C was for Cat, as it always had been. The cats would not stop dancing. They pirouetted, paired off and salsa danced the night away. The rumba was a never-ending mosaic of fur and flash.
A has been for Apple ever since Adam and Eve feasted on the forbidden. B is for Boy. One American boy, abandoned by his Vietnamese captors. Maybe B was for Bamboo, the strange wood surrounding him. But C was for Cat, and still they danced.
When you leave a man in starving solitude, there is no telling the directions his mind will flow. In isolation, there isn’t an anchor. Instead, memory and fantasy ebb and flow, a Vonnegut Slaughterhouse mince of time. Bobby, now known as Sergeant Robert Parker, found himself in 1st grade. Ground zero. Day one.
So many paths lay open to a first grader. You can be anything. Astronaut, President of the United States, a British rock invader…well, maybe not British. Sgt. Parker lay on the hot, dry, dirt floor jealous of Bobby.
D was for Dog, and Bingo had been his name-o. Bingo, had only been a puppy then. They grew up together. D was also for Draft, which would turn Bobby into Private Robert Parker, and ultimately kill Bingo. Bobby got the letter in boot camp. An old dog by that time, Bingo sat at the corner of the driveway, next to the mailbox, waiting for Bobby to come home from the war, refusing to eat. That is where they found him, asleep forever. Without Bingo to chase them away, the cats would dance on.
E was for Eat. It had been for something else. Elephant, maybe, Bobby wasn’t sure. Here, hungry in his bamboo-barred classroom, no other E mattered. Sgt. Robert Parker wished the bell would ring, sending him to lunch in the cafeteria. Salisbury steak and potatoes made from detergent-like flakes. F was for Fire…napalm-fueled flames consuming flesh and forest, painting molten lava death.
G was for Grunt. Bobby dreamed of superheroes and Martians, he could not have imagined the things Sgt. Robert Parker would see as a grunt, here in what could only be described as Hell. H is for Hump which is a grunt’s existence. They humped their sack of government-issued possessions along miles of infinite, barely visible jungle trails. I was for Infinity.
J was for Julie, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty, sitting directly in front of Bobby in first grade, reciting their lessons while Bobby daydreamed. Her hair smelled like strawberries. Bobby fell in love at first smell. K was for Kiss, their first on the playground in third grade, awkward and wonderful. And their last, on the porch, right before Basic, scented by the flowers in Julie’s hair. The cats danced, arms swaying, fingers raised high in salutes of peace. The tabby burned his guitar like Hendrix.
L was for Life, and life meant so much, the most important word in the history of words. Life was about the sum total of history. What was worth living for, dying for? Life meant hopes, dreams, aspirations, goals, fears, defeats, pains, injuries, failures, and sacrifices. Are you experienced?
M was for Missing. Sgt. Robert Parker had been missing for five years now, living on rice soup until his captors and hosts abandoned him, leaving him to a caged, lonely fate. M was also for Married. Julie got married to an architect in San Diego, having left behind all hope of Bobby’s return.
N was for Neighbors. His were rotting in the nearby cages. O was for Options. He had none. P was for pride. He had none left. Q was for Qualms. These days, they were as prevalent as his options.
R was for Rats and Rain, which kept him alive. The rats came to feast on his neighbors’ rotting carcasses. Some left, stomachs full. Tthose who came too close to Sgt. Parker found themselves eaten. S was for Smell. Rat meat smells like rotting death. T was for Taste. They taste like bloody landfill rubber. Raw rat would never pass as a delicacy. Still, the cats danced, mouths dripping saliva, teeth like gleaming rodent-ready needles.
U was for Urine, for when there wasn’t rain.
V was for Victory. There hadn’t been one. For the first time in history, the United States lost a war. Sgt. Parker did not know this. He was preoccupied with his own survival. W was for War. Not Vietnam, a personal war with only two sides, survival and death. They followed no rules of engagement. No one protested. It was an unpopular war. No one cared but Sgt. Parker.
X was for xylophone. The cat in sunglasses played it, hammering resonating wooden bars with rubber-headed mallets. The other cats danced happily near the beginning of the alphabet. It may have started with the apple and the boy, but the banner above the chalkboard hadn’t been fun until the dancing cats. Bobby spent many hours in that first grade classroom, imagining the dancing cats.
Sure, the apple had been first, bringing sin and free-will. The boy had come next, the whole alphabet following him, a full array of choices and paths available to follow. But the cats had been the inspiration, the panel that showed what life had to offer. The future could be colorful and bright.
Y was for Youth. Bobby had been full of youth and hope. He could not have imagined clinging to life, dining on rat meat and urine in a bamboo cage on the other side of the world. The cats never allowed him to imagine such things. But the end neared. Sgt. Robert Parker was dying. He must be, because the cats would not stop dancing.
The xylophone was all he could hear, the cats all he could see. Movement was impossible. Starvation weakened him. The cats danced. They Waltzed. They Lindy Hopped. They Twist. Sgt. Robert Parker lay on the hot dirt, a sun-baked mummy of skin and bone. He watched the cats. He cried silently. His tears, dry. A starving dog waited for his master’s arrival. The cats vanished. The music faded.
Z was the end, as it always had been.