Sunday, July 19, 2009

Didn't Expect

For Jimmy, forty years later

“I didn’t expect him to be in such good condition.” That phrase was all the sister remembered of the day.


The orders came and the jokes began. Of course they knew how to pronounce it. They had been hearing it for weeks—Phuoc Long. But they laughed anyway, at humor that was stupid, or funny, or vulgar, or racist. Humor tinged with fear. Humor with a black heart.
“I hear you’re going to fuck long.”
“Hey man, I’m outta here, I’m on my way to fuck long.”
“Fuck long. Yeah bro’, that’s what I’m known for.” Hands slapping. Laughter.

In another time, had they been there for another reason, they would have drawn in its beauty. Variegated green on rolling hills, sinuous marshes enveloped in mist in counter point to heat shimmered expanses of stunted bushes and scrub grass. They would have commented on the sharp shadows and the rising and falling drone of an accompaniment of insects. But the men in the squad had their orders and so did the men on the other side. They were on patrol and looking for each other.


Still for hours. They watched the shadows change. Then a sound. Hollow, metallic. The officer’s hand. A signal. Fan out.


The kid from Brooklyn. He crouched, listening, muscles taut, eyes on alert. Scanning. Ba Ra, the mountain, loomed without shadow, a surprise in the distance across the flatness. He caught a movement out of the corner of his eye and turned his head. About three yards away. A small flicker. He could see it clearly. He didn’t expect it and watched, fascinated. He’d never been so close to a snake. Not in Flatbush. Diamond shaped head. Slick. Intricate pattern of browns and blacks. He stifled a laugh. Ladies shoes. A flick of its tongue. Motion. Quick. Quick.


They couldn’t understand why he stood up. The sound itself had evil in it. First a whistle and then something deafening. The concussion knocked him into the air and back. They could see it happen. They watched. Silent. It was like a movie. Grainy. Slow motion.


A voice cracking.
“Man, Watson! What did you do that for? What did you stand up for?”
There were no marks on him. Just trickles of blood from his nose and one ear. Dried now because they had had to wait. The sergeant wiped them away.
He looked at one of his men, his face tortured. “I didn’t expect him to stand up!” Anger loose. Despair tight.
“Man, Watson! What did you do that for…? Shit.”
They carried him back.


The father, mother, sister and brother stood, shell-shocked in a semi-circle. The smell of candles. Of flowers. The father put his hand on the smooth wood and looked at his son through a screen of tears. He said, to no one in particular, “I didn’t expect him to be in such good condition.” That was all the sister remembered of the day.

When we entered high school back in 1970, we knew that ____ had lost her brother in Vietnam. It was not something we spoke about. We were thirteen and fourteen and war and death though in our living rooms and on the news each night were still too abstract, too distant, and just too much for a group of just-turned teenagers in a Catholic school for girls. Despite the fact that we wore MIA bracelets and talked about the immorality of war, the death of a brother was something that was too big for us, and so we didn't speak of it.
A few years ago, that group of just-teenagers, now grown women with our own kids--teenagers and young adults--gathered and talked and laughed, and gossiped. Once again a war raged. This time, we had the words for the undertow that we all felt. And ____ told the story of the loss of her brother. This time we could listen and we could hear. And so forty years later, this is for Jimmy.

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