8. She’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist, she don’t look bad

Bob Dylan—She Belongs to Me

Edie rushes at Charles bearing a battle ax with a demonic look on her face. Charles ducks behind an armoire and Edie splinters it with a single blow. Charles crawls down the stairs on all fours. He can’t get his limbs to work fast enough to keep ahead of the huge, green, wriggling worms controlled by silver leashes bunched in Edie’s enormous grotesque fists. He falls through the landing into a swimming pool of blood. Edie surfaces and grabs him by the neck. “You never loved me!” she screams, exposing six-inch-long fangs. Her gaping mouth moves closer and closer despite Charles’s desperate attempts to fight her off. Just as her jaws close around his dick, Charles wakes with a shout, sitting bolt upright in his bed, shivering and sweating.

“Get the fuck away from me!” he screams. Hyperventilating, he writhes and twists, trying to brush the worms off his skin. It takes another few seconds for him to come to his senses. Thank god, he thinks. Only a dream. He shivers at the recollection. Why in hell did I dream about Edie after all these years? I haven’t given her a thought in forever.

Charles swivels, sets his feet on the bedroom floor, and shakes his head as if clearing cobwebs. His sheets are soaked. Charles sleeps in the nude, so when he stands up facing his bedroom mirror, he can see that his manhood is intact. He groggily schlumps into the bathroom and plops down on the toilet. He can’t figure out any reason why his old flame should have visited his dreams.

Later, dressed, shaved, and somewhat pulled together, Charles rustles through a box of old manuscripts, looking for the only poem he ever wrote about Edie. He finally finds it and sits on his couch to read it.

Breathe upon my arm,
The hairs stand
In tingles. Your mist
And hazy presence
In my senses.
I sigh, and feel desire
Diffuse and buried
Pounding through sweet cotton.

You are an event
That happens to me.
I cannot say
How much I imagine.

Walking, thinking of you
Out upon the grass,
Or in the morning, at the mirror,
My lips tremble to the touch
Of tender breezes.

Feel the music
As you move
As you curl
On a pillow by the window
My soul purrs.

You slant your head,
Parting lips to speak,
But what I hear
Are words from all your ages,
Rebecca, Leah, Mary,
Sinuous in grace.

Edie hated this poem, Charles thinks. She said, “Get this fucking thing out of my life!” And I never wrote another about her, or at least never showed her another. Thoroughly bummed now, Charles leans back against the couch, lights a cigarette, and remembers Edie.


Charles and Edie met in graduate school in Denver in the fall of 1975. Edie was a tall, long-faced, small-breasted dirty blonde with narrow hips and a blocky butt who was five years older than him. Her wire-rimmed Granny glasses, holey jeans, and flower-girl-gone-to-seed persona belied her cynical attitude. She lived with two roommates—a Bible-thumping Southern cracker closeted lesbian and a skinny, rigid, pole up her butt librarian, both of whom she drove quite mad—in the graduate dorm apartment just below Charles’s. Charles was in his second year in the master’s program in creative writing, and Edie was in her first year getting an MFA in photography.

By the second week of fall semester, on their second date, Charles and Edie slept together, a screeching, frantic, high-energy affair on Edie’s part that excited yet intimidated Charles. Although he was a fairly experienced lover, having had a steady girlfriend since sophomore year in college, he was used to a bit more leisurely pace.

One night, in late fall, Charles and Edie were walking down the deserted quad, on the way back to the dorm after watching The Seventh Seal. They were holding hands and chatting idly about Bergman when the double report of a pair of firecrackers echoed loudly through the quad. Edie screamed “Incoming!” broke away from Charles quick as a cat and hit the ground, rolling into the shelter of a nearby bush. Charles was stunned and stared at the spectacle of his new girlfriend cowering behind the bush.

Edie stood up and sheepishly brushed the leaf stubble off her jeans. “Uh, sorry,” she said. “Ever since Nam, loud noises really freak me out.” She clutched her sides and shivered. Edie had recently confided that she had spent three years after college as one of the first female photojournalists in Viet Nam.

Charles picked a few twigs from the back of Edie’s sweater and said, “Wow! That was really something. Did you have some kind flashback?”

“No, it’s not really like that—the acid metaphor really doesn’t quite work—although something like this does put me back in the jungle emotionally. You know, the terrifying sound of the guns, the mortars, the dying. Shit.” By now the shivers had turned to shaking and Charles quickly put his arm around her. “That was worse than the dreams,” she said.

“You dream about Nam?”

“Yeah, most nights. Sometimes it’s OK. I’m with my patrol in-country and there’s no sound, but I can smell them, I can feel their heat, and sense the Cong all around us. But I feel OK. I’m not afraid, just exhilarated. I’m safe. I know the unit will protect me.” Edie sighed and wiped her nose. “Other times, we’re pinned down by gook fire and every man in the patrol is ripped to shreds around me. Everybody but me. I usually wake up screaming.” She eyed Charles. “So, you’ve got that to look forward to, if you ever let me stay over,” she said with a grim smile.

Charles was quite particular about his bedtime habits. Having slept solo in a double bed since his early childhood, he wasn’t comfortable sharing a bed with anyone, and so always asked Edie to return to her first-floor apartment after late-night lovemaking. That this had already become a bone of contention, mere weeks after they started sleeping together, baffled and irritated Charles. He thought Edie lacked an understanding of the concept of personal space. She even wanted to keep a toothbrush in his apartment, which Charles thought ludicrous because there were six feet of hallway and ten stair steps between their two apartments, as he pointed out repeatedly. Edie said she had bad teeth and brushed up to eight times a day, and why was it such a big deal to keep a lousy toothbrush where she could use it?

“Well, you make spending the night sound damn attractive!” Charles had said with a smile, hoping to lighten the mood. Edie had just looked at him gloomily and said nothing.

Edie’s shivers had mostly subsided, so Charles said, “C’mon, let’s go get a beer to calm down,” He steered Edie in the direction of the little student ghetto across the street from the campus.

In the deep gloom of the Hoffbrau, B. B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone” was on the jukebox. At a scarred dark oak table with a guttering candle in a red tulip vase covered in plastic netting, Charles ordered a pitcher of beer and looked compassionately at Edie, who was silently weeping, tears melting down her cheeks.

“You want to talk about it?”

“No. Not really. You know, it wasn’t that long ago. I came home on an Operation Babylift plane last April.”

“What’s Operation Babylift?”

“Oh, it was just the saddest thing ever. You know it was chaos when we pulled out of South Viet Nam, right? Choppers taking off from the roof of the Saigon Hilton and all? Well, chaos doesn’t even begin to describe it. It was hell on Earth. Everybody and his brother was trying to get a ride out. Civilians, I mean. But even the soldiers were scrambling. When that asshole Kissinger sealed the deal in Paris, nobody had planned the goddamned retreat. And once that bastard Nixon got chased from office and replaced by the current Boob in Chief, I guess things got a little crazy at the top. Then Congress refused to continue the war funding, and we were sitting ducks.”

The waitress set the pitcher down along with two frozen mugs. Edie grabbed one and poured beer into it quickly, mindless of the burgeoning head. She placed both hands around the ice-slick mug and tipped its contents into her mouth in one quick motion, draining it within seconds. Wiping her mouth with her hand, she refilled, more slowly, and then filled Charles’s mug. “God, I needed that,” she said, and then burped loudly.

“So, it was crazy in Saigon at the end, huh? Yeah, I saw the news footage of the helicopters on the roof. It was heartbreaking.”

“Shit!” Edie said, with a look of disgust. “You wouldn’t know heartbreaking if it bit you on the butt, you strait-laced asshole!”

“Whoa!” Charles recoiled against the wooden back of the booth. “Take it easy! I don’t think I deserve that.”

Edie drank another long draught of beer before answering, “Yeah, sorry, you’re right. I get a little crazy when people who weren’t in the shit act like they know what it was like. You see, I was a civilian. After I finished my nursing degree and worked in a hospital for a year, I decided I really couldn’t hack being a nurse, kowtowing to the docs all day and having little real power. So, I had a little bit of money left from a scholarship and decided I would go take photos of the war. Thought it would be thrilling. Showed up in Saigon about three or so years ago and managed to wangle a journalist credential from a guy who worked for Look who my dad—my fucking famous heart surgeon dad—knew. Look bought some of my photos, but I was basically a free agent, a stringer. And for the whole time I was there, I was generally the only poontang around, if you can imagine what that was like.” She regarded Charles coldly, then rapped the table, making him jump. “Just think about the worst fucking thing you can possibly imagine and double it, Charles,” Edie finished with a sneer.

Charles sipped a bit of his beer and tried to shake off his irritation at Edie’s unfair outburst. “Tell me all about it, sweetie.”

Edie sagged back against the back of the booth and heaved a big sigh. “I dunno,” she said wearily. “I don’t know if I’m up for that.” After a minute and more beer, she continued, “You know, I don’t know who I’m maddest at: that arrogant cocksucker criminal Kissinger; Nixon, his certifiably insane partner in crime; or the chicken-shit Congress who refused to fund any South Vietnamese resistance to the North’s final offensive that chased us out of Saigon like a bunch of goddamned cowards.”

Edie took off her glasses and wiped at them with the tail of her shirt. Charles extended his hand across the table palm up. Edie glanced at the hand and continued polishing her glasses. Embarrassed, Charles arced his hand to his mug and tried to act like that was the idea all along. After a long silence punctuated only by the clicking of the billiard balls across the mostly empty bar, Edie sighed again and said, “Look, Charles, I may be mad, but I’m not mad at you. Sorry I’m acting like a bitch . . .” She sniffed and blew her nose in the damp napkin from beneath her beer.

Charles assured her he understood while secretly wondering what kind of screwed up devil woman he had gotten himself involved with.

“It’s just that all this shit is still too fresh. I decided to give up photojournalism and get a fine arts photo degree to try and help put this crap behind me. But I think I’m still a little batshit crazy . . .”

“Look, Edie, if you don’t want to get into this, that’s just fine with me,” Charles said, a bit stiffly. “All I want to do is help, and if it helps to talk, great. If not, great.” Charles was still miffed. He dug in his jacket pocket for a roll of Certs, peeled one off the top, and popped it in his mouth, then winced as the peppermint taste mixed with the taste of the beer.

“No, I guess you have a right to know what’s going on with me, especially when I act like Shell-Shocked Suzy.” Edie managed a tight smile. “So, here goes. I’ll tell you what it was like getting my ass out of Saigon.” Edie took a big breath and slowly let it out, whistling between her teeth.

“You see, Look mag just didn’t give a shit about me. I was never real official even with the press cred. They bought maybe 20 photos from me the whole three years I was there. But I was putting my butt on the line every day, living with the grunts and even traveling with them on patrol. And all I got was the same grub they ate, as well as unwanted attention from every grabby officer around when they were on R&R.”

“Did the, uh, grunts, ever make a pass at you?”

“No, they pretty much accepted me once they realized I was putting my butt out there too. They actually hoped I’d make them famous, getting them in the magazine. In fact, it was often difficult to get unposed pictures of them, at least at the beginning. They all wanted to look so damn heroic on the cover of Look. Like I’d ever get the cover of Look!

“Anyway, after the Paris treaty was signed in early ‘73, I knew, I just knew, it was all going to end badly. The Viet Cong weren’t going to honor any cease fire, and it was only a matter of time before they went on the offensive again. And sure enough, that happened this past spring, and as soon as I heard they were on the move, I spent every waking hour trying to get a ride out. I was flat broke—you try to live on a grand or so for three years. I wasn’t military, so I had little chance of airlifting out with the GIs. The goddamned Thieu government commandeered every plane, truck, or boat available to get their families and their sorry asses out of Dodge.

“And, like I said, my Look friends were hardly interested in lifting a finger to help me. As Charlie got closer to Saigon, though, I heard of a plan to get the sons and daughters of US GIs out via something called Operation Babylift. There were four flights planned out of Tan Son Nhut, and I managed to bluff my way onto the tarmac for the last one with my press pass and my nursing license. They were loading the plane, and Charles, you can’t imagine the atmosphere. The Cong were firing rockets into the airport, and it was a complete, utter madhouse. Buses, jeeps, jitneys—all kinds of vehicles were pulling up and disgorging dozens of kids, some half Vietnamese, but some obviously full Vietnamese. The nurses and GIs would scoop them up and hustle them toward the plane. I got wind of the fact that since so many were toddlers or younger and many of those sick, they needed seat fillers—they called them lap holders—to go on the plane and take care of the kids on their way to Seattle.

“As soon as I heard this, I ran like hell for the plane, which was more than half full already. Screaming ‘Press, press!’ I bulled my way on board and threw myself into this little canvas seat attached to the side of the C-141. Almost immediately a nurse plopped a kid on my lap and told me to belt in. The kid, a beautiful little half-Vietnamese girl with blue eyes who looked like she was three or four months old, was sicker than a dog, burning up. She immediately barfed all over me but continued to smile up into my face. She had the most beautiful smile. Her teeny little hands kept grabbing my camouflage blouse. I’m sure I looked like hell and smelled like a beast, having lived in those clothes for several days by that time, and with barf all over. But she just kept beaming at me like I was some kind of angel.

“After only a couple more minutes, the plane was full, and we took off like a shot, at a steep angle to avoid Charlie’s rockets. The plane was a madhouse—dozens of scream­ing kids in little cribs attached to the Starlifter’s deck, with scared adults yelling and screaming for water, food, or new diapers, or whatever. Turns out a couple of spooked MPs had dumped the food and supplies just before takeoff; don’t know why. Even though we ran out of water an hour into the flight, things calmed down a bit after we’d been over ocean for a while, and me and Sunshine—that’s what I named her—grabbed a few winks.

“Because of the lack of water and such, we were diverted to Clark air base in the Philippines. When we landed, I wouldn’t leave the plane and I wouldn’t turn Sunshine loose either. I don’t know what my deal was. I just wanted to sit there with Sunshine. I had that maudlin little flower child song, “Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair,” running through my head. I think I was pretty crazy at that point. I was dehydrated, hadn’t eaten in three days, had hardly slept on the flight, and had a hard time concentrating on anything but that shitty song and Sunshine.

“Finally, an official-looking doctor came on board and sat down next to me. ‘Miss,’ he said gently, ‘You’re here; you’re safe, and I need to take that little girl and get her looked at right away.’ I looked at him like he was from outer space. Then I looked at Sunshine, who was either asleep or passed out. I looked back at the doc, who had a somewhat goofy smile on his face, and handed him Sunshine. ‘You have to let me visit her,’ I pleaded. ‘I have to know she’s all right. Please.’ ‘Sure,’ he said, but I never saw Sunshine again.”

Edie began to cry, this time for real. Huge racking sobs shook her body as Charles slipped out of his seat and pushed in beside her, putting his arms around her.




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