Prince Street, Boston, Massachusetts
As everyone in the North End of Boston knows, Wednesday is spaghetti day. At dusk, children race through the narrow streets toward home, mouths watering in anticipation of bowls of noodles in their mother’s red sauce that grabs you right behind the tongue.
While she waits for the water to boil for the spaghetti, Anna Polcari sits on a vinyl stool in the kitchen reading the Herald American. Her eyes are drawn to the stories about the war, the war that had hung over her head like the sword of Damocles for over a year.
Sixteen months ago, Joe told her that he planned to enlist.
“But why?” She was horrified. This was her worst nightmare.
“Anna, they're going to draft me anyway. I have to serve, and I’d much rather be a Marine, like my dad.”
“Joe, they’ll send you to Vietnam!”
“Maybe, maybe not. But it’s what I have to do.”
Anna and Joe had been a couple since they met in 9th grade at St. Michael’s and knew from the start that they would get married some day. The argument they’d had about Joe’s enlistment brought them the closest they’d ever come to breaking up. But as horrible as the thought of Joe in Vietnam was to Anna, the thought of losing him was more so. She stopped protesting and tried to be supportive, though she was sure she’d done a lousy job of it. In her heart of hearts, she sympathizes with the protests against the war, believing it to be nothing but an exercise in posturing and greed played out by the tin gods in Washington.
After Joe completed his training at Parris Island, he shipped out, his final destination Southeast Asia as Anna had feared. Every night since, all 380 of them, she prayed that the war wouldn’t take him from her anyway.
Anna jolts from her reverie at the sound of Papa laughing in the living room as Ricky bellows, “Lucy, you got some s’plainin’ to do!” Grabbing two potholders from their hooks on the side of the refrigerator, she lifts the heavy pot off the stove and dumps the steaming mass of noodles into the colander waiting in the sink. As usual, she forgets to take off her glasses, and the rush of steam fogs the lenses, momentarily blinding her. You’d think I would learn, she chastises herself.
Anna divides the noodles into four bowls, ladles some of Mama’s sauce over each, grates cheese on top, and puts a bowl at each place setting on the scarred wooden kitchen table. She calls to her family. “Mama, Papa, Anthony. Dinner’s on the table. Mangia.”
Thon Ngoi, Quang Nam, South Vietnam
In the distance, gunfire punctuates the night. Joe DeLuca’s hand pauses as it works the John Wayne around the rim of tonight’s C-rat.
“Probably over on Hill 22 again,” he says to Justin Beaumarie, who is sitting next to him dousing his spaghetti and meatballs in Tabasco.
“Yup. Charlie Company’s been taking boo coo VC sniper fire ever’ night for over a week. Leastwise, ain’t the fuckin’ NVA.”
As he frequently does, Joe reaches over to touch Sophia, his M-16, which is leaning against dirt wall beside him. “Is it my imagination, or does it sound a few klicks closer tonight?”
“Ain’t no closer, Joe. Far’s I know, they ain’t moved that fucking hill anytime this month.” Justin says around the spaghetti in his mouth. “You just getting all twitchy, now you’re short. Hell, you’re so short, you can’t see over your boot tops. It ups your pucker factor, bon ami.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right.”
Joe finishes the job of wrenching open the can of spaghetti. After rewrapping a small piece of green duct tape around both the John Wayne and his dog tags, he drops the chain back over his head. He sprinkles the contents of the can with a little of the hot sauce, wishing it were parmigiano instead, and takes a bite. It’s a sin to call this stuff ‘spaghetti and meatballs,’ he thinks. Mushy and tasting of nothing but Tabasco, it’s like every other C-rat meal he had since he’s been in-country. Not as bad as ham and lima beans, which even hot sauce can’t help, but still fucking awful. None of it tastes real.
In fact, not much about being in-country seems real. It feels like some sort of macabre rehearsal for Hell. Except for the fear… That’s real enough.
“What day is it?” he asks Justin.
“Wednesday, I think. Why?”
“No reason. Just wondering.” Joe doesn’t mention it, but he’s thinking that this time a few weeks from now, he’ll be on leave, eating spaghetti and meatballs at home with Anna. And it’ll be the real thing, no Tabasco required.
Justin laughs, and says, “Uh-huh. I know you’re thinking ‘bout seeing Anna. Don’t you worry none, Boo. Fourteen days and a wake-up, and you’ll be fini, riding the big bird back to the World and your femme, leaving this coonass and d’other poor grunts here to take care of business.” Justin still has seven months to his tour, and he tries not to think about going home to Bayou Teche. Best he keep his mind on staying alive.
Joe runs his hand over the big left pocket on his flak, feeling the bulge of what’s left of his short timer’s stick. Fourteen segments left. Fourteen days to get out of Nam and back to the real world. 14 days and a wake-up.
Prince Street, Boston, Massachusetts
Before she joins her family at the table, where Papa waits to say grace, Anna walks over to the calendar tacked to the back door, and crosses off another day. She feels a flutter of excitement in her stomach as she moves the red pencil through the date. She has been doing this every night since Joe shipped out, and now she is only two weeks away from the big red circle that marks the end of his tour in Vietnam.
Watching her, Papa says, “Won’t be long now, cara.”
“I know, Papa,” Anna replies as she takes her place at the table. “I’m so excited, I can’t stand it.”
As Anna and her family eat, they can hear Walter Cronkite through the arched doorway into the living room. Normally, Mama would never allow the television to be on during dinner.
“Dinner is for family,” she says, “not for I Love Lucy.”
But in the months since Joe left for Vietnam, Anna has insisted on seeing the nightly news report on the war. Now as she hears Cronkite begin, “In a prolonged firefight in Hue…,” Anna excuses herself and goes into the living room to watch.
“I don’t why you want to torture yourself that way,” Mama has asked her over and over.
Anna knows her mother is right, but she just can’t help herself. She has to know. Every night, she stands, heart pounding, in front of the old Philco and watches the newscast describing the events of that day in Southeast Asia, complete with pictures. And every night, she prays that Joe isn’t one of the statistics given in the body count.
She has no idea where Joe is in Vietnam. The letters she gets from him, often delivered weeks after he wrote them, are vague. Deliberately so, she knows. He talks about the rain and mud, and the heat of the jungle. He complains about the food and sleeping conditions. He tells her about his buddies and how much they’ve come to mean to him. And sometimes he tells her funny stories. Most of all, he describes his dreams for their lives together when he returns. But he has never said a word about where he is or the fighting. She supposes he’s not allowed to.
When Walter Cronkite moves on to other news, she turns the television off and returns to the table.
Sitting down, she mumbles, “Sorry,” and puts a forkful of twirled spaghetti into her mouth.
To be continued
To be continued
Written for The Tenth Daughter of Memory.