He considered and said, “Something got in the way. They were so sad-looking, you know. I went with some buddies once to a whorehouse in Saigon, and all the women smelled like men and cigarettes.”
“That doesn’t sound so good.”
“They tried to make me sleep with a girl who was probably not more than fourteen.”
“Lenny Cruikshank held me while they paid her to get me hard by blowing on my trousers. But I couldn’t do it.” Whitmore folded his arms across his chest. “Lenny had his legs blown off when he dropped his own grenade in a swamp. He was the dumbest human being I’ve ever encountered. We called him Lenny the Brain Surgeon.”
My brother fell quiet. The motel’s broken neon sign shot strobes of pink light into the room. All summer long I’d wanted to ask one question: Did you kill anybody over there? Instead I asked, “Did you see a lot of people die?”
Whitmore closed his eyes and said, “I saw some people go.”
I waited for him to say more about people dying, but he didn’t. After another moment he said, “I wonder what Tracy Thatch is thinking about right now.”
I switched off the lamp and turned on my side. I watched my brother’s face in the neon shimmer. Within minutes he fell asleep. He looked peaceful, and I wondered what he saw in his dreams. Did he dream about napalm, or about the day that he and Tracy Thatch rode English across the Indiana plains?
Several hours later I woke to the sound of voices in the bathroom. I got up to investigate. Whitmore was talking to someone, a woman, and the conversation had a lilt that implied intimacy and sorrow. I craned my ear to the door but heard my brother’s voice only as a quiet rumble. The woman, her voice low and breathy, kept saying, “I know it.” I glanced at the clock and saw that it was 3 a.m. I went to the nightstand and retrieved a tumbler and held it to the bathroom wall, my ear pressed in tight. I heard a sound like air through a seashell and an amplified version of my brother’s rumbling melancholy. This continued for a matter of minutes, and then I heard the bath running. I stepped back from the wall.
In 1969 I was a virgin, and the sound of my brother running a bath with an anonymous woman seemed both terrible and heroic. I was being brought into my brother’s realm. After a troubled childhood together, an uneasy friendship, our lives were finally intersecting, and what lay at this confluence was the sound of a bath filling, a woman’s voice sifting through a motel wall. I assumed that my brother had called a Minneapolis hooker to our room and was now having sex with her in the bathtub. A series of jumbled images ran through my mind: two naked figures squared up against each other, their mouths pressed tight, tendrils of steam rising from the faucet like smoke. I sat on the bed, paralyzed by a desire to both leave the room and fling the bathroom door wide open. I formed an arsenal of door-opening excuses—a need to pee, thirst, curiosity at strange voices—and then I waited for carnal sighs and whispers to issue from under the bathroom door. When the water was turned off, I resumed my motel-spy stance with the glass tumbler. Then I remembered that the bathroom had an outside window.
I got up and left the room. On the outside landing I looked around for something to stand on. I lifted a decrepit trash can into place. I leaned against the wall and stood quietly on top of the trash can. By standing on my toes I could clear the brick windowsill with my eyes. At first I could only see the tops of their heads, but then, as I strained higher, I saw their entire bodies.
Whitmore sat in his boxers on the side of the tub. The woman—dark-haired, with sorrel-brown skin—reclined naked in the tub. Whitmore seemed to be washing her long hair, and, as he did so, she was stroking her hand in and out of the slit in his boxer shorts. I don’t know what I was expecting to see, but the image stupefied me. Their slow deliberation threw me; in the glare of white tile and fluorescent lighting my brother sat, patient as a monument, shampooing a stranger’s hair, and all the while they spoke, made eye contact, smiled wryly. I got off the trash can and went quietly back into the room.
I went to my bed and lay on my back, listening to the whir of the highway and to the low and reverberant voices in the bathroom. I waited for a crescendo, perhaps a pause and then a flurry of breathiness, but nothing of the sort happened. The voices never got any louder. After about thirty minutes I heard the bathroom door open. I feigned sleep. I heard my brother say from the doorway, “That’s my little brother.”
The woman whispered, “Hello, little brother.” Then she added, “I hope we weren’t too loud.”
I heard the sound of the two of them sitting down on Whitmore’s bed. I felt my face flush as I considered the possibility that they were going to do the bona fide screwing right next to me. But I heard no sounds that resembled resumed foreplay. I heard my brother’s signature movements—fluid and unhurried—as he lit a cigarette. After several beats of silence, the woman said, “Whatever happened to the guy who fell out of the helicopter?”
“Fell a thousand feet into the jungle and hit the trees. He was dead when the patrol unit found him.”
“That’s got to hurt,” the woman said.
“That guy stayed with me, guy from Ohio with a cleft chin and a little gap between his teeth, and I remember looking at his mouth right before he fell out. I was standing next to him when the chopper reared up. If I’d gotten in last, I would have been the one to fall out. That’s the thing over there—your friends die because someone else is stupid or late or sick. Whole thing is a numbers game ... a handful of dice ...”
“You’re sweet,” the woman said. “You want to try again?”
That my brother had revealed more to a hooker about Vietnam than to his family, his own brother, weighed nothing in my mind compared to the impending moment of hearing my brother have sex for the first time in two years. I waited, counting to myself. I heard something like the sound of fingers sifting through sand, of clothing being removed. She had this way of murmuring throughout the process, almost narrating it—that’s good, now that, sure. I could feel my face burning up and wondered if my eyes were clenched shut. My brother was silent apart from his mounting breath. The bed started to squeak and they both giggled, mid-stride, like joggers aspirating at a joke. Eventually, I couldn’t stand it any longer and I opened my eyes. The woman, her dark hair cascading down her brown back, sat astride my brother. He looked up at her plaintively, his face shadowed by the net of her hair. Suddenly, he turned and looked directly at me. His expression was vacuous for a second, then he made a cryptic smile and nodded uneasily, the way you might nod good morning to a lapsed acquaintance. The woman looked over at me and smiled good-naturedly. “We’re almost done. Sorry if we’re keeping you awake.” I was unable to respond. I turned my back and closed my eyes. I wanted to leave the room but felt pinned by something, by their assumption that I could handle this situation. My brother came with a sound that ripped the room apart. It was something wild and injured—a dog yelp—and I didn’t think I could ever look him in the eye again. Afterward they lay together, while Whitmore wept more than I’d ever heard a person weep. I stayed still, my back turned, looking at the wall. I couldn’t go back now; Whitmore’s and my life had flowed toward the same point. I’d seen something of him that I couldn’t give back.