The Ground Crew

First published in the Winter 2021/2022 issue of Calliope, the official publication of the Writers’ Special Interest Group (SIG) of American Mensa, Ltd.

“Funday,” said Dennis, breaking the silence. He meant the end of the week.

The four of us sit at the big wooden table in the dim lit shed. Here is Peter, with his long face and sad eyes, given to drink on any occasion. For obvious reasons we call him Lightning; he doesn’t object. Lightning is younger than Samuel, who is stocky, short, with equally dark complextion, years past middle age, his face a portrait of sorrow. Dennis, with his long blonde hair, startling blue eyes, and an athlete’s build—has the air of an outlaw. Nothing ruffles him. Not the grind of our menial work. Not Lightning’s sloth, not even Joe. Each day, at two hour intervals, this short old man, wearing his shabby blue coat, beat up fedora, and thick spectacles, arrives to appraise our efforts.

“Boys, boys. What you do? Work! What? Work!”

“Mr. Big Man,” Samuel calls him behind his back.

“Little Big Man,” Lightning has said.

Six days a week, nine months of the year, we trudge from one lawn to the next in the sprawling apartment complex located a mile from Irvington, a small New Jersey town. Each identical building has shrubs and hedges which must be trimmed. Lawns mowed. The grass, branches, and leaves raked into piles, nimbly lifted and dropped into gray plastic barrels, which we lug to the sidewalk’s edge for pick up. Before departing, we must sweep one last time. Is this necessary?

“ ’Cause Big Man say so,” Samuel replies.

A few minutes rest, then off we trudge to the next building, Samuel, our leader, totting the shears, Lightning, Dennis and I bearing the rakes and brooms, a squadron of gardeners on urban patrol.

Today is Payday. At noon we assemble outside the shed, the sun warming the brisk spring air. Joe arrives, his pants pockets stuffed with thick wads of hard cash.

“Under the table,” said Joe when I first signed on. Each of us is under the table.

“Big man a cheap bastard,” Lightning told me, tightening the cap on a dark green bottle. “Big mean cheap bastard.”

As always, Joe pays Samuel first.

“For you,” he says, counting out each bill into Samuel’s calloused palm.

He repeats the words to each of us, but today, after counting out my cash, Joe says, “After lunch, Samuel show you tractor. Don’t give trouble.”

“Sure, Joe, sure.”

When Joe turns his back to me Samuel shakes his head. I can be stubborn, and he knows it.

Home from war, awaiting court-martial, I refused orders. Hair cuts. Guard duty. Saluting. “Not any more,” I said.

“Green means go!” the first sergeant shouted, and I slammed hard on the brakes.

“Red means stop! Stop!” he yelled, as I sped into traffic.

“Are you crazy?” he roared. “You could have got us both killed.”

“Is that all that would happen?”

So ended, five years ago, my brilliant army career.

But enough of that. Here we are in 1974; between the two of us, Dennis and I have been paid nearly three hundred dollars, nearly twice minimum wage. While Lightning and Samuel walk five blocks to a tavern for cheap beers, salty snacks and tasteless sandwiches, Dennis and I spend two dollars each for a yellow cab to Jimmy’s Roscommon House, located across town.

“It’ll be here in ten minutes,” I say, hanging up the pay phone. “Be right back.”

I hang my coat in the shed. For a moment stand still and look about. It’s so quiet here. Bunker quiet. Has it been that long? A year since he lost his license? I gave up on driving quite some time ago.

Slowly, our eyes adjust as we enter the cozy room and head to the bar. High on one wall, an IBM clock steadily ticks the hours. In the lone window a yellow neon light stoically blinks, “Package Goods—Ice Cold Beer.”

For a time Dennis and I are the only customers present. Then, like clockwork, the old timers wander in, step to their seats, rap the bar with practiced knuckles. For each, Jimmy lays down a square or circular coaster adorned with clever phrases: “It’s Miller Time.” “This Bud’s for you.” “This is Chivas Life.” Thoughtfully, he pours shots of gin, vodka, whiskey, assigns ice cubes to glasses, snaps caps from long neck amber bottles. As if in reply, there come the stuttered flicks of cigarette lighters, the reverse kiss of first inhales, the virgin mists of blue gray smoke which curl and disappear. These men—it is mostly men who visit Jimmy’s, will sit and drink and smoke for hours. Dennis and I have forty-five minutes.

“The usual?” asks Jimmy.

“Yes,” says Dennis, meaning both of us. “The usual.”

A minute later, fresh from the tap, in chilled mugs eddied with droplets of sweat, topped with heads of fizzing foam, Jimmy sets the beers in front of us.

“Gentlemen,” he says.

“First of the day,” says Dennis. Clink. “First of the day,” I reply.

We sit and sip. Make our usual small talk. At length Jimmy returns with two identical plates of roast beef sandwiches.

“About time,” says Dennis.

“You’re welcome,” says Jimmy.

As we bite into the thick sandwiches, there is an explosion of juicy red meat, cheese and ketchup, the bread’s mouth-watering chew, followed by pleasing gulps of ice cold Guinness—what more could we want?

After a time Jimmy returns. “Another round?” he asks.

“Yes,” I tell him. “Another round.”

Halfway through our third, I check my watch. “Time to head back, partner.”

“Aw, fuck,” says Dennis.

We eat fast, drink up, pay the man, and leave two dollars on the bar.
I head toward the pay phone to call a cab.

“Thank you, gents. See you next time,” says Jimmy. A thin rare smile appears on his lips.

Back at work with a minute to spare I stop at the shed to fetch my army field jacket, which I’d left on a wall hook behind the round table. I often tell myself, it’s just a coat, but I know in my heart it’s more than that. I flick on the light switch. Where is it? Has it slipped under the table? On my hands and knees I check, search behind each ratty chair, behind the abandoned sofa, covered in cobwebs, and falling apart. Where is it? Where is my goddamn army jacket?

I have long regretted giving away the sweat-stained boonie hat encircled with love beads, with pins from hand grenades I had thrown, the word VIETNAM inked across the brim’s mud stained fabric. My handful of ribbons, my beat up dog tags clotted with dirt, the blood spotted diary in a language I did not understand. Discarded. Done with, I had convinced myself, and flung the brass Montagnard bracelet into the sea. But the coat, with its striking shoulder patch—a black horse head and slanted line on a bright yellow field; chevrons of hard won rank, the cloth medic badge above the left breast pocket, signifying combat, of which I am most proud—everyone knew the coat was mine. Who would dare take it? Not Dennis. Not Samuel. Certainly not Joe. Which left only… Last month a tenant caught him stealing a child’s bike parked by the shed.

Footsteps. I would know his ambling stride anywhere.

In my best medic voice I ask, “Lightning, have you seen my jacket?”

“Man, I ain’t seen your nothing. What you talking ’bout?”

Liar. Thinks behind my back I don’t hear, “Crazy white boy. War got him crazy.”

Thinks I don’t care what he says? How he says it? But I do care, and must teach this son-of-a-bitch a lesson. I walk toward him. The old feeling alive again: I’m locked and loaded.

“What you doing, man? What you…” his voice barely audible. “Hey, man. C’mon now…”

More footsteps. Joe’s head in the doorway.“Why you here? Back to work, boys! Back to work!”

In that moment all my seething snaps back into place.

“Never mind. I must have left it at the Roscommon.”

“There you go,” said Lightning. “There you go.”

“What you talk about?” Joe asks. “Back to work!”

That evening, as Dennis slept on the living room couch, after turning the TV volume down, after quietly locking my bedroom door, I opened the sturdy ammo can I had managed to ship home, and thumbed through its contents. Here were dirt smudged letters from my folks, a half-dozen pieces of shrapnel, foreign money, a photograph encased in thick transparent plastic, taken from the girl who somehow lived. A handful of M16 bullets. Each item impregnated with the sweet scent of lubricating oil, which still saturated the green cloth wrapped around the pistol, as if it were a holy object, mummified, waiting only for the signal to self-resurrect.

Slowly, I unwound the waxy fabric, grasped the pistol, aimed it at my shadow on the opposite wall. The muscles of my fingers, unfailing in memory, recollected the hefty feel of the patterned grip, the inflexible curl of the rigid trigger, the smooth thumb push safety, the checkering pattern engraved on the hammer’s spur. It was as if I had just tossed the bulky weapon to Roy, who rushed forward and fired point blank at the enemy soon upon me, the perfect shot grazing my arm, blowing the man’s head off, the red cloud and splintering rain a sight to behold. I have often thought of that moment, that time in life. Of my lethal love and pure hate for what we did in Vietnam. And what it did to me.

Rake—Shovel—Sweep. Another week gone by. Another payday one hundred and fifty hard earned dollars. At noon, in the shed, I tell Dennis not to wait. I tell him I didn’t sleep well last night.

“I need to rest. Say hi to Jimmy for me, will you?

“Sure thing, partner.” He knows I’m lying.

Inside the shed, even at noon it is dank and grim. I leave the light off, pull up a chair, sit and wait. Samuel is out sick but Lightning will stop by. I know he will. At this range the .45 caliber bullet will obliterate his heart and lungs, exit a basket ball-sized hole in his back. Lightning will tumble backwards, blood bubbling from his mouth, overwhelming his tongue. Gurgling, gasping for air, his bulging eyes will roll upward. In his final seconds, I will tell Lightning it always happens this way: the erupting bullets, bursting grenades, the call for medic! How I ran or crawled or stumbled forward, patched them up, or lied to them with all my heart. I will name our dead. I will confess that after the Viet Cong vanished we lifted up Sgt. Johnston, but immediately his back separated from his body and it fell to earth—that we set him down and burned the village. Smoke and flames and women wailing. Slow footsteps. He flicks on the light.

“Good afternoon.”

I aimed the pistol between his eyes.

“What the…”

“Pull up a chair. Make yourself at home.”

I can feel his fear. I can smell it.

“You’ve got three seconds.”

With my thumb tip I pushed the safety off. Cock the hammer. Click.

“In back,” said Lightning. He thrust his chin toward the shed’s far corner. “In the locker.”

The locker that no one used? Why hadn’t I thought of it? We stare at each other, his large round eyes unblinking. Only the tick of my watch separates the silence between us.

The choppers downdraft had flushed him out. Brrraapppp. And the boy and his AK flipped backwards, dead before he fell, a starry cartwheel against a pale blue sky. As we floated away, my M16 still hot to the touch, the final look in his final face burned itself into my heart.

“Go get it,” I said.

As Lightning stood up, the arteries in his neck visibly thickened, pulsed wildly; he leaned forward, reached out both arms, a soft bestial sigh escaped his quivering mouth, and he fell to the floor.

“Are you shitting me?” I stood over and nudged his body. “Lightning. Get up, you bastard. You heard me. Get up.”

I watched intently as both his hands froze mid-curl, his left foot angled to one side slightly more than his right, his lifeless chest deflated. There came the final wisp of tracheal air, barely audible, and he was dead.

I retrieved the jacket, hid the gun behind the locker, found Joe and told him what happened.

“One minute we’re talking, the next…”

“The liquor,” said Joe, disapprovingly. “He think I don’t care. Why he drink too much? Why?”

The police arrived and took photographs. A detective questioned me for what seemed like hours. “You’re free to go,” he finally said. I walked toward where Dennis and Joe were arguing furiously. Dennis raised his hands skyward, as if to say, “What for?”

When they parted I asked him, “What was that about?”

Dennis said he’d explain at Jimmy’s.

*     *     *   *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

“He’s letting you go. Doesn’t want any trouble.”

I took a long sip of beer, savoring the pleasant coldness against the roof of my mouth, across the length of my tongue, savoring the deep satisfaction of a thirst quenched.

“Screw, Joe. I’ll find another job.”

I tapped on the bar to pay the tab.

“At least tell me what happened,” said Dennis.

Should I? I gave it some thought. What to say and how to say it. With authority, I set the empty mug down.

“All right, but it’s cold in here.” I put on my jacket. “Let’s go outside.”