A journal of narrative writing.
War Brained
Page 2

You goin to work?

Somebody got to, I mumbled while I took my pants and white double breasted jacket off the rack and began to dress. Billy'd kill me if I was late, I said.

I just had all these ideas. I had to write em down.

Have you been listening to the radio lately? They're talking about calling up more men from around here. You heard that?

I watched him bolt up, stride to the door, pull at the heel of his boots until they sucked his feet in. Don't wanna talk bout it, he said. The door slammed shut. The panes wobbled with the vibration.

I prepared barbecue sauce until three o'clock. When I came in at the end of the day, I headed for the shower. My man snuck up behind me to tickle my ribs as I was fixing my hair.

You're gonna love what I got, he told me.

What'd you get, I said as if it were not a question.

It's for the both of us. I took some money out of the box in the dresser. I'm gonna pay it back now, so don't get upset. Don't shoot me down first off.

I waited for him to stop grinning and crossed my arms. He kissed me and pulled from behind himself a guitar missing two strings with the body scratched and rubbed raw. He strummed the sound of a cat's howl then set the instrument down.

It was a steal. I figure I can start making some music. Start doing something.

My eyes began to blur. I passed him and sat down on the bed. When he entered the room I lay down facing away from him.

Oh. You're upset. I thought you wanted me to do something.

What if they come for you?

They ain't gonna come for me. Now, c'mon. I can start making some music. That's what the world needs. Not another Southern boy going to Vietnam.

He left me there and my head filled with the image of him gone in a burst, of his skin up close then blank. There was only a tremendous blanching. I sat down and for the first time since leaving my mother I knelt and prayed against the side of the bed, clutching my fists and exhorting the Heavens to end the war.

Outside I heard him leave the apartment with that same slam shivering the panes.

I tried for hours to think about the war, about Billy's son Francis out there. Instead, I let the news fill my head. The rattle of machine gun fire reminded me of military drum rolls. I heard a New York accent, then a Texan one. Both were soldiers' voices but they came over the radio tinny and fledgling. They sounded like the voices of women and I thought I could hear women screaming in the background, drowning in horror. The audio from overseas cut out and the reporter's voice came back on muffling what I perceived and reading out statistics about Vietnam. Most Americans found themselves welcome in the villages they entered. Nonetheless, any of the seeming well-wishers might be an agent of terror. It will be a long war, folks. Any young man who is not occupied with the everyday business of this country should prepare for duty.

A squawking voice interrupted the reporter's deep monotone. Heavy as well as light steps trod through the front door in unsteady gait.

April! We got some guests.

I wiped my face, blew my nose, and ran into the bathroom.

Who'd you bring home Eugene, I asked from behind the door.

Uriah and Shannon, my man called. I stepped into the bathtub and knelt within the rim. The acoustics allowed me to pick up their voices from where they stood.

She don't like me do she, the sing-song voice of the girlfriend asked.

Course she does, said my man's.

What's she doing, asked the soldier's voice.

Nothing. She just needs her a drink is all. Sugar. Come out now. See, she's not one to say it but she's been worrying a lot about the war. I know that may sound funny.

I don't think it's funny, said the soldier. It ain't funny at all to be worried.

I made myself heard at this point by banging shut the door of the medicine cabinet and nearly shattering the mirror, then running the faucet full blast. I wiped my face with some tissue and put my hair up again. I winked my cracked red eyes.

Sugar, you coming out? He paused. I'm gonna huff and puff and blow this damn house down, sugar. C'mon now. We can talk about it. I got some good news.

I heard his padding steps quick against the floor and opened just in time to catch glimpse of him about to ram through. He slipped and caught himself in the doorway, gasping whiskey breaths.

You wanna get out, I asked. He steadied himself against the doorjamb.

Uh huh.

I leaned in close to his face, Let me guess. You're gonna play guitar for us.

Better yet, sugar. I'm gonna play guitar while Shannon sings. I got a job now. We can tour the land playing in little bars like that one we were at the other night.

I puckered my lips. The military could teach him rigor, discipline.

Ain't one damn reason to worry, he affirmed with an open palm. There's a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Let me make you a drink now.

A smile broke my grim manner and once he saw it he closed in and put his arms around mine, kissing my neck and even whispering in my ear.

Look, sugar. Look at these two here in our quarters. In Hayti. In our little room.

I melted for him. He would sleep half the day even if the world stopped turning. He would wake up and see sunshine. He was a creature of that midday light that wrapped him up and suckled him in a limbo we both knew was our destiny together. I fell forward with his arms around me, his lips nibbling at the nape of my neck. Our bodies bled into each other. I slipped into the bedroom to change into my gingham pinafore.

We already got one song, said Shannon once I came into the room. I glanced at Uriah, standing by the window watching the street. He raised his head and turned to me then bowed his face into the shadow again. I sniffled, inhaling the smoke-filled air.

I should have expected the train wreck that would happen. The night commenced with more drinking, mostly on the part of my man. At one point, he called for Uriah to come sit with us. We had only one couch but it was room enough for the four of us. Uriah continued to brood and when my man pressed him again he spoke.

One of the things I learned in the army—never get too comfortable.

My man and the girlfriend made eyes at each other while I nodded.

You ain't comfortable in this neighborhood? I thought you were a tough G-I man, said Eugene baring his teeth.

Oh stop that. He's just messin with you Uriah, said Shannon slapping the back of Eugene's hand. She adjusted my man's collar, which stuck out of his sweater on account of his rush to leave. Then she dropped her hands into her lap, making a shifty roundabout with her eyes. My man nodded his head to bow thanks.

Y'all hear the news today, I asked. No one said a word bout the war.

I for one don't know what to do or think, said the girlfriend.

Hm, I sounded through my shut lips. The soldier approached, one hand covering the other in a fist. Eugene shot his whiskey watching him. He stood over us like a sergeant before unruly troops. I wanted to stand up and cross my arms next to him. He stood as if aware of some unutterable prophesy.

I don't really see the point in going over there, my man said breaking the silence and staring back at Uriah. Shannon chuckled, slow and measured. I perched on the edge of the seat.

What if the war came here?

That wouldn't never happen, said Shannon throwing herself against the back of the couch and crossing her arms. My man leaned back too.

Maybe we should see what it's like to live in a war-torn land, the soldier said without smiling.

Eugene glanced at the girlfriend. What do you say to that, honey? You wanna live in a war-torn land?

No, huh, she answered with her mouth open. They stared at each other for a moment then laughed hard and clinked glasses. I slid my hand along my forearm and imagined limbs torn by shrapnel.

The soldier's fist struck his palm and the sound startled each of us. He opened his fingers and made an empty sleight of hand.

I could strangle you to death with one arm. You think it's funny? You think them Viet Cong would sing your hippie songs and just clap their hands? They'll slit your throat and you know what, you're right. I didn't need to fight out there. I didn't need to fight for no people like you or you, he sneered looking at first Eugene then Shannon, and not you neither, he said turning to me. Y'all people don't appreciate what's been sacrificed for y'all?

I shook my head. Not for me, I mumbled.

What, cried the soldier.

You okay Uriah, asked the girlfriend in a feeble voice. His hands retracted into granite fists. He glared at us each, but I was not afraid. He mumbled to himself then stood, I gotta get outta this place. Y'all done entered a dark part of my brain.

The girlfriend tried to smile but her lips only trembled as Uriah passed out of the room. I heard the door slam once again and as soon as it shut I stood and passed into the kitchen. There were some cigarettes on the table and I lit one and sat down at the table.

Look, I guess I should go now. Uh, seein as y'all gotta work tomorrow, said Shannon. Then she corrected herself.

My man sat with gaze flattened against the opposite wall. When she stood, he snapped up and nodded his head. All right now. You tell him, he started to say but shook his head and asked, We still on for Saturday?

She nodded, matching his sad eyes. They matched well. Then she turned to me and asked, Is it gonna be all right out on the street at this time?

I began to speak but my man interrupted me, I'll walk you to a cab.

He touched the small of her back to guide her out of the apartment and they followed in the wake of the soldier. My man gave no look back but let the door come to a gentle close.

I slid the chair to the window and peered down into the street. The two of them came out of the building and began a brisk walk towards the center of Durham. At each alley they passed they gave sideway glances back and forth then hurried on, so fragile on the windswept deserted street. I sat over them and took a drag from the cigarette then blew it against the glass. I wondered how many others were watching them hustle down that street asking themselves the same question. What were they doing here? I felt as prophetic as Uriah.


I woke early, hearing flicked and missed metallic plinks. I followed them out of the bedroom door. I was wearing one of my man's flannel shirts.

What are you doing, I asked. The room was still dark it was so early. He sat blank-faced on the sofa with the guitar in his lap.

I'm getting better, he said.