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Homecoming by Zachary Lunn

Zachary Lunn attends the MFA program at North Carolina State University where he has been recognized with the James Hurst Prize in Fiction. His writing appears or is forthcoming in The Louisville ReviewCONSEQUENCEPedestal Magazine, and Raleigh Review

3rd place, 2017 Raymond Carver Contest

Josh lit a Marlboro Light and hung his arm out the passenger window of his father’s Ford Taurus. They flew down I-95 and the thunder of summer air filled the car and kept the cherry of his cigarette outside glowing hot and mean. Every few minutes, his father would look at Josh and clap him several times on the shoulder before rubbing that same sweaty hand on his jeans and putting it back on the steering wheel.  

“I’m proud of you,” he said. “The whole tribe’s proud of you. We’re so glad you’re home.” 

Josh returned to Fort Bragg three weeks ago after a twelve-month combat tour in Iraq and his entire unit was going on leave for thirty days. Even though he grew up an hour away from Bragg and his parents were waiting for him in the hangar full of people and handmade welcome-home signs when his plane touched down, Josh hadn’t been back to Pembroke yet. He hadn’t even made it to Robeson County. Instead, Josh and his buddies went out most nights and spent their combat pay on whiskey specials at Shamrock’s and cheap beer and lap dances at The Dollhouse. 

Before the deployment, he would drive home on weekends and stay at his parents’, playing basketball or hunting with his friends who had stayed in Robeson County after high school. He’d sold his car before leaving and hadn’t looked for another since getting back, so an hour ago his parents had shown up and waited in the parking lot of the battalion headquarters for his thirty day vacation to begin while his commander gave a safety briefing—how if someone drove drunk or snorted coke or beat his goddamn wife he was going to punch him in the balls before kicking him out of the Army. Everyone laughed and when he dismissed them they ran off to their homes all across the country. 

Josh’s mom, who insisted he sit up front with his father, covered her mouth and nose with her hand and coughed from the backseat.  

“Josh, I really wish you wouldn’t do that, honey.” 

“I can’t hear you.” 

“I said I wish you wouldn’t do that.” 

He rolled the window up until it was just cracked open. 

“What, Mama?” 

“It’ll kill you.” 

“Right. Okay.” 

Josh dropped his cigarette out the crack and rolled the window back down. The AC in the Taurus had stopped working while he was overseas and his parents hadn’t fixed it. His father told him that Bravo Auto quoted him $700 so they’d been keeping the windows down since April.  

Up ahead, Josh could see the green road sign announcing their entrance into Robeson County. He gripped his knees tightly and squeezed as the car sped over the imaginary county line. Immediately he lifted his chin and put his nose in the air, straining to pick up a hint of the Lumbee River’s blackwater even though they were still miles away. Josh thought for a moment he could smell the rich, wet soil in the bottomlands where he would shoot wild turkeys and sneak beers with his friends on Friday nights, but instead he caught the dark exhaust from the semi in front of them and rubbed his nose with his forefinger.  

.  .  . 

When the car cruised through Lumberton, Josh looked at the buildings he could see from the freeway. There was Yoshi’s, the Japanese steakhouse with the pagoda rooftop his parents only took him to on his birthday. On the right was a Tractor Supply—the closest to his house—and next to it, just down the road, the adult store, The Lion’s Den. 

Once they took the exit for Pembroke, Josh looked at the Waffle House on the corner. He remembered eating there with his best friend from high school, Jonathan, and making a pact to enlist together before Jonathan backed out and went to Basic Law Enforcement Training at RCC and got hired on at the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office.  

Pulling his pack of smokes from the shoulder pocket of his uniform, Josh took one out and ran it under his nose, smelling the tobacco. He tapped it against the hard heel of his palm and heard his mom shuffle behind him before putting the cigarette back in its box and into his pocket. I can wait, he thought.  

“Aren’t you just so excited? To be home?” 

“It’s great.” 

She reached up and put her hand on his arm, giving it a gentle rub. Josh put a hand on top of hers. It was cold from the air being funneled into the back.  

“What do you want to do first?” 

“Just get home and lie down. In my bed.” 

“You don’t want to stop somewhere and get a treat?” 

“No, Mama. I’m tired.” 

Josh looked back at her when he said this. The wind was tossing strands of her long black hair into her face. The same hair that she would let Josh braid when he was a child, when she would tell him that no Lumbee woman brought up right would love him if he couldn’t braid her hair. She brushed it away, smiled, and looked quickly out the window, but not before Josh noticed that her eyes were wet. 

“Okay,” he said. “How about an ice cream from Andy’s.” 

“They closed a few months ago.” 

“Dairy Queen, then.” 

“We had a yard sale a while ago. Didn’t I email you? We sold your bed. You’ll have to sleep on the couch.” 

She tucked the loose hair behind her ears.  

“Okay,” he said. “Let’s just go home.” 

.  .  . 

Lumbee Homecoming was next week. It ran from Monday to Saturday during the week of Fourth of July since 1970. Lumbee ex-pats visited from all over the country and the town of Pembroke grew from a little over a thousand people to around 14,000 for those seven days. Rented golf carts eased the traffic burden on the town. A large outdoor food market opened and vendors sold funnel cakes and Navajo tacos and collard sandwiches. All down Prospect Road booths sold t-shirts and Native American jewelry, dreamcatchers and shaved ice, leather goods and wool blankets. On Saturday there was a parade through Pembroke and a fireworks show that the tribe spent good money on.  

Most people Josh knew and grew up with would be in Robeson County for Homecoming. He would count on seeing hundreds of Locklears and Hunts and Dials and Lowrys—all those common Lumbee names that he occasionally heard in the Army and asked after. Who’s your people? he would say. 

Josh and his parents drove down 711 and passed the Lumbee Tribe Housing Complex. The large building at the entrance was round and shaped to look like a turtle from above—a Native American symbol of power, longevity, and wisdom—with four legs and a head and tail projecting out from the main structure. Before Josh wore his dog tags around his neck he used to wear a medallion with a silver turtle on it that his uncle gave him when he was nine years old.  

Past the housing complex, and past the adjacent park that closed at sundown, they turned down a street and turned again onto the dirt road that led to his parents’ house. His dad slowed the car down. There had been rain, and he carefully navigated the big holes in the dirt that had filled with water. They passed a few trailers on their right and then Jeff Lowry’s house with his hogs still out front in their homemade cage. Josh held his breath against the smell. 

When they parked in front of their home, he climbed out and opened his mother’s car door.  

“This is wonderful,” she said.  

His dad hauled Josh’s duffel bag from the trunk. It was light—Josh had left his civilian clothes at his parents’ over the deployment and had been going out in his tan Army t-shirts and a pair of Levi’s he bought.   

His mom hugged his body as they walked past her potted porch plants and to the front door. She let go of him at the steps.  

“Wait here. Don’t move.” 

She went up to the door, reached up to eye level, and pulled off the yellow ribbon that was tacked up, covering the peephole.  

“It’s done,” she said. “You’re home.”  

They went inside and into the living room and kitchen that the front door opened up into. The AC in the house hadn’t worked for years either, so Josh’s mom went around opening up windows. His dad came in behind him and turned left down the hall to put Josh’s bag in his old room. Josh followed him and stood in the doorway. In one corner was a pile of black trash bags full of clothes and bedding. The rest of the room was filled with cardboard boxes of everything his mom had saved from her years of teaching third grade. Lesson plans and drawings and worksheets. She had to give up half her classroom to another third-grade teacher; they split the room with a temporary fold-out partition, but that had stood for three years now. 

Josh’s dad stood in the center of the room and looked around with his son.  

“It’s a mess, I know.” 

“Did you have to sell my bed?” 

“You’re hardly ever home anymore.” 

“I was in Iraq.” 

“Before that, I mean. It was just the weekends. Listen, we’ll make it up to you. Tomorrow. Yoshi’s.” 

“No, it’s okay. Really.” 

“We want to. Let us.” 

Josh lowered his head and rubbed a hand over his half-day stubble.  

“Thanks. Hey, can I talk to you?” 

“You’re talking to me right now. Your clothes are in these bags.” 

“It’s just—I’m just glad to be home.” 

His father looked him in the eyes, walked over, and put his hands on Josh’s shoulders. 

“Was it hard?” 

This was the first time someone had asked Josh that question. He didn’t want to answer. He didn’t know how to answer but he knew he wanted to talk. He could only think of the times he slept curled up in the backseat of his Humvee or on the cold rocks with his poncho liner wrapped around him or waiting for the mail to come on a convoy only to be disappointed when no one from back home had sent him anything. 

“Nevermind,” Josh said.  

.  .  . 

The next day, at lunch time, they got in the car and headed to Lumberton. With the windows down, they got on I-95 once they hit the Waffle House and drove the few miles to the Fayetteville Street exit. Yoshi’s was right there, and they climbed out of the car. Josh’s mom had asked him to wear his uniform.   

“I’m not supposed to wear it off-duty,” he had said. 

“But you look so handsome. Like a soldier.” 

Josh looked in her eyes and remembered the first time an IED hit his platoon. It crippled the truck in front of him and through the ringing in his ears all he could hear was his mom’s words to him before his unit flew out. “Stay safe.” Like an order, not a request. He’d wear his uniform to Yoshi’s. 

He hadn’t brought his cigarettes to Yoshi’s. His mom had asked him if he would try to quit and he said yes to that, too.  

“It just makes me worry.” 

His father held the large wooden door open and gestured for Josh to walk through first. Josh stepped through and into the dimly lit lobby of the restaurant.  

In front of him was a giant banner with WELCOME HOME, WARRIOR printed in large, bold letters. At the front of the words were the crossed rifles of the infantry, and at the end was the official seal of the Lumbee Tribe, shaped and colored after the Native American medicine wheel and the bottom of a longleaf pine cone. It was held up by old men in khaki and green Army uniforms, some in wheelchairs, wearing garrison caps or black hats with yellow lettering that said WWII and KOREA and VIETNAM VETERAN. The restaurant was filled to the brim with people from school and church and tribal leadership. They cheered and clapped loudly.  

Josh looked over his shoulder at his parents who smiled with their mouths tightly closed.  

Mark Oxendine, the Tribal Chairman, came up to Josh and shook his hand. He was smiling and Josh noticed he was missing teeth in the back of his mouth.  

“Who’s your people?” Mr. Oxendine said. “We’re proud of you. And let me tell you, I speak for all of us. Welcome home.” 

Mr. Oxendine was still shaking Josh’s hand and moved to stand side-by-side with him. A photographer came out of the crowd of people, who were now mingling with each other, and snapped photos of the handshake.  

“For the paper,” Mr. Oxendine said.  

“Thank you, sir.” 

“No, thank you for your service. We’d love to have you on the veterans float for the Homecoming parade. How about it?” 

Josh didn’t want to do this. He was looking forward to sitting and watching the parade with his family and talking to everyone he knew from town who would walk by and see him and be happy he was home.  

“It’ll be great,” Mr. Oxendine said. “For all Lumbees. And make sure you wear this uniform. You look like a real Indian warrior.” 

“Okay. Thank you. I’d like that.” 

“Are you looking forward to growing your hair back out? I know your daddy over there keeps it long.” 

“Excuse me, sir? I have to keep it short.” 

Mr. Oxendine was still gripping Josh’s hand. 

“Right. But now you’re back, so you can grow it out again.” 

“No, sir. I’m on leave. Still in the Army. And I’ll probably deploy again in another year.” 

“Oh, that’s right. Of course. Well God bless you.” 

The chairman patted Josh on the back and disappeared into the crowd of people, shaking hands and smiling.  

Then Josh stood in the same spot while hundreds came up and shook his hand enthusiastically, one at a time, some posing for pictures and some giving him hugs with wet eyes. They had dark skin and brown eyes like him. Their hair was dark like his, too. He smiled and chatted and said you’re welcome when they thanked him for his service even though that didn’t feel like the right answer. Josh recognized some of the people. But he didn’t know any of them. He was sure that if Jonathan or his ex-girlfriend or his high school English teacher were here that they might recognize him for just a moment too.  

.  .  . 

The next day, Josh woke up and lay on the couch with only a sheet covering him. He forgot to prop the living room windows open with the wooden dowels stashed behind the front door and they slowly slid closed overnight. Peeling the sheet off his sweaty skin, he got up to piss. 

He pulled on a pair of jeans. Grabbing his cigarettes and lighter from his uniform top, Josh went out on the front porch, quietly closing the door so his parents wouldn’t wake. He had meant it when he said he would quit, but it had been over twenty-four hours and what was one cigarette?  

The hot smoke opened up his lungs and he held it in. His chest felt huge and not really like his own body. He finished his first and sat on the steps and smoked another. Creeping inside, he saw his mom making a pot of coffee in the kitchen.  

“You want a cup?” she said.  

“Yeah, sure.” 

Josh walked into the living room and leaned against the back of the couch, looking at the hooked nail of his pointer finger.  

“You renewing your ID today? The Enrollment Office is closed during lunchtime and I think they close early on Fridays.” 

“Yeah, I’ve gotta do that today.” 

“I’ll dig up your birth certificate.” 

“Thanks, Mama.” 

The coffee pot was making sounds in the quiet house. The windows were still shut.  

“Bear hug?” Josh said.  

“Oh, of course, sweetie.” 

She sounded surprised, smiled big, and stretched her arms wide in her nightgown. They had done this since he was little. She would say it and he would squeeze as hard as he could, but as he grew he didn’t want to hurt her and she was the one who squeezed hard. He walked up and hugged her. 

“I missed home, Mama.” 

“You doing okay?” 

Josh closed his eyes.  

“I just need—” 

She stopped hugging him and took a half-step backwards. 

“Is that smoke I smell? I asked you not to smoke. It’s going to kill you, Josh. And that will kill me.” 

“Mama, I’m trying.”  

“You’re killing me,” she said. 

.  .  . 

The Enrollment Office was tucked between the dialysis clinic and KFC. Josh parked his mom’s car—school was out for the summer so she was staying at home, canning tomatoes and muscadine jam for extra cash. There was no line when he walked inside. At the front desk was the same woman who’d worked there since Josh could remember. He walked to the desk and waved his hand.  

“Hi, Miss Tracey.” 

“Look who it is,” she said. “Look at that haircut. Everyone is just so excited you’re back. Just in time for Homecoming. You were in the paper this morning. Did you see?” 

“No, not yet. I need to renew my ID.” 

“Okay, honey. Just go on over to Gail over there. See her? Yes, in the corner.” 

Gail saw him coming and she straightened up in her chair. Josh had never met her before but he knew who she was—she taught at his high school until his sophomore year when she left for this job because it paid better.  

“Renewal?” she said.  

Josh slid his birth certificate and ID across her desk. 

“Yes, ma’am.” 

Gail handed him a clipboard with a recertification form and he started filling it out while she typed on her computer. Josh got to the box that asked if he was a veteran.  

“What do I put here?” 

“Check yes if you’re a veteran.”  

“I’m a combat veteran, but I’m still on active duty. Does that count?” 

Gail stopped typing and looked up at him and shrugged.  

“Sure. I guess it counts.”  

He checked yes and she went back to typing while he finished the form.  

“Great,” she said. “I’m going to ask you some questions to confirm your tribal membership. Nothing formal.” 

“I’m ready.” 

“Here we go. Name three Lumbee communities.” 

“Prospect, Saddletree, and Magnolia.” 

“Good. Next—name three Indian churches in Robeson County.” 

“There’s Prospect Church.”  

“Okay. Two more.” 

“St. Anna’s Church. And Oak Grove Baptist.” 

“Oak Grove? No, I’m sorry. Can you name another?” 

“Oak Grove, it’s off Chicken Road.” 

“Oh, that’s right, honey. I’m sorry. Last one—name three tribal leaders.” 

“Mark Oxendine.” 

“Yes.” 

“Ruthie Locklear.” 

“Good. One more.” 

“Robert Lowry.” 

“No, his term expired.” 

“Oh. Well there’s—William Jacobs.” 

“Sorry, honey. William is out, too.” 

“Look, I’ve been gone. I’m a Locklear, you have my ID right there.” 

“I’m sorry, but I can’t approve your renewal today. You’re welcome to come back next week and try again.” 

“Listen, if you can just look me up in the rolls. I’m a member—I’m Lumbee. I’m sure you know my parents. And I’m in the system. I’m Lumbee.” 

“I’m really sorry, honey. There’s nothing I can do.” 

She held out Josh’s birth certificate and ID and he looked at her for a moment but she didn’t blink. He took his documents and stood up and left. As he was walking out the front door of the building, Tracey called out from the front desk. 

“See you at Homecoming,” she said. 

.  .  . 

Golf carts started appearing all over, rolling through Pembroke and slowing down traffic. Prospect Road and 3rd Street were the only four-lane roads in town, and without the carts the influx of visitors would clog the streets. Still, it kept things to a crawl—especially from Papa Bill’s BBQ down to Walmart—and the golf cart congestion got even worse at night, when the line of the McDonald’s drive-thru wrapped around the entire building.  

Homecoming started at the beginning of the week but Josh stayed on the couch watching television for most of it. He went down to the outdoor market once to get a collard sandwich at his favorite food truck—Gloria’s, with the navy-blue banner and white lettering, always parked next to the Kangaroo gas station—and was surprised to learn that Gloria had passed away earlier in the year. She was 87, someone said. The sandwich tasted off—not like he remembered it. It didn’t have enough sugar in the cornbread or something. When he got home, his mom said she thought she emailed him when she had heard the news about Gloria. 

“No,” he said. “You didn’t.”  

Jonathan called the house phone the night before the parade and apologized for not coming over to see Josh yet. Work is crazy, he said. Josh asked if he would be at the parade and if he wanted to grab a beer, but Jonathan was working during the parade, directing traffic and checking golf cart drivers for their road-operation permits the town sold during Homecoming.  

It rained that night, and with the windows up Josh felt like he was moving through molasses when he woke up and walked to the bathroom. He showered and brushed his teeth and dressed in his camouflaged Army uniform, blousing his pants over his tan desert boots. 

The parade started at 10 a.m. but the floats started lining up at 8:30. His mom drove him into town and dropped him off. She would park behind the Burger King so they had an easy exit after the parade—Prospect and a large stretch of 3rd were closed to non-golf carts for the entire day.  

Sitting curbside next to a large magnolia tree was the veterans float. There was no mistaking it. Hanging on both sides of the float was the same banner that was waiting for Josh at Yoshi’s: WELCOME HOME, WARRIOR. Sitting in fold-out metal chairs on the trailer were the same old veterans from the restaurant. Walking down the sidewalk on Prospect, Josh made his way to the back of the float and climbed on. The men turned and greeted him, smiling with missing teeth and their black and yellow hats. 

There was another hour before the parade kicked off and people were starting to crowd the sidewalk and adjacent grass with pop-up canopies and camping chairs from Walmart. The sun was already starting to beat down and Josh sweated under his uniform. The back of his collar stuck to his neck. 

“Have a seat, young man.” 

A man with a deeply wrinkled face, wearing a white shirt and bolo tie, motioned to the seat next to him. He smiled big, showing his perfect, fake teeth. Over his shirt he wore a leather vest that had a large patch of the tribal seal on the back with the words Lumbee Warrior set above the seal. His hat read NATIVE VETERAN and sandwiched between the words was the striped Vietnam Service Ribbon. Josh sat down and straightened his legs, crossing his ankles.  

“Thank you, sir,” he said. 

“Don’t ‘sir’ me, call me Willie. I ain’t no officer—I work for a living.”  

The man chuckled at his own Army joke. Josh relaxed a little. He had been anxious without realizing it.  

“I’ve been reading about what y’all have to deal with over there,” Willie said. “IEDs and suicide vests and all. It’s good work y’all are doing. Real proud of you, son.” 

“It was nothing. I mean, Vietnam? Come on.”  

“Vietnam wasn’t shit.” 

Josh laughed. “Oh, come on. I’m not stupid. You had it worse and I know it. I’ve got nothing to complain about.” 

“The way I see it, we fought the same fight.”  

Josh uncrossed his boots and leaned forward, staring into the crowd of people gathering on the sidewalk. He’d seen footage of Vietnam in high school, but never of their homecoming. They were spit on, his teachers told him. Josh wondered what that would feel like—if the soldiers even cared, or if they were just glad to be home. He remembered again that first IED, getting back to the patrol base and smoking a cigarette for the first time. He had bummed a pack from Johnston and sat in the backseat of his Humvee with his gear still hanging on his body and smoked six or seven, one after the other, until he threw up on the rear tire. He bought a carton the next day. 

“How was it for you?” Josh said. “When you got back?” 

“I suppose it felt the same. Something about being home with your people that does it for you. I suppose it was like I never left.” 

Josh looked over at Willie, who was waving to people he knew as they walked by the stationary float. Willie was flashing that same fake smile to everyone he saw. 

When the parade got going, Josh sat with his back straight. Throngs of people were walking along the sidewalk, crowding to see. Josh noticed his church’s preacher sitting with his family, eating a ribeye sandwich. The steak spilled over the sides of the bread and the white fat shined in the sun. 

Josh saw Jonathan standing outside his silver Dodge Charger with its blue and red lights flashing as the parade advanced. Jonathan looked up at the float and lifted his hand to his forehead, shielding his eyes from the sun. His neck craned forward and he gave an uncertain wave, his free hand coming up quickly before going back to rest on his belt buckle. 

“He’s looking right at you,” Willie said. “Do you know him?” 

“Yes. We were friends before I left. He was supposed to go with me.” 

“He couldn’t do it?” 

“I don’t know. His mama got sick I think.” 

“Well you know what? Some people can’t leave home. They’re just not made for it.” 

“Yeah. You’re probably right.”  

Josh waved back at his friend. Jonathan stood straight, gave a mini-salute, and the parade moved on.   

.  .  . 

The fireworks show was starting when Josh went outside—it was too hot in the house, the humidity above eighty percent—and sat shirtless on the steps of the front porch. He hadn’t stayed after the parade. He and his mom drove back to the house and later that night she met some women from church to watch the show from the roof of Pembroke Elementary. 

He smoked and the rockets went up in the air, cracking loudly. More like small-arms fire than the heavy bass of a roadside bomb. When that first one had gone off, just in front of him, Josh had shut his eyes. He didn’t want to open them and he didn’t blame Jonathan for not wanting to enlist. On the porch, he shut his eyes and deeply inhaled smoke.  

The show died down and when he opened his eyes, thinking it was over, the finale kicked in with a booming firecracker. He thought he could feel the porch shake for a moment. Josh stood up and threw his cigarette onto the ground. He picked up a pot off the porch and smashed it. Dirt flew everywhere and he stood over the mess, breathing hard.  Josh lit a cigarette. He wanted to smoke half a pack again. 

A few minutes after Josh cleaned up the mess, his mom pulled up to the house, grabbed her purse from the passenger seat, and got out of the car. As she was walking up to the steps where he sat, Josh scooted over to give her room to climb up. She stopped in front of him. 

“Smoking, Josh? Really?” 

“How were the fireworks?” 

“They’re the same as always. You kind of get used to them.” 

She rubbed her hand in his hair and walked past him into the house. 

.  .  . 

Josh stayed in Robeson County for the rest of his leave. All his Army buddies were still spread across the country and he didn’t hear from them. They were off with their moms and dads and wives and children. Their kin. Their people.  

He offered to fix the AC in the Taurus with some of his combat pay but his dad said no. Save your money, he said. Josh went out and paid cash for a 1994 Ford Ranger. 

The night before he was due to report back to Bragg, Josh drove south on 74 until he hit the county line and turned around. It was raining heavily and he noted that he would have to replace the windshield-wiper motor in the Ranger—the wipers and blades were slowly dragged back and forth across the glass. He rolled his window down to keep the windshield from fogging up and pulled onto the grassy shoulder. 

U.S. Route 74 is officially named Andrew Jackson Highway through most of North Carolina, but its name changes for the nineteen miles it stretches through Robeson County. Josh knew the sign was in front of him: American Indian Highway. But he couldn’t see it. Because of the rain and his faulty wipers. 

Josh listened to the lonely beat of raindrops on the truck’s metal rooftop. He sniffed the air for the scent of the Lumbee River, just a hint, before it moved south and drained into the ocean. Sticking a hand out his window, Josh felt the cold rain in the hot air. It reminded him of home.  

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