Coward by John Henry Fleming


John Henry Fleming's short fiction has appeared in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, The North American Review, Mississippi Review, Fourteen Hills, Georgetown Review, Santa Monica Review, and Nightsun, among others. He's the author of The Legend of the Barefoot Mailman, a novel, and Fearsome Creatures of Florida, a literary bestiary. He teaches creative writing at the University of South Florida and is the advisory editor of Saw Palm: florida literature and art. You can read his lying, unclassifiable blog about publishing, The Book I Will Write, at his website.

When he was six, his father held a knife to his throat and threatened to kill him if he ever touched his LPs again. Later, in the war, he captured a VC and held a knife to the man’s throat in the same way his father had held a knife to his. “I’ll kill you,” he told the man. “If you ever so much as…” and he couldn’t think of what to say next. But realizing the man spoke no English he said it anyway: “I’ll kill you if you ever mess with my records.” He laughed until his jaw ached. Then he released the man, kicked him in the groin, and ran back to camp, where he sat on his cot and took the knife to the toes of his left foot, stretching them out and sawing them off one through five. His CO called him a coward and assured him a dishonorable discharge. On the plane home, he kept turning over in his mind the word coward. He’d lost the sense of its meaning.

Back before the war, during his one year in college, he’d DJed for the college radio station on the night shift. He geared his show toward late-night lovers and developed a following for the risqué tunes he played, becoming known on campus as the Pantydropper. A local minister overheard this and decided one night to drive through campus and listen to the college radio station. The minister’s ears burned with righteous indignation, and the next day he mounted a campaign to shut down the college station unless it cleaned up its act. The station’s faculty advisor promptly removed him, and while a few students complained about the decision in the campus newspaper, they did it mainly in jest: “Report: Panties Up All Over Campus.”

Later, when he quit school, the campus protesting came in earnest over the war, and he felt ashamed—not for failing to stand up for himself at the station but for having indulged in adolescent mischief while people his age were dying overseas. He did what he thought was honorable: he joined the Army.

.  .  .

When he was nine, his father finally left home for good. For a year after that, he and his mother lived in fear that his father might return home any night as he had before, drunk and angry, waving a gun or a knife. Then one day a policeman came to the door and reported that his father had killed himself just two miles away at the riverfront. The policeman handed over the contents of his father’s pockets—a photograph and a note—which, as far as anyone could tell, were the only belongings he had. The photograph was the family portrait they’d had done at the Montgomery Ward, his mother and father standing together and smiling, his father’s thick fingers curled over his son’s shoulder blade. The note was not addressed to his son by name but its target was clear anyway. In the split second before his mother crumpled it up, he read the deliberate letters written by an unsteady hand: Don’t be weak your whole life. He never let on that he’d seen it.

The dishonorable discharge kept him from landing a job. The better employers were wary of Vietnam vets. They’d heard some were drug users, others killers. They wanted to see his discharge papers for reassurance. Eventually he quit trying, and for a while tried to involve himself with the antiwar movement. He worked at KPFA in Berkeley in exchange for food and lived with two free-love lesbians in a room above College Street. They invited him to watch. “But if you ever so much as touch either one of us, you’re back on the street,” said the taller one. He couldn’t help himself with the shorter one. She let him.

After, feeling tender toward her, he let on that he’d fought overseas. Only now, being with her, did he truly feel he was on his way home, he said. Later, she felt guilty and told her partner everything.

Perhaps he shouldn’t have revealed his deformed foot; perhaps he should have kept his socks on. The partner spit at him and kicked him out, and someone at the radio station must have heard because they let him go without an explanation.

He decided he was always trying to make up for his earlier failures. Time to make a clean start. He cut his hair and drove east. He wrote his mother for money and used it to enroll in college, just as he said he would. He hadn’t seen his mother in years, but they still kept in touch from time to time by mail. Her letters always sounded stiff because she didn’t use contractions; he translated them in his head to the voice he remembered. She asked him questions and said little about herself except to end each letter, “I am fine, and I know you will be, too. Your loving mother, Doris.” Though he knew it was coming, every time he reached this last line he felt like crying anyway. It was something she used to say to him when his father acted up. Sometimes she’d say it with a bruised face and tears streaking her cheeks. “I’m fine,” she said, “and I know you will be, too.”

Maybe he would be. He was taking business classes, having what he thought of as “normal” conversations with people he’d never imagined talking to before—people with family money and traditional values. As far as they knew, he was one of them. He didn’t let on that he’d been in the war; he said only that he’d worked in his father’s business for a time, then decided to cut out on his own, and most were impressed by that. He didn’t mind being a faker and a liar if that’s what it took to fit in.

He’d had some practice in the Army, after all. He’d had to fake his own bravery, for one. And lie about the things he’d do or the things he’d done. He wasn’t alone: the only ones not faking were the Certifiably Insane. The CI had been there too long; they’d forgotten it was all a lie. When the CI killed a Viet Cong, they meant it. All hecould do when the time came was to borrow a line from his dad and then laugh about it.

To survive in business, he just had to keep from laughing, he thought.

.  .  .

The night his father held a knife to his throat, a laugh might have killed him. Yet he’d almost laughed anyway. He didn’t know what LPs were. They were all over the floor at his knees, and he knew them only as records. What was an LP? In his dad’s thick, gin-soaked voice, it came out as “help-please”: “I’ll kill you if you ever touch my help-please again.”

It didn’t make sense. On rare occasions, his dad came home not angry but silly—so silly he seemed to think it was a contest to out-do his small son—and maybe this was one of those times. But no, he knew better. There was a knife at his throat, and the knife meant business even if his dad didn’t. If his throat convulsed, the blade would dig in.

He wanted to laugh. He wanted to swallow. He couldn’t do either, not even when his father swatted his head aside like a basketball so he fell onto the records and cracked one.

.  .  .

He kept himself together and got his degree. When his mother came to the graduation ceremony, they hugged and cried. They hadn’t seen each other in eight years. At fifty-five, she looked like a scared bobbing head swept in a strong current. She lived alone and had her routines.

“War injury,” he told her when she asked him about his limp, and that was enough to keep her from asking again.

When he marched and brought his diploma back to her as a gift, she told him how proud she was.

“I knew you’d be fine,” she said, and it didn’t matter to him that she was probably lying, because even if her thin thread of hope had fallen slack at times, he’d drawn it tight around his diploma now like a ribbon.

“You’re right,” he said. “You always were.”

He had a job waiting for him at a media company that was busy buying up radio stations around the country. He’d work for a marketing team—the company was big into teams, and he was to call his boss his “team leader.”

The team leader was firm but chummy, an ex-marine who shook his hand hard and gripped his shoulder as he showed him around the first day. This made him more nervous. When his team was called out into the aisle to meet the new guy, the leader told a bawdy joke, something to break the ice, a little story about a Vietnam vet in bed with Jane Fonda.

Everyone around him laughed, and when he swallowed and opened his mouth, just to try it, he found he could laugh, too, just as long and loud as the others.