I stop at the far corner of the perimeter wall and peer into the blank beyond. I can’t see more than ten yards in front of me. Out there is a shallow marsh – a dogleg right, narrow at the toe where our compound abuts the airfield, wide at the thigh where the runway ends. A fetid area from here to the Mekong River, the marsh is peaceful in daylight, but can fill with bogeymen at night.
Holding my breath, I listen, but I hear nothing except frogs, insects, and the screech of a bird. I unhook the walkie-talkie and thumb the switch to call Mick.
“Yo, Mick, where are you?”
The tiny speaker buzzes back at me. “Just reaching the corner, bro. You?”
“Gotcha. Coming atcha. Meetcha at Middle Earth.”
Switching off, I turn and retrace my steps. Only three feet high and made of sandbags, this wall would be about as much good against an assault as a lapdog facing down a Doberman. Still, it’s something to squat behind when the air fills with more than mosquitoes.
Mick and I always do this guard duty together, and always the same way: Starting at the halfway point (what we call Middle Earth), we each head for a far corner of the wall, then turn and retrace. Being alone out there always makes me glad to meet up with him again. I haul ass heading back. No sense looking for trouble; we couldn’t see it anyway. Finally I spot Mick’s form, a shadow against the near darkness, his easy liquid movements flowing unchecked as he diddy-bops toward me. We meet where we started out; once together, we piss on Middle Earth’s sandbags.
“What’s happening, Timothy?”
“Nothing at all, which is fine. I hate this night shift, especially out here.”
“But why, my man? After all, we’re fighting machines in service to our country.”
“Yeah, right.” He seems to have forgotten we’re draftees, medics in a field hospital in Vietnam.
“Seriously, bro. Think of us as Dr. Frankenstein and his able assistant, Igor, stitching together a world safe for democracy. Maybe this time something’ll happen and we’ll be heroes, on the evening news, dinnertime fare for the folks back home.”
“Oh, that’ll be just great.” I kick the wall in resentment over even being here and the sobering realization he may just be right.
“Hey, we had to pull this detail anyway, Tim. I volunteer us for this spot because that duty officer’s too scared to come out this far, which gives me a chance to smoke some weed and listen to a few tunes without catching any of his flak.” Mick fingers the small earphones draped around his neck.
I can’t believe he does this. One night he’s going to miss some little noise, and that’ll be the death of him. Still, there’s no convincing him of this. “Who’s on tonight?”
“Earlier, Janis. Now it’s Jimi.”
I’m dying for a butt, but haven’t lit up since we came on duty. “What time is it?”
Mick looks at the luminous face of his watch. “About two-thirty, little after.”
“So we’re half gone already. Let’s hunker down here for a few. I need a smoke.”
“What?!” Mick gapes at me in mock horror. “You’re going to deviate from the regs?”
“Hey, we’re getting short, aren’t we?” In ninety-three days, if we’re still upright, we hop a freedom bird and rotate Stateside, out of here, out of the Army.
We sit at the base of the wall. I close my eyes against the flare of the match, and try to light my cigarette by feel; I almost burn my lip in the attempt. I sigh and open my eyes and light the butt, inhaling deeply.
Mick’s got a smirk on his face. “Does no good to close your eyes, Tim; the light slips through your lids anyway and screws up your night vision. All you’re protecting yourself from is the sight of Charlie zeroing in on you.” He sticks his legs out in front of him and flexes his ankles. “Anyway, yes, my man, we are indeed getting short.” He sings in a lounge lizard voice. “’California, here I come, right back where I started from…’”
“Jesus, shut up.”
“Oh, all right.” Knowing the answer, he still asks me anyway. “How many ‘til our birthday bash?”
“One hundred forty-eight.” Mick still can’t get over the fact that we’re, as he puts it, “twin sons by different mothers.” We share the same birthday, and were even born just minutes apart, he in Dallas, me in Memphis. Once we’re back in the World, we’re gonna celebrate the next one together. Hey, it’s something to shoot for.
He looks at me, his eyes under his steel pot red in the glow from my butt. “You’re still meeting up with me ‘n’ Annie, right?”
“You got it.” This year, our birthday falls on a Saturday. I’ve told Mick I’ll come out to meet him and his wife, Annie, a dental hygienist now marking time at home. Long-time sweethearts, they got hitched just before we shipped out. I’m supposed to be bringing Sally, my maybe girlfriend back in Memphis. We had been vaguely thinking about getting married, we just weren’t sure when, and then things got left in the lurch when I sailed across the blue horizon. Now I don’t really know what’s happening, and she doesn’t write much. Mick’s told me not to worry about it. He claims Annie’s got a little sister who’d love to meet me. He says she’s got legs that stretch all the way up to her ass.
Now his face splinters into a grin. “Say, Tim, I’ve still got a roach here. Supposing we fire it up?”
“Man. you’re crazy! What if Charlie comes strolling in tonight? You don’t want to be stoned if you have to lay down the welcome mat, do you?”
Mick turns serious, looking me steadily in the eyes. “Well, bro, I can’t think of a better way to be if I have to exit the scene. On the other hand, I figure I’ll straighten up real fast if anything starts to get bent, if you catch my drift.”
“Yeah, I hear you.”
He smiles. “So, what’s the harm, right?”
I can’t help smiling, too. “What the hell? Fire her up.” He lights the roach from my butt.
We smoke in silence, passing the roach back and forth between us, grabbing it with our fingernails until it is too small to handle. Mick pops the tiny remainder into his mouth. He sings softly.
“’Mick Mack, paddy whacked, had himself a bone. This old boy’s gone rolling home.’”
I rise to a crouch and peer over the wall. Across the marsh I see a transport plane taxi out for takeoff. The running lights are tiny kaleidoscopes. The marsh is a piece of wet black felt.
“’Tis the witching hour, Timothy.”
“Don’t say that. Gooks could be out there right now, listening to our every word, laughing up their pajama sleeves.”
“Aw, man, where’s your sense of adventure? Besides, not to worry. I have it on good authority that Charlie’s busy on the other side of the river.”
“’Good authority’, hunh? Who’s that? That mama-san you been chatting up back at the hootch?”
“As a matter of fact…”
“Right.” This is the time of night the VC come. Times past they have gone for the airfield and left us alone. After all, we’re a hospital, part of the “pacification” attempt to win their hearts and minds. We’ve probably treated Charlie’s kids for malaria, snakebite, whatever, what with all the sick calls we make to the local villes. Still…. The dope is making me paranoid.
Mick gets to his feet. He’s a semi-gloss silhouette against the thin light from the airfield. “Well, bro, shall we shuffle off to our respective corners for another round?”
“I guess we can’t sit here all night, can we? Although if that duty officer is too much of a wimp to make the scene, I don’t see why not.” I look out once more into the dark of the marsh. There’s nothing out there that I can see.
“Now, now, we must keep up appearances, old boy.” Mick takes off his flak jacket and drops it at Middle Earth.
“Mick. What’re you doing?” I fire off this little verbal barrage in his direction. I’m not sure why I bother; we’ve had this minor skirmish before, but to no avail; Mick will always do what he wants to do.
His load lightened, he stretches, his arms thrown back as if to break a fall. “It’s hot, bro, and that thing’s heavy. Now don’t give me no lectures.”
I figure I’ll try one last shot. “Mick…”
In return I get a Texas oilfield stare; he’s squinting to pinpoint my location. “Hey, Tim: lighten up, okay? After all, I’ve got the wall here. I can take care of myself. And even if I can’t, I don’t want you to feel you have to.”
I don’t say anything more.
“Catch you on the rebound, bro.” He executes a half-assed about face and starts to goose-step down his section of the wall.
We reach the corners, check in again, and are just beginning the return trip when the shit begins to fly. First come the mortars, walking into range. The gooks get lucky on their first real try: an ammo dump at the airfield goes up with an earth-pounding concussion. The mama-sans cleaning house over there must have been stepping off the distances to give Charlie his coordinates. Soon the flyboys have phosphorous flares up, to shed some more light on the subject. I look into the marsh.
Charlie is running across the top of the dogleg, toward the concertina wire surrounding the airfield. Lots of Charlie, over two dozen. Most of them are about sixty yards away. Their black-clad legs slip through the dark shallow water like eels. The ones in the lead have reached the wire, and prop apart a hole with long bamboo poles. Others pour in on their heels. Poor flyboys could be screwed.
I hear shouts and running at the hospital behind me. Lights come up; I see my shadow diffuse along the edge of the marsh. Ducking down below the wall, my steel pot a bump over the edge, I watch the action. I haven’t even flicked the safety off my weapon yet. No way I’m firing out there and calling attention to myself. Mick’s right: the mist of the dope has burned off in the heat of the moment, and my heart is doing a high hurdle against my ribcage.
I hear firing to my right, so I flick the safety off my weapon and swivel to check out the action. Mick is forty yards away, scuttling along the wall. He straightens up to full height to send a few rounds in Charlie’s direction, and makes no move for his discarded flak jacket. He’s laughing: a kid plinking old bottles and beer cans on a summer evening.
“Mick! Stop that shit and hit the dirt!” I hope he hears me through the Hendrix; I don’t want to give us both away.
Too late. I see a gook peel off to angle along our wall; he’s now only about twenty-five yards away from us. He raises his weapon, lining up on Mick. Mick hasn’t seen him yet.
“Mick!” I’m full throttle screaming now. “Get down!”
Mick turns toward me, the earphones just beginning to slip down his jawline. The gook fires, catching him low in the gut. I see Mick jerk backwards and sit down hard in the sand. He doesn’t even throw his arms out. Then the gook turns toward me.
Shit. I knew it. I suck in my breath, draw a bead on the man’s body, and watch an eternity go by as he swings around to meet me full-face. I see his eyes settle on me and I squeeze the trigger. Five rounds spit out, sharp bright sparks around the muzzle. Charlie does a half gainer with a twist into the black hole of the marsh. I duck well below the wall and crabwalk to Mick.
“Mick! Talk to me!”
He’s not looking real good. Through his fatigue shirt, six inches below his heart, there’s a hole the size of a pebble. A dark wet stain is spreading fast. “Tim, help me!”
I jerk the walkie-talkie off my belt, and call the duty officer’s desk. “Medevac!” This sounds so ludicrous inside a hospital compound. “Get a litter down here! Back wall, near the middle. Mick’s been gut-shot!”
I get Mick’s shirt pulled up from his belly. The hole in front’s not too bad. I tear a gauze pad from my aid kit and tape it. There’s no sucking sound; his lung must be okay. I roll him further onto his side to check out his rear view, and almost puke.
There’s a hole the size of a child’s fist chewed out through his lower back. Its edges are ragged. Blood is oozing out, but there’s no pumping action, so no major artery has been hit. A shred of slimy pink sausage pushes at the hole. Behind the sausage I can see a jagged piece of bone.
“Tim.” Mick twists his head, looking at me, at himself. He can see down his front but not over his shoulder. “Tim, am I gonna die?”
“What, and kill the chance for me ‘n’ Annie’s sister? Shut your mouth, Mick.” I wad a half-dozen gauze pads together, poke them gently into the hole, and cover it all with a sucking chest wound bandage. I see two corpsmen with a litter come running toward us, bent low, their flak jackets flapping against their chests. They skitter down alongside and begin to lift Mick.
“Tim, if anything happens to me, talk to Annie, okay?”
“Save it, Mick. You’ll be talking to her yourself this time tomorrow. You’re okay, man, so lighten up.” Jesus, I hope I am right on this.
When the litterbugs scuttle off, I grab my weapon and haul ass after them.
* * *
At five a.m. I sign off guard duty. It’s too early to go see Mick. I have an hour in which to get cleaned up before I have to report for my ward shift. Outside I see the sky lightening and the sun just ready to poke up over the treeline.
Back at the barracks, I take a quick shower and put on fresh fatigues. Heading for the mess hall, I look out into the marsh and flash on Charlie doing his half gainer. At chow I find I’m not really hungry. I manage some dry toast, but I can’t face any runny eggs right now, much less sausage. Mostly I down a couple of quick coffees.
When I get to the ward where I pull duty, the sergeant looks up at me. “Everett. You’re assigned to Graves for the day.”
What did I do to deserve this karma? “Aw, sarge, gimme a break. I just came off guard duty.”
The older man looks down at his clipboard. “Yeah, well, it’s a dirty job, I agree, but somebody’s got to do it. Just haul your ass over there. There’ll be a full house today – mostly gooks, I hear. Scuttlebutt is some Marines bivouacked at the airfield did a number on Charlie. They’ve already brought the bodies in.”
“Hey, I can hardly wait.”
At the morgue a dozen stiffening black-clad bodies take up most of the tables. There’s a few of our guys laid out, too. Mick’s not among them.
The sergeant in charge comes over to me. We stand at the foot of a table bearing a dead Vietnamese. He looks very small and bird-like, as if he’s asleep, except for the three holes in his torso and the one in his face that has ripped his cheek away. His arms are folded on his chest. His dull dark eyes stare without blinking at the florescent overheads.
The sergeant clears his throat. He has a reputation for being looped most of the time, and he looks it now. “Nice job.”
“That’s the one you did last night. You stitched him up real good, Everett: one in the gut, two in the chest, one in the head. Course, the exit wounds are more impressive. Most of his brains fell out in the marsh when we picked him up.”
“Great. What do you want done with him?” I roll up my sleeves, looking around for surgical gloves.
“Jesus, Everett. You really want to work on the one you just did?”
“Hey, somebody’s got to, and it might as well be me. After all, if it wasn’t for me, he might not even be here, right?”
“Yeah, and if it wasn’t for you, Mick might be going home in a box. Instead he’ll be shipped to a VA hospital in Hawaii, maybe even get to shack up with his wife.”
“I’m sure he’ll be thrilled about that. How is he?”
“He lost a lot of blood, but he’ll make it. Bullet hit his spine, though. Doc’s afraid there might be paralysis, but it’s too early to be sure.”
I swallow hard. “So, what’s the drill here?”
“Don’t bother much. Check for papers; Military Intelligence will want whatever you find. Don’t even strip him or clean him up. Just zip him in a bag. The plan is to ‘doze them all into a ditch out near the treeline.”
“You got it.” The sergeant moves unsteadily on down the row of tables.
I look at the dead man. His left eye, glassy and unwinking, stares at the ceiling. His right eye has started to sag out of its socket where the cheekbone support has been blown away. The eyeball points directly at me. I don the rubber gloves and pull the lids down over them both. The right eye won’t stay shut; the dark iris still looks out at me from under its hood. I press a strip of adhesive tape over it, shutting it down for good.
I pat the body down. Deep in the hip pocket of Charlie’s black pajamas, I feel a hard object the size of a pack of cigarettes, only flat. I use a scalpel to slit open the pocket. A small leather case wrapped in a clear plastic baggie falls out on the table.
There’s no papers in the case, only a picture. It’s of a woman and a little girl about seven. They’re both dressed up. The woman wears a silk kimono with a high collar. She has a thin face with sharp cheekbones, and her hair is piled atop her head. The little girl sits on the woman’s lap. She wears a white frilly dress, a first communion dress, and she’s holding a rosary. Her face has round, dimpled cheeks framed by glossy black hair. Mother and daughter are both smiling, but the smiles look tight, forced, and their eyes are wide with too many days and nights of terror. Daddy here probably took the shot. On the back of the picture there’s some Vietnamese writing and a date. The family name is Ngo, and the portrait is only about six months old.
Those snoops in MI’d probably want this. Well, to hell with them. This is all Papa-san had, and I decide it goes with him. I put the picture back in its case. Prying Papa-san’s fingers open, I nestle the case between them and refold his arms on his chest, taping them together to anchor them, and I bind his feet with more tape. Then I get a body bag and roll him in, and pull the zipper up quickly over Mr. Ngo and his kin.
* * *
When I get off duty that evening, I stop by Intensive to see Mick. The orderly at the ward desk is a newbie, still doesn’t shave much, can’t be more than nineteen. I’m feeling very old at twenty-three.
“Excuse me. I want to see Mick Mack for a few minutes. I’m a buddy of his.”
The kid looks through some papers on the desk. “Mack, Mack – oh, yeah, here we go.” He studies the chart and frowns officiously. “I suppose a few minutes is okay, but don’t get him excited. We’ve got him sedated for pain, but you know how it goes.”
I give the kid a blank look. “Oh, yeah, I know how it goes.”
The kid looks down at his papers. “Right… Fifth bunk down on the left.”
Mick is dozing when I get there. He looks very pale and drawn. There’s an oxygen tube running into his nose, and a suction tube out his mouth. He’s got blood going into one arm, plasma into the other. From under the sheet hangs a catheter tube leading into a bag. He’s in a cast from his nipples down over his hips.
I pull up a chair and speak softly. “Hey, bro.”
He opens his eyes. Trying to sit up, he pushes against the mattress with the heels of his hands. The pain hits him, and he winces and falls back. I see his head hitting the sand, hard.
“At ease, Mick. There’s no call for keeping up appearances now.”
He licks his dry lips. I remove the suction tube and give him water from the squeeze bottle on the bedside table. His voice is a croak.
“Heard you got the gook.”
A half gainer into the marsh. One eye, fingering me. A little girl, smiling. “Yeah, man, I did.”
“Good for you. One less to reckon with.”
“Yeah, I reckon… So, when’re you shipping out?”
“One, two days. First up to Bien Hoa, then to Hawaii.” He looks hard at me, and his voice shakes. “Yo, Tim.”
“Tim, I can’t feel my legs, or move anything down there.”
I can’t pursue this now. “Shit, asshole, did you think you’d go dancing tonight? You’ve been gut-shot, man. There’s still shock from the trauma; you know all that. At ease, Mick; give it a few days. You’ll be fine.”
“I’m scared, Tim. What if I’m…”
“Listen to me, man.” He’s getting excited; I have to cut this off. “You’ve got to carry on. Think of Annie, bro; you’ll be seeing her inside a week.”
His eyes well up. “That’s just it, bro – I’ve been thinking about her. Things’ll never be the same.”
I look away. “They aren’t anyway, Mick. You know what they say over here: ‘You can never step into the same river twice’. You’ve just got to carry on, that’s all.”
He looks away and doesn’t say anything.
“Look, man, I’m bushed. I’ve got to chow down and catch some zees. I’ll check in on you later, okay? Mick?”
“Yeah, man, catch me on the rebound.”
“You got it. Remember: only one-forty-eight until our bash.” All this has gone down and it’s still the same day. “We’ll dance our asses off then.”
He closes his eyes. “Yeah, sure, bro.” He sags back onto his pillow. “You take care of yours in the meantime, you hear?”
* * *
In the chow hall I’m staring at meat loaf drenched in catsup. I hear Mick singing: ‘Mick Mack, paddy whacked, had himself a bone. This old boy’s gone rolling home.’ I flash on him getting older while propped up in a wheelchair, his dancing days a thing of the past.
Back in the hootch I start a letter to Sally.
Well, today was just another day, some more of the same old same old
It’s no use. I can’t deal with any of this now. I know that river’s not really going anywhere. I stare out the window of the hootch at the darkening marsh, and light a cigarette.
A helicopter gunship roars overhead, heading for the treeline. I toss the letter in the trash and kill the light. For a few moments, I watch the gunship rain fire into the triple canopy of the jungle. When I flick my butt through the open window, its red eye winks out in the groundwater surrounding the hootch.