“Bullet Catcher” first appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of The Southampton Review.
I’d been back from the war for about a week, was staying at my mother’s place, sleeping all day and drinking all night, trying to avoid her. She wanted to talk and I wasn’t ready for that.
I sat at a bar down the road, drinking half-price beer, because I’d shown the bartender my military ID when she mentioned that her kid brother was a Marine. There was a man sitting next to me, maybe a little older, but not by much. He didn’t look like everyone else, dress pants, a blue button-down shirt. It was late October and the leaves were turning that last dark shade before they go dead and flake off. Everyone in the bar stood huddled together, waiting for the first storm to hit, imagining that, if the reckoning came, by some clerical error, lost in the purity of all that fresh snow, they’d be forgotten, be left there to suffer.
The guy next to me kept looking over, taking quick glances as if he were trying to place me, figure out how he knew me. I thought, at first, that he was drunk and that that was why he was confused. Or maybe he was having trouble with his glasses.
Either way, this went on for a while before he said, “So, you were in the service?”
“Yeah,” I said.
He bought me a shot of whiskey and told me that he was in the Army, had served in Iraq. I made a bit of a joke about it. “Beautiful country over there,” which was my way of seeing if he was telling the truth. Because, when you’re talking one veteran to another, you never say, “What a shithole that place was,” or “I hate that fucking place.” You say, “Beautiful country.” “Real vacationland.”
He was lying. I knew this because of the way he talked after that. He didn’t get the joke. He thought, by spinning me some lines that he could win me over, make me believe. “Those people, I mean, animals,” he said. “You understand what I’m saying. You’ve seen it firsthand, right?”
He had a lot of opinions about the people of Iraq, about the war. I envied guys like him. I thought, how nice it must be to have opinions, how wonderful. I wasn’t going to tell him anything. I didn’t owe him that, but I was willing to listen if it meant more whiskey.
After a while he invited me to go downtown with him. I don’t know why I went, except that maybe I thought it would be better drinking with someone—even if it was this wretched man—than it would be drinking alone. Either way, we hopped in a cab and sped off into the night with the eager look of murderous men drawn across our faces.
The club we arrived at, in the heart of the city, was a hideous, pulsating thing, full of unfortunate hangers-on, men and women who did not know that their best days were behind them. When our drinks arrived, the man raised his glass for a toast. “To the dead,” he mumbled before downing his drink and gently placing the glass on the table.
He looked away from me and smiled, a crooked snake-like grin.
“You should have seen this buddy of mine,” he said, pausing, pushing his glasses up his nose. “Both of his hands were blown right off. Do you know what I’m talking about? Have you seen anything like that? From the elbow to the tips of his fingers, gone. Just like that. There one second, gone the next. Like some kind of demented magic trick. And the guy, this buddy of mine, he doesn’t even notice. He still thinks he’s pulling the trigger on his weapon, screaming out ‘Die, haji, die,’ over and over again.”
He turned his empty glass upside down and shook his head, as if this were the most heartbreaking story anyone would ever tell. He looked up at me, trying to see if I had been moved one way or another.
I chuckled. I knew that he wanted something from me. Condolences, maybe. A story of my own. People are sick that way.
“Hey,” he said. “You see anything like that?”
I shook my head, tired.
“None of that happened,” I said.
“What? What are you talking about?”
“What’s your buddy’s name? What kind of service weapon was he carrying?”
His face twisted up as if his whiskey had gone down the wrong pipe.
I had no idea what his intentions were. Maybe he was a reservist looking to hear some real war stories. Or, maybe he was a reporter. Maybe he wanted to suck my dick. Either way, he wasn’t going to admit any of that.
“You owe me for those drinks,” he said.
“Sure,” I said, standing so that I could look down on him. After a few seconds of silence I turned and walked toward the door.
He started screaming to anyone who would listen. “Grab that man,” he said. “He’s stolen something from me.”
No one seemed to notice or care. Men stood, examining one another’s shadows.
Down the road, there was a VFW hall, where I would later learn to drink in the company of veterans, because the men who’d actually been to war did not need you to talk about it even though that’s what we sometimes did.
When I got near the parking lot, I saw a man beating a woman over by the dumpsters. I could hear his fists hitting her. It sounded as if someone were chopping wood with the wrong side of an ax.
I hollered, “Hey, buddy.” I thought that if he saw someone watching he might have enough shame to stop.
“Fuck off,” the guy said, looking up long enough to make eye contact with me before he set his attention on the woman again.
I stood on the opposite side of the parking lot. “You need to stop,” I said.
He stood. “Mind your own business.”
He had a doughy face, swollen eyes, and a massive scar running down the right side of his head. He wanted to say something else but he seemed dumbfounded by this sudden disruption.
“If you leave her be,” I said, “I won’t have to get involved. Do you understand?”
“What are you going to do about it,” he said. “You don’t look like the type.”
“I’m a Marine,” I said, though I’m not sure why.
“Take it somewhere else,” I shouted. But I’d started walking toward the building.
“That’s what I thought.”
When I reached the door, I stopped and said, “I’ll call the cops.”
“No,” he said, “you wouldn’t do a thing like that.”
During all of this the woman didn’t try to escape but instead lay there very patiently waiting for it to end.
“Listen,” he said, “no one expects you to do anything.”
I imagined firing an Mk 19 at his face. The explosion, his skull caving in.
The moon was a silver sliver with black splotches. It was one hour until last call.
I reached for the door, my hand hovering about the knob, quivering in anticipation. I could only imagine what the inside looked like because the place had no windows facing the lot. Standing there I thought who will ever know that I walked away.
I looked behind me and saw towering above me, on the other side of the alley, the back side of an apartment complex. Two women sat on their balcony watching. One of them was shaking her head. I imagined them telling the other residents about the Marine who let a woman get beat in the back alley, about the veteran who didn’t have the courage to save her.
Two women are out smoking cigarettes and gossiping one night when they spot a man hitting a woman in the parking lot below. Neither of them thinks to phone the police. Neither of them calls down. These women they are embarrassed, they are afraid. Perhaps they are familiar with this kind of violence. What decent person would expect them to do anything other than look away?
I turned the knob, preparing to step inside. Before I did I called out, “You’re a coward too,” but it wasn’t meant for anyone in particular.
As soon as the door closed behind me, I left that other ugliness behind, stood taking stock of the place, the saddest establishment in the whole world. There were only a handful of men, sitting at the bar and mumbling confessions into their drinks. I took a few steps forward. The room was nothing but a cinder bock rectangle with a bar and a jukebox, a bunker where hideous men went to hide. Looking at it, I thought, I have finally come home.
I’d just taken my seat at the confessional when the woman from outside stumbled in. She was bruised up already, her hair a tangled mess. She sat next to me on a bar stool.
“I’m sorry abut that,” I said.
“Not a problem,” she said, trying hard to smile.
I looked away from her. She was monstrous, especially in the dim light. No one else was paying attention to her.
“Let me buy you a beer,” I said. The makeup she wore ran down her face. Her eyes were a brilliant shade of blue. “I could do that much, at least.”
She touched my hand gently.
“My man’s waiting out back,” she said. “He’s waiting.”
“Will he go away soon?”
“Once you go out.”
“Me,” I said. “What does he want with me?”
She ran her fingers through my hair.
“We could escape put the front,” I offered.
She traced the outline of my earlobe. The only thing to do now was go out and take my beating, or run away. I wasn’t especially fond of either option, but I knew she was going to try and push me.
“I’m not going to fight him,” I told her.
“If you don’t, he’s going to take it out on me,” she said. “It’s you or me this time.”
“Did he put you up to this?”
“That doesn’t matter now.”
She gave me a soft tap on the chin. “You can do this, bullet catcher,” she said.
“Don’t call me that.”
“Come on,” she pleaded. She put her hand next to mine on the bar.
“Does this happen often?” I asked.
“If you don’t, it’ll be me.”
“You want me to save you, is that what this is?”
“I’m not the one who needs saving.”
I stood and took her hand, squeezing it lightly, and then followed her over to the door. I stepped out into the parking lot, raising my hand to shield my eyes against the light. There he was, waiting, just like she’d said. She stood off to one side, kept calling out for one of us to whip the other one’s ass, though I’m not sure who she wanted to win. The broken clavicle. The oil black sky. My fist to his face or his fist to mine.