Al told me stories:
When he was ten his father dragged him outside and ordered him to chop the head off of a cat that had torn its back leg in some fighting. The old man pressed his nose down to look at the wound, and the matted orange of the cat’s fur reminded Al of his first memory: his mother’s red hair.
“Kablooie,” the old man said when the cat’s skull imploded.
That was right after five midget submarines piggybacked to converge with three-hundred-sixty-five fighter planes at Pearl Harbor. They sunk three battleships and massive bunkers were erected all along the West Coast. To show solidarity, the mayor of Crescent City planted thick, sweet-smelling hedges all around the town’s city hall, which was the size of the library, which was the size of an outhouse—not even its own room.
Al liked to eat salted pumpkin seeds while he read. He took care of his brother, Saul, who had been born with three distended teeth in his upper jaw. When their mother left, it was said that she’d gone back to Virginia but no one knew the location of that far-off state, or cared to.
Al tied his brother to a tree when he went off to Catholic school. He was timid with the nuns. Their litanies only made him feel guilty about leaving Saul in the hot sun.
He could have left his brother in the town prison where his dad worked as a guard, but the old man was no great one for talking. Besides, there were getting to be fewer and fewer empty cells.
Before long, the old crab-trapping boats had rotted down to nothing but swollen ribs. Al hitch-hiked to Jenner and lied about his age so that he could sail on a boat to Vietnam.
“I learned a lot about history there,” is the main thing he said when describing Saigon.
Inside of my family’s rickety green trailer where Al and I talked, it was cramped. I was one of five children, and nine years old, behind Obe, and Ean and Promise and Hope. The year we met Al, we slept in shifts on the trailer’s foldout benches, right where it broke down under the mossy-fork beech across the road from Selah and Dr. Ted’s rental cottage. Al lived in a camper shell in their back yard.
He sprang out of the bushes with his beret and peacoat and board games and dice. We’d broken down on top of some mushrooms that he wanted to collect, but he welcomed us. My mom liked that Al kissed her hand. She hoped that he would tell my dad not to be a dolt all the time, but he didn’t do that. He marched up the trailer’s aluminum stairs every sundown to share my awake shift because I said that I wouldn’t mind playing Stalin when he wanted to play Hitler in his three-paneled board game, Eastern Front.
He contained himself politely, elbows never touching the table, thin hands setting up markers and dice. He had to untilt the trailer’s fold-down table by propping the loose end with his knees. Sometimes his dog tags clanked in his stiff-collared shirt. My mother and father slept behind him, bodies tangled together under a curtain of beads.
“Think of the war brides,” Al said. His voice was hoarse, thin as a cracker. An octagon marked off every section of the board, continents and oceans alike. That was how it was in the Summer-Winter Campaigns of ‘41-’43. None of the countries had more than dotted-line boundaries. Those were for history to decide, and our skill.
During the siege of Leningrad, Al said, children — especially little girl children — made circuses on freezing wood floors. They carved their performers out of icicles: everything from bears to ballerinas that all winter didn’t melt. In fact, many ballerinas and bears outlasted their children.
Modest girls refused to take baths when the Soviet Women’s Councils came by with wood. Some girls saved food for their supposedly returning fathers, and starved.
“Still, in those times there were war brides,” Al said.
His pencil mustache twitched when I made my first formation at Minsk. He told me about a woman named Lena, who could have been my great-grandmother if only she’d survived just a few more short years. Lena escaped from the war by covering herself with mud in an unsuspecting farmer’s hay cart. She fled with the dirty clothes on her back and a single letter that she couldn’t throw out. It read:
“Lenka, I’ve got a piece of bread for you. I’ll get more. Love, Morris.”
That story wasn’t the only thing that made me like Al. When he reached for the dice to make his move on the Caucuses, it seemed somehow right that the trailer’s one window was made out of a thick, yellowed plastic. Yellowed plastic didn’t let in much light, but that was part of it, Al said. At first blackouts were ordered because of flyover bombers. Later no one had oil to spare.
“Were you ever brave enough to get married?” I asked Al.
He had just ordered his troops to move up the Volga into Moscow. He, as Hitler, had even more troops in the Ukraine. Two platoons settled on the border town of Lvov to make sure that no more great grandmothers slipped out.
That night, Al agreed to take a closer look at my scars. I told him how my dad had insisted that we, children, infect ourselves all together with last spring’s chicken pox: get it while you’re young was the plan.
Al didn’t try to make it seem good that each family member snored to drown out the others. We shivered together about the things my dad preached in his sleep:
“The Lord’s hand was upon me, and he carried me out by my spirit and set me down in a plain full of bones. He made me pass among them in every direction. Countless in number and very dry, they covered the plain.
“Prophesy over these bones,” my dad said. “Dry bones, hear the word of I and the Lord, the Lord and I.’”
“O man,” my dad said, “these bones are the whole people.”
“That’s Ezekiel, Chapter 37, verse 1,” I told Al.
His elbow helped the 30th U-boat flotilla sneak into Black Sea. He said that the move represented a secret deal with Turkey to break the Montreux Convention of 1936.
“Dwell in darkness,” my dad always said, “let the Whole be thy sight.”
During his first months in Vietnam, Al fell asleep grunting at the gun beside him in the army’s mosquito-filled cot. Ever since then all allusions to sex have caused him to have visions of bestial palms. At that time, however, it was just loneliness. The Catholic School hadn’t let in young women and Al missed his mom.
Before long he won a Purple Heart for exterminating his first gook wife and her family at their own dinner table with his bare hands.
When malaria made him weak, the generals shipped Al out with 5,000 body bags to Washington D.C.. He got a job as a clerk in a dark room, where he smoked and filed papers for a scandal that later became Watergate. It wasn’t his job to read the White House transcripts but he did because he liked the swear words Nixon used.
Then he married a Jewish girl for her money. She took his medals and pension and opened a brothel—her family wasn’t rich after all. Still, Al thought, he had been in love.
“No oceans without water,” Al quoted. “No wars without blood.”
I told Al why our unstable table was decorated by a cartoon blizzard made of blue snowflake wallpaper that had once covered my three-speed. I gave up the bike in Utah after our turtle, Yorick, hanged himself in the spokes. My brothers had taken great pains to build Yorick’s terrarium sturdily. They covered every hole with mosquito netting so he wouldn’t eat the wrong bugs, but somehow he found a crack near the wheel; somehow he climbed out onto the back hitch where my three-speed was strung up with bungee cords.
I told Al about how my brothers blamed me for Yorick’s death. They tried to get back at me by hanging themselves in the woods. Al was the one who found them that time.
Obe and Ean snuck out just before sunrise, an hour before the end of my awake shift. They each held one end of our hitch rope and jockeyed the trailer’s aluminum stairs between their frail hands.
Then they chose two adjacent, tall pines.
When Al brought them back, my dad smashed a bottle across the back of my head and called the boys traitors.
“O Absalom, Absalom,” he said. “Where is Joab to stab three darts in your skulls?”
“Coming of age,” my mom said. “They’ve just got strung nerves.”
Only Al and I knew the pubic truth about Obe and Ean. Only we had been awake to hear them groaning at night over Selah after that one fateful day when her golden retriever caused a skunk to void its wet fear on her legs.
The only way to wash off skunk spray, my mother had said, was for us to bathe Selah and her dog in tomato juice. Al and I toweled off Selah. Obe and Ean took the dog. All of us had a chance to see Selah naked. She was a redhead anyhow, former groupie to the Beach Boys, and that day her skin had a tomato-bright sheen that made Al and me — anyone who saw it — want to betray my dad’s movement, flee to the city, and eat pizza after pizza until we got sick.
“It’s not only the winter that defeated Hitler,” Al said. “It it’s also the mud.”
The day after the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes, Gaylord’s white Cadillac raised a wide swath of dust all through the woods. His plan was to collect rent for our stay on his land.
My mom and dad laughed because Gaylord had only one leg.
Al said that his left foot had probably rotted in Pacific Front trenches.
I didn’t mind looking at the crease in Gaylord’s black army pants. He kept one pant-leg tucked into his pocket and he skillfully balanced, just barely brushing the ground with his white cane, which wasn’t gold-tipped or carved. It was an old hardware store dowel topped by a cheap plastic strap that was held on with a nail. Gaylord didn’t have an expensive haircut either, just plain old shaved. And his forehead was bony. Whatever he ate, the scars sucked away.
“Malaria,” Al said, “was common during the war.”
He said that malaria was a soldier’s disease so I sucked my cheeks deep into my bones and hoped that my own scars would make me that skinny.
Al said that I only succeeded in looking like a bourgeois gentilhomme.
“Some people are generous,” my mom said. She mooned with puffed mushroom-cloud eyes at Gaylord, but he looked at Promise and then at Hope and me, and his car.
He offered to take the three of us girls for a ride, and I would have said yes if he hadn’t looked towards the back seat.
Drifts of French fry cartons, candy wrappers and Cokes took up all of the space for our feet. My mom said that when Gaylord’s Cadillac got filled up with garbage, he’d buy a new one. We could all be rich if we convinced him to share.
That night Obe was gone; in the morning so was Ean. Neither of my brothers ever came back.
When Al and I rolled the dice, Morris became a tailor. Al temporarily lost control at Kursk, and Stalingrad became Hitler’s losing obsession. Russia’s Siberian troops had been hardened by informal Manchurian border classes. Young Mongolians considered it a sport to joust with machine guns in order to show off their horsemanship skills.
The godseyes my mom had strung up for Christmas sagged down on our heads, I rattled my feet against Yorick’s mosquito netting and lost three thousand peasants. While disease cleared the Caucuses of artillery fighters, I picked at the corner of our table-bike wallpaper until a snowflake wedged under my nail and drew blood. Al offered his handkerchief but I snatched the dice off the Sudetenland. Maybe no peasants ever deserve to be freed.
“Let’s take a day off and go out to the fair,” Al said when he saw he would win.
He piggyback rode me all the way out, and won a doll in a side booth by popping balloons with red darts. I had never wanted anything so much when I saw the barker unwrapping twisty ties from around the doll’s porcelain neck. She had a cloth body and blond, painted-on hair.
“That’s for my daughter,” Al said.
For the first time he showed me the picture that he kept with his dog tags and can-opener on the chain round his neck. She was a small ringletted girl, blonde with blue eyes and my height.
“I’ll win you a doll next,” Al said. He easily popped more balloons: two green ones, three orange. The barker’s eyes darted, looking for a porcelain brown-haired doll but there were only more blondes.
“I guess I can take one of your ducks,” I said. “The blond doll can ride on its back.”
Al’s neck got stiff, as it always did when he was preparing for battle. From under the counter, the barker dragged up a plastic doll with black nylon hair.
“We can paint both dolls,” Al said, “and anyone else that we please.”
The barker replaced his popped balloons while Al and I marched away to buy pink cupcakes with sprinkles, and blue fizzy drinks. It was our victory day, Al said. I wanted to celebrate by riding on an elephant like a tsarina—unsad because she’d been vanquished by a very great man called Attila the Hun.
“I might even educate your peasants,” I told Al.
I could see that the elephants’ drooping trunks made his knees weevil with guilt.
In the Razorback Mountains near Khe Sahn, Al said, there was a waterfall called the Whining Place. During the Tran dynasty spurned lovers would drown themselves there. Just below was the Valley of Names, where American troops disposed of the families they’d shot. Generations were piled one on top of the other — four meters deep.
“You can’t stand at the top of the waterfall without looking down,” Al said.
Tourists flocked to the spot. They took trams down the side of the cliff so that they could walk in the flat, sunken earth where the ground had been dug. There were no markers, nothing to look at but elephant grass. It had rained when Al went. The swampy soil soaked his old army boots.
“Cold and cholera were what really defeated Hitler,” Al said. “Unlike bullet holes, those pains require victims to endure.”
Maybe it was that saying that let me get by without Al.
It was December 16, 1981 when the Great Offensive ended.
Selah, Dr. Ted, my mom and my dad had become religio-existentialist Co-Cottage Sleepers, a fact which they celebrated for three weeks straight, popping beers and reading about the Findhorn garden, a macrobiotic paradise where the plants told their caretakers not to be concerned if brown leaves popped up every once in a while.
When Al fell down the stairs to the cellar, everyone raised their drinks.
“It’s important to let people die when it’s their time,” my mom said.
For four hours Al struggled and called. Having cracked his skull on Selah and Dr. Ted’s washing machine, he could do nothing but gurgle up his own blood.
“Napoleon lost at Waterloo because of hemorrhoids,” I said to Al’s corpse.
I had been the one making him wash his peacoat.
Because of me he hadn’t had a drink in five days. He was trying out some anti-buse pills that the government shrink had prescribed to my dad. A second chance with his daughter, I’d said. I refused to start a new game until Al had gulped the pills down.
“You and me and your daughter can run away together just like Morris and Lena,” I’d said.
Al said that there weren’t always places to run.
I sat up alone and drank from Al’s smooth silver flask which, repeatedly, spilled on Murmansk. Three steppe towns near Archangel were wetted. Kovosk was not. I blotted out the ripples in the White Sea with our purple checked curtains. When the sun rose I saw that they had faded to a dull brown.
“Good night,” my mom said when she saw me still up. “And stop brooding. Al and your brothers are in better hands.”
“In Poland they fought house to house,” I said.
My mom said that history made her yawn.
Selah and Dr. Ted said that I was angry that Al had failed to reveal the secret of Deep Throat, which he had promised to whisper into my ear when it became clear that there was no hope.
I didn’t really care about Watergate, but I did worry about how St. Peter would judge Al’s catholic soul. What could I tell him to help that great judge?
“I’m a scroll of agony,” I said to my dad.
“We are a traumatized people with an atom bomb in its hands,” my dad said to the Macrobiotics meeting when it convened in Gaylord’s woods.
That very same month, my sisters became pharmacists — legal. Promise ran off to England. She was only thirteen. Hope married a doctor in Arizona because she was pregnant. She only lasted four days before running back.
The two of us hopped around with Gaylord at Al’s funeral. My mom said that he’d only come to pick up the rent but for some reason Gaylord also brought out four pairs of shoes that he found near a dumpster. They were stiff, Buster Browns. The stack of shoe boxes went higher than his head, and he only managed to hold onto his cane by letting the strap chafe his wrist.
“Henceforth, we shall receive as we have given,” my dad said over Al’s hole.
Gaylord shook the tops off his boxes and lined the four pairs of shoes up on the side of the trailer where Obe and Ean had once found it convenient to pee. Each shoe had cardboard inside and there was a whole nest of tissue paper padding. My mom and dad and Gaylord seemed to see the shoes as fine china. That made me suspicious because why would anyone wear breakable shoes?
“Try them on,” Gaylord said. He sounded like a general commanding troops that he knew had to die.
Hope tried to squeeze her swollen up foot into a narrow size five..
“Here’s a hot squaw,” Gaylord said. “Burn you right up.”
“Just look away,” my mom said when I asked what he meant.
My dad offered Gaylord a cigarette and he lit it with a lighter that he claimed had cost him only twenty-five cents.
“Bought it in Chinatown,” Gaylord said. “You should get one. Light up them Chinese cigarettes: kablooie.”
“We’ve got some nice colored lighters,” my mom said, “yellow and bronze.”
I slapped the red lighter out of her hand.
“Give us some air,” I said to my dad.
Gaylord retreated to the Cadillac, and stood straight as a pine while he watched me and Hope hop and flop cramping cramped toes and twisting weak ankles to make the shoes fit.
“Let’s have a look,” said my dad.
“Just enough room at the toes,” said my mom.
They said that Gaylord had agreed to chauffeur me and Hope out to some kind of survival school run by vets.
“The whole world is a classroom,” my mom said. We’d learn as we drove. And Gaylord would pay our expenses. He, after all, had fond memories of the two Cambodian girls he’d sponsored during some war that was not quite Vietnam.
“It was a much smaller rebellion,” Gaylord said, “another one of the cute nameless ones.”
He had fudged paperwork to help the girls cross to Thailand. Still they stole his loose change.
“That was the end of the girls,” said Gaylord said.
He balanced carefully against his Cadillac not scratching the immaculate white paint job that he polished constantly with his nylon-clad rump.
I ran into the woods and scuffed my new shoes against the edge of a rock so that they’d be veterans like Al.
“You want to be trash,” Gaylord said. You’ll have to get off my land.”
But what if Al and my brothers were reviving dead soldiers for the battles ahead?
“It was an accident,” I said. “A bear pushed me down.”
I held my breath so that I could hear if I was still rolling the dice.
"The only important boundary is between life and death," Al would have said. "And what is there? Who is there? With what army shall we conquer this land?"