standards, I guess. After carefully setting the empty glass on the damp coaster, I look at him, give my best version of a smile, and order another round.
The frosted glass feels good in my hands, soothing. The late-afternoon sun peeks through the dirty window, warming my back and highlighting the stagnant dust in the air. The Man in Black comes on the jukebox, a gospel number. I study the steam, the dust, the scent of this place, and for one fleeting moment, I can feel the tips of my fingers.