A little over two years after he’d enlisted, Allen was back from Iraq and back with Lawn Island Landscaping. If I’d been scared of Allen before, I was terrified of him now.

It wasn’t what Allen did that was frightening; it was more what he didn’t do. The first week he was back, the subject was only broached a few times, by James.

“So what was it like over there?” he would ask, turning his head slightly, maybe cautiously, toward Allen, who was in the front with James. “I mean, what was it really like?”

After a moment, Allen shrugged. “Eh.”

Later that week, Allen, in passing, had compared a fence he’d had to leap over to unlock the gate and get a mower into the backyard, to something he’d done in basic training. James, driving the truck, smiled, and said, “It sounds exciting.” He took a right turn too fast. “Sometimes, I wish I’d joined up with you,” he continued, climbing the curb and banging the trailer, with all the gear in it, hard back onto the concrete of the street. Antonio and I cringed, but Allen, as far as I could tell from his profile, didn’t have a reaction at all. He looked at James through his sunglasses.

“Why didn’t you?” he said.

James looked uncomfortable and gestured toward the steering wheel. “You know.”

“Then I’d have someone to talk to,” said Allen, now looking through the window.

“I fight,” said Antonio.

“You fight?” I said. “You fought in Iraq? I’m pretty sure you were here mowing lawns with us, buddy.”

“No, no buddy,” said Antonio. “Not Iraq.”

It wasn’t just what Allen said and didn’t say those first months back. He did some freaky stuff too. We were at a job in King’s Park, and mostly what we were supposed to be doing was blowing leaves into the woods behind the customer’s house. We were taking a break from this inane activity, eating sandwiches, and before we were done, Allen got out of the truck. Nobody paid much attention to this. We were tired—at least I know I was tired; it was the third job of the day and Jonny and I had closed out Ronco’s the night before. By the time the three of us were done eating, Allen was in the backyard already. He was back there with the chainsaw, the gas saw, and he’d just started it. James started walking, then jogging, toward Allen.

“Whoa, whoa, what are you doing?” said James. “Allen? What are you doing?”

I watched through the chain link fence that separated the front yard and the backyard. Allen had started in on the tree by the time James got to him.

“Allen!” James yelled over the buzz of the saw. “There’s no tree work on this job.” Allen stopped the saw for a moment, and it choked and died.

“I think it should come down, though.”

“That . . . that’s fine,” said James. “But,” with a quick movement of his hand, he tried to wave the situation away, “the customer doesn’t want it to come down, you know?”

Allen considered this a moment, then gave the saw another pull, but it was flooded, you could smell it, and wouldn’t start. As James bravely took the saw away from Allen, Antonio appeared in the backyard, with the electric chainsaw and a chord.

“What?!” said James. “No! No, Antonio! No saw. Just blowers. And a rake. Put that away.” Allen was laughing, but he was looking—staring—at the little oak tree.

“I didn’t say get rid of him, I’m just saying he’s freaking me out a little bit.” James and I were at Ronco’s, a few weeks after the chainsaw incident, a couple of drinks in.

James shrugged, finished his double bourbon, and called over to Hankford for another.

“I mean, he’s mowing lawns that aren’t even on our route,” I said. “Not even our customers.”

“My customers,” said James. “Look, he’s still a good worker. He’s the strongest man on the crew. And, he’s a war hero.” I didn’t immediately respond to this, concentrating, instead, on my beer until it was done.

“I don’t know,” I said. I poured myself another beer from the pitcher. “I don’t know about that.”

“What don’t you know?”

“I don’t know what he did over there. He never talks about it.”

“Who says it’s any of your business?” said James.

“I didn’t necessarily say it—”

“You know, your problems with Allen are your own. You don’t need to come at me with them.”

“Problems or not, just because he went to war doesn’t make him a hero.”

“And what makes you an authority on the subject?” said James, trying to stare me down. I shook my head.

“Ahh,” James said. He looked away and slammed his beer down. “I wish I’d signed up.”

“Go for it,” I said.

“Fuck you.”

We were sitting in the truck, silent, and everyone sick of each other—it had been a long day, and yet James wanted to cram one more job in before it got too dark—when Allen finally broke.

“I had a buddy,” he said, “get shot right in the face and he was kneeling by my side as close as you guys are sitting. Closer.”

I looked out the window from the back seat of the king cab, behind Allen, and shook my head.

James started the engine. “Let’s get this last job in, then we’ll hit the bar, shoot the shit—”

“Guy’s name was Allen,” said Allen. “Can you believe that? Two guys named Allen, stuck and fucked in Mosul, side by side, firing fitties into the mosque, hunting Hajjis. And then a squirter bolts, and as I go to make him an angel, I get jammed up. I turn to Allen, just to scream fuck and let him know what’s happening, and . . . and he doesn’t have a face anymore.”

James slowed the truck and then brought it to a halt at the stop sign. The four of us were dirty, smelly, grass clippings and shit on our shoes, and it was after 6 p.m. We’d started at 8 a.m., and I wasn’t sure if it was such a great time for stories.

“The next day, we’re at the same position,” said Allen, “and Allen’s dead, and I don’t feel anything. And that’s the thing when I realize I don’t feel anything, that’s when I start crying my eyes out.” His head, which I’d been staring at from the back seat, disappeared from view for a moment, then popped back up, as he turned to look out the open window.

There was another stop sign and James rolled through it.

“Well, in other news,” I said, as James pulled onto Meadow Road for the last job, “I ran into my ex this weekend.”

Antonio, sitting next to me, had his headphones on, bopping his head to whatever he was listening to, singing a word or a phrase in Spanish here and there. James stopped and parked the truck. He turned to look at me briefly and so did Allen. He didn’t look so good, he looked worn out. But we all did. Like I said, it had been a long day.

“Come on, man,” said James. “We’re telling war stories here.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Well, so am I.”

Allen leaned forward and buried his head in his hands. “Oxygen thief,” he said.

“What?” I said.

“Fuck off,” said James.

“Yeah, fuck you too,” I said. “What you got? You got any war stories?”

Antonio, who had his headphones off, ready to get out of the truck for the last job, suddenly felt chatty, ready to stretch his two-hundred-word vocabulary and jump into the fray.

“In my country, we fight the government so Oaxaca become own country, maybe. But Mexico says no. I fight on both side. One side, one time, other side, other time. One time, guy with machete.” Antonio lifted his shirt to show us a thick scar that ran from his right nipple, across his abdomen, and down below his belly button. “I die, but then come back to life.”

James, who’d been turning red the whole time Antonio’d been talking, turned to me.

“You try running a business, you fucking drunk, you fucking alkie fuckup.”

“I die,” said Antonio again, putting his shirt back down, “but then come back to life.”

Despite days like these, James managed to keep our crew together for a while—even though Allen was no longer right in the brain if he’d ever been; and even though you couldn’t trust these Mexican guys; they’d run to another job or city or whatever on the drop of a dime, and it was true I was missing a day here and there because of the drinking, though I was basically present; and, as was reasonably apparent, none of us really liked each other.

Regardless, we would occasionally hit up Ronco’s together, right after work all dirty and stinking.

This particular day, we got to Ronco’s early, as we’d been rained out that afternoon. The four of us took up a good portion of the bar near the electronic jukebox. By the time Jonny, my regular drinking buddy at Ronco’s came in, we were all drunk.

“Well, well, look what we’ve got here,” said Jonny. “The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. And we’ve got a war hero. Let’s hear some war stories. I love that shit. Better even than those Time/Life books, Death From Above, and all that crap.”

“I’m not in the mood,” said Allen.

I could see Jonny was particularly revved up, but I wasn’t sure why, and I gave him a look, a warning to be careful with Allen, but Jonny shrugged and laughed it off.

The reason Jonny was amped blared on the television now. At this point, my condition was such that I was saying things that seemed like they were coming from the other side of the room, from behind the dart boards, or from the toilet bowl in the bathroom, and I had to keep increasing the volume to hear myself.

“The VP debate?” I said. “You’ve got to be kidding, Jon—”

“No, this is important! One of these two is going to be president.”

“Joe Biden will never be president,” scoffed James.

“You see, if Obama gets elected, he’s going to get shot, because you can’t have an Oreo in the White House. And if McCain gets in, he’ll die in office. He’s fucking ancient!”

If you need any more proof positive of how bad the economic theories have been, this excessive deregulation, the failure to see what’s going on, letting Wall Street run wild—

“It’s not Georgy’s fault. It’s that Jew Allen Greenspan,” said Jonny. “He promises one thing, another thing happens.”

You know, I think a good barometer here, as we try and figure out has this been a good time or a bad time in America’s economy, is go to a kid’s soccer game on Saturday—

“Sarah’s looking pretty good tonight,” said Jonny.

“She looks like a fucking librarian,” said James.

“Librarian with a crossbow,” said Jonny. “It’s that angle,” he said, pointing, excited, “where they film her from behind. Her legs, her ass. What d’you think, Allen, what d’you think? Would you fuck her?”

“I’d let her suck my dick.”

“Ok, fine,” said Jonny. “But would you fuck her?”

“Alaska,” said Allen, shaking his head.

“No good,” said Antonio. “No fucking good.”

Here was Antonio, ready to throw his two cents in, even though he couldn’t vote. I got up and went outside for a breather. We’d been drinking for five, six hours, and I needed a glass of air. It was October, a bit chilly out, but pleasant; the rain had stopped. November would not be pleasant.

James came out, into the parking lot, where his wife had just pulled up in her old Bug. I waved to him as he walked away, but he didn’t wave back. After a couple of smokes, I went back inside.

“Black man no good,” said Antonio.

“So,” said Jonny, grinning, “you’re going to vote McCain?”

“No. Old.”

“Then who you going to vote for, little man?”

“Ross Perot.”

“Ross Perot!” yelled Jonny. “Ross Perot! That’s a blast from the past, muchacho. Isn’t he dead?”

Antonio shrugged and sucked at what must have been his twelfth Corona.

“I’ll vote for the brownie,” said Allen. “I’ll vote for the timeline. If Obama’s going to evacuate that shithole sooner than later, I’ll vote for him. Place is a fucking toilet bowl, a fucking sewer, and we’re just more shit floating in it. Just shit. Just shit. Just shit. Just shit. Just shit. Justshit.”

Everyone stopped talking for a moment, including some of the dart players, taking a break on the other side of the bar.

Your plan is a white flag of surrender in Iraq, and that is not what our troops need to hear today, that’s for sure.

“Fuck. This. Bitch,” said Allen, and although I could tell a few on the other side of the bar wanted to say something, Allen was looking right scary enough that they didn’t.

“See,” said Jonny, “I was right. You would fuck her!”  But no one, except Antonio, laughed.

Allen looked at Jonny. “What do you know about it?” he said. “What do you know about anything? You don’t know a thing, you fucking greedy civilian. You don’t know a fucking thing. You weren’t there, you weren’t anywhere. You were here, at Ronco’s, watching it on television. You aren’t anywhere and you don’t know a fucking thing and you didn’t know Allen.”

Jonny looked confused, but not one to back down, he said, “We had to do something. 9/11—”

“‘We had to do something,’” said Allen, shaking his head. “We had to do something. Hey Hankford, you got that knife for cutting limes with? I’m going to cut this son of a bitch to shreds.”

“Fuck you,” said Jonny. “You signed up. Nobody made you sign up. Go fuck yourself.”

“Really,” said Allen, and he stood up, and it was clear he outweighed Jonny by fifty pounds. “I thought you said we had to do something. Let’s do something, you fucking pencil-neck freak. Let’s do something right now.”

“I don’t know, Allen,” I said. Together, Jonny and I did outweigh Allen. Out limb him as well. “You were pretty gung-ho at one time. Pretty gung-ho.”

“At one time? At what time? I’ll kick your head around again, too. ‘At one time.’ James isn’t here now to save your skinny ass, is he?”

When Allen had signed up, soon after the war had started, he’d called me a coward for not signing up with him, and we’d gotten into a fistfight on one of the customer’s properties, which James had broken up just in time to save me from a whupping. And Allen was right that I was a coward, but it had nothing to do with the war.

Jonny sat down then and took a cigarette from his pack on the bar. Putting it in his mouth, he turned to Allen, then me, and said, “Let’s go out for a smoke.”

Allen slammed his fists on the bar as Jonny walked to the door and lit up. Allen got up and followed Jonny outside, and I followed Allen. I didn’t like it, but I followed.

Jonny stood in front of the window. You couldn’t see back into Ronco’s, as the blinds were always down, but the neon sign flashing Bud Light was on, and it brought out something in Jonny’s expression as he sucked smoke that made my hope that this would just be more loud chatter dissipate.

Allen got right into Jonny’s face, and Jonny exhaled into his eyes. Allen shut them and backed off for a moment, before stepping forward and using both of his big arms as battering rams, shoving Jonny, sending him backward and onto the concrete of the storefront next to Ronco’s. And then Allen went after him.

As Jonny, with his ass on the ground, and hands beside him to keep him upright, cackled, I grabbed at Allen from behind, getting a fist-full of T-shirt, and I wasn’t planning on letting go anytime soon. Jonny was my friend.

“Dennis,” said Allen. “I’d let go if I was you.”

“Allen,” I said. “Why don’t you just cool it?”

“Why don’t you just let go,” said Allen, and he turned his head to me. “Like I told you to?”

Even though this scared me, the way my body reacted was to just squeeze harder, and Allen turned to hit me. That’s when Jonny launched himself off the concrete and rammed his drunken noggin into Allen’s kidney. A rabbit punch with his head. There were very few like Jonny, a real original nutcase.

This saved me, for the moment at least, from getting punched out by Allen. He winced from the blow and turned to Jonny. As he did this, I grabbed Allen’s shirt from behind again. A few of the dart players had stepped out of Ronco’s to watch the action.

“Dennis,” said Allen. “Let go.”

“Allen, cool it.”

Apparently, he was tired of this grab-ass. I saw it coming and was able to back off a bit, but he still got me square and put me on the ground with a horse kick to the midsection. I expected a fist to follow and was relieved when it didn’t come. Looking up I saw Allen chasing Jonny through the parking lot. Jonny was quick, but Allen caught up to him, and when Allen pulled back for a punch, Jonny dropped down to the ground in a ball, tripping up Allen as he threw a right cross. Allen ended up hitting the blacktop, first with his fist, then with his body. He got right up, as one of the dart players who’d come outside came over to help me to my feet. I didn’t really want to get up, as it was here, kicked down to the ground, where I felt I began to understand Allen. Allen who, after a job one day, threw himself down on the pavement of a customer’s driveway. James had offered a hand but Allen refused, so we left him. When we circled back to give him a chance to gather himself, he was still there, lying on his back. Lying on the ground outside Ronco’s I realized he was right. Why bother? Why get up? But eventually, we did.

I limped back into the bar with Jonny. He was bleeding at the elbows, and I was holding my stomach, and hoping Allen wouldn’t come back into Ronco’s. He did. I held my breath as he walked over to where Jonny and I were sitting and grabbed his jacket off his stool.

“Fuck you,” he said and walked out.

Antonio followed Allen in this action. Not in swearing at us, but in his leaving Ronco’s. And he did turn to me as he rounded the bar toward the door as if to speak, but instead lifted his sweatshirt, and then his T-shirt underneath it. He showed me in the dim light of the bar his long scar, his war wound—a fucking machete?—and he laughed, shaking his head as he left.

John Paul Carillo

John Paul is a writer and musician living in New Jersey. He recently completed a book of stories, Into the Actual World, and Real American People, a novel that follows the theater of American politics from Ross Perot to election day 2016 through the eyes of rival barflies. John is the co-founder of rock-jazz trio Joy on Fire, twice featured on NPR's All Songs Considered.

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