Bobby Olay was chasing a pig in the clearing when a shot knocked his helmet from his head and he dropped to his knees with blood spurting from his temple. I saw this as I came out of the hootch where I’d found a tattered, muddy copy of “Mad” magazine. The pig was squealing, and there were sounds of the rest of us taking cover, then nothing but the pig.
“Eddie, is Bobby still alive?” Keefer asked me. We were crouched behind a broken down cart. I peered around the side. Bobby was still on his knees, one hand held to the side of his head. As I watched there was a second shot and a puff of dust on Bobby’s chest where it hit him. This bent him over backwards from the waist. He was still on his knees. It looked like some yoga pose.
“Jesus, I don’t know now,” I said. “One in the head, one in the chest. Who the fuck knows?” I turned to Keefer. “You see anything in the tree line? Where’s it coming from? Anybody else get hit?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know. What do we do now?”
It was quiet like we were the only ones there, just me and Keefer and Bobby out there bleeding. Where was the rest of our patrol?
“Fuck it,” I said. “We’ve got to go get him. Maybe he’s dead, but we’ve got to get him before that pig eats him.”
Keefer gave me a look. “Yeah, you’re right. Who’s going out there? You going? Eddie?”
I took a deep breath. “Yeah, okay. Give me your shotgun.” I handed Keefer my M-16 and took his shotgun. “Cover me as well as you can. I don’t know where the other guys are.”
It was about twenty yards. There was no point fucking around. I took another deep breath and ran from behind the cart as evasively as I could. Behind me, Kiefer began firing.
Bobby hadn’t moved. I reached him in a low crouch, grabbed him by the wrist and began dragging him back across the clearing. Except for Keefer’s stuttering cover fire there was no other shooting. On the way back I saw that Keefer had shot the pig.
The rest of the patrol had taken cover in the jungle behind the hootches on our side of the village. Lieutenant Pippin had already called in choppers for a dustoff, and ten minutes later we were on our way back to base camp. Bobby Olay would live, but he’d be blind forever from the shot he’d taken in the head. At base camp we drank beer and joked about Keefer shooting the pig. I guessed I’d get a medal.
No, it didn’t happen that way. It was like this:
Bobby Olay was in the clearing beating on the pig’s snout with the butt of his rifle. He’d shot the pig’s front legs away. It was squealing in deep pain and scrambling its hind legs trying to get the fuck away. I could identify with that.
Keefer looked up from the “Mad” magazine I’d found in the hootch. “What’s Bobby doing to that pig?”
“Jesus, I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe he thinks it’s a Viet Cong. There’s nothing else alive in this ville.”
Suddenly a mortar round exploded in the clearing. They began going off all over. Keefer and I huddled behind a broken down cart. We looked at each other.Then the mortars stopped. We heard Bobby cursing and moaning. I peered around the side of the cart. Bobby was on his knees by the pig, holding his hands to his bleeding face. It looked like part of his jaw was missing. Blood bubbled from between his fingers when he tried to speak.
I turned to Keefer. “Christ, he’s hit in the face. What’ll we do? You see anything in the tree line?”
It was quiet like we were the only ones there, just me and Keefer and Bobby out there bleeding next to the squealing pig. Where was the rest of our patrol?
“I don’t know. Fuck it,” Keefer said, “we’ve got to get him. Who’s going?”
“Keefer, man,” I said. “I don’t know, maybe, maybe…”
“Okay, okay. I’ll go.” Keefer shook his head and moved around me. “But you’ve got to cover me. Eddie? Eddie!” I nodded. He took a deep breath and began a zig-zag run toward Bobby. I started firing into the jungle at the other side of the clearing.
Keefer reached Bobby in a low crouch, grabbed him by the wrist and began dragging him back across the clearing. Except for my cover fire there was no other shooting. I stopped firing.
Keefer shouted, “Keep firing, for Christ’s sake! Keep firing, you asshole!” Then a shot hit Keefer in the back and brought him sharply upright. He collapsed backwards on top of Bobby. The sniper could be anywhere. I fired several times in frustration, then stopped.
“Eddie! Come on! I can’t move,” Keefer said. He was lying on his back on top of Bobby. He must have been hit in the spine. I could hear Bobby’s gurgling moans and curses. The pig kept squealing from where it lay stuck on its shattered front legs. “Eddie! What the fuck!” Keefer’s voice was pissed and desperate and afraid.
I shot the pig.
No, that’s not it, either. Nothing like that. More like this:
I was on guard at the base perimeter. It was pitch black, the middle of the night. Everybody was keyed up, but nobody said anything about it. We knew something bad was going to happen soon. There was a bad voodoo feeling. Patrols had come back with weird reports. One didn’t come back at all.
At the first sounds I froze. I didn’t know what to do, couldn’t remember what to do. I wanted someone to tell me. No, I didn’t want to know anything. I hid in the bottom of the foxhole, and heard low rustling sounds as the gooks slipped by. I expected to feel a bayonet in my back at any second. I didn’t want to be hurt. I didn’t want this to be it.
You’d think they’d have been able to smell the crap in my pants, but I was invisible in my fear. I heard the firing start behind me, explosions and scattered screams. A lot of our guys got killed that night. That wasn’t my fault. Not all of it. But I knew. Eventually there was a court-martial. Then everybody knew.
None of that happened. None of it. I was never in Vietnam, not really, but for years I tried to imagine it. I’d read all the books, seen all the movies. I’d gone to the Wall. I dreamed of it, wished for it, longed for it in a way that only someone who hadn’t been there could. I felt that people who’d been there during that war knew something I didn’t. And they probably did, though maybe they’d rather not.
Maybe it’s a guy thing, I don’t know. But you wonder how you’d do. In combat, under fire. Would you be brave? A coward? Would you survive? Would you get killed or captured or get your balls shot off? Would you be like the guy in old war movies who panics and gets a lot of good men killed? What would you do? If you saw someone being attacked on the subway, someone being raped, what would you do? What would people say about what you did? Would it be like in the books? Would it be like the movies?
The truth was, that was bullshit. Yeah, you might wonder how you’d do, but you didn’t actually want to know. Not if in your gut you knew the worst image of yourself was the true one. My dreams of Vietnam, our acid rock war, the books and movies and deeply moving PBS specials, that was as close as I ever wanted to get.
Because I knew what I’d do. Anything to save my skin, that’s what. They say you never know until it happens, but I know. Look the other way, keep my mouth shut, eat a ton of any kind of shit, give up every friend I’ve ever had, you name it, I’d do it.
But if I wasn’t there, then why was I dreaming about Bobby Olay, Keefer and the rest? Why did I dream about the pig? One night, on the No. 2 train up from Fourteenth Street, I thought I saw Keefer at the far end of the car, trying to drag Bobby down to where I sat. But it wasn’t Keefer and it wasn’t Bobby. It was just a bum with a bag of empty soda cans.
Carla thought I should see someone, a therapist, a shrink, someone. She thought I might want to think about going to AA. This was in 1995. I’d met Carla in the laundry room of my building a couple months before, and we’d started going out. It made her nervous when I talked about this stuff or showed her what I’d written. She didn’t like it when I drank too much. Carla meant well, but I don’t know. She was just someone I met in the laundry room.
Carla and I were walking up Eighth Avenue in the Forties in the rain when a wild haired guy in dirty clothing blocked our way. He stared fiercely at me and I saw he was about my age.
“Can you help a vet?” he said. It was more a demand than a request. He made me feel funny. I looked sideways at Carla.
“Were you in ‘Nam?” he said. “Weren’t you in ‘Nam? You were in ‘Nam.”
“No,” I said. “I mean, I was in Thailand. In the Air Force.” I saw Carla looking at me. It was like they were both waiting.
“Thailand, huh?” he said. “A flyboy.”
He was standing too close. “I didn’t fly,” I said, taking a step back. “I was on the ground.”
“Hey, man,” he said, his voice rising, “I was on the ground, too. Really on the ground. Come on, you know how it is. You were there.”
I took Carla’s arm and started to move around this guy.
“Come on, man,” he said. “You know how it is. I need some help.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry.” I tried to hurry us up the street. I wanted to be far away. He was muttering angrily behind us, but I didn’t look around. Carla and I didn’t speak for several blocks. I felt like I’d done something wrong.
“You can’t give to everybody,” I finally said. “Besides, there was something about that guy.”
“Yeah,” she said, “I noticed.”
We were in a coffee bar. I wanted a beer, but it was a coffee bar. Carla looked at me and said, “Why do you need to write these stories? Like you told that homeless guy, you weren’t even there. Write about Thailand if you’ve got to write about something.”
I’d been in Thailand a year, drinking and chasing whores as much as possible and making a fool of myself. I didn’t want to write about that. I hated coffee. I looked down into my cup of hot chocolate. I didn’t want this. I wanted a beer. “It’s not like I need to write them. I’m just trying to imagine what it was like. They’re just stories.”
She drank her coffee and looked at me. “Well, I don’t know, Eddie. It seems that enough of the men who were there have written about it, and they were there.”
I thought about that. “What does that mean? That I can’t write about something I haven’t done? You ever hear of fiction?”
The corner of her mouth twisted down and she stirred her coffee. “It’s just that, well, sometimes you talk like some Rambo wannabe. You ever talk to any real vets about this?” She paused. “Anyway, do you think people care about that war the way they used to? It’s history, Eddie. We’ve got other wars now.”
I put my hands on the table decisively, trying to hide how pissed off she was making me. “Listen, it’s still early. Let’s go to that new place on Amsterdam, the one with the great jukebox.”
She frowned and drank her coffee.
There was a large black man, a really big guy, I’d often see on Broadway in the lower Eighties who was always dressed in camouflaged combat fatigues and a poncho that reached his knees. He wore this jungle gear rain or shine and used a large push broom and a trash can on wheels to clean the sidewalk and street near the curb. As far as I could tell he’d taken it upon himself to perform this duty. I wondered what had happened in Vietnam to put him on this mission here, because he’d clearly been there and just as clearly hadn’t come all the way back. Then again, what did I know? Maybe he’d never been in the army or any war. Maybe he was just nuts. There was plenty of that.
Carla and I had come out of Barnes & Noble and were walking uptown when we heard angry voices. The guy in fatigues was slowly sweeping near the curb where another man wanted to park. He stood in front of his double-parked car with a woman at his side. They were both yelling. The black man said nothing and continued to sweep.
I wanted to see this. Carla pulled on my arm. “Let’s go, Eddie. I don’t want to stay here.”
“Wait a second,” I said, not looking at her. Just then this guy walked up to the black man, said something I couldn’t hear, and pushed him. He held his balance and continued sweeping.
“That’s not right,” I said to Carla.
“What’s the point?” she said. I looked at her and saw a pained, annoyed expression on her face.
“Hey!” I called out. “Stop it. Leave the guy alone.”
“Eddie, shut up!” Carla said as I took a step toward the street.
The man turned and looked at me. “What? You should mind your own business, mister. Keep out of this.”
“Yeah,” the woman with him said. “Mind your own fucking business! Tommy, who is this fucking guy?”
I took another step toward the street. “Look, just leave him alone, okay? What’s the big deal anyway? This isn’t necessary.”
Tommy’s eyes narrowed and he stepped toward me. He looked like a gangster, some thug on TV. I was scared. Carla was right, this was stupid.
“Listen, pencilneck, this retard’s fucking with my parking place. What’s necessary is that I might have to fuck you up if you don’t shut the fuck up and get out of here.”
“Eddie,” Carla said behind me. “What are you trying to do?” I looked back. A small crowd had gathered. I wondered if any of them would help me.
“Look,” I said to Tommy, “I don’t want to fight. This guy’s not hurting you. This isn’t necessary. There’s some parking spaces across the street.”
He came up to me. “I don’t want to park across the street. I want to park right fucking here! And I’ve listened to you long enough.”
He pushed me in the chest with both hands. I stumbled back and fell. As I got up he hit me twice in the face, very fast. It just made a quick slapping sound. I fell back and sat on the sidewalk, holding a hand to my face. He looked down at me, then turned back to see that the black guy had finished sweeping the spot and was moving down the street.
Carla helped me up as Tommy backed his car into the space. I took my hand away from my face and saw blood on it. Carla handed me some tissues. “Here,” she said. “Wipe your face. Christ, you should see yourself. Are you alright?”
“Yeah, I’m okay,” I said, wiping my face where I was bleeding from the mouth. I looked at the bloody tissues as we started to walk up the street.
“Do you like that, Eddie? That’s your blood,” Carla said. “Are you happy with that? Just what were you trying to do? Be a tough guy?”
“Carla, let’s just stop somewhere for a drink, okay?”
She started to walk ahead of me.”No, I’m going home. You should go home, too. You should go home and watch one of your war movies.”
“This isn’t working,” Carla said. “I don’t think we should see each other any more.”
We were in my apartment. Carla was sitting on a swivel chair by my desk. I stood looking out the window. It had been raining earlier in the evening. The street wetly reflected the lights on the block.
“I like you a lot, Eddie. You’re a nice guy and I have a good time when you haven’t been drinking, but you get into this thing and it’s like I’m not even there.” She sounded tired. I heard her let out a breath. “I don’t like talking to your back. This is what I mean.”
I turned and leaned against the window sill. I didn’t want her to leave, but I didn’t know what to say.
“I mean, this whole Vietnam thing, what’s that about? Christ, Eddie, that was thirty years ago, and you’re what, almost fifty? I’ve never heard of anybody being this fucked up over it who didn’t go.”
She sat there looking at me, waiting for me to say something. Then she slowly got up and went to the door. She paused with her hand on the door knob and said, “I’m not sure what you’re looking for, but I don’t think I want to be there when you find it.” Then she left. I stayed at the window for a minute, looking at my feet, then got another beer. All this while I hadn’t said a word. I wondered when I’d see her again.
I’m in a booth near the back of the bar. This is an old place, a real tavern, with a long dark wooden bar that smells of years of soaked-up beer and cigarettes. It’s ten in the morning and nearly empty. The jukebox is playing the Rolling Stones and I’m drinking beer. Outside the sun is shining.
The front door opens and sunlight spills across the floor. Bobby Olay and Larry Keefer come in the bar, Bobby pushing Keefer’s wheelchair. They’re late. Keefer removes his sunglasses, sees me in the back and waves. He says something to Bobby and Bobby starts pushing Keefer toward my booth.
Keefer tells Bobby to stop when they get near the booth. He wheels himself closer to the table in the booth. Bobby feels his way into the seat across from me.
“Glad you guys got here,” I say. “I’ll get some beers.” Keefer watches as I get up and go to the bar. I return with three long-necked bottles and set them on the table.
“Well, Eddie,” Keefer says after taking a drink from his bottle, “she dumped you, huh?”
“Yeah, well. What else is new?” I look across at Bobby with his sightless eyes. “I’ll survive.”
“Well, hell,” Bobby says. “We’ll all survive. You survived.” He pauses. “You got fucked in that court martial, man.” He is drunk. So is Keefer. Bobby bangs his head back against the booth and laughs. I see the bartender look our way.
“Hey, Eddie,” Bobby says. “I got a question. Tell me again. Who was it shot that fucking pig?”
Keefer and I look at each other and laugh. We look at Bobby and say together, “We all did!”
I order another round. We’re laughing hysterically. It’s a beautiful day outside, but I’d rather be in here.