Steps were taken – of course. There were first steps – puny baby steps – that stagger back and forth like a swaying ocean top – unsure but full of promise – and in the fifties – those steps seemed to get you further. The houses were small – filled with show-model appliances as big as they were new – and it only took the stride of a toddler to get from room to room – thing to thing. I can picture baby me – by the television in the front room – the big wooden box of picture tubes – and in one baby bound I’m in the kitchen – staring up at a lead-enforced monolith – the Fridge. This was back when they made things that lasted – solid, American things – and that sea-foam green fridge stood where it stood as life sidestepped around it – there for the holy steps of my First Communion – there for the pubescent steps of my junior high sock hops – there for the lively steps across the gym stage to get my high school diploma.
Steps all lead you somewhere – getting you from one place to another – and in a certain way – every step is impossible without the one that came before it. My first kiss – my driver’s license – the fumble I picked up and ran for the only touchdown I scored in eleven years of organized football – from Peewees on up to Varsity – all products of the steps that took me there.
And in this pleasant way life is nothing but a dance – a gentle balancing of directions and angles – leading us to and fro and back again – an instinctual sashaying of dips and bobs and turnabouts – utterly aimless and breathtakingly beautiful.
Steps are what brought me to the enlistment office – with
a vague hope that the war would soon be over – my college
nestled softly under my pillow at home – and steps are what
brought me to
war. From the distance of time – I
wonder if I believed I controlled those steps then – like I
control them now –
or if I felt the war had pulled my steps near – like some big
magnet. But – either way – my
changed pace twice – from a civilian canter to a rigorous,
boot-laced march –
And there were reasons to step lightly at war – especially in a swampy hell-hole of a war like the one in Vietnam – mines – booby traps – snipers – artillery shells – man-swallowing tar pits – razor sharp elephant grass – bugs – bugs – bugs – more disgusting, maggoty bugs – and of course – snakes.
And it’s strange how the steps you take lead to one another – but don’t really know one another. The second to last step you ever take don’t know nothing about your last step – and your last step don’t know nothing about dying.
In the thick of all that jungle – and rain – and hot when there wasn’t rain – and the stench of the bodies – and the thunder of bombs that seemed so close – and socks I could never get dry – steps just happen. You try to think things through and be careful – and your lieutenant wants you to “keep your head down and stay alive” – and the generals want the enemy’s line moved back a few inches on their map – and the Marines want you to die like a Marine – and America wants “No War!!” – and the real America wants war – and your best gal wants letters twice a week – and the villagers just want to be left alone – and God wants whatever the hell He wants – but things just kind of happen. And then there are snakes.
Snakes. Big fat fucking coils of reptilian evil – cock-suckers that fought harder to keep the land than any Vietcong I ran into.
There is a snake hiding in a mangy pile of bamboo reed – measuring your gait – sizing you up – counting your steps – 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 – until you are close enough – until your head is raised – distracted by that haunting Vietnamese sunset – that brilliant empty space of red and yellow and purple – and then the fangs clamp down – like ten tons of molten steel clenched inside your calf – and dropping to your knees – you shake the fucking thing off – beat out its brains with the butt of your rifle – and only then do you realize – kneeling in a soft patch of Vietnam mud – lifeless snake sprawled out in front of you – that there are no more steps to take. The steps have brought you here and no further.
Inside this realization there is no war…no
And immediately after the bite…after the ivory teeth have penetrated and released…done exploring the innermost recesses of the nerves in your leg…and air is rushing through the wound…there is a heightening of awareness. There is recognition of self as you are…and self as you will never be. You can smell the cooking of your childhood…taste the salivating incongruity of biological life…view the specters of the afterlife…hear the dirge of rigid limitation…and feel…and feel…and feel…and then you black out from the pain.
But suddenly…as if awakened from death…or a lack of knowing death existed…you are alive…and become a necessary expert on the Vietnamese Two-Step Snake…though your knowledge is brief and entirely accrued from the short…eye-patched…doctor with the bald head and the crooked black teeth…who speaks a pathetic sputter of English only useful in giving bad news…“Two-Step Snake,” he says…and the crooked black teeth reveal a snarling smile…“Two steps and you dead.”
And it’s funny to no one…except someone very far away from it all…that every one of your steps led to a spot that will let you step no more. Dr. Xiangfunalahtes whacks me on the back…with an open palm…doing what he can to reassure…“Lucky one, you are. Two steps left!!”
Then your whole goddamn life becomes a mind-fuck of what to do with those two steps…a hypothetical life that you know is real…but is all the much worse for awareness that it shouldn’t be. An awareness like that can kill a man…by itself…but still… your life goes on:
Back in the States…at the VA Rehab Clinic…a mousey…but pretty young nurse named Nancy…Nurse Nancy…will spend hours cleaning your leg wound…and re-bandaging…and re-bandaging…and listen to you talk out loud about what you’ll do with your final two steps…and she’ll fall in love with you…mistaking pity for love…and after you marry her…you’ll leave the church hand in hand…her walking and you rolling alongside in your wheelchair…and you’ll think you’re happy enough.
But she’ll have to take out the garbage…mow the lawn…and pay what bills the disability won’t cover…later all of them…when the government cuts you off and declares your injuries…“psychological”…and you are wheelchair-bound…“by choice”…and the whole idea of it…that taking steps has anything to do with choice…angers you…so you won’t talk about it.
Then…as if by magic…there come two daughters…and life will seem very good. No…life will be very good.
The days will be filled with vigilance and instruction…not the necessity-provoked carefulness of war…but a cautionary concern conjured from domestic love. You find that you can be a good father…even from a sit-still…but in an instant…as fast as you recognize the younger of the two teetering on the lip of the couch…falling…her head twisting in a downward trajectory towards the coffee table’s edge…you lose track of yourself…and jump up to save her…your legs weak and uncertain…but vaguely familiar with movement…and in one great leap – you catch her in time…and after the girls giggle away the rest of the afternoon…you are down to one step.
Time will move on…past your happiness…and the girls grow up…their own steps leading them off into the world…and silence is left behind. The bills continue to pile in…things go from bad to worse…and you find that liquor helps pass the days…helps keep from taking that final step.
Nancy grows tired of being weary…weary of being tired…and finally realizes…with her pity run out…there was never any love to begin with…so she leaves too…her soft footsteps pattering out of your life…held by the same sweetness with which they had entered.
And in a steady state of refusal…your life shapes in negation…defined by the things you won’t do. You won’t take the necessary steps to change anything…barely willing to wheel yourself to the mailbox…where you pick up your welfare checks…checks that are silent…and useful for nothing…except keeping a level of stability for the way things are…but they too are a judgment. In this stasis there is no forwards…no backwards…no end…just timeless repetition…drunken days of forgetfulness. You stop knowing…or caring…about steps…what they are…where they lead…who you are…where you're headed…and you can’t walk your daughters down the aisle…you can’t be at Nancy’s side when the cancer takes hold. Above all…you secure your position on the precipice of death and the denouement of life. It is a stationary position.
The world goes on…others feel their feet move upon the earth…they move all around you…while your long ago dance of life is replaced by silent legs…silent ankles… silent toes…and a simple…silent…will to go on living.
And late at night…alone…always alone…nodding off in your wheelchair…in the front room…as digital reflections of life scamper by on the television’s mirrored face…there are hardly even echoes left of actual life…only footprints of memory…reminding you that things were different once…that things once moved you…and the footprints talk to you in unhurried tones of forgiveness…“go ahead…drop that foot a little lower…right there to the floor…isn’t that carpet soft?...now just prop yourself up…stand…okay…good…that must feel better…try lifting that knee up a little…almost…that a boy…now…the last part’s a cinch…just let it fall…go ahead…let it go…you got it…just one step…”
And one step – is all it takes.