by Michael Ryerson
She would never say where she came from
Yesterday don’t matter if it’s gone
While the sun is bright
Or in the darkest night
No one knows
She comes and goes
Keith Richards, Ruby Tuesday
The big car floating in near silence on a wide, empty road, the rearview mirror dark, the boy asleep in the back, his outline sharp, angular, the woman asleep, her face relaxed, beautiful. It is the summer before college. He still sleeps as a child sleeps, peaceful and unhurried, but his childhood has passed. The little boy is gone.
The road runs south, a broad expanse of white concrete, four lanes, pristine, cut with tiny grooves to ensure traction in bad weather, the tires sing a faint E-flat. Eight miles out we make a wide, gradual turn to the left and run toward the black, eastern horizon.
I hear a familiar voice and ease the volume up, Diana Ross mewing, her feline voice that sensuous mix of pubescent neediness and promise… OoooooOooOooOooooo, Baby love, my baby love, I need you, oh how I need you…
Two guys changing a flat tire on the side of the highway. They look as though they’ve done this before. They seem to have everything under control. I watch them in the rearview mirror.
But all you do is treat me bad, break my heart and leave me sad,
When I got back, I’d go out at night and drive for hours. Most nights I’d sleep in my car. I’d go up the coast to Santa Barbara and turn around and come back. One night I went all the way to San Luis Obispo. Sometimes I’d pick out a street, Western or Washington or Atlantic Boulevard and just drive the whole goddamn thing, one end to the other. I didn’t know what I was doing but it made me feel better and for a few hours nobody knew where I was. That was a funny part of it, it felt good somehow that no one knew where I was. Sometimes I’d glance in the rearview mirror and see an intersection through which I’d just driven, and I couldn’t remember driving through it. I couldn’t remember a lot of things in those days. You know, you can drive across the city and not think about it…or at least that’s the feeling you get. Maybe you’re just thinking so effortlessly that it seems like you’re not thinking. You get into a rhythm and the traffic lights and the other cars kind of recede somehow and they’re just there and you’re dealing with them and no longer thinking about them. I could see the road string out, things slow down, I could pick out the dates on some of the bridges, wonder when the asphalt went down or the curbs went in. I could watch the buildings change from one neighborhood to the next, the age of them, the brick and the cracked sidewalks, the fire escapes, the narrow alleys, the glass and chrome, the wide boulevards, the big houses, the grass, the manicured parkways. I could see it all. Just keep moving.
tell me, what did I do wrong…to make you stay away so long,
The crescent of lighted road rushing forward is inexhaustible, the landscape passing unseen, the low whisper of the engine and the wind…
For a long time, I had this feeling they were coming for me. Weird, I know. Sometimes I felt as though the feeling would eat me alive. It didn’t matter how far I’d drive, the dread would overtake me. I usually slept in my car or on somebody’s couch, wherever I happened to be. I couldn’t shake the feeling that when you sleep in the same place, they can find you. I know that’s crazy but that is the exact feeling. I don’t have that feeling so much anymore. Maybe I got over it. Maybe I learned how to live with it. Maybe I’m just resigned to it now, I don’t know. Some things you can’t change, you can’t change what’s coming. There’s nothing I can do about it.
Baez singing in the night…, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…
In the early days, I guess it was the church music and the singing, Mrs. Bradley with her short thick fingers and great forearms, hair marcelled into a tight brown helmet, glancing at the pastor, turning her head left and right, finding the keys and pounding away at the keyboard, striking every note with the same hammer-like precision completely without modulation, playing as loudly as she could, trying, it seemed, to drown out the congregation. And my father, never glancing at the hymnal, singing in a careful tenor from memory.
And grace will lead us home…
grace will lead us home
In the first grade, there was Mrs. Stevens gently cradling and strumming an auto-harp, our bird voices raised and holding long notes while she searched furtively for the next combination of buttons to press and taking so long that the melody was lost in the interim.
But then, in second grade, there was Mrs. Brandt, so slim and small with her big eyes and gentle voice, simply sitting down at our upright piano and noodling around and joking with us and making us laugh and then, without fanfare, bringing forth Mozart with absolute assurance, completely in command and smiling all the while and looking around at us to see if we were listening and of course we were transfixed… so many notes, so close together and so quickly played that it made us giggle with delight. And in the hallway, other teachers brought their classes to stand and listen but we got to sit on the rug in the room with her and with that music.
I rest my hands on the wheel lightly, the big white car driving itself. Somewhere a DJ sits and serves up the voices of dead men…the syrup-sweet voice…Don’t know much about history, don’t know much biology,…
The late, great Sam Cooke, half naked, wearing one shoe, shot to death in a motel down on South Central…’Lady, you shot me,’ his last words…I wonder if she noticed his voice…
The Morning Man comes on, a thick, rich basso profundo, a perfect pitchman for the siding he sells, for the bank he believes in, for the car dealer who’ll give me a square deal. He tells me the time, I glance involuntarily at the dashboard clock, he tells me the weather, no surprises, and slides effortlessly into some Brian Wilson magic…simple melody, complex harmonies, sneaky smart lyrics, the tempo measured, insistent…
Well, east coast girls are hip,
I really dig those styles they wear,
and the southern girls with the way they talk,
they knock me out when I’m down there…
I was 12 or 13 when my father taught my mother to drive, preparing even then, I think, for their separation and divorce, although they didn’t know it yet…
The mid-west farmer’s daughters
really make you feel alright…
They would go out in the evenings and I could see they were kind of resigned to it and come back an hour later, sometimes mad…
And the northern girls with the way they kiss,
They keep their boyfriends warm at night…
[…Dennis on drums here, a nice little tempo bridge…]
Later that year, he sold our Plymouth Belvedere, the first and only brand new car he would ever own, and bought two little French cars, with tiny engines; his white, hers egg shell blue. And for a long time, she was too frightened to drive on the freeway or any busy street for that matter, but finally worked up her courage and in the summer, took us through Topanga Canyon and up the coast highway to Malibu, just a quiet beach in those days, where we could rent idle surfboards from the surfers reclining there, for 50 cents an hour and she would lay on a blanket and read her paperback, while we tried to find the sweet spot of the waves. Of course, the surfboards were only idle when there were no real waves to speak of and the surfers were amused that we’d give them money when the surf was basically flat. We didn’t care, we were in the water and standing up and that was enough. When the waves were bigger, we’d have to stand and watch, hoping to see how it was done and maybe sneak a peek at the long legged girls who were also standing and watching…
I wish they all could be California,
I wish they all could be California,
I wish they all could be California girrrls…
In the night, I could hear their voices, low and insistent, negotiating, pleading, yielding, muted, far away. I couldn’t hear the words and I pretended not to know what they were talking about but, in my stomach, I knew. Kids always know. To a kid things are supposed to work out one, specific way and they know when that ain’t gonna happen. It feels like standing on the edge of a cliff with your eyes closed. I started sneaking out at night and sleeping under the elm tree. In the dark, I could find a sleeping bag in the rafters of the garage and spread it out on the lawn and look at the stars and their voices couldn’t reach the elm tree. I slept in the back yard for the whole summer. Finally he moved away.
Carl Jackson moved onto our block that winter and we ripped out the backseat of his ‘53 Ford so we could stuff surfboards through the trunk and I gave Gordy Munoz twenty dollars for an eleven foot Hobie that his sister had bought and used once and, for an extra five bucks, he threw in an old blue board he had stuck in the rafters of his garage that he swore was a Gordon&Smith but didn’t have any logo on it and no one could remember where it came from.
It was the year Carol Watanabi was killed, walking her bike across Saticoy, by a young mother driving too fast, who was maybe distracted by the kids in her car or the late afternoon sun or something. And a few days later Jimmy Gessner and I rode our bikes down to see where it happened but there wasn’t anything to see really, except maybe the gouge marks on the asphalt where her bike went up under the car. I wonder if that lady ever saw her. I wonder what it sounded like when she hit her. I wonder if she’ll ever forget that sound.
We started driving ourselves to the beach, scraping together two dollars for gas and carrying a little square of hard paraffin wax in the hip pocket of cut-off Levis. And some older guy at Malibu punched Carl out, split his lip and chipped a tooth. That was the year we stopped being those kids who paid to ride someone else’s board and suddenly became ‘those ass-holes from the Valley.’
I allow the car drift out to the left lane, two tons of Swedish engineering running across the alluvial plain, the wind noise faint, the boards on the roof whispering, the big Michelins humming at 70 miles an hour, the road looming up, sweeping under the car and receding in the rearview mirror. We lose two lanes, the white concrete disappears, we get asphalt, the Michelins go quiet..a flash of lightning on the southern horizon. ‘Scattered thunderstorms,’ the Morning Man says, ‘scattered and then clearing’ …scattered and then clearing…
…lightning on the southern horizon…
The road swings right in a lazy arc, the ramp tilted to accept the centrifugal embrace of the tires, we rise up and lean over and gently come back level, return to the plain, heading south now, through the salt marshes and stands of soft pine…the thunder-heads flashing in the far distance…Fogarty is singing…an anthem maybe..a smoky wail….
Don’t go around tonight,
Well, it’s bound to take your life…
There’s a bad moon on the rise…
I hear hurricanes a-blowing
I know the end is coming soon…
I fear rivers over flowing…
I hear the voice of wreckage and ruin…
…voice of wreckage and ruin…The big white car is floating in space now…wreckage and ruin…somebody kicks my foot and I hear a voice say, ‘It’s four,’ I roll over, blinking and look up at Rod’s silhouette against the stars and he says, ‘It’s four o’clock.’
‘Okay,’ I answer and sit up slowly.
He kneels down, ‘How are your feet?’
‘Are they bleeding again?’
‘I don’t know, I don’t think so. Maybe.’
I look around. Two hundred guys sleeping on the ground, a couple of guys sitting up. The airstrip a dark hump, silent. Far over to the left somebody’s taking a leak. I smell cigarette smoke. I hear somebody hock and spit.
‘They don’t have maps,’ he says.
‘What?’ I say, squinting, trying to see his face.
‘They don’t have any maps, they say we’ll get them when we get down there.’
‘No, really. I talked to the Lieutenant and the Captain was standing right there’
…voice of wreckage and ruin…
I try to get my mind around this…we’re flying into a probably hot LZ and we don’t have a goddam set of maps? What the fuck can these guys be thinking? I stand up and have to catch my balance, my feet burning…
’Where you going?’ Rod whispers.
’I’m going over to regiment, I know somebody who might have some maps, then I’m going down to battalion, somebody’s got to be sitting on some maps.’
I pull on my flak jacket, swing my bag onto my shoulder and pick up my rifle, about fifty yards down, I stop and piss into a ditch.
…bound to take your life…
Rod catches up, with Dave and Ernie right behind him, and we start down the road to regiment. A battery north of the river, Kilo I think, opens up. We all stop and look across the river into the dark. Six 8-inch howitzers in near unison, the battery report a deep thunder followed by the hiss of the departing rounds, whuwhumwhuwhump…. …ssssssssssssssssssss, twelve hundred pounds of high explosives headed for North Vietnam. Good Morning, Fuckers. Rod lights a cigarette and Kilo goes again, whuwhumwhuwhump …sssssssssssssssss …more lovely parting gifts…more body parts…
…wreckage and ruin…
Hope you got your things together.
Hope you are quite prepared to die.
Looks like we’re in for nasty weather.
One eye is taken for an eye.
So this captain has really, really light blue eyes and I have to look at him twice to be sure he can even see me and he looks edgy. He glances at my binocular case and he knows why we’re here and he’s going to stonewall us…I can see it, his hands are fluttering. This fucker has to know how stupid this is, I wonder how long he’s been here, his boots look almost new but maybe he wore a pair out, his hands look soft and he’s got no tan but maybe he doesn’t tan…his eyes tell me to be careful…I think he’s been here about a month…
’No maps, Sergeant, none, they’ve all been pulled, they’re already down there.’
He’s trying for that ‘command presence’ thing, trying to intimidate us but his hands give him away, he knows he’s selling some weak shit…I’m just staring at him, trying to keep the disgust from showing too much, I know I’m on thin ice here, I feel a little sick…
’Look,’ he finally says, ‘find Lieutenant Espinosa on the tarmac, he’s got the last maps. Take a look at his.’
What does he think? I’m going to fucking memorize Espinosa’s maps? Gosh, do ya think he’ll let me hold em, Captain? Shit, this is more fucked up than anything…
‘Yeah, thanks Captain,’ I say, trying to control the sarcasm, ‘…that’s what we’ll do.’
As we leave, I feel Ernie holding back, feel him starting to see ahead, to see what’s going to happen on the LZ, what’s likely to be the end for somebody, maybe everybody…and I don’t think me peering at Espinosa’s maps in the dark is going to make Ernie feel any better…without looking at him, I can see the questioning look in his eyes, asking why are we walking outta here? Are we going to leave it like this? Are we going to accept this? And, at the bottom of it, what he’s really asking is are we actually getting on these fucking helicopters this morning? I’m trying to see a way to get control again, of getting Ernie to calm down, to stop this from spreading too far…Dave and Rod seem to be okay, focusing on the practical, the nuts and bolts of it but Ernie is really fucking nervous, I can feel him looking at me…and I’m having some trouble too. In my mind’s eye, I’m seeing a bad LZ, I’m seeing a lot of casualties…I’m seeing maybe Crow all over again.
…nasty fucking weather…
The DJ gives the time and I check the dashboard clock again. We pick up a little squall, the droplets scurrying up the windshield, the wipers capturing them and sweeping them aside, the Michelins hiss, the big car nimble on wet pavement. The boy raises his head blinking and looks absentmindedly out the rear window at the rooster-tail of mist and, without saying a word, lays his head back down. He won’t remember looking. The Morning Man picks his way through the local news. I watch the dawn. The stars fade and retreat, the eastern horizon showing faint grey and pale blue, bleeding to violet, purple and orange, Monet ascendant, Soleil Levant. I power the window down an inch or so, and take in the morning air, heavy with the smell of the rain-soaked land, of the sloughs and bogs, the estuaries and the ponds, of the backwaters and the rotting leaves and the straw and the peat…
‘…call my friends…a Bank you can trust…’
Rod leans in, ‘Have you done the calendar yet?’ I smile and nod at the ritual…’Wait,’ I say, and reach into my left breast pocket and fish around behind the little Bible for three playing card sized calendars…and bring them out into the dim light. Rod holds my flashlight. Three little calendars, two completely marked off and Rod watches and Peterson watches, and some of the others come over as I bring a pen to bear on today and soon today is gone behind the ink in an act of faith, an act of faith, and maybe, on this morning, an act of will. I put the little calendars away. Little rituals to pass the time, little rituals to mark our passing. Little rituals but maybe sometimes not so little….I look at my watch, 0522. In the pre-dawn, the sky lightens and the ground grows darker, the airstrip shows only a black spine running east and west. I kneel in the dark and fold the empty map case into my bag and run through a short inventory and there is the sound of other men going through their own personal inventories, of rustling canvas bags, of snaps and zippers, of metal on metal, of bolts being worked and magazines being loaded, of reaching in pockets, of checking web belts, of feeling through dark bags for dry socks and an extra shirt, a clean towel and a little piece of soap. For a toothbrush and toothpaste, eye wash and sun glasses, a fork and spoon, and c-ration cans, beans and meatballs, turkey loaf and pound cake, some instant coffee, an envelope of hot chocolate, three canteens of water, lip balm, nail clippers and a pocket knife. Powder for my feet and ointment for my feet, two stolen Darvons stashed for my leg, a little box of Sucrets, some band aids, salt tablets and aspirin. A snoopy blanket and a poncho, matches and heat tabs, a couple of extra John Waynes and toilet paper, lots of toilet paper. And, of course, weapons and ammunition, magazines in, round in the chamber, safeties on, four extra magazines for the M16 and two extra for the .45, a Kabar and a bayonet. Two fragmentation grenades, two smoke grenades, field dressings, iodine and Halizone tablets, chewing gum and insect repellent. Flashlight, extra batteries, a pair of wire cutters and an extra battery for Rod’s PRC-9. Binoculars. Stubby pencils and a ball point pen, scratch paper, a couple of letters, a couple of snapshots, a beat up paperback of Blake and a little Bible my father carried in his war. And then the lists; lists of map coordinates written inside-out, lists of radio frequencies written backwards and registration points and passwords, all in personal shorthand, no plain English allowed, numbers on numbers, lists of LZ’s and lists of call signs, call signs for units, call signs for grunts, for med-evac, for resupply and supporting arms, for artillery and mortars, for air strikes and naval gunfire, and finally, a list of men, The List, by name and rank; another sergeant, three corporals, eight lance corporals, ten PFC’s, two privates, a corpsman and a lieutenant. Twenty five men. Twenty five. I figure the Lieutenant can look out for himself… I hope. And a couple of grease pencils and an empty map case. An empty fucking map case. I rest for a minute…
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?
They gather round…and the Lieutenant starts to speak and he’s wandering all around it…blah, blah, blah…My watch says 0531. I watch their faces, impatient, intent, tired…finally I clear my throat and stand up, he takes a breath and I hear my voice, “All right listen up…,” they turn toward me, “nothing new. They’re telling us the LZ’s a soccer field. Remember Tam Ky?” and here I pause and look around and realize no one here will remember the soccer fields at Tam Ky. “Well, there’ll be a lot of open ground and probably no cover. One guy says it’s actually a soccer stadium so I’m not sure what to believe but they’re saying a lot of small arms fire. That I believe. All right, two things, safeties on, let me say that again, safeties on, check your own and then eyeball every safety in your group.” I look at Ernie and Dave and Peterson, “No more accidental discharges goddam it. Let’s not put a hole in one of these helicopters. Second thing, clear the LZ quickly, we don’t know what it’s going to look like but get the fuck away from the aircraft. Watch the door gunners on the approach, they’ll tell us if it’s hot but safeties on until the last possible moment…” They wait, thinking there’s more. There isn’t. I think about mentioning the maps but they already know anyway and besides I don’t know what to say. They stand and buddy-up, helping each other lift and fit pack-frames and bags, forming fire teams, heading for their groups. The worm in my belly begins to stir and my feet burn. I should have put on dry socks again. Just one more. Just one more. The words keep running through my mind. Just one more. How long can you bet the come line before the string runs out?…
And what shoulder and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand and what dread feet?
It is nearly silent. There is a soft, onshore breeze. I can smell the ocean and I imagine I can hear the surf. I close my eyes and try to clear my mind…what else? Always, what else? What am I forgetting? I squat down and play with the dirt. The dirt is always the same in these places, blasted by a thousand rotor blades, pounded by ten thousand boots until there’s only the hardpan and shiny pebbles left. Little shiny pebbles. What the fuck else? I hear Rod stir and I look up as he turns looking across the airstrip to the southeast, others stand and look. I turn and look, too. In the distance, the faint, thin whine of a single turbine cuts the morning air, a single turbine rising slowly to C-sharp, then a second and a third and finally a full chorus of turbines and blades coming awake. Somewhere beyond the airfield, the aircrews are pulling on helmets, checking their own weapons, counting ammunition, rotors are turning, engines are heating up. The worm that lives in the pit of my stomach sinks his teeth in and I feel that wave of nausea again. The groups form at the edge of the tarmac, eight men, maybe nine. We’re in the second flight from the second pad. First flight, eight guys, directly ahead of us. 0544. The eastern horizon now a blaze of violet and orange and from beyond the horizon, the sun slants up and catches a thunder-head and we are all bathed in an eerie reflected light. In the distance, from beyond the spine of the airstrip, a single Huey rises slowly out of the dark and sweeps along the south edge of the runway and then a second and a third follow and finally a fourth and they string out and come on in a long line, from left to right skirting the field and then a sweeping right turn, banking across the west end of the runway and they line up and come in on us, drop their tails and settle down in a line, everyone instinctively turning their heads against the flying debris. The rotor wash and the engine noise deafening, the airborne dirt and gravel radiating out and rattling off of flak jackets and helmets, one chopper to my left, one directly in front of us, with these guys standing and starting for the door, and two more choppers to my right, men hunched over carrying rifles and pack boards and the door gunners leaning out and helping, the pilots faceless behind their dark visors and canopies, their heads turning left and right as the aircraft load. I see people’s lips moving but voices are useless here, as the choppers lift off, I glance to the left, to the first pad, and see the Lieutenant with Peterson, Kelley and Kolb and the others moving forward to the edge of the tarmac, and to the right, on the number three pad, I can see Ernie standing with his head down…I nod at Dave and Rod and we move up to the edge of the strip and kneel, seven of us and Doc John. The outbound choppers rock forward, lift, hesitate and then sweep across the big mess hall and Delta Med and on toward the mouth of the Cua Viet. The following choppers from the three pad and the four pad pass over. The noise is deafening. I reach up and rest my hand on Rod’s shoulder, I feel someone put their hand on my shoulder. Four more choppers are banking across the west end of the field…and it’s our turn…goddamnit!…Oh Lord, I know I’m not real worthy but please, just one more.
What the hammer? What the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp?
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
The Huey rocks forward, shudders and rises slowly, an aluminum and plexiglass bubble of anxiety rising in the belly of the morning. I reach for some chewing gum and glance at my watch, 0551. No maps. My stomach hurts. The chopper chattering and vibrating, we rise into the morning sun, the air goes cool, my eyes start to water, my ears pop. We hold steady to the east for a couple of minutes and clear the mouth of the river. About two miles off the coast, we begin a slow turn to the right, the glare of the South China Sea streaming in the door and reflecting in on the roof of the chopper. Off my left knee, beyond the toe of my left boot, beyond the skid, I can see the float, maybe five ships and some choppers rising to follow us south, their rotors cast a flickering shadow on the water. I glance at Rod. He looks over at me, his face blank, his eyes dilated. I think his stomach hurts, too. Beyond his chest, out the right hatch, I can see the smoke rising from Quang Tri, three thick, black columns. We keep going. It will be worse in Hue. It is the morning of a long day…
When the stars threw down their spears,
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?
The DJ comes on to say good bye, doing a voice-over with Otis Redding in the background, that it’s been his pleasure to sit up half the night playing forty year old tunes, that they’re classics, after all and that he’s cherished these last hours with us…’cherished,’ he says, always selling. The road bends slightly to the left, the back channels and the causeway just ahead, and he introduces his replacement, a sultry voiced woman of an indeterminate age with a bounce in her voice and she teases with the upcoming play-list…Ronstadt, Baez, Jackson Browne and some Stones…and then launches the morning news. But I only hear ‘…and some Stones’
What few records we owned were by this time scratched beyond use but the big bands were mostly gone, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, the Dorseys replaced by the ‘Champagne Music’ kitsch of Lawrence Welk, Spade Cooley with his fancy cowboy shirts and black heart, Cal Worthington, Dick Lane and Molly Bee. Tuxedo Junction begat Shame on You. It all played on the big RCA console in our living room and on our new television set on Sunday afternoons. This all belonged to my parents, this was their music. It spoke of their hard times and of their good. It spoke of wartime separation and renewal. Elvis happened too early for me and too late for them. The Beach Boys and the Beatles started it for me. Of course, the fact that the music was different and not appreciated by my parents made it mine, made it ours, of being somehow finally apart from them, of my first car, of the beach, of the first tentative fondling, of secret embraces, of touching in dark places and of having just one girl. And all the while, we were awash in these rhythms, these voices, with that time in our lives, when we were smooth and hard and quick. And later, much later, when we heard them again, when we were no longer smooth nor quick, we would still feel for a few moments as we felt then, when anything was possible, as though the world was about to lay down for us and we would have our way with it. Lurking in the background was the Stones. Where the Beach Boys and the Beatles were upbeat and optimistic even when they were trying to be dark, the Stones were insistent, self-indulgent, mocking, decadent. Where Paul smiled sweetly and raised his cherubic face to the light, Mick mugged and pouted and dripped sweat and Keith stared off across some unseen personal desert. After Southeast Asia there was only the Stones. After Southeast Asia, they looked like we felt. Shit, after Southeast Asia, they looked like us.
The boy sits up wrinkling his face in a frown of self awareness, waiting to come full awake, slowly moistens his lips and squints out at the sun slanting in at near horizontal. ‘Hey,’ I say and he smiles at me in the rearview mirror, ‘Hey,’ he whispers back. We pass two bait shops on the right, fishermen in baseball caps leaning against their pick-up trucks drinking coffee from styrofoam cups.
‘Live Bait, licenses and tackle,
finger mullets, live shrimp,
coffee, donuts and soft drinks,
the signs say…
A ragged, bone-colored hound lifts his leg and pisses on a tire and beyond the clapboard buildings, in the back bay, a couple of rust-stained runabouts rise and fall, riding their anchor chains on a gentle swell. The boy stretches with a groan and the woman comes awake with a murmur. We reach the base of the causeway bridge as Keith sounds the great opening chord to Jumpin’ Jack Flash and the woman reaches over absent-mindedly and turns the volume down even further, the open chord riff pounding and echoing in the background, Keith on a Gibson acoustic tuned to open D, and the car rumbles onto the extruded iron grate and we can see the bay water shimmering oily green through the road bed and in the glimmer I can see the salt marshes at Hue and the first flight choppers banking over, pounding, echoing…and somewhere in the ether Mick is a prancing, spinning jumpin’ jack…his voice harsh, insistent, even at low volume…the car rising up the long bridge and the backwater stretching into the morning sun, the first choppers bouncing in hard and we’re coming across the treetops fast, reflecting light onto the car roof…in the background, Mick is wailing…I was born in a crossfire hurricane...and I howled at my ma in the driving rain…[all the boys in long, low moaning harmony]…But it’s allll right!!! I’m a jumpin’ jack flash…It’s alllll riiight noowww!! In fact, it’s a gas!
We crest the bridge and start down the backside facing the town and the beaches beyond…
It’s a gaaas! gaaas! gaaas!
[…strutting, spinning, pouting, thrusting his chin, skipping across the stage, all insouciance and menacing sexuality, reckless energy, unrepentant child.]
I was drowned, I was washed up and left for dead…
But it’s alllll riiight noooww, in fact, it”s a gas!
But its alllll riiight, I’m jumpin’ jack flash.
…but it’s all right…it’s all right…
Yeah, it’s all right. No apologies, it is what it is…and what did Keith say in his usual, self-deprecating way?…Five strings, two fingers, one asshole…yeah, and a mugging, strutting frontman…maybe the greatest frontman of all time… yeah, maybe…
The wind from the rotors is bending the trees, the fronds dancing…And we’re coming in fast over the treetops, the guy in the right door working out scattering shell casings and blue smoke and the guy on our side leaning out and looking down toward the LZ and far off to the left I can see a stone quarry and I don’t remember a rock quarry being this close to the river, in fact, I don’t remember a quarry being here at all and I realize it isn’t a quarry at all but part of the city I’m seeing, a quarry of broken buildings and sundered streets, miles and miles of destruction, torn and blasted, utter, complete…and we’re sweeping into the stadium, another helicopter still on the ground…men running to the left…watch your footing, goddamned helmet, Jesus H. Christ this bag is fucking heavy…god. damned. helmet…
It is just a tiny seashell necklace of a town, a little beach town pretending to be a resort and, like beach towns everywhere, awash in not-so-secret dry rot, weeds and peeling paint, shiny sports cars and suntanned women in big sunglasses, and silent men in rags searching the trash bins of sardine-can-condominiums with lyric names like the Windswept, the Seafarer and the Broken Anchor, liquor stores, pawn shops, head shops and, of course, at least one restaurant called the Tiki Room, and the McDonald’s, Walmart and the Radisson Suites Hotel, the flotsam and jetsam of driftwood businesses that hang on by dint of owners who live in the back and don’t take vacations, the bait shops, boat rentals and outboard motor repair, sea shell, skateboard and T-shirt gift shops and Sonny’s rent-a-bike. The road runs along the backwater piers dotted with early morning fishermen and sea birds. The boy watches, silently taking it all in and the woman looks at the map, ‘Donuts?’ she asks, and I nod smiling, ‘Yeah, sure…’ ‘Can we get some kolaches?’ the boy calls out. ‘Sure…’ I say, looking at his face in the rearview mirror…
At the ocean, we turn right and start down the wide boulevard that runs along the top of the sea wall, the shops and condos strung-out on our right, the sea, churning murky green and white, on the left, the sun still low behind us, a line of pelicans trace the surf-line, riding the draft coming up the face of the waves. We stop at a traffic light and I watch a thin, bearded, barefoot young man leaning against a shopping cart standing on top of the seawall, his ragged jeans hanging in folds, his hair matted, his pale blue eyes fixed on two joggers, a man and a woman, approaching his intersection. He stands motionless as they pass, crisp, sleek and well-fed.
I went to see Rod when he got out but he wasn’t there. One night, I saw his street name on a freeway sign in Lincoln Heights and got off the freeway and wandered around looking at the houses. But it was two in the morning and I didn’t know where he lived. But the street was only about five blocks long and I figured if I came back sometime in the daytime, someone would know. A couple of weeks later I went back. I knocked on some doors. Mostly I got blank stares. I think they were uneasy with a white guy standing on their porch. By the time I got to the third or fourth house, some people had come out on the porches across the street and were watching me. I think there’d been some phone calls. A couple of skinny vatos locos wearing hairnets and undershirts came out on the sidewalk and gave me their best menacing stare. Finally a small, suspicious woman listened to my spiel and when I mentioned the Marine Corps, she put her hand to her mouth and laughed and pointed right across the street. A twelve year old boy waited smiling on the porch. I told him who I was and he wanted me to wait for Rod to come home from work but I didn’t. I was sorry Rod wasn’t there right then but I had this sudden feeling of not being able to stand still, I felt like I was suffocating…Rod left a couple of messages at my Mom’s but I didn’t call him back. I knew I’d go back, I just didn’t know when. I didn’t think it would take so long. Anyway, we met at a bar down on North Broadway and had a couple of beers. It was good seeing him again, there’s something about just being around familiar faces, familiar voices. It was good seeing him again, good to sit next to him but there wasn’t much to say. There never is. I used to be surprised at how little there was to say. He wanted me to come home with him, but talking in the bar was good enough for me. Then he said a funny thing, he said, “You know, you’ve got to be careful what you say.” I asked him what he meant even though I knew, and he said, “You know, what you talk about, what you say you want. They hold it against you. You’ve got to be careful.” So I went home with him because I knew what he meant. You’ve got to be careful. You’ve got to watch what you say. We sat around the living room with his Mom and his sisters and his little brother, making small talk, until his Dad came home. His Dad is a short, stocky guy with powerful shoulders and big thick hands. He’s worked at the brewery his whole life and his face is creased with laugh lines. When we shook hands, we all sort of laughed. Rod put his arm around his Dad’s shoulder. Then we went out into the backyard and sat under a big old tree, the three of us, drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon and talking, with his little brother leaning against the tree listening to us. It was good. His sisters were pretty. I tried not to look at them. The property ran down a short hill to an old wooden fence and a couple of avocado trees. Looking southwest, through the telephone lines, we could see downtown L.A. and the sunlight flickering off of the cars on the 101. “You been doing some digging,” I said, half jokingly, motioning toward a pile of fresh dirt near the fence. Rod laughed, “Yeah, my Mom wants an orange tree and I was going to plant it for her.” We strolled down to the pile of dirt. The hole was four or five feet across and maybe five feet deep. “Jesus, it must be a big tree.” Rod looked into the hole grinning, “You know, the ground was so nice and soft, I just couldn’t stop digging. I really liked digging that hole,” he laughed. I had to admit it was a really nice hole. “And ya wanna hear something else kinda weird? Yesterday, my Dad and I sat up there under the tree and had a beer together and when he went back into the house, I came down here and sat in the bottom of that hole and finished my beer. Just sat in there where it was quiet and finished my beer.” I imagined Rod sitting in that hole, leaning back against black loam and quietly drinking his beer. It made me smile. We walked back up the hill toward the house. His little brother was in the side yard talking with some other little kids. His Dad’s chair is empty.
‘C’mon, lemme show ya something,’ he says and we go up the back stairs and he leads me down the hall to his room and he reaches for a closet door and, all of a sudden, I know what he’s going to show me. I don’t know how I know but I do and I know if he tries to pick it up, I might have to take it away from him and he opens the door and pulls these towels aside and there is the butt of a handgun showing on the shelf. A .45 automatic. But he doesn’t reach for it, just stands there smiling at me as if to say, “See? There it is. There’s mine,” as though we should all have one. Maybe we should. I don’t have the heart to tell him I don’t. “Ya wanna look at it?” he asks and now I know if I don’t pick it up he will, so I reach in under the towel and lift it out. It’s heavy. I point the muzzle at the ceiling, check the safety and glance at the bottom of the butt. There is a magazine in it. The hammer is back. He smiles some more and says, “And one in the chamber,” like this is something to be proud of. The hair on the back of my neck rustles, I know I’m holding a snake.
‘Jesus, why do you keep a loaded gun around with all these kids?’
‘Whaddya ya mean?’ He seems puzzled.
‘I mean, Jesus, why do you need to keep a fucking loaded pistol laying around with one in the chamber?’
‘Hey, nobody is allowed to come in here and besides what good is it if it’s not loaded? Why have it? I’m ready if those fuckers come for me.’
He says ‘fuckers’ as though we both know who they are.
I slide the pistol back under the towels. ‘What fuckers?’ I ask trying to sound casual.
‘Any fuckers,’ he says as though the very question is impertinent.
It is hard to argue with this. Hard to argue with a man with one in the chamber.
His Mom asks me to stay for dinner. Goddamn it, they seem happy.
Later that night, driving away, I think about a guy sitting in a hole drinking a beer and I think about those fuckers he’s expecting.
The island stretches out to the southwest, a long, low barrier island of salt grass and shifting dunes, four lanes of blacktop running 30 miles from Bolivar Roads to the San Luis Pass, 30 miles of back bay marshes and mud flats and little clusters of vacation houses on stilts, the road still empty except for a fisherman’s truck with rods sticking out of the bed and a sturdy mongrel dog with his head up, nose high, testing the breeze. The rain has scrubbed the air to sharp crystal: the bulrush and salt grass greens, the emerald, cadmium, turquoise and olive in deep relief against the whites and blues. It is a morning as Vincent would have painted it.
I balance a chocolate donut and a carton of cold milk. We pass the entrances to public beaches, parking three-dollars-a-day, a bait shop, a tiny country market, another bait shop, a lonely restaurant, the riding stables. The year-round shanties give way to boarded up vacation cottages and then to walled neighborhoods with guard booths and electric gates and grand kitsch houses on faux stilts. Twelve Mile Road, Hershey Beach, Public Access Turn Here, Spanish Grant, Thirteen Mile Road, Yacht Club Right Turn Ahead, Lots For Sale, Boat Slips Available, Pirates Beach and finally, behind a long low white wall, Jamaica Beach, the name spelled out in rusting, filigree wrought iron. We pass the main gate, watch for the west entrance, wave at the guard, nod a hello, bear to the right, past the two story Tudor, past the salmon colored three story with the ship’s bell, watch for the turn.
Every summer, for three or four weeks, they take a house at the seashore and throw it open for friends and family to visit as schedules permit, and hey, don’t forget to bring the kids and the dog and a sleeping bag if you want and a good time is had by all. So here we are with the big black dog, a cooler full of drinks and a couple of boards on the roof. But with the onshore breeze the surf is mush so we’ll hope that this afternoon is good and besides there’s more donuts and introductions all around and did you see my new skateboard? And, oh yeah, keep your voices down cuz some of the little kids are still sleeping…They call it a bungalow but it is a bungalow in name only, the stuff of monied understatement. It is two stories of glass and chrome and wide verandas, of deep-grained wood, polished granite and stainless steel, of Kitchen-Aid and Zero-Cold and whispering air conditioners, of water colors of sea birds and boats, coffee table books of seashells and sailing ships and sculpture, while the actual, wild, living antecedents shimmer just beyond the balcony. It is vistas of nearby surf crashing silent behind glass, of sand dunes and salt grass and mute sea birds in a bubble of climate-controlled silence. Maybe this what we all want, what we all need, a comfort zone, an insulated bubble where we can hunker down and the elements can’t reach us, where we are safe from the world. Maybe that’s what we all want. And maybe we’re all afraid because we know, deep down, it isn’t possible, we can never be safe. They can always find us.
In the midmorning, we set out for the beach in a straggle of flip-flops and straw hats, folding chairs and sun visors. A troop of casual Bedouins.
He is standing thigh deep in the churning water looking up the beach toward me, his hand resting casually on a sharp, white dagger of fiberglass and polyurethane foam. He is smiling that wide smile of young men in love with motion. He is looking up the beach toward me and for an instant there is no distance between us, just two parts of the same thing. And just as quickly he is paddling away…He sits straddling his board with his back to the beach, watching the approaching swells, searching for the darkest trough, the deepest trough, waiting for the biggest wave of the set. He is patient, he will wait a long time but he has a limit and if his limit is reached he will choose a secondary swell and for a brief few moments he will carve a unique and fleeting parabola, boiling blue and white and green, across its face, joyful, temporary and then gone. And he will smile that smile again and turn and paddle out…
They had wedged a little bunker under the grandstand and a lieutenant was peering out, dispensing maps and radio frequencies. I took two of each. Rod jotted some freq. numbers down and then pulled out his shirttail and wrote something on it. I didn’t ask.
We cleared the stadium wall and worked our way toward the river and came upon a guy who had been wounded in the shelling. A corpsman was doing what he could, trying to maintain the appearance that something could be done. We knelt down. We tried to keep our faces blank, so that he couldn’t see in our expressions the inevitability but the blast had taken his left shoulder, arm and all. The chopper was still minutes away. He was lucid, being held by the corpsman, chatting and even laughing a little bit, trying to ignore what was happening. A couple of guys came up carrying a stretcher. One of them was holding a body bag.
Up the beach, someone has a radio playing, the music ebbing on the wind vague, indistinct and dreamy, music to laze in the sun by…and as the wind shifts it takes the music with it…
In the late afternoon a Coast Guard helicopter works its way slowly up the beach, a young man braced in the open doorway looking at the swimmers and surfers and the people on the beach. They seem to pause just beyond the boy on the white dagger…I don’t want them to pause there, I want them to continue on up the beach, I want them to go about their business…
When the end finally came and they said I could go home, I knew I had to get away. Finally, the plan had been reduced to its barest minimum, to survive and to go home. To go home and to forget about it. That was the plan. I knew I had to get away. I thought going home would be far enough. But going home wasn’t going to be far enough for any of us.