Ashvamegh: Short Stories: Issue I: February 2015

Fallujah by Howard W Robertson


by Howard W Robertson

Published in Ashvamegh launch Issue, February 2015

I could see that the woman behind the steering wheel of the stopped BMW was impatient to turn left. I’m cautious by nature, and I instinctively pulled my foot off the accelerator and moved it toward the brake pedal. I was driving my old white Tacoma along the parkway northward not far from my house. I was going 35, the speed limit. Honest, I was. The distance between me and the car in front of me was about thirty feet. A safe distance for following, but nowhere near enough for the lady in the black BMW to cross between us safely.

You’ve probably guessed that she did turn left directly in front of me and that she didn’t make it across, not even close. When I’d bought the pickup from my son-in-law, I’d noticed that it didn’t brake very well. I’d taken it straight to the mechanic at the Toyota dealership, and he’d told me the right front rotor was bent, so I’d had him fix it. Good thing too, because I was almost able to stop in time, so the head-on collision only happened at about five miles an hour.

Still, I was pretty shaken up by the unexpected crash. I got out of the vehicle and stood there in a daze by the curb. The lady from the BMW came up to me and asked if I was all right. She seemed to know exactly what to do. She called the police on her cell phone and traded insurance information with me.

I said to her, “You don’t seem flustered by all this.”

Her self-assurance briefly vanishing, she admitted, “No, I’ve had practice.”

I asked, “Practice at wrecks?”

She nodded slightly.

I borrowed her phone to call AAA and have them send a tow truck.

She said, “You should move your car so people can get by.”

I responded, “People can get around it. The front’s caved in. I don’t want to drive it.”

She continued to urge me to move the pickup, and I continued to refuse. I began to suspect she wanted to get rid of the evidence of her culpability before the police got there.

I inquired, “Why did you turn in front of me?”

She replied, “Let’s not do that now.”

We repeated this call-and-response a few times before she blurted, “All right, it was my fault. I know. I thought I could make it.”

I left it at that, although I couldn’t see how she could possibly have thought she could make it safely across, which is what I told the police when they showed up. I was glad I hadn’t moved the car. The two officers took one look at the situation and decided I’d had no chance to avoid an accident.

Then the tow truck driver arrived and hooked up the Tacoma, and I rode away with him. The pickup was totalled, and the woman’s insurance company paid promptly with no haggling. Theirclaims adjuster gave me even more than the blue book value. He just seemed happy I wasn’t feigning whiplash and suing them.

That was June a year ago, 2013, and two months later, we replaced the pickup with a 2014 Subaru Forester. Phyllis found that Consumer Reports gave it the highest rating of all the small SUVs. I went online and built the exact car I wanted by making choices on the Subaru website. The website gave me a price for the car I’d put together, and it was only about ten thousand dollars more than the insurance check we’d received for the totalled truck. I went to the local Subaru dealer here in New Geneva and asked them if they could sell me this exact car for this same price, the implication being that if they couldn’t, then I’d find another dealer in Western Oregon who would. That way we avoided all the hassling with car salesmen that drove Phyllis crazy.

In February this year, we had the big ice storm. All night the loud cracking of limbs breaking off the alder and ash trees sounded like gunshots all around our house. The next morning, there were multiple dents on the right rear corner of the silver Forester. Such a sad sight. Kind of a relief in a way though: no need to dread the first dent in the new car anymore.

Again our experience with the insurance company was like a sweet dream. They paid the whole two thousand dollars without a squawk, and the body shop did a beautiful job. To look at the car now on this lovely morning four months later, you’d never guess the damage that had been done. It’s like it never happened.

As I stand here in the parking lot of the YMCA and feel the warm sunshine, I remember getting out of the wrecked Tacoma twelve months ago and thinking a strange thought: the words my friend Lee said Olga Knipper said when Chekhov died came to me then, “There was only beauty, peace, and the grandeur of death.” I felt very alive standing in the street after the wreck, but I also felt the majestic presence of death all around me. It was intoxicating really, that sudden brush with danger.



I’ve returned from the YMCA, showered, eaten, and am waiting for Lola to arrive. This will be the first time I’ve seen her since her trip to Paris. She cleans our house every other week, and she skipped last time so she could spend three weeks in the city of her dreams. It will be nearly a month since we’ve talked, and I’m eager to hear about her glorious trip.

She’s an interesting person, intelligent, and I enjoy talking with her before she cleans. I’ve helped her find CDs and online programs to improve her French, which is pretty good really, not bad at all. She’s probably about fifteen years younger than I, which would put her in her early fifties somewhere. You could easily deem it unwise, what she did. She took a chunk of her meager retirement savings and blew it on a grand voyage to the most fascinating place she knew of. Personally, I think she showed a certain Quixotic wisdom. Whatever else happens in the remainder of her life, she’ll always have Paris.

When she shows up right on time at her usual 1:30 p.m., I can’t help but notice she’s wearing a cast on her left arm.

I say brightly, “Bienvenue aux États-Unis.”

She smiles, “Merci, monsieur.”

I inquire, “So how was the trip?”

She replies, “Trip was fine. I broke my arm at the start of it, but other than that, it was good.”

“You broke your arm! Mon Dieu! Are you okay?”

“I think so. If it was my right arm, I might have a problem, but I think I can work. I don’t use my left hand that much.”

“You broke your arm at the start of the trip?”

“Yes, sir, right off the bat, in the Denver airport when I was changing planes. I had twenty minutes to run clear from the gate for little planes from New Geneva all the way over to the gate for big planes to London, which was a really long way to run.”

“Yeah, I’ve had to do that too. The Denver airport’s huge. It’s tough making connections there sometimes.”

“I tried to go too fast and got tired and tripped. I reached out to break my fall and broke my arm, crick crack.”

Lola was strong and sturdy but not nimble. It was easy to imagine her clumsily falling if she was in a big rush.

“Did you have to take a later flight?”

“No, nothing was going to keep me from getting on that plane. I had a day in London to get my arm treated before I took the train to Paris.”

“Thank goodness for socialized medicine, n’est-ce pas?”

“Well, it was cheap, but I had to have the bone re-set when I got back home.”


“Yeah, it wasn’t fun. It throbs now, and I have to watch out for swelling. I think I’ll be okay today though.”

“Well, do what you can, but don’t push it. Take care of yourself. If you need to leave some things undone, that’s fine. They’ll wait till next time.”

“Okay. Thanks. I’ll be fine, I think.”

“So other than the broken arm, the trip went well? Paris lived up to your expectations?”

She beams, “Oh yes, it was wonderful: c’était merveilleux!”


She goes on to tell me about the museums, the boulevards, the cafés, the incomparable adventures of an intrepid tourist with a broken arm. She gives me two picture-postcards from the Louvre, one of the Mona Lisa and the other of The Winged Victory of Samothrace, and then she gets to work.


I bid Lola adieu and go to the university to teach my class on sustainable economic systems. After class, my best undergraduate student suggests he and I go over to Fletcher’s Landing for a beer, so we do. One pitcher leads to another, and another, and tongues loosen there on the sunny veranda. I’m interested in him, in his personal story, and he seems to want to tell it to me, his esteemed professor.

He says, “When Al Qaeda re-took Fallujah this January, it really got to me. So many of us died taking that place, so many lost an arm or a leg or a face, all of us did horrible things, and what good did it do? What did it mean? We’re right back where we started, only now we’re out of there, so there’s no chance we’ll take Fallujah back. What was it all for?”

Bruce McCoy is only a junior, but he’s in his late twenties. He did multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and finally returned home twelve months ago. Once he got back to New Geneva, he picked up where he’d left off with his university education. He’d just finished his sophomore year when his Oregon National Guard unit had been mobilized and sent to the Middle East.

I don’t want to answer Sgt. McCoy’s question honestly, so I just say, “Tough question.”

He’s been drinking at twice the rate I have and sounds a little bit drunk as he continues, “I’ll never really come back, you know. I’ll always be over there. I lived too long in constant fear. I can’t shake the feeling that any normal and safe scene may blow up and leave people dead or mangled.”

I look around the pleasant veranda and imagine feeling an IED might go off any second amidst the handful of us chatting at our several tables. I can’t really feel like that for long. The place just seems so safe to my civilian sensibility. It doesn’t seem real that disaster could strike us here.

The sergeant confesses, “I never thought I’d say this, but I miss the honour and adrenaline of combat, of kill or be killed, of courage and valour. Yeah, and the horror too, the blood and the guts. Civilian life seems so unbearably dull and just plain, you know, ignoble. I sometimes catch myself longing to go back to Iraq or Afghanistan and die wrapped in glory, to end the tedium of quiet days and go down firing away at worthy adversaries.”

I suppress the urge to tell him to be careful what he wishes for. I feel I don’t have the right to say it.

“You know, sometimes the desire to die comes over you over there in the zone, and only the stronger desire not to let your buddies down keeps you alive. Still, you take chances you shouldn’t, secretly wanting to be brave and dead. It isn’t bravery that keeps you alive. Bravery


can be a form of honourable suicide. It’s love that keeps you alive, love for the guys you go through hell with.”

We finish up, and I ride the bus home to the love of my life, my dear wife, whom I appreciate more than ever.


I don’t say a word to Phyllis about my conversation with the war veteran. I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want his horrific experience to invade the comfort and security of my domestic world. As usual, I’ll rely on my wife to provide the danger in that realm.

She’s in the kitchen fixing supper and says, “You’re just in time. Dinner’s almost ready. Go wash up, and I’ll put it on the table.”

We’re trying to eat less meat and drink less alcohol. We want to live forever. Tonight we’re having black beans and rice, honey wheat rolls, a leafy salad with olives, and organic grape juice. During this delicious meal, we talk about my wife’s writing.

She announces, “The Manhattanite sent me a message today. They’re accepting a long story. It’ll be out next month. They didn’t even suggest changes. You know how I hate that.”

I’m sincerely enthusiastic, “That’s wonderful! You’re on such a roll now. So which one did they take?”

“I sent them ‘Dracula’s Oregon Divorce,’ and they snatched it up right away. Only took them a week to give me the okay. I think I could send a top magazine my favourite recipes right now, and they’d publish them gratefully.”

“You’re definitely hot at the moment. Everyone wants a piece of the author of the Elizabeth Barker novels.”

“Whatever the reason, I’m glad to get a chance to explain Vlad to a wide audience.”

I wonder, “Vlad the Impaler becomes undead and falls in love: you think readers of The Manhattanite are ready for that?”

“Hope so. Don’t know. I do think they’ll have sympathy for him when they find out that his father sent him to grow up as a hostage of the Turkish sultan. That’s where he learned the impaling that earned him his epithet after he was ruler over the Romanians. Imagine being a young boy who’s sent by his father to be the prisoner of a foreign emperor; imagine knowing you’ll be killed if your father double-crosses the sultan who holds you captive.”

I say with formality, “I look forward to seeing ‘Dracula’s Oregon Divorce’ in print and propose a toast to your meteoric rise.”

I raise my glass of grape juice, and she does likewise. We clink them together and drink.

She adds, “Also today, my agent sent word that the movie people have finished casting the lead roles for the movie based on my books. Natalie Portman is going to play the nice young woman


who falls under the spell of the older rich guy, and Tom Cruise will be the charming sadist who’s made a better man by her love.”

I say, “So, V for Vendetta meets Collateral.”

She says, “Sort of. Meets Interview with the Vampire is more like it.”

I note, “It’s going to be harder than ever to keep your true identity a secret once the movie comes out.”

She agrees, “It will be a challenge. By the way, I need some help tonight researching a bondage scene in the new book. It involves a slave collar, an arm binder, and a nose hook.”

She gives me the look.

I smile, “Sure, always glad to assist the genius novelist.”

Suddenly, just the right amount of danger appears around us and lurks.





Introduction to the Author:

Howard W. Robertson is a fiction writer and poet who lives in Eugene, Oregon.  He has published two books of fiction, including Hyperzotica in 2015; and nine books of poems, including both Odes to the Ki of the Universe and Ode to Certain Interstates in 2013.  He has received numerous awards for his writing, including Atlanta Review’s International Merit Award in 2014 and the Sinclair Poetry Prize in 2009.  His poems have been anthologized often, including in Literal Latté: The Anthology in 2008, and his poems and stories have been published in many literary journals, most recently in Yellow Medicine Review and Setting Forth.  For more about Howard W. Robertson, go to