The following June, Billy returned to summer camp in Maine. Henry wasn’t due back from Vietnam until fall. Otis was working at Sucre Flambé, Dirkden’s fanciest French restaurant, washing dishes, unloading delivery trucks, and keeping its walk-in fridge organized. On his day off, his parents proposed splurging for a meal there together.
“We’d love to meet your new friends,” his mother said brightly.
“I think they have that day off,” Otis fibbed, but accepted their offer anyway. He was not averse to fancy food, but he’d seen too many greasy scraps in the dish room to let the prospect enthrall him. Simple climbing-trip fare—crackers, GORP, canned sardines—could be just as satisfying. At his mother’s behest he donned a tie. Otis wondered how his father could wear one to work every day (high and tight like his haircut) and not choke.
At the restaurant, a waiter named Frank who’d graduated a year ahead of Otis from Dirkden High pretended not to recognize him. Otis returned the favor, just as they’d done for a month working together. Frank unfolded tented napkins into their laps, handed out leather menus, and recited specials from memory. Otis craved a beer but if Frank carded him—as he was supposed to, and likely would in his case—he didn’t want to deal with his father arguing on his behalf. After perusing the phonebook-fat wine list for a veritable eon, his father ordered a cheap red. Frank took the list and left.
Otis’ mother leaned forward. “Tell us more about school,” she said.
They’d heard all about his classes already. He’d been relieved to survive his first year with mostly B’s. He filled ten minutes with trivia about coin operated laundry machines and cafeteria food, plus some of the tamer practical jokes he’d seen played. They listened eagerly.
Frank brought the wine. Otis’ father swirled it, remarked on the cork’s dryness, then said he was sure he’d ordered the ’63. This was the ’64. He asked for the wine list to compare with the label. Impassive, Frank went to retrieve it. When he returned, Otis’ father read the description aloud, noted the price, and asked if it was subject to sales tax. At last, he sipped. “It’s OK,” he said. Frank nodded and poured three glasses. Otis imagined Frank talking to the other wait staff and wished he’d turned down his parents’ offer. Apropos of customers far less troublesome than his father, he’d overheard plenty of derisive tales in the basement break room.
“So,” his father asked, “what are your plans for a major?”
For years, his father had urged him toward the practical, so Otis was careful to say only that he was thinking of majoring in History. Appetizers arrived. “Delightful,” his mother gushed. “Fantastic,” his father enthused. Did their reaction relate to what he’d just shared or to the jumbo shrimp cocktails? Otis couldn’t tell. Emboldened as much by Frank’s alacrity refilling his wine glass as by the wine itself, Otis described the breeds of History major he’d observed. Most used the Deden-Fisher name as a springboard to law school and the top ones cannonballed into big money at white-shoe law firms. Smaller fish made honest ripples as prosecutors until a wife and kids drove them to compromise their ideals for enough pay to afford a suburb with good schools. The other coveted option was academia—pursuing tenure. Those types wore tweeds, smoked pipes, and had pasty complexions from laboring overmuch in the library’s bowels.
The first group of History majors was cavalier and boorish he opined, the second naïve and hypocritical, the third stultified and stuck-up—an airless cloister. Otis felt aglow, his thoughts taking shape as he expounded them. “Why follow the crowd?” He asked. Sensitive to his mother, he noted that a less-trodden fourth path came with an occupational draft exemption. Confident that his parents followed his logic—even felt his excitement—he sat up straight and took a deep breath. “I want to teach high school and coach.” They all knew which sport.
The shock of what followed would stay as enduringly seared on Otis’ mind as news clips of Pacific island nuke tests. Otis was so focused on the superb indignity of Frank twisting a pepper grinder the size of a baseball bat over his mushroom soup until he cued him to stop that he failed to notice the storm brewing on his father’s face, or his mother’s eyes darting between them. The instant Frank departed, his father set down his spoon, wiped his mouth, and lowered his voice.
“What on earth possessed you to wander down that dead end road? With what we’re paying?” He sat back, hands in lap, and spit out the words. “If you need to go low-brow, you can transfer to UMass. We’ll get the kitchen re-done. Won’t we, honey?”
His mother sat stoic, eyes brimming. Abruptly, she remembered something she needed from the drugstore next door before it closed. She fled out the back. After ten awkward minutes alone with his father, Otis excused himself to the bathroom but strode through the kitchen instead. In the back parking lot, his mother stood smoking. Otis was stunned. She’d quit years ago. He tried in vain to console her, then returned to relay the news that she was no longer hungry. (He didn’t mention the smoking.) His father demanded that Frank bring them doggie bags, then huffed that because they were freeing up the table early, he only had to tip five percent. Otis was mortified. Not only did he shrink from the thought of returning to work to face Frank the next day, but the career that had ignited his enthusiasm now seemed tantamount to family treason.
Alone with him later, his mother sounded more nuanced notes. Unfortunately, they changed nothing. Otis faced a choice: be honest about his career aspirations (still nascent, couldn’t they see that?) and transfer to a cheaper, less respectable school or play pretend with them for three years. He waited all summer for his father to walk back his threat or else press it hard. When his father paid his tuition bill without fanfare, Otis saw that their deal would be tacit, a subject best left un-broached.
In August—Billy still off at sleep-away camp—Otis packed to return to school. They would miss each other by a day but it could have been a year. They had little in common anymore. Otis had tried the camp years before Billy and loathed it. Otis had worked every hour Sucre Flambé would give him, drenched by dish room sweat, chilled by walk-in frost, saving to buy a Mustang. Billy’s letters home told of his hard work: on his archery, his waterskiing, and his élan, earning the tan he modeled in a posed Polaroid.
Otis was busy pairing socks when a low growl intruded on a thick pre-thunderstorm cicada hum. A black sedan filled the driveway. His mother screamed. His father thumped up from the basement. Otis clomped down to the stair landing where he, Henry, and Billy used to lie together like flannel puppies on Christmas Eve, shushing each other in imagined stealth as they watched their parents wrap presents.
Inside the screen door stood two uniformed men. His mother shook her head: they must have the wrong address. Their soft rehearsed voices shredded that hope. Landmine… artery. Otis’ face felt suddenly hot; his ears rushed. Quang Tin Province… our nation’s deep gratitude. His mother groaned, guttural and otherworldly then retched and stumbled to the kitchen. His father scurried to help her. As Otis crept down the stairs, white noise, rain smell, and cool rushed past him, filling the house. Lightning flashed and, out of habit waiting for thunder, Otis silently counted each step as he moved to the kitchen to join his parents.
At the sink, his father daubed at his mother’s sundress. She held her hands to her head as if it might come off. “We should never have let him watch cartoons with guns,” she moaned.
“It’s not our fault,” his father said, but his wavering voice betrayed him.
“We need to shut windows,” she said and his father scurried to obey. Otis followed to help. Soon, breakfast smells filled the house, evoking routine. Otis and his father returned to the kitchen where his mother was pouring coffee from the percolator into two saucered cups adorned by silver spoons. The breadbox was open. A loaf wrapper dotted with cheery orbs lay slack and empty on the counter. Otis’ mother handed him two plates, silver forks neatly tucked alongside stacks of toast. Otis held them, dumfounded. She handed his father the coffee cups. “Here, bring these out,” she said. “Ask them if they take cream and sugar and if they’d like butter and jam.”
The soldiers had just declined the untimely breakfast when the power cut out. Unmoving, Otis and his father stood in place as if doing so might change the men’s minds not only about the food but about Henry. In the storm’s dim yellow-grey, their faces looked befouled. The men reiterated their condolences, said someone else would be in touch, then trod out to their government car. Despite the deluge and no umbrellas their gait stayed steady and somber.
Back in the kitchen, his mother urged Otis and his father to eat. “Toast is the best food for an upset stomach,” she said, but she wasn’t eating. Otis studied his piece, its rough surface like wood, a door that, with waiting, might open to normal. Nausea engulfed him. There was nothing to wait for anymore; normal was over. Henry was dead; he would always be dead.
Before his parents could see his distress, Otis dashed to the bathroom and got sick alone, quiet as ever. In the euphoria that attended flushing the toilet, wiping his sweaty brow, and rinsing with mouthwash, he wondered if sorrow might help him drop down one weight class.
Billy returned home late that night, but then the Army called about an indefinite delay returning Henry’s body. With nothing to do except receive casseroles and pesky questions and rub each other raw, Billy and Otis left for their respective schools. Those first weeks, Otis avoided the back-to-school how-did-your-summer-go-mine-was-great parties and drifted through his new classes without remembering a thing. Whenever he was able to sleep he dreamt of Octopus, multiplied in jungles that lacked referees.
In October, a week after the funeral, Otis met a girl. Louisabeth Dunson had helped to plan a Cold War-themed sorority mixer at her elite women’s college down in Northampton. “Coffee liqueur détente!” proclaimed banners in mock Cyrillic script. They danced, goofy and sweaty until the cloying drinks made Otis giddy and maudlin. She took his keys and made him sleep on a couch. He said he respected her forthrightness. She said she respected him for not arguing.
That winter, a string of wrestling losses caused Otis’ coach to revise down high-octane hopes set by Otis’ freshman season. Otis made half-true pleas about grief—and false ones about trips home—loathe to confess his cathartic ice climbing escapes that sometimes blew out his strength for days. His coach’s silence made Otis think he might be on to him, but Otis cared less and less. His new outdoor pastime was exhilarating—just as intense and complex as wrestling, but without any public result to exceed or atone for.
That following February, the Tet Offensive sent a thousand Americans back to the dust in Vietnam. Their blood cried in rivers of angry news ink but no one seemed able to heal the discharge without adding to it. The blood of thirty times as many attackers ran sticky in the same torrent some noted, but the few who knew that statistic said they all deserved it. Thirty thousand was the population of Dirkden. To staunch thoughts of so much faceless carnage—his town’s leafy lanes empty of all but flies and mangy dogs, flesh blurred into muck by tropical heat, bugs, and rain—Otis spent the late winter of 1968 distracting and exhausting himself in his two sports.
With far fewer bullets, the spring of 1968 felled Martin Luther King, Jr., then RFK, and—in a different way—LBJ, opening the door to vote-magnet Nixon, “the one.” Jowly, tan, and elated, V-fingers up, the peace-maven swore he had a secret plan to win and end LBJ’s war (soon, very soon, and with honor). Otis did not believe it. He was not alone.
Aside from Henry’s bombshell embrace of ROTC during JFK’s inaugural seven years prior, his purchase of a used 1959 Renault Dauphine was his only blatant act against parental counsel. The cars were “Parisian vanity rust-buckets,” their father noted, “bound to disappear from the U.S. market.” Where would Henry get spare parts then? After Henry deployed for his first tour, the black car stayed shrouded in the garage. Once a month, their father would start it and poke around under the hood. He sent away for sparkplugs, belts, and filters; he also changed the oil. A few sunny weekends each summer, he would circle it around the block a few times then wash and wax it in the shade of their front yard elm. Since Henry’s death, it had not left the garage. Otis didn’t dare ask if it ever would.
In August, he prepared to take the bus back to school, careful not to mention the anniversary of Henry’s death lest he add to his parents’ angst—high pitched already from everything else. Chicago was filling with tear gas and Prague with Russian tanks. Otis was more shocked that Ringo was quitting the Beatles. His parents let the anniversary pass. That night, his father gave him the car’s keys. “Be safe. Love, Dad,” proclaimed block letters on an index card, tented on Otis’ pillow. Otis was so stunned that he almost refused them. The car seemed irreplaceably precious now, both blessing and curse. To drive it felt like taking a Faberge egg for a spin.
The most notable feature of Otis’ junior year at Deden-Fisher was a satisfying rhythm with Louisabeth Dunson. Serious, and also not. The two of them took turns driving: she up, he down, each once a month, offsetting a week for sex timing. A smattering of calls and letters sufficed in between.
The following summer, the last of the decade, two proud sets of American footprints adorned the moon’s dust, unruffled by wind. A half a million feet tromped Woodstock’s mud, glad it was not Vietnam’s. Working six days a week again washing fancy French dishes—rotating Sucre Flambé’s inventory of butter, eggs, and mushrooms—Otis missed the nightly TV reports. Radio news on midnight drives home was disturbing enough, making him nostalgic for the easy-going life he’d taken for granted when Henry had been around.
Recently, the Fletcher house had felt like a minefield.