The water beating on the shore was incessant. Tom lay between the two dumpsters in the alley half a block from the lake, the water lapping along the shore probably intended by God to be comforting, but it was not. The water seemed to pound instead of move gently through his ear canals, and it affected his cold-induced dreams. A nearly destroyed sleeping bag, a purloined Chinese coat from Target (too cheap to have an alarm tag on it), and a Hudson Bay blanket probably thrown out half a dozen times, only to resurface once again, out of a crying need to protect a barely living human from freezing solid. Tom tried to sleep but the water kept him up. He finally stood up slowly in the dark alley, wondering if there was any police video, but then realizing he really didn’t care. Police arrest and incarceration would be warmer than the alley he’d chosen to hold up in for the coming of what he knew was going to be one long and dangerously cold night.
Tom collapsed his body, like it was made of soft overlapping plates, held together, but loosely in a sort of orderly disorder. He laid flat, his head coming to rest on a rolled-up towel, discarded earlier by a nearby restaurant backed up on the alley. It was hard not to curl into a ball, but if he did so he knew his tattered coverings would come apart like a poorly assembled puzzle, and let in more cold than they kept out. He tried to reflect on the things that had happened during the daylight hours before. There was no possibility that he could think anything through, however, because sleep was his only escape. He went to sleep and all the crap went away. Dreams assaulted him with realities that almost always included him being some sort of participant in the outside world. He wasn’t a participant. He’d been reduced to an observer. Nobody wanted to talk to him and his gift of writing was almost extinguished simply because he had nothing to write upon.
None of it mattered anymore, or did it? Tom reflected as he tried to sleep, in the mild wind, in the cold of the alley existence. The police had come several times. They’d been going to haul him away to whatever came next until their boss showed up one night. Mike, his name was. He’d knelt by Tom’s side, taking it all in. Tom saw him take it all in. The neat police chief, a perfect mustache. A great black pick-up truck idling away. The chief should have locked him up but he didn’t. Instead, he knelt to say a few words. He’d asked about the 3rd Battalion 5th Marines tattoo I should never have allowed to be put on me, but had never been able to afford to have removed. The chief was a Marine. It was in his eyes. It was in his shoulders and his character. He asked if I was a Marine but I’d just looked back at him, into his deep black eyes. He knew. He backed up.
“You can stay here,” he’d said, and then never come back.
His officers had not come back either. He was waiting for me to die and they were all waiting for me to die too. They would bury me with some sort of honor. Maybe no other Vietnam Vet had ever come to end up in their alley before. Maybe they were simply really good people. Tom didn’t know.
Tom dreamed the dream of post-traumatic stress, although the VA people said he didn’t have that condition. He dreamed that he was on the bridge of a ship that stuck way out over the land. He was standing at the starboard bridge of the ship near the very tip. The ship was passing through the Panama Canal. He looked down. All kinds of people were down along the land below the bridge, as the metal shelf passed over them. They looked up at him. The ship moved slow. Tom wished it would move faster but that was not to be. He watched the people, his people, the ones who died so long ago, but somehow alive down on the ground next to the edge of the Panama Canal. That was it. The undead dead people looked up at him and he looked down at them. That dream could never be told to the VA counselors. They’d commit any such dream teller to some sort of asylum from which there would be no return, or at the very least, living on a mandatory prescription that would take away every shred of any identity he had left. Tom had his alley, his half a sleeping bag. He had the Kite Lady in a nearby store who yelled at him every day to get the hell out of ‘her’ alley but then showed up later with MacDonald’s bags and a cup of hot coffee. The woman had an impossible personality, but a warm wonderful heart. Tom ate her fast food. He thanked her but without her ever being there to thank. She put the food down, said something awful, and then retired, every time, back inside her store. She reminded Tom of his upbringing with the Maryknoll nuns in Hawaii. They’d love him but beat him all the time…because they loved me. Tom had not understood in those lonely hard days, but now he did. Getting beaten was okay, as long as the person beating you loved you. In Tom’s current condition, he needed all those kinds of understanding people he could get.
The night was long, tossed and cold. Tom could handle the cold. The dream that kept making him wake up so he’d end up diving right back into it, not so much. Nautical dawn was not far away, the time when darkness would be erased for another ten and a half hours in deep winter, at least where he was placed on the planet. Tom’s goal was to wait, and he thought about that simple exercise. He’d come too far in life to know what he was waiting for. Waiting for specific things to happen in life was a part of his old life that would likely never return. Now, to live, he waited for what he hoped might be revealed, but could not in any way imagine what it might be.
It was early night so he made his way down the alley toward a place called Popeyes Restaurant. He wondered if the food people actually paid a lot of money for was any good. But Tom wasn’t in search of any real answer to that question. He was actually there because the Mexicans working at the place came out of the back entrance all the time to either smoke or toss out the garbage. They saw him, and most probably saw their former selves in him, or at least so Tom thought. They fed him, mostly cast off lamb. Tom loved lamb. He wondered how they either knew that or lucked into knowing that. They gave with no concern about getting anything back and Tom was always surprised by the simple fact that they didn’t hold his being a white guy against me. Maybe the dirt fooled them. In the Corps, he’d showered twice a day, and later on, in real life, he’d kept that habit, but not anymore. There were no public showers open in the winter in Lake Geneva. Not a one.
The man came from nowhere, the man. He came in something that out of Tom’s damaged vision appeared to be a giant Tonka truck, except there was a giant Mercedes star on the grill. What did he want, Tom wondered, as the man circled his small area and checked out everything about it. The man was meticulous, opening Tom’s pack, feeling the Hudson Bay for substance, or whatever information that touching it might lend.
“What do you want?” Tom rasped out, the words of his alcohol adjusted vocal cords barely being able to make understandable.
“I was called, so I came,” the diminutive man said, settling into a crouch that allowed the bottom edge of his rich wool coat to almost touching the offensive surface of the alley asphalt.
“Who sent you,” Tom said, “that toy store woman down the alley?”
“You came out of the Nam?” the man asked, ignoring Tom’s question.
“Yes, I was there,” Tom admitted, trying to think about any good reason he might have for responding truthfully to the strange and obviously wealthy man.
“Yes, you were there where?” the man continued, rocking a bit on his heels, but giving the impression that he wasn’t in any hurry at all. The big cute truck idled, almost too silent to hear.
“Khe Shan, the Rock Pile and then on down the A Shau,” Tom replied, the running images of so long ago running like a very rapid kaleidoscope through his mind.
“The A Shau,” the man breathed out, “and so who were you within that rather difficult valley?”
“Difficult,” Tom repeated, but the man just waited, saying nothing further.
“Three Five,” Tom finally said, giving the man his battalion and regimental number, wondering why he was putting up with the interrogation coming from somebody he knew nothing about.
“Me too,” the man said, after a few seconds.
“Me too, what?” Tom asked.
“Sixty-eight,” the man said as if that explained anything.
“Sixty-nine,” Tom responded, giving his own time in country.
“Really,” Tom finally said, “this is too weird. That woman sent you to do what, make sure I’m real, that I die out here a frozen veteran because I won’t go live in one of those places where all those losers vegetate in?”
“You believe in God?” the man asked, and then went right on without waiting for an answer. “You prayed to God for help, in this awful cold circumstance, and then you waited?”
“So?” Tom whispered out, not knowing whether he wanted the problematic man to stay or go away.
“He sent me,” the man said.
His stare as intent and unblinking as anything Tom had ever witnessed.
“And who are you and why should I believe anything you say,” Tom got out, this time his voice filled full in timber, drawn from ages of deep emotional distrust and anger.
“Junior,” the man said, his voice a whisper. “You don’t know?”
“That Junior from the A Shau?” Tom replied, his tone showing surprise and hesitation. “So you came to kill me? All this to take me across that damned Bong Song River one more time?”
The man slowly stood up, walked to his waiting Tonka truck and opened the rear passenger door. He stood, holding it open, the slight cold wind blowing his coat gently back and forth as if to indicate the time passing.
“Those Marines passed on in their time back in the day, but not so you and I,” the man said. “It wasn’t all your choice then, but it is now.”
“You’re really that Junior?” Tom asked, bringing his body erect and letting his pieced together protections against the cold and nightfall to the alley pavement.
“Not here and not now in this life, but back then, yes,” the man responded, looking away from Tom for the first time to stare out over the smoking freezing surface of the nearby lake.
“You want me to go with you?” Tom asked.
The man gestured toward the open door. Tom noted the plush gray sheepskin covering on the seats. He slowly raised himself up to stand.
“You want me to get in there, on those seats, and do what?” Tom asked, pointing at the open door.
“You choose,” the man who called himself Junior said. “The door leads to the answers you’ve been seeking for so long, but you can’t know that. I don’t need you in my life, but the Chief of Police called. You don’t need me in your life but God thinks you do. Make your own decision.”
The wind blew, the moisture-laden air wafted by, as Tom wondered and thought about what was standing before him. He’d had a good idea he wouldn’t survive the night but now there was this.
“There’s an old expression,” Tom said, slowly making his way toward the open door, “all the way, up the hill…”
He finished, getting into the vehicle. The man who called himself Junior slammed the door with a final hard clicking sound and then got into the driver’s seat.
“Where do you want to go?” the man asked, with a laugh, as he turned on the radio or disc player. A song played mid-way through its length, and the words burned their way into Tom’s consciousness as the truck pulled away: “Lonely rivers flow, to the sea, to the sea, to the open arms of the sea. Lonely rivers sigh ‘Wait for me, wait for me,’ I’ll be coming home, wait for me.”
Tom realized that he didn’t know where he was going, and then that he didn’t care. He’d been lost and now he was maybe found. The reality of being found was more profoundly satisfying than what that reality might entail. But how could he be found by someone from so far back there, so lost in that same valley and now here, alive and bending down to help?
“Home,” Tom whispered out, “I just want to go home.”