Viet Nam vets are now old and gnarly. They are a sort of passé cliché. But back then they were young. They were my age and coming back from the war. I was working at a Broadway Department Store unloading the trucks and doing other odds and ends. We got there early and all the guys on the dock as well as other people who worked there would gather by this one door and wait to be let in.
We would knock on the door, or bang on it, or kick it, and start hollering and eventually this really old guy, with a belt of keys, would come down the aisle, about as slow as he could go and let us in. Joe waited there with us. He had been in Viet Nam, had long dirty looking dark hair, and looked like he was wasted a lot; he worked somewhere in the store, but not on the docks. For some reason, that old man just got on Joe’s nerves and he would start to cussing the old man when he took his time getting to the door; Joe would cuss him every step the old man took down that long aisle.
One day, out of nowhere, Joe didn’t cuss the guy but reared back and before anybody could do a thing kicked the fucking door with his steel tip work boot and broke it to pieces. I didn’t know you could break a door like that, but Joe did. He had strung telephone wires through the bush in Viet Nam. He would creep along in the bushes with the wire so that people up at the front fighting could phone back. One day he got shot and his left forearm was shattered. Somebody said he was shot in two places, but I never saw the other place.
I was a dishwasher at restaurant in a shopping center. We had three cooks. One big fat guy, an old lady who passed out from the heat a couple of times, and a young guy, who was mostly American Indian, who had a fine sharp featured face and thick black hair brushed back in an Elvis pompadour. He had been back from Viet Nam for almost a year, and sometimes when I was washkng dishes, I turned around and he would be going like ack, ack, ack with a broom like it was a machine gun at me. And once he stuck it right up to my asshole and did that and I almost jumped out of my skin.
He had been on one of those boats that go up rivers like in the movie, Apocalypse Now, and one day they got off the boat and were checking things out, and he said he saw the guy who shot him up in a tree, and he was hit in the stomach. But, he said, somebody on his boat had got the fucker.
He had married this white woman who, from the picture he showed me, looked like she was maybe 300 pounds. He had a child by her, and then they had split up. She said he had emotional problems; he said she had cheated on him and he had emotional problems. He wouldn’t pay child support, so most weekends he would check into the county jail and put in time for failure to provide child support.
He asked me to go out drinking with him a few times, and in a way I sort of liked the guy. But I am not a drinker. And he told me that he had been in jail because he had been in a bar room fight and poked out a guy’s eye with a bottle, but they had put it back in. So he really couldn’t understand all the fuss. Really the guy scared me.