They brought the body in by noon. They had to wear masks to look it over, the stench filling the room, wafting outside. Someone opened the tent flap and complained. No one spoke in reply. It was just too damned bad, why in hell was he complaining? It wasn’t his body on the table.
The man’s throat was slit. That was all. He lay nestled between the rocks for how many days, no one knew, would ever know, it was of no importance: after you died, you left your body, the priests said, and burial grave or urn simply marked where the cadaver’s spirit would return with the Second Coming. No one in the tent believed it.
That was the war Jess was in. He left Ponca City and Chloe Waller and did a tour in the European theater, mostly, he said, in London. He missed his big girl; she became even more a woman while he was away. Even if he’d stayed longer in the war, he knew she would be all right; her daddy’s oil money would keep her safe and well for his return. She wrote a letter to him every day. Usually they arrived in clusters.
Jess was the oldest. Next came Cleve, who near the war’s end was one of those commandeered by General George Patton in the Battle of the Bulge. Like Jess, Cleve had too many other mysteries in his life and refused to waste time remembering the war. His wife at home divorced him. Once he was back, as gentle and humble as when he had left, he found Jewel, who loved him, she told him latger, the first moment she saw him in Sallisaw, where his father had been shot and killed. He and Jewel married and moved to southern California, to Santa Ana, where they both died, first him and then her. Her broken heart weighed and wore her down, she kept the house too hot for anyone else, but not many visited and she needed the extra warmth. She thought about going back to Oklahoma, but her youth there was too far removed in time; she knew staying here she kept Cleve alive in her memory.
Buster stayed in Oklahoma and married a schoolteacher with long red hair, a slow-drawling walk, a way of smiling with her eyes, the same as he did. They lived on a hill in Wilburton. He worked on cars in his garage, close enough to feel at home, far enough to be as independent as he felt he needed to be. He hated the war so much he dismissed ever having been there. Carmen could not get him to talk about it, nor could her uncle Ellis, who lived in the cluttered shack in the back yard, reading and collecting Grit, a periodical that preceded the more infamous Police Gazette.
Clyde did not go to the war. He stayed with his mother, was deferred to look after her, as he always had and would continue to do until she died twenty years after the war ended. He did carpentry jobs in Fort Smith, met women, wooed them after hours, and had a child with one, of whom no one in the family knew until Clyde told his nephew–me–not long before he died.
Clyde’s son taught journalism at Yeshiva University, New York City. Clyde told the story of Dale Roy’s interview of Errol Flynn, the one cache of his writing that people read and he knew it because they mentioned it if and when they felt it safe to bring up the name of that bloody rounder–Captain Blood, the Earl of Essex, General George Armstrong Custer: roles that kept his boxoffice open but were far less interesting than his turn in the bedroom with the very young, too young Beverly Adland; or at least that was the gist of the piece. The Man Who Robs the Cradle. “Scandal Suits Flynn’s Fans, But Not the Church Or Beverly Adlan’s Mother” as the subhead read. Even though the piece was only an interview, the New York Post was engaged in the business of selling papers. Dale Roy, who was named for his mother, Ruby Phillips of Van Buren, Arkansas, said goodbye to the tabloid once he knew he had landed the teaching job.
Manuel did not go to the war: he had a son whom the entire family “took over,”as they called “fussing over” children, and he was the only one. His father moved all three of his own family to Wichita, and worked on the assembly line at Boeing Company, helping to build airplanes as a way to do his part and, presumably, to stay out of the war, though he never said so.
Ernest, the youngest brother, was in the navy. He was the twin of the only sister, who was named after Jess’s first love, Chloe Waller–some called her his “paramour.” Sister Chloe married a mechanic, Dallas Elliott, and they lived in Phoenix after she gave birth to a daughter she named Chloe. She was my only known cousin. She died a few years after her husband, living on their pig farm in Maine, making a widow’s living as a secretary for an insurance company, and a decade after their unknown cousin’s heart attack, which Clyde, his unheralded father, said killed Dale Roy Phillips instantly.
Ernest fought with Admiral “Bull” Halsey in the war’s Pacific theater. He never said much more than that, at least not so people could hear. He went to Detroit, worked at Bud Wheel, married Stella, drank beer, retired, moved to the woods in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, lost a leg to diabetes, which proceeded to take the rest of his body.
There was no need for any of them to discuss the war. There were problems closer to home. Those who went to the war and those who came home were truly kin to those who did not go and for various reasons stayed home. None of them fought in Korea, the “police action,” Truman called it, nor in Vietnam. And I only am left to end the story now . . . this way:
There was nothing more to be done. The corpse was buried. The chaplain read over the grave. The dead one had been rumored to prefer men over women. You didn’t need to ask around to know who murdered him. Whispers served for talk. Giggling made men sound like children; when they drank, they resembled lonely animals. The dead was once alive but he was not missed. One of two of the living, neither of whom survived the war, came close to taking credit for his death. They were on the ship that sent the first wave of men to Normandy Beach. The invasion put the matter to rest. How could you accuse men of murder who risked their lives and died fighting for their country?
Something about it fed on Jess but he finally told Chloe the night he mustered out. She listened to Jess as long as he wanted to talk; she said nothing until he finished, nor did she say anything then. She mixed each of them an Old Fashioned. They took off their clothes, kissing and fondling and building their passion as they did; then they set their glasses beside the bed, hers on one side, his on the other. She was a big woman, he was a big man; they had always experienced a good time together in bed, and because neither of them wanted children they used protection and had no need to worry.
Chloe told me the story many years later. She said I looked just like Jess. If only I were him, I thought, she might be happy again. I was attending an immigration trial in El Paso. My wife’s. You can’t live in Cuba and Nicaragua and simply come back to the States and apply and be given your citizenship back if you are on record as having surrendered it in Mexico City while you were becoming a Latin American revolutionary over a period of twenty-six years. The trial ended in a guilty verdict. Appeals made sure it continued for a few more years until Reagan gave way to Poppy Bush, who apparently wanted the case to be closed, and it was.
Chloe gave me a Navajo ring. She had operated a trading post on the outskirts of Albuquerque and the man she married–a cattleman who retired and left Arizona to follow her–cracked the turquoise inset when he hit and knocked down a man in a barroom tussle, breaking the man’s jaw.
Chloe told me stories of her life. Her father was French, her mother Osage. They were wealthy, but Chloe loved a good time and Jess, she said, was the best time she ever had, even if he was a poor boy, she added, following that with “especially because he was poor.”
The last night I stayed with Chloe I told her I was married to the woman on trial, but living in Albuquerque with the woman I had loved all my life, so far mostly unrequitedly. After I left Chloe, but before the Immigration and Naturalization Service handed down their decision, and even longer before my wife’s case was dismissed, I divorced her–we had lived apart five years–and I and my beloved married a second time. That was a quarter-century ago. And that’s how I came to be here, where there are more churches more capita than in any other domicile in America, even the South, where I was born, in Fort Smith, the city someone once called “the Eastern gateway to the Southwest.” I always cheated and called it the “Southeastern door . . .”
For years, even after he died and my mother took over, my father flew the flag his brother Cleve’s widow had given him after the military burial. I happened to be there and helped him set the flagpole in the earth next to one of the three grape vineyards that both of us worked and I always believed I would inherit; but when the time came to do so I no longer wanted to stay, nor did she, and we moved to Albuquerque for twelve years. Eventually, my father sold the vineyards and the new owner uprooted everything–vines, wires, posts–and left the ground to grow fallow, the dirt blowing in the wind, even the killdeer abandoned without the grape leaves to hide their little ones before the harvest came due. One corner of one vineyard became a trailer court, where one night a man and wife were robbed and they and their two children murdered by people that were never apprehended. That happened after I was gone, subsequent to my only return to see what had happened to the land, and could not help feeling sick, and got drunk in a bar not far away to get rid of the taste I had been left with and get something in me I could at least vomit up and be done with.
That was not my war, the one I lost though I went on winning my private battles, saying, always, to hell with my war.
Each day I was there the courtroom was hot. My wife sat with me and her parents, while her new partner (with whom she shared a closet) sat a few rows back with the visiting poet from California whose name meant as much as, if not more than, any literary person living in the Southwest. She was there to testify and did so brilliantly, I thought. When the INS prosecuting attorney publicly announced my living arrangements, the lesbians, who sat together on the opposite side of the room from where I sat among my wife’s family, all turned and looked, if not glowered, at me. I looked back, but I felt the guilt all the same. Even then I insisted on testifying, and after the judge motioned the woman about to question me to the bench, where apparently he asked her to embarrass me no further, for she asked me only what I wished to say to the Court. It was that night I told Chloe the story of my heart. It was a story that held little importance after listening, as a child, to Jess’s story of the man in the tent dead from a cut throat in a place of stones far out on a site that formed the latest front. Jess at least had a story worth telling since there were no such tales of love like mine, at least not in the army during the Second War.
I was among that generation marked (psychologically in my case) by the Vietnam War. We had been busy smoking pot one morning, ingesting opium in the afternoon, the moon landing on the muted TV all day, and my most recent, my second, wife, the only other one I truly loved among the three women I married before Cathleen, stayed in her room off to the side of the kitchen reading the Iliad in tandem with the Odyssey. It was her second time through and this time was the slowest. When Odysseus went down to confer with Achilles, and learned life was so much better than death, the one known for his dissembling knew the one with the vulnerable heel was advising him to go home. So after ten years of wandering, he did. His wife had staved off the suitors, their son told him. When he spoke of it she said nothing as though it were more important what he believed, finally, than what had actually occurred.
(28 May 2013)
copyright 2013 by Floyce Alexander