Jeffrey Hollar’s Picture Choice: Both
Title: From Wheat To Rice: An American Tragedy
The sun was just sinking in the west as they walked hand in hand down the dusty country lane. In some ways, he was glad he’d changed his plans and not taken the earlier bus. A part of him, though, wished he’d just had the decency to make a clean break of things and go do what needed to be done.
As they walked, he looked out of the corner of his eye at his companion, the only girl he’d ever loved. Perhaps, loved was too strong a word. He’d known her since they were both just diapered playmates. Theirs was a small town and the houses far between, so it was only natural they’d spent much of their childhood in each other’s company.
With the passage of time and the inevitable biological changes of puberty, their relationship began to transform and become something all at once different and yet comfortably the same. It surprised no one when they began attending school dances together, progressing from that to regular Friday night outings to the movie house in Grinnell or whatever else passed for social activities in their backwater, Corn Belt part of the world.
As they neared the end of their high school days, they were more and more inseparable as graduation from school, and with it, graduation into the next phase of their life as adults at last had come to pass. Neither having the grades, or the money for that matter, to consider further education they bid fair to follow the familiar path of generations before them in the Midwest.
His choices consisted of finding a position making automobile parts at one of the plants in Belle Plaine or making the daily drive to Cedar Rapids for work in the rail yards or the Quaker Oats plant. She intended to stay on at the family farm and help her folks out. There was less of an expectation for a woman in that age to be commercially employed.
Their plans seemed altogether predictable and reasonable for their times and their relative situations, until the world was forever changed for them on an, otherwise, ordinary June evening. They were heading to the church social in town when they first saw the crowds of people outside Finnerty’s Appliances.
It seemed as if everyone they knew were clustered around the store’s wide plate glass window, all transfixed by what was being broadcast to the half dozen large televisions on display. Joining the crowds from sheer curiosity, whispers and mutters drifted back to where they stood. President Johnson…some place called Viet Nam…and…and…war?!? Yes, the United States of America was making its stand against the Chinese and Russian communists and there was to be war.
Nobody was quite sure what this meant or what to make of it, but he knew, in an unexpected epiphany, what it meant for him. It was no more than three days later he announced to his parents his intention to join the Marines. If Americans were fighting and dying somewhere half way around the world, how could he, a young man of conscience, not do his part? To avoid the threat of Communism and its evils was unthinkable, wasn’t it? No, a line needed to be drawn or else what right did America have to call itself free?
Understandably, his mother was distraught and appalled. His father understood his son’s fervor all too well. Having missed Korea by naught but a whisker, he knew what it was like to feel the need to step up and assert America’s right to be a world power. He told the boy he’d smooth things over with his mother and would drive him into the city that Friday to get the ball rolling. He took him aside and, in hushed tones, told him it might be wise to speak to his girl about his intentions.
He’d gone and found her straight away. He’d been uncertain of what to expect but had, certainly, been unprepared for the outrage and the unbridled anger in her over his decision.
“It’s not like they drafted you or anything! What are you thinkin’ of…or are you thinkin’ at all? We’re just a coupla dumb Iowa farm kids, Billy. We don’t have any call gettin’ into world politics or wars or messin’ around in the affairs of a buncha Oriental folks on the other side of the planet! It’s not right. It just…well…it’s not.”
He’d tried to explain, to reason with her and when that failed, he’d grown angry. He’d yelled at her for the first time since they’d been kids. He was a man and a man had to do what needed done, had to do the right thing. If she couldn’t see that then he was real damned sorry but the matter was settled and that was that.
His bus was due to leave from CR at 8 sharp. That gave him little time to spend a last bit with her before he left. They walked in silence, her holding on to him in a desperate hope he’d change his mind. When that appeared unlikely, she broke from his grasp and ran across Johnson’s Lane and in to the fields of wheat. When he’d caught up to her, she slipped his grasp and began to dance.
She twirled and swayed in the late afternoon sun, the wind whipping her dress up to show the lean, tanned legs he’d come to know so well. Transfixed by the sight of her in her youth and her beauty, he watched her in mute wonder. At length, she finished, as if on some unheard cue, and came to stand close to him.
“Stay with me Billy. Stay and make a life with me…here…and now…stand with me. We’ll move far, far away. We’ll get us a house and we’ll have babies and I’ll make us a life we can be happy with and never think of wars or politics or any of that ever again. Only…stay with me?”
His heart beat fair to bursting as her words weaved a magic as old as time and he felt his resolve weaken. But, when words finally came to his choked throat, those words were, “I can’t.”
I can’t…I can’t…I can’t feel my legs, he moaned softly. He knew he’d been hit, hit more than once. That worthless butter bar hadn’t had the sense to listen and walked them straight into an ambush.
The damned Cong had cut them to ribbons and he’d seen the el-tee stitched from neck to knees with enough bullets to near tear him in two. As was always the way of it, it was over damned near as soon as it started. The fury and the heat of battle vanished and the gentle sounds of the jungle again asserted their control.
He’d tried a dozen times to get up but his body would not respond. He’d tried calling out, knowing the danger in being heard, but he needed help and he needed it bad. No one had answered his frantic pleas.
He wasn’t sure why the Cong had gone without ensuring their kills or stripping the bodies but he didn’t really care. What mattered now was that he was alone…alone and dying half a world away from anyone who cared.
It began to rain, at first soft and cooling and then in the characteristic fashion of monsoon season. Rain, he mused, it’s always raining here…always raining…always raining.
As the downpour steadily decreased to light mist and stray droplets and night began to fall, he knew this was the end. If any of the men were still alive, if any aid were coming then the time for it had come and gone with no response.
As the darkness called for him, his eyes were, briefly, dazzled by the sun of a dusty Iowa wheat field and the vision of a woman dancing, dancing for him and calling for him to stay. Rain mixed with blood mixed with tears as he closed his eyes for the last time, wishing he had listened and wishing he had stayed.
Jeffrey Hollar is half Klingon, half Ferengi, visiting Earth in an attempt to negotiate a merger. He is currently working on a novella and a collection of zombie stories with his wife, Lisa McCourt Hollar. Jeff writes almost daily for his blog, The Latinum Vault, found at http://www.jeffreyhollar.com.