Get real,” Cora says when I ask her how long she thinks Dad will stay in the BOQ. “Just lighten up, will you?” and she smacks the page down on her movie magazine.
One of my father’s black M. P.’s is substitute bus driver this morning. You can already see waves over the macadam so he keeps the door open, which my sister says is against military regulations. As soon as we’re past the guard hut, he switches on his portable radio, which Cora whispers “qualifies for an Article 15.”
It’s a half hour from the proving ground to Yuma Grammar and mostly the enlisted kids do their homework. Except Jeffrey Orr, who Cora claims is “narcoleptic.” Last month when he fell into the aisle and knocked himself unconscious, our regular driver, Corporal Greenspun, had to race back to the dispensary, and we were an hour late for school. Now everyone tries to get Jeffrey to take an aisle seat.
The only other officer’s kid is Evelyn Pallas who no one sits next to. Cora says it’s because she “wears the old man’s rank on her sleeve.” Colonel Pallas is C.O. Still, I believe Evelyn is in love with me even though we’ve never sat next to each other on the bus.
When we pass the giant saguaro with all the bullet holes in it, I ask Cora what a “philander” is.
“Philanderer, knucklehead. Give me a break, for chrissake.”
Cora will be salutatorian of her eighth grade class (“Only because Sheila Haggar gets credit for crap like “Home Ec”“). She is an expert on all crossword puzzles. “Your sister is precocious,” my mother will say to me. “She is also given to moods. Nota beta.” When I tell this to Cora, she makes her favorite snorting sound through her nose. “What mother meant was nota bene.”
But right now my sister is more interested in movie stars than crossword puzzles. Last year, she tied for runner-up in our newspaper’s Oscar Awards Night Contest (“Big deal, a crummy Yuma Gazette T-shirt”). This year she will win (“Because I’m “sick” of finishing second”). The grand prize is again a week for two at the luxurious Riviera Hotel, air fare included, only one entry per family permitted. Cora jots notes to herself in the margins of her magazines. Whenever an Oscar nominee gets mentioned, she underlines it in red felt tip. “It’s all political,” she says, uncapping her pen. “You have to know who’s in and who’s out. Or whether the vote’s going to get split. Or whether they want to give it to a musical two years in a row. In other words, too complicated to explain to you.”
Cora’s too busy to play “ridiculous children’s games.” So when I see my first road runner of the morning, I don’t bother to shout “Beep Beep” before anyone else on the bus. Even though Beth Sibula and I are tied in points this week.
My mother says “things will work out” and that I’m not to “take the cares of the world” on my “young shoulders.” Cora says I should “hang loose” or I’m going to have an ulcer before I can shave. “Besides,” she says, “it’s not the first time Daddy’s been in the doghouse.” But this time is different, I think. This time my father is a philanderer.
The public school where I am in the sixth grade is not, according to my sister, “academically sound.” The best teachers come from the proving ground and leave when their husbands are transferred. Many of my classmates are mestizos who live in adobes and go to school barefoot even in the winter. They have black, shiny hair and brown teeth, and always smile when they try to speak English. They are friendly and seem happy but will never, Cora says, graduate.
When I get to home room today, Miss Clark is wearing her red Chinese dress. The one with the slit up the side and the same one my father saw her in at PTA. Afterward he joked with my mother that he regretted more than ever having gone to parochial school. My mother nodded at me and said that I could “relax.” My father wouldn’t be missing any more parent-teacher meetings.
Cora says that Miss Clark is a “tease” and that she’s been “egging on some hick rancher for months.” But whenever I see her in the cafeteria, she is always eating alone. My home room teacher thinks I will make “an excellent college student someday.” In the meantime, she wants me to try to “interact” a little more. To get outside and “mix” with the other boys and girls. But during recess I prefer to sit on the swings and talk to Miss Clark who, like me, chooses to keep to herself.
This afternoon, when I point this out to her, she tilts the swing back and smiles crookedly. Her hands are raised overhead to grip the chains, and her bare knees locked to brace her feet in the sand. Under her arms, a thin crescent darkens her oriental dress. In class, while we write our composition papers, Miss Clark manicures her nails. She studies them with eyes slightly crossed, flicking the file as if salting her food. Outside, in the bright sunlight, she squints, making it seem when she talks to me to be concentrating fiercely. And I can pretend to be her rancher. Cora, who misses nothing, is the first to suspect this (“Just watch she doesn’t string you along like her lonesome cowboy”).
“Well, young man,” Miss Clark says finally, bending her knees to allow the swing to carry her forward, “then we must both come out of our shells.”
When she says “young man,” my chest prickles the same way it does whenever the bus hits a road runner.
Saturday my father arrives to pick up my mother. Somebody big is coming through, and there’s to be a color guard reception at the officer’s club. As provost marshal, my father is required to wear his dress uniform even when the guest is a civilian.
“Must be hot stuff,” Cora says, tapping the ribbons over his pocket. “Pop’s all dolled up.”
There are six oak leaf clusters, two of the Purple Heart. But the Silver Star with its tiny metal “v” is my personal favorite. And the most important because it is first on the top row. I no longer ask my father how he earned it. He would only tell me once again how an Italian peddler had charged him a thousand lira. And that had he not run out of them five minutes before, it could have been the Medal of Honor. When I was a boy, my mother frowned upon his “filling the child’s head with nonsense.” I would repeat the tales at school and they would come back to her through the parents of my classmates. That my father’s master parachute wings were won at a carnival in Chicopee, Massachusetts. That the scars on his knees only looked like shrapnel wounds. He had, in fact, accidentally knelt on a red ant hill while on a picnic with “your mother.”
My father has not been by in three days, and the hothouse tomatoes he set out on the window sill are now ripe.
“Look at that baby,” he says, palming the biggest one admiringly. “Cora, le sel.”
My sister hands him the shaker, wagging her head. “You get that on you, mister, your ass is grass.”
But my father slices the large tomato in half and jabs the salt shaker at it repeatedly. “I get one seed on me,” he says, thrusting his square chin forward, “I take it out on your hide.”
But the juice only dribbles a little down his chin and he slurps it up with his tongue.
“Our role model,” Cora says to me.
Although my sister tries not to show it, she is excited to have my father back. She has spent the morning straightening her room and tells him now that it is “ready for inspection.” But before he can get up from the table, my mother is standing in the kitchen door.
At first, I hadn’t recognized her voice. It seemed deeper, almost hoarse. And it’s the first time I’ve ever heard her call my father by his rank.
“Come for your tomato?”
Even Cora laughs at this.
My father scrapes his chair back. “I guess we’d better march,” he says, clearing his throat. He seems as startled by my mother’s presence as I am. Something more than her voice has changed.
“You can check out the room when you come back,” my sister says and hands him his braided service cap. “Assuming you do come back.”
When my father glances sheepishly at my mother, she rolls her eyes to the ceiling. “Your daughter, Provost.”
As soon as the Fairlane backs out onto Truscott Circle, Cora is pounding me on the shoulder.
“Could you believe that getup? Un-be-liev-able.” My sister smacks her forehead with her palm. “Where did I see it? Give me a second.” She closes her eyes dramatically. “It’s coming. Uno momento. I see it. I got it.” She grabs my wrist and drags me into the living room. “Sit.” And she pushes me back onto the couch. “Remain seated.”
I watch her race back down the hall.
“Mom looks as good as a spit shine,” Cora calls out to me from her room. “That Kraut won’t know what hit her.”
My sister claims “the other woman” is “some German war bride,” the wife of one of my father’s young lieutenants. “Dad’s partial to the Dietrich type. What can you do?”
My sister wanders back down the hall, flipping through an old issue of Modern Screen. “If it’s not in here,” she says without looking up. “Then it’s . . . .” But she’s found it. “There,” and she smacks the page triumphantly, thrusting it before me. “Who’s that remind you of?”
I study the black and white picture of a woman standing beside a large canopied bed. She’s wearing only a slip and has one arm over her head, gripping the wooden post.
“Jesus,” Cora says, snapping the magazine out of my hands. “It’s Liz Taylor. Butterfield Eight? Best actress nomination?”
But all we get at the post theatre are Westerns and James Bond.
“Mom’s vamping him,” Cora says, more to herself than to me. “Obvious to everyone, of course, except a certain airhead sibling.”
But the contest entry form has to be postmarked by midnight tonight, and she retreats to her room with her felt tip pen.
In the carport, I unzip Dad’s golf bag and scoop out a half dozen balls. He keeps two sand wedges, and I take the older, scratched one.
The parade field is just up the block, and I wear my nylon parachute cap. It’s probably close to a hundred out. This is supposed to be a big proving ground, but I’ve never seen a rocket fired yet. Mostly they test out experimental equipment. Like this cap my Dad brought home. Somebody from Quartermaster claims it’s the original “prototype.” That it cost a couple million dollars to develop. When I told my father that my little league cap was more comfortable, he said I was what made “America strong” and that I didn’t have to worry about ever getting drafted.
Even on the parade field you have to keep your eyes open. Last month, my father’s first sergeant killed a sidewinder in his daughter’s sandbox. Every other dog you see around here has a limp. “They want to test something useful,” Cora likes to say. “Why don’t they test one of those neutron bombs on all the snakes. They’re not supposed to hurt buildings. We could all go to Vegas for a few weeks, government expense.”
I try to remember to keep my elbow stiff on the backswing. There’s enough room to hit a driver, but it’s too hot to do much walking. Every other week my father lets me tag along with his foursome. I’ll hold the flag or replace divots. He didn’t mention anything about tomorrow though. So I guess it’s off. Lots of times when he goes fishing or hunting, he’ll bring me, and I’ll be the only kid. Even though some of his buddies have sons my own age. But I didn’t ask him about Sunday. He doesn’t have to think about me all the time.
The ball makes a little puff of dust where it lands and you can’t take your eye off the spot or you’ll lose it. But when I see Evelyn Pallas crossing the parade field toward me, I forget about the ball. She’s a year ahead of me and runs the relay on the girl’s track team. I’ve seen her in her gym shorts and spike, shoes out practicing on the cinder track.
Her younger brother trails behind her, tossing a play parachute into the air. She suddenly stops and points at the ground.
“Got it,” she calls out to me.
I wave the club and pick up the other ball. I don’t want to risk sculling it. While they wait for me, her little brother wraps the handkerchief tightly about the rock and hurls it toward the road. But it doesn’t open.
Evelyn stands with her hands on her hips like a runner. She’s slightly taller than me but still has a flat chest. We both watch her brother stretch his arm out behind him like a javelin thrower. He makes a grunting sound, heaving the rock with all his might. But the handkerchief comes down again without opening.
“What’s that—a nine iron?” Evelyn asks me.
I raise the club for her to see. “A sand wedge.”
“Then that was a pretty good hit.”
Evelyn’s mother, Cora says, is an alcoholic, “par excellence.” According to my sister, Mrs. Pallas “tools around half the time drunk as a skunk.” Last month, for instance, one of the MP’s had to tow the colonel’s staff car over to the motor pool. “She hopped a curb and took out a fire hydrant.” Cora said. “But get this. She told Dad she was only trying to get a pizza home before it cooled off.”
“I guess everybody’s over at the reception,” Evelyn says, taking the club from me.
She nods at the ground and I drop one of the balls at her feet. In the distance, her brother stops to watch her take several practice swings. She bends both elbows the way girls do but I don’t say anything.
“Your mom and dad go together?” she asks finally.
Cora says that it’s always going to be news when “the goddamn provost marshal’s living in the BOQ.”
She swats at the ball but it only skitters off to the right.
“You probably think track’s pretty stupid for a girl, don’t you?” I watch her squat down to scoop some sand into a small mound. “Well, it doesn’t matter. I’m good at it.”
Looking up at me, she snaps her fingers, and I hand her the second ball. “I should tell you what my mother said about your father.” She balances the ball on top of the mound. “It’s rich.”
Her brother yells something to her, but Evelyn ignores him.
“She said your father knows how to wear a pith helmet.”
This time she hits the ball more solidly, and it sails high over her brother’s head.
“I hate this place,” Evelyn says, shading her eyes. “I’d like to know what they think they’re proving. I’ve never even seen a stupid rocket go off.”
Later Cora and I talk my mother into letting us see Dirty Harry at the post theatre. Even though the proving ground is several hundred miles square, you can walk to everything on the base in ten minutes.
“Mom’s a wreck,” my sister says as soon as we’re out of the house. “That stupid kraut was at the reception.”
It’s already dark enough out to see a few stars. And in another hour or so you’ll be able to hear the coyotes. They like to wander down for any scraps they can dig out of the mess hall cans.
“Dad introduced them,” Cora is saying. “So now they’re supposed to go over for drinks. That lieutenant must be a total idiot. Mom’s ready to shoot him.”
I find the Dipper and then the North Star. “The lieutenant?”
My sister glances past me at the canal across the road. It’s stagnant and thick with algae, and her lip appears to curl up at its smell. “Daddy, moron.”
There’s a long line at the theatre, and Cora spots one of her friends farther up near the ticket window.
“Every man for himself,” she says and is gone.
But ten minutes later, Sergeant Shuman sticks his head out of the double glass doors to the theatre.
“Sorry, folks. All sold out.”
They’ll have a second “special showing” at ten if we want to buy our tickets now. “Make my day,” someone shouts from the back of the line, but only a few people give up their places.
I don’t much feel like a movie anyway so I’m not real disappointed. There’s a National Geographic Special on at eight about the Arctic. Or I could just read.
All the street lights flicker on ahead of me like new, bright stars. And it’s dark enough now to see satellites. I take the long way home, past Evelyn Pallas’ street. She said as “Dependents” we could use the driving range at night. For 50 cents split a large bucket of practice balls. Because she’s athletic, she’d probably learn to keep her elbow stiff.
But then suddenly I’m sitting in the road, a metal pole only inches from my bloodied nose. The pavement is still warm from the heat of the day, and I want only to stay seated. To stand I must grip the stop sign before me. And then I understand that it’s what I had walked into.
At home, my mother puts me to bed. She’s wrapped several crushed ice cubes in a facecloth.
“Miss Clark says you’re preoccupied,” she says, pressing the facecloth to my burning forehead. “That you daydream in class.”
We both listen to the coyotes howling outside.
Usually, for something like this, she will say, “Like father like son.” But tonight she doesn’t.
Some time later, I’m awakened briefly by the voices of my sister and mother in the kitchen. The hushed, adult tone seems intended to exclude me. And then it’s Cora, I think, who is crying. Or perhaps my mother. In the dark, it becomes impossible to distinguish between them.
I had been dreaming of the Arctic and of playing golf with Evelyn Pallas in the snow. There it’s as flat and bare as the proving ground, and each ball we hit hangs in the air like a miniature moon. “Don’t even bother to look,” Evelyn remarks, dressed in her track suit and spiked running shoes. “You’re not going to find anything.”
I slide up against the headboard, shielding my eyes from the overhead light.
“Honey, you want to get up?”
It’s my mother. And then Cora is standing in the doorway. Both of them still dressed.
“Too bad you’re not on the ballot,” my sister is saying. “This is Oscar-winning stuff.”
My mother angrily whips the blanket from my legs, leaving only the sheet to cover me. “Watch the mouth, young lady.” But then just as abruptly her voice is gentle and coaxing. “Put your clothes on, sweetheart. I need you for something.”
As soon as she leaves the room, Cora crosses her arms as if to mimic my mother’s stance.
“Don’t let them give her a breathalizer,” she whispers.
My mother waits for me in the car, the engine already idling.
“You feel all right?” she asks, reaching over to touch the bandaid on my forehead. But before I can answer, she shoves the gearshift forcefully into reverse.
Cora comes out to the carport to shout, “Headlights,” but my mother purposely ignores her. With the abrupt dip at the end of the driveway, the tail pipe scrapes the gutter.
I know where we are going. My father has taken the staff car. Now my mother will retrieve him from the duplex over on Still well Avenue. Cora has pointed out the flat-roofed house to me from the school bus. “Mata Hari’s place,” she said and then fogged the window to trace a skull and bones. Even though Cora is older, my mother brings me instead because I am the male.
“You don’t want the wrong impression here,” she begins, gazing straight ahead. It’s the same blank look she has after an hour of ironing my father’s khaki uniforms. “Your sister can get a little carried away. Right now she’s upset with your father. And she’s probably said some things to you.”
I crack my window slightly. At night the cooler air conceals the rancid smell of the canals.
“He just wants his men to like him,” my mother is saying. “But sometimes the social drinking can get out of hand.” She glances over at me as if to be certain that I’ve not fallen back asleep. “We both know when to let Cora go in one ear and out the other.”
My mother’s voice grows sullen as we move out of the senior grade housing and into the low, flat duplexes of the junior officers. I recognize the tone. It is the same one Cora uses whenever she believes things have gone “beyond brother’s feeble limits.”
“You may have your father’s coloring,” my mother says as if I have just contradicted her willfully. “But you’ve damn well got my eyes.”
She concentrates on the straight, flat road ahead but occasionally jerks the steering wheel sharply to keep from crossing the center line.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she says without looking over at me. “But I’m not.”
Last year her license was suspended for six months when she accidentally drove the station wagon into the canal. It had been late, and she had taken the turn off MacArthur Boulevard in third instead of second. The judge advocate told her she was lucky she hadn’t drowned and then put her on probation for an additional six months. “Mom got off light,” Cora told me afterwards. “Mostly because Dad has the goods on guess-who’s 16-year-old?” The judge’s daughter had been caught laminating fake ID’s for the PX.
My father’s familiar green staff car is parked in the double driveway of the duplex, and on seeing it, my mother pulls up too close to the curb, squealing the tires. She leaves the engine on, looking first into the rearview mirror to wet down her eyebrows and then at me.
“Your head must be pounding,” she says and hooks her warm hand around my neck to draw me towards her. “I won’t be a minute, sweetie. Then we can all go home,”
There’s rum on her breath. Cora had fixed her piña coladas in the blender (“Half a dozen minimum”).
‘I hate him,” I say but my voice catches, garbling my words.
“What?” My mother grabs my wrist when I try to open the door. “Sweetheart, you just sit and listen to the radio. I won’t be a minute.” And then as if she’d finally been able to decipher my sentence, she smoothes the wet hair back from my forehead. “Your father’s the bravest soldier in the Army, honey. This doesn’t mean anything next to that.”
Cora likes to say that “Mom’s your basic “take-orders” kind of housewife.” But even my sister knows better than to break the Rule. We are never to “bad-mouth” our father in her presence. Never.
I slump down in the front seat and watch my mother, one shoulder lower than the other, walk up the yellow patch of lawn as if trying to get to the front of a moving bus. Her toes point, like my sister’s, slightly out. Cora says that my father does not love her anymore. That the lieutenant’s wife is “built like a tank” and that “Dad wants to get back into artillery.”
When at last the screen door is pushed open several inches, my mother steps back out of the way as if to accept the invitation to come in. Instead, she waits until my father joins her on the porch wearing civilian clothes and holding a glass in his hand. I turn off the radio but their voices are too low to hear. In a minute, my father has disappeared back inside the house and the lieutenant and his wife replace him, framed in the light of the door. The lieutenant’s wife is nearly as tall as her husband. And I think of Miss Clark standing in line at the cafeteria, the heads of her students barely to her shoulders. They are both smiling, talking to my mother as if still trying to win her inside. But she does not uncross her arms until my father reappears, this time wearing his leather aviator jacket.
At the driveway, he turns to wave goodnight to the couple who have come out onto the porch holding hands. But my mother does not turn or wave or say another word to my father. She walks instead ahead of him past the staff car and around the lieutenant’s MG.
As soon as she is back in the driver’s seat, my mother pats me twice on the knee and tells me “Never marry a WAC.” But then she tries to turn the key in the ignition even though the engine is already on. When the gears grind, she snaps her hand back as if from a hot stove.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she says to me.
My father ambles up alongside the car, stooping so that his chin rests on my open window. “Hey, buddy,” and he taps his forehead with one finger. “You been backtalking the old lady?”
My mother looks coolly. “Step away you don’t want any major toes flattened.”
My father’s tanned face shines in the dark. He grins happily, his straight, even teeth those of a movie star’s.
“Sure you don’t want to come in?” he asks my mother. “They’re right nice people.”
“Don’t patronize me,” she answers sharply. “That’s your son sitting there.”
My father reaches in to grip my shoulder. “Then maybe I ought to invite him in. What do you say, soldier? You want to show your mother how to be sociable?”
He squeezes my arm as if to gain my attention but I haven’t taken my eyes off him. I have never seen my father smile this way before. My heart is racing even faster than with Evelyn Pallas this afternoon.
“Don’t you ask him that,” my mother says. “Don’t you ask him anything.”
Over my father’s shoulder I can see the lieutenant and his wife still waiting on the porch. She wears high heels and appears as tall and slender as Miss Clark. They shift their weight from one foot to the other in the cool night air. But they cannot close the door on us.
“No,” my father says resignedly and takes a single duck step back from the car. “He’s a momma’s boy, all right.”
But before I can even turn to see her, my mother has flung her door open and is shouting over the hood.
“What did you say, mister? What the hell did you say?”
I twist in the seat as she flashes by the rear window. But by the time I unlock my own door, my father is grasping both her wrists, dancing away from her furious kicks.
“You bastard!” she is screaming. “You conceited, lousy bastard!”
The lieutenant trots down the driveway but stops respectfully at the mailbox.
His wife has stayed on the porch, one hand at her mouth.
“Sir?” he repeats but then looks away helplessly.
My ears still ring from the stop sign and I cover them with my hands. As if in pantomime my mother attempts to wrench free until my father trips over the embedded sprinkler head and they both drop to their knees in the scorched grass.
“Don’t you come home,” my mother says, her face only inches from my father’s. “You don’t live there anymore, mister.”
“Fine,” he says, wishing only to calm her. “Fine, Let’s just go home.”
But he does not follow her across the lawn.
When she staggers around the car, my mother glares at me menacingly.
“And the kids are mine,” she shouts, closing her eyes as if to steady herself. “Mine.”
Back again in the front seat, my mother rests her forehead on the steering wheel.
“I could drive,” I say even though I’ve never gone farther than the driveway.
But she lifts her head tiredly. “I’ll get us there, sweetheart.”
And she does but not without first backing into the lieutenant’s mailbox, crushing the little red metal flag.
At the house, my mother pours herself the rest of the piña colada mix from the blender and goes to bed, locking the door after her. It is what she does whenever my father is left to sleep alone on the couch.
Cora tiptoes down the hall to peek into my room.
But I pretend to be asleep.
“Military life,” my sister says, easing the door shut behind her. She sits cross-legged on the throw rug beside my bed. “The civilian population doesn’t know the half of it.”
Over her head, I can just make out the different model airplanes suspended by fishing wire from the ceiling. Several of the real ones my father has jumped from on maneuvers. Once, when I asked him how it felt to fall all that way before his chute opened, he said he’d be able to explain it better when I was a little older and “maybe had a sweetheart like Miss Clark.”
“Don’t take it too hard,” Cora advises me, kneeling beside my bed now. “They’ll kiss and make up. Mom’s not going to let him rot in the BOQ.” When my sister stands up, she tries to touch the damp pillow case so that I don’t notice. “Listen, you’re just an Army brat. You don’t know the whole story yet.”
At the door, she whispers that if she wins the contest, she’ll think about taking me along. “Who knows, Vegas might be good for you. Give you a shot at the big picture.”
But, in fact, Cora does not win the Second Annual Oscar Awards Night competition. An unemployed typesetter who once worked at the newspaper does. “Mostly they were just wild guesses,” he tells the reporter from the Yuma Gazette. “Half the pictures I didn’t even see.” My sister’s letter to the editor, in which she demands an “entire revamping of the contest rules,” is never published. That summer, I see Evelyn Pallas break her ankle in a practice relay race. She trips on the baton dropped by her teammate. “No big deal,” she confesses to me afterward. “We’re getting out of here anyway. Pop got passed over for his star.” By then my father has received his orders to Sasebo, Japan. But Miss Clark leaves before any of us. She is fired by the school board two weeks into the new term. Cora claims the vice-principal found her in the teacher’s lounge smoking a joint. “But dig this,” my sister adds. “She was standing in front of the floor fan in her slip.”
I would like to learn how to speak Japanese. They seem to be a very polite people. And I think I would get along with them. “Even if they do only come up to your knee,” Cora says. But my mother does not want to “drag the rest of us over there.” And at night you can hear her arguing bitterly with my father. On the bus today Cora sits beside me without having been told to. It is the first time she seems to consider anything I ask her seriously. But when I wonder what makes Army families any different from the rest, she peels her thumb nail back so far that the skin bleeds. “Mom keeps us stateside,” my sister says, scanning the desert as if for a road runner, “you can kiss our platoon leader sayonara. Nota bene.”