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You Know When the Men Are Gone
by Siobhan Fallon

Published: 2011-01-20
Hardcover : 240 pages
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Reminiscent of Raymond Carver and Tim O'Brien, an unforgettable collection of intercollected short stories.

In Fort Hood housing, like all army housing, you get used to hearing through the walls... You learn too much. And you learn to move quietly through your own small domain. You also ...
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Reminiscent of Raymond Carver and Tim O'Brien, an unforgettable collection of intercollected short stories.

In Fort Hood housing, like all army housing, you get used to hearing through the walls... You learn too much. And you learn to move quietly through your own small domain. You also know when the men are gone. No more boots stomping above, no more football games turned up too high, and, best of all, no more front doors slamming before dawn as they trudge out for their early formation, sneakers on metal stairs, cars starting, shouts to the windows above to throw them down their gloves on cold desert mornings. Babies still cry, telephones ring, Saturday morning cartoons screech, but without the men, there is a sense of muted silence, a sense of muted life.

There is an army of women waiting for their men to return in Fort Hood, Texas. Through a series of loosely interconnected stories, Siobhan Fallon takes readers onto the base, inside the homes, into the marriages and families-intimate places not seen in newspaper articles or politicians' speeches.

When you leave Fort Hood, the sign above the gate warns, You've Survived the War, Now Survive the Homecoming. It is eerily prescient.

Editorial Review

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Three a.m. and breaking into the house on Cheyenne Trail was even easier than Chief Warrant Officer Nick Cash thought it would be. There were no sounds from above, no lights throwing shadows, no floorboards whining, no water running or the snicker of latenight TV laugh tracks. The basement window, his point of entry, was open. The screws were rusted, but Nick had come prepared with his Gerber knife and WD–40; got the screws and the window out in five minutes flat. He stretched onto his stomach in the dew–wet grass and inched his legs through the opening, then pushed his torso backward until his toes grazed the cardboard boxes in the basement below, full of old shoes and college textbooks, which held his weight.

He had planned this mission the way the army would expect him to, the way only a soldier or a hunter or a neurotic could, considering every detail that ordinary people didn’t even think about. He mapped out the route, calculating the minutes it would take for each task, considering the placement of street lamps, the kind of vegetation in front, and how to avoid walking past houses with dogs. He figured out whether the moon would be new or full and what time the sprinkler system went off. He staged this as carefully as any other surveillance mission he had created and briefed to soldiers before.

Except this time the target was his own home.

. . .

He should have been relieved that he was inside, unseen, that all was going according to plan. But as he screwed the window back into place, he could feel his lungs clench with rage instead of adrenaline.

How many times had he warned his wife to lock the window? It didn’t matter how often he told her about Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker, who had gained access to his victims through open basement windows. Trish argued that the open window helped air out the basement. A theory that would have been sound if she actually closed the window every once in a while. Instead she left it open until a rare and thundering storm would remind her, then she’d jump up from the couch, run down the steps, and slam it shut after it had let in more water than a month of searing–weather–open–window–days could possibly dry. Before he left for Iraq, Nick had wanted to install an alarm system but his wife said no.

“Christ, Trish,” he had replied. “You can leave the windows and all the doors open while I am home to protect you. But what about when I’m gone?”

She glanced up at him from chopping tomatoes, narrowed her eyes in a way he hadn’t seen before, and said flatly, “We’ve already survived two deployments. I think we can take care of ourselves.”

Take care of this, Nick thought now, twisting the screw so violently that the knife slipped and almost split open his palm, the scrape of metal on metal squealing like an assaulted chalkboard. He hesitated, waiting for the neighbor’s dog to start barking or a porch light to go on. Again nothing. Nick could be any lunatic loose in the night, close to his unprotected daughter in her room with the safari animals on her wall, close to his wife in their marital bed.

Trish should have listened to him.

. . .

This particular reconnaissance mission had started with a seemingly harmless e–mail. Six months ago, Nick had been deployed to an outlying suburb of Baghdad, in what his battalion commander jovially referred to as “a shitty little base in a shitty little town in a shitty little country.” One of his buddies back in Killeen had offered to check on Trish every month or so, to make sure she didn’t need anything hammered or lifted or drilled while Nick was away.

His friend wrote:

Stopped by to see Trish. Mark Rodell was there. Just thought you should know.

That was it. That hint, that whisper.

Mark Rodell.

Nick didn’t know who the hell that was, but his friend seemed to think he should.

So he called Trish, standing in line at the FOB for an hour and a half for one of the three working pay phones that served over two hundred soldiers.

“Who’s this Mark Rodell guy?” he asked as soon as Trish answered the phone.

There was a pause, then her voice, too calm and easy. Too ready. “He’s the new gym teacher at Mountain Lion. I told you I wanted a willow tree, for the backyard? Well, he brought it over in his truck.”

Nick could hear himself breathing out of his nose. “Is he married?”

“No. Nick, don’t blow this out of proportion. He’s just a pal. He helps all the teachers who have husbands away.”

“I bet.” His voice veered too loud so he coughed into his camouflaged shoulder to contain it, then continued in a hoarse whisper, “I bet he is a huge help to all you poor, neglected, stranded wives.”

“He is. I don’t like the tone of your voice.”

Nick shut off the tone, shut his mouth and said nothing, waiting for more of an explanation, for anything, but his wife followed suit and said nothing as well. He could have told her that she was all he thought about during the long patrols or the even longer days at the base, that he had pictures of Trish and Ellie all around his cot so they were the first thing he saw every morning when he woke up and the last thing he saw at night when he shut off his light. He even had a sweat–stained photo of them tucked into his helmet that he would take out and show his interpreters, the local town council, or random Iraqis on the street, just to have an excuse to talk about his wife and child. But instead he said nothing until his time was nearly up, just listened to Trish breathe, knowing that she was winding and unwinding the old phone cord around her narrow fingers and getting angrier with each passing minute.

“How’s Ellie?” he finally asked, his voice softening, deciding to salvage a minute or two.

“Damn it—I’m late. I have to get her from Texas Tumblers.” And Trish hung up.

Nick pulled the phone away from his ear as if it had bitten him. He stared at it until the sergeant in charge of enforcing the fifteen–minute call limit walked over to him and pointedly glanced at his watch.

From then on, Nick could think of nothing but Mark Rodell. In the chow hall waiting for a serving of barbecue and bleached–looking green beans, in the Tactical Operations Center, or TOC, where he read reams of intelligence reports, in his weekly review of the latest surveillance video from the Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, otherwise known as “predator porn.”

He thought back over the last months of his deployment, to the days Trish forgot to send him one of her quirky e–mails or the nights when a babysitter answered Nick’s call, and all of the strained phone conversations in between. She had told him she occasionally went for drinks with her fellow schoolteachers or to the monthly game nights hosted by other military spouses whose husbands were deployed. It had filled him with relief to think of Trish clinking martini glasses with bookish friends or, even better, playing Bunco! with wives wearing their husbands’ unit T–shirts. But now he imagined his wife swishing her dark hair in a dimly lit bar, lip–glossed and bare–shouldered, meeting the eyes of a stranger.

Three weeks later, Nick started planning his return.

. . .

He woke at dawn, wide awake but disoriented, as if startled by a mortar attack. He had wedged himself behind a wall of old and crumbling cardboard boxes just in case Trish decided to come down and look for something. It seemed like a great idea at almost three in the morning, but now, with a hint of blue light touching the corners of the basement, he realized that his head and feet were sticking out on either end. The odd noise repeated itself above his head, and he pulled himself into a fetal position, holding his breath. It continued long enough for him to realize that it couldn’t be human, and he gingerly got up on his hands and knees, careful not to topple the boxes, and rose to his feet.

He held his Gerber knife ready, expecting a rat, but instead found a cat, an ugly little thing, flecks of brown and orange smudged through its gray fur. It looked up at him, then turned back to its scratching and finally squatted and shat in the corner of a box full of Trish’s old college history papers. Nick bit the inside of his cheek to stop himself from barking out a laugh, and reached in to pet its head. He could read its collar: “Anne Lisbeth.” It tolerated his touch, then leaped out of the box and wove its way through the detritus of the basement and headed toward the stairs. Nick dropped back down, knocking his head against the cement wall.

Ellie had been asking for a pet for a year now, begging every time they spoke, flip–flopping between cat, dog, chimpanzee. Of course Trish had decided on a cat, not a dog that could watch over them, that could bark or rip out an intruder’s jugular. A cat named after Hans Christian Andersen’s “Anne Lisbeth”: the tale of a mother who abandons her infant in order to become a wet nurse for a count. Her own neglected baby dies and the mother goes mad in the end, haunted by the unloved ghost of her son.

It was just like Ellie to name a cat something so freakishly morbid. She’d become fascinated with fairy tales during Nick’s last deployment. And not the Disney fairy tales, oh no, not those wide–eyed, fat–lipped princesses mincing around and breaking out into song. Ellie had gone to spend a couple of weeks with her grandma in Boston two summers ago and came home with a collection of Hans Christian Andersen and illustrated Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Nick would read them to her every night when he was home. They were full of strange cruelties he wanted to hide from his child: the way Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off their own toes in order to fit into her glass slipper; the huntsman giving the queen the still–beating heart of a stag instead of Snow White’s; the orphan girl so beguiled by her red shoes that she is cursed to dance in them until her legs are chopped off with an ax. Whenever he tried to skip or edit any of the ghoulish bits, Ellie corrected him, staring at him with her mother’s huge and serious eyes, disappointed with his omission.

Then Nick heard the faraway tinkle of his wife’s alarm playing the Bizet CD it always did. He hid behind his boxes, listening as she waited for two tracks, probably doing her morning yoga stretches, and then rose from the bed, the springs gasping. He felt his gut loosen a little when he realized that she was alone; no voices, muted laugher, or heavy steps followed his wife’s tread into the kitchen. Her slippers scraped along the hardwood floors and headed directly to the coffeemaker. He could see her clearly: her hair held up in a messy ponytail on the top of her head so it didn’t get in her eyes when she slept. One of her mother’s old robes draped across her narrow shoulders. Sweatpants loose on her hips. A Brown University T–shirt tight across her breasts, which still looked damn good for a woman who breast–fed Ellie until she was two.

He suddenly wanted to walk up those basement stairs as easily as the cat. This was his home, she was his wife, his baby girl was still asleep in her pink–comfortered bed. He was a fool. Then he heard Trish back in the bedroom, probably rooting around for her sneakers, putting on her running shorts and a tank top that showed off her nicely sculpted shoulders, getting her body firm for Mark Rodell.

The coffee machine buzzed above and Nick reached for a warm Gatorade. No, he wasn’t ready to go upstairs yet. He couldn’t let himself break. He needed to listen, to find out, to know.

Nick quickly unpacked while Trish was out running. He had fourteen MREs jammed into his assault pack—one for every day. There were also a few shelves of dusty canned goods in the basement laundry room that he could eat: peaches, pineapple rings, kidney beans, tuna fish. He had a two–quart CamelBak of water and three large Gatorade bottles that he would drink and then use as a urinal when his wife was home, and that he could dump when she wasn’t. He also had his sleeping bag liner, not too soft but at least it was something, a set of civilian clothes in case he needed to go out into the world like a normal person, and a backup set of black clothing in case he didn’t.

It seemed like every little bit of training for the past seven years had led him to this moment, to hiding in his own basement, his intestines tight with fear in a way they had never been in Iraq. Every minute he had spent in Baghdad, sifting through lies, brought him back to this, to his home, his wife, the entirety of his life. While he organized his possessions against the basement’s damp wall, he thought about the TOC, all those intelligence reports, how difficult it was to discern truth from exaggeration and ambiguity. He interviewed informers and interrogated suspects, watched the blinking eyes, twitching hands, the sweat on their foreheads, knowing that every word was suspect, each sentence could be loaded with mistruths, familial vengeance, jihadism, fear, self–preservation, and maybe, just maybe, innocence. It was difficult to determine if someone was one–hundred–percent guilty, but nearly impossible to find someone one–hundred–percent innocent.

When Nick showed up for an interrogation, his soldiers would say, “Here comes Chief Cash, we’re about to hit the jackpot,” or “With Chief Cash dealing, we’re gonna win us some old–fashioned Texas Hold ’em.” Nick ignored them; he wasn’t any luckier than anyone else. But he did happen to be paired with an interpreter, Ibrahim, who used to be a Baghdad taxi driver and knew every street and shred of gossip in the city. They were a good team, Nick and Ibrahim, listening, waiting, knowing how to be patient and how to ask the right questions, and occasionally it led to something, like a dozen rocket launchers hidden in a hole under a mayor’s refrigerator. But most of the time it led to nothing.

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. Nor did Nick grill his wife about the details of her evenings out when they spoke on the phone, to search for cracks and split them open. Nick knew that his friend wouldn’t be able to get at the truth no matter how many times he stopped by the house. And the thousands of miles of static and dropped calls separating Nick from Trish made it impossible for him to find out if she lied. There was only so much that could be gained from talking. He knew from experience that the only way to prove anything beyond a reasonable doubt was to get inside the suspect’s house, to find the sniper rifle under the bed, the Iranian bomb–making electronics in a back shed, the sketches of the nearest U.S. military base in a hollow panel of the wall.

The only thing to do was to find out for himself. To go home in a way that didn’t give Trish enough notice to hide the evidence.

To go home and catch her in the act.

. . .

Forty–seven minutes after her alarm had gone off, Trish returned from her run, the latch on the front door clicking shut. At the same instant, Nick heard his daughter wake up— heard her jump down off her bed and her bare feet slap along floors, heard the high–pitched screech of her voice, “Anne Lisbeth! Anne Lisbeth!”

Nick winced; that ugly cat did not look like the cuddling kind. Knowing Trish, they had gone to some “no–kill” shelter and deliberately found a cat that no sane person in the world would adopt. He imagined Ellie with scratches on her face and bite marks on her hands and Trish gingerly putting peroxide on the wounds rather than admit she couldn’t rehabilitate a fey cat. It felt good to create this jittery resentment against his wife just when the sound of his child’s footsteps was starting to make him yearn for her small arms around his neck.

“Mommy, where’s Anne Lisbeth?” Ellie’s voice screamed from the kitchen, probably a few feet away from Trish, who must be wiping sweat from her lean face, starting in on her second cup of coffee in order to put on a smile for her early morning whirling dervish. Nick was amazed he could hear her voice so clearly; he would have to be careful about every noise he made.

“Maybe she’s in the basement,” Trish replied. Nick quickly scanned the dim room and spotted Anne Lisbeth sitting on her haunches a few feet away, staring at him.

The cat lifted a paw and indifferently licked. Nick made as if he was going to kick it and it shot off, a blur of raccoon gray, bursting up the stairs, and he heard his daughter’s shout of happiness.

. . .

When Nick’s mid–tour leave came up at six months, he just didn’t tell Trish. He said he wasn’t coming home; he said a private’s wife was having severe complications in her pregnancy and Nick gave his leave to him.

“There isn’t some single soldier who could make the sacrifice instead?” Trish asked. Then, when Nick didn’t say any– thing, “Fine, be the good guy. That’s what I’ll tell Ellie. You can’t see your daddy because he’s being the hero again.” She didn’t sound angry or even that upset, just giving him shit because lately she always gave him shit about something.

“Anything you want to tell me?” he asked calmly. “Anything at all?” He wasn’t sure what he was getting at, if he was asking for a confession or a fight.

There was a long silence, as if Trish wasn’t sure what he was getting at either, and then the predictable talk of Ellie: A’s in the first grade, her most recent piano recital and the birthday party he had missed, all the milestones and transformations that had passed Nick by.

“She misses you,” Trish said softly, as if she didn’t want their daughter to hear. Nick imagined Ellie paging through her Grimm’s in the living room, arching a thin eyebrow when her mother’s voice dropped low, knowing the way all children do when their parents are talking about them. Nick waited for Trish to say that she missed him, too, but she hadn’t said that in months.

Trish continued, “Last night, during prayers, she asked God to blow up the bad guys before they could blow you up.” Nick tried to laugh but instead closed his eyes and pressed

his forehead against the hot metal of the pay phone and felt like all the gravity of the world was pulling on his rib cage.

“Kiss her for me,” he whispered, and two hours later he was boarding a plane for home.

. . .

Nick, being Nick, had every step planned out. When he was sure, absolutely sure, that his wife wasn’t cheating on him, he would leave the basement. He would wait until Ellie and Trish went to bed. Then he would jog the four miles to the Travelodge just off Indian Trail and get a room. He would take a really long shower, shave, brush his teeth, make sure there wasn’t any dirt under his nails, eat a hot meal, get a few hours of sleep in a bed. First thing in the morning he would change into the uniform that was carefully folded in his assault pack. Then he’d call Trish, catch her before her run, and tell her he was on his way, that he had gotten leave after all at the last minute and had to jump on a plane, that he hadn’t had a chance to contact her when they stopped over in Kuwait, but he was here at the Killeen Airport, he was home, he was about to get into a cab and he couldn’t wait to see her and Ellie. He would say that he loved them, he was sorry, he was everything and anything he ought to be. Then he’d hang up, tell the cab driver to stop at a florist, and Nick would buy a huge bouquet and whatever stuffed animals he could get his hands on.

However, he did not know what he would do if he found out that Trish was indeed cheating on him.

. . .

The scrape of the car keys, the corralling of Ellie out the door, time for first grade, time for Trish to go to work at that Montessori School in the ritzy neighboring town of Salado, finger painting to Mozart, prints of freaky Frida Kahlo with monkeys in her hair gazing down at the kids. Nick started to go up the stairs and then hesitated, sat down on the dim bottom step and waited. Then the front door opened again and he heard the click of Trish’s shoes moving quickly from the hallway to the kitchen. Ellie must have decided she needed something—a juice box or an apple or maybe her favorite Maggie doll. Something forgotten, always something, and then Trish was gone. The old Volvo pulled out of the driveway and Nick tiptoed into the civilian world.

The first thing he did was walk into the kitchen and look out at the backyard.

Sure enough, there was a willow tree sitting right smack in the middle of the lawn. A frail, spindly spider sort of thing. But big enough that it wouldn’t have fit in Trish’s car. Nick took a deep breath. So at least part of Trish’s story was true. That was a good liar’s smoothest trick, to plant bits of reality into the subterfuge. It was the untold that Nick watched for. The slipup. The contradiction. The nervous hands touching a cheek, an ear, the smile or frown that seemed forced, the desire to change the subject. Such obvious signs.

The cat stepped in front of Nick, weaving between his legs as if deliberately trying to trip him.

“Shoo!” Nick stamped his foot and the cat hissed and ran. He opened the fridge and stared at the shelves of plenty: a gallon of organic milk, a block of sharp cheddar cheese, fresh squeezed orange juice, and weirdly hourglass–shaped bottles of pomegranate juice. Nick hadn’t seen such vividly colorful food for more than six months. He poured himself a cup of orange juice, careful not to take enough to be noticed. He did the same with the milk and savored it, full fat and fresh. Then a handful of blueberries, cherries, grapes. The garbage bag was new and empty so he put the cherry pits in his pocket. He shaved a few slices off the cheese with his Gerber knife and let

it melt in his mouth.

Then he noticed the two bottles of white wine, both opened. His wife always drank red. Did that count as proof or had his wife just started drinking something new? Maybe she had a girlfriend over one night who had brought the wine, maybe they watched movies, painted their nails, told themselves how good their hair looked, or did whatever women did when their men were away.

He carefully washed and dried his glass, made sure everything was put back perfectly in the fridge, and left the kitchen.

He went directly to the master bedroom and stood in the doorway. He had picked out this furniture set of dark mahogany, choosing it because the headboard had a pillow of leather pegged into the wood with medieval–looking brass nails. Trish said it looked like the Inquisition but that was what Nick liked—the bed seemed like it was made for history, that it would be fixed in their lives forever.

The room was immaculate. No strange baseball caps or sneakers, no boxers or tightie–whities in the laundry basket, no new lingerie in Trish’s top drawer. His relief hit him hard enough that he had to sit down on the mattress. It felt like it always did, the bed, the room, the house; it felt like it was his.

On his way back to the basement, he walked through the living room and, like the bedroom, it was the same, the family photos spaced nicely around the flatscreen TV, an abstract oil painting over the fireplace, a few charcoal sketches perfectly accenting the black leather sofa. He ran his hands along the cushions as if he could channel who had sat on the leather from its soft touch. They had fought over it. Trish had whined and whined, wanted an ugly stuffed corduroy couch with clawed feet like an old bathtub, but Nick had won. Now the leather leered at him, so soft, so sexy. He had wanted it because he imagined making love to Trish on the supple length and then somehow they never had, she was a bedroom–only kind of girl, but now he wondered if, like the white wine, she had developed new tastes.

. . .

There was a day at the forward operating base, a day like any other, the guys coming in from their latest mission empty–handed, unsure if not finding a cache of guns at the local imam’s house was a good or bad thing. They were exhausted, hungry, the Humvee’s AC busted again, and they knew they had missed DFAC’s one hot meal of the day. They exited the Humvee, snapped off their forty pounds of Kevlar, took off their dusty Oakley sunglasses, and wiped the sweat from their eyes.

A private was sitting on a folding chair cleaning his rifle and drinking Wild Tiger, an Iraqi energy drink reputed to be laced with nicotine, the radio at his feet blasting Stephen Stills’s “Love the One You’re With.” He was singing along, intent on the greasy insides of his gun.

Nick stood listening and thought of Trish’s hips sashaying to the refrain, When you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with. She grooved on all those long–haired seventies sounds, Bee Gees, Rod Stewart, Eagles, whipping out her old high school cassette tapes when feeling frisky.

Then Nick heard a hissed “Motherfucker.” He glanced up in time to see Staff Sergeant Torres, one of the most laidback guys he knew, walk straight over to the private and stomp the radio to smithereens.

The private leaned back in his chair to get away from flying bits of plastic. Nick and two other soldiers moved in close, ready to pull the men apart if Staff Sergeant Torres planned on smashing the private’s face as well.

Instead Torres looked down at the shards under his boots. “I’ll pay for that,” he said, then turned and walked back to his tent.

None of the men looked at each other, as if refusing to acknowledge what they had witnessed. They knew there was only one thing that would make a guy snap like that, make him want to crush those words out of existence, and it didn’t have a damn thing to do with life in Iraq.

. . .

By the time Trish and Ellie returned from school, Nick was firmly ensconced and almost comfortable with his setup. He had shoved some of Ellie’s discarded stuffed animals into an old pillowcase and propped it against the wall as a cushion for his back. He had dug through the boxes he could reach and found a few of his books. Maybe not his favorites, his How to Eat Soup with a Knife, Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant,; and Crime and Punishment were still in his office upstairs, but here were the books he had liked before he joined the army, his Grisham and Clancy and Black Hawk Down.

A couple of Ellie’s fairy tales were here, too, a yard sale version of Hans Christian Andersen and a lesser known collection of Grimm. He picked the Grimm up gingerly, as if he were touching his daughter’s hand. He wondered if she was finally over her obsession, if she was listening to ordinary stories now with happy endings, stories that other children liked, the fluff that made Disney worth millions. He opened it and started reading a story titled “Child in the Grave,” whose first sentence stated: It was a very sad day, and every heart in the house felt the deepest grief; for the youngest child, a boy of four years old, the joy and hope of his parents, was dead. He closed the book and shut his eyes.

That was life. The motherless Hansel and Gretel, starving and lost in the forest, arriving at the cannibal witch’s gingerbread cottage. The little mermaid rescuing her prince from the stormy sea, then giving up her voice and her fin for painful legs only to watch him fall in love with the woman he mistakenly thinks saved him from drowning. The young army corporal, a mere three days from going home to his wife and newborn, gets hit by a sniper. Such vicious twists dealt to the undeserving.

And those were the stories people knew about. The ones that stayed silent could be almost just as bad: the everyday horrors of lonely and quietly disappointed wives, of husbands deployed to the desert for years and years, missing their children’s first steps, spelling bees, scraped knees.

. . .

Nick stretched; his neck and back ached from sleeping contorted on the hard cement. It was day three and he was starting to smell; as soon as his girls left for school he would risk a shower. And he desperately needed to dump the latest bottles of urine; even the cat shit above couldn’t mask the acid and meaty stench of his slightly dehydrated, overproteined piss. Trish hadn’t been grocery shopping so he couldn’t eat much of the dwindled–down fresh food but he could eat a can or two of tuna. She wouldn’t miss a couple of tablespoons of mayo or slices of bread. Nick might even turn on the TV for an hour or two to see what was happening in the world.

So far there had been no sign of this Mark Rodell—maybe Trish had told him the truth, Nick thought, letting himself feel hopeful. Maybe he really was just a pal.

Or maybe he planted the willow in the backyard and then planted something else. Nick took a deep breath and told himself he could live with that. He could forgive. He could handle it as long as Trish’s feelings hadn’t changed toward

Nick, as long as she still loved him, and this ... this aberration faded with time until it was nothing but a memory overshad­ owed by anniversaries and vacations and Ellie’s high school graduation. He could do it, he could, if it meant keeping the life they had, the beautiful life of Trish next to him, her hip pressed against his in the night, her hands tracing the bones of his spine, her body pulling him toward her, against and inside her, to a place he knew and longed for, safe with her and home.

But what i£ what i£ damn it, the what–ifs burned his brain and he pushed his filthy hands against his eye sockets. What if it had happened in his bed, on his couch, in the newly redone tub of the master bathroom? Relax, he told himsel£ relax, don’t kick the wall or kill the cat. Then he thought of the ser­ geant busting the radio to bits, how good it must have felt, that release and revenge, in crushing that sound into nothing. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

In the first story, "You Know When the Men Are Gone," why does the narrator develop such an obsession with her neighbor? While it turns out that Natalya is worthy of Meg's scrutiny, is it easier for Meg to be a nosy neighbor than for her to focus on the danger her husband faced overseas?

Infidelity is a recurring theme in many of the stories. Did this surprise you?

Most of the stories take place in Fort Hood. Why do you think "Camp Liberty" is included in the collection if it takes place in Iraq? Is it in keeping with the other stories?

In "Camp Liberty," "Leave," and "The Last Stand," the main characters are men. Does that change the feel from the rest of the collection, which is primarily from a female point of view?

Many of the stories in You Know When the Men Are Gone are about the relationships between men and women. How would these stories change if the protagonists were flipped? If, say, "Inside the Break" was told from Manny's point of view instead of Kailani's? Or if "Leave" followed Trish instead of Nick?

In "The Last Stand," why does Helena sleep with Kit in the hotel room? Do you find her sympathetic?

In "Remission," Ellen feels that she is pitied by the other wives because of her cancer, but considered lucky because her husband has not been deployed. Does either of these circumstances outweigh the other? Is there a sliding scale of "tragedy" and "luck" in the lives of the families in Fort Hood? In your own life?

"Inside the Break" mentions pamphlets with such titles as "Roadmap to Reintegration," "What to Expect When Deployed Soldiers Return," and "Communicating with Your Spouse." Is it possible to sum up, in writing, the vast emotional landscape that families and soldiers experience upon the soldiers' return? Do you think Siobhan Fallon attempted to do that with this collection? If you think so, did she succeed?

What do you think the husband does at the end of "Leave"?

In "You've Survived the War, Now Survive the Homecoming," the sign refers to drunk driving, but do you think the author intends it as a metaphor for more?

In the same story, toward the end, Fallon writes: "Their fate depended on whether Carla walked out of the room with the baby or stood next to her husband. She bit her lip and wondered if this was the sum of a marriage: wordless recriminations or reconciliations, every breath either striving against or toward the other person, each second a decision to exert or abdicate the self." Do you agree with this take on marriage? Or do you think it's applicable only under extreme circumstances?

Which is your favorite story, and why?

Obviously the stories in You Know When the Men Are Gone are tied together by Fort Hood. What other themes do the stories share?

From the publisher

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "Very good and realistic"by sonalea (see profile) 04/24/12

As an Air Force wife, I could relate to the stories. As my husband retired from the AF 15 yrs ago, it brought back a lot of memories. I had totally forgotten about the playing of retreat a... (read more)

  "YOU KNOW WHEN THE MEN ARE GONE"by donna624 (see profile) 03/06/12

THE book gave us an insight to the lives of Army wives and all they have to deal with life on a day-to-day basis. A few chapters gave the male point of view and how they reacts to their deployment or... (read more)

  "Left us hanging"by RVingRNinFL (see profile) 03/06/12

The endings to these separate stories left us wondering what was going to happen next. The stories all took place on the Ft Hood base but were not interconnected. It did make for good discussion in our... (read more)

  "You Know When the Men are Gone"by karsu (see profile) 03/27/11

An insightful and descriptive collection of short stories Ft. Hood families, their lives inside the base, their trials and fears revolving around the soldiers and their experiences. Though fictional,... (read more)

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