Monday, January 30, 2012

#18: "The Separation of Specialist Piatrowski" by Arthur McMaster

~This piece was originally published in Wisconsin Review  (2009)
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

Jerry Piatrowski got out of bed and put on his uniform. Today was the day he’d get out. What was to stop him? A man’s enlistment is a contract with the Army, right? A legal deal with the U.S. government, for pity’s sake. Today was here. He was gone.
Jerry opened his locker and took hold of a large package on the upper shelf. Let me out, he thought. Time’s up. He had his out-processing orders to prove it. His medical records spoke for themselves.
         If there had been anyone in the barracks just then to ask him if he was sure, sure he didn’t want to re-up, he’d ask: “What do you think? Like maybe I want one more tour in the damn desert?” Jerry had had more than enough of that.
        Had there been anyone there to answer him, and there was not a soul around, he’d ask it this way: “What am I going to do, go on more patrols? Shoot more Hajjis?” He tucked his dog tags under his shirt. “All I really need.”
        The hallway was quiet. 
        Specialist Piatrowski might have asked a friend to accompany him as he sought his exit to the rest of the world. Just who was or was not with him today, however, was unclear.
        The personnel building was right here. Let’s do it, he thought.

     He was halfway home. Just go up to the top floor; see the little lady in S-1 Orders. Check out. Head home. Boom! Time’s up. Hot damn! 
     If anyone had asked Jerry what he’d do when he got out, he’d have told them all about the car his parents had waiting for him. He’d say, “I’m getting a new Mustang. Canary yellow. Gonna be worth all the shit.”
     And it would be worth all the shit.
     He’d have probably added, “That car’s kept me going, pretty much, this last year and a half. Thinking about that car. And ‘specially so since Crazy Alice left me in the ditch.
     Still, he thought maybe he'd give her a call. Some day. Some time. When things were more normal. Alice had freaked, as Jerry put it to himself, what with him being gone on a second tour and all. Him being injured as he was. . . .
     Jerry began to ascend the stairs, leaving the first floor temporary barracks, as he thought of it—heading up to whatever must lie ahead. He walked into the hall and began the climb.
     Having had a bit taken out of one leg, he found it slow going. As the army docs had told him, 'he’d been nicked up and dicked up.' So what? On what he calculated was to be his last day of duty, Specialist Jerry Piatrowski expected that the whole world was waiting for him. Doors would open.
     He had little idea in what condition he would find that world. Or what doors. 
     One more flight of stairs. . . .
     He checked his watch. It was exactly , according to the Swiss Army watch his mother had given him for his 18th birthday, three and a half years ago. Jerry hefted the fat manila envelope holding his orders and medical records. The central hallway up here was poorly lit.
     He looked down the hall; here was one window on each end —
     standard barracks layout.
     No one in the hall.
     Somehow he felt he’d been here before. He spotted the door, barely perceptible in the crummy light. He read the black stenciled sign: S-1 Orders, walked several yards down the scuffed tile corridor and directly into the room, as if he knew right where he was going.
     The space was empty, or nearly so.
     In one corner a three-legged grey metal desk was positioned near the rear wall, evidently for support. Resting on one edge was a tattered cardboard coffee cup. An empty picture frame hung over some half-rusted file cabinets. No one had been up here for some time. Strange, he thought.
     Jerry walked over to the fractured desk, to be sure there was no sign of life. Smelled the stale coffee cup. A sticker had been partially torn from the side of the homely piece of office furniture. Be All You Can Be. He thought about how he had come to be here, to enlist. He was ready to put it all behind him.
     The opposite wall had once held a clock. He could almost trace the circular outline where it once hung. Looking into the trash can he spotted a white, plastic name strip. Like they used in a hospital. Couldn’t make out the name.
     What was this place? Or what had it been?
     Resting on one edge was a tattered cardboard coffee cup. An empty picture frame hung over some half-He turned and walked to the door that he figured should lead him back into the hallway. Not a problem, Jerry said to himself.
The door stuck. He pushed. Pushed harder. As he stepped through he thought he heard a man’s voice, heard a woman say something in response.
Two middle-aged people, maybe in their fifties, sat together, watching The CBS Evening News. He knew just what the program was because his parents had always had this program on, just before supper. At six. Funny, he thought.
His watch was flashing The place looked like a waiting room.
Someone in white, nearby, walked out. He ignored her.
“Hello,” he tried, walking to the back of the small vinyl sofa that supported the two. Though they seemed achingly familiar they were oblivious to him. Walking around to look directly at the couple he stopped. Stopped sharply. No. Were these his parents? One seemed to be half asleep.
“Mom?”
No answer. She looked as if she had been weeping.
“Dad?" Nothing. . . 
He was dumbfounded. “Hey!” he tried.
No motion. These people could not hear him. It was like he was not even in the room. No one else was in the room either, though there were plenty of other chairs and small end tables. Where were they? Where was he? Not at his parents' house. Looking at them again, he could not be sure now who these people were. They looked different. Like too much time had passed. He shook his head to clear the webs.
From behind, someone walked into the room, turned, and left again. Jerry could not tell who it was. A woman? Yes. Should he follow? He’d have to think who—where he’d seen her.
Spinning back, he saw that the older man and woman were gone. The TV stayed on.
“Hey,” he tried.” Only the TV persisted.
“This is nuts,” Jerry thought aloud. He took off his maroon beret, wiped the sweat from his forehead, and put the beret into his back pocket. This was all wrong.
Who was that woman? He’d seen her.
Jerry turned so as to locate the door he’d just come in from, thinking if he could get back into the central hallway he’d be OK, he might locate S-1 Orders. Surely the clerk was waiting for him somewhere, maybe right around the corner. He’d gotten the wrong room. Not a problem. Why were there no proper signs or markings on the doors here?
He took a breath.
Piatrowski saw what must be an exit, leading back out. But to where? He stepped quickly and opened it, even as raucous laughter washed over him: beer calls and laughter caught him instantly. A bowling alley?
Yes. And one he remembered well. This was Larson’s Lanes. Out on the old state road. But how?
The building was rocking, music he half knew—something by Billy Joel? The cigarette haze here was dense as a sandstorm. He guessed there were seventy people, maybe more, people dressed for the sport, for their teams—matching shirts—in groups of fours. . . .  
It was a league night.
He hadn’t felt this close to home in years.
Jerry searched for faces. The first person he saw, the first one he recognized, shocked him to his socks. There, at the back line of lane 16, squarely in the middle of the multitude, taking dead aim at the 10-pin target set, stood a young man in a bright blue short-sleeved shirt. He loved that shirt. Yellow lettering, two pins on either side of the name: PIATROWSKI. 
The bowler took four long, slow, measured steps and released the ball, swirling and smashing into the pins, leaving only a wobbly 7 pin. What? What was going on? The bowler turned and looked at where Jerry was standing. Would they see each other? Maybe not. He shook his head, as if to change the picture.
These people all seemed to belong. They were here. They were home.
Home?
He turned, attempting to make some sense of it all, but found himself looking at something much different from the interior of his neighborhood bowling alley where he might buy a beer and fries, hang out, or just watch the other bowlers. Jerry was staring into what looked and smelled like a hospital ward. He turned again.
Several beds lined both walls, charts clipped neatly to each trim footboard. Many of the patients seemed to be sleeping. Was it nighttime? No. A few had IV drips connected to their arms. “This ain’t real—can’t be happening. . . .”
 An infirmary? Yes. The room had that lingering, disagreeable smell. He knew it, had endured it. Who was here? Anyone he knew? “Oh my God!”
Jerry looked carefully—then back to one man. He had spotted a bed with a young soldier sitting up. “No way!”    
Not now! In a hospital bed? “No way,” he said again. “No way in hell.” One nurse, a red-haired, thin-faced lieutenant, dressed in immaculate whites, hurried out the door at the end of the room, glancing over her shoulder, as if someone might be thinking of following. Someone was.
Him.
Jerry had to catch her. Find out where he was; who that was in the bed; what was going on. No way that could be who he just saw, or thought he saw, in that high, narrow bed.
The nurse was gone.
Jerry turned back to the hallway. Turning sharply, he saw, once again the sign that had drawn him in only minutes before: S-1 Orders. He paused. What was he likely to find there now? More crazy shit? He tried to walk in but found the door locked.
He pulled on the handle. Shook it. Twisted it hard.
Jerry was stuck. Only silence loomed behind.
Maybe he could walk back up the corridor. He’d try another door. Would it lead back to the hospital ward? Maybe he was on the wrong floor. Try it again.
Now the door opened. He stepped in.
But the room was now no room at all.
In full combat gear, Specialist Piatrowski stepped onto a hot, dusty street. Something bright exploded off in the distance. Then another. Several scrawny chickens ran into the road, chased by a small girl. He smelled dog shit, heard shouting through his radio. The sound of a chopper caught his attention. High up. He heard it. Couldn’t see it.
Across the street several kids in dirty black shorts were kicking a soccer ball. Four men, further down, hurried along beneath a high wall. What were they carrying? As Jerry watched the scene, a tactical vehicle pulled up alongside the men, camouflage paint and armored plates on the doors and sides.
Something loud and percussive shook him like a rag. And then there was nothing. Only a fine mist. Something that looked like a black sneaker fell to his feet. Jerry stared. The noise of the chopper was gone.
The kids were gone. The dark, hurrying men were gone. The HMMV was gone. In the hallway, something silent drew his attention and Jerry spun ‘round once more.
Two civilians were walking down the corridor, one red-headed nurse walking with them.
“Dad,” he called. “Hey, Dad? Mom? It’s me. Come back. I’m OK.” But whoever they were they had now stepped away into someplace else.
“Help me!” Jerry cried. “Can anyone help me? Get me out of here?”
            The silence was crushing.
Jerry took a deep breath and walked back to his right, back down the dirty tiled corridor to the window, where the sun streamed in. The window was open. Official-looking papers danced across his path. He did not look to see whose. His personnel jacket, the one he’d brought in—the records he’d carried—were no longer in his hand. He leaned and looked out. What he saw before him, not fifty yards away, caught him unawares. The distinctive smell reached him first.
Cordite.
Then the sounds. The many rifle cracks. The sharp, urgent rips of M-16 weapons. Some twelve or more groups of soldiers, two and sometimes three at each station, were propped behind sandbags, in foxholes, firing at targets maybe 200 yards out. Some further. Silhouettes. They called it “train fire.” One stocky, dark-looking man—the range NCO, he thought—turned, a soldier’s instant reaction to something wrong, something unplanned. The sergeant seemed to look directly up at Piatrowski, who could only stare back. The NCO turned to his troops, pulled on the lanyard of his whistle and blew sharply twice. Soldiers changed positions. Jerry watched, transfixed. From somewhere a soccer ball bounced into one of the foxholes. More explosions.
Several soldiers had turned their weapons to full-automatic. Ripppp went their rifles. The cordite rose gloriously. Ripppp. Jerry backed his head out from the open window. He hated that noise.
Looking back down the corridor, past the sign for S-1 Orders, the opposite window beckoned. He walked past several doors. One should be the orders clerk, he knew. Somewhere on this floor was his exit. His transition. But where was the right room?
He focused only on that one window.
Someone re-entered the corridor, someone in a white uniform. Someone else trying to get out today, he thought. Looking for the right room. Like me.
Several more paces and he was at the end. It was quiet up here.
But no one else was here. Were they?
No, that is incorrect, he told himself. Someone was coming up the hall. A woman. Someone he had seen before.
He looked out the window again. No Iraqi kids, he thought. No HMMV. No explosions.
Quiet.
Jerry could just make out something in the parking lot. There. There were a few people. He could not see who they were. He thought about his friends. The men he’d left behind.
The thin white band he was wearing said
He looked around the parking lot—not lost after all. Jerry took a deep breath. Then another, detected something vaguely medicinal.
One sporty-looking car held his attention. There, in the last row, just making ready to pull away, was a brand new, bright yellow Mustang. The young man behind the wheel paused, adjusted the seat. A couple, older people, he saw now, had settled into the back.
Jerry stared as the driver backed out, rolled down his window and set his left arm out, paused to check the time—a distinctive looking watch. His bright blue short sleeve shirt took the breeze. Free—free in the mid-day summer sun.
“Hey! Wait!”
Someone was near him now.
“Jerry.”
“What?” he answered. “I’m OK.”
She took his left arm, holding it at the elbow. He felt a sting. What did she want? He had to concentrate on the car. He’d seen it out there before. Hadn’t he?
“Jerry.”
Who is calling me, Piatrowski thought, too sleepy to chase the car. Maybe he’d rest. Look for that yellow Mustang later. Now he’d just turn over. Rest a while.
The bowling alley, his illusive parents, the rifle range—gone.
He needed his orders to get out. He should find his orders, his records. Maybe tomorrow he would do that. He could look for that room again tomorrow.  
Piatrowski turned. He would have looked out the window once more, but it was gone. The range NCO was gone.
No Iraqi kids. No cordite. No car. No orders. No one. One door, in some sense of the word, stood in his way, and it was locked.

*****


THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
I grew up in and with the Army; it was pretty much all around me. My dad was an Infantry Company Commander, in the Pacific, during WWII.  I was born while he was in officer training, in 1944. I served. My brothers both did. All my uncles — same story. It's just what one did in my family. Even now, my daughter is an active duty officer in the U.S. Air Force — a social worker, mental health therapist, in their Biomedical Sciences Corps. My son works at the Bay Pines Hospital for the Veterans Administration, in Florida. They both see men and women suffering from Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder nearly every day. My career with U.S. national intelligence agencies and in the U.S. Army was related to the Cold War and, more recently, to counter-terrorism. That's not "combat-related," but the culture is not much different. This is where the writer steps in. Because I have a sense of how we tell ourselves the stories of our lives in the best light possible, how we go about redeeming ourselves — about giving ourselves a wide margin for error — the idea of how U.S. military men and women cope with PTSD today intrigues me. This story gives us a hard look at the problem. I never met the illustrative Army vet Jerry Piatrowski, but he's with us. He lives in my town. On your street. He struggles daily. He needs and deserves our understanding. We should know him far, far better than we do. ~Arthur McMaster

*****
ABOUT ARTHUR McMASTER
Arthur McMaster writes short fiction, stage plays, and poetry. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Florida and has taught poetry and fiction writing at Furman, USC Upstate, and at Converse College. He is a retired U.S. Army Military Intelligence Officer. His work has appeared in these and several other journals: South Carolina Review, North American Review, Southwest Review, Subtropics, Emrys Journal, Poet Lore, Wisconsin Review, and Main Street Rag. His poetry chapbook, The Spy Who Came Down with a Cold was published recently by Finishing Line Press. The South Carolina Arts Commission selected his first published chapbook,  Awkwardness, in 2008. Arthur's work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

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