The Restaurant and the Vietnam Vet.

On the first night in Calgary – pre the Calgary Literature Festival –  I am dining  with Ann Green, producer of  the festival, Ian Samuels  the artistic director and an Australian author who has a smile and a  twinkle in the eye that says “yeah I’ve seen it. I’ve done it. And I like it.”.   He shall remain nameless for reason s which will become apparent. There’s only one person who is not here who  was supposed to be here – the ex president of Canada. She like many an   ex president has written a book and will be reading at the festival  tomorrow, is tired and staying at our hotel.

The restaurant is at the top in a revolving room of the tower 525 ft in the air by the aptly named Vertigo Theatre where I am to  perform on another day. The   online catalogue describes it as “the third largest tower in   Calgary”.  BThe Tower was built in 1968. I was born in 1967. The Vietnam war  began in 1961.

As we sit to eat  the sun falls behind distant mountains and throws up fists of fire from behind mountainous trenches.Thesky is at war with the night. The lights dimmed in the revolving thing and the night entered the restaurant.  Wine poured itself and the conversation  spilled into the air. A slide of blood and fat  curled from my  steak and seasoned the plate as the serrated edges of my knife slid  back. Here’s to conversation.   We, the five of us  became the  lava inside its lamp, rising and gently  falling as others rise   and gently fall and this is how  conversation  should be – in warmth like vocal  Ti chi.

And maybe it was the redness of the sky against  the darkness of the night. And maybe it was that we were 500 feet or so inside   the sky spinning in slo mo  like a UFO (unidentified food object) but here an unsentimental story   began to rise as we circled it. It was about something that had happened recently to the Australian authors brother.

He was in the Vietnam war, his brother,  he was drafted and fought and experienced all
the dark delights that  war brings. He was a waiter at a  banquet of bursting  bodies. He did his job. he served his country.   He’s there for two years or so, his brother.  And in the click of a safety switch The War Is Over.  He is back in America.  There’s no welcome committee waiting for him. No ceremony. No ticker tape  parade just a  a quiet resentment of him.  A seething. A loathing. The kind you find in the film Jacobs ladder. The kind
of loathing that is only picked up in peripheral vision.

He’s in the city. Maybe it’s New York  maybe it’s  LA. But if they think this is   a fast city then  they have no idea what  fast is. He’s a man who knows what fast is. How fast a life can pass. How fast   the decision to defend and attack. How fast. This man is a survivor. His  brother.  And he immerses himself in work.   He sets up businesses, sells them, sets em up and sells em again. It’s a jungle   out there. He got through the American nightmare and was living the dream.   Forty fifty years ago is it now. His brother survived and thrived and married  and all was good.

 A few weeks ago he’s dressed to go to his downtown office,  right. Same old system.  Suite’s clean, teeth sparkling, shoes  polished, socks laid out and put on. Left first and then Right. Left first and then right.  And he aligns his tie in the  mirror, right.  Maybe  he’s got a little shaving cut. No problem. He   checks it out. dabs it with his finger. No problem.

The news is on the radio   blathering away as it does something about Iraq this and right to defend that.  He fixes  his pen in his pocket. Loves the pen.  Present from his father. As it was a present  from his father.  He turns his head looks   out of his house window and the the car’s waiting for him. The same car  that waits every day and the driver’s  reading The NY Daily Post.. On time. Its an  autumnal morning, the  shaking trees the  sharpness of light, autistic almost.  He   hears the slow purr of its engine   as  bouquets of white smoke spread   from its exhaust. Maybe there’s a frost today.    The radio is blathering about, president bush “supporting the troops in   the field and some foreign correspondent is almost shouting because “if you   listen you may be able to hear the insurgence attack”…”. 

And  it’s one of those   rich crisp molten morning suns. Maybe there’s a frost today. And he sees  through the diagonal bars of sunlight through the speckles of dust to the car.
And he looks back and he straightens his hair and he straightens his tie a  little more because his ties feels a little un-straight.  And the radio  is on. And “there’s been an explosion and….   people have died”  and he can hear quiver   of fear in the journalists voice He straightens his tie again and the man in  the car  is now at the window. It’s been
an hour since when?. Hasn’t it. Has it. He looks through the light through the  speckles, through the window from the mirror where he is standing and he seesm the man at the window cupping his hands and peering in  to the front room and he looks back at the
mirror and he straightens his tie. Cause his ties not straight.   

He’s there for four  hours. And it isn’t news any more on the radio. And it wasn’t radio. It was TV.    It’s The   Simpson’s that’s on in the background. He hears the beginning of The
theme tune. But it starts to echo in his head. Distant echo. Dah dah dah  dah dah dah dadadada”.   And he   wants to make a phone call to say “mom mom I’m okay. I’m okay really”. But he   can’t get to the phone right now. He remembers there was a man at the window    waving at him. But he couldn’t hear because the sound was muffled. And the man   has gone like his breath on the window – gone like that. Evaporated.  And the shadows are crawling   around the room in concentric circles. They are actually drawing into him The    shadows – until he is enveloped in darkness

By now myself and Ann have let our food cool in the forks   that are resting mid air frozen mid step – poised like soldiers in the bush.  “It’s the war.” Said the Australian author “The
Iraq war. It triggered something in him. Like a landmine left in the fields.It Blew up.  My
brother is now in hospital teaching his brain how to teach himself to   teach  his legs  to walk.”.  Ann asks how his wife and    children are coping “one step at a time” says the author “one step at  a time”.

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