This story was first published in the September 2010 issue of Raphael’s Village.

 

 

The first letter came in a red, white and blue bordered envelope and had a San Francisco return address. But that was just a mail distribution center for the army since, as I suspected, the letter was from Vic, who was writing from Viet Nam.

My name is Ben Scalzetti and I suppose it was destined that Vic Colucci and I would be best friends. Vic’s parents and my parents were friends and Vic and I were the same age, so our friendship flowed naturally. We entered grammar school together at St. Anthony’s, and quickly became inseparable. Childhood friends come and go, as most friends do, but I took it for granted that Vic and I would be friends forever. Sometimes life throws you a curve or a rain cloud on a sunny day.

Vic didn’t want to go into the army, not really. It seemed that Vic and some other guys, on a whim, broke into a house a few blocks from our neighborhood, because they knew the tenant had some grass around. They were just going to take a little for their use that night. They got caught. The cops told the boys that they could either be prosecuted, or join the military. Vic opted for the latter.

I was away at college at the time and the weekend after I got that news I went home. I had to see Vic to find out what was happening and how he was. I called him as soon as I got in and we agreed to meet at Joe’s, a local bar. I waited for him at the bar, sipping on a beer. He gave me a sheepish grin as he walked in, as if to say, “I screwed up royally buddy.” We shook hands and I asked him what he was drinking, motioning to the bartender to take his order.

“What were you thinking?” I finally said getting straight to the topic at hand.

“We weren’t thinking, that was the problem. Just a bunch of guys trying to have a good time, but being stupid about it.”

We both just shook our heads staring at our beers. “Okay, but do you have a chronic attack of the ‘stupids?’ What’s this about joining the service?”

“What choice did I have?” Vic pleaded. “It was either have a record, basically ruining my future, or sign up. I think I made the smart choice.”

“Except that there’s a little war going on in Nam,” I exclaimed.

“Aw, there’s no guarantee I’ll wind up there. Look, I’ve just been wandering through my life, and I know I’m not college material. Maybe I need the military to straighten me out; at least that’s what my father thinks.”

“What about your mom?”

“She’s not thrilled, but she’d be less thrilled with a son in jail.”

“Right,” I said as we both were silent for a few seconds. Finally I lifted my bottle of beer holding it toward Vic and said, “Well, here’s to you, stay safe.” We clinked our bottles and drank a long sip. That was the last time I saw him.

His first few letters were like a trip down memory lane. He wrote about our childhood in the old Italian neighborhood, going to the Feast at St. Anthony’s church. The street blocked off for blocks as we would run underneath the bandstand before being chased away by the bigger guys who hoped to look up the girls dresses. How we enjoyed the smell and taste of sausage and peppers, fried dough and candy apples as we watched the processions and listened to the old ladies singing in their strange, but inspiring harmonies.  He wrote about Sister Mary Assumption, or Sister Mary Ass as he called her, and the time she tried to administer her standard punishment to him, a whack with her ruler  across his palm. But Vic dropped his hand at the last minute causing her to hit her own leg. Her face reddened as we stifled laughs and she banished him to the principal’s office.

But mostly he wrote of Marla, his girl. We were thirteen in 1960 when Vic’s parents and my parents got together and bought a house in the west end of the city. We moved into the flat upstairs and Vic’s family took the downstairs flat. The neighborhood was mixed, which to our folks meant that there were Italians, Irish, Germans, etc. But it was white and, they felt, safer than the area we had just left. It was also around that time that we began to notice girls as more than just a nuisance. A girl in our class told me that Marla Shanley, who lived a few blocks from where we lived, liked Vic. At least that’s what so and so told so and so that Marla said. That’s the way relationships worked at that age, rarely direct conversations, but mostly through so and so’s. It wasn’t long before I became the go between for Vic and Marla.

We knew who Marla was, seeing her around the neighborhood once in awhile. She came from a large family of mostly girls, who were all good looking. She had strawberry blond hair, blue eyes, high cheekbones, and a perpetual smile. She was outgoing, funny and liked to have a good time. It wouldn’t do for Vic to tell her directly that he liked her too; boys that age just didn’t do that. So it was left to me to tell the girl who told me to tell Marla how Vic felt. That was followed by an arrangement for me to tell Marla directly what Vic said. I was reluctant, since I was not always comfortable around girls, especially pretty ones, but at Vic’s urging, I agreed.

As arranged by the girl in our class who made the initial approach, I waited outside Marla’s house at one o’clock one Saturday afternoon. I would have much rather been playing ball with my friends, but I was doing my best friend a favor. Marla came bounding down her stairs with an enthusiastic, “Hi Ben.”

“Hi.”

“So you told Vic I like him?”

“Yeah.”

“And he likes me?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, what did he say?”

“He said he likes you.”

“Is that all?”

“I don’t know.”

“C’mon Ben, he must have said more than that.”

“I don’t know, he didn’t say that much, he thinks you’re cute and all.”

“Really, he said that?”

“Yeah.”

“So does he want to be my boyfriend?”

“Geez, I don’t know, I didn’t ask him that,” I just shook my head as though she had just asked the dumbest question I ever heard.

Marla paused a few seconds thinking of what to say next. She glanced at my Yankees baseball cap and said, “So do you think the Mick will break the Babe’s record this year?”

“How do you know about that?”

“I have brothers you know, who are big baseball fans. Mantle is my favorite player.”

“Me too!”

“And he’s such a hunk.”

I hesitated, looked at Marla, who had a devilish expression on her face, and we both broke out in laughter at the same time. I began to relax and by the end of our conversation, I concluded that she was all right. I agreed to see if Vic wanted to be Marla’s “boyfriend” and report back to her the next day.

By our third meeting, our conversations grew easier and easier. Marla and Vic became a couple, and would get together and do “boyfriend-girlfriend” stuff, hold hands, kiss on occasion, flirtatious wrestling, etc. But she and I continued to have our meetings once in awhile. They both seemed to want that third party there to interpret or nurse along the relationship.

After discussing Vic, we usually talked about anything and everything. We enjoyed each other’s company and opened up to each other frequently.

“So Ben, what about you, don’t you want a girlfriend?” she asked me one evening.

“Naw, Vic is the ladies man; I’m too busy with sports and stuff.”

“Don’t you think my sister is kind of cute?”

“Katie? She’s kinda young isn’t she?”

“She’s only a year and a half younger than you and I think she likes you.”

“No thanks. Like I said, I got other stuff to do right now.”

“Ok, but if you change your mind let me know.”

“Yeah sure.”

“Ben?”

“Yeah?”

“What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know, wanna get an ice cream?”

“No, I mean what do you want to do when you grow up?”

“Oh,” I hesitated, not knowing how much to share with her. “Some day I want to write stories. You know books. Books that everyone wants to read, and that would make good movies. Stupid huh?”

“I don’t think that’s stupid. You can do it I know you can. You’re so easy to talk to; I know you’d write the same way.”

“Thanks,” I said awkwardly. “What about you?”

“I want to be a teacher. Not just any teacher, I want to teach poor kids and make a difference in their lives.”

I nodded, admiring her more realistic and selfless goal. “Cool,” I said. “Maybe you can teach them to read my books.” We laughed as we sat on her stoop just watching the evening go by.

I did wind up with Katie at Marla and Vic’s urging. I figured it was a way to hang around Vic and Marla without feeling too awkward. We spent that summer doing things like walking up to Westgate, which was a strip mall about a mile up Central Avenue from our neighborhood, stopping at Rapazzo’s on the way back for some lemon ice. Other days we’d sit on our stoops just talking and laughing. There was a night softball league at a park a few blocks away and we would sometimes hang out there and watch a game or the other people in the stands to make fun of. The place had a concession stand and it was a nice way to spend a summer evening. There were plenty of other young kids hanging out there too, so we had lots of company to fool around with.

One night as the four of us sat on the stoop of our house I said “Hey, you know last year I was at a softball game down at the park, and you know those storage sheds beyond the left field fence?”

“Yeah,” said Marla.

“Well, there was a thunderstorm that night and a big wind came up and blew one of the sheds apart. A piece of it actually flew into the stands.”

Vic had a feeling where this was going; he figured I was building up to what he and I would call a groaner, so he waited patiently smirking the whole time.

“Wow,” said Katie, “what happened?”

“Well,” I said, “that’s when the shed hit the fan.”

Marla just held her head in her hands shaking it back and forth. Vic nodded smiling his approval at me as he sat back with a contented look.

“Holy,” said Katie. “Was anybody hurt?”

That’s when I knew I wouldn’t be with her very long.

A few months after Katie and I broke up, I was in our driveway washing my father’s car. Marla came strolling by, walked up to me and started some small talk. During a lull in the conversation she began to sing “Let’s Get Together,” a song Haley Mills had out at the time, from the movie The Parent Trap.

“Let’s get together yeah yeah yeah, two is twice as nice as o-ne. Let’s get together right away we’ll be having twice the f-un,” she sang while looking at me with that ever-present smile.

I didn’t think much of it at the moment, but that night, as I watched the Steve Allen Show, in the middle of laughing at Louie Nye saying “Hi Ho Steverino,” I thought to myself, “Holy shit, was she telling me she’s interested in me?” The more I thought about it, the more I thought it was so. She was looking right at me, smiling while singing words that talked about us getting together. I wasn’t that dense, she was clearly sending me a message. She was finally seeing that we had a special bond, and obviously wanted to pursue something.

Still, she and Vic were a couple, and seemed to be in love. Yet, she and I still shared some close moments. And now she sang this little serenade. Yes, she had feelings for me, but what could I do about it? I was loyal to my friends, and although I had feelings for her I could not act on those feelings, no matter how she felt about me, so long as Vic and she were together. I would suffer in silence. I made a promise to myself though that if she and Vic ever broke up, I would pursue her.

After that I found it uncomfortable to be around her, around them. I began to distance myself from Marla while maintaining my friendship with Vic. I’d make excuses whenever they wanted to do something together, and I’d find ways to avoid being alone with her. I didn’t want to encourage her to do anything that would hurt Vic, even though it might benefit me.  It helped that she and Vic went to a different High School than I did, they a public school and me a Catholic school. Still, Vic and I stayed close and hung out together whenever I knew there was a good chance Marla wouldn’t be around. Neither of them said anything about the situation, so I concluded they either didn’t notice, or elected not to make an issue of it. They seemed happy together, and that was good enough for me.

Vic’s initial letters from Nam spoke about how lucky he was to have someone like Marla waiting for him, and belittling guys there who would cheat on their girls. As time went on, though, he would write less and less about Marla and more about his encounters there. He told of how some of the girls would shave their heads in order to sneak into the barracks to “service” them. He also described army sanctioned R&R places where you could get a steam bath and “massage” from a lovely young lady. They called these “steam and creams.” With the army inspecting the girls he felt they were relatively safe to be with, medically speaking.

Interspersed with these descriptions he would let slip pieces of how more dangerous his location was becoming. He would write of firefights in the area, and not being able to trust any of the locals. Still, I was shocked when I got the word that he was killed. A sniper picked him off when he was on guard duty one night. He didn’t even see it coming, and they said he died instantly. It felt like someone punched me in the stomach when I found out the news. I couldn’t believe he was gone and that I’d never see him again, never share a laugh with him, or our inner dreams, as only best friends do.

I couldn’t attend his funeral since I had final exams that week and couldn’t get excused no matter how much I pleaded with the school’s administration. During that week I received another letter from Vic, his last letter. It was postmarked one day before they said he died. In it he wrote about needing to be alert on the duty he was about to start since the danger was increasing every day. This letter did not describe the antics he and his buddies would get involved in, but instead he wrote a lot about the good times we had and how much he missed that. He also wrote, for the first time in many letters, about Marla and asked me to look after her if anything happened to him. It chilled me to read that, it was as if he knew what was coming. He asked me to promise that if something happened to him I would visit his grave two weeks to the day from his funeral, at two o’clock exactly. He said it would give him comfort knowing that if there was a bullet with his name on it he would be assured of having my company one more time, and said he would be there in spirit.

Naturally I abided with his wishes, especially since I couldn’t be there for his funeral. As I approached his headstone, I saw another figure standing before it. It was Marla.

“Marla,” I said, startling her slightly.

“Ben,” she said after turning around, a tear crawling down her cheek. “I still can’t believe he’s gone, can you?”

“No, I can’t either.” I watched her wipe the tears off her cheeks, making way for fresh drops. “But you know, I have a feeling he’s here… at least that’s what he said in his last letter to me.”

“What do you mean?” she said.

“I got a letter from him that was delivered after he died. He wrote it the day before he got hit. He told me to be here today at two o’clock, and said he’d be here too.”

Her mouth dropped for a moment before she said, “His last letter to me told me to be here today too, at this time.”

“What?”

“Yeah,” she continued, “and he talked a lot about you in that letter. He dwelled on the old days and reminded me how close you and I used to be. He said he used to envy that and that if anything happened to him, we should comfort each other.”

“Huh,” I said, “funny, he said I should look out for you if something happened to him.”

“Do you think he…” her voice drifted off as we both just stared at his headstone wondering what Vic was thinking at the end.

After a few moments we turned and began to walk away, not speaking, but not feeling uncomfortable with the silence. Just like years ago. As we walked our hands brushed once, then again. The third time Marla grabbed my hand and I squeezed back and held on. We continued walking hand in hand glancing once at each other to exchange a smile.

 

The End

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