SHORT STORY | THE ILLINOIS LINE
It was the late sixties, and I knew I could avoid the draft for awhile longer if I wanted to, but eventually, I just stopped fighting it. What was the point really, other than prolonging the inevitable? I'd already thrown away four good years chasing after my undergraduate degree, and what good would going to Grad School achieve in the end? The war could turn even uglier by then, as if that was even possible, judging by the way the politicians had gutted any chances they'd ever had of winning the thing -assuming they ever really thought they could. I could hear the draft board hissing behind the wall like a pack of rats; and they knew where I lived. I could smell them, crawling around behind the furniture at night, getting ready to pounce, holding their breath as their puke green eyes glare impatiently at the photograph of me in my personnel file as if it was the carcass of a half eaten chunk of limburger cheese. How anyone could even think about going to class while their brothers and friends were coming home every night in body bags on the five o'clock news was beyond even my fertile imagination. So I stopped buying books for my classes, began gagging down a couple sloe gin fizzes before breakfast, vomited, inhaled a six pack of Schlitz for lunch, vomited, knocked back three dirty martinis and a six pack of Hamms for dinner, took a couple drags on a ditch weed joint before bed to take the edge off the hallucinations, and slipped off to Dreamland, while my decomposing skeleton clattered away inside the man I used to be, my decision made. There would be no need for a Master's degree where I was headed and I saw no point in hiding from the draft board for one more day.
Having blown my academic scholarship in the grand total of three weeks, I figured it wouldn't take long for Uncle Sam to find me.
No shit. My draft notice came wrapped suspiciously in a spineless, plain brown envelope, coiled up like a porno tape in the mailbox...not that there's anything wrong with that. After falling into a swan dive so deep and dark only the devil himself would be proud of how far down I'd finally fallen, I told myself, why share something this disturbing with someone as emotionally overwrought as Jade on such a pretty summer night, right? It might give her the vapors and spoil the mood. Best save it for later.
The day after Jade returned home in a dead sober swoon from Betty Ford, we both thought we could finally get our free falling love life back on track. And as a blast of warm air roared up out of the south one muggy, bug-splattered afternoon sometime in the spring of 1969, Jade announced that we were going to celebrate her born again temperance by going dancing. So she and I, her twisted sister Scarlet (who had always hated my guts for hording the time she thought was hers to spend warping her little sister's impressionable pubescent mind), my younger sister Suki, and her Jumpin' Jack Flash boyfriend R.K. (who had a real sweet disposition for a juiced up speed freak), stamped out our hissing roaches, unglued our sweaty butts from our green metal lawn chairs, and headed for a roadhouse just east of the Illinois line called The Oaks. Admittedly, a bar was not the most ideal place we could have chosen to celebrate Jade's sobriety, but when that girl got something in her head, you'd best either go along for the ride or get your sorry ass run over, because either way, that's where you were going.
An hour later, in the light of a fake blue moon we danced, whirling around in circles under a tent in the rain to some mediocre junior college cover band that was busy butchering the Box Tops' My Baby, She Wrote Me a Letter. Welded together, we swayed back and forth on rubber legs, sweltering inside our clothes, and as the steam dripped down on my already sweat-soaked shirt, I thought I may as well just screw on my courage and come right out with it. Leaning in dangerously close to her, I whispered, "I got my notice today, Jade. I finally got drafted."
Good God, by the stumped shitless, Bambi-in-the-headlights look on Jade's face, you'd have thought I'd shot her right between the eyes with a Winchester .44. I don't think that was exactly what she'd wanted to hear right about then, but think about it; what could I have done? Is there a good time to tell somebody as high strung as Jade something like that?
The car on the ride home was a rolling torture chamber on wheels. Scarlet, my little sister Suki, and R.J. were in the back seat, cranking out a medley of hits like In-La-Gada-Da-Vida, Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?, and Sitting on the Dock of the Bay at the top of their lungs, oblivious to the devastation exploding inside the veins around Jade's eyes. Yesterday she'd been a pretty little knock-kneed heartbreaker, lying next to me making snow angels. But then, over night, she wasn't butter melting in my fingers anymore. She was just a scared and lost, bewildered young woman with tear soaked skin and uncontrollable black hair as soft as hybrid corn silk. And as we sailed off across a shuddering, sweet green wave of feed corn in my dad's blue Studebaker Champion, Jade sat about a mile away from me, watching me watching her out of the corner of her eye, while Scarlet, Suki and R.J. giggled like a gaggle of school girls in the back seat, mercifully distracting Jade from burrowing her razor sharp fingers any deeper into my thigh. Daring me to move Jade growled low and gravelly as an old beggar woman: "After all I've been through, do you seriously think I'm going to let you just leave me and go get yourself killed by some bony, opium smoking VC hop head over a frigging chess theory?"
Unwisely I corrected her. "I think you mean 'domino theory'."
"Domino theory, chess theory, Par-frigging-Cheesi theory, whatever. Is there nothing you won't do to get away from me? There are other choices you can make you know. You don't have to go kill little yellow people for sixty-cents an hour if you don't really want to. Jesus H. Christ, you dumb shit. Haven't you ever heard of Canada?"
And I said, "Well, yeah, I've heard of Canada, but I think I'm going to have to go. That's pretty much the way it looks to me. I'm guessing that's why they call it the draft."
That probably wasn't the brightest thing I could have said to her right about then, considering the number of her clinically limitless abandonment issues and her greased lightening temper, and with no warning, she sucker punched me, delivering a perfectly placed upper cut to my chin. And while my eyes rattled around in my skull, I tried in vain to figure out why she was the one that was so mad when it seemed to me that maybe I was the one that might feel a bit perturbed over this sorry state of affairs. It was me getting drafted after all. But you'd never have known, judging by the way Jade's eyes clicked off and on like a short circuiting, neon motel sign out on Highway 30, flashing through her options at the speed of starlight. Disregarding all but one, under her breath she hissed, "Why don't I just shoot your stupid ass right now and save you the trip? I'll pop a cap in your back, dig a hole out back of the barn, toss you in, throw a shovel full of dirt on you, and call it a day. Then we can all have a nice funeral with hymns and speeches, and everybody can start lying their corn fed fat butts off about how wonderful you were. And afterwards, we can put together a nice lunch on the church lawn with all the fixins: turkey, gravy, deviled eggs, three bean salad, lamb chops. All that good shit. Save us all a whole lot of grief over having to hear about you going over there to that meaningless rice bowl and getting your head blown off for no damned good enough reason and leaving me here all alone to fry in this Godforsaken, bug infested hell hole!"
As I waited out her anger, the night breeze turned suddenly cool and the sneaky blue morning light glowed fuzzy and cruel over a back water trough of polluted speck of spit they called the Iowa River. Just as suddenly, the breeze picked up and roared through the spruce trees, waking us all up from some wide eyed slumber we hadn't even seen coming. And in a bewildered trance, we all trudged like drunk Indians in single file along the gravel walkway up to my parent's farm house, as if we'd all been bruised, beaten, and left for dead, collapsing into a dead silence that we wouldn't wake up from for years. Like an exhausted fawn with an arrow in its heart, Jade rested her head against my shoulder and said, "I've been saving up something very special to tell you tonight, but I guess it'll just have to wait." Punishing me, making me wonder myself sick. I didn't like the sound of that one bit, I can tell you. I knew something very important had just happened and I'd missed it. But she wouldn't talk to me about it after that. And with Jade, there was no going back. I could usually see the signs but could never read them. It could have been the vagueness that curled itself around the corners of her mouth, or the ice forming along the edges of the lines around her eyes, or the blood beneath her fingernails from squeezing her fists so hard; I couldn't tell. Maybe it was something I'd done, or said, or it could even have been some limber limbed Rock Island cheerleader I barely knew who's name I'd whispered in my sleep; it didn't matter. It was all the same to Jade; you never knew. And suddenly, in her eyes I saw bombs exploding and tanks rolling across the border, and then she lay down cold and stiff as if she'd been hit, a wounded soldier embattled in her own private war, and she cried and cried, lying there beside me in that water-logged evening light, her hot, exhausted body stuck to the couch that had by then turned into a coffin, deserted again, believing she'd been left for dead... again. And all I could think to do was gaze without blinking at a reflection of the imaginary enemy she thought was hiding behind my eyes, staring at her, mocking her. But the fearless little French resistance fighter in her wouldn't back down and cursed in its face: "Goddamned you, don't you know by now, Paris will never fall!" But in her heart she knew, sooner or later, Paris was going down.
"Isn't this just great, I thought to myself, Zelda Fitzgerald incarnate come back from the dead, only in this version of the Great Gatsby, there's no green light at the end of the pier and no chomping on cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off at the Country Club.
I didn't know then how important what Jade had wanted to tell me that night would turn out to be. Or that it would take eleven years for her to tell me that we had a daughter. But like so many other secrets of hers, she just packed them away like priceless heirlooms and stored them in the attic in the back of her mind, which by then was crammed so full of such a bizarre menagerie of crap that I didn't know how she ever found anything worth saving in there anymore.
It was a drizzly March morning, 1968. The bus came early and there was no Jade to say goodbye to. Just my mom Eleanor, who stood in a tormented daze, twirling her white plastic purse like a baton around her fluttering nervous fingers, trembling as she watched me go: As if she knew somehow that I wasn't coming back. And try as she might, bless her dear heart, the poor thing couldn't think of one thing to say about it that would make any difference.