The following excerpt is from the “On Television” chapter of Penina’s Letters.
I drove my truck with Malone down Vista del Mar and up Grand Avenue into El Segundo. The Chippys lived in one of the old refinery-worker houses just over the sand dunes. We turned off Grand and drove slowly down their street. Through the side yards we could see where the sand had been sliding down the dunes and spilling through twisted, wood slat fences into the back yards. We stopped at Tom’s house and climbed out and walked to the front door and knocked.
Mary Chippy, Tom’s mother, answered the door, looking distracted, but when she saw who it was, she gasped and threw open the screen door, coming out and grabbing me into her arms, and Tom’s dad came to the door to see what all the commotion was about. Mary held my face in her hands and stared into my eyes.
“Look, look who’s here, Ray,” Mary said, “home from the war.”
They invited us in, and Malone and I filled their living room couch. The little couch smelled of lavender, the pillows covered with fresh, ironed linen. The room was clean, and barely looked lived in, not a speck of dust or sand on the hardwood floor, as if they had been expecting guests. Mary sat awkwardly down in her rocker, across from us, pulling her short housedress down over her thighs. She was a narrow, small woman, all elbows and knees and ankles, but with the face of an overripe peach. Her fingers and hands were wrinkled and twisted with arthritis. Her long hair was tied up in a tight, grey bun. Next to her, Tom’s dad, Ray Chippy, fell heavily with a sigh into his overstuffed easy chair. He sat with his big hands cupped over the arms of the chair. He wore a buzzcut, and his big, tanned head looked like a bronze sculpture.
Tom’s mother said how good I looked, and his dad agreed, and said it looked like the war had done me no harm, but said of course he knew that was probably not true. I started off calling them Mr. and Mrs. Chippy, but they said no. They would feel more comfortable now if we called them by their first names. They asked how Puck was doing, and said they had not seen him since the funeral, but had read an article in a local shopping guide about how his surf shop was getting popular, but it was soon clear they wanted to talk about Tom.
“One night, we was watching the war on the television,” Mary said, “and that’s how we come to know he’d been hurt.”
“I used to watch the war on television every night, every night,” Ray said, shaking his head slowly back and forth.
“And then, one night, Suzie yells, ‘There’s Tom’! In the war, on the television.”
“I was sitting right here, and I saw him,” Ray said, pounding the arms of his chair, “camera right on his face. You wonder if something like that’s gonna happen, if you’ll see somebody you know, but you never do, but all of a sudden, wham, there’s our Tom.”
“They was carrying him on a stretcher, running to a helicopter,” Mary said.
“Stooped over, stumbling, weighted down with equipment.”
“One of them was holding up the bottle with the tube coming out of it,” Mary said, holding her hand over her head to show us.
“You could see the high grass,” Ray said, “blowing in the wind under the chopper blades and hear the blades spinning and all kinds a noise, guys yelling.”
“Then the camera went back to the news desk. And what could we do but just sit here, like we was knocked out, not knowing what had happened, how bad Tom was hurt.”
“We waited for something more,” Ray said, “but it was just another night of the war on TV, and as soon as we heard Cronkite saying, ‘And that’s the way it is,’ we turned the TV off and tried to make some phone calls. We got a hold of the Red Cross, and they called us back the next day.”
“They tried to save him, but it was too late,” Mary said, “too late for Tom.” She reached over and touched Ray’s hand, but he pulled it away.
“Poor Suzie,” Mary said, “she like to faint dead away, all that waiting around for Tom to come home, storing things up for when he got back, playing around in her hope chest, making all kinds of plans, and suddenly see it all come to nothing like that. She used to come over near every night and watch the war on the TV with us.”
“Hell, she’s already found herself somebody new,” Ray said. “But that’s the way things should be. I don’t fault her none, needing to get on with her life. You know what I mean. What the hell’s she gonna do hanging round here, spend all day unfolding and folding his letters?”
“I’ve saved his letters and his pictures and his flag, but we don’t like to display them out,” Mary said.
“But I do miss Suzie, too” Ray said. “Don’t get me wrong, now.”
“I miss them both,” Mary said, rubbing her hands together in her lap, rocking quietly back and forth for a few moments.
“I’m sorry Tom didn’t make it back,” I said, looking first at Mary then at Ray.
“Grab us some beers, why don’t you, Mary?” Ray said, and Mary got up and went into the kitchen.
“The hell of it is, Sal,” Ray said, leaning forward and whispering, “is that Tom got hit by what you call that friendly fire, you see. That’s the truth of things. That’s what got him. Not that it matters, but did you know that, Sal?”
“I don’t know. Things did get confused sometimes. But it’s hard to say.”
“Don’t say nothing about that to Mary. It would just open up her bleeding heart all over again.” He leaned back in his chair again.
Mary came back into the living room, her arms full with three beers and a Tupperware bowl full of potato chips.
We drank our beers and snacked on the chips.
“Tom, now, he’d of liked some of the jobs I been working lately, up in the canyons. You know what I mean,” Ray said.
“Yeah?” I said. “Have you been up in the canyons?”
“Oh, yeah,” Ray said. “Up Topanga, I been. Up Malibu. I’m just now on a job, we can see the ocean. I climb up to the roof and eat my lunch and take my shirt off to work off this farmer’s tan, you know. Tom used to always kid me about my farmer tan.”
“I don’t want you climbing up on no more roofs no more,” Mary said.
“Ah, hell.” Ray took a long drink of his beer. “And you can smell the licorice bushes up there, you know what I mean, the air full of the hot canyon smells. And the air so fresh and wet in the morning but by the afternoon all hot and dry. We work until the sun starts to go down, and we drive down to the highway and get us a beer at one of the bars on the water. Yes, Tom would have loved these jobs up in the canyons with me.”
We were quiet again, and the room felt smaller. Mary dropped her hand down into a basket of yarn next to her chair and squeezed one of the balls of yarn. Then Ray got up to go into the kitchen, and we knew he was crying. Mary stayed a moment then got up to go into the kitchen.
“Jesus,” Malone said.
“Yeah,” I said.
An onshore, late afternoon breeze was now coming through the house, drifting down the dune behind the house and coming through the kitchen window, curling through the living room, and passing out the front screen door. We could hear the Chippys whispering in the kitchen. We finished our beers, sitting on the couch in the living room in silence.
Tom’s parents came back into the living room. I did not want to look into their eyes, red and watery, their faces worn and worried looking.
I stood up before they could sit back down and said, “Well, we just wanted to come over and say hi.”
“Thank you, boys,” Ray said. “Thank you.”
Malone got up and said, “Thanks for the beer.”
“You boys are welcome here anytime,” Mary said, “anytime.”
“Tom was a hell of a carpenter,” Ray said. “Know that?”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “I do know that.”
“Why, he could drive 16 penny nails, sinking the heads flat in three swings, leaving no hammer mark, all day long,” Ray said.
He reached out and shook my hand, and his hand felt like an open-end wrench, hard but worn smooth. He did not fully open his hand.
We stepped to the front door and went out. We turned to say goodbye to them. They were standing in the open door. Ray went back inside, but Mary walked out to the truck with us.
“Sal,” she said, touching my arm. She stopped and looked back at the house.
“I just want to tell you.” She paused again, looking into my eyes. “There are no jobs.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “What jobs?”
“Ray has not been working any jobs in any canyons. Ray has not worked since the day we met Tom’s body in his bag coming off the plane from the war.”
I looked at Malone. We looked at Mary.
“I just think you boys should know the truth of things,” she said.
She stood at the edge of the yard and watched us get into the truck. She took a short step forward and waved and brought her hand to her mouth and covered her lips with her fingers as we drove away.
…excerpt taken from Penina’s Letters.