Stockings by Tim O’Brien
Henry Dobbins was a good man, and a superb soldier, but sophistication was not his strong suit. The ironies went beyond him. In many ways he was like America itself, big and strong, full of good intentions, a roll of fat jiggling at his belly, slow of foot but always plodding along, always there when you needed him, a believer in the virtues of simplicity and directness and hard labor. Like his country, too, Dobbins was drawn toward sentimentality.
Even now, twenty years later, I can see him wrapping his girlfriendâ€s pantyhose around his neck before heading out on ambush.
It was his one eccentricity. The pantyhose, he said, had the properties of a good-luck charm. He liked putting his nose into the nylon and breathing in the scent of his girlfriendâ€s body, he liked the memories this inspired, he sometimes slept with the stockings up against his face, the way an infant sleeps with a magic blanket, secure and peaceful. More than anything, though, the stockings were a talisman for him. They kept him safe. They gave access to a spiritual world, where things were soft and intimate, a place where he might someday take his girlfriend to live. Like many of us in Vietnam, Dobbins felt the pull of superstition, and he believed firmly and resolutely in the protective power of the stockings. They were like body armor, he thought. Whenever we saddled up for a late-night ambush, putting on our helmets and flak jackets, Henry Dobbins would make a ritual out of arranging the nylons around his neck, carefully tying a knot, draping the two leg sections over his left shoulder. There were some jokes, of course, but we came to appreciate the mystery of it all. Dobbins was invulnerable. Never wounded, never a scratch. In August, he tripped a Bouncing Betty, which failed to detonate. And a week later he got caught in the open during a fierce little firefight, no cover at all, but he just slipped the pantyhose over his nose and breathed deep and let the magic do its work.
It turned us into a platoon of believers. You donâ€t dispute facts.
But then, near the end of October, his girlfriend dumped him. It was a hard blow. Dobbins went quiet for a while, staring down at her letter, then after a time he took out the stockings and tied them around his neck as a comforter.
â€œNo sweat,â€ he said. â€œI still love her. The magic doesnâ€t go away.â€ [It was a relief for all of us.]
The White Girl by Luis Alberto Urrera
Short was a tagger from down around 24th St. He hung with the Locos de Veinte set, though he freelanced as much as he banged. His tag was a cloudy blue/silver goth â€œII-SHTâ€ and it went out on freight trains and trucks all over the fucking place. His tag was, like, sailing through Nebraska or some shit like that. Out there, famous, large.
Short lived with his pops in that rundown house on W 20th. That one with the black iron spears for a fence. The old timer feeds shorties some times when they donâ€t have anywhere to goâ€”kids like Lil Wino and Jetson. Shortâ€s pops is a veterano. Been in jail a few times, been on the street, knows what itâ€s like. Heâ€d like Short to stay in school, but hey, what you gonna do? The vatos do what they got to do.
Short sometimes hangs in the backyard. Heâ€s not some nature pussy or nothing, but he likes the yard. Likes the old orange tree. The nopal cactus his pops cuts up and fries with eggs. Short studies shit like birds and butterflies, tries to get their shapes and their colors in his tag book. Hummingbirds.
Out behind their yard is that little scrapyard on 23rd. That one that takes up a block one way and about two blocks the other. Old, too. Cars in there been rusting out since â€68. GutiÃ©rrez, the old dude runs the place, heâ€s been scrapping the same hulks forever. Chasing kids out of there with a BB gun. Ping! Right in the ass!
Short always had too much imagination. He was scared to death of GutiÃ©rrezâ€s little kingdom behind the fence. Allâ€s you could see was the big tractor G used to drag wrecks around. The black oily crane stuck up like the stinger of the monsters in the sci-fi movies on channel 10. The Black Scorpion and shit.
The fence was ten feet tall, slats. Had some discolored rubber stuff woven in, like pieces of lawn furniture or something. So Short could only see little bits of the scary wrecks in there if he pressed his eye to the fence and squinted.
One day he just ran into the fence with his bike and one of those rotten old slats fell out and there it wasâ€”a passageway into the yard. He looked around, made sure Pops wasnâ€t watching, listened to make sure G wasnâ€t over there, and he slipped through.
Damn. There were wrecked cars piled on top of each other. It was eerie. Crumpled metal. Torn-off doors. Busted glass. He could see stars in the wind shields where the heads had hit. Oh manâ€”peeps died in here, Homes.
Short crept into musty dead cars and twisted the steering wheels.
He came to a crunched â€71 Charger. The seats were twisted and the dash was ripped out. Was that blood on the old seat? Oh man. He ran his hand over the faded stain. BLOOD.
He found her bracelet under the seat. Her wrist must have been slender. It was a little gold chain with a little blue stone heart. He held it in his palm. Chick must have croaked right here.
He stared at the starred windshield. The way it was pushed out around the terrible cracks. Still brown. More blood. And then the hair.
Oh shitâ€”there was hair in strands still stuck to the brown stains and the glass. Long blonde strands of hair. They moved in the breeze. He touched them. He pulled them free. He wrapped them around his finger.
That night, he rubbed the hairs over his lips. He couldnâ€t sleep. He kept thinking of the white girl. She was dead. How was that possible? How could she be dead?
He held the bracelet against his face. He lay with the hair against his cheek.
When he went out to tag two nights later, Short aborted his own name. Die Hard and Arab said, â€œYo, whatâ€s wrong with you?â€
But he only said, â€œThe white girl.â€
â€œWhat white girl? Yo?â€
But he stayed silent. He uncapped the blue. He stood in front of the train car. THE WHITE GIRL. He wrote it. It went out to New York. He sent it out to Mexico, to Japan on a container ship. THE WHITE GIRL.
He wrote it and wrote it. He sent it out to the world. He prayed with his can. He could not stop.
THE WHITE GIRL.
THE WHITE GIRL.
THE WHITE GIRL.
Both Henry Dobbins and 2 Short create a talisman from a feminine object – stockings and hairs, respectively. Both talismans are out of place in their environment. How so? And if we understand a talisman to be something that provides real power, magical power, to keep its owner safe and/or to provide good luck, how do these serve that purpose in these two stories?
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