Chris felt the need to drain some of the beer that he had already consumed out of his bladder. He rose from his chair, walked out of his room and down the hallway, and into the common bathroom at the end. The fixtures looked like something that came out of the 1940’s. “They probably did come out of the 1940’s” he thought. He finished his business, stepped back into the hall and walked to his room.
Upon entering the room Chris was startled by a dark projectile that streaked past his head. He ducked instinctively, and the object flew to a mirror and banged against it. The object was a small hawk that had flown in through the open door that led to the balcony. The hawk flew across the room to an old writing desk which rested against the north wall and perched on the back of the chair for little more than an instant. It then fluffed its wings and bolted through the open door and back out to freedom.
“Shit!” Chris said to himself. “That doesn’t happen every day.” He walked over to where the hawk had so recently perched on the back of the chair. “I hope he didn’t take a dump on the chair” he thought, and then he laughed out loud and said to himself “I’m surprised that I didn’t take a dump myself!”
He returned to his balcony and sat in the chair once again. He now began to pay more attention to the few passing cars and trucks. It was getting on towards four in the afternoon and he was expecting Calvin Hall to be driving in soon. “I might be driving my pick up truck or I might be driving my Chevy. Depends on which one’s working” he had told him. Chris had heard about Calvin’s red ’62 Ford pickup and blue 65 Chevy Malibu so many times at the EM Club that he was certain he could recognize either one when it rolled into the hotel parking lot.
Chris had called Calvin the day after he got home. Actually, he called five times that day before he was finally answered. “Hey Calvin, this is Chris” he said as he heard somebody pick up the phone. There was no answer to his salutation though, and the phone then simply went dead. Two minutes later Chris’ phone rang and it was Calvin.
“Hey, Chris. Is that you?” Calvin asked.
“Yeah” Chris answered. “What’s up? You drop the phone?”
“Nah. My uncle picked it up. I told him that a White guy named Chris was going to call me sometime and to let me know if he did. I guess I didn’t tell him to not hang up. He doesn’t use the telephone much. I asked him who called and he said “Chris.”
Chris chuckled at that. “No, I guess he doesn’t. Say, Calvin. How long you been home?”
“‘Bout a month now. Got out in April. You?”
“I got home yesterday” Chris answered. “So you don’t know nothing about Tom then?”
“Tom? No. Why? Should I know something about Tom?”
“He didn’t make it, man. I found out that he got wasted over there.”
“Shit, man. Tell me you’re kidding!” Calvin said after a long pause. “He didn’t do anything over there that would get a guy killed. You know this for sure?”
“No” Chris said. “Not for sure, but I got it from a guy I trust. He heard it from – – – well, that’s a little bit tangled. Let’s just say that I’m 99% sure.”
“Holy shit, that’s bad news, cousin.”
There was silence on the phone for maybe half a minute before Calvin spoke up again. “I still got some friends over there. You want I should write and find out what happened?”
“No, don’t bother. I’m going to go to his folks’ place today. I don’t want to, but I think that I should.”
“Aw, man. They’re going to take out some Company Commander’s bullshit letter about how Tom was a hero who saved the whole damn battalion and read it to you. I’ll write to my buds; it’s no bother.”
“Yeah, you may be right. OK. See what you can find out. I guess I’ll still have to go over there anyway. Hey, man. I’m going to be staying at the Jacumba Hotel on the weekend of the 27th. There any chance we could get together?”
“Yeah, I think so. So you really got a room there, eh? What’s the deal? Why you so interested in that place?”
“Ah, I don’t know. There’s just something about it that always attracted me. Right now, I think of it as a place where all of the shit that I’ve put up with lately can’t get to me.” Chris thought about the war, Tom’s death, the kids that he nearly exploded on the day before, and the anticipated visit with Tom’s parents, and then repeated himself saying “Yeah, I just need some time where the shit can’t find me.”
Calvin was quiet for a moment before he spoke again, and when he did speak he said “There ain’t nowhere that shit can’t find you, man. Nowhere on this earth at least.” Both men were silent until Calvin spoke again. “But it’ll take shit longer to find you there than just about anywhere else, and that’s a fact. I’ll give you a call when that weekend’s getting close. I can’t guarantee that my uncle will tell me if you call here. heck, I can’t guarantee he’ll even pick up the phone.”
“OK man. I’m looking forward to seeing you again.”
“Yeah, sure. Me too. Talk to you later.”
Three weeks later Calvin was as good as his word and called, just as he said that he would. Chris told him that the visit to the Hotel was still scheduled. “I’m staying there Wednesday through Sunday” he told Calvin. “I’m getting there in mid-week in order to avoid the rush.”
Calvin laughed out loud at this statement. “Man, the only rush out there is by crows trying to get to a road kill.”
And Calvin had been right about that. There were no other guests at the hotel when he checked in on Wednesday. The only people there were the staff, and that seemed likely to be because they lived there. Chris had found the solitude which he had dreamed about for years, but found it difficult to adjust to.
All of Chris’ life he had been a goer and a doer, and a time of silence was a novelty for him. After the first hour he had felt bored and restless. he tried to sit in the chair on the balcony and let his mind be still, but his mind stubbornly refused to cooperate. Visions of combat, speculations on how Tom died, and the bitter memory of his first month of what was supposed to be a triumphal homecoming pulled his mind in several directions at once.
Wednesday afternoon and evening Chris sat in his hotel room and drank himself into a stupor, and most of Thursday he nursed the hangover that resulted from his folly. On Thursday morning he walked to a small cafe that stood a block away for breakfast. A greasy plate of eggs and bacon and hash brown potatoes washed down with several cups of strong but flavorful black coffee sat surprisingly well in his stomach.
After breakfast he walked throughout the little town, looking into the few businesses and passing over dusty streets along which were situated the few residents of the town. At one point two large dogs charged off of a front porch to challenge Chris’ right to pass there. A sharp command from somebody he couldn’t see called them back. After that, his looked until he found a couple of rocks large enough to use as weapons if he should find himself in that situations again.
As the day wore on, Chris found that his internal motor was beginning to sync with the rhythm of this place. He began to look at the buildings of Jacumba without wondering who lived or worked in them. Between passing vehicles on Old Highway 80, silence descended on Chris; a silence punctuated by the calling of birds, the bark of a far-off dog, or perhaps the rustle of a lizard scuttling through the dust and dead leaves under the sagebrush. As the hangover subsided he felt hints of the peace that he imagined he might find here, a peace that flowed from a place where nothing was expected of him.
Friday morning Chris arose and repeated his breakfast and wanderings of the day before, only this time walking farther up those dusty roads. To the south he walked to the very border with Mexico, a border designated by a simple three-strand barbed wire fence. He stared into Mexico, imagining sombreros and tacos and other symbols of that nation, and then turned and walked north into the sage-covered valley which hung just before the drop down Mountain Springs Grade to the furnace that was Imperial County in the summer.
By noon Chris had had enough of this and returned to Jacumba. He had lunch at the diner, bought a couple of six-packs of beer and some ice at the small store, and then returned to his room to wait for Calvin to arrive He sat in the chair on the balcony and drank one beer and opened another. Here, in the warm stillness of that summer afternoon as he stared into the eastern distance, Chris’ mind once again wandered back to almost a month before, on the second day of his return home. All night he had rolled and turned in his bed, wondering how Tom could have died in Vietnam. On his first night home, he should have enjoyed the sleep of the reprieved. Instead, he alternated between fitful periods of sleep in which he dreamed that it was all a big mistake, and hours of staring into the darkness and wrestling with the near certainty that it was no mistake at all.
Chris was awake when the doves began to coo outside his open bedroom window, signaling the imminent arrival of the new day. He lay in his bed and watched as the sky began to brighten, and before the sun rose up above the eastern horizon he was up and dressed. His father was an early riser, and Chris knew that in less than an hour he would also be up. Chris decided to start some coffee and have it ready when his father came down the hallway to prepare his breakfast.
As expected, Cameron Paine came shuffling down the hall, his steps quieted to a soft, slipping sound by his thick socks. Waking up to the smell of coffee was an unusual treat for Mr. Paine, and he came quickly out of his bedroom to enjoy it. “Well done son” he said with a warm smile. “You’re earning your room and board already.”
Chris smiled weakly at that and handed his father a full mug. He poured one for himself and walked over to the dining room table. Mr. Paine followed his son to the table and could tell by the droop of his shoulders that something was amiss. Chris Paine always seemed to walk on bubbles, especially when things were going right in the world for him. The heaviness in Chris’ body that Mr. Paine perceived on this morning was not a normal state of affairs, and he decided to waste no time finding out the source of that heaviness.
“It looks like your homecoming isn’t all that you’ve hoped for. Is there anything that I can help with?”
Chris sat down at the table and stared at his coffee. He knew that his father was a very perceptive man; one from whom he could seldom keep secrets. He wasted only a few moments before coming straight to the point. “Dad, I heard yesterday that Tom Fielding died in Vietnam.” He watched his father, trying to gauge his reaction to that statement. He could tell by the shock on his father’s face that he hadn’t known about Tom.
“Oh my God” Mr. Paine replied. “Are you sure?”
“No” Chris said. “It’s probably true though. Sonny told me about it yesterday. He said that he heard it from a good source, but that he didn’t have any details.”
Mr. Paine sat quietly for several moments before looking up at his youngest son with compassion washing over his face. At last he spoke again. “We don’t know Tom’s parents really, and haven’t heard any news in the neighborhood grapevine. In fact, we’re not connected to the neighborhood grapevine all that much. We’re too busy minding our own business. Are you going to go over to the Fielding’s place?”
Chris chuckled glumly at that thought. “I probably am, but I don’t think I’ll get a warm welcome. I expect that they’ll blame me for Tom being in Vietnam in the first place.”
“Why would they do that?” Mr. Paine asked. “You didn’t march Tom down to the recruiter with you.”
“Well, they didn’t like me very much to begin with. Tom’s dad had big plans for him thought that I was an unpleasant distraction. Tom told me about it before we even signed up. The truth is that Tom joined up with me to get away from his parents, or at least to get away from his dad’s control, but I don’t think that they will ever see it that way.”
“Hmmm” his father muttered softly as he thought about what Chris had just told him. He took a sip of the coffee which had become cool enough to drink and then put the mug down. “And do you think that you are responsible for Tom’s death?”
That is exactly the thought that Chris had been chewing on all night, and he was still looking for an answer. “Well, he wouldn’t have been there if I hadn’t invited him to join with me.”
“Oh? How do you know that?” Mr. Paine asked. “Do you know what Tom would have done if you would have gone to the recruiter by yourself? Are you certain that he wouldn’t have gone there himself the next day? Shoot, do you know that he wouldn’t have gotten run over by a bus trying to get downtown so that he could sign up? What I’m saying is that you and Tom are, or I guess were, independent actors. Tom was a smart kid and could figure things out for himself. You’re no more responsible for Tom dying in Vietnam than he was responsible for you making it back home. If he’s really gone, don’t go making yourself another casualty of that war.”
Chris took a sip of his own coffee before answering his father. “Yeah Dad, I suppose you’re probably right. It’s just that I was always getting us into something, and he was usually the one to get us out of it. It feels like he was doing it once again, but this time he couldn’t get himself out of it.”
Mr. Paine sipped his coffee and said nothing in response. Chris knew that when his father did this he was silently telling Chris that he had to think a little more. After a minute or two of silence Chris spoke again. “OK, so I guess I wasn’t the one who put him in Vietnam and he wasn’t there to try to save me. I still can’t make myself believe that my hands are clean.”
This time Mr. Paine responded right away. “That’s natural, I suppose. Tom was your best friend, and there’s no shame in hurting for him. It’s going to take time to come to grips with it and you’ll likely feel a lot of things, rightly and wrongly, along the way. I think that maybe you might give yourself some time and might even go easy on yourself. Somebody once said “War is hell,” and he was right; war IS hell. But you didn’t start it and you aren’t responsible for what happened in it. Now, I had better cobble together a breakfast and pack a lunch. You hungry?”
“Thanks Dad, but I don’t think I’ll eat just yet. I’m going to walk around some and try to get things sorted out. I think I’ll go and see Tom’s parents today. Might as well get it over with. Would you mind letting Mom and Chuck know that I don’t mean to be running out on them? I just have to get things straightened out.”
“Sure Son. They’ll understand. Did you mention this to them last night?”
Chris told his father that he had not, and the elder Paine said to him that he would take up that task.
“Thanks Dad. Thanks a lot. I
’ll see you this afternoon.” Chris drank the rest of his coffee and walked out of the house, not sure where he was going or what he was going to do.