“It’s the most fun you never want to have again.”
The small pub was a bubble of calm amidst the bustling airport concourse. Grant sat at the bar, surrounded by dark wood, soft yellow light, and the Pittsburgh sports memorabilia that bedecked the walls. It was almost noon and there were few patrons at the bar, just a few young men with their faces in their phones. A lone couple at a table spoke Spanish in quiet voices. The man’s soccer jersey was green and stood out in the sea of black and yellow decoration. SportsCenter blared from the wall-mounted televisions.
The young bartender turned from the TV and uncrossed her arms. Under her makeup, her eyes looked puffy with sleep, and her skin seemed pale against her dark hair and black work uniform. Her thin lips creased as she held back a yawn.
“Want me to warm that up for you?” she asked Grant.
“Sure,” he said. “Going to be a long day.”
“Where you headed?”
The coffee steamed as it poured out of the pot. Under the bar, Grant toyed with the black memorial bracelet on his left wrist. He had never grown used to its feel, despite a few years of wearing it.
“California,” he said. “I’ll be in LAX tonight if all goes well.”
“Yeah, that’s a long trip,” she said, grimacing. “Business or pleasure?”
Grant sipped the coffee to give himself a moment. “Well, it’s to see a buddy. He’s kind of a brother to me. It’s been a long time,” he said.
Long enough for grass to fully grow over his friend’s grave. The dense green tufts in the photographs, stark against the white marble of the military headstone. His friend’s name, Tyler J. Mayfield, a cold inscription.
“Aw, that’s nice. I’m sure he’ll be glad to see you.”
Grant took a shallow breath and stared into the coffee cup. A pang flowed from his stomach to his eyes and made them feel full. “Yeah,” he mumbled.
What he really wanted was a drink. That would come later.
A stout businessman in his sixties sauntered into the bar. His blazer and leather briefcase gleamed in the yellow light, his gray hair slicked back like a politician’s. The bartender looked up from Grant and sighed before walking over to where the man had plopped onto a barstool.
“How are you, sir?” she said, smiling and placing a coaster in front of him.
“I’ll have a Belvedere on the rocks with just a tiny bit of ice, okay? I don’t want it drowning.” The businessman set his briefcase on the bar and dug out a laptop, not looking up to acknowledge her. He glanced at Grant, who gave him a polite nod. The man scowled and turned back to his computer.
“Would you like to start a tab?” the bartender said as she placed the drink before him.
He rolled his eyes upon examination of the drink. “What I’d like is a cocktail instead of a glass of ice. You know, like I asked for in the first place.” One of his eyes narrowed. “Use about a third of that, sweetheart,” he said, huffing and shaking his head
“Sorry. I’ll make another,” she said.
Grant watched as the bartender turned her back to the man and poured another. She squared her shoulders and took a deep breath, but when she turned around, she had the same smile on her face. She placed the drink on the bar. The businessman retrieved a money clip from his jacket pocket and tossed her a bill.
“Is that better?” she asked the man.
“Keep the change,” he said. He sipped his drink and began typing.
The bartender rang the drink up. When she was done, she dropped a handful of change into her tip jar and busied herself wiping glasses. One of the men further down the bar shook his head and gulped his beer. Grant watched the bartender, hoping for a chance to give her a soft smile to blunt the tension.
Out of the corner of his eye, Grant caught the grey-green of Army camouflage. A young soldier clutching a hat in his hand walked up to the bar. There were blue circles under his dark, darting eyes and his face was thin. He wore a Combat Infantryman Badge on his uniform. His name-tape read “Hernandez.”
Noticing the frayed inseams of the soldier’s faded uniform pants, Grant knew the soldier was on his way back to Iraq or Afghanistan by the look of him. His own pair had looked the same from all the walking he’d done in Iraq.
The soldier leaned his elbows on the bar, between Grant and the businessman. He looked around the small space, anticipant and wary. His eyes rested on Grant’s bracelet for a moment and the two men exchanged a stern nod.
When the bartender set a coaster in front of Hernandez, the businessman’s voice boomed across the bar.
“Thank you for your service, son. We’re all really proud of the job you’re doing over there.” He had turned in his seat to face Hernandez, sitting back like he was welcoming a friend. His scowl had been replaced by beaming adulation.
Grant gritted his teeth, wondering if his cringe was visible. He knew the businessman didn’t have a clue about what went on over there.
“Thank you, sir,” said Hernandez with a trace of an accent. He pressed his lips together. He turned to the bartender and opened his mouth to speak.
“Well, I just want to say—welcome home,” the businessman continued. “You’re all heroes to us back here. We just hope our coward of a president lets you finish the fight, instead of cutting and running like he did in Iraq.”
“I’m actually on my way back there now. Afghanistan, I mean.” Hernandez cleared his throat and turned to face the bartender again. “Hey, miss, by any chance—”
“I’ll buy whatever you’re drinking, soldier,” said the businessman. “Sweetheart? Whatever he wants. It would be my honor.”
Grant felt his chest tighten and his jaw clench. He burned to tell the guy to shut up.
Hernandez shot the man a glance. “I can’t drink in uniform, sir,” he said in a flat voice.
The bartender raised her eyebrows and rubbed the back of her neck, glancing back and forth between Hernandez and the businessman.
“Well, that’s a shame,” said the man. He clucked his tongue and shook his head, still staring at Hernandez.
“Miss, do you all have cheese fries here?” said Hernandez. “Like the ones with the works. Really craving some.”
“No, sorry. Actually, we don’t.” She cocked her head and grinned at Hernandez. “But we do have cheese sticks,” she added.
Grant thought back to the cheeseburger he had eaten in the Atlanta airport during his own return trip to Iraq, five years ago. Enjoying a thick, medium-well burger loaded with every topping the restaurant could muster had been one of his last goals before boarding the plane back. The final meal for a condemned man.
“Nah. Thanks, though,” said Hernandez. He pulled back his uniform sleeve to glance at his watch.
Grant heard the deflation in Hernandez’s voice. A lump rose in his throat. He remembered the awful dread of flying back to Iraq after his mid-tour leave. He knew there was little to ease that feeling for Hernandez, but he could do something.
“Hey man,” said Grant. “There’s a place over in Concourse B that has some really good fries—bacon, sour cream, all that good stuff. Saw it on the little sign outside.” His eyes shifted to the businessman, then back to Hernandez. “I’ll show you where it is. I’m headed that way.”
“Awesome, man. I think I have time,” Hernandez said. He shifted his pack, then smoothed his uniform blouse and peered out into the concourse.
Grant stood and pushed in his chair. He set ten dollars on the bar, nodding and smiling at the bartender. As Grant shouldered his backpack, the businessman’s voice boomed across the bar again.
“Good luck over there, son. Kill some of those terrorist bastards for us,” he said, raising his glass. The few ice cubes in it clinked.
Grant glared at the businessman, his face flushed. The statement reminded him of the beer-hall exultations in All Quiet on the Western Front, proclamations of “Iron Youth” and “On to Paris” repeated by men who had no idea what they were talking about. The businessman sounded just as absurd.
Hernandez stood looking at the man. His face bore no expression, just a hollow stare. The businessman kept up a lilting nod.
“Yeah, sure thing,” said Hernandez. He started to say something else.
Grant feigned a cough. “Ready?”
“Yeah,” Hernandez said. He followed Grant into the concourse. The bartender gave them a smile and thanked Grant, and the businessman turned his attention back to his computer.
The two men were buffeted by a noisy crowd as they entered the concourse. A high school volleyball team wearing blue and white windbreakers walked past. Some players carried pillows in their arms. The ones without headphones chattered with one another while their coaches eyed them all with harrowed expressions. A flight crew trailing wheeled suitcases hurried past, Starbucks coffees in hand.
“I’ve never gotten used to guys like that,” said Grant, shaking his head as they walked.
“Yeah. Dude was hammered,” said Hernandez. His face was still expressionless.
“He was a real ass to the bartender,” said Grant. “Probably some draft dodger making up for all the shitty things he said in the sixties.”
“Huh.” Hernandez’s head ticked upward. “So, I saw the bracelet. Where were you?”
“I was a grunt in Iraq. Sunni Triangle in 2005,” said Grant, looking down at his feet.
“Some bad stuff, I heard. My squad leader was there.”
“Humvees, IEDs. We sorta got hosed,” said Grant.
Hosed indeed. Tyler J. Mayfield had been one among the ten soldiers in their company killed by IEDs. Grant stifled a shudder at the thought. He shrugged his shoulders and grimaced.
“Still. Nothing like Afghanistan. Seems like a different can of worms altogether over there.”
“I guess. At least it’s not all IEDs. We get to let loose some rounds. There are some IEDs—and fuckin’ landmines—but The Taliban stands up and fights, too. Fun sometimes, no lie,” said Hernandez.
The corners of his mouth turned up in an involuntary smile, an expression that Grant knew well. “It’s the most fun you never want to have again.”
Grant nodded slowly as he listened, and his chest tightened as he remembered the exhilaration brought on by the noise and intensity of a firefight.
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” he said. “Rules of engagement were like in the Wild West when I was over there. Craziness.” He shook his head. “Heard it’s a hell of a lot different now.”
“We deal with some nonsense,” Hernandez nodded.
They strode along, maneuvering through the crowd as they followed the signs to Concourse B. Their eyes darted around the clusters of passengers, both of their heads on swivels. Grant wondered if Hernandez was resisting the urge to walk backwards a few steps and check his rear, as if he was on a foot patrol. It had taken Grant a while to get over that habit.
“I’m Grant, by the way. So, where you from?” he said.
“Hernandez.” The soldier chuckled as he pointed at his name tape. “I’m from just outside of Eerie. That puddle jumper reminded me of a Chinook, know what I’m sayin’? Rough ride. What about you?”
“Down in West Virginia. It’s always cheaper to fly out of here,” said Grant.
“Cool. Guy in my platoon is from Morgantown. He ain’t a hillbilly but he can shoot.”
“Sounds about right. You’re on your way back, huh?”
“Yeah,” said Hernandez with a muffled sigh and a nod.
Grant did not look at the soldier’s face. He didn’t want to see the pained look. “Cheese fries, huh?”
“Yup. All the guys told me to get whatever I’d miss on the way back.”
Grant smiled. “I did the same,” he said.
Finally, he saw the sign for The Burgh Sports Bar opposite a cluster of queued passengers. “This place is right up here, man.”
“Sweet,” said Hernandez.
Grant stopped. “Well, my gate’s just back there. So, yeah. Enjoy those cheese fries, man. And…well…” he scratched his head and cleared his throat as Hernandez faced him. “Take care. And keep an eye out. All that shit. You know.”
His words were hesitant and stilted. He tried to smile but grimaced instead, feeling the heat in his face.
“Yeah brother, for sure. We try. Thanks,” said Hernandez, extending his hand.
Grant frowned at the word “brother.” He didn’t consider himself worthy of the title, having not re-enlisted after his tour in Iraq. Had he done so, he’d still be able to call himself a brother to those still in the fight.
As he gripped the soldier’s palm, Grant felt the calluses born of digging and shooting, of cleaning weapons more than hands, of not caring about eating a little dirt.
“Least I could do, man,” he said. “Really. Stay safe.”
Hernandez gave Grant a nod and walked towards the bar, where his cheese fries and eventually the rest of his war awaited him.
Grant turned to make his own way through the concourse, blinking back tears. He had someone to go see. Someone who’d shared his war, but not the life after. Someone who’d always be a brother.
✽ ✽ ✽
David P. Ervin is an infantry veteran of the Iraq War who went on to study history at West Virginia University, earning a Bachelor of Arts in 2009. He wrote and published a memoir of his time in war as well as numerous short nonfiction and fiction works.