Suppose one day you come home to an empty apartment. Suppose it’s a Saturday and a late afternoon sun is shining through an open kitchen window in a way that allows you to now see certain outlines: this is where a telephone used to be, on that wall hung a tomato soup can portrait, over there was once an welcome mat. Suppose then you move to the bedroom to find the mattress stripped (exposing the rude lumps of wear) only to appreciate a half-empty closet with hangers swinging in the breeze. Suppose the thought…hangers…as in for hanging…as in…once hung. Now suppose when you walk through the living room picturing a love seat next to a dog sleeper, you imagine sitting in a bright café with a friend in a breezy hour much like this, maybe one, two, or perhaps three years ago. And suppose, as you were there talking with this friend, you knew deep down the affair was going to eventually play out the way that it has: no telephone, no soup can, no mat, the same lumpy mattress, a half empty closet…no dog. Supposing all this: would you still want to feel then what you feel now?
In order to pull off a satisfying ending, sometimes we have to leave ourselves open to the possibility that cause and effect is an unanswered question (as I’ve attempted in the previous narrative). On other occasions, however, we can take a page from the master storytellers and poets to invert consequence by exposing the reader to those most unexpected narrative experiences (as with the pieces by Tim O’Brien and Charles Bukowski below).
One morning in late July, while we were out on patrol near LZ Gator, Lee Strunk and Dave Jensen got into a fistfight. It was about something stupid – a missing jackknife – but even so the fight was vicious. For a while it went back and forth, but Dave Jenson was much bigger and much stronger, and eventually he wrapped an arm around Strunk’s neck and pinned him down and kept hitting him on the nose. He hit him hard. And he didn’t stop. Strunk’s nose made a sharp snapping sound, like a firecracker, but even then Jensen kept hitting him, over and over, quick stiff punches that did not miss. It took three of us to pull him off. When it was over, Strunk had to be choppered back to the rear, where he had his nose looked after, and two days later, he rejoined us wearing a metal splint and lots of gauze.
In any other circumstance it might’ve ended there. But this was Vietnam, where guys carried guns, and Dave Jensen started to worry. It was mostly in his head. There were no threats, no vows of revenge, just a silent tension between them that made Jensen take special precautions. On patrol he was careful to keep track of Strunk’s whereabouts. He dug his foxholes on the far side of the perimeter; he kept his back covered; he avoided situations that might put the two of them alone together. Eventually, after a week of this, the strain began to create problems. Jensen couldn’t relax. Like fighting two different wars, he said. No safe ground: enemies everywhere. No front or rear. At night he had trouble sleeping – a skittish feeling – always on guard, hearing strange noises in the dark, imagining a grenade rolling into his foxhole or the tickle of a knife against his ear. The distinction between good guys and bad guys disappeared for him. Even in times of relative safety, while the rest of us took it easy, Jensen would be sitting with his back against a stone wall, weapon across his knees, watching Lee Strunk with quick, nervous eyes. It got to the point finally where he lost control. Something must’ve snapped. One afternoon he began firing his weapon into the air, yelling Strunk’s name, just firing and yelling, and it didn’t stop until he’d rattled off an entire magazine of ammunition. We were all flat on the ground. Nobody had the nerve to go near him. Jensen started to reload, but then suddenly he sat down and held his head in his arms and wouldn’t move. For two or three hours he simply sat there.’
But that wasn’t the bizarre part.
Because late that same night he borrowed a pistol, gripped it by the barrel, and used it like a hammer to break his own nose.
Afterward, he crossed the perimeter to Lee Strunk’s foxhole. He showed him what he’d done and asked if everything was square between them.
Strunk nodded and said, Sure, things were square.
But in the morning Lee Strunk couldn’t stop laughing. “The man’s crazy,” he said. “I stole his fucking jackknife.”
- Tim O’Brien
Cause And Effect
the best often die by their own hand
just to get away,
and those left behind
can never quite understand
would ever want to
- Charles Bukowski
Stace Budzko has been published or is forthcoming in Blip, Southeast Review, Versal, Upstreet, Necessary Fiction, Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction, Press 53, PANK, Hobart, elimae, The Los Angeles Review, Night Train, The Collagist, Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Flash Fiction, Flash Fiction Forward, Brevity & Echo, Quick Fiction and elsewhere. The screen adaptations of his stories have received numerous honors and showcases as well. At present, he is a writing instructor at Emmanuel College and writer-in-residence at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.See other articles by Stace Budzko