Blaze of Glory
Discontentment plagued Hank like a steam cloud, bringing a damp, stuffy heat with him everywhere he went. The weeks went by in a monotonous haze of orders and exertion. If the other men had any interest in connecting with him again, he never knew. They couldn't break through the haze of his silent anger.
There were moments when he wanted to lash out, but the thought of returning to his parents with a dishonorable discharge kept his rage to a quiet, nonviolent simmer. Instead, he poured the energy of his otherwise inexpressible anger into fire training. At the end of his tour, Hank was discharged as an officer, complete with a letter of recommendation to any fire service that wanted him, and an offer to stay on with the Army.
Flattering though he found the offer, Hank couldn't wait to put distance between himself and Germany. He didn't want to think about the secret side of himself he'd uncovered, or the bashing his ego had taken when he was turned down by a girl who'd everyone - including, to his shame, Hank - had thought was a pity fuck. He just wanted to get back California, where he knew his fledgling career would give him new status.
Palm Springs did not need a new fire fighting recruit. Palm Springs particularly did not need a Dust Bowl transplant claiming to have some magical training to be had out in the cold, damp climate of the Rhine. Neither did Indio, Cathedral City, or anyone else in Riverside County.
Hank's return from the Army was painfully anti-climactic in other ways, too. There had been surprisingly little fuss when he'd landed. Only Frank had shown up, and that was because he didn't have to be at work for another hour, unlike Ma and Pop and Michael. Charlotte and her husband didn't come around to see him for several days, because they were too busy with their new baby, and Michael was strangely absent, always off with a group of friends Hank didn't recognize. Only Susan ever seemed to be around, and she was more annoying than anything else, an unfortunate side effect of their age difference and the pressure for Hank to get back into the swing of pulling his weight around the house.
When the initial job hunt didn't pan out, Hank decided to do the next best thing, and work on minor repairs to the house. If nothing else, he could make sure that the little day to day annoyances were dealt with, until he could find some viable work. He didn't make a fuss about the repairs, didn't point them out to anyone. He just took care of whatever he saw with whatever he could find - leaky faucets, squeaking floorboards, rusty door hinges - and scoured the newspaper for odd jobs to tide him over until he could find something more permanent.
He'd thought he was keeping a low enough profile, and was doing a decent job of improving the house, until one morning he overheard his parents talking about the cost of living. Hank hung back, surprised by the venomous way Pop spoke about his being back in the States: Hank was a lazy, good-for-nothing layabout who ran from his family to play toy soldier and now expected his old, tired parents to keep feeding him. And Ma said nothing to reproach Pop's nasty words. She just grunted agreeably.
He'd run from Germany, back to the Coachella Valley, to escape the pain and humiliation of rejection. But Gretchen's gentle letdown was nothing to this. When Hank finally composed himself enough to make some noise, and entered the kitchen, his parents wore their now usual wan, tired, but welcoming smiles. Had he not heard his father with his own ears, Hank would never have believed his folks thought so badly of him.
Returning to the nest was a mistake.
Hank didn't bother with house repairs anymore. Instead he took good chunk of his mustering out pay, and over the next few days used it on long distance calls all over Southern California and Arizona, looking for a firehouse that would take a young, decorated soldier with hose experience. The calls, though still mostly lukewarm at best, were far more promising than the slammed doors he'd encountered in his unwelcoming town. Where Riverside had sent him packing almost instantly, most of the departments he'd called offered to put him on their waiting lists, with promises to call back the instant they were offering entrance exams.
His second-to-last call was to the City of Los Angeles, a long shot that he'd put off as silly. The city had no classes coming any time soon, but he was directed to the County's service, as they were so large, and always desperate for manpower. He made his final call, certain that he would be told to try again in a few weeks. Instead, he was immediately connected with a fellow who asked what prompted his interest in their fire department, what kind of documentation he had from the Army, and how soon could he get them a copy of his discharge and recommendation letter. He tamped down on the hope rising in his chest, and mailed off copies first thing the next morning.
He couldn't bring himself to call around anymore after that. He headed out to the date farms, looking for day work, and usually came home empty handed, hungry as an ox and madder than a bull, but he stayed out of his father's way, and never heard another word about his being a burden to the house.
It took less than a month to get an envelope from the County of Los Angeles Fire Department. Within was a brief letter. It was from the same fellow he'd spoken to on the phone. If he could get himself up to L.A. before the week was out, they'd have a space for him in the next class rotation.
A few weeks before, Hank would have fretted about telling his family that he was going to leave again. He'd have wanted to gather everyone to him, to reassure them that he loved them and was already missing them, and that he would be back as often as he could. Now he couldn't wait to pack his bag and get the hell away. He thought about asking Frank or Michael for a ride to the bus station, but that meant waiting for one of them to come home, and possibly for someone else to come with the car, if neither of them had it, and that meant explanations and family meetings... Hank wanted no part of it. The sun was still high in the sky, and he had plenty of money left from his stint in the Army. He could do something the Stanleys would never have dreamed of before, something his parents would surely scold him for if they were ever to find out. But they wouldn't.
Hank went to the phone, and called himself a cab.