“Serpentine” by Ember Johnson
Ember Johnson’s essay “Serpentine” was a finalist for the 2018 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. In this piece, Johnson masterfully evokes tension and anguish through her poignant exploration of her experience as a military wife and widow, offering a unique perspective on the burden of carrying on alone.
by Ember Johnson
At the funeral home, they tell me to slide the partition door open, so I do, just enough to angle my body through, and I enter the room alone. I approach where my husband’s body lies inside a cardboard box, on top of a wheeled gurney, and I see that a white bed sheet covers him to his chin. There is a chair in the room, and I drag it across the floor and sit next to him. His lips, glued together, have dried into the faint shape of a kiss. Eyelids, too, glued shut. A ragged zigzag of sutured skin reaches from his eyebrow into the receding hairline above his temple, and a dark purple bruise the size of a salad plate has settled beneath the skin in the center of his face. His neck tilts to the side. I untuck the sheet from around his neck, draw it down his naked body, and begin.
First I trace each branch of the deep Y carved into his chest by the medical examiner. Then I touch each short dash, each stitch, that had closed him back up. All I’ve been told is that he was hit head-on, that it was not his fault, and that he died instantly. Still, I am looking for clues. Answers. I’m a military wife. And he’d come back from a combat zone alive. Twice.
I consider the dragon tattooed on his upper arm and trace a finger along the green hairpin curves of its spine, from the tip of its snout to the tip of its tiny, forked tail. His skin is cold. Refrigerator cold. A deep gouge presents between two knuckles of his hand and a large flap of torn skin with a thick maroon edge lies over his hand bones, not sutured.
I remember his eyes are gone. Donated. But the closed lids with their delicate lashes whisper against his face in the concave curvature of two small smiles. Warm tears drip from my chin onto his bare arm. I close my eyes and begin to search inside the dark recesses of my living body for a doorway. A lamplight. A path. Something—anything—to tell me which direction to go tearing after him.
“Where,” I say, frantic now that I know what I truly want, “where did you go?”
Whether he was going off to the war in Iraq or to specialized training for his army job or to VA appointments at the hospital here in Minnesota, I accompanied him, always, as far I was allowed. This meant being left in a lot of waiting rooms, hallways, and parking lots. Behind roped-off areas and security gates. And now a funeral home. And Earth.
The waiting room at the VA hospital is an upper-level atrium with large skylights and plastic plants. It’s easy to know if the sun is up or down, but not whether it’s doing any good. Rows of sectional couches with thin, worn cushions make a semicircle around a monster console television that plays the Military Channel on mute. World War II tanks silently rumble down a rutted, European road. This is what I remember from the last time I waited for my husband there, only a week before he died.
It was early enough to still be dark outside, and the large Plexiglas windows that lined the walls streamed the only light, a dim florescence from the adjoining hallways, where earlier I had seen Authorized Personnel Only lettered across a set of heavy steel doors. For a long time during the morning of his surgery I sat and watched those hallways for hospital workers to push empty gurneys by, imagining the click of the wheels as they passed from one window frame to the next.
Earlier, before I left him in his pre-op recliner, a surgical nurse issued him a tall brown paper sack with Jacobson scrawled in black marker across the front. She flicked her hand toward it as she turned to leave, closing the curtain behind herself. It was for his clothes. And I was to help.
He tossed his boots into it with a thunk and crumpled his T-shirt into a basketball, which he shot from an imaginary free-throw line. He stripped off his underwear.
“Seriously?” I asked. “You can’t leave your drawers on?” The surgeon wasn’t operating anywhere near there.
“Believe me,” he said, “I’ve tried.” And his glance toward the curtain said it all. VA hospital nurses are a harassed and hardened breed.
I unballed the socks he handed me and added them to the sack. He slid his arms through the sleeves of the papery blue surgery gown and flailed around his waist for the ties.
“Here,” I said. “Lemme get those.”
I tied two bows, and he stepped back to give me the full view. “I don’t care what anyone says,” he said and licked a finger that he ran across an eyebrow. “I wear this well.”
Two nurses returned, pointing him to the recliner, and covered him with a thin white blanket from the waist down while they began prepping his IV. They hustled me out and pulled the curtain closed one last time, asking, “Do you know your way to the surgery lounge?” I hoisted my backpack over my shoulder. This was our third surgery for the same ear that had been blasted by an IED in Iraq. Yes. I knew the way.
Now, as I get ready to leave the funeral home, the director hands me a similar paper bag. Nearly identical to the one from the hospital. The medical examiner who autopsied my husband’s body has filled it his clothes. Jacobson, B. is scrawled across the top in black marker.
“Are you waiting for your father?” was a common question I got asked in the surgery waiting room. “No, my husband,” I’d say. And then to clarify that I wasn’t married to someone twice my age, I added, “He served in Iraq—well, still serves.” None of his injuries eliminated him from a deployment rotation schedule, so he was always somewhere in the process of going back to war. Instead of making small talk, I usually sketched new layouts for the garden or our farm’s pasture. One year during a surgery wait I added fruits—apple, pear, and cherry trees, as well as blueberry bushes and strawberry plants. The trick would be keeping the chickens out. During another surgery wait, I devised a new rotational grazing system for our lot of horses, goats, sheep, and llamas. But I’d also figured a way to temporarily block the entrance of the driveway to allow them to graze the yard.
Once I actually encountered another Iraq War vet. He was several years younger than my husband and had a large, irregularly shaped dent in his skull where part of his brain should have been. The verbal abuse that this soldier hurled at his nurses traveled easily through the thin walls to where I sat waiting for my husband in the MRI waiting room. “Bitch,” he spat. “Cunt.” He didn’t want to get on the exam table. “Michael,” one nurse’s voice cut through the wall, “You lie down—and then tell me if you want Johnny Cash or Elvis—I’ll give you headphones.” A no-choice choice. A fake choice. Designed to redirect someone’s attention away from what he really wants, which is always the one thing he can’t have. In Michael’s case, I imagined it was to have his mind and body back the way they were before the war. In my case now, my husband is dead and never coming home again. So, my no-choice choices: Burial or cremation? Family cemetery or Fort Snelling? Coach or van?
Traumatic brain injury is tricky because every injury is different, and so is every brain. VA doctors had concluded that the blast that took out my husband’s eardrums also sent a concussive force through his head. Combined with the sustained stress of living in a combat zone for two tours of duty, each an entire year in duration, this had caused him to come back from his last one with short-term memory problems, severe neck and shoulder pain, headaches, and a sincere desire to kill people who irritated him: mostly strangers, but sometimes his boss. At the National Guard’s Army Aviation Support Facility (AASF) in St. Paul, he worked as an electronics mechanic on Blackhawk helicopters, but his boss, a first sergeant, had never deployed to a war.
To cope, he didn’t turn to drugs or alcohol. Instead he built a castle out of wood, set it up on the floor in the middle of the living room, and he and our three-year-old son staged epic battles between Transformers, X-Men, vintage GI Joe action figures, and all the Marvel superheroes. They played for hours at a time. Day after day. Until one evening, as I washed the dinner dishes and listened in, it finally hit me: this wasn’t normal. What appeared to be a loving, engaged father was a loving, engaged father but also a man who wanted to avoid paying bills, helping with farm chores, making decisions, and having an adult relationship with his wife. He would wake up at night and not know where he was. He looked for IEDs in the road during his commute to work. And while we used to banter with ease and tease each other over money or day-to-day living decisions, now there was no playing around. He simply stalked off.
He’d run out of space inside himself. He could no longer hold his two lives together: the one we’d built together, with a large vegetable garden and a lively barnyard, and the one he’d made out of sand and Kevlar. Animals got sick, needed shearing, or we ran out of hay. Their babies came breech or young ones got stuck in a snarl of fence wires. His career was a dizzying array of schematics for helicopter systems. Circuit diagrams. Training modules. His performance could determine the outcome of a life-and-death situation for the crews that flew them.
“We’re going to start over,” I declared. “I’ll sell the animals and we’ll get back to where we started. We’ll wipe the slate clean.” It was a grand gesture. I knew that I was the only one who saw that places of waiting were also places that were mostly empty. And bland. A skylit room with plastic plants. A television on mute. I could give him all that I had learned of patience and liminality. I could create his space. In return, I hoped, the debris of war stuck inside him would break loose and float to the surface. Maybe even float away. “But tell me,” I said after I explained it all to him, “are you going to go through the VA for therapy or will you look for a civilian psychologist?”
And I was right. One day my husband called me, breathless, from a place where he had pulled off the highway. He’d been at the VA for a therapy appointment. “I always thought it was weird that the checkpoint was empty,” he said without preamble. “Only a couple of Iraqis stood by a shack on the next hill over.”
I heard him light a cigarette, and he inhaled its smoke through his words.
“The mortars started coming—”
“And I saw them hit a couple hundred feet away—so I nailed the gas to get through the serpentine—but they weren’t coming from the hill where I saw the two men—”
I tried to picture it. A serpentine checkpoint is a snake-like path built out of concrete road barriers, a path that folds back in on itself, meant to slow vehicles down to a crawl. A convoy stuck in the middle of one would be like fish in a barrel.
“I couldn’t figure it out—and the dumbfuck LT—I saw the trucks behind us still trying to get through the serpentine—so I yelled at him to radio back and tell everyone to just go around it and get the hell outta there—but that’s when the dirt and sand hit the windshield,” he stopped and took a deep breath. “It was an IED.”
Several seconds of silence breathed between us. This was what he had been searching for. A memory of the actual blast that had taken his eardrums. What we’d learned from his psychologist and occupational therapist at the VA was that our brains have a way of protecting us that can sometimes only be described as “parental.” Sometimes, when they don’t want us to see scary things that could immobilize us, they redact them. Which erases a stream of potential reactions—potential choices—that could imperil us further. This gives us a no-choice choice.
“I passed it on the opposite shoulder,” he said in a much slower and calmer tone. “Until now, I only remembered the mortars because they were farther away.” He exhaled a long stream of smoke, and I heard a shiver convulse his body. “My brain didn’t want me to see how close I was to dead. It had to lie to me so I wouldn’t get scared. So I’d get out of that serpentine alive.”
I leave the funeral home and drive home. First I set the medical examiner’s sack on the kitchen table. Oils have seeped through the outer paper layers and bloomed, a meadow of dark spots. Then I slide it off the table and set it on the seat of a chair. I unroll the top, open it, and reach inside.
First his underclothes. Then his pants. Next his tan T-shirt and long-sleeved camouflaged shirt. He called this uniform his ACU’s, but I don’t know what those letters mean, only that they describe the army’s new pixelated camouflage pattern. Last, I pull out the fleece jacket he’d worn to cut the early morning chill and his combat boots. None of the clothing items have been folded, and bits of shattered glass shake free of the fabric and patter all over the floor. It’s then that I remember it all.
That morning I was sitting at my table in the corner of the kitchen when I heard the staircase boards squeak against their nailed joints. His leaden steps echoed off the walls in the back of the house. It was five o’clock in the morning, and he let his full weight drop through each foot. The steady scrape of his wedding ring against the wooden handrail unzipped the night’s veil, and he rounded the corner through the living room and came into the kitchen. “Mornin’,” I said with my back to him, but I hadn’t turned around.
I smooth out his pant legs that lie before me on the table. There is no blood on them. Not one drop. And I hear things again. As though I’m hearing them for the first time.
The ceramic mug of coffee that I’d brought to him in bed that morning clatters sharply against the cast iron sink; he rummages in the dish drainer and slaps the lid of a travel mug down on the counter next to the coffee maker. And, as though he’s standing right next to me, he jerks the glass carafe from its hot plate, pours, and rattles it back into place.
But that morning I didn’t pay him any attention. Not until the refrigerator door sucked open—a giant jaw that flooded the dim kitchen with light—and snapped back with bottles clanking against each other. A magnet slid off, and the school calendar fluttered to the floor. I sat up straight and watched his reflection in the darkened window in front of me. His movements, everything, suddenly felt hard and extra loud. Abrasive. Chair legs scraped against the oak floor, his combat boots thunked to the floor, and he grunted as he sat.
A cold draft seeped behind me. It was from the broken mudroom door. I rose from my chair to slide his heavy farm boots in front of it. During his last deployment, it had stopped latching properly, and the official doorstop became whichever pair of boots he wasn’t wearing.
“Are you okay?” I remember asking him.
“Fine,” he said, crouched over, tucking one camouflaged pant leg into the high upper of his combat boot. He zipped the laces through the top holes as he pulled and tucked with callous, mindless efficiency.
I stood by the door and waited.
“You know,” I said, “if you’re not ready to go back to work today, then you’re not ready.” It had only been a week since his ear surgery. The boys at the AASF could certainly make do without him one more day. “Fuck ’em,” I said with a shrug.
He switched feet and tucked and zipped and pulled. As he reached down, the fabric of his uniform buckled in starchy folds under his armpits and along his ribs. “No,” he said and sat up, slouching against the back of the chair. “I’m ready.” Bright white cotton balls protruded from his ear, still catching some drainage, and I wondered if he was lying to himself.
“Just stay home one more day,” I said.
He stood, zipped his fleece coat to cut the early morning chill, and slung his lunch over his shoulder. He picked up his coffee mug and paused and looked into my eyes.
I stole a glance at the clock. He was way ahead of normal. He never ran this much ahead of schedule. But his eyes never broke from their path and I turned back to meet them again.
“What,” I whispered. It was a statement and a question.
He fiddled with the knob to the broken door.
I had to leave the house that morning too. But before I left, I heard the mud room door open again. I turned in expectation, thinking he had changed his mind and come home, but no one was there, and the broken door remained closed. I headed upstairs to rouse my son.
As we left for town, I braked hard on the hill that drops into the valley below our farm, just in time for a group of wild turkeys to cross the road in front of us. I waited and switched on the radio.
A fatal accident occurred this morning around 6:20 and shut down the Hastings bridge in both directions. Authorities hope to have it reopened in the next couple of hours. In financial news the rate of foreclosures continues to increase—
Without thinking, I did the math. There were two different routes my husband could have taken to work that morning. One was under construction, and the other was that bridge. Every military wife knows how to do this type of math. My hands started to shake. I honked the horn at the slow birds bringing up the rear, and my son startled in his seat behind me. “I’m sorry,” I said to him. “I’m sorry.”
On impulse I chose a shortcut to town that was a minimum-maintenance road. I hadn’t used it in two years and bit my lip and hoped the spring thaw hadn’t made it difficult to navigate. After a one-lane bridge, tight, steep curves with an uphill on one side and a deep-cut ravine on the other, showed signs of washout. Ragged root systems protruded from the tumbled rockside, and worrisome chunks of earth had broken from the ledge and fallen into the ravine below. A green canopy of untrimmed branches arched low overhead and blocked out the clear morning sky. I took it forty feet at a time, craning my neck around every curve, while keeping an eye on that ledge. The truck’s engine dug in against the grade, and we climbed.
Suddenly a low-slung branch heaved toward the windshield and sprang back.
I slammed the brake, and giant black wings raised up in front of me.
A vulture—a big bastard—labored against its own heft and lifted, pushing itself through the thick canopy overhead.
I did the math again.
I walked my son into his preschool class and left my husband voicemails with forced vocal inflections that made me sound casual. I ran errands and chatted with people in store aisles. Chunky peanut butter or creamy? Call the local hospital or the one in the town where the accident had occurred? I took a brisk walk around a city park. I imagined the scene of confession later that night, when I would tell him how all day I’d thought he was dead.
When my phone finally rang, it was my husband’s mother. She never called me.
“Where are you right now?” she asked without saying hello.
“Just pulling into home after preschool,” I said. And waited through an awkward silence. “What’s going on?” I finally asked.
“We’ll be right over,” she said.
Ice and adrenaline flooded my bloodstream. The hand that held the phone began to tremble uncontrollably.
“What’s going on?” I said again, this time louder. “What is it?” I said louder still.
“We’ll be right over,” she repeated. And hung up.
I snapped at my son’s slowness in getting out of the truck, three times in a row, until I heard myself yelling at him. My hands wouldn’t stop shaking. “I’m sorry,” I said to him. “I’m so sorry.”
I settled him in front of the television with his lunch and went straight to my laptop on the table in the corner of the kitchen. News websites had already posted pictures of the bridge accident. They showed the front end of a Toyota pickup resting precariously on top of a highway guardrail and a dented maroon BMW behind it, sideways across two lanes. My husband’s dark green Saturn wasn’t there.
I chain-smoked outside on the front porch, waiting for my husband’s mother. I thought about calling someone. I called my husband. It rang until it went to voicemail, and I hung up without leaving a message.
I hated waiting, I realized. I had always hated waiting.
I leaned into the frame of the open front door and stared at our silent, empty pasture. All of its gates stood open. Big black water tanks sat overturned beneath the shaded overhang of the barn.
“Show me everything,” I said to him every time he left. Because he was always leaving for places where I could not follow, and because I was afraid that I would lose him to all those things I would never see. All of those things he experienced without me. “But I bring you with me,” he said in return. He didn’t understand what it meant to be the one left behind.
At that moment, I felt him pace the porch boards in front of me. He walked its length and abruptly turned and put his hands on his hips. “This is not ideal,” he said.
A declaration. Almost funny. The half smile; the half panic that skimmed the upper edge of his deep voice when a plan was about to go south. And maybe he saw me recognize him. Because my eyes widened and welled and darted to the side. I held my breath. He hadn’t gone anywhere, I thought. He’d been trying to tell me, since I heard the front door open that morning, that he died and came right back home.
“No,” I finally answered him. Out loud. And my heart threatened to give way. To simply stop beating. “It’s not.”
The sound of ripping Velcro tears a hole in the silence of our kitchen where I have been standing and staring at his clothes laid out on the table before me. There are creases of dried blood and bits of soft tissue that cling to puncture tears in the fabric. But only to the left sleeves. Where something nearly ripped his arm off. I am pulling the patches off every breast pocket and shoulder—his name, his rank, all the insignia of his career and our country; they belong to me now. When I finish, I go straight to my laptop and punch up the same accident pictures that I saw the day he died. I want to see what I saw the first time I looked at it—the Toyota’s front tires on top of the guardrail, the red BMW sideways across the lanes—but I know that I won’t see that, because I know what happened.
The front tires of the Toyota pickup are on top of my husband’s green Saturn. They sit inside the jagged mouth of its shattered windshield and look as though they came to rest on my husband’s lap. The Saturn is crumpled like a pop can against the guardrail. Its trunk is popped open. And the toys that he had hidden in there for our son lie scattered across the highway. A white sheet drapes its smashed rear window, meant to cover my husband’s dead body. Which, along with the part of me that he said he carried with him, has not yet been extracted.
This essay began as an assignment to use a first-person voice from the position of witness. It was an assignment designed to challenge what it means to tell another person’s story by forcing a writer to contend with her own subjectivity, experience, and ego. Still, it’s always a huge surprise to me how some essays come together. “Serpentine” I wrote in pieces: scenes, images, bits of reflection that I loosely strung together like so many buttons of different sizes and colors. With the pages spread across a long work table, I stood and stared for a long time. What connected the parts? What bigger thing beyond the simple narrative were they trying to say? I saw the hairpin curves of the dragon’s tail tattooed on my husband’s arm, I saw my husband’s Humvee snaking through the concrete barriers of a checkpoint in Iraq, I saw a brown paper bag appear, disappear, and come back into view. This serpentine form repeated itself through imagery. And for the first time ever, I saw how a structure of switchbacks could move a reader through a serpentine of memories, and how those memories could travel alongside a lived experience, but in the opposite direction. Which is how I ultimately defined my role as witness to my husband’s life.
Ember Johnson lives and writes in Center City, Minnesota. She was a winner of the 2013-14 Loft Mentor Series in nonfiction and most recently was awarded a Minnesota State Arts Board grant for 2020. Her work has appeared in Georgetown Review, Fourth Genre, and The Missouri Review. She completed her BA in creative writing at Metropolitan State University in 2016 and is in her final semester of an MFA degree at the University of Minnesota.