Sharon, in the kitchen preparing appetizers, heard her husband telling the guests, “Our cocker spaniels have no street sense,” and wondered what event he had kept hidden from her. Louis often took the sisters, twins from the same litter, with him to their Bootheel house. Perhaps they had gotten away from him, and he hadn’t told her about it.
“You’ve always walked them on a leash here, right?” their guest Debbie assumed. “And I saw you have a fence out back.” She was a junior staff member in the Environmental Geology Office, new this fall to the Survey and the area. Louis, her manager, knew she and her husband had not found a social niche yet.
“Right, but I’ve read about the breed, and, while they are great bird dogs, they have no idea where they’ve been or where they are in relationship to a starting point. Just lost in the woods.”
And that was Sharon’s clue that he was about to slide into his one Vietnam story. How this occasion required it, she couldn’t guess. Sometimes he started his account of going A.W.O.L. and, still not exactly sure what it meant, couldn’t finish it.
“I can be like that, not sure where I’ve been or where I’m going,” joked Thomas, Debbie’s husband, who had just been hired as an assistant loan manager at Fairfield State Bank. “But sometimes I deliberately keep where I’ve been a secret.”
“Don’t think I don’t have my spies, darling,” Debbie said, her head tilted back knowingly; but Sharon felt her mouth couldn’t quite achieve a smile. The town of Fairfield was still small enough that marital indiscretions were hard to hide. And a man as good looking as Thomas was noticed.
Sharon had caught an undertone in Debbie’s conversation earlier that suggested the couple’s relationship might be under strain. And now she understood why her husband had invited this couple nearly forty years younger than they were to dinner.
A hospital chaplain, she also knew the stress two professional careers can put on a marriage when one partner, especially a man, feels the sacrifice is all on one side. She understood that Louis’ fidelity to her was grounded in her having waited for him during his overseas tour.
They had decided to get married when he got his draft notice; and, after nine months together at Fort Leonard Wood, he left the country. Their marriage was still being shaped.
Older than many in his unit overseas, Louis wrote that he was the one they turned to when their “Dear John” letters arrived. She was irritated at hints that he needed reassurance himself. Coming from a military family, that kind of betrayal was simply inconceivable to her.
Sharon brought in the cheese, crackers, and fresh vegetables as Louis went on. “We have this river house down near Sikeston, southeast corner of the state.” Even though Debbie now worked for the state Division of Geological Land Survey, he explained where this was because she and Thomas were Illinois natives. “We spend a lot of our summers there, but I also go down periodically in the winter just to make sure everything’s secure–no water flowing from broken pipes, mold not taking over the closets, squirrels kept from getting into the attic and eating the wiring.”
The house was over one hundred years old, and they were in the process of modernizing it as a retirement home. They both loved houses that had stood the test of time, but knew regular maintenance and tender loving care were even more important than in modern constructions. Sharon was often busy on weekends and not able to take the three-hour trip down as frequently as he, senior head of the Water Tracing Department and within a year of retirement. Louis didn’t mind going alone, convinced he was keeping his peace of mind by regular escapes to their hideaway.
“I hope it’s in a more lively place than Fairfield,” observed Thomas. “This burg closes up at 6:00, even on weekends.”
Sharon agreed. “We are a family-oriented community. A lot of our entertainment is having friends over for dinner–as tonight.” She swept a hand in front of her to include them all in the evening. Looking at Louis, she smiled, “He doesn’t do it just because he’s the boss.”
“Princess and the Queen thought they wanted more excitement, too,” said Louis, steering the conversation back to the dogs. “When they escaped the PT Cruiser, they were ready to chase other dogs, stray cats, field mice. But they discovered a truth I learned forty years ago.” Sharon could tell he was already seeing the Mekong Delta rice field in his memory, the rows of young stalks, women in conical hats knee deep in the water, permanent low hanging clouds in the rainy season. And then the jungle.
“Let me freshen your drinks,” Sharon said, smiling. “This might take a while.”
“Can I help?” asked Debbie, half rising from the sofa.
“Oh, no. The lasagna just has fifteen more minutes in the oven; the salad’s already made.” She grinned. “And he needs an audience.”
Thomas took a long pull on his beer. Sharon saw it as another sign of the restless spouse caught in a social engagement with the partner’s professional associates. In the kitchen but still was able to hear her husband, she recalled the discomfort she had felt initially at the Survey’s social events. She opened the oven door to check on the lasagna, wondering when Louis would start his story about taking a stroll off base.
“The girls ride in the back, with the seats down flat, behind a gate. And generally they fall asleep once I’m under way. But this time, Queen–who’s the Alpha dog, as you might guess from her name–was restless. Maybe she smelled the cookies I had stashed away. Anyway, she pawed the gate in some way, and it fell back on top of both dogs.”
“And they were in the front seat with you in a flash, weren’t they?” laughed Debbie. When she’d met the cocker spaniels earlier, kneeling down to accept their eager tongues, she explained how she’d always had dogs, at least until she married.
“You’re right. And I’m trucking down a two-lane road at 55 miles per hour, so I’ll have to stop to put the gate back. This is all flatland, nothing but fields around me. But then I spot a farm road–really, just two tire tracks in the dirt–and pull in.”
“This isn’t going to be a Deliverance story, is it?” asked Thomas, though his expression was hopeful. “Or something about a meth lab hidden in the woods?”
Debbie had told Louis that her husband, having lived all his life in big cities, had not been eager to come to what he characterized with the expression, “not the end of the earth–but you can see it from there.” Still, like some people from other areas he was intrigued by the wild tales of hillbilly decadence in films like Winter’s Bone. Did such things really happen, a girl sawing off her father’s hands?
“My story isn’t nearly so dramatic, though,” assured Louis. “As you’ll find in a moment, I could have been killed if human nature–well, if canine nature hadn’t asserted itself. See, I found I couldn’t get their fence back up while I was in the front seat; I was going to have to go around, open the tailgate, and put it in place. So, I pointed a stern finger at Royalty–that’s their collective name–told them, ‘stay,’ and backed out of the driver’s side door.”
Again, Debbie was quick to pick up. “They got past you.”
“Call of the wild,” suggested Thomas, looking at the window.
“It may have been simple curiosity, but you’re right. First Queen was on the ground, then Princess followed. I caught the second one by her rear end, though. She is a sweet dog, the subservient one, and will let me do anything to her. So, I pitched her back in and turned to find Queen.”
“Not in the road, I hope?”
“On the shoulder, but, fortunately, nose to the ground. And bless the Lord, there were no cars coming either way.” He paused. Sharon, taking her time in the kitchen to let Louis do his work, heard him lower his voice conspiratorially and imagined him leaning in: “If she’d been in the road, and a car coming, I knew I might as well lie down there with her. Queen is Sharon’s dog. If she were run over, I would have said, “Take me, too, Jesus. Take me now.'”
They both laughed, though Thomas seemed unsure if he should. Debbie said, “If I had a dog, and Thomas lost her, . . . he’d better pray, too.”
“Maybe that’s why I don’t want any pets.” He smiled thinly. “Besides, we might be moving next year, if I get an offer I can’t refuse.”
Debbie had confided in Louis about Thomas’ restlessness. He’d taken the Fairfield bank job more as a holding action than a commitment, and Debbie feared he would later ask her to give up her position and follow him. But this was exactly the kind of job she had dreamed about in graduate school.
Sharon carried the drink refills in on a tray, and Louis went on with the story. “So, when Queen stopped . . . to do what dogs do, to leave her mark, so to speak . . . I pounced on her.” He paused, anticipating chuckles. “I was polite, though, and let her finish.”
Thomas tried to continue the story, “Then you turned around and were face-to-face with a wolf, or a pack of wolves.”
Louis laughed. Sharon raised her eyebrows as she handed another beer to Thomas, more sparkling water to Debbie.
“No wolves,” admitted Louis. “But the danger wasn’t over. I got her back to the car, plunked her down on the front seat so I could fix the gate.”
“She didn’t get away again?” asked Sharon.
“She did! Sly fox, right between my legs. But this time she went away from the road, out into the field.”
Sharon suspected Thomas’s personal experience could produce no picture of a soy bean field in late fall: the plants about eighteen inches tall, dark green leaves, parallel rows down the rich, sandy, delta soil. Nor would this young couple be able to envision the rice paddies, the water buffalo, the twin wooden buckets carried across the shoulders Louis had described for her. That’s what he had passed on that day he wandered away from his base, a moment of madness on a day of sorrow.
“Again, I kept Princess in the car and went after her sister. She’d gone about ten yards or so down the path, then turned into the soy beans.”
Sharon added. “If you’ve never seen them, it’s a pretty sight in the fall. The fields are completely flat, so the rows are straight and go as far as a mile sometimes.”
“That’s right,” agreed Louis. “And Queen was prancing down between two rows, her cocker spaniel ears flopping, her nose up to smell the air. All I could do was play defense, like a basketball player: stay between the other player and the goal behind me.”
“The goal being the road in this case,” said Debbie.
“Yes. I figured she could go as far as she wanted into the field. I just had to keep her from being flattened by a speeding car.”
Thomas wondered, his blue eyes sparkling. “Maybe there was a boy dog out there on the prowl, tired of the monogamous life, looking to score. You might have ended up with a litter of mongrel pups.”
“Thomas,” said Debbie softly.
Louis answered, “That would have been one of my worries, if she hadn’t been spayed. But, as I said earlier, canine nature kicked in. Or something pretty deep inside her.”
In her mind, Sharon heard Louis’ account of passing through the fence of the base near Can Tho, walking past rice fields, wandering into a clump of banana trees. The branches arched over the path, blocking the sun, and he found himself standing in what was almost a tunnel or a cave. He became aware of flitting shadows, unpleasant smells, strange animal (and human?) sounds. The insane impulse to desert, to find the river, to escape by boat, evaporated.
“I know we can’t read a dog’s mind,” Louis admitted. “Shoot, we can’t even put their thoughts into our words, but still, that day I felt I knew what Queen was thinking.”
“You see, what happened was, all of a sudden, Queen stopped where she was and looked around her–ahead, to this side, to that. She had to stretch her neck to see over the soy bean plants, they were that tall then. She was the picture of alertness, scouting the territory before making a dash for whatever interested her most.”
Thomas again interjected, “I’m telling you, some wild dog, who wouldn’t care if another dog was in heat or not, . . . ”
“Thomas!” This time Debbie’s voice was louder, and sharper.
Louis hurried on as if they had not spoken. “One moment Queen was free, the world open all around her; she could escape all barriers, do whatever she wanted. Then she froze. And I am honestly convinced she thought something like, ‘I have never in my life seen anything that remotely resembles this. Where the hell am I? There are no sidewalks here, no front lawns, not a house in sight. This is an alien landscape, a foreign world.'”
Debbie agreed. “I can understand that–a town dog out in the country.”
“And I tell you, she looked around, and then she looked back at me. I’m about ten rows toward the road, again ready to intercept her if she comes this way. She looks at me, and I am certain she thinks: ‘Hmm, I know that guy, that guy yelling at me to get back here. He keeps me on a leash and makes me walk in the yard and takes me to the vet, but . . . but, you know, he also gives me food and belly rubs. I understand him. Out here,’ she says to herself, again looking around, ‘it’s weird. I don’t know how this place works. And I don’t trust it.'”
“You mean that she came back to you on her own?” Debbie smiled.
“You’ve got it exactly. She took one last glance around her, then turned and trotted back down the row to the double tire tracks (where I’d moved too in a parallel fashion, still playing defense), came right up to me, and let me swoop her up, plunk her back in the car.”
Thomas said, “Ah, she bailed. Took the easy way out.” He finished his beer. “So many do that.”
Debbie opened her mouth to speak, but Sharon took the cue. “Well, I think that it’s a happy ending to a shaggy dog story, so, please, let’s all come to the table.”
Debbie and Thomas excused themselves to wash their hands after petting dogs, and perhaps recover some social composure. Sharon sent a worried glance after the young couple and raised her eyebrows to Louis. He shrugged. She suspected he wasn’t going to make the transition into his Vietnam story after all.
Sharon knew Louis had told his tale many times, but each rendition was a bit different, the meaning shifting. His tour as a map compiler was uneventful except for this one incident, and he felt he had no traditional war story full of daring and courage to offer. It didn’t cast him in a great role either, oblivious of the people they’d supposedly pledged to protect and liberate, abandoning those who depended on him.
True, on the morning of his stroll, Louis had watched them bag the bodies of the two men blown to pieces when a rocket landed in their bunker. Choppered in the day before to gather updated intelligence maps, he’d drunk beer with Duke and Roy while waiting for the ride out that didn’t come. They had gone on perimeter guard duty, and he sacked out in their hootch. The shells came with the first light of dawn. What Louis, standing in a clump of banana trees, later understood at an almost visceral level seemed to be so important he struggled for ways and places to communicate it.
When they were all seated, Sharon asked with a smile, “So Debbie, tell me what it’s like to work for my husband?”
“Don’t answer that,” Louis laughed, but she did.
Michael Lund lives and writes in Virginia, U.S.A. He is the author of one short story collection, How to Not Tell a War Story (title story appeared in War Literature, and the Arts, 2012; book e-edition by MilSpeak Books and print edition by BeachHouse Books, 2012). “The Soy Bean Field” is part of a second collection in progress, tentatively entitled The F-Word. He has also written a series of novels inspired by “America’s Main Street,” Route 66, which includes Route 66 Dreamer (2012); Route 66 to Vietnam: a Draftee’s Story (2004); and Growing Up on Route 66 (1999).