(Today I am sharing one of my short stories, instead of an essay. This short story, “Clear Creek,” was originally published in the literary journal Red Rock Review.)
My Uncle Buddy D told me he never went to a prostitute in Vietnam. Although he said he was in a definite minority. Also, he had jumped out of a helicopter into the jungle thirty-seven times, never suffering more than a broken pinkie finger on his left hand when he landed funny once. He said the jungle there was a hundred times steamier than New York City in August, but that the beaches in Vietnam were more beautiful than anywhere else in the world, including Hawaii.
He usually told me about the prostitutes (or more accurately, the abstinence thereof), and the heat, and other things too, somewhere around the 14th hole of the Clear Creek Golf Club. This would be after he’d chugged down the better part of a six-pack of our famous local brew. He’d start in casually, squinting down the fairway after a long drive that seemed to go sailing east into Nebraska. “Yep, Davey…” He was the only one to call me Davey, my mother always calls me David, and to my friends I’m Dave, but I think to him I remained in some weird time warp. I was only six when my father died in Vietnam. And I was little Davey then, and would so remain.
“Yep, Davey,” he’d say, cigar stub working in the right corner of his mouth, “It indeed may seem a bizarre morality, but your father and I never did any of that shit you see in those Vietnam movies. Your father kept me on the straight and narrow, and for that I’ll always be grateful.” And that’s when he’d go into the stuff about the prostitutes, and how young and sad and skinny they were. And how hollow his stomach felt each and every time he jumped out of a helicopter. And how the hardest thing in his life had been coming home to my mother and me alive.
By this time I was sixteen, and dangerously smitten with an entirely delectable girl, the oldest of seven sisters, named Rhonda Reed. We had progressed to French kissing, and my hands itched to be everywhere on her, but I wasn’t sure what to do. I didn’t know if I should just forge stupidly ahead, hoping she wouldn’t pick up on the fact that I had no idea what I was doing. I was also nervous that if we did go further, we’d get so carried away by passion that we wouldn’t be able to stop, and then she’d get pregnant, and I’d have to drop out of school and get a job with my Uncle Buddy D at the Coors brewery. And what was right and proper, anyway? I did respect Rhonda, and didn’t want to traumatize her.
Somehow Uncle Buddy D sensed that my moodiness didn’t stem from the fact that all my drives off the tee ended up in bushes or water. It was deeper than that. He’d met Rhonda. She worked after school at the Dairy Queen, and Uncle Buddy D ate most of his dinners there.
On the golf course that summer I waited and waited for him to tell me what to do. I couldn’t ask him, of course. I just had to hope that he would read my mind. That he’d see my sorry state, and see Rhonda, (who didn’t seem to be affected – she just pranced around behind the counter of the Dairy Queen like she had nothing more on her mind than making soft serve ice cream cones all afternoon), and put it all together.
After golf, if Uncle Buddy D didn’t have plans, we’d stop by the Dairy Queen for some brazier burgers and strawberry milk shakes. In the summer everyone in Golden ended up at some time or other during the day or night at the Dairy Queen.
. . . . .
When my uncle came back from Vietnam, my mother told him he could have my father’s car, a split-pea green ‘59 Chevy with swooping tail fins. She’d never be able to make herself get in it again anyway. Uncle Buddy D smoked the same kind of cigarettes and must have used the same soap and shampoo as my father, so the car was a virtual cocoon of reassuring smells. When I was younger, my mother would find me down the street in my dad’s Chevy, in front of Uncle Buddy D’s apartment playing with my G.I. Joes with all the car windows open, and even that summer, I liked to go over to my uncle’s and sit in the car and listen to the radio and read.
At the Dairy Queen I’d get dizzy watching Rhonda swirl the pale, delicate cones under the ice cream machine, dispensing the exact right amount, each cone with a perfect curl on top. I’d get red and hot eating that ice cream, because I’d be thinking of the cool, smooth texture of her skin. Wanting to lick the soft skin on the inside of Rhonda’s forearm, wanting to make the curls on her forehead damp with perspiration. And then, that I’d even be thinking of such a thing made me wonder if I wasn’t some sort of degenerate.
I’d sit there eating my ice cream, thinking those tortuous thoughts, and all the while Uncle Buddy D would be looking at me like he had things to say but didn’t know where to start. There we were eating ice cream at the Dairy Queen, just like we had since forever. But I wasn’t a kid any more, and I needed my father to tell me how to live my life.
My father was the older brother. He had gone to Vietnam first, and should have come home first. We never knew for sure what really happened. There was never a body to identify, just some parts some long months later, but they couldn’t be positive. And yes, I admit to fantasizing that a big mistake had been made. That he was really a POW, and that one day he’d come walking down Washington Street, and I’d be sitting in Uncle Buddy D’s car (now my father’s car again, the rights would revert smoothly back) and he’d stop in front of the car, and say, “Hey, champ, I’m back.” Or something equally mundane. And then he would slide into the car, take the wheel, reach into his pocket for the keys he had saved the whole time he was in prison camp, and we’d drive down the block home.
My mother would sense something, like she did, and she would come out to the porch, wiping her hands on her apron, and her eyes would smile again without shadows. And I could quit waiting for something to happen.
. . . . .
What did happen was this.
That same summer that I was agonizing over my obsession with Rhonda’s perfect breasts and shapely calves, Uncle Buddy D and my mother decided to get married.
I was up in my room listening to my new Beach Boys album, the turntable hypnotically turning, the sounds of the Beach Boys filling me with a yearning I felt all the way from my gut to the roots of my hair. There was a knock on my bedroom door, and I was surprised to see Uncle Buddy D and my mother with their arms linked.
“Could you come downstairs for a minute, David?” my uncle asked. I thought, finally he senses that I am desperate for a man-to-man talk, and I felt a small measure of relief. But the relief was tempered by the fact that my mother was there as well, that she had her arm through Uncle Buddy D’s arm, and that he had called me David.
They sat closely together on the couch in the living room, which we rarely ever used. The room had a slightly stale smell, like a museum or old books. I perched uncomfortably on the edge of a stiff-cushioned maroon parlor chair that had belonged to my grandmother. When they told me, the world went off into the distance. And when it came back into focus I found myself kneeling on the floor, my knees straddling Uncle Buddy D, his nose bloody, blood somehow on my hands, my mother hitting my arm with her open palm and crying. My uncle had not tried to defend himself – that much I knew.
I stumbled out the door down the street to my father’s Chevy, and I drove around town until Rhonda got off work at the DQ. She took in my mood and adjusted to it. She had good instincts, which carried us through a lot that night. I took her home very late, promising my undying love, and drove the Chevy up to the part of Clear Creek northwest of town.
I drove off the road – the car seemed to sail aerodynamically with those fins – and down to a grassy clearing where my father and I used to fish, and parked right at the edge of the creek, the headlights illuminating the rushing water. I tried to picture my father and me fishing, but it had happened so long ago that it seemed more like I was remembering a photo of a father and son fishing and not something that had really happened.
Clear Creek was more of a river than a creek; it was fairly deep in this part, it was wide, and the current was strong. The front wheels of the Chevy sank slightly into soft grass and gravel, and I closed my eyes for a moment, smelling years of Camel cigarettes, my Uncle Buddy D’s lemon-scented after shave, and now some primordial essence from Rhonda and me. I had stopped at my uncle’s after dropping Rhonda off, and taken two six- packs of Coors out of his refrigerator. No one had been there.
I sat in the car with the all the doors open, and listened to the steady murmur of Clear Creek, and drank the beer, and cursed every star in that sky. After I was drunk, I took Uncle Buddy D’s worn leather bomber jacket out of the back seat to use as a pillow, and passed out on the grass near the car. It was a clear night and Lookout Mountain, where Rhonda and I usually went to park, loomed nearly right above me, casting craggy shadows over the town in the starlight.
A couple of hours later, it must have been in that neverland between 3:00 a.m. and dawn, I heard something and sat up. The car was rolling into the creek. I thought I was dreaming at first, but then with cold sobering shock I realized it was really happening. And not only that, but the engine was running, and it seemed that someone was actually driving the car into the creek.
I threw myself onto the back of the Chevy, and hooked my feet around the fins, pounding on the back windshield. In the darkness of the car I could see the familiar shape of my uncle’s head, looking straight forward into the creek and the night. He stepped on the gas, and pebbles flew, and the car lurched forward and started to sink. We’d had a snowy winter, and the creek was running high. I noticed Uncle Buddy D had rolled up all the windows, and for some reason wasn’t hearing my mad pounding on the back windshield. He never even turned his head.
I rolled off the car, and the slap of water sobered me up. My wet clothes were instantly heavy, and I knew the cold should be making me numb, but I felt surprisingly sure and agile. My fingers worked at the locked door, and I pounded on the driver’s side window. I remembered my own set of keys and dug them out of my pocket. I fit the keyinto the lock, pulled and pushed the door open against the current (which had before seemed benign, but now menacing), and pulled my uncle out of the car into the frigid water.
“What the hell are you doing?” I screamed at him. We were both kneeling up to our shoulders in the freezing creek. He grabbed me under my arms and pulled me up, and we staggered together to the bank. I smelled the yeasty smell of barley and hops and malt from the Coors plant just down the river, an odor I had smelled every day of my life, yet no longer noticed most of the time.
My uncle fell onto his hands and knees on the matted grass. His breathing was labored and for the first time I noticed lines around his eyes. “I just figured it was time to trade that old car in,” he said.
I looked at him like he was out of his damn mind, which I assumed he must be. And then we both started to laugh. We laughed so hard I peed my pants, which didn’t matter because they were soaked from the creek anyway, and then I was sobbing, and then he held me while I puked up all the beer.
We crawled up the damp grass to where his bomber jacket was and collapsed on our backs looking up into the waning night sky. One star was so bright I had this feeling it was my father seeing everything that was happening to me.