Will Melancon and I became fast pals in the fourth grade when his family moved into our rural Mississippi neighborhood with their swamp-French surname—Muh-LAW(N)-saw(n)—and a full-size pool table in their basement. It was 1979. And often as not, whenever Will and I climbed the narrow, squeaky basement stair into the quiet, open light of the Melancons’ kitchen, his father would be sitting on a stool at the serving counter, staring at us. This might be in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week. There would be nothing on the counter before him but a pack of cigarettes, a lighter, an ash tray, maybe a coffee cup, and he was never doing anything but watching us top the basement stair, except sometimes mumbling over his shoulder to Will’s cheerful, red-headed mother, swishing around the kitchen behind him in her nurse’s uniform. “Well, hey, handsome boys!” she’d cut in. “Whatcha know good?”
When he was not sitting at the kitchen counter, Mr. Melancon often spent the middle of the day, in the middle of the week, shuffling around the house and yard in his moccasin-style house shoes and a tucked-in V-neck undershirt. A small, nimble-looking man, he was nevertheless a slow and neglectful mover, a heel-scuffer who left his cigarette untended between his lips for long stretches while he did non-urgent things with his hands. To be fair, you would not have said Mr. Melancon was mean, or even rude, but you would never have mistaken him for friendly, and I, for one, did not care to linger in a room with him.
One afternoon Will and I were shooting eight ball. He was up on his toes, stretched out across the table.
I said, “Does your daddy have a night job?”
For a guy who owned a pool table, Will was not very good on it. He was, in particular, one to miscue. He came back down to the floor, sighed into his thin brown bangs.
“Nuh-uh,” he said. Then, with interest: “Does yours?”
We were in the fifth grade the day my friendship with Will took what seemed a marvelous turn. As it happened, we were not shooting pool, but sitting in the Melancons’ tidy, somewhat spare, not especially homey-feeling living room, watching a Vietnam movie on cable. The Marines on TV were sneaking through the bush in cinematic half-light. They wore face paint and had grass in their helmets. A firefight was imminent. I pshawed.
I said, “My daddy hates this movie. He says it wasn’t nothing like that.”
Will’s mouth was full of Bugles from the box between us, and he raised his chin to keep from losing any.
“Mine too. He says they stand too close together.”
“They shoot the M-60 way too fast, too.”
“I know. Supposed to be three- and four-shot bursts.”
“I know. Or you’ll overheat the barrel.”
We ate our Bugles and watched the Marines on TV get into their firefight. They lobbed grenades, shot up the lush countryside. Grass and dirt flew. Men screamed.
Will, however, had begun a soft, tuneful humming. I knew the tune. I knew some words for it, too. I’d heard other words sung to it, in movies and TV shows, but for some reason they were never the words I knew. Under his breath Will now sang:
“I want to be an Air-borne Ran-ger . . .”
I choked down unchewed Bugles, to join, softly:
“I want to live a life of dan-ger . . .”
Will sang, a little louder:
“I want to go to Vi-et-nam . . .”
Together we sang out:
“I want to kill a Vi-et-cong!”
We laughed. This was wonderful!
I said, “Who carried the sixty in your daddy’s squad?”
“Janowski at first. But he got shot in the throat. So then it was Abrams.”
“Mine’s was Copeland. His third tour. Kept re-upping because he didn’t have anybody to go home to. And didn’t get one letter, the whole time. I think he just wanted to die over there.”
Will nodded solemnly, for poor Copeland.
He said, “Some guys my daddy knew set up a claymore to take out their own lieutenant while he was sleeping, and they set if off, and the guy died, but it was the wrong guy.”
I nodded solemnly, for the poor wrong guy.
I said, “One time my daddy and them were on patrol, and this guy McElvoy, who was getting short, was carrying a grease gun—”
“Oh, no,” Will shook his head, “they’re bad about going off on you.”
“I know. McElvoy set his down butt-first on a rock and it went off and shot him in the mouth. Bullet went through his teeth, roof of his mouth, behind his nose, and out his eye like this.” I showed him with my finger. “McElvoy just stumbled back and sat down, face covered in blood and meat, mouth messed up pretty good, but he could still talk. He told Doc, said, ‘Just give me a shot. I ain’t afraid of dying, but give me a shot so I don’t hurt.’”
Will said, “Shoot, I don’t blame him.”
“Me neither. But Doc kept telling him he wasn’t dying. And son, that made McElvoy mad. He reached out and found Doc with his hands like this and pulled him in close and said, ‘Doc, I just shot myself in the face with a grease gun. I’m dying. Now give me something to keep it from hurting.’ But then Doc got McElvoy’s face wiped off, and McElvoy realized he could still see out of the one eye. So he told Doc to reach over there and get the Polaroid out of his pack and take a picture of him. Doc did and handed it to him. McElvoy held it up to his good eye and said, ‘Huh,’ like maybe he really would make it, then got up and walked over to the chopper they’d sent for him. My daddy and them never saw him again.”
Will shook his head. “There it is.”
I said, “Yep.”
But I was feeling my story might have gone a little long, so I tried to pick things up again.
I said, “There’s no baser form of life than a soldier in a combat zone.”
He said, “There’s no smell in the world worse than burning human flesh.”
I said, “The night belongs to Charlie.”
He said, “I know.”
I said, “It might sound fun to lay around in your bunk shooting soap rounds at snakes crawling through the walls of your hooch, but it’s really not.”
Will said, “Sitting around waiting is the hardest part.”
I said, “I know.”
Will said, “I’d a lot rather be fighting, getting shot at and shooting back, than sitting around waiting.”
I said, “Shoot, I’d rather have VC pouring in over the wire as to be sitting around waiting.”
He said, “Shoot, me too.”
We lapsed into thoughtful, Bugle-munching silence.
On TV the Marines were on R&R. They raced down a beach in Hawaii in colorful shorts and necklaces of flowers. They ran splashing through the waves with attractive women in bikini swimsuits.
Will said, “Where’d your daddy take R&R?”
I said, “Tupelo. Where’d yours?”
“Is that in Hawaii?”
“It’s in Louisiana.”
I said, “Me and my mamma were living with my mamaw and papaw, but my daddy took us to a motel for a week. It had a swimming pool, a high-dive, coke machine, everything. It was so cool.”
“How old were you?”
“I wasn’t alive yet for mine’s.”
I said, “My daddy kept waking up and reaching for his M-16.”
Will said, “You just get so used to having it with you.”
I said, “I know.”
The Marines on TV were kissing the attractive women at night on the beach.
Will said, “Did your daddy kill anybody?”
“He doesn’t know.”
“He ran a mortar squad. He probably killed a lot of people that way, but they were out there in the bush. He couldn’t see them.”
One of the Marines on TV quit kissing the woman he was with and started crying and talking to her.
Will said, “I think my daddy killed some people he could see.”
For the Marines on TV it was back to the jungle and the war, another firefight: nighttime, tracer rounds. It finished.
I said, “If I tell you something, you promise not to tell?”
“I can’t even tell my mama.”
“Why, is it gross?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Why can’t you tell her?”
“My daddy just said not to.”
“Would he whoop you for telling it?”
“Does your daddy whoop you for stuff?”
“So you promise?”
“Okay. My daddy said he was happy when he got drafted.”
We were still watching the movie, but the good parts were over, and there was only talking left. Slow music had started.
Will said, “Is that it?”
I said, “Looks like it.”
He said, “No, what your daddy said not to tell.”
“Shoot, I would’ve been happy too.”
“Shoot, me too.”
“They don’t draft people anymore.”
“You got to be eighteen to be drafted.”
“I wish I was eighteen.”
“Me too. I wish I was twenty.”
“Lawrence is fixing to be eighteen.”
Lawrence was Will’s brother, a compulsive chapsticker who would sit in his car in the driveway for an hour kissing his girlfriend while Will and I spied on them through the scope mounted on his little .22 rifle.
I said, “Shoot, man.”
On TV the Marine who had cried in Hawaii was boarding an airplane to leave Vietnam for good, though he did not look particularly happy about it. The names of the actors started inching up the screen.
I said, “So, you promise, right?”
Will picked up the remote control.
I said, “My daddy said he enjoyed a lot of it. Said he’s glad he went.”
Will changed the channel.
He said, “I don’t think my daddy enjoyed it very much.”
Because he was unfailingly generous, so able and quick to follow, I could hazard an openness with Will Melancon that I dared not with others. As noted, this made for moments of heartening solidarity. It also, in the way of such things, raised the stakes of disillusionment, deepened the inevitable wound of loneliness. Thus an exchange that discourages me, even now, to recall.
I was spending the night with him, and we were lying in his room, in twin beds, in the dark. We had been the last ones stirring in the entire house, the whole place was now still, and neither of us had spoken for several minutes. But Will’s room was alive with moonlight and shadows, and I had the weird feeling I often have, that something commandingly sublime and venturesome is in the air, that the world is issuing some call that must be answered, and—here is the essence of the thing—only something immoderate will do. It is, I am convinced, what makes the prophet preach and the roué to prowl. We are brothers all, negotiating the same glimpse of superabundance, the same uncontainable impulse blooming out of our hearts. I swallowed, dryly, against it, and whispered:
“I think Mrs. Nettles is pretty.”
Mrs. Nettles was our sixth-grade Social Studies teacher, and these were my immoderate words—unmistakable, un-retractable—in the silence, in the moonlight.
And after hanging on the air for but a moment, my words faded and died unanswered, in the silence, in the moonlight.
Oh, I ached. Merely spoken, the words brought no relief. I needed them to be heard, gaped at, marveled on. I rolled over on my side with the pain, and nearly missed it when it came:
I snatched my head from the pillow and stopped breathing, to hear.
I whispered, “What?”
Will whispered, “Me too.”
“You think Mrs. Nettles is pretty?”
My head fell back to the pillow.
I whispered, “I think she is so pretty.”
Will whispered, “Me too.”
I whispered, “Her being heavyset don’t bother me.”
He whispered, “Me neither.”
My breathing had grown shallow and rapid. I struggled to coordinate it with my need to swallow.
I whispered, “I think Mrs. Nettles is beautiful.”
The blood thumping in my ears made it hard to hear, but I heard it:
I was panting.
Will whispered, “Would you kiss Mrs. Nettles?”
I could barely manage to exhale it:
I whispered, “I would kiss her.”
He whispered, “I would kiss Mrs. Nettles.”
I whispered, “Me too.”
He whispered, “Her limp don’t bother me.”
I whispered, “Me neither.”
“I would still kiss her.”
I tried to think of something else to whisper. The silence threatened to swallow us.
Will whispered, “I would kiss Mrs. Nettles.”
I whispered, “Me too.”
But reeling with it all, I was trying to think, to feel, to reach for and find the exact right thing to say next, the thing that would perfectly answer what was in the night around me, that would express everything I felt and at the same time make me feel it more deeply, when in the silence, in the moonlight, with irrefutable clarity, Will whispered:
“I love Mrs. Nettles.”
Very quietly, very precisely, it killed everything. Not quite the effect of snapping on the overhead light, more like clicking on a small lamp in the corner, which, even with its soft, mellow light, dispels all the magic from a moonlit room. And I blame myself. I invite, even require, people to join me in my reaching, only to judge them and withdraw when in their honest efforts they go where I, presuming to distinguish the yawp of immoderation from the sin of overreaching, cannot follow. At a minimum, it is not generous.
I whispered, “I would kiss Mrs. Nettles.”
I was no longer panting.
Will whispered, “Do you love her?”
How I hurt for him now. But, no, I did not love Mrs. Nettles. Neither did he. Mrs. Nettles had an Orkin Man husband with a broad chest and hairy forearms who knew what it was to love her. We, on the other hand, were eleven, and according to my father, when in the second grade I’d found courage at the dinner table to announce my love for a button-eyed classmate named Christie Autry, we had no idea what love is.
But what else could I say?
“Yes,” I whispered. “I do.”
Will whispered, “Me too. I luuuuv her.”
I whispered, “Yeah.”
Will whispered, “Ohhhhhh.”
I whispered, “What?”
“Ohhhhhh,” Will cooed. “Ohhhhh, I luuuuv Mrs. Nettles . . . .”
I rolled over, and covered my ears.
Some people come to resemble their pets, others their vehicles. Mr. Melancon drove an undersized, dingy-white, foreign-make pickup. This little machine twittered and buzzed in a visceral, private labor when taking the hills in and out of the neighborhood, collected dead leaves, broken tools, aluminum cans when it sat in the driveway. A joyless, dissent of a vehicle. Naturally, I attached to it the foreboding I held for Mr. Melancon, and I could no more imagine riding in it than I could imagine putting my bare feet in his moccasin-style house shoes.
Then came the night I rode in it.
Will and I were finishing the sixth grade, and my mother had dropped us off at the Pizza Hut out on the highway for dinner. It was an early experiment in our independence, and we had a high, stupid-funny time of it, plundering the breadstick bucket at the salad bar, hooting and high-fiving over the Ms. Pac-man, snorting powdered Parm off our pinky tips, blow-gunning bits of wet napkin and crushed ice through our straws, barely touching our pizza. I said, “You want to see if I can spend the night?” Will said, “Yeah!” We got his mother on the pay phone. She said yes. We got my mother on the pay phone, told her what his mother said. My mother said yes. We got his mother on the pay phone again. His daddy would be there in ten minutes.
Through the plate-glass window of our booth I caught sight of the little truck as it came coasting down the night-dark ramp from the highway and leveled into the sparely lit Pizza Hut parking lot. As I watched, then, it came gliding and shuddering through the pools of shadow, to pass directly beneath the lights mounted on the eave outside our window, so that Mr. Melancon’s face inside the cab was, for the space of a camera flash, awkwardly close and visible. Something in his expression arrests me still. For one thing, it was the transparent face of a man who supposed himself to be unobserved. But there was something more, something I find exceedingly difficult not merely to phrase, but to apprehend. Here was just another serious-faced little man, after all, in another dirty little truck, in another obscure little town, as complete a cipher as ever wandered and died upon the baked-mud plains of prehistory. And yet, had someone called your attention to the expression on that face so suddenly visible amid the shadows, I believe you might very well have sat forward for a closer look, and thought, Well, yeah, now that you mention it . . . . So I will try to say it: He looked amazed to the point of exhaustion on finding himself out in the middle of some man’s life, and utterly unable to believe it was his.
On the highway home, the cab of the pickup was cramped and dreamy with green dashlight. It was also pungent with what I somehow recognized to be beer breath. Mr. Melancon drove with his eyes fixed firmly on the road. He had the radio off, and had not spoken to us.
I said, “They usually put doodoo on them.”
Meaning punji sticks. A continuation of our dinner discussion.
Will was sitting between Mr. Melancon and me, staring at the pommel of the gear shift that rose, quivering, out of the floor in the ghost-green light.
He said, “I know.”
I said, “To cause infection, to spread disease.”
He said, “Yeah.”
I said, “Because, when you think about it, what’s worse: getting killed all the sudden, like getting your head blown off, or getting a deep nasty puncture wound that gets infected, like in your foot, or maybe your testicles, so you die real slow and painful?”
Will nodded, by which I took him to mean a deep nasty puncture wound that gets infected so you die real slow and painful.
I said, “They were smart that way.”
Will nodded again.
We rode in silence.
I could hear Mr. Melancon breathing long and slow through his nose, like someone sleeping, but I could see he was fully awake, saw him blink. After a while, he cleared his throat.
He said, “Your daddy shot mortars?”
I said, “Yessir.”
Mr. Melancon nodded, watched the road.
I said, “He led a mortar squad.”
Mr. Melancon nodded again.
I said, “He was on Vung Chua Mountain.”
I thought he might know it.
Mr. Melancon did not appear to consider whether he might know it. He just kept breathing long and slow through his nose, eyes on the road.
Finally, he said, “Your daddy made the mess, and I had to look at it.”
Whatever I did not understand about this remark, I understood it was not friendly.
Mr. Melancon said, “I had to go out there. I had to look at it. Pick through it. Your daddy didn’t have to do that.”
I knew my daddy had in fact seen a mess or two. True, his main job had been to provide mortar support from the base on the mountain, but he had gone on patrols through the jungle like everybody else. He had been there when McElvoy shot himself in the face with his grease gun. He had pulled the charred bodies of several South Vietnamese officers from the wreckage of a prop plane that went down on a neighboring mountain and received a certificate for it from the South Vietnamese government that he got translated by the woman who ran an award-winning Asian restaurant in our town. But none of this occurred to me to say. And even if it had, I believe it would have struck me, instinctively, as inapposite.
Mr. Melancon said, “Your daddy, he’s doing all right now, huh?”
“Yessir” did not feel like the right thing to say. And I couldn’t think of anything else.
Mr. Melancon raised his right hand off the steering wheel. Will moved his knee. Mr. Melancon down-shifted to take the turn into our neighborhood.
He said, “Seem like he’s doing all right, I reckon.”
In the dark of the Melancons’ driveway, the little pickup clattered to silence. The three of us climbed out and went inside the house. Will’s mother had gone to work, and his brother was not around. In the kitchen, Will and I left his daddy shuffling around in his house shoes and tucked-in undershirt and went down to the basement to shoot pool.
I have enjoyed cheerier contests. But we had shut the door at the foot of the stairs, and gradually the strain began to ease. We began to recover our pleasure in the evening. When in our second game Will blew an easy combo on the eight ball for an early win, we both threw our heads back and cried, “Ohhhh!”
I said, “Come on, man! Today’s the first day of the rest of your life!”
He said, “I know! I know!”
I shook my head. “Boy hidy . . . .”
He said, “Wait, what?”
I shook my head. “Boy hidy . . . .”
He said, “No, I mean about the rest of my life.”
I said, “Today’s the first day of the rest of your life, man! Come on!”
He said, “What does that mean?”
I finished my shot, shrugged.
I said, “I don’t know, John Dixon’s mama has it on a magnet on their refrigerator. I think it’s just supposed to encourage you.”
He said, “Oh,” and looked like he might say something else, but then the narrow stair from the kitchen began to squeak, after which the basement door opened, and Mr. Melancon scuffed in, carrying a plastic ashtray and a can of beer.
We paused to see if he wanted anything from us, or had just come down to get something, or what. But he didn’t say anything, didn’t look at us, just scuffed over to one of the darkened corners of the basement and came back dragging a tall wooden stool across the concrete floor, into the yellow light of the fixture that hung over the pool table. He set the stool against the wall at the rack-end of the table, took a seat on it, and lit a cigarette. He blew the smoke out his nostrils, looked at the pool table through it.
It was Will’s shot. He stepped silently to the table, stretched out across the felt, miscued, and silently stepped away.
I stepped to the table, miscued, and stepped away.
Mr. Melancon tapped his cigarette in his ash tray.
When Will stepped to the table and miscued again, Mr. Melancon just kept watching the table through his smoke. But I decided that was probably enough of that, and stepping to the table this time, settled on an improbable bank.
After blowing two clear shots on the eight ball, Will finally sunk it and took the game. The longest in my life.
Mr. Melancon stood from the stool, set his beer on it.
“Well, we got us a winner,” he said, and started pulling the balls out from underneath the table and racking them on the felt. He left his cigarette in his mouth while he did this, ignoring the smoke runneling up his face, and when he had finished rolling and snugging the balls in the rack, he gently lifted it off the felt, twirled it once between his palms, and handed it to me. He took the cue from my other hand and went back to his stool to chalk it.
Will was standing against the wall at the other end of the table.
Mr. Melancon glanced down there at him, went back to chalking his cue.
He said, “Winner breaks, son.”
Will stepped up and spotted the cue ball.
The break was quiet, nothing fell.
Mr. Melancon then stepped to the table with his cigarette in his lips and an unfamiliar smartness to his movements, suddenly not at all like a man in an undershirt and house shoes. After studying the table briefly, he bore down on the cue ball—his stance, his form, the very gestalt of him was smooth, assured, lovely—and drilled it. It smacked and rocketed a stripe against the back of a corner pocket, and drew perfectly on another stripe. Mr. Melancon stepped fixedly around the table, chalking his cue, and hammered that stripe home. He went on this way, passing us in silence around the table, not taking his eyes from it, chalking his cue and squinting against his smoke while the pocketed balls thundered and rolled in the chute beneath, went on this way through the remainder of his stripes, but then left himself snookered on the eight ball and could not make the shot. Will took his time looking the table over, and when he missed his shot, Mr. Melancon stepped back in and rammed the eight ball home. He went to his stool for his beer.
“Best of three,” he said.
Will leaned his cue against the wall, racked, took up his cue again, but this time didn’t get to use it.
“Best of five,” Mr. Melancon said, and Will racked again, and again did not shoot.
“Me against both of you,” Mr. Melancon said, and this time I racked, but we never got to shoot, and when it was over Mr. Melancon took his beer from the stool, handed me his cue, and walked out of the basement, closing the door behind him.
We stood looking at the balls left on the table.
The basement stair had finished squeaking, and the house beyond was still.
I said, “You want to go watch MTV or something?”
Will leaned his cue against the wall. He stepped to the table, started herding the balls down it.
“You break,” he said.
There is a baffling blindness in my memory: I cannot recall a single specific occasion of being with Will again after that night, not a single specific thing we talked about, laughed at, did together, though we remained friends into high school, when at some point in there his family moved away. I don’t remember more exactly when that was, or why they moved, and I have never considered trying to look him up. Proclivities I own, and for which I maintain a low-grade distaste. But that, of all occasions, that night should be the boundary of my memory of him, the suggestion that exactly then I, someone I have always been, was no longer able or willing to follow—this is the stuff of disgust, of despair.
Later that night, from his twin bed, in the dark, Will’s voice came just above a whisper:
“I told my daddy about your daddy.”
There was no moonlight, no magic, only the dark.
I said, “It’s okay.”
We were silent.
He said, “But I didn’t tell what your daddy said not to. I didn’t break my promise.”
Often I feel an affection for people I am hopeless to express. And the truth is I don’t remember what I answered Will that night, or that I answered him at all. But I pray, with some reason to believe, I said: