Consider, first of all, that Pfc Whitaker awakes in his Fort Meade, Maryland, barracks in the early morning, sweating. He stares through unshifting, dust-speckled air and sees beams of rough-hewn wood. Looking at their splintering surfaces and thinking of the long, barren days ahead, the hours of his final weekend of freedom in which he has nothing to do, he feels sad. He feels like a man who’s been ordered to leave the earth, his destination the moon. He must live in Vietnam for a year.
In the latrine he flushes a bug down the toilet and his mood is reflected in the insect’s futile flailing. The flood and dark of the drain take it away. He wonders, Does it scream?
Now he paces slowly in the hall and Sharon is only a feeble flickering in some small corner of his brain. He does not really see her perfect legs and hard, creamy little tits. She is unremembered. He sees his moving feet on the floor. He does not see her black hair that lay stuck in sweat to her lips. She spoke of Wall Street, of the stock market, as if she understood what she was saying. He does not remember her hot buttocks burning in his hands. She sucked blood from his throat, coming. Pacing, he crosses his arms. He does not remember. His genitals stir, his prick nearly grows.
He is thinking of going to Washington, D.C. There is to be a peace march, he’s heard. A protest against this war. I will protest, he thinks, knowing he lies, though he has a truckload of urges and reasons. He will see the monuments to Lincoln and George Washington. He will see the crowds. He will go to the Washington Monument and look up its long, thin length. He feels the edges and tentacles of other thoughts stirring. He shuts them out. He showers and dresses in wrinkled clothing, yet he places a carefully folded tie in his pocket and he buffs his already shiny shoes.
Crossing to his footlocker, he rummages among papers and socks. There are those on post who say a man is a fool to go to Vietnam. Not many, but some, their voices smug, bitter, secretive. It makes him ache to hear them. In a blind, unspeakable wish for denial, he listens. Is it to hear more today that he is going to travel? Is it to risk hearing, finally, a word, theory, fact, or statistic that will make him believe? Does he hope to believe? Or is it to prove them foolish, to prove by being among them a full day and finding nothing in all their placards, slogans, and cries, that there is in fact nothing there to find?
From his locker, he takes a copy of his orders, which he folds precisely to fit his pocket as he moves toward the door.
Only those men on KP, CQ, or guard are in the company area—all others having departed on passes at the end of the Friday workday—so he sees no one as he crosses the small space of worn grass between the barracks and the white, shedlike headquarters building. He opens the frayed and patched screen door. Thornberg, the CQ, is tilted and twitching in uneasy sleep at the desk, an open comic book teetering on his limp hands. Whitaker stands a moment, thinking. Then he takes his pass from its slot in the green rectangular pass book before adding his name and time of departure to the long list of other names and times already scribbled onto the blocks of the sign-out sheet. He tiptoes out into the white wind. He puts the card of his pass in his billfold and shoves his billfold deep into his right-hip pocket.
Far up the gray road, past the few trees, a bright green bench stands beneath a faded bus stop sign. He makes a fist with each hand, and thumps his chest. He begins to jog.
© 2010 David Rabe
A Novel of Vietnam
Girl by the Road at Night
A Novel of Vietnam
David Rabe’s award-winning Vietnam plays have come to embody our collective fears, doubts, and tenuous grasp of a war that continues to haunt. Partially written upon his return from the war, Girl by the Road at Night is Rabe’s first work of fiction set in Vietnam—a spare and poetic narrative about a young soldier embarking on a tour of duty and the Vietnamese prostitute he meets in country.
Private Joseph Whitaker, with Vietnam deployment papers in hand, spends his last free weekend in Washington, DC, drinking, attending a peace rally, and visiting an old girlfriend, now married. He observes his surroundings closely, attempting to find reason in an atmosphere of hysteria and protest, heightened by his own anger. When he arrives in Vietnam, he happens upon Lan, a local girl who submits nightly to the American GIs with a heartbreaking combination of decency and guile. Her family dispersed and her father dead, she longs for a time when life meant riding in water buffalo carts through rice fields with her brother. Whitaker’s chance encounter with Lan sparks an unexpected, almost unrecognized, visceral longing between two people searching for companionship and tenderness amid the chaos around them.
In transformative prose, Rabe has created an atmosphere charged with exquisite poignancy and recreated the surreal netherworld of Vietnam in wartime with unforgettable urgency and grace. Girl by the Road at Night is a brilliant meditation on disillusionment, sexuality, and masculinity, and one of Rabe’s finest works to date.