Thon Ngoi, Quang Nam, South Vietnam
After Joe finishes the last of the “spaghetti,” he pulls the dessert can out of old sock next to him, not bothering with the tiger piss they call coffee. Like every other member of Little Gull, he stacks his rations in the sock to keep the cans from rattling while they are on patrol. Peaches. OK, not bad, he thinks, grateful it’s not fruitcake. He pulls the chain with his dog tags and the John Wayne over his head again, peels off the bit of tape and parks it on the butt of his rifle. Just as he begins to work the John Wayne into the rim of the can, the PRC-25 beside O’Malley crackles to life.
“Little Gull, Little Gull. Incoming!”
All thoughts of dinner gone in an instant, Joe and the other members of his team scramble for their gear. Joe jams his tinpot onto his head and grabs Sophia. The high-pitched whistle he hears as he hits the deck is followed closely by an explosion several hundred feet forward of their position. Then, in quick succession, there is the suggestion of a whistle, then the “thud” Joe has heard about but never experienced himself. There's a rush of air and an explosion very close by, too close.
The sounds change to a series of explosions nearby, and Joe thinks, Shit on a stick, that’s mortar.
Images of Anna fill Joe’s mind as the sounds of war fill his ears. Jackson screams, “I’m hit, I’m hit.” Next to him, Beaumarie is praying.
Prince Street, Boston, Massachusetts
Mama washes and Anna dries. The telephone rings just as Anna is putting away the last dish. She quickly dries her hands on the dishtowel and hangs it from the oven handle. She turns toward the hall, but her father calls, “I’ve got it.”
As Anna wipes off the kitchen table and puts the bowl of fruit she moved earlier back in its center, she thinks, maybe I’ll watch TV tonight. The thought makes her feel faintly guilty, kind of like she’s contemplating playing hookey. Normally, her evenings are spent writing a letter to Joe. But he’s so close to coming home, she knows a letter wouldn’t reach him in time.
She casts a critical glance around the kitchen to make sure she hasn’t missed anything, then flicks off the light and follows Mama into the living room. She steps over Anthony, who’s stretched out on the floor, eyes glued to the television. Daktari, not her favorite show. Anna grabs the latest issue of Life Magazine and heads for the faded chintz chair in the corner.
She’s just opened the magazine to the cover story on the Beatles when Papa reappears in the doorway from the hall.
She looks up, and sees her father standing in the doorway to the hall, white as a sheet.
“Papa, what’s wrong?”
She jumps to her feet, fear flooding her. “Papa, tell me!” Is it Joe? Is he… all right?” Her eyes fill as she says the words.
Papa takes her arms and eases her back into the chair. He kneels in front of her and grabs both of her hands in his.
“Anna, I’m so sorry. That was Louie DeLuca. Joe’s squad was dug in outside of Da Nang. Their position took a direct mortar hit.”
Sobbing now, she asks, “Is he…”
“Dear God, yes, I think so. There were no survivors.”
“No, no, no, no,” Anna sobs. “No.” Everyone is crying now, even Anthony, who is folded in Mama’s substantial arms.
‘No. No. I don’t believe it. It isn’t true. Are they sure? How can they be sure?” Anna demands, swinging her red eyes frantically from Papa to Mama and back. “No. No, no, no. It can’t be true. Besides, his tour is almost done! Aren’t they supposed to keep someone about to leave out of the line of fire?”
“Honey, I think they try, but it doesn’t always work like that. You listen to the news every night. You know what’s been happening in Da Nang and Khe Sanh. The North Vietnamese and VC are…”
“Papa, I know. But Joe wasn’t supposed to be there. No. They have to be wrong.”
“They have his dog tags, Anna.”
Anna jumps up, and starts toward the phone. “I’m going to call the DeLucas. It’s a mistake. I know it is. It has to be.”
“Sit, cara. You can’t call Joe’s parents.” Papa stops Anna before she gets to the hall and leads her back to the chair. “They are in pretty bad shape. Wait. Wait until tomorrow, at least.”
In the days to come, Anna swings between disbelief, despair, and outright denial. Visiting Joe’s parents had been little help and had in fact provided grist for Anna’s busy nightmare mill.
The DeLucas told Anna a Marine officer and a Navy Chaplain visited them late Wednesday afternoon, just before dinner. The officer said that though they hadn’t identified his body, they were sure that Joe had died in action. No one could have survived such a direct attack. They found his dog tags, along with the tags of the rest of his squad in a foxhole in the countryside outside of Da Nang.
It was only after Anna pressed that Louie DeLuca had told her that the bodies in the foxhole were just a collection of scorched and unidentifiable remains. Anna was struck by the cruel irony of it. Joe had written about finding napalmed Viet Cong. He’d called them “crispy critters.”
She knew he never expected to be one himself.
1st Medical Marine Hospital, Da Nang, South Vietnam
The two corpsmen stand in the ward, talking quietly.
“He was picked up in a dust-off last night. He was dressed in Vietnamese-made clothes, but he’s clearly not Viet. He was unconscious when Search and Rescue found him during a sweep of the boonies near Khe Sanh and brought him in.”
“The chart says ‘Doe.’ No name?”
“Nope. He wasn’t wearing dog tags or any other identifiable military gear. Don’t even know his nationality. A little further down the chart, you’ll see a note about amnesia. He’s also having hearing issues, so talking to him is difficult.”
“You saying he doesn’t know who he is?”
“Seems like. ‘Course, he could be faking, but I doubt it. Anyway, Doc West says it’s probably temporary. The hearing loss too. But judging from the burns he’s got, the poor guy saw some bad stuff. He’s being shipped to the hospital at Pearl tonight. If he’s American, he’s on his way home, di di mau.”
Prince Street, Boston, Massachusetts
Anna takes her seat at the table. Dinner sits in front of her, but she has no appetite, even though it’s fried cod, a favorite. It’s been nearly four weeks since the news about Joe changed her life. The big red circle on the calendar came, and is now gone. Along with Anna’s appetite.
At the sound of the telephone ringing, Anna gets up. “I’ll get it. It's probably for me anyway." Many friends have called Anna with their condolences during the past three weeks.
There is crackling on the line, and then a woman voice. “Anna Polcari?”
“One moment, please, for long distance.”
A wave of dizziness passes through Anna, and she sinks to the chair beside the telephone table, holding her breath.
There is a series of clicks, then, “Anna? Anna, cara?”
Anna releases her breath in a rush. “Joe? Her voice is just a whisper, and she says, louder, “Oh, Joe! Is that you?”
“I’ll be home Wednesday, Hon. Spaghetti and meatballs for dinner, OK?”
Written for The Tenth Daughter of Memory.