Ben Poteat was running late, and worried about his left front quarter-panel, which opened and closed like the gills of a fish if he drove over 50 miles per hour. Bought at a junkyard, it was a more weathered shade of red than the rest of his Buick Skylark, and looked like a prime candidate for a Miracle Paint Restorer commercial (amazing results in only one application!). If he hurried, he could park the Buick so the offending fender faced away from the VFW building and the accompanying shit-eating grins he expected from his buddies. He checked his watch, and coolly sped up another five miles per hour, ever so lightly applying pressure to the pedal with the middle of his foot.
He and his wife Mary were on the way to the local VFW—or, as Ben sometimes “shortened” it, The Veef—as were most of his friends. A lot of the ‘ol boys here in Hall River were in Vietnam with Ben, some even serving in the same division. Most of them were younger, 18 or so, when they enlisted. Ben enlisted at 22. Hadn’t known what it was he wanted to do. His father owned a sheet metal distributorship and body shop, but Ben never took much to it, being mostly into reading pulp weeklies and tossing a tennis ball against the wall to practice fielding ground balls. He finally enlisted out of sheer exhaustion of choices.
Life in Hall River, thought Ben, was like living in a big circle, people bouncing off one another and the few distractions the town offered; each bounce coming at varying angles. He learned early on that it was the smaller circles you had to watch out for: the jock kids, the home-schooled farmer kids, the crazy-ass kids over off Race Track Road. All the ones that went around fire-eyed, like a big kitchen match waiting on someone to get close enough strike ‘em. They were all living in circles that were too small and the constant spinning around made them dizzy with lack of oxygen. Nowadays, he could pretty much avoid anyone he didn’t want to see, except perhaps his own family.
Mary Poteat he met at the town’s lone bookstore, a story he now tells more for the intellectual tone of the admission than any mere truth. She married Ben some 33 years ago, right before he shipped off to Vietnam. The fathers of Ben and Mary were hunting buddies, and saw no wrong in their kids dating each other. “The hell’s the big deal?” Mary’s dad said then. Her dad did—and does again—own a filling station. He is 84. Beside the filling station is a sort of bar—The Feed Cap. It has only one tap and a cooler, but the old-timers like the camaraderie.
* * *
Fresh out of the SafeCo with four heads of lettuce, a bag of hamburger buns and a two-liter of Coke, they were now running a few minutes early, though Mary would never have thought of pointing that fact out to Ben, determined as he was to not look too eager. After carefully aligning the handles, Ben lugged all seven of the flimsy plastic bags to the car using only his right hand. The bags began to cut off circulation to his palm, turning it a candy-striped red and white, but he ignored the pain by focusing on the tightness of his upper arm. He did this a lot. When he used to lift weights, he would consistently flex throughout the day, imagining his arms tightening into the slickness of stone.
Now—as they slammed the doors of their car and Ben key-locked them, making the “chirp-chirp” noise cars with keyless entry do—he felt considerably more amorphous. His body, he said to Mary, felt like the Skylark—a little too much sway in the corners for his liking.
* * *
Inside the VFW, the combination of the shiny, slick-topped folding tables, gymnasium-style crank-open windows, and dusty sunlight hit Ben so suddenly he sneezed loudly, and then again. He said bless me, and took the bags of lettuce over to the food table, along with the hamburger buns and Coke. He exchanged this booty for an icy Budweiser and a flimsy paper bowl of off-brand potato chips.
Clapping a few backs along the way, Ben made his way back to Mary, now feverishly engaged in a story with a few of the gals. Ben plopped down at the table beside Hank Dotell. Hank always attended on bingo nights, and, like Ben, hadn’t missed a potluck social in years. He was a large man, built impossibly blockish, and always reminded Mary Poteat of a 1950s-style TV robot. Sweetest guy you’d ever want to meet, though, and would run through a door for you if you could give him a good enough reason why he should.
Rick Fisk, sitting across from the boys and cheeks-deep into a burger, eyed Ben and Hank. The lettuce leaf poking out of both sides of his mouth gave him a sort of clownish quality, and Ben, daydreaming, imagined the hamburger buns as Rick’s lips, and the meat patty itself as a sort of charred tongue. Hank cracked open a brew.
“Play some cards?” he asked.
Rick, paralyzed by the mouthful of food, signaled with his eyes that yes, he would like a game. Ben took a pull from his beer and lit a cigarette, and then laughed at the question with one of those sideways glances that insinuates something a bit naughty at play. Hank took the look as a yes. The boys had managed to play cards and bet money right there under the girls’ noses, thanks to one simple idea Rick Fisk suggested a few months back. Don’t bother with the actual cash, said Rick. Just keep a little running total right there beside the score, and play with poker chips. If the women get close, cover it with your hand. Ben had a semi-permanent blue smudge on the heel of his hand from doing just that.
A beam of light shot from the far corner of the building, and Ben watched as it spread, like a fan, throughout the entire hall. In walked Maurice Remlinger and his wife Michelle.
“All hail Maurice Remlinger!” said Maurice Remlinger.
“Aw hell—Maurice Remingler!” chortled Ben, shaking with his peculiar laugh. Maurice walked with big loping steps while his wife pitter-pattered beside him. After he’d advance a few feet ahead of her, she’d do a quick little jog to catch back up. Maurice was the de factoalpha male of the group—and had been for years—but had such a singsong way with life that one got the sense that he never even noticed. His wife Michelle, a pixie of a woman, liked these kinds of gatherings. She and Maurice didn’t have a lot of friends their age that still lived in the area; most had moved to Florida, or back towards the city. Get-togethers like these gave her a much-needed chance to shine, showing off the results of whatever it was she was into at the moment: the Motion Picture Celebrity diet, a new juicing routine, maybe Pilates. Hank dealt Maurice Remlinger a fan of cards.
A few of the wives and girlfriends stood by watching, smiling and laughing, completely oblivious to the game. Just then, a lady with blonde hair, tan chiffon dress and long, manicured nails came by, looking like she just walked out of a 70s TV cop show. She was carrying a tray of finger sandwiches. The ladies, pinkies raised, pinched and nibbled. The men left only crumbs.
“Now this is a good made sandwich,” said Hank.
Hank continued: “A good made sandwich. It’s got just the right amount of meat, of iceberg lettuce. Fast-food sandwiches these days, they try to sell ‘em so big. More chicken. More beef. It’s the texture you want more than taste. Well almost.”
Rick Fisk threw back his shoulders into a shrug. Ben reached for another menthol.
* * *
“Terry Morgan married a girl from over there,” Fisk said, apropos of nothing in particular, but over there always meaning Vietnam. Ben nodded. “All the way through, too. Been married over thirty years. Like marrying a cheerleader, I thought then. Be great, but then watch and see if it doesn’t wear off after six months or so. The ordinary catches up to the exotic quickern’ you’d think, ya know.”
“Cheerleader, that’s funny,” said Maurice Remlinger. ” I could never even look at a damn cheerleader when I played ball.” Maurice looked to see if Michelle was looking. No, still talking.
“Never look at one?” Ben asked.
“Yeah,” said Maurice. “Always felt like it was gonna affect me negatively if I looked at a cheerleader’s little bouncy ass for too long. Like my team was gonna lose or something because I had sinned against my gal. It got bad there for a while, I tell you. I got to where I’d just watch the boys there in the huddle just to keep my eyes away.”
“The boys, huh? You don’t say,” said Ben, and they all laughed. The girls glanced, and after a second broke into smiles. Boys.
Ben looked at Hank, who was eating some corn chips. “He coming?”
“Out back by the pit,” said Remlinger, pointing. The “pit” was basically a large hole in the ground, covered by a 55-gallon drum which someone had butterflied open. Covered with a wire mesh, it was used to smoke burgers and steaks, maybe the odd Boston butt.
“Ah. That his wife with him?” The pear-shaped Morgan was flanked with an attractive Vietnamese woman. She had the sort of athletically stocky body that Asian women somehow manage to keep longer than females of other cultures. Maybe the rice, Ben wondered. The lack of fat in the diet? Ben could see her playing soccer, even at her age, even being quite good at it. “’Course, there’s no place for middle-age Asian women to even play soccer,” he thought to himself, and smiled inwardly at the mental image. Ben shot a look to the fellows underneath the awning of the ladies’ vision, a sort of underhanded acknowledgement of her physical prowess.
“Terry Morgan!” Hank Dotell waved his arm to attract attention to his shout and lend it physical presence.
“Hank, Hank, built like a tank!” said Morgan.
“Terry, Terry, built like a fairy!” said Hank, laughing.
“No, like a f-e-r-r-Y ferry,” said Hank, throwing his hands up in an attempt at conveying innocence. “Like a little tugboat!”
“If I’m a tugboat, you’re the damn Titanic,” said Morgan, cradling a beer and smiling wryly. “You continually find ways to sink to new depths. How the hell are ya?”
Morgan’s wife Lee leaned into the table, and Ben considered the freckles between her sun-browned breasts. He glanced quickly at Mary and then back again at the breasts and then at what she was placing on the table, a six-pack of beer. He was dazzled by the golden triangle formed by Lee’s gold necklace, watch, and bracelet. Mary couldn’t wear gold that well, thought Ben. Her skin’s too pale. He reached for a beer. He read the label. Orange and gold and red. La Rue. A quick rush of recognition hit him, and he breathed deeply.
“La Rue,” he said, and met Lee Morgan’s eyes.
She smiled, and Ben saw that her teeth were slightly pointed, yet still bright white.
“Yes. And ever so hard to find,” Lee Morgan answered in what sounded like a stereotypical American-comic-acting-Asian voice. “My father used to drink it. Terry too! I buy it at the import store outside of Oklahoma City.”
Ben hadn’t had a La Rue in years. Maybe 30? He flashed back through a number of memories rather quickly, noting how they danced before his eyes almost like in all the old movies, except without the fluttering calendar pages.
“You don’t say.”
Ben looked at the beer and took a gulp. It was warm and tasted of hops—a little too fermented compared with his normal Budweiser, Coors, and Miller Lite. Mary looked at him, caught his eyes, and smiled. He took another gulp, tapped his cards on the table once, and softly began to cry.
* * *
Rick Fisk might have known. Of all of them, Fisk had that internal curiosity, thought Ben. Was a private, just like him. Was with him in the Route One march to lonely old Bong Son. Rick’s brother Paul was a helicopter pilot, gingerly dropping soldiers in tight places with the same aplomb he did eggs into boiling water back at the diners in Hall River. All of them had, at one point or another, been involved in a situation while stationed in Vietnam. Hank Dotell lost a toe to infection. Remlinger still worries he caught herpes.
Ben slid his chair out, said “bathroom” to nobody in particular, and headed towards the back of the hall. Mary said “be right back” to the ladies and followed him once she noticed him walking at a gait which, for him, seemed rather slow and unmotivated.
“Anything the matter?” She noticed his eyes glistening, a look he would sometime get after belching carbonation. Mary turned to listen as someone in the hall said “Work ethic? I don’t know about that, but he sure has play ethic!” She looked as if she was wondering what that meant, and then felt bad for not paying enough attention to Ben. His eyes were still wet.
Ben felt his heart clamp up, and tried to breathe deeply, as he was of the opinion that crying fits and fear and everything else can be eased through breathing properly. According to his father, that was how you knew you were in love—a soft pillow-pressure on the heart from all sides, a red satin string tying your arteries. This was something else, though, like being stranded in the airport by yourself in a country where you don’t speak the language. This was “wonder if that was a poisonous snake that just bit me?” He imagined his blood as being thin and viciously red in his veins, like Hi-C fruit punch. He noticed Mary holding onto his arm.
“It’s ok, Mary, go on. Go on back in there. It’s ok, I swear. I’m fine. I swear. Get yourself a barbecue sandwich. I’ll be back in there in just a sec, I swear. Swear, Mary.”
Mary Poteat rocked from side to side in her one-inch heels. She wasn’t used to such shoes, preferring sandals, and Ben knew they hurt her in the balls of her feet. She’d said once the shoes made her feel like a mannequin minus the little base. Like she had nails in the balls of in her feet, holding her to the ground.
“Ok. You sure you’re…”
* * *
Ben Poteat, while camping out one evening amidst the bombed-out shacks and overgrown rice paddies and rusted old military junk near Bong Son, had made love to a woman. Except that she wasn’t a woman, so much as a girl. Of good health, and God knows where from. She came to the encampment, and stood on the periphery of the tiny campfire Ben was tending to. Having grown up in a war-torn country for most of her life, she knew most of the ways a girl her age could make money, all of the jobs that paid like mowing a yard might in the country Ben was from. One of them was selling beer to soldiers. Another was selling your body, or at least the temporary rights to it.
Ben had attempted to ignore her when she first arrived, but soon gave in, owing more to the inherent mystery of inhabited shadows than anything else.
“Toi muon mua…Bao nhieu?” He inquired about the cooler of beer in her hand. He crooked his finger in a backwards “C” and gestured for her to come closer. She walked towards him slowly, brushing her thighs with the backs of her hand. She made no direct eye contact, but Ben felt her gaze even as she stared straight ahead at the campfire.
“BE-yah!” She half shouted. Ben never understood the bouncy, trampoline-like lilt of the Vietnamese dialect. Beer, he finally figured out. She’s selling beer. “Ba ma ba. Ba muoi lam.”
“Khong hieu.” I don’t understand. That was the one Vietnamese phrase he used more than any other, as he rarely understood the countless regional dialects.
“La Rue. So mot!” He knew this meant number one. He asked for two. The girl pulled two beers from the small, scuffed metal cooler, and Ben gave her some odd Viet change and an American dollar that he had folded in his wallet. The girl handled him a bottle opener from her back pocket. The air stank of burnt rubber and wood and the sticky sweetness of jungle foliage. Ben visualized the beer washing the dust from his throat. The girl stood some feet away from Ben still, balancing herself on the telephone-pole sized log Ben was seated on.
“Chau!” she nearly shouted.
“Hello yourself,” Ben chuckled, and took a drink of beer. He felt the blood swim through him, finally settling like a fog over his heart. His mind began squeezing out all the other possibilities for the moment, choosing fate as its dance partner over good sense. He was at war. What’s good sense when you’re at war?
“Dep qua.” He told her she was pretty. She stared a hole in the ground. Ben walked to the girl, unzipped her pants, and put his hand on the soft down of her crotch. She met his eyes, lifted her chin, and stuck out her palm.
* * *
Ben’s hands sweat. Like a lot. It’d been that way since he was born. It was some sort of condition, he found out later. You could get an operation, where they go in and clip some nerve between your shoulder blades, but he didn’t feel like that was ever necessary. People don’t like it, they don’t like it, he said. Wasn’t going to bother him any. When he gets nervous—when everybody else’s hands start to sweat—his dry up.
He sat outside on the steps, and watched as the blue latticework smoke of his cigarette mingled with that of the barbecue pit. He rolled the La Rue around in his hands, grateful for the hand-quenching droplets of condensation on the bottle. He looked at the pig roasting on the iron mesh and wished he could somehow be bled of his secret, courtesy a few choice cuts. A transfusion, if you will. Leave that blood back with the man in Vietnam.
Remlinger and Dotell burst through the door, nearly knocking Ben off his concrete perch and into the gravel drive.
Dotell absentmindedly threw a few wood scraps into the fire. “Y’arright?”
“Yeah. . .Say, Hank. . .you. . .you ever keep anything from Vera? Something long ago, even, that you maybe ain’t all that proud about?”
“Shee-it,” said Hank, looking at Remlinger and snorting out a laugh. “E’ry man does at some point in time. There’s certain things that happen or come up in a man’s life and you have to make a decision. A decision about whether or not to accept your short-term casualties, like in a war, or risk a long-term conflict that may or may not flare up again in the future, ’cause it’s unresolved. Maybe a bad analogy, but it works.”
Maurice nodded in agreement.
“I suppose I’ve still got a few battles that flare up now and then. Only really hurts me, I reckon. When you take a secret into the future, you risk time turning what would have been a lil’ ‘ol spark into a flame. Only really burns your own ass, mostly though, like I said. What’d you do?”
Ben smiled weakly. “I’m not sure I want to get into that now. Don’t really concern anyone much anyway, like ya said, outside of me…”
Remlinger flicked a beer cap with his thumb and middle finger. It rattled into a rusted old trash can about ten feet away. “A woman, ain’t it?”
“Maybe’s good as a yes,” said Hank. “Just don’t have the finality.”
* * *
When Ben got back to the table, Mary was entertaining herself by making her beer bottle slide a few inches at a time across the plastic tabletop on a thin layer of condensation.
“Magic,” she said, looking at Ben.
Ben managed about half a smile, his lip curling on the left side of his mouth and then quickly retreating.
“Take a ride?” Ben knew she could always tell by the tone of his voice that something was up. How did that phrase come to be, something’s up? It usually meant something was down. Or going down. Or would soon bring you down.
* * *
They drove out of the town limits, out past goat farms and signs saying “1/2 Mile to Litter Barrel” and the ones advertising Revival—Tonight!. They drove past the Pot Of Gold, with its beach-pink façade advertising CHECKS CASHED ATM VIDEO GAMING, a late model Cadillac with gold-colored rims parked in front. They passed a couple of shaggy dogs panting along a litter-strewn ditch. They turned down Bethea Road, and drove out past the prison, gleaming like a new quarter in the sun, the seagulls curving in big silvery arcs before landing atop the barbed wire.
Ben eventually pulled down a little dirt road where, after the war, he’d go to smoke a bit of pot. It was then a field-hand’s road, used mainly for trucking and irrigation purposes. Now, it was choked with unchecked vegetation, with the live oak and sumac bushes having long overtaken the short carpets of wheat that Ben would spend hours watching sway in the breeze. Someone, maybe the old farmer that used to own the place, had tacked up a sign beside the road: “Journeys End.” People were always naming things in such a way in Hall River, whether as wishful thinking or dark comedy. Ben wasn’t sure, and weren’t sure they knew either.
Mary was filled in by this point, and the couple sat and quietly sipped a six-pack. Mary rarely smoked, but convinced Ben to buy her a pack of Marlboros, as she knew he wasn’t in a position to argue. They sipped and smoked, and had what Ben recognized as one of the best conversations they’d had in years. Least it felt that way—cleansing, even though it was of the castor oil, Lava soap variety. It was always like that. It wasn’t that they kept things from each other, Ben thought, but rather that they wished a sort of independence from each other, and a little secret here and there helped wall up and apportion each of them into separate people. Thirty years of marriage isn’t a whole lot different from clocking in every day at the mill—occasionally, one gets the urge to take some time off.
The problem was that they kept feeling guilty about it, would admit their secrets, and kept having to rebuild their walls, each time with the remains of bricks that had fallen before.
“How was it?” she asked.
“How was it? She, I mean?”
Women always asked questions like this, Ben thought. There was no way they ever wanted to hear the answer, especially if it were in the affirmative. Women didn’t understand that you could have a physical relationship with a woman and, not desiring any other connection, feel perfectly content; though a rare few of that fair sex, Ben decided, did understand. They understood the stupid social mores and expectations men gave themselves, and yet, still chose to follow them—and fuck them, more often than not—out of free will. He wondered which type of woman Mary was really, and then decided he’d rather not know. He knew she loved him, and that was good enough. She had forgiven him, more or less, and hadn’t even raised her voice once.
He worried about that, too.
* * *
On the side of the little overgrown dirt road there stood what Ben Poteat, in the dregs of his fourth beer, thought looked like a little altar. A number of shotgun shells had, due to the late-spring gully-washers, formed a great big clot of color there in the ditch. Alongside this stood two crooked geraniums, thrown away without their pots but still mostly retaining the round clumps of dirt about their roots and the accompanying dandruff of fertilizer. In the middle of it all, two sticks, and damned if it didn’t look like somebody had placed them, arranged them right there like that, in the sign of the cross. He tried to see something beautiful, to take something meaningful from this moment, so he looked. The cross is obvious enough, he thought, and the damned bullets he just found pitifully ironic. But there was something about those two geraniums, these two things bought for their beauty and then discarded, once again releasing their roots and trying to take hold in unfamiliar surroundings, just trying to stay alive.
Yes, that’s it, he thought. That will do just fine.