Major Charles David Richardson had just gotten back a few days prior from a tour of duty overseas. It wasn’t even a full tour, though, because some bright boy in the Pentagon decided it would be more efficient to change the system of rotation. So instead of being on West-Pac for thirteen months, he and his unit had been sent to Iwakuni, Japan for only six. That half-tour had included time aboard the aircraft carrier, USS Midway, an old World War II hulk that had originally been planned, and partially built, as a battleship.
Here, too, some Pentagon bureaucrat had decided to change the game; the top of the ship had been removed, and a flight deck, and directly below that a hangar deck, had been slapped on. But it still had the rounded hull of a battleship, making takeoffs and landings a more precarious proposition.
Major Richardson didn’t know much about physics beyond the necessary college courses he’d taken to get his Bachelor’s degree in mathematics. So he couldn’t explain, even to himself, why a boat with a round hull rocked more than one with a straight-line hull. It didn’t make any sense to him. But he’d never been interested enough in the matter to look into it. All he knew is that the ship rocked too much for his liking, especially after hitting that typhoon pulling out of Subic Bay in the Philippines.
Now here he was, back at good old Cherry Point, North Carolina, and wishing he was back in Iwakuni, or Subic. He’d had a good woman in each of those places; the one in the Philippines had wanted to get married. He wasn’t going for that, though; he’d heard the tales of Marines and sailors who had married girls in other countries, only to be dumped after they got back stateside and the girl got her citizenship. Huh-uh, no way, Jose!
But when he made the effort to go within himself for a bit of analysis, he had to admit that the real reason had nothing to do with those stories. Truth was, he still hadn’t gotten over being dumped by his old sweetheart, who had been still in high school when he’d finished boot camp and gone on to Avionics school at Naval Air Station Memphis in Millington, Tennessee after ten days leave. She didn’t like that he had to be so far away from her all the time, and she’d let him know it, in letters and phone calls, and in person when he was home on leave or on a four-day pass.
It was so long ago, though, and he sometimes wondered why he still cared about that. It was almost like a grudge, and he didn’t much care for that. He didn’t think about it most of the time, so he didn’t have to deal with it. Or so he thought, anyway, except on those rare occasions when he allowed himself to consider it.
Major Richardson was an average-looking man, in his own estimation. Women had told him he was handsome but he generally brushed that off. He’d always suspected an ulterior motive and never gave a thought to the possibility that one or more of those women had given an honest opinion. He told himself that he didn’t care, but he knew, deep down, that was a lie. And here, too, he was unwilling to dig any deeper into his subconscious; he would never admit it, but the thought of doing that scared the crap out of him.
This was one of those days when he’d allowed himself that brief moment of introspection. That morning he hadn’t slept well at all. He knew that meant something was going to happen that day, but he had no idea what. And he’d never been wrong about this. Usually it was something minor; once in a while it was a big event in his life that seemed to come out of nowhere. But at the same time, he knew that wasn’t true, because in those instanceshe’d dreamed it anywhere from two to six months before. And it always happened exactly as he’d dreamed it. He never told anyone about this, because he knew instinctively that there would be a nice padded room waiting for him if he did. But it was his private truth, and he couldn’t avoid it, no matter how much he wanted to. And he did want to, very badly.
He got out of his bed at the Bachelor Officer’s Quarters and headed for the shower. The nap he’d tried to get in hadn’t done him any good at all. After putting on some jeans and a red T-shirt with the Marine Corps emblem on the back, he went out, got in his car, a black 1968 Jaguar XKE. He drove off base for dinner, knowing that he had to eat something whether he wanted to or not. He didn’t want to go to the Officer’s Club, even though they had some pretty decent chow there; he wasn’t anxious to mingle with his fellow officers.
He drove through the main gate, entering the town of Havelock. He turned right, on Fontana, heading toward Main, to the twenty-four hour restaurant on the southeast corner, the Steak and Egg. They had the best rib-eye steaks in town, and the service was pretty good. He figured he’d head out to Atlantic Beach afterward and enjoy the night life for a couple hours; it was Friday, and the main bar out there, the Sand Dollar, had a band playing on weekends.
After a late evening dinner of T-bone steak, mashed potatoes, sweet corn, home-style biscuits, and carrot cake for desert, Major Richardson paid his tab, left a tip for the waitress, and headed out the door. As soon as he got in his car, he put a tape in the player, one that would put together himself, of songs from different styles of music with the same theme. The first song was “Blowin’ In The Wind” sung by Bob Dylan.
He drove east on Main until the street name changed to Arendell Street when he got to Newport and “One Tin Soldier” by Coven was playing. About fifteen minutes later, he turned right on 32nd Street in Morehead City, listening to Johnny Cash singing “The Man In Black”. He crossed the bridge to Atlantic Beach.
At the end of the causeway, he bore right, onto Central Drive, which became West Drive, pulled into a diagonal parking space, just as Jim Croce’s “I Got A Name” came on. The song before, “another Johnny Cash number called “Six White Horses”, had depressed him a bit; it was about the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King. So he listened, as Croce crooned,
Like the pine trees lining the winding road,
I’ve got a name,
I’ve got a name.
Like the singing bird and the croaking toad,
I’ve got a name,
I’ve got a name.
And I carry it with me like my daddy did,
But I’m living the dream that he kept hid.
So he listened; and as Croce crooned on, He started to feel better about himself and life in general. That song always picked him up, reminding him that in spite of all that had happened in his life, he was still here, still breathing, still healthy. He got out of the car and locked it, making sure to turn on the theft prevention device he’d built especially for this vehicle, which would give an electrical shock to anyone touching the various latches and sound a very loud alarm.
The song was still playing in his head as he entered the Sand Dollar. He headed to the bar and ordered a bottled Dr. Pepper; he didn’t want any beer since he was driving. He took his soda to the pinball machine near the door, put a quarter in. As he played, the place filled up with people coming to hear the band, The Jesse Bolt Band, which was starting to warm up before their first set.
He finished his game, which had lasted nearly half an hour, took the last swallow of his drink, and started to turn around to head back to the bar. He figured he’d grab a table near the back, relax and enjoy the music; he’d heard this band was pretty good. But as he took that first step, he literally bumped into someone.
She was a small woman; she looked kind of boyish, really, but still, definitely a woman. She had a huge head of hair; tight almost black curls extending out at least eight inches from her head. She was really thin, maybe a hundred pounds, if that, standing a bit shorter than his own five feet six. As soon as he made contact, he moved quickly to grab her arms to stop her from losing her balance, then let go just as fast, convinced that she wouldn’t fall.
She’d been looking down at the floor for some reason. She looked up and into his eyes, just for a second, then instantly looked away again. She mumbled at the same time he spoke louder, to be heard above the noise, the same word: “Sorry.” They just stood there for a brief moment, him watching her, she pointedly not looking at him.
Then the Major said, “My name’s Charlie. What’s yours?”
She continued looking away, not really focusing on anything. “Marissa,” she answered quietly. She rolled the “r”, and the “i” almost sounded like an “e”, so he knew with a reasonable certainly that she was from somewhere outside the States.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
She looked back down at the floor as she answered, “Puerto Rico,” so quietly that he almost didn’t hear her. But hear her he did, as the whole of his attention was on her, with just enough left over to remain aware of what was going on in his immediate vicinity.
He smiled. “Really? I’m going there for a couple weeks next month. Well, ten days really. But I don’t know anything about it besides the name of the base I’ll be at, Roosevelt Roads Naval Base, and the main city, San Juan.” He looked around quickly, then asked in rapid succession, “Maybe you can tell me something about it. Will you join me at a table? What are you drinking?”
She lifted her head up to face him again and briefly looked into his eyes as if gauging him. After a minute or so, she replied, “Pepsi,” then hesitated before saying “Thank You” almost as an afterthought.
She followed him to the bar to get their sodas; he got another Dr. Pepper; then they went looking for a table. Charlie found one, a good distance from the stage just as he originally wanted, and they took seats opposite from each other, positioned so they could each turn their heads to watch the band when they began to play. They talked a bit, small talk mostly, until the first guitar chord was strummed on stage. They talked more between sets, finding out, a little bit at a time, something about each other.
Charlie had intended to go back to base, to his place in the BOQ, after the second set; but in spite of himself he was fascinated by this shy, self-conscious woman. He wanted to get to know her, and he couldn’t figure out why. What was so fascinating about her? He couldn’t say. It was like those Chinese finger puzzles, and he couldn’t get his mind out of it.
The third set was over, and the band had already done their encore. But the bar patrons had clapped and chanted “More! More!” over and over, loudly demanding another set, or at least another song. And so the band came back onstage, to even louder applause mixed with whistling, clapping and foot-stomping. They ended the show with a rendition of Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down To Georgia”. And when they were finished, the band leader announced, “Good night, everyone! See ya’ll tomorrow night!”
People started leaving, drifting out the door by ones, twos, and the occasional threes and fours. By closing time, two in the morning, Charlie had asked Marissa if she wanted a ride home. She told him that she’d only been in the area a few weeks and was still learning her way around, and that she’d appreciate a ride to her house because it was too far to walk, especially as late as it was.
They were the last customers out of the bar. When they got outside, most of the vehicles were gone. They got in the Jag; Charlie started the motor and pulled out, going around the circle until they came back to the causeway. Back across the bridge, left on Arendell for a couple miles, and then left again, into a driveway that ended next to a house trailer, the only one there, with an old house on the left and a wooded lot on the right.
Charlie got out of the car and walked around the back to open the passenger door for Marissa. They walked slowly up to her porch together. He took her hands in his and discovered that she was shaking like a leaf. It was a bit nippy, being February, so that was understandable.
After a couple minutes of standing there, looking at one another, he let go of her hands and said, “Well, I have to get back to base and get some sleep.”
She looked at him for a moment, just as she’d done in the bar; then she said, “You’re tired, Charlie. Why don’t you stay here tonight? You can sleep on the couch, and I’ll make you some breakfast in the morning. I don’t want you to fall asleep while you’re driving.”
He looked into her eyes, searching still for clues to why he was so taken with her. Then he quietly said, “Okay.”
Marissa dug her keys out of her pocket and unlocked the door, reached inside and turned on the inside light. Then she went in, and Charlie followed.