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IN FRONT OF US, about a quarter mile, was Thoybu, a complex of straw houses among the palms. Like so many of the villages we had run through, it looked tranquil at a distance, with felicific fronds waving above the thatch roofs. The silence, though, ought to have been a warning, but my head throbbed, a lump the size of a potato pressed against my anus, and I wanted to sleep more than anything. I
didn't like being in the open, and the two platoons were strung out across the paddies. The sunlight hurt my eyes and made me dizzy, so
I looked down and followed Haywood. He was over six foot and two hundred pounds. His deep tracks filled with brown water.
Vester walked beside me, elbow to elbow. His face was pearled with sweat. "Goddamn hot," he said. I didn't say anything. Maybe I
gave him a half smile. "Okay, cool. Be that way if you want. Your
'Bama ass gone get plenty hot before this day is over."
"It's all a matter of mind over matter," I said.
"You full of shit."
"I don't mind and you don't matter."
"You tell 'im, Tibbs." Bright Eyes walked on my left. My name was
Walter Burke, but I let them call me "Mr. Tibbs" after a character Sidney
Poitier played in the movies.
"You don't matter, neither," Vester said. "That's why your black ass is here. And that rabbit over there?" He referred to Bright Eyes. "I
wouldn't even bother scraping his pale-face ass off the sole of my shoe."
"I'm just on a Sunday stroll," Bright Eyes said. "Just like going to church on revival Sunday. Picnic on the grounds. Ham and chicken.
Macaroni and cheese--"
"What the hell is he talking about?"
"Cakes and pies. Grandma makes this caramel cake and Aunt
Claudia, she makes a squash pie. Ever heard of that?"
"Shut the fuck up, you Bugs Bunny-looking motherfucker. What the fuck you talking about, anyway? You see any goddamn squash pie out here?"
RTO's radio crackled and the squad leader talked into it. They were just on the other side of Bright Eyes. I looked at Bright Eyes. He smiled and pushed at his helmet.
"It's A-okay, a cruise," he reported.
"There no such thing as a cruise," I said.
"You've just got to put an edge on everything."
"He's just a edgy brother," Vester said.
"Hard-edged," Bright Eyes said. "Wouldn't you say, Tibbs? I mean,
there's a difference. Edgy is jumpy like. But hard-edged is cool like."
"Cold-edged. Like a mama-san's tit," Vester said.
I didn't say anything. Mr. Tibbs would have found the conversation contemptible.
"What mama-san's tit have you been sucking?"
"The same damn one as you."
"Then you must have been sucking it the wrong way. Remind me to show you some technique. Tibbs got technique. Tibbs, you need to give your brother man a lesson in tit sucking."
"Keep cool, Harvey." I quoted a line from the movie, mimicking
Mr. Tibbs's exacting elocution.
Haywood let us catch up to him. He squeezed in between Vester and me. "I got a uptight feeling about this one," he whispered. "There's got to be a Betty out here somewhere. I just feel it." The lump in my stomach turned over. Haywood was usually right about these things.
I slowed down and it seemed that everyone did, as if the line had run up against an unseen tension. I squinted and surveyed the flood plain, puzzled with paddies. The river was behind and to the left of us. Haywood pointed to a figure running away. "Who want this one?"
"Looks like a papa-san," Bright Eyes said. "I ain't for capping papasans."
"He's legal," Haywood said.
"Legal, my ass." Bright Eyes looked at me for support. "Fugazi!
That's fucked up."
I lifted my rifle and sighted along the barrel. The man was dressed in the loose-fitting outfit we called black pajamas. We had been told it was okay to shoot anyone in black pajamas who ran because he was
VC, running to give warning. The figure made slow progress across the paddies, fighting the suction of the mud with each leap. It appeared to be an old man, though from the distance it could easily have been an old woman with her hair up. I followed the figure with the point of the barrel.
"You got 'im, Waltie?" Haywood asked. There were perhaps thirty
GIs closer to the figure than us.
"I got 'im." My heart fluttered and I squeezed off a round. Sporadic popping came from up and down the line, but I was first. The figure tripped and went down.
"What that make? Four or five for you?" asked Haywood.
"You are counting. But I wouldn't count that one," Bright Eyes said. "I wouldn't count that one if I were you, Tibbs."
"You are not me," I said.
"Lord a mighty, don't get so testy about it. I'm not saying you did something wrong. I'm just saying I wouldn't count that one."
"Count what you want to count," Haywood said. "It doesn't change anything. The way it is, is the way it is."
"But the brother got style," Vester said. "He so cool, he scare me.
A hundred degrees out here and he ain't even sweating. Just pick 'em off like--pow!"
Haywood looked at me and snorted. He and I knew better. He was my age, but seemed older. He already had his short-timer's stick. He knew how important it was to do what you had to do to get by.
"But I wouldn't have capped a papa-san," Bright Eyes said. "Not an old man."
"It wasn't an old man."
"What was it then? Looked like papa-san to me."
"It wasn't your papa," I said and moved ahead.
"Least you could have let somebody down the line do it. Maybe they could have seen it better."
"Whose conscience are you? You out of everybody," Haywood said to Bright Eyes. "You ain't got no room to talk with that ring of baby fingers hanging around your neck."
"Ain't no baby fingers on my chain." Bright Eyes pulled a chain out of his shirt. It had an ear on it from a kill he had made earlier in the week. The ear was beginning to mold.
"Goddamn," said Vester. "Throw that goddamn shit away. Walking around like a goddamn cannibal with that goddamn thing on your neck. It stinks."
"It's my power."
"Fuck your power. It stinks. This ain't Africa or something; we ain't no goddamn cannibals. It stinks."
"Y'all ease up," Haywood said, authoritatively. "Keep alert. I think we're in for some action."
"Uh-uh," Bright Eyes disagreed. "CO said, 'Contact unlikely.' "
Just then a snake shimmied across my path. I froze and held my breath. It was one of the slender, green, quick kind we often encountered in the bamboo thickets. A kind of cobra. It skimmed across a puddle and disappeared into the spring green shoots.
That's an omen, I thought, but I did not say it. I looked into the blue sky, and for a moment felt its weight. "We'll get through. We'll get through, all right," I heard Haywood saying. He had seen the snake, too. "Oh, Lord," I heard Bright Eyes say. "Goddamn, here we go," Vester said. Then I heard popping coming from out of the trees in the village. The men in formation closest to the village fell into the mud, and like a row of dominoes the line went down.
I threw myself into the mud and tried to spot the snipers through the sight of my rifle. The fire got heavy. GIs groaned and cried out.
The radio crackled and word came down the line to dig in, but it was all I could do to lie still and hope to stay clear of the rounds patting the mud all around me.
The fire slackened after ten minutes, and we were ordered to move forward. By now I was not thinking about my head or my stomach. My senses were outside of me like the feelers of an insect,
aware of every movement, every sound, and every smell. We all were insects, ground beetles testing the mud with each step lest we set off a mine. We gained a couple of hundred feet before we fell back in heavy fire. Haywood spotted an area in the trees just in front of the village.
"Bust caps right along in there," he directed, and the four of us burned up a lot of ammunition concentrating on the one clump of trees. After ten or fifteen minutes, the fronds were dangling from the trees and our fire received no answer from that clump. I couldn't see our line anymore because the men were low, digging shallow holes in the mud into which to slap their bodies. Smoke wafted across the fields. After a while, a Chinook came across, headed toward a Medevac flare, but the chopper drew so much fire, it couldn't land.
"We need some air. Why don't they send us some air?" Vester asked.
"It won't be long," Haywood assured him. "Lieutenant's called for it by now. Just lay flat and we'll get through this."
"We need some air," Vester yelled across to the squad leader.
"It's on the way," the squad leader said. He was from Boston, and he sounded like it.
"When? Next Christmas?" Bright Eyes yelled.
"Be easy. Be easy," Haywood said. His voice was resonant, and
Bright Eyes squeaked. Their voices reminded me of the drones and chirps of crickets. Vester whined. They were a jazz trio of insects. And
I . . . I was the singer. I was Nat "King" Cole. Cool and mellow. Only I
hadn't begun to sing yet.
The VC opened up with thirty-caliber guns, twenty or thirty of them, and jackhammered all around us. I looked at Haywood, and he raised his head and looked back. His eyes were round and bright. He opened his mouth to say something when a round peeled his head open just above the brow.
"Goddamn," Vester said, "goddamn, goddamn."
I closed my eyes and put my face down in the mud. For what seemed like a long time, I didn't think about anything, but felt myself loosen and drain over the paddies. Then a familiar uneasiness came to me as I began to pull together again. For a second I allowed myself to hope that Haywood was alive. I had seen the bullet catch him, but maybe it was only a flesh wound, the kind that cowboys get on TV.
I raised my head and looked again. Haywood was dead, as dead as any dead man I had seen. I tried to swallow what that meant; it meant nothing to me. I gripped tighter on my rifle and tried to crawl ahead,
away from Haywood, but the firefight kept me in place. I put the mud-slicked rifle stock against my shoulder and sighted at Thoybu.
They kill us; we kill them. The sight passed over the place where the papa-san had fallen, and I thought that if I hadn't shot at the papasan,
then Haywood would be alive. It should have been me, since I
shot at the papa-san, since I felt dead already, it should have been me.
I had imagined that it would be me before Haywood. After all, he was the one who dreamed about what he would do back in the world. He was going to go to college, to make something of himself.
I had promised Haywood that if I survived him, that I would write a letter to his mother and father. Dear Mr. and Mrs. Jackson, I was with your beloved Haywood at the end, and I can assure you that it came quickly and without any pain. In his last breath he whispered about you, about home, about home sweet home....He had said he would write one for me, too. I told him not to trouble himself.
When the fire slackened, I slithered over to Haywood. Bright Eyes was already beside him.
"He's gone," Bright Eyes said.
Haywood didn't look too bad. Part of his head had broken open,
but had fallen back into place, held by a flap of skin. They could have a funeral with him.
"Medic!" Vester screamed.
"Are you hit? Are you hit?" I screamed back.
He was crawling to Haywood. "Goddamn. Goddamn."
"Quit your damning," Bright Eyes said. "It's over. He's gone."
I looked where the RTO and the squad leader had been. They weren't there. Our line was still. "Just be quiet," I said. "Just be real quiet for a while." For a moment it seemed like a beautiful summer day. Blue sky. White billows of cloud. The rustle of a light breeze. It could have been Alabama. Alabama was "the Beautiful State." That is what the word meant. Haywood knew this. He knew a lot of what I
knew. He was from Eufaula. I was from Birmingham. Dear Mr. and
Mrs. Jackson ... Dear Haywood's Mother and Father ... Dear Haywood....
I closed his eyes, and now I had his blood on my hands. "Let's be quiet for a while."
The thirty-calibers picked up again; the mud became soupy with blood and piss; the sun became hotter, and the air filled with biting flies. There was the smell of open bowels, smoke, and oil. The guns whined and popped incessantly. I lay beside Haywood and nestled my face in the mud beside his torso. The mud was warm and smelled faintly of manure.