© 1992, bardsmaid
Author's notes: The idea for this story came from an incident that took place in my neighborhood, in which a high school student accidentally ran over an old man jaywalking at dusk.  I started to think about where that would leave the boy... but then, of course the story took over and made itself into something much broader, interweaving the tales of several characters shadowed in different ways by memories of the Vietnam war.  I tend to have at least one story for each place I've lived while I've been a writer.  This is my Orange County story, one I particularly cherish as a positive accomplishment salvaged from two years of very difficult personal circumstances.

The night of the accident Jason Calember lay on his bed and stared out the window at the great glowing wafer of the moon. It had been three hours--a lifetime in three hours. The moon had paled to a harsh, numbing white, silent like the Walkman that lay tangled at his feet. The music was too loud now. It hurt his ears. It wormed its way into raw places he couldn't even define.

Maybe it was the moon that had done it. Maybe the harvest moon was the reason he hadn't seen the old man, a moon as round and rich-colored as one of those little oriental crackers. Ironic. Or worse yet, some great big cosmic joke.

Jason gave the Walkman a sudden kick. It clattered to the floor but the headphones caught on the bedpost and dangled crazily back-and-forth, back-and-forth.

"Jason?"

His mother's head appeared in the doorway. He reached for the lamp and pointed it in her direction. Shadows nestled into the lines in her face and made her look ten years older. She squinted, shading her eyes, then attempted a smile.

"I can't see you, Jason."

The boy didn't answer. He felt the thud again--just a soft jolt against the car bumper, a gentle jostle, as if the old man had no weight, only shape. There was no sound with it.

His mother slipped inside and set a basket of clean laundry on the chair, then paused, as if she'd forgotten something. Finally her hand moved up toward the T-shirt suspended over the chair's back. She ran her fingers slowly over the smooth fabric.

"Are you alright, Jason?"

"Yeah, I'm okay, Mom."

He saw the old figure aloft beyond the headlights, floating with the fragile whimsy of a plastic grocery bag caught in the wind. The man seemed never to come down. Jason held his breath, counting the seconds.

"I just wanted to make sure. Your dad..." Her fingers traced small circles on the shirt. "Well, I just wanted to be sure, that's all. We're with you, both of us. It could have happened to anyone."

"I know that, Mom."

"Well, I suppose I'd better..." She glanced at her watch and then down at the shirt, lifting her hand from it slowly, as if it held some magnetic attraction. "It's late. If you want to talk to anybody...you know, tomorrow.  If you want to talk to anyone, us or your Uncle Tom or Dr. DiSantis--anyone--just ask."

"I'm not a basket case, Mom. I'm okay."

"I know you are. Well, goodnight, Jase."

She went to leave. "It's wasn't your fault." The door closed quickly and she was gone.

 

 

Carver pulled the handle of the refrigerator drawer and let it slide out full-length. Pencil lead squeaked as he started to transfer the information from the toe tag to his clipboard; he stopped and shook the pencil twice and clicked the advance.

"What've you got this time?"

"Jaywalker, " Carver said, turning around. Kinski was leaning against the door frame. "Old man was just following his daughter and grandson across Walnut." He shook his head. "Some kid hit him. Nobody's fault. You want to put two dollars on the age?"

Kinski shook his head no. He straightened and turned to go. Carver went back to the clipboard.

"Nguyen Duc," Carver repeated slowly to himself as block letters formed under the pencil. "Well, Mr. Duc..."

"It's duke, not duck," Kinski's voice came from the hallway. "Anyway, It's Nguyen."

Carver looked up. Kinski was back in the doorway.

"His last name, I mean. They do them the other way around over there. You know--last name first."

Carver turned back to the body. "Guy must've really flown. Couldn't weigh more than eighty-five pounds."

Like a bird, Kinski thought to himself. Out loud he said, "Maybe I will take you up on the age."  He was in front of the drawer now, looking into the parchment face of the dead man. He didn't remember crossing the room. "You first."

Carver screwed up his nose and rubbed the pencil eraser back and forth with the pink underside of a dark thumb. "Seventy-four," he said. "He's got wrinkles like my great granddaddy."

"Sixty," Kinski said. "Maybe sixty-two."

Carver looked at the tag. "Hey, how'd you know?"

"Lucky, I guess." Something made Kinski swallow. He remained staring at the corpse while Carver dug in his pocket for the two dollars. "Yeah, on a scale of one-to-dead, this guy's a definite high score."

Carver handed over the money. "Ain't it cold tonight," he said, a frown sharpening his features.

Kinski started for the door. He could feel Carver's gaze trailing him. In his mind he was tipping the bill of his cap at the dead man, over and over, but too much had come out already--just out, no thought, there you have it. He forced himself to focus on the parking lot beyond the double doors. Nothing to gain in stirring up the mud.

The car tops outside were iced with the weak glow of the street lamps. Kinski fished in a pocket for his keys. His fingers touched warm cloth and metal but he was looking at a larger-than-life image superimposed over the parking lot, the snapshot smile of a baby-faced blond kid with a taste for Juicyfruit and Camels. For a minute he could almost smell the burning stink of a thatched roof.

Kinski worked the lock on the patrol car but the face stayed, and finally Kinski's mind resigned itself to poling through dusty places. All he could come up with was Jim. Or maybe it was Gene.

 

 

Tommy Ha half-woke in the blackness.

"Thoa?" he mumbled, half-asleep. She had slid away from him and was reaching for the slippers beside the bed.

"It's Brian," she said. "He's crying."

"He'll stop." He reached an arm around her waist and drew her back toward him.

"No, Tommy. Not this time. He needs me."

He let go of her without a word. She took the black sweater from the chair, slipped it over her head and hurried to her son.

Shards of moonlight pierced the curtains in the boy's room. The air was close with the warmth of sobs and blankets.

"Mommy?"

Thoa pushed back the sheers; cool light spilled onto the carpet. Brian sat up and came to her blindly as she settled herself onto the edge of the bed. His small, shaking body burrowed eagerly into her arms.

Tommy had held her, when she'd first gone to bed, the way he would have held one of his cats, closely and with great care, and then he'd wanted to make love. Sex would never warm or fill the void of her father's death, but Tommy wouldn't know that. He was a businessman, every part of him a dealer in commodities and gain.

Brian was babbling for his grandfather in a mixture of Vietnamese and English, alternating sobs with speech. Thoa pulled the boy closer and began to hum a wandering tune she hadn't heard--hadn't even remembered--since she was a child, but under the warmth of the sweater she was cold and comfortless. Her father, her last link to the old ways, was gone. She wanted to soothe her son, warm and alive against her, but she felt miles away, as if she couldn't really touch him. Her throat continued to hum.

After a few minutes she could feel the quiet rhythm of her son's sleep. She eased him back onto the pillow and went to the kitchen for a drink of water. From the window she could see the flickering light of a candle in an upper window two houses away. It was the boy's window, she knew--Jason Calember; she'd seen him before as she passed the house. His mother had looked and nodded, one of those stiff nods people give in the presence of foreigners, and offered her half a smile. Jason hadn't noticed her, as he hadn't noticed her father.

It had merely happened. It had happened as things happen, without human planning, or by lack of it. The world revolved without human planning. Thoa set her cup on the counter and returned to her sleeping son.

 

 

The day after the accident Jason left school early. By the end of fourth period he was claustrophobic with people's half-disguised glances. Mostly they had said nothing, but they knew; there was something forced about the way they traded the usual small talk, as if nothing at all had happened; they looked at him the way you look at some sorry zoo specimen in a glass case. Their sympathy clung like cobwebs. They were sorry for him; no worry at all about the old man. Who was he to them?

Outside, fallen leaves swirled like brown paper lunch bags in the wind. There was something in the air, a smell and something more--fall come to stay. Jason crossed into the housing tract and walked past earth-tone homes with clipped lawns and ever-blooming bushes, past his own and on to the wall where the houses ended at the railroad tracks. He paused a moment and then slipped over the wall, letting himself down onto the rocky ground below.

He sat down on the sun-warmed end of a protruding drain pipe and stared at a slimy puddle that bubbled with life. The entire incident couldn't have lasted more than three seconds from the time he caught the old man in his headlights--he'd looked in the back of one of his textbooks for formulas on velocity and distance--but the farther the incident receded in real time, the more space is consumed in his mind, a kind of inversely proportional relationship. When it happened--when the police had come--he'd barely been able to give the facts to the officer. It was a simple case of see-hit-fly. Now every frame of the incident showed itself in his head, frozen for his inspection.

He scaled the chain link fence and walked along the tracks, balancing on the shiny surface of the rails and counting each creosote-stained tie as it passed under his feet. The old man floated semi-transparent before his eyes. He could make out a few long gray hairs curling gracefully in the wind. He'd been jaywalking, for godsake, just a crazy old man not paying any attention to the lights. They said he'd lived in the neighborhood for the past ten years. He should've known to watch for traffic if he was going to do that, no excuse. Maybe he was half-blind, or off his rocker. Maybe it had just been his time.

Jason kicked a pebble someone had left on the track and nearly lost his balance. The pebble clattered crazily down the rock embankment. He wondered if anyone would tell Mrs. Bosworth, his English teacher, that he'd been on campus today. He hoped they wouldn't call home when he didn't show up for class. Jennifer had offered to drive to the beach with him after school--just for a change of scenery, she'd said, and because the weather had been so warm. Maybe he'd go back later and see if Mrs. Bosworth was still around; no reason to flunk out over this thing. He'd memorized the shape of the old man against the pavement, though it had been too dark to see his face--he was glad about that--and the blood had trickled away at an angle on the sloped ground, dark in the half-light, not even a hint of red.

There hadn't been time to stop. It was sight-contact, that was all. Nobody could've done it.

 

 

Thoa drove to the funeral home in the afternoon with Brian to make the arrangements. Tommy thought it would be too morbid, taking the boy along. Judy, he'd said--he was back to calling her Judy--Judy, he's just a kid. He won't know what it's all about. Besides, it'll probably just give him nightmares and you'll be up all night with him again.

Brian held up better than she expected, better than she did. He helped her pick out a nice casket for his grandfather to sleep in, though he was concerned about an opening for the spirit to pass through. She told him the spirit could slip through anything; there was no need for a doorway. The man across the table from her had smiled indulgently.

When Thoa reached home she found the flowers Tommy had sent in memory of the father-in-law for whom he had had no love. She wandered from room to room with them and finally set them down on the coffee table in the living room for want of a better place. Brian wanted to light joss sticks--they smelled like Grandpa, he said solemnly--and she lit them on the small altar in the old man's room and kept the door closed so Tommy wouldn't complain about the smell when he got home. Then she sat on the bed with her son and watched the pale smoke curl toward the ceiling.

She hoped spirits could pass through caskets. She hoped her father's would have the strength to last its long journey in search of their ancestors.

She hoped there were spirits.

 

 

Ray Kinski sat on a stool at Fergie's staring through the yellowish glaze of two empty beer glasses. He'd taken the old shoe box off the shelf in the garage when he'd gotten off his shift and spent the next two hours poring over dozens of faded old photographs. The kid had been in a couple of them, but the pictures were unlabeled, all of them blank on the back. They'd smelled of the shoebox and the mildew of decomposing memories.

A frothy glass appeared in front of him. "Your buddies are looking for you," the bartender said, raising his eyebrows and nodding toward a table at Kinski's back.

"Thanks."

He glanced into the mirror behind the bar. Dave Carlson and Garcia were looking toward him, at least as far as he could tell. He stared down into the beer. The kid'd had blond curls, not much lighter than the liquid in front of him. And there was that girl he'd come up with--Loi, that was her name. Big broad smile, not much in the way of contours. But nice; she wasn't selling anybody out.

He glanced up into the mirror and wondered why it was the girl's name he'd remembered and not the grunt's. Behind him, Garcia was shoving Carlson in the bicep. Both of them were laughing; probably another one of Garcia's dumb blonde jokes. He could picture the kid for a minute, one arm around the girl's waist, the other hand holding an up-ended M-60. Grinning. Vietnamese Gothic.

He lifted the mug of beer and took a sip. Gator--that was it. That's what they'd called him, anyway. Gator from Boca Raton. Kinski took a second swallow and glanced up. Garcia and Carlson were going for seconds in a separate world beyond the glass.

 

 

Jason sat at his desk by the window struggling to start an English essay. Mrs. Bosworth had said nothing about his absence when he's shown up in her room after school. In fact, she'd smiled as if his coming canceled out the earlier indiscretion, and she'd given him the assignment, three pages on the resolution of A Separate Peace. Then she'd stopped and looked slightly away and cleared her throat. He could choose his own topic, she said; three pages on whatever he wanted. Jason wished she'd left the assignment alone. He could still see the old man flying, and the cries of the woman, the way she'd reached her hands upward, pleading, as if the sky had the power to change what had happened.

Why him? Why not some drunk, or another old man who'd only have to carry it around with him for ten or twelve years or might lose the memory of it altogether? At the dinner table his dad had said only, "You need to be really careful on the road these days." His mother had said, "You have to watch out for those people. Some of them can't even read the signs. They come out of primitive places and heaven only knows there are enough of them around here."

Maybe it would fade; they said things faded with time. Most likely that was just another adult scam.

The moon was rising through the tree beyond the window, huge and buttery yellow. After a while it would pale and shrink and he'd be able to make out the blue lines. Jason put pencil to paper and wrote "The moon..."

 

 

"See?" Brian Ha scooted across the bed in the darkness and pressed warm, damp lips against this mother's ear. He tickled her with his closeness. "Grandfather's spirit has the moon to light it," he whispered. "He can go on his journey to find the spirits of Thieu and Grandmother Hoa and Anh. Tomorrow he will find them and he won't be alone."

He settled down into the covers behind her.

"Mommy, do you think Grandfather's cold out in the wind?"

"No, Brian."

She reached a hand behind to pull him closer but all she could feel was the warmth of a small piece of metal she'd held as a child. She picked it up again in her mind and felt the smooth thinness of it with her memory--like a wafer--and the little bumps where the rows of tiny engravings were. The explosion came again, and the tinkling of the metal piece as it landed in a clatter at her feet, as if it had been shot straight to her.

 

 

At two a.m. Ray Kinski woke in a cold sweat for the first time in probably a dozen years. His girlfriend didn't know what to make of it. It was all he could do to sit on the edge of the bed and concentrate on breathing the images away. She kept saying, "Are you alright, Ray? This isn't like you. You sure you're not coming down with something?" and stroking him on the back and he'd say, "No, I'm okay. Just let it go, will you, Cindy? No use getting all worked up over nothing."

He wished she'd stop it with the hand but he wasn't going to say anything and scare her off the way he had Brenda.

 

 

A week after the accident Jason sat on the drain pipe by the railroad tracks, one hand gripping the open lip of the pipe, one arm around Jennifer Mattingly.

"Everybody's worried about you, Jason."

She had a finger through his belt loop on the far side. Her hair was near his cheek; it smelled good but somehow it didn't register the way it used to.

"I went to that party at Matt Ripley's the other night...with Tina and Jamie, you know? Everybody asked about you." She shifted and hesitated. "Actually, Matt asked me when you were going to come back to the living."

Jason took his arm off her shoulder. She sat up straight.

"Look, I didn't mean anything by it. Matt can be a real jerk and anyway, it must be hard, what you're going through. Do you... do you keep seeing it happen or anything like that?"

He turned away, toward the tracks, letting the sun's gleam-on-metal burn into his vision. "Sometimes. Sometimes I wonder what he was thinking--the old guy."

The silence was filled with nothing--no thoughts, no comfort. Jennifer rubbed her left shoe sideways against the right, then crossed her legs, one behind the other, and did it again. Her finger was still in his belt loop; she didn't seem to know how to take it out.

He moved the dial of his watch into his own shadow. "It's 1:14. You've got another class, don't you?"

"Yeah. History. Guess I better get back, huh? The Constitution. I'm lost in all those amendments."

She got up and brushed off the back of her skirt and picked up her book bag, hot pink with black handles. Jason saw her shoes, and the smooth tan of her legs. Her face was haloed by the sun; when she moved forward he missed the movement completely. There was only the contact of her arms going around his neck and a brief, soft smother of sweater and breasts up against his face. Then she backed away and walked off without a word.

Maybe he shouldn't have brought her here.

"Hey, Jennifer," he called, but she didn't seem to hear him; she only continued walking.

 

 

Brian Ha was asleep on his grandfather's bed. Thoa had allowed him to nap there in the middle of the day, when Tommy was away at work, though at night she put him down in his own room. She glanced at the boy in the subdued light, a small, curled shape against the mattress. He seemed the germ of her father.

She returned to her sorting at the dresser. She wanted to keep the old man's clothes but Tommy would think her foolish and sentimental. And who would want them now? Who in this country of new-or-dispose would use the worn clothes of an old Asian man? She squatted down and started to push through the socks in the bottom drawer. Tommy wanted the room for an office. Everything would be gone. There would be no trace, no breath of the old life.

In the end, she realized, she was adrift, homeless. She had lived nearly half her life in this place where she would never have the face of other than a foreigner. But no matter how she tried, it wasn't in her to shed the old life completely, the way Tommy had because it was expedient. Her father had been the waving flag firmly planted in the distance of her homeland, but now the banner was gone , the land it marked no longer visible.

There could be no returning. Not if night turned to day, nor in spite of Uncle Ngan's hopeful letters since the mails had started again. She was not the fifteen-year-old girl who had left, the one her family had entrusted in a time of fear and terror to the enterprising Tommy Ha. For a moment Thoa cursed the boy, Jason Calember, and the blind fate that moved the world forward. Then she dropped the socks back into the drawer and rose as if drawn. She went straight to her room, to the piece of yellowed tissue paper in the bottom drawer of her jewelry box. She slipped out the small, cold metal wafer and let it warm against her palm.

 

 

"But it's been over two weeks and I just can't get it out of my head."

Jason glanced away from Dr. DeSantis and around the room, his eyes roving over the sofa and the potted plants and the portrait sitting out from subdued wallpaper. It was all too strategically casual.

"Do you know the phrase 'immediate gratification', Jason? The concept's ended up seeping into our whole lifestyle like a poison. We've got a phone system that will let us talk to anybody else in the world now. We have credit cards that get us what we want now; we get to figure out how to pay for it later." The man crossed one leg over the other and sat back farther into his chair. "Unfortunately, that quick fix doesn't exist in the emotional world. The things that happen to us take time to pass. It's like a series of hills, gradual ups and downs.  Not elevators, where you get from Level A to Level B without sideways motion."

"Yeah, but I feel like I--"

"Like you're going crazy."

"Yeah."

"Look, you were what, eleven, when Chris died? Has your mind erased him?"

"No." Jason looked at the carpet, little random flecks of gray and tan and black. He hardly ever thought of Chris anymore.

"Well, I haven't either." DeSantis' voice seemed to lose volume suddenly and run dry. Jason kept his eyes at shin level. "You never forget your own son. You take people--things--around with you through your whole life. But eventually your mind puts them into a package that's a lot easier to carry around."

De Santis leaned forward, as if the depth of the chair were suddenly uncomfortable. "Look, Jason. The thing to realize is that it's normal to go through this; you'd be crazy if you didn't think about it. But it'll lessen with time. And the first step to helping it diminish is to see that it wasn't your fault. It wasn't you, Jase. You've got to be willing to let it go."

Jason nodded agreement while his eyes probed a space between gray and black yarns. "Yeah, I guess. Well, thanks." He looked up briefly. "You won't tell my parents I came, will you?"

"No." DeSantis smiled and held out his hand. "It's strictly between you and me."

Jason stood and shook the outstretched hand, then followed the traffic pattern in the carpet to the door and turned the handle. Outside, on the street, cars raced by in the brightness of afternoon.

 

 

At his break, Sgt. Kinski sat down at a vacant desk and flipped through the Yellow Pages for travel agents. The idea had come to him in the middle of the night, when he'd managed to wake without disturbing Cindy. He'd never been there. It had always seemed an admission that you'd held onto the war too fiercely or too long, going to The Wall. He wasn't sure what Cindy would say--or what he'd say to Cindy--but he wanted to see it now. Something in him wanted to breathe life into the names carved there and see his own reflection in the polished black surface.

He waited through the ringing on the other end of the line, but when a woman's voice answered he said nothing and eased the receiver back into place.

 

 

Not his fault. He knew it wasn't his fault but he was sick of having other people excuse him. Especially his mother, who never thought any farther than her own family. At first her main concern was whether there would be any charges pressed against him. When it was clear there wouldn't be any, her nervousness had dissolved for the most part, its residue finding a home in rumblings about 'those people' or worrying about whether he was happy, whether he was eating, whether he was 'back to normal'. As if the old man had just been a pesty inconvenience, like dust on the furniture.

Jason rolled onto his side and stuffed the edges of the pillow under his head. There was no longer any harvest moon to keep him company, only the uninterrupted darkness of past-midnight. He reached for the candle on the night stand and lit it. A small flame danced quietly above the wick.

Maybe it wasn't his fault, but how could he get around the fact that it was his car that had hit the old man, his foot on the pedal, his hands on the steering wheel? If he'd been somewhere else--if he'd decided to stay home or go check for Mike at the video place before he'd left the shopping center--the old man would still be alive, doing whatever it was old men did, playing cards or writing letters to some other old ancient guy, or sipping tea in an easy chair with a TV tray in front of him to hold the sugar or catch the spills.

Maybe he could write her a letter, the woman. Just a simple 'I'm sorry'.

He didn't even know who she was, and anyway, what good would it do? He thought of DeSantis, the way his voice had trailed away, and about Chris--the two of them playing tag football and Chris's dog Spark always tackling the ball and slobbering it up. Spark was too old to run for anything now.

Then he thought of Jennifer Mattingly, the way she'd come up close against him. He blew out the candle and pulled the covers up high under his chin.

 

 

Thoa stood in the darkness of the kitchen and counted the number of nights she had seen the boy's light on past two a.m. It seemed to wake her, too, as if she had some living link to him, this Jason Calember.

It had only happened.

She thought of her father lying crumpled and bleeding in the street, his life already gone, the fluids that had held it draining slowly toward the gutter. Lights flashed in her mind again, pulsing red and yellow, and the silent white stares of passing cars. Then the scene changed to explosion.

Some things only happened. Others most certainly did not.

Thoa's hand slipped deep into the pocket of her robe and felt for the warm metal of the tag. She rubbed her fingers back and forth slowly over the numbers as if they were the beads of a rosary. She could picture the name on the tag, the blood type--O--and the numbers she'd memorized even when her conscious mind had refused. Johnston, not Johnson. She wondered if his friends had called him Will. She didn't even know who he was, only that he'd been one of three, that she had thrown the grenade to avenge what had happened to Anh, that as it hit she had known with ten-year-old clarity that she'd been duped by the older boy Tran. These were not the men responsible. But the metal tag came flying out and landed at her own bare feet, an accusation. She'd picked it up and run.

"Judy?" The door swung open. Tommy's head appeared in silhouette. "You've been getting up a lot lately. You need more sleep. It's making you look worn out."

"In a minute."

She glanced up at Jason's darkened window and then followed her husband to bed. Tommy put his arm around her, his fingers working into her hair. She closed her eyes and tried to put everything out of her mind. She wondered if Mrs. Johnston had her son's picture on a white mantel thick with crocheted doilies and family mementos, and if she dusted it every day.

 

 

Ray Kinski leaned eyes-closed against the tile shower wall, waiting for the hot water to carry off the dream's residue. Warm drops spilled steadily from his nose and elbows. He could make out Gator's smile, one arm around the girl, Loi. Vietnamese Gothic.

The glass door clicked. Cindy looked at him, bleary-eyed.

"You had nightmares again, didn't you, Ray? God, I wish you'd go and see somebody, see a doctor or something. Just do something. It's not good for you, letting it go on and on like this."  She looked drawn.

"Look, rabbit," he said softly. "Some things you just have to untangle on your own. Go back to bed, okay?" He leaned over and touched her forehead with his lips. "I'll be there in a minute."

She looked up. "Will you really?"

Water dripped from his hair down onto her cheeks.

"Yeah, really."

She moved to go, then turned back and caught him around the waist. He gathered her in against him. From above, the shower head sprayed water on both of them.

Maybe he'd say something about Washington, maybe not. What would she think? She was worn out with this, he knew that much. Maybe she'd leave the way Brenda had. He didn't want her to go.

In his head, he and Gator were dragging the screaming McKenzie toward a medic, running and dodging automatic fire. In between breaths they kept telling him he was going to be alright, but in his head Kinski was wondering if they'd make it those last few yards, any of them.

 

 

Jason picked up a scrap of dried root that lay by the side of the drain pipe. It was smooth and sun-bleached; he ran his thumb along the grooves in it, memorizing them the way he'd memorized the scene in front of him.

He worked the pocket knife from his jeans and began to carve carefully at the wood. It seemed to want to shape itself into something, a shore bird maybe. Jennifer liked beach stuff; maybe if it turned out nice he'd give it to her.

Fat chance.

He hadn't seen her for weeks, except to pass her in the hallway at school between classes; usually one of them would move into the flow of the crowd to avoid contact. "It's you that's pulling away," she'd said the last time. "You're pulling away from everything, Jason." She was right, too--he knew she was--but he didn't know how to stop it. He'd been drawn off into some subset he couldn't quite identify, though it wasn't everyone who noticed. He went to classes; he did his homework; at least, he went through the motions. For his mother's sake, he ate. But he rarely drove--never drove at night--and when he left the house it was usually on his skateboard and he nearly always ended up here, at the tracks. He knew the numbers of all the Santa Fe engines and what time the Amtraks came through and how many cars they carried.

He still saw the old man floating, though it didn't make his lungs feel like iron anymore. It only made him weary, like a movie he'd seen too many times or the jingle from some stupid ad stuck inside his head. He just wished it would go away.

Then he'd seen the woman again last night. Just before dusk--just like the other time--walking past his house with the little kid. It had given him the shakes; he'd ducked back inside the front door, almost certain she hadn't seen him. Finally, when they were out of sight, he'd crept outside in time to see her go into a house two doors away. He'd wanted to believe she was someone else, that he hadn't seen enough the night of the accident to know what she really looked like, that it'd been too dark, everything too swirled like in a dream--it'd been like a dream--but his mind didn't buy it. She lived right there; he'd seen her. Maybe she'd seen him, too, not now but some other time. You could see her kitchen window from his room. He wondered if she stood there and looked up, hating the kid who'd run over her father.

He'd managed to fall asleep easily enough last night, but then he'd wakened past midnight, the way he had at first, and spent probably a couple of hours starting letters of apology, fussing over her name (maybe she was Chinese or Korean, he didn't know--a Wong or a Kim or something) and how to find out for sure what it was, struggling with openings (I'm sorry about, it was just that), finding big holes in the logic or the delivery of each one. He wondered if he'd just be opening old wounds. Then he thought about Chris, and Rich DeSantis the other day, the way his voice had run dry, like a pen running out of ink.  It had been five years. Finally all his attempts ended up in the wastebasket--torn into little bits so his mother wouldn't find them--and he'd gone back to bed, exhausted.

The piece of root snapped suddenly under the knife's pressure. One leg gone, maybe the whole thing. Jason stuffed the wood and the knife into his jacket pocket and headed for the tracks. He looked both ways and stepped up onto the polished surface of the rail, balancing on one foot and then starting slowly down the line. Ties and the mosaic of rocks between them slipped silently past him in soothing, hypnotic patterns.

"Hey, kid!"

The scent of sun-warmed creosote filled his nose.

"Hey!"

Jason spread his arms slightly for balance.

A siren wailed briefly. Jason fell onto the rocks and looked up. A police car was on the access road, the officer leaning against the driver's door. He didn't look pleased.

"This is a restricted area," the cop said, coming toward him. "You're old enough to read the signs." He stopped in front of Jason, scowling into the sun. His mustache twitched once. His uniform was snug, the way police uniforms always were. Maybe to intimidate you with the build showing through. "You been piling rocks on the tracks?"

"No." Jason started to get up. One leg was twisted under him. Rocks poked into his ankle.

"I could haul you in, and I probably should. We've had a lot of vandalism around here and you look guilty just being in the area. It's not going to be a pretty sight if a freight train derails here, or an Amtrak. You know what it's like having that kind of thing on your conscience?"

Jason wanted to say no, say yes--god, yes. He didn't say anything at all. He didn't like the way the officer's eyes drilled into him. He glanced away, to the badge and name tag. "I was just walking here, that's all," he said finally, not looking at anything in particular.

"Yeah, well, find someplace else to take a walk. The tracks are off limits."

"Yes, sir."

"What?"

Jason's eyes jerked up. "I said, yes sir."

The man pulled out a notebook and a pen. "Name?" he said, not bothering to look at Jason again.

"Jason Calember."

"Address?"

"4326 Briarwood. It's right over there," he added, pointing.

The man suddenly looked up and into him. "Age?" he said after a long pause.

"Sixteen."

"Birthdate?"

Jason told him. The pen was moving slower now. It paused once or twice and then stopped. The mustache twitched back and forth once and the man looked up. "You the kid who ran over that old man last month?"

Jason froze and nodded finally. He felt warm and sick inside. The officer continued to eye him. When the man spoke again, the words were strangely quiet.

"Look, I could haul you in for this. I'm at least supposed to take you home to your parents, but you're probably hauling enough around already. Find another place to get your exercise, okay?"

"Yeah, sure."

"And look." He pulled something from his shirt pocket. "If you need somebody to talk it out with, you can give me a call, alright? Any time." He pressed a card into Jason's hand and walked away.

Jason stared after the man, puzzled, and watched until the patrol car disappeared in a whirl of dust. His thumb rubbed softly over the raised lettering and he looked down to read it. Sgt. Raymond Kinski, it said. There was a phone number in the lower right corner.

 

 

"No more, Judy. Maybe when he's older, but not now. I let him speak it with your father, but if he keeps it up it's going to turn him into a little refugee."

"But he was born here. He hears English all around him."

"Exactly. Brian was born here and he's going to live here and he needs to be able to cope like any other kid. There's no use trying to make him into something he's not. You want him to end up like those people over in Little Saigon, on welfare or in a gang or something? They're going nowhere, Judy. If you're going to make it here you've got to take a hard look. You've got to work yourself into the system. You've got to take a piece of it and make it work for you." Tommy Ha got up from the chair. "You've got to face what you are, not what you want to be."

Thoa dug her fingers into her pockets and walked out into the kitchen. The metal of the tag was warm, like a living body. She looked out the window. It would be foolish to tell the boy of what had happened. Perhaps it would only be self-serving, an attempt to relieve the pressure of her own guilt, and how could he possibly understand, this boy of sixteen, the forces that could drive a young girl to end three men's lives--American boys, like himself. He couldn't possibly understand. He'd only driven a car into a frail old man in the glare of the harvest moon. She had deliberately pulled the pin, had practiced with many rocks to be able to throw the proper distance, and her arm had aimed carefully at the soldiers. She'd wanted them to die.

Thoa looked up at the boy's window. It was dark, the glass reflecting the thumbnail shape of the new moon. Perhaps it no longer touched him, what had happened. She should face facts; she should go forward.

 

 

Ray Kinski looked into his half-empty beer mug. He was probably nuts to have looked up the file in the first place. It was only an accident for godsake, a kid and an old man, the stuff of everyday. He was getting soft, and soft meant rotting, and then the trash can, like spoiled fruit. What would he do if he rotted right off the force? Still, the kid shouldn't have to live with it.

He shook himself and took hold of the mug handle, downing the remaining liquid in one gulp.

 

 

Jason picked up his skateboard, then set it down and picked it up again. He felt the splintered edges where the curbs had caught it. There was something inside him, ticking low and steady, a ticking that wouldn't go away. He set the board down behind the front door and went out.

It was beyond reasoning now. He rehearsed no words in his mind. But his feet kept moving, one in front of the other, moving toward the house two doors away. He passed through the shade that spilled cool across the walkway, went straight to the front door and rang the bell. The ticking was going faster now, warming him. He thought of nothing, as if the moment had stretched into a dark, cool pool and he'd dived, mindless, into its soothing depths.

When the door opened, the woman stepped back. There were wrinkles at the corners of her eyes. He couldn't read her expression. He saw only lips, and the broadness of her nose, and shallow-set eyes.

"I've come--" he started, and the words evaporated. Dry radiator, that was what he thought. Dry radiator overheating. He was hot. The woman opened the door wider, her eyes still unreadable.

"My name is Thoa," she said, and he repeated the word twice, curling it on his tongue to get it right. He was inside now and she was leading him to a chair. His face was red; he could feel the heat though there was no mirror to look into.

"I'm sorry," he said as he settled onto the edge of the chair. His voice came from far away. He could almost see himself as if from above. The woman sat on the edge of the chair opposite; she reached into her pocket and took out something small and metallic, looking suddenly eager to speak.

"There was a boy," she began, then stopped. She curled the object into her hand and looked away.

"No, go ahead," he said. "Go on."

"There was a boy..." she began, focusing on him now.

 

 

"It's the war, isn't it, Ray?"

Kinski gripped the edge of the mattress with one hand. He was soaked with sweat again. He stank.

"Isn't it, Ray?"

"What if it is?" He hated doing this, hated taking it back and forth with her this way. She wasn't yelling, like Brenda. She wasn't saying why can't you ever let go of it, why do you keep holding on, are you nuts or something?

"Why can't you just tell me about it?"

"Because you weren't there. There's no way you could understand if you weren't there. I was nineteen--a goddamn teenager. I was there and I didn't understand it." He got up and strode into the bathroom, closing the door behind him.

The sink was leaking, a steady silent stream of cold water, and he cupped his hands under it until his little reservoir filled, then splashed it in his face. He could make out nothing in the mirror.

"Ray..."

He could hear Cindy's slippers padding softly up to the door. Her voice was quiet, pleading.

"Ray, maybe I wasn't there. Maybe I'd never understand, but I'd try. I love you, Ray. I want to understand. Don't you see that? I want to understand. Doesn't that count for something?"

Kinski felt something inside him loosen. He stood a moment in the blackness, then wiped his face on the hand towel and reached for the door.
 

(end)

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