The Long Walk Back Home, Chapter Seven

Chris sat in his mother’s car with the engine idling while Calvin spoke with his uncle behind a storage shed that stood next to the mobile home.  It had taken no time at all for him to be ready to go, and it took Calvin no more than fifteen minutes to pack a few items of clothing and toiletries in a large, battered suitcase which he placed in the back seat.  Calvin then went into the shed to retrieve some tools that he had used on odd jobs in the eastern San Diego County backcountry since his return from Vietnam.

Calvin emerged from the shed with two five gallon plastic buckets full of tools, a ladder and an aluminum walk-up trestle which he tried to fit into the car.  The trestle and tools would fit into the trunk, but the ladder was out of the question.

“I guess I’ll have to leave this behind” Calvin said.  “Dang.  I really like this ladder.”

“We can come back for it when things blow over” Chris suggested.

“Things don’t always blow over all that quickly out here” Calvin replied.  “As soon as I find work I’ll buy another.  Hold on a minute.  I’ll take this back, and I want to speak to my uncle.”

That had been ten minutes ago, and there was no sigh of Calvin yet.  Chris wanted to get on the road and escape the craziness that had been his last twelve hours, but he remembered Calvin talking to him about what he called ‘Rez time’ when they were in Vietnam.

“White people are controlled by their clocks and watches” he had said.  “You have to do this by ten o’clock, and when the clock says twelve o’clock you have to eat lunch, whether you’re hungry or not.  On the Reservation you eat when you’re hungry, you go to work when the sun comes up and there’s work to do, and you go to sleep when the sun goes down.  Or when you get sleepy.”

Chris debated whether to shut the car off until Calvin appeared or leave the car running.  He was not sure at this point which action would seem most insulting to Calvin’s uncle.  That man was unlike any person that Chris had met in his life.  The Viet Cong, or “Charlie” as U.S. servicemen called their enemy, had hated him and wanted to kill him.  Chris knew that, accepted it, and didn’t hold it against them.  He wanted to kill them, too.  That is simply what war is about.  But he wasn’t at war with Calvin’s uncle.  He had never laid eyes on him before.  This unconcealed animosity toward Chris because of his race was something that he had never dealt with before.  “What have I ever done to him?” Chris thought.  “Man, that guy should take an attitude check.”

And then, before Chris could reach for the key in the ignition, Calvin was climbing in the passenger door.  “OK” he said.  “Let’s see if we can get out of here without any trouble.”

“You really think we’ll have trouble?” Chris asked as he shifted into drive.

“It’s possible” Calvin replied.  “Very possible.  It depends on who those three guys were related to and who they know.”  The bartender didn’t look very happy with them and none of the crowd jumped in to help, so maybe they’re assholes to everybody.  I’m sure that the law was called, but maybe those calls were sort of slow.  Heck, they could be such assholes that they’ve pissed off The Man himself.  We don’t know, but just to be safe we’ll assume that those punks are somebody’s favorite offspring, and then just hope that we get a break.”

Our task for right now is getting out of the east county, and my uncle and I were discussing that very thing.  We’re guessing that if anyone’s looking for us – and we have to begin by assuming that they are – they’re probably watching the main roads and the freeway on-ramps.  And we don’t know what they’re looking for.  Maybe the crowd was focused on me and didn’t get a good look at your car, but with the ass-whupping that you dealt out I doubt that.  Or maybe they did.  Maybe if they did but they aren’t sharing that information.  We just don’t know, so we’re going to have to roll the dice, and Uncle and I roll for the back roads.

Chris was just ready to go and didn’t have an opinion, so he said “You lead the way; that’ll be good enough for me.”

“Go up to the road and turn left” Calvin replied.

For the next thirty minutes Chris and Calvin drove over a network of roads, some paved and some not, and some that required the opening and closing of gates.  It was early summer and the previous twelve months had been more wet than usual for San Diego.  Because of that the vegetation was lush.  Many arroyos that were normally dry had small streams running in them, and the air had a clear sweetness to it.  All of this helped the two friends to relax and consign to the background the reason why they were taking this circuitous route back to the city.

As they snaked covertly through the back roads of the Rez and then through county land, Chris brought up a problem that he had been chewing on all morning.  “So, why was your uncle so mad at me?  I never did anything to him.”

Calvin was silent for a minute and then asked “Do you really want to talk about that?”

“Sure” Chris replied.  “I mean, I can see why he would be surprised to see me sleeping in his house, but what made him mad was me being white and being in his house.”

“Yes” Calvin replied.  “Being white is enough to make my uncle not like you.”

“I don’t get it.  Why is it like that?  I mean, it doesn’t matter to me if a person is Indian or some other color or anything like that.”

“Well, it’s a little different when you’re in our position” Calvin replied.

“How so?” Chris asked.

“I’m pretty uncomfortable even talking about this” Calvin said.  “And you might become uncomfortable too.  This stuff hits us pretty close to home.  We can talk about it, but let’s agree to stop if it starts to get sticky for either one of us, OK?”

Chris agreed to that and Calvin proceeded.  “The United States is your country.  OK, it’s mine too, by default, but the US is the only reality that you know.    Your country has always won its wars.  It’s spread from coast to coast without letting anyone stand in its way.  You’re the first in just about everything.  Biggest economy.  Best cars.  Apple pie.  Baseball.  Heck, you’re about to land men on the Moon, if everything goes right.  Through your eyes America is the greatest place on Earth and has the best of everything and deserves the best of everything, and that Indians are the people who used to be here but now mostly aren’t.  The Indians are just a part of history and we should get on with things.

Well, we Indians see it a little differently.  We are the ones who used to own this place.  Actually, ‘own’ is not quite the right word.  The idea of owning a place is a little bit weird to an Indian.  But anyway, we’ve been here for thousands of years; nobody ‘discovered’ us because we were never lost.  One day a ship sails up to our coast though, and we’ve been pushed and squeezed into smaller and tighter corners of poor-quality land ever since.  That kind of history can make a person a little bit peevish every now and then.”

“But that was then and this is now” Chris objected.  Everybody gets the same opportunities now to make of themselves whatever they want to be.  You know, ‘All Men Are Created Equal,’ and that sort of thing.  I mean, you can go to school just like me and become whatever you want.  You can vote or even run for office and, well, you can enjoy this country just as much as I do.”

Calvin chuckled softly and hesitated before answering.  Finally he began to talk again.  “There’s a lot to respond to in what you just said, and I want to remind you that I’m explaining why my uncle feels the way he does.  I feel somewhat differently – not entirely differently, but somewhat – although the Indian in me knows the same history as the Indian as him does.

Anyway, as regards opportunity, You’ve seen with you own eyes that I don’t have the same opportunity as you do to walk into a crappy roadside squat-and-gobble restaurant and enjoy a peaceful dinner.  And that example extends to a lot of other areas of the bigger society as well.

 

We Indians had – and still have – a culture all our own.  Our dances, our medicines, our regard for earth and nature, were very important to us.  In fact, they still are.  But our culture is looked at by the white culture as cute by many, and certainly childlike by most.  But our culture was not and is not a simple minded holdover from the stone age though.  We related to each other and nature in a perfectly mature and reasonable manner is different but not inferior to the whites.  It’s true that we had neither the numbers nor technology to defend the land, and also that we didn’t understand the nature of the threat until it was too late, but we were never the dimwitted savages that we were thought to be then, and continue to be considered by many to be now.”

“Wow” Chris exclaimed.  “I had no idea that there was that much divide between Indians and the rest of the country.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty deep.  A lot of Indians, especially the Rez Indians, still look at their country and see it occupied by foreign invaders.  They still want and dream of the invaders going home.  My uncle is in that camp, pretty much.”

“Well, I am home” Chris replied.  I was born here.  Heck, we’re part English and part German, a little bit Swedish and French and God knows what else.  I wouldn’t have any idea where home is, if it isn’t here.”

Calvin chuckled at this and said “My uncle would tell you that that’s your problem.  Indians have enough problems of their own and don’t have any spare time to solve yours too.  Ah, that’s enough of this for now.  Here comes our first main road back to the city.”

They came to an intersection with a well-maintained road with a stripe in the middle.  “Time to take our chances in the real world” Calvin said.  “Take a right here and this’ll take us to the Interstate.  I don’t think anybody will be looking for us here.  All we did is kick some cowboy ass.  It’s not like we robbed a bank or anything.”

They saw only a couple of cars in the four minutes that it took to get to the Interstate, and none of them were black and white with lights on the roof.  The on ramp was clear of lurking patrol cars and they were quickly absorbed and made anonymous by the stream of westbound traffic on Interstate 8.  They spoke no more of the issue of Indian feelings about their condition as they made their way into and through the city.  Calvin guided them to his mother’s house in South Park.  They pulled to the curb in front of Calvin’s mother’s house and spoke of Calvin’s plans, now that Chris’ unwise insistence on dinner at Sadie’s had turned his life upside down.  “I’ll get work in construction somewhere” Calvin said.  “I have enough tools of my own, and I can get on a crew somewhere.”

“How are you going to get around?” Chris asked.

“I’ll work that out with Mom.  She’s working the day shift at Mercy Hospital.  I can drop her off and pick her up.  We’ll be OK.”

“Well, if you need a ride, just call me” Chris said.  “In fact, I’m not doing nothing for the next couple of months.  If you find a job where they need a flunky to fetch and carry, let me know.  Like I said back at the hotel, I was thinking of doing some construction anyway.”

“Sure, I can do that” Calvin replied and then he chuckled.

“What?” Chris asked.  “What’s so funny?”

“Oh, nothing” Calvin replied.  “It’s just that back at the hotel you was talking about me going to school like you are, and now you’re talking about following me construction.”

Chris smiled and said “Yeah.  Life gets complicated.  I’m still going to school, but a little physical work wouldn’t hurt me.  How about you?  You think any more about you going to school too?”

“I’ve been too busy thinking about staying alive lately to spend much time thinking about school.  The idea does sort of intrigue me though, especially if I’m doing it with somebody who’ll push me and keep me honest.”

“Well, how about this idea?  Why not go and see an admissions counselor at State and start the process?  You can always back out if you decide to do construction instead.  That way you at least have the wheels grinding if you decide to go for it.”

“Hmm, maybe so.  I’ll think about it and call you.  Shoot, I’ll call you anyway if I find some work for you, or need a ride.”

Chris agreed to that and waved goodbye to his friend and then drove home.  He dreaded the questions that he knew he would have to answer when his family saw his face, but the sooner he got it over with the better, he thought.  He wasn’t wrong.

“Chris!” his mother exclaimed when he walked in through the front door.  “What in the world – – -, what happened?  What is that on the side of your head?”

“It’s not as bad as it looks, Mom” he explained.  “I got in a fight that I absolutely was not looking for.  My friend Calvin is an Indian and some people decided that they didn’t like Indians or people who hung around with them.  I really had no way out of this.”

Lydia Pierson came closer to look at her son’s damaged face, and Chuck came from the bedroom where he had been studying to see what the fuss was all about.  He, too, took a hard look at Chris’ face and said “What the hell?  Is that fishing line?”

“Yeah” Chis replied.  “That’s all that Calvin had handy.”

“Your friend sewed you up on the spot with that stuff?”

“Yep.  It’s all that he had.  There’s not too many doctors working the night shift on the Rez.”

“On the what?”

“On the Reservation.  My friend lives – lived – on the Campo Indian Reservation.  Medical services are a little bit scarce out there.  Scalp wounds bleed like hell, and we had to do something.”

“Holy crap!  That must have hurt.”

“Yeah, it’s not something that I’d want to do every week, but like I said, I didn’t have a lot of options.  Besides, a lot of adrenalin and a little rum made it less nasty than it might have been otherwise.”

“A little rum?”

“Well, maybe more than a little.  Anyway, it worked.  Oh, and Mom?  Who do you all use for a doctor?  I saw Dr. Meador’s office got knocked down and there’s a gas station there now.”

“We go to Dr. Featherstone now.  He’s in North Park, just a block before the Pep Boy’s Auto place” Mrs. Pierson answered.  “We were really disappointed when Dr. Meador retired early.  They bought his property in an instant and put that gas station there.”

“Too bad. I liked Dr. Meador” Chris replied.  “Can you give me this Dr. Featherstone’s number?  I have to get these stitches out and real ones put in.  And a little anesthesia this time would be nice!”

“It’s in the address book by the phone” Mrs. Pierson replied.  “Why don’t you go and call now.  I think that the office is open on Saturday, at least until two or three o’clock.”

Chris agreed to this and sat down in a chair by the table at the end of the hallway where the telephone rested.  He found the number that he wanted and dialed it.  The office was indeed open, and when he explained the situation the receptionist had him wait and speak to a nurse.

 

“You had an accident and a friend stitched a laceration with fishing line?” she asked, somewhat incredulously.  Chris confirmed that this was the case.  “Well, we will make an appointment for you for eight o’clock Monday morning, but I have to recommend to you that you go to an emergency room at any hospital if you start to develop redness or increased pain.  That process couldn’t have been anything like sterile, and infection is a very real possibility.  In fact, I recommend that you go to an ER anyway, but that’s your decision.”

Chris thanked her for the appointment and the advice and hung up the phone.  As he sat in the chair however he noticed the name ‘Pam Olsen’ on the notepad that they kept next to the phone.  “Mom!” he called out, and when she answered he asked “What’s with Pam Olsen’s name on the notepad?”

“Oh, I forgot to tell you,” Mrs. Pierson shouted back.  “She called a couple of days ago.”  Chris waited for more information, none of which was immediately forthcoming.  His mother had gone back to the task of preparing a chicken to be put into the oven for that night’s meal, and all of her attention was on her work.

“So,” he shouted, “did she, like, leave a message or something?”

“Didn’t I write it down?”

Chris scrutinized the notepad to make sure that he hadn’t overlooked anything.  “Nope” he said as his mother appeared in the door between the kitchen and the hallway.  “No message.  Just her name and phone number.”

“OK.  Well, she didn’t say much; just that she’d try to catch up with you later.”

“Huh.  Well, I guess I could walk over to her house and find out what she wants.”

“I suppose that you could, if you wanted to scare all of the children and half of the adults in the neighborhood.  Has anyone mentioned to you yet that you look like Frankenstein’s monster?  In fact, you’d probably scare her to death.  Who is she, anyway?  Or am I being nosy?”

“Yeah, Mom.  You’re being nosy.  But she’s Tom Fielding’s girlfriend’s little sister.  I met her the day that I went over to see Jackie.  If you recall, that visit didn’t go over so well.  I wonder what she wants to talk about?”

“I guess one way to find out without causing a panic would be to call her back.”

“Thanks Mom” Chris replied with a grin.  “You’re a lot of help.”

Lydia Pierson went back to her chicken and Chris went back to the phone, but before calling Pam he stepped into the bathroom to take a look at his face.  It wasn’t pretty.  In the course of the fight the previous night, several blows that he couldn’t even remember must have gotten through his defenses.  His right eye was purple and puffed to half closed.  His ear on the same side was bright red.  Both upper and lower lips were split on the left side and the still-oozing gash near his left temple, with his jury-rigged fishline stitches, did indeed resemble something from a Frankenstein movie.  “Yeah Mom” he muttered under his breath.  “I guess you’re right.”

He sat again in front of the telephone and dialed Pam’s number.  After several rings he was close to hanging up, when at last a voice came on at the other end.  “Hello” it simply said.

“Hello” he replied.  This is Chris.”  A long pause ensued and he then continued.  “Chris Pierson.”

“OK” the voice replied.  “What can I do for you, Chris Pierson?”

“Oh, well, I was out of town and got a call from Pam.  Uh, this is the Olsen residence, isn’t it?”

“Yes it is.  Pam’s not here at the moment.  Can I take a message?”

“Yeah, sure.  I guess.  Just tell her that Chris returned her call and that I expect to be home all evening.  I’m not sure about tomorrow.”

“OK.  I can do that.  Oh, wait a minute.  I hear a car.  Can you hold on?”

“Sure” he replied, and then began to wait, trying to imagine what Pam would want to talk to him about.  In a few short minutes Pam’s voice cam on the phone.

“Chris?”

“Yes”

“Oh, hi Chris.  Thanks for calling back.  How are you doing?”

“Uh, pretty good.  What can I do for you?”

“Well, it’s not for me.  I wonder if you would be willing to talk to Jackie?”

“Jackie!  Are you sure?  The last time that I spoke with Jackie it didn’t turn out so well.  Does she say that she wants to talk to me?”

“Yes she does.  It’s her idea, in fact.  This whole thing’s been really hard on her and it’s messing with her life.  She knows that she has to get things sorted out and she knows that she reacted pretty badly with you.  You see, she knows the Fieldings very well and she has spoken with them since you got home.  They don’t like you very much.  At least, Mr. Fielding doesn’t.  I suppose he hates you, actually.  Anyway, his anger isn’t very pleasant to look at and Jackie became aware that she acted toward you in exactly the same manner.”

“Well” Chris replied, and attempted to lighten the conversation with a little humor.  “She didn’t say that she was going to shoot me, so it’s not that bad.”

The attempt was only partially successful.  Pam forced a chuckle and then continued.  “Jackie’s getting pulled in a lot of directions.  She knows that she has to move on, but she misses Tom desperately.  She’s angry with you but she doesn’t hate you. Not now, at least.  I think that maybe she did hate you, but she saw in Mr. Fielding what hate looks like and doesn’t want to be stuck there.  You knew Tom as well as anybody did and was his best friend, which puts you just about in the center of this whole thing, so she just wants to talk to you.  I can tell you that it won’t be easy for her, either.”

Chris didn’t reply right away.  He remembered Jackie’s slap and her fury, and Mr. Fielding’s threat and insults.  He had been in one vicious fight already within the last twenty four hours and he was not sure that he wanted to endure a second.  In fact, he discovered that he was really exhausted, physically and mentally.  Did he have the energy for any kind of negative face-off with Jackie, or anyone else for that matter?  But Pam had been kind to him, and he felt as if he owed something to her.

At last he said “I appreciate that you were nice to me a few weeks ago, and if you think that a conversation with Jackie could be a little more calm than the last one was, then I’m OK with it.”

“Oh, yes” Pam agreed.  “Jackie knows that her reaction was wrong.  She wishes that it would never have happened, but I’ll let her tell you all of that.  She just needs some honesty about things, and I suggested that she go to the source.  She agreed.  So, you’ll talk with her?”

“Sure” Chris replied.  “I guess so.  When would she like to do that?”

“Is tonight all right?”

“Sure, tonight would be – – -.  Uh, well, I don’t know.  How about tomorrow?  Oh, I mean Monday?  Afternoon?”

Pam’s voice sounded disappointed.  “Is that the soonest that you can be free?” she asked.  “I’d hoped that she could talk with you tonight.  She really is hurting.  She’s my sister and I want her to feel better.  I guess if that’s all you can do though – – -.”

The disappointment in Pam’s voice was an acid that ate away Chris’ reluctance to go into public. “No, that’s OK” Chris said, interrupting her.  “I guess I owe it to her, and to you too, to help if I can.  We’ll be finished with dinner by about four thirty today.  Can we get together after that?”

“That would be great” Pam replied with obvious relief in her voice.  Chris found that he was pleased to hear that relief.  “Jackie will be home by four.  Can you come over here, or would you like to meet somewhere else?”

Chris thought about his battered face, and the thought of Jackie and Pam meeting Frankenstein for an ice cream and soda at the Two J’s Hamburger House for a nice chat didn’t seem like a winning proposition.  “Uh, look.  I’ll be honest with you.  I had an accident and I need to have something taken care of Monday.  I’m not too keen on pubic places right now.  Is there any chance that you could come over here?”

“Oh” Pam gasped.  “Are you all right?  Oh, my goodness!  Am I putting you on the spot with this?  I’m sure that Jackie would understand.  Maybe we should do this later.”

Chris found, to his surprise, that now it was him that didn’t want to put this off.  He had wanted to settle accounts with Jackie several weeks ago and he still did.  Now, hearing that Jackie was still distressed, in fact, maybe even more distressed than she had been the last time that he saw her, he wanted to try once more to tie up that loose end.  “Look” he said.  “It’s nothing serious; I just look a little banged up.  Your place or mine; either one would be fine with me.”

“Well, I think that Jackie would be more comfortable over here” Pam said.  “But then she’s my sister, so of course I’m putting her first.  Is that OK with you?”

“Yes” Chris replied with more than a little reluctance.  “That’ll be fine.  I’ll come over around five thirty.”

“OK.  Five thirty it is” Pam answered.  “And Chris.  Thank you so much for doing this.”

“No problem.  Oh, and Pam.”

“Yes?”

“If there are any small children around, you had better put them in another room.”

 

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The Long Walk Back Home, Chapter Six

The attack caught Chris completely by surprise.  He had exited the cafe behind Calvin and had only just began to proceed across the small parking lot when a fist crashed into the back of his head.  Chris stumbled forward, nearing falling.  He grabbed at Calvin to hold himself up and turned to see what had hit him.

Chris was not entirely steady on his feet, and that helped him to avoid much of the next blow.  He made an instinctive move to dodge the fist that flew at his face, and that, coupled with an erratic wobble that resulted from the first blow, caused the fist to mostly graze the side of his head.  It hurt, but it did no real further damage.

Chris backed away from his attacker, who was one of the three men who had taken particular offense at Calvin’s presence in the cafe.  He backpedaled until he felt the bed of Calvin’s truck behind him and used the solidity of the truck to steady himself.  The man came toward him, not running but rather stalking his prey, and those few moments were well used by Chris to prepare his response.

He had seen that the glancing blow had been delivered by his assailant’s right hand, so he assumed that the next attack would probably come from the same quarter.  It did, and Chris slid quickly to his own right, causing the man to miss him completely.  Chris took this moment to look for Calvin and saw that the other two men were ganging up on him, and then he turned his attention back to his own problem.

His opponent came straight toward him, and Chris got a good look at his face.  Chris had engaged in fights as a teen, but those were tame events compared with what he was engaged in on this night.  Back then rules were observed.  The fight would sometimes end with one of the combatants saying the word “uncle.”  On some occasions the two boys fighting went on to become friends later.  This would not be like those fights.  The hate that Chris saw in this man’s face told him that tonight would be more like his last two years than his first eighteen.  That hate told Chris that this would be a ‘no mercy asked, no mercy given’ event.

Chris took advantage of the man’s straight-in approach by throwing a hard left-handed jab into his face and sliding once again to his right.  The blow was not a heavy one but it stung, slowing the man down.  This gave Chris another moment to complete the clearing of cobwebs from his brain and vision.

He tried to guess his opponent’s next move, and he guessed right.  The man came at him with a roundhouse left that Chris just managed to duck under.  He then replied with a more powerful punch to the man’s gut than the earlier jab to the face had been.

The blow caused the man to flinch and drop his guard towards his aching stomach, and Chris reacted immediately with a blow, propelled from the shoulder and with feet planted, that caught the man squarely in the face.  This punch had power behind it and the man was left hurt and confused and vulnerable to Chris’ counterattack.

And then something snapped in Chris.  The berserker that had propelled him through life and death struggles in the steaming jungles of Vietnam, and that had nearly broken from his leash against the mouthy teen at the park on his first day home, now found himself fully unrestrained.  A fire burned in Chris’ eyes as he began to rain blows, now to the head and now to the body; blows aimed at mouth, nose, ears, kidneys and everywhere else that pain and destruction could be administered.  Eventually the man crumpled to the ground and lay there without moving.  The berserker gave him a vicious kick to the abdomen and then turned to aid his friend.

Calvin was a big man, but the two men who were assailing him were not much smaller and were administering punishment.  One held Calvin from behind while the other punched him in the face and anywhere else that he could hit him.  The two men were so focused on beating Calvin to a pulp that they didn’t see the berserker come up from behind.

The man punching Calvin had his feet well apart and planted in order to give his blows leverage, and that gap made possible a clean and mighty kick to the testicles.  The berserker put all of his focus, his fury, and his outrage into the kick, the landing of which raised the man a full five inches off the ground.

“Duck right” he yelled at Calvin.  The imprisoned Calvin did as he was told, exposing the face of the man holding him.  This allowed the berserker to explode a hard jab into the third attacker’s face.  This caused him to let go of Calvin, who then whirled and began to land heavy blows on his enemy.

The berserker turned back to the man with the injured testicles who had fallen to his knees and was trying to gather his breath.  Another kick caught him square in the teeth and the man tumbled onto his back.  Now the berserker landed on him with a knee in his gut, raining vicious punches onto the man’s increasingly shapeless face.

And then he was pulled off of the helpless man by Calvin.  The berserker nearly flew at his friend but, slowly and by degrees, it retreated back into its cage and Chris reclaimed his body.

“You OK, man?” Calvin asked him as the flamed faded from Chris’ eyes.

“Yeah” Chris said.  “I’m OK.  How about you?”

“Not so bad now, but I’m gonna feel like shit tomorrow.  Come on, let’s get out of here.  You follow me.  We’ll go to my place and get some iodine on these cuts.”

Calvin opened the door to his truck and climbed in, and after a couple of coughs the engine turned over.  Chris walked to his car, but before he opened the door he turned to the silent crowd that stood outside the door of the cafe.  Most were patrons, but Chris could see the bartender and waitress in the crowd.  His anger returned to him and he shouted at the group.

“You people would have stood there and watched three men beat two others to a pulp.  Why?  Because you hate that man’s ancestry.”  He pointed at Calvin’s truck.  “That man just finished a year in Vietnam.  How many of you gutless shithooks have ever done anything like that?  He’s ten times the man than any three of you are and none of you deserve to be in the same room with him.”

The berserker began to creep back toward the light.  Chris walked over to the prostrate form of his first attacker, opened his fly and began to urinate on the beaten foe.  Calvin re-emerged from his truck and walked toward Chris.  “Come on, man.  We’re done here tonight.  Let’s get out of here before the sheriff’s deputies get here.  You know that it’ll all be our fault if we don’t leave now.”

Chris was not able to think as clearly as his friend was, but he followed Calvin’s advice.  He started the car and then followed his friend out of the parking lot, onto the highway, and off through the darkness towards Calvin’s home on the reservation.  Calvin turned onto a small yet paved county road and Chris followed him.  Almost immediately he saw a battered sign that said “Campo Indian Reservation.”  There were several bullet holes in the sign.

As Calvin led on Chris down the darkened road he could see scattered lights, but it was too dark to make out clearly what the structures looked like from which the lights were shining.  At one point a dog raced out of the dark to chase and bark at Calvin’s truck, and then the mutt disappeared back into the shadows.

After a few minutes Calvin pulled into a driveway, at the end of which was a darkened mobile home.  Calvin stopped in front of the residence and turned off the motor.  Chris pulled up next to him and did the same.  He got out of his car and followed Calvin up the three wooden steps and onto the small porch.  Calvin opened the unlocked door, turned on a light, and invited Chris to come in.

Chris entered what was obviously a very old and fragile mobile home.  There was a minimum of furniture and only a clock and a brightly colored shawl or serape or something like that hanging on the walls.  Calvin closed the door and locked it.  Chris was about to ask him why he locked the door when he was home but not when he was away when he began to shake.

“What’s the matter, man?  You OK?  Here, sit down over here” Calvin said.

Chris allowed himself to be led to a large chair with a sagging bottom.  “It’s all right.  I’m fine” Chris said.  “It would be like this a lot after some of the action in Nam.  I just get so strung up that the unwind can be a little bit rough.  It won’t last long.”

“I think I’ve got some medicine that will help that” Calvin said, and then went into the kitchen.  He soon returned with two glasses full of dark fluid.  Chris cocked an interrogatory eyebrow and Calvin said “Rum and Coke.  In honor of the occasion, more rum than Coke.”

“Well done” Chris said.  He lifted his glass and took a large swallow.  The rum ignited a warm glow in Chris’ belly that spread over the rest of his body.  He took another gulp and then raised his glass in a salute to Calvin.  “Here’s to a couple of guys who can’t seem to leave the war.”

Calvin clinked glasses with Chris and took a drink of his own.  he closed his eyes and let the warmth of the drink loosen up his aching body, and then opened them and looked at Chris.  “You look like shit, man” he said.

Chris laughed and looked at the ugly, purple bruises that were beginning to bloom on Calvin’s already puffy face, amidst the lacerations, and replied “You ain’t no beauty to behold neither.”  They clinked their glasses again and took another drink each, and then Calvin said “Come on into the kitchen.  I’ll get some iodine and Band Aids.

For the next fifteen minutes they were engaged in cleaning and dressing their cuts.  Chris had one nasty laceration by his left temple where the grazing blow had caught him early on.  “That probably came from a ring on the guy’s hand” Calvin opined.  “It probably should be stitched, or you’ll be bleeding out of that all night.”  Chris looked at the nasty cut long and hard in a small mirror, and at last agreed.

Calvin had only some fishing line and sewing needles.  He heated one of the needles to a glowing red and then had Chris hold it with salad tongs while it cooled.  Next he wiped the fishing line with iodine and threaded it through the eye of the needle.  The line was very small leader material, but it still required a rather large needle in order to fit through the eye.  “You ready?” Calvin asked. Chris took a deep gulp of the rum and Coke and nodded his assent.  “Here goes.”

A few minutes later Chris had a set of five fishing line stitches in his head, which closed it up nicely and greatly slowed the bleeding.  Calvin flushed the area with more iodine and said “You’d better see a doctor as soon as you can.  There’s a better than 50-50 chance that’ll get infected.”

“Yeah” Chris replied.  “At least it won’t bleed and ruin my shirt.”

Calvin looked at the bloody mess that was Chris’ shirt and said “No, we wouldn’t want that.”

Chris peeled off the ruined shirt and put on one that Calvin gave him.  It was too big, but it was clean.  Calvin refreshed their drinks, with the Coke taking on an even lesser role this time around, and then they sat in the living room.

“Shit, man” Chris said.  “Is that the way it always is for you out here?”

“One way or the other” Calvin replied, “it’s like that here or anywhere else.  There’s always rules that have to be followed, and we broke a couple of them tonight.”

“Man, that stinks.  I had no idea how it was for you.  I still can’t believe it.”

“Well, after a few years you get to where you believe it, all right.  It’s a matter of survival.  But i told you earlier today that I wouldn’t unload my baggage on you, so I won’t.  I’ll just leave it with this:  That’s the way it’s always been and I don’t see how it’s ever going to change.”

Chris was silent for a minute, and then took a sip of his drink.  “I’m really sorry, brother” he said.

“Huh?  Sorry for what?”

“I’m sorry that you have to live with this crap.  It’s not right.”

“It’s not your fault”  Calvin said.

“No, but I’m sorry anyway.”

“Don’t worry about it.  And besides, we sure laid those redneck sons of bitches out, didn’t we?  That evens the score a little.”

Chris raised his glass in another salute and replied “Amen to that.”

The two friends finished the pint of rum and Chris agreed to sleep on Calvin’s sofa rather than drive back to the hotel.  Calvin turned out the light and walked through the pitch dark living room into the bedroom, and his closing the door was the last sound heard in the mobile home until the sun was well up the next morning.

Chris awoke to the sound of the door being unlocked and opened from the outside.  He expected to see Calvin, but was surprised to see an older man of uncertain age enter into the room.  It took the man a moment to recognize that the recently sleeping body on the sofa did not belong to Calvin.

“Who the hell are you and what are you doing in my house?” he growled.

Chris sat up quickly and fumbled with his words.  “Uh, well, I’m uh, well, my name’s Chris and I – – -.”

“What the hell are you doing here!” the old man shouted.  “Who said that you could come into my house?”

“I did” came a voice from the bedroom door.  Calvin stood in the doorway, wearing the same clothes that he had on the night before.  Apparently he had fallen into his bed fully clothed, just as Chris had on the sofa.  “This is my friend from Vietnam.  He’s a good man, and he’s my friend.”

“He’s a white man” the old man corrected Calvin, “which means that he’s no friend of yours.”

“Come on, Uncle.  Just give him a chance.  Not all white people are bad.”

“All the one’s that I’ve met are” the old man replied, and then noticed the bruises on Calvin’s face.  “What the hell happened to you?”

“We got jumped by some guys last night.  Me ’n Chris took care of them.  I’d probably have gotten my ass kicked good if he hadn’t been there.”

“We wouldn’t have been there at all if it hadn’t been for me  – – -“ Chris began

“Quiet, you!” the old man said to Chris and then turned his attention back to Calvin.  “And where is this ‘there’ that you were at?”

“Sadie’s” Calvin replied, and his uncle’s eyes narrowed a bit.

“Sadie’s” he repeated.  “You don’t have enough sense to stay out of there?”

“It was my fault” Chris began, but again he was cut off by the old man.

“I said be quiet, damn you.  You can speak in my house when I let you, and I ain’t going to let you.”

“Uncle, he didn’t know and I thought that maybe we could get in and out of their without trouble.  Besides, I just felt like having fish for dinner.  So we got jumped by three guys and we polished them off.”

“Three guys, eh” the old man said.  “You know ‘em?”

“No, never seen them before.  The others there knew them though, so they’re from around here.”

“You jack ‘em up good?”

“Yeah.  I had to pull Chris off of one of ‘em before he killed him.”

The old man rubbed the stubble on his chin and thought for a minute, and then he said “You know that you can’t stay here unless you stay on the Rez, and I mean right in the middle of it.”

“Yeah” Calvin replied.  “I know.”

“Why can’t you stay here?” Chris asked, and at that the man swung around and prepared to yell at him, if not more, but Calvin stepped between them.

“Uncle, last night was bad.  I had two guys beating on me.  Chris fought his one off and then bailed my ass out.  I might not be here today if Chris hadn’t been with me.  Yes, he’s a white guy.  But he might have saved my life and he took a beating doing it.  I wish that you would cut him a little slack, for that if for nothing else.”

The old man looked at the bruises and lacerations on Chris’ face, and especially at the makeshift stitches.  “You put those stitches in?” he asked, and Calvin admitted that he had.  “Not bad work.  And I’ll bet he cried like a little girl.”

“No, Uncle.  He didn’t cry.”

“OK, so he’s not useless.  You still have to clear out of here,and fast.  And you better take your white friend with you.”

“Yeah.  I guess I’ll go back and live with Mom.  Maybe I can come back after things cool down.”

“Maybe” the old man said.  “I’ll keep my ears open and see if I can find out who they are and how bad you messed them up.”

“It was pretty bad, especially his two” Calvin pointed at Chris.  “I’m pretty sure people will be talking about it.”

“Talking about it and waiting for you to get an inch off of the Rez.  The sooner that you get gone, the better.”

“Neither of my rigs are running now.  You gonna need the truck?”

“Yes” the old man answered.  “I am.  Maybe you might need to lay low here for a while after all.”

“I can take you to San Diego” Chris volunteered, and then drew back from the expected wrath of the old man.

The wrath didn’t come.  The old man just looked at Chris and then back at Calvin and shrugged.  “Suit yourself” he said, and then walked into the kitchen to make a pot of coffee.

“Why don’t you gather your stuff and call your mom.” Chris suggested.  “I’ll go and get my gear from the hotel and come back for you.”

“Is there anything at the hotel that you really need to have?”  Calvin asked.

Chris thought about the few items of clothing and the beer in his cooler.  “Nothing that I couldn’t live without” he answered.  “Why?”

“Then I don’t recommend that you go back there.  People know that any white guy who helps an Indian can’t be local, and they’ll be looking for you wherever a non-local might stay.  They’ll especially want to find a non-local guy that pees on the pride of Boulevard after he’s just kicked the prick’s ass.”

Upon hearing that the old man immediately stopped what he was doing and approached Calvin and Chris.  “You peed on one of the bastards?” he asked.

“He sure did” Calvin said, again pointing at Chris.  “Just like a Rez dog marking his territory.”

The old man examined Chris a little more closely and then turned and went back to the kitchen.  He returned with a cup of coffee and said to Chris “You really peed on the bastard?”

“Yep” Calvin replied for Chris.

“Then you two should sure as hell should get out of here as fast as you can, and I mean like an hour ago” he said, and walked out the front door.

The Long Walk Back Home, Chapter Five

“Huh?  Where you been?” Calvin asked.

Chris waved his hand as a sign of general irritation with himself.  “Ah, I don’t know” he replied.  “It’s been a tough month.”  He then went on to relate to Calvin his low points since he returned home.

“Wow, so you got slapped in the kisser and a threat to get yourself shot.  Shit, cousin, you might as well have stayed in the Nam.”

“Yeah, it feels that way sometimes.  Things could get shitty over there, but at least they made sense, sort of.”

“So, where’s your head at now, buddy?  How are your doing?  I mean, how are you really doing?”

“Oh, I think that I’ll get it together.  My family has been really supportive, and they’ve given me time to be left alone and try to work things out.  My Dad’s been really great, too.  He gets up early and we have breakfast together and I spill my guts.  He was a flyboy in Europe in World War II; flew bomber missions over Germany and stuff.  He’s been there and back, and he knows something about how I feel.  Mom and Chuck are cool too, but those mornings with Dad are pretty special.”

“Yeah” Calvin agreed.  “Family’s a big deal.  My uncle was in the War too.  He was a grunt in the 29th Division.  He knows a lot about it.”

“I think that I’d like to meet your uncle” Chris said.  “One grunt to another.”

“Uh, I don’t think that would be a good idea” Calvin replied.

“Why not?  Doesn’t he like to talk about that stuff?”

“Yeah, he talks – – -.  Hey, what about that girl; what’s her name?  The one who macked on your head.  You going to press her for an apology?  That was wrong, you know.”

“I know.  Uh, maybe later.  Her sister came to my house the next day.  She was just a kid when I joined up, but now we’re going to be starting college at the same time.  Oh, yeah.  I’m going to go to college!  Me, the first class academic goldbrick of the century!  Anyway, Pam – that’s her name – came to my house the next day, like I said, and told me that she talked with Jackie for a long time that day.  Jackie admitted that she shouldn’t have fired off on me but she was pissed and surprised that I was there.  She still doesn’t want to look at me, but it’s more about missing Tom than it’s about being mad at me.  At least, that’s what Pam said.”

“That’s good, Cuz.  I’m glad that you had at least one thing go right.  This Pam sounds like she has a good head on her shoulders.”

“Yeah, she does.  I told her that I would meet Jackie any time if she wanted to iron things out and she told me to give her sister time, and that I could talk to her – Pam, that is – any time that I like.  She’s pretty mature for a kid that was in high school two months ago.”

“Not everyone suffers from arrested development like you and I do” Calvin said with a laugh, and Chris laughed with him.

Calvin had by this time finished his beer.  Chris noticed this and drained the warm remains of his own.  He then handed Calvin another and opened a new one as well.  “Say, I got a question for you.” Chris opened.

“Shoot” Calvin responded.

“You’re Indian, and I know that Indians are tuned into natural stuff.  I think they are anyway; I don’t actually know jack about what Indians think, but that’s the general opinion.  Anyway, a hawk flew into my room this morning, flew around it for a few seconds and then flew back out.  Now, what the hell would that mean to a medicine man?”

Calvin chuckled at that.  “My uncle would tell you that it means a dumb bird got lost and ended up screwing around in a white man’s hotel room.”

It was Chris’ turn to laugh.  “Yeah, I’ll bet that bird had a story to tell when he got home.”

Calvin was then quiet for a moment and at last said “I don’t know a lot about the lore of the elders, but hawks are supposed to be messengers from the spirit world.  That’s what some say anyway.  Like I said, I don’t know a lot about that.  When I was a punk kid in San Diego I didn’t care much about that sort of thing.  In fact, I tried to put distance between me and my heritage back then.  Since I got home I’ve been living on the Rez where more people are into the old ways, but I haven’t heard much about hawks and such.”

“Really?  I think it would be cool to hear about that stuff.”

“Maybe, I guess.  But we Kumeyaay, and especially the more traditional people, are pretty serious about their spiritual stuff and don’t share it with just anyone.”

“They don’t share it with you?”

“Not so much.”

“Why not?”

Well, I ignored it all when I was a kid in the city, and then when I came home from Vietnam I was a Catholic.  That doesn’t play so well in their book, and they’re going to have decide that in spite of all of that I’m still Kumeyaay under it all.”

“Oh, I didn’t know that; that you’re a church-goer, that is.  How come you drink beer and cuss?  I’m not ripping on you; it doesn’t matter to me if you’re a Catholic or a Buddhist or a Martian.  I’m just wondering.”

Calvin laughed, and his laughter was easy and unaffected.  “Hey, all of us Christians aren’t of the ‘I don’t smoke and I don’t chew and I don’t go with girls that do’ variety.  Jesus’ first miracle was to make enough wine to keep a whole wedding party stoned, and when he chased the money changers out of the Temple I doubt that he said ‘Go away from here, you bad guys,’ or some milk toast crap like that.  Being Christian doesn’t mean turning into some sort of insipid wet towel; at least, not to me.”

“Insipid!  Man, how do you come up with big words like that?  What the hell does that mean?”

“Let’s just say that it’s not a compliment.  Anyway, like I said, I’m still Kumeyaay under it all, and I still feel most at home when I’m with my people.  But nobody’s told me yet what a hawk’s doing flying into a white guy’s hotel room.  I’ll ask my uncle when I see him next.  So, tell me about school.  You going to college, eh?”

“Yeah.  It seems like a good thing to do.  I mean, I could go into construction.  They’re building stuff all over San Diego.  Heck, maybe I will anyway in the long run.  But if Uncle Sam wants to give me money every month to go to school, I think I’ll take him up on the offer.”

“So what are you going to be?  A doctor?  A lawyer?”

“I thought I’d be a lawyer, and then run for President.”

Calvin laughed at that.  “Yeah” he replied, “I’ll not hold my breath and wait for that one.”

“What, you doubting my abilities?” Chris asked.

“No, I’m doubting your sanity” Calvin replied.  “No, seriously.  What do you want to do?”

“Ah, I don’t know, man.  I’ll just start with the general stuff.  They wanted me to pick a major right off the bat, so I chose business.  I can change that any time I like though.  Maybe I’ll do business and then do construction, and become a real estate tycoon.”

“From shitbird to tycoon.  Now there’d be a story.”

Chris drew some ice from his cooler and flipped it at his friend, and then said “How ‘bout you, man?  Sam’ll give you the same bucks that he’s going to give me.  You ever thought of going to college?”

“Hah!” Calvin replied.  That’s not likely.”

“Why not?” Chris pressed.  “You’re a pretty smart guy.  Heck, you worked in an office and tended bar while I was getting my ass shot at, so that says something.”

“That says more about you than it does me” Calvin replied, making the motion of flicking ice back at Chris.  “Naw, man.  I was never good at school.  I got kicked out of high school and finished at Snyder.”

“Hard Guy High, eh?”

“Yeah, I got a diploma, but I mostly got it for showing up and not causing too much trouble.”

“Well, shit.  That was then and this is now.  I mean, I’m not trying to pressure you into anything.  It’s just an idea, but if you can get Sam to foot the bill on an education, what the hay?”

“I’ll have to think about that” Calvin replied with a chuckle, “but I doubt it.  Hey, did you catch what I said about Tom, or were you spaced out when I told you that?”

“Uh, I don’t think that I was at home.  You want to give me another try?”

“OK.  Pay attention now.  So Tom was living at Long Binh, real close to the big, fancy office where he worked.

“Yeah, I know the place.  I visited there once, remember?  He did have it pretty cush.”

“Uh-huh.  People weren’t suppose to die there.  His hooch wasn’t all that far from the perimeter wire, but except for during the Tet Offensive there was never any real action there.  Well, one night a couple of months before he was due to rotate out, Charlie dropped a mortar or a rocket right on top of Tom’s hooch.  There was twenty bunks in the building, as usual, and the round must have landed pretty close to Tom’s bunk.  Some of the guys survived with shrapnel wounds, concussion and busted eardrums, but Tom and a bunch of others died on the spot.”

“No shit” Chris muttered.  “One mortar falls on that resort, and it has to right on top of Tom.”

“Yeah, man, you know how it is.  Luck of the draw.  You can run from death but you can’t hide from it.  When it’s your time, it’ll come and take you, no matter where you are, and that’s a fact.  It was Tom’s time, that’s all.”

Chris sat still and thought about that.  Was it really as easy as Calvin had just put it?  Tom’s time was up, and it didn’t matter where he was?  That interpretation of things would certainly take a load of guilt off of Chris’ shoulders, but was that the way it actually was?  Chris would like to believe that, but could he?  Or would that be just a big cop-out?”

“Hey, buddy!”  Calvin was snapping his fingers in front of Chris’ face.  “You still with me?”

“Yeah, I stayed home this time.  So, do you really believe that?  I mean, that we have a time to go and that’s just all there is to it?”

“Sort of.  I mean, I don’t think about that sort of thing all the time, but it seems to answer a lot of questions.  It’s like a guy’s driving home at night, it doesn’t matter whether he’s coming home from a bar or from church, and a deer runs in front of his car and goes through the window, snapping the dude’s neck.  What are the odds of that?

Or the Sweetwater River is really low but a kid still slips on a rock, knocks himself out and drowns in a six inch deep stream.  And then you go and do a tour in Vietnam in the Central Highlands and get involved in hot action on a regular basis, and yet walk away without a scratch.  I don’t know, maybe it’s just luck or it’s just random, but I guess I have to believe that there’s some sort of order behind it.”

“Man, I’d like to know that’s true.  I wish that Tom’s folks and Jackie could know it too.  Maybe that could make everybody rest easier.”

“Maybe so.  Like I said, I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it just seems to make sense.  To me, anyway.”

Chris chewed on that thought for a few moments, but was pulled away from it by a rumble in his stomach.  “Hey, you getting hungry?”

“I could eat” Calvin replied.  “You want to go to my place?  I’ve got some Spam and could whip up some sandwiches.”

Chris made a face at Calvin and then replied “No thanks.  I saw a place up the road between here and Boulevard called Sadie’s.  It said ‘fish fry on Friday nights’ on a sign outside, and it’s Friday night.”

A cloud seemed to pass over Calvin’s face and he replied “I don’t think so.  That place can get a little rough.”

“Rough?” Chris replied.  “More rough than Vietnam?  Come on.  We don’t have to stay all night.  Let’s just get some food and then bail out.”

Calvin was clearly not comfortable with that idea but Chris insisted and Calvin finally yielded to his friend’s persuasion.  Twenty minutes later they were seated at a table near the front door of Sadie’s.  Calvin continued to look uneasy and Chris tried to loosen him up with small talk.  After what seemed to be a very long wait a young woman came to their table to take their order.  Chris passed on the fish and ordered a burger and fries and a beer.  Calvin ordered the fish and a soft drink.

“What’s that all about?” Chris asked when the soda was placed before his friend.

“Well, this is sort of a cowboy place” Calvin replied.  “They don’t really care much for Indians here, and I don’t want to feed their prejudice about Indians and alcohol.”

Chris was dumbfounded by this revelation.  “What?  Are you saying that the owners here are more worried about your race than the color of your money?”

“Yep” Calvin replied.  “The owners, the employees, the customers, you name it.  Look, I’ve been Native all my life, and this is the reality that I live.  In the city it’s not so obvious but it’s still there.  Out here there are fewer distractions, so you can see it a lot easier.”

Chris was shocked by this information, and a wave of anger flowed through him.  His friend had spent a year in Vietnam, unlike most of the people who would visit this place tonight.  If anybody had earned the right to enjoy a plate of fish and a beer in peace it was Calvin, and he expressed that thought to his friend.

“Earning’s got nothing to do with it” Calvin replied.  “We are who we are.  Some of us have power and some of us don’t, and those who have it like to remind those who don’t what the score is when the don’ts get uppity.”

Their food arrived while Chris and Calvin discussed this sad reality.  Calvin looked his fish and fries over carefully, and to Chris’ inquiring gaze replied “Just making sure that there’s no spit on it.”

Chris looked his burger over as well, and found that his appetite was diminishing by the minute.  His examination revealed no obvious unwanted condiments on his food and he began to eat.  He decided that they would waste no time eating and leaving, and Calvin appeared to be following the same program.

At that time three men entered the building and surveyed the room, as if looking for anyone that they knew.  Their gaze at last fell on Chris and Calvin, and a look of disgust crept into their faces.  They continued over to the bar, sitting at a corner from which they could watch the two friends.

The newcomers began to talk and sometimes laugh, maybe a little too loud it seemed to Chris, and every so often he could hear negative comments over the babble in the room.  “When did you start serving drunk Indians?” one of them asked of the man tending the bar.  Another commented that there was an unpleasant odor in the room, and maybe the trash hadn’t been taken out.

 

The bartender looked both nervous and angry, and Chris decided that it was just about time to get on the road.  He felt his own anger rising at the damnable injustice of the situation, but the three men were in their mid to upper twenties, lean from hard work, and outnumbered Chris and Calvin three to two.  Chris didn’t like those odds and decided that it was time for him and Calvin to finish their meal and leave.

The waitress, who had wanted their departure since the moment that they had walked through the door, had already brought the check.  Chris pulled a twenty dollar bill out of his wallet that more than covered the food and a generous tip, caught the waitress’ attention, and pointed to the money.  She nodded acknowledgement and they rose and left the establishment without looking back.

That was a mistake.

The Long Walk Back Home, Chapter Four

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.”

 

 

THE LONG WALK BACK HOME, Chapter Three

CHAPTER THREE

Chris felt the need to drain some of the beer that he had already consumed out of his bladder.  He rose from his chair, walked out of his room and down the hallway, and into the common bathroom at the end.  The fixtures looked like something that came out of the 1940’s.  “They probably did come out of the 1940’s” he thought.  He finished his business, stepped back into the hall and walked to his room.

Upon entering the room Chris was startled by a dark projectile that streaked past his head.  He ducked instinctively, and the object flew to a mirror and banged against it.  The object was a small hawk that had flown in through the open door that led to the balcony.  The hawk flew across the room to an old writing desk which rested against the north wall and perched on the back of the chair for little more than an instant.  It then fluffed its wings and bolted through the open door and back out to freedom.

“Shit!” Chris said to himself.  “That doesn’t happen every day.”  He walked over to where the hawk had so recently perched on the back of the chair.  “I hope he didn’t take a dump on the chair” he thought, and then he laughed out loud and said to himself “I’m surprised that I didn’t take a dump myself!”

He returned to his balcony and sat in the chair once again.  He now began to pay more attention to the few passing cars and trucks.  It was getting on towards four in the afternoon and he was expecting Calvin Hall to be driving in soon.  “I might be driving my pick up truck or I might be driving my Chevy.  Depends on which one’s working” he had told him.  Chris had heard about Calvin’s red ’62 Ford pickup and blue 65 Chevy Malibu so many times at the EM Club that he was certain he could recognize either one when it rolled into the hotel parking lot.

Chris had called Calvin the day after he got home.  Actually, he called five times that day before he was finally answered.  “Hey Calvin, this is Chris” he said as he heard somebody pick up the phone.  There was no answer to his salutation though, and the phone then simply went dead.  Two minutes later Chris’ phone rang and it was Calvin.

“Hey, Chris.  Is that you?” Calvin asked.

“Yeah” Chris answered.  “What’s up?  You drop the phone?”

“Nah.  My uncle picked it up.  I told him that a White guy named Chris was going to call me sometime and to let me know if he did.  I guess I didn’t tell him to not hang up.  He doesn’t use the telephone much.  I asked him who called and he said “Chris.”

Chris chuckled at that.  “No, I guess he doesn’t.  Say, Calvin.  How long you been home?”

“‘Bout a month now.  Got out in April.  You?”

“I got home yesterday” Chris answered.  “So you don’t know nothing about Tom then?”

“Tom?  No.  Why?  Should I know something about Tom?”

“He didn’t make it, man.  I found out that he got wasted over there.”

“Shit, man.  Tell me you’re kidding!” Calvin said after a long pause.  “He didn’t do anything over there that would get a guy killed.  You know this for sure?”

“No” Chris said.  “Not for sure, but I got it from a guy I trust.  He heard it from – – – well, that’s a little bit tangled.  Let’s just say that I’m 99% sure.”

“Holy shit, that’s bad news, cousin.”

There was silence on the phone for maybe half a minute before Calvin spoke up again.  “I still got some friends over there.  You want I should write and find out what happened?”

“No, don’t bother.  I’m going to go to his folks’ place today.  I don’t want to, but I think that I should.”

“Aw, man.  They’re going to take out some Company Commander’s bullshit letter about how Tom was a hero who saved the whole damn battalion and read it to you.  I’ll write to my buds; it’s no bother.”

“Yeah, you may be right.  OK.  See what you can find out.  I guess I’ll still have to go over there anyway.  Hey, man.  I’m going to be staying at the Jacumba Hotel on the weekend of the 27th.  There any chance we could get together?”

“Yeah, I think so.  So you really got a room there, eh?  What’s the deal?  Why you so interested in that place?”

“Ah, I don’t know.  There’s just something about it that always attracted me.  Right now, I think of it as a place where all of the shit that I’ve put up with lately can’t get to me.”  Chris thought about the war, Tom’s death, the kids that he nearly exploded on the day before, and the anticipated visit with Tom’s parents, and then repeated himself saying “Yeah, I just need some time where the shit can’t find me.”

Calvin was quiet for a moment before he spoke again, and when he did speak he said “There ain’t nowhere that shit can’t find you, man.  Nowhere on this earth at least.”  Both men were silent until Calvin spoke again.  “But it’ll take shit longer to find you there than just about anywhere else, and that’s a fact.  I’ll give you a call when that weekend’s getting close.  I can’t guarantee that my uncle will tell me if you call here.  heck, I can’t guarantee he’ll even pick up the phone.”

“OK man.  I’m looking forward to seeing you again.”

“Yeah, sure.  Me too.  Talk to you later.”

Three weeks later Calvin was as good as his word and called, just as he said that he would.  Chris told him that the visit to the Hotel was still scheduled.  “I’m staying there Wednesday through Sunday” he told Calvin.  “I’m getting there in mid-week in order to avoid the rush.”

Calvin laughed out loud at this statement.  “Man, the only rush out there is by crows trying to get to a road kill.”

And Calvin had been right about that.  There were no other guests at the hotel when he checked in on Wednesday.  The only people there were the staff, and that seemed likely to be because they lived there.  Chris had found the solitude which he had dreamed about for years, but found it difficult to adjust to.

All of Chris’ life he had been a goer and a doer, and a time of silence was a novelty for him.  After the first hour he had felt bored and restless.  he tried to sit in the chair on the balcony and let his mind be still, but his mind stubbornly refused to cooperate.  Visions of combat, speculations on how Tom died, and the bitter memory of his first month of what was supposed to be a triumphal homecoming pulled his mind in several directions at once.

Wednesday afternoon and evening Chris sat in his hotel room and drank himself into a stupor, and most of Thursday he nursed the hangover that resulted from his folly.  On Thursday morning he walked to a small cafe that stood a block away for breakfast.  A greasy plate of eggs and bacon and hash brown potatoes washed down with several cups of strong but flavorful black coffee sat surprisingly well in his stomach.

After breakfast he walked throughout the little town, looking into the few businesses and passing over dusty streets along which were situated the few residents of the town.  At one point two large dogs charged off of a front porch to challenge Chris’ right to pass there.  A sharp command from somebody he couldn’t see called them back.  After that, his looked until he found a couple of rocks large enough to use as weapons if he should find himself in that situations again.

As the day wore on, Chris found that his internal motor was beginning to sync with the rhythm of this place.  He began to look at the buildings of Jacumba without wondering who lived or worked in them.  Between passing vehicles on Old Highway 80, silence descended on Chris; a silence punctuated by the calling of birds, the bark of a far-off dog, or perhaps the rustle of a lizard scuttling through the dust and dead leaves under the sagebrush.   As the hangover subsided he felt hints of the peace that he imagined he might find here, a peace that flowed from a place where nothing was expected of him.

Friday morning Chris arose and repeated his breakfast and wanderings of the day before, only this time walking farther up those dusty roads.  To the south he walked to the very border with Mexico, a border designated by a simple three-strand barbed wire fence.  He stared into Mexico, imagining sombreros and tacos and other symbols of that nation, and then turned and walked north into the sage-covered valley which hung just before the drop down Mountain Springs Grade to the furnace that was Imperial County in the summer.

By noon Chris had had enough of this and returned to Jacumba.  He had lunch at the diner, bought a couple of six-packs of beer and some ice at the small store, and then returned to his room to wait for Calvin to arrive  He sat in the chair on the balcony and drank one beer and opened another.  Here, in the warm stillness of that summer afternoon as he stared into the eastern distance, Chris’ mind once again wandered back to almost a month before, on the second day of his return home.  All night he had rolled and turned in his bed, wondering how Tom could have died in Vietnam.  On his first night home, he should have enjoyed the sleep of the reprieved.  Instead, he alternated between fitful periods of sleep in which he dreamed that it was all a big mistake, and hours of staring into the darkness and wrestling with the near certainty that it was no mistake at all.

Chris was awake when the doves began to coo outside his open bedroom window, signaling the imminent arrival of the new day.  He lay in his bed and watched as the sky began to brighten, and before the sun rose up above the eastern horizon he was up and dressed.  His father was an early riser, and Chris knew that in less than an hour he would also be up.  Chris decided to start some coffee and have it ready when his father came down the hallway to prepare his breakfast.

As expected, Cameron Paine came shuffling down the hall, his steps quieted to a soft, slipping sound by his thick socks.  Waking up to the smell of coffee was an unusual treat for Mr. Paine, and he came quickly out of his bedroom to enjoy it.  “Well done son” he said with a warm smile.  “You’re earning your room and board already.”

Chris smiled weakly at that and handed his father a full mug.  He poured one  for himself and walked over to the dining room table.  Mr. Paine followed his son to the table and could tell by the droop of his shoulders that something was amiss.  Chris Paine always seemed to walk on bubbles, especially when things were going right in the world for him.  The heaviness in Chris’ body that Mr. Paine perceived on this morning was not a normal state of affairs, and he decided to waste no time finding out the source of that heaviness.

“It looks like your homecoming isn’t all that you’ve hoped for.  Is there anything that I can help with?”

Chris sat down at the table and stared at his coffee.  He knew that his father was a very perceptive man; one from whom he could seldom keep secrets.  He wasted only a few moments before coming straight to the point.  “Dad, I heard yesterday that Tom Fielding died in Vietnam.”  He watched his father, trying to gauge his reaction to that statement.  He could tell by the shock on his father’s face that he hadn’t known about Tom.

“Oh my God” Mr. Paine replied.  “Are you sure?”

 

“No” Chris said.  “It’s probably true though.  Sonny told me about it yesterday.  He said that he heard it from a good source, but that he didn’t have any details.”

Mr. Paine sat quietly for several moments before looking up at his youngest son with compassion washing over his face.  At last he spoke again.  “We don’t know Tom’s parents really, and haven’t heard any news in the neighborhood grapevine.  In fact, we’re not connected to the neighborhood grapevine all that much.  We’re too busy minding our own business.  Are you going to go over to the Fielding’s place?”

Chris chuckled glumly at that thought.  “I probably am, but I don’t think I’ll get a warm welcome.  I expect that they’ll blame me for Tom being in Vietnam in the first place.”

“Why would they do that?” Mr. Paine asked.  “You didn’t march Tom down to the recruiter with you.”

“Well, they didn’t like me very much to begin with.  Tom’s dad had big plans for him thought that I was an unpleasant distraction.  Tom told me about it before we even signed up.  The truth is that Tom joined up with me to get away from his parents, or at least to get away from his dad’s control, but I don’t think that they will ever see it that way.”

“Hmmm” his father muttered softly as he thought about what Chris had just told him.  He took a sip of the coffee which had become cool enough to drink and then put the mug down.  “And do you think that you are responsible for Tom’s death?”

That is exactly the thought that Chris had been chewing on all night, and he was still looking for an answer.  “Well, he wouldn’t have been there if I hadn’t invited him to join with me.”

“Oh?  How do you know that?”  Mr. Paine asked.  “Do you know what Tom would have done if you would have gone to the recruiter by yourself?  Are you certain that he wouldn’t have gone there himself the next day?  Shoot, do you know that he wouldn’t have gotten run over by a bus trying to get downtown so that he could sign up?  What I’m saying is that you and Tom are, or I guess were, independent actors.  Tom was a smart kid and could figure things out for himself.  You’re no more responsible for Tom dying in Vietnam than he was responsible for you making it back home.  If he’s really gone, don’t go making yourself another casualty of that war.”

Chris took a sip of his own coffee before answering his father.  “Yeah Dad, I suppose you’re probably right.  It’s just that I was always getting us into something, and he was usually the one to get us out of it.  It feels like he was doing it once again, but this time he couldn’t get himself out of it.”

Mr. Paine sipped his coffee and said nothing in response.  Chris knew that when his father did this he was silently telling Chris that he had to think a little more.  After a minute or two of silence Chris spoke again.  “OK, so I guess I wasn’t the one who put him in Vietnam and he wasn’t there to try to save me.  I still can’t make myself believe that my hands are clean.”

This time Mr. Paine responded right away.  “That’s natural, I suppose.  Tom was your best friend, and there’s no shame in hurting for him.  It’s going to take time to come to grips with it and you’ll likely feel a lot of things, rightly and wrongly, along the way.  I think that maybe you might give yourself some time and might even go easy on yourself.  Somebody once said “War is hell,” and he was right; war IS hell.  But you didn’t start it and you aren’t responsible for what happened in it. Now, I had better cobble together a breakfast and pack a lunch.  You hungry?”

“Thanks Dad, but I don’t think I’ll eat just yet.  I’m going to walk around some and try to get things sorted out.  I think I’ll go and see Tom’s parents today.  Might as well get it over with.  Would you mind letting Mom and Chuck know that I don’t mean to be running out on them?  I just have to get things straightened out.”

“Sure Son.  They’ll understand.  Did you mention this to them last night?”

Chris told his father that he had not, and the elder Paine said to him that he would take up that task.

“Thanks Dad.  Thanks a lot.  I

’ll see you this afternoon.”  Chris drank the rest of his coffee and walked out of the house, not sure where he was going or what he was going to do.

THE LONG WALK BACK HOME, Chapter II

“What are you talking about?” Chris asked softly.  “What do you mean he ain’t coming home?”

Sonny gave his beer another slow spin and sat back a little deeper in his chair.  “Ah, shit!” he muttered.  “Why did I have to be the one to tell you this?”   Then he set his beer down and looked straight at his friend.  “It’s the truth, man.  At least I think it is.  Tom’s not coming home.  He didn’t make it.  We got the word a couple of weeks ago; or I guess I should say that I got the word.  I heard about it from Jake Olsen.  You know, he’s Jackie’s older brother.  He works at the transmission shop up on University Avenue and I saw him when I took Pop’s Chevy there to get it adjusted.  He asked me if I’d heard about it, and I told him that I hadn’t.”

Chris sat motionless in his chair, ignoring his beer.  Thoughts came to him in bunches, jumbled and disoriented and not making any sense of what he had just heard.  Tom was the guy in the crisp, clean fatigues that were ironed and starched and proper for viewing by the generals and colonels and other brass who infested his comfortable and secure duty station at Long Binh.  Chris knew his friend Sonny though; knew him well.  Sonny wouldn’t joke about this, and Chris had seen enough of the viciousness that life could throw at a person, so he took little time in accepting the awful truth, or probability at least, that his best friend for most of his life was dead.

“How did it happen?” Chris asked.  “Did he go and try to be a hero?”

“I don’t know much about it” Sonny replied.  Jake said that he heard it from somebody else.  I asked him if he was sure and he said that he was pretty sure that the person should know.  I don’t know if it was Jackie or not.  Anyway, he was pretty busy and said that he had to get back to work.  I thought that maybe your family would know and would have told you something.  I guess they didn’t.”

Chris thought about that for a minute and then said “No, they didn’t say anything.  They probably don’t know.  They liked Tom but didn’t really connect with his family.  I don’t remember if they ever even met them.”

Silence once again took possession of the room as Chris tried to get his thoughts working properly.  Meanwhile, Sonny cudgeled his brains, trying to think of the right words to say to his friend.  Those words didn’t come to him.

“Damn!” Chris exploded.  He brought his fist down on the round wooden table next to his chair.  One leg of the table buckled and his beer went flying.  Chris looked at the ruined table and narrowly suppressed a desire to get up and kick it across the room.  He struggled to get his rage under control and at last looked at his mute and miserable friend and said “I’m sorry about the table, man.  I gotta get outta here.  I gotta think some.”  He looked at his bottle of beer that had rolled over to where his friend sat silent and immobile.  “Sorry about the beer, too” he said.

“No man.  Ain’t nothing.  I’m sorry that I had to tell you.”  Sonny looked at the beer and then, without looking up, croaked out once again “I really am sorry.”

Chris looked at his suffering friend for a moment and then said “Not your fault, Bro.  It’s cool.  I just gotta go.”

He turned and walked out through the door of the converted garage, down the driveway and onto Chamoune Avenue.  From there he began to walk through the old neighborhood, sometimes barely moving forward and sometimes stalking angrily down the sidewalk past a house or a path to one of the many nearby canyons or any of a hundred places that had played a part in the life that he had shared with Tom.

After a while Chris arrived at the park where he had once held court with the other kids of the neighborhood.  It was nearly unchanged since the day that he and Tom had boarded a bus and took the ride downtown to join the Army three years earlier.  There were the same basketball courts, the same swings, slide and other rides for the younger children, and the same picnic benches out in the field.

The people, however, were different.  Chris didn’t recognize anyone as he walked through the park.  The kids he and Tom had hung out with had grown up and moved on.  Three years can change a lot of things.  A new crop of teens shot baskets or smoked cigarettes out on the benches, while a new herd of younger children played on the slide and swings.  A new community had taken up residence, replacing the old one of Chris’ youth that had moved away, and nobody was interested in the unrecognized young man who walked through their realm.

Nobody, that is, except one teen, one member of a group of teens, who was leaning against a boxed structure that held trash cans which rested at the edge of the path along which Chris was walking.  Chris was almost unaware of the group of young people who were gathered there as he walked by, still trying to come to terms with his friend’s death.  As he passed the group he became aware of a sound; somebody was whistling “Anchors Aweigh.”  San Diego is a Navy town, and it was not uncommon for young people of that city to look down upon sailors, just as the local kids from the town near his duty station in Georgia had sometimes made things difficult for soldiers.

Chris realized that somebody had seen his almost shaved head and smooth face and decided to bait a sailor.  He stopped, turned, and saw that the whistler was a short but thick young man with dark hair, fuzz on his upper lip, and an insolent sneer on his face.  He stood for a moment and looked at the teen as if he was a specimen of some sort of bug in a display case in a museum, and then the dam holding back his anger and frustration broke.

He crossed the distance between himself and the teen before that unlucky person could react.  Chris gripped the kid’s shirt, pulled him erect and then slammed him against the building which stood on the other side of the path along which he had been walking.  As the kid bounced off of the building Chris grabbed a shoulder, spun him around, and buried a fist into his gut.

The teen crumpled to the ground and Chris twirled to face the kid’s four friends who stood frozen against the wooden structure.  They were too surprised to have moved yet, and Chris instantly assessed which one would most likely pose the greatest threat, should they decide to come to their friend’s aid.  That person was the second from the left; a taller kid than his now immobilized adversary but not much less stocky. Chris fixed his eyes upon those of the kid and only pointed a finger at him.  That finger spoke death and carnage if he made a move toward Chris, and the teen read it accurately.

The speed and violence of Chris’ attack and his one-digit admonition had frozen the other boys so he turned back to the ringleader, who was now struggling to rise to one knee and get some breath back into his lungs.  Rage flowed through Chris’ arteries, through his arterioles, and through capillaries which carried both blood and bloodlust to bathe the very cells of his body.  For two years Chris had engaged the enemy in Vietnam, his fighting fueled by self-defense, a belief in his country’s cause, and loyalty to his comrades, but never by hate.  To be sure he had felt anger when he saw men; boys really, die.  He always knew however that the enemy were little more than boys too, and that they too were dying.  Because of that he couldn’t hate them.

Today he faced a whole different scenario.  Another soldier, an older one who had spent a few years at college before dropping out and accepting his inevitable draft notice, told Chris about the berserkers.  “They were Vikings, Norsemen or Danes or whatever, who would work themselves up into a psychotic frenzy before they went into battle.  In that state they would charge their enemy like fiends straight outta hell, completely oblivious to pain or anything else other than death.  The story has it that they would take an arrow through the heart and still kill two more of the enemy before they fell dead.”  Today Chris had become the berserker.

The teen was on one knee now, still struggling to get his breath back.  He was not a small kid.  The other boys were not as tough-looking as his victim was, but not much less so, and there was four of them.  Even so, Chris looked at the lot of them and all he could see was a bunch of ass that needed to be kicked to within and inch of their lives.

“What’s going on here?  You know we don’t permit fighting on the park grounds!”  The question and the statement came from behind Chris, and in his current condition he didn’t like the idea of a new adversary coming up on his rear.  He whirled and saw a man of similar age as his own advancing with an air of authority.  Chris crouched slightly, preparing to launch the kick that would crush the new challenger’s larynx, and the man wisely halted his advance.

This new character in the drama held up his hands, palms out towards Chris, and said “Hold on now.  Let’s settle down here.  There’s no reason for anyone to get hurt now.  Will you tell me what’s going on?”

Chris saw the badge pinned to the new person’s vest and perceived that he was one of the recreation leaders at the park.  Chris’ offensive posture lessened by the slightest degree.  The new person noticed that and deftly directed his attention away from Chris and onto the so far only slightly damaged teen.

“Buck” he said.  “You know the rules about fighting on park grounds.”  He stepped widely around Chris and helped the boy up to his feet.  Chris had thought about knocking this person out as he walked around him and then finishing his business with Buck and the other boys.  The berserker had not yet fully unleashed on his enemies and was screaming to be turned loose.  But the voice of the last Army officer that he had ever saluted, the one who he had heard at the beginning of this very day, seeped into his seething consciousness.

“The U.S. Army would consider it a favor if you don’t kill the pitiful bastard who does any of that to you.  Just keep your cool, get home, and get on with your lives.”

That voice somehow penetrated Chris’ fury and gave him something to focus on other than beating and maiming everyone who stood in front of him.  The struggle between sanity and its opposite played on Chris’ face for all to see.  The recreation leader began to appreciate even more fully the nearness to real harm or worse toward which these boys had strayed.  He took steps to defuse the bomb.

“OK.  That was a bad start on my part” he said to Chris.  “Let’s straighten this out so that nobody gets hurt or in trouble.  Buck,” he turned to the boy.  “What happened here?”

“What happened” Chris interjected, “is that these little pukes don’t know how to show respect.  I spent too much time in a shithole too bad for you to even imagine it, to come home and take shit from some snot-nosed punk.”  Chris’ rage had cooled to merely a seething anger, allowing some thread of reason to return to him.  He looked directly at Buck and continued.  “Your smart punk-ass mouth nearly got you killed just now, boy.  You see me walking down the street, you better turn and walk in a different direction.”

Chris then looked at the recreation leader and said “That’s all I have to say,” He then turned and walked away.  The recreation leader understood that a very bad situation was now over and that it was best to let Chris.  Chris could hear the leader lecturing the boys as he walked, but he had no interest in what was being said.  He just wanted to get away from the park and from people, for whom he was now in no way fit company.

Chris’ steps now led him past the Fielding’s house, and Chris was tempted to mount the steps, ring the bell, and ask the grieving parents what in the world had happened.  He couldn’t do that though.  He was having enough trouble dealing with the news of Tom’s death himself.  How could he now stand in front of Tom’s parents, parents who were probably grieving even more than he was, and who very well might blame him for Tom being in the Army in the first place?

And were they right?  Was it his fault?  Wouldn’t Tom be ending his third year of college and be only one year away from beginning postgraduate work, or taking a four year degree and entering a business that would make him wealthy and respected, if it wasn’t for Tom following him one last time?  The agony of that thought punched Chris in the gut with more force than he had punched Buck, and the effect of that blow left him gasping as much as his did to Buck.  He whirled and continued to walk, and now his path led him past the Olsen residence.  He didn’t know if Jackie still lived there, or even if she did, he didn’t know if she would want to speak to him either.

Jackie Olsen was the skinny, plain-Jane little girl who’s family moved into the neighborhood when Chris and Tom were in the second grade. Over the next ten years she grew to become by far the most attractive girl of Chris’ acquaintance.  He became attracted to her as this change became obvious, but it was Tom who first saw the beautiful person who was wrapped up in that awkward and gangling body.

Jackie was learning to play the violin, and Tom was genuinely impressed with her ability to bring music out of a little wooden box with strings attached to it.  Tom’s enforced proficiency with math and academics stirred admiration in Jackie’s mind, and the pleasure that each of these two people took in being recognized by the other as somebody who deserved to be noticed for their own accomplishments matured at length into a deep friendship and a determination to pursue that friendship to whatever ends it would take them.

Once Chris became aware of Jackie’s physical beauty he began to try to attract her attention.  He applied his charming show-off act with full energy, and was amazed and annoyed upon learning that this time his clown show was going to fall flat.  Jackie was friendly with Chris for Tom’s sake, but only rarely allowed herself to be found alone with him, and when that was unavoidable she excused herself and made herself scarce at the earliest opportunity.

Tom, as smart as he was, was too committed to his friendship with Chris to notice that there was any interest on his part toward Jackie, and too infatuated with Jackie and certain of her regard for him to entertain the possibility of having a rival.  He divided his limited free time between Best Friend and Best Girl, and by his senior year in high school those two parties had arrived at an unspoken understanding. Chris didn’t stop in front of the Olsen house.  He never really knew Jackie’s parents and once again thought about the likelihood of a less than friendly reception from Jackie herself.  Without hesitating he continued to walk on down the street.

An hour later it was beginning to get dark.  Chris entered the front door of their house and nodded to his mother and brother.  His father was the early-to-bed type, and was already snoring in his bedroom. Chuck was studying at the dining room table and Chris’ mother was working a crossword puzzle in front of the television.

Mrs. Paine nodded back to him and said “I’m going to have to get used to you coming through that door.  Would you like some ice cream?  Or maybe some toast and milk?  You always did like that when you were young.”

Chris tried to smile back, but it was a feeble attempt.  “No, but thanks.  Mom, have you heard anything about Tom?”

“Not a word” she replied.  “What do his parents say?  I mean, I assumed that you went their first thing.”

“Naw, I went to Sonny’s.  I just wondered if you heard anything.  That’s all.”

“Nope” she replied.  “I supposed that he should get home about the same time as you, but then you would know more about that than me.”

“Yeah” Chris mumbled.  “He should.  Well, I’m going to sit in the back yard for a while before I go to bed.  I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Chris nodded again to his mother and waved weakly in the direction of Chuck, and then went to sit in a chair in the back yard and cry alone until well after the Paine household was dark.

THE LONG WALK BACK HOME, Chapter 2

“What the fuck.  What are you talking about?” Chris asked softly.  “What do you mean he ain’t coming home?”

Sonny gave his beer another slow spin and sat back a little deeper in his chair.  “Ah, shit!” he muttered.  “Why did I have to be the one to tell you this?”   Then he set his beer down and looked straight at his friend.  “It’s the truth, man.  At least I think it is.  Tom’s not coming home.  He didn’t make it.  We got the word a couple of weeks ago; or I guess I should say that I got the word.  I heard about it from Jake Olsen.  You know, he’s Jackie’s older brother.  He works at the transmission shop up on University Avenue and I saw him when I took Pop’s Chevy there to get it adjusted.  He asked me if I’d heard about it, and I told him that I hadn’t.”

Chris sat motionless in his chair, ignoring his beer.  Thoughts came to him in bunches, jumbled and disoriented and not making any sense of what he had just heard.  Tom was the guy in the crisp, clean fatigues that were ironed and starched and proper for viewing by the generals and colonels and other brass who infested his comfortable and secure duty station at Long Binh.  Chris knew his friend Sonny though; knew him well.  Sonny wouldn’t joke about this, and Chris had seen enough of the viciousness that life could throw at a person, so he took little time in accepting the awful truth, or probability at least, that his best friend for most of his life was dead.

“How did it happen?” Chris asked.  “Did he go and try to be a hero?”

“I don’t know much about it” Sonny replied.  Jake said that he heard it from somebody else.  I asked him if he was sure and he said that he was pretty sure that the person should know.  I don’t know if it was Jackie or not.  Anyway, he was pretty busy and said that he had to get back to work.  I thought that maybe your family would know and would have told you something.  I guess they didn’t.”

Chris thought about that for a minute and then said “No, they didn’t say anything.  They probably don’t know.  They liked Tom but didn’t really connect with his family.  I don’t remember if they ever even met them.”

Silence once again took possession of the room as Chris tried to get his thoughts working properly.  Meanwhile, Sonny cudgeled his brains, trying to think of the right words to say to his friend.  Those words didn’t come to him.

“Damn!” Chris exploded.  He brought his fist down on the round wooden table next to his chair.  One leg of the table buckled and his beer went flying.  Chris looked at the ruined table and narrowly suppressed a desire to get up and kick it across the room.  He struggled to get his rage under control and at last looked at his mute and miserable friend and said “I’m sorry about the table, man.  I gotta get outta here.  I gotta think some.”  He looked at his bottle of beer that had rolled over to where his friend sat silent and immobile.  “Sorry about the beer, too” he said.

“No man.  Ain’t nothing.  I’m sorry that I had to tell you.”  Sonny looked at the beer and then, without looking up, croaked out once again “I really am sorry.”

Chris looked at his suffering friend for a moment and then said “Not your fault, Bro.  It’s cool.  I just gotta go.”

He turned and walked out through the door of the converted garage, down the driveway and onto Chamoune Avenue.  From there he began to walk through the old neighborhood, sometimes barely moving forward and sometimes stalking angrily down the sidewalk past a house or a path to one of the many nearby canyons or any of a hundred places that had played a part in the life that he had shared with Tom.

After a while Chris arrived at the park where he had once held court with the other kids of the neighborhood.  It was nearly unchanged since the day that he and Tom had boarded a bus and took the ride downtown to join the Army three years earlier.  There were the same basketball courts, the same swings, slide and other rides for the younger children, and the same picnic benches out in the field.

The people, however, were different.  Chris didn’t recognize anyone as he walked through the park.  The kids he and Tom had hung out with had grown up and moved on.  Three years can change a lot of things.  A new crop of teens shot baskets or smoked cigarettes out on the benches, while a new herd of younger children played on the slide and swings.  A new community had taken up residence, replacing the old one of Chris’ youth that had moved away, and nobody was interested in the unrecognized young man who walked through their realm.

Nobody, that is, except one teen, one member of a group of teens, who was leaning against a boxed structure that held trash cans which rested at the edge of the path along which Chris was walking.  Chris was almost unaware of the group of young people who were gathered there as he walked by, still trying to come to terms with his friend’s death.  As he passed the group he became aware of a sound; somebody was whistling “Anchors Aweigh.”  San Diego is a Navy town, and it was not uncommon for young people of that city to look down upon sailors, just as the local kids from the town near his duty station in Georgia had sometimes made things difficult for soldiers.

Chris realized that somebody had seen his almost shaved head and smooth face and decided to bait a sailor.  He stopped, turned, and saw that the whistler was a short but thick young man with dark hair, fuzz on his upper lip, and an insolent sneer on his face.  He stood for a moment and looked at the teen as if he was a specimen of some sort of bug in a display case in a museum, and then the dam holding back his anger and frustration broke.

He crossed the distance between himself and the teen before that unlucky person could react.  Chris gripped the kid’s shirt, pulled him erect and then slammed him against the building which stood on the other side of the path along which he had been walking.  As the kid bounced off of the building Chris grabbed a shoulder, spun him around, and buried a fist into his gut.

The teen crumpled to the ground and Chris twirled to face the kid’s four friends who stood frozen against the wooden structure.  They were too surprised to have moved yet, and Chris instantly assessed which one would most likely pose the greatest threat, should they decide to come to their friend’s aid.  That person was the second from the left; a taller kid than his now immobilized adversary but not much less stocky. Chris fixed his eyes upon those of the kid and only pointed a finger at him.  That finger spoke death and carnage if he made a move toward Chris, and the teen read it accurately.

The speed and violence of Chris’ attack and his one-digit admonition had frozen the other boys so he turned back to the ringleader, who was now struggling to rise to one knee and get some breath back into his lungs.  Rage flowed through Chris’ arteries, through his arterioles, and through capillaries which carried both blood and bloodlust to bathe the very cells of his body.  For two years Chris had engaged the enemy in Vietnam, his fighting fueled by self-defense, a belief in his country’s cause, and loyalty to his comrades, but never by hate.  To be sure he had felt anger when he saw men; boys really, die.  He always knew however that the enemy were little more than boys too, and that they too were dying.  Because of that he couldn’t hate them.

Today he faced a whole different scenario.  Another soldier, an older one who had spent a few years at college before dropping out and accepting his inevitable draft notice, told Chris about the berserkers.  “They were Vikings, Norsemen or Danes or whatever, who would work themselves up into a psychotic frenzy before they went into battle.  In that state they would charge their enemy like fiends straight outta hell, completely oblivious to pain or anything else other than death.  The story has it that they would take an arrow through the heart and still kill two more of the enemy before they fell dead.”  Today Chris had become the berserker.

The teen was on one knee now, still struggling to get his breath back.  He was not a small kid.  The other boys were not as tough-looking as his victim was, but not much less so, and there was four of them.  Even so, Chris looked at the lot of them and all he could see was a bunch of ass that needed to be kicked to within and inch of their lives.

“What’s going on here?  You know we don’t permit fighting on the park grounds!”  The question and the statement came from behind Chris, and in his current condition he didn’t like the idea of a new adversary coming up on his rear.  He whirled and saw a man of similar age as his own advancing with an air of authority.  Chris crouched slightly, preparing to launch the kick that would crush the new challenger’s larynx, and the man wisely halted his advance.

This new character in the drama held up his hands, palms out towards Chris, and said “Hold on now.  Let’s settle down here.  There’s no reason for anyone to get hurt now.  Will you tell me what’s going on?”

Chris saw the badge pinned to the new person’s vest and perceived that he was one of the recreation leaders at the park.  Chris’ offensive posture lessened by the slightest degree.  The new person noticed that and deftly directed his attention away from Chris and onto the so far only slightly damaged teen.

“Buck” he said.  “You know the rules about fighting on park grounds.”  He stepped widely around Chris and helped the boy up to his feet.  Chris had thought about knocking this person out as he walked around him and then finishing his business with Buck and the other boys.  The berserker had not yet fully unleashed on his enemies and was screaming to be turned loose.  But the voice of the last Army officer that he had ever saluted, the one who he had heard at the beginning of this very day, seeped into his seething consciousness.

“The U.S. Army would consider it a favor if you don’t kill the pitiful bastard who does any of that to you.  Just keep your cool, get home, and get on with your lives.”

That voice somehow penetrated Chris’ fury and gave him something to focus on other than beating and maiming everyone who stood in front of him.  The struggle between sanity and its opposite played on Chris’ face for all to see.  The recreation leader began to appreciate even more fully the nearness to real harm or worse toward which these boys had strayed.  He took steps to defuse the bomb.

“OK.  That was a bad start on my part” he said to Chris.  “Let’s straighten this out so that nobody gets hurt or in trouble.  Buck,” he turned to the boy.  “What happened here?”

“What happened” Chris interjected, “is that these little pukes don’t know how to show respect.  I spent too much time in a shithole too bad for you to even imagine it, to come home and take shit from some snot-nosed punk.”  Chris’ rage had cooled to merely a seething anger, allowing some thread of reason to return to him.  He looked directly at Buck and continued.  “Your smart punk-ass mouth nearly got you killed just now, boy.  You see me walking down the street, you better turn and walk in a different direction.”

Chris then looked at the recreation leader and said “That’s all I have to say,” He then turned and walked away.  The recreation leader understood that a very bad situation was now over and that it was best to let Chris.  Chris could hear the leader lecturing the boys as he walked, but he had no interest in what was being said.  He just wanted to get away from the park and from people, for whom he was now in no way fit company.

Chris’ steps now led him past the Fielding’s house, and Chris was tempted to mount the steps, ring the bell, and ask the grieving parents what in the world had happened.  He couldn’t do that though.  He was having enough trouble dealing with the news of Tom’s death himself.  How could he now stand in front of Tom’s parents, parents who were probably grieving even more than he was, and who very well might blame him for Tom being in the Army in the first place?

And were they right?  Was it his fault?  Wouldn’t Tom be ending his third year of college and be only one year away from beginning postgraduate work, or taking a four year degree and entering a business that would make him wealthy and respected, if it wasn’t for Tom following him one last time?  The agony of that thought punched Chris in the gut with more force than he had punched Buck, and the effect of that blow left him gasping as much as his did to Buck.  He whirled and continued to walk, and now his path led him past the Olsen residence.  He didn’t know if Jackie still lived there, or even if she did, he didn’t know if she would want to speak to him either.

Jackie Olsen was the skinny, plain-Jane little girl who’s family moved into the neighborhood when Chris and Tom were in the second grade. Over the next ten years she grew to become by far the most attractive girl of Chris’ acquaintance.  He became attracted to her as this change became obvious, but it was Tom who first saw the beautiful person who was wrapped up in that awkward and gangling body.

Jackie was learning to play the violin, and Tom was genuinely impressed with her ability to bring music out of a little wooden box with strings attached to it.  Tom’s enforced proficiency with math and academics stirred admiration in Jackie’s mind, and the pleasure that each of these two people took in being recognized by the other as somebody who deserved to be noticed for their own accomplishments matured at length into a deep friendship and a determination to pursue that friendship to whatever ends it would take them.

Once Chris became aware of Jackie’s physical beauty he began to try to attract her attention.  He applied his charming show-off act with full energy, and was amazed and annoyed upon learning that this time his clown show was going to fall flat.  Jackie was friendly with Chris for Tom’s sake, but only rarely allowed herself to be found alone with him, and when that was unavoidable she excused herself and made herself scarce at the earliest opportunity.

Tom, as smart as he was, was too committed to his friendship with Chris to notice that there was any interest on his part toward Jackie, and too infatuated with Jackie and certain of her regard for him to entertain the possibility of having a rival.  He divided his limited free time between Best Friend and Best Girl, and by his senior year in high school those two parties had arrived at an unspoken understanding. Chris didn’t stop in front of the Olsen house.  He never really knew Jackie’s parents and once again thought about the likelihood of a less than friendly reception from Jackie herself.  Without hesitating he continued to walk on down the street.

An hour later it was beginning to get dark.  Chris entered the front door of their house and nodded to his mother and brother.  His father was the early-to-bed type, and was already snoring in his bedroom. Chuck was studying at the dining room table and Chris’ mother was working a crossword puzzle in front of the television.

Mrs. Paine nodded back to him and said “I’m going to have to get used to you coming through that door.  Would you like some ice cream?  Or maybe some toast and milk?  You always did like that when you were young.”

Chris tried to smile back, but it was a feeble attempt.  “No, but thanks.  Mom, have you heard anything about Tom?”

“Not a word” she replied.  “What do his parents say?  I mean, I assumed that you went their first thing.”

“Naw, I went to Sonny’s.  I just wondered if you heard anything.  That’s all.”

“Nope” she replied.  “I supposed that he should get home about the same time as you, but then you would know more about that than me.”

“Yeah” Chris mumbled.  “He should.  Well, I’m going to sit in the back yard for a while before I go to bed.  I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Chris nodded again to his mother and waved weakly in the direction of Chuck, and then went to sit in a chair in the back yard and cry alone until well after the Paine household was dark.