My name is Connie Kinsey. I’m a writer who lives in a converted barn in West Virginia. I’ve been there 32 years now.
I’ve put down deep roots in that old barn, but I grew up a nomadic military brat. I went to something like 5 different elementary schools. You get used to people coming and going when you’re a brat.
One of the people who came and went a lot was my dad. As an officer in the Marine Corps, he did four tours of Vietnam. Of course he had PTSD. He died almost two years ago and I’m still mourning him.
This story is about Vietnam. Sort of. The narrator could be me, but is not. The Marine captain in the story could be my dad, but he’s not. Fruitcake, the young marine in the story, is an amalgamation of teenage Marines I met at the skating rink. This story is fiction. Never happened.
But it could have.
I’ve titled it “Second Hand Smoke.”
Second Hand Smoke
Damn. I like men. I have always liked men. I was a certified daddy’s girl. My daddy was the best man of all, he was pretty tickled with me, and I just assumed that most men were more likely than not to be like him.
My mama tells a story about the time I was three years-old and hospitalized for bronchitis. I can’t remember, but to hear her tell it I couldn’t wait for visiting hours to be over because that’s when the Corpsmen would sit inside my oxygen tent and play Pocahontas Indian Princess with me. In those days, even parents had to observe visiting hours. Mama shakes her head now when she remembers how it never ever entered her head to fuss about that.
So anyway, I like men a lot. That whole Indian princess thing must have stuck with me even if the memory of the hospital didn’t. Now, I’m not anymore Indian than I am anything else, but I look more Indian than I do anything else. Everybody thinks my green eyes come from my mama’s Irish people, but the only kin I have with green eyes come from my daddy’s side – the same side that produced the genuine, 100-proof, Cherokee grandma. Of course, nobody talked about Mawmaw being Cherokee until Indian got to be cool sometime in the late sixties.
A couple of years later, I was fourteen looking twenty and living in a town with forty thousand Marines — most of them still teenagers and either fretting about going to ‘Nam or about what happened there.
Skating at the rink was all the rage. I was on the speed skating team and taking all sorts of lessons. For dance, I was partnered up with somebody the right size, finally, to get on with learning to do lifts. It was 1972 and a lot of those guys had seen some horrible things. Some of them drank, and a lot of them took up karate so as to feel like they had some control, but almost all of them smoked weed.
A lot of the kids in my junior high smoked pot. I stuck to cigarettes. I was an officer’s daughter and the teacher’s pet. I was supposed to be too smart to fry my egg-head, but I liked the kick of a nicotine rush. Both of my parents come from mostly poor white trash, but the Corps made my dad an “officer and a gentleman.” He said that a lot.
I was just me. I wasn’t all that different from the other girls in that time and place even if I was an Indian princess who skated with the Macs.
It was the summer my dad quit smoking. It was quite a summer, but I remember that night best. A lot of stuff when I was young – well, I don’t have complete memories of it. I haven’t blocked it out or anything, but most things I remember in snippets – freeze frames – not video. Except for this — I remember this night.
That song Indian Nation, was popular and I was pretty impressed with my newfound Indian blood. Between the leather headband and the turquoise jewelry, the Macs took to calling me Pocahontas which was just fine with me. I’d recently decided my parents were morons for having named me what they did.
It was hot.
Hurricane season had just set in and breathing was like trying to grow gills. The old man had given up on trying to cool the rink. There were these huge hangar fans that just roared. The Jackson Five were Rockin’ Robin at a volume guaranteed to blow ear drums when I decided I needed fresh air and a cigarette.
Back then that wasn’t a contradiction.
Between the heat, the noise, and my sunburn, I was ready to jump out of my skin.
Of course, we weren’t supposed to go outside with our skates on, but mine weren’t rentals and I knew the guy at the door.
I skated over to the door, toed to a coast and rolled into the dark. Walked on my toe stops to the guard rail and sat down. There was a guy about ten feet down in the shadows.
About all I could see was the glow of his cigarette. I could hear him banging his skates against the edge of the sidewalk. It set my teeth on edge.
The cigarette glow reminded me of my dad. I fished around in my bag for cigarettes, but didn’t find any. I was already irritated. I clomped over and sat down next to him.
“If Tim catches you banging those skates, he’ll have a fit. He’ll have to repack your bearings and he hates repacking. Besides, you’re not supposed to be out here with rentals. Can I bum a cigarette?”
He quit clanging his skates.
“I’m not afraid of Tim. You old enough to smoke?”
“You old enough to kill?”
He dragged a cigarette out of his shirt pocket and handed it to me. In the flash of his Zippo, I saw his face for the first time.
He was simply beautiful.
I was astonished. Even though a fan of men, I had never regarded one as beautiful. I hadn’t even considered men could be beautiful. Handsome, rugged, cute, smart, tall, short, old, young — all of those I knew. But beautiful. I was already having trouble breathing, when I noticed he was Indian. I’d never seen him around before.
And I knew all the guys at least by sight.
“What nation?” I said. It was a line I’d heard in a movie. I thought it sounded cool and knowing and older — Indian. Like I really was one.
He looked at me.
My eyes were adjusting so I could see pretty well by then.
He was still beautiful, but details were coming into focus. His skin was perfect. He could have been the Cherokee Nation Noxema poster child.
I had never seen a man with skin like that. Like marble, there were no pores and not even the trace of razor stubble. I’ve seen baby butts less delicate than his skin.
Of course, he was dark. The North Carolina sun turns even the very fair dark.
Years later, I saw Michelangelo’s David and commented that ol’ Mick got it wrong. The image of that man that night burned into my brain with the flash of a Zippo.
“I’m Lakota, white girl.”
“Don’t call me white girl. What’s your name?”
“Yeah. My buddies call me Fruitcake.”
“And you let them?”
“I kind of like it.”
I couldn’t think of a response.
Fruitcake? I was already hopelessly in love with this guy and trying to turn the name Fruitcake into something cool.
Stalling for time, I took a long drag on the cigarette and about fell off the guard rail I got so dizzy.
Sometimes the kick will kick you.
Fruitcake laughed for real.
“Fruitcake, white girl. When I rotated stateside, I took to drinking rum.
My wisdom teeth were bothering me and Grandmother told me to chew on cloves. My buddies said I smelled like fruitcake.”
“So. How are your teeth, now?” How are your teeth? I could have died. I took another drag on the cigarette.
“The base dentist took them out. Now, I’m just another dumb Mac.”
“I don’t think you’re dumb.” Good grief, Charlie Brown.
He laughed again. We both took drags on our cigarettes.
“Stateside, huh? Just back from ‘Nam?”
“Couple months. I finished thirty days with the family and shipped here a month ago.”
“Yeah, I haven’t seen you here before.”
“It’s my first time on skates.”
It was my turn to laugh.
“Is that why you’re out here? I could show you how, you know.”
“Naw. It doesn’t seem that difficult. All that noise gets to me after awhile.”
I scrubbed my cigarette out. My breathing was starting to get somewhere near normal.
“Well, I’d like to skate with you sometime.”
“We’ll see, white girl.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“OK. So, what’s your name?”
Oh god. No.
“The guys here call me Pocahontas.”
He about fell off the rail laughing.
Big, hearty, deep belly laughs.
“I haven’t laughed like that since R&R in Tokyo. We were all down at the . . . ”
“How come everybody that’s been to ‘Nam doesn’t talk about anything but R&R?”
“Maybe because nobody asks.”
“Nuts, I didn’t ask you about R&R in Tokyo either.”
He licked his index finger, made a sizzling sound and drew a line in the air.
“One for you, little sister.”
“So. What’s it like in Viet Nam?”
He didn’t say anything for a long time.
I could hear David Cassidy singing I think I love you.
I reached over and fished another cigarette out of his pocket.
This time, I got close enough to smell him.
I used to think Corps regulations required English Leather aftershave. It’s the only thing my father ever wore and still wears. Fruitcake, though, smelled all of Ivory soap and cloves. I couldn’t detect any rum.
While trying to grip a filter, I felt the beat of his heart. He leaned sideways, bumped into my shoulder, and stretched to drag the Zippo out of his Levi’s. My heart pounded and my hands got sweaty.
Lighting my cigarette, he said, “What’s it like? Well, your feet and back are always wet.”
Before I could say anything, he jumps up all of a sudden forgetting he’s on skates.
Arms windmilling, he finally gets control.
It takes me way too long to realize my dad is standing there. I toss the cigarette behind me hoping he didn’t see it, but knowing he did.
“At ease, Marine. We’re not in uniform.”
“Sir! Yessir! Sir! I mean . . . Thank you, Sir.”
“Hi, Daddy.” Jeez.
And the guys wonder why I don’t tell them my real name. It was the first time my dad had ever picked me up from the rink. Usually my mom did it.
“She’s fourteen, you know.”
“She’s too young.”
I could have just died. “I’ll go get my shoes.”
“See you at the car, Punkin.”
Punkin! Good grief.
I turned to look at Fruitcake, but he wouldn’t meet my eyes.
I clomped back inside and started pawing through shoes looking for mine. By the time I got to the car, I was furious. “Daddy!”
We drove in silence for a while.
There’s this desolate stretch of scrub pine between the skating rink and where we live. It feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere – No Man’s Land – Jacksonville’s very own DMZ.
Here’s where my memory starts freeze-framing. I can’t remember what provoked me or if I just got lost in thought or what, but I heard myself say, “Daddy, can I have a cigarette?”
“No. You’re too young to smoke.”
“How old do you have to be?” My heart was thundering.
“A lot older than you are now.”
“Daddy, did you kill people in Vietnam?”
The car slowed and pulled to a stop on the shoulder.
He lit a cigarette and started to hand it to me. Then he pulled it back and took a drag off of it. I don’t think he noticed the kick. He threw it out the window. And then he threw the pack of Pall Malls after it.
I couldn’t think of a thing to say. We drove the rest of the way home in silence.
Of course, he told Mama. She grounded me for four weeks.
There was no sign of Fruitcake when I got to go skating again.
There was a constant rotation of men and I always kept an eye out for Fruitcake, but I never saw him again.
I read this story for the Athens, Ohio Tellabration Celebration at Athens Uncorked on November 19, 2017.
Branches scratched at the window and the floorboards creaked.
The woman sighed and got out of bed. She went through the house opening every door, searching every closet, looking under beds. She got the flashlight and searched the cellar and the front porch.
She couldn’t find the baby.
Nearly every night she looked for the baby. People suggested to her that what she was hearing was a cat in heat. She told them, “No. I don’t think so.”
The baby didn’t always cry. Sometimes, she could hear it cooing. Infrequently, the baby giggled in that sweet way that a child of four or five months will do. Peals of laughter like angelic chimes.
Standing in the yard with her flashlight, she watched the October wind blow her nightgown around her legs. It was warm for the season and she rolled up the sleeves of her nightgown. She sat in the Adirondack chair on the porch, straining to try and figure out from what direction the baby’s faint cry was coming.
Robert had left because of the baby. For thirty-two years, he told her it was her subconscious grieving for Julie. “Myra, hun, I think you need to get some help with this.” With that, he turned and walked out the door.
After she retired, she sometimes heard the baby during the day, but that didn’t happen often. She kept the tv turned up too loud.
Robert had been gone for two weeks and three days. She missed him. She thought about his last words.
With the baby still crying, she opened the front door. The baby’s cries were louder in the house.
Fishing around in the closet, she pulled out the phonebook. She wondered how one went about choosing a psychiatrist. She sipped hot tea while perusing the names. She hoped one of them would jump out at her.
The tea was making her hotter and the list of doctors was frustrating her. She returned to the front porch where it was cooler and the baby’s cries were softer. It almost sounded like the child was trying to comfort itself – sobs interspersed with thumb-sucking sounds.
Myra walked down the front steps of the porch into the yard. There was no moon and she had left the flashlight in the kitchen.
She found herself walking down the road to the cemetery. “I should really go back and get the flashlight,” but she forged ahead. It was only a mile or so.
At the cemetery, she quickly made her way to the three little tombstones all lined up in a row. She couldn’t hear the baby crying amongst the ruffling leaves. The wind was picking up, cooling the night and scattering clouds so that a waning moon lit her path.
She thought about that night. She and Robert were preparing to go to sleep. Robert went around checking to see that doors and windows were locked. Myra straightened the kitchen before going upstairs to check on Julie one last time before crawling into bed.
Now that the baby was sleeping through the night, Myra wasn’t as tired, but found it difficult to sleep through the night herself. She still found herself slipping into Julie’s nursery in the middle of the night to gaze at her. She was perfect. A little angel. She never tired of watching the child sleep.
She stood in the doorway, hall light scattering across Julie’s nursery floor. Something seemed wrong. The room was too quiet. Myra went to the crib and pulled the blanket up over Julie’s small body. She was cold to the touch.
Robert found her rocking the baby, wrapping her in a blanket, trying to warm her. Tears streaming down her face, she said, “She’s so cold. If we can just warm her up.” Crying himself, Robert took the baby from her looking for a breath, a pulse, a heartbeat. It was the third child they had lost. The other two had been stillborn. Julie was the only one who had cried.
Myra sat down in front of the graves. They had named the two who had never drawn breath Michael Paul and Lily Jeanne. She traced their names on the small stones. Tears begun to stream down her face. A sound welled up from her inner core, the pain of three dead babies finding voice. She keened.
Bent over with the sobs, she stretched out and lay among the leaves silencing herself. She listened to her own heartbeat, calming. The leaves rustling. The moon softly lighting all she could see. For thirty-two years, she had not cried after that night. She felt the tears stream down the side of her face as she gazed at the moon.
She heard the baby while the warmth seeped from her own body. She closed her eyes. The baby was babbling. The baby was in her arms. She was afraid to open her eyes. Afraid there would be no baby. Trying to draw warmth from the child, she held her close.
The baby struggled against being held too tight. Myra opened her eyes and found herself staring at Julie. Warm and pink.
Myra’s last words were, “There you are. I’ve been looking for you.”
NOTE: This post is part of Eric Douglas’s 2017 Halloween Short Story Collection. Read more here.