With Stars in Our Eyes

I closed the book, put down the lighted magnifier and realized this might be the last one I’d ever read.

You think of these things when you’re going blind. And fast. Ischemic optic neuropathy is what the doctors called it. On top of that, I had something called low tension glaucoma, something the regular eye exams would never pick up.

They were something I’d had for decades as my eyesight deteriorated and the doctors just gave me stronger eyeglass prescriptions and the lame, “You’re getting older” jive.

“Another headache, Dave?” my wife Jen would ask.

“Yeah. Work’s just been a bitch and my sleeping has sucked.”

“When are you going to see a doctor about it?” Jen would always say.

“It’s okay, Jen. Just migraine or something. I’ll take an ibuprofen and it’ll be fine,” I’d reply. But then the ibu didn’t seem to hit it anymore and my peripheral vision seemed to be shrinking.

After I nearly rolled off the shoulder of the country road out near Oneonta, almost taking out a jogger, I decided I’d better see the doctor. But it was too late. The damage was done, my optic nerves were dying and the world was going dark faster than the onset of a January night. Only no dawn was riding to my visual rescue.

To her credit, even though I deserved it, Jen never pulled the “I told you so” card on me. She was calmer than I thought she would be, though in no way unsympathetic. She just was Jden, the woman I’d loved for over forty years.

She found me sitting in the dark, moping, feeling sorry for myself. I’d become your typical panicked patient. You begin groping even before everything goes dark, pondering how you’ll survive in the perpetual night coming in just a few months or even weeks.

“Hey, why so dark in here?” Jen said and flipped on the lights.

“I’m trying the future on for size. Now turn out the lights, Jen, and let me think, okay?”

“I wasn’t talking about the lights, Dave,” she said.

“Wouldn’t you be upset if you were me, Jen? Tell me you wouldn’t,” I said.

“I would be and I am, Dave. But sitting here silently raging in the dark isn’t going to change that. Now let’s about this some so we can figure out what we’re going to do when…you know.”

“Are you kidding?” I said, jumping up from my chair and moving toward her voice. I tripped over the ottoman and fell to the floor, banging my head and seeing flashes of light like I hadn’t seen in months.

“Dave, are you okay?” Jen said, hitting the light switch again and rushing to my side.

“See? See what an invalid I’m becoming? I’ll be nothing but a fucking burden on you and useless to myself and everyone else.”

She stood up and looked down at me. I could feel her eyes boring a hole through mine. I recognized that energy from all the other times I’d been a self-absorbed asshole with her.

I scrambled off the floor to the window, embarrassed for my whining outburst. I opened the curtains and looked into a darkness that might well be my view for the rest of my life.

“I can’t even see the stars anymore, Jen. Our stars, the one’s we’d stare at from the bed of my pickup when we were 17.”

“We can get through this, Dave. We’ve been through worse. What about my mastectomy? Fucking cancer and you never wavered in your devotion and care. You’d hold me every night, loving ME, not just some bra mannequin, as much in love as in the back of that pickup.”

“I’ll never see the kids faces anymore, never watch the grandkids grow up. And worst of all, I don’t know how I can take never seeing you again, Jen,” I said with a catch in my throat.

“I’m right here,’ she said, putting my hand to her face. “I’ve got your stars right here,’ Jen said, touching my fingers to her closed eyelids. “And I’ll keep them for you, let you hold them, bring you every bug or vista you’d ever want to see. That’s what we do, Dave. If you can’t see that, then you’re blind already.”

Slowly, her face so close to mine I could feel her eyelashes and a dampness on my cheek, everything became so clear, even with our eyes closed. So clear a blind man could see it. She’s beautiful, isn’t she?

Quick first-draft flash fiction in response to Annie Fuller’s Writing Outside the Lines challenge based on the Sara Teasdale line, “Give me your stars to hold.”

Up in the Air

Her foot slipped and she started to fall.

Silhouetted against the late afternoon sun, I saw the figure of a girl drop to the pool from the high board.  She hit the water awkwardly with a terrific splash that made me wince.

I did not join the cluster of youngsters at poolside who laughed at her ugly spill.  In fact, I rose from my poolside lounge chair and took a step toward the pool to see if she was okay.  But then I sat back, not quite on the edge of my seat, but nervously nonetheless.  Even on such a hot July Fourth afternoon, I always shivered at the thought of climbing the fifteen rungs to the top of the high board.

The girl swam to the edge of the pool’s diving area and, with what looked like a move as natural as a dolphin’s, kicked up from the water, pulled on the deck edge and twisted into a seated position facing the water.  She sat there for a few seconds and then – not as smoothly as when she was waterborne – climbed to her feet and limped away from the pool directly toward me.  As she approached, I saw she was tall, fair, wearing a two-piece swimsuit and a red welt that spread from outside her right knee, up her torso to her shoulder.  I also noticed her eyes were staring vacantly right through me.

The girl – she was probably eighteen or nineteen – stopped at the lounge chair directly next to mine and reached down for her towel.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

Startled, she looked up, straightened and wobbled a bit, her blue eyes wide and suddenly more focused.

“Oh, you scared me.  I didn’t see you sitting there,” she said.

“Sorry, I was just a bit concerned because you took such an awkward fall.”  I couldn’t help but stare at the ever more reddening stain against her skin.

“Eh, it happens,” she replied, shaking the water from her short strawberry blond hair.  At that, the woman teetered a bit and plopped down on her chair.

“Whoo, must’ve hit the water a little harder than I thought,” she grinned.

“Forgive me, but how the hell can you be so nonchalant about what just happened?” I said.  “That thing, that diving board, all high things, scare me to death.  And what just happened to you is one of the reasons they scare me.”

“Oh, I’ve been jumping off the high board since I was eight or nine.  Never really bothered me, but some little shit behind me jumped on his end of the board as was making my approach and my foot slipped.  Tell you what, though, that water stings like hell.”

“I’m sorry, I’m Bill, Bill Thompson,” I said, extending my sunblock-greased hand.

“Hi,” she replied, “I’m Paula.  The hand she extended was wet, sort of mushy, its fingers pruned from their time spent in the pool.

“Can I get you something?  For the dizziness, I mean.  A bottle of water maybe?”

“No, I think I’ll be okay if I just sit here for a few minutes.  Besides, I think I may have just swallowed about a pint of water.  I know I have at least that much in my ears.”  Paula tipped her head down to the left and gently shook it, attempting to drain that ear.

“Ow,” she said and leaned back in the lounge chair.  “Well, that’s one of ‘em.  But I think I’ll wait a few more minutes for everything to stop rocking in front of me before I try the right ear.”

Then she giggled, the lilting laugh of a teenager, maybe even a ‘tween, I thought.  I was surprised by the sound of her laugh, something like human wind chimes, I thought.

“You’re sure you’re gonna be alright then?” I said.

“Oh sure, soon as I feel a little sturdier on my feet, I’ll climb right back up there.  I’ve got no other reason to be here at the park than that pool.”

“You’re not here to see the fireworks tonight?”

“No, I don’t like fireworks.  They make me real nervous.  That’s made for some lonely July Fourths, but I still have a good time flying off the board.  Instead of flying up and exploding, I fly down and splash.  I’m my own sort of firework, I guess.”

“I really admire you in being able to climb back up there,” I said.  “When I was about five my Dad took up me up with him to the top of a diving board just like this.  Then he chucked me off when I wouldn’t jump like he told me to.”

“How terrible,” Paula said, her eyes fully focused for the first time since she got out of the pool.

“Mom thought so, too.  But that’s how my Dad was, Mr. Throw-‘em-in-the-deep-end.  Sometimes it was for the better, said it would make a man out of me.  Other times…”

I shrugged.  “I still have a thing about heights.  You say that you have lonely July Fourths because of your thing with fireworks; I’m that way about skyscrapers, open elevators, airplanes.  That’s why the first spring break I ever went to was last year.  My junior year – that’s of college, Paula.  And I had to drive to Florida the whole way by myself.  Won’t fly.  Nope, can’t do it. Oh, I’ve tried to fight it, but I always get to the top and chicken out.”

“Well,” Paula said, “I can understand how you can be afraid of certain things.  With me and the fireworks, I guess it’s the noise.  I just can’t take the booming.  You should see me during thunderstorms.  I beat my dog to the spot under the bed every time.”

More chiming giggles.

“You’re very nice,” she said.  “Thanks.  Are you here by yourself, too?”

“Yeah, gonna try to work the tan, splash around, maybe meet some friends later for the fireworks show.”

“Oh, the boomers.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Well let’s see, it’s sixish now, so you’ve got awhile before dusk.  That means I’ve got that long to get back to the pool before I head for home.”

“Paula,” I said, simultaneous with her blurting, “So, Bill.”

“Go ahead,” she said.

“What if I could find a way for you not to be afraid of the noise?  Would you stay and watch the fireworks with me?”

Paula frowned for a second.  Then her faintly freckled face opened up into a grin.

“How are you going to manage that?” she said.

“Um, well, I have an idea.  C’mon, what do you say?”

Paula’s expression changed to something like that of a kid taking a test, leaning toward False, but nagged by the tiny possibility of True.  She looked down, right, left, right, like her mind was searching for an Exit sign.

“C’mon, the colors are so pretty in person. TV can’t do them justice.  Sometimes they actually make pictures against the sky.  They sparkle and then they sink down like somebody drew a picture in colored chalk on a blackboard and then threw some water on it.”

“And this is supposed to make me want to expose myself to explosions? Pretty pictures?”

“Well, maybe not, but keep an open mind, okay?”

“Ohh-kay. But you’ve got to do something for me first.”

I felt a chill on the windless pool deck, where the flags above the pool-house looked melted to their poles by the heat.

“Let me help you get up and off that board,” Paula said. I saw a determined look on her face, but heard a voice that was soft and inviting.

“Maybe you really should go home,” I replied.

Paula giggled again.

I began searching for words, as well as a means, of escape.

“Look,” Paula said, “I started diving when I was seven and ended up diving competitively in high school and now college. I even became a platform diver. Think about doing THAT for the first time. One thing I learned is we all have fears and we all have to start low and work our way up. I’ll have you going off that high board by sundown or my name’s not Paula McDonald.”

“Well, at least I’ve accomplished finding out your full name,” I grinned.

“Then it’s a deal,” Paula said, extending her hand as if to shake on it. I reached out and she pulled me up and off my seat. She led me to one of the low boards, the one on the far side of the pool away from the audience of lounge chairs and too-close observers. However, this low board sported a tail of pushing middle-schoolers and teens.

“So, Bill, here we go,” Paula said as we took the position at the end of the swiftly moving line. “This board is just four feet or so above the water. Here’s where we’ll get your feet, umm, dry…and then wet.”

“I’ve been off a board this high before, Paula, it’s just the tall one that scares me. There, I said it, it scares me.”

“You’re allowed to be scared of something, Bill. I had a coach that told me that there’s no disgrace in being knocked down – or landing on your back. If there’s any disgrace, it’s in not getting back up.”

“Thanks, Coach Lombardi.”

“Who?”

“Never mind. Let’s get this over with.”

“Okay, I’m glad you’ve gone off this board before. We’re going to make believe it’s the Big Kahuna this time, though. We’ll do everything here we need to do to get off the high board so you’ll be prepared for later. How’s that?”

“Sure,” I moaned.

“Right, now take your time, try to enjoy the experience,” Paula said. “Remember, for a second after you jump up from the board, you’ll be feeling nothing, just air. It’s this of feeling and hearing nothing that you’ll experience until you feel and hear your entry into the water. That’ll be your explosion, but instead of fireworks, it’ll be, um, well, waterworks. Then, underwater, it’s quiet again. It’s lovely.”

“Yeah, lovely.”

“Remember, Bill, this was sort of your idea, right? Do what I do. I’ll swim to the side and watch. Okay, we’re up in a couple more kids. What I want you to do is walk to the end of the board and feel it sink and bounce a bit. Go with it. Use the bounce to get your butt in the air, out and over the water. Wherever your center of gravity goes, you’re going, too. When you bounce up, jump forward and upwards, stretching your arms out in front of you. Oh, and you don’t really have to look if you don’t want to.”

Paula stepped up to the board and slowly strode to its end, her body matched the sink and rise of the board, just as easily as she was striding across the pool deck. On her last step, the board went down and rose. She coiled her body and then exploded up, out and down into the water, carving a languorous arc above the water to a near-splashless entry into the pool.

She swam to the near side of the pool and looked back at me, a smile of accomplishment, joy, support, something, on her face. I was holding onto the rails on each side of the board. Shoulders tucked tight to my ears, I marched to the end of the board, mistimed the bounce and flipped ass-over-teakettle, splat, onto the water’s surface. For a second, I considered not coming up from underwater, but I broke the surface and swam to the ladder at poolside, where Paula was waiting.

“I think this will take awhile,” she said. “But remember coach’s mantra.”

“Yeah, I tried staying down, but it didn’t work.”

She giggled that giggle again and said, “Let’s go, Bill. It’s still just six thirty.”

For the next hour and a half Paula and I worked on the side and jumped off the low board. After a few mechanically solid dives, she told me that I was ready to fly.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“C’mon, Bill. What more do I have to do to get you up there?”

I had to admit, she had gone way beyond her part of the deal. While I stood in line about a half-hour before, I thought of a way for Paula to deal with the fireworks. I was as sure in my plan as she was in hers to help me fly. Except I was sure my plan would work. Her plan, I decided, was painfully flawed. I was the flawed part of the plan.

Stall, William.

“Okay, okay, but tell me one thing,” I said, digging my bare feet into the concrete pool deck as she pulled me toward the ladder to the high board. “Why are you so afraid of the loud sounds. You don’t seem to be afraid of anything.”

She stopped, let go of my arm and stared at me. Hard. Then she took a step back.

“I don’t want to talk about it, okay?” Paula said and took another couple of steps toward her towel on the lounge chair.

“Paula,” I called after her. “I’m sorry. If I’m going to do this – IF – I just can’t do this without you. I promise I’ll get up there. Just don’t be upset with me. Please?”

Paula spun and coldly looked at me. “If you must know, I was in a traffic accident, okay? Late night. After a meet. Okay? Need to know more, Bill? How about this? It was icy. Tractor-trailer jack-knifed on the highway ahead of a line of traffic. My coach tried to stop, just like all the other cars. We spun, and then all the other cars started hitting one another, bang, bang, bang, bang, BANG. Three teammates and the coach were killed, four others severely injured. Me, not a scratch. That enough to get you going, Bill?”

I felt a chill that was immediately melted by a blast of heated embarrassment from my chest to my forehead.

“God, Paula, I’m so sorry,” I said, reaching for her arm.

She twisted from my grasp.

“Look, I like you. You’re cute, you’ve got kind eyes, and you helped me when everyone else thought I was some kind of klutz. You didn’t know me – obviously. But you wanted to make sure I was okay. And I don’t think you were doing it just to hit on me. Not that I wouldn’t have let you, you little jerk. But right now I feel like I just wasted a day, in more ways than one, and if you don’t climb that damn ladder and jump off that freaking board, I’m out of here, deal or not.”

What could I do? I mean really? I turned around, walked to the bottom of the ladder, where there were only three divers still diving in the five minutes left before the pool was going to close.

I took one step up, felt the water dripping off the guy above me on the ladder. I looked over at Paula. She was wrapping herself in her towel and putting on her flip-flops.

More steps up. The guy in front of me had reached the top and was standing on the near end of the board while another diver bounced and flew out and down into the water. Paula was stuffing things into her tote bag. She hadn’t looked one time at me.

I pulled myself to the rear edge of the board and stood there, looking out at the whole pool deck, the roof of the pool house, and the orangey-blond top of Paula’s head, which was turned toward the women’s entrance to the locker-room.

The guy ahead of me bounced on the end of the board twice, sending it deeply below where I was standing, so all I could see was his body from the shoulders up. And then, when the board came back up, he would bounce maybe two feet above it and land back on the sandpaper-like end again. He was getting his timing right or just showing off, I guess.

Then he just took off. Beautiful. Yeah, I’ll say it. Like a bird.

And there I was, just as the lifeguard sounded his claxon horn and yelled into his bullhorn that the pool was closing.

“C’mon, pal, last dive,” he said to me.

I looked behind me and there was no one on the ladder. I could easily just climb down. Nobody would have to skinny to the side of the ladder or climb off to let me pass. It wouldn’t be like that time in high school. The last time I tried to dive off the high board. The laughs and remarks were about as big an embarrassment as any I ever felt. Until five minutes before I arrived at the top of the ladder.

I walked toward the end of the board and it really felt just like the low board. Only thing different was that the drop-off on either side was about three times as high. It looked like thirty times to me.

I looked over at Paula and she was about five steps from the locker room door. And then she turned around and looked at me. She took off her sunglasses and looked at me. And her face had a sadness about it. I took a breath, bounced once and lost my balance for a second, but recovered. My heart was beating so hard I knew everyone could hear it above the silence on the pool deck.

“Tonight, buddy, while we’re still young,” the lifeguard boomed. “Now or never.”

I chose never. I turned around and took a step toward the ladder. I saw Paula’s shoulders slump and she turned back to the locker room.

And then I slipped and fell.

She was right. There is this feeling of silence, of nothing, not even the wind. And then there’s the noise of hitting the water, followed by the quiet again. She was so right.

She was also right about it stinging like hell.

I came to the surface just as the lifeguard was climbing off his tower and trotting down to see if I was okay. I’m sure he would have a tough time explaining how the only person in the pool ended up drowned at closing time.

I put my head down and swam for the wall behind me, under the board. That’s when I saw Paula.

“Bill, are you all right?” she asked, her face showing what looked like genuine concern.

I walked right by her, grabbed the handle on the ladder and started climbing.

“Hey, buddy, c’mon, let’s go. Haven’t you suffered enough?”

The disgrace is in not getting back up, I heard in my head. Yeah, I’d suffered enough. I was determined to suffer no more –- no more disgrace, at least –- today.

“Bill, it’s okay,” I heard Paula say below me.

I got to the top and just jumped off, head-first. I didn’t hesitate and I’m sure I looked like a complete spazz, but I did it — on my terms — just to prove that I could.

But never again.

Later that night, on a blanket over the hood of my car, I looked at Paula’s face glowing red, then green, then yellow in the reflected glare of each aerial bomb. Mostly, though, her face just glowed.

“Bill,” she yelled above the sound of the third movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony blasting in the headphones on her ears, “it really is very beautiful.”

I had to admit she was right, as I laid back and looked up, almost forgetting my near-failure. I couldn’t shake the idea of the sky as the water’s surface, splashing in a splatter of fire.

A big aerial bomb exploded in a garish flare of pyrotechnic elation. Even I was a little startled this time. It wasn’t the boom of the fireworks, though. It was the touch of Paula’s hand suddenly holding mine.

Yet another flash of colored light split the sky, the biggest yet, as before, it was followed by a second of silence, and then the boom reached me. It was the sound that hit me and it was the concussion of the explosion that washed over Paula. It startled her a bit and she squeezed my hand.

This shocked me. But just for a second.

Then I squeezed back.

So, I thought. Flying.

I found that first sentence somewhere and it intrigued me. The rest of the story just spread like the rings of ripples growing from someone hitting the water from sixteen feet above the surface.  

Heroes

It was August 28th and Cindy Bingham knew her father, Walter, had fallen off the wagon again.

He’d gotten falling-down drunk around this time for each of the twenty-one years since August 28, 1862 etched its physical and emotional wounds upon him that never quite healed.

After sitting all night in a rocking chair by the fireplace in the Bingham home outside Stony Point, New York, Cindy heard the thud outside. This time Walter’s fall was as literal as could be. His brother-in-law Hiram Mott thought he saw Walt misstep onto the dusty road from the front seat of Hiram’s rig as it slowly passed in front of the Bingham place at dawn on August 29, 1883. Hiram had been drinking with Walt all day, just to keep him safe, but was too drunk to do much about his brother-in-law’s tumble anyway.

The clop-clop of his horses’ hooves drowned any sound from behind as they never stopped. The pair of bays just kept trotting north to the Mott place, their reins slack and their master dozing along for the ride. They’d made the trip many times with Hiram before.

Walter’s fall was also from his normal sobriety. That date and its memories had again set him to drinking day and night since the evening of the 26th.

Cindy Bingham found her father by the side of the road when she emerged bleary-eyed from the house about the time she normally would begin the day’s milking. It was a job she shared with her father since the death of her mother, Martha, two years before.

Always he would turn into this other Walt at the end of August. Then he’d slowly return to the quiet, sober and loving husband to Martha and father to Cynthia everyone knew as the local hero.

As she helped her father into the house, she recalled Walt hardly ever took out that medal, with its blue ribbon with thirteen red and white stripes, honoring his heroism,. Most especially not at the end of August. Instead, he’d only pull out the three old photographs that portrayed five smiling young men posing in impeccable uniforms whose exotic design was borrowed from the French Zouaves.

All of these young men wore the confident and guileless grins of soldiers who had not faced an enemy in combat. They’d not yet left Stony Point and heard the whiz and crunch of enemy bullets missing or finding their mark. They’d yet to feel the body-shaking concussion of a Parrot shell as it obliterated the men next to you and threw you six feet away, turning the world into swirls of red, white and gray. They had not yet “seen the elephant,” as the veteran soldiers described their baptisms in fire.

As she peeled Walter’s filthy clothes off her father before putting him to bed, Cindy Bingham recalled the first time she equated this room with this date.

When she was eight, she watched from the barely open bedroom door as Walt opened the cigar box where he kept the photos that turned him from doting father to brooding and distant stranger. That was when she connected the date and the contents of the box with an abnormally short and frightening temper. She had seen him lash out with his voice and the back of his hand to her mother should she try too much to console him. That day, she watched Walt carry his photos to the barn, where he sat with his back to its south-facing red wall. He gazed at them when he wasn’t staring into space or covering his eyes and shaking his shoulders.

Cindy remembered how she crept to the clothes press where Walt kept the box and opened its lid to see whatever could make her father change so.

Inside, she found the medal. It was a tarnished upside-down five-pointed star topped by an eagle perched on crossed cannons. The star was suspended from a ribbon that reminded her of the flag under which her father was said to have fought with great distinction in the War of Southern Rebellion. Beneath the medal, along with some documents and letters, she found another photo of her father, its image face-down. The photo was of Walt Bingham in the plain blue uniform of an Army sergeant, a grim and tired expression on his face and the still-shiny medal pinned to his chest.

The little girl heard the bedroom door open and there stood Walt, his eyes rimmed in red.

“What are you doing?” he said, in a voice caught somewhere between anger and anguish. He rushed to her and, before he could take the box from her, Cindy dropped it in fear, its contents spilling on the bedroom floor.

“Look what you’ve done. Don’t ever touch this box again, girl or I’ll…” Walter raised his hand as if he might strike Cindy, but stopped and dropped to his knees to put the photos, documents and medal back in it. Cindy, in tears, rushed past her father and downstairs to her mother. Together, Martha and Cindy watched as Walter rode away from the house and did not return until August 29, as drunken and disheveled as the man she was helping into their home on this morning in 1882.

* * * *

Once she was back in the kitchen, Walter softly snoring off his bender, Cindy thought back to when she was ten, when she finally got the courage to ask her father the question that had burned in her for two years.

“Daddy, why do you get so sad and angry when August turns to September?”

Walter Bingham, softly put his mug of coffee down on the kitchen table, closed his eyes and mumbled, “You’re not old enough to understand, Cynthia. I hope you never have to. Now go help your mother, please.”

It was her mother, Martha, who told Cindy that her father had returned from the war a changed man.

“He left New York a cheerful and strapping boy, so dashing in his blue jacket with its and red brocade trim, his baggy crimson trousers. I watched the gold tassel on his red kepi bounce to the martial air they played while his regiment marched to the train in Peekskill, bound for Baltimore that morning in 1861. He was the most handsome boy in that regiment.”

“Were you proud of him?” Cindy asked.

“Oh, my yes. He was my betrothed and I was the envy of all my friends. But, inside, I was terrified of what might happen to him, how I might become a war widow before we’d ever become married.”

“And what happened when he was away and then came back?” Cindy asked, because this was the answer she really wanted.

“In three years, that dashing boy returned a wounded hero. The people of Stony Point greeted him with honors fit for a victorious returning knight. The young man who limped off the train resembled my beloved Walter, but he was not the same boy I’d kissed goodbye. And that’s all I’ll say right now, Cynthia. Now off to school with you,” Martha said, giving Cindy a kiss, then turning to her dishes and pulling a handkerchief from her sleeve to dab at her eye and across her nose.

* * * *

Cindy made a pot of coffee, as much for her sleep-deprived self as for her deeply sleeping father. As she waited for the water to boil, she knew that by the second week of September, he would return to his normal self. Once again he’d be the loving and industrious Walt Bingham she knew better than anyone. Once again, he’d be a citizen of Stony Point who people would always greet on the streets with a doffed hat and a simple and warm, “Good morning, Walt!” or nod of the head and proper “Hello, Mr. Bingham. Good day to you, sir.”

Walt would politely acknowledge his treatment as the town’s foremost citizen, though he eschewed any attempts to draw him into political circles or any public activities, including meetings of the veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic.

Three years ago, when she was fifteen, it was through a talk with one of those veterans, her uncle Hiram, that Cynthia learned the true genesis of her father’s hero status. That and his annual temporary metamorphosis into a drunken misanthrope.

“It happened at a place called Manassas in Virginia, Cindy,” Hiram said. “Your papa’s company was in reserve of other units who were putting up a great battle against the forces of the Rebel General Jackson, a brilliant soldier and brutal man who got his comeuppance in ’63 at Chancellorsville. But that’s neither here nor there to Walt’s story.”

“His company was ordered to fill a gap on the left side of the line, where the 5th New York was taking a terrible fire and beginning to falter. Your papa rushed up and took his position just as the 5th began falling back. Men were dropping, dead or wounded, all around him. The ground was so covered with them in their tattered once-grand uniforms that Walter had to quick-step atop their bodies to rush up to his position in the line,” Hiram said.

Cynthia gasped.

“Sorry to spell it out like this, little niece, but I think you should know why your papa is the way he is. Now amid all this chaos, Walter’s company, under fierce fire, began to waver and fall back. He, with a handful of other men, began running down a ravine that led toward our lines. In the woods above this little group of New York boys, Walt saw the Reb officers were dressing their line before making another charge. Your papa, already a corporal and a very smart soldier, realized the Rebels would likely strike at our big guns protecting the entire Corps’ left flank. That’s when he left his friends to go alert the artillery to their danger,” Hiram said, crossing his arms and rubbing his chin whiskers with his left hand.

“The Rebs saw what Walt was doing and started firing at him. I was with the guns and we watched him running like a rabbit, never expecting him to make it. He sprinted through the enemy fire, bullets tearing at his uniform and one ball cutting across his ribs,” Hiram said.

“I’ve seen the scar. Papa always tries to cover it, but I’ve seen it,” Cindy said.

“When he went down, we thought sure he was dead. But son of a bitch if he didn’t pop right back up and start running again. Funny thing about that. While we was hollering for Walter to run, the Rebs was cheering for him, too. Not that they wasn’t still trying to kill him, of course. When he got to the artillery commander, your papa reported the enemy were gathering in force in the woods on his left flank and the colonel would lose his guns if he did not limber them up and get them the blazes out of there. Which they did, by the scarcest of margins. They most surely would have been lost, our flank overrun and the whole army lost with them if not for your papa. After they patched Walter up and the officers made their report of what he did, they awarded Walt that Medal of Honor,” Hiram said and then spat at the ground.

“And that’s why he’s sad every year at this time? You would think he would be proud to have earned that medal. He’s a hero,” Cindy said, beaming with pride after hearing the story her father never told.

“Well, sweet girl, that’s not how war works. War affects men in different ways. Your papa was pretty shaken up by that Reb ordnance and musket fire chasing him down the ravine and the bullet that tore through his side. But what really wounded him was the fact that all the men he was with up on the line were lost. And those four men he broke off from to warn our guns? Not two seconds later, a Reb shell burst in their midst and, well…let’s just say they were lost, too. Walt was the only survivor of his whole platoon.” Hiram spat again.

“Those four men wouldn’t be…”

“The young fellas in that photograph he keeps? Yes, dear girl. All school chums who joined up for the fancy outfits that impressed the girls like your Mama, the precision marching that impressed themselves, and to put down the secession in a couple of months. It took four years and thousands of lives. Some, like Walter, are still walking around, still sharing the warmth of his loved ones. But, come the anniversary of that day, he goes dead as his friends inside, too. Now you dry those tears, girl, and know how lucky you are to have Sergeant Walter Bingham of the 5th New York Volunteer Infantry as your father. And to know you have Walt Bingham, as strong and saintly a man as ever drawn breath, as your papa, period.”

It was that day Cindy vowed to help soften her loving but quiet father’s sadness, pain, guilt, or whatever tortured him so, most especially every late August.

* * * *

Her father still sleeping off 1883’s sorrowful fall, Cynthia discussed her father’s invisible wounds with her beau, Robert Van Wormer, who stopped by to see how she was faring with her father back home.

“My father tries so hard, Robert. And Lord knows I did my best to make sure everything was neat and quiet and loving these past years since Mama died. She once told me she almost made it happen one year when I was two. She hid the cigar box and the photographs from him. But by noon on the 28th, he became so melancholy, she said she thought he would harm himself. That’s when she gave in and showed him where she’d put it,” Cindy said with a catch in her throat.

“Out came the pictures and Mother said Daddy was gone for the next day and a half. That date has a power over him that she could never rein in and I’m not sure how I can. It’s like the sadness lies in the ground like a cicada and pops out to overwhelm whatever good we can bring to it. We are lucky he and his faith and love for us was so strong that he can soon enough bury it again until the next year.”

“You know, there may be a way,” Robert said. “Maybe if he took the cure, the whole treatment at the spa up in Saratoga. The waters, the baths, massage, just getting away from all these same faces and places, might just jar him into something other than his melancholy.”

“let me think abut it, Robert. And thank you for being such a love,” Cindy said, kissing Robert on the cheek.

* * * *

Good as his word, Robert suggested taking Walter away from home that August, taking the steamer up the Hudson to Saratoga for the springs and mineral baths, and not returning until the 29th or even the 30th.

“I don’t know if that would be the answer, Robert. But perhaps taking the cure at the Springs might be the thing to help keep my mind at rest and away from those horrible visions, those faces, those… Yes, let’s take the trip,” Walt said to the earnest young man.

A few days later, Walt and Robert were back in Stoney Point, Walt in roughly the same shape as all the preceding August 28ths.

“Robert, what in the world? How did this happen?” Cindy said to her crestfallen beau after they half-carried a very sick Walter to his bed.

“Everything was going extremely well, Cindy. The trip upriver to Albany was beautiful and the train to Saratoga was fine. Your father was a little quiet, perhaps reticent to speak openly of his problems with me, but once we got to the town, I think he actually got caught up in the whole spirit of the place. The baths there were still buzzing after the record win of the Travers Stakes race by a horse name Rataplan. It was all they could talk…”

“Robert, my father? I sent him off with you to avoid another occasion like all those other years. Please explain how he ended up like this while supposedly in your care,”  Cindy said, holding here hand up in front of Robert’s face.

“We were in one of the baths, having just finished a good steam and were getting massages, all part of the treatment I hoped would help your father. We couldn’t help but hear one of the other masseurs talking to a guest on the other side of the room from us. ‘Yes sir,’ he was saying, ‘this old place has quite the history. Famous folks from far and wide have come here for the waters and their healing powers. George Washington himself wanted to buy one of our springs for its bubbling waters. Just last week Commodore Vanderbilt, Diamond Jim Brady and Miss Lillian Russell herself stopped by for the baths and a massage. Why even that Rebel General Stonewall Jackson came right to Saratoga for the mineral springs and such on his honeymoon with the second Mrs. Jackson.’”

“Oh, no,” Cindy said.

“Next thing I hear is your father’s masseur saying, ‘Sir, please, you’ll have to relax just a little. You’ve stiffened up rather severely.’ Straight away, Walter, not even bothering to cover himself with a sheet, ran out of the room to grab his clothes and disappear out a back door. I couldn’t catch him, Cindy. I’m so sorry. I spent the day and night scouring every saloon and casino I could find searching for him. I eventually found Walt the next morning, the 28th, out cold in an alley behind the Adelphi Hotel on Broadway. I cleaned him up best I could, and we took the next train to Albany and on home.”

“Oh, Robert, I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve to be brought into this so deeply,” Cindy said.

“I don’t think there’s any more we can do, Cindy. That date and those memories are too strong. And, if I am to be Walter’s son-in-law some day, his welfare will be as much my problem as yours,” Robert said, as he took Cindy’s hand.

In October of that same year, Robert asked Walter for Cynthia’s hand in marriage. Cindy could see her father’s habitually passive expression Walter was overjoyed, because he now knew Robert to be a young man of integrity and respect for not only his daughter, but himself as well.

“So have you picked a date for the nuptials, Cindy? Sometime in June? I understand June is the month most brides cherish for the occasion,” Walt said, his arms around his daughter.

“We’ve decided upon August 28th.” She tugged her father closer, as Walt’s embrace grew limp.

“No, Cindy. I can’t, you mustn’t, I…”

“Daddy, Mother always said that it was the horrible memories of what happened on that date in 1862 that hurt you so. And I figured perhaps I could give you something good on that day to help soften some of those bad things,” Cindy said, her eyes welling up.

Walter, a head taller than his daughter, looked not at her, but at the wall behind her, as he would on those days when he would sit with his back to the barn wall, searching for something but not finding it. He gave a great sigh.

“My darling girl, since your mother’s death you are all I have. You are my life. I would not wish to lose you to any man, with the possible exception of young Robert.” Walter gave a slight grin. “And I adore you for this gesture and will accede to your wish. And with God’s help, we shall see you a glorious bride and I the proud and joyful papa come this August 28th next.”

* * * *

On August 24th, 1885, Walter Bingham gave a cigar box to his daughter, telling her to keep it safe for him. And though he was subdued and quiet for the next four days, Walter looked every bit the proud father of the bride as they walked down the aisle of the Reformed Church in Stony Point.

Walter hired a photographer take portraits to remember that day. He kept but one on the mantle of his home for the rest of his life. His daughter had helped turn it into life that, while not as lighthearted and high-spirited as the boy who left Stony Point in 1861, was never again as broken as the man who returned in 1863. In fact, it turned quite hopeful.

The photo on the mantle was a hand-tinted portrait of Walter and Cindy. He in his fine morning coat and cravat and she in her her mother’s wedding dress. On his lapel, beneath the pink rose, he sported a locket containing a small portrait of Martha. On her bodice, Cynthia wore an odd piece of shiny jewelry, which the photographer had painted in watercolor tints of yellow for the upside-down star and pink and blue for the ribbon.

Robert had given Walt the frame in which he displayed it, gilded and bearing one word upon a scroll at its bottom. It read, HEROES.

I was inspired to write “Heroes” by a story I read about some Vietnam vets and decided to superimpose that inspiration, on Memorial Day, upon America’s defining conflict, the Civil War.

This is a revised version of the original, incorporating suggestions by Julie Duffy and other members of the Story-a-Day writers and critique group. My thanks for their insight and generosity.

To Do: Now What?

Wednesday, May 24 ~ The Last Day

1.  6:00 AM ~ Wake, shower, shave, kiss Pat goodbye, start commute.

2. Stop at Starbuck’s for Grande Pike Place. Tell barista Alyssa this will be last time I stop by at 7:30 in foreseeable future. Leave $10 tip.

3. Park in Lot C for last time. Try not bouncing like 5th grader too much as you show ID to guard for last time.

4. Pack up the office ~ one box only. Say goodbye to friends

5. Hand in parking permit and ID.

6. Officially retired ~ Check rearview mirror and enjoy the view shrinking.

7. Turn up car stereo to 10 ~ Play “Road Mix”

8. Laugh at commuters cursing on way home.

9. Daydream about what I should have said to He Who Shall Not Be Named boss on way out but didn’t.
Note to self: Fuck him. He’s there for another ten years, if he’s not murdered first. Hah!

10. Instead of gloating, watch out for cops south of Twin Bridges (Now’s no time for first ticket in 30 years).

11. Don’t miss Exit 9 making plans for future.

12. Park car, empty last two week’s Starbuck’s cups from floor behind front seat.

13. Leave box containing 30-year career in garage next to bags of manure, peat moss and other decomposing materials.

14. Take Pat out to dinner to celebrate freedom.

15. Go to bed and dream of all the things you can finally do now that you’re not anchored to The Job.

Thursday, May 25 ~ First Day of Retirement

1. 6:00 AM ~ Wake, shower, shave. Run to Starbuck’s for Venti Pike Place. Leave $1.00 tip.

2. Sit in kitchen, stare at Pat doing housework. Offer to help. Get sent out of room.

3. Take banishment to backyard and wonder about your Plain Language Project and what HWSNBN’s doing about it without you.

4. Resist urge to call work.

5. Wonder when feeling of stepping off cliff, blindfolded, without a net ends.

6. Ask Pat again if there’s anything you can do for her.

7.  Go to Starbuck’s and see what afternoon crowd looks like. (Too many old guys. Can’t relate to Off Track Betting crowd. Remember to bring iPad next time to look artsy.)

8. ? ? ?

9. ! ! !

10. ….

For Day 23 of my Story-a-Day May challenge, I was charged with writing a story in the form of a list. I was dubious if I could make something happen in that format, but I remembered my last day of work before my retirement. Polished with hyperbole and a twist of imagination and here you have a story…I hope.

Never Forget Your First

Remember your first kiss?

“So what was it like? Your first kiss, I mean,” Liz said, figuring she might even know who first pressed her lips against mine and I reciprocated.

Where do women come up with these questions? Why she was so inquisitive about such a ancient history was lost on me. I sure as hell didn’t wish to know who she locked retainers with back in her training bra days.

“Well? Can’t you even remember, Erik?” she said, incredulous that I may have forgotten such a major milestone in my emotional, psychological and sexual education like another lost bit of high school I absent-mindedly tossed on that pile of Pythagorean theories, amo-amas-amat’s, and names of all the noble gases.

“Really, I don’t remember much about it other than it being another dance to hang out at…just softer and smelling better,” I said with a chuckle. Which I soon regretted.

“You’re either closer to a forgetful Alzheimer’s diagnosis than even I thought, or one cold son of a bitch,” Liz said like she was a helium-filled balloon shrinking and sinking to the floor right there in front of icy old me.

“Give me a minute and I promise I’ll let you know all about it,” I said, trying to buy some time to actually remember or at least come up with a plausible story.

So she went to the kitchen, busying herself with fetching me another beer. After all, I was rummaging back into my cluttered closet of a memory to bring forth the mother lode of her need to connect on some level she could tap and understand.

She came back into the room and quietly set a glass of beer on a coaster on the side table. She then curled herself up next to me on the sofa in that way girls do—legs and feet beneath their bottoms like nesting cranes—wrapped the Mexican striped throw around her shoulders and smiled a softly expectant smile at me. Its message was plain: “I’m waiting!”

“I regret that my porous old memory cannot recall every aspect, facet and emotion of that night. I’m not even sure who she was. Rosemary? Barbara? Definitely not Mary Grace. Though, boy, do I wish.”

“Ahem, stick to the knitting, Erik.”

“Okay, I see brown eyes shining up at me, sparkling like polished mahogany in the moonlight, or street light or maybe porch light.”

“That’s a good pull after that clumsy start, Romeo.”

“Yeah, well…I can still feel that cold stab of fear, tempered by hot blasts of potential embarrassment at the very real possibility of  screwing this up and setting my life on a path of remaining forever the untouched one. Obviously, I’ve gotten over that hurdle.”

“The night is young, Erik. Touching will be optional. Go on,” she said, her eyes softening a bit from their clinical observation of my amoebic squirming in the upholstered Petri dish next to her.

“Girls, yourself included, I’m sure, think about this moment, dream about it, worry about it, from an early age. Am I right?” I said, trying to absorb something of what she was feeling. You know, like I was a girl.

“Did you practice, perhaps pressing your lips to a mouth made of your thumb and index finger, there in your pink and sky blue-appointed, single-bed sanctum sanctorum?” I asked.

“Of course not,” Liz said. But the red rising from beneath the throw, up her neck and glowing like hot coals on her cheeks told me otherwise.

“A guy can’t think that far ahead, would never give that first kiss a dry-run. It isn’t like rehearsing his expression of insouciant cool in the steamed-up mirror behind that locked bathroom door. You figure one night it just happens.”

I could see her lean in now, her warm interest overcoming her cool displeasure.

“ Ya know, it’s uncharted, virgin, that first feeling of neo-carnal warmth a guy feels glowing off that girl, that woman, Her. The smell of her recharged perfume in the dark is heady stuff, sweaty, intoxicating, inviting.”

Liz pulled her legs from beneath her and hugged them to her chest, resting her chin on her knees.

“Then that feeling of her mouth drawing closer, warmer, tropical, her breath sharing mine, mine with hers. My shaking hand on the small of her back, hers rising to slide within my black hair bristling like a porcupine’s quills at the back of my neck.

“Then you simply fall into that wet, warm pool of flesh, that doorway to the pounding trip-hammer heart, the unknown, the soon-enough revealed. After that, the fall becomes a climb and dive from the high board. Then another. Then…”

“You’re not playing me, are you, Erik?” Liz said. “I mean, is this really how you felt?”

“Oh, yeah. I can still feel it. Walking away, whistling my quiet, night-time whistle through the ivied posh, the ever-freshly painted not-so and my own not-very neighborhoods home, my left hand touching my flushed cheek, my lips that tasted of strawberry lip gloss, the smell of her perfume still on my fingers, Charlie I think it was,” I said, looking deeply into Liz’s brown eyes.

“Wow, Erik, that’s more than I ever expected,” she said, cuddling up close to me, putting her sandy-haired head on my shoulder.

“But that’s all I remember,” I said.

“You jerk,” she said. “I’ll bet it wasn’t this memorable.”

And then she gave me a warm, wet kiss full of promise, momentous and unforgettable. And I felt that spin and drop like I hadn’t felt since that first time.

Only rated NC-17.

For Day 22 of my Story-a-Day challenge, I was encouraged to make my prose as purple as I liked, in a quest to find out how much description I really need. We’ll, as a poet in the other side of my other literary life, I tend to throw the schmaltz around pretty liberally.  If you don’t think so, just take a look at the previous to poems I posted. I’m not sure I took a deep dive into it in my story, but I hope there’s enough gooey description in here to satisfy.

Restless

I didn’t know if she awoke before I did or I before she. I only know I could feel her eyes upon me.

Just not her touch.

“Yes, another restless night,” I said.

“No, you didn’t keep me awake,” I lied.

The ceiling did. Consciousness did. Worry did. Old truths did. Fantasies did. Longing did. Guilt did. I did. But I couldn’t tell her that.

“No, I didn’t know I kicked and thrashed all night,” I said. But the covers lying in disarray on my side told a different story. One where if looked as if I ran and swam and crawled my way across this No-Man’s-Land searching for somewhere to tuck in until the barrage lifted. But dawn lifted first.

I looked over at the clock and, as it has for the past weeks, it taunted me with a left-hand number less than six.

“I don’t know if I can make it today,” I said, sensing that sinking feeling in my chest again, an emptiness like it had been crushed dry. But I knew I had to get up and bump my way through another day, fighting off the sleep that never quite came last night.

“No, I haven’t dozed off again, just…gathering myself,” I said. I’d been locked in another bout of the woolgathering inattentiveness on the daydreams that substituted those I never had at night anymore. Night had become a wasteland of artillery flashes, reds and yellows and whites cutting through the darkness, after which the colors of days were smothered by the darkness of exhaustion.

“I wish I knew,” I said when she asked why I’d had another rough night. But she knew why as well as I did.

I took a deep breath, sighed it away like I’d sighed away another restless night, filling the room with wordless exclamations, near-silent calls for rescue. Sighed it away like I sighed away the covers on my side. Sighed it away like I would this day and the last and most likely the next.

But before I pulled myself from the ravaged percale plain upon which we lost another hope without a dream to support it, I kissed my fingers to reach out and touch her, to let her know one more time. But they came to rest upon her empty pillow with which I shared these nightly battles between damned consciousness and blessed oblivion.

My very short story for Day 19 of my May 2017 story-a-day challenge. No outside prompt today. Just a carryover from the poem I woke to at that ungodly hour again. These too-short, dreamless nights can kill you, but they also can inspire you to dreamy inspiration, too. Until you finally drop…

The Barksdale Pigeons

It was the singing that brought Tammany Bazanac out to the porch. She was used to hearing the soldiers singing, but she never had heard a tune so odd and voices so, well, foreign as these.

As the olive drab canvas covered trucks, white five-pointed stars on their doors, rumbled past Madame Sabine’s Rest on the road from Shreveport to Barksdale, Tammany stood on the porch to see what new flyers might be visiting Madame’s house some upcoming weekend. But instead of the usual pink-cheeked farm boys or earnest college men, Tammany saw faces she’d only seen before in the laundry where her Maw-Maw would take her Paw-Paw’s shirts for washing and his collars for starching down home in Alexandria.

The talk among the locals started that same day.

The people in town were suspicious of these Asian men who arrived in Shreveport in the Spring of 1943. After all, this was a military town, hard by an important United States Army Air Force training field. And hadn’t those slant-eyes pulled a sneak attack on just such a facility at Hickham Field on December 7, just two years ago?

The fact that these young trainees were from the Nationalist Chinese Air Corps, sworn enemies of the Japanese who had invaded their land, was lost on some of the residents of Sh. To them, someone who looked like that was not to be trusted. And when the sirens would sound, the thought that a sneak attack from inside Barksdale Army Air Field was never far from their minds.

After about twenty years of it, the people of Shreveport had grown used to the various roars of the fighters and bombers that raced or thundered over town as they took off or landed from Barksdale. They never quite got used to the wail of the siren, which didn’t mean to seek cover from an air raid by enemy bombers. Rather, these sirens coincided with a column of black smoke rising above the base, the town and everyone’s consciousness, as another training aircraft crashed, carrying from one to ten young souls to violent death.

Each day, all day, the skies around the northeast portion of Louisiana would fill with flocks of olive and khaki camouflaged aircraft bearing the USAAF’s white star on the dark blue circle. On weekends, though, it was the town that would fill with white boys in olive and khaki. They were like pieces of crusty white bread cast casually around the streets for the young women of Bossier to attempt swooping up. Each was intent in getting her talons into an officer in this weekly battle before another girl bagged the same young hero for herself.

Hence, the American flyboys christened the local girls The Barksdale Pigeons.

Many a local girl had captured her piece of the white American Dream over the years, by one means or another, because white bread was the only item on the Barksdale Field menu.

That was until 1943, when the Barksdale became home to training squadrons from the Free French Army de l’Air and the Nationalist Chinese Air Force. That also marked the spark of the first civil war battle in those parts since the Rebs whipped the Yanks during the Red River Campaign in 1864.

When Sous-Lieutenant Hertienne joined his comrades in a stop by Madame Sabine’s Rest one weekend, he was stunned to hear his native tongue being murmured or moaned from behind the doors and curtains of Mademoiselle Sabine’s carnal cafe.

“Ohh, chér…” he’d heard at one end of the hall.

Ca c’est bon, lover,” Hertienne heard from the other.

The accents were strange, but that was definitely French being spoken in paid-for rapture by some of the girls who worked for the Madame.

“Did these girls learn le français just for us?” he asked Sabine in the smoky front sitting room of her establishment.

Mais, non, cher,” she said in her own odd accent. “Deez girls just speaking dare own language. Many of us here are Cajuns from downriver and we still speak some of the mother tongue from our borning up in Canada. And where in France are you from, cher?”

“I am not,” Hertienne said.

Pardonne-moi, chéri?”

“From France. My family is from Tonkin in Indochine.” Hertienne said.

“Isn’t that near Shreveport?” the Madame said and laughed her roof-rattling laugh that always brought every eye in the place on her, which was her intent.

But the Rest’s door then opened and who walked in ripped attention from the Madame like the wings off a Stearman trainer pulling out of a 200 mph dive. Standing in the doorway were three Chinese flyers who had heard that Madame Sabine’s was a place where anyone could be shown a good time, if the asking price was paid. And they’d just been paid.

“Well now, looky here,” the Madame said, cutting the silence with her entrepreneurial will as much as her brand of mercenary Southern hospitality.

“Been waitin’ to see if any you China boys would show up here someday and now here you are. Come on in, boys, come in. We serve any of our valiant boys who dare in the air, ‘cept maybe dem Tuskeegee boys. Dis house still have some standards, even in a war,” Sabine said.

Hertienne observed the arrival with a disdain born of his upbringing on his father’s rice plantation and then as a junior colonial government official in Hanoi. He’d also seen the increasing Chinese influence on the Tonkinese population, including the influx of Communists, before the war began.

“I do not like these Chinese,” he whispered to his friend Bizot. “They are seeking to set fire to an already smoking pile of yellow reeds, no better than the Japanese or Nazis.”

While two of the Chinese airmen were of average height for a European or American flyer, the third was smaller, wiry and Hertienne thought had an edge to him he’d seen before.

“Come in, boys. Allez, allez,“ Sabine said, movng toward the door and extending her hands wide as if to hug all three at once. The smallest of the three moved first.

In fluent French he asked if Madame Sabine had any problem serving Chinese flyers.

Non, non, cher. As I said before, we are here to show you valiant boys southern hospitality with a spicy Louisiana charm all our own.”

Hertienne heard the airman speak French and immediately had him pegged as Tonkinese, perhaps from the western reaches of the Red River Delta.

Tammany, emerging from the kitchen, heard it, as well. She was at first confused by these men, their physical features, including color, as well as the confidence with which they approached the Madame and introduced themselves and established rules of engagement for their evening entertainment.

Tammany thought, ‘Cepting for his eyes and hair, that China boy could be one of ol’ Aunt Thelma’s boys back in Alexandria. And that was true. Because Tammany came from a mixed race family purer than the gumbo of so many Louisianans. She was what was known in the South as a high yellow, classified as black according to the nefarious one-drop rule, despite having primarily white European ancestry. With her pale olive skin, black curly hair and light hazel eyes, Tammany was quite in demand by some of Madame Sabine’s regular clientele who preferred a more exotic-looking companion. That included Denis Hertienne.

Tammany walked right past Hertienne to stand with the Madame, smiling her most beguiling smile and batting her thick lashes drawing even more attention to eyes that didn’t need it.

Bonsoir. Je m’appelle Tammany. Quel est ton?” she said.

“Good evening, Mademoiselle Tammany. I am Lieutenant Dinh Hien Chien,” the young Vietnamese flyer replied in barely accented English.

“Oh, I heard your speak French before, so I thought…”

“Vietnamese, French, Chinese, Tagalog, English and a little Dutch. I went to university in California, but I also given an excellent early education by the Jesuits in Hanoi,” Dinh said with a smile.

“Oh my, oh my. And what do I call you, cher? I think we’re going to get to know one another better for the month or so you’re here in Bossier,” Tammany said.

“Lieutenant Dinh will suffice for now, Miss…? I’m sorry, I missed your name before while I was becoming entranced with your stunning eyes.”

“Tammany. I’m Tammany, Lieutenant Dan.”

“Dinh, like ‘ja-know that pretty girl?’ without the ‘oh’ on the end.”

Hertienne was suddenly at Tammany’s elbow.

“I believe we had a date set for this evening, Tammany, non?” he said, stepping between and Dinh.

“I’m no one’s private property, Denis, not even the Madame’s. I am in her employ and take on companions as I see fit. And tonight I see fit to entertain, Lieutenant Dinh.”

“You would lower yourself to sleep with a…”

“Stop right there, Denis. Of all the people in this house right now, the one maybe most like me is this gentleman. And I would prefer it if you talked to the Madame to find a new girl if you insist on insulting our other guests,” Tammany said, her eyes flashing almost amber in the yellow glare coming from the old lampshade.

“What’s da ruckus here, Tammany? I’ll not have one of my girls talking in dat tone to a customer without damn good reason,” Sabine said, her own tone serving notice who was allowed.

“I was just ‘splaining to Denis that I’m nobodies property here. That I can choose who I take back to my crib, unless you choose otherwise. An’ I hope you would accept my decision tonight, Madame Sabine,” Tammany said.

”You want to be with dis China boy,” Sabine said, nudging Hertienne from between Tammany and Dinh.

“I would, ma’am. Just to wish one of our newest neighbors a special Madame Sabine’s Rest bon temps.

“I see,” the Madame said. And she did, seeing tammany’s earnest interest in the Vietnamese pilot.

“If I may, Madame,” Dinh interrupted. “I don’t wish to get the lovely Miss Tammany into any trouble with you my first night visiting your lovely house. I will accede to your authority, of course.”

“You are a silver-tongued devil, aren’t you, honey?” Madame Sabine said.

“Marguerite? Would you please come entertain Lieutenant Hertienne this evening, ma chérie?” Madame Sabine called to a dark-eyed Creole girl lounging near the bar.

“Excusez-moi, Madame, Mademoiselle Marguerite, but I believe I shall return to the base. Bonsoir, Tammany.” Hertienne said. “Thiếu úy, tôi sẽ được nhìn thấy bạn trên cơ sở,” he added as he brushed by Dinh’s shoulder.

“Yes, Lieutenant. I look forward to our meeting again…on-base or wherever you’d prefer,” Dinh said.

Shortly after Hertienne slammed the door leaving Madame Sabine’s, Tammany Bazanac, leading Dinh Hien Chien by the hand, quietly closed the door to her room.

An hour later, lying together in Tammany’s bed, Dinh said, “Why did you come over to me as you did, especially since the dashing French officer seems to think you have a mutually exclusive relationship?”

“Do you mean why’d I take a shine to you when Denis thinks I’m his girl and his alone?”

“Yes, exactly,” Dinh said and chuckled.

“‘Cause you reminded me of someone I used to know.”

“I do? A Tonkinese engineer from the Red River Delta not only in the United Stares, but down in Louisiana? If anyone doesn’t belong someplace, it is me here. And who is this person of whom I remind you?”

“Me,” Tammany said, kissing Dinh. “You’re not from here, I’m not from here. You’re yellow, I’m yellow. Looked like your Chinese buddies didn’t quite accept you, using you for your language skills. The girls here, the they only accept me because I draw more Johns they can nab, maybe even for a husband. Even a whore can be a Barksdale Pigeon.”

“Oh, the Army officers warned us about them, like they were bloodsucking bayou bats.”

“Well, they kinda are,” Tammany said. “And now here’s another thing I only just learned. You’e from the Red River in your country and I am from the Red River of the South in mine.”

“Those are some pretty logical reasons, i would have to admit,” Dinh said with a smile and a hug.

“Oh, there’s one more thing.”

“What’s that, Tammany?”

“When I laid eyes on you I got the dribbly shivers.”

“The drib…”

“Yeah like this.” Tammany took Dinh’s hand and pulled it under the covers to touch her.

“Ohhhh… of course. Those dribbly shivers.”

Dinh slept with Tammany several times over the next few weeks, but his visits stopped abruptly, which coincided with a renewed interest in her from Denis Hertienne.

“Tammany, would you please see to Monsieur Denis’ needs tonight?” Madame Sabine said one evening.

“But…”

“I don’t think that sweet China boy’s coming back, ma chérie.”

“How can you say that, Madame? That boy, he loves me. And I…”

“Now you stop right dare, Tammany. If I taught you one ting in diss life, it’s not to get attached to any one John,” Sabine said. “Especially one who’s only here for a couple months. An’ dat boy’s not gion’ home to Kansas, chil’. He goin’ halfway roun’ da world, first to fight an’ den to live. If he survive the first part.”

Hertienne stood nearby wearing an expression more smug than his usual superior air.

“An’ what are you doin’ looking’ like the cat that swallowed the canary, Lieutenant?” Tammany said.

Hertienne said, “Oh nothing. I warned you to stay away from his type. Lazy, untrustworthy. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was a Japanese sympathizer or a…”

“A what, Denis? A brilliant young man, passionate about ridding his country of oppression? A threat to your interests?”

“Tammany, enough. You take the Lieutenant to your room and show him a good time. We’ll talk about diss later. Now bouge ta queue, move your sweet little tail in there now,” Madame Sabine said with distinct finality.

“Yes’m, come with me, Lieutenant,” Tammany said, taking Hertienne’s arm and walking to her room, where she performed her services in a most perfunctory manner.

“What is wrong with your, girl?” Hertienne said, lying atop Tammany, who gave up her body to him, but nothing else.

“I am paying for a bit more enthusiasm, Tammny,” Hertienne said, pinching Tammany’s breast.

“Ow, that hurt, Denis. stop that or I’m calling Madame.”

“I doubt she would do anything, especially now that the FBI is watching the house,” Hertienne said.

“The FBI? What are you talking ‘bout?”

“I told you, Tammany, I wouldn’t be surprised if our good Lieutenant Dinh is not only a poor pilot, but a communist, as well.”

“How do you know this, Denis,” Tammany said, wriggling out from under the Frenchman.

“Oh, I don’t know. He just the look of one of those scum who tried collectivizing my father’s plantation and raising hell with government officials from Saigon to the Chinese border,” Hertienne said with the hint of a smile.

“Wait a minute.” Tammany said. ”The Madame mentioned something about the FBI watching the house. What’ve you done, Denis?”

Hertienne handed her a $50 bill and said, said, “Ah, Tammany, I do so enjoy your childlike nature. You remind me so much of a Vietnamese girl fresh out of the country and into the fleshpots in Haiphong.”

“What have you done to my Chien, Denis?” Tammany said, her voice rising and her eyes welling up.

“Well, I might have mentioned to the authorities that we might have a Communist sympathizer and sabotaging fifth columnist on base. Then I told them about the slant-eyed pilot who might crash his plane into something symbolic. Lives could be lost.”

“You didn’t!” Tammany said, turning her back to Hertienne at the side of her bed.

“Oh, but I did, Tammany. By now that mongrel is being placed in a cage in New Orleans where he belongs.

“I love that man. Denis how could you?” Tammany said.

“I was not going to be usurped in your heart by some little yellow mongrel.”

“Denis, you’re not in my heart. You are only in my bed and that only because Madame Sabine ordered me to do so.”

Hertienne slapped Tammany with the back of his hand and she fell onto the settee in her room, .

“This is how we deal with persistent rebelliousness by our colonial charges,” Hertienne said.

“And this is how we deal with arrogant and abusive ‘chillin,’” in Louisiana, Sous-Lieutenant Hertienne. “Dinh has more integrity and courage than you ever will.”

And tis is how we deal with

“He’s barely out of the Stone Age, Tammany.  This is how we keep such rebellious children in line,” Hertienne said.

With that, Tammany calmly said, “And this is how we deal with those who deserve rebellion, Denis.” She pulled a short, thin blade of a knife from the hidden pocket beneath her pillow. She slashed it down Hertienne’s face and pushed it into his neck. She screamed, “Madame!”

Sabine and her bouncer burst through the door and Hertienne lay choking on his own blood.

“He was choking me, Madame. I knew he was going to kill me for being with Dinh. I had no choice but to defend myself.”

“All right, all right, cher. You get yourself cleaned up and Raoul will take care of the Lieutenant. Quick get yourself down to my room.”

“Yes’m,” Tammany said and rushed out into the hall wrapped in a bloody sheet.

“Raoul, introduce the Lieutenant to the hogs, would you?,” Sabine whispered discreetly. “We want no word of this going beyond these walls or the hog pen. You do understand, eh, cher?”

A week and a half later, Dinh Hien Chien walked into Madame Sabine’s Rest after seven days incarceration and questioning by the FBI in the Crescent City.

“Dinh!” Tammany squealed, jumping into his arms when she saw him.

That same week, base authorities reported a Free French officer had disappeared from Barksdale. The FBI investigated and found a secret radio and code books hidden in a false bottom of his equipment trunk. They further determined that Sous-Lieutenant Hertienne was actually a Vichy spy sent to infiltrate and disrupt Air Corps training and communications by any means.

Three weeks later, Tammany and Chien were married by the Catholic chaplain on base. This further made her not well-accepted by the girls at Madame Sabine’s. But that didn’t bother her when she moved to San Francisco. And eventually the girls missed her faintly mulatto honey drawing military bees to their beds. She also gave them hope, proving her theory that even a whore, a high yellow one at that, could earn her wings out of Shreveport as a Barksdale Pigeon.

I’m afraid I missed Day 16 of my May story-a-day challenge. Couldn’t be helped. And I found the prompt for Day 17 to be not as inspiring as I hoped. So I reached back to an old prompt I kept from Canadian writer and writing instructor Sarah Salecky. It was a very simple one, though produced this gargantuan (and still quite rough) first draft story. The prompt simply said to write a story with the title The Barksdale Pigeons. My historical knowledge and imagination took it from there.