"Whose is the Voice that only we can hear?"
by Jon Deisher - Copyright 2008 all rights reserved
It was late. The men gathered hours ago and their middle-aged conversations had gone long. One by one they filled their glasses, drank their pleasures, emptied their sorrows and then lifted themselves for their journeys home. Finally two remained: perpetually sleepless Matthew with loosened tie and partially unbuttoned shirt, and tormented Robert propped between patched tweed elbows. More acquaintances than friends, bonds of experience and loneliness joined them. Neither had elsewhere to go. They pursued Robert's desperation and pealed the onion of Matthew's derelict marriage. Robert's endless cigarettes fogged both the conversation and the air between them. The contents of discarded beer bottles and coffee cups brought them through the periphery of anecdotes into the substance of disclosure. Genuine revelation requires a reciting of experience: either to one's companions or within oneself. Recital does not easily bring its passengers over the circuitous route of capillary alleys and arterial avenues to one's pulsing inner doors. Upon arrival the doors may not open to the light awareness brings.
"It started easy." Matthew said as he toyed with a near-empty amber bottle, his receding hairline bobbing over the table. "Then, it slipped away." He studied circular patterns of condensation on the table as he rotated the sweating bottle.
His angular companion, a divorce battle veteran, nodded, knitted his brow and nursed a beer. The weight of wakeful nights and restless days wrinkled his forehead and hollowed his cheeks. Robert had been divorced three times, the cause of much introspection but little insight. He was blameless and well rid of the demands of commitment. His disastrous unions were symptoms rather than causes of the wreckage buried in him. Luckily, he had no children. Damned ankle biters were more trouble than they were worth and life's troubles were plague enough. With scalpels of merciless inquiry, experts had incompletely dissected him many times. His sacred wounds and fatal flaws remained concealed and his demon well hidden. He had few questions left and doubted his answers were of use to anyone, including himself. He had no friends: didn't want any. Companions came and went. Still, he was experienced and could listen. He knew that his response was not needed, only his presence. Loneliness needs companionship not conversation. Time with Matthew was better than his alternative. He tapped his smokes on the table, packing the tobacco against each filter. His narrow, spider fingers spread, spun the unwrapped the package daintily, as if his inspecting fingertips tasted the tobacco insect. His fiddling gave Matthew license to keep talking.
Matthew pulled his tie free, raked his fingers through graying, unkempt temples and struggled to find no fault in his faulty marriage. Unaccustomed to emotional displays, he swallowed noisily. "We were perfect. Then we lost it. Each of us needing, wanting... something the other didn't have to give," the bent fiber of his neck pushed his chin into his chest, "or didn't want to give."
Robert had been Matthew. But if forgiveness and affection had ever existed in him, they were ashes of fires that burned out long ago. He could not, or would not, confess how or why it happened. He forgave nothing, no one. He was guilty of nothing, confessed nothing. He never felt Matthew's remorse. A different creature gnawed him.
"Been there," Robert replied distantly. "Don't understand marriage. Or women. If there's a problem, let them have it. You point, they point back. I can guaran-damn-tee you that whatever you say about your ol' lady, she'll say the same about you, only worse. It'll be 'he said, she said'." He sipped his coffee. "Maybe you screwed up. So what? She screwed up worse. Women." He wagged his head slowly. "Can't trust ‘em. It's finished. Move on." He smiled wryly. The spider delicately pulled a cylinder from the pack and thrust it in his mouth. He groped for his lighter. His thumb rested on the roller, its dagger-like nail stabbing the air protectively, sliced down, and flicked up a flame. Sucking deeply, spindly fingers flayed against flaccid lips, he held the smoke briefly then blew a satisfied blue stream to the side and shoved the pack toward Matthew with an inquisitive "want one?" expression.
Matthew detested tobacco. He waved it away voicelessly, his jaw clenched, rippling his temples. He wanted to be gone but only an empty sofa waited. A tingling at the base of his skull hinted of a sulking headache, its familiar tentacles extending, searching under his scalp. He knew where it was going. "I trusted her. She didn't have to.... " The back of his hand passed across his right cheek, moistened by a leak in the corner of his eye. "Shit. I can't help feeling ... it's my fault." He swallowed. His tightened throat let nothing pass.
Robert coughed off to the side as he roughly slapped Matthew's shoulder, a sterile gesture lacking compassion. "Hey," he said nasally, "guilt don't look good on you. Look at her. She coulda done more, but didn't. Leave self-pity to her. Likely she's better at it than you are."
Matthew hunched over a softening abdomen that once rippled like an athletic washboard. He visited the gym for the sauna's privacy not fitness. He didn't feel fit now, shoulders swaying in denial of his loss. Maybe Susan wasn't worth it. She was once. They had something and it was gone.
Robert leaned back drumming his fingers the table. "You were perfect. Now you're not. Susan was perfect. Now she's not. Perfection came and went. Sounds normal. About average." He flicked his smoke toward an ashtray. The ashes missed and scattered in gray micro-fragments. Broom-like, his bony hand swept them away. "I've been perfect a few times myself. I'm still a fine specimen, doncha think?"
Matthew looked at his angular companion.
"Well, ladies think so," Robert growled. "Even if they don't. I do."
Matthew face was blank.
"Where's she come from, do y'think?" He asked cryptically.
"Who?" Matthew's voice was constricted.
"The perfect woman. Where's she from? Where's she go?"
Matthew's mouth opened, his throat was dry. He swallowed and tried again. "I have no idea," he said dryly.
Robert didn't expect answers anyway and seemed not to hear. "You ever wonder about it? About her?" He laid his cigarette carelessly in the ashtray. It's smoke weaving straight up into the light as if the bulb were a magnet. In the darkness above the bulb it was scattered by the unseen ceiling fan slowly circling. "You think she exists?"
"If who exists?" The mechanical voice answered distractedly.
"The perfect woman," Robert said gruffly. "Pay attention." He watched the smoke curl as it disappeared past the light. "What'd she be like?" He wanted a response now.
Matthew lifted his head and saw Robert waiting. He gulped his beer, clearing his constricted throat. "You're kidding." He rubbed his head, following the searching migraine to its customary place and looked at Robert. He wasn't kidding. Matthew picked at the label on his bottle. Moist pieces of paper flaked off under his fingernail. He flicked them to the side. "Okay," he said clearing his throat. "She's a fantasy. Maybe she hides as the woman we're with at closing time, then she disappears and, guess what? We're stuck with who we're stuck with! Happens to most of us. Even you." He picked up the beer, drained it, and grabbed another. "Susan was perfect long enough for me to lay it all out there. Then, WHAM! Miss Perfection split and Susan was left. Perfect woman? Shit." He indulged himself a long pull from his fresh bottle and then belched with resonance. "Shit," he said again, shaking his head.
"Sounds familiar. Coulda said that myself," Robert said. "Men have been asking, no ... begging ... praying, for the perfect woman for hundreds, thousands, of years. We hope to seduce her. We sing to her. Write stories and poems about her, for her, to her. We create works in her honor. Make asses of ourselves. Anything to have the inaccessible Goddess. Do we get her? Usually not. If we do, after we have her, do we still want her? Or do we search for her in someone else? Me, I'm never satisfied."
Robert balanced his chair on its hind legs and looked up, as if searching behind the light for the invisibly rotating fan. Speaking wistfully, his words rose like cigarette smoke searching for the circling blades to scatter them around the room. "Playing games ain't me. I don't want a fucking relationship... wait..." He paused, eyes shifting. "...that is what I want. What I don't want is to buy dinner. Or flowers. Or candy. All that crap! When we do, do we get laid? Usually not. It's a waste. But that's me. I don't want some bitch pushing me for another bouquet, or box of chocolates, or dinner. Like we have to beg." His boney fingers wrapped around each other in a double fisted weave as if pleading. "'Puh-leez, Missy, I'll give ya a flower if you'll just bring yo' widdle kiddy-cat out to play'." Fingers unraveled themselves and suddenly spanked the table. "Shit! it's humiliating. Know what I mean."
Matthew shifted in his seat, rolled his eyes and began forming an answer. But Robert wasn't asking and he wasn't finished. He rocked the chair. "So, what do they want? Lemme tell ya. They want Mr. Perfect sniffing around. They want the game: to pose and doll themselves up. Show a little leg. Stretch a tight dress across their ass. Jiggle the cleavage, and pray "He" rises to the bait. They make asses of themselves, too. Do they get Him? Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, sure enough, we play. Cleavage gets us every time. We come sniffing and give ‘em what they want. Dinner. Flowers. Whatever. We seduce 'em with the ‘Perfect Man'. They see Him in us for a while, and they give it up. We both get what we think we wanted. Then, who knows why or when, Perfection goes. Where? Who knows? He lived in you once. Where'd he go? Your ol' lady laid herself out for Him, for you, and you helped yourself. Who wouldn't? Men rarely say 'No' when a woman wants them. At least for a one-night stand they don't. You took Her. She took Him. Then He left. How'd He leave? Same way She did. Must be fifty ways. Doesn't matter. You both got stuck with the leftovers. I've seen it a million times. Story of my life. Better I take what I want and move on. No percentage in hangin' around. I split before She does. It's a bitch, ain't it". He smiled smugly as if he made a pun.
Matthew didn't get it. " You're a cynical man, Bob."
"Cynical? Me? Naw. Cook it down to the bones and it's how life is." Robert scratched his head absently as he brought his chair back onto all fours. "I'm a realist. Practical." He looked searchingly at Matthew, "So, whatcha think? Is He hiding in there? Forget yer ol' lady! C'mon out, Mr. Perfect. Miss Perfect's somewhere out here, lookin' for you. You'll both be in lust long enough to abuse each other. Then the tarnish and rust will move in and one of you or both'll move on. Me, I'm perfect for them but they're never perfect for me... and one is never enough." His grin flashed as he adjusted his crotch. "Shit, once they leave, it only takes fifteen minutes to get shifty again. That's a bitch, too." Robert stopped, hoping Matthew would laugh, or at least smile.
He didn't. He frowned and looked away distantly.
A silent presence in Matthew listened carefully but did nothing. Finally, Matthew brought his eyes back and said flatly, "I'm not perfect. Never wanted to be, or tried to be, or have been." He shook his head. "I'm not up to this crap." Two beads skied down the sides of his beer, making trails between those waiting their turns for similar runs. The droplets joined, increasing in size as they dashed down the bottle and disappeared into the finish line ring at the bottom. Matthew lifted the bottle and took another long pull, almost emptying it. Two drops fell and dove together into his shirt. A heart-shaped spot expanded on his left shirt pocket. The presence giggled distantly as if She made a joke. Matthew ignored Her.
Robert tapped cigarette ashes to the floor, and then dragged with a grimace, the hot coal reddened, growing toward the filter pinched between skinny pads of finger. "Ever hear of Fats Waller?" Percussive bursts of smoke jumped from his mouth.
Matthew lifted his chin, stretched his neck and belched again with extended satisfaction. "The 'Ain't Misbehavin'' guy from the '40's?" He asked distractedly.
"That's him. He wrote a song, sung by a woman with huge casabas. She'd shake ‘em as she sang." Robert shook his shoulders demonstrating. "Jelly on a plate. I like that... Donno the tune, but one of lines said, 'Find out what he likes, and how he likes it, and give it to him just that way'. Ever hear it?"
Matthew shook his head. "Nope."
"Most haven't. Pure genius. Interesting a man wrote those words for a woman to sing." He smiled. "But that's what we want, ain't it."
Matthew's headache was insistent, not yet pounding. He'd had enough beer and pushed his empty bottle away. Pawing the coffee pot handle, he splashed the lukewarm java into his cup. The coffee and stale beer flavors mixed in his mouth and curled his tongue as he swallowed. "A woman like that would scare the crap outa me." he grimaced. A chill dashed hurriedly up his spine as the coffee's warmth joined the cool beer in his stomach. "Susan scared me that way once."
"Wouldn't be surprised." Robert said, noting the chill. He spun the coffee pot around, too, and dumped it into his cup. "But don't worry. Most women won't do that. A man wants what HE wants, how HE wants it, HIS way." His index finger tapped the table. "We always tell women what we want. We can't help it. The problem is HOW they give it. It's usually not how we want it. A man gets it HER way, not his. And WHOOPS!" His hands went up in protest. "Ohhh, Noooo!" His index finger wagged like a knobby maestro's baton. "Miss Perfection just left the building."
Robert leaned forward on shiny elbows. "Ideally Miss Perfection gives it to him exactly, one hundred percentedly, HIS way. THAT's what we want." He took a last drag and crushed the butt out. "Usually it starts that way. That's the game part. Then she stops, reality sets in and ‘perfection' goes. Then we look for 'it' elsewhere, like kids chasing butterflies. Out with the old, in with the new. And the beat goes on. Miss Perfection's dead, long live Miss Perfection." He raised his cup as if making a toast and wiggled his fingers to the side as if she were both departing and entering that way.
"Most women would be pissed by this, Rob." Matthew shook his head. The presence nodded, listening carefully. Matthew's head began throbbing earnestly. He sat back rubbing his temples.
"Don't give a damn what they think." Robert brushed the comment aside. "What YOU want. How YOU want it. Just that way. We all want that. If women did that ..." His hands cradled, as if a delicate and fragile something he had never had would be placed in them; as if Matthew had had it or at least knew what it was and could give it to him. Robert sagged. Perhaps he revealed too much. "But they don't." His hands dropped. "So... there you go and," he swallowed a sour sip of cold coffee, "here we are".
Matthew continued rubbing his head. His marriage hadn't worked that way. No one did what he wanted, how he wanted it. Not Susan. Not anybody. Ever. Susan knew what he wanted. He told her many times. As Robert said, that part is easy. She didn't care. He did not know or understand why not. It wasn't important to her. She did things her way and that was that. She acted as if whatever she did was a gift. He asked, explained, and begged. Nothing worked. She didn't listen, or didn't hear. Either way it didn't penetrate. She wasn't interested. She did what she did, like it or not. It was her gift... she did what she thought he liked in a way that he didn't. Maybe she got it right, but too often he had to fix, or re-do, or modify, or tolerate the "gifts". They became frustrations and frustration is no gift. Finally, he stopped asking or pleading. He'd say "thanks", or sometimes simply nod and then eat his liver.
Susan begged and pleaded, too. She wanted what she wanted. Finally he had enough. He wasn't interested. He stopped listening, ignored her, and did things his way. No doubt his gifts were as frustrating to her as hers to him. Not gifts at all. He looked for the cream to take the bite out of his coffee. Shit! I didn't like doing things her way. She probably ate her liver, too. "You might have something there, Bob. Where's the cream?"
"Donno. Never use it." Robert grabbed his cup, filled his mouth, puffed his cheeks and swallowed hard, his Adams apple bouncing. He felt the coffee follow his esophagus and expand into his stomach. "Yeah. Maybe I got something. I don't know what to do with it. I know what works for most people. It just doesn't work for me. I want what I want. Women are chocolates with juicy centers. I can't eat just one. I want the whole box." His lips spread from discolored teeth and his tongue swiped across them.
"I like chocolates, don't you," characteristically not asking. "I don't know anybody who gets what they want how they want it. Me, I only get it when I take it. It's that or do without. And who wants to go without. At best, it's a bad trade. Women give less than I want; I give more than I want. Screw relationships. They're a waste of time. I've been to counselors. Shrinks who've never had a life, maybe never been laid, tell me I'm the problem. I'm dangerous, they say. Me! Dangerous? Screw ‘em. They don't have a clue."
Matthew rubbed his knotted neck. The pain moved into his forehead. The knot was Gordian. Kneading would not loosen it. The presence frowned sympathetically. He stood, stretched his neck, stepped to another table and grabbed some creamer packets and sat back down. He opened two packets and poured them into his cup. The coffee's heat was gone. The dark brown liquid swirled with tan eddies as the powder reluctantly dissolved and slowly lightened the tepid coffee, undissolved lumps floating.
They sat silently.
Sometimes conversation is a driverless van with no destination. The passenger sits until the destination appears. Sometimes it's a bus with unscheduled stops, picking passengers up and dropping them off when the cord is pulled. Sometimes it's both. A clock chimed twice. Matthew rolled his wrist and checked his watch.
He rubbed his eyes to ease the throbbing behind them, "You work tomorrow?" he asked. I ought to go home, he thought. But there was nothing and no one there.
"Yeah. Early. I don't sleep much anyway. You?"
"Nope. I'm off."
The passengers leaned toward each other, awaiting their stop.
"Hey, Matt," Robert's voice was quiet and soft like a breeze foretelling the weather. "What'd you do in Nam? I don't mean the war... I mean... the women. Other than the shit, did you have any fun?" Robert was digging life's compost for a lost something.
A whiff of fetid, burnt, sweet, and sweaty humidity found Matthew. His thoughts left the thicket of his remorse and followed Robert's questions into a jungle. Vietnam was like his persistent recurring headaches, starting in the back of his mind working to the front. It never left him. It faded into the recesses of his thinking only to creep like a thief back into his consciousness, stealing his peace, his serenity. He didn't talk about it. Who fucking cared? In Nam he had no patience for "wannabes". Now he had none for "ustabes". And he knew that's what he had become. He was a good soldier. For two tours he packed his gear with the best of them. He did his job. He was somebody and everyone knew it. Since then he was nobody, belonging nowhere. He was a ustabe somebody with few friends; a wannabe civilian who didn't fit and he knew it. The irony held him to a receding moment in history, a former context. His proud moments were infused with shame, and vice versa. They were inseparable. Who wants to hear a whiner complain about his life's pain; a "has-been" remembering "I ustabe?"
Robert's questions betrayed his emptiness. He studied Matthew. Matthew knows, he thought. Even if he doesn't know he knows.
Nam? Matthew said to himself, I got nothing to say. Robert's urgency was shared. The presence wanted his answer, too.
"Sometimes we would not say, what must be spoken." She said silently.
"Maybe. But now?" He answered.
"The right time never arrives and is always here. When is now."
Matthew shook his head and pushed her away.
During the war he was a special forces Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol soldier, a LRRP, based at Nha Trang. He flew and jumped into mountains, jungle, and rice paddies all over Southeast Asia. "Lurps" patrolled the length of Vietnam engaging the enemy wherever they found them. Missions were mostly classified. He did two tours, was gung ho and proud of it. His enduring memory of Nam was of throbbing chopper blades grinding the sky.
Robert was a brown water sailor with the Riverine Assault Force 117, assigned to one of four divisions of a 400-man squadron. The divisions were mobile with a powerful fleet of swift river patrol craft affectionately called "pig boats". Pig Boats were protected with bar-and-plate armor and armed with .50 caliber, 40 millimeter and 20-millimeter cannons, grenade launchers and 81-millimeter mortars. They denied the enemy access to the River's waterways. Robert patrolled tributaries of the Delta from the South China Sea to the Cambodian Border with Riverine Forces attached to floating, mobile bases on the Mekong. He spent weeks at a time on the river, touching land only on raids, opportunistically taking what he wanted, when he could.
Nam? Matthew said under his breath. I never stop thinking about it. But I damn sure don't want to talk about it.
"When is now." She intruded again.
"No!" He silently answered, again pushing Her away firmly.
Combat always wounds and scars, usually invisibly. There are few unwounded, unscarred warriors. Warriors were targets marked for destruction that came at any time. For them there was no front, no safe area. Anywhere was vulnerable. Their experiences shaped them and their context. For some, once baptized, the context did not change and became locked within. Most men moved on, some did not.
Matthew's eyes drifted in the direction of the chiming clock behind the bar. Then he spoke, compulsively, rapid fire, in bursts of random spray rather than a well-aimed response to Robert's target. "Don't talk about Nam. Didn't seem real then. Don't seem real now. What'd I do? I was a Lurp. Got brain fucked. We all did.
"We sat around allot, waiting for something to happen. Combat was mostly short, intense.... insane. I was good, real good. Jumped into shit everywhere. Laos and Cambodia. Places we weren't supposed to be. Trained ARVNs. Hurry up and wait. Search and destroy. Stupid shit. Take the hill. Leave it. Take it again. Kill or be killed. Count the dead. Stack the bodies. In-country R & R, usually Vung Tau. Never felt more alive or scared to death. Every day. All day." He stopped as if the spray of his thoughts were loud enough to be heard and he expected Robert to hear them. "I just wanted to go home," he said, almost whispering.
Softly he spoke again. "Women? I donno squat. Not then. Not now. Get laid? Sure. Anytime. I'm not into that. It's not me." His voice faded. His eyes fixed toward the clock, unaware that he had slipped into present tense. Sighing slowly, he took a deep breath. "Needs of the soul drains off, gets used up, dumped in a shitter." His swollen eyes raised, and then dropped. "I do my duty. But what I think my duty is and what I gotta do don't match up. I donno how fucked I am until I get back to the world." His breath left him audibly, like air from a flat tire.
"So, finally I get home. I got nothing. Nowhere to go. Nothing to do. One week after my last firefight I'm in civies, walking the streets, jumpin' at loud bangs or barking dogs. I hate goddamn dogs. I go to college. Donno why. G.I. Bill, I guess.
"In a history class, we study World War Two. I can't relate. It was a different war. Different time. The textbook has death camp pictures. The prisoners are skin and bones, starved. Eyes hollow. Empty. Hungry. It's like the pictures are mirrors. I see myself. I'm one of them. But how? I'm no prisoner. Never starved. But I feel like they look. Then it hits me. I'm the prison, not the prisoner! The war took something out of me that I can't get back and put something in I can't get out. Something's locked in. Something else is locked out. This thing, in here." He thumped his forehead lightly, "It's hungry ... it wants something. It pushes me, prods me. Leaves me wanting, needing. Like a death camp prisoner I need more than food. I need more... I donno what. I have... dreams ... I'm saddled up, flack jacket, M-16 locked, loaded, everything. But I'm skin and bones, like the death camp guys. Can't pack my gear. Protected outside, defenseless inside. Then I wake up in a sweat. Sheets sticking to me." His voice faded again.
Recognition glimmered in Robert's face, "I knew it!" He said to himself.
"What'd I do? Survive. Avoid dying. Shoot where I think they are: at noise. Stay low. Be invisible. Go in, do it, get out. Women scare me. I leave 'em alone. Get drunk. Get loaded. Get excited. Get fucked up. Pissed my pants once. My first kill. Gawd! Did I have fun? Schee-it, no! For a wannabe maybe it was fun. But I'm no wannabe."
His tumble of words stopped. Robert waited expectantly. Matthew began again. His voice no longer staccato, but calm, nostalgic. "Two tours. Almost two years. I count the days, day by day and a wake up... I check 'em off and keep my head down. I keep my shit together going ninety miles an hour. Daily boredom stretched out between minutes of insanity. Insane minutes're longer than the do-nothing hours. I'm bored. I dream about... home... the normal life I don't have and will never have. Sometimes I'm insane: high on adrenalin, poppin' caps at whatever moves. Doin' what it takes to stay out of a body bag." Tears welled up and ran their course down his cheeks. He wiped them with his sleeves and shuttered as an unexpressed terror moved through him.
He had been in-country four days. They rappelled from the choppers and followed the parched red dirt road from the drop zone to the village while the choppers circled overhead. Half of them were jumpy, swaggering and scared newbees. It was a dry run. "Give you cherries a taste of shit before it hits the fan", the corporal said. The day was beautiful, cloudless. The breeze warm, gently caressing the palm trees. The men were loose, walking easy. Rice paddies on each side, rippling in the sun as a breeze passed. Then, as they entered the village, without warning a bouncing Betty leapt up, exploded and ripped Gustafson's chest open. Nobody was ready. Gusty arrived in country six weeks ago. He never knew what happened. His rag doll body blew back and bloodied the men behind him. Then shooting erupted. Mortars and small arms. For a moment the cherries froze. Two went down, one sagged with his throat blown out, the other as if tripped, screaming and holding his knee. The corporal yelled, "Incoming! You sons-a-bitches! Move!" They scattered.
Matthew dove into the ditch beside the road, hugging dirt behind a clump of grass, breathing dust. Rifles rattled around him, shooting at noise. An AK-47's staccato replied. He pushed his M-16 through the grass and squeezed the trigger. Instantly, a dog howled shrilly in fear or pain. He couldn't see it. It's shrill yelping continuous. He squeezed another blind burst toward it. The howling stopped in mid yelp. He raised his head and, as he squeezed again, a shirtless girl in baggy black trousers abruptly ran between shacks. His aimless finger popped off the trigger. Too late. Her head snapped back. A small crater dented her left forehead. A small piece of her shoulder disappeared, leaving a red, oozing, rawness. Carried by momentum, arm dangling, she left her feet almost like a dive. She swam in air Australian style then belly flopped, legs kicking. A puppet with cut strings thrown in the dust. Matthew saw it in slow motion. "Oh-fuck, oh-fuck, oh-fuck", he said, sucking wind. Helpless, he watched her vitality twitch through her face and down her body, ripple the thin muscles in her back and spastically jerk her legs. The dust settled on her. Her right hand extended, fingers quivering, reaching. Her toes opened and closed, gripping at the last of life as it left her. Her sightless eyes questioned, lids fluttering. Her lips moved. Something was unsaid. She'd never say it. Then she was calm.
The men were up and moving. "Get the slope-sonsabitches!" Someone yelled. Matthew's eyes were pinned on the girl.
"They're in the shack. Burn everything!" Someone else shouted.
A grenade exploded in the bamboo hut, it burst into a fireball. Matthew ducked.
A T-shirted soldier in khaki pants, crouched in a low profile, head wrapped in a sweat-stained bandana ran up to the girl as if he had been following her. He roughly rolled her over, reached down and crudely jerked her baggy trousers down to her ankles. Then he stood over her and ran the muzzle of his weapon over her small breasts and abdomen. Her skin depressed beneath the muzzle as it traveled the length of her body. He rested the muzzle against the girl's naked hip and pushed. Her pelvis rocked slightly. The soldier laughed dryly, stepped back and fired a burst into her. The body didn't move. Small, crimson, bloodless holes spotted her abdomen and chest.
"I got one!" he yelled. "I got one!"
He slid a thin knife from his waist and neatly sliced her right ear off next to her head. He wiped the knife on her pants and slipped it into its sheath as he shoved the ear in his pocket. More shooting erupted, men shouted indistinguishably. The soldier yelled back and ran off.
Stunned, Matthew stood and watched himself turn and run, too. He passed the girl and closed his eyes.
Then he heard Her for the first time.
"Stop! Look at her!"
He skidded to a stop, startled, and looked at the girl. She lay still almost looking like contoured earth, brown, not breathing.
"Look. Just look."
Matthew stared, absorbing her. She was pretty. Young. Tranquil. Slanted eyes open, starring waxenly. Then he ripped himself away and searched quickly for the commanding voice. There was no one. He turned and began running again.
"From this you can never run." The voice said.
Matthew didn't care. He ran and was still running today. Other deaths followed, but this one never left him. He could still see her. He looked at her every day. And the voice took up its residence. Later, he discovered he wet himself.
The vision faded. He looked up and jumped, startled to see Robert staring intently at him across the table. As his memory receded, questions remained. How did it happen? Why? Was she chasing her dog? Running from the soldier? Why did he shoot her? Why take her ear? Where was her shirt? Having no answers filled him with helplessness, grief and rage. And shame.
He raised his left hand to cover his eye, pressed firmly and rubbed gently. The wandering pain in his head settled over and behind his left eye. Throbbing. The moment and its context lived in him. "Headache's a son-ov-a-bitch this time," he said.
"Yeah?" Robert mumbled disinterestedly. Everybody's got something to bitch about. "You were going to tell me about Nam."
"I don't talk about it." Matthew said, moving his hand to his temple. "Compared to any other time in my life, Nam is bigger than anything else. It all blends together like one timeless minute. I was never more full of myself... more ALIVE, ever, before or since. I was a warrior! I did horrible things and I'm... proud."
His voice faded and Robert waited. "They say 'youth is wasted on the young.' I wasn't wasted. I was stolen. I became old. Nineteen years OLD. I've been old ever since. Nam's a golden hole in my life filled with shit." An aged shadow crossed his face and youthful lights glowed in his eyes, pride and sorrow poured into the same container like wine and urine. The beverage of combat.
Robert continued staring. He hadn't gotten what he wanted. He knew it was close. He had seen its shadow. He watched like a circling raptor, silent, as if the expected morsel were about to move on the unfolding plain. It was there. How to make it appear?
Almost hungrily he said, "You got a ghost, ain't you." Nodding in affirmation. He moistened his lips. "Me, too. Mine lives when I sleep and hides when I'm awake. She steals my sleep. You got yours. I got mine."
His nervous eyes darted into the dark corners behind them.
"They might even be the same." He said huskily as if something were caught in his throat. "Tell me about the women."
Matthew's thumb dug into his throbbing temple while his fingers worked his forehead. If this gets worse, I'm leaving, he thought.. He looked at Robert's sunken eyes and cheeks. "I already told you, I donno shit about women. Some guys spent all their time and money on them. Not me. You say I got a ghost? Maybe. I don't know what it is, but I'm haunted, all right." His unseen listener nodded and began nursing his pain. "Women scared me. Something.... happened. Then I couldn't trust myself, or anybody. There were girls, Hootch girls, prostitutes. Not for me. Some guys couldn't help themselves. It was too easy. Too cheap. Lonely guys taking R & R, getting laid, getting drunk or stoned. I left them alone. I left everyone alone. Gettin' close to anyone was dangerous."
Robert's narrow face hardened. "Okay, fine," he said slowly. "Then tell me about the ghost, whatever it is." He leaned toward Matthew, foreheads almost touching. "Mine...." His voice wavered, "invades me. Days are fine. Now is fine. But, sleep..." His cigarette quivered between spider fingers. "I told a shrink about Her. Maggot. I'd tell him stuff. He'd start breathin' heavy. Sometimes I just made shit up. It was like giving him drugs. He sucked it up. Fucking wannabe. He said I hate women. Naw. I hate shrinks. Ignorant bastards. Worse. They don't know that they don't know. They got no fucking clue! They feed off of us and want the war stories. They love ‘em. The juicier, the better. Then they say we're mental for what we did. Who's mental? Us for living with it, or them for feeding off it? They either couldn't or wouldn't do what we did. They ran to Canada or hid behind their long hair on college campuses. Now they get a hard-on hearing about what they ran away from. Oh, they got theories. Sons-a-bitches think life's supposed to fit theories in steada the other way around." Perspiration bumped Robert's forehead. Matthew thought of an untapped beer, cold on the inside, warm on the outside.
"Screw shrinks." It was Matthew's turn to encourage. "What're you gettin' at?"
Robert shivered. "I... I'm not sure. It's about... the ghost. And women. They're connected. The women had no options... 'cept maybe between a rice paddy or a whore house.... They did what they had to to survive. We did, too. What'd they have? Ass. To survive, they'd trade ass for whatever we had. It wasn't a trade for me. How would giving them anything help me survive? I took it whenever I wanted and gave nothing. They gave up what they had to get what they needed. Then, they'd trade again. Women got a renewable resource. If they got what they needed without trading they did it: lie, or cheat, or whatever. If that didn't work they got ass. We traded what they needed to get what we wanted. If we could get what we wanted without paying... lying, taking, whatever... well... that was Oh-Kay." Robert sucked air heavily. "I never paid. Never gave the damn slopes shit for anything. Never." Something pushed a gasp from him. The circling raptor flinched. Robert looked quickly over his shoulder.
"You're getting to the ghost part, right? I'm not following...."
"Okay," Robert inhaled warily. "Why do dogs lick themselves."
Matthew stifled a yawn. "The devil makes them do it." He said distortedly through his fingers.
"Shit. I'm trying to be serious here, asshole. Why do they?'
"I have no idea."
"Because they can. Dogs lick themselves because they can."
"And we can't, is that it?"
"No!" Robert exhaled loudly. "You don't get it. We did whatever, whenever, WHOever we wanted, because we could. No rules, no morals, no nothing. The Vietnamese did, too. We had everything they needed. When they could, they took it. What did they have? Women. They had nothing else we needed or wanted. Some guys paid. If they could get away with it, they didn't. I never did. It's a story as old as war." Satisfied that his point was made, Robert folded his arms.
"So, theft justifies rape?" A dagger twisted in Matthew's head. He pushed his palms into his eye sockets. "And you say I'm the asshole! What's all this got to do with a ghost? Gawd, my head hurts."
The bar was almost empty. Someone punched a country western tune up on the music box. A whining, done-wrong man roughed the air with a sandpaper voice. Robert shifted in his seat.
"So, what's my point?" Robert' tongue slipped over his lips. "Maybe I don't have one. Maybe you can tell me what it is. I've been looking for something since I got out. It's been years. I think lots of vets from any war come home empty and spend their lives looking for what they lost. Vietnamese took what they needed but didn't get what they wanted. We took what we wanted and didn't get what we needed. On both sides, some of us just took because we could. Like dogs licking ourselves."
Matthew shook his head. "Not me. I got shit. Except I came home. I had rules and I followed ‘em as best I could. I survived. That's all I needed or wanted." His left thumb dug his forehead. "War has rules. Even if it doesn't, I do. I left women alone."
"Humph!" Robert snorted in disbelief. "Rules? Shit. Combat has no fucking rules! Rules are only important when the shootin's done and some glory hunting journalist shows a picture of what happens in battle and then the public or the politicians get outraged when they see what they sent us to do. It's take or be taken. If there was a rule, that was it. There's no morality in it when bullets are in the air. Morality shows up on the six o'clock news. It doesn't exist in a fire-fight. That's how it is in any war. Helping some bastard die for his country is the only morality. When it came to women, I took ‘em when I could. Any woman, anytime. I was a dog, licking myself... and I liked it. Lots of us did. Better than ol' lady thumb and her four sisters doing a dance in your pants! Back in the world, we all have dreams about it, but no body talks about it. And civilians don't have a clue." A winged shadow crossed his forehead. He pushed it away. "Fuck 'em. If somebody didn't like it, we'd 'work it out'".
Matthew squinted, stared distantly and nodded slowly in understanding that Robert took as agreement. "Working it out" was intimidation: threat of lethal retaliation in absence of legal authority. "Fragging incidents", the death of Americans by Americans using fragmentary grenades, were only one way of working it out. Matthew's pulse hammered. His mouth was dry.
"Yeah. We'd work it out." Robert said flatly. "Very effective." He nodded, too. "I loved it. I'll never have any woman I want whenever I want again. I wish I could. Can't work it out here like we did there."
The image of a soldier's muzzle stroking the naked girl's body sliced into Matthew. He saw a younger Robert stand over, fire into and cut her. Outrage squeezed his migraine, blinding him. It's HIM! Robert worked things out then. Matthew would work it out now. The Presence positioned Herself. She had seen it before. This time it was retribution, not survival. Adrenaline flexed Matthew's arms and legs, reddened his face. His control almost gone, his thinking swirled like a flushed toilet. The girl lay cooling before him blending into the soil and he heard Robert yell, "I got one!" He focused on his target. There would be no escape. His eyes narrowed. He would be a bouncing Betty: merciless and deadly. Robert would never know what hit him. Like Gusty got his.
She intercepted and restrained him. His body quivered as if chilled and his eyes glazed. She felt him fight his impulse to act.
"No!" She ordered. "The context has changed. There are rules. Everything is changed. Inhale. Hold it. Exhale. Relax, let it go."
"I can't. Fuck context. It's him! IT'S HIM!"
"Yes. It's him. And others. Inhale. Hold it. Exhale. Let it go."
"I can't. I can't! Damn it!"
He looked up into the dark above the light, inhaled deeply and held it. His struggle betrayed only by an unseen twitching in the corner of his eye. He shoved a knuckle against it and rubbed. It didn't help. She soothed, molded, and seduced him. He exhaled.
"Inhale. Hold it. Exhale. Let it go."
He inhaled again and released it slowly.
Robert eyed him strangely and shifted in his seat. That's one mother of a headache, he thought. Give it time. It'll settle down.
Matthew sat breathing deeply, his face chiseled, his struggle not finished. Invisibly She caressed and comforted him. He stiffly reached for his empty beer bottle, white fingernails gripped it tightly as She dissolved his anger like ice in cold water. As his grip relaxed, his nails turned pink. His chest expanded, he released his lungs and exhaled again soundlessly. Moments passed. The man standing over the dead girl faded. "The-only-thing-I-wanted-to-work-out-was-to-go-home," he said rigidly, mechanically. He inhaled the to depth of his abdomen and exhaled extendedly. "Sometimes I feel I haven't made it yet. Maybe I never will. I still want to go home." His voice cracked and he tried to swallow. "We were tested. We're still tested when we don't expect it." Tension drained from him and color returned to his cheeks. His context stepped toward the present. She continued stroking him, still vigilant.
Robert nodded. "Good Thing. We might look crazier than we are."
Matthew silently agreed they were crazy. But Robert was crazier than he was. Fatigue replaced his cooling rage. His eyes drooped as he yawned. He turned slightly, to avoid looking at Robert. Finally, to no one, or any one, he said, "I knew a chopper jockey. ‘Swede', we called him. We'd sit in the shade, eat meat on a stick, and have a beer. He said over and over the war was wrong. Then, one day he disappeared. Maybe he finished his tour, or got hit. I don't know. "
Robert said nothing.
"'What goes around, comes around', he'd say. We're accountable. To whom, I don't know. To ourselves. To each other. To God. To I-don't-know-who." Matthew fell silent and took another deep breath.
Robert's eyes rolled. "What you talkin' about? You worry, you die. We did shit soldiers do. That's war. Nothing to be accountable for or guilty about. Can't change it."
Matthew looked at his coffee cup. His vision blurred. The girl lay in the dust clutching her fingers and toes, eyelids fluttering and muscles rippling her back. She wasn't his past or future. She was his on-going present. Some things don't change with context. He shook his head as it throbbed. He was accountable and wanted forgiveness. He needed it. From where would it come? Maybe it would remove his guilt, his shame. Maybe nothing would. "So, what about the ghost?" He asked tiredly.
"I'm getting there." Robert scanned the room suspiciously. "In boot camp we heard about the women. 'Shake you every which way but loose', they said." A lecherous twinkle flashed from his squinting eyes. "Whether they wanted to or not."
"Any woman. Anytime. It was better when they said, ‘No.'"
Despite Her vigilance, Matthew's rage resurfaced. Cold, Focused. It surprised Her.
Oblivious, Robert continued, "I want that again. Any woman, any time. What I want, how I want it and just that way. You want that, too."
"NO! Look around you! It was wrong then and it's wrong now."
"Hey! Who you trying to kid? We all got it whenever we wanted."
The twitch in Matthew's eye returned. Robert noticed it this time.
"That headache must be a son-ov-a-bitch." He said , clucking his tongue
"Jesus Christ! You're an asshole!" Matthew said ominously.
"Be calm," She whispered. "Context. He's stuck in time."
Matthew inhaled, held it and slowly let his breath go.
Startled, Robert started to speak, stopped and glared at Matthew. A glazed curtain behind his eyes closed.
Matthew took something from his pocket and held it between his hands. "I don't know what happened to you. But I know what happened to me. I got screwed. We all did. But you're messed up worse than me."
Robert exploded. "I'm what they made me! They wanted body count. They got it! They wanted wasted villages. I gave it to them! I had some fun on the side. So what? I delivered. What did I get? Nothing! So I took what I wanted. Nobody said shit. And it's a damn good thing that no journalist showed up. We'd have worked it out with him! The pentagon fucked us all: the Vietnamese, the Loatians, the Mung, the Cambodians, all of us at the same time! The brass were the dogs licking themselves!"
Robert stood and started pacing. His ranting gained momentum, repeating an argument he had had with himself many times. His barrage wouldn't stop until it ran its course. Matthew squeezed the bottle in front of him, witnessing and saying nothing.
"You see?" She said. "He's trapped. He cannot escape. Nothing can stop this in him. Only he. But he won't. This can be you...."
Matthew nodded, but his attention left Robert's monologue. She's right, he thought. But I‘m as much an asshole as Robert. I haven't been accountable. I can forgive, but not myself. Yeah, Robert's trapped. "I'm trapped, too", he told Her.
"Oh? How are you trapped?" Her question echoed in him.
Guilt was the knife that carved him. It cut him from people and intimacy. They required trust. He trusted no one. During the war one thing motivated him: home. Don't get hit. Stay alive. Get home. He craved healing and companionship and escape. Women couldn't provide them. Not until he found them in himself. But he was isolated. Once home, Susan was there: their marriage an impulsive mistake. She mothered him. It's what she knew. He needed a companion not a mother. She was no companion. She didn't know how. It required too much. Even in her presence he was alone and lonely. The survival skills learned in war were useless. He knew how to survive but not to live. People were dangerous. Despite errors, fatigue, ignorance, and fear, Matthew survived. Others died. For this he was guilty. Loneliness was the price of survival. Alive and alone was no life. Forgiving himself was the vindication he could not have.
"Forgiveness," he answered. "That's my trap. I cannot escape."
"Tell me. What can you not forgive?"
"I.... I'm alive. I survived. I cannot forgive myself that."
"Ahh...." She said, and fell silent.
Matthew's headache began to subside.
Lurps were always on the move. He numbly counted the days, each day was one and a wake up closer to home. Everything blended. He couldn't tell one village from another. A woven hedge of bamboo and thick brush surrounded an anonymous place in the free-fire zone. His mind visited a place with both French and Vietnamese names. He couldn't pronounce either of them. They just called it Crossroads because two roads, one going north-south and another going east-west intersected. All villages in the zone were considered V.C. Anything that moved was a target. Something in Crossroads moved. In a surprise assault the marines hit. Matthew wondered how it could be a surprise; choppers and tanks could be heard coming for miles. Charlie'd be either ready or gone. Matthew's Lurps swept in with first light. Their mission was to replace the Marines, assess damage, find out where Charlie had gone, and determine enemy assets. Swede's chopper dropped through a fog patch, over vacant rice paddies with scattered trays of abandoned sprouts. It was planting season, the paddies should be full of farmers. Black smoke rose from inside the perimeter. The marines were busy. Swede made the drop outside the hedge then rose to join the command chopper coordinating the mission from above.
"Hey!" A newbee shouted. "Paddies are empty. They know we're coming."
Of course they know, Matthew thought. They'd been bombed for hours. Then Marines hit them yesterday and again this morning. There'd be nothing left.
They rappelled from the choppers and ran from the drop zone. Matthew entered the village through an opening in the smoldering hedge made by an assault blast. Small arms crackled across the square. On his left, a small, white church, a French remnant, was almost invisible through a layer of mist. Intelligence reported heavy infiltration. The marines met intense resistance. Fighting was stiff until the second assault this morning, and then the enemy disengaged and melted away. Gotta be tunnels somewhere, Matthew thought. Damn V.C. dug like rabbits. Most of the huts were destroyed and burning. As the LRRPs moved in the marines began leaving, their choppers down and loading. Urine and gunsmoke odors blended, curling nostrils. Four bodies lay sloppily, draining fluids darkly into the sun-baked soil. Three N.V.A., North Vietnamese Army, one Marine. No wonder resistance was stubborn, Matthew noted, N.V.A. don't run like Charlie does. Blood trails and marks of wounded being dragged lead out of the village. There must more dead somewhere. It was hot. The flies were busy.
Swede, the other transports, and the command chopper hovered. A lieutenant's ear was glued to a hand held radio. He shoved his thumb upward at the choppers and yelled, "Major says when the marines are out, waste it. Nothing stands." He circled his arm, indicating the whole village. "Hold any Vietnamese for questioning. Anyone. Major wants to know where the N.V.A. are. And he wants his count. Drag the bodies over and count 'em up!" No matter that the marines probably had already counted.
How many live Vietnamese would be found when the Major wants count? None. Only the dead count. What's the difference between friendly and enemy bodies? "If it's dead and Vietnamese, it's V.C." No friendlies would be found.
The air warmed, the mist lifted and the white church emerged like an egg lain by a rising vaporous hen. Pocked with bullet and shrapnel craters, it was the only intact building left. Matthew heard the rustling of his squad as they cleared the area. Gasoline was splashed on bamboo structures and torched. They burned quickly, dense smoke rose straight up; its thick smell churned their nostrils. A klik to his right, short-burst rattles of M-16 fire ripped the air. There was no answer. In the church, he heard a woman's voice protesting. He could not understand the words but the tone was clear. She was pleading.
He stepped to the door. Guttural men's voices taunted and laughed. He pushed the door. It swung slowly casting light into the dark space. Three marines turned to face him. Behind them a Vietnamese woman, clutching torn black and white clothing, leaned against the wall between rows of rough wooden pews. A loose white undergarment covered her from the waist down. Rosary beads with a crucifix dangled over her rigid arms as they protectively crossed her chest. A golden Saint Christopher medal rose and fell in panic, dangling from a silken thread around her neck.
A marine, his pants crumpled over the raw wooden pew back, dressed only in a khaki colored tee-shirt was interrupted in stalking the woman between pews. She had no escape. The others were dressed, but one had loosened his belt, his pants sagging.
"Want some?" the nearly naked man, face painted green, jabbed his thumb toward the woman. "Charlie fucked with us all night, now we got one. We're interrogatin' 'er. Won't take long. You can interrogate 'er, too. You can't be first, but you can be next." He turned toward her, grabbed and wagged his partially erect penis. "I might go twice."
She shrank away from him and screamed, "Non!!" A flurry of French escaped her. She turned to Matthew. Her eyes asked, her face uncompromising.
Matthew did not understand the words. Her eyes implored him.
"You must." She said.
He held his M-16 loosely. "That's enough." He said. "She's a nun or something. I don't know what she's saying, but it's not Vietnamese." Four parallel fingernail scratches spoke angrily from her left shoulder across her chest. A raw welt lumped her right cheek, weeping scarlet. He spoke again. "Let her go. Your choppers are leaving. Find a whore. Intelligence will interrogate her. You do this, she won't tell us anything."
The man turned to Matthew. "Intelligence? Shit! She'll tell nobody nothing. I promise. The captain wants numbers." Lethal lust scarred his face. "A nun." He growled, "A virgin! Our lucky day. You want her for yourself ... now that she's softened up. I don't think so." He pointed his chin at the door, "You can stay or go, either way, we're getting what we're here for." He reached catlike toward his prey.
The woman screamed, "Non!" again, and agilely ducked his lunge.
"You must!" She commanded.
The burst of gunfire startled and held them motionless. Small holes of daylight appeared in the ceiling. "Son-ov-a-bitch!" Matthew's strained voice echoed in the small space. He pointed at the two waiting marines, and waved his weapon toward the door. "Get out of here before I do something stupid! Don't think, just go!"
"Fuck, man. You ain't gonna ....", one of them began to protest.
"OUT!" Matthew yelled. He squeezed another burst in the ceiling, dust and plaster shards falling like heavy snow littered the floor.
The two men bolted for the door.
"You!" Matthew pointed the M-16 at the near-naked Marine. "Leave your pants."
The Marine shifted his weight aggressively. "You muthahfug...."
Matthew's M-16's muzzle dropped, pointing at the soldier's bare, flaccid pelvis. "I'm no muthah of anything," his voice flat and dry. "Out! Now!" The muzzle circled slowly. "Make no mistakes."
"But my pants.... man! You can't send me out there with no pants?" The man's voice hardened, disbelieving. "What'll they say?"
"Tell 'em you donated 'em to a nunnery. I don't care. Move."
The Marine's eyes glinted. "We ain't done. You ain't getting' outta here." He said stonily. "You think about it."
"I'm here now. First you, then me. Move!"
"I'm going. But you ain't ... not by a long shot," he said ominously. The Marine pulled his arms inside his tee-shirt, thrust them through the neck and then stretched the shirt neck opening down to his waist, where it hung like a sweat-stained, dirty-green cotton skirt with little arms at his hips. He turned and walked deliberately to the door. "In your ass, man!" He yelled, flipping his middle finger over his shoulder as he passed through the door.
"Right, but I'm not following him."
Matthew moved to a window and watched the tee-shirt skirt scurry across the street. A rustling returned his attention to the pew. With her back to him, the woman adjusted her clothes. She turned toward him as she shrugged the fabric around her shoulders. Her clothing was torn and the crucifix was in place. Dabbing at her raw cheek, she turned and stopped abruptly. She looked up noticing him watching her and a flash of fear returned to her face. Matthew did not move. He nodded quickly. She brought her hands together, brought them to her forehead, and bowed. "Merci, Monsieur. Merci," she said.
"Mercy? I won't hurt you." He pointed at the door, "I'm sorry." He waited for her to look at him. He pointed to her and circled his hand, face questioning, "You okay?"
Her hands in the prayer position, she nodded slowly. "Oui. Ne pas rien." She looked out the door and spat forcefully. Then said, again, "Merci, Monsieur." Trembling, she grasped his hand, her grip firm. "Vous ne parlez pas la francais. Je sais." She released him and said, "Allons." She pointed to a portal in the back of the Church and tugged his shirt. "Nous allons."
"Right. They might be back. You go." He pointed to the portal. "Me, there," pointing to the door he entered.
Her eyes followed his point and nodded tentatively. Turning to go, she stopped, reached behind her neck, pulled the Saint Christopher medal over her head, and pressed it into his hand. "Merci, monsieur." She made the sign of the cross and said something he did not understand. She scurried to the exit, opened it narrowly, and slipped out.
He said nothing as she left. He gripped the medal, stepped to the door, pushed it, then impulsively hesitated before stepping out. Bullets hammered the door and frame. He rolled back against the plaster wall, as the cadence of an M-16 reached him from across the street.
"Charlie's in the church! In the church!" The hysterical scream was followed by a long burst spraying the door and windows. "Get the bastards!"
He ran to the nun's exit, opened it, and feinted to draw fire. None came. He dove through, circled the church and ran behind the burning hedge. As he ran, grenades exploded in the church, in minutes it was burning. Moments later he heard the marine choppers rising as the last of them left. He didn't report the incident. His only proof was the little golden gift.
He never saw the girl again and wondered what became of her. He carried her medal, now pressed between his palms. From it a calming something flowed.
Robert's ranting had continued and was exhausting itself. Robert stopped pacing and finally sat again. Neither man spoke. They sat motionless, staring vacantly at a vague spot between them in the center of the table as if waiting for it to move. After several moments Matthew extended his wrist and looked at his watch. He shook his head slightly. He had nothing to say and was ready to go. More than ready.
Robert leaned forward searchingly. He looked quickly around as if he might be over heard, or as a man at a bus stop anticipating his overdue ride. He shrugged almost apologetically said. "Sometimes I get carried away." He waved his arms as if sweeping his outburst away. "No offense. I'm leading up to something. I have been all night." Squinting, he hesitated, pulled his lips back from his teeth, and whispered, "You ever meet 'The Woman'? I'm not talking about 'A woman'. I mean 'The Woman'."
The listener in Matthew jumped as if startled.
Robert leaned back folding his arms across his chest. The raptor watched expectantly.
Matthew had decided to go home. Robert's tantrum told him that the night was over. He was disturbed. The lonely sofa had become a better alternative.
"I'm serious. Have you?"
Matthew blinked. "The Woman...?" There must be more. "That's it? Just, 'The Woman'?" Her image wandered the periphery of his mind's eye. Maybe. Is She what Robert means? Of course She is. He said we have ghosts. Is that it? How could he know? She's a fantasy, his fantasy, not real.
Robert watched as Matthew processed the question. He saw Matthew's shadow move behind his eyes and felt his own shift in response. I was right, Robert said to himself. He knows. The raptor in him focused. The morsel was there. "Wait. Tell me this. Who, or what, do I mean by 'The Woman'?"
"Well, it's hard to say." Matthew laughed nervously. Concealing the medal in his left hand, he scratched an imaginary itch on his cheek with his right. "I could go two ways. No, I don't know what you mean. What woman?"
Robert leaned customarily on his elbows as if sharing a confidence. "You know." He whispered. "I know you do. Maybe She's not someone you met personally. But, you know. You have two answers. What's the second?"
Matthew stopped scratching. "Well, I didn't know if you mean a specific woman." The inner sanctum cracked, a narrow light split the darkness. The presence moved close to the light, encouraging him. The throbbing in his head continued subsiding. "But when you asked, an image came to me. Female. Not sexual, but sensuous. Is it this 'Woman'? Is that what you mean?"
"Possible." Robert's squinting eyes became slits. "What's She look like?"
"I don't know." Matthew said, almost inaudibly. "Never described Her. She's always there. Never talk about it... Her. It's private... y'know?" He gazed into his cup and willing an image to form. "She's... feminine. Strong. Beautiful. Sometimes big boned and powerful." An image like Susan's appeared and then faded. "Sometimes small, delicate and vulnerable." A slender, diminutive figure fleeing an exploding church brushed his memory. "Sometimes something else. Compassionate, patient and ... forgiving. She knows what I need even when I don't. Sometimes she pushes me, or helps me." He paused, "Never had a woman like that. Not Susan. Not anybody." He looked distantly, somewhere behind Robert. "I have dreams... about Nam... combat... The shit, y'know? They just happen anytime, day or night. I get headaches. Like an ice pick, here." He tapped his forehead above his left eye. "She helps make them go away. She's spiritual, kinda like..." He smiled wryly.
"Yeah." Robert nodded slowly. "That's Her, but She's different for me: the ghost that's always there. She knows what you need, how you need it and gives it to you ... but maybe not your way. Hello Fats Waller. We've come full circle. What's Her face like?"
Matthew bit his lip, still staring into his coffee waiting for a face to focus. It didn't. Shaking his head he said, "Her face? Don't know. I have an impression but no description. No eye color. No hair style, except it seems mostly long and down." He glanced at Robert. "She seems like women in my life, not girlfriends. Just women. Like Susan. Or someone else. She's all of them. No race or color. Race isn't it. Femininity is. She doesn't talk. Communication happens, I don't know how." His eyebrows knitted and he titled his head. "I can't say if She's clothed or not. It doesn't seem like She's wearing a stitch, but She's not naked. She might wear something like this around her neck."
Matthew opened the hand that held the medal. It swung lightly by a thin chain from his extended fingers. "I got it in Nam. During a fire fight. From a Vietnamese nun. I don't know how but it helps me when I'm, well, in trouble. It saved my life once. Maybe more than once. I'm not Catholic, but it's like She brings protection and healing through this."
Robert looked at the medal suspiciously. This was not the morsel the raptor expected.
"Sometimes I wear it. Mostly I just carry it. Susan's seen it, but has no idea where it's from or what it's about. Somehow it's connected to Her... the ghost woman, whatever you call Her." He leaned back in his chair. "And you? You have dreams about Her?"
Slowly Robert nodded. "All the time... I don't want to, but I do. Can't help it. Can't stop it." His already chiseled features narrowed and his eyes sank deeper into his face. "She's every women I've known... from Asia, from here... Women I... I took. She's them all, and none of them. She's the one thing that scares hell out of me. At first, She was like a private dream. A fantasy. I enjoyed Her. Through Her I'd relive my... uh, experiences. Didn't think anyone else had a clue about Her.
"Then, the topic of 'The Fantasy Woman' started coming up. Now, I'm not sure She's a fantasy. She started out that way, then she... changed..." His voice dropped. "The rage... The nightmares... started. It's... why I wanted to ask... bring it up. I hoped you'd know something. She's 'The Woman' that Vets talk about... but for me She's different. At a Vets group?" His voice questioned and he waited for Matthew's nod.
Matthew rocked slightly, affirmatively, listening. "Yeah?"
The bar was empty now. The bartender was setting chairs on tabletops. Still Robert spoke as if he didn't want to be overheard. "Well, that night a bunch of us talked late. Finally we were all talked out and we're just sitting there. Then, this guy asks, 'Have you met the woman?' He wasn't asking anyone in particular, he just asks it out. No one says squat. Then he says, 'If you have, whom did you meet?' He threw it out quiet like. Still no answer. The room got dead still... it wasn't just me... we all had this premonition of a... 'Female Presence'. I knew who he meant. Who She was. Before that I enjoyed her. She's always there. But now .. She haunts me... whenever I sleep. I can't explain it. She doesn't appear for everyone, just some. Especially vets. You're a vet. That's why I thought you... you might know something." His gaze focused on Matthew. "Does this make sense?"
Matthew shrugged. "I don't know. I'm no shrink."
"Good thing, too." Robert hawked and swallowed. "They say you're crazy if you talk about this shit. And crazy if you don't. If you do, it's delusions, or hearing voices, or seeing ghosts. If you don't talk about it, they say you're 'not dealing with it'. Either way, they give you pills and send you to therapy. Fuck 'em. I don't know what this Woman thing is. But She's real! I don't care what shrinks say."
Matthew looked up from the unfocused reflections wiggling in his cup. "Yeah, but it's not just the shrinks," he said without conviction. "If I explained this, say, to my wife... She'd never get it. She'd think what the shrinks think. But she'd follow my Saint Christopher medal story. It really happened, not a fantasy like "the Woman"... It might as well be fantasy. It's like a sacred moment. A secret. Maybe it's a delusion. If I didn't remember it, no one would know. Like it never happened ... But it seems different than this Woman thing you're talking about."
"Hmmmm... " Robert mumbled. "We have secrets. I do. You do. Can't help it." He looked up, then down again. "Tell me this..."
Robert swallowed and his Adams apple bounced. "The Woman ever get violent? You know... pissed-off?" The raptor began circling. The morsel had to move now.
"Violent? How?.... How does a fantasy get violent, Bob?"
Beads of greasy sweat dotted Robert's face. Like the oozing combat sweat at times of fear. "Dreams." Robert's whispering voice was almost inaudible. "She haunts me. Day and night. Nights are worse. She forces me to relive.... I smell smells, hear sounds, feel.... everything. Except, it's reverse... She does to me, what I did.... I can't sleep. She sticks it to me... You'd have to know... It's revenge..... Know what I mean." His whisper carried across the table heavily.
"It's possible, I..."
Robert's tone hardened, desperately, "She's why I don't sleep. I can't. My dreams are... horrible! I can't go to bed... can't sleep. Like now. I walk point everyday tripping wires. She ambushes me. She's a vulture circling, waiting.... I'll be sleeping, or sitting quietly... Then She sticks it to me. I feel it! I know how it sounds, but I'm not crazy! The Bitch does me!" Robert shivered, eyes glazed and blood shot, "You give Her a name?"
Matthew leaned back. I was right, Robert is crazy.
"A name? No. She's not real, Bob. When I dream about Her... She's helping me. Or maybe it's a part of myself trying to heal me. She ever say anything to you?"
"Say anything? Shit. She's a ghost! How could She fucking say anything?" Robert rolled his eyes. If Matt's hearing voices he's in worse shape than me. "She's got you by the balls just like me. Maybe worse." Robert said through his teeth. "I call Her 'Banshee'." His coffee gone, he daintily pealed back his shirt cuff and looked at his watch. Matthew noticed his fingers shaking. Robert plucked his coat from the back of his chair, stretched, looked over his shoulder and shuttered. "This is bullshit. I gotta go. I'll grab a bite and go to work." He paused, sat up straight and shivered again.
Matthew saw the shutter. "Are you all right?" He stifled a yawn.
"Yeah. It's nothin'." The corners of Robert's mouth spread, showing teeth, but it wasn't a smile. He slung his coat over his shoulder. "See ya 'round."
"Don't have far to go. I'm walking. It'll keep me awake." Robert stood, walked to the doorway and stopped abruptly. His skeletal fingers brought a cigarette to his lips. His thumb flipped his Zippo. A small burst of flame lit his face. Matthew saw a movement in Robert's eyes, as if the sudden light startled something. A subtle feminine silhouette behind a thin silk curtain, crossed Robert's face, and then faded as he blew the flame out in a puff of smoke. Robert's head did not move but his eyes turned, seeming to follow the shadow. Hissing his drag through his teeth, his lungs held it tightly and then exhaled in a long blue stream. Then, squinting, he looked up and down the street, turned up his collar, bunched his shoulders and, like thin cigarette vapor, slipped into the night.
"What's his question?" She asked voicelessly.
Matthew shaped an answer. "He asked, 'Have I met The Woman?'"
"No. Those were his words, not his question. People often use words to hide their real question."
"Hey Mac!" The bartender called. "Closing up. Gotta go."
"Coming." Called Matthew as he stood.
"What's his question?" She asked again.
Matthew held his medal up and studied it. It was European, made of gold and intricate. When new it was probably a work of art, but now it showed signs of wear. Previously crisp edges and detail of crafted gold were worn into each other. A strategically placed ruby represented a torch held by a walking figure carrying a child: Saint Christopher. Where'd a Vietnamese nun get it? He would never know. She was Catholic. Catholics can get Saint Christophers anywhere.
"It was about a 'Woman'. Was he asking about you?"
"Look around you, Matthew. Is there a Woman here?"
"Let's go!" The bartender stood at the door. "Don't wanna be locked in, do ya?"
"Coming." Matthew put the medal in his shirt pocket, patting it against his chest.
"It was about himself, wasn't it?" Matthew thought.
"And his question?"
"He's lost. Can't find himself and doesn't know who he is. He's his own worst enemy. His question is, 'Who am I? Or maybe, ‘Why am I?"
Somewhere in the silence Matthew heard a giggle. He smiled.
"Only one person can answer something like that."
He pulled the last beer from the half rack, dropped it in his overcoat pocket and tipped the last drops of his stale coffee into his mouth. He winced, "Damn that's terrible." He threw a couple of bucks on the table, turned and left. His headache had vanished.
She sighed softly and, as She had with the men that left earlier, departed with him.
Causes Jon Deisher Supports
Rotary International, Alzheimer's Association, Alaska Blood Bank