John Kahrs was reading the warning on a can of hornet and wasp spray when a glint of red hair flashed across his peripheral vision like the spray from a blood vessel popping.
Not until he was through the checkout line, out the door, across the drive, and back in his car did he look around to see if she had spotted him. His pulse was racing as if he'd run the two miles to the store. He started the car and pulled around to the side doors where an awning extended over the early summer nursery inventory.
There, from a safe distance, he watched as she fingered the blossoms of a hanging pink and white plant. Her hair was braided and gleamed against her back like a copper coil. She was wearing a sea-green sundress that left much of her back bare and hugged close across her breasts and ribs.
When she raised her arm to take a basket down, he could see the dark crescent of perspiration, and how small her waist still was. Sitting there with the car idling, the air conditioner barely making a dent in the pocket of heat that had formed in the afternoon sun, he felt the nerve-endings in his skin radiating warnings as if he'd just been given a huge dose of sulfur, to which he's allergic. Evonne was back.
When he returned to his mother's house, he stretched out on a chaise lounge in the side yard and sipped a Coors under her scrutiny. She was hanging clothes out to dry a can's throw away. Thoughts of Evonne crowded his head, but from his mother's perspective, he would seem to be studying this summer's buzzing wasp nest.
They had built high, this time, a personal challenge to him, upon whose shoulders the responsibility of removal had fallen now that his father had been reduced to ashes and the ashes scattered along the marshy, springtime river bank where he'd done most of his fishing during his final years.
There had been a wasp nest under one or another of the eaves of his parents' house every summer for as long as he could remember. For the most part, his father had chosen to ignore them—live and let live—until his mother would get fed up with having to lug the groceries around to the side or front of the house, or having to call out the window and tell visitors to come around back.
When she called John about the wasps, he almost suggested she hire a local exterminator, but he knew that even if he'd made the call himself and taken care of the bill, she would still have felt slighted. It was his presence, with its own subtle sting of cumulative disappointments, that she was after, and the continuity of him working there in the side yard at his father's task.
So he had traded vacations with one of the newer mail carriers who was still so relieved to have the job that he wasn't anxious about time off.
Even with the hundred and forty mile drive and visiting time, he figured he would still be able to head back in toward the lakes and spend time fishing and sailing. Tara, his new live-in girl friend, had been disgruntled about having to drive herself to the lakes to be with him, but he hadn't wanted to deal with his freshly widowed mother and the perennial wasps and Tara's chronic self-evaluations all at once. It was, after all, his vacation. And he needed one.
He felt as if he'd been on a treadmill for so long, he couldn't remember when he hadn't been pressing hard into or away from someone or someplace. And here he was, cutting back across the board again, directly to GO, no two hundred dollars. Just Evonne, more beautiful than ever, and a slight torment beneath his breastbone.
At nineteen, he had left Evonne safe at home and gone to carve a life for himself out of the heart of Vietnam, to cloak himself in garb his father would recognize, acknowledging their kinship. But the jungle had been a sieve everything but his bones and fears had slipped through.
There, his day-dreams became so tangible they were like scouts that had gone on ahead to wait for him at each new stopping place. Some were replays of the quietest moments with Evonne, others plans for a future, sweet-smelling and tied up in the red ribbons she had shown him just before he'd left, "for your letters," she'd said.
And he wrote every day at first, boot-camp epics, and air-transport pinings. He kept on writing, even when there was less and less he could tell her of life over there, until finally there was nothing left to share save a desperate hope of getting home in one piece and starting a real life somewhere with her. And eventually, her letters began to change too.
One day, after reading and rereading, trying to recreate the sound of her voice and the scents and colors of the old world that was beginning to seem more exotic than familiar, he noticed when he folded the letter and pushed it down into his breast pocket it fit easily. So did the letters that came after, less frequent and always slighter, so that the swell of hope he carried over his heart steadily receded.
Eventually, they were moving too fast for anything to catch up with them except the chronic fatigue, and the smell of fear they tried to ignore within each night’s encirclement of mines and trip flares. By then, the absence of mail coming or going was part of the absence of everything reasonable and holy. It was all rolled neatly together, something to get back to eventually, like a damp cigarette tucked behind his ear, like early morning sunlight and a soft breeze through the curtains at the end of a nightmare—everything unremarkable and in its place.
That's pretty much how he found everything upon his return—unchanged and intact, the town and its faces shockingly the same. The only real difference as far as he could tell was that his girl friend didn't live there anymore, didn't live anywhere, as far as he was concerned, since her family wouldn't tell him who she'd married or where they'd gone.
And he couldn't fault them for their fears. They'd heard horror stories of men coming home disturbed enough to say and do things that could frighten innocent people. They couldn't risk that with their own daughter, and though no one ever asked, there were times they would have been right to fear him.
It had been easy, eventually, to marry Joyce Salem from the next town south on the interstate, easy because of the ragged web of smoke streaming across their pot-blown afternoons and their loneliness for the people gone out of their lives. And then, too, there was the baby that swung between them, the child who was the only palpable legacy of his best friend's amazing drug-shortened life.
A few years later, the smoke having cleared, it had been almost as easy to get unmarried. So, by thirty-four, he was already nine years divorced and an absentee father to a teenage girl sired but never seen by his best friend, who had been lost to them all in the jungles of the late 60's.
Himself fatherless and his future reduced to a plodding circular course, he expected little of his vacation except the dull flap of calendar pages fanning by and, if he got lucky, a few worthy tugs on a submerged fishing line. His only forward movement the past several years seemed to be vaguely into each next season. It was a vagueness he valued, since it provided a filter for the lenses of reflection and remorse.
Now, where he lay sunning himself lizard-like in the side yard, he could still see Evonne's hair—not in the braid like at the shopping center, but free and wild, a glistening, wispy frame around her small, heart-shaped face. Her eyes were the sea-green of the dress she'd been wearing. He thought "262-0032," and his eyes popped open. After fifteen years, her phone number was as familiar as if he'd been dialing it everyday. His head was becoming a dangerous place again. Planting his feet on either side of the chair, he hoisted himself upright. Still his father's son, at least in his mother's eyes, he had a job to do.
The slope of the roof was so steep where the wasps had built that nearly a good three inches of the nest was fastened securely along one side. From the third rung of his father's paint-splattered ladder, he stretched out the shovel for a measurement. He wanted to be able to saturate the nest with spray and knock it to the ground from as low on the ladder as he could stand and still be effective. That way, he could drop the shovel, which the wasps would see as the offender, and jump clear of the kill zone himself.
It wasn't that he was worried about stings. His dad had gotten one or two every other year or so, and he had had his share. Once the nest was down, he could soak it with gasoline and set it aflame, making sure the deep inner cells were destroyed. It was simply a case of mapping out an effective strategy, and he wanted to get it right, to come out unscathed by doing it slicker than his father ever had.
It was a few seconds before the fumes and poison registered as more than a simple afternoon shower. Then the deep humming drone of the workaday nest escalated into an erratic, screechy vibration, as if his mother, who had gone inside, had dialed a radio between stations and turned up the volume.
It took two swipes to get the nest loose and a third to bring it down. It wasn't until the shovel was sprawled on one side of the ladder and he was backing away on the other that he noticed her, standing next to the chaise lounge with a cascade of pink and white flowers in front of her, like a prom queen or a summer bride.
"Get away! Get back!" he yelled, waving her away.
Her face turned slowly from him as she looked over at the fractured swarm of wasps darting crazily above the felled nest. She hesitated, then started around the chaise lounge in his direction, following a large arc meant to circumvent the hazardous area. She was almost up to him when the expression in her eyes, which were fixed on his, went from greeting to alarm as the sting he knew so well shot into her.
He was there in two steps, swatting the air as he pulled her around to the back porch and in through the screen door. Her pale, freckled arm reddened as he examined it for any remaining stinger, holding it so tightly that she winced and said only half-jokingly that she didn't think a wasp sting called for a tourniquet.
He loosened his grip without releasing her, and saw that her face was flushed and moist. She'd unbraided her hair and changed clothes. She was wearing a crinkled white cotton affair trimmed in lace, like something their grandmothers would have worn under their dresses.
"Better let me have this," he said, taking the flowering plant and placing it on the counter behind her.
Her freed hand went automatically to the injured forearm and clasped it just below the swelling. "I guess this wasn't such a good time to come by."
"I'm sorry," he started, not knowing how anything was his fault but feeling it all the same. "You look—" he stopped himself, and then said that she'd be all right as soon as they got some mud onto the sting.
He took a cereal bowl out of the dish drainer and ran some water into it, telling her to wait there for him. Then grabbing a spoon, he hurried back outside to dig up some earth from next to the back porch, where the shade from the low spreaders keeps grass from coming in. Stirring up a rich brown poultice, he rushed inside again to pat it over the red welt.
He was still toying with the miniature mud pack when his mother came up from the basement with a load of damp clothes. She opened the door into his back, and as they all jostled around in the close space, tiny specks of mud splattered the front of Evonne's white sundress.
He was surprised to find that his mother wasn't surprised, as if finding Evonne in her kitchen were a regular occurrence.
Setting the laundry basket on the table, she offered Evonne iced tea and told him to throw the rest of the mud outside. He tried to listen to what they were saying as he squatted on the steps scraping out the bowl, but the high, bright sounds of women in the kitchen faded quickly as they moved toward the front of the house where visitors are entertained.
Collecting the gasoline and matches from the garage, he went around to the side yard, where only a few wasps were visible. Dousing the gray, skull-shaped nest with gasoline, he tossed on three lit matches in quick succession. A thin veil of flames lifted from around it and then died down, acrid puffs of smoke escaping like brief exhalations on a frosty morning.
What mattered, he told himself, as he lathered his hands and forearms at the kitchen sink, was that she had shown up—not "finally," or "only because his father had died." Even two rooms away, her presence was pervasive, like an electric current passing through him.
He felt as if time were slipping backward as he passed through the dining room that brimmed with the photo history of his existence, except for the pictures of Evonne that had been removed long ago—the two of them at the senior prom, decked out in white and baby blue in front of a starry backdrop, and at a family picnic where he had scooped her up in his arms as she mugged with a dandelion clamped between her teeth.
In the front room, she sat on the edge of the sofa opposite his mother. They spoke softly across the pink and white spray of flowers about his dad's final round with his bad heart. Evonne, who was running the bottom of her iced tea glass in circles along the reddened rim of the mud pack, kept nodding, opening her mouth as if to speak and then closing it in small, compassionate smiles.
He hesitated a moment before choosing a seat next to his mother. "How's the arm?"
Evonne glanced down at it, as if she'd forgotten about the injury, and said it was all right, that she was sure it would be fine in a couple of hours.
"Sometimes those can act up," Mom warned her, "allergic reaction or something like that." She scooted to the edge of her seat and stood up. "If it gets to throbbing and the redness spreads, wouldn't hurt to have someone take a look at it."
"Yes, I will, if that happens." Evonne, too, stood up, but whether to leave or just show respect wasn't clear.
"You sit back down and rest a while," his mother insisted, "I've got another load to get on the line, and you two haven't had a chance to visit yet. Need some more tea?"
Raising her half-full glass, Evonne said that she was just fine. She made no move to leave, but she didn't sit down either. Instead she asked if he'd finished with the wasps.
"For the time being." He studied her as she walked around the room, not sure what he was looking for—signs of aging, perhaps, or regret, some clue as to what her life had been like without him in it. "So, you live around here now, or what?"
A smile snagged the corners of her mouth as she answered "What."
She was always doing that to him in the old days, deliberately taking him literally, doing verbal dances around him that he both admired and resented.
"Still a smartass, I see." He was beginning to grin back at her, could feel it in his whole body, as if all his biorhythms were coursing upward.
"The family reunion's tomorrow over by the river," she said. "Surely you remember those extravaganzas. I wanted to skip this year, but the kids found out they're planning fireworks. Now I'm glad we came."
She walked over and sat on the arm of the sofa, looking toward the door his mother had gone out minutes before. "So how have you been," she started, then shook her head, saying, "No, that's too complicated. What are you doing now? I mean, what kind of work?"
"Civil Service. I work for the postal service."
Her eyebrows went up slightly. "You like it?"
"It's great. The perfect vehicle for all my ambitions." His sarcasm surprised him, and he changed the subject. "How'd you hear about my old man?"
"Mom sent me a clipping. I've known since it happened."
He nodded as if he'd just understood something, but he hadn't. He was trying to think of some way to keep her from standing up and walking out again as suddenly as she'd reappeared. "It was really nice of you to come see Mom. It's been tough on her. She doesn't say much. But she's changed."
"She's bound to be." Evonne pressed the cool glass to her arm again and frowned. "You look wonderful. Tell me—" she started, at the same moment he'd started to ask her how many kids she had.
"Two. Carrie, thirteen, and Harlan Junior, eleven. Johnny, I want to ask you something."
He nodded, feeling the intimacy of his name on her lips.
"But not here. It's a little too much like when we were kids, you know? How did you put it? 'The rooms of our parents' houses should be wallpapered with ears.'"
He tried to keep his expression even, but the prospect of going somewhere with Evonne again was building in him like the first rush of good booze on an empty stomach. "Where?"
"Doesn't matter," she answered, but he suspected it did and suggested they drive over to the river where the railroad trestle crosses.
"I have to go get the kids and drop them off at the movie, but I could meet you there. In an hour?" She stood up and held out the glass. Her fingers were as cold as the slivers of ice that floated in the tea. After he had walked her past his mother—the air tinged with the smells of smoke and clean laundry—and put Evonne in her car, it was her cold fingers he was thinking of, how they would feel on such a hot day, clasped at the back of his neck or sliding down his chest.
He turned and walked back toward the house, giving his mother a relaxed smile meant to disguise the fact that part of him felt nineteen again. And part of him felt the apprehension that comes from knowing that getting any part of what he wants always has a stiff price.
"Gonna see her again?"
Along with his father's old shirts she'd taken to wearing, she'd also put on his directness. He reached up to help drape a sheet over the line, holding it there while she clipped the pins in place. "She had to take her kids somewhere. We may go have a cup of coffee or something."
Ducking under a row of flapping wash cloths, he started for the ladder that he'd left leaning against the side of the house. He studied the air, wary of any wasps that might be lingering.
"Just remember," she called over her shoulder, "I have to live here."
When Evonne pulled up behind him, she got right out and slipped into his car on the passenger's side. The aching familiarity of that move, of her presence in a car beside him, was exactly what he would have asked for if he'd been clear-headed enough to bargain with the gods.
He turned as far toward her as the bucket seat would allow and thought for the first time in years of his rebuilt Chevy convertible with its bench seat. "Have you been happy?"
"Off and on." She smiled wistfully and lowered her eyelids in that way she had that showed off her lashes. Then she gave a harsh laugh and said, "I like my kids."
She turned to face him, leaning back against the door. Her left leg was tucked under her so that the white skirt seemed to swell over her knees and pool where her thighs were spread. he thought of burying his face there, wondered whether her children had slipped out easily, or been wrenched from her, gasping and writhing.
They had talked of having children, in the hours between the intense sessions of fused groins and tongues and heavy breathing during which they'd swept each other to the brink over and over again, always finally to pull back. Her virginity, he'd decided, was to be their first gift to one another when they finally married and collapsed into one another totally and for all time. Their second gift was to have been a blond-haired, blue-eyed daughter, like his cousin's baby.
But he'd buried that fantasy child along with the small corpse he'd discovered in the first burned-out village they'd swept, covering it with as much of the dense brush as he'd had time to tear loose before the Huey had dropped back in for them. The world he'd discovered—had become part of—was no place for children. From then on, his daydreams had focused only on Evonne as he'd known her in bright places—sitting on the raft in the middle of Crystal Lake with one knee raised and her face tipped up to the sun, or lying on her back in sunlight filtered through the pin oaks near the old boat house on the river.
He reached over and smoothed the fabric draped across her knee. "You wanted to ask me something."
"It's not a question, really. I just wanted to know—" She dropped her hand over his so that he was grasping her knee. "Everything, I guess. Every summer when we'd come back to see my folks, I'd get out the new phone book and look for your name, wondering if you'd moved back. If you were still around. Still alive." She said the last part softly, staring at their hands. "I mean, I knew you got back from the war all right. Friends kept me up on the local news. But after you left here without letting anyone know where you were going," she looked up at him, "for me it was as if you'd disappeared from the face of the earth. It was so. . . I don't know. Empty.”
He drew his hand back and made a fist on his own knee. "When did this major interest in my whereabouts first develop?" The sharp stirring of anger so long buried that he seldom thought of it anymore made him light-headed. He'd felt the dizziness keenly and often during the first years back from overseas, but gradually the balance of life had taken hold and the sickening anger had receded enough that he could stop worrying whether and when it would strike. Looking out at the river, he told himself, "Not now, not here," but the black edges were starting to creep back in.
He looked over and saw in her expression that she was prepared for this meeting. "I never stopped loving you," she said. "I thought you'd know that."
He straightened himself in the seat and used his index finger to swing the keys that dangled from the ignition. "You had an interesting way of showing it."
"I just wanted more out of life than moving into a trailer or some cramped apartment and waiting around for you to get home from work so that we could go drink beer with Skip and Barbara and listen to Bo Diddley albums." She'd gotten worked up, the words coming faster and her voice getting louder until all at once she was through, and they just sat there with the car cupped around them and the river slipping past.
"I tried to write you about it," she started to explain, "but—"
"You didn't think I'd take it well?"
"The war got in the way." Again, one of Evonne's quick, pure truths pelted him in the chest like a small fist. Looking over, he saw that she was still watching him closely, and so he asked her, because there was too much else they could have said to each other, "So what have you got against Bo Diddley?"
She smiled uncertainly, unsure of the joke. "I was afraid he would never give way to anything else."
"Classical music, good jazz, whatever else there was to listen to that I might never even find out about if I didn't get away from here."
He turned toward her again. "So, you like classical music now?"
"Not very much." They both smiled at that, stingy grins to acknowledge that life is ironic.
"But once I got to college, it was like the whole world opened up, and I wanted to try it all out."
"And this guy you married, he was part of what you were trying out?"
She looked away for the first time. "That pretty well says it. I got pregnant. Second semester. And that, as they say, was that. I wanted to write you and explain, but your mom said not to. My mom too. They said I would only make things worse for you."
He tried to imagine that conversation, the three of them huddled in his mother's living room as they came to the decision that his mother would be the one to break the news, as soon as he was stateside again. If he got stateside again. How their slim shoulders must have sagged under the weight of all that.
"I got violent morning sickness and had to drop my classes. You know that old bit where the bride's father offers to pay the couple to elope? That's how it was, literally." He noticed that she was twisting the hem of her dress, and remembered that she'd always done that when upset or apprehensive. "Harlan—my husband—is a good man. A good father. Too hard-working, sometimes. That's why he stayed behind this time."
The anger that had flared in him had drained away as he conjured up pictures of Evonne on a college campus, wearing her hair in a braid and artsy outfits with black tights. Her arms would be loaded with books. It was a great picture, except that he wasn't anywhere in it. She'd probably guessed right. Even before the army, he hadn't had any burning ambitions, unless you counted working on cars and drag racing. The racing was another of the things that just never come back to him after he returned. Even sitting there with Evonne and the past crowding in on him, his memories of those days before any of them had clear notions of our own mortality remained vague.
Leaning back in the seat, he gripped the steering wheel and tried to remember the smells of the fuel and oil, the intense vibrations, the weight of the world pressed against him as he sped into it. But as quickly as he recalled them, the endless summer quarter-miles vanished into pin-points on the horizon.
"You should have been the first, Johnny."
He turned his head and stared at her a full minute before he was sure he'd understood.
"I've always known it," she went on. "I think I knew it before you left. Remember that night after your going-away party, when we drove out here alone? If you hadn't stopped me . . . ."
He looked hard, but there was none of the tease in her face or voice, only regret—and the amazing accusation that he'd somehow failed her fifteen years earlier by not having the foresight to know that that was the moment, that he should have made love to her then, in the sweet, thick river grass of young goodbyes.
"Jesus, Evonne! You're amazing." He could see that she didn't know how to take that, which was all right with him. It gave him an edge. He leaned toward her and hesitated, waiting until she began to curve toward him before he reached for her face with both hands and eased his mouth over hers. She moved slowly, bending beneath him like grass in the wind until he reached for the lever and dropped the passenger seat all the way down.
"Wait," she said, as she slipped onto her side, "come over here." He lifted his legs up over the gear shift and slipped onto the seat as she raised herself over him. She held his face as she kissed him, sweet, tentative kisses that grew more and more urgent. He opened his eyes to the cloud of red hair descending over him like a fiery blessing.
By the time he got to the picnic, which curved along the river just above the fork, the trees in the west were charcoal etchings against a waning strip of coral. He'd spent most of the afternoon drinking and playing pinball at Whiskey River, deliberating on whether or not to accept Evonne's invitation. He told her that she was naive to think they could be together in public and not raise eyebrows, but she had insisted, certain that they could carry it off. She was determined for them to be together again in whatever way they could. And he could think of little else.
She had been right about her family welcoming him with open arms. Having grown up around her sisters and most of her cousins made it easy. Their heady summer enthusiasm and goodwill flowed to him as to the lamb that's stumbled back into the fold. And even though he couldn't get Evonne alone, there was ample opportunity for the socially approved hand on her back or elbow, as well as the inadvertent bumps and secret, teasing gropes, to keep his nerve endings alive.
"This is so high school," she whispered while brushing off one of his assaults, her face pink with pleasure.
"Better," he told her, then chugged the rest of his beer and got up. All of it—the glow of familiar faces full of good spirit and the booze and Evonne's presence—encircled him brightly, like the aromatic leis of Hawaiian greetings and farewells. At long last, he felt as if he'd set foot on home soil. "Walk with me," he said, reaching to pull her up. "I need another beer."
"You'd better take it easy. As it is, I may have to drive you home."
"Aw," he pretended to pout. "Tha'd be a shame."
"You'd think so with both kids along." She hooked her arm through his, bracing herself to steady him as he wobbled slightly before regaining his balance.
They waved back at the shouts of greeting coming from the motor boat that sped by, but it was too dark to see clearly who was in it. Light from the street lamps formed bright hieroglyphics along the surface of the river. As he pointed to them, his arm grazed her breast, sending a flush of well-being through him. "There's a story in those lights. If you want to, you can read our futures there."
"Or there?" she pointed at the stars. Hugging his arm, she dropped her head against him like a cat brushing its whiskers back, and said, "I wish this could just go on and on."
"Why can't it?" He knew as soon as the words were out of his mouth that he had done something irrevocable, like pulling a grenade pin and dropping it into dense underbrush. "Evie?" He squeezed her arm where it was tucked under his.
Please, don't say anymore."
"Then what's this all about?"
"I don't know, exactly. I can't explain, but—" She looked up at him, her face guileless and perfect. "So much was left unfinished between us. I thought that if only I could see you again—"
The afternoon of drinking, combined with the beers he'd been pouring down while in the bosom of Evonne's extended family, had dulled his senses enough that he couldn't tell whether she pulled away before or after Harlan Junior's call to her to "Come see who's here!" He was looping a sparkler in tight figure-eights while turning on his heels until the punk went out and he hurried off toward the prolonged crackle of exploding firecrackers still strung together.
They walked in silence toward the tables that were lit with Coleman lanterns and anti-bug candles. Suddenly, she shortened her steps, her right arm flying up across his stomach the way a parent having to brake hard instinctively protects a child from being thrown into the dashboard. Walking on ahead of him, she greeted the man holding a fried drumstick by asking what happened, and agreeing that of course she was happy that he'd made it after all.
She hesitated, and then sat down with him at the table, Harlan Jr. rushing back at them with a plea for just one more piece of watermelon. John leaned against a tree and watched the scene vaguely, patiently—the couple talking, the kid spitting seeds against the trunk of a cottonwood. It was like one of those family shows on early television where nothing very much happened and it took the full thirty minutes.
It wasn't until Evonne's cousin Frank called over to offer John another beer that the group at the table took notice and Evonne rose halfway up.
"John. Come on over and meet my husband." Having had a little time to recoup, she managed all right with "We've known each other since . . ." and "graduated the same year . . ." and, most impressive, "He's been living elsewhere since he got out of the service; where is it you're living now, John?"
He studied Harlan Sr. with a detached air that could have been interpreted as rude by anyone bothering to notice. After they shook hands, John elaborately wiped the trace of chicken grease onto his jeans.
"North of here."
"Up around the lakes, then?" Harlan asked. "What brings you back?"
"Huh?" Harlan glanced over at him. Evonne's hand dropped over the welt on her arm.
"His father, "Evonne slipped in, "died this spring."
Her husband swallowed the meat he was chewing and said he was sorry to hear it, asking if John still had folks around.
John decided that this was a man used to small talk. Maybe it was required of him in his work, or maybe he just liked the sound of his own voice."Some. What about you?"
Harlan suspended his fork of potato salad and looked over, frowning. "We come back to see my wife's family once or twice a year. My people are in Illinois. What did Evonne say your name was?"
Again Evonne intervened, answering "John. John Kahrs."
Harlan nodded and closed his mouth around the potato salad while John sat across and just down from him, drinking the beer Frank had brought him and feigning interest in the small talk at the next table down.
Evonne busied herself with pressing tinfoil covers back down over the bowls of food, giving John guarded looks that he interpreted as an invitation to make himself scarce. He was about to polish off his beer and pack it in when Harlan thought to ask, "What branch of the service were you in?"
"Yeah? When did you get out?"
Evonne told Harlan Jr. to finish up and go join his cousins for the fireworks, but he continued to drag his rabbit-like front teeth along the rind, his eyes shifting from his father to John and back again.
"Sixty-nine." His tongue felt thick, and he noticed that his ears were
"You in Vietnam, then?"
He nodded, the two of them looking at each other for a moment before John asked, "How ‘bout you?"
Harlan stopped chewing and rearranged the food in his mouth so that he could answer. "I was in graduate school. But I made up my mind I wouldn't go, even if they drafted me."
"Why zat?" John asked. He'd heard all this before, usually in bars. It had been the anthem for all the returning Vets, the "How could you have been a part of it?" refrain.
"Because I could see what was happening. We didn't have any business being over there in the first place. It wasn't like World War II."
The black edges had moved in again, and John found comfort within their parameters, the boundaries clearly drawn. "Yeah? That's what my father said. Afterwards."
"Well your father was right. No offense meant, you understand." That last part was in response to Evonne's hand on Harlan's leg, a subtle move not lost on John, having been the recipient of several of those squeezes before his girl friend's husband showed up.
"Din't think we should be there, huh?" He said it casually, as if commenting on the food or weather.
"Din't like us goin' in where we din't belong?"
Harlan chewed more slowly, but kept at his dinner.
"Did not," John worked to enunciate, "like us bombing all those villages?
Napalming the countryside? Killing civilians who got caught in the crossfire?"
"John, don't!" Evonne whispered hoarsely. "Nobody's accusing you of anything."
He patted her hand as if to soothe her and held onto it, shaking his head. "I know that. We're just talkin' theoretically here, right, Harlan?"
"Not exactly. It wasn't just a theory. A lot of us didn't believe that what was going on was right."
"So you went to graduate school."
"That's where I happened to be." His sidelong glance aimed at John fell instead across John's hand clasped over Evonne's.
"To learn how to stop wars?"
Harlan snapped at his son to leave the melon be or he'd end up with a belly-ache. He waited until the boy had grudgingly tossed his rind into the trash can and loped away before he turned his full attention to John, by which time Evonne had slipped her hand free. "I was getting my master's degree in business administration."
"You don't seem to understan' what I'm askin' here." John looked over at Evonne and saw that she was desperate for him to let it go, but he knew that was only because she didn't understand.
"What I'm askin' is what did you do to stop me?" Into the surrounding silence he threw out suggestions, "Demonstrations? Sit-ins? I know, take over the R.O.T.C. building?" He raised his eyebrows expectantly, and then shook his head. "No? Tell me this. Did you write your fuckin' Congressman?"
"Hey, Mister!" Harlan barked, with the indignation of someone for whom things have finally gone too far, "Watch your mouth. We got kids here."
John stood up clumsily, his thighs thumping the underside of the table and causing it to list momentarily.
"'Cause that's my question to you and your kind. If you all thought it was such a bad idea, why in the fuck didn't you do something to stop it?" John's arm swung in a disjointed arc as he lobbed his beer bottle toward the trash can where it careened off the rim and spun across the next table where Frank and some people John didn't recognize were sitting.
"Sorry," he called, turning to leave, but before he was around the end of the table, Harlan's fist was knotted in the front of John's shirt, and he was dragging him away, admonitions from Evonne receding behind them.
Because they were matched in size, and because John didn't like the squeeze of Harlan's grip on his chest, they lurched toward the river like drinking buddies determined to hold each other up but dragging each other down. Harlan was grunting about how out of line John was, especially given the surroundings, and saying that he needed to sober up.
By the time they got to the river's edge, John had grabbed a mutual handful of Harlan's shirt, so that they went into the water together and stood there for a moment, taut as Sumo wrestlers. Then Harlan shifted his weight, and John drifted down onto the skin of the river as gently as the spidery tufts of cottonwood spores, until the water exploded around him.
John had no idea how many minutes might have passed before he lay gasping face-down on the grassy bank. He kept his eyes squeezed shut and rolled slowly onto his back.
"Let him pull himself together," John heard Harlan say in a voice genuine with reason, "and I'll see that someone gets him home in one piece."
Another explosion went off, and John opened his eyes to see the sky across the river lit with fireworks. He heard Evonne's voice nearby saying to breathe deeply, that everything would be all right, but she sounded as if she had been crying or was about to. He raised one arm and waited for her to throw herself down, collapsing over and into him—but there was only the warm night air sucking at his wet clothes.
More sparklers burst overhead, throwing glitter into Evonne's hair as she hovered over him just out of reach, her face all shadows and memories. Then she was gone, and he could see a fireball suspended high above, a floating incinerator that blew out in all directions—like the ribs of a fiery umbrella—before releasing its golden cargo. He lay there pressed flat against the river bank, his fingers frantic in the long grass for some sign from his father, as the swarm of glowing insects came raining down.