A journal of narrative writing.
War Brained

1965 — Durham, North Carolina

President Johnson never used the word war. He was probably shining his long Southern smile that means so much trouble to a man without a job. Such was my worry listening to the radio when Eugene came through the door with a grin on his face after putting in a full day of unemployment. My man sat down on the dusty sofa and put his feet up. I set my legs on the armrest.

Let's go out with this old girlfriend of mine tonight, he said. I ran into her today.

I nodded like I did when he smiled at me. Those freckles and those curls on his crown summoned me to him. He beamed at me with teeth bared from hidebound cheeks.

You ain't worried about not having a job, I asked.

Sure, he said. But there's plenty other worries in the world.

I know. You don't have to say, I told him letting my legs down. I ran into the kitchen nook to fetch my pantyhose off the drying rack. Through the glass, the Carolina sunset dazzled my vision that, once regained, lit on a sink full of his dirty dishes. I shaded my eyes and peered through the window down at the azaleas and zinnia, some juniper, on the fire escape. The leaves were wilted. Even on my day off from Billy's I had no time for them. And my days off were fewer now that Billy's son was in the war.

My man's jackrabbit feet caused motes of dust to rise into the light. The beams broke in bars above him. I slid the pantyhose on and jogged my legs to stretch them up to my waist.

You ain't talking bout the rent are you? I ain't so worried.

This old girlfriend you ran into. She black, I asked even though it was no matter to me, with all the news about fresh inductees and increasing military presence.

He tried to grab me for a kiss but I only dabbed a little lip-locked peck on his cheek then ran off to the bathroom. At the dark open window the breeze cooled my head as I fastened back my braids.

The place was near downtown but still within Hayti. The bus was quiet as usual and my man and I sat next to each other, him stroking my hand. I watched for someone to glance at us and continue to stare at the two young people in careless love. We were going out on a weeknight. My man noticed this pensive moment and whispered to me, Don't worry. They ain't gonna look at us funny if we're proud and we show it. It's a new age and people gotta get accustomed to it.

The lot glistened with glass shards lit by the dull streetlamp. We hurried into the dark bar and noticed the tinsel that hung in dank strands in the spring heat. It was the kind of place where no one scowled on seeing a mixed couple come through the door.

Shannon, my man called out. A doe-eyed hippie brunette approached wearing jeans, a long t-shirt, and chuck taylors. Behind her half shut eyes was a glow despite the dim surroundings. She wandered over and I saw her full-blossomed cheek bones. I guessed men must love them.

Hey Eugene, she said casting glance at me. A small chin formed a smile at the bottom of her heart-shaped face.

This is my April, said my man as he sidled into the booth. I watched the girl's eyes as if they would explode while I nodded.

We followed her to the booth where a brute sat balling his hands. The man wore heavy denim as if trying to hide his size. He twitched when he saw us approaching. My man offered his hand towards the practiced vice of the brute's.

Name's Eugene, said my man.

This here's Uriah, said Shannon sitting alongside.

Where'd you get a preacher name like that, asked my man eyeing the brute.

From my pappy, he answered.

You from around here?

Uriah's just come back from overseas, said Shannon.

He was a soldier. I nudged my way onto the seat and waited for my introduction. After a minute I said it myself. How do you do? I'm April.

The soldier nodded at me but his eyes darted towards the bar.

You want a drink or something? I can get you a drink. It's probably the least we owe you huh, Eugene said. He rose and waited for Uriah the soldier to request a drink so he could start his own drinking.

No, I'm fine. I'm just tired is all, Uriah answered levelling his gaze across the table.

I watched him cover one fist then switch and cover the other every minute while he stared at the lacquered surface.

Are y'all together, my man asked.

The soldier reared back and sniffed at the air, his eyes fierce.

Are y'all two together?

I pursed my lips and watched my man out of the corner of my eye while facing the soldier. He shrugged, You don't think people like us should be together?

Uriah aimed a dead stare at my man. It made my hips shiver and I pressed against the back of the seat. With a sudden release, the soldier dropped the stone demeanor and focused on the table again. Hell, I don't care one or the other. I seen so many things out there to beat that. Ain't no wonder to me to see two kinds of people mixing as y'all are, he said.

At once he lifted his eyes from the table and let them gleam the light back into mine.

I actually ain't so bad. Just ain't used to being around people so much.

We met at a rally in DC, Shannon interjected. We been seeing each other since then. She buzzed on about how she wrote some poetry about the soldier and how she wanted to make her poems into songs about love and peace. There was a twinkle in her eye by the time she finished speaking and I wondered if she were gazing at my man or if it was only the angle of the light. I pressed against the deflated cushion on the back of the booth while she yammered on.

I sometimes write some poetry. Maybe I could read yours, my man said. The soldier began to glare again. My man grinned at everyone then stood to fetch drinks.

Why'd you join, I asked.

The soldier took a deep breath and said, Same old story. No money from my pa and my mama passed on, God bless her. I didn't have no job. Course I didn't have no money neither.

He turned both his hands and took a deep breath. I saw my man over there smiling and pointing at the bartender who lifted his hand off the bar pinching a green bill. When he returned, Eugene said, I got some whiskey for me and Uriah here. What y'all two want?

I'm fine, I said. Nothing for me.

I'll get you a whiskey-ginger, he told me although I shook my head. He left again and I sat with the couple in silence. My man grinned from the bar, all Ronald McDonald without any teeth showing, just a dipped lip. The soldier broke in, He always so friendly?

Well, I said watching him rifle his pockets, he's a giver he is.

Looks like. What's he do for a living?

I eyed the soldier. He's looking for work at the moment. What about you?

Me? I'm still living off my army pay. I got wounded.

Where'd you get wounded, I asked leaning in and crossing my hands in my lap. The wood was stiff against the base of my spine.

Here. He poked his temple, his thumb upward.

That's why I'm against the operation in Vietnam, blurted Shannon to me nodding along with her comment.

I caught myself staring into the soldier's eyes again when Eugene came with a drink for me. I took a gulp and licked my lip.

I hope you don't end up on the other side of the world, the soldier said when he sat down. He lifted his drink and saluted Eugene then shot it and set the glass down. Shannon lifted her beer and clinked with my man and I clinked too before we drank. The soldier had a smile on his face when I looked at him again and I avoided his eyes, shifting in my seat and listening to Shannon talk about the beauty of Asian women.

The soldier continued, Don't worry. They don't want no scrawny strawman like you.

He chuckled and gestured for Shannon to let him out. Now let me buy you a drink, he said before plodding off to the bar.

He's quite a character, said Eugene.

So how did y'all meet, Shannon asked. Eugene finished, drew up his skinny neck, and commenced to tell. I watched him chin in palm. He told them how uncommon it was for our two peoples to mix and how he found it to be a boon to mankind at such a point of crisis in the world, our country being at such crisis. He gave a sermon on the blessings of the peoples of our nation. Shannon's face had not changed. I leaned in to offer my own answer, that I hoped she would take with such simplicity as she had my man's. I said we just fell in love. Like it was destiny. I can't even picture in my head what it'd be like now without Eugene.

As I spoke, the words became truth and Eugene and I sitting at the kitchen table smoking cigarettes and discussing the state of the world filled my memory. I wished I were there again at home with him where I was certain I should be. Trying to imagine life without him turned up an impossible blank.

The faded burlap curtains over the window trembled and I felt their coarse touch against my skin. The soldier approached. I lit a cigarette and asked Eugene for another drink.

I'm all out of money, he whispered in my ear.

I left my cigarette in my lip and opened my purse in my lap low under the table. Shannon and the soldier had started talking about beautiful Asian women again. The soldier was explaining how he had come to have a taste for exotic food and how he had smoked from a tall glass pipe every day. He leaned in close to say, We never wanted no gook women though.

Fed up with my search, Eugene strolled over and made imploring gestures to the bartender. After a long entreaty the bartender set a glass of whiskey down and turned his back on Eugene, who centered himself in the room lifting his glass up high and said, This whole world is beautiful for you and me and everyone.

Then he threw back and banged the bar with the glass. I rolled my eyes as the bartender yelled at my man to get the hell out.


The next morning the spot next to me was empty save for our wound up sheets. I made circles with my palm where his lanky body should have lain.

I shuffled into the den where the shades were open to the midday light. The cloudy day had muted the world even more than the dark did. Everything hovered still and vulnerable before the storm that came to explode the atmosphere.

My man was on the sofa again, scribbling in a notebook. When he saw me he sat up and stretched showing his ribs. I got some drinks in me last night, he said. Got me thinking.

Uh oh, I said.