The Cow and the Quicksand

After three brutal tours of duty overseas, I returned to the States feeling listless, depressed and confused. I struggled to fight the instinct to rage at the most minor of things. My wife, ever patient, encouraged me to find work, but bad dreams kept me up most nights. I didn't trust myself. I wandered the daylight hours in a daze, hoping that the awful feeling would wear off and that I'd be my old self.

Weeks after my return, my old base buddy Carlyle invited us to his housewarming party. I resisted at first, but my wife thought it good to make that first step by reconnecting with old friends.

"Maybe you'll make new friends!" she enthused. I wanted to believe her, but I couldn't.

Like me, Carlyle spent years in the Middle East, but unlike me, he adjusted well to Stateside life. He and his girlfriend, Gina - who by all accounts was a really wonderful lady - recently purchased a little peach colored abode in Berkeley. I called him a week before the party. Much to my relief, he greeted me warmly.

"How you doin, buddy? Glad to have you back. You comin' to my party?"

"Yeah." I said. "How many you expecting?"

"No worries, dude, these are mostly college friends and a few of my wife's friends. Nothing stressful. Just come and have a good time. Lena's coming, right?"

"Yeah." I confirmed. "She and I will be there. Looking forward to it." I hung up.

On Saturday night, a week later, Lena drove while I sat pensively in the passenger's seat. We pulled up to the house, a three level home with its lower floor recessed beneath the ground. The lawn was small and well trimmed. Two small, brightly lit windows on the top floor gazed impassively over the lawn like a pair of eyes. My heart pounded. Lena pulled the key out of the ignition and looked over at me, pensive.

"You don't have to do this, you know. It was just an idea."

"No," I replied. "You were right. I need to do this. Let's go in."

A buzz of voices and the sound of a piano grow louder when we approached the stoop. The door hung halfway open, and past it, I made out a warm amber light. A note on the door said "come on in," so we did.

I recognized Carlyle immediately, but he had changed. He was leagues from the stiff, impassive grunt I'd hung with during BT. While physically heavier, and wearing a big bushy beard, a light spirit followed him. There were no false notes in his voice. His eyes twinkled with good humor and compassion as he walked us to the kitchen.

He introduced us to his girlfriend, who bore the distinction of being even shorter than he was. She had a pretty, plump face, marred only by a prominent scar across her cheek. She commanded the kitchen like a pro. It was warm and infused with the smell of steamed vegetables and baking bread. An old vent over the stove chugged along, futilely trying to deter the steam fogging up the windows. She waved us off with a smile.

Carlyle brought us into the main living area. There were about ten people arranged about the room; some stood, others crouched near the small hearth. There was one handsome, well dressed man playing the antique piano in the corner.

"Hey all!" shouted Carlyle. "This is my good buddy Jack from my Pendleton days, and his wife Lena." Introductions were brief. There were a few other couples and some military guys standing to the side. They looked up to acknowledge us. One older couple approached and shook our hands. The piano man gave us a quick, tight-fingered wave and got back to playing. They all seemed to know each other, except for a thin balding man in the hall to the side of the main area.

He wore an old tweed suit. He couldn't have been more than fifty. He was staring at the wall. He curled his fingers around an empty wine glass. I could not see his face at first, as his head was turned toward a painting on the wall in the hallway.

I gazed at the framed image as I approached. Something about it mesmerized me. I could make out an old farm done up in the Impressionists' style, with a few pastels flourishes dotted among much brown and beige. In this painted farm, I made out a rickety old fence and a little cabin, and a penned up area with an odd shape. I thought at first it was the head of a giant cow sinking into quicksand, but as I approached the wall and peered closer, I saw that it was not a cow head at all, but a dog loping playfully across the mud.

The man turned toward me and gave me an uneasy smile. He had gentle and sad eyes, and a bird's beaked nose. His glasses were two sizes too large for his face. His mouth hung open for a few moments before he spoke.

"Hi, I'm Foster." he said, suddenly remembering his manners. "Good to meet you."

His voice was pinched and meek. It struck me almost immediately that he resisted words like someone who only allowed himself to speak if something vital and profound came to mind. We spent a few more minutes chatting, where I learned that he taught political science at a local community college down the street. I didn't get the sense that he knew anybody else at the party except for Carlyle and Gina.

I excused myself and wandered back to the main room. Carlyle quickly swooped in on me and put a hand around my shoulder.

"Be easy on Foster," he said. "He lost his wife a few months ago and this is his first public gathering since the funeral."

"Oh, jeez." I said. "What happened?"

"Pneumonia." he whispered.

Carlyle stopped and tilted his chin toward the piano. Lena leaned over it, tapping her fingers on the wood. The pianist pounded out a brilliant tune. He was ridiculously handsome, with a full head of dark hair, a clear olive complexion, vibrant green eyes and full lips. He was dressed in a black fitted suit and vest with no tie. He began to sing an old Irish tune while he played, in a brilliant tenor brogue.

Come Out, Ye Black and Tans
Come and fight me like a man
Show your wife how you won medals down in Flanders 

He paused, tapped Lena's hand playfully, and she gave a little smile as he continued --

Tell her how the I.R.A. made you run like hell away
From the green and lovely lanes in Killeshandra!

He finished the song with a little flourish, and the room exploded in applause.

"Thank you!" he said. I was surprised by his voice, the Irish Lilt vanishing entirely.

"That's Julian from Princeton..' growled Carlyle, as if reading my mind. "He's one of my wife's old college mates. He's from Jersey. Likes to show off with accents, and some other things. You'd better go collect your lovely wife before she melts into the floor."

A grin spread across Lena's face. Once she saw me, she immediately began to blush. She headed toward me but gave a little nod in Julian's direction as she passed him. He did a little mock bow and swept his legs back over the piano bench, and launched into the second movement from Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata. Others in the room began to clap, but Julian held up his right hand to hold the applause while he played with his left.

Lena stepped beside me. I raised my eyebrows at her. She looked a bit ashamed. I saw that Foster had stepped from the hallway and into the main room. His wine glass was full again and he took nervous little gulps as he surveyed the room.

The food came out and we sat around talking. Carlyle fixed me a whiskey and soda. We sat near the kitchen and caught up. We laughed about our incompetent old base Sergeant, about bets we made and never fulfilled, adventures we had. It was as if the war became, even if just for a moment, some far off thing that hadn't happened yet. I began to relax.

Julian had a few people his thrall and was recounting a story to them, something about a Senator and a prostitute. They were fixed on him, on his mouth, which seemed to have a life of its own when it spoke. He didn't have to search for words. They just flowed out of him.

"He's a lobbyist." said Carlyle under his breath. "An interestin' guy. Talks for a livin.' Far too interestin' if you ask me, you know?"

I took a sip of my drink and heard Foster's meek voice gaining steam in the corner of the room near the hall. He had decided to speak to the older couple. The old lady placed her hand compassionately on his arm. Her husband stood off to the side, nodding seriously. Foster bobbed his head back and forth, speaking slowly but cathartically, his eyes wet with tears.

"..But that was what really got us" he sobbed. "By the third week we had exhausted ... and... we just ran out of money. She just told me to start writing letters and all that, and I wrote and wrote, and she passed on sometime, oh..." he gazed off for a moment. "It must've been a month ago, or less, I dunno..."

I dared not listen in more. It was an unbearably sad, private moment. I turned back to Carlyle to change the subject when I heard Foster's voice again, this time louder.

"The state of healthcare is one thing, yes." He sighed, unaware of how loud he'd become. "We all know there's some room for improvement there. Most of us don't have the option to choose an affordable plan if we either aren't employed, or have employers who feel it's a burden to purchase a group plan with a fair degree of coverage. I wish we could do a public option, something that could provide care for all. I don't want anyone to go through what I went through."

I found myself in a reverie, half listening to a half dozen different conversations. Suddenly, Julian's voice cut through the static. He had stopped playing the piano, and spun around on the piano bench, his head cocked. He was looking right at Foster.

"So!" he asserted. "You think we should Nationalize health care? Really? Do tell!"

Foster looked up at him blankly.

Julian stood up, grabbed his drink, and walked over to the professor, who took a moment to nervously sip from his own wine glass. The older couple stepped away from Foster and wandered to another end of the room.

"No, go on. I want to hear your idea. In your mind, what is the best way for Nationalized health care to not end in a cascade of criminal charges against most Federal Agencies?" challenged Julian.

Foster just looked up, confused.

"..and, what's to stop it from bringing severe financial ruin to any one of the HCPs that now provide ninety five percent of the health care in this country?" the younger man continued. He lifted the glass to his lips for a quiet sip, waiting for his answer.

"Why?" Foster asked plainly.

Half the room was still engaged in their own conversations, but I was fixed on the two men. There was an undercurrent of menace in Julian's voice as he spoke, and it unsettled me. It seems that the tall, beak nosed professor had sensed it too, and he clutched his glass like a teddy bear as the other man spoke to him.

"Why?" Julian retorted, looking really bothered. "I didn't ask you why, I asked you how! What is your great idea? You were on a roll a minute ago!"

Foster didn't really have anything else to say. He'd lost the appetite for conversation, but he tried to stammer out a few words anyway. "I'm just very frustrated, Julian. I know that things in this country have to change. I don't have all the answers."

"But you just said, what was it, 'public option, care for all?' Right? Did I get that right?"

"It certainly would be better than what we have now."

"So, that's socialized medicine you're describing. It hasn't worked anywhere it has been tried, I'm just wondering if you have an idea how to make it work."

Foster sighed again, this time so loudly I heard his breath catch.

"My wife died, and... and " he blurted, sadly. "We did everything we could, and the system let us down, and she died. That means something has to change."

Julian was unmoved.

"Before your wife died, did either of you file a claim ex certa or a three-eight two-eight?"

Foster exhaled in disbelief. All the color drained from his face.

"Sorry, I tend to slur when I've had a few of these!" Julian pointed to his glass for comic effect. He spun around to face the room. Some of the women laughed, and Julian, satisfied with that, spun back around to face his prey.

Julian's eyes were a bit glazed over, but he looked like a jungle cat eyeing a prized boar. He began to recite rapidly, as if reading from a teleprompter.

"Three-eight two-eight. Notice of Right to Third Party Grievance. Either you or your wife could have deposited one of these with hospital administration. Emergency Claim form two nine-nine waives most of the bureaucratic nonsense assailing most large healthcare providers. There are more forms I could tell you about. Or are you done?"

He gazed up at Foster and shrugged his shoulders exaggeratedly, like a comic mime. "Did ya fill out any forms? Did ya? I'm asking because you could have gotten at least..."

"Leave him alone, Julian!" Carlyle interrupted sharply. "He's been through enough!"

Julian waved him off dismissively and went on.

"Did your wife... fill out grievance or exemption form or right to recuse or any of the forms that waive cost? After her second diagnosis claim period? Did you research that or did ya just sorta... hope for the best?"

Foster shook his head. He looked confused and hurt, like a dog who'd been scolded. I could see the muscles in his jaw twitching. He set his wine glass down.

"My wife was not an idiot." he responded. His voice was tense. "Do not call my wife an idiot."

"Euuuugh!" Julian sighed loudly. "You two were probably great together, but that's not what I'm saying. Just listen to me. Just listen. You coulda walked away with at least 4 mil..."

"Don't say that!" snapped Foster. His face was a fiery red, and he was shaking.

"Hey, take it easy! I'm sure she wasn't a bad person!" Julian continued on. "If I tell you you coulda done more, I'm not telling you she's a bad person, I'm saying you both coulda researched it more. That's all I'm saying? Am I right?"

I'd had enough.

"Somebody shut him up!" I said. Only a mere sliver of a thought - about my impending psych eval and my fragile state - prevented me from standing up and shutting him up myself. I'd seen too much violence. Violence begets violence. I didn't want to break Lena's heart. I didn't want her to see what I was capable of.

"You don't want to do that, Sparky!" said Julian. He eyed me pensively. "You really don't want to do that."

Again, he went back to Foster, who visibly flinched at his every word.

"I'm sure your wife was a beautiful person, there just mighta been been more you could have done! What? What, am I insulting you? Are you crying?"

I saw that Foster was crying, and that ended my reserve. I began to stand, even as my wife grabbed by arm as if to say 'don't.'

I was too late. Foster completely snapped. He lunged out at the handsome, grinning stranger in front of him with both hands, shoving him back at least three feet. It knocked the drink out Julian's hand. The glass flew in a straight trajectory and hit one of the kneeling guests in the arm. Liquid splattered all over her, and partially on the new carpet. Foster lunged forth like a stiff zombie and went for a second strike, while Julian peeled his fitted suit, grinning with anticipation.

Half of us, including me and Carlyle, were already on our feet. Gina came from the kitchen and screamed  at the two to stop. Julian had assumed a stance, feet evenly apart, knees slightly bent, palm up, fingers curled. This guy was a pro.

The next few seconds were over before they began. Foster telegraphed a pathetic slap, but as his arm swung down, Julian seized the arm and broke it clean in half, with a swift, barely discernible movement. Julian stepped back, let Foster cry for two seconds, then assumed a boxing stance. He stepped in and swung his fist right beneath Foster's jaw. We all heard a snap, and the force of the strike lifted the man off the ground. Before his limp body landed, Julian's foot connected with his gut, and the old professor flew across the room and into the main hall. A loud crash signaled the screen door had busted open.

By the time this all ended, I was already next to Julian.

"Don't!" cried Gina. "He'll kill you, Jack!"

"Get the fuck out." I murmured. "Right now. Get out."

He reached out and traced his index finger down along my cheek. I knocked his hand away. He headed for the door.

Carlyle was shaken. I could see traces of the old grunt on the lines of his face. He was white as a sheet. He suddenly looked like a prisoner of war. He hadn't even stood up yet. He was aghast, paralyzed.

Gina yelled after Julian as he headed out into the front lawn. He didn't even look down as he stepped across the body and disappeared into the darkness. I headed outside after him through the remains of the screen door. Now off its hinges, it swung forlornly. Foster's crumpled body lay sprawled across the steps outside.

I kneeled down. Blood gurgled from his mouth. Gina and I lifted him gently and slowly from the steps and onto the lawn. We gently rolled him to the side, onto his unbroken arm, so that he wouldn't choke on his own blood. He began trying to speak.

"Godth thdammit!" he cried. Tears ran out of his eyes. "Godth thammit! Godth thammit!" A pressed carnation dropped out of his inner pocket and onto the lawn.

We shushed him, and he gradually grew quiet. Lena called 911. All of the party guests filtered out past us, moving in wide arcs around the scene. I stared up at them venomously, cupping Foster's head in my hands, keeping it from the concrete. His lower face, suit and shirt were all covered in blood. His hands were shaking uncontrollably, and his chest rose and fell fearfully. His broken arm was twisted up at an awful angle. I'd seen worse, much worse, but the damage was serious.

Lena stood over me, unsure of what to do. We shared a brief glance with one another and I sensed that she was more concerned about me. Without saying a word, she asked if I was okay, and I waited a few moments, then nodded up at her. She visibly relaxed, and a look of relief and apology came over her.

Carlyle handed a roll of paper towels to his Gina. He looked stricken. He could not pull his eyes from her face. Gina and I knelt together and began wiping the blood from the Foster's face. She spoke in a low voice while she did her work. The light from one the bright windows shone down on us. Its glow illuminated our huddle, made the blood redder, and Gina's scar more visible.

"Julian misbehaves when he thinks people are misinformed.." she whispered. She grabbed another few sheets from the roll. "His real problem is his drinking. He just doesn't know when to stop. He's a harmless clown most of the time..."

"He's going away for this!" I interjected. "There's no question!"

"No, he won't." Gina replied. She looked sad. "Foster won't press charges. I'm afraid he's going to be spending a lot of time alone after this, too. He wasn't ready to come out. He only came for the painting."

"The painting...?"

"The one in the hallway. His wife painted it and gave it to us before she passed." She held back tears, and patted Foster's arm. "It's yours, hon. Stay quiet. Stay still. Ssshhhh."

That evening, after we got home, I changed out of my bloody clothes and finished a half a beer at the kitchen table. Lena and I headed for bed and drifted off together in each other's arms. For the first time in months, my dreams about war and violence ended. Instead, I found myself in an immense field. A giant cow, larger than a small car, sank slowly into the quicksand. It slipped down beneath the mud without making a noise, its ears batting at invisible mosquitoes until it disappeared from view.


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