|Adventures of Daz and Alex|
The next day Rich offers to show us around the area and of course we accept. We go in the Lancer because he says he wants to try it. I'm a little worried that it's getting tired, but the engine's been running smooth since we got it fixed in Kansas City and I can't say no. So we let him drive and I sit in the back, which feels really weird since it's the first time one of us isn't driving.
Right away Alex starts asking all these G.I. Joe questions, and it makes me feel jinky. I figure Rich is sick of reliving the war.
Alex asks him, "What's it like to shoot an M-16?"
Rich answers, "It's okay, but I carried an NVA 47 myself. They didn't jam as easy." Later on when we lived for a few days with crazy Elroy in Oakland, that's the only story I ever told that got his respect. This nut Elroy was very interested in what Rich had to say about combat rifles.
After we cruise around town and the countryside for awhile, Rich pointing things out and answering all of Alex's questions about Vietnam, then Rich says, "How about we grab some lunch? I'll take you to my favorite place."
It's back in town, down an alley, sort of like the Casa Grande back home, only the alley is the main entrance. It turns out to be nice inside because there's big industrial-size skylights, like it used to be a small factory. It's clean and light and not cluttered up with frew-frew, the burgers and sandwiches are pretty cheap, the waitresses are nectar, and I can see why Rich likes it.
A guy with unkept shoulder length-blond hair is sitting in the middle of the big bar that runs across the back wall, and when he turns his head to see who just came in he smiles and nods at Rich. I'm surprised that Rich is friends with some old hippy, but he says, "Let's go sit with my buddy Kyle," and we trail behind him as he walks to the bar.
We come up to the guy and I am blown through the floor because the man has no hands. He's wearing two metal arms with mechanical claws on the end, and he's holding a beer mug in one of the claws. The arms have plastic guards that run up almost to his elbows, and I try real hard to keep my eyes on his face. Rich puts his hand on the guy's shoulder and says, "I want you to meet a couple of friends of mine. Daz and Alex." I'm bug-eyed and sweating because I don't know how to meet a guy with no hands. But Kyle just lifts his chin in greeting, and says, "Heard about your car and your trip from the Captain here."
"They've been letting me drive it today," Rich tells him. "Probably let you drive it, too."
"Well, Hell, if they're crazy enough to let you drive it, I guess they might," Kyle says.
"What do you say, boys?" Rich asks us.
Alex is blown flat, too, so I say, "Sure."
Kyle spocks our unspoken question and glances at Rich. "Can't do any brain surgery, but I can drive. Right, Captain?"
"Better than I can," Rich says. "Did you eat yet, Kyle?"
"Haven't decided what to have," he answers. He's got a big weathered face, and he's tan, so I know he's out in the sun a lot. "How about you?"
"The usual," Rich says. "Turkey on French roll with extra mustard."
"Cap, you ought to try something different once in a while," Kyle tells him in a strict way, like he's Rich's teacher. "Think I'll try a BLT. Haven't had one of those in years."
Alex and I order burgers and then we're both silent. It's strange because we don't want it to show that we feel jinky but we can't help it and they have to act like they don't notice it. So we're all acting like we aren't spocking the obvious.
The waitress brings us our Cokes and Kyle says, "You're from Orange County, huh?"
"Try not to hold it against us," I say.
He laughs and says, "No, I liked it down there. Haven't been there since I was at Pendleton, damn, thirty years ago. Prefer Santa Barbara, though." He sips the beer and says, "Has your car held up pretty good?" So I tell him all about the Lancer and our meltdown in Kansas City, and I try to keep looking in his grey-blue eyes.
"Not too many Lancers or Valiants on the road anymore," he tells us. "It's good you guys are keeping it together."
The food comes and I don't feel like eating because I wonder if Kyle can pick up his sandwich and it doesn't seem right to just chow down in front of him.
"This looks better than I thought it would," says Rich, and he picks up half of Kyle's BLT and nestles it between the pincers of Kyle's steel hand. "Thanks, Cap," Kyle says and he lifts it up to take a bite. "Probably tastes better than you remember, too."
A fat slice of tomato falls out of the sandwich on the way up and Rich reaches over and puts it on Kyle's plate. There's something about Rich's little matter-of-fact move for his buddy that gets to me, and it's one of those snapshots in my mind I'll never forget.
Rich takes a big bite of his turkey sandwich with oozing mustard and says, "This is what I really missed over there."
"I guess that's why you're never sick of it," Kyle tells him. "What I missed was having a choice." The last bite of his sandwich falls out of the pincers onto the bar and Rich puts it on his plate. "How's the burgers, guys?" he asks us.
"Good," we say, but I don't think either of us tasted anything.
Rich has been collecting all the parts of the BLT that had fallen out of Kyle's steel hand on the plate, and after Kyle's done with the second half he fixes the plate in the pincers in that easy way people have when they've done something a thousand times. Then he lifts the plate and shovels what's rest of the sandwich into his mouth with his other set of pincers.
"The boys have been asking me about the war," Rich says in an off-handed way, like we'd asked about the old Dodgers or some sports gig.
"Guess they asked the right man," Kyle says, and there's no spin on his words, they're flat.
Rich smiles and says, "Yeah, a talkative old son of bitch," and Kyle chuckles.
"Show them any pictures yet?" Kyle asks him.
"No, I didn't want to bore them too much," Rich says. "Oh, yeah, I almost forgot. I brought you something from D.C." He opens up his wallet and unfolds a piece of heavy paper that has charcoal or pencil rubbed on it. He lays it on the bar while he puts his wallet away and I can see there's a name outlined in white in the middle of the black. He shows it to Kyle and then folds it up and puts it in Kyle's shirt pocket.
"Thanks for remembering," Kyle says. "Did you get any for yourself?"
"Yeah," Rich says. "A guy I lost in '69."
Kyle glances over at him and then takes a sip of his beer. "Was he with you long?"
Rich nods. "Yeah."
They stare at the back wall for a while and then Kyle turns to Alex and says, "Cap says you're from Oahu. I spent a lot of time in the Keys and at Tripler."
"The Keys?" I ask him. "I thought they were in Florida."
Kyle chuckles. "Waikiki. Get it? Ki-ki. The keys."
"My treat," Rich says and he grabs the check, and Kyle says, "Thanks, Cap. Might as well put your retirement check to good use."
We go out to the car and Alex and I sit in the back seat like we're the guests. "Look at this steering wheel," Kyle says after he slides into the drivers' seat. "It's huge." Rich slips the ignition key into his steel claw and Kyle struggles for a moment to get the key in the slot. I'm rigid, trying to relax, and Rich tells us, "Kyle put a British-style starter button in his Pontiac. Just like in the old Austin-Healys."
"Can't be stolen," Kyle says all proudly. "It's hidden real nice."
The keys drop out of his pincers and he takes a deep breath. He exhales and then pounds the dash real hard with his forearm. "Goddammit!" he yells, and his tone of voice scares me, not like I'm scared of getting punched but something worse. "Goddammit," he says again. "Sometimes...goddammit, sometimes I just...."
"It's my fault," Rich says flatly and he picks up the keys. "I don't know what the hell I was thinking."
Kyle is still staring out the windshield. Rich puts the keys in the ignition and then sits back silently.
Kyle takes another couple deep breaths and then says, "Turn it for me, would you, Rich?" Rich leans over and clicks the key and the engine starts right away, thank God. I can barely breath I'm so solid. Kyle just sits there revving the engine for a few minutes and we're all silent. Finally he pulls the gear shift lever into drive and we leave.
"I like the ride," he says when we turn out into the street. "Smooth." He has both steel hands hooked on the steering wheel at each end of the crossbar. "Steers pretty well, too," he says.
After we've driven around town for awhile Kyle says to Rich, "I want to give you some more green beans," and then he asks us: "Mind if we go out to my place for a minute?"
I say, "Sure," and he drives through town and out into the countryside. Maybe ten minutes later we pull onto a rough gravel driveway and drive back to a tidy salt box house with white walls and bright green trim. "I see you went with the green," Rich tells Kyle, who says, "Yeah, it's the compromise color. Looks better than I thought it would."
Rich glances over at his friend and says, "A hell of lot better than that yellow Jackie wanted."
"You got that right," Kyle snorts. "We'll go with the yellow in the kitchen. I figured what the hell, it'll look cheerful in Winter."
He shuts off the Cruiser and turned to us. "I want to show you my pride and joy."
I'm thinking it's his Pontiac but instead he takes us around to the back yard and shows us his garden. There's all kinds of flowers and bushes and a vegetable garden that looks like it's out of a book.
"Look at these beans," he says to us, pointing at the garden with one of his arms. The bean plants are growing thick on poles maybe eight feet high, and they're loaded with long flat green beans. Kyle reaches up, picks one with his claw and then eats it. "They're so sweet you don't even have to cook them. Come here, you guys. Help me pick some for Pauline and Cap."
The beans are hard to spot sometimes because they're about the same color as the leaves, but it's kind of fun to pull the leaves aside and look for them. I've never picked green beans right off the vine before. "Just get the big ones," Kyle says, and we scour each plant, saying, "Look at the size of this one" when we found a gigantia bean.
Kyle throws me a key ring on a fat leather strap and says, "There's plastic bags in the drawer by the sink. Bring us a couple. It's the silver key on its own ring."
I feel weird going into his house alone but I do it anyway. It's neat inside, too. I see a photo in the dining room of Kyle and his wife or girlfriend, who's a little overweight but still cute and I want to look in his living room for other pictures. Instead I rummage through the drawers until I find the recycled plastic bags from the supermarket. They're folded up real carefully. I peel off two and go to the back door.
"Should I lock it?" I yell out, and Kyle nods yes. I bring him the bags and he tells us to divide up the beans evenly. There's enough to fill both bags. "One for you, Cap," Kyle says, "and one for the gals at Jackie's office." Rich is squatting in front of these huge tomato plants and he says, "You have one hell of a garden here, Kyle."
"Pick me those ripe tomatoes in the center, will you Cap?" Kyle asks.
Rich peers in and gingerly tugs off three nice red tomatoes. "These are beefsteaks," Kyle tells us. "Cap, put one in each bag. The ladies are just going to have to fight over it." He gently pulls the tomato plant leaves aside and says, "There's two things I really miss. Picking vegetables and rubbing my woman's tits."
"At least you can still eat both of them," Rich says, and we all laugh.
"Yeah, thank God for that," Kyle says sheepishly. "Well, let's run back into town and you can drop me off at my car."
After Kyle drives us back to the parking lot and we've all gotten out of the Cruiser, Kyle cradles the bulging bag of green beans in one arm and puts his other arm around Rich's shoulder. "Thanks for the name off the Wall, Cap. I was real tight with Frank. You'd have liked him."
Rich puts his hand on Kyle's shoulder and for a few seconds and says, "I'm sure I would have."
Kyle gives Rich the beans and turns to us. "You guys have a good trip," he tells us. "Hope I see California again before too long. I like Santa Barbara a lot."
We nod and he look over at Rich. "You're lucky to have Rich to talk to about the war. He was really there, weren't you, Cap?"
"Just another grunt taking orders," Rich says, and they both laugh.
After Kyle drives off, Rich sits in the driver's seat but he doesn't start the Cruiser right away.
"You guys probably guessed Kyle got his hands blown off in Vietnam," he says. "He tried to throw a dead man over a grenade that rolled into his bunker. There were three other guys in there with him. He managed to get the body in front of them before it went off, and that saved four lives. He never told me. I had to check the medals files in Washington to find out."
He shifts around so he can look us both in the eyes. "I consider myself a pretty good soldier, but I can't say I'd have had the guts and quick thinking to do that."
He turns the ignition key and the Lancer rumbles to life. "I have a feeling the man he used as a shield was his friend, the one whose name I pulled off the Wall for him." Neither of us said much on the way back to Rich's house, and I wondered if Rich had planned us meeting Kyle.
Alex never asked about the war again.
Excerpted from I-State Lines by Charles Hugh Smith (The Permanent Press, April 2006)
I would be honored if you linked this story to your site, or printed a copy for your own use.
Copyright 2008 Charles Hugh Smith all rights reserved in all media. No reproduction in any media in any format (text, audio, video/film, web) without written permission of the author.
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