Fiction Fiction Issue

Whitmore, 1969

Back from Vietnam, seeking salvation in Bob Dylan
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Before he was drafted, my brother was a Berkeley hippie. My parents sent him to California to study engineering, but he dropped out halfway through his junior year and stayed in the Bay Area. The letters from his first two years in college were littered with the words of the counterculture. He wrote about his “thing” and “the project,” and neither my parents nor I knew what he was talking about. He described a world in which boys wore doormen’s coats or Navajo blankets to their lectures, where students lived in cold-water apartments and kept exotic animals as pets—wallabies, turtles, armadillos.

On several occasions, in these letters, my brother told my parents to sell all their furniture and go to India. Or he told them to seek out a backwoods existence, a life in a cabin by a swift, cold river. I would come home from football practice to find my father at the kitchen table, squinting at one of the letters. He would read them several times, his eyes scanning my brother’s loose and hooped cursive. Finally, over dinner, he would share his thoughts: “Whitmore is becoming a communist. That much seems clear.” He said this in a reasoned and flat tone, the same voice he used at his pharmacy to list the pros and cons of a particular nasal decongestant. After such occasions, I went to bed and imagined my brother in a red beret and a goatee. I imagined him living in warehouses in San Francisco, sleeping on the floor beside old radiators with women named Frida and Coco; I saw him handing out orange juice and literature on street corners.

My brother’s draft notice came to our family home in Indianapolis. My father was in the habit of opening my brother’s business-looking mail and forwarding the important items to the cooperative where Whitmore lived, in Haight-Ashbury. When he opened the draft notice, my father was standing by the fridge. My mother was in the backyard taking laundry off the line. My father—looking unusually stern, with his lie-down crew cut, bifocals, and pharmacist’s white smock—said, “Your brother has been asked to go and fight in Vietnam.” I remember that the word asked came out dry and uninflected.

I was sitting at the kitchen table. I didn’t know what to say. Finally, I said, “On whose side?” I wondered whether a communist dispatch had come from North Vietnam, a call to far-flung brethren.

My father, without irony, said, “Ours.” Then he paused. Finally, he said, “This will shake things up a little. I better go tell your mother.” He walked outside and told my mother while she was taking towels and sheets from the line. I watched as he padded out onto the lawn and stood by her, the letter in his hand. My mother—a schoolteacher in a sundress—took the letter from him and read it for herself, her head shaking. I couldn’t see her face but, from behind, I watched as she cried into a hanging bath towel. My father put his arms around her, and they stood like that for a long time, the white towels brightening the dusk.

A week later my father flew to San Francisco to find my brother and tell him the news in person. He was gone for three days, and when he came back I was surprised to learn that Whitmore had agreed to report for duty. I had been certain that he would flee to Canada or Mexico.

My father reported back like an anthropologist fresh from the field, although he refused to tell my mother and me everything that had transpired. He looked shell-shocked by the ordeal of California. He told us that everywhere you looked in San Francisco, runaways lined the streets, that the people Whitmore ran with all drank from the same soda and wine bottles and had names like Bear Man and Little Sue. Later, I would learn that my father had arrived in California the week after Whitmore’s girlfriend had committed suicide with sleeping pills. Maybe that was why Whitmore agreed to go and fight—it was a way of leaving things behind. None of us ever knew the girlfriend, or even her name. In his letters, Whitmore had referred to her as “the girl I go with.”

Before flying to basic training and then on to Vietnam, my brother came back to the Midwest for a week. He kept to himself mostly, taking long solitary drives in my father’s Oldsmobile at night. My mother tried to draw him out about his girlfriend’s death and the impending tour of duty. By now we were watching graphic footage on the nightly news—I remember seeing a man’s severed hand next to a bicycle tire, a naked child running from a burning field. None of us switched on the television the whole week my brother was home. The day before he flew out, Whitmore came home with a crew cut. He’d left earlier in the day with shoulder-length hair, wild locks bleached by the California sun. He opened the back door as my parents and I sat around the kitchen table. We all stared at him. With the aura of daylight around him in the doorway, his bone-white scalp exposed amid rows of cropped hair, he looked like an apparition, a drowned kid who comes back in a horror movie. He came inside and handed my mother a grocery bag. When she opened it and lifted out a handful of his shorn hair, my brother said, “That’s all I’ve got of that life I had out there, and I want to keep it here where it’s safe. Would you keep it for me?”

My mother, somehow, did not cry. She put the hair back inside the grocery bag and tied a knot in the top. She said, “We’ll keep it until you get back, and then maybe you can grow some more.” And then my brother came forward to receive one of her hugs, unbidden, and she ran her hands through his short hair again and again, while my father and I both looked at the same spot on our kitchen floor.

The sun had gone down all the way when we reached downtown Minneapolis. The acid had worn off, and we were feeling raked-through and restless. Whitmore, in a burst of vigor and boredom, waved at passersby. People spilled out of restaurants and bars, chatted in pairs at the curbstone. Young girls swaggered out of movie houses in jeans or flowing skirts. We looked longingly at them, and Whitmore said, “I may die if I don’t touch a woman soon.” He bought a bottle of cheap wine from a liquor store, and we passed it back and forth as we drove along. We ate at a Chinese restaurant, and my brother used chopsticks. We were running out of uncomplicated things to talk about. At about midnight we drove into a motel courtyard on the outskirts of town.

Whitmore said, “I’m beat. We’ll head north in the morning.”

“You have any money?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. This place looks cheap, don’t you think?”

I looked around the motel courtyard, at the rusted, slouching balconies and the drained swimming pool, where several pieces of deck furniture stood arranged in the bottom.

“Yeah, it looks cheap,” I said.

“Perfect,” he said.

We got out of the car and went inside to a small reception area. The interior smelled of damp carpet. An elderly woman sat behind the front desk, watching a small television set.

“We’d like a room,” my brother said.

The old lady looked up from the television and cocked one eye like a marksman.

“Eight dollars plus tax,” she said. “Checkout is at ten, and the swimming pool don’t work.”

My brother put a ten-dollar bill on the counter.

“You boys brothers?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said.

“That’s a relief. Where you from?” she said, making change.

“Indianapolis,” Whitmore said.

“I got a sister in Champaign. Your neck of the woods.”

“It’s a ways,” I said.

“You ever visit her? Your sister?” Whitmore asked the old lady.

“Never. Here’s your key,” she said. She put the key down on the counter and turned back to the television. “I hear on the news that tomorrow they’re going to put a couple of men on the moon. That’s a little much for my temperament,” she said. “I hope it don’t interfere with my TV reception.”

I craned my head over the counter to see her television set. On-screen, a reporter was demonstrating the various features of a spacesuit.

Whitmore took the key and said, “When those men walk on the moon, all the lights across the country are going to go out. The telephone lines will go down. Nothing will be the same. You might want to call your sister in Champaign before the world changes for good.”

The woman apparently didn’t hear. She continued to stare at the television, and we went to our room.

Our room had two single beds separated by a stretch of stained brown carpet. My brother collapsed onto the one nearest the bathroom. I lay down on the other one. Whitmore stared up at the ceiling, blew some air between his lips, and said, “I’m feeling lonesome.”

“Lonely,” I said.

“What?”

“We don’t say lonesome. That’s a southern thing. Why do you always have to sound like you’re a folk song?”

“Jesus, Jesus,” he said. “Someone has stolen my little brother and replaced him with a Gestapo agent.”

“Sorry.”

“What I’m saying is, I miss the way things used to be. The old house with the attic. And I haven’t slept with a woman in a long time. I’m lonesome for a woman, is what I’m saying over here in this little bed.”

“How long has it been?” I asked.

“Not since I left.”

“That was two years ago.”

“This is my point.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“I know. I couldn’t for a while after my girl died.”

“I thought guys went to hookers over there.”

“I couldn’t.”

“Why?”

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