Because of the heat, Bernard Funk waited until after supper to hill the melons. Even now, in the comparative cool of the late afternoon, Bernie forced himself to pace the work so not to fritter away his strength or bring on a heatstroke or a heart attack. The absurdity of the image rising up—Bernie pictured himself dramatically clutching his chest, swooning bonelessly into the freshly dug asparagus bed—struck him funny and made him laugh out loud. We all die, Lord, he thought, sobering. Just don’t let me die stupid.
Bernie planned the garden smaller this year: 600 square feet now opposed to the 750 square feet it had been the year before. Next year, it would be smaller still, he supposed. His knees had been giving him more trouble than usual, and two back-to-back bouts with the flu over the winter had left him weaker than he cared to admit. It occurred to Bernie that the size of the garden had become a gauge, of sorts, measuring out the remaining years of his life in green, leafy increments. It would be time to go, he thought, when the garden had been reduced to a weedy six by ten tomato patch.
He was finishing the next-to-last of the seed mounds, tamping the topsoil in place with his hands, when he heard the squeak and bang of the screen door closing. Standing up, mopping the sweat and dust from his seamed forehead and face, Bernie realized he was thirsty and found himself hoping Clara had brought along a glass of lemonade or ice water or tea, as she sometimes did. Clara stepped artfully between the rows, remarkably agile for a woman her age and size. Her white, thinning hair awry, her arms held stiffly at her sides, Clara looked harried, put upon, and Bernie felt a twinge of alarm.
“You’ve been crying, Clara,” Bernie said. “What’s wrong? Is it Larry?” Larry was Larry Fowles, one of Bernie’s former business partners. Larry was dying of stomach cancer, slowly, with great pain. Clara had always been fond of Larry.
Clara shook her head. “No, it isn’t Larry. I wanted you to catch the news on TV, but by the time I got out here I figured it’d be over before I could get you inside. So I’ll just tell you.”
“Tell me what, Honey?”
Clara absentmindedly wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “Your old friend Bob is on McNeil-Lehrer News Hour,” she said. “He was saying he was wrong, ‘terribly, terribly wrong.’ I thought you might want to hear it.”
Bernie took Clara by the shoulders, craned his neck down so their eyes would meet. “You’re upset, Sweetheart. You’re not yourself. Who’s Bob? What was he wrong about?”
“Bob McNamara,” she said. “Vietnam. And not just wrong, Bernie. Terribly, terribly wrong, he said, the bastard.”
“I don’t understand,” Bernie said. Looking down, he saw that his wife was standing on the eggplant seedlings, trampling them underfoot. He found he didn’t care.
“You know what else McNamara said, Bernie? He said he had his doubts from the beginning. He said they didn’t have any notion of the, how did he put it? The cultural complexities involved in the situation.”
“You made him go, Bernie. You knew how I felt, but you made him go anyway.”
Bernie shook his head. “Travis was twenty years old. I couldn’t make him do anything. You know that.”
“It’s your fault, Bernie. They told you what to believe and you believed it, and then you made my son believe it, too.”
“I never said a word, Clara.”
“You didn’t need to. All those years, showing off your medals, filling his head with those stories. He knew how you felt, he knew what you wanted.”
Bernie took his eyes from his feet. “I wanted Travis to do what he thought was right. If he’d been against the war, one of those conscientious objectors or what have you, I would’ve been behind him in that, too.”
Clara gave a dismissive wave of her hand and turned to go.
“I’m going inside,” she said. “Stay clear of me for a while, Bernie. Please.”
After she had gone, Bernie shook his head and wiped the sweat from his eyes and walked from the garden to the water spigot by the shed. He ran the water and splashed his face and forehead, drank from the cup of his palm. The water tasted sweet and good, and he realized he must have been thirstier than he had guessed, since water from the Tecumseh city well was notorious for its high sulfur content, its bad taste, the faint rotten egg smell it gave off.
“Dak To,” Bernie said aloud. The place where Travis died, somewhere near the Laotian and Cambodian borders. There had been no body. The Air Force had saturated Travis’ position with 750 lb. bombs after it had been overrun, and it had been difficult, Bernie gathered, to separate the pieces after the battle. It would have been better, Bernie thought, if there had been a body to mourn over. The empty, flag-draped casket made Travis’ funeral feel like a dress rehearsal, not like the real thing at all, as if any moment Travis would step forward, Tom Sawyer-like, and say it had all been a terrible mistake. But there had been no mistake. Six men from Travis’ platoon had survived, and three of those had seen his son die, killed outright by an enemy rocket-propelled grenade. Travis’ death, according to the NCO who had come to their door to bring the news, had been quick and painless. Bernie, who had seen action on Saipan and Kwajelein during World War II, had very much doubted the painless part, but had kept quiet for Clara’s sake.
The sun was below the trees, but Bernie decided to stay in the garden—until after dark, if necessary—and lay the black plastic mulch over the onion rows. He was intent on his work, trying hard not to think about anything but the job at hand, cutting the strips, punching the holes, when he heard the door again. He turned, hoping it was Clara, and saw it was his daughter, Peggy, whose visits always managed to surprise him somehow, even though she came by nearly every weekend. Peggy had been three or four when Travis went to Vietnam, and so barely remembered him. Or maybe, Bernie thought, she just imagines she remembers him. No matter. Peggy took after Clara in looks and personality, much as Travis had taken after Bernie. She was big boned and tall, like her mother, with the same rounded features and wide blue eyes. The same shade of auburn hair.
“What’s going on with Mom?”
“What do you mean? What’s she doing?”
“When I came in, she was tearing around in the kitchen, slamming cupboards and dishes—you know how she is when she gets this way. She’s really pissed—“ Peggy caught her father’s expression—“Sorry, Dad. I mean, she’s really angry about something.”
“She’s mad at me, mainly. Me and Robert S. McNamara.”
Peggy sounded the name silently and shook her head. “Who?”
“Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense during most of Vietnam.” Bernie shrugged. “Before your time,” he said.
Bernie nodded. “She holds me—and him, McNamara—responsible for what happened to your brother.”
“Why you, Dad? You were never with the government. And for that matter, why today? It’s been—what? Thirty years?”
“Twenty-seven years in June.” Bernie put down the strip of black plastic he was still holding, draping it over the sawhorse. No breeze was blowing, so he didn’t bother to weigh it down. “She saw McNamara interviewed on one of the news shows this afternoon and heard him say he was wrong about the war, sorry he helped get us into it.”
He pocketed his utility knife and leaned the roll of plastic against the sawhorse. The mulch, he thought, can wait. Bernie motioned Peggy to the lawn chairs situated under the maple tree at the head of the garden. His left knee ached terribly on the walk over, but he resisted the urge to favor it, not wanting Peggy to see him limp and think him somehow pathetic. He settled heavily into the chair and waited for the pain to subside. Wished for a cigarette, although he had given them up years ago.
“So Mom was against the war and you were for it?”
Bernie shook his head. “Your mother and I have never been very political. We’d talk about things, sure, but we never had what you’d call heated debates on the subject. I guess the McNamara thing on TV more or less set her off. Your mother always felt this way, I guess, but she held it in, let it simmer just under the surface. Today, it was like she was finally . . .” Bernie paused, searching for the right word.
“Justified? Validated? Vindicated?”
“Yes. One of those.” A picture of Travis rose up behind Bernie’s eyes, of Travis as he might have been, had he lived. Bernie imagined a lanky, easygoing man in his late forties, very much like Bernie himself at that age, only better—more successful, more confident, more good-natured and wise. His head had started hurting in earnest, and the air was heavy and hard to breathe. More to himself than to his daughter, Bernie said,“‘Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, and thou no breath at all?’”
“Shakespeare,” Peggy said. “King Lear.”
Bernie nodded absentmindedly. He shrugged. “You know, after Tarawa every day seemed like an extension on the rent. I never thought I’d make it through back then, and I certainly never thought I’d outlive my son. It isn’t right. It isn’t natural.” He caught the look of alarm Peggy was giving him and resisted the urge to bury his face in his hands. Peggy, he recalled, had never heard her father go on this way, or seen him weep. Bernie Funk leaned forward deeply from the waist and put his head down, not between his knees, though, because he couldn’t make it that far. It was an old trick, and he hoped it would wake him up. He felt lightheaded and nauseous; things had a strange, third person, spectator quality.
“You know how we keep it going?” he said.
“Keep what going, Dad?”
Bernie went on as if he hadn’t heard, “It isn’t money, it isn’t politics, it isn’t even men like McNamara or Johnson. Or me.”
“Dad, are you okay?”
“The way we see the world, it’s like a dream we all agree to. The dream lasts only so long as we offer up our sons and daughters. Like sacrifices, those ancient pagan sacrifices.” Bernie gave Peggy a ghastly, bright white, dentured smile. “Those pagans were none too far off.”
“Let’s go inside, Dad. I’ll have Mom fix us some iced tea.”
“The blood of our children,” Bernie said. “We keep it going with the blood of our children. Vietnam was an altar, just like Japan was an altar. Or Germany. Or even Korea. Only with Vietnam, we completely misread the signs. That was no place for a sacrifice. Our blood was wasted on that soil.”
Peggy put the back of her hand against her father’s forehead, feeling for a fever. “I’m taking you inside right now, Dad, whether you want to or not.”
“McNamara and me and the rest, we weren’t bad men,” Bernie said. “But we were bad magicians . . .” Bernie Funk didn’t resist when Peggy took him by the crook of the elbow and led him to the house. “Druids . . .” Bernie said.
“Almost there, Dad,” Peggy said.
“ . . . Nearsighted druids,” Bernie went on. “Nearsighted druids with dull knives who kept missing the heart.”