View Full Version : They Put the White Meat in Boxes (NOT an entrant in the short story contest)

9th November 10, 03:47 AM
My uncle once told me what he did in Vietnam. He picked up pieces of dead white men and put them in cardboard boxes. It didn’t matter if the pieces matched.

He served his second tour during Tet. Then he came back to Alabama to get a job and start a family. He did both. Now he sits in a recliner and watches Sports Center.

He was in Hue during Tet. I visited him today and he told me what happened on that long ago Wednesday: “John, it was bombs blasting everywhere, in the air, on the com, everywhere. It was a horrible din, the Gooks screaming in that fucking language, our men screaming in ours. When it was over, the children wondered the streets in a daze.” He took a long puff of his cigarette. “They whupped us that winter. We routed them out of the city eventually, of course. But they whupped us. It wasn’t supposed to happen that way, John. We didn’t see it coming.” At about that time, Sport Center came back from commercial. They cut in with a spot on Hank Aaron.

“I saw him play after I got back from the War,” my Uncle said. “Off in New Orleans.” He gestured west, pivoting on his bloated stomach while craning his arm over his shoulder and past his chair. Even that small movement hurt him. We sat in silence for a while and watched the burly black man hit baseballs. He was magnificent.

“So, was there a preacher?” he asked. I nodded. He smiled. His cracked lips curled around his Marlboro. I’d seen him like before, a thousand years ago, when Uncle Johnny was still handsome and corded with muscle. Back when the family stilled owned the fish camp. Back when I was a young boy. I guess I’m still a young boy to him.

“I remember you two, down at the River,” Uncle Johnny said. I looked down at the floor and remembered.

“Do you remember the gar, John?” Uncle Johnny asked me.

I looked back up at him. I searched his old, pale blue eyes and finally really remembered. I returned his smile.

“It was in the spring of ’92, I think. You and your folks were down from Fort Payne and Uncle Mike had dropped off James Daniel for the weekend.” He stopped to savor those old memories.

“Mom was sick,” I said, jarring my uncle from his introspection.

“Yeah, yes, that’s right, she was sick, we were worried about her, your dad especially. It was bad on the trip back,” he said.

“It was, I’d never seen her that bad.” I looked down at the floor.

Uncle Johnny finally said, “It had come down too far.”

I looked back up at him.

“Those alligator gars, they can survive in brackish water, but the River was too close to the Bay. If they go too close to the sea like that, they get lethargic and eventually suffocate,” he looked back at me.

“That’s why it wouldn’t move that day?” I asked him. All those years ago, James Daniel and I had wondered why the “razor fish” was lying at the bottom of the canal. We could see his gills move and his eye occasionally dart this way and that, so we knew it wasn’t dead. Whenever we’d pick shells from the side of the canal and throw them in, he’d roll away from the projectiles, and then settle back on his nest. We did that for hours, trying to coax the poor beast out of the canal and back into the River.

“I was mowing the grass when I found you boys throwing rocks at the fucking thing. I was worried one of the drunks from Alabama Port had wandered into the canal,” he said.

“I saw you two there, tossing those rocks,” he said. “I saw you two and thought the worst. I ran off that old Kabota up to you, and then I saw that old gar.” He took the Marlboro out of his mouth and crushed it in a ceramic elephant he kept by his chair.

“Do you remember what I told you? About the gar?” he asked. His look was almost pleading.

“Yes,” I answered. “We’d asked you if we could catch it and eat it, and you told us no. You told us that it wasn’t any good for eating.” My uncle nodded affirmative. “Then you went back to the Kabota and got your shotgun. I was upset, because I didn’t want you to kill it. You shot the water.”

Uncle Johnny put another cigarette up to his lips and lit it with an old butane lighter. It was the novelty type you used to find in gas stations, the ones with a picture of a girl in a black bikini. You could heat the ink on bikini, and it would disappear for a few moments to reveal the girls breasts and pubic hair. Once you had your fill of her, the ink would darken to hide the young model’s shame. James Daniel and I had burned the clothes of many a lighter in our younger and more lustful years.

Her clothes stayed on today, though.

I continued. “When the water and muck settled back, the gar was gone. I started crying, because I thought you’d destroyed the creature, that you’d blasted it to smithereens. James Daniel tried to comfort me, but I was too upset and ran back up into the house. After a while, you found me on the back porch, crying. You sat beside me and told me that you hadn’t killed the gar, the buckshot in your gun lost all its momentum after hitting the surface of the water. You said the gar had drunk too much Budweiser, and needed to be shaken up to get him back where he belonged.”

My uncle smiled at me. “Was any of that true? I asked.

“Yeah, it was true. We needed those gars alive to eat the trash fish up river. All the white trout and mullets were dying back then because those fucking croakers and catfiish were eating all the plankton and brine shrimp. Nobody wanted to fish that part of the River anymore because of it. No one was using the boat launch and it was cutting into my cigarette money.” He took another puff. Now that he was retired, I wondered where his Marlboro money came from. I didn’t ask.

"Did the fish ever come back?” I asked after a few moments.

He shook his head no. We sat there in silence as the television droned on about this year’s preseason and last year’s draft pick and next year’s playoffs. I broke the silence at last.

“Do you think they got all the right pieces?” I asked. He looked from the TV at me. He was crying.

“I don’t know, John. I know if they did it like we used to, they tried their best to make sure the right number of parts got back in the body bag.” His voice was an even timber. It was a cavalier countermelody to the anguish screaming on his face. He’d learned to cry silently a long time ago, I reckon. Maybe he learned how in that jungle so far away, amidst all that hate and blood and dead meat.

I hadn’t though. I put my head into my lap and wailed into my hands. My uncle rose out of his chair and knelt beside me. I didn’t see him wince in pain, but I felt it. He put his coarse hands around my shoulders and held me until I drained myself out. I finished up about the time a rerun of this year’s ESPY came on. We sat and watched for a while.

“You want some fried chicken?” he asked after the obligatory replay of Jimmy Valvano’s infamous cancer speech.

“No, it’s about time I head out, actually. I’ll see you soon, Uncle Johnny,” I said. I got up and walked the short distance to the door.

“Alright, John. Be safe and tell your mother I said ‘Hi.’” He didn’t get up out of his chair.

I closed the door and walked to my car. I could smell the muddy, salty fog from Dog River. Uncle Johnny moved into the city not long after Maw Maw died and the camp sold. I was surprised he bought a place so close to the water. I suppose he moved there so he could still smell the much and dead shrimp. I got into my car and the smell was gone.

I drove all over Mobile County that afternoon. It was different now, and I kept trying to fit my old memories over the new places, like a transparency on one of those ancient overhead projectors. I couldn’t line it up, every time the shapes bulged and twisted themselves into something foreign and horrible. I swung the car back towards Theodore. I needed to go through the Bayou, where James Daniel lived.

I stopped at the package store just on the edge of the swamp. It used to be a famous supermarket, the largest independently owned store in the county. The old timer who ran it, DeLaCroix, sold everything you’d need to survive in the Bayou, from Thanksgiving turkeys to shrimp nets to penicillin. He named the place after himself. Now, it’s called “Hoc Buoy Phan.” I don’t know what those words mean, or even if they’re really words. I do know that you can buy cheap liquor without having to pay the sin tax.

I stopped in and bought a bottle of Jagermeister. I paid with a twenty. The kid behind the counter didn’t ask for my ID.

It was getting close to sunset, so I turned the car back north. I weaved and bobbed my way through rural Mobile County, into Mobile proper and then back into the rural farmland that framed the northern reaches of the city.

James Daniel and I drove these roads, before the war. We were grown then, or near enough to it. He was a handsome football star, strong and brave and confident. I spent my time playing computer games and listening to heavy metal in my parents storage shed. He still took every Saturday morning off to drive me around to movies. We saw all the late morning matinees at the dollar theatre just north of my house. There was never anybody else at the theatre that early on a Saturday, so we always cut up and told obscene jokes to ourselves. Mine were always better than his.

He’d usually bring in a bottle of liquor he’d been given by the bartender at the country club he worked at. We’d usually drink half during the movie, and then finish the rest while we cruised around the city. We had become so different, that the movies were all we had left in common really, so I cherished those trips. As we drifted further and further apart, even our movie trips became more and more infrequent. Then one day, they stopped.

He left during the fall of my senior year. I didn’t hear from him for six months. Finally his mother dropped off a letter addressed from Paris Island. In it, he told me about how he’d expected harsher treatment and more grueling exercise. They rarely hit anybody, he said, and it was all just psychological. He told me he had been outlining some project in his head, and that he wanted to meet with me after his first tour to get them all on paper. He didn’t say goodbye in that letter or even sign his name. Instead, he just ended with a sentence about a girl he used to fuck and how I should give her a call. I never did.

He came back from his first tour during the summer after my freshman year at Auburn. I picked him up from his house to take him to Olive Garden. He was waiting on the front porch of his parent’s prim and modest three bedroom ranch. He climbed into my mom’s Taurus. He was wearing tattered jeans and a shirt that said “fuck you” in large white type. He had lost about thirty pounds of muscle and hair. We drove off into the mid day sun. Before we were out of sight of his parent’s house, he took out a bottle of Wild Turkey. He told me the country club had given it to him in appreciation of his service. We drank it on the way to Olive Garden. He had the lion’s share.

“Why the fuck are we going to Olive Garden, John?” he asked me about five miles past his house.

“My mom gave me some money to take you out man, she told me to take you someplace nice,” I replied. He scowled at me.

We rode in silence. Eventually, he started to tell me about the men he’d killed.

“I shot one Hadji north of Fallujah, from, say 50 yards,” he told the car’s passenger window. “I never saw his face.”

Minutes later he began again, “A few days later we were doing house checks, door by door. We hit on this one place, no answer, so we kick in the door. Two kids, couldn’t be older than fifteen or sixteen, run for the back room. Front man throws a fragmentary grenade, it goes off. After the smoke starts to settle, we get peppered with fire. Fucking frag grenades never do shit.”

I saw his shaven, handsome reflection in the window. It was expressionless. “ I fire where I saw the gun flare, and wait fifteen seconds. There’s no return. I wait another fifteen, still nothing.”

He paused for a long moment. “Squad leader signals for me to follow him and we creep into the back room. Its pitch black, but we can hear the hypos crunching beneath our feet.” He makes the effort to look at me and explains, “The mujahidin like to pump themselves up with adrenaline, so you always find empty hypos when you find insurgents.” He turned back to the window and continued.

“Squad leader and I creep further into the room. I stumble over a corpse about the time the other Hadji swings the butt of his rifle at squad leader. I can see the silhouette of the two of them wrestling on the far wall. It only takes seconds for both of them to be covered with blood and sweat and glass. When my eyes finally start to adjust, I see the mujahidin straddling squad leader and pressing the barrel of his rifle on his throat. The Hadji was tall and sinewy and he reeked of piss and vomit.”

He stopped again. We passed by all the old familiar places. It was like a muted rerun, but with the film cellulose aged and remastered in random scenes. I glanced at his eyes’ reflection in the passenger window to see if he recognized any of them. I don’t think he did, and neither did I really. “I took my knife, felt for his head, found it, grabbed it and pulled, and I jabbed the blade into his spine. He fell back into the light from the door.”

We passed by the old Chuck E. Cheese were we both used to have all our birthday parties. I don’t think he remembered it. “I saw his face. His mouth was open wide and his tongue lolled to one side. His eyes looked up at the ceiling, at nothing.” He sat back in his seat. We pulled into the Olive Garden and had a nice lunch.

On the drive back, we talked about that Bill Murray movie The Life Aquatic. James-Daniel admitted that it was one his favorite movies. Flabbergasted, I asked him how that could be. He told me, “Because Robyn Cohen has the best tits I’d ever seen.”

When we got back to his parents place, he reached across the center console and gave me a hug. He got out of the car and started to walk to the front door, then he suddenly turned around and walked back. I rolled down my window. He dug in his pocket and then produced a small slip of paper. “You should call her,” he said as he handed me the paper, “she gives fucking amazing head.” He walked back into the house.

The paper read “Staci” in big, curling script, with the dot on the “i” marked with a heart shape. Below that, her number: 665-8957. I never called.

My cousin James-Daniel left Alabama for his second tour of duty in Iraq on the sixth day of August in the year of our lord 2005. Nine months later a well hidden, roadside bomb blew him to pieces as he left the Baghdad green zone. We got the news on a Thursday.

As I drove through the gates at North Mobile Family Cemetery, I remembered the last day I saw him. It was James-Daniel sitting in that car. It was the same boy I’d played and fought with for all those years. It was the same untenable standard my parents held me to. It was the same young man who perished so early and so violently in a desolate wasteland a world away. I decided that it was the same James-Daniel packed into the red clay beneath my feet, regardless of the proportions.

I found where we put him the prior week. The dirt was still fresh, but the flowers had begun to wilt. I opened the bottle of Jager and started to drink.

“We decided you’d rather be by Paw Paw than Kennedy,” I told the black dirt mound. The sky was a bright blue billows that pumped a cool breeze from a warm sun. “Uncle Johnny tried to make it, but he’s real sick. It broke his heart double not being able to see you off.”

The wind blew in cold gusts and the faded poinsettias by his marker leaned to the leeward side and then righted themselves. Some of the red petals fell off into the breeze. I took another drink and said what I came to say. “Since you died, James-Daniel, I have this dream, this dream about a fox path in thick marsh. I’m small again, like we used to be so long ago, and I’m lost. I’m crying and I’m scared because it’s getting dark, and with every moment the shadows creep on the path. I know somehow that when the shadows finally envelope me in darkness, I’ll never be able to get out. “ The wind started up and again and chilled the salty rivulets on my cheeks.

“I scream out for help. I scream and scream and no one answers. Finally, I plop down into the bed of the fox trail and weep silently. But, all of a sudden, the breeze dies down and I hear a faint noise, a human voice. I run through the marsh after it. The marsh grass tears at my skin and the darkness is deeper the further I get away from the fox trail, but the harder I run the louder the voice becomes.”

A maintenance truck rolls by and interrupts my soliloquy. The elder black man driving it waves at me. I wave back.

“It’s your voice, James Daniel, leading me out of that darkness. It hurts to run towards it, and if I look behind me I can see my fresh blood on the reeds. The twilight turns in purple and it frightens me, but the voice, your voice, tells me not to be afraid. You tell me to run just a little further, that everything will be alright and not to worry. It gets darker and darker, but your voice gets louder and louder. Suddenly, I’m enveloped in darkness, but your voice is a roar, louder than the wind and the crack of the marsh grass as I push through it. When your voice thunders through the marsh, I can see a patch of soft light in front of me. I run towards it. When the light starts to push back the shadows in earnest, I can feel your voice in my body, like a bass drum or horn reverberating in my bones. I cry out for you and reach into the light. But, every time I get to it, every time I see your outline at the edge of that black marsh, I fall into a sudden, empty, blackness.”

The afternoon started to die and dusk crept up to take its place. “I love you James Daniel. I need you, I need you to guide me out when the darkness pushes back on the light.” I took another swig from the bottle of Jagermeister. I placed it half full next to his gravestone and marveled at its earnest, neat etching. It read:




With the wind to my back, I walked back to my car and drove home.


15th November 10, 05:49 AM
Jim - read this the day you posted it and didn't know what to say but I keep getting drawn back in to the story.

There's latent power, a moodiness that captures you and a realism that I hope to God has no personal truth.

15th November 10, 07:44 AM
I'm really glad you enjoyed it Lilly, thanks for your time and feel free to read more of my stuff here or on my site. I encourage any kind of comment: constructive criticisms, destructive criticism, name calling, etc.