You Know When the Men Are Gone
Amy Einhorn Books
When war zone landscapes flash across the news, some of us, safe in our living rooms, worry about American soldiers overseas. But how often do civilians consider the impact of lengthy deployments and anticipated homecomings on the families left to commune in a “simulacrum of friendship” on an army base deprived of the men?
Siobhan Fallon ignites our consideration through the interconnected stories in her debut collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone.
The military infrastructure–for example, grass of a certain height–at Fort Hood, Texas (where the author resided through a series of her husband’s deployments) shapes the emotional interiority of Fallon’s fictional characters in a culture that waits for news. Eight stories put regular-life blues–loneliness, cancer, infidelity–through boot camp, as only stories set against the backdrop of thin-walled army domesticity can.
In her title story, “You Know When the Men are Gone,” the sudden post-deployment loneliness of food shopping for one becomes a psychological battleground for First Calvary Division wife, Meg Brady.
She walked the meat aisle, passing her husband’s favorites: baby back ribs, pork chops, bacon-wrapped filet mignons. She reached out, touching the cold, bloody meat through the plastic. The raw flesh both horrified and mesmerized, and she wondered if a human being would look the same… she would not think such things after Jeremy was home.”
While nothing is the same when the men are gone, deployment is the one thing that everyone has in common. When one officer is ordered to stay home, in the story “Remission,” his wife experiences a bittersweet sense of relief:
There was something unseemly about John being home when all the other husbands were not. Not that anyone was overtly jealous of the Roddys, for crying out loud, Ellen had cancer. And yet John being home made her different from everyone else in a way that even the cancer did not.
It is through Ellen’s experience among her domestic ranks that we come to understand the plight of John on the periphery of his.
More than half of the stories are told from the perspective of the wives, but three of the eight are told from the point of view of the enlisted men. (Fallon’s collection is not about female enlistees.) In “The Last Stand,” Kit Murphy arrives home wounded to discover that his wife has filed for divorce during his absence. Upon reflection, he begins to comprehend her desire for a different life:
He leaned into the wet sink and tried to take the pressure off his injured foot. He stared at his wife. For thirteen months he had dreamed of their home together, the meals she had waiting for him, the hot running water, the refrigerator always full…He had forgotten that Helena hated the apartment on Timmier Avenue, how she had to use a pair of pliers to get the dishwasher to work, how the shower leaked water from one end of the bathroom to the other, how she tried to get a dog-walking business going and failed.
In “Leave,” Chief Warrant Officer Nick Cash, a master at uncovering the truth during interrogations in Bagdad, suspects that his wife is having an affair. Unbeknownst to his family and in lieu of spending the brief furlough visiting his young daughter, he stages a reconnaissance in the basement of his home.
Nick understood the slippery nature of his task. Sources lied. Eyewitnesses missed crucial facts. Even the intel experts stateside regularly screwed up. So when his buddy offered to check on Trish more often, he told him no…The only thing to do was to find out for himself…
Although these stories are linked through character and place, the theme of unrelenting separation is what most unifies the collection. Deployment, re-assignment, divorce, re-deployment, and potentially, death–all threaten the foundation of familial relationships and loom larger than the war itself.
Jodi Paloni is crafting a collection of linked stories while pursuing her MFA in Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She blogs at Rigmarole.