Updated: Mar 16
Silence; what a wonderful sound. Dobson used to be the loud one in the middle of the room raising hell and telling jokes but that was a lifetime before. Now he preferred the quiet.
It was so strange to him as he sat on the cold cracked leather seat of his brother’s old work truck and thought of absolutely nothing in particular. The truck hummed down the road as the great pines zipped past in a blur against the big grey sky. The air was cold as the world around him was at the sill of winter. It all seemed so familiar, but something was strange. This was not the Montana that he had known; this one moved differently.
His brother, Sam, coaxed him from his wondering by lightly slapping his chest and pointing to a few deer that were crossing a field just off the road. Sam then signed to Dobson that they would hunt soon. Dobson gestured yes.
He looked at Sam as he drove. His older brother was a broad-shouldered man with kind blue eyes and a strong jaw. The looks ran in the family and the two favored greatly. Where they differed, though, was the hearing. A fever from youth had taken Sam’s ability to hear and speak effectively. Little did his family know, at the time, that this would save him from the draft. Dobson, however, was not so fortunate.
At one point in time, Dobson had found it difficult to be with his brother due to his condition as well his stoic, reserved nature but now he truly appreciated his quiet, apathetic presence. It calmed him somehow to sit there in that familiar silence. With Sam, there were no questions. With Sam, there was no small talk. With Sam, Dobson had only peace.
The gravel crunched beneath the old truck’s worn tires as the brakes squeaked to a stop. The door opened with a metallic, rusty groan as Dobson stepped foot on the ranch for the first time in three years. Had it really been that long since he left for Fort Benning and then the hell of mud, rice, and humidity that was Vietnam?
The cold air glazed his naked cheeks. The jungle was far away from home and Vietnam’s heat had reminded him, every day, of this fact. He looked around at the surreal scene. The exposed cedar planks of his home were now in a state of neglect and dark with the wear of age. The grass was decaying and had lost the lush, green bounce he had last seen before his departure. Was this home or was it the shell he had left behind; a skin of what once had been?
Behind his back Daniel, the local mailman, closed the lid of the mailbox as he waved hello to the pair. The sudden clack of the metal lid drew Dobson’s attention with a snap. Daniel smiled warmly at them but it was different than Dobson had remembered. Dobson held his hand up in greeting and walked toward Daniel but before he could reach him the courier hopped back into his truck and went on his route waving his arm out the window. Sam didn't wave back. That was strange. The Dobson’s ranch had been on Daniel’s route for the last ten years now and not once had they failed to stop and shoot the shit with each other when the opportunity presented itself. Everything seemed off, almost like the trees and the sky and the air were conspiring, plotting against him. A crow’s call hung in the grey. The air was thick, almost tense. Yes, Dobson thought, this Montana was different.
Sam, Dobson’s older brother, asked if he was ok with sign. Dobson gestured with a thumb that he was alright. The two walked to the door of the ranch house that Dobson had called his own in a lifetime before. Dobson’s duffle was heavy on his back and his green uniform stiff upon his skin. Sam turned the knob of the door and stepped inside the dark room before him. Dobson followed and was startled by the sudden burst of light and the shout of SURPRISE! from all his friends and family.
At first, Dobson stiffened, but he shook this off and smiled. He was then greeted with kisses from his sisters and aunts; hugs and handshakes from the rest. Through the melee of affection, he caught a glimpse of her. Delilah. He had ached for this moment since he had last kissed her goodbye. He had tasted her lips every day in his thoughts and held her close every night in his dreams. He began to melt as her piercing blue eyes met his. She smiled at him but waited for the crowd to thin before she approached. Everyone beamed with pride and welcomed their soldier home by the name of John. The name struck his ear strangely. He had not been John for years.
The party continued and the questions manifested for Dobson. Many asked what it was like. Others asked if he was scared in battle, and a bold few asked if he had taken a life. Dobson’s temples throbbed. He felt like a tiger in a cage being prodded by small, curious, and ignorant children. Seeing his brother’s discomfort, Sam came to his aid with a beer and gestured for him to follow. The two sat on the porch and drank; no words, no signs. They sat and drank and watched the trees dance in the wind just as they had done in a lifetime before. Sam sipped his beer then signed to his brother,
“We hunt soon?”
Dobson replied with his thumb pointed up. His brother returned the gesture. The two continued their drinking and inhaled the fresh, cool, pine-scented air in beautiful silence.
After the party had ended, the guests dispersed, and night had fallen upon the ranch, Dobson and his wife, Delilah, re-consummated their union, only it was not what he had remembered it to be. She was distant; her mind elsewhere. The two laid side by side but her sleeping body felt alien in Dobson’s strong arms. Her skin was fiery against his chest. Her curves had no resemblance to the rigid, metallic weapon that he had slept with those many damp and lonely nights on ambush. He squeezed her in his arms, buried his face into her hair, and inhaled her scent as he drifted slowly away into the haze of slumber.
Dobson erupted from his sleep in a pant and covered in a cold sweat. The shadows from the branches of the tree outside his window maliciously approached him from the wall. He saw the faces of the enemy that he had killed; most the age of his young nephews whose faces were still smooth. The beating of the rotor wings chopped in the air. The ground shook underneath him. The hellfire barked from his shoulder, and the percussive symphony of war terrified him yet again.
Finally, he realized where he was. He sat up in his bed, catching his breath as the darkness encroached all around him. He did not feel guilt; he had done what was necessary and he understood this but still, their mangled, punctured corpses haunted his thoughts. His cruel mind then reminded him of the sound a dying man makes as he chokes in his own blood. He had heard this sound when his assistant gunner had been shot in the chest. He remembered the sucking sound of his lungs drawing in air, desperately, from the gaping holes poked into his chest as he stuttered the solitary word “Momma” again and again. He remembered the gusts of heat rolling off the jungle after napalm had showered down on the enemy from above. He remembered the sweet, sickening smell of death that had filled his lungs, coated their walls, and hung inside his body as his platoon passed week old, swollen enemy corpses left to bake and rot in the sweltering Vietnam sun. Dobson remembered, and this made him sick.
Dobson rose from his bed, put on his boxers, and went to his liquor cabinet. He took a half-empty bottle of whiskey and a solitary glass. The darkness hung around him as he used the waning light from the refrigerator to guide him to the couch. The fridge shut and he was consumed by the darkness. The whiskey burned his throat and warmed his stomach as he tried, in vain, to forget.
He awoke with a dull headache from the sunlight that broke through the living room window. The smell of coffee and bacon entered his nose, stirring his hunger. He stood up, knocking the empty bottle over that was at his feet. Dobson then crossed the wooden floor and entered the kitchen to see Delilah at the stove.
“You want eggs, John?”
“Yes ma’am,” he replied with a feeble grin. Delilah wore a black dress with white spots and a silver necklace draped around her velvet neck. Her hair was worn with great care and beauty as a single gold lock fell perfectly beside her angelic face.
“Why are you all dressed up, honey?” Dobson inquired with a sincere smile that exposed the dimples in his face as the hardness left his expression.
“I have book club in an hour.” She responded with a beautiful smile. He’d forgotten how straight her teeth were.
“You read, since when?” Dobson said with a smile as he sipped his coffee.
She put his plate in front of him. Dobson noticed that she was not wearing her wedding ring.
“Well, I started when you left to keep you off my mind.”
“I’m sorry about that. What are you reading?”, Dobson inquired. She hesitated.
“Delilah?” Dobson ventured to ask her again.
“Sorry, Wuthering Heights,” she replied finally.
“I read that in-country! One of the guys in my platoon was always getting books from his mom and we would swap them around when he got done. What part are you at?” Dobson asked, with enthusiasm.
“We, We are starting today.” she stammered. She then glanced at the clock and immediately said,
“Well, I'd best be on my way or I’ll be late again. Take the trash out please.”, as she picked up her purse, grabbed her coat, and left the house. The clock ticked a perpetual rhythm marking the time that he was alone once again. Dobson thought it odd that she didn't take a book with her.
The tobacco stung Dobson’s lip and his head rushed as he swung his ax down to chop the wood on the block before him. He had smoked in Vietnam but dip was what he preferred. The sweat collected on his brow as he focused intently on his work; no thought in his mind save for swinging his ax. Substance helped but not as much as rhythm.
A car pulled into the gravel driveway beside Dobson and out stepped Delilah nearly two hours from when she had departed. She asked what he was doing. He replied that he wanted to use the fireplace that night. She smiled then walked into the house. Dobson noticed that her hair was different; slightly unkempt and hurried. He went back to his work and heard Delilah exclaim,
“Dammit John!” from within the home. She stomped out, holding a bag of trash, and placed it into the can. She shut the lid in a huff and with a bang. She then marched past Dobson booming,
“Oh, don’t mind me. Just keep screwing around with that ax.”
Dobson felt foul for forgetting the trash and knew that his mind was elsewhere, but was confused at Delilah’s reaction. She had changed since he had left and that was concerning but clearly, he had too. What was wrong with him, he wondered? Why the hell couldn't he just feel normal? He followed her into the house.
“What’s wrong? Why have you been so Goddamn cold to me? I’m sorry I forgot about the garbage but I just have a lot on my mind!” Dobson fumed. Delilah cut back sharply,
“You don’t have to tell me! Since you been home all you’ve done is zone out. I talk to myself half the time. Where do you go to in your mind John?” She paused then looked at the empty whiskey bottle on the floor then exclaimed,
“I mean what the hell is that? You’ve never gotten up in the middle of the night and drank an entire fifth of whiskey. Are you an alcoholic now?! Who are you?”
Dobson grabbed his head. The back of his throat burned. The pressure in his head swelled relentlessly. He didn't know. He felt so strange all of the time.
“I- I don't know. I don't know what’s wrong with me.” He stammered as tears welled up in his eyes and frustration cracked in his voice.
“I can't stop thinking about it. I can't stop seeing them. It's fucking constant. I don't want to think about them. I've tried to read. I've tried to drink. Nothing fucking works.”
He fought the tears as he stared at her. Seeing his pain she came to him and embraced him.
“I’m not sure either baby but you’re home now and none of that could ever get to you again; not here. You’ve left that behind and it's a terrible thing that happened but...,” she paused as she planned her next words, “ it happened and nothing can change that.” He whimpered. She held him tighter as the guilt panged her heart.
“But now you’re home baby. And I have you. And nothing bad will have to happen again. Just let it go and be home with me John.” She separated from him and flashed that smile he had missed. He had to let it go. He had to be here in this moment and let the past fall behind him. She was right. It had happened and nothing could change that. Let it go would be his mantra and he would try dearly to do just that, but Vietnam would never loosen its grip on him or anyone that had been there for that matter. They were all out there still, somewhere deep in the jungle; all of them.
They continued like that for some time. Delilah would be involved in the community with her various new hobbies and social groups while Dobson would wake up in cold sweats and try to push the thoughts away; to bury them deep into the recesses of his mind, but it was no use. They would fight. They would grow apart. They would distance themselves. They were different now; each with their hidden truths that remained unspoken.
He wasn't himself. He hadn't been in a long time. He was a soldier now; an instrument of war tortured by memory. Although, it wasn't just memory that plagued him. It was the smell of burnt hair from the hair drier. It was loud crashes and noise; thunder being the worst. It was the confusion in the night when he woke for his watch shift but found himself in bed with his wife. All of this brought him back and he couldn’t push away the pain. It lived inside him and clung to his soul; or what little he thought was left of it.
The two grew into a routine and it did not sneak upon them. They had willingly slipped into its snare and were slaves to the roles they had accepted to play until Delilah became curious. Dobson had been drinking that night. It was far colder than usual. He watched the news. Walter Cronkite was reporting on the latest developments about the fighting in Vietnam. Dobson was beside himself. All of that loss for nothing. He sat silently with flat eyes. Delilah looked up from her magazine and saw the pain on his face. She had often wondered about what he had to do. Had he seen much action? Had he lost friends? Had he killed? She had always wondered but it just never seemed appropriate to ask. But curiosity would win. Honesty was in the air.
“John?” She called sweetly. He turned to her, half-dazed, then shook off the blankness of his expression. He twisted his lips into a grin.
“Yeah, hon?” He answered. Delilah summoned the courage to ask him but her frustration had been festering, so instead of meekly posing the question, she blurted frankly.
“Did you have to do it?” Dobson looked at her confused. She then clarified,
Dobson remained silent. His eyes were steady. He studied his thoughts. The quiet filled the air until he asked,
“Why do you want to know?”
“I want to know what you’re thinking John. I don't know anything. You never talk to me and it seems to be the only thing you think about. I just want to know what's so special about it that you can’t just be with me here.”
Dobson was stunned. He had no idea what to say. He wanted to strangle her. The ignorant bitch. She had no right. Did she think he was out having some big trip or something? How out of touch could she be? He thought all his hateful thoughts then spoke with fury,
“What the hell do you think? You think that I’m playing things over in my head like some highlight reel? You think it was some kind of adventure that got me away from feeding the cows? It was hell Delilah. It was fucking hell.” His expression was stern. Unsatisfied, Delilah retorted,
“Well then tell me what it was like. I just want to know John. I don't know what's going on with you and I just wish that you would be the man I married.” She cried, “ What goes on in your head?”
“You wanna fuckin’ know? I’ll tell you. Sometimes, over there, people fuckin’ die. It ain’t good. It's the worst, especially when they are some cherry fuck straight out of Benning. Is that what you want me to tell you about huh?” He looked through her skull; a thousand yards out.
“Do you want me to tell you about the seventeen-year-old kid that died right beside me; How he called for his momma the entire time I suppressed the enemy and couldn't do a thing about the fucking holes in his chest? Or how about the times we assaulted through a village and saw these little kids shot to hell and back right beside dead VC? Their little bodies were so twisted and unnatural and we just left them there like garbage in the fuckin’ street.” Dobson’s eyes poured, but he held as hard as he could. His voice shook.
“How about the smell huh?! Do you know what it smells like?” Dobson stopped. His eyes were wild and wide.
“What what smells like?” Delilah stammered as she cried.
“Death” Dobson said with clenched teeth.
“Of course not!” she managed to utter through her tears.
“It's warm. Kinda like the way it smells when they stir up the shit in a chicken house. I smell it every damn day. It fills your chest and hangs in there forever. I can't get away from it. Do you know what it sounds like?” She shook her head no.
“It’s fuckin’ loud and scary as hell. I hear the gunshots all the time. They snap over my head. I hear that kid crying. I hear the sucking chest wound. I hear it all. I don't know what you want me to tell you but sometimes people just fuckin’ die and there is nothing good or beautiful about it. So to answer your fuckin’ question, yes, I have killed and most of them were the people I was supposed to kill but not all of them. Killing isn't too hard. It’s the thought of knowing that you’re next then watching the new guy catch a round that kills you. Why should I live? Why not them? I wasn't any better trained than them and there was no reason why they were the ones who died. They just, died. The killing wasn't good but it wasn't too bad either. Living in death was the worst. I wish I had run away. I wish I had gone to prison instead. I wish I was me but I'm not anymore and my fucking head hurts and I can't fucking breathe at night when I wake up and have no idea where I am. That’s the shit that goes through my mind all the fucking time.” He looked at her with this sense of loss. He was alone and he knew that now. He would never be able to make her understand. She just cried for her husband who was lost somewhere in those dark jungles. He shouldn't have told her and she shouldn’t have asked.
The next night, Sam and Dobson sat on the porch sipping whiskey and staring off into the big, starry sky just as they had done in a lifetime before. Sam was the only person Dobson felt alright around. He didn't pry. He simply lived his life. Dobson sipped his whiskey and stared off, but not at the stars. He stared off a thousand yards out, not thinking of anything in particular as a million voices echoed in his mind. Sam tapped Dobson’s shoulder with the back of his hand then signed,
“John, can we talk?”. Dobson gave the gesture. Sam hesitated. He searched his conscious one last time then managed in his own frankness to sign,
“Delilah and Daniel sleep together.” Dobson’s eyes widened, his heart slowed, and he knew that it was true.
He replied in hushed fury as he signed his words’ equivalent,
“What do you mean, sleep?” Sam sadly gave the sign for sex.
“What are you saying? Delilah’s cheating on me with the fucking mailman?” Sam gave an erect thumb coupled with a heavy look.
“He comes here with no mail.”
“The hell says, you Sam.” Dobson retorted as if it could change reality.
“Her new necklace isn't from me. You get it for her?” Dobson remembered the silver necklace and suddenly accepted the repressed knowledge that he had refused to believe; the knowledge that he had desperately denied to himself. What good would denial do?
“She says she goes to book club, but I haven't seen one book yet.”
“No ring too,” Sam added.
Dobson’s stomach ached and his cheeks burned. He was humiliated and heartbroken. Why hadn’t he confronted her yet? He was a coward. The truth was all around him.
“How long, Sam?”
“I guess two months after you left.” Sam signed sadly.
Dobson sank into his chair, betrayed and demoralized, as he drank from the bottle. Sam stood and signed,
“Sorry, I didn't know what to do. You were gone. I didn't want to wait this long. I thought she would stop. I’m sorry I had to tell you.” He paused and looked at his dejected little brother whom he couldn't protect from life's is relentless.
“It'll rain soon, I’ll go home before it gets too bad. You should go to sleep now. We’ll hunt tomorrow just like before. We can worry later ok?”
“Yeah, we hunt tomorrow,” Dobson said defeated, without bothering to sign. His brother slapped him on the shoulder then walked to his house to retire for the night.
Dobson drank the bottle dry in the following hour. Sure as Sam had said, it was raining.
The lightning streaked across the big sky and the thunder rumbled like artillery. Screams echoed in Dobson’s thoughts until his cruel mind thought of his wife and Daniel tangled up like snakes in a furious fit of passion. He thought of her noises and this crushed his soul. He thought of him getting to taste her breath as she moaned for him.
Infuriated, crushed, and broken, he threw the empty fifth against the tree beside the house, busting it into a cloud of shards. He then punched the post of the porch in front of him, with all the malice he could muster, causing his knuckles to crack and bleed. His hand was crimson with seeping blood. He fell to his knees on the deck of the porch and cried his first strong cry in three years; not like the one, he had shared with Delilah after he returned home. He cried the way that a child does after he discovers that the world and the universe are indifferent about who he is or if he lives or if he dies. He cried for his wife. He cried for those who had died. He cried for it all until he was interrupted by a streak of lightning and the crack, rumble, and roar of thunder.
Dobson gathered himself from the porch’s floor and smeared the blood over his face as lightning streaked through the big sky taking him back to the jungle, back to the fucking Nam. His brother’s words rang through the roaring storm of war, a mantra, a battle cry: “We hunt tomorrow.”; but Dobson would hunt tonight.
He moved through the humid darkness that had crept into his soul. His firm, calloused, and bleeding hand gripped the cold wooden handle of the ax as he carefully entered his bedroom. His steps were muffled by the rumble of thunder that followed the flash of lightning. He raised his ax. Delilah slept lightly, but Dobson was silent.