Register Sunday | June 17 | 2018

The Time In Between

Fiction

There was the sun and then shadow and in the shadow a shape and the shape became a man and the man fell and on the ground, in the place of the man, there appeared a young boy with a hole in his neck.

The darkness and then the light and the boy's face came into the light. His feet were bare, his legs were bare, his chest, thin and taut, was bare. Just shorts with front pockets and the pockets bulged slightly and Charles thought later, if he wanted to believe something, he could convince himself that the pockets held grenades. More likely it was rocks, or some plaything.

When Charles was eleven he got a pellet gun from his dad. Went out into the wide backyard and shot at birds and dragonflies and smashed the window out of the neighbour's shed; a shot from a great distance that took out one pane of four, the exact one he'd been aiming at.

The fact was he had seen a man and the man had been reaching for something and so he shot him. The sun, playing hide-and-seek with the clouds, had jumped out too late and revealed the boy for what he was, a boy. But Charles had already killed him. And then, as if to underscore the necessity, Charles shot a pig that was running down the path and he shot a dog. A mongrel. An ugly little thing with a crippled back leg. No hair on the back, as if it were a large rat that deserved to die.

This little boy didn't have a gun. He didn't even have shoes. He was lying there, one leg tucked backward, his head turned slightly as if to look over his shoulder. Later, Charles considered going back to look at the boy, maybe it wasn't even a boy, but he never did.

It had been early morning. It was Charles Boatman's fifth mission with his patrol. Six men dropped into an isolated area, scouting for North Vietnamese coming down the trail, headed south. They dug in at the edge of a valley that was green and empty. In the distance there were wisps of smoke that Corporal Abel thought might be signs of cooking fires rising from a village. After the drop, when the helicopters were gone and the silence of the countryside had settled in, they waited. For four days they watched the trail and counted the soldiers. One morning, fifty-six North Vietnamese slipped by, quiet and orderly, carrying AK-47s. Harry called in the numbers.

Charles was bunkered with Harry. They whispered through the night. Harry told Charles about the girl he'd loved and left. He wrote her every day. She was religious. She loved God and she wanted Harry to love God as well and he said that he was capable of doing that. Harry said that God was in charge. Even here, in this madness, it was a comfort to know that someone else was in control. Charles listened to Harry and thought he was a fool, but he didn't say that. He just kept quiet and read his book, a Graham Greene novel, something Jimmy Poe, a former bunkmate, had recommended. Jimmy read a lot.

All of them had books. There was a lot of waiting and the waiting was interminable and so they read while they waited. They read and when they were done they traded books. They watched the trail and ate peaches and beans out of tins and they slept and then they waited again.

They were supposed to be picked up at dawn on the sixth day. However, the helicopters were called to evacuate the injured from a firefight north of their pickup and so they waited some more and then they got a call to march south, toward the area where they had seen the wisps of smoke. It was a terrifying walk. The group was skittish and by the time they reached the village they were expecting to take fire. They saw some movement. A woman cooking over a fire. A dog. A child running between the shacks.

Charles was walking point. The night before he'd written a letter to Sara. "I'm dug in and I'm looking up at the stars," he wrote. "Harry, my partner, is sleeping like a baby. He's a happy man who believes in Jesus and life after death. He would like me to believe this as well, but I've got more important things to believe in and dream about. Like this girl I know called Sara." He didn't tell her about anything that was true. He told her that all was fine. That he would be home in a couple of months and that he dreamed about her every night.

Walking point was like inviting death. You were all alone and you were the first person the enemy would see and of course you would get killed walking point. Charles wasn't killed. They arrived at the village and started a search. They set the huts on fire and there were children crying. Everything was going fine until someone started shooting. Charles had been in the doorway of a hut when the shooting started. He'd ducked and in the shadows he saw a shape and the shape moved and he raised his gun and at that point he saw it was a young boy and the boy appeared to be asking him a question but Charles shot and killed him.

Then Charles shot the pig. And he shot the dog. He didn't shoot any more people. His body moved slowly. Harry came up to him and started talking but Charles couldn't hear him, just saw his mouth moving. Harry saw the dead boy and pulled Charles away. After, he sat at the edge of the village. There was blood on his arms and boots. He didn't know where the blood had come from. He thought it might be the pig's blood and he wiped at it. The other men sat down beside him. There were only six of them and they had killed only eight people and some animals, but it was enough. Jimmy was off by himself, his head between his knees. Harry was high. He'd smoked a joint just that morning and Alex B. had joined him and so Alex was high as well. He was bragging about his aim.

Corporal Abel called for order, and Charles threw up.

Abel killed himself after returning to the States. But before doing that he got married and had children and found himself a good job at a lumber mill outside of Portland. And then, seventeen years after the war, he went over to his parents' house and late one night he sat in his father's car and ran a vacuum hose up through the window and gassed himself. Alex B. started a drywall business and got rich. Charles Boatman returned to Monroe and to Sara. They had three children: Ada, the oldest, and the twins, Del and Jon.

While Charles was overseas, Sara had taken on a lover, a bank manager who adored her but who had no interest in ruining his own marriage. The affair continued when Charles returned. He knew nothing, until the day the twins turned five and Ada, who was eight, asked him if Robert was coming to the party. Charles left Sara and the children and Monroe and the United States. He moved across the border, close to Abbotsford, British Columbia. Rented two acres on Sumas Mountain and bought an old caboose that he towed up the winding road. He renovated the caboose and insulated it. He sequestered himself, until Sara's motorcycle accident, when his children came along and forced him back into the world. They were ferried up the mountain in his mother's Ford station wagon. He squatted and held them and said their names softly, "Ada. Jon. Del." Ada, who was almost nine, looked him in the eye and said, "Sara's dead."

There wasn't a lot of history up on Sumas Mountain, nor was there a lot of curiosity about where Charles Boatman came from or what his story was. That was good, for the most part. Sometimes, though, Charles wanted a listening ear, a neighbour who knew the stories, or at least had seen them on TV, and cared about them. When he began to spend time with Claire Toupin, he at first loved her innocence, her manner of asking a question and lifting her chin as if this were the most important question in the world, one that had never been asked before.

She was a small woman, and if she seemed easy and malleable it was only an impression she liked to give. She wasn't that simple. The first time Charles slept with her, he was surprised by her forthrightness, by her directions, and by her knowledge. After, they lay side by side, arms touching, and he said that he hadn't loved anyone for a long time.

"I knew that," she said.

"I mean, I love my children."

"Of course." She kissed him, on the mouth and then on his chest. This might be the answer to madness.

But still the dreams came, and on the nights that Charles stayed over at Claire's, leaving his teenage children alone, he sometimes woke and sat at the edge of the bed and stared out the small window of the bedroom, breathing quickly. When Claire woke, she held him. She asked him what it was and he said, "Nightmares." Her hand running his spine, on his shoulder, fingering his neck. She pulled him back onto the bed and asked, "What was it?" and he lied and said, "It was Ada, she was drowning and I couldn't get to her," or "It was Jon, he was falling."

Claire's hair in his hands. Her head, the bluntness of the crown. Finally, unable to sleep, he said he was worried about the kids and he dressed and kissed her good night and walked back down the mountain to his own house.

One night he passed by Tomas Manik's place and he saw the lights on and a figure walking down the driveway to the main road and he recognized Del's gait, the slight sideways bob of her head as she walked. He waited for her and when she saw him she stopped and looked back at the house and then, as if resigning herself to some sort of inquisition, joined him.

"What?" Charles asked. "You sleepwalking?"

Del said that she probably was.

"That's the artist's house," Charles said.

"That's right."

"And you're visiting?"

"I guess."

"By yourself?"

"I guess."

"That's a lot of guessing. You a friend of Mr. Manik?" He pronounced the name wrong, with a long eon the last syllable, as if the man were not to be taken seriously.

"Yes."

"How good a friend?"

"Pretty good."

Charles didn't speak. They walked together in silence until they reached the house and then Charles said good night. Del looked at him and she went to her room.

He lay in bed that night and waited for sleep, but when it didn't come he got up and made coffee and sat at the kitchen table. In the morning Ada found him sleeping at the table. He woke and picked up his coffee cup and said, "Look at me, sleeping everywhere but where I'm supposed to."

Ada made fresh coffee, and while she did this he watched her. He said, "What do you think of Tomas Manik?"

Ada looked up and then away. She shrugged. "He's all right."

"You know about your sister?"

Ada said she did.

"And Jon, he knows?"

Ada nodded.

"So, I'm the only one in the dark here. Is that it?"

"Del was worried. She figured you might strangle Tomas."

"That's the goddamn truth."

Ada said that there wasn't anything they could do. Del had made up her mind. She faced Charles and said that he shouldn't do anything stupid. "Tomas pays you to machine metals for his sculptures. You need him."

Charles was astounded by his daughter's matter-of-factness. He said, "It's like I'm selling her then."

"That's ridiculous. This has nothing to do with you, Dad."

"Sure as hell does." He stood and pulled on his boots. Went outside and got into the pickup and looked out the windshield at the grey sky. Ada was watching from the kitchen window. He could see her profile and the fall of her hair. He started the engine, backed out of the drive onto the gravel road, and climbed toward Tomas Manik's house.

There was no one at the house, so Charles slid down the muddy path toward the workshop. He didn't knock, just walked in. Tomas was working and listening to jazz. The sound system he had was big, and a high whining clarinet filled the space. Charles stood in the entrance and watched Tomas work. He was welding, his back to Charles, and there was the flare of the welder and a brightness against the far wall. Tomas pushed his goggles up and turned and saw Charles. He put his tools down and walked over to the stereo and switched it off. He said, "Charles."

Charles stepped forward. He was breathless and he rummaged about for the words that would penetrate Tomas's smooth ease. He wondered where in this shop Del and the man would have had sex. Perhaps they went into the house.

"I'm here about Del. She's been coming here, to see you."

Tomas sat on a stool. He lit a cigarette and motioned at a free chair but Charles shook his head. Tomas said that it was true, Del did come to visit. However, he said, every time Del walked the mile and a half to his shop, she was choosing to do so and there was nothing he could say or do to stop her.

"You're fucking a minor," Charles said.

Tomas raised his eyebrows. "She said that? Or you?"

Charles stepped back. "I could kill you," he said.

Tomas shook his head. "You won't do that. Not because you're incapable. I can see what kind of man you are. I have known men like you, and normally they frighten me, but you, Charles Boatman, won't do such a thing. You love your daughter too much."

Charles looked around at the sculptures and the drawings and paintings. He said, "I bet you figure you're a pretty good artist. That this is real art. Big art." He swung his arm out at the space and said, "I figure you love this work." Then he said that it was dangerous to love something too much. Especially something inanimate. He walked over to a sculpture of stainless steel. It was a man, ten feet tall. Testicles of ball bearings and a penis of solid steel, turned slightly, with a circumcised tip of hammered copper. Charles had milled the metal for the piece and delivered it three weeks earlier. He touched the ball bearings and said, "I could castrate this fellow for you."

He looked over at Tomas, who was no longer smiling.

Charles patted the hollow thigh of the sculpture. "If you hurt her, I'll kill you," he said. Then he turned and walked to the door and stepped outside and walked back up to his truck. Sat in it and thought about Tomas and thought about Del. His hands were shaking. He started the truck and drove home and found Ada at the kitchen table. She'd done the dishes and made herself toast and eggs. She asked if he wanted some, and then, not waiting for an answer, she got up and turned on the element. Fried him eggs and laid them out on a plate with buttered toast.

Charles ate and watched Ada watching him. Finally, he said, "You wouldn't do anything like that, would you? Run off with a man twice your age?"

"She hasn't run off, Dad."

"She will. I can see it." He drank his coffee, put the mug down, and said, "I want to burn the man's shop down. But like you said, that would be like torching my own income. And so, here I sit, believing that money is more important than my youngest daughter."

"It's not."

"No?" Charles loved Ada's confidence, the fact that she didn't trust the obvious. Whereas Del was enthusiastic and gullible, Ada was skeptical. She would suffer for it. He didn't tell her that, but he could see that hers would not be a naive existence. He said, "The man's too damn smug." Then he sighed and asked Ada about Claire Toupin. What did she think of her?

Ada made a face. Said that it was unfair to ask, because obviously he liked her and it didn't matter what Ada thought.

"Oh, it matters. It might not change anything, but it matters."

"She's plastic," Ada said.

Charles lifted an eyebrow and said, "Well."

"At least she looks that way. And even when she talks, everything's so exciting. She's too happy. She doesn't seem very"-Ada moved a hand, looking for the word-"very aware."

"She's good for me."

"I know."

"I could use some happiness."

"I'm glad for you, Dad. Really." She stood and kissed his forehead. She had just showered and he smelled the shampoo and her hair was still damp. Its length fell forward and brushed his cheek and he recalled Claire's hair falling against his chest. He wanted to hang on to this brief moment.

-from The Time in Between by David Bergen, to be published by McClelland & Stewart Ltd in August 2005. This excerpt has been edited for the purpose of this publication with the author's consent. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.