Ghost Lines

by James McAdams

“Remember Tour of Duty?” Clyde asked.  He filled his glass straight from the tap without removing his eyes from the bar’s TV.

The man sitting next to him finished his beer, his back humped over the vinyl counter, cracked and appearing vaguely tectonic in places. They wore sweatshirts advertising local sports teams with wrinkled slacks and sneakers, looking in parallel vectors at satellite footage of ammunition fire between rebels and police officials in the Middle East.  There were tanks, helicopters, dusty men in beards retreating into alleys, shooting. The screen was tinted neon and crossed with jiggling eerie patterns or ghost lines, either because of a weak satellite signal or the old cathode-ray TV’s over-heating. Sometimes the Vietnamese owner climbed up the ladder next to the sink full of dirty glasses and cigarette butts to slap the side of the TV, which made them laugh cuz who is so short he would need a ladder to reach the TV.  The owner was in the basement checking inventory, while his two children sat in their reserved booth in the back by the restrooms, sipping from juice-boxes and looking in parallel vectors at a Vietnamese broadcast of Sesame Street, neglecting their spelling homework. The TV said, “Ma” means “ghost” in Vietnamese.


“About the war,” Clyde continued.  “Vietnam.  Late-80s, like that period after Stone made Platoon and everyone was doing Vietnam stuff.”

“I remember Cruise as a cripple in that July 4th movie, Robin Williams as a radio guy screaming. I was working for the power company then, still with Angela, that bitch.”

“But this show was about a commando troop or something in Nam blowing up villages, fucking Gooks, getting high.  It was real anti-Reagan shit.  Anti-war.”

“In prison, I knew this dude, big dude, black, had this necklace made from Gook ears,” he said.

“Fuck if they could show that on TV now because of PC shit.  Even with Reagan in power then, all that PC shit started and it was every white male American for himself.  You couldn’t mention the Gooks and Spics taking over America.”

He looked over his shoulder at the children’s bent backs but didn’t lower his voice. It was only the five of them there.  LBJ Elementary had issued a half-day because of inclement weather so the children needed to be at the bus stop outside the MoneyMart at 11:37.  The foggy snow outside resembled the ghost lines on the bar’s TV.

“My dad campaigned for Reagan before the cancer.”

“He in the war?”

“Korea.” The man sounded proud.  “Three tours.”

“I meant Nam, Korea wasn’t a war it was a conflict.  It’s all different man—”

“He was shot at, that enough?”

Clyde rolled his eyes and made a kind of calm down gesture, lighting a cigarette and changing the channel to a bass fishing broadcast. He had spoken to the man beside him many times in bars throughout the town and seen him in St. Catherine’s AA on Wednesdays but couldn’t recall his name.

“He was in Nam,” Clyde said. “I had this world map Mrs. Hendricks gave us for winning Geography Quest in ’73 and Ma put it up on the wall in my bedroom with push pins, to follow him sort of.”

The other man whistled and pointed at the TV, saying, “Damn sucker’s gonna break his line there.”

“When we received letters from him about the battles, she’d tape a Monopoly piece to its location.  For the victories she taped the hotels, they were red, and for the losses she taped the houses, they were green.  Onto the map with scotch tape folded over behind itself so you couldn’t see. So there was all this red and green, but mostly it was red.  Red for winning, because of Gook blood.  That was the idea, Ma said, that we were winning. That Dad was winning.  Mostly the whole map was supposed to represent American victory and to remind me of Dad, who left for the war when I was two.”

“America.  I’m with you.”

The two children worked on their spelling.  The girl had a red backpack and the boy had a blue backpack.  Both backpacks had American flags stitched above the children’s last names.  The girl, who was older, erased a word on her brother’s Steno Pad: he had written “appel,” which she corrected to “apple.”  Then she corrected another word: he had written “gost,” which she corrected to “ghost.”  The last name on their bags was “Ng.”

“All those years I thought my dad was a hero, even after he returned home and got laid off cuz of the twitching, and started drinking all day and watching John Wayne movies with an empty .45 in his hand pretending to shoot at the Indians and Mexicans.  He’d hit my mom when she came in the room which caused the hip thing, the hitting and knocking down.”

“He hit you?” the man asked, filling his beer from the unmonitored tap, splashing beer onto the linoleum floor where the owner’d slipped that one night and they all laughed and threw peanut shells.

“When I was home I’d get in between them and take it.  Once he swiped me with the gun.”  Clyde pointed to a scar above his temple with his glass and the man whistled approvingly.  “My dad said the map was bullshit, ripped it up and made me re-paint the walls where the push pins fucked them up.  But when Ma died I was talking to my aunt Lydia…”

He ground out his cigarette into the ashtray and grabbed an open Fritos bag from next to the register. There was a little jar there with a coin slot and a stickered Habitat for Humanity label next to brochures for the upcoming elections on the register’s base.  Clyde stuck a handful of chips in his mouth and said, “Liddy, she found the ripped map parts in the basement, we were cleaning out the house after Ma died, and when I told her what it meant she looked at me weird like a dumb bitch and said didn’t I know my mom was color blind?”

The other man crunched loudly on the Fritos and licked the orange crumbly glaze from his fingers.  “I used to call my Mom ‘Mother’ when she was alive but it’s like I call her ‘Mom’ now, when I think of her. ”

“Color blind means green and red are the same.  They’re like brown or something. Different colors for different people.”

“Your Ma saw three browns.”

“Point is the reds she put up for Gook blood victories and the greens she put up for American losses were all brown to her.  And it was only once when I was in rehab for the second time and watching Tour of Duty that I remembered this and realized that Nam was just one big clusterfuck and Ma was wrong, that my dad lost all those battles, he lost everything, that America lost everything: the map, it just mapped failure. That he drank everything until there was nothing left to fuck up anymore.  That our family was fucked from the get-go.” He spit on the floor covered with peanut shells.   “This was after the time I broke Shirley’s clavicle.”

“The time the cop was a fag and you—”

“What was most fucked was when I realized all this, sitting on one of those moldy rehab couches thinking of this (he gestured to his beer), two base-heads listening to nigger music were playing Monopoly under a map or poster thing of the 12 steps, but they were playing with that tweaked hustler rule where landing on Free Parking gives you all this money, like it’s fucking welfare. I wanted to go bust the table over my knee but there were two security guys there too, so it was just the five of us in the room.  I left the next day.”

The children’d heard Gook before and spelled it, not on their Steno Pads with their used Dixon Ticonderoga pencils, but on recycled bar napkins in crayon, but they spelled it “cook,” as in “Cookie Monster,” the girl explained, nodding up at the furry blue figure on the screen.  She was older than the boy, who sometimes called her Mommy in his sleep. The girl had seen pictures of her mommy in the scrapbook Daddy’d brought over, and couldn’t wait to grow up and be pretty like her and possess–she thought the word was “aura,” what Daddy said Mommy had, and because of this “aura,” he’d explained, Mommy was always around, watching over them and protecting them.  The Daddy, who was summoning the Mommy’s soul or whatever while doing inventory on the Budweiser and Milwaukee’s Best pallets, recalled her straight black hair and white smocks and furtive, barefoot movements, her reputation as the greatest beauty in her smoldered village, and thought again then of her aura radiating like a gentle beam or line through their children’s eyes, as if she were an angel or beatific ghost, hovering around them in a different dimension.

“That bass must weigh 35 pounds or I’m a shitkicker,” mumbled the man whose name Clyde couldn’t remember, his mouth full of Fritos and beer.  “No way any one line can support that.”