By the Light of My Father's Smile (10 page)

BOOK: By the Light of My Father's Smile
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It was unusual for June to call me when she was happy. The subject that most aroused her to converse was her own misery. Susannah, she would gasp, I have the most horrifying pain in my side, just under my left breast, which itself is feeling excessively heavy and damp. My whole body is pulsating with heat, radiant with pain. I would turn from whatever lover I was engaging, and loosen my grip on the phone. How could she bear the suffering of her body, I wondered, a suffering she so carefully, through compulsive piercing (her nipples had small chains dangling from them, her labia a crucifix) and deliberate overeating, inflicted. I would yawn, my lover nibbling at toes or breasts, and try to imagine a body inured to such pleasures.

I was unprepared to hear my sister's sensual chuckle. Guess what? she said. Her voice hoarse with excitement.

What? I asked, curious.

Guess who I met on the plane coming home from a lecture?

Who? I asked. Sitting up in bed, pulling my toes to myself.

Manuelito.

There was a pause as I tried to remember such a person. Such a name. Manuelito. In general, my sister remembered our years in the mountains of Mexico much more clearly than I did. And when we returned to the United States she'd tried for years to make contact with the people we'd left behind. It wasn't possible, of course, they lived too far away from anything resembling a post.

Manuelito, from the mountains, she said, eagerly. Manuelito. You know, the cute boy with the black horse.

I remembered the horse perfectly. He was a stallion and named Vado, a word which means a shallow place in the river, where one might safely get across. And now I sat upright in bed, a thrill running through me. For instinctively I knew this was a name, a person, who represented the place where my sister had been broken. That her place of brokenness lived next door to mine. And that all these years, she had known it, too.

My God, I said, where did you say you met him?

On the plane, leaving Las Cruces.

I didn't know you were in Las Cruces.

I was, she exclaimed happily. And furthermore, I was in first class, because I have by now outgrown coach seats.

There was not a sign of regret in her voice. How could she say this, I wondered, holding the phone out from my ear, envisioning her incredible girth.

He was in first class!

Manuelito, in first class? I had to laugh. His people had lived in tiny mud houses with dirt floors when they weren't actually living in caves. Perhaps he'd become a gangster, I thought.

But no. He was in the Army, said June. The only one of his platoon who didn't die.

Back up, I said, taking a sip of juice my lover had brought and kissing the air toward the door as it closed.

It started in the airport, an airport like any other; the same metal detectors, the same lines of people waiting to have their tickets stamped. The same studied casualness about the notion of foolishly flying so high above the ground. At some point I felt eyes on me. And then I did not feel them. And then, as I was strapping myself into my seat, I felt them again. I looked up, and there was a stocky light-brown-skinned man, something about him vaguely familiar, standing over our seats, looking down at me. He, too, seemed to be snagged by a hint of something familiar. I decided to ignore him, and he sat down, joking with the flight attendant that he hadn't seen her face for at least a month, because he'd been at home with a cold and was too sick to fly. She flashed a complacent grin at him and asked if he'd like his usual. He would. By the time we lifted off he'd consumed several small bottles of gin.

After we were airborne, he unbuckled his seat belt and went into the rest room. When he came back, instead of sitting, he continued past his seat and strolled (I turned to watch) the length of the plane. It was then I noticed that he had a limp.

Where you from? he asked as he dropped back into his seat.

I live on the East Coast, I said, shortly. Burying my head in my book.

Whatcha reading?

A book about physics, I said.

Any good? he asked.

Yes, I said. It's by an Indian mystic who went to school in the West. He says there's nothing solid, not even these leather seats; not even this plane; everything in the Universe is moving; he says his people have known this for thousands of years and didn't need Western science to prove it.

I stopped. I feared I had said too much.

I had.

Oh, he said, if you like to read … He reached down into his briefcase and handed me a book. My book, he said.

Sure enough, there he was on the cover, in uniform, just as he sat beside me. I could see the scars better in the photograph than I'd been able to in person. His face must have been blown practically off. I could also see his eyes.

I was in Nam, he said. Everybody else in my platoon was killed. They thought they'd killed me, but I'm one tough Injun.

Injun, I thought. Injun. By now I was feeling dizzy. It was as if something were trying to leave my memory by way of my throat. I undid my belt and heaved myself out of my seat. I tottered to the bathroom and in the tiny, pinched space, threw up in the tiny, teacup-sized washbasin.

When I came back he was sucking on another bottle of gin. After which he got up and lurched once more the length of the plane.

Have to keep moving, he said, sitting down again, almost falling into his seat. If I don't, my joints stiffen and lock up on me.

When did you change your name to Mannie? I asked.

He looked surprised.

Why, he said, how do you know I changed it?

With your Mexican accent, I said, and being Indian, surely you were not named Mannie at birth.

He laughed. After I crossed the border, he said, and went to work in a diner near Los Alamos.

I did not like the name Mannie. I could see where such a name had led him. I picked up his book and began to study the photographs inside. He was staring at my hands. I flexed my fingers and peered at him over my reading glasses.

Oh, he said. I was just looking at your hands. Your little finger
has a funny little crook. As fat as it now was, a sausage, it still did have that little crook. I flexed it at him. I once knew a girl with a finger like that, he said.

I was riveted on a picture of him accepting a Purple Heart as well as a Congressional Medal of Honor from Ronald Reagan. Is that your family? I asked, pointing to the somber-faced wife and well-behaved-looking children. They were watching the ceremony with some anxiety.

Yes, he said. They'd wheeled me to the stage, but I wanted to walk up to the president man to man. I only stumbled once. I think I stepped on Kissinger's foot. My wife said I almost knocked the president over, but I don't think that's true. Actually I hardly remember what happened, I was trying so hard to stay on my feet. It was like a blur, like climbing a hill and getting to the top and being blinded by the enemy's fire. But somehow climbing down again and realizing you made it but without a clue about what happened or what you were able to do. Did I pull it off with dignity? I asked my family. 'Cause I wanted Mexican people, Indian people, to be proud of me.

How many times were you shot? I asked, as I looked carefully at the photograph that showed him swathed in bandages, lying in a hospital bed.

There was no counting the shots, because I was blown up so bad. I was lifted out of Nam in pieces. I was in the hospital so long that by the time I came out, Nixon was out of office and Reagan was in. I'm put together with wire. That's why I have to keep moving. If I sit down too long, I can't get up again.

Ha, I said. Just like me.

He laughed, and the swoozy smell of gin hit the side of my face. A diet would cure you, he said; it wouldn't be quite that easy in my case.

Curiously, I've never cared that other people see me as obese. But hearing him refer to it, I felt as if I'd been pricked in the side. As if all my air might be let out. Deflated, somehow.

I came across the border looking for a girl, he said. I came to this country when I was real young. I worked for a while driving cattle. I worked in diners washing dishes. Cooking. I kept thinking I would find her. Just by accident one day I thought I might bump into her again. He laughed. I was really a boy. And I knew nothing about the world. For sure, I didn't know this country was so damn big.

It is big, I said.

It was a relief after a while to join the Army. I'd never heard of Vietnam, and I didn't read the papers that much. But then they trained us and before you know it, there we were.

What was it like? I asked.

Hell, he said.

And you left your family behind?

My wife. She was pregnant. This way I could send money home. I could take care of her.

There was Reagan, grinning, clapping the “hero” on the back. Caspar Weinberger looking like a ghost. Kissinger pretending to be moved. “Mannie,” crippled, shuffled forward for his medal, hoping not to disgrace his family and his race.

I had begun to cry.

Whatsa matter? he asked drunkenly.

And before I could reply, he started to snore.

Dear Mannie, Manolo, Manuelito,

[I wrote, a week after returning home:] This is Magdalena writing from the past to you. Although I have recently seen you, so this is not the past. I was the woman seated next to you on the
plane from Las Cruces. The very fat woman with the nose rings and a green streak in her hair who was weeping as she read your book. I know I do not look like your Magdalena. I am three times her size. My green, buzz-cut, sculpted hair is pressed flatter—the bit that remains—than you would ever have been able to imagine it. Even my nose is twice as large as hers was. Since I have been home I have been contemplating dieting, because you suggested it. Will I make progress? Probably not. But you are not my Manuelito, either. You are a tin man busy drowning your human heart. How many people did you kill, Manuelito? Who were they, and did they have faces like your own? Did you kill women who reminded you of me, Manuelito? It is of this that I dream, night after night. Because you and I have both come back to me, the way we used to be, the moment I lie down to sleep.

Dear Magdalena,

This is Manuelito writing to you. Do not think I did not recognize you. I would recognize the smallest part of you, your little finger, no matter how magnified in size. Or how many nose rings or streaks of green hair you have. But I was drunk, even before I got on the plane, and by the time I thought it might truly be you I was in no condition to know it for sure. So I opted out and went to sleep. And when I woke up, you were gone. How did you do that, by the way? You are a large woman, that's true, but with your magical powers, which I remember from the past, you made yourself completely disappear. You were not in the airport. At least, I did not see or feel you there.

I am hurt that you ask me first of all about the killing. It is why I grew so to hate the hippies. Every time they saw a uniform during the Nam years they disrespected it. Once one of them, a woman with long hair and granny glasses, spat on me. It was kill or be killed, in Nam. I had one thought: to get out of there alive.
That's not entirely true. I wanted to protect and save as many of my buddies as I could. Mr. Nixon understood that. Mr. Kissinger. Mr. Laird. Mr. Weinberger. At least, that's what I thought. It wasn't until after I got my medals that benefits for us disabled veterans started to be cut off, and I had to go to Washington many times to remind everybody that we'd lost our health for them, for the American people. And even though I'm put together with baling wire and can't get a job doing anything that requires staying in one place longer than a few minutes, they wanted to shove me back into a nonexistent workforce.

But that's beside the point. I see on your envelope where you live. I will momentarily be at your door.

BOOK: By the Light of My Father's Smile
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