Another, Another Day
2018 Barrett Winner
1st Place Justin Randles
Introduction by Prof. Ruth Ann Schmitt, Barrett Committee:
Hello, I am Ruth Ann Schmitt. I teach creative writing at Henry Ford College and I have the great pleasure of introducing the winner of the 2018 Barrett Creative Writing Contest, Justin Randles. Justin is a student in the Journalism Program in his third semester at HFC. From his reading, you may think that he’s been writing stories for years, but this is his second story, which he wrote at the kitchen table. Other things you should know about Justin are that he is father to a fifteen year-old daughter; he also practices meditation and yoga. He is currently reading the Illiad, because as he says, “It’s a long poem.” You might see him on campus with a blue yoga mat rolled up in his green duffle, walking with his notebook in hand. But about the story, “Another, Another Day.” You might hear echoes of the great war writers like Robert Stone and Tim O’Brien in his writing, but Justin doesn’t read them. It’s too painful. But, like them, he’s lived the experience of war. Justin was in Iraq from 2003 to 2004. I also have to tell you I love stories where two worlds collide. And this is very much a story where that happens. This is a war story, although it doesn’t happen in Iraq, but in Garden City Michigan, in small suburban house, in a junk-filled basement, where every night the “I” dreams he’s the bullet that pierces the skin of the Iraqi man he killed, tearing this man from his family. But in the waking world of Garden City Michigan, “I” is tearing himself from own his wife, finding solace with a green plate of drugs. He’s lost his job, his dignity. He’s got a lot of reasons to be angry. He’s ready to self-destruct. And now, I give you Justin Randles.
Another, Another Day
I am the bullet. My body is smooth and shiny. Bronze and sleek. My body curves to my pointed tip, rounded for flight, speed, and accuracy. I am flying with a deadly purpose. Alone in my mission I rip through the air with so much force my rounded head is alternating colors of red and orange. From my perspective, I am so fast the rest of the world seems to be in slow motion. Dust particles and debris float by me as I pass, and I see my destination. A canvas of caramel colored flesh stretched between the eyebrows and a dark brown hairline.
The gleaming head of my body pierces the tan epidermis. The skin simultaneously burns away from my sudden presence and snaps like a rubber band stretched too tight over a rolled newspaper. A few tiny specks of blood jump to give way to my entry. The loud crack is like a thick sheet of ice cracking on a frozen lake in the warmth of early spring. The thick bone of his cranium can do nothing but give way to my presence. Pieces shattering inward and outward simultaneously like an open puzzle box being slammed on the ground. The blood is now an explosion of thick red projectiles, splattering the world with an artful stroke. The frontal lobe, a pinkish-gray gelatin of brain matter, splits apart as my body cleaves its way through memories of the man that the brain belongs too.
A young girl spinning from a man’s hairy brown arms. An embrace of a young boy as the man kisses his scraped knee. The sad eyes of a beautiful women with the skin the color of caramel as the man kisses her. The man’s final embrace with his wife, neither knowing it would be the last. I knew. The bullet knew.
My eyes snap open and my body jerks awake. My actual body. The covers from my bed are wadded into a ball on the other side of the room and the sheets, soaked with sweat and tears, are torn from the corners of the bed. The edges of the fitted-sheet are bundled around the shape of my body, making a half cocoon, as I gasp for air. My sparse chest hair is matted to the skin of my shirtless body. My boxer briefs cling to the nooks and crannies of my groin and look as if I climbed out of a pool. I run my fingers through my soused dark brown hair to try and calm myself, like a mother does with a child.
This was a new dream. A nightmare to be more accurate. I have had a lot of different nightmares and dreams. All of them a wound of some type. Maybe the same wound. It festers and pusses with the reopening of the new night terror. The wound oozes with guilt and flows with regret.
I have had dreams that are so real it is as if I have been plucked from my bed in the basement of a one-story ranch house in Garden City, Michigan and placed in the battle. I can smell the sweat and stink of unwashed bodies and the fresh smell of blood and death. I have no idea who the man really was or what kind of life he lived, but he was my first confirmed kill. He was a silhouette in the evening sky. I never actually saw his face. I created a fictitious and honorable life for the man, maybe just to fuel my shame and guilt. My mind’s eye creating the image of an honorable and loving man pushed to his limits with a cruel invading force.
That probably wasn’t who he was in real life but it could’ve been, and my guilt accepts nothing less. I want to feel his death. I want to feel my guilt because I will never be found guilty. I will be named hero. I hate the word because it is a lie. Heroes save lives.
Living vicariously through the man’s spurious memories. Seeing and feeling his body give way to me, the bullet, the sounds that I knew were far too real has my head spinning. I grab the garbage can next to my full mattress resting on the concrete floor of my pseudo-bedroom and retch bile into the can. It burns like acid and taste of chewed aspirin. I hate sleeping.
I glance around the makeshift area I call my bedroom and feel even more hopeless and disconnected. I have been forced down into the bowels of my own home. My area looks as if I carved it from a post-apocalyptic junkyard. Three-quarters of the basement is left over baby things, boxes of clothes, mountains of trash bags full of soda cans and other garbage, furniture of all varieties, racks of clothes, broken lamps, card tables and a seemingly endless collection of shoes. My bed pressed up against a stained IKEA couch and my 42” inch television rests on a discarded glass coffee table with my Xbox humming in front of the tv. The game was not paused, just a character standing and waiting for life to return. I passed out playing again. I was playing for days. Literally days.
“Oh fuck”, I say as I stretch. I have no idea what time of day it is or even what day of the week it is. I’m hungry but I won’t go upstairs to fix something. Shame is my warden and guilt is my guard in my self-made prison. I reach beneath the IKEA couch and pull out a green plate with orange pills, some whole and some crushed, a clear crystal shard, a plastic Kroger Plus card and a three-inch piece of straw. I use the card to form a long orange line that looked like Pixie Stix sugar, grabbed the straw and placed it into my nostril. I take a long a purposeful snort and say to myself, “I guess tomorrow is another day.”
The sound of footsteps interrupts my laser-like focus into my video game. I feel a tingle of fear and anxiety creep further up my spine with each purposeful stomp. This stomp knows where it’s going. Anger begins to reverberate with every pound as the source rounds the corner of the dingy staircase landing. The stomps continue down the steps into my world. My personal protection of the pressures of normalcy is invaded.
Ignoring the new presence with all my might, hoping that it is not here for me, but I know it is. I can feel the petulance boiling and simmering into a fury as my focus is deliberately in the game. “Hello!” a voice says with indignation, “Can you look at me?”
Casually I look over pretending to be aware of the sudden presence. Standing just at the edge of the staircase and the border of the cave I carved out of a hoarders wet dream is a woman. She is tall, only a few inches shorter than me and slender. Her blond hair styled into face-framing bangs with the rest pulled loosely into a messy bun on the back of her head. Her long black tank top stretched over her usual black leggings and her teeming resentment reminds me of the horror movie character Slender Man. Her fist is balled up at her side like a soldier standing at attention. Her greenish-blue eyes are darting from me to the video game to the entirety of my rubble-cave. The eyes are filled with contempt for my entire existence.
My body quakes with nerves as I open my mouth to speak but dehydration exhaust the attempt. She doesn’t need me to speak, in fact she prefers when I do not, she expects my undivided attention. I will no doubt be scolded for one infraction of the rules or another. I was never very good at following rules.
“Did you steal my card and withdraw $100?” the woman said as I drank a swig of warm Pepsi. As I set the Pepsi down I carefully and slyly scanned the couch edge to make sure my plate full of pills, powders, and crystals are well hidden. My face looks up contumaciously. “I didn’t steal your card,” I replied with resentment at the choice of wording, “I used our card. From our shared account.”
The term “sharing” was a fabrication. We didn’t really share anything. She has the checking account in her name where all my money is deposited. I cannot access the account or have my own debit card. My income is roughly three times hers, but we always used the phrase “ours” when speaking of money, if we spoke of money outside the confines of an argument, which we seldom did. When we are alone and fighting we use the proper verbiage, hers, everything is always hers. When I choose to be defiant and steal her card, because I do have to steal it, and I check the balances and take a little money, always in incriminates of $100.
“What did you spend the fucking money on?” She said without yelling but each word was razor-sharp.
“I didn’t spend it”, I lie.
“Then give it back to me” she knew I was lying.
“No, it is my money too and I have every right to it”, I say with a touch of anger to mask what I am truly hiding, “I can use my own money.”
In truth, her totalitarian authority over the cash has created a frugal drug addict. I somehow managed to stay high nearly every day with little money. Her self-empowerment had made me a very functional user. I work a decent job at the VA and I work hard, if I show up. My tardiness and absences were swiftly catching up with me. I received a written warning last week for my temper, isolation, and dereliction. The truth is I needed her.
Thwack! The right side of my face and my ear is burning with pain from an arm extended open-palm-slap. My ear is ringing more than the typical tinnitus drone that I acquired from IED explosions and the popping of my M4. The slap was hard enough it knocked my vision fuzzy for a few seconds. I look to her face and it is twisted with rage. Her neatly trimmed eyebrows making deadly hatchets above her narrowed beady eyes. She is screaming. She spits when she screams.
“I need it for groceries, you piece of shit!” She says with the authority of an irate police officer speaking to a delinquent teen. “Give me back the money!”
I was confused. This isn’t the first time she hit me, but it had only happened two other times. Maybe not enough for me to get used to it. I also knew we had roughly $8000 in the checking account.
That was our dynamic. She had complete control of everything and I tried to sneak under here ever-present radar. We do not dance, date, cuddle, or fuck. We manipulate each other. The only secret I have left is the plate beneath the edge of the couch and I will tell any lie, play any game to protect it. Her manipulation is more volatile. She uses my depression, PTSD, anxiety, and paranoia against me. She uses money to manage my existence outside of her presence, so much so, I barely exist in her presence. I hide from her as much as much as the rest of society and I am alone no matter who I am with. I hid within myself as much as I hid inside my garrison of garbage. My face is still singing with pain as I see the flash of another hand and I block it with barely enough time. “Stop fucking hitting me!”
“Give me the fucking card and get the fuck out of here!” She hits me again with her other hand on my forehead and left eye. She hit with her full might now. My rage is growing as fast as my fear. I fear this woman. Knowing that I have two options; leave as fast as possible or give in to my rage and force her to stop the assault. Few know the violence in my past. I know the fury that boils just beneath the surface. I never want to see it again.
She didn’t know that I put the card back, as I always do, when I returned from my drug funding mission. She stands between me and the staircase, her thin body seeming an immovable mountain. I try to pass, and she pushes me backward. Whoever says, “you hit like a girl” has never been hit by a girl. Forgetting about the plate under the couch my fight or flight kicks in and it is, as always, flight. My second attempt is successful as I drop my shoulder into the oncoming double handed slap-push hybrid attack and knocks me from balance. I traverse the steps to freedom toward the back door after regaining my footing. Coming to a halt on the landing, my cognitive thinking kicks in, and dread sinks through my skin and into my bones.
Her next move is to have a search party and I forgot the plate. In a rush of panic and fear of discovery I look for something to draw her attention. I hustle through the kitchen into the living room to her usual phone charging location and pluck her phone. My phone was an open book to her CIA-like inquisitions, but her phone was off limits to inspection and even touch. This will draw her attention back to me. “I am leaving, and I am taking your phone”, I yell down the stairs to her and dash out the back door. I run around the house, through the open gate, down the driveway, and to the door of my 2003 Monte Carlo parked on the curb. Suddenly she is behind me and I frantically try to unlock my door with the key. The key fob has been dead for weeks.
“Give me my phone!”
“Leave me alone,” I cry desperately as her long fingers are slithering around my neck from behind.
As her fingers tighten into place and her arms lung me backward my fight or flight instinct kicks in again only this time my reaction is fight. My PTSD will not allow for my body to be restrained in any way during conflict. In one swift and concise movement I have simultaneously reversed my body and batted her arms away. She throws her hands in a violent frenzy and I push her back, her body jerks with the unintended power of my push and she falls into the street on her back. I jump in the silver vehicle and make my escape.
I circle the block a few times and throw her phone out of the window into the grass next to a stop sign, so I can easily find it again. I need to return to my hobble and rid myself of the burden of discovery. As I pull up to the house she is standing in the neighbors open doorway and watching. I get out of the car and a police cruiser pulls up behind me. She called the cops and judging by the officer’s demeanor she told them I was abusing her.
“Get your hands up where I can see them!” The officer shouts.
I comply and put my hands on the hood of my car. I explain the truth of the matter to the officer and by the time I finish there are three other police cars. He sits me on the porch after handcuffing me, he doesn’t seem to care that I am the victim. He starts conversing with his fellow officers. I notice a short officer with a blond buzz cut snicker and they all take turns alternating looks of pity, disgust, and humor. The neighbors and the fresh marks on my face and neck are my only evidence of the truth.
“I am sure you don’t want the embarrassment of pressing charges” the squat blond officer decides for me, “Can you stay somewhere else tonight?”
This is not unusual. Of the three times I have risked embarrassment by telling my story of abuse, each was brushed aside. My mother asked me what I did to provoke her. My father just ignored me probably trying to pretend he didn’t hear anything. My friend told me to leave her but didn’t seem offended by the abuse. The officer seemed to be a cultivation of all three reactions into one. This isn’t the first time I have had my manhood stripped.
After proving to the officer that I did have somewhere else to go so that he wouldn’t lock me up to “cool down”, as if the ass whopping from a woman and the tears of my embarrassment have not cooled me down enough. I say I need to grab some things before I go. I have my reprieve to dispose of the plate under the couch, after clearing the evidence with a few determined snorts, I leave the house. “Tomorrow is another day.” I sadly lie to myself.
**Another, Another Day **
Months have passed since I left my basement dwelling and was forced into the world. She had claimed all the money, furniture, televisions, and even most of my clothes. She divorced me in two months, a whole four months earlier than state mandates, by using a kernel of truth wrapped in a blanket of lies. She even managed to turn my family against me. I read on Google that this type of abuse, or gaslighting, was common but nearly impossible to prove. Addicts and other mental health issues attend to gravitate toward abusive personalities.
When I first left I had slept on the disgusting floor of my friend’s house. Two senior citizens, one with brain damage, two geriatric cats, two dogs that shit everywhere, and a son that was so useless he would merely step over the dog shit instead of clean it. Some piles of poop had white fur growing on it.
I borrowed money and eventually set myself up in a cheap two-bedroom apartment in a desperate attempt to leave the home. I had been clean for about two weeks and happiness and hope seemed as foreign now as they did when I was in the throes of addiction. Desolation and despair chewed at me every minute of every day. I have not socialized in about a month and the pain of isolation is cutting me deep. I want to die. I want to kill myself.
My apartment has nothing in it but a giant beanbag bed, a television, tv stand, and an Xbox. The bedrooms are as empty as the day I moved in. The walls seemed to absorb my pain sadness and reflect it back at me. It was a miserable existence. I want to die. I paced the short hallway down to the master bed and back to the living room. I was sobbing and trying to reason with myself aloud. The complete loss of hope and humanity crumbles my body into a heap of blubbering wails on the brown carpeted floor. The sobs can be heard by neighbors on all sides. I half crawl and half drag myself to the bathroom. The options are many. Eat some pills, open my arteries, or wrap my neck in a cord and let gravity do the work.
I inspect the mirror. The person staring back at me is unrecognizable and ugly. Alone and sad. Angry and bitter. I see something else from the man in the mirror. Something shiny and encouraging. I see potential. The pills were in my hand and water was filling the glass. My hands seem to be operating on their own when they both dump their contents into the sink shattering the glass. I call 911 and tell them I am a suicidal veteran with PTSD.
A couple hours later I am in green pajamas at B2 North, the VA’s mental health ward. My vacation is just beginning but I already feel new. Just having the courage to ask for help has given me confidence.
“Tomorrow is another day”, I say to myself with pride of the truth that finally fills the words.