Triggers

Not all nightmares come at night. Some who suffer from PTSD can find themselves in a confused flashback state even in the bright light of day, set off by something that most of us would never notice. A leaf falling from a tree. A sound. Or a truck pulling up in front of the house.

A story by Marie Manilla

PTSD triggers

Lee Pitman backs out the front door, coffee mug in one hand, morning paper in the other, and settles into the lawn chair on the front porch, vinyl strips of the chair ragged and sagging. He lights the first cigarette of the day, sucks hot menthol into his mouth, lungs, and blows it toward the bug-filled porch light. Beads from last night’s rain trickle from elm leaves and smack the metal awning over head. He wants to embrace the spat-spat-spat, but up the street Mr. Templeton’s garage door creaks open, and Lee watches the faded Phoenix ease into the street and lurch forward, fan belts squealing.

A little farther up is the Bennets’ old house. The Midvales live in it now, with their snarling dog and Siamese cat perched this very moment in the window of Grace Bennet’s old room, luxuriously licking itself. And now Grace is moving out of state, out of reach, and Lee tries to envision not waking up every morning and wondering where in this city she is waking up, too.

Lee closes his eyes and rolls back 25 years, remembers hoisting himself on tiptoe night after night to peer inside her room. Peering in at Grace, at 17 – 18 – pasting magazine photos, bits of broken glass, fish tank gravel, puzzle pieces onto poster board. Watching her step back to squint and survey – rearrange. Suck the glue from her fingertips. He slides a finger into his own mouth, imagines it’s her, cool on his tongue. Sweet.

Lee glares at his neighbor’s picture window. “I warned that son-of-a-bitch,” he says, and leans over the porch railing, yelling, “I told you not to bring that poison around here!”

He hears the truck before he sees it – downshifting – engine straining to climb steep Green Oak Drive.

“No!” blurts Lee, already stooping to set the newspaper and cup on the porch. He stands for a better view, and there it is – green fender, hood, door panel, with bold Helvetica letters screaming, CHEMLAWN!

The truck turns and heads right for him, two halogen eyes bearing down – then it parks in front of his next-door-neighbor’s house, liquid sloshing in the plastic tank on its back.

Lee glares at his neighbor’s picture window. “I warned that son-of-a-bitch,” he says, and leans over the porch railing, yelling, “I told you not to bring that poison around here!”

The ChemLawn man slides from the truck, tugging on rubber gloves.“It’s perfectly safe, Mr. Pitman,” he says, heading up Lee’s front yard, pulling a brochure from his shirt pocket. “Just fall nutrients for the grass.”

Lee takes a step back and knocks over his coffee. “Don’t you come up here! I don’t want your poisons on my property!”

“They’re not poisonous, Mr. Pitman. Here’s some information so you can read up on it.”

“I’ve read all your propaganda,” Lee says, darting into his house, slamming and locking the door behind him. He scowls out the plate glass window as the ChemLawn man heads back to the truck and pulls a hose from the rear – stretching it out toward the neighbors’ lawn.

“Stupid ass!” Lee mumbles, racing from one window to the next – closing and locking. Closing and locking. He dampens a stack of towels and slips into his mother’s room.

“What is it, Lee?” she asks, in her crackly morning voice.

“Nothing, Mom. Go back to sleep.”

Lee closes her windows and tucks the damp towels around the bottom to keep the fumes from seeping in. He draws her blinds, her curtains, then sits at the head of her bed and grabs the dust mask from her night stand.

“Lift your head just a little,” he says, cupping his palm under his mother’s neck.

“I hate that thing,” she whines.

“I know,” he says. “It’s just for a little while.”

Lee slides the mask over her nose and mouth, secures the elastic band behind her ears, then raises her sheets completely over her head.

“Don’t come out until I say,” he says, and before leaving adds, “I’ll wash your hair this afternoon.”

Oh!” she says, feet wiggling under the blankets at the prospect.

But all the while, he imagines that maniac is dousing his neighborhood until rivulets run through the yards and drain into the street, pooling at the bottom of Green Oak Drive like that spring storm so many years ago.

Lee stuffs towels under the front, kitchen, and basement doors before securing the windows in his own room. He listens for the “ssssssssssssssss” next door, the drizzle, and hears it. Imagines the lethal spray coating each grass blade, each shrub leaf, and crisping them to nothing. He grabs the dust mask draped over his bedpost and straps it over his mouth before sliding completely under the sheets.

Straining to hear, Lee absently studies the gray sheet, so close to his eyes he can count the weave, such tiny cross-hatching, such delicate threads. But all the while, he imagines that maniac is dousing his neighborhood until rivulets run through the yards and drain into the street, pooling at the bottom of Green Oak Drive like that spring storm so many years ago when he and Grace’s brother, T.D., his truest friend, waded through the muddy water swirling around their calves. They watched sticks and leaves and cicada shells whirlpooling over sewer grates, reached their hands into the very center to feel the suction, the scary pull of nature.

He and T.D. are down there right now, kicking water at each other until Buddy Wagner’s football floats past. Lee scoops it up and throws it clumsily at T.D., who catches it like nothing and tells Lee to back up. “Back up!” he yells, and Lees tries to, but the water won’t easily let him, and he falls, the muddy torrent rushing over him.

T.D. laughs, and so does Mr. Walen, who’s sitting on his front porch with his afternoon Pabst Blue Ribbon. Lee laughs too, and tries to stand up, but the rice paddy is mucky and his hands are sinking in deep. Mr. Walen keeps laughing, only it’s not Mr. Walen any longer, it’s that Vietnamese kid squatting by a burned-out hooch. And he isn’t laughing. He’s crying, looking at the scorched hand reaching out from the doorway.

Lee pulls himself up, even though the pack is heavy and his boots are filled with mud. He watches T.D. edge through thick foliage, eyes crinkling devilishly, shooting a slant-eyed sneer.

T.D. unhooks the ball from his belt, pulls the pin and yells, “Here ya go!” He lobs a perfect pitch at Lee, then dives into dense brush. Yellow birds burst out cawing.

Lee focuses on the orb spinning toward him. Follows the shiny glint on its metallic shell and realizes it’s too high. He’ll have to back up and reach.

And he does, although it’s not easy with the mud sucking at his boots. He doesn’t take his eye from it as it nears, and he realizes he might not make it. He takes one desperate lunge until he’s almost floating, hanging in mid-air, right hand stretching, arm nearly out of its socket as he reaches upward and screams as the hot casing hits his fingertips.

Marie Manilla has family members who served during the Vietnam War, and remembers the anxiety of waiting for them to come home. She says one of the relatives still lives with his demons and is just now beginning to talk and write about his experiences.