Dreighton returned from Vietnam and rented an apartment on a tree-lined street in his hometown. So far, the apartment had a phone and a bathroom mirror. Dreighton smoked a joint in the bathroom and studied his bare arms and chest in the mirror. At last he had the build he always wanted in high school.
Jolene, his girlfriend from before, was engaged to someone else now, but he was glad of that. He was relieved. When Jolene called and asked to meet at his mother’s house, Dreighton agreed. It would be their formal goodbye.
Jolene looked pale, wispy, flighty, like a dragonfly. Nearly weightless, almost invisible. Dreighton couldn’t believe he spent his last year of high school numb with lust for her. Someone else––some dopey, younger Dreighton––had daydreamed in civics class about taking her bra off or getting her into the back seat at the drive-in. Now Jolene was almost translucent, with her thin, colorless hair and anxious, colorless eyes.
“I wanted to return this.” She put his class ring on the coffee table and drew her hand back quickly. “No hard feelings?”
“None,” he said.
“You sure?” She had on tan shorts and a light blue sleeveless blouse. Her arms and legs were like white soda straws.
“Yes. I’m okay,” he said.
“You look good,” she said. “You look bigger.”
He laughed. “I guess I am.” His laugh spiraled into a high-pitched cackle. At first he didn’t realize the sound was coming from him.
“What’s funny?” Jolene asked.
“Everything,” he said. “All of this.” He spread his arms wide. Jolene looked around for the joke, her gaze flitting from the sofa to the curtains to the framed photo of Dreighton in uniform. He could see she didn’t get it. She didn’t get how silly and hopeless his mother’s possessions were. How every lamp, ashtray and figurine rested on its own stand or mat or pad. The chairs had slip covers. The carpeting had area rugs. Everything well protected.
“How’s your mother?” Jolene asked.
“Fine,” he said. “She’ll be sorry she missed you.”
“Should I call her?” Jolene fingered the little silver cross she wore around her neck. It was the same cross she wore all through high school.
In Vietnam, every chance he got, Dreighton went to a church service, even though he no longer believed. Any shaky belief he might’ve once held faded to nothing one morning early in his tour when he watched ammunition, some of which he fired, first enter and then exit the bodies of three very thin men, or possibly two men and a woman, he never was sure. But still, he liked the religious services, whether it was a few guys kneeling in the mud with a chaplain or back on base, where you had a choice of denominations and maybe could sit in a tent. He especially liked church if he got stoned first. If you got stoned first, you found it all ironic––the cross, the Bible, the chaplain, the words––and you weren’t making some idiot’s bargain about living and dying, you were just having a laugh with God and feeling powerful. Like maybe you were God.
“Should I call her?” Jolene asked.
“She’d like that.” Dreighton nodded. “She’s disappointed we’re not getting married.”
Jolene’s fingertips twirled the cross. She had a tiny diamond on her left hand. Her nails were bitten down to pearl-pink chips, and a couple of hangnails were ripped deep and red. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“Really, it’s okay,” he said.
His favorite chaplain was a guy named Mike. Mike always welcomed Dreighton to a service in a big way, as if winking at the fact Dreighton was stoned. Mike looked almost comfortable in Vietnam. He had an easy walk that made him look indifferent to danger. Even with the army-issue glasses and his big ears, you could tell he was a good-looking guy. He was famous for his encyclopedic knowledge of war, from ancient Greece, through the French at Dien Bien Phu, and all the European conflicts in between.
Jolene’s colorless eyes kept crisscrossing Dreighton’s body, taking him in. Dreighton lit a cigarette. “I’m living on South Court Parkway now,” he told her.
She brightened. “That’s a pretty street,” she said. “All those maples.”
“I’ve got an apartment,” he said. “Now if somebody would just find me some furniture.”
She looked down and covered her bony knees with her hands. “Dreighton, I don’t think I can help you.”
“No, I didn’t mean that.” He dragged hard on the cigarette. “I mean, I should get busy and buy myself some furniture.”
“So, you’re starting from nothing,” she said.
Once near the end of his tour Dreighton spent the night in a burned-out hut with Chaplain Mike and another guy. The other guy ended up dead. The company was scattered across a bend in the Perfume River and had taken artillery and rifle fire all day. Around midnight, Mike prayed over the dead guy and covered him and took his tags. He didn’t invite Dreighton to join the prayers. Dreighton wondered if it was because he came stoned to the services, but he didn’t ask. He wanted to explain about the ammunition entering and exiting the bodies, but that was nothing now. Mike was on his third tour and had seen every variation on death. It was his job to follow death around.
Jolene stood up. “Dreighton, I hope everything goes good for you now.”
“You too.” He put the cigarette out and got up and unlatched the screen door for her and held it open. She reached up to put her arms around his neck. Lightning fast, he grabbed her wrists and held them high. He almost lifted her in the air with the swift jerk necessary to keep her hands off him. He could hold both her tiny wrists fast with one hand. His other hand, still on the screen door, yearned to touch something, some part of Jolene, but he was afraid his hand would pass right through her.
At sunrise in the burned-out hut they were so hungry they ate all of Mike’s communion wafers. Mike handed him the wafers, one by one, out of a metal tube. The way the orange sun shone through the wafers made Dreighton think of girls in thin dresses. Mike said, “You realize this is a picnic compared to Leningrad.”
Dreighton took a wafer and put it in his mouth.
“They ate rats during Leningrad. They ate each other.”
“Sounds fucked.” The wafer turned gluey on his tongue.
“Or World War I,” Mike said. “They used their dead to fortify the trenches.”
Dreighton shrugged. “So the dead have their uses,” he said.
A sound came out of Jolene’s throat like a cry from a kitten. Dreighton held her wrists high over her head. “Yes,” he said. “I’m starting from nothing.”
Andrea Lewis writes short stories, prose poems, and essays from her home on Vashon Island, Washington. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Cutthroat, Catamaran Literary Reader, and elsewhere. Two of her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She is a founding member of Richard Hugo House, a place for writers in Seattle. More of her work is available at http://www.andrealewis.org.
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