The Western Girl

The Western Girl

I didn’t know Lieutenant Karen Johnson in any real sense, though she seemed friendly enough.  Still, she was a Lieutenant and a member of the U. S. Army Nurse Corps, while I was a lowly PFC working in the orderly room.  There was that gulf separating enlisted men and officers, especially female officers.  I couldn’t just walk up to her and say, “let’s go have a drink,” but I always had an eye out for her, since the day she arrived at the 555th Evacuation Hospital, called, in typical military parlance, the Triple Nickel. 

The hospital was built on the edge of the smoggy sprawl of Saigon.  By 1972 it had become a miniature city in itself consisting of rows of Quonset huts encircled by scatterings of GP Medium tents for living quarters, with permanent structures sited at one end for mess hall, chapel and even a small PX.  A packed-earth road separated the hospital proper from the living quarters, and sometimes, walking along, I would spot Lieutenant Johnson coming the other way and would veer over toward her, trying not to be too obvious.  Protocol called for me to render a salute, though protocol wasn’t on my mind.  I would snap off a militarily correct one, not like the sloppy salutes you usually saw in the Medical Corps, including with it my best smile.  Her typical response would be a wave, a return smile and a friendly “Hi.”  Sometimes she would even wink, which would have made my day except that our encounters consisted of no more than those few seconds in passing.

Karen Johnson was definitely not the military type.  In a way she reminded of girls I had known at my New Jersey high school, the ones with their skirts worn shorter than the prescribed length, showing too much leg, and the top buttons of their blouses unbuttoned and the rumors of loose behavior.  The horny boys at my high school appreciated those girls, just as the horny men of the Triple Nickel appreciated Lieutenant Johnson.  With her blond hair pinned back any old way, making her no less pretty for it, and her fatigue pants worn snug and her fatigue blouse undone at the top against the tropical heat, she would move between the rows of the wounded on the recovery wards, seemingly oblivious to the eyes following her hip-swiveling walk.  It was rumored she was having an affair with one of the doctors and had been the object of several reprimands from the hospital commander for conduct unbecoming, or so the story went. 

I finally got to know her the day I was started my week of rest and relaxation, or R&R, from Vietnam.  Seated on an Air Force bus crowded with other soldiers and airmen waiting to be taken to Ton Son Nhut airbase and the plane for Hawaii, I was busy with thoughts of brown-skin Hawaiian girls and tropical drinks.  The thoughts were interrupted by the sight of Karen boarding the bus wearing her tropical dress uniform, with a little overseas cap perched at an angle on her blond head.  It was the first time I’d seen her in a skirt, and she looked good making her way down the aisle.  Halfway down she spotted me and, with a smile and a wink, said, “Hey Ted, what a surprise.”  The surprise for me was that she even knew my name.  She proceeded toward the back of the bus, and I didn’t see her for the remainder of the trip, including after our plane had arrived at Hickam Field on Oahu.  I figured that officers were probably processed apart from the rest of us several hundred soon-to-be revelers who, after deplaning, were bussed to another part of the base and herded into a large room to endure a brief lecture about comporting ourselves in a proper manner while guests of the Hawaiian people.  We were then told to choose a hotel from a list posted on a wall, which created a mob scene, everyone trying to get at the list at the same time.  When I squeezed in close enough to read it I picked one at random.

At the hotel, after I had unpacked and was about to take a shower, there was a knock at my door.  I opened it to see Karen standing there wearing a short skirt and a dark red top held up by thin spaghetti straps.  She was barefoot and carried a pair of sandals in one hand.  A small purse hung by a thin chain over one shoulder.  She smiled.

“Lieutenant Johnson,” I said.

She walked in past me.  “You wouldn’t happen to have anything to drink, would you?”  She stood looking around, while I stared at the backs of her legs and her bare feet and painted toenails and the way her blonde hair went with the tan of her shoulders.  “Nice room,” she said,  “It’s just like mine.”  She turned to look at me.  “How about just calling me Karen.”   

“Karen, then,” I said, the first time I had ever spoken her name.  “I wish I had something to drink, but I just got here, same as you.”

“Then how about this instead?”  She reached into her purse, which appeared to be tightly packed with something, and wriggled out a plastic bag that was three-quarters full of Vietnamese marijuana.  I knew from experience that it was pretty potent stuff.

“You took a chance bringing that out of the country,” I said.

“I like taking chances.  Why do you think I happened to pick the same hotel as you?”

“I don’t know,” I said, grinning foolishly while trying to catch up.

“I saw on the sign-up list that you picked this place, so I thought maybe we could have some fun together.”

It took about a half second for that to sink in.  “I didn’t even see you there.”

“Maybe I was stalking you.”  She eyed me with a smile.

After that the week went by fast, as much from the fact that Karen Johnson had magically appeared at my door with her stash of grass as from the stoned state we immediately fell into.  That first day she rolled the first joint, and we shared it in my room.  Then Karen, sitting next to me on the bed, pushed me back and rolled over on top of me and closed her eyes, making me think she might just go to sleep.  Then she opened her eyes and leaned her head back and said, “It’s a nice face.”

Later, after a shower and another half a joint, we went out, Karen in her short skirt and skimpy top and little purse dangling from a chain and me in slacks and my Army dress shoes and one of the two civilian shirts I had brought with me.  It was getting dark and the lights along busy Kalakaua Avenue were on, and we gushed to each other, in our stoned states, at how bright and luminous and glowing they all were.  Karen stared at the tourists strolling by, and she had a sudden fit of pot-induced giggles, laughing until she almost fell over, holding herself up by grabbing onto my arm while continuing to laugh as if she had never seen anything so funny.  We got a lot of odd looks in return, walking along Kalakaua.

That night Karen hauled her clothes and other womanly paraphernalia from her assigned room to mine, and she stayed with me the whole time.  We tried rationing the grass to make it last the week, which we almost did, and we sometimes went out to eat, and we swam in the ocean at a park outside the Waikiki Beach breakwater.  Evenings we would stroll along the strip of Waikiki or in downtown Honolulu.  And later we would make love.  When the week ended, we reported back to Hickam Field for our return trip, both of us bleary-eyed and hung over.  When we were told we couldn’t return to Vietnam, it was slow to register.  But then it did.  Break my heart.

This was January of 1973 and the Paris Peace Accords were about to become official, signaling the beginning of the end of U.S. involvement in the war.  Any troops entering Vietnam, even those returning from R&R, might be seen as a sign that reinforcements were still being sent in, so it was decided they should return to the mainland instead.  We were given orders to report to a base near our homes and secure assignments there.  It was all very hasty and not very well thought out, but that was the plan the military brass had come up with.  For me the closest base was Fort Dix, New Jersey.  The closest for Karen was in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“Kirtland Air Force Base is there,” she said.  “Part of it used to be an Army base with a hospital.  The Army might still run that.”  We were standing outside the terminal building at Hickam through which so many servicemen had moved during the course of the war.  “But then, the Army really doesn’t want me anyway.  I’ve already been passed over for promotion once.  Then I was offered an early out.  My un-military behavior, you know?”  She laughed, looking off across the sprawling base, and then looked over at me.  “I think I’ll take the Army up on that.  Go back into a life of crime.”  That last had sounded like a tag-end joke, but I had a feeling it was at least half serious.   

“Yeah, officers can resign.  Enlisted can’t.  I still have a year to go.”

She leaned toward me and kissed me on the mouth.  “We had a great time while it lasted.  Why not look me up when you get out?’  She extracted a pen and a scrap of paper from her purse and wrote something on the paper.  “I don’t have an address, but there’s a college bar in Albuquerque where I used to hang when I was in nursing school.  It’s called The Student Onion.  You might find me there, or find somebody who knows me.”  She handed me the paper with “The Student Onion” written on it.  There was no address or number. 

“Any chance you might make it back east sometime?” I asked.  “Maybe to New Jersey.”

She grinned.  “Probably not much of one.  I’m a western girl.”

* * *

That seemed to be the end of Karen Johnson and me.  Maybe she’d given me the brush off, and the note had been her way of “letting me down easy.”  I reported in at Fort Dix, New Jersey, where I was assigned as a company clerk to a basic training company.  Back in the Triple Nickel I had been made a clerk because I could type, so that had seemingly become my military destiny.  On a weekend pass I met a girl named Susan Barton from Mount Holly near the base, and we started dating.  Soon after, we moved into an off-base apartment, and I waited for my enlistment to end, after which I would go to school to learn computers, the hot career in those days, and Susan and I would get married and buy a house.  I’m not sure how those plans came about, but there they were.  After my enlistment was over I made the gesture of enrolling in a community college and waited for the semester to begin.  Susan had a good job, and we went through the motions of looking for a house we might eventually afford.  That was as far as it went.  One day I woke up and knew none of it would ever happen.  Karen Johnson and the memory of our week on Oahu came back to me full force, and I left without a word, taking a bus bound for Albuquerque, which was all I could afford.  The scrap of paper Karen had given me, with “The Student Onion” written on it, was still folded into a square in my wallet.

After three long days on the bus, the road signs informed me I was almost there, approaching Albuquerque, New Mexico through a mountain pass.  The pass began to widen, and then a view of the entire city of Albuquerque opened up ahead of us.  To my eyes, accustomed to the confinements of the east, it seemed huge, sprawling off into the distances, beyond which lay sweeps of dry, mostly empty desert.

At the downtown bus station I wandered around asking people if they knew of a place called “The Student Onion,” getting mostly silent shakes of the head in reply, until a young guy with a scruffy beard, wearing a tie-dyed shirt, said that he knew it.  He told me to go a few blocks over to Central Avenue, take a city bus heading east, and tell the driver to let me off at University Boulevard.  The Student Onion was near there.  I stuffed my bag carrying the few clothes I’d brought into a locker and walked out into the hot afternoon sun.

Entering the bar, I was immediately hit with a beery odor of years of beers being poured and drunk there.  It was still early enough that the place was half empty.  I ordered a beer at the bar.  When the bartender, a young, college-age guy, brought it to me, I asked, “Do you know somebody named Karen Johnson?”

He shook his head.  “No, man, I’ve only been here a couple of months.”

I wandered off, beer in hand, asking the few customers seated at the bar or at tables scattered around if they knew her.  Some seemed neutral and a few seemed hostile over being interrupted, but none of them knew a Karen Johnson.  I was getting a bad feeling, but I stayed on as the place filled up, starting around late afternoon.  To pass the time I played a few games of pool on one of the tables in the back and drank a few more beers, and asked more people about Karen, becoming more depressed at getting the same answer.

A guy approached me wearing a black tee shirt with Harley Davidson printed on it and a black leather vest and jeans and engineer boots.  He had long hair tied into a ponytail, and was obviously a biker—at least his shirt said as much.  Maybe he shaved once a week, and it looked like the week was up.

“I heard you’re looking for Karen,” he said, jerking his thumb back, indicating someone at the front of the place had given him this news.  “She’s my old lady.  What do you want with her?”

“I knew her in the Army.  She said I should look her up, if I ever got here.  I’m just passing through.”

“In the Army, huh?”  He stared at me and said, “Well, she’s around.”

“Is she here now?”  I looked past him at the scattered tables toward the front of the place.

“No, but she’s around.  I’ll tell her you were looking for you.”  He started to walk away.

“Who will you say was looking for her?”

He turned back.  “I’ll figure something out,” he said, giving me an up and down look.  “Clean cut guy, short hair, dressed like some college dork.”  He walked off.

Looking down at myself, I conceded that I might look like some college dork in my short-sleeved shirt and khakis and loafers, especially compared to most of the patrons of The Student Onion, some in boots and leather jackets, with long hair, and others wearing shorts and sandals and baggy tee shirts, with even longer hair.  I watched the guy return to a table to join two other biker types.  He hadn’t seemed too friendly, but after all the beers I’d had I was high enough not to worry about what might happen if I pressed the issue with Karen’s old man and his friends.  Approaching their table, I saw the eyes of his two friends look up.  The guy had his back to me, and he turned to look up too.

“I’d really like to see Karen,” I said.  “Could we arrange that somehow?”

“Could we arrange that somehow?”  He looked me over.  “Why would I want to do that?”

“Because you wouldn’t want to see me come all this way just to leave empty handed, would you?” 

“I wouldn’t?”  He looked as if he were waiting for me to say something and then asked, “What’s the alternative to empty handed?”

“I don’t know.  It’s just an expression.  I’d just like to see her and say hello.”

One of the friends at the table said, “I don’t think you’re getting the message.”

Karen’s old man gave his friend a pissed off look before saying to me.  “What’s your name?”

“Ted Ryan.”

“Well, Ted Ryan, I’m Carl.”  Unsmiling he offered a hand and I took it, feeling my own being squeezed hard.  I squeezed hard in return, and we held the grip for a minute, our joined hands beginning to shake from the effort, and then he let go.  “What the hell, maybe you’re okay.  I’ll take you over to see her.”  He stood, saying to me, “Come on,” and started toward the front door, while I followed.  He still hadn’t cracked a smile.

Outside he walked along a row of Harley motorcycles parked on the street, rear wheels to the curb, and climbed on one that had a tall chrome sissy bar behind a tiny passenger seat.  He fired the engine up and, without looking at me, jerked a thumb behind him and said, “Get on.”

Awkwardly I squeezed myself between Carl and the chrome sissy bar.  As soon as I did he bolted the bike away from the curb, accompanied by a thumping roar of the engine, and started up Central Avenue.  The buildings of the University of New Mexico were on the opposite side of Central, and Carl turned the bike away from them down a side street.  After a few blocks, with my heart pounding the whole time, he turned on another street lined with a row of small, stucco houses that looked to be sixty years old or more, most of them with grassless, dusty yards in front.  He pulled the bike behind a green Chevy parked in the dirt driveway next to one of the houses and killed the engine.  “You gotta get off first.”  Another awkward move—me sliding off sideways between Carl and the sissy bar—left me standing next to the bike, eyeing the small house.  Ragged curtains hung at the two windows flanking a door painted in dark blue.  A slab of concrete that might have passed for a porch stretched across half the width of the house.  Inside, so I hoped, was Karen Johnson.  Carl leaned the bike on its side stand, got off and walked toward the front door.  He opened it and entered, while I trailed behind, and he said to someone inside, “You know this guy?”

Karen was sitting slumped on a couch, dressed in a tee shirt and shorts, with her bare feet up on coffee table.  My heart, which was already pounding, started a racing thing in my chest.  The first thing about her I noticed was that she looked different, maybe thinner and paler.  She glanced up, first at Carl and then at me, her eyes narrowing when they came to rest on me.  I wondered if she even recognized me, or if she had been serious when she had said, standing outside the terminal building at Hickam Field a year earlier, why not look me up when you get out?

She smiled then and said, “Teddy Ryan.  Knock my ass over with a feather.  What are you doing here?”

“You said to look you up if I ever got out here.  Here I am.”

Carl turned to give me a long stare, as if it had just occurred to him that I might be here for the express purpose of banging his old lady, which was partly true.  There was more to it that that, though I hadn’t yet come up with any specifics.

“Well that’s good,” Karen said.  “I never thought you’d seriously make it.  I thought it was one of those Army things people do: lets get together when we get out.”

Carl looked back and forth between the two of us.  “So I guess you two have a lot of Army reminiscing to do,” he said.  “I think I’d rather go back to the bar.”  He started for the door, before turning to say, “If I come back and catch you two screwing, I’ll cut your hearts out.”  It could have been a joke, though he didn’t smile.

Karen asked with an innocent look, “Does that mean it’s okay as long as we're finished screwing before you get back?”

He shook his head in disgust and left, closing the door behind him.

“So how have you been?” I asked Karen, my heart turning over in my chest over her last remark about screwing.  “Are you still in nursing?”

“I’m taking a break from that for a while.  From everything, really.”  The roar of Carl’s Harley came though the open window, and we listened as it receded.  “But I’m out of the Army,” she said.  “You too, apparently.”

I was still standing there.  “So what do you do for laughs?”

“For laughs?  Well, Carl’s a lot of laughs.  I bet you could tell that.”  She patted the cushion next to her on the couch.  “Come and sit down.”  I did and she moved over a few inches, leaving a space between us.

“I guess you’re with him, huh?” I said.

She shrugged, lifting her shoulders and letting them loosely drop.  “It’s his house.  I stay here.”

I didn’t know what to say next.  After a minute I said, “I went to The Student Onion and asked around, and along came Carl.  He said you’re his old lady.”

“I don’t know what I am.”  She shrugged again and I thought I knew what it was that seemed different about Karen: her eyes were listless; they didn’t have the old life I remembered.  Given her being with Carl, and given what I knew, or thought I knew, about bikers, I wondered if she was into serious drugs.  Trying not to be obvious I scanned her arms and then her bare legs but didn’t see any needle marks.

She said, “Carl’s okay.  He just likes to act like a tough guy.”

“But he’s really a sweetheart underneath, right?”

“I don’t know about that.”  She let loose a laugh.

Again came the silence.  I asked, “So you’re not doing much of anything, working or otherwise?”

“I am doing something.  They have this program at the VA hospital for PTSD.  I’m thinking of enrolling in it.”

The term had a familiar sound, maybe something I’d heard about that hadn’t quite registered at the time.  “What’s PTSD?”

“It’s the latest thing.  Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Some committee of doctors came up with this theory that we all have this after-the-fact trauma from all the horrible things we did and saw in Vietnam.”

It sounded like something that people with an anti-war agenda and too much time on their hands had come up with.  “Do you feel traumatized by what you did or saw over there?”

“No, but what the hell.  Maybe they’ll believe I am.  I hear that all you have to do is tell them some sob story about how you have nightmares and can’t sleep and can’t hold down a regular job.”

“And what do you get for that?” I asked.

“You get a disability pension from the VA.  Maybe from Social Security too.”

“It’s just another scam, is all.”

“Yeah, but it’s worth a try.”

I was suddenly wondering what I was doing there.  Maybe it was like she’d said earlier: one of those Army things people do: lets get together when we get out.  The problem was, by the time you got around to the getting together, you weren’t the same people as before.   

“That doesn’t sound like you, Karen,” I said.

She turned her head to look curiously at me.  “Why not?”

“I don’t know.  I thought you were something special when we were on Oahu.”

She smiled then and her eyes took on a little life.  “We were stoned the whole time, but yeah.  You were special too.”  She reached out a hand and placed it on my cheek.  The warmth of it on my face made me flush, and I regretted when she took her hand away.  She asked, “So how long are you staying in town?”

“I haven’t thought about it.”  What I wanted to say was, why don’t you come with me?  We’ll get on a bus and go to California and live in some little beach town.

“There’s a covered porch in the back with a daybed,” she said.  “You could sleep out there while you’re here.”

I could see it in my head: me alone on the back porch and Carl and Karen in bed together behind a closed door.  “I don’t know if that would be such a good idea.”

“Maybe you’re right,” she said. 

We talked then about Hawaii, laughing like kids over some of the things we’d done.  She remembered more than I did.  Then she asked again how long I was staying in Albuquerque.  Again I said that I didn’t know.

“Okay, but if you’re not staying here, I know a cheap motel that’s not too bad, near downtown.  Let me take a wild guess.  You don’t have a lot of money.”  I shrugged and she said, “I don’t have the keys to Carl’s car, but I’ll call a cab to take you there.”  She did that, and after a while I heard a beep of a horn outside and pulled back the curtain at the window and saw a cab waiting at the curb.  She walked me to the door, saying, “Tell him The Nite Owl Motel.  He’ll know.”  She laid a hand on my arm.  “You won’t just leave town on me, will you?”

“I promise.”

“Then I’ll call you there tomorrow.  We’ll do something.” 

She opened the door for me and stood aside.  I asked, “What are you doing, Karen?”  It was as close as I could come to saying, what are you doing with this low life, Carl?  You deserve better.  The better, of course, would be me.

“What am I doing?” she said, looking up at me, a half a head shorter in her bare feet.  “I don’t know what I’m doing.  I don’t know if I ever did.”

“Yeah, same here.”  I walked out to the waiting cab, got in and told the driver to take me to the bus station to get the bag I’d left in a locker.  At the station, with the cab waiting outside to take me The Nite Owl Motel, I thought of getting on a bus and leaving intact the memory of Karen Johnson on Oahu.  But I decided to give it one more day.

* * *

I stayed for three days.  On the first day Karen took a bus down to the motel and said she wanted to show me some sights.  We went to Albuquerque’s Old Town, where there was a several-hundred year old church and a grassy square she called the Plaza, and a lot of touristy shops and some restaurants.  Walking around with her, I learned a few things about her life during the past year.  After leaving the Army she had tried nursing at an Albuquerque hospital, but had been fired after a few months for sometimes showing up high at work, or not showing up at all.  By that time she’d fallen in with Carl and his crowd at The Student Onion, and she’d moved into Carl’s house.  With a grin she admitted to “smoking too much weed.”  In fact she admitted she’d been high the day before when I’d shown up.

Later, at a restaurant looking out on the Plaza, she asked me, “Where do you think you’ll go after you leave here?”

“Not back to New Jersey.  I was thinking California.  I don’t have a lot of money, so I’ll have to get some kind of job.”  For the first time, I said what had been on my mind all along, “I thought maybe you’d like to come with me.”

She made a regretful face.  “Do you really think that would work?”

“I wouldn’t have said it otherwise.”

The next day she was showing me around the huge university grounds, where she had taken her training at the College of Nursing.  The training had been paid for by the Army, which explained how she had come to be an Army nurse.  When I put the California question to her again, she just smiled and didn’t say anything.  I thought it was probably time for me to leave, but I stayed another day.

The following morning Karen borrowed Carl’s five-year-old green Chevy, and we drove east toward the Sandia Mountains, she driving and me next to her in the passenger seat.  We were headed for what she called the mesa, which just looked like desert to me, covered with dry, desert-growing bushes, with the huge backdrop of the mountains behind.  The car bounced up an eroded, rocky dirt road, which ended at a steep hillside, where we stopped and got out and began climbing a narrow path.  Following her up the hill, I carried a cooler she had brought containing a six-pack of beer and two extra cans.

After about twenty minutes of climbing she said, sounding breathless from the climb, “We’re almost there.”  She took several long breaths and added, “Sometimes I come up here alone, high enough where you can see the whole city down below.  Then I try to remember why the hell I ever came back to Albuquerque.”  She laughed.

When we got to a spot where the hill leveled off she said, “We’re here,” and moved off toward several huge boulders.  Sweating and still breathing hard, I turned to look back, seeing the car, looking small and far below us, and the thin ribbon of dirt road we’d driven up.  The city beyond that stood out in sharp relief in the dry desert air.  I followed her over to the boulders.  “So I guess Carl didn’t mind that you took his car.”

“He hardly ever drives it, and I told him I wanted it to show you the sights.  He probably thinks we’re out someplace doing it.”

“And then he’d cut our hearts out.”

“Maybe.”  She laughed.  “Anyway, Carl prefers the bike, except in bad weather, or if he needs the car for one of his errands.”

“What errands?”

She waved that away.  “Never mind.  Let’s have a beer.”  She sat on the ground and leaned back against one of the large boulders, shading her from the sun.  She reached out a hand and I grabbed two beers from the cooler and popped them open with the church key dangling from a string on the cooler.  I handed her one and sat next to her, close but not touching.  The steady breeze this high up was already beginning to cool my sweat.

I had already learned from Karen that Carl had a job as a welder at the G.E. plant.  So much for the biker/drug connection.  For something to say, I asked, “So what else does Carl do besides welding and riding his motorcycle?”

“Let’s not talk about him,” she said.

“What should we talk about then?”

“Just talk,” she said, and we did, inconsequential talk not meant to lead anywhere, more about hearing the other person’s voice than the meaning of the words.  By the time we’d each had two beers, half the number we had brought, I was already feeling high, probably from the fact that mine were sloshing around in an empty stomach.  I’d had nothing but coffee at the motel before Karen had come to pick me up.  Moving over toward her so that we were touching, I put my arm around her shoulder.  For a second she didn’t move, but then she relaxed and leaned against me.  I tried to kiss her, but she turned her head away, saying, “Do you think it’s a good idea?”

“I can’t think what’s bad about it.”  I tried again and this time she let me and she kissed me back.  I felt myself relax in a way I hadn’t been able to for a long time.  Then she broke it off and leaned her head against my chest.  “Everything’s different, isn’t it,” she said.

“Things change.  But what’s really so different?”

“You.  Me.”  She went silent and we stared off toward the city below.

For the third time, I mentioned California, not really expecting a different answer than before, “I’ll probably be leaving tomorrow.  I’d still like you to come with me.”

She looked off, a half smile on her face, and didn’t say anything for a few minutes.  Then she said, “What if I told you I had money?”

I didn’t say anything, waiting for what might come next.

“Maybe California isn’t such a bad idea,” she said.  “About the money part, though.  I don’t really have it.  I just know where I can get it.  And not really money, just a way to make it.”

I waited again before asking, “And what would that be?”

She squirmed around so that was facing me, looking as if she were about to say something.  It seemed the words got stuck coming out and she took a sip of her beer.  “Carl and a few of his friends make some money on the side selling dope.  Just pot, is all.  They don’t keep it at the house, because Carl was busted for selling.  It’s one thing to be caught with a little for personal use.  You get a slap on the wrist.  But when you’re caught with a lot they say it’s intent to sell.  Anyway, all he got was probation that time, but next time he’ll go to jail.  So they have this old cabin in the mountains.”  She waved a hand toward the mountain behind us.  “They go up there to party sometimes.  I’ve been there once or twice.”

An image came to mind of Karen and Carl and his friends from The Student Onion, partying in a mountain cabin.  It was a stretch for me to think of Karen having group sex, and I tried pushing that image away.

“They keep their big stash up there,” she said.  “I know where it is.”

“I guess Carl must trust you?”

“I don’t know if he trusts me, but I know where he keeps it.  He doesn’t know I know.  Sometimes he gets wasted and then he gets careless.  I saw him going into the bedroom closet, into a hole in the floor, to get some from a metal box.”


“And nothing.  You and me go there, steal the stash and take off with it.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, but finally had to ask, “What do we do after?”

“Go to California.  We sell it out there.”

“And then what?”

“Forget about the then whats, and don’t worry about the future.  I never do.”

I could tell that much.  “So we get on a bus carrying bags of marijuana?”

“No, we take Carl’s car.”

“Oh, we steal the car too.”  I was remembering something Karen had said that first day in my hotel room on Oahu: I like taking chances.

An hour later we were driving along a winding road into the Manzano Mountains, southeast of Albuquerque.  By then I had finished my third beer and was into my fourth, but I no longer felt high.  There was a knot in my stomach that competed with a feeling of excitement.  Karen had far surpassed those high school girls with the too-short skirts, and she’d gone way beyond Nurse Johnson from Vietnam and the Karen I’d known on Oahu.  I asked for maybe the third time, “So you’re sure nobody will be there?”

“I told you, they all work at the G.E. plant, Carl and these other guys.  The cabin stays empty all week unless they have to come up to get some of the stash to sell.”

“Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.”

The cabin was at the end of a dirt road that ran east off the highway.  We went along the narrow track for about a quarter mile, passing a few other cabins, and stopped at the last one, isolated from the others by a cluster of juniper and pine trees.  There were no vehicles in sight.  We got out of the car and approached the cabin, which was more like a smaller, older and more rundown version of Carl’s stucco house in the city.  Sweating despite the coolness at that altitude, I kept listening for sounds of motorcycles coming up behind us.  Karen pulled off a loose piece of the stucco near the bottom next to the door and reached in and came out with a key.  The key opened the door, and then we were inside a musty, disheveled-looking front room.  There were two dilapidated couches facing each other, with a beat up wooden coffee table between them.  In my head I flashed on the image of before, of Karen and Carl and his friends partying here.

“The bedroom’s in here,” she said, and I got confused for a second, thinking she wanted to go lie down with me.  Then I remembered: the hole in the floor of the bedroom closet.  We went into the bedroom and she opened the closet door, and I saw on the floor some wooden boards nailed together to form a sort of hatch, almost the width of the closet.  Reaching down she tugged on the edge of it, lifting it part way, and I reached in and helped and we got the thing up, leaning it against the back wall of the closet.  Inside the hole it left was a large, rectangular metal box with a handle on the lid.  Karen undid two hasps securing the lid to the box and pulled the handle, hinging the lid back.  The box was packed with a number of large plastic bags, which, I could see through the clear plastic, contained marijuana.  There looked to be maybe twenty of these bags, each one about the size of a flattened loaf of bread.  “We can’t take all that with us,” I said, my voice shaking by now, either from excitement that I was really doing this or from the thought of Carl and his friends appearing out of nowhere and walking in on us.

“Why not?” she said.

“How much do you think it’s worth?”

“I have no idea.  What do you think I am, a pothead?”  She laughed.  “But maybe you’re right.”  She went into an adjoining room and I heard her rummaging around, while I stood staring down at all this marijuana.  When she returned she was holding a backpack in one hand.  We managed to cram ten of the bags into that before she said, “There’s something else in here.”  Reaching in she came out with a package wrapped in thick folds of opaque plastic.  It was shaped like a brick, only a little larger.  “If I’m not mistaken, this is Mexican brown.”  She looked at me as if I should understand that.  “You know, smack, heroin.  I didn’t know they were into selling this shit.  It‘ll be worth a lot.”  She held the brick out for me to see.

The stray thought came to mind that Carl was a welder by trade, and he did this other as a sideline.  That seemed funny, though I didn’t laugh.  “I don’t know, Karen.  Weed is one thing.  It’s pretty harmless.  But that stuff is bad news, if we were ever caught with it.”

“Yeah, well, let’s not get caught, then.”

“Okay, then.”

She managed to get the brick into the already bulging backpack, and we went outside and laid the backpack in the trunk of the car.  I could imagine the scene the next time Carl and his friends came up here to find half of their stash missing, along with the most valuable part, their Mexican brown dope.  Maybe I was still high from the beer, or maybe it was the excitement of the moment, but I did laugh this time, out loud.  Karen gave me a curious smile.  “You’re really getting into this,” she said.  We got into the car and Karen turned it around and headed it back the way we had come.

I was thinking that we would go to the city to get my stuff at the motel and some of her clothes, when she said, “Let’s not go back to town.  We’ll just keep going.  If we drive south we’ll hit Highway 60 that’ll take us west into Arizona.  From there we get the interstate to L.A.  What do you think?”  She looked over at me while steering the car back down the narrow track toward the highway.

“How much money do you have on you?”

“How about almost none,” she said.  “About ten dollars.  It wasn’t like I was planning this.”

“Well I have a few hundred.  I’ve been saving up, and I guess this is what I’ve been saving for.  It’ll be enough for a while, and then I have a credit card.  The hell with the rest of it.”  This was apparently the new me, a desperado, an escapee from the Army and then from the life that Susan Barton from Mount Holly, New Jersey had gotten me to sign up for and now from every other attachment of my former self.

The one scare we had during the two days of driving to L.A. was at an agricultural inspection station in California, outside of Needles.  Traffic on the interstate funneled into the inspection station, to a stop sign where an agent stood waiting.  By then I was driving the car and I rolled down the window, and the agent asked if we had any fruits or vegetables.  When I said no, he peered in through the windows at the back seat and then at Karen in the passenger seat, and he told me he wanted to check the trunk.  I got out, keys in hand, and walked with him to the rear of the car and opened the trunk.  When he saw the overstuffed backpack inside he said, “You don’t have any fruits or vegetables in there, do you?”

“Just clothes and stuff,” I said.

He nodded and walked off, saying, “Have a nice day.”

* * *

After driving around L.A. and liking what we saw of the beach communities, we settled on Redondo Beach and found a hotel there, not far from the Redondo Beach Pier.  Nearby there were businesses and markets, and the beach was a few minutes walk away, so we decided to get rid of Carl’s Chevy.  Driving around in a stolen car with out-of-state plates was too much of a risk, and we left it on a street a few blocks from the pier and walked away from it.  At the time I had the notion we were still thinking straight.

The Redondo Beach Pier turned out to be a bonanza.  A lot of young people, ranging in ages from about sixteen to early twenties, hung out there, and they became willing customers of our pot.  Karen was the one who established the connections; she seemed to have a nose for who was okay and who was not.  Before long we had enough money to rent an apartment facing The Esplanade, with a view of the beach and the blue ocean, and to buy a mid-sixties MG Midget sports car.

We had been there almost two months when, one day, driving by the spot where we had left Carl’s car, I saw that it was gone.  I was behind the wheel of the MG.  “Carl’s car isn’t there anymore,” I said and kept driving.

The top was down on the car and Karen turned to look back.  “It was towed, I guess.  They probably do that with cars left too long on the street.”

“Or it was reported stolen in New Mexico and was traced here.”

“An all states bulletin for a car stolen from New Mexico?” she said.  “I don’t think so.”

I put it out of mind.  The car probably had been reported stolen by Carl, and maybe stolen car reports did go to other states, and the car had been spotted based on that.  But even if it had, I doubted it would go any further.  Besides, I had other things on my mind.  In the two months we had been in L.A. Karen had become moody and sometimes distant, occasionally snapping at me, “Why don’t you go out somewhere?  You’re always underfoot.  I can’t breathe.”

I didn’t know what I was underfoot of.  It wasn’t as if I were in the way of her doing anything.  The place was usually a mess.  Anything she took from the refrigerator, to make a sandwich, say, was left out to spoil, if I didn’t put it away.  Dirty dishes piled up on the kitchen counters, and if she brought food to eat from the kitchen into the living room, the dishes were left behind on the coffee table.  Her clothes usually wound up on the bedroom floor or strewn across chairs.  Karen was a slob, I came to find out, though I didn’t mind that so much.  I would straighten up when it got too much for me and load the dishwasher and clean up the kitchen and hang up her clothes.  Then she would get affectionate toward me for a while.  She might come into the bedroom while I was doing my straightening and push me back onto the bed and pile on top of me with a big grin.  I liked that part.  But the affection didn’t last that long.

Another of her complaints was that I was smoking too much of our weed, which wasn’t true.  I did smoke some, but she was the one always lighting up a joint and zoning out.  We had to sell a lot of it to support our new lifestyle, and what had seemed like a hell of a lot starting out wasn’t as much as we’d thought.  As a consequence it was running low.  Maybe we had been like two little kids, believing it would last forever.  I began thinking of getting some kind of job.

We still had the brick of Mexican brown and had stored it for safe keeping in a safety deposit box at a nearby bank, with the thought in mind that it shouldn’t be around the house if we were ever busted.  But with the weed running low Karen wanted to start selling the heroin, to which I would say, “We don’t even know how to go about that.  Is it pure?  Would we have to mix it with something to cut it?  If so, with what and how much?”  Besides that, it scared me.  Her argument back to me was, “We can find out all that?”  “How?” I asked.  She stared at me as if she didn’t know me anymore.  “You know, you’re really a square John after all.”

Maybe I was.  I began to believe we might be coming to an end.  To take my mind off of that I would go for long rides on the Pacific Coast Highway, sometimes north, into the hills above Malibu, and sometimes south, as far as San Juan Capistrano.  On one of those days, returning in late afternoon, I parked the MG at the curb next to the apartment, got out and stopped in my tracks.  It could have been Carl’s green Chevy sitting there across the street, or it could have been just another car that looked like Carl’s.  When I walked over I saw the New Mexico plate on the back.  It made no sense for about two seconds, but then it did: Carl’s stolen car must have been reported to New Mexico police, who had reported it to Carl; he had come for it and for us, though I couldn’t figure how he’d found where we lived.  The car had been abandoned a mile from our apartment. 

I didn’t know what I would find upstairs in our apartment, but I couldn’t avoid going up there.  Thinking what Carl might be doing to Karen, I took the stairs two-at-a-time.

Opening the door I looked inside and saw Carl sitting on the sofa next to Karen.  I could smell the sweet odor of burning marijuana.  Carl said, “Were you brought up in a barn?  Come in and close the door.”  Like a dope I did and then stood there.  Karen didn’t appear to be too concerned, which meant she was probably high.  She said, “Look who’s here.”  I wasn’t sure whether she was referring to me or to Carl. 

Carl stood and stepped around the coffee table while Karen stayed put, her bare feet propped up on the table.  He was bigger and outweighed me by about thirty pounds, with the build of a former weight lifter turned to fat.  He was also older by ten or fifteen years, as much as forty years old to my twenty-five.  With a sense of unreality that any of this was happening, I watched him walk unsteadily toward me, shaking his head while wearing a disarming smile.  His unsteady walk told me he too was apparently high, and his smile made him seem like not much of a threat, until one final step brought him close enough for him to swing a haymaker that I saw coming and avoided by ducking.  His momentum carried him forward and he crashed into me, and we both went backwards and smashed into the door before landing on the floor, Carl on top of me.  The back of my head had bounced off the floor and I had the wind knocked out of me and was dazed, but a part of my mind was still able to observe Karen, now standing up on the couch and looking down at us like a spectator with a rooting interest.  I just couldn’t tell which of us she was rooting for.  Carl pushed himself up into a kneeling position, straddling my chest, and looked at me with an enraged expression.  In my stunned state I could only watch as he raised his fist and brought it down toward my face.

Later, when I woke, I couldn’t remember getting hit, but as my head cleared I became aware of an aching swollen feeling that ran from my eye down to my chin.  When I touched it with my fingertips the pain increased, and I could feel puffiness around my cheekbone and my mouth.  I was lying on my back on the floor, apparently in the same position as when Carl had delivered the blow that made my face feel like this.  My mind went fuzzy again, and I went in and out in stages.  I wasn’t sure how long I lay there, until I came around long enough to realize there was no one else in the apartment.  By then it had turned dark; no lights were on; and there were no sounds.  Finally I struggled to a sitting position and rolled over and stood up, which caused me to become dizzy.  Using my hand against the wall for support, I went over to the couch, visible from the light of a streetlamp shining through a window.  I sat where Karen had been sitting the last time I’d seen her and turned on the lamp on the table next to me.  Then I continued sitting there for a long time, still trying to clear my head and wondering what had happened.  Carl could have killed me, but why hadn’t he?  Maybe Karen had talked him out of it; she could talk anybody into anything, I had come to believe.  One fact was clear: she was gone, taken away by Carl, probably after he’d retrieved his brick of Mexican brown from the safety deposit box.  Maybe he would come back for me, but why would he?  That didn’t make sense.  The fact that it was dark outside made me realize that it had been a few hours since I had been knocked out.  Had he simply taken off with her?  That seemed more likely.  I finally got up from the couch to look around, still feeling shaky.

First I checked myself in the bathroom mirror.  Under the harsh vanity lights over the mirror, the sight of my swollen face made me cringe.  A dark purple bruise extended from just above one eye to below it, covering my cheekbone.  The eye was closed so that I could only see from the other eye, but I could move my jaw around a little, so I didn’t think anything was broken.  Blood had already coagulated around my mouth, and several of my teeth felt loose.  When I had enough of looking at myself in the mirror I went into the bedroom, to the closet where we had kept the stash of weed in a hamper, covered with some old clothes.  The clothes were in a pile on the floor and the hamper was empty.  What had been left of the stash was gone, one full bag and another almost empty one.  Then I checked in a drawer of the nightstand next to the bed.  The bank had given us two keys to the safety deposit box, and the two keys were still there.

I waited in the apartment for three days, for the swelling in my face to go down, so I could see straight, and for Karen to return.  That last was a pipedream, but still it was in my head.  After the three days I went out for the first time, wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap pulled down low on my forehead to hide my still somewhat swollen eye.  The MG was parked where I had left it, and I got in and drove to the bank.  Inside I showed my ID to the teller, signed the signature card for the box and handed my key over to her.  While I followed, she retrieved the box and carried it to a privacy booth and left me alone with it.  I opened it, believing against all evidence that it would be empty, and saw the brick of Mexican brown in its opaque plastic wrapping lying there, looking exactly the same as when we’d found it in the bedroom closet of Carl’s mountain cabin.  I placed it into a small shoulder bag that I had brought along, and I left.  After that I hesitated for a few days, and then, with the brick in the trunk of the MG packed in among some clothes, I took off for New Mexico.

* * *

On my first drive-by of Carl’s little stucco house near the University of New Mexico I saw his green Chevy parked in the dirt driveway, with his Harley Davidson motorcycle behind it.  I kept going.  My plan had been to stalk Carl’s house, driving by from time to time; I didn’t want to risk parking the MG nearby on the chance that it might be spotted.  I had also planned to occasionally drive by The Student Onion to see if his Harley might be parked there.  If it were, I would return to the house and hopefully find Karen.  It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was what I had come up with.  By the time of my third drive-by of the house, my hands were shaking and I had a knot in my stomach.  I needed to cool off and drove downtown to The Nite Owl Motel and got a room.

It went like that for a few days, me driving around, occasionally driving past Carl’s house and then The Student Onion.  Realizing my hit-and-miss plan hadn’t been very well thought out, I decided to chance parking the car on a side street, where I hoped it wouldn’t be too noticeable but would still give me a glimpse of the house.  I did that for two days, and on the second day I saw the front door open and both of them emerge from inside.  I didn’t know how to feel: relief that Karen was alive and apparently well; or sadness that she was with him.  They got on his motorcycle, Karen squeezing in between Carl and the chrome sissy bar, and roared off.

The next day I parked in the same spot.  Carl’s motorcycle was gone and I had almost talked myself into going to the house and knocking on the door, when I saw it come open.  Karen came out and walked off down the sidewalk, in a direction away from my parked car.  When she reached the corner she turned right toward Central Avenue.  I drove after her and caught up to her in the middle of the block and pulled over next to the curb.  The top of the car was up and I leaned over to roll down the passenger-side window and she bent over and peered in at me, her expression turning from surprise to a pained smile.  She asked, “What are you doing here?” 

I said the first thing that came to mind, “You told me to look you up if I ever got to Albuquerque.”  She stared in at me and I said, “I came here for you.”

She opened the car door and got in.  “What for?”

 “I brought Carl’s Mexican brown with me.  We give it to him and you can come home with me.”

“I left that for you.  Why did you bring it back?”

That stopped me for a few seconds.  “Okay, then how about we just take it with us and leave?”

She shook her head, not in a way that said no but in a way that said she didn’t know what to say.

I said, “Or we can just get rid of it somewhere and go to California.”

“California really didn’t work out the first time.”

“We can go someplace else then.  It doesn’t matter where.”  I realized I was repeating variations of the same theme.  “Why didn’t California work out?”

“I don’t know why.  It just didn’t.”

I couldn’t let go of it.  “If Carl brought you here forcibly, that’s kidnapping.  He’ll go to jail for that.”

“He didn’t kidnap me.  I went with him.
We sat there for a few minutes without talking.  I asked, “How did Carl find us?”

She shrugged, looking like a little girl who didn’t want to answer the question.  I waited and then said, “He didn’t just happen to show up, did he?”

She shook her head, with the same little-girl look on her face.  “I had to get out of there and I knew he’d take me back.”

“You called him after we saw his car had been towed away,” I said.  She said nothing to that and I asked, “How did you know he wouldn’t kill you?”

“I didn’t think he would.  He loves me, in his own way.” 

“And I don’t?”

“You might think you do, but you don’t.  Look, Carl’s a player.  I must have been wired at birth for people like him.  It’s the way I am.”

We were silent for another minute.

“Why don’t you just leave?” she said.  “Take the stuff with you and sell it.”

“And what will you do?”

“Stay here.  I’ll figure something out, after I work off what I owe Carl.”

“Like what?  What would you do?  Be a nurse again?”  By now I was being sarcastic.  I couldn’t tell if it registered with her.

“That never worked for me.  I thought it could.  I thought the Army might be the thing—you know, travel and see the world on their dime.  But it was like everything else.  Nothing ever seems to work, except I know I can’t be with somebody like you.”

I had no answer for that.

 “I told Carl I’d make things right,” she said.  “After that, who knows?”

“Make things right how?”

“This and that.”

I didn’t want to know what this and that meant.  “Why was he waiting for me at the apartment that day?”

She stared off out the window.  “You were off on one of your drives somewhere, and I thought we’d be gone by the time you came back.  But he wanted to smoke a joint first.  I think he was stalling until you came home.  Anyway, you came home.  I should have known to get him out of there as soon as he showed up.  Then he hit you a couple of times and I had to stop him.  I thought he might kill you.”

I was wearing my sunglasses, but the edge of the bruise on my face, which had faded to a yellowish color, was still visible.  She put a hand out and gently touched it with her fingertips.

“It was all my fault.  I told him we should leave right away and I would make everything right.” 

“What about his heroin?” I asked.  “How did you make that right?”

“I told him it was gone.  He’ll believe anything I tell him.”

There was nothing left to say, but I couldn’t leave it alone.  “I have it back at the motel.  The Nite Owl, remember.  I can give it to you and you can give it back to Carl.  Maybe it’ll help.”

“It would only complicate things,” she said.  She placed her hand on my cheek, and I felt the warmth of it, just like that first time, after Carl had brought me to his house on his Harley and I had seen her sitting there barelegged and barefoot and we had talked about Oahu.  Like that time, I regretted it when she took her hand away.

* * *

On my return trip to California I thought about the brick a lot, at the bottom of the same backpack that had held all that weed on that first trip to California, only this time the brick was covered with clothes.  At the agricultural inspection near Needles I went through the same procedure as before.  I even thought it was the same agent as before.  After the standard, “Any fruits or vegetables” question, he just waved me through.  He never asked to look in the trunk.

When I reached Redondo Beach, before returning to the apartment, I parked the car, walked over to the Redondo Beach Pier and went out to the end carrying the brick in my shoulder bag.  It was late night by then and the shops and most of the restaurants were closed.  In the dim light from some overhead lamps, I could make out the dark water and the white foam of the waves washing in about twenty feet below.  There was only one old guy fishing about fifty feet away and he never looked my way.  The bag containing the brick was heavy on my shoulder—I had weighted it down with some rocks I had picked up along the way, on my drive through the Mojave Desert.  I slipped it off my shoulder and made sure the straps were tightly secured so nothing could get loose.  Then I tossed the whole thing into the ocean and watched it immediately disappear below the surface.  After that I went back to the apartment and thought about the job I would have to get, whatever that might be.  Maybe school and a career in computers might be the thing for me after all.  It turned out I hadn’t made a very good desperado.


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