Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
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The nights I walk around this apartment wishing bychrist the front door would swing wide & a man will walk in with metal jacketed rounds & put one right through my right eye. I don't have the courage to do it myself but I have the desire.
My wife is sleeping with a bruised throat & an alarm clock. I have taken her kindness & eaten her dry. She has lived with my screams & nightmares about Vietnam for four years & there won't be many more. The end of this is coming, a matter-of-time.
I have no money, car payments, another ex-wife & no excuses. My brother & sister haven't seen me in years; my father may or may not be alive. It doesn't matter.
My kids are in another state; they know my voice on the phone. Three alive. I buried one.
I was a young man, 18 years old, before I saw my first dead body. Might as well have been a carp, for all I felt, a carp with one eye poked out & mutilated fins. A small girl in a nameless Vietnamese town, all of six homes & six fireplaces... everything coated in mud & war. A thin pig was chewing on her half a leg, grunting as it tore into her.
The guy next to me had been in the Nam for five months. He killed the pig; we all ate it later & it tasted fine.
No spirit of a dead girl flew into us.
I tore off chunks.
That whole year was death & mutilation; everywhere I looked there were bodies piled up, smeared in lime, waiting on the bulldozer. People in villages were missing arms & legs, napalm burns.
No one ever wrote about war & described how the bodies farted & belched for hours after their demise. Yes. Hours of very human sounds come out of very dead bodies & the rats that come to eat don't mind a bit. They'll eat good. I've seen with my eyes bodies, laying on concertina wire for hours & rats shaking their bones to pieces.
I sat for days, once, on a river bank, waiting to kill a man. I shit myself, I pissed myself, I waited & the only thought I had was how bad I wanted a cigarette.
Every movement slow, exaggerated in its slowness, I shot the little bastard. The blood came out of his neck like water out of a water pistol; he died bone innocent of me.
I sat a while longer, lighting up a Salem & smelling myself. It wasn't a bad moment.
That image put me in the VA hospital for a couple of months.
The bodies never stopped coming. I'd shoot one & another took his place; blood spurted out of fifty men's heads & into the filthy My Tho river. Fish boiled the surface, bathing themselves in human gore. I never stopped firing.
I was sitting on a couch in New Hampshire, sneaking out at night to get milk, etc. at the 7-11... I sat there for weeks, seeing bodies pile hundreds of feet high, popping caps at everything. Everything died. Personally.
Even the fucking ground was dead. We'd ride patrol boats down brown rivers & see cracked, brown mud & swamp without vegetation for miles... hours. The occasional bush or tree would be all that was left in acres of mud & swamp.
No animals, no people. Dirt falling into an already filthy sewer.
It was a good place to be.
No one & I mean no one ever bitched about Agent Orange; I could've kissed Dow Chemical on its corporate ass. It trimmed the wings of that nasty ghost hummingbird: Mr. Charles. But it was damn sure strange to look at all those miles of the Sahara Desert in the middle of a jungle.
But if I had known that the defoliant was going to kill us, I'd have taken the Cong on without a weapon & a mouthful of spit.
When my own daughter died of exposure to Agent Orange, I did load up weapons into my Escort & lit for the corporate headquarters of Dow & Death.
& that's another story.
Heads on a pole, heads on a pole, heads on a pole--it got rhythm, as close to hell as you can get.
The head shrinks a little without the body.
I shrunk before it, stuck on a bamboo shoot, staring at it for minutes; my mind switched off, totally numb to my eyes. I went quietly insane before it, way beyond horror, beyond mutilation; my buddy, Bill Appellen, stuck a cigarette in its mouth & took a 35mm picture with his new Yashica. Other guys posed with it, pictures all around.
We left it there. The maggots had already found it, crawling through its ears. No one would touch it--the scalp already starting to lift from the head.
Walk on, Trooper.
It was when I was first married & children were crawling the rug; my oldest daughter on my lap as I rocked her to sleep in the front room of our rented trailer... my wife was a ghost of a woman, the kids sucking the soul right out of her body. She must've been asleep at the time.
I took that child of mine & a.44 under the trailer with the bugs and spiders. Actually dragged an old air mattress under there & some kid's toys. Candy bars & Kool-Aid. It was the most secure place I had been since Can Tho city, looking through the mobile home skirting. A loaded.44 & a child that depended on me--I had it down stone cold.
My in-laws came a few months later & took the kids & took the wife; I hated them. Americans with no scars swinging the flag. Every asshole got the same wrinkles.
Jim Davidson was a fool.
We were doing a sweep of a village, about twenty of us circling around some hooches, walking in with weapons set on maximum rock & roll; the light was fading & steam was heavy on the jungle floor... this little kid came running at us... we screamed for him to stop, goddamnit stop! & he kept on, heading for Davidson, who was screaming with the rest of us.
The kid ran right on top of him & pulled the satchel charge on his back, blowing Davidson into the weeds in pieces.
I don't know why we didn't kill that kid.
Her legs were curled behind her in an old, old chair, a dog at her feet & a glass of Tang on the small table.
She had been steadily vomiting blood & vodka into a towel for an hour; the ashtray was filled with Camels floating in her stomach acid.
I walked over & gave her a kiss on the cheek & said: Mom.
A small room with curtains separating five beds. Men snarling motherfucker whore slut cunt slope gook cunt... a fist connecting with a whore's face. You paid your money, you took your whore.
I was on my side looking at this woman, no more than 16 years old & bad dead to any emotion; we were a good pair, a couple.
Her arms abscessed from heroin, nasty nasty puss sores & red streaks running up her arms. Poppy eyes. She hadn't felt the last hundred men that jumped her four-ten frame. I don't think she even knew she was pregnant.
He was going to die if I didn't cut his throat with a Bowie knife.
We were in a helicopter coming back from a mission that failed deep in blood; guys gut wounded screaming above the sounds of the helo blades; I slipped once on the sandbags on the floor, so coated in blood, I was walking on ice 1000 feet in the air. Morphine syrettes all around... battle dressings already soaked clear through with blood.
& one guy turning blue, holding his head. A round had gone right through his face, broken his jaw & shot the teeth right out of him. His tongue blown off & laying in his airway. No air, no life.
I cut him asshole-to-elbow & stuck a piece of surgical tubing in his throat... a fancy tracheotomy. His color got better before he fainted.
Mine never got better.
Couple nights ago I was dead, locked in tight with the arms of war, asleep on my bed here in Youngwood PA. The firefights are always more vivid, more precise in their brilliance, the bone chips of the Viet Cong damn near glow in my walls.
I felt cold steel on my left eye, a strong pressure & a smell of gun oil.
My wife had straddled me, pinning my legs to the bed & a gun to my head. I never saw her face, it was so black. I didn't struggle.
The words came from the grave: No more, Bill Shields, no more, & she pulled the trigger.
Of course, I died.
I feel no different.
The last five minutes of my first marriage were 6:30 to 6:35 on the edge of a snow bank. My ex-wife screaming at me not to come back without a refrigerator & I didn't.
They never heard a damn thing; we slithered into the hooch & put a round into the old man's head without even his wife stirring next to him.
On the way out, I rigged a white phosphorus grenade to the door--letting it hang on monofilament line--so when they woke up in the morning & opened the door, the grenade would detonate. They'd burn to death. They did burn to death.
We went back a couple days later to see how they were.
A dead Amerasian baby floating down the My Tho river... I was on a barge, stuck right in the middle of the river, sipping a coke & watching the sunrise. The guy on watch shared a joint with me; we were listening to an 8-track tape of the Jefferson Airplane, wishing tochrist we were back home getting our share of that free love & dope.
That baby ran into the piling, then the current took the body downstream. Those tiny blue eyes were looking straight into hell.
He had sat next to me in a veterans' rap group for six months, a big bear of a guy barely thirty yet married twice with three kids. He talked less than me--I liked him. So many of the guys sitting there loved to talk about the Nam, missing the adrenaline & the firepower... men stuck forever at a point in their life, gauging everything to one experience. Hell, I'm guilty of that too. But I was quiet, so was this guy.
The VA let him out of the violent lockup ward once a week for meetings. He had tried to strangle his wife & child one night, mistaking them in the dark for Vietnamese.
I understood that--done it myself.
He was an okay guy.
My father had been drinking & spitting out teeth for days; our mother was gone, off to see her parents & the old man had been carrying a bottle with him since.
He took a swing at my little brother--he must've been six at the time--& that small boy threw an ashtray at the old man's mouth, meeting teeth & lips.
If that man is still alive, he's carrying those scars.
My brother grew up to be a computer programmer who drives an old Ford & blames his fucked life on his own kids.
19,000,000 tons of herbicide.
1,500,000 farm animals killed.
9,000 hamlets destroyed.
I came home to Western Pennsylvania in the middle of snow & freezing rain; two days before I had been loaded into a plane in Saigon, flipped the bird against the window & sweated in the air-conditioning room. Took three Darvon, rushed them down with coffee. Stopped in Hawaii, stopped in San Francisco, where they missed finding the pot I was bringing home. Caught a commercial flight to Pittsburgh, then caught a commuter flight to my home town. 11pm. Only passenger.
I didn't have a coat & the terminal was closed. I popped the bottle of Darvon: three more. Washed those bad boys down dry.
The headlights of that Dodge Dart were slow in coming; maybe I waited half an hour, maybe longer, standing under the roof of that little airport lounge, A four-cigarette wait. Bad shakes for a boy acclimated to 100 degree jungle.
They showed. My brother grinned from behind the wheel: "Didn't think we was going to leave you here alone, eh fucker?"
My mother passed me back a beer.
I spent that first night home, alone in the living room; the lights turned off, watching tv & sipping coke, munching chips. The family dog sniffed all the Vietnam off me. I fell asleep on the couch.
My brother took a pound of my pot & disappeared to a friend's house; my mother went to her room.
I woke up in the basement, crouched in the corner for movement, a rush in the dark. I almost killed that damn dog & he didn't even know it.
I cried for myself down there in the dirty clothes; yes I did, furious that this is what I came home to. Nothing but myself.
The third time I splintered the door with my knife my mother drove me into Pittsburgh, the VA hospital, where they prescribed Thorazine to keep me calm enough to finish out my 30-day leave & return to the Navy.
I hadn't been home for 72 hours before someone tried to sedate me & succeeded.
I found my Purple Hearts the day after we buried my mother. We were cleaning out her dresser & they were in her jewelry box--thrown in like a bad thought, crumpled next to her wedding band. They had been there for nine years, lost.
There were letters tucked in the bottom of the box, love letters from a guy she was engaged to in WWII & a newspaper clipping about his death in France. He hadn't been a hero, just a grunt eating metal.
I threw it all away, stuck the whole mess of that dresser--underwear, sweaters, pants & memorabilia--all of it in the trash. Purple Hearts too. & a half-filled bottle of Gilbey's. My sister took the rings.
He had been fifteen feet away & just plain evaporated into a red fog, a blood rain. Caught a rocket square in the chops.
Somebody had lied to the boy; I know John Wayne lied to him. I know Kennedy lied to him. I know he lied to himself, playing a stupid hero, when all that gets anyone is dead.
I pulled a sliver of his bone out of my face. That was the biggest piece of Serge Riviere we ever found.
His mother got a flag.
He's probably still sitting on top of the tv at home, a nice frame around the picture.
My first memory of childhood is a wounded rabbit that our family cat dragged in the kitchen; that alley cat had a grip on its neck that no man could shake. The bunny cried like a child & died by the stove. I stood with the family and watched it. There was so little else to do.
No one ever spat on me.
But I didn't wear my uniform much.
My sister didn't speak to me until 1975. She became a public accountant and forgot she ever slept with a black man, danced at a love-in & hated the Vietnam war. She married an attorney, had two kids & a Volvo. It's a life, she says.
I married her in Rockville, Maryland, pronounced guilty by a justice of the peace; hell no, I didn't love her & I didn't love myself but I did feel the need for a round-eyed woman with brunette hips. It takes five minutes to get married & a lifetime to get her voice out of your ear.
She came from a shithole in Minnesota with abusive parents; I was going to be more of the same.
The honeymoon lasted five days at a Motel 6 in Jacksonville, Florida; she left for home, I stayed with the Navy.
I'm still sending checks for those damn kids.
I totally fucked my first killing, a side of beef hanging at the grocery store is carved with more finesse.
The team had walked from the river, a good two blind black miles through jungle, into this village that was tucked between paddies. Hard core Viet Cong ville, total commitment. A quiet town at 2:15.
I caught movement to my right, about 100 feet from the nearest hooch, & I smelled him. He was cautious, noise disciplined, walking his perimeter. I stalked him slow, downwind.
& I came up on top of him, my knife slipping off the back of his head, stabbing him in the shoulder. My hand was in his mouth, cutting off a scream & I stuck him again, ripping his entire throat open. Hardcore cat, he fought me down; I was on my knees when the knife went in perfectly, right in the back of the head.
I was coated in his blood & the bugs ate me alive; it was the first spinal cord I ever saw.
Two weeks before she died, I carried my mother out of a restaurant bathroom; she had passed out on the pot, ice-cold. I thought she was dead. She pulled her head up, out of her chest saying of-course-I'm-okay & I carried her out.
When she passed out again at the table, we ate our meal as she slept with he mouth open.
She had her chance.
Rochester Minnesota. A town with boarding houses & chemotherapy patients walking the streets. Mayo Clinic. You come there when your only other option is the grave.
I pulled my daughter out of a children's hospital in Minneapolis, packed her in the car on a Sunday afternoon with plenty of blankets. Wind chill of 75 degrees below hell. I held her forty pounds & drove.
She lasted four days on the pediatric oncology war. The leukemia won on a Wednesday & she died holding my hand.
I left town with three days left on the room.