Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
  • Home
  • About
  • Archive
  • Bio Notes
  • Bookshelf
  • Contents
  • Submit
Short Story
4852 words
SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013

Landing Zone X-Ray

by Thomas E. Kennedy

I picture the FBI that year on 83rd Street in Jackson Heights across from St. Joan of Arc’s Church where, years before, I’d gone to dances, the spring I was fifteen, doing the lindy in a powder-blue suit with a plump, sweet-mouthed girl named Luanne.

But now it’s another time; I am not a boy, but a young man, a senior in college with the Army behind me and political ideas that may have consequences. I picture two men in suits climbing out of an unmarked car, chunking the doors shut, entering the wide, dim lobby of my apartment house. I picture them crossing to the elevator; one gets in, the other ducks out back to cover the fire escape. I see him stand there against the wall, chewing gum with his lips closed, dawn light shadowing the acne scars in the pit of his cheek. I see the other man’s thick finger stab the elevator button for five, hear the moment’s silence before the machinery hums into movement and the car lifts up the shaft past floor after floor of sleeping families, the Cohens, Mendozas, Taylors, Rakovecs, O’Connors, Giannasios.

And I see those families in bed behind locked doors in their three- and four-room apartments, some with little kids asleep in cribs, some old, retired, some alone, divorced, never married. I can hear the newspapers thump on their door mats as a sleepy kid jogs from floor to floor, delivering the Long Island Star Journal. I see the FBI man in the dim light of the ascending elevator car.

I see him, but I cannot see what he is thinking. His face is impassive, his mind, his heart closed to my reach. He is, say, forty-five years old (my age now), has a family I can barely glimpse, a smudged vision in a dream: a woman in a bathrobe, a house somewhere, a suburb, kids, two boys. Does he cheat on her? Is he a bully, a tyrant at home? Did she give him a plate of eggs this morning before he left to do this? Does he think patriotic thoughts about what he is about to do? Is he reluctant, grim? Did he himself fight in WWII or Korea and feel cheated by our type? Is it a meanly agreeable task, cornering the enemy in their sleep? Or just a job?

I see his face only fleetingly through the round window of the elevator door as the car lifts past, up toward where I see myself now, asleep in Apt. 5D on a box-spring mattress beneath the high ceiling, within the shadowy walls, pale bars of light falling through the slats of the venetian blinds across my sheet-draped body.

I open my eyes. Danny is no longer snoring on the sofa. He stands on bare feet on the dusty wood floor, buttoning his plaid shirt. I sit up on my elbows. He says, “Something wrong,” cocks an ear, eye whites luminous in the shadowy light. A clock ticks on the window ledge: 5:00 a.m. The elevator grinds and echoes in the shaft. I watch Danny’s sockless feet find tennis sneakers. Then he is through the kitchen door, mounting the window ledge, out onto the fire escape, looking down through the bars. “Damn!” he sobs.

I hear the elevator stop on my floor, hear the tiny creak of its door opening, hear a finger stab at my dead doorbell, then a fist slamming the door itself as Danny climbs up instead of down, and I see the fire escape trembling under his weight and the weight of someone coming up from beneath, hollering.

Sometimes on a winter afternoon I sit at my desk here by the window, miles, years away, and look out at the water and the sky, gray as lead and just as still, and everything seems to make sense. The sky seems to take me to it, take my heart, and my stomach moves like when you look off a high building, and you know in your body suddenly how small and fragile and frightened you really are.

All I want to do then is pack it in for the day, go down to the kitchen and have a cup of coffee with Stephanie or yell out to the kids, “Hey! Jack? Kathy? Emergency up here! Come on up and give the old man a hug!” And rejoice in the fact they will come running, they will still do that for me.

We get to thinking things are stationary sometimes, but of course they’re not. Everything is changing constantly, from minute to minute. A week, a month is nothing. A year goes like a dream. I waited so long in my life before having kids and now, in five years already both of them will be teenagers, off on their own most the time, that great sense of closeness we’ve developed will turn to secrecy, aversion, impatience. They will begin to take their own positions on things, will take chances, risk themselves on actions whose meanings will later seem to change, open to question. This is what parents know.

It was the same for us with our own folks. It’s all in the natural order of things. They’ll be off learning for themselves, beyond my control, uninterested in my advice, and I’ll sit up here at my desk, stare out at the sea and pray they come to no serious harm, knowing there is a real risk they will, and I’ll have to face it on my own, whatever it is I see there which gives me this scary feeling of merging with forever. Stephanie and I will have to learn to live together with quiet again, see if we can face it together. “It’s incredible how short a life really is,” she said to me the other day, dazed by the sudden realization that it had been twenty-five years since her little brother was shot to death in the war. She said it in a way that went straight to my heart, made me feel the way I do when I sit here and look at the sea in the dead of winter.

When I was a kid, ten or fifteen, my father used to say, “That was, oh, twenty, twenty-five years ago,” and I used to think how strange to be so old you can remember history.

Now I think of Danny that morning they got him and that was twenty-three years ago. I never saw him again. We exchanged a few letters, then I lost contact with him. I saw his mother once or twice on the street in Jackson Heights before I moved away. She was about fifty, I suppose, a tall, slim woman with short red hair and Danny’s big broad nose. I don’t think I ever saw her smile. She was divorced, and very strict with Danny, whose father lived in Florida. She stared at me on the street, watched me with her pale eyes. She despised what Danny had done, called him a coward and a traitor, praised his older brother in the Navy, told Danny he was just like his no-good run-off father. And she never forgave me for hiding him, would not speak to me, only stared, with those hard, pale eyes. That was so many years ago. She might well be dead by now.

Danny got a dishonorable discharge and four years at Leavenworth, came out to do some small-time dealing, worked as a mule, lived in communes in California, disappeared in Mexico during the seventies. That was his story, history. I knew him since high school, a nice enough fellow to start with, a year younger than me, a tall big-nosed guy who seemed always uncertain of things, but good-humored. He was always nodding to some private music, rhythm and blues, or plucking an invisible electric bass and miming notes with his lips, singing blues lyrics, “You know I feel so bad! Like a ball game on a rainy day.”

In 1968, after he finished advanced infantry training at Fort Dix, he drew orders for Vietnam. He was given a week’s leave first, and he ran for it. He lived where he could for a couple of years, spent the last six months at my place until they came and took him away.

I learned later that it was his girlfriend turned him in, Kathy Giovanni, a small, slight, green-eyed girl with overlapping front teeth she used to hide with her tongue when she smiled. Why she did that to him I cannot imagine. She was always quiet with him. For a few years there, the two of them were always together. I don’t ever remember hearing them speak, just standing together, or walking with their arms around each other, Danny tall beside her, going off by themselves, walking to Mass together on Sunday mornings, speaking quietly, intently.

Then he ran from his orders, and she turned him in. I try to picture her getting out the phone book, turning pages to F, Federal, Federal Bureau of Investigation, dialing, saying, “I want to report a military deserter.” I picture her lips, overlapping teeth near the mouthpiece of the phone, and I try to look into her mind, her heart, but cannot understand why she would do that to him. Was she bitter that his becoming an outlaw also meant leaving her? Did she hope he would only serve a few months in jail and then come back to her? Did she have her own political convictions, that a boy should be willing to give his life for his country even in a war like Vietnam?

The one FBI man already had Danny in handcuffs up on the roof when I opened the door to see a broad-faced man in a suit flash a wallet with a piece of metal in it, say something, shove me into the room before him, looking around at the blankets on my sofa, my bed, the banged-up furniture.

Then Danny was being stuffed back through the kitchen window from the fire escape, and the other Fed with the acne scars was there. Danny looked young and slight next to him in the kitchen, his pale hair and light skin, his features clear, still young, untouched. He was twenty-two years old. Legal age. Expected to fight for his country. Old enough to vote. But he looked like a boy there, standing beside that man.

“He don’t know anything about it,” Danny said to the cop, jerking his head at me. That was when I noticed his hands were cuffed behind his back and there was blood between his teeth and his mouth was swollen.

“Did I ask you something?” the broad-faced cop asked quietly, staring into Danny’s face. Then his hand shot out, and he smacked him. Danny’s head jerked to the side, and he looked at me, smirked. I was too scared to pull faces. I just stood there in my pajamas, shivering while the cop poked through my things.

I had a poster on the wall that was a close-up photograph of a derelict staggering down a city street over the caption, We have all come from lovers. The cop ran his hand in behind the poster, tearing one corner of it, feeling the wall. Then he looked at the picture, smirked. “Beautiful,” he said. “Just beautiful.” He opened my bureau drawers, jerked them all the way out so the contents spilled on the floor as he checked beneath them. He opened the freezer section of my refrigerator and ran the ice cube trays under the hot water tap, watching them carefully as the frost melted from them. He went into the bathroom and lifted the porcelain lid off the toilet tank and peered into it.

“Better watch out,” Danny said. “Could be some dangerous shit in there.”

I shook my head to silence him.

Then the cop came back inside and looked at Danny. “You stupid jerk,” he said. “You’re screwed. And for what?” He jabbed the tip of his finger against my chest and asked my name. I told him, Paul Casey, and he asked my draft status, what kind of discharge I had, where I’d served.

“Fort Ben Harrison,” I said. “Adjutant General’s Corps. Honorable discharge.”

He snorted. “Chair-born cowboy. Private pencil.”

The other cop put his face close to mine, so I could smell the coffee and cigarettes on his breath, and he said, “I want you to wait right here, Casey, ’cause I’m coming back for you with a warrant. Now don’t you touch a thing here, I got it all memorized, and you touch a thing, I got you for tampering with evidence in addition to being an accomplice to a felony. You got that, Casey?”

They led Danny out, reading him his rights, and that was the last I ever saw of him, with his shirt hanging out and blood between his teeth, tennis sneakers with no socks, and his wrists cuffed at the small of his back.

As soon as they were gone, I flushed the two joints I had in my cigarette pack down the toilet. I watched my fingers tremble as I broke and emptied them into the water. Then I scrubbed the bowl with Ajax and washed my hands and sat down on my sofa and waited.


Five blocks away, my mother and father were just getting up out of bed in their shingle-and-stucco house on Hampton Street. My father, a squat, bull-faced man, would be standing at the bathroom sink shaving, while my mother put on coffee down in the kitchen. They never spoke about the war. If I brought it up they would only stare, or change the subject, look away. The only thing they ever said was, “Thank God you got out before it started for real.” My mother said that. My father said nothing. He had never been a soldier himself, too young for the first war, too old for the next two. He was a kind, quiet man, who would never allow anyone to use the word nigger in his presence without calling them on it. For many years, I did the same.

They used to call me “Paul X” in the neighborhood, many of my old friends who inherited their parents’ racism. I argued with them. If they said, “Nigger,” I corrected them, “Negro.” Then it became a joke, so that if I said, “Negro,” they corrected me, “Nigger,” and I had to give it up then because they turned it into a joke.

But for a while there, a short while in the sixties, it seemed as though many of them changed. In the end, none of them wanted to go to Vietnam, and those who did go—if they came back—returned opposed to it. Their general view of things seemed to soften. Racism went out of style. Everyone was suddenly more open to one another, or so it seemed, for a time.

I didn’t know anyone who wanted to go. I knew one guy who said he was gay to get out of going and was haunted by that ever since, others who got doctors to testify to false disabilities, chronic skin diseases, back disorders. I knew two guys who moved to Canada before they were called, and several who were called and went against their will, a few of whom came back in bodybags or missing a leg or an arm or limping, or broken in other ways. One guy named Brian Macauley came back and never left his house, sat in the front window staring out at the street, and you could see tears spilling out of his eyes, although his face was perfectly still. My wife’s brother got killed there, three years before they showed up and got Danny.

Danny is the only guy I knew who deserted. Aside from marching a couple of times, and signing petitions, things like that, sheltering Danny was the only active thing I ever did against the war. Nothing to speak of, really.

It is hard to fathom the mistakes a nation can make, mistakes that mean the death of thousands of men and women, blown-up, burned, maimed, shot. I sit in my living room or at the window of my study looking out over the sea, warm, comfortable, and try to imagine Danny, try to understand his life, or the life of my wife’s brother, Jimmy, who got called in when he was nineteen and got shot in the stomach and the leg and the face. I see a rifle bullet enter his face alongside the nose, tear through his brain, open the back of his head, others burning into his stomach, shattering his thigh bone. I see Jimmy, with whom I used to play basketball in the P.S. 89 school yard, set shots, twenty-one, a black-haired kid with a quick grin who was called and went and got killed so fast no one even knew there was a war on yet. They didn’t even have the notification teams organized yet. Stephanie’s parents got a telegram delivered by a cab driver. I sit safe and warm in my home now, a quarter of a century later, and I still see Jimmy’s grin, see him duck and feint and jump, drop the ball into the hoop. And I see him fall, know pain, horror, at nineteen, beyond anything I have ever known or am likely to experience in my life, hopefully beyond anything my own children will ever know.

I can’t really picture it. I can see him hit, bleed, fall. I can force my mind to create an image of his face shattering around a rifle bullet, but I cannot really experience it in my imagination, no more than I can experience Danny’s fate at Leavenworth. Was he raped, broken, protected, educated? He wrote me a few letters, but the information revealed nothing of what his real life there must have been like, and I didn’t ask. When he got out, he headed straight for San Francisco, the Haight Ashbury, then full of criminals, as was the East Village in New York, and for that matter the whole so-called Peace and Love Movement.

Danny wrote a few more letters about muling,, about trips into Mexico, about a score so good he bought a new Ford Fairlane, about a commune where he stayed out in the desert, in the mountains. And then there were no more letters and the ones I sent to his last address were returned unknown at this address. That was a good fifteen or eighteen years ago. I no longer know where his mother lives, or his older brother, and I have moved so many times that if Danny tried to get in touch with me it is unlikely he would succeed. Most likely he is dead. Or in prison in Mexico.

I sat for nearly three hours waiting for the FBI men to return to my apartment after they took Danny away. Finally I realized they were not coming back for me, that I was free, off the hook. Well, it actually took some time before I really felt free of them. In some respects I continued to wait, felt them watching me. Every tear at the comer of a piece of mail, every click on the telephone made me think of them, but they never came back, never made themselves known in any way. Maybe my name still sits in some file somewhere and would ring a bell if I ever applied for a security clearance, but at least I was never interrogated, never had to spend even a day in jail. My life was allowed to go on without any disruption. I did not have to enter a penitentiary, see the hard faces there, waiting for me, did not have to die.

I had gone into the army after six months of college, volunteered for the draft to get it out of the way, and was discharged in 1964, the year the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was adopted and President Johnson started getting serious about Vietnam. So I was spared that. My first six months in college I was an ROTC student—that’s how abruptly my life changed in the Sixties; so if I had gone on to finish according to plan, I would have been graduated as a second lieutenant in 1967, would no doubt have gone right to combat in the Nam. I would have been forced to make a choice which might have drastically changed my whole life one way or the other, death or prison or exile. But I was spared that.

How arbitrary it all seems. Danny’s life, mine. The fact that a nation, a president makes a bad choice, thousands of people die violent deaths. My life has been more or less normal. I married, have a house, children, a job. I live a quiet life. I wear my political convictions, such as they are, quietly. I am old enough now to glimpse that place up ahead where my days will end, a natural death probably, although who knows? Perhaps I will be killed by someone shaped into a murderer by poverty, misery, the chance turning of events. Or perhaps not. Perhaps I will die as quietly as fall becomes winter, a withering, fading.

Sometimes darkness, gloom, is a comfort. One chill dark day, early winter, you look at the frozen earth, and you know that some winter will be your last one, you will miss the next beat in the rhythm, we all will, and that is actually a comfort sometimes, in the way it is a comfort on a chill dark day to see a light in the window of a strange house, a yellow lampshade on a table behind gauze curtains. Mysteries.

Like the mystery of Danny’s life. I try to picture what it was like for Danny in jail, but I don’t really know. He didn’t say much about it in his letters, not about the actual conditions, but it must have been a cruel experience. I ask myself why Danny did what he did, why I hid him. What was really in my heart, in Danny’s? Why was he ruined by the war? Because he was altruistic? Naïve? Did he simply decide he could not kill, could not bear to risk his own life for an historical mistake, and lost it anyway? Did he just use poor judgement? Try to save his skin in a foolhardy way? Or was he just unlucky? An historical casualty? We didn’t really discuss it. We didn’t talk much about the war. We watched it on TV most nights, of course, shook our heads, groaned, but we were not political, didn’t discuss the whole situation. Danny just deserted and, when the time came, I let him stay with me.

What about the generals, the politicians, the people who marched, the people who stayed home, the people who supported the war, and the ones who were just indifferent to it all? I know what my father believed. He said it once finally to me, reluctantly. “We need an army, son. People can’t just go and run off.”

I smirked.“But do we need this war?”

I saw Danny’s girlfriend, the one who turned him in, once more, many years later. It took me several moments torecognize her. She had gained a lot of weight, but slowly her face appeared from amidst the heavy jowls and sagging wattles. I could see her face, the crooked tooth, the pale green eyes. She was wearing a gray cloth coat, standing outside the projects in Jamaica, near where I teach, and she was shouting after a child of ten or so. I stared at her, recognized her finally, and she looked back at me, but her face showed nothing. It was an empty face, or seemed so, one without emotion, neither joy nor sorrow, but who can judge from a moment’s glance?

Now, so many years later, I try to recall Danny’s face. I can remember he joked a lot, that he loved rhythm and blues music, used to play an imaginary bass guitar and mime the notes with his mouth. I can remember him with his girlfriend, the two of them with their arms around one another off by themselves, talking quietly. But in truth that is all I can remember. I can hardly remember him at all, cannot call his face to mind in more than the vaguest details, cannot close my eyes and see it there. It is almost as though I never knew him, as though none of it ever happened, although of course it did.

He did run from the army, I did hide him, I did see two federal policemen lead him out of my apartment in handcuffs, shirt out, blood between his teeth, his young innocent mouth swollen.

Twenty-two years later, on an airplane flying to a conference in the Midwest, the stewardess offers me a magazine, and I select US News & World Report, in which I read a story about the 25th anniversary of a battle at Landing Zone X-Ray, judged to be the first real battle of Vietnam, on November 14, 1965. The story recounts in detail the five-day encounter which took the lives of 234 Americans and 2,000 Vietnamese. The article narrates the battle, discusses tactics and strategy, the use of helicopters, tells about many of the individual soldiers who fought, plots their movements on a map through each day of the encounter, describes their wounds, an eyewitness account of a lieutenant bleeding from the neck, another whose brains literally spill into his helmet, corpsmen squeezing bloodbags into the veins of men bleeding to death.

I know about this battle; it is here that Stephanie’s little brother was killed. The article does not mention his name.

The story ends with a piece about a meeting between the two generals who ran the battle, the American Lt. General “Hal” Moore, the Vietnamese General, Vo Nguyen Giap. General Moore is now 65 years old, General Giap is 80, an aged smiling man. They meet and converse for ninety minutes under the observation of a reporter who had been present covering Landing Zone X-ray twenty-five years before. When the time comes for the two old generals to part, General Moore, a big red-headed man, graying, with an under-slung jaw, takes off his wristwatch and presents it to Giap—A small gift from one old soldier to another.

Giap cups the watch in both hands. Then he embraces his former enemy. The article leaves the two old generals in one another’s arms.

I remember a friend of mine who told me one night when we were drinking a little bit about what it had been like over there. “Giap had us pinned down in foxholes for four solid days in the rain. Didn’t dare stick your head out. You shit in your helmet and threw it out.”

I stuff the magazine into the seat pouch in front of me, glance out the window at the landscape below which looks like quadrants of sheet metal riveted together. It occurs to me that, with a quiet impartiality, I am observing the history of my own years.

I feel no rancor. I have read the article with interest, with a certain enthusiasm even, curious to know the details of the men who fought that battle, to know what became of the survivors. I am sad for the dead, shaken by LBJ’s mistake, America’s mistake, baffled by the revisionism that would have us no longer feel shame about it all, baffled by my own quiet acceptance of it all. I feel no anger. Not toward Johnson or Nixon or the generals or those two FBI men who took Danny away, or the political mistakes that murdered my wife’s brother.

This is my story, the story of my time. This is what was going on when I was young. I think of Danny, probably dead now, and maybe his last hours were terrible, his last years, or maybe he is still alive, huddled against an adobe wall in Mexico, broken, rotting in his own dirt, ill, soon dead. We all will be one day, and at the hour of our death, we will look back over our time and regret its passing and puzzle over it, and all of our friends and all of our enemies will be the people we shared our time with. All the dead men and all the women will turn their hollow gazes toward us then, and I do not think we will wish that we had done more or less or something else.

I think death, finally, will become the passage we choose. Resistance will dissolve, and the mystery of all the people we ever touched or who touched us will fold into our hearts at that final moment, like the embrace of an enemy, old now, and smiling.

—Originally published in New Letters magazine (1993). Reprinted in O. Henry Awards (1994). Reprinted in Drive Dive Dance & Fight (BkMk Press, 1997) and in Getting Lucky: New & Selected Stories, 1982-2012 (New American Press, 2013).


SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013

Thomas E. Kennedy’s

Photo of Thomas E. Kennedy, by Mark Hillringhouse
Photograph by
Mark Hillringhouse

more than 30 books include novels, story and essay collections, literary criticism, translation, anthologies, and most recently three of the four novels of the Copenhagen Quartet: In the Company of Angels (2010), Falling Sideways (2011), Kerrigan in Copenhagen, A Love Story (2013), and, soon to be released, Beneath the Neon Egg, all from Bloomsbury Publishing worldwide.

In 2013, Kennedy also published Getting Lucky: New & Selected Stories, 1982-2012 from New American Press. His books have been highly praised in the Washington Post, the New Yorker, and other prominent newspapers and magazines; and his latest novel was a recent Editors Choice in the New York Times Book Review.

His stories, essays, and translations from the Danish appear regularly in such venues as the New Yorker blog, the Independent in London, Boston Review, the Southern Review, Epoch, Ecotone, New Letters, Glimmer Train, Writer’s Chronicle, the Literary Review, American Poetry Review, Serving House Journal, Poet Lore, and many others—and have won O. Henry and Pushcart Prizes as well as a National Magazine Award.

Kennedy has also won two Eric Hoffer Awards for novels, multiple grants from the Danish Arts Council, and other prizes and distinctions. He teaches fiction and creative nonfiction in the low-residency MFA program of Fairleigh Dickinson University and lives in Copenhagen. +

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury