Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
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I never felt my finger be ripped off my hand. We were in grass six feet high, laying in the swamp mud as a full platoon of Viet Cong were leapfrogging us, going from one body to the next, sticking them with a bayonet. On our backs, a.45 in one hand & a knife in the other.
Screams from the wounded; the Viet Cong broke noise discipline talking to each other, confident they had us dead & our bodies stripped. A flash of black pants & another man would scream. I heard one asshole laughing with his pal as they moved to my position.
I waited, my hand shaking the.45 wildly; they came behind me, quiet then as snakes & the youngest shot a round at me, hitting my hand as the older gentleman jabbed a bayonet at my face. I shot the young man right in the goddamn head, he was never going to see his sixteenth birthday; the old man flat slithered away.
We went in there with ten men. Five men came out wounded, carrying five dead.
I loaded an M-14, two white phosphorous grenades, a Browning semiautomatic shotgun, a Ruger.44 magnum & 2.2 pounds of C-4 into my Ford Escort. Ammunition went in the back seat, covered over by my daughter's blanket. A Visa card & a Rand McNally map. I wasn't planning on living long enough for a change of clothes. My daughter had been dead only a few days; I was going to kill any one directly involved with developing Agent Orange at Dow Chemical, methodically spraying the lab walls with their body parts. No more reasons, no more excuses; the Greyhound bus line to hell was on time & I was driving with both hands on the wheel.
Called my ex-wife from the road, outside of Madison, Wisconsin, apologized for ever being a father. She said nothing. I was right.
I drove for days not reading the map, charging gas at ever small town station that took a credit card. I lost my fury to kill around Muncie, Indiana--it's that simple & pathetic--I just didn't have the heart for any more killing.
They're some lucky motherfuckers.
My sister's first husband hung himself. My mother, sister & brother found him hanging from the shower rod on a Sunday night. My sister had spent the weekend with the family & came home to find her husband, swinging from a towel, shit running down his legs. The coroner ruled it an accidental suicide; the insurance money paid for her business degree.
She had her nest egg.
A sick unit, that old father-in-law I had; he molested both of his infant daughters--& his father, their grandfather, joined in their obscenity. I didn't know this till I had been married to her for over a year.
I never liked the son of a bitch; he never liked me. I was the one that knocked up his daughter. Sorry, sir--did I beat you to it?
She still called him Dad.
I would've called him dead.
Terrible nightmares... my daughters running through rice paddies dressed in black pajamas, carrying AKs, a bandoleer across their chests. Feet splashing up water. Their voices are Vietnamese.
I watch them lie in ambush for hours, crouched on the jungle floor, mosquitoes biting their arms & faces. They kill the same American patrol each time, take the weapons & cigarettes & walk off into the swamps.
They eat handfuls of rice under a triple canopy of junkie; all my friends are back there with them, dipping into that rice, reading letters they stole from the Americans' bodies. One of them is from my mother.
Take a break: there are years full of days that are calm, nothing good or bad happens, just walk right through them like butter. Cash the paycheck, send a check & get the oil changed. A stack of cans in the cupboard, a loaf of fresh bread & a sink full of dirty dishes. Years of not looking past the living room couch. Then. One day the old lady in front of you in the grocery store catches a round in the head & the sappers come crawling up the aisles. It begins to feel like home.
I can still remember waking up in different houses, different beds, different women sitting next to my father. My mother spend a few years in the alky hospital when I was five or six; the old man was the guardian of the war.
My brother & I really liked the one redhead he spent the weekends with... bright red lipstick, orange hair & a Pall Mall laugh. She had a couple of daughters we shared a bed with.
The old man smoked cigars in his '56 VW, his hand on the knee of whatever piece of meat was sitting there. My brother puked all over the back seat; I joined him sometimes. We ate most meals at Howard Johnson's.
I didn't recognize my mother when she came to our door. We hadn't seen her for two years; it should have been no surprise to her. We left, like sheep. A new town. A woman named Mother.
The old man should've married that redhead.
Coming back from one mission, I ate a face full of Delta water, felt it squirm in my mouth before I swallowed it & I still swallowed it. I had sweated my fatigues white under the arms, white down my chest. Hell yes, I drank it.
& got a sweet case of worms, a couple of big buggers laid in my gut, eating their cud. Spent a few days at the hospital at Vinh Long where they monitored my bowels, counting the skeletons of worms. I could've kissed each one of them for the vacation.
Everybody on that river had an itchy butt from worms, it came with the filth. That'd keep you awake at night, scratching.
We gave them such good food.
High school, the factory for teenagers. Hit the timeclock, change shifts with the bell. Bus the workers in, bus them home. Institutional toilet paper & lunches. The rich kids had a clique; the jocks had a clique; the creative kids had a clique; I hung with the white trash on the periphery, putting in time on the line. Smoking in the restrooms. Our girlfriends had chipped front teeth & smelled of the projects.
A lot of my friends dropped out, headed for the garages & body shops early. The diploma means nothing when there's a lot of road & no gas in the car.
I played football & it played pussy.
Joey Brunerr came home after his graduation, dressed in the rented black robes & put his diploma on the kitchen table. The first kid in the family ever to graduate high school; his father handed him the draft notice that came in the morning mail. He left for the army factory a week later.
The slow dissolve of a man & a woman... you simply stop talking about the future & think about it alone.
Everything I owned had been thrown down the steps, my dresser drawers open & my clothes hanging out. Neighbors watched from their windows as I loaded up my truck. The woman inside had the stereo turned up load but I could hear her laughing on the phone. I pinned a twenty to the door with a note that read only:
Mary, I was bygod happy to see your head poke out from your mother's legs the day you were born. You ripped your mother asshole-to-elbow; it took her months to heal from your shoulders. I was ecstatic having you, but kid, frankly I wouldn't have cared if your mother had died on the table.
When I left for Vietnam, you were five days old.
It was my second time in-country & my last.
We did some killing. I spent hours looking at your hospital pictures. You were one cute chipmunk. Still are. I wish you knew me.
Suicide is bullshit, a goddamn vile lie you whisper to yourself when the horror of life weighs more than the graveyard. No one suffers but you. & you dead.
I had less than 1/32nd of an inch left on the trigger pull, the barrel pointed right in my mouth; bodies lay on top of the bunkers, twenty VC hung from the wire, a claymore had blown a stack of men all over the field. The ARVN that were left were damn few. We waited on the medevac for an hour; senselessly, men died all around, VC & ARVN alike, bleeding guts in the sand.
A body moved on the wire & I shot the little bastard.
I really wanted out of there, in an airplane seat, or a bag with my name tag on the toe & I almost made it home. The funeral home already engraved the stone.
She was 23, a registered nurse, worked the steady nights & owned her own home. I was the boyfriend that moved in. I don't know why she let me--she wanted so much more than my memory. She was no looker but a steady attraction.
I stayed a few months till I caught her looking at the walls, waiting on my Viet Cong to slither through & I left her without a word.
She had nice curly hair, a quiet laugh & a scar on her right leg; I don't remember her name. She liked to face the window when she slept.
I didn't sleep much.
Childhood was Vietnam retrofitted.
The old man never saw the turtles, never heard the blade hit their shells; naw, he ran the mower right over them. I spent hours in the backyard finding pieces of small turtles. Of course, I shouldn't have let them out of the aquarium. I never said a word to my father.
Same thing with bunnies and ducks we were given for Easter. They were damn cute in their food-colored fur--blue, purple, pink--& they'd last till the family hated the mess.
I'd find bunnies & ducks strangled in the garbage can. No one ever talked about it, all those temporary animals.
A new guy, a fucking new guy big time OD'd on smack. I was cleaning a shotgun outside the barracks when they grabbed me, rather they grabbed my narcan with my body attached. The kid was new--all of a week in-country--but was learning quick, at least a dozen needle bruises in his arm.
Laying on the floor, next to his rack, the kid's lips were blue, the nail beds were blue; I tied him off & slid the needle home, loaded with narcan.
His buddies were playing cards ten feet away, using a makeshift table covered with a blanket. Not one looked at him. He was new, totally expendable.
His color got better & he came around.
He did it again the next day & died on the floor, a middle-of-the-night ex-junkie. His name is on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.
I never had a headache till my tour down in the U Minh Forest; sick puke headaches, laying on my back in a mangrove swamp feeling the arteries pound in my head & the puke running down my mouth. I remember being so sick that I couldn't hold my head up, hearing sounds in the bush no animal could make & hoping it was Uncle Charles come to kill the pain.
I was in the hospital for a month before they found an abscess on a lobe of my brain. I still have headaches.
The house smelled of urine; no family member would own up to it but there it is, a carpet stinking of human excrement. I knew my mother was sick.
She'd laugh embarrassingly--oops!--& a dribble flowed.
You had to live there if you wanted to visit.
Friday nights we scrubbed the carpet with a brush & a bowl of Lysol. A routine & not thought about. I kept a cigarette burning between my lips just so I wouldn't smell it.
I'll spare her--that's enough.
The second time I came home from Vietnam, my wife had moved back to Minnesota. I took a taxi--a paycheck's worth--to her apartment.
She was asleep. I rang the buzzer hard. She came out in flannel pajamas, her finger to her lips to be quiet. I was.
I walked over to the crib & saw my daughter, a big girl sucking her thumb peacefully. We had coffee in the kitchen; I walked outside to have a cigarette. The baby woke up a while later & my wife gave her the teat. Seven months old & already hungrier than two tits. My girl.
She moved the baby in with her. I had the living room. The dog had the run of the house.
All I saw were people leaping for helicopters & the ARVN shooting into crowds. I was pretty comfortable with that.
I have few friends, no one dying in my arms & no one sleeping on my couch. I don't visit myself much either.
I'm comfortable with a tv, a stereo & a woman. The Viet Cong are my guests in this apartment, I like their voices in the morning.
I work blue-collar, punch a clock for a living & my legs ache in the evening. A simple man.
But I do keep the door unlocked, both doors unlocked. No one has ever walked through them.
My ex-wife's sister found God & the Baby Jesus a couple years ago. After laying flat-on-her-back for a hundred back seats of used cars & six abortions, she opted for a church pew.
Her daughter is in a foster home, has been for five years. Her son lives at grandma's. Both kids are by different men, neither pay support.
She married a young man, a Christian, a few months back & they desperately want children. Immediately.
He bought a mini-van to cart the kids around in.
I waited two hours for the VC tax collector & he kept to his schedule & I kept to mine. He died. He was carrying a full sack of piastres, levied from the villages he threatened.
I kept that money--bought a woman & some dope.
I've always supported the local economy.
On a river patrol we found sampans full of everything: radios imported from Japan, Chinese arms, heroin, people hidden, tons of marijuana going upstream to Saigon & sometimes medical supplies stolen from our loading docks.
We learned early on to keep what we wanted; a friend of mine had four pounds of 100% pure heroin hidden on his boat. He lived long enough to buy a new Camaro when he got home to Cleveland, then he ate the windshield.
Big black jungle. It'll hold you in its arms & crush the life right out of your heart. A little like closing your eyes tightly & seeing the inside of your brain. Maybe see the worm eat right through.
A small explosion 200 meters to the right, a flash of 4th of July, the animals turn quiet. Another explosion, this time 225 meters to the right. Relax, the guy firing the tube doesn't know where you are. It'll get noisy in a little while, close your eyes, look at the stars.
& when you finally fall asleep in that pitiful hole you dug, you'll never hear them coming.
I was born an alcoholic to an alcoholic, addicted via Mom. I had been told my birth weight was light & that I had spent a few months in the hospital. It wasn't till I was 34 that my sister gave me the truth.
I detoxed in the hospital with an umbilical attached. No AA for newborns.
Middle of the night laying in bed, staring at the digital alarm clock & hating my life, dreading the future & not feeling the woman next to me. I go to the bathroom, piss & then dig in deep under the covers, pull the blanket over my head.
I'm beyond tears, beyond any sorrow; I've looked all the ghosts in the eye & faced my cowardice, my dishonesty. I never look away.
I put my hand on my wife's hip & she pulls it away. You go into hell alone--I know that.
He would scream Motherfucker! over & over in a firefight, running straight into enemy fire, popping caps methodically as a time card. I saw Hal Wolfe pick a man straight up in the air with his bayonet then shoot him in the heart.
You had to love him.
It was his third tour in the Nam; it was my first. He had been there since '67, steady, no R&R for that boy. Three years straight in the bush. Wife divorced, kids forgotten, Hal was the goddamn war.
He liked killing personal, a Winchester sniper rifle with scope or Starlight. He'd lay out in broad daylight under a camouflaged Hessian cloth in an open field & watch the bullet enter the head & the exit the head. Next.
Barefoot, he left no boot tracks.
He was still there when I left.