THE BROKEN HALLELUJAH
By Wendy H. Adair
Central Highlands, South of Da Nang, Vietnam
By now, he should have been used to the smell and the heat and the endless green. Corporal Martin Carter shook his head, his mind wandering into the never-ending mystery of his surroundings. His eight-man reconnaissance patrol moved through the ferns and bamboo, breaking a path through the mist, watching intently for signs of the enemy and any deadly surprises they might have left. Only the whine of insects and the chittering of monkeys broke the silence. As exotic as the jungle looked, it was the smell that would still be there long after he returned home. A noxious soup of rotting plants, sulfurous mud, and dead and dying beasts rose from the swamp as they slogged their way foot after foot, mile after mile, back to home base outside of Chu La.
The line of soldiers moved slowly down the trail. Sweat dripped unabated out of Martin’s helmet, down his face, and under his collar. He didn’t bother to wipe it away since it was just followed by another rivulet. He’d ripped the sleeves off his jungle fatigues, but it barely helped in the humid sweatbox.
He’d been in-country sixteen months . . . longer than anyone in his unit. By now, Martin could stay on full alert while pondering weightier issues, like why the hell he was still in Vietnam and not home, as he should have been months ago. Goddamn Lieutenant Price. Haven’t got a fair shake from that guy since he showed up, Martin thought, slogging along the barely discernible trail. He can’t know I’ve been checking on him. Only Cowboy knows what I suspect.
Martin tried to focus on the mission. Left, right, left, right . . . the cadence hummed in his mind. It calmed him, but he shook his head to break out of the almost trance-like rhythm . . . never good to lose awareness. He glared into the jungle, almost wishing to see a flash of black pajamas.
Shorty was up front. His helmet rose above the bamboo like a beacon for the troops. Word was that he was leading the march with an eight-foot python slung over his shoulders. Lieutenant Price would no doubt call him out for it. But Martin was in charge of this team, and he could ignore the boa addition to Shorty’s uniform to partake of the promised meat at dinner. The almost-six-foot-six soldier planned to open a BBQ pit back home in Tennessee after the war. They were just lucky he hadn’t stumbled on another cobra. That thing had been at least nine foot and damn poisonous. The python, though, that would be a great addition to tonight’s meal.
The chopper had dropped them upriver, close to the demilitarized zone (DMZ). They were to clear the way back to Chu La and their camp. They’d done this sweep two days ago. He hoped the VC didn’t figure out how often they were on this trail. It wasn’t safe to set a pattern. What the hell was HQ thinking? All was quiet for the moment. Martin shook his head as soon as he thought that. He’d think of his daughter instead. Adriana was now one. Suse says she has my green eyes and is already walking. Martin patted his breast pocket that held the small photo of Suse and a smiling infant. It was against regs to carry personal stuff on patrol, but he couldn’t leave the photo behind in his hooch.
They’d had a huge fight . . . he didn’t tell her until after he’d already enlisted. He justified his actions for the hundredth time. It was the timing of it, that’s all, what with her being pregnant. He still hadn’t seen her face to make sure she’d really forgiven him. Thinking of her and the young daughter he hadn’t met made him grin. He checked quickly to make sure no one saw him and then focused on the cami ruck in front of him. Left, right, left, right continued to beat in his head as the team moved closer to home base.
It was easy to drift to thoughts of his daughter. Haven’t met her, but I’ll bet she’ll know her old man, he thought. I’ve been over here almost as long as Suse and I’ve been married. Better finish that letter when I get back to camp. He shook his head again.
They’d been marching off and on for six hours. He was in the groove, his feet continued in the trained pattern . . . left, right . . . left, right . . . which let his mind wander to his recent promotion. The lieutenant must have had no choice. Price could continue to torment him as a corporal rather than send him home at the normal end of his tour.
Martin looked up just in time to avoid walking over the stiff soldier ahead of him. Bonzo Bennie was full stopped. He was the most uptight guy in camp. He’d transferred to Company A after his Huey crashed in a chemical drop just north of Chu La. He still had that death stare when spooked. His shoulders were hunched into his neck.
The entire line stopped . . . no one was breathing. The monkeys were no longer screaming in the canopy, and the birds and insects were mute. Shit, this couldn’t be good. Hopefully Trưởng and his family could get to the caves in time. Goddamn karma. He knew better than to take his eye off the jungle. Raising the M16 to his shoulder, Martin couldn’t tell where the enemy was, as the sweltering wilderness absorbed the sounds.
He heard the staccato punch of automatic fire, and the mist changed to smoke from grenades. The line of men broke, seeking cover. The sounds reverberated off the trees. His men cried out as high-velocity bullets punched through their protective gear. Running toward the heaviest noise, Martin saw Bennie folded up by the trail with his left leg twisted under and the right side of his face nothing but raw meat and bone. He yelled for Doc, the team’s medic, and kept pushing forward, trying to get to the front, trying to help his team.
Although he still hadn’t spotted the enemy, he fired toward what he believed was the primary source of the attack. He could see very little but the ever-changing green of the vegetation. The sulfur smell of gunpowder now clogged his nostrils, almost covering up the decay and rot of the swamp.
“Shit, shit, goddamn shit,” he swore as he glimpsed his team, fallen by the trail and into the slime. He pushed through a stand of bamboo, spraying forty-five rounds per minute from his M16, praying to catch at least a few of the enemy. He no longer was thinking only reacting, dropping the empty magazine and slapping in a full one.
Raising the rifle back to his shoulder, he felt a hard punch in his left side. He then heard the rifle shot, which sounded oddly like his M16. He didn’t see the soldier come in behind him, but he felt the bayonet slide between his ribs. He swung around, using his rifle as a club, but by that time, he was too slow. He thought one last time of Suse and Adriana as his knees collapsed, and he joined his teammates in the mud and slime.
“I, Robin Louise Carter, am not a loser.”
OK, I was living in my old bedroom . . . in Gram’s house . . . divorced . . . no job . . . but—
“I have a plan.”
Worst affirmation ever. I brushed my teeth, spit, rinsed, and mumbled my morning declaration. It would have to do for the moment. The bathroom mirror reflected green eyes and an intent to make my plan a reality . . . Gram’s health . . . my new PR business. With a slug of coffee and a nod to positivity, it was time to transform Gram’s garage into my ideal living and working space.
Two hours later, I swiped my arm across my sweaty forehead, smearing the dust into a muddy streak. “I swear, MC, this is the hottest May ever.” I was just short of panting like a dog, so I grabbed some water and drank half the bottle.
Maryam laughed, her own tanned skin looking remarkably cool. “You’re really surprised that Houston is brutally hot and humid in May? What’s wrong, Robin, ole girl? You get soft living the high life in Dallas?” Her hip cocked against the door, Maryam pulled her ponytail tight, smoothing the straight ebony hair back from her face.
My short red-brown hair was plastered to my forehead, and I glared at her coolness. Maryam Consuela Davila had been my best friend since third grade. She was “MC” to me, since she orchestrated our most outrageous adventures. But her ability to stay calm and cool in ninety-five-degree heat and humidity was beyond annoying.
“I’m just saying, MC, we’ve been slogging through this crap . . . I mean stuff . . . for three days, and that window unit is not holding its own.” I was about to turn thirty. Looking around at the junk and dust, I didn’t have much to show for it. I came home ’cause Gram’s memory was failing. And to be honest, my life had turned to shit in Dallas. “I have to strip this apartment clean. I can’t begin to remodel or design my office until this junk is gone.”
I sounded manic, even to myself. Cardboard boxes and furniture were stacked all over the ’80s gold shag. Gulping another swig of water and wiping my mouth, I managed to smear even more dirt across my face. It was official now . . . I was a total mess. I oozed down the wall until I hit the shag, my knees bumping into another box. Pulling off the lid, I stared at the jumble of old glassware, picking up the dusty vase on top.
Maryam stretched her arms over her head, twisting from side to side. Her eyes suddenly turned serious. “Hey, Rob. Uh, there’s a rumor you probably need to hear—”
“You’re not taking a job in LA, just after I’ve gotten back—”
“No, nothing like that.” Maryam rubbed her thumb over the door jamb. “It’s just . . . OK, here it is. Greg’s in town. He’s teaching at Rice this summer. There.”
It was like she’d punched me in the stomach. I hadn’t seen my ex-husband since leaving Dallas, my divorce decree firmly in hand. “That’s not possible. He’s to stay in Dallas . . . or anywhere but Houston.” I was babbling but couldn’t seem to stop as I pulled up from the floor. I dug into my pocket for a stomach mint and fifty cents for the swear jar. I was trying to clean up my language.
In a placating tone, MC continued. “Sorry, friend. Francie heard it from Deb, who has a niece enrolled at Rice, and she swears she’s taking a history course from Dr. Greg Henderson.”
My hair was now hopelessly tangled in a peaked mess. I shouldn’t still be this furious. I was the perfect faculty wife until I realized he had a major character flaw . . . a need for sex with random coeds. Holding onto the old vase, I waved it around for emphasis. “Jeez, MC. Now I’ll have to spend the rest of the summer trying to avoid running into him.”
“Buck up, sweetie. Houston is huge. We don’t hang in West U that much, so we’ll just avoid it for the summer.”
I shook my head like I was trying to shake off a bad dream. “Grrr. Why does this still bother me? It’s been almost a year.”
MC patted my back. “It’ll be OK. You’re not that girl anymore. The one who said, ‘How high?’ when he hollered ‘Jump.’ You’ve got this.”
Suddenly the vase flew across the room and hit the wall. I jumped as much as Maryam at the noise. “Oh my God. Where did that come from? I don’t throw things.”
Maryam chuckled. “Unresolved issues, much? You’re OK; just breathe slowly.” She put her hand on my shoulder.
Shaking her off, I slumped against the wall. “Sorry . . . this must be the anger portion of the stages of grief. I hit the ‘shock and denial’ stage when I found him shagging his grad assistant in my bed. I’ve been juggling the ‘pain and guilt’ portion since moving home. I know it’s stupid for me to feel any guilt, but . . .”
Maryam reached out with a quick hug. “You deserve to get angry and even to throw a vase at the wall if you feel like it.”
“Thanks, MC. You’re right. I can get with the anger. ’Cause it really isn’t fair. He had all the fun. Crap, you know, that’s what he called it, ‘just a bit of fun.’” My teeth were grinding as I continued. “So he kept all our ‘friends,’ the house and his job. Everything. At least I was smart enough to keep my last name when we got married.” I shivered at the thought that I might be Robin Henderson and forced to spend thousands to get it legally reversed.
I was wearing a path in the gold shag. At five-foot-eight, I crossed the room in a few long strides. I was on my fourth pass. Finally, I stopped for a breath and another slug of water.
“OK, I’m done. I’m not going down that path anymore. He is so out of my life.”
I began picking up the broken glass, dropping the pieces in the trash box. Straightening, I squared my shoulders. “I need to fast-track through the next few stages and get right to the reconstruction part. I have no time for the grief game. My priority has to be all about Gram.”
I could feel my forehead scrunch up. “She worries me. MC, she called me Adriana last night . . . hell, my mother’s been gone twenty-five years. Gram’s too young for this stuff.” Looking at my reflection in the dusty window, I saw a lot of worry lines that could turn into wrinkles. Not a good look for a new PR consultant. Were these thanks to Greg or due to worries over Gram? Did it matter?
My phone buzzed against my hip. Someone at the front door, according to the new security system. Clicking the app, I saw a UPS guy on the porch. Down the stairs on the side of the garage, I headed to the front yard. “Hey, just leave it on the porch,” I yelled.
“Need a signature.” He held up his tablet. “Government requirement.”
Wiping my hands down my shorts, I jogged down the drive and up the steps. Grabbing the tablet, I scrawled my signature with an index finger. “What is that thing, anyway?”
“Hell if I know. It’s a heavy sucker, I can tell you that,” he said over his shoulder heading back to the truck.
Using my key, I pushed open the front door. “MC, can you lift that end? Get it on the rug so we don’t scratch the floor.”
We maneuvered it inside, and Maryam read the label as we settled it in the middle of the room. “Look, it’s for your Gram, from the government. Return address is ‘Department of Defense.’”