Mike Spense has traded in his dream of becoming a writer for the hard reality of a beat cop. Donald Goetzler is a retired businessman and Vietnam vet who wants the world to remember and understand the war. These two broken men will see their dark fantasies converge through a Vietnamese prostitute, and a shattering, poetic act of retribution. Daniel Buckman's Because the Rain is a gripping crime drama, and a stirring meditation on the home-front fallout of the Vietnam War.
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Because the Rain
By Daniel Buckman
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2007 Daniel Buckman
All rights reserved.
The rain streamed off the porch roof and the black sheets dissolved Chicago and they thought themselves behind a waterfall. Mike put his hand on Susan's cheek, her hair windblown against his knuckles. She held her breath and they bit each other's lips. After twelve years, it was what they did to make things feel new. But the rain kept coming, beating the leaves from the maples and the elms, turning the gutters into rivulets floating Starbucks pastry bags.
They went upstairs to lie down and the rain fell harder with the late darkness. He held his wife against him, her back warm and damp. She felt the rain through the screen, more than he did, and pushed into his chest until he moved. There had been long days of rain and they never knew the rain from the sky. If the sunlight came, it showed hard before the dusk, and made the streets steam. But there were two weeks before they would talk about the wet summer, a month before the rains ruined July with low, gray skies.
Mike Spence had told Susan he was going to be a cop over delivered Thai food. His academy class was starting in three months down on Monroe by Rico's, where they once drank vodka martinis, singing Dean Martin songs with a bartender friendly over past tips and watching the fall outs from the police trainee runs spit and hold their sides. Who the hell could they chase, he'd laughed. No soldier would lower himself to be a cop. Now, he was thirty-five, a paratrooper discharged fourteen years ago, and he hadn't won a thing.
I wrote a book about me, he thought. Winners and losers. That was the risk.
"You'll stay a year," his wife said.
"I start in ninety days."
"I don't think it's what you want."
She sat up and drew the bedsheet around her breasts and pointed in his face. He looked out the window. A writer, he was thinking. Just because that idea moved him didn't mean it was moving. He felt crazy sometimes, even undone, like he'd been climbing hard but the ladder was up against the wrong wall. In the early darkness, her eyes searched his face.
"Why do you still get this way," she said.
"I'm no one way anymore," he said.
"You get these ideas," she said, "but life isn't a story. You were just talking about going to Iraq with Quakers. Last year, you were going to backpack through Cambodia. You always attach yourself to something that is not your own."
He looked at her and then at themselves in the wall mirror. Her biceps were bruised from wrestling with autistic boys from her special education class. In grocery stores, people eyed her arms and stared at him while she scanned cat food and mangoes through the self-checkout. A dyke is going to hit you someday, she'd laugh. Just leave you for dead.
"You're not a character," she said.
"You don't know?" he said.
"I know you're not a character."
Mike Spence listened to the rain. He knew his wife saw a bloated cop parked in the wagon outside a 7-Eleven while his partner got a coffee and eyed the Indian girl's breasts. Pooja, she'd be thinking. My husband's partner will be eyeing Pooja.
Later, in his shaded room, Mike read his work when Susan was quiet outside the door, listening. There were noises she made, noises she thought he didn't hear, the way she coughed from breathing slowly through her nose, the floor creak from her shifting weight. As a kind of game, he made his voice like slick rocks, doing Barry White, Al Green, Isaac Hayes. He tried making her laugh, breaking her cover, but she was silent. The abortion had been the price to keep his life, not hers. It was making her eyes hard. A cop, she'd said. After we did it for you to write. He forgot her coughing between the fan creaks and read in the bulb light.
I saw these guys who looked like Todds in the Loop after rush hour. I gave them last names.
Todd Miller. Todd Turner. Todd Stevens.
They were always squinting from the white heat still glinting off bus windows. Six thirty was the earliest I ever watched them leave the First National Building, humping the sidewalk in the white heat of summer, swinging a briefcase up Dearborn Street, then long-stepping among the women with popcorn in the Picasso's shadow. Todd's father taught him how to stay low and know how much things cost. He kept a fraction in his head and headed to the El after ten hours at Sidley and Austin, jamming down the subway stairs slick from spilled popcorn. He moved like a golden retriever and loosened his tie. Humiliation for Todd was going from wild-caught sockeye salmon at Whole Foods to the flash-frozen farm-raised fish Costco lets you buy if you pay the fifty dollars a year. He had to ask Jennifer to eat that, look her in those swim-team blue eyes and say things were weird at work.
I wrote a book about my having been a soldier for Todd. He needed to see drunken barracks fights on the weekends, know what he missed when Jacky Bozak and Ernie Chopper threw hands, strung out on crank and Michelob, and my best friend Edward Dilger had Charge of Quarters after the top sergeants went home to duplexes and house trailers. I didn't hold back for Todd. He read how Dilger beat his knuckles bloody on Bozak's plate face, himself a new corporal and six months to discharge, but couldn't make the wired Pollack stop choking the hillbilly. Todd couldn't leave this earth, suddenly and beautifully with Jennifer in the collapse of a Whole Foods parking lot, and not experience Bozak's frozen skull take Dilger's punches. It was like watching a sledge head begin breaking up concrete. Chopper strained to keep his eyes open while his lips went dark.
I waited at Whole Foods meat counters after the novel came out and bought chicken while Todd picked free-range T-bones, his hand cart heavy from organic artichoke hearts in cans. He wore fleeces and suede slipper walking shoes and I knew he'd mess himself if Dilger even aimed his eyes at him and got cold. Edward Dilger taught himself to have still eyeballs by shooting coyotes with a .223 Ruger for the twenty-dollar bounty in Tom Hall County, Texas. Todd never watched a guy like Dilger get dragged off by two MPs for having punched Bozak too long, until his eye hung sideways, and he collapsed against Chopper's back and dripped blood on his shaved head.
Todd never paid twenty-two dollars to know about guys like my buddy. He did pay dearly for chicken breasts already rubbed with herbs. The army paid Dilger and Sidley paid Todd. The guy couldn't see the problem.
I'd written about how Dilger was a good soldier but when the MP sticked him by the stairs, four of his teeth bounced off the cinder-block walls like pellets. The CO took his stripes three days later for not calling the MPs first thing. Todd couldn't be human unless he saw Dilger in Key West two years after the army, Dilger making manhattans at Sloppy Joes, and knew that he'd started shooting speed under his tongue. But Todd probably had some college friend whose parent committed suicide junior year, just after a year in England, and finding Dilger dead in his apartment bathroom didn't shock him. He loaned heavy for Northwestern Law School and didn't spare cash for other people's pain. If he died tomorrow in the collapse of the Whole Foods parking lot, he'd sleep forever in his Range Rover like the pharaohs in mountain tombs.
* * *
In May, after the abortion, Mike and Susan drove Interstate 80 from Chicago to the Rocky Mountains. They rented an old timbered cabin in the pines at the bottom of Estes Canyon. There was good shade from the trees and there was a fast stream coming down from the mountains and a narrow gravel road that dropped steeply from the highway and stopped in the jagged black stumps at the bank below the cabin. There were cottages up the highway, circled by birches, and if there were people, they did not see them. It was early in the season and very cold and rainy at night.
The stream came straight from the Continental Divide, where water became other water, all powerful and cold, but the trout were gone from the shallows and they could not drink the water any more than they could from the Chicago River. If they'd not sent the deposit, he would have left over it. An alpine stream, the Internet ad read, cold, clear snow runoff. He assumed he could dip his cupped hand and drink sloppily, letting the water numb his mouth, but the rental manager dropped off two cases of Evian for the week. Screw this place, Mike said. But Susan calmed him, the way she did after the happiness about his first novel faded like a new car smell. She made him look north where the woods and the canyon walls were all one thing, like a great idea, strangely jagged and soft, but always the same. They were here to let go. They were here to wash it all away and see if they could feel clean again. Relax, she told him. She lowered her voice to say it.
At night, they wrapped themselves in one blanket and sat watching the clouds blow down from the high range. The sky turned green and the lightning splayed like fingers. They tried to make love and it went badly so they held hands and talked about getting new cats and perhaps their own house in the cornfields south of Chicago. They talked like they believed the abortion was not the sad and humiliating thing it truly was. They were cautious with each other. They never talked about the bad dreams or the weak feeling that went to their knees. Sitting still under the blanket, they would make themselves laugh by naming the new cats after cartoon characters or friends they'd had. When the jokes went, they listened to the slackening rain, holding each other, both seeing him in the waiting room with People magazine while she lay dilated before the doctor. Then later, when the clouds blew through the canyon, they would decide the farmhouse they wanted must have white clapboards and a long front porch and stained glass in the eastern windows to color the sunrise. I'll build a fireplace from river rocks, he said. I'll cut the wood, good hackberry. She lay her head against his shoulder, her hair wet from the leaky awning. I'll sweep the porch and try not to wake the sleeping cats, she said.
All week they held hands and hiked trails of slate rock slick from the wet spring. They came upon elk herds sleeping in scrub meadows, ground squirrels running between holes like vaudeville comics, and one night watched a coyote nosing by the car. They stopped and studied waterfalls, shooting rapids, boulders dropped among birch trees like monoliths. She took pictures, holding the camera up and down to get in his height. We pick up from here, she said. One day after the next, he thought. Like walking.
They took Interstate 80 home through the stout hills of Nebraska where cattle herds balded pastures and fat kids with sunburned legs waved from overpasses. The sunlight was low and even and white. Susan found new stations when the distance beat the signal. Outside Cheyenne, they heard Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" on college radio, and listened through the static. He wished they could sing it together, let go the way dogs howl.
"I can't believe they're playing this song," she said.
"Go with it," he said.
"I didn't like it then."
She turned down the volume and he heard the wind over the sad, growly singer. Ian Curtis was a put-on, she said. She'd talked about dancing in the aisles at Talking Heads's concerts back in college, really throwing her arms above her head, and for twelve years he tried imagining it.
Mike first saw people scrubbing their windshields with green pads at a truck stop near Kimball. The insect guts darkened the glass like window tint, but his remained clean enough to see Susan's reflection without spots shadowed on her face. They must have hit an odd stretch of air, he thought. Smiling guys with RVs stood upon stepladders and worked their elbows, watching Susan walk for the restroom, her hand squeezing her purse strap. Look at the ass on her, their faces said.
"You can't get the bugs all the way off with a squeegee," a man in a cowboy hat told him. "Not out here. Go get you some green pads at the Wal-Mart in Brownson."
Mike nodded that he'd make do and the man shrugged his shoulders. He went looking for Susan because that morning she'd cried on a Texaco toilet seat outside Cheyenne, sobbing so hard her eyes were still swollen at noon. He'd stood outside the door, his shadow broken on a propane tank, asking her what she wanted from him. My eyes are all puffy, she'd said.
"Remember," the man called out, "it's the bugs' world in Nebraska and we just live in it."
Mike drove off and set the cruise at eighty-five and read the mileage sign for North Platte, Kearny, Omaha. Sure, Tex, he thought of the man. It's probably just like you say.
Ogallala was a hundred miles away when the bugs came out of the white sky like spilled coffee. They stitched the windshield. He looked hard through the smears and heard them hitting while Susan searched the radio for a stronger station. He couldn't see and the bug shadows spotted her cheeks. She scanned and listened for a half second, caring more about a clear signal than the music.
* * *
In Chicago, they went on dates again. Just the two of them. They were making steps, like they talked about in the mountains, and meeting at restaurant bars, the same places from ten years ago, an Italian place on Racine, or a Lebanese bistro far north on Clark. Then, they'd drunk martinis because people were doing it again, he Stoli, she Absolut, and laughed about inside jokes with friends they last knew had moved to Seattle. Lance was Heineken, then Bombay and tonic when he bloated. Elizabeth liked Cosmopolitans. It was the pretty glass, the faded red vodka. In those days, they were all just off work, the Loop or the near North Side, where women swung Coach bags and pigeon feathers fell in the puddles. They sang Nat King Cole songs with the jukebox and thought things were one big wave.
Tonight, Mike and Susan ordered their martinis and sat alone at Rico's. The bar was clean, but scratched. She played with her olive stick. Mike wanted to tell her there wasn't enough air in their apartment for two, and it was good they left the place to fill back up. Open windows, a hard wind, the curtains pushed to the ceiling. But she would only look at him, her eyes becoming wet. We were just in Colorado for two weeks, she'd say. Air isn't the problem. Now, they sat where they once drank grappa like they knew something special, and said nothing about him becoming a cop. She was sure he'd pull the plug, that it was already an old idea he had of himself. You wait, he thought. I can't lose in that world.
Mike watched the waiters watch the six o'clock news. There was a fire west on Harrison, around Cicero, an eight-flat lit up like a wedding party. Kids aped for the news camera.
"You think Lance and Elizabeth ever married?" he said.
"No. She left him for a doctor."
"How do you know?"
She pointed to the restroom through a doorway, by a pay phone. Two busboys looked at her where they folded silverware into cloth napkins.
"We used to talk in there. She was scared Lance's dreams were too tied up with him going out."
"He wanted to design computer games."
"She said he only ever had plans on bar stools beside you."
"He knew what he wanted to do."
"I bet the doctor dumped her after she left Lance."
"Where's this coming from?"
"That girl was like a monkey with men," she said. "She always had her hand on a branch before she swung. One had to break."
"You want to get a table?"
"You really thought Elizabeth was something."
"Maybe we should finish our drinks here."
"Whatever you want to do."
"She was our friend."
"He was your friend. Women make the best of being stuck together."
Mike kept quiet and drank, letting the cold vodka numb his gums before he swallowed. He was happy Susan usually stopped herself before listing the things she endured to be his wife.
Excerpted from Because the Rain by Daniel Buckman. Copyright © 2007 Daniel Buckman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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