Nothing To Crow About
By Christopher Upham
That fall the war was still on television, but we had come home to
Flagstaff, Arizona and didn't watch it anymore. In the mornings we walked
down the highway past Ruff's Liquor Store where mud spattered hunters hung
deer and elk carcasses up by their horns to weigh so that the dead animals,
dusted with snow, swayed stiffly in the wind.
It felt good to walk in the cold with the wind whipping across
Route 66 crowded with trailer-trucks and hunters down from the Uncompaghres
and the Sangre de Cristos. There was thick dirty ice on the pavement
beneath the railroad underpass and freight trains roared past the bars and
curio shops, the windblown gas stations, cheap motels and deserted
The old sidewalks were deserted except for an Indian in a ragged
black coat collecting trash blown into chain link fences around motel pools
that had logs thrown in them to keep the ice from cracking the gunnite
We crossed Highway 66 under the neon mess of signs at Five Points
and with cinders grating under our feet, we walked through the red
sandstone gate into the College Union.
We sat at our usual table near the stone fireplace and drank bad
coffee and watched the C-U lawn turn white as the wind blew snowflakes off
the aspen and blue spruce.
There were three of us: me, big Durk, who had been a Lieutenant
--an L-T, and Claver, a flat-faced man with a bushy mustache and a vicious
purple scar on his neck from Hue, where his fire team had gone hand-to-hand
with North Vietnamese Army regulars. 'We got overrun,' Claver said when
asked about it, 'Outa ammo, scared shitless when this little dink drops in
my hole an' cuts me so badass I had to grease him.'
Outside, the snow quit and the wind just blew.
"What's our mission today, L-T?" Claver asked.
"Shoot down the Command and Control chopper, Sergeant," Durk said.
"Roger that," Claver said.
"Then business as usual," Durk said as a tight grin crept across
his face, "Kill dinks. Kick ass and take names."
Claver's eyes glittered and the scar on his neck throbbed.
"Claver," I said, "We're back in the world."
"Think anyone fucking cares?" he said.
Durk pointed out the window at three crows huddled on a
"Hey Claver. Looks like your bird escaped," he said.
"What do you know? L-T ."
"That's your crow," Durk said, "In the middle. I heard him talk."
"So what did he say?" Claver asked.
"Nevermore," Durk said, cracking up.
"Not cool," I told Durk.
Claver fingered his scar and squinted hard at the tree.
"For your infor-fucking-mation, Lieutenant ," he said, "That ain't
Top out there."
The coffee had gone cold, so I left. Durk followed. The ground was
frozen with a thin layer of snow as we walked through the wind to an ugly
brick building without any pine trees to hide it. Durk studied engineering
with an English minor so we had a rhetoric class together; we read the
Sophists. Sometimes this blonde with a deep voice who wore an Afghan
jacket would look at me. She had beautiful eyes and beautiful hands and a
smile that made the world seem as if it were all right..
Claver always wore his field jacket, Levi's and scuffed jungle
boots. He collected those green VA checks, and rarely went to class. You
could always find him in the CU lounge playing somebody's guitar. Claver
himself wasn't bad, but his habits were. He would consume anything until
it was gone or until he fell down, whichever came first. His girlfriends
rarely lasted longer than a week. 'Don't mean nothin' ', he always
explained. He couldn't imagine anything other than Vietnam turning out
badly for him.
The three of us shared an old sheepherder's cabin on a ridge of
Ponderosa pines overlooking the town and the mainline Santa Fe tracks. We
never spoke directly about the war; instead we communicated through a
black shorthand of Army slang shot through with irony. I had served as a
medic with the engineers and Durk had been an artillery forward observer.
Claver's war in the infantry was written in his watery old man's eyes that
never missed a thing. Like that crow Durk pointed out.
At night we lounged on an old brown sofa in front of the fire and
let the records go around in our heads until the beer and the tequila and
the Oaxacan weed killed all the dreams and then it was all right. We had
seen our share of bad dreams. All we wanted to do was watch the fire burn
Sometimes there were women and sometimes there weren't. Eventually
the blonde with the Afghan coat showed up at the cabin and broke my long
streak of bad luck that had started long before Vietnam. Her name was
Debbie Purvis and her laugh was quick and her hair and her legs were long.
Her deep, musical voice almost made me forget those Vietnamese faces.
Maybe, except for Claver's crow, just maybe, we might even still be
Claver really did have a crow. Every morning it perched out on the
dead pine limb overhanging his window - - the first thing Claver saw when
he got up. Not that he slept much. Claver called the crow "Top" -- after
his first sergeant, and bribed him with raw hamburger. Eventually, the bird
came right into the house and hopped up on the brown sofa.
"So what do you think about that son-of-a-bitch Nixon?" Claver
asked the crow.
He waved a little piece of raw meat. Top cocked his head, flapped
his wings and cawed shrilly. Claver laughed like hell and tossed the bird
Late one night, in the darkness of my small bedroom, Debbie Purvis
and I awoke to Claver's voice, murmuring over the scratch of Top's claws as
the crow walked back and forth on the stone mantel. In the crook of my arm,
Debbie stiffened. Sometimes it got so bad for Claver that even the joints
and the shots and the beers didn't work.
Then his dull voice rose above the crackling fire.
"Remember Hue, Top? Hue. Fucking Hue. We should all be dead.
Maybe we are dead, Top. Maybe all this is all a badass motherfuckin'
dream. Like Hue. Some baad, baad dream."
The crow gurgled deep in its raspy throat and cawed quietly,
pacing bony feet back and forth across the mantelpiece.
"Who's Hue?" Debbie whispered to me.
"It's a place -- a city in Vietnam."
Outside, a gust of wind rattled our windows.
"Just you and me, now, Top," Claver droned, "Peonio. Bought it on
the Dak To airstrip. Calhoun -- greased by friendly fire. Minh Thi Tanh,
xin loi, sorry 'bout that. Fremo -- blown clean away -- vaporized -- in
that ambush out on Highway 14, poor dumb shit. And Delta Roger sucked
"What's he talking about?" Debbie whispered.
I ran my fingers across her cheek and traced her lips, real sweet.
Outside, the wind howled.
" an' poor Joyce .... ooo, man that was one badass treeline.
Fuckin' Perfume River. Jesus -- R-P-G right in the chest. K-I-
fuckin'-A-M-O-U-S-E, Mick-ey Mouse. Then that dipshit Clayborne got
himself sniped taking a leak up on LZ Lincoln. You gotta remember that, Top ...."
The crow croaked long and deep.
"After that, there was nobody left in first platoon, Top. Not one
swingin' Richard. Remember all them fuckin' new guys after 8-6-1? Even
you didn't have time to learn their names, Top-- don't try'n tell me you
did - I seen you tryin' to match up body bags and dog tags. Oh man. Oh
man. And then the Cake flamed out with all them silly-assed officers in
the C&C bird two clicks west of An Khe and freakola Newman had the brass
goddamn balls to fuckin' cheer ....."
"SHUT THE FUCK UP, CLAVER!" Durk screamed from his bedroom.
Claver shut up, but his crow freaked and just got louder and louder
until wings fluttered through the air and scraped against the walls and
banged around the living room, making horrible sounds like men do when
they're drowning in their own blood. Beer bottles crashed to the ground
and the fireplace screen fell down and Debbie Purvis gripped me like a
snake, but that crow kept on squawking. Claver must have walked over to
Durk's door, because over the noise we heard him say real low and quiet and
"Hey. L-T. You know, I fragged me an officer once."
Then the horrible cawing stopped. The crow's wings fluttered a few
times and went silent, then Claver walked past my bedroom.
We sat up in bed. Through the window we could see the crow perched
on Claver's shoulder as he opened and closed the front door with a rattle
of glass. As Claver crunched across the frozen ground, we could hear him
whispering to the crow. Debbie Purvis started shivering uncontrollably and
after the shrieking wind drowned them out, she threw herself all over me.
In the morning Claver wasn't in his bed, but the crow was still
outside, sitting on that dead limb, picking at his feathers. When Debbie
Purvis and I left for class, the crow swiveled his head around, gave us a
long, slow look, whistled once and flew off.
He flapped up from the tree over the snowy rooftops and then soared
down the ponderosa ridge until he became a hard black speck in the sky
above the college.
After class, I went into the Union. Claver was drinking coffee.
He hadn't shaved and his eyes were red and wild.
"Ever been in an Indian bar, man?" he asked.
I shook my head.
"Too much. Them Indian dudes know how to party. They know the true
meaning of 'don't mean nothin'," he said, spreading his hands to include
everything around us, "An' most every Indian's done time in the green
killin' machine, too -- honest grunt time."
He looked at me straight with those bad watery eyes he usually
reserved for Durk.
"You need anything?"
"Naw. Them bars open at six am. I'm feelin' good ."
"Your crow was waiting this morning."
"Fuck that crow," Claver said, "This Hopi dude said stay away from
that crow. Said it's the soul of some badass spirit."
"Well, he was waiting for you."
As I walked to class, a long line of blackbirds were perched on the
roof of the Union building, silhouetted against the gray sky. When the
noon whistle over at the sawmill blew, they all flew away together, soaring
and wheeling in a thin cloud of feathered specks that grew smaller and
nearly vanished. Only a few of them came back and settled on the roof.
Claver didn't show up at the cabin for two weeks. One day I drove
Debbie Purvis to buy art supplies near the mainline Santa Fe tracks.
"Jack," Debbie said, tightening her fingers on my arm, "There's
He was leaned up against a derelict brick building beside the
tracks, passing a green pint of applejack wine back and forth with three
We parked in the train station and followed the railroad tracks
over to them. Claver's field jacket was torn in three places and his hair
was greasy and plastered to the back of his skull. It was so cold you
could see their breath after they drank, but at least they were out of the
wind. Claver's mustache was frozen but his eyes were on fire, darting
every which way.
"Hey, brother," he said when we got close.
"How ya doing?" I asked.
"Swell, man, really swell."
Nobody gave Debbie Purvis a glance. The three Indians stared
straight ahead. Their soft deerlike eyes were flecked with red and their
broad brown faces were pudgy with bruises.
"Hit?" Claver asked, tilting the bottle toward me.
Claver wouldn't look at me.
"Anything I can do?" I asked.
Claver hooted a laugh, and said:
"Not unless you got the codes to call an arc-light in on this place."
An arc light was a B-52 bombing strike. He grinned viciously, and
nodded. Then Claver's eyes lost themselves in the distance, like he was
dismissing us, so I said good-bye, took Debbie Purvis's arm and walked back
across the tracks to my car.
We left them drinking beneath a red circle painted on a wall with
peeling yellow letters that said: CHEW REDMAN. Then the one-ten freight
roared in from Gallup and blocked our view and a flock of swallows rose up
from the train station, soaring and wheeling together, their tiny
fluttering shadows dark against the white San Francisco Peaks.
"Shouldn't we do something?" Debbie Purvis shouted over the noise
of the train.
I started the car. My eyes felt like ice.
"Bring him home."
"He is home."
"On the railroad tracks?"
"He's back in the world."
"What does that mean?" Debbie demanded, "You always say that. What
does it mean, 'back in the world'?"
"As opposed to Vietnam."
"What are you talking about?" she said, "It's like you don't want
to be understood."
"This is a great country," I said, "Nobody's shooting at you. We're
back in the world. It's wonderful to be home."
I kissed Debbie, but her whole face went rigid -- the tip of her
nose, her flushed cheeks -- even her lips. We waited until the freight
train passed, but Claver and his friends weren't there any more.
A week later, after the snow had been plowed into muddy banks
overflowing our yard, Claver banged on the glass of our front door. His
unshaven face was cut and he was broke and dirty and stank, but he was
back. The crow was perched outside on that widow maker pine limb dripping
with icicles, but Claver didn't look at him and marched right into the
bathroom for a shower. I was frying him some eggs when Durk came back from
"Sergeant Claver! Your bird's wants a word with you."
"I ain't got nothing to say to no bird," Claver answered.
"You could shoot the fucking thing," Durk said.
"Not me, Lieutenant, I'm done with shootin'."
"Then request yourself a fire mission, sergeant," Durk said, "I
bought a new four-ten shotgun."
All that winter the crow perched outside his window. Claver
discovered some VA checks he had forgotten to cash and was flush so nearly
every afternoon for two months, he camped out on our brown sofa. I guess
he'd given up on school. He played the Doors and Led Zepplin over and over
and carefully built and burned a fire down to coals and then roasted hot
dogs and marshmallows on coat hangers.
He grew his hair long into a ponytail and somehow acquired a
girlfriend. Marina Marie Silver was a skinny, brown-eyed girl with stringy
hair who always wore black and only came over at night. Neither Marina nor
Claver talked as much as they drank, but things were better than before.
Marina said she was a poet, so Durk took to mouthing 'Nevermore' behind her
In the spring, Claver bought a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and black
leather jackets for both of them. Marina and Claver were gone for days,
camping on the Indian reservations, at the Grand Canyon or down on the
Mogollon Rim. Whenever they returned, the crow was always waiting outside
on the dead pine limb, but Claver never had anything to do with him.
For Durk's graduation we threw a big party, with Mormon Lake
Lodge steaks, a keg of Michelob and plenty of good dope. The cabin
overflowed with people and smoke. Durk wore his cap and gown and leaned
against the mantle, beer in hand, telling stories. He mentioned to
somebody who told someone else that Claver had a pet crow. Somebody else
called bullshit, so Claver snorted once, flashed that deadly glint in his
eye, set his wine down and stomped outside.
The crow hopped right up on Claver's shoulder and stayed there as
he marched back through all the people and the smoke and the loud music.
Everyone cheered and drank toasts to Claver, to the crow and to Durk. The
bird examined every face, mechanically flitting his eyes back and forth.
But when somebody persuaded the crow to drink out of a saucer of
beer, Claver's girlfriend Marina ran outside crying. Claver set the crow on
his shoulder and shoved his way through the party after her.
All night, Marina and Claver sat in our driveway on his chrome
Harley-Davidson, drinking Spa­ada out of a big jug and laughing and crying
on each other until you could see the streaks of tears and wine running
down their black leather jackets in the moonlight. When we finally went to
bed, the crow was perched on the handlebars.
Sometime during the night, the motorcycle kicked over and roared off.
Early next morning, when Debbie Purvis and I dragged ourselves up
to throw out the mounds of dirty paper plates and beer cups, we found
Marina Silver sleeping on the sofa. We tried to be quiet while we emptied
the ashtrays and dragged the trash can away and Marina never budged.
Finally, when Debbie ran the vacuum, Marina bolted up like she
had been shot. Her straggly hair looked like a bird's nest and she still
wore her black leather jacket. She coughed once, lit a cigarette and threw
the match into the fire I had started with the trash. She stared into the
flames as if someone was burning up in the fireplace.
"Where's Claver?" I asked.
"California," Marina said slowly.
"Claver went to California?"
Marina looked at me like I was crazy.
"For weal or woe I will not flee," she muttered into the fire.
"Oh, Jesus," a hungover Durk said, stepping out from the bedroom in
his underwear, "Fucking poetry in the morning. "
Marina grimaced, and shut her eyes tight and pulled on her boots.
She stood up and pushed her hair around.
"So Claver's really gone?" Durk asked.
"Yeah," Marina said.
"How come you didn't go?"
Marina shrugged her shoulders and dragged on her cigarette. Durk
scratched his stomach and ambled to the front of the house, wiped the
condensation off the window in the front door and stared outside.
Suddenly, Durk whirled around, ran back to his bedroom, got something,
then disappeared out the front door.
A shotgun blast rattled our windows .
When Durk returned, there was a stupid grin on his face. Smoke
poured out of the breech of his gleaming four-ten.
"Done," he said.
Nobody moved. The sharp smell of cordite hung over the room.
"I only scared him away," Durk explained, "I have to live here all
The cardboard beer cartons roared in the fireplace. We sat down on
the sofa and no one spoke for a long time.
"I should go home," Debbie Purvis said finally.
She touched my shoulder and kissed the back of my head. I started
to say something, but she slipped past me, went out the back door and
started walking home. Marina caught up with her.
"Chicks," Durk said, coming out of his room and running a cleaning
patch down the barrel of his shotgun.
It was a long summer. Debbie Purvis went back to Phoenix and
decided to transfer. I got a very nice letter postmarked from Berkeley.
In the fall, a week after hunting season started, Hutch mailed me
a letter from Riverside. I opened it as I walked down Route 66 to school
There was a newspaper clipping inside and the headline read: Jimmy Earl
Claver, 24, of Flagstaff, Arizona, Killed In Motorcycle Accident.
Drunk, I thought, or stoned, but the next sentence said the coroner
had found no traces of alcohol or any controlled substances in the body.
Claver had been conscious after the accident and had told the
investigating sheriff he was accelerating the bike hard out of a corner
when, what Claver called a 'dark bird', flew up from the road and struck
him in the chest, knocking the motorcycle off course. The Harley jumped a
curb, careened across a center divider and smashed into a burlap-covered
palm tree waiting to be planted.
Claver had only broken his leg, but the next day an embolism -- a
blockage, the paper called it-- freakishly penetrated his vein, went
straight to his heart and it was all over.
The paper had printed a photograph of Claver in his green Army
dress uniform. He looked so young and so innocent you could almost swear
it wasn't the same person we had known. And maybe it wasn't. The Claver in
those dress greens had died long before we knew him, long before the Claver
on the motorcycle. Only thing was, he never knew it.
Maybe that's what the crow was trying to tell him.
I put the letter away and zipped up my field jacket against the
wind and walked on past Ruff's Liquor. A hunter was hauling a little
four-point buck out of his Chevy pickup by the chain on the store sign up
to weigh, so I stopped and watched the dead deer rising and swaying in the
wind with little flecks of snow dusting his beautiful coat. Then I walked
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