ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILLCopyright © 2010 Brock Clarke
All right reserved.ISBN: 978-1-56512-608-4
Chapter One Anything Can Be a Beginning As Long As You Call It One
My name is Miller Le Ray. I am ten years old. I was nine years old when my dad went to Iraq, and I was still nine years old eight months later when I found out he was back from Iraq and in the VA hospital. The day I went to see him in the VA hospital was the day I started trying to find Exley. Exley was the guy who wrote my dad's favorite book, A Fan's Notes. Mother calls the Exley I eventually found a Man Who Just Said He Was Exley. But I just call him Exley. Because this is one of the things I learned on my own: you need to say things simply, especially when they're complicated.
So why don't I begin there: the day I went to see my dad in the VA hospital. Exley's book begins toward the end, but he calls it a beginning anyway. Because this is one of the things I learned from Exley: anything can be a beginning as long as you call it one.
I woke up on Sunday, the eleventh of November, 200-, knowing that my dad had come home from the war. I knew this without anyone having to tell me; I knew it in my bones, the way you always know the most important things. I jumped out of bed and ran into my parents' room. The bed was unmade and there was no one in it. The room was as empty as the bed. I checked the upstairs bathroom. The faucet was dripping, like always. Before my dad went away, Mother sometimes joked that he was the kind of guy who would join up and go to Iraq just so he wouldn't have to fix the faucet. After he left, she stopped making the joke. But anyway, the bathroom was also empty. I went back to his bedroom, in case my dad had snuck in there while I was in the other rooms looking for him. But it was empty, too. Then I heard a sound coming from downstairs. It was Mother, crying. Mother never cried. The only other time I had ever heard her cry was when my dad went to Iraq in the first place. This was, of course, how I knew my dad was home: I'd heard Mother crying without knowing I'd heard her crying. When we say we know something in our bones, we mean we don't know yet how we know what we know. This is what we mean by "bones."
So I ran downstairs and followed the sound of Mother's crying, which led me to the bathroom. The door was closed. I went to knock, then almost didn't. Because it was hard to have an intelligent conversation with Mother when she was in the bathroom. I knew, from experience, that if I knocked on the bathroom door, this is how the conversation would go.
"I'm in the bathroom," Mother would say.
"What are you doing in there?" I would ask.
"Miller, I am in the bathroom," Mother would say.
"I know," I would say. "But what are you doing in there?"
But this time was different. It was different because Mother had been crying and I wanted to know why, and my dad was back from the war and I wanted to know where he was. I knocked on the door, and Mother stopped crying immediately.
"I'm in the bathroom," she said.
"Why were you crying?" I asked. And then, before she could answer, I asked, "Where's my dad?" Which started her crying again.
I took a step back from the door and thought about what I knew. I absolutely knew my dad was back from Iraq. Except he wasn't in our house, which he would have been if he'd been able to be in our house. Mother was crying, which she'd never done, as far as I knew, except for that once. All of this was going on in Watertown, New York. Fort Drum is in Watertown. It's an army fort. I go to school with dozens of kids whose dads and mothers are based at Fort Drum before and after going to Iraq. I knew from them that when their parents left Iraq for Watertown, they went to one of three places. My dad wasn't in the house - my eyes told me that. My dad wasn't in the base morgue, either - my bones told me that, just as surely as they'd told me my dad was back from Iraq in the first place. That left only one place where he could be: the VA hospital.
I went upstairs, got dressed, brushed my teeth, walked back downstairs, got Exley's book from my dad's study, put it in my backpack, shouldered the backpack, then took a few steps toward the bathroom. The door to the bathroom was still closed, and I could hear Mother still crying behind it, quieter now, but steady, like an all-day rain. Please don't cry, I wanted to say to her. I'm going to go get my dad and bring him home and everything will be all right. So please don't cry. But I didn't think I could say anything like that and not feel ridiculous afterward. I thought of my dad, of what he might say to Mother under these kinds of circumstances. Probably something not exactly comforting, probably something beginning with the phrase "For Christ's sake." I didn't think I could, or should, say that, either. So instead of saying either of those two things, I said, "I'm going to ride my bike," although possibly not loud enough to be heard over her crying. In any case, Mother kept crying. And so I walked into the garage, where I kept my Huffy, climbed on, and pedaled to the VA hospital.