Cabin Fever (Ch 4)
It’s only ten o’clock and I’m getting BO already, I thought. Damn Ivory soap. Oh well. Who cares. Have another beer. Kick out the jambs.
The music was too loud for talk. Robin was in drumland with Jai Johnny and les frères, and Charlie was sitting on the floor drinking, swirling the ice cubes in his whiskey and staring into the glass. I took a cigarette from the almost-empty box at his feet and went out onto the deck where Juli was sitting on the railing looking up at the stars. “Nice tonight, huh?”
“Really!” she said. “Really nice!”
“I spent a lot of time lying on that big rock up the creek – you know, the huge, flat one after the pool? – just lying out there watching meteors. It was far out.”
“Really? I’ve never seen any meteors up here. So many trees I guess, you can’t see much sky.”
“Yeah, I saw quite a few up there on the mountain – five one night. That was a good spot, clear.” I looked up at the few stars that penetrated the summer haze and lit the cigarette. “Did your mama ask about the trestle thing?”
“No! I don’t think she really heard us. But I don’t think she’d have been all that upset if she did. That was a long time ago.” Juli laughed. “We sure were wild and crazy back then!”
I looked at her for a moment, then looked away. “Yeah, we were. Some of us still are – crazy at least.” I looked up at the sky, ringed with the silhouettes of the treetops. Not like the desert sky. Out in Arizona it feels like the stars are sucking you up, like your soul could just go flying off out into space if you look up too long. These are nice, safe stars. Contained.
“What are you gonna do when the tomatoes are done, John?” Juli asked, suddenly quiet, unusually serious.
I blinked. “I don’t know…. I’m not going back to Florida. I talked to Ramona the other night; she wants me to come back. If she’d ever once asked me to stay, I probably wouldn’t have left, but I’m damned sure not going back.” Juli just shook her head. I thought about all the other places and people I couldn’t or wouldn’t go back to – the distinctions were blurred. “I just can’t take that Disney crap anyway, you know. It’s just too much. Makes me feel unreal. A year ago I was looking down at the jungle watching napalm flash around under the canopy and now… “ I stopped, unwilling to pursue the thought out, seeing Mickey and Goofy on the drying drum, F-4s on a bomb run. Nobody wants to hear this downer stuff. Too serious.
The stars blinked slowly in the black silence.
“Do you think I should go back?” I asked her.
“What about that letter from CJ? Didn’t she ask you to come out there?”
“Yeah, I’d like to see her, but I don’t know about that either. I just keep screwing things up… I haven’t talked to her. Seems like a long time ago. I just don’t know about this whole trip… I feel… really crazy.”
“You always feel crazy, John.” She said it kindly, but I knew she meant it.
“Yeah. I guess. I just feel like I’m stuck in this trip. We can’t stay here much longer, we don’t have any money… but I can’t go home either, just abandon Charlie. He can’t go back to Florida or they’ll put him in jail. Shit, we made all these plans…”
“He’s not your responsibility!” Juli was warming to the subject. “If you don’t want to go, just tell him.”
“I don’t know, I can’t. It’s like a commitment, to a brother or something. I said I’d go.”
“John! That’s just old hippie crap. This is 1973, you’ve got to get over that stuff. You just met the guy, you don’t have any commitment to him!”
“You’re right, I know. But… there’s this thing, you know, he was in the war, too. It’s a connection. It’s hard to explain.” Juli was shaking her head, looking skeptical. “I know it doesn’t make any sense, but I feel it, I feel a commitment.” It was hard to admit to Juli that I knew I needed him, too. That I needed this trip, that I couldn’t face going back to… well, going back to anything. That sounded crazier than I wanted her to hear. “I mean, I do want to go to Vancouver or somewhere, even if it’s too late. I’m just sick of things here. I want to go somewhere. It’s just that it’s getting a little weird.”
“Yeah, Charlie seems a little – funny sometimes.” She laughed nervously. “Y’all getting along okay?”
“I guess. I just don’t know what to do. I need a sign from God or something! Not that I believe in signs, or God. But a sign would be nice!” I was trying to redeem the conversation with humor. “Come on God, gimme a sign!” I flung my arm at the sky in mock supplication, and we laughed. Then, just beyond my outstretched fingers, a bright meteor streaked across the sky.
We looked at each other, eyes wide, mouths open, speechless, not knowing whether to laugh or scream. Then Juli grabbed my shoulders and screamed and we started jumping up and down like two little kids. “Oh my God! Can you believe it!” She was laughing now, eyes still very wide. “A sign! A real sign! Oh – my – God!”
“Holy shit!” I said. “A sign. I don’t even believe in signs.”
“Well, you sure got one!”
I looked a Juli, trying to hide the dark fear that was welling up in me. I hugged her quickly. “Let’s go back in. This is too fuckin’ much for me! I need another beer.”
Well, this hasn’t helped much, I thought as I downed the last of another beer. Now I’m not just confused and scared, I’m half drunk too. Brilliant! I walked out onto the deck again and flung the bottle up and away as far as I could throw it. I heard the crash as it smashed in the ditch across the road. Shit, why do I always want to break glass when I get a little drunk. Keep me away from Miss Helen’s windows! She would not understand.
I thought about Juli. Why do I get this peculiar stab of pain in my chest when she’s around? Not just that old crush thing. That’s pretty much over. Just brings back such memories, scenes of that other world I lived in. Warm world of friends and family, all gathered around the piano listening to her play Chopin, or singing folk songs together, walking in the fall leaves, talking about what we were all gonna do after college. A world of bright days, luminous with possibility. That world is gone, I thought. The memories were a weight, like guilt.
Just then, Juli came out onto the deck. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m cool. Just thinking about that damn… sign.”
“So what do you think? Was it a sign?”
“Hell, I don’t know. I don’t believe in signs. But I guess it means something. Maybe it means I have to keep going, make this trip.”
“Sounds like a good excuse to me,” Juli said flatly.
“What do you mean by that?”
“Why do you want to go to Canada now?”
“I’m just sick of the war, sick of this country.”
“The war is over, John! Or didn’t you hear? It’s over. Forget it!”
“That’s what Charlie says. But I can’t. It’s too hard to forget it.
“Maybe you just feel guilty that you didn’t go, back then, so now you’re trying to make up for it.”
“Juli, please! Don’t do this! I can’t take it from you.”
“Sorry, John. I’m not trying to give you a hard time. I just hate to see you do something that seems so crazy, so… I don’t know. Foolish.”
“Maybe you’re right,” I said, trying to think clearly. “I don’t know. All I know is, I’ve got to get away from everything that reminds me of it, get away from everybody and try to straighten this out on my own. Try to straighten out my head.”
Juli was silent for a moment. Then she looked at me softly and said, “I just hope you live through the trip, John. There are a lot of people who love you.”
“Thanks, Juli.” I felt ashamed and I didn’t know what else to say. I just looked at her.
“You just need to stop running, John.” She turned abruptly and went back into the house. I would have said yeah, but I need to at least get Charlie to Lexington, to his buddy. But that would have sounded even lamer than I already sounded. Besides, she was done with this conversation, probably with me.
I tried to reflect on what she had said. All I could think about was those bright scenes from the past, life before the war. I’m not running, I told myself bitterly. There’s just nothing left here for me to do. Nothing I want to do anyway. A sick feeling began to rise in my stomach, that same feeling I got anytime I started thinking too much about the past – or the future. I looked up at the smug stars. A sign. What the hell is that worth? I guess since I can’t go back anyway I might as well have a sign that tells me to keep going.
Maybe Juli’s right. Maybe I’m just crazy, just guilt-tripping myself. Who knows? Who cares? I remembered a line from a half-assed song I’d made up, or stolen: “Don’t know where I’m goin/ Guess I never will/ Gotta keep on movin/ Find myself a liquor still.”
I don’t know what to think about all that, but Charlie is really bothering me. What is it? I thought about what I’d said to Juli about sharing this connection around the war we were both in. What was weird was, we never talked about it. Never. Some connection. I guess I am crazy.
I went back into the house and found Juli and Robin dancing, so I went on into the kitchen and found another beer. Leaning back against the refrigerator drinking it, shuddering slightly at the bitterness, I realized that the depression that had been hovering up above me was beginning to settle on me in earnest now. Vaguely I wondered where Charlie was, but didn’t pursue the idea. He’s the last person I want to talk to right now.
But by the time the beer was gone and I’d eaten half the chips on the kitchen table, I was starting to worry about him. Not like him to leave a party. When Robin came into the kitchen, I asked him.
“Oh, he left a while ago. I think he just went over to the cabin. He was drinkin’ pretty hard.” Robin seemed unconcerned.
“Yeah, okay. Thanks. I’m going over to check on him. I’ll be back in a minute.” I headed out the door, glanced up at the stars and looked back down quickly. Fuck that, I thought. Goddamn stars, anyway. I noticed the cabin was dark and wondered if Charlie had wandered off and got lost. I know he hasn’t gone to bed before midnight when there’s whiskey to drink, I thought bitterly.
Mystified, I looked around the dark screen porch carefully, seeing no one. Opening the cabin door, I felt the familiar icy finger again. Only the white bulk of the refrigerator by the door was visible in the dark room. Pausing for my eyes to adjust, I called out softly, “Charlie?”
Just as I stepped to move into the room, a small figure pounced from the shadows beside the refrigerator, a hand grabbed my shirt roughly, and I felt the ice of sharp steel press against my throat. Frozen, I began to see in the dim light. Slowly I realized I was looking into the grossly distorted features of a familiar face, swimming just below the handle of a large knife.
“Charlie?” I said again, this time incredulous. “Hey man, what the fuck are you doing? Knock it off, man. This is not funny.”
The face distorted even more, eyes shadowed, mouth twisted, throat emitting a low growl. The knife pressed harder into my throat, the grip twisting tighter in my shirt, pulling me harder into the knife. For a moment, I felt strangely unreal, dull, as if this were all happening to someone else. I blinked in confusion, swallowed, and fear began to swell in my throat. Any sideways movement and the knife would draw blood.
“Charlie! What’s going on?” I choked on an attempt at laughter. “What are you doing? Hey, man, it’s me!” I could see now his eyes were wild, terrified, and now I knew, this was real, this was not a joke, this was not fooling around. Charlie was scared and he didn’t recognize me. He wasn’t responding, wasn’t relaxing the terrible pressure of that sharp steel. I felt panic grip my chest.
“Charlie! Man, it’s going to be okay! Charlie, it’s me, John, I’m here. It’s gonna be okay.” I was desperate now, pleading, fighting the panic. I fixed my gaze on his eyes, probing for the person within the tortured face in front of me, searching for some way to get through. “Charlie, hey, what’s going on man? You left with the Players! I just need a smoke! You got a smoke, man?” For a long moment there was only the harsh sound of their breathing, and Charlie’s eyes widened.
Then, suddenly, he ripped the knife away, hurled it full force into the floor and collapsed with a wrenching cry. I staggered against the refrigerator, legs suddenly gone rubbery, and stared down at the big survival knife still vibrating in the floor, and at Charlie crumpled beside it, sobbing. Somewhere far away, an owl called.
I stood, clinging to the refrigerator, unable to move or comprehend, looking at the heaving figure on the floor for what seemed like a long time. Suddenly, Charlie’s head came up and he was alert, listening, looking from one window to the other. Catlike, he hopped to his feet and grabbed my shirt again, hissing, “Get down, they’re coming!”
In shock, I had no mind to argue, and I “got down,” crouching with him, my mind racing. He wrenched the knife out of the pine floor and began crawling to the far window, half-dragging me along and whispering, “Quiet!” with commanding force whenever I ventured to ask what was happening. When we got to the window, Charlie slowly pulled himself up, peering over the sill in the direction of the bright windows of the house thirty yards away.
“They’re out there, I hear them,” he whispered, and ignored my “Who?” He turned and sagged against the wall, head just under the sill, eyes closed, breathing hard, terror still drawing his features. As I watched in astonishment, his eyes snapped open, his head dropped, and he brought his left hand up close to his cheek as if he cradled a phone. Then he began speaking, barking whispered commands into the non-existent device: “God-dammit Davis! Get me some support in here quick! … position compromised… we’re trapped! Bad guys everywhere! Call the chopper! Get me out of here! God-dammit Davis, don’t you leave my ass here! Get McDaniel! Get over here!”
He rolled over, still whispering into the phantom radio, and raised up cautiously to look out the window again. I involuntarily followed his gaze out the window, shaking my head to clear the haze of alcohol and fear. This is crazy, I thought, and I’m starting to get sucked into it. Then I saw the large figure moving down the path. Dully I remembered the sound of the screen door slamming, the sound that had drawn Charlie’s attention to the outside again. In horror, I realized what was happening, and looking out again, saw it was Robin.
I felt momentarily relieved, but as Charlie put down the imaginary radio and picked up the all-too-real knife again, I panicked for real. What to do? Robin would be in the door in seconds, and Charlie was slipping across the floor toward him, crouching again behind the refrigerator. Fear froze me, stopped time. I tried to comprehend what was happening. I remembered the Orlando orange grove, sitting on the steps eating oranges; I saw a meteor in the sky, the creek where we camped. God, I need a cigarette!
Then I remembered the knife at my throat, heard the porch door open and Robin’s footsteps. A horrible scene flashed in front of my eyes, but my legs would not respond. I heard the doorknob turn. I leaped to the window that looked out on the porch and shouted, “Robin, look out!”
As Robin opened the door, Charlie again leaped out with the knife, but Robin, forewarned, grabbed the knife-wielding arm in mid-strike, stopping Charlie cold with his heavy shoulder. He calmly removed the knife with his other hand and dropped it on top of the refrigerator. Towering over Charlie, he pulled him around in front of him, grabbed both shoulders, and calmly asked, “What the hell is going on here? What’s the matter with you, man?”
I finally made it off the floor and come over to stand behind Charlie. “He thinks there’s VC outside or something, Robin! It’s crazy! I don’t know what’s going on, I can’t get him to talk to me.” The words tumbled out in a rush of relief. Charlie was crying again, shaking his head violently and whimpering. Saying “Don’t! Please don’t!” over and over.
Robin and I looked at each other and back at Charlie, not knowing what to say. I found a lamp and turned it on, and Robin began to shake Charlie, saying, “Hey, man, wake up! It’s Robin! It’s okay, man, shake it off!”
Charlie only wailed louder, pleading. “Don’t hurt me! I surrender! I’ll talk! Please! Don’t hurt me!” His eyes were closed and he covered his head with his free arm.
“Hey, man, nobody’s gonna hurt you! It’s okay! It’s Robin!” Robin looked at me in dismay. “This ever happened before, man?”
“Nah!” I said, aghast, shaking my head insistently. “I don’t know what the hell’s going on with him! Seems like he thinks he’s back in Laos or something.” Charlie just continued to shake his head, moaning softly, incomprehensible phrases mingled with the misery.
“Go back over to the house and get Juli, man,” Robin said quietly.
Suddenly Charlie’s eyes opened and his head came up. “Don’t go out there! They’ll kill you! Get down!” He tried to drag Robin to the floor now, but Robin wrapped him in a bear hug and began murmuring to him.
“It’s okay, Charlie, nobody’s gonna hurt anybody. It’s okay. We’ll protect you.” He motioned with his head for me to go. “Go ahead, I’ll be okay.”
“You sure? This is really scary.”
“No problem!” Robin smiled. “Maybe if we all get together we can bring him back.”
I wasn’t so sure of this, but I ran out the door and across to the house, trying not to think about how crazy it all was, trying not to think about the stars, trying to focus on what to do next. All I could think of was splotchy oranges. Breathless, I arrived at the house and began trying to explain to Juli. I didn’t want to mention the knife. “Charlie’s real drunk. He’s freaking out and doesn’t know where he is. Robin’s holding him and he said to get you to come help.”
“What!” Juli exclaimed. “Is Rob okay?”
“He’s fine, let’s just get back over there, okay? He may need some help.”
I headed back out to the cabin and Juli followed, half laughing, half worried. Robin was still holding Charlie when we got back. “Rob! Are you okay!” Juli’s face was flushed, her voice animated with concern.
“Sure,” Robin said quietly. “I’m just trying to get him to remember who I am.” Charlie’s eyes were closed again, and he seemed to have retreated into some inner world, whispering to himself and crying softly. “Let’s take him into the front bedroom,” Robin said, scooping Charlie up effortlessly and walking out onto the porch. Juli opened the door that led into a bedroom, the one I had helped her father line with pine years ago when we all stayed in the cabin, before they had built the A-frame.
Robin laid Charlie down on the double bed like a child, and the three of us gathered around him wordlessly. Charlie seemed calmer, but when he opened his eyes and saw us all standing around looking down at him, he covered his face with his hands and began babbling in a language none of them recognized. I looked at Robin. “What now, brother? He’s really lost it.” As I listened to the babble, I began to catch a few syllables. “Sounds like Russian,” I ventured. “Some of the RO’s on the planes I flew – the guys that listened on the radio – they knew Russian. Part of their training.”
I stared at Charlie. “He was in Army intelligence” I said slowly. “Doing recon in Laos.” I lowered my voice, turning my back to Charlie. “He was on a six-man jump team, parachuting in at night, gettin’ out fast when the choppers came back for them. Scary stuff, you know, sneaking around spying on the bad guys, probably turning in troop locations and shit.”
Nobody said anything for a long time. Charlie opened his eyes and looked at us, then quickly shut his eyes. “I’ll talk, what do you want to know?” he said, trembling. Then he was crying again and babbling in some other language. Robin just stared, shaking his head, and tears formed in his eyes.
“What did they do to him, my God!” he asked vehemently. “The bastards!”
“ Probably saw lots of his buddies get killed.” I said. “I think some bad shit went down, too, somebody got left behind or something. Probably their worst nightmare was getting captured. They told us the VC or whoever in Laos didn’t take prisoners – too far to haul them.”
Robin dropped his chin to his chest, took a deep breath, shook his head one time, and looked up at us. “Maybe we can just love him back to us,” he said intently. The big man reached down and wrapped his arms around Charlie, sitting him up and sitting beside him on the bed. “You guys help me. Let’s just keep telling him we love him and hugging him and maybe he’ll remember us, come back.”
I was dubious. More ‘old hippie stuff,’ as Juli had accused me of earlier. But Robin’s intensity and sincerity were convincing. Maybe it would work. We gotta do something. I sat down on the bed and started talking. Juli looked at us and gave a little laugh, then joined in. She loved Robin, so she didn’t argue.
After several minutes of this, I stood up, disillusioned. “This is crazy. He’s too drunk to know what the hell’s going on anyway.” Juli looked desolate. “He’s just out of it!” I continued. “It’s gonna take more than love to fix his problems.” I went out onto the porch, and Juli followed. We sat down, watching through the door as Robin continued holding and talking to Charlie, who was still alternately crying and babbling incoherently. Sounds Asian now, maybe Chinese, I thought. I had a sudden craving for mandarin oranges.
Robin looked up after a few minutes, saw us watching him, and gently laid Charlie down on the bed. He covered him with a blanket and stood looking down on him. Charlie’s voice was quieter now, calmer, though the content seemed the same. Robin shook his head, turned out the light and joined us on the porch. We sat in silence for long minutes, listening to the tortured murmuring coming from the bedroom.
“Bastards!” Robin broke the silence, heaved himself to his feet and went out, driving the screen door open with a violent shove. The door slapped against the wall, straining it’s spring, then slammed loudly. At the sound, Charlie curled up into a ball, covering his head with the blanket. Juli got up and followed Robin out, slipping through the door quietly. I stretched out on the old couch, watching Charlie, now still and silent on the bed. My thoughts were nearly random now, jumping from the unreality of the evening’s events to thoughts of Juli in past years, from Mr. Ashley and his pride in the pine-lined bedroom, to desultory memories of the war I’d seen from the air – the same war Charlie had walked through.
The war that still went on in our heads, that had left me a desperate wanderer; the war that had left this scrambled mass of pain lying on the bed.
I tried to remember if I was supposed to go to the packing plant tomorrow. What day was tomorrow, anyway? We’ve got to get to Kentucky soon. We’ve got to get moving.
I looked up at the dark ceiling, unable to sleep, thankful I could not see the cold stars.