I'm in the street, just coming up to the hall where the wedding's going to happen. It's pretty far towards town, to where you can hear the tugs, the smell the river coming over the levee. I stop, taking that in, and then there's this black guy in his wheel-chair. Too late, he's got my attention. My fault. I made eye contact.
He says something about helping him out.
Great, I'm thinking, Priceless. Fucking wonderful.
I'm set to blow him off, it's got to be about money, it always is, but then he gestures down and there's this Saints' hat sitting on the pavement, back past his chair. He says, smiling, "It's about the third time it's happened today."
I'm in a suit, I had to buy this suit once the invitation came. I had to pick up something, something that I won't be wearing any time again soon. I'm expecting some ribbing over my choice. I got some off the rack cheapo that doesn't fit me right.
"I'll get your hat. Sure." I look around, checking for accomplices, anyone waiting for me to pick it up. I look at the guy again. He shrugs. Smiles.
I move quickly to the hat, turning as I do, looking back, looking around, bending for it and coming up fast, expecting there to be another one coming up behind me. And there are people, people moving down the sidewalk, but they're like me, dressed up, heading for the ceremony.
I'm about to toss it in his lap, I'm about four feet away, and, with him in a chair like that, a bit hunched, all he really is is lap. Can't miss. But he says, "If you could just set it on my head..."
I almost say something, and then I see his hands. They're all curled and sitting in his lap, inert, withered looking. He's got one of those little stick shift things to run his chair with, and without really staring, I see that he can't really use his hands, that he must just crank the chair around by the stick, using his wrist or forearm or something.
"Sure. No problem." I step close to him, and I can smell him. He doesn't stink, but it's been warm today, and he's got a body smell to him, musky, dank. I set the hat on his head, letting it sit back a bit, giving the bill just a slight tug to set it. There have been a few gusts today; maybe this isn't bullshit.
I step back from him, looking around once more, just to be sure. I look back at him and he's looking up at me. I think, here it comes. Here comes the pitch. I can't believe that this guy is going to ask me for money after I helped him out. I can't believe it. I give him this sullen look, waiting for his line.
But he just says, "Thank you very much. I appreciate it."
We look at each other for a minute more, me waiting for it, and then he sets the heel of a withered hand on the ball of the little stick, and reverses away from me, pulling a little half-crescent.
Then he stops and looks back at me. He's got to sit up in his chair, straightening his back, so that he can get turned enough to see me. He says, "Wedding?"
I look at him for a few seconds more. It occurs to me that he might be a war vet or something. He doesn't have a sign or anything, the way those people usually do. I almost ask him about it, curious. Then I remember to answer, saying, "Yeah, sure. Wedding."
He's got a funny look, sizing me up. "She ain't no ex of yours is she my brother?"
I laugh, disarmed. "No man. They're both friends of mine."
"Good. Good for them then. I wish them well." He nods and I almost ask him again about his chair. Then he says, "Good-bye. And thanks again." Leaves, rolling, motor humming down the sidewalk away from the hall. I see where he's got some soft-sided case hanging from the back of his chair.
"Hey Johnny Finn, friend of yours? Who's your buddy?"
Then I'm shaking hands with Sean Landry, who I haven't seen in about four years. Him and me and Brian used to be inseparable. Sean was my linebacker for most of high school, lining up right behind me, on the strong side, popping the backs that got by me. Following me into the backfield. Getting after the quarterback.
I laugh and right away we're talking about old times, this hall, we've been to a few dances here, raised hell. It's been really up in the air whether Sean was going to make it down or not; it's been a dry autumn out West. When Sean got out of the Army, he went West and got a job as a smoke-jumper. There was some question whether he could get the time off, what with all the late fires this year.
He's still lean and tall, but his hair's gone about half white, even though he's only twenty-five or so. His family's black Irish and I remember him having a few gray hairs even back in high school. He says, "So how's the best man?"
"Hey now... Best is best." And we're both laughing.
We both laugh. One time, about six years ago, something like that, Brian decided that he needed to declare who the best man at his wedding was going to be. Sean'd gone right in the Army, straight from high school, three year hitch, and, in there, Brian had declared, with much nineteen year old wisdom, that someday I would be his best man. Him and Cindy had been broken up at the time but they'd just had their first kid. Traig. Born on my birthday.
I think he just named me best man to apologize for not naming the kid after me, not even the middle name. Middle name is Aloisius or something. The best man thing became a sore spot for Sean for a while, felt like he was being penalized for having left us all and joined the Army.
It doesn't matter now. Neither of us're around anymore. I'm at school in Lake Charles and Sean lives out in Idaho, somewhere between Moscow and Boise. Today, one of Brian's older brothers is set to be the best man.
Inside, we sit together, Sean and me, the two guys from out of town that don't have dates. We're relegated to one of the back tables, with a few other couples that aren't related to either family.
The bar's been open for a while, and everyone's already half-lit, it's one of those weddings, and me and Sean get to trying to catch up. I stayed away on purpose, running a little late, close to the ceremony time, because of some reading I had for school.
That'd been tough. I've got my duffel bag and the rest of my TA 50 in the truck. The whole unit's on a one hour call in, waiting to get activated. I told my top sergeant that I was coming down here for a wedding and he was all right with that. Said he'd call my parents' place if we got called up. I spent the whole day waiting for the phone to ring. With CNN on, giving updates on the coming war, on the units that'd been activated for the Gulf. Didn't get shit done for school.
* * *
After the ceremony, Sean's asking me what I know. Whether we're going up. He hasn't been around. I don't know what it's like where he's been living, but I say, "Down here, they activating everybody. We're on a one hour call-in right now. Only question is whether they send us to the Persian Gulf or if they send us to Germany or somewhere over here to cover for one of the Regular Army units they've already sent in."
"That's heavy stuff. I'm glad that ain't me."
"How about you? You got any worries that way?" The Army's just announced that they're activating a few thousand people that have critical job fields, people who aren't even in the Guard, but that are on the inactive reserve list. Sean's got one of those critical job skills.
He laughs. I can see where his teeth are still the same, gappy in the front, like they had too much room coming in. He says, "No man, I missed it, my six years was up six months ago." After six years, you come off the inactive reserve list. "They can't touch me now, unless things get serious enough that they start the draft back up."
"And you're not interested? For the hell of it?" Seems like a reasonable question. The guy jumps out of planes and into forest fires for a living, must like this danger stuff.
"They had me already. They had me for three years, full time, where I would've killed anyone for them. That's what I joined for, right? Then they could've called me up anytime for three more years. Now? No man. I did my time. I wanted all that shit and they didn't use me. It's someone else's turn now."
He's stood up and gestures with his empty. I say, "Yeah. Get me one." I shake my head and he waits. "Shit man, I never wanted any of this garbage. I just wanted an education. I don't wanna kill anybody."
* * *
On the way back from the bathroom, I run into Brian's dad. He's an old guy. Was in World War Two. He drops a hand on my shoulder and says, "Well, it looks like you're gonna go do it, hunh boy?"
I shrug. "Looks like it." I'm at that age where I don't know what to call him, can't imagine using his first name, still not comfortable calling him mister.
He didn't get married until he was forty, so none of his boys were old enough to worry about Nam. He seems real happy about it all, that I'm getting a chance to get into his club. He starts talking about how great his war was, how everyone should get a chance to fight for his country.
He's saying all this when I know that the main reason he didn't get married for so long was that he ended up pretty badly shell-shocked from the war. He spent about three years in the loony bin after the war, and then about another ten shrimping, alone, out in the shallow warm Gulf water off of the Louisiana coast. He's still a little goofy.
He says, "I could tell you some stories about war."
I know he was a messenger, that he spent a lot of time as an eighteen-year old driving around Northern France on a motorcycle, that he was almost killed during the Battle of the Bulge.
But he starts in on some story about pulling guard duty in England, after he'd been transferred back there. He's talking about how one night, he was alone in the guard shack, middle of the night, and he felt himself growing. He was looking up at the stars, everything was blacked out, and this was when the Germans were still launching V2's into London, bombing the shit out of it, and he was sitting in the door of the guard shack, trying to count the plumes of the rockets as they went over his base towards London.
He says, "And I started to grow. I felt myself gettin' bigger and bigger, you know, and I ran out into the open, because I was afraid to grow inside the guard shack. I was afraid I'd hurt myself, growin' like that." He's got me by the upper arm now, pushing me back against the wall outside the bathroom. I can see the little flecks of dust and crap on his glasses, he's got these old VA issue black horn rims and he's staring up at me. He started out with his voice raised, talking over the music, but now he's practically shouting. "And I got bigger and bigger. 'Til that guard house looked like a god damn match box. I was huge, and I started thinkin' that I could get so big that I could reach up and stop those rockets. That I'd pull the sons a bitches right out of the sky."
He's shaking now, and I think how strong he still is, fisherman's hands, and there's a long, awkward silence as he keeps staring up at me. Someone I don't recognize pats him on the back, going past us to the bathroom, saying, "Hey Mr. Bateman."
And he looks around a bit, nodding after a second. He pats my shoulder, rubs my arm where he had a grip on it. "You keep safe now boy. Keep safe."
"Thank you Mr. Bateman," not feeling funny now, "I'll try to be safe. I'll keep my head down."
* * *
At ten, I take Sean across the street to the 801 Club. It's an old guy bar, place we used to go as minors because they'd sell us anything. There're a few people in there, retired sailors and shipbuilders, guys from the Avondale yards, watching the news, what I want, to see what's happening. Sure enough, top story is more activations. My battalion is the second one they name, saying we're supposed to report to our units in the morning, and be prepared to transfer up to Fort Polk for processing, to receive overseas shots and basic desert gear. The Army's already announced that we'll be going to the Gulf to provide fire support for the Fifth Infantry Division.
Sean and I are nursing Dixies, local beer, and as soon as they say it, I'm numb. I don't hear anything else. They start talking murders and scandals and coming votes in the legislature and I don't hear a goddamn thing. I'm going to war.
I'm staring at myself in the mirror behind the bar, thinking all I wanted was a god damn education. Louisiana's one of those states where National Guardsmen get to attend state school's free. And all I wanted was an education and now I'm going to the Persian Gulf. Beautiful.
I feel Sean's hand on my arm and I look down and he's ordered a couple shots of bourbon. I take mine and throw it down, not even waiting to see if he wants to toast or anything. I shake my head and look at him.
And he says, "I'll tell you somethin' Johnny. I never told anyone this but I can tell you now, because you'll understand. You'll see I know how it is."
His face is close to mine and he's talking kind of soft, and there're old guys on either side of us, rapt, watching the news and hanging on the announcer's words.
"When I was in, we used to get put on alert all the time. You know, crazy stuff, they'd issue us combat loads and put us on the plane. All the time." Sean was in an airborne unit down in Panama. He pauses. Deep breath. "This one time, it was different. They weren't fuckin' around. This was back when things in Nicaragua were really going bad, you know, they're communists. And they put us in the air, loaded down, live ammo, mortars, everything, it was crazy, and we took off." Pause. "I don't know if we were supposed to go into Nicaragua that night or if we were just going up to support the guys on the border."
Signal the bar girl while he's talking. Two more beers. "So what happened?"
He shakes his head. "Bad weather right? I mean, it's the tropics. No big deal. We get the abort command, and no one ever said if it was because of the weather or if it was because Washington decided not to go in, but we were supposed to turn back. Only, when you're flying into a drop zone, you're real low, to try and stay below the radar, and we got right into the storm. And one of our engines got hit by lightening. We lost an engine."
"Yeah. So we didn't have the power to pull up out of the clouds and bad weather. We had to land." Pause. "So somehow this pilot finds an airstrip, in the middle of the jungle, and gets the bird down, in the fuckin' pouring rain, right? Almost crashes us off the end of the strip. Nose of the plane's in the jungle." He turns toward me, looking like he doesn't believe it himself. "And we all get out and form a perimeter. Locked and cocked. You know, we put out Claymores and set ambushes, the whole nine yards. Because no one knows where we are. We don't know what country we're in. And I'm nineteen and I'm laying there in the rain, and it's pitch black. Can't see anything. I've never been so fucking scared in my life. Never." Shakes his head. "Spent the next two years just prayin' to get out in one piece."
* * *
On the way back to the reception, I see there's a small crowd down at the corner. Mostly folks from the ceremony. Sean goes ahead into the hall. He needs to use the bathroom. I wander over to see what's going on.
My friend in the wheelchair is there, in the middle of a knot of people, and he's playing music. He's got this violin in his lap, with the neck pointing away from him. He rolls the front of one of his hands, tightened into a sad fist, he rolls that across the strings on the neck to make the notes. And he's got a bow jammed into his other hand and his head's all tilted to one side, this really peaceful expression there, eyes almost closed, upper body half swaying to the music.
The song finishes and everyone starts clapping for him, he can really play, and someone hands him a beer. He takes that and holds it between his hands, pressing them around the bottle and tilting it up to his mouth. Then he sees me and smiles, nodding as he sets the beer between his legs. I give him the thumbs up, nodding myself.
Back inside, everyone starts shaking my hand and wishing me luck. They all know. I don't know if Sean's told them or if there's a TV in here somewhere. I get back to my seat, still adjusting, trying to figure it out, when the MC gets up with the microphone. He's this kind of douffy guy who used to live down the street from Sean. Name's Colin. He stayed in Lafitte. After me and Sean left, him and Brian ended up as friends. He calls Brian up there and he's got his arm around Brian. I think that Colin and Brian're going to do one last toast before they throw the bouquet. The honeymoon's going to be over in Panama City.
Then Brian takes the mike and says, "Friends..." And there's some feed-back while he gets the hang of using the mike, and he says, "Friends... Before Cindy and me leave y'all for the evening," and some people yell for the bouquet and such, and Brian goes on, saying something about staying and enjoying ourselves, that the bar's open until there's no one standing. That gets a lot of cheering. I'm just kind of dully looking around, following things, until I realize that the both of them're facing me. Smiling.
"Our friend Johnny Finn is going to be leaving us in the morning." Brian gestures at me, like I'm a car or a game show prize, so that everyone knows who he's talking about, and he says, "We've just gotten word that Johnny's leaving in the morning for the war in Kuwait." He nods. "We want you to know that you'll be in our prayers Johnny."
None of us were raised religious so it comes out sounding awkward. But the way he holds my eye tells me how he feels.
Colin takes the mike. They're both pretty liquored up. "C'mon everybody. Let's show Johnny we're behind him. Let's show him we support the troops." They get me to stand up and Colin starts clapping and getting everyone to chant and stomp. It's kind of like a pep rally. Everyone's shouting, "Support the troops," and looking at me like I'm a hero. I've got one hand on the table, half holding myself up. My knees are shaking.
Then Colin comes over and he's sticking the mike in my face, saying, "Say something Johnny. Tell us how you feel."
And I can't even get a breath, this is all so sudden, and people start yelling, "Speech... speech," and they're all clapping for me. With nothing to say, I don't even take the mike. Like I'm fucking Patton or something. I can't even get a real breath, it's coming all rushed, and then everyone's quiet, expectant. And I just say, "Th-thank you. I... I've got to go. Long day tomorrow."
And I head for the door. I hear someone, Colin or Brian, saying something about how I've got "...to handle up on those sand niggers. Make America proud. We know he'll do us proud."
I get caught in a bottleneck at the door. The bouquet throwing's forgotten. Everyone's pounding me on the back and shoving drinks at me and Brian's wife is kissing me. Then her sister is, then a bunch of women, all crying out about me coming home safe, I don't even know half of them, and I feel someone grabbing my hand pulling it down. Guys've been shaking my hand a lot, wishing me luck, but this feels different. I look down and it's the black guy and his wheel chair. Someone's brought him in and is feeding him drinks too. His hat's gone and he's beaming up at me. And he's shouting, "Good luck. Good luck my brother. Kick some ass. You go get 'em."
And I want to break out, but there's still like ten deep of people between me and the door, and I'm stuck, knowing that none of these folks'll really worry much about me, except when it's on the news, nightly Gulf War updates. I've still got my guy's hand, holding tight now. I almost ask him where his hat is. But instead I say, "This would all be real nice if I could just get my knees to stop."
Still smiling, he shakes his head. I realize that he can't hear me. I guess no one can.
And I think, so this is what it's like.