I less than two minutes Calvin Hall was walking into Chris’ room. He had a big grin on his face, and when Chris extended his hand Clavin grabbed it an pulled Chris into a bear hug. Calvin was a big person, a lot like his friend Sonny Rusinko. He stood over six feet and weighed close to two hundred and thirty pounds, and had the muscles of a man who worked for his living. Chris had forgotten how imposing a character Calvin was until he was enveloped by that hug.
“How’ve ya been?” Calvin asked. “It’s good to see you.”
“I’ve been OK” Chris lied. “A lot better than I was the last time I saw you.”
“Yeah, we’re both doing better here than we were over there. So, you want to show me around?”
Chris stepped back and encompassed the room with a grand sweep of his hand. “Here it is; the Hotel Jacumba in all of it’s glory. Come on outside and have a beer.”
Calvin readily agreed with that suggestion and the two friends dropped into chairs in the shade on the balcony and started to catch up with the last few months of their lives. Calvin had left Vietnam a month before Chris, and spoke of his return to civilian life.
“I got home and moved in with my uncle George. My mother still lives in San Diego, but I wasn’t doing so well there before I enlisted. In fact, it was just a matter of time before the police or somebody from a rival gang got me. The Army gave me a chance to get it together, and I don’t want to go back into that environment again. I feel a lot more whole living in the county and working mostly outside with my hands.”
Chris looked down at Charlie’s big hands and saw that they were already calloused from doing hard, physical work. “So, where are you living? Is it close to here?”
“Yeah” Calvin replied. “Pretty close. You go back up 80 toward Campo. In a little ways it turns into 94, and then County Road 10 takes you onto the Rez. I live there in a single wide that my uncle owns. He spends some of his time there, but most of it on the Barona Rez. He inherited a little place there from his grandmother.”
“I didn’t know that you actually lived on the reservation” Chris said. “That’s pretty cool.”
“Well, it is and it isn’t. I feel more at home being surrounded by my own people, but there’s a lot of poverty there. When they gave us a place of our own back in the 1890’s they didn’t exactly give us the best of the land. It’s not been easy making a go of it for my people.”
“I guess I don’t know much about it” Chris said. “I probably should, but the subject just never came up.”
“Yeah, we Injuns noticed that” Calvin replied with a wry expression. “Other people are marching and sitting in and getting all sorts of press coverage for their problems while we just sit on little corners of what once was ours, watching cattle being raised and crops growing for other people on good land with good water where we used to live, and we wonder when it’s going to be our turn.”
Chris didn’t know what to say to that, and simply sat mutely in his chair. Calvin saw that this talk was making his friend uncomfortable and quickly apologized . “Sorry man. I didn’t mean to unload on you. You’re a decent guy and a friend, too. My people have suffered what I call the Long Hurt, and sometimes it’s hard to turn it off. I promise. I won’t go off on you again.”
“Hey, no sweat.” Chris replied. “I don’t know anything about what your experiences have been like. Outside of you, I don’t think I’ve ever known an Indian. I guess that’s a blank spot in my education that I wouldn’t mind filling in a little bit. You want to talk about it, you go ahead on. I’ll listen.”
“Thanks Chris. You’re a rare bird. Hey, speaking of hurt, I got a letter this week from one of my bro’s back in the Nam. He told me what happened to Tom”
Calvin continued to talk, but at the mention of Tom’s name Chris’ mind drifted back to his second day of being home. After leaving his house Chris walked around the neighborhood for another hour or so; he wasn’t sure how long. He passed the Fielding house twice and went once past where Jackie Olsen lived. He assumed that she still lived there, although he had no idea why she should. She was another loose end that he felt he had to clear up.
Chris stopped at a Winchell’s Donuts on University Avenue near 42nd Street, and had a couple of donuts and another cup of coffee. Afterward he walked to a bus stop and rode the bus downtown. He walked by the recruiting office and then aimlessly along the sidewalks of downtown San Diego. His wanderings eventually brought him back to Horton Plaza in the center of town. That place was crowded as usual with sailors and pigeons and homeless men sleeping on the grass. Chris thought about seeing a movie in one of the crummy little downtown theaters where he used to watch cheesy science fiction movies with his brother, but instead opted to return home.
The house was empty when he arrived, for which he was grateful. He placed his first call to Calvin, but after ten rings he hung up and fixed a lunch. He called two more times before his mother returned from her errands, but still no luck. His mother spoke of Tom and tried to comfort her son, which Chris appreciated but also found it difficult to listen to. Excusing himself, he exited the house and walked directly to that of Tom’s parents.
Chris’ heart was pounding as he mounted the steps and rang the doorbell. He was pushing through with his plan in a mechanical fashion; not thinking too much for fear that doing so would cause him to back out altogether. He heard footsteps and was barely breathing when the door opened. Mrs. Fielding was standing in the doorway, looking at Chris with a blank expression. “Perhaps she doesn’t recognize me” he thought. “I was never very welcome in this house.”
Mrs. Fielding looked pale. She was neatly dressed but there was a subtle haphazardness to it, as if she went through the motions but really didn’t care. She stared at Chris silently, not inviting him in nor telling him to go away. After a half a minute of this Chris wondered if she even knew that he was there.
Now a second set of footsteps became apparent, and a moment later Mr. Fielding appeared behind his wife. He looked older than Chris remembered; a lot older than three years should account for. he, too, stared at Chris as if not comprehending who he was, but that lasted for only a moment.
“Get off of my porch, you son of a bitch” the older man growled. “Get off of my porch before I call the police.”
Chris had not expected a warm reception, but he was unprepared for the wave of hate that Tom’s father sent crashing over him. He had come here to find out if Tom had truly died and, if so, to express his own sorrow. He now knew that Tom was dead. Nothing else could account for the rage and pain that contorted Mr. Fielding’s face into something that resembled one of the fiends that populated the cheap movies he had seen so long ago at Horton Plaza. Still, he wanted to offer sympathy or, at least, an apology.
“Mr. Fielding, I am so sorry about Tom. He was in a safe place there. I don’t know how this could have possibly happened. I – – -.”
“OK. You won’t leave? I’ll call the police. No, forget the police. You won’t leave so I’ll just shoot you where you stand, you white trash bastard!”
The enraged Mr. Fielding disappeared, and Chris knew that it was time for him to disappear too. He looked at Mrs. Fielding one more time and said “Tom was my best friend. I wish it would have been me instead of him. It should have, in fact. I’m sorry.”
With that he turned and quickly left the Fielding house. Chris doubted that Mr. Fielding had a gun, but decided that he had no further business with them. He had learned what he needed to know. The insults that he had just heard had stung him, but he knew that there might be more of the same in store for him before the day was over. Two blocks away was the Olsen residence, and it was toward that house he was now headed.
As he mounted the steps of Jackie’s house Chris felt even more nervous than he had at the Fieldings. Jackie had been a member of his circle of friends, even if she had not been especially warm to Chris. This meeting might be a good deal more personal, and a sense of dread squirmed in the back of his brain and in the pit of his stomach.
Chris rang the bell and the door was opened by a young woman but not by Jackie. “Hi Pam” he said. “Is Jackie home?”
Pam Olsen, Jackie’s younger sister by three years, looked at Chris for a few moments before recognizing him. At length she said “Oh, hello Chris. No, Jackie isn’t home now, but she should be any minute. Would you like to come in?”
Chris agreed to that and walked into the Olsen’s house. “Have a seat anywhere” Pam offered, and then sat down herself. Chris sat on a sofa opposite of where Pam was and fumbled for something to say. “Uh, how have you been? I, uh, don’t really remember you very well.”
“That’s because I never really hung out with your group. Little sisters don’t get included much in the activities of older sisters and their friends. I’m doing fine, thank you. And you?”
“Oh, uh, OK I guess. I made it home at least – – -,” and then he almost bit his tongue. Yes, he made it home but Tom didn’t, which was the point of his visit. “I’m sorry. That didn’t come out the way I meant; I mean, I don’t want to imply – – -.”
Chris was hopelessly tongue-tied and his embarrassment and confusion continued to grow, and shortly Pam came to his rescue. “It’s all right Chris. You did come back. I’m glad you did. I’m sure your family and friends are all glad too. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Chris looked at his feet and drew a deep breath, then looked at Pam again and said “I know. You’re right, and thank you for saying that. It’s just that Tom didn’t come home, and I know that hurts a lot of people, including your sister. Heck, it hurts me almost more than I can stand. I saw a lot of dying over there, but Tom shouldn’t have. He just shouldn’t have. And now I don’t know what I want to say to your sister; I don’t know what to say to anyone else, for that matter, but I especially don’t know what to say to her. I just don’t want to say anything as stupid as what I just said to you, that’s all.”
Pam smiled and said “So, let’s try that again. How have you been?”
Chris thought for a moment and then smiled. “I’m doing pretty good, I suppose. I’m happy to be back in the old town, eating home cooking and beginning to reconnect with family and friends. I have to confess that it’s hard though. Really hard.”
“I’m sure that it is” Pam replied. “I can’t for a moment imagine how you must feel. I’ve been watching Jackie deal with this and, as close as we are, I know that I imagine how much she hurts either. It’s a lot though. They were going to get married when he got home, you know.”
Chris was surprised by that. “No, I didn’t know. Tom never told me that.”
“They talked about it when he was here for a month before they sent him to Vietnam. Jackie would be entering her senior year at San Diego State by the time that Tom finished his three years in the Army, and he would work until she graduated. Then she would work and it would be his turn. That way, while they were still in school and after they were finished they wouldn’t owe anything to anybody.”
“Yeah, that sounds about right” Chris said. “Tom didn’t want to go to college on his Dad’s dime, ‘cause he didn’t want his father calling the shots. That’s why he joined the Army in the first place.”
“Oh, now that’s something that I didn’t know” Pam said. “He told us that he wanted to go on an adventure. He would use it to his advantage when he returned, but that he just wanted to do something for no other reason than because he wanted to do it.”
Well, it was a little of that I guess. And other things too. The fact still remains that Tom’s dead and I feel like I have at least some responsibility for it. I don’t know what I can possibly say to Jackie, but I feel like I have to say something.”
“I don’t know either” Pam replied. “Jackie’s working at the college bookstore this summer and not taking any classes. That’s probably a good thing, too. She’s been really broken up about this. I’ve got to be honest; I don’t know how she’s going to react when she sees you.” Pam then stopped talking and sat still, listening to something. After a moment she spoke again. “Whatever you’re going to say to her, you’d better figure out quickly. I hear her car in the driveway.”
Chris’ stomach tightened as he sat a little more erect on the sofa. He was in a corner of the room furthest from the front door, and now he felt trapped. He knew however that he was not running away without accomplishing his mission. Running away wasn’t a part of Chris’ character. He sat upright on the sofa, rubbing sweating hands on the knees of his jeans and waiting for Jackie to enter.
The wait wasn’t long. The screen door opened and Jackie stepped into the room. Chris rose up from the sofa as her eyes met his and recognition registered on her face. “Hello Jackie. I, uh, I came over here to tell you how- – -.”
Chris didn’t finish his sentence. Jackie dropped her purse, walked across the room and slapped his face as hard as she could. “How dare you come into my house!” she hissed. “You killed Tom, with your macho, wild child bullshit. What do you mean by coming here?”
Chris didn’t flinch when Jackie unloaded on his face. He didn’t expect that forceful a reaction but had known that it was a possibility. In an odd way, the blow cleared his head. The situation after all could not get worse. He wouldn’t allow himself to be struck again, but now the cards were all on the table. “Jackie, let me talk” he said. “I promise, I’ll leave in just a minute, but let me say one thing.”
Jackie stayed in front of Chris’ face, her anger causing her body to shake. “Go ahead” she said at last through gritted teeth.
“Tom was my best friend. I’m more sorry than I can express about what happened. In fact I don’t even know what happened. I was surprised that Tom ended up in Vietnam in the first place, and when I visited him there I saw that he was in as safe a place as it was possible to be in that country. Whatever it was that happened, I would do anything – anything at all – to make it un-happen if I could. So I’ll go now, and I won’t bother you again. But I hope you’ll remember while you’re grieving that I’m grieving too. I miss Tom too, and whether it does any good or not, I am now, and will always be, sorry for your loss. Your loss and my loss too.”
As Chris finished speaking Jackie’s face changed only just a little. He thought that she might launch another slap, and prepared to block the blow or dodge it, but she just stood silent. He decided that there was nothing more to be said, and walked around Jackie and towards the door. Pam, who was frozen by the sudden fury of her sister, had not left the room. As Chris passed by she brushed his arm with her fingertips. Chris looked at her and she silently mouthed the words “I’m sorry” to him, and then went over to comfort her sister.
Chris walked back to his house with mixed feelings. Mr. Fielding had called him white trash and spoken of shooting him, and Jackie had slapped his face. That was a lot of anger and insult to deal with in a short time. But he had also completed two painful projects that he had appointed for himself to do. Now he could turn his attention entirely towards healing his own hurt.
Chris avoided the park on his way home, and when he arrived there he opened a beer and sat down by the phone. He decided to sit there and call Calvin’s number until he answered, if he had to call all night to do it. On his second try Calvin’s uncle answered. Chris said “Hello, my name is Chris. I’m a friend of Calvin’s from Vietnam. May I speak with him please?” Without a word, the uncle hung up the phone. A few moments later Calvin called him back.
And now here he sat in the warm air on a balcony with Calvin, aware that he had not heard a thing that had been said in the last few minutes. “I’m sorry man” he said when Calvin paused in his monologue to take a sip from his beer. “My mind just wandered away for a few minutes there. It’s been doing that since I got back, and I’m trying to get my concentration straight. Let’s back up to where you said that you found out how Tom died.”