It was hell's season, and the air smelled of burning children.
This smell was what had destroyed Dan Lambert's taste for barbecued pork sandwiches. Before August of 1969, the year he'd turned twenty, his favorite food had been barbecue crispy at the edges and drenched with sloppy red sauce.
After the eleventh day of that month, the smell of it was enough to make him sick to death.
He was driving east through Shreveport on 70th Street, into the glare of the morning sun. It glanced off the hood of his gray pickup truck and stabbed his eyes, inflaming the slow ache in his skull. He knew this pain, and its vagaries.
Sometimes it came upon him like a brute with a hammer, sometimes like a surgeon with a precise scalpel. During the worst times it hit and ran like a Mack truck and all he could do was chew on his rage and lie there until his body came back to him.
It was a hard thing, dying was.
In this August of 1991, a summer that had been one of the hottest in Louisiana's long history of hellish seasons, Dan was forty-two years old. He looked ten years older, his rawboned, heavily lined face a testament to his ceaseless combat with pain. It was a fight he knew he couldn't win. if he knew for certain he would live three more years, he wasn't sure if he'd be happy about it. Right now it was day-to-day.
Some days were all right, some weren't worth a bucket of warm spit.
But it wasn't in his nature to give up, no matter how tough things got. His father, the quitter, had not raised a quitter. In this, at least, Dan could find strength.
He drove on along the arrow-straight line of 70th Street, past strip malls and car lots and fast-food joints. He drove on into the merciless sun and the smell of murdered innocents.
Lining the commercial carnival of 70th Street was a score of barbecue restaurants, and it was from their kitchen chimneys that this odor of burned flesh rose into the scalded sky. It was just after nine, and already the temperature sign in front of the Friendship Bank of Louisiana read eighty-six degrees. The sky was cloudless, but was more white than blue, as if all the color had been bleached from it. The sun was a burnished ball of pewter, a promise of another day of misery across the Gulf states. Yesterday the temperature had hit a hundred and two, and Dan figured that today it was going to be hot enough to fry pigeons on the wing.
Afternoon showers passed through every few days, but it was just enough to steam the streets. The Red River flowed its muddy course through Shreveport to the bayou country and the air shimmered over the larger buildings that stood iron-gray against the horizon.
Dan had to stop for a red light. The pickup's brakes squealed a little, in need of new pads. A job replacing rotten lumber on a patio deck last week had made him enough to pay the month's rent and utilities, and he'd had a few dollars left over for groceries. Still, some-things had to slide. He'd missed two payments on the pickup, and he needed to go in and see Mr. Jarrett to work something out. Mr.
Jarrett, the loan manager at the First Commercial Bank, understood that Dan had fallen on hard times, and cut him some slack.
The pain was back behind his eyes. It lived there, like a hermit crab. Dan reached beside himself on the seat, picked up the white bottle of Excedrin, and popped it open. He shook two tablets onto his tongue and chewed them. The light turned green and he drove on, toward Death Valley.
Dan wore a rust-colored short-sleeve shirt and blue jeans with patches on the knees. Under a faded blue baseball his thinning brown hair was combed back from his fore and spilled over his shoulders; haircuts were not high on his list of priorities. He had light brown eyes and a closecropped beard that was almost all gray. On his left wrist was a Timex and on his feet was a sturdy pair of brown, much-scuffed workboots. On his right forearm was the bluish-green ghost of a snake tattoo, a reminder of a burly kid who'd had one too many cheap and potent zombies with his buddies on a night of leave in Saigon. That kid was long gone, and Dan was left with the tattoo. The Snake Handlers, that's what they'd been. Not afraid to stick their hands in the jungle's holes and pull out whatever horror might be coiled up and waiting in there. They had not known, then, that the entire world was a snake hole, and that the snakes just kept getting bigger and meaner. They had not known, in their raucous rush toward the future, that the snakes were lying in wait not only in the holes but in the mowed green grass of the American Dream. They got your legs first, wound around your ankles, and slowed you down. They slithered into your guts and made you sick and afraid, and then you were easy to kill.
In the years since that Day-Glo memory of a night in Saigon, Dan Lambert had shrunken. At his chest-thumping, Charlie-whomping best he'd stood six-two and carried two hundred and twelve pounds of Parris Island-trained muscle. Back then, he'd felt as if he could swallow bullets and shit iron. He weighed about a hundred and seventy pounds now, and he didn't think he was much over six feet. There was a gauntness in his face that made him think of some of the old Vietnamese people who'd huddled in their hootches with eyes as terrified as those of mongrel dogs expecting a boot. His cheekbones jutted, his chin was as sharp as a can opener under the beard. It was the fact that he rarely ate three meals a day, and of course a lot of his shrinkage was due to the sickness, too.
Gravity and time were the giant killers, he thought as he drove along the sun-washed highway with the back of his sweat-wet shirt stuck to the seat. Gravity shrank you and time pulled you into the grave, and not even the Snake Handlers could beat such fearsome enemies as those.
He drove through pale smoke that had drifted from the chimney of Hungry Bob's Barbecue Shack, the cook getting all that meat good and black for the lunch crowd. A tire hit a pothole, and in the truck's bed his box of tools jangled. They were the hammers, nails, levels and saws of a carpenter.
At the next intersection he turned right and drove south into an area of warehouses. It was a world of chainlink fences, loading docks, and brick walls. Between the buildings the heat lay trapped and vengeful. Up ahead a halfdozen pickup trucks and a few cars were parked in an empty lot. Dan could see some of the men standing around talking.
Another man was sitting in a folding chair reading a newspaper, his CAT hat throwing a slice of shade across his face. Standing near one of the cars was a man who had a sign hanging around his neck, and on that sign was hand-lettered WILL WORK FOR FOOD.
This was Death Valley.
Dan pulled his truck into the lot and cut the engine. He unpeeled his damp shirt from the backrest, slipped the bottle of aspirin into his pocket, and got out. "There's Dan the man!" Steve Lynam called from where he stood talking with Darryl Glennon and Curtis Nowell, and Dan raised a hand in greeting.
"Mornin, Dan," Joe Yates said, laying his newspaper in his lap.
"How's it hangin'?"
"It's still there," Dan answered. "I think."
"Got iced tea." A plastic jug and a bag of Dixie cups sat on the ground next to Joe's folding chair. "Come on over."
Dan joined him. He drew iced tea into a cup and eased himself down beside Joe's shadow. "Terry got a ticket," Joe said as he offered Dan some of the newspaper. "Fella came by 'bout ten minutes ago, lookin' for a man to set some Sheetrock. Picked Terry and off they went."
"That's good." Terry Palmeter had a wife and two kids to feed.
"Fella say he might be needin' some more help later on?"
"Just the one Sheetrock man." Joe squinted up toward the sun. He was a lean, hard-faced man with a nose that had been broken and flattened by a vicious fist somewhere down the line. He'd been coming here to Death Valley for over a year, about as long as Dan had been.
On most days Joe was an amiable gent, but on others he sat brooding and darkspirited and was not to be approached. Like the other men who came to Death Valley, Joe had never revealed much about himself, though Dan had learned the man had been married and divorced the same as he had.
Most of the men were from towns other than Shreveport. They were wanderers, following the promise of work, and for them the roads on the map led not so much from city to city as from hot-tarred roofs to mortared walls to the raw frameworks of new houses with pinewood so fresh the timbers wept yellow tears. "God, it's gonna be a cooker today," Joe said, and he lowered his head and returned to his reading and waiting.
Dan drank the iced tea and felt sweat pricker* the back of his neck. He didn't want to stare, but his eyes kept returning to the man who wore the desperate hand-lettered sign. The an had sandy-blond hair, was probably in s lite twenties, and wore a checked shirt and stained overalls. His face was @ boyish, though it was starting to take on the tautness of true hunger. It reminded Dan of someone he'd known a long time ago. A name came to him: Farrow. He let it go, and the memory drifted away like the acrid barbecue smoke.
"Looky here, Dan." Joe thumped an article in the Oaper.
"President's economics honcho says the recession's over and everybody ought to be in fine shape by Christmas. Says new construction's already up thirty percent."
"Do tell," Dan said.
"Got all sorts of graphs in here to show how happy we oughta be."
He showed them to Dan, who glanced at the meaningless bars and arrows and then watched the man with the sign again. "Yeah, things are sure getting' better all over, ain't they.?" Joe nodded, answering his own cynical question. "Yessir. Too bad they forgot to tell the workman."
"Joe, who's that fella over there?" Dan asked. "The guy with the sign."
"I don't know." He didn't lift his gaze from the paper.
"He was there when I got here. Young fella, looks to be. Hell, ve man jack of us would work for food if it came to that, b% e don't wear signs advertisin' it, do we?"
"Maybe we're not hungry enough yet."
"Maybe not," Joe agreed, and then he said nothing else.
More men were arriving in their pickups and cars, some with wives who let them out and drove off. Dan recognized others he knew, like Andy Slane and Jim Neilds. They were a community of sorts, scholars in the college of hard knocks.
Fourteen months ago Dan had been working on the payroll of the AA Construction Company. Their motto had been We Build the Best for Less.
Even so, the company hadn't been strong enough to survive the bottom falling out of the building business. Dan had lost his job of five years and quickly found that nobody was hiring carpenters full-time.
The first thing to go had been his house, in favor of a cheaper apartment. His savings had dwindled amazingly-and frighteningly-fast.
Since his divorce in 1984 he'd been paying child support to Susan, so his bank account had never been well padded. But he'd never been a man who needed or expected luxuries, anyway. The nicest thing in his possession was his Chevy pickup-"metallic mist" was the correct name of its color, according to the salesman-which he'd bought three months prior to the crash of AA Construction. Being behind the two payments bothered him; Mr. Jarrett was a fair man, and Dan was not one to take advantage of fairness. He was going to have to find a way to scrape some cash together.
He didn't like looking at the man who wore the handlettered sign, but he couldn't help it. He knew what trying to find a steady job was like. With all the layoffs and businesses going under, the help-wanted ads had dried up to nothing.
Skilled laborers like Dan and the others who came to Death Valley were the first to feel the hurt. He didn't like looking at the man with the desperate sign because he feared he might be seeing his own future.
Death Valley was where men who wanted to work came to wait for a "ticket." Getting a ticket meant being picked for a job by anyone who needed labor. The contractors who were still in business knew about Death Valley, and would go there to find help when a regular crewman was sick or they needed extra hands for a day or two. Regular homeowners sometimes drove by as well, to hire somebody to do such jobs as patching a roof or building a fence. The citizens of Death Valley worked cheap.
And the hell of it, Dan had learned by talking to the others, was that places like Death Valley existed in every city. It had become clear to him that thousands of men and women lived clinging to the edge of poverty through no fawt of their own but because of the times and the luck of the draw. The recession had been a beast with a cold eye, and it had wrenched families young and old from their homes and shattered their lives with equal dispassion.
"Hey, Dan! How many'd ya kill?"
Two shadows had fallen across him. He looked up and made out Steve Lynam and Curtis Nowell standing beside him with the sun at their backs. "What?" he asked.
"How many'd ya kill?" Curtis had posed the question.
He was in his early thirties, had curly dark brown hair, and wore a yellow T-shirt with no stenciled on it. "How many chinks? More than twenty or less than twenty?"
"Chinks?" Dan repeated, not quite grasping the point.
"yeah Curtis dug a pack of Winstons and a lighter from his jeans pocket. "Charlies. Gooks. Whatever you dudes called 'em back then.
You kill more than twenty of 'em?"
Joe pushed the brim of his cap up. "You fellas don't have anythin' better to do than invade a man's privacy?"
"No," Curtis said as he lit up. "We ain't hurtin'anythin' by askin, are we, Dan? I mean, you're proud to be a vet, ain't you?"
"Yes, I am." Dan sipped his" tea again. Most of the Death Valley regulars knew about his tour of duty, not because he particularly cared to crow about it but because Curtis had asked him where held gotten the tattoo. @is @ a big mouth and he was on the dumb side: a bad combination.
"I'm proud I served my country," Dan said.
"Yeah, you didn't run to Canada like them draft-dodgin' fuckers did, huh?" Steve asked. He was a few years older than Curtis, had keen blue eyes and a chest as big as a beer keg.
"No," Dan answered, "I did what I was told."
"So how many?" Curtis urged. "More than twenty?"
Dan released a long, weary breath. The sun was beating down on his skull, even through the baseball cap. "Does it really matter?"
"We want to know," Curtis said, the cigarette clenched between his teeth and his mouth leaking smoke. "You kept a body count, didn't you?"
Dan stared straight ahead. He was looking at a chain-link fence.
Beyond it was a wall of brown bricks. Sun and shadow lay worlds apart on that wall. In the air Dan could smell the burning.
"Talked to this vet once in Mobile," Curtis plowed on.
"Fella was one-legged. He said he kept a body count. Said he knew how many chinks he'd killed right to the man."
"Jesus Christ!" Joe said. "Why don't you two go on and pester the shit outta somebody else? Can't you see Dan don't want to talk about it?"
"He's got a voice," Steve replied. "He can say if he wants to talk about it or not."
Dan could sense Joe was about to stand up from his chair.
When Joe stood up, it was either to go after a ticket or knock the ugly out of somebody. "I didn't keep a body count," Dan said before Joe could leave the folding chair. "I just did my job."
"But you can kinda figure out how many, right?" Curtis wasn't about to give up until he'd gnawed all the meat off this particular bone. "Like more or less than twenty?"
A slow pinwheel of memories had begun to turn in Dan's mind.
These memories were never far from him, even on the best of days. in that slow pinwheel were fragments of scenes and events: mortar shells blasting dirt showers in a jungle where the sunlight was cut to a murky gloom; rice paddies a The Good Son shimmering in the noonday heat; helicopters circling overhead while soldiers screamed for help over their radios and sniper bullets ripped the air; the false neon joy of Saigon's streets and bars; dark shapes unseen yet felt, and human excrement lying within the perimeter wire to mark the contempt the Cong had for Uncle Sam's young men; rockets scrawling white and red across the twilight sky; AnnMargret in thigh-high boots and pink hot pants, dancing the frug at a USO show; the body of a Cong soldier, a boy maybe fifteen years old, who had stepped on a mine and been blown apart and flies forming a black mask on his bloody face; a firelight in a muddy clearing, and a terrified voice yelling motherfucker motherfucker motherfucker like a strange mantra; the silver rain, drenching the trees and vines and grass, the hair and skin and eyes and not one drop of it clean; and the village.
Oh, yes. The village.
Dan's mouth was very dry. He took another swallow of tea. The ice was almost gone. He could feel the men waiting for him to speak, and he knew they wouldn't leave him alone until he did. "More than twenty."
"Hot damn, I knew it!" Grinning, Curtis elbowed Steve in the ribs and held out his palm. "Cough it up, friend!"
"Okay, okay." Steve brought out a battered wallet, opened it, and slapped a five-dollar bill into Curtis Nowell's hand. "I'll get it back sooner or later."
"You boys ain't got trouble enough, you gotta gamble your money away?" Joe sneered.
Dan set his cup down. A hot pulse had begun beating at his temples. "You laid a bet," he said as he lifted a wintry gaze to the two men, "on how many corpses I left in 'Nam?"
"Yeah, I bet it'd be more than twenty," Curtis said, "and Steve bet it'd be-' , I "I get the drift." Dan stood up. It was a slow, easy movement though it hurt his knees. "You used me and what I did to win you some cash, Curtis?"
"Sure did." It was said proudly. Curtis started to push the river into his pocket.
"Let me see the money."
Still grinning, Curtis held the bill out.
Dan didn't smile. His hand whipped forward, took the money, and had it in his grip before Curtis's grin could drop. "Whoa!" Curtis said. "Give it here, man!"
"You used me and what I did? What I lived through? I think I deserve half of this, don't you?" Without hesitation, Dan tore the bill in two.
"Hey, man! It's against the fuckin'law to tear up money!"
"Sue me. Here's your half."
Curtis's face had reddened. "I oughta bust your fuckin, head is what I oughta do!"
"Maybe you ought to. Try, at least."
Sensing trouble, a few of the other men had started edging closer.
Curtis's grin returned, only this time it was mean. "I could take you with one hand, you skinny old bastard."
'You might be right about that." Dan watched the younger man's eyes, knowing that in them he would see the punch coming before Curtis's arm was cocked for the strike.
"Might be. But before you try, I want you to know that I haven't raised my hand in anger to a man since I left'Nam. I wasn't the best soldier, but I did my job and nobody could ever say I'd gone south."
Dan saw a nerve in Curries left eyelid begin to tick. Curtis was close to swinging. "If you swing on me," Dan said calmly, "you'll have to kill me to put me down. I won't be used or made a fool of, and I won't have you winnin' a bet on how many bodies I left in my footprints. Do you understand that, Curtis?"
"I think you're full of shit," Curtis said, but his grin had weakened. Blisters of sweat glistened on his cheeks and forehead. He glanced to the right and left, taking in the half-dozen or so onlookers, then back to Dan. "You think you're something' special 'cause you're a vet?"
"Nothin' special about me," Dan answered. "I just want you to know that I learned how to kill over there. I got better at it than I wanted to be. I didn't kill all those Cong with a gun or a knife. Some of 'em I had to use my hands. Curtis, I love peace more than any man alive, but I won't take disrespect. So go on and swing if you want to, I'm not goin' anywhere."
"Man, I could break your damn neck with one punch," Curtis said, but the way he said it told Dan he was trying to decide whether to push this thing any further.
Dan waited. The decision was not his to make.
A few seconds ticked past. Dan and Curtis stared at each other.
"Awful hot to be fightin'," Joe said. "Grown men, I swear!"
"Hell, it's only five dollars," Steve added.
Curtis took a deep drag on his cigarette and exhaled smoke through his nostrils. Dan kept watching him, his gaze steady and his face placid though the pain in his skull had racheted up a notch.
"Shit," Curtis said at last. He spat out a shred of tobacco.
"Give it here, then." He took the half that Dan offered.
"Keep you from tapin' it back together and spendin' it, at least."
"There ya go. Ya'll kiss and make up," Joe suggested.
Curtis laughed, and Dan allowed a smile. The men who'd thronged around began moving away. Dan knew that Curtis wasn't a bad fellow; Curtis just had a bad attitude sometimes and needed a little sense knocked into him. But on this day, with the sun burning down and no breeze stirring the weeds of Death Valley, Dan was very glad push had not come to shove.
"Sorry," Steve told him. "Guess we didn't think it'd bother you.
The bet, I mean."
"Now you know. Let's forget it, all right?"
Curtis and Steve moved off. Dan took the Excedrin bottle from his pocket and popped another aspirin. His palms were damp, not from fear of Curtis, but from fear of what he might have done had that particular demon been loosed.
"You okay?" Joe was watching him carefully.
"You get a lot of those, don't you?"
"You seen a doctor?"
"Yeah." Dan put the bottle away. "Says it's migraine."
"Is that so?"
"Uh-huh." He knows I'm lyin', Dan thought. There was no need to tell any of the men here about his sickness. He crunched the aspirin between his teeth and washed it down with the last of his iced tea.
"Curtis is gonna get his clock cleaned one fine day", im said.
"Fella don't have no sense."
"He hasn't @ved enough, that's his problem."
"Right. Not like us old relics, huh?" Joe looked up at the sky, measuring the journey of the sun. "Did you see some hell over there, Dan?"
Dan settled himself back down beside his friend's chair.
He let the question hang for a moment, and then he said, "I did.
We all did."
"I just missed getting' drafted. I supported you fellas all the way, though. I didn't march in the streets or nothin'."
"Might've been better if you had. We were over there way too long."
"We could've won it," Joe said. "Yessir. We could've swept the floor with them bastards if we'd just-" "That's what I used to think,"
Dan interrupted quietly. "I used to think if it wasn't for the protesters, we could've turned that damn country into a big asphalt parkin'lot." He drew his knees up to his chest. The aspirin was kicking in now, dulling the pain. "Then I went up to Washington, and I walked along that wall. You know, where the names are.
Lots of names up there. Fellas I knew. Young boys, eighteen and nineteen, and what was left of 'em wouldn't fill a bucket. I've thought and thought about it, but I can't fipre out what we would've had if we'd won. If we'd killed every Charlie to a man, if we'd marched right into Hanoi and torched it to the ground, if we'd come home the heroes like the Desert Storm boys did ... what would we have won?"
"Respect, I guess," Joe said.
"No, not even that. It was past time to get out. I knew it when I saw all those names on that black wall. When I saw mothers and fathers tracin' their dead sons' names on paper to take home with 'em because that's all they had left, I knew the protesters were right. We never could've won it.
"Gone south," Joe said.
@'Gone south. You told Curtis nobody could ever say you'd gone south. What's that mean?"
Dan realized he'd used the term, but hearing it from the mouth of another man had taken him by surprise.
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