By Mary Ellen Lives
Bulldog went to the VFW canteen to drink because they had draft beer for seventy-five cents and he could usually find someone to buy, someone who knew about the uniform in the basement. They let him keep it in a locker down there for free. “I can’t have it in the park with me,” he told his brother. “All I got is that tarp.” Bulldog spit when he said the word, saliva flinging between his two remaining lower molars. His brother took the napkin from under his beer glass and wiped the Formica topped bar between them. “What happened to your plate?”
“My plate?” Bulldog said it like it was an ugly foreign word. “Your lower plate.” His brother tapped his own mouth. “For your teeth.” “Oh, that thing.” Bulldog brushed his hand through the air. “They stole it from me when I was in the hospital. Damn doctors.” “Another one, Bulldog?” the bartender asked. Everyone at the canteen called Bulldog by the nickname bestowed on him while in Vietnam. Or, more correctly, the nickname he said had been bestowed. Rumors that Bulldog never served overseas sometimes floated through the VFW. But, if doubted, he had the uniform in the basement to show them, red stripe of a non-commissioned officer down the leg. He could produce his corporal stripes too, along with his Vietnam Service Medal, Cross of Gallantry, and Bronze Star. But no one at the VFW questioned him to his face. Though they were tough types, all military men and women, and any of them could have beat him in a fight, dissipated as he was, they knew to respect other vets’ realities. “One more round for my brother and me,” Bulldog told the bartender, a Gulf War veteran. “Did you meet my brother?” He casually poked the air with his thumb. “This here is Johnnie, with an ie, like a girl.” Sitting on the stool beside Bulldog, Johnnie winced. “Our mother always wanted a girl, didn’t she Johnnie? But all she got was us. Guess she must have had an inkling that would be the case when she named you.” “Nice to meet you,” the bartender said. “Same thing?” He held up the fluted beer glass. Johnnie nodded and pulled out a ten dollar bill. He was paying tonight. It was the least he could do after not seeing Bulldog for over a year. If their mother had still been alive, she would have given him hell for feeding his brother’s addiction. But what did it matter? Bulldog would get his beer one way or another. “So, Scott, what are you going to do when winter sets in? You can’t stay in the park under a tarp when it snows.” No one but Johnnie called Bulldog by his birth name anymore. He paused before answering with a shrug. “I’ll think of something,” he said. “Maybe I’ll hitch down to Florida to see my big brother.” Bulldog grinned a goofy, closed-mouth smile and craned his head toward Johnnie. There was little resemblance left between them. They both had the same Roman nose and deep set brown eyes under slender brows, but that was it. Johnnie lived a good life, with a wife and two kids. Retired as assistant chief from the Fire Department down in Coral Grove, he owned a Harley and a fishing boat. His physical appearance reflected his contentment. He was healthy, tall, with laugh lines at his temples and a little paunch of a belly. Bulldog was emaciated and hunched, limping and indifferent. “You won’t be hitchhiking anywhere with that leg.” Johnnie nodded toward the walker that rested to the side of Bulldog’s stool. “How long you been using that thing now, two years?” “Hip wasn’t set right.” Bulldog gulped down the beer placed before him. “Damn doctors at the VA don’t know crap.” “You were supposed to rehab,” his brother said. “You left the hospital instead.” “What do you know about it?” Bulldog glared at his brother. He pointed a tobacco stained finger. “I don’t remember seeing you there.” Johnnie didn’t tell Bulldog how he had been keeping tabs on him, didn’t remind him of the nightly phone calls while Bulldog was in the veterans’ hospital having tripped over the curb in front of the liquor store, breaking his hip but saving his bottle of beer. He didn’t say that he could always find out where his brother was, how Bulldog was doing, just by calling the VFW canteen. Instead Johnnie asked, “Why’d you leave that apartment you were in?” “That flop house, you mean?” Bulldog scowled. “It stunk.” “That wasn’t the house. That was you. You stink like hell right now.” “What do you expect?” Eyes wide, an incredulous look came over Bulldog’s scraggle-whiskered face. “I live in the park. Ain’t no fancy bathroom there. I got a friend who lets me shower at his place sometimes but I got to wait till his wife goes out. He comes down and gets me when the coast is clear. Haven’t seen him in a while.” “Hey, Bulldog.” A fat fellow at the end of the bar called out. “You been over to the college yet?” “God, no. Why would I go there?” Bulldog spoke with a sneer turning up his lip. “They’re doing an exhibit on the war, The Vietnam War, that is. They got it in the library center. You should go see it.” “What the hell for?” Bulldog said. “I don’t need no exhibit to remember that damn war.” The man waved his hand up and down. “Yeah, yeah, I know. But they have some neat stuff in there.” Johnnie looked down the bar at the man. “What do they have?” He was interested in anything to do with Vietnam. “Grenade launchers, Claymore mine clickers, all kinds of jungle gear.” The man rattled off the list. “They even got a body bag on display.” “I sure don’t need to see any body bags,” Bulldog said. “I seen enough boys put in them things to fill a museum myself.” “Bullshit.” They all looked toward the other end of the semi-circular bar where a bald headed man sat nursing a clear, iced drink. “You never saw no one put in a body bag, not if you was in the field.” Bulldog sat up straight and pushed back the greasy ball cap atop his slick black hair. “What you mean ‘if?’ Marines, 124th Infantry. We were knee deep in it.” He leaned toward the bartender who was there to collect their glasses, refill their beers. “Who is that guy?” Bulldog asked under his breath. The bartender whispered back. “Don’t know. Never saw him before.” “What’s the name on the roster?” Johnnie referred to the clipboard they all had to sign when they came in. You had to belong, or know someone who belonged, to a VFW Post to drink at the canteens. The bartender slid the clipboard across the bar to Johnnie. “Infantry or not,” the bald man said, “you never saw bodies put in bags while in the field. I was there, and I never saw no bodies in bags. We covered them with our ponchos and took them out on litters. They were put in bags later.” Johnnie placed the clipboard back on the bar. The man’s name on the roster was indecipherable, a scribble. “You trying to start a fight, mister?” Bulldog said. “’Cause bad hip or not I swear I’ll show you what for if you’re calling me a liar.” “That’s not what he means,” the fat man said. “You don’t mean that, do you, mister?” “I’m just saying it can’t be the way he tells it.” The bald stranger pushed his drink away. “A lot of guys are running around these days pretending they was there when in truth they weren’t. If they start talking body bags, that’s a tell. You only see that in the movies. It wasn’t like that in country.” Bulldog was up now, having grabbed hold of his walker. He was rounding Johnnie’s stool, a mean look on his face. “Come on now, Scott,” Johnnie said. “I’ll show you the truth,” Bulldog told the bald man, “if you want to see it. You got the guts to be wrong? If so, come downstairs with me.” The bald stranger got up from his stool. “You have me curious now.” Johnnie watched him follow Bulldog down the hall, past the restroom, to the basement stairs. His brother left the walker at the top and, descending one step, one foot, at a time, held onto the railing. Without a word the bald man took hold of Bulldog’s other arm, helping him down. The bartender placed a fresh beer in front of Johnnie. “’Spose he’ll show that guy the uniform.” “’Spose he will,” Johnnie said. The fat man said, “Well that should settle it. Bulldog wears his uniform every Memorial Day for the parade, even after he took that header in front of Bud’s Liquor. He walks down Main Street pushing his walker with a full sized flag attached to the front. It’s quite the sight. Good for free drinks all afternoon.” “Can’t argue with a uniform,” the bartender said. Johnnie stared into his draft, remembering the last time he had seen the Marine dress blues his brother now claimed. Johnnie left them in the attic of his mother’s house, folded in his foot locker along with a plastic box of his ribbons and medals. When Bulldog, or Scott, as his brother knew him, started wearing the uniform in the Memorial Day parade, started telling his stories, Johnnie said nothing. He didn’t contradict a word, though in fact Bulldog never went overseas. He joined the Marines, but there was a rule back then preventing brothers from serving in the war at the same time. Johnnie was already in country so Bulldog stayed in the states. He made corporal, but it was the lower rank of lance corporal and didn’t merit a red stripe down the leg. The theft of his service record rankled Johnnie but he never spoke about it, one way or the other. Truth was Johnnie loved his brother, but he never liked him. Scott had always been a pest, following Johnnie around and interrupting him. Scott snickered, mocking him, when Johnnie sprouted pubic hair. Johnnie even tried to kill Scott when they were kids. He pushed him out of their tree house. His little brother suffered a bad concussion, but didn’t die. Their mother later insisted it was this fall that had affected Scott, made him into a drunk. And although Johnnie knew better, he felt guilty. He had always been the lucky one. “See, I told you, didn’t I?” Bulldog’s voice could be heard as he ascended the stairs. “Maybe now you’ll be more careful when you call a man out.” He came back down the hall with amazing dexterity, hardly using the walker at all. He took his seat and drained the beer in his full glass. “You owe me a drink,” he told the bald man. The stranger lingered behind the two brothers. Johnnie didn’t turn around but knew the bald man was staring at his back. Johnnie could feel his eyes. “Sure,” the stranger said, “but first I got a question for this fellow you’re with.” Bulldog banged his glass on the bar to get the bartender’s attention, which was unnecessary since everyone was concentrating on the three men. “Ask away,” he said. “That fellow is my big brother.” The bald man came to Johnnie’s side and got in close to his face, insisting that Johnnie look at him. “Were you in the service too?” He said it slow and level, almost kind. Johnnie didn’t hesitate. “Marines, ‘68” he said. “Just like Scott.” He took a long gulp of beer before he added, “But I never went overseas. I was stationed at Twenty-Nine Palms the whole time.” It seemed to Johnnie that the whole bar let out a collective breath. The insulated world of the VFW canteen, where everyone’s role was dictated by their war stories, regained its order. The ground would not shift under them, not that day at least. “Bartender,” the bald man said, “get that man a beer.” He pointed to Bulldog. Then he placed his hand on Johnnie’s shoulder. “And get this man a shot. Whatever he wants. Top shelf only,” he said.