Fiction Fiction Issue

Whitmore, 1969

Back from Vietnam, seeking salvation in Bob Dylan
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We drove under a tin-white sun. In Des Moines my brother and I had each dropped a tab of acid, and now the Midwest rushed at us—great rows of corn and swaths of open field, a startling horizon of alfalfa haze. We stared out at a diorama of little wooden bridges and clapboard houses, processions of blinking radio towers, neither of us speaking. My brother, Whitmore, drove like a man skipping bail, forcing my father’s Oldsmobile into a high-pitched whinny. He streamed his hand out the window, his knuckles whistling in the wind. Slightly mesmerized, I watched his hand as it fishtailed into an elegant sine curve. We were listening to Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home on the eight-track. This was the summer of 1969. Men were getting ready to land on the moon. The girls I knew wore slacks and smelled of sandalwood and cherry vodka. You could fit the whole world inside an album cover.

My brother had his other hand on the wheel, his index finger raised like a flagpole in exclamation at the music. He seemed to be saying, Here, this is what I’ve been trying to tell you. When “It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” played, I saw a single tear appear in my brother’s right eye. I looked out my window at the neon-green farms and the heat shimmering off the blacktop roads, pretending not to notice. Whitmore was twenty-three—four years older than I was. He had returned to us a few months earlier after a two-year stint in Vietnam. In the Los Angeles airport, as he disembarked from his transpacific flight in uniform, a young woman with braids spat at him. This event had dogged him all summer.

He didn’t talk much about his two years in Southeast Asia, but every now and then—when a young girl with an organdy bow in her hair sang at our church, or when my mother forced him to receive one of her hugs—he wept. One night, as we ate dinner, my parents and I stopped in mid-chew to see Whitmore, his face blotched red, quietly bawling into his pork chops and mashed potatoes. My mother touched the back of his hand, and Whitmore looked up as if someone had slapped him in the face. Trying to make light of the situation, my father said, “I didn’t think much of the pork chops either.” My mother visibly winced, but Whitmore started to laugh. He said, “This will stop, Dad. You’ll see.”

Now, in the Oldsmobile, Whitmore wiped his eye with the back of his wrist and stuck his hand back out the window. He said, “I intend to swim my hand all the way through Minnesota.”

“We’re still in Iowa,” I said.

“That’s correct,” he said, nodding.

The road trip had been his idea. I woke up early one morning to find him sitting in my bedroom, smoking a cigarette in my father’s old bathrobe. The cigarette flashed through the blue dawn of the room. He said, “I’d like to take a road trip, to see some people. I was thinking you could come with me.”

“Sure,” I said, sitting up in bed. I was scheduled to detassel corn that summer before college.

“I want to go to Hibbing, Minnesota,” he said.

“What’s there?”

“That’s Bob Dylan’s hometown.”

“Gotcha,” I said. I felt as if I should have known this.

He blew some smoke up at the ceiling. “Also, I’d like to visit an old girlfriend. I really need to be with a woman.”

“Right.”

He was silent for a moment.

I said, “Why are you wearing Dad’s old bathrobe?”

“It smells like the old house.”

“Yeah, okay,” I said. While Whitmore was doing his tour of duty, my parents had sold their old Victorian and bought a brick-and-tile in the suburbs of Indianapolis. He’d left for war with a bedroom of his own and come back to the foldout couch in the den. My brother finished his cigarette and said, “We’ll take the back roads and highways and stop in little towns. I want to buy fruit along the roadside. You ever had a Michigan peach?”

“We won’t be going through Michigan, Whitmore.”

“No matter,” he said, getting up to leave.

We drove all day and shot through the dusk, the windows down, Dylan and Hendrix and Van Morrison bursting from the eight-track. Outside of Minneapolis my brother’s mood grew somber and he switched off the music. He said he intended to call on Tracy Thatch, whom he’d dated in high school, before she came north to go to college. He had her address written down on an old receipt, and he kept looking at it as we drove into the city. We talked off and on—about people we knew in common, a kid who’d hitchhiked through the Ukraine, some friends who’d had a naked wedding on a rooftop in Brooklyn. Then ten-minute stretches of quiet, great waves of silence, seemed to pummel us.

I read the map and navigated us to a neighborhood of college dorms and fraternity houses. On this Friday night in July, most of the students had gone home for the summer. I could tell Whitmore didn’t want me to point this out. We stopped the Oldsmobile in front of a bungalow.

“Doesn’t look like anybody’s home,” I said.

“I’m enjoying just seeing the house,” he said, tapping on the steering wheel.

“Okay,” I said.

“Tracy studies biology. Wants to be a vet. She’s real good with animals.”

“Yeah.”

“One time we rode horses out at Blackman’s Ranch, and I remember she rode English. I’d never heard that phrase before—riding English.”

“What’s it mean?” I asked.

“Fancy saddle and such,” Whitmore said, nodding at the house.

“You want to wait here some?”

“Yeah, I’d like that. Maybe she went to a movie. Any good movies playing at the moment?”

“Probably,” I said.

We sat through another ten-minute stretch of silence. Then, without warning, my brother got out of the car and bounded up to the bungalow. I watched as he rang the doorbell several times. No one answered. He paced around on the front stoop, his hands shoved inside his pockets. Every now and then he’d turn and look at the door, as if someone were coming to answer it. Eventually he headed back toward the car, but then he stopped at the mailbox and opened it. I saw him pull out a small stack of mail and begin sifting through it. He put something under one armpit and put the rest of the pile back in the mailbox. When he got into the Oldsmobile he was holding a mail-order catalog.

“You can’t steal other people’s mail,” I said. “It’s a federal offense.”

“War is legal but taking a mail-order catalog will send you to jail? Is that what we’re saying?” he said. He stared at the front cover of the catalog. An old man in plaid was assembling a bird feeder. The man had a fraternal look on his face; he looked like a kindly neighbor in shirtsleeves on a Sunday afternoon.

“It’s some kind of arts and crafts catalog. She always did like building things.” He held the catalog up, pointing to the mailing label. “Look, that’s Tracy Thatch’s name.”

“I can read,” I said.

“This sounds crazy, but over there it seemed weird to imagine people still had addresses. I mean, all the houses along this street, you can just up and send somebody a letter and they’ll get it and read it—just because you paid the government a few cents to put the letter in a little metal box. You get the drift of what I’m saying?”

“It’s kind of weird when you say it like that,” I said.

He looked back at the house. “Geez, I’d like to see Tracy Thatch again. She tasted like a packet of Juicy Fruit.”

Afraid that my brother might cry, I said, “Maybe you can call her, or maybe we can stop by here on our way back from Bob Dylan’s hometown. You could even send her a letter.”

“Oh, no,” Whitmore said, “I’m out of the letter-writing business for good.” He looked down at the catalog. “I’m going to put this back,” he said, “in case Tracy wants to make herself a bird feeder or something.”

“Do you want to leave a note?” I asked.

“Nope. Notes are worse than letters.”

He got out of the car and put the catalog back in the mailbox. When he came back, he started the engine and we drove down the darkening street in silence.

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