Chapter Seventeen (Vietnam)

— — —

Elliot Felton had been infatuated with Virginia Good since the night we both met her. If he hadn’t been on his way to Vietnam the next day, he would have called her himself. He remembered her name. I didn’t. He had looked her up in the phone book the night before I took him to the airport. He’d been infatuated with her the whole time he’d been gone, and now that he was back and the two of them had paddled themselves around in a paddleboat for an hour or so, he was in love with her, plain and simple.

We talked about it one night, just the two of us. He never came right out and said he was in love with her, he just was. There was nothing he could do about it. He knew it. I knew it. Ginny knew it. It was as close to a fact as anything like that can get. It lurked under the surface of everything the three of us ever did, separately or together, like the creature in The Creature from the Black Lagoon. It was like we knew the creature was there and we didn’t know the creature was there — like we were in the audience and could see the creature swimming around, hiding among all that lush, creepy vegetation, but we also went obliviously about our business, doing our everyday dog-paddling at the surface of the lagoon with our bare legs dangling.

Elliot’s discharge hadn’t officially come through yet, but for all intents and purposes he’d completed his military service. He’d done everything that had been expected of him and more. He had all kinds of new medals — an Army Commendation Medal and a Good Conduct Medal — and a bunch of new ribbons above the pocket of his uniform. One of the medals had a silver oak leaf hooked up to it. He was a god damn bona fide war hero. He showed me the certificates that went with the medals. They were all typed up neat as you please on a clunky old Courier ten-pitch typewriter.

— — —

The day after he got back from Vietnam, Elliot bought a conservative blue suit and a conservative brown suit and five white shirts and five narrow ties and a pair of black wingtips and a pair of brown wingtips from Roos-Atkins. The next week he went to work at Dean Witter’s on Montgomery Street as an assistant to a stockbroker his mother was going out with. Elliot had learned a thing or two in the military. He had a plan. He knew what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

He also knew things not many people were in a position to know at the time. He’d been at the front lines of a war everyone in the country was getting curiouser and curiouser about. According to him, the U.S. Army had no business in Southeast Asia, period. The war was a racket. The South Vietnamese Government was nothing but a bunch of money-grubbing thugs. Elliot knew who killed that Diem guy, for example, and why — to get him the hell out of the way so the USA could run the war its way, that’s why.

He told me flat-out to stay out of the draft no matter what I had to do, but by then I’d pretty much figured that out on my own. The way Elliot saw it was that the only thing the people in Vietnam wanted was to feed their families — to grow their rice, to fix their fishing nets, to ride their bicycles — and that Ho Chi Minh was one tough son of a bitch who wouldn’t ever make any concessions to anyone about anything. The war would go on forever. Ho Chi Minh couldn’t lose. He wouldn’t lose. He didn’t.

Most of the time Elliot was in Vietnam, however, he was actually in Thailand — smoking Thai sticks and living in rickety houses on bright sandy beaches with well-paid Thai chicks. It sounded like a kind of polygamous religious community, like paradise, like heaven on earth, like something Brigham Young might have dreamed up. Elliot fit right in. I was probably a little jealous.

It didn’t help matters much that Ginny was enraptured by the stories he told. She’d never known a bona fide war hero before. Elliot and his buddies had it made. They shared everything and ate mangos off trees. It was utterly ephemeral and serene and lavishly financed by the bottomless pockets of U. S. taxpayers.

That was where Elliot’s plan came in. It was his single-minded intention to recreate the same sort of camaraderie up in Marin County or down by Big Sur. He wanted to get a bunch of people together, to live with them, to build things together, to cook, to clean, to write and paint and sculpt and play music and make movies, to sell stuff, to share everything. But the first thing he had to do was to get money — lots of it — and the way to get money was to have patience. That was the biggest thing Elliot learned while he’d been in the military. Patience. He was calmer than he’d been before, more sure of himself, confident, quiet — a grownup, an adult.

— — —

“We had a sort of…mascot,” Elliot said one night in that halting, fidgety way he had of talking when he talked to Ginny and me at the same time.

The three of us were sitting out in Mrs. Rousseau’s parlor. It must have been a week or so after he’d been back. Ginny’s legs were lying over the arm of one of Mrs. Rousseau’s overstuffed chairs. She had on a pair of Levi’s and a faded green t-shirt with no bra. She was fiddling with the ends of her hair with one hand and steadying a good-sized glass of wine on her chest with the other hand. I was at one end of a loveseat. Ginny was still conflicted about whether to have an abortion or not — she and her father’s lawyer were trying to sort things out — and we were still in the throes of the worst of the Christmas whacko stuff. She was getting drunk and going completely crazy every few days. There was barely time to catch our breaths between bouts.

“His name was Jin.” Elliot got an enigmatic hitch in his voice and looked over toward Ginny.

“Gads!” Ginny said. “Really?” She removed her legs from the arm of the chair, put her bare feet down onto the rug, reached over toward the gallon jug of Red Mountain on the floor and filled her glass again. She was well on her way to getting drunk. That she overused the word “really” was a sure sign.

“Yeah. He was like you in other ways, too. But old.”

“I have an old soul,” Ginny said. She shook her bangs out from in front of her eyes and took another sip of wine.

“So did he.” Elliot smiled — a little too sweetly if you ask me. He’d been getting awfully familiar. At least he wasn’t wearing his fancy green hat and his spiffy uniform with all the ribbons and medals. He’d come by after work that night, dressed in a suit, the blue one. Ginny was eating it up. “But he had the leathery old face to go with it,” Elliot said. By which, of course, he meant to point out that Ginny did not have a leathery old face, but that she had a pretty, young face. They were totally flirting their asses off with each other. Elliot looked down, like he was shy. Then he looked up again, right at Ginny, and said, “He used to tell our futures in movements — like a dance.”

“What do you mean, like a fortune teller?” I asked.

“It felt like that, yeah.” Elliot nodded.

“So he did a dance, and you guys knew the future? Cool,” I said. I was skeptical, sure, but I also just wanted to keep interrupting him so he wouldn’t launch into one of his god damn spellbinding war stories Ginny found so enthralling. I never knew what she was going to do, what would set her off, what kind of ruckus she might cause.

“Well,” Elliot said. “First he’d throw a handful of sticks on the ground…”

“That’s The I-Ching!” Ginny said excitedly.

“He didn’t call it that. He didn’t call it anything. He didn’t speak English. He just did it. He held the sticks in one hand, like Pick-Up-Stix. Then he put them up to one ear and shook them and looked like he was trying to listen to them. Then he listened to the sticks with his other ear and threw them onto the ground.” Elliot moved his hand abruptly, like he was throwing a handful of sticks onto the Chinese rug in Mrs. Rousseau’s parlor — it startled us, Ginny and me.

“Yeah, we all sort of jumped, too.” Elliot smiled again. “Then Jin got down on his hands and knees and looked for a long time at the way the sticks ended up in the dirt. That was when he picked out whose future it was going to be that he was going to tell. It was always just one guy. Then he started dancing. It was more like a pantomime, like Marcel Marceau, maybe, but barefoot and dressed in a raggedy shirt and wearing a rope for a belt. When he got to the end, the guy he’d picked out knew what was going to happen to him. One of the guys…” Elliot stopped.

“What?” Ginny asked. “One of the guys, what?” She frowned. She was starting to get antsy, loud, impatient, insistent. None of those were good signs.

“One of the guys…knew he was going to die.” He looked right at her again.

“Oh,” she said in her quiet, obedient little four-year-old girl voice.

“When Jin had finished, he and the guy put their arms around each other and got tears in their eyes. Nobody else knew why. A few days later, back in country again, the guy was gutted. He looked like a fish. There wasn’t any warning, just a swoosh. I was right behind him. You could see what he had for breakfast.” Elliot blew a little laugh out his nose. “He was the one who taught me patience.”

“The dead guy?” I asked.

“No, silly. Jin, right?”

“Yeah,” Elliot said.

“How?”

“The same way, I guess. I don’t know, I just knew, you know?”

“Yeah,” Ginny said.

I rolled my eyes.

“He threw his sticks and danced his dance, and I knew everything was going to be fine, no matter what. It was like I’d passed the only test I’d ever have to take — like, whew.” He wiped his forehead.

Ginny nodded. She was enraptured.

I rolled my eyes higher.

Elliot brightened up a bit and kept on talking. “That was when I knew what I wanted to do, too. How I wanted to live. Quietly. Peacefully. Seriously. Gladly. With people I trust, people I can share everything with. I can’t explain it.”

“Try,” Ginny said. She was on the edge of her chair, reaching haphazardly toward the Red Mountain, which she was guzzling in big gulps by then.

“It all just sort of came to me during the same…detail. The same day the guy in front of me was killed. What Jin had told me with his dance just, like, descended, you know? I was filled with…calmness. Certainty. Patience. Peace.”

“A peace which passeth understanding.” I shook my head and made a little clucking noise like a squirrel.

“Shut up.” Ginny frowned. “Quit saying really, really stupid stuff.”

Two reallys right in a row, wow — that was a very bad sign.

“Okay,” I said. I felt like Pontius Pilate. I couldn’t tell by her eyes whether she was completely blacked out by then or not, but she was pretty close if she wasn’t.

“I can’t explain it,” Elliot said. “It was just a feeling. You had to be there.”

“Take me there,” Ginny said.

Elliot seemed to know the effect he was having on her. We’d already had our chat. He knew that she was pregnant, that she was going to have my kid, for Christ’s sake. I’d told him about Christmas, that she went nuts when she got drunk, that I didn’t want him rocking any boats. I’d already told him to stick Squaw Valley up his ass. But he couldn’t help himself, I guess — any more than she could, anymore than anyone can.

“I can’t,” he said in that conflicted way he had of trying to talk about things he couldn’t talk about.

“You have to.” Ginny said.

Elliot looked at me. I didn’t give him a clue. He was on his own. They were on their own. We were on our own. It was going to play itself out.

“We were waiting for a…helicopter.” Elliot seemed to have trouble thinking of the proper civilian words to call some of the things he was talking about. “We had Teddy…Bear, we called him…we had Bear’s body. There wasn’t anything to do but wait. I went into a kind of trance. I was sitting down, leaning against a pile of rubble from a…house…a hooch that had been torched a few months back. Grass had already grown up. The whole country’s a jungle. Things grow…”

“Like weeds,” Ginny supplied.

“‘I am the grass, I cover all,’” I quoted.

Elliot kept talking. “Stalks of — yeah — weeds, I guess. Grass. I don’t know. A sort of ragweed looking thing with little cauliflower faces was swaying back and forth between my legs.” He moved his head slowly from side to side, like a metronome. Elliot was on the edge of his own chair by then as he continued telling the story: “Then a shadow went over my face. I looked up into the sky. The shadow was coming from a cloud crossing in front of the sun. Pieces of the cloud evaporated around its edges, but the cloud just kept coming and coming, it just didn’t stop, it was unstoppable. I looked down again…and saw a little no-account spider that had made a web between a couple blades of the tall grass. I watched him. He didn’t seem to know. He just went on about his business, building his web, patiently adding another strand. He started at the top and strang it all the way down to the bottom like he was taking little leaps down the face of a cliff.”

“Strang?” I asked.

“Shhh.” Ginny waved her arm vaguely in my direction.

“Then I saw another spider,” Elliot said, completely ignoring everything but Ginny. “One about the same size as the first one…and all of a sudden they were glaring at each other. They had transparent bodies and long, almost invisible legs. They ran at each other then…not for any reason that I could see, but they ran from opposite ends of the web straight at each other, and when they came together they were slashing their legs at each other like swords or switchblades. They were trying to kill each other, trying to bite each other with their tiny, tiny, mean little teeth…and I got sadder than I ever knew I could get. It had to do with Bear, I guess, with Jin, with the future, with me, with the country, my country, their country, my friends, my father, my mother, their friends, their families, their kids, the whole world. It felt like everything was like that. Mean, you know? Cruel. Fighting just to fight. Everything was fighting. Grass was fighting with grass. Flowers were fighting with flowers. The world was a brutal, bad, mean, evil, vicious, vicious place to be.”

“Gadfrees,” Ginny said.

“It got better, though.” Elliot smiled his twitchy little smile. “The sun came out from behind the cloud then…and the spiders weren’t fighting anymore. They were dancing!” His face got bright the way it had when he’d wanted to dance me around like a rag doll backstage at Hillsdale High School. He was almost laughing out loud. “The two spiders turned in circles on their tiptoes, holding each other’s hands above their heads, and parted slowly, longingly, like they were going to miss each other, then darted in opposite directions across flashes of light from the sun shining on their web. I started laughing. I couldn’t help it. I felt like an idiot, but it was funny, the way everything was all of a sudden dancing with everything else — the spiders and the grass and the flowers and the clouds. I mean, one minute everything’s fighting with everything, then everything’s all of a sudden dancing together. It was ridiculous. Absurd. Laughable. Insane.

“I closed my eyes. I wanted it all to just stay that way. Nice. Dancing. I was happy. Just before I closed my eyes, whatever I looked at twinkled from having tears in them…and when I opened my eyes again, everything was clear. Defined. Done. Understood. It felt like I knew and had always known…and would always know what the world is like without me in it. I can’t explain it. The spiders weren’t fighting or dancing, either one — they weren’t even spiders. That’s the thing I can’t explain. Flowers weren’t flowers. Grass wasn’t grass. Clouds weren’t clouds. The sun wasn’t even the sun. Then I couldn’t remember what they were when they weren’t spiders. I couldn’t figure out what they’d been doing when they weren’t fighting or dancing.”

“Gosh,” Ginny said.

“Yeah,” Elliot said.

“I don’t get it,” I said.

“There’s nothing to get,” he said. “That’s the point. It was just a feeling. Laughing. Crying. Both. Neither. It was so stupid and tragic and sad and funny at the same time that I had about ten different kinds of tears in my eyes. How can you forget what you’d always know? How can you remember not being somewhere?”

None of us said anything. Not even Ginny. We all knew what he’d been talking about, whether we could explain it didn’t matter. We were friends, somehow, the three of us. We were going to do things with each other, share things. I still can’t explain it. None of us could, not in a million years.

Note:

The multimedia version has music by Barry Sadler and The McCoys, but this voice only version ain’t bad all on its own. Watch it and see: