“Whatever happened to those kids?” asked Mikey.
He took a long drag on his cigarette. Even in the dim glow of the street lamp his closely-cropped, sandy-blonde hair accentuated his questioning blue eyes, and stood in stark contrast to my tangled shock of red hair.
I responded glibly, although I knew what he was asking. “I know some of them moved away. The others…well, we really didn't hang out with any of them.”
“No, not those kids, Ian,” Mikey said, frustrated with my answer. “Us. What the hell happened to us?”
* * *
Michael Delinski—Mikey—was exactly one month older than me, and had been my best friend since childhood. Up until the time we both entered the military, he lived directly across the street. We were urban urchins: T-shirts, jeans and sneakers were our uniforms.
The summer after graduating from high school was a busy one for us. We were employed by my bookie grandfather as his collection agency, and had been since we were sixteen. That’s when I started to steal cars. Now, as an eighteen-year-old, the rules had changed. I was charged as an adult rather than a juvenile. The judge gave me a choice: serve honorably for four years in the military, or serve four years in the county prison. I joined the Navy. Serving in the Army at the height of the Vietnam War never entered my mind.
I found Mikey the night before I left for Boot Camp. We picked up two six-packs of beer and a few packs of cigarettes via the back door of a local bar. That was our idea of a picnic. The bartender gave us the “don’t get caught” look.
We staked out a quiet spot at the local playground, just as it got dark. The grass was still damp from the day’s earlier rainfall. A slight breeze pushed away what little humidity was left. We lit our Camels, opened two bottles of beer each and drank them before one cigarette was finished. It was our game of skill.
Mikey and I reminisced about our youth. We strained to remember those few events of our childhood that weren't filled with fights, confrontations, and violence—those few times when we actually behaved like children, not adults in children’s bodies.
Two more bottles and another cigarette each. We were tied, which meant we were both winning. Mikey and I finished off the remainder of the second six-pack, and laughed until we cried when we recalled the stunts we pulled, and got away with, during our childhoods.
There was a long pause as we wiped our eyes. Alcohol may have washed away Mikey’s pain, but not the truth. That’s when Mikey asked his question. He continued quietly, “What made us change from two kids just having fun playing wall ball in the alley and pickup baseball games, to two guys getting into fights, stealing, and collecting for a fucking bookie? What changed us?” It was obvious that Mikey missed those two innocent kids, but he’d never shared that with me until that moment. I wondered how long he’d sat on that question.
I wanted to respond with the truth: “I changed because it gave me control over my sorry-ass life, Mikey, and I could. Simple as that.” Instead, I hid behind the beers and lied: “What does it matter, Mikey? We did it. We are who we are, I guess.”
Even in his drunken state, Mikey knew it was a bullshit answer.
We stumbled to our homes in silence.
A few months after that evening, I received a letter from Mikey saying he had enlisted in the Marines. He was signing up to die. I didn’t want to congratulate him, but I did. I wanted to say how I, too, missed those two kids—how I missed him—and how I had squandered the opportunity to say goodbye. But I didn’t.
Eight months later, I learned from my father that Mikey had been killed in action halfway through his tour. His remote base near the DMZ had been overrun by North Vietnamese regulars. There were no survivors.
I have often thought back to our last night together. We both wanted to say goodbye, but neither of us knew how.
Mikey did his best. I didn’t.
L.D. Zane served seven years in the Navy, which included a combat tour in Vietnam on river boats, and five years aboard nuclear-powered, Fast Attack submarines. At 65, his life is quieter now. He lives in a small town in southeastern Pennsylvania, and is a member of The Bold Writers.
L.D.’s short stories have been published in, among others: Red Fez, Indiana Voice Journal, Remarkable Doorways Online Literary Magazine, The Writing Disorder, The Furious Gazelle, Slippery Elm, The Rain, Party, & Disaster Society, and Drunk Monkeys.
His website is: ldzaneauthor.com.