Arlen Washington stared out the window of the hooch into the night. The hooch was a prefab one-story barrack sitting on the air base at the coastal city of Nha Trang, Republic of Vietnam. It was dark inside the hooch. The air conditioner had rattled off into silence, and now Arlen could hear the sounds of the air base, of whining turbines and muttering pistons. The darkness outside was emphasized by pricks and threads of light reaching through the rain, distorted by the rivulets running down the glass.
A voice came to him out of the darkness in the hooch. “Hey, man, you okay?”
Arlen Washington’s body jerked. “What?”
“You okay? You was shouting.”
“What you talking about?” Washington replied sharply. “You was shouting. Woke me up.” “Shouting?” he said in disbelief. “What you mean?”
“You wanna know? You was shouting ‘Fuck you, Big Ma, fuck everybody!’”
Arlen balled his fists, realizing Jack was right. He must have been shouting aloud. It had just felt like it was all in his head. “Bullshit, Jack!”
“That’s a fact, man.”
“Fuck off. Leave me alone.”
“I did. Till your shoutin’ woke me up.” After a brief pause, Jack’s voice came again. “Aren’t you on a mission tonight? I heard Timmy come in and call you. That was before I fell asleep. How long you been standing there, man?”
Arlen looked at the faintly glowing hands of his watch. He was close to missing his flight. “Not fair,” he blurted. “Nothin’s fucking fair.” He flipped the light on, ran past Jack’s bunk to his own locker, threw on his poncho and his boonie hat, grabbed an M16 rifle and two loaded magazines, and ran out into the rain.
He had missed the crew truck, and it was a half-mile trek to the waiting AC-47 that would give him another uncomfortable ride through the night. About halfway, the rain let up, leaving behind a fine drizzle that was little more than a falling mist, and Arlen stopped, panting, partly from running but mostly from a sudden, sharp pain in his mind.
The rain had let up, but the night seemed darker than ever. There on the tarmac, the night was pierced by countless tiny shards of light— stray beams from windows, headlights, runway lights, and beacons— ricocheting off the rain-polished tarmac, windshields, propeller blades, and even the black rubber tires, rendering objects into fragments of things etched on the night, emphasizing its darkness like sequins on an ebony shroud.
As he had run, Arlen had been thinking about how much trouble he might or might not get into for being late, but the pain of the new, unbidden thought pushed worry aside so violently it almost made him stumble. Earlier that day, a friend, maybe his only real friend, had remarked in passing, “Sorry to hear about Big Ma, bro.” He had had no idea what Jason was talking about and had just shrugged and walked off, but the reference to Big Ma made him turn back and ask Jason what he had heard. There never were letters from home for him, although Jason regularly got letters from his mother and sister. Big Ma had dropped dead of a massive heart attack while walking home with a bag of groceries. Arlen had barely responded before locking the news away in a mental closet with a key of indifference, as he did with every bad thing in life.
Now, there on the tarmac, Arlen imagined the cans rolling away, the eggs breaking, pills scattering from a broken bottle. He saw her again: thighs like tree trunks, ass like a pair of beach balls, boobs like watermelons, her black hair shot with gray, rigidly styled and curled, framing the big, round face. But driving the imagery were echoes of an enveloping, comforting warmth—a balm for a child’s fears and pains found nowhere else. Now the old woman was gone. Just fucking gone. And no one had told him.
Arlen shook his head, gritting his teeth. Now he’d better be gone too, into the shit of a long night of noisy, cold, damp winds. It was not fair. Nothing was. Jason was now in his warm dry rack, not like Arlen about to be late for another pointless night boring holes in the dark.
The jeep had its canvas top on, but the canvas doors and sides were missing. As a consequence, the right leg of air force captain Eddie McLaughlin’s flight suit was soaked by the time the jeep pulled to a stop and he got out—just as the rain eased to a thin, fine mist hardly distinguishable from the air’s normal heavy humidity. The jeep took off. Captain McLaughlin hefted his flight bag and smiled. He couldn’t help but yield to an anticipatory smile every time he saw the plane that seemed so tangibly his. After all, stenciled on the nose several feet above his head in bold, flowing script was the name MaryAnn—his wife, who regularly claimed, in spite of his protests, that she was only his second love. The name was invisible in the dark, but the small, somewhat rectangular window above and behind it was evident, as was the classic outline of the nose that had rolled out of the factory around the year Captain McLaughlin was born.
As always, the plane seemed to be looking to the sky as if eager to fly, reminding him of his setter sitting on his tail and staring out the sidelight by the front door, quiveringly eager to race outside. The AC-47 did sit on its tail. In World War II, the Douglas DC-3—perhaps the world’s first truly successful airliner in the 1930s—was modified for the military as the C-47 to haul cargo, passengers, and paratroops around the world. Still in service in Vietnam, some had been modified again into combat aircraft, the A in AC-47 standing for “armed.”
“Hola, Capitan!” The voice came from the open cargo door and belonged to Technical Sergeant Hector Pastor-Villanueva, the loadmaster, who was usually addressed as Chief.
Captain Eddie McLaughlin glanced up at the short, stocky figure and blunt features that echoed a lineage seemingly unchanged from the days of the Inca empire in the high mountains of Peru. “Yo, mi pastor!” Eddie shouted back. We good to go?”
“Mas o menos, mi lider maximo! Ammo and flares on board. Otis is about done racking and stacking it. Fueling’s complete. Menos part, missing Washington. Again.”
“I think he’s on his way, sir!” the higher, almost prepubescent, voice of Airman Timmy Otis called out. “I hollered at him, and he was dressed and vertical.”
“Well, he missed his ride,” Chief added.
“What the hell, Chief!” Irritation etched Captain McLaughlin’s voice. “Much as I’d like to do without him, with Mitchell still in hospital with that damn FUO, we need him!” McLaughlin’s jaw clamped for a moment before he added, “What the hell’s wrong with him?”
Just then the jeep reappeared, and Captain McLaughlin’s copilot, Lieutenant Tom Blagget unfolded his long, lanky frame from under the canvas top and joined him under the shelter of the wing. “Got the weather. Just as you suspected, dark, rainy, overcast on top of overcast, and no change in the next twelve hours except from black of night to gray of day.”
“Of course,” Eddie said. He looked at his watch. “We’re supposed to be wheels up at twenty-three hundred! And Washington’s maybe AWOL!” he said loudly for the crew’s benefit. Then, in a normal tone, he stated, “Let’s check our little lady out.”
“Yeah, yeah. And Mitchell’s still out with FUO. Again.”
“Fever of unknown origin. Ain’t medical science great? FUO. As an acronym, it at least sounds curable. Like somebody knows what it is.”
“Lucky we have mechanics for our little lady here and don’t need doctors.”
Moments later, Tom and Eddie were walking slowly around the outside of the aircraft, Eddie with a flashlight and Tom with a checklist. Tom was calling out each item and then muttering to himself.
“You doing your rosary thing again, Tom? Think that helps?”
“Like this checklist, Cap. A form of communication.” Tom gave the clipboard holding the checklist a brief wave. “This baby talks with the builders of a beautiful, complex machine, sort of bringing us in tune with their vision of how it should work. Guess I feel the rosary’s like that, only it talks with the Creator of all, you know, maybe bringing me more in tune with His vision.” He shrugged, giving out a slightly sheepish chuckle. “Maybe,” he added, and he then called out the next item on the plane’s checklist.
“Could be, could be, Tom. But right now, we have one thing to focus on. One thing—our little lady here.”
“One reason I like flying with you. You really focus.”
“Drifting minds can soon be dead minds, my friend. We can bullshit upstairs when we’ve got nothing better to do than wait for a call.”
Arlen Washington slogged into view, glistening in his poncho, his lower legs soaked. Chief announced his arrival by shouting, “Washington! About time! Get your ass in here! We’ve got work to do, and we’re running late!”
The “running late” part wasn’t true, but it served Washington right. Eddie muttered, “Don’t know how Chief puts up with him.”
“Can’t you get him replaced?” Tom asked.
“Chief hasn’t asked. Washington’s his responsibility; I know.” Eddie waved his flashlight at the night. “Mine too, overall, but hell, maybe Chief sees something we don’t. Or he’s got more patience.” Then Eddie put thoughts about Washington aside. Glancing at Tom’s clipboard, he asked, “Next item?” and gave all his attention back to the plane.
Spooky 45 was the radio call sign of Eddie’s AC-47 gunship. A few minutes before 2300 hours, Spooky 45 was given clearance to taxi. The old plane gracefully pirouetted and taxied onto the runway. Tom called out the pre-takeoff checklist. Engines and controls were given a final check, and Eddie called for takeoff clearance. After receiving it, he pushed the throttles forward while standing on the brakes. The plane shuddered as the engines strained to pull her forward. He released the brakes, and Spooky 45 began to roll, smoothly accelerating until the tail lifted and the crew in back felt the floor come horizontal and the wind noise in the open cargo door and windows grew almost to a shriek. Then they were airborne, climbing and banking sedately away from the airfield.
The US Air Force was constantly experimenting with motley collections of unconventional weapons. Originally, Spooky 45 had been fitted with ten .30-caliber machine guns of World War II vintage, but these had soon been replaced with three General Electric GAU-2/ M134 miniguns. Each of these new guns could pour out up to six thousand rounds a minute, compared to the six hundred rounds of the old machine guns. They could do this because each gun had a cluster of six barrels. When a machine gun is fired, it automatically ejects the spent cartridge case and then loads and fires the next cartridge. As long as the trigger is depressed, it repeats the cycle at a rate, depending on the design, of five hundred to over one thousand rounds a minute. With its six barrels, a minigun was the equivalent of six regular machine guns. This firepower gave the AC-47 a nickname from a popular song of the time—“Puff the Magic Dragon.”
On Spooky 45, one of the new miniguns had been damaged and had been replaced with a slightly different model, a Dillon Aero M134D-H. It had the same capability as the General Electrics, but this model had handles, for it was designed to be used both on fixed-aim mounts, like the General Electrics, or on flexible mounts to be manually aimed and controlled. This was the gun mounted in the cargo door.
Arlen Washington was the first to unstrap from his seat. He rose and stepped to the gun mounted in the cargo door. It was his favorite of the three because it had handles.
Arlen gripped the handles as if it in fact were on a flexible mount, his shoulders jerking left and right as if he were trying to make it swivel. “You in love with that gun, Washington?” Chief shouted. Washington didn’t react, and Chief shouted again.
“Ought to put this one on a better mount, Chief!” Arlen shouted back over the roar of the engines and wind whipping across the open cargo doorway. “What’ll let you aim it, man!”
“The captain aims it with the plane!”
“So let him aim them two GEs. Then I could use this one on a different target, see? Get two targets at the same time, Chief, right?” Chief didn’t respond except with a short bark of a laugh almost lost in the noise. Washington pressed on. “Why not, Chief? This one’s got a simpler mount. Easy to change. And the power cables and ammunition feed chutes. Simpler. Easy to, you know, get to shift.”
“Thought it all out, hey?” Chief shouted.
Washington looked back at Chief and grinned. “Sure, sure, Chief. It’s an idea, you know. Just an idea. But why not, Chief?”
Washington and Airman Timmy Otis were gunners, but they had nothing to do with actually aiming and firing the guns. Their job was to keep them working and fed with ammunition. The pilot was the real gunner. He handled aiming and firing.
When Chief did not comment, Washington turned his gaze to the coal-black night outside, his mind on a vision. It began with a black four-door 1968 Lincoln Town Car, one with a leather-covered roof over the rear half of the passenger compartment and a huge trunk. The trunk was filled with ammunition, and a large hole was cut out of the roof with a sliding cover like a sunroof. The windows were tinted so one could not see in from the outside. The gun, by some as yet vague mechanical means, could telescope up through the roof and swing in any direction. Sometimes he was cruising the streets, clearing his hood of gangs and their cars, and sometimes he was penetrating into gang territory, blasting their hideouts. He’d heard one could actually get Lincolns with bulletproof glass and armored doors and such. Invincible. That’s what he would be.
Adrift in his fantasy, Arlen was pulled back into the reality of the night in Vietnam by the odd sense he was being stared at. He looked back. Chief was looking at a manifest, but Otis’s eyes were shifting as if he had indeed been staring. Arlen thought back to a conversation in the mess a couple of weeks earlier. He, Timmy Otis, and Lemuel Mitchell had come in late, and the mess, while still open, was mostly empty. They went down the serving line together, but when Timmy started to sit with them, Arlen told him he and Lem needed to talk privately, so Timmy took his tray to an empty behind them.
Arlen and Lemuel began talking in low, secretive voices, but soon Lem’s, and then Arlen’s, volume rose with excitement and laughter. By that point they’d been imagining how to mount the minigun in a big Lincoln and how much ammo the big trunk might hold. Their voices dropped again as the discussion shifted to actually getting the gun home. Arlen knew there was traffic in getting souvenir guns out of country, but when it came to one as big as a minigun, Lem had laughed, saying it was impossible and asking what kind of place home was to think it needed cleaning up with a minigun. Arlen laughed back, hiding a sudden hurt and doubt, claiming there was always a way, as if he already had a plan.
As Spooky 45 droned on, Arlen’s thoughts about the gun picked up where he’d left off on the last mission. This was the problem of not being caught. Jason had assured him he would be, especially as Arlen himself had confessed no one on the crew liked him. He’d automatically be suspect numero uno. He would have to figure out a way to steal it so that it looked as if he couldn’t have done it. No bright ideas had come to him, but he didn’t worry too much about it. There was plenty of time, as his one-year tour was nowhere near over, and who knew what opportunities could come up. Anything could happen. His last thought about this was immediately followed by an inner response: Yeah, anything can happen, but what usually does happen sucks.
He let his mind drift to the easier parts, such as dismounting and disassembling it and figuring out how to get it home. This last part he thought he had solved, or at least he had an approach—or, rather, two approaches. He’d learned that one could ship souvenirs home. Jason had bought a big ceramic elephant that was supposed to be some kind of side table or maybe sit in a yard—if one had a yard. The cool thing was it was hollow. He’d just have to figure out a way to cut a hole in the bottom and seal it up again, invisibly. But there was one problem. Something like Jason’s elephant could hold some of the gun’s components but was not big enough to hold the barrel assembly. He’d have to find something else. A second possibility was to somehow get involved in the drug smuggling he’d heard about. If they could smuggle drugs, well, hell, they could surely smuggle his gun, once he figured out how to steal it. This second option had a drawback, though. There was a big risk down that path; whoever ran the operation would likely want to keep the gun and stiff Arlen—or maybe something worse.
Arlen lost his threads of thought and shivered. At several thousand feet, the sodden night wind was chilling, especially through wet clothing. It was as if nothing, absolutely nothing, was out there except wind crying in misery and, somewhere below, unseen, invisible bad guys and good guys, hiding in the jungle, cursing the rain. That’s the way it was. He snorted and turned his mind from the dark to the light within, riding high down the street, laughing at the neighborhood rats as they turned and ran.
They reached altitude and began to cruise around their planned loiter box, waiting for a call for fire support. In the cockpit, Captain Eddie McLaughlin peered through the gunsight by his seat that was aimed out the left side window, and he delicately fingered the controls for the guns. There was nothing to see, much less to shoot at. He was just awakening muscle memory like a batter taking practice swings by the dugout. After a minute, he leaned back in his seat, scanned the instrument panel, and enjoyed the pleasures of the plane performing its wonderful magic of not falling. The cockpit was much quieter than the cargo bay; it was insulated, and the door leading back to the cargo bay was closed.
Eddie turned to his copilot, Lieutenant Tom Blagget. “You know, Tom, being shorthanded, it just occurred to me, being short two crew is equivalent to what, four hundred pounds? We could have four hundred pounds more ammo loaded. That’s what, like, six, seven thousand rounds?”
“Whoopee,” Tom replied. “A little over two minutes’ worth with all guns at low speed.”
“Two minutes could count. Could be decisive.”
“Yeah, I guess sometimes a minute can make all the difference in the world.” Tom shrugged and looked backward. He could dimly see the empty seat for the flight engineer and the navigator’s table in the small compartment just beyond the open cockpit door and past the open door to the cargo bay, he could make out the blunt shapes of the gun housings, but not much more. They blocked any view of the crew.
Shaking his head, he looked over at Eddie. “I wasn’t thinking about being shorthanded. We’re not really suffering from missing a navigator and flight engineer. It’s not like we’re crossing an ocean and navigating by the stars. I was thinking more about, oh, missing the wrong hands. Like why couldn’t it have been Washington out with the FUO instead of Mitchell?”
“Technically, Mitchell’s excess. Gunner in training. But yeah, life’d be smoother for Chief back in the cargo bay with Airman Mitchell instead of Airman Kind of General Pain in the Ass.”
“Sort of surprised he wasn’t just drafted into the army.”
Eddie chuckled. “We’re special, but not that special. Chief told me Washington’s got a buddy here. Grew up together, enlisted together, came here together. Jason something— a clerk in headquarters, apparently well thought of. Anyway, this kid apparently had planned to go air force and pushed Washington to get good enough grades in high school to enable them to enlist in the air force before they got drafted. Washington was at least smart enough to go along, and here he is.”
“Great. Kid has buddies: Mitchell, who’s laid back, easygoing, smiles at most everything, pitches in with a will, and who everyone likes; and Jason, who’s well thought of. Yet no one seems to think well of or like Washington? How’s that happen?”
“No idea,” Eddie said, and he nudged Tom. “Turn coming up; want to take it?”
“I’ll have the aircraft.” Tom made a gesture of gripping the wheel. “Roger,” Eddie acknowledged.
Spooky 45 began to bank in a gentle turn to plow the night in a different direction. “Different backgrounds? Maybe Mitchell.” Tom shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Chief says Washington grew up in some crummy side of Baltimore, and Mitchell in a dirt-poor part of Annapolis. Sound similar.”
“I know some great guys from crappy backgrounds and some real shits born to privilege. Guess the Lord works in mysterious ways.” Tom reached over the center console between them and fiddled with the trim. Eddie closed his eyes and concentrated on the subtle sensation he felt as the plane became a tiny fraction more aerodynamically efficient.
Eddie scanned the instruments again and then looked at his map. “More like poker to me,” he said. “You don’t control the cards you’re dealt. It’s all in how you play the hand. Take a guy like Chief. Born in some barrio in Peru. Lousy hand, good player.”
Tom grunted. “Must have had some help. Someone got him here.”
“Interesting story, actually. His mother died when he was still young. His dad met a woman whose parents had immigrated to the States. Apparently her dad was some kind of staffer in the Peruvian embassy—made him sort of upper class. So upper-class daughter visits the old country to see extended family, falls in love with the gardener, Chief’s dad. Rest is romantic history.”
Tom laughed. “So Chief got to trade in some bad cards and lucked out on the draw. See? The Lord works in mysterious ways.”
Both scanned the instruments and noted the next turn coming up, and after making it, Eddie said, “Speaking of how to play your hand, you planning to stay in the air force after your commitment?”
“Well, I thought I was, probably, but now I think probably maybe not.” Eddie said nothing, prompting Tom to go on. “I mean, I love being a pilot—well, a copilot now—but you know, flying in general. And what’s more exciting than flying in the air force? Except maybe being a bush pilot or something like that?”
“I mean, you know, but air force flying comes with guns, missiles, and bombs, and bush pilots don’t have to sweat that. Okay in my mind in, like, noble, righteous wars, but frankly, I can’t figure this one out. Something vague and dingy about it. Shit, we can’t say we’re winning, but we’ve apparently already decided to start kind of withdrawing ... so what’s the point? It’s kind of confusing, and that’s a problem with me.”
“True enough. But we gotta have a little faith, right? We go to the doctor, he says I’m healthy or he says I’m sick, I believe him. Put my car in for service, mechanic says I need an alignment, I believe him. So are generals that different?”
Tom snorted. “Live by faith. Parents taught me that, priests say it, the Bible says it. Faith in God, sure, but faith in a war? Or the politicians who make it?”
“Yup. Hey, Tom, I’m afraid the four-stars don’t keep me in the loop. And these are four-star questions, and you and I—we’re not even close to having access to one star’s worth of facts. ‘Ours is not to reason why.’”
“Yeah, yeah, ‘Ours is but to do and die.’”
“‘Charge of the Light Brigade.’” Eddie, like Tom, had been gazing at the instruments. “Next turn coming up. My turn. I’ve got the aircraft.” “Roger.” The plane banked smoothly to left. “My sister’s a sophomore at UCLA. She thinks I’m a baby killer.”
“Well, my friend, she hasn’t got access to any more facts than we do; most likely a lot less. But she does have access to a lot of pressure. Cut her some slack.”
“Oh, I do; I do. My wife’s kind of on her side too.”
“Love conquers all.”
“True enough, boss. So far, so good. Still, it bothers me, you know. And gets in the way of making career choices.”
Another turn came up and was taken in silence. Eddie then said, “Radio altimeter says we’re only at five hundred feet.”
“Hills are higher at this end of our box.”
“Can we go up another five hundred? Charlie’s guns can be on top of the hills too.”
Tom peered at the map and got on a radio. A minute later, Eddie put the plane into a gentle climb.
“You know, Tom, if this war’s fucked up ... hell, all wars are fucked
up. I mean, like, in the fundamentals, whatever they are, then those fuckups are on the backs of the generals and politicians. For me, it’s all and only about us being up here, making it more likely they down there get home in one piece.”
“I know, I know. Same here. I like—still, I think ... I think I’d rather be a bush pilot.”
“Grab the fun and don’t get shot at?”
“Something like that.”
“So where?” Eddie realized that his own fantasy was not far from
just that—man and flying machine at their most elemental: rugged, rugged, rugged; man, machine, environment. Yahoo. “Africa? Alaska? Canada? South America? Antarctica?”
Tom chuckled. “That’s the problem. All sound like fun, but can’t think of any of them being good for family life.”
“My problem too. Fall in love, get married, get a family, and suddenly one day you realize you’ve got to grow up. It’s not just me, the boy with his toys, anymore. Closest thing is airlines or stay in the air force, I guess.”
“So which is it for you?”
“Leaning air force.”
“Airlines pay a lot more money.”
“Yeah, but the biggest benefit I see is air force bases—good hospitals,
commissaries, family housing, security, good schools. Wherever you get based or move to, you’re still part of a community. Got to balance that with the ton of money. And the flying’s more fun, most likely.”
“Like tonight?” Tom chuckled as he shivered. Even in the cockpit, at several thousand feet and with rain-soaked trouser legs, they felt the chill.
“Hey, day or night, any time with an airplane is a good time.”
Captain McLaughlin switched to the intercom. “No missions in our queue, gentlemen. Looks like we’ll be boring holes in the night, least for a while,”
“Okay, Captain,” Chief replied. “We’re locked and loaded back here. All cool.”
“Roger that, Chief. You guys enjoy the ride. Out.”
Sergeant Hector Pastor-Villanueva stood up, taking a wide stance on his slightly bowed legs, and strode slowly up and down the length of the cargo bay, examining the guns, ammunition feed chutes, and ammo boxes. He walked like some old seaman after a life on a rolling deck, but his walk came from the steep trails in the rugged mountains around Cuzco he had grown up on. He had inspected it all while still on the ground, but now he did it again, just in case something had shifted from the motions of the plane. To this point, the flight had been perfectly smooth—no turbulence at all. Still, he took no chances.
Satisfied, Hector paused to look at his two gunners: Otis, sitting on a bench seat, looking alert and almost eager; and Arlen, his back turned, hanging onto the gun, staring out at the night. What a pair, he thought. Both were about the same height, a little shorter than average for young men, barely taller than himself. Arlen was lean but had beautifully proportioned broad shoulders and narrow hips; a narrow head with a dramatic, almost aristocratic nose; and a wide mouth showing, on the very rare occasions he smiled, beautiful white teeth—all, Hector thought, a result of great genes and inadequate nutrition as a boy. Otis was kind of the opposite. His rounder face was not striking—not really handsome but what girls might call sweet. His body shape was not striking either, with shoulders and chest a tad too narrow, and hips a tad too wide. With a sigh, Hector sat down beside Otis and shouted, “Hey, Washington! Come here and have a seat, man!”
Washington shifted his feet but made no move to join Chief. Hector shouted again. “Nothing to see out there, man! Looks like a quiet night! Come on and have a seat!”
After a moment, Arlen Washington decided that was probably an order. Reluctantly, he left his gun and sidled across the cargo bay to sit next to Chief. “What’s up, boss?”
“Chief,” Chief corrected. “Hey, I guess you got your problems, man,” he shouted loudly enough to be heard, “but whatever; you’re part of this team, you know? An’ we want you as part of this team. Make it a lot easier for you and the rest of us we be a team, you know?”
“So what’s going’ on?”
“Nothin’, Chief. Just makin’ circles in the night over the fuckin’
jungle is what.”
“Don’t mean that. Mean with you. Like, heard you lost a relative,
like, someone close? That so?” Washington didn’t respond. Chief waited. Getting no response, he said, “Okay, sorry. Don’t mean to pry where it hurts. How about happy stuff. You got a girl at home?”
“Shit, got me a girl for every night of the week!” He straightened and shrugged sharply.
“No shit? Hey, Otis! You got a girl?”
“Well, yeah, Chief. You know. Told you about Merry!” “Jus’ one, man? Only one?” Washington laughed.
“All I need!” Otis snapped.
Chief rubbed his eyes. “So! Washington! Your girlfriends got names?”
“Sure! Let’s see; there’s Tanya, Della, and ... and Ida—Ida Mae, I
mean.” Washington dragged the names out slowly. “You making those names up!” Hector joked. Arlen snorted
derisively and looked away. Chief changed the subject. “So what you guys wanna do when your tours are up? Re-up?” Chief gave the last word a joking inflection.
“Maybe!” Otis said quickly. He then added, “I really want to go to college!”
“Washington?” Chief asked.
“Not like Timmy Kiss-Ass! Get the fuck outta here an’ outta uniforms!”
“Hey! No call for names like that! So you’ll be getting out and do what? College?”
“What good’s that gonna do a guy like me?” Chief started to say something, but Washington cut him off. “Yeah, it’s benefits! Free money, I know! I’ll find a way to use ’em too. Might go to a technical school. Recruiter said I could learn some high-payin’ shit! Maybe!”
Hector turned to Otis, tapping him on the shoulder. “Might re-up, eh?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. I got time. But I sure won’t do it to kiss ass!”
“I know that. What you want out of college? You, like, got an interest?”
“I don’t know! One reason I might re-up—have more time to figure it out!”
“That can be a plan. You, like, engaged?”
“To Merry? Sort of. She said okay, but she didn’t want to make it formal until I got back.” Otis rubbed his chin for a moment. “That kind of hurt my feelings! But she’s probably right. I think girls are more practical than boys!”
“You got that right! They seem all romantic, but the good ones? Underneath they’re practical! Always practical! Good thing too!”
The need to shout over the roar of engines and wind made it hard to just chat, and after a while they fell silent. When the silence had dragged on for a while, Washington took it as permission to leave.
Back at the minigun with handles, Washington stared into the night through the barely visible cargo door, killing minutes, thinking nothing, feeling nothing. Then a sharp pain seemed to grab his chest—a ghostly pain touching no muscle, bone, or nerve, yet as real as a punch or the cut of a knife. The image of Big Ma burst into his mind, and for a few moments, he could not get rid of it. The pain came in spasms of loss, longing, grief, and anger welling up one after another like surf on a beach. He felt anger at fate, at those who could have sent word but didn’t, at those who’d given Big Ma hard times, at Big Ma for letting herself die, and at time for making him outgrow her embrace, turning her into a memory, something gone and lost already.
He became aware that his hands hurt. It took a moment to realize he was holding the handles of the gun in a death grip, his emotions seeming to surge through them and out the gun like a stream of silent, invisible bullets sweeping away a past that wouldn’t quite die. His body slumped a little, and he let go of the gun, spreading his hands apart and wriggling his fingers to ease the cramps.
Hector Pastor-Villanueva had watched Washington go, wondering why he liked to stand at the stupid gun. It was sure as hell not the most comfortable place, close to the chilly, wet eddies of the keening wind. Yet on almost every mission, that is exactly where he preferred to be. After a moment, Hector noticed a difference. Washington’s shoulders were not twitching from his fantasies of aiming and firing the gun. He was as rigid as a statue. He thought of a pool toy he’d bought his son for playing in the inflatable backyard pool not long before he’d had to ship out. He’d used a tire pump and overfilled it, making it as rigid as Washington now looked—too rigid for his boy’s little hands to easily grasp. That’s what Arlen seemed like— filled to near-busting, but not with air—with something toxic. Grief over the relative that died? Anger, for sure, but at what only God knew. But it was trapped inside, cutting him off from everyone else, except maybe Mitchell.
That is a puzzle, Hector thought, those two boys being so different. Mitchell was friendly with everyone— always smiling, it seemed, and always eager to please. Hector knew it could be some defense or coping thing, maybe from being bullied a lot or, as he hoped, maybe from Mitchell’s true nature. Maybe he was just one of God’s true innocents.
Hector sighed. In his years in the service, he’d learned two things. The first was that the service was made up of people from all cultural and economic backgrounds, though damn few from the upper crust, and that one can never fully penetrate a different background; it’s hard enough to put one’s own background in perspective. The other was that all that diversity was equally human, and building human-level connections bridged gulfs of culture and background to build teams. Arlen Washington wasn’t open to any connections. Maybe a guy like Mitchell could get through, but Lemuel Mitchell was sick—again. He was a great kid but had a weak constitution. And Washington? He was a healthy kid, and a smart one, but was locked in his own closet. Hector wondered sadly if there was anyone or anything that could unlock that door.