Mark Blickley is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild and PEN American Center. He is the author of Sacred Misfits (Red Hen Press), Weathered Reports: Trump Surrogate Quotes from the Underground (Moira Books) and the just published text based art book, Dream Streams (Clare Songbirds Publishing House). His video, Widow’s Peek, was selected to the 2018 International Experimental Film and Video Festival in Bilbao, Spain. He is a 2018 Audie Award Finalist for his contribution to the original audio book, Nevertheless We Persisted.
About the Piece:
A memoir that chronicles his strange epiphany that occurred when he was a returning warrior.
“Lying the Truth”
One of the
happiest days of my life occurred during the Winter of 1973. I was on military
leave from the Air Force and it’s an understatement to say that I needed much
more than a three-week vacation. I was on the verge, or probably more
accurately, in the midst of a nervous breakdown.
I’d pulled a tour of Vietnam. The past few months I had been finishing out my enlistment at Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina. The war was a sour experience, but what deepened my depression and anxiety was the peacetime service. After the fear and excitement and brotherhood of combat, I was deposited on a base full of non-combatants pretending to be hard-ass military men.
I had blocked in aircraft half-naked on the flight line while enemy rockets fell around me. At Charleston AFB if a button wasn’t mated with a hole or a boot lacked a glossy polish, or God forbid, a hair was touching my ear, I’d be jumped on like I’d just set fire to the American flag. Instead of support and relief, we Vets received hostility and harassment for our lack of military bearing. Glowing write-ups while under fire met nothing; a real man didn’t replace his government issue boxer shorts with Fruit of the Loom jockey briefs.
My unhappiness ripened into confusion and envy.
Everyone else seemed to be adjusted or adjusting. Everyone else seemed to be happy. My sadness frightened me. I felt as if I was shut out of some universal secret. I truly believed that there was some kind of personal information that hadn’t been passed on to me. Even the drugs I was consuming at the time were not agents of euphoria. Instead of offering a numbing comfort they simply increased my awareness of how alienated and needy I had become.
My behavior had become so erratic that my First Sergeant “strongly suggested” I take an immediate leave and straighten myself up. My last words to him before I left his office were the same words I was asking everyone I met, stranger or acquaintance.
“Are you happy?” I asked.
My First Sergeant eyed me with suspicion. I was totally sincere. “Yeah, I’m happy,” he muttered.
“Why? Can you tell me why?” I pleaded.
He cleared his throat and said, “Because I’m getting rid of your ass for a few weeks, that’s why I’m happy.” He was being totally sincere too.
Now this may seem a bit silly or naive, but I felt like the only way I could pull myself out of this debilitating funk was to try and understand how and why others could be so functional and contented. My opening question, “are you happy?” was always, and I mean always answered in the affirmative.
The sources of all this happiness were quite varied. It could be a girlfriend, a job, a car, a good bottle of cognac, anything. The point is that no one told me they were unhappy. No one. My question didn’t give me any answers I could use as clues. It just made feel more depressed and estranged.
During the course of my three week leave I visited my older sister who was working her way through college as a belly dancer. She was living somewhere Upstate New York Jamestown, I think. I met her at the club she was working and was given the keys to her apartment. She told me to just relax there until her performance ended; I’d be seeing her in a few hours.
I remember being stretched out on her living room floor, smoking a joint, listening to an eight track of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Pictures at an Exhibition when I heard a knock on the door. I opened the door on a small, incredibly stacked young woman with a southern accent. I introduced myself to my sister’s neighbor. This sexy young woman, Becky, invited me to wait over at her apartment. I eagerly accepted. I could
tell by her friendly and aggressive behavior that she was
attracted to me. As I pulled my sister’s door shut behind me I could already feel my face smothered inside Becky’s perfumed cleavage.
I wasn’t feeling too thrilled with life; I took comfort wherever I could find it.
My hormonal heat flared as we entered her one room apartment. We sat on the couch facing the biggest framed photograph I’d ever seen.
Actually it wasn’t a photo at all. It was a poster of a sleazy looking man of late middle age. This skinny poster boy had sparse, greased back hair and a kind of moustache popular in the thirties a thin pencil line of facial hair underlining his large nose. Beneath his grinning portrait, in bold letters, I read FRANK COLE, A&P MANAGER OF THE MONTH. The month was August, 1971. I admired Frank’s courage in exposing his dental work. Even though the photo was in black and white you could tell his teeth had to be green.
The ornately framed poster dominated the tiny room. I fought back my laughter. I didn’t want to insult Becky’s father. I just wanted to bang his daughter.
Well, Becky talked and talked and talked. What I mistook for her lust seemed to be a genuine affection for my sister
that she transferred to me. As soon as I realized this I
shifted from horny G.I. to soul-searching outcast.
“Are you happy?” I asked Becky.
Becky beamed and nodded.
Becky pointed to the Manager of the Month. “It’s because of Frankie. He’s the most wonderful man in the world.”
I glanced over at the poster and it made me sick to think of that guy with this lovely, sweet girl. Becky was definitely on the sunny side of twenty-five.
She launched into a description of Frankie Cole that was so loving and awe-inspired, by the time she finished her tribute to him his portrait started looking handsome to me too.
When my sister arrived I gave Becky a goodnight peck on the cheek. I was more depressed than ever. It’s not that I begrudged Becky her joy, but even a guy like Frankie Cole was able to attain a state of happiness. And here I was, a twenty year old in wonderful shape with a full head of hair and nice set of teeth, feeling like the most miserable man on earth.
The first words my sister said to me after we entered her apartment was that she hoped I hadn’t taken advantage of Becky because she was a really good person.
Take advantage? What was she talking about? How could I take advantage of Becky? I never met anyone who was as much in love as was Becky. Who could possible hope to compete with August 1971’s A&P Manager of the Month, Frankie Cole?
My sister shook her head. She told me that Becky had engaged in an affair with Frank Cole a couple of years ago when he was manager of the Produce department and she was a part-time grocery clerk. Frank was married and told the teenage Becky how horrible his wife was and how miserable his life had become. Frank arranged to have Becky transferred to Produce and they shared passion for about a year amongst the fruit and vegetation. During this time Frank would pacify Becky by promising to divorce his wife.
Becky, feeling so sorry for her man, called Frank’s wife and demanded she set Frankie free from his house of torture. The next day Frank had Becky transferred out of Produce. He tried to end their relationship but Becky wouldn’t listen. She was a woman in love. After Becky began making weekly calls to Frank’s wife, he had Becky transferred out of his store and into an A&P some sixty miles away. He refused to see her.
My sister informed me that Becky’s life now consisted entirely of working at the new A&P five days a week. On Becky’s two days off she’d drive over to her former supermarket and sit in her parked car for hours, watching her beloved through the store’s large windows. Frankie Cole had abandoned her, wouldn’t even look at her, but Becky would not and could not abandon the man she loved.
My response to my sister’s version of Becky’s story was anger. Becky had lied to me! I was vulnerable and she lied to me! I had asked for help and she teased me with her broken fantasies of emotional well-being.
That night the three of us went out to dinner at a local diner. My hostility towards Becky manifested itself by my total silence during the heavy, grease-laden meal. I observed her like a scientist waiting for a disastrous reaction in his laboratory.
Frank Cole’s name was never brought up. Becky was charming. And warm. And sweet. And funny. My anger melted into pity. By the time dessert arrived I had had a catharsis, along with a touch of gas.
I realized that Becky and all the others I questioned hadn’t lied to me. Claiming they were happy and giving me their reasons for their happiness was an act of kindness and hope. I knew that Becky’s love crisis was every bit as intense as my military crisis, yet she was a model of grace under pressure. Her imagination had provided her with the ability to still experience pleasure despite the awesome burden of a crushing reality.
If fantasy was allowing her to function at such a high level, well, I thought, God bless the human imagination and its ability to construct protective worlds of security and satisfaction.
That was the secret I was searching for. Like Becky, I had found it inside Frankie Cole’s imposing icon.
Although the food from that diner dinner repeated itself throughout the night and into the early morning, it was the best meal I ever consumed. I learned to swallow my self-pity watching Becky that night.