I was just a kid when I was airdropped into Vietnam.
It’s funny, before that I never really paid much attention to how people looked at me. Now, I can’t escape it. The bitterness, the disregard. My leg hurts. They tell me parts of the bullet are still there, to this day. When it’s as cold as it is now, I can almost feel the shards.
It’s hard to hold my hands steady enough to keep the flame alight while it washes over the end of the cigarette dangling from my mouth. The tremors are bad enough on a normal day, let alone in this kind of cold. The street is covered in wet puddles, though it is not raining. They reflect the overcast sky above.
It’s like they intentionally make sure the buses which go past the unemployment office run late; some kind of perverse societal punishment. Damn them. The cigarette will warm me up.
There’s another bus stop across the road where an elderly lady rests on her walker, shivering and waiting. Society used to take care of its elders; now we just wait out in the cold.
The heat is the one thing about ‘Nam I can remember without wincing. I was just a kid when they dropped me in. I had no business leading a company of soldiers. We were told to kill Charlie, and so we did. They didn’t wave flags or wear uniforms; how the hell could we know civilians from the enemy. Over there, the whole damn environment was our enemy. I slowly exhale a deep lung-full of smoke.
They didn’t see what we saw back home. We were traitors to the American Way; murderers complicit in a state-sanctioned slaughter. We didn’t set the damn policies, we just followed our orders. I was just a kid. They live with New York Times photos and Cronkite’s coverage – fine. I have to live with the faces of the farmers and villagers I killed, the boys I lost. Your gaze of disgust doesn’t see anything a mirror doesn’t already show me. I breathe the smoke in deep, feeling it sting my throat and chest. I have to admit, it gives me a sick pleasure; like I deserve anything less than suffering.
Across the street, a young man in a puffy jacket approaches the elderly lady. He pulls a pistol out of his pocket and aims it at the elderly ladies head. He is yelling at her, demanding her cash.
For almost four decades I have lived with the shame and regret of my actions during my time in Vietnam. I was just a kid. Now I’m not.
I take another drag of my cigarette, my pace of inhalation increasing.
The lady is frantically battling arthritic pain to reach into her coin purse as the man yells. I have to act. This is my time. Finally, a page of redemption in the otherwise disgraceful book of my life. Hell, even if it’s only a footnote, I’ll take it. Maybe I can level my eyes at myself in the mirror for the first time in an age. I look down at my cigarette: it’s half finished. I take another drag.
My niece might actually show some pride in her uncle. Maybe I can redeem an honourable burial for myself among my fallen comrades: Hawk, who succumbed to gangrene; Sanchez, who took a grenade for me. And, Downey… Downey, who I sent alone into that hut thinking it was clear. Downey, whose head I held while he bled-out and his eyes glazed over in front of me. Maybe I can prove they didn’t all die in vain. I take a strong drag as smoke leaks out of the end of the cigarette and stings my eyes, but I don’t care.
The elderly woman fumbles and hands over loose pennies from her purse. The man is still yelling for more.
I take another drag. A quarter of my cigarette remains. The faces of each and every one of my victims and brothers in arms flashes before my eyes. In spite of the cold, my hands are becoming clammy. I clench my right fist, building adrenaline and readying myself.
The woman is now shaking her handbag upside down as tears stream down her face, attempting to demonstrate she has no money left to give. The man cocks the gun and demands she pulls her pockets inside-out.
Maybe, I will get invited to Christmas with my relatives for the first time since in enlisted. Maybe I’ll make the paper: Hero Redeems Himself. I roll up my sleeves. There is about one good puff left in my cigarette. I inhale it deeply and let out a determined breath. Steadying my nerves and I toss it to the ground.
There is a bang as the man across the street pulls the trigger and most of the lady’s cerebral cortex flies over to lazily splat onto the bus stop sign. She collapses to the ground, surrounded by a halo of ever-expanding blood.
“Fuck.” I mutter with a resigned sigh.
The man crosses the street and casually approaches me.
“Can you spare a cigarette, brother?” He asks.
“That was my last one. I’m sorry,” I reply.
“Oh,” he says with a hint of disappointment.
During our exchange, my bus speeds past.
“It’ll be a while before the next one,” the man vacantly muses before wandering off.
Society used to take care of its elderly; now we just wait out in the cold.
I’ll need to pick up some cigarettes.