by Dr. Noh
It’s summer in Iowa. The earth is black and green like my father’s tartan. He clings to our Scottish heritage the way my mother clings to Catholicism. Neither are entirely welcome in our small town. My own clinging secret would be considerably less welcome.
I stomp along the path to the blueberry patch. Blueberry picking is a job for babies, and I am sixteen. In two years, I’ll be old enough to fight for my country. It’s an idea I find thrilling, to be honest, because I am as stupid as any other sixteen-year-old country boy, and perhaps more innocent than most. I overlook the fact that my brother, Todd, wrote us regularly before they sent him overseas. We’ve had one letter from Saigon, a month ago. Since then, nothing.
The sky is deep blue. It goes up forever and stoops down to kiss the earth on either cheek. It defines the edges of my world. The air smells of heat and dust and crushed green things.
A hot, sweaty body crashes into mine, taking me off the path. The crushed green smell rises up and swallows me and twines with the smell of sweat and shampoo. Bobby’s laughing in my ear, and his hands are pushing up under my shirt.
“Don’t?” he says. “Don’t?”
“Well, not here.”
He pulls my t-shirt collar down and lays wet, sucking kisses on my throat. I can feel my dick getting hard, and I don’t want to move. I want to lie in the ditch with the mud and the tiger lillies and the little blue-green beetles and let him touch me however he wants.
He pushes my shirt up to my chest, under my arms. I can feel warm mud sucking at my back. He bites a nipple and shoves a hand down my pants.
I arch up against him. The heels of my boots sink into the mud. I’ll have to clean them before I go home.
He grins down at me. “What, Steph?”
“Don’t call me that.”
My name is Steven, with a V. My sister’s name is Stephanie. I think he’s just found a new way to tease me, and I won’t know different until after he’s gone. Bobby always thought ahead. Not like me.
“But you’re so pretty,” he tells me. “Way prettier than your sister.”
This is, unfortunately, true. I push him off, though my dick would let him call me all the names he wanted. “I have to pick blueberries.”
“So let’s pick blueberries.”
He pulls me out of the ditch. We run, pushing each other, laughing. His feet are bare, and his shirt is unbuttoned, flapping back to reveal his skin. I forget, as usual, how to be angry with him. I’ve never been one to hold a grudge.
The blueberry patch is on the edge of the woods, well off the path. The tall grass swallows us up. We roll over and over, wrestling like we used to do when we were kids. He gets his thigh between my legs, gets on top of me again, and I push up against him. He pulls my shirt off.
I’m panting, eyes shut, desperate for it. He pushes at my shoulders, shushes me, gets my pants down. My dick pops up against my stomach, and he grins, runs his thumb along the underside to make me hiss and squirm.
Sometimes, he’ll suck me. I want to ask for it, but I also know I’ll go off like a bottle rocket if he does, and so I just get his jeans open, his cock against mine, both of us so hot, cocks, bodies, earth and air all wet and steaming. We rub and rub, hands slipping on dirt streaked skin. I get my mouth on his as I come, and he pins me hard by the shoulders, shoves his tongue in my mouth, and ruts against my stomach until his cock jerks and spurts as well.
A sharp pain bites my side. We’ve rolled too close to the blueberry bushes. There are wasps among the fallen, rotting fruit.
I want to go to the stream and at least cool the sting, but Bobby holds me still and watches my skin swell. He bends his head and licks and sucks at the welt until I’m grabbing his hair, digging my heels into the ground again, aroused and unthinking, until I can’t even feel the pain.
I sit in an empty room in an empty building in New York City. I’ve been out of the Army for three years. Everything I own is fitted neatly into my bag, ready to go, except for two things: Bobby’s letters and my sniper rifle.
The rifle is in place at the window. My target will be here soon.
The letters I shuffle like a deck of cards before drawing one out. It’s addressed to S. McLean and it starts as they all do.
Sending this with a friend (should say “mate” maybe, he is an Australian chopper pilot) as we are still nowhere near a mailbox. Go figure, they don’t put a lot of those in the jungle, though there’s surely no less need for mail here than in town.Then again, news seems to travel fast along the betel vine. Last week we were
And then there’s a lot blacked out by the censors.
Still wish you’d send me a photo, the boys in my unit would love to see you. They can’t imagine what keeps me faithful with all these beauties flinging themselves at me, but of course you’re still the prettiest.
All my love,
Across the street, a car draws up. I move to the window and take aim.
I used to hunt with my father. My aim made up for the fact that in looks I took after my mother–delicate bones, dark curling hair, big pale eyes. I made him uncomfortable as a child, but as soon as he found I could put an arrow in a buck’s eye from 50 yards, anything else became unimportant.
The Army shared his opinion. After bows, rifles were easy. Sniper work requires patience and, I sometimes think, a certain lack of imagination. If you think too much, sooner or later your thoughts will come around to the wives, children, mothers, lovers of the people you watch through your scope.
I focus on the black Lincoln below. The door opens. A man gets out. Bald, no hat. Not my guy. Baldie checks out the area, then gestures to someone inside the car. The next man out is fat. His black overcoat has a fur collar. He has a tattoo just visible on his neck. I aim for the tattoo, and he goes down. I wait for another opening and put a second shot in his head. That’s that.
The Army provided excellent on the job training, but they didn’t pay very well. I’m in the private sector now.
I pack up and climb the stairs, exit to the roof, and hop the gaps from building to building. Three blocks later, I descend and emerge onto the street. Probably the man I’ve just killed is a criminal, but the Army taught me not to wonder too much about things like that.
Task one in New York complete. For task two, I take the subway to the Village and find a certain Salvation Army outpost. I’ve been told to ask for a woman named Frieda.
Frieda is large. She wears a severe black dress, and her nails are so long the tips curl under.
“I’m looking for a friend,” I tell her. “His name is Bobby–Robert Aiken. Gunnery Sergeant Robert Aiken, USMC. I was told I might find him here.”
“Not here,” she says. “Not precisely here, no. And who are you, my boy, and why you asking?”
“I’m his friend.”
“Marine Corps friend?”
“No. From when we were growing up.”
“What the fuck’s it matter where?” I hitch my bag up my shoulder. She sniffs at me. “Iowa, okay? Outside Boone.”
“You know this girl of his?”
“I know her.”
She sniffs again. “Try along under the Broadway el, around Chauncey or Halsey. And get a haircut, my boy. Get a haircut.”
And damned if she’s not right. I find him camped under the stairs leading up to the platform. He hasn’t shaved or washed in a long time. The dirt’s made lines on his face like camo paint.
“Bobby?” I crouch beside him. “Hey. It’s me.”
He opens his mouth and roars at me. There’s some filth mixed in, but mostly it’s wordless. His mouth is so pink inside, such a contrast to matted hair and roughened skin. I fall back on my ass and stare.
There’s more. He’s got a lot to say, even if I can’t understand most of it. He’s missing two fingers. I heard he was captured by the VC.
Once the shock wears off–for him and me both–I feel like maybe there’s some recognition in his eyes. I drag him into a diner nearby and feed him. Eggs, toast, bacon, coffee, and afterwards a slab of blueberry pie. It’s gelatinous. The berries–bland and cold–hang in suspension like eyeballs in mud.
By the end of it, Bobby’s talking in words, though not ones I can understand. He rambles with his mouth full, stuff about tigers and mud and angels in cages. One strand of blueberry colored drool hangs from his lower lip.
I nod. I have his Silver Star in my pocket and a sick feeling in my stomach. My Bobby’s gone. I suppose, to be fair, we both died over there. I don’t know what I thought I’d do if I found him whole and sane. Get an apartment together? Buy a nice quilt?
I get him to a VA hospital, tell them who he is, about how he got the medal. I bully my way through to the head administrator and give him ten grand, cash. In return, I extract a promise to look after Bobby, which they should’ve goddamn been doing anyway.
No, I tell him. I won’t leave an address or phone number where I can be reached.
I mail the medal home to his mother.
The job comes by email. The target’s name is Robert Aiken, and it hits me like a fist to the solar plexus; that peculiar combination of desperate need to inhale, inability to do so, and sharp pain cutting up from stomach to throat.
Of course it’s a coincidence. It’s a common name. This Robert Aiken is something big in construction, out in Vegas. Probably this is a mob thing, but I don’t mind. I’ve worked for them before. I reply to accept the job.
To refuse it would suggest I haven’t put Bobby firmly behind me, and that wouldn’t do. I won’t deride my ability for self-deception. I couldn’t get along without it. Once you’ve seen and done certain things, you don’t move on, you don’t get through it. The best you can hope for is to get used to it and build a life there.
This Aiken moves around a lot, and I decide the easiest place to take him is at one of his building sites. I set up among the girders of an unfinished hotel across the street from his unfinished hotel. I wear a hardhat and coveralls, and when I’m done, I’ll walk out. Simple. I like simple. Complicated will get you killed, although by this stage of my life, I’m not sure why I care.
I look through the scope as a battered pickup rumbles to a stop. A man gets out. I don’t take the shot because I’m too busy having what I assume is a heart attack. Not to overdramatize, but if I hadn’t been hidden away seven stories up with a fucking sniper rifle, I might well have called 911. Some things are just too much of a shock to the system, I guess. Even a system like mine.
My heart skips beats for long seconds and my vision fogs over. It makes up for the pauses with machine gun fire rapidity. I sweat and pant and hope I’m not dying. It’s nightfall before I drag myself out of that room. I have the target’s address, of course, and I go straight there. Not, you understand, because I want to see him. Because I want to prove it’s not him at all.
Aiken’s condo has a shitty lock and no security system. Inside, it has wood floors, big black appliances in the kitchen, a big black leather couch in the living room. There’s stuff all over the fridge–photos, magazine clippings, those fridge poetry magnets. One line has been arranged to read: Tigerbars, mud and water, sunk, lost.
Below it, stuck up by a piece of blue painter’s tape, is my mother’s recipe for blueberry pie. It’s in her handwriting.
I feel wetness in my eyes, clinging to my lashes as I blink. It’s a shock. I haven’t cried since 1969, and I’d formed a theory that Agent Orange had done something to my tear ducts.
The door opens, and I fumble for my rifle, which is stupid. It’s not an ideal close range weapon unless you mean to bludgeon someone with the butt.
Bobby flips the lights on. He’s tall, clean, with a deep desert tan and worn jeans. He’s wearing my belt, the one with the buckle in the shape of a star that I left behind when I shipped out. I bring the rifle up to my shoulder and take aim as best I can.
He stands still. “Steph,” he says. “Stephie. Steven.” Real quiet.
I do nothing. After a while, probably not the hours it feels like, he comes over and takes the rifle away from me.
“Do you want your tie?” Bobby says.
“I don’t want to go.”
“Of course you do.”
“I don’t. What do I need a tie for?”
“I don’t know. In case we go out somewhere? I thought I might take everyone out to dinner one night, maybe Vellum in Des Moines.”
“It’s a nice place. They do this lemon pasta thing you’d really like.”
I grunt at him, and he smiles and goes on packing. It’s taken him almost a decade to convince me to go back home for Thanksgiving, though I have spoken to both my parents and Stephanie on the phone. I’ve been to see Todd’s name on the Vietnam War Memorial, too. I have a photo of it, framed, that I keep in a drawer. Since I can only stand to look at it about three times a year, I’ve been thinking about taking it to give to my parents.
Bobby finally got me to see a shrink, too, and I asked her what she thought of the idea. She liked it, which just proves she’s as cracked as I thought. I might take it along anyway, decide when I see them.
I sit in the middle of the bed, on a quilt I picked out. It’s a black and green plaid, which utterly fails to match anything else in the room. Bobby’s packing for both of us, since I’ve been a whiny little bitch for the past month and can’t seem to snap myself out of it. Bobby takes it like he takes everything I’ve thrown at him for eight years: with patience and amusement.
Okay, he was not so amused about the hired killer thing. I don’t do that anymore, not since I settled his issues with the mob.
“Half an hour till we leave,” Bobby says. “You want to drive?”
“We should take a cab,” I say, apparently determined to be contrary right to the bitter end. The shrink prescribed me valium when I told her I was going home, and I’m starting to think I should take one. Too bad I flushed them all down the john the day after Bobby got the prescription filled.
“If you like.”
“That’s dumb. We’ll need to get groceries on the way back from the airport.”
He finishes zipping the suitcase and looks over at me. “Jesus Christ, Steph,” he says mildly.
“I know! I know.” I can’t make myself apologize, even though I am actually sorry.
He flops back on the bed and puts his head in my lap. “It won’t be the same, if that’s what you’re worried about. It’ll be all awkward, and they won’t know how to talk to you, and that whole section of fields by the woods, you know, with the blueberry bushes and stuff? It’s all gone. Some senator built a house there. Oh, and our high school’s gone, too. There was a thing with asbestos, and it was cheaper to tear it down than fix it.”
I lean over and kiss him upside down. I can feel his smile, and I’m sure he can feel mine.
“Okay!” He bounces up and pulls me with him.
“You said half an hour,” I groan.
“So we’ll be there early. I like the airport.”
“That’s because you never fly.”
“We can’t all be fantastically successful international hitmen, Steph. Get the lights, I’ll get the bags.”
I check to make sure the windows are locked and that the security system I made him get is on. Lights in all the rooms off. I took the trash out earlier and emptied the fridge of things that would smell when we got back.
He’s waiting for me by the door.
“I hate pumpkin pie,” I tell him. “And turkey.”
“Okay. We can go now.”
I lock up, and we get in the elevator down to the parking garage.
“I think your dad means for us all to go out and hunt down a couple of turkeys.”
“Hunt down…at the grocery store?”
“In the woods. You know, as a manly bonding activity. You, me, our dads, my brother and uncle.”
For some reason, the idea does not immediately fill me with dread and foreboding. I remember the woods in November before the snow fell, the thick earth scent of rotting leaves and distant smoke from a dozen chimneys. I haven’t used a bow in years.