In 1965, a ‘57 Chevy plowed into two parked cars on a back street in Freeport. Sal doesn’t know why, but he imagines the Chevy as baby blue with a single white pin stripe. He imagines his father, Jim, the driver of the car, standing before the bench at the Nassau County Court. A boy of eighteen, Jim’s hair is slicked back with Vaseline and he wears tight black pants. His leather shoes with pointed tips shine brighter than the polished wood floor of the courtroom. Sal’s grandfather is there, staring at the back of Jim’s greasy head.
A path cutting through a field somewhere in Vietnam more closely resembles the backyard of Sal’s childhood. He feels the presence of his father behind him, the smell of a Marlboro, the red and black flannel Jim wears peeking into Sal’s peripheral vision, always at the edge of his sight. Sal is in the middle of a procession of thirty soldiers, all marching in place on this path where a kiddy pool with sparkling water floats by just above the ground, and a clothesline with clothes pins throws a thin shadow over each man’s face as it moves down the line. Always up ahead is the blue ‘57 Chevy, nudged into the sides of two parked cars, or gray, fuzzy objects that look like cars with a texture of roasted marshmallows.
Sal stares at the back of the man’s shaved head who is marching in front of him. The voice of Sal’s father whispers, “That’s Pete. The guy right behind you is Smitty.”
Smitty has a big smile on his face. He squints from the sun so hard that his eyebrows almost touch.
Smitty says, “Hey, Pete. Got a letter from Rachel. Rachel, Rachel, Rachel the nurse, the nurse with red hair. She will be my wife, you bet. We’ll have a bar in Texas, me and my wife.”
Sal smiles at Smitty and then faces forward.
Jim whispers to Sal, “Your mother will be my wife. There’s that letter.” A piece of paper appears, pinned to the back of Pete’s green shirt. There are hearts inked in the margin and round, bubbly letters from the top of the page to the bottom. Little circles dot the i’s. “It says everything. It smells like her perfume. She put lipstick on just to kiss it. Think about that.”
Sal sees his mother kissing the paper in her bedroom in Freeport. Her hair curls upward and out at her shoulders. Her eyes are closed. Then there are two loud bangs followed by two muffled thumps. She quickly opens her eyes and turns her head.
The whole line of soldiers, except for Pete and Smitty, jump into narrow holes on the sides of the trail and disappear for what feels like forever. Sal stands between Pete and Smitty in air so thick that it holds him in place, as though suspended in gelatin. Pete and Smitty have dropped to their knees and are about to fall over. Thick clouds of dust rise up around their legs and thin out by their waists. Blood trickles from their temples, drip off their chins in heavy drops, and then hit the ground, creating little spurts of dust clouds inside the larger clouds dissipating in the air surrounding the kneeling soldiers.
“What do you do?” Jim’s singing voice whispers. “One, two, three soldiers all in a row. One, two bullets. Three? Three? Three?”
“What are you going to do?” another voice demands. Sal turns to a field full of polished mahogany-colored grass like so many long splinters of wood sticking in the ground. At the front edge of the field sits the Nassau County judge behind an old, wooden desk. His hair was white and his skin is loose on his face. Behind the judge, at the far edge of the field, there stands the Vietnam Memorial from Bald Hill in Farmingville—an elongated white pyramid with a wide base that gets smaller and smaller as the walls rise up, forming into a point at the top. Around the top, the American flag is painted on an angle, the way a real flag hangs on a pole on a windless day. The sky is a shiny, baby blue. A green plane flies overhead, leaving a streak of white across the sky.
The Judge says, “What are you going to do? Criminal or hero? Look at your father, Jim. Look at his face. Does he want a criminal for a son, or is he the father of a hero?”
Jim whispers in Sal’s head, “I stole and broke that blue machine. It was jail or the service. They gave me a choice.”
“Look at your father, Jim,” the judge says.
Sal looks at his grandfather, Jim’s father.
Jim’s father says, “I always liked the marine uniform.”
Thirty soldiers marched in place. A kiddy pool floats by and a clothesline passes overhead. When it passes over Sal’s head, he hears his mother sing, “Who are the people in your neighborhood? Sal: who are the people in your neighborhood?”
Sal is small and wet in the kiddy pool, and his mother is hanging white socks on the clothesline. The day is a blue sky with no wind. Inside the house, a TV is turned on.
Sal’s mother says, “Sal, go inside and see your father.”
Sal comes out of the pool dry and goes inside the house. In the dark living room his father sits on the blue couch by the stairs. His hair has grown into unkempt shag. A full beard softens his jaw-line, and his belly rests a few inches over his belt.
Jim looks at his son and lights a cigarette. The flame from the match brings out a yellow tint in his bloodshot eyes.
Sal sits on his father’s lap.
An old man on the TV says, “Is there a hero in you?”
Sal grabs the remote control and changes the channel to PBS. They watch Sesame Street. Sal can see his father’s red and black flannel in the corners of his sight. Smoke from the Marlboro saunters lazily in front of his face. Empty bottles of Budweiser cover the coffee table.
Cookie Monster appears on the screen and says, “Sesame Street was brought to you today by the color blue, the letters A, W, O, and L, and the numbers one two, and-”
Two shots are fired. It startles Cookie Monster and he quickly turns his head. Smitty and Pete drop to the ground, their faces expressionless and their knees in the dirt. Blood runs down their dirty necks and flows underneath their green shirts.
Jim, whispering in Sal’s head, sings, “Pete was a person in my neighborhood.”
On a green plane flying over a mahogany field like a sea full of driftwood waving in the wind, Pete sits in a green cadaver bag. Sal is sitting next to him.
The pilot, who is the judge with a head of white hair from Nassau County Court says, “Peter, young Peter, are you a criminal or are you a hero?”
Sal can barely make out the Judge’s words over the roar of the engine
“I’m not a criminal, sir,” Pete says, his voice also drowned out and muffled even further by the cadaver bag.
“You were in the car, Peter. You didn’t steal it, you didn’t drive, but you were there. You and Jimmy.”
“Sir, I’m not a criminal.” Blood from Pete’s head bleeds through the bag and spreads out on the fabric.
“Peter, look at Jimmy.” The green cadaver bag shifts toward Sal. “That boy is going to be a hero.”
Sal turns away and looks through the plane’s window. His reflection on the glass is translucent, his features slipping in and out of focus. As the plane flies past the Vietnam Memorial on Bald Hill, his father’s face comes together on the window, staring back at him. Sal says, “Look, dad. The Vietnam Memorial.”
“Yeah,” Jim whispers. His face disappears as Sal focuses on the tall white structure with the painting of the flag draped around the top. “We call it the Shaft.”
The judge comes out of the cockpit and hands Sal a shovel with a spade head. He draws a rectangle on the floor of the plane with a piece of chalk.
Pete says, “Jim, my friend, are you going to dig my grave?”
Jim tells Sal to start digging, and he does. The metal floor of the plane rips like foil. Sal scoops up a heaping mound of dirt. Jim whispers, “Yeah, I dug his grave.”
The airplane lands. Sal steps out into his father’s bedroom in Freeport, blisters on his hands and traces of dirt up to his elbows.
Sal’s mother is there, facing the wall, kissing a piece of paper with her eyes closed. She turns around and looks at Sal. “Jimmy, you’ve been AWOL for thirty days. You have to go back. If you don’t, they’ll put you in jail.”
Sal turns around to his father’s bed.
His grandfather is sitting there. His grandfather says, “Jimmy, what are you? Are you a criminal, or are you a hero?”
Sal’s mother grabs his hand and says, “It’s not your fault, Jimmy. You didn’t force Pete into that baby blue ‘57 Chevy.”
Two muffled thumps echo up the stairs. The sound startled Sal. He looks back and forth between his mother and grandfather. Then he pulls his hand from his mother and runs down the stairs. When he gets to the bottom, Smitty and Pete are dying in the darkness on either side of him. Their blood fills the niches in the wood floor and floods the cracks between the planks. A hypodermic needle filled with a cloudy, yellowish liquid appears on the banister. It glows like a dim light-bulb, drawing out only the brighter colors in the room and making everything look soft. Jim tells Sal to stick the needle in his arm. He does.
“What is this?” Sal asks.
Jim says, “That’s piss.”
“Why am I putting piss in my blood stream?”
“Because it hurts to bleed, son. Did it ever hurt to piss?”
The stairs turn into a path in Vietnam that looks much like the backyard of Sal’s childhood. Dust settles on the ground and all is quiet. Twenty-seven soldiers crawl from narrow holes on the sides of the trail and check the two bodies lying in the path. Someone says, “We have a breather. Where’s the morphine?” They huddle around Pete, whose breathing is hard and shallow. His eyes are fixed on the baby blue sky where a plane flies overhead and leaves a white streak across. His breath sounds like a far away scream.
Jim whispers, “Pete needs piss in his blood stream.”
A soldier pulls two green cadaver bags from a green canvas bag. When he unzips one a pulley squeaks. A thin shadow passes over Sal’s eyes. There is a shovel in his hand, traces of dirt up to his elbows, and the hot sun in the clear blue sky beats down on his neck. Sweat drips from his chin.
His mother says, “Sal.” She is hanging clothes on the line. “Sal, your father wants to see you when you’re finished digging that hole.”
A bang comes from inside of the house. Sal and his mother turn their heads. Sal drops the shovel and runs inside. The house is empty.
The TV is on, and its glow fills the room with pulsing blue. The man in the foreground on the screen is an old man in a marine uniform. He has gray hair and his skin hangs loose on his face. There are two dead bodies on the ground in the background, blood oozing from their heads and spreading out on the dusty path. A plane screeches across the bluest sky, leaving a trail of white as thin and perfect as a pin stripe.
The old man says, “Is there a hero in you?”
The camera pans up close on the dead bodies and focuses on the expressionless faces.
Another voice says, “The few. The proud. The Marines.”
In the bedroom, above the living room where Sal stands, drips of Jim’s blood, mixed with piss, drop from the soaked edge of the baby blue comforter on Jim’s bed, steadily tapping the floor. Sal ascends the stairs, slowly and quietly, hearing his own heart and breath now, and the drip, the stairs creaking, his heart again, another step, a drip and his breath, all the time knowing what he will find behind his father’s door but still afraid to look. And at the door he just stands there. He stared at the door knob. Then he feels his father’s hands on his shoulders, his eyes still fixed on the door, his mind still on what lies beyond.
“Three soldiers in a row, Sal. One, two, three. Three, Sal.”
Joel Mowdy is a graduate student in writing at the University of Michigan. He is at work on a collection of stories about Floyd Harbor.