Nocturnes on a Theme of Napalm
There are many stories I could tell you that have all the requisite parts: beginnings, ends, and middles, reasons to tell them, lessons learned. The basics studied by parsing out the parables of Jesus, rambling the streets and allies of language with Proust, watching my neighbors through the eyes of Faulkner. I can tell you stories about dust storms, hills of mica, warm cream on raisins and oatmeal, riding in a Thunderbird on roller-coaster roads out on the great flat plains.
There are so many of these potential stories that have collected in my mental filing cabinet that when I sit down to write a short piece an unconscious slot machine turns on, the wheels roll, come to a stop, and a story slips out of the box. The small stories seem to tell themselves and I just do the typing. Ultimately my hardest task is to fake some punctuation since stories have a no regard for such human habits and I’ve never been to grammar school.
These easy stories require so little of me that they’re boring to write so I limit them to 500 words and hit print. Readers, on the other hand, like these anecdotes. They come to me weighted down with quotes and tell me how this one moved them to action or that one is now embroidered on a pillow. I stand there embarrassed that I have no memory of ever having read, let alone written, words in that particular order.
I relegate these tales to the same category where I abandon the daydreams that come to me when my mind slips a cog and goes drifting off in search of entertainment. But I identify with the admirers of my anecdotes because I find daydreams so very satisfying. They have this charming characteristic that in them I’m always the star. Depending on their age my friends imagine they are warrior princesses, soccer stars, super-moms, or still-not-dead. Having always been disgustingly mundane I daydream about signing a bill into law that limits taxes to an equal percentage of all assets changing hands. Of course, buried that fantasy is this delusion that I rule the world and it is this sugar-coated game of self-delusion that makes daydreaming such a common recreation. The risk, of course, comes when we take our perfection all too seriously like I did when I was young and thought myself a marvel.
Imagine me, a skinny, flat-chested 17-year-old girl who’d hardly ever been out of one little county in southern Kansas, being asked by a military recruiter from Wichita to teach some young men to swim so they could join the Marines. Semper Fidelis! I’d have stammered awkwardly and held to the fringes of any other event that included even one of these prime mid-western white or brown-bread boys. Anyone could see that I was cut off a much flimsier branch on evolution’s tree than the big-breasted blondes who turned these boys’ eyes. The recruiter, however, had gifted me with a sort of script to use with his targets and an excuse to touch them. Just relax. The water will hold you up. Don’t fight it. Lift your elbows higher. Breathe with the stroke. Breathe and stroke.
In addition to memorizing the Red Cross training book that summer, I spent my free time scouring the library for maps of the thoracic, scapular, and humeral regions in the landscape of male anatomy.
The recruiter brought down three or four groups of these friendly, good-natured, more than slightly anxious young men that summer and the regular swimming teacher just pretended to always be gone when they arrived. I never asked her why. I even imagined that she thought I was a better teacher than she was. And the boys did learn, often faster than my much younger students so the recruiter complimented me effusively. Which I loved.
In every group, there was a skillful flirter who unknowingly taught me a tactic that I then tried out on the shy boy who always reminded me of myself. There wasn’t a one of them, even the mean or ugly boys, that I’d didn’t learn to love a little.
On the final day of these lessons the recruiter let it slip that he had chosen me not for my exception skill but because these particular boys were all terrified of water and since most of them weren’t more than a year or two older than I was, they were too proud to chicken out on a girl. This, unfortunately, was the first indication that during that otherwise lonely summer I had been an innocent in the cruelest definition of the word. My thread of self-delusion had become spliced into cord after cord of national delusion until that whole twisted rope ran from my bacteria purged swimming pool all the way into the swampy jungles of Vietnam . . . and then returned to me as familiar names in the Wichita paper that listed Kansans killed in action. First one and then another and another and very soon I realized that I too had played a part in killing them.
I could have made a longer story out of all this, told you how I fell asleep every night for years to the drum-and-bugle call of their teeth chattering from in the frigid, early morning pool. How my own teacher had refused to teach them because she knew where the boys would be going. How, even after I realized the truth, I wasn’t able to throw away the Marine corps t-shirt that the recruiter had loaned a boy who’d then left it behind. How, despite being wrapped in plastic that shirt’s erotic smell of male sweat and chlorine had somehow been replaced with a more potent mix of jungle rot and regret but the easy stories never hold my attention for long.
Unlike day-dreams, day-frights are those strange experiences in which a potential for personal disaster develops but ultimately dissipates with no real harm done. During them, I feel as if one part of my brain is watching to see what will happen and the other is preparing for defensive action. Alert but never pushed into flight or fright.
These tempered events are often the basis of my favorite writing projects because though they don’t come together by themselves they can be crafted into a cohesive and multi-layered story. I could give you a whole series of narratives about traveling with strangers on the back roads of Oklahoma and Arkansas trying to get reluctant Negros, Indians, Latinos, and poor Whites to sign papers that would ensure their right to vote. Stories about the familiar preachers’ sons from small towns in Kansas and the exotic Jews from the suburbs of Kansas City who went shack to shack persuading these frightened and resentful people to register for something most of them didn’t even understand. I was expected, actually forbidden to get out of the car unless someone from the law came to ask questions. Too dangerous, the boys claimed, for girls. I was just there to deal with the local police. Patronizing and condescending were words that rolled through my mind when they laid down the big-boy rules. I was just there to deal with the local police. Otherwise, I wasn’t to get in the way.
My favorite uncle was a city cop. The chief-of-police ate breakfast every a day at the café where’d I worked all through high school. I knew cops, trusted them, and charmed them. I told them half-truths that the idealistic boys believed were lies. “Oh, they’re just do-gooders who think all this matters. We both know it won’t but we don’t want the feds down here riling up folks. What’s your number so there if there’s any ruckus I can call you? Quiet like.” We’d shake hands. They’d mostly flirt. I’d tease them how it was their women folks they really needed to worry about voting against them.
Everyone laughed and no trouble ever came. Not once. But the situation was always tense because everyone was afraid. The cops were afraid that the boys were going to make some kind of trouble that would lose them their jobs. The boys were afraid because they had never been on back roads at night among people so “ignorant.” And I was afraid because I empathized with the “victims” justifiable fear and anger at both sides for so casually stripping them of their hard-pressed sense of self-esteem; after all, I was another of those people that these white men felt they had to manage for our own good.
Actually, I was most angry at myself because I hated being belittled by all these men but was also afraid that I was only missing some critical piece of knowledge that totally disproved my own opinion that everyone was over-rating the importance of paper and badges.
What I did know was that I was horrified by the bare bulbs in the dark hovels and shacks, the weak interior lights in the police cars, the lack of light in the backseat of the car where I was forced to sit almost all night, and the single candle burning on the dirt floor where a cadaverous family of the Indians lived like prairie dogs in a dugout under the ground.
All these people could be stories I would enjoy writing because in the short-run nothing dangerous developed and in the long run everything changed for the better because all of us were able to hold our peace.
There are, however, even darker things I call day-frights, more on the order of day-terrors, that I can occasionally mold into a story but only if the actual terror was experienced by someone else. To tell one of these always seems too much like thieving but I’ll appropriate this story because it illustrates so well where the boundary road runs between what I can write up and what I can’t.
Because Roger and I were the only employees in a little bar near the university we never got off work before1:00 in the morning so he often insisted on driving me to my low-rent apartment. He worried because it was at the edge of the Negro part of town but I had chosen to live there because it felt to me like the only really safe place in the city. I liked the woman and their back-and-forth sass, always calling me “white bitch” when everything was going fine and crooning “Honey, Honey” when I needed a friend. Most of all I liked the revival meetings, twice a week, with music that soared into amen choruses where I felt closer to God than I ever would again. Roger allowed this but refused to accept that I could be safe when the only entrance to my apartment was through a door at the back that was only lit by one yellow bulb.
Many nights he came up and we talked awhile. Never about much—some of our customers—the music on the jukebox—that the lady who ran the liquor store next to our bar who used to be the mistress of some crime politico. The only exciting thing that ever happened at the bar was one night a couple of guys, not our customers, got in a fight in the back parking lot. I’d been told to never call the police. Instead the boss had given me a “secret number” to call if there was trouble. So I did. Roger was not at all surprised when the police arrived to deal with the problem but I was stunned. After work he explained that the syndicate didn’t like trouble around their bars. Then I understood why some mornings I’d find cigarettes and alcohol glasses that had appeared without explanation in the back room that was luxuriously appointed with an antique pool table.
So that was how we were. Friends but in no way intimate. Never anything sexual. No approach-avoid. Just a kind of shared deadness. It was oddly comfortable. All summer.
My apartment was an attic room with a shower in a closet and a small kitchen in the corner. There was a single table that I pushed against the staircase railing and kept large knife laid out on it. “To protect myself,” I said but that wasn’t true. I had, no have, a thing with knives. Make familiars of them. Roger had good instincts so he thought it was dangerous for me to keep one out on display. “If someone broke in they’d likely use it on you,” he argued and I agreed but didn’t move from where I was sitting beside my single piece of furniture, a mattress on the floor.
That night–the night–we talked longer than usual. He told me that he’d survived two consecutive tours of duty in Vietnam as a Navy medic assigned to the Marines. It shocked me to learn that the medics weren’t issued guns because they were supposedly non-combatants so they had to arm themselves with equipment stripped from the dead.
I was surprised when Roger, who seemed pretty tough, admitted that he’d occasionally used a gun to save one of “his” riflemen but rarely in his own defense. As the war went on, he had felt less and less attached to his life. Instead, he was drawn to the injured, the dying, his men or natives caught in crossfire, and even eventually to injured enemy soldiers. All these filled him with purpose when nothing else mattered.
At the same time, the natural choices of his duties became more difficult. Since medics always had limited time and capabilities they were forced to make quick decisions about who to save and who to abandon: The nearest? The least injured? The most injured? A good soldier? A man he liked instead of one he didn’t? Days became a series of life-and-death decisions that he learned to make on the fly. Him. Not him. It’s done.
While other men took drugs, even the morphine that had been issued to them to help injured soldiers; while other men drank and whored during downtime in local villages, Roger wandered the streets listening, not wondering, not thinking, not in any way questioning why he was there. He just walked and listened, listened and walked. Was relieved when he could go back to the battlefields where his assignment gave him a structure and a place.
When he signed up for a second tour it wasn’t because of a deeply personal decision but because someone put a paper on the table and a pen in his hand. America had become a fantasy, a faint fantasy, a little village of hobbits in a small European woods that still possessed lines between fairies and orcs.
Near the end of his second tour, he received a letter from his long-estranged father, a Chicago businessman with deep and often violent ties to crime. The letter was simple: Your brother was killed yesterday. He should never have in Nam but you were his hero.
Thanks to my mother I already knew that some parents dealt with their catastrophes by blaming them on anyone other than themselves. Why they forced all the shame on one of their own children was not something I had been able to understand—or as it turns out, ever would.
Roger didn’t cry at his father’s cruelty or even his brother’s death. He just stared into dull, rusty space.
That night I cried for Roger and he was forced to comfort me in one of those strange reversals of role when the weight of deep pain can be handed over to someone else to carry for a while. So the time grew later than we usually parted before he began to stir to leave. A paste of approaching dawn blurred the darkness. The world would wake up before Roger and I had even begun to sleep.
. . . and then we heard a deep wild scream that sounded like a woman caught in a roll of barbed wire. I froze in confusion but Roger sprang up, his spring-trigger body always primed for action. He grabbed that knife from my table even as he was moving in a tumbling jaguar’s take-off to save . . . what?
I caught up. The long whined screams seemed to rise from every direction yet the streets remained empty except for our mad pursuit. I was running so close behind him that I feared he might turn, not recognize me, and slit my throat. We ran this way and that and the scream taunted us like an evil clown from the house of horrors. She screamed higher and weaker and higher and weaker until there was nothing left but the early twittering of birds as they woke to the breeze as if no one had ever been slaughtered in the whole history of men.
Eventually, we got back to my house and I pried that knife from Roger’s fingers that were bloody from holding it too near the blade. I put him on my bed and made a fresh pot of tea. While I waited for the water to come to a boil I watched him curl up like a frond on my bed and for some few minutes, I really loved him like I have so rarely been able to do in my life and from across the room he began to slowly give me the story.
I cannot use his words. It was too long ago and I have thought of them too rarely. But I can tell you what I remember him saying. “We were coming through the jungle carrying a guy that had been hit in the belly. I carried him on my back to keep his guts from falling out. The other medic had been hit in the leg but he was still able to carry one of those skinny kids they round up in the slums and send to us just to fill up their quotas. Most of them died before they’d tied their boots. But there were some that fought like maniacs and danced through the bullets.
“Ahead of us the jungle was a brighter green. That meant there was clearing for one of those shit villages where the gooks lived. We always had to hang wide around them because they’d be up the trees like monkeys. Drop grenades on us, bags of shit, parts of our own guys — arms and legs with pieces of their uniforms still on them.
“This time I heard barfing. Big dry heaves. Frizzo, we called him. I never knew his real name and then . . . Oh, shit, oh shit, oh shit. I went fucking lime green. Like fucking jellies in the box. Somehow I hadn’t gone around the clearing but had walked right in like my feet were cut off from my head. Looked up where Frizzo was looking and I thought I’d already seen the worst, it couldn’t go deeper, and then they were hanging there. All these women hanging by their necks from a net that someone had woven with ropes like a web. Across the whole clearing. Their faces were purple and bloated. Their legs had been pulled wide with more rope. Their women parts pulled out and hanging like rags from their cunts. Some even had little babies hanging off the cords. Who? Who could ever? Who could even think up something so awful . . . and then I knew—back at camp I’d heard laughing . . . ‘decorating Christmas trees’ — hadn’t known —hadn’t known. The guy on my back was dead. Never looked up.”
And then Roger slept, really slept for a few hours before he got up and left. Our time together was short. But at odd moments since I’ve wondered how someone could go on holding such horror inside him. Perhaps, perhaps he never really slept again.
If that had not been an escaped parrot but an actual woman we had failed to save then this would have been an emotionally scarring experience for me but, as it happened, the wild chase remained a day-fright that another writer could have written up even as a comedy. I couldn’t. Because of the knife.
The memory of the women hanging from the trees was certainly a day-terror for Roger but for me, the listener, the writer as vampire, this was a full, rich story that would challenge my commitment to both spare writing and keep my readers’ interest until my reason for telling the story has been revealed.
Knife catalogs, ten most wanted lists, gun shows, black ice roads, street fights, urban riots, the lure of deep water far from shore in a storm, haunting Times Square in the darkest hours. And not ever was I so much as threatened. Do you suppose the villains guessed that no one could scare me as much as I scared myself?
Most of these scenes I could craft into stories; however, some events defy the confinement of narrative structure. Day-terrors pollute the mornings and often leak through my nights and naps, again and again.
Bitter tea, day after day, in my morning cup.
In my nightmares, the after-hours twin to day-terrors, I’m often assigned the welfare of a child or children in imminent danger of being destroyed by one Disney’s charming creations: Maleficent, Ursula, Cruella De Vil, Madame Medusa, naked white women swinging dairy-cow breasts, and that terrible alligator with the ticking clock in her belly.
I must hold the open the door to the secret passage while a string of third-graders plunges through it to avoid capture by Macbeth’s henchmen who are slashing and burning through the halls above. I must facilitate the escape of a row of eleven little girls and Madeline who are sneaking away from fork-wielding Frenchmen hungry for thirty pounds of tender flesh and bone. I must protect reckless children running too close to the cliff edge, or in front of racing cars. I shield an orphanage from pieces of satellites/meteorites/or Lexan panels falling, falling, falling from the sky. And despite all these heroics I almost invariably fail to save anyone at all.
I can give you lists upon lists upon lists upon lists of these nightmares but no stories. They remain isolated shocks from a stun gun. Day-terrors, however, really happen, really put you and everything you value into peril and then smash it. After a nightmare, I wake up but after a day-terror, I’ve never been to sleep.
Some people can make stories of such moments in their lives. I can’t. My own memories of both nightmares and day-terrors are never more than vaguely connected flittering images. Twentieth-century poets are able to make a kind of sense out of their own fragments but for me, a storyteller, all this shredded language remains a dismembered alphabet — black-wet fortunes written in the leavings of my morning cup.
.….One swift clink of beer mugs for her birthday in a bar.
Then shouts from outside. Biker gangs burning cars or tires in the street
Students line the sidewalks to watch the bonfire.
Black leather bikers revving their engines, circling and circling.
Shots in the air. And curses. Burn you, Pinko faggots.
Pole up the ass bitches. Comi-loven’ whores.
Black leather bikers burning cars and tires in the street.
A reporter with a cameraman who asks her,
“Is this a protest against Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia?”
Shots in the air. And curses. Burn you, Pinko faggots!
She tells him what each person before her has said,
“This is just the town gangs making trouble again.”
He turns left to question her friend and then left and then left again
Until he asks a button-down collar and ironed khaki pants
Perpetual outsider kid who likes to pretend he’s a dude.
Each leading question the reporter asks the pasty repeats in the affirmative.
Together they make the local late news.
“Is this a protest against Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia?”
And the national news by morning.
“We’re protesting Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia.”
It makes better copy and sound bites
Than saying townies are making trouble again. Shots in the air. And curses.
After years of protests that drew meager crowds,
Thousand of letters no one answered
Kent State University is 24,000 students who don’t care
Unless someone threatens to draft their own body.
What does it matter if they choose violence or non-violence?
Which would make a difference? What could win a war?
A handful come
Outnumbered by the newsmen who arrange them in a cluster.
Wandering speeches…Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia…
Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia
More sound bites to cut, shots in the air, and curses.
Close in cameras make the rally looked much bigger than it is.
Pictures it seems can lie even more easily than words.
She’s just hoping someone will listen.
The press only needs a few male heads to yell out their rants.
24,000 students who’ve never been townies
Circling and circling their fires, revving their engines.
Circling, circling the yellow-livered speeches…Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia…
Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia …
Shots in the air. And curses!
The ROTC building’s burned but no one thinks to charge the press.
24,000 students don’t notice that bikers and guardsmen are all townies.
Then the army descends upon them all, “Burn you, Pinko faggots and whores.”
No one thinks to charge the press when a rally’s called for May the fourth
No one thinks, not even her in her daisy-print jumpsuit of red-white-and-blue.
No one even imagines they’re dressing for war.
Revving their engines. Giving their speeches…Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia…
Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia …
She gathers her books and hurries up an embankment onto an open field
Nothing makes a difference? Nothing wins a war?
What does it matter if we chose to act or to not?
When the rally’s called it’s just another rally, just another day.
She’s more than grateful that the press has arrived
So someone else might listen to the sound of skin melting
Off tiny women with children wrapped to their chests.
The crowd’s ahead. “More than a few,” she thinks, “That’s good.”
24,000 students who couldn’t care less
If we sliced off the whole of Asia and set it a’drift into space.
And maybe 50 who’d protest any invasion of anywhere
But less than a dozen who meet to organize a rally.
And they’re too busy giving finals and taking finals and grading finals
To print more than a few flyers and spread a thin layer of words.
Burn you, Pinko faggots. Pole up the ass bitches. Comi-loven’ whores.
Which makes a difference? What wins a war?
One shot. Then a volley.
She’s from Kansas; of course, she knows rifle blast when she hears it.
Are they practicing for some ROTC parade?
One shot. Then a volley.
The town gangs making trouble again?
Glass breaks in the window behind her.
A boy yells, “They’re shooting people. Get down.”
She walks into green.
“Get Down!!! Get Down!!!” Her feet step forward without intent.
One shot. Then a volley.
Her books drop slowly behind her. Crumbs on the trail.
She walks and never thinks to stop and help anyone.
She walks on small white flowers hidden in the bloody grass.
One shot. Then a volley.
She circles the calls for rescue, police, guardsmen, or medical crews.
She circles reporters and cameramen and button-down boys.
She circles Nixon and Cambodia
Drops pieces of her own promises behind her,
Crumbs on the trail. One shot. Then a volley.
She hears her fifth-grade teacher explaining how to raise and lower the flag,
“Above all else, most important, never let the flag touch the ground.”
She walks by helicopters scouring out intrigues on balconies,
Through searchlights pinning everyone else in their tracks.
One shot. Then a volley.
Tanks range up and down the streets and she circles them with her steps.
“No one’s allowed to leave for any reason including death.”
Maybe, she wonders, this isn’t just another of my psychotic delusions.
And then she walks into summer and loses her shoes.
Walks over snow until the police recognize her from times before.
As usual, they wrap her in a blanket and take her home
Where she’s already been sitting for hours on the lawn in the night
Trying to fit slivers of glass together before her fingers bleed to death.
Even the madwoman on the first floor in her daisy-print jumpsuit knows
Such tiny pieces will never again be a pane.