They sat together, two men huddled in a shadow laden room like soldiers waiting quietly in a fox hole. One of the men sat in the corner of the room, veiled in an impenetrable darkness. The other man named Andrew sat across from him in the small amount of light that breached the cracks in the drawn shades. His face was soft and pudgy like a child’s and he looked at the ominous shadow before him with a cigarette dangling from its mouth and gawked as tiny puffs of gray smoke rose towards the ceiling of the room and then dissipated like all things in time.
An uneasy silence rested between them.
Andrew stared at the pale water lines which ran down the walls and caused the plaster to blister and crack. He grimaced. The man in the corner lit another cigarette and tossed the other one to the rug and stamped it out. A black smudge of tobacco formed on the rug like a scar on ashen flesh. And then Andrew trembled as he leaned back and shut his eyes and succumbed to the dark.
His mind raced through darkened jungles lit infrequently by blinding flashes of light. He heard the relentless pounding of rock music as the gunfire surged furiously and struck his fragile ear drums. He felt a dizzy confusion as his body swayed in a drug induced haze and he gazed as the sky above and the dank jungle on all sides spun about him in an uncontrollable carousel. Vomit lurched up the slick walls of his throat like a river of molten lava. He fell to his knees and released all over the cool soil of the jungle floor. The stench rose into his nostrils and caused him to gag. Suddenly there was the tremendous bombardment of explosions which cracked and rattled and shook his rib cage. Terrible screams sounded out as men squealed and cried in utter agony. He put his hands to his head and squeezed. And then he woke up.
Andrew shuddered. Hundreds of frigid needles caressed his silky flesh. Across from him the man sat with cigarette in hand and his back hunched. He was in the fetal position protecting himself from some dreadful thing that lurked in the murky dimness of the room. Andrew feared it too.
“So… How’ve you been?” the man in the shadows asked. He went pale and seemed to glow faintly in the shadows like a flame dying in a cold night wind. “Good I hope. You’re being kind of quiet.”
“Yea, I know,” replied Andrew.
“It’s been a while since we saw each other last…”
“I’ve been busy pal. The Electric Company has been racking up my hours”
“Yea well you should take it easy; you’ve only been back for two weeks. A guy goes to Nam’ for a few years and then comes back right into the grind of working. That’s tough shit.”
Andrew shook his head up and down.
There was a pause between the two men.
“How’ve you been?” Andrew asked.
“Ah, pretty good. Can’t complain. Anne’s been comin’ over here and bringing me groceries and stuff. I can’t seem to make it outside to get em’ myself. It’s all so different from there. The city I mean. Who would’ve thought that I’d be saying Philly was different?” He chuckled. “The hustle and bustle. Everyone’s in a big hurry to get clothes and televisions and radios and magazines and books and food. Over there I was running around dodging bullets and shit. Trying to save my ass.”
He and Andrew both laughed and the man in the corner dropped his cigarette and stamped it into the rug.
“It’s been on my mind a lot. The change is rough. That’s what gets you. It’s hard to sleep. I roll around in bed waiting to feel the rain pattering and the mud squishing and creeping onto me. That was some uncomfortable sleeping. There’s nothin’ worse than being wet and dirty when you’re trying to sleep. Christ.” He sighed.
“Then there were the gun’s crackling off into the night. They never stopped. Someone was always fighting. And then as the sounds got closer to you, man oh man I can’t tell you how many times I rose up with my m-16 pointed into the dark, breathing heavily and all that business, heart beating expecting to see some little bastard gook standing there screaming his bullshit. You never did know when your time would come. There was always that clock ticking off in the jungle somewhere and you never knew at what time it was and you never heard it but you knew it was there because you could feel it beating at the back of your brain and driving you fucking crazy.” The man in the shadows lifted his head and stroked his unshaven chin which was covered in a patch of dark scraggly fur. Andrew could see his face now. It contorted and then he grunted as he sat up and crossed his legs in a manic struggle.
“And those smells…Christ almighty. We burned em’ and killed them but man did we pay afterwards. I’ll never forget this one time; we called in an air strike on this village on the bank of the red river right outside of Hanoi. Apparently there was some Vietcong stationed there and waiting to move out down river with supplies. So we’re waiting in the jungle and the air strike comes and napalms the hell out of it, and we come strutting in there with our rifles and such and were immediately hit with this unimaginable odor. I’ll tell you, I’ve smelled roasted flesh before, but there’s nothing like human flesh. I guess it was the blood that gave the coppery stench, but this foul smell that reminded me of burnt liver was mixed in too. For good measure I suppose.” He chuckled a bit and then stopped suddenly and continued. “And then the smell of hair burning, that dreadful sulfuric odor. Yea, that was a barbeque Andrew but pretty different from one here at home I’ll say that.”
Andrew sighed and nodded. The man in the shadows continued again.
“But you know, there Is one thing I’ll remember about that day more than any other. I told you we had napalmed the village, and walked into it shortly after the jets flew over head. So I’m walking past these burning huts and there are cong screaming and dying all around us, and then I look directly in front of me and I see this little girl standing naked and blackened like chicken. She was just standing there man, staring at me, and so I stood there and stared at her. And then you know what she did? She came running to me and pulled at my uniform and cried in this pathetic squeal. I put my hand around her and pulled her close and then when I went to let her go a layer of skin tore off and came with me. She didn’t even yelp, she just had these wide eyes with tears rolling out of them and god she looked like she was suffering so badly, so badly. There was nothing I could do for her and I think she knew that.”
He paused and sniffled. His head fell downwards and he started to tremble and he held himself. He rubbed his face furiously and then sat up covering his mouth with his hand and moved it all about his face in a mad twitch. He sucked deeply.
“What a mess.”
He leaned in and for the first time his face was completely visible in the sunlight. Andrew glared at the man’s right eye. The object sparkled in the light. It was still. His left eye moved about frantically like someone lost in a maze.
“I guess I never realized how much of a goddamn mess it really was. I killed men and they killed my friends, they took my eye and In turn I saved someone for it. You know that story, I won’t bother. But at some point you have to ask yourself why? I know you know what I’m talking about. You were there. You may have not seen much combat but you were there. You could feel it around you…
I still feel that. It’s there every time I go to bed. Every time I think. All those guys are dead and gone and they could have been something but instead they fought and died and lost everything that they knew and loved and they’ll never even know that they did. They’ll never even know what it was all for. We were all turned into reckless machines and you know what? I still feel like one. Our fate was sealed far before the war Andrew. It was just waiting for a signature and a man in a suit with a microphone. ”
Andrew sat staring like a newborn at the man before him. His mind spun in circles and he didn’t know what to say except to nod and smile calmly and be there for his friend. Then he looked down at his watch and saw the time and decided that he should leave. He said goodbye to his friend and hugged him. The man had been reduced to a thin stack of pallid flesh and bone. Andrew told him to take care and to call him sometime soon. The man in the shadows smiled and ruffled his matted patch of black hair. Andrew began to walk across the filthy carpet trudging over crumpled pizza boxes, beer bottles and scrunched cigarettes that left their black mark of death upon the rug. From under a thin veil of wheezing came the voice of his friend.
“I don’t know if I’m gonna’ be ok Andrew.”
Andrew turned around and gazed at the weak statue standing there in the gloom of the corner.
“Call me,” he said, and with that waved and left the apartment in a shamble.
The next morning Andrew awoke with a stir. His face was drained of color except for the rays of vibrant light that traced his features in black lines. He got up and stumbled over to the window, pulling open the shade and feeling the warmth of the May sun run across his body. Across from his house were his neighbor’s children shrieking to and fro about the lawn in a fit of happiness. He smiled and walked into the bathroom and took a shower. Then he brushed his teeth with a tedious look engraved in his face and then pulled clothes onto his body and rushed downstairs to eat breakfast.
He was in the midst of eating a bowl of cereal when the phone rang with a shrill shriek and caused him to jump from his seat. Grabbing the phone off of it’s receiver he sat back down and relaxed.
“Hello” he said.
“Yea? Who is this?”
A touch of distraught lingered in her frail voice.
“What’s wrong Anne?”
“What? Anne just tell me.”
“Anne for Christ’s sake just tell me please. What happened?”
“I brought his groceries over to him this morning and the door was cracked open
so I just walked in.”
Her voice was panicked.
“And, I tried to turn on the lights but they didn’t work and there was so much… smoke in the room and I couldn’t see so I dropped the groceries and started to scream his name and oh, God Andrew, it was so dark.”
Her voice trembled and he remained quiet.
“I ran to the window and pulled the shades open and found him just lying there with a gun lying next to him on the floor and there was blood Andrew, blood everywhere.”
He was breathing heavily and he looked about himself confused and struck with a dreadful truth.
“Andrew?” She was crying now and her sobs crept through the telephone and pulled him into an icy grip.
“Anne I’ll be right there.”
He slammed the telephone down and ran out the door and drove off.
When he got to the apartment complex there were police everywhere and an ambulance resting against the sidewalk with its lights careening about the world and a siren piercing the air with a striking dissonance. Bystanders crowded the entrance of the building with an eerie curiosity. Andrew rushed right through them frightened and screaming “I’m a friend!” The police stepped to the side and let him pass and he ran up the stairs to the second floor. He exited the stairwell and strode into the hallway and there was Anne against the wall. Her face was bright red and it gleamed in the faded light above. Andrew held her quickly and then dashed to the entrance of Peter’s room gasping and choking from his dusty mouth. He looked in and the ambulance crew looked back at him and then he looked at Peter lying there in that pool of blood and stumbled in the doorway gripping the sides with clenched fists and gradually sliding to his knees. His face scrunched and he pulled at his hair and then slammed his fists into the floor and howled with anguish. One of the men walked over to him and pulled him close and held him as Andrew convulsed and stared at Peter and whispered a mumbled mess of words and whimpers.
The next day Andrew skulked into the local tavern and saw his friends sitting at a table drinking beers and staring into the deep coarse brown of the wood. Andrew sat with them and said hello and they patted one another on the backs. They looked like old men sitting sad and quiet in the dimness of the tavern. Each of their minds wandered. From his jacket Andrew pulled out an envelope and set it onto the table amidst the drinks. Wary eyes looked up at him and stared.
“It’s a letter. Peter wrote this before he died. They found it in his shirt pocket.”
They all looked down and sighed.
“It’s for us.”
Thick battle ravaged hands reached out and grabbed the envelope that contained the letter. Andrew looked up at the man who wore a first cavalry division pin and whom he had known for twenty five years and saw a stranger. The man’s eyes were red with tears. He opened the letter with his callous and now child like hands shaking uncontrollably. He looked terrified.
He read it aloud and then dropped it.
“What happened to us?”