The Veteran

The Veteran

Robert Soul

I sold magazine subscriptions door to door for a few years in junior high and high school. It was my sister Carol’s fault. She wanted to make some extra money and she was too young to do it by herself so she roped me into it. I think our split was seventy-thirty. I was the seventy. When I was young I could be cruel to my sister. It was her idea, she said, so it should at least be fifty-fifty but I told her she wouldn’t be making any money if I didn’t go with her and she should be happy with that. She never hesitates to tell people that part of this story. It used to bother me, how mean I was to her, but she loved me. I was her big brother. She would have taken anything I gave her. Carol quit going with me after about two weeks but I kept doing it.

Checks came in and I liked the fact that I had a steady income and that I got to walk all over. Manhattan is thirteen miles long and two and a half miles wide and I don’t think it would be a lie to say that I’ve sold magazines to someone in every block of it. In all kinds of weather, too! That’s the main reason I know the place so well. I’m an introvert but I love meeting people from all cultures of the world, and that’s what you get in New York City, if you want it.

One night I made my way home as I knocked on door after door in Chelsea. It was getting darker and colder but I never really had any reason to be afraid at night. Most people were more afraid of me just because I was a pretty tall kid.

I was getting cold, so this would be the last door and then I would run straight home. I walked up a flight of stairs leading to a second floor apartment and knocked on the door. I was pretty sure I heard ‘go away’ but sometimes I felt like being a bit pushy because when I was pushy I sold more subscriptions. I knocked again and heard it more clearly this time.

“Go away!”

I knocked again and heard the door begin to open. Slowly the door opened and it was too dark to see who had opened it. The streetlights from behind me showed an old dingy entry-way, like almost every other apartment I spent time in as a kid, but the rest was an angled shadow.

“What do you want?” said a low crackly male voice.

“My name is Marco. Do you buy magazines from the stands, sir?” I asked.

“I don’t read.”

The door began to close.

“Do you keep up with the Yankees?” I asked quickly.

“Listen. I don’t care about any of that.”

The man’s voice wavered like he might be crying and suddenly I felt uncomfortable.

“Are you alright, sir?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t be a good customer for you, son.”

He came into the light and I saw his eyes. They were permanently bloodshot. He was a short muscular red-skinned man wearing a white wife-beater t-shirt. His belly stuck out from under his shirt and he rubbed his eyes and the top of his head back and forth.

“I tried to tell you. I don’t get out. I’m a veteran. Understand? Viet Nam,” his voice quivered.

I told him I was sorry to disturb him but I didn’t move. I felt sad for the guy.

“What was it like?” I sort of mumbled.

It felt wrong the second it came out of my mouth.

“You don’t want to know, son. Goodnight.”

“My dad went to Nam,” I said again without thinking.

I wasn’t thinking at all.

It’s just that I hadn’t met anyone else to that point who was a veteran of Vietnam. It was something I never talked about with anyone other than my sister Carol and I only talked about it when she made me. She asked me all kinds of questions.

I avoided going home sometimes because she asked so many goddamn questions I didn’t have the answers to. I don’t blame her though. She didn’t really know our parents. At least I have some memories, I think.

My grandmother never talked about it with us. She always said things like, ‘What’s the use talking about it, Marco. You can’t change anything’. She stopped going to mass after that because the church said my father went straight to hell for killing himself when he came back from the war. We ‘weren’t Catholic’ after that. She said the church was too judgmental and that’s why we left but I think she was just embarrassed to have a son who killed himself. I think she believed my father did go to hell. I still don’t talk about it much with anyone.

My father killed himself when he came back from the war and my mother left my sister and me shortly after that. All thanks to Vietnam. I’m sure it was more than Nam, but they just gave up. When you’re a parent you can’t just stop being a parent. You’re not supposed to do that to your kids.

After being back for a little while from the war my father had come home late one night, and from my bedroom I heard the door slam open and then shut. My grandmother was yelling in Italian. She wasn’t saying a lot of nice things in Italian to him. My mother wasn’t there because she worked nights. My father didn’t work. He somehow gambled his way to all of his drinks. He was a very good card player but not a great gambler. Is there really such a thing as a great gambler? At times he bought my mother and grandmother things and my grandmother would say in disgust, ‘Perché rubi?’ and he would say, ‘I don’t steal. I won them for you’. I think he did buy things from his winnings but he spent most of what he won on alcohol.

He came home that night and he was very, very drunk and he beat my grandmother. I got out of bed when I heard her stop yelling and not answering my father’s questions about my grandfather. I saw him beating her and I wished I was brave enough to do something. I know now that it wasn’t that I wasn’t brave. I was a little boy and afraid. He stopped beating my grandmother and I helped her up when he went to my parent’s room. He shot himself in the head just seconds later. That’s most of what I remember about my father and I always hoped someone like this Veteran could give me something to make sense of what happened.

So, there he stood, the stocky leathery-skinned Viet Nam veteran stood there looking at me. It felt awkward but I had to know about the war. I had to know why Vietnam was so bad and why anyone would kill himself because of it.

“Son, you’re better off not knowing so get the hell out of here.”

“I need to write a report for school. I need it to be authentic,” I lied.

“Vietnam isn’t some goddamn book report you can just write about. It was a mess, you understand? I’m not telling you about it!”

He started yelling, “Do you understand? I don’t have a family because of it, you got that?”

“My dad killed himself and my mom left because she was too torn up about it. So, I don’t have a family either. All I’m asking is what happened. You don’t have to get real gory about it.”

“The whole thing was gory, understand? I’m not going to talk to you about it!” he yelled, slamming the door.

Like I said, sometimes I decided to be pushy and I was with the stout old guy. He really wasn’t an old guy, now that I look back at it. He seemed old to me, a strong looking old man, and he scared me. Maybe I was more scared to hear how horrible the war was. I should have been more afraid.

I went home that evening but all night I thought about the old guy, thinking how I could convince him to talk. The book report idea was weak. That was a spur of the moment thing. I could come up with something better. The next evening it was cold outside but I was at his door again and I this time I brought a pizza.

“Go away!” he said.

“Listen, sir, it’s me, Marco. I have a pizza from Frank’s down the street. I wondered if you wanted any.”

He didn’t come to the door right away. Then the door opened and he stood there with his bloodshot and glossed eyes.

“I thought you might like some pizza. I was rude to you yesterday and I’m sorry, sir.”

The pizza was still hot and steamy and smelled good.

“I thought I told you to get the hell out of here? What’s wrong with you?” he asked.

“I just thought I should come by and apologize,” I said as sincerely as I could.

“Well, you can’t just go around asking questions you don’t have any business asking,” he said in a more casual tone than the night before.

“I’m sorry, sir.”

“Thanks for the pizza Marco but I can’t accept it.”

“Why not?”

“I just can’t. I need you to leave me alone, okay?”

Something in his voice made me think he wanted to talk.

“What’s your name, sir?” I said.

“Dennis.”

“Dennis, why don’t you read magazines?”

“I get the paper. That’s all I read. Listen, son. I’m sorry. I was the one rude to you last night and I don’t mean to be rude now but…”

He paused and looked at the pizza, then me, and looked around, down the street to the left and then the right. You could see Frank’s pizza place from his apartment. “It’s cold as hell. You’re gonna get sick in this weather, you understand? Come inside and tell me about your magazines.”

It was hot inside. The first room in his apartment was a small narrow kitchen and the rest of his apartment looked like it was just as small with maybe a bedroom and a bathroom just behind the kitchen. He put the pizza down on a table and got out plates and cloth napkins. He opened the freezer part of his refrigerator and I saw he had water in a clear glass bottle. The bottle was clearly frosted but the water wasn’t frozen.

“Why doesn’t that freeze?” I asked.

“Vodka freezes at minus thirty,” he said.

He offered me some.

“Take a drink. It’s a real fire starter.”

“Sure,” I said, trying to appear sure of myself.

“That stuff’s a real scorcher,” he said as he poured, “You kinda caught me at a bad place yesterday, understand? I’ve been lit up for a few days now. I’ve been kinda low nowadays, understand? Not like today’s any better.”

I took a sip and he downed his drink in one jerk of the neck and poured himself more.

“What was it like, Vietnam?” I asked nonchalantly, mouth full of pizza.

“Something you’ll never have to go through. It was a mess. All but two of my buddies died there in that, understand?”

He sat down at the small kitchen table and stared at the wall as if it was another person.

“Government paid me to kill or be killed and so I decided to kill, understand? And I learned fast how to kill as many as possible.”

His eyes were getting glossier and he seemed to be breathing heavier. He poured himself more vodka. I took another, longer sip.

“I ate and killed and ate and killed and killed some more, understand? Is that what you came to hear? Your old man did the same stuff, don’t think he didn’t.”

He breathed in my face and pointed a finger, “We all were sick murderin’ soldiers doing what we had to. They paid us to kill those Chink Commie bastards and some of us learned to love it. You can kill a man in a lot of ways, son.”

He stood up quickly.

“Do you know what Tae Kwon Do is?”

“No,” I said.

He moved behind me closer to the door and I turned my neck around to look at him.

“How about Hapkido? Hmm? Or Vo Vi Nam? Hmm?”

His arms moved fast in circles and I could see better than before how strong and muscular he was. He did a kick that came so close to my face that I flinched. I turned away and looked straight forward.

“I’ve killed a man like this.”

His precise movements were inches from my head.

“And like this!” He made another move even closer.

“And like this! And this!” He grunted and yelled.

“I’ve killed a man just like this!”

I stood up and he pushed me back down in my chair.

“You stay right there! You’re gonna listen to everything I have to say! You wanna see, right? Killing isn’t a pretty thing, understand!”

He made all kinds of moves around my chest and I stood up out of reaction, one move after another, with his hands whizzing by my head, my ears and face.

“Do you know how many people I’ve killed?” he yelled.

I could feel the rush of air next to my ears, over and over. He got louder and louder.

“I’ve killed so many! And it’s been so long! Do you know the emptiness I have inside!”

Now I was terrified. It happened so suddenly. I wanted to leave but he kept making all these moves. He made a few more around my head and face and then one of his punches grazed my nose, making it bleed. I didn’t move even though I felt the hot blood on my chin and neck. He stopped for a second but then started moving his arms again. I didn’t know what to do so I said the first thing that came to my mind.

“Dennis, you’re scaring me!”

“Good!” he yelled, “I like that! Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve killed someone?”

I’m going to die. In this kitchen, I’m going to die.

 

“You can’t just come over here and expect me to answer all your questions!”

“I’m sorry! I didn’t know.” I said.

I wiped my eyes because I couldn’t see with all the tears and my hands had so much blood from my nose that it made my vision worse.

“You didn’t know? Didn’t know what? That I’ve killed? Your old man killed. What do you think about that? And I bet he liked it too, like we all did. We killed like dogs and we died like dogs. We murdered those Commies, and their babies!”

It seemed like hours but eventually he slowed down and pulled his chair around between me and the door and sat down. He moved my chair back towards the table and I sat down.

“You know they paid me to kill even after the war. Bet you didn’t do any book reports about that, did you? I was such a bad-ass killing machine they sent me to Centro America. Comprendo? Centro Fucking America. For seven years I killed every one they told me to kill and then they decided I was done. They didn’t need me anymore, understand? Two thousand a month to stay out of society. I’m M.I.A. Do you know what that means?”

I shook my head and held my nose up.

“It means they told my family I was missing in action. They think I’m dead and they keep me from contacting them, understand.”

“Dennis, I wanna go home. My Grandmother…”

“You know you can’t leave here.”

I said nothing.

                I really am going to die. Carol.

I was crying and the veteran got up and poured himself more vodka.

“Big old baby! Crying like a baby! You should have never come here! You’ve gone and done it now and I think you know now you messed up!”

“Please let me go.”

He shook his head slow and deliberately.

“Too late.”

After he said those words I felt a deep hot sensation move from my gut to my head. I was angry. I wanted to scream at him but kept it in my mind. I thought about my dad, killing a bunch of people in Viet Nam, deciding when and where a bunch of dinks would die. That’s what some people called Vietnamese back then, ‘Dinks’. You don’t hear that anymore which is good because it wasn’t ever used in a positive way. It was the first time I thought of my dad that way. I know he killed a lot of people.

                I hate all you killers!

 

Now I hated anyone who killed for any reason. He sat back down and started drinking the vodka from the bottle.

                Carol. What will happen to her without me? I’m sorry.

I don’t know how long we sat there saying nothing. He just breathed. My nose stopped bleeding and my chin, neck, and chest felt sticky.

                What’s he thinking? Is he trying to figure out how to kill me and hide my body?

I felt very peaceful when I knew it was inevitable, when I knew I was going to die. He wasn’t going to let me go and it would be over. It didn’t matter how he did it. It would eventually be over and I felt at peace.

Then the veteran started to snore.

He was asleep!

                The door isn’t that far. I could wait until he’s in a deep sleep and then run for the door!

It was probably three minutes, though it felt like thirty as I sat there holding my nose, starting to believe I was going to get out of this. He was still snoring and my eyes were fixed on the door.

                Did he lock the door? Should I sneak to the door or run?

I sat there looking at the door and then at him. I wondered if he was right about my father. War has always confused the hell out of me. I couldn’t imagine killing someone, not to mention feeling justified in it, or even worse, liking it. I wouldn’t forgive myself if that were me. I stood up slowly and he didn’t move. I lifted a foot slowly to take a step forward toward the door and then the floor creaked.

The veteran woke up and jumped from his chair three feet in the air!

As I looked over my shoulder I saw him bolting to the back room. I ran to the door, threw it open and jumped down the entire flight of stairs. I ran and ran, never looking back.

I thought about that day, every day, for a long time. I used to wake up at night terrified after dreaming he had found me. He never did. A lot of young men like Dennis stood up for what they believed in during that time and look at what it did to them. I never saw the veteran again and I never went back to Chelsea. I don’t even go to that side of town when I’m in the City if I can avoid it.

THE END

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