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Alice’s Restaurant: Chu Lai Beach, 1969
Creative Nonfiction by Susan O'Neill

What happens to boy Marines who burn out in battle?

They become lifeguards on the South China Sea.

On the beach, in a parallel world, sits a USO club where men duck in from the war to shoot pool, play chess, catch a show, swim, sail, surf. They come; they play; they leave. Hi! Wow! Bye! But the lifeguards (did my six months, man) stay.

The surf is not so terribly high all the time; sometimes it laps tamely at the white sand. Always it is warm. The lifeguards are tanned and taut, with washboard stomachs and all-American lopsided boy grins. Their biceps are etched with eagles, snakes, tiny dancing girls. Their calves are knotted muscle; their knees are knobbed from smacking surfboard.

Their eyes are vacant, sometimes. Nobody home. Sometimes they look at the surf and sand and diving gulls, and they see Death. Sometimes, when it rains, they play eight-ball on mine fields. Sometimes, they burn their fingers on a chess piece.

Sometimes the eyes are very old in the tan boy faces.

This South China Sea USO could be on Miami Beach, but there are no hotels. And there are the odd craters from infrequent incoming rounds. But for the barracks next door to the USO and a hut or two back well behind the beach grass; but for the random rickety fishing boat plying the nearby inlet; but for the tracers in the night sky and the slamslamslam of mortars walking an invisible perimeter, it could be a resort in the Keys.

Once, an oil slick blanketed the beach. Bummer, man--no swimming, no surfing. Not for a week. Pool table worked overtime; chess pieces clanked up and down the checkered field. Band came in, played, and left without so much as a skinny-dip. Bummer.

But that was just a strange reality clog in the sundrenched fantasy that is the South China Sea USO.

~

What happens to boy Marines who burn out in battle, when the sun and the surf and the pool table and the chess set aren't enough; when their eyes go vacant and very old?

They go the barracks next to the USO on the South China Sea. They go to Alice's Restaurant.

As Arlo Guthrie said, man--you can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant. Excepting Alice.

No food, either...

There are a few good men at Alice's Restaurant. Marines good and true. They are soul doctors. They are menders of torn psyches, They have the cure. They have what every boy needs to bring a soul back into a tanned, taut body, to balance the yin and yang, to put out the fever. What they got will ease the soul pain. Drink it. Smoke it. Sniff it. Stick it in a vein. The best of the best, and the price is rock-bottom right, MPC or greenback.

Bring your kills. Alice's will cover 'em with warm, fuzzy blankets and lay 'em down to rest. Bring the monkey on your back and Alice's will feed him big and fat. Come in for a little tune-up, Alice's will straighten out the kinks and smooth the knocks. Come in for confession, Alice's will serve up the high priest--no extra cost. Bare your soul, Alice's will bind it up. The soul doctors.

Alice's Restaurant doesn't push. They don't come to you; you come to them. They got carry-out-fucking-service. Carry it out to the fire base. Drink it there; smoke it there; sniff it there; stick it in a vein. There. Carry it out to the jungle. Carry it out for a buddy. Alice's is a neutral vender. It's there for you. You bring the need. You bring the habit. You bring the MPC or the greenbacks. Alice's daily special is service.

Rumor is, they do long-distance carry-out. Rumor is, they'll pack it to go in the handle of your tennis racquet, in your guitar case, in the heel of your jungle boot. In your body bag. Rumor can be true; rumor can be a load of bullshit. Which is it? Ha--don't ask lightly, soldier. Need-to-know only.

Rumor is, Alice's is a switchboard, not the whole fucking ball-of-wax, ATT, Ma Bell service. Call Alice (I think she'll know) for a convenient long-distance carrier. Alice's Restaurant will plug you in.

Whatever. Don't Mean Nothing. At your service, is Alice's Restaurant.

An army moves on its support services.

An army moves on its belly.

Moves on its gut.

Moves on its soul.

Moooooooooves.

On.

Its.

Ghosts.



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Reprinted from Ink Pot #6, available now

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