Fields of Fire by James Webb

Start reading James Webb's Fields of Fire, a classic novel of the Vietnam War, this Veteran's Day.

Fields of Fire by James Webb

February 1968

There he went again. Smack-man came unfocused in the middle of a word, the unformed syllable a dribble of bubbly spit along his chin, and leaned forward, that sudden rush of ecstasy so slow and deep it put him out. His knees bent just a little and he stood there motionless, styled out in a violet suit and turquoise, high-heeled shoes. He had the Wave and his hair was so perfectly frozen into place that he seemed a mimic sculpture of himself, standing there all still with skag.

Snake peeped into the doorway one more time, still saw no one, and took a deep breath: I owe it to myself. He grabbed a sink with one hand and unloaded with a furious kick, perfectly aimed. Smack-man’s head bounced up like a football on a short string, stopping abruptly when his neck ended. Then he slumped onto the floor, out cold, breathing raggedly through a mashed, gushing nose.

Nothing to it. Never knew what hit him.

Snake quickly sorted through Smack-man, careful to replace each item as he found it. Two ten’s were stuffed inside one pocket. Whatta you know. Smack-man must be a bag man. Smack-man should be ashamed. Snake pocketed the money, laughing to himself: for the good of society, and little kids on dope.

He stood, pushing his glasses back up his nose, and scratched his head, studying his kill. Well, I gotta go tell Mister Baum. What a bummer.

And in twenty minutes he was on the street again, walking briskly toward nowhere under winter’s lingering chill. His shoulders were raised underneath the gray sweatshirt, guarding hopelessly against the wind. His head was tilted to the side and back. A sneer sat tightly on his face.

What the hell. You gotta believe in yourself. It was the right thing to do.

A gust of wind swooped down from the amber mist of sky and chased him, rattling trash. Next to him the door of an abandoned rowhouse swung open and banged. The boards over its windows clapped against the building. His eyes scanned the building quickly and his narrow shoulders raised against the biting wind again, but otherwise there was no reaction from him.

Gotta be cool, man. Can’t let no empty building spook you.

An old car clanked past him, spewing clouds of oil, and he eyed it also, not breaking his sauntering stride. Driving too slow. Looking for something. Hope it ain’t me.

He was small, with a mop of brittle hair. The hair flopped along his neck, bending with any hint of wind. His face was narrow and anonymous but for the crooked memory of a broken nose and the clear eyes. The eyes were active and intense.

He left the sidewalk, turning inside a rusted fence, and walked up to a rowhouse stairway. He climbed the outside steps, pondering each one as if searching for an excuse not to ascend it, and did a mull-dance on the landing, finally being chased inside by another gust of wind.

Hell with it. Need a beer anyway.

The black stench of air clung to him as he climbed the inside stairs. Sadie stuck her head out on the second landing and he jammed a ten-dollar bill inside her stained cotton robe. The bill never stopped moving. Sadie extracted it with a lightning stroke and ogled it as if it were an emerald. Her wild gray hair came full into the hallway and she called to Snake. He was three steps up from her landing now.

“What you been up to, bad old Snake?”

“Trouble. You know that.” He stopped on the stairs for one moment and gave her his ten-dollar sermon. “Now, go buy that dog of yours some diapers. Or a box of kitty litter. I’m tired of seeing his shit inside the door down there.”

She slammed the door on him. He laughed, continuing up the stairs. Old bitch.

Inside his own door, a vision on the bed. He blinked once at the greater light and focused. It was his mother, in her bathrobe. She dangled imaginatively on the bed’s edge, her chubby legs crossed, neither of them quite touching the floor. Her arms were up behind her head, pushing her hair over the top so that it fell down around her face. She looked as if she were carefully attempting to re-create a picture from some long-forgotten men’s magazine. She watched the door with expectant eyes and dropped her hands in disappointment when she saw Snake. He shook his head slightly, then pulled out a cigarette and leaned against the doorway.

“Uh huh. What are you doing? Paying bills?”

She smoothed a wrinkle on the bed, studying it for a moment, not looking at him. Then she gave her hair a flip. She had bleached it artificial gold again, and she smiled her sugar smile and her sad, remembering voice came across the room on a puffy little cloud, floating lazily to his ears.

“You’re home early, Ronnie.”

“You noticed that.”

She was naked underneath the robe. She leaned forward on the bed, finding the floor with her dangling feet, and the robe fell loosely away, revealing her. Snake shrugged resignedly. Something’s going on. Again. He walked to the refrigerator and searched for a beer but they were gone. There had been two six-packs that morning.

“Old Bones out on a job?” She nodded, watching him from beside the bed.

“You sure he’s working?” She laughed a little. He did, too. The old man’s antics were legendary and unpredictable.

“Man came for him in a truck this morning and he left with his painting clothes on, carrying a sackload of beer.” She shrugged, then looked at Snake with an insightful stare. “From the beer I’d say he’s working. If it was hard stuff…” She made a funny face and shrugged again. “I think he’s working.”

There was nothing else to drink in the refrigerator. “Any coffee?”

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He put some water on. She eyed him closely, walking from the bed into the kitchen. “Why are you home so early? Did you get fired again?”

He spooned the instant into the cup. “Yup.”

She grinned, half-amused and half-curious, her eyes lingering on his wiry body. “Was it another fight? How can you stand to fight so much? You’re so blind without your glasses! Was it another fight?”

He checked the water. Hot enough. He poured it into the cup. “Yup. Sort of.”

She sat down and leaned over the table, admiring him. “How can a man be fired for ‘sort of’ being in a fight?”

He joined her at the table and sipped his coffee. Perfect. Then he lit another cigarette. “Well. It all started when I had to clean the women’s room.” She nodded eagerly, already knowing that he would make it into a great story. She had always told him that he shouldn’t fight but she cloyed him with attention when he did. She had always admonished him to be civil but at times like this he was John Wayne, straight out of Dodge City. He casually sipped his coffee.

“I put the sign out in front of the door, you know, so nobody will walk into the room when I’m cleaning it. Then I wait until all the girls are out of there, asking each one when she leaves if there’s anybody else still in there. I don’t want to get into that kind of trouble, moral turpitude is a bust, you know that. Finally I go in and clean the toilets and the sinks, and I’m starting to mop the floor when this nigger dude stumbles in. Got a Jones on, I can tell the minute he walks into the room. He’s just shot up, too. Don’t know where the hell he got off, maybe right there in the movie room. Don’t know if he could cook up without being caught but I guess it’s as good as any other place. Nobody ever gave a damn when a match was lit that I ever saw. Maybe he was snorting. Who knows. He looked too out of it to be snorting. He was out on his goddamn feet. You know he’s out of it if he walks into the wrong bathroom. Moral turpitude and all.”

She reached over and took one of his cigarettes, ogling him as if he were telling a bedtime story. Really grooving on it. “Yeah. O.K. So what did you do?”

“Take it easy. Don’t steal my lines, all right? The dude walks into the bathroom, taking a couple steps and then stopping, nodding out right on his feet, leaning all the way forward at the waist, all the way out. Then he wakes up real quick and goes ‘whoooeeee, whooooooeee,’ like that, and then falls asleep again, there on his feet. I don’t know how the hell he made it to the bathroom. Well. I watch him do that a couple times. He smiles when he wakes up like everything’s O.K. I try to check his fingers to see if he’s got the poison but I can’t tell, and he’s pretty strong when he wakes up. Figure he’s just got a strong shot in him.

“He’s dressed pretty good. That don’t always mean anything, I mean, why the hell would he be in a movie in the afternoon if he’s worth a shit, it’s a lousy movie anyway. But you never can tell.”

He flipped his cigarette into the cluttered sink and slowly lit another, enjoying her eagerness. “Didn’t know what to think, to tell you the truth. Coulda been anybody. But I watched him dropping off like that, and checked those clothes out, and I figured it was worth a shot.” She nodded quickly to him, smiling, enraptured by his logic. Snake laughed ironically. “It was like the Lord his-self delivered him to me. Here we are in the girls’ room, with a sign out front that says ‘CLOSED,’ ain’t nobody coming in, ain’t nobody there to say what happened, this dude is so far gone he could take a picture of me and still not remember me. Well. Just had to make me a play.”

She was still smiling. She leaned forward in anticipation. “So you punched his lights out.”

He laughed a little. “Well, I thought about it. You know John Wayne woulda dropped him with a poke between the eyes. But I figured the motherfucker would break my hand. Nigger heads are like that, you know? So the next time he gave a whoooeee I kicked him right between the eyes. Pow!” He checked her face out. She was ecstatic. It was the high point of her day. “Kept my toe pointed so I wouldn’t put my foot between his eyes. Don’t need no murder rap from a junkie dead inside a toilet. Popped his nose like a light bulb. He had twenty bucks and four bags on him. Took the bucks. Left the bags.”

She stared at him curiously. “So how’d you get fired?”

He squinted, sipping coffee. The coffee was almost gone. “Well, I had to report it. Everybody knew it was me inside the girls’ room. Found Mister Baum and told him a dude got pushy with me when I tried to make him leave the girls’ bathroom. Told him the dude looked a little drunk and started shoving me, so I poked him in the face.”

She squinted back. “Sounds like a pretty good story to me.”

“I thought so, too. But you know them hebes. Always worrying about getting sued. He tells me, ‘Snake, you can’t just go round hitting people when you work in a place like this.’ I says, ‘Mister Baum, you know I never started a fight in my whole life, but I just can’t let people push me round, no matter where I work. What kind of a man lets people push him round?’ And he says, ‘Snake, I think you done a good job for us but I gotta can you.’ And he fires me and gives me full pay for the week. Plus I got the nigger’s twenty bucks. Not bad, huh?”

She nodded approvingly: not bad. “What happened to the nigger?”

Snake stacked the coffee cup in the sink. “Who cares?” His face showed a moment of sparkle. “If he’s got a hair on his ass he’ll sue Mister Baum.”

She leaned back in her chair, laughing. Not a bad story. Then she smiled and he could tell she was remembering again. She shook her head a little. “You’re so bad, Ronnie. And so young to be so bad. Doesn’t anybody scare you? Don’t you like anybody?”

He did not answer. The question was rhetorical. He stifled the retort that once was commonplace, that she was not one to be lecturing anyway. She continued, though, in a rare moment when the emotion of the memory overwhelmed the reality of the present. “And you were stupid to quit school. You always did so well.”

Again he did not answer. She’s talking about history, he mused. Don’t do no good to talk about it. Won’t change it. And it was nothing but a hassle, anyway. Rules rules rules.

She gave him an acquiescent smile and floated those pillowed, remembering words again. “Well, I guess you’ll be out job-hunting tomorrow morning, huh?”

“I don’t know. I’m getting sick of it.”

She shrugged, avoiding his eyes. She had already said too much. Or perhaps it would have been one of the rare days when her memories mounted until they drove him back into the street. Who knows. There was a measured clomping on the stairs then, and the door burst open. No knock.

A reddened face peered expectantly into the room as if it were his personal possession. The red face was meaty, heavy-bearded, framed by thinning black hair. The nose was mashed and grainy and the eyes seemed dull, unfocused. The man had huge hands and a belly that hung over his belt.

Snake understood immediately. He felt humiliated, but mostly he was embarrassed at being in the way. She’s going to do it, he thought, starting for the door, there’s no way I can ever stop that. Her life, anyway. She wants it and I got no right to get pissed. But he looked at the animal that had just entered his home for the purpose of smothering his mother underneath his rolls of fat and muscle, stroking that most special part of her insides, and his neck crawled with a rage that did not delude him as to its depth.

He knew that he could kill this fat man whose only pertinent fault was that he wanted to fill Snake’s mother with the one thing she desired more than anything else. He could kill him and laugh for weeks about it. For one pulsing, heated flash he seriously considered using his knife. Then he became embarrassed at his own rage. I got no right, he decided. Don’t do no good, anyway. It’s what she wants. Hell with it.

Fat Man looked dully at his mother, seemingly too unfocused to understand. Maybe he’s jealous, Snake mused. That’s a laugh. He decided that he must leave the apartment, get out of their way. Fat Man was still standing in the door, half in and half out, trying to figure the whole thing out. Snake reminded himself that he would have to laugh about Fat Man once he escaped the apartment. Christ, is the bastard dumb. Where does she find ‘em? But I bet he has a big one.

He turned to his mother and said, for the benefit of Fat Man, “Well, I’m cutting out, Mom. Catch you later.”

From the Paperback edition.

Excerpted from Fields of Fire by James Webb Copyright © 1978 by James Webb. Excerpted by permission of Bantam. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

JAMES WEBB, who has worked and traveled in Vietnam extensively since 1991, was one of the most highly decorated combat Marines of the Vietnam War. An attorney and Emmy Award-winning journalist, he has served as Secretary of the Navy, Assistant Secretary of Defense, and full committee counsel to the U.S. Congress. He lives in Virginia, where he has authored five critically acclaimed, bestselling novels.

About James Webb


JAMES WEBB, who has worked and traveled in Vietnam extensively since 1991, was one of the most highly decorated combat Marines of the Vietnam War. An attorney and Emmy Award-winning journalist, he has served as Secretary of the Navy, Assistant Secretary of Defense, and full committee counsel to the U.S. Congress. He lives in Virginia, where he has authored five critically acclaimed, bestselling novels.

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