Gabby arranged an oversized bright yellow beach towel with blue stripes according to the picture she drew with her crayons that morning about her trip to the beach with Rex. The view in her picture faced the ocean, showing her back and the sun on her skin – that would be the yellow crayon – her bleached hair – that was a mix of a white crayon andan orange one – parted down the middle, and dangling pigtails Rex tied with blue bows. She colored in the spaces of her two-piece yellow swimsuit with blue polka dots. The only problem was that Rex made her wear the white aloha shirt he gave her as a present when he stepped down onto the runaway for his “Are-run-are” from “Veetnaam, no thank you, maam.”
“I don’t want no complainin’ from Cindy ’bout sunburn,” Rex told her even as she poked her tongue at him when he looked about. So the actual way she pictured herself with Rex didn’t exactly match the picture she had in her head which left her majorly pissed off at Rex for the first few minutes she sat beside him on her towel. What good did it do her to have such a cute little outfit if she had to cover most of it with a dumb old white shirt? She decided not to bitch about it. Too much of that going on as it was. She just wanted her afternoon to be like the picture she drew with waves as blue as her crayon. She didn’t want Rex to be more cranky and stupid than he already was.
She leaned back on her hands and felt the breeze off the water. Her crayons were inside a blue beach bag with a bright yellow face of the sun smiling out at her. This would keep her crayons from getting melty and sandy and her lemon drops from getting gooey. She carefully took out the brown paper bag of balentimes and arranged them by her right hip. From time to time, she touched the bag to remind her of the balentimes she and Rex bought at the dime store to give to the kids in her grade school class in Kansas City. She didn’t know what excited her most: being with Rex again all by herself, or thinking about the happy faces of her friends in Kansas City when they opened their balentimes and found a lollypop taped to the back of them. Also, Rex and Cindy and Pete and she were going to have pizza and ice cream and see a movie when Cindy got back from visiting her friend, Lily, who lived with her boyfriend further down the beach. Cindy visited Lily every day during Rex’s Are-run-are.
It sure was going to be a swvellvish day.
“Swvellvish,” was a Pete word that Cindy taught her and she kept it in her brain because Pete thought it up.
They were staying at Pete’s trailer although it really wasn’t really Pete’s trailer. It was his old aunt’s trailer. Old Aunt Charlie Horse. He called her that because she gimped. Old Aunt Charlie Horse let Pete stay there during his time at the naval base. Pete let them have it during Rex’s Are-run-are. Lily let Pete use her spare bedroom. That sure was nice of him, Cindy said. Pete was Rex’s high school buddy. He was a lifer, Rex told Gabby. He didn’t get drafted like Rex did. He signed up. Rex only had two days of Are-run-are left. Then he would be gone again for quite a spell. Maybe six more months or more.
Rex hadn’t taken his sunglasses off since breakfast. Cindy told Pete she had no clue what was going on behind those hard core black eyeballs of his.
“No need to pout, Cinderella,” Rex kept saying to her. “We’ll be together for good one of these days.”
“Why do you call me, Cinderella, Rex?”
“After Cindy, I ‘spose. You’re a spittin’ image.”
That made Gabby feel a bit better about Rex leaving. She reached into her bag and unwrapped a lemon drop. It tasted just fine. It filled her mouth with a clean, clear lemon taste.
“Yup,” she said. “And Cindy will always be my mommy and you will always be my daddy. Right?”
Rex never said too much except in answer to a question. He didn’t laugh very much neither. He held his lips tight. Especially after he got sent off to Veetnaam. That was one day she would always remember. She and Cindy cried and cried. Cindy was wearing her long hippy dress and leather sandals and beads and her hair washed and brushed hanging long down her back and over her shoulders.
Gabby was going to have to cry again on the way to the airport in a couple of days when Rex had to go back. She just knew she would. “Try not to, dammit Gabby,” Cindy told her. But Gabby just wouldn’t be able to stop herself from bawling about her wanting Rex to stay.
She had her whole day planned. In the beach bag she had her balemtimes, Scotch Tape for the lollypops, and red envelopes for the kids waiting back there at her crappy old brick school in Kansas City. Yellow mung under the toilet rims. Pukey and splattered walls and peewee on the floor. Her friends would be so happy and jumping around getting their balemtimes. A balentime from their best friend, Gabrielle Michelle, and a lollypop. “Howdy Doody Dandy,” Pete laughed. “But kiddo, don’t tape on them lollipops until you get back into KC lest they melt.”
Here’s what she would do. Line them up from A to Z. No, stop that right now, because that would leave out Juliet, her favorite, the girl with hugs and nice kisses on her cheek first thing when she walked into the school. She held her hand when they skipped to the playground and lined up for lunch. Juliet would be the first balemtimes she would write on and would get a grape lollypop. And what about her boyfriend, Rickie? He smelled good. His breath was not garbagey like Toby’s who was always breathing his bad yuck into her nosal. That’s what Pete called her snout, a nosal.
Such a big job — to line up her balemtimes and get them in the right envelopes.
“Rex?” she asked.
Now, Rex was hard to pull down an answer from. He sat on his towel, muscles tight and a bulge in his swimsuit. Strong black hair, iron stiff on his head.
Cindy said often, “Rex sure has a full head of hair. That’s one good point.”
Now Pete wore a flattop. Gabby could see the skin on the top of his head through his hair.
“Rex, it’s about my balemtimes,” Gabby said. “I have fourteen balentimes. I want to give each friend of mine a balentimes and a lollypop. One left over for me. I don’t how I should do it. Who first, who last?” Gabby pursed her lips. She said, “Actually, I’d like to give Rickie two lollypops and Harriet none. What’s your take on it?”
“There’s no such thing as first or last. Five O, Five O, is my take on it. If it were me, I’d be sure to give Harriet a lollypop. You don’t want Harriet to get a bad feelin’.”
Gabby wondered about it.
“Okay. Yup. Now I will begin to write my name on my balentimes. I will just pick them out of my sack and think of the face of the kid that I want to give a balemtimes to and write, ‘From Gabrielle Michelle.’ ”
”Yup. Sounds like a good plan of action to me, Gabby,” Rex said.
Gabby gathered the freckles on her face.
“Rex, how come you don’t talk to me much or wrestle me down and tickle me much anymores.”
Rex looked at the ocean through his majorly black sunglasses. He was quiet, quite a spell.
“You still there, Rex. Cindy says sometimes you’re not still there.”
“I think too but I say stuff about what I’m thinking.”
Rex looked at Gabby.
“Cindy don’t know but the half of it. I’m just busy thinkin’.”
“That sure is a lot of thinking. That’s how I’d put it.”
“Thinkin’s all,” Rex said, looking at the ocean, his lips locked up.
“Pete told Cindy your brain is broken.”
“Killing those gooks?”
Rex flinched. “They ought not be a talkin’ thataways.”
“Pete makes us laugh.”
“He makes me laugh too. He’s a good buddy.”
“Rex, you know those thongs you sent me?”
“I liked them but….”
“You didn’t like them.”
“No, I did, Rex. I really did. It’s only that the kids laughed at me at recess. They said they were made out of tires.”
“They was. Michelin tires.”
“Ha! Ha! Rex. You sent me thongs made out of tires.”
Rex didn’t flinch.
“ Yup. That’s what the Vietnamese make them of. They make good sandals. I thought you could do show-and-tell with them.”
“From Veetnaam, I told them. Well, they laughed at me and I told them to shove it up their ass.”
“Well, I’m proud of you on that score but for the bad language. Not a good idea to talk as such at school. Nowheres really. Getchu in trouble saying ‘et, likely as not.”
“Cindy was proud of me. I told Pete. He was proud of me too.”
“Yup. For shore.”
“Rex, do you think whales have minds? Pete told me they have minds. They commune-u- cate of sorts.”
“Yup . All animals do. Like people do, so they say.”
“What do you think whales think about?”
“About their lives. About supper. About their girl friends and buddies. About swimmin’ through that never endin’ ocean.”
“Do you know that for sure? I’m mean, have you ever had a talk with a whale?”
“Nope. Never did. Just seen them jump out of the ocean and blow.”
“Pete says they talk under water.”
“Pete would know. He’s in the navy.”
“Pete knows a lot more than you do.”
“Probably. A lots of people do.”
Rex looked aside.
Gabby asked, “Is this going to be a cranky day?”
“No way. We’re going to have fun. Tonight too.”
Rex was sitting on his towel, arms around his shins.
“Cindy says, ‘you’re out of it.’ Pete is worried about you. Because…because you don’t talk much anymore.”
“I don’t like people talking about me behind my back. Pete doesn’t know from up. Let Pete be worried about Pete. Let Cindy be worried about Cindy. They don’t know from up. I know what I’ve done and what I haven’t done.”
“Well, Rex, what have you done and what haven’t you done over there?”
“You don’t ask a soldier a question like ‘et.”
“You silly girl. You shore do ask a lotta questions.”
“Pete says asking questions is a good thing.”
“Maybe yes; maybe no. Now and then is okay. Some things we tend to keep to ourselves.”
Many years later when she studied art in college, she remembered Rex as the figure of a perfectly formed man. He was so handsome. So much more handsome than Pete. But as she heard Pete often tell Cindy, he was an in-mig-na-mub which majorly pissed Gabby off.
“No, he ain’t,” Gabby sassed back. “Rex is not an in-mig-na-mub. He’s a lot smarter than you, Pete.”
Forget Pete. Gabby turned back to her work. She felt so glorified to be sitting next to Rex she might have peed her swimsuit. He was gone too damn much. She decided to wait to pee in the ocean. That way her bikini wouldn’t get stains on it.
“Now, here is what I will do,” she said. “I will not go by the ABC’s as I have made in my plans. I will do Juliet first, and then I will do Rickie. Harriet will be last but I will give her a lollipop anyways. Rex, I have them all lined up in my head.”
“Said and done.”
“Hey, Rex,” she smiled at him, “my head is not broken yet is it, like your brain?”
“No, Cinderella. You have a fine brain.”
“Rex, do you love me? I mean, do you think of me when you are gone.”
“Yup. I sure do, Gabby. All the time.”
“Do you love Cindy and Pete?”
Rex thought a minute.
“Yup. I love them both.”
“Good. That’s a good start for making my balemtimes.”
Gabby became very busy. She sorted and re-sorted her balentimes and stacked them up neatly beside her on her right side for she was a right handed person.
“Rex,” she said. “I surely could use some of that lemonade.”
Rex reached into the cooler Pete loaned them. He poured the lemonade Cindy mixed from a frozen can into a small Bell jar and popped himself a beer. He took a deep swig then poured the rest of the beer into the sand and lit a cigarette.
“Here’s your lemonade, Cinderella,” he smiled, handing it carefully to her.
“Rex,” she said. “I’m wondering here and now about Josie.”
“What’s up with Josie?”
“Well, she makes me feel like shit.”
“Calls me ‘shorty’. Says my hair droops and I have a sad mouth.”
“You do not. Basically, to hell with her. You have a swell smile.
When I think of you from afar, I think first about your smile. It’s a smile so
big and so bright it makes me smile to think of it. Just screw those kinda people.”
“There you go. Saying a curse word.”
“I toned it down. But sorry then. A man shouldn’t say those words to a little kid.”
“Pete says fuck all the time. Sometimes Cindy does too.”
“They should not. I should not.”
“I guess it’s the war. That’s what Cindy says about you. She says you act like a hard ass but deep down you’re just a softie.”
Rex looked out at the ocean and sighed. He lit another cigarette and drew the smoke through his mouth and exhaled through his nose letting his
chest drop as he did.
“Rex, I like it when you smoke. Smells good to me.”
“I like it too. Sometimes that’s all I got.”
“Pete and Cindy — now what they toke stinks like the hay and poop in the petting zoo.”
“Some folks like it. Me, I don’t. They shouldn’t be smoking that junk in front of a kid.”
Gabby shuffled and reshuffled her balentimes.
“Let me say this,” Rex said. “If you want to get those valentines written on so that you can show them to me before I leave, you might want to hurry it up and stop yackin’.”
“Don’t push me.”
“I’m just flusterated about who goes first.”
“I’m not going to get into your business. I thought you had that all sorted out.”
“Okay, Rex. Just be an asshole about it.”
“Gabrielle Michelle, I wish you wouldn’t talk like ‘et.”
“Ha! Ha! Rex. Cindy says you’re just a hillbilly from Missouri. Ha! Ha!”
“Hey, little girl, one thing I will not stand for. That you poke fun of your daddy.”
Gabby reshuffled her ballentimes.
“Look Rex. How would this be for Carlita,” Gabby said, holding up a balentimes with a Cupid on it. “Wouldn’t this be a perfect balemtimes for her.”
“I guess I wouldn’t know.”
He exhaled a big drag on his smoke.
“Now, Rex,” she said, “ I wouldn’t necessarily give you a high mark for that one. Can’t you give me some idea?” she asked. “ I mean, who am I to know? Cindy says I don’t know much of anything.”
“No doubt. But you’ll get it all figured out some day.”
“Rex, how come you and Cindy and Pete can cuss and I can’t.”
“Because we are stupid and you are not. You are too smart to cuss.”
“Well, all I know is, you guys say ‘fuck’ all the time. You don’t need to worry about me. I know all about fucking. Cindy and Pete…Hey, this
is a terrific balentimes for Terry Tunes.”
“What’s the ‘tunes’ about?”
“Oh, you know Terry. She just sings and dances all the time.”
“Well, I be damned if she does. I say good for her.”
“You know the truth, Rex. You should have bought me more balemtimes. I simply ain’t got enough to go around.”
“Well, I can afford another packet. They don’t cost that much.”
“Well, why didn’t you do that in the first place? That’s what Cindy says. Just do it right the first time.”
“Gabby, how in heck would I know how many valentines you would need. You think I’m a mind reader?”
“Now that you ain’t. Cindy calls you a crazy bastard sometimes.”
“Maybe I am.”
Gabby sat back on her hands and smelled the ocean again and the strong smoke coming from Rex’s cigarette. She liked sitting next to Rex.
He had a good aura about him, Cindy said. He smelled good, shower or no shower, a strong smell under his pits. She liked it. Patchouli, sorta.
“Rex, are we going to move back to Missouri, I mean, when you get out of the army?”
“I sure as hell hope not.”
“Well, what’s going to happen to us? I mean to you being my daddy and Cindy being my mommy.”
“I ‘spose that’s up to Cindy.”
“How come that’s not up to you?”
“There’s many a thing you don’t know yet.”
“I know lots of stuff, Rex. I know all my ABCs and my additions and subtractions and two times two. I am way ahead of my class. Even Missus Farley said I was pert near perfect as a grade schooler. I would know. I put my ear against the door when she was talking to Cindy not long ago.”
Gabby turned to Rex forcefully and shook her finger.
“So there! Don’t you put a heavy load on me, mister.”
Rex remained immobile. He pointed his sunglasses at the blue waters.
“Okay. If you say so,” he whispered.
Rex stood up, stretched and looked out at the ocean.
“Gabby,” he said. “I want you to look afar. Look in that direction.”
He pointed at about two o’clock.
“Water’s all I see,” Gabby said, shuffling her balemtimes.
“Way out there is a tiny spot.”
“I don’t see a damn thing.”
“Well, there is an island out there. I was there once many years ago. It has beaches you would like. Sugar sand. Warm and soft to the foot. Also, high up is the mist. The trees are real green. These long skinny white birds, egrets they call ’em, sit upon the branches and turn their ole long necks round and round. I want to go up there and live in a yurt.”
“A yurt. What the fuck is a yurt!”
“Gabrielle Michelle. Stop it here and now.”
“Yurt! Holy moly. Yurty gurty. Ha! Ha! Hurty, hurty.”
“No kidding,” Rex frowned. “All it is, little girl, is, it’s like a tent. It looks from afar like a cupcake.”
“Ha! Ha! Ha! Who ever thought of living in a cupcake? You must be nuts, Rex.”
“I did not say – I did not – that a yurt is a cupcake. I said from afar it looks like a cupcake. Get it?”
“I think I’m going to give Margo this one,” Gabby said, holding a balemtimes up to the sun. Rex took a few steps towards the ocean.
“You see, in a yurt up there, away from everything, you can have a half a mind. Some people even put in fireplaces and you could read a book. You could just wander around in the cool mist upcountry and think a spell. You could do that, Gabby. Nobody could mess with your brain. Not the army or nobody. Nobody could hurt you or your plan in life. You could read books about philosophy and such.”
“You sure think a lot, Rex. I don’t like to read books. Too much hard work. Take me to a movie is all I ask for or watch a TV deal. Cindy thinks you think too damn much.”
Rex gave her a crappy look.
“How you doin’ on them valentines?
“Rex, I’ve gotten four done and I’ve got ten more. Except I’m saving one for me. Pete says you got to give your own self a balemtimes. And one for Teddy.”
“You never said anything about Teddy.”
“Rex, you are so far gone. You gave me Teddy for Christmas last year. The big guy. Pink on his nose.”
“Okay. I forgot. Yet, you’ve gotcha a good week before Valentine’s Day.”
“Well, shit. We’ve got to take you back to the base day after tomorrow, and Pete’s got to get aboard ship, and by the time Cindy and I fly back to Kansas City I’ll be up all night writing on these stupid fucking balemtimes.”
“Gabby, come on. Button your lip, honey. I’m going to have to soap down your mouth. You can’t going around saying ‘fuck.’ It will get you in trouble.”
“Don’t you dare soap down my mouth, you brute. I’ll call the abuse hot line.”
“Gabby, come on. Don’t lets us fight. We haven’t even been swimmin’.”
Gabby folded her arms across her chest.
“We need to have a talk,” she said.
“Okay, what do you want to talk about?”
“About me having a Merry Christmas for a change. About what you will give me for Christmas.”
“What ever happened to Santa Claus?”
Gabby stuck out her tongue at him and pouted.
“Rex, I’ve been telling you since kindergarten. I want a puppy. Please. Just a goddamn little dog is all it would be. A warm little thing, a girl dog who would love me and only me. Cuddly. And lick my face.”
“Dogs are a lot work. They need to be fed. They need to be potty trained. They shit all over the yard. They need to go for walks. You can’t be yanking dogs every which way. They would be like draftees.”
“I already know about that. Cindy told me about you getting drafted.”
“Look,” Rex said. “Christmas is a long ways off. Why don’t we do the valentines first, get that out of the way, and then work on Christmas or maybe get to it after Thanksgiving.”
“Because you guys always forget. You forgot my birthday.”
“Gabby, I did not – did not – forget, I was….”
“I know, I know. You had to go off to the war.”
“I did not. I was taken off. You get that. You get that straight. I did not ask to be in the goddamned army. I got drafted. They’re make you do this bullshit.”
“Rex, I’m not going to argue with you about it.”
Rex had to laugh. It was his line. The one he used with Cindy. He wanted to go to Canada, but she didn’t have the nerve. He told Cindy:
“I’m not going to argue with you about it. You wouldn’t go with me yonder when I wanted to. You want me drafted, didn’t you? Okay, damn you, now I’m drafted.”
And then they fought about getting married or not getting married and that never got settled neither.
He laughed again.
“Hey, that’s what I’m supposed to say,” he said to Gabby.
“Well, I said it and you didn’t.”
She gave him the evil eye.
“Well,” she said, “are we still going to watch a picture show? Are we still going to have a pizza with Cindy and Pete? Are you going to take me to have an ice cream cone. Are you mad at me?”
Rex took off his sunglasses. It was the first time that day since breakfast she had seen his eyes. He looked straightforward into Gabby’s. His eyes sometimes made her shiver and feel creepy. They cut right through her and she felt afraid.
His face softened and he said:
“You bet we are. Now, Gabby, let us go for a swim. I see your cheeks are getting red. Christmas is a whiles away. We’ll handle it as the time comes near. You can take off your shirt now. Let’s hop into that big ole cool ocean.”
Rex lifted Gabby by her tiny slender fingers. He helped her pull off her white aloha shirt. She felt as light to him as a Missouri bluebird; her legs nimble as a stork’s. She patted her stack of balentimes and put her bag on top of them so the wind wouldn’t fling them to and fro. Cindy read her something about the wind and, if you didn’t pay attention, the wind would blow your papers all over the place. It might be hard to catch them and put them back in the bag. She pulled off her shirt and was now in her cute two piece yellow outfit with blue polka dots.
“I’ll race you, Rex,” Gabby said, laughing wildly and dashing into the foam. Rex did his best to catch her but could not. She was fleet afoot. The water was cold and biting and pulled on his calves.
“Gabby, you tickle me,” Rex breathed hard when they first bobbed to the surface. “You just take all. You take the cake.”
“About cake. I’d like a vanilla one for my birthday you ain’t coming for. Pete says,” Gabby said, sucking in the salt air, “I’ve got to be the prettiest little girl he’s ever seen.”
“No doubt. I’m in his corner on that one.”
“Rex, do you love me?” she asked, bobbing in the waves.
She then paddled in a circle, around and around, dodging the tide.
“Yup, of course I do, Gabby,” Rex said.
Years later, Gabby recalled she thought at that moment he was squeezing back tears. But it just could have been the salt water or the sun.
“Well,” she asked and then dove and resurfaced as dolphins do. “Why do you look mad all the time? Why do you just sit outside all the time and smoke and don’t say much.” She was treading water now. “Rex,” she said in short breaths, “it’s sorta like you’re still gone. You ain’t around. You ain’t come home, yet. Sorta. Cindy says you take a hard ass attitude. But you’re really a softie…She said you reupped for the money and the doctor insurance.”
Rex dove. The water was shallow enough there he could have stood. The sun illuminated the sand and colorful little fish darted and shot past. He swam with both arms fully extended stroking from his chest. For that moment, he felt truly free. The silence, the calm, the clear, effervescent waters. Then his brain came back and he thought not to leave Gabby alone. She didn’t deserve for him to swim on until his lungs filled with salt water and he drowned. Not drowned, but just let go into a peaceful sleep. He must not do that to her.
He shot into the air as a whale would.
“Rex,” Gabby asked. “Are we still going to have pizza tonight.”
“Don’t you maam me,” Gabby scolded, mocking Cindy and laughed until the salt water of the ocean caught her in the throat and made her hack.
Rex dove to her side and held her high, his feet standing firmly in the sand while she coughed up. He slung her over his shoulder, pounded her back and let her chuck the water out.
“You okay, kiddo?”
“Not possibly,” she gasped in a hoarse voice.
He shook her, her head down on his back. Her gasping slowed down. He laid her slowly into the water, held her flat on her back as he would an infant and floated her on the surface of the ocean.
She teared up.
“Why can’t we just go ahead and go back to Missouri? Back to Kansas Shitty, M + OFO. Why can’t we just go back there and have snow again at Christmas?”
“If I did ‘et, I’d be put in jail for a long time.”
“Ain’t they just a bunch of mean assholes?”
“Well, fuck a duck, Rex. Cindy cries all the time and she’s got herself a pile of bills for the gas and lights, and where are you? That’s what she says.”
“Gabby, I did not choose….”
“Oh, Rex, you’re such an idiot. Cindy says so,” she said and dove, her breath back, and stroked over the same gleaming sand on the ocean floor as Rex had, bounced up again.
“Rex, I heard Pete and Cindy talking. They said you probably killed gooks over there. Did you kill gooks, Rex? I mean, did you….”
“Gabby, you never ask a soldier a question like ‘et. I told you so. You just don’t.”
Gabby looked away. “Sorry, Rex.”
He relaxed with lazy backstrokes.
“It’s okay, Gabby. It’s one of those things that come up from time to time. A question any kid your age will ask.”
Gabby dove again. When her head showed and her breathing got close to normal, Rex raised her up strongly from under her arms.
“Rex, I got sand in my bergina. Up my crack too.”
“Honey, take your bikini off, shake it around, slip it back on. That’s what Cindy does.”
“No lookee lookee.”
“Cindy says men are nasty.”
“So are women, but let’s don’t argue about it. Just shake your bikini out. The ocean will take care of the rest of it. Then slip it back on. All will be washed away.”
“Okay, Rex, if you say so.”
“I say so. It’s a matter of experience.”
Rex swam out an arm or two away from Gabby’s direction.
“Rex, I let loose too. I peed my little heart out. As you told me I could do so.”
“The ocean will accept whatever we give it.”
“Okay, Rex, my bergina’s fresh as a….”
“Never you mind,” Rex grinned.
Rex checked out the sun.
“Gabby, we got to go home now. Cindy and Pete will be there. They’ll be waiting and worried if we don’t show up. I told them four thirty. I’m guessing by the look of them sparkles on the water it’s pretty near that time of day.”
Gabby leapt out of the water, grabbed Rex’s neck and wrapped her legs around his waist.
“Oh, daddy,” she more likely cried and bawled than spoke. “I don’t want to go back to that stinky trailer. It smells of toke and such. I just want to be with you. Can’t we just run away? Go back to Missouri. Cindy shakes me. She makes me eat seaweed and celery and oatmeal and all kinds of rotten shit that tastes like farts and cement. Couldn’t I have just have a scrambled egg or two like you cook, with a little bacon and a grilled toomater and cinnerman toast. I don’t like to eat seaweed, daddy, or grass and leaves and such. Pete smells like a stinkin’ dog. I don’t want to live in some stupid cupcake. I just want to be with you and live in a regular house in Missouri. I don’t care about hairy christ-ma and marywanda. No, daddy, no. Don’t make me.”
They floated, holding one another. Rex had no words for it. Finally, he said:
“It’s time to go home now, Cinderella Balentines.”
“No daddy, no. I don’t want you ever, ever to leave me. Won’t you come back to Cindy and me? Will you even send me a Christmas present? Don’t go back to Veetnaam, Daddy. You will get blown up over there in that jungle with those crazy gooks shooting at you and those bugs will eat you out of house and home. Your life will be roont. I want you and Cindy to be my daddy and mommy and have a puppy to be my girl friend, daddy, and lick my face.”
Gabby ran out of breath. They floated.
“Daddy, are there monkeys over there in the jungle? I’m meaning cute little chimpzies.”
“I never saw such. Just lots of those old bugs I told you of. Daddy long leggers as tall as your knee. Roaches as long as your arm. And if you ain’t careful, red ants that will fall out of trees and sting you. That’s why we wear towels around our necks.”
“Ha! Ha! Daddy wears a towel around his neck. What color, Daddy?”
“Green? You must look like a frog. Spotty hat and all that. As you showed me. Ha! Ha! Rex looks like a frog.”
“Possibly. I often feel as such or worse.”
“Daddy, let’s cut the crap. Will you come back to me? And Cindy?”
“I will do my very best. There are bills to pay, honey. But now we have to go ashore and police up the area.”
“Goddammit, daddy, anyways,” she spit with salty sea foam, smashing her fist into the curling of the waves.
Rex decided to give up. Gabby and Cindy, his mama, all the men in his platoon, the Cambodians, the North Vietnamese, had just worn him slick.
They drifted inward to the shoreline, stood up and sloshed into the sand. They dried their hands. Rex handed the valentines to Gabby and she put them in her bag. He grabbed the cooler, slung the beach towels Pete gave them over his shoulder and led her by the hand to the beach parking lot. He lifted her into the cab of Pete’s pickup.
“Well, Rex,” Gabby said. “At least I’ll get some ice cream out of this deal.”
On the way back to the trailer park, Rex couldn’t think of a thing to say. He thought nothing. Just watched the road unwind before him.
Gabby knelt on the seat and looked out the window.
“Hey, Rex. Lookee here. We got us three white birds. Are those the birds? Right there on the bushes, wagging their skinny necks around.”
“I can’t look. I have to drive. But I’m happy for you to see such a sight.”
“Rex, they sure have such long rubbery necks. I don’t see how they get along. I am worried that their necks will break in two.”
“Me, I’d like to twist my neck like they do and see all the ways backwards and sideways and in every direction.”
“I hope Rickie and Juliet like their balemtimes.”
“I bet they will since they are special from you.”
“Do you think they will? I so want them to like my balemtimes and be my friends.”
“I can’t guarantee it. But if I got a valentine from you I’d be happy about it.”
“Now Rex, you know damn well and good I ain’t giving you no balemtimes. I got fourteen, one extra, and that’s all I got to give.”
They passed strip malls off the general road.
“Now, Rex,” she said. “You be nice to Pete. He’s helped us along.”
“I mean, sometimes you give him bad looks. He takes me to the playground. He helps me climb upon the gym set. He and I bounce the beach ball. He gets me ice cream cones. He puts Cindy and I to bed.”
The pickup swerved slightly.
“So, guess what?” she said.
“When you go back to Veetnaam, Cindy and I have to go back to Missouri, and I’ll probably never, ever, see Pete again. He’ll go off someplace, Cindy says. And it’ll just be me and Cindy. And what do we have in Missouri but Granny Grump. Crabby old hag. That’s what Cindy says.”
“Honey, please mind your manners. She’s my mama. Not being nice to old people doesn’t help out on your tour.”
“What’s a tour anyways? That’s what you’re on, ain’t it?”
“I’m in jail. That’s what I am. A prisoner of the Federal Government. No better than a jailbird.”
“Rex, are you a criminal? Are you a killer? That’s what Cindy says. She says that’s why you’re gruff. What’s ‘gruff’ being like anyways?”
“I guess it means grouchy and cranky.”
“Grouchy is the way I get it. I used not to think so. I don’t think so now. I may make you out to sound as such. Oh, me,” Gabby sighed again, for lack of anything better to say. “What will become of us? That’s what Cindy says.”
When they drove into the trailer park, Pete was standing outside the door of Old Aunt Charlie Horse’s blue and gold trailer wearing a Groucho Marx Halloween nose and mustache.
“Pete! Pete!” Gabby shouted, jumping up and down on her knees on the seat of the pickup just to see him there. For he was a silly man. Always had a trick up his sleeve. Pulling a shoe lace out of his nose like it was snotand such. Soon, he’d have his twenty years in, Cindy said, and be independent. On the VA dole.
“Ha! Ha! Pete, you look funny,” she nearly squealed. “I know that’s you. Ha! Ha! Ha! I see your big ears sticking out there. That’s you, Pete. I know that’s you.”
Rex was turning in to park. Cindy was standing, leaning, in the doorway, smiling, so stunning she locked up Rex’s throat. Her newly washed and combed long hair hung like willow branches over her shoulders, only they were blond and streaked red and a sight to see. Her breasts were halfway into the air, hanging full just inside her crinkly white embroidered blouse.
He didn’t mean to. He really didn’t, he told Gabby over and over, but she didn’t believe him though she couldn’t tell him so, her mouth was so goofed up after the wreck, packed with ice, and stitched up and she vomited a lot from the shock and pills.
The police came. So did two ambulances. Rex had gunned the pickup and swung too wide and caught the tail end of Pete’s 1957 Chevy and the Chevy smashed into the trailer and Cindy got knocked backwards and Pete dodged the whole mess by quickly jumping aside. Gabby got thrown directly into the dashboard; Rex, his forehead busted on the windshield.
“I never meant to,” Rex told the two fat police officers with Hawaii Five-O sunglasses.
“Son,” one of the fat Hawaiian police officers said. “That’s why they call them accidents.”
Rex watched the doctor at the naval base hospital emergency room lace eight big stitches into Gabby’s upper lip and lower mouth. Two front teeth on her right side and two canine teeth were removed; two molars chipped halfways and sideways. Her tongue bled all over her chin and outfit and fixing it took some fast work and lots of ice and pinching and stitches. Gabby got a drug they give kids for pain, a kind of morphine. The doctor told Rex her scar might be fixed pretty good in time but in answer to his question about her smile the doctor said it would likely never be made to look quite the same. At that, Rex could not help but drop his head into his arms on the gurney and bawl his eyes out.
Worse, neither Cindy nor Granny Grump ever heard one nickel about him after his Are-run-are from the army or the government, whether he was KIA, MIA or what the shit. Cindy was not authorized. Granny Grump neither, or so she said. Cindy wrote and wrote and called Senator Horseshit. He said he would get back to them but never did. Worse than that for Gabby at the time, Rex never sent her one goddamn fucking ballentimes. Not one. And so much for having a cute lil’ ole puppy.