Use caution when reading between the lines
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An Incident at the Lost Cause Bar & Grill
He'd been in a few times before, but always wanted just two beers; hold the conversation. I obliged. I'm not one of those mixologists who has to solve everybody's problems, not even everybody who leans on my bar on a dead Wednesday midnight. But after about an hour when he ordered an unprecedented third beer, he looked like he needed to talk. And, like I said, it was dead.
He sat at the back of the bar by the Burroughs' adding machine – an ideal place for a private conversation since the raccoons had taken the night off. "John," he started out as if we'd shared intimate discussions for years, "I got a carton of memories today. Now I don't know what to do with them."
I polished a clean glass and nodded profoundly (got that out of Bartending 101). Inevitably, he continued, "Got a box of my ex-wife's papers. She died last month and I guess her friends didn't know what else to do with them. Probably should have tossed them straight away, but didn't. Started reading them and couldn't stop. But I can't make myself read this last one. Not sure what to do."
Now, an almost-question like that just begs for a little advice, no matter how ambiguous, and your amateur always jumps right in. That's what distinguishes a pro, the ability to outwait the sucker opening. Simply continue the profound nod – I appreciate how complex your problem is and certainly wouldn't presume to offer a suggestion without hearing the entire situation. No matter how long the patient waits, you wait longer.
I didn't have to wait long. Ted gave me only the briefest chance to reveal if I had more interest in talking than listening, then satisfied of the latter, continued, "Guess I never told you about Janette, my first wife." Hell, he'd never even told me his own name: I'd only heard him answer his phone 'this is Ted' once, but when tips provide the niceties of life, you remember names. He continued, "We were high school sweethearts, got married right after graduation. Didn't have to either: she wasn't pregnant. We never did have any kids. Way it turned out, that was probably for the best. We had seven beautiful months together, then I got drafted. One of the last before Kennedy stopped taking married men. My luck's run like that ever since.
"Anyway, after boot camp I ended up in Nam, another snot-nosed grunt raring to save the world from the dirty commies. Kenny and I arrived together, the only Southerners in our unit. By the third day I thought he was my best friend. By the fifth, he was. Time runs a little different in a war zone, faster and slower all at once: a month outlasts a year, but some weeks zip by in less than a second. What I mean is, within a week I knew Kenny better than guys I'd gone twelve years to school with, better than my folks, better than anybody – except Janette. So I thought.
"We ate together and slept together, and slithered through the mud like worms together, and got shot at and shot back together for several lifetimes, nearly a year. We worked with one group of strange small people to kill another group of strange small people, and together refused to realize that the only difference between these two groups was which direction they faced when they worshiped their leaders. We also lied to each other about how much crueler and more evil the bad group was than our good group, and totally ignored what some of our buddies did, or justified it by what had happened to other buddies.
"Kenny and I stuck together. We had problems with the other guys once in a while, 'cause a lot of them figured Kenny was gay – ain't that a laugh? Gay! I've got to admit, I sort of did too. Not sure why. Only gay guy I knew well was the brother of a friend of mine growing up. Somehow, Kenny reminded me of that guy in a way I never could put my finger on. But as long as he didn't make a move on me, so what?" Ted shrugged, "And he never did. Only time he ever put his hand on my butt was to push it down about a hundredth of a second before a machine gun stitched across where it had been stuck up from the back of a jeep. At the time I kind of wondered if he got a thrill: if so, I figured he was damn well welcome to it! In light of what came later, this all seems like a bad joke.
"Kenny had a flamboyant streak, maybe just to spite the wiseguys. He always wore a tee shirt with a big pink panther on it, you know, like in the movie? Da-dant... da-dant... da-dant, da-dant, da-dant? When it got too grubby even for Nam, he paid some girl in town to make about a dozen copies out of silk, and finally got me to wear one, too. We had good luck on a couple of tough missions and picked up a local rep. After that, the Pink Panthers got a little respect and the guys left us alone, so we played it up. Scored us a lot of free drinks. A couple of times we admitted another guy to the club, gave him a tee shirt and all. But after the second one stepped on a land mine, we decided to keep it to ourselves.
"Anyway, when we'd been in country nearly our whole tour, Kenny's old man died. Kenny hadn't seen him since he ran off with a neighbor's wife when Kenny was five, but he still got leave for the funeral. As he said, 'Only thing that Bastard ever did for me was croak when I needed a break, and be damned if I'm gonna pass up the chance to be first in line to piss on his grave.' Knowing Kenny, he probably did exactly that.
"His dad's funeral was only a hundred miles from my home town, so he stopped by to visit Janette and bring her a few letters. When he got back, he gave me a couple she'd written but laughed about reneging on his promise to give me a big hug and kiss for her – said he wouldn't do that, even for Janette. I didn't feel cheated.
"We counted the days till our tour was up, both getting antsy: being a short-timer seemed pretty close to a death sentence. We'd known a couple of dozen guys got it in their last week or two, mostly because some of the officers picked them for the most dangerous missions, figuring there wasn't much to lose with guys on their way home anyway.
"Kenny got kind of distant. I could tell there was something else on his mind, but he just said we'd have to talk after my birthday party. My birthday wasn't till over a month later, but we'd planned to celebrate early with a blowout in Saigon just before shipping home. Celebrating things early was common – better chance you'd live to celebrate at all.
"Week before we were out, we took what should have been a cake walk through a valley that had been secure for days. Our lieutenant was one of the good guys: if you made it that close, he'd give you a break the last two weeks. But nothing's certain in war. We all dove for cover beside a huge fallen tree when the first shell screamed in. We never heard the second one.
"I came to in the field hospital next day, broken but fixable. One of the guys with us went home missing more pieces than you could count and the other one, untouched, hadn't even been brought to the hospital. I asked about Kenny, and they showed me a small bag with his tag and what little else they recovered. The shell dropped right on top of him. Don't know what the hell they put in the coffin they sent home, but from what his clothes looked like, there couldn't have been ten pounds of Kenny left.
"One thing that did survive in his pocket was a crumpled letter, all blood-soaked except for the very bottom where it had been folded over. And in his kit I found a brand new wallet."
Ted hauled out an ancient leather billfold and offered it to me, "See this?" At first I thought he wanted me to look at something in it, then I realized he meant the billfold itself. Though old and worn, the timeless craftsmanship survived, especially in the faded but exquisite details of the intricately tooled rendition of a coon hound on what must have been the finest leather I'd ever held, making it still a work of art. I admired it a minute longer, then handed it back with a questioning look – too early yet for words.
"Janette made that for me for graduation. Her dad owned a hobby store and she gave classes in handicrafts. She excelled at all of them, but her real forte was leatherwork. That's my dog Buck, before he got run over." He gazed at the image a while longer, then returned it to his pocket and continued his story, "Kenny's wallet was leather, too, with a Pink Panther engraved in finer detail than what you just saw, if you can believe it." I couldn't, but just nodded, and he went on, "Only thing in it was one photo – cut down Polaroid of a grinning, half-embarrassed girl in a bikini. And about that letter: all that remained legible was about an inch at the bottom. Still can remember every word: 'I hope you've talked to him. If you haven't, please do soon, Kenny. Don't worry, I know he'll understand and your friendship will survive.' Just in case I hadn't recognized the leatherwork or the photo, it was signed, 'Love, Janette'."
It probably was time for a comment, but I didn't know what to say. Fortunately, Manny at the other end of the bar tapped his glass for a refill then and gave me a respite.
When I came back, bringing Ted one on the house, he sighed and started up again, "Janette flew over for my leave and at times it was almost like nothing had happened. Almost. We didn't talk about Kenny much: too painful. She couldn't understand why I'd re-upped, and I couldn't explain. Maybe only wistful thinking, but somehow I just know that if Kenny had lived, it would have worked out between her and me. I still loved her and she still loved me. But we couldn't reach each other around the ghost that stood between us.
"I wrote less and less that second year. She wrote regularly, but my reserve soon infected her and her letters eventually sounded like they came from a sister. When I got out, we tried, we really did, both of us, but it was broken beyond fixing. I took a job in another city, said I'd send for her. She knew I wouldn't, and I knew she wouldn't come if I did. We got divorced mostly by mail.
"I married twice more, both times to women who looked like Janette but weren't, before I wised up and settled for being single. She never did marry again. Guess that's why they sent me her stuff."
He pulled a crumpled piece of flimsy paper from his pocket and smoothed it out, face down on the bar. "She used carbon paper to make a copy of every letter she sent me, 'cause she knew a lot of mail got lost over there and that way we could go over them when we got together. I read them all again today. God! it took me back. Then I saw this one. Starts off, 'Dear Kenny,' and I couldn't get past that. Glanced at the bottom: it's copy of the one in his pocket, but I just can't make myself read it and I can't throw it away." He sat there silently a few seconds longer, then drank up and, saying, "That beer's talking to me; gotta hit the head," flipped the letter face up and walked back past the framed 'Dewey Wins' headline to the men's room.
I looked at the letter for a while, undecided, then picked it up. Hell, he'd practically asked me! It wasn't long and the handwriting had only been smudged a little, so after a minute or so I laid it back on the bar, thinking of all the misery that had followed it.
Ted came back then. He refused my offer of another free beer and, with a resolute look on his face, picked up the letter without looking at it. He asked me for a match and lit it, then touched it to the bottom of the flimsy paper. It flared up suddenly, catching him by surprise, and he dropped it into the large pretzel bowl I quickly shoved over, shaking his singed fingers. As the ashes crisped and curled, he watched them sadly.
Finally, he raised his eyes and caught mine. He didn't ask anything out loud, just lifted one eyebrow, like Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy do and it pisses me off that I can't no matter how hard I try.
"Pretty much what you figured," I replied, looking past him at the giant slide rule on the side wall, "Said she was glad they hadn't done anything to be ashamed of," from the corner of my eye I saw his face ease a bit, "and she thought their attraction was only infatuation that came mainly from the long separation and him being so close to you. All three of you needed to talk things over." I stopped, then added, "I'd bet you're right: if he'd lived, you probably could have worked it all out." He lowered his head and nodded sad agreement. After only a few more seconds, he got up and walked out with a brief wave. Some things are so intensely personal it's hard to be around anybody who knows and I didn't expect to see him again. I haven't.
Except for customers' names and faces and drinks I don't have a great memory, but to this day, after only reading it once, I can still remember that letter word-for-word. Always wondered since, so you tell me, Buddy: did I do wrong?
I hope you got back safely and remembered to give my love to Ted.
No, you don't have to kiss him – but a hug wouldn't hurt! I am so
grateful you stopped by and proved you were real. From Ted's letters
I'd begun to believe the other Pink Panther was only a figment of
jungle fever. However, you are every bit the wonderful person Ted
claims and I am very thankful he has someone like you to be his friend
during this terrible time. I know we'll all stay good friends always and
see each other often when you both return.
Remember to save his new wallet for his "birthday" party. And
don't you dare invite any of those sexy Vietnamese girls like you
threatened! He'll be home for his real birthday and I'll give him a
better present then, but until then the photo in the wallet will have to
do. Don't you peek at that picture – oops, I forgot. Well, don't peek
anyway. Now that I've met all the Pink Panthers, I'll make you a
wallet, too; so you will have to come see us when you get back,
because I won't send it to you!
Regarding the personal secret you shared with me, I'm glad you
trusted me enough to tell me. I promise I'll keep that trust, but please
make it easy on me and tell Ted yourself. I don't know how I could
manage to keep anything from him – I never have tried and I don't
want to start. I know him and it won't make any difference; it doesn't
change who you are.
I hope you've talked to him by now, Kenny. If you haven't, please do
soon. Don't worry, I know he'll understand and your friendship will survive.