By Donald A. Ranard
When she called, he was in the VA cafeteria, having lunch.
“Did you see the pictures I sent?”
“I did,” he said, picking at his food with his fork.
“So, what do you think?”
“Looks good. It’s quiet, right?”
“Totally. It looks out on a park.”
“And it’s like literally six minutes from the base. I timed it.” She paused. “There’s just one thing.”
“It’s on the top floor of a three-story walk-up.”
“There’s no elevator?”
“I’m okay with that.”
“Are you sure?”
“I didn’t lose my leg, babe.”
“There may be a service elevator. I could check.”
“I don’t need a service elevator.” He pushed his plate away. “MREs are better than this slop.”
“What are you having?”
“Sounds awful. When did you become a vegetarian?”
“I’m no vegetarian. I just stopped eating meat.”
She laughed. “Honey, that’s the definition of a vegetarian—someone who doesn’t eat meat.”
“Well, it’s not the definition of me.”
“Do you like it?”
She’d shown him the apartment, and now they were in the kitchen.
“It’s great. You did good, babe. Love the kitchen bar counter.”
“Oh, honey, I’m happy.”
“Furniture looks good. Some kind of ‘rent-to-own deal’ you said?”
“Uh-huh. Plus, there’s a ten-percent discount for active military.”
“What, no special amputee discount?” He opened the fridge. “PBR!” he said. He looked back over his shoulder at her. “You’re right. This place does have everything.”
She laughed. “They’ve got this little convenience store next to the business office.”
“Cool.” He set the six-pack on the counter.
“Can I help?” she asked.
“We had this joke in rehab. We’d go, Need a hand?…Smile, babe, it’s a joke…Just hold it down for me, will you?”
She held down the six-pack, while he extricated a can from the plastic holder. She watched as he cracked open the beer, using the heel of his hand to anchor the can and his middle finger to yank off the pop-top.
“Good job,” she said.
“I’ve had practice. You wouldn’t believe the shit people smuggle into the VA.”
She removed the rest of the cans from the plastic holder and put them back in the fridge. Then, because he wanted to have a smoke, they went out onto the balcony.
He stood next to the ledge drinking beer and smoking and watching the people in the park. She lay on her back on a plastic lounge chair, with her eyes closed and the late afternoon sun on her face.
“I like being on the top floor,” he said. “Above the fray.”
Below in the park, people were sunbathing, playing softball, throwing frisbees.
“Look at them,” he muttered. “Fucking clueless.”
“I said, ‘Fucker’s shoeless’.”
She opened her eyes and looked at him. “Huh?”
“Some dude running barefoot.”
“Mmm,” she said. “Someone’s barbecuing.”
“Shit!” he said and put out his cigarette. In two quick strides, he was back in the living room.
She followed him inside. “What’s wrong?”
He slid the glass door shut. “Let’s keep it closed, okay?”
“Goddamn latch!” He hit the frame with the heel of his hand. “Jesus friggin’ Christ! Can you believe this shit? Brand new apartment and the fuckin’ latch broke.”
“Honey, take it easy. It’s not a big deal. We’ll have the super look at it.”
“Fuck the super! I’ll fix it. I know how to fix things. Remember?”
He sat down on the sofa. She sat down next to him. “You okay?”
“Yeah. Just a little queasy.”
She rested her head on his shoulder. He felt himself stiffen and wondered if she felt it.
She sat up. “Well, I guess I’ll go to Food Lion. Why don’t you come along? Shouldn’t be much traffic. It’s Sunday.”
“Think I’ll stay put if that’s okay.”
“No, that’s fine.” She looked at him. “Don’t you ever get stir crazy?”
“Only when I go out,” he said and laughed.
“I wish you wouldn’t laugh like that.”
“Like how you just laughed. You used to have such a nice laugh.”
He looked at her and smiled. “I still have a nice smile, don’t I?”
“You have a great smile,” she said. “I love your smile.” She leaned over and kissed him on the forehead.
After she left, he picked up one of the kitchen bar stools and placed it next to the balcony door. Then he got a beer out of the fridge. He cracked open the can and set it on the stool. He put a cigarette in his mouth and patted his pants pocket for his lighter. Were they still grilling? Maybe if he slid the door open just a skosh, he wouldn’t have to smell it.