The airport was jamming, very jazzy, cars cutting into the inside lanes, cars triple parked at the curb, traffic cops waving and whistling cars away that were not immediately loading or unloading passengers, a looping loudspeaker voice calling out the cadence. Tall bus shuttles from the local hotels jockeyed for position with honking yellow taxicabs hoping for a long drive up into the hills. Skycaps opened and closed doors, moving bags to and from stuffed car trunks and shaky-wheeled carts, and pocketed tips with a proud, expectant nod with no note of surreptitiousness.
If anyone took notice of us, we got no comments or looks, nary a glance, all about their own business. I pulled Penina close for another long hug, still no cameras shuttering, as if there had never been a war. We were a common couple. I had survived a war, and Penina had survived waiting. Whatever wounds she had yet to show me, her hair still smelled like baseball card bubblegum. I smelled of wheel oil, track grease, and sweat, my worn fatigues tainted from motor pool prattle, but Penina pressed her face against my chest, and I felt her take a deep breath. She rattled my dog tags playfully, and we fell in with a group of civilians waiting at a light and crossed the street. Penina pretended to help me walk through the parking lot, my arm around her shoulder. I stowed my duffle bag in the bed of the truck, and Penina drove us out of the airport, through the long tunnel under the runway, out Imperial, and down to Vista del Mar and the Pacific Ocean.
“The plane flew over the water and the beach coming in,” I yelled, but the pickup truck was not a deuce and a half.
“We turned on the Santa Ana winds for your homecoming,” Penina shouted back. “The planes are turned around, but why are we yelling?”
“I saw where the Airport Authority bulldozed my Dad’s place. Looks like they’ve wiped out the neighborhood.”
“I wrote you they moved the house, relocated a lot of them. But for sure we can’t park out on the street and smooch there anymore, unless we want the Airport Authority peeping in on us.” Penina fluffed her hair over her shoulder, laughed, and reached over and grabbed and squeezed my thigh.
“Those empty lots surrounded by chain link fence, be a good spot to set up a beach anti-assault force.”
“It’s okay, soldier. You can relax now,” Penina said. “You’re home. And you can stop talking so loud. I’m right here. You sure look like you just came from a war, by the way, and you smell something extra oil fishy salty.”
“Yeah, two years of war and six days on the road, you know. So where is everyone? Why only you to meet me at the airport? Wanted me all to yourself?”
Penina ran her hand through her hair and said, “Only me? That doesn’t make me feel very special.”
“So there’s the peace sign,” I said, running my fingers across a decal on the back window. “But you didn’t mention this one. Puck’s Surfboards,” I said, reading backwards.
The green, 1949 Ford pickup truck Penina was driving belonged to me. She had pasted a little blue and white peace-symbol decal to the rear window, and she called the Ford the Peace Truck. She had written me a letter describing the decal. She had given the truck a name and asked if I was offended, worried I might not appreciate the peace symbol, but I had assured her I had no problem with peace signs.
After the tunnel, Penina turned west onto Imperial, and we felt the Santa Ana wind gust up and shake the truck. I planned to rebuild the engine and keep the truck in good running condition. My discharge pay would last some time if I could live with Penina, and I planned to shape boards at Puck Malone’s surfboard shop, and Henry Killknot had solicited me to attach to his local National Guard unit as a special correspondent, and though it was a freelance idea, I hoped I might continue to land some articles. And I had the money my folks left me, though my father had sagely set up the trust like an IV with a slow drip. My father, who had survived two wars to become a successful architect and property developer, had never given me much advice, but he once said that desire is not synonymous with valor. He thought the heated mind malleable, and that strength comes from keeping one’s cool. But I had seen frozen minds snap under the squeezing pressure of the cold.
“Will there be a soldier’s home parade?” I asked.
Penina said something I did not catch.
I had mentioned in a few letters to Penina what I called my sound effects, but it would probably take time for her to adjust to this eerie peculiarity. It wasn’t just that I had lost some hearing, but I had noise in my head, whistles and dull echoes. Sometimes my head felt like a canyon, sometimes it seemed like a transistor radio, or I heard the sound of a guitar amplifier plugged into my ears, humming, and a screech of feedback leaving me momentarily stunned. I had talked to a medic who gave him me a field hearing test. The medic said it sounded to him like I had asymmetrical, fluctuating hearing. “Wear your ear plugs,” he said. I decided to let the matter drop.
“I don’t want to see any of the guys just yet,” Penina repeated.
“That’s good,” I said, “that’s cool,” shrugging. “The sooner I get down to the water the better. I don’t need to see anyone.”
“Oh, don’t start pouting, seasoned soldier,” Penina laughed, reaching over and punching my arm. “Puck and Henry have planned a surprise for you up at Puck’s surfboard shop. Try and act surprised.”
“I am surprised. I’m surprised to even just be here. And you are my surprise,” I said, and Penina combed a hand through her hair, glancing in the rear view mirror.
“I need to shave and get cleaned up. I don’t want to show up looking like a barbarian.”
“I’m sure you were a perfect gentleman through most of the war.”
“It’s because I decided to hop out rather than wait for the commercial flights to arrive. There was going to be a lottery to see which platoons boarded early and got out first. A few guys, in no hurry to get home, or no home to get to, were already speculating how much they might make scalping their seats. The camp was chaos. There was a small window to hop out.”
“Could anyone hop out?”
“If you knew an effective clerk-typist, one of the most powerful positions in the army.”
“What happened to Bubo?”
“I left him in the infirmary, in bad shape. Maybe they requested a medevac. They stripped off Bubo’s uniform and strapped him to a stretcher. I took one last look and saw some ancient nun trying to insert a catheter.”
“Cruel war. You could get opiates on the black market cheaper than penicillin.”
“The guys want to see you in your uniform. I thought you’d be wearing your dress uniform when you landed.”
“I gave my stuff away, dress uniform, insignia, medals, to some local girl hanging around the bars. I think she was on her way to a masquerade ball.”
“That sounds like an interesting story.”
The light at Center Street turned yellow and Penina downshifted the three-speed on the column and braked the truck to a stop.
“I wanted to travel home light, because of all the hopping. I thought I explained that in a letter.”
“The mail wasn’t reliable toward the end. Hey, hang a left, go down Center, and we’ll drive through El Segundo.”
“We’ve got to get to the party,” Penina said, and when the light changed, she continued down Imperial toward the ocean.
“Or Main Street. Let’s drive down Main Street, past Library Park.”
“You know we’ll see someone, and you’ll want to stop and say hi, which is fine, but they’re expecting us at Puck’s place. Besides, you stink like a red tide.”
“I love the smell of the red tide.”
“Why don’t you tell me all about the girl and your uniform?”
“Leah was her name, and she was giving my uniform to Bubo. He had misplaced his.”
“Maybe I don’t want to hear the story of the girl and your uniform.”
“I’ll tell you all about it later. I’m excited to be nearing the water. I can smell the ocean. I’m in love, Penina.”
“You always were lovey-dovey romantic, Salty.”
“You saved my life, Penina.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Why not? You kept me sane.”
“But you said you’re not the same guy, so whose life did I save?”
“How about you? You the same girl?”
“You left a girl on the beach two years ago, Salvador, to fend for herself. And I didn’t have a buddy like Bubo on hand to watch out for me.”
At the end of Imperial, Penina turned the truck south onto Vista del Mar for the drive along the beach to Refugio. To the west, flattened by the winds, hunkered an ebbing Santa Monica Bay. Two red and black oil freighters were anchored off shore, one deep in the water, the other high, and three blue and white yachts appeared to be scurrying back to Marina del Rey. Above the horizon, the setting sun spread orange spears through the tar slick winds, and the smeared sky above with the windswept water below looked like an oil painting by Rothko. The Santa Ana winds had been blowing for a couple of days, and all the silt from the basin bowl had blown out over the water. It was Holy Saturday, and I thought I picked out the moon waning pale, high up, out over the water, but the Santa Ana winds were blowing, and I might have been seeing things. Close in, the beaches were buffed clean and empty, the waves flat, and no surfers were out in the water. The wind was now to port, blowing tumbleweeds across Vista del Mar, and Penina gripped the steering wheel with both hands.
This extract of Penina’s Letters is published here by permission of the author