Chapter 34—"Piece Of My Heart"
“Rick, convince me to shift my major from journalism to sociology.” I was eating a vegetable lasagna listening to Janis Joplin.
“Sociology is a worthless profession. Stick to journalism.”
“Should I enroll in your American Subcultures course next semester?”
“It’s going to be great.”
“Would I get an automatic ‘A’?”
He grinned. “Not on your life.”
Easy banter filled the dinner hour. Finally, Marty made his move. “Hey, Beck. Want to go to the homecoming dance with me November first?” he asked.
Janis Joplin was belting out "Piece of My Heart." Did I want to give a piece of mine?
Later that night in my attic room I thought about Marty. Oh, my god, I don’t want to fall in love with Marty. If we become lovers it will ruin our friendship. It will ruin everything. I can’t risk it. I have to tell him no.
But on the other hand, he is my best friend. And it is only a date. It’s not like we’re getting married or anything. He only asked me to the homecoming dance. He didn’t ask me to be his girlfriend.
What if he wants more than I can give? What if he thinks that I want more? What if things get awkward in the house? What if he dies?
I tried to read my history book but couldn’t concentrate. I tried to fold my clean clothes. I folded one t-shirt and threw it back in the corner. I picked up my guitar figuring I could strum my way out of this. After “Leaving On a Jet Plane,” I put the guitar back in the corner. I couldn’t get Marty out of my head.
“A glass of wine,” I thought. “That will do it.”
That’s where I met Marty. He was sitting at the counter in the kitchen, tearing an anti-war pamphlet into tiny pieces, drinking wine out of a quart mason jar with a gallon of Pisano on the counter in front of him.
He looked at me as I walked in. He was half-drunk already. “Hey.” Marty held up his quart mason jar. “Want a drink?”
“That’s why I came down.” He got a clean jar from the drain tray, filled it half way up with wine and handed it to me.
“What are you doing here in the kitchen tearing up an anti-war pamphlet into little pieces?” I took a drink of wine.
“I am tearing an anti-war pamphlet into little pieces.” He downed the rest of the wine in his jar and continued to rip the pamphlet into smaller and smaller bits.
“I hear that’s what people who are anti-anti-war people do when we hand them a pamphlet. Are you trying to tell me something?” This conversation was going nowhere. I needed more wine. I finished up the half mason jar and held it out to Marty for more.
“When I get really rich or even a little bit rich or even just have a real job, I am going to buy myself some good wine. This really doesn’t taste very good.” Marty filled up his jar again almost to the top.
“It’s terrible,” I agreed. “Ripple is even more terrible and that’s what Hook used to drink all the time.”
“I actually do my best thinking while drinking bad wine.”
“What were you thinking about before I interrupted you?”
“That is a very interesting question.” He pushed all the tiny pieces of the anti-war pamphlet into a pile. “I was wondering what would happen if everyone in the whole world jumped at exactly the same time. I believe there is enough power in the entire three and a half billion of us that we could literally change the course of history with a single jump.” He picked up the tiny pieces of the pamphlet, held them at eye level, let go and watched them float down to the counter.
“How could you get everyone in the whole world to jump at the same time?”
“I thought about that too. I happen to be a brilliant thinker, you know.” He looked at me, smiled, and pushed the hair out of his eyes. “We would advertise in all the major newspapers in the world and on all the most popular TV shows. That would be your job since you are a journalist.”
Marty poured more wine into his mason jar. I slid his jar out of reach. He didn’t notice.
“When the time came, the entire world would say at the same time. One. Two. Three. BAM.” Marty hit the table.
I jumped. “God. You scared me.”
“See it works. All it took was—One. Two. Three. BAM.” He hit the table again. “Everyone jumps at the same moment and everything is different. We would shift the world. No more war. No more draft. No more poverty. No more death. No more pain. What do you think?” He looked around for his jar of wine.
“I think it has potential.”
“How did my wine get all the way over to the other side of the counter?” he asked. “See, I told you it works. One. Two. Three. BAM. And suddenly my jar of wine is somewhere else. I know it will work. It’s the way to end the war.” He leaned over, got his wine and drank.
“I’m sure if three and a half billion people all jumped at the same time something would happen. I’m not sure we can make it happen.”
“Oh, ye of little faith.” Marty got up. “I’ll show you how it works. One. Two. Three.” Marty tried to jump but stumbled into the counter, knocking over his jar of wine. I grabbed a towel and threw it over the spilled wine before it had a chance to drip to the floor. “See, it worked. All I had to do was jump and the jar falls over. Just think of three and a half billion people jumping.”
Marty sat back down. “God, I’m drunk.” He put his head down on the little pieces of anti-war literature on the counter.
“Let me help you to bed.” When he looked up at me he had tiny pieces of paper stuck to his forehead. I picked them off, pulled him up, put my arm around him and helped him up the stairs. When we got to his room, he looked at me.
“I love you, you know,” he said.
“Yeah, I know.”
“No, I mean, I really, really love you.”
Marty collapsed back on the bed. I took off his shoes and covered him with a blanket. Before he passed out he said, “I love you for real.”
I woke up the next morning and knew I had to get to Ginger. Drinking wine with Marty and listening to him solve the problems of the world by jumping hadn’t helped. There was still the problem of the homecoming dance.
I took the 2:00 p.m. train into Chicago. When Ginger answered the door all I could say was, “I can’t fall in love with Marty.”
Ginger sat me down at the kitchen table and gave me a cup of coffee. “He asked you to the dance, Becky. That’s all.”
“But what if we have a good time. What if he decides he wants to date me? What if we make love and then he decides he doesn’t like me anymore? What if he dies?” I couldn’t breathe.
Jake walked into the apartment and saw me sitting at the table. “Becky, what brings you into Chicago?”
“Marty asked her to the homecoming dance,” Ginger said.
“It’s about time.” Jake poured a cup of coffee and joined us at the table.
“What do you mean by that?” I asked.
“He’s been in love with you for two years, ever since you came to your first anti-war meeting.”
“Shit.” It seemed like an appropriate response. It didn’t really solve my problem though or deal with the issue at hand. “He can’t fall in love with me, Jake. It will ruin everything. And then he’ll probably die.”
“He’s not going to die, Becky. And besides he doesn’t need to fall in love with you. He’s already in love with you.” Jake stood up. “I’ll let you two talk. Call if you need my advice.”
I looked at Ginger. She smiled. “You would be crazy not to know that he likes you, Becky.”
“Shit,” I said again.
“Saying shit is not going to help.”
“What am I going to do? Besides you, he’s my best friend. I couldn’t stand it if we weren’t friends anymore.”
“He’s been your best friend for a long time, Becky. See what happens.”
“Maybe I should tell him I changed my mind. Maybe I shouldn’t go.”
“Go, Becky. It’s just a dance.”
I spent the night in Chicago but had a hard time falling asleep. The pull-out couch in the living room was lumpy and this fear thing took hold of my brain. I relived the fight Marty and I had over Rick moving in. What if we became enemies and fought all the time? I would have to find some place to live, move out, leave Marty, leave Peter and Rick, leave the dogs.
Just before dawn I fell asleep. I dreamed of Hook for the first time. He was standing on the beach far away. He tossed a rock into the water. It skipped forty-six times. He turned towards me and yelled, “Did you see that?”
I yelled back. “How in the world did you do that?”
“You can’t skip it forty-six times if you don’t toss the stone.”
I ran down the beach towards him but the more I ran, the farther away he was. He began to fade. I ran faster. Right before he disappeared I heard him say, “Toss the stone, Becky. Toss the stone.”
I woke up crying. Ginger heard me from the kitchen. She sat down on the bed next to me and handed me a cup of coffee.
“I dreamed about Hook,” I told her. “He told me to toss the stone.”
“Hook always had good advice,” she said.
“What does it even mean?”
“You’ll figure it out.”
The homecoming date remained unspoken. An uneasiness lingered.
I begged Ginger and Jake to come visit the next weekend. “I can’t stand it anymore, Ginger. I was playing my guitar last night. Marty was on the couch looking at me. He didn’t say anything, didn’t drum the table like he usually does. He simply looked at me. I finally went upstairs.”
They came. It helped. Everything seemed normal again. As we sat in front of the fireplace after dinner, Jake said, “Draft lottery in December. You ready?” The first draft lottery since 1942. Birthdays, drawn out of a bowl to determine the order of who gets drafted. The lottery would determine the fate of males born between 1944 and 1950. How could anyone get ready for that? You’re number one you die. You’re number three hundred and sixty six you live. Marty shifted uneasily in his chair.
“You ever read that story called “The Lottery?”” I asked. “I read it in a high school English class. Every year this town has a lottery and the person who wins gets stoned by the whole town. We had a lottery in my class. The person who won had to do what we said. Like bring a piece of gum for everyone. Wear your shirt backwards for a day. Stuff like that. The freshman class football star picked out the Black X. He basically said he wasn’t going to play and that was it.” It’s like if they gave a war and nobody showed up.
Marty stood up. “Why didn’t people in the town just say no?” He leaned down and cleared the coffee table with one sweep of his arm, walked out of the room and up the stairs. We watched him go and twinged when we heard his door slam.
We stared at the stairs. “What was that all about?” Rick finally said.
“I don’t have a clue.” I picked up the magazines that landed on the floor next to me. “Somebody should go talk to him.”
I looked around the room and realized everyone was staring at me. I shook my head no. They shook their heads yes.
I went upstairs and knocked on the door. No answer. “I’m coming in.”
I found Marty staring out his window into the darkness twirling a pencil in his fingers. He turned around when I walked in, snapped the pencil in two with the fingers of his right hand. He threw both pieces, one by one, towards the trashcan in the corner. They ended up on the floor.
I walked over and picked up the pencil pieces and threw them away. “I didn’t think the story was that bad,” I said.
Marty walked over to his desk, picked up a piece of paper and handed it to me. He still hadn’t said anything. He hadn’t said whether he liked the story or not or why he cleared the coffee table and broke the pencil in one snap.
I read the paper. “Your application for CO status has been denied. If you have questions about this decision, please contact your local draft board.” I looked up at him. I saw the tears as he pushed the hair out of his eyes.
“Why?” I asked, tears forming in the corners of mine.
“How do I know? I pretty much said the same thing that Jake did on his application. What am I going to do?”
“Maybe you’ll be lucky with the lottery.” I put the paper back on his desk.
“Maybe I won’t.” Then Marty walked up to me and kissed me soft and deep and long. I kissed him back. Outside the Milky Way filled the night sky with its infinite stars. I felt lucky. It was a perfect moment.
The kiss remained unspoken.
The night after Ginger and Jake left, Marty and I sat at the counter drinking milk and eating cookies.
“Becky, the Turtles are playing a concert Friday night before homecoming. Want to go?” Marty stood up and started humming, tapping his fingers on the counter.
“Don’t you dare start quoting their songs and don’t you even think of singing.” Marty moved towards me.
He did anyway. "So happy together."
I put my hands over my ears. Toss the stone, I kept hearing in my mind. No, I said back. Then it was more insistent. Toss the stone, Becky.
He sang about how we could be happy together and that I was the girl he loved. Then the words got twisted. They always get twisted when you're dancing with someone so it seems.
“Those aren’t even the words,” I said. He was looking right at me while he sang and tapping his fingers on the counter. We had a kiss, one kiss, that’s all. What does a kiss mean after all? He was upset. I comforted him. What do I do now? He’s singing about the girl he loves so happy together. He’s my friend, for god’s sake. I couldn’t figure out what else to do so I decided to sing with him. Then for the life of me I couldn’t remember the words. Maybe it was because he was staring right at me, grinning and tapping his fingers on the counter. “What is the next line?”
“I know that song like the back of my hand,” he said but couldn’t come up with the next line either. “Something about blue skies.”
It was the tapping, the eyes, something welling up inside me. I’m scared, I thought. Everyone I fall in love with dies.
You can’t skip it forty-six times if you don’t toss the stone.
Marty walked over to the pile of records stacked next to the record player. He found the Turtles, put the record on, lifted the needle and started the song. He walked over to me, took my hand and pulled me off the stool I was sitting on. He put his right hand on the small of my back, just tight enough so I felt secure, just light enough so I wanted more. I put my left hand on his shoulder, my fingers on his neck. He put his left hand in my right hand and slowly we moved eyes connected. His fingers on my back tapped ever so slightly to the beat. My fingers on his neck did the same.
He loves me. For the rest of his life, the song said, he said. We stopped moving except his fingers and my fingers. It was me and him, him and me. The song ended and we stood there. I was still rubbing his neck with my fingers. He was still caressing my back.
The stone skipped forty-six times.
In all my amazing fantasies, I could never imagine I would be going to homecoming with the guy who two years before at freshman registration brushed the hair out of his eyes and told me Garson was the best.
In high school, I created amazing stories in my head to deal with my loneliness. Paul McCartney wandered down the street of my hometown, saw me lying in a hammock in my back yard and vowed to wait for me until I turned eighteen. Or my favorite TV character, Dr. Kildare, became real and we ended up together. But nothing was as fantastic as reality.
We saw the Turtles the next Friday night. Marty held my hand throughout the entire concert. Saturday, we went to the football game. I don’t even remember who won. And then we went to the dance. Holding hands with Marty and dancing. And when a slow song played, holding Marty and dancing.
I felt almost whole. The edges of that tiny hole in my heart for Jeff and Hook weren’t ragged anymore. They were smooth like stones tossed and skipped.
When we got home from the dance Marty said, “Want a cup of tea?”
A cup of tea? I thought. A cup of tea? I didn’t want a cup of tea. I wanted him. Desperately. That’s what I wanted. Him, wet and wild, against my body. So I said, “Sure, chamomile.”
He put a kettle of water on the stove, put two chamomile tea bags in the “Tea-for-Two” teapot and wound it up. He pulled two cups out of the drain tray and put them on the table. The honey was on the table next to the jar of Vitamin C. He walked back to the stove and turned around. “I want to tell you about my brother.”
That was the last thing I expected. “Now?” All I knew about his brother was that he came home from Vietnam after being shot in the spine.
The kettle whistled. Marty poured the water in the “Tea-for-Two” teapot and brought it to the table.
Marty poured tea into two cups and pushed the honey over to me. I poured some into my cup and pushed the jar back to him. He sat there not taking the honey, not drinking the tea.
“What I remember first about my big brother, Billy, was sitting on his lap at my dad’s funeral. I must have been about four years old. We sat in this graveyard on grey metal folding chairs. Mom had a black veil over her face. Someone started shooting guns. Billy held me tight on his lap so I wouldn’t run towards the guns. He kept saying to me, ‘It’ll be okay.’ I idolized him. He read me bedtime stories when my mom couldn’t, those little Golden Books. My favorite was Scruffy, the Tugboat about this boat who takes this journey out to sea.” It had been one of my favorite Golden Books too but I didn’t want to interrupt his story to tell him that. It seemed unimportant.
“He played games with me; Candy Land, Cootie, Chutes and Ladders.” Marty got up from the table and started pacing.
“As we got older, Billy started bossing me around and I got in his way more and more. I remember once when he was about twelve and I was nine. He went out to play basketball with his friends. Mom told me not to bug them but I did anyway. I snuck over to the park and told Billy I wanted to play. ‘Go away, brat,’ he said to me. I ran home crying.”
Marty ran his fingers through his hair and rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands. He sat back down and took a sip of tea. “Damn, that’s hot.” He blew in the cup.
“God, day by day more memories flood into my mind. Things I did with my brother. When Billy was thirteen he caught a foul ball at a White Sox game and had it autographed by his favorite player, Nellie Fox. When he left for college he gave me the ball for safekeeping. Let me show you.” When he came back, he was holding the ball. He turned it over and over in his hands.
“I remember his first real date and how long it took him to get ready. Mom drove him to pick up the girl and they went to the movies. After he came home he woke me up to tell me he was in love. He was fourteen.”
Marty put the baseball on the table and took a drink of tea, then reached for the honey. “Billy got more tolerant of me as he got older. He became my hero. I could count on him for anything. He went away to college at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale when I was a sophomore in high school. During vacations he came home and told me stories of college. I couldn’t wait to go.” Marty wiped a tear from his cheek and sat silent.
“Marty.” He looked up at me. “You don’t have to go on.”
“No, I do. I want you to know. I don’t know why he enlisted. Everything was going great for him in college. But that summer after his junior year, the summer I graduated from high school, he came back one day from town with his papers and told me he joined up. I asked him why and all he could say was, ‘I figure I might as well get it over with. When I get back they can pay the rest of my way through school.’”
Marty poured more tea. The teapot kept playing “Tea-for-Two” but it was getting slower. It ground to a stop. Marty poured some honey in his tea and stirred and stirred, staring into space.
I leaned over the table and took hold of his hand. He looked at me. “I think the honey is well-mixed,” I said.
He smiled. “Billy went to basic training and in October I get a call at Lake Forest that he’s being shipped to Nam but he’s got a few days leave. I head home for the weekend. Billy and I smoke dope and talk. He’s scared. He doesn’t want to go. He remembers more than I do when dad came home from Korea in a box. I tried to reassure him that it would be fine but I didn’t believe it either. He told me that when he was at college in Carbondale he saw a recruiting poster. There was a marine in his dress white uniform, yellow braids on his shoulders, a gold handled sword by his side, saluting the flag in the distance. He enlisted because of that damn poster. He said to me, ‘Basic training was never like that. Nothing was ever like they said it would be.’ He wanted to get out of it. I’ll never forget him saying, ‘I think it’s too late.’”
“The dope had its effect and we put on music and ate chips until we both crashed. I got on the bus back to Lake Forest the next morning and that was it.” Marty stood up and got the cookie jar from the counter. He took out four cookies and handed the jar to me. I pulled out a Vanilla wafer and bit off a tiny piece.
“He wrote regularly, mostly to Mom but she forwarded the letters to me. Six months later I got a call from Mom that a bullet shattered his spine and he was coming home. He remained in the hospital for four months. He came home the summer after my Freshman year.”
I put the rest of the cookie in my mouth. I had to do something to stop myself from crying. It didn’t work. I picked up a cloth napkin from the basket in the middle of the table and held it to my face, pressing it against my eyes.
Marty continued, “I was there when the military jet landed at the airport in Springfield and they wheeled him off the plane. There was Billy, staring straight ahead. The marines who wheeled him out said to my mom, ‘Your son is a hero.’ Billy looked at them and said in a voice almost too low to hear, ‘I’m no fucking hero so shut the fuck up.’ Mom pretended not to hear.”
“When we got him home, he wheeled himself into the downstairs bedroom in front of the window that looks out into the back yard and didn’t say a word.”
Marty stopped and drank some tea, cold by now, took another cookie and chewed aimlessly. “He’s been home for more than two years. The VA did some counseling with him. They said that in addition to his spinal injuries he had combat fatigue, shell shock. And then the VA decided that since he didn’t get better in six months, his so-called combat fatigue was really a pre-existing condition and they wouldn’t give him counseling anymore.” Marty looked straight at me and asked, “What is wrong with the U.S. government anyway?” I didn’t know.
“That’s my brother. He still has nightmares and reacts to every loud noise. His anger consumes him. He sits in that room day after day after day. He sits at the dinner table with mom but doesn’t say very much. She wheels him to the local Memorial Day or Fourth of July parades and people clap for him. He reads and he sits.” Marty stopped again and looked at me. “Sometimes I think it would have been better if he had died.”
“You don’t mean that.” I knew he did. Sometimes death is sweet release.
I got up and went to Marty. I sat in his lap and put my head on his shoulder and cried. When the tears stopped, he took me by the hand, walked me to his room where we held each other until we fell asleep.
U.S. Soldier Body Count: 46,339