She glowered at him, eyes narrowed, trying not to hear him. She studied his ruddy face with his pale, hooded, sky-blue eyes. His face was terribly like her own. When her mom was mad at her, she’d hiss in disgust, “You look just like him.” She hated the truth of it. His widow’s peak, his unruly hair and his godawful teeth: they too were hers. Years of dentistry prevented that oral disaster from playing out in her mouth, but it was a Sisyphean task. Her teeth would crack or break. The dentist would patch them up. They’d break again. Bob just let his teeth go. His smile had large gaps where teeth once were. Her eyes traced the holes along his gumlines as he spoke.
“That goddamned son of a bitch” pounded in an endless loop in her head while she tried to appear indifferent, as he plowed on in that flat, nasally Midwestern voice which was all too familiar. When her ears grabbed onto his words, she could feel the familiar anger rearing up on its hind legs with a desire to lunge at him. She reminded herself to episodically grunt or nod. The task helped to keep his vapid words at bay.
He was still droning on about "his kids,” as he called them. The expression grated on her nerves every fucking time he said it. Not only was she his kid, she was his firstborn. However, to avoid the responsibility of being her father, he volunteered for two tours of duty in Viet Nam. He tried to re-up a third time, but the army declined, explaining that only nutcases wanted three servings of that war and they wouldn’t take another known nutcase back there. Admittedly, he had signed up for the first tour before he knew her mom was pregnant, but that didn’t excuse the second and the attempted third.
The simple truth stung: this ratfucker actually preferred to shoot and be shot at in the jungles of Viet Nam than stay in Indiana and be her father and her mother’s husband. This was an inescapable fact and, as her mother would say, in resignation before such facts, “you can put chocolate on a turd and call it a donut. It’s still just a chocolate-covered turd.”
Her mind drifted back some twenty years ago when she was in her late 20s—a few years after her mom died of Melanoma—when she went to Viet Nam with a boyfriend. She visited the war museums in which they curated the personal effects of captured soldiered and downed airman: their dog tags; photos of their sweethearts or children; their dogs; watches; random pocket litter from their last trip to Bangkok. She wondered what would have happened if Bob had been captured. What artifacts of his existence would be on display? Did he have her baby picture in his wallet on his second tour? Her mom’s picture? She knew the answers. Or at least she thought she did. They divorced after he returned to the United States. He married his high-school sweetheart, leaving her mother’s life was ruined, condemned to go from one jackass’ bed to another in order to survive. Rural Indiana in 1967 was unforgiving of her mother’s circumstances, while the men, equally at fault, escaped judgment.
Waves of rage washed over her. She stormed out of the last museum she visited in Saigon. She strode up to the first sidewalk hawker she could find and bought a post-card depicting Ho Chi Minh, who looked so much like an ornery Colonel Sanders. She scribbled on the card hastily, “Dear Bob. In Viet Nam. Wish you were still here. Chris.” She had every intention of mailing it even though she didn’t have his address. But her rage made her tenacious. She would find his address and mail that motherfucking card from Viet Nam and he would see that stamp and post-mark from Saigon come hell or high water…or both. From an internet café, she opened up Alta Vista and searched “Bristol Indiana White Pages.” She was surprised that finding The Shitbird’s address was so easy. She scrawled out the address, set out to the find first post office and dispatched it before her conscience had a chance to advise against it.
Something he said caught her attention and dragged her away from her memories of 1998 Saigon, and back to Bob, sitting in front of her in this Indiana hellhole.
“Fuck this fucker!” she thought. “What the hell am I doing here?!”
She interrupted whatever useless thing he was blathering on about. She had to know. “So, Bob, did you ever get that postcard I sent from Viet Nam.”
For a moment, a look of hurt washed across his face. “Yes. Yes!” he said in a rising voice. “I did. And it was an asshole thing to do.” She was relieved that he got it and that it stung. She nodded and said “Well, I got the asshole gene from you, along with your shitty teeth and your goddamned cancer gene. I got nothing else from you except that pile of olid ass. Oh. A pile of shrink bills too.”
Here she was, at some execrable Indiana lake dive, because Bob called her to say he was dying from an aggressive cancer of his esophagus. He said that he was in a lot of pain. He said he wanted to see her. She and her husband Jeff drove all night, her crying most of the way. Tears of sadness, guilt, anger. When they got to Indiana, he was hardly dead. In fact, he was still a complete, unreconstructed, unapologetic prick who reveled in his hurtful antics. She felt she had been made a fool. Played in fact. As he bloviated about the tedious lives led by his unaccomplished, slothful children, she wondered how many times had she been in the hospital, alone? Where was he when she and Jeff lost their babies? Where was he when she had been abducted in Iran? When she nearly died in Kabul and Amritsar and Dhaka from food pathogens? Where. The. Fuck. Was. He?
And yet, despite their better judgment, she and Jeff were there were a second time. And he was still not dying. To wretched was immortal. She wondered if this boor might actually outlive her. It was possible that this clod would deny her the simple pleasure of micturating on his grave. Yet, despite her unending furor, here they were, sitting outside at a picnic table, on an August evening in shitty Indiana, when the humidity was exceeded in its oppressiveness only by the tiger mosquitos that bit through her clothes.