Heidi (and Aunt Vivian)

My first crush happened when I was in the sixth grade. I had been envious of my older brother Brad, who was comfortable with girls and always seemed to be the confident boyfriend of one pretty girl after another. I would wish that Barbara was my girlfriend instead of Brad’s, or Claudia, or Roselynn (whom we called ‘Rosie’) too, but there was never any chance that something so far-fetched could happen. Brad was five years older than me and his girlfriends, naturally, were  nearly that much older than me too. I could drool. I could fantasize. But never was I foolish enough to actually hope.

Heidi changed all of that. Heidi was a new kid in our school, and in a school with no more than one hundred students in the sixth grade class it was hard to stay anonymous. It would have been hard for Heidi to remain anonymous in a class of one thousand. She was as pretty as, well, you can provide whatever metaphor for pretty that suits you best. For me, she was just as pretty as a golden dawn, or a field of flowers, or a foggy morning at the beach ,or; well, I guess you get the point. I thought she was the definition of beauty itself, but I’ll allow myself to be content to say that Heidi was pretty.

We sat across the table from each other in Mrs. Parrish’s class. Heidi was quiet and reserved, and didn’t seek the spotlight in the classroom or on the playground. She was really smart and had a good heart, and after a couple of months she was friends with all of the girls and admired by all of the boys. The popular boys, Don Lewis, Frank Mathers and Lefty Wilson, all made a play for Heidi. She was kind and never rebuffed them in a public or haughty way, but she never did indicate any sort of preference for their presence or attention. With me however, it was a different story.

I was always curious about my world. I wanted to know how we humans came to be what we are. I read about dinosaurs and cave men. I read the Bible, and even in the sixth grade I would read about the archaeologists who dug up the history of humans in Egypt and Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley and elsewhere. People were fascinating to me, and I wanted to know about them.

I also wanted to learn German. My father fought in Germany in World War II and stayed there, off and on, for ten years after war was over. I was born in 1948 and was in Germany for two two-year periods. Father loved Germany; loved the food, the beer, and the people and culture.  Once they stopped shooting at him, that is. Mother was entirely different though. Her father had died in the trenches of World War I when she was an infant, and two of her brothers from another father had died in the latest war, one on the beach in Normandy and another in the water off of the Philippines. Mother hated the Germans and, I think, hated my father a little for taking her there.  She did all that she could to keep me from learning German or anything good about Germany

I told Heidi about my wish to learn German one day when we were seated next to each other at Linda Swann’s birthday party.  Heidi smiled at me and said that she spoke German. Her mother was German and her father a mix of German, Irish and a bunch of other stuff. Heidi’s mother spoke German as a first language and Heidi was fluent in that language too, although she only spoke it at home. I could hardly believe that she was so open and friendly with me.  “Probably because she knows that I’m too shy to try to make her my girl friend” I thought. I just knew that things like that didn’t happen to me.

With Heidi though it did. I went to her house where she only let me speak German. Heidi and her mother were lenient taskmasters though. They let me fudge a lot, and it took longer than it should have for me to begin to get the hang of the language. That worked for me however. My lessons stretched on for months, and during that time I would help Heidi and her mother in the kitchen, or pick vegetables with her in the back yard garden.  Sometimes we would walk to the neighborhood store to buy flour or salt or any little thing that Heidi’s mother needed.

After a while I figured out that Heidi’s mother did not always need two more apples or a pound of butter; that it was just an excuse to let us to walk together to the store. Eventually we began to hold hands after we got a block away from Heidi’s home. The neighbors, of course, knew all about the budding relationship, and word certainly got around. Heidi didn’t live in my neighborhood though, so it didn’t get to my mother.  She would not have approved of me becoming attached to a German.

My first kiss was on one of those walks. We decided to take a short cut through a canyon, and as we walked down the trail through tall brush I hatched my plan. My heart was pounding as we reached the bottom of the canyon and turned onto another path which led gradually upward and out of the far end of the canyon.

I stopped walking, and after Heidi became aware of that she stopped too, and turned and faced me. I had practiced a lot of lines that I saw Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart deliver in movies; lines that had always melted the girls’ hearts.  They all seemed silly now, and stuck to the roof of my mouth like a spoonful of peanut butter. I just stood in front of Heidi and looked confused and lost and in the worse possible condition of puppy love.

Heidi waited patiently while I fumbled to find the right line.  “Uh, Heidi.  You know, you are really cool and, uh, I really like you a lot.”

“I like you too, Taylor.”

I waited for her to say more, but she just stood there looking more beautiful than – – – well, we’ve already been there.  She was just so pretty!

“Well, I, uh.  I guess I could call you a friend.”

“Why, sure Taylor.  I think you’re my friend.”

“Uh, yeah. Well, I like you a lot, you know, and you’re a friend; maybe my best friend really, and you’re, well.”

My heart was about to explode.  To this day I remember how much I wanted to say what was on my mind and how much I dreaded what her answer might be.  At last, desire trumped dread and I gasped out my question through a constricted throat.

“Well, I was thinking that maybe you’d like, I mean if you’d want – oh, I mean would you be my girlfriend?”

There.  It was out.  There was no taking it back now.  I steeled myself for rejection and prepared to put the best face on it.

“Sure Taylor.  You’re a nice guy.  I like you.  I would like to be your girlfriend.”

Whether from gratitude or relief, my heart almost stopped beating.  As Heidi’s words began to soak into my brain I realized that this agreement needed to be formalized by an action.

“Can I kiss you?” I asked, with a feeling of assurance that I would have considered impossible only five minutes earlier.  Heidi nodded her assent, and then I stepped forward and pressed my lips against hers.

The act had less actual passion than a handshake, but we learned over the next few months how to get more out of the effort. At her house or mine, in the canyon, and anywhere else that we could get five minutes of privacy, we would embrace and practice the art of kissing until we felt like we were becoming accomplished at it.

During this time I rarely saw Heidi’s father. He worked the night shift at a refinery thirty miles from their home and was usually sleeping during the day.  At least, that’s what they told me. Years later I learned that Heidi’s father drank a lot, and usually was in his room either drinking, asleep, or passed out when I was there. He managed to do his job well enough though, so he was never laid off.  His manager was also a veteran of the recent war, so he took pity on him.

Heidi’s father came home from the war with more than a wife. People said he was different when he returned; he spooked easily, would jump at the slightest noise, and seemed to look around with suspicion at his surroundings. Sometimes he was the life of the party, but other times he was withdrawn and seemed afraid to step out of his house, or even his bedroom. A lot of men came home from the war changed, physically and emotionally or both, but people didn’t know what to make of that back then.  The people around him ignored it as much as they could and hoped that things would eventually go back to normal.

Things didn’t go back to normal. Heidi and I would get together as much as we possibly could be for almost a year and a half , but one day at the beginning of the eighth grade she didn’t show up at school. I called her as soon as I got home to see if she was sick , but there was no answer. Fear began to play around the base of my brain and I went to my mother to tell her that I was going to ride my bike to Heidi’s house to see how she was.

Mom had softened towards Heidi.  Heidi and I would study together at our old, round dining room table, and sometimes she would help my mother in the kitchen or in some other way.  “The only decent German I ever met” Mom would say. The look on Mom’s face that day cast a  dark shadow across my heart. She told me to sit down; that she had something to tell me.

What followed was the news that Heidi’s father had gotten drunk, heard his wife speaking German, and then took down a shotgun from a rack on the wall and  blew his wife almost in two. Then, probably after realizing what he had just done, he reloaded the shotgun, placed it in his mouth and blew his own head off.  Heidi watched the whole thing.

The only family that Heidi had in her town was her aunt Vivian. Vivian had lived a difficult life herself. She had beaten an abusive husband to death with a claw hammer and got off on all charges only because of the large hunting knife found in the cold, dead hand of her newly deceased husband when the police arrived.  Leroy, that was her husband’s name, was a pain in everybody’s ass anyway, so the law gave Vivian the benefit of the doubt.

Vivian never trusted men again though, and the event at Heidi’s house only confirmed her in her assessment of the masculine gender. She took Heidi in and set out to protect her from any repeat of the heartache that both of them had already endured. Heidi’s beautiful long hair, with that little flip curl on the ends that I loved to see as she walked toward me, didn’t last the first day at Aunt Vivian’s house. Any effort by me to make contact with Heidi met with a stone wall. Heidi called me once but I wasn’t at home. My mother told me about it; said that the call was cut short, and it never happened again.

Heidi changed schools, attending instead a school at Lebanon, some twenty five miles away from our town. I never saw her in our town again and nobody else claimed to have seen her either. Vivian lived near the edge of town and they must have shopped and done any other business in the surrounding towns or in Lewisburg, the city 80 miles away. It was as if Heidi had fallen off of the map.

Heidi did emerge from the black hole into which she had dropped one time. It was one week after I graduated from the twelfth grade, and I had already enlisted in the Army. I was to leave in a week to take the long bus ride to my basic training center, and several of my friends and I were sitting on the picnic benches at the town park, smoking and talking and spinning dreams. I wanted pictures of my friends to take with me, and had used almost a whole roll of 110 black and white film.

I wanted more film and another soda and a bag of sunflower seeds, so I walked across the park to the little store that still stood and did battle with the big supermarket that had come to Sommerville, only six miles away. As I approached the store I saw two women walking out of the front door and a switch went on inside my head. It was Heidi and Vivian, but I could only barely recognize Heidi. The face was neither masculine nor feminine, and it was nearly without expression at all.  If I was to try to describe what I saw in her face I would probably go with bitter, although empty would place a close second.

“Guten tag” I said, and she stopped and slowly turned. Vivian turned also, and eyed me the way that one would eye something dead along side of the road.

“Guten tag” she replied. “Wie geht es ihnen?”

“Good,” I replied. “I’m good.  How have you been?  I haven’t seen you for such a long time.”

“Yes” she replied.  “It has been a long time.”

Just that.  A statement, more than a conversation.  I tried again.

“I’ve just graduated and now I am going to join the Army.  Maybe they’ll send me to Germany”  That was just whistling past the graveyard.  Everybody knew that I would probably soon be in Vietnam.  Heidi looked like she wanted to respond, but Aunt Vivian signaled her impatience with a sigh and a shuffling of the feet.  I could feel that this interview was nearly over.

“I’m taking pictures of friends and the old town so that I can take them with me when I go into the service.  Would you let me take a picture of you?”

To my surprise she agreed.  Aunt Vivian would not move from her side though, and in fact entwined her arm in Heidi’s in such a way that made it look like Heidi was holding onto her.  Vivian’s look gave me the impression that she was wondering why it was taking me so long to get to Vietnam and get my ass shot off.  Heidi didn’t look much happier, although I allowed that she was maybe simply out of practice with that feeling.  I snapped the picture and they turned and left without another word.  I was left without words as well, and stood speechless as I watched them disappear around a corner.  That was the last time that I saw Heidi.

Sure enough, almost  year to the day after my graduation from high school, I was checked into the replacement battalion in Bien Hoa, Vietnam.  I was a pretty decent auto mechanic, as were most of the boys in my rural town.  I was therefore trained further in gasoline and diesel mechanics and then assigned to an infantry unit near Pleiku.  I worked in the motor pool, keeping everything from jeeps and trucks to tanks running until there was just no use left in them.  Pleiku was in the Central Highlands area of the country, where it was more comfortable than down in the steamy lowlands closer to the sea.  All things being equal, it wasn’t bad duty.

I put Heidi’s picture, that ragged picture of a girl who scarcely resembled my Heidi in any way, inside the door of a metal locker next to my bunk.  When things were boring which, surprisingly, was more often than you would expect in a war, I would sometimes get drunk or smoke a joint or both, and stare at that picture.  My daydreams would go to the pretty girl who taught me German and kissed me in a canyon, but it was devilish hard to see that girl in the curling black and white picture.

One day I was engaged in staring at it and my friend John Henry, an African American guy two or three years older than me, pulled a beer out of the refrigerator that we had “requisitioned” from a convoy of supplies going out towards a forward area, and sat down on my footlocker.

“Man,” he began.  “You know you’re my friend.  You know that, right?”

“Yeah man” I replied.  “I know that.  What’ up?”

“Well, I wouldn’t say this to just anyone.  I mean, we’re tight and all, and I can say things to you that I wouldn’t say to any of the other guys.  You dig?”

“Yeah.  Sure.  We’re cool.  C’mon man, spit it out.  What’re you trying to say to me?”

“Well, it’s just that picture.  That your girl friend back in the real world?”

“Was.  Once.  Hasn’t been for a long time.  I really did like her then.  Don’t think I ever really stopped liking her.  The day I took that picture was the first time I’d seen her in, oh, gotta be four years.  Why you wanna know?”

“Well, man.”  John began to chuckle.  “I just gotta say.”  The laughter began to well up out of John’s big, broad chest.  “Man, that girl’s so ugly she’s gotta pull the sheets up over her head at night so that sleep can sneak up on her!”

John couldn’t hold back any longer.  He laughed until tears began to roll down his dark cheeks.  At first I bristled, but John and I were close. We had shared many “momma jokes” at the enlisted men’s club where a lot of people didn’t know us.  Many of our jokes were so raunchy and deftly delivered that the other guys who heard us thought that a fight was about to break out.   At last, I began to laugh too.

Soon afterward we were sitting in some lawn chairs on top of our company water tower, sucking down beers and sharing joints and talking about home and our girlfriends; his present and mine past.  I told him Heidi’s story.  When I was finished he put his hand on my shoulder and said “That’s tough man.  Real tough.  I’ll cut her some slack for that.  And you’re a good man for being able to look past her troubles.”

We smoked all of our weed and killed off our beers while we gazed out over the green carpeted hills that surrounded our camp and stretched away to the horizon in all directions.  After a while John began to chuckle again.  “She still ugly, man.”

I’m lying on a bunk at the replacement battalion now, waiting for my name to be called so that I can board a plane and return home, free from Vietnam and free from the Army.  For three years I have looked at Heidi’s photo, and at last I think that I’ve been able to find the beautiful girl I once knew looking out through the haunted and expressionless eyes of that tragically changed young woman.  “There she is,” I think to myself, “and I would like to see if she can come out.”

I sent a letter to my father a few months ago, and asked him to inquire about Heidi’s status and location.  He replied that she is now a clerk in some sort of position at the train station in Merrifield, about twenty miles from home. Dad wrote that she was dressed nicely, “like a proper young woman,” and no longer resembled the person that he saw in my picture. “That would scare children and turn milk sour” he had said when he saw it. Dad also said that there was no ring on the fourth finger of her left hand. I believe that I’ll pay her a visit when I get home.

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