issue thirty-two

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(2190 words)
Frank Richards
The Equal Temper of Heroic Hearts

1. Kowtow or Genuflect?

Deplaning at McChord Air Force Base, you fell in line behind the others. The men ahead of you descended the rolling steel stairway, stopped, knelt, some on one knee, others on both, some alone, others in small groups, and then bent over and kissed the tarmac. As you passed her, the stewardess at the top of the stairway softly laughed. "They always do that," she said. You won't, you thought. Even so, when you made it to the bottom of the stairway and your turn came, you did the same, bending down, touching your lips to the stony, gritty surface. You didn't want to violate the ritual, the solemn khaki procession, the genuflection, the realization of home. You were back in the world. The world that was suspended in your mind for a single tour, a single year. You'd been away from the world, but now you were back.

2. Steak Dinner (with mushrooms)

You were bussed to Fort Lewis, Washington, to wait for processing out of the Army. It was the same place from which you had departed the year before. There wasn't anything to do but wait. You were supposed to process out sometime; this afternoon, this evening, tomorrow. No one knew, but everyone cared. You felt the anxiety of being so close to the end of it. The stress made you jumpy.

Now they had such a thing as a steak dinner for veterans returning from combat zones overseas. Although most of the others skipped it, you couldn't sleep, couldn't stand waiting any longer, so you decided to avail yourself. The impassive-faced server was the first to look through you without seeing you. You asked for rare. Dressed in white chef's toque and white T-shirt, he went through the motions, using tongs to select one steak, turn it over, and select another, and do the same thing, casually, as if searching the pile of cooked meat for a rare steak when he no doubt knew full well none of the steaks were rare. That was the Army: they always pretended you were being given a choice when there never was any choice. But there were mushrooms, so that was something.

Returning from the mess hall, you passed two young privates dressed out in new jungle fatigues. Why were they laughing? Did they know they were leaving the world?

You slept through the lectures, mostly. The processing took three hours, and it was nighttime before it was over. They paid you for unused leave. You were loaded on a green Army bus for Seattle-Tacoma Airport. When the bus drove out the main gate, you thought you were free.

3. The Twilight of the Age of Aquarius

When something banged against the window near your ear, you ducked for cover. A hairy hippie, huge face pressed against the window, pounded on the glass and called you "baby killer." Although you didn't know it yet, that hippie would be the last person to look you in the eye. He must have been an advance scout. A whole tribe of hippies was sitting around a bonfire just beyond the main gate, out of the reach of military jurisdiction. The other hippies rose as one, left their bonfire, and mobbed the right flank of the bus. You felt it shake, side to side, as they pushed on it. Up front, the driver cursed, grinding the bus's gears as he shifted into first and lurched the bus forward, slowly, trying to escape without injuring anyone, you supposed. The man in front of you took off his dress green Army coat, opened his window, and stuffed the coat out. Others began to do the same. Apparently appeased by the sacrifice, the hippies descended on the coats in a frenzy. The toll was paid. You watched your hippie try one on for size. You wondered how long it had taken him to grow his hair that long.

4. Invisible Man

After you got to your mother's home, you discovered your superpower. Still in uniform, you went to the market to buy cigarettes. A cloud of gloom seemed to spread out before you as you walked; people spotted you and looked quickly away. When you got to the checkout and the woman took your money and made change without looking at you, you realized you had the power of invisibility.

5. Uncle Sam Ain't Released Me Yet

After you'd spent a few days recovering, your mother asked, "Well, what are you going to do now? For work?"

Her owlish, pink-framed glasses looked out from under gray bangs, matching her pink gingham dress. She'd moved into the trailer after your dad died. She called it her "mobile home." It squatted at the outskirts of a "mobile home park." Most people called the park a tornado magnet.

You liked the physicality of loading and unloading trucks, checking stock in, sweeping up, putting everything neatly in its proper place. "Go back to the warehouse, I guess."

She explained to you that the warehouse had burned down. "They said it was electrical, but…" She did not finish her sentence. "They were going broke, so, everybody figured…" She shrugged. "The insurance. You know. Why do you keep wearing that old jacket?"

Even though you vowed never to wear olive drab again, you had taken to wearing your field jacket all the time. Its proper fit provided some comfort in the unknown world. So you pointed to each letter of the "U.S. Army" patch embroidered over the right pocket in turn, but she did not get it.

"I guess I'll go to school. They were saying at Fort Lewis something about going to school, and they would pay for it."

6. The Nod

You learned the only people who could really see you were other veterans. You noticed them here and there, but they concentrated in certain parts of town. Some went to computer classes with you. Some begged for change in the median strip on the boulevard, holding little hand-lettered cardboard signs in one hand, while the other shook a cup for spare change. Several hung out around the donut shop, or down by the creek. Most wore some article of olive drab. Whether they did or not, they would always look you in the eye, pause for a moment, assessing you, and then give that little dip of the chin, that nod of recognition. It formed a bond between the two of you. You would give a little nod in return.

7. Vocation

You finished the computer programming school, but the promised prospective jobs did not materialize. When your mother died, you sold the trailer, gave the money to veterans you met, and went to live under the interstate overpass down by Roxford Street. You assembled a sturdy shelter out of old cardboard boxes. You felt like Robinson Crusoe. You thought it was a safe place there, protected under a good seven feet of concrete.

Every day you walked along Foothill Boulevard and then over to Sombrero Canyon. One day you came across an overflowing trash can, so you bought trash bags and picked it all up. You thought somebody ought to. You got an old rusted-out, three-wheeled shopping cart from down by the Thriftymart and used it to ferry the trash bags up to town and to the big Dumpster behind the donut shop. No one saw you. From then on, you carried large green plastic bags in your field jacket pocket, and when you found trash, you picked it up. Eventually you began to search out litter, and this became your true vocation. Johnny Ecoseed. That was you. You could not save the world, only a piece of it. This piece. Every day you walked your route. You drove a nail into the end of a stick so you could pick up paper waste without bending over, invisible to others in your work.

You picked up scraps from national newspapers and pages from the LA Times, the Mission College newspaper, or the throwaway Penny Savers; empty cigarette packs and ice-cream cartons, bottles and bottlecaps, beer and cola cans, cardboard boxes and empty fast-food bags from McDonald's or the donut shop.

You noticed the composition of the trash changed over the years, evolving with the times. For a while, ring tops from aluminum cans were popular, but you were glad when someone invented cans where the top stayed on permanently. Discarded cans were much easier to pick up, and you could trade them for cash, if you gathered enough of them.

You grew content with your new job. Your hair grew as long as the hippie's hair; eventually, with the years, it turned salt and pepper, and then all gray. Then a lot of it simply disappeared from the top.

8. They Carried Their Stories Like Open Wounds

Every veteran had a time to tell their story, the story not told to loved ones, the story only those who had stories of their own would come to understand. Usually it came at night, and usually drinking was involved. Although the stories differed in detail, they were fundamentally the same: the story of death, the story of heartache, and the story of loss.

You listened, you gave the nod. You held them when they cried.

Whenever a car backfired or helicopter flew over, with its chop chop chop sound, you would duck or take cover, and the others did the same, and then you would laugh when you realized what you had done. Some did not laugh though.

9. At the Burn Barrel

In early autumn, when the days began to grow colder, most of your fellows sought indoor shelter, and you were left alone. You liked to start up a fire in the burn barrel and warm your hands before starting your route. One day, an elderly Vietnamese man, smiling a wizened smile and wearing a field jacket several sizes too large for him, came down the path from the donut shop. You had realized the man was Vietnamese even before he said anything. He must have had the power to see you, because, as he held his hands out over the fire, he began to speak.

"I'm from Melbourne," he said.

You didn't know they had Vietnamese people in Australia.

"We were boat people." Then he pointed. "That's my wife."

A female version of the man strode down the trail toward them. "I've been looking all over for you," she said. "Why are you talking to that old tramp?" she asked, not looking at you.

10. Atrocities in Black and White

The next day the old man in the big field jacket returned. He had decided to tell his story. It wasn't what you expected. You thought he was older than you, but he must have been younger. As a child, he had almost been killed along with the rest of his family. He'd survived the My Lai massacre by hiding in a ditch under the bodies of the dead. When he'd grown older, he'd been drafted into the South Vietnamese army to fight. Then, when the country had at last been unified, he'd been sent to a reeducation camp and tortured in mysteriously painful ways.

When he finished telling his story, the man pulled a bottle of Johnnie Walker out of his coat pocket and handed it to you. You drank from it and passed it back. He took a long swig. His breath said this was not his first of the day. Then he took off his field jacket. The old man looked you in the eye and placed it in the fire. The flames circled in from the sleeves and consumed the jacket, turning it to smoke that drifted up from the barrel.

Then he gave you the nod, and you understood, so you burned your jacket. More black smoke swirled upward like a whirlwind. Nothing remained but ashes.

11. A Prayer in Common Sulphur

You exchanged the nod with the Vietnamese veteran, picked up your stick, and walked toward the park and the river. The trees were beginning to lose their leaves. The river ran somber in gray.

You stopped short when you saw a raw, open yellow scar running down the side of the little creek that cut through the park. Someone must have come at night and dumped a chemical, maybe sulphur, or maybe buckets of florescent yellow paint along the creek. You'd have to get some rags to soak up what you could. Maybe you could get some help from the people at the donut shop. With a sick heart, you worked your way down to the side of the creek.

You knelt and extended a finger to touch the chemical, hoping it might not yet be dry.

It exploded in your face.

Thousands of yellow butterflies rose in a tornado, swirling around you, encircling you, engulfing you in the muffled whispers of their wings. They brushed your face, softly kissed your lips, and flew, fluttering, exulting, yellow, all in yellow, while you laughed and reached up to the sky.


M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, Frank Richards. All rights reserved.