There's a Man With a Gun Over There

BOOK: There's a Man With a Gun Over There
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OTHER BOOKS BY R. M. RYAN

Goldilocks in Later Life

The Golden Rules

Vaudeville in the Dark

THERE'S A
MAN WITH A GUN
OVER THERE

R. M. RYAN

Hunger Mountain
published Chapter Four, in a slightly different version, as “The Veterans.”

Copyright © 2015 Lost Roads Adventure Club, LLC.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication, or parts thereof, may be reproduced in any form, except for the inclusion of brief quotes in a review, without the written permission of the publisher.

For information, address:

The Permanent Press

4170 Noyac Road

Sag Harbor, NY 11963
www.thepermanentpress.com

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Ryan, R. M.—

There's a man with a gun over there / R.M. Ryan.

pages ; cm

ISBN 978-1-57962-385-2 (hardcover)

eISBN 978-1-57962-416-3

1. Vietnam War, 1961–1975—Veterans—Fiction. I. Title.

PS3568.Y393T48 2015

813'.54—dc23                                                          2014048179

Printed in the United States of America.

for Siegfried Lenz,

author of
The German Lesson,

and in memory of all those we didn't mean to kill.

What does any of this have to do with Vietnam, Walter?

What the fuck has anything got to do with Vietnam?

What the fuck are you talking about?

T
HE
D
UDE

The Big Lebowski

Standing next to me in this lonely crowd
Is a man who swears he's not to blame
All day long I hear him shout so loud
Crying out that he was framed . . .

B
OB
D
YLAN

I Shall Be Released

PROLOGUE.

I
t's a dream, but then it isn't.

The yellow 1969 Dodge Charger slams to a stop—squealing, fishtailing, and then blocking my exit from the parking lot beside the Turley Barracks US Army Military Police station in Mannheim, Germany. The Charger takes up a lot of room on Friedrich Ebert Strasse. It's the size of two Volkswagens.

Traffic stalls behind the parked Dodge. A white Citroën flashes its high beams.

I sit there in my Volvo moving the floor shifter back and forth. I want to be ready so I can take off when the Charger moves. I feel so good. Even though I am in the army, I have beaten the system. At the height of the Vietnam War, I am in Germany, thousands of miles away from combat. I wear civilian clothes and drive around in a good car and drink expensive French wines. I have a sexy German girlfriend.

The two of them don't so much get out of the Charger as uncoil themselves from it. They amble toward me. They smile. They have all the time in the world. They don't notice the honking from the stalled traffic behind their Charger. Their teeth seem luminescent in the twilight, their Afros fuller than those normally allowed on the heads of GIs in 1972. Comb handles stick out from the tufts of their hair.

One leans against the passenger door of my car, and the other puts his hands on the door beside me. I try to roll the window up, but I can't. He holds it down with a single thumb. He's stronger than I am, maybe a lot stronger.

He smiles, unconcerned about the Germans coming up behind him who wonder what's going on.

“Hey, da. Was ist hier los?”
one of the Germans yells.

“No need to anxious yourself, white boy,” he says to me, ignoring the Germans. His voice is slurred, liquid. “No need 'tall. We jus' here to speak with you on behalf of Bro Perkins.”

He nods toward the Charger, and I can see the shadowed figure of Staff Sergeant Elija Perkins sitting in the backseat. In my job as a plainclothes military policeman, I took his confession and am scheduled to testify at his court-martial next week.

“Bro Perkins—he's a friend of ours, you understand, and we wouldn't want anything bad to happen with him. Understand?”

“Well,” I say and wiggle the shift knob rapidly back and forth. “Well, I can't make any promises.”

On the passenger seat, I have this new Burgundy I'll sip with Angelika after we make love. I wiggle the shift lever again.

“Bro Perkins is a
good
friend of ours,” he says again and points the index finger of his right hand at me as though it were the barrel of a pistol. “A very good friend. We jus' concerned about his welfare. You understand?”

Then he slaps the door of the Volvo, and the two of them get back in the Charger and squeal off down Friedrich Ebert Strasse.

1.

T
hose men stopped me decades ago, in 1972, in another life, so this story should be long over, shouldn't it?

But it's not, no: it plays, just as I'm falling asleep, night after night, month after month, year after year—a little serial in my brain that won't go away, a loop that keeps spiraling to the same bloody ending.

The story always pauses as I wait to drive my white Volvo out of the MP station parking lot onto Friedrich Ebert Strasse, heading toward Angelika's apartment. The gearshift in neutral, I rev the engine, listening to the throaty sound of the carburetor while I look for an opening in traffic.

This time, I think, as I look at myself in those long-ago days, this time it will all be different. No one will get hurt.

Once again, the story lures me in.

I drive out of the lot and merge into traffic.

I'm thinking, yes, this time things will work out some other way. This time, I hope, the story will change.

This time, I believe, the story won't end with a woman lying bloody on the floor in the Weinheim apartment.

2.

N
ow you've got to realize that I'm an innocent bystander really. I didn't mean to harm anyone. Not the woman in Weinheim. Not Sergeant Perkins. It was the times. I want to make that clear right from the start. I didn't have a say in the matter. I wasn't in the army by choice. I was just doing what I'd been told to do.

I was in graduate school studying Emerson and Yeats when the army came calling in the spring of 1968. Those were tough times, remember? They started to draft me for the war in Vietnam.

Even now, decades later, those three syllables terrify me. Vi-et-nam. Vi-et-nam.

But maybe you don't remember the war—or maybe you don't care.

Then, in the late sixties, though, the war was everywhere. It was on television every night. A soap opera of death and dying narrated by Walter Cronkite on the evening news. A war with its own box scores—each day's tally of American and enemy dead right there with the baseball standings and the stockmarket close.

Reality television all right: dead bodies face down in rice paddies spinning around, as if they're looking for something lost in the murk; a hand coming out of the ground, frozen in rigor mortis, holding a rifle; a wounded soldier wrapped in bandages until he looks like the
Invisible Man
; corpses tossed in piles like so much garbage.

I was scared of dying. I was terrified of being drafted and ending up dead in Vietnam. That was my dilemma. I had to avoid Vietnam at any cost.

I wanted to stay home and study Emerson, thank you very much, but the government took away my draft deferment. They were coming to get me.

I still can hear the drums from the ROTC drills on campus. I can't get the sound out of my head.

Boom, boom, snare
, goes the drum.

Boom, boom, snare
.

I took this test at an army recruiting station. It turned out I had an aptitude for learning languages, so I enlisted to get a space in the German language class at the army's language school in Monterey, California, and avoid the draft. Good duty, right? Sunny California. A way to stay out of Vietnam, OK?

I mean, look, I didn't
really
enlist enlist. I enlisted only so that I wouldn't be drafted and sent to the Infantry and then to Vietnam.

The recruiting sergeant told me I'd probably end up in Germany if I behaved myself.

“Do what they tell you to do, Ryan. Don't argue with them or ask questions. Don't make fun of them. Just do what you're told. Lie if you have to.”

“Lie?”

He just looked at me.

So I went to the language school, just as they promised me, but then they made me a cop. Sent me to Military Police School after I learned German. I hadn't bargained on that. I was in the same MP unit that trained the shooters at Kent State.

But why should you care? These are my troubles, right? I should work them out in private. They don't affect you, do they? They're not coming after you, are they?

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