In the Neighborhood

In that period between sleep and wakefulness, during the very first moments of early morning, the mind seems to quickly stash all its nighttime thoughts into various compartments and deep folds around the dark edges, while slowly bringing forth the real, clear issues of a new day. What I heard, and it didn’t quite make sense to me, sounded like, “Foos hopping ay.” The words were echoing, “Foos hopping ay,” coming closer and clearer as they worked their way to the front of my consciousness. “Foos hopping ay.” Aha, it filled my entire brain now, near and wide, “Food shopping day!”

I must go food shopping today, the thought front and center now, crowding all the other pressing topics to the side. Nothing about the ongoing dealings with the damn mortgage bank trying to modify our damn mortgage, which was a frustrating and daily battle, nor any pending work, nor prepping the house for sale – nope, none of that; I have to go food shopping today.

I’m grasping the idea of being fully awake now. The girls were visiting from North Carolina and while they’ve been up here for a few weeks already, they’ve been staying at this cousin’s or that one’s, but they would be staying here, with me, this week. Every year they come up to New Jersey, and contrary to seemingly every other North Carolinian’s sentiments, they love it. In fact when school lets out every year in early summer down in Kill Devil Hills, they both start countdown calendars for when the day arrives that they leave for the Garden State. They both live with their single mother on the Outer Banks and come up to the South Jersey Pinelands for four or five weeks each summer, and have been ever since they were small. They are young women now, eleven and twelve years old, and the yankee air or lifestyle one, must agree with them – because they eat like football players when they’re here.

I sat up and pulled my clothes on, trudged to the small bedroom down the hall that doubled as my office and stared at the computer screen sitting there on my desk like I always do first thing every morning. Check for email and wait for something to show itself that might devour my day, or at least turn it in another direction. Splendid, today’s all clear.

The bathroom is occupied by Linda, who has a ritual that requires hours in there every single weekday, in order to ready herself for work. Not just showering and the usual maintenance, no sir, she takes her novels and cell phone and iPad in there with her, whereupon she holds court with her sisters and co-workers or settles in with Danielle Steel’s latest novel. Anyhow, I know better than to try to get into the bathroom, even for a few minutes, not for at least a couple hours. Usually I go down and make tea, watch Sports Center, and wait her out.

Going to the food store is not so bad, although I understand most people hate it. I find if you have a list and try to stick to it, you can breeze through and then the only hangup is avoiding the checkout line with the woman buying a months worth of groceries for her twelve-member family. That’s bad, but what’s worse is that there is no other register open. You can look around, try to make eye contact with any of the store employees that are standing, slouching along the periphery, with that pleading look that says, “please open another register?” It never works, however, they always look away, right before that fiendish smile breaks out and curls up the corner of their mouths. They know they have the power, and they wield it unmercifully.

But, like I say, ever since I took over the chores of food shopping and cooking dinners for the family, it has never bothered me. But, I don’t go unless I’m prepared. A list of items to buy is critical to my success. Based on what quantities dictated by the number of people I’m feeding and what meals and recipes are planned. Often times you have to be flexible, especially if you find a sale on say, chicken or chops in quantity, then that becomes the multiple entree of the week. You need to think fast too, serving the same main dish twice requires different recipes to keep the complaints down, so your list starts to look like a baseball manager’s scorecard in extra innings, lots of crossing out and inserting new names. I recommend a number two pencil, American FaberCastell with a clean eraser.

We have a corner market locally where most items are available, although at slightly higher prices. It’s ok for a few last-minute pickups, but the supermarket on the other side of town is where the bargains are for full-on family shopping and with a noticeably better selection. This was one of those days, I was headed across town to food shop for the girls. Ashley is the older one and very much like her mother, independent, quiet, polite, pretty and a fussy eater. Kayla, on the other hand, is more the free spirit and loves to talk, try new things and will eat you out of house and home if you don’t put a muzzle on her. Yet, to look at them, two healthy, proportionately weighted, happy, smiling young women, you’d never think you had to buy the same quantity of food as the varsity football program. And not just for meals, they are like scavenging sharks always on the prowl for snacks, or treats, making the rounds from fridge to cabinets to storage areas, constantly eating, nibbling, drinking something or gathering stuff to throw in the blender to make smoothies. Another good reason to cross town today, for the bigger selection at the supermarket.

Upstairs I hear the phone conversation move into another room, a signal the bathroom is open, however tentatively. I take the steps upstairs three at a time and slip into the still damp air from Linda’s shower and sling open the medicine cabinet door, grab the toothbrush and cleansing paste, brush my teeth, throw a little water on my face, a dab some aftershave on my neck to tease the young mothers at the cucumber bin – just kidding! Back into my tiny office to make up the indispensable food list. I hear the phone conversation moving downstairs, another sister on the line. Linda can talk on the phone for hours, only she can’t do anything else while she’s talking other than walk to another room. This contributes greatly to her get-ready time in the morning, which approaches four hours on some days. It’s not the showering, the hair, the makeup, the day’s wardrobe, it’s the library time and the phone circle that goes on amongst her sisters and the girls she works with. I have to wait for an lull in the constant chatter if ever I have a question in the morning. Some days there are no openings, she talks all the way out the door to the driveway, into the car and off to work. Today, I need to know how many meals the petite North Carolina linebackers will be attending here this week. Their days are densely planned, chocked full of activities by Linda and her sisters, with all the girl’s cousins included, so you can’t take for granted that because they are here this week, that they will actually be here for meals any of those days or that some of their little cousins will be joining them as well. In other words, I need a head count, especially for dinners before I go to the food store.

“What days are the kids here for dinner this week, Lyn,” I said as she walked past me into another room. She was holding the phone at waist level, so I thought I might have a chance of a short audience with one of the master planners of daily activities.

“Wait! Can’t you see I’m on the phone!” She shot me a quick, disgusted look like I’m old enough to know better than to interrupt someone’s conversation. The look that puts you right back in elementary school, with the teacher staring at you, displaying that same scolding frown.

But, this wasn’t my first dance, I pretended like I didn’t hear her. This was a tactic that sometimes worked. When it didn’t there was hell to pay, but I was taking that chance.

“How many days are the kids here for dinner this week?” I begged.

“Hold on, Betty. What?” She put her hand over the phone and dropped both arms down to her sides, and looked at me impatiently.

“I’m going to the supermarket and I need to know how much stuff to buy. How many days will the kids be here for dinner this week. Please just give me a number and I’m out of here, no more interruptions, I swear.” I gave her the “pleading” look with my eyes.

“Well, Monday they will be here, Tuesday they are going over to Lauren’s for an early visit, then to the zoo with Aunt Sharon… ” My eyes glazed over, I wasn’t going to get a number like four, or five, no I was in for the entire week’s itinerary from start to finish with every little twist turn.

“On Thursday, Aunt Lisa is picking them up, then… ” Linda was on a roll.

“Hold it, hold it!” I said raising my voice. “Please, how many dinners will they be here this week”

“Aren’t you listening?” She gave me that disgusted look again.
“Lyn, please, a number. Just give me a number!” My voice was firming up and she sensed it. “Three. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday.” She said flatly.
“Thank you,” I said, smiled and turned away.
Behind me, I heard Linda say, “So, Betty, let me call you back okay, I still have to do my hair.” And she padded back up the stairs to her bathroom lair.

Now ShopRite, the supermarket across town, is usually busy, crowded with shoppers from all the surrounding townships and parking is always at a premium. Several lanes that extend away from the store, accommodate about a hundred cars each. Parking close to the store is usually not available, ever, no matter what day of the week or time it is that you’re there and desperately cruising for an empty spot. Halfway down each lane is a canopy occupying one of the parking slots that you can return shopping carts to once you’ve unloaded your groceries into your car, saving you a trip all the way back to the store entrance. Plus it removes the carts from being parking obstacles, which would be left scattered all over the place, especially in the far reaches of the lot. There are attendants that monitor the return canopies and run them all back to the store whenever they pile up in the parking lanes. A very neat and tidy arrangement.

The people who take these jobs are grateful to have them, they are mentally challenged males for the most part. Several of the local grocery stores use this arrangement as well. It’s an opportunity for the handicapped to be gainfully employed and it shows the food stores care about the communities in which they do business by hiring these otherwise unemployable unfortunates.

This day, it was unusually easy to find parking, several openings were in first row of slots closest to the store. To my amazement, I thought, “This must be my lucky day!”

A morning shower left the blacktop shiny and smoking in the summer sun, now bright and hot, and getting hotter. On days like this I place the food in the back seat instead of the trunk, where the air conditioning can keep the perishables cool. The trunk, I imagined, may just poach everything in it before I get home.

I was walking towards the store, passing a shopping cart return station and I noticed a young man standing nearby with a traffic safety vest on. He was standing in the hot sun just to the side of the canopy’s shadow which protected the few carts underneath.

“How you doing today?” I greeted the slightly chubby fellow who appeared to have a slight Down Syndrome condition. He was squinting in the bright heat, no sunglasses, no hat. I gave him a smile.

“Okay,” he said uninterested.
“You ought to get out of the sun,” I said, “it’s gonna be a hot one today.”
He looked at me hard, made strong eye contact and replied, “They don’t pay me enough!”

I looked away, I didn’t understand his response. “What?” I said to myself. He was standing not more than three feet away from the canopy, cool shade, relief from the scorching sun beating down on him like a bug under a magnifying glass. Yet, he defiantly refused to use the store- provided shade, like it was a trap to ensnare an unsuspecting union activist or somehow ShopRite wanted to torture the best of it’s own employees with sun protection for some sinister reason. I tried to look at it from his perspective. Perhaps he thought that’s what he should say, be an anti worker, like on tv or the movies. Did he think it was “cool” to say that? Or was it his way of communicating solidarity with me in some strange way? I gave up, he probably didn’t understand what he said, I surmised. Was I being condescending? Huh oh, I was going down one of those sensitivity roads that turns into a furious mental tug of war, and undoubtedly leads to a temple-to- temple headache before too long. Okay, I’ve got food shopping to do. He’ll work it out, I’m sure.

From the store entrance I looked back, and my friend was still standing in the direct sun, staring straight ahead. I hoped the carts would fill fast, so that he would be forced into action. The whole episode, trying to be friendly, brighten someone less fortunate’s day, had turned into a worrisome exercise in guilt. Damn. “Ah, he’ll be okay,” my inner voice rationalized, and I wanted to believe it.

The food store was cool, and in the produce section, each bin was sprayed down with a water mist that made them look unreal, like an oil painting of waxed and oiled fruit and vegetables, as if they had an extra dimension of lusciousness. I picked up a few things on my list, and moved on to the next section. From produce, I passed the cheese counter and all the cheeses were wrapped in a plastic blanket. “How odd,” I thought, what’s this all about? I followed the counter around the corner where a girl was tucking in more plastic over the wedges of cheese.

“What’s happened here?” I asked.

“We lost power, it’s back now but the refrigeration is slow coming to temperature.” She said, happy to stop tucking and talk.

I must have looked confused, after all the lights were on, nothing seemed different inside the store. “Oh…” I finally said.

“Usually when we lose power it comes back on in a few minutes, but this outage was over an hour. The generators kicked on, but power didn’t come right back on until later. We trying to save as much as we can until everything normalizes again.” She stood there smiling at me, waiting for my next question.

“Oh…” I nodded my head. I was thinking, no wonder it was easy to find parking. I wonder if it’s safe to shop here right now? “Well, looks like you have everything under control,” I offered. She throw her hip to one side and placed a hand on it, she was digging in for a full-fledged conversation. I panicked. I looked away and immediately started rolling my cart towards the deli section. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her frown. “Sorry, I can’t hang, gotta go” I didn’t say this to her, but I thought it.

The deli counter people were all milling around too, customers looking at them from the other side. Guess they’re not open yet either.

The next section was meats, chicken, pork, beef in all sorts of cuts. This was the main reason I come to this store, great selection and low prices. And the food moves out so quickly from the huge amount of shoppers here, you know what you’re buying is fresh. Approaching the meat section, one of the largest section in the store, I noticed a gaggle of employees knotted together in the middle. Next to them were several multi-tiered rolling trays filled with packaged meats. I looked and the shelves were bare. Every single sub section, chicken breasts, wings, thighs drumsticks, whole fryers, etc were missing. It looked like a scene from the Great Depression, the shelves were bare, nothing, nada, zip, zilch. I looked down the meat section, row after row of empty display cases. No pork chops, pork shoulder, no pork ribs or hams. The beef display was bare too, no steaks, roasts, hamburger. Very erie.

I tapped a worker on the shoulder, “Lost power, eh?”

She looked at me wearily, “Yeah, lost power and no sooner got everything off the shelves and packed in dry ice when the power came back.” She kept working as she spoke, returning meat products back to their respective places in the rack coolers.

“Figures.” I commiserated with her.
She look back over her shoulder at me, her face looked tired, “I know, right.”

I wanted to give her a hug, she looked cute in her butcher’s outfit, but on second thought, with that tall tray between us, that might be slightly awkward and probably very inappropriate. Okay, nothing I can do here for awhile, I started for the seafood counter. Turning my cart, more meat trays were rolling out from storage, filled high with all sorts of cuts. Many of the workers were office types it appeared, wearing skirts and blouses or suits and ties, sliding meats from the trays onto the display shelves. Guess this was a “all hands on deck” emergency.

One burly man was standing back up after emptying an armful of chops, a sweat was breaking out on his forehead. He was wearing a tie, obviously a buyer or accountant pressed into work.

“Say, you have any ribs out yet?” I asked him.

Mr. Burly man looked at me, momentarily pausing his shuffling of bloody meats and said, “Ah no, not yet, but soon.” He started to turn his back on me, they as if he remembered the customer code he was hastily told about before being pressed into duty as a meat person, he said, “Why don’t you do the rest of your shopping and come back later, I’m sure we’ll have what you’re looking for out here by then.” He gave the type of smile that said, “we are done with this little chat, okay bud?”

“Okay, thanks.” What else could I say? I spun my cart around and headed to seafood.

The store layout guides shoppers, by design, through all the major food divisions in order to, I suppose, maximize impulse buying. For that very reason, I don’t shop without a list. It’s so easy to run astray, stock up with goodies, then comes the double shock; at checkout, “I spent how much?!” and once home, finding room for all the junk food you bought, realizing you need to go food shopping again the next day for real stuff. Anyway, situated in one of the funnel areas, where everyone in that part of the store has to pass in order to get to the rest of the store sections, is where the seafood counter is located. Seafood is expensive, even though we live less than an hour from the ocean, consequently I rarely buy anything not on sale. Lately, I’ve been making a Baha-style fish taco dinner that the family loves, with fresh tilapia filets. It’s rare to find a new dish everyone likes, when I do I immediately insert that dish into the weekly rotation until either it goes out of season or the family tires of it. On sale, fresh fish tacos are a very economical and tasty meal. I use a beer batter with fresh salsa topping and guacamole, with sour cream on stone- ground corn tortillas. And a tasty habanero pepper sauce, of course – to make it “mo betta.”

Twenty feet out, I see the counter is somewhat darkened, not all the lights are on. I wonder if it’s closed? Fresh seafood is certainly perishable, and probably the first to go bad. I began to caution myself. I arrived at the see-through glass cases and was relieved to see that all of the fish filets and shrimp, clams, oysters were all comfortably resting on mounds of clean crisp ice shavings. Okay, that looks safe enough to me. But where are the counter people, nobody is here? I look back into the display, yes, there they are, tilapia filets, perfect. I look around, and off to the side, slipping around the corner and behind the display cases is a boy with an apron on.

“Hi, can I help you?” Young kid, maybe eighteen or nineteen years old. Smiling, looking eager.

“Power outage, eh?” I thought I’d open with the topic at hand.
“Yeah, went out for quite a while this time,” he said.
I just came from the meat section, they’re trying to get everything back out onto the shelves. They don’t look happy about it either.” I gave him my “you lucked out, didn’t you?” look.

He moved forward, towards me, his chest meeting the display counter top, and moved both elbows onto the top of the case and settled in to tell me the story of the current power outage. And when I thought, “okay that’s enough, my friend, I’ve got more shopping to do” he launched into the history of all the power outages he’s experienced since he began working here.

All the while I feigned interest, wondering how come people can’t work while they talk? Not unlike Linda, they must concentrate so hard on what they’re saying, they can not do anything else until their conversation is finished. Couple with the fact that patience is not my long suite, I began to feel like I must do something rude if he doesn’t wrap up this monotonous tale of woe very soon.

“Do you remember when we lost power about a month ago?” He looked at me and I had to quickly rewind the conversation in my mind to see if he said something I was supposed to respond to. I was relieved when he continued, “Do you live in Medford or the Lakes?”

“The Lakes,” I said supplying an answer with the fewest possible words so as not to encourage him.

“Well, you must remember when we lost power last month then?” He waited for me to say something.

A memory formed in my mind, hot and humid afternoon, no air conditioning, no baseball on tv. “The one that lasted about five hours?” I said.

“Six hours,” he corrected me. We didn’t get power back unto like two-thirty in the morning”

“Yes I do remember that one,” he had me, I was warming to the subject, “I had to sleep downstairs on the couch, the attic fan was off and it was a thousand degrees up in the bedroom. I remember reading by candle light. It was so hot and muggy that night. Very uncomfortable.”

“Yes, that’s the one I’m talking about,” he said. “You live in the Lakes? So do I. It was brutal. Where do you live?”

“On Lenape Trail,” I said wondering where this was going.
He looked at me, hesitated a moment and said, “Yeah, me too. I live on Lenape Trail.” We both stood there, on opposite sides of the counter, momentary silence between us. “How’s the tilapia,” I asked
“Oh everything is good, I put extra ice on as soon as we lost power, I’m used to the routine now.” He pushed off the counter top and scanned the case for the tilapia filets. “How much do you want?”

“Ah, give me a pound, please.” I said.

He reached in, grabbed a few long chunky pieces, tore off a piece of waxed paper from a huge roll behind him, slid the wrapping paper onto the scale and slapped the fish down on top. “About a pound and a quarter,” he said, “that okay?”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said, “make that two pounds, please.” I just remembered the girls, I was ordering for Linda and I, as I usually do. “Sorry about that.”

“No problem,” he said and reached into the display case for more fish. He looked up at me and asked, “Where on Lenape do you live?”

“On the corner of Lenape and Cheyenne Trail.” I said.

He stopped moving, froze for an instant, like someone asked him to answer a complicated math question. He put the extra fish down on the scale and moved back. “So do I,” he said hesitantly.

Okay, I know this boy doesn’t live at my house, so I begin to think back on the conversation to see where this all went wrong.

“Seriously, mister, I live on the corner of Lenape and Cheyenne too.” We looked at each other quizzically. “What corner,” he asked.

“I’m in the log home,” relieved that there are four properties at every intersection. How dumb, not to realize that. This wasn’t going to be a real life Twilight Zone episode, after all. Knowing I’m the only log home on Lenape Trail in that area, I felt fairly certain he must know which corner I’m on. And it’s impossible for him to spook me out again and say, “me too.”

“Ha, I live right across the street from you, I’m your neighbor in the brown house.” He said this with a big smile, like we’re connected, almost family.

How odd, I thought, that I’ve been in this house for seventeen years and don’t know my neighbor. That’s not natural, I felt embarrassed. He looked about the age of my son, So I asked where he went to school. Maybe he was a transfer, only just arrived in the Lakes.

“I went to Shawnee High School,” he said moving back to the scale to resume the business of selling fish.

I said, “So did my son, how old are you?”
He said “I’m twenty two. What sports did your son play?
“He played ice hockey and lacrosse, but he’s a couple years older,” I answered.
“I played baseball and football. What’s his name?”
I told him and he said he didn’t recognize the name, but that his sister was a couple years older than he was, went to Shawnee too, and that they probably knew each other. A lot of thoughts went through my mind, I mentally checked the other two corners from my property and realized that I only barely knew one of those families. We must be a neighborhood of recluses, how can that be? When I grew up, everyone it seemed, knew everyone else. Block parties, school mates, little league baseball, we were always running into our neighbors. I supposed it has to do with the multitude of youth activities, parents in tow, forced to mingle.

He wrapped up the fish, handed it over the counter with his left hand, and extended his right hand out, “Here you go, neighbor, two pounds of tilapia.” He had a smile as wide as his face.

And, so did I. “Well, thankee kindly, neighbor!” I grasped his hand firmly. “See you around town.” The two of us shook our heads, chuckled, and I begrudgingly headed off down the aisle to finish my shopping. What a happy coincidence!

I wanted to call my son up and relate this chance meeting. I wanted to say “it’s a small world, isn’t it,” but that doesn’t exactly fit here, does it, he wouldn’t know the boy either? We live no more than a hundred yards apart from each other for all these years, seemed baffling to me. Much the same as the conversation with the shopping cart attendant that didn’t quite make sense, I was having a problem compartmentalizing this one too. Maybe it’s me, not everyone else, that’s a little off today?


The lights were blinking, as they probably should during the test sequence. Red, blue, green, yellow and clear, maybe a few others colors too. I waited, tapping my toe trying to find the beat until they were through flashing. Leaning back against the narrow gun-metal gray bench opposite the racks of equipment, I patiently stood, staring, hoping only the green lights would stay on. Actually, I wasn’t even sure about that either. Damn, I need to find the service manuals for these radios or I’m screwed.

First day on the job and it’s starting to hit me, I’m alone and responsible for this entire communications van. Jesus lord, what have I gotten myself into? Thankfully, the manuals were all there; two drawers full of operating procedures, schematics, testing methods, maintenance programs, the whole works. Guess I can learn this stuff, I catch on pretty quickly they tell me.

Bottom line, I just need to get by somehow for ninety days without any major problems, then I’m outta here, back to Clarke Air Base in the Philippines. Back to my boys and bars and something resembling a nine-to-five work shift. Living off-base for more than a year in Angeles City was total freedom, close to that of living stateside. You never know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone. Sure enough, I accepted this TDY, temporary duty, assignment to South Korea just to break the monotony, first day and I realize it’s a mistake.

According to this test I just ran, most of this crap here is non-functional. That’s bad, real bad. Mostly because I don’t know how to fix it. It’s been so long since I did any real electronics work, I can’t even think through a logical troubleshooting plan. Okay, so I’ve got six receivers with matching transmitters, three to a rack on either side. Down the middle I have a big-ass transceiver, along with meters, gauges and assorted test equipment. The six pairs are supposed to be tuned to six different frequencies, and the transceiver in the center is the backup for the other twelve units, since it can send and receive and is tunable to any of the other channels. Okay, I’ve got that much. Problem is four channels are dead.

My van is my cubicle, it’s where I come to work each morning, an eight by eight by eight workspace where I come inside, get comfortable, pull out the documentation and furiously read everything I can in order to make some sense of this stuff all around me. My van is next to a large semi-permanent tent, housing the ATACC, Alternate Tactical Air Command Center, which is down here in Taegu because the estimated life span of the primary TACC up on the DMZ, Demilitarized Zone, in Seoul, should hostilities break out, is approximately three minutes. So, this is kind of important. And that’s why I can’t sleep at night.

After boot camp in Texas, which was basically a track meet in unbearable heat and humidity, run, run, run, eat salt tablets for lunch, then go run some more. Sergeant Taylor, my DI, drill instructor, couldn’t talk to me unless his face was within an inch of mine, then he’d shout like I was a quarter mile away.

“Do. You. Un. Der. Stand. Me!” He’d methodically scream, his big fat negro lips spraying spittle on me on every consonant hit.

“Yes sir, Sergeant Taylor, sir.”

“I. Can’t. Hear. You!” He’d bellow even though you know he had to have heard you, due to his position practically inside your uniform.

Yes sir, Sergeant Taylor, sir!” The standard reply, just louder than the first time. That seemed to pacify him, and he’d move on to the next poor kid.

Sprinting and abuse for six weeks. Fun in the hot Texas sun. I didn’t understand how this was supposed to prepare us for the service. But, after time, it became clear that we were a much more organized, disciplined and cohesive unit. Even I could see that.

When I left San Antonio, I made a point of visiting with Sergeant Taylor to say goodbye and thank him for his instruction. I actually was sincere, I was a different person than when I’d come here. He took my pale hand into his huge black one, he talked to me quietly, told me to take no chances and to evaluate every situation for what it was, not what it was supposed to be. We shook hands like men. He was sincere too.

A year in gulf coast Mississippi for tech school followed. I was sent to electronics school and then into Ground Radio Repair and Maintenance. This was my job now in the United States Air Force for the next four years. I was the guy who repaired the radios that directed the air strikes. This was in 1967 and Vietnam was raging. There was a draft lottery and I won, so I joined the USAF rather than go into the Army. I’m not much for hand-to-hand combat, eating mud with your rations and a near-suicide ticket to the steaming jungle and unrelenting guerrilla warfare. This was a decision borne out of sheer self-preservation, nothing else.

First week in electronics class, I’m picking it all up pretty easily. I listen to the instructor, take notes and read all the background material about the days lesson when I get back to my barracks. I wanted to know not only the answer to the problem but how and why it worked. This was basic electronics broken into phases, each six weeks long, for about eight months then you graduated as an electronics technician, afterwards you were assigned to a specialty school.

After the first phase, grades were given out, I had topped the class and the instructor made a big deal out of it. I even received an award for outstanding class participation and material comprehension. I have the paper signed by the base instructional officer to prove it. The teacher beamed at me. He was proud. I thought about all those teachers in grade school and high school who used to tell my mother, at every parent/teacher meeting, that I, indeed, had a high aptitude for learning but needed to apply myself more (which I never did). Well, I guess they were right after all. I’m a smartypants!

In fact, I was turning out to be a first class leader as well, they put me in charge of a floor in the barracks. A floor leader wore a green braided rope over one shoulder of your fatigues to show your authority. A red rope signified a barracks leader and a gold rope was a shift leader. Every day there was an assembly to hear announcements, all the airmen lined up in tidy rows making a great rectangle. All the guys from all the floors, from all the barracks on that shift stood at attention on the parade grounds.

I had a good view of this spectacle because I was a rope, and all the ropes stood up on a platform in front of the assembly, with the real officers and base officials and looked down on the general population. We were a big deal to the other common airmen. The ropes were like a club, we hung out together and we were, for the most part, full of ourselves. We were responsible for our floors and barracks, and everyone knew it, and they grudgingly gave us respect. Otherwise we’d make it hard on them, and who needs extra weight to carry on a long slog like a four year enlistment. So, respect it was, earned or otherwise.

There were inspections several times a week, usually by the gold rope, sometimes there were surprise inspections and these could happen at any time of the day. Each floor, open from end to end, was filled with bunks, about thirty of them with accompanying lockers, half down one side, half down the other. Your area had to be clean, I mean eat-off-the-floor clean, beds made tight enough to bounce a quarter two feet into the air, and lockers squared away. If a rope or inspecting officer opened your locker and the shoe polish can or toothbrush was not in exactly the place it was supposed to be, KP, Kitchen Patrol, was your next stop, peeling potatoes all day, scraping slop and washing dishes.

Once in a while the commander of the base himself would perform inspections. This happened in my barracks, on my floor, one morning around 4am. The gold rope doesn’t like to be embarrassed so when he got word of the surprise inspection, he told all the red ropes, who in turn told all the green ropes and we prepared our floors. So, when the Colonel walked in and flipped on the lights, I shouted everyone to attention.

Every airman rose as one, in their white boxer shorts and white tee shirts, startling the Colonel. He was very impressed, randomly opening lockers and picking up a boot here and there to check the quality of spit-shine. I remember this particular inspection vividly because there was this redhead boy next to me, standing rigid at attention, and his morning wood was clearly visible, having poked out cleanly through the opening in his boxers. The Colonel didn’t miss a beat, “Now this is what I call coming to a full attention! Well done, son!” He bellowed. Everyone stifled themselves, and the ginger turned beet red.

Some time later I was asked about becoming a red rope, moving up the leader ladder, so to speak. I was honored, and combined with my outstanding technical study grades, I was starting to feel special. But, something didn’t feel right. A nagging sense that I was out a little too far began to circulate in my head. My only friends were other ropes, and nobody in my electronics class talked to me any longer. When the floor went out en masse to terrorize the Biloxi bars and girls, I wasn’t included. I would go get a pizza and a six pack, and look for another rope.

This bothered me. After a while it really bothered me, although I wasn’t exactly sure why, until I remembered something my father told me when he dropped me off at the induction center in Philadelphia.

“Listen to me. Don’t volunteer for anything. Hear me?” My dad said, holding the door open for me to get out and on with my military duty.

“Okay,” I said.
“That’s how they get you to do things you probably shouldn’t be doing. Catch me?” “Okay,” I said again.
“Look, just don’t stand out, you want to be back in the crowd. You don’t want to be identifiable. That’s the trick. Got it?”
“Okay,” I said, thinking I should change my response before he gets mad.
“That’s how you survive the service. I know what I’m talking about, so hear me, son.” “Okay,” I said and pulled my bag out of the back seat and sauntered over to the line, joined the other slouching teens, waiting for the fun and games to start.

That recollection hit home one night with a jarring thud. I snapped upright in bed, a cold sweat beading up on my forehead. “I’m standing out!” I screamed, my brain reverberating. “I’m way, way out in front!” Oh sweet Jesus, this isn’t good, now is it. I’m a star pupil, I’m a rope, I’m screwed. I gotta fix this, starting now! Certainly, it’s not too late.

So, I slacked off, my grades plummeted, I refused the red rope promotion and they took the green one away. Fine, hurt me. Snicker, that’s what I had hoped for! I fell back into the crowd. No more excellence for me, no more being a leader of men, no sir, I’m a survivor. I’m a shadow. You can’t see me, I just a faceless man in the crowd. Hoo-rah!

I completely understand the rationale. If they don’t know you, they won’t recommend you for some godforsaken duty. So, you stay back with the pack, there’s safety in numbers. They’ll sacrifice one but not a whole group, right? Glad I wised up in time, before I really got myself into a fix. I sort of missed being elite, but I understood the sacrifices that must be made just to get through my hitch in one piece. And my father said it was so, who am I to argue?

Of course that’s not helping me now. I’ve got a van fill of broken equipment and I sure wish I knew what the hell I was doing. It’s making me nervous that someone might actually want to use this stuff, and I’ll catch hell for sitting back here, in my cube, reading comic books.

After a few days cramming info from the tech manuals into my cranium and trying to apply what’s what to the radios in front of me, I was finally able to read the results of the diagnosis. The test that I ran on the first day, I ran again, this time I knew what to look for. The results were not heartwarming. Most of the equipment was not functional. Who the hell left me a comm van in this condition, damn it, I protested out loud to no one. My voice ricocheted throughout the metal enclosure.

Just then there was a knock on the door, I nearly shat my pants.
“Yeah?” I queried
“Come out here, airman.” An authoritative voice commanded.
I slowly opened the hatch door, squealing on its metal-on-metal hinges like a horror movie and I looked out. There was a staff sergeant standing there smiling.
“C’mon, I’m gonna give you the nickel tour.”
I climbed out, introduced myself, we shook hands and I followed him into the big tent only twenty feet behind my comm van.

The sergeant told me about the role this ATACC played and once again about the life expectancy of the TACC up in Seoul. Seems everyone down here in the south-central part of Korea loved to cite that fact, about those poor fellas up on the DMZ. Three minutes. Macabre military humor. At least it was funny here in Taegu.

One side of the tent was covered in huge video displays, with piercing dots and colored beams and vectors slowly moving in every direction. In front of these displays, which went from floor to ceiling, there were several rows of compact desks spanning the length of the tent, filled with people facing these screens and punching away at computer terminals. They were mimicking everything Seoul did, all the air traffic, friend and foe, so that in the event of an emergency, the transfer of control would be seamless, from up there to down here. Filling out the rest of the tent were conference tables and war boards, manned by senior officers, looking upwards and scratching their chins in deep thought.

This was serious business, and I began to physically shake thinking about the state of my van and the unlikely chance that I can get it operational anytime soon. My best plan consisted of faking it for ninety days and hope the next guy knows what he’s doing. Please, please, please don’t ever need that equipment, okay? Not for awhile. Please God, I’ll say a thousand Hail Mary’s if you get me out of this one, I swear!

I had settled into my new digs, a long open quonset hut filled with cots and an attached latrine with showers. Not exactly the Hilton, but on an Army installation, Air Force personnel are not a top priority. My fellow bunk mates were friendly killers. I was living with the ROK Tiger Division, an elite Korean fighting force. They were on their way to Vietnam after final training here. Wherever the Tiger Division went, the enemy fled, these guys were surgically efficient and they had a mighty deadly reputation. A typical stat from a battle: 847 enemy soldiers killed, no wounded. Three Tiger Division combatants with minor wounds. You get the idea.

They were always smiling, and bowed their heads in an exaggerated nod whenever they passed me. Nice fellows. Actually, they were too nice. They gave me a gift, one that keeps on giving. A case of pubic lice. I battled those little critters nightly, even though I wasn’t sure what was going on down there. Finally, I went to sick bay. Doc told me what had infested my groin area, crabs, even held one up for me to see (a tiny dark spec), then put it under a magnifying glass. Talk about ugly, these aggressors were armored, multi-legged creatures, not at all like our svelte and tasty blue claws at home, more like mutant zombie transformers. Plus, a bonus, while I delayed and tried to remedy the situation myself, they had laid eggs. Nice, now I’m host to a colony of mini carnivore crustaceans.

The doc gave me a cream that, applied regularly, would stem the tide so to speak and fumigate the budding village, eliminating every last one of those annoying buggers. Worked like a charm. Now, I had to see about moving to different quarters, these Tiger dudes were too aggressive, even in small subtle ways. Besides, they smelled like Kimchi, a traditional Korean dish made of rotten cabbage.

In a couple days I found new sleeping quarters with a few radio operators. I didn’t say what it was I did, and when asked, I told them it was classified. I was thinking of their well-being, I didn’t want them having nightmares about their backup equipment. At least I was sharing space with Americans now, even if they were Army grunts.

So here I am, walking down the main road in Camp Walker, my new home, and on the other side, not more than forty feet away, I see a boy from my neighborhood walking the other way. I couldn’t believe my eyes. What’re the chances of meeting a homie half a world away. I was thrilled!

“Yo, Billy!” I shouted from across the road.
He looked over at me and said, “Hey, how’re you doing, man.”
And kept walking. I thought he was fooling around. I stood there watching him walk past.

Back in the ‘hood, his sister was part of our gang, we hung out together. He was a couple years older than me, but still, we knew each other.

“What’s up!” I yelled after him.

He never turned around, just kept walking. I’ll be damned, I thought. Am I in an alternate universe or something, this is too weird. And that was it, never saw him again.

After a few weeks, my life became routine. Up in the morning and off to the van, study more documents, try to fix something, fail, break for lunch, come back, read comics until quitting time. I had no supervisor, so I set my own hours. Then I’d head out, off camp, to hang in the bars with the radio ops. Even celebrated my 21st birthday there. The bar sent over a birthday cake, some odd rice cake thing that one of the guys stuck a lighted cigarette in. Happy birthday to me. Yay, I’m legal!

In my third week, I devised a plan. Through sound troubleshooting techniques, I determined which half of each unit contained the problem. This was not difficult, it was page one in the service manual. But, since I couldn’t find the failed component in a million years (remember I decided not to apply myself in tech school, nice decision there), I simply ordered the entire back or front end, whichever was needed.

Now, the bad component might cost ten dollars, but I was ordering thirty thousand dollar whole assemblies. But, hey, I had no supervisor, remember. It’s not my money. You want this stuff fixed or what? That’s what I thought. Having completed the requisition orders, and had them approved, I took the next week off. I deserved it, nearly burnt my brain to a crisp reading all that tech crap.

One of my favorite bars to hang out in was just outside the camp’s main gate, Secret Garden, it was anything but secret or a garden unless you meant the green and brown mold growing on the walls. There was one dirt road through the town, with bars on both sides and moma’sans selling street food along the way. Koreans loved Americans. Young and old would smile, greet us, wave. I made a point of buying Hershey bars at the PX, Post Exchange, those little two-bite sized ones, to give to the kids. Feels great to be appreciated, even if it was the generation before us that did all the fighting, defending and hard work. I represented America, and they wanted to show their appreciation. I accepted.

So, one night I’m sitting at Secret Garden, a small wooden building, the bar a long haphazard affair running about twenty five feet down the narrow, one-story hut. No tables, just a bar and a phone booth at one end. The bar top was so low, and the stools so high that you had to half sit on the stool so as to reach your beer without risking ligament damage, or throw your lower back out of alignment. And, the later the hour, the more dangerous this twist and reach performance became, although it did provide comic relief from time to time.

In walks this large, portly fellow in civilian clothes. He takes off his full length black coat, shakes it out, and plops down onto the stool next to me. He’s in a well-made, but mismatched and oddly colored suit with a purple, button-down shirt and polka dot tie. Okay, ready? It’s Tiny Tim.

I kid you not. The strangest human on the planet is sitting next to me, quaffing a beer and making small talk. Nose like an eagle, long stringy black hair hanging to his shoulders, bulging eyes, lanky and gangly all over. He orders a beer, then heads to the phone booth. I watch him leave. I look at my beer. Am I hallucinating? Nope, here he comes again. He returns to his stool, picks up his beer in his small meaty hand and winks at me before he sucks down half of it in one swallow.

“Say, are you Tiny Tim?” I ask, looking around nervously to see if anyone heard me. “Yep, afraid I am.” He says.
“What are you doing in Korea?”
“Playing shows, I’m on my way to Pusan.”

The man I’ve seen on TV singing in a falsetto voice, playing a tiny ukulele and choosing songs from yesteryear like “Tiptoe Through The Tulips” was an out and out fruitcake. But this guy seemed cool, not at all like that carnival act everyone knows. People only watch him because he’s so odd, like the bearded lady or a two-headed cat, was it just an act?

“Hey, Tim, your fiancé lives not ten minutes from me at home.” I thought I’d show him we have a connection, besides being Americans seven thousand miles from home.

“Ah, the beautiful, Miss Vickie. The love of my life.” He says wistfully.

“She sure is a pretty girl.” I said. I was gonna add, “and what a catch for a cretin like yourself,” but decided against it, being not quite proper bar etiquette.

So, we shoot the breeze for a couple hours, until Tiny Tim decides he has to be moving on. He tosses a generous tip onto the bar, wraps that gigantic overcoat of his over his shoulders and gives me a two-fingered salute. “See you around,” he says and passes through the door into the dark night.

I look around, the few remaining patrons are staring at their drinks, oblivious. Me, I’m incredulous, was that really for real? Seriously? I shake my head. Korea is truly an amazing place.

Towards the end of the second month I come to work one morning and there are two huge pallets stacked with crates sitting in front of the van. It’s my order. Holy smokes! I better get busy, anybody sees all this equipment here and I’m gonna be in deep doo-doo trying to explain. Feverishly, I break open the crates and haul all the assemblies into the van, pile them on top of each other leaving only a single, tight place remaining for me to stand. Crap. I have to remove some of the stuff back outside again to access the manual drawer, then pull them all back into the van again, and swiftly close the door to any prying eyes.

I spent the next couple weeks replacing about seventy percent of all the electronics in the van. Probably would have been cheaper, and easier, just to order another entire comm van. But, I did it, and most of the transmitters and receivers were returned to working condition. I tossed the old assemblies into the incinerator a little at a time to avoid drawing attention. A couple days later, the entire van was in tip-top condition. All six frequencies were humming along, six receivers and six transmitters. Smiley, happy little radios. And the big guy, the transceiver, able to do both jobs, smugly waited as backup should any of the others stumble. I was one proud, and lucky, Ground Radio Repair and Maintenance technician. I stood tall. Studly.

With only a little over a week to go before they ship me back to the Philippines, I had intended to start documenting what I had done to the equipment since I’ve been here, which was considerable, just in case they wanted to give me a medal. Not really, but I thought maybe the next joe that comes in here might want to know something about the current status. Especially since none of the serial numbers match anymore. I was truly torn about this; on the horns of the preverbal dilemma; between doing the right thing, and hiding my tracks.

I blinked, looked around, it was hung over o’ clock, and way too early in the morning, but I just couldn’t sleep any longer. I took a quick shower to wake me up and headed over to the chow tent for an eggs and mystery meat breakfast. I choked it down with liquid mud, actually army coffee, had to add ridiculous amounts of cream to dilute it down to engine oil weight so it was drinkable. And shuffled off in the chilly, early morning twilight, one of my last days at the ol’ communications van.

About thirty yards away, I saw what appeared to be several figures milling about the front of my van. When I got closer, I saw two MPs, Military Police, with rifles at the ready, holding another unidentified person down on the ground. The boardwalk to the van wasn’t wide enough for two people to stand together, but they had no space problem because the third guy was face down in the cold, mucky dirt. One MP had his boot on his upper back, keeping the pressure on his prisoner, and the other held the business end of his M16 pressed into the back of the man’s head.

I made enough noise to raise a drunk the morning after New Year’s Eve shuffling up to the van, just in case they were jumpy. Certainly didn’t want to startle them. I could see they had their safeties off and their index fingers rubbing nervously on the triggers. They both turned towards me, while prodding their prisoner with more force, as if to say, “Don’t try it, amigo.”

“Morning.” I said flatly. “What’s going on?”
“Who are you?” The younger cop said.
This is my van, my responsibility, what the problem?”
“Caught this slope poking around couple hours ago. North Korean spy. Waiting for orders.” “North Korean?” I said with the last syllable lilting upwards in tone.
“Yeah, they’re not too bright, but they sure are persistent.” Both MPs nodded in agreement, they felt this was an accurate assessment of the situation. Both these guys look like they wanted red meat, and they wanted it now. The testosterone was floating in the air thick as hot bacon grease.

I looked down at the prisoner. He was dressed in black and dark green, no uniform or any identifying marks on him, His hair was black and spikey. I could not see his face, it was pushed, hard, into the damp loamy earth between the van and the boardwalk. I don’t know how he managed to breathe. I felt bad for him. But, then I thought, beloved Jesus, I’m sure glad these cops are here, if that spy had come while I was working, reading comics or whatever, would he have felt sorry for me? Doubtful. He would’ve sliced my throat wide open and went on with his mission. Jesu Christo, get me the freak outta here!

Needless to say, I didn’t work that day. I wandered around the camp, nodded at a few ROKs, Republic of Korea soldiers, and headed into town. My nerves were shot, I needed extra-strength medicinal alcohol to settle my jumpy self down. And, I was quite successful from what I can remember.

Soon afterwards, I returned to Clarke Air Base and told tall tales of Korea, half of them I made up because nobody believed the real ones. It was an eventful three months over there. I even took Tae Kwon Do lessons for a few months from a world master instructor, an ex-Tiger Division commando, all known to be experts at this Korean style karate. I rose to the rank of green belt, which I think is just above no belt. I’m bad, don’t try me, fool.

Middle Birds

Past the police firing range, in the shadow of the newly constructed Betsy Ross Bridge connecting Philadelphia to Pennsauken, along a wide path between the woods on one side and the Delaware river on the other, the hunt commences. Walking upriver, pellet rifles in hand, the two brothers spoke softly on life’s seemingly haphazard journey and their place in an ever-changing world, while scanning the trees for game.

“Little bird.” The younger said matter of factly, and whirled to his right, aimed and shot.

“That’s a miss.” said the elder, watching the grey sparrow rise straight up off the skinny branch where he stood bobbing with the breeze and veer away.

The brothers continued without comment on their stroll through their hunting grounds. Armed with BB rifles that auto loaded but were notoriously scattershot, they walked north but looked east. The rifles were also able to shoot a more accurate single-loaded pellet. The round BBs would exit the barrel and make a slice or hook, like a weekend golfer, never straight or even remotely where it was aimed. Thus, pellets were the ammo of choice. Solid lead on one end, conical and hollow on the back end. These flew true.

“My turn,” the older brother said, pausing to confirm a clear shot at a tan and red female cardinal.

“Middle bird,” he said and pulled the trigger. The bird rolled over backwards crashed through the leaves and branches to the forest floor.

“Score,” said the younger, flatly, barely hiding his contempt.

There were many birds, of many varieties and sizes present in these woods. It was prime hunting grounds. It was secluded, a requirement since any onlookers would frown on this activity, and probably illegal as well. The brothers liked to mix hunting in with their discussions. The younger was out of work and looking for direction. The elder was steadily employed and on the proverbial ladder to greater successes. These successes were unrealized, but still offered the clout needed to advise one’s younger brother.

They came here, to the dense woods adjacent the great and historic river, often bringing a bag lunch and ammo, to talk and compete. The path wore through the woods following the shoreline and dipped inland some distance away from the entrance toward a tidal creek where after a zig and a zag, the path ended in a marsh. Here they would pause, maybe have lunch or just rest a few minutes before retracing their steps and resuming the hunt. They may make three or more round trips in a single afternoon.

That season, the weather was nearly ideal. Warm, sunny most days with a steady cooling breeze coming in off the water, shivering the trees in small waves, and occassionally tossing the targets like a videogame reset button. The ammo hung in plastic pouches on their waist belts, each carrying their favorite brand. The targets were grouped into sizes; there were little birds, middle birds and big birds. The shooter was obligated to call out his target before shooting, much like a pool player calls his shot. Points were awarded for difficulty. The little birds, being the hardest to hit were the highest value, the big birds least.

Adding to the difficulty was that the effective killing range of the pellet rifles was only about a hundred feet, so stealth was required. And the little birds were easily agitated, and flew off at the slightest inclination. Big birds, on the other hand, were easier to hit, and most were of the same species, doves, which would allow a hunter to within fifteen feet before deciding wether to vacate their perch. A pair of doves, sitting side by side, was hard to pass up, shoot one, the other would not even flinch, but continue to sit there as if its mate merely went to get a snack and would return momentarily. Doves were not much sport, but if you needed points, they were there for the taking.

Tjay, the younger of the two, was questioning his brother about his line of work, if there were still potential in it, did it pay well to start and if there were an apprenticeship or trade school available that would hasten his time to a good payday. Tjay’s brother gave him the pros and cons, ins and outs, trying not to influence his little brother’s decision but present as much factual information as he could. He wanted to help, of course, but not be responsible should Tjay take his advice and fail spectacularly.

“The only school for this stuff is in Las Vegas?” Tjay repeated, not sure he heard his brother correctly. “Long ways off, but still, it’s Vegas.” Sure would be fun either way, wouldn’t it, he thought.

“Yeah, it’s all new technology and that’s the only school in the country. There will be more down the road, but right now that’s the only one, in Vegas.” Jayce told his younger brother and was amused to see the location play out on his face, like a grinning neon marquee.

“Little bird,” Jayce paused, took aim through the leafy woods and pulled the trigger. A wren with yellow slashes along it’s grey-brown body rolled and crashed to the forest floor.

“That’s a hit.”
“Yep, puts me in front, little bro!”
The brothers were making their way back, the first loop of the day. It was noon, sunny and warm with a hint of honeysuckle and pine in the air. On the next circuit they would stop and settle for lunch. This day followed the pattern of many others that came before it; shooting, keeping score, talking. Pleasant and comfortable, the brothers enjoyed the hunt and each other’s company.

Three bursts of three gunshots each rang out. Staccato, crisp reports, rattled through the woods but were quickly muted by the river. The brothers stopped in their tracks.

“What the hell was that!” Tjay said, his head on a swivel.
“Someone at the firing range. At least I hope so.” Jayce said.
More shots. A pause then another group, all from the same firearm.
“Must be sighting in a new weapon,” Jayce offered. “Or, recalibrating an old one.” Jayce spun on his heels and headed back toward the marsh, away from the range. Tjay followed closely behind. After a few hundred yards, Jayce slowed and Tjay came up along side him.

“I’m with you, I’d just as soon not be down that end while it’s active like that.” Tjay swung his rifle to the other arm so as to point it away from his brother, and matched his gait. The calm that surrounded them previously was replaced with a low level nervousness. Their pace was quicker and they didn’t bother to scan the woods for targets. It was like an invisible commander had given them a mission and they weren’t to deviate.

They continued in this mode until they reached their lunch spot down by the marsh. A huge log along side the path, that had been felled by a recent storm, was table and chair. They sat one leg folded up on the log, the other planted on the ground for balance, faced each other and unwrapped deli sandwiches on the ruttled bark of the old red oak.

“Let’s give them plenty of time to clear out down there before we go back.” Jayce said. He let out a long sigh, as if the pressure that had built up finally tripped a release valve.

“Got to, that’s where the car is.” Tjay reminded his brother. They had parked the car under the bridge, away from the entrance and not suspicious in any way. Other cars were nearby, residents kept their cars along this easement as well. Residents, whose neighborhood was cleaved, against their wishes, in order to build yet another bridge across the Delaware into Philadelphia from New Jersey. There are now four spans within a few miles.

This one, named after the famous national flag seamstress, connects to Pennsauken, a small township in southern New Jersey, named after William Penn and his favorite pasttime. It is said this is where Willie went hunting with his hawks, the contraction came out, “Pennsauken.” But that’s only one historical take, another says the name originated as “Pindasenaken,” a Lenni- Lenape Indian word meaning “Tobacco Pouch.” The locals, when asked, say it is indeed an Indian name, loosely translated means “industrial park.” For that, unfortunately, is how the town is now known.

Dark clouds appeared out of nowhere, a light mist began to fall and the hard-packed dirt and clay path turned a dark, slick color. The brothers, heads bowed into the damp breeze, trudged back towards the bridge, their half-eaten lunch tucked under their arms. Birds and forest noises were replaced with a steady wooden ping of rainwater gathering on leaves, reaching a tipping point and dropping to the next layer of branches and leaves below. Across the river, fog had obscured the city and replaced it with a gray swirling wall. The brothers were quiet, each thinking about the sudden turn of weather as they headed back to the car. Rifles, glistening in the light rain, cold and hard in their hands.

Sounds from the police firing range had ceased. The damp turn evidently chasing the gunners into their squad cars, and back to duty or station. The mist turned into a drizzle, temperatures dropped and puddles began to splotch the riverside path. Making the turn for home, the brothers, ill prepared for this, dripped as they walked from soaked hair and sodden shirts. Moods turned from bright to cloudy exactly as the sunny weather turned from carefree to dark, as if the events were directly connected.

Tjay was deep into thought, blocking the weather and dreaming of Vegas as he slogged along. Bright lights, pretty girls, cheap food buffets, win-win-win! His outlook dimming only when the very real problem of tuition entered his otherwise perfect plan. He made a mental note to follow up on this possible new direction to his life. An excitement built within him. He needed something, and this certainly didn’t sound like drudgery.

“Hey, I win today.” Jayce called back over his shoulder to his trailing brother.
“No, you didn’t.” Tjay challenged. “We never finished, this is a rainout.”
“Nice try, but victory is mine!” Jayce shouted into the wet breeze, feeling Tjay’s narrowing

eyes boring into his back with resentment. “Hah, loser!” “Whatever.”

Peace and Dignity

His foot was numb. The ancient bus moaned out of the dingy Greyhound bus station. Toxic smell of exhaust assaulted his lungs. He crossed his legs to relieve the pressure. Once free of the station, the air began to clear, leaving a dry spot in the back of his throat. The sense of movement overtook his being, turning his mood lighter. That way, he was going that way.

The miles trundled past, his mind skipping here and there, never focusing very long on any one subject. He would like to slow his thinking process down, stay on a single idea for more than a minute or two. He wondered, did they make a drug for that? How many are like me? Next topic.

Three buses, a thousand miles, still he didn’t know where he was going. That way. He was just going. That way. I’m hungry, he thought. Next stop, I’ll buy something out of the inevitable row of vending machines at the station. Snacks mostly. I wonder if there’s a machine that serves roast beef? Probably not, just potato chips and pretzels. Bathroom urge. He turned and looked towards the back of the bus where the restroom was located. He tried not to make eye contact with any of the passengers looking at the man turning around at them. I’ll wait, he thought.

Eyes closed, head back, he rummaged through the scenes churning through his mind. As good as any book, he thought, as long as you didn’t want a plot or ending, or a hero. But it was entertainment. He amused himself. That’s a phrase she said often, you amuse yourself, don’t you, Stephan? He never knew how to answer that. Doesn’t everybody? How many more are like me? Anyone?

The bus droned on, humming down the highway, chasing the sun westward. He didn’t want it to stop. Ever. Small bumps, shakes, metal screeches and muffled traffic noises were comforting. Like fate, he was moving towards something, someone, somewhere unknown. He dreaded the stops, afraid the end was near. At least this next stop, he had a purpose. Eat. Vending machines. No roast beef, cheesy crackers. Not the same, but it will have to do. What else? Oh yeah, that. Save it, don’t want to think about that right now. Too complicated, too many side alleys to get lost, too many choices I should’ve made. Later, I’ll come back to that one.

Whoosh, the air brakes signaled a change in momentum. Stephan dug his hands into his pockets, first left, then shifting to his opposite hip, the right, searching for change. Found some. Quarters, nickels, dimes. Enough for maybe two bags of cheesy crackers. And a Dr Pepper. His anticipation heightened, the sweet soda pop and salty snack would pair deliciously. Who needs roast beef. Me, but I can’t have any, so this will suffice. Mashed potatoes, with brown gravy. That has to be the perfect compliment to roast beef, and a bright green, crisp vegetable; like string beans or asparagus or broccoli. Stir-fried to bring out the color but not overcooked and limp. Doubt I’ll find that in the machine, he thought. Black olives and fresh baked bread. Nope.

The bus has rolled to a stop. Everyone stands up. And waits. The doors open, one in front and one on the side, the people exit. Stephan is last off the bus. He sees the driver, on his way out, slap hands with another man dressed like a driver. The new man changes the destination sign from Chicago to Kansas City. Makes no difference to Stephan. He thinks, am I supposed to do something in KC? Do I know anyone there? He hears the clanking of the vending machines, people are pulling knobs and mechanical grunts bring the food choices to the slot in front, bottom of the machine. Clang, whirr, ping, zing, pang! Another meal served. Stephan stepped up, it was his turn. Scanned the selection, confirmed there was no roast beef and picked the cheesy crackers. He didn’t bother to look for the mashed potatoes or asparagus.

The loudspeaker called for everyone to board the bus for Kansas City and points west. Stephan stuffed an extra bag of crackers into his shirt pocket, popped the top on his soda and headed toward the bus. There were many buses in the terminal, and people scurrying this way and that. People with a purpose. Stephan envied them for a moment. He felt like a passenger, maybe the only one, he wasn’t sure, that was not in control of himself. Up the steps, down the aisle, back to his old, familiar seat. The bus was vibrating, a rough idle, as if it were impatient with the wait, c’mon people, let’s go! The acrid exhaust wafted through the open doors. Stephan chased all the visions from his head, he liked to wait until they were speeding down the interstate, a steady throb running throughout the bus, to choose a memory to explore for further meaning, maybe a hint. He opened the second bag of cheesy crackers. Perfect, he thought, I have exactly a half bottle of Dr Pepper left.

Days, nights one and the same save the luminance. Thoughts to be savored, thoughts to be avoided, some forever. Certain thoughts need to wait for the right mood. Windows like a long movie played in fast forward. Sights trigger memories, brain synapsis firing, dredging up different images. Stale smells drift past, uncomfortable seats, no leg room, heebie jeebies, how do you stretch your sole? One thing leads to another. All in a vacuum. No dialog, no conversation, not on the outside. Plenty going on inside. Need to get off this bus. Why? Not sure. Where am I going? That way.

“You amuse yourself, don’t you, Stephan,” she asked again.
“I suppose, Suzanne, doesn’t everyone?” He wanted to hear that yes, indeed, she did too.
“Not quite the way you do.” She turned from him. “Nobody does things quite the way you do.” He studied her face for clues to the truth of the question. She was pleasant to look at. Slim, light hair, freckles across her nose. Only her downturned mouth broke the plainness of her features, gave her a complex expression. He never knew when she was serious or fooling around, asking a legit question or rhetorical. Most perplexing of all was why she stayed with him, what did he have to offer? He felt a pang in his heart every time she went away to visit friends or family.

“You mean I do them better?”
Not necessarily, Stephan, you just do them differently.”
“That’s why you like me?”
She walked out of the room. He stared at the wall. Sounds came from the bedroom down the hallway, she must be changing clothes. Drawers opened and closed, rolling closet doors bumped to a stop. Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the strangest of them all? A frame on the wall encased a reflective surface broken into a dozen pieces, some larger than others, together in a jangle. Hanging art. Stephan looked at his broken appearance, his head canted to side just slightly, as if trying to find a deeper meaning within. Long, dark hair framed his small face. A sparse goatee like the point of an exclamation point finished his pinched look. Prominent cheek bones gave the impression of aboriginal origins. He looked away, nothing had changed, only segmented.

Outside, behind the rented house they shared, was a small rectangular deck with a railing and three steps down to a mostly dirt and clay yard. Stephan sat in a wooden chair taking in the crisp Fall air. Yonder was a tree, colors lit along the long branches, leaves in max orange-red-gold mode, soon to turn brown, die and fall to the ground. The door opened behind him.

“Remember me telling you I was away this weekend?” Suzanne was pinning the side of hair up with both hands, her head turned in his direction, but not exactly looking at him. Her foot held the door open.

“No, I don’t… where are you going?” She probably told him, he never remembered these kinds of things. He had so many failings, what was his worth to this girl? The never-ending question.

“A few girls from the old neighborhood are going out for the weekend, girls only thing, y’know.” She finished pinning up the side of her hair, and dropped her hands to her side. She looked directly at him. “Don’t you remember me telling you?”

He chuckled to himself, “You might have.” Which he knew was the truth. “Probably did,” he concluded. He smiled and looked down, he didn’t want her to misunderstand.

“You amuse yourself, don’t you, Stephan,” she asked again.

The Kansas City bus stop wasn’t in Kansas, it was in Missouri, but that mattered little to him. What did matter was that his ticket was finished. He stood in front of the schedule board, he needed a new destination. Let’s see, which buses were leaving soon. He had a few choices. He decided to go south, the northern chill was penetrating his light jacket. Oklahoma City here I come. Ticket, please. Thank you. Terminal three, leaving in thirty minutes. He wandered over to join the small group there.

Too many days, he should call Suzanne. She left, he did too, not an hour afterwards. Maybe later. In OKC he would take some time, wash his spare change of clothes, reflect on his circumstance. He can’t go back. he was adrift and he had to know why. Am I so unusual? I need a purpose. Twenty three years old and like a dark cloud scudding through an ominous sky, he only knew he was moving, but not why or where. Like that dark cloud, he was being propelled by a force out of his control. He didn’t like not knowing. Not when everyone else seemed to be engaged and seemingly had a map. He felt like an outsider, lost in every direction.

The Fall days were invigorating, she adored this time of year. Her life was full of joy and promise, Suzanne couldn’t image herself happier. Except. That boy. Where the hell was Stephan? She wasn’t worried, he certainly danced to a different beat. Still, she had concerns, if only a little ones. More curiosity, she supposed, than anything else. Well, she wasn’t going to stop her full life for anyone, especially someone so hard to reach as Stephan. There was something about him, though, that attracted her. She used to think it was the motherly instincts in her, like caring for a stray animal off the street or nursing an aged aunt or family member through an extended illness. But, she abandoned that line of thinking. Surely, that wasn’t it at all.

He wasn’t aggressive, nor was he a slob around the house or in any way a burden. Maybe that was it, he was easy, no maintenance. No, she thought, I have better ways to spend my time than care for a man-child. No, there’s something else.

She grabbed her coat off the rack by the front door, and already had one arm slung down the left sleeve when the phone rang. It was Stephan. She let him talk. As usual, he made little sense to her. She wasn’t upset with him, just wanted to know what comes next. The world according to Stephan. She didn’t pretend to really know him, never really made that effort. She took her coat off, retrieved her arm and sat down.

“You’re where?”
“Oklahoma City, there’s a rodeo in town.”
“Isn’t there always a rodeo in town there?” She said.
“I don’t know, I’ve only just arrived. I can find out for you, though.”
“That’s not necessary, Stephan, what are you going to do?”
“I’m not sure, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking.” No response. He was thinking what to say next when he realized she was still patiently waiting for him to go on. The silence was a pressure building, like swimming to the bottom of the deep end in the pool. “And I’m figuring a few things out!” he said quickly before his eardrums burst.

“That’s good. Everyone has to do that from time to time, Stephan.” He smiled when she said he was like other people.
“Are you alright?”
“I think so.”

“So, when are you coming home?” “Soon,” he lied, “maybe this week.”

He took a room just south of town in Norman. It was small, but clean and cheap. His disability check wouldn’t hit his bank account for another ten days, so he watched his expenses closely. He lay on the narrow cot and stared at the blank television.

He mulled over the recent conversation with Suzanne repeatedly in his head. He kept coming back to the fact that she said everyone needed time away. Like he was part of everyone. Whenever he thought of his last deeds before leaving, whenever those complicated, dark thoughts returned, he liked to think that he was part of a bigger group. The idea brought a smile to his face. He was like everyone else. Anybody would’ve done the same thing had they been presented with the same opportunity.

The faces, he was sure, were painted with expressions of relief. He was certain of it. Maybe one or two looked quizzical at the very end, but the majority thanked him with their eyes. Was he wrong? He wrestled continually with this notion.

He had decided to do something charitable, to give of himself. He spent too much time thinking of his own situation and all the accompanying whys, and the many unanswered questions of his life. Suzanne was gone, clubbing with her girlfriends, and it just seemed like the right thing to do, and the right time to do it. Ever since his return from southern Afghanistan he spent inordinate amounts of time and energy, it seemed to him, looking inwards. Today would be different.

Stephan walked, from the rental house he shared with Suzanne, the few short blocks to the assisted living facility he had passed hundreds of times. He walked inside, intending to volunteer. There was no one at the front desk. He twirled in place a couple times then started down one of the long hallways. Another hallway intersected this one, a nurses station stood at the center of four patient room arranged in a circle. Stephan walked past a distracted nurse talking on the phone while sifting through a pile written reports on her other side.

In the first room were three older men, all attached to monitors and various medical apparatus. Soft beeping sounds and rattled breathing emanated from each. Stephan stopped, they were watching him. He returned their gaze and tried to look deep into their eyes. He saw pain. When his own expression registered this discovery, the man closest to him nodded his head. Stephan went nearer. They all watched him intently. The man nodded his head more emphatically, although in reality it may have only been an inch or two. Stephan tried to read the man’s face. He felt a connection. Silently he believed this man didn’t want to live like this. He refocused on his eyes. They said yes, you are correct, son. Help me. I want to go in peace and dignity.

Stephan moved to his bedside and one by one, turned off the machines they were connected to different parts of his body. The man continued to nod. The light in his eyes soon faded and his spirit left. Stephan was calm, he turned to see the other two nodding at him. He turned off their machines as well.

Around the circle, the next room adjacent was occupied by three women. They seemed to know why he was there. They nodded. Stephan moved about the room turning off machines. He in turn visited the remaining two rooms and getting the nod from all but two, turned off all of their machines and watched relief pour over their faces. He didn’t look at the two who hadn’t nodded. Stephan felt good. He was helping.

At the hub, the nurses station was a rush of white-clothed people in panic mode. Stephan didn’t pause, he walked calmly past the commotion toward the main hall. He walked through the entrance doors and out into the street. It was a dry, cool day, with little breeze and thin clouds were blanketing the Fall sun, stealing the warmth. Stephan inhaled deeply, he felt alive and useful. He walked to the bus station.