The faded brown cover was smooth under his fingers, smooth in a way that reminded him of the worn wood of the porch bannister, the shiny waves of his mother's hair as she bent her head to whisper lullabies in his ear. Smooth in a way that he had forgotten, in this land of sharp, spiky foliage and jagged shrapnel.
Leaning back against the wall, Myron Goldman stretched his stiff legs out across his bed, reaching across the table next to him to fish out his rarely-used glasses. He slid them onto his nose and grimaced at the book he held, a small paperback of poetry Donne and Keats and Tennyson and all the other names that resounded through high-school classrooms all over the United States.
He didn't open it, just yet; he wanted to look at it, hold it for a while longer. The book had been a gift from his mother, a consolation for having to go to Officer Cadet School instead of getting his mortarboard and a tenure teaching English Literature. Life for Myron and his mother had, it seemed, been full of poor consolations.
Rebecca Goldman had been Myron's entire world when he was growing up, the substitute for the father who was always away at war and the family who lived somewhere in Philadelphia, to be seen only on the odd Hanukkah or maybe Passover. She had been a gentle, ineffectual woman whose spirit was slowly and inexorably crushed by the pressures of running a household and raising a son without her husband, a task she had never envisioned in her bright, halcyon days as the prettiest girl in the smart young set.
As a child, Myron had adored her. Her soft, melodic voice, her fragrant hair and the whisper of her delicate dresses as she danced in the sitting room to the scratchy gramophone music she loved. He hadn't minded the plainness of the meals she inexpertly cooked or the crookedness of the buttons she sewed back on for him; when she made up bedtime stories and acted them out, and when she tenderly kissed his bumps and bruises, Rebecca had seemed like the most perfect mother on earth.
Growing older had changed all that. As his resentment toward his father had grown, so had his disillusionment and disappointment with his mother. How could she be so weak as to put up with this? How could she meekly accept The General's absences and prepare such guileless celebrations for his infrequent returns? Why did she never insist that he stay, if not for herself, then for his neglected son?
His fingers hesitantly riffled the pages of the book, loathe to leave the stain of dirt and oil and sweat on its sepia paper, reluctant to let Vietnam seep into this small reminder of home.
The book fell open easily, its spine creased in order to accomodate the thickness of a photograph. Myron left the photo lying in the book, not wanting to pick it up. He stared at the black-and-white print, looking at the shadows of the furniture, the texture of the floor, the heavy drape of the curtains. He looked dispassionately at the bony, knock-kneed kid who squinted myopically at the camera, looking uncomfortable and self-conscious.
Myron, she'd said, stand still and let the nice man take the photograph.
And he'd whined, as he'd done so often, and wondered snittily, loudly, why she even bothered getting a stupid family photo when his father was never around.
The look of desolation that had crossed Rebecca's face then was something that he still saw ... in his nightmares, in the alien and black veiled eyes of the Vietnamese, in his mother's dappled brown eyes that sighed at him from the mirror.
Because, Rebecca had said quietly, her voice fluttering like a moth caught in a flame, I want you to do better than this.
He'd always assumed she meant, "do better than your father and I did" -- all that usual parental claptrap about wanting your children to have better lives. He'd sighed and stomped and sullenly relented to having the picture taken.
And here he was now, in a mopily hot hootch in the jungles of Vietnam, fighting a war that nobody believed in and risking his life as part of his job, and he was holding a photograph of his childlike mother who'd chased a fistful of pills with a bottle of gin and died on the sitting-room rug with her gramophone tinnily skritching out those old-fashioned songs.
The child Myron in the picture frowned, unaware of where his life was leading, while his mother stared desperately out of the monochrome photograph, a woman dissolving and growing old and being robbed of her delight in life. Rebecca Goldman, who had never posessed the temperament for withstanding her husband's cold absences and his preoccupation with the military and with his wars.
I want you to do better, her glassily sorrowful gaze said.
Myron shut his book and turned off the light.