Charles Hayes, a multiple Pushcart Prize Nominee, is an American who lives part time in the Philippines and part time in Seattle with his wife. A product of the Appalachian Mountains, his writing has appeared in Ky Story’s Anthology Collection, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Fable Online, Unbroken Journal, CC&D Magazine, Random Sample Review, The Zodiac Review, eFiction Magazine, Saturday Night Reader, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Scarlet Leaf Publishing House, Burning Word Journal, eFiction India, and others.
Gathering darkness fades the Great Smoky Mountain peaks into hazy humps that most evenings bring me a semblance of peace. But tonight their magic is gone. Sitting at a small table near the window that faces them, I study the faded photo of the young Vietnamese woman holding her baby. Silently I ask myself the same old questions. Did she wait for him and cry when she knew he wasn‘t coming back? Was she waiting for the money that I took from his wallet, along with this photo, after I shot him? These questions have played in my mind for forty years and all I can do is imagine the answers. And no answer, however imagined, makes me feel any better. Tossing the photo atop the dong currency scattered on the table, I rue the day that I took these things. War souvenirs that have branded my mind like the boogie men of children’s dreams. But unlike a child, I can not outgrow them.
“Ben are you fretting over that war stuff again,” Jean calls from the kitchen. “Please put those things back in the box until I can help you deal with it. We’ll figure something out.”
Having lost her husband to Agent Orange related cancer, Jean was a widow when I asked her to marry me twenty five years ago. I had no real hard assets to bring to the union. Just a good eye for wood and how to use it. She had a small farm with ample shop space that her husband had left her near the North Carolina mountains. Both of us came from that rural area close to Asheville and the plentiful hardwoods of the Appalachians. So we made a go of it with a few beef and a small cabinet business that I developed. Going through the after effects of the Vietnam war and its Agent Orange defoliate had given Jean a crash course in consequences. Watching her husband die had left her changed in a way that increased her understanding of people like me. She firmed me for my later years by giving me a lot of insight into my problems. Moreover, it was a good union and we both gained the partnership, strength, and love of another caring and respectful person. Now, amidst the prep smells of a turf and surf dinner, her specialty, she lets me know that she will have a hand in finding a way to let the war souvenirs go. And I welcome it.
Not feeling very hungry, although the aroma of stir fried shrimp and beef strips mixed with garlic and onions is nice, I put the souvenirs back in their shoebox and enter the kitchen.
“Hey babe, that smells nice. You sure know how to brighten a home with the smells of good cooking.”
“Thank you Ben,” Jean replies. “It helps when you’ve got someone who notices. Now, sit down. I’ll cover this stir fry and let the leather britches simmer a bit more while we talk. It‘s time to get a handle on your old ghosts. Just letting them stew is not good….for either of us.”
Taking a seat at the small breakfast table where we have some of our best conversations, I try to relax with the hope that Jean will steer this sit down. It’s hard for me to know where to begin with emotional stuff but Jean has a knack for it. She is smarter than me as well and can see avenues of resolution where I see only alleyways. After checking the stove one more time she places a cup of tea in front of me and sits down with her own. Stirring her tea, she takes a deep breath and looks out the window into the darkness.
“I wish it were daytime,” she says. “I enjoy watching the Angus graze from here in my kitchen, all high and dry. They are such beautiful black beefs. Hardy animals.”
I nod and smile as Jean takes a sip of tea before continuing.
“You know, that old bull hasn’t let down yet either. Sometimes, sitting here drinking my tea, I can mark the calendar for a new beef by watching that randy old critter. Even when the snow is flying. He may slip a bit on the mount but he still gets the job done. It’s the way things are. But our work helps keep them that way, the haying, calving, the money from your cabinets to fix the equipment and buy new when it’s needed……don’t you think, honey?”
So keen, my Jean, it’s just like her to point out the blessings before broaching darker subjects.
“Yeah babe, you got it right, no doubt,” I answer.
Feeling a little above the boogie men of war because there was a time for her when no amount of good things could take the edge off what was, Jean pushes a little.
“So Ben, don’t you think we can do something to bring that kind of balance into your past? Make it what it is, the past?”
“It’s just that I did a bad thing,” I say. “Mostly because I was stupid. But that doesn’t make it OK. What was in the pockets of the dead was none of my business………even if I didn’t intend to steal it. Because that is what I did. I stole from the dead. Souvenirs, my ass. It was loot. I was just too stupid to know it then.”
Having heard me well, Jean nods and places her hand on mine but inside she is unmoved.
“So what is the first thing you must do if you have stolen something, Ben?”
It is hard for me not to blurt out the obvious answer, but the gravity of it deserves a little time to just hang there and get thoroughly digested. After a moment, feeling like the wheels have already been set in motion, and having thought of the same answer many times, there is only one reply.
“Will you go with me?”
After looking at me like I am a child too old to wet my pants, but have done so anyway, Jean replies, “Of Course.”
When I open my eyes the first thing I see is Jean peering down at me. A shiver tells me that my wet T-shirt ought to come off, which Jean helps me do. Then leaving the lights off, as per past experiences, she gets a fresh one from the bedroom bureau and helps me struggle into it, then tucks the covers to fight the chill. A shaft of moonlight, its purity marred by little floating dust particles, filters through the sheer window curtains, providing enough light to clearly see the concerned expression on her face. Struggling to calm the adrenaline that has my senses too keen for an old man, I start taking deep breaths and rattling on about anything, the weather, how much hay we have. Anything to try and cut into what is really happening and deflate it some. Jean just nods and calmly gives an occasional, “I know.”
Five minutes of this unwinds the situation enough to allow some relief in. Along with the relief, though, comes the inevitable shame. Not to mention the big disappointment. I had hoped that I had kicked the bad dreams since it had been a while. Hoped that our planned action had put them to rest. At least for a little longer than this. With these thoughts come the realization that the planned trip back to the war zone, win or lose, can not come too soon. We are too old for this. And this knowledge is scary in it’s own right. We do not think nor discuss failure. We pretend there is no fear.
After a minute of stroking my brow, Jean asks, “Was it the man or the woman?”
Back to half normal now, but flooded with the embarrassment and shame of another episode, I would like to just poo poo it all, pat Jean’s cheek, and tell her not to fret about it. But I know better than to even try.
“Both,” I answer.
Jean nods and continues.
“Near Hoi An?”
I can see it all in my mind's eye but with Jean leading it is different than in the dream. With Jean, I only see it. I don’t relive it. Having learned to trust her instincts I deliver up whatever she wants to know.
“Yeah babe, in the mud by the river where he fell. She was a little ways off on a paddy dike………just watching.”
Feeling that it is important for her to learn more about what happened, Jean cautiously goes on and tries to avoid any pressure.
“OK, honey,” Jean says. “You didn’t see her when it really happened, did you?”
“No of course not, I didn’t………………”
Jean lets my words hang a moment longer with her familiar flat expression, nods, then slowly leaves the bed, softly humming an unknown tune. Putting on her robe, she looks over at me and smiles.
“I’ll put some coffee on and cook something light for an early breakfast. Come down when you are ready. And don‘t worry Ben, you‘re going to return everything that is heavenly possible.”
Approaching Da Nang, Vietnam after stops in Chicago and Seoul, Jean is sleeping against the bulkhead and I am bone tired after a full day of sitting in flying tubes. But all fatigue vanishes when, feeling the slight decrease in speed and lift, I lean across Jean and look down on the Vietnam coast and South China Sea. Clear blue waters running to stretches of white sand and steep verdant mountains signal our entry into Southeast Asia. Amazingly, luxury high rise hotels dot the beaches, and cars by the thousands fill the multilane highways. Off the left wing, rising up high enough to distinguish the Asian hardwoods of its slopes, is Nui Son Tra, what we called Monkey Mountain. It dominates the whole area of the coast, providing observation north to Hai Van Pass and south to Da Nang. Seeing this beacon for land and sea, I recall the last time I passed over it. How we suddenly dived and landed hard to avoid fire. And how I had to check my pants afterward. How, surreally, a colorfully dressed stewardess, like some sort of French canary amid a bunch of olive drab crows, appeared at the front of the cabin, and welcomed us to the busiest airport in the world. And the phantom jets, coming in quickly,. and going out, afterburners blasting.
Feeling Jean’s tug on my upper arm as the flaps lower and we line up for touchdown, I come back to the here and now.
“The gentleman across the aisle is speaking to you,” she says.
Looking over, I see a smiling silver haired Vietnamese man with thick horned rim glasses staring at me. In good accented English he repeats his question.
“How does it feel to be back?”
Wondering how he knows that, I reply.
“A little unreal, except for the mountain. How do you know I am coming back?”
Gently smiling, his face is kind and gracious.
“You are obviously American and I read your expressions as you looked at Nui Son Tra, your Monkey Mountain. All Americans who were here remember it well. We still use some of your radar there, you know?”
Noticing that we are about the same age, and his knack for putting me at ease, I find his friendly curiosity pleasant.
“Yes,” I say, “from up there the view is one of the best that I have ever seen. I wonder if there are still the crash sites of American jets trying to make it back to the air base up there.”
His face lights up with a broad smile at my knowledge but he courteously tones it down a bit when he says, “Oh yes, they are respectful memorials, to be sure. A bit rusty and scavenged by now but, on occasion, important teaching tools for our young.”
“You must be from the Da Nang area to have such thorough knowledge of the area,” I say.
Appearing to pause for his own reflections, the gentlemen looks to the cabin ceiling, then at me with a more subdued expression.
“ Yes, all my life……I fought at the other famous mountain here, your Marble Mountain, with parts of the 5th Viet Cong regiment.”
He seems to recognize my astonishment as he pauses and smiles boldly at me. Having given me time to digest the fact that he was once my enemy he pulls his trouser leg up and knocks on the plastic prosthesis.
“That is where I got this. But our field hospital there, that thankfully was never discovered, took good care of me. When I recovered I worked there until the war ended. A long long time ago. But it’s funny how it brings us back sometimes, isn’t it?”
Humbled by having come through only a single year of the war, a war that for him was for as long as it lasted, I can think of no reply as we come in on final approach. I look around to Jean who smiles and says, “Very nice man.”
Turning back to the gentleman across the aisle, I see his hand stretched toward me and I firmly grip it. Sincerely, as our eyes search each other’s, he says, “Welcome to Vietnam, my friend. We are glad to have you back and hope that your visit will nurture the common good everywhere you go.”
With unexpected emotion, I reply.
As the wheels screech and the reverse thrusters send us forward, we all look ahead.
The glass, steel, and concrete structure of the Da Nang International Airport, like the luxury high rise hotels on the beach, is another shock for me. Looking back at the front of the arrivals terminal before getting into the taxi behind Jean, I find it so different from the expanses of black tarmac, Quonset huts, and large aluminum hangers, that used to be here. A cool, modern work where there had been only undulating heat and noise, the airport brings me none of the recall that I had expected. Looking to the heights of the terminal, I discover another difference not so surprising. On a large pole canted out over the entrance flies no stars and stripes. Nor the yellow and stripes of South Vietnam. Only a large yellow star over a blood red background gently ripples in the breeze.
After giving the taxi driver the hotel address, Jean and I tiredly lean back and gaze out the window at the passing streets and avenues of a fully maturing Da Nang. Some of the old French structures remain but the thrown together corrugated tin shacks of the war years are gone. Not such a big deal by international standards, the city is still quite unlike what it was when I was last here. And the people have no recognition of Jean and me as anything other than another pair of foreigners going about our business in the heavily congested and growing city. Eye contacts seem fleeting and of no consequence. Not like some of the hard dark stares of the war. But everything is not so different. Exiting the taxi at our hotel, I get a good whiff of the unmistakable smell of nuoc mam or fermented fish sauce, and for the first time since getting here I am pulled back to the uncomfortable past. I once hated that smell and its reminder to observe carefully. Yet it was, and still is, one of the primary ingredients of common Vietnamese cooking. I quickly usher Jean into the air conditioned hotel and out of it’s odor.
No less than during the war, but with a higher standard, commerce rules here. And the efficient and polite way we are treated and served tells me that as long as we are respectful and have money we will receive the benefits of that commerce. Simply put, we are in the middle of a communist country that functions with a capitalistic agenda. At least here in the city. After checking in and cleaning up Jean orders sent up a large dinner of pho, or noodle soup w/ bits of fish, spring rolls, and a side dish of pork fried rice.
After eating all that we can and putting what is left in the small fridge for later, we sit on the tiny balcony overlooking the avenue below. Watching the ebb and flow of mostly young people to the brightly lit clubs and restaurants passes the evening interestingly enough until, again, the odor of nuoc mam assails my senses. But with a well fed stomach, already primed with local cooking and the benefit of relaxation, I start to make peace with the odor. It is just too trivial to bother about. Besides Jean informs me that its smell is just as interesting as it is pungent. And her eyes, looking as heavy as mine feel, tell me that this day in Vietnam, like the French at Dien Bien Phu, c’est fini.
Visiting the area around Hoi An gets complicated when the hotel learns of our intent to go along certain parts of the Thu Bon River. Instead of the train followed by a taxi they now insist that I will need a car and driver to make the thirty kilometer trip. And they just happen to have one standing by. More concerned about what will happen when we get there, I go along with the switch and don’t give it much thought until our driver arrives wearing what appears to be a government tunic. Giang, in his late forties, politely informs us that he is a representative of the party, which wants to insure that we have a pleasant visit to the rural area outside of Hoi An. Jean and I look at each other and nod, having already planned on the possibility of being assigned a minder, or one who insures we don’t wander too far afield. Hence, this should not hinder us. In fact we intend to use the added “help” to free us for a more thoughtful navigation of the past. And by every indication so far, it is the past.
Giang is pleasant and able to speak pretty good English during our hour long drive South along the coast. Passing along the outskirts of Hoi An toward the large muddy Thu Bon he points out little things of note and laughs a lot. But when we get close to highway 1 and the more rural area he become less jovial and more guarded as my directions take us to a small tributary near the village of Dien Phuong.
Sampans, with small brown men in conical hats steering from their rear perch, ply the waters of the tributary near its confluence with the broad Thu Bon. Much has changed about this place but the rice paddies and stilted huts along this part of the Thu Bon delta have not changed that much. Peasants, their lives rural and self contained, dot the many paddies and dikes along the rivers reach. Bent double, shoving the rice shoots into the water covered mud, they do work that would break the backs of most Americans. And kids still slowly switch their water buffalos along the paddy dikes.
Slowly following the tributary upstream, we come to large double spits of shore line reaching almost across the river. And the naked feeling I had while crossing them all those years ago suddenly floods my senses. Giang reluctantly stops the car when I ask and we all get out and peer across the first of the two sandy spits. Remaining near the car, as if ready to leave in a heartbeat, Giang watches Jean and me walk a little ways out the first spit.
“Do you know where you are?” Jean ask.
Remembering like it was yesterday that the lieutenant had wanted to know why a helicopter gunship was flanking up and down the far shore, I look at Jean and answer.
“Yeah, babe, I know. Over on the other side is where it happened.”
Jean scans the far shoreline for a full minute while I just stare, lost in that time. Taking my hand, Jean finally says, “Come on, we must go there.”
Already knowing this, I lead her out over the spit and toward the far shore as Giang starts yelling for us to stop. When I look back at him he is running around and waving his arms in protest. We ignore his protests and continue anyway.
More than halfway across I stop and stare again.
After a moment Jean says, “What happened here?”
Continuing to stare, I reply as if by rote.
“There were three of us. The rest stayed back where Giang is. But I had the radio so there was no choice for me. I go where the lieutenant goes. And the Vietnamese scout with us had to go. But he didn’t like it. The lieutenant made him.”
Shaking off that time to gain better control and get more in tune with Jean, I put my arm around her shoulder and pull her close before I continue.
“We took fire, three rounds, where we stand. One went through the lieutenant’s leg and the other two just kicked up sand in front of us. When the lieutenant went down the scout ran back the way we had come.”
Pointing to the nearest part of the river bank ahead, I take a moment to see it clearly in my mind.
“When the lieutenant went down a lone VC broke cover and ran from that part of the shore. I dumped the radio and caught up enough to empty a magazine as he ran for the rice paddies. When he returned fire I took cover. Then suddenly it grew quiet so I moved on to the paddy track. He was face down in the mud. I rolled him over and saw that some of my shots had got him clear through. I still wonder at his ability to get that far. The wallet was sticking out of his breast pocket. I took the photo and money, and put the wallet back. Then I came back here and called in a dust off for the lieutenant.”
As we start again for the river bank the sound of Giang’s panicky voice turns our heads. Running towards us across the spit, with one arm held high and waving, his voice is clear and loud.
“Wait for me, I must be with you. You can not go there alone. Stop and wait for me!”
Giang grudgingly joins Jean and I as we continue to the end of the spit and wade across the shallow water to the river’s edge. Following a well traveled trail through the palms and other trees growing in the brush along the tributary, we emerge on the same track that was there all those years ago except it is widened some. Looking across the many rice paddies, I see a small settlement of houses where there used to be the native huts of a small hamlet. Getting my bearings from them, the river, and the layout of the rice paddies, I lead our small group about 20 meters along the track to where I had looted the body of my enemy. Not feeling very well, I sit on a mound of stones and hang my head while Jean stands over me and rubs my shoulders. Giang, sensing that something important is happening, curiously looks on. After a moment, Jean is the first to speak.
“Is this where it happened, honey?”
“Yes, babe, this is where it all began….or ended. Depending on how you look at it, I suppose.”
Jean goes into her fanny pouch and removes a small book of poetry with the dong, photo, and a press flower in it. Handing it to me, she says “It’s the right thing to do, Ben.”
Giang, now thoroughly intrigued, walks over to join Jean and me. And for a moment the three of us silently stare down at the little book of verse by Omar Khayyam.
Removing the photo from between the pages of verse, I study the woman’s face one more time, wondering the same things I’ve wondered a thousand times before. Surprisingly, Giang squats down and looks closely at the photograph before standing and excitedly pointing toward the nearby settlement and demanding that I give him the photo. I look to Jean to see what her take on this is. She nods. So I hand over the picture.
Putting the picture in his tunic pocket while he moves quickly toward the crisscross of paddy dikes, Giang yells back over his shoulder, “Stay here, do not move. I will come back soon.”
Jean and I watch him hurry across the dikes and disappear into the settlement of houses wondering if it was wise to let the photo go this near its journey’s end. Before we can worry that much about it the frantically beeping horn of an old jeep, driven by an elderly woman rivets our attention. Bumping towards us along the old track with Giang in the passenger seat, the jeep pulls up to us and stops. A smiling Giang hops down, goes around to the driver's side and offers his hand to the old woman. She says something I can’t understand and smacks his hand away, sending him aside. Swinging both legs outside the jeep, she spryly hops down, walks over to Jean and me and just stares. First at Jean, and then at me. Finally she reaches into an apron-like pocket and pulls out the photo.
“This is me,” she says in passable English. “I saw you take it.”
Then no doubt she saw me take the money as well, I am thinking. I offer the book of verse with the dong and pressed flower. Accepting it, she opens the book, looks at the dong, and nods. Turning the pages a few times, she comes to the pressed flower and runs her finger along its stem. Looking only at Jean, she says, “Thank you.”
Jean half bows, takes my hand, and points at my heart. The woman turns her eyes to mine, searches them for several moments, and looks to Giang. Motioning for him to come close, she says something in Vietnamese.
“She knows your name,” Giang says, “because I told her. She wants you to know her name is Kim. And she wants to know why you are doing this.”
My answer needs no thought.
“Because I killed her husband and took his things, tell her.”
Giang tells her what I said, and listens to her reply, which seems quite long and detailed.
Turning to me, Giang says, “She says you did not kill him.”
Giang points to the nearby river brush, then continues.
“She was hiding just there and could have shot you easily….which she would have if you had killed him. You only chased him after he shot your officer. But you did not even wound him. Her husband was killed when he ran from the brush into the path of a helicopter and its machine gunner. He died instantly. Then you came from the same brush and took their money and the photo. The baby in the photo was their son. He was killed in Kampuchea, what you call Cambodia, in our war there. He was not yet even fully grown. This photo of her and her son during the time that they all lived means much. Too many wars, she says. Such waste.”
Giang sadly shakes his head, and pats me on the back. And this almost knocks me over. Jean looks none the steadier either but somehow, like a walking Frankenstein, reaches out to Kim who graciously reciprocates as they hug.
Me, I can still barely stand, with thoughts banging around in my head so fast and furious that it is useless to try to pursue any of them. Except one. I didn’t do it. And I have returned what I stole. Maybe a bit more.
Wiping away tears as she and Jean part, Kim smiles for the first time, looks at me, and pats her heart. Openly sobbing, Jean turns to me and we hug for a long time as my tears flow as well, my voice breaking with sobs as I say over and over, “I didn’t do it.”
Giang, not so removed, smiles and laughs with pleasure.
Having had the best with each other during our brief but truly divine encounter, we all move back down to the river where Giang, Jean and I begin our return with lifted hearts.
Reaching the near end of the sand spit, Jean calls for a pause and turns around to take a picture. Kim standing on the river bank, framed by the tall palms and low brush, waving to us, is a picture on Jean’s digital camera bound for glory. Kim stands there until we reach the far bank and load back into the car. She watches our car windows full of waves, and hears Giang’s long blast on the horn from far across the tributary of the muddy Thu Bon. Then, bits of peace both ways tendered, we are gone.
Driving back up the coast, Giang is even more jovial than before. Seeming to have forgiven us for breaking his rules he again points out things of interest and laughs a lot. But now, his eyes match his spirit.
Stopping to eat at a place that Giang knows, Jean and I let him order for us. And we are officially introduced to nuoc mam. Jean has a better first time experience with it than me and gets past the smell after her first piece of fish dipped in it. For me, it is more of a struggle, but I persist. With the encouragement of the others, after a few bites, I actually conquer it. The smell no longer drags my nose to unwelcome places. Now it simply falls in with the many other sights, sounds……and smells of another culture different from my own. The many similar things that we share allows this success. Getting rid of my feelings about nuoc mam really tops off the joy of having returned Kim’s property. To say that Jean and I are thankful would be an understatement. Giang, as well, seems fully appreciative of the good he helped do.
Arriving back at our hotel, we say goodbye to Giang while pressing a nice box of chocolates from the hotel gift shop into his hands. “For your wife,” we must tell him several times before he accepts them. Then with a toot of the horn, a friendly wave, and a big smile, he drives away and disappears into the Da Nang traffic.
Making it back to our room, thoroughly but very pleasantly tired, we plan the agenda for the rest of our stay here in Vietnam and, again, get dinner sent up.
This time, setting on the little French balcony after eating, we watch the same young crowds up and down the avenue below. But with an attitude so different from the one before. In a way, we have come home.
In the autumn morning chill of a full dawn I can tell that the sun is beginning its push across the tidewater plains east of here. The sunny snow covered tops of the Smokies to the West, where it shines first, is my signal. Straddling the rich loose dirt as the tiller pulls me over the rime covered patch for garlic, I figure I can finish this prep work for planting in time to have some tea with Jean. The ease with which the rear tines dig in and loosen the dirt is close to a singular joy. We traded in the old front tine tiller, using the money left over from the Vietnam trip. Plenty of hay in the barn, the garden all turned under for winter, and livestock healthy and fit. What more could we ask for? I’ll do the garlic under in a week or so and that’ll be it for the garden until spring. Finishing the last row, I shift the tiller out of gear, switch it off, and store it for winter in the open sided shed.
Walking up to the house, I can see Jean in the kitchen window holding up an empty cup and smiling. After I remove my boots on the back porch, I grab a couple of locust logs for quick heat and enter the house. Stopping on the way to the kitchen to throw one of the logs in the wood stove, I pick up the aroma of homemade apple butter mixing with the cozy smell of wood heat. Scooting along the hardwoods in my socks I silently enter the kitchen, hug Jean from behind, and proclaim.
“Darling, your kitchen smells have lost none of their charm. Hope I made it in time for tea.”
Turning around and kissing me before putting the tea on the table with the toast and apple butter, Jean looks as happy as I’ve ever seen her.
“Flattery will get you everything,” she says. “Sit down and try that apple butter. I just opened the jar.”
Taking my usual chair, I spoon out some apple butter on a piece of toast, and take a bite.
“Very good my dear, you outdid yourself,” I say. “Does that get me whatever I want too?”
Jean sits down with our tea and demurely smiles before answering.
“Almost Ben. Mustn’t be too easy.”
I chuckle and have a sip of tea. A pleasant silence settles about while we simply look at each other. After a moment Jean reaches out and takes my hand.
“We got really lucky, didn’t we, Ben?”
“No doubt about it, babe, we did. But it would have been impossible without you. I feel like a new person except for my love for you. That could never be new. Because it is, was, and ever shall be.”
“I’m so happy for us,” Jean says. “No more awful souvenirs. We are free.”
Pausing to soak in the glow of our new life together, I think of all the time spent regretting something that never happened. And the waste of that war. But I will not let that drag us down any more. Standing from the table, I walk into the den where the wood stove is to look for something. Finding what I want, I go back into the kitchen with my hands behind my back. Walking over and standing by the table where Jean sits with a puzzled look, I say, “You know babe, we are not completely free. There is still a souvenir, I’m afraid.”
Picking up the small framed picture of Kim from the table and holding it up, Jean says, “You mean this?”
I shake my head.
Placing the picture back on the table, Jean gives me that old look of utter frustration and says, “Well, hell! And I was feeling such success. What in the world is it now?”
As Jean’s eye grow wide and a slow smile brightens her face, I place beside Kim’s picture a tall bottle of nuoc mam.
Friends: One Down, One Arrested
Standing on a large rock and turning his face to the soft light filtering through the treetops, Ricky Teller prays, asking for forgiveness and that his body be found before it rots. After checking the tautness a final time, he pulls the noose over his head and tightens the knot behind his left ear. He does things right. Better than any note left behind to sweep his exit, this will be clear to anyone who cares to see. Lowering his eyes to the space that he intends to fill, his vision is taken up with a small sign of life in the creek below. On the bottom is a crawdad holding a small earthworm . Like a fan holds aloft a caught baseball, the crawdad seems to be showing the world that it can make it. Seeing this microcosm of life so clearly from his perch, as if somehow magically magnified especially for him, Ricky changes his mind. Sliding the knot loose with trembling hands, he lifts the rope from his neck, climbs down from the rock, and trudges out of the woods to his small home along the dirt road, his mind swirling with thoughts of his fleeing wife and stepkids.
Barbara Stephens, known simply as Babs, shacked up with Ben Hoons, the father of her two kids, until he left them for his younger cousin and their kid. Ricky, not one to miss such a rare opportunity, caught Bab’s bounce perfectly and they were quickly married. Hearing that his old family had made a new home with Ricky, like a child that has thrown away his toys, Ben Hoons wanted them back. So he drove up the hollow to try to do that. But when he got to the little footbridge across the creek to Ricky’s shack, Ricky was waiting. “Get out of my way,” Ben said, as he tried to push past. Stiff armed by Ricky, Ben swung. Dodging and countering with two quick blows that knocked Ben down, Ricky gave Ben a choice.
“Let it go. Just go on and get off my property or I’ll get the law up here.”
His eye starting to puff up, Ben struggled to his feet, got back into his pick-up and, while cursing and waving a tire iron out the window, spun up a cloud of dust going away. This problem was eventually ironed out by a judge and a poor people’s lawyer. The ruling gave Ricky, after many years of being alone, a bona fide wife with some step kids to boot. But with family came responsibilities. Having been told by Babs that if he ever started drinking again she and the kids would leave him, Ricky picked up the bottle a few months on anyway. And it was like Babs had just been waiting for the opportunity. Looking out the window one day, Ricky saw his family, with their packed trash bags, walking across the footbridge, down the road, and out of his life.
Jay Handley, Ricky’s squad leader in Vietnam, was a kind of easy going guy. But with a bit of an insensitive streak. Once, patrolling out of a firebase near Hue, they located the charred bodies of a local Viet Cong cadre that had been caught in the open and napalmed. Stinking terribly to everyone else, the blackened mounds of flesh didn’t bother Handley. Grabbing one of the dead, propping him up against a palm tree, and shoving a cigarette in his mouth, Handley started talking to the charred mass as if it were the most natural thing in the world. The lieutenant really chewed him out but Handley just stood there smiling and leaning against that same palm tree like he was hanging on the street corner. When the lieutenant walked away Handley booted the corpse back to the ground and, to Ricky’s amazement, just winked and giggled before suddenly getting very serious.
“The lieutenant’s got no guts,” he said, “he’s not going to make it.”
Two months later the lieutenant stepped on a booby trapped 155 shell. It blew him 50 feet into the air and when he came down it was in three big pieces with lots of little pieces missing. Handley gathered the pieces for the chopper to lift out, saying over and over the whole time, “I knew it.”
Sitting on the outhouse toilet with the door open, watching the sun edge closer to the far western ridges, Ricky cups his chin in his hands and wonders what day it is. Almost mesmerized by the incessant drone of the locusts, he startles when he hears an old familiar voice.
“Still sitting on the can while the world passes you by, huh Teller?”
As out of left field as it gets, the voice brings Ricky to focus on Jay Handley walking across the outer edge of the property.
“I thought as much,” Jay continues. “I hope you’re doing better than you look.”
Cutting short his session and quickly pulling up his pants, Ricky comes out of the outhouse smiling, his hand outstretched. Grabbing Ricky’s wrist and inspecting his hand before shaking it, Jay lets out that booming laugh of times in that other world.
“What the hell are you doing in these parts,” Ricky says, “thought you were back in some factory up in Sandusky.”
“Not me, can’t take some labor boss telling me what to do any better than you can Teller. While I had an old lady maybe, but now, she’s gone, what’s the point?”
Laughing and feeling good for the first time in weeks, Ricky shakes his head.
“You mean to tell me that you actually found some woman that would put up with you. I don’t believe it, you got to be lying.”
Jay looks around at the shack, outhouse, and little patch of land between the road and the woods.
“Well it don’t appear to me that you’re doing much better. I don’t see any of the fairer sex pinning up your laundry.”
Suddenly remembering Babs and his step kids, Ricky loses his grip on the bravado and falls silent. Noticing the quick pain in Ricky’s eyes, Jay well remembers that look and how it was overseas. He would slap Ricky’s shoulder and tell him, “Fuck it, it don’t mean nothin.” It was their mantra of pain and a way to try and arrest it. Make it stop. But Jay decides best he just let it die naturally this time. After a short pause, finally meeting each other’s eyes, Jay simply nods and says, “We waiting for the guide to this mansion or can we make it inside alone?”
Ricky laughs and playfully pushes Jay.
“Still the mood man, huh? Got a problem? Take it to Handley. Get in the door there and mind you wipe your feet first.”
A small wood burner, an old rocker, and a sofa, worn through to its pasteboard, make up the living room furnishings. But it is enough. Being of like ilk, they know that there is no revelations about their lives to put forward. No “catching up” to do. Just simply relaxing into some plain talk as they fire up a couple of sticks of home grown brings the two friends back home a bit. It is fine. Even if one foot remains where they were, they are not alone.
“Don’t you ever get the feeling that you’re trapped up this hollow, miles from the nearest town, no transportation?” Jay ask. “I don’t think I’d be able to take that for very long.”
“I get into town some,” Ricky says, “stir things up a little bit, then retire back here until things calm down. Besides there ain’t no liquor stores around here so I’m forced out every now and then.”
“Yeah I can see that, sure looks like some kind of solitary up here. Don’t expect people can get in your shit much out this way. I could use a couple of weeks of that about now. Might help me draw out where I’m heading, if anything can.”
“Hell man,” Ricky says, “throw your gear in that extra room there. It’s where my stepkids used to stay. Don’t expect that they’ll mind now.”
Before Jay can respond, Ricky suddenly jumps up and says, “It’s where I keep my guns. Come on, have a look.”
Following Ricky past the curtain and into the room, Jay sees a couple of Army cots with the mattresses rolled up, torn flowery wall paper that looks 50 years old, and some indoor/outdoor carpet over most of the rough slat flooring. No furniture but between a couple of windows facing the outhouse and the steep woods beyond, a large gun rack is mounted. Several rifles and shotguns occupy it. Each gun shows not a flaw nor a speck of corrosion in its metal. And the stocks glow with rubbed in linseed oil like the day they were made. Jay, smiling like a Cheshire, walks over to the rack and admires an old Stevens 12 gauge as he lifts it from the rack.
“Man, this one goes back a ways. I got my first squirrel with one of these.”
“So did I,” replies Ricky. “Check out that Model 12 Winchester. Smoothest action I ever seen.”
Returning the Stevens and lifting the Model 12 free, Jay studies it a moment, then lifts it to his shoulder for a fit. Bringing it back down, he softly whistles and returns it to the rack.
“Man, Ricky, you got guns here worth more than this house.”
“Like em, don’t you Jay?” Ricky says. “Take your pick. We’ll go after squirrel tomorrow.”
“I’ll take the Model 12 if you can spare it. What will you use though?”
“The 22 automatic,” Ricky says. “It’s always what I use. Gives the critter a sporting chance.” Slapping his thigh, Jay laughs.
“That’s right! Dead eye Teller! I bet you still don’t miss.”
Ricky, a little flattered by his old squad leader’s praise, walks over to the rack and lovingly strokes the scoped 22 before replying.
“Sometimes, Jay—on purpose.”
Hunting the hills together, not bringing in much game, but in a way reliving a part of their past, they quietly roam the hardwood forest and carry the guns that they love. Making one trip into town during that time, they use the last of Jay’s money for all the liquor they will need and some good food to cook up when they want. They even manage to complete a one-day roofing job for an old widow that lives nearby, asking only that she provide the materials. Finishing that job, sunburned and sweating alcohol, they amuse the widow with their discomfort. She tells them that it’s good for them and that it will remove a little of their barroom pallor. Laughing about it and realizing that it is her way of feeling like she is giving them something since she has no money, they tell her that she is probably right. Then packing it in, they head for the river to bathe.
Sitting and sipping their last bottle of Wild Turkey on the river rocks after their bath, not much passes between them. Out in the still water, beyond the rocks, the loud pop of a beaver tail brings their heads up to see a setting sun. Quietly, they put their clothes on, noticing the look in each other’s eyes. Knowing that the other is back at one of those streams in the Nam where they had bathed together, they silently leave the waters and go back up the hollow to their home.
Heavy rain pounding the tin roof, adding a small sense of security, brings them to in the wee hours of the morning. Finding the last two cans of beer in the fridge, Ricky gives one to Jay and, with unsteady hands, rolls up a joint and lights it.
“Well, that’s the end of the booze. Think we should scratch up some money and get some more?”
“No need to bother,” Jay replies, “time for me to hit the road again anyway. Catching and keeping rides is hard when the bottle goes along.”
Speaking in a slow quiet way that reminds Ricky of some of their conversations on night watch back in the war, Jay floats an idea.
“Say Rick, why don’t you come with me? There ain’t nothing holding you here. I figure on heading out to Seattle, try to get on some fishing trawler for a spell. You know, sock up a little money, then see what’s happening.”
“You mean hitchhike,” Ricky says, “I guess you know rides are hard to come by these days, especially for two grown men.”
“You got a better idea?”
“Maybe. Did you see that old VW setting under the tarp in the widow’s yard?”
“Well, it’s been setting like that for two years that I know of. Parts are cheap, plus there’s an authorized dealer and parts store in town. The old woman liked our work. Maybe we could work some sort of deal with her, fix up that old house for the VW, and have some wheels to get around.”
Jay studies the proposition for a moment then shakes his head.
“Where are we going to get the money for gas? Food will cost plenty and you do want to let down every now and then, don’t you? Seems like it would just be another trapping to eat up resources, stifle what little freedom we got.”
Nodding in silence for several moments, Ricky decides to let it out.
“I got some money squirreled away that my mom left me. Not a lot but enough to get the VW going and get us out West. Don’t know why I was saving it, just felt like it wasn’t really my money. Might as well put it to some use.”
Jay looks to the ceiling and rolls his eyes. “You old sandbagging asshole you! Living up here hand to mouth and you got money in the bank! Hell yes, we can put that money to use.”
Getting a deal with the widow woman, who is glad to give them a shove off, the two aging Namies paint her house, rebuild the old porch, and repair her falling down barn. Happy with their work, the old woman deeds the VW, and wishes them
luck, telling them that they are too young to be idling away their time up a West Virginia hollow. After several trips hitchhiking to town and the local junk yards, they get the old car licensed and in good running shape. Time to hit the road. Loading the old bug up with their gear and locking the shack tight with the guns in a concealed wall compartment, they get ready to make their final trip out of the hollow. But as Jay starts to get behind the wheel, Ricky stops him.
“Hold tight a bit Jay, there’s something I need to do first, down the creek a little ways, back in the woods there. Come on, there’s something you’ve never seen. And I can’t just leave it like that.”
Coming upon the little space beside a small feeder stream to the main creek, they find the noose hanging from an old Elm limb, just as Ricky had left it. Staring up at it for what seems like a long time, both are lost. Finally, Jay looks away, avoiding Ricky’s eyes, shakes his head, and says in a choked whisper, “Fuck it, it don’t mean nothing.”
“No doubt about it,” Ricky replies. “It don’t mean nothing. Now let’s get this rope to tie down some of our stuff.”
Lashing on the top of the VW all that will not fit inside and under the hood, they celebrate the death of the gallows, cracking jokes and laughing about it all. New beginnings are ahead.
Out of West Virginia, across Ohio, and almost all the way to Chicago that first day, they stop in a little roadside campground and spend the night before pushing on through the corn belt the next day. Passing through the broad expanses of the West and topping the continental divide, followed by crossing the Cascades, they finally come down into Western Washington and Seattle’s port by Puget Sound. Boats and ships are scattered about everywhere on the many huge waterways. Locating the fishing fleet base and its myriad of ships is easy. After getting their applications in for the next Bering Sea run up around Alaska, they luckily find a place to stay at a boarding home for fishermen and Alaska cannery workers waiting for the season.
Quickly called back for interviews after killing time around the waterfront and tourist spots, they are hired on one of the first trawlers to head North.
Having a record of good loads, a good galley, and adequate berthing, The Edson spends the first several weeks doing pretty standard fishing. Working the nets topside, Jay, who is the bigger of the two, ribs Ricky about his easier job below in the small processing unit. But they both know that topside is much more dangerous. And that is why it pays more and comes with life insurance.
As the season changes and the sun disappears for longer and longer periods, rough seas turn dangerous. One night, removing his safety line in order to work the nets faster, Jay is washed overboard by a rogue wave that almost capsizes the vessel. Taken down immediately by his heavy gear, Jay’s chances of being found are nil. After a cursory search for him, The Edson must make for the Alaska shore with many hands injured.
Having been thrown across the relay belt and knocked unconscious by the door hatch, Ricky’s right arm is broken. He has also sustained some serious cuts and lacerations that make it necessary to fly him to Seattle where the fleet takes care of his medical and living expenses until he can recover. Healing quickly, Ricky soon finds himself back on the streets of the City. Only this time he is alone. The beneficiary of Jay’s small life insurance policy and a small workman’s comp payment, Ricky receives enough money to get on with his life but one thing’s for sure. He is done with fishing. And while Seattle is nice with its moderate climate and generous people, it is still foreign to him. Seeing raccoons wander the streets at night, Ricky feels like a fragile Alice and almost wonders when the big rabbit will appear. It’s all just not him, whatever that is. He doesn’t have much but what he does have lies back East in the Appalachians. It’s where he should be.
Having sold the VW before going to sea, Ricky flies to Sandusky to look up Jay’s family and give them the money from the life insurance. In good conscious, he can’t keep it. Jay’s folks look like they can use it and Ricky, also hurting from the loss of his friend, finds a little peace in getting it to them. Treating him warmly, they bring out some of the pictures that Jay had taken in the Nam and show him some of the ones that he is in. Studying and restudying those photographs for a whole afternoon, Ricky remembers the time and those who didn’t make it and tries to put some kind of order to it all. The Handleys let him be during that last afternoon. And Ricky seems to gain the purchase that he has been scrabbling for ever since that tragic night on the Bering Sea. And even before.
Saying goodbye to Jay’s family the next morning and catching a bus down to the Southern Appalachians of West Virginia, Ricky returns to Fox Run and his little place there. In a way he is glad to be back. Maybe he should never have left. Maybe he never will again.
Sitting by the cold wood stove, Ricky bends over and unlatches the snaps on his suitcase. Lying atop his few clothes is that old rope that went the distance with him and Jay. And then with him alone. Hefting it, he lets it part way uncurl to the floor and begins slowly counting the loops of the noose as he makes it. Stopping before he gets to thirteen, he just sits there looking down at the rope in his hands, feeling its coarseness and remembering the burns he used to get from an old childhood rope swing. Sitting most of the night holding that rope, dropping it and picking it up, smiling sometimes, and almost crying others, Ricky looks back.
Coming cold and grey, the February morning light slants through his window and into his senses. A fresh blanket of snow has fallen. Suddenly a little Black Capped Chickadee alights on the snow covered window sill. Fluffing and flapping around in the snow, as if bathing for an important event, it burst loose with a song that breaks the morning silence. Just as suddenly the bird fluffs again and is gone. Standing and dropping the rope back into the suitcase, Ricky snaps it shut and puts it aside. Moving to the window, he looks out over the meadow to the perch halfway up the hillside beyond. Up where he and Jay sat after a still hunt and talked life. Covered by white powder, it seems cold and remote compared to his warm recall. Moments pass and its chill remains, so dissimilar to his memory. Grudgingly, he spins from the view, grabs an ax and heads to the wood pile, telling himself with every step, “Fuck it, it don’t mean nothing.”
Romantic and sympathetic in its genre, a perfect stand in for the cold and the dead that someone, somewhere, must have loved. Some smidgen of peace it may bring and peace it must keep with them that mourn, their hands clasp away from the necks of those who pipe its tune.
But the dead are more than deaf to its call, the majesty of bursting bombs in air as o’er the ramparts the romantic, gallant, heroes serve up the day's conquest for the suits at their well laid tables, a place far remote from the stretched and curled ones, never hearing the anthem that pied them to their end, as it laid those tables fair.
Memorials, as the day, are also done, folded flags to bosoms held, shuffled steps to somewhere beyond the blurry vision of it all, go those who will know the dirge anew and never tell.