I lived in the USA from 1966 to 1972 and I'm ashamed to admit I didn't pay enough attention to the Vietnam War. A month ago a 10-part TV documentary, The Vietnam War, took me by the scruff of the neck. Comprehensive, revelatory, coherent, vivid, even-handed, intimate and large-scale, it re-created a state of mind: about a conflict that most wanted to ignore and forget. More especially how returning soldiers who'd given their all found themselves shockingly and unjustly tainted by the political ignorance and incompetence that kicked off the killing.
This story is nominally about that aftermath but the emphasis shifts somewhat in a way that won't surprise the tiny elite aware of my fictional preferences. In two parts because of BlogSpot restrictions.
A short story (6392 words)
A WHOLE morning to kill, shee-eet a whole day! A whole...
He stood on the street corner, taking his time, pretending there were choices. He could turn north up Factory on to West Main and stop off at Twist ‘n Shake. Or go right along Union to... where? Centre Pointe Church? And then what? No surprises either way. The only surprise had just happened. Except it wasn’t really a surprise at all.
Some time back there’d been possibilities. Anything could have happened. He’d beaten Nam.
The pair of them, Boone and him, sitting up to the bar at Amvet Post 59, drinking Wild Turkey with draft beer chasers. Outside it was getting dark and Khe San was starting to fade. Whoops! Keerrection! Khe San would never fade.
Not exactly a celebration then, more a revelation: “Hey we’re alive and ain’t that a kick in the head?” Wild Turkey said it all: twice the price, but what the hell.
Boone, sweat gathering on his top lip, turning. “Yuh leaving for Tennessee? The hick town with the crazy name, it never sticks in my mind.”
He’d grinned, it was always a steady joke. “Soddy Daisy, route 27, north of Chattanooga.”
Boone had sipped Turkey, nodded and leered. “Got yourself a Soddy Daisy waiting?”
As a matter of fact, he hadn’t. Sheryl-Lee and her roommate had taken a Greyhound to Anaheim, looking to be cocktail waitresses, graduating to pole dancing. Sheryl-Lee had the legs at least, he couldn’t complain. He said, “Nope. No one’s waiting.”
“Why not try here?”
“Here? What’s Centerburg got that’s hot?”
“Man, it’s the geo-geographical centre of the Buckeye State.” Boone stumbled over the words, the Wild Turkey getting to him.
“Ohio, you prick.”
He said, “Coming in I saw the sign, side of the road. Population: two thousand and change. Place is just a village.”
“CPAs can always get work. Anywhere.”
He sighed. “Told you a hunnert times, I’m no CPA. Ain’t got the brains, never made tenth grade. Just a book-keeper, cash in, cash out.”
“Got the brains for a PFC,” said Boone surlily. Always a sore point; Boone had stayed a grunt the whole tour, left Nam with nothing more than a hash mark.
“The Army’s not like real life. Eat the chow, kill Charlie, use a rubber, avoid STDs. Promotion’s bound to come round.”
He’d slept the night at Boone’s Dad’s. No bed, just blankets thrown down on the rug. It was plain Pa didn’t want him around, didn’t want Boone around either. Got himself a lady-friend who was more picky than Boone’s Mom, dead two years, worrying about her son at war. In the morning, over corn-flakes and nothing more, Boone’s Pa said, “A widow woman out on North Clayton has a room” - speaking impersonally, avoiding eye contact. “She’ll be glad, good and glad. Son Gary was a Marine, got his in the Mekong Delta. Friendly fire. Left her kinda weird.”
Turned out to be a nice place on a big lot, a new Jeep in the garage. Nor was the widow woman weird, just sorrowful. Mrs Golinski led him to the kitchen, took his hands over the table. He’d expected this would worry him but it didn’t. She said, “It’s Dill, isn’t it? Dill. I’m forgetful these days. And no kind of company, I don’t socialise much. It makes sense you using Gary’s room provided it doesn’t spook you. You and he would’ve...”
“Doesn’t spook me,” he said, speaking quickly to keep back her tears.
“I suppose you’ve seen worse”
“I’ve seen worse, ma’am.”
They sat in silence and it really wasn’t so bad. Made him realise he liked quiet.
“You got kin, Dill?”
His body jerked, blindsided. He searched for words that didn’t mean much. “Ma’am, it’s kinda difficult...”
She took his hand and pressed it to her cheek. “Prob’ly to do with this shitty war. And there I go. I don’t swear, Dill, I promise. But it’s the only word when you think. What are we killing people for? Why are we getting killed?” A week later he told her about his Pa and poor bullied Ma. Raising the flag at dawn, the stupid bumper stickers, his Pa’s uniform pressed and ready to wear at any time, the spit that flew when Pa talked about college kids, angrily switching off the TV. By then Boone had fallen out with his Pa and had moved to Toledo to stay with an uncle. The main thing keeping Dill in Centerburg was the quiet in Mrs Golinski’s home.
Gently he slid his hand away and asked if there was a diner anywhere close. She stared, shocked, as if he’d stabbed her. “You’ve done what the US asked you to do and now you’re hungry! For Chrissake, Dill!” She kissed him on the temple, a soft kiss as if she were his Oma. Said, “I’m swearing again. Perhaps Vietnam is what I saved my swearing for.” She hadn’t the makings for the breakfast she planned and needed to drive to the superette. When the meal was ready it was as if she’d laid out a pagan festival: a dozen fried eggs, a mound of hash-browns, a pound of bacon. Mrs Golinski ate one slice of toast and simply watched Dill. Got up suddenly and returned with an armful of his shirts and underclothes. Muttered, “Might as well start on these.”
Dill paused from slicing his sixth egg. There’d been no formal agreement he was staying but her searching through his kit-bag seemed to say he was. Back from loading the washing machine she sat down and kept on watching him eat, kindly, approving. Finally he’d finished half of what was on the table. Put his fork down, looked up to thank her and burped involuntarily – open-mouthed and loud. Looked away, embarrassed. “Ma’am, ahh, ma’am.”
“A good sign, Dill. You’ve eaten most of it. It was good to see. I eat hardly anything.”
“Gotta let me wash up, at least.”
She waved a hand. “I’ll do that. Makes me feel useful. Bring your coffee to the parlour.”
The furniture was neat, too neat, unused. She noticed him looking round. “Here’s a room I could sell off. Can’t find much use for it these days.” She stretched her legs out. “Chairs are comfortable, though.”
Now she stared at her feet. “Have I scared you?” she asked.
“A bit too much emotion?”
“Why would that scare me?”
She leant forward. “Holding you, kissing you.”
“Ma’am, it’s happened before. It wasn’t me you were holding, it was Gary. I’ve been on home-visit details. Bringing bad news to the burbs. I learnt a lot.”
He put his empty coffee mug on the side table. “Scared, I know about that. Out there in the boondocks we’re all scared. Then the chopper comes and the fear goes away, until the next time.” He laughed lightly to himself. “Of course it could have happened, I could’ve stopped one. One good thing: it’s an end to being scared.”
She was looking at him, through him almost. He said, “But with those folks we visited, that we spoke to, it doesn’t go away. Guess you’re entitled to a little emotion. More than that.”
Nam had dulled him, he realised that now. He wasn’t used to women and three days R&R in Tokyo didn’t count. The women he’d talked to had been mothers, not real women. Sure Mrs Golinski was a mother but different. The emotion had been very strong and aimed at him. She’d done things for him, motherly things. But you could also see those things as favours.
Touching and kissing were sex. Women were sex. But not Mrs Golinski, a mother and therefore old. She saw him as Gary her son – an old relationship - and that couldn’t be sex.
He found himself wanting to look at Mrs Golinski, to study her. But couldn’t. Which was stupid because he had already seen her; heck, he’d been in the house for two hours. Looked, yes. But not studied. And now he daren’t.
“Dill, are you OK?” Her voice was gentle.
“Just thinking. What it’s like to be a mother? To have two smart military guys knock on your door?”
Saying this allowed him to look her in the face. First thing, she wasn’t old. A face saddened with grief, hair pulled back in a careless ponytail, no make-up, but nothing like his Mom with skin starting to melt.
She nodded. “The guys who knocked on my door were Gary’s age. Your age. You see I had Gary young. Silly, we liked the same kinda music.”
Then she straightened. “But let’s talk about you. You staying here?”
“Well, Mrs Golinski, I need work.”
“I’ve been calling you Dill. Time you called me Amy. First thing: don’t pay me til you’ve got work. But what kind of work?”
Amy questioned him for almost twenty minutes. Knew about book-keepers, probably knew too it was a pissy sort of job, saying he’d probably end up helping out. She used words people kept to hand when looking for work: employment, time-keeping, experience. Soon he found it difficult to concentrate and it was Amy who broke off talking.
“Dill, you’re bushed. You get much sleep last night?”
“Not much.” He didn’t want to mention lying on the rug; reckoned it’d sound like begging for sympathy.
“Poor kid. Look, take a nap. Clothes off you’ll sleep better. I’ll give you a call early evening. The shower’s across the hallway.”
There was stuff in the room – Gary’s stuff - he wanted to look at. A lacrosse stick and helmet, stacks of vinyls, photo of a teenage girl with long blonde hair in a cheap frame. Marine combat boots in one corner. And a shelf of books, hardbacks with long titles. Stuff that would tell him more about where he was but sleep dragged him down. He woke briefly and heard a distant murmuring voice, couldn’t tell whether it was male or female but wanted very much to know. Fell asleep again and there was Amy calling his name.
He showered and shaved in the room across the hallway; found himself looking in the mirror. Twenty-three but you wouldn’t know. He wasn’t good about ages but if he had to say he’d say older. Something about the eyes, check that, the eyebrows, always arched. Surprise? Or something worse?
Amy had been wearing jeans and a sweat-shirt. Now she’d combed out her ponytail and put on a dress with flowers. Even high heels. Saw him glance then glance away. “Don’t worry, you’re safe from me. I’m all done with emotion. You hungry?”
The huge breakfast was still with him and he shook his head.
“We could take a drive but it’s getting dark. Not much to see. Later I’ll fix the insurance so you can use the Jeep. We can watch TV but how about music? They say the war’s been great for music, gotta be good for something.”
“You got bluegrass?”
“Sure, I got some of that.”
He had the feeling she had something to say and encouraged her: “Play music, sure... and talk. About Gary if you like. If it’s not too sore.”
“Yeah, I wondered. But maybe it is too soon. See, what you’d be telling me is the truth. I might not be ready for that.”
She put on Pickin’on New Grass which was new to him and she explained it was a Baltimore group. That meant nothing but it was obvious music was just background, she was itching to talk. How do you order someone to talk? He lay back in the chair, the shot of bourbon she’d poured for him untouched. “Oh I dunno. Tell me about your working day. Anything normal, just so it doesn’t end up sounding like an AH-1.”
“That being a helicopter,” she said, smiling. “As to a normal working day I’m not your gal. Mostly I work coupla days a week, even half-days. Stepping in when a PA or senior secretary goes sick or takes a vacation. Work that needs a good phone manner and the skill to lie sweetly and quickly.”
“Too restful. Leaves me wandering an empty house, knowing it’s never going to be full again.”
“Gee, yes. Sorry about that, Amy. Not just Gary but...”
“... Jerry too. All of which adds up to my crazy work schedule. Of course I could do forty hours a week like most people, sharing an office. But it’s not something I have to do so I don’t do it. None of which must make any sense, Dill. Let me straighten things out.
“I was in junior year, MBA Business, at State when I met Jerry. Ten years older but pretty damn sexy. Visiting lecturer in applied electrical engineering, divisional head with Turner Construction, money to throw around. I still can’t decide whether it was his grey sideburns, the Pagani or the hotel suite in Las Vegas that did for me; whatever, two pink lines on the marker said I was pregnant. I was an easygoing little hussy in those days, not into the blame game. I let him know that if he gave me half a grand I’d do the necessary.
“Surprise of my life. In a quiet way - which still makes me shiver after all these years – he tells me he’s Catholic and there’s another better answer. Still the independent hussy I said he hardly knew me. It was a shared mistake and it didn’t tie him to me. What’s wrong with tying myself to you? he asked. I pointed out I was hardly out of diapers. Who knew how I’d turn out; it wasn’t a risk he had to take. He said, suppose I see things differently? Just suppose, he said - speaking so quietly I had to lean over our cocktails to hear him – what I’d just told him, the crap thing I was willing to do for him, were the only references he needed. As he spoke he took a table napkin, tied it into a loop, slipped it over my finger and said, ‘Amy, it’s a bigger risk for you than me. I’ve screwed around a lot. Marry me and I’ll do my damndest to reduce the risk to evens’.”
Dill listened, not stirring. Remembered the bourbon and took a sip. “Nice way of putting it.”
“Good enough for me. Looking back at that moment I always supposed I fell in love. But who knows what that means? Jerry and I had two good years. Then the President of these United States – God rot his soul – asked Jerry to form a team of engineers to investigate corruption in an aid project in Colombia. A goddamn honour they said at the time. But the guys with the guns thought differently. I knew Jerry was carrying a lot of insurance, guaranteed by the government, but I’d misread the zeros, there was an extra one. And I’ve been funny about regular work since.
“Then there was Gary.”
Driven by a vague feeling that it might help Dill allowed silence to spread through the under-used room. Part-used, perhaps, like a funeral home. He said, “Are you sure having me round helps?”
Amy nodded. “Reminding me of Gary. I’ve thought about that. But there’s nothing I can do for him. You I can.”
She engaged his eyes, challenging him. “In fact I worked on that while you slept. I guess I should have asked.”
If it was an apology it was well disguised. But what the hell. He said, “Before Nam I only had the one job. And my Pa helped me get that. I’m not exactly loaded with talent and I reckon I can use all the help I can get.”
Amy said, “I’ve PA’d for a dozen or so company owners in and around Centerburg. They trust me. The free sheet shows they’re hiring but none’s looking for a book-keeper. But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t use one. The outfit I favour is Buckeye Wrecking.” She smiled. “We’re not talking General Motors here but Buckeye’s more sophisticated than it sounds. They strip cars down to the bare bones, separate the valuable stuff, grade it, and sell it on in packages. At a normal wrecker labour costs would be fighting profit margins, but Buckeye has invested. Special equipment tears down a car in minutes; more gizmos do the separation, same speed. They get through thirty, perhaps, forty cars a day. And that’s where a book-keeper comes in, keeping track of the material, some in ounces, some much heavier.”
“With material weight converted into dollars and cents.”
“You get the idea. Hey, I’m talking too much. I need a drink.”
Dill got up quickly. “Stay where you are. A Manhattan hit the spot?”
“I’m pretty certain it would.”
Drink loosened up things. “Buckeye’s owned by Dan Krajik, ex-Omaha Beach. His ad says: Fork truck and general handling. Dare say you’ve never driven a fork truck.”
“I dare say you’d be right.”
“There’s a training centre north of Columbus, this side. A week’s course is all you’ll need; you won’t be operating in tight aisles or high racking. I’ve called Dan. He’s keen because he thinks GIs coming home are getting a raw deal. People who hate the war take it out on the victims, and they include you. He’ll hold the job and ease you in when you start. Best of all, he wants to fit in the book-keeping.”
“This training course...”
Amy waved dismissively. “I’m paying. Got some ideas beyond you driving a fork truck, but we’ll talk about that later.”
In a sense it was like being back in the Army. Someone else making the decisions, saying go there, do this. But then he hadn’t exactly loved the idea of looking for work on his own.
Driving the truck at the training centre was piss-easy except the instructor shouted a lot. Let Dill know he’d been a sergeant, AirCav. Just so Dill would know. That night Dill woke up sweating, a pocka-pocka sound in his ears. Could have been Khe San, he wasn’t sure. What he remembered was the body-bags went first because they needed someone to load them. A lot of body-bags.
Krajik was pro-Army and on Dill’s first day they swapped stories over coffee for an hour before Dill went out to the paved area at the back of the shop and used the fork truck to load scrap metal sheet, compressed, strapped and palletised, on to the company’s five-tonner. Then took a little instruction on strapping it to the five-tonner’s deck for safe delivery. Back at North Clayton that evening Amy had meat-loaf and greens waiting for him.
“You could say I’m now a civilian,” he said, drinking Hoppin’ Frog beer from a glass when the table layout told him there’d be no more gulping from the bottleneck. Two nights later, pocka-pocka sounded again. I can get through this, he told himself.