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It Never Snows in Vietnam / Jamey Gallagher



Luke was into Ka-Bars and Kalashnikovs. Semi and fully automatic rifles. Shurikens. Mac-10s. He was into brass knuckles and hollow point bullets. He had subscriptions for Soldiers of Fortune and Guns & Ammo and he pored over every issue, sometimes bringing them to school in his military backpack to show his two friends, Tommy and Mark, who were kind of into it, but not into it the way he was. He couldn’t help himself. He rattled off calibers and bore sizes and talked about the latest model coming out from Smith & Wesson, Uzi, Sturm Ruger. He liked to debate 9mm vs. .45, though he had no one to debate with. He was a 9mm man when he was in 7th Grade, more into the .45 in 8th. His uncle had a .45. They would shoot together in his uncle’s backyard.

*

Luke lived with his grandparents and his mother in the garden center his grandparents owned and ran. When he went into sixth grade he was able to convince his mother to let him move into an outbuilding behind the house. He taped posters on the walls: movie posters from Terminator and Red Dawn, a calendar full of beer models his uncle had given him, photospreads of guns he’d ripped out of his magazines. His mother wouldn’t let him own a gun, but he kept a collection of brass knuckles, knives, shurikens, and ammo she didn’t know about in a footlocker underneath his bed. Most of them he bought at the flea market out by 28. He liked to shop at army surplus stores. His uncle would take him.

*

In the dead of night Luke liked to venture into the woods surrounding the garden center. He’d take his largest hunting knife, attached to a sheath around his leg, and put his brass knuckles in his pocket. He wore camouflage pants and an olive green t-shirt. It wasn’t play, he wasn't a little kid. He thought about his father in Vietnam while he stalked the woods. His father was MIA, could still be on the run over there. Hiding in the tunnel systems or holed up in the jungle. Surviving maybe alone, maybe with another MIA or two. Maybe he was a POW, but Luke liked to imagine him surviving alone, killing only when he had to.


The woods went on for miles. He could travel them up out of the town, into the White Mountains if he wanted to. Sometimes he disturbed night animals. He was sure there were lynx out here, but he only ever saw bobcats and racoons, once or twice a fisher cat, not animals to be trifled with. He used facepaint he ordered from the back of Soldiers of Fortune to make himself virtually invisible. If his mother ever caught him, she’d lose her shit. He snuck out of the outbuilding, along the back of the farmhouse where his mother and grandparents slept, out into the woods. It was easy.


If the moon was full he could throw his shurikens, aiming at a thick pine near the edge of a field. He liked the sound the shuriken made when it stuck in the meat of the tree. A sound like deadly silence. He liked to imagine sticking the blade of the knife into the belly of the enemy, following through and bringing the fucker up off his feet. He always pictured the enemy as Vietnamese, though now there were Iranians to worry about too. Russians. In five years he could join the military. He planned to become a Navy Seal. Kill whatever enemy they faced then. There were always enemies.


When there was no moon he would hunker and slither through the woods, working on his woodscraft, practicing silence. Letting his instincts take over. Once he saw the largest owl swoop down onto the field to take something shrieking in its claws. Once he saw a young moose, more than six feet tall but thin, walking down the center of a trail, staggering a little, probably sick.


The next morning, if it were a school day, he’d be tired but no one would notice, not his grandparents, not his mother. He’d eat the breakfast his grandmother made, shove his magazines into his backpack, head out for the bus stop. He hated school. Everyone he knew hated school, but not as much as him. It was a waste of his time. He already knew more than most of his teachers about the things he cared about, and the other things he didn’t care to learn. He already had a life plan.

*

His uncle Jimmy picked him up one Friday after school. It was late in the year to go camping, October, but his uncle brought cold weather gear, zero-degree sleeping bags, a good canvas tent. They drove up 93 without talking, his uncle lighting a cigarette every half hour or so, Luke trying not to look at him. His uncle looked more and more like his father in the only picture he had of him. His hair was short and he was tall and handsome, like the lead on a TV show. Unfortunately, Luke had got his mother’s height (short) and half the features of his father’s face and half his mother’s. His face was too thin, his eyes too small, but Uncle Jimmy was handsome. Sometimes he had girls with him, but not this time. This time it was just Jimmy and Luke.


There were plenty of sites at the campground off the Kancamagus to pick from, and Jimmy picked one with easy access to the river. He reversed the pickup into the site and they set up camp, Jimmy drinking Budweiser out of a cooler. He gave one to Luke, who tried to hide the fact that the taste made him sick. When Jimmy wasn’t looking he dumped it in the woods, the foam swallowed by duff.


It was dark by the time they had everything set up and were rummaging the woods for firewood. Luke didn’t know what he was looking for, but he brought back branches and twigs and a large fallen limb that made Jimmy laugh.


“That’s right, bonfire motherfucker.” He smiled and ruffed Luke’s hair, which made him feel good and bad at the same time. He was no little kid.


They built the fire in stages. The kindling and a pyramid of small branches, then the larger branches, finally the limbs they’d started collecting after Luke brought back the first one.


Jimmy was drunk. Luke could tell because his eyes shone in the fire and he talked more than usual.


“Your father took me up here once. He was probably sixteen, I was probably fourteen. We got wasted, boy, I’ll tell you. Absolutely wrecked. Usually there were a dozen of us up here on Tripoli Road, getting fucked up, partying, girls, all that. But one time it was just me and him. We got fucked up and we wrestled. He was always stronger than me, but I wasn’t afraid to fight dirty. You learn to fight yet?” He seemed to suddenly remember Luke was there.


“I’ve been in some fights.”


“Yeah? How’d they go?”


“I mean… I won em.”


Jimmy nodded and smiled. In the firelight his grin seemed evil, like some horror movie villain.


“That’s right. You’re a Volpe alright. Have another beer.”


“Nah.”


“Suit yourself.”


Luke fell asleep in the lawn chair. The next thing he knew his uncle was shaking him awake.


“Get in the tent and sleep. It’s more comfortable in there.”


He nodded, groggy, moved into the tent, folded into the sleeping bag, but then he couldn’t sleep. Listened to the sounds the woods made all around him. Thought he heard bears moving through the undergrowth, but maybe that was just Jimmy. He wondered what his father heard every night. There were different animals in Vietnam, different plants, but the same stars in the sky.

*

It got cold at night and he heard rain pattering on the canvas tent and his uncle snoring. When he opened his eyes he could barely see Jimmy’s face. It was easy to imagine it wasn’t Jimmy.

*

The rain still pattered in the morning but they were able to stoke the fire back to life and cook a can of beans on it. They ate with a spoon straight out of the can. Luke felt tired, like something washed up on shore. They walked down to the river. By the middle of the morning the sun was out. It was cold but got warmer quickly. They walked the river, stepped from stone to stone.

*

His uncle taught him how to tie flies and how to take a brook trout off a line without snagging himself. He taught him how to filet the fish with a hunting knife, how to cook it on the military cookset. He’d been in Vietnam, too, but only for four months before the evacuation. He’d been there when the helicopters left Saigon. He’d been lucky. They ate the fish without talking. Luke wanted to ask what his father was like as a kid but didn’t want to sound dumb.


“You got a girlfriend?” Jimmy asked him.


“Nah.”


“Why the hell not? You’re a good looking kid. Get yourself a girlfriend, Luke. Treat her right. Listen to her. That’s the trick. It’s a simple trick, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t seem to know it. Listen to a woman and she’ll do almost anything for you.”


Luke tried to smile. Girls at school thought he was a freak.


“Can we shoot your .45?”


“Sure, we can shoot the .45. Why the hell not?”

He felt his uncle looking at him, looking at his camouflage pants, the gray sweatshirt he wore. He could smell the sweat on himself. He felt small.

*

When they got back from the camping trip his mother was in the kitchen with someone he’d never seen before. He was probably as tall as Jimmy but broader, with a square face. He smiled at Luke.


“This is Mike, honey,” his mother said.


He nodded. He felt out of place. Smelled like sweat and woodsmoke. He felt like there was dirt all over his face. His first instinct was to take his hunting knife out and gut the man right there at the kitchen table. He imagined his intestines falling out.


“Hey, buddy,” Mike said. “Your mother’s told me a lot about you.”


Luke couldn’t stop nodding. He wanted to say something, something to hurt the man or hurt his mother or hurt both of them but didn’t feel smart enough. He left and got some clothes to change into, took a long hot shower. A shower had never felt so good.


The man was still sitting with his mother at the kitchen table when he walked through again. They leaned toward each other.

*

Jimmy picked him up from school every week. They would go hiking locally or go up to the White Mountains. Once, on an Indian summer day, Jimmy showed up on a softail Harley. His mother and Mike sat at the kitchen table, after breakfast. Mike wore an undershirt and pajama pants. Luke was not used to him yet, didn’t plan on ever getting used to him.


“You’re not taking him anywhere on that thing,” his mother said. She was small, like him, with a thin face, freckles. He used to think she was the prettiest woman in the world, but now he wasn’t so sure. She worked at the garden center.


Jimmy looked at her, looked at Luke.


“You coming?” he said, handing Luke a helmet. Luke put it on. He felt like he was flying as his uncle took the backroads, fast, leaning into the curve. He ceded control to his uncle and to the motorcycle. It felt good.


When they got back his mother and Mike were watching a movie in the back room and his grandparents were out talking to people at the garden center. He went out to help them.



He figured he could hire someone to kill Mike, or he could do the job himself. He wanted the satisfaction of doing it himself. He would have to figure out a way to do it so his mother never suspected him, so Mike disappeared forever. Or maybe he could poison him so it looked like an accident, so his mother knew he was gone.

*

There were more than 2,000 MIAs. Most were probably dead, but some could still be alive, either held as POWs or surviving, somehow, in that hostile country. Luke was sure his father was alive somewhere. He would have known it if his father was dead. He had never felt as angry at anyone as he was at his mother for not feeling the same way. Sometimes she would look at him as if she wanted to explain something to him, but she never did.


His grandfather was the one who tried to explain it to him.


“I know you’re angry,” he said, which felt good. At least someone admitted it. “But your mother has a right to live her life. Doesn’t she seem happier since Mike's been around?” She did, but he wasn’t going to admit that. His grandfather was his mother’s father. Of course he was going to side with her.

*

Luke brought the brass knuckles into school, and one recess he wore them when he walked over to two of the kids who’d been making fun of him for years. They called him Rambo. Mocked him. One of the kid’s faces was like raw meat when they pulled him off. The other kid had run away.


He worked at the garden center on the three days he was suspended. It felt good not to be at school. The season would be over as soon as Halloween passed. Now they sold pumpkins that came in by the truckload. Little kids ran all over the place, picking apples. There were pies, the smell of wood burning.

*

When he asked his uncle if he’d ever killed anyone in Nam, Jimmy looked at him for a long second.


“Don’t ever ask anyone that,” he said.


They sat for a while in Jimmy’s backyard. One of Jimmy’s girlfriend was in the house behind them. She seemed about three years older than Luke, but she was probably older. She wore a t-shirt and nothing else, and her eyes were spooky.


“I don’t know how many I killed over there, but, yeah, I killed someone. You fire into the jungle mostly. Who knows how many you killed. I only know for sure I killed one, this little gook climbing over the fence, trying to get away. He might have been your age. Younger. Who knows. He was the only one I took aim at and shot. I remember the way his hand came free from the fence, his back twitching backwards. When he was on the ground I shot him in the face.”


He didn’t have to say it: Luke could tell he regretted it, wished he’d never done it.


“You do what you have to do.”


Luke nodded.

*

His mother’s bedroom was on one side of the farmhouse, his grandparents’ on the other. White curtains covered both their windows. He could see their bedside lamps when they were on. When they were off it was safe to go out into the woods.


He bought a night vision sight and one night he climbed a tree on the edge of the forest and looked through it into his mother’s bedroom. It took him a while but he was able to sight in on Mike. They were in bed together, but not doing what he was afraid they’d been doing. Mike wore no shirt. His hair was messy. He was leaning on one elbow and smiling at his mother. If he had a sniper rifle he could have, and would have, taken the shot.

*

He found out where Mike lived— across town in an apartment complex. It took him an hour to walk there. It was across the street from a shopping plaza. A Market Basket. A Dick’s Sporting Good. Kids played in the apartment complex parking lot. They looked at him but didn’t say anything.


He walked back, at first down busy streets and then past neighborhoods. Finally he was back in the woods.

*

Mike took him to see Rambo, First Blood Part II at the local cineplex. Mike wore a button up red shirt and green pants. While they sat together in the theater, Luke could feel the man beside him cringe anytime there was violence on screen. Luke had a hard time following the plot but couldn’t help thinking of his father throughout the entire thing. His father was Rambo, and his father was one of the MIA Rambo was sent to document the existence of, but not to rescue. He got lost in the movie and forget he was sitting next to his mother’s boyfriend, that just by being here he was betraying his father.

*

He brought his knife to school. He wasn’t sure he was going to use it at first. He just wanted to show it to Tommy and Mark. They looked at it, looked at him, scared. Over the past few weeks they’d stopped talking to him unless he talked to them first. They’d started playing D&D in the library during recess. He had no interest in dragons and elves. He talked about buying a Beretta and shooting his mother’s new boyfriend in the face. Most of the time he was alone.


He got in another fight, this time pounding his tormentor with his bare fists. At the end he thought about pulling his knife out, but he was pulled off the kid first. The fights earned him respect from the worst kids who hung out in one corner of the parking lot. They taught him how to smoke cigarettes. At first it made him lightheaded, but then he got used to it.

*

Once the season was over, his grandparents had less to do around the garden center. His grandfather went over the books. His grandmother canned and cooked and knitted. They would watch the Pats every Sunday, sometimes just him and his grandfather, sometimes with Jimmy. And now sometimes with Mike, too. Luke didn’t care about football but knew his father had, so he tried.

*

When the first snow fell he went out after dinner and walked as far as he’d ever walked in the woods. He’d thought he could go up to the White Mountains, but he reached a dead end, a section of churned up land. Felled saplings pushed together. They were going to build something here— a new mall, maybe. He watched the snow slowly accumulate. It never snowed in Vietnam.

*

Mike took him to a firing range. He was surprised but acted like he wasn’t. Mike let him shoot his 9mm. It felt different than Jimmy’s .45. He thought about turning the gun on Mike right there in the firing range but didn’t want to put his mother through that.

*

When he got into his third fight, this time using a tire iron one of his new friends gave him, breaking the other kid’s arm, a satisfying crack he could feel all the way through his own arm, they talked about sending him away to an alternative school. They called him incorrigible. He knew the vice principal was afraid of what he might do. He cited work Luke had done in his English class, journal entries that were supposed to be private, which mentioned plans to murder someone called J.


His mother seemed devastated. Broken by it. She’d tried hard to raise him right, all by herself.


When the time came to go to another school, he put on the jeans his mother had bought him instead of the camouflage pants he always wore. He put on a black t-shirt with a band he’d started listening to, Megadeth. He slid the brass knuckles in his back pocket. His mother looked at him. He was changing; she could tell. It was too early to tell if it was for the better or not, but she decided to believe it was. He let her.


/


JAMEY GALLAGHER lives in Baltimore and teaches at the Community College of Baltimore County. His stories have been published in many journals online and in print, including Punk Noir Magazine, Bull, LIT Magazine, and Cutbank. His collection, American Animism, will be published in 2025.


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