Val fancied she presented quite a picture. She was a very young woman in extremely tight jeans, a shirt and leather jacket, not to mention pointy-toed boots.
Valley had carefully envisioned today’s “scene.” The way she would walk purposefully to the wall, half spiky hair and half not-so-spiky hair, and leave behind the rose she held. A thorny rose, and she just hadn’t been able to decide what to do with the hair yet, okay? She’d get around to deciding. Val hoped she looked sufficiently dignified. Better hurry.
Val was anxious to get back to the friends with whom she’d taken her graduation trip. Skye, Ian, Uriah, Starr, Quinn, and Dawn—Val liked to laugh along with her friends about the names their parents had chosen a full generation ago.
Val had no explanation, though, for why she’d put this trip to the Memorial off until her last afternoon in D.C. She just hadn’t wanted to give in to doing something so proper she’d told herself, and besides, she also hadn’t wanted her friends in her face about the whole thing afterward. Also, Val was adamant on this point—it wasn’t as if she hadn’t had a father.
Val had always had Stu, her mother’s second husband, for as far back as Val could remember. Indeed, since Val had been only a toddler according to her mother. Besides, Valley swore today, as she had sworn on any other day that the subject came up, she just wearied of hearing about Vietnam. Invariably if the subject was brought up in class, Val felt as if the other students were turning in their seats to stare, or studiously not stare at her, as the case may be.
Val also always admitted to herself and the best of her friends that often she felt guilty because she just didn’t remember her father or even the war at all really, but did these people her Mom or Stu’s age have memories of anything else? Sometimes it didn’t seem so to her, not to mention all the buttons, banners, and bumper stickers they kept around as mementos to litter her life.
However, Val had also determined that she absolutely did not want to face the concern of her mother once she returned home either, having actually avoided a visit to “the Wall.” After all, this visit was one reason her mother and Stu had even consented to her trip to D.C. A trip to this particular city wouldn’t, after all, just be a graduation present after all was said and done, or so Val had heard them reason. Also then, she’d heard that her parents were also worried about what it was she was now going to do with her life, or even whether she’d ever really “grow up” at all!
Val steadied herself. She held her red rose erect. Hard-hearted Val, indeed. Valley lifted her chin rather proudly now to think that this was what her friends called her. She fancied her image like that of a movie or a rock star. Tough.
Valley braved the tourists to wade through the late afternoon sun. The sky overhead was a deepening blue. Val felt her skin respond to the darkness first as she followed the wall’s curve. The black stone rose gently to her chest, then up over her shoulders. Val was shocked at the number of names. Grass rose over her head then.
There were Davids, more than one Jeffrey, the Marshalls, a Juan and an Abraham, a Daniel and a Thaddeus. Valley tried to kid with herself. Valley or Thaddeus—which was the stranger sounding name taken from some earlier ancestor type?
All the names on the Wall seemed so fragilely etched into the stone with the edge of a knife. Kid as she might, Val could not keep her eyes from scanning quickly, nervously ahead. There, there, no. There, no. Here. Val stood rooted. Her stomach sank, though she felt at the same time, oddly lightheaded. Breathless.
Valley shaded the name much like her own, hurriedly, clumsily with a pencil and paper as she had promised her mother she would. Had Dad, just one of the guys, known when death was coming, Val worried now. Had her father cared about dying like a hero, or had he been just another teenager, much like herself, who’d “landed” somewhere?
Valley suddenly felt the rush of being crushed to her mother’s breasts. The sweet smell of powder. Valley as if buried as her mother told her bedtime stories, and Val, the little girl, had been unable to breathe. What with all the stories of wild cats, monkeys, poisonous snakes, of leeches and strange birds, Valley’s father had been lost in the jungle, Momma had tried to explain. Lost and gone from them forever.
Her father’s letters had described a darkness that dropped down like midnight, a river delta nothing like a mountain or the rolling hills of home. No, the letters Momma had read to Valley spoke of a jungle grown so dark, so wet, and so heavy that nothing, but then ever-so-slowly every single living thing—every leaf, every vine, and every sharp blade of grass seemed to crouch. Seemed to move. A horn honked!
Lots of horns honked. Rush hour, here in Washington, D.C., Val remembered then what had lain beyond clear memory. Val remembered she had lain as if frozen on her bed at night. Frozen with her animals packed all around her—stuffed elephants, monkeys, bears, giraffes, a tiger, a lion, and a lamb. Don’t move or you’ll be eaten! The whispers and warnings of a jungle crept up all around her. Don’t move. Be still. Don’t move. You might get shot! Stabbed! Her mother’s strangled sobs had rained down again and again from another room.
Valley became aware, today, of her own blood red fingernails. Her fingernails dug deep in to the shallow depth of her father’s name. Val woke to the cold of the wall at her face, the green grass and deepening sky overhead. Night coming, Valley hurtled outward.
The nation’s capital was not home. Skyscrapers created dark shadows that cut directly down across her line of vision, and Val was in a hurry to find the comfort of her friends again. She’d been warned also, had she not, that “gangs” roamed these particular streets? Who knew what enemy lurked in the stair well over there, what stranger might at any moment jump her from behind? What if some sort of sniper or serial killer crept down the alleys or across the roofs of these steep, still buildings?
Val gripped at her sheet of paper. She discovered she’d forgotten to leave the rose and so now tore at the bud with her nails, red petals spilling over the hard toes of her boots. He loves me, he loves me not, my mother swears he would have loved me….
“He” had been merely a nagging absence before. Now her father had become suddenly a presence, a circling black hole at the center of Val’s body, a gaping wound filling and then running over with sorrow. Val rubbed stubbornly, doggedly at the tears that threatened to cloud her vision, the pent-up emotion that made it so that she could not now see where to turn next!
Suddenly the ground lights came on, and it was as if a path opened up before her. Valley could remember. She listened to a voice like gravel from inside. The voice of one who held out his hands and encouraged his child to walk.