© 1992, bardsmaid

Author's Notes:  When I started writing in 1989, I found myself with a character, Jack, who--tangentially, I thought--was a Vietnam vet.  Eventually I realized that I had no real grasp of what this experience had done to him or how it had shaped his subsequent self, so I went to the library and started researching the war.  I also started a diary for Jack 3-7 times a week from the day he got his draft notice through his year in Vietnam and out the other side, an exercise that helped me insert myself into the world of war and focus on what was going on around my character.  I learned an immense amount, and eventually I had hundreds of pages of material, to the point where I wasn't sure exactly what part of the story I wanted to tell.  So at one point, in authorial desperation I suppose, I carved out one small incident and shaped it into this short story, told by Jack's friend Deb, a nurse he'd met during the war.


I kept telling myself I hadn't survived a year of nursing in Vietnam just to shrivel up and die on the streets of the U.S.A., but the words themselves weren't enough to turn my life around. I'd been in one uncontrolled freefall for the last eight months, and in response I'd done the only thing I knew would work: I stuffed my blasted, threadbare, scrambled life away in a little package, set it up on some high mental shelf and went on autopilot.

I'd been on automatic so long I couldn't have told you what day it was without stopping to figure, or maybe even what month it was. But I had this routine down, and it kept me moving if not really alive, which was about all I could see my way to hope for: hospital shift at eleven, off at seven when the morning was new, stop at Pellini's on the corner for a six-pack and maybe some food, then home, a beer and into bed.

I didn't look at people in the streets and I especially didn't look in store windows because plate glass can be a pretty harsh mirror. But for some reason when I stepped up that wooden step into Pellini's that particular day, I looked up, and there was this big tear-off calendar over the meat counter, and it said 5.

Five.

August fifth.

It was Jack's day.

Something inside me came awake. This was Jack's day; he should be on a plane somewhere over the Pacific by now. It jumped me, the realization, the way a sudden descent on a roller coaster takes your breath away.

I hoped he'd made it through those last few weeks--hoped more than anything he'd made it. As a little extra show of faith I swore off the six-pack I was holding, as if my effort might help buy his safe return.

So I went home and showered and went to bed, but I didn't think even then about actually going to see him. It was like there was no possible connection. Home meant he was going to be back safe in San Luis Obispo where he'd come from, but since we'd never met in that sphere it was like a dream, just a construct in my head instead of a real, length-by-width-by-depth location we could both be in at the same time.

 

. . .

 

We'd gotten the burned kids in at the hospital on the twenty-sixth of July and for a couple of weeks after that I didn't take any days off because they needed me--needed me. There was nobody who could do what I did except a woman volunteer who'd heard about the kids through the TV news and worked at the burn center in Sherman Oaks. But she could only come for a couple of hours at a time and that didn't do much except allow me to come in a little later on the days she could make it. I suppose I really needed that, to know I was indispensible that way, even though it was wearing me to the bone. She'd tell me that, Sharon from Sherman Oaks. "Debra," she'd say, "you're walking the edge, you know that. Surely they can get somebody to relieve you, even on a temporary basis. How long do you think you can pull this off?"

And I said I can do it; I made it through a year in Nam where every day was worse than this.

But she was right. I couldn't pull it off forever.

. . .

 

L.A. was just supposed to be a blip on the map, a stopover on the way to the sand and blue water of Baja; that's where Bud and Foster and I were headed. We were going to Mexico to soak up the sun and maybe wash the war ghosts out of our heads in the warm, clear ocean water. That's what I'd kept visualizing--that absolutely clear, aqua-colored water I'd seen in a picture I'd cut out of a magazine. I wanted to lay down on the beach and fall asleep and not wake up for months.

. . .

 

We'd only served together for two months in Vietman--my last, his first--but I'd get these occasional letters from Jack, and instead of throwing them away when I'd read them, I tucked them away in my sweater drawer; I couldn't tell you why.

...you're one tough customer, McLaughlin. You made it through a year of something I don't think I could ever face. So hang in there, give it everything you've got. I know you can do it and in the meantime the ear is here for you even if it's coming from a little farther away.

Keep in touch, kid.

-Jack

. . .

 

I had this apartment I'd found almost by accident. I was looking at a bulletin board outside a print shop when the owner came out, a spreading, smiling lady in a pink-flowered muu muu. She had this little upstairs place, she said. It was just a studio, really. It hadn't been used since her husband Norman died four years ago.

Norman had been an electrician and a painter--the brush-and-easel kind. My apartment was where he'd done his art and there were times I'd feel like he was still there, sitting on the wicker stool with a brush in his hand and yellow parchment light coming through the cracked shades. He'd think about Norma and then trace careful brush-strokes on the canvas. I wondered if he knew about me, if he minded my stomping around and the way I left my clothes on the floor. It was like sharing a room, and I was the noisy second arrival.

I knew what he'd felt for her; I'd seen the paintings set against the wall the first time I walked in. They must have been romantic in a common, working-class sort of way. Even the names fit together. Sometimes when I couldn't sleep I'd think about having someone like Norman, someone who was out there looking for me and wouldn't give up no matter what the obstacles.

. . .

 

The eight months I'd been home from Vietnam had been one giant twilight zone. I mean, people all looked the same as before but there was no connection left. Like they were all behind some big, invisible screen and you couldn't get through.

Jack and I traded a few letters; I think they were the main thing that kept me going. He'd write and tell me how strong I was, he couldn't have taken a year of the death and despair and spare body parts I'd had to face; he only had to work on broken machines and they didn't bleed or scream.

Once he said he was laid up in the hospital for a few days (mortar attack) and please write.

He'd say, keep your chin up. Or, don't forget to look for dogwood blossoms.

He said watch out for those two guys you're traveling around with.

Once I even saw him in one of my dreams. That's when I knew it was time to break away from Foster and Harris and make a life of my own. A week later here I was with this little apartment and a job in the ER of a local barrio hospital. It all looked pretty legitimate.

. . .

 

The burned kids were all from the same family. The dad had been in Texas with the crop shifts, Mom was at her night job in a sewing factory, and the kids had been home alone with the faulty wiring. There were five of them, ages two to twelve. Mickey was the one who snagged me the hardest. He was--or had been--a chubby little kid, probably rosy cheeks and the whole bit, and he had these big brown mule eyes. He had the best chance of the bunch. I bought him a teddy bear with my own money and the night he arrested with no warning I nearly went crazy. It was the sixth, I think. August sixth.

. . .

 

When I came home from Vietnam it was almost Christmas, and after the holidays I finished out the last six weeks I owed the Army at a base stateside where nothing was going on, where you were doing apendectomies and setting broken fingers in sterile surroundings and exhaustion was what people got from trying to figure out what they'd be doing on the weekend. Me, my mind was still in the Delta, itchy for that adrenaline rush, dashing to start IVs and stop bleeding until exhaustion overtook and all you wanted was sleep and dreams of home, of wholeness and peace. My mind was crowded with people I'd known on staff and patients I'd had. Most of the patients came to me in my dreams, without my permission. They were always the worst ones.

That's when I'd met Foster and Bud Harris, in a bar, off-duty hours. They'd both been infantry in the Iron Triangle. It was like homecoming, like running across Americans in a foreign country. The States had become a foreign country.

When I'd put in my weeks for the Army, I took off with the two of them and we headed west. It wasn't that we'd targeted any particular place, like pioneers in covered wagons headed for California. We were just moving, wandering. Running. It took me a long time to figure that out.

. . .

 

On the eighth, Mickey's two little sisters died, leaving just the oldest two children. It happened before I came on and when their mother arrived I put my arm around her and tried to find something comforting to say but no words would come. My heart was a stone; there was no moisture left to give it any life.

. . .

 

I've gotten a new location since you heard from me last, a firebase out near...(you know they won't like it if I tell.) A whole different dynamic. Nothing happens for long stretches, then all hell breaks loose. The forest here would be beautiful if it weren't for the guys you know are hiding out there waiting for a chance to sneak up and rip your guts out.

Thanks for all the help you gave me when you were here. I really did appreciate it. Hope you've found a nesting spot or are having good times/seeing good scenery if you're still on the road.

Cross your fingers for me.

. . .

 

The nightmares had come back, long shifts in the OR in the Delta and especially this one kid, Calvin. That was all I'd known, just his first name. I'd been there nearly ten months when he landed on my table and I knew better by then than to get close to a patient. But there was something about this one, the way he held on for so long, the way he was going to make it back. I should have recognized the difference between strength and wishful thinking.

Calvin was burned, too, one of the worst I ever saw. When I knew for sure he was dying I lied to him and told him his pregnant wife had already delivered and that the baby was a girl. He smiled at the news but I hated myself for what I'd done. When it was over I don't know who I was madder at, myself for lying to him or him for dying on me. I went out for a break and sat in the red dust behind a supply tent and cried my eyes out.

That was the way Jack found me, the big introduction. Jack was a pair of boots in the dirt in front of me. I wasn't going to look up at anybody but those boots wouldn't leave--new, shiny ones, the kind only new guys had. He wondered was I alright.

I had no use for a stupid green kid so I told him where to go. He let me flail and sputter for a while and then he sat down and pulled me into his arms. He just held me, that was all, just these strong arms and a cheek tucked against the top of my head. He stayed until I'd gotten it all out. When he got up to go I apologized and told him thank you. I figured I'd never see the kid again.

I still think of that day. Sometimes it amazes me that I've been touched so long by that single drop of kindness.

. . .

 

On the tenth my super called me at home to say a couple of nurses from Long Beach had volunteered their services for three days; I should take the time off before I burned out. So I said okay, great, give them my thanks, and I hung up. But then I wondered what I was going to do.

I tried to get into the wallpaper thing--I was waging this little redecorating campaign in my apartment. I even went to the hardware store and looked at all the patterns. But wallpaper doesn't seem very critical after burn patients. You look at the designs and say, what does this matter anyway? I needed to get away, to air my head out. So I thought about that park in the rich neighborhood. I wanted to see real life--green trees and grass and people who hadn't been swamped by life--and kids, healthy kids just having fun.

So Norma took me in her little two-shades-of-blue Rambler with the plastic covers over the seats to keep them from getting dirty or ripped, and I lay in the sun in my shorts, but I spent most of the time crying into the towel underneath me, I don't know what started it but I couldn't seem to stop. I thought about Mickey and his two dead sisters, and my cousin Beebe, who was always like a mother to me, and the last time I'd come here, with Bud. There were all these flowers blooming like crazy but the bushes made Bud nervous; the alertness that had kept him alive through a year in hell had turned into an albatross he couldn't shake.

I cried for Jack's magic grandma, the person he was closest to in the world, who'd died at the end of June, and for Jack, what he'd be going through, back home with his grandmother gone and her house cold and empty the way old Mr. Larsen's had been when I was thirteen.

On the way home, Norma suggested dinner. We drove all the way to Santa Monica and ate at this little fish place that looked out over the water. We just sat there and ate and listened to the waves breaking against the rocks below us and thought our separate thoughts. Every once in a while my eyes would wander up to see the stray hairs beside her temples shining gold in the last of the sun.

 

. . .

 

I hope to have a couple of kids someday, except I don't think I have the patience, and when I get to be an old lady there should be pictures of grandchildren on the coffee table, good kids who'll think I'm as magic as Jack's grandma was. I always called her that--his magic grandma--in a teasy sort of way, to cover up my own jealousy. Jack never seemed to mind.

I knew about all the things she grew in her garden, the sweet peas and nasturtiums and the strawberries, and about the time she'd spent in England at the beginning of World War II, because Jack had told me. And I knew first-hand about the gift she had for wise advice because sometimes Jack would read her letters to me.

Whenever things got really bad we'd get together, Jack and I. We'd sit and talk and the war would melt away a little.

 

. . .

 

Sometime into the wee hours of the eleventh I dreamed about Cooper flying into that last little ville in his medevac, the one he'd painted 'Desperation Airways' on in yellow lettering. Only this time it wasn't Cooper, it was Jack. I woke myself just as the woman went to throw the grenade through the door.

The bed was a mess, twisted covers and sweat, so I got up. Outside, the horizon was starting to color. The refrigerator didn't have much of a story to tell, just lettuce and beer and some raisins in a little tupperware tub. I opened the window and sat on the railing with the beer. The air was nice in the morning, before all the trucks started up and the people commuting from one end of this paved-over basin to the other began the fight to get to work, and the factories began spewing whatever it was they spewed out.

Behind the eastern mountains the sky was stained with pink. I wondered about Jack, whether he was asleep or awake and which way his room faced. No humidity, no bugs, no mildew: this was California. He'd be enjoying that.

Two days. Two more days of this vacation stuff to go.

It still seemed unreal, Jack here in the U.S.A., me here in the U.S.A.--both of us in the same state and only a couple of hundred miles apart. It was more than my mind could grasp. My gut still told me Jack was only real in Vietnam. Who knew what he was here?

. . .

 

I shouldn't even think about men. There have been too many and the results are always dubious at best.

. . .

Hi, Lieutenant--

A lot has happened since we last connected but I suppose that goes without saying. Thanks for writing about Nana.

Wash and I are back from our stint in the jungle. Some hairy times but I guess it served its purpose. We saved a lot of ships that wouldn't have made it back otherwise and it gave me a change of scenery I needed at the time. Made a little mistake a couple of months back (you know me, I can't leave anything alone, I just have to try and fix it all.) Well, this time it didn't work. In fact, it blew up in my face and I got to see a couple of people I really cared about shot to hell. Haven't been able to shake it yet. Nightmares, conscience... well, you know.

. . .

 

The next two days went by about the same as the first. I slept at odd hours, got up at odd hours. When I was up I didn't know exactly what to do with myself. I'd pick at the wallpaper or go to the hardware store or stop by the print shop for a while to help Norma collate and staple. It was mindless work and that was fine with me. There was a soothing, hypnotic sort of quality to it, watching the pages pile up and not thinking about anything. Sometimes I'd think about calling Jack, just on a whim. I'd picture myself picking up the phone and calling information, jotting down the number on some misprinted paper from the trash can, and then dialing San Luis Obispo, knowing he was there--really there--and wondering if he'd be near the phone when it rang.

Maybe, Norma said once when the silence between us had gotten too deep, a change of scenery would be a good thing for you. She loaned me the car and suggested Malibu or San Diego. I headed out toward Santa Monica, like two days before, and when I got to the 405 I though a lot about going south--San Diego like Norma had said--but I knew if I did I'd end up somewhere in Baja, all alone, not with the guys, and the car might break down or I might break down and who knew how it would end up.

So I went on through to the ocean and up the Malibu coastline. There were beaches everywhere. I stopped and lay in the sun for a while but the swarms of people around me were distilling my aloneness to lethal levels. I got back in the car and drove up the coast a ways, then stopped and headed back. The turnaround was full of cars. Everybody was looking over the rocks at something so I took a look, too. Surfers--a group of bobbing wetsuits like sea otters, waiting for the waves. The surf wasn't very high but nobody was making any moves to come back to shore; they were willing to wait 'til something came along.

I could understand that. I'd never surfed, but I knew what that was like, being in the element and waiting.

. . .

 

That night I did try to call Jack. I didn't think about it at first--the part about would he be on the other end or what would he say, how would he react. I just jotted down the number from the information lady and dialed right away, before I'd have a chance to chicken out. It rang and rang for a long time. I was relieved when nobody answered.

. . .

 

Norma wasn't making any fortune at the print shop. She'd inherited the place from Norman; it was something he'd started in his later years. It'll carry you through, he said, and it did, but only just barely. Whenever I unloaded a new shipment of paper I'd realize what a burden it could be for her. Paper is like lead when you're talking big quantities and not single sheets.

Don't you need somebody around here? I said once. Have you ever thought of taking on some guy with a strong back for a few hours a week?

That was the catch, she said. A few hours. Not many men with strong backs had just a few hours to put into a job like hers. They had families, or cars to pay for, or houses or drinking habits. I see, I said. I did, too.

. . .

 

The night of the twelfth they called me from work and asked me to come on at six the next morning. I was glad, actually, no time to have to figure out what to do with, no reason to stay up late peeling at the last of the fleur-de-lis on the wall above my bed. I turned in early and woke up around one from the mortar attack in my head. After I showered I tried for TV but there were only test patterns, so eventually I ended up back in the sack. I kept thinking about Jack. I wondered whether he was asleep or awake.

. . .

 

I'd been on duty about three hours when it happened, and it scared the living hell out of me. I was working with Juan Jose when all of a sudden he turned into Calvin from the war. He was asking me about his wife and daughter and when I looked around, the whole ward looked like Nam; it even had that smell. Everybody I saw was in fatigues and there were GIs in the other beds pleading for my help, though the burned kid wouldn't let go of me. The last thing I remember was screaming at him to get his hands off me and when I woke up I was lying on a bed, four faces peering down at me, everybody in white and worry-lines.

. . .

 

They wanted me to take a month off. I went home to Norma and asked her would she like my services for a while; I had a strong back and was dependable with paper and machines. Then I broke down and cried.

Norma took me to her apartment and fed me stew and cherry shortcake and put me to bed on the sofa. I'd slipped a couple of sleeping pills in with the last of my decaf so there wasn't much after that. The next thing I remember was morning sun shining dust-lines through the lace curtains.

After I took a bubble bath (Norma's orders) I went up to my place to get ready for the shop. Jack's last letter had been lying on the kitchen counter collecting food splatters since it came, the day after we got the burned kids in. I took it out of the envelope. I'd read it maybe four times before but I hadn't remembered the end being anything like that.

If I can last out a couple more weeks I should be back on US soil soon. Same state as you even. Maybe we can connect sometime. (Will you come if I promise not to die before you get to me?)

I wondered if he really meant it or if it was just one of those things you put in a letter that doesn't amount to anything. Anyway, I didn't exactly qualify as anybody's savior. My life was a mess. I'd just hallucinated the Delta and now I was working in a print shop for $20 a week. What kind of life was that?

I could hear Norma's footsteps on the stairs. I put my jeans on and went down to work.

 

. . .

 

If my mom had been in charge of the print shop instead of Norma she would have said Debra, you're diddling. Get back to work. There's lots to do. Only by three o'clock there wasn't lots to do--I'd organized six months worth of clutter--and it wasn't my mother who was running the print shop.

Norma could only afford me three hours a day, but there was nothing to do if I went home, so I just stayed on and on, dusting or collating or stacking boxes, whatever I could find to keep myself busy. It kept my limbs moving.  But my mind was stuck on Jack.

I kept telling myself he was okay. He was the strong, clever one, the guy who could find a silver dollar at the bottom of every mud puddle or fix a stereo with a paper clip or convince you a rain-filled mortar crater was a lake back home and you were there.

Deb, haven't you already done the back room, Norma asked when she caught me going at it with the broom a second time.

I forgot behind the shelves, I said. There's dead bugs and everything.

I got down on my hands and knees and attacked the area under the shelving, but no amount of pushing and poking could change the knowledge that everything I was telling myself was bullshit, pure and simple. Jack's letter had weighed like lead, the combined effect of dealing with his grandmother's death and a cryptic reference to something that had obviously shaken him to the core but that he was padding the way guys pad things so they won't notice when they're falling apart.

Debra, Norma said. I don't know how long she'd been watching me jab that broom at the wall.

Alright, it's a friend from the war, I said. He's home now.

I told her about the way Jack could fix anything, how he could see the processes that made things work as if they were transparent, like acetate overlays in an encyclopedia illustration. I explained about the beginning and how I'd helped him through the bad news when he found out a mine had turned his best friend from home--Iggy, whos mother Carmen made the world's best tamales, Iggy the brain with the Stanford scholarship--into GI confetti up near Danang. Jack had only been in country about two weeks then.

I didn't mention anything about Anh, the way he'd been with her, gentle as if she might break, and the way it killed him when she disappeared. God knows how long he looked for her.

Ease your mind, Norma said. Call him.

But I couldn't. It wasn't that easy.

There was no way to explain what it had been like, the way everything had been magnified, how your breathing and your body and your own pains were so much with you, and what just a word or a touch or some small flicker of light in your day could do. Maybe it had all been the magnification.

He stopped for you when you needed help, Norma said, peering over the tops of her glasses.

I wanted to pick up the trash can and make a graceful exit toward the dumpster in the alley but I didn't let myself.  Maybe he's not home, I said.

Norma just looked at me, one of those looks that makes you see more of yourself than you want to. You know where the phone is, she said. You're welcome to use it.

Jack's mother answered. Jack wasn't home. He'd left that morning to go scatter his grandmother's ashes up near Santa Cruz; he'd probably be gone a couple of days at least. It wasn't at all what I'd expected. I said thanks, I'd catch him some other time, and I hung up.

. . .

 

When Norma dropped me at the Greyhound I promised her I'd take the bus the whole way, but when I got inside I bought a ticket just to Salinas, because there was a layover there and I didn't want to have to wait around if I could go on ahead with my thumb. Then I got on and settled into a window seat. Inside, my stomach was ticking like a time bomb.

It was seven o'clock, still hot from the day, and the people who filed past me were creased and sweaty. I closed my eyes in the hopes nobody would sit next to me and breathed in the stale, recirculated air. If my mother had been here she would have said Debra, you're crazy. This is a crazy thing to do. Part of me was saying the same thing.

I jumped at a baby's squeal. Across the aisle were two Mexican men, each with a worn brown grocery bag of belongings smoothed into a neat square. They sat low in the seats and quiet, as if not to be noticed, and held their bags securely. Behind them was the girl with the squirmy baby. I closed my eyes again and tried for sleep.

When I woke there was open space, hills turned palomino tan in the warm, fading light and oak trees scattered gently on them like so many ancient Vietnamese frozen in tai chi positions. Way below my window cars passed by like silent toys. There were patterns in the clouds.

 

. . .

 

Dear McLaughlin,

Well, I have some time on my hands and when that happens your thoughts start to catch up with you and you remember irons you'd left lying in the fire when the last excitement hit. All of a sudden I had this big flash that I've been ignoring a lot of people in my life, going around inside myself like the guy with the hat pulled down over his eyes and the big trench coat on, so here's an attempt to redeem myself...

. . .

 

About midnight the baby behind the two Mexicans started hollering like anything and the mother was at her wits' end, she'd been trying to placate the little squirt for the whole trip. The woman behind me was starting to grumble, which only made the girl with the baby more frantic, so finally I sat up and offered to take the kid for a while. Anything was worth a try.

I kept her for probably a couple of hours. When we rolled through San Luis Obispo she was standing on my lap with her little toes digging into my leg and mucky lips against my ear. I would have liked to give her back but her mom had fallen asleep. I thought about Jack's mother, what she must have thought of me on that second call, wanting to know where he was, how to get there. She probably figured I was crazy but she'd given me the address and the people's name anyway.

I wondered if I was doing the right thing, just popping in on him this way, no warning or anything.

. . .

 

Cross your fingers for me.

. . .

 

I rode that last leg from Salinas to Santa Cruz with a trucker, a baby-faced redneck who chewed jerky like gum, and I made it clear I was grateful but I was not in it for games. I told him I'd been a nurse in Nam--because rednecks were usually gung-ho flag wavers--and he seemed to respect that. I told him I was going to see a buddy who'd just gotten back; his grandma had died and I wanted to make sure he was alright.

They guy took me all the way to the little lane I was looking for. It took him a full five minutes to turn his rig around.

 

. . .

 

Jack had told me about redwoods once, but they were more than even he could put to words. They were straight like pencils and went up forever, it seemed, until they brushed the light of the sky. Between them were fallen needles and green carpets of ferns and little spreading plants with soft-colored flowers. Everything was silent.  Even your footsteps got swallowed up in the quiet.

I wanted to stop, to sink into a bank of ferns and become a part of the peace that held this place, just melt in so no one would ever notice, but the quiet outside me made my inner rattling that much more obvious. God only knew what had inspired me to do this--actually make the call, buy the ticket, sit all night with my head bumping against the window and hold that drooly baby on top of everything else. Who did I think I was, anyway?

. . .

 

“McLaughlin?”

I'm looking at his boots again, like the very first time. In my hurry I tripped over a root and fell face first. I try to swallow the pain in my stomach.

“McLaughlin, is that really you?”

“No, it's a singing telegram.” I brush the dirt off my cheeks, but not the red, and get to my knees and look up. His face is total disbelief.

“But what are you...? How did--?”

“I wormed it out of your mother. I took a bus. Look, don't ask me questions I can't answer.”

He's wearing jeans and a blue shirt, real civilian clothes. His hair is growing out, sandy blond. He must have found a way to slip past that final haircut. He offers me a hand up and we stand there looking at each other.

He's still as tall as I remembered, and tanned from working outside in that wall of Delta heat. His left cheek still dimples but his eyes have that blasted-out look war gives you.  You go over nineteen and come back a year later feeling sixty-three. We're still just standing there.

“Look,” I say. It's now or never. “Do I get one of those hugs or not?”

And he pulls me into those arms of his.

. . .

 

I stay while he scatters his grandmother. It makes me feel like I've finally had some contact with the magic lady. He's already settled on a spot in a half-circle of trees with ferns growing up between the stumps. Maidenhair, his grandma's favorite.

I don't really want to be there. I want to hang back, to leave him to his own private grief, but he's like a statue; he just squats there over the opened box, not moving. He doesn't even notice me until I touch him. Don't go, he says. So I don't.

I watch him lift out careful handfuls and scatter them under the little plants covering the ground, three-leaved like clovers but bigger. Some of the ashes catch on the leaves and their tiny lavender flowers. He brushes them off, curls the plastic bag back down into the box and stays there squatted, one hand dusted from his job. Finally he brushes at it gingerly and stands. He offers me the hand and we walk away through the trees, no talking, just that link between us and the sweet smell of sun on green, living shelter.

. . .

 

“So how long did it take you to get up here?” he says, glancing over at me.

We're at the beach. He wants to walk--anything just to be moving--though he takes it slowly, like a person recovering from a hard illness.

“Last night,” I say.

“Sleep much?”

“Some. The kind where your head vibrates against the window.”

“I'm still kind of catching up from the flight over,” he says. I remember how he hates long flights. “Did it to myself twice, though. Did I tell you I went to Sydney for R&R?”

“No. To see Suz?” Susan was the girl next door when he was a kid.

He nods.

“So how was she?”

“Grown up. I should have known.” He flashes a brief smile. “No, it was good. I saw kangaroos and Australian surfers... She's got a boyfriend. She told him she couldn't see him for a week, too, because I was coming. But he took it okay. He was casual, a nice guy.”

He stops to pick up a piece of driftwood and pick at it with his thumbnail. “I was glad I went. We talked a lot, her parents are like family. It was normal, you know? Family and peace and quiet, no pressure... No incoming.” He looks up at me. I'd forgotten how brown his eyes are, not opaque but crystal clear.

“Hawaii was like that,” I say. “Beebe cooked for me. The best times were just sitting around being together. It could've been anywhere. Anywhere would've done just fine.”

“And now,” he says. “How'd you come to settle in L.A.?”

“Tired of traveling. Tired of not having an address--thanks for the letters, by the way.”

“You, too.”

He smiles but I can feel both of us getting too close to territory we don't want to be in. We keep walking. He looks ahead at birds dodging the surf; I search for shells among the rocks in the wash line beside us.

“Sand dollar,” Jack says, and reaches down to get it.

The wind starts to pick up a little.

. . .

 

I'm out here by myself in the surf, feet and ankles freezing from the first wrap of icy wetness, but I don't mind. I pretend I'm a desert refugee who's just found water after a long crawl through the sand, all heat and dryness with no relief in sight. Jack's back in the shelter of a sand dune, stretched out on his back. He said he was tired of walking. I don't know whether this means he needs some space.  It makes me realize how well we used to read each other.

I dance in the waves a few minutes and then wander farther up the shoreline, eyes down, looking for shells. I wonder how much time Jack needs and whether I'm just in the way. It's a little like having dropped in on somebody at their office only to find them on the phone, busy. They wave you to a seat and gesture every now and again but they don't really have the time for you; they're already over their head into something else.

The surf washes out around something dark in front of me. I pick it up, a stone with holes in it like Swiss cheese, all the edges smooth and the holes roundy where little rocks got stuck inside and swirled. I tuck it in my pocket and start back.

When I get to Jack he's asleep on his stomach, bare-backed, resting on his shirt. At least, I think he's asleep. I look at the tan waist-to-shoulders expanse and then at his face, the nice contours, the bushy eyebrows and the straight line of his mouth. Stubble; I know the way he hates a beard. Eventually I sit down beside him. A hand moves over and touches my knee.

“Were you asleep?” I say.

He shakes his head no.

“You alright?”

No again.

I put an arm around his neck and ease his head up against me. “I'm here,” I say. “I don't have all the answers. Actually I probably don't have any of them. But I'm here. Lean all you want.”

Out at the water line the wind is playing tug-of-war with the waves. It sprays them out toward the sea, then pulls them back in again. It happens over and over, every time the same.

I keep my eyes out there, even when Jack's fingers work their way in between mine. It's a link, like the refueling line from a tanker plane. Only I'm already full with my own grief; what will I do with his? Where will I put it?

The thought of it makes me panic, but I vow not to move, not to show it. Then I feel the flow begin to run the other way. His fingers are warm and strong between mine. Maybe we'll drown together. But drowning together is better than drowning alone.

. . .

 

“So what's your schedule, Deb?” We're in the car again. The wind is whipping through my hair. “You going to stick around a while? Going back tonight?”

“No plans,” I say. The words are hard to bring out. I just jumped on this one, no thought ahead or anything. It was just Jack, like running to start an IV or get the crash cart.

He's giving me a look, the little-lost-McLaughlin look, the do-I-have-to-be-your-father business. Then just a hint of a wink. I look away, out the window.

“No plans,” I repeat.

I can feel the patchwork pieces of my life straining at the seams. I didn't bring anything with me, just a sweatshirt and a few things in a backpack, toothbrush and a roll of toilet paper--stuff like that. I always carry a roll of t.p. since Bud and Foster.

Well, if you need to get back to the bus I can drop you,” he says. “Or you can hang around if you want. You're welcome to.” He glances over once; I watch him out of the corner of my eye. He has the kind of face that speaks more than words can. “I've got this little place I'm staying. In the trees. It's kind of nice and you could have the bed, I do fine on the floor...I've been sleeping on the floor most of the time anyway since I got back.”

This time I look over. I remember waking up under the bed myself. Or Christmas morning, when some neighbor kid with a new BB gun shot it off while we were all having our big family breakfast; I dove for the floor before I could think. Everybody stared like I'd lost my mind.

Jack's facing forward, watching the road.

“Sure.” I don't know whether this means he wants me to stay. It's sticky after all this time, having to ask.  All I can do is go with my gut feeling. “I could use a little shuteye. You don't get much when your bed's doing 65 down the interstate.”

“You've been dozing, you know,” he says, and he smiles.

“Hey, it was a long trip. They stop at every two-bit town along the way and there was this baby in the middle of the night--”

“Same as ever.” He shakes his head. For a moment his eyes are alive, full of mischief.

I sit up. “Just what was that supposed to mean?”

He only smiles.

“Better watch yourself, cherry,” I say. “I'm still older than you.”

Jack just guns the car and we speed ahead.

. . .

 

Jack's got a room at a little motel in the trees--two rows of log cabins facing each other. We drive to the back of the parking lot and stop. He gets out and works the key in the lock, then turns to look at me.

“Need a hand?”

“All I've got is this pack. I guess I can handle it.”

Inside there's a bed with a tan spread and a lamp and a desk and chair. Red and white checked curtains hang in the widows, like in diners. They remind me of something out of the pioneer days. They also remind me of Wyoming and Sleazy Charles but I don't say anything.

“I'll be in the shower,” Jack says. He's standing in the doorway to the bathroom rubbing at his chin. “Can't stand myself this way. Go ahead and sack out if you want.”

The door closes. I wander over to the window. On the desk there's a brown bag from the grocery store: bread, apples, cheese spread, those little chocolate-covered doughnuts--but hardly anything's been touched. What I'd really like is a beer, but I can wait.

From behind me the bed teases my drowsiness. I drop my pack by the night stand and sit down gingerly. Not much movement; motel beds are always hard like this. I stretch out full-length and close my eyes, feel the grain of the spread coarse underneath me.

I can't do this.  I feel like the subject in an operating theater, all those blinding lights trained on you and people watching from rows and rows of seats. Water sounds drift through the bathroom wall.

I get up and wander outside. There's this playground across the way, tall swings and a merry-go-round, some sand and some grass. I sit on the swing and start to pump.

Maybe this wasn't such a great idea. I mean, I'm glad to be here, to help out if I can, but it's not anything like Nam. We aren't both busier than we can stand with just a few minutes or an hour to get together and spill our guts.

Maybe if he were more in the mood to talk.

Maybe if I had something to say.

I feel the threads in my life beginning to slip again. For a second there I almost picture Mickey. I pump harder.

Trees go by on both sides; I start to notice the arc they make. Finally I let myself lean back and watch the forest growing down from the sky, pale space dropping away under my feet. There's a feeling, gentle pressure: childhood trying to break through. I fight it at first, then loosen gradually, letting it take me over. It's like breaking into another world. Everything around me feels lighter. Maybe I could float.

I don't know how long I'm there pumping. What pops the bubble is Jack. All of a sudden I notice him behind the swing. I pull up and turn around.

“Relapsed into childhood?” he says.

He's grinning. 

For the first time since I got here, I can see real life in his eyes.

(end)

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