|Jul/Aug 2006 Fiction|
I stared at our bedroom mirror, watching Bruno rape my wife. She struggled beneath his spent weight, his sweat. They say moments like these define a man. This one defined me a coward. I was frozen in disbelief, unable to move or speak.
Bruno climbed off Mai Lin, pulled up his pants, turned to exit the room. When he saw me, he didn't even break stride, just pushed past on his way out with that coldness in his eyes. Mai Lin looked at me through tears. A sadness, a shame engulfed us that only comes from the shared witnessing of evil and horror. I couldn't take my eyes off her, nor she me. I remember thinking this was the end of our relationship, not because she'd want a divorce, but because I'd never be able to face her again.
Bruno sat in the living room watching TV, feet on the coffee table, eating potato chips and smoking a cigarette. I practically ran past him out the front door. "Rock!" he called, "I'm sorry, man." His voice sounded muffled, like it was coming from under the house.
My pickup was parked behind Bruno's motorcycle in the driveway. I climbed in and drove away, slowly at first, then faster and faster as adrenaline kicked in. When I got to Billy's Bar out on Highway 34, I slid the truck to a stop in the gravel parking lot, shut off the motor, and sat there stunned, hands on the steering wheel, head on the center column.
I went into Billy's, took a seat at the bar, and ordered a beer. I remember staring at the mirror behind the bottles, thinking about the past, about me and Bruno in Vietnam in 1967. He had been a brother to me. We'd shared each other's mail, took turns walking point. Got wounded in the same firefight and spent time in the Phu Bai infirmary. And it was there, in Phu Bai, that we'd snuck through the wire and into the village for a little action in a local skivvy house.
Three months ago Bruno came roaring up the drive. I knew it was him, could sense it, even though I hadn't seen or heard from him in years. Something about his posture, his attitude, said Bruno. Something else said a part of me had come home to roost. I was on the front porch drinking beer, smoking a cigarette, watching the sunset. I jumped up and rushed down the steps. He shut his bike down, climbed off, and walked toward me fast, grinning. We hugged, big clasping bear hugs with back slapping.
"'Bout fucking time," I said.
"I had some healing to do," he explained as we climbed the steps. Mai Lin came out on the porch to hurried introductions. "What's with the bullet holes?" Bruno asked, thumbing to the wall over his shoulder.
I looked at Mai Lin for an answer. "Air conditioning," she said, and we laughed. She soon excused herself, and we set about picking through each other's war memories, reforming a bond that could only be shared by combat vets in the same squad.
When we rose to retire, Bruno stuck out his hand. "I'm glad you made it home, man."
"Me, too," I said, "I'm glad you made it home, too."
We were standing in front of the hallway mirror, eyes locked, sharing the old three-part handshake as we said goodnight. I couldn't let go of him, his big meaty grip. He looked younger than me, more muscular, darker complected. We could be twins, I used to think, but not anymore.
The next morning, Saturday, Mai Lin served breakfast. I watched her stealing glances at Bruno as she moved around the table. He pretended not to notice. That night, in bed, I mentioned it to her.
"I saw you looking at Bruno this morning. Be careful, Babe."
She stared at me, head cocked, concern in her eyes. "No, Rocky, I no look at him, not like you think. He scare me some, and he familiar, like I know him from long time ago. Vietnam, maybe, when I little girl."
"I know," I said. "Just be careful around him. I know how he used to be, but I don't know him now, not really, so I'm warning you, is all. Be careful."
"Okay," she said, but fifteen years together said she wasn't really hearing me. Mai Lin came to America in 1976 at age twenty-two. I met her five years later. She'd always made her own decisions, and that was fine, but it got her in trouble sometimes when she didn't think things through. This was one of those things that she wasn't thinking through. Bruno was a stranger in our home. I don't believe Mai Lin fully understood the danger in that.
After he'd been with us nearly a week, I asked, "What are your plans, Bruno?"
"I don't know," he said. "Thought I'd just stick it out here until I stay out my welcome."
I said, "Stay as long as you like. Is that okay with you, Mai Lin?" She looked like she hadn't really been listening.
"Uh, okay," she said to him. "Stick it out long you like. Make you self a home."
But a month later I was getting tired of Bruno. He was always there. We had no privacy. I had no privacy, to be more accurate. "I can't be myself," I told Mai Lin.
"We no can ford him to be here," she told me. Mai Lin was working minimum wage, but I wasn't working at all, hadn't been for almost five years since they fired me for nearly killing my supervisor. He got in my face over me being a little late. I'd only been gone two days. Just needed a little time to myself is all, a little privacy, like now. But he got in my face, so I threw him out a plate glass window. On the second floor.
And then nobody wanted to hire me again. They kept saying Vietnam Syndrome and employer liability. The Veteran's Administration tried to explain that I was mentally disordered, that I needed hospitalization and therapy, but I told them they were the ones who were mental, and they could take their hospital and shove it. Eventually they won out though--the Syndrome flat wore me down. And every time I got back up, it wore me down more.
Another month of Bruno went by, and I went to the doc again. I said, "Doc, listen, I appreciate the pension and the anger management classes, but I don't feel like myself anymore. I got zero energy, no strength. I just sit around and want to be alone. My wife says I got no drive, no sex drive."
He perked up. "We can give you something for that, something to counteract your other medication."
"Okay, fine, but what about me missing my old self, the guy who would be glad to have Bruno around, or if he wasn't glad, could make him leave?"
"We can try you on another medication, if you want."
"But we've tried them all, Doc. Every six months it's something new, except the same. I either get sick to my stomach, don't wanna do anything, or can't control my anger. I might as well not take the medication at all and just go back to the way I was."
"Now don't do that," he warned, his eyebrows lowering with concern. "Why don't you just ask your friend to leave? What's the worst that can happen? Maybe he'll listen to reason."
"You don't ask a guy like Bruno to leave; you tell him. That's what I'm trying to explain, Doc. The guy who before could've told him, is gone. He's not here anymore, and I miss him. My wife misses him."
So I cut the medication in half, but there was still Bruno. Bruno here, Bruno there, Bruno everywhere. After another month I said, "Bruno, you're gonna have to leave." It was late evening, and we were standing in front of the living room window.
He said, "What?"
"You heard me. It's time to leave. You've been here three months now. I want my privacy back."
"You'd throw me out, Rock? Me, a brother, the guy that saved your sorry ass in that skivvy house in Phu Bai?"
"I wouldn't have needed you saving my ass if you hadn't raped that girl, Bruno."
"Rape?" he said. "Don't lay that trip on me! I paid for that shit, man. She was a gook."
"You paid for sex, Bruno. She was a little girl."
"I paid with time, man, time in country, and every fucking day since, and sometimes at night in dreams and sweats."
"I'm sorry. I got problems, too, and one of them is I need you out of here. I need to be alone again."
"You know what?" he said. "You're just like the rest of the scumbags, except nobody will screw a vet faster than another vet."
He stared at me with a coldness I hadn't seen since that night in the skivvy house. It had been a night of heavy drinking, and then screams coming from the back room. Bruno, forcing himself on a girl who had been flirting with me earlier. She couldn't have been but about thirteen years old, nearly passed out and moaning, her tongue hanging out the side of her mouth. Bruno plunging up and down on her. He looked over at me, that same coldness in his eyes.
And then I'd felt Papasan's presence beside me. He lunged with a knife. I tried to deflect it, but he got me in the side. Bruno came up off the girl like a short mortar round and flew across the room, ripping through the trousers down around his ankles. He grabbed Papasan by the arm, twisted, tore the knife loose and plunged it into his gut. Papasan went down, trying hard to hold in the blood. Bruno pulled his trousers up and rushed out the door. I glanced back at the girl, then chased after him.
"Tell you what, Bruno. I'm gonna head over to Billy's for a beer. When I get back, I expect you gone. You've stayed out your welcome."
"Fuck you, too," he said, dismissing me with a wave of his hand.
And as I sat in the bar thinking about this, I finally realized I had for the second time left Mai Lin alone to deal with Bruno. I ran to the truck, reached under the seat for my .45 automatic. It felt like an old friend. For the first time in a very long time, I felt like my old self.
Bruno was on the front porch, feet on the rail. I walked to the steps, pointing the gun up at him.
"You gonna shoot me, Rock?" he said. "Is that what you're gonna do?"
"Where's Mai Lin?"
"How should I know? Still in the bedroom, I suppose."
I lowered the gun. "Mai Lin!" I shouted, "Mai Lin!" I could hear her shuffling through the house, coming toward us. "Bruno," I said, "I need you to do two things, and I need them done now. Apologize like you mean it to Mai Lin, and then get the fuck outta here."
Bruno started laughing. "I don't apologize to no woman," he said. "Especially no gook."
"You'll apologize," I said, "and get out."
"I ain't going nowhere," he said.
I pointed the gun at him. It shook at the end of my arm.
Bruno rose out of the chair, snickering. "You're the same chickenshit as always, Rock. I still can't believe they gave you that bronze star. Hell. We both know it wasn't you that did anything heroic that night."
"Is that what this is about, Bruno? You rape my wife because the Marine Corps gave me a medal? You know it didn't mean nothin' to me. I thought you did some healing."
"There's nothing wrong with me, asshole. She asked for it. You saw her."
Mai Lin came out on the porch, her shoulders hunched, face beat up, tears smearing her makeup. I could see in her eyes she'd never be the same. I knew she'd need me, someone, to explain Bruno, explain me, explain men. She came down the steps, staring through what seemed like miles of empty space. "No, Rocky," she said softly. "No more."
Mai Lin's sadness and the leer on Bruno's face gave birth to an old familiar rage in my gut. I shoved her aside, and the .45 bucked in my hand. Bruno slammed up against the wall and slumped down. The loud report left my ears ringing and another bullet hole in the wall.
Mai Lin reached out and clasped the gun. I was still shaking, and I couldn't look at her. I bit my lip, trying hard not to cry. She took the gun away. "No more, Rocky. No more."
I stood dazed, blinking at the spot where Bruno should have been. "What happened?" I said.
Mai Lin took me by the hand and led me up the steps, the gun still at her side. The screen door slammed behind us, and I jumped. I could hear her voice, muffled, like it was coming from under the house. She was talking about changing my medicine.
"What happened, Mai Lin?" I asked again.
She looked up at me, her head shaking. "You got to stop shooting house, Rocky, you gonna hurt somebody. Me, maybe." She led me to the bedroom and helped me lie down.
"Bruno," I said. "Where's Bruno?"
"Bruno gone. You sleep now. He maybe stay gone this time."