Thankfulness Died in Vietnam
Dirk Graham didn’t have an iota of anything to be thankful for; it just wasn’t in him anymore. Two tours in Vietnam and two of his best friends had been killed, and a third had been listed as an MIA. Pete Blackwell had stepped on a land mine, Carl Winter’s parachute failed, and Steven Archer – the unknown made him the hardest kind of loss. While the four of them had been partners in crime forever, doing the stupid thing that kids do on the way to growing up, Steven and he had been the closest. They shared secrets; the kind you couldn’t tell anyone. They were closer than brothers.
When they were ten, the two of them had tried shoplifting and wound up in side-by-side jail cells overnight because their parents had thought it a good lesson for them. They were scared shitless because they thought that they were in for the long haul. That was the end of them ever taking anything that they didn’t pay for.
When Dirk was twelve, Pete and Carl joined he and Steven and they had all run away together. They got lost on the way to Tombstone, Arizona. They had wanted to see where the wild west gunfights had happened. When they got tired and hungry, they found a payphone, and Steven’s dad had come and picked them up. They had all sweated gunslinger bullets as they’d sat quietly in the backseat of the car, not knowing what their punishment was going to be. Pete and Carl were dropped off at home first, and then luckily, Steven’s dad covered for him, or Dirk knew his dad would have beaten him lifeless.
There were numerous times that Dirk had crawled out his bedroom window to go and spend the night at Steven’s because his dad had been in another one of his rages. After his mother died in a car accident, his dad had crawled into a bottle, and a mean drunk was born.
Steven even knew about the uncle that Dirk had to avoid because one time of being molested by him, was one time too many. Dirk would have died a million times if anyone found out, but he knew all secrets between them were safe. It worked both ways. Dirk knew that Steven’s mother had a “boyfriend” whenever his dad had gone out of town on business because Steven had cried in his arms about it. It’s terrifying when you think your parents are falling apart.
It hurt when Carl and Pete had been lost, but losing Steven had sucked the life out of Dirk. The unknowns weighed heavy. Most of the time he hoped Steven was dead because the idea of him being a POW was too painful. The nightmares were going to last forever.
Marianne, the girl he’d left back home, didn’t wait. She’d sent him the “Dear John” letter at the worst possible time, right after Pete had been blown to pieces. The rage that had filled Dirk turned him into a careless soldier. He really shouldn’t have gotten out of Nam alive. The truth of it was, guilt was eating him alive for surviving.
When he thought he’d found the one who could erase his heartaches, she’d walked away when she’d learned that Agent Orange had rendered him sterile. She wanted kids more than she’d wanted him. Bitterness instead of blood ran through his veins.
Dirk took over his father’s business, Graham’s Construction, but in small towns, everyone knows your business, and many wouldn’t do business with the “baby-killer” soldier from Vietnam. When he got tired of fighting the issue, he sold the company and took the money, and built a house in the hills where he could live off of the grid. He slammed the door, let the mail pile up on the porch, and took the phone off of the hook. He let the years roll past without his participation.
There wasn’t a night without wartime flashbacks. Sometimes it was the explosion of that hateful mine that woke him, and other times it was the whirr of the helicopter blades that caused the cold sweat. The worst was the million scenarios his brain conjured up where Steven was being tortured in some POW camp. Dirk got thinner and he didn’t have a care left for anything.
One morning after he’d gone to the yard and pumped himself a shower from the rain barrel, he heard someone calling his name. At first, he thought that he’d imagined it because only a fool would come all the way out here when they wouldn’t be welcome, but when the pounding on his door didn’t stop, he wrapped a towel around his waist and walked around the house.
A small woman with auburn curls and a long, flowing skirt was pounding on his door, “Dirk, Dirk Graham, please open up. I need to talk to you. Please, I need to see you.”
Dirk gave her the once over, and then gruffly said, “What the hell do you want?”
She turned; his voice had startled her. Letting out a slow breath, she said, “We need to talk about Vietnam.”
Anger instantly surged through him. He waved his arm in the air, dropping his towel, and shouted, “Get the hell off of my property, and don’t f*ing come back.”
She quickly averted her eyes, and pleaded, “Please, I’ve come a long way, and it’s important.”
Snatching his towel up and hastily knotting it about his waist, he promised, “If you aren’t off of my property in ten seconds, you’re going to wish you were dead. Get the hell out of here.”
Her face paled, and her hands shook as she turned and tucked an envelope in the crack of his door, and then wordlessly rushed to her car. She quickly locked the car doors and left a cloud of dust in her wake.
After staring until she was out of sight, he walked up on the porch and opened the door. The enveloped fluttered to the ground. He was going to just step over it, but at the last second, he bent and picked it up. When he opened it, a hot breath whooshed out of him. The note simply said, “I’ll be back in a few days. It’s about Steven Archer.” It was signed, Marilee
Wadding up the note with shaking hands and tossing it on the floor, he growled, “God damned reporters. Ms. Marilee, you need to dig elsewhere.”
That night the mother of all flashbacks had him crawling naked across the floor and curling up in the corner swatting at biting insects and screaming as the torturing Gooks burned him with red-hot irons. He sobbed, “Steven, Steven, I’m sorry man. God damn it, I’m so f*ing sorry.”
When Dirk woke, he was sitting in a puddle where he’d wet himself. Sweat dripping off of him, he quickly crawled into the bathroom and threw up nothing for twenty minutes. He’d have been thankful if Steven’s body had been found, instead of leaving him with these nights of tortuous possibilities.
For the next several nights his nightmares grew in intensity, and after a week, they finally subsided. This was a pattern he’d come to expect. When he could finally make himself clean up and sit down to a meal, his eyes noticed the wadded-up note in the corner. He ate what he could, and then he went and picked it up. He stretched the paper out flat and looked at it again. What was it about the woman’s name?
Marilee. Marilee. Marilee…Mareee. He and Steven had called his sister, Mareee. It was a coincidence, wasn’t it? Oh, God. What had he done? Would she come back or had he scared her courage away? He put his face in his hands and sobbed.
For the next three days, he sat on the porch watching the dirt road in front of his house imagining that every dust devil that danced across the field, was churned up by her car. Finally, when he was about to give up all hope, her battered old Chevy came down the road and parked at the end of his walkway. “Dirk, please. Will you give me just a few minutes?”
He took a deep breath, walked to her car, and opened the door. He took her hand and helped her stand. “You’re Mareee, aren’t you?”
A quick tear formed in her eye and rolled down her cheek. “Yes, I’ve been looking for you for a long time.”
He hugged her tight against him, for several breaths, and then he said, “Honey, you found me. What can I do for you?”
She broke apart in his arms and while the tears raced down her face, she said, “Steven wants to see you.”