“Crocodiles in Korea” by Anna Kovatcheva

My life has been normal. That is to say, I lived it front to back, beginning to end, like most people do. I took dance lessons as a girl and went to school most days, except for when we snuck out thinking we were rebellious in high school and smoked dusty packets of Winston cigarettes that Darcy found forgotten in the back of her Daddy’s closet a year after he’d been dead. Later, I read books I’d waited to grow up for and baked cookies, sometimes, and I wore reading glasses and kept a pet cat.

“You gonna be a good man when you grow up?” Uncle Roddey asked me once, when I was ten and braiding Ellie’s hair into pigtails.

I’d looked up at him, blinked through heart-shaped sunglasses with pink plastic frames and said, “Uncle Roddey, I’m a girl.”

He waved his beer bottle around like waving off my point, and I ducked but he’d drunk enough that nothing came splashing over the lip. “Little girls can grow up to be good men,” he said. “Even Ellie here.” He took the doll and turned her over in his thick fingers, and I didn’t say anything but I worried the grease from the body shop would leave the deep lines of his hands and get all over her dress. “Even that pansy-ass brother of yours,” he’d said, laughed deep from his rounded belly, and handed Ellie back, her dress rumpled but unstained.

Jeff did become a good man, but cirrhosis killed Uncle Roddey before he got a chance to see the war happen. Jeff went off to Vietnam when we were living in New York, surrounded by people who didn’t like the war and wanted it gone. I waited tables and wiped away spilled drinks when Jeff played his guitar, but then he got taken off to war because you could only get away if there was something wrong with you, and being a musician didn’t count even though most people would argue that the choice alone was enough to show you were crazy.

“Your brother’s crazy,” Mama used to tell me, coming into the kitchen with heavy paper bags full of canned foods and fresh vegetables that always ended up steamed, that Jeff and I just pushed around our plates until Mama was satisfied we’d be sitting at the table long enough. Usually when she said that, Jeff was outside, running around with his friends like he was still my age when he was supposed to be sixteen and responsible, thinking about cars and girls and pot instead of dancing in the back yard and trying to make music, the “something worthwhile” he’d always wanted.

“Gonna get himself killed someday,” Mama said. She said it most days, like Someday was right around the corner, and if she missed a day she wouldn’t be able to say “I told you so” when it finally happened. Like she was gonna live forever just to be sure when it happened.

Jeff didn’t get himself killed until 1986, when his hair was going a little grey and Mama was in a wheelchair, long after the war was over. He came home with one arm and couldn’t sleep for a year, but he was fine after that. He died in 1986 and it wasn’t his fault, someone crazier than him getting hold of a .38 and waving it around in a convenience store. The man who shot Jeff got shot by the cashier who kept his own gun under the counter, who snagged his moment when Jeff made a distraction and got the guy to turn his back.

Mama said it was just a matter of time, anyway, and maybe it was best how it happened, because if that bullet hadn’t killed Jeff that virus in his blood would’ve, and telling that story at a funeral’s a hell of a lot worse than talking how your boy was a hero and fought in the war and then saved a whole bodega full of people fifteen years later when he’d gotten back home.

It was a better death than Uncle Roddey’s, definitely, who you could never say didn’t bring it on himself. It was a better death than Mama’s, when it came, who took too many sleeping pills. We never knew if she did it on purpose, and there was no one left to share my guesses with. I guess that’s better than Daddy, at least, because when Mama died we knew where she was, could give her a proper burial. Daddy just got marked MIA in the last year of Korea, and Mama got a folded-up flag and medal with his name on it, and she had to buy a tombstone for an empty grave.

I wondered sometimes, if that was how things worked for everyone. If I had been a boy who could grow up to be a good man like Uncle Roddey said, I wondered if I would’ve gone off to war like Jeff and come back maimed or come back not at all. I wondered if you had to be damaged or gone to die a good man, if I could still do it if I wasted away in a nursing home bed with a perky blonde nurse holding my hand and reading me the papers out loud. I wondered if Uncle Roddey was an exception to some rule, if he still died a good man when he went off to war same as Daddy but came back in one piece, all his arms and legs and fingers and toes, all his marbles tucked safely away upstairs. I wonder if going to war is enough.

Maybe it’s Ellie who dies the best of us all, after this. Ellie, with her plastic head and fake red hair and little hands that I chewed when I was a baby, mutilating her fingers. Ellie never said a bad word because her painted-pink mouth couldn’t talk, and Ellie never went to war except when I pretended she did, when I pretended her chewed-up fingers were from crocodiles in Korea. I didn’t know if there were crocodiles in Korea, but it seemed safe when I was a kid to think that she could’ve been there, could’ve done important things like good men did. It was safe to think that Ellie just came home when Daddy didn’t, like Uncle Roddey. She didn’t die a spectacular death like Jeff, didn’t die a muzzy death like Mama or Uncle Roddey, the kind of death you don’t know what to do with. Ellie died like I would, forgotten in a cardboard box somewhere in the attic, loved until she wasn’t needed anymore, but holding none of my sins in her cloth-bodied chest.

I tried remembering once if Ellie’s hair was still in pigtails, wherever she was, in whatever box. I wondered what the box was labeled, or if it was labeled at all. I told this all to the attendant at the nursing home and she stroked my thinning hair and said she was sure Ellie was alive and happy wherever she was, that she was sure nobody had stuffed her in any box. Ellie’s hair probably looked exactly like she wanted it to, the attendant said, and turned another page in the Times, reading out headlines in a sweet voice until my eyes dropped shut and I slept.

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