The Ambush by Donna Tartt
The Guardian, Saturday June 25, 2005
Before I met Tim - who, in spite of everything I'm about to tell you, would be my best friend for the next four or five years - my mother warned me on the way over to his grandmother's house that I had to be nice to him. "I mean it, Evie. And don't mention his father."
"Why?" I said. I was expecting to hear: Because his parents are divorced. (This was why I had to be nice to John Kendrick, who I couldn't stand.)
"Because," my mother said, "Tim's father was killed in Vietnam."
"Did he get shot?"
"I don't know," said my mother. "And don't you ask him."
I was eight, and small for my age. Tim was seven. As my mother and his grandmother chatted above my head in the doorway of his grandmother's house, we looked at each other silently, from a distance, like two little animals: me, standing in the bright doorway between the grown-ups; Tim, from the remote wood-paneled darkness of the hallway. I couldn't see him clearly, but he was my height, which pleased me.
My mother put her hand on my shoulder. "Did you know," she said to me, in the stagy voice she used when she spoke to me in front of other people, "that Mrs. Cameron is good friends with your grandmother?"
I twisted away, shyly, under the broad pink-gummed smile of Mrs. Cameron. Every old lady in town was friends with my grandmother: if she didn't play cards with them, she went to church with them. The card-playing friends dyed their hair and dressed more stylishly, with cocktail rings and handbags that matched their shoes. The church friends were stouter, and friendlier to children; they wore flower prints, and pearls instead of diamonds, if they wore jewelry at all. Mrs. Cameron was clearly a church friend: compact, pony-built, with shiny pink cheeks. Her hair was grey and she had very black eyebrows, but they were naturally black, like a man's - not drawn on with pencil.
"Hello, honey," she said to me. "I've got a nice swing-set out in the backyard. Tim, why don't you take her out to see it?"
As soon as we were alone, the very first thing Tim said to me was: "My dad's dead."
"I know," I said.
He didn't seem surprised that I knew. We stood facing each other, over the water hydrant in his grandmother's back yard: a long way away from the house. He was a snub-nosed, well-rounded little boy, burned brown from the sun, with eerie yellow-brown eyes and a plump, satisfying tummy like a rabbit's. He reached inside his shirt and showed me some dog tags on a metal chain.
"These were his," he said. "They're mine now."
The dog tags had a name stamped on them that was Tim's last name, and they said US MARINES, but didn't look like they really belonged to his dad. They looked like something he'd had made at a fair or at a booth at the mall.
"See, my dad was trying to chase down this Vietnamese that shot his friend," said Tim. "And then the Vietnamese killed him, too. I can act it out for you if you want. I'll be my dad and you be his buddy. OK. Here we are in the jungle." He walked away a few steps, and then looked back at me. "You're walking with me. Keep up. We can't get separated."
"What's my name?"
"Hank," he said, with gratifying swiftness. "Hank Madigan. All right, here we go. We're walking down the path towards camp, we're talking, OK?"
"OK," I said. I caught up with him, and together we crept - heads down, a pair of cautious infantrymen - towards a tangle of shrubbery at the edge of his grandmother's yard. He'd said we were supposed to be talking, and I wondered if maybe I should ask something soldierly ("How far to camp, sir?") but Tim had such a grim, determined look on his face that I was slightly afraid to say anything at all, even in character. He ploughed straight ahead, towards the shrubbery, while I kept my eyes on the side of his face.
"Now - all of a sudden, these shots come out the jungle, eck eck eck BOOM. You're dead," he said, after a moment or two when I still stood looking at him.
Obediently I clutched my chest and crumpled to the grass. Tim - gratifyingly - dropped to his knees beside me and began to shake my shoulders.
"Oh my God!" he said. "Stay with me, Hank! You can't die, you son of a bitch!"
I grimaced and tossed my head from side to side in agony as Tim - in a desperate effort to revive me - pounded on my chest. I was impressed by his profanity, but even more impressed that he had taken the Lord's name in vain on my behalf.
Far away, from the back porch, Tim's grandmother called out to us in a thin, irritating voice: "Do you all want lemonade?"
"No," shouted Tim, plainly annoyed. He sat back on his heels, on the grass, and looked at me. "You're hurt too bad to live," he said to me, matter-of-factly. "There's nothing I can do for you."
I coughed a little and said: "Goodbye." Then I shut my eyes and fell back on the lawn.
In the silence following my death, as I lay still with my cheek against the scratchy warm grass, I heard Tim's grandmother call: "Why don't yall go play on the swings?"
"Because we don't want to," screamed Tim.
I raised up on my elbows obligingly. "Wait until she leaves," said Tim under his breath to me. He was angry, staring fixedly into the yard next door.
At last, Tim's grandmother called: "All right." The childish quiver of her voice as it trailed away made me feel bad. She went back inside the house, and I heard the door shut, with a forlorn, final sound.
I started to get up but Tim pushed me down on the grass again. "You're dead," he said. "You can't raise up on your elbow or talk to me or do anything like that. Anyway. So then," - Tim unslung a pretend rifle from his shoulder - "my dad screams: 'You shot my buddy! I'm gonna get you!'" He ran across the grass to the bank of privet hedge that bordered the lawn, mouth twisted, fanning his imaginary rifle, spitting imaginary bullets: eck eck eck eck eck
"Ha! Got you!" he cried. And then his face went empty; he reeled back, winced and jerked under a burst of automatic gunfire, then clutched his own chest and went down.
We lay there in silence for a few moments, staring blankly at the sky, before Tim got up and looked at me. "That's how my dad died," he said.
I sat up. Then I looked back at his grandmother's house - and saw a hand parting a curtain at a tiny upstairs window.
"Somebody's up there watching us," I said, and pointed. "See?"
"Oh, don't worry," said Tim, without looking, "that's just my mother," and as he spoke, I saw the curtain drop back down slowly over the window.
"Let's act it out again, " said Tim.
From then on, I ran down the street to play with Tim almost every day - in his grandmother's yard but also in the tall weeds of an empty lot next door. If for some reason I was late slipping away to his house in the morning, he came down the street and pounded manfully on the back door for me. Then we ran away together down the bright sidewalk without speaking, crashing through back yards and hedges down to the jungle-flanked path where the assassin waited for us. All day long we dodged bullets in rank suburban tangles of elderberry and ailanthus and day-lilies run wild, scrambling on our hands and knees, running doubled over, darting in breathless zigzags from point to point, cover to cover, running and freezing and running again, barraged by fire from an enemy we never saw. And again and again we staggered and fell before him - first me, then Tim; for though our battles became daily more elaborate and complicated (firefights; booby-traps; mortar-rocket attacks) the end of the game was always the same. Contorted in our separate agonies, we lay face-up in the buzzing heat, just long enough for our deaths to settle over us and soak in. And even after we rubbed our eyes, stretched and sat up again, we sometimes sat quietly for a little while without saying much, like people just waking from sleep.
"One more time," Tim would say - standing suddenly, breaking the spell. "But better this time."
I was used to playing with children like Tim - holiday visitors whose grandparents were friends with my grandparents - and when it was time for them to go home it was easy for me to say goodbye and run down the street without looking back. For a week every Christmas I played chess with timid Robby Millard, whose parents were missionaries in Mexico, and who had all kinds of stomach problems and took all kinds of medicine because he'd gotten an intestinal parasite from eating improperly washed fruit in Mexico City. And every Easter vacation I looked forward to Jackie and Sherilyn - twins, blonde and freckled, older than me - who loved little kids and were constantly begging their parents for a baby brother or sister. The first time they'd met me, they had each taken me by a hand and led me up to the remote attic bedroom in their grandmother's house where they had set up housekeeping, kindly explaining that we were destitute orphans and I was their baby sister ("Hannah") who they were bringing up on their own. So every spring, for a few days, I was "Hannah", and Jackie and Sherilyn cooked and washed and swept and sewed for me and sang me to sleep in the "garret" where we all lived.
But Tim was different. We were the same size. His yellow-brown eyes were like the eyes of an intensely interested house-cat. There was nothing silly or frivolous about him and I felt that his seriousness made him my natural soulmate. I felt, too - intuitively - that somehow he wasn't quite as temporary as Jackie and Sherilyn and the others, and as it turned out, I was right.
Tim's father - the Lieutenant Robert Allan Cameron whose name was printed on the dog tags - had been Mrs. Cameron's only son. But what had been announced by Mrs. Cameron (at church) as a post-funeral visit from her grandson and daughter-in-law soon stretched beyond the usual two-week limit. A month passed; then two months. Painters were seen trooping into Mrs. Cameron's house. Then a child's bed was ordered from the furniture store downtown. My mother - in an overly casual tone which did not conceal her curiosity - asked me if I knew when Tim and his mother were going back to Dallas (which was where they lived) or if I ever saw Tim's mother when I went over to Mrs. Cameron's house.
"No," I said, and ran off. I was still little enough that I could deal with questions I didn't want to answer or didn't know how to answer by literally turning and running away.
Vietnam. The war was on the news every night but I couldn't understand it, even when my mother tried to explain it to me. The pictures flashed by in no particular order: bad roads, explosions, fires burning in jungle blackness; schoolgirls riding bicycles, and deserted-looking cities where paper blew down the street. An American prisoner of war bowed from the waist in all four directions like a maniac. The place-names (Haiphong, Dak To, Ia Drang, Dong Ha) were like something from a ghost story. Some of the far country places didn't even have names, only numbers, and some of the soldiers - mud-caked, grinning, staggering and falling, their helmets scrawled with ugly black writing - looked crazy.
There was something nightmarish about the dusty green gloss of the camellia bushes, deep deep cover where our sniper lay and waited for us. Every day, he drew us in as if by a poisonous charm; every day we dove from the trap and crawled for cover, as round after round of fire cracked over our heads. The skirmish took on very different moods, depending on the time of day: damp, overcast mornings, with dew and frantic birdsong; shadowless noons where the sun beat down empty and white; violent afternoon downpours that swept in on us in moments, no warning but a sudden blackening of the sky, and then a gust that sent the leaves flying. Together we hid under the trees as Tim's grandmother called us uselessly from the back porch, the strong wind snatching the words from her mouth. But the rains blew over us and pattered away almost as quickly as they came - sometimes in less than a minute - and then the sun poured out with almost unimaginable brilliance on the rainwashed greenery. With dripping hair, clothes plastered to our bodies, we dropped to our knees and crawled from beneath our tree and commenced our battle again. It was only a matter of time before I was struck, then Tim, before we clutched the grass and died on the ground together in blood-smeared agony - but still we fought every day until the fireflies came out, until it was almost too dark to see. And even when I was supposed to be dead, sometimes I opened my eyes to sneak a look over at Tim because he was so locked-in, face turned up and staring raptly over the twilit garden and out into some different reality; and though I was never sure exactly what he saw (white smoke? incoming helicopters? tracer rounds, orange sparks?), whatever it was, it shone off his face and left it luminous, like reflected light from a movie screen.
I began to grow bold around Mrs. Cameron. Though I didn't dare shout at her or order her around as Tim did, I often ran past her without answering when she spoke to me, and - following Tim's lead - no longer bothered with thank you or please. If I'd behaved so badly at my own house, I would have got a spanking - but somehow I understood that Mrs. Cameron wasn't going to tell. When Tim and I burst thundering into the house, with mud and leaves in our hair and dirty knees from crawling on the ground, she often looked up at us with a bright, slightly alarmed smile, all long teeth and pink gums, as if we were a pair of snappy terriers who might bite. We gulped down her lemonade without a word, snatched away the oatmeal cookies she offered us and stuffed them into our pockets and ran back out to the field again.
Then one day we galloped into the kitchen, hot and dirty, and there - at the table with Mrs. Cameron, glancing up at us with a quick, flinching movement - was Tim's mother. She was young and very thin, with pale lipstick and a nervous mouth. Her collarbones stood out at the neckline of her sleeveless top; her hair was teased stiff, and back-combed; and her eyes (heavily done, with lots of dark make-up) had a bruised and slightly pleading look. She was the kind of mother that made you want to jump at her from behind a door and yell BOO.
I stopped. "Hello," I said, for I still hadn't quite forgotten my manners.
Tim's mother looked over at me and smiled, with a sort of grateful surprise; and something about the smile made me angry. It was a comradely, confidential smile, as if she assumed that I was her ally and not Tim's.
"Hiya, cutie," she said. "You're a little doll, aren't ya?" Her voice was warm and rough and startling, entirely at odds with her frail-looking person. I'd never heard a Brooklyn accent before, except on The Honeymooners or The Jackie Gleason Show.
"What's wrong, doll? Cat gotcha tongue? Listen up, buddy," she said to Tim, "what's with all the screaming and yellin' out there?"
"Oh, Gali!" said Mrs. Cameron. "Let him play! He's just a little boy!" But as she reached around and drew Tim close to her I noticed - with surprise - that her eyes were pink, that she was blinking back the tears.
Tim shrugged away from her and turned to me with an expression that meant: let's go. And out we ran from the kitchen, clattering down the back steps, running faster than usual because we were both embarrassed by the scene (though I doubt either of us could have said quite why) and because we wanted to get back down to our palmy little Vietnam where our ambush awaited.
"Wonder what Mrs. Cameron thought," my father said at dinner a few nights later, "when Bobby Cameron come back from up north married to a Jewish girl?"
I started to ask what Jewish meant, but before I could, my mother gave me a quick glance and said: "Well, I expect Mrs. Cameron's glad enough to have her now that Bobby's dead."
My father reached for the salt. "Roger Bell over at the barber shop?" he said pleasantly. "He was in for a root canal the other day and he said she used to sell newspapers and magazines from a stand on the street. That's how Bobby met her."
"What's wrong with selling newspapers?" I said.
"Nothing," said my mother. "There's nothing wrong with working for a living."
"I'm just saying." Busily, my father shook salt over his food. "You know it's got to kill Mrs. Cameron. If Bobby had stayed home and married Kitty Teasdale, I can tell you Ogden Teasdale would have kept him out of it. Ogden's in the legislature," he said, when my mother kept on looking at him like she wanted him to shut up. "He isn't going to have any son-in-law of his going off to Vietnam."
"Well," said my mother, "all I can say is, if you went to Vietnam and got killed, I sure wouldn't be taking the children and going to live with your mother."
My father shrugged. "You might," he said. "If you didn't have anyplace else to go."
Both my mother and my grandmother seemed vaguely troubled that Tim and his mother were living at Mrs. Cameron's, but for reasons I didn't understand. Mainly they seemed bothered that Mrs. Cameron hadn't given an official explanation or made a formal announcement of any sort. ("Why hasn't anybody met her yet?" I heard my mother's friend Virginia ask. "It looks like Mrs. Cameron would throw a little party or something for her, doesn't it?")
Some days, Tim's mother stayed in her room and listened to the radio - baseball games, Motown hits turned up so loud that we could hear them outside. But she was also starting to spend a lot more time downstairs. She and Mrs. Cameron called each other by their first names: Rose and Gali. They sat together at the kitchen table; they drank coffee and tea; they talked, mostly in voices too low to hear. ("Sure, I was poor, growing up," I heard her say to Mrs. Cameron, her husky voice rising louder than usual. "But not poor poor.") They looked at magazines and cookbooks; they looked at a scrapbook which was of things Tim's father had done in high school. Once or twice, Tim and I ran in the kitchen while Mrs. Cameron was trying to teach Tim's mother how to knit, but she couldn't seem to get the hang of it ("Nah," she said, flopping her hands at the tangle of yarn, "looka this thing, I got it all screwed up. I mean, all fouled up," she added, when she saw the expression on Mrs. Cameron's face).
By now it was full summer, and the days were almost unbearably hot. And maybe it was only the heat, but the old adrenaline punch of the game wasn't nearly so strong any more. So Tim and I played even harder, trying to pump it all up again, anything to draw fire and beat back our boredom. We tore pickets from the fence to build a stockade; we lobbed mud-clod grenades into the enemy stronghold; we trampled the garden in our desperate retreats, knocked over flowerpots and broke them. Sometimes Tim's mother got up from the kitchen table and came to watch us from the back porch with a strange expression on her face - but once or twice, when it looked like she was about to come out and say something, Mrs. Cameron came over and took her by the arm and whispered in her ear. Then they both went inside, back to the kitchen table again.
"You see?" said Tim triumphantly, as we were carrying the "stakes" we'd torn from Mrs. Cameron's cherry tree back to our position, in order to lay a trap for our enemy. "They don't mind. It's because my dad's dead."
One evening, when my grandmother came over to our house to return a book she'd borrowed, she announced: "Mrs. Cameron brought that little daughter-in-law of hers to the Garden Club party yesterday."
"Oh really?" said my mother. She put down her needlework; she looked at my grandmother. "And how was that?"
"She's a pretty little thing," said my grandmother, "with a trim little figure, but my Lord! Of course she's perfectly pleasant."
"What do you mean?"
"It's just -." My grandmother's voice trailed away, and she made a sort of vague, meaningless gesture. We were used to these pauses of hers; she was one of those ladies who tried never to say anything about anybody if it wasn't nice.
"Well, she tries very hard indeed," she said at last, as if that was an end to it.
It took a while, but finally my mother managed to get a bit more information out of her. For one thing: Tim's mother had worn black stretch pants and spike heeled shoes; and she had also used some coarse language, though my grandmother wouldn't repeat it. Moreover, Tim had been brought to the party (my mother looked startled; this wasn't something people did) and his mother and Mrs. Cameron had had a hard time controlling him.
"They won't lay a hand on him, either one of them," my grandmother said. "He ran wild all over the garden. The mother is lax, but it's not all her fault. Rose Cameron won't let her touch him."
"I wonder why?"
"Well, I don't know if you remember, but Bobby Cameron was spoiled, too."
I listened uneasily as my mother and my grandmother talked about how hard things must be for poor Mrs. Cameron, and how terrible they felt for her. Then, with an uncomfortable start, I realized that my mother was giving me a look.
"What exactly do you and Tim do over at Mrs. Cameron's all day?" she said.
"You don't ever play rough or misbehave over at her house, do you?"
"No, maam," I said.
"I'd better not find out that you do."
I was troubled all the rest of that evening, and that night, as I lay in bed, I resolved to act better at Mrs. Cameron's house. Even if Tim was bad, I would be good. But by the next day - when Tim and I dragged out house-paint and brushes from Mrs. Cameron's garage and began to paint a landing strip on the grass - I had forgotten all about it.
"I'm bored," said Tim one hot afternoon in July.
It was the first time either of us had said it aloud. But I was starting to get bored, too. Our firefights had slowed. Now, when we died, we took longer and longer getting up to fight again. Sometimes now, in Mrs. Cameron's wrecked yard, we lay on the ground for hours, as still as a pair of fallen trees, as clouds of tiny black bugs hummed all around us.
"Without an enemy," said Tim, "it's not a real war."
I knew what he meant. The problem with the artillery barrages we endured all day long was that they weren't actually coming from anywhere; we had ground fire, plenty of it, but no shooter. And what was the fun of that? We had tried splitting up, chasing each other, but we were already too much of a team: it felt fake. There were other kids in the neighbourhood, but they were all much older or much younger; the younger kids were no fun to play with, and the older ones wouldn't have anything to do with us, even when we threw pebbles and tried to make them chase us.
"Let's go play under the hose," I said. I was forbidden to touch the hose and the outdoor faucets at my own house, and I couldn't understand Tim's lack of interest in water fights, especially since it was so hot.
"What about that little kid Brannon who lives in the white brick house?" suggested Tim.
"He's way too little. His mother doesn't let him go out of his own yard."
There was a long silence. Up front, we heard the door creak open - and all of a sudden, Tim's face lit up.
"Hey!" he said, in a hushed voice. He sat up; he listened. I sat up, too. A flash of excitement crackled through me at the tense bright expression on his face. And when we looked at each other, I realized that we were thinking the same thing.
Tim - trembling all over - put a finger to his lips. Then, silently, he motioned for me to follow. Quickly - in his doubled-up Marine crouch - he ran out of our brushy cover and out on to the lawn, and I ran out behind him, blood pounding with a fierce joy.
I've played and replayed this moment a lot in my mind over the years; and it all happened so quickly that even in memory it goes by too fast, I wince at it, knowing I can't stop it. We rounded the corner of the house - and then Tim, with his imaginary machine-gun, charged up the stairs to the front porch with me rushing in tight at his flank, bearing in fast, both of us spraying fire, eck eck eck eck eck. Of course, we knew very well that we were rushing either Tim's mother or Mrs. Cameron, and we meant to scare the hell out of them. But what we didn't know was that Mrs. Cameron wasn't on the porch, but halfway down the front stairs; and she was coming down them rather carefully, because she was wearing shoes with heels and carrying a plate of white-frosted cake in both hands.
We stopped short; but we didn't stop short enough. Her eyes rounded in horror and she reached for a railing that wasn't there, and then Mrs. Cameron - with a faint gasping cry - fell backwards and slid down the stairs, all the way down to the concrete walk at the bottom, as the plate crashed on the ground.
Tim - as if it was all just part of the game - immediately dropped to his knees beside her: the perfect little field medic. "Don't worry," he said to her, bending low, in the tender but businesslike voice he sometimes used with me when I got hit. "Lie still. We'll get you to a doctor."
Frozen at the foot of the stairs, beside them, I found myself staring hard at the cake plate, which lay broken in big pieces on the ground. Blood pooled dark on the gritty concrete walk and - in a sick daze - I noticed that the pool was spreading out bigger and bigger every second.
Tim raised his head. "Mother?" he shouted. Then, to me, with admirable cool, he said: "Go get her."
I ran up the steps - bold with my mission, but also with a weird exhilarating sense of putting some sort of hard-earned emergency training into action - and collided with Tim's mother, who grabbed me by the shoulders and shoved me aside. As soon as she saw Mrs. Cameron lying all bloody on the ground, she pressed her hands on both sides of her head and shrieked: "Oh my God!"
Mrs. Cameron was crying, too, but in a way I didn't think grown-ups ever cried: wetly, noisily, with big gulps of air. Her forearm was cut, on the tender white underside; she'd cut it on the cake plate. That was where all the blood was coming from. The blood pumped out from it in a diagonal slash, streamed down her arm and dripped red off her fingertips, so much red it looked like Mrs. Cameron was wearing a scarlet elbow glove.
"Oh my God!" screamed Tim's mother, looking frantically up into the tree branches, as if she expected to find help there.
"Go call, Evie!" said Tim, over his mother's shrieks. "911!"
I ducked behind Tim's mother - there was a telephone on a table in the front hall - but much to my shock, she caught me by the arm and whirled me around. "Don't you dare go in there!" Her face was bright red. I tried to pull my wrist away, but - almost before I could blink - she whacked me hard with her open hand across the face.
"Little goyische girl," she screamed. "Run around over here like you own the damn place, eh? Lemme tell you something, girlie." She prodded me in the chest with her sharp forefinger. "Ya no good. This boy was never bad a day in his life."
Mrs. Cameron, at the bottom of the steps was raising a frightened cry: "Gali? Gali?" She was struggling to get up. Tim was trying to hold her down.
"Ah, the hell with it." Tim's mother kicked the board game (Operation) which Tim and I had left spread out on the porch; and the pieces went flying - plastic funny bone, wishbone, heart.
She let go of me; and I backed away from her, down the stairs. She was crying, too.
"It's an ugly world," she said. "An ugly, stinking world."
Edging away from her - edging away from them all - at the bottom of the stairs I felt something slick touch my bare ankle, and I jumped. It was Mrs. Cameron, her hand all bloody. She didn't say anything, but the look on her face was enough. I turned away from them and ran, out from Mrs. Cameron's yard and the shadows of the oak trees into the hard shimmering heat of the sidewalk, no cover, just open space and open sky, streets so hostile in the midday sun that even my panic was drowned in all that emptiness and shrunk down to something flimsy and ridiculous.
Later, people said I'd been smart to run up to Main Street for help instead of toward my own house, which was blocks farther away. I never told anybody the truth: that my fear had spun me around and thrown me blindly off in the wrong direction.
But it wasn't just fear; it was a sick, bitter exaltation. And as I ran, the word she'd shouted at me pounded in my head: goyische goyische goyische, a strange word, screamed in a high, bad voice, a word that sounded like it had to mean something terrible, even if I didn't know what it was. Saigon would not fall for another year. And I was only eight; and Mrs. Cameron would be home from the hospital in a couple of days with 17 stitches in her arm, but still - I knew it even then - I was as close at that moment to the real war as I was ever going to get.