Cover
Title
Praise for Peter Gilboy’s Novels
THE AMERICAN PEARL
“…engrossing, thought-provoking, and
filled with action that makes it a different,
highly recommended read”
“…hard-hitting, absorbing,
and hard to put down”
The American Pearl “embraces politics,
racism, war, redemption, betrayal,
and even love, on many levels.
MidWest Book Reviews
D. Donavon, Senior Editor
The Girl on Mill Street
Annie Taylor knows the
darkest lie of all.
“I never saw it coming!”
“Fascinating story, unique style, different….”
“I recommend this book for anyone
who enjoys a good plot twist.”
Madeleine’s Kiss
“Uniquely gripping”
“Riveting and eye-opening”
“This won’t be your usual thriller or mystery”
– Midwest Book Reviews
Operation Fantasy Plan
“Richly written debut spy thriller, with delicious turns and quirks…Gilboy clearly knows of what he speaks. He has created an intense, philosophical novel.”
--Kirkus Reviews
See also:
www.PeterGilboy.com
Peter can be contacted at:
Hello@PeterGilboy.com
For Preston Dane
Contents
Part I
Chapter 1: Quintyn
Chapter 2: Patricia
Chapter 3: Quintyn
Chapter 4: Patricia
Chapter 5: Quintyn
Chapter 6: Patricia
Chapter 7: Quintyn
Chapter 8: Patricia
Part II
Chapter 9: Quintyn
Chapter 10: Patricia
Chapter 11: Quintyn
Chapter 12: Patricia
Chapter 13: Quintyn
Chapter 14: Patricia
Chapter 15: Quintyn
Chapter 16: Patricia
Chapter 17: Quintyn
Chapter 18: Patricia
Chapter 19: Quintyn
Chapter 20: Patricia
Chapter 21: Quintyn
Chapter 22: Patricia
Chapter 23: Quintyn
Chapter 24: Patricia
Chapter 25: Quintyn
Chapter 26: Patricia
Chapter 27: Quintyn
Chapter 28: Patricia
Chapter 29: Quintyn
Chapter 30: Patricia
Chapter 31: Quintyn
Chapter 32: Patricia
Chapter 33: Quintyn
Chapter 34: Patricia
Chapter 35: Quintyn
Chapter 36: Patricia
Chapter 37: Quintyn
Chapter 38: Patricia
Chapter 39: Quintyn
Chapter 40: Patricia
Chapter 41: Quintyn
Chapter 42: Patricia
Chapter 43: Quintyn
Chapter 44: Patricia
Chapter 45: Quintyn
Chapter 46: Patricia
Chapter 47: Quintyn
Chapter 48: Patricia
Chapter 49: Quintyn
Chapter 50: Patricia
Part III
Chapter 51: Quintyn
Chapter 52: Quintyn
Chapter 53: Quintyn
Chapter 54: Quintyn
Chapter 55: Quintyn
Chapter 56: Quintyn
Chapter 57: Quintyn
Chapter 58: Quintyn
Chapter 59: Quintyn
Chapter 60: Quintyn
Chapter 61: Quintyn
Chapter 62: Quintyn
Chapter 63: Quintyn
Chapter 64: Quintyn
Chapter 65: Quintyn
Chapter 66: Quintyn
Chapter 67: Quintyn
Chapter 68: Quintyn
Chapter 69: Quintyn
Chapter 70: Quintyn
Chapter 71: Quintyn
Chapter 72: Quintyn
Chapter 73: Quintyn
Chapter 74: Quintyn
Chapter 75: Quintyn
Epilogue
PART I
Even if you forget your past,
it remembers you
.
–Sarah Dessen
1
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JANUARY 15, 2006
SAN DIEGO, 9:15 A.M.
CONSIDER THIS—THERE IS A man running on a beach. He is running hard but not particularly fast. He is grimacing and holding his side as if wounded, weaving left and right. The beach is in San Diego. It is January, still early in the day, but the mist has burned off and the air is crisp and already warming. The sky is clean and mostly blue with just a few brushstrokes of white. It’s San Diego, after all.
There are others on the beach besides the man who is running hard. Some early strollers along the waterline. A girl in a bright blue bikini dancing along the sand with her earbuds and music. A boy with a tumbling kite. There’s a couple too, who are laughing as they swing their child toward the water’s edge. Colorful sailboats are already out, and yellow kayaks glide near a hulking Navy ship.
Now let’s say that you are there on that beach too. You hear the seagulls. You taste the salt air. The waves are lapping gently. It is low tide. All is good. You turn your eyes to the man who is running. He is running in your direction. He is getting closer. A big man. A black man. The sailboats no longer have your attention, nor the kayaks. You see the man stumble. You see that his black-rimmed glasses are crooked on his face. He stumbles again. He straightens. He struggles to keep going. The man crosses paths with the girl in the blue bikini. She looks up and screams as she flees from him. The couple with the child see him too and rush into the water for safety.
Follow me now: In a moment the man will be in front of you, still grimacing and holding his side. You’ll freeze then. Your world will shrink to the merest fraction. Just this man, looming even larger. The man notices you and seems to stagger toward you. He seems to scowl at you. Danger bells go off in your head—he’s violent, a gangbanger, has a gun, probably been shot.
The man stops. He looks at you as if reading your thoughts. His eyes hold yours as he stands there gulping the air. His shadow is enormous. You see the shine of sweat on his cheeks and chin. You see that he is older than you thought, late fifties probably, with graying hair and gray patches on his day-old stubble. Then you think: That nose—what happened to that nose? The man reaches up and straightens his glasses. He squints. And smiles. Really smiles. You are relieved. Then you see that he’s not smiling at you, but rather, at nothing in particular. The man slides off his headband and wipes his forehead. He cleans his glasses on his shirt. He straightens and stares out over the bay. You follow his eyes to an old riverboat paddling in the distance, probably a restaurant now. You remember that he was gripping his side, and you understand that it’s not because he’s been shot. He’s tired is all. The man is exhausted.
There are three things about this man. The first you can now see—that he’s not just big as you originally thought. He’s huge. Six-five or more. You guess three hundred pounds, and you are off by only a little.
Second—he’s not just black. He’s African-black. Probably no mixture of races over the generations—his parents and their parents and their parents, all the way back through slavery to the sub-Saharan desert. Night black.
Third—and this is what you can’t see but which is the most important—he will be betrayed. In six days. Not by his wife of two days. No, not by Julia. Nor by his mother, of course. He will be betrayed by the nation. His nation. Not just the government but the people as well. Just about all of them. He will be shunned. He will be laughed at. He will be disgraced.
That will be his legacy.
I can tell you more about the man who will be betrayed. As a kid he loved two things: baseball and old grainy photos of DC that he’d find at the library when his mother took him there on the weekends. He’d dig out photos of the old city and go over them again and again with a magnifying glass that he’d gotten for his birthday, and he’d find new details of the city each time. His idols back then were Jackie Robinson and Benjamin Banneker. Jackie Robinson was—well, you know who he was. Benjamin Banneker was the black man who, in 1791, helped survey the land that would become the District of Columbia. As a boy, the man who will be betrayed copied Benjamin Banneker’s sketches and notes and compared them to photographs he’d take from the same spots that day. He knew every inch of the capital, new and old, every street corner and alleyway. He knew where the horse-drawn trolleys used to be. He knew where Suter’s Tavern had been, there at Thirty-first and K. He knew where to find the home of John Stoddard, the tobacco man who was commissioned by George Washington to buy up the parcels of land that were to become the nation’s capital.
What else about the man? I can tell you that he is mostly a good man. If you counted each of the days of his life, they balanced out pretty much in his favor. Moral lapses are behind him now, and the anger. He is a decent man these days, never callous or corrupt, always trustworthy and mostly truthful. And he still takes pictures as he did when he was a boy. But these are from cameras hundreds of miles deep into the sky; rolling cameras that sweep left to right, right to left, as they circle the earth—mowing the lawn, the man likes to call it. Searching. For as long as the man can remember he has been searching. With these cameras the man magnifies down to six inches, sees footprints through clouds and dark skies, reads name tags, reads lips, follows a leaf as it falls. But the cameras don’t exist. Neither does the agency that supplies them.
How do I know so much about this man? You’ve guessed already. And you are right. I am that big man. That black man. The man who looks down from the sky.
I am the man who will be betrayed. In six days.
Good to know you.
2
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MARCH 30, 1972
QUI NHON CITY
SOUTH VIETNAM, 11:40 A.M.
PATRICIA ANNE PAVLIK WAS a first lieutenant in the United States Army. On this day, she was a short-timer, with just nineteen days left in country. Then, she’d be home again. Home was the world, with its shiny cars, fresh-cut lawns, and summer barbecues. This place wasn’t the world; it was Nam, or one of the ugly names that soldiers had for the country—Dinkland, Gooktown, or Slopeville.
Not just Patricia, everyone was going home. Nam was over, done, finished, kaput. Nixon had kept his promise. The ARVNS—the Army of South Vietnam—would take over the fighting now and do it on their own; fight the fucking communists from the north. Back home, the families were relieved. The great nation had prevailed once more even though it had been at such terrible costs. The protests and riots were coming to an end. No more wasted money, wasted lives. Daily reports of body counts had turned to weekly reports and now were only monthly. Maybe five or ten bodies came home each month; that was certainly tolerable considering the tens of thousands who had been killed in the previous years.
The country was pretty much pacified now, and everyone knew it. No sweat, the soldiers said. Take it easy. Count the days. I’m a short-timer. Goin’ back to the world.
Lieutenant Patricia Pavlik was an officer in the Quartermaster Corps, which is a fancy way of saying she oversaw supplies. She was a bit taller than most women, five-ten or so, square-shouldered and erect in her uniform. She was pretty, not beautiful, with full cheeks and a light spray of freckles across her nose. She had a kind of understated attractiveness, with light green eyes and chestnut-colored hair that was longer than the Army liked. But this was Nam, and most rules didn’t apply.
Some people might mistake Patricia for being boyish, but that was until she looked right at them. Her green eyes were feminine. Intense and yet tender. Curious and alive. On this day, March 30, 1972, she was just twenty-four.
And on this day, Patricia Anne Pavlik became a pearl.
It was almost noon when Patricia left her office by the side door. She glanced left and right, made sure no one was looking, then quickly made her way along the compound road toward T.R.’s jeep. As she approached, T.R. Fountain was just sliding back the canvas top and tucking it down.
“And you’re sure it’s safe?” she asked him.
“Safe as can be,” T.R. replied in his Louisiana drawl. “Not a shot in months,” he added.
“Not that,” she said. “I mean, I can’t catch it, can I?”
He laughed. “Hell, nobody catches it.”
“Somebody did. They did.”
“Oh, yeah,” he answered, pretending to just now realize it. He laughed. “Well, it’s just you and me, Patricia, and I’m fixin’ to keep us both safe.”
Patricia slid into the passenger side of the jeep. T.R. pushed the starter button. The engine turned over, sputtered, and died. Patricia gave him a look. Another attempt and it roared to life with a sucking whoosh, no problems, and she and T.R. were off toward the compound gate.
“You scared, Lieutenant?” he asked her.
“No. Not at all.”
But of course she was scared. And something else too, a deep unease that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. But mostly she was scared. Yet Patricia Pavlik’s father had taught her that it’s sometimes good to be scared. It brings focus and heightens the senses. Yes, sometimes it’s good to be scared.
“We’ll be back faster than green grass through a goose,” T.R. assured her. “Brian won’t even know you’re gone.”
“Who?”
“Why, your dear husband.”
“Oh,” she said, with a small laugh. “That Brian. Thanks a lot, T.R.”
It was unusual but not unheard of for a woman to serve in a war zone. But Lieutenant Pavlik hadn’t seen the war. Not even close. She hadn’t even seen the countryside, though she’d caught a glimpse of the South China Sea as they brought her in on the little airstrip. It had been a long eleven months for her. All that time kept within MacArthur Compound with its narrow dirt roads, low-slung aluminum buildings, and brown Quonset huts. The Nam that Patricia knew was a gray metal desk. The Nam she knew was a squeaky chair. The Nam she knew was forms to be filled out in triplicate and a leaky water cooler in the corner.
Patricia had only heard about the other Nam—the one with sand bunkers at each intersection and naked orphans running after American jeeps. She’d only heard about the sad but determined prostitutes and the “cowboys” on their cheap two-cycle motorbikes. She’d only heard about the colorful Buddhist cemeteries and the young schoolgirls marching alongside the road in their flowing white dresses. All this time she had been safe and sound behind chain link and barbed wire. Inside the wire was the world, with its imported burgers, Budweiser, American jokes and juke boxes. Outside the wire was Nam with its baffling language and inscrutable ways; its huge reflecting rice paddies and quaint villages, its astonishing beaches and dingy restaurants.
Over the past months Patricia had watched as the First Cav departed. Then the final Special Forces remnant. Next were the engineers, commo people, and most of the MPs. Just a few guards remained to look after the ghost of MacArthur Compound, which now consisted mostly of her supply office, a motor pool, an intelligence team where her husband worked, and of all things, a small dentist’s office. As head of the supply unit, Lieutenant Pavlik’s task was to oversee the counting of weapons, ship military materials back to the States, and requisition whatever food the mess hall and O’ Club needed. Leave the war to the locals, everyone said. They’ve had enough time to get their shit together. More than enough time. Fucking A.
Now Patricia sat low in the jeep as she and T.R. roared down the deserted compound road past closed barracks and boarded-over Quonset huts. The sun was hard and bright. Not just hot; it was oven-in-your-face hot. Jesus, what was it? A hundred and twelve, she’d heard. Maybe only a hundred and four. Already her fatigue blouse was soaked, and sweat was pooling at her belt along her belly. She ignored it. She was getting out. She was getting away, at least for a time.
Patricia mused to herself that T.R. was no Ranger or Green Beret. Not even your basic infantryman. Captain Theodore Roosevelt Fountain was the compound dentist and known to all ranks and nationalities as just plain T.R. He was recognized immediately by his long drooping mustache and his ludicrous yellow hat. And he was a wild card that the Army preferred not to play. Once T.R. had screamed at a general who stepped ahead of a corporal to get his teeth cleaned, and chased the general all the way to his chauffeur-driven Ford.
“What was he going to do?” T.R. later said. “Send me to Nam?”
And T.R. was the only game in town if Patricia was going to see any part of the country. At least he was handsome, yes. And funny, yes. Blond and skinny with that drooping mustache and his stupid yellow hat. T.R. even admitted that his hat was ludicrous, but always added that the other side recognized him right off and knew he was only trying to help people. They’d let him be, he told everyone.
And T.R. was a bit of a playboy, she knew. But he was sweet, too. Sweet counted in Patricia’s book. Polite southern charm. And slouching a bit. Never be confused with John Wayne. Now he was getting her away from the other men; not leered at for a time, not conveniently bumped into, leaned over, and silently propositioned with their looks. The corporal and the sergeant didn’t want her in the office anyway, didn’t want to answer to a woman. Loo-tenant is what they called her to her face. Or rather, they liked having her there. Because she was a woman. And cute. She didn’t want to be cute. She wanted to be taken seriously, not treated like the only female round-eye left. She’d heard what they said about her, not quite out of earshot. Her body, good tits I’ll bet, like to see ’em, and what they’d like to do to her. Smiles and chuckles, even soft snorts. Take her. Have her. Bend her over a desk and all the rest of it. It was a man’s world. She wasn’t a soldier to them. She wasn’t imposing. She wasn’t big. She didn’t swagger and curse. She was a round-eye with hips and breasts. Someone to be conquered. Something to be conquered.
Patricia had tolerated their dirty jokes for eleven months. Like frat boys, they were. She’d had enough of men to last her a lifetime. Nineteen days was all she had left, and she’d be out of this place and returning to rural Connecticut with its tidy homes and gardens along curving residential lanes.
Continuing down the compound road, Patricia swept her hair back with both hands and bunched it into a ponytail. Then she shoved it down the back of her green fatigue blouse. She put on her OD green ball cap and slipped on her sunglasses. Not much of a disguise, but perhaps it would work.
“What if they stop me at the gate?” she called over to T.R., above the roar of the engine. “I don’t have a pass.”
“What are they going to do, send you to Nam?”
The same tired joke, but Patricia laughed anyway.
“Thank you for getting me out, T.R.”
“You deserve it,” he said.
“And you’re sure I can’t catch it?”
“Not a chance,” he told her, shaking his head. “Nothin’ to worry about, Lieutenant. You can trust me. Nothin’ to worry about at all.”
3
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JANUARY 15, 2006
SAN DIEGO, 9:35 A.M.
I CLIMB OVER THE dunes and head back to the Pacific Terrace Hotel. Julia is waiting for me in our room and I know we’ll make delicious love when I get back.
The hotel doors slide open for me. From the corner of my eye I see a young Hispanic man behind the counter look up and then wave his hand.
“Excuse me, sir! Are you Mr. Ames?”
“No,” I tell him.
“Quintyn Ames, sir?”
“Not me,” I say.
I keep going, past the tourist shop and the indoor fichus trees.
“You in Room 323, sir? There’s a message for you.”
I stop and turn. “I said no messages.”
“Is this your phone?”
I recognize it. Red Motorola flip phone. “Not mine,” I say.
“We found it at the bottom of the pool, sir.”
“I know,” I tell him.
The elevator doors open. I enter and press the button to the third floor. I face the polished mirrors. Even I’m sometimes surprised by my size. But I used to weigh more. Three thirty-five or three forty, like those mammoth guards and tackles you see on Sunday afternoon with their guts spilling over their jerseys. But I’d lost weight since meeting Julia. Running had done it. A mile and a half isn’t much for most people, but three times a day will do the trick if you run until your muscles scream as loudly as your lungs. Even then, the ounces only crawl away. Still, it’s better than those green ketone-burning pills. Better than Lean Cuisine when you have four for dinner. A jiggling waist of forty-nine is now just a jiggling forty-four. Another twenty pounds to go, maybe thirty, and I’ll be more like a linebacker than one of those linemen. Huge and strong again. Huge and swift again. I turn sideways, to check my gut in the mirror. Way to go, Ames. You’re doing it, man. Gettin’ your wind back, too. Gettin’ your legs back.
My eyes go to my nose. Can’t miss it. A big bump on top that holds my glasses in place, then a sharp bend to the left. It used to bend the other way, but I fixed it, sort of, along with three fingers on my right hand. Not a problem. Didn’t hurt at all. Jesus, it still hurts every time I think about it. But that nose is part of me now. So what if it looks that way. I’ve got Julia. I’ve got a job and some money in the bank. So what if it fucking looks that way?
My eyes go to the gold loop earring in my ear. I had protested at first. “I’ll look gay.”
“It’s okay to be gay,” Julia had assured me.
“But I’m not!”
“Then wear it in your right ear. No one will think you’re gay.”
She was kidding, about the right ear. But I relented. Anything for Julia. So it was the right ear only. One small gold loop. She had a matching earring that she wore on the opposite side. I had to admit it was pretty cool, this asymmetrical look.
On the third floor I get out my room card. Julia and I have been married for just two days. Finally. We’d set the date eight times before, saying we’d keep it simple, march down to city hall. But plan something important and life laughs at you. Always an emergency at work, the quiet sanctuary from which I travel the world.
I am not like Balboa or Columbus. I do not venture forth to discover new lands. From miles above I gaze down at the already-discovered lands. No risk of scurvy. No hurricanes or shipwrecks. No mutineers. I do it all from air-conditioned safety, usually with a cup of coffee in my hand.
Julia knows that I work with satellites, but she thinks it has to do with meteorology, that I’m a weather researcher, a civilian adjunct to the military who uses satellites to determine climate patterns and reasons for the shrinking water supplies. So she was exasperated by each delay. Her exasperation has its limits. An elopement was in order. On the spur of the moment we each called in sick with what we claimed was the two-week flu. I booked us flights and we flew west to the Chapel of the Flowers on South Las Vegas Boulevard. Weddings every half hour. Two hundred a throw.
My mother was appalled that we hadn’t told her about the wedding; and on top of that, she wasn’t so sure about Julia because Julia is Catholic and therefore couldn’t be very serious about God. And the other thing: Quintyn, she isn’t black, you know. Not really. How can you be so sure about her?
But Julia was the right girl. My friends joked that she must be the right girl because I’d had so many wrong ones that I ought to know. Not quite. Some of the others were fine all right, but they quickly fled when they knew. They didn’t know what they knew. But they knew something.
Julia knew something too. For months she encouraged me, even prodded me, saying we could talk, talk about anything. We could be free and honest with each other. That’s what couples do. She said that sometimes I forget things or stare off at nothing. That sometimes I seem too detached and almost cloistered. She called it a caged sadness about me and said that to be together as husband and wife we’d have to understand each other, know what drives us and makes us who we are. Julia wondered whether it might be a residue of my childhood there on Northeast Side where I had lived with my mother on Hays Street in that third-floor walkup.
“Everybody has things, honey. Regrets and remorse. Things to get over or beyond. Everybody has them.”
She was right, of course. And I wanted to tell her. All of it. Finally blurt it out. It wasn’t right otherwise. It wasn’t fair. Julia would talk about her own past sometimes but her memory lane was always some happily floating nostalgia, though I’m sure there are fingerprints of regret too, as with each of us; but likely no more than some careless lies or words spoken too harshly, or perhaps some near-infidelity that is wholly insignificant now. She wouldn’t understand how the past is strapped to my back. How it crawls up and leans over my shoulder and whispers to me. It always says the same thing: Ready?
But I finally did tell her, or tried to, there in our DC apartment with the dark wood panels and frilly white curtains. It was evening, a month before we were married, and we were on the couch, my arm around her, Julia’s head on my shoulder. The TV was on, but we weren’t really watching anything, just enjoying touching and being alone. At some point I switched off the show and faced her. I think Julia sensed that this was the moment. There was a small smile of relief on her face. I would take her down my own memory lane.
And so I started in, about Eddie, about Eddie Cobb and the pact we had made. As I spoke I fell into a kind of time shift to which I’ve fallen prey many times, and once again it is night and drizzling, and yet the air is hot and still. I see a single star above, and I can see Eddie’s dark face and his crooked teeth like tilted tombstones. We are alone in the ditch where we’ve been for nearly three days. He’s been trembling all this time, and again I reach over and steady his hand. He soiled himself two days ago yet we have waited here in the great stench with hardly a word except his pointless question to Bob Wilcox who is no longer there. “Is it okay, Bob?” Eddie asks Wilcox. “You don’t mind, Bob?”
Then, more hours of aggressive boredom and silence that tear into us, until Eddie’s head suddenly swivels to mine. I know that this is the moment. His eyes widen. Eddie mouths a single word to me: Ready?
I never got that far with Julia, not even halfway. Just hearing about Eddie and the momentous pact, and Julia seemed to brace herself. I couldn’t go on, and after a time she stood up and gazed around the room as if looking for something. Finally, she turned to me and smiled. Actually smiled. But it wasn’t a smile of relief. It was the way you smile when something doesn’t compute, doesn’t register at all. A bewildered smile.
I could guess what she was thinking—that it was all past and done, that it had no place in our present; or even if it did, therapy would take care of it, or maybe some new medication. I didn’t say anything more. I just watched Julia standing there and nodding her head slowly as if underwater. I waited through her silence, and finally she said: I’m okay, Quintyn, and you’re okay too. Everything will be okay because it was a long time ago. Then the words I knew were coming: I don’t care what you did.
Julia still didn’t understand. It wasn’t something I’d done. Even now I see Eddie’s mouth silently forming the decisive word: Ready? And then his final words to me, perhaps his final words to anyone, more of a sigh than a whisper, but words so fierce they are a continuous sound in my head: You said you’d do it, Quintyn. We have a deal, man.
No, it wasn’t something I’d done. It was something I hadn’t done. The most solemn commitment possible to another human. Sometimes you can fix what you did; but what you didn’t do, you can’t fix forever.
Julia’s bewildered smile eventually settled into one of tender affection. She sat down next to me again and took my arm. She nestled into my shoulder. Thank you for telling me, Quintyn, she said. I don’t care about Eddie Cobb or anything else, because I know you. I know you for who you really are.
Which meant she didn’t know anything at all.
I slide my plastic card into the slot on our hotel room door and enter. I smell coffee and air conditioning.
“Hey,” Julia calls from the adjoining room. She’s in bed still, on my side now, the blanket smoothed out for me, her hair tumbling over one eye like a dark curtain; her white silk top not covering much, which is just fine. My mother was right. Julia’s not really black. Her skin is its own color. Maple. Yes, bright maple. Her eyes are blue leaning toward green. Her father had immigrated from Scotland and her mother had immigrated from Jamaica. I’ve seen both sides of her—the stubbornness of the Scots and the gaiety of the Jamaicans.
Julia and I met at a Nats game. The nation’s capital finally had a ball team again, and on April 14 I went to the home opener. Nationals versus the Diamondbacks. It was the bottom of the fourth. Vazquez, I remember, was pitching for the Diamondbacks. Vidro doubled for the Nats and then Guillen was hit by a pitch and went to first. Two on, no outs, and I sensed someone settling into the seat beside me. Two more pitches and Ryan Church popped out to the shortstop. I must have groaned audibly because Julia leaned toward me and said, “I think they should make the ball bigger.”
“That’s not your seat,” I said without turning.
“Or make them throw it slower, don’t you think?”
I must have grumbled something.
“Are we having our first fight?” she asked.
She later told me that she’d seen me at Little League games and liked the way I had stood behind the home-plate cage and encouraged batters for both teams. I had played two years of Double A in Birmingham, and was pretty good, but not nimble enough for the hot corner and not speedy enough for the outfield. They put me at first because of my big bat. I had dreams of being drafted, maybe by the Yankees or the Dodgers. Dreams do come true. I was drafted, all right. By my country.
Julia also played ball. She was a pitcher for the George Washington University Colonials. The GW’s. Now she’s their coach. I have a photo of her from back then, a frozen moment of a younger Julia leaning toward the plate as she awaits the sign; her hair falling forward across her cheek, her eyes nearly hidden in the shadow of her GW ball cap.
It didn’t take long for me to fall for Julia. It could have been her lean no-nonsense body, her deep-set eyes, or that she was so tough and funny; but really, she had me with the warm timbre of her voice: Are we having our first fight? I turned to find her sunshine smile. Her eyes said even more. Somewhere I heard the crack of a bat but I stayed focused on Julia as Vinny Castilla tripled to right and Vidro and Guillen raced home.
Julia and a triple. A good omen.
“A good run?” she asks me now. She smooths out the sheets for me and shifts her hips suggestively. She stretches her arms out to welcome me.
“Thought we’re going for Mexican,” I say.
It’s a joke of course. With Julia first things are always first. She gives me a look as she lowers a strap on her gown.
“I’m sweaty,” I tell her.
“So get me sweaty.”
I glance in the mirror to see how bad I look.
“Looking good, Quincy,” she says.
“It’s Quintyn.”
“Come here and let me see if I can do something about that nose.”
“It’s fine.”
“So, how about getting me sweaty?”
It would never end. I’m fifty-nine and she is thirty-eight and not just the years, but who knows how many pounds separate us. But Julia always wants more. Fortunately, she’s a miracle worker in bed. Knows everything and likes everything, and can perform wonders to keep me going. She doesn’t mind my size. Says she likes to hang on for dear life. But I’m not sixteen anymore. I’m not even thirty-six anymore, and I’ve considered more than once that I might die right there in bed. With Julia the end could be near. Then she’d need a real miracle. I move closer to her. Maybe this time it will be the end. What a sendoff that would be.
There’s a buzz on the bureau. Julia’s cell.
She takes a breath. “First your phone,” she says. “Now mine. They can’t have you, Quintyn.”
“Ignore it,” I tell her.
The buzzing continues.
“I’ll handle it,” she says.
Julia springs up and grabs the cell phone. “He isn’t here,” she announces without even a hello. With the phone to her ear she marches to the balcony door. She slides it open and steps outside. I know what’s coming.
“No idea where he is, Alec. Try fucking Mars!”
A flip of her wrist and her phone soars over the balcony toward the pool three floors below. It’s the second arcing phone since we arrived. Too far up for me to hear either of them splash.
“They can’t have you,” she says again as she returns inside.
In a single flowing motion my beautiful Julia is back on the bed. A seductive raise of an eyebrow. She lowers the other strap now. I take a breath. “Get me sweaty, cowboy,” she says, and again I think of death, and smile to myself.
Now it’s the hotel phone ringing.
“How do they know where we are?”
“No idea, honey.”
“How do they know, Quintyn? It’s not fair! What could be so damn important?”
“I said, I have no idea.”
We ignore the phone. The harsh ringing stops. Then it starts again. I reach for the phone to stop the ringing. “I’ll just tell them I’ll call back later,” I say.
Wrong. Her eyes grow dark, determined. She glares at me.
A second later Julia is up and standing with her back to me as she pulls on her jeans and grabs a blouse from the drawer. “You promised,” she says over her shoulder. “You promised me, Quintyn.”
“Hey, what happened to sweaty?”
Silence now, except for the shrill ringing of the hotel phone.
“Let me get a shower,” I say. “I can’t go to breakfast like this.”
She slides on her GW jacket. Pulls on her ball cap.
“A quick shower is all,” I plead.
But Julia is already at the door. She turns with an exaggerated smile. “Ready for some Mexican, honey?”
I grab a towel and wipe my face. I promised her two weeks. Two gold rings. Two matching earrings. Just the two of us.
The door closes.
Of course I’ll go to her. My life is moving forward again and I’ll move with it. With Julia. The phone continues to ring. I pull on my red Nats jacket and race after her to catch the elevator. Nothing will keep me away from Julia. Nothing.
But the past is a hook in my mouth. Even in the hallway I find myself again in those dark and motionless hours: The constant drizzle, the single bright star that seems always to hover above us, the stench of Eddie’s pants, his quivering hands. Eddie has a lucky charm, a rabbit’s foot that he’d won at a carnival or maybe a gum ball machine. He keeps it mostly in his helmet where he can feel it, and sometimes in his mouth where he turns it with his tongue. Now Eddie peers over at Bob Wilcox who isn’t there, having stopped twitching and flapping a day before. Eddie reaches out of the ditch and grips Wilcox’s bloated ankle. Is it okay, Bob? he asks Wilcox. You don’t mind, Bob?
Down the hallway, and I replay it all in my mind, compressing into instants what took hours, days, weeks: Humping step by step, sometimes without direction, anatomy slumping along as we entered villages that look the same and hump past paddies reflecting the same gray sky, up and down the same rivers again. Sometimes the choppers come in to lift someone back to the world. All that, with no sense of strategy or mission and nothing gained and nothing lost. Until now: Yen Bai, and the sniper taking Jim Geltz and Sam Greene and Tommy Colome one at a time; then Leroy Williams trying to be brave but was easy pickings, and Bump Rogers who ran and he was easy pickings; and last was Bob Wilcox who just wanted to go home so he just stood up, said “Peace, brothers,” and he was easy pickings. And me and Eddie still in the ditch.
“We gotta move,” Eddie says now.
“Where we gonna move?”
“I dunno. Fuck. How are the fingers?”
“Still got a good hand,” I tell him.
“Is it okay, Bob? You don’t mind, Bob?” With a heave, Eddie pulls Wilcox’s leg toward him and notches his weapon in the groove of Wilcox’s ankle. He lines up his sights for when they come. And they’ll come.
Then Eddie raises his chin toward my crumpled nose. “You look like shit, you know.”
“You smell like shit,” I tell him.
It’s funny, but neither of us laughs.
Waiting is a killer too. Now, more silence and more darkness, hours of it, it seems, but in a way, I savor the plush comfort of night, being hidden in the dark—until Eddie swivels his head to mine. I see the wavering outline of him, like a dark and ghostly hologram; his eyes shine as they bore into me. I know. A slow feed of adrenaline has kept me awake all this time, and now my body shifts into molecular alert. Eddie silently mouths the word I’ve dreaded for days: Ready?
Yeah, I tell him. I’m ready.
Then finally the words that even now are so close to my ear that I can almost feel his lips—You said you’d do it, Quintyn. We have a deal, man.
I shake away my thoughts and find a smiling Julia waiting for me at the elevator. She doesn’t want to ruin this day either. Julia pulls on my shoulder and I bend to receive her kiss.
“Ready?” she asks, and for an instant it’s Eddie Cobb mouthing the same words, like a spear in my gut, and again Eddie is present and standing right here with us.
“Ready,” I tell Julia. “Mexican it is.”