Our Story Begins New And Selected Stories

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He hadn't crashed yet. He was still flying. April had seen it in his eyes behind the lithium or whatever they were giving him, and she was sure that Claire had seen it too. Claire didn't say anything, but April had been through this with Ellen, her first stepmother, and she'd developed an instinct. She was afraid that Claire had already had enough, that she wasn't going to come back from Italy. Not back to them, anyway. It wouldn't happen according to some plan; it would just happen. April didn't want her to leave, not now. She needed another year. Not even a year-ten months, until she finished school and got herself into college somewhere. If she could cross that line she was sure she could handle whatever came later.

She didn't want Claire to go. Claire had her ways, but she had been good to her, especially in the beginning, when April was always finding fault. She'd put up with it. She'd been patient and let April come to her in her own time. One night April leaned against her when they were reading on the couch, and Claire leaned back, and neither of them drew away. It became their custom to sit like that, braced against each other, reading. Claire thought about things. She had always spoken honestly to April, though with a certain decorum. Now the decorum was gone. Ever since she got the idea that April was "intimate" with Stuart, Claire had withdrawn the protections of ceremony and tact, as she would soon withdraw the protections of her income and her care and her presence.

There was no hope of changing things back. And even if there were, even if by saying I'm still a virgin she could turn Claire into some kind of perfect mother, April wouldn't do it. It would sound ridiculous and untrue. It wasn't really true, except as a fact about her body, and April did not see virginity as residing in the body. To her it was a quality of the spirit, and something you could only surrender in spirit. She had done this; she didn't know exactly when or how, but she knew she had done this and she didn't regret it. She did not want to be a virgin and would not pretend to be one, not for anything. When she thought of a virgin she saw someone half naked, with dumb trusting eyes and flowers woven into her hair, bound at the wrists. She saw a clearing in the jungle, and in the clearing an altar.

Their bus had come and gone, and they had a long wait until the next one. Claire settled on the bench and started reading a book. April had forgotten hers. She sat with Claire for a while, then got up and paced the street when Claire's serenity became intolerable. She walked with her arms crossed and her head bent forward, frowning, scuffing her shoes. Cars rushed past blaring music; a big sailboat on a trailer; a convoy of military trucks, headlights on, soldiers swaying in back. The air was blue with exhaust. April looked in the window of a tire store and saw herself. She squared her shoulders, dropped her arms to her sides, and kept them thex-e by an effort of will as she walked farther up the boulevard to where a line of plastic pennants fluttered over a Toyota lot. A man in a creamy suit was standing in the showroom window, watching the traffic. Even from where she stood April could see the rich drape of his suit. He had high cheekbones, black hair combed straight back from his forehead, and a big clean blade of a nose. He looked absolutely self-possessed and possibly dangerous, and April understood that he took some care to convey this. She knew he was aware of her, but he never bothered to turn in her direction. She wandered among the cars, then went back to the bus stop and slumped down on the bench.

"I'm bored," she said.

Claire didn't answer.

"Aren't you bored?"

"Not especially," Claire said. "The bus will be here before long."

"Sure, in about two weeks." April stuck her legs out and knocked the sides of her shoes together. "Let's take a walk," she said.

"I'm all walked out. But you go ahead. Just don't get too far away."

"Not alone, Claire. I didn't mean alone. Come on, this is boring."

A. Pril hated the sound of her voice and could tell Claire didn't like it either. Claire closed her book. She sat without moving, then said, "I guess I don't have any choice."

April rocked to her feet. She took a few steps and waited as Claire put the book in her purse, stood, ran her hands down the front of her skirt, and came slowly toward her.

"We'll just stretch our legs," April said. She led Claire up the street to the car lot, where she left the sidewalk and began circling a red Celica convertible.

"I thought you wanted to walk," Claire said.

"Right, just a minute," April said. Then the side door of the showroom swung open and the man in the suit came out. At first he seemed not to know they were there. He knelt beside a sedan and wrote something down on a clipboard. He got up and peered at the sticker on the windshield and wrote something else down. Only then did he permit himself to take notice of them. After he'd taken a long hard look at Claire, he told her to let him know if she needed anything. His voice had a studied, almost insolent neutrality.

"We're just waiting for a bus," Claire said.

"How does this car stack up against the RX-7?" April asked.

"You surely jest." He came toward them through the cars. "I could sell against Mazda any day of the week, if I were selling."

April said, "You're not a salesman?"

He stopped in front of the Celica. "We don't have salesmen here. We just collect money and try to keep the crowds friendly."

"You've got half of this crowd eating out of your hand," Claire said.

"That's ayear old," he said. "Loaded to the gills. Came in last night on a repossession. It'll be gone this time tomorrow. Look at the odometer, sweet pea. What does the odometer say?"

April opened the door and leaned inside. "Four thousand and two," she said. She sat in the driver's seat and worked the gearshift.

"Exactly. Four K. Still on its first tank of gas."

"Little old lady owned it, right?" Claire said.

He gave her another long look before answering. "Little old Marine. Went to the land of the great sand dune and didn't keep up his payments. I've got the keys right here."

"We can't. Sorry, maybe another day."

"I know, you're waiting for a bus. So kill some time."

April got out of the car but left the door open. "Claire, you have to tiy this seat," she said.

"We should go," Claire said.

"Claire, you just have to," April said. "Come on, Claire."

The man walked over to the open door and held out his hand. "Madame," he said. When Claire stayed where she was, he made a flourish and said, "Madame! Entrez!"

Claire walked up to the car. "We really should go," she said. She sat sideways on the seat and swung her legs inside, all in one motion. She nodded at the man, and he closed the door. "Yes," he said, "exactly as I thought. The designer was a friend of yours, a very special friend. This automobile was obviously built with you in mind."

"You look great," April said. It was true, and she could see that Claire was in complete possession of that truth. The knowledge was in the set of her mouth, the easy way her hands came to rest on the wheel.

"There's something missing," the man said. He studied her. "Sunglasses," he said. "A beautiful woman in a convertible has to be wearing sunglasses."

"Put on your sunglasses," April said.

"Please," the man said gently. He leaned against the car and stood over Claire, his back to April, and April understood that she was not to speak again. Her part in this was done; he would close the deal. He said something in a low voice, and Claire took her sunglasses from her purse and slipped them on. Then she handed him her hat. A gust of heat blew over the lot, rattling the pennants, as April walked toward the showroom. It looked cool in there behind the tinted glass. Quiet. They'd have coffee in the waiting area, old copies of People. She could give her feet a rest and catch up on the stars.

Chapter 13

The Other Miller

For two days now Miller has been standing in the rain with the rest of Bravo Company, waiting for some men from another company to blunder down the logging road where Bravo waits in ambush. When this happens, if it happens, Miller will stick his head out of the hole he's hiding in and shoot off all his blank ammunition in the direction of the road. So will eveiyone else in Bravo Company. Then they'll climb out of their holes and get on some trucks and go home, back to the base.

This is the plan.

Miller has no faith in it. He has never yet seen a plan that worked, and this one won't either. His foxhole has about a foot of water in it. He has to stand on little shelves he's been digging out of the walls, but the soil is sandy and the shelves keep collapsing. That means his boots are wet. Plus his cigarettes are wet. Plus he broke the bridge on his molars the first night out while chewing up one of the lollipops he'd brought along for energy. It drives him crazy, how the bridge lifts and grates when he pushes it with his tongue, but last night he lost his willpower and can't keep his tongue away from it.

When he thinks of the other company, the one they're supposed to ambush, Miller sees a column of diy, well-fed men marching farther and farther away from the hole where he stands waiting for them. He sees them moving easily under light packs. He sees them stopping for a smoke break, stretching out under the trees on fragrant beds of pine needles, the murmur of their voices growing more and more faint as one by one they drift into sleep.

It's the truth, by God. Miller knows it like he knows he's going to catch a cold, because that's his luck. If he was in the other company they'd be the ones standing in holes.

Miller's tongue does something to the bridge and a thrill of pain shoots through him. He snaps up straight, eyes burning, teeth clenched against the yell in his throat. He fights it back and glares around him at the other men. The few he can see look stunned and ashen-faced. Of the rest he can make out only their poncho hoods, sticking out of the ground like bullet-shaped rocks.

At this moment, his mind swept clean by pain. Miller can hear the tapping of raindrops on his own poncho. Then he hears the pitchy whine of an engine. A jeep is splashing along the road, slipping from side to side and throwing up thick gouts of mud behind it. The jeep itself is caked with mud. It skids to a stop in front of Bravo Company's position, and the horn beeps twice.

Miller glances around to see what the others are doing. Nobody has moved. They're all just standing in their holes.

The horn beeps again.

A short figure in a poncho emerges from a clump of trees farther up the road. Miller can tell it's the first sergeant by ho w little he is, so little the poncho hangs almost to his ankles. The first sergeant walks slowly toward the jeep, big blobs of mud all around his boots. When he gets to the jeep he leans his head inside; a moment later he pulls it out. He looks down at the road. He kicks pensively at one of the tires, then looks up and shouts Miller's name.

Miller keeps watching him. Not until the first sergeant hollers his name again does Miller begin the hard work of hoisting himself out of the foxhole. The other men turn their blanched, weaiy faces up at him as he trudges past their holes.

"Come here, boy," the first sergeant says. He walks a little distance from the jeep and waves Miller over.

Miller follows him. Something is wrong. Miller can tell because the first sergeant called him boy instead of shit-bird. Already he feels a burning in his left side, where his ulcer is.

The first sergeant stares down the road. "Here's the thing," he begins. He stops and turns to Miller. "Goddamn it, anyway. Did you know your mother was sick?"

Miller doesn't say anything, just pushes his lips tight together.

"She must have been sick, right?" When Miller remains silent, the first sergeant says, "She passed away last night. I'm real sorry." He looks sadly up at Miller, and Miller watches his right arm beginning to rise under the poncho; then it falls to his side again. Miller can see that the first sergeant wants to give his shoulder a man-toman kind of scpieeze, but it just wouldn't work. You can only do that if you're taller than the other fellow or at least the same size.

"These boys here will drive you back to base," the first sergeant says, nodding toward the jeep. "You give the Red Cross a call and they'll take it from there. Get yourself some rest," he adds, then walks off toward the trees.

Miller retrieves his gear. One of the men he passes going back to the jeep says, "Hey, Miller, what's the story?"

Miller doesn't answer. He's afraid if he opens his mouth he'll start laughing and ruin everything. He keeps his head down and his lips tight as he climbs into the backseat of the jeep and doesn't look up until they've left the company a mile or so behind. The fat PFC sitting beside the driver is watching him. He says, "I'm sorry about your mother. That's a bummer."

"For sure," says the driver, another PFC. He shoots a look over his shoulder.

Miller sees his own face reflected for an instant in the driver's sunglasses. "Had to happen someday," he mumbles, and looks down again.

Miller's hands are shaking. He puts them between his knees and stares through the snapping plastic window at the trees. Raindrops rattle on the canvas overhead. He's inside, and everyone else is still outside. Miller can't stop thinking about the others standing around getting rained on, and the thought makes him want to laugh and slap his leg. This is the luckiest he has ever been.

"My grandmother died last year," the driver says. "But that's not the same thing as losingyour mother. I feel for you, Miller."

"Don't worry about me," Miller tells him. "I'll get along."

The fat PFC beside the driver says, "Look, don't feel like you have to repress just because we're here. If you want to cry or anything, just go ahead. Right, Leb?"

The driver nods. "Just let it out."

"No problem," Miller says. He wishes he could set these fellows straight so they won't feel like they have to act mournful all the way to Fort Ord. But if he tells them what happened, they'll turn right around and drive him back to his foxhole.

Miller knows what happened. There's another Miller in the battalion with the same initials he's got, "W. P.," and this Miller is the one whose mother died. The army screws up their mail all the time, and now they've screwed this up. Miller got the whole picture as soon as the first sergeant started asking about his mother.

For once, eveiybody else is on the outside and Miller's on the inside. Inside, heading straight to a hot shower, diy clothes, a pizza, and a warm bunk. He didn't even have to do anything wrong to get here; he just did as he was told. It was their own mistake. Tomorrow he'll rest up like the first sergeant ordered him to, go on sick call about his bridge, maybe downtown to a movie after that. Then he'll call the Red Cross. By the time they get everything straightened out it will be too late to send him back to the field. And the best thing is, the other Miller won't know. The other Miller will have a whole other day of thinking his mother is still alive. You could even say that Miller is keeping her alive for him.

The man beside the driver turns around again and studies Miller. He has small dark eyes in a big white face covered with beads of sweat. His name tag reads kaiser. Showing little teeth square as a baby's, he says, "You're really coping, Miller. Most guys pretty much lose it when they get the word."

"I would too," the driver says. "Anybody would. It's human, Kaiser."

"For sure," Kaiser says. "I'm not saying I'm any different. That's going to be my worst day, the day my mom dies." He blinks rapidly, but not before Miller sees his little eyes mist up.

"Everybody has to go sometime," Miller says, "sooner or later. That's my philosophy."

"Heavy," the driver says. "Really deep."

Kaiser gives him a sharp look. "At ease, Lebowitz."

Miller leans forward. Lebowitz is a Jewish name. Miller wants to ask him why he's in the army, but he's afraid Lebowitz might take it wrong. Instead, conversationally, he says, "You don't see too many Jewish people in the army nowadays."

Lebowitz looks into the rearview, his thick eyebrows arching over his sunglasses. Then he shakes his head and says something Miller can't make out.

"At ease, Leb," Kaiser says again. He turns to Miller and asks him where the funeral will be held.

"What funeral?" Miller says.

Lebowitz laughs.

"Fuckhead," Kaiser says to him. "Haven't you ever heard of shock?"

Lebowitz is quiet for a moment, then he looks into the rearview again and says, "Sorry, Miller. I was out of line."

Miller shrugs. His probing tongue pushes the bridge too hard and he stiffens suddenly.

"Where did your mom live?" Kaiser asks.

"Redding," Miller says.

Kaiser nods. "Redding," he repeats. He keeps watching Miller. So does Lebowitz, glancing back and forth between the mirror and the road. Miller understands that they expected a different kind of performance than the one he's giving them, more emotional and all. They've seen other personnel whose mothers died and have certain standards he has failed to live up to. He looks out the window. They're driving along a ridgeline. Slices of blue flicker between the trees to the left of the road; then they hit a clear space and Miller can see the ocean below them, clear to the horizon under a bright, cloudless sky. Except for a few hazy wisps in the treetops they've left the clouds behind, back in the mountains, hanging over the soldiers there.

"Don't get me wrong," Miller says. "I'm sorry she's dead."

Kaiser says, "That's the way. Talk it out."

"It's just that I didn't know her all that well," Miller says, and after this monstrous lie a feeling of weightlessness comes over him. At first it makes him uncomfortable, but almost immediately he begins to enjoy it. From now on he can say anything.

He makes a sad face. "I guess I'd be more broken up and so on if she hadn't taken off on us the way she did. Right in the middle of harvest season. Just leaving us flat like that."

"I'm hearing a lot of anger," Kaiser tells him. "Face it down. Own it."

Miller got that stuff from a song, but he can't remember any more. He lowers his head and looks at his boots. "Killed my dad," he says after a time. "Died of a broken heart. Left me with five kids to raise, not to mention the farm." Miller closes his eyes. He sees a field all plowed up and the sun setting behind it, a bunch of kids coming in from the field with rakes and hoes on their shoulders. While the jeep winds down through the switchbacks he describes his hardships as the oldest child in this family. He's at the end of his story when they reach the coast highway and turn north. All at once the jeep stops rattling and swaying. They pick up speed. The tires hum on the smooth road, the rushing air whistles a single note around the radio antenna. "Anyway," Miller says, "it's been two years since I even had a letter from her."

"You should make a movie," Lebowitz says.

Miller isn't sure how to take this. He waits to hear what else Lebowitz has to say, but he's silent. So is Kaiser, who's had his back turned to Miller for several minutes now. Both men stare at the road ahead of them. Miller can see they've lost interest. He feels disappointed, because he was having a fine time pulling their leg.

One thing Miller told them was true: he hasn't had a letter from his mother in two years. She wrote him a lot when he first joined the army, at least once a week, sometimes twice, but Miller sent all her letters back unopened and after a year of this she finally gave up. She tried calling a few times but he wouldn't go to the telephone, so she gave that up too. Miller wants her to understand that her son is not a man to turn the other cheek. He is a serious man. Once you've crossed him, you've lost him.

Miller's mother crossed him by marrying a man she shouldn't have married. Phil Dove. Dove was a biology teacher at the high school. Miller was having trouble in the course, so his mother went to talk to Dove about it and ended up getting engaged to him. When Miller tried to reason with her, she wouldn't hear a word. She acted like she'd landed herself a real catch instead of someone who talked with a stammer and spent his life taking crayfish apart.

Miller did everything he could to stop the marriage, but his mother had blinded herself. She couldn't see what she already had, how good it was with just the two of them. How he was always there when she got home from work, with a pot of coffee all brewed up. The two of them drinking coffee together and talking about different things, or maybe not talking at all-just sitting in the kitchen while the room got dark around them, until the telephone rang or the dog started whining to get out. Walking the dog around the reservoir. Coming back and eating whatever they wanted for supper, sometimes nothing, sometimes the same dish three or four nights in a row, watching the programs they wanted to watch and going to bed when they wanted to and not because some other person wanted them to. Just being together in their own place.

Phil Dove got Miller's mother so mixed up that she forgot how good their life was. She refused to see what she was ruining. "You'll be leaving anyway," she told him. "You'll be moving on, next year or the year after," which showed how wrong she was about Miller, because he would never have left her, not ever, not for anything. But when he said this she laughed as if she knew better, as if he weren't serious. He was serious, though. He was serious when he promised he'd stay, and he was serious when he promised he'd never speak to her again if she married Phil Dove.

She married him. Miller stayed at a motel that night and two nights more, until he ran out of money. Then he joined the army. He knew that would get to her, because he was still a month shy of finishing high school, and because his father had been killed while serving in the army. Not in Vietnam but in Georgia, in an accident. He and another man were dipping mess kits in a garbage can full of boiling water and somehow the can fell over on him. Miller was six at the time. Miller's mother hated the army after that, not because her husband was dead-she knew about the war he was going to, she knew about ambushes and mines-but because of how it happened. She said the army couldn't even get a man killed in a decent fashion.

She was right too. The army was just as bad as she thought, and worse. You spent all your time waiting around. You lived a completely stupid existence. Miller hated every minute of it, but there was pleasure in his hatred because he believed that his mother must know how unhappy he was. That knowledge would be a grief to her. It wouldn't be as bad as the grief she'd given him, which was spreading from his heart into his stomach and teeth and everywhere else, but it was the worst grief he had power to cause, and it would serve to keep her in mind of him.

Kaiser and Lebowitz are describing hamburgers to each other. Their idea of the perfect burger. Miller tries not to listen but their voices go on, and after a while he can't think of anything but beefsteak tomatoes and Gulden's mustard and steaming, onion-stuffed meat crisscrossed with black marks from the grill. He's at the point of asking them to change the subject when Kaiser turns and says, "Think you can handle some chow?"

"I don't know," Miller says. "I guess I could get something down."

"We were talking about a pit stop. But if you want to keep going, just say the word. It's your ball game. I mean, technically we're supposed to take you straight back to base."

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