"If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day, so I never have to live without you."
-- A.A. Milne
--Winnie The Pooh
I once knew a man named Matt who had to leave Ketchikan. He'd been there since surviving Vietnam. The first place the plane touched down after southeast Asia, the first peaceful land upon which he set foot, he vowed would become home. And he tried to make it so, but a man can be dragged like a salmon. He was pulled along the line, upon the hook set inside him at birth that made someplace else home, and every place else a story. So he made his way to the airport with his army buddy. The one who lived named Dave.
"Adventures are what you have when you're not home," Dave said. He tightened the buckles on Matt's jacket. Pulled them taut. Immobilized him.
Matt felt himself starting to cry when Dave shoved the ticket into his mouth. He didn't know when he'd see his friend again, and a big piece of his life was still tied with the idea he'd have to keep Dave alive even at the cost of his own death. He didn't have any other living friends.
And then Dave started crying too, only he pretended he wasn't. He had no friends who survived, either.
"Five hundred buckarinos," Dave said, and patted Matt on the shoulder. He guided Matt to the gate. Took the ticket from his mouth and gave it to the attendant, to whom he needed to explain the adventure before Matt would be let on the plane. He hugged his friend.
It was then that Matt realized not being able to hug Dave goodbye was costing him a lot more than five hundred dollars.
"Too late to chicken out now, bud," Dave said, tears streaking his cheeks, wiping at his nose. And he left Matt standing there at the Air Canada departure gate in Ketchikan, bound tightly in a straight jacket. And Matt was crying so hard they were sure he was an escapee from a mental institution.
So they took him to jail instead of letting him get on the plane.
He pled no contest to a count of "creating a public disturbance". They confiscated his straight jacket and sent him to Las Vegas.
So Matt lost the bet, and five years later, at Dave's funeral, he made good on it.
Handed the money to Dave's son. Said, "I was supposed to get across the continent in a straight jacket. See, in the war--we always said..."
But the boy had no context. He was the son who had never heard about the way things smelled of sweet and sulfur when they died in the jungle. Who had been spared the story of the time Dave killed three men to save Matt. Of how Matt, to keep Dave from being shot, wrung the neck of a young soldier after losing his rifle in the mud. Of how when they were taken prisoner, they dreamed of home, and changed themselves to get there alive.
"But it never really happened," Matt said. "It's just a story."
The boy, who absolutely did not understand the difference between stories and adventures, let go of the twenty-dollar bills, and the breeze in Ketchikan blew the money out to Stedman street and then into the channel between the islands.
"Promise me you'll never forget me because if I thought you would I'd never leave."
-- A.A. Milne
--Winnie The Pooh
Gareth Love sat behind two gin and tonics, a Bloody Mary, and a drink he called Nilsson Schmillson, a mixture of coconut milk, 151-proof rum, a splash of lime, bitters, a pinkie-finger of peach schnapps, and half-shot of blue Curacao for color.
"How'd you know it was me after all these years?" he asked when I introduced myself and sat at the bar next to him. He signaled the bartender and ordered me a gin and campari. A slot machine burst into electronic flames behind us, illuminating a blue-haired senior with the laser flashes of a triple-bar winner. Coins jangled noisily into the metal bin and a police siren blared while rotating lights attracted security and a pit boss. The woman clasped her hands together and held them to her chest as if she had just been shown a new grandchild.
I replied, "How'd you know my drink?" and he smiled. A busty woman in a miniskirt and a low-cut stretch top put down a cocktail napkin and pushed a martini glass my way atop it. She had a casino tag that said, "CHARLIE", atop one breast. I was fiddling with my wallet when Gareth nodded to her and she moved off.
He said, "Your father," and I shoved my wallet back into my pocket. "You got his look. Same kind of desire. We're all shadows of our old men."
"So it's a little lopsided, here. You got some of my history, but you--all I've seen are pictures. And you were a lot younger. Who'm I talking to?"
"Son of Edward and Monica Love," he said. He threw back his head, downed one of the gin and tonics in two swallows. Then face forward, spit out the ice and the lime. "Mom was one of the most successful madams this side of the Barbary Coast. That was the business we lived off of. Dad was a poker player with the track record of the Buffalo Bills. What she made, he lost."
I sipped at my drink while he spoke. "And so here's Ed North. Nom d'plume of one Elihu Nessinger. Born to David and Telulah Nessinger. Two years community college, associate degree in computer technology. Bachelor's degree in political science from Fairleigh-Dickenson College. Ten years working the city beat for the Newark Star Ledger. City editor -- Asbury Park Press, five years. Then some amazing stint with National Geographic for four years where you manage to nail four covers-- the green flash, the migration of African elephants through Mali, the Kung people of the Amazon, and the only filmed massacre of emperor penguins by a pod of orcas in the history of the human race. Did I recite that good? I got it from your jacket cover. I think he would have been proud of you. Except changing the name. That, he would have hated."
"Yah. Well, he's not here."
"And you're a smartass, just like he was. Know why he drank gin and campari? Because it was Hemingway's drink. He thought it would make him a great writer some day. Same for you?"
I pulled my green brain from my shirt pocket and noted the Hemingway connection, which I should have remembered. Lots of stuff I wasn't remembering. "Hey. There's prototol. Someone buys me a drink, I'm not picky."
He said, "So what else do you want to know?"
"Can we start at the beginning? How'd you meet?"
Love fiddled with the stirrer in his drink. Took another swallow. Another jackpot went off behind us. He said, "Summit of hill 1882. When I put in, there was nobody but your father and Jaros. Nobody alive, that is. Fifty-seven NVA regulars and twenty-two of our guys, deader'n shit. Just four lungs breathing on that damned hill."
"And that's how you met?"
"No. Actually met him in Saigon a couple months before. Some disco dive. But you can meet someone and never know them. The Dave Nessinger I knew climbed into the back of my helo with Matt Jaros and all of us were born that day. There was never anything before." He pressed his fingers into his eyes, then looked up. "You really want to hear this? You must have heard it before. It's all written down. Why you want to bug me about it?"
"I'm trying to figure out why Matt Jaros killed himself. Wanna know if you have some insight into that."
"Insight?" he said. "I got insight leaking out my ass I'm so full of it." Charlie came over and checked his drink. Poured him another gin and tonic. I waved her off and took another sip out of my martini glass.
But Gareth was eyeing me. Everything lopsided.
I downed my drink, asked for another, in a tumbler this time.
"So why'd he do it, Mr. Love?"
"You didn't come all the way down here to Las Vegas to ask me that. You could have called or written me one of your electronic messages. A man travels three thousand miles to ask a question, he's got something on his mind that's gotta be said eye to eye. Well, here I am, baby Nessinger. You don't remember, but I was there when you were eating pablum and shitting yourself."
So I put my notebook away. Mostly symbolic, anyway. Swallowed half the drink Charlie put in front of me. Mostly symbolic. Partly liquid courage.
"What really happened? They shoot you down. Take you prisoner instead of killing you. How'd you guys escape? What'd you have to do?"
Love tapped on the bar. Pursed his lips. Rubbed at his eyes again. "What makes you think we escaped?"
"They let you go? Did you make some kind of deal?"
"That's not what I said, baby Nessinger. I'm saying the people who came home, they weren't the same ones who left two years before. And maybe those guys who came back, maybe they had no more hearts. You know what I'm sayin'? What I'm sayin' is y'all didn't want the guys who came back. You wanted goddamned Tom Hanks and Jimmy Stewart and Mel Gibson, but we were just us. And you sent us there and forgot us, and all we had was each other. So fuck y'all. That's what I say happened, Ed or Eli or whatever your name is."
I waited a couple heartbeats, and then finished my drink. Threw a sawbuck on the bar. Picked up my laptop case and slung it over my shoulder. Thanked him for his trouble.
As I was leaving he called to me. I hadn't heard what he said, and when I turned back, he was waving my twenty toward me. "I said, your money's no good here. No son of Dave Nessinger buys a drink while I'm breathing in the same room."
"Give it to Charlie."
He hopped off the stool. "Don't make me come after you. Don't make me have to spend a thousand dollars in plane tickets to come all the hell the way up to the north pole where you live just to give this back."
I took the twenty from him, and he hesitated a second too long in letting go. "Why did you come here? Why all the way here? What story you think you're going to get picking on an old desert rat?"
The computer case slid off my shoulder and I put it down. Why was I there? I could tell myself I was going to write, to make it a business trip. "Uncle Matt's dead and I feel like--like they're gone. I just wanted to be with someone who knew them. Pretty unprofessional."
"Siddown, boy," Love said.
I told him I thought I didn't need anymore information. No more to drink. But I sat down anyway. Respect for my father. Respect for this living man who walked the earth with him.
He said, "Eli--I'm calling you Eli because that's what your father called you, so you drop that Ed North shit around me. Okay?"
I nodded. He went on, "Eli, everyone liked your old man. Yeah. Everyone did. Could tell a joke that would have you laughing two days later. Was always quoting from Hemingway and Shakespeare and Plato. I swear, the bastard had a library of books locked in his head. And he was great with the ladies. They liked him because he was respectful. Had better manners than the rest of us. And damn, he was handy. Could root around in a trash can and come up with parts to build a radio or a table and chairs. Hell if he couldn't fix a broken engine just by looking at it the right way. And brave--let me tell you--there was a time we were surrounded in an ambush. Pinned down behind a couple boulders and a grove of trees. They were dropping mortar rounds onto us, blowing them up in the trees so the shrapnel was tearing us to pieces. And he just charged the enemy position. Took out the mortar. And one time, after we got home, we got our girls and went dancing. He and your mother were Rogers and Astaire. I swear the man could dance like gravity didn't matter. We were younger than you are now when it all happened. We were just kids. Is that what you wanted to know?"
Now I could only nod. Charlie poured me a glass of ice water and I took a few sips.
"You were still a baby when he died of that goddamned cancer--all that he lived through to be taken out by an old man's disease. A damned shame. But I'll tell ya boy, I see him in you. You got his smile. The sparkle in the eyes. All the good parts of him are right there inside you. So don't you go worrying about the way it really was--because I just told you. And it's the truth. All of it."
I rubbed at my eyes the way I'd seen him do. Somewhere behind us, another old woman won another triple-bar jackpot. I thanked Mr. Love.
He said, "Nothing of it. A man travels three thousand miles deserves what he came for. Now did I ever tell you about a silly bet he and ol' Matt made when Matt and I left Ketchikan?"
I made it as far as Seattle. Spooked the guys in security something fierce. They didn't care about the story or the bet, confiscated the handcuffs and sent me packing to Alaska.
Back to where my father made my home.