What It Means to Try How profanity fails to enrich an impoverished life.

Illustration by Nathan Poetzscher

 

Matt called from the road again. One of his friends had killed himself, and he was driving several hours to clean things up. He had not seen Scott in a year-and-a-half.

Matt was an Army scout and paratrooper who got “blowed up,” as he puts it, in Afghanistan. He left the service six years ago with Traumatic Brain Injury and PTSD and used to have to take a fistful of drugs every morning but dumped them for a six of Lone Star most nights. He has left behind a lifetime of opportunities in the four years I have known him to chase things he believes in more. He is not governed by time or much else, except his need to be the one to do something, if there is a right thing to be done.

He was in a bitterly wry mood, and I held myself taut so I did not laugh until I knew the joke and would not agree just because he spoke loudly.

When he told me he was going to Scott’s parents’ house, I remembered he had told me several times of an interest in mortuary science classes. I asked what he expected to find. He said he had been told there was a blood-soaked mattress that needed thrown out. His voice was not steady, so I asked: Had his friend cut himself and bled out? No, Scott owned a pistol and a shotgun.

“And he wouldn’t have wanted to leave himself only wounded,” Matt said.

I cursed, asked if Scott was a vet, and was relieved when Matt said he was not. We talked about a couple of other things, and I wished him luck.

When Matt called again the next day, I was going to let him set the pace, but he got right to it.

“I guess it was a small-caliber handgun,” he said. ‘There wasn’t a bullet hole in the mattress or walls. But the motherfucker left the fan going, so you can imagine.” He laughed.

Matt had crawled around on the floor for hours, looking for the tiniest specks of brain and blood in the carpet and on the baseboards, so the family would not find them later. He collected “three sacks of bio” and got the mattress boxed up. His brother’s girlfriend, a mortician who lived a few hours away, was supposed to take it all, but she fell asleep and would not answer. Matt and another friend went out with the sacks and the mattress in the back of his truck and got shitfaced, he said. They got in at 4:30 in the morning, and Matt set an alarm for eight. They disposed of the stuff at the landfill, and that was that. He was headed home. He recounted how the army yelled at NCOs and officers when a soldier in their command killed himself.

Matt had crawled around on the floor for hours, looking for the tiniest specks of brain and blood in the carpet and on the baseboards, so the family would not find them later.

“I know I’m not to blame,” he said. “But I wish I’d stayed in better touch.”

Scott had become a 3 Percenter, or member of an American militia group pledging armed resistance against a potentially tyrannical federal government, and was out of work.

“I passed his place recently,” Matt said. “I told myself I was going to find his number and get back in touch, but the message was waiting when I got home.”

I waited for something more, but that was it. “I know you know this,” I said, keeping my voice matter-of-fact. “But you’re not culpable.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I know.”

“It’s tough,” I said. “There was this guy I grew up with. …”

“Yeah?” Matt’s voice rose, as if holding me to a promise.

I do not know why I said it. There was no connection. Maybe I was wrapping myself in someone else’s pain like a flag. I certainly was not thinking of the five or six suicides I have known; the several fatal accidents; the natural deaths by Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, stroke, heart failure, or emphysema. I was not thinking of the modern catastrophes of movement and making-do that end so many human relationships in our time. For some reason I was thinking of Bobby McHein.

 

•  •  •

 

McHein sat behind me in junior high. He had gone to the Catholic elementary, so we had common friends but had never met. He was a smart kid with mediocre grades, like mine, and we laughed at everything. We both came from political families, and our grandfathers had known each other from the mine wars and other violence of the early century. His dad was still a circuit judge. My family was done.

McHein loved KISS, AC/DC, and Ozzy, back when I was still listening to big bands with my mother and the Beach Boys with my sister. He said he worshipped Satan, and I believed him. He smoked early, with his parents’ consent, and cussed in a way I did not even know possible at our age. He quoted the Book of Revelations because it was so fucking cool, he said, wheels within wheels and all that shit. I decided Catholics were strange but more interesting than Southern Baptists.

McHein was squat and easily mistaken for muscular, like an untrained weightlifter. He and his twin sister had dark circles under hyperthyroid eyes, like their dad’s, which made their faces froggy. His hair was butchered short, his head square as a box. People started calling him FrankenHein.

The game then was to pretend to punch your buddy in the face, and if he flinched, you got to punch him in the shoulder as hard as you could. That was fair, and I gave as good as I got. But McHein started hitting me in the back during class, when the teacher was not looking, and it hurt. I told him to stop with the sneak attacks, and he told everybody I was a pussy and a faggot, and hit me more. It felt like betrayal, and I warned him. We were not yet not-friends.

He said he worshipped Satan, and I believed him. He smoked early, with his parents’ consent, and cussed in a way I did not even know possible at our age.

One day I had enough and lay in wait in gym class. The coach was a Korean War vet who was going to make us men with paratrooper rolls and a military-style obstacle course laid out on the basketball court. There was a rhyme we chanted in gym: “We’re the boys from Southern Illinoise, we live in caves and ditches. We beat our cocks on jagged rocks, ‘cause we’re mean sons of bitches.” Coach taught us a verse we didn’t know: “We fuck our wives with butcher knives, ‘cause we’re mean sons of bitches.” They named the building for him after he retired.

When the time was right, all of us milling around in gym shorts by the bleachers under the clerestory sun, I hit McHein, once, in the back. My bony knuckles were so big that friends said they would split the skin on my hand. I doubt I have ever hit anybody the way I hit him, with as much glee and pure, mainlined malice. I put everything I was in that punch, and the thing that I was hoped to break him. I can still see him arching back like he was being electrocuted, reaching in vain for a spot between his shoulder blades, then falling to all fours, vomiting profanity. But he never touched me or anybody else again, and his stock as a budding tough guy never recovered. He still cussed violently, but it was only a schtick. The threat was gone. I felt a small bullying pride in determining what he would be.

Bobby never grew much taller than when we had met. He continued to dress as he always had—black or blue jeans, a Black Sabbath t-shirt covered in dandruff and reeking of cigs, and filthy Keds. He stayed home on weekends, like a kid, even when we got old enough to drive, work part-time jobs, and hang out. The one change in his life was a move from his childhood bedroom into his parents’ basement, a comfortable tomb where he obsessed over remote-control cars and planes, sound equipment, and early computers. He had the best library of soft porn in town.

This was all a million years ago, before the Internet, decent video games, even widespread cable TV. When our friend Rex finally got a used car, we shot the loop from the Dairy Queen to the Ford dealership and back, over and over. We shoplifted whiskey and rode full-bore down gravel roads around the strip mine where the massacre had happened.

Everything was just stupid stuff, and it was all funny, trying to outdo each other, inventing stories of the worst ways we would die. Rex, who had stolen a dildo from the desk drawer of his boss at the Illinois Cafe, said he would probably get in a bad wreck and it would fly out from under the seat and the cops would find it lodged in his throat. We were still laughing about it at school, so Bobby said he himself would probably go take a shit on some flight somewhere and the fucking john would fall out the ass end of the goddamn plane and he would fall to his goddamn death a million fucking miles through the motherfucking sky like some asshole piece of shit, goddamn. We stared at him coldly until he shouted, “Fuck you guys too!” and we all laughed until we cried.

We could not name what was wrong, let alone discuss it. Coal had been dead 50 years, and the unions took mutual aid with them to the grave. Our little downtown was dead too. The washing-machine factory was dying. My mother, who raised me alone, had not worked as a teacher since I was born. Eventually she went to work on the line too, but the factory laid everybody off. K-Mart stored Christmas lights and fake trees there in the off-season.

We could not name what was wrong, let alone discuss it. Coal had been dead 50 years, and the unions took mutual aid with them to the grave. Our little downtown was dead too.

In our last year of high school, my friends and I worked at Hardee’s, the only other fast food in town, and sat around in the dining area after we got off, like the old men who came in for discounted coffee in the mornings. Bobby finally started coming out, if it was early enough, to drink five-finger-discount soda. He shouted and cussed everything he had to say, and some customers got pissed and yelled, Not in front of our kids! After they were safely gone Bobby mocked and cussed them too. Our pal the manager said if we could not do something about Bobby we would have to go somewhere else.

We all drove over to a town that had a theater for Return of the Jedi. Bobby loved everything about Star Wars, especially the spacecraft and other tech. When the bug-eyed little Ewoks tied vines between trees and knocked stormtroopers off their speeder bikes, Bobby jumped to his feet in the darkened theater and screamed, “They clotheslined the sons-of-bitches!” The audience shushed and tittered.

The cussing was obnoxious and embarrassing, but he was only trying to show he meant what he said. In the process he created another problem: Where do you go when you cannot say anything worse? His intelligence and feeling found no path.

Our peers went away to the University of Illinois. Those of us left behind tried the regional state uni, or the community college down the road. I was out of money before I started. Sometimes Rex and I got drunk on beer or cheap vodka in the middle of the day. Once I passed out sitting at a table in the Hardee’s, and a friend told his dad I was just really tired. That too became an in-joke. I was a clown, but only because I had potential. When the potential got burned up by time or the wrong kind of experience, I would become something else.

Bobby and I talked about what we might do to get out, but he had his subterranean lair, his parents living over him, his food and smokes and toys. There was a violence in abandoning what little you had, but I began to see that some people will do anything to flop free, while others wait to be gutted for the pan.

For me, those months after high school were like the last convulsions of a fish on a dock. I intended to live, but even that was not to my credit. The thing I was had to move. Its only advantage was being too blind and ignorant to know it was doomed. Bobby and I talked about what we might do to get out, but he had his subterranean lair, his parents living over him, his food and smokes and toys. There was a violence in abandoning what little you had, but I began to see that some people will do anything to flop free, while others wait to be gutted for the pan.

I used my last energies to overcome others’ disappointment in me and signed up for the army. Bobby, Rex, and some others went to the commuter college and played cards in a lounge and laughed themselves silly. Before I had graduated basic training, they quit school too. Rex, always the most responsible of us, became management at Hardee’s. Gordon joined the Air Force. Bobby got a job at a Radio Shack the next town over.

Many weekends I drove home from my first duty station in a decrepit VW Bug I bought. The brakes were shot, and when I downshifted to slow down, the backfire sounded like a 10-gauge shotgun.

“Bang! Boom!” my friends shouted, delighted with the violent pageantry of my return.

Bobby was always the first to arrive at the fire pit in a friend’s backyard. He had loosened up and would drink a few beers while we all talked until early morning. He asked many questions about military service and said he had always thought it would be fucking cool to fly choppers for the army. Goddamn right, he said, waving his can of beer. We laughed and encouraged him when he told us how he had always imagined landing one of those big motherfuckers in his backyard to shock those stupid small-town cocksuckers, he said—the Judge’s neighbors, I guess, or maybe the Judge and his wife.

It was easy to explain certain things around the fire. At Air Assault School I learned to rappel from Hueys and then Blackhawks, to sling-load gear under Chinooks hovering an arm’s length overhead, and to control landing zones. Tying the right knot or clipping in to a carabiner properly prevented humiliating death.

But what was the meaning of the thud of turbine rotors, so violent it replaced your heartbeat in your chest? The hot stink of JP4 exhaust? Nap-of-the-earth flight, unlike any primitive video game in the 7-Eleven of Buckthorn, Illinois? I was learning the relative applications of power; fatigue so terrible we called it going home; the need to keep one part of the mind cool enough to triangulate your position on the landscape. There was nothing heroic in any of these things, but they seemed like useful metaphors.

The Air Assault badge was a Huey fuselage with wings. They were not aviators’ wings, but Bobby said they looked cool as shit, and I gave him a ball cap with the badge on it. He would have a few more beers and start calling choppers rotary-wing aircraft. He knew the physics of their flight, the performance specs of different models, and could compare and contrast their missions. He knew the muzzle velocity and range of weapons he had never seen. I told Bobby he could still fly, and he pretended to consider it, and I tried to make him stop pretending and really consider it.

Our high school class had an unusually large number of enlistees, and I thought that might make Bobby feel less alone. But some of those guys were already straggling back into town. Beaver, who had been the first to go in and had infected me with the idea, was discharged with some foggy complaint. Greg dived off a ship onto a coral head and came home paralyzed from the neck down. That trash whose family lived out by the cemetery said he blew out his knee in army commando training, when we did not have commandos. Gordon got so fat he was discharged with something less than honorable. The stretch marks on his belly looked like a beast had clawed him open.

I was learning the relative applications of power; fatigue so terrible we called it going home; the need to keep one part of the mind cool enough to triangulate your position on the landscape. There was nothing heroic in any of these things, but they seemed like useful metaphors.

Bobby and I talked about his odds, but I was bored with his need for certainty. Only he knew his dissatisfaction and boredom in Buckthorn, and whether training and barracks-life would be any better. He agreed to let me look into the path to his becoming a warrant officer. You can do it, man, I told him. Totally, I said. Get the fuck out, never look back. But he had his first girlfriend by then, and other excuses.

I trained to be an army deep-sea diver and found more metaphors: how every water entry is a suicide, since the person you were a few seconds ago is not the person you are now and now and now; how sometimes you cannot speak to the person next to you due to the medium you are sunk in. I extended a year to see Panama then went back to college at the other end of the state.

Bobby stayed in town and married the first girl who had sex with him. It was a good match, from what I heard. I heard they had a little girl and that he took some better-paying job: cable installer, or manager of something. He was still building things: stereos, when stereos were about to disappear, and more expensive radio-controlled toys. Somebody told me he started in as a supervisor at a small factory in Buckthorn that made wire staples and other fasteners.

He died on the job.

We had not talked in years, and I was in grad school in Miami. The drive off the peninsula took eight hours, and it was another 10 to southern Illinois. I did not go to the funeral but tried to find something more about his death. It was the early days of the Internet, and I had never known his wife or parents.

I remembered that time Bobby bought one of the first CDs ever made and told us lasers read what was beneath the plastic, so you could do anything to the disc and it would still play. He scratched the disc all over on both sides with his house key, and when it would not play anymore he threw it out the car window in an explosion of cussing and laughter. That time he put a bunch of money and time into some RC car and ran it into the concrete wall of the IGA grocery at 30 miles per hour, for our amusement. That time he said he would try out a taser I had bought, when I worked at a crime-ridden gas station, on his own leg, and how we all laughed and egged him on. There was a brief crack, and he fell to the floor in agony. He was always getting hurt and playing it off like some goof.

I trained to be an army deep-sea diver and found more metaphors: how every water entry is a suicide, since the person you were a few seconds ago is not the person you are now and now and now; how sometimes you cannot speak to the person next to you due to the medium you are sunk in.

A year after he died I saw an old guy from Buckthorn at a wedding. I had forgotten he was the foreman at the plant where Bobby was killed. He had a son our age, a lifer in the Navy, and was always kind to us. He got Bobby hired as a supervisor despite his lack of experience. The plant was deafening from the machines that day, Gene said; it always was. Bobby had not been on the job long. He was standing next to one of his workers, shouting some story, when he felt something flit against his forehead. He thought it was a bug and tried to brush it away. When he looked at his hand, he saw the blood.

“What the fuck?” he shouted.

The second bullet hit him in the chest; he dropped and bled out. Gene said the guy who shot him was just off. Fate was as stupid as we thought when we were kids. The killer told police he had no motive other than he had been working too hard and “was trying to use the news media to get some attention.” I wondered if Bobby’s cussing and intelligence had over-stimulated him, focused his need for change.

 

•  •  •

 

Embarrassed to be irrelevant, I tried to give Matt the quick version. Guy I grew up with—smart, funny, bulgy-eyed, cussed so much it always upset people—was interested in the army but would not commit. He married the first girl who would have him, and they had a kid, and he was murdered at work in our hometown by some stranger. The first shot grazed his forehead, but the second got him center-of-mass. His last words were, What the fuck.

I said I had always felt I could have made the army seem less daunting to Bobby, kept in better touch, but ultimately I could not say I was culpable in what happened. Not exactly. If I had tried harder, Bobby might have become a chopper pilot, gone into corporate aviation, and earned real money. Or he might have died with the Nightstalkers in some foreign desert, childless and unloved.

It was the reverse of the Butterfly Effect. All of us are the butterflies and cannot know most of the endings we help create; we do not even know how hard to flap to say we tried.

I did not tell Matt most of us should die of shame for not trying, yet we do not even feel shame. I did not say his perhaps misguided mission was another reason we are friends, or that anyone would be lucky for his son to have a friend like Matt. Matt has real medals from the war, so I did not joke about how they award medals for this kind of thing—valor, not leaving the dead behind, une médaille d’honneur pour acte de courage et de dévouement, bronze, etc.

I told him what he did was compassionate and asked how far he was from home, a sort of reminder. He said two towns away. His wife and young twins were waiting. I was going to say something else, but he started talking over me, pretending to be an NCO in front of a company, I guess: The next motherfucker I have to do this for will find me shitting in his eye socket while he’s lying there dead!

He was mock-yelling at me: If you ever do something like this, that’s what you’ll get too!

I tried to joke that I would be past caring, but he was still yelling through the cell connection: The Boatman will see my steamer in your eye socket if you ever do something like this, don’t you even think about it.

I did not tell him I was more worried about him. I said he was a good man, and he laughed but not to discount it. Then he quietly thanked me, and we said goodbye.