Max was scared shitless. Sitting in the plane that was going to take him over there to get shot at suddenly made this a little too real for his liking. He missed his sister. He missed Jude. God, why hadn’t he tried harder to avoid this? He could’ve burned his draft card like a good hippie- hell, he could’ve bolted to Canada, which in the long run probably would’ve been the healthier option. But here he was, clutching on to what the United States Armed Forces thought he needed to bring with him, and maybe a couple they didn’t, and the only thing that made the situation any better was the guy next to him, who looked like he was going to stop breathing any second.
“Hey,” he said, awkwardly sticking his hand over, “I’m Max.”
“Claude,” the guy said, some sort of accent barely detectable in his whisper, quickly shaking the offered appendage.
“Nice to meet ya. So where’re you from, my friend?” Max asked. “You don’t sound like you belong here.”
“Manche-” the guy began to say, but seemed to reconsider. “Flushing. New York. Sorry.”
“No worries, man; if I was from Flushing I’d lie too,” Max said, laughing.
“Bad habit, you know? Nine out of ten tourists bought it. Well,” he amended, “unless my friends ratted me out.”
Max had never been in a situation before where he had seen someone deflate, like all the happiness had been sucked right out of him, but Claude reminded him a little of Jude, all vulnerable and whatnot. He figured they’d get along great.
“Yeah, friends can be the worst. They always ruin the best jokes,” Max agreed. “But hey, no one else will run singing through a bowling alley with you.”
“What?” Claude said, surprised into a little chuckle, which Max counted as his first victory in his little friendship quest.
“You’ve never run through a bowling alley singing? When we get back, man, you gotta try it, then. My friends will love you- someone new to corrupt.”
“I doubt anything you guys do could be considered anymore corrupting than what my tribe got up to.”
“I accept your challenge! Upon our heroic return to New York we shall have a competition to decide who’s got the worse seeds in their bunch!” Max declared as the last man boarded the plane. The doors closed and the engines shuddered to life; a new wave of nerves began eating their way through his stomach.
“God, the one time a smoke would be the best thing in the worst is the one time we absolutely aren’t allowed to,” Max grumbled.
“I know, right,” Claude agreed.
“What’s the worst that could happen? We accidentally blow up the plane? Saves them the trouble of having to ship our bodies back from Vietnam!”
“Yeah,” Claude said, going quiet again. Max wanted to keep talking, because it was better than contemplating some untimely demise in some godforsaken jungle over there, but he found he just didn’t have anything more to say. Minus one point for depressing Claude back into himself. At least he’d start with at clean slate once they landed. Max refused to not look on the bright side.
“Lucy- she’s my sister- the whole protest scene was really more her thing, but I gotta say I appreciate it a lot more now with an ocean between us,” Max said one night, lying on his bunk above Claude’s.
“We all did it, but yeah, Shelia definitely believed it in more strongly than the rest of us,” Claude said and Max could hear him running his fingers through his hair again, as though all these weeks later he couldn’t believe it was so short.
“Was Shelia your girl? I mean, I don’t wanna pry, man, but the way you talk about her…”
“No. She wasn’t, I mean I proposed but, no. It was complicated,” Claude said.
“You proposed? What?” Max twisted around, hanging his head down to stare at Claude. “How could you propose to someone you weren’t even with?”
“It’s not that I wasn’t with Shelia. I mean, technically she was someone else’s girlfriend, but- look. I knew I was leaving. I didn’t know what else to do to hold onto them.” Claude rolled over, avoiding Max’s gaze.
“You are one complicated dude,” Max said, lifting his head back up.
Being friends with Jude had been easy, but being friends was Claude was unbelievably hard. For every smile or laugh he got out of the guy, there was always the inevitable and swift plunge back into misery. From the little Claude said of his life before, Max knew he didn’t get along with his parents, that he’d dropped out of school, and that he knew people with bizarre names like Woof and Burger. Max really liked Claude, he did, but he wished that he understood the guy better. He talked about that girl Shelia all the time, but whenever that Burger guy came up, Claude immediately stopped talking and went into one of his moods. He never wrote to any of the people he mentioned in his stories, and they never wrote him either, but sometimes Max caught him scribbling away at something he always stuffed into his pockets when he knew he’d been seen.
“Max,” Claude said suddenly.
“Could you do me a favor?”
“Sure, man, anything.”
“When I die-”
“Woah, hey, no one’s going to be dying any time soon.”
“When I die,” Claude repeated, as though he hadn’t heard Max at all, “Could you make sure that my stuff all goes to the right people?”
“No one’s going to die,” Max said, because two could play the not listening game.
“Please, Max,” Claude said.
Max stubbornly closed his eyes and said nothing.
They’re in some fucking awful rice paddy and some farmers are shooting at them and their commander’s screaming at them to retreat because tactically right there they have no hope of winning and Claude’s running right beside him and then he looks over for half a second and Claude goes down.
“Jesus fucking Christ, Claude!” Max yells, at least Max thinks he yells because the next thing he knows he’s on his knees and Claude’s shoving some pieces of paper into his hand and, god, there so much blood and places it shouldn’t be-
“Carrigan! What the hell are you doing? Get moving!” the commander shouts, but all Max can do is shove the damn papers Claude gave him into some pocket and hold Claude’s hand because Claude can’t die like this, if he just holds on tight enough, he can make Claude stay with him-
Max wakes up in some army hospital and knows he failed.
He was in the hospital for longer than he would’ve liked, but when the alternative was dead or back in that hellhole, he decided the hospital was really not that bad. But the others guys in the room wanted to talk, and that he just didn’t have the patience for, because they never wanted to talk about anything good, like home. All they wanted to do was commiserate over their losses, both limbs and friends. He’d rather stare at the walls than think about any of that.
“Hey,” he said when a nurse came by to check on him, “Do you know what happened to all my shit?”
“Excuse me?” she said, sounding like she was ready for some joke she’d heard a million times and had hated every single one.
“The stuff I was wearing when they brought me in, do you know what happened to it? There was something really, really important in my pockets,” he explained.
“Oh,” she said, her expression softening. “I’ll check into it.”
“Thank you,” he said, and thought he’d never been so grateful in his life. But then when she came back a day later with the papers, hell, he would have married her if she’d wanted.
Berger, the first paper began and Max lost it. He laughed, and laughed, and laughed, and twenty minutes later a team of medical professionals came by, fearing a psychotic break. But wasn’t it just the icing on the cake? Claude was gone and all this time he hadn’t even understood the stories right.
“No, it’s fine, I just,” he hiccupped through the giggles, “I thought his name was Burger. You know, like, hamburger.” The threat of sedation calmed him down, though, and a few minutes later, after the doctors had wandered off to someone actually in need, he started to read again.
How are you?
Are you and Shelia doing well?
I keep trying to start this letter but, I don’t know what to say to you anymore. I’m so sorry that I left.
Pages and pages of false starts, of greetings that didn’t go anywhere, of apologies that didn’t go any further than “sorry.” Max flipped through the pages, wondering why Claude thought that this was so important. This had to have been the stuff Claude wanted to see get to the right place, because he certainly hadn’t cared that much about his helmet.
“Lights out, gentlemen, you all need your rest,” a nurse suddenly said. Max looked up, startled.
“But-” he started.
“Lights out,” the nurse said firmly. Max gathered up the papers he’d strewn across his bed and put them gently beside his pillow.
“I’ll find it tomorrow, Claude,” he whispered. “Promise.”
I’ve told you I’m sorry a million times, but you don’t know that. I probably should have burned my draft card after all, because I think we could’ve been happy in Canada, you and me. But my parents were proud of me, for the first time in my life and I was so scared of what would happen if I didn’t go. I didn’t know if I could handle them never speaking to me again. I didn’t know if I could handle being totally dependent on the tribe to get by in the world. I didn’t know what I wanted, Berger.
I thought I wanted Shelia. You thought I wanted Shelia, and I thought you wanted her too. You were my best friend and so I was happy to share with you. I sometimes wish that life could have been simpler, that I could have wanted Jeanie, because wanting Jeanie would have been so easy.
There is just so much wrong in the world, and all I wanted to do was some good. I thought, maybe, if I went that somehow I would be doing something good, but I’m not. All I’m doing is hurting innocent people, and helping other people hurt even more than that. I see myself every night now like Marley in a Christmas Carol, you know, the one with all the chains hanging off him because he carrying the sins of his life with him into death. I feel the chains on me even now and all I can think is that maybe, if I die, maybe then I will be able to do something good.
Because I know I’m going to die. I knew that when I came. And I think now that I thought that would be perfect, because all I do is run away from my problems, and dying is pretty much the best escape route in the world.
I don’t know what I could have amounted to if I’d stuck around, but I like to think I would have mattered. So even though I have no right to ask anything of you, if you could do one thing for me, Berger, please matter. Don’t throw away your life like I did, because I believe in you. I believe that you can do so much more.
I love you, Berger. I’m sorry I never really said that to you when I had the chance, and it’s selfish of me to tell you now, like this. But if you ever know anything, I just need you to know that I love you. It wasn’t really Shelia that I wanted. I’m sorry it took coming here to realize that.
It was just another rally, with all the usual chants and posters and politicians who didn’t really listen. Max had been home for over a year now, and while he didn’t particularly believe that they would end the war today any more than they’d been able to yesterday, he carried Claude’s letter in his jacket every day and knew that it was better to try and fail than to sit back and let anyone else die.
“Hey, you okay?” Jude asked, nudging him as they stood listening to some girl go on and on about air quality or something.
“Fine, man. Where’d Lucy go?” Max asked, noticing his sister was momentarily detached from Jude’s other side.
“Umm…Ah! There she is!” Jude said, pointing a bit further ahead in the crowd. How Lucy always managed to find the hippiest of the hippies no matter where they went, Max couldn’t be sure.
“I suppose we should go over there,” he said, grinning a little. “Just to make sure they’re not impinging on her virtue or anything.”
“Right,” Jude said, grinning back.
“Oh hey,” Lucy said, waving them over once she saw them walking towards her. “Everyone, this is my boyfriend, Jude and my brother, Max. Guys, this is Shelia, Chrissy, Hud, Woof, and Berger. And that’s their friend Jeanie on stage.”
It had been over a year since Max had come home. One year, and he had never had any leads on who this Berger guy was, because Claude had never, never said anything about where any of his friends lived, and in a city of a few million people the chances of running into someone on the street were just astronomically bad. Especially since, Max had found out the hard way, not one of these people were even in the phone book.
“I’m sorry, but what was your name again? Berger?” Max said, already clutching the familiar paper in his pocket.
“Yeah, that’s right,” the guy said, almost lazily.
“Do you- Did you- I mean, Claude. Did you know Claude Bukowski?” Max asked. Even if the guy never said anything, the looks on the faces of Lucy’s new acquaintances answered for him.
“Look, here,” Max said, holding out the letter. “This is for you.”
“What?” Berger said, staring at the paper.
“It’s for you. From Claude. Take it, man, I’ve been holding onto it way too long,” Max said. Berger took a moment, but eventually he reached out and took Claude’s letter. Max pretended not to notice the tremble in his hand when he did, because it wasn’t as though he was doing much better at the moment.
“Thanks,” Berger said.
“No problem,” Max said, smiling.
Plus one million points- he was sure Claude was happy now, wherever he was.