The smell of burning redwood from the fireplace fills the country-style living room with the relaxing aroma that eases the soul. Benjamin sits here like he does every evening, staring into the flames from the safety of his comfortable leather chair. The warm light from the fire casts a pattern of yellow and orange across his tired face. Sparks and embers flee from their fiery furnace, landing on the hand-woven rug that already has a host of bald patches.
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A shaggy German shepherd flanks the retired veteran from the corner of the room. Dragging twelve years behind his hidden tail, Rufus overspent the days with his favorite frisbee. But these days, the frisbee lies in the yard like a miniature birdbath than an old dog toy. Rufus paces himself when wandering around the living room. He circles a spot on the abused rug and drops his rear on the soft cushion of a familiar corner. He lowers his head in relief and breaths deeply, soon fast asleep. Benjamin sits up in his chair and stares into the flames. His eyelids grow heavy, draping his vision in shadow. He drifts from consciousness and fades back into his memories.
Benjamin remembered. He remembered the months of training on the banks of Vietnam. A parade of armed forces operated a station near the river mouth. From the distance, the sight of a Huey chopper fleet filled the sky with an array of military intelligence; the technology to win the war, Private Benjamin once thought.
The soldiers at base made their usual hike through the dense surrounding brush in search for guerillas and mercenaries. In the midst of this terrible war, Private Benjamin stood helpless as a new recruit. He came straight from high school and into a uniform, dressed to kill. Now, he stood alone in the presence of his superior officer.
"Report!" A decorated soldier blew in Benjaminís face.
"Private Benjamin reporting for duty!"
"Butt Private, your orders go to weapons detail at first outpost, that is all."
Private Ben sprag forth a salute and made his way through camp to the outpost. He pushed his way through groups of roughneck infantry with more time on their hands than they could handle. They had to waste it. In the one corner of camp, a make-shift poker table was set up with a steady flow of money. On the other side, shirtless troops relaxed in the sun as if war was never the reality.
Inside the outpost, Private Ben jestured for attention while he waited to talk to the only man in the room.
"At ease." A soldier wearing dirty camouflage casually sat. "New recruit?"
"Yes sir. What are my orders?"
"Letís see, you can clean this pile of retrieved weapons. Doesn't matter what side they're from, just clean them all."
"Yes Sir," the private shouted. He grabbed a bloddy gun from the top of the pile and examined the stains that covered the barrel and stock handle. He imagined what it was like for the soilder who had it last. Second before he died, he must've held the gun this way. The strong stench of decomposing remains brought a tear of disgust to his eyes. Having never been in combat, he tried not to lose his head over such a small thing. Respectfully, the lone Private cleaned the stockpile of rifles; all spotless except for one that could not be cleaned.
As Benjamin polished, the silence was broken by the footsteps of a dozen solders, making their way into the outpost. Benjamin recognized the Lieutenant rank on the shoulders of one man, but received no return salute. Private Benjamin held his hand at attention, waiting for a responce.
"Did you clean all these guns?" The Lieutenant asked with a glaring eye.
"Yes I did, Sir."
"Except for that one, eh?" he exclaimed pointing at a disgusting gun that had been tossed to the side.
"The barrel was too dirty to clean, Sir," Private Ben responded. "The gun is not in safe condition to use."
"And what qualifies you to make that decision, Butt Private?" Benjamin stood in silence. He knew better than to question a superior officer with a remark that could land him in purgatory.
The Lieutenant picked the defective gun from the floor and aimed it at Benjaminís face. The sight of a barrel at the end of his nose brought Benjamin to the tip of his toes.
"I guess there is only one way to find out."
A bead of sweat collected on Benjaminís cheek and slowly glided down to meet the others already at the bottom of his chin. The officer pulled back on the trigger to the click of an empty shell.
"Lucky for you, this gun Is a piece of shit." The laughing officer released the gun from his grip and let it fall to the floor. The jammed trigger set the gun off; the snapping echo sprung Benjamin from his dream.
Benjamin leans back in his chair and looks around the room, trying to catch his breath. He looks into the roaring fire and recognizes the sound of cracking wood that woke him from his peaceful slumber. He looks around the empty room to the silence of his past. Pictures hang causally on the wall, reminding him of days once overplayed. He closes his eyes and tries to fall back asleep. But before he can relax, the doorbell chimes from across the house.
The creaks from the front door echo through the hall and into the living room where Benjamin sits patiently for his guest to make himself known. A lone figure emerges from the rear and into the fire-lit room.
"Grandpa, are you in here?" A familiar voice fills the room.
"Why donít you make yourself useful and come back another day." Benjamin remarks with a half-grin that Paul takes as a friendly invitation.
"I told you I would stop by today." Paul acknowledges. "Itís Veterans Day"
"So, today is the day that America says thanks for all you did." Paul stands with a proud salute.
"Put your hand down," Benjamin insultingly remarks. "You donít know one thing about patriotism. When I was in the army, I saw thirteen hundred dead soldiers..."
Paul interrupts not having heard a word his grandfather said. "Oh, that reminds me..." He digs through his backpack, pulls out a miniature American flag, and hands it to his grandfather with a big smile across his respectable face.
"Thank you." Benjamin mutters to himself, you little shit...
Escaping to the kitchen, Benjamin shuffles his way to the countertop. He pulls a barstool out from under the table. He grabs a bottle of Jack Daniels from the bar cabinet and pours a shot into a glass; adds a few ice cubes to chill his nerves. He gives the glass a swirl and takes a whiff of the pleasing scent of strong liquor before taking a sip, then a gulp. Soon, the entire glass is empty and Benjamin is pouring himself another.
The silence of the kitchen is interrupted by the footsteps of Benjaminís grandson. Paul circles the kitchen before finding an isolated chair and takes a breather. Following Paulís unwanted entrance is his father, Charlie. Benjamin raises his eyes from his glass and sees the face of his son.
"Thanks for the heads up on your arrival." Benjamin slurps. "I could have had things to do, places to be, and people to see."
"Oh please dad," Charlie emphasizes. "We all know you sit in that same chair every day."
"And whatís your point?" Benjamin blurbs.
"Youíre a big couch potato, Grandpa." Paul laughs. Soon, Charlie joins in with the humor, but Benjamin remains silent.
"Um Paul, why donít you go outside and find something to solve, ok?" Charlie asks politely. The young detective slowly makes his way out the back door and into the backyard.
"So how have you been?" Charlie finds a seat next to his dad.
"Iíve been better."
"No problems with Rufus?"
"Nothing that a snow shovel canít carry away," Benjamin jokes and takes a drink from his glass.
"Did you go see your doctor?"
"Actually, he came to see me," Benjamin rebounds. "Dr. Patterson made a house call to drop off a prescription for my back."
"Have you started taking it?"
"Not yet, but maybe I should." Benjamin confesses. He grabs the prescription bottle from the basket behind him and squints at the label to trans-literate the chicken-scratch some would call handwriting.
"Take With Food," he reads aloud.
Benjamin's son pulls a can of hearty soup from the old oak shelves.
"Do you want soup with your pill?" Charlie asks from across the kitchen while struggling with the can opener.
"Iím not hungry." Benjamin proclaims.
"But you need to eat food with your medicine. Doctorís orders."
"Fine, soup is fine," Benjamin huffs. "Make sure its heated up."
Charlie pulls a bowl from an adjacent cupboard and fills the rim with thick gravy. He sets it in the microwave and turns the dial. He looks back at his father who slowly sips on his glass.
"Have you seen mom recently?"
"Not since the funeral.Ē Benjamin sighs. ďI guess Iím just not ready."
"You should at least see her headstone before its too late." The microwave dings and Charlie springs to the door. He sets the hot bowl in front of his father followed with a polished spoon dressed in a paper napkin. Benjamin grabs the spoon and gives the soup a stir, blowing on it ever so gently. He takes a sip from his glass and swallows a few pills from the bottle.
"Arenít you going to eat your soup?" Charlie asks in a parentís tone.
"Iím letting it cool, mommy," Benjamin sarcastically replies. Charlie laughs at his fatherís antics. He pulls the stool closer to the table and nudges his father into a mature conversation.
"Now that youíre retired from the army, do you spend every day in front of the fireplace?" Charlie tugs on leaning ear.
"The warm invitation is relaxing," Benjamin replies. "I worked all my life to be able to enjoy my peace of mind, or at least whatís left of it." Benjamin stirs his soup in the opposite direction, losing his thoughts in the ripples of thick spices and smells.
"Would you be happier living in a retirement home surrounded by familiar faces?" Charlie leans away as he suggests the unthinkable.
"If by familiar you mean old and senile, then no." Benjamin spouts.
"Iím only suggesting it as an idea. I drove by the complex last weekend and the sight of a dozen senior citizens exercising to Jimi Hendrix caught my eye. I thought about you."
"How considerate to include me with a group of senile old farts," Benjamin jokes. "Do you know that because of budget cuts, the retirement center might not be there next year?"
"Where did you hear such nonsense?" Charlie asks with a concerned brow. "I was talking to the head nurse and she says they just put in a new bingo center."
"Donít believe everything you hear." Benjamin tilts his head back as he finishes his drink. "Every drop is good till the last,Ē he hiccups. "Can you fix me another?"
"You already had two drinks," his son protests. "I think youíve had enough, and you havenít touched your soup."
"I told you!" Benjamin snaps. "Iím letting it cool. You made it too hot. Am I not allowed to eat my soup in peace?"
"Iím just saying," Charlie apologizes. "Iím only looking out for you."
"Well, maybe you should worry more about yourself than an outdated model like me. Iím going back to whatís left of my fire." Benjamin stands and walks toward the doorway, stopping before his face disappears behind the corner. He looks back at his son, "When Paul is a little older, tell him about the time I helped in the victory at Ringlet Hill." His smile passes from view and leaves Charlie alone with his thoughts.
Charlie leans on the counter, pulling on his ear. He picks up the half-empty prescription bottle and reads the label to himself, Side Effects May Include Drowsiness; Do Not Consume Alcoholic Beverages. He gathers the empty drink glass and bowl of soup from the counter and carries them to the sink. He stands with a puzzled expression on his face as to why his father would not eat. Charlie sticks his finger into the chunky gravy and stirs it up. He tastes the soup expecting a bitter flavor, but tastes nothing wrong. Its not even warm.
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where one's style of writing comes from deep within.
I don't plan to change the world; just trying to leave my mark.