An old Pontiac, pale blue and scarred, moved up Havana Street to 26th Avenue. The car's rear seat was piled high with boxes wrapped tightly with heavy cord. The trunk was too filled with luggage to be closed. More cord was pulled through two holes punched in the hood and tied down to the bumper, holding everything in place.
The driver peered around for a moment, then turned left, driving slowly until he found number 2274, a small, gray house that badly needed painting. The sparse lawn, overwhelmed by crabgrass, provided no cheer. That's his house. I made it...What a mess.
The driver's graying black beard covered his face but could not disguise his weariness. His clothes, except for an old jacket with the legend, "Viet Nam - Class of '69" on its back, were nondescript. He parked the car in front of the house, got out, went to the front door, and jabbed the doorbell. He shivered in the cold night air, glad that he had beaten the snow promised by the forecasters.
No one answered the bell.
Stupid. I should have called yesterday so he'd know when I'd get here. He pushed his finger into the doorbell again and kept it there. It produced an ugly buzzing. "Chopper," he whispered, "open the goddamned.... "
The woman who opened the door scowled at him. "What the hell are you trying to do, wake the dead?"
He backed off, not knowing how to respond. He's married? Why didn't the SOB tell me? What the hell am I doing here? "Uh, sorry to disturb you, ma'am. Is Chopper here?"
The woman looked at him for a moment, a faint frown on her face, just enough for him to understand he was not welcome. "You must be Harrington. So you finally got here. Congratulations."
He looked at her, vaguely noting her dark hair and extra weight. I don't need this. What do I do now? She looks familiar. Do I know her? Where's Chopper?
"Well, you're here," she said. "What the hell, come on in."
The woman turned and walked back into the house. After a moment's hesitation, Harrington followed her through the short entryway into a living room. It held a dark maroon sofa with a vague pattern that use had mostly rubbed out. Two end tables flanked the sofa; each had a small lamp, adding meager light to the room. More light from a street lamp came in through the one window facing the street. Some posters in French announcing works by Chagall provided some color.
"You've had a long trip," the woman said, flicking a switch to turn on the ceiling light. Everything took on a yellowish cast. "Sit down, I'll make some coffee. Bill wasn't sure when you'd get here."
"Ma'am, don't trouble yourself... I didn't know Chopper got married. This isn't a good idea, me intruding like this."
The woman's eyes widened. "Married? He's not married. Oh, you think I'm his wife." She snickered. "No, I'm his baby sister. I get all the heartache without any of the fun."
"You're Cora?" He saw that she had changed from the pictures Chopper had shown him in Vietnam. The slim, young girl, with an eager grin, now a woman, had discovered that life was filled with ugly surprises.
"You know me?" she asked.
"No, we've never met, but when we were in 'Nam, you sent him some pictures and he showed them to me. He talked a lot about you. You were in high school. God, he was proud of you.... Did you marry the quarterback?"
"Good God," the woman laughed, "ancient history. I had no idea that he talked so much about me. Yeah, I married that son-of-a-bitch, and then dumped him when I found out he was still screwing the pompom girls.... I'll make some coffee."
She walked through the doorway in the rear of the room. Harrington stood where she had left him. Cora? I never thought she'd still be here. I used to have a thing for her, she was so sweet-looking in those pictures. What kind of bitch has she turned out to be?
After a few moments of kitchen noises, Cora returned.
"Call him Bill," she said. "Chopper is too much from the past." She sat on the sofa and leaned back. "He's in the VA, on the psych ward. When you called him last month, he got too excited. He began telling me all kinds of stories about you and him in Vietnam, but it got away from him. He got that look in his eye, you know what I mean?"
As Harrington just stood there, Cora waved him vaguely toward the other end of the sofa. "Don't just stand there. Sit down, for God's sake."
He looked at the sofa and then sat on a chair, with the coffee table between them.
Cora continued: "I tried to get him to stop, but he kept on talking, and the more he talked, the worse he got. He began having those damned flashbacks again. I found him barricaded behind the furniture, calling for you... you were Jammer, right?"
Harrington nodded. He had begun to relax while she was out of the room, but as she spoke it felt as if his body were being squeezed, as if the air around him was too much for his muscles to bear. I'm the kiss of death. Anyone who knows me suffers. I should die. "I did it to him, didn't I?" Harrington's voice was almost too low for her to hear him. "If I don't call, he's OK. What a friend I turned out to be."
"You? What did you have to do with it? He's just the man he is. If it wasn't you calling him it would have been something on the tube, or maybe something somebody said in one of his favorite bars, or maybe a change in air pressure. You? Hell, anything."
"Maybe you're right." Harrington's voice continued low. "But it was me this time, wasn't it. I've got my own problems, never thought that Cho--" he saw her face change "--uh, Bill would fall to pieces like that. What an idiot I am."
Cora leaned forward. "Why are you putting yourself down? Don't tell me I'm going to have to take care of you too?"
Harrington had a momentary urge to scream at her, to challenge her presumption that he needed anyone, but it subsided in the face of his despair. "Me? Take care of me?" he continued in his low voice. "What the hell are you talking about? I'm OK, just tired from the trip." His faked a yawn and stretched. "I got to get the hell out of here.... That coffee done yet?"
The woman sighed, then rose to her feet.
"You stay here. Bill was expecting you'd move in. No reason to change plans. I'll get the coffee. You like doughnuts?"
They ate in silence. A few cars drove by, their lights flashing through the window. Some children outside squealed with delight at some suddenly discovered treasure.
When they finished, Cora gathered up the cups and remaining doughnuts and took them into the kitchen. Harrington got up to help, but she waved him back. He slumped onto the sofa and closed his eyes.
"Do you want to bring your stuff in and get settled?" she said, startling him with her sudden presence.
Harrington' s eyes snapped open. "Wha--" He jerked as if to leap up from the sofa, then settled back. "Sorry, I must have dozed off.... I don't know what the hell I want to do. Cho--Bill was my last resort. Now I don't know about anything."
"Bill said you'd had a hard time lately. Your wife dumped you?"
Suddenly eager, he said, "Yeah, she took the kids and moved back to Poughkeepsie with her damned mother. It was a lousy marriage. I was never good enough for her family. Not once in the sixteen years we were married did her mother ever use my name. I was always 'that man.' to her. Finally, Susie just gave in. Me not working for her old man didn't help. I don't blame her. What a bitch her mother is. I wasn't man enough to handle her. Too much for me."
"That's tough," Cora said. "No relatives?"
"Nah, just a cousin who hates my guts. My parents died about ten years ago. They couldn't take what 'Nam did to me."
Cora leaned forward. "Maybe I shouldn't say this, but you sure put a heavy load on yourself. You have some kind of an inferiority complex? You didn't put Bill into the hospital, and if you married a momma's girl, hell, your only mistake was sticking to her for so long."
Harrington looked directly at Cora. "What are you talking about?"
"Well, damn," Cora said. "The old bitch wouldn't even use your name, and your wife, what's her name, Susie, put up with that? And you're taking the blame? Sorry, that's dumb. Give me a cigarette. No, the hell with that. I'm quitting."
He laughed. "You sure say what you think, don't you. Do you mind if I smoke? Nah, forget it, I don't need them either. You talk this way to Bill?"
Cora looked back at him. "Maybe."
"Did you remarry after the quarterback?" Nice face. "I bet the guys were howling after you."
"Not me," she said. "I had a few boyfriends, but they were all jerks. No, I'm single, and it looks like I'll stay that way. What did that magazine say? A woman over thirty-five has more chance of getting mugged than married. And the creeps that're left? Not for me." While she spoke, she turned toward him and rested her right elbow on the back of the sofa.
Harrington turned toward her. "I really liked to look at your pictures. They reminded me that there was a real world that maybe I could get back to." She really hasn't changed that much, just picked up a few pounds, but they don't look bad on her at all. Nice lips. "Did he ever... talk about me?"
"Did he ever not talk about you." Cora scowled. Then her face changed and she looked away. "He said you were the brother he never had. He showed me your pictures." Harrington could still see part of her face. Tears slowly trickled down her cheeks. "You were all so young."
Harrington stared at her.
She turned to look at him again. "You know, I was a little jealous of you? He came back different and brought you along, a stranger who always got in the way." She wiped her eyes. "But I got used to him talking about you.... You're a good-looking guy. Why do you have that stupid beard?"
Harrington laughed. "Slow down. He always did say you were a real piece of work. Listen, we saved each other's lives so many times... you don't want to hear about all that crap. You're not still pissed off at me for showing up?"
She shook her head.
"Great," he said. "Let's go visit Bill, then maybe afterwards we can get some Chinese or something. You got good Chinese around here?"
Bertram Benmeyer is a retired clinical psychologist who has taken up writing in the last few years. He has published more than 20 short stories and articles and is currently working on a science fiction novel. He enjoys listening to jazz, blues, classical, and other music.