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"Is It Always A Love Story?" Chapter 3

Updated 11 weeks ago

In Chapter 3 from Is It Always A Love Story?, confronts the man he was before going to war in Vietnam and finds a stranger he left behind. What's next?

Chapter Three


Dad rented a place in town that gave him the basics — bathroom, small kitchen, bedroom, living room — on a single floor. It also shortened his drive to work, from a half-hour to twenty minutes, the kind of economy that made sense to him. 

He kept the old house for the rest of his life, renting it out to strangers for a while, then moving back in. The mortgage was paid, the maintenance minimal. But he hadn’t kept it by choice. He wanted to get rid of it and, I guessed, the memories saturating every corner and stairway. But the poorly designed place he bought for our bursting at the seams family, a generation ago, wasn’t the bargain anyone else wanted, these days. He was stuck with it, at least for now.

“Maybe that wreck was the last straw for Mom,” I’d suggested to Tim as he drove us down the country road from the airport, dealing updates like they were bullet points organized in his head, my first day back home. “They only stuck together, what, two or three years after that. All of them must’ve been rocky.”

“You might be giving her more benefit of the doubt than she deserves,” he countered.

It was a short strike, but heavy. Countering idle statements was a family tradition.

“He must’ve gotten a deal, anyway, when he bought it,” I thought out loud. “Either that or he and Mom were both blind.”

“Dad never paid one more penny for anything than he had to. What I think is, he didn’t have a lot of money, with five kids and Mom being such a spendthrift, according to him anyway, and he was ready to grab the first affordable thing he got his hands on. I don’t remember much about living at our first place, the one in Castle Creek, but I’ve driven by it. It’s tiny. I can only imagine what it was like to have seven of us all crammed in that sugar shack. They probably couldn’t wait to get out.”

I’d driven by it too, but I was so young, not yet four, when we moved, I didn’t remember much either. Maybe I’d knock on the door someday and see if I could stir up some memories. Having so much of my past Etch A Sketched into oblivion by divorce left me a little restless with history.

After a tuna sandwich, milk and some cookies with Maureen and her mother, I was eager to take a look at the larger house we moved into and where we stayed until each of us found our exit ramp. How different would it be with none of us living there, with strangers stuffing alien canned goods in the cupboards, the beds unmade, floorboards creaking at a different tempo?

“When will I hear from you?” Maureen asked before she let me kiss her goodbye at the door.

“Honey, I don’t know. I’m pretty unsettled. Give me some time.”

“Of course.”

The door, closing slowly as she withdrew, followed a medium warm kiss.

I shook my head when I was behind the wheel again. The politics of a kiss… Did this shit ever end?

 

I didn’t just drive off to see the old place, I maneuvered along the route I used to take, alternating from hitchhiking to walking, from Mo’s house to mine, usually late at night, happy to be in love again, relieved to find my heart back in that fantastic bubble after being crushed by Ginny and her family.

When I pulled up at the house with the faded, once sky blue siding, the first thing I noticed was how it sagged in general, as if, one day, it released a breath, thought, Aw, fuck it, and stalled. The unfinished building in the back, which we called “the shop,” although it had never matured enough to become one, had been leveled, the debris cleared, leaving a roughened, purposeless field. Gone with it was the small, adjacent garden where Mom planted tomatoes and beans. Gone also were the vines separating our home from the wilder grasses, prickly, entwined shoots where we discovered and tasted blackberries, abandoned and growing free, and the rough wiffle ball field for which the shop was tricked into playing right field bleachers. The rickety structure’s absence made the maple on which we hung our basketball net forlorn and isolated. I couldn’t see far enough around the corner, but I guessed the lilac bushes had been banished too. The property’s unfinished legacy, the plans of its builder to fill out a homestead, halted under our regimen, now forgotten. 

The shop, left unprotected by even a single coat of paint, rotted into the danger zone, its windows never installed, its underside residence for discarded trash and whatever else the wind blew in, a hidden zone where I peed in secret and raced my bright red firetruck, alone with my excitement. Now, torn down and hauled away.

I stopped in front only for a minute, reluctant to disturb a watchful neighborhood. There wasn’t anything I wanted to know about current conditions, and the past wasn’t a basketful of treasures I was eager to do a jig with either.

Let it go, I got into the habit of telling myself. Let it go. Poets may have said it better, but you can’t do a fucking thing about it once it’s over.

I drove another hundred feet and turned into the gravel and dirt lot in front of a boxy structure we grew up calling, “the beer garden,” in its earliest incarnation. When new ownership reopened it, a year or so before the law said I was free to drink legally, they hung up a big new sign that faced traffic in both directions: The Little Bohemia. The sign was brightly lit at night, when the place was busy, being one of the few bars within miles. Fridays and Saturdays, bodies jammed it, smoked filled the air, and country and western jumped out of the jukebox. 

My favorite aunt called it, “Little Bohmia.” You could make her giggle, but you could not correct her on it.

The Little Bohemia was open, awaiting the afternoon lush rush. One car, probably the bartender’s, was parked in the spot closest to the door. My only experience with the bar at this time of day was when I delivered their newspaper on my route as a twelve year old. Sometimes, I spoiled myself with a Three Musketeers, dipping into my collections.

Times changed. I parked and went inside. I wanted to touch at least one base before leaving the neighborhood, probably forever.

Vern, the leathery, distracted bartender, was leaning against the cash register. He looked at the door when he heard me come in but didn’t see me. He saw a stranger.

“What’ll ya have?” he asked, barely glancing at me, as I stepped up to the bar.

“Don’t give me any shit, Vern. You know goddamn well I drink only the finest draft from the tap, and don’t fill it all the fuck up with foam, ya goddamn crook.”

“Holy cow! Pete! I didn’t recognize you.”

“No shit, Vern?”

Vern was ready now.

“How could I? Last time I saw you, you were one of those hippies, more hair than my girlfriend and smoking dope like it was candy.”

I had to laugh, picturing it.

“When the fuck did you have a girlfriend, faggot?”

“Now, you look like a man again,” he assured me.

“That’s what it is? You get your head shaved, and that makes you a man? Must not have had any sex ed back when you walked your pet dinosaur to school.”

“Well, no, but it looks like the army ran a ramrod up your ass too, makes you stand up straight, like a man.”

“Let’s fix that posture shit right now with that beer I ordered a half-hour ago.”

“Coming up, Pete. Damn, it’s good to see you home. Seriously now. I’m glad you made it through that mess over there.”

“You have no idea.”

Vietnam was receding like one of those flashbacks at the movies, getting smaller, blurring. That was a surprise.

“This one’s on me,” Vern added, setting a thick glass mug on the bar. “Your money’s no good today. You did your service. This is your thank you.”

“Hey, thanks yourself.”

“Don’t get used to it.” Vern winked. “Price is back to normal tomorrow.”

Would there be a tomorrow? I doubted it. Not here.

“Sometimes, if you don’t look where you’re going,” a voice said, emerging from the end of the bar, “assholes start falling like rain.”

It was Billy Campbell, a regular I recognized, a car mechanic from the garage up the road, rooted to a barstool.

To Billy, I would always be indebted for a raw but hilarious joke I used many times, mostly without credit. I was fairly certain he didn’t originate it, anyway.

Once, when an ad hoc group of us were half-drunk and slinging bullshit at the bar, Billy told the guys that I had a hidden talent.

“McCarthy, here, is a swinette virtuoso.”

“I’m a what?”

Billy was round, overweight, red and always laughing.

“A swinette virtuoso…” He paused, took a drag on his cigarette, until he was sure everyone was paying attention. “That’s where you stretch a guitar string across a pig’s asshole and pick it with your teeth.”

I must have laughed at that a hundred times. I even woke up one morning in Vietnam, laughing at it, forgetting where I was.

“What’s up?” Cal had asked.

“Nothing.”

It was not a before breakfast joke. It had no resonance without a good amount of built up stress.

“Goddamn, Billy, I see you’re still into those liquid lunches. What is it, about three o’clock? Long lunch, too.”

“Fuck you, soldier boy. I have a job. Haven’t been sitting around, collecting a government check. I wrestled with the worst fucking transmission you can find since morning. I didn’t sit around, AWOL, ducking into bars to keep the MPs from finding me. Sides, I’m having steak with my beer.”

Billy held up a partially consumed stalk of Slim Jim.

“Man, it looks like you haven’t got off that stool since I left here. I’m two years off fighting a war you pussies think is a TV series, and you haven’t moved a muscle.”

“I did too. I took a piss, just a while ago, out in the back. I had a whiz, didn’t I? Tell him, Vern.”

How many useless conversations like this one had I been in? So many, my skills so extensive, I fell right back into the rhythm, lowering my IQ instantly.

Without an encouraging audience, Billy returned to his beer and Slim Jim, and I felt myself draw in, going introspective. It was an emotional retreat, not a rare one, but one refined and intensified over the last two years. I felt like I needed to digest everything again, not just go with it, riding with the herd, like in the old days, the wasted, directionless old days, before I found out so much about the internal combustion engine known as me.

Across this room, on the far side of the pool table where I’d been winning a ridiculous number of beers, in an upholstered booth halfway to the smelly, stained toilets, I French kissed one of the least attractive girls I knew, running my tongue beneath her buck teeth. If friends hadn’t dragged me off, I’d have fucked her that night too, making a mess I’d have to figure out how to clean up in the morning. That was in the light blue period between Ginny and Mo, settled on the belief that I’d blown it with the love of my life and was free to fuck away at will. The candidates, however, were fortunately few.

And while I was at it, I might as well reminisce too that here, over at the door, was where Doug and Boyd swept me off in their car on the night I met Maureen. 

You’d gone straight, by then, I said to myself. You had no friends, especially no girlfriends. You were devoting a Saturday night to reading some poetry and needed cigarettes. Headed for the machine at the Little Bohemia, I rode off with Doug and Boyd instead. 

Fate steps in, and everything can change.

I knew Doug and Boyd from school. We’d never hung out together. I never hung out with anyone at that school, in fact. I was The Bard of Kirkwood in my head, no time for frivolous stuff.

The two of them burst out of The Little Bohemia, laughing about something, butting shoulders. They stopped when they saw me waiting to enter.

“Come on, man,” Doug coaxed. “We’re going out to meet some girls. There’s nothing here.”

Just like that, I was in the backseat.

“Who are you going out with, these days?” Doug asked after we’d reviewed Boyd’s status — which was, by the way, that he’d knocked up his girlfriend and was being muscled into marriage.

“Damn, you’ll miss Vietnam,” Doug consoled him.

“Might be better. Wars end. Hell goes on.”

Doug turned to look back at me.

Who are you going with, these days?

“A girl from Seton,” I lied, pulling up Marge’s cousin, a girl I met at the wedding and called exactly twice in the six months since.

“Yeah?”

“It’s a little problem, though. She’s only fifteen, you know, forbidden territory.”

That satisfied Doug, and Boyd drove on, silently, toward the club where Maureen was waiting.

I finished my beer and that memory at the same time.

“Nice seeing you guys, but I’ve gotta run. Lots of people expecting me to show up, but I’ll see you all down the road.”

“Good enough, Pete,” Vern said. “Again, good to see you back.”

I nodded.

“Don’t let your meat loaf, soldier boy,” Billy called as I went out the door.

As soon as my feet hit the loose dirt and gravel in the parking lot, I was as certain as I am that gravity holds me to the ground that I would never see Vern or Billy again. Nor the inside of this bar. No ill will, just a chapter closed.

Driving back down the road was like driving through a memory without pausing or even feeling like it. Usually, you grow up incrementally. You burn what bridges need to be burned, and if you kiss the past’s ass, you try to do it affectionately, then wave goodbye. Going to war accelerates everything. You pass Go — and everything else — but going so goddamn fast, you barely notice. That does not change the fact of your being gone.

 

Before I left in the morning, Marge told me she’d already called Dad, and he was coming straight over after work, which relieved me of the complication of stopping at his place and figuring out whose car to take and how would he get back home, et cetera. None of that was much out of the ordinary, the mechanics built into family life.

But I felt awkward about my father and our multi-hued history. Not that Dad’s long, comfortable silences weren’t wonderful grottoes in which to hide. Did he intend that, I wondered, for himself as well as for whoever else shuffled in? Anyway, the trouble for me right now was that we had never been grownups at the same time, and I was aware now how little we’d ever known about other. There had always been too much going on for us to take down the armor. Maybe neither of us had considered the other an ally. I did not expect that to change, not easily, anyway.

I made a soft right onto the ramp for the interstate that tore through our corner of the county. One day, I guess I was about twelve, walking home across the unharvested state field where we used to build our baseball diamonds, I looked up and saw a giant green grader power up across the skyline in the meadow and head downhill, tearing up the wheat, throwing soil that hadn’t seen sun in a hundred years aside. We knew they were building a highway, but this first sight was awesome. I watched for a few minutes, amazed at how the fields could so easily be transformed by powerful equipment, some nebulous regret bending the fascination.

They put the Penn-Can Highway on a rush schedule. Bobby and I could see the bright lights a quarter-mile away, out our bedroom window. The trucks and Caterpillars rumbling all night…

“That was before Bobby had his transplant,” I told Cal one evening when we’d shut down after a long, dehydrating trek along a ridge without enough shade.

“Your brother had a transplant?”

“Yeah, they replaced his heart with a rock.”

“Wanna talk about it?”

“Not really. Nothing to talk about. I don’t know what happened. I had a brother until I was sixteen or so, and after that, I had a snarling son of a bitch I didn’t know anymore.”

“Sounds like you do want to talk about it,” Cal nudged.

Cal and I became friends during our first days in Asia, finding our way into the surreal universe of war together. When the heat lowered, we sometimes drifted backward.

“The fucking thing is, Cal, he changed, snap, just like that. I don’t mind talking about it, but I don’t know what happened. It was just so fast. I think he wanted to get rid of all the poverty and confusion we grew up with, you know, make his own way. We were the poison he didn’t want to take anymore, but that can’t be entirely it because he still connected with everyone else. It was just me he seemed to detest.”

“Hmm…”

“We never talked about whatever was bothering him. Probably, we’ll never talk like brothers again.”

“Too bad,” Cal said.

“Too bad, for sure,” I agreed.

“Maybe you’ll work it out when you’re back stateside.”

Back stateside, now, that possibility seemed even more remote.

The curling interstate highway, once dubbed “The Penn-Can,” now just Route 81, held to the contours of the foothills banking Binghamton. Behind me, at Five Mile Point, Route 17 merged in after taking cars and trucks on a ride through the Catskills, leaking sharply down from the hills. In the middle of the city’s North Side, the highways separated again. When they built these entangled roads, it felt like the world was speeding up, opening adventures, ceding treasures. If I’d been paying attention to the auguries — before I knew there were auguries — I’d have gotten the message that I destined to leave here, soon and for good.

After the highway drifted into and through intersections in the valley cut by the Chenango and up along the curve of a hill Johnson City climbed, I was in less familiar territory and exited early to ease up along Main Street, the artery that connected each city, village and town in this part of the state like an immobile spine.

Neither Tim nor Dad had arrived by the time I parked Marge’s car in front of the garage. Did she tell me to park in the garage? I didn’t remember. But I was in a grace period in which everything I did would be all right. So, who cares? It’s trivial, anyway, for now. Where you park the car means nothing, ultimately. Put the fucker on the roof, Cal might say, if he was in the passenger seat, kicking along the narrative. But Cal was in Buffalo, probably still in Buffalo. He got out of Nam a month and a half ahead of me.

“Don’t go getting yourself killed when I’m not here to defend you,” he said when he left. “Charlie’s got his sites on you.”

“Charlie can’t shoot straight. I’ll see you back in America. Now, get the fuck out of here before they misunderstand your intentions and re-up you.”

“I’ll run all the way. See ya!”

“Run!”

Cal wrote a letter when he had his feet on the ground in Buffalo. He was happy to be home, back with his family, “fighting with the bitch, again,” meaning his girlfriend since high school, and getting ready to start some college courses.

“I do need to figure out what the hell I want to be because I have to grow someday,” he wrote, “and this is the time.”

“There you are,” Marge said, her hands in soapy water at the sink, when she saw me come in the back door.

“I guess I should knock.”

“Don’t be silly. When did you ever have to knock at our house?”

Actually, I always knocked, even though I was sure I was welcome.

“Okay, Sis, I will refrain from knocking.”

“How did it go? You were gone a long time. You didn’t spend all that time with Maureen, did you?”

If I the grapevine operated the same way as before I left, I could be confident that Marge knew the answer and more already. 

“I don’t think she could stand me for that long…”

“Come on. She’d love to spend a whole day with you.”

“Maybe. Anyway, I had lunch with her and her mother. Then I drove out to our old neighborhood, just to have a look around and say, ‘Goodbye.’”

“Goodbye? Really?”

“You know, Dad’s not there anymore. Why go back? Only the kids I grew up with’s parents are still there now. Everyone I used to hang out with is gone.”

“Oh?”

“It’s a mobile world…”

“So, what about Maureen? How did it go?”

“Surprisingly well.”

Although I was sixteen when Tim first introduced us, Marge had become something of an older sister. She listened, and I opened up. As much as you could with your sister, anyway.

“I felt like I had to tell her the truth,” I went on. “Just leaving everything hanging out there, all indefinite, wasn’t right. So, I told her not to count on me. That ‘love will find a way’ crap is just that, crap. Ours didn’t and won’t.”

“Are you sure, Peter? You’ve been away and in a terrible place for two years. Maybe you should give yourself some time to adjust before making such a big decision.”

“I made my decision while I was still, you know, over there. Along with everything else, Nam was a chance to get clear, to look at things from a safe distance. I really came to some understandings. One was, Mo and I would be a disaster if we got married after all. I can’t marry anyone, Margie, not ever, I don’t think.”

In the workshop in my head, I was making a reference to a novel I loved, Larry Woiwode’s book about uncertainty, What I’m Going To Do, I Think. Almost always, my literary references were hermetic. Nobody I knew read as much as I did or liked the same books.

“That sounds sad.” Marge finished drying her hands on a towel. “Sit down. Let’s have some coffee.”

“Good idea.”

Marge and I had drained a pot more than once. She got water from the sink and filled the basket with ground coffee. Marge was a step up coffee-wise for Tim and me, raised as we were on Dad’s ever present jar of Instant Maxwell House. Our most adventurous move was the one to freeze dried. We didn’t know what the hell freeze dried meant, but progress was always good, wasn’t it?

“Before everyone else gets here and certain topics are banned…”

“Like…?”

“Like Mom…”

“Okay.” Marge laughed a little. “Go on.”

“I got into this intense period of thinking about my life in ways I never had before. This was probably, oh, about six months after I got over there that I realized, when Mom left, especially with no one ever replacing her, that I missed my chance to learn how to be the kind of guy who gets married, settles down, has kids, you know, all that. It was like skipping a grade, maybe two, in school and never learning basic arithmetic. You may eventually get the advanced math, although I never did, but once you miss the basics, you can’t got back and plug them in like normal.”

“Really? That sounds a little extreme. Your brothers all got married. Forget Mark, but Tim and I are doing fine. Bobby is too. And look at your sister. She was even younger than you when it happened, and she’s got a baby.”

I’d thought all that through. For a month or two, it was like some intuitive sprinkler system raining on me, insights showering into my head. An unfamiliar door opened.

“You may have noticed, I am neither Tim nor, by a long shot, Bobby.”

Marge laughed out loud, now.

“That, you certainly are not.”

“What woke me up was how I cheated on Maureen and, before that, Ginny, which is a story we can just leave in the jar…”

Marge ignored my request.

“How is Ginny? Have you heard anything? You know, I never met her…”

“I haven’t heard anything, and I don’t want to. The damage is done, you know? But I’ll tell you this — I cheated on her too. I thought she was the one and only for all time, and by what I went through after we broke up, I believe she probably was. But I cheated on her, too. Maybe I’m just more like Mom than the others or maybe it’s something else. It doesn’t really matter. The fact is, I’m not able to stick with one person, no matter how I feel. Love should change that, but it doesn’t…”

“Listen to me, now, Peter,” Marge interrupted, softly assuming a senior role.

“Yes, ma’am.”

I sat tall in my chair, but she rolled right past the comedic touch.

“That will change. You’ll grow out of it.”

I knew I wouldn’t.

“I’ll keep you posted.”

“I’m sure you will.”

I liked that about Marge. She knew when to ease up and never backed me into any corner, a lesson my brothers could have used.

On the other hand, the no bullshit status I had with my brothers had a mostly positive influence. I knew I could never palm off anything lackadaisical. I’d be challenged, sometimes by Bobby and Tim together, like a tag team. While it had a way of making me feel small, which next to them I was, it also steered me away from any inclination to con myself or to accept shortcuts.

“I had my own little Socrates rambling around in my head, policing the joint,” I told Cal.

“What the fuck is…”

“Never heard of the Socratic method?”

“Never felt the urge,” Cal concluded.

As much as we clicked in uniform, Cal and I might be strangers on the right side of the world.

“Well, let me get back to work or your brother and father will have to go hungry,” Marge interrupted my impromptu reverie, “not to mention the kids.”

“I’ll go rattle Tim Junior and Mary and get out of your hair.”

Marge laughed.

“Oh, I forgot you called Matt ‘Tim Junior.’”

“You misnamed him. He’s like a duplicate.”

“Maybe not as much as you think. That acorn might have fallen a long way away from the tree. Time will tell.”

“Hey, kids,” I said when I walked into the living room.

I liked to think I was their favorite uncle.

“Hi, Uncle Peter,” they exclaimed at the same time.

“It’s Pete,” I told them. “Can’t you call me ‘Uncle Pete?’”

“No,” Matt said. “You’re Uncle Peter.”

Mary nodded.

“Story of my life. Who’s in charge here? What are we playing?”

“Games,” Mary purred.

“Ah, my favorite — games!”


A complete chapter list can be found here.

Find Is It Always A Love Story and all of my other books on my Amazon Author Page.

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