Conjunctions:16

War Wounds
North Vietnamese or Viet Cong forces shot down an Air Vietnam commercial airliner over the Central Highlands, killing all twenty-six people aboard. Pasadena Superior judge Walter Evans sentenced Billy Joe Booker to death in the gas chamber for abducting a Monrovia woman and her fourteen-month-old daughter from a shopping center parking lot and then beating them to death with a seventeen-pound rock. According to the Bureau of Land Management, recent Barstow-to-Las Vegas motorcycle race destroyed vegetation and substantially reduced small-animal population in the high desert region of southern California. The 16,000-ton tanker July Star broke in two and sank off the coast of Algiers; there was no sign of the crew of thirty-five. Although air strikes and mining were prohibited under the Paris agreement ending U.S. involvement in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, former U.S. military commander in Vietnam, said that President Ford should be given authority to launch B-52 air strikes in Indochina and mine the Haiphong harbor because, according to Westmoreland, the only language Hanoi understood was the language of force. 

      And that was the good news, because the bad news was that the Selective Service System had just held its national lottery, establishing the random sequence lottery number of all men who had reached or would reach age nineteen during the calendar year 1975: Gookus and me, among others. Everyone who had a lottery number above the administrative processing number would remain 1-H, the holding classification, and would not be subject to further Selective Service processing while everyone who had received a lottery number equal to or below the administrative processing number would be reclassified into a category available for induction. In the event the military draft was resumed, these men would be in the first group for possible call-up next year; each year after that, they’d fall into a lower priority until they were no longer liable for the draft, normally at age twenty-six. Anyone born in 1956 who did not yet know his lottery number could call the radio station. The car careened.

      Jesus Christ, Gookus said. Watch where you’re going, man. 

      Fucking news, I said. 

      What news? 

      Weren’t you listening? The lottery, Gookus. I bet I got drafted. 

      Don’t register. 

      I already did. 

      Idiot. 

      I thought you had to. I thought they threw you in jail if you didn’t. 

      Think about it: the war’s been over for years; why would they even bother to catch up with you? 

      Didn’t you register? 

      Hell, no. 

      I turned off the street onto a shoulder and drove across an empty lot, parking next to a phone booth. I’m going to call, I said and got out. Gookus followed close behind and we jammed into the booth. February fourth, he said as I dropped a dime into the coin slot and dialed the radio station. The lower pane of glass in the door was punched out. The phone book, hanging from a short metal chain, was shredded. Memoranda on the metal wall suggested that Michelle was not only good but insatiable, and Gookus tried to memorize the number by saying it softly over and over to himself. 

      A lady at the radio station said, Hey, listen. This is, like, a radio station. Call the Army. 

      On the news a few minutes ago the announcer said people could call the station and find out what lottery number they got. 

      I have the paper in front of me. My boyfriend got 339. Let me find the chart. Okay, man, what’s your birthday? 

      I’ve got two for you. A friend’s with me. 

      Really, you don’t have to ask for me, Gookus said. I don’t care. 

      July twenty-third, I said. 

      Two-seventy-eight, she said, and I told Gookus, who karate-chopped the wall in joy. 

      I told her my birthday. 

      Oh, she said. 

      Oh? 

      What a shame. 

      It’s that bad? 

      I looked at your birthday and I looked at the number. Looked at your birthday, looked at the number. You’re number nineteen, man. I’m sorry. 

      I hung up.

      What’s the matter? Gookus said. Did you get a low number? 

      Nineteen. 

      Are you serious?

      Yes.

      Gookus couldn’t stop laughing.

      But I won’t go, I said. I’m a pacifist.

      You, a pacifist?

      You know I am.

      Since when?

      Since always.

      Since you got number one.

      Bullshit.

      So you’re going to go C.O.?

      I am a C.O. I always have been a conscientious objector. 

      To what?

      To war. All wars.

      Hey, that’s convenient, Gookus said.



I tucked her in and turned off the light. She shut her eyes. Leave me be now, she said. Let me rest.

      All right.

      You must go now.

      I will.

      Walter?

      Yes, Mother.

      I’m in so much pain.

      Can I get you anything?

      Spill the bottle of sleeping pills onto the bed. Fill a glass of water for me and place it on the bed stand.

      You know I can’t do that.

      Why not?

      I’m afraid.

      Of what?

      Doing harm.

      Still whispering, with her eyes still shut, she said, You mustn’t be. Pour the bottle of sleeping pills onto the blanket, or I’ll take these two pillows—

      Go ahead.

      You’ll watch?

      Yes.

      You won’t stop me?

      No.

      Then why won’t you assist me?

      I won’t help you die.

      But I need an accomplice.

      Do it yourself.

      I’ll do it.

      Go ahead.

      I can’t. I want you to do it for me.

      No.

      You’re cruel.

      I’m sorry.

      You’re afraid.

      Yes.

      Please, Walter.

      No.



A fat man with a beard and a baseball cap opened the door, slapped my hands, grabbed my thumb, and said, Hey, like, look, man, enter because my time is yours. He sat down on the floor and crossed his legs. In front of him were matches, an ashtray, nickel-bags and papers, sunflower seeds, a six-pack of beer. The electricity didn’t work and the phone jack was pulled out of the wall. Broken windows were boarded up or crossed with duct tape. Psychedelic posters depicting various sexual positions and states of consciousness were tacked to the walls, and from the back of the room came the sound of Indian music.

      This is the draft information office, isn’t it?

      Was.

      What do you mean?

      We shut down years ago. You’re the first person to come by in ages. Without the draft, no one needs guidance any more. There’s nothing to worry about, man. 

      He tapped his fingers on the floor and sang to accompany the music on the stereo.

      I stood over him and said, Listen: listen to me: I still want to be a conscientious objector. What for? They’ll never reinstate the draft. You’re in no danger of being called up. 

      I realize I probably won’t be, but—

      Probably won’t be? Bullshit, man. You’re in absolutely no danger. Look, I’ve been through the whole thing a thousand times. I was a C.O. until they found out I pulled a gun once on my girlfriend, so I put on weight until I was over the Army’s limit. I know the tricks, man. 

      Will you at least tell me how I can apply for C.O. status? 

      I forget. Call the Army; they’ll tell you good. You sound pretty scared, though. If they spot a coward, you can forget about C.O. 

      I came here for help, but you’ve only— 

      Hey, look, what am I supposed to do? I told you the truth, didn’t I? We’re out of business. No more draft. No more resisters. Nothing to worry about. I’m trying to tell you, man. 


Each week all of us in contemporary events class were told to stand, read the article we had clipped from the newspaper, and speak up: speak up because the class was first thing in the morning and a few people in the back had the audacity to sleep. Bad boys searched for crumpled articles in pants pockets; good girls opened three-ringed binders to stories preserved between pieces of plastic. Boys read about the fire and the flood; girls read about the rescue. Some of the students could barely read and resorted to summary. Others whose families didn’t subscribe to a newspaper rummaged before class for stray pages in the gutter. Those who forget were punished after school.

      At breakfast I read a story about a thirteen-year-old girl who was so trusting, so naive, so foolish that she not only jumped off her bicycle and accepted the candy but got in the car. She was stripped, and what in newspaper accounts is called abused, then she was killed. She was found in a body bag in the dark morning drizzle. Her body was badly mangled; she could be identified only by the registration number on her bicycle. The girl’s mother was quoted as saying that the murderer, when caught, should not be hung until he’d first been castrated. The girl was the same age as I was. She died only a few miles from where I lived. I knew the area, the park in which her body had been trashed. 

      I cut out the article and the adjoining photographs—the weeping mother, the body bag in the rain—and brought them to class. I passed around the pictures while reading aloud the story. One girl said her friend knew the sister of the best friend of the dead girl, and asked me to stop reading, but the teacher said, No, please continue: maybe the girl’s death would serve as an example to the rest of us to go straight home after school. 

      Every Tuesday night for the next five weeks the killer found an errant girl, and every Wednesday morning I read an account of the evening’s events to the class. He chose different suburbs and hair colors, but always beautiful twelve- or thirteen-year-old girls whom he dressed in blue jeans and long sleeved, white, button-down shirts, always the bruised body sealed within the plastic body bag. He left notes, written in red and misspelled, and a composite sketch of his face was drawn and circulated, although no one had actually seen him. Mothers picked up their children immediately after school and didn’t allow them outside until the next morning. Detectives patrolled the streets.

      Week after week I explained what had happened the night before, showed them pictures and maps. I was only thirteen years old, but for some reason I said: Don’t cry. Although it was meant as encouragement to be brave, it was the wrong thing to say and they let me know they didn’t like it. The teacher told me not to bring in any more articles about this series of tragic deaths. The class no longer wanted to hear about it. At recess, during lunch, and after school, gangs of girls ran up to me and said my father was probably the killer. 

      The next Tuesday night an anonymous voice intimated over the telephone that if another girl died that night I would be flushed down the toilet. Paint and rotten eggs spattered the front steps. I stopped answering the doorbell. I lay in bed, hoping I’d die in my sleep, since I knew another girl would be found in the morning. Teri Schraeder, who the day before during recess told me that after what I had done she took back the one dance she had begrudgingly given me at the Christmas party, was the seventh victim – buried in a body bag wearing blue jeans and a white, long sleeved, button-down shirt. When I got to school, half of the eighth grade appeared to be waiting for me. The teacher of the contemporary events class was holding them back with her arms out, and when I opened the entrance gate she sang out, Everybody ready? They came forward with jump ropes and bike locks for whips and white chains, and I went to my knees.



What would you do if I were raped?

      What a ghastly question! What do you think I’d do?

      I don’t know. That’s why I asked. 

      Don’t worry about it. You’ll never be raped. 

      Why not? What are you talking about? 

      You’re not sexy enough. You always wear pants, never wash your hair.

      You want me to dress up to get raped, Nina said. 

      I didn’t say that.

      It so happens that someone followed me home from work tonight, waited until there were no more street lamps, then made a lunge for me when I stopped to put on my mittens. 

      Jesus, I said and hugged her, stroked her hair. Are you okay?

      Yes. I hit him in the face with my mittens and he ran away. If he had raped me, would you have shot him?

      If I were with you, I would wrestle him off you, but, no, I doubt I’d shoot him. 

      Why must you always be so rational?

      I’m sorry.

      What if he had touched a knife to my throat and said, Fight me or I’ll rape her?

      You have such a melodramatic imagination.

      What would you have done?

      I don’t know, I honestly—

      You must not care very much about me.

      I hope I’d—

      Hope? My God, Walter. Hope isn’t good enough.




I imagine walking up marble steps and pulling open double doors. At the other end of the room the six members of the jury sit in military uniforms at a long table. Each officer has his own microphone, and the officer at the head of the table taps his gavel and tells me to sit down. I don’t have a microphone, so they can’t hear my responses, but when I speak up, they tell me not to shout. I read a prepared statement, five typed pages of self-righteous rebellion, and introduce scraps of evidence on my behalf: articles I’ve written for my high school newspapers, letters to LBJ, polemical essays, membership cards to subversive organizations. After each man has asked me a series of questions, the head officer walks to where I’m sitting and tells me to stand. He cocks his fists. I raise my arms and he says, Siddown, 1-A … The Army doctor closes the door and tells me to jump up on the metal table. He quickly conducts the examination: tests my hearing, my sight, tells me to say Aah, pinches my neck, thumps my chest, feels my heart, takes my pulse, taps my knees, scrapes the bottom of my feet, then tells me to step out of my underwear. I do and get an erection. No, I say, I’m not homosexual. He tilts his head and raises his eyebrows; I assure him I’m not. He puts down his clipboard and squeezes my cock until it goes limp.



In order to evade the draft, my second cousin transferred schools every semester and told almost no one his address. He pushed dope and made blue movies. When he was drafted, he took a jar of peanut butter with him to the physical and smeared it over his ass. The doctor told him to strip, so he plopped a mound of peanut butter into his mouth and ate it. He licked his lips. The doctor ran his fingers over the smeared crease in his underwear, asked him if he often ate his own shit, and he nodded enthusiastically.



All it comes down to, Walter, with this C.O. business is that you don’t want to die. 

      That’s not true.

      It’s nothing to be ashamed of. No one wants to die. 

      That’s not all there is to it. 

      You’re scared. Were all scared.

      I’m not a coward. It takes courage to do what I’m doing. 

      As a child you would wake up in the middle of the night and sit, crying, at the landing of the stairs until I came to comfort you.

      Mother, please.

      You would say that you didn’t want the rest of the world to exist if you were dead. You wanted me to make sure you were preserved in ice when you died so that you could be brought back to life when a cure was discovered.

      Childish fears, childish fantasies.

      Of course, but don’t deny them. You’re still afraid. 

      No I’m not.

      Of course you are. But there’s nothing to be afraid of. 

      You’re not afraid?

      I want to get it over with. Spill the pills onto the blanket, Walt, and pour me some water. 

      Stop it. We’ve been through all this before.



I spent the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school licking envelopes for a congressional candidate who said he wouldn’t return from Washington until the war was over. At the time I believed in such statements. I sat at phone banks, calling every registered voter in the precinct, but very few of them answered and those who did were either opposed or virtually deaf. I carried a table, a chair, and voter registration cards into the wealthiest neighborhood in the state, an old woman invited me in for tea, and when I returned the table was gone. I wrote the candidate’s speeches for him; halfway through every speech, he stopped, discarded the script, and spoke, he said, from the gut. He was obese. His gut was repulsive. At the dinners, no one drank enough to get drunk. At the fundraisers, no one contributed. Our billboards were derivative. The newspaper and television advertisements were antediluvian. The campaign slogan was NO HOKUM—VOTE FOR SLOCUM. Election day I drove crippled people to the polling booth, and on the way home most of them told me they voted for the challenger. Slocum’s wife was beautiful, so a week before the election a rumor was leaked that his opponent had spent campaign funds in downtown massage parlors, and Slocum won in a landslide. I started that rumor.



I write a letter to appeal the jury’s decision. I write: I must refuse to play any part in the military. I would have to kill myself rather than cause the death of another man. Even if I were not required to use a weapon, I would be unable to serve the Army in any capacity I value nothing more than my own conscience. As a child I did not play with guns. I would not have fought in the American Revolution or the Second World War. My parents taught me always to be good, never to do bad. I am a highly moral human being. I am prepared to accept the consequences of my actions.



As a wide receiver, I would run intricate patterns, then stand all alone in the middle of the field, waving my hands, calling for the ball. I never dropped a pass, but when I was hit hard, I would typically tighten up and fumble. I was the best softball player in the neighborhood, but as we grew older, we began to play overhand, fast pitch hardball, and I started flinching. Trying to beat out a ground ball, I would always slow down so that the throw to first base would arrive ahead of me and I would avoid getting hit in the head with a wild toss. Batting, I was afraid of getting hit with the pitch; fielding, I dreaded bad hops off the rocky infield. No one could shoot a basketball as well as I could, but I was afraid to drive into the complicated middle of the key, where I would get banged up, and everyone knew that, so they guarded me tight and shut me off. I could run a hundred yards in 10.6 seconds, but I had very long legs and the track coach insisted that I run high hurdles; I stutter-stepped before each hurdle to make sure I cleared it and came in last. I feared the black rubber mats, the sudden loss of balance, the pressure on the skull, the slap of feet and legs to the ground; I flunked gym because I couldn’t turn somersaults. Having never learned to dive, I jumped in the pool feet first. The swimming instructor dragged me to the edge of the diving board, positioned my arms and legs, held me in the air for a second, then dropped me into the pool. At the last instant I turned my face, and water broke my fall like a bed of electric needles. What was I scared of? Why was I so afraid of getting hurt? I was under the mistaken impression there was such thing as a clean sprint through the night without spikes or hurdles. 



Did you kill anybody in World War II?

      Might have. Don’t know. Can’t tell. Hard to say. 

      Why don’t you know?

      You’re all firing your weapons at once, so you don’t know if your bullet killed the dead man or the bullet of the man next to you killed him. 

      But do you think you did? 

      Perhaps. 

      Perhaps? 

      Well, yes, I did. Why, what’s the matter, son? 

      Why did you have to kill him?

      Who?

      The man you killed, perhaps.

      Hey, stop looking at me with those wide eyes of yours. He was shooting at me. What was I supposed to have done?

      Were you scared?

      No.

      But he was shooting at you?

      It’s okay. It’s okay. He missed.



My father killed Hitler. He was with a squad of soldiers, one of whom would have killed Hitler if Hitler had not killed himself first. He was part of a squad that surrounded the bunker in which Hitler killed himself. He was in another part of Germany when Hitler killed himself. He was in Okinawa at the time. He was in Brooklyn and read about it in his newspaper. He couldn’t afford to subscribe to a newspaper and read about it in someone else’s newspaper. He couldn’t read English and someone had to explain to him what had happened.



My father said he volunteered to serve in the Army in World War II. He said he was drafted at about the same time he volunteered. He didn’t remember which was first. He said he was drafted just days before he would have volunteered. My father put his arm around my shoulder, took off his glasses, then half-whispered into my ear that he was drafted but failed the physical examination due to a problem with his left leg and returned home. 

      What sort of problem? I asked. In eighteen years I’d never heard or seen that he had any problem with his left leg. 

      It’s healed since then, he said, shaking his head and gesturing toward a vague point in the past to indicate that I needn’t and wouldn’t know more.



I imagine showing the new letter from the draft board to my father, who says: What does this stand for—Cowards Only? He dances around me, tousling my hair, tugging my ears, pinching my nose and stinging my face with rapid, openhanded blows to back me into a corner. He pins my arms, pokes me in the stomach, knees me in the groin. I turn toward the wall, with my head in my hands, but when he clutches my throat, I swing around to face him, throwing my arms up and outward. I hit him, hard, across the jaw.

      I didn’t mean it, I say. I’m sorry. I didn’t hurt you, did I? 

      He falls to the floor, overacting a bit, I’m certain, but clearly stunned.



My new dream goes like goes: in the middle of the desert my father offers me water from his canteen, which I accept with outstretched hands and drink until I’m no longer thirsty. He takes off his boots and shakes out pebbles, dirt, dead leaves. Lizards crawl around, looking for shade under rocks and short shrubs. When he untwists the black top of the canteen he finds nothing but the inside of the container.

      You drank all the water, he says.

      Yes, I say, I was thirsty.

      That’s all we had left. We won’t be able to survive. 

      I’m sorry. I didn’t know.

      Of course you knew.

      I’m sorry.

      We may die, Walter.

      We won’t die.

      We may. You have no concern for anyone other than—

      There’s a cactus plant out there.

      Where?

      Out there, out in the distance.

      I can’t see it.

      Your eyes are bad.

      I don’t see it.

      He unties the knots in his backpack and removes his eyeglasses. He rubs the lenses with his shirt until they’re filthy, then gazes into the distance, contemplating the sheer magnitude of this inhuman habitat. A quarter mile away, due west, partially hidden among rock piles and dying trees, stands a giant cactus plant.

      I’ll race you for the water in the cactus, I say.

      I shouldn’t run. My leg’s bothering me.

      Then the water’s mine.

      I make a false start, but he shouts at me to wait.

      Really, Walt, my bad leg’s bothering me.

      He unstraps the canteen from his belt, takes the backpack off his shoulders, and gives both the canteen and the backpack to me. He stretches his legs by touching his toes and doing deep knee bends. He builds up sand to serve as a starting block and crouches down in a sprinter’s ready position, dusting dirt and sand off his fingers onto his pants leg, bending his left leg forward, shooting his right leg back and balancing himself on the balls of his feet and fingertips. With his feet in the sand, his shoulders hunched over and shaking, and his head pointed straight ahead as if he’s a bird dog, he rocks until he’s set. He’s serious.

      I fasten the canteen to my belt and pull the straps of the backpack over my shoulders. Although I feel weighted down, I pull one knee and then the other up to my chest, stretching. I’m thirsty; I definitely want to win. I look out across the dry desert and toward the cactus in the distance, then back to him. He’s poised, ready to run. A quarter of a mile is only once around the track, I say to myself, and bend down a little and put my hands on my knees. 

      Who’s going to start us? I ask.

      I will. Runners, take your mark, he says and shakes one leg and then the other behind him. He crouches down low and spits into the dirt.

      Are you sure your leg is all right?

      Get set.

      I’d hate for you to hurt it or make it any worse. 

      Go, he says. He gets off to such a good start that I think maybe he’s jumped the gun. I chase after him,
calling out that in order to be absolutely fair to both parties involved we should at least think about starting over again, but he ignores me and clenches his fists, lengthens his stride, and kicks up pebbles as he increases his lead. Although he’s only a few yards ahead, I can’t close the gap because the backpack bounces up and down on my shoulders and weighs a ton and the canteen knocks against my thighs and stomach, slowing me down further. My chest fills with dry air.

      Bounding over the desert, avoiding rocks and brush, we approach the cactus plant, which is huge: four stems curve up from the base and one major stem sticks straight up into the air thirty feet like a thick green finger. In the distance, to both sides of us, north and south, are rocks worn away into jagged, meaningless shapes. The sky is clear light blue, completely open and empty except for a flock of sand grouse flying overhead, looking for water. 

      We near the cactus and I can hear him gasping for breath when I edge up on him. He’s trying to hold on, but I can tell he isn’t going to make it. He has nothing left: his bad leg is wobbly, his head is bobbing up and down, his neck muscles are straining. He’s tight, and I’m a step behind. I let my arms swing more freely and bring my knees up higher, all the way to my chest, as I catch a second wind and sprint by him, shouting, racing for the cactus, forgetting about the backpack and canteen, finally hitting my stride with my arms and legs working together smoothly and powerfully. 

      He falls. His knees buckle. He loses the lead as well as his balance and tumbles into the dirt, head first, arms stretched out flat to break his fall. He scrapes his hands across ragged rocks, skidding across the desert on his stomach. The sand grouse sweep down to see what’s happened; I don’t stop running until I reach the cactus. I trample over the shrubs and sharp brush surrounding the cactus, take my knife out of my pocket, and cut through the clustered spines of the lowest stem, the only I’m able to reach. It’s coated with wax. I prick myself on the bristles and my fingers bleed. The cut stems drip water, which I cup in my hands. 

      He’s holding his hip and still breathing hard. His hands are cut and bloody, and his right leg is shaking slightly. His tongue sticks out of his open mouth. I kneel down and offer him the water, but he turns on his side, onto his bad leg, away from me. 

      I had you, he says. Goddamnit, I had you. You’re slow, Walter. I had you. 

      I raise my hands to my face to drink.
 

David Shields’s most recent books include The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead and Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (both Knopf).