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Life in the Empire

 

Johnny’s Bad Dreams 

Image result for helicopter bad dreams vietnam

 

I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.  –Edgar Allen Poe

 

Adjunct professor “limited-term lecturer” Joseph Walther hadn’t seen the “thousand yard stare” for over 30 years. During the first week of class Peep recognized it on one of the students… the “thousand yard stare.”  All the guys who used to call Joe Walther “Peep” weren’t around… otherwise Peep would have told them about it.  Instead, Peep caught the staring student’s friend outside of class. 

 

“Hey, man…” Peep had to glance at the roster to get each student’s name right.  “What happened to… ah… Wilber.  Is he a friend of yours?” 

“It’s ‘Wilbert… with a ‘t.’ Yeah.  He’s having trouble.” 

Peep guessed that.  The kid had obviously been a soldier.  Peep asked the question, “Just got back from Iraq?” 

“Yeah.” 

“What’s the story, man?  Can I ask?” 

“Yeah.  He drove a Bradley.  When they went through a town, sometimes the kids would run into the street.  Sometimes they were just being kids.  Sometimes it was an ambush, you know?  Their orders were not to stop… for anything… you know what I’m sayin?” 

Yeah kid.  I know.  I think I know what you’re about to say.  I really don’t want to hear it. 

“He keeps hearing those little kids popping underneath his Bradley.” 

 

Peep ran down the hall.  Now it was 1970.  Peep was coming out of a Literature class where the Professor was a first-class dick.  “You guys might want to study very hard for this exam,” professor dick intoned, “because I hear Vietnam is very nice this time of year.” 

 

Peep glanced sideways at the big guy five seats away wearing a “short jacket.”  The guy’s name was Casing. 

“Not fucking funny,” Casing growled at professor dick.  “Not fucking funny at all.”  Professor dick turned red and dismissed the class.  So Peep caught Case in the hall. 

“Hey Casing… wait up.”  The big guy looked down at little Peep.  “Yeah?” 

“Look man,” Peep stammered, “I’m a hippie and a draft-dodger and everything like that, ok?  You can kick my ass if you want to.  I just wanted to tell you, man… that was the coolest thing I’ve seen anybody do.  That’s showing class, man… and thanks.” 

“Yeah?” 

“Yeah.” 

“Right.” The big guy deadpanned down at Peep.  “You wanna go get stoned or something?”  That’s how Peep met his roommates.  That’s how he caught Johnny’s bad dreams.  The dreams, the screams, the nothing-what-it-seems all coming back full-circle over thirty years like a giant invisible quantum baloney ring to the write-wright right; a near-spent half-life taking a flying fuck at a rolling donut bouncing off over a horizon of jellyroll blues’ Agent Orange hacking cancer into a dustbowl of depleted uranium.  Those times were coming up like a side-order of sarcophagus sausage. 

 

John Wayfare… the Waif… couldn’t hack it when he got back to the world.  The first demonic shriek brought Peep bolt-upright and bone china white-eyed in the blackness of the upstairs apartment downtown.  The following wails and screams had Peep running down the hall toward the source, about to burst through the doorway to Waif’s room when Put caught Peep by the arm. 

 

“Don’t go in there, man.  And don’t touch him.  He’ll try to choke the shit out of you.”  The rest of the guys had the drill down, gathering ash trays, bottles and beer cans.  Watts and Case were handing them out.  “Throw the heavy shit at the feet, light shit at the head,” Put instructed, and the cans and bottles began to bounce off the thrashing Waif along with shouts of Hey-Wayfare-yo-shut-the-fuck-up-asshole until Waif hit the floor, wide awake, soaked with clammy white sweat.  “You’re back in the world now, man.  Shut the fuck up and get some sleep.”  The rest of the guys grumbled off down the hall to their rooms, cursing Waif and bitching about early classes.  Peep lingered in the doorway. 

 

You want to talk about it, man?

“Fuck you, Walther.” 

“Fuck you too, Wayfare.  G’night.” 

 

Sometimes they happened nights in a row, sometimes weeks would go by before they came back; Johnny’s bad dreams.  One night Peep stayed behind as usual while the other guys pissed and griped down the hallway, leaving Peep and Waif to pick up the bottles, cans and ashtrays. 

 

“You wanna hear it, man?  You really wanna hear it?”  Waif asked nobody in particular.  Peep sat down to receive the terrible curse.  It started with stories, and Peep had heard lots of them from all the guys he knew, fresh from the clownish Vietnam clusterfuck.  He knew the jargon, he knew the weapons, knew the equipment.  He listened to Waif rattle on all night long, he knew klicks were kilometers and waxed meant kill, eighty-ones were mortars hueys were choppers and tracks were armored personnel carriers.  Gooks, dinks, slopes were all Vietnamese and they were all trying to kill you and they were all there because they lived there.  As the soot-shrouded sun squeaked up behind the rusty boiler factory in back of their second-floor flat, Peep got the poop on the little girl.  The slope.  The gook.  The dink.  It was Waif’s first week in country with the Metrical Division… and they told them that children would run toward the choppers with grenades and blow everybody to hell.  Don’t let no dinks near the chopper. 

 

“She just came running toward the door like a bat.  She was holding something.  So I stitched her, man.  I killed her.  She was just a little chick… and she… just sort of… came apart. 

“What was it, man?” 

“It was a doll, man.  It was a fucking little rag doll.  It was a fucking little girl’s fucking little rag doll.  A fucking little rag doll.  That’s all, man.  That’s all.”  Then came the longest silence in the sad industrial post-rock pre-disco world. 

“You didn’t know, man.  You didn’t know.  How the fuck were you supposed to know?  I woulda done the same thing…” 

“Fuck you, Walther.” 

“G’night, Waif.” 

“G’night, Peep.  And… hey…”  Waif’s face was like plaster, dead and white.  His dead blue eyes were looking past Peep… through the wall… out beyond the sooty sun above the rusty boiler factory… in the college-town morning… the thousand-yard-stare.  “Thanks, man.” 

“It aint nothin’, Waif.  Don’t sweat it.  Nothin at all, brother.” 

 

About twenty years later, Peep went to meet old Put at the usual place.  Put was at a table by himself, nursing a tumbler-full of cheap scotch, and on the table was a pitcher of beer and an empty glass.  Peep sat down and started to pour the beer. 

“Hey, asshole.  Get your own fucking beer.”  Peep ordered up and got his own beer.  Put drained the beaker of scotch like it was iced tea and smacked his lips.  Then Put picked up the beer and chased the scotch with a swig.  Put’s face was a waxy yellow, a sign of liver malfunction.  His eyes were bloodshot red.  “Waif didn’t make it, man.” 

 

That was the code.  Waif was dead.  Peep didn’t ask then, and Put didn’t say any more about it.  Peep got it fifth-hand years later.  Waif came home one night, drunk as usual.  He got a .357 magnum out of the glove compartment, walked down the street, sat on the curb, but the barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger.  Johnny’s bad dreams were over now… for John Wayfare.  The screams were part of a memory now for two aging men who sat in a bar, and Joseph Walther was apprehensive about the state of Robert Putternik. 

“Bob, I’m worried about ya, man.” 

“Fuck you, Walther.” 

“You look like shit, Put.  It’s nonna my goddam business, but you’re drinking your liver out you stupid asshole.” 

“You’re drinking your asshole out, you stupid liver.”  They both laughed.  It was none of anybody’s business, Joe Blow. 

 

Months later, Peep’s father walked in right after Peep had finished reading Putternik, Robert’s obituary in the paper.  “Poor old Put, man.  He just couldn’t hack it.  He just couldn’t hack it when he got back to the world.”  Peep’s father laughed. 

“Back to the world from where?” 

“From… the war.”  Peep’s dad had been a togglier on a B-17 bomber with the Eighth Air Force during World War Two… with thirty six combat missions over Germany… the homeland Peep would visit years in the future to see the city his father had fire bombed sixty years before.  But on this sad afternoon, Peep’s dad got serious. 

“You’re talking about… Vietnam… aren’t you?” 

“The war, dad.  The stupid fucking pointless never-ends dipshit fucking war.” 

Some months later Peep held his father in his arms as his father drew a last breath on the floor beneath a drawing board that held an unfinished tire ad. 

 

It was late in the evening now, and Adjunct Professor “limited term lecturer” Joseph Walther entered the empty adjunct office, closed and locked the door.  He switched off the lights, and the room was now a ghostly glow of computer screens dancing with Microsoft™ spyware.  Watts died of cancer from snorting Agent Orange.  Case was killed in the traffic years ago, stoned as shit, driving like a bat out of hell.  Waif was gone.  Put was gone… over ten years ago.  Peep sat alone in the dark office, and tears began to roll down his cheeks… like they always did when he went “there.”  He began to whisper out loud… it was the closest Peep ever came to praying. 

 

Hey guys… it’s me… Peep.  What the fuck am I going to do?  You saw that kid’s face.  He’s just the first.  Come on guys… I’m doing this for you.  I owe you guys that… at least.  You owe them that… at least.  You bastards are out there somewhere laughing your asses off… I know it.  But I still don’t get it.  You know how I am.  The Peep’s clueless as usual.  Is this paybacks or something?  Well, better you than me, assholes.  So quit screwing around and help ol Peep out here, will ya?  That kid’s just a little rag doll, man.  Just some… little girl’s… little rag doll.  Aw sweet… sweet Jesus, guys.  Tell me… what… am I going… to do?  Peep sobbed in the darkness.  They didn’t answer. 

 

They never do. 

 

Views: 21

Comment by pan on April 16, 2017 at 5:15am

You made me cry.

Comment by waldopaper on April 17, 2017 at 11:08am
Aftermath
 
HAVE you forgotten yet?...  
For the world's events have rumbled on since those gagged days,  
Like traffic checked a while at the crossing of city ways:  
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow  
Like clouds in the lit heavens of life; and you're a man reprieved to go,          5
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.  
But the past is just the same,—and War's a bloody game....  
Have you forgotten yet?...  
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you'll never forget.  
  
Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz,—   10
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?  
Do you remember the rats; and the stench  
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench,—  
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?  
Do you ever stop and ask, "Is it all going to happen again?"   15
  
Do you remember that hour of din before the attack,—  
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then  
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?  
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back  
With dying eyes and lolling heads, those ashen-grey   20
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?  
  
Have you forgotten yet?...  
Look up, and swear by the green of the Spring that you'll never forget.  
 

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