Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
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Dad comes through the back door into the kitchen where Mom is putting cookies on a metal tray. He stands on the edge of the rug by the door and lifts his boots to look at the bottoms, then at the shiny floor, then past me into the living room where Mom has oiled furniture, reflecting sunlight through the window over the couch. From my chair in the corner of the kitchen I can see into the living room. The TV is on with coverage of the Democratic candidate, Hubert Humphrey. Dad looks in at the carpet, freshly vacuumed so that it stands up like small spears. He steps from foot to foot, hitting his leather mittens together, but he stays on the rug. A white rind of snow outlines his boots.
"He's coming in from the car," Dad says, sounding a little out of breath. "I offered to carry his duffel bag, but he said he had it." He laughs. "As if I didn't know how to carry a duffel bag." He takes off his hat, a bright checkered cloth with a stiff bill, and brushes back a thin handful of graying hair.
"Well," Mom says, "I got the house clean but I haven't made lunch yet. I wonder if he'll be hungry or if cookies and coffee will be enough." She adjusts molasses and peanut butter cookies on the tray and even from the corner I can see her fingers shake.
"I guess I carried a duffel bag long enough when my country asked me to," Dad says, looking at me.
"Peanut butter is his favorite," Mom says.
Dad nods at me. "You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"
"What?" Mom turns to face him, their eyes meeting for the first time since he came in.
"I was talking about our number two son here," Dad says, jerking his thumb at me.
There it is, I think: always number two. "C'mon Dad," I say. "Give me a break."
Mom looks at me and says, "I hope you'll try to get along with your brother." I can tell by the lines going up alongside her nose and between her eyes that she's pretty worried. "Promise me you won't get into it about Vietnam. Will you, please?"
"We might," I say. "If he's for it, if he hassles me about it, we probably will." Mom watches me but Dad, as usual, choosing not to hear, goes to the door and peers out the small window.
"Here he comes," Dad says, rubbing his hands and kicking his boots together. He tightens his grip on the knob and says, "I've got the first two weeks all planned. We're going hunting and ice fishing. I think I'll take him out near old Shipman's coulee. We could shoot fox out there." He glances at the ceiling. "I should show him the new bathroom I put in upstairs."
Mom turns away from me. "I'm sure he'll find it eventually," she says, going to the counter to put on a red and white flowered apron. She smooths the apron over her waist, then reaches up to pat her new hairdo where it puffs into a high bouffant.
I hear a hydraulic 'whoosh' as the outside door opens and half closes. Dad holds the inside door and steps aside. "Got everything there, son?"
Adam comes in, his light brown hair ridiculously short and his face longer and thinner than I remember. He holds a full duffel bag in one hand and a folded cap in the other. His army coat is open, exposing his green uniform underneath. "Hi, Mom," he says. He nods at me and I nod back. He looks very slick and very military and I feel sure we won't hit it off. I have a hard time looking at him in that uniform and I feel this funny feeling like anger come up inside.
"Let me take your coat," Dad says. Adam slips out of it and hands it over, along with the bag. Dad takes his coat and pulls up the heavy bag and goes by me, trying to walk straight as though the bag is not that heavy. He hangs the coat in the hall closet and sets the bag on the stairs; then he comes back to stand by my chair.
Mom has started walking toward Adam, but he says, "Just a second," and reaches down to undo his shoelaces. "I don't want to get your nice clean floor dirty." Still the apple polisher, I think, and, of course, it works.
"Don't worry about this old floor," Mom says, grasping him around his waist and pressing her head against his chest. She throws her arms around his neck and, with eyes closed, says, "It's so good to see you."
"Hey, come on now," Adam tells her. "No tears now, all right? Can't stand to see a girl cry." He hasn't lost his touch.
Stepping away, she wipes her eyes with the back of her hand. "Have you given up eating?" she asks, trying to laugh.
"You sure got a sun tan," Dad says. He looks down at me. "Remember your brother?" That angry tone is still there like I should be doing hand springs or something. Still, without planning to, I'm on my feet and heading for him. We shake hands and he stares at my hair and paisley shirt and patched bell-bottoms. He doesn't say anything. We let go, embarrassed, I think, by the formality.
"Were you a CO over there?" I ask, unable to hold back. Mom gives me a quick glare. I'm now a half a head taller than Adam and about that much less than Dad, so when he comes up I'm aware of his presence, standing there with his hands on his hips. He's mad again, but it's too late to take back the question.
"No." Adam looks puzzled. Turning the sleeve of his jacket to me, he shows me three stripes. "Does this look like a CO?"
I stare at him. "Do you know what a CO is?"
"Commanding Officer," he says.
"Commanding Officer? Boy are you out of it."
"What then?" He blinks.
"Conscientious Objector!" God, I think, commanding officer, what next?
"Oh," Adam says. "Well, I wasn't either one of those." I hear Mom's nails ticking against her cup.
"We didn't have much time for those guys when I was in," says Dad. Adam and I look at each other as Dad goes to the table. He motions for us to join him and we sit. Mom pours coffee.
"I made your favorite," she says, setting down the tray. Adam smiles as Dad studies his brass and ribbons, as usual ignoring me.
From his side pocket, Adam takes out a grey metal cigarette case and matching lighter. He unbuttons the jacket, exposing a poplin shirt and black tie. Mom brings him a small, brown ashtray with a red apple painted inside it. "It looks too pretty to use," Adam says, inspecting the ashtray.
"A little better than you're used to, I'll bet," Dad says, like he knows all about it. "Here, let me take your jacket."
"Coffee cans filled with water," Adam says, taking off the jacket and handing it to Dad and then lighting his cigarette.
"That's not good for you," Mom says.
Adam studies the smoking tip. "I guess I hadn't given it much thought."
"More important things to think about, huh, son?" Dad puts the jacket on slowly and with deliberate care. It's snug in the shoulders and requires stretching to button. The sleeves come to within an inch of his wrists.
"It's tight on me, too, Dad." Adam smokes his cigarette while Dad stands looking down at the jacket, sucking in his gut. We can tell he's having fun with it, imagining what it would be like.
"It isn't either," Mom blurts. "You're just being kind. Take that thing off before you rip it."
"It's not that bad, is it?" Dad says, examining the neat rows of multicolored ribbons and the stripes on each sleeve. "I should get my old uniform out of the attic." He glances at Mom, who says nothing. "I had some decorations of my own after Italy."
"It looks great, Dad," Adam says, puffing on his cigarette.
"Thanks son." Dad smiles, reassured, I suppose. He leans down and pats Adam's shoulder and Adam jerks away, bumping the table and spilling coffee.
"Excuse me." Adam's voice is quick and tense. "I wasn't expecting that." The movement was so sudden and unexpected that we just sit there, looking at him. Then Dad settles in his chair and we watch Adam brush cigarette ash from his lap. Mom wipes the table and sets the cookies closer to Adam. I can see how hard she's working at this, trying to keep it together.
"Sorry," Dad says with a note of apology. "I didn't think you were so jumpy."
"It's okay," Adam says, relighting his cigarette, his hand shaking. Mom tips the cookie tray toward him.
"I made your favorite," she says. "Go ahead. Have one." Adam holds his hand over the tray, his forehead showing several thin, white lines through his deep tan.
"Do you feel all right?" Dad asks.
"I guess so," Adam says, his hand still poised over the tray. "This is just going to take a little getting used to, that's all." He doesn't look too good. He went pale when Dad thumped him and the color hasn't returned. I've got to get him out of here, I think, before they badger him to death.
"What's that, son?" Dad leans toward him, keeping his hands on his lap. Adam selects a cookie from the tray.
"Maybe you would rather have lunch?" Mom asks.
"No," he answers. "This is fine." He sets the cookie down as though unsure what to do with it.
"What takes getting used to, son? Being home? Being back in your own home?" Dad's hands hang limply between his knees.
"I don't know," Adam says, watching the ashtray. "You look forward to something for so long and then it happens and it comes so quickly that it's hard to stay with it." Mom and Dad don't understand this at all and I'm sure they're going to keep after him. Adam looks down at the table.
"Come on," I say, standing. "I want you to meet someone." Adam looks up at me, dreamy eyed. I know I've got to get him out of here. "Come on."
"You're not leaving, are you?" Mom asks.
"Yeah. It won't be long. I want him to meet Barb. I'll bring him right back for you." Adam starts getting up. "Why don't you go upstairs and change out of that uniform. You don't want to get caught wearing that in a university town like Madison." Oh shit, I think. Now I've done it. Mom ticks at her cup again, but I force my self not to notice.
"Oh," Adam says. "Why not?"
"Don't pay any attention to him," Mom snaps. "And don't be gone too long."
"Your mother is making a good supper tonight, so be home on time you guys."
"Beef stew," Mom says.
Adam, ever the diplomat, answers, "Sounds great."
We go upstairs to what used to be our room and stand for a moment in the doorway. The room is built under the sloping roof, so that as we grew, we had to bend further to reach the head of our bunks. Each bed is covered with the same style of bedspread: dark brown wagon wheels and curving lines of rope on a light beige background. It's one of the things that Mom and Dad never got around to replacing, same with the lamp shades: cowboys lassoing cattle from rearing mounts.
The bunk beds are separated by night stands and a low bookcase holding texts and novels. On Adam's side, above The Growth of The American Republic and Moby Dick, two diplomas hang near the dormer window. The first says that he graduated from West High in 1962 and the second that he graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1966. On my side, set between a poster of Nixon and Agnew seated on a Harley and looking like Hell's Angels and another showing a line of people walking, bent backward with the bottoms of their shoes huge, my diploma says West High, 1965. Across the room is a study table between two metal closets.
I think about all the horsing around we used to do here and then how it all changed. I feel like I want to throw a pillow at him. Adam walks into the room, stepping gently as though he's afraid of breaking something. What's it going to be like having him back, I wonder.
Adam unlatches his closet door and opens each panel. "Pickings are pretty thin," I say, passing behind him on the way to my bunk against the far wall. He finds an ashtray, lights another cigarette, and sets the tray on his bunk near his closet.
"What are you majoring in?" he asks.
"Protesting," I say, leaning back against the wall, my hands behind my head.
He blows smoke out of his nose. "Political Science," he repeats.
"You heard it here first." I grin. "Actually, I'm doing pretty well in school, too, even though most of my time is taken by the movement."
"The antiwar movement?" He holds the cigarette in his mouth and squints at me.
"Yeah. We had quite a time this fall." I think about the Mifflin Street riots and about the bombing at the ROTC building. I think of the sit-down in the administration building to protest the ROTC program and how the school called the Guard on us. It makes me mad all over again just to think of it. I wish Adam would take off that uniform. "Pigs," I say, remembering.
"What?" He's checking out his closet.
"Pigs!" I see them chasing us across campus, running with their clubs raised, swinging at us as though we were trying to fight them, as though we wanted to do anything more than just get away. Adam gives me that blank look and I say, "Cops! Christ, it's like talking to someone from another planet."
"Sorry," he says, taking off his shoes and placing them carefully under his bunk so that only the highly polished tips are visible. He has that dreamy-eyed look again.
"Boy," I say. "I'd like to get some of whatever that is you're on."
"I'm listening," he says, standing and pulling off his shirt and tie.
"Don't you ever laugh?"
He forces a thin smile. "Just trying to catch up."
I think about the Guard again and bring my feet to the floor. "One time," I say. "They called the Guard in and they chased us all over campus: down Bascom Hill to Lake Street, down State Street toward the Capitol. Man, it was like a war, you know? Tear gas everywhere, people running around with blood gushing out of their heads, faces all bloody, screaming, falling down in the street, getting trampled."
"What year are you in?" he asks, surprising me.
"I don't know," I say. "Sophomore, I guess, Junior maybe. It depends. I know one thing though. Johnson and his pigs aren't going to get me over there."
"What will you do?" He hangs up his green slacks.
"Go to jail if I have to," I say. He turns away from the closet and looks at me.
"Jesus. There you go again. Don't give me that death-warmed-over-look."
"I was thinking, that's all."
"I don't know," he says softly, staring away. "Everything. Two days ago I was in the Nam. Yesterday I was in California. Today I'm back in Wisconsin." He looks confused. "We took a shelling at the airport just as I was getting ready to leave. I was thinking about that, about sitting in that shelter, waiting to go off red alert so I could board the plane to come home." He looks around the room, then pulls a faded pair of Levis from the closet. He shakes them out and steps into them. They're shrunk to mid-ankle.
He takes out a black turtleneck and says, "I'd better wash up a little first. He tosses the sweater onto his bed and peels off his tee shirt and I see this ugly welt on his stomach.
"Jesus," I say. "What did you do to yourself?" A white scar runs from his side just beneath his rib cage around to his stomach where the skin bursts out in a ganglia of twisted scar tissue.
"I zigged when I should have zagged," he says, sniffing the armpits of his tee shirt.
"No kidding!" I say, shocked. "God, that's ugly."
Adam throws his tee shirt onto the clothes hamper and goes to his bag. "It happened during the big Tet this past winter. It hasn't fully healed yet. I was lucky it didn't go in that deep."
"Yeah, right," I say. It must have hurt like hell.
"We went out in the morning in our APCs. I was on the 50 that day." He grabs his toilet kit and towel and walks to the bathroom. I follow along and he talks while washing.
"Hold the phone," I say. "What's an APC? What's a 50?"
"Armored Personnel Carrier, we rode in them. I was on the 50, a mounted machine gun. Anyway, we got caught out in the open and were running back for the base. We had to shoot our way in." He pauses, thinking it through, I guess. "When you're on the gun, you sit in a chair with the 50 in front of you." He splashes his face and armpits and picks up the white towel and begins drying off.
"Every once in a while you have to lean forward and pull back the action." He sits on the toilet seat and drapes the towel around his neck. "Well, I leaned forward and pulled back." He rocks backward on the seat. "You have to pull pretty hard, and when I jerked back, all the way back, a round came through the armrest and caught me. That's what I mean about being lucky." He shrugs. "A moment sooner or later, I'd have been sitting right in the way."
His voice sounds so casual, as though he's talking about someone else. "Far out," I say. They shot my brother, I think. They actually shot him. How can he be so nonchalant about it?
We walk back into the bedroom. He seems to be warming up to this stuff. "The troops call the plane that brings you back the freedom bird. Every time a 707 went up you could hear this loud cheer all along the fence where more soldiers were waiting to be processed. Guys would be yelling and waving. `Freedom bird. There goes the freedom bird!'" He acts like he can really see the thing. "We'd watch them fly over the runway lights that lit up the underbelly of the plane. Those lights were beautiful," he whispers.
I wait a minute. "Hey. Come back to earth, okay?"
"Whew! You were really gone, man." I point at him and laugh. "You should have seen yourself! You were in the zone, man. Your eyes were like ten million miles away." I'm laughing pretty hard.
"Only ten thousand," he says. He looks down at his stockinged feet and twitches his toes and then he looks back at me and he says simply but earnestly, "Don't point at me."
"Don't point at you? Now what's this?"
"I don't know," Adam says. "It just bothers me."
"You sure you're not on something?" I ask. "I've got some really good stuff over at Barb's, so hurry up and get some clothes on. Let's get going." I remember what happened back at the table and I want to get him out of here.
Adam goes to his closet and is standing there when Dad comes in with three bottles of beer. "Hope I didn't break anything up," he says, passing out the bottles.
"Not at all," Adam says. "I'm just looking for some shoes and all I have are either old sneakers or my hunting boots."
"Put on the hunting boots," I say. "Those don't look too out of it." Adam carries the boots to his bed and begins stringing the thick, rawhide laces.
"Be nice if we could do some hunting, wouldn't it son?"
Come on, Dad, I think. I wonder if he'd be so anxious to go out and shoot something if he saw Adam's scar. I wonder what he'd think then. Adam remains bent over his boots, pulling the leather strings. "We could go after fox or rabbits or just go pop some gophers."
Adam glances up. "Gophers?" He looks like maybe he didn't hear him right. I picture him roaring along blazing with that 50 he talked about, and then going out with a.22 to `pop' gophers.
Dad sips his beer and then says, "We could go after crows, too."
"Whatever," says Adam, standing, his voice distant.
I've go to get Dad off this. "Hey Adam," I say. "Show Dad your scar."
"Scar?" Dad asks, stepping forward. "Let's see, son." Adam gives me a hard look and turns to Dad.
"Okay," Adam says, "but don't tell Mom."
"She'll see it anyway," I say. "When you put on a swimming suit this summer, she's going to see it."
Adam pulls up his tee shirt and sweater. "My God," Dad says, coming close and running a finger over the scar, tracing it from side to front. He drinks quickly and takes Adam by the shoulder.
"You know our prayers were with you." I can see the pride in his eyes.
"As if that had anything to do with it," I say. Dad glares at me and I add, "You act like you're happy about it or something."
"Listen here, young man," Dad says. "You and those long-haired freaks you run around with till all hours of the night wouldn't know the meaning of the word sacrifice." I groan, but he keeps it up. "You're all too busy staying out all hours and coming in red eyed talking rubbish. Don't think I don't know what's going on."
"What's going on, Dad?" I ask. I've about given up on this anyway. Hell with it.
"You're out there smoking that pot. That's what's going on. That's why your mother is worried sick about you."
Adam had tucked in his tee shirt and straightened his sweater. He takes Dad by the elbow. "Don't tell Mom about this, okay?"
Dad, red faced, says, "All right, son. If that's what you want." His shoulders sink back to their normal level. I'm still chewing on that word 'sacrifice' and thinking what to say when Dad asks, "I'll bet you never smoked any of that. Did you, Adam?"
Adam glances at each of us. "Actually, I did. It was pretty common over there. That and a lot of other things, but I just smoked grass."
"I've heard they have some pretty good stuff over there," I say.
"When did you smoke this stuff?" Dad asks.
"On the coast, at a place where the natives would take their fishing boats out onto the harbor at night if they heard there would be any trouble coming. We used to sit on the hillside down from the compound and pass the pipe and watch the harbor fill up with boats. We could count them by the little lanterns that swung from the mast and rocked with each wave. It was a beautiful sight and we tried to get our count down to a science, but we never did. Around fifty though and, sure enough, later on the sirens would go off and we'd have to run for the bunkers."
"Then what happened?" Dad asks, gripping his beer.
"We'd become part of the firing line and watch the perimeter. Once in a while there'd be a sapper attack and we'd fire like crazy where flares lit up the fence line. In the morning we'd find bodies draped over the barbed wire or tangled in the concertina. It was amazing how far they could make their way through all that wire."
"But what about smoking this grass? What was the point of that?"
"I don't know." Adam shrugs, looking up at Dad. "Don't mean nothin'." He smiles and I start laughing. Dad stares at both of us. He lifts his arms and lets them drop.
"I give up," he says. Then his face brightens. "Say, I cleaned your old double barrel. Remember? The one you used to shoot?"
"I remember I couldn't hit anything with it," says Adam.
"You're just being modest," Dad says. You could hit a bird on the wing as well as anyone. Here, I'll get it." He rushes from the room.
"That's okay," Adam calls after him. "I'll look at it later." But Dad is gone. I can hear him in the guest room closet where he keeps all the hunting stuff.
"Do you still go out with him?" Adam asks me. He looks a little pale again.
"No way," I say. "I'm not into that hunting trip." Dad comes back in holding a short, double barreled 20 gauge.
"Here she is," he says, holding it up. "See, I stripped the stock with a razor blade. I think I got all the scratches out."
"It looks great, Dad," Adam says in a low voice.
"And then I stained and finished it."
"You did a good job on it too."
"And I blued the barrel so that old wear marks don't show." Dad steps from foot to foot the way he does when he gets excited. He points to different places on the shotgun."
"It looks brand new," Adam says, touching the gun as though it's hot.
"I brought your old hunting vest, too," Dad says, holding it up. "See? The shells are still arranged just the way you used to do it." Adam takes one side of the vest while Dad holds the other. They stand close together, Adam pale like in the kitchen.
"Go ahead. Try it on," Dad says, holding the vest. Adam slips it on, looking down where it presses onto his shoulders and against his chest. He seems to be holding his breath.
"Here you go," Dad says, handing him the shotgun. Adam takes it and holds it on his fingertips. "Want me to get your hat and jacket?"
"No," he mumbles, that dreamy look back.
"Go ahead," Dad insists, oblivious as usual. "See if it feels like it used to."
Obediently, Adam raises the gun, closes one eye and sights along the barrel. Then he drops the shotgun on the bed and steps back, rubbing his hands on his jeans. Shaking, he tears off the vest and throws that down too. I step forward. "Don't you see, Dad," I shout. "Can't you see he's sick of guns and killing? He's opposed to the war, too, aren't you Adam? He's against it just like me." The certainty of it fills me. Dad's noticing me now. "He knows he was just being used, sent over there to shoot at those poor bastards and to make money for a bunch of fat cats here!"
Dad stands there, ashen faced, unblinking. "No," he says, waving me off.
"That's right! All the facts are on our side." I start ticking them off: "The Geneva Treaty, SEATO, the Gulf of Tonkin. For once it's time you faced the truth, saw the whole thing!" I turn to Adam for support. He's shaking his head from side to side, his palms flat against the wall.
"Admit it," I yell. "You fucked up, didn't you. You let them draft you and send you to Vietnam!"
Adam's voice is weak. "I don't know."
"You don't know?" I feel the ground slipping. "You've got to know."
"I just want to forget the whole thing," Adam says. "It's over and I just want to forget all about it." He might be talking to himself, looking past my shoulder. I'm losing again; I know, but I can't quit. I step closer.
"People are laying down some heavy sacrifices right now and you're saying you just want to forget it? You didn't have the nerve to resist! People are out in the streets getting their heads busted and getting sent to jail. We're taking all kinds of abuse over this thing because we know what's right! And you just went along with it." I lean toward him, tapping out my points against his chest. He comes to life, grabs my finger, and bends it down sharply. My finger cracks and I drop to the floor. There are tears in my eyes but I can see him line up his right boot for the kick. Then he lowers his foot and lets go of my finger. He sits against the wall, knees up, his elbows on his knees and his forearms back over his head.
"Leave him alone!" Dad says. "Leave each other alone."
I hear Mom's voice, high and nervous, calling from the stairs. "It's all right," Dad says. "Nothing to worry about." He leaves the room and I hear her steps approaching.
Adam's head, turned to the window, rests on his arm, folded over his knee. My finger throbs. I sit back against his bunk and hold my finger and look at him. We sit like that in silence, the shotgun lying heavily on his bunk, Mom and Dad looking into the room at us.
Paul Schultz writes: My vocation for nearly twenty years now has been as an accountant/business manager. My avocation is writing and, when I can catch one, teaching composition or creative writing classes. I have a Masters in English and an M.F.A. from Colorado State University. My stories have been published in several small journals such as Colorado Review, Sycamore Review, and Grasslands Review, I am currently working on a novel set in a small Wisconsin circus town. I have also written a short Vietnam war novel.