Separation Brings Sorrow In Army Wives' Stories

You Know When The Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon
 

Siobhan Fallon's husband, an Army major, has been away for half of the six years they've been married — deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. The experience has not been wasted on her. She gives us a rare insider's view of the domestic face of war in her powerful, eye-opening debut collection of eight loosely linked short stories, You Know When the Men Are Gone.

Fallon's stories, set in "the Great Place" — Fort Hood, Texas, the largest Army post in the United States — focus on the terrible strain of long separations. She vividly captures the loneliness and anxiety of months of waiting, and the anticipation, nervousness and unbroachable chasms surrounding soldiers' returns, with both husbands and wives unable to speak of what they've endured.

You Know When the Men Are Gone
By Siobhan Fallon
Hardcover, 227 pages
Putnam's/Amy Einhorn
List Price: $23.95

Read An Excerpt

Her characters include Capt. Roddy's wife, Ellen, battling both breast cancer and a difficult teenager, and Kailani Rodriguez, who, when she doesn't hear from her husband Manny for weeks, hacks into his e-mail, where she finds disturbing evidence of infidelity with a female soldier. Chief Warrant Officer Nick Cash, whose work in Iraq is filled with "lies and lies and lies, the shifty informants with their misinformation and subtleties lost in translation," sneaks home on an unannounced leave in search of "a single and undeniable truth," determined to establish with certainty whether his wife has been cheating on him.

Two particularly moving stories involve Spc. Kit Murphy, whose wife, Helena, greets him after he returns seriously wounded from the inferno of an improvised explosive device, or IED, with the announcement that she's leaving him: "I love you, but I don't think I can do this anymore. I want to be home." In a later story, he visits the desolate 26-year-old widow of Sgt. Schaeffer, whose body shielded Kit from the worst of the flames. Josie Schaeffer asks urgently, "Did he mean to save your life?" In other words, did her husband knowingly sacrifice his life and, by extension, her own?

Author Siobhan Fallon

Author Siobhan Fallon lived at the Fort Hood post near Killeen, Texas, while her husband was on multiple deployments to Iraq. Her short stories explore the consequences of long-term separation on families in the Army. Larry Nordwick hide caption

itoggle caption Larry Nordwick

Fallon's inside scoop on this closed community is an advantage, but her literary prowess is the major draw; she skillfully wields fiction to penetrate more deeply than even the most finely observed reportage. Her psychologically nuanced portraits show extraordinary sympathy for both the deployed soldiers and their transplanted families soldiering on alone, far from their own families and friends, however flawed their devotion. In the moving, engrossing title story, we share Meg Brady's fascination with her aloof new neighbor, the beautiful, unhappy Serbian war bride, Natalya, and her twin toddlers. Meg, like many of the wives in Fallon's stories, questions whether the constant separations are a sustainable way of life for her. Noting that Staff Sgt. Torres divorced his first wife after meeting Natalya in Kosovo, where she was cutting hair at the base, Fallon writes, "They knew she could happen to any of them."

You Know When the Men Are Gone is written with verve and nerve. Each story is planted with carefully calibrated, emotionally explosive devices that detonate on cue, bringing flashes of truth. And like the deployed men they illuminate, you keep thinking about them when they're gone.

Excerpt: 'You Know When the Men Are Gone'

You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon
 
You Know When the Men Are Gone
By Siobhan Fallon
Hardcover, 227 pages
Putnam's/Amy Einhorn
List Price: $23.95

Leave

Three a.m. and breaking into the house on Cheyenne Trail was even easier than Chief Warrant Officer Nick Cash thought it would be. There were no sounds from above, no lights throwing shadows, no floorboards whining, no water running or the snicker of late-night TV laugh tracks. The basement window, his point of entry, was open. The screws were rusted, but Nick had come prepared with his Gerber knife and WD-40; got the crews and the window out in five minutes flat. He stretched onto his stomach in the dew-wet grass and inched his legs through the opening, then pushed his torso backward until his toes grazed the cardboard boxes in the basement below, full of old shoes and college textbooks, which held his weight.

He had planned this mission the way the army would expect him to, the way only a soldier or a hunter or a neurotic could, considering every detail that ordinary people didn't even think about. He mapped out the route, calculating the minutes it would take for each task, considering the placement of streetlamps, the kind of vegetation in front, and how to avoid walking past houses with dogs. He figured out whether the moon would be new or full and what time the sprinkler system went off. He staged this as carefully as any other surveillance mission he had created and briefed to soldiers before.

Except this time the target was his own home.

. . .

He should have been relieved that he was inside, unseen, that all was going according to plan. But as he screwed the window back into place, he could feel his lungs clench with rage instead of adrenaline.

How many times had he warned his wife to lock the window? It didn't matter how often he told her about Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker, who had gained access to his victims through open basement windows. Trish argued that the open window helped air out the basement. A theory that would have been sound if she actually closed the window every once in a while. Instead she left it open until a rare and thundering storm would remind her, then she'd jump up from the couch, run down the steps, and slam it shut after it had let in more water than a month of searing-weather-open-window- days could possibly dry.

Before he left for Iraq, Nick had wanted to install an alarm system but his wife said no.

"Christ, Trish," he had replied. "You can leave the windows and all the doors open while I am home to protect you. But what about when I'm gone?"

She glanced up at him from chopping tomatoes, narrowed her eyes in a way he hadn't seen before, and said flatly, "We've already survived two deployments. I think we can take care of ourselves."

Take care of this, Nick thought now, twisting the screw so violently that the knife slipped and almost split open his palm, the scrape of metal on metal squealing like an assaulted chalkboard. He hesitated, waiting for the neighbor's dog to start barking or a porch light to go on. Again nothing. Nick could be any lunatic loose in the night, close to his unprotected daughter in her room with the safari animals on her wall, close to his wife in their marital bed.

Trish should have listened to him.

. . .

This particular reconnaissance mission had started with a seemingly harmless e-mail. Six months ago, Nick had been deployed to an outlying suburb of Baghdad, in what his battalion commander jovially referred to as "a shitty little base in a shitty little town in a shitty little country." One of his buddies back in Killeen had offered to check on Trish every month or so, to make sure she didn't need anything hammered or lifted or drilled while Nick was away.

His friend wrote:

Stopped by to see Trish. Mark Rodell was there. Just thought you should know.

That was it. That hint, that whisper.

Mark Rodell.

Excerpted from You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon. Copyright © 2011 by Siobhan Fallon. Excerpted with permission by Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam. All rights reserved.

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