Only one bone came back. It was a fragment about four inches long, enfolded in bubble wrap and as smooth as driftwood. Merriam didn't know what part of his body it was from, and she didn't ask. She only knew it had been found in Cambodia and that DNA proved it was Larry's.
The excavation process had been long. The MIA people had to contact the Cambodian government before the team of forensic anthropologists, U.S. military personnel and archaeologists could dig out the muddy site where Larry's Cobra had gone down. Someone had sent her a photograph of the remote jungle location and she had dreamed of Larry in his chopper falling from the sky into the green canopy below. No sound but the screech of twisted metal whirling out of control.
Merriam rolled the bone lightly between her palms. Usually the remains were cremated, but after all these years she wanted something to hold so she could feel the weight. She had convinced them to let her keep it.
"I can bury him?" she said.
Lieutenant Holcomb smiled, "Yes, sure you can, Mrs. Stinson. After twenty-five years you can finally bury your husband." When he saw her look his smile faded. Reaching for her wrist he said, "I'm sorry, I didn't realize. You've remarried now, of course."
"Three more times. But not now."
His hand felt sweaty, but she didn't pull away. She felt sorry for Lieutenant Holcomb. He was nervous, as well he should be. He looked about thirty at the oldest. He had been five when Larry was shot down. What did they think they were doing sending a boy to do a man's work?
"So this is it?" She had expected more of a skeleton, or at least a skull.
Lieutenant Holcomb brushed his close cropped head and flushed. Her response apparently wasn't in the script. "He'll get a full military funeral.''
Merriam nodded absently as she imagined herself playing the grieving widow at such an affair. "With a twenty-one gun salute?" she said.
He folded his hands on the table looking relieved that this was over. "If that's what you want."
She rewrapped the bone carefully, placing it back in the cardboard box. The MIA people had suggested she bring a relative or a friend, but she didn't know how she would react. Now she wanted to be alone with this piece of Larry. What she needed was a church or a bar, maybe both.
In the front seat of her car she pulled the picture out of her purse. It was the last one Larry had sent home, arriving just before she heard he was MIA. He was standing by his Cobra helicopter dressed in jungle fatigues, his fist up, middle finger raised. On the back it said, "To Merriam." No one had seen the picture, not even her daughter Tiff. No one else but Merriam had read the letter which came back with the picture. It was written after he had received the letter from her.
I can't say "Dear Merriam" because that's not what you are. When I left, you promised to be faithful. But now you've taken my life more than the Army ever could have because you took my soul. Your touch is poison. You talk about love, yet you know nothing of it. I can't believe I'm here fighting for whores like you. I can't believe you have my child, my little girl. You didn't even give us a chance to be a family. She's the one I'm fighting for.
The letters were what united the three of them. The last one had come after Larry was reported missing. He had been concerned about the stories Tiff might hear. Merriam had showed it to Tiff when she was ten.
If I don't come back I want you to know that I wasn't a murderer. I would never kill a child. That's why I wrote this for you. It's a true story.
June 16, 1970
I had to take a captain out to a remote area on the Laotian border, well behind enemy lines. He was supposedly meeting some CIA agents there. It was a spooky place, in VC country. It didn't look at all like anywhere you'd find CIA. It was in an open area and the dust swirled around the houses. We landed on the outskirts of a village and there was no one in sight except a woman and little girl. They were standing in the doorway of one of the thatched houses. The captain went into one of the houses and left me by the chopper. The woman and little girl just stood and stared at me. They seemed to be waiting for me to do something. Then the woman said something to the little girl. She looked about five. The little girl walked toward me with her hand behind her back. She wasn't smiling or looking scared, but she was coming right toward me.
My throat went dry and I felt sick. We had been warned about women and children, and how they would carry grenades. I clutched my rifle and watched her closely. She kept coming until she stood right in front of me. She had big brown eyes and the sweetest face. She was smiling now like she had a big surprise and I was frozen before her, under her spell. I thought of all those guys they brought back and the gut wound I saw. Some just came back in parts. But she was a child, and I'd never had a child look at me that way.
The girl slowly brought her hand from behind her back and saluted me, her fingers to her forehead. Then she giggled and ran back to her mother. I sat down in the dirt and cried. I was supposed to be at attention, but I let my weapon fall from my shoulder.
Even after twenty-five years Merriam could still hear Larry's outraged voice. The man she slept with had been a soldier she met at the V.A. hospital who had lost most of his left leg. His fiancé had left him and he thought no woman would want him again. She had tried to explain to Larry how it happened. That if she couldn't touch Larry, she could hold someone else.
She slipped the letter and the photo back into her wallet and found a CD of Jim Morrison's last concert in the glove compartment. She rolled down the windows so she could hear the guitar dirge of "This is the End'' as she circled down the dark ramps of the parking garage and into the shards of sunlight.
~ ~ ~
The bar on Seventh Street was the closest, and it was noisy, but there was a serenity. The walls were lined with celebrity photos from the forties and fifties and the large windows overlooked the San Diego harbor and boat traffic. She was much older than anyone else around her, so there was little chance of getting pulled into a conversation. When she sat down, two young men gave her oblique glances before turning back to their discussion of stock options versus K-1 plans. For once, she relished the transparency of being a middle-aged woman. It gave her the opportunity to eavesdrop. She ordered a margarita on the rocks, and drank it while scanning the room.
She could always find the Vietnam vets in bars at any time of day. They were easy to approach, and she was a good listener. She would ask about details, the last words of dying companions, how faces looked as the souls escaped the shattered bodies. She eventually would hand them her business card engraved in fancy cursive—Healing Touch Massage Therapy. Specializing in Veterans. With her strong thumbs she would press the deep tissue under the shoulder blade. She'd have to be careful because many of the old injuries were in this delicate area of the body. She would work down, with her thumbs on either side of the spine, until she reached the buttocks. If the pressure was just right, the tension was released on the sciatica and the stories came out.
She had been specially trained at the Veteran's hospital in how to handle suppressed emotions. Massage released the most vivid memories. She was warned of the dangers. The men could loose control and come out of their bodies during the session. Therapists had been attacked by their clients. But she was careful of the trigger points, especially around the adrenal glands. She knew how deep to probe an area before moving to another. The men trusted her.
Tiff had wanted to be with her now, but she had to work today and Merriam had convinced her she could do this alone. Right now Tiff would be straddling a pole at the Kitty Kat Club, slowly sliding down until her legs opened wide in a squat. Merriam had tried to encourage her to go to college, but Tiff was a practical girl. Why should she go to college when she could make five thousand a week dancing? Merriam tried not to think of what exactly was going through the minds of the men as they watched her daughter. Tiff only smiled and arched her fine eyebrows whenever the subject came up.
"What I do is much less dangerous than what you do." Tiff had said during one of their discussions. "No one can touch me, or the bouncers will be all over them.'' She grabbed her long hair in her fist and wrapped a scrunchie around it fixing it high on her head.
"But they can fantasize about you. They could follow you if they really wanted."
Tiff hadn't answered for a minute as she examined a pair of fishnet stockings she planned to wear to work. "Looking is harmless, Mom. Anyway, nothing has happened yet."
The young man on Merriam's left had been replaced by an older rendition. The faded tattoo on his forearm could have represented a snake. No wedding ring. His hair was cut short in a military style, but his clothes were stylish. He had kept himself trim. But there was something sad about his face.
"Marines or Navy"' she said, giving him a sidelong glance.
He wasn't someone she would have normally chosen. His had a sharp, hawkish profile and droopy eyes. The skin on his neck was crisscrossed with deep wrinkles.
"Navy,'' he said, following her glance to the tattoo. "Happened a long time ago when I was stupid."
"You can get them removed now, you know." She smiled at him and he seemed to respond. His hairy forearms were tanned deeper than his face.
"Yeah, I know you can. You can also get Botox and face lifts. But this was part of my history so what the hell?" He smiled. "I'm Cal."
She licked the salt from her lips and offered a small handshake with her free hand. "Merriam.'' She kept her other hand in her purse, holding the bone.
"What you got in there? A gun? Are you afraid of me?"
"No, it's a bone." She blurted out before she could stop herself. "I just picked it up."
Cal shook his head. "Women carry the damnedest things in their handbags." He drew back in mock alarm. "It's not some kind of voodoo, is it?"
"Don't worry. You caught me at an odd time. I just picked up the remains of my husband. He was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, shot down in Cambodia twenty-five years ago."
Cal put down his beer and looked at her closely. "Did you love him?"
"Yes. More than any man since."
His eyes shifted back and forth across her face and down to her hands. He seemed lost in his own thoughts and Merriam wondered if she had made a mistake. She made it a practice not to reveal much about her personal life. It was their stories she craved. But Cal was smiling again now.
"Let's go somewhere," he said. "Somewhere outside where we can talk."
They found a bench facing the harbor. Cal fumbled inside his shirt and held up a small vial attached to a chain around his neck. "I understand about your husband,'' he said. "I carry some of Linda's ashes here. She's been dead for a year now."
Merriam ignored the slight quickening of her pulse. Couldn't it be that fate sometimes worked out, that two people could meet under unusual circumstances, and that it could be preordained? Merriam didn't want to be alone right now and Tiff didn't have her break for a few more hours.
They moved to a bench in the shade. Cal began talking earnestly. "You know, when I saw you in there, I knew we had something in common."
"You did? I thought I looked pretty damn drunk." She couldn't imagine herself that attractive with her long gray streaked hair pulled back from her face in an old fashioned French braid. She had stopped looking at her reflection, horrified by the disappearing bone structure and progressive sag of her facial muscles. She had decided when she turned forty five, that she would confidently accept her aging and make no cosmetic move to cover it up. She had no trouble attracting men her own age and sometimes younger. It was surprising how many wanted an older woman as a masseuse.
Cal stretched his arm behind her on the back of the bench. "So let's start from the beginning. What do you do when you're not hanging out in bars?"
"I'm a massage therapist. I specialize in vets.'' She reached in her bag for one of her business cards and handed it to him. "I do deep tissue and work on old injuries."
Cal glanced at the card and put it in his shirt pocket. "You must have plenty of clients. Would you have time for me?"
Merriam hesitated. It always started this way. After the third bad marriage ended, Tiff had tried to talk to her. "You need help, Mom. Face it: except for Dad, you pick losers."
"I have to meet my daughter, and I don't have my table or my oils with me."
"I don't need anything fancy," he said. "And I live right in the marina, on my boat. It's five minutes away."
Merriam laughed, thrilled at the novelty. Today she would follow her instincts. He was a vet and he carried his wife's ashes in a vial around his neck. What was there to fear?
He held her hand as they walked down the embarcadero past the towering hulks of cruise ships until they reached the marina, where Cal's boat was docked. He stood to the side of a green-hulled forty-foot sloop and allowed her to step on board first. He put a hand on her face then slid it down to her waist, pressing her so close she felt the vial against her sternum.
She followed him below deck. It was dark down there but intimate. It felt familiar. This was the way all her other relationships had started. That they wanted her was all that mattered. Why couldn't relationships be forged with perfect strangers?
They ducked into the galley and moved forward to the bunk area. They sat on the edge of the bed and held hands for a moment, saying nothing. The boat gently swayed and creaked. She could see a line of brackish water cut by blue from the porthole above Cal's head.
She knelt before Cal and unbuttoned his shirt, rubbing his chest. Then she pulled the shirt off and guided him back on the bed. Still kneeling she slipped his shoes off and lifted his legs up on the bed. She instructed him to lie face own on the bed, and on his back she noticed a scar at the base of his spine. She touched it lightly. "Tell me about your injury so I know what to do."
"We were taking a Huey down to pick up some wounded and landed hard. It crushed several discs in my spine."
She closed her eyes and let her fingertips swirl over him for a moment. She knelt on the bed at Cal's head and let her hands sweep down his back. Touching his skin felt like it was the best thing she could do right now. She closed her eyes and glided her hands up and down his back while applying deeper pressure each time until the heat from his body was generated to her fingertips. It was bumpy in places, but the skin felt alive. She could be with someone without having to talk. Or listen. Soon he would start talking, and she would trace patterns on his back, going deeper and deeper with the knuckles of her thumbs.
He began talking about his experience. She had grown to understand the language of military acronyms: Hueys and Charlie Company. ARVNs were South Vietnamese regulars. Most of the time the vets didn't even remember the names of the men who had fought beside them. Cal mentioned stacking the dripping bodies of ARVN into the helicopter, how the body fluid oozed and was whipped around the cockpit splattering everyone. How the smell lingered on him.
"What about this?" Merriam thumbed gently around the scar on Cal's lower spine.
"That happened the same time," he said. "We took a rocket blast, and it hit one of the rotors. I had a hard landing, almost didn't make it." She moved around the vertebrae carefully. "I've got a pin in there now."
The small cab of the boat smelled of gasoline fumes and cooking oil. She looked up the stairway to the deck where shafts of sunlight probed the dark crevices. She feared that the fumes and light would remind him of the odors from the battle and the penetrating beams of light from the helicopters on a seek-and-destroy mission. She watched for danger signs, like increased pulse and sweating and rising anxiety, which would mean he was actually at the battle, that he was out of control of his body. Finally he was quiet. He had told the story, but he hadn't relived it.
She turned him over and looked into his eyes. She saw nothing but sadness. She was sure it would be fine to move on. He raised his arms and stroked her thighs. His hands pushed up her skirt and moved to her blouse.
"I guess you're ready for the next part," she said stroking the inside of his thighs and stomach, moving up with an outward movement to his neck, resting her palms on his eyes for a moment.
Afterward she lay beside him, stroking his head. Soon he was asleep; the skin on his neck fluttered in and out. The boat was still now in the late afternoon calm. Outside the portholes, pinpricks of light danced on the water. Dazzled, she got up and walked up the stairs. She hadn't meant for this to happen. She never did. Not even the first time.
~ ~ ~
When Merriam walked into the Kitty Kat Club she saw Tiff straddling her pole before a table of middle-aged men in business suits. As one leaned over for a closer look, she kicked over his head and slid into a perfect split. She raised her arms over her head to hold a pose Merriam remembered vaguely from Swan Lake, which Tiff had danced in high school. She still looked elegant, even in this setting. The harsh lights accentuated her fine boned features accented by dark brown hair. From the side, with her chin jutted upward, her pose seemed defiant. Her breasts sparkled with glitter.
Tiff slipped into a rayon robe provided by the bouncer named Pedro, and sat in the chair opposite Merriam, crossing her legs. She unpinned her hair and ran her fingers through it. If she were fully clothed, she could have passed for a professional woman having lunch. "What took you so long to get here? I've been waiting a long time."
"It was the meeting. It took a little longer."
"You have it with you?"
"Right here." Merriam took the bone from her purse and Tiff shrank back.
"It doesn't seem right, Mom," she said, glancing around the room. "Not here."
"You don't want to see a part of him?"
"I have seen him. I've seen the pictures. I know from the letters he sent to you and the one he sent to me."
Tiff leaned forward to touch Merriam's wrist. The robe slid open and revealed her smooth legs. "Are you going to be all right?"
Merriam nodded. "Yes. I'll be fine."
"Will you go right home and wait for me? I only have one more session and I'll be back."
"Me too. I only have one client this afternoon."
Tiff looked at her closely "Did you check him out first?"
"Of course. The VA hospital referred him."
Tiff left to reapply her makeup in the bathroom, and when she came out she moved directly to a pool of light on the floor. She hooked the pole with her knee and lifted her eyes above the crowd to a place high on the wall. She held the pole with both hands and turned round and round with her head back.
Merriam stayed to watch. She didn't usually like to see her daughter perform. The eyes of the men on Tiff's body frightened her. Men with huge biceps lined the walls, scanning the faces of the clients. If anyone got within ten feet of the women, the bouncer would emerge from the shadows and block the approach.
The clients often looked like conservative businessmen talking about contracts and deals. They usually only glanced toward the girls on their poles. But she knew that there were others who became fixated on one girl. They came every day to sit by themselves. The only movement came when they lifted the bottle to their lips.
When Merriam passed the tables of men on her way out, she saw two whose eyes didn't waver from Tiff's body. They sat silent and still with their hands on their drinks. Tiff didn't seem to notice. When Merriam looked back, Tiff was leaning against the pole with her eyes closed.
She had tried not to influence her daughter. Tried to keep secret what had happened with Larry. But Tiff had always seemed wary of men. As far as Merriam knew, she had never had any boyfriends. She had regarded each of Merriam's husbands with resigned indifference, knowing that the marriage was only a temporary distraction.
~ ~ ~
Merriam drove to an address in Kearny Mesa and stopped at a tract house with a Harley parked in the driveway. The lawn and surrounding bushes looked freshly trimmed. Earl hadn't been referred by the V.A. but by Cynthia, another masseuse. Cynthia said Earl wanted Reiki and Merriam knew how to do it. You had to be very careful with Reiki not to perform it on someone with mental problems or depression because of its profound effects on the emotions. She hadn't had time to check Earl out, but Cynthia said he had been fine. Cynthia worked at the V.A. and said Mental Health Services had never treated him for anything. She slung her portable massage table over her shoulder and picked up her bag of oils.
He stood in the doorway and beckoned her in without introducing himself. "Hi. You can get set up in here,'' he said, leading her down the hallway to a spare bedroom. He was slight and wiry. He wore a neckerchief around the top of his head like an old hippie. Probably to hide his bald spot. She didn't like the abruptness of the introduction. While he got undressed she looked around more closely. The hallway was lined with photographs of him standing by motorcycles, small planes and helicopters.
When she went back inside the room she found him naked, lying on top of the sheet fully exposed. When she reached down to pull the sheet up to cover him he grabbed her arm.
"I don't need to be covered up. I don't need the sheet in the way."
"No. It can't be like this. I need to cover you. Reiki is usually done fully clothed"
"Well, I changed my mind. I don't want Reiki anymore. I want a full frontal massage."
"I don't do that type of massage,'' she said turning from him. "I'll have to leave."
Earl sat up on the table. "What do you mean? I thought you did every kind of massage?"
"Not with everyone. Not with you."
"What's wrong with me? I thought you liked to work with vets? You say you do therapeutic massage so come here and touch me."
"No. I don't do that. Not with anyone anymore." A vein throbbed in her temple. She put her fingers on the pressure point and backed out of the room. Earl was off the table now reaching for her arm. She turned away before he could grab her.
"Who do you think you are?" he yelled as she flew down the hall to the front door. "You come to my house and then tell me you don't do this?'' He wagged his tongue at her.
She drove around in circles for an hour trying to find her way out of the maize of houses. The place on her arm where he had grabbed her felt hot and bruised.
~ ~ ~
Tiff was at the door crying when Merriam got home. There had been a message from Cal asking for another appointment.
"Listen to this, Mom. Why is he talking about how nice it was to touch a woman's body?" Tiff was angrier than she was sad, but tears still flowed down her cheeks.
"This therapy thing you think you're doing, connecting to the soul, is just a bullshit cover-up."
Merriam deleted the message, relieved that there wasn't one from Earl.
"Cal's in such pain. He even carries his wife's ashes in a vial around his neck."
"Do you realize how much I'm hurting watching you go through this again and again?"
Merriam remembered the men's eyes on Tiff's body. "You know I worry about you, too. But you keep at it. I think about you every day."
"There's a big difference between what we do. No one can touch me. I don't want to have anything to do with those men at the club. I don't want to go out with them. It's just a job."
Merriam moved behind Tiff, and gently guided her into a chair. She resisted at first, but Merriam gently massaged Tiff's shoulders until the muscles felt fluid and Tiff slumped forward with her hair falling around her face. So pure and white, thought Merriam, looking at the curve of her daughter's exposed neck.
When she detected no more tension in Tiff's body Merriam took the bone out of its wrapper and placed it in Tiff's palm. "Here, touch this," she said.
Tiff stared at it a moment then placed it against her cheek. "What do we do with it now?"
"There's a place I want to show you. Where I used to go with your father."
The lighthouse was at the end of the peninsula. When Merriam was a young girl she would come here with her mother and pretend she was the lighthouse keeper's daughter, helping him keep sailors safe. Merriam took Tiff up the spiraling stairway to the glass enclosed tower which held the five foot lens.
"We thought this would be the perfect place to raise a family," she said.
"I can't imagine it,'' said Tiff. "Too lonely and bleak."
"But at least it was predictable. And important."
Tiff turned from the windows. "It's depressing. I would have left with the mailman at the first opportunity.''
"There's more here than you think."
"So show me," said Tiff.
They left the lighthouse and walked out to a bluff looking down on the spray from a blowhole. Sometimes she had taken Tiff out here to go whale watching. In the spring you could see them migrating close to shore and sometimes spot their plumes of spray. The sea was calm.
They moved to the garden and sat on a bench with their backs away from the glare off the whitewashed walls of the lighthouse. Bell peppers, snap beans and zucchinis grew in well-tended plots.
"I guess my life would have been different if he lived," said Tiff.
"And so would mine."
"Why did he like this place so much?"
"I don't know exactly. Your father was a private man, and he liked the idea of being able to see the world but at the same time being out of touch with it."
"Then we should bury him where he wanted to be."
They found a small hole next to the lighthouse away from the pathway. Merriam placed the bone pushing soft dirt over it. While Tiff was in the bathroom, Merriam threw the photo of Larry and his letter into the trash.
They could go home now. There might be a message from Earl, and she wanted to delete it. If Tiff heard it, she would be worried and she would want answers.