The Women: Part 1 – Chapter 22


Headlights shone on the elaborately scrolled metal in front of her, illuminating the gold M in the center of the gates. When Frankie was young, this house had been neither gated nor walled, but open to the world, situated proudly on its large, ocean-facing lot. Back then, Ocean Boulevard had been a quiet street, mostly driven on by locals. The world had felt safe.

The assassination of President Kennedy had changed everything. She still sometimes thought of her childhood as Before and After. Following the death of the President, no one in America had felt safe from the Red Scare and up had gone the wall around the McGrath property. Not long after that, the gate had closed them in, created an oasis designed to shield the inhabitants from the ugliness of life.

As if bricks and mortar could protect a person.

Frankie drove through the open gate and followed the driveway into the four-car garage, where she parked beside her mother’s Cadillac. Her father’s silver gull-wing Mercedes was off to the left.

She realized too late—when she was nearly at the front door—that she’d forgotten her purse. Feeling unsteady, she walked back, retrieved her purse, got out her keys, and opened the front door.

It was 0400 hours. Quiet. Dark. A single lamp in the living room cast a little light, but otherwise the rooms lay in shadow. Frankie could have navigated this house blindfolded, so she didn’t bother with any lights. She walked into the living room, grabbed a bottle of booze and a glass from the bar, and carried them out to the patio.

Fired.

For saving a young man’s life.

What was going on in the world?

She needed to eat something. Why that came to mind, she had no idea.

She poured a glass of … vodka, apparently … and drank it fast and poured another.

She needed something to dim the pain, at least to give it a blunt edge.

She needed to get herself together. Her mind was a whirlwind: anger, fear, grief, sorrow. Every now and then she cried. Then she’d scream. Neither helped at all.

God help her, she missed Vietnam, missed who she’d been over there. She closed her eyes, tried to steady her breathing.

She heard footsteps. How long had she been out here, drinking and smoking and crying? And how could she still have tears to shed? It dawned on her suddenly that it was daylight. So she’d been out here for hours.

The lights flicked on.

Her father strode out onto the porch in his pajamas and monogrammed robe. He saw her and stopped. “What in the Sam Hill…?”

Mom came out behind him, still in her silk pajamas. “Frances? What happened? Are you okay?”

Frankie realized that she was still in her blood-splattered white nurse uniform. At some point, her cap had fallen off. There was blood all down her front, on her white pantyhose, on her shoes. “I saved a man’s life in the hospital tonight. Performed a tracheotomy.”

“You?” her father said, one eyebrow cocked in disbelief.

“Yes, Dad. Me.”

“We heard about the scene you caused at Becky’s party,” he said.

For a second, she didn’t know what he was talking about; yesterday afternoon felt like a lifetime ago. At the suddenness of the topic change, she stumbled into confusion, lost her sweeping anger. She didn’t want to disappoint them. Again. “I didn’t mean to cause a scene. It’s just—”

“Well, you did. No doubt the story will be all over the club by now. Connor McGrath’s daughter went to Vietnam and came home crazy.”

“Are you taking drugs?” Mom asked, twining her hands together.

“What? Drugs? No,” Frankie said. “It’s just the way people look at me when I say I was in ’Nam…”

“You exposed my fib about Florence,” Dad said.

“Fib?” Frankie couldn’t believe he’d said that. “Fib?”

She knew then what this was about, what it had always been about. His reputation. The man with his stupid heroes’ wall who knew nothing about heroism and lived in fear of that embarrassing truth being exposed. “If you don’t want to be seen as a liar, maybe you shouldn’t lie, Dad. Maybe you should be proud of me.”

“Proud? That you embarrass this family at every turn?”

“I went to war, Dad. War. I have been shot at in a Huey and lived through mortar attacks. I’ve had my ears ring for days when a bomb hit too close. But you don’t know anything about that, do you?”

He paled at that, clenched his jaw.

“Enough,” he said.

“You’re right,” she yelled back.

She pushed past him, headed to her bedroom before she could say something even worse.

The door to her father’s office was open. She saw all those pictures and mementos on the heroes’ wall, and without thinking, she went into the sacred space and started pulling the framed pictures off the wall, throwing them to the floor. She heard glass shatter.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Dad roared at her from the doorway.

“This,” she said. “Your heroes’ wall. It’s a big fat lie, isn’t it, Dad? You wouldn’t know a hero if one bit you in the ass. Believe me, Dad. I’ve seen heroes.”

“Your brother would be as ashamed of your behavior as we are,” Dad said.

Mom appeared in the doorway, threw Dad a pleading look. “Connor, don’t.”

“How dare you mention Finley?” Frankie said, her anger swooping back in. “You who got him killed. He went over there for you, to make you proud. I could tell him now not to bother, couldn’t I? Oh, but he’s dead.”

“Out,” her father said in barely above a whisper. “Get out of this house and stay out.”

“With pleasure,” Frankie hissed. She snagged the photograph of her brother and stormed out of the office.

“Leave that picture,” Dad said.

She turned around. “No way. He’s not staying in this toxic house. You got him killed, Dad. How do you live with that?”

She ran down to her bedroom, stuffed a few things in her overnight travel bag, grabbed her purse, and left the house.

Outside, she felt the sting of regret, and tears blurred her vision. Dear God, she was sick to death of crying. And of these mammoth mood swings. She shouldn’t have said that terrible thing to her father.

She threw her stuff in the backseat, along with the portrait of Finley, and climbed into the Bug, slamming the door shut behind her.

She knew she was driving on Ocean Boulevard too fast, but it couldn’t be helped. She couldn’t catch her breath. She felt like the last girl in a horror film, running for her life, but the danger wasn’t behind her, trying to catch up, it was inside her, trying to break out. She thought, if it gets out, something bad will happen. All this rage and hurt could destroy her if she didn’t bottle it up.

She reached over for her purse, felt around for her cigarettes in the mess inside.

The music blared through the small black speakers. “Light My Fire.” For a second she felt it all, the missing of herself, of Vietnam, of her lost loves. Tears blurred her eyes; she couldn’t lift her hand to wipe them away. She pressed her foot on the gas when she meant to ease off.

A flash of something.

Color.

A streetlight, a dog, darting in front of her.

She swerved and slammed on the brakes so hard, she was flung forward, cracked her head on the steering wheel.

Where was she?

She came to slowly, saw the crunched wreckage of the VW Bug’s hood.

She’d hit a streetlamp, gone up onto the curb.

She could have killed someone.

“Jesus,” she said, in both relief and prayer. Her whole body was shaking. She felt sick.

She couldn’t go on like this. She needed help.

And she couldn’t go back to her parents. Not yet, maybe not ever, after what she’d said to her father.

She put the Bug in reverse and backed up. The car clanged down onto the street.

A dog sat on the grass, watching her.

Frankie had never hated herself more than she did right now. She was hungry, brokenhearted, and drunk, and she’d gotten behind the wheel.

She parked the wrecked car on the side of the road and left her keys in it. In this neighborhood, the police would be alerted to its presence in no time. They’d call the registered owner, Connor McGrath, and he’d see it sitting here, broken.

She hoped it scared him. (Who had she become, that she wished pain on someone she loved?)

Slinging her bag and purse over her shoulder, she stumbled down the street.

It wasn’t until she boarded the ferry and saw how people stared at her that she realized she was still in her bloody white uniform.

She went into the bathroom and changed into jeans and a T-shirt. She had forgotten to pack shoes, so she left her blood-splattered white nurse shoes on.

On the mainland, she walked to the bus station. Every step took something out of her, made her feel smaller, more worthless, more lost.

More alone.

Who could help her?

There was only one place she could think of.

She boarded a city bus and exited a few miles later, then walked to the Veterans Administration Outpatient Clinic.

The offices were closed when she arrived. She sat on a bench out front, smoking one cigarette after another, waiting impatiently, reliving the bad things she’d said and seen and done over and over.

At 0830 hours, the lights in the building came on. Cars began to drive into the parking lot.

Frankie walked inside. A wide lobby funneled into a beige hallway. Men sat slumped in chairs that lined either wall, some of them younger, long-haired, wearing ratty clothes—fatigues with the sleeves cut off, denim jackets, torn T-shirts—and some were older men, probably veterans from Korea or World War II. A few walked back and forth.

She stopped at the front desk. “I’m … I need some help,” she said. “Something’s wrong.”

The woman behind the desk looked up. “What kind of help?”

Frankie touched her head, the new bruise that was forming. A headache made it hard to think. “I am…” Crazy. Unraveling. What? “My thoughts … I get angry and sad and … my boyfriend was just killed in action.”

The woman stared at her a moment, clearly confused. “Well. I mean. This is the VA.”

“Oh, right. I’m an Army Nurse Corps vet. Just back from ’Nam.”

The woman gave her a skeptical look. “Dr. Durfee is in his office. He doesn’t have an appointment until nine A.M. I guess you could—”

“Thanks.”

She sighed. “Two doors down. On the left.”

Frankie headed down the wide hallway, where more men sat on plastic seats beneath a framed portrait of Richard Nixon. Frankie saw posters and brochures offering different kinds of help to veterans: employment help, state benefits, education, and training.

At Dr. Durfee’s door, she stopped, took a deep breath, and knocked.

“Come in.”

She opened the door and stepped into a narrow, almost closet-small office. An old man—old enough to be her grandfather—sat behind a cluttered desk. Stacks of paper were on every surface in the room. A poster was tacked up on the wall behind him: a kitten hanging from one claw with the words HANG TOUGH.

The doctor peered at her through black-rimmed, Coke-bottle-thick glasses. What strands of hair he had left, he’d combed to one side and maybe sprayed in place. He wore a madras shirt, buttoned to his wattled neck. “Hello, young lady. Are you lost?”

Frankie smiled tiredly. It was such a relief to be here. To say, I need help, and receive it. “I am lost, but I’m in the right place. I probably should have come before now.”

His gaze narrowed, moved from her face, down her rumpled blouse and wrinkled jeans, to the red-splattered white shoes.

“The woman at the front desk said you had until nine. I can make an appointment, but I really need some help now, if you don’t mind.”

“Help?”

She sank into the chair in front of his desk. “I was in-country for two years. And my boyfriend was supposed to come home in April, but he was KIA, so what came was a we-regret-to-inform-you telegram. And the way people treat us. We can’t even say Vietnam. We went to serve our country and now they call us baby killers. My dad can’t look at me. At my job, I was fired for being too good even though I might have saved a young man’s life. And I, well, I can’t seem to get a handle on my emotions since I got back. I’m always either banshee-angry or bursting into tears. My dad is so ashamed, he said I went to Florence.” She said it all in a rush and felt exhausted afterward.

“Are you menstruating now?”

Frankie took a moment to process that. “I tell you that I’m having trouble after being in Vietnam, and that’s your question?”

“You were in Vietnam? There were no women in Vietnam, dear. Do you have thoughts of hurting yourself? Hurting others?”

Frankie got slowly to her feet. It felt nearly impossible to do so. “You won’t help me?”

“I’m here for veterans.”

“I am a veteran.”

“In combat?”

“Well. No. But—”

“See? So, you’ll be fine. Trust me. Go home. Go out with friends. Fall in love again. You’re young. Just forget about Vietnam.”

Just forget. It was what everyone recommended.

Why couldn’t she do it? The doctor was right. She hadn’t seen combat, hadn’t been wounded or tortured.

Why couldn’t she forget?

She turned and walked out of the office, past the men sitting in chairs along the wall, under the watchful eyes of President Nixon. In the lobby, she saw a pay phone and thought, Barb, and stopped.

She needed her best friend to talk her down from this ledge of despair.

She went to the phone, made a collect call.

Barb answered on the second ring. “Hello?”

“This is the operator. Will you accept a collect call from Frankie McGrath?”

“Yes,” Barb said quickly.

The operator clicked off the line.

“Frankie? What’s wrong?”

“I’m sorry. I know it’s expensive to call collect—”

“Frances. What’s wrong?”

“I … don’t know. But I’m in bad shape, Barb. I’m kind of falling apart here.” She tried to make herself laugh, to lighten it, and couldn’t. “My parents threw me out. I crashed my car. I was fired. And that was just the last twenty-four hours.”

“Oh, Frankie.”

The compassion in Barb’s voice was Frankie’s undoing. She started crying—pathetic—and couldn’t stop. “I need help.”

“Where are you?”

“At the useless VA.”

“Is there somewhere you could go?”

She couldn’t think. She was still crying.

Frankie.”

She wiped her eyes. “The Crystal Pier Cottages aren’t far away. Finley and I used to ride bikes on the pier…”

“Go. Get a room. Eat something. And don’t leave, okay? I’m on my way. You hear me?”

“It’s too expensive to fly, Barb—”

“Don’t leave, Frankie. Get a room at the Crystal Pier and stay there. I mean it.”


Someone was pounding on the door.

Frankie sat up, immediately felt sick to her stomach. An empty gin bottle lay on the carpet by the bed.

“Open the damn door, Frankie.”

Barb.

Frankie looked blearily around the cottage she’d rented, saw the empty gin bottle, an overflowing ashtray, empty potato chip bags.

No wonder she felt like hell.

She climbed out of bed and went to the door, unlocking it, letting it swing open.

Barb and Ethel stood there, side by side, both with worried looks on their faces.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” Frankie said. Her voice was hoarse. She’d been screaming in her sleep again.

Barb was the first to take Frankie in her arms. Ethel moved in beside them, wrapped her strong arms around both of them.

“I’d rather be in Pleiku,” Frankie said. “At least there I know when to put on my flak jacket. Here…”

“Yeah,” Barb said.

“I don’t know what to do, who I am now. Without the Army or Rye … my dad threw me out of the house. I just want … I don’t know … for someone to care that I’m home. That I went.”

“We care,” Ethel said. “That’s why we’re here. And we came up with a plan on the way here.”

Frankie pushed the damp, greasy bangs out of her face. “A plan for what?”

“Your future.”

“Do I get a say in it?” she asked sarcastically, but really she didn’t care. She just wanted her friends to save her.

“No,” Ethel said. “That was our first decision.”

“When your girl calls and says, I need help, you help. So don’t think you can change your mind now.”

Frankie nodded. Behind her friends, she saw a yellow cab idling at the curb.

“Get your stuff,” Barb said.

Frankie felt too crappy to argue or question and more relieved than she could say. She went into the bathroom, brushed her teeth and put on pants, then tossed her bloody nurse shoes in the trash and walked out barefoot.

“So, what am I doing to fix my life?” Frankie asked as the three of them walked to the waiting cab. Her girlfriends bookended her, stayed close, as if they were afraid she’d bolt.

Frankie tossed her overnight bag into the car, then slid into the backseat, with Barb on one side and Ethel on the other.

“Train station,” Ethel said to the driver. At the same time Barb said, “We checked you out of the motel, Frankie, so sit tight.”

The taxi drove back down the pier, tires bumping over the rough wood.

“Where are we going?” Frankie asked.

“My dad’s farm near Charlottesville,” Ethel said. “You two are moving into the bunkhouse. We’ll remodel it ourselves. Give us a legit reason to hit things. I’m going to finish school. Barb joined that new organization. Vietnam Veterans Against the War.”

Frankie turned. “You’re against the war now?”

“It’s got to stop, Frankie. I don’t know if this can help, and I sure as hell don’t want to be a part of some privileged white kids picketing something they know nothing about. But this—the VVAW—is about us having a voice. The veterans. Don’t you think someone should listen to us?”

Frankie didn’t know how she felt about that. “And me. What have you two decided on for me?”

“That’s what we’re giving you,” Ethel said, “time to figure it out.”

If Frankie hadn’t been so sick of crying, so emptied out, she would have cried. Thank God for girlfriends. In this crazy, chaotic, divided world that was run by men, you could count on the women.

“This bunkhouse,” Frankie said. “Is there indoor plumbing?”

Ethel’s face transformed with a smile, revealing how nervous she’d been that Frankie would say no to this bold plan. “Why? You too good for a latrine, Lieutenant?”

Frankie smiled for the first time in … how long? She didn’t even know. “No, ma’am. With you two at my side, I can live in practically anything.”

Barb held out her hand. The three put their hands together. “Enough bad memories,” she said solemnly. “We won’t ever forget, God knows, but we move forward. Away from Vietnam. Into the future.”

It felt solemn and important and suddenly possible. Frankie thought: I won’t talk about it anymore. I will forget. Soldier on.

“Away,” they said in one voice.

They stopped only long enough to get Frankie a new pair of shoes.

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