Portfolio > Novels and Short Stories

I became really interested in the Vietnam War in high school and wrote several short stories about it - including this one, circa 1988.

"Hudson" is a clear reference to the iconic character in "Aliens," one of my all-time favorite films.

Where Do Broken Vets Go?

“Mister Hudson? Mister Calhoun will see you now.”

Paul Hudson quickly glanced up from that day’s edition of The Los Angeles Times and grinned nervously at the pert secretary seated at the large desk across from him. Taking a deep breath, he stood up, straightened his light cotton suit and paisley tie, adjusted his suspenders beneath his jacket, and strolled across the air-conditioned waiting room. As he passed several low oak tables sprinkled with copies of Daily Variety and Premiere magazines, Paul noticed the gentle cream-colored wallpaper and colorful prints that covered the walls of the expansive room. He paused at a heavy oak door with a shiny brass nameplate that read NATHAN V. CALHOUN – PRESIDENT, BRAVO PICTURES.

“Just go ‘head in, hon,” Monique (the secretary) told him, cracking her gum and aimlessly spinning the Rolodex on a small gray file cabinet on her right. She stopped to brush a silky tendril of strawberry blond hair out of her wide cornflower eyes. “He’s expecting you. Go ‘head.”

“Thanks,” Paul replied gratefully, smiling back at her. Wiping his large sweaty hands on the back of his comfortable, pleated trousers, he pushed open the door and sauntered in.

Nathan V. Calhoun office was fairly large (and air-conditioned as well, Paul thought to himself in relief.) Smooth floor-to-ceiling windows covered three walls of the room, offering spectacular views of the back lots of the movie studios below. The insufferable heat was shimmering off the blacktop in humid, sticky waves, and several majestic palm trees were standing motionless in the absence of any breeze.

The loose-woven light blue carpeting was lush underfoot, and as Paul let his deep brown eyes travel around the sunny room he took in the dozens of movie posters covering the wall on either side of him and the large cushioned chairs strewn in strategic places around the office. His eyes came to rest on the massive, cluttered maple desk in front of him. A stocky, slightly balding man with dark brown hair and dressed in shirt sleeves and a striped violet tie was smiling warmly at him.

“Paul? You’re Mister Hudson? Please have a seat.” He extended his left hand to indicate a beige upholstered chair directly in front of his desk.

Paul grinned back, mentally battling to quiet the quickening staccato of his heartbeat. “Thank you very much,” he exclaimed graciously as he eased his tired frame into the chair. “Sir, I want to thank you very much for seeing me today and for taking the time to look over my script. I really appr—“

Nathan silenced him by raising a hand. “It’s no problem. I always have time for budding new talents like you. But Paul – could you do me a favor? Don’t ever call me ‘Sir’. Please.” Paul nodded as Nathan reached down to open a drawer in his desk. He soon pulled out a thick cardboard folder and placed it in front of him, pushing away a red- and blue-striped mug of cold coffee. Paul caught a glimpse of tiny crumbs of glazed donut floating restlessly on the surface.

“I was really impressed with your screenplay, Paul,” Nathan began. “I thought it was highly original and very classy. Really. And I think it might be a project that Bravo Pictures would be interested in backing. I mean, I know we’re little, but we’re a quality operation – ‘Kiki of Tanzania’ was nominated for a Best Makeup Oscar three years ago,” he whispered proudly, gesturing behind Paul to a large poster of a menacing African man clutching a sharp spear in one hand and a beautiful brunette in the other. The couple was superimposed over a large map of Tanzania, Africa outlined in blood. KIKI OF TANZANIA; it read; HE FOUGHT THE BEAST WITHIN HIM TO WIN THE WOMAN HE LOVED.

“And I think your film, no-our film, has a real shot at some serious box office. What was your working title?” Nathan continued.

“’Doris and the Giant Platypus Save the World’,” Paul replied, beaming. ”You really think it has possibilities?”

“Well, we’ll have to get to work on the title a little. I can see the slogan now: HER PASSION FOR WEBBED FEET BROUGHT THEM TOGETHER – COULD NUCLEAR WAR TEAR THEM APART?” Nathan stated matter-of-factly. “I think it could have a broad-based appeal among the 6-12 year-old set. Females, especially. The guys over in Publicity’ll have a field day with this one.”

Paul glanced out the windows behind the desk. A tiny jet was slicing a thin, white trail across the quiet August sky.

“This’ll be my first major project,” he explained confidentially. “Once, I submitted a speculation script for ‘The Cosby Show’ but it didn’t fall through. See, I like sick, dark humor – not the sugary stuff that ole’ Bill C. uses so much. All my other buddies from UCLA Film School are pages at Fox and Universal Studios during the day and waiters in chic joints in downtown LA at night. I’m the first lucky dude to get a great break like this.” He smiled broadly at the man sitting across from him and extended his hand in thanks.

Nathan’s smile suddenly vanished and he pulled back in his chair. “Sorry, I don’t have a hand to shake.” He quickly held up his right arm, which he had kept hidden from Paul’s sight. A shiny metal limb replaced flesh starting at the middle of Nathan’s forearm. Tangled wires lead to an impulse-activated prosthetic hand. Paul winced as he stared at the tangled mess of deep pink scars that crisscrossed Nathan’s arm and disappeared under his thin white shirt.

“I got it blown off in the War. Vietnam, I mean. I was only eighteen.” He spoke quickly in a dull, monotonous voice, as if reciting the speech from memory.

“Jesus,” Paul whispered, gazing in a combination of horror and awe. “How—I mean, can you—“ He swallowed hard.

“I really don’t want to discuss it, okay? It really isn’t any of your business. You don’t want to hear my sob story anyway, right?” He glared harshly at Paul, the veins on the side of his sweaty pink neck bulging hideously.

“How do I get along? I do okay. It’s not something I brag about to my kids, you know what I mean?” Nathan continued bitterly, picking up a shiny yellow pencil that had rolled off the desk and into a wicker wastebasket. “But hey—we might as well go the whole nine yards, right? Take a good, long stare at this—“ And with that; he stood up, pushed away his stiff plastic swivel chair, and rolled up his light gray slacks to reveal a bulky artificial right leg.

“If you don’t want to talk about it, I understand,” Paul reassured him, feeling the skin on the back of his neck start to prickle. “You’re right, it’s none of my business.”

“Hey man, it’s no skin off my teeth, you know?” Nathan replied loudly, grimacing as he sat down. His leg screamed in protest. “I mean, I’ve told this story so many times, what’s one more, right?” he asked sarcastically.

“Mr. Calhoun…Nathan, I—“

“Just let me finish!” Nathan yelled, watching the knuckles of his left hand turn white as he gripped the side of his desk. “’You served in Vietnam?’ they ask me. ‘You killed all those innocent women and children? How does that make you feel, soldier boy? HOW DOES THAT MAKE YOU FEEL?” Nathan dabbed at his sweaty brow. “My family didn’t have the faintest idea of what to say to me when I got home. You could hear a pin drop at suppertime in the Calhoun home. The little neighborhood kids used to run for their lives when they heard me—I mean, my leg- coming down the Philadelphia streets where I grew up. Maybe they thought I was some kind of freak.”

A pause.

“Maybe I was.”

“And another thing—the way I talked. Every other word would be some godawful profanity that I had used to spouting off like it was nothing: ‘Hi mom, Dad. How the h__ are you? Feeling blue cause your only son’s not your son anymore? You saw he’s turned into the Invisible Man? That’s just a d___ shame, man. A d___ shame.’ No way for a Catholic boy to be talkin’, huh? Well, Mommy and Daddy didn’t think so, either.” He paused to blow his nose with a thick cloth handkerchief.

“If you want to talk, I’ll be glad to listen. Really. But if you want to,” Paul told him, leaning forward in his chair. “I want to hear.”

“What do you know? You’re just a kid.”

Paul rose from his chair. “Well, if that’s the way you want it, I’d better go. I want to thank—“

“Sit down,” Nathan ordered in a low voice. His leg groaned again as he shifted his weight in his seat.

“I was short,” he began, his eyes glazing over with a blank look. (The thousand-yard stare, Paul thought to himself.) “Real short. Twenty-eight days and a wake-up and I was going to didi out of that hellhole. So short I could taste it, you know? Anyways, my squad pull some goofy patrol in the middle of monsoon season! Can you beat that? We’re wandering around the Bush in rains so thick you couldn’t see ten feet in front of you!”

“We walked straight into an ambush- I’ll tell ya, Charlie could see through anything, including those rains. We got pinned down in this marshy valley with water up to our thighs. Our medic bought the farm, along with this dude named Ralphie (we called him Gator) from Indiana and this big guy called Gip from New Jersey or New Brunswick or somesuch place. It seemed like we were trapped for hours in the pouring rain, listening to the screams of the wounded and dying. The last thing I remember was the godawful explosion and the pain. I came to in the VA Hospital in Hawaii.”

“Jesus,” Paul whispered again. Monique was humming faintly off-key outside the door.

“I still hear sounds sometimes,” Nathan continued. “Sometimes I lie awake in bed at night and I hear those horrible screams again and the WHOK WHOK WHOK of my dustoff Bird. It sounds like it’s hovering right outside my window, can you believe that? And for a moment, I think I’m back in the nightmare—that the whole thing’s not just some Grade B War movie. I scream to try to wake up, but I can’t ‘cause I’m already awake. I’m already awake!”

Nathan fell abruptly silent as he realized that he had been yelling. He turned to look out the window. Paul could see Nathan’s shoulders shaking visibly and he could hear the faint trickling of the coffeemaker on the desk.

“My big brother was killed in Vietnam,” Paul finally said quietly, his voice catching. Nathan faced him, his red-rimmed eyes suddenly soft.

“Jeez. No kidding? What was his name?”

“Bob. Bobby. KIA September 11, 1968.” Paul felt something stir in his throat.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Nathan asked. “I got in country December 6 of 19 and 68. DEROS November 8, 1969.”

Now it was Paul who gripped the arms of the chair tightly. “Ours was the only house on the block with a candle in the window every day and night. My mom drove down to Calfregi’s Market every Saturday to pick up a package of those chunky red candles. My friends at school used to ask me what the candle was for. I would say, ‘Hey, wait ‘til it happens to your brother, okay? Just wait for the pain, ‘cause it’s coming.’ Well, I didn’t actually say that, but that’s what I thought.”

Nathan smiled reassuringly at Paul. “Hey, I wouldn’t have gone off on you like that if I’d known about your brother. I’m sorry. Really sorry. I just so sick of telling the same stupid story over and over. People pretend like they’re interested, but when it comes to your problems and how messed up inside you are, people don’t care squat. Do you hear me? Not squat. You—I’ve finally found a person who knows what it’s like to lose someone close for no reason at all, you know?”

“Hey, it’s okay,” Paul replied. “I have an idea. My family lives in Washington D.C. and every September 11th we all spend the day together and visit the Vet’s Memorial for Bobby. All of my brothers and sisters fly in, no matter what we’re doing. We’d be honored if you’d spend the day with us. I think it’ll be just the thing for you.”

Nathan shook his head. “No, I couldn’t impose. That’s nice, but I don’t think—“

“Don’t even give it a second thought. We’d all love to have you,” Paul insisted, giving Nathan’s hand a squeeze as he turned to leave. “You’ll be in touch with me soon?”

“Count on it. I’ll give you a few casting agents and directors some calls and get back with you by tomorrow. And Paul…thanks. For everything.” The last sound Paul heard as he turned to leave was the metallic rub of the fingers of Nathan Calhoun’s prosthetic hand waving goodbye.

Where Do Broken Vets Go?
May 10, 2024