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“Veteran in You”

by Mary Kinard

_

You won’t know what sets him off. It might be a sight, a sound, a smell, the shape of things. It’s because of the all-expense-paid tour  to Southeast Asia, ’67 and’68. Draft papers, clearing the way to boot camp and Advanced Infantry Training, followed by a packed DC-8 overseas where the yearbook smile gets wiped off his face. The tour that alters everything—the way he looks at Asians, the way he looks at babies and children, the way he looks at you.

You’re visiting in California when you meet him, go out a few times. At first, the midnight dinners seem romantic. He always wants that special place against the wall, alone, but in view of the door. It is sometimes the second restaurant that has the wall and the door in the right place, where you feel relieved, with food on the way. You’re caught staring at the tattoos on his arms. The “74” flanked by a death head and Harley wings on his left arm is a mystery. He looks too old to have graduated from high school in ’74, but what else could it be?

“Did you graduate in ’74?” you finally ask.

There’s laughter, surrounded by the long brown hair falling to his shoulders, the matching eyes.

“No, woman.  My Knucklehead. Napalm Annie. She’s 74 cubic inches.”

Your eyes trace a skull on his right forearm as he drinks his water, and he’s laughing again, reaching for your hand, until he spots two drunks in the doorway, and his chair comes away from the wall, both hands coming up clenched on the table. There’s no telling what bothers him about two drunks in a doorway, but it’s a relief when they stumble out to the street and his hands relax.

**

 There’s a trip to a nearby beach planned where you will see the Pacific Ocean for the first time. You anticipate warm sand, thick towels. You will stretch out with eyes shut against the sun pressing down, surrounded by sand and him—so unlike the bland small-town men you’ve known—swimming, then tracing his tattoos again, as the sun goes higher. But the beach is not close by, not the one he has in mind. Instead of turning his truck south on Cherry Avenue, you rumble along for several miles, out city streets and up a hill. It is a cliff off Palos Verdes.

“Why?”

“Not so crowded, and it’s beautiful.”

After parking near an old lighthouse, the drizzle starts, and you wonder if he’ll change his mind about visiting a deserted beach far below, at the end of a rocky trail.

“Is this dangerous?” you ask, as the rain picks up.

He’s out in front, going slowly, carefully.

“A little.” He’s laughing then, and then so are you.

“Have you ever seen a hermit crab?” he says.

“A hermit crab?”

You’re holding his hand, sliding. Trusting him.

“There’s a lot to see here,” he says. “You’re going to love it.”

And you do.

Crawling on the rocks, soaked, laughing at hermit crabs, seeing the Pacific Ocean for the first time with him.

He shows you the Barstow desert, too, from the back of his bike. And with the side of your face against his cracked leather jacket, holding on with hands buried in his front pockets, you know then—you will hold on.

**

Once the perimeter is secure he’ll talk. Talk of firefights, running across an open field, being pinned down in the night, offering false promises to God. He takes you through the rain, the mud, the blood, then back to the firebase, where there’s a package from home waiting.  He describes the hard salami and salad dressing sent by his mother:

“I raided a farmer’s field and put something that looked like lettuce into my helmet, chopped up the salami, dumped that bottle of salad dressing on it. Ate the whole thing.” He grins, pulling his beard. “Then it rained. Rained so hard I couldn’t see the hand in front of my face.”  He lets his hands rest on the table.  “Best salad I ever had.”

On other nights he takes you walking point, shows you the ones who died. You remember hearing that more than 58,000 Americans died over there, and you ask him how he ever survived.

He laughs. “I disobeyed orders.”

**

You didn’t pay much attention to Apocalypse Now. You were in grade school when dead GIs took up space after The Smothers Brothers and Laugh In. No one could explain it, and you wouldn’t have believed a war could go that far wrong. Then you marry him, have kids, find out it did.

You learn not to come up behind him too suddenly, learn how to approach his chair or the garage without startling him. At young ages, the children understand more than they’re told. They know that surprises are fun for some people. Not for Dad, though. Not for you either.

When he’s asleep, the chaos in the house goes on around him with no reaction. ‘Friendly noise’ he calls it. The kids race through, giggling and screaming, the vacuum runs, the phone rings by his head. It’s raining, it’s pouring. He’s snoring. The enemy disappears during the day. But if you make the wrong sound at night, slip into the kitchen for a drink of water without his knowing, he comes wide awake and armed to find the enemy. You’re just standing there with the water, hoping he recognizes you soon. You’re not the enemy, but you feel like it at 3 a.m., holding your glass and your breath.

**

His few visitors understand. How to avoid having a bottle, a book, or his body turn into a potential weapon. Like the neighbor, the door gunner, another one who is back from the war but not home. He rarely leaves the duplex that borders your fence, where the back curtains have been in the same position for over two years, where he lives with his girlfriend who collects Barbie dolls. You’re barely acquainted with the woman, and keep it that way. About 40, she talks nonstop about her back surgery – the one she swears some rock star paid for . You make the mistake once of stepping into their apartment, where his girlfriend names the Barbies lining the wall, including one dressed for the Civil War, the doll you refuse to admire except to say, “Yeah, sure, she looks just like Scarlett.”  There’s no point in getting to know her. She would only disappear eventually.

The door gunner visits infrequently, but you’d be glad if he did not come at all. The man calls out from a distance before walking into the garage. When you see the two of them from the doorway, it’s as if they could be brothers: long dark hair, not tall, tattooed. The man sits, drinks, calls his girlfriend a whore. You hear them talk of weapons, while a Walter Cronkite video plays in one corner of the garage. They talk of the jungle, swamps, their affection for the M16. Not for long, though. The door gunner  cannot stay still. He fidgets, finishes the beer he brought with him, then disappears down the sidewalk between the houses.

**

It seems like the right thing to do, the two of you, going back to visit the relatives after a few years. It’s a short trip to the east coast by airplane, but he’s not getting on any plane–the guy who survived a hostile jungle, racked up two purple hearts, an army commendation medal and a handful of other pieces he never takes out of the top drawer—except for the Eagle Scout badge. You don’t get it, but Greyhound will have to do.

He tolerates the family, the fuss they make over him, the endless questions. They wonder why he sleeps most of the day but say nothing. On the third day, he agrees to a trip into the city on the train to meet one of your old friends. He is sullen in the establishment atmosphere, on the fifteenth floor overlooking the city, burrowing his hands into his leather, pulling his beard. His body is there but the rest of him is back in California, cruising the coast, or on a construction site. He manages a few civilities, but you know he wants outside, away from men in suits, white shirts and ties–the men who were busy making bad decisions while he held his friend’s head above the water, knowing his legs were gone, as the man took his last breath.

Out on the street you steer him toward the Elegant Hog Saloon, an old haunt, thinking a beer might loosen the edge for a while. But you are wrong. It is a room filled with more white shirts, chattering women with strong perfume, a waiter in a bow tie who presents the bill as soon as he sets down the drinks. He tips the chair on its legs and picks up the beer, then the bill. His chair slams to the floor and you jump with the sound.

“Five dollars for a beer!” he roars. “What’s in it?” his voice carries around the room. The waiter turns an inquiring eye with others, asking, “Is everything all right here?” Your husband takes a long swig of the beer, tips his head back and begins to gargle roughly, spewing foam around the table. You figure he can’t keep this up for long, but you’re wrong again. Finally, he sets the glass down hard, wiping his mouth on the cuff of his leather. “Tastes like mouthwash,” he says. The indignant waiter is paid, and you find yourself heading back up the boulevard, toward the terminal, hoping the train isn’t late.

**

At home, he stays late at the bowling alley, into the morning. Sometimes there’s a calming effect. It’s a solo sport where it’s him taking aim alone. The target at the end of the tunnel never moves, never runs. One morning, he comes home before dawn with blood on his clothes, no explanation.

“It was nothing,” he says.

“Covered with blood is not nothing.”

“A Filipino and a Portuguese dude got into it with broken beer bottles. They were trying to kill each other.”

“And you – ?”

“Stopped them.”

“Why you?”

“I told you. They were trying to kill each other.”

**

It’s the 4th of July around noon when the kitchen sink starts leaking and a neighbor lady raps on the side door wanting to borrow some eggs.

She stands just inside the door while you rummage around in the refrigerator, locate the eggs and hand them over.  Without moving any closer she whispers, “Your husband has his face painted, you know.”  She doesn’t mention the army fatigues, the camo bandana around his head, the army boots, or The Rolling Stones bombarding the neighborhood from the large speakers in the garage. “I know,” you tell her. She leaves with the eggs, and you’re left with the dripping faucet, half-made potato salad, and the hot day ahead.

In the garage, he’s rifling through boxes on shelves full of tools and machinery that line the walls. He’s looking for the flag. In a while a large U.S. flag goes up on the side of the house and The Doors take over the bombardment. You’re glad the girls are gone, glad there’s little likelihood of anyone else stopping over.

When it starts to get dark, firecrackers pop around the neighborhood. The garage door is lowered half way, which means he’s gone back to Saigon with Cronkite, who is narrating a documentary with no real ending. You sit with him through the fall of Saigon, until after midnight, until the chicken and the potato salad are gone, knowing that he’s trying to get the troops home, trying to finish the war, trying to reach his buddy who’s been hit by a grenade in a rice paddy that’s overrun by Charlie.  His eyes are closed, but you know he hears everything:  Cronkite’s after-action report, the president’s drawl, protesters, the bombing of Cambodia. He is not finished with the war, even if he could sleep. He will stay at least until the embassy is evacuated, the airlifts are finished, and Ford gives the speech. It is like a bedtime story he has to hear one more time.

**

Other people become the enemy on occasion, and steps must be taken to prevent their infiltration. Some monofilament placed strategically around the backyard deters any possible nocturnal activity. The doors are locked and rechecked at night. The weapons stay by the bed. The sword, the bats, the western Bowie. You feel safe as long as he does.

**

At the very least, offensive behavior will secure the area.  Your few friends feel uneasy around him but still come over once in a while. Like on your birthday. “Hey, girl, flowers for you,” she says, arranging them on the table. “Hope you like them. Oh, look at the little snail hiding in there! I named him  Sammy on the way over.” She says she’ll stay for dinner. You ask him to put on a shirt and come to the table, but you know he hates it. The only company he wants is Lt. Kilgore or Rambo or Cronkite. He refuses to make eye contact with her and eats like there’s no one else in the room.

She never stops talking, wrinkling her nose, fussing over the snail.

“Isn’t he cute?” She goes on, questioning. “Are these curtains new? Are your girls back from camp?”

You see the annoyance on his face, imperceptible to anyone else, but you know he’s about there, know he hates unnecessary talk, the wasted words that can tip off the enemy, as her prattle continues.

“Look! He’s trying to move off the flower—how cute!” She holds out her finger. “Come here, Sammy.”

You secretly will her to be silent, but it’s too late. In one deft movement, Sammy is swept from the flower into his mouth, given a quick crunch with the molars and then chased by a half a can of root beer. The shrieking starts, and you wish she’d just shut up, for God’s sake. You’d be shocked yourself, but it’s not the first time he’s ambushed one of your friends. She visits sporadically after that, then disappears.

**

You stay on edge over the years, gradually putting up your own trip wire, running recon in order to find out what might pose a threat, trying to control the odd emotional state that rarely dissipates. You listen for sounds, trying to stay alert for the unexpected.

Snapped out of a sound sleep by the banging on the security door, your feet hit the floor immediately.  The woman’s shrill voice is hysterical. Reaching for a baseball bat, your husband hollers, “Who’s there?” But you already know it is the door gunner’s girlfriend.

She screams, pounding the door: “Help me. He’s threatening to kill himself. I think he’s going to do it this time!”

He reaches the door first, holding the bat. He halts her hysteria and demands to know what the boyfriend is doing.

“He has the shotgun to his head.”

He heads out the door, not turning around except to say, “Get down.”  You start to say something like, No. The police. Wait. But he is gone.

The woman’s short thin hair and pasty skin are damp. Her massive sobs and flimsy nightgown leave her shaking. You push her onto the sofa, grab a blanket, try to calm her.

It’s then you see the children in the doorway, their flowered nightgowns below fearful eyes, and you point to their room behind them saying, in a voice not like your own, “Do not come out.”

The woman’s screaming starts again, “Oh, God, he’s sick. He’s so drunk. He said he’d kill me, too.” You’re whispering, talking to her, but in your mind counting the footsteps, never leaving him, between the buildings, around the corner, up two or three steps to the duplex door. The thin door that has part of you on the outside, and the boyfriend–deranged and drunk–on the inside.

The shotgun blast dispels every thought except to reach a phone. You crawl because your legs are no help, toward the bedroom where the only phone is. You dial, say what you can, heaving the words. The officer wants names, who lives where.

“The neighbor’s location?  Is he barricaded? First floor, second floor? Anyone hurt?”

“Gaviota, on the other side of the fence.”

“Is he alone?”

“Yes. No. His girlfriend’s here. He said he’d kill her. Suicidal. My husband went there. My husband.”

“Description of the neighbor?”

“Long dark hair, not too tall, he’s, he’s drunk.”

“Description of your husband, ma’am?”

“Long dark hair, he’s 5’8”, long dark hair but, but—.  He has no shirt.”

You are yelling then, “Did you hear me?”

“Stay on the line, ma’am.”

You stay on the line as lights from the police vehicles flash around the neighborhood. Mental tapes from everywhere merge into a postage stamp second. Aimless thoughts about why he can’t die: the war didn’t kill him, the men in white shirts didn’t kill him, the Filipino didn’t. The neighbor shouldn’t be allowed to. In your mind you tell him to come home, around the corner, between the buildings, back to bed, please. You ask him why he still has to walk point.

“Ma’am?”

“I’m here.”

“There’s no one injured.”

You sit still for a while, there on the floor in the dark, next to the phone. The woman in the living room has stopped whimpering. It is quiet. You rehearse everything you can think of, of that night and the days before. You know you should go back to the children, tell them everything is all right. Back to the sofa to say that the door gunner won’t kill anyone, not tonight, that he’ll be spending some time away from home. But your legs are vaporous. So you sit until he returns–until they take his statement, until the lights stop flashing. The girlfriend stays until she feels safe enough to go home, alone, back to Barbie and the small living room with a shotgun blast through the ceiling. When the children return to bed, you start to ask questions, but it is asking too much. He drinks water, checks the doors, leans the bat in the corner, then sits in the garage with Cronkite until the sun comes up. You’d like to tell him to let Cronkite rest, that the war is over now, that Charlie has gone home. But he knows better. You know better, too.