Saturday, San Francisco, ’73

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Note: For prompt 4 of Covid Metamorphosis, we were to retell a friend’s story, making it into something new. I used a story my former pre-school teacher told me, long after I was legal. I started writing this without picking names for the characters, and decided to keep it that way.

Saturday, San Francisco, ’73

They exited the restaurant, laughing. She was still wearing her server’s penny around her waist. He is jeans (and part of his shirt) were covered with spaghetti sauce. They both had long hair and both their jeans ended in bell-bottoms.

“I have a washer in my apartment,” she told him. “No dryer, but there’s a line on the balcony, and the coffee’s free. Or I could just give you quarters… ?”

“How far’s your place.?”

“Not far. Half a mile.”

“Got parking?”

“Just the curb. You’ll have to move it in the morning, though. Street cleaning.”

“You’re assuming I’ll be there in the morning.” It wasn’t a question. He was teasing her. Flirting.

“Mmm. Maybe. If you like my coffee.” She was teasing too.

“I’ll drive.”

They got in his old red beater, the perfect representation of the word “jalopy,” even though no one used that word anymore.

Her apartment was a flat carved out of what was once a single-family home. The balcony was really a broad landing on a fire-escape out the back, but the bathroom had a clawfoot tub and a Victorian shower, and the kitchen was bright and airy.

The bedroom… the bedroom was small, but neat. Colored scarves were pinned to the walls to hide the cracked plaster. They were hung over the windows, too, to filter the light. The living room had one of those famous San Francisco bay windows that everyone took pictures of.

“Strip,” she told him, directing him to the bathroom. “There’s a bathroom on the back of the door.”

Her robe, he realized putting it on. It ended a few inches above his knees. The arms came to a stop midway between his elbows and wrists. He walked out of the room on bare feet and handed her his balled-up clothes. Sheepishly, he told her, “My, uh, shorts are in there, too.”

She laughed. “So, you’re naked under my robe.”

“Very.”

“Hmm.”

She pulled off the penny and kicked off her shoes, both at once, then stepped out of her jeans in front of him. “We’re a little more even now.” All the discarded clothing joined his in the small washer tucked into the kitchen. She added soap and started the machine. “65 minutes, and don’t be alarmed if you hear thudding. It’s off balance… and really old. Coffee?”

“Sure.”

She brewed it in one of those stove-top espresso machines that he’d only seen in art films – French and Italian, mostly – and it came out thick and strong. “There’s milk in the fridge.”

He found it, doctored his own coffee, and after a nod from her, splashed some into the other mug as well.

She brought out a box of Stella D’oro anisette toast. “I know… only old people eat these, right? But my grandmother loved them, and they taste like home.” He followed her into the living room, and they sat on her couch (it was covered with Mexican cotton blankets) and got to know each other.

“So, you’re not from the City?”

“Is anyone? No. From New Jersey.”

“I’m from Philly!”

“Practically neighbors!”

He learned that she wanted to be a writer, and he could tell from the books piled everywhere that she was also a reader. He shared that he played the guitar, but really wanted  to open his own café someday. “The kind of place that’s like a pub, but with coffee, you know? The neighborhood hangout.”

She told him about the “penny universities” from 18th and 19th century England and Europe, where scholars and writers and philosophers would often hold court all day, and people could come in and listen for the price of a cup of coffee – a penny – and a story.

He grinned. “That’s what I’m talkin’ about.”

“I’ve always wanted to have a table in a place like that, where I could sit all day and write and just let the sounds of the rest of the customers’ conversations wash over me,” she said.

The rain started just as the washer stopped.

“No problem,” he said. “Your oven work?”

It did, and he’d learned that if you bake jeans at 200(F) for 45 minutes, they were dry enough to wear. T-shirts, socks and shorts didn’t take as long, but they were using all the racks, so they set a timer for an hour.

She was standing behind him when he stood up, and it seemed only natural that they should kiss at that point.

Coffee and anise flooded his senses. Coffee and anise and sunshine, because her strawberry-blonde hair was bright like the sun and smelled like summer.

They kissed until they were out of breath.

“I want to make love with you,” he said.

“With? Not to?” She seemed amused.

“Sex should be equal, don’t you think? So, yeah, with.”

“Your clothes will burn.”

“Read me something you wrote then?”

They went back to the couch and she read to him from a well-worn moleskine notebook filled with penciled lines. Her poetry was raw and real, and her voice was strong as she read. As if she was used to it.

“You read to all the guys you spill spaghetti on?” he asked, teasing.

“No… only the ones who let me wash their shorts,” she shot back.

They laughed together, her warm alto and his lower base blending together.

The timer went off.

The clothing was still damp.

“I’ll turn it off,” she said. “Let them finish on their own heat.” She clicked off the oven, and they stared at each other for a long moment. “Bedroom’s this way,” she reminded him, and led the way.

* * *

They woke up hours later to find that the rain was still falling, and his clothes were dry. “I should go,” he said, more to give her an ‘out’ than because he truly wished to leave.

“Why?” she asked.

He didn’t have an answer.

In the morning, they showered (separately) and brushed their teeth (together) – she had a spare toothbrush. “Mom always sends one in every package,” she told him. “Yes, it’s true: my mother’s a dental hygienist.”

“My mom teaches Sunday school.”

“Wow.”

“You know it.”

She didn’t work that day, so they got back in his car and went to find bagels and coffee. They ended up at a café in the Haight, not far from the diner where she worked. It was a busy morning. But then, all Saturday mornings were busy in that neighborhood, unless the Dead were in town. You could always tell if the Grateful Dead were playing nearby because the Haight would be empty.

They inherited a section of the daily paper from the previous occupant of their table – the obituaries – and had fun reading them aloud to each other and making up background stories for the people they’d read about.

“Vic Johnson, 79, leaves behind a wife, and three Puli dogs. Donate to the local Humane Society in lieu of flowers,” he read.

“Ohh, that’s sad. They tried to have children for years, and never managed. They adopted dogs instead and doted on them, except for the one time the oldest dog urinated on the wife’s heirloom quilt. They were His Dogs after that.”

“You’re better at this than I am,” he said.

“Well, I am a writer,” she pointed out.

They exited the café holding hands, only to find someone – tanned skin, dark brown hair and beard, paisley shirt draped carelessly over faded, ratty bell-bottom jeans – leaning against the car. He recognized him as the guy who lived down the hall from his apartment.  They bummed weed from each other from time to time.

“Hey.”

His neighbor started laughing. “Man, I saw your car and had to wait for you. I have this freaking fantastic story… I’ll tell it for a toke.”

He didn’t have anything, but she stepped forward. “A story for a joint?” And she pulled one out of the macramé bag she was carrying. “Do tell?”

The neighbor turned and pointed. “See that blue bug over there?” They looked at the car he was indicating. “So, I was walking by and I saw a fur coat in the back of that car. And I thought… that coat would buy a shit-ton of grass, right? So, I was gonna break into the car and steal the coat… and I put my hands up like this – “and he cupped his hands around his face – “to see in better, and I tapped on the back window to see if it was gonna be easy…”

“Seriously?” she was incredulous and turned to him. “How do you know this guy.”

“Neighbor,” he answered.

“Oh.”

The neighbor kept going. “Anyway, I tapped on the window and all of a sudden the coat jumped up and started barking. Three heads. Gnashing teeth and curly black fur. Crazy, man. It was crazy. And then I saw your car and I thought, “Man, I gotta tell Barney.”

“It’s a good story,” he said, trying to ease out of the conversation. “But… I’m not Barney.”

“You’re not?” The neighbor peered into his face. “Man… you’re not. You’re… wait I know this… you live in 2 B.” He glanced at the woman with the strawberry-blonde hair. “Wait, then… you’re not Sheryl, are you?”

“Nope,” she said smoothly.

“You look familiar though… like… I’ve seen you before. With a plate. Dude! You’re the chick from the diner. Wow. Congrats, 2-B. Nice score!”

“And with that remark,” she said. “You’ve lost your chance for a joint.”

“Man, I didn’t mean… I’m sorry…” the neighbor turned around and pinned his gaze on someone else, up the street. “Hey… I see Barney. Actual Barney. He has to hear this story…” and the neighbor unpeeled himself from the car and walked off, still laughing.

They watched him go, then got in the red beater. It was, as far as they could tell, unharmed. “It’s a nice day,” she said. “Wanna go to Ocean Beach? Share this joint. Watch the waves?”

“Clam chowder after is on me.”

“Cool.”

They drove through the city, enjoying the freedom of a sunny Saturday morning, when suddenly he slammed the breaks. “Damn!” he said. “I bet those dogs were poor Vic’s Pulis!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eclipse

Like the Prose: Challenge #1 – So today we write about birth. Perhaps write an autobiographical story about a memorable birthday party? Or a funny anecdote that happened to a friend at a birthday? Perhaps a surreal story about someone being born?

 

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It’s hot. It’s hot and it’s humid and the only thing that makes this hot-and-humid different from the hot-and-humid he was in a week ago is that a week ago there was blood in his boots from marching through the jungle in the dark and now he’s not wearing boots; his feet are wrapped in cotton gauze and there are blue cloth booties over that.

There’s gauze around his right bicep, too, and bandages over that, and he can’t tell if the wetness seeping through the layers of cotton and gauze is sweat or blood or both, and he wants to look but he also doesn’t.

It’s early morning, the time when choppers usually come out of the night… or the planes come to blanket the jungle with strafing fire. Ignoring his arm, he turns his head to look out the window. There’s a partial lunar eclipse, they told him, but he’s not sure he wants to see the moon in shadow.

The moon has always been his friend.

He closes his eyes, but he swears he can hear the blades of the whirlybirds circling closer and closer and feel the breeze from their spinning blades….

The smell of bacon – bacon? – and antiseptic take him out of the war-torn jungle and put him back in the here-and-now.

He’s Private Miller. Gregory Miller. Drafted. Taught to shoot at people he never had an issue with. People who were shooting at him for reasons he’s still not sure of. And they didn’t miss, but they also didn’t kill him, so he’s back stateside in New Jersey, in August, in a hospital with no a/c and a rickety fan that sounds like an incoming helicopter… at least to someone like him.

A corpsman comes with a breakfast tray and he asks about the heat.

Energy crisis, he’s told. Only the surgical theaters, ICU, and maternity wards have cooling, per orders of the commander-in-chief.

He’s been taught to respect the office, if not the man, but he can’t help but wonder if Tricky Dick is doing this to punish the military for not crushing the VC and ousting Ho Chi Minh.

He eats his breakfast. The bacon and eggs are real, not rations, and the coffee is amazing, despite the hot-and-humid that’s settled into his bones, even here, in the clean, bright, hospital.

When the corpsman comes for the tray, he asks for help to use the bathroom, and then he goes back to bed and loses himself in sleep. He isn’t really sleepy, but at the same time, he’s exhausted.

* * *

The light has changed when he wakes again, in time for lunch. A burger, fries, a salad, an icy cold Coke in a glass bottle. Vintage. He’d kill for a beer, but the cola is almost as good right now. It’s proof he’s really home. Or close to it, anyway.

After lunch another corpsman comes to help him to the bathroom. He’s shaky. His feet are tender, but he’s grateful to have them. He was half-convinced he’d wake up to find stumps – he remembers the line of infection starting up his leg. Luck. It’s all just fucking luck.

The corpsman has a wheelchair waiting when he leaves the bathroom, but he doesn’t take him back to the ward.

“Am I being kidnapped?” he asks, only half-kidding.

“Nope. Rescued.”

The corpsman is the size of a linebacker, black, with dark eyes that are difficult to read. His looks make him more likely to be on a football field or at the door of a disreputable bar than in a military hospital. But Miller feels like the bigger man can be trusted.

“Thought I already was.”

“Rescue,” the corpsman says, “is an ongoing process.”

He accepts the statement as they leave the general ward and enter the maternity ward. Cool air wraps around him almost immediately, and he sighs, sinking into it. “Ohhh, that’s nice.”

“Yup, it is. But ya gotta earn it.”

“Oh?”

“Yup.”

“How?”

They enter a room full of bassinets. About half aren’t in use. Some hold sleeping babies. The rest… he realizes that while some of the people in the rockers are new mothers, new fathers, some are wounded vets, like him.

“I don’t have a kid here,” he says.

“I know.” The corpsman stops him near a bassinet with a baby girl in it (he knows it’s a girl because she’s got a pink bow taped to her bassinet. There’s no name yet.) “Did you know that human contact in the first few hours after birth is crucial for newborns? This little girl just joined us today. Her mother’s asthmatic. It was a rough delivery. She’s exhausted. It’d be a big help if you could hold her for a while.”

“I’ve never held a baby.”

“I’ll teach you.”

“But… I… won’t her father be pissed…?”

“He’s – ah – not in the picture.”

He moves to the rocker, lets the corpsman place the tiny baby in his hands. She’s not even as long as his arm, from elbow to wrist. And she smells clean and new… Ivory soap and new beginnings wrapped in a cotton blanket.

The rocking begins unconsciously. He’s in a rocker. It’s what you do. The singing. Well. Probably no one’s ever tried to turn “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” into a lullaby before, but the baby doesn’t seem to care about the lyrics.

And the air conditioning is bliss.

* * *

He comes to rock the little girl every day that week, always in the late afternoon. On Friday, they wheel in a woman wearing a yellow nightgown under her hospital-issue robe and slippers. “I think you’re in my spot,” she says, her tone wry.

“You’re her mother?”

“Yes.”

“She’s beautiful.” He gives up the rocker, and hands over the baby, asking, “Have you picked a name yet?”

“I was going to name her after my brother, but he insisted that I can’t burden a child with a name like his.”  She shares the name with him, and he agrees it’s awful.

“Is your brother a soldier?”

The woman looks away. “Not exactly.”

AWOL then, he’s guessing, or something else. “I’m sorry. I’m just – ”

Yellow-nightgown woman is quick to assure him, “No, it’s fine. My father’s career Army. He’ll fix it, but it hurt him, and… it’s just hard.” She pauses. Her tone is softer when she asks, “Were you at Ripcord?”

He is surprised she knows the name. Most people just know “Vietnam” and nothing else. Most people don’t care about the details. “Yeah. It was… ”

“You don’t have to tell me,” she says. “I’m glad you got out.”

“Thank you,” he answers, because he doesn’t know what else to say. The corpsman comes to take him back to his bed, then, but he offers, as he leaves, “Maybe you could use the first letter of your brother’s name. And… if it helps? I usually find inspiration in the shower.”

She smiles at his suggestion then turns her entire focus on her tiny daughter.

He goes back to bed. Someone in the ward has found a radio, and he finds himself listening to the Phillies play Houston in a double header. They win one and lose won, and he chuckles as he eats his dinner, because the results seem a perfect metaphor for his life, the war, the world.

* * *

On Saturday, when the corpsman wheels him to the nursery, the little girl is gone, and a baby boy with tight black curls is waiting to be held. Mark is his name, and his skin isn’t as dark now as it one day will be, he is told, but a baby is a baby is a baby and there’s something cleansing in holding these new lives.

Still, he is pleased to find that the charge nurse has a message for him: “The captain’s daughter says to tell you that the shower helped, and the baby’s name is Melissa.”

He is Private Miller, comma, Gregory, and he served three years in Vietnam, and made it home wounded, but alive. He will never tell anyone – not his priest, not his best friends, not even the woman he will one day marry – about the children his unit killed, or the children his unit left parentless and homeless, or the families whose homes  were burned, or any of the other horrible things he saw. He  will wrap those memories inside a piece of olive drab canvas and hide them in the deepest part of his heart.

But he will also hold onto a better memory: On the day after the eclipse, on a hot and humid day in the middle of August, he met a brand new baby and was reminded that hope still exists in the world.

He will continue to be reminded of that every time one of his own children is born, and his grandchildren as well.

And he will often volunteer to rock them.