by Scott Beard
Chris peeked over the twenty year old walnut veneer of his mother's cabinet entertainment system. It was state of the art in 1969, when the whole family had chipped in to buy it. A fully automatic twelve inch phonograph, AM-FM stereo, and an eight track tape lay within the belly of the heavy wooden beast. Lacquered brass handles, finished to look like an antique, had stood out on the scrollwork in the front. Twenty years of loving care from Doris, Chris's mother, hadn't been able to keep the handles from breaking off or the drive belt for the eight track from snapping.
"I'm not sure that I can’t do anything, Mom," Chris pronounced from behind the cabinet like a reluctant surgeon facing a scared patient.
"What did Henry’s say?" Chris asked.
"Oh, they're just crooks. They drink, you know. All the time. I think they just want me to send it in so it can sit in their shop for five weeks, collecting dust. They can't fix anything, you know. Not since their mother died. She died of cancer. Poor thing. We were real close, you know. I practically raised them boys myself. She was a drinker too. I think she neglected them boys too much. That's why they drink. They feel neglected. Maybe I should send it in. Just to give them a little business. They were always pretty good little...."
Chris dropped back on his haunches, his forehead the only thing his mother could see of him. He threw the boy scout flashlight to the ground and grabbed two handfuls of his thick, short blond hair. He knew that his mother could go on for hours like this. He leaned back until his head touched the wall behind him. "Mother," Chris shouted, "what did Henry's say?" "Oh," Doris said, blinking profusely, "ah, they said that the belt was broken. I just slipped in my Slim Whitman tape. I like to listen to him sometimes when I vacuum, you know. Anyway, I put it in and started to vacuum. I had just finished the door mat when I noticed that the music wasn't playing. At first I thought it was because of the Slim Whitman tape, so I put in one of Denny's tapes. the Doors or something, and nothing still was working. So, I turned on the radio and that worked. So. I put on a record, Boxcar Willy, you know, and that was playing so I just vacuumed to that. After I was done vacuuming, I called Henry's to see if they’d come out and take a look at it. They said the belt was broken."
Chris stood up, brushed off his pants and looked down at his mother, who was still trying to talk to him through the speaker. The passage of time hadn't been kind to Doris. She had gained seventy pounds in twenty years.
Combined with her short white hair, small stature and bright red cheeks, she reminded Chris of an older version of the kid on the Dutch Boy paint can. "Mom, what did they say about the belt, can you get a new one?" he asked. Doris was startled and looked up without bothering to straighten her back. "They said that it'd be hard to find a new one, but they'd try," she replied. "In the meantime, Barney told me that if I found a rubber band, I might get it to work. It would have to be the right size because if it isn’t, then the tape would run too fast or too slow, either one. Anyway, I've been asking all your brothers for any big rubber bands they could find. Here they are, could you try them?" Doris dug a handful of thick, wide rubber bands out of her plain cotton summer dress. Chris reluctantly took them from her. In the process of handing them over, Doris dropped four or five on the lid of the cabinet . "Mom, I don't see why you have to go through all this trouble. I mean this thing is over twenty years old. Besides, how many eight track tapes do you have?" Chris dropped the rubber bands behind the cabinet. He looked intently at his mother. pleading with his eyes, hoping she would tell him to forget it.
"Well, to tell you the truth, I've only got the one tape. Slim Whitman, you know. It's his greatest hits. He sold more records in England than Elvis. I got his tape. But there are Denny's. I thought I'd keep it going for his tapes." She lifted the cover over the eight track and looked at a row of ten tapes. She reached down and gingerly touched each one of them in turn, her eyes glistening. Chris looked at his own feet, trying not to see the small collection of tapes. He knew he could fix the tape player, if he had the right belt. But he was unsure if he wanted to. It would necessitate the use of a tape. Since he was unwilling to listen to Slim Whitman, he had to choose from the other nine selections, one of Denny's tapes.
Clearing his throat and swallowing, Chris spoke up, "I'm sorry to say this, Mom, but .... I... shit, I don't know. This damn thing is just too old for anyone to fix. God, I'm only nine years older than it." Looking wounded, Doris said, "But you're only thirty-two. It's got a few good years left, doesn't it?" Knowing he was defeated, Chris whispered, "I suppose I can try." "Would you, honey? I'd... I'd... I'd appreciate it. I've got to clean the bathroom." She paused next to the shelf over the couch and picked up the military portrait of Denny. Holding the gold frame carefully, she fogged the glass and gently wiped it clean with a Kleenex from her pocket. She placed it back on the shelf, next to Chris' nearly identical military portrait.
Chris watched his mother leave the room, knowing she was leaving to cry again over the death of a 19-year-old son. He reached down into the storage rack and looked for something he could listen to, something other than Slim Whitman. Each of the titles he recognized: Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, several others. He selected Chicago IX, and slid it home in the slot of the tape machine. He pulled it out just enough so that the familiar click of the motor sounded, the drive spindle slowing to a stop. Chris picked up one of the rubber bands and stretched it onto the flywheel and the motor spindle. Shuddering slightly, wiping his suddenly runny nose, he lightly tapped the tape into place and "Saturday in the Park" began to play at half speed.
* * * "When do you have to go back, Denny?" Chris asked. "In a couple of days. Don't worry about it. Today we're going to do something together, just you and me. So, what do you want to do; go fishing, ride the Honda, go to Devil's Lake, what?" Chris looked up to his brother and thought. All those choices were inviting, but his ten year old mind kept telling him he wanted to see the tape player again. He was fascinated by the reel to reel tape machine his brother had brought home from Vietnam. He overheard his older brothers talking about how it was really expensive, but Denny had bought it for half price in Bangkok once, when he got a few days off. Chris had snuck up to Denny"s room and looked at it. Buttons, dials and gauges festooned the front. He didn't want to take a chance of breaking it, so he had only stroked its smooth aluminum casing. "Do you think we can do something with the tape player in your room?"
"Sure," said Denny, smiling, and putting his arm around Chris. "You know something. kid, I'm going to miss you when I have to go back. Think you could write me a letter or two every once in a while? It gets pretty lonely out there sometimes." "Yeah. I can." Chris straightened up and smiled. "I could write you every day, if you wanted me to." They were entering Denny's room when he replied, "No, you don't have to do that. Got to have some time for playing, don't ya?"
Chris stopped and stared while Denny took the metal cover off the reel to reel. He was thrilled his brother would let him play with it. Denny turned around after setting up the machine, "Well, what now, kiddo?" "I don't know," whined Chris.
Denny sat down on his bed. He chewed on his fingernails while he was thinking. Chris noticed there wasn't much to chew because all of his nails were bitten far back on the finger, some red and sore looking. Chris sat down on the bed and tried to imitate Denny, chewing on his fingernails and trying to look serious while keeping sight of him out of the corner of his eye. He focused on Denny, trying to burn the image into his mind. When he looked across the bed, he saw Denny's dark brown, short hair, big white teeth and muscular body. Although the family said that Denny looked exactly like Chris when he was young, Chris thought they didn't look alike at all. "Chris, tell you what. Go to your room and get your record player. Then get all of Mark's and Randy's albums and 45s. Bring 'em all back here. OK?" Denny smiled at his younger brother and tousled his brush cut, blond hair.
"Why, Denny?" Chris asked, puzzled. "We're going to play radio station. You can be the DJ while I work the reel to reel. Now git going." Chris shot up off the bed and yelled "all right!" as he ran out of the room. A few minutes later, the radio station was set up.
"OK, kiddo, this is the Doors, playing`Light My Fire," Denny read off the 45. "Then we'll play Jimi Hendrix, Creme and some Beatles. Got that?" Chris nodded and picked up the microphone. "This is radio station WKOYST, playing the best stuff there is. This is the Doors, playing`Light My Fire,' then we'll play Jimi Hendrix, Creme and some Beatles," Chris parroted. The now familiar opening to "Light My Fire," sounding like a carnival calliope, began while Denny reached over and hugged Chris. "You're a pro, kid." Chris beamed in the sunlight of his brother’s affection. The two brothers spent the rest of the afternoon in Denny's room, playing records, Chris making up new call letters each time. Only their mother calling them down for supper ended the play.
Two days later, Denny packed for the eighteen hour flight back to Vietnam. Chris stood in the background, helping when he could, but mostly trying not to cry. Denny very deliberately re-folded, into precise 6-inch squares, the clothes his mother had cleaned. The reel to reel tape player, together with the tapes themselves, was left in the care of Chris's older brother. New concert tee-shirts, eight track tapes and other mementos of home took its place in the army issue duffel bag. After Denny was completely ready, his duffel bag set next to the front door, the family sat down to a final dinner. The kitchen, usually bustling with energy, was silent. After dinner, Denny hugged everyone and his mother and father drove him to the airport in Madison. Chris was left home because it would be late when his parents returned. He watched a Jerry Lewis movie on the TV for a while and then trudged up to bed.
A few weeks after he left, Denny began to send tapes home instead of writing. He also sent home a cassette player, giving Mark sole responsibility for the taped messages. When the tapes arrived and were played, it was an event for the entire family. Chris usually found himself on the long wooden bench that ran the length of the eight foot long metal framed kitchen table, stuck between cousins. Cups of cherry Kool-aid lined one side of the table, while cups of coffee sat in front of the adults. His mother would arrange everyone to her satisfaction
"All right, everyone, be quiet. I'm going to start the tape." Chris's mother, Doris, took the tape out of the smoky white plastic case, in which the tapes always arrived; she had already discarded the thick brown paper that it was mailed in. She gently handed the tape over to Mark and clasped her hands together. Chris imagined her praying, hoping that the tape would turn out right. "Mark, come over here and turn on the machine. Carol and Randy, be quiet. You want to hear your brother, don't you. He sent this all the way from V;etnam, you know. That's halfway around the world. I can't imagine what that tape has been through to get here. So, you two respect your brother. This tape is all we have ....."
"Dorry, why don't you be quiet yourself," interjected Chris's dad. He was a man who didn't speak much but when he did, the family listened. Doris, who usually wore a yellow flower print summer cotton dress, even in the middle of the winter, took a crumpled Kleenex from her pocket. Chris read and re-read the words stamped on the back of the cassette player. He listened to Denny speak.
"Right now we're getting a lot of rain. It probably rains ten or twelve hours of every day. That's on account of it being monsoon season. Fortunately, I've got a relatively dry bed to sleep in every night for the next few weeks. I'm in an Army helicopter base, guarding the Hueys. That's the name of the helicopters, Huey. They're used for everything over here."
Denny rambled on and Doris' eyes began to grow heavy with tears. His voice, from so far away, always drew sniffles and tears out of her whenever a tape arrived. Denny spoke for almost an hour, talking about friends, and home, anything that he could think of. When the tape was almost over, he said almost the same thing every time. "I sure hope you guys send me back a tape soon. It sure is boring here, not much to do except read and listen to music. Take care of all yourselves and write soon. Signing off for now. See you all soon."
After Denny’s taped message was through, Chris drifted off to the living room to watch TV while the others taped a return message to Denny. His mother deemed herself responsible for the amount of time each person got to speak and called out to the ones in the living room to get in the kitchen and say something.
Chris would go back into the kitchen when his Kool-aid was through, mostly to see who was talking and what they had to say. "I've got to get a new manifold for my car," Chris heard Mark say. "...And you know, I just don't know whether or not I should take the job from Ollie Reynolds or not. What do you think? I told him I’d call him in a few weeks, before spring was over and I have to start a summer job." Randy was saying when Chris entered the kitchen for his third Kool-aid. Of course, all Carol could talk about was her upcoming wedding and her being sorry that Denny couldn't be there. When the tape was almost through, Doris called from the kitchen. Chris rushed in and took up the microphone in his hand. "This is radio station WAMFF, broadcasting from beautiful downtown Kilbourn, Wisconsin. Hi, Denny. I hope you're doing OK. I'm pretty good." His enthusiastic banter would go on for the three minutes his mother allotted him. Then she took over the controls. Chris would pick up a new glass of Kool-Aid, return to the living room and wait for the next time a tape came in the mail and he would be allowed to speak to Denny. This routine went on for seven months, until the Army car with the young officer and a Pastor stopped in front of the house. The last tape arrived a few days after the polished aluminum casket. Attached was a letter from one of Denny's buddies, telling how Denny had died in a Bangkok hospital of pneumonia. No one got to hear what the last tape said. Chris's mother kept it in her jewelry drawer, unwrapped but unheard. On the dresser was the tape player, the cord hanging limply over the edge.
* * * Several weeks after the funeral, where 21 rifle shots seemed to pull a final veil over Denny, Chris snuck into his mother’s bedroom. He took out the tape, gripped the slippery metal handle of the cassette player in his hand and ran up to his room. Nervously. he placed the cassette into the machine. He unplugged his record player and put in the tape player's plug. Sweating in the August heat, he tried to recall how his brother turned on the tape. The tape machine was always facing away from him when he sat on the bench listening to Denny. He pressed a button and no sound came out, but the tape was moving. Chris switched it off and found the rewind button. The second time around he found the play button and nothing but hissing came out of the speakers. After a few minutes of white noise, Denny's voice came shooting out of the speakers, in the middle of a sentence.
"...and I've got at least three more months in country. I just don't know what's happening here anymore. More and more people are getting zapped. Saigon says our kill ratio keeps getting higher, but the VC keep coming back. Nothing seems to stop them. Night after night of fighting. I'm tired of this shit. I want to get the hell out of here. The worst thing is..."
Chris knew instantly that he had erased part of the tape, and with it, a part of Denny. He scrunched his eyes tight to hold back the tears, but it was useless. He immediately turned off the tape player and sat in the comer of the room, his knees brought up to his chest. Placing his face in the valley between his thighs, he sobbed, trying to ignore the sound of the traffic outside his window. In his mind, he could hear his mother, wailing and shrieking, in the same way that she had when the dingy olive drab sedan pulled up in front of the house. He could see her crying, slumped in a chair. Her awful moans breaking into accusations. "Do you know what you've done," he could hear her saying, "You’ve destroyed a part of your brother." His mind kept playing over and over these words when Chris realized that his awful secret might be found out.
He slunk his way back to his mother's bedroom and placed the cassette player and cassette back in their proper places. He never told his mother what had happened. Several times he wanted to go back and listen to the tape but he didn't have the courage. Once he even had the tape in his hand but, ashamed of what he had done earlier, immediately put it back. His mother must not have ever played the tape because he never heard her say anything to anyone about it. But the dread of being found out hounded him every day of his young life.