Over Shoulders

C.A. Cole

 

 

Loveland, 1988

 

My brother, his hair pulled back in a red elastic, has just arrived for his regular rotation through Colorado, his first visit since my divorce. N__ More W__r his graying t-shirt says in bright and missing blue letters. I am sweating in my sandals; he is wearing fully laced combat boots with fraying wool socks sticking out of their tops.

 

Although the cyclical nature of Danny’s visits may have had some bearing on the dissolution of my marriage—Alan wasn’t fond of my brother’s grubby silence—I am more or less glad to see him. More because I don’t feel safe in my tuna-can trailer and less because I have not been this alone with him since he left for the war.     

 

“This time,” I say while he unloads his possessions from his 1962 Impala, “there are going to be rules and responsibilities.”

 

“Fine.”  He looks over my shoulder with his gray-green eyes. He never looks at

anyone but always over shoulders. I’m not sure what he sees. Across the rocky lawn, across the road, large chunks of tar lying in the borrow ditch, there is a yellowing field enclosed behind two strands of sagging barbed wire. 

 

My daughter and I decided Dan could sleep in the living room/kitchen with the TV. He tosses his pile of green pants and ratty t-shirts under the couch as if he’s always lived out of cardboard boxes, as if he’s never had more possessions than this.

 

His shoulders seem to touch each opposite wall, giving him little room in which to move. I thought about letting him have my daughter’s room, but it didn’t seem fair to untack her kindergarten drawings from her walls. If she slept on the couch, she wouldn’t get to bed until midnight, and if she slept with me, she’d put her the cold soles of her feet against my thighs and neither of us would get any rest.

 

On his next trip back from his car, Danny trips on the wobbly entrance step and swears, every other syllable a word I don’t allow in my house.

 

“You can’t talk like that around Mari,” I warn him.

 

He drops the last box, hooks his thumbs in the belt loops of his fatigues, and regards me out of half-closed eyes. “What way, Sue? What way? They only teach you words with more than four letters at Smith?”

 

I laugh. “Maybe if they’d had a course in foul language, I could have communicated with Alan.”

 

“Doubt it,” he mumbles and unpacks his crate of books, lining them up in chronological order on the small shelf we’ve cleared for him. Every book is related to Vietnam. There are tattered copies of One to Count Cadence and One Very Hot Day as well as some newer books, The 13th Valley, and Paco’s Story. I have seen him read these books, tossing them across the floor at what provocation, I don’t know. Sometimes he reads passages out loud to anyone within hearing. I’ve suggested he get a job at a bookstore, but he just looks over my shoulder.

 

I work a split shift driving a “special needs” bus and have to hustle back to work. I slap together a peanut butter sandwich and eat it as I run the three blocks to the bus terminal. My vehicle, The Caring Ride emblazoned in red, is waiting, water droplets shivering on its blue hide. My first pickup is in ten minutes.

 

As usual, Mr. Solomon is wearing his red sweater in ninety-five degree heat and raising his cane at my Bluebus as if he were hailing a cab. “Good afternoon, good afternoon,” he says and swings into the seat behind me. A new rider, Mr. Mallicay, bends into the seat next to him. According to my route sheet, Mr. Mallicay is over ninety.

 

The two of men discuss children and grandchildren, trying to count who has had the most relatives in the army. My radio crackles. By the time I can hear their conversation again, I have the impression Mr. Mallicay has won because Mr. Solomon has changed the subject to roses.

 

Mostly I cart around women. Three days a week I drive the ladies home from the Senior Lunch program and they perch in the back and gabble about the food. Sometimes they make catty comments about Mrs. Howith who wears outfits that snag men’s attention. I don’t know Mrs. Howith; she drives a car as old as my brother’s. Her Chevy is red with shiny chrome, not pockmarked like Danny’s.

 

“I can watch Mari for you,” Danny offers later as we sit down to our first supper together. I’ve splurged and bought real meat. “Me and her can do the shopping,” he says, frowning at the hamburgers I have killed on the grill.

 

In a city where you don’t have computer skills, and everyone else has a Ph.D., it is difficult to find a decent job. The first few weeks of the summer, Mari’s babysitting money gouged a large hole in my salary.

 

 

The first weeks with Danny work out far better than I expect. He doesn’t mind the lumps in the couch, and the money he contributes from his disability payments allows us to have grilled pork chops at least once a week.

 

Having him stay with Mari makes me toy with the idea that I might be able to afford a computer class or two. Between pick-ups, I daydream about getting a useful degree that will help me to find a better job, something to escape the quagmire Alan has pushed me into.

 

Although my bus is air-conditioned, I’m almost always hot and sticky and grouchy by the time I finish my afternoon shift and start the short climb up the hill to the trailer. One afternoon in the middle of July, Danny and Mari have the front door propped open with a trashcan and are sitting on the stoop.

 

“How can I invite anyone over?” I ask, kicking at Dan’s stack of books on the floor and his undershirts wadded up against the leg of the couch. At least Alan was neat; every morning he lined up his shaving things on the bathroom counter. He never left a glass in the kitchen sink. Dan watched Mari, but he never thought to wash a dish or run to the Laundromat.

 

“Haven’t seen you invite anyone,” Danny says, setting his jaw. “Haven’t heard the phone ring.”

 

The wounds from my divorce are still open. I’ve conveniently lost touch with the friends who haven’t abandoned me; blue collar and Junior League just don’t mix. These days my only friends are my coworkers and riders, like Mr. Mallicay. I envy Danny his evening rendezvous with other vets.

 

More than once during the summer, I’ve stumbled into the kitchen in the middle of the night to find Dan and his buddies hunkered around my table in their camouflage underwear drinking Tiger and 33, chaining together letters and numbers: DD214, SPN, RE4. Their feet, jungle boots open at the top, are propped against the wall. When I enter, they lower their chairs to the floor and swipe at the spilled beer on the Formica tabletop. I get a quick drink of water, pulling my robe tighter around me. Once, as I entered the darkened kitchen, a lighter flared, enlarging their shadows. For the strength of a heartbeat, a man stroking his beard held my gaze. He set down his coffee cup and grinned shyly, his lips barely visible under his facial hair. After I closed my bedroom door I stood perfectly still, listening to the deep, comforting rumble of his voice.

 

 

Tonight Danny has supper cooking. He specializes in canned food, maybe from his C-ration days. He stirs pinto beans into tomato soup and adds water. It isn’t bad, although the recipe wouldn’t be included in the Bon Appetites stored under my bed.

 

“I found us a class,” he says as the three of pass the last of the garlic bread, Mari wielding a mess-kit spoon Dan found for her at the Army Surplus. “One evening a week. History of the war.” He doesn’t bother to say which war, as if there were only one.

 

“Danny,” I say as I dunk my spoon into my red soup, trying to sink the beans.

 

His mouth becomes a flat line, transforming him into the exasperated older brother who, combing his bangs over his eyes, never allowed me to tag along. “What?” His eyes shift to my face, to my cheekbones, not quite into my eyes but closer than they’ve been since the day he joined the army. He tilts his head back, his arm muscles tightening like rope, and drinks a long glug of Tiger, waiting, as if full of internal alarm clocks.

 

“Can’t you let the war go?”

 

He slams the bottle on the table so that the legs shake. “You can’t understand if you weren’t there,” he says and shoulders his way out the door.

 

I leave the amber bug light on and the door unlocked; his key is on the dog tag chain marking his place in his book of Vietnam poetry.

 

 

The next day I finish my morning shift earlier than usual. I’ve dropped Mrs. Davis at the eye doctor and Carolina Stovinmina at the grocery store. None of the drivers likes Carolina with her wild graying hair under her jaunty red caps. She lived in NYC all her life and thinks we are the rural alternative to the subway system.

 

“You escaped from Carolina?” one of the dispatchers asks, looking up from her mess of papers. She has a Masters degree in gerontology and thinks we should be encouraging Carolina to be more independent.

 

“Why don’t you move?” I ask as I fill in my mileage report. I’ve heard her complain about the nonprofessional nature of her position and the paucity of jobs in town.

 

She shrugs. “My husband works for the University.”

 

Ever since Alan left to pursue his dream of river guiding, I have been trying to find advantages to being divorced; she has provided me with the first and only example I have found.

 

 

 

“The Wall is coming in a few days,” Dan announces one morning toward the end of August. I’ve tip-toed into the kitchen before dawn. His hairy, bare arms stick out from the sheet covering him on the couch. “I signed up to work it.”

 

‘The Wall,’ he says without antecedent. Luckily, I have seen posters and know what he is talking about. Although he makes yearly pilgrimages to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, and although I am familiar with its being referred to as ‘The Moving Wall,’ I don’t quite make the connection. For me, ‘the wall’ connotes the partition in my old house between the dining room and the study Alan started to tear down but never finished. I have often wondered if that half-stand of plaster and paint is the reason our house is rented, not sold. More than once I have considered storming over and finishing it off with a sledgehammer.

 

“Fine,” I say. Mari’s feet, sticking to the linoleum, make little patting sounds as she pads from bed to the bathroom.  “What about Mari?”                   

 

I snap on the light and Danny squinches his eyes tighter and mumbles, “She can come with me.”  He stretches, his toes poking the screen at the end of the couch.  “There’ll be other kids.”

 

I pour myself some rancid coffee from the all-night pot. Some of the women at work drag their kids around. Mr. Mallicay would like to meet Mari, and if the ladies stop gossiping, they might cluck at her, but it isn’t fair to make a kid sit on the bus for hours on end with nothing to do but color. Letting her run around in the parking lot while Danny assists people locating loved ones in the directories listing the dead isn’t much more appealing.

 

“You won’t watch her. You’ll start talking about Can Tho and Cambodia and BARs and mines, and—-”

 

“Don’t get shook,” he says and sits up, my clue to pour more coffee so he can pull on his pants.

 

“It’s okay, Mommy,” Mari says, long strands of her blonde hair sticking to her lips and eyelashes as she enters the kitchen and slides into her chair. “I like Uncle Huey and Porter.”

 

“Uncle Huey and Porter?”

 

“Uncle Danny’s friend. Porter’s his dog.”

 

Danny slinks toward the bathroom.

 

“We visit them in the afternoons,” Mari tells me. “Porter likes to chase sticks.”

 

“And what do Uncle Danny and Uncle Huey do while you and Porter chase sticks?”

 

The shower goes on full blast.

 

“Drink coffee.”

 

“And smoke?” I ask. My greatest fears of having Danny around are drugs and loaded weapons.

 

“Sometimes,” she says and stuffs her hand into the bag of generic puffed wheat.

 

I pound on the flimsy bathroom door. It shifts a bit, letting out a hiss of steam. “I don’t want her hurt,” I shout at Danny.

 

With a loud bang the water turns off. “Jesus, Sue, don’t you think I have any sense?”

 

I’m late and have to run to the bus terminal. I want to kick something or go back and punch my brother, although I know punching him will do no good. He will laugh; my fist will hurt. I fly downstairs to my bus, throw my assignment clipboard under the seat and tear out of the garage to my first client.

 

Mr. Mallicay lives in a small white house with hollyhocks and hydrangea bushes. He is tall and hardly stooped. His veins stick out as if they pump more blood than his fragile skin can hold. This morning, the sun coming up behind the foothills, he waits, clutching one of the yellow flyers announcing the arrival of the moving Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, the first time it has made a trip to our locale.

 

“Have you seen these?” he asks me, his voice thin as an apparition. He places his feet unsteadily, feeling his way up the bus steps.

 

I nod.

 

Mr. Mallicay’s eyes are large behind his glasses, filling my rear view mirror like two blue suns rising over the mountains. “My grandson was killed,” he says simply and goes back to studying his sheet.

 

That afternoon Dan and Mari meet me in the middle of the road.                   

 

“Why don’t we,” Dan says, smiling through his teeth, “all go out to Uncle Huey’s for a picnic?” They are carrying grocery sacks and the corduroy picnic spread. I have little choice but to allow them to stow me in the back of the Impala with a thermos and a bag of charcoal.

 

Uncle Huey lives up the Buckhorn, back in a shady neck of the canyon. It is cool, and his log cabin, although cramped and lacking indoor plumbing, is swept clean. On a checkered tablecloth is an earthenware vase of black-eyed-Susan’s.

 

Huey is the man of the deep voice I’ve heard in my kitchen in the hours before dawn. He’s taller than Dan, and his well-trimmed beard is graying. Unlike Dan, he looks into you, not over your shoulder. His eyes are a soft brown. He isn’t wearing one stitch of army-issue clothing, but rather a Colorado State t-shirt and jeans. From the quick glimpse I have of his house before we head out to Mari’s favorite picnic spot, I can’t locate one military artifact.

 

Mari and Dan race out of the picket-fence yard into the straw-colored weeds, throwing a well-chewed stick for Porter. Huey piles a jacket and another spread in my arms, picks up the sacks we’ve brought, and grabs a pie.

 

“Dan tells me you drive for the Caring Ride.” He holds strands of rusty barbed wire apart for me to step through. “We may know some of the same people. I’m the relief cook at a nursing home.”

 

I’m happy to hear that some of Dan’s friends are employed, but I’m no longer used to talking to single males under age eighty-five. I set my teeth in a smile but my gaze keeps sliding away from him to snatches of purple sky hiding in the treetops. He paces along softly. I suppose he’s waiting for my response, but his waiting isn’t like Danny’s impatience; there is a stillness about him as if anticipating the precise moment the sun will disappear behind the mountains, as if he knows there is time, no rush, no hurry, the sun will set even if I don’t answer.

 

A few soggy patches of grass later, he plops the bags down. We each grab an end of the blanket, let it billow in the evening air, and settle to the ground.

 

“Dan has been a help this summer,” I finally say. We have nothing in common but Danny, and an old lady or two, but I can’t shake the acceptance that rumbles through his voice and peeks out of his eyes.

 

“Babysitting Mari? He says you don’t think it’s such a good idea for them to visit me.” He squints at a fluttering in the trees. “He says you think we blow dope.”

 

I duck my head and pick at the stem of a shriveled columbine.

 

“No need to worry. I’m clean and sober,” he says, tossing a pinecone in the direction of a squirrel. “I’ve got a daughter a few years older than Mari. Haven’t seen her since she was that size.”

 

As we unpack tubs of potato salad and bags of chips, Huey tells me about his marriages and children. Only when he is mentions his jobs does he look away. During the rest, his gaze lingers on my cheekbones, traveling up to my eyes for longer and longer intervals.

 

“Huey thinks you’re pretty,” Dan says later as we drive home.

 

I shift Mari’s sleeping form against my leg and inch closer to the window. As I let the breeze tangle my hair, I christen myself a veteran of marriage. I know it’s not the same as Vietnam, but I can’t get any closer to days of horror. If I let myself become involved again, or if Huey tries to kiss me, I know I will see Alan’s face, Alan’s eyes, and taste his Oreo-cookie breath. I don’t particularly want to be around Alan any more, but he is there, in my blood, a section of my life I can’t erase.

 

 

“Too bad they aren’t setting up a trip at the center,” Mr. Mallicay says as we drive toward the senior center’s daily lunch program. He is still looking at the flyer; tomorrow the Wall arrives.

 

“Would many people want to go?” All I can imagine is the Ladies Lunch Bunch complaining that The Wall isn’t as big as they expected, or that they can’t read the names.

 

“Some of them had boys in the war.” He nods his head and smooths out the sheet. “If only my daughter hadn’t insisted I give up driving.”

 

I imagine him maneuvering a big blue Pontiac, his head bruising the top of the roof. I doubt he can see much farther than the car in front of us.

 

“Maybe your daughter will take you,” I suggest.

 

“The girl’s in Philly. It’s her boy that got killed.” He is silent for a moment. “She can go to the big memorial any time.”

 

I pull up to Carolina Stovinmina’s apartment building. Once she is on, she takes over the airwaves, and I have nothing to think about but Mr. Mallicay and the chunk of black granite with his grandson’s name and of Dan and Huey, their faces reflecting among the names of people I will never know.

 

All weekend Danny is at the Memorial. Sunday afternoon I drive to the grocery store at the other end of the shopping center that is hosting The Wall. Double-decker buses shuttle people to the site. Men in camouflage clothing clump at the periphery, forming impenetrable groups.

 

“I don’t see Uncle Huey or Uncle Danny,” Mari says, shading her eyes with her hand.

 

“Do you think they brought Porter?”

 

“Oh, no,” she says, gazing at me, her mouth slightly open. “This is solemn.”

 

Now that I’ve met Huey, I feel better about sending Mari to the Memorial, but I still spend most of Sunday night packing a bag of toys and reminding her to stay out of everyone’s way.

 

“We’ll watch her good,” Dan promises as he helps load Mari into his car the next morning. Even before the Memorial arrived, he’d been busy; it feels as if he’s already packed his bags.

 

 

Mr. Mallicay emerges from his house, still clutching that yellow paper. “Tomorrow is its last day,” he says, his voice like smoke from a distant war. “If I thought I could, I’d get my binoculars and climb up on my roof.”

 

What would anyone, even with good eyesight, see at a distance of ten miles? All the way to the center I think about that black monument stretching across the lawn, about Danny staying out in the pouring rain for an all-night vigil, about the eighteen years he has not been able to rest. All the way to the center I think about Mr. Mallicay and his grandson, and as the passengers shuffle off the bus, I tell him I’ll take him tomorrow afternoon. All the other drivers steal days away. I, too, need time.          

 

 

I make Mari sit in the back of my Subaru. By the time Mr. Mallicay adjusts his legs in the front seat, his teeth are grazing his knees. He clutchs a small bouquet of marigolds and snapdragons, and offers a yellow blossom to Mari.

 

“I’ve been there already,” she tells us, leaning as far forward as she can with the seat belt restraining her. “I helped yesterday.”

 

She advises me on where to park and grabs Mr. Mallicay’s hand as he climbs out of the passenger’s side. “You have to stop at Uncle Danny’s first to find out where the name is,” she explains as they start to trot off.

 

“Whoa, Nellie,” he says. She waits for him to adjust his flowers and pull the lapels of his suit coat straight.

 

The three of us march up to the folding tables under a canopy. At Dan’s station, one lady is ahead of us, turning over the pages of the big directory one by one as if memorizing the contents. The vet at the next station gestures to us, but I shake my head as Huey comes up, puts his hands on the woman’s shoulders, and asks her to move to the next station. His eyes seek mine. Although I realize it relates to my brother, I cannot decipher his questioning look.

 

“Sue,” Dan says, surprised.

 

“Dan, this is my friend Mr. Mallicay. My brother Dan.”

 

“You a veteran of this war?” Mr. Mallicay asks, the flowers shaking in his grasp.

 

“Yes, sir,” Dan says, standing so straight he appears to have grown.

 

“I have come,” Mr. Mallicay says, “to locate the name of my grandson, James R. Miller.”

 

Dan turns the pages backward until he reaches the M’s. He reads upside down until his finger stops at the name. Mari is ready with a slip of paper, and Mr. Mallicay writes down the section and date in his large, watery handwriting. Dan starts to give directions but stops, frowning at my chin. He steps away from the table, motioning Huey to take his place.

 

He leads us to the Wall. Even though it is only a scale model, only half the size of the original, the names marching in ordered row, name after name, section by section, for over two hundred and fifty feet is overwhelming.

 

Dan bends down, his face reflecting in the obsidian paint and points to the name of Mr. Mallicay’s grandson. Mr. Mallicay stoops and traces the letters with the tips of his fingers.

 

“We can do a rubbing for you, sir.”

 

Mr. Mallicay props the bundle of flowers at the base of the wall and blinks at his reflection.  “The memory is what counts.”

 

He stands tall and mouths so softly to Dan that I almost lose the words. “I am a veteran of the Great War. Yes, sir, once we have been at war, we will never be the same.” In the black granite the shadows of their eyes merge.

 

“There it is,” Dan says. “There it is.”

 

 

As we are leaving, Huey runs out to my car. “There’s a special service tonight,” he says.  His brown eyes are asking unanswerable questions.

 

I shrug, noncommittal. I can’t bring myself to say no, but I am not ready to embark into the unknown.

 

Huey rocks back on his heels, bracing his arms against the side of my window. “Think about it, okay?”

 

On the trip back to Mr. Mallicay’s house, Mari dozes in the back seat, breathing through her mouth so loudly I almost can’t hear his words.

 

“War changes everything,” he says, staring straight ahead, “but everything stays the same. It is we who must adjust, we veterans who have to make things the same again.” 

 

When I let him out at his house, he tells me to wait. He goes to a small table tucked under his wild rose bushes, snips off a last copper bloom, and heads back to the car with his lanky but tipsy stride. “Thank you for the ride today and every day.” He holds out the last rose, straightens and salutes as I roll down his driveway.

 

Back at the shopping center, I clutch Mari’s hand, looking for Huey, but it is Danny who spots us.

 

“Sue,” he says, smiling. “You’re back.” He ruffles Mari’s hair.

 

“Huey said there was a special service.”

 

“Tonight,” he says, his voice jittery with excitement the way he was at his first summer job. The way he was when he first went off to college. “After the service, I’m packing up,” he adds, looking in the vicinity of my nose. “It was good finding this Wall.” His eyes shimmer, staring at my lower lids. “I’m leaving with it. Helping with it.”

 

He is looking directly at me, his smile like that from before the war. He holds my gaze for a second, but only a second, before he turns back to help with the logbooks.

 

I open my mouth, wanting to ask, “What about Mari?” Instead, I looked through the clump of camouflaged men, looking for Huey.

 

C.A. Cole has an MA in Gerontology from the University of Northern Colorado. Her illustrious work career includes: dispatcher for a senior transportation program, prescription assistance program worker, and admissions coordinator at a nursing home. Currently, she is unemployed, which she likes as she can work on her writing. Recent credits include QWF, Perigee, flashquake, and Cantaraville.

 

Photo Courtesy of dreamstime.

 

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Fiction Copyright © 2008 C.A. Cole. All rights reserved.