DON’T WORRY ABOUT THE WALKING WOUNDED
I boarded the bus trying to look inconspicuous among the civilians. The fear that someone might smell my breath or notice my carefully applied pancake make-up, though, filled me with a dread I could hardly contain. I reconnoitered my position, looking for my contact.
The last run on the Express Transit bus to El Cajon only had five passengers; a big black lady with groceries filling the seat on both sides of her, the driver, who smiled euphorically at me as I dropped my money in the machine, a young guy in a three-piece suit with sad moist eyes, and then someone who nearly put a beat back in my heart.
Hate, loathing, fear, camaraderie. He filled me with so many emotions that they cascaded over me and threatened to drown me as well as each other as I struggled to clear my mind of their confusion.
Loneliness was greater than all of them. It gnawed at my flesh. My peer was embarrassingly obvious. His make-up had splotches close to his neck, and his eyes were like two dried-out olives.
A spasm of paranoia shot through me as I remembered. I reached into my jacket pocket and pulled out my eye drops. Self-consciously I looked around before leaning back and dropping the lubricant in my eyes. I straightened up, then headed back and sat across from the stranger who I had more in common with than anyone else in the world.
He wore his clothes like a swabbie wears civies, his hair was short. He looked like I felt. His lifeless eyes mirrored misery. The young soldier looked away from my probing eyes nervously staring out the window.
“Look,” I offered softly, rolling my sleeves up past the make-up on my hands to expose marble-white flesh and dull blue veins. He glanced apprehensively at me as he slid closer to the window, as if avoiding some pervert or another civilian screaming ‘baby killer’. He did a double-take and gaped at my arm, then looked up at me. I tried to smile, but my unique form of arthritis resisted. It came out a grimace.
“Are you --?” he started.
“Yes,” I answered decisively.
The soldier sighed and slumped in disbelief.
“I thought I was the only one.”
“There must be lots of us,” I countered. “Get it in ‘Nam?”
My comrade nodded, then glanced nervously toward the front.
“I was in Saigon when it went down. I got left behind at the embassy.”
“I was a Navy corpsman,” I offered. “I was with the Marines in Da Nang.”
“How’d you get back?”
I paused a moment and stared into those dried-out eyes. I lost my focus for a second and panic gripped me. I fought the urge that struck me sometimes when the memories got so bad I could barely believe it. There’s hope here, I told myself. Don’t despair.
“I came back in a body bag,” I finally said.
He nodded sympathetically.
“I snuck aboard a fishing boat that got out to one of our destroyers. I hid until we made Japan."
“Did you tell anyone?”
I regretted asking the moment it slipped my lips. The hurt on my comrade’s face told me I wasn’t alone in my homecoming – the disgust dumped on me by friends and strangers alike. I had to struggle not to lose it, struggle to hold on past my nostalgic nightmares. We sat silently as the city fell away and the bus wandered off into the suburbs, and I started feeling good. I hadn’t talked this much since ‘Nam. I could go days without talking to anyone, fearful of discovery, slipping and saying something wrong, mentioning ARVN or MAC-SOG. I’d been a good soldier, saved lives and taken more. I remembered the Hmong and the SEALs that I sometimes ran with when they needed a real medic. I could rattle their names off like I’d talked to them yesterday. Between this grunt and me, I figured, we could make this thing bearable. A great weight could be lifted from my soul, I thought, if only I could hold on a little longer.
“What did you do?” the Marine suddenly asked.
“To deserve this.”
“I don’t get it. What are you talking about?”
“I mean, did you waste a village or torture up some gooks?”
I blinked again, then gritted my teeth.
“I followed orders,” I answered evenly.
The Marine began to rock as he stared out the window.
“My mother told me not to let them change me too much, but it was so easy, it felt so right when we started cleaning house after being picked off one at a time for so long. It felt so good.”
I rose to my feet.
“I followed orders,” I said it like a challenge. “I was a good sailor, I was a good corpsman.”
“We’re being punished,” he whispered hoarsely, turning back toward me. “That’s the only answer. We’re sinners and God won’t let us die.”
I said it loud and clear.
“We’re not guilty of anything, no more than the VC were. War isn’t –“
“We’re sinners,” the vet hissed as madness filled his lifeless eyes. “We must repent. God won’t let us die ‘til we have.”
The well-dressed man in the gray suit glided back to us, and he appeared at my side like a ghost. Panic struck both me and the Marine, and we recoiled from the stranger’s presence. All I could think was, what if he heard us? What if he knows what we are? The thought sent tremors down my glacial spine.
Straining against the garbled emotions tearing me up inside, I tried to imagine why I felt such guilt and shame. What had I done to deserve this? There were things I wish I hadn’t had to do, sure –
“It’s a cold night,” the stranger remarked, almost casually. “The flesh doesn’t rot.”
My stale heart leapt. That was the password. The gray-suited man with the sad moist eyes reached up and pulled the bell cord. He grabbed the Marine and dragged him to the rear exit.
“We’re ahead of schedule, folks,” the bus driver announced. “Gotta wait here for a few minutes.”
The stranger and the Marine were out the exit before the brakes stopped hissing. I forced my stiff legs to run after them. The caller had said the contact would supply me with everything I needed, peace and answers. How, I asked. Come see, the caller answered.
The gray-suited man had run to the middle of a vacant lot, still in sight of the bus stop, and pointed to a corrugated tube four feet wide that ran at an angle into the ground. The Marine fell to his knees and scampered into the tube.
“Hurry!” the gray-suited man urged me. “Quick, into the pipe.”
“What’s down there?” I asked.
“No time,” the man countered. “Down the pipe. There’s an answer to your problems down there.”
My words shivered.
“There’s more like me down there?”
“There’s all of all our you down there, except for maybe three still up here. Now get down the pipe!”
I started to kneel, when I heard a cry of surprise come echoing up from the tube like some ghostly thing calling out. A hand reached out of the pipe. It smoked, and flesh melted like clay in water from the bones. My comrade’s head, wet and sizzling, poked out.
“What is this?” he asked calmly.
Man, Id’ seen some things, pinned down at Da Nang that last day. I saw buddies ripped to pieces by shrapnel, I saw an NVA rape a pregnant woman with a bayonet, but I stared at the thing in the tube, frozen with fear, until the stench of cooking flesh singed my nostrils. I reeled back in disgust. My hopes liquefied with the Marine. I turned wildly to the gray-suited man.
“You did this!”
“I can explain.” He raised open palms to me. “I’m from the government. I’m here to help. I’m offering you the only way off this earth with dignity. I’m offering you peace."
“Kill us, you mean!”
I nearly screamed it as the melting Marine numbly watched us through seared eyes.
“Don’t talk stupid,” the government agent said. “How can I kill you?”
Rage filled me, anger clenched my fist and my cold blood boiled. I lunged at him. I went for his neck, grabbed at his shirt collar, and pulled. I came up with his clip-on tie and a hunk of his shirt in my hand.
The professionally applied mortician’s make-up stopped at his shoulders. Blue veins stood out from the man’s marble white flesh exposed by his opened shirt. He looked down and touched his exposed flesh, then back at me. His face was compassion itself.
“I was an advisor in Cambodia when the Kmer rouge took Pnom Pen. I got it and didn’t even know it ‘til I got back to the States. You see? I’m one of you/”
“And one of them,” I spat back.
“I’m trying to do what’s right,” the spook said.
“Right for the politicians and the bureaucrats. Sweep us under the rug, make it so you never have to admit we existed.”
“You think the desk jockeys think about you one way or the other?” The agent laughed caustically. “They didn’t care about you before, why now?
“Look,” he continued. “There’s only three of us left; you, me, and a guy in Sacramento. I’ll leave him to whatever, and you and me will go down that tube together, right now.
“Come on,” he urged. “We’ll go together.”
“No.” I said it evenly. I did not hesitate. I did not ponder. “I don’t want to die.”
The spook lost his cool.
“You are already dead!” he screamed. “You were shot three times through the liver.” Instinctively I touched my side, feeling for the holes. “I was shot clean through the heart.” He seemed to regain some of his composure. “I was dead before I hit the ground. We are dead, soldier. You can cry about it, blame me for it, shake your fist at the government, but you’re still dead, the living dead, the undead, a zombie.”
“I’m no voodoo monster,” I sobbed. “I have a memory. I know who I am.”
“You know who you were,” the agent answered. “Back in Da Nang.”
“There’s a medical explanation,” I countered, falling back toward the bus stop. “Something psychological.”
“Which doesn’t change the fact you’re dead.”
The scene froze for a moment as the decaying vet, the agent and I stared each other down.
The Marine looked away absently and slid back down the tube. I backed away from the agent, toward the bus stop. When there was enough distance between us, I turned and picked up speed.
The bus was still there.
“Where ya’ going?” the Fed pleaded after me. “You know what’s going to happen. This doesn’t last forever. It could happen anytime, anywhere. Come back, Please. To conquer death you only have to die!”
I was doing a fair job of running now. The bus was lit cold green on the inside and the full moon shone off the chrome trim. The doors slid open, and at the steps I swung around to look back at the agent, who was now all alone.
“Thirty-three years!” I bellowed back at him. “And the way things are going, there’s going t’be plenty more of us soon enough!”
“No more Viet Nams, my ass,” I mumbled to myself as I fumbled in my pocket for change. The euphoric-looking driver waved me in.
“Here we go, folks,” he crowed as I groped my way back into the bus. I took a seat in front of the black lady, all the while looking out the window. The Fed watched us pull out.
A great wave of loneliness swept over me. Where would I go now? Visions of family and friends swept through my desperate mind, even as I remembered their horrified expressions of my homecoming. I clenched my teeth with the memory. Despair gagged me as I sobbed. My eyes blurred, and I heard something plop on the seat next to me, and I knew I’d lost it. I looked down as more fetid flesh slid off my face and hands.
Suddenly the Black woman let loose a chilling, awful scream. I looked back at her. The horror, the anguish, the disgust I read in her contorted face overwhelmed me with shame and guilt. I caught my reflection in the window as my scalp and ears slid off my skull. I felt so betrayed.