“I know you.”
The Wagon Wheel Saloon is comprised of a narrow hall with a long, lacquered bar on the right as you enter, a row of booths on the left, and a juke box, pool table, kitchen, and back door at the far end. It caters primarily to Calumet City’s prison guards, equipment operators, ranchers, and the marginally employed. Monte Turcot was there, nursing a shot of Patrón, but suddenly decided to swig it down with a mouthful of Corona to finish. On the overhead flat screen, the Cowboys were snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
“Hey,” the voice said again. “I know you!”
Turcot looked up, conceding that whoever was speaking was, in fact, speaking to him. He gulped down the rest of his beer and examined the greasy fellow who was approaching. He couldn’t tell by his tone or drunken swagger if the man was friendly or antagonistic. Just to be safe, he rose from the stool with his empty bottle in his left hand and his right foot firmly planted on the floor, ready to push off and strike a blow if necessary.
“Can I shake your hand?” the drunk asked.
“I’m sorry,” Turcot replied. “I don’t think I know you.”
“I’m nobody,” answered the man, extending a hand.
Turcot shook it, apprehensively. The drunk held on too long, making it awkward.
“You’re Mannyturcle,” he slurred.
“Yeah, Mannyturcle,” Nobody repeated, swaying back and forth.
“And if I was?”
“You took out that shooter up at Alco’s.”
Turcot tried to escape by averting his eyes to the television and the football game, but Nobody persisted.
“That was a great thing you do…did…wasting that sonuvabich. Everyone’s is so proud of you. Great job, my man.” He held out his fist, waiting for Turcot to bump it.
“Are you sure about that?” Monte asked.
“Huh?” The drunk tottered, looking confused. He withdrew his hand.
“Because I’m not so sure,” Turcot muttered, his eyes focused on the football game.
“Whatcha mean?” asked Nobody. “You took that punk out. You wanna know somethin? He killed my neighbor’s niece.”
“That’s what I mean,” Turcot turned back to the drunk.
“I mean I failed your niece. I failed to act decisively.”
“She was my neighbor’s niece.”
“Whoever she was…niece, daughter, sister…I failed her.”
“That shooter killed two people before I acted, before I stopped him.”
“Hey,” said Nobody, “it would’ve been worse if you didn’t shoot…take him out.”
“Yes,” Turcot answered. “But it could have been better.”
“Hey,” continued the drunk. “They says that you’re a vet–”
“The radio. They say you just got back from Iraq.”
“It was Afghanistan, but I’ve been back for over a year.”
“Thanks you for yer service, my man,” Nobody added, holding out his hand again. Turcot didn’t shake it. Nobody stood there, waiting, his one hand outstretched while whisky spilled out of the glass he was gripping in the other.
As he stood in the Wagon Wheel Saloon confronted by the drunk, Monte Turcot’s mind transported him back into the Barmal District of Afghanistan. He could smell the familiar odors of dust and ammonia and burning animal fat and gunpowder and old sweat. They had soaked into his very skin like the ink of a tattoo and had followed him home, oozing out on occasion and reminding him of what he had experienced.
He was back with his platoon, working with a unit of the Afghan National Security Force. The summer sun boiled them in their sweaty fatigues as they approached a stone hooch through a patchwork of spring-irrigated melon fields. They spotted a runner, and a squad of ANSF took off in pursuit. Turcot’s squad continued on to the house and found three men with long, black, wiry beards inside. They did not resist, but would require questioning, as they were of fighting age. Turcot zip-tied them and made them sit in silence on the floor while the Pashto interpreter was summoned.
Dust floated in the sticky air of the hotbox room, sparkling under a shaft of sunlight beaming in from the window. Turcot and Specialist Navarro stood guard. An ANSF soldier glanced in at them as he passed by the window. Navarro chewed his tobacco and spit into the corner. A faint, vague smile filled his face. He was the old man of the platoon, older even than the sergeant at 36 years of age. His son was trying to make the Permian High School freshman football team.
AK-47s sounded off, not too far away. The squad pursuing the runner had made contact with the Taliban. Turcot carefully watched the three men on the floor. How they reacted to the gunfire would reveal a great deal about their allegiance. If they looked fearful, they would be of little intelligence value. But if they looked hopeful, then there would be no doubt they served the Muj – the warlords whose control began where the roads ended.
The AKs and M4s crackled, and the detainees stared at the floor. Navarro spat again and clicked his safety off. Turcot watched, wondering how long it would take the terp to get there, if he would show up at all. One detainee stirred, looking around on the floor. An RPG burst nearby. The sparkling dust in the light of the window danced. Turcot watched the detainee’s face raise. There was not a trace of fear. Then a grenade rolled in on the floor between Turcot and Navarro, as if they were standing in the middle of someone’s bocce ball game…
“Hey, stop bothering him. He’s trying to watch the game,” shouted the bartender from the other end of the room. A sinewy, rugged, and smallish fellow known to the locals as Tommyknocker, he wore suspenders that barely kept his denim up. He possessed a long gray beard, in sharp contrast to the black beards of the Taliban. “You leave him be. Come back down over here.”
The drunk withdrew his hand and wobbled back to the stool beside his companion, a weathered woman in a black leather jacket with a plume of big, feathered, unevenly dyed blond hair.
“How’re you doing, Monte?” Tommyknocker asked as he approached. “Need another?”
Turcot tipped his empty bottle. The bartender ducked down, then popped back up with a fresh one and handed it over.
“So, how are things with you?”
“Are the reporters still harassing you?”
“They were calling at all hours,” answered Turcot. “We had to change our numbers. Now they drive by and knock on the door. I told Meg that when they come by, just open the door and throw a pitcher of water in their face.”
“Now that’d send a message,” Tommyknocker laughed. “Does she miss the city?”
“I’m sure she does. But she’ll be all right once this finally blows over.”
“So you’re definitely not moving back?”
“I wouldn’t last.”
“It’s too much noise and stress. The traffic makes me crazy. We drove down a couple weeks back to visit her mother and we got stuck in it. I wanted to kill somebody. It’s assholes and idiots everywhere.”
“Can’t say I’d disagree with that,” Tommyknocker said, twisting some glasses down on the washer brushes in the bar sink.
“You’re totally out of the service, now?”
“Hey!” the drunken man blurted from the other end of the bar. Turcot and Tommyknocker turned toward him simultaneously. “All I wanted to do was shake your hand, that’s all.” Shakily, Nobody rose from his stool and began making his way towards them. Tommyknocker tried to head him off, but the drunk ignored him and shuffled straight over to Turcot.
“I said, all I wanted to do was shake your hand,” he stammered, offering his hand once again.
“We already shook hands,” Turcot stated bluntly.
“I told you, we already shook hands,” repeated Turcot.
“You think you’re too good to shake someone’s hand? You’re a celebrity now, I guess?”
“Not at all.”
“You’re a vet?”
“How about another whisky?” Tommyknocker asked, trying to distract the drunk. It was of no use. Nobody was fully dialed in. He placed his hand on his chest and began reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, while his blond companion cackled at the mockery from the other end. When he’d finished with the Pledge, he started slurring Lee Greenwood lyrics. Without emotion, Turcot took a twenty out of his pocket, set it under his bottle, and started to leave, but the drunk grabbed his arm as he walked past.
“What’s wrong with you?” Nobody slurred.
Turcot grabbed him by the collar with both hands and pinned him over the bar. The drunk’s companion shrieked and cursed from the far end. Tommyknocker watched.
“Do you want to know what’s wrong with me?” Turcot asked.
“Take it easy, man,” the drunk whined.
“People like you who think it’s all just white hats and black hats.”
“You let him go!” the blond screamed.
“Let me let you in on something. There are moments in your life when you are tested,” Turcot continued. “Sure, you can think I’d do this or I’d do that, but when the actual moment comes…” Turcot’s eyes glossed over. “If you fuck up, maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll get tested again. Maybe then you’ll get it right. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“Yes. Yes,” the drunk whimpered.
“That Alco was a test. It wasn’t my first. I was lucky that I got a second chance, but I didn’t get it all the way right. I failed that girl. But I can tell you right now that if I ever get a third chance, I won’t blow it.”
“Monte,” came a different voice standing in the doorway. It was Meg. “Monte, come home with me.”
Monte held fast.
“It’s not worth it, Monte,” Meg said as she approached him. “Let him go.”
“Yeah, let him go,” shouted the drunk’s companion.
“Please…” Meg pleaded, gently placing her hand on her husband’s shoulder. “Let’s go home.”
Monte released the drunk, who promptly sulked back to his companion. He took Meg’s hand and they left the saloon in silence.