“No. It wasn’t him. Don’t be ridiculous,” he said to the mirror. Then he twisted the tap and realized it was not beyond the realm of possibility. They had been coming over more and more since the war ended. Still, what were the odds? A million to one. No, worse. Chances are the man was dead. But the eyes. They were the same eyes. The face. He wasn’t sure of the face. But the eyes. How much could eyes change in twenty years? No, it couldn’t be. He was too young. He would be much older. And how could he have become a grocer in San Francisco? It was too unlikely. He would check tomorrow. Yes, tomorrow. He would make it a point to check tomorrow.
“Jim? Jim, are you all right in there?”
The bath hadn’t helped. Sally said it would help. She said it was what she always did when she was tense and needed to relax or just get a few minutes peace. So he had tried it. But the man didn’t go away. Now he was staring back at Jim from the mirror.
“Jim, Billy is going to bed now,” she said. “He’s waiting for his story. Do you want me to read to him tonight?”
He twisted the water off and pulled out the stopper.
“No. It’s all right. I’m coming. Tell him to pick something out and I’ll be right in.”
Billy. The boy must have been about Billy’s age. Maybe the man had heard about Billy. Maybe Billy was the reason the man came to San Francisco. No. That couldn’t be. It was impossible for the man to know about Billy, to have any idea that Billy existed.
Billy handed him the book. Jim kissed him on the forehead and tucked the blankets tightly beneath his chin.
“Now,” he said, opening the book. “What have we here? Green Eggs and Ham, by Dr. Suess.”
He read the story but the words held no meaning for him. He didn’t hear his voice as he read, but Billy didn’t notice the difference. Billy got Green Eggs and Ham as Martin crawled into the tunnel. It was Martin’s turn. Jim had gone last time. It was Martin’s turn and since it was Martin’s turn Martin crawled into the hole and then there was an explosion and a lot of shooting and the ground shuddered beneath Jim’s feet and then he was down. Tom had fallen onto him and he felt the body shift over him as the bullets hit it over and over.
He closed the book. Billy was smiling and Jim forced himself to smile back. Jim kissed Billy goodnight, pulled the curtains tight to keep out the light and went downstairs.
“Maybe a glass of wine,” he thought. “Maybe that would do it.”
Sally followed him into the kitchen.
“Jim,” she said. “Are you all right?
“I’m fine,” he said. “Just wound up. It’s been a busy week at school. The state is coming next week and Sam is all over me about what to say and not to say, what to do and not to do.
He ran the tip of his finger around the edge of the glass, trying to make it sing.
Should he tell her about the man in the grocery? If he was to tell her, how would he go about doing it? Mention it casually, say that there was a new Vietnamese grocery on the way to school and it spooked him because he is afraid of the Vietnamese? He had told her about Martin and Tom. It had gotten him out of combat.
He looked up from his glass. Sally walked toward the sink. He heard the ice rattling in her glass. She filled it with water.
“Is it the state, or is it the war,” she asked. “Is it time to teach the war again?”
She suspected something. He was convinced of it. But it could have happened to anyone. Far worse things did happen. This was no My Lai. It wasn’t like that at all.
“Maybe if you tell me about it, Jim. You never talk about it. Maybe if you tell me what it is that is bothering you. But for God’s sake say something. Don’t just sit there playing with your glass.
“It’s nothing,” he said. “I’ll get over it. Don’t worry about it.”
He forced a smile. She emptied her glass in the sink. The ice hit the stainless steel with a crash.
“I’m going to bed,” she said.
He sat there, holding the glass up to the light and rolling the stem between his thumb and forefinger. If it was true that the man at the grocery was the same man, then he would have to tell her. It was a war. That boy wasn’t just laughing at him. He wasn’t just pointing at him and the dead and laughing. He wasn’t just laughing. He was an enemy. He might have been armed. He might have had a bomb strapped to him. They did that. Anyone else would have done the same thing. But the man. The man saw him do it. He saw him through the trees. Their eyes connected for a moment and then he was gone. They were the same eyes. It was a war. He wished he could tell her. He wished he could tell her that after he fired he knew he was wrong, that he had lost control, but that at least he had not fired again. Anyone else might have fired again. He hadn’t fired again. He hadn’t shot the man.
If only he had shot the man.
Now, perhaps, the man had come back into his life. If the man had come back, he would be coming for Billy. If he were coming for Billy, Jim would have to tell her.
He would check tomorrow.
He would go to the grocery and check the man tomorrow.
* * *
When walking in a port city, no matter which way you turn, you will invariably find yourself walking into the wind. At least that was what Jim found to be the case. And if he had known that Sam Paterson was going to hold them captive for so long after school, he would have worn something warmer. Still, there he was. There was nothing to be done about it now. He couldn’t just take a taxi home. He had to see the grocer. He couldn’t take another night like the last one. He hadn’t slept at all. Maybe that was it, maybe the lack of sleep had lowered his resistance. He wished he was home, drinking coffee. No, he had to see the grocer. Once he had seen the grocer, then he could take a taxi home. He wasn’t going to get any warmer standing there thinking about the cold. It was the wind. That damn wind. He remembered that in Boston he had seen people wearing scarves with their sports jackets and he thought it had looked ridiculous. Now, he would have dearly loved one of those scarves. He could pull it up over his chin. He could use it as a mask, if necessary.
When he was cold, Jim had the habit of closing his eyes tightly and pointing his face into the sun. He enjoyed the warmth, and the bubbles of color which floated like microorganisms across the orange field behind the eyelid. But now, if he raised his face to the sun, his neck was exposed to the wind. At least the sun was setting. It was at the point where it would begin to drop rapidly. He could feel its heat creeping down his forehead.
He stiffened his walk. He made more work for his muscles. He concentrated on resisting the forward movement of his legs as he walked. Making his legs work harder would warm him, like a car going uphill and overheating. Running wouldn’t do. It would increase the force of the wind.
He didn’t have much time to see the grocer and still make it home in time to read to Billy. He hadn’t formulated a plan and it is difficult to concentrate on formulating a plan when you are short of time and making sure that all your muscles are working as hard as possible so you can keep warm. A scarf. A scarf would be welcome.
The grocer, he thought, would likely be in one of two places. Either he would be standing on a milk crate in front of the store watching for shoplifters, or he would be at the cash register. If he was in front, it would be easy. Jim could simply look up and keep moving. If he was inside, it would be more difficult. He would have to buy something. You didn’t just browse in grocery stores, especially tiny Vietnamese grocery stores. If he didn’t buy something, someone might ask him if he needed help. That could be even worse. Then he would have to speak.
“Tea,” he thought. “Or coffee. They probably have tea or coffee set up inside. If I have to buy something, that’s what it will be. Or bread. Bread is good. We can always use bread.”
He kept his eyes on the sidewalk to avoid being blinded by the sun and wind. He guided himself by the crack which separated the curb from the sidewalk. He glanced up every few seconds to ensure he wasn’t about to collide with a pole or another person.
He reached the corner.
The wind formed a funnel of candy wrappers and leaves in the street. A discarded newspaper unfurled and spun in a broad circle. A truck hit two sheets with a slap. He kicked the paper as he crossed.
He stopped by the newsstand.
The grocery store was halfway up the block. If he hadn’t known the store was there he would have been unable pick it out from the others. The sun had dropped behind the awning. The awning formed a black triangle, extending out from the building. During the day the awning was red, but now the sun made it impossible to distinguish color. There was movement around the building, but the people were vague silhouettes coming in and going out, bending over the racks of fruit, or just walking by.
“Damn sun,” he thought. “Damn Sam and his faculty meeting.”
He had hoped that a glance from the newsstand would suffice. If the grocer was on guard duty, he could be seen above the crowd, standing on the milk crate. Jim could wait for him to look around and then he would know if he was the same man. But the sun was too bright. He couldn’t make out the face on the figure on the box. It was a silhouette with a vague red and yellow glow surrounding it. It passed through the sun as it stepped on and off the box.
Jim would have to go further.
“Can I help you, sir?”
He turned toward the voice and pinched the bridge of his nose while rubbing his eyes with his fingertips. The newsman was leaning forward. Jim suspected he had been watching him for some time.
“No,” he said. “Just the Chronicle.”
He told himself to act casual, but as he reached for the change and placed it in the newsman’s hand, every movement felt artificial, almost mechanical. He felt the blood flow to his face and prayed he was not turning red. He hated that, the way he turned red when caught off guard. There was nothing he could do about it. It had been with him since birth, as far as he knew, and a source of torment as a child. If anything happened, it would make him memorable. Surely the newsman would remember him.
“Oh yes,” he would say. “Very odd. Very suspicious. He got red. Red as a tomato.”
The newsman slid the paper from beneath the weight which held the stack in place. Jim tucked the paper under his arm. He pictured the newsman testifying ‑ “I gave him the paper. He tucked it under his arm. Then he moved on” ‑ but when he paid for the paper the man turned immediately to another customer and didn’t seem to care about Jim at all.
“Relax,” he told himself. “Relax.”
He caught himself speaking aloud. He looked around quickly. The newsman was busy with an old woman.
It was the wind, he thought. No one could hear in this wind.
The shadow from the awning stretched toward him and he remembered that when he had turned to face the newsman the sun made everything extremely vivid. Colors leapt from magazines and the bristles on the newsman’s face were so clearly defined that, given time, he could have counted every one. Jim realized that all the time the sun had been blinding him, it was giving his face the same clarity it had given to the newsman. If that was the grocer on the milk crate, and the grocer had turned his attention down the street, he had Jim in a spotlight. He had given the grocer at least two full minutes to study his face.
The blood pulsed in his neck and filled his cheeks and forehead. He was hot now. He released his jacket and the wind pushed it open. The paper slipped from beneath his arm. He stared at the sun and the shadow on the box before him.
As long as he was on the street he was safe. He could get as close to the grocer as necessary in the street. Surely the grocer wouldn’t attack him in the street. These people were far too tricky for that. They hadn’t won the war by being seen. He was safe in the street. He would get as close as possible. He would walk past the store a few feet before turning around. Then he would get a good look at the grocer. He would pretend to be contemplating an extensive shopping list or trying to recollect a needed item suddenly forgotten, and all the while he would study the grocer’s face, noting every feature, absolutely positively definitely confirming once and for all if this was or was not the man.
“It’s a good plan,” he told himself, stepping forward. It would be far more comfortable, too, to have the wind at his back and the sun out of his eyes for a change.
But was the newsman still watching? Should he turn and check? No, that wouldn’t do. Especially if the sun didn’t blind the newsman the way it blinded him. The newsman worked in the sun everyday. He had to protect himself, to learn to see trouble coming out of the sun. The newsman therefore had to learn to see into the sun. If the newsman was watching, he would see him turn, and then stop at the store and turn again. He didn’t want the newsman to see him turn, then go on past the store and turn again.
“Five more steps,” Jim told himself. “Five more steps and I’ll stop.” He quickened his pace. The form stepped down from the crate.
Jim counted out five long strides. He gave himself stage directions, to convey to the world the part he wanted to play.
“Why, what a nice grocery,” he thought. “And I do need bread. Why don’t I just stop here while I’m thinking of it? And look at all the fresh fruit and vegetables, and these fine fruit salads all prepared to go in little plastic containers. How convenient. What a good idea that is. Perhaps I will buy some. Sally would like one of these, I’d bet.
He turned and reached for the fruit.
The grocer was gone.
A Vietnamese woman circled around him and released the clear plastic walls which served to protect the vegetable stands at night. The plastic sheets unrolled and crackled in the wind until she secured them to their footings with metal straps. Then she reached up and pulled a string to ignite the florescent lights. They came on with a flicker and a hum. The wind sent ripples down the walls and she tightened the straps further. She smiled at Jim when she was finished.
“Can I help you sir,” she asked.
Jim shook his head. “No,” he said.
She stepped up onto the crate.
These Vietnamese were something, he thought. They let their wives stand guard duty. But maybe that wasn’t it at all. It was getting late. It was nearly night. Maybe she usually covered the cash register. The register was probably the more dangerous place at night. Nobody was going to kill for an apple, or a fruit salad. Maybe the grocer tended the register at night.
He entered the store. A blast of hot air from overhead made his eyes suddenly heavy. He put his thumb behind his collar and loosened his tie. He felt the tickle of a stream of perspiration rolling down his neck until it struck his shirt and was absorbed.
He walked to the refrigerated case and studied the sodas and yogurt. He pulled the flaps of his jacket to let in the cool air.
There weren’t many people in the store. An elderly woman with a cane looped over her arm stood next to him. She was studying the pictures on the yogurt containers. She pushed aside the plastic slats hanging in front of the shelf and lifted a container, squinted her eyes to focus, then returned it to the shelf. She moved systematically along each row, scrutinizing the pears, blueberries and mixed fruit in turn. He noticed their scrunched reflection in a mirror at the end of the aisle. The entire store was shrunken into that mirror like a picture shot with a fish eye lens. He could see three people lined up, waiting to check out. A tiny figure danced before the cash register. Jim moved closer to the mirror to try and identify him. He had black hair. Yes, it was definitely the grocer. But the reflection was so tiny, he couldn’t quite tell if he was the same man.
Jim walked slowly into the next aisle and the drone of the florescent lamps replaced the hum of the refrigerator. There were mirrors in each corner of the store. Each provided a view of the cash register. The customers shifted impatiently before the counter. A man with a basket reached for another bag of potato chips.
This is much better, Jim thought. He liked the mirrors. He couldn’t be taken by surprise. While he might be seen, he also had the entire store within his grasp. It wasn’t like the jungle. It was more of a match between equals. In Vietnam, you couldn’t see them. You knew they were there, somewhere, watching you constantly, waiting patiently for the moment in which to strike. That strategy would fail here. They were on equal ground. Neither could get a jump on the other.
He watched the Vietnamese woman come back into the store. She was probably the grocer’s wife. Perhaps it was not his wife. She could be his sister or his cousin. There was no reason that it had to be his wife. It was not beyond the realm of possibility that she was not in fact his wife. Jim’s life had been so simple. He and Sally had met. They had married. She got a job in San Francisco. He had followed. They had a son who by the good graces of God had so far not suffered a scratch, barely, certainly never anything requiring a stitch. But this little Vietnamese woman and her husband had lost a son and fled across the ocean in what was probably a rickety old boat like in the book Kon Tiki and managed to get to San Francisco and open a little store. And they are so small. Her head is so strange, the way her hair tapers back to a point like in those Egyptian hieroglyphs. They are small but they managed to get here and by the looks of things kept the store going along rather nicely. Jim pictured the man carrying his dead son, the body hanging limp between his arms, the arms swinging free, the head bouncing up and down with each step, its mouth wide open as it tried to swallow the sky. The grocer laid the body at her feet. She lowered herself slowly to her knees and closed its mouth and eyes. She was next to the yogurt lady now. She was arranging cereal boxes on shelves but he knew she had come back inside to keep an eye on him or the yogurt lady and that gigantic canvas shopping bag of hers. She is a cool one. Probably losing her son had drained every bit of emotion out of her. If it was her son. If she was his mother.
Jim reached for a box of cereal, studied its side panel as if it was the most interesting thing he had ever read, then put it back. The woman was watching him. He was sure of it. She must have read his mind, known he was thinking about her.
“No,” he thought. “I was looking at her. That business with the hieroglyph. I was looking at her. She saw me looking at her.”
He took another box and let his eyes wander and linger on the mirror. The grocer was still there. The checkout line was shorter. The woman was watching him. There was no need to panic, or run away. He was shopping. He would continue down the aisle and continue his shopping. Then he would check out.
“May I help you, sir?”
She was smiling. She had black eyes.
“No. No thank you,” he said. He felt the blood swell his temples.
Bread. He remembered he had decided to buy bread.
“Well yes, actually,” he said. “Bread?”
She turned toward the mirror and pointed to where the bread was lined up in neat rows. He walked deliberately, grabbed a loaf from the shelf and made his way to the checkout line.
The grocer wasn’t paying attention to him. He didn’t need to. Jim knew the Vietnamese woman was watching in the mirror. They probably had a complex set of signals worked out. Those nods to the mirror, the way the grocer sometimes made change with his left hand and sometimes with his right, the way he nodded to a customer, checked the mirror, nodded again, the way he handled the bags. Any one of a number of things could have been the shoot to kill order.
It was time to pay. Jim noticed that there was no one else in the store. It had been discreetly emptied. Had an informer come in before the blast to warn the innocent? It was dark beyond the fruit stands. He couldn’t make out the forms in the street until a jeep loaded with headlights passed. Was someone else waiting out there for him, assuming nothing happened when he paid?
The grocer held out his hand.
It had to be him, Jim thought. He wanted to tell the grocer to call it quits. Kill me and get it over with. Jim’s face was hot, but the sweat was cold against his back. His hand shook as he placed the crushed loaf on the counter. He reached into his pocket. It was empty. The bread struggled to regain its shape. Where was his money? He wiped his forehead against his sleeve. The pressure was unbearable. His face was swelling. It was about to explode.
“$1.19.” The grocer said, smiling.
Jim knew the smile. It had appeared to him as he read to Billy. It was the smile the grocer passed on to his son, the smile which got him killed. If the man didn’t smile, his son wouldn’t have been killed.
Jim patted his pockets, searching for his money. He couldn’t feel anything. His fingers were fat and trembling, making it difficult to search inside.
The grocer shook his head.
“It’s not what you think,” said Jim.
The grocer closed the cash register. Jim held up his hand to reassure him, to tell him to relax, just one moment, don’t worry, I have the money. If not, you can keep the bread. Perhaps the woman had taken his money. That was the set up. She had taken his money when she passed him and now he could be shot as a thief. He should have told Sally. He should have told Sally where he was going. He tried his jacket. There it was. His wallet. It was there all along. It had slipped through a hole in the lining.
Jim jammed his hand into his jacket and the grocer ducked beneath the counter. The grocer came up with a gun.
“Don’t move,” he said. “I’ve been robbed three times this month and if you are trying to make it four I’ll kill you. If you move I’ll kill you. If you have a gun there, I’ll kill you. Give me your gun, or I’ll kill you.”
“I haven’t,” Jim said. He was choking. He should be reading Green Eggs and Ham and it occurred to him that Sam I Am would entertain Billy no more. Billy would always associate his dead father the thief with Sam I Am and never read Sam I Am anymore. He wanted to explain this to the grocer but he was hot and confused and there was sweat in his eyes and blood swelling his neck and he was choking. He tried to remain still but his hand trembled in his jacket. His heart leapt behind his hand to shield itself from the gun. The grocer would kill him. He had no doubt. The grocer had made his decision. Jim had his chance twenty years ago and hadn’t acted and now the grocer was going to kill him.
The grocer reached toward the wall. He found a button and pressed it, holding his finger there until he was sure the signal had been heard. He returned both hands to his gun and crossed his thumbs over the hammer.
Jim closed his eyes. He struggled to remain still. He resolved to stand there forever. If the grocer was going to kill him, he wasn’t going to make it easier. Jim wasn’t going to give him an excuse. He wasn’t going to run. He wasn’t a thief. He wasn’t going to play the thief. He could face any enemy. He opened his eyes.
The grocer relaxed his arms ever so slightly.
“Lay down on the floor.”
The voice was behind him. Jim obliged, working himself slowly to the floor but remaining careful not to remove his hand from his pocket. He lost his balance and came down hard on his face. He lay on his arm. He tasted blood from his nose. He heard steps and felt the weight of a foot on his back. Then his arm was pulled from beneath his body and twisted behind his back.
A Vietnamese man, about thirty, pushed a gun into Jim’s belly. Searching him he found the wallet and held it up for the grocer to see.
He let Jim go.
“I’m sorry,” he said, giving Jim the wallet. “My father’s often robbed. He’s a little nervous. Please forgive him.”
Jim stood silently for a moment, looking from the wallet to the grocer to the man. He cupped his nose with his hand.
Then he turned to go.