The guy’s voice was tight and flat, and seemed to come from somewhere else, ventriloquisticly. “I’m seeing nuclear conflagration after the next, the real Kennedy assassination, which is gonna happen soon, for sure. The ghost of Oswald is at hand, my man, and he’s gonna get it right this time. No fucking maladjusted scope. No blurry vision or submerged subconscious patriotic bullshit making him quiver; no heartbeat interference on the shot because he had too much coffee or whatever. Next guy’s gonna hold his breath and do the backward sniper count thing.”
“OK, buddy, I got you on that,” Singleton said.
“’Bout that light?”
Singleton pulled the Zippo out and scratched a flame.
“Yeah, Oswald’s just the fucking tip, man, of the largest iceberg this country’s gonna hit, man, and I’m not talking the riots and so forth, or any of that shit, man,” the guy in the wheelchair said. “I’m talking about a debasement of the largest kind.”
(Now’s the moment, Singleton thought; there’s going to be a glint of something like recognition and then he’ll pop into the questioning mode: What’s your unit and where were you stationed and how long were you in and all of that.)
“Hold that fucking thing up here.” For all of his limitations—his lack of legs and fully functioning arms—the guy had tremendous agility in his torso. (But how, Singleton thought, did he wheel around without the use of his arms? And didn’t he lift a salute to me?)
“Light me another one so when this one goes out I’ll have something to sustain me.”
He put another cigarette to the guy’s lips and brought out the lighter again.
“I know that lighter, man. I know it. We might’ve seen some action together somewhere. I know you think I’m one more crazy fucker, rambling about my visions and so forth. Give me your story. Give me the whole fucking narrative.”
Singleton resorted to making the enfolded gesture: he made a fist and held it against his temple and took a couple of steps back and did it again.
“Ah, man. I thought so. I saw it right off. Saw it in the way you were standing there like you never saw a guy in a wheelchair before. Said to myself, there’s a guy who saw some bad shit. There’s a man who had the good fortune of having it all tucked inside while I sit here with my body too damaged to qualify for the treatment. When I tried to sign up they told me that if your physical damage is bad enough the mental can’t be worked on. You get a chair and a yard and a dog on a chain. That’s all you get.”
“What’d you see over there?” Singleton said. All I can do, he thought, is kick the can down the road. When you have contact, avoid having to be precise about your own story.
“I saw the five-by-six view from a gunner port and everything else in between. Gooks running through the grass with that squat waddle,” he said. He’d seen water buffalo stampeding under the blade wash. He’d seen the men in hats running under the ribbons of tracer fire. He’d seen the beautiful spin of dust-off smoke pouring up from the canopy. He’d rehabbed in South Haven, the fucking VA unable to secure for him a decent set of wheels. Then—with seething insects, the cicada in the weeds and up in the trees starting to talk directly to each other—he began making a clucking sound with his tongue and Singleton felt the sadness that came from hearing those who were way, way, way beyond help, the ones who turned to vocal tones instead of words.
“You got a day and I’ll tell you the details,” he said, finally.
“I’d like that,” Singleton said.
“Now you’d better go to your old lady.”
“You know her?”
“Like a sister.”
* * *
Wendy’s father greeted him with a meaty handshake, saying, “Come on in. Don’t listen to anything that guy has to say. Wendy’s told me all about you.”
Singleton paused at the screen door. The man—his long hair flaxen in the sunlight—was
Mary Christner Borntrager