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A Last Good Kiss for Dickey Chapelle

by Ed Lynskey (2000)

          Tugging out my wallet and flipping through the faded Polaroids, I showed Dickey the newest of my three-year-old daughter. "This is Natalie," I told her.

          "Mm-hmm. I didn't know you had children," Dickey said. "Why, she's an angel, though."

          "Hold on," I responded. "Make it just the one."

          "A daughter." Dickey's tone became wistful, almost sad. "I'd always hoped for one someday."

          "Well, her mom has the house up in Baltimore. She teaches second — no wait, third — grade. Anyway, Carol and I separated three months ago," I hurriedly explained.

          "Nothing good ever seems to last," mused Dickey, returning my wallet. "I mean, for instance, look at us."

          Wiping down the bar top, I couldn't meet her gaze. "You were always flying away at the drop of a hat — Algeria, Hungary, Lebanon, Cuba. It got so I couldn't keep up with you. I tried to stay in touch."

          "Hey, I'm sorry about all that," she murmured, her hand reaching to cover mine. "Really. At least you have this bar. And Natalie. What do I have? Busted knees, reams of combat negatives nobody wants. A few dinky press awards. I'm an old maid peddling a book or two at pancake suppers in Bozeman, God help me."

          "You're a legend in your own time," I emphasized to her. "How's Tony, by the way?"

          "Go ask his whores," Dickey snapped. "Well, I've also got the Marines." Her voice was back to raw and husky. She flicked the Viceroy between her nicotine-stained fingers; embers smoldered in the ashtray ("Compliments of Prescott Motor Lodge"). Tape recorder, tripod, Leica cameras, flashbulbs, film cans, French binoculars, portable typewriter, Kabar knife, flak vest, and topographical maps all lay in bundles strewn beneath the Naugahyde stool she was perched on. Looks and brains sure mix like a martini cocktail and olive, I thought.

          "You're a cradle robber." Despite myself, I laughed, pushing a glass of Coors beer at her.

          Dickey coyly smiled. "Guilty as charged. They're babes in the foxholes, but I love them. I can't help myself."

          Sipping the gin kept from view under the cash register, I had to ask: "Tell me Dickey ... were any of the Leathernecks not married?"

          Stubbing out the Viceroy, Dickey leaned forward. "Well, Al, a clever girl, as they say, has to think about her future." Her frosty eyelashes winked at me as she unbuttoned the black calico jacket.

          "You're the champ. Can I bum a butt?"

          Tossing me the pack, she answered, "Take it. I have a carton stashed in my nightstand. Besides, I'm flush right now — Argosy finally coughed up their fee."

          "Took them long enough," I noted with sarcasm.

          She half-nodded, then, in a flash, grew defiant. "Aw, screw the money. I belong to the elite fraternity of windmill chasers."

          Dickey slid her gold Dunhill lighter across to me. The bar top was polished, slick monkeypod, a prized wood that I had had shipped over from Saigon where you could buy anything, at least before last spring when Tricky Dick had yanked us out. She idly checked her gold Cartier watch against the clock hovering over the bar. Her eyes, I noticed again, were blue as a jolly harvest of indigo.

          "Almost time for Cronkite," I remarked offhandedly.

          "Not tonight, Al," she sighed, surveying her life spilled across the pitted green linoleum floor. Removing her harlequin glasses, staring in the bar mirror, she quipped: "Evenings I get dolled up, I'm the vision of queenly stateliness. I tell you what, though. I don't do it near enough."

          Taking a slow drag, I popped another can of Coors to refresh her drink. The pause lengthened into an awkward silence between us — I excelled as a listener, not a conversationalist. "The last time I left you was in the Ba Xuygen Province, if memory serves me correctly."

          "You have been back for a long time," Dickey said, her irritation evident. "Yeah, I eyeballed the helicopter war there in '62. Did it for National Geographic."

          "National Geographic, huh? Not exactly bush league," I observed. No shakes about it, Dickey was a living legend. Still, I didn't mention having spotted her Navy SEALs photo-spread in a Hollywood porno rag that I ran across while swabbing the Men's latrine. Slobs like us had to earn a living, right?

          Inspecting her lately manicured fingernails, Dickey softened a bit: "You betcha sweet ass it ain't. My pix aren't phony, either. Nowadays AP photos have all the authenticity of patent medicine ads."

          "Yours are worth a slew of Pulitzers," I reassured her. "The equal of Nick Ut's shot of that napalmed girl. Take it from an old pro."

          "Tell me what you remember best," Dickey muttered. The black calico jacket slithered away, exposing her bare shoulders. Her sweater was something knit, snug yet tasteful.

          The only other patron, a wizened regular in an oversized raincoat and patchy slacks, squirmed out of his booth and shuffled toward the door.

          "Yo, Eddie!" I hollered after him. "Same trick tomorrow, okay?"

          Snatching a brown derby off the peg, Eddie twirled it on his fingertip like a variety show act where the dozen dinner plates simultaneously twirl on a dozen broomsticks. "Yep," he yelled back before darting into the piss-cutter storm for which Washington D.C. was famous.

          Raking fingers through my gray hair and glancing back at Dickey, I repeated her question. "What do I remember best? The flares, the leeches, those punji pits. What else? The mud, the mindless Army brass, the Cong's everywhere. Oh, lemme see. Scuttling through rice paddies like a cockroach on Christmas. Yeah, and the jungle rot stench you can never blow out of your nose. Did I leave anything out?"

          Dickey fired up another Viceroy, drew down a full quarter-inch on it. Caging a lungful of smoke, she crowned my litany: "Messed up, you died." She exhaled in a burst. I didn't know what color you'd call the rising plume, unless perhaps gunmetal blue.

          "Do you ever see the old crowd?" she wanted to know, couching her smile with hope, however faint.

          Rounding up the dirty glasses and pitching the empty beer bottles, I answered: "A couple still frequent the joint. Morley Safer, Wallace Terry, the skinny kid from Georgia — I can't recall his name right now. Several ex-Green Berets I know by face only. Mostly they drink themselves under the back booth. So, I fetch them a cab — it's on the house."

          "Christ, I thought I was the only grunt left in the trenches." Her eyes didn't flicker.

          "They work on the Washington desk," I explained. "Talk about over there seldom, if ever, surfaces. They're completely out of it now, you know?"

          She cleared her throat, spoke in earnest: "Well, I miss it, Al. I'm afraid I'm headed back overseas."

          "But wait. When? But why?"

          "Soldier of Fortune is underwriting me," Dickey lied, never her strong suit. Her pearl earrings clashed with the master parachutist wings pinned to her floppy Australian bush hat. "Plus I belong behind the shutter. I miss it."

          "Not me. I don't, not one day," I responded, the well-remembered bitterness burning my tongue.

          "Not even, I mean, if we teamed up again." Dickey's eyes drifted, dreamlike and faraway.

          "Nope," I grunted. "Tell me, why were we even in Vietnam?"

          Shifting on the stool to re-cross her fashionable legs, Dickey paid me a compliment. "You run a respectable tavern, Al."

          "Thanks. You're a most welcome guest," I declared, hoisting the gin glass.

          "You could charm a brass monkey. But thank you." Her warm regard was accentuated by her perfume. I inhaled the sweet and swallowed the bitter.

          "Do you like my perfume? It's French. Nuit de Longchamps," she informed me. "Here, smell." She extended a wrist delicate as a teapot spout, obliging me to stoop and politely sniff.

          "I detected it the second you strolled in. It's a lovely fragrance," I simply stated. "It truly is. Exotic as a jungle orchid plucked after a late summer rain."

          "Why do I suddenly feel like a brass monkey?" Dickey laughed.

          "Stick around D.C.. Hell, even an abbot can re-invent himself in this town," I suggested, untying my apron.

          "Now, that's a quaint notion, don't you think?" observed Dickey.

          "No kidding. Stay with me at the Benedict Arms until you get a place," I insisted. Yawning, I extinguished the grill's gas pilots, waited for the last chords to Ramblin' Man to fade before ejecting the 8-track tape.

          "Does it have a shower? I do my best crying there."

          "C'mon Dickey, don't bust my chops. Stay for as long as you like," I reiterated.

          "Remember my mom? She passed away this past April. We were inseparable, more like sisters," Dickey revealed.

          "Sorry for your loss," I muttered.

          "Do you see now why I have to go back?" Repressing a sob in her throat, Dickey stared off. A scowl rode above her harlequin glasses.

          I, too, curbed my impulse to vault the bar and instantly hug her.

          "It's what I do. I have no choice, you see. Not really." She reached down, snared the black calico jacket.

          Further persuasion seemed futile. Tears were snaking down into my beard. "The Marines will protect you. There came times when I could've used a battalion," I declared heavily.

          "The tragedy is there are never enough." Standing, Dickey knelt and collected her gear, slipping on shoulder straps, pressing cans into deep pockets, and hitching up khaki belts.

          "I'll miss you." My emotion sounded gravelly. "That and I also love you."

          "You're a prince," Dickey exclaimed. "Let me kiss you! Then I go. No good-byes, okay?"

          I leaned a few inches forward. And, yes, that last kiss was by God good. That is the best thing, you see, war correspondents shipping out for any front can hope to carry with them.