THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE
by Jeremy Townley
Look at all them ingrates. I mean, just look at ’em. Stuffing their fat-pig faces with prime rib and red wine like the world owes them something. Ain’t even four in the afternoon! When’s the last time any of ’em was the least bit appreciative for everything they got? Porsche convertible, house in the hills, bank account big enough to swallow Saudi Arabia. Plus, they ain’t stuck in a wheelchair, nights plagued with hauntings of makeshift bombs in the desert heat.
I roll on over to this couple sitting on the patio-terrace in the spring sunshine. Probably early-fifties, well-heeled and uppity. Mister’s got designer sunshades and a tailored shirt unbuttoned to show off his fancy chest hair. Missus has her some fake hooters bursting from a top too skimpy for somebody her age. Faces stretched tight across their cheekbones. Paid somebody for that. Freaky-looking. They both do that thing where they pretend I don’t exist, but I get carried away and ram their table with my chair.
Sorry bout that! I say. Damn thing goes haywire sometimes.
Disgust ripples across their manicured faces. Missus bats her lashes and waves me away, all but clawing my eyes out with them snazzy pink fingernails.
They’re both gnawing on Grade-A sirloin, grilled up just right. Mister’s working his oversized fork and steak knife, so I cut me a piece off with my survival number and eat it from the blade. Dee-lishus! I say. Then I do the same with the lady’s baked potato. All the butter and cheese and sour cream makes quite a mess, but it’s well worth it. Hot damn, that’s good! I holler.
Both of ’em force a laugh, like just cause I ain’t got the use of my legs, I don’t know when somebody’s faking it. Couple plastic frauds, you ask me.
I flash my choppers right back at ’em. Mine’s a bona fide grin, cuz it’s a beautiful day, and I can’t remember the last time I tasted something so tasty. Now here’s what I’m gonna do, I explain, letting my survival number glint and dance in the sunlight. I’m gonna call over your waitress, give you both a chance to express your gratitude. And that ain’t attitude with a grrr in front of it, if you take my meaning.
Now wait just a minute! says Missus.
No time like the present, says I.
We don’t want any trouble, says Mister.
No trouble at all! I stash my blade and wave over the closest blondie. When she sashays up, I say, Scuse me, sugar, these folks have something they’d like to tell you.
The cutie gives us a confused, expectant look, fiddling with her wine key. Can I get something for you? she asks. Another bottle of Catena, perhaps?
Yes, thanks, says Missus. That would be lovely.
Mister nods and says, Thank you very much. You’re doing an excellent job.
Blondie gives ’em a look like they’ve both lost their minds.
I feel my grin stretch from ear to ear. Now, tell me, says I, was that so hard?
Couple blocks down, I park in the middle of the sidewalk, collecting donations from the hordes and masses. Got my cardboard sign strapped to my chair: IRAQ TOKE MY LEGS ANYTHING HELPS GOD BLISS. You’d be amazed how generous some folks can be, specially when they see a war vet in a wheelchair. Guilt gets ’em right here. Then out come those ladies’ wallets, and they pinch crisp singles and flutter them in my face. Fellas might pitch a fistful of change into my Army surplus combat helmet or, if I’m lucky, a crumpled pack of Marlboros into my lap. I’ll take what I can get.
Today most of them lousy ingrates won’t even look at me, much less make eye contact. Even when they jostle me, nobody says, Sorry or Scuse me or Thank you for your service. Freedom ain’t free, but they take the fact they ain’t locked up in a gulag for granted. Don’t they know who’s sacrificing, body and mind, so they can sport distressed designer denim and high-dollar Italian loafers?
But I got patience and plenty of practice, so it ain’t long fore I got quite a haul. I zip up the street a couple-three blocks, then around the corner. Wish I could say my motor whines the whole way, but I got what you call the base model, so the only one doing the whining’s yours truly. Panting, too. Always takes me a minute to catch my breath, and today ain’t no different.
Emmett, one of my buddies who lives beneath the Burnside Bridge, sits at a shady table at the Sunset Bar & Grill, nursing a draft beer. He watches me with them big, buggy eyes, ashing his Camel in a cracked plastic ashtray. Ain’t nobody else in sight. Wonder who spotted him a cold one?
I catch my breath and brush the hair outta my face. Emmett, I say when I feel him eyeballing me as I rifle through a swanky purse and men’s leather wallet.
What you got there, Benny-boy?
Ah, you know, I say. The usual.
He takes a long drag, then grinds out his cigarette butt. Uh-huh.
I leave the car keys and credit cards but palm the bills. I lick my thumb and forefinger, then count them like a real live bank teller. Eighty from the purse, three hundred from the wallet.
Woo-ooh, says Emmett, wiping at his forehead.
People ain’t always bad as they seem, says I.
You can say that again.
Some of ’em’s downright generous.
This ugly SOB in tight highwaters and pointy shoes struts past, giving us the dirty stink eye.
Mind your business, I growl, and his stick-in-the-mud pace quickens.
Emmett high-fives me, then I cut the stack of bills in two and pass him the smaller half, along with the purse and wallet. He weaves up half a block, then pitches them into the bed of an old pickup covered in leaves. When he finds his chair again, we call out the cocktail cutie and order whiskey shots with beer backs. Nothing like a cold one on a warm afternoon in springtime. We toast our good fortune. I, for one, am thankful—and a little surprised—I’m still alive and kicking. The pay dirt’s what you call icing on the cake.
Insides burning and bloated, I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. That’s it for me, I say. I’m out.
But you just got here!
Have one on me, Emmett. I flag down the cocktail girl. When she strolls out, I pass her my empties and a pair of twenties. Another round for my buddy.
Oh, I get it. You going to see your old lady.
She’s got a name.
Same as before? asks the cutie.
He nods. Veronica, ain’t it?
It is not.
You know very well they’re what you call whores. The cocktail girl gives me a snide look, shaking her head. Hookers, I mean, scuse my French.
Emmett’s yellow grin glistens. Then what’s her name?
Naw, the one over to the coffee place.
He chuckles. Well, you tell Liz hello for me.
I look at the cocktail girl, who won’t stop staring. Nothing for me, says I. And keep the change.
The girl’s smile could light up the night, if it was dark out and not daylight bright. Appreciate it, handsome.
I grin right back at her. Thank you for your service.
Common Grounds is a mob scene. Line’s almost out the door, and when I try to maneuver past the tech nerds, tattooed hipsters, and mommies with strollers, nobody budges. Not even when I holler, Veteran coming through! Hard to be grateful for a wheelchair, but it makes a helluva weapon if you know how to use it right. I flatten people’s toes and ram ankles, shins, and knees, repeating, Afternoon, and fake-smiling the whole time. My left leg might spasm a couple times, too, giving the boot to thighs, butts, and groins. Purely an involuntary thing. Them ingrates get their panties in a wad for a minute: Hey! and Ow! and Watch it, pal! But that’s nothing to me. Not one of them acknowledges that the only reason they can stand in line for six-dollar coffee in the first place is the sacrifices of our servicemen. Think the world owes them something.
I park right in front of the counter, waiting for all of ’em to place their orders. There’s nowhere to sit, so they better get their haughty-taughty single-origin soy cappuccinos to go. I brought my own chair. I’ll sit wherever I goddamn well please. Right now, I keep a safe distance from the caffeine-crazed hordes, right in front of the shiny espresso machine. I study the odd red lettering: La Marzocco. Not because I care one single iota about some place in Morocco or what have you. It’s just that, from this angle, I can’t see my angel. Not all of her, at any rate, just the top of her head, her brown, wavy hair bobbing as she grinds coffee beans, packs filters, and lines up little cups under the spouts. Room fills with the whir of steaming milk, clank of little spoons on crockery, growl of some indie rock crap with a strange, lurching rhythm. Somehow, nobody seems to mind.
My turn comes at last. A couple spins, and I’m right in front of the register guy. I give him a warm, boozy smile.
He sneers. What can I get for you?
He’s an impatient SOB with no respect for his elders, vets, or men who sacrificed the use of their legs so he can wear a ring through his nose, three-day scruff, and tattoos of Chinese characters down both forearms.
Usually, I just get a cup of normal coffee and linger. Place is so jam-packed today, I figure I might need an excuse. What takes longest? I say.
You mean—what do you mean?
Most time to make.
I slap a twenty hard on the counter. That’s what I want.
Register boy’s eyes go beady. He steps away from the counter to confer with the barista. A sharp laugh cuts through the staggering rhythm, then she peeks around the machine.
Her blue eyes shimmer in sunlight dripping through the windows. So what is it you’d like?
I give her a wink and say, Surprise me.
Register boy mutters to her beneath the screaming guitars. He manipulates some buttons, breaks my twenty, and deals grubby bills like a poker hand across the counter. Twelve bucks is your change.
I brush some hair outta my face. That’s for you, I say. Thank you for your service.
He rolls his eyes, but don’t think for a second he leaves that cash to wilt into somebody’s else’s pocket. Not that I care one way or the other. After today’s windfall, I got more jack than I know what to do with. When he thinks I’m not looking, he scoops up the cash and drops it in the tip jar.
One by one, those ungrateful customers get their drinks, and not one of them mutters a single word of thanks. At least they make themselves scarce, crowding around little tables, wedging into wooden booths, lingering on the sidewalk terrace with paper to-go cups and Marlboros. Gimme some space already! Not to mention my angel, a hardworking barista with all the skills in the world. I roll back a bit to get a better angle. It’s still not great, given how low I sit, but at least I can see that lovely face, her high cheekbones and milky complexion. Blue eyes like sunlight through a glacier. She labors away on my libation. It takes forever, and a couple-three orders pile up, but nothing fazes my angel. The indie rockers wail. I’m buoyed by the humming espresso machine, the growling blender, the rise and fall of voices.
My angel sets a frosty pint glass on the counter, then adds whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles. Voilà, she says.
I roll up and reach for the chilled beverage. She’s garnished the glass with a red-striped bendy straw and long-handled spoon. I nod, struggling to keep my toothy grin in check.
Don’t you even want to know what it is?
I make a show of studying the drink she’s concocted.
A frappuccino shake with coconut ice cream!
I give it a taste and almost go into sugar shock.
Dee-lishus! I say.
She tosses me a satisfied smile and starts steaming milk. Enjoy, she says.
I wheel over to my usual spot in the back corner. I still got a view, though it’s not exactly unobstructed, what with all the yuppies and hipsters trying to ignore each other. Still, I make out her dark locks bobbing behind them ingrates’ humongous heads. And even if I can’t see her the whole time, I’m just glad to know she’s there.
I work through my coffee shake, a little closer to a diabetic coma with every sip. Demanding, ungrateful jerks come and go. The song changes five or six times. The light filtering in through the windows softens.
I’m slurping the dregs through my straw when a gravelly voice cuts through the dull roar. Some ingrate at the bar is blocking my view with his broad back and shoulders. A flash of sleeve tattoos from his tight black t-shirt as he waves his beefy arms. Above the buzz and clatter, my angel’s voice.
I roll up beside the guy, an even bigger slab of meat than I realized, and slide my glass across the counter. That was dee-lightful, I say in a loud voice. What can I do? I gotta make myself heard.
My angel forces a smile and gives me a quick nod.
We’re talking excellent, I say. And you know me, Liz, I ain’t easy to please.
Glad you liked it.
What’d you put in that thing?
Her face looks pinched. I never noticed them crow’s feet. Her chin quivers. Not now, Benny.
The knuckle-dragger glances down at me and smirks. It was just a milk shake, buddy. Now have a good one.
I flex my jaw. Is everything okay, Liz?
She sniffles and wipes her cheeks. We’re just, you know, talking.
That’s not what it looks like.
Who the fuck is this guy, Liz?
There’s a line at the counter. The register boy hollers, Coconut cappuccino!, and gives my angel a nasty look.
This is not a good time, Darryl.
It’s never a good time.
You’re gonna get me fired!
You can’t keep avoiding me. I want you back. We’re good together.
Decaf soy macchiato! shouts register boy.
I’ve gotta get back to work.
Give the lady some space, Darryl, I say.
Now he turns my direction. He’s twenty years younger than me and looks like a soap opera star. How is this your business?
You sure are an ungrateful SOB.
I’d knock your teeth out if I weren’t in this chair.
Now the brawny ape looms over me. Listen, crip, I will end you.
That’s enough, Darryl. You really need to leave. Now.
That’s right, Darryl, I say. Have a good one!
He pats me on the cheek, really more of a slap, and tousles my hair in a tear-it-out-by-the-roots kinda way.
Will you just get out? says Liz. Please?
Once he’s gone, I hang around for a little while, hoping to strike up a conversation, but Liz won’t even glance my direction. Maybe she’s just trying to keep it together. After a while, I place another order, just so I don’t seem like a creeper. By the time I’ve doled out another grimy twenty, Liz has disappeared. It’s slowed down. Maybe she went on break. Register boy pours me a lackluster cup of normal coffee. I wheel over to an empty table and sip at it for a while. But Liz doesn’t reemerge from the backroom in her usual cloud of weed smoke, and my gut begins to churn, so I decide to call it a day.
The sun’s turned the sky to tangerines. The air smells of ozone, though it hasn’t rained for a couple days. My arms are rubber, and I don’t have it in me to navigate my way back downtown to the Old Saint Francis, so I wheel toward the nearest trolley stop. The street’s teeming with yuppy ingrates. Can’t hardly push through without throwing an elbow here, an involuntary leg spasm there, just to help clear a path.
Though it’s outta my way, and I shouldn’t have to make compromise one for all those sorry SOBs who don’t have the first clue about duty, honor, and sacrifice, I’ve had it up to here with their vintage fashion and holier-than-thou sneers, so I head a block east. It’s all sprawling oaks and twittering birds. I make the corner and head north again. I can see the trolley easing down the street, and I consider picking up the pace, till I come to my senses. Ain’t no way I can make it without some kinda superhero effort. Where’s the payoff? I’ve still got half a block to go when the trolley slides away. Then from somewhere behind me, I hear my name. I glance over one shoulder, then the other, but there’s nobody. Next thing I know, that Neanderthal from the coffee shop stands in front of me, blocking the sidewalk.
Outta my way, asshat, says I.
He kicks at my footrests with his black biker boots. Thought you wanted to knock my teeth out, soldier?
No one passes by on foot or bicycle, in car or bus. A hummingbird flits around the bright pink bougainvillea.
Darryl forces a laugh, though it sounds more like hacking. He leans toward me, clutching at my armrests, blowing rank garlic breath right in my face. Now I don’t know what’s going on between you and Liz. I mean, look at you, you’re a goddamn gimp. But I can tell you this: whatever it is is gonna stop. He gives me his ugliest intimidation face. And I mean now. Got that?
I wait while he flexes his pecs, lats, and trapezoids. Seems to go on forever. Eventually, he straightens up and cracks his knuckles. His tattoos swim in the evening light.
You were in the service, right? I say.
He steps back, eyes going squinty. Marines, First Battalion Seventh. Helped take Bagdad.
Oorah! I say.
No shit? Where were you stationed?
Same desert as you. Nothing but sand dunes and homemade bombs for miles.
You’re a fucking moron, aren’t you?
Nope, Private First Class. U. S. Army.
Ha! A grunt. Shoulda known.
I nod, cuz what’s there to be ashamed of? If there’s one thing my time in the U.S. Army musta taught me, it’s discipline and respect for things you got no control over. A squirrel barks at me, then scampers along a stone retaining wall and up the trunk of a fir tree. I fidget with my wheels, puzzling over an escape route. I come up with diddly-squat.
Point is, I say, we both appreciate straight talk.
He gives me a skeptical look, or maybe that’s just his normal ugly.
Fact is, me and Liz are just friends.
He tries to crack his knuckles again.
But that’s more than I can say for you.
Fuck you say?
You completely blew it with her!
Now Darryl crowds my chair, but I don’t scare real easy.
Try gratitude next time, says I. And get some Trident. Your breath stinks like roadkill.
His first punch makes contact with the side of my head just above the temple, knocking me from my chair to the sidewalk. I take fists to the cheek and mouth and nose, followed by a series of kicks to the guts, crotch, and ribs. In the near distance, someone screams. Darryl drags my chair out from under me, hoists it into the air, and brings it down onto the edge of the curb. The crunch of steel on concrete. The slap of footsteps. The screech of a familiar voice. A kick to the chest, another to the chin. My vision’s blurring when I hear my angel calling, Benny?! Just before the lights dim, I spot her beating on Darryl’s chest. In the near distance, sirens wail.
I come to in an antiseptic world of white. I’m a bundle of bruises, swollen and tender and sore all over. They’ve got my right arm in a sling, though I don’t have a clue what happened to it. Nurses and doctors bustle along the fluorescent corridor. I work my jaw and wiggle my toes, wondering where to aim my appreciation.
A nurse comes by, a kind-faced woman of indeterminate age. Then several times more. The doc eventually graces me with his presence, but I’m groggy and he’s a blowhard, so I don’t pay him much mind. Not five minutes later, here comes a dumpy guy in a bad suit, cozying up to my hospital bed like he’s my favorite cousin. Asks me a bunch of fool questions bout how do I plan to pay for my little stint in the ER. His hints ain’t real what you call subtle.
He gives me an oily smile. Just doing my job, sir.
How do you think you have the freedom to pursue the American Way of Life in the first place?
SOB stares at me like I’ve gone off the deep end.
Veterans like yours truly! I say.
I see, he says in his ugly tie. Then you benefit from veterans’, how shall we say, benefits?
Very well, sir. He gives me a ridiculous little bow over his tented fingertips.
Right back at you, says I. Must be whatever they got me doped up on, cuz I’m too slow. He’s already gone.
I sit there staring at that off-white wall for a while. Don’t ask me how long. Too long, almost. Then I realize I need to get gone my own self. So I’m up in a whirlwind, yanking out the IV, pulling on my grubby jeans and t-shirt, no mean feat given the state my arm’s in. I don’t even bother with my military jacket, just drape it over my shoulders like a cape. Stuff my hooves into my combat boots, then take it on the heel and toe. Lightfoot it past the nurse’s station and intake desk, quick-stepping like back in the hot desert, trying to outrun my future. I expect tubby in his ill-fitting tweed to come chasing after me, but I make the door, then I’m out to the curb and down the block.
Trolley car’s waiting at the next stop like we’re in cahoots.
Hang around the homestead for a couple days. Ain’t blown all the dough I earned from my good looks and charming personality, so I can afford to take a personal day or two. Everybody deserves a little R&R, especially after getting dry-gulched by a maniac ex-Marine. Course, that ain’t easy at the Old Saint Francis, I’ll grant you that. The Ritz-Carlton, it is not. Full of drug-addled rapists and murderers and ex-cons with scores to settle. Still, it beats the alternatives. Could be living in a sloppy tent next to the Interstate or, like Emmett, in a cardboard box under a bridge. Or try a bed in one of them so-called shelters. Good way to get your throat slit.
So I’m lounging around one afternoon, just minding my own business, when somebody bangs on my door. Ain’t expecting no visitors. Ain’t in the mood for none, point of fact. So I crack the door with some what you call reservation. Hard to tell just what may come at you in this place. Only, lo and behold, it ain’t some buffed-out lunatic hell-bent on revenge.
Ain’t you a sight for sore eyes, says I.
Lynette lets herself grin, unless her name’s Veronica. Can’t keep ’em straight. Lord only knows why they make the rounds in this place. Guess they’re hard up like the rest of us.
You gonna invite me in, Benny?
Don’t ask me how she knows my name. I ain’t seen her but a couple-three times. I pull open the door, slapping her backside as she passes. Quick glance, left-right-left, then slam the door and throw the deadbolts, two chains, and a slider. Not that them things is much good. Somebody wants in, wouldn’t take a steel-toed boot to kick through the cheap wooden door.
Lynette or Veronica makes herself comfortable, slipping outta her spike heels and pulling off her slinky dress. Not a stitch on underneath! Guess undergarments just slow down the whole process.
One thing leads to another, as you might imagine, specially with me being flush and all. Given my bruised-and-battered state, I let her take the initiative. She’s a professional. Not two minutes after I hit my high note, Lynette or Veronica’s already slunk back into her slinky dress and donned her spike heels. She’s reapplying toxic watermelon to her Botox lips.
I dig in the pocket of my grubby jeans. Here you go, sweetie. A twenty for your trouble.
She gives me a dirty look. This ain’t the flea market, Benny. You can’t haggle.
I laugh, pulling on my pants. Lynette or Veronica ain’t even smiling.
I’m just getting your goat, sugar, I say, swatting her fanny again. Here’s your other thirty.
She snatches them bills outta my hand lickety-split. Then she grabs her little pink fringed purse, stuffs her cash inside, and turns to go.
What’s the rush? I say.
Why? You need something else?
No, I say, but you do. That’s when I lay it on her: a crisp hundred-dollar bill.
When she sees it, her little makeup-smudged face lights up. What’s this for?
I grin. A job well done.
She shrugs and shoves it in her purse. As she saunters out the door, I lean against the wall.
Thank you for your service, I say.
Them words are still hanging in the stale air when a gal with dark, wavy hair wanders up. Takes me a minute, but I put two and two together. I oughta retreat and slam the door shut, but I can’t budge an inch, like I really am a gimp.
Benny? says Liz.
I feel all exposed, like my soft underbelly’s showing. Which it is. I shuffle back a couple steps, grabbing for my sweaty t-shirt, though I don’t put it on. Sling and all.
She gives me a once over, shaking her head. Her eyes goggle. I can’t believe it!
What’re you doing here? I say, stepping around her to close and lock the door. This place ain’t exactly wholesome.
You haven’t been into the coffee shop since—
How do you even know where I live? I light a joint, and a dank weed funk fills the room. When I offer it to her, she wrinkles her nose.
A nurse at the hospital, she says, studying me with them gorgeous blue eyes. Are you walking?
How bout that? I take another puff. Wonder of wonders.
Oh, she says and gives me a funny look.
I keep waiting for the slap-in-the-face, the spit-in-the-eye, the knee-to-the-nuts. The insults and accusations will follow, lowdown dirty thief and lying cheating SOB, all of ’em true, but she don’t say word one. We stand there in what passes for silence around this dump. Cackling next door, shouting down the hall, buses growling in the street. I don’t embarrass real easy, and I ain’t embarrassed now. It’s something else, something I ain’t never felt before, this gnawing, clawing, queasy feeling in my gut. I don’t think I’m gonna puke, but I kinda wish I would. Maybe I’d feel better.
My angel steps forward and puts her hand on my shoulder. You okay, Benny?
My eyes get all watery. Something furry in the back of my throat. Face feels like it’s being squished for lemonade. Listen, Liz, I—
But before I can say what needs saying, she hugs me. Don’t matter that I reek of weed and sweat and Lynette or Veronica. She just wraps her arms around me, leans in, and squeezes. I stand there, stiff as a statue, for a long moment. What’s going on? I can’t understand it. Why ain’t she breaking my nose or jabbing out my eyes?
But soon enough, I’m hugging her right back, best I can with one arm. I don’t deserve none of it, only for once in my life, that don’t seem to matter. Now I feel this welling sensation, and before I know what’s happening, I start weeping like a little girl. I’m so sorry, I sob, I’m so sorry, like them’s the only three words in my entire vocabulary. Maybe they should be. Shhh, she whispers, it’s okay. Which ain’t true in the least. But I’m willing to go with it, right here and now, cuz I’m ailing in a big way, and this is just what the doctor ordered.
It can’t go on forever though. She pulls away and gives me this look full of what you call pity. It burns now, that nasty feeling I got, and I want to tell her about all the lying and stealing I done, all my pretending to be something I ain’t and never will be, like she’s some kinda beautiful priest. Only the shame, that’s what it is, the shame hangs heavy round my neck like one of them giant seabirds. I can’t get my wind. Now Liz pats me on the arm and gives me a warm smile, then steps to the door and unfastens all them locks. Before she disappears down the musty hallway, she looks me dead in the eye and, serious as a heart attack, says:
Thank you for your service.
About the Author:
J. T. Townley has published in Harvard Review, The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, The Threepenny Review, and other magazines and journals. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net award. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from Oxford University. To learn more, visit jttownley.com.