“BACK IN THE REAL WORLD” – A New Novel about Two War Survivors

Oct 17, 2011 | Books

Did you know that during the Vietnam War, U.S. soldiers referred to life in America as “Back in the Real World”? I’m excited to announce that Vietnam veteran Ed Turner and I have co-written a novel by that name, which has just been released as an e-book. Back in the Real World explores the lasting effects of war and the healing power of human connection.

Back in the Real World explores the lasting effects of war and the healing power of human connection.

My co-author earned the Bronze Star as a door gunner on a Huey. Ed Turner is a member of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment Veterans of Vietnam and Cambodia. He has an accounting degree, but spent much of his career as an FBI agent and fraud investigator. He has read good novels on Vietnam, but has long yearned to see a story about the extraordinary effects of war on ordinary survivors. I’m proud to have helped him realize that vision.

Co-author Ed Turner has read good novels on Vietnam, but has long yearned to see a story about the extraordinary effects of war on ordinary survivors.

Here’s a synopsis: Michael Frost is a Vietnam vet who once made a mistake that cost men their lives. Decades later, his inability to forgive himself is tormenting him and tearing his family apart. Kimberly Mancini is a Vietnam War orphan, half-Vietnamese, half-African-American, whose mother gave her up as a baby. Decades later, her inability to shake a lifetime of abandonment, loss, and violence haunts her and threatens to destroy her family. In Back in The Real World, two survivors find themselves on a collision course with the past, which may be their only path to redemption.

Working on this book has taught me a lot about both war and peace, and I believe it hides unexpected gifts for readers. I encourage you to buy a copy. Here’s an excerpt:

BACK IN THE REAL WORLD

CHAPTER ONE
Richmond, Virginia
2005

Michael Frost rubbed his fingers against weary eyes until he saw small red and green explosions erupt against the lids. He stood up from the blurring lists of numbers, closed the ledger, and emerged from the cramped room at the back of the small homeless shelter. The mission building used to be a grocery store, and he could swear he still smelled the produce that once lined its aisles, but that was probably just the food from the kitchen.

Frost looked around the rec room at the sway-backed sofas, ripped armchairs, and graffiti-carved tables lining the walls, where some two-dozen homeless men had come to escape the unexpected chill of an early fall evening. They looked as much like alleyway castoffs as the furnishings: dressed in third-hand checked shirts with dangling threads, grease-splattered hoodies, and faded t-shirts advertising soft drinks and charity walks and one oldie-but-goody that said, “I’m with Stupid.” It wasn’t so funny when you considered the man with the unkempt beard sitting next to that dude, rocking back and forth, muttering to himself, “Didn’t know. How could I know? Didn’t know. It’s not my fault.”

Most of the men looked to be on the rough end of their fifties, but they could be on the light side of forty. He’d heard that life on the streets did that to a person. There were a few young men, too, some with the long inner stare, and others who talked endlessly about nothing to nobody. It always shocked him that able-bodied men his son’s age could end up in a shelter, but most of them were mentally ill or addicts. One of them grinned at him, showing a mouthful of rot. Meth-mouth. At least Stephen didn’t have problems like that—so far as he knew. So maybe he hadn’t completely failed as a father.

Frost hated to admit it to himself, but seeing these guys every month made him feel a little better about his own life. Whatever he’d lost along the way, he could tell himself, “Look around. It could be worse.” Yet he, too, had aged faster than seemed fair. He wasn’t fat, but he’d thickened around the middle just enough so that tying his shoes felt uncomfortable. His shoulders hunched slightly as if to protect his chest. His blond hair, which his wife Gail used to tease him was prettier than hers, was beating a fast retreat from his forehead. The shadows under his eyes were now deep pockets, where his eyes seemed to rest like oysters in a shell. Yet he was still a handsome man, with green eyes that told a story of confident youth, even if buried under decades of uncertainty.

Frost had become an accountant because he liked the certainty of numbers. A few years ago, he’d helped file the paperwork to set up Richmond’s River Street Mission of Hope as a non-profit shelter. He’d set up the bookkeeping system, and now he returned every month to volunteer his time to check the books. It was the one good deed of which he was proud. Yet whenever he walked out, he looked the same way he did when he walked in: like a man consumed by guilt. The mission’s director, Pastor Randy Cotton, saw it as clearly as anyone, but Frost’s businesslike politeness and starched shirts seemed designed to deflect personal questions, and Cotton never asked any.

The sight of Pastor Cotton walking toward him, spectacles askew, salt-and-pepper head leaning well ahead of his lanky body, was one of the few sights that made Frost smile. Frost wasn’t a man who often gave free reign to his imagination or sense of humor, but he couldn’t help thinking the pastor looked like a beneficent Groucho Marx. Cotton reminded him of someone else, too, though he couldn’t think who.

“As always, your books are in perfect order, Rev. But I still wish you’d think about setting something aside for you and Mrs. Cotton.”

“The Lord’ll provide for us. He always has,” Cotton replied. “For now, these people need it more than we do.”

They engaged in a similar exchange every month, and said little else to each other. Frost didn’t know much about Cotton, except that he was a generous and hardworking man. Why risk spoiling that image? The less he knew, the better.

The mission was non-smoking, and Frost’s nicotine craving had reached a fever pitch. So, he quickly shook the pastor’s hand and left. As he stepped outside, he surveyed the street. Although he always looked forward to his work at the mission, he was leery of the deteriorating neighborhood surrounding it: shuttered stores, burned out street lamps, empty homes with broken windows.

Frost paused just long enough to light a cigarette, then hurried toward his car, regretting that he’d parked two blocks away. He’d gone no more than thirty yards when a pile of dirty rags topped with a ragged gray beard lurched out from the shadows of a boarded storefront. If he wasn’t a client of the mission, he should have been. He was about Frost’s height, but even in his baggy clothes it was obvious he was little more than half Frost’s weight.

“Can you spare a cigarette, man?” he muttered so softly that only Frost’s own smoking habit could help him guess the words.

Quickly sizing up the ghostly voice, skeletal body, and sour booze breath, Frost deduced that the man was too close to the edge of this world to pose a threat to anyone still fully in it. “Sure,” he said, as he reached into his jacket pocket and tipped a cigarette out of his pack toward the stranger.

The man lifted the cigarette to his mouth with a shaking hand and mumbled, “I need a light, too.”

Frost hesitantly lifted his lighter toward the hair-and-grime encrusted face, wondering what kind of diseases this guy might be carrying. The stranger leaned impatiently forward, as Frost cupped his hands around the lighter, to protect the flame from the chill breeze that stirred the air around them.

“Thanks,” the homeless man said.

“Don’t mention it.” Frost tried to step around him and continue on his way, but the man blocked his path, his palsied frame suddenly steady with determination. Frost’s constant guard ratcheted up a notch; he could almost hear it, like the quiet click of a gun when the safety is released.

“You got any spare change?” the man said, his voice loud and defensive, as if Frost had just ignored him instead of giving him a cigarette.

Frost usually had a zero-tolerance policy toward panhandlers, even those who carried signs claiming they were disabled vets. Frost was a vet himself. Vietnam. He’d seen buddies blown away before his eyes and had killed men standing close enough for him to see their eyes—as close as this transient was standing now. Yet when it was all over, he’d worked hard to keep his shit together and move on. He understood that not everyone was built to withstand the trauma of war, but there were programs for people with those kinds of problems. He gave generously to veteran’s organizations and homeless shelters like Cotton’s. But he never liked the idea of giving crumpled dollar bills to guys on the street, many of whom would simply spend the money on booze, all of whom would be back on the street begging again the next day.

That was his official policy. But when confronted up close with the wreckage visited on the human body by the elements, meaningless loss, and relentless time, he often broke his rule. He felt even guiltier after he gave the money, as if a dollar bill could buy off their hard luck, or pay for all the good luck he’d had and then thrown away. Gail always gave her spare quarters to panhandlers, even the young, healthy ones, even though Frost told her some of those kids were cons who made a living at it. She told him, “I’m giving because I want to help. What they do with that help is up to them.”

She’d tried to help him, too. It wasn’t that he didn’t want her help, but that he didn’t want to need anyone’s help. He didn’t know if he’d ever be able to give anything back. Maybe she’d finally figured that out, that he had nothing to offer. Whatever the reason, she was ending their marriage and he couldn’t say he blamed her. Their kids blamed him, and maybe they were right.

What did it matter if he threw away a dollar? He’d already thrown away everything that mattered, and still he couldn’t bring himself to feel much about any of it. All this passed through his mind in an instant, and he’d just started to reach into his jacket pocket for his wallet, when the stranger upped the ante.

The man shoved his right hand into the pocket of his tattered sweatshirt and growled, “I’ve got a gun. I don’t want no trouble, mister. Just gimme your wallet.”

Frost squinted at the man’s pocket. It seemed unlikely that an old, drunken bum would have the wherewithal to buy a gun, or the ambition to steal one. Still it seemed safer to assume he had a weapon. Frost glanced toward the mission. People walked in and out of that building all the time, but for the moment the street was empty of possible help.

Frost knew the drill: in a robbery, just throw the bad guy the wallet and get the hell out. But there was something in this guy’s watery, brown, hangdog eyes that gave him pause. When Frost was a boy, he’d lived down the street from a man who used to kick his dog. That dog always growled at him whenever he passed, baring its teeth and slobbering like mad. Even then, he’d realized the dog needed help and just didn’t have the voice to ask for it. Young Michael had told his dad about it, but all Dad had said was, “You steer clear of that dog, y’hear? You go trying to help that dog, you could get bit.”

“It’s not that, Dad. Mr. Peterson beats that dog. Someone should put him in jail.”

“Son, Peterson is a damn sight meaner than that dog. You definitely don’t want to mess with him.”

His father had fought in World War II, and it had crushed Michael to think that, instead of a hero, he might actually be a coward. How could his dad kill Nazis, but not call the police about some skinny old man?

He’d followed his dad’s advice, always giving the dog a wide berth. But whenever he’d passed, he couldn’t resist turning to look. Even when the dog growled it had that look in its eyes: like it was confused, like it didn’t know why it was mad, like it wanted to run away but had forgotten how. This homeless robber had that same look. Frost thought he should give him a wide berth, but he also sensed the man needed help.

The possibility that this guy could shoot him, that Frost could end up dead in the street over the forty bucks in his wallet, held little meaning for him. Few strings attached him to his life anymore. Death didn’t frighten him. He’d seen it often enough. From what he’d seen, dying couldn’t be much harder than living. “He’s in a better place,” Father O’Malley once said to him, back in Vietnam. Maybe it was true. During that long year of boredom punctuated by brief bursts of gunfire, and in all the quiet years he’d lived since the war, he’d never known any peace.

Now here he stood, face-to-face with a man who’d just declared war on him—and Frost wanted to help the guy. He’d known a couple of guys who’d come back from Vietnam with PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, though none of them had served in his squad. If someone mugged one of them on the street they’d probably go ape-shit. Maybe Frost had the opposite of PTSD, whatever that was; here he stood, threatened with a possible gun, and he felt calmer than ever before, more present, more alive.

He held out both his hands in a gesture of surrender. The words he heard coming out of his mouth sounded rehearsed, as if he’d been through all this before: “You don’t want to do this.”

“You don’t know what I wanna do. Just shut up and gimme your wallet!”

Frost slowly reached into his jacket, took out his wallet, and tossed it toward the empty building. The robber started to turn, and began to pull the gun from his pocket.

Frost had heard about flashbacks, but he’d never had one, not in thirty-four years. If he was having one now, it wasn’t what he’d thought it would be. It wasn’t like time-traveling or hallucinating. He wasn’t suddenly standing in the jungle clearing where his life had come to a halt more than three decades before. But all the sensations were there: the sweat, the adrenaline, the ringing in his ears, the feeling that everything was moving in slow motion—and the way every crushed beer can, cardboard box, and used condom stood out in relief on the River Street sidewalk, just like every brilliant green leaf and vine had stood out in that clearing. But the most palpable feeling of all, was the guilt. What was about to happen was all his fault.

***

You can order Back in the Real World from AmazonBarnes & Noble, or Smashwords.

About Cara

Cara Lopez LeeCara Lopez Lee is the author of They Only Eat Their Husbands. She’s a winner of The Moth StorySLAM and performs in many storytelling shows, including Unheard L.A., and Strong Words. Her writing appears in such publications as Los Angeles Times, Manifest-Station, and Writing for Peace. She’s a traveler, swing dancer, and baker of pies. Cara and her husband live in the beach-town of Ventura, California, where they enjoy tending their Certified Wildlife Habitat full of birds.
Cara Lopez Lee

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