Rules of Engagement
Heather Lee Schroeder, MFA
Guppy’s right leg doesn’t work properly anymore, so Annie rides shotgun on a folding chair as they troll the neighborhoods for kids. The tinkle of the music piped through the bullhorns on the front of the truck—a high-pitched, upbeat tune, generic but catchy—doesn’t grate on Annie anymore. She doesn’t even really hear it now, although she caught herself humming the tune before bed last night. This is her twentieth day on patrol, and she has grown accustomed to the sound and to hanging onto the dashboard and staying upright in her folding chair. She has mastered the trick of not sliding out the maw of the open passenger door when Guppy takes an especially angry turn, and she feels proud of this small accomplishment.
“Screw you, lady,” Guppy says from his perch on the driver’s seat. He flips the bird to the woman in the Nissan Sentra in front of them.
Guppy’s new attitude is encompassed by anger. At first Annie thought his rage had a single hue, but over time, she has begun to recognize its shades. Guppy’s moods embody nuance. Sometimes he offers her playful rage—a sarcastic, cutting comment that harkens back to better times or a light punch that’s meant to express a gradient of fury—but other times, like today, his mood settles into a monochromatic seething. Guppy frightens Annie when he descends into this place. She thinks of him as Post-Tour Guppy or Apocalypse-Now Guppy instead of Funny Guppy or Hungry Guppy or Beloved Big Brother Guppy.
Annie thinks she can remember a time when Guppy laughed at their father’s jokes and bellowed her name to call her to dinner. She’s certain there was a time when he was friendly, not furious at all the tiny slights the world delivers in incremental doses day after day. But she is 17, and she was only nine when Guppy first left for boot camp, hyped up on testosterone and patriotic fever. Her recollections of him replay, fuzzy and indistinct, wrapped up in slow-motion footage of the Twin Towers crumbling and her teacher’s face puddling into disbelief, never recomposing into something serene again.
The new Guppy, the returned Guppy, offers bullying silences and explosive outbursts. Annie’s mother’s friends refer to him as a hero, but Annie finds the prospect of living with this Guppy for the next year until she graduates—until her escape to college—terrifying. Worse still, she has been shackled to her brother by sisterly duty and her mother’s guilt. Instead of spending the best days of her summer between junior and senior year—the only one! The special one!—lazing by the pool with her friends before she goes to her job as a waitress at the Gun Club five nights a week, she rides with Guppy in his ice cream truck, pretending everything is normal and that every 17-year-old girl shadows her 26-year-old brother around town to make sure that he does his job properly and that he doesn’t get fired again or try, God forbid, to strangle some young mother and her child to death.
“Guppy, slow down,” Annie says. He shoots her a furious look, one filled with murderous intent. He curls his lip a tiny bit. Annie knows this lip curl serves as a prelude to an outburst, a dressing down, a soldier-you-had-better-watch-yourself moment. It may come now or later, but it’s coming—a bad bank of clouds moving into the space between them. She grips the dashboard more firmly and wishes she had remembered to play along in his private game.
Guppy makes a fast turn into a shady middle-class suburban neighborhood, excellent hunting grounds for mothers with money who want their kids happy even for a moment, calories and grams of sugar notwithstanding. Annie wishes the day were over, that she was in her uniform taking down the orders of elderly Gun Club patrons. Whiskey on the rocks, apricot brandy stone sours, Miller on tap. If she could get away with it, she would sip from all of those drinks and more. If she thought her dad wouldn’t miss the Glenlivet from its hiding place behind the flour in the pantry, she would take long appreciative sips directly from the bottle to numb the pain of babysitting Guppy through these lazy summer days.
The sign at the front pillars of the subdivision says “Wedgewood,” like her grandmother’s china. Annie wonders if the people living here are as fussy as her grandmother. Guppy reaches down and turns up the volume on the music. Its tinny insistent notes tumble out into the August heat. He is going too fast, though, Annie knows. Even if a kid did hear them and decide to get a treat, their truck would be halfway down the next block before the kid got to the sidewalk. She wonders if she should risk telling Guppy that. She wonders if she should let go of her grip on the dashboard and let her chair slide toward the open door and into oblivion.
Annie’s job is to watch for customers. She has trained her eyes to wander out ahead of the ice cream truck to look for heads poking out of fenced backyards or bodies emerging from front doors. When Guppy gave her the assignment, as he called it, he said, “Listen soldier, you’re our best defense against the enemy. You gotta keep your eyes peeled, OK?”
“Yes, Sir!” she had replied because to do otherwise was to risk a fight. It’s easier to play Army with Guppy. The VA doctors have said the family shouldn’t indulge the fantasies even if it is easier, and her parents are good about cajoling Guppy back to reality. Annie, though, spends eight hours a day with Gup, and she has grown weary of pretending that he is normal. It’s much easier to go along with him and imagine that she’s a soldier on patrol in Afghanistan. She isn’t entirely sure how the hallucinations play out for him. She has an idea, though. The ice cream truck is a Humvee, and she’s a fellow soldier. They are on patrol, in the streets of Kabul, and the Taliban is everywhere.
Guppy and Annie have entered enemy territory, and he reaches down and pats his hip. He is checking for his sidearm, Annie knows; but Guppy isn’t allowed to carry a gun anymore, not after he shot the windows out of their neighbor’s garage while sitting on the patio. Their parents have locked up all the guns and hidden the key to the gun cabinet. Guppy lifts his foot off the gas and lets the truck decelerate. Annie sees a customer on the sidewalk—a small boy who waves a dollar bill at them. The kid’s mother stands on the front porch, her arms folded with an indulgent smile on her face. “Sir, I see someone ahead,” Annie says. “Small boy, three o’clock.” She has learned Army-speak, the clipped sentences full of meaning and import, the shorthand for geography. Guppy’s fantasies require these details. If she fails to add them, he grows sullen and uncommunicative. If she forgets her role, she pays.
Guppy touches the brakes with his good left foot. The truck lurches a little and slows. Annie’s chair slips backward and then forward. She can see the pavement, gritty and sticky-looking in the heat. Folding chairs are so fragile, tiny sticks of metal held together by single screws. She has examined those screws since taking on her brother’s care. So little holds her in place in the cavernous front bubble of the ice cream truck. Annie isn’t even sure why the passenger side doesn’t have a door. She imagines it’s because it’s easier for the driver to swing down and deliver ice cream to the customers, but it’s a terrible idea in practice.
Annie’s other job is to serve the customers. It wasn’t back when they started because, in theory, the job belongs to Guppy; but his dealings with the kids and their parents border on explosive. On good days, he is uncommunicative but still sells the ice cream. On the worst days, he can’t be trusted to distinguish reality from fantasy. The doctors have fancy names for his condition. They call it a TBI, traumatic brain injury, with PTSD symptoms. Annie has never said it in front of her parents, but she thinks that what’s really happened is that a permanent Apocalypse Now loop plays in Guppy’s brain. The doctors can call it whatever they want, but she knows that Guppy is lost, most days, in a fog of war.
Annie has done a lot of reading about Afghanistan since Guppy returned in January. She can recite the particulars of various incursions. She knows the names of the commanders on the ground. She has an opinion about pulling out, but most of all, she has an opinion about soldiers like Guppy.
Guppy pulls the truck up to the curb, parking it about 10 feet from where the boy stands. Annie knows this is a deliberate tactical move on his part. He scans the area around them, taking in, she knows, the shrubs that could hide enemy fire and the car that has just turned onto the street some half a block ahead. He pushes the shifter into neutral and turns the music down.
“Foster, I want you to use your fucking brain out there,” he says to Annie. “Call for backup if you need it.”
“I will, sir,” Annie says. She unfolds herself from the chair and uses the grip bar at the passenger door to swing down to the pavement.
“Check your weapon, soldier,” Guppy shouts after her. Annie hopes the mother hasn’t heard, but the woman has already stepped off the porch and is walking toward the truck. Her posture radiates wariness, and she picks up her pace when her son runs toward the truck. Annie prays Guppy will contain himself. She wonders if she should have tried to break through to a furious but lucid Guppy. Too late now.
When Guppy returned from Afghanistan after his third tour, he was withdrawn and distant. He had earned a coveted Christmas leave, and her parents had picked him up from the airport with their father wearing the Santa Claus hat he had always worn when they were kids and he was passing out gifts. Annie was shocked when she saw how gaunt Guppy had become, his cheekbones prominent points against his tanned skin. His shoulders were larger, and his chest strained against his shirt; but the rest of him looked depleted, as if some essential part of him had evacuated his body.
“What are they feeding you?” their father had asked as he pressed Guppy’s hand in a handshake. Their mother had buzzed around the edges of the embrace, had touched Guppy’s arm longingly. Annie hung back, hoping her brother would look up and catch her eye to share an oh-God moment with her, but he had kept his gaze fixed above their dad’s head and had answered respectfully.
This soldier—so correct and perfunctory—was not her brother, Annie decided. She had looked back at the gate, trying to see if the real Guppy would emerge, grinning and sandblasted by the sun. She was 14, and sometimes she still engaged in fantasies of that sort. The not-Guppy had carried an oversized duffle with a tag that read Cpl. George Foster, had gotten into the car with them, had eaten his favorite, turkey meatloaf with twice-bakers, had carried on an empty conversation with them at the table, and had excused himself after dinner to chain smoke on the back patio. Annie did the dinner dishes and watched him through the window over the sink. He looked like her brother, but she was certain he wasn’t. When the dishes were finished, she had slipped through the patio door to stand next to him. The smoke of his cigarettes smelled delicious to Annie, not that she wanted to take up the habit. She had seen the public service announcements featuring wizened old people who had to talk using a special gadget against their throats. She knew the risks.
“You shouldn’t smoke,” she had said. “It’s the number one cause of lung cancer.”
Guppy shook his head and blew smoke out of the side of his mouth, away from her face. “It’s a habit a lot of guys pick up.” He shrugged. “I held out for as long as I could, but in the end, I got hooked.”
“Why?” She asked the question not knowing if she meant the cigarettes or something else, an unnameable feeling, that stretched between them, intangible but thick.
“I needed a hobby,” he said, and he bent down to grind out the cigarette on the patio stones. He cupped the butt in his hand.
“I thought being stationed in a war zone was supposed to be exciting,” Annie said. “Aren’t the insurgents making bombs and stuff?”
“Did they tell you that in school?” he asked.
She raised one shoulder and looked away. “I don’t know. I heard it somewhere.”
“War is boring. You have too much time to think about what you’ve done. If there’s one thing you need to know, it’s that,” he said, and he turned toward the patio door. “I’m going to bed. Long day.”
During the visit, she had tried to find a time to ask Guppy why war was boring, but the opportunity never presented itself. Between opening gifts and rushing from party to party, they never had a chance to be alone again. She had wanted to explain how her history teacher, who drove a Saab with a bumper sticker that said “I support our troops, not the war,” always made the various wars they had studied sound incredibly interesting. The teacher had a way of talking about the battles and the strategy that kept Annie and all of her classmates raptly engaged. She had wanted to ask Guppy how he really spent his days if not in intense strategy meetings designed to rout the enemy. Most of all, she had wanted to apologize if she’d pissed him off as she had surely done since he had avoided her and had only paid her polite but distant treatment after that night. She had thought she would have a chance to set the record straight when he returned from his fourth tour, but things had worked out differently than everyone had planned.
“Foster? You there?” Guppy says. “Check in, soldier.”
Annie has stepped around the side of the truck, slightly out of Guppy’s line of sight. The mother grabs her son’s hand to stop his headlong flight toward the truck. Annie keeps her hands in front of her, slightly open and hanging down. She wants the woman to see she doesn’t have a weapon, that she’s not a pedophile intent on kidnapping the child or a murderer with a gun. She wishes that Guppy’s dialogue wasn’t, as she’d heard her father say to her mother recently, a “grotesque parody of soldier-speak.” That pretty much sums it up, but there’s no hope of changing it right now. Guppy is lost in his head. He’s lost in the streets of Kabul.
This is the part of the hallucination Annie hasn’t quite figured out yet, the part where something terrible happens. Only Guppy knows what that terrible thing looks like or feels like or sounds like; and it doesn’t always come. Often they are on a routine mission. Most days everything goes fine. The danger—whatever it is—stays on periphery of the scene in Guppy’s mind. Annie thinks that if she could figure out what Guppy sees that gets him going, she could be the one to cure him. She envisions how Guppy’s VA doctors would thank her for her help. It’s stupid, she knows, to imagine that, because those doctors treat her like she’s an idiot, an accessory to her brother’s formerly normal life. The doctors have told her parents that no one can unlock the puzzle in Guppy’s head but Guppy himself, and he’s not ready to do that just yet. That’s a function, they say, of the PTSD and of the brain injury—all those “deficits in social judgment” and all the breaks from reality. Annie thinks the doctors have their heads up their asses, but perhaps, come to think of it, that’s her own deficit in social judgment.
“I’m here, sir,” she says. “Observing the situation.”
Annie isn’t sure if that’s how soldiers speak to one another, but she has heard the line in a movie. She uses it regularly. She nods at the woman and the boy. They have stopped a few feet away from her, and the mother looks worried. Annie lowers her voice and says, “What can I get you?”
This is the hard part. Guppy doesn’t actually like selling anything to customers. It interrupts the flow of his story. But Guppy has to sell a certain number of Push-Ups and ice cream sandwiches each day, or he’ll lose his job. Guppy can’t lose another job. If he loses another job or if word gets out that he’s pretty much locked in one long non-stop fantasy of war, the VA doctors will recommend he be put into a long-term care facility, and that’s something Annie’s mother has told her she can’t bear to see happen—not before they’ve given him a fighting chance to snap out of it. Annie’s job, for the rest of the summer, is to make sure Guppy sells just enough ice cream to stay under the radar and to make sure he doesn’t hurt someone while he does it.
Sometimes Annie wonders if this craziness wasn’t hiding somewhere in her brother’s subconscious all along although she can’t remember ever seeing it before. Last fall, her psychology teacher had explained that the twenties were banner years for discovering that a person has schizophrenia. He cited all kinds of data to back it up too. Maybe the head injury and the battle fatigue were a smokescreen for bigger issues. Annie can imagine how hard it must be to diagnose something like that when you’re trying to put a person back together again.
The mother tilts her head back and looks at the menu. “What do you want?” she asks her kid. The kid is looking into the truck, staring at Guppy. Staring at his mangled right leg and the burn scars on his arm and face. “What happened to that man?” the boy asks and points toward Guppy. The mother glances at Guppy and darts her eyes away just as quickly, sending a beseeching glance toward Annie.
“He was a soldier,” Annie says. “He fought in the war in Afghanistan.”
The mother nods and draws the boy closer. “What ice cream do you want?” she asks the boy again. “You can have anything you want.” The boy, who is four or five years old, breaks away from his mother and steps closer to the passenger door. Annie imagines he wants a better look at Guppy and his spectacularly defaced body. Even she isn’t immune to the jaw-dropping mangled flesh on his arms and face. His ear has twisted into a single drooping curl of flesh, like the inner lip of an orchid. His right cheek sags into his neck. The flesh on his arm never darkens even when exposed to the sun. It remains a bright pink interlaced with white ridges.
“Stand back from the vehicle, son,” Guppy says. He isn’t shouting, exactly, but his voice carries and echoes into the street. He says “vehicle” with three syllables, enunciating each one crisply. “Do not approach the vehicle.”
Annie smiles, a small strained upward quirk of her lips. “Why don’t you come over here?” she says to the boy. “Where you can see the menu and the pictures?” She puts out a hand as if to guide the boy.
“Foster?” Guppy says. The truck shifts and rocks as he struggles to stand up. “Talk to me.”
“I’m here, Guppy,” she says. “I’m OK. I’ve got it under control. Just hold on.”
Even as she says the last part, Annie wants to laugh. There is no control here. There are only the echoes of war and chaos. “What is going on?” the woman asks. She pulls her cell phone out of her pocket. “Do I need to call 911?”
“Everything is fine,” Annie says. She spreads her hands out in a calming motion. “My brother gets confused sometimes. It’s OK. I promise.”
“Foster, I need you to come where I can see you,” Guppy says. His tone has taken on a shrill edge, and Annie knows they are heading toward something terrible.
“Mommy, I want an orange thingy,” the boy says. “With the stick.”
“We’re not getting anything,” the mother says. She has grabbed the boy’s arm, and she is backing up with her cell phone in her other hand.
“Foster? I need to hear your voice.”
“It’s OK,” Annie says. She’s talking to all of them now. The frightened mother. Her frightened brother. The bewildered boy. She steps into the doorway of the truck where Guppy can see her. She hopes this will defuse the tension. “I just have to go into the truck and get the Push-Up,” she says to the woman. “I’m going to step up now.”
The boy starts to cry, small snuffling sobs of displeasure. “I want an orange thingy,” he says. “You said I could get anything I want.”
“Let me step up and get that for him,” Annie says. “Guppy, I’m getting something for the kid, OK? Just getting him something from the vehicle.”
The woman looks at her son and back at Annie. “Make it quick,” she says.
Annie grabs the handle at the door and swings up into the truck. Guppy slams the shifter into drive and lurches the truck forward. The folding chair flies backward, clatters against the freezer and falls to its side, the legs stabbing into the space above them. “No, Gup,” Annie says. “No. I have to give the kid something. Stop the truck.”
“I can’t do that,” Guppy says. “You know the rules of engagement.”
Annie turns to look at the woman who is holding her son back, away from the truck, away from the danger. The surprise on the woman’s face mirrors the feeling Annie has every time she looks at her brother. If that soldier who returned after the third tour wasn’t her brother, then this man resembles the brother she remembers even less. The boy breaks from his mother’s grasp and runs a few steps after the truck waving his money. Annie wishes she could sell him his Push-Up, but it’s too late now. Guppy is fleeing, and she is fleeing with him. She holds the door handle and watches the scene behind them for as long as she can.
The mother and the little boy turn and walk back toward their porch. The mother has her arm around the boy’s shoulders. She strokes it, but Annie doesn’t see the rest of the gesture because Guppy downshifts and makes a sudden left turn onto another leafy, suburban street, a move that flings Annie backwards into the truck and stretches her arm for an agonizing moment. Annie wonders what the mother is saying to her son, how she is explaining the inexplicable. There is so much unfinished business in the world, Annie thinks. All the almost-said and almost-done things are piling up like bags of stinking garbage. She looks down at the pavement, the gray blur beneath their truck. Her hand is sweaty and cramping where it clings to the handle, but she does not let go.
Heather was born in Rockford, Ill. As a small child, she lived in Calico Rock, Ark., but most of her childhood was spent in northern Illinois in a small town outside of Rockford. Despite this early affiliation with the Land of Lincoln, Heather believes she’s a Wisconsinite through and through. Her love for progressive politics, bratwurst and cheese knows no boundaries, and she has learned to flatten all her vowels with a nasal intonation. In her free time, she gardens, reads and rides horses.
About the Artist: Juliëtte van Bavel
Juliëtte van Bavel is a multi-disciplined artist from The Netherlands who makes creations in abstract-photography, stone and oil-paint. Her philosophy of life is encapsulated by the following:
"Flowing Creativity knows no boundary in matter."
"Art is an expression of love."
Juliëtte has a fascination for light and movement. This has become her study in art at all levels, independent of the discipline.
She has been active as an artist since the very young age of 4, discovering her way, first in dance, music and drama till she found "her discipline" in Fine Arts.