Shrapnel

by Chivas Sandage Read author interview March 15, 2006
story art

Over a decade after his return from Vietnam, shrapnel still surfaced—sometimes mere slivers, like splinters, while other times larger shards—pushing against the barrier of his skin from the inside. Always ready to play nurse and fearless when it came to blood, my stepmother Charlene didn’t hesitate when Dad grimaced, saying he could feel it pressing again. She collected two different tweezers, a sewing needle and alcohol from the bathroom medicine cabinet before he even had a chance to fix himself another drink.

“I think she actually enjoys this. I swear, there’s a nurse inside that secretary.” Dad took off his aviator’s glasses to clean them with the bottom of his t-shirt.

“Nurse, my ass! There’s a jazz singer—that’s what there is,” Charlene said, sitting next to him. The three of us had been hanging out on their queen bed, Dad in-between, watching the six o’clock news before we were to head out for dinner. The TV silently glowed—Dad had turned the volume down after a piece about Saddam Hussein declaring a holy war against Iran.

“Ah yes, that’s right, forgive me. What we have here is Liza Minelli and Nurse Ratchet all wrapped up in one.”

“If I were you, I wouldn’t mess with a woman who has a needle in her hand,” I said.

“Yeah, watch out, you. I just might get the scissors and cut that hair of yours, while I’m at it. Lane, there’s a flashlight next to you on the night table. Hold it so your dad doesn’t have to for once.”

“Can I get another drink before you open me up? Isn’t a little anesthesia indicated?” Dad gave us a sly, sweet smile.

“Haven’t you already had enough pain killers, sir?” Charlene swabbed at Dad’s leg with a cotton ball. “Oh hell, I guess an incision deserves a little extra.” Charlene disappeared into the kitchen, the door swinging behind her with a creak. I could smell the rubbing alcohol, as well as the vodka on Dad’s breath. I grabbed the flashlight and reluctantly lit Dad’s right hand—missing half its index finger—a hand that was busy petting Hemingway, his gray Persian cat curled in a ball.

Charlene returned with a short glass full of ice and what looked like water, handing it to him impatiently.

“Thanks, love.” His hand stopped petting the cat and lay flat while he took a sip.

I directed the beam where Charlene was starting to work. I did not want to hold the light, didn’t want to illuminate the dark blue-black spots, like little bruises. Yet, another part of me wanted to know everything I could about this man I’d met, again, just three years before, when I was thirteen. The metal under his skin was part of Vietnam. I learned that word shortly after learning “divorce.” The two words were linked—mysterious and dangerous. Back then, I felt them as the hot fear in my veins, followed by a heaviness in my stomach, then an emptiness I could not name.

Dad winced. “Relentless—isn’t she?” He tilted his head in Charlene’s direction.

“So, you guys do this often. This should be a scene in your book, Dad.” I knew he had cryptic notes, maybe even a manuscript, hidden away in suitcases.

“What book?” He was half holding his breath as Charlene worked her needle into him. I shifted my position, carefully moving to the other side of Hemingway without disturbing him, Charlene’s prodding needle or the tension in the air.

“Don’t move. I’ve just about got it.” Charlene’s tweezers were trying to grasp what looked like a thin, dark seed under his skin. She was good; there was only a single drop of blood so far. The silver prongs formed a tiny jaw working to bite something it just could not grip.

When Dad first told me of the book he wanted to write, about his stint as combat-photographer in Nam, I had believed him—that he would do it. I thought that book would unlock him, heal him. Beneath that, I wanted to know why he enlisted in Vietnam, and soon after, put himself in danger once again by showing up with three cameras in the middle of Belfast’s civil war. Or, why he disappeared for most of my childhood.

“Dad, about the book on Nam, didn’t you say—you didn’t want to write it, but you had to?

Charlene grabbed the other tweezers with a sharper point.

Dad stopped petting Hemingway and looked at me as if measuring something: his bottom jaw shifted into a slightly tense, mocking grin—that infamous clenched smile of his. As he weighed his audience, he seemed to taste something bitter.

“Yeah. I remember those words. I guess—to be honest with you—I’m just starting to wonder if I have to. Or if I have it in me,” he said, staring at me straight on before taking a sip of his drink. My eyes followed the beam of light, making sure it was steady and focused at just the right angle. Charlene held a bloody edge. The screen’s flickering strobe lit a small fragment of metal shell. I still blamed Vietnam for taking my father, just as I had as a child—even though the war gave him back. Yet, some part of my father was still there, just as Nam was still inside of him.

“Can I have it?” I heard myself ask.

They both turned and stared at me, blank-faced, as if I were a stranger—and I was.

About the Author:

Chivas Sandage's work has appeared in Artful Dodge, Evergreen Review, Ms. Magazine, Verse, Manthology: Poems on the Male Experience (Univ. of Iowa Press, ‘06) and Same-Sex Marriage: The Moral and Legal Debate (Prometheus Books, ‘04). She holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College and a BA from Bennington College.