It’s been fifty years since I’ve really thought about him. Even the little memories got blown away with the grenade.
But it’s Memorial Day and I’m grilling ribs because no one can tell me I’m too damn old to light up a pig when my daughter comes up and stands beside me. Her arms are all taught and crossed and I can hear her wheels turning the way they do when she tries to convince me that I should cut gluten out of my diet.
“Dad,” she says.
I can hear her teeth click with anticipation. She wants to roll into something, I know. I should’ve gotten the organic meat, I think.
“No, it’s not organic. But this pig ate, slept, and fucked like the organic ones.”
She lowers her voice down to a whisper. Scolding time. “Dad, can you not say ‘fucked’ with the kids in earshot? They’ve got ears like bats, I swear to God.”
“Don’t swear to God in front of the bats, then.”
“I was whispering.”
I dowse more lighter fluid on the coals. Flames come up from damn Hades.
“Dad, I wanna talk to you about something. Carla and Trevor, they don’t really understand Memorial Day, I don’t think. You know? They just look at it like a day off of school and Grandpa’s ribs.”
I light a cigar off the rib flames and stick in my mouth. “They like my ribs, yeah?”
She’s serious now. I turn to her and she’s got a little glisten in her eyes. I can’t tell if it’s from the smoke or if she’s really upset about something. Her eyes are really green when she cries.
“Stephanie,” I say, taking the cigar out of my mouth, “what do you want me to tell them, huh?”
“I think you should tell them about Benny.”
I turn to her and she’s got her arms crossed even tighter, in determination. The tears seem to be out of determination now, too. She’s looking right at me. I can’t really look away but I can’t look at her either.
“I haven’t really thought about Benny in a while.” Fifty years, to be exact, I think.
“Dad, come on, you have to think about the most important part. You told me...”
“I know what I told you, Stephanie. But I’m here and I’m grilling some damn ribs and I’m with my family and we don’t need to talk about it.”
She grips my arm at the elbow, tight. I’m embarrassed that my muscles have gone to shit. I want to be strong Dad again.
“He saved your life, Dad,” she whispers tightly into my ear. “If anything is going to put things in perspective for them, it’s that.”
I take a big puff from my cigar and stare right at the blackening ribs. I feel her eyes on me with more intensity than if I were looking at them. Her gaze starts to burn through the side of my face but I’m feeling stubborn today so I stand my ground. I flip over a rib and that’s when I start to feel the deep tingle in my toes. Well, not all of them, just the three I haven’t had in fifty years.
Then, the memories come at me. Like when you’re in rough waves at the beach and you keep getting knocked down. Benny’s next to me and he’s laughing.
He’s got a young Vietnamese chick in his arms and he’s telling her all about the world. She’s looking at him and she loves him.
He’s in his cot and he’s singing Sinatra while we fall asleep like we were damn babies.
He’s telling us to say “Viet-NAWM,” not “Viet-NAYM.”
He’s putting the dead rat we found in Olander’s cot. And when Olander finds it and screams louder than a teenaged girl, he’s laughing so hard he starts to cry.
He’s writing a poem about Heckler when Heckler dies.
He’s writing a poem about Jones when Jones dies.
He’s writing a poem about Eller when Eller dies.
He’s writing a poem about Olander when Olander dies. And about the rat.
He’s holding me while I cry and say I can’t do it anymore. He’s telling me I’m stronger than a six-legged bull. I never understood that.
He’s got that young Vietnamese chick in her arms again. Rose, he calls her. Rose is dead. He’s looking at her and he loves her.
He’s picking an orchid and re-planting it in the middle of an empty field. It’s not a rose, but those only grow near Da Lat.
He’s screaming for me to get down.
He’s pushing me out of the way as something flies at us.
He’s in pieces all around me. My foot is on fire.
Benny’s standing next to me at the grill, laughing. He’s in one piece. And he’s slapping my back. His dogtags jingle around my neck.
“Okay,” I say to my daughter without looking at her. I feel her stand up on her tiptoes so she can plant a kiss on my cheek. It’s wet and sticky, the lips of someone trying to be young. It reminds me that Carla and Trevor are the only young ones here.
I guess I have to tell them about Benny.