By Neil Mathison
We followed the comet. Bremerton to Moses Lake, Moses Lake to Missoula. It was April Fools Eve, 1969, the USS Epstein back a week from Nam. McMurty was AWOL. In two days, I’d be AWOL too, me with only ninety days and a wake-up till I was out of the Navy. We were “rescuing Darla.” That’s how McMurty put it, although McMurty needed rescue too. Darla was McMurty’s main squeeze. She worked at Heavenly Donuts, outside the shipyard gate. Her dad, a pipe fitter, prone to violence even sober, was looking for McMurty. McMurty wouldn’t say why. McMurty had decided the comet was a sign to get out of town – he called the comet “Bart” – although why somebody would name a comet Bart, he said he’d never know.
“It’s called Bennett,” I said although correcting McMurty was always a risky proposition, given as he was to his fits of temper.
“Who gives comets such dead-end names?” McMurty scratched his chin. With his two missing front teeth and his black beard and his black jeans and his black sweater and his Navy P-coat cowled over his head he looked like a mad monk.
“The guys who discover them,” I replied
“We’ll call it Ben,” McMurty decided. “And maybe me and Darla will get married, if Nevada’s on the way to West Virginny.”
Which it wasn’t.
When Darla saw McMurty, she ran to the car and kissed him through the open window. “Daddy gets off in thirty minutes,” she whispered. “We got to go.” Darla still wore her Heavenly Donuts pink dress with a little baker sewed to its breast pocket, a donut halo embroidered over the baker’s head. She was seventeen, her hips wide and her breasts small and her forehead pale, with yellow hair like the Virgin Mary’s yellow hair, at least how I remembered the Virgin Mary’s hair in my Sunday-school picture books. Darla was no genius but she had a sweet-mindedness about her, which was why I loved her a little, but I took care McMurty didn’t see it. In Olongopo City, the Philippines, McMurty had broken the jaw of a second-class engineman who’d just glanced at a bar girl McMurty fancied his own.
McMurty slid the van’s door open. Darla hopped in sitting Indian-fashion between McMurty’s wood crates, tin ammo boxes, yellow battle lanterns; a damage control ax he’d stolen from a repair locker; a velvet painting of a naked lady riding a tiger he said he’d won in a Subic Bay poker game. I’d brought a duffel bag and a few blankets. Darla had her purse and a toothbrush.
“Let’s go, Professor Jones,” McMurty commanded.
McMurty called me “Professor” because I’d attended junior college whereas McMurty hadn’t finished eighth grade but the rest of the Epstein crew called me “Moose” because I was as strong as a moose and I had the slow-to-get-pissed-off temper of a moose. At least that’s how the crew saw it. Darla just called me Jonsie.
McMurty reached over the seat for Darla’s hands, “Ain’t it great to be free?”
I wasn’t feeling all that free. I was worried about going AWOL. Worried about Darla. Rain beat against the van’s windshield. The sky was as dark as an Old Testament plague. “Where to,” I said.
“Follow Ben-the-Comet,” McMurty anwered.
McMurty was from West Virginia. He pretended to be hillbilly, though he’d actually grown up in Charleston, and his daddy was a coal miner, not a hillbilly. But still, McMurty tried to live his life like he was a character in a country-western song. In the Philippines, he’d hunted snakes on the Officer’s Golf Course – cobras, kraits and kings – and he’d skin the snakes and get the Electronic Techs to light off the SPA 40 radar and he’d climb to the top of the ship’s mast, where he’d microwave them in the SPA 40’s beam. In Japan, he convinced a covey of schoolgirls that he was Johnny Cash. The girls pursued him through the streets and bus stops and railway stations of Kamakura and Yokuska and Yokohama squealing Johnny-san, Johnny-san! until McMurty favored them with an autograph. He knew things you wouldn’t necessarily expect, like the names of wildflowers: butterwort, paintbrush, and saxifrage. He played the fiddle so that once, in Australia, we spent a three-day leave with a gang of born-again Aussie motorcyclists, McMurty serenading their prayers with Amazing Grace and A Mighty Fortress is Our God, pretty enough that if you didn’t believe in God, at least you saw why others might. But I knew what the bikers didn’t know: that McMurty’s God wasn’t to be trusted, prone as he was to tricks and trouble and practical jokes, like McMurty himself.
We called ourselves “Los Dos Compadres.”
But on this April Fools Eve 1969, the ship back only a week from Nam, I was thinking more about how to get back to the Epstein than about Los Dos Compadres and how to take Darla with me and how to leave McMurty behind and how to accomplish all this before Tuesday quarters.
At Snoqualmie Pass crossing the Cascade Mountains the rain lifted. We could see Ben-the-Comet in the east. To see it best you looked in the constellation Pegasus, but always to one side, never directly at it, like when you stood lookout on the ship, when you searched for a light, or for some poor bastard whose plane has crashed. Like Bosun Redfern taught us. There’s a nerve, Redfern said, hitched to your eyeball. Look straight at something, you won’t see it. Look to one side you will. You shit-birds forget, I’ll beat the crap out of you.
We passed through Cle Elum and Ellensburg and Vantage. Sagebrush pocked the coulees; tumbleweeds heaped against fences in scraggy drifts; basalt outcroppings rose from the desert like battleships on a sagebrush sea. We drove through a bug storm in Moses Lake, bugs splattering our windshield like bloody raindrops. East of Coeur d’Alene where the Interstate ran through a narrow valley Darla suddenly shouted, “Stop the van,”
I braked. Darla popped out the door, dropped to her knees, and barfed. McMurty got out after her.
“Jesus,” McMurty said, “you going to puke all the way across the country?”
“I don’t feel so good,” Darla said.
McMurty helped Darla to her feet and back into the van. “You part of the problem or part of the solution?”
“Go a little easy with her,” I said.
“Darla, honey,” McMurty said, his voice now sweet and smooth as maple syrup, “your barfs smells like lilac.”
“Bullshit,” Darla snapped.
But in the rearview mirror I could see her smile.
After that, every sixty miles or so, Darla would yell, “I’m going to heave!” We’d ease the van off the highway and onto to the shoulder where Darla would crouch on her hands and knees, her butt in the air, amid Ponderosa pines and wheat fields that stretched all the way to the Yukon. Meanwhile Ben-the-Comet signaled our way, a lighthouse in the sky.
By morning we reached Missoula. We stopped for breakfast in the Four B’s Cafe. Here the Clark Fork ran fast and cold. Ponderosa lined the riverbank. The sun cast the trees in yellow-green light. Snow lay at the foot of the trees even though it was April. I imagined the river flowing to the Snake and on to the Columbia and finally emptying into the Pacific, a blue-black vein running across an empty roadmap. McMurty went to buy a carton of Marlboros. I could see my reflection in the window – with the stubble on my cheeks, my hair over my collar, my gut falling over my belt. It wasn’t a pretty picture.
Darla sat across from me sipping coffee and smoking. Her face was pale, her hair stringy, her eyes circled by raccoon rings. She shot a plume of smoke from the corner of her mouth. “We’re not going to Nevada, are we?”
“And Mac’s not going to marry me.”
“Not in Nevada.”
Darla crossed her legs. One foot began to bob up and down like a sewing-machine spindle. “He ain’t never going to marry me.”
I thought Darla was probably right. In the Philippines, McMurty had once hitchhiked all the way to Manila with a couple of whores. He’d promised the whores he’d marry them too.
“I’ll take you home – if you want…”
Darla blew another plume of smoke and peered at the tip of her cigarette.
Before she could answer – what was she going to answer? – McMurty popped into the booth. He looked fresh, not like Darla and me, not like he’d been driving all night. He elbowed me in the ribs. “Let’s go!” he said, “You part of the problem or part of the solution?” But when McMurty took Darla’s arm to help out of the booth, Darla shook him off.
We climbed over the Continental Divide, through Butte and Bozeman until the broad-shouldered mountains gave way to rolling hills that reminded me of the ocean except the hills were brown, turning pea green where the winter wheat was coming up. The taller hills were still snow-topped, like spume-whitened waves. Here and there we saw a house circled by stands of black-limbed cottonwood or a log-railed corral or a lonely, rust-streaked sheet-metal barn, maybe a cow or two, a dog, chickens pecking at the frozen earth, no people. McMurty chattered about his family in West Virginia, about what would happen when Bosun Redfern discovered us gone, about how long it would take us to get to West Virginia. He smoked Marlboro after Marlboro, tossing the butts out the window. For a while he sawed on his fiddle – Long Black Veil, Stewball, House of the Rising Sun – each song accompanied by his out-of-tune singing. The Gallatin River flowed beside the interstate, melt-swollen and mud-heavy. Aspen whipped back and forth in the flow like palm trees in a hurricane.
“Maybe we could start a rafting outfit,” McMurty said as he peered out the window at the Gallatin. “You, me, Darla. You know we got whitewater in West Virginny.”
“What do you know about whitewater?” I said.
“Get Navy-surplus rafts. Take tourists. Run kick-butt rapids.”
“We don’t know anything about rapids.”
“We’d make T-shirts,” McMurty continued. “Darla could be stewardess.” McMurty tugged his ear. He raised his arms in front of his chest and pretended to paddle a raft. “Darla, honey? You want to be stewardess?”
I pictured us – so help me – I pictured us leaning through the rapids in a rubber raft, avoiding rocks and overfalls, McMurty in the stern, Darla between us, and me in the bow, our paddles breasting the roaring water. I felt spray on my face, felt us drop in holes, felt us rise on standing waves. Darla and McMurty and me. Why not?
“Hey Pancho!” McMurty cried.
“Hey Cisco!” I cried back.
“Los Dos Compadres!” We sang it out together.
Darla had to barf again. Afterwards, she sat in the back, sprawled between McMurty’s scratch-scored fiddle, his brass powder casings, his webbed ammo belts, his stolen spanner wrenches, asking me how far it was to the next town and pointing out things to me along the road as if McMurty wasn’t even there: a row of red, bullet-holed Burma Shave signs, a Pronghorn antelope, a coyote smashed by a passing truck. “Oh Jonsie!” she said. “A poor dead coyote. It could be a mama…”
“Just a varmit,” McMurty said.
Darla ignored him. “Jonsie, we got to stop. What if she has pups? We got to look for the pups.”
“They’re long gone,” McMurty said. “You don’t even know it’s a bitch.”
“Stop the van!”
I braked and pulled over to the shoulder. Darla leapt out. Reluctantly, I followed her. We stumbled through rabbit brush and locoweed with McMurty watching us from the van until finally, after twenty minutes tripping through prairie-dog holes, even Darla wearied of finding her pups.
“Maybe their daddy will care for them,” Darla said.
I said I supposed he would. Back in the van, McMurty said, “What if you’d found the bitch’s pups? What then?” Darla glared out the window.
We stopped to get gas at a Little Stinker Gas Station. From a paint-faded sign a skunk proclaimed “Sweetest Gas East of the Bitterroots.” McMurty picked pussy-willow branches from a half-frozen drainage ditch. The flowers were silky and gray “Call them catkins,” McMurty said pulling one gently from the willow branch. He touched it under Darla’s chin. “If you smile it means you love me.”
Darla pushed his hand away. Then she marched off to the toilet as stiff as a boot-camp drill instructor. McMurty tossed the catkin on the ground. “What’s her problem?”
“She thinks you aren’t going to marry her,” I said.
“I never promised to marry her.”
“You told her we’d stop in Nevada.”
“It weren’t on the way.” McMurty scratched his beard.
When Darla returned, McMurty made a big ceremony helping her into the van. He offered her his hand like he was some kind of Sir Walter Raleigh. Darla never looked left or right. She took his hand and climbed in. After that McMurty fell silent too.
We continued down the Interstate. Red and white Herefords grazed next to the road. It was dusk. We could see Ben-the Comet shining ahead of us. McMurty’s fingers drummed on the crate between us.
“What’s a comet made of?” Darla asked.
“Rock and ice,” I said. “Gas forms its tail. The sun’s light makes it glow.”
“How come they don’t just stay put?”
“They orbit the sun,” I said. “Sometimes it takes centuries to do one orbit.”
I watched Darla in the rear view mirror. She’d draped her legs over one of McMurty’s crates. The domes of her knees were like twin moons.
“My granny calls them devil stars,” McMurty said. “Look at ‘em too much, the devil gets you.”
“People used to believe that,” I said. “They rioted when comets came. Started wars.”
“It gives me the creeps!” Darla said.
“Maybe I should go crazy too,” McMurty said. He grinned his tooth-missing grin back at Darla.
Darla looked out the window. “Don’t need no comet for that.”
Maybe we were all crazy, I thought. Here I was, almost AWOL, chasing after a comet with a nut-case buddy and a donut-shop girl who’d barely made it through the ninth grade and who was driving me crazy with unrequited love, or at least unrequited lust.
“We’re checking into a motel tonight,” McMurty announced.
“I’ll sleep in the van,” I said.
“Twin beds,” Darla said.
We stopped at the Dairy Queen in Billings. Darla refused to eat claiming she’d just get sick. McMurty ordered a foot-long hotdog. I settled for a Tastee-Freeze. We drove past feed stores and gun shops and the muffler shops until we found the Rabbit Ears Motel. The motel pool was empty but the pool lights had been left on and snow and ice glittered across the pool bottom like a carpet of diamonds.
After McMurty checked in, I spread my blankets in the back of the Dodge. I could see Darla and McMurty through the motel window, McMurty waving his arms. Darla turning her back to him. I couldn’t hear what they were saying. The van shook in the wind. It was a Chinook, warm and dry, and it smelled of earth and of grass ready to spring to life. I watched the comet through the van window. I fell asleep, dreaming of the ocean and of the Epstein and of Darla.
I woke to the van door sliding open. Darla climbed in, slammed the door shut, and sat on the floor with her back to one of McMurty’s crates. “I ain’t staying with that bastard!” She clutched her elbows with her hands. She still wore her Donut-Dugout dress. Her hair was wet. She filled the van with a clean, soapy, female smell.
“You cold?” I asked.
I lifted up the blanket. Darla scrambled across the van and slipped under the blanket. Her ass pressed against me. I placed my arm over her shoulder. Her hair brushed my lips. I slipped my hand over Darla’s breast. I could feel her nipple through her cotton dress. I placed my other hand on her thigh. Darla trapped my hand on her breast. “I’m pregnant,” she said.
I took my hand away.
“Why don’t you and me go to Nevada?” I said. “We can hang around. Check things out.”
Darla relaxed a little. “What about Mac?”
“Mac can hitchhike to West Virginia.”
“Jonsie,” she said, “I’m real tired now. Can we talk this out tomorrow?”
“Sure,” I said. “We can talk tomorrow.”
“You’re a sweet man, Jonsie. You’re nothing like Mac.”
Darla placed her fingers rest lightly on mine and made no move to remove my hand from her thigh. Soon she was asleep.
I snapped awake to the van door crashing open.
“What the hell!” I yelled.
McMurty jerked the blankets off us. He held a knife, its blade at least eighteen inches long.
“We didn’t do nothing!” screamed Darla. “I got my clothes on. See? We didn’t do nothing!”
McMurty waved the blade. I’d seen McMurty pretend to be angry and I’d seen McMurty really angry and I’d seen McMurty in a dangerous and desperate fight in a Wanchai brawl, but in all the time I’d known McMurty I’d never seen McMurty angry at me. I was frightened and I was pissed off and I was feeling guilty even though it was McMurty who’d knocked-up Darla and it was McMurty who’d promised he’d marry Darla and it was McMurty who hadn’t married her and now it was McMurty waving a knife in my face.
Slowly McMurty broke into a grin. “April fools!” But even as McMurty hugged Darla and high-fived me, his eyes kept their hardness.
As we drove out of town, McMurty insisted we stop at a drive-in liquor store where he purchased a fifth of Wild Turkey and a case of Colt 45. He sat in the passenger seat and began drinking.
“We’re Los Dos Compadres, ain’t we?” he bellowed.
“Right,” I replied.
Every ten minutes or so McMurty repeated the same question and each time I’d answer “Right” or “You bet” or “Don’t we know it.” Or McMurty would say, “You’re the brains and I’m the balls.” Then he’d chug another Colt 45 and toss the can out the window.
We passed new-plowed black-earth hills and badlands eroded in towers and battlements. Cattle grazed behind barbed-wire fences. All the while, McMurty drank. He fiddled with the crate between the front seats. He opened its top and shut its top. He tugged his ear. He twisted his beard. He slapped his knees in a complicated, blue-grass syncopation. He bobbed his head up and down. He pretended to fiddle an imaginary bow and to finger imaginary notes. Meanwhile Darla slumped in the back corner, my blanket wrapped around her, gazing listlessly out the window. I fell into a highway daydream about Darla, my longing for her having gotten worse – or better, depending on how I looked at it. I pictured Darla and me going to Nevada and getting married and me adopting her kid, our lives peaceful without Los Dos Compadres.
McMurty opened the crate between us and lifted the top and set the top at his feet. I glanced inside. Moss-green cylinders lined up like soda-pop cans in rows. Each had a handle at the top, like the handle on the top of an air horn.
“What’s that?” I asked.
McMurty picked up a can. He pulled an olive colored pin from its handle. “Grenades,” he hissed.
My arms stiffened. The sun glared through the windshield. The highway asphalt shimmered like an uncoiling snake. “Those aren’t real… ”
“If I let go this handle, you, me, Darla blow as high as Ben-the-Comet we been watching.”
McMurty rolled down his window. A wind gusted through the car bearing the tang of manure and sagebrush.
Darla sat up. “What’s he got?”
“Grenades. From the ship.”
I could see Darla in the rearview mirror. Her gaze fixed on McMurty’s grenade.
“What you going to do with it?” There was more curiosity than fear in her voice.
“We’s buddies, ain’t we?” McMurty said.
The grenade transfixed me, like a passenger who’d just hijacked my van. “We go back a long way Mac. Put the pin back.”
McMurty raised the grenade to his ear like it was a transistor radio. He swallowed a slug of Wild Turkey. “You ever think what it’s like to be dead? To be blown to smithereens?”
“If I let go of this handle, count to eight, would we see a flash? Would we hear it? Would we feel anything?”
I imagined the flash; I imagined atomizing; I imagined being nothing.
“Buddies don’t piss on each other,” McMurty said.
“I never seen a real grenade,” Darla said.
McMurty thrust it toward her. She drew away. McMurty pressed the grenade against her cheek.
Darla pulled her head back. “Don’t!”
“Uno, dos, tres, quatro…” McMurty began to count.
“Stop it, Mac!” I said.
“Cinco, seis, siete …”
McMurty hurled the grenade through the window. There was a flash. The van jumped. Darla screamed. Clods of dirt, sagebrush, and pebbles rained down. Oily smoke, dark and tight, hung in the air. Two dirty Herefords galloped clear of the highway fence. I pumped the brakes. McMurty crashed into the windshield. We skidded onto the median. Dust swirled around us. I grabbed the crate of grenades from where it sat between McMurty and me. I pushed the van door open. I flung the crate into the sagebrush. I hopped out, opened the tailgate doors, and began heaving out McMurty’s boxes, his shell casings, the webbed belts, his fiddle.
“Shit!” McMurty said. “I missed them cows!”
Darla braced frozen against the wall of the van. Her eyes were wide-open.
“You okay?” I said.
I opened the van’s passenger door, jerked McMurty from his seat, sat him on the ground next to his stuff. McMurty rolled forward onto his feet until he was squatting on the median of the interstate, hands gripping his ankles, eyes peering into the Montana emptiness. His nose was bleeding. The red of his blood was the only color I could see.
“We’re Los Dos Compadres,” he said. “Ain’t we?”
“No,” I answered. “Not anymore.”
We left McMurty beside the highway. Darla and I headed back west. In Billings, she made me stop at the Greyhound Bus Station. We sat on the curb outside the station. The cottonwoods across the street were leafless, their branches bare. But spring was coming. I could smell it. I could feel it on my face. I could see it in the Montana sky, which was as blue as a China bowl. Blue and white and empty.
Darla’s shoulder pressed against mine. I could feel the warmth from her body. “I’m going to West Virginia,” she said.
“Because Mac needs me.”
“Marry me,” I said.
Darla took my hand. “Jonsie, you’re the dearest man. But you got to find your own girl and you got to live your own life. The baby’d never be yours. The baby needs its daddy.”
“What if Mac won’t marry you?”
Darla shrugged. “The baby has me.”
A cloud blanked the sun. The sky, full of light a moment ago, had emptied of brightness. Darla placed a hand on my knee. “What’s West Virginia like?”
“Mountains. Not big ones. Green.”
“I always wanted to see the White House,” Darla said.
“Not too far from West Virginia.”
“How long is it to West Virginia?”
“You’re almost half-way,” I answered. “Billings is almost half-way.”
The Greyhound whined into the station. Darla stood up and slung her purse over her shoulder. What was in her purse, I wondered, besides a toothbrush and a pack of cigarettes? I reached into my pocket and handed her my gas money – twenty bucks was all. She kissed my cheek. She climbed up the Greyhound steps. The driver swung the door shut. The brakes hissed. Black smoke spewed from the exhaust. The bus pulled from the curb.
I waved. I couldn’t tell if Darla waved back.
I turned my back and got in my van and headed west, back to Bremerton, back to Captain’s Mast, back to Bosun Redfern, back to whatever life held for me, and when night came, when the comet rose, this time I never looked back.
Copyright 2014 Mathison