"Stay inside, Dads," the woman answered. "It's nobody."
"It's him!" the man shouted. "Don't let him talk you out of it again!"
"What do you want with that whore?" the woman asked Hooper. Before he could answer, she said, "I could shoot you and nobody would say boo. You're on my property now. I could say I thought you were my husband. I've got a restraining order."
"I don't see the attraction," she said. "But then I'm not a man." She made a laughing sound. "You know something? I almost did it. I almost shot you. I was that close, but then I saw the uniform." She shook her head. "Shame on you. Where is your pride?"
"Don't let him talk," said the man in the doorway. He came down the steps, a tall white-haired man in striped pajamas. "Thereyou are, you sonofabitch," he said. "I'll dance on your grave."
"It isn't him, Dads," the woman said sadly. "It's someone else."
"So he says," the man snapped. He started down the driveway, hopping from foot to foot over the gravel. The woman handed him the flashlight and he turned it on in Hooper's face, then moved the beam slowly down to his boots. "Sweetie pie, it's a soldier," he said.
" I told you it wasn't him," the woman said.
"But this is a terrible mistake," the man said. "Sir, I'm at a loss for words."
"Forget it," Hooper told him. "No hard feelings."
"You are too kind," the man said. He reached out and shook Hooper's hand, then nodded toward the house. "Come have a drink."
"He has to go," the woman said.
"That's right," Hooper told him. "I was just on my way back to base."
The man gave a slight bow with his head. "To base with you, then. Good night, sir."
Captain King was still asleep when Hooper returned to the guardhouse. His thumb was in his mouth. Hooper lay in the next bunk with his eyes open. He was still awake at four in the morning when the telephone rang.
It was Trac calling from the communications center. He said that Porchoff was threatening to shoot himself-and him, if he tried to interfere. "This dude is mental," Trac said. "You get me out of here, and I mean now."
"We'll be right there," Hooper said. "Just give him lots of room. Don't try to grab his rifle or anything."
"Fat fucking chance," Trac said. "Man, you know what he called me? He called me a gook. I hope he wastes himself. I don't need no assholes with loaded guns declaring war on me, man."
"Just hold on," Hooper told him. He hung up and went to wake Captain King, because this was a mess and he wanted it to be Captain King's mess and Captain King's balls that got busted if anything went wrong. He walked over to Captain King and stood looking down at him. Captain King's thumb had slipped out of his mouth. Hooper decided not to wake him after all. Captain King would probably refuse to come anyway, but if he did come he'd screw things up for sure.
A light rain had begun to fall. The road was empty except for one jeep coming toward him. Hooper waved at the two men in front as they went past, and they both waved back. He followed their lights in his mirror until they vanished behind him.
Hooper parked the truck halfway up the drive and walked the rest of the distance. The rain was falling harder now, tapping steadily on the shoulders of his poncho. Sweet, thick, almost unbreathable smells rose from the earth. He walked slowly, gravel crunching under his boots. When he reached the gate a voice to his left said, "Shit, man, you tookyour time." Trac stepped out of the shadows and waited as Hooper tried to get the key into the lock. "Come on, man," he said, and knelt with his back to the fence and swung the barrel of his rifle from side to side.
"Got it," Hooper said. He took the lock off, and Trac pushed the gate open. "The truck's down there," Hooper told him. "Just past the turn."
Trac's face was dark under the hood of his glistening poncho. "You want this?" he asked, holding out his rifle.
Hooper looked at it. He shook his head. "Where's Porchoff?"
"Around back," Trac said. "There's some picnic benches out there."
"All right," Hooper said. "I'll take care of it. Wait in the truck."
"Shit, man, I feel like shit," Trac said. "I'll back you up, man."
"It's okay," Hooper told him. "I can handle it."
"I don't cut out on anybody." Trac shifted back and forth.
Trac started down the drive. When he disappeared around the turn Hooper kept watching to make sure he didn't double back. A stiff breeze began to blow, shaking the trees, sending raindrops rattling down through the leaves.
Hooper turned and walked through the gate into the compound. The forms of shrubs and pines were dark and indefinite in the slanting rain. He followed the fence to the right, squinting into the shadows, and saw Porchoff hunched over a picnic table. He stopped and called out, "Hey, Porchoff! It's me-Hooper."
Porchoff raised his head.
"It's just me," Hooper said, showing his empty hands. The rifle was lying on the table in front of Porchoff. "It's just me," he repeated, as monotonously as he could. He stopped beside another picnic table about ten feet away and lowered himself onto the bench. He looked over at Porchoff. Neither of them spoke for a while. Then Hooper said, "Okay, let's talk about it. Trac tells me you've got some kind of attitude problem."
Porchoff didn't answer. Raindrops streamed down his helmet onto his shoulders and dripped steadily past his face. His uniform was soggy and dark, plastered to his skin. He stared at Hooper and said nothing. Now and then his shoulders jerked.
"Are you gay?" Hooper asked.
Porchoff shook his head.
"Well then, what? You on acid or something? You can tell me, Porchoff. It doesn't matter."
"I don't do drugs." It was the first time Porchoff had spoken. His voice was calm.
"Good," Hooper said. "I mean, at least I know I'm talking to you and not to some fucking chemical. Now listen up, Porchoff-I don't want you turning that rifle on me. Understand?"
Porchoff looked down at the rifle, then back at Hooper. "You leave me alone and I'll leave you alone."
"I already had someone throw down on me once tonight," Hooper said. "I'd just as soon leave it at that." He reached under his poncho and took out his cigarette case. He held it up for Porchoff to see.
"I don't use tobacco," Porchoff said.
"Well I do." Hooper shook out a cigarette and bent to light it. "Hey, all right," he said. "One match." He put the case back in his pocket and cupped the cigarette under the picnic table to keep it diy. The rain was falling lightly now in fine, fitful gusts like spray. Misty gray light was spreading through the sky. Porchoff's shoulders kept twitching, and his lips were blue and trembling. "Put your poncho on," Hooper told him.
Porchoff shook his head.
"You trying to catch pneumonia?" Hooper nodded at Porchoff. "Go ahead, boy. Put your poncho on."
Porchoff bent over and covered his face with his hands. Hooper realized that he was crying. He smoked and waited for it to stop, but Porchoff kept crying and Hooper grew impatient. He said, "What's all this about you shootingyourself?"
Porchoff rubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands. "Why shouldn't I?"
"Why shouldn't you? What do you mean, why shouldn't you? "
"Why shouldn't I shoot myself? Give me a reason."
"No. But I'll give you some advice," Hooper said. "You don't run around asking why you shouldn't shoot yourself. That's decadent, Porchoff. Now do me a favor and put your poncho on."
Porchoff sat shivering for a moment. Then he took his poncho off his belt, unrolled it, and began pulling it over his head. Hooper considered making a grab for the rifle but held back. There was no need, he was home free now. People who were going to kill themselves didn't come in out of the rain.
"You know what they call me?" Porchoff said.
"Who's 'they,' Porchoff?"
"No. What does everyone call you?"
"Come on," Hooper said. "What's the harm in that? Eveiyone gets called something."
"But that's my name," Porchoff said. "That's me. It's got so even when people use my real name I hear 'Porkchop.' All I can think of is this big piece of meat. And that's what they're seeing too. You can say they aren't, but I know they are."
Hooper recognized some truth in this, a lot of truth, in fact, because when he himself said Porkchop that was what he saw: a porkchop.
"I believe you," Hooper said, keeping his eyes on the rifle. He was about to ask Porchoff to give it to him but decided to wait a little while. The moment was wrong, somehow. Hooper pushed back the hood of his poncho and took off his fatigue cap. He glanced up at the pale clouds.
"I don't have any buddies," Porchoff said.
"No wonder," Hooper said. "Calling people gooks, making threats. Let's face it, Porchoff, your personality needs some upgrading."
"But they won't give me a chance," Porchoff said. "All I ever do is cook food. I put it on their plates and they make some crack and walk on by."
Hooper was still gazing up at the clouds, feeling the soft rain on his face. Birds were starting to sing in the woods beyond the fence. "I don't know. It's just part of this rut we're all in." He lowered his head and looked over at Porchoff, sitting there hunched inside his poncho, shaking as little tremors passed through him. "Any day now," Hooper said, "everything's going to change."
"My dad was in the National Guard back in Ohio," Porchoff said. "He's always talking about the great experiences he and his buddies used to have. Nothing like that ever happens to me." He looked down at the table, then looked up and said, "How about you? What was your best time?"
"My best time," Hooper said. He thought of telling some sort of lie, but the effort of making things up was beyond him, and the memory Porchoff wanted was close at hand. For Hooper it was closer than the memory of home. In truth it was a kind of home. It was where he went to be back with his friends again, and his old self. "Vietnam," he said.
Porchoff just looked at him.
"We didn't know it then," Hooper said. "We used to talk about how when we got back in the world we were going to do this and we were going to do that. Back in the world we were going to have it made. But ever since then it's been nothing but confusion." Hooper took the cigarette case from his pocket but didn't open it. He leaned forward on the table.
"Everything was clear," he said. "You learned what you had to know and forgot the rest. All this chickenshit. You didn't spend every minute of the day thinking about your own sorry-ass little self. Am I getting laid enough? What's wrong with my kid? Should I insulate the fucking house? That's what does it to you, Porchoff. Thinking about yourself. That's what kills you in the end."
Porchoff hadn't moved. In the gray light Hooper could see Porchoff's fingers spread out before him on the tabletop, white and still as if they'd been drawn there in chalk. His face was the same color.
"You think you've got problems, Porchoff, but they wouldn't last five minutes in the field. There's nothing wrong with you that a little search-and-destroy wouldn't cure." Hooper paused, smiling to himself, already deep in the memory. He wanted to bring it back for Porchoff, put it into words so that Porchoff could see it too, the beauty of that life, the faith so deep that in time you were not separate men anymore, but part of one another.
But the words came hard. Hooper saw that Porchoff did not understand, and that he could not make him understand. He said, "You'll see, Porchoff. You'll get your chance."
Porchoff stared at him. "You're crazy," he said.
"We're all going to get another chance," Hooper said. "I can feel il coming. Otherwise I'd take my walking papers and hat up. You'll see. All you need is a little contact. The rest of us too. Get us out of this rut."
Porchoff shook his head. "You're really crazy."
"Let's call it a day," Hooper said. He stood and held out his hand. "Give me the rifle."
"No," Porchoff pulled the rifle closer. "Not to you."
"There's no one here but me," Hooper said.
"Go get Captain King."
"Captain King's asleep."
"Then wake him up."
"No," Hooper said. "I'm not goingto tell you again, Porchoff, give me the rifle." He walked toward him but stopped when Porchoff picked the weapon up and pointed it at his chest.
"Leave me alone," Porchoff said.
"Relax," Hooper told him. "I'm not going to hurt you."
Porchoff licked his lips. "No," he said. "Not you."
"It's Trac," Hooper said. "Put the rifle down, Porchoff-now!"
"Drop it!" Trac shouted.
"Oh, Jesus," Porchoff said, and stumbled to his feet with the rifle still in his hands. Then his head flapped and his helmet flew off and he toppled backward over the bench. Hooper's heart leaped as the shock of the blast hit him. Then the sound went through him and beyond him and into the trees and the sky, echoing on in the distance like thunder. Afterward there was silence. Hooper took a step forward, then sank to his knees and lowered his forehead to the wet grass. The rain fell around him with a soft whispering sound. A blue jay squawked.
Hooper heard the swish of boots through the grass behind him. He sat back on his heels and drew a long breath.
"You okay?" Trac said.
Trac walked on to where Porchoff lay. He said something in Vietnamese, then looked back at Hooper and shook his head.
Hooper tried to stand but went to his knees again.
"You need a hand?" Trac asked.
"I guess so," Hooper said.
Trac came over to Hooper. He slung his rifle and bent down and the two men gripped each others wrists. Trac's skin was dry and smooth, his bones as small as a child's. "Go for it," he said, tensing as Hooper pulled himself to his feet, and for a moment they stood face-to-face, swaying slightly, hands still locked. "All right," Hooper said. Each of them slowly loosened his grip.
In a soft voice, almost a whisper, Trac said, "They gonna put me away?"
"No," Hooper said. He walked over to Porchoff and looked down at him. He immediately turned away and saw that Trac was still swaying, his eyes glassy. "Better get off those legs," Hooper said. Trac looked at him dreamily, then unslung his rifle and leaned it against the picnic table farthest from Porchoff. He sat down and took his helmet off and rested his head on his crossed forearms.
The wind had picked up again, carrying with it the whine of distant engines. Hooper fumbled a cigarette out of his case and smoked it down, staring toward the woods, feeling the rain stream down his face and neck. When the cigarette went out Hooper dropped it, then picked it up again and crumbled the tobacco around his feet so that no trace of it remained. He put his cap back on and raised the hood of his poncho. "How's it going?" he said to Trac.
Trac looked up. He began to rub his forehead, pushing his fingers in little circles above his eyes.
Hooper sat down across from him. "We don't have a whole lot of time," he said.
Trac nodded. He put his helmet on and looked at Hooper.
"All right, son," Hooper said. "Let's get our stoiy together."
The Rich Brother
There were two brothers, Pete and Donald.
Pete, the older brother, was in real estate. He and his wife had a Century 21 franchise in Santa Cruz. Pete worked hard and made a lot of money, but not any more than he thought he deserved. He had two daughters, a sailboat, a house from which he could see a thin slice of the ocean, and friends doing well enough in their own lives not to wish bad luck on him. Donald, the younger brother, was still single. He lived alone, painted houses when he found the work, and got deeper in debt to Pete when he didn't.
No one would have taken them for brothers. Where Pete was stout and hearty and at home in the world, Donald was bony, grave, and obsessed with the fate of his soul. Over the years Donald had worn the images of two different Perfect Masters around his neck. Out of devotion to the second of these he entered an ashram in Berkeley, where he nearly died of undiagnosed hepatitis. By the time Pete finished paying the medical bills Donald had become a Christian. He drifted from church to church, then joined a Pentecostal community that met somewhere in the Mission District to sing in tongues and swap prophecies.
Pete couldn't make sense of it. Their parents were both dead, but while they were alive neither of them had found it necessary to believe that gods and devils were personally interested in securing their company for all eternity. They managed to be decent people without making fools of themselves, and Pete had the same ambition.
He thought the whole thing was an excuse for Donald to take himself seriously.
The trouble was that Donald couldn't content himself with worrying about his own soul. He had to worry about everyone else's, and especially Pete's. He handed down his judgments in ways he thought subtle: through significant silence, innuendo, looks of mild despair that said. Brother, what have you come to? What Pete had come to, as far as he could tell, was prosperity. That was the real issue between them. Pete prospered and Donald did not prosper.
At the age of forty Pete took up skydiving. He made his first jump with two friends who'd started only a few months earlier and were already doing stunts. Pete would never use the word "mystical," but that was how he felt about the experience. Later he made the mistake of describing it to Donald, who kept asking how much it cost and then acted appalled when Pete told him.
"At least I'm trying something new," Pete said. "At least I'm breaking the pattern."
Not long after that conversation Donald also broke the pattern, by moving to a farm outside Paso Robles. The farm was owned by several members of Donald's community, who'd bought it with the idea of forming a family of faith. That was how Donald explained it in the first letter he sent. Every week Pete heard how happy Donald was, how "in the Lord." He told Pete they were all praying for him, he and the rest of Pete's brothers and sisters on the farm.
I only have one brother, Pete wanted to answer, and that's enough. But he kept this thought to himself.
In November the letters stopped. Pete didn't worry about this at first, but when he called at Thanksgiving Donald was grim. He tried to sound upbeat, but didn't try hard enough to make it convincing. "Now listen," Pete said, "you don't have to stay in that place if you don't want to."
"I'll be all right," Donald answered.
"That's not the point. Being all right is not the point. If you don'l like what's going on up there, then get out."
"I'm all right," Donald said again, more firmly. "I'm doing fine."
But he called Pete a week later and said that he was quitting the farm. When Pete asked him where he intended to go, Donald admitted that he had no plan. His car had been repossessed just before he left the city, and he was flat broke.
"I guess you'll have to stay with us," Pete said.
Donald put up a show of resistance. Then he gave in. "Just until I get my feet on the ground."
"Right," Pete said. "Check out your options." He told Donald he'd send him money for a bus ticket, but as they were about to hang up Pete changed his mind. He knew that Donald would tiy hitchhiking to save the fare, and he didn't want him out on the road all alone where some creep could pick him up, where anything could happen. "Betteryet," he said, "I'll come and get you."
"You don't have to do that. I didn't expect you to do that," Donald said. "It's a pretty long drive."
"Just tell me how to get there."
But Donald wouldn't give him directions. He said the farm was too depressing, that Pete wouldn't like it. Instead, he insisted on meeting him at a service station called Jonathan's Mechanical Emporium.
"You must be kidding," Pete said.
"It's close to the highway," Donald told him. "I didn't name it."
"That's one for the collection," Pete said.
The day before he left to bring Donald home, Pete received a letter from a man who described himself as "head of household" at the farm where Donald had been living. He told Pete that Donald had not quit the farm but had been asked to leave. The letter was written on the back of a mimeographed survey form asking people to record their response to a ceremony of some kind. The last question read:
What did you feel during the liturgy?
c) Being and Becoming
d) None of the Above
e) All of the Above
Pete tried to forget the letter, but of course he couldn't. Each time he thought of it he felt crowded and breathless, the same feeling that came over him when he drove into the service station and saw his brother sitting against a wall with his head on his knees. It was late afternoon. A paper cup tumbled slowly past his feet, pushed by the damp wind.
Pete honked and Donald raised his head. He smiled at Pete, then stood and stretched. His arms were long and thin and white. He wore a red bandanna across his forehead and a T-shirt with a logo on the front that Pete couldn't read because the letters were inverted.
"Grow up," Pete yelled. "Get a Mercedes."
Donald came up to the window. He bent down and said, "Thanks for coming. You must be totally whipped."
"I'll make it." Pete pointed at the T-shirt. "What's that supposed to say?"
Donald looked down at his shirt front, "try cod. I guess I put it on backwards. Pete, could I borrow a couple dollars? I owe these people for coffee and sandwiches."
Pete took five twenties from his wallet and held them out the window.
Donald stepped back as if horrified. "I don't need that much."
"I can't keep track of all these nickels and dimes," Pete said. "Just pay me back when your ship comes in." He waved the bills impatiently. "Go on-take it."
"Only for now." Donald took the money and went into the service station. He came out carrying two orange sodas, one of which he handed to Pete as he got into the car. "My treat," he said.
"No bags?" "Wow, thanks for reminding me." Donald balanced his drink on the dashboard, but the slight rocking of the car as he got out tipped it onto the passenger's seat, where half its contents foamed over before Pete could snatch it up again. Donald looked on while Pete held the bottle out the window, soda running down his fingers.
"Wipe it up," Pete told him. "Quick!"
Pete stared at him. "That shirt. Use the shirt."
Donald pulled a long face but did as he was told, his pale skin puckering against the wind.
"Great, just great," Pete said. "We haven't even left the gas station yet."
Afterward, on the highway, Donald said, "This is a new car, isn't it?"
"Yes. This is a new car."
"Is that why you're so upset about the seat?"
"Forget it, okay? Let's just forget about it."
"I said I was soriy."
"I just wish you'd be more careful," Pete said. "These seats are made of leather. That stain won't come out, not to mention the smell. I don't see why I can't have leather seats that smell like leather instead of orange pop."