Lingua Franca, by Tom Hanks

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Illustration by Matt Holland

[Story]

Lingua Franca

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Some of the guys joined back up for Korea, to be Marines once more, to sail back across the Pacific Ocean and kill different Asians. Bob considered the prospect, but then Kirkland got stabbed pretty bad in a fight up in Eugene and didn’t get out of the hospital until a lung specialist had operated on him four times. Bob, Butch, and Hal left him, riding on to Reno, where Hal took up with a waitress who was just two weeks short of being an ex-wife with four kids.

After washing dishes at the Mapes Hotel and casino and stashing the bank, Bob and Butch rode south. They met up with some other guys—also former Marines—had some great days, got in trouble here and there, and moved on. In ’56 there was a big set-to in Needles. Some of the organized gangs were staking their turf, so it was not unusual to read headlines about war between rival biker gangs! When those power plays progressed from busted-bone fights to lethal shootouts, Butch seemed to come alive again, but Bob wanted no part of more brushes with the law and moved along, pronto. Good thing, as two highway patrolmen were shot dead in Riverside by some idiot on a Harley-Davidson. Ever since, anyone on motorcycle was a possible suspect.

By 1958, Bob Falls was riding solo and drinking more than was good for him. He wrecked his motorcycle in Indio, fracturing his hip in the accident. His stride had a hitch in it after that, and he got a former police model Harley-Davidson Panhead cheap at an auction because its front fork had been damaged. He heard about a job in Gallup—something to do with a roofing company owned by a vet. Steady bank would not be a bad thing and he’d always liked New Mexico, so he decided to head that way. But he never got around to leaving the confines of Flagstaff. He took up with some guys at a place called the Fireside Lounge who all had regular jobs and would spring for endless pitchers of Hamm’s Golden Draft, so the folding money in Bob’s jeans (and the wad he kept in his boot) was rarely touched. One night, some cops walked into the lounge because a cab driver complained that someone inside had stiffed him. Bob slipped out, expertly, slept the night behind a Seventh-day Adventist church, and by 7 am was sitting in a coffee shop, finishing his eggs, ketchup-smothered hash browns, and cinnamon toast before finally riding east on the 66 to Gallup, figuring to stop only for tanks of gas, a few cold beers, and the time it took to piss.

The coffee shop was a modern place—red vinyl booths, each with a jukebox the size of a cookie jar—and the breakfast rush was in mid-swing. Bob sat alone at the counter, displaying a countenance that made other customers naturally leave an empty seat on either side of him. His waitress was old enough to be his mother, a woman serving this red-eyed hoodlum in the hope that he might tip her a dime. Or that if she served him enough coffee, he might stop smelling of beer.

There was a sudden clatter in one of the booths. Every head in the place looked over to see a family—wife, husband, grandma, and three kids—suffering a spilled milkshake, which spread across their table in a frothy tide and dripped into a puddle on the floor.

“Now I won’t get any!” cried the oldest kid, a boy not yet ten. A toddler stood on the seat beside him, laughing, while a quiet little girl—the middle child—sucked on her fingers.

“Sure you will, Tiger,” the father said. When a Mexican busboy came over with rags to sop up the mess, the dad took over to let him get a mop. “We’ll take another malted,” he called out, knowing he’d be heard. “And three straws?”

“She knocked it over,” the boy whined, pointing at his sister.

“Every day an adventure,” the father said in an upper register to the coffee shop. He brought the dripping rags to the waitress at the counter, a seat away from where Bob, food done, had pushed off his plate to Zippo one of his remaining Chesterfield Kings. The dad gave Bob a smile and a nod—the men were about the same age, if not the same station. His wink said, If you want three kids, take mine. “Hey, could you spare a nail?”

Bob tapped out a cigarette and flicked his Zippo.

“Little early for milkshakes, isn’t it?” No reason not to be friendly.

“Been driving since oh-four-hundred. This is lunchtime for us.” Dad exhaled a lung full of smoke. “Vernon Cloud.” No hand offered, just the name.

Likewise, “Bob Falls.”

Vernon showed his lit cigarette to his wife, a universal gesture: Permission to smoke, honey? Honey nodded with a slight eye roll just as the waitress delivered the replacement shake with three straws.

“Vacation with the brood?” Bob asked, after a nod to his waitress for a refill of coffee and a fresh cup for Vernon Cloud.

“Promised the kids Disneyland, so we’re going to make a week of it. Going to the whale show at Marineland, too. Swore I’d never see California again after the service. Was so happy to be home in one piece that I wouldn’t have left Wichita for Marilyn Monroe. Now I’m driving to see Mickey Mouse and Bubbles the Whale and get back before school starts. You don’t have any kids, do you?”

Bob shook his head.

“How’d you manage that?”

Okay, Bob said to himself. This fellow needs to talk to another man. He’s been cooped up in a car with his kids and his women for a very long stretch of Route 66. Bob decided to throw the domesticated dog a bone. “Well, none that I know of.”

Vernon Cloud laughed like he needed the release. “Good to meet a fellow Marine. I noticed the globe and anchor on your flame.” Vernon meant Bob’s Zippo, which was also embossed with the word tarawa.

For fifteen years now the lingua franca among men Vernon’s age—strangers, pals, business acquaintances, anyone who’d been in high school in 1941—was war talk. If you were able-bodied and about thirty-five, the war was how you reached common ground, began a relationship, or just blew time waiting in line at the post office. Vernon took a drag and let it out with the style of a former smoker who missed the effect.

“I was in the First. Out of Oceanside.”

“I heard of you guys,” Bob told him. “I was in the Fifth.” Adding Oceanside was not necessary.

“Hell of an outfit.” Vernon let out a cloud of smoke. “Tarawa, eh?”

“Among other garden spots.”

“God must have looked out for us. When Peleliu settled down they took away my M1 and gave me a movie projector. Can you believe that? I showed the movies every night. Ask me about For Whom the Bell Tolls. I can recite every line. Tell me my wife isn’t a look-alike for Ingrid Bergman.”

Bob checked—there was no resemblance. Same bony shoulders and the nose, maybe.

“Yeah, God was steering my rudder,” Vernon said. “You land at Saipan?”

“Yep.” Bob left it at that and drank his coffee.

“Okinawa,” Vernon said about his own deployment, adding cream and two sugars to his coffee. “Guessing that’s your motorcycle out front?” he asked, not wanting to give up a few moments of conversation away from his family.

“It is.”

“Travel light, do you?”

“For the open road. And maybe the lamentations of those in authority.”

Vernon laughed. “I get it, brother. You and I were kids when they gave us our toys and shipped us off. A few years later, they give us back our civvies and say, ‘Home you go.’ ” Vernon glanced over to his non-Bergmanish wife, who was showing their youngest the “here is the church, here is the steeple” game with her hands. “Bob, do you have time for a little story?”

How many times—in a bar, in a coffee shop, during a card game, on a job, in the drunk tank—had Bob been asked whether he wanted to hear a little story? A buddy got killed. A bullet just missed. A ship sank. The next plane disappeared in a ball of fire. A hungry girl gave a blow job for a K ration. A mangy dog just needed some scratching. An officer gave an imbecilic order that got a bunch of good men killed—no, wait, he ignored an imbecilic order, turned the tide, and that’s why I’m here talking to you today! Bob had heard these stories for years, and he’d never once started the conversation.

“Isn’t Bubbles the Whale waiting?”

“This will just take a minute.” Vernon Cloud was not to be stopped, not with this perfected act of his. He inched his body closer to Bob’s at the counter, leaning toward him in confidence. “A few years back, a fellow moved in to the house across the street. Owen Schmidt. Nice guy. Two little kids. His wife is friends with mine. He’s a CPA and tax guy. We give each other the wave, you know, when we see each other, but we aren’t pals. I’m a talkative guy, he’s not. Okay. To each his own, right?”

Bob nodded.

“You ever wake up at night, Bob? Like I do? I wake up with real bad dreams where nothing goes right. Can’t load my ammo clip. The breech of my M1 is jammed. I keep dropping everything. I can’t climb out of my foxhole and I hear the Tojos coming for me. I’m yelling in my sleep. I kick Linda. I get twisted in the sheets and feel like I’m trapped.”

Bob did that. All the guys did that, kicking a wife or not.

“All I can do is get up right out of bed and go turn on a light in the front room and ride it out. Used to have a beer, work a crossword puzzle. Smoke half a pack.” Vernon nodded at his Chesterfield. “Now one of the TV channels is on all night so I watch a movie with the sound on real low. This has been going on since, you know, V-J Day. When Owen moved in across the street, I start noticing that on some of those nights? After I have those dreams? A light comes on in his front room, too. Not every time, but many is the night when he’s up, I’m up, and both of us have been yelling in our sleep. Kicking our wives.”

“This Owen a Marine?” Bob asked.

“Army intelligence. In the ETO because he spoke German. Schmidt. His grandfolks had come over, so he grew up talking it. Never saw combat. I found that out one night, three in the morning. I’m watching the Late Late Late Show and I see his light come on. Then I see his front door open. I see him walk out into the middle of our street. And he looks up at the sky. I grab a couple of beers and, why not? Go out and join him. He doesn’t take the beer but we start talking, there in our pajamas. He points out some of the stars and the planet Mars. I don’t know anything astronomical, so seeing Mars was something else. Well, what do you know? Mars, I say. ‘Haunting us, chasing after us,’ Owen says. Who? ‘Mars. The god of war.’ ”

Here it comes, Bob told himself.

“We got to talking.” Vernon paused, inhaling the last of the Chesterfield into his body. He blew out a long stream of blue-gray smoke and ground the butt out in an ashtray on the counter. Then he spoke very quietly under the din of dishes and forks and chatter and “Running Bear” by Johnny Preston playing on the jukebox.

“Owen interrogated Nazis. Local officials, higher-ups, SS types. They’d be handcuffed to chairs. He’d cut off little bits of their ears. Not right away, but after a while, to get them to talk. After a few cuts, then a few more, then a few more, they’d be covered in their own blood and they’d start talking. Some of the officers, after they told everything they knew—he’d take them outside and shoot them in the back of the head. He’d dug a slit trench himself for them to fall into. Seventeen. He’d kept count. Seventeen. He shot seventeen Nazis in the back of their heads and no one said a word to him. ‘They were the bad guys,’ he said. Can you spare another?”

Bob supplied his Zippo and one of his last two Chesterfields. Vernon drew down on the smoke like a thirsty man drinking from a cup of cool spring water.

“On Peleliu, a lot of the Tojos were hiding in caves after the island was supposed to have been secured. They’d come out at night and kill Marines and desecrate the bodies. So we’d blow up the caves or burn ’em out, you know, with a flamethrower.”

Bob knew all about that method of clearing out caves. He’d carried the M2 portable flamethrower on his twenty-year-old shoulders. He nodded and Vernon continued.

“We’d go into the cave for the count, cut off one ear of each Japanese, dead or not yet dead. If the body had an ear missing, it’d been counted. I kept track. Eighty-eight ears came in, some I’d gotten myself. We’d string them up on a clothesline like my wife does with the kids’ wet socks. ‘They were the bad guys,’ I said. Owen, he looked at me and asked, ‘So, were we the good guys, then?’ ”

Bob had heard this story before—but worse. Had he been so inclined, he could tell Vernon his stories. Stories that weren’t about chopped-off ears. Ears were nothing.

“Owen and I started talking that very night about putting our past behind us. There we were—good jobs, kids to raise, women who loved us—still screaming at Mars in our sleep. We decided, Owen and I, that we needed something in our lives bigger than our two selves, something more powerful than winning the war. I’d like to share with you what we found.”

Bob Falls did not want to hear any of what was going to come out of Vernon Cloud’s mouth next. Prophets, preachers, and witnesses had shown up in every dark place Bob Falls had landed in the past twelve years. He laughed at them, loathed them, ignored them; Cloud was just another one.

But Vernon Cloud said nothing more. He reached into the breast pocket of his shirt, where a pair of sunglasses were folded along with what looked to be notepads but turned out to be slim pamphlets.

“My name is on the back here,” Vernon said, showing Bob the business card he’d stapled to each pamphlet with his name, address, and phone number back in Wichita. He ground out the Chesterfield in the ashtray. “If you choose to read this and want to talk any, give me a call. Collect. I’ll be home next month. Thanks for being open with your time and smokes. Remember the Raleighs they’d give us on the front lines? Ghastly. Be good to yourself, Bob Falls.”

He left the pamphlet faceup on the counter and returned to his family, who had finished their meal and replacement milkshake. Bob watched Vernon collect the kids and wife and granny and head to the cashier at the entrance. Ingrid Bergman gave Bob a nice smile. Vernon, a nod. Through the coffee shop window, Bob saw the Clouds climb into a yellow-and-white Studebaker Champion station wagon and pull out, bound west for a Magic Kingdom and Marineland.

Bob held up the pamphlet, with its drawing of a movie-handsome Jesus Christ and the questions: do you know god loves you? would you like to know his plan for your life? Bob didn’t read the tract, but he did give it a quick flip-through: illustrations of sunbeams, crosses, and small churches filled with well-dressed white people, all smiling because God was planning their lives. On the second to last page Jesus was surrounded by a heavenly chorus. Opposite him was a bible verse written in florid script.

Bob finished his coffee and left a half-dollar tip. Twenty dollars and change would get him to Gallup. He picked up the pamphlet and paid for his breakfast at the cashier. Before leaving, he hit the cigarette machine in the entryway. He put in a quarter, pulled the knob, and fished the Chesterfield Kings from the tray at the bottom, still holding the tract from Vernon Cloud. Beside the machine was a bulletin board covered with business cards, postcards with funny sayings, personal messages, and for sale offerings. He took a thumbtack from a lost puppy notice that was a month old. He let the card drop to the floor—either the pooch had been found by now or was living with a farmer up in the mountains, aka dead—and he used the tack to post Vernon’s pamphlet to the board. Someone was sure to be open to pondering His plan for their life, and the pamphlet would be theirs for the taking.

Before he turned away, a note card caught Bob’s eye:

dishwasher wanted
good$
call angel
mesa 2-1414

He thought of the roofing job waiting in Gallup, where he’d be working outdoors in the sun, banging nails, lifting shingles or tile, hot-mopping tar. In New Mexico. He suddenly felt so very tired. Even the idea of the long ride on 66 caused a throb in his cracked hip. Something in his head said an indoor job might be a nice thing for a while. Dishwashers got free meals. Maybe that night he’d be back at the Fireside drinking from pitchers of Hamm’s bought by someone else.

A local call cost a nickel. Bob closed the booth door behind him, cleeng-cleenged the Indian-head coin into the phone’s slot and roto-dialed 632-1414. The phone rang and rang, so many times that Bob muttered Jesus Christ and was about to hang up when a woman answered.

“This is Angel,” she said.

 is an actor, writer, and producer. He is the author of the story collection Uncommon Type. His novel The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece will be published in May by Knopf.


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