Giraffes Do Bite

Creative Nonfiction
Mary Wuerth


Giraffe
Photo Credit: David Groth

I sometimes thought of going to him in the night. I could visualize myself knocking softly at the door to his basement apartment, making him search the nightstand for his glasses, six inches of bare wrist slipping from his pajama cuff as he undid the latch, and the little dog going all white-eyed. “Hush, Puppy,” I would say. Hush Puppy.

Ron was the lead proofreader at the typesetting house that hired me away from a miserable job at an insurance company. Better pay, less-strict working conditions and no dress code made me feel sure that my life would get back on track. And I would finally put behind me the divorce that had left me in the doldrums for so long.

From the very beginning I was in awe of Ron. Being the lead proofreader merely meant he had the most seniority, yet that seniority granted him certain privileges the other four proofreaders didn’t have. He was the only one with an actual desk and the only one who got to go home at five o’clock. The rest of us worked at folding tables and stayed until the day’s work was done. I remember how, on that first day, as he patiently explained the duties of the job to me, I felt like a chimpanzee taking instruction from a sad and oddly vulnerable giraffe. He showed me how to use a pica pole, measure point size and check for proper kerning. He concluded by telling me I must always, always, initial my proofs in case an error needed to be traced. His calm, unruffled air made me think of the mastodon skeletons at the natural history museum.

Ron was seven-foot-two. His head was, I don’t want to say pumpkin-shaped, but the word “melon” does come to mind, and it sat atop the classic stickman’s frame. He bought his clothes at the Big & Tall Men’s Shoppe, and while the pants were long enough, his slender white wrists frequently freed themselves from the confines of his cuffs. His cheeks were pink and hairless, the comb marks were fresh in his hair, and his trademark Hush Puppies showed meticulous care. He also collected stamps and had a wire-haired terrier.

Ron had a couple of odd habits besides brushing his Hush Puppies every day after lunch. One was putting his used Kleenexes in the bottom drawer of his desk. The other was using a wooden knitting needle as a proofreading tool. While the forefinger of his left hand followed the copy, the knitting needle, held like a pencil, made a thin, harsh score beneath the lines of type on the galley proof. It seemed an awkward way to proofread because the knitting needle had to be exchanged for a red pen when an error was found.

One day as I was looking out the window I saw Ron unfold himself from his sub-compact car. I’d seen the same scene played for laughs by a clown at the Shrine Circus, but this scene wasn’t funny. I continued to watch as he scissored his way across the parking lot, and the lump in my throat told me that I felt something for the man. It wasn’t exactly a crush that I had, but curiously, it fell somewhere in the same family of emotions.

In the days that followed, I began bringing chocolate chip cookies to work, making a point of offering the first cookie to Ron. Carrying coffee from the break room was another thing I did for him, and I fixed the coffee just the way he liked it with two sugars and a heaping teaspoon of artificial creamer. I also became protective of Ron and glowered when the camaraderie of the guys from the back room grew too boisterous during the times when work was slack. Ron was a willing butt to their practical jokes, once wearing a sign that said “P_OOF READER” on his back for an entire afternoon. In the rubber band wars he generally gave as good as he got, and I was often caught in the crossfire.

Ron talked freely with me about his hometown in Iowa, the elderly mother he visited on weekends, the antics of his little dog, and the urgent matters dealt with in the most recent episode of 60 Minutes. Yet only once did Ron ever mention how he happened to be so tall. He said he had been of slightly below normal height until early adolescence when a pituitary tumor caused him to shoot up abruptly. At fifteen, when he was seven feet tall, the tumor was removed. Afterward he grew only two more inches, but the rapid growth left a legacy of physical ailments: a weakened heart, shortness of breath, and habitual leg cramps. His voice remained that of an adolescent.

I sometimes thought of going to him in the night. I could see myself lying in his long, cool crypt of a bed, my back to his chest. Embraced by his long arms, I would be the beetle clutched by the praying mantis. I, in turn, would clutch the little dog’s scratchy hide to my own chest, and the three of us would find our dreams flowing together seamlessly.

The boss called the proofreaders into his office one day. I fleetingly wondered if we were going to get a raise, but the boss’s voice was stern as he gave Ron a proof to pass around. I recognized it as part of an important job we had recently done. In 36-point type the top line read, “Let’s Get Aquainted.” I swallowed uncomfortably as I beheld the proofreader’s nightmare, a major typo that had slipped through. Acquainted was missing the “c.”

The error, the boss informed us, was caught by a pressman just as 500,000 copies were ready to be printed for a regional marketing campaign. “Now, pressmen don’t get paid to proofread,” he lectured. “You guys get paid to proofread.” The proof was uninitialed, so there was no way to be certain who had let the error pass, yet when I looked carefully I saw the fine indentations left by Ron’s knitting needle. I said nothing at the time, but later told one of the other proofreaders. That’s how word of what I had seen got back to Ron. He gave me the cold shoulder all that week.

Gradually, as the weeks passed, I began to find more things about Ron that were irritating. They went beyond the dirty Kleenexes stashed in his bottom drawer and the freshly-brushed Hush Puppies. The precise way he aligned everything on the top of his desk got on my nerves. And I couldn’t stand the lecherous, throaty chuckle he used when the back room guys told a raunchy joke, or the way he sucked his teeth after lunch. Our conversations dwindled and I let him fetch his own coffee.

Christmas was coming and Ron was scribbling furiously during his breaks. Every year his sharp eye picked up on the vulnerabilities and shortcomings of his coworkers and he used this material to weave the poem he traditionally read at the Christmas party. Whenever anyone approached, he slid a blank sheet over the top to cover what he was writing. I wondered what he would say about me.

The Christmas party was a blast. The lower echelon proofreaders worked up a skit with main characters called Deleta Comma and Dash Ampersand, pardonable names only someone in the typesetting business could find amusing. After dinner we presented the boss with a gaudy green polyester jacket from Goodwill. He loved gags and was modeling the jacket to the accompaniment of our hoots and whistles when we gave him his real gift, an expensive navy blue blazer we’d each coughed up twenty bucks for.

And then it was time for the poem. As I watched Ron struggle to the podium, crippled by a leg cramp, I felt that tug of affection for him again. And when his voice broke during the first few words of the poem and he had to start over, tears pricked my eyes. But then he got rolling and before long Ron had eviscerated each and every one of us with his searing observations. In the way of all roasts, it was intended to be humorous, yet a slight air of maliciousness lingered in the air afterwards. Even the boss was not exempt because there was a reference to his three-martini lunches and afternoon naps on the sofa in his office.

I laughed right along with everyone else when Ron referred to me an “old-age, wino hippie,” rhyming hippie with his description of the cameraman’s accent being “right out of Mississippi” in the next verse. Obviously I didn’t expect a discreetly-worded little love note hidden within the lines of the Christmas poem, yet I felt my cheeks burn as I heard those words spoken by a man with whom I had been so gentle, a man with whom I had contemplated… well, (blush!) greater intimacy.

After the party I went home with the cameraman, whose accent sounded kind of cute to me. As we shared a beer on the sofa in his apartment, he told me he thought I got off light. He was a cameraman, not a proofreader, so he did not say “lightly,” and under the circumstances, I did not correct him. After all, he reminded me, I had often mentioned a fondness for zinfandel and my wardrobe did tend toward the Bohemian. His eyes panned downward to take in the gypsy-like outfit I was wearing. I had to agree. But “old-age”? That cut to the quick; I was only 31 at the time. Ron was 27.

I sometimes thought of going to him in the night. But after that, I never did.

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Last year Mary Wuerth won first place in Toasted Cheese‘s A Midsummer Tale Contest, and in 2007 she won second place in the same contest. The Oregon coast is presently her home. Email: Geraniumgirl[at]aol.com

Where She Fell

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Mary Wuerth


Doe and Fawn
Photo Credit: Robert Engberg

The shape is roughly like one of those pieces found in a challenging jigsaw puzzle. It has bits jutting out sharply, then turning abruptly back on themselves, and there are scooping curves around the perimeter, both convex and concave. There’s even a straight stretch that would be identified as part of the puzzle’s border, but this is not a puzzle piece. It’s the shape of the three-mile route I walk each day, and refer loosely and inaccurately to as The Loop.

I walk The Loop in all seasons and all weather with, it’s safe to say, as much constancy as the postman. Traversing a mostly rural area with houses dotted at irregular intervals and pastures that host horses, llamas, goats and sheep, the course is varied enough never to grow tedious. Its shape is defined by the hills it skirts, the valley it wends through, the housing development it avoids.

It’s a morning in mid June. The air has the feel of summertime, yet the summer solstice is a few days away. I’m striding out along Red Dike Road, which is the equivalent of the puzzle piece’s straight edge, on the initial leg of my journey. One of the first landmarks I pass is the gray clapboard house where Josephine has lived for the past 75 years. Her yard is filled with the rainbow hues of rhododendrons and azaleas; a yellow rambling rose arches over the front gate and nearly obscures a small plaque proclaiming this as “Rose Cottage.”The property is still tidy even though these days a lawn-care service tends to the yard. Sadly, there is no hint of the giant blue delphiniums that towered over the lawn back when Josephine was in her prime.

Down the road a ways, near the big willow, I greet my two special friends: “Hello, Mama. Hello, Tiny. How are my buddies doing today?”

They’re near their usual spot where the willow tree hugs the side of the roadbed. On one side of their lair the Scotch broom radiates with brilliant yellow blooms; on the other, blackberry brambles repel intruders. A robin stands on a fence post and throws his entire heart into his tuneless chittering. This is a safe place.

The vegetation is crushed where they’ve been sleeping. Mama is nibbling at the dewy grass and Tiny is butting his forehead at her flank, demanding his breakfast. She raises her rear leg delicately and steps over his head. He’s already had breakfast. Tiny stands knock-kneed and is left blinking in bafflement that his mama could be so cruel.

I’m walking The Loop on another day. Along the edge of the road the grasses are as high as my chest. They rustle and bow in the wind and stain my clothes with fine yellow pollen as I brush past. Where the grasses have been broken over a field mouse stands upright and nibbles furiously on a seed head that has come within easy reach. He stops chewing at my approach and is ready to bolt, but I cross nonchalantly to the opposite side and the mouse decides I’m no threat. Glancing back, I see that his urgent chewing has resumed.

Josephine comes stiffly, cautiously, down her front steps toward the mailbox with a letter in her hand. She’s wearing a white cardigan sweater and blue polyester slacks; her pink scalp peeps through the tight, white curls of a new perm. Josephine seems quite agitated, and on seeing me, flags her arm and asks breathlessly, “Is it true?”

“Good morning, Josephine. Is what true?”

“That they’re tearing down the old company store?”

I’m not quite sure what she means. Josephine is 100 years old, but her mind is usually as sharp as a tack. Seeing my vacant face, she continues tetchily, “That old white building by the curve. Right across from the Noah farm. It was the company store back in the days when Libby was a town.”

“Ohhhh,” I finally say as it dawns on me what she’s asking. “Yes, they’re tearing it down.”

I had heard the old coal mining town of Libby mentioned many times, but until this moment hadn’t known exactly where it was located. The workmen’s hammers echo from the surrounding hills. An entire exterior wall shudders to the ground and the huge timbers that formed the building’s skeleton are exposed. Hewn from local trees, they look as though they should have withstood the ages.

Although I hadn’t known that this particular stretch of road was the site of old Libby, I had been aware of something uncanny about the location. It was as though a faint image overlay the landscape. I don’t want to call it a mirage, but there was definitely a presence, perhaps an essence of a former time. The sensation was much the same as the one I would later have in using a magnifying glass to examine the photos of old Libby. The photos were grainy and poor, and my hand would move forward and back to calculate the exact distance for the magnifier to bring the tiny dots together to form an image. Sometimes a shape would into pop into view, then dissolve into cryptic blurriness.

Another day: “Hi Mama and Tiny. It’s gonna be a warm one,” I say, wiping the sweat from my forehead. The wild red roses at the side of the road are twining up into the trees. The bees create a steady hum and the song sparrows pierce my soul with their sweet melody.

They’re standing in the shade and I’ve interrupted Mama in the process of giving Tiny a bath. His legs are splayed as he accepts the ministrations of her rough tongue. She cleans his forehead and mashes his oversized ears in her enthusiasm. As she scrubs his throat, he closes his eyes and lifts his head like a cat receiving a chin scratch. When she works her way on down his slender neck, Tiny loses his balance and tumbles, legs in the air, onto his side. Quick as a wink, he’s back up and nuzzling for more attention. Impatiently, Mama strikes her hoof to the ground once and continues licking. Mama is the best mother deer in the world.

What good fortune. The “free” box at a garage sale yields a local history book, yellowed and brittle with age. It smells of damp, the creased paper cover looks as though it has been chewed by a dog, and in two places pages have been raggedly torn out. Among the intact pages I find photos of Libby and text describing the town as it was. I bring the book home, read it and re-read it, absorbing what information there is.

The town grew up around a mine opened in the 1850s and by the turn of the century, both the mine and the town had pretty much had their day. I learn that Red Dike Road was formerly the site of a narrow-gauge rail line that carried coal cars across the marsh to Coal Bank Slough where the coal was loaded on barges. From there the coal was transferred onto ships bound for San Francisco.

Best of all, the book contains six photos that pertain to Libby. One is of the old Indian woman Libby, after whom the town was named; two are of workers at the mine entrance; one is of the company store, not by the way, the building recently torn down; and two are of the town itself. These, the town photos, are the ones that interest me most.

I pore over them with the magnifying glass and the more I examine them, the more I discover. What had appeared to be a jagged picket fence sharpens into the image of a clothes line bearing white sheets, pillow cases, undershirts. In the photo where a locomotive pulls a string of coal cars through the village, the entire town has turned out to be in the picture. People line the tracks and stand on their front porches. Just before going out of focus again, the magnifying glass alters a black dot into a cat sitting on its haunches. What appears to be unruly vegetation in a side yard becomes a garden full of tall dahlias. Oddly, a well-dressed couple stands arm in arm in the garden, looking for all the world like the bride and groom atop a wedding cake. I try to imagine their lives.

The book accompanies me on the walk as I survey the surroundings to determine where the houses in the photos were located. I study the townsite from different angles and try to match up the photo terrain with the present-day terrain, but too many things have changed. It’s as though giant earth movers and graders have flattened and tamed the landscape beyond all recognition. Inevitably, I am stymied.

It’s midsummer now and the days have a dreamlike quality. The sky is as blue as the sea and I feel certain there can be no more beautiful place on the entire earth.

I visit them in the afternoon and can barely see Mama and Tiny under the canopy of the willow. My eyes adjust to the muted light and I make out Mama lying with her legs folded under. Tiny is sleeping by her side, his white spots creating the perfect camouflage in the willow’s dappled illumination. I notice the charming way a row of dots hugs either side of his slender backbone.

Josephine is drowsing in her recliner by the window overlooking the bird feeder, which today is surprisingly vacant. Usually it shows as much activity as a major airport, as purple finches and chickadees zoom in and out and queue up for a turn at the seeds. Reluctant to disturb her, I start to walk away, but Josephine stirs, lifts her head, and on the third try, hoists herself out of the chair. I’m hoping she can add a few pieces to the Libby puzzle. She welcomes me into the cool, dim interior of the house, and while sitting at her chrome and Formica kitchen table, tells me the little she knows.

It turns out I was mistaken; Josephine did not grow up in the mining town which had already lost most of its inhabitants even before she was born. Josephine’s father did work in the mine as a boy, but as a man raised cattle on a homestead a short distance away. She recalls that by about 1920, when she was ten or so, the mine had long been boarded up and she and other children sometimes played among the derelict houses. I show her the old photos and ask if she can tell me exactly where the houses stood. “No,” she says and shakes her head sadly before launching into a story about life on the cattle ranch.

I show her the photo of the men at the mine entrance. Among them is a barefoot boy. “Could this have been your father?” I ask.

Bending close to the book, she peers myopically and shrugs her shoulders. Next I show her the photo that the book identifies as the company store and explain that this, not the recently torn-down building, was the real company store. She shrugs again and I feel as though I am subjecting her to an inquisition. For half an hour I listen to her chat about the only kind of history she’s interested in, the happy days when her children were young, then bid her farewell. No new pieces have been added to the puzzle.

It’s late summer now. The apples are ripening fast and I hear them fall during the night as I lie awake thinking of things lost. In the morning I tread the dewy grass barefoot and pull out the bottom of my T-shirt to form an apron for gathering the apples.

Knowing deer like apples, I have washed and sliced one as an offering for Mama. She is alert at my approach. “Hello, Sweets,” I say. “Come get your apple.” She blends in with the summer-dry grass and stands a few paces from Tiny, whose attention is focused on a grasshopper. Ever the vigilant mother, she moves to position herself between me and her precious offspring.

Seeing the piece of apple held between my fingertips, Mama approaches, sniffs briefly, then takes the apple with a surprisingly unladylike grabbing motion. She chews delicately, her nose wriggling, then goes nearly cross-eyed with pleasure. Tiny moves in to investigate. He sniffs too, but clearly can’t see what all the fuss is about. Mama again alters her position between me and him, this time in a manner that says, “Look youngster, these apples are mine.”

Then comes a day in early September, our most pleasant time of year on the Oregon coast. The summer winds are gone, the day dawns sweet and pure. Clusters of plump blackberries hang heavily and seem to beg to be tumbled into pie shells. Mother Nature has produced the best she has to give.

I’m putting on my shoes in preparation for another turn around The Loop when the phone rings. It’s Josephine’s daughter. Her voice is solemn as she tells me that her mother has passed away.

“It was yesterday afternoon,” she says. “I had dropped by to bring her supper. She looked like she was just sleeping in her chair. You know, the one by the window where she could see the birds. Her heart must have just given out.”

A recollection of Josephine’s hundredth birthday party last April comes to mind. Flowers overflowed the baskets that were hung all along her porch, and balloons were gaily tethered around the yard. Josephine, as regal as a queen, sat in a rocker greeting all the well-wishers who had come to pay tribute. The cries of children at play were as sharp as birdcall. Along the road cars were parked helter-skelter for half a mile.

My mood is pensive enough to forego the walk for once, but I’m not immune to the day’s allure. I also have a powerful desire to see Tiny and Mama. They’re out in the field and I arrive in time to watch a small drama unfold. Tiny has gone exploring and at a shallow spot has crossed a drainage ditch that bisects the field. He has followed the ditch to a point where it’s much deeper and now wants to cross again, but can’t. He trots worriedly back and forth and lets out a small bleat that instantly brings Mama’s head erect. Her ears turn like radar antennae and with the agility of an athlete she’s across the ditch in a flash. She nudges Tiny’s behind with her muzzle, then trots ahead to show him the way. Once back across, Mama, correctly thinking I have apples for her again, lopes toward the willow where I stand. A chastened Tiny scrambles behind.

“Good morning, Mama and Tiny,” I trill. “Isn’t this the loveliest day ever? It’s enough to make us glad to be alive.”

Alive?

A vacuum whistles inside my head; the ground tips treacherously. Mama and Tiny are not alive. They’re no more alive than Josephine. No more alive than the former inhabitants of Libby.

I am struck at last by the folly of my fantasy.

*

It was a day in very early June and I was walking. There were enough clouds gathering to have made me consider carrying the umbrella, but it had been banished to the back of the closet. As I strolled, the wind shifted slightly, the clouds miraculously stalled, then began chugging back south, the way they had come. They were replaced by blue, blue sky and a few benign wisps of white.

In the marshy area by the slough a red-winged black bird, perched on one of last year’s cattails, was repeating kokely-wee-oo. With each vibrant exclamation I felt as though a ticklish spot inside my chest was being probed. The bird’s breast shone like black satin and the red band on his wing was the color of fresh blood. Overhead the swallows made their fearless swoops and dives.

Approaching the curve near the big willow, I noticed a buff-colored mound off to the side of the road. Drawing closer, the shape revealed itself to be a doe that had been fatally struck by a vehicle during the night. I had seen many victims of road kill over the years: birds, raccoons, cats, rats, muskrats, possums—lots of possums. They all saddened me, yet none had affected me in the same way as the creature who lay at my feet. Even in death she was exquisite.

But for the slender thread of blood at her mouth, she might have been asleep. Ludicrously, her forelegs were crossed daintily at the ankle. Her eye, the perfect liquid brown orb that faced upward, was like a jewel set in the tan velvet contours of her face and in it I saw the sky. While she was alive she would never have granted me the liberty that I took. I stroked her jaw line and ran my hand down her graceful neck. Following the path of my hand, I noticed the thickening of her middle, back near the hips. She’d been ready to deliver a fawn.

The next day I could not bear the thought of walking by the doe again and took a detour. The image of her perfect eye haunted me. Yet the day after, with my thoughts elsewhere and my feet on automatic pilot, I found myself back at the place where she fell.

I was horrified to see four turkey vultures tearing at her and a fifth glowering from the same fence post where the robin so often chittered. I ran at the filthy birds flapping my arms and screaming for them to get away. They lifted off heavily. Masters of high-altitude gliding, they had the agility of overfed swine on the ground. The vultures didn’t go far, just further down the fence row, where they regarded me sullenly.

The birds had destroyed the eye, the beautiful eye in which I had seen the sky reflected. They had savaged the doe’s belly, and there, where her middle thickened, the unborn fawn was exposed. Before hurrying on, I caught a glimpse of its big ears and the tiny white spots on its flanks.

After that, I walked by every day. What more was there to fear? I had already seen the worst. The vultures finished in just a few days; their work complete, the insects moved in. It was remarkable how fast nature reclaimed her.

An image of the doe as she must have been when alive came into my mind and I became obsessed with the idea of giving her back what she had been deprived of. I pieced together an entire life for her and her tiny baby. They would live in their lair under the willow, be forever free from pain and tragedy, and never grow older. Mama would always remain the winsome young doe; Tiny, forever a week-old fawn with spots on his russet flanks and an endearing row of white daubs on either side of his sweet backbone. He would never grow into a noble buck brought down by the hunter’s gun.

*

While watering the back-porch geraniums I duck to avoid a web; the autumn spiders are back and their colorfully patterned abdomens will grow larger in direct proportion to the shorter duration of the days. Guided by spider logic, they inevitably construct their webs in the most bothersome locations, but that’s stated from the human perspective. I’ve grown more tolerant these days and strive to coexist with them.

Today I walk down the road with a paper bag under my arm. It’s late September and I have been pondering whether the action I am about to take is an impropriety. The rains are returning and the blackberry brambles are sending out runners that are beginning to creep over Mama and Tiny’s remains. One side of me says to leave them in the exact spot where Mama fell; the other says to bring them home. The truth is I cannot allow the greedy tendrils to claim them. It is time for them to be moved.

There is something nearly reverent about the act of picking up each vertebra, rib, femur and miscellaneous nut and bolt that made up their skeletons. The pieces are as white and smooth as stones found on the beach. One by one they go into the bag. The jaw falls from Mama’s fragile skull. It goes into the bag along with all the other bits. There is even a tiny leg bone I am sure belonged to Tiny.

They are buried under the apple tree next to Willie, a feline friend for more than 18 years. There was no need to invent a make-believe life for Willie; he had a good life, a long one. In cat years he’d probably have been nearly as old as Josephine.

Josephine. Her house sits vacant, and it’s impossible for me to imagine it belonging to anyone else, but I know it eventually will. Time moves on. The Libby puzzle remains just that, a puzzle.

As the soil is tamped down over the grave, the rain softly begins, and I think to myself, let the melancholy days of winter come. My mind generates a silent prayer: Please keep from harm all the tiny fawns that grow inside their mothers’ bellies.

From the house I look out toward the apple tree. There stands Mama with Tiny at her side, shaking the raindrops from his ears.
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In 2007 Mary Wuerth had the good fortune to win second place in the Midsummer Tale Contest. Email: geraniumgirl[at]aol.com

The Final Wave

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Mary Wuerth


The road was rough and rutted, and at times they had to detour around potholes that would have engulfed the tiny rental car, but the beach here was primitive and untamed. Wild goats browsed the sparse grass. Startled by the car’s approach, they took to their heels. The terrain grew rockier, the wind rose and the sky took on a coppery glow as the car’s shadow straggled along behind them like a deflated parachute.

At a beach totally unlike the benign sugar-sanded stretches that they had been admiring all day, they stopped to read a sign: CAUTION! Hazardous Waves. No Surfing.

But wait, I’m jumping too far ahead in the story. Let’s go back to September.

*

He had been in Vietnam for seven months and they were beginning to think his R&R would never be approved. Twice it had been turned down and she could sense how low his spirits were. Their letters spoke of a feeling they shared that they were drifting off course.

Then the letter came that said: Guess what? I finally got my R&R approved today. I will leave here October ninth and go to Saigon and then fly to Hawaii on the 10th, your birthday. She stood reading the words, her emotions like the waves and dips of an EKG reading, pinging back and forth from eagerness to trepidation to eagerness, to eagerness, to eagerness.

Her hastily written reply was: This will be the best birthday of my entire life. It seems we’ve been apart for an eternity and I wonder, will you even recognize me?

There was so much to do and she had so many questions, but for each volley of questions there came a barrage of answers. Do you need new clothes? she asked, to which he replied: The only clothes I have to take are two pairs of pants (one has paint on the legs), two paisley shirts (one with a big hole), one dress shirt and my old loafers. Please write and tell me you are as excited as I am.

Should I bring your sport coat and what clothes will I need? And what about birth control? (She’d been off the pill since he left.) His reply: Bring my sport coat if you think we’ll be going somewhere nice. For yourself, be sure to bring your swimsuit and summer clothes and since it’s too late for you to go on the pill, bring some of the foam stuff. I forget what it’s called.

Nearly 22 years old and she had never flown before. During the day she frightened herself inventing new scenarios on how the plane would crash into the Pacific. By night she was plagued with nightmares from which she woke with the sensation of careening helplessly through space. In one dream the plane slid silently into the water and sank, fish swimming alongside, goggling at her through the windows. Rest and Relaxation? So far it had been Anxiety and Aggravation.

But then on the second of October he wrote: I am so excited about seeing you next week I don’t know what to do. I wish I could go to sleep and wake up in Hawaii. It seems like next week is so far away.

The night she left a friend took her to dinner and to a movie to get her mind off flying. She barely sampled the spaghetti, absent-mindedly moving the mound of pasta from one side of the plate to the other and rolling the napkin into a tight tube that she wove back and forth through her fingers. She drank the restaurant’s complimentary glass of rose and gratefully accepted her friend’s as well. Later she would have absolutely no recollection of the movie they sat through.

On the way to the airport the temperature sign at the savings and loan showed 28 degrees, weather more suitable for December. She shivered and stifled a burp; the butterflies from earlier in the day had been replaced by a bag of roofing nails that churned uneasily in her stomach.

At the airport she got flustered when they called the flight, couldn’t find her purse, found her purse, would have left her head sitting on the bench if it hadn’t been attached, but remembered at the last moment to hand over her coat for safekeeping. She wouldn’t need it where she was going.

The engines revved and whined and the plane vibrated menacingly as they rose into the air. Below twinkled the lights of Council Bluffs, Iowa and then the plane banked sharply, one wing pointing tipsily toward the Missouri River, before leveling out and heading west. Within minutes the lights of Omaha had receded and she was picking out the illuminations of farmhouses that grew more and more sparse as they neared the Rockies. She marveled at moonlit rivers and streams: capillaries of quicksilver against a crumpled tapestry of black velvet. With a blue United Airlines blanket pulled to her chin and warm air hissing comfortingly from an overhead vent, the plane’s cabin felt as cozy as a pup tent. She slept.

The predawn hours found her sitting bleary-eyed in the passenger terminal at the Los Angeles Airport waiting to continue on the next leg of the journey. Her throat felt scratchy and her nose ran. The previous day she had tried to ignore hints that a cold was coming on, but now it was a certainty and she thought ruefully of how bad the timing was.

The flight to Honolulu was intended to be jolly. The cabin stewards’ white slacks and Hawaiian shirts did add a festive touch, but their leis gave off a sweet scent that made her think of funerals. They circulated with breakfast trays and steaming coffee. Later, though it was barely eight a.m., they came down the aisle, perky and efficient, with stubby green bottles of champagne and poured freely into their plastic cups. On the first round she was wounded that they had judged her underage and passed her by. On the second round she spoke up. The champagne was sour, raw tasting, but the bubbles brought a temporary soothing to her throat.

Finally the pilot came on the intercom sounding as though he’d just been roused from a nap. “We’re starting our final descent, folks. The temperature in Honolulu is 80 degrees. Aloha and welcome to the Land of Eternal Summer.”

She stepped into the blinding light and fragrant, earthy smells of a tropical morning. Jostled by the crowd at the luggage carousel, she felt perspiration start to slide down her sides and wondered what she could have been thinking when she picked a red corduroy suit and black turtleneck to wear. She removed the jacket and calculated how many hours it had been since she applied deodorant. Following his instructions, she took a shuttle bus to Fort De Russy, site of the Maluhia Service Club, referred to in the brochure as “your gateway to R&R.”

The building was teeming with nervous women, all waiting for their men to arrive. Painstakingly-applied makeup showed the ravages of their travels and carefully-coifed hair was under constant siege from the big ceiling fans that churned the sultry air. Looks of commiseration passed among them. Most of the women wore pastel-colored summer frocks, and in her turtleneck she felt like Nanook of the North. Repeated trips to the ladies’ room yielded reams of toilet paper for blowing her nose, which was now taking on a hue not unlike the color of her skirt. On the jukebox Mick Jagger punched out the words to “Paint It Black.”

Nearly two hours later she was sharing a table with a woman from San Antonio who, jazzed up on a potent mixture of adrenaline and strong coffee, did a filibuster on her three-year-old daughter Amy. The woman rummaged in her purse for a wallet that spilled an accordion-fold of baby photos and proffered a bottle of Aspirin.

Two plane loads of men from Saigon had moved through. Witnessing reunions that deserved to take place in private, she felt she should divert her eyes, yet found herself staring in fascination. Laughter and catcalls greeted a fat woman who got up such a head of steam as she ran to meet her husband that she bowled him off his feet and sent his hat flying.

Men from the third plane were beginning to straggle in and there he was. At first she didn’t recognize him; he was thin and the contours of his face had altered to reveal jutting cheekbones and a pinched look about the eyes. And he was so deeply tanned. She ran to him and pressed her face into the front of his combat shirt, then lifted it to receive a kiss.

Yes, she knew they had received the special R&R rate, but the hotel room was a disappointment. The receptionist had called it a Garden Level room, and she now understood that “Garden Level” was a polite way of saying it had a mildewy odor and avocado-colored walls, against which her skin took on a deathly pallor and his appeared jaundiced. When she went to the window to examine the tropical foliage outside, a tiny lizard closed its papery eyelids over bulbous eyes and froze in position. Its color nearly perfectly matched the big leaf to which it clung with splayed toes.

Their seven-month separation had changed him, changed them both, and she couldn’t quite shake the feeling of doing something illicit. With her head resting on his shoulder, she lay awake deep into the night listening as he recounted tale after tale of what his life was like in Vietnam, stark descriptions of the things he could not verbalize in his letters.

Morning found them sitting under a beach umbrella on the hotel’s terrace, watching people frolic in the surf. She was wearing a blue-checked bikini with a row of white eyelet ruffles that helped hide her flat-chestedness; he had on the new plaid swim trunks she had brought. The tortures of the cold were at their peak. A volleyball was being inflated inside her head and her ears were playing tricks. Unsure whether she was bellowing or whispering, she couldn’t seem to regulate her voice and had the sensation of being underwater, bubbles of words slipping from her lips to rise to the surface and make flabby popping sounds. Her forehead was clammy, yet she chafed her icy feet together under the table.

In the afternoon they joined a tour group headed for the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial. Later, in the hotel lobby they were collared by a man with a clipboard who signed them up for the evening’s Polynesian feast. It proved to be more false merriment, unfamiliar foods (roasted pig, poi, baked bananas and an undrinkable concoction of fruit juice and rum), writhing hula dancers and a pitiful Don Ho impersonator.

Suddenly the days were slipping away and they’d had their fill of wandering through the overpriced shops and bars of Waikiki Beach and gazing listlessly out the window of a tour bus. Brochures littered the bedspread. He picked up one and read, “Three dollars a day for a compact. Plus mileage.”

The lady at the car rental agency showed them a map of Oahu and made a squiggly red line through a section of road on the north end of the island. She wrote off limits in capital letters followed by an exclamation point. “This stretch of road is unpaved. Military personnel are forbidden to take it,” she intoned. They could tell she had been through this spiel hundreds of times before. He rolled his eyes when the woman wasn’t looking and they both suppressed a smirk. Frankly they didn’t think she’d care if they drove the little blue tin can off the top of Diamond Head.

They set out with no destination in mind, driving the road that skirted the beach, past graceful palms, lazy villages and fields of sugar cane. Here and there they paused to watch surfers. It felt so free, just like in the old days when they used to strike out on long rambling drives, passing through the small towns and the corn and wheat fields of home. Evening found them shoveling pepperoni pizza into their mouths at a Shakey’s Pizza Parlor in Pearl City.

The next morning, after a leisurely breakfast, they were on the road again, heading north on the highway that snaked along the beach on the other side of the island. She was feeling better, yet she bore a new heaviness in her chest: the knowledge that this was their last day together. They were both quiet, subdued, having in the last four days said all that needed to be said. They settled into peaceful camaraderie, she resting her head on his shoulder, he draping a hand companionably across her thigh, lifting it only to change gears. Like a spool of ribbon slipping from their fingers, they felt hours unwind erratically and far too quickly.

It was late afternoon and they’d seen most of the island. She pointed out that the “forbidden” stretch of road, which had become a joke to them, lay not far ahead. If they were to take it, they could cut across to the highway that ran south through the pineapple plantations at the heart of the island instead of retracing their route along the coast. He liked the idea, and removing his hand from her thigh just long enough to make a crude gesture with his middle finger said, “Here’s to you, bitchy car rental lady.” They guffawed and were rebellious teenagers again.

And so they had taken the forbidden road, over the ruts and past the goats, and had stopped to read the CAUTION! Hazardous Waves sign. Getting out of the car he pointed to the silhouette of a lighthouse on Kaena Point. They clambered over tawny jagged boulders to reach the beach, kicked off their shoes and waded in. The waves didn’t look that threatening and the water was surprisingly warm. Ankle deep in the surf they prepared for the first wave. It broke over their knees and exploded in a flurry of foam. As the water flowed back out they felt the vertiginous rush of the sand being tugged from beneath their feet. They laughed and hooted over the pure exhilaration of it and waded out a bit further—only knee deep, but this time taking the precaution of linking hands. The next onslaught slapped in even harder, hitting waist high and spraying their shirts with foam. Gasping, they stepped back, playing a game of advance and retreat. They knew they needed to be careful, but the waves were intoxicating and finally they were standing in the surf up to their waists.

They hadn’t expected the fury of the next wave. It broke over their shoulders and tore their hands apart. Without him to steady her, she was knocked onto her hands and knees and just when she thought things were okay and that she’d be able to stand, she was grabbed by the undertow and tumbled over and over in the surf. Suddenly he was there, seizing her by the back of the shirt and hauling her to safety. She coughed, spewed salt water and felt the grit of sand between her teeth. Away from the waves they stood and clung together, shivering, chastened, sobered by thoughts of what their folly might have brought.

That night the frenzied hunger of the previous days’ lovemaking was replaced by a sad, slow clasping. She willed herself to remember each sensation to play back to herself in the lonely days to come. Music drifted softly from the clock-radio and they paused to listen to a hymn-like lament that began with the strains of a Hammond organ. The melody seemed the very product of their emotions and in the years to come they would never hear Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” without recalling that moment.

They slept through the 6:00 alarm and were in a rush. He complained of a sore throat and she, bruised and sand-scraped, found she had seriously sprained her wrist in the fall. Packing brought such misery that she gave up trying to fold things neatly and tossed her clothes into the suitcase in a confused jumble. What did it matter? She was going home.

His flight back to Vietnam left after hers, so he accompanied her to the airport and helped her pick souvenir postcards and little vials of pikake perfume. At the customs counter a gruff agent opened her suitcase and, to her mortification, began pawing through her rumpled underwear. Her cheeks burned with indignation.

Far too soon her flight was announced and they clung together once again, every bit as tenaciously as they had the night before, and braced themselves for the final wave.

*

The year was 1967. The she of the story is me and the he is my ex-husband Dave. While the big wave spared us, the relentless ripples of daily life finally did us in. But don’t feel sorry for us. We still have this memory (or at least I do) and we still have our song.

pencil

“When I was a kid, right after the phase where I wanted to become a jockey, I became certain I’d grow up to become a famous author. Aptitude and talent didn’t have much bearing on my occupational aspirations. I’ve supported myself in a variety of ways, primarily proofreading and typesetting, but have never lost the urge to write. Now, however, I understand that pleasure, not fame, must be my motive.” E-mail: geraniumgirl[at]aol.com