AWAKENING MACBETH, Part 10: Resilience in the dark
The story so far: The death of her father left University of Virginia professor Brodie Macbeth with $4 million, the requirement to use his vanity license plates for life, and terrible nightmares. En route to Edinburgh to deliver a painting to her aunt, she meets Joe Birnam, owner of a carpentry company called Birnam Wood. Part 10 opens with Joe and Brodie strolling after a dinner marred by her near-breakdown over her father’s suicide.
Brodie felt her equilibrium return as they walked. The hills were the sort peculiar to Scotland. They gave her the feeling of embracing enclosure and open freedom at the same time.
“A little better?” Joe asked.
“How’s your mom handling it?”
“She died when I was just a year old,” Brodie said. “I’m a thirty-six year old orphan. My aunt is the only family I have left.”
“You and your dad must have been close.”
“Yes. No. Sort of. He didn’t like to get too close to other people. Mostly we were colleagues. He was my department head.”
They walked on. Here and there, Brodie saw sheep or horses grazing, and the coil of a stone wall.
“I know a little about loss,” Joe said into the crisp night air. “Tell me if I’m right. First there’s disbelief, then a sort of negotiation. You know, I’ll donate to charity and be a better person if you make this not be true, God.”
“That’s right,” Brodie said quietly. “But it doesn’t work.”
“No, it doesn’t.” Joe’s voice was quiet, too. “So then there’s anger. The why did you leave me sort of anger. And only after the anger’s done can there be grief. That’s when the healing starts. Eventually there’s acceptance.”
“I can’t get mad at Dad,” Brodie said, surprising herself. “He had a goofy will, and I was mad at that, but to get mad at him . . .” She trailed off. The path rose gently and their pace slowed. There was no one else around.
“Ah,” Joe said. “Maybe you’re in the how the hell am I going to cope with this phase.”
“You might have something there,” Brodie said. Joe Birnam was opening a door she’d tried to keep closed but she couldn’t stop herself from walking through. “I just want it to go away so I don’t have to cope with anything.”
“Not wanting to but doing it anyway is the definition of courage,” Joe said. His hands were in his pockets and he looked big and solid and reassuring in the suede barn coat.
“I don’t have any more courage,” Brodie said simply.
“Sure you do,” he said.
“I lost a war I didn’t even know I was fighting,” Brodie heard herself say. “I should have known he was depressed. We worked together. Had dinner every week. I should have known him better.”
“Maybe,” Joe said. “But those guessing games never get you anywhere, believe me.”
“I know. There aren’t any good answers but I can’t stop asking questions.” Brodie didn’t have the strength to pretend otherwise with this man the way she’d been able to with Diana and Kay and everyone else. For some reason she didn’t understand, her defenses were gone tonight. She just wanted to put her face against Joe Birnam’s chest and sob until she was exhausted and fell asleep.
“Hey.” Joe stopped walking. “Let yourself grieve. You’ll heal. You’re pretty resilient.”
“Resilient?” Brodie stopped walking, too. “How do you know? You’ve just met me.”
Joe turned so they were facing each other. “There’s steel in your eyes,” he said.
Brodie looked down and shrugged. “So I have gray eyes.”
“Listen to me.” Joe reached out and tipped her chin up. His fingers were work-calloused but his touch was very gentle. “This is an old Marine gunnery sergeant talking. At times my life depended on knowing who could suck it up and keep going and who couldn’t. When things get bad and there’s fear in everybody’s eyes, there’s always a few who’ve got that something extra that says the fear isn’t going to get them. You’ve got that look.”
Brodie found herself caught by the force of his expression.
“You’re serious,” she murmured.
“Yes, I am,” Joe said and dropped his hand. “I think you’re made of some pretty stern stuff. But your father betrayed the trust between you. Maybe you need to let yourself get mad at him for that.”
Brodie bit her lip. Joe was the first person to put it so succinctly and it pried open a floodgate of emotion. She found herself nearly overcome, barely able to nod. She started walking again.
“Something like this you have to take one day at a time,” Joe said, keeping pace. “There’ll be good days and bad days but after awhile you’ll find that there are more good than bad. One day you’ll wake up not expecting it to be a bad day. It’s just another day. That’s when you know you’ll make it.”
“I hope you’re right,” Brodie said shakily.
“Trust me,” Joe said. “I am.”
The hills rolled away from the path. The sun was a glorious ball of flame sinking below the rim of the hills. The Dingerhoy hotel was far behind them now, the sounds of the wedding muted by the lush landscape.
Joe walked slowly, his hands by his sides. His gait was awkward as they started up another gentle incline.
“Still cramped from the flight?” Brodie asked.
“What?” He looked down at her.
“You seem to be limping,” she said.
Joe halted. “I’m wearing a prosthetic.”
Brodie stopped walking, too, not understanding what he meant. “I’m sorry?”
“A prosthetic,” Joe repeated. There was tension and unease in his eyes.
Brodie gave her head a tiny shake, still not getting it.
Joe reached down and raised his left pant leg high enough for Brodie to see that there was a slim metal pole instead of an ankle.
“Oh,” Brodie said.
He let go of the corduroy and straightened up.
Brodie put out a hand and touched his arm. “Iraq?”
“When?” she asked softly.
“Five years, nine months, two weeks, and some odd days ago,” Joe said. “Lost the leg above the knee.”
“Will you tell me how it happened?”
He blinked, evidently surprised, then nodded and they started walking again, the air cool and damp around them. Joe tucked his hands in the pockets of the barn coat. The hills were closing in on them, throwing dark night shadows across the path. Brodie couldn’t see his face.
“My second tour in Al Anbar,” he said after awhile. “I took an IED. We were running a supply convoy to a fire base. I saw a dead animal in the road and swerved. It still detonated.”
“The Hummer flipped,” Joe went on. “The guys got me out and the convoy formed up and had a nice little firefight. Luckily we had a Navy medic with our unit. Good friend of mine. Trey Morales. He got a tourniquet on what was left of my leg and kept me from bleeding out. Saved my life.”
“You remember it?” Brodie asked.
“Yes. I never even lost consciousness.” Joe was walking straight ahead, not looking at Brodie. “We’d been going through this crummy little village. Just a couple of cement hovels, really, and blam, the Hummer’s crapping apart and on fire. Then I’m propped up against a wall and I know my leg is gone. I remember it seemed really important to tell Trey that I knew the leg was gone as if he wouldn’t notice it otherwise. He’s telling me, I’ve got you, man, I’ve got you. He’s doing two things at once; getting a tourniquet on what’s left of my leg and putting out the fire. I’m smoking. I mean I’m on fire. I remember seeing the smoke and being confused because it was as if I was a piece of meat on a barbecue spit.”
Brodie focused on breathing. He was telling her this horrible story so simply, so plainly. There was no self-pity, no hopelessness, just the same wry humor that he’d shown before.
“It was because I was wearing synthetic compression shorts. After me they said nobody could wear them. Because when they catch on fire they melt your skin.” He paused. They walked a little further. The twilight darkened around them before Joe spoke again.
“Trey manages to put out the fire but the next problem is that there’s this old Iraqi guy running at us. Right through the middle of what had been the town square, I guess.” Joe rumpled a big hand through his hair, making the cross below the sapphire dangle. “He’s got the long robe on and a turban but he’s got a rifle. He’s running right at us, through the middle of the firefight. Crazy screaming Yaw, Yaw, at us and Carson, my corporal, shoots him. I’ll never forget that moment. It’s hot as hell, the Hummer’s on fire. Trey is swearing under his breath, trying to get the tourniquet to tighten down on my thigh, I’m stinking like blood and charred meat, the noise of the firefight is deafening, and this guy is screaming Yaw, Yaw like a banshee. Then the chopper came and five minutes later I was at an aid station. I never saw Trey again. Never got to tell him thanks for saving my life.”
“What happened to him?” Brodie asked, knowing the answer.
“He was killed by a sniper a week later,” Joe said. He looked away from Brodie and she could see he had trouble talking about this part. “He’s buried at Arlington.”
“I’m sorry,” Brodie said. “You two were close.”
“You make friends differently in those circumstances,” Joe said. “A wartime buddy knows you like no one else ever will. You can catch their eye in the middle of hell and you know what they’re thinking and they know you. You keep each other strong.”
“Did you negotiate?” Brodie asked. “Get mad before the grief?”
“I was willing to bargain my soul,” Joe said. “I would have given anything to make the news of his death a mistake. And then I was mad as hell at him for leaving me just when I’d lost a leg and needed him. He’d saved my life and then disappeared. I was stuck alone with too many bad memories.”
The path ended in a stone wall marking the boundary between the DIngerhoy and an adjoining farm. They drifted to the stone and both were surprised to find they’d been walking with Brodie’s hand resting in the crook of Joe’s elbow. They separated slowly and leaned against the wall.
“Do you have flashbacks?” Brodie asked.
“Nightmares once in awhile,” Joe admitted, staring out at the hillside where some sheep were still grazing. It was truly dark now and their wool was like white smudges on a dark background. “I’m back in that shitty little town and the old guy is running at us. Screaming words I don’t understand. Other times I wake up totally surprised. Hey, I’m missing a leg. What the hell?”
Brodie gave a tiny shiver.
“I haven’t talked this much about it in a long time,” Joe said. “It actually feels kind of good.”
“What’s the hardest thing to deal with?” Brodie asked, feeling like he was inviting her into a place many did not go.
“Telling beautiful women,” Joe said, with that now familiar wry grin and sidelong look.
Brodie flushed and shook her head.
“Okay,” he said. “Not standing up in the shower.”
“Yes,” Joe said simply. “You have to accommodate the simplest things. But it’s easier now. When I was in the hospital it took me awhile to realize what I was going to have to do, how I was going to have to live from now on. Damn, I was angry. I mean really angry. But one day I realized that no matter how I felt about it I was still going to be a one-legged man. I could be an angry and useless one-legged man, or I could be the best one-legged man there was.”
“Not many people have the strength to think like that,” Brodie said. Her own loss seemed puny compared to what Joe had been through.
“I’m not the only one,” Joe said. “But I think I was luckier than most. No brain injury. The rehab center had a pool. I’d always been a good swimmer and as soon as I could stand the pain I was doing laps. It kept me in shape, got the swelling down. I still swim a couple times a week. Play water polo.”
“So.” Brodie looked at his profile; strong jaw, trim beard, high forehead. “Then you retired from the Marine Corps?”
“No.” Joe bent and rested his elbows on the stone wall. He stared at the hills in the distance. “No, I went back to Iraq.”
“You went back?” Brodie nearly fell over in shock. “What are you, made of iron?”
“Titanium, actually.” Joe gave her another rueful smile and shrugged. “Maybe I needed to prove to myself that I was still the same as before but the point was that I was still a Marine. I’d passed all the tests; I could still do my job. And they needed unattached guys like me in Iraq.” He paused. “I’m divorced. Brief marriage a long time ago. No kids. It was easier for somebody like me than for somebody worried about his family falling apart back home.”
“So you went back to Iraq.”
“Yes. Pulled a third hitch and saw enough dead bodies to last me a lifetime.
He stopped talking and they watched a shadowy figure on the hillside with the sheep. The fluffy smudges of white followed the figure toward the other side of the hill and disappeared over the crest.
“I think you are the bravest person I’ve ever met,” Brodie said honestly.
Joe exhaled heavily. “I won the Silver Star my last tour in Iraq and the news people made a big deal out of it. You know, one legged Marine able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Suddenly I was assigned some phony job at the Pentagon where they could show me off.”
Brodie nodded again. She could imagine the public relations coup he represented; he’d pulled three combat hitches, won a major medal, lost a leg and still looked like a recruitment poster. “That wasn’t what you wanted, I take it.”
“It gave me a good excuse for retiring,” Joe said. “After twenty-two years it was time to do something else so now I’m a carpenter.”
“I didn’t know the Marine Corps taught people how to be carpenters,” Brodie said, trying to coax out one of those sideways smiles.
Joe looked at her as if he knew what she was trying to do and a corner of his mouth lifted. “My parents bought this old house in Old Forge, New York when my older brother was born,” he said. “We’d visit there every summer from wherever we were and Dad would build another room onto it. When we kids got older we helped. A real circus but we actually did pretty well out of it. I learned how to build things. My older brother Brian became an architect and my younger sister Rosemary is a nurse. You can guess why.”
Brodie imagined the Birnam tribe; Mom and Dad showing their kids the world but bringing them home every summer to a place where they built something together. “It sounds wonderful.”
“Surprisingly, the place is still standing. Mom and Dad retired there.”
“But you didn’t?”
“No,” Joe said. He looked out toward the hills again. “I was a 40-year-old one-legged man who’d never lived by his own rules. I enlisted when I was eighteen and had either lived by my parents’ rules or the Marine Corps’ my entire life. I had to prove to myself I could live on my own terms.” He turned to Brodie and leaned against the low stone wall. “I suppose that sounds pretty foolish, doesn’t it?”
“No,” Brodie said. She balled her fists on the top of the wall. “I know exactly what you mean. All my life it’s been my father’s rules or the University’s rules. Sometimes living in Charlottesville is like living in a box.”
“Don’t get me wrong. Charlottesville was a wonderful place to grow up. There’s mountains and the house . . . the university. It’s meant a lot to me over the years to be part of it. But now . . . after . . .” Brodie started floundering and shook her head. “Since my father died . . . it’s like the box is closing in.”
“Maybe it’s time to do something else.”
“I have tenure,” Brodie said helplessly. She rubbed a fist against the rough stone on the top of the wall. “Once upon a time it seemed like that was all I’d ever want. But it was just a trap in disguise.”
They stood by the low wall for a long time, not speaking, the darkness deepening. Their shoulders touched and neither moved away.
“Tell me about resilience,” Brodie finally said. “Say you weren’t just humoring me back there.”
“No, I wasn’t,” Joe said. “I told you. There’s steel in your soul. I can see it in your eyes. You’re going to face each day one at a time until there are more good ones than bad ones.”
“Is that what you did?”
“Was today a good day?” Brodie asked softly.
“Yes,” Joe said. “Today was a very good day.”
They smiled at each other, very close together. Brodie’s heart thumped and she willed him to come even closer, to put his arms around her and hold her hard against his chest.
“I think I mentioned I’m a bachelor,” Joe said. He reached out and pulled up the collar of Brodie’s trench coat, protecting her against the cool night air. “What about you? Is there anyone in your life right now?”
Brodie’s thoughts slurred into slow motion as his eyes searched hers in the darkness. She and Stanton were over and had been for months but there hadn’t been any closure. It was a technicality but it was there and she knew she’d never be able to lie to Joe Birnam.
“Ah,” Joe said into the silence.
“Another professor at the university,” Brodie said unhappily.
“Been together a long time?”
“About three years,” Brodie said. “But our relationship was . . . is . . . at a crossroads right now.”
“Well,” said Joe. “I hope it works out the way you want it to.”
“Thank you,” Brodie said, feeling wretched.
“Shall we walk back now?” Joe asked.
And just like that the evening was over.
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I’m the author of THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY and the Detective Emilia Cruz mysteries set in Acapulco including CLIFF DIVER, HAT DANCE, and DIABLO NIGHTS, all available on Amazon.