by Christian Langworthy
My brother and I were the sons of my mother's clients. She never told us their names. She just said that they were both killed in the war. One father died in a helicopter accident, the other was ambushed while crossing a bridge. She told the same story to all of our neighbors, but even as a child, I sensed that she was lying. She never cried when she related these stories to anyone and seemed to enjoy each moment of the retelling. She even laughed once, recounting to a woman how she loved my brother's father more than she loved mine.
My mother's clients were all around us, on the street corners and in the pool halls. They were prison guards, truck drivers, mechanics and pilots. They were sergeants and majors, captains and corporals. My brother and I watched as they performed their military duties in the prisons, on the streets, or on the landing zones. We watched them pilot their Hueys and Chinooks, and caught bubble gum thrown from the back of deuce-and-a-halfs. They were our heroes, and we were fascinated by their weapons of war. We often imitated the way they walked and carried their rifles. We played war games on the streets with the neighborhood boys. Every military piece of trash that we found became a prized possession: belt buckles, brass shells, helmet liners, or canteens. But the most prized items were live rounds. We spent endless hours trying to fire the rounds, striking the priming caps with nails or dropping them off rooftops onto cement. We unscrewed the bullets from their brass casings and used the black powder to make crude fire-crackers which we threw as if we were throwing grenades. We wanted to be soldiers. We wanted to march on the streets with the men in the green uniforms. But what my brother and I most wanted was for one of these men to be our father, though our mother told us our fathers were dead.
My mother's clients talked to us in a language we didn't understand. They patted our shoulders, handed us candy, and the men who stayed for more than a day bought us toys like boxing gloves and battery-powered toy jets. We never saw our mother together with these men. She would leave for a day and come back late at night and, if she thought we were awake when her clients were around, we always heard whispers and hushed voices.
One afternoon though, during the height of the monsoon season, my brother and I slept in the far back of the bungalow behind a make-shift bamboo partition. It was dark in the bungalow and we awoke suddenly, disturbed from our daily nap. Through the pattering of the monsoon rain, we heard voices groaning. Being curious, we both went out to the front room which was lit by a hurricane lamp. In the center of the room on a table, an American man was on top of our mother. My brother and I, our curiosities piqued, approached the table and walked around it. Our mother told us to go back to sleep, but we ignored her and watched. She was wearing a blouse, but was naked from the waist down, and the man's green trousers hung around his ankles. His hips moved up and down. He said something and our mother yelled at us, and we ran into the far, back room where we always pretended to be asleep. Lying on floor mats, we heard the man yell at our mother and the door slam shut as he left.
Weeks passed, the monsoon season ended, and the men in the green uniforms entered and left our lives. More and more often, they were sleeping in our bungalow. One man let my brother and me drink a little whiskey after he had sex with our mother. Another man was taken away by MPs who knocked on our door in the middle of the night. Whenever we could, we slept cuddled with our mother, but her clients took most of her nights. It was only during the afternoons, when temperatures were too hot to do anything, that our mother napped with us in the cool air of the bungalow and held us in her arms.
One day, my brother and I returned from playing on the streets to take a nap. A soldier was with our mother. She told us that he was staying for a short while. My stomach felt sick. My brother went into the bungalow and laid down, but I ran back out to the streets. Something had gotten into me. I searched for a stick, a long piece of metal, anything, but all that I could find was an ice-cream stick broken in half lengthwise down the middle. Wielding the ice-cream stick in my hand like a knife, I went back to the bungalow. My mother and the soldier had come out to look for me. I confronted them near a neighbor's clotheslines where white bed sheets hung. I'll kill you, I shouted at the soldier and waved the ice-cream stick threateningly. Go away.
He did not understand what I had said, but he understood my body language. He laughed. My mother was furious. She was going to hit me, but the soldier stopped her. He pulled money from his pockets and extended his hand. I grabbed the money and ran to the nearest street vendor where I bought a pop-pistol and roamed the streets, shooting at people until it was time to go home.