September was the best month on the island. The crowds were gone, the beaches empty, the ocean still warm. No need for restaurant reservations. After Labor Day, the politicians had all returned to D.C., the left-wing Hollywood/media types to L.A. and New York. Also gone were the smug, privileged frat boys, many of whom imagined themselves Democrats but who in the fullness of time would become mainstream Republicans. Half of Lincoln’s Las Vegas agency—or what was left of it after the Great Recession—was made up of Sigma Chis who’d been long-haired pot smokers and war protesters in the sixties and seventies. Now they were hard-line conservatives, or anyway harder than Lincoln. These days, a lifelong Republican himself, Lincoln had a difficult time finding comfort anywhere on the political spectrum. Voting for Hillary was out of the question, but if not her, then who? A baker’s dozen of GOP candidates were still in the race—some legitimately stupid, others acting like it—at least through Iowa. So Kasich, maybe. Bland wouldn’t be so bad. Think Eisenhower.
Anyway, a relief to shelve politics for a few days. Lincoln had little doubt that Teddy, who would arrive tomorrow, was still a raging lib, though there was no way of telling whether he’d be in the Clinton or the Sanders camp. Mickey? Did he even vote? Probably not a bad idea to give Vietnam a conversational miss, as well. The war had been over for decades, except not really, not for men of their age. It had been their war, whether or not they’d served. Though his memory was increasingly porous these days, Lincoln still remembered that evening back in 1969 when all the hashers had gathered in the back room of the Theta house to watch the draft lottery on a tiny black-and-white TV someone had brought in for the occasion. Had they asked permission to watch on the big TV in the front room? Probably not. The social boundaries of sororities, like so much else in the culture, had started eroding, as evidenced by their regular Friday afternoon hasher parties, but they could still crop up unexpectedly. Hashers still entered the house through the rear. Anyway, the draft wasn’t about the Thetas, it was about Lincoln and Teddy and Mickey and the others. Eight young men whose fortunes that night hung in the balance. A couple were dating Thetas, as Lincoln would the following year with Anita, and planned to see them later in the evening, but they’d watch the lottery on the crappy little set in the back room, not the big color one in the front room, because they belonged there, as did the war itself.
They’d made a party of it, everybody chipping in for a case of beer—strictly against the rules, but Cook wouldn’t squeal, not that night. The rule was that you couldn’t start drinking until your birthday had been drawn and you knew your fate. Mickey’s came first, shockingly early. Number 9. How was it that Lincoln could recall this detail, when time had relegated so much else to memory’s dustbin? He remembered, too, how his friend had risen to his feet, his arms raised like a victorious boxer, as if he’d been hoping for precisely this eventuality. Going over to the aluminum tub, he’d pulled a beer out of the ice, popped the top and chugged half of it. Then, wiping his mouth on his sleeve, he’d grinned and said, “You boys must be feeling pretty dry in the mouth right about now.” The other thing Lincoln recalled was glancing over at Teddy and seeing that all the blood had drained out of his face.
Absent from these vivid memories, though, was how he’d comported himself. Had he joined the others in serenading Mickey with the Canadian national anthem? Had he laughed at the god-awful jokes (“Been nice knowin’ ya, Mick”)? He had a dim, perhaps false, memory of taking Mickey aside at some point and saying, “Hey, man, it’s a long way off.” Because even those who’d drawn low numbers probably wouldn’t hear from their draft boards for months, and college students were allowed to finish that academic year. Most juniors in good standing—as Lincoln, Teddy and Mickey were—would get one-year deferments to complete their degrees before reporting for duty. Maybe by then the war would be over or, failing that, winding down.
Later that evening Lincoln called home, hoping his mother would answer, though naturally it was his father who picked up. “We watched,” he said, his nasal, high-pitched voice exaggerated by the tinny, long-distance connection. “Like I told your mother, they won’t go beyond one-fifty.” As with all his father’s opinions, this one was expressed as fact.
“Unless you’re wrong and they do,” Lincoln said, emboldened, perhaps, by being three thousand miles away.
“But I’m not and they won’t,” Dub-Yay had assured him, probably to allay Lincoln’s fear, though he sometimes wondered if his father’s pronouncements served some other, more obscure purpose. Ever since his mother let him in on the truth about their family finances, his father’s declarations had begun to tick him off. “How did the other Stooges make out?” Dub-Yay wanted to know. (Lincoln had told his parents that he and Teddy and Mickey, so unlike the preppy Minerva boys with rich parents, had come to think of themselves as the Three Musketeers, to which his father had immediately responded, “Three Stooges would be more like it.”)
Lincoln swallowed hard. “Mickey got nailed. Number nine.”
“It’s a foolish war,” his father conceded. “But you don’t get to hold out for a just one.”
Lincoln supposed he agreed, but it still annoyed him that his father would be so cavalier where his friends were concerned. “What would you say if I went to Canada?” Lincoln ventured.
“Not one blessed thing.” This statement was delivered without hesitation, as if Dub-Yay had been anticipating the question, given it some serious thought and was anxious, as always, to share his conclusions. “The moment you did that, you would no longer be my son, and we wouldn’t be speaking. I didn’t name you after Abraham Lincoln so you could become a draft dodger. How fared Brother Edward?”
That was his nickname for Teddy, who’d visited them in Dunbar that summer. Lincoln’s mother had liked him immediately, but Dub-Yay hadn’t been impressed. It was W. A. Moser’s deeply held conviction that a single round of golf would reveal everything you needed to know about a man’s character, and he had made up his mind about Teddy on the first tee when he failed to remove his wristwatch. Nothing pleased Wolfgang Amadeus more than to extrapolate the world from a grain of sand. In retrospect, though, Lincoln doubted the wristwatch incident had anything to do with his misgivings about his friend. More likely Teddy had said something provocative about the war or remarked that all the members of the Dunbar Country Club were white and the staff Latino.
“Teddy’s safe,” Lincoln said. “Three hundred–something.”
“Just as well. I can’t imagine what earthly use that boy would be in combat.” Or anything else,
he seemed to be saying.
Had Lincoln even spoken to his mother that evening? Here again, memory, like a conscientious objector, refused to serve.
etched vividly in Lincoln’s brain, however, was the moment when all three Musketeers emerged from the Theta house and found their beautiful d’Artagnan shivering in the December cold out back. Just as he remembered the shameful thought that had entered his head unbidden—You lucky dog!
—when she took a surprised Mickey in her arms and hugged him tight. You had only to glance at Teddy to know he was thinking the same thing.
Jacy. Vanished from this very island. Memorial Day weekend, 1971.
Copyright © 2019 by Richard Russo. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.