Sample text for The things we do to make it home : a novel / Beverly Gologorsky.
Bibliographic record and links to related information available from the Library of Congress catalog
Copyrighted sample text provided by the publisher and used with permission. May be incomplete or contain other coding.
1. WHERE WE WERE
We were in bed
We were sauced
We were plastered
We were stoned
We were drumming floors
We were bathed in TV light
We were alive
We were together
We were back in the world.
And she's still not used to the noises he makes in other rooms. She hears him pacing the floor and snapping his fingers as if he can't contain the ideas popping into his head.
Dropping the green cotton skirt over her silky green blouse, she thinks it's crazy, dressing up this way to watch TV, but Rooster will twirl her around, three times at least, like she was the main show and he won't let it end. Before him, men were so ordinary, so predictable. He surprises her breath away, driving them into Manhattan at 3:00 a.m., the tall glass buildings filled with blue light and no people, his arm wrapping her waist. He never lets her stray from his side. Back home, they sneak upstairs, not waking her sister or Nick, hiding in bed till noon, their bodies tight together. It worries her the way he can go on with no sleep, expecting her to do the same, although when she can't he leaves her be, takes off by himself. Once they're married he'll settle down. He's just excited, the way she is, about everything.
Yesterday she missed her morning classes and arrived in a daze at the afternoon workshops, where the teacher was shagging hair. In the evening she found the time to perm the wig on her mannequin, which used to reside on the kitchen table until Rooster covered it and moved it to the window ledge. The eye sockets gave him the creeps. Soon she'll graduate and look for a full-time job. Rooster too. Then they can rent a place, their own, maybe buy it someday, and he can listen to music all night if he wants to.
She weaves the last strands of her hair into a French braid, and with arms faintly aching, slips the end into a barrette. Listen up, men, he'll say, Millie and I are getting married. She opens the closet door, studies the shoe rack. They agree, today is perfect for the announcement. They'll all be together. He'd better remember. She searches out her beige, high-heeled pumps.
He counts twenty-two steps from the bedroom door to the end of the living room. If he walks across the couch, it's only nineteen. He glances out the window. Looks like an afternoon storm that could last minutes, or days. No use trying to keep dry. The heavens are tricky. The key is not to care.
He switches on a lamp in the rapidly darkening room. Listens for the drumbeat of Millie's heels. She doesn't like him barging in while she's dressing. She says that he's got to give her some privacy. Soon there'll be thunder, lightning. He begins snapping his fingers. Twenty-two steps. He turns, fixes his eyes on the door. Twenty-two steps. Hey, baby, anchors need to be close to their boats.
He switches on another lamp, drops into a chair. A thunderclap rumbles deep in his chest. This vessel's ready to steer out of here. He stands up. Twenty-two steps. He looks for a magazine. None in sight.
He glances out at the yellow house across the street. A patch of grass black as the sky.
He flicks on the TV. Nothing. Goddamn box. Not even plugged in. Jesus. He can't be prowling around looking for a socket. Shit. Twenty-two steps. He opens the bedroom door. "Hey, baby."
She's slipping on her shoes. He wraps his arms around her, nuzzles his face into her clean-smelling hair. Make love, he thinks, so deep inside he'll hear nothing but the feathery sounds that come off her breath.
"Don't mess me."
He unzips her skirt. "You can't be messed, baby."
"They'll be here soon."
"They'll be late. They're always late." He sits her on his lap. "Pretty bird, why should we ever leave this room?" He slips off the barrette, begins unbraiding her silky, orange-red hair that's like a morning sun, a 'Nam moon. He traces the line of freckles marching down her neck. "We need to count these." He peers into her green saucer eyes scattered with infinite black and yellow specks. "Tiger eyes."
"Ever see one?"
"Heh, heh. They saw me." He lifts her blouse over her head.
"Don't undress me anymore." She shakes her shoulders.
"Why not?" He lays her on the bed, sliding up beside her.
"Don't you want to go the party, Rooster?"
His name, that name, still so strange from her lips. "We will. I'll dress you."
"Let's not be late. They'll all be there, except Lucy and Nick."
Filled with the after-sweet tiredness of loving her, he might be able to sit still for the car ride. "Right. Can't expect him to leave the bubble till the bluebird flies through Manhattan."
"He's home as long as you are."
"Maybe yes, maybe no."
"But you understand them."
"I'm the middle of the riddle and you're marrying me anyway."
"Serious is a hole in the hourglass." Her pale brows create little frown lines like a puppy's, low on her forehead. He needs to take her with him into oblivion. He rubs the back of his hand on her soft cheek. "I'd rather do carefree."
"You need to do something."
"Like school. The government will pay."
"They can't pay me what they owe me, sweet bird."
"Let it go, Rooster. It's over for you. Forget it."
"Forgotten, baby, like old garbage. It just stinks, that's all. Hey, I've got it figured: you're a beautician, so I'll be a barber. We'll open a shop, serve bubbly while we cut, and charge the men extra for seeing you. Except no grunts." His fingers play along her arm.
"They need the hair. To cover their mugs, the shaggy bastards."
She lifts his beard. "Nothing hidden there."
"You smell so good." He presses himself against her softness. One hand finds the knob of her hipbone, holding on not to glide away. "Whatever you want," he whispers, not sure why.
"Do you mean it?"
"You name it," he whispers again.
"I want a house someday."
"One place for the rest of your life?" He lifts the round breast out of the bra cup.
"What about camping out?"
"Once in a while."
"With just sleeping bags."
"Good. Because I saw this large estate in South Hampton. We could set up a hooch facing the water, cook on the beach. No one's there after October."
"But we'll be working then."
"It's our shop. We're the bosses. We can take our vacations when we want." He slides back up and looks into round, flecked eyes full of doubt. "Smile, Millie. What's the worst thing that could happen?" His lips on hers, searching for the immediate warmth.
"Jason, Jason," he chides himself. "Caught short, man, short." He spreads the green, heart-shaped dexies on the kitchen table. Chips on a bingo card, except they cover only four spaces and he has twenty-four hours to get through before he can reach Seymour Pervert, SP to his friends. Damn. Damn. Contact's got to be made before tomorrow. He can't interview for anything on nothing. Won't be easy. Man doesn't live normally, has no phone, doesn't take checks. Pray he gets his message at the rug store and arrives with a pocketful in the morning. He'll borrow some cash from his sister. Ida's shy on asking questions. Not Deede, though. A hint'll get you a million from her. He'll head for Manhattan before dawn, before she wakes, leave a note saying he went to Jones Beach. Not much of a lie. They should never have downpaid on this place. No one scores an easy hit in the burbs. Except Deede hates the city.
Whatever will he do later? Not even one downer. Shit! He'll be wearing eyeballs all night. He'll never kick the habit of staying alert in the dark.
Thank the good Buddha for Rod's party. Watergate Party. Beer, liquor too, that's for sure. Rod knows what the men need. If he tips enough sauce, that'll wipe out hours, and Frankie's driving both ways. Once they took care of each other. Now they're in separate holes. Fear opened them up. All those nights he talked away, confessing whatever lay on his chest. Like him rummaging that dead boy's body, still warm. What did he expect to find? A worthless photo that he'll never show to Deede. It might scare her, maybe away from him. Then where would home be?
He slides two pills into his palm. Studies them. He'll do these, then at two the next, and at five the final one. That should take care of the light time. He has to think strategically. No, that's the LT's job. His is to get through.
He takes the OJ out of the fridge, swallows the pills, and drinks until the pulpy, acidic taste clogs his throat. Shit! He pours the rest down the drain. Deede's letting the place rot. He glances at floor, walls, window. Immaculate. The way he likes it. No, she's okay. Her footsteps overhead. He wads the remaining two pills into a Kleenex and slips it in his pants pocket. He can't stay here, waiting to lift off. He advances on the stairs. "Deede? Deede!"
He catches the urgency in his voice, sits down on a step. His eyes sweep the orderly living room. Calm, man, be calm. Not a mansion, but nifty. Fixed up just the way he wants. No greens. No earth colors at all. Sky, sun, and water, he told her, he can live with that. Yeah, he's starting to feel it. Only a little rush, but it's there. He stands. "I'm coming to get
She's there at the top in her little-boy pajamas. "Hey, we're going to be late," he says. "You want to keep Frankie's motor running?"
She slips her arms around his neck. "I want to talk about the party."
"Not again, come on."
"You're going to booze away the hours."
"We're going to sit in Rod's new house and watch Nixon's ass get whipped by the little pricks who worked for him."
She pushes past him. "I need a cup of coffee."
Light as a feather, strong as a horse. He follows her small, lithe body into the kitchen. She fills the kettle, flips on the gas. Quick, sharp movements. He glimpses her smooth olive cheeks, full pink lips. The girl doesn't need an ounce of makeup. "I'll have one, too, thick."
"It's too early for espresso."
"Not for me."
She checks out the dewy shine in his eyes, the red patches on his cheeks, then pulls the espresso machine off the shelf. Everyone gets stoned nowadays, she reminds herself. At least his hair isn't down to his ankles or crawling all over his face like the others.
"Let me help." He comes up behind her.
If they make love, he might consider forgetting the damn party. They can watch those clowns on their own TV. Actually, they don't have to leave the house at all. She relaxes against him.
"Want to skip the coffee?" She gyrates her hips. "Just phone them."
"And say what?" He drops the question into her hair.
"I don't know. That we were out late, can't make it." She slides her arm around his waist.
"They'll be disappointed." Still whispering.
"Tell them we'll get together soon. Let's go to bed, just for a while. You know we haven't loved for a few days." She beams at him.
Maybe a quickie. Shit. Not after the dexies. Shit. It'll take a lifetime to coax him hard now. Besides, he needs the men today.
"It's already set up, sweetheart. We have to be there." He kisses her cheek, then carefully moves away.
With one hand balled into a fist, she counts out spoonfuls of coffee. Why does she bother? He's on his way, that's for sure. The party will finish him, damn them all. "Play and noise. A whole day of it. I can't take it that long."
"Then have a few drinks. That's what parties are for."
"I don't like whiskey." She sits across from him at the table, staring.
"Smoke some dope. Lift off, just for an hour. Look down on the everyday shit." He reaches for her hand, turns it palm up. "See that life-line, that's money in the bank. The question is: how are you going to spend it?"
"We have zero in the bank."
"We're talking life-lines here."
The kettle screams.
He jumps up, knocking the chair. Catches it just in time. "Shut that fuckin' thing off."
She darts to the stove, kills the flame, pours the boiling water into the espresso pot.
"I'm sorry." His face flushed, his mouth a thin, tight line.
"I'm sorry." She says it in a voice meant to keep him calm. "Soon as it cools, the kettle's gone," she croons. "I'll turn on some music. We'll get in a party mood, okay? We're going to Rod's, aren't we?" She reaches out for him.
"Yeah, right," he mumbles, stepping back. "Sure as shit."
She straightens the chair.
"Go on, hurry, get dressed." She nods, watching him, then runs up the stairs. When she's out of sight, he grabs the bottle of scotch from the cabinet. There's only an inch left. He meant to save it for tonight. He tips the bottle to his mouth. The liquid burns a path down his throat. He pours espresso into a mug, pulls out the tissue, pops the remaining pills, drinks them down with sips of too-hot coffee. The kettle ruined his high. He needs to start again.
Goddamn Chevy in front is crawling, and the road's too narrow to pass. Maybe he'll let Ida take the wheel. She's not a fan of his driving anyway. Probably he won't, probably he'll keep her near him so he can smell her sweetness, see her soft roundness under her light summer dress. He's the one with the edges. Right, Papa-san? He won't mention the truck to her, not yet. Independent movers rake in shitloads of money. The lifting, carrying, that'll be easy. Getting caught in traffic jams, that might bring on the Furies though. He returned with more cash than he's ever had. Now he has zilch, plus a truck.
The first cross-country trip, he'll take Ida. They'll sleep in motels, cheap, cozy, clean, with pictures on the walls that have no meaning, and neighbors who have no names. She'll like that.
With her brother out of the house, the place is finally hers; and he knows what's coming, it's natural, healthy, everyone's next step. But he can't marry, can't even move in. The sweet, loving nights spent with her, and he's awake until dawn, then guns the car onto the expressway, windows rolled down, doors unlocked, speeding past all possibility of surprise.
The car in front is taking its Sunday-school time. He presses the horn and doesn't let up either. At least he's out of the old drunk's place now. What a pair they make. Him waking up screaming from a nightmare, his father running in to ask who he is. Depressing. When Pauli was there, they ignored the old man, or tried to. He glances at the look-alike houses creeping by. Somehow, wherever his sister is, he knows she wouldn't live around here.
The last time he saw Pauli, that night before he left, a bad scene. She, trying to talk him out of it. His father yelling, "Frankie will do like other boys." She, stubborn. "I don't want some shiny-faced soldier handing me a flag. We can help you." Which was all his father needed. "We can help you? Who do you think you are, Ladybird!" She, pronouncing each word as if it were a warning. "You don't have to go. We have ways."
"Jail?" She, laughing. "I counsel men like him all week, strangers who will live, and not in jail either." Her hand trying to find his.
"Your coward friends will become doctors and he'll be an ex-con for the rest of his life."
"He doesn't have to be like you, a little man afraid of everything!"
The old drunk flinging her past the couch. She, lifting herself to her feet, and leaving with one last pleading look back at him but not a word.
Them, fighting over him like two dogs over raw meat.
He, following the arrows to the Jersey buses, hoping she'd turn up to say good-bye, walking down a dimly lit staircase, through a door, into the gray dawn.
Jesus, it was cold. He still remembers the little dance he was tapping out to keep warm when the door opened. Not Pauli, but a husky kid with wild yellow curls around a big, baby face.
"Fort Dix?" the kid asks.
"Bus must be late, not that I care. If it never comes, can't go. Simple logic. The way I see it. We're theirs. No money, no kids. They know who to take. I mean, this could be the beginning of the end of our lives. So what's the rush? Simple logic. The way I see it, it's not Germany or Italy. It's tiger and monkey land."
The bus like the rush of Rod's words crashing down the ramp just to get them. And anything slower still makes him crazy.
He wonders if Rod even remembers that ride. He pokes his head out the window. The empty road is there somewhere. He may have to flatten a few lawns to get to it, but once he does, he can pedal the gas, lift the pressure off his head. Anyway, he can't be dawdling, Papa-san, Ida's waiting, his buddies, too. The good people, not the fools, liars, and jerk-offs.
He's riding the Chevy's bumper at minus ten miles an hour when suddenly it stops. His foot smashes the brake. A dog loping across the road. Jesus. Tremors play chords in his legs. "Still, man, be still," he mutters. Hey, Papa-san, what do I do? The Chevy creeps forward again, shining a spiteful chrome smile back at him. He strains to catch the image that pops into his head, but it's gone before he can grasp it, leaving only the terror, and the question--where will he be when it shows up again. The tremors are in his arms now, his body no longer listening to reason. He pulls the car over, jumps out, begins humping toward Ida's place. Pay attention, Papa-san, remember where we parked.
Emma does a slow turn in the middle of the living room. New beige carpet, new blue couch, new coffee table, new chairs, new nineteen-inch TV inside its sleek black console. And it scares her--all of it--because nothing has prepared her for luck. Not even Rod coming home intact. It's the whole cake, plus a well-stocked freezer. She's never owned a thing but her clothing. Now, an upstairs, a downstairs, even a basement that Rod's father plans to finish. And she believes him, too. He's a builder by nature as well as by trade, like Rod.
And easy to keep books for. She makes no mistakes. Yesterday, when she pointed out an error on an invoice, it was as if she'd given him a gold brick, not a few extra dollars.
"Emma? Where is anything?" Rod stands at the head of the stairs, naked, a towel around his neck. "I had a system with all the boxes."
"My fatigues don't like closets."
"What exactly are you looking for?"
"Maybe a T-shirt?"
"In the chest of drawers, top one's yours."
"We're not sharing our drawers?" He flips off the towel, slides it around his waist. "Come here, do the dance."
She shakes her head and turns away. If only she could post a big, black-lettered sign:
spill a drink and die!
filthy shoes off the couch!
no jumping on furniture.
But they won't listen to orders or follow instructions. She'll have to watch Ida's brother carefully, Jason can get out of control, Rooster, too. Frankie worries her the least. She gazes at the maple tree, their maple tree, hers, which will turn red and yellow in the fall, so they say. It's beautiful to stand here when it gets dark outside and the house is lit around her.
While Rod was away she never chain-locked the apartment door. In case he arrived while she slept. The silliness of it often struck her, but she didn't dare change lest the gods take it out on him. She still leaves a night lamp burning to appease them. She's too happy. Anything could happen.
Her eyes slide down the quiet street. Their raucous coming will leave its imprint.
"What're you doing?" He steps up behind her, and tugs her toward the chair.
"Worrying that the men will forget this is our house and lay waste."
She straddles his lap, facing him. "It's nice of us to have everyone visit. I mean, we spent a pretty penny for the food and I don't even know what you paid for the booze."
"Doesn't matter. They've earned the best, and I aim to please. Give a kiss."
She brushes his forehead with her lips. His face is amazingly round. His blond hair unbelievable. The only blond in his family. "Where'd you come from," she whispers.
"Listen, no tours of the house, okay?"
"Makes me uncomfortable."
"But they've never seen it before."
"Yeah, well, it's just a house. Wait until they get their own."
"Then turn on the hearings now. That way, they'll all sit down like at the movies." The beeping horn sends her off his lap. "Shut them up!" She pushes him toward the door. She doesn't even know the neighbors yet. In the vestibule, she hears Rod shouting, "This way, men!"
"A palace, son," Rooster says, peering over his granny glasses. "My man here's a sultan and I see the grapes." He nudges Frankie toward the bar that Rod's set up on the coffee table.
Ida kisses her cheek, squeezes her hand, whispers "Looks nice."
Ida's brother clicks the TV on. "Where are the little shits?" Jason begins switching from channel to channel.
"Wait a long minute." Rooster drops onto the floor near Millie. "Give the boys time for nature's calling."
Jason reaches for the scotch bottle.
She moves to lower the volume.
"Hey, Emma, no can make out." Jason turns it up again.
Deede places a restraining hand on his arm.
"Not now, sweetheart."
"Find Jason the hearings," Deede says.
"Man can discover such things for himself," Rooster mutters.
"Emma, how big are these digs?" Frankie asks.
"Three bedrooms upstairs, plus what you see down here."
"This is the place for all good men to come to the aid of their friends," Rod recites.
"Who needs another scotch?" Jason holds up his already empty glass.
"Not you," Deede mutters.
"Man must do what he must do." Rooster passes Jason a new glass.
"What I do, I do well." Jason pours a heavy couple of inches into Rooster's glass and his own.
"Ought to hire yourself out as a bartender."
"He'll do better than that," Deede says. "He has an interview at a bank tomorrow."
"No shit." Frankie toasts him. "Doing what?"
"It's for a training program," Deede replies.
"My brother's very versatile," Ida tells them.
"Jason's been the banker for every crapshoot I won." Frankie drops a short laugh. "He needs no training."
"It doesn't translate into civilian life," Rod says seriously.
"Nothing does, my man."
"We're talking jobs," Deede snaps, "maybe even becoming a manager."
"You're talking jobs, sweetheart. Me, I'm having an interview. Hey, what's this?" Jason turns the volume up another notch.
"General Hospital," Millie says. "It's depressing. Turn it off."
"Can't. Have to locate Nixon's men." Jason places his glass on top of the set and once again switches channels, stopping nowhere.
"Man's in an inquiring mood," Rooster quips.
"Someone please find Jason the hearings." Emma's voice echoes in her head, ratcheted up louder than the TV, way too loud. Rod throws her a disapproving glance, like she's the crazy one. Maybe she is, maybe she's gotten herself a role in a fantasy she never auditioned for. She kneels in front of the set. If she can find the hearings, perhaps it'll calm them down.
"Wait, don't make them disappear." Jason's at her side.
"It's just some soap opera," she whispers.
"Yeah, but that's the channel we want." Stubborn as a child. "Nixon's men are on their way." He sits back and stares into the screen.
"Why in hell would you want to see a bunch of ugly men when we have such lovely ladies right here?" Frankie nods in Ida's direction.
"We're a sight better than Nixon's flunkies." Millie tosses back her head. "Besides, why spend good time on bad people?"
"Especially when you have zilch in common with them," Deede mutters.
"The difference is here." Rod pats his butt. "They've got fat wallets."
"They're going to be out on the streets real soon," Ida says. "But, hey, who cares?"
"Even so," Rod continues, "nobody's going to pick their pockets. They'll never have to worry about money."
"Correct," Deede snaps. "Unlike you guys."
"These men can hold their own with the best of them." Millie kisses Rooster's cheek.
"The woman speaks the truth."
"Go ahead, put down what you can't have," Deede says.
"What's that?" Ida asks.
"Money, honey, no doubt there." Rod refills Frankie's drink.
"And trouble. Nixon's men got trouble, now," Rooster adds.
"Who gives a shit." Jason shrugs.
"True, fella, those men have not earned our concern. So turn off the glare, my man."
"Rooster," Millie chides, "we're not watching the hear-
"I bet I can find those shits on my TV, something's wrong with yours."
"Drunk already." Deede shakes her head.
"We are the way we are," Jason tells her.
"High but mighty." Rooster flaps one arm.
"Down and out," Deede mumbles.
"That reminds me . . . where's Sean?" Frankie asks.
Deede shrugs. "Closeted with Tess is my guess."
"Incapacitated," Jason adds.
"Wrong word, right thought." Rooster grins.
"Deede gave him Tess, and they are busy, busy," Jason says.
"Busy?" Emma mutters half to herself, her stomach beginning to churn at the idea of two more people, two strangers, coming here.
"In bed, Emma, like the world's their playpen." Deede shakes her head.
"You gentle ladies are supposed to be on our side," Frankie says.
"No, my man, we are on their sides, a better place to be."
Emma scans the room. Jason's still staring at the tube. Frankie has his leg draped over the arm of her favorite beige chair. On the floor Rooster and Millie already lie spooned together. But she'd take it. Right now. Just the way it is. If only she could freeze them here for the rest of the day. "Everything's new," comes out of her mouth. They all look at her. They're waiting for the joke, she thinks. And if she knew one, she'd tell it, put them at their ease, especially Rod. But joking's not her style. Besides, their laughter's too close to hysteria to be real, and it makes her anxious that Rod will forget he's a normal, married man with responsibilities. A house, a wife, and more to come. It's what she wants, it's all she ever wanted.
Suddenly, Ida takes her hand, tugs her out of the room, though not before she hears Jason's whoop as he recognizes someone, God knows who, on the TV. Following Ida upstairs, she wonders if Rod will miss her. Probably he'll be relieved without her scrutiny. Tonight, though, tonight in the darkness, then he'll seek her out.
She pushes open the newly sanded bedroom door, pulls a small folding chair close to the window, where she can see the maple tree, the quiet street, the hot, white sky.
"They won't miss us for a while," Ida says, dropping into the rocking chair, stretching out her long legs until her bare feet rest on the bed.
"I was thinking the same."
"They may even calm down. We're their audience. We listen, clap, laugh at their antics. On the other hand, maybe they won't even notice we're gone."
"Ida? Why did you pull me up here anyway?"
"Because I can't believe Frankie parked his car nearly two miles from my place and wouldn't tell me why. We've never had secrets before." Ida raises an astonished face to her.
She reaches across to touch Ida's arm. "It was probably something stupid, something he didn't want to own up to."
"Maybe, but it's not the only thing. He's so restless. He can't be still long enough for me to feel he's really there. I need him to be a presence I can count on, the way you count on Rod."
Her eyes slide past Ida's pink toenails to the new king-sized bed with its wine-colored sheets and pillowcases, its snow-white comforter, its promise of a life she yearns for, one that is calm and certain, but already eluding her. She has the urge to share these feelings, but fears they might surprise Ida, whose eyes are already clouded with worry. "Do you and Frankie discuss marriage?"
"Who gives a flying fuck about fucking marriage? A fucking piece of paper."
"A piece of paper, yes, but there's a commitment behind it, too, a statement to the world that you're a pair."
"I don't care about the world. I don't want a house, ten beds, twenty windows. Just closeness and a lot of loving. Right now, there's too much empty bed. He's never there in the mornings. He leaves around dawn. Sometimes I pretend to be asleep, but when I don't, when I ask him to stay, please to stay, when I try to undress him, he peels away my hands, and he's gone."
"Does he make love to you?"
"Yeah, but not often enough. It feels like love, but then it doesn't. There's something between us, a kind of space I can't get past."
She wishes Rod would give her some space. Every night in bed he clings to her. If she moves he wakes up. If she goes into the bathroom, he's sitting in the chair when she returns. She doesn't try anymore to coax him back to bed. "Anyhow, being together every minute doesn't prove love. Frankie would be lost without you."
"Then why does he need to be alone so much, Emma? What does he do?" Ida pulls her knees close to her body, wrapping her arms around them. "Once when I was coming off my night shift, I parked near his place. I had to know if he left his room as early as he did mine. I saw him cross the road and walk into Riis Park. I went in after him, thinking I'd surprise him, but he was gone."
"He ran off," Emma says dismissively, half afraid of where the conversation might lead.
"No. Gone. Like that rabbit that disappeared down the hole. He'd dug a tunnel somewhere to sleep in or keep drugs in or stolen goods or body parts. How do I know? God, I don't. I don't."
"Ida, stop. You just looked in the wrong direction. You know that. You're being silly."
"Believe me, there's nothing silly about it."
"So ask him what he does."
"You mean, 'take me to your tunnel'?"
"Tell him you worry about him, that you need to be with him more."
"That's how normal couples talk."
"You're letting him spook you. I think maybe you're beginning to spook me."
"God forbid." Ida suddenly covers her face. "Shit. I don't want to cry, but I'm angry."
"No. Scared, disappointed maybe. Women don't cry when they're angry." She reaches over to the bed table and plucks a tissue from the pearly white dispenser.
"What do they do?" Ida dabs at her eyes.
"Throw stuff--a sponge, a pot, even mashed potatoes."
"Do you speak from experience?"
She wants to say that's all she can do, but Ida's not really looking for an answer, not from her anyway.
"And there's something more." Ida leans closer, her voice a whisper, her eyes moist and frightened. "Something I pray
is only temporary. He talks to an imaginary person. I've heard him."
Enough, Emma thinks. She leans out the window for a breath of fresh air, but there's only heat.
"Emma, it's like he's speaking to himself, except he's not, he's asking for agreement. Or approval."
Ida's words float around in her head. She doesn't want to hear them, deal with them, doesn't want to know what she knows, that much is wrong, that much is there to worry about.
"He says, 'Right, Papa-san? Okay, Papa-san?' "
"Oh Lord, what has happened to them!" comes out of her mouth as she drops back into the chair.
"Of course Rod too."
"Oh God, Emma, I'm so sorry. I thought . . . well . . . he doesn't even drink as much as the others."
"It's why the house is so important. I want it to ground him, to frame us, to hold us together. Sometimes I wish it were constructed of steel and bolted on the outside, safe from everything." It worries her now to speak these thoughts aloud. Naming things can give them life.
"What exactly are you scared of?"
"I don't know. If I knew, I'd know how to protect him, us, from them. When I look out the window, what I see is what I expect to see. It's in here that everything's upside down. Every night he locks each window before we go to bed, no matter what the weather's like. He never says why. But something out there's threatening him. He doesn't want to be found. He's a fugitive. I can't stand the lack of air. If I say so, he accuses me of being too fussy. He tells me I need to learn to adapt. If I insist on opening even one window, he holes up in the bathroom all night, the door locked."
"Oh honey, none of this is good news. Does he talk about the war? I mean what he did there? Frankie's a clam."
"I don't ask."
Ida gazes past her. "Yesterday, my nursing class watched a surgical procedure. Everyone wore gloves, masks, the instruments were lined up. The abdomen was cut, held open with retractors, blood was siphoned off. It was intricate, detailed, precise. Everything mattered, everything counted. Everything was done to keep the patient alive. I suddenly wondered, what would Frankie feel if he were here? I mean he must've killed people, Emma. You ever think about that?"
"I try not to. But Ida, they had no choice."
"Everyone has a choice."
"Would you say that to Frankie?"
Ida shakes her head. "Do you think it's ungrateful of me to be complaining about him? I mean he's home with all his equipment, right. It hasn't even been that long, really. The war's still on, isn't it? Considering what they've been through, maybe talking to himself isn't anything at all. What do I know. I guess I can live with Papa-san if I have to."
"We're not used to them yet, that's for sure."
"And it's not all bad, Emma. The other day when I returned from work, he was there. He'd cooked this terrible meal. The pasta was mushy, the sauce was from a can he didn't even heat. But listen. There were daisies, my favorite, on the table. He bought a bottle of Chianti--just for me, he doesn't even like wine--and he'd drawn me a bubble bath. Now where can you find a man like that?"
"I know," she says, remembering. "It's amazing how sweet Rod can be. He stood beside me in the furniture store, this beautiful man, and made me feel like a princess on a shopping spree. All I did was point and say, 'that,' and Rod informed the salesman 'she'll take that and that and that, wrap it up, send me the bill.' It wasn't this great event, just an hour in a store. But he wanted me to be happy. And I got the message. And I was."
"That's it," Ida says. "Take what we can get, all of it, whenever it's offered. Like camels storing water for the long haul through the desert."
"Except that Rod's embarrassed by the goodies we bought. He doesn't like being the only one to have them, so he's not about to keep an eye out for their well-being. I've been anxious about it all day. The men, I mean. I should be down there watching."
"What do you think they'll do?" Ida asks.
"Spill drinks on the couch, and that's just for a starter."
Ida laughs. "These guys won't waste a drop."
"And what about this Sean?"
"Don't worry, he won't be here, he's busy with Tess, although he does have a roving hand."
"He made a pass at you?"
"No, but he eyed Deede, God save him."
"Hey, is everything okay?" Millie opens the door a few inches. Deede pushes past her.
Shit, she thinks, the men are alone. She knows they should all go downstairs immediately. She closes her eyes for a second and takes a little breath. No one notices. It's her fate to lose all of it, bit by bit, starting now, and there's nothing she can do.
Deede moves nervously through the room, her hand skimming the comforter, the lamp, the table. They all wait for her, anxiety in the air. Finally, she turns to Ida. "If your brother continues boozing, he'll never get to the interview tomorrow." She addresses her directly, as if no one else were in the room.
"He'll sleep it off." Ida sounds annoyed.
"Hey, come on," Millie jumps in. "These guys need to break out a little. They'll calm down."
"Where's that written?" Deede perches on the edge of the bed. "There's something wrong with them."
"Says who?" Ida asks.
"Rod hasn't changed, has he?" Millie asks her.
She flashes a warning at Ida, then shakes her head. They see Rod as steady. That's fine with her. What's not said might just not be.
"You're blind," Deede says. "These men are all infected with the same weirdness. Even Nick. He hasn't shown his face since he returned."
"My brother-in-law is busy with my sister, Lucy," Millie announces. "Nothing wrong with that."
"Like pleasure is all there is in the world," Deede sneers. "But what about the bacon? Sooner or later they have to take care of business. If they want to get anywhere, that is. And here's something else. They don't trust us."
"What do you mean?" Emma asks, her tone low enough to be threatening, but nothing ever could stop Deede.
"We're supposed to be the other half, aren't we? So why are we missing? Ask yourselves that. Why are you never there even when you're in the room? I can't be the only one to notice, can I?"
"Don't be ridiculous. They can't be without us." Millie waves her dismissal, but Emma can see that Millie's unnerved, too.
"They do what they want whether we're there or not. We don't matter, not the way we should."
"Don't lump them all together, just because Jason gets juiced," Millie insists, her pale cheeks reddening. "Men their age drink, make love, and work. The excess wears off in time."
"Okay, then tell me who in this room sleeps well? Tell me that?" Deede's voice rivets her to the spot. "And tell me who isn't living with a stranger?"
"What're you so pissed about, didn't my brother marry you?" Ida asks, suddenly on her feet.
"The fact is, Jason's better off at home with me than here with them. They encourage bad habits. And you applaud their behavior."
"Well, then, let's send them back to war so we can keep our fantasies of the perfect life intact."
"I'm alerting you to trouble," Deede says.
"I have your brother in mind, Ida."
"You have yourself in mind, Deede. If you want Jason to be crew-cut down to his belly button, forget it."
"He's out of control."
"I'll buy him a straitjacket." Ida peers into Deede's face from too close for anyone's comfort.
Millie looks to her for help, but she's worn out. "This is a party, remember? Let's not get so intense."
"Girls, girls." Jason tumbles into the room. "Don't hide in here. The men won't laugh at my jokes. I need my wife."
"Oh, God, you're slurring," Deede says.
"Slurring's in the ear of the beholder."
"It's not funny," Deede snaps.
"Here, baby, taste this. Three drops of white wine in lemonade." He lifts the glass to Deede's mouth. "Open." He kisses her cheek. "Now, drink it down."
"Slow up." Deede's hand on his arm.
"Can't. Have to live in a hurry, but not without you."
"Isn't that sweet?" Ida mutters.
"Why don't you help me, instead of encouraging him?"
"Now, now, I know I'm precious, but don't fight over me. Besides, we need to hurry. Nixon's men are arriving any minute and we have to be there." He practically lifts Deede's birdlike body into his arms and suddenly they're gone.
"A drink, ladies, we need a drink," Ida says.
"I ought to dress the salad."
"What for, Emma? They can't taste a thing."
"Don't worry about the food," Millie says, "they're already into it."
"Shit!" She hurries from the room, their footsteps trailing her, drumming down the stairs. She could keep going, straight out the door, down the street, until it's all so far behind that nothing matters. Her fantasy's cut short by the raw cry of Janis Joplin: "Nothing left to lose. No, nothing left to lose."
"Where's Frankie," Ida's asking Jason, who's once more in front of the TV, a strange smirk on his face, the music rising to drown out any voices. Through the open window Emma can see Rod and Rooster sprawled on the lawn, passing a joint between them. Are they nuts? Stringy edges of pink bologna, pieces of wine-red salami, crusts of rye bread festoon the grass without the support of plates or napkins, a feeding frenzy in waiting for any form that crawls close to the ground. She grabs a garbage bag. Passing Ida, who's mixing drinks, she begs, "Help me get them back inside. The neighbors have children, for God's sake. They're smoking dope out there."
Ida offers her an inch of scotch in a plastic cup, but she brushes it aside--too little, too late--and heads straight for Rod. "They'll see you," she warns him. "You'll be arrested."
"The cops around here smoke, too, honey."
"To arrest you is their job," Deede calls out the window.
"Hey," cries Frankie strolling back up the lawn from who knows where.
"Let me guess, you met a man with a stash?" Rod passes the joint to him.
She collects what she can see of the half-eaten food, searching for red-dotted olives scattered deceptively in the grass, knowing she'll never find them all as she'll never get through this day. She plucks the joint from Frankie's fingers, a stub so short and hot that she drops it involuntarily into the grass and then crushes it with her heel, grinding it into her beautiful lawn with a vehemence that startles her.
Millie yells from the window. "Don't any of you want to be in here with us? It's shady inside."
"The woman is wise." Rooster stands.
In the living room, Emma's eyes slide to the wall mirror in which she can see some of the men watching her. Rooster's already holding another joint. This time above her head, and he's grinning at her. When she turns to face him, he says, "Hey, gorgeous lady, don't dump the stash twice."
"It's his junk." Rod, too, wears a silly grin.
How many joints have they smoked? she wonders, watching her husband take a puff and hand it off to Frankie. There's less than a half-inch left, thank God.
"The last toke of the best stuff this side of the ocean." Frankie passes it on to Jason.
"Tastes like a compromise." Jason inhales deeply. "Stuff is light." He inhales again.
"Enough," Deede calls.
"That is a relative word," Rooster states.
Jason's using the TV as an armrest. Paper plates are strewn around his feet, potato chips mashed into the carpet. "You know what I think?" he says, his eyes wide. "I think Nixon's men know we have a beef with them and they're afraid to show up today. And they're right because we aimed our guns in the wrong direction."
"Eight thousand topics to chew on, why bother that one?"
"Listen to Frankie." Rooster stretches out on the floor. "Frankie knows."
"I hear you, Jason," Rod says.
"But he's not exercising enough brain cells. And the Lord taketh away what is not used."
"Jesus," Deede says. "Can't anyone talk straight?"
"A simple proposal," Rod states. "Declare the war over, who's going to care?"
"Nixon's men. They know the secrets." Jason spins the dial, one channel blurring into another.
"Take it easy," she tells him.
"Take it now, take it later." Jason snaps his fingers.
"Find him something else to play with," she whispers to Ida.
"Jason, come talk to me." Ida pats the couch.
"Right, you men don't notice a thing. The girls are back."
"Now there's something to chew on."
"What's this girl stuff?" Ida asks.
"Yeah," Millie chimes in. "We're ladies."
"Wrong," Rod says. "Ladies are rich. You girls are women."
"Damn straight," Rooster says.
Rod hands Emma a drink filled with several inches of scotch. She leans close to his ear. "Do you want me drunk?"
"You're too damn proper."
"If I wasn't, what would you want me to do for you?"
"I'll tell you later."
"Why are you two whispering?" Deede asks.
"Proper's the opposite of war," Rod states loudly.
"I second that," Frankie says. "And raise you one. I have bought me one big truck to move one big batch of crap for one big mass of people for one big pile of money."
She glances at Ida, whose face has gone all tight, her body straight back against the chair.
"It's true," he tells Ida. "You and I, girl--or woman--we're going to cover this side of the globe together."
"I'm looking for money, too," Rooster says.
"Count me three." Jason holds up four fingers.
"Do you want meaningful or money?" Rod asks.
"I sure as shit don't want one without the other." Frankie stretches out on the floor, propping himself up on one elbow. "Jason, since when is Jimmy Stewart one of Nixon's men?"
"That's Steve McQueen," Deede snaps. "You haven't been gone that long."
"This freakin' TV just fuckin' refuses to play the hearings." Jason grabs the scotch bottle, splashing some into Rooster's glass.
She watches the whiskey splatter the coffee table, hands a napkin to Rod, who places it on his head and gets down on his knees. "Lord, please help Jason find the men hiding in my TV."
"Hey, didn't we have some terrific times?" Jason flops onto the couch.
"Gone, baby, gone," Rooster chants. "Them good old hours of mud and fire, how tame the days to come."
"Man, how could Nixon's men send us there? I mean it was nothing I expected."
"That's right, Jason, it don't mean nothing." Rooster pats Millie's knee.
"Look, if the hearings aren't on, let's watch that movie," Millie suggests.
"I second that." Frankie sits up, tries to pull Ida toward him, but she resists, all color drained from her face.
"Go on," she tells Rod, "find the movie."
"No sir. We have to hear the man ask what'd he know and when did he know it."
"Wrong," Frankie says. "How did he know and how did he do it?"
"Right." Rooster holds up his glass. "Who did he know and why did he do it?"
"Amen," Rod intones. "Hey, what did they call you in Danang? Firehead?" Rod ruffles Jason's red hair.
Frankie salutes. "Jason? Sir! Request permission to reveal your name to group."
"Not granted, no way. Mention my moniker to these ladies and you get shaved, turkey."
"Yes sir! Request permission to whisper it to the men. Sir!"
"Permission denied and if you don't stop this shit, turkey, yours is going to be a whole lot shorter."
"Retract request, sir, name is now apparent."
"I have no interest in your sex-starved names for each other," Deede says.
"What did they call you, Rod, the savior with the black bag?" Millie smiles.
"Doc. They called me Doc."
"Tell the truth," she says.
"Morphine Minnie. But it didn't stick."
"Drugs, drugs, drugs." Deede shakes her head.
"No shit," Jason says. "What'd you do with that black bag of goodies?"
"Pick on him." Rod points to Rooster. "Man has no real name."
"True," Millie agrees.
"Second time around, I dipped the feather in mud and signed Rooster, comma, Rooster. No one blinked an eye. Then again, they were all wearing shades."
"Why did you reenlist?" Emma asks.
"First time was so bad I decided to do it over and make it better, but it just got badder. I already told you that, pretty bird, didn't I?" He touches Millie's hair.
"They're traitors." Jason jumps off the couch.
"Those suits with their winter and summer houses, traitors."
"Being a traitor's not so bad," Rod says.
"Since last year, no, year before that."
"Year before that what you did didn't matter."
"Four years ago I was a turkey growing all my feathers," Frankie says.
"You were a turkey that didn't know Thanksgiving was around the corner."
"Escaped the blade, my man, and be thankful," Rooster says.
"I considered deserting," Rod insists. "I don't know if that's being a traitor, but I did. Don't look so startled."
"Hey, man, that's the way I always look," Jason tells him.
"What stopped you?" Deede asks.
"I couldn't figure out the right moment."
Rooster glances up over his glasses. "Can't leave the brothers during incoming, now, can we?"
"Like none of you ever had your little fantasies. Not returning from R&R, or disappearing into Saigon, shooting yourself in the foot and getting your ass hauled off on some chopper?"
"My man, first thing I lost there was my imagination."
"And I couldn't run." Jason grins.
"I know why," Frankie says.
"Answer my question," Rod demands.
Frankie shrugs. "So we all had cowardly moments."
"Cowardly? No, man, that is exactly how I would not define it."
"At this moment I would say definitions are definitely not important."
"I mean, I was afraid, but that wasn't the reason."
"Listen." Frankie raises his hand. "Why refill our overstuffed heads with this deep ancient shit?"
Rod crosses the room. "Deep-shit stuff is what it's all about, turkey, it's what it's all about."
"Yeah, but who needs it now, brother?"
"It's not a question of need, Frankie. It's all about where we'd be if we'd just fucking walked out of it. What the fuck could they do? Smart guys just vanished. Missing in action, my ass. Alive and well in Bangkok, better yet, they're pulling teats on some farm in Iowa. Name changed to protect the innocent. Jacobs is MIA, but Smith is happy as a pig in shit and he sleeps well, too. I think about that."
"Man was not a happy camper." Jason shakes his head.
"Leave the rock over the hole," Frankie says ominously.
"Why? Afraid of the truth?" Deede asks.
"Now, sweetheart, you weren't in that hole, so you can't know shit."
"Slip of the tongue, slide of the word, sweetheart."
"Desertion is a private affair," Frankie tells Rod.
"Or you want it to be." Deede's voice is loud, much too loud. "Just shovel everything that happened into that hole you all know so much about. But if you men keep pussyfooting around in the dark, then we women are going to crash."
With a thrill of excitement, Emma hears Deede's gravelly voice, so odd from that small, stern face, those two glowing-coal eyes, and she wants her to press even harder, harder than she'd ever dare, although it scares her too. Because one of them, maybe even Rod, could explode, and then it would get ugly, and ugly is what none of them wants, what each of them is afraid of.
"See what a mess you stirred up." Frankie shakes his head.
"Yeah. This road leads to lightning." Rooster holds up his empty glass.
Rod begins pacing. Frankie throws an arm around his shoulder, edging him toward the drinks. "Confession is not helpful except in someone else's church."
He's her husband. She knows she can't let it drop here. "I want to know," she says, taking some courage from Deede. "Why did you want to desert?"
Rod gazes down at Frankie's hand, then slides his eyes to her. "Two, four, a hundred reasons. But for right now the one outstanding was the lack of hot water." His eyes flick back to Frankie. "And I can't start a day without my bath. It disturbs the equilibrium."
"Just talk straight," Deede says.
"You mean get to the point. I tell all of you, there is none. There never was." Rooster sips his drink.
"Tell me something I don't know." Frankie laughs without merriment.
"Are the secrets that dirty?" Deede asks.
"They don't have to tell us anything, Deede," Millie says angrily.
"Yes, they do," Ida whispers, looking at Frankie.
"Jason here, he knows the facts."
"No sir. Wrong. Not me. Just never occurred to me to run away. I left the earth each morning and returned when my head hit the mat. A stoned escape, my sweet, dark beauty, and I'm forever grateful to all its unique possibilities."
"Great," Deede mutters.
"Oh, leave him alone," Ida says.
"Why should I? No one else here seems to give a damn about anything real. Don't make me the nut job."
"Well, sweetheart, I did have eight days in-country before learning the mysteries of a stash of hash," Jason says.
"I see it all." Rooster waves his hand at Jason. "Young, red-haired lad wanders along muddy road, meets charming sloe-eyed child who says 'GI number ten,' and hands over a little bag."
"Wrong. We're in the bush, it's nearly morning. We hear some branches crack. Everyone goes down. The LT whispers, 'Probably monkeys.' Probably's not good enough for me. Then he whispers, 'You and Mike, check it out.' I'm not happy, so I say, 'Why? It's only monkeys.' "
"The LT does the stare, you know, asshole low-life prick. So Mike and I crawl a few feet toward the noise, squat, and look around. More branches crack. Must be monkeys. I take out a cigarette. Mikey goes to visit the monkeys. Then, there's a flash of light, like the sun collapsing in the trees. I go down. Something goes down on me. It's the monkey, but I'm not moving, let it stay right there."
Jason takes a long swallow of whiskey. He totters briefly to his feet. "I whisper, 'Mikey, Mikey, the guys'll be here soon.' And they are. Someone says 'You're okay,' and I feel the monkey lifted off my back. I roll over. Mikey's head's next to mine, but the rest of him's gone. Someone hands me a joint. I take a long drag and never give it back."
"Hey, man, take a load off your feet."
"I don't take orders, not from anyone. I have mustered out." Jason slips to the floor.
"So you have, my man, so you have."
"Frankie," Jason says sullenly, "you stopped Rod's story, why not mine?"
"Drop it," Frankie mutters.
"No, sir. I deserve an answer."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"We need to find us a dark watering hole without curtains where we can trade stories again."
"Man wants to slide the past off a high cliff, you got to let him," Rooster says.
"Is that it, Frankie?"
"You are stone drunk, Jason. Therefore, I do not need to take your serious questions seriously. However, I will attempt to gather enough words to respond once. I have walked through the room, locked the door, and thrown the key down the rabbit hole. I will not, cannot, lower myself to retrieve it."
"That is a fucking intense statement, Frankie, and I didn't mean to get everyone intense. Shit, this is a party." Jason hoists himself onto his knees and crawls over to the TV.
"What you meant and what you did are two different events," Rooster says.
Jason begins switching channels rapidly.
"Hey," Emma calls out.
"Here, brother, you try." He snaps off the dial, drops it into Rod's hand.
"Coffee, we need coffee," Millie says but no one moves.
"Pull out the damn plug," she whispers, kneeling next to Rod, who's fiddling with the broken dial. He offers no response.
"Time to go home," Deede announces.
"Not yet, sweetheart. You and I, we're going to have a long and glorious night together."
"Then I'm leaving without you."
Jason grabs her hands, pulling her toward him. His fingers press her flesh so hard they leave white marks. The pain can be seen in Deede's face. "Dance with me," he orders.
Emma nudges Rod, who gives her a weird smile. Shit. No one's going to help Deede. She taps Jason's shoulder. "Let
"She's mine, mine, mine," Jason sings, twirling Deede roughly.
Ida grabs him around the waist. He lets Deede go and
they both fall back onto the couch. "Mine, mine, mine," he mumbles.
Emma's eyes slide to Rod. He's studying the TV dial with a nothing-matters expression pasted on his face. She's seen that look before, knows that if she doesn't tread lightly Deede won't be the only one humiliated amid the wonderful new furniture tonight.
"Lord-y, lord-y." Rooster eases himself off the floor. "There's good news coming out of here yet." He climbs onto the beige chair, pulls Millie up with him.
"This wonderful woman and I are getting married and you are invited to the wedding." Rooster presses his chiseled features against Millie's soft cheek. Her lips force themselves into a grin.
"Don't move, you two." Rod grabs Emma's arm. "Where's the camera?"
"Try that drawer." She points to the lamp table, knowing it's in the linen closet upstairs, but not wanting to be sent away to get it.
Rod pulls the drawer out. "Empty. Shit, I can't find anything anymore. This place is too big."
"When's the wedding?" Ida asks, looking at Emma.
"The date?" Rooster nudges Millie.
Voices blast from the TV, although the screen is nothing but zigzag lines. If she could just pull the plug, but Frankie's collapsed right by the outlet, and he's wearing a don't-bother-me face.
"To the most beautiful couple in the world." Ida lifts her glass.
"My woman." Rooster wraps both arms around Millie's waist.
"A doll on a wedding cake." Rod aims a make-believe camera.
"A cover-girl bride," Frankie adds without much enthusiasm.
"Yeah, well, listen up, men, don't get confused. I'm the groom."
"Too bad, because we're going to dance Millie off her feet. Right?" Rod asks, jerking his face around in front of hers, so close she can't tell if he plans to kiss her or bat her forehead. She steps away, notices Jason lifting the last full bottle of scotch from the bar. Deede's eyeing him too, but she doesn't try to stop him.
"Hey, brother," Jason calls loudly. "A woman that pretty belongs to the world."
"Don't touch her, not even with your thoughts." Rooster smiles white teeth. "Or you'll receive the best of Uncle Sam's training."
"Can't imagine what that could be," Frankie mutters.
"I know, I know," Jason shouts. "KA-BOOM!" And flings the bottle. It hits the wall.
The whiskey drips down into an amber map of the States. Splinters of glass glint on the couch.
The noise remains in her head, shattering fragile hope.
"That's it," she says. "The party's over."
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Vietnamese Conflict, 1961-1975 Veterans Fiction