May 23, 2023

“Can We Ever Atone?” by Thom Wainwright

“Can We Ever Atone?” by Thom Wainwright

It’s a memory so dark and shameful that words almost fail me. It’s been hidden away for some five decades now. The details of the incident now present as both hallucinogenic and mundane. At times, it banishes me to that terrible place where no one would ever dare to come find me. 

We were on a dusty red road just outside of Cu Chi. Stevens and I were setting up a broadcasting post on this well-traveled section of Highway 13, which links the City of Tunnels with the capital city of Saigon. It was well known that the Viet Cong frequented this stretch, usually under cover of darkness, to brazenly plant land mines in the clay and stone of the road bed. Mamma-san and baby-san would be posted along the roadway during daylight hours, purportedly to help steer civilians safely around these deadly devices. GI vehicles often fell prey to the mines, and Stevens and I both knew fellow grunts who’d been horribly maimed in this way. A guy Stevens had known in high school, a jarhead, had been blown up by a mine up in I Corps a few months earlier.  

We’d been detailed to set up our sound system next to a roadside lemonade stand, where we’d broadcast “The Lost Ghost” tape for a couple of hours after dark. The ghost tape was punctuated with moans and cries and wailing, the voices of disembodied loved ones who had died away from their ancestral homes and, according to Vietnamese lore, were doomed to wander endlessly, never reaching home again. The rationale was to convince Charlie that when we shot up his boney ass his spirit would never rest peacefully. We hadn’t heard of the tape actually working, but LT “Knucklebutt,” the 90-day wonder who’d just arrived in country, got it in his head that this would be a good way to put me and Stevens to work … and also to get us out of the fire base while he searched our hooch for ganja, the fascist bastard! 

Now the memory comes into starker relief.  

Stevens is chatting up mamma-san, his usual act, one that he no doubt polished on the street corner is his native Philadelphia. Mamma-san’s mouth looks like it’s bleeding (and it probably is), but most of the bloody residue on her lips is from the betel nut she’s chewing. Her ao-dai is caked with reddish brown road dust, and her tire-soled sandals will soon be in need of a re-tread. Clad only in shorts, seven-year-old baby-san is squatting, frog-like, to one side of the lemonade stand. He’s looking out toward the horizon, across the adjacent rice paddies to where a copse of palm trees stands on a muddy dike. He occasionally glances in our direction, then back at the tree line. There’s something out there, and I’m starting to dread what it might be. 

I call out to Stevens, “Yo, dude. Over there in the palms, you see anything?”  

Baby-san looks nervous. Mama-san hawks out a bloody wad of betel-nut juice. I grab my thump-gun, Stevens his M-16. 

“Let’s go check it out,” I say. 

“You sure?” Stevens asks.  “Probably nuthin’.” 

“Yeah, probably, but we should check it out anyway, just to be sure. Get the LT on the radio.” 

As Stevens picks up the handset to contact base camp, all hell breaks loose. Muzzle flashes from the tree line, the unmistakable chatter of AK-47s, and soon the horrifying scream of live rounds and the rancid smell of fear. 

I dive into the muddy paddy in front of me. Stevens nearly lands on top of me as he looks for cover.  We can feel the reverberation of Charlie’s bullets as they explode into the dike we’re hiding behind. 

The radio’s back at the lemonade stand. We’re armed but unable to tell the firebase we’re pinned down. I look at Stevens, and his eyes are as big and scared as a stag in flight from a hunter’s blind.   

I sink lower behind the dike and put a live round into my grenade launcher. Stevens’ training is kicking in. He’s returning fire in short bursts by laying his M-16 atop the dike and pointing it in the general direction of the tree line. I move to my right and find a small cleft in the dike that gives me a view of where Charlie is situated. I estimate the distance between us and angle the barrel to what seems the proper trajectory … and fire.  

I send three more explosive rounds toward the tree line as quickly as I can re-load. I actually hear the last round hit, signaling that Charlie has stopped firing on us. I nervously peer over the dike and see the palm trees engulfed in a cloud of blue smoke. A stray runner in black pajamas moves through the cloud and quickly out of sight.  

I call out to Stevens. “Hey man, you okay?” 

He looks up from his muddy burrow and gives me a tentative thumbs up. I tremble for the next several moments as if naked in a snowbank. 

Mamma-san and baby-san have vanished. The lemonade stand is in tatters. A lone bicycle is lying on its side in the roadway, its front tire slowly spinning and then coming to a stop.   

There is no sound other than the sloshing Stevens and I make as we rise to a crouch and then to a standing position, our weapons still raised and pointed toward the palm trees.  

Even before we make our way across the paddies to the tree line, I sense what horror we will find there.  

As usual, the memory starts to dim now.  

Through the mists of time, secrecy and denial, I sense the vague image of a once-pretty young woman in black pajamas, her belly, only a moment ago round with child, now gaping wide… 

There is more. But even if I could find the words to tell you, I’m not sure I would.  


Can We Ever Atone?

Writing as Thompson Wainwright, the author began crafting fiction once retired from a long career in corporate communications. He served in the U.S. military during the Vietnam conflict as a psychological operations officer. He now lives with his wife and a dog named Beans in a rural community near Providence, RI.   

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#short story#thom wainwright#vietnam#war

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