John Shaw

I told Lanny his book was interesting. "Especially the part where I get killed."

"Fiction," he told me. "Olin Hall has some of your characteristics. But he's dead and you're making me a martini."

And myself a Bloody Mary which I did not want.

"Why did you send me the book?" I asked him.

"I thought you'd like to know your old shipmate is being published. We talked about writing, you remember."

Right. Before we hated each other we'd talked a lot about writing. Everybody over there figured, where there was time, he'd write about it. And, Christ, look who did.

"And I knew you liked good books." He grinned.

We moved out onto the porch. Early spring and steady rain...a good background for Lanny's visit.

"Nobody is buying Vietnam novels any longer but my agent tells me there's a chance this will sell because its not heavy. It's adventure, not morality."

I nodded. Fluff. No blood or pain. A portrayal of time spend in an amusement park with every American in it a horny simp, and every Vietnamese, male or female, a whore.

"it wasn't easy," he said. "Writing it took two years and I've rejection slips enough to paper this porch."

Fluff. Except for me. Colonel Olin Halls sells base secrets to a spy and causes the deaths of a company of American marines. A despicable character, drawn full of me, and were the book to be filmed, my death by M-16 bullets in Chapter 18 would be greeted by cheers on any screen west of Hanoi.

The conversation died. I wanted him to drink his martini and get out of my life again; this time, the Lord willing, for good.

"Do you think about ChuLai?" he asked.

"rarely," I said.

"I think about it all the time," he said. "Perhaps because I intended all along to mine it for books. I figure I've enough left in memories for another dozen."

He finished the drink and held the glass out to me. "You always made a marvelous martini."

He moved back with me into the living room. "Do you remember when the PX ran out of vermouth and we couldn't locate any in the whole of Vietnam?"

I did not remember.

"Disaster. Like losing six battles. We sent a C-130 to Luzon for a planeload."

I made myself another bloody Mary.

Back on the porch staring into the rain: "You know I was very young. I was only twenty-four."

"Twenty-four is very young," I said, and was trapped.

"There were things I didn't know," he said.

Things known were how to offend people, how to get stoned and run check points, how to sell jobs and deal in black market goods and currency, how to make a superior look like a damned ass who couldn't control his people. And how to screw every Vietnamese girl in sight and whatever Americans came into country and within reach.

"You must have been in your forties," he said.

"Around that." I was forty in 1968 when I landed in DaNang, en route to ChuLai.

This had gone as far as it was going. "Lanny," I said, "I don't want to reminisce. I'm happy you wrote the book and are on your way as a writer. We had a bad time together but it is back there and I'm going to let it stay back there."

He'd already finished the second drink. He held the glass out to me again.

"You never once said to me, hey look it. You didn't warn me before you went to my CO."

"I did what I thought best." We walked again out to the living room.

"I had some lousy duty after that. I was finished in the Navy."

We returned to the porch with him holding his fresh martini and me my third Bloody Mary.

"Lovely country, Vietnam," he said. "I tried to get that into the book."

His glass emptied quickly again. I made no move to take it and he shifted position, preparatory, I supposed, to rising and moving on, when Kathy came in.

I hadn't expected that, and I didn't want it.

"It's the author," she called form the doorway. He stood as she approached. "The book jacket is a dead likeness."

"you are Kathy," he said.

Jesus. Writing wasn't all we talked about on ChuLai.

"I love your book," she said. "Dad hasn't been able to finish his."

He looked at me without trace of a smile.

"Perhaps after dinner you can give him a few tips," she said.

"He can't stay for dinner," I said.

Her eyes were on him as she reached down and took both our glasses. "We don't get enough novelists here that I can afford to let one escape that easily. We'll have a couple of steaks, salad, potatoes, nothing exotic."

She left and he said, "I'll leave right after dinner." He walked to the window and talked over his shoulder. "I remember you worried about her."

"Things are fine now."

"She'd been having trouble with her husband."

"Things are fine now," I repeated. "She's been divorced for several years."

"You live together?"

"We live together." My voice had a snap in it.

Kathy returned with our drinks and a martini for herself and sat facing Lanny. "Do you have an agent?" she asked him. "Dad has none. Could that make the difference?"

"Darling," I said. "Please don't go on about my book. She takes it more seriously than I do," I told Lanny.

She took my hand and held it for an instant, but otherwise ignored me and spoke to Lanny. "That is just not true. He has some marvelous experiences that he's put down. He sends them out and they come back. There has got to be a reason. He writes beautifully."

I took my drink out to the john and sat. The chatter from the porch became very spirited and they sounded, from this distance, and with the door closed, like a pair of crickets.

Lanny had to be enjoying this hugely. He had his book and I did not have mine. The whole purpose of his visit....bush league revenge. Amusing.

When I returned it was as though I'd not arrived. I waited for a pause in the conversation which was now about Washington politics. When one came I had nothing to say.

I thought, he has to be in his forties now...close in age to Kathy.

I left to make myself another drink, and on my way back passed Kathy who was moving toward the kitchen. "Dinner in ten minutes," she said. "Don't drink any more, Daddy."

I'd already drunk too much. I hadn't thought it showed.

"Do you still lust after her?" he asked while I was seating myself. I wasn't sure I'd heard him right. I stared at him and he repeated the question.

"Do you remember the night they shelled us from that island off ChuLai?" he asked. "What was the name of that friggin' island?"

Ky Hoi....and shells from there were an every night deal.

"The night they hit the ammunition on the dock and everything blew? The night we were together in the bunker all night?"

That night. I remembered that night. Shells had come in like pigeons roosting and caught me in the shower with my plates out on the sink.

"You left your teeth in the hootch, remember?"

I spent seven hours in the dark itch of the bunker, naked, without teeth, and sure I was going to die.

"You were drunk as a lord that night," he said. "You talked and talked. I couldn't shut you up."

"The island's name was Ky Hoi," I told him.

"You said the challenge of your life was keeping your hands off Kathy." He grinned. "You put the temptation in very graphic terms."

I looked at the rain, and for the first time heard it.

"Funny the things we talked about over there," he said. "We let it all hang out, maybe because we figured each other for ephemeral confidants…"

I did not remember his ever confiding in me.

"Ky Hoi," he said. "You’ve a fine memory……Do you still lust after her?"

We sat silent until Kathy called us from the kitchen.

She enjoyed him. There was nothing I could do about that. While I picked through the food they attacked it, and talked. They covered a range: books, movies, politics and politicians, and then the chatter turned backward to Vietnam.

"I hated the whole business," Kathy said at one point. "I was against Daddy setting foot over there, but later, when I understood the sacrifices he made and the good he did, I was proud of him." She took my hand and kissed the back of it. "I’m proud of him now."

Lanny chuckled.

"He went over as a training specialist. He gave the Vietnamese skills," she said firmly and relinquished my hand.

"And when he returned it was as a hero," Lanny said. "He got the front page of the local paper. Saint leaves war."

"How did you know that?" Kathy asked.

"In the sixties all civilians came back from Vietnam in style," he said.

"I just don’t understand you," she told him.

"They were the cosmetics," Lanny said. "People like you father gave the war a humanitarian glow. They balanced the blood on the six o’clock news."

"Dad was decorated," Kathy said.

"He was a happy pill," Lanny said.

"I was dedicated," I heard myself saying. "And the men who worked with me were dedicated. With one exception." I pointed at him and worked to keep my finger steady. "I sent him home in disgrace."

He talked through me. "For the kid in uniform the war was mud and dysentery and dying. For you father it was 40,000 a year, cute Vietnamese bedmates in air conditioned quarters, retirement benefits, praise and promotions. For Daddy it was a war you could feed on."

"Kathy," I said. "The effort was an honest one. When it came time to leave we wanted them richer in knowledge than we found them."

"Go back beyond retardeds. We’re talking about illiterate fisherman and rice farmers." The words were pouring out of him. "Daddy had a skill for every one of them. What do you want to learn, little monkey….electricity, air conditioning, computer repair, how to take a Mercedes apart and put it together again in twenty minutes? He had classes on factory operation, how to invest in the stock market, the history of art since Giotto. Name it, he had it."

My head throbbed. "All legitimate courses developed by reputable training organization." I found it difficult to cope with his energy.

"Hootches crammed with little men jabbering away in Vietnamese…peasants who didn’t know that their function in life was to provide promotion and decorations for your Daddy."

"You are lousy," Kathy said.

"Go back there now and ask them what they know about factories or the stock market. Find on of them within a hundred miles of an air conditioner…."

I was talking but neither paid me heed.

"Do you know why he can’t write his book?" he asked. "Because he’s ashamed to. Over there he was knee deep in shit but it was stuff with no stink to it at all…Here he’s had time to smell and nothing is left but the stink…He’s ashamed to write his book."

I gave up. I left the table and headed toward my room. I heard Kathy call him a lousy bastard.

"Dedication my ass," I heard in the distance. "Dedication to fraud and 40,000 per."

Kathy went on calling him a lousy bastard in a long breathy stream.

The bedroom circled when my head hit the pillow. What, I remember thinking, before I went out totally, did shame have to do with writing a publishable book.

When I woke I belched several times into the dark. The room was quiet and my head ached. I went for the aspirins.

The lamp behind the living room sofa threw the only light in the house and I saw movement. I heard Kathy say, "You really are some kind of a bastard." "No," she breathed, and again "No."

He carried her slowly across the room toward the stairs and up them. "You’re a terrible person," she said, and giggled, before they went into her bedroom and the door closed behind them.

"Kathy," I called softly, and stood a foolish moment looking up the staircase.

I took my aspirins, returned to bed and tossed for what seemed like a long time before I fell asleep. I did not dream.

I was sitting on the porch when Lanny cam down just after sunup. He walked straight to the door and I thought he was going to leave without acknowledging my presence.

"Have you exorcised me?" I asked.

With his hand on the knob he turned. "I’ll keep sending my books."

I went toward him. Perhaps, I thought, were I to hit him suddenly and hard on the nose his eyes would tear and I’d be able to chop him viciously elsewhere before he could collect himself…….and kick him when he fell and, while I was at it, kill him.

"You were there, Lanny," I said. "You know telling anybody that it was shit wouldn’t have solved it. I’d have been dumped for not being able to see the big picture."

And Lanny, I did not say, I needed the 40,000 per and the praise and promotions. "Everybody knew it was shit, Lanny."

He gestured upstairs. "Just the way you described her. Worth lusting after."

He left and I listened to the car start and move off.

You’ve got to understand, I would tell her, that wars are not simple.

She came out of her room at 9:30, stretched, and said to me, "Are you ready for breakfast?"

I walked behind her to the kitchen. I wasn’t sure how to start the conversation.