by Stanley Beesley
One thing he knew for damned sure: he wasn’t for some nursing center or the old soldier’s home.
“You say that now,” Calvin told him, trying to get out of the medical center lot. Hebumped the car up onto the curb so hard the front end went airborne. “But by the time you getthat old, you’ll think different.”
“Like hell.” William, scootched himself in the passenger seat so that he could halfway slump.
“You’ll see. You start shitting yourself at the Homeland and driving off the road regular. Hell, you’ll be so damned feeble, you’ll forget you ever wasn’t going to go in the rest home in the first place. You’ll be grateful you have clean sheets to cover your ass for part of the day. What else would you do?” said Calvin, not knowing the sentence the doctor had handed William.
“I got that worked out.”
Years ago he’ d written his daughter, Faith, a short letter with instructions. He just hadn’tmailed it yet.
She would go see Benjy Calderon.
“You ever think about dying?” Benjy asked. He and William lay under a bridge spanning the Perfume River. An SKS round smacked the concrete inches a half-foot past Benjy’s shoulder. An NVA was up on the third floor they surmised, and at least two more were somewhere behind a stone wall on the other side of the river. Both friends bled with shrapnel wounds from the RPG that got Collins.
“Not so much,” answered William. “ Only every other fuckin’ day.”
“I want to live a long time.”
“Not so sure I do.”
“Crap, man, sure you do. Let your grandkids take care of your tired old ass. Sit in the shade and let ‘em bring you cold beers and grilled cheese sandwiches and shit.”
“You sure paint a rosy picture.”
“There it is.”
A ChiCom grenade clanged off the metal facade of the bridge and landed a few feet from them. Both marines scrambled to kick it. Benjy got a boot on it and sent it skittering into the water where it exploded with a muffled thud. Dead fish and parts of a snake blew out of the river and rained on Collins lying on the grassy bank. Collins had run with them for the bridge, but he didn’t make it. They would have gone back for him, but they could see from beneath the bridgethat the rocket-propelled grenade had taken off his head.
“Something I want you to do for me when I get old,” said William.
“Name it,” Benjy said.
“I had a great uncle spent his last three years out of his mind drooling on his robe lapel at a vet center over in Muskogee? He was on Iwo Jima? He took three Jap machine gun roundsright under his collarbone. He was a heck of a quarterback in high school they say. He couldn’traise his arm to throw a piece of gravel after that. There was this big hole in his chest, like a ditch running through a backyard. You had to remind him he was even in the war. I hated when my folks made me go visit! I was little. Miserable. And the smell of the place. Worse than burning shit. Poor Uncle DeWayne had to die in that. That’s not going to be me.”
“I hadn’t really thought that far ahead.”
“Take care of me, buddy, if I get bad and can’t do for myself. We say we do anything for each other.”
“Whoa. Quit talkin’ shit.”
“I mean it.”
“Now you do.”
“I know what I don’t want to be like.”
“You do mean it.
“I can’t do it. I’m Catholic. Suicide is a sin.”
“It is not suicide. I’m asking for your help.”
“Not if I want you to do it.”
“Bro, I would do anything for you.”
“That’s what I’m counting on.” “Hell, man, we probably not make it out this goddamn town, anyway, and you talking grease your old pitiful self fifty years from now? We can’t even get out from under this fucking bridge. It’s all foolishness. How you want it?”
“I don’t care, and I’m sure I won’t care then, either. Make sure it doesn’t look like it’s on purpose. For my family’s sake maybe. A simple seven-point-six-two mike-mike NATO round to the melon ought to do the trick.”
“Naw! Hell, naw. I can’t shoot you. No way. Sin loi, motherfucker, no-can-do. Not that. I’m sick of shooting people. I think of something else. Hopefully we have many, many years to come up with a plan we can both live with.”
Benjy rolled over twice and was beyond the cover given by the bridge. He fired a six round burst at the window and rolled back under.
“You feel better now?” said William.
“Yes,” said Benjy. “Yes, I do. Motherfuckers.”
“Phew. This damn river stinks.”
“Smells like shit,”
Benjy unsheathed his K-bar from his war belt.
“This subject that has come up is serious shit, man. Needs proper attention.”
“I’m part Serbian.”
“Hell, you are. You’re a beaner.”
“Naturally. But also I’m a Serb. It’s complicated.”
“Thought you had to be Indian.”
Benjy closed his eyes and pulled the sharp tip of the big knife about an inch across his forearm. “Aagh,” he said. A small blood puddle formed on his arm. He handed William the Kabar. “Your turn.”
“Man, we are already bleeding everywhere! Won’t that do?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Shit, man, you don’t even know.”
“Okay, okay.” William’s method was a quick stab with more depth, and blood shot out in a squirt.
Then they faced each other and raised their bleeding arms at right angles and dapped. They clapped and slapped hands rhythmically so that one forearm banged the other, and in this manner, their blood got mixed together. William heard what sounded like a snort of laughter behind the wall across the river.
William scowled. “Hell, even the gooks are getting off on this shit.”
The Corps sent Benjy to the States a few days after they were able to get out of Hue. His wounds were more serious than Williams’, though neither knew under the bridge. Benjy lay up in Bethesda three months before they let him go home. William spent the rest of his tour humping bush and turning around in file every once in a while to see if Benjy was back there..
Benjy called him in Austin on his sixtieth birthday. “Dude, we officially old-timers now,”he said. When he had recovered and left the Corps, Benjy got a job in Tucson finishing concrete, working his way up in the company until he eventually owned it. He lived now on a golf course in Scottsdale, and William stayed with him and his wife when his business brought him to Arizona. Which was often.
“Yeah,” said William. “Hard to believe when we were full of piss and vinegar.”
“Bullet proof is what we were. Literally, turns out.”
“How you feeling?”
Benjy laughed. “Don’t worry. Other than a hip replacement and the piles, I’m all squared away. How ’bout you?”
“Peachy,” William lied.
Calvin hit a pothole, and the jolt sent a shudder through William. He coughed in an attempt to muffle his groan. Calvin was a terrible driver, but he would have to do. Williamwasn’t going to involve Faith. Involving Faith would involve Darren. His nine-year oldgrandboy would not know. That especially wasn’t going to happen. He braced for the next pothole.
For a few weeks after the medical center visit, William slept in fits and beheld images ofambush gone to shit on the Song Dong Nai, of horse-toothed black birds bigger and more
hideous than condor, of lying on yellow pythons, of being buried alive, of kaleidoscopic radio signals, of screaming kids in torched Jarai straw, of severed heads floating upstream. Then he found bedtime more tranquil by concentrating on his marine buddy and the pact they’d made beside Collins’ body on that river so long ago. In over forty years neither had spoken a word about it. They needn’t.
When public awareness of Alzheimer’s became widespread in the ‘90’s, William had taken down the letter addressed to Faith and edited it. He’d felt sound, secure having it in his
hands while he re-worked the instructions with a Sharpie. He had written the letter when Faith was eight and already a serious female. Jack was two years older, but he couldn’t be sure of him. Jack was a sentimental child; he might not have it in him. Darren took too much after his uncleand not William and his mother.
Soon William would mail the letter. Soon.
That was all the doctor had given him. “Soon.”
Stanley W. Beesley served with the LRRPs of “M” Company, 75th Ranger Regiment, 199th Light Infantry Brigade in Vietnam. He lives in Oklahoma with his wife, Denise, 2 daughters (1 deceased), and 4 grandchildren. He is a teacher and writer.