Barbara Stephens

JULY 7: 365

Danny Whitaker drove me in his truck out to where Parson’s Draw, a dried up crevice in the West Texas earth, collected rain before draining into the gentle Concho River and, eventually, the Rio Grande.  During a West Texas thunderstorm, Parson’s Draw flooded into the surrounding ranches and sent a few cattle to their deaths. A rattler had bitten Danny near here during such a storm. In sixth grade, we walked Tricia Bird and Ellen Udden into the draw to “explore the rocks” when our intentions were to experience our first kisses and perhaps explore other unknown territories. Danny lost his virginity with Tanya Ratliff in this truck out here on a hot summer’s day our senior year, while I sat at home fumbling with Josie Amistead’s blouse as she slapped my hand away. Parson’s Draw at Concho River had been our escape from Parson’s Basin, Texas. The lights from town flickered, a reminder of our distant past. Tonight, two six packs rested between us. We wanted a last hurrah before Danny boarded a Greyhound bus tomorrow morning to boot camp and, eventually, to Vietnam.

The half-moon created an eerie light, and Danny’s face was slightly obscured. We both nodded our heads to the beats of “American Woman” on the radio.

“To you, Wade, and Rice University,” Danny said. He clinked his beer can to mine.

I had fled Parson’s Basin after high school graduation with such desperation to leave West Texas behind me. To return the summer after my freshman year at Rice felt as if I hadn’t grown up at all. My dad, a psychologist, lured me back with a job in his practice. He called me “his intern,” a title I found oppressive and sentimental. The only saving grace was Danny.

“To your new beginning,” I said, choking on my sarcasm.

I thought about how in July our American troops bid their supposed final farewell to their three-month invasion of Cambodia. Danny situated his back against the truck’s door so he could face me. He glanced at his worn copy of The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton that lay between us—the only book Danny had ever liked—that a girl could write so well about boys amazed him.

“My mom said last night that she hoped there was a piano in some mess hall at Ft. Hood. Can you believe that?” Danny said.

I nodded. “Maybe it’s her way, you know, of dealing with it all.”

Danny had played the piano since he was six years old; when he was fourteen, he convinced Mrs. Warren, his piano teacher, that it was best if he stopped the lessons. But his mother didn’t know that. She believed that someday he’d play at Carnegie Hall. She was always a dreamer, even after her husband died in the arms of a hooker at Pinkie’s Hotel out on Andrews Highway.

I drained the last bit of a beer and tossed the can to the floor of the truck. Danny cranked open the window and the cool desert air stung my drunkenness. He threw the beer can out the window, and I heard it rattle across the parched ground until it probably rested up against a tumbleweed. After he popped open another one, he swung his arm back and forth out the window as he talked.

“Can you see me as one of those gung-ho boys? I mean, like Johnny Baker. He was one mean mother-fucker and good-looking, too. Just what the government wants fighting to protect the American Dream.”

He grinned and pulled out the bag of potato chips. His long fingers grasped a handful of chips and he crammed them into his mouth as if they were a piece of chew. Danny had big buck teeth; his mother couldn’t afford to buy him braces. His general attire was polyester shirts with horizontal stripes, and tonight he wore a red one with two white stripes across his chest. He parted his hair down the middle, and it was frizzy from split ends and the pony tail rubber band mark. He had broad shoulders that would have probably helped him become a football player had he had any interest.

Last summer, we had watched many of our peers voluntarily board Greyhound buses, wave goodbye to the high school band playing, “God Bless America,” and raise their arms and shout, “I’m going to shoot me some gooks.” But the list of the dead posted at the Piggly Wiggly was growing. Johnny, the star receiver from the Class of 1968 who caught the winning touchdown in the district championship, joined the roster this past Friday. Two tours of duty for him, two months away from coming home. Danny and I didn’t talk much about Vietnam. There was a sense that if we didn’t say the word, perhaps it didn’t exist. A childish game, like wishing that September wouldn’t come so we wouldn’t have to go back to school.

But the lottery last month forced Vietnam into minds. Danny’s birth date is July 9 and his number was 001. His life course had been determined by one red and one green capsule drawn from a barrel. He decided he wasn’t waiting for the government to call him up; he was going now. It seemed inevitable that Danny followed this path.

“Maybe you’ll be a cook. You like doing that.”

“Shit, once they figure out I can run fast, they ain’t going to put me in the kitchen.”

I feared that he would finally take charge of his destiny. He had an accommodating disposition that concealed pent-up frustrations. I worried he’d explode.  Maybe I was reading too many newspaper articles about the court martial proceedings on the My Lai massacre or the invasion of our troops into a rainy Cambodia. I could see Danny covered in mud, his boyish charm fading as the men fanned out through the jungle.

He played with the pull tab from his beer. “The lottery’s a good idea, you know? I’m just not lucky, never have been.”

Danny took a swig of beer. His lips curled and swirled the sour liquid in his mouth. I felt the acid rise in my throat, stinging my esophagus as I tried to swallow my apprehension. My birth date was July 7: Number 365. I had always been lucky.

“How’s Tanya taking it?”

“It’s always about Tanya. She’s waiting up for me tonight. Says she has something special. I’m hoping for red lace panties.”

We both laughed, or really I blushed. I’d lost my virginity to Meghan Walsh right before I came home for the summer. But my first was nothing like Tanya, with her long red hair and blue eyes, who smacked gum in triplets—pop, pop, pop. She was all bell-bottomed jeans and flowered peasant blouses. Any sane mother of a son would have escorted her right out of the house. But Danny loved her because she was easy to take care of, demanded only attention and professed love. She was merely Danny’s escape from his mother. In Tanya, he saw some future I couldn’t grasp; I wanted more for him, but didn’t know what that more could be.

“What are you going to do about your mother?”

He reached down to take off his green Converse sneakers, and I thought about his goofy walk, the way he swung his left foot a little wide. He placed his sneaker on the dashboard and wiggled his feet inside his black socks. He hated his toes, said they were too far apart so even in 100-degree weather, Danny wore black socks. Sandals just weren’t an option.

“I’ll take care of her,” Danny said.

Yes, I thought. You always have. I tried to be quiet, the listener, something my own dad said I needed to improve on if I wanted to be a psychologist. I was reminded of the Apollo 11 when it rocketed to space last summer, and The Eagle landed on the moon. Danny had come over to our house to watch; his mother believed it was all a Hollywood movie designed to rally us behind the American flag and war. We gathered around our television set as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon’s surface.

Danny said, “He might as well be a million miles away, and yet he’s right here talking to us.”

My dad reached down and squeezed his shoulder. “I know you boys think I may be corny, but that’s American ingenuity and know-how strutting its stuff to those Russian bastards.”

Danny pointed to the screen. “What are they calling that area again?”

“Tranquility Base,” I said.

“I wish I was there.”

As we drank until our words slurred and eyes drooped, I thought about peace. My college roommate, John Michaels, had wanted me to go to the Powder Ridge Rock Festival in Connecticut this summer. “Far away from Texas, close to music loving hippies, and 75-cent ersatz acid, peace, my man, peace,” he had said. But the second coming of Woodstock failed, and instead I was here and definitely far away from tranquility.

That night a thunderstorm pelted the roofs of our houses and flooded the low-lying areas—Muskingum Avenue, a few blocks from Main Street, Windsor Road on the black side of town, and Parson’s Draw. At one point, the weather man reported golf ball-sized hail, something common in Parson’s Basin. A few years ago, we had hail the size of tennis balls that knocked out four windows in our dining room. My dad came back from Ralph’s Tavern, reporting that Ralph was reminiscing about how in 1962 they had hail the size of oranges, but Nelson McLaughlin was arguing with him saying it was the size of grapefruits. My dad laughed. “Name a fruit and we’ve got hail to match it.” My mother retorted, “Name a man, and he has to make something bigger than it really is.”

The rain poured for hours, and when rain mixed with dry land, the water rose and flooded the plains. That morning was another hot August summer day, not humid, just the blistering sun sucking up the water, drying out the land. The smell of sulfur from the oil rigs seemed to infiltrate the water, and rather than rainfall cleansing the earth, it stirred it up. And indeed, that thunderstorm had stirred up Danny Whitaker by the time he called me to meet him at Bennie’s Barbershop.

I waited in my car on Main Street, the radio turned up to hear the harmonies of “Bridge over Troubled Water.” He strolled down the sidewalk with that goofy walk, and I realized that within three hours he would be on a bus to Ft. Hood. I got out of the car to greet him. He opened the door to the barbershop and allowed me to enter first.

Bennie’s Barbershop was a step back in time. His grandfather owned the shop during the boom years. The barber pole out front was a dull red and white and rusted on the top and bottom. When the shop was full, men sat on the bench outside and commiserated about the weather—“hot and dusty”—the war—“why don’t we just win it already?”—and affairs—“If Yveta Mason wants to sleep with Sheriff Ratliff, why can’t they be more discrete about it, for godsakes?” Inside, the linoleum floor was checkerboard black and white. Two brown vinyl barber chairs faced a wall-length mirror. In the summer, the backs of my bare thighs stuck to the vinyl and got scraped from the rips in it. Next to the door in matching straight chairs sat three men, Victor McKinney, Robert Finch, and Silas Wells, who observed the languid pace of Parson’s Basin.

“There he is,” hollered Bennie as he removed the smock from Charlie Griffin.

The three men turned, stood up, and offered handshakes to Danny. I stuck out my hand; they all nodded toward me. Charlie passed his money to Benny, and stretched out his leg and walked lamely to the door. As he pulled it open, he said, “Good luck, Danny.”

Bennie patted the chair, and Danny sat down. I didn’t need a haircut. He twirled the seat and looked at Danny in the mirror. “You let this hair go, boy. You want it shaped up?”

“Take it all off.”

Bennie and the men shared a knowing glance. I touched my own hair and scalp. It was dry, and I felt the scar from when Danny hit me with a rock when we were twelve. It was an accident, but always a reminder of the one bad fight we had. Over a girl.

Danny ran his hand through his thick hair. “Why let the Army do it when I can get you to do it better? Might as well be in control of one last thing, right guys?”

They all nodded and laughed. Bennie brought out the clippers, and hair fell in clumps. Danny grinned as if he had exerted defiance toward the United States Army instead of an initiation into it.

Bennie worked around Danny, left to right, right to left. Every once in a while, he’d reach over and knock off the ashes of his cigarette, but mainly it stayed between his lips. Bennie was our town Santa Claus. He rode on the back of a flatbed in the Christmas parade right after the Parson’s Basin Baptist Church live manger scene. His white beard and moustache earned him that honor, not his size. He was a tall man, but even as a small child, I could feel the stuffing in his belly when I sat on his lap to offer up my list of wishes. Mainly, I smelled his cigarette breath beneath his stained moustache as he laughed, and Bennie always laughed after he finished a sentence. You never knew whether he was covering up a serious topic or making a joke. He had served during Korea, but never made it off the mainland.

“Danny, my boy, you keep your head down, you hear,” McKinney said.

“How the hell is that going to help him? It didn’t help you,” Finch said.

Victor McKinney was a cook at Mildred’s Diner. He was a large round man, whose children had surpassed his expectations by going to college. He had big eyes, and a tenderness that even I knew about. He loved to paint by numbers, and willingly handed the pictures out as gifts. There was one on the wall at Bennie’s—an arrangement of sunflowers in a field of grass. Bennie asked him why he didn’t paint a windmill or a herd of cattle, something more appropriate to West Texas, and McKinney’s response was that West Texas needed more color. Then there was a heated argument that McKinney should have used Indian paintbrushes, bluebonnets (the state flower, Bennie noted), and other wildflowers of the desert, but McKinney remained adamant in his choice of sunflowers.

“That German 88mm artillery shell exploded near my position. Killed three men.” Danny and I looked at each other. I smirked, but Danny listened intently. We’d heard this story before. “I had my head down, thank the Lord. Instead of shrapnel in my head, it went through my right leg at the hip.”

“Yeah, and damn near shredded your vitals apart,” Wells said.

Danny joined the men as they laughed. Bennie’s electric razor buzzed Danny’s remaining hair. I watched the television up in the corner flash the death toll: 69 Americans dead as a result of hostile action and 615 wounded. I heard the reporter state this was the fourth lowest weekly battlefield toll of the year. And I thought maybe Danny would make it out alive. But then images of Viet Cong mines and booby traps came upon the screen—one of the biggest causes of casualties. A soldier in a hospital bed showed his legs with multiple fragment wounds from a homemade anti-personal mine. A lieutenant explained how Charley strung booby traps in the trees so they would explode in the faces of his bulldozer drivers.

By now, Danny’s head was smooth, and Bennie rubbed some lotion on it making it glisten like a bowling ball. I was daunted by the simplicity of Danny’s choice and the brashness that exuded from him due to his lack of hair. He remained in the chair, rubbing his head and staring at the mirror. Perhaps he, too, was shocked by his change in demeanor.

“Danny, stay away from that damn Red Cross,” Finch said.

“Here we go with the Hoodsie ice cream story,” Wells said.

I rolled my eyes and caught Danny’s attention. He hesitated, and then grinned, but it wasn’t big and wide. He only lifted the right side of his mouth and then wiped his face with the towel that Bennie gave him.

“Hey, Red Cross might have nice girls, my wife being one of them, but you can’t trust that organization.”

“Because of ice cream?”

If you wanted to sell or buy land, Robert Finch was your man. My dad said that he was slick as oil, and he meant that as a compliment. He was old-fashioned, only used a contract when the final deal was in place. A handshake was enough proof that you were a man of your word. And except for some high rollers from Dallas trying to horn in on his business, he had staked himself a pretty good setup in Odell County and other parts of West Texas. He had some apartments in Odessa that supposedly kept him afloat during oil busts. However, with women, he was a mean son of a bitch, according to rumors. Didn’t hit them or anything; he just wasn’t nice. He was on his fourth wife, Bella, and she was expected to leave him by the end of this year.

“Damn right. Listen here, I was stationed in Guam. They told us that when we got back to the main base, we’d get ice cream so we humped it back pretty fast. And then we get there, lo and behold, they have these little round cups of ice cream, I’d never seen anything like it—“

“They were Hoodsies.”

“Well, I learned that later. I’m a Texas boy. We ain’t heard of no damn Hoodsie ice cream,” Finch said. “And that ain’t even the end of it. They wanted us to pay for them!”

The men chuckled, phrases of “damn government” rumbled between them, and their bodies rubbed against each other in a comfort that perhaps only war stories would allow.

“I like Borden’s anyway,” Danny said.

Once I asked my dad how he felt about Vietnam, and he said, “Democracy is a tool one chooses; it’s similar to free will. But without proper instruction and respect for the tool, then its use diminishes, and so do your choices. Therefore, you can’t force democracy, just like you can’t force someone to use a tool they don’t understand. You can’t force someone to make a choice; it diminishes their free will.”

“It’s a good thing you aren’t short, Danny,” Professor Wells said, “they’d put you in a gunner’s turret.”

“Those planes don’t exist anymore,” I said.

Five men, and I’m including Danny in this count, glared at me.

“I was in the belly gunner in a B17 for most of the war. Saw planes explode in mid-air, men tumble 30,000 feet, heard a tail gunner screaming as death gripped him, and for years, I had that sense of spinning in the turret. Cursed my parents for being five feet tall, and then held them tightly on the runway at the San Antonio Force Base after the war ended.” He picked at his fingernail. “So you be glad you’re tall, my man.”

Professor Silas Wells was a member of the Odell County draft board and one of my father’s friends. When he heard I was going to college and that my draft number was high, he had slapped me on the back in a congratulatory manner. “You’re too smart to be going off and getting yourself killed.” He then winked at me. “Besides, you’ll want to find yourself a nice girl over there at Rice.” I regretted his kindness. My father reminded me that his wife, a nurse, had recently died in a car crash on her way to Midland. “He’s lost, Wade. Truly lost.”

On the television the images had changed to a Vietnam jungle where a company of men searched for the Vietcong hunkered down in holes. A boy with his jaw twitching in its tightness raised his M-60 at a shirtless Vietnamese man, his tan pants hanging loosely on raw-boned hips, arms raising over his head, and the white of his eyes beckoning anger and sympathy through the dirt that covered his face. Danny had seen it, too, and when he noticed that I was watching him, he licked his lips and stood up.

“You look good, boy,” McKinney said. He rose and saluted Danny. The other two men joined him, standing erect, their backs once lounging in the chair now straight and young, their right arms bent at an angle, their fingertips touching their foreheads. A patriotic surge entered my body, and I almost strode over to the barber’s chair and told Bennie to give me “one of those.” But I didn’t. Danny stuck out his chest, stared at the men, and saluted them. My patriotic surge sank to a fearful retreat.

Bennie wouldn’t take Danny’s money, not even a tip. We walked out of the barbershop to Danny’s truck parked a few cars down. I glanced at my watch.

“Did you have a good time with Tanya?” It was a dumb question, but I didn’t know where we were going next.

He leaned against his truck and grinned. “Best damn send-off any soldier could want.”

Even though I was embarrassed, I thought of Meghan Walsh lying in my dorm room, the sheets barely covering her breasts. She said that if she was going to lose her virginity it was going to be to the song “Make It With You” by Bread. She brought the record with her to my dorm room. I didn’t tell her she was my first, too.

“Except for the tears,” he said. “Except for the tears.”

I didn’t ask if he meant hers or his. I swallowed. Plenty of guys come back from Vietnam. Why, Archie Dawson did his tour and he’s fine. He has scars up his leg from mortar spray, but even he says, “I’ve got my leg, don’t I?”

“So what are you going to do until the bus leaves at noon?”

Danny shrugged. “You know, I was thinking last night about dreams. My mom’s always talking about dreams, how you’ve got to have them, strive for them, blah, blah, blah.” He waved his hand in the air, and then rested it briefly on his bare head. “What if you don’t have any dreams?”

I couldn’t answer this question. He wanted to talk about dreams now? Not five years ago, when the guidance counselor asked us to fill out an interest survey in ninth grade. Not when Mrs. Judkins, our tenth grade math teacher, asked him if he wanted to be an accountant. No, Danny had to ask two hours before his departure.

“You’ve got dreams with Tanya.”

He shook his head. “No, no, those aren’t dreams—those are goals.”

“What’s the difference?”

He wrapped his arms around the parking meter. “Dreams are what might not happen. Goals are what you make happen. They involve choices, you know? But maybe a choice can help a dream come true. I’m not sure.”

Philosophy in the morning wasn’t my forte. I was an afternoon guy. I gazed across the street, wondering if I wanted pancakes at Mildred’s Diner. Danny tapped his foot on the sidewalk, as if clicking off minutes in his head. I wished I could have come up with something intelligent to say, but I was afraid. Afraid I might jump on that bus out of guilt. Or perhaps I just wanted him to go. Yes, I wanted him to go, please, just go.

Danny scratched his right ear, and his eyes followed a red ant sniffing its way along the cement. Then he crushed it underneath his sneaker. “You still leaving in a few days?”

His eyes drooped a bit, and his Adam’s apple rose and fell. I tapped my fingers on the edge of his truck. “Saturday.” What I wanted to say was I couldn’t wait to go, to be back on my own, experience something besides Parson’s Basin. I couldn’t compare Houston with Vietnam.

“I thought I might go out to the draw, you know, one more time. It must be raging after last night’s thunderstorm.”

He was begging me to come, but I didn’t want to go. “You don’t want to check in with your mom and Sally?”

“For more tears?” He shook his head and opened the truck’s door. “Come on, for old times’ sake.”

I squinted my eyes in the sunlight and glanced one more time at Mildred’s Diner. Through the window, I saw Susan Collins, a girl from my high school class, in her mustard colored dress bending over the table to serve a pile of pancakes to Charlie Griffin. I wasn’t going to see Danny for at least a year, but I couldn’t give him a few more hours of my time. What was worse is that he knew it.

“Sure,” I said and climbed into the passenger side.

Danny hit the hood of his car and whooped. He cranked up the radio and sang out “War, huh, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.” He was sixteen again as he sped down Main Street to Parson’s Draw.

The water was about four feet high, and it wove a path of destruction, collecting tumbleweeds, stray caliche rock, and cactus thorns. Danny halted his truck so that we could sit on the hood and dangle our feet over the crevice. I leaned back and pulled my Astros baseball cap over my eyes. Sweat dripped from the sides of my face into my ears. I pulled out my hankie and wiped my forehead. Danny stretched his arms and turned toward me, shading his eyes from the sun.

“You know, at a funeral, when the body is laid out in the coffin?”

I nodded. Our hands were almost touching.

“It’s all pretense. I mean, that person has make-up on, his face is all pasty white, and everyone says how great he looks, almost as if he never looked better.”

“Yeah.”

This was exactly why I didn’t want to come to the draw. A talk about death, I saw it coming. That was what last night was for—with beers.

“I don’t want all of that.”

I sat up and shifted away from him. If I could have snatched his keys from him, I would have hopped in the truck and forced him to go home. I didn’t want this burden. I didn’t want this memory.

Danny sat up and nudged my leg. “Last year you said I didn’t have any plans. I just needed the United States government to tell them to me.”

“Yeah, all you have to do is follow orders.”

I wanted to antagonize him, wanted him to be angry at me, to defend his belief in the “luck” of the lottery when in fact, we both knew luck wasn’t a factor at all. He could have dodged the draft, maybe even hitchhiked to Canada.

“What are you saying?”

“I’m just saying, do your time and get out. Don’t get all gung-ho American apple pie on me.” I licked my lips. Please don’t get shot, I thought.

He swatted at my cap and it went flying into the draw. I pushed him off the hood of the truck, and was going to rescue the cap until I saw it tossing and turning in the water. I flung my fist at his face. The force sent my body into his. When he hit me in the stomach, I tasted bile in my mouth and keeled over. He pinned me on my back, and his fist landed smack in my right eye. He then punched my nose and I heard the cartilage crunch. I deserved it, and almost begged him to punish me for not being him. Instead, Danny pushed himself off of me. I curled into a ball, tucked my head between my knees, and waited for his foot to kick me. When I opened my left eye to see him towering above me, I realized Danny was already a soldier. And that I would never be one.

“Should have signed up for the Marines, huh?” Danny kicked dirt at me and a cloud of dust smacked me in my face. His hand reached up and touched his reddening cheek.

I got on my knees and slowly stood up. “We better get back. It’s almost noon.” I used my sleeve to catch the blood from my nose.

Danny nodded and we both got into his truck. There was plenty of time for apologies, reminisces, and hopes. But neither of us spoke.

The Greyhound bus rumbled and the exhaust stifled the clean air. Danny’s mother rushed up to him with his duffle bag, kissing him and telling him she was worried about where he was, fearful he had run off—she whispered that part—and saying how proud she was of him and the United States of America. She stroked his right cheek where the puffiness was noticeable. I saw my parents standing off in the distance. When my mother saw my blood, she started to walk toward me, but my father stopped her. I stood away from Danny. He hugged Sally and his mother and kissed Tanya fully on the lips. I wanted to hug him, but I had never put my arms around Danny, didn’t know how that felt.

He leaned into my ear. “See you on other side, Wade.”

He turned to leave, and as I watched his goofy walk, I knew he had black socks on, that in his left front pocket he had a Swiss army knife I gave him in eighth grade for Christmas, and that he would give me a thumbs up the second he was on the bus. And he did. He didn’t open his window, but sat in profile as the bus rolled away.

My parents slipped up beside me, my mom hugging me against her, my father placing his hand on my shoulder. Somehow it just didn’t seem fair. Not that I was staying home, not that Danny was going, but that we both wanted another chance.

 —

Barbara Stephens, a native Texan, graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with a Bachelors in English and earned her MFA in Writing from Vermont College. She completed two writing residencies: The Hambidge Center and The Edward F. Albee Foundation. She’s published short stories in GSU Review, Karamu and Inkwell.