Bert Laver climbed the last one hundred feet of the way to his destination almost on hands and knees. The place where he was going to was no more than four thousand feet above sea level, but he was almost forty years older than he had been the last time that he visited this place. The pack full of camping gear, added to the extra years and extra pounds that he was carrying, resulted in a very tired and profusely sweating Bert who finally rose up over the lip in the barely-distinguishable trail to arrive at his destination.Continue reading “Reunion, First Revision”
Bert Laver climbed the last one hundred feet of the way to his destination almost on hands and knees. The place where he was going to was no more than four thousand feet above sea level, but he was almost forty years older than he had been the last time that he visited this place. The pack full of camping gear, added to the extra years and extra pounds that he was carrying, resulted in a very tired and profusely sweating Bert who finally rose up over the lip in the barely-distinguishable trail to arrive at his destination.
The place was a level area perched on the western slope of the Laguna Mountains in eastern San Diego County. This space was no more than fifteen yards deep and thirty wide, but it made an excellent camping area; an assessment that had been made by indigenous inhabitants of the area for hundreds if not thousands of years before Bert and his best friend Craig Lacey discovered it in their late teens many years ago.
Shade from oak and pine trees cooled the air at this place, and a ditch at the southern end of the shelf channeled water from a spring that flowed intermittently according to the snowpack and rainfall from year to year. This had been a dry year and no water now flowed there. At the east end of this natural terrace was a small cave in the rocks at the base of the upward slope which continued to the crest of Coyote Peak several miles further to the east. Inside that cave the rock walls had been stained by the smoke of countless Kumeyaay fires, and rounded depressions in the low, smooth stone rising up out of the ground around the cave mouth spoke of acorns being ground into meal that would be changed from the bitter and inedible fruit of the oak into a sweet and nutty food that would nourish the hunter-gather inhabitants who had once lived here and called it home.
He and his friend found this place while searching for a hidden spot where they could safely grow marijuana away from the searching eyes of parents and law enforcement. While driving on dirt roads north through the Viejas Indian Reservation, and never quite sure when they were on the Viejas or Barona reservations, or in the Cleveland National Forest, they had found a place to park and then walked upward and eastward in search of water and a patch of ground where they could try their hand at growing their own.
The place that they had found was no secret however. In fact, it had been known to the inhabitants of this are for probably the last ten thousand years. Every square foot of usable land that had water, even if only intermittently, had been known to the people who had lived here for so long. It showed no sign of recent visitation however, so the two bull-headed teens set themselves to try growing a large patch of marijuana plants. Their plan came to nothing though, as the constant traffic of their coming and going would have certainly drawn attention, and they were both bright enough to figure that out.
Bert and Craig returned to this place many times. After notions of a crop of weed were quashed by the realities that finally sunk into their brains, they continued to return to this place to drink or get stoned away from the jungle of the city, and sometimes they camped there overnight or for a weekend. On those lazy and idyllic days they would dream about what sort of lives had been lived in this place in the past and what sort of lives they might themselves hope to live in the future. Once Craig tried to bring a girl friend to their hideaway but the remoteness and silence of that place was so unnatural and so unsettling that she insisted that he return her to the city. After that event they agreed that it would be their secret place, and so it remained to this day.
Bert picked up three stones from on the ground and threw one of them into the cave. He had no interest in entering that hole in the earth until he knew that no cat or bear was claiming prior occupancy. He kept his right hand close to the handle of his Ruger .357 Magnum handgun that was in a holster down the back of his jeans. He would not want to use his weapon unless he truly had to, but neither would he allow himself to be made a meal of without making the price a high one. There was no response to the first rock so he threw in the second and then the third. Still no sound came to his ear, so he walked up to the cave and carefully stuck his head inside.
The cave looked exactly as it had when he first laid eyes on it. The dirt floor showed sign of small footprints, probably of wood rats, and some dried leaves that had blown in over the years. The dark varnish of old smoke still colored the stone roof of the cave. Ashes from the fires that might have cooked those wood rats, or simmered pots of acorn mush, had long since returned to the dust. Bert felt like he could still smell the smoke though, and he had always felt like he could see the ashes too, even if they were no more than gray specks in the brown dust. They were still there, and in some way the people who had once cooked in the cave were still there too. He felt it. He felt them.
He had no intention of making a camp within the cave. He selected a spot of soft soil in the shade of an oak that was relatively free of the prickly dry leaves of that venerable tree. He put up a tent, formed a ring of stones within which he would use his gas-canister camp stove later that afternoon, and unfolded an ultra light metal and nylon camp chair. With his camp in good order Bert then sat in the chair with a book that he extracted from his pack and tried to relax.
Relaxation did not come to him however. He opened his book and allowed his eyes to bounce from one printed word to the next without really following what the words were meant to convey. Eventually he gave up the enterprise and closed the book, allowing it to lay unopened in his lap. He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out an envelope, and for the twentieth or thirtieth time unfolded and read the letter that the envelope contained.
Dear Bert; I hope this letter finds you well, and I hope you will be kind enough to read it. I also hope to accomplish two things with this letter and the first of those, although the hardest for me to do, will be the easiest to accomplish. I want you to know that Donna has passed away. She was battling breast cancer for the last two and a half years and lost her fight a month ago on July 28, and it has taken me until now to be able to pick up a pen and write to you of this. It was a painful struggle but she died peacefully, surrounded by friends.
My second intention of this letter is less certain of success but I feel that I must – – no, I wish, to try. We were once the best of friends and for the last four decades I have counted the loss of your friendship to be one of the great disappointments of my life. Now I must add the loss of Donna to that short list, and the hurt of it all is beyond description. But while I can never get Donna back, it has occurred to me that it might be possible now, even if it is only a remote possibility, to restore my relationship with you.
With that project in mind, I am asking you if you would consent to meet with me and see together if anything can be done to set things right between us. I will be sad and disappointed if that cannot happen but I would understand if it should turn out that way. Perhaps I’m just fooling myself as I grieve Donna’s death. I just feel like I have to try.
Let me know if you are open to giving this a shot. I will not write again and bother you if you do not respond to this letter.
Your (former) best friend, Craig.
Bert read the letter over two more times, folded it up, and then returned it to his shirt pocket. He reclined in his chair and closed his eyes, his mind drifting to a time long years in the past. He met Donna in a history class at Grossmont College and soon his mind had to struggle to keep itself focused on his program in cardiopulmonary technology. Within two months of their first date they moved in together and eight months later when he graduated they were married and moved into a tiny rented house in Pacific Beach.
The program at Grossmont College turned out a new crop of technologists every year which led to a saturation of the job market for that position, so it came as a pleasant surprise when Bert found a job at Mercy Hospital. Donna continued her studies at San Diego State, seeking a degree rather than a career. She confessed to him that she was in college mostly because she had felt that it was expected of her by her family and she didn’t want to disappoint them. Bert didn’t care. He was happy to support the two while she went to school, savoring every minute of the time that they were together.
The end of their fairy tale life came abruptly. One day when he returned home early from a fishing trip with Craig, Donna did not return home at 9:00 in the evening when her shift at a little restaurant on Grand Avenue was over. Ten o’clock passed, and then 11:00. He lay on the sofa in the living room and fretted on whether he should call the police or call the local hospital emergency rooms, although the possibility of another unpleasant possibility had begun to form in his mind. He was at the point of picking up the phone and calling the police when at last he heard a key slide into the lock of the front door.
Donna walked into the house and stopped dead in her tracks at the sight of Bert. He rose up from the sofa and walked over to her, shut the door, and took his wife in a long embrace. “Thank God you’re OK,” he kept repeating while Donna said nothing. At last Bert released her from his embrace, stepped back and looked fully at her. Sadness put a blank mask on his face, and then he walked back to the sofa and sat down.
“You’re home early,” Donna said weakly, and was unable to think of anything more to say.
“And you’re home very late,” Bert replied. “I was worried that you had been in an accident or kidnapped or something. I can’t tell you how much I’ve worried tonight. Where have you been?”
“Uh, well, I’m all right. I, uh, I was at a party with some friends from work. I didn’t expect you to be home and I was bored, so I went there after work.”
Bert knew that Donna had no particular friends at work, none that he had heard of anyway. The probability of her going to a party with any of them and staying out until midnight was pretty low. Bert decided to press her on this, since it didn’t add up in his mind. “Where was the party?”
“At a house on Point Loma,” she answered.
“Take me there,” he asked.
“The party’s over,” she replied. “Nobody will be there.”
“Take me there anyway,” he pressed.
They got into her car and Donna began to drive. She took them to Point Loma and drove aimlessly around that neighborhood, claiming at last that she couldn’t remember how to find the home. Bert became convinced that there was no house and that there had been no party; not one that consisted of more than two people anyway. “Drive us back to the house,” he said once he became convinced of the true situation.
By the time they arrived Bert had fallen into a deep sadness. Anger would come later. He simply began to gather some clothes and a few things that he thought might be important to him while Donna followed him protesting her innocence, protests which became weaker as time passed. When Bert finished throwing his possessions into his car he returned to the house and stood before Donna and said, “All evening I have known that one way or another this was going to be a very bad night. I’m glad that you are alive and safe. I really am. It is me who is the loser tonight.” At this point the tears could not be held back, and they began to pour down his face as he continued speaking. “I hope that you have a good life, and I hope that I never see you again.”
Without saying another word he turned, got into his car, and drove to his parent’s house. Very nearly true to his word, he only saw Donna twice after that. The first time it was at the divorce hearings. They said nothing to each other, although Donna clearly wished to do so. The second time was a year later. Bert was shocked when he heard that Craig and Donna were seeing each other, and then was devastated when he learned that they had gotten married. What he felt had been a betrayal by his former wife had been compounded by this new betrayal by his best friend, and the pressure was finally more than he could bear. He resigned his position at Mercy and disappeared from all sight by Donna and Craig and any other friends that he knew, but not before one unpleasant scene.
All of those memories swirled in Bert’s head when Craig’s letter appeared in his mailbox. He almost threw it into the recycle bin several times, but for some reason that he wasn’t certain that he could explain he didn’t do that. The old hurt began to eat at him and he decided that he should read the letter and perhaps see if anything in it could help to put that old hurt back in its box. He asked his wife Becky what she thought of this and her recommendation was that he should go if it would not be too painful for him. Becky was an oncologist, a doctor dealing with cancer, and knew a lot about breast cancer and the damage that it does to loved ones as well as patients. Perhaps Craig was reaching for a lifeline to anchor his sanity. Becky was sensitive to that need.
“This person was once your best friend,” Becky told him. “You’ve said it yourself; as far as you know he was never cheating with Donna while you were married or at any time before. Look, I know that this has been eating at you for far too long. Maybe this is a chance for you to heal this old wound. All it would cost you is a few days of your time. As your doctor, I recommend that you go.”
“So, you don’t think that this thing about my first wife is an insult to you? he asked. I mean, you’re my wife and you’re the only one who I want to ever be my wife. Wouldn’t this holding on to any aspect of my ex-wife be offensive to you?”
“You’ve never been anything other than a loyal and honorable man,” she replied. “I love you and don’t doubt for a moment your love for me. If going back to San Diego and scratching that damned itch that has bothered you for so many years will give you peace on the issue, then I really encourage you to go. If it would help you I could go with you, but my personal opinion is that this is something that you should do on your own.”
Bert agreed with her on that and after a couple of letters were exchanged on the topic the two former friends agreed to meet at their old favorite hidden campsite, with the hope that the positive memories of that place would make this meeting go as smoothly as possible. He arrived a day before the meeting was supposed to happen, intending to spend a night in the silence and peace of that place, collecting his thoughts before Craig was to show up the next day. He sat back deeper in his chair and let the peacefulness untwist taut muscles and silence jangling nerves.
His mind wandered from his own personal memories to thoughts of the native people who had once inhabited this site. This happened every time he had stayed here as a youth and he was not surprised that it happened on this day. He thought of the huts made of branches and grass thatch and cooking fires where whatever meat that could be hunted, or nuts and seeds and roots and berries that could be gathered were simmering. The gurgle of the adjacent spring-fed stream during wet years – and those would be the years when this place would have been inhabited – and the rustle of leaves would blend in his mind with the murmur of a father or mother teaching a child some craft that they would need to know to stay alive.
He could see the father returning with a brace of rabbits, or the mother weaving a basked with a daughter and teaching her about herbs and other useful things that nature provided to feed them and keep them healthy. He heard the giggles and cries of young children lying in a soft cradle or playing with make-believe bows and arrows. It was almost as if it was real, and he wondered if he would see this tiny band of Kumeyaay families making a temporary home here if he opened his eyes. Would the sounds in his mind become real? He heard a sound and wondered if it was just his imagination or if his dreams were indeed real, and he opened his eyes to see if some ancient hunter was returning to camp.
But there was nobody there. No hunter nor wife nor children now engaged their lives at this site. Only he was here, wrestling with his pain once again. He was alone, perhaps more so than he could express. He looked toward the cave and tried to convince himself that he saw a wisp of smoke curling up from the entrance, but he knew that he had seen nothing. And the sound of the children playing? Was that imagined too? He listened carefully but heard nothing but the breeze rattling the leaves of the oak tree. No gurgle or splash came from the dry stream bed. There was nobody else there.
Then he heard a rustle in the bushes, the scuffle of a boot heal over rock and dust. Bert reached for the handgun that he carried and focused on the point where he had emerged from the trail up the side of the mountain less than two hours ago. He had no clear idea what had made that sound but he was not supposed to meet Craig there for another day. He did not want to be unpleasantly surprised. Soon he saw a baseball cap rise up over the lip of the shelf upon which he was camped, then a face with eyes covered by sunglasses, and then the full body of a man rise up and step onto the ancient camping ground.
Craig appeared to see Bert immediately upon reaching the shelf, or at least the sunglasses were pointed toward him. He stopped for a moment and stared directly at Bert – this time he was certain of it – and then resumed walking across the shelf. He came to within a few feet of where Bert continued to sit motionlessly and, without any change in facial expression, said simply, “It’s been a long time.”
Bert nodded and equally simply said, “Yes it has.”
An awkward, drawn-out silence ensued. Craig removed his pack and put it on the ground several feet from where Bert rested in his chair. He looked at Bert again and then silently turned and walked over to the cave, where he bent down and looked inside.
“This is awkward,” Bert thought. “Why did I agree to come here? This was our favorite place, but that’s all gone. Why the hell couldn’t I let that ghost story stay in the basement?”
Craig returned from his inspection of the cave and stood again in front of Bert. “It hasn’t changed in a thousand years,” he said as he pointed back toward the crack in the earth. “I guess there’s no reason why it should have changed in the last forty.”
Bert looked towards the cave, mostly so that he wouldn’t have to look at Craig’s face, and replied, “Nope. I don’t suppose that there is.”
The silence returned. Bert sat still and silent as the statue of Abraham Lincoln in that president’s memorial in Washington D.C. Craig continued to stand, shifting his balance slightly from leg to leg and looking now at Bert, now at the big oak that shaded them both, and now at the point where the trail led back down the hill and away from the uncomfortable situation.
He then looked back at Bert and said “I had hoped that we might talk. Should I set up my chair, or is this thing over already?”
Bert considered calling off this meeting and driving straight back to Vancouver. He had travelled eleven hundred miles however, mostly at the insistence of his wife, and he did not relish driving that many miles back to tell her that he had not accomplished the task. She wouldn’t criticize him if he did, but she would be disappointed. He didn’t like the thought of that. “Go ahead and sit,” he finally said. “This isn’t easy but I’ve come a long way. I guess I’m a little curious about why you wanted to do this anyway.”
He watched as Craig extracted his chair from straps on his pack. It was very much like the one that Bert had brought. Bert thought about how likely that was to be. They had once been very much alike, so it was not such a surprising thing. Craig had developed a bit of a paunch over the years and his face, which had once been angular and framed by long blond surfer’s hair, was now more rounded underneath the graying businessman’s cut. A flush from the exertion of carrying his pack and his extra pounds up the trail still showed on that perspiring face. Bert felt like this man was not the Craig that he remembered, that was oddly beneficial for the beginning of this unwanted reunion. It was as if Bert was not meeting with his former friend at all but rather with some other person entirely.
Craig got the chair unfolded and sat down in it, and then fished a bottle of water out of his pack. He took a drink and then daubed at his face with a bandana that he had in a back pocket. “I’m not as young as I used to be,” he said.
Bert remembered his wet shirt when he had removed his pack a couple of hours earlier. “Neither am I,” he answered. “I remember that this used to be a lot easier.”
Craig chuckled at that. It was an attempt to lighten the dense tension in the air between them rather than a reaction to anything amusing in what had been no more than a statement of fact. He took another sip of water and then sat silently in his chair.
Bert felt that this meeting was about to end without anything positive to be said about it, so he decided that he must break the ice. “I suppose that we should shit or get off the pot,” he said. “So, you said in your letter that Donna has died. Were you two married all of that time?”
Craig’s face showed relief that Bert had opened the conversation, even if he did start with the hardest thing that he could possibly talk about. He also understood the deeper implication of the question. “Yes. We were. We were married for 38 years. Almost 39.”
“Humph,” Bert grunted. “I didn’t expect that.”
Craig ignored the insult. “I suppose that I know why you would have thought that,” he said.
“Yeah, I suppose that you do,” Bert answered.
Again silence settled between the two men as they withdrew into their own thoughts, one trying to find a way to make this work and the other trying to find out if he had any desire for it to do so. It was Craig who broke the silence this time. “I know that you didn’t believe me the last time I said this, but I never cheated with Donna when you two were married.”
“I haven’t thought about that very much,” Bert replied, which was a bald faced lie.
“No, really. I never did,” Craig reiterated. “I admit that I was infatuated with her from the first time that I saw her, and I won’t deny that I was tempted to try something stupid on a hundred different occasions, but I never did. You were my best friend and I was not going to do that. I never wanted to blow our relationship. I was shocked when I heard about what happened between you two and I didn’t go near her for as long as I could stand it after you separated. When I decided that it was really over I made a move and it finally paid off. I had no idea that you would take it so hard. I thought that it was done between the two of you.”
Bert felt his anger flare when Craig told him this. It was an old anger too, an anger that had lain in his heart for decades like a grain of sand in an oyster, except that this grain of sand, instead of producing a pearl, had developed into something more like a suppurating ulcer that was encased in multiple layers of scab that was only mostly able to contain the noxious pus that still managed from time to time to seep out and poison his life. Little bits of that toxic ooze would sometimes show up in hours of sadness and repressed anger. His wife had seen this and hoped that this reunion might rip the scabs open and let in some healing light and air.
“Donna was my first love man,” Bert said, almost surprising himself with the urgency of his declaration. “ I know that sounds like soap opera shit, but it’s true. She owned me and I thought that I owned her. I told her when I left her that I couldn’t share her; that it had to be me and her or nothing at all, and then you pop up sharing a bed and a home and a life with her. Damn it man, what the fuck did you think I would feel?”
Bert felt the anger boil, and as it did he returned in his mind to the last time that he had seen Craig and Donna. Craig was lying crumpled on the lawn of the house that he and Donna then shared. Craig had asked him to come over an try to patch things up. Bert said that he could not walk into a house that Donna shared with another man and so Craig came outside to try to begin a healing process. Bert snapped and swung a furious right hand that caught Craig completely by surprise. He had fallen like a sack of dirty laundry, with blood beginning to run from split lips and a hole where a couple of teeth used to be.
This made Bert even madder, as the satisfaction that he had sought from a punishing fight with the give and take of blows thrown and received by both combatants had now been taken from him too. As a result he took his frustration out on a nearby palm tree, pounding it over and over again with a fist that was already bleeding as a result of his first blow against Craig’s jaw. Screaming his rage and grief and hatred of even being alive Bert beat against the tree, spraying blood in every direction with each blow while Donna wailed and cried over the prostrate form of Craig, pleading with Bert to stop his assault on the tree and leave.
Bert’s control returned, but only just sufficiently for him to grant a pardon to the tree and to leave as Donna had requested while she tried to help her groggy husband back onto his feet and into their bed so that she could begin first aid for his wounds. Bert turned away from them both and never looked back. One week later he was on the road with no idea where he was going, and a year later he was at the University of Washington in Seattle, as far away from Craig and Donna as he could manage while still being on the West Coast.
Craig looked down at the ground when Bert asked his last question and Bert backed off just a bit. “I’m sorry man. I know that it’s been too long to hold on like that. It’s just that it still hurts. It never goes away. It has never let me alone.”
Craig looked up when Bert was finished speaking and said, “It’s OK. I know it hurts. It would be ridiculous to imagine for a minute that it wouldn’t. I was just hoping that time has softened the hurt just a little. I can see that I was wrong.”
Craig’s conciliatory tone served to damp Bert’s anger, but he still had acid churning in his stomach as he said “You know it hurts? How is that? Maybe you know it as an academic exercise, but how can you know how much it hurts when you haven’t been through it. Give me a break, man.” Bert felt his anger growing again but this time he was more successful in controlling it. “I don’t think you know jack shit about how much it hurts.”
Craig looked up from the dirt at his feet and, taking off his sunglasses, looked with his red-rimmed eyes directly into the face of Bert and said, “I know how much it hurts because it happened to me, too.”
Bert jerked as if an electric shock had coursed through his body. “You said what?” he asked.
Craig sighed and slumped deeper into his chair, the stiffness of the tension that had existed in both of them from the first moment now escaping from him like air from a torn tire. “Yeah,” he said and then he repeated, “It happened to me too. A couple of times.”
Bert said nothing while he looked at Craig with his mouth open. At last he said in disbelief, “And you stayed with her?”
“Yeah, I did,” Craig replied.
“How?” Bert asked in stunned amazement. “How could you do that?”
Craig thought only for a moment before answering, which made Bert suspect by that quick reply that he had asked himself and answered that question many times already. “It’s like this; I loved her. You know how that is, right?” Bert didn’t reply. Couldn’t reply. Craig continued. “I loved her. Donna. I loved Donna. I loved her from the first minute that I saw her and as I got to know her I loved her even more. It was like what was I going to do? What could I do? I loved her and nothing was going to separate me from her. Nothing.”
Bert continued to gape at Craig, unable to believe what he was hearing. “So, while she was in bed with some other guy you were OK with that?” he finally asked.
“No,” Craig replied. “It wasn’t like that. It didn’t happen often; really, only a couple of times. And it never went on. She was a lovely woman and everyone was attracted to her. You remember that. I know that you do. Temptations were always there and on a couple of occasions she succumbed to it. It was like an illness, or a weakness. She would just lose her way and let a mistake happen. She would know that it was wrong and that she had done something that would hurt me, and she would tell me about it right away.”
“Holy shit!” Bert said. “I can’t believe that you put up with that. I mean, what man – – -.?”
“What sort of man would put up with that sort of thing?” Craig said, finishing Bert’s sentence for him. “Yeah, I heard that from a few people who knew about it. Look, I saw her after the deed had been done. She was in agony. She knew about how she had hurt me and she was hurting even more that I was. I knew her. I could tell. She didn’t come away from any of those episodes untouched. I can tell you, she suffered more than I ever did. I think that she suffered more than you did, too.”
Craig fell silent then and Bert picked up where he had left off. “How could you do it man? How could you stand to be with her after the first time much less any other, no matter how few they were? How could you be seen in public with her? How could you go to bed with her?”
“I told you already,” Craig replied. “I loved her. It hurt me. It hurt a lot. But ours wasn’t a cheap love. The price was awful, but I’d pay it again if I could have her back. She was a wonderful person – – -.” Craig choked a sob and stopped talking long enough to get his emotions back under control and then continued to speak. “She was wonderful. You remember that, I’m sure. She had a weakness. That didn’t erase all of the other wonderful things that she was. I was willing to endure the bad for the good. It was a good bargain and I would make it again.”
Bert sat silently now, trying to take all of this in. He remembered his grief, his tears and his rage. He thought of his physical violence against his best friend when that friend had committed no greater sin that falling in love with somebody who he had fallen in love with himself. Craig had, after all, waited until the separation was legal and seemingly complete. Struggling to put things into some sort of order that would make sense to him he asked,” Didn’t you want to rage out? Didn’t you want to kick somebody’s ass the way cheated husbands usually do once they find out about it?”
“No, Craig replied. “It didn’t work out that way. I didn’t ‘find out about it’ the way cuckolded husbands usually do.” He sighed deeply and then continued. “She told me. After she had stumbled and allowed a terrible mistake to happen she would come and tell me. She knew that she had done a terribly wrong thing and she didn’t want me to find out through the grapevine. I remember her telling me once that I had every right to kick her out onto the street, that she wouldn’t blame me for one minute if I did. She ached. I could tell. Have you ever seen a child grieve when their pet has died?”
Bert remembered Tiger, his daughter’s cat that had developed cancer and withered away before their eyes. Tiger had to be euthanized to prevent his suffering. He nodded toward Craig in the affirmative to that question.
“Did you doubt that child’s grief?” Craig asked.
Bert remembered holding his daughter. Her young body was wracked with sobs while she said goodbye for the last time as Tiger was taken into the back of the veterinary hospital. Her grief had been unmasked, as open and unashamed as only a child’s could be. He shook his head, this time in the affirmative, unable to speak at that moment.
“Well, that’s how obviously and powerfully I felt Donna’s sorrow at having failed me. She didn’t want to hurt me. She had a weakness, just like an alcoholic or a gambler or a person with an eating disorder has a weakness. The other 99.9% of the time she was the most wonderful woman in the world.”
Craig continued to talk about his love for Donna, and Bert watched his face as it was transformed from that of a man grieving the death of his wife and facing a hostile and injured old friend into one with a glow and a softness that spoke of fond affection and complete acceptance. This didn’t make sense, and the thought entered his mind that Craig might be trying to bullshit him.”
“People just don’t do that man,” he protested. “They just don’t do that. I loved her too, and her betrayal gutted me like a fish. I really did love her, you know.”
“It’s OK. You don’t have to convince me,” Craig replied. “I know that you did, and you may or may not know it, but she continued to love you too.”
Bert rose up out of his chair and stood in front of Craig. “That’s bullshit!” he shouted. “She couldn’t do what she did to me if she loved me. Maybe she fooled you but she damn sure didn’t fool me. I’m not buying any of this!”
“Maybe you should ask Becky,” Craig said without stirring from his chair.
Bert stopped still and asked, “How do you know about my wife? Have you been snooping into my life?”
“No,” Craig replied. “I haven’t been snooping. I only know what Donna told me. She’s followed your life from a distance, which has been a lot easier since the internet and social media came along. She was excited when you went to medical school and she was happy when you were married. She was proud of you when she saw the name “Bertram Laver, MD” somewhere on the internet.” Craig paused at this moment and then said, “She prayed for you too man.”
“She prayed for me, shit,” Bert snorted. “No god would listen to a prayer coming from someone like her.”
“Really?” Craig asked. “Donna was exactly the kind of people that God would want to hear from. Maybe you should ask Him about it yourself.”
Bert snorted again. “Not hardly. I believe in science.”
“Me too,” Craig said. “Science is cool. She believed in God though, and because of that I had to give it a thought myself.”
“That just doesn’t make any sense,” Bert said in what was beginning to become a mantra. “That just doesn’t make any fucking sense.”
“Yeah,” Craig agreed. “It sorta stands things on their heads, but I lived with her for a long time man. I saw her every day. She cheered for you like you were the high school football team. She celebrated you from a distance. Hell, I was a little jealous of you at first, until I realized that it wasn’t a contest. She could love you as the person that she knew you to be while she loved me as her husband, and she could do it without diminishing the amount of either one. I guess God is probably more impressed with that than he is with the petty shit that I have to offer him.”
Bert turned and walked to the edge of the shelf. He looked to the southwest, across Viejas Reservation land and toward the fog bank that represented the marine gloom that had settled over San Diego that day. This conversation had stood everything that he had believed about his first wife and former friend on its head. Bert had arrived at this enchanted childhood hideout expecting if not intending to lash out at his old friend and his unfaithful wife once again. The pound of flesh that he claimed almost forty years ago had cried out for a second helping.
Craig, however, had come with a story that he was completely unprepared for. Donna had hurt him, but she didn’t stop loving him. He had given her up in a big way, and then violently attacked his best friend out of rage generated by what seemed to be a double betrayal. But according to Craig she had only failed, not betrayed. He thought that again; She hadn’t betrayed, she had only failed. She never stopped loving him. She had never set out to hurt him in the first place. She took no joy in his pain. In fact, she had grieved the effect that her failure had caused him and followed his life, even praying for him!
And what did I do? he thought. I rejected her. Kicked her to the curb and then attacked my best friend, breaking his jaw and knocking him out. Bert felt a riptide of emotions as grudges that he had nursed for almost forty years ran head-on into this amazing story that was only beginning to sink into his numbed brain. He looked back at Craig and a new appreciation of him began to chip away at the cold anger that had owned his memories of his old friend for too long.
Craig had forgiven the failures of his wife and loved her anyway. Not only that, but one of the first things that he did after Donna died was to reach out and try to mend the long-severed relationship between himself and Bert. Bert stared at Craig, studying him as he sat in his chair. Craig seemed to sag in his chair as if he was tired from carrying a heavy load for too long.
Of course he’s tired, Bert thought. He’s been mourning for his wife. I remember how wonderful it was to be with her before I failed to understand her the way that Craig did. That has to be hard. How would I react if Becky died? I would feel like I was carrying the world on my shoulders too. Of course I would. But he asked for me to meet him, and here at this spot no less, so soon after her passing. I believe that I might be a part of that load that he’s carrying. He buries his wife one day and then as soon as he is able he writes me a letter. What sort of a friend have I denied to myself for so many years? What sort of an asshole have I been?
Bert walked back across the shelf and sat back down in his chair. He didn’t look at Craig; in fact, he didn’t look at anything. He leaned back into the nylon webbing of the chair and closed his eyes. Again he let his mind return to the vision of the people who had used this place for millenia before it was taken from them.
Something separate from his normal senses kicked in as it had here so often in the past. Once again he could smell the smoke of the cooking fire and the meat that was sputtering as it roasted above it. He could hear the children playing, the men talking about hunting and seasonal relocation of their encampment, while the women talked of gathering foods and herbs, tending to the huts they lived in and managing the cuts and illnesses of their families. He heard them making love at night and making amends among each other when strife would arise and threaten the security of their community.
Bert had always connected with this place in this way. He had at first been surprised by it and was never able to explain it. Today he felt like it was talking to him, telling him that love for an imperfect wife was not so different than love for an imperfect friend. Craig had shown him both of these things, and Bert now felt that now he believed that love like that was possible. He wanted to know how it felt.
Bert’s backpack lay next to his chair. He reached into an open pocket and retrieved a stainless steel flask. He unscrewed the cap and took a short drink, appreciating the warmth of the whiskey as it flowed down his esophagus and into his stomach. He then turned and extended the flask toward his friend. “Are you up for a snort? We haven’t shared a drink for, what? Almost forty years.”
In the fall of 1972 I was fortunate enough to begin my junior year of college at Sonoma State College, now Sonoma State University, in the town of Cotati, California. Cotati was a wide spot in U.S. Highway 101, about one hour north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Sonoma State was the newest of the California State Colleges then and there were no dormitories yet, so students were left to find lodging as best they could in Cotati, Rohnert Park, Santa Rosa, or somewhere in the rural countryside where the locals would take in a student or two to augment their income.
By pure luck I was able to find an apartment in a two building complex that was about 200 yards across a flat field from the college. A narrow asphalt path led from just across the street to the west parking lot of the school. This complex housed something like 200 students and was conducive to almost anything except studying. My unit consisted of a living room, a kitchen, two bedrooms and one bath. Three of us were lodged in that unit, and on a roll of the dice I ended up alone in one bedroom while my roommates Roy-Boy and Animal shared the other. It was a good arrangement, from my point of view, and we all got along very well, considering that each one of us was, in our own very unique and individual ways, crazy as loons.
The focus of community for the residents of Building A, where my apartment was located, was the swimming pool. The pool was in a concrete courtyard area that also contained a fire pit, a picnic bench and several deck chairs. On nearly every evening, whether during autumn, winter or spring, many if not all of Building A’s residents would be found by the pool. Many of us would swim, some in swimsuits and others in a state of nature, while others would tend a roaring fire and still others would talk politics or flirt or weave dreams about where they hoped to be in five or ten or forty years down the road.
On several occasions we would decide to make music. A couple of the students possessed and were able to play instruments. Roy and Jan played the guitar. Lenny played a clarinet. I pounded on a big, red conga drum. Others played pots and pans and telephone books and anything else that they could turn into an improvised musical instrument. On such nights the cacophony produced by anything that could be blown into, scraped across, plucked, thumped or tickled would waft out into the dark Sonoma night, accompanied by the voices of those who’s preference for instruments of auditory torture ran to the vocal cords. As a result, our courtyard would frequently look and sound like a couple of the circles of Dante’s vision of Inferno.
One of the members of this fiendish ensemble was Jack. Jack was a tomcat, and I mean 100% tomcat. I assumed that he had once been somebody’s pet because he was not overly skittish once he became accustomed to us. Jack would hang around us looking for a handout or any morsel that might fall to the concrete paving of the pool area. We would also frequently find him diving in our dumpster looking for gustatory jewels which we had carelessly thrown away out of the ignorance of our abundance.
Jack was a large cat but there wasn’t much fat on him. Lean at the hip, with a ragged coat and a tattered ear, he was a veteran of many a scrape with plenty of evidence of battles lost as well as battles won. The most visible of his battle scars was his right eye. That eye always drooped to a greater or lesser extent from one day to the next, and was always tearing or weeping a fluid which made it look like he was crying. The wounded eye neither got much better nor much worse as time went on, and we just accepted that feature as part of his essential ‘Jackness’.
A couple who lived in my building, Jan and Sheila, took a particular shine to Jack and began to feed him when he wasn’t out catting around, and eventually the attraction of a warm bed and steady meals was sufficient to entice Jack to more or less move in with them. These two people were some of my best friends at that time, so I got a chance to get to know Jack pretty well. One afternoon we were sitting in their living room petting and sharing treats with Jack when Sheila said “We ought to take Jack to a vet and get him checked out. He probably has worms, and maybe we could get his eye fixed.”
“I would love to Honey”, responded Jan, “but how are we going to do that? We’re eating on food stamps as it is, you know.”
“It couldn’t cost that much” I chimed in, demonstrating how little I knew about such things. “Maybe if we just squeeze a few bucks out of our food budgets next month we could get a little done for him. Then we could do more for him each time we scraped a some more money together’.
“I think it’ll take more than that” said Sheila. ‘I’ll call a vet tomorrow and see what this kind of thing would cost”.
“That sounds like a plan Babe” said Jan, and then we dropped that subject in order to pursue weightier matters, such as the dull roar that was beginning to pick up over at the poolside.
It was actually a few days later that Sheila obtained the information that we needed, and the number set us back on our heels. “The vet said it would take anywhere from $80 to $150 to do the kind of check-up that we talked about. Any work that he had to do on the eye would be more.”
We sat there thunderstruck, looking at each other in bewilderment. Jack sat over on a pillow, fresh from having a mouthful of dried food and looking at us with his perpetual ‘wink’ as Jan called it. At that time my entire budget was $125 from the G.I. Bill check that I got every month. That included rent, food, and the all-important beer ration. Jan and Sheila had less than me, therefore having to rely on the already-mentioned food stamps.
“Maybe we could take up a collection” offered Jan. “Everybody else likes Jack too.”
“Yeah, they like him as long as they don’t have to pay for him” I said. “Their budgets are the same as ours; beer, rent and food. Taking care of Jack probably isn’t a line item on too many of their budgets.”
Jan, Sheila and I fell to cudgelling our brains, trying to find a way to squeeze enough money out of our budgets to give some veterinary attention to a worn and dusty old tomcat. We sat silently, each in his or her own thoughts, and I reflected on my own necessities. Beer, of course, came first. I was 23 years old and a student, after all. Rent was also non-negotiable, so I began to review my food budget.
I was already very thrifty in the food department. My mother had grown up in deepest Appalachia, and my father in rural Georgia during the Great Depression. Both of them knew how to stretch a penny; in fact, Dad used to joke that Mom could squeeze a nickel so tightly that an Indian would come out riding a buffalo. Dried rice and beans, cheaper cuts of meat and other inexpensive products would be prepared by Mom in such a way that I grew up eating tasty meals and never knew that we would be considered by many to have been marginally poor.
While attending Sonoma State I put that tradition to good use. Pinto beans were 19 cents per pound. Ham hocks were 25 cents per pound back then, before white people outside of the South discovered them. Garlic and onions and salt and pepper were almost as good as free. With no more than 75 cents I could cook a pot of beans that I would eat out of for three days, if that pot was otherwise left alone. Usually, however, it was not left alone.
First my roommates discovered my beans, and then the word got around to the others in our community. The beans were available to whoever wanted to come in and enjoy a bowl. Another bowl was placed on the counter next to the refrigerator, where people would leave whatever change they had in their pockets so that I could keep the bean pot full. This was a generally agreeable situation for nearly everyone in Building A, but one day a glitch appeared in our well-oiled machine.
One afternoon when I was working on a paper on Kathleen Kenyon’s excavations at the site of the ancient city of Jericho, I heard the door open and close and a female voice cry out my name. “Back here!” I shouted, wondering about this innovation of any female person looking for me. I heard rapid footsteps and soon found myself confronted by an obviously agitated Maureen, one of my co-tenants and the significant other of Joe. Maureen was pure Irish, and at this moment her Irish was up.
“You have got to stop Joe from eating here!” she barked.
“What are you talking about, Mo?” I asked, unsure of whether to be shocked or amused.
“I’m talking about your damned beans,” she replied. When Joe’s been eating them I can’t be around him. He’s peeling the paint off of the walls.”
“I’m sorry Mo, but that’s something that you guys are going to have to work out. I can’t very well share my food with everyone else but tell Joe to bug off.”
“Isn’t there something that you can add to them, or something that he could take to tone them down? I’m telling you, I can’t live with him if he keeps this up.”
I invited Maureen to take a seat and tried to calm her down. I was somewhat successful and we talked for a while. Maureen and Joe were two of my favorite people in that complex and I didn’t want to cause a strain in their relationship or a rupture between Maureen and myself. Finally I threw out an idea.
“Why don’t you have a couple of bowls yourself; you know, fight fire with fire? I’m getting hungry and wouldn’t mind some company.”
Maureen looked at me blankly for a moment, and then a devilish grin began to grow at the edges of her mouth. She then said, “Sure. Who knows, I might like them too.”
Like them she did, and in Maureen’s virgin gastrointestinal tract the more unpleasant components of those beans frolicked like young sheep gamboling in a field of lush grasses and wild flowers in the springtime. Full of pinto beans and the promise of retribution, Maureen returned to their desecrated love nest and waited for her lunch to reach it’s full measure of pay back potency.
All of building A knew when the knockout blow was delivered. In the still of the early evening, before the nightly party began by the pool, Joe’s tortured voice cut through the cool, late autumn air. “Jeez, Mo. Did something crawl up your ass and die?” His question was answered by a fiendish cackle, followed by another sound which was something like ‘braack!’” A moment later we heard their door open and then slam shut as Joe exited from their apartment in search of relief and a breath of fresh air.
From our patio we could hear all of this transpire, and the three of us were soon laughing so hard that we were almost crying. Once I had composed myself enough I went around our patio toward Mo and Joe’s front door. As I looked through a window I could see Maureen dancing gaily in the kitchen. I knocked on that window, which was open, and got Maureen’s attention. She broke into a big smile when she saw me and waved for me to come in. I declined that invitation, which made her smile even more broadly. She gave me a double thumbs up, which I returned with a smile of my own, and retraced my steps back to the relative safety and breathability of my own apartment.
Peace did eventually return to the Mo and Joe unit, and Mo came over often to learn from me how to make those wonderful beans and other cheap meals. It was always a little dangerous to go over to Joe and Mo’s place, however, after she began to cook that wonderful stuff herself.
This and other food memories ran through my mind as Jan and Sheila and I thought about how to get Jack patched up. As I pointed out earlier, my beer budget was untouchable. Everybody has priorities. Rent, too, was a dead-end street. And as for food? Well I had to eat. Everybody has to eat food. Everybody needs to eat food. Everybody – – -. Wait! Everybody has to eat but not everybody likes to cook food! They like to eat it but they don’t like to cook it.
There the answer was, staring us in the face from the very beginning. “Let’s have a benefit dinner for Old Jack,” I said. Jan and Sheila saw the wisdom of that suggestion immediately.
“What will we cook?” Sheila asked.
“What will you two cook?” Jan asked. “You know that I’m useless in the kitchen.”
“How about spaghetti?” I asked. “I know how to make a lot of it, and if I go cheap on the meat I can stretch it even further than usual.”
We struck hands on the deal and began to make plans for our dinner. We started saving our pennies wherever we could, and Jan and I even cut into our previously untouchable beer allowance, so powerful was our determination to make this dinner happen. Jan was a gifted calligrapher, and he began to produce exquisite posters to put up throughout the complex announcing a spaghetti feed to benefit Jack. Interest ran high, additional dimes and quarters flowed into the fund, and the progress began to make it look like the enterprise might really work.
On the morning of the big day I began to prepare a large kettle of my own sauce recipe: ground beef and pork, tomato sauce and paste, onions, garlic, mushrooms, olives, peppers and a pinch or two of various spices, simmered for a few hours. In the afternoon, in an even larger kettle, we threw the noodles into the boiling water as the time to serve drew near. After letting them boil for a few minutes I began to pluck individual noodles out and throw them on the wall. When the noodle would stick to the wall it was done.
Sheila opened the door and the first of a horde began to file through. Jan snatched noodles out of the kettle and I applied dippers full of sauce while Sheila passed the hat. Technically the food was free, but Sheila put a serious stink eye on any chiselers who thought that he’d get away with a free meal. People filled every corner of our unit and spilled out into the courtyard and beyond. We served every bit of that spaghetti except for the plate that I saved for myself. Jan and Sheila did not indulge, as they were vegetarians. After the last diner had left we counted our take. Minus the cost of the raw materials we had raised $78 and some change, not a small amount in those days.
The next day Sheila made an appointment with a vet, and on the appointed date we cornered Jack and wrapped him up in a towel so that he wouldn’t do too much damage to us on the way. We piled into my old Dodge Lancer and began the trip to the vet. Jack liked this idea about as much as Joe liked Maureen’s revenge, and he was pretty edgy when we carried him into a room filled with other cats and some dogs too. Our turn finally came and we stepped up to the counter and met Doctor Hendricks.
“Well then, who’s cat is this?” he asked.
We looked at each other and said, “Well, Doc, he’s nobody’s cat, really”.
He looked at us kind of funny and said “So you want me to work on nobody’s cat?”
“Well Doc,” I explained. “He’s a stray that we all have come to like, and so we want to fix him up some if we can.”
Sheila then told him the story of the benefit dinner and added, “We raised $78 and some change and can each of us add a few dollars more if we have to. What can you do for Jack with that?”
The doctor stood there for a few moments and repeated the story to make sure that he understood it. Once he decided that he did understand it he said, “OK. Let me keep him until this afternoon and I’ll see what we can do”. We thanked the doctor profusely and then went about our day’s business.
About four in the afternoon we returned to pick up a bathed, wormed, vaccinated, and thoroughly mortified Jack. The veterinarian told us that the damage to his eye was permanent, but that he could see out of it well enough and that it did not seem to cause pain and would not negatively impact him if he remained indoors. Jan and Sheila decided then and there that Jack would be their indoor cat from that moment until the end of his natural life.
“How much did this cost?” asked a nervous Sheila. She knew that the extent of the doctor’s work was probably a good deal more than we had.
“How much did you say you raised?” the vet asked us.
“Seventy eight dollars and some change,” Sheila answered.
“Then the bill comes to seventy eight dollars,” he said. “And change”.
With profuse expressions of gratitude we returned to Jan and Sheila’s unit and turned Jack loose to sulk in his corner and lick his wounded pride until dinnertime.
I remained friends with Jan and Sheila for a few years until my gypsy lifestyle led me to new fields. The last thing I remember of Jack was him doing one of his favorite things. Jan and I had opened a couple of beers and rolled a doobie the size of a Havana cigar. We were enjoying both, while Jan’s excellent stereo boomed out album after album of Pink Floyd. Jack loved that band and would sit still as a statue about four feet away from a suitcase-sized speaker, winking his wounded right eye at Syd Barrett and Roger Waters and the boys for as long as the music would play.
I was told that Jack lived a couple more years after I left the scene. He died a happy and loved cat.
It was 9:45 in the evening and nearly time for the Enlisted Men’s Club to close. Almost two dozen boisterous soldiers of the 537th Company, 63rd Battalion of the Eleventh Transportation Command were alerted that they had fifteen minutes to slurp down the last of their cold beer and return to their hooches for the night. What they did once they returned to their prefabricated aluminum quarters was their own business.
The EM Club was a wooden structure that was slightly larger and a little bit taller than a residential hooch, which could sleep twenty four men. It was constructed of materials scrounged from the stream of goods that flowed through the river port operated by the 63rd. The wooden planks that formed the sides of the building, the aluminum that made the roof, the fiberglass insulation that stood guard between the revelers inside and the grueling heat that ruled the daytime over the flat Mekong Delta outside; all of it was collected from shipments destined elsewhere but which lost their way in the fog of war and ended up at the 537th.
Larry Ordonez tended the bar, sold jerky and pretzels and whatever else came through the supply line legitimately or otherwise, and opened several hundred cans of beer in a twelve hour day. He was taller than average at 6 feet 1 inch, and weighed around 220 pounds, making him imposing enough to prevent most trouble from breaking out in his club.
The customers were mostly smaller and younger than Larry; hardly more than boys. It was 1967 and the draft was still feeding young men into the war in Vietnam, men who in some cases had been high school seniors going to baseball games and drinking sodas at the Tastee Freeze, and hoping that some pretty girl would go with them to the Senior Prom less than nine months earlier. These boys in olive drab fatigues frequently got drunk and got stupid but only rarely did they get rowdy. Larry’s presence went a long way toward ensuring that things stayed like that.
Larry’s assistant was Mike O’Reilly, a private first class who had once been a buck sergeant. Mike was not as tall as Larry but he weighed more, and there was little fat on him. He had previously served in some unit of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade where he had committed some act serious enough to get him reduced in rank to private, but not so serious as to result in spending time in the infamous Long Binh Jail that was known to all soldiers in-country simply as LBJ. Nobody knew what that infraction was and nobody asked. If Mike wanted anybody to know he would tell them, and he wasn’t talking about it.
Ten o’clock struck and Larry yanked three times on the cord that was attached to a brass bell. The rich tone of the bell cut through the white noise of the small building, announcing that it was time to take their party elsewhere, or perhaps go and crawl into their bunks and get some sleep before starting another hard twelve hour shift at the port in a few hours. The bell had been removed from a small Vietnamese freighter that had been rocketed and sunk at the port many months earlier. It sank right in front of Deep Draft Berth 3, rendering that dock unusable for 2 1/2 weeks until it could be hauled out of the water by a huge floating crane and placed in a yard to be salvaged. The bell disappeared, only to reappear in Larry’s EM Club, no questions asked.
The men drank up and filed noisily out through the door. The last man through was Phil Ostercamp, a soldier who usually occupied a table by himself in a corner of the club. Even when other men shared a table with Phil he still drank alone. Phil was 22 years old, making him senior to many of the other occupants of the club. He was deeply tanned wherever skin could be reached by the sun. He never wore shorts or went about shirtless as many of the others did. Fatigues and boots and a floppy bush hat were all that most people had ever seen him in. He congregated with others very little and spoke less.
At last the EM Club was empty. Larry and Mike began to clean the tables of empty beer cans and to wipe the tabletops and bar counter clean of spilled beer, cigarette butts and other detritus left behind by the thirsty man-children. At least tonight there was no vomit on the floor.
After a wait of about ten minutes a knock was heard at the door. Larry crossed the room and opened the door, allowing Westy Dunfee, Mark Morrissey and a new kid, Earl or something like that, to enter. Larry had seen this new guy around recently but had not interacted with him at all. He had heard other men speaking to him and they called him something, and it wasn’t Earl. Nicknames were common in the Army, so that did not strike Larry as unusual.
“Welcome to the After Hours Club boys,” Larry said with a grin and a flourish. The three filed into the room and waved at Mike.
“How do Fellas,” Mike said as he waved back. “Y’all here to help clean up?”
“It’ll cost you a beer,” Mark called back.
“Help y’self,” Mike responded. “Y’all know where the cooler and the brooms are.”
Westy walked toward the cooler while Mark went to the back room and retrieved two brooms and a mop. The third soldier stood by the bar and waited to see what was going to happen next. Westy extracted three beers and opened them. Mark threw one of the brooms to the new person and gave the other to Westy, keeping the mop for himself. Westy handed out the open beers and then turned back to Larry and Mike.
“Fellas, I think you all know Weasel here,” he said as he waved at the new person in the group.
“Oh, I thought that I heard you called Earl somewhere,” Larry said.
“That’s what my parents call me,” the man replied. “But I’m just fine with Weasel.”
Mike laughed and Weasel turned menacingly toward him. “You got a problem with my name?” he growled.
“Whoa, hold on now,” Westy said. “Mike don’t mean no offense, and you don’t want none of him anyway.”
“Yeah,” Mike said. “No offense intended, but where’d you get that name? Ain’t everyone who comes in here calls himself Weasel. Ain’t got no badgers or squirrels or raccoons neither.”
“Huh!” Larry snorted. “We got no shortage of squirrels that come in here night after night.”
“Yeah, but they don’t call themselves Squirrel now, do they?” Mike asked and then turned to to Weasel and asked, “How’d you come by that name, boy?”
Weasel seemed to bristle at the word ‘boy’ but answered without making a fuss over it. “When I was at Fort Hood I was in a shit detail company. We didn’t have nothin’ official to do, so they would call us out to morning formation, count us and send us to breakfast, and then we were supposed to go back to the barracks and wait for somebody to pick us for some crappy job that somebody else in a real unit didn’t want to do.
“I didn’t have time for that shit, so I would just vanish like most of the other guys, only they would go to the snack bar or the PX or other predictable places where they would get pinched by the First Sergeant and put on those details. I knew how to not be found. Top Sarge hated me for that and called me a weasel. I kind of liked that, so I ran with it.”
Larry and Mike laughed out loud at Weasel’s story and that seemed to take a little of the edge off of his belligerency for the moment. The men fell to wiping and sweeping and mopping the floor, and in a very little time the little wooden building was mostly clean and ready for the next day’s work. The five men sat at a round table and began their second beers. The air conditioner that poked through the wall was no longer working against over two dozen sweating human bodies and had begun to make headway against the heat that reigned sovereign over this corner of the world. Weasel pulled what looked like an unfiltered cigarette out of his shirt pocket and lit it. He took a deep drag on the ‘cigarette’ and drew it into the bottom of his lungs.
“Ah!” Westy said. “Pass it over, my friend.”
As Weasel passed the joint to Westy, Mike asked him, “How long you been in-country, boy?”
“I got in a month and a half ago,” Weasel replied. “And I got your boy hanging. Don’t call me that again.”
“Whoa, simmer down son,” Mike replied. “No need to get yourself hurt over nothing at all. We’re all friends here, less’n you don’t wanna be.”
“Easy now,” Westy chimed in. “Mike’s from the South, and I don’t mean Atlanta or Nashville. Boy’s just a term of endearment where he comes from. That right Mike?”
“Right as rain. I’m from the town of Adel in South By-God Georgia,” Mike said with an easy smile. He was not overly worried about Weasel.
“Yeah, he don’t speak good English,” Mark added.
“Like you do?” Larry asked Mark, who then flipped some condensation from his cold beer can at him.
Weasel seemed to accept the explanation of Mike’s use of the word ‘boy’ and also noticed that nobody at the table was impressed with his machismo. He subsequently ratcheted down his prickly attitude. The joviality of the other four men and the effects of the strong Cambodian marijuana that they were smoking soon made for a more mellow atmosphere in general. Mike passed on the joint as it came around to him saying, “No thanks. I’d rather get my high out’n a bottle than smokin’ them funny cigarettes.”
“Cool,” Weasel said as the joint came back to him. “More for me.” But you could tell that the animus had departed from him. He took a long drag on the joint and passed it along.
The conversation the drifted from topic to topic, but as usual the three younger men spent a lot of time telling tales of their sexual prowess back in the world before being drawn into Uncle Sam’s all-expenses-paid vacation in the tropics, and how they were going to resume their studly ways when they returned after their tours of duty in Veitnam. Larry and Mike, having heard such stories many times from the younger soldiers, listened without letting their doubts show. Weasel, being the youngest and most given to general machismo, painted a most vivid picture of his exploits.
He lit another joint and took a long drag. After holding the smoke in his lungs for nearly a minute he exhaled and asked, “Who was that guy that was sitting in the corner?”
“What guy?” Mark asked.
“What corner?” Westy asked at the same time.
“That corner over there,” Weasel replied, pointing to the table in question.
Larry followed the line of Weasel’s pointing finger and then replied, “Oh, that was Phil Ostercamp. That’s sort of his private table.
“What’s his trip?” Weasel asked. “How come he gets his own table? He sits there and doesn’t say nothing, just looks at his drink and doesn’t hardly even drink it. It’s kinda spooky.”
“Phil’s a short-timer,” Westy explained, referring to the soldier’s eminent return to the United States, or at the very least his departure from Vietnam.
“So he’s short,” Weasel replied. “That doesn’t entitle him to his own table. The dude could still talk to somebody. How come I never seen him at the port?”
“He’s usually on convoy, so you won’t see him at the port,” Mark explained. “He’s sort of crazy; always pulling gunner on a jeep. Volunteers for it too.”
“I thought that MP’s provided convoy security,” Weasel said.
“They usually do, and sometimes the 11th Armored Cav does,” Mark replied. There’s gaps though, and he signed up for the duty. It turned out that he’s pretty good at it, too. Now he’s working a 60 in the back of a rear jeep all the time.”
“Dude must be a nut bag,” Weasel observed.
“Not really,” Larry interjected. “Working where I do I get to know a lot of people around here. Phil’s all right, or at least he used to be. He was never the life of the party but he was as cool as anyone else was.”
“So what turned gloomy as a grave digger?” Weasel asked.
“Six months ago he got a Dear John letter,” Larry explained.
“Oh, that sucks,” Westy observed.
“That ain’t the half of it,” Larry said and then continued. “His wife was pregnant when he was sent over here. He expected to go see his wife and baby in Hawaii when his R&R came around. They send married guys to Hawaii to be with their families, you know.”
“Yeah, we know that,” Mark said. “Me? I’d rather go to Bangkok,”
“Well, you’re not married and a father, which is probably a good thing,” Larry replied and then continued his story. “Anyway, Phil got the letter two weeks before his R&R started. His wife told him that the baby wasn’t really his and she wanted a divorce so that she could marry the baby’s real father.”
“Holy shit!” Weasel exclaimed. “I’d go home and shoot somebody.”
“They don’t value shooting people back home the way that they do here,” Mike observed. “Phil talked about doing just that, back when he talked much at all. He told me later that he crossed that option off of his to-do list for when he got home; said that rotting in jail didn’t sound like a great future. That was a few months back. I don’t know what he’s thinking anymore.”
“So he likes to ride gunner now,” Mark said. “That much I know about him. What’s he doing? Is he trying to take his revenge out on the Cong or trying to get himself killed?”
“I couldn’t tell you,” Larry answered. “Maybe the one or maybe the other, or maybe even both at the same time. They say that he doesn’t flinch in an ambush. He stands there looking for movement or muzzle flash or anything to guide him, and then just whales away with that 60. Shit’s flying past him like yellow jackets to a piece of meat on a picnic table and stuff’s blowing up all over the place; he just stands there and makes ‘em pay.”
“I knew some fellas like that in the infantry,” Mike said. “The gates of hell would be open’n up and they’d just be like taking their sweet time and pouring it right back to the bad guys. Crazy som’bitches! Some of ‘em would get lit up but others seemed to be born with a four leaf clover up their asses and never got touched.”
“Ain’t no way that I’d let any chick screw with my head that way!” Weasel declared.
“You ain’t gonna know that until some chick does screw with your head, junior,” Mike replied. “Phil loved that girl; least he said he did, ’n I suppose that’s true. It’s not like breaking up with your eighth grade girlfriend, or it shouldn’t be.”
“Especially when there’s a baby involved,” Larry added.
“Especially when you thought that the baby was yours, and it wasn’t,” Mike continued. “At least that’s what he was told, but then she lied about other things, so how do you believe that this or any other part is true?”
“That stuff will really mess with your head,” Larry said. “You don’t know how you’ll react until you’re in the middle of it. I’ve heard it a couple ‘a times over here, being a bartender and all. And the thing is that it got worse.”
“The hell you say!” Westy exclaimed. “How does it get worse than all of that?”
“Well, Phil was in shock and didn’t know how to deal with that information. Two weeks after getting the letter he went on that R&R, not knowing what the hell else to do. It was like he was numb and couldn’t make any kind of a decision, or even process what was happening around him, so he did whatever came next when R&R came around. He went and stayed in that place that the Army had secured for him and his family, and it empty as a tomb. I think that’s when he really snapped.”
“Why didn’t he just pick up somebody on the beach or in a bar and spend the week with her?” Weasel asked. “Thats what I would have done.” The others at the table either scoffed or remained silent after hearing that. Weasel scowled at the rejection of his attempted logic and then Larry continued his story.
“When he got back here it was like he was as empty as that house in Hawaii was. He volunteered for the gunner position every chance he could. Once they saw how good at it he was they put him there on every convoy. Now he’s got three weeks to go before he goes home or wherever they send him.”
“I heard that they sometimes send the really crazy ones to the Philippines or Korea or somewhere so that they can try to straighten out their heads a little before the go home,” Mark said.
“Yeah, I heard that too, but I don’t know if it’s true,” Larry said as he picked up his story again. “They offered to let him stay back at base camp the last three weeks but he wasn’t interested. He’ll go on convoy the day before he goes home if they’ll let him.”
“Wow, that crazy bastard walking around on the streets back in the Real World. That’s not the best idea that I’ve ever heard,” Westy observed. “Maybe it would be better if he succeeded in getting himself killed in the next three weeks.”
“I don’t know anything about that,” Mike said with a frown. It was obvious that he was not impressed with Westy’s comment. “I don’t know if he’s really trying to get himself killed. This is just my opinion, but I don’t think he hates the Cong and I don’t think that he really wants to get killed. It’s just that he doesn’t care if he gets killed or not. I think he feels like he’s dead already, in the middle of his soul at least, and he’s just getting into the thickest part of things so that he can feel a little bit alive again, even for just a while. Unless you’ve been in that shit, you can’t really know about it.”
“Well, I think that’s enough of this for me,” Mark said. “I’ve got to get a little shut-eye before we have to do it all over again tomorrow. You all coming or staying?”
“I’m done,” Westy said.
“Me too,” Larry agreed. “I’ll lock the place up.”
“Light weights,” Weasel said, but he got up too and walked to the door with Mark and Westy. On their way back to their hooch the three friends paid little attention to the flares in the nighttime sky just beyond the perimeter of their battalion. Flares were not an uncommon thing in the Vietnamese sky after dark. Upon their arrival at their hooch however they discovered a buzz of activity
“What’s up?” Westy asked a soldier who occupied the bunk next to his own.
“Where’ve you been man?” the soldier replied. “Haven’t you heard?”
“Phil Ostercamp took one from a sniper.”
“Kiss my ass! You’re shitting me, right? I saw him just an hour ago.”
“Yeah? Well, it doesn’t take an hour to get your ass dusted by a sniper.”
“Oh, crap. How is he? Did they waste him?”
“I don’t know. He was talking when I saw him, but he was blubbering shit that I couldn’t hear well. Bleeding like a stuck pig, too.”
Mark and Weasel heard that conversation and came across the hooch to where Westy was talking with the other soldier. “So he got his wish, huh?” he said.
“What wish?” the soldier asked.
“Oh, nothing,” Mark replied and returned to his bunk. Weasel had the bunk next to Mark’s. He sat down on the edge of the steel bed and looked at Mark, his face white as a sheet. Mark noticed that the bravado and macho talk had escaped from Weasel like gas out of a ruptured balloon.
“Yeah kid. The shit’s real here. This ain’t no damned John Wayne movie. People get hurt and people die, and that happens in a lot of ways. I hope that bullet didn’t kill Phil. Hell, I hope that maybe it brought him back to life somehow. Either way we gotta do our stuff again tomorrow, so let’s get some sleep.”