Five people were gathered around the cot. They held their helmets in their hands. No one spoke, the only sound the flies buzzing around. There was a man lying there and they were all looking at him. Not a man, a corpse with one side completely charred.
“What a way to go,” one of them said.
William stood up from the crate he’d been sitting on. Without a word, he walked outside the tent. Someone followed him out. Robert. He stood beside William and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. “Want one?”
William nodded and took it, lighting it up before saying anything. “Another one.”
“Yeah.” Robert nodded.
“I’m beginning to think they’ve abandoned us here,” William said, taking a drag.
Robert shook his head. “You can’t start thinking like that. Wanna end up like Davie?”
William turned to look at him. “No. But God ain’t answering my letters.”
“He never does.”
“Robert’s the one who kept me from going too dark.” He chuckles, though there isn’t any humor in it. “That’s what he called it. ‘Going dark.’ Certainly sounded better than suicide.” William takes another sip of his drink, his second drink.
I feel self-conscious, drinking with this older man. Not a “first-date” kind of self-conscious, but a “is this wrong?” sort of self-conscious. You know, it’s the kind you get when you do something society might consider questionable. Like the time I lied just so I could renew a library book three days late. I am taking advantage of him, pulling the story out of him, but it’s too good to let go.
I nod, agreeing with his statement. ‘Going dark’ is an apt description. That’s how I felt a few years ago when my boyfriend of three years left me right when I needed him the most. I wrote letters to God then. He never answered.
“He sounds nice,” I say, talking about Robert. Around us, people are quiet again. It’s almost as if they’re part of the audience too. Every time there is a lull in our conversation, there’s a lull in the airplane, too.
“This is how it used to be some times,” William says. “Quiet with all this background noise.” He gestures around the plane.
We stare at the seats in front of us. If I close my eyes, I can imagine us sitting on a park bench somewhere. Maybe Central Park, like in those cheesy romance movies. Of course, this is far from a romance movie, but the scenery fits. Maybe I’m a down-and-out college student and this man will impart on me an important life lesson that will move the audience. There will be tears as people walk away, saying, “This is the movie that changed my life.”
I open my eyes. We are not on a bench in Central Park and William looks about ready to begin talking about everything again. So I wait, my hands folded neatly on the fold-out tray table.
The order comes in: the troops in Vietnam are to be shipped back home. William couldn’t be happier. He stared out at the camp, which was becoming emptier by the day. Robert does the same thing, his body close to William’s. They keep their contact minimal, they have to. No one knows and if they do, they’ve said nothing.
“It’s a good thing my family moved to your neighborhood,” Robert said.
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
“They won’t accept us.”
“I know. But we’ll figure it out.” Robert touched William’s hand. “No one is going to accept us because we’re different. That’s just how the world works. But we’ll figure it out.”
William stops talking and I stare at him, expecting more. Nothing comes. “And did you?” I ask. “Did you figure it out?”
William shakes his head. “No. We didn’t get the chance.” He smiles wryly. I want to ask, but I know I can’t. I know what happens to Robert without him telling me. Did William right letters to God then? I don’t ask that either. Instead, I ask “Did God ever answer your letters?”
“Not a single one.”