Authors: Sandra Scofield
In memory of Al Scofield,
and for those who loved him
For Judy Griswold
And for Bill and Jessica,
who make it possible.
The support of the National Endowment for the Arts is gratefully acknowledged.
I'll be home soon. Will you understand
if not forgive
that I expect to be loved
beyond deserving, as always?
âStephen Dunn, “Letter Home”
Katie had already made plans to go to Texas with the baby. Her going didn't have anything to do with Fisher hitting her. On the other hand, she wouldn't change her plans, even though her eyes were black in the morning; even though he cried and said he had sat up all night in remorse, thinking about killing himself (he had slept the sleep of the dead drunkâshe had heard him snoring); even though she'd have to lie to her mother, and her mother wouldn't believe her, so that Katie would end up defending him the way she always had, when he didn't deserve it anymore.
It was the first time he had hit her, unless you counted a couple of shoves. Once, in 1969, long before they had married, they had been visiting a navy buddy of his in Sausalito, and Fisher had given her a push, out on the deck of the buddy's houseboat, because she was yelling at him not to go off drinking and leave her with the buddy's super-Christian pregnant girlfriend. The push shut her up, scared her, out there in the dark; it almost made her mad enough to get on a bus and go home alone. But the buddy's girlfriend, who had been an acid freak before she tuned in to Jesus on the Christian radio station, said it was just that the guys were still coming down from all those killing vibes, and praying and loving were sure to bring them back. She said they had spent most of the war in shallow water, and real life seemed awful deep. She said Jesus would keep them afloat.
Katie worried about being out on the water without the rowboat; when she thought about it, she realized that the other girl had been thinking longer term. If Katie had had a longer view, she might have made the bus, but common sense told her Fisher wouldn't leave her floating a hundred yards offshore from a disco, once he had had enough of whatever he'd gone off to get. Sure enough, he had made it up to her. He arrived near noon with croissants and eggs. He made her an omelet, and pleaded temporary insanity. He took her out on the deck againâshe could remember still the smell of shingles and the water and gull droppings at her feetâand shyly offered her a fat joint. “I'm better with gestures than words,” he said, a grin plucking at the corners of his mouth. She gave in to his awkward charm, wishing there were more of it, and that it were real. She smoked a little with him, and then went back inside, her heart a caught bird thumping against the back of her ribs.
The next time he struck her wasn't that long ago, which made things seem really bad, because now she could see a connection between what had happened then and what had happened this time, an escalation of violence she would have to think about before she would know what she ought to do.
He had come home from a bar where, over a pitcher of Oly, he had heard some real straight-arrow assholes saying the soldiers in Vietnam must have been chicken, and now half of them were turning out nuts, too. Some guy had shot his wife and then himself, and the paper ran a series on the syndrome that was supposed to explain it. Downtown, in a seedy neighborhood near the Burnside Bridge, some vets had opened a center for their own kind. Katie and Fisher passed it whenever they went to their favorite restaurant, run by Thais. “Fucking everywhere,” Fisher grumbled as they walked by. He was eight years home from Asia then. Those guys in the bar had been in junior high when he was bobbing around on the Mekong Delta, jumping on and off junks, hundreds of them a day; when he was checking bamboo wharfs that might blow his balls off. “Baby fascists, still wet from their first dip,” Fisher said. Katie wanted to sympathize, to try to feel whatever Fisher was feeling. She hadn't been in junior high, she had been in outer space when the war was going on. She had never even voted. She had fled Texas to the west and then the north, and never looked around, as though she had lost her language in some foreign territory. Demonstrations she recalled dimly, like old Rose Parades. Pictures from the war were surprisingly clear, and recently recalled: burning, screaming children; the little guy wincing as the bullet hit his brain. Those had been famous photographs or she wouldn't have noticed. She hadn't thought about politics; she hadn't had time in between classes and waitress jobs. She only dated once in a while, guys who asked her out after work when she was too weary for talk. The war meant more to her now, because of what Fisher had brought home and held on to for so long. She wasn't so out of it, not really. She had read in
that it took years after a war for the good books and movies to come out. Fisher's sister-in-law Ursula, who kept up with everything, said that they hadn't even started making hay of Vietnam yet. It took a long time for some people to make sense of it, while others got nostalgic. It hadn't been a good war, Ursula said. Katie took that to mean that sympathy might have been hard to come by at first, and she tried to feel bad when Fisher did. She felt his pain in her welling up like some boiling dread. But she already had such terrible indigestion from the baby in her, she didn't have room for more agitation inside, and so instead of saying something right when he came home that night, she belched. That was when he shoved her. She fell to the floor like a beanbag, big belly down, and then rolled over with a moan in time to see him out the door. She thought,
I better not tell Ursula
. Ursula's job was looking out for people who didn't have the sense to look out for themselves. Ursula's job was giving advice, and Katie could see she was in need of some, but then her mother had always said that advice was wasted on her, and in this case she didn't want to hear it from anyone.
This time, though, Fisher punched her, plain as that. She had been sitting on a high stool near the stove in the kitchen, nursing the baby, and he came in late and loud and stumbling. She knew well enough not to say anything, not to ask where he had been or what was the matter, not to ask why he was drunk when he had said he wouldn't be, when he had been sober for almost three weeks, ever since the day the baby was born. She looked up and said, “Hi, Fish,” trying on her understanding wife-and-Madonna pose, and she-tried to smile, although she was very nervous. It was late, and she didn't want him to break something and alarm the neighbors or the baby. Once she had yelled at him, “Turn your fucking drunk down, Fish,” and he had thrown a pot off the stove right through the kitchen window. She did smile at him, and he turned and snarled at her. “What are you grinning about?” he demanded. She was self-conscious, with her heavy, warm breast exposed, and so she smiled even more, to compensate, the way she had in school when she was bawled out for reading ahead. Then he hit herâsmack!âright between the eyes, with his fist. He wasn't standing very far away, and he didn't pull his arm back or take aim or anything like that. His arm shot out like a rubber band released from tension, and her face just happened to be in the way. Later she wondered if he had meant to hit her in the mouth, to wipe off the grin.
, she thought,
he could have knocked my teeth out
. But her memory was clear. He had stuck his arm straight out like a robot, just above nose height, just between the eyes, and she was exactly an arm's length minus two awful inches away.
“I'm tired,” she said as she came through the gate. Her mother, June, was there with her Aunt Christine. Katie had not been home in years. The sight of the plains from the air had been a shock; she had forgotten how flat the region was.
She remembered from some grade-school lesson that these plains had once been a blanket of buffalo. The buffalo had all been hunted and killed, there were only people now.
Both women looked different from the way Katie remembered them. Her mother, in Gloria Vanderbilt jeans and a nubby teal-blue sweater, was pretty. She had had her hair cut in a skater's precise style. She looked fortyish, instead of fifty, while Christine, who was younger, looked sixty. The sisters had been widowed within fifteen months of one another; they had taken their losses in quite different ways. Christine had had the sour husband, the tight budgets, the blank loneliness of no children, yet she had always been perpetually cheery, a maker of fancy cakes with frosting. Katie had thought Christine might have brightened as a free woman, taken up jogging, perhaps, or classes, but here she was, her hair ratted and her stomach bloated, wearing a smile like a ribbon on a crutch. Katie's mother had been devoted to her husband (never Katie!), and Katie thought June would wither without him, but no, she was brisk and attractive, as though it had been an amicable divorce instead of a heart attack that had parted her from Katie's father. Katie looked at her mother and saw how much a stranger she was, her life a mystery. Katie had no idea what her parents had really felt, or been, for each other. She only knew there had not been much left over for her.
In the car Katie told them how she had been going out the back of the house to call Fisher for dinner, and she had gone around the corner just as he came the other way, carrying a two-by-four. “It was so stupid of me,” she said. Aunt Christine wailed in retrospective horror. “Thank God you weren't carrying the baby!”
“Seems to me he might have been a little more careful,” said June, her hands tight on the wheel.
“Stop at intersections?” Katie asked tartly. “Honk at corners? It was unusual for me to go outside to call him. It was raining. Now that I think about it, I can't imagine why I went out.” She felt her cheeks flush with conviction as they always had when she argued with her mother. The story fell so easily into place. “The baby was dozing. It seemed I had been indoors ever since I got home from the hospital. I guess that's why I went out, a little claustrophobia.” She shifted the responsibility from Fisher to herself. She felt a little smug, it had been so easy. For the moment, she forgot her dull anger at Fisher, though she had spent the entire day, in planes and airports, chewing on it. It was displaced by this more immediate clash with her mother. They had wasted no time! Her mother drove in silence, but the tension was palpable, waiting for words. If no new reasons came up, there were old ones to spark fires between them.
“So tiredâ” was the next thing Katie uttered when they got to the house. The baby was screeching. Katie sprawled on the couch and undid her blouse and bra to feed the baby. Her mother's old Uncle Dayton sat across from her in a Lazy-Boy recliner, smiling and nodding from behind his blind frailty. The baby sucked. Katie lay with her eyes shut. Her face throbbed. She knew she must have shocked her mother and aunt with her racoon face.
She thought about Fisher, but she hadn't the energy to recall the decisions she meant to make about him. She had brought him along like luggage waiting to be unpacked. If she ignored it, she would take it back exactly as it came. But when she thought of him he was as flat in her mind as a photograph. Yes, exactly as a photograph, she saw him perched on the roof on the long metal warehouse where he was working. There would be drizzle in Portland this time of the year. It would be so easy for him to fall; he was a careless man. She saw him, like a feather from a pillow on a bed, drifting toward the pavement.
She was falling asleep. Unconsciousness would bring her dreamsâbrilliant, violent dreams that evaded her when she woke. She had had them for so many months now they were almost welcome. It was their predictability that made them bearable, the lurch into sleep, as though she had stepped badly off a curb; and then the dream sucking her in and hurling her out again, exhausted, into consciousness. If she didn't fight it, she could sleep again afterwards. She could rest. How much she wanted things lately to be laid out in patterns (good or bad): meals and sleep, quarrels too. Fisher was unobliging. He planned nothing, and had no ruse for the way he set her up to knock her down. She never knew what was coming from him, because he did not know either. Love was what you felt before the pain came. She was fast assuming a victim's pose. Except that she was too smart-aleck to be victimized. She was a collaborator in their script. Sometimes she provoked him, to get the hurting out. It had been much better when Fisher (they, really) had smoked grass, but he didn't like the game you had to play with dealers, and once there had been some trouble with the law. He said wine was just as good, which of course it wasn't. The wine shut Katie out; she hated the smell, the taste, the sweet stickiness of it. When they had been stoned together they had crawled into a safe place, together. Sometimes he talked to her there. He told her about Mekong water so shallow they had to invent boats to skim it on a thin skin of air. She remembered sitting on the bathroom floor while their friends laughed and yelled at one another out in the kitchen. She and Fisher sat with their knees up under their chins, eyes floating out toward one another, and he told her that the whole war had drifted by on just such a cloud. Rain and more rain; bodiesâtheirs and ours and those you couldn't be sure of; death all colloidal in the choking jungle stench; everything drifting, make-believe, while everybody watched and got old really fast. He had been upriver and into canals and tiny veins of waterways. He had been into the heart of the dream that was a river war, into jungles and ambush. He had liked to wear the black pajamas of the people they were wiping out. They were little people, he said, tensile and stealthy. Even the children were wise.