I was alone in the park when he came to me. I hoped he wouldn’t come closer but he did. He sat a few feet away, ready to talk. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to listen, but I would not be afraid.
Then the smell hit me: stale liquor, smoky bar. He sat close, too close, and started to talk.
“It’s a nice day,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said, “it’s a wonderful day,” and I wanted him to go away.
“You looked real intense sitting there you know, like you were really into what you were doing. Like me, I’m not really doing anything, just hanging out. Just hanging. What’re you doing?”
“I’m writing,” I said, and I looked at this big man, two-day-old beard, khaki green ripped jacket, matted hair, eyes out of focus but looking in my direction. My eyes went back to the blank page of my spiral notebook.
“You know,” he said, “somebody wanted to do a story about me once. Yeah, this dude thought I’d had a real interesting life but I don’t know, I’m just me.” He laughed, “Maybe you should write my story.”
I glanced at him again, tried to smile, to be polite. I looked at the two women sitting in beach chairs not far away, wondering if they were embarrassed for me. But they weren’t looking.
“I’ve done a lot of stuff,” he continued, “I been everywhere, man. Some of the stuff I’ve seen. . . . I’ve been in ’Nam. I’m three-quarters Indian, you know? Apache — my mom and her parents, my dad was Irish. We grew up in Pittsburgh. Tried to do the steel mill stuff after the war but the damn government blew that, all of ’em were closin’ down. So I hitched. You know who picked me up the most?”
I shook my head no and looked at his high cheek bones, strong jaw, straight nose, maybe Apache-Irish.
“Women,” he went on, and he looked past me. “Yeah, women’d trust me, pick me up, even give me cash. They really wanted company. Then I come out here.” He threw his attention back at me like a slimy blanket. “You married?” he asked.
“No,” I said and recoiled, but maintaining my cool, I continued, “I tried it but didn’t like it.”
He laughed. “Yeah, me neither, and I tried it twice, but they didn’t understand me, I wanted to be free, you know, and they didn’t understand that. ’Nam kinda screwed me up that way,” he said and he looked toward the ocean and my shoulders relaxed a little, knowing he wasn’t looking at me, so I asked, “How long were you in Vietnam?”
“Twelve months,” he said and he looked at me again, his eyes a little clearer, maybe for having seen the ocean. “Then I signed up for five more as a Green Beret, the Marines, I was an interpreter, you know, I’d go ahead and yell at the villagers to give up. But they didn’t wanna hear that crap. Man, I was patriotic when I first went over, I was just seventeen, but when you’re on the Ho Chi Minh trail. . . . I wasn’t in the Mai Lai massacre, but I been in the same thing. It was the same kind of massacre . . . ,” and his voice trailed off.
I wanted him to leave me alone, but I wanted to know what happened.
“Yeah, ’Nam was pretty intense,” he said, “I was running — I was a point man, you know, the guy out in front of the line, the guy who checks for mines and snipers. Yeah, once I was running and fell into a hole and there was this huge place down there, a hospital with beds and Viet Cong lyin’ in ’em and this chick, she comes after me with this huge hypodermic needle, it must’ve been a foot long.” He looked at me cautiously, then continued, “I didn’t shoot her or nothing. Then my buddy fell in the hole right behind me. It was a trip, really a trip. You know, that’s why the French got out of Vietnam ’cause the place is filled with all this underground stuff and you can’t keep track of anybody. Not many people know that.” Then he said, “I got shot fourteen times.”
“Oh yeah?” fell out of my mouth. Now he knew I wanted to hear more.
“Yeah, fourteen times. See these tattoos?” And he pushed his arm close to me and I could see the tail of a dragon covering his wrist, continuing under his dirty long-sleeved shirt. “When I got home I had fourteen holes in my body and I didn’t know what to do with them. So I got tattoos to cover ’em. Even learned to do some of that myself, made some money at the beach doin’ tattoos. I got tattoos over seventy-five percent of my body now,” he said proudly. Not so proudly he said, “Fourteen times and I didn’t die. So many times I could have died,” and he looked somewhere between my eyes.
“It’s weird, ya know, I had this barber who cut my hair — he was North Vietnamese. I didn’t know it then, but a week later, here’s the same guy comin’ over a fence at me with an M60. And I look at him and he looks at me. It’s like my barber back in Pittsburgh is suddenly trying to kill me. I just kept wondering why he didn’t slit my throat when he had the chance. Why didn’t he kill me before?”
I didn’t know. And he looked out at the ocean again like an answer might float off a white cap, but it didn’t and he turned to me again and smiled. Then in one quick movement he swung his legs onto the grass next to me, his body suddenly inches from mine. And I could feel him, this man’s energy repelling me, then sucking me in. I wanted to run, I wanted to stay. I shrank into myself. I spoke first to ease my discomfort. “This park seems like a good place to hang out,” I said. “Do the cops bother you much?”
“Naw,” he answered, “it’s all right, except the homosexuals try to pick you up at night.”
“Oh yeah?” I asked.
“Sure. They say, ‘Hey, you’re lookin’ good honey, wanna come home with me?’ But hey, I don’t need that crap, I don’t like men. I’m lyin’ here with a girl, right?” He laughed. I did too. Then he said, “I don’t need money that bad,” and he looked directly into my face and I was compelled to return his stare but the intensity was too much and I quickly turned away.
“Sweet thing,” he said. “You’re a sweet thing. I like you. You’re all right.” I looked at the two women sitting in the beach chairs but they weren’t looking. I was glad. I relaxed a little and it felt OK.
“So do you have kids?” he asked.
“No,” I answered.
“Me neither. Well, I did, a son, but he got sick and died when he was six. I sorta adopted a kid in ’Nam. He was a friend, just twelve. He told me he’d teach me Vietnamese if I’d teach him English. And he learned English real good. He told me he’d teach me how to keep from getting blown away, to think like the Viet Cong, and he was a point man too, he’d go right out there with me. He was my friend.” His voice cracked a little bit and he said, “He stepped on a mine and got blown away.”
I looked at his face now, at his rough beard, and realized how handsome he was despite the redness in his eyes, that we were the same age, that he had loved someone very much. “What was his name?” I asked.
“His name was Chang. Chang. I got really pissed when he died, I went into the village next to where he got killed and I just started shootin’, and I killed about five people, I didn’t care who they were. I kinda figure that’s why my little boy died, you know? To even the score.”
I didn’t want to look at him so I looked at the grass and I felt him lean in closer. He said, “It was tough to come back. The plane landed in Washington and I go there and here’s this big anti-war demonstration going on, and I start wavin’ a sign to stop the war and I just got back from gettin’ shot fourteen times in that war. I been to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, you know. I stood there. I could pick out the names of thirty guys I’d known. I was kneeling down and put my finger on a name. A woman’s voice said, ‘Did you know my son?’ Yeah, I knew her son, but I wouldn’t tell her how he died. I wouldn’t tell her that.”
He looked at me and I looked at him and he said, “Dead, all those guys dead and I’m alive. Why? Why did I make it?” And as his eyes got red and wet I could feel tears starting to rise up in my eyes but I pushed them down. I wouldn’t cry. He was too embarrassed to cry. “God, I’m getting kinda misty,” he said. Calmly, I asked, “Did you ever want to die?”
“Did I want to die,” he repeated my question. “Yeah, I wanted to die, lots of times. But I didn’t. When I was shot I had all these bullets in me, but I knew enough to roll, you’ve gotta roll to keep the blood circulating, to keep alive, so I just rolled and blood was coming out all over. When they looked at me, I remember one guy sayin’, ‘Jesus, this guy’s still alive.’ And here I am just hangin’.”
He reached out and tenderly stroked my folded hands with his forefinger. “I like you,” he said, “My name’s Bob . . . or Robert . . . or Cowboy. You can call me anything.”
“I like Robert,” I said.
“OK,” he said.
I wanted to hug Bob Robert Cowboy. I wanted to wrap my body over his and protect him from the enemy, let him cry, let myself cry, and feel his sobs, feel his tears gush out and mix with mine. I understand, Bob, I understand. I understand and it’s all right. You’re all right, Bob. I wished I could tell him that. But instead, I gathered up my spiral notebook and my house keys and my towel and I got to my knees. I touched his bony shoulder and said, “I respect you, Robert.” He looked at me anxiously and asked, “Where are you going?”
“I have to get home,” I said. “I have an appointment,” and I wasn’t lying.
Bob looked at me and said, “Would you like a buddy? I mean a real buddy, someone you can talk to.”
“Sure,” I said, looking for a reaction from the women in the beach chairs but they had disappeared.
“I’ll be here at seven tonight — on that park bench — I mean, if I say I’ll be there at seven will you be there too, will you have time, will you be done with your appointment?”
“I don’t know . . . maybe,” I said.
“ ’Cuz if you say you might, and somebody asks me to go to a bar and have a drink or somethin’, I won’t, I’ll be here at seven. So will you be here?”
“Maybe,” I answered, knowing I wouldn’t, and I stood up and started to walk away and I looked at Bob crumpled up on the grass looking at me, then I looked at the other people in bright shorts on their blankets.
“Goodbye,” I said to Bob.
“Seven o’clock,” he called to me, and I started walking and didn’t look back until I got to my apartment.
I wasn’t there, Bob, because I was too afraid, but I think you know that. I hope I never see you again. I hope you know how much I love you.