I WAS still living in Grandma’s little house three years later, walking through the days like a shadow. Tino and I had arrived at détente. I had a job teaching chair yoga and tai chi to the seniors at the local YMCA, and I started a blog for veterans called the Mindful Vet, wrote a daily post about the benefits of meditation and living a mindful life. I thought I was probably talking to myself. It was a pale ghost of the life I had wanted to live, but something kept me drifting through the days, doing what I needed to do. I missed having Grandma to take care of, and I missed the guys. Not the Army, but the guys in my unit. And I missed Easy with the bone-deep ache of sorrow and loneliness and lost love.
I stopped cutting my hair when I took off the uniform. It grew longer, and I brushed it out with my grandmother’s hairbrush and made it into a braid over my shoulder, like she had worn. I wore black leggings and a tee shirt with a pair of Vibram FiveFingers to teach yoga and do tai chi in the park. The old men watched me and occasionally joined in when I offered to show them some good moves for arthritis. They just shook their heads at the braid and the leggings.
Henry had joined the chair yoga class after his heart attack, and he followed me to the park after class one day in early May to watch the tai chi. He looked like a bulldog and kept working his jaw like he wanted to spit out a mouthful of words. He was mad about his heart, his bypass, his medications, healthcare in America, the state of the economy, the state of the world. Mostly he was mad because a nutritionist had suggested he consider becoming a vegan, and he was still outraged six months later. He consented to chair yoga, but that was as far as he was willing to go. So I was surprised that he followed me to the park. I thought maybe he was lonely and the people he usually complained to were avoiding him.
He settled on a bench and, after watching for a few minutes, mentioned that if I had been a soldier in Vietnam and stepped on Bouncing Betties, as he had done, twice with the same damn foot, I wouldn’t be able to balance on my toes like I was doing. “Those fucking mines. It’s a miracle they didn’t take my balls off.”
“Ouch. I was a soldier, Henry. Afghanistan. Two tours.”
He sucked in a deep breath and blew it out in a little huff through his nose. “Okay, then. You know what I’m saying.”
“Yes, I do. Which foot?”
He stared down at his feet. “The left one. They blew it to pieces. Damn thing still hurts when it wants to rain. That’s why I moved to Albuquerque. To get away from the humidity. That and the VA.”
“The VA’s good here?”
“It’s the best. Don’t you go?”
“No.” I moved into the next position. “I don’t want… I don’t want them. I don’t know why.”
He nodded. “Yeah. I get you.”
“This position is called the Archer. See how you move your arms like you’re pulling a bowstring? It opens up your chest.”
Henry watched me some more. “I could probably do that. Even though those damn doctors have opened up my chest already. Did you know they split the sternum in two when they cut into your heart? Crack it right in two. Then they staple it back together with wires.”
A sternum stapled together with wire sounded worse than stepping on a Bouncing Betty. I thought I heard someone say my name. “James Lee.”
I moved back into position.
“Hooker! Captain Hooker.”
I turned my head and the braid slithered off my shoulder, hung down my back. I looked straight into Easy’s face. He looked good, a couple of years older, but still himself, something stern and smart in his eyes. He was a complicated man who passed himself off as just one of the guys. “Easy Jacobs! What are you doing in Albuquerque?”
“Looking for you.”
Henry was up, checking out the newcomer. Easy looked like a soldier, a tough guy in jeans and boots and an old tee shirt. Henry looked him over with approval, then turned back to me, studied the long black braid hanging down my back. “So. Captain Hooker. You were an officer?” He shook his head in disgust, planted his cane on the grass, and limped away.
I turned back to Easy. He was staring at my hair. “What?”
“Shit, James Lee. Don’t you know a decent barber?”
“I guess I was waiting for you to show up.” I knew it was the wrong thing to say as soon as I opened my mouth. His face turned cold, mouth set in a tight line. There was too much water under the bridge between us for jokes like that. Too much water under the bridge, over the bridge. That bridge had washed away in a flood. “Sorry.” I took a step back. “It’s good to see you.”
“Captain, there’s trouble.” He was staring after Henry, watching him walk away. Or maybe he was just avoiding looking at me. “It’s Austin. I came to get some help.” He narrowed his eyes at me. “He needs rescuing. We owe him, James Lee.”
“Okay, sure. Of course I’ll help. You don’t need to pull out a piece of lumber and hit me over the head with it. How’d you know where to find me?” I walked over to the bench, slung my bag over my shoulder.
“Your mom. She said she sent you out here to check on your grandmother three years ago, and now you won’t leave. I left my truck in your driveway. Those gangbangers across the street told me where you were.”
“Oh, shit. You left a truck in that neighborhood? It may not be there when we get back.”
He smiled for the first time. “Relax, James Lee. Nobody’s gonna steal that truck.”
I handed him a bottle of water out of my bag, unscrewed the top from another, and took a long drink. “So.” We headed across the street. “You still working in that barbershop with your uncle?”
Easy shook his head. “The county opened a methadone clinic just two stores up from the barbershop. Then my uncle’s prostate cancer came back. He got so disgusted he closed the shop. I didn’t have enough business to keep the place going on my own. Nobody came downtown anymore except when they were coming to the clinic or getting on a bus out of town. Then Uncle Wiley told me about Austin, gave me his old pickup, and sent me off to find him.”
“Where is he?”
“I don’t know.” Easy drained the bottle of water, threw the empty into the trash can on the corner. He studied the street. The wind was blowing a plastic bag down the street. It was catching on the posts of abandoned mailboxes, hanging for a moment, then letting go and flying to the next. The chop shop was busy, their parking lot full of glossy low-riders getting buffs. A homeless man was sitting at the bus stop, muttering into his beard, turning his head to talk to someone only he could see. Down at the end of the street, the motorcycles peeled out of their yard in single file. My grandmother’s house sat alone, dusty and tired, Tino standing on a concrete block and barking through the chain-link fence like a tiny gargoyle.
“James Lee, this place makes the methadone clinic look good.” He studied me. “What the fuck’s wrong with you?”
There was an old pickup in the drive, an International with deeply rounded curves. It was painted a deep pumpkin orange. I turned to Easy. “Is that your truck?”
“1960 International, brother. It was a fine year.” He rubbed a hand back over his flattop. He looked a bit like John Glenn circa 1960. Easy jerked his chin toward Tino, who was running back and forth on the blocks, his high-pitched bark starting to sound a bit insane. “I like your dog.”
“He came with the house.”
A couple of the boys from across the street came to check out the action. They threw Easy some complicated hand signs, and he bumped fists.
“Hey, man. You want to sell that truck? I give you a couple hundred, you could put a down payment on a Prius. Or one of those electric jobs. What they called, flowers? Shit, no. Leaf. That’s right.” He jerked his head in my direction. “Don’t you think Jamie wants him a Leaf? Then he won’t have to walk around on shank’s ponies.”
Easy gave him a hard stare. “You don’t know about Hooker? Captain Hooker, he’s a stone killer, man. Don’t fuck with this guy.”
The boys howled, bent double, pointing at me. “That ponytail model? Fuck you talking about, man?”
Easy stared at me, shook his head. “I say again, what the fuck is wrong with you?”