The Gates of Babylon

CHAPTERS 1-3 | THE GATES OF BABYLON

-Part One-

 

"One must still have chaos in one, to give birth to a dancing star."

…Nietzsche


The overloaded helicopter lumbers like a wounded pheasant above the U.S. Embassy roof in Saigon, beating its battered wings against the blood red sky, fighting for altitude. As it hovers precariously over the edge of the reverberating roof, Ethan Connelly takes one last look down at the terrified crowd below, and for one brief second, he thinks he sees Phan's black pearl eyes flashing in the merciless sun, her tiny body crushed beneath the suicidal flood of petrified refugees. ARVN soldiers are trampling each other to death and throwing their children over the barbed wire that's strung across the chain link fence, trying get them inside the Embassy and out of Saigon before the first NVA T-54 tank comes rumbling down Tu Do Street and crashes through the Presidential Palace gates.

Ethan knows the decision he is about to make will change his life forever but he can't leave Phan out there alone. He misses and loves his beloved daughter Sophie more than oxygen, but his decision has been made. Phan will never make it out of Saigon alive in the condition she's in. He has to go back for her.

Grabbing his pack he takes a literal leap of faith and jumps from the struggling CH-46 Sea Knight chopper onto the helo pad roof, then ducks as it shudders violently and crashes to the concrete parking lot below, killing nearly everyone on board. But there's no time to grieve. NVA 122-mm and 130-mm rockets are pouring down on the outskirts of the city, and AK-47 fire has already turned the Embassy flag into a filthy useless rag. Spiraling plumes of greasy acid smoke roll across the early morning mist like a grimy curtain of dirty green rain. The war may be over for some, but for Ethan, it will never be over.

Racing down the ladder, he claws his way through the screeching panic-stricken crowd but he can't find Phan anywhere.  He isn't even certain anymore if it had been her he'd actually seen.  He has no idea where he's going or what he's doing here.  All he knows for sure is that he's not going home:  Not without Phan.

It had all been there in a look she'd given him the day they'd first met. She'd been standing beside his desk at the Psychological Operations office in Đức Phổ where they'd both worked, a look that said, "Ok, here’s the key to my heart, do what you want with it." But in spite of the unmistakable intelligence and strength hiding in her green and amber flecked eyes, the look she'd given him that day reminded him of the ones he'd seen on the faces of wounded soldiers who believed that any day now they'd most likely be going home in a box. But there was something else in there too, the kind of ferocity you see in the eyes of nocturnal animals that live in the remote shadows of an inaccessible jungle. And it had all been there in that one glance she'd given him. That's how seductive and utterly without fear she was back then, and yet how open and vulnerable she was too. It had been a mistake to think he could leave her behind, but he'd known all along somehow that she wouldn't be going with him. Vietnam is the only home she's ever known, and if he's ever going to find her, he'd better damned well hurry before the VC, the NVA, or the blood thirsty barbarians of Lt. Calley's Charlie Company platoon do.

 

***

 

A psychotic person is drowning in the very same things that a mystic swims in."

…Pema Chodron, Buddhist writer and teacher.

 

 

The first time Ethan sees Sara she's standing barefoot in her mother's bed of prize winning, champagne gold begonias, giving him the finger. He has no idea why she's doing that. Perhaps it's a pre-emptive strike of some sort to ward off what she will eventually come to fear most in him; it's hard to tell. But there she is, knee deep in black bottom land mud on her parents' farm in Iowa, completely impervious to the fact that her and Ethan's life together is about to become a perverse Twilight Zone version of Longfellow's Evangeline on acid, only hopefully with a happier ending. Unfortunately, it doesn't take long for that pipe dream to go up in smoke.

It's late when Ethan and Sara stop off in a back water college dive in downtown Grinnell to celebrate their recent engagement. Sara wastes little time popping the top two buttons on her silky sheer peekaboo blouse and parading around like a trained seal in a tutu, sponging drinks off the other drunks. In the unflattering blur of mint green neon light, she doesn't look all that pretty really, but for some reason Ethan can't take his eyes off of her. Nobody can. Half the men in the place are gawking at her as if they were race car fans at the Indianapolis 500, half expecting her to spin out of control, smash into a wall and explode into a fiery red molten ball of bloody glass and shattered steel any second now. They can't help it. That's how combustible, and how dangerously fragile, she looks ...and always has.

It must be those wild Icelandic eyes of hers, Ethan's thinking. Smoky blue Nordic sky eyes, rimmed with slivers of blinding light exploding in a sea of shimmering aqua sparks. You can lose yourself in eyes like those and never find your way home. And with the war and the draft looming up ahead, Ethan is lost: As lost as he's ever been. He knows Sara had seen him standing there by the jukebox, but even after all they'd meant to each other, and after everything they'd been through together, he could be anybody: A car salesman, a movie star, a murderer a rapist, it wouldn't matter. She'd still ignore him.

Just when he thinks he's lost sight of her, he sees her firing daggers at him from across the gauzy darkness. She'd accused him of a thousand things, some as mysterious and vague as the reasons why he'd agreed to marry her, and it was that kind of look she's giving him now. It's hard to tell exactly when Sara's grip on reality had gone missing. He knows she's been watching him at the bar all night, scanning the dank and crowded room as if peering through a star light scope, searching in vain for some distant planet nobody's even bothered to name yet. But when he turns around and takes his first hard look into the demented face of that green eyed monster hiding behind her eyes, the one he'd always thought had been nothing more than a figure of speech, he swears to God it's staring right back at him in such deranged fury that he's certain it's in charge now, and that she's really gone and won't be coming back anytime soon. Just like that. Gone.

It was just a kiss. And Sara knows that's all it was. A simple, drunken kiss in a bar on a street in a one horse country town in the middle of nowhere. Ethan had never even seen the girl coming. She just staggered blitzed out of the sizzling, neon fog, stood on the toes of her cherry red high heels, and kissed him long and hard, right smack on the mouth. And that's all it took. A college girl he'd never even seen before and whose name he still can't remember. April, he thinks it was. Things were never the same after that.

As bad as Sara's reaction was to that non-event, it's nothing compared to the first time she'd told him she was leaving him for good and then jumped in his old green Hudson beater and stompd off into the bitter face of a cold, early spring downpour, fuming as she huffed off down the road with the tailpipe dragging along behind in the dirt, only to reluctantly return precisely at dinner time, drenched and hungry, just like the spoiled little brat she'd always been. Looking back, in light of everything that happened next, it may have been best for everybody had she stayed gone,

For the life of him Ethan can't recall what it was about Sara that had always driven men so crazy. None of the boys in high school even noticed whether or not she had a pretty face until the principal forced her to wear underpants to school and they discovered she even had a face.

She must have kissed a hundred besotted horny toads by then, flirting unmercifully with them until their blood boiled over and their overinflated organs nearly blew through their zippers as they watched her sashay off down the dusty road to virginal bliss in a spellbinding state of perplexing grace. She was the blond Madonna back then, "Little Sara of God", they called her, preaching the gospel of chastity to any sex starved sucker willing to keep his family jewels in his pants long enough to listen.

Ethan recalls one particularly hot and sticky, July afternoon, after spending the day in town playing hooky from high school, he'd been cutting across a sweeping golden field of sunflowers on the bluff overlooking the Iowa River and accidentally stumbled across Sara practicing her cheerleader moves all by herself...completely nude. After working up a glowing, honey scented sweat, she somersaulted across the swaying fields of alfalfa and performed a perfectly executed swan dive dead center in her daddy Frank's algae-coated cattle tank, and skinny dipped away another broiling summer day. Immobilized by some kind of fevered coma, it was all Ethan could do to keep the zipper on his Wranglers from exploding.

As the wicked Iowa sun suddenly ran for cover in the face of a nasty dry lightening storm that slithered its way across the wavering green rows of corn, Sara saddled up her lucky bastard of a sway backed, calico quarter horse, and before Ethan could regain his composure and make his move, she'd already galloped west for home into the violet twilight, still buck assed naked, with her pretty pink dress draped across the horn, giving a whole new meaning to the term "bare back riding". Who knew what possessed her to do that, but good God she was a sight to see.

Ethan's cow trash, dick head friends had no qualms about standing in line three or four deep, begging for one minute of Sara's attention, but not one of them had the nerve to go out with her sober. And, when any of them did finally get tanked up enough on Ripple, Sloe Gin, or Schlitz Malt Liquor to ask her for a date, she always went. So Ethan figured, what the hell, he's just as big a drunk as those other juiced up boozer losers, why not him? 

That very next day, after he gotten his bad self so hammered on Old Granddad that he couldn't pee his own name in the dirt, he finally asked her out for a second date, and damned if she didn't say yes. "Why not?" she slurred, a bit tipsy from her first screwdriver of the morning, her wet, slightly parted lips dripping with molasses, "I've gone out with every other sex-crazed dip shit in this town, and you are rather cute -I may as well give you a twirl?"  Couldn't say that did much for his ego, but what the hell did he care? He had a date with the one and only "Little Sara of God".

He knew the odds against any chance a tractor trash reprobate like him had with a drop dead stunner, but perilously high maintenance, pop tart teen queen like Sara were staggering at best, but even a blind pig can smell a truffle if he gets his nose close enough to it. It isn't easy careening off a dozen Iowa state fair champion, blue ribbon Charolais bulls trying to find the entrance to her ludicrously rich daddy Frank's newly paved driveway but, once he did, after wobbling up the flagstone pathway to the door of the six million dollar monstrosity Frank called a house, he guided the already hammered Sara precariously back down the driveway to his still smoking, John Deere green Hudson and drove off towards the Promised Land, as proud as a strutting peacock in heat, feeling like he'd just robbed the First National Trust and gotten away clean. He should have known better, and would live to regret it, but he really hadn’t been using the correct organ to think with for quite some time now.

Unfortunately, by the time the Drive-in picture show was half finished and he'd finally worked up the nerve to start grappling around in the dark for something a bit more titillating than Sara's boobs to play with, pardon the expression, she rammed her bubble gum down his throat with her tongue, squashed out her Salem on his brand new, blue vinyl seat covers, straightened her new Playtex brassiere, and sailed off out of that car in a glorious cloud of elegant indignation, letting her half buttoned blouse and her snow white slip flutter up from under her pink pooch skirt like a freshly laundered bed sheet in the wind, leaving Ethan behind in her dirty blond wake to sit there and stew in his own stink until he cooled down.  What the hell? The ultimate heart break machine: a temperamental tease, an emotionally unbalanced ice queen, AND a born-again virgin to boot. What in God's name could he have possibly been thinking?

Having properly chastised him in front of about a hundred or so of his popcorn chomping high school classmates, all of whom had been guffawing hysterically while witnessing his public degradation and shame, Sara made her triumphant return to the scene of the crime after her lurid little stroll to the snack bar, and Ethan could only cringe when she cranked up her most innocent Sandra Dee impression, squinched up her sugar soaked, bumble bee lips, and cooed sweetly in his ear: "I thought you were different from those other boys but I've decided to forgive you anyway." 

Ethan was still boiling over in a bubbling pool of chaste bewilderment when Sara tucked her steamy little self right tight up against his throbbing organ and calmly resumed watching whatever the hell damned movie they'd gone to see in the first place, as if nothing whatsoever had just happened. 

It took suffering through most of the rest of high school with a ravaging case of blue balls to get it done, but after all that time, there he sat, the last of the all-day suckers, watching Sara float off across the surging ocean of forest green soybeans with nothing on but the Des Moines weather report and a pair of pink lace panties, giving the shell shocked milk cows an early morning peep show.  Imagine his surprise when he found her the next morning in the barn milking those bewildered beasts in nothing but a beat to shit cowboy hat and a lascivious grin. Who knew where he'd gone so right? The fact that he was about the only straight guy left in town who had been willing to put his incendiary sexual fantasies on simmer long enough to wear her down wasn't lost on him but, still, a win is a win. Hell, he only asked her to marry him on a dare. Who knew she'd say yes?

As for her Lady Godiva complex? well, he didn't really know what that was all about, but it sure saved her a shit load of money on clothes. And, as painful as the wait had been, finding a knee buckling nympho hidden beneath all that frothy Icelandic frosting may have been worth the agony after all. Or so he'd thought at the time.

Nobody but Sara knew that she'd been pregnant when she'd agreed to marry Ethan, but the signs were there. During the Hee Haw themed engagement party that her parents had thrown for them at their country estate, she performed a spectacular header right in front of her daddy Frank and threw up on his three hundred dollar Ferragamo shoes, and then popped right back up again like a demented Jack in the Box and grinned obliviously from ear to ear. And for the first time since deciding to hate Ethan's guts for no particular reason other than the fact his farmer father Morgan wasn't as rich as he was and hadn't come from hybrid Nordic stock, had began to wonder if giving his daughter away wasn't such a bad idea after all.

You'd think somebody might want to share something as important as being pregnant with you, but that had never been Sara's style. It would be a long time before she finally announced the blessed news. She knew Ethan adored kids and it seemed inconceivable that she wouldn’t want him to know about her being pregnant with one. But she'd always kept things like that to herself and, after all, why take the chance? Better lock up the deal first, THEN spring the big surprise. Apparently, Sara's fury with Ethan for not doing more to avoid the draft knew no bounds. And little did Ethan know how high the price of his naked romp through Wonderland with a gin guzzling, borderline schizo sexpot was about to get.

 

***

"My wife's jealousy is getting ridiculous. The other day she looked at my calendar and
wanted to know who May was."

...Rodney Dangerfield

 

It was a month after Ethan and Sara had gotten engaged that Ethan received word that he'd been accepted into the Graduate Journalism Program at the University of Iowa on a full-ride academic scholarship. He saw no way he could turn it down in spite of the fact Sara had announced that she'd rather wear white after Labor Day than set foot anywhere near the "hippie disease incubator" she called Iowa City.

Slurring her words after her second vodka and tonic of the morning, having found out just last night that he'd already accepted the scholarship, Sara practically screamed at him, "How dare you, without consulting me first."

Unfortunately, school started in a week and there wasn't a whole hell of a lot she could do about her new husband's decision. Stamping her feet so hard her one of her two hundred dollar pair of shoes fell off, she screeched:

"Don’t expect me to live with you out there! You KNOW I hate that fruits and nuts munching, commie pig sty. A bunch of left wing liberals, Buddhists, tie dyed Hippie fornicators, and nudists, that's all they've got out there. Who needs that shit? Those people don’t even wash! How could you do this to me?"

So much for peace, love, and understanding. Welcome to the other side of the sixties.

Ethan had always dreamed of studying grad level journalism after laboring through mostly history, political science, economics, journalism, creative writing, Greek Mythology, and Far Eastern Studies as an undergrad, and of course, staying in school is one hell of a way to avoid the draft for awhile longer; hopefully until somebody puts a stop to the ludicrous fiasco they've got going over there.

Apparently, once Sara saw the upside in Ethan avoiding the draft, she calmed down. After all, the baby will need a father, at least when she and her gal pals go to town to get their hair and nails done so they can go shopping in style at Merle Hay Mall. She'd planned on telling him about her being pregnant over a preposterously expensive bottle of 1966, Château Latour Pauillac that her profanely wealthy mother had bought them for an engagement gift. But because she was still fuming about having to keep the motivation behind her upcoming shotgun wedding a secret, she decided to save sharing the little catastrophe with him until till she'd calmed her nerves, which, if her track record on the psychosexual battle front was any indication, could take years.

Ethan could avoid the draft for awhile longer if he wanted to but, in time, he just stopped fighting it. What was the point really, other than prolonging the inevitable? He'd already thrown away four good years, stumbling around after his undergraduate degree, and what good would going to Grad School achieve in the end? The war could turn even uglier by then, as if that was even possible, judging by the way the politicians had gutted any chances they've ever had of winning the thing -assuming they ever really thought they could. He could hear the draft board hissing behind the writing on the wall like rats as big as alley cats; and they knew where he lived. He could smell them, crawling around behind the furniture at night, getting ready to pounce, holding their breath as their puke green eyes glare impatiently at the photograph of him in his personnel file as if it was the carcass of a half eaten chunk of limburger cheese. How anyone could even think about going to class while their brothers, friends, and fathers were coming home every night in body bags on the five o'clock news was beyond even his Technicolor imagination. So he stopped buying books for his classes, and started gagging down sloe gin fizz before breakfast, vomiting, inhaling a six pack of Schlitz for lunch, vomiting, knocking back three dirty martinis and a six pack of Hamms for dinner, taking a couple drags on a ditch weed joint before bed to take the edge off the hallucinations, and slipping off to Dreamland, a decomposing skeleton clattering away inside the man he used to be -his decision made. There would be no need for a Master's degree where he's going and he couldn't see the point of hiding from the draft board for one more day.

It was a scorching broiler of a summer morning when, rather than wait for the hammer to fall, Ethan packed up what few belongings he had, gassed up his rolling green time bomb on wheels, and rolled north into the suffocating wall of doom waiting for him up ahead, having blown his full ride academic scholarship in the grand total of three weeks.

Once he got home, it didn't take long for Uncle Sam to find him. His draft notice came wrapped suspiciously in a spineless, plain brown envelope coiled up like a porno tape in the mailbox...not that there's anything wrong with that. After falling into a swan dive so deep and dark only the devil himself would be proud of how far down he'd finally fallen, he told himself, "Why share something this disturbing with someone as emotionally overwrought as Sara on such a pretty summer night, right? It might give her the vapors and spoil the mood. Best save it for later."

The muggy, bug-splattered August sunlight had already sucked the breath right out of everybody, and after Ethan, Sara, Ethan's little sister Suki, and her Jumpin' Jack Flash boyfriend, R.J. unglued their butts from their blistering metal lawn chairs, they stomped out their hissing roaches in the dew soaked grass and headed for the Illinois line on their way to a roadhouse called "The Lakes", where they still served booze on Sunday. And in the light of a fake blue moon they danced, twirling in slow motion under a tent in the rain to a mediocre junior college cover band that was busy butchering the Box Tops' hit, "My Baby, She Wrote Me a Letter."

The steam that dripped off the canvas roof had already soaked through Ethan's faded blue, sweat stained Wrangler shirt as he began to sway drunkenly back and forth on rubber legs, welded to Sara, he figured that he'd best just get it over with and duck. So he cranked up his courage and blurted: "I got my notice today, Sara, I got drafted."

Good God, by the way Sara nailed him with that Bambi-in-the-headlights look you'd have thought he'd shot that poor girl right between the eyes with a Winchester .44. That hadn't exactly been what she'd wanted to hear right about then, not with the baby due soon and all, but what else could he have done? Is there ever a good time to tell somebody as high strung and temperamental as Sara something as disturbing as that? Little did Ethan know what Sara's eyes were telling him: "So who's going to watch our little angel Buffy, when me and my teen queen buddies go to Des Moines to hit the sale racks at Younkers? hmmm?"

The inside of the car on the ride home was a rolling torture chamber on wheels. Suki and R.J., who had a real sweet disposition for a juiced up speed-freak, were in the back seat, bellowing out a medley of hits like, "You Keep Me Hangin' On", "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay" and "In A-Gadda-da-Vida" at the top of their lungs, oblivious to the furious devastation exploding inside the veins around Sara's tear streaked blue eyes. Just a winter ago she'd been a pretty little knock-kneed heart breaker, making snow angels southeast of the barn, but now, over night, she wasn't butter melting in his fingers anymore. Instead, she'd turned into a frightened and bewildered, young woman with tear-soaked skin and uncontrollable, God given blond hair that tumbled down her too-pretty face in a tangled mess of curls as soft as hybrid corn silk. Sailing off across a shuddering, sweet green wave of feed corn she fumed, hunched up inside her yellow summer dress, sitting about a mile away from Ethan in the shotgun seat of his blue Studebaker Champion. And while Suki and R.J. continuted to suck on a joint and giggle away in the back seat, mercifully distracting Sara from burrowing her fingers any deeper into Ethan's thigh, she leaned in tight against him and growled, low and raspy as an old beggar woman: "Do you seriously think I'm going to let you just leave me and get yourself killed by some doped up, anorexic, VC pothead over a stupid chess theory while I sit here alone and rot away in the middle of corn pone frigging Iowa of all places?

Unwisely he corrects her, "I think you mean 'Domino Theory'."

"Domino theory, chess theory, Par fucking Cheesi theory, whatever. Is there nothing you won't do to get away from me? There are other choices you can make. You don't HAVE to go play soldier if you don't want to. Haven't you ever heard of Canada? It's a country just north of here, Mr. Smarty Pants."

"Yeah, well, I've heard of Canada, but I think I'm going to have to go into the Army. I'm guessing that's why they call it, 'the draft'."

That probably wasn't the smartest thing he could have said to Sara right about then, considering her mother-of-all borderline psychotic abandonment issue and all, and with no warning, she sucker punched him with a quick upper cut to the chin. While while his eyes bounced around in his head like two ball bearings in a glass bottle, he tried in vain to figure out why SHE was the one that was so mad when it seemed to him that maybe HE was the one that might feel a bit perturbed about going over there to the rice paddies of Southeast Asia to get his nuts shot off for no discernable reason. But as Sara's eyes clicked off and on like a short circuiting, neon motel sign, she flashed through her options at the speed of light. Disregarding all but one, she hissed under her breath: "Why don't I just shoot your sorry ass right now and save you the trip? I'll pop a cap in your back, dig a hole out back of the barn, toss you in, throw a shovel full of dirt on you, and call it a day. Then the rest of us can have a nice funeral with hymns and speeches, and everybody can lie their fat, corn fed asses off about how wonderful you were, and afterwards, we can have ourselves a nice lunch on the church lawn with all the fixins. Turkey, giblets, gravy, deviled eggs, three bean salad, ham and beans, lamb chops, and all that corn ball country shit. Save us all from having to hear about you going over there to that fried rice bowl and getting your butt blown off for no Goddamned good enough reason and leaving me here by myself to broil in this Godforsaken, grasshopper infested hell hole. ALONE!"

By the time Sara's anger subsided and they got back to the farm, the night turned suddenly cool, waking them all up from some wide eyed slumber they never saw coming. Stumbling out of the car, they trudged in single file along the gravel walkway up to their sprawling white farm house as if they had all been bruised and beaten, and then collapsed into a flash frozen silence they wouldn't wake up from for years.

The sneaky, blue, morning haze glowed fuzzy and cruel as it streaked through the spruce trees and climbed up over the back water trough that oozed out of the polluted Iowa River. Like an exhausted fawn with an arrow in its heart, Sara rested her head against Ethan's shoulder and in a pained whisper moaned: "I've been saving up something very special to tell you tonight, but I guess it'll just have to wait."

Ethan didnt like the sound of that one bit, and then, suddenly, it dawned on him that something monumentally important had just happened, and that he'd missed it. Sara never mentioned it again that night, and with Sara, there was no going back. Ever. He'd always been able to see the signs but he never could read them. It could ahve been the vagueness that curled itself around the corners of her mouth or the ice that formed along the edges of the lines beneath her dazzling eyes, or the blood that surged beneath her fingernails from squeezing her fists so hard when she'd let fly with one of her patented jealous rants, it was hard to tell. Maybe it was something he'd done or said, or it could have been the stabbing flash of a memory of some Dubuque cheerleader whose name she thought he'd mumbled in his sleep. It didn't matter. Truth or a lie, it was all the same to Sara, and when Ethan glanced over at her, he swore he could see real bombs exploding and real tanks rolling off across the imaginary border she's erected between the two of them. She hid inside her clammy dress, cold and stiff as if she'd been hit, a wounded soldier embattled in her own private war, and then she started to cry, slow and steady, huddled up against her anger as she stared at Ethan through the water logged evening light, deserted again, believing that he was about to leave her for dead, her exhausted body sticking to a couch that seemed to have turned suddenly into a coffin. Then she glared without blinking at the imaginary enemy she had always thought he keeps hidden behind his blazing blue eyes, but it stared right back, mocking her. But in spite of everything, the spoiled fearless little resistance fighter in her would not back down, and right before she finally drifted off to sleep, apparently sensing intuitively the devastation coming her way, she said to nobody in particular, "Damn you, don't you know by now? Paris will never fall!" But in her heart she knew that, sooner or later, Paris was going down.

Ethan shuddered, musing to himself: "My God, it's Zelda Fitzgerald incarnate come back from the dead, only in this version of the Great Gatsby, there's no green light at the end of the pier and no cucumber finger sandwiches with the crusts cut off at the Country Club."

Ethan had no idea then, just how important what Sara had wanted to tell him that night would turn out to be. Or how long it would eventually take for her to tell him what it was she'd wanted to say to him that night. But like so many other of her secrets, she just packed it away like a priceless heirloom and stashed it carelessly away in the attic in the back of her mind, which was so crammed full of perplexing junk by then, it would take a miracle for her to find anything worth saving in there.

The Greyhound bus came early and there was no Sara to say goodbye to. Having lost his parents in a head on car crash a winter ago, the only person to see him off was his mother's twin sister Lillian, who twirled her white, plastic purse like a baton around her nervous, fluttering fingers and trembled as she watched her only nephew drive away, as if she knew somehow, he wasn't coming back. And try as she might, she couldn't think of one thing to say about it that would make any difference.