Rusty received the letter Saturday afternoon, read the hand-printed message on smudged white copy paper folded three times, went back to bed and lay awake staring at the ceiling until 6 a.m. Sunday morning. When he got up for early Mass the scrawled words still flashed in his head.
“Remember me in Vietnam? You rape me. You burned our hooch at Zippo party. My mother and father die. Call me Rusty from Scranton you say. See you next week Rusty from Scranton.”
At St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church that morning 77-year-old Rusty sat alone in the back, remaining seated during communion sweating fat drips that stained the knees of his dress pants. He dropped a $5 bill into the basket for the collection and left as soon as the priest told him to go in peace. Earlier he ignored other parishioners’ extended hands as they offered the sign of peace.
That night Rusty put the Phillies game on TV, but after eight innings couldn’t tell you the score. The ham sandwich on a hard roll he made for dinner made him cough when a chunk of raw Bermuda onion went down the wrong pipe. His eyes watered from choking and crying as he pushed away the plate.
The second letter arrived Monday.
“Want to see you soon,” the letter said in blood red marker.
Heavy in the front pocket of his short sleeve shirt, the thick square of his silver Zippo lighter felt like a hot brick burning into his heart. The smooth and scratched engraving across the front said, “Kill ’em all. Let God sort ’em out.”
The girl would be 66. That day in the rice paddy she said she was 13. He had just turned 24.
Rusty pulled his old deer rifle out of the closet, his mind banging irrational thoughts against the walls of his brain like a demolition derby at the fairgrounds. He didn’t remember telling the girl his name or his hometown. Wild on adrenaline, running amok in a killing frenzy, he watched his men bayonet toddlers, execute crying mamasans and praying papasans. He ordered his men to machine gun young women and children they pushed into a ditch. One soldier cut out the tongue of a teenager. Another scalped an old man. He should have shot her when he finished but he just pulled up his pants, turned and killed other children.
The pounding on the door made Rusty jump. Needing to pee but rushing to open the door just a crack he faced Fred from the neighborhood American Legion post saluting on the front porch.
“You ready, Sarge?”
“I’m not going,” Rusty said.
“What do you mean you’re not going? All the guys are waiting at the Legion ceremony for you senior citizen ’Nam vets. The congressman’s going to give you a commendation for all those medals you won in the war. You’re a real hero.”
“No, no I’m not,” Rusty said.
The truth hurt.
Rusty knew who and what he was.
The third letter came Tuesday.
“Almost time boom boom,” the letter said.
Rusty went into the bathroom and threw up.
The last letter arrived Wednesday.
“Get some,” it said.
Soldiers said those two words all the time, U.S. Army talk for killing North Vietnamese regulars, Vietcong guerrillas and anybody else who deserved to die: men, women and children all less than human animals that would kill him so he killed them first. In those days Rusty Collins stood for power, for glory for America the beautiful. Back then he did as he pleased. In return his men and his country loved him for his service. Fifty three years ago he felt invincible.
Today he just felt scared.
No letter arrived the next day. Rusty hid crouched behind the coal bin in the cellar of the house where he was raised. No letter the next day either. Rusty knew because he crawled on his belly like a snake to open the door, jump up to check the empty mail box, slam the door behind him and drop to the floor to slither back to his hiding place.
She was coming.
She was on her way.
Rusty didn’t know her name.
He just knew he was doomed.
Five days later, watching a slim visitor approach his house from the attic window where he set up an observation post, all Rusty could really see looking down was the top of the hat, one of those Non La conical leaf hats VC women wore on search and destroy missions. The visitor walked slowly to the front steps, climbed in a swift motion to the porch, rang the doorbell and waited.
That’s when Rusty turned away from the window, tied the blue nylon rope around his neck, dropped to his knees, closed his eyes and thrust his big body forward until severe pressure on his neck shut down the oxygen flow and he blacked out. Falling forward as dead weight, he went still with the anguished cries of the dying pounding in his ears.
Rusty didn’t leave a note.
The visitor did.
When nobody answered the door the skinny caller in the camouflage jacket, jungle boots and faded farmer jeans wrote a few words and stuffed the paper into the mailbox.
“Sorry I missed you, buddy. I wanted to surprise you after looking for you all these years. Then I remembered Rusty from Scranton. I even wore one of them gook cone head hats I took as a souvenir to help bring back the good times. Remember our little virgin of the rice paddy? Bet she remembers us. Haha. I’ll stop back later. Get some. Your combat brother, Ernest.”