Home on Leave
No thinking about the Navy for three weeks. I can already taste my aunt’s fried fish and my cousin’s Purple Haze.At my folks’ house I hug my sisters and my mom and dad. Glad you made it home, my mom says, Thanks for protecting us. My sister rolls her eyes and points to a sticker on the refrigerator: PROUD NAVY MOM.
I’m outside smoking cigarettes with my dad and his friends. One of his friends says, You still in that Army? No, I’m in the Navy. He says, It’s good you joined the Army. I tried to get my boy to sign-up but that sorry-ass nigga don’t wanna do shit but smoke dope and lay around with these no-good hoes. You should get him to join, he says, Tell him how much of that Chinese pussy you gettin.
Ain’t you a spy? No, I say. Oh, he says, you’d have to kill us if you told us, huh? I stub out my cigarette and throw it into the garbage can because my mom just swept the sidewalk. My dad’s friend says, Uncle Sam got that boy trained good—he don’t leave no tracks behind.
My dad says, Yall ain’t find that one muthafucka yet? No, I say. And yall ain’t gon find him—he probably still in New York. I ain’t believin shit that lyin-ass news say, they know he aint in no Zackitstan, Crackistan, he ain’t in nown one of them goddamn Stans.
My mom sends me to the Post Office. In the Post Office there is a Wall of Heroes with a photo of everyone from our town who is currently in, or has been in the Armed Forces. Even if they were kicked out for drugs or attempted suicides or check fraud or going AWOL. There is photo of me from boot camp, the cheesy one with the soft grey background. I have on that silly white hat and a serious look on my child face. I snatch my picture down, crumple it, and toss it in the trash.
Miss Alice walks in, How you been, baby? The Army treating you good? Yes ma’am. Reach up there and get my mail. I keep telling these dern folks to move my box down. They late again with my Social Security. Now I done seen a picture of you up on that wall. Where is it now? Imma have to get ya mama to talk to these folks, see if they can get a picture of you up there. Alright now, you be good in that Army, and don’t get kicked out like some of these snot-nosed hoodlums, they ain’t worth a dern, takin drugs and all kinds of devilish mess.
I walk outside and see Earl Jr. I act like I’m in a hurry but he grabs my shoulders and hugs me. I see ol’ Uncle Sam got you doing them push-ups, he says, makin a man outta you. He punches me in the chest. Goddamn, almost broke my fist. I say, I gotta get ba— Now, now, hold on a minute, he says. Now ya mama done told me you was on them submarines. Yeah, I say. I already knowed it! See, I was up there fishin, up there at Brewster Lake, and a submarine just bust up out the water, scared all damn my fish off. And that’s when I saw you, right there on that submarine.
That night I go to my friend’s house. He invites a few more people over. I always say the same thing, What yall been up to? They always say the same thing, Nothin, you know ain’t shit to do round here. I shoulda joined the service too, but I ain’t want nobody yelling in my face and telling me what to do.
I give my friend forty for the weed and open the bottle of Hennessey I brought. Our homegirl says, Mr. Military Man, makin that good money. Terrell says, That easy money. That nigga ain’t out here grindin in the streets like us.
My friend asks me about Japan. I tell him I love it, especially the food. Terrell says, I betcha that General Tso’s be good as hell over there. That’s Chinese food, I say. Uppity muthafucka, Terrell says. Niggas move away and think they better than everybody. Anybody can join a fuckin Navy. Shut the fuck up, my friend says, If it was so easy why you ain’t do it. Cuz nigga, Terrell says, I ain’t joinin some white man’s military, ain’t nothing but poor folks dyin for rich white folks.
My friend passes me the joint. I hit it and pass it back. For real though, my friend says, How you like that shit? It’s alright, I say. You don’t like shootin muthafuckas and blowing shit up? Nope. You crazy, he says, I’d be blowing all types of shit up. On some real shit though, he says, It’s a good thing you got from around here, this place is a fuckin trap, ain’t nobody goin nowhere. Milk that shit for all it’s worth, man, and get the fuck out and do you.
The next day my cousin comes home because he heard I was home. He joined the Navy a few months before I did. He pulls up in a new blue Chevy with chrome rims and hops out with his uniform on. Some of our friends walk over and he gives everyone dap and hugs them with his free arm. Some of the kids run over and give my cousin hi-fives. He gives them two dollars each and tells them to go buy some candy, some good candy. His mom comes out smiling and hugs us, Thank the Lord! His dad follows, Look at these Navy men! Out there fightin the good fight! I know yall gonna get them twenty years in. My cousin says, You know it! I say, Maybe. Maybe my ass, my uncle says, You better do them twenty and get that pension.
My cousin takes off his little white hat and sits on his tailgate. Brandon points to my cousin’s chest, What’s that for? He says, It’s a Naval Achievement Medal. I received it for being responsible for the operation and maintenance of missile launching systems and other ordnance equipment. That’s some good shit right there, Brandon says, you doin ya thang, homie.
My cousin says, Your mom told me to come down to the school. My mom is a cook at the elementary school. One cook’s son joined the Marines. My last time here, my mom and the other lady bantered about which branch was better. The argument ended once the lady told my mom that all branches are important because they serve God and country.
My cousin also wants to see our old principal. Why? I say. Because he made me realize that leading from the front is not a part-time job—it is what we must do every minute of every day we are called to serve.
We walk into our principal’s office. He stands and salutes. And asks me why I’m wearing sweatpants. He says something about leading from the front.
We walk through the halls and stop at each classroom to see my cousin’s favorite teachers. They all smile and hug. The kids ooh and aah.
In the kitchen my mom and her co-workers make my cousin spin with his uniform on. They tell me to go get mine. I tell them I didn’t bring it.
I tell my friend that his dad wanted me to convince him to join the Army. Fuck him, he says, and fuck the military.
My sister told me she thought about signing up. I told her that men rape women too much in the military.
I asked a man at the strip club for a military discount. He said, Anything for a hero.
I asked a woman at the movie theater for a military discount. She said, What the fuck for?
I think about not going back. Where else could I go? It doesn’t matter. I can’t go anywhere.
Steven Dunn: "I am the author of the novel Potted Meat (Tarpaulin Sky, 2016). I was born and raised in West Virginia. Some of my work can be found in Columbia Journal and Granta Magazine."