Outside, five unshaven men dressed in black t-shirts, khaki shorts, and faded blue jeans whistle in our direction on our approach. “Just keep moving and keep your eyes straight ahead,” I mutter to Brenda, Passing one of the men, the oldest. I level the coldest stare I can summon.
“I like your scarf. I like how you have it wrapped around your blonde hair, honey,” the man responds, but not in kind, brushing cigarette ash off his t-shirt. His frame, unbalanced by a beer-induced paunch, weaves.
“Heh, my friend and I just want a beer and something to eat, o.k.?” I know that my attempt at a snarl is weak in its innocence, but the stranger’s move to block the door only emboldens me to cross his path.
“Are you here to celebrate the fourth of July, honey? Come on, let my friends and I buy you both a beer.” The man plants his Birkenstock-clad feet apart at the bar’s threshold. A dozen empty beer glasses line the steps and one of his friends, a small man with a mass of long curly red hair and a beard to match, sets another one down. He is the only one in the close group that is dressed in army fatigues. He does not talk but flashes a slightly disconcerting smile over and over again, a smile that seems to have little to do with the present.
“That’s Sonny,” the man in the Birkenstocks says, noting my stare. “Now, Sonny, why don’t you introduce yourself to these lovely young girls. I’m Leighton, by the way. This here is John, and over there is Richard.” The man named Richard suddenly looks up from what appears to be his stand-up comedy act with one audience member and nods. The man named John does not speak. Instead, he continues a long conversation with his beer.
“Look, we just want something to eat, o.k.,” I grunt, grabbing Brenda’s hand and pushing my way past the man named Leighton’s broad and imposing figure.
“O.k. O.k. Just wanted to buy you a beer, all right. My boys and I won’t give you any trouble, right boys?’ Richard returns to his stand-up routine. John stares at the ground. Sonny smiles his creepy, clown-like smile once again. Brenda and I squeeze our way into the dark bar.
The walls of the main room’s interior are made of deep rich wood. The vaulted ceiling hangs close to the bartender’s head. One decoration leftover from St. Patrick’s Day dangles from the mantel of the well-stocked backlit bar: everybody’s Irish on St. Paddy’s Day. Brenda spots an empty booth and waves me over as she beetles towards it.
At one o’clock in the afternoon, the bar is full. If they had a beer at lunch, members of the D.C. political machine have long since scuttled back to their air-conditioned offices. Instead, the bar is full of men standing in clusters and smoking Marlboro Reds, men like the ones hovering at the front door. Some have scraggly beards, while others are clean-shaven and sport-pierced ears. His face hidden under the shadow of his MIA/POW baseball cap, one man does shots of whiskey alone. When he raises his head, I realize the man is one of the men we met at the entrance.
“Brenda. Look around. Many of the men in this bar wear the same t-shirt that the man, Leighton, was wearing. I think these guys are Vietnam vets. Maybe something is going on today at the Vietnam Memorial.”
Brenda nods. A waitress comes over to our table. Brenda and I decided to split a burger and onion rings. We order two beers. When the waitress returns, she sets down two frosted mugs and two Heinekens, telling us that our food will be ready shortly. Brenda carves the burger down the middle of the plump bun with her knife when our food arrives. “I think we should go down to the Mall and see what’s going on there. Maybe we should even stay if there are fireworks. Oh, shit. Two o’clock at the bar. That guy at the door who wanted to buy us beer is coming our way.”
Leighton appears at the edge of our table with a Heinekin in each hand. The smirk on his face grows as he pretends to be something like a butler and begins topping up our beer glasses.
“Afternoon again, ladies. I hope you are enjoying this fine weather that our nation’s Capitol is providing us this holiday. My name is Leighton, and I will be your bartender for the rest of the afternoon. May I sit down for a moment?” Leighton squeezes into the booth next to Brenda before waiting for a response. He does not see Brenda rolling her eyes. I respond with silence, pushing my now full beer glass away and raising the nearly empty beer bottle to my lips. Leighton winks.
“Look, we are not interested in anything you have on offer. Why don’t you shove off and leave my friend and me alone!” Brenda raises her eyebrow and quickly starts to rearrange the glasses on the table.
“Now, is that any way to treat your butler? Today is a day to celebrate—the birth of our country and all that. Come over here, Richard, you too, Sonny, come over and meet these nice young girls,” Leighton motions to his friends at the bar.
“I would think that there is not a lot for you to celebrate after being shipped off to Vietnam,” I snort without regret.
“I’m Brenda. You are sitting next to my roommate, Anna,” Brenda chirps, attempting to gloss over the tension that I created. Brenda raises her eyebrow again at me, a little higher this time, as if to say, you better tone it down a bit.
“Finally, an introduction,” Leighton exclaims, thrusting his muscular arm over the table. “Let’s make some more room for everyone. Sonny, you squeeze in next to Brenda. You’re both little. You too, Richard, there should be room for you. I’ll sit next to you, Anna, if you don’t mind,” I flash Brenda a ‘is this ok with you’ look, and she nods and shrugs her shoulders.
A couple of hours of conversation melt into the heat of the holiday. Richard has found a willing audience member in Brenda for his comedy routine. With each joke or story he tells, witty or uninspired, she bursts out in unrestrained laughter. Leighton and I trade mild-tempered insults with each other. John stares into his beer glass. Sonny’s gaze feels like it is burning a hole into my shoulder.
Soon, Leighton starts talking about his war. I do not tell him that I want to know everything about the war – the smells, the images, the physical feeling of an adrenaline charge that men like him experience when faced with their imminent demise. I want to understand the marks on bodies and psyches alike that war leaves behind.
“I am a deserter. I deserted the war,” Sonny suddenly announces, dialing up the intensity of the uncomfortable gaze.
“Sonny, no, you are not! Quit lying. Have another beer.” Leighton shifts uncomfortably in his seat and tries to regain my attention. Brenda and I glance uneasily at each other. Our morning, which began as a fit of pique, has quickly degenerated into an afternoon of questionable decisions.
“I can’t tell you stories about singed flesh or arms lying without bodies in the mud, bodies where the only recognizable part is the powder-burned fatigues, but I can tell you the truth if you can stand it. I am a deserter,” Sonny slams his empty beer glass on the table without losing his stride.
“Sonny, stop. Come on, man. Why go down that road,” Leighton leans forward into Sonny’s face but is met with his trademark smile. “Just stop all that, Sonny!”
“O.k.” Sonny looks down into his beer for a few minutes, then raises his head in a bright, devastating smile. “I’m Sonny, and I’m sunny!” he shouts, causing a few heads at the bar to turn towards our table.
“O.k. Sonny. Yes, you are sunny, Sonny. Do you want me to get you another beer,” Leighton asks nervously, beginning to raise his arm to motion the waitress over.
“I just wanted to tell a story, Leighton,” he says, his voice shaking and rising. “I wanted to tell HER this story. Do you know why,” Sonny asks, pounding on the table until the bar pauses? Abruptly, the men leaning against the bar stop talking in mid-sentence. The waitress quietly busies herself by wiping a clean table next to us, her ears cocked.
“It’s o.k. Sonny. You don’t have to do this, buddy. Just sit back and relax.” Leighton’s voice is even. He looks directly at Sonny and reaches out to slap him on the shoulder. “It’s o.k., man. Just hold on. We’ll go to The Wall later, and everything will be better, o.k.?
“Dammit. I am going to tell my story. I want to tell HER my story because when I look at her face, I see war. She understands it. I can see it in her eyes,” he whimpers, staring across the table at me. “Anna understands what she sees because I see it in her face,” Sonny whispers before pushing past Richard and Brenda, disappearing down the length of the bar towards the bathroom.
“What the hell was that all about? I am not sure. What happened to him over there?” Brenda’s voice is insistent and fierce on my behalf. I am grateful, but for the first time this afternoon, I am frightened. Frightened by the situation, Brenda and I have found ourselves in or frightened of Sonny’s pathos that is my own.
“First of all, Sonny is not a deserter,” Leighton, the man, once full of his own bravado, whispers, his shoulders slumped forward in resignation. “Maybe this visit to D.C. wasn’t such a good idea, after all, Richard.” Richard nods his head thoughtfully and looks towards the door. Sonny is standing at the end of the bar doing shots.
“What the hell does Sonny mean?” The pit in my stomach sinks a little lower, knowing that my question is one I may regret asking.
“Well, I don’t know if Sonny was going to tell you about why he left Vietnam, but Sonny is not a deserter,” Leighton leans back against the booth before bringing the last of his beer to his lips before continuing. “Sonny’s father did not want him to go to Vietnam, but he was drafted. We were all drafted. His father wanted him to stay in school. Sonny refused. He said that if his friends were going, he had to go. When the fighting got really bad over there, Sonny’s father decided that he had to get Sonny out of the jungle one way or another. He figured Sonny deserved a discharge that would not mar his record. Sonny came home to take care of his mother because of a family emergency…,” Leighton pauses, his sentence drifting. “Do either of you want something to drink. Scotch? Brandy? Another beer,” Leighton asks, desperate to change the subject.
“What was a family emergency? You need to tell us, Leighton.” Brenda’s face tightens, and her voice is unsteady.
Leighton exhales hard. “Sonny’s father committed suicide by slicing his wrists open so that his son could come home. Sonny carries a lifetime of guilt over his father’s decision. Look, if Sonny comes back to the table, let’s try and be bright and laugh again. He forgets things sometimes, especially when he has too much to drink like he seems to be doing this afternoon.”
Leighton gets up and begins to collect the beer glasses on the table. “I have known Sonny for twenty years. He never talks about his father. He must have seen something in you, Anna,” Leighton shakes his head turning towards me, “something that he thought he could trust because you haven’t been anywhere near any war as far as I know.”