Author: Bob Mustin
Location: North Carolina
Bob Mustin has been a North Carolina Writers Network writer-in-residence at Peace College under Doris Betts' guiding hand. In the early '90s, he was the editor of a small literary journal, The Rural Sophisticate,
based in Georgia. His work has appeared in The Rockhurst Review, Elysian Fields Quarterly, Cooweescoowee, Under The Sun,
and at thesquaretable.com. Another fiction piece is forthcoming in Reflections Literary Journal.
A novel, A Reason to Tremble,
was published in 1997.
But For Grace
I noticed him half a block ahead, sitting on his haunches at the intersection of Peachtree and Marietta, a grubby gargoyle beside a blue mailbox. He glanced over his shoulder at a honking cab, then inhaled from his cigarette and tucked its red ember inside a cupped palm against the November wind.
I slowed, Melinda tugging at my arm. "You have to be there by eleven, Alan. That's eight minutes from now." Her thin lips moved to my ear. "I showed you the letter. They said they'll take the house. If we lose that, I don't know what I'll do."
Walking again, I saw the man twist his half-gone smoke to death on the sidewalk, drop the butt into his shirt pocket, rise and rub his knees. Thumbs now slung from his side pockets, the fingered-back pompadour reminded me of ho-daddies I had seen on California beaches after my tour of duty. We neared, and I made out the grit in his hair, the lines on his face unmistakable. Equaling my six-foot height and decaying proportions, he had to be very nearly my age. He grinned and nodded, gave a tentative wave. The hand began to quiver, then dropped limp at the wrist.
Melinda steered me past and into the street, her voice rising to the brassy tone she saved for her most insistent moments. "Alan, listen to me. You have to remember, make eye contact. Be confident."
I nodded, adding a soft grunt. Her liturgy usually didn't require much of a response.
"You can't afford to let them think you're having second thoughts. Remember last time?"
The man looked so familiar. If she had asked, I could have described him in detail. But then there had been so many like him.
"Just be candid. You mustn't let them think you're holding back anything important."
"Exactly," she said, gripping my arm tighter. "Put a positive spin on why you were last laid off. And keep mentioning your assets. You're a hard worker. Dedicated. Willing to work long hours. Tell them about your experience, how easy it is for you to adapt to a new work environment. That's important."
We'd be there in a few minutes, and I'd hand them my resume and a stack of recommendation letters, and they would note my age and the bum leg, the occasional career lapses. I would tell them there hadn't been any recurrences of depression or respiratory problems in the last five years, that I owned a home and worked with disadvantaged kids on weekends, when I could. Then they'd smile, stack their papers, shake hands. "We'll be in touch, "they'd say, the death knell to any interview.
I almost tripped at the opposite curb, recoiling at the hand on my shoulder.
"Excuse me," the man said, "your name's Alan something, right?" He snapped his fingers as if to jar loose a memory, then shifted his stance to a loose at-ease, an old pair of dog tags clunking softly beneath the worn, too-big khaki shirt. His boots were scuffed but still laced according to regulation, all the way up. He smelled musty and smoky, the way you would in the Central Highlands after a couple of weeks. I noticed the morning beer smell, too, but it wasn't the sour reek of a street drunk. Then we moved up the curb and he gave us an engaging smile, one I thought to emulate for the interview.
Melinda glanced to her watch and groaned. "Please," she said, "not again."
The man slipped ahead, facing us, pedestrian traffic swirling to either side and passing on. "You were in the Nam. We know each other, right?"
"I don't think so, I said, not a completely honest answer.
"Sir," said Melinda, "we're going to be late." Her fingernails dug into my wrist. "Come on, Alan."
"I was up in I Corps," he said. "Hue to Khe Sanh. Mostly Khe Sanh." He looked down and shook his head. "What a mess."
"I was in the delta. Pacification team." I rubbed my bad leg, then gave him an I'll-make-it look. "Someone set off a mine while I was taking a leak."
He stepped back, glanced at my graying crew cut, then offered a hand. "My name's Jerry, brother."
Melinda stepped away, one shoe's toe slapping at the sidewalk. I didn't look, but I knew she was assembling one of her strained smiles.
"Just Jerry? No last name?"
"Just Jerry." He nodded to the street. "Nobody out here cares about last names."
"Look, Jerry, I'm in a bit of a hurry."
He squeezed my hand, while dropping his own tremulous and nicotine-stained hand to his side. The smile became wide-eyed. "Tan Son Nhut, that's where it was. Everyone went through there. You were on your way home, and I was due in Hue in a couple of days. We did a few beers together." A cautious glance to Melinda. "Picked up a couple of mama sans and some weed. Partied all weekend."
A bus ground to a halt beside us, spewing passengers, as if into a hot landing zone. Its tail pipe coughed, a dark effluent settling around us like the ground haze of a late morning firefight. "Jerry, I really have to go."
He nodded. "I understand, man. I do. I just wanted to say hello. For old time's sake."
Melinda's lips were against my ear again. "Don't waste this opportunity, Alan. You know I don't want a divorce, but if I lose the house, well, mother says I should come home."
I took her hand, patted it and squirmed away, drew a ten-dollar bill from my wallet and held it so Jerry could see it. Then I stuffed it into a pants pocket.
"Alan, I meant every word. Let's go."
Again his smile, and I squinted to see what lurked beneath. "You still a drinking man, Jerry? You have holes in your arms?"
"No, no," he said, his face suddenly that of a chastised child. "Oh, I snorted a little smack in-country, but I got over it in rehab. Don't drink any more, either." Then he laughed. "Not much, anyway. Doctor's orders. Orange got me. They laid that shit all over Khe Sanh. Wind blew it away, then blew it back, day after day. I see things, can't think straight sometimes. Didn't slow down Uncle Ho's guys, though."
"Orange," I said. "I got a dose of that. By then we were at An Loc."
He nodded. "Rubber country. Did a recon hitch out of there. Cambodia."
Just thinking about the Agent Orange, I couldn't breathe. And on such a nice fall day.
"You get treatment?" he asked.
He lifted both hands to meet his downcast gaze. "I shake a lot."
"It's not bad right now. You?"
The clock struck and Melinda nudged me. "Okay, we're officially late."
"All right," I said. "Here's a ten. Will that help?"
"Alan, that's our lunch money you're giving away."
With one deft move he took the bill and jammed it into a front pocket of his grimy trousers. "Thanks, brother," he said, casting a wary look to see who was watching. "I'm a little down right now, but I have something working. He repeated it, "Something working," the words now a whisper. Then the faraway look I knew so well.
A chill hit me - it happens that way, sometimes. The only thing that helps is keeping your situation simple - hole up somewhere, close your eyes, try to think of better things. Maybe this afternoon, in the garage, with a few beers. "I'm very late, Jerry. I have a job interview. I don't want to miss it."
"Well, hallelujah," said Melinda. "Come on."
"Sorry, man, I didn't know." He bounced on the balls of his feet and began to move away. "Hey, good luck with that. Don't end up out here like me."
I nodded, fighting the urge to follow.
He turned and strode off, through the other pedestrians, as if he were on point, half a klik to the firebase. A shower, a shave, clean fatigues, a few beers and a card game, that's all we needed back then to get us back in the pink.
"Honestly, Alan, why do you have to be such a patsy? He's just a bum. I'd think after all this time you'd set your sights a little higher."
I had tried a couple of times to tell her what it was like, how we felt so alone in the bush waiting for the ugliness to end, only to realize when it was over that we were all one thing, going our separate ways at just the wrong time. I held back for a moment, Melinda pushing through the revolving doors. Jerry ducked into a building farther down the block. I saw a sandwich shop there, and a package store next to it, but I couldn't tell which he entered first.