I remember all this. The backyard at dusk littered with Coke bottles and beer cans. A stray paper plate glowing white against the lush summer grass that looks almost black in the gloaming. Our bratty New York cousins have left. They’re probably well up the Turnpike by now, and my little brothers Will and Timmy are sent inside to bed, thank god. The barbeque is pretty much over. But Lissa’s friends, the older boys, are just settling in. The sun has gone down but the air is still thick. Nick Russo drags the Coleman cooler close to the picnic table, straddles one of the benches, and digs in. He rolls a beer down the table to Dave Sterline who reaches for it but misses, just as it plops to the ground.
“Shit, Sterline, you’re coordinated,” my brother Artie yells from across the yard. “I hope you’re better with an M16.”
“Christ, so do I,” Dave says, “or my ass is fried.”
They all laugh. I’m sitting off to the side, pretending to be uninterested. But these guys enthrall me. Even my brother Artie. He’s only two years older than me but he takes Latin and advanced placement English, so he thinks he knows everything. Still, he’s cool enough to hang with
Lissa’s friends, and I hang on every joke they crack, every swear word that rolls so easily off their tongues.
Artie hoses what’s left of the still live coals piled inside the rusty grill. There is a satisfying hiss as smoke billows. A few sparks arc up and over the sides and sizzle to the ground.
At the top of the concrete steps, my sister Lissa swats at a moth and hollers over, “What’s going on out here?” She is a silhouette against the light that sifts through the kitchen screen door behind her. Nobody answers. She comes towards us with a dented tin barrel of Charles Chips and a pack of Winstons. “Carol,” she calls to me, as she approaches, Seventeen Magazine pretty, with her long straight hair and her denim cut-offs. “Who’s in charge here?”
“Not me,” I say, as though it matters. At thirteen I am skinny and flat-chested. Artie still calls me pipsqueak.
Lissa hops up onto the picnic table and perches on the end. She dangles the pack of cigarettes over Dave, who is slumped down on the bench. She hates that he smokes. She’s going to nursing school in the fall. Our Aunt Roz, who was an army nurse in WWII, says Lissa is a natural born healer.
“These cause cancer. You know that don’t you? Look, they write it on the package now. It’s proven. They can kill you, eventually,” Lissa tells Dave, as she holds tightly to the cigarettes.
“Yeah. Eventually. But Gooks might beat ‘em to it.”
Dave tilts his head back to look up at her. Lissa leans down and there is a little smile in the somber shadow of her face.
“Do. Not. Say. That.” She punctuates each word with feigned punches. Then teasingly she holds the red and white box aloft: “Now you’re not getting them.”
He reaches an arm, ropey with muscle, above his head. In a snap he swipes the Winstons from Lissa’s hand. Then he pulls her toward him and kisses her. How can he be going to Viet Nam? He doesn’t look like somebody who should be carrying a gun. He has a soft voice. And his eyes are too dreamy. To me at least. And I guess to Lissa, too.
My parents didn’t like Dave at first. Maybe because he had dropped out of college after one semester and worked at a gas station. And his hair was shaggy. But now they seem okay with him. For one thing, he cut his hair. And they say Lissa is mature. She has a good head on her shoulders. And least that’s what they said last year, before Dave was classified 1-A. Then they worried that Dave and Lissa would get engaged. My father started kicking Dave out of the house early on school nights. Lissa balked and said if Dave was sent to Viet Nam, maybe she’d never see him again. Dad said he was sorry. He said he respected Dave for answering the call of duty, but he wanted his daughter to do something with her smarts before she settled down.
Dave and Lissa are goofing around, drinking their beers and kissing. I’m trying not to watch. I start thinking about an article I read in Reader’s Digest about a guy who had been a POW in North Viet Nam. After he was released and made it home, his mother wrote a story about him. Two things upset me. One was that the boy (that’s how the mother referred to him: my boy) couldn’t drink enough milk or eat enough chocolate cake since he got back to the States. She had to bake a cake every other day and she had to double her milk delivery order. I pictured him with a milk mustache.
The second thing was the description of a wound on his backside. He said the beatings he took in prison turned his rear end and the backs of his thighs and calves to raw hamburger. Still guards made him sit on a wooden stool for hours. Flies buzzed around him and he couldn’t shoo them away because his hands and feet were tied. I couldn’t get this out of my head, especially now that I knew someone who was going to the jungle. I hadn’t even known it was jungle until I read the article.
Artie runs into the house. I suppose to set his record player against the upstairs bedroom window because after a few minutes Jim Morrison’s voice tumbles down from the sky. When he comes back out into the yard, he hands Dave the album cover.
“The Doors. Outta sight, huh?”
Artie seems so old to me all of sudden. So serious.
“Cool,” says Dave. “But dark, man.”
“Like another Nietzsche,” says Nick. “That’s no fun.” He burps and laughs. He doesn’t even say excuse me.
I think, shit, who is Nietzsche? I’m dying to know but I don’t ask.
Mark Wholivesbehindus jumps the fence. We never did know his real last name. Years later, after we had all grown up and moved away, after Artie died of AIDS and Lissa became a nurse and later a medical researcher, and long after Dave Sterline had not returned from Nam, the rest of us would get to talking about things (but never the war) and someone would say, “Remember that Mark kid from Glenside Avenue? What was his name?” And somebody else would say, “Oh, right, Mark Wholivesbehindus.” And everyone (but not me) would laugh.
The boys play badminton in the dark, slamming at the shuttlecock with unwarranted force and calling each other sissy and faggot when they miss, or they flip their wrists in mock girlishness. A few hours pass, the cooler is empty, and Nick needs to go home. Dave makes a move to drive him, but Lissa won’t hear it.
“I’ll take him,” she says with authority. She kisses Dave again. “Carol, watch this guy for me, will you?”
“Davey, buddy,” says Nick, “I guess this is sayonara.”
He thrusts an arm in Dave’s direction, a signal to shake hands.
Dave doesn’t move, just reaches his arm up overhead, waves and says, “No, man, I’ll see ya before I go.”
“Oh yeah, almost forgot. We intend to give you a hell of a send off.”
Nick drops his arm to his side and stands there looking at us until Lissa honks the horn a bunch of times and he runs off.
Dave comes over and sits in the lawn chair next to me. “Hey, Carol.”
And then he sort of sings: Oh, Carol…
“You know that song?
“No,” I squeak.
“No?” His voice is low and I can’t tell if he’s mocking me.
He whispers, “It’s Chuck Berry. But the Stones do a far out job with it.”
He throws back what’s left of his beer.
“So, when are you going to Viet Nam?” I steady my voice and paw at a patch of dirt with my bare feet. For the first time I notice that he is growing a mustache. I sense my face reddening. I’m glad it’s dark out.
“Ah, not for a while. Have to train first. I leave for basic in three weeks.”
Suddenly it is so quiet. The music has stopped. From over by the badminton net Mark, who is half over the fence, tells Artie to go up and flip the record. He says he’ll be right back. Artie disappears into the house.
“Are you scared?”
“Of what? Going to Nam?”
“Uh, yeaaah.” I try to sound sarcastic but I think to myself, don’t be such an idiot, Carol. “Nah, not really. Gotta do what I gotta do.”
He pulls out a cigarette and, arching an eyebrow, tilts the pack in my direction. I can’t believe he is offering me a cigarette, I scream in my head. “Hmm, no thanks,” I say.
“Oh, right, your sister would kill me if she caught me giving you a smoke.”
He puts one between his lips, strikes a match, and cups his hands around it. “You know what we should all really be scared of?” He blows out the first stream of smoke.
“What?” I say.
But I am thinking, No, I don’t want to know because I already know about raw hamburger meat behinds and that’s enough.
“The bomb,” he says.
“Yeah, man, the big one.” He strokes his almost mustache with one hand and taps ashes into the empty beer can with the other. He seems to be talking to someone else, though we are the only ones there in the backyard. He stares across the table. “We have one and the Soviets have one. And it is all so fucking precarious.”
Precarious. Weird, I think, that he should say precarious. It was one of last year’s vocabulary words. Uncertain, unstable, dependent on chance or the will or whim of another. Memorized to the letter, the definition automatically flashes through my mind.
“Do you know?” He leans back on his elbows and stares up at the dark sky. “Do you know that Johnson has a phone, a red phone on his desk in the oval office. He can pick it up at any time and end it all. Khrushchev—no, wait, I think it’s Brezhnev now. He’s got one too. Just one guy can blow up the world. One guy, all by himself. Boom.” Without warning, he jerks his arm back and throws the beer can across the yard. It clangs against the abandoned grill. “The whole fucking world,” he shouts.
He must be drunk. I hope he is. I hope he’s talking out his ass, as my father would say. But somehow I know that Dave knows exactly what he is talking about. My freckled legs, poking out of my seersucker shorts, are gooseflesh and begin to shake. I try to smooth the pink and green plaid that has completely lost the charm it had for me when I got dressed that morning.
“That’s the big one. That motherfucker’ll unleash a firestorm like nothin’ else. Then the mushroom cloud.”
I try to follow what he’s telling me. I see in my mind the picture of the earth from the cover of my geography book—as it bursts into flames. How could I not know about this? I’ve been watching the news and reading stuff. Suddenly it dawns on me that I do know about The Bomb, because now I’m remembering something on television a while ago. It was a commercial, I think. There was an explosion and then a mushroom cloud. A little girl picking the petals off a daisy but before she gets to the last one, the whole screen blows up. I even remember that my mother looked up from her ironing and gasped. Then she snapped off the TV and told us to go to bed.
Everything around me begins to spin. I slip my hands under my trembling legs, pulling away from the plastic webbing of the lawn chair I am stuck to. I feel queasy. I tell myself it is the cigarette smoke swirling around me, or the smell of stale beer, or the hotdog I ate hours before. But it’s none of these. It is the mushroom cloud and the little girl picking daisies and the boy with hamburger meat for a backside sitting on a stool in a prison in Hanoi surrounded by flies.
In August my parents rent a house down the shore. We’re all supposed to go, but at the last minute, they let Lissa stay home to see Dave before he leaves for Fort Dix. My father objects at first, but then gives in, as long as Lissa stays with our grandparents. Even Artie stays home with a friend because they both got jobs caddying at the Woodcrest Country Club.
The rest of us go to the beach everyday. My parents have gin and tonics on the back patio every evening. We play Monopoly and Scrabble for hours one rainy day. How can they just keep going on as if everything is the same, I think. Nothing is the same. I can’t stop thinking about all of it. The War. The Bomb. Dave Sterline. There are days when I hardly eat or sleep, when I want to tell someone but I can’t. I use most of my spending money to call Lissa every night from a pay phone at the end of the boardwalk. Just to see how she is. Just to hear her voice. But I never reach her.
Our last night in Wildwood I am sitting out on the sleeping porch reading when a breeze off the ocean blows through, rattling the metal Venetian blinds, but to my ears it’s rifle fire or the chop of helicopter blades, sounds that have been coming from the CBS Evening News night after night. I do the dishes really fast these days so I can watch Walter Cronkite with my father. Before the broadcast finishes my father usually walks away mumbling something about that son-of-a-bitch McNamara. I want him to tell me what he means but I’m too scared to ask. By the time I get up the nerve to broach the subject, my mother is yelling at me. I’ve left soap scum and grease in the sink. I must come back to the kitchen and finish my chores.
I look over at my two little brothers asleep on their cots: their cheeks and noses sunburned, their blond hair turned to hay by too much salt water. Will is on his side, curled up like a comma, his knees to his chest. Timmy dangles a leg over the side, his toes not quite reaching the sandy floor.
The seductive rhythm of the wicker rocker betrays my effort to stay alert and I start to doze off. In the ether of near sleep, I see my brothers carrying M16s through a jungle somewhere. They can’t see where they are going because heavy camouflaged helmets fall forward on their small heads and cover their eyes. They are walking in circles and in my dark reverie I call out to them to stop right where they are. What are they doing in this place? I shout. I tell them I have come to take them home, but they don’t seem to hear me. Just before I open my eyes, there it is again, the world on fire.
Donna Maccherone holds a BA in English and an MA in Writing Studies from St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her work has been published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Tiferet Journal, Kaatskill Life, Parent Co. and Brain, Child. As a teacher, she finds exposing high school students to war literature frightening, enlightening, and necessary. “Girl Discovers Fire,” which grew out of a montage of memory and imagination, is her first published work of fiction.