This story was written back in 2010 for the Willamette Writer’s Kay Snow Adult-Fiction contest. It won second place.
It was dark, about ten o’clock, and the pounding monsoon rain exploded on Billy’s rucksack, the tarmac, our ponchos and helmets and M-16s. He said, “I brung somethin’. Ya wanna see ‘em?”
I played dumb. “What the hell’re you talking about?”
He half turned to me. Under his helmet, his face was a dim, pale, smiling mushroom. “Some pitchures. Of Verla.”
I laughed, trying for a snigger, a snort, a dirty chortle, like a kid with a mirrored shoe in a roomful of skirts. “Yeah, sure.”
We were walking to the perimeter, into another wasted night of guard duty. It had been two months since Charlie had launched a mortar or a sapper tried to blow something up. But Reets had said to keep our eyes peeled and our cocks stiff, because you just never know. The pictures, Billy figured, would help to pass the time. He patted the front of his poncho. “Keepin’ ‘em nice and dry, up next to my heart.”
The ignorant sap was in love.
We crossed the flight line, where a row of Hueys and Snakes hunkered in their revetments. “Don’t let Charlie blow them up,” Reets had said, reminding us of the obvious. The rain poured off their rotor blades and streaked down their Plexiglas eyes.
At the perimeter, Billy shrugged off the ruck and pulled out a roll of electrical wire and a claymore mine. He handed them to me. The claymore was about ten inches wide and five high, packed with C-4 and 600 steel balls. The Army called them “anti-personnel devices,” which is like calling God god. Its curved, plastic-coated face was embossed with FRONT TOWARD ENEMY, a reminder of who was who and where they’d be.
I unfolded its two pointed legs, knelt down a couple of yards from the first coil of rusting concertina and stuck them into the sandy ground. I attached the wire leads, then stood and began spooling out the wire and backing away, about twenty yards to our post for the night, tower eighteen.
I followed Billy up the ladder, about fifteen feet, to the observation platform. It had waist-high sandbag walls and a tin, corrugated roof. It looked down upon a free-fire zone of trip flares, mines and snarls of concertina. Bright floodlights cast a yellow glow. Our stretch of responsibility was about forty yards deep and over a hundred yards wide. The perimeter was, as the Army might say, a gauntlet of inconveniences. Houdini, it was said, couldn’t make it through. There was a Prick-25 field phone and a cot. Billy set the ruck down. It held our food and Cokes, a few clips of extra ammo, a flashlight and flares. According to that night’s SOP, a green flare signified “Enemy Contact,” white screamed “My Position Is Overrun” and red meant something like “Tell Mom I Love Her.”
We leaned our ‘16s in the corner and shucked our ponchos off. Billy fastened the wires to the clacker and set it on a sandbag. One squeeze of the clacker would send a few volts charging through the copper wire to the C-4 and the resulting explosion would wipe out up to 600 of the nonexistent enemy.
Behind us, invisible through the thick rain and darkness, the guys of D-Troop were diddling whores, writing letters, watching movies or cutting z’s. They were of less strategic importance than the choppers.
Billy reached inside his field jacket, pulled out the envelope and removed three Polaroids. He laid them side-by-side on a sandbag. He sniggered, his yellow teeth a lewd crescent. “Fetch the light.”
I got the flashlight. He grabbed it and switched it on.
Verla: his sixteen-year-old and very pregnant wife—a cotton farmer’s daughter with tan lines so sharp she seemed half a ghost—standing naked from the waist up beside a horse, her big white belly hanging out above her blue jean cut-offs, her tits big-scoop vanilla cones, her smiling at the camera, teasing ….
Verla: astride the same horse, a stallion by the hang of him, at a full gallop, the dirt flying from his hooves, her tits and belly bouncing, her grinning down at the camera, saucy ….
And, finally, Verla: leaning up against a barn, her cherry nipples the same exact shade as the red paint on the barn, as if painted by the same brush, her laughing at the camera, taunting ….
I looked off into the dark night, and Billy stared till the batteries got weak. Awestruck, he said, “Ain’t they dandies?”
“They’s a leakin’.”
I tried again to chortle—that kid looking at his shoe up skirts.
“I’m gonna dream ‘bout squeezin’ ‘em tonight.”
“You’re a lucky bastard.”
“Gaw damn right. They ain’t for no hands ‘cept mine and the baby’s hands.”
He said that like the laying on of hands conjured miracles.
But then he frowned. “They was s’posed to be a letter. But gaw damn tarnation.” He shined the dimming light into the envelope. “They ain’t.”
I shrugged. “Verla just forgot to put it in.”
He shook his head. “Always before, they was a letter.” He picked up the Polaroids, stuffed them into the envelope and slipped it back inside his jacket.
I said, “Okay. I’ve got the first watch.” We’d alternate in two-hour shifts.
Billy climbed onto the cot, pulled a poncho liner up to his chin and yawned. “Time for that titty dream.”
“You lucky bastard.” I set the phone on a sandbag, dialed in the freq and ran a commo check with Reets. “Hey, butter bar, got your ears on?”
“Go ahead, eighteen.”
“How’s the hammer hanging?”
“What the hell’s your sit-rep?”
“Roger. And fuck you, Winters.”
I laughed and hung up. For an officer, Reets was half human.
Billy was already snoring. I propped my elbows on the bag and scanned over the perimeter. No movement. And still none ten minutes later when Billy began moaning. He cried out, “Ride, baby, ride!”
The sap meant the horse, I think.
Even for a nineteen-year-old hick from Arkansas, Billy was over-sexed. At least a mile over. He claimed he’d “fawwk a buzz saw if’n Verla were a tooth in it.” He swore the tower was a “dick symbol” that inspired “blue veiners and cum dreams,” and he believed with every fiber of his sweet, dumb heart that if he dreamed real hard it’d come true.
Tower eighteen squatted on a rise of ground, and the lights stretched all the way around the firebase like a bright pearl necklace. It was too beautiful. I wanted ugly. During my months in Nam I hadn’t seen one live Charlie, just those seven black-pajamas heaped in the horseshoe pit one day, VC, shot up in an ambush. They were nothing to write home about, and only counted in someone else’s war. I’d come to Vietnam to use my trigger finger.
I lit a cigarette and thought about Sergeant Stryker in The Sands of Iwo Jima, which I’d seen twelve times as a kid ….
Stryker tips his helmet back, Zippos his Camel, takes an insolent drag and blows the smoke at the night. He eyes the wire. Japs are in it, low-crawling, only a hundred or so. He bides his time, his Thompson hanging eager at his side. Their leader, a colonel with facial scars and sneering lips, leads the way. He leaps up, waves his Samurai and screams “Banzai!” and the others charge forward, their guns blazing. Stryker doesn’t blink. His gaze steely and his chin strap dangling, his Thompson spits death from his hip and mows them down ….
The cigarette was bitter and I flicked it away, and in the deep shadows at the farthest edge of the perimeter a shadow moved. Or had it? My eyeballs locked on, but it dissolved into nothingness, and then materialized once again, a shape, a creeping dark blot, low to the ground and skulking closer.
Maybe I blinked and swallowed and felt a chill. Maybe I backed up a step and nudged Billy, and maybe he just kept dreaming. Maybe I almost grabbed the phone and called Reets again to ask him what the hell to do, and maybe I fired up a flare into the black night, a red one.
I did grab my ’16—or maybe it was Billy’s—and it was a dumb gun that didn’t know its butt from mine. I jerked it to my shoulder; the barrel seemed a mile long, aimed at nothing. No where did it say POINT TOWARD ENEMY.
Floating up from down below and cutting through the thumping rain, a whine. It unnerved me, made my trigger finger go limp. I looked harder. The skulking blot was brown with white spots and had four legs. It was a dog.
I lowered the gun.
One leg wasn’t working, the left front. The dog limped on its three good ones down a tunnel of concertina wire. Its belly hung heavy and low and its muzzle slung from side to side. It stopped, raised its head and looked around, staggered through a gap in the wire, coming closer. Now it was in the middle of the perimeter, where it halted again and sniffed the air. It angled through the wire, stumbled and veered into a coil. It yelped and jerked away and drops fell from the wire. It shook itself, a weak shudder of its tail. Its front shoulder and leg were matted dark, the fur. It hobbled forward ten more yards to a point directly in front of me, maybe five yards from the claymore, where it collapsed. It lay there on its side and panted ragged, shivering in fits.
Her belly and teats were swollen. She was pregnant, a Verla.
She trembled and stiffened, then curled her nose around to between her rear legs and started licking, and a pup slid out into the wet sand. She tongued it off, nosed it to a teat, and then she uncurled flat on her side again, panting. She panted louder than the rain. That pup was holding on, a part of her. She shuddered, a violent seizure. She labored her head around again, between her legs, and nosed out a second pup, and then a third and fourth. She nudged each of them to a teat, and then lay down flat on her side and didn’t move, not even her nose.
I pulled my chin strap tight and thought about Queenie, my boyhood dog. Before I was out of grade school she’d littered three times. Dad called her a bitch like he called me his son, but I called her a good-old-girl.
The clacker sitting on the sandbag beside me whispered something, a wordy breath of passing air.
The ’16 had a twenty-round clip. I ejected it and slid out three 5.56 millimeter rounds. The word millimeter struck me as obscene. I leaned out and over the sandbags and tossed the three rounds down at her, and they arced brassy through the pearly light and twanged off the wire.
Still, she didn’t move.
I stepped over to the ladder and climbed down to the ground and turned toward the perimeter. The claymore was planted between me and her. It scared me, its claim on territory, and how from that distance the dim light cast it in innocence, like a cabbage. I walked up and around it and then in front of it. That indistinct whisper came floating by again.
She was still sprawled over on her side, motionless, the pups suckling, squirming. Raindrops cratered the sand. She’d been shot in her shoulder.
I took my helmet off to feel the rain on my head, to make the whisper go away. I got down on my hands and knees and reached through a gap in the coils. Her leg was too far away. I shouldered against the wire and it bent back and razors pierced my jacket and one sliced an ear. Behind me, the claymore was sending whispers up the wire and into Billy’s dream, saying Verla’s tit is a clacker.
I pushed the wire back enough and grabbed her paw and pulled. She slid closer. The pups hung on to their teats. Where she’d been shot I could see a bone sticking out. It didn’t matter who had shot her. I used my knee and a free hand to force the wire apart, and dragged her and the pups out.
They lay in front of me. I wondered how long a dead mother gave warm milk. I let them suckle. The rain soaked me. When I pulled one off its mouth kept smacking. It was a male, maybe five inches long. I tucked him into a pocket and gathered up the others, all females, a mix of brown and white and black, and settled them one by one into the same pocket—not the pocket with Billy’s missing letter.
I was the Troop’s mail clerk. When Verla’s letter came that morning I steamed it open and saw the pictures and read the letter. I pocketed the letter and put the pictures back in and resealed the envelope. Later that day, he got it at mail call. Verla wasn’t who he thought she was. She was a bitch.
I scooped out a deep hole in the sand, my fingers clawing and scraping, hoping for dry sand. There wasn’t any. I dug deeper, using my helmet for a shovel. Blood dripped from my ear. Tears came hot and blinding. I lifted my face to the rain and sobbed for what I knew. I picked her up—not a bitch, a dog—and lay her at the bottom of the grave. I tossed the letter in. He’d never even thought to wonder whose horse it was, and whose barn, or who had taken the pictures. The perimeter was a good place to bury two mothers—an in-between place, not here or there or us or them. It confused mines.
Back at the tower, one rung at a time, I climbed the ladder to where Billy’s moans greeted me. He was drowning in another dream—about to go wet, judging from his rising song and grinding hips.
I shook the cot and tugged his sleeve and yelled, “Dog in the wire!”
He startled. His hands grabbed his crotch and his body went stiff. His eyes popped open and must have seen what his brain didn’t see. “Verla, that you?”
I pulled a pup out of my pocket, stroked its warm belly and held it out.
He blinked and shook his head. “What ’n tarnation?” He threw off the poncho liner and swung his legs off the cot and stood.
“Here, you take her.”
He cupped his dumb hands and took the pup and brought her close underneath his chin. His smile was the quarter moon above the clouds. “Gaw damn!”
I gathered up the other three pups. They fit in my palm. My helmet was down at the grave filling up with rain. “When you dream your next dream, we need a good mother.”