Ripple in the Jungle

The coffee shop took in cold, fresh air, and Nora felt its edge from her seat. A townie at the counter barked at the boy entering Ray’s to hurry up until he spun round to shut the door. She smiled as he approached her table.

“Hey, Nora, how’s things?” Joey’s blond hair fell to his jawbone when he removed his cap and flopped into the seat across hers at the table. “Shit, I didn’t finish my paper yesterday for American lit. Had to ask for an extension. What do you know? The bastard gave it. Now, I’ve got to write it.”

“Well, good for Professor Bastard,” Nora said.

Joey laughed then slapped the table so Nora’s mug nearly toppled.

“Good one, Nora.”

“You’re sure in a great mood.”

Joey pinched Nora’s nose, and when she smelled his fingers, she knew what he’d been doing. So early in the day. Even before class. She shook her head, but Joey didn’t see her. He was up and going toward the counter. Nora fingered the torn envelope in her coat pocket as she watched him tell the cook what he wanted, standing on his toes so he could be seen over the wall of townies.

Joey didn’t know about the letter and she wasn’t telling. She started writing Brian when she heard about him from a friend who graduated last year. Brian didn’t have family who cared about him, so it’d be nice if someone wrote while he was in Vietnam. Nora had a photo, but Brian was half-turned to the camera, so she only knew he was dark-haired and thin like her. She hadn’t sent a picture although he asked. She didn’t have anything recent, and one from high school wouldn’t do. What was it her friends back home were saying? Nora Devine went hippie big time. She didn’t care. She never saw them anymore.

Her first letter was a mini-version of her life growing up in a seacoast town, the oldest of four girls. She went to a state college thirty minutes from home. Her parents thought she should be a teacher, but Nora wasn’t so sure. Brian’s letter back was so brief she didn’t know any more about him than before she read his greeting: Dear Nora.

She wrote next about going to a coffeehouse where a woman sang folk songs while an old boyfriend of Nora’s played bongos. She had to squelch her laughter, because he took it so seriously. Brian answered he’d never been in a coffeehouse, but lots of bars. His hometown in Pennsylvania had several. He said she was such a good letter-writer, he was afraid he couldn’t keep up. But he did, telling her more each time. His mother raised him and his brother, but she was dead. He didn’t know where his father lived. No, he didn’t have a girlfriend. He had ten months to go.

She sent him a gift, a bottle of Ripple wine, something silly to remind him of home. The man at the liquor store chuckled when she said where it was going. Back in her room, she padded the bottle with wads of newspaper then double-boxed it. Brian wrote the Ripple arrived but nobody dared drink it because a sliver of glass floated in the wine. Instead, the men gave it a place of honor in their camp, and Nora pictured Brian and his buddies stoned and goofing on the wine’s miraculous arrival.

“How did you know it’s what I wanted?” he joked.

Nora peered up from her mug as Joey returned, jabbering about his order.

The townies at the counter growled.

“You want to get stoned, Nora?” Joey tipped his head toward the door.

“Too early in the day for that. Don’t you think?”

“Never too early for me.”

“I see.”

Behind the counter the cook was grilling his burger. Ten, and he was already onto lunch. Joey started a story Nora had listened to many times about how he and his pals could chip in to buy a car and drive to Mexico. He hadn’t been there, but he was sure it would be perfect. In another scheme, they bought a Chinese junk. Nora faded when they stopped in Georgia to buy pecan rolls.

Such a boy: begging for extensions, getting high in the morning, and going on about his far-fetched plans. But Nora, who loved Joey in a sexless way, didn’t want to deny him these things. She was happy he wasn’t like Brian, armed in the jungle and writing to a girl he never met. Joey got a high lottery number so he wasn’t going. If she were a man, hers would have been 262, so she wouldn’t have been drafted either. Not Brian, who pulled 6. He had watched in a bar as they drew the numbers on TV. “My bad luck,” he wrote.

Brian’s last letter, tucked in her coat pocket, was his longest. He wrote, “Things are tough right now. We lost two guys and another got hurt, but I’m OK. Seven months to go. Shit, Nora, the weather’s so damn hot. I’ve never felt anything like it. It’s like being shut in somebody’s mouth. What’s it like there? (Surprise, I’ve still got the Ripple.)”

She glanced out the window. Small, dry snowflakes covered the gray drifts stuck to the sidewalk. Class was in fifteen minutes. She was glad she wore boots and a long skirt. She didn’t have a hat, but she remembered gloves.

Joey, too, noticed the snow. He gestured toward the window and shouted, ”Prove to me no two are alike.”

The townies growled again.

Nora buttoned her coat. She smiled to herself as she thought of Brian. This time she’d write about the snow, that it seemed as if someone had taken a tool to the sky so pieces fell in bits upon them. Dear Brian, she’d write, it’s winter, it’s cold, but I feel the heat of the jungle in your letters.

For a brief time in college I wrote to a soldier stationed in Vietnam — a friend of a friend. I sent him a bottle of Ripple wine, which arrived intact except for a floating chip of glass. The soldier stopped writing and so did I. The coffee shop and friends were real, too, although the story isn’t. A Ripple in the Jungle appeared first in Flash Me magazine. The characters of Joey and Nora appear in my novel Last Weekend in Westbridge. 

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