On the phone, at a gas station, in our dreams
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Next door, in a run-down daiquiri-pink house with bedsheets instead of curtains on the windows, lived Whitey Carr, who loved to pound me every Sunday with his tiny fists. My mother said I had to feel sorry for Whitey because he’d lost his mom, and his brother, Raja, had come back crazy from the war. Whitey was thirteen, a year older than I was, and my mother said his younger sister, Queenie, was already a tart. A tart sounded good to me. They sold them from outdoor stands in Balboa Park at the Old Globe Theatre, where my mother and father took me to see Shakespeare plays. Lemon tarts were the best.
Whitey’s mom, Mrs. Carr, had died the year before. She’d been a pasty, nervous person who rarely left the house. When she did, she was always clutching a stack of books to her chest — headed off, my father explained, to college. She was going to get her medical degree and become a doctor, an unheard-of achievement in my working-class neighborhood.
The last time I remembered seeing her alive was when Boyd Johnson, who lived across the street from us, shouted to the whole neighborhood that she’d gotten sick on the sidewalk. We all dashed over and examined the orange splash with yellow bits that made the voices in my head whirl up in a crescendo of singing astronauts. Mrs. Carr was rushing into her pink house, leaning over, clutching her books. I tried to read the puddle as a fortuneteller might read a palm. Everything to me translated into colors and words spelled out in typeface in my head, l-i-k-e t-h-i-s. There were letters to be deciphered in the mess, I was sure, though I could not quite make them out.
Mr. Carr, Whitey’s father, worked in one of the defense and aeronautics factories that ran for miles along San Diego Bay and made rockets, bombs, and planes for the war against communism. He was tall with a large, square head like a giant robot, and as pale as if he’d eaten a heaping plate of bad oysters. Whitey told me his dad had leukemia. Neither Whitey nor I knew what leukemia was, so I asked my schoolteacher dad, who said it was a cellular disease and that Mr. Carr probably did not have long to live. It occurred to me then that his wife was studying to become a doctor to try to cure him.
I never learned how Mrs. Carr died. Not long after, her oldest daughter, Mavis, who was fifteen, got “PG.” That was the word Queenie used. Though she was younger than I was, Queenie had to explain many unfamiliar terms to me, such as q-u-e-e-r and s-c-r-e-w. PG meant p-r-e-g-n-a-n-t, which meant two people had “done it.” (Done what?) Mavis dropped out of high school, got big, and had a ginger-haired baby that all the kids on the block said belonged to Mr. Carr, who was not long for this world.
Raja had gone away to war a serious boy in a uniform, but when he came back, he was no longer Raja. He was more like a luminous bird who tipped his head this way and that and stared down at you with his inscrutable dark eyes while he crowed and clapped his hands and tried to communicate with noises that sounded very much like the jumbled chorus of alien voices in my head.
It was fun to talk to Raja. I could tell by his wide and sunny soul that he would never hurt me. He would insist that you take anything he might have in his hand, including money. And whatever you said — whether you made a joke or were completely in earnest — he would laugh as if it were the wittiest thing ever.
Raja was the only happy-all-the-time person I’d ever seen. Clowns were not to be trusted. Comedians often described pain. Newscasters and scientists smoked cigarettes and shook their heads gravely as they foretold the end. Raja made me feel so good I thought he had learned some secret deep in the tiger-haunted forests on the other side of the world. I was always disappointed when one of his brothers or sisters would come to coax him back into the house.
Jay down the street had also returned from the war a different person. Before he’d left, he’d been a cool teenager with rolled-up sleeves who said he was going to kill him some g-o-o-k-s, but now that he was back, the coolness was gone, and he no longer seemed to remember any gooks. He glared at his neighbors, wiped his neck with a soiled handkerchief, and flexed the muscles in his jaw. He wore green coveralls to work on old cars in his driveway, his black hair slicked back with what looked like the same grease he used on the engines. He scowled at the kids who played near his house, and if a ball went into his yard, he’d turn red and shout, “This shit has got to come to a grinding halt!” My father said to stay away from Jay; he was a hairsbreadth away from going b-e-r-s-e-r-k.
I figured I would be sent off to war in a few years, and I wondered if I would come back crazy like Raja, or angry with a squirming jaw like Jay, or legless like Mike Juarez on the next block over, or dead in a box like Larry Brentwood three blocks away. I pictured my house with dark windows like Larry’s and a sad mother inside.
Queenie said they were looking for a place to put Raja, because he was too cuckoo for them to take care of. He walked in his sleep at night, and you’d wake to find him standing over your bed with a j-o-k-e-r f-a-c-e, or he would scream and scream, awake or asleep, and no one could stop him. They were filling out the paperwork, though it was a long wait, since there were so many others like him home from the war who needed help.
I tried to imagine what had happened to Raja and Jay in their jungle battles with the commies and the gooks. Though my father, who opposed the war, had shown Vietnam to me on a map, it remained in my mind not a country but a crack through which hippies and drugs and assassinations and taunting voices poured. Raja had turned the war into a song and trilled and warbled it and looked deep into me, as if waiting patiently for me to understand.
There were three pine trees between our house and the Carr house next door. The pines had once been Christmas trees and had grown so fast and tall after we’d planted them that we had stopped buying live trees. But they were easy to climb, with a canopy so thick people couldn’t see you inside unless they looked closely. Raja liked to sit cross-legged in the shade between these trees. I found him there one day chuckling to himself. He seemed at peace, as if he had left everything bad behind in the war or on the helicopter ride home. I sat down with him, and he smiled and made a cooing sound that bubbled like a flowing mountain spring. I had learned that I didn’t have to try to have a conversation with him. I could just say, “Hello, how are you today?” and Raja would take care of the rest.
He would speak again one day, I thought. Until then, I’d enjoy seeing fewer spelled words ticking across the top of my head. A stray cat I’d named Kiki came along and began to wind herself around Raja’s legs. He was delighted and petted the cat, and Kiki nestled into him and closed her eyes, purring.
Whitey showed up a few minutes later, a lit cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, and he sat down with us. He was so gaunt and blue-lipped and stringy-haired, it was hard to believe he could beat up just about any kid on our street. Whitey usually beat me up on Sunday afternoons. It was quick work. He had asthma, though, and later that evening he might come over to borrow my inhaler. But no matter what day it was, he never beat me up in the presence of Raja.
I asked Whitey to tell a joke, and he did, and I laughed loudly to show how much I appreciated his sense of humor, in the hope that one day he would call off his campaign against me. Raja laughed, too. His eyes danced, and he looked perplexed, as if for a moment he’d caught a glimpse of his old self and all the bad things he’d left behind.
Whitey liked to make his older brother laugh, but often in ways that seemed cruel to me. For instance, that day he said the word s-h-o-e-h-o-r-n over and over, and Raja doubled over laughing until he was gasping for air. Whitey kept saying “shoehorn” until I feared that Raja would suffocate. Finally Whitey slapped his brother on the back and said, “Come on, Raj. We gotta go inside for dinner.”
I watched them walk away together and smelled dinner cooking all up and down the block: sauerkraut and roasts and cakes and frying onions and chickens. African-village chanting started up in my head like a holiday by the river. The villagers sounded happy today, and I could hear the water slapping the shore. The sun slanted over the rooftops and sifted through the pines, which gave up the scent of medicine and vanilla wafers, and that, plus the good feeling that Raja had brought, summoned the memory of many Christmases past, so warm and far away.
Coming back from the 7-Eleven one cool, gray autumn Saturday with two grape suckers in my pocket and a bottle of Bubble Up in my hand, I saw Raja ride by in the back of a white car. The car had a wire grate between the front seat and the back. Raja was smiling. I waved at him, and he waved back.
When I got home, Queenie told me Raja had been taken north to a place called Vacaville, a f-u-n-n-y f-a-r-m for crazy veterans. Queenie had only recently grown breasts, and they wiggled as she talked. She said he’d taken a h-o-r-s-e p-i-l-l of mescaline, and he’d flipped. “Mescaline” sounded Mexican to me. Queenie made it sound as if the Mexican horse pill had been the cause of all his troubles. I wondered if he’d taken it before, during, or after the war.
There had been a song on the radio a year or so earlier called “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” I owned the 45. The tune started up in my head now, and honky-tonk voices sang along, and I tapped my knee to the beat as Queenie wiggled her breasts and I thought about the funny farm at Vacaville and Raja cheering up all the inmates with his bird laugh as the sun angled in through the big stained-glass windows. Ha-ha.
At dinner that night my father said he had seen Raja taken away. The men in suits had come. They had stayed awhile. Raja had bid his family a tender farewell. He’d been smiling when they put him in the car. “That was a good boy,” my father said. “What a shame.”
“What’s a horse pill?” I asked.
“A big pill,” my father said, “like you’d give to a horse.”
“A drug from a cactus. Stay away from it.”
That wouldn’t be hard, I thought. I had trouble swallowing even small pills, and there was nothing tempting about cactus.
Everything made sense now: a pill you’d give to a horse, full of a drug from a cactus, taken after coming home from a war against gooks, final destination Vacaville, which sounded like a vacation or a vacancy in a motel, and through the window of that motel I could see a host of distorted and hellish faces and old peasant women with mangled teeth who yacked and yelled at me without a sound.