Even today Ricky is wearing long sleeves, though these are the three-quarter kind that end just before his wrists. It’s hot—the thermometer on the bank flashes 85 between the time and the interest rates. Very hot for early May in Virginia. And I can tell Ricky’s feeling it. Sweat has gathered on back of his shirt, turning it a darker gray. I see it and think of a Rorschach test. I see a dragon breathing fire. I wonder what Ricky would say if he could see it.
He turns as I pull on the door and tips his beer to me. As he does, I can see the jagged scars in his arms, twisting like dry riverbeds in a forgotten canyon. I look up to his face. Ricky says hey, and I hey back.
Saturdays at the 7-11 are what Friday nights at the VFW once were, a chance for townsfolk to gather and gossip and try their hand at lady luck. The lottery has replaced bingo, it promising a larger if more far-fetched payoff in tough times. Me, I’m not here to play the lottery. The kids just wanted Slurpees.
I stand in line waiting my turn, my eyes moving from the people around me to Ricky outside. He’s still leaning against his old Ford truck, still talking to Ralphie Cousins and Ernie Lambert, two local farmers. Ricky nods as he’s told all this rain’s good but it better slack off soon so fields can be dried out and planted. He nods, but I wonder if he’s really listening. Ricky’s not into farming. To hear him say it, he’s “Semi-retired.” That’s okay. I expect he deserves a bit of rest.
The cashier rings up my Slurpees (plus a newspaper, some beef jerky, and a can of Skoal) and tells me to have a good ’un. Ricky’s finishing the last of his beer as I push through the door. Ralphie and Ernie have retreated to their trucks.
“Hey man,” he says. He tosses the empty can into the bed of the Ford. “What’s up?”
“Slurpee run,” I tell him. “You?”
He nods and scratches at a canyon in his arm. Ricky says it still itches and likely always will. The beer helps. He says that, too. But then he’ll say he reckons the beer is like a Band-Aid over a mortal wound.
“Runnin’ around,” Ricky says. He scratches again, this time higher up on his arm, and when he does the sleeve rises a good two inches. A knot forms in my stomach at the sight. “Pretty day.”
“It is. You doin’ okay?”
“Yeah.” Ricky smiles as he says it. The knot in my stomach loosens, and I smile back. There was a time not long ago when most folks thought he’d never smile again, and for good reason. Not me. I knew he would.
He looks out over the mountains, the budding trees, the flowers across the street. He asks, “Know what got me through over there? Memory. All that sand, all that…tan. Everything’s tan, you know. Just the dirtiest, saddest tan you can imagine. I just kept remembering these blue mountains and green grass. Got me through.” Ricky reaches for another can, holds it, then puts it back. I can almost hear his thoughts—Just a Band-Aid. “Thought about them when they’s putting me back together, too. Memory. Folks say they’d like to forget a lot of things, but not me. Remembering’s important.” He looks at me and says, “We’re all a story, you know that?”
“I do,” I tell him.
Ricky scratches again and says he should be going, that there’s grass to cut. Ricky loves cutting the grass. Loves the smell. A year in Afghanistan makes you miss little things like the smell of a fresh-cut lawn.
I take my Slurpees and head to the truck. Ricky waves as he pulls away, his sleeve now caught by the wind, pushing it up to near the shoulder. The IED killed three in his squad and nearly Ricky himself. It took the doctors nearly three hours to put his body back together. It’ll take longer with his heart and his mind.
Ricky said they offered to do plastic surgery on the scars that litter his arms. He said no. Leave them. The doctors didn’t understand that. I do.
Because the truth? Ricky’s memories will always be with him, just like ours will always be with us. They’re like those empty cans rattling around in the bed of his truck, always following him. The good and the bad.