Reagan returns home from the first Gulf War horrified by the discovery of the mutilated remains of Tom Wallach, a marine he and his squad find a Kuwaiti desert. Suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, he often carries on discussions with Tom in his dreams… at least, that’s what he tells himself they are: dreams.
Excerpt from A World Without Music:
“I have a daughter, you know,” Tom Wallach said from beside Reagan.
“She’s twenty-one now.”
“I’m sure she’s grown into a beautiful young woman.” Reagan took a sip from his glass of bourbon.
“Mind if I ask you to look in on her?”
“Why? Aren’t you able to do that?”
“Sure, and I have. She’s a smart kid. Takes after her mother. Enrolled in the law program at U of M. I’m proud of her. You’re right, she’s beautiful. But I’m partial.”
Reagan waited. It was his dream, but he had no control of the conversation.
“When you get in touch with her,” Wallach said, the conclusion forgone, “tell her about me, will you?”
“I hardly knew you, Tom.”
“You don’t have to tell her much,” Wallach said, as if he hadn’t heard Reagan. “Tell her that I liked to laugh, liked to pull a practical joke, but that I had my serious side, too.”
Did you? Reagan asked himself. He was certain his subconscious was simply filling in fictitious details of Wallach’s life for him. Dreams were funny that way.
“I wouldn’t tell you if it weren’t so. Tell her I was a good marine.” Wallach held up his empty shot glass; a moment later, the bartender topped it off with Maker’s Mark.
After the bartender left, Wallach added, “You can tell her I liked bourbon—don’t all marines? But always in moderation.” He held up his shot glass to the light, to admire the caramel color of its contents. “God, I miss this stuff.”
Reagan thought about pinching himself to see if he would wake up.
“It’s tough, isn’t it?” Wallach said. “Losing your innocence. Your first drinking binge, your first woman, the first time you kill a man. The first time you see a dead body, mutilated. You spend the rest of your life trying to get that innocence back.”
Reagan took a sip from the second bourbon he couldn’t remember ordering. Such were dreams.
“It wasn’t your fault, you know?” Wallach said. “They came out of nowhere, while I was running a message from our position to the unit on our right flank. The area was supposed to be secure.” Wallach paused. “They gagged me and put a sack over my head. They marched me for a while. I don’t know, maybe an hour, maybe it was two. Funny how the passage of time is more difficult to measure without eyesight.”
“They worked me over pretty good, once we stopped. But you know that.”
Reagan nodded again.
“It hurt, what they did. The torture. Funny thing about pain though. At some point everything hurts so much that each new pain they inflict, you don’t feel it. Maybe it’s because you’re on overload.”
“Maybe it’s because you were in shock,” Reagan said.
“Yeah, maybe. I never thought of that. Makes sense.” And then: “That last thing they did to me? It was almost a relief, because I knew they were done with me.”
“I was a good marine, right to the end. Never cried, never begged for mercy. Wouldn’t give them the satisfaction.”
“That’s good, Tom. I’m proud of you.” Because he didn’t know what else to say.
“So you’ll look in on her?”
“I don’t know, Tom.”
“Her name is Mimi. Believe it or not, it’s a popular Arabic name. Gretchen and I wanted to give her a connection to that area of the world, as if we could somehow bridge cultures, bring a little peace to the planet.” Wallach allowed himself the luxury of a chuckle. “We later learned its meaning is ‘uncertain, maybe bitter.’ I guess it was apropos after all.”
“I’m sure she’s anything but bitter, Tom.”
“No, she’s not,” Wallach said, and Reagan wondered how he knew. “So what do you say, buddy?” Wallach added.
Reagan cringed. They were never buddies while Wallach was alive.
But we’re drinking buddies now , he thought. In my dreams.
“I don’t know, Tom,” Reagan said a second time. He wondered if Mimi would care, if she even thought about the daddy she never knew.
“She cares,” Wallach said. “She thinks of me more than she should. I don’t have to tell you how that makes me feel.”
“How would I even find her?”
“You won’t have to look too hard,” Wallach said, knowingly. “Remember, she’s in Ann Arbor. One more thing I want you to tell her,” he added.
“Tell her that my last thoughts were of her.”
Reagan nodded yet again thinking, Funny, how when I’m awake I’m never at a loss for words. But in my dreams, I got nothing to say.
“Reagan.” Wallach put his arm around Reagan.
“You’ve been a good friend. But you’ve got to let go. For your own good. For your future happiness.”
Tom Wallach held up the shot glass again and, after a moment, he downed the Maker’s in a single gulp.
“God, that’s good,” he said. Then he looked at Reagan and said, “Semper fi.”
Reagan grappled with that. Before he could voice his confusion, Wallach told him, “You can remain loyal, and still let go.”
Conrad Guest is the author of Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings, available from Second Wind Publishing. Nominated as a Michigan Notable Book in 2010, the Illinois Institute of Technology adopted Backstopas required reading for their spring 2011 course, “Baseball: America’s Literary Pastime.” He is also the author of a science fiction diptych—One Hot Januaryand January’s Thaw—a time travel, alternate reality tale in which Germany wins World War II, his tribute to Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective genre, and its prequel, January’s Paradigm. A Retrospect in Death, Guest’s sixth novel, explores the meaning of life: prewired at birth, or a product of our environment? His seventh novel, 500 Miles to Go, is a tale about the importance of, and the risks associated with, the pursuit of dreams.
For a peek into J. Conrad’s literary world, visit www.jconradguest.com.
See also: Interview With J. Conrad Guest, Author of “A World Without Music”