Saturday, February 21, 2009

"Taking Care Of Our Own" by Jan Christensen

I watched my husband put the American flag into the flag holder screwed to the front of our military quarters. A lump formed in my throat as I thought of the men killed in our country's wars, some of whom I had known. The ones from Vietnam. The first few notes of "Taps" sounded in my head, and I quickly turned away and stared at the woods across the street.

The day had dawned clear, warm and bright. Perfect for Memorial Day, 1980. Yesterday I made potato salad. I ticked off the list in my mind--hamburger meat, buns and all the fixings--enough for the five couples we'd invited, plus their children. Three of the other women were bringing dessert, and another macaroni salad. Millie hadn't volunteered, as usual. I shrugged and went back inside to check for dust.

I told myself not to care if I missed a speck, but for some reason I did. Maybe because my mother had been such an indifferent housekeeper. I remembered writing my name in the dust of the coffee table once.

One of the kittens dashed in front of me, and I scooped him up in my hands, and cooed at him, "You need to be careful, little one. Where's your mama?" I stroked his silky fur, feeling him purr under my fingers.

Brittany came downstairs and greeted me and the kitten. "Let me have him," she said, holding out her slim hands. I gave him to her and got in a hug at the same time. Fifteen-year-old Brittany no longer welcomed hugs as she used to, so I took them when I could. Smiling, I watched my daughter pet the kitten. I looked at Brittany's face with its clear blue eyes, slightly upturned nose, generous mouth and sun-brightened blonde hair, and felt the usual surge of love at the sight of her.

Roger came inside smelling of heat and springtime, reminding me that I wanted to open the windows for a while, at least until it got too hot.

"You sure there's enough charcoal?" I asked as we opened the two windows in the living room.

He nodded. I wondered what he was thinking about. The friends he'd lost in the war? The upcoming get-together? I was never quite sure. He'd come back from Vietnam seven years ago quieter, almost morose. It was no use asking him what he was thinking. "Nothing," was his stock reply.

I looked at him now, his still-lean body bending to open the window in the dining area, his brown hair streaked with a few gray strands. Little crinkles made wings at the corners of his eyes, not from smiling and laughing, but from squinting into the sun. Clean-shaven, at my request. I hated facial hair, and he loved me enough to forgo it. I still loved him after seventeen years of marriage. Loved his steadiness, his fidelity, his adoration of our daughter and most of all, his love for me.

With a start, I realized I was standing in the middle of the room, staring at my husband in a daze. I shook my head to clear it and saw that Brittany had stepped outside the back door with the kitten still in her hands, the mother cat snaking herself around Brittany's ankles.

We've so much to be thankful for. The war's over, although horribly. Roger has only two years until retirement, and we will return to civilian life. We'll buy a little house, and I'll look for a job. If it hadn't been for that damned, violent, asinine war, our life would have been perfect.

* * * * *

The kids were inside with the hi-fi going, the younger ones running outside occasionally to talk to their mothers. I sat with the other women at the picnic table munching on my hamburger, half listening to them, half listening to the men who were crouched down eating in a corner of the yard. They'd learned to squat like that in 'Nam. And they were talking about 'Nam, as usual.

"Did I tell you about the time the slicky boys tried to steal my carton of Camels?" Roger asked. Mike and Harry nodded, but the other three shook their heads. "It was pretty funny," Roger said. "I was walking along the street in Saigon, and it had just stopped raining, sun out bright. I had the carton under my arm when I heard a motorbike coming up alongside of me, and slowing down. The shadow of the motorbike appeared in front of me, two figures on it, one with his arm out, ready to grab my cigarettes. I swung the carton out of the way, and the guy falls off the bike, making the driver lose control. They fell down into a mud puddle."

The men laughed, picturing it--the narrow street, the crowds of people walking around, the smell of fish and rice.

"Well," Roger continued. "He's madder'n hell. Especially since everyone's laughing at him. Of course, I'm laughing the hardest. So he gets up, all muddy, and pulls a knife. He takes a step or two towards me. I shake my head at him and pull my forty-five slowly out of its holster, feeling like John Wayne, and just stare at him, smiling. Everything got real quiet on that street."

I always shiver at this point in the story. What if Roger had killed him? Could he have lived with that? Somewhere in the pit of my stomach, I think maybe he could. He has no patience for injustice. But it would have changed our relationship forever. I'm even against the death penalty.

The other men smiled and laughed. Even the women had been listening. This was a happier story that most out of 'Nam. "So, what happened then, Roger?" Millie asked.

"I shot him," Roger said.

Everyone laughed, the women who hadn't heard the story before, uneasily.

"Roger," I said, shaking my head at him. "Don't tease like that."

Roger shrugged, grinned at me and took a slug of beer from the can. "No, he backed off, swore at me, then got on the muddy motorbike with his friend and drove off. Everyone in the crowd clapped."

Mike laughed loudest, put his plate down and began to clap. The others joined him. When everyone quieted down, Mike told his story about the old man and the helicopter.

Around seven, Brittany poked her head out the door. "We're going to the movies, okay, Mom?" she asked.

I smiled and nodded. "Watch out for the little ones," I reminded her. The theater was within walking distance for the kids.

After they left, the women began clearing up the paper plates and putting the food away. I started another pot of coffee. The men continued to drink beer outside while the wives went in and had their coffee. I hoped the guys wouldn't get too loud, especially Jeremy. The quietest one sober, he became the noisiest one drunk.

At ten-thirty I began to look at my watch. Where were the kids? At ten of eleven I stood up nervously.

"Where are those children?" I asked. The other wives glanced at their watches, ohhed and ahhed.

Millie stood up, too, and looked out the window. "There they are. They're just standing outside. But I only see eight of them, I think."

"Who's missing?" Jeremy's wife asked. The rest of them came over to the window.

"Brittany!" I exclaimed. The other children stood milling around in front, looking towards the road. I dashed out of the house, the other women behind her. "Where's Brittany?"

The kids shrugged, and none of them would meet my eye.

Millie waddled over to her son, Patrick, and shook him with her meaty hands. "Where's Brittany?" she demanded.

He mumbled something I couldn't hear.

"Speak up," Millie demanded.

"I said a guy wanted to walk her home."

"What guy?" I asked.

"A G.I.," Patrick said, still avoiding my eyes. "She's seen him before. Don't know why they're not here yet."

"Oh, no," I moaned.

One of the other wives went to get the men.

Roger organized a search. Millie tried to persuade me to wait inside, but I insisted on going with my husband. The men grabbed flashlights from our quarters and from their cars. Roger and I took the path towards the theater. It snaked through the woods. Woods where Brittany and I had picked blueberries, had seen a lady's slipper. Don't think, I told myself. Just put one foot in front of the other, and go.

We heard a whimpering beside the path, and stopped. I almost bumped into Roger. He aimed his light into the bushes, and there sat Brittany, huddled on the ground. Her blouse was torn, but she had on her jeans shorts, shoes and socks. I knelt down beside her. "What happened?" I whispered. "Are you all right?"

"Oh, Mom," she wailed.

I took her in my arms and held her while she sobbed. Finally, I got her to stand, and with both Roger and me supporting her, we walked back down the path towards our quarters. The flag hung there forlornly, forgotten.

When we got inside, I saw the blood trickling down her leg. Repressing a gasp, I closed my eyes a moment, then mentally shook myself. Just her menses, I hoped. I prayed. After settling on the couch with a blanket, a towel between her legs, she began to shiver uncontrollably.

I wanted to take her to the emergency center, but Roger shook his head, not saying a word. He made her some hot tea and waited patiently for her to calm down. At one point, he went outside and brought in the flag, rolled carefully around its pole, and stashed it in the hall closet.

The other men and their wives and kids came back. Roger met them at the door, talked quietly to them and sent them home.

At last, Brittany stopped crying enough so we could question her.

"Tell us what happened," I said gently.

She began to cry again, but softly. She wouldn't look at us.

"We know about the G.I.," I said. "What was his name?"

She told us, and after gulping a couple of times, she blurted out, "He . . . he was drunk. He raped me."

I expected fireworks from Roger, but he remained standing next to the couch, his hands clenched whitely, his face a blank mask.

"We need to call the M.P.'s," I said.

"No, oh no," Brittany said. She took my hand and grasped it convulsively.

I nodded vigorously. "You need medical help, too." My God, I thought, she might be pregnant. I felt faint. I wanted to hug her. I wanted to push her away, push away the problem she'd caused. No, I told myself. It wasn't her fault. What was the matter with me? It was his fault. Despair washed through me. I felt it come up from my heart, into my throat. I had to swallow. Hard. I made myself take full, even breaths so I wouldn't cry. I mustn't cry.

"What should we do?" I asked Roger, looking up at him standing so still by the couch.

"Take her upstairs. Clean her up. If she'd not badly hurt, put her to bed. She could walk. She'll be all right."

"Roger," I whispered. "We need to report this."

What if she's pregnant? I wanted to scream. What if he did something to injure her permanently?

"No," Roger and Brittany said together. I watched them look at each other with understanding. They wanted it kept secret. I did, too, of course, but I also wanted the authorities involved. We couldn't let a rapist go free. But it was two against one, and I knew further argument would be useless.

Numb, I helped my little girl to her feet and had her lean on me as we climbed the stairs. In the bathroom, she asked me to leave. "I'll take care of it," she said, her voice flat.

"Use a pad, not a tampon," I said. "Less chance of infection." I felt so inadequate, thinking about what my own mother would have done. She'd have been sloppy with emotion, embarrassing me. My hand reached out involuntarily towards my daughter.

She turned away from me and headed for the bathroom. I swallowed my tears as I left her to cope by herself. She's only fifteen, I thought helplessly.

The shower ran for a long time. When she finally came out, she looked pale as moonlight. I started to take her arm, but she pulled away. In her room, she climbed into bed. I helped adjust the sheet and blanket for her, then turned off the overhead light and put on the small lamp on her desk. I pulled her desk chair up next to the bed. "I'll stay here until you fall asleep," I promised.

She only nodded. It didn't take too long for her eyes to close. She'd start awake, then drift off again. Finally, sure she slept, I left to go find Roger.

He was gone. I looked everywhere, even outside, but he had left. Hands shaking, I began to wash up and wipe down the kitchen counters. I was fluffing the cushions on the couch when I thought of the gun.

Trembling, I went upstairs to our bedroom and opened the closet door. On tiptoe, I reached for the shoebox in the far corner. It felt too light in my hands. Empty. I opened the lid and saw one bullet rattling around inside. The gun and the rest of the bullets were gone.

I sat down on the bed with a thump, and the shoebox fell from my nerveless fingers, empty of its untraceable contents. The gun he had pointed at the slicky boy, the gun he had smuggled out of 'Nam in the hi-fi speaker. The gun we never talked about.

Maybe he got rid of it before now, I thought desperately. I shook my head. Why would he? My heart thudded in my chest, getting louder and louder. I pressed my hand against it, willing it to slow down.

I don't know how long I sat there with the shoebox, but finally I got up stiffly to put it back on the shelf. I looked in on Brittany. She slept soundly. I checked to see if her windows were locked, then went to every room and made sure all windows and doors were secure. I filled mama cat's water and food dishes and stood watching her nurse her babies for awhile, envying her.

Back in my bedroom, I removed my shoes and socks and lay down on top of the covers. I was sure I wouldn't be able to sleep, until sunlight streaming into the room woke me with a start. I'd been dreaming of the woods, picking blueberries with Brittany when something began to chase us. Don't think about it, I told myself as I swung my feet off the bed and put my head in my hands.

Then I remembered and looked up and over my shoulder. No Roger. I stumbled out of bed and rushed to Brittany's room.

I turned off the light on her desk, then stood beside her bed, waiting. She came awake slowly.

When she saw me, I could see her remembering. Her eyes flashed from bright sunshine to dull cloudiness. She turned her face away.

I touched her shoulder lightly. "How are you?"

"Okay," she mumbled.

"Need to check," I said and stood away from the bed.

Her eyes questioned me for a moment, then she understood. On shaky legs she went to the bathroom. When she came back, she said, "It's all right. Not much blood at all." She swallowed hard. "I'll be okay, Mom. Where's Dad?"

I shrugged. "I don't know."

She gave me a sharp glance, then looked away.

"Let's see about breakfast," I said. "Let me clean up first."

Brittany nodded. "I'll meet you downstairs."

We'd each managed a piece of toast when the front door opened, and Roger came in. I searched his face for some sign of what he'd done, but he looked almost the same, except he seemed to blink a bit more than normal. No sign of a gun.

"It's all taken care of," he said.

"What do you mean?" I asked quickly.

He didn't answer. He looked at Brittany and smiled a smile that did not light up his eyes. He made a gun with his fingers, cocked it, and pulled the trigger.

She stared at him a moment. The dullness in her eyes lightened a bit, then grew to the brightness of hope. "Oh, Daddy," she said as she rushed into his arms.

I stared at him over her shoulders, feeling something shift in my chest, harden there. At first, I didn't know what it was. Then I knew it was unaccustomed anger. Red, hot rage. How could he?

He watched my face over our daughter's shoulders, and his eyes pleaded with me. I wanted to turn away but kept staring at him. Staring at the two I love most in the world. I felt the rage begin to fade, replaced by an icy center near my heart. What if he's caught? my mind screamed. He won't be, something inside told me.

Then the ice dissolved leaving me feeling nothing. Numb, at last I turned away from them. "I'll make some more coffee," I said, wondering if I'd ever feel anything again, wondering if I ever wanted to. The army slogan flashed through my mind. "We take care of our own." And Roger was an army man through and through.

BIO: Jan Christensen has had over fifty short stories published, including pieces in Mysterical-E, Hardluck Stories and Long Story Short.

3 comments:

  1. Good story, Jan, and a bit different from what you usually write. Keep up the good work.

    ReplyDelete