Shallow Sea

Jesse didn’t know a valley could be so vast, making those back home in West Virginia seem like hollows. When he wrote California on his dream sheet at the recruiter’s office in Elkins, he imagined beaches, not orchards, and never rice fields like those in Vietnam War movies. Jesse joined the military, as his brothers did before him, to get the hell away from lurching coal trucks, winding unemployment lines, his only sister’s grave, her candlelit photo recalling all the plain and lonesome mountain girls he knew in high school. He’s been in the Sacramento Valley exactly a week when he sees Helen sitting cross-legged on a pool table, singing “Blessed Assurance” to a group of shit-faced airmen like himself. She’s dressed in shorts and an Air Force T-shirt tied in a knot at her waist. Hair bleached blond and wearing entirely too much lipstick, Helen—like the other girls from town who hang out in the dorms—looks to him anything but plain.

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