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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

War Stories

He was three months into his tour of duty and things were looking grim. Erickson stared down at the plate that had been set before him, and braced himself for the taste, the texture, of the disgusting food. For three months, Erickson thought the next meal could only improve. And each meal, for three months, turned out to be worse than the last.


He lifted his fork, remembering the ghosts of meals past. The fork was heavy in his hand, tested his strength. And the plate, with its delicate engraving and porcelain daintiness, mocked him.

Erickson thought, “I can’t do this again.”

Erickson thought, “If only my number hadn’t come up.”

Erickson pushed the fork down into the tender crown roast with his right hand, and sawed off a piece of meat with his left. The juicy chunk slid easily away from the roast like a blob of snot.

“How is it,” Meredith asked. She was sitting at the opposite end of the table, her own fork poised expectantly as if waiting for her food to leap up and impale itself upon it.

Her raised fork calmed him.

Erickson thought, “If only she would come at me with that fork, I’d feel better. If only she tried to attack me with her knife, I’d be calm.” But Meredith, he knew, had no interest in normal behavior; to her,  forks were for eating, not for attacking. A fork was a fork, and a knife was its helpmate. So there Meredith’s fork remained, poised in the air heavy with the scent of cooked meat and steamed vegetables. Prongs waiting to sink into the meal she had cooked.

“I haven’t tried it yet, have I,” Erickson replied. “I just cut off a piece.”

“Oh,” Meredith said, “do try it. It’s a new recipe I’m working on.”

Meredith was always working on recipes. She owned a restaurant downtown. Before she served a single dish to her customers, Erickson got a taste of it. He was sick of good food, and wanted to return to the normal servings of gruel and deep-fried fish and cold beans he grew up on.

But. Here was the crown roast. The only good thing about the roast was that it bled when he cut into it.

He shoved the piece of meat into his mouth, chewed the tender chunk, swallowed, and forced a smile. “Good.” Pause. “Dear.”

His duty was to be kind. Loving. His duty was to serve his country by being as civil as possible.

“Excellent.” Meredith popped a piece of her own roast into her mouth, chewed, swallowed. “I’ve more tweaking to do, but it’s not bad. Needs more cumin.”

Three months. Shit.

Three months in country, pretending to be a company man, a good father, a good neighbor, church-going and content with Sunday football and Friday night poker with the boys.

Erickson often remembered what it was like, back home in the military, where he was free to kill. Where he was free to take risks. Where he was free, goddamn it, to take a shit in a hole in the ground and not have his ass come anywhere near porcelain.

He hated porcelain. He didn’t understand why, in country, it was normal to both eat and then shit on porcelain.

“Honey. Really, if you don’t like it, say so. I’ve got investors coming in next week.” Meredith plunged her fork back into the roast, slashed off another hunk, and slid it into her mouth. As she chewed, she continued, “They’re hoping to open another shop based off this dish.”

“Restaurant,” Erickson said. “You don’t do shops. You do restaurants.”

Meredith smiled. “Of course. But honey if you don’t like it....”

“It’s fine. You’ll do well. Another restaurant. The investors will love it.”

Erickson set his fork down on the porcelain plate, which cracked.

“I’m going for a walk.”

Meredith knew the score. She understood, when she became a civilian wife, what it would mean. Not everyone is cut out, her mom warned her, to be a civilian wife. But she made the best of it. She performed her duty. She built a small business, she created a home, she waited patiently, and three months ago had been rewarded with her first soldier. Garrett Erickson.

He occupied her heart. He occupied her mind.

He hated her cooking. Certainly regulation held that he respect her offerings--the quiches, the emperor ducks, the Belgian waffles--but Meredith could tell Erickson longed for something less tasteful, more Spartan. When he threw a simple dish of lasagne against the wall and cried out, “Can’t I have some goddamn dried beets with hot sauce,” Meredith tried to understand.

“Now it’s garbage, “ Erickson shouted as the lasagne rolled down the wall.

“Now I understand,” Meredith thought. “He doesn’t want to be here.”

Erickson managed a few more bites of the crown roast. He sampled the rosemary potatoes, and choked back some of the red wine. “I’m going out,” he said.

“I understand,” Meredith said. “Just don’t be out too long.”

“Got it,” Erickson said. To be out too long would mean AWOL. To be out too long would mean the civ police searching for him. Meredith, too, had certain duties, and part of those duties involved the assurance that Erickson upheld his own.

Society existed so that the military had a reason to exist. Erickson understood that. The only way the military survived was because society protected it. Without society, the military ceased to exist.

Three months into his tour, a taste of crown roast in his mouth, Erickson left the dinner table to go meet up with some of the others who had been drafted into preserving military.

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