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The Real World
by Andrew Vachss

This all started over one of the silly kinds of things kids get into. The kind of things they're supposed to settle themselves. Maybe it was because we're both fathers, Hank and me.

That's his name, Hank. I don't really know much about him except that he lives a few blocks over. In a little tract house, just like we do. It's a big development, the one we live in. Built right after the war, for returning GIs. That's World War II, not the one I was in. The one I was in, they don't really have a name for it, just the place where it happened.

What I mean is, people called it different things, depending on how they looked at it. Even the guys that was in it, they called it different things. Vietnam. The Nam. Overseas. It didn't matter. All we knew, it wasn't out here. The World, that's what we used to call out here. We used to talk all the time about getting back to The World.

Nobody in The World ever called it that. Funny, huh? So I always thought it was a special name that only soldiers used.

Until I went to prison. In there, guys called it The World too. And they'd say it the same way—they couldn't wait to get out in The World.

The stuff they talked about doing once they got out there, it was the same thing guys used to talk about doing overseas. I don't mean the same same things. I mean, different guys had different ... I don't know, goals. So some guys overseas, they talked about getting back to The World, get a job, find a girl, get married, have kids ... like that. And some talked about dealing drugs, or hijacking armored cars. Or raping women. It just depended. But it was the same thing, the Army and prison: people talked about what they were going to do when they got out. And the guys who stayed, they got called the same thing in both places—lifers.

Another way both places were the same—people got there for different reasons. In my platoon, there were guys who enlisted. Some because they wanted to be in the war. For America, they said. They didn't keep saying that, not after a while. I mean, it got hard to tell after a while why you were there. The only thing you knew for sure is that you didn't want to be. The guys who did want to be there—everybody stayed far away from them.

Others, they thought it was a good opportunity. Learn a trade, maybe go to college when they got out. A few even thought it would be a career, like if their fathers were in already. Then there were guys like me. Guys who had to be there—either they got drafted or it was their only choice, you know what I mean.

So, because of that last thing, I never blamed the war for me going to prison. I mean, I was going to prison before the war—or before I went into it, anyway—and I got a break from the judge. Everybody was against the war then, it seemed like, so they was looking for guys to go. When the Public Defender I had told the judge I wanted to go, the judge looked real serious. Then he said I was a good kid, and that fight I'd been in—the one where the other guy got hurt so bad—well, those things happened in certain neighborhoods.

That was when I lived in the city. We didn't call where we lived a neighborhood like the judge did, but we knew it had borders. The whole thing had started when those others guys crossed our border.

When I went in, I had a bad temper. A real bad temper. And I liked to drink too. Liquor only gave me a worse temper. I knew that, but I still liked to drink. But even though there was a lot of dope in my ... neighborhood, I never used it.

Not until I was over there.

I lost my temper in the Army. I don't mean I got mad. I mean I lost all my bad temper. It disappeared. I stopped drinking too, after a while. This was all after I found out stuff about myself. After I got my MOS—Military Occupation Specialty. Which was Infantry, at first. Which really isn't an MOS at all. I mean, it's not like being a helicopter mechanic or a radio man—nothing you could use in The World.

So I stopped drinking and I didn't use any more dope—which was only weed, anyway, not the other stuff.

That other stuff, it was good and bad both. Good because you stopped being afraid when you had to go out into the jungle. Which was most of the time, for us. That's what Infantry did. The bad thing was that it made you stupid. Like you didn't care if you got blown away or not. Or made you so paranoid you would just start blasting away every time a leaf moved. That could get you killed too—we were supposed to be quiet.

One thing I learned over there, it was how to be quiet.

I got shot once. When I was still Infantry. It wasn't much of a wound. Not a "million dollar wound," like they called it when you got shot bad enough to go back to The World, but not so bad that you was crippled or nothing. The best thing was to get shot bad enough to go back, and get Disability too. They give you that in percentages, like ten per cent disability or thirty per cent or whatever.

My wound was in the leg. Not even from a bullet, from a mortar round they lobbed into where we was dug in. I didn't get to go back to The World. They gave me a medal, a Purple Heart. Some guys had a whole bunch of them. Nobody cared, except the lieutenants and the lifers—they wanted them bad.

When I got back to The World, I just drifted around for a while. A lot of guys did that. I know, because I'd meet them in the same places I hung out in.

I went to prison for stealing. Robbing, actually. There's a real difference. In the law, anyway. One is if you take something that's not yours. The other is the same, but it's when you take it from a person, not a place. Anyway, the Public Defender told the judge the same kind of story he did the first time. I don't mean it was the same guy, the PD, only that he told the same story. But this time, instead of saying I was going to serve my country, he said I already had, see? The judge was one of those liberals. He had long hair and everything. He was probably against the war. Or he was in law school and didn't have to go. Or something. I know he never went in, because I can tell. But, now, it's like ... fashionable to give a damn about Vietnam vets. So he made a big speech and gave me five years. Instead of the twenty-five he could have given me, that's what the PD said. Like he'd done a real good job. The PD, not the judge.

I didn't care so much. I thought prison would be like the Army. And the guards would be the VC. But it wasn't like that. Mostly, the convicts fought each other. Usually over race, but it could be any stupid thing. It was like that in the Army too, but not so much. And almost never out in the field.

Except for lieutenants. Nobody liked them. You couldn't fight them—that was straight to jail, worse even—but some guys, they'd toss a grenade right into a trench where one of the lieutenants would be dug in by himself. Everybody would see it, but nobody would say anything.

In prison, most of the guards was white. And most of the convicts was black. Kind of like the Army too, except that, like I said, nobody thought the guards was lieutenants, if you understand what I'm saying.

There were a lot of murderers in there. They never called themselves that—they always called themselves killers. If they was ever in the Army, ever in the Infantry especially, they would know the difference.

Anyway, I didn't care what they called themselves, so I never said anything.

You want to know something funny? In the Army, I never learned one useful thing for The World. In prison, I never learned one useful thing for The World either. But the stuff I learned in the Army helped me in prison. And I guess, if I'd gone to prison first, it would have helped me in the Army. Weird, huh?

Anyway, I got out of both. I came back to The World each time.

What I do now, I drive a truck. So I'm on the road a lot. I never really had a home, and that was okay. Until I met Noreen. She was working in one of the truck stops. I don't mean "working" like when they say "working girl." See, all the truck stops have hookers. "Lot lizards," they call them. You can even call ahead on the CB, make a reservation if you want. But Noreen was a waitress. She cooked too, sometimes.

I really liked her. She talked about stuff I didn't know anything about, but I always liked to hear her say it anyway. You know what I liked best about her? She wrote me letters. On the road, so they'd be waiting for me at the next stop. All the time I was in the Army, I never got a letter. All the time in prison neither.

Noreen was a single mother. That's what she said, "I'm a single mother." I wasn't even sure what she meant, until she explained. She had a son. Lewis, his name was. He was nine years old. Lewis didn't have a father. I don't mean like Noreen was divorced, she was never married. She said she knew who the father was. She said he knew it too. But he never came around after she told him she was pregnant. She told Lewis his father died in an accident. Before he was even born. Lewis, I mean, not the father.

Noreen and I got married. She had this little apartment. Only one bedroom. Lewis slept in the bedroom, and Noreen slept on a fold-out couch in the living room. After we got married, she asked me, did I want us to sleep in the bedroom? I told her that was Lewis' room. She hugged me so tight it hurt.

I think Lewis really liked me. He never said much— but that's okay, because I never say much either. But we did some things together. Mostly watched TV and played cards. And computer games—he was real good at those. I never took him fishing or nothing like that. Lewis wasn't into sports much—he didn't even like to watch them on TV.

In the little house, Lewis still had his own bedroom. Noreen and I had one too, right across the hall. It was nice. I was always glad to come back. With Noreen and me both working, we did okay. That's how we got the down payment for the house, saving together. I bought it on the GI Bill. That was the first time I ever got anything out of being in the Army. I didn't even know you could do that, but the man at the bank told us about it.

Lewis used to ask me about the Army. I never told him much. I don't mean I told the kid to shut the hell up and not bother me or nothing—I would never do that. I just told him it was a long time ago, and it was different things to different people, depending on who you asked. He asked me something once, though. His class was going on a field trip to Washington DC. You know, where they have that monument to all the people who got killed over there? Anyway, Lewis asked me, did I want him to look up the names of anyone I had served with? I told him nobody I had served with ever got killed over there. I was sorry to lie to him, but the truth would have been harder. Noreen was always doing things that made it harder on herself to make it easier for Lewis, and that's what I wanted to do too.

I even read a book on it. Being a good parent, I mean. But it didn't make no sense to me. I mean, there was nothing so great in there. It's like the person who wrote it didn't get it. Or maybe I didn't.

Lewis asked me if I got any medals once too. I told him no. They didn't give out any medals for what I did.

I guess I'm rambling all over the place with this. Noreen says I do that when I don't like what I'm going to have to say. Like if I'm going to be gone for a few weeks on the road it takes me hours just to tell her that.

Anyway, it was just a little fight. Between two kids. This guy Hank's kid—his name is Hank too, they call him Junior—and Lewis. I guess Lewis got beat up a little bit, but not too bad. He wasn't all that upset about it. But this guy Hank, he was mad. Even though Lewis didn't win the fight, I guess he hurt Junior.

Lewis didn't think he won, but maybe Junior didn't think he did either.

So Hank came over to our house. He pounded on the door. I wasn't home. Noreen told me about it. Hank was screaming that Lewis should come out of the house and take what was coming to him. Noreen got mad. I'm not sure what happened next, but I know Hank hit her. Slapped her, really, I guess. Then Lewis got real mad and tried to stab Hank with a kitchen knife. Hank got it away from him and he punched Lewis. Noreen really tried to get him then, but she couldn't. This was all while I was away.

I don't think Noreen would ever have told me about it. But she knew Lewis would, and she figured maybe it would be better coming from her. I told her I wouldn't lose my temper, and she believed me. That was fair—she'd never seen me lose my temper.

I went over to see Hank. He came outside. I told him what he did was wrong. He shouldn't have hurt my wife or my kid. He said Lewis wasn't my kid. That made me feel real bad. Not for me, I don't care, I guess. But I know how kids are. And if Hank was saying that, then probably Junior was saying that. And maybe all the kids were saying it too. Lewis always told everyone I was his father, so it was like calling him a liar. Lewis is no liar, just like his mother.

Hank said other things too. About Noreen. I think he was trying to make me mad. He told me he was over there. In the Nam. He was a Green Beret, he said. Trained in hand-to-hand combat. Now he was training Junior, and Junior was going to really get Lewis one day.

I didn't get mad. I told him I'd been there too. And I learned that fighting like that was stupid. I learned that over there. He said I was a punk. That was okay—I know how people talk.

He asked me, did I want to step outside? I told him we was already outside. That just made him madder.

Then he said we'd have to settle it. He asked me if I knew where this old factory was. On the edge of town. It's abandoned now, empty. Even the kids don't go there to play, because there's all kinds of busted machinery lying around and they could get hurt. Noreen would never let Lewis go there.

I told him, yes, I knew where it was.

Hank asked me, did I have a gun at home. I told him yes.

He said he had one too. And we'd have to meet at the factory and settle this thing. I told him he was crazy. Gunfights, they don't happen in The World. He said, if I didn't do it, next time I went on the road, he'd go and see Noreen. He said that was the real World. He said some other stuff too.

So I'm here, at the factory. Waiting for Hank.

It won't take long. I did this before. A lot.

After I got done with Infantry, I got my real MOS. The one I could never use in The World before this.

Hank's head fills the scope. I rest the crosshairs on the bridge of his nose, tracking him as he walks forward. He has a pistol held down at his side, right against the thigh of his camo-pants.

I wait for my breathing to be perfect. Between heartbeats, I do it.

Then I go back to the real World.

for Walter Anderson

© 1999 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.

This story appears in Everybody Pays by Andrew Vachss.

Proving It, the first Andrew Vachss audiobook collection


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