Beyond the Western
After 670 miles of a pretty cross-country haul, he saw the meeting-place pub sitting brown and ugly like a hovel at the side of the road. Greg Mulrooney braced himself for comrades, the backward lookers and the forward thinkers, the hell-raisers and glad-we're-alive guys, celebration survivors, survivor's celebrators, now and then the sad cases cast in among them like a hot flux had welded them as tight as ever, this abysmally long stretch between get-togethers, and then, like a sudden wake-up call, wondering finally what the hard stuff would do to him this time.
There had been situations in past reunions.
Memories danced their dance, called on images acute as breath.
Archie’d be in there, red in the face, after his fifth book, his third wife, his second hospital stay, counting his visits, keeping the tab at his elbow, paying it with no fanfare at all, sometimes embarrassed by his own quick acceptance of it, owing somebody, always owing somebody in this crazy life. Greg saw him again on the ridgeline, forever on the ridgeline it seemed, his pal Archie, squad leader Archie, drinking buddy Archie, history and nostalgia-plagued Archie, black against the morning sun, staggering, falling backwards, his weapon emptying itself at the coming tide, his curses revolving over and over as he rolled down the hill, helmet loose and skittering on edge, canteen bouncing, weapon finally dragged useless and empty into the earth. “Greg, don’t let them fuckin’ bastards get me! Fuckin’ hear me, Greg? Don’t let them get me!”
Greg had thrown the red panel on the ground when the first wing-swept Grumman came diving on the hill, dropping the napalm in an end-over-end tumble like a field goal try, an agonizing slow roll to its arc, waiting to see if it hit on this side or the other side of the hill. Even before the flames blew up the incendiary cloud, before the heat passed searingly over their heads, Archie had screamed again, not about the heat and fire, but about the small army of Chinese gathered on the other side, the lead charge then perched on the crest of the hill: “Don’t let them little fucks get me, Greg.”
Every day of his life, from that moment on, from the burst of the napalm, from the whine and roar of the next Grumman diving down on them like some clumsy bird diving on a seashore, from the repetition of small arms fire popping a Fourth of July morning, Greg had heard Archie’s voice. It was part of his continual terror, the wakeful dream, the sudden silence in pre-dawn darkness: What would have happened if he hadn’t leaped to get Archie, hadn’t brought him back to the bunker, hadn’t hauled him inside just as the whole hill exploded under cannon fire, salvo after salvo after salvo? Two days under earth they were, four men who found a supply of air come tunneling under a small ledge, keeping them alive.
For two days they could hear Chinese spoken but feet away from them, it too coming with the air supply under the ledge. The napalm hit had cleared the peak of the hill, so they had immediate oxygen and enough of it coming through that small aperture. They had survived the close napalm and the creeping barrage and fusillade of their own artillery raking the length of the hill. A few timbers of the bunker roof held the Chinese People’s Army at little more than arm’s length. Under the weakest looking timber he had wedged his rifle. They had slept fitfully yet not daring to move, keeping their legs in place, their bowels inert, their voices down, whispers as bare as breath. When hunger came in its push, like the snake it was, as if it had burrowed down to get at them, they talked about favorite meals.
It came on him again, the breakfast they created for the Last Supper, lounging in the back of his head; not the way he remembered it, but the way it was: It was raining, it was 1951, it was Korea, and they lay barricaded behind dirt, loam, rock, shale, speckled hardpan, spent shrapnel, an unknown blood brown as a berry stain on a bleached wood. Stale powder smell was a laboratory smell circulating in the small hole of the mountain, the saucer of war left over, battle’s cup spilleth, the meat and meal of death taking up the air. They were wet, they were cold, they were hungry. Now and then, muffled by all of earth, Chinese came spoken as the enemy passed over or paused above the retreat. Once vaguely he had thought of Sub Gum Harkew, quickly forgot Chinatown, brought rifles back, the probe of bayonets in Chinese hands, the thrust a search would bring, invasive, calculated, steel surgeons at work, dread doctors at awe. They waited, they hungered, they whispered, and silence, like fungus in a root cellar, like onions in a poem he could vaguely remember, grew around them, sopping, thickening, becoming moldy and wet and ever damp, crypt stuff if there ever was, mad man’s mausoleum. It was a piece of an old barn he had known, probably still struggling to sit up on its haunches in Middleboro, Massachusetts, horse leftovers, mule-stuff, leather traces, hay as old as Methuselah, fallen dust, mushrooms taking over corners.
Diaz’ beard then was a mold he could only feel. He had trouble feeling his own feet, legs locked in place, now and then thighs convulsed. Come outhouse ripe was his breath and he cursed without using words, magnificent curses that blew out from his soul. McCaffery, on his left, two days of blood on his forehead as hard as plaster cast, mumbled about steak, onions, round breads his mother made atop her stove where the blue haze climbed on mountains.
McCaffery brought Kentucky across the parallel, pulled it into that dim and dark retreat, as if it had seceded finally from the Union; Kentucky has odors that live forever; he whispered of turkey taken down, browned wild rice, hickory up in smoke, ham air curling all the way down a valley’s run where the boar thought it was loose forever. Darkness did food proper. It dissipated the edge of death, carried off wounds, lingered in the wet silence as if someone’d spilled next door’s olla podrida. The pot is the great custodian for nosy things after blood, after pain, after resurrection of hope, after palate memory, after taste finds one breathing air foul as rotting flesh. On the second day of mold, damp, other liqueurs, Chinese spoken atop rarely now, but distinctly, Diaz said they ought to speak of urgent meals to make their mouths water, to salivate.
McCaffery’s Kentucky came succulent, wet, leaves taking on mist, the mountains blue as far as you could see. He saw deep-set stains working his mother’s apron all to pieces as she delivered the turkey into meals that might last a week, the rice of them, a red jelly, steam-twisted green vegetables, bread thick as an anvil and justly memorable.
Diaz, though, went Mexican haywire; enchiladas wild with chili, an almost Cajun burn in his own mouth, the desert burning under a saucer sun. In the middle of Diaz’ meal Greg had remembered a goat once over buckets of coals in New Hampshire, on a farm cut into the side of another mountain, poets reading into and out of a night of loving and the disappearance of the whole goat.
Now Diaz’ face refused to come back to him, but mold of his beard. He knew Diaz’ eyes were not blue, but could not pick out their color. His mouth, his mouth so close to him, was ripening yet. Back over the meals the stench came, live as an ache. Chinese lingered again, jabbered, passed on the way history eases itself forward, slipped away like rain or pain or a forgotten cloud when your back is turned..
McCaffery, in the bowels of the Earth, said he cried because of sausages.
Greg himself whispered of Vermont morning mountain peaks sticking up through an ocean of cloth-clean clouds, dew-damp gracing every surface, as if lacquer’s sheen had been put in place to wait out the sun, and his brother Jim, early bird, dawn’s pot-rustler, spiller of coffee, drawing together pairs of eggs, near-burnt toast, noisy Canadian bacon slabs echoing from mountain top to mountain top.
He told Diaz and McCaffery and Archie how his brother cooked, how he floats forever in the holiest waters of Lake Erie drumming up meals for him. McCaffery cried again, bled again, became desert hot, cooled, said his back hurt in a new setting. Wept. The mountain rocked. And Kentucky rocked. If those sounds were in the Sonora Desert would they have been heard? What was tamale? Chili? What was that dank smell, that small explosion, old wet barns, mildew in the mows, eggs gone over the edge, moist blankets holding night in their twill, those brothers, those comrades, his brother, that wetness, drivel of four bodies as if they had been canned forever. Sardines cooled and wet in the war.
Silence. Wet silence. Hush.
Boots. Beyond the barricade, above, a voice, an uncursed, non-Asiatic voice, “Jeezzus, Sarge!”
It was sweet as yams, maple syrup, the catch that’s caught up in Kentucky rice. Brought Mexico across the border. Made Vermont suddenly valid. Made morning’s meal, wet miracle, come in the latter part of that long ago day, that impermanent burial.
He put the gearshift in park, shut off the ignition, gathered himself… there was one car missing.