Hope you will take a few moments to listen to this wintry season tale, my first halting effort at audio recording one of my short stories. This one derives from my first job as an occupational therapist at the Manhattan VA Hospital in New York. One of the outpatients I treated there came in one day with a photograph of himself standing with arms outstretched as a perch for a row of birds. As anyone who’s lived in New York knows, one of the great wonders of the city is it’s many eccentric residents. He was certainly one of them, and in this story I tried to imagine what his life must be like. It’s included in my story collection, Last Rites.
Whitman visits Thoreau in Concord: excerpt
For some time I’ve been weighing the philosophies and the examples of these two primary Americans, whose ideas have driven so much of what we do and feel. Their ideas are so similar and yet crucially different in ways (I believe) that have warped our perspectives and driven so much of the civil difficulty we continue to face across the 160+ years since they met briefly – at Whitman’s home in Brooklyn. I’m working on a historical fiction piece that imagines them meeting again in Concord, where these similarities and differences play themselves out in a way that I hope expresses what I mean by that. On Thoreau’s birthday, today, sharing a section from the story:
“So this is your river, the Concord, is it?”
“Of course it is not mine, nor anyone’s. If anyone’s, however, then perhaps the indigenous peoples run off by the farmers so long ago. You will find their name for the river felicitous. They called it the Musketaquid, or Grass-ground.”
”I know it. From your book.”
“Oh yes, I had almost forgotten.”
“Ha. And your mention, I do not pretend ownership of the word grass.”
“Let us leave it at that, then, shall we?”
“Ha, yes, leave. Do you open your book, do you go back to it?”
“I can hardly avoid it, the bulk of the edition insulates my attic room.”
The poet pauses another moment on the bridge, chuckling at the slate blue surface, still as a lake, but no more than a ribbon of water in comparison to the mighty effluvial East River and the magnificent Hudson, America’s Nile, that embrace Manahatta back home. He turns to see his companion already off and down the road, a stick man in soiled corduroys and a flat hat, stiff legs striding on as if he has forgotten his companion. Well, no effort to catch up, after all.
As he comes alongside, Thoreau continues his thought, saying, “Your book grows. Why did you not make a new book entire of these other poems?”
“Well, I have not said it, hesitate to speak it now, but….”
He strides on, beaked nose leading like a divining rod, if anything picking up the pace, as if their conversation is only an aspect of his own private thought. The poet ambles alongside, grinning at how neatly the man matches the acerbic words on his page. He says, “I think it will be my only book, and it will swell across the years left to me.” He hesitates, then says the words, “My American bible.”
Thoreau doesn’t seem to hear. He stops at a gated lane and beckons. “Come. Let me show you something.” He opens the picket gate and turns down a side path through brambles, pausing to wave an arm across a plat of browning vines. “If only you had come last week! It was my annual melon picnic. The community entire descends! This year one watermelon required a wheelbarrow. We carved it open with a crosscut saw!”
“A melon picnic.”
“Every year of my adult life, when I have enjoyed the freedom to garden. It is a great labor, but a joy. Here.” He bends mid-row, reaching into a loamy burrow, “This one I saved in case you might come. It will be our dessert today.” The shiny green melon, hefty as a cannonball, easily fits in his knapsack. “The garden seems to grow each year to fit the expanding renown of our picnic. Like the loaves and fishes, I always seem to have just enough melons for the crowd.” Thoreau shoulders the knapsack, turns to look directly into the poet’s gray eyes, as if to make some kind of point, adding, “May your American bible, as you call it, find a readership that swells alike.”
They cross the railroad tracks and descend towards the pond, through regimented rows of Lilliputian trees, none more than waist high. Spindly pines by the hundreds, interspersed with lindens, and a few oak saplings here and there. They pause in a little open space amidst them, at a squared off depression in the black soil. Thoreau pauses, looks about, as if seeking a companion or lost in a private revery. He gazes down towards the pond bank rimmed at this time of year with cat tails and calamus at this end. Emits a sharp whistle and waits. Oh my, this must be it, the poet guesses. “Your cabin, it was here?”
He barely nods, emits another whistle in a different pitch.
“But the reviews, they read as if you were far on the lost frontier! And there is the afternoon train steaming by, and your Concord just this short walk! And there on the far bank, is that a shanty town, too?”
Thoreau frowns, says, “I call to my old pets, but they are long gone or they have lost the habit. Yes, my retreat to the woods was here.”
“But where is it now? And the woods?”
“All cut down since. This was years ago. We planted this grove just last fall to make a new wood that I fear we shall never live to enjoy.”
The poet takes off his hat, bows his head ceremonially. “Then I shall read your new book in reverence. It will all be new to me as if imagined.”
“Better for that, I think. But it was real enough in its time. Now the chimney bricks themselves have wandered off.”
“So we have your book.”
“Well, you do. Here, have one.”
It’s a slight thing, in a brown binding, opens to a pencil drawing of the little hut that stood here, just as the poet’s first effort opened to an etching of he himself, no name just the image to identify him.
Whitman bends to his own knapsack to tuck it in, pulling out a second book. “And one for you, too! My third edition! See how it grows!”
“Indeed, sir! Since the volume you gifted me just last year! All new? What have we here?”
“Did Emerson not tell you? We spoke of the new poems at some length down in Boston last spring.”
“I fear he has said very little about them. But we see each other only seldom of late.”
“All for the best, I think. Judge for yourself. He wished to bowdlerize the lot, and that I cannot do.”
“Ha, that he tells you! He charges me to write with a fleshier zest.”
“I fear his ideal might straddle our paths.”
“To thine own self be true is the man’s oath, fleshy zest or no.”
“Which I think he eventually came to see.”
“In my case, too, I suppose. Though I know it irks him.”
“Where is the good reverend, I wonder?”
“Down to Boston again. You might have passed in your trains.”
“Well, thank you. I eagerly anticipate the wisdom of this new book. Is this then what your letter intended, this new thing you would show me?”
Thoreau removes his hat, bends to tug at his boots. “Do you remember in Brooklyn you spoke of swimming at Red Hook, I believe, in the harbor?”
“Every day that I can get there, yes, to this day!”
“Well, I too swim. Often of late walk a mile in the river up to my neck of a summer’s day.” He steps out of his boots and stands to unbutton his shirt. “So much of this new book was fished from this pond. I would invite you to fully immerse yourself therein, so as to enrich its reading.”
“Well, sir, then, you lead.” The poet doffs his slouch hat, drops it atop his companion’s, and strips down in an instant. The summer air so stifling when wrapped in linen and corduroy now fresh upon their skin. Thoreau has already begun to walk down to the water, elegant in his stride, the poet thinks, as a red Indian, his flanks narrow as a boy’s. He follows as best he can, tender feet hobbled by the pebbled path.
At the water’s edge, Thoreau snaps off a reed and hands it to Whitman, snaps another for himself. “You will require this,” he states, a glint in his steely blue eyes. Then he toes almost silently into the water. “Do not splash, you must slip in stealthy as a snake.”
The poet laughs, “Well, then, lead on, whatever initiation awaits!” Ridiculous, to stand ankle deep in pond ooze, twiddling a stick, directed as if a child by this rural intellectual. He had expected to sit in some stuffy parlor, nibble at corn bread, debate some point of the news. Well the little man is far out now, up to his neck in the placid green lake, his beaked nose a pointer at the surface. He said go slow, well then, yes sir, I follow as good as lead.
We just got back from New Orleans, and while there, like I always do, took a stroll down Dauphine Street in the Marigny, where I used to live. Reminded me of this story, the first one I ever published, in Turnstile magazine. It sort of foresaw what’s happened now, the gentrification of the neighborhood, and the loss of a certain tawdry character that meant so much in its richness. Here’s the way I saw the place back in 1988; you wouldn’t recognize it now.
MF FAGIT + WHOE
You can say what you want about Rosie. But I’m just a workin’ man and I love her. You think it’s easy on the docks in this heat? I seen a forklift driver just get drunk with the smell a bananas. And rotten sugar. On a hot day so the whole dock was shimmyin’. River looked like it was made out of grease, thick and boilin’-like. Seen that boy go wobbly on the heat and the bananas, and it all come a slow motion, everything wavy like you was lookin’ through smoke. Wheel jumped the dock, the last thing we seen was the greasy bottom of that old yellow forklift, topplin’ like a matchbox, and he never let go a the wheel.
You don’t go in the water after ‘em. Not on this bend. You got a mile a water takin’ a hairpin curve right here, and it whips under this dock like a whole lotta snakes. You watch how the ships take it sometime. How they come on broadside like they’re driftin’ right for you and then gun those props to catch the downriver flow. He’ll prob’ly turn up in the Gulf somewhere. Look, it’s no easy way, but I’m good with it. Ain’t so much as smashed a finger in three years out here. We got a union and steady pay with one hell of a lotta overtime, and that bought me my truck. But I gotta admit most of the money goes to Rosie, her operations and all them medical bills. What she’s gettin’ ain’t covered on my policy. But she ain’t caught me complainin’ once. Hell, I clocked two bids in the desert never saw a paycheck when my mama was sick. And before that it wasn’t no fortune fixin’ cars.M
This is a job of work, no worse than a lotta others, and before long Rosie’ll be all fixed up an’ I can start thinkin’ about a shop a my own. I mean, who needs these guys, buncha takers and rats? Okay, they’re some who’s okay. I’ll have a drink with ‘em sometimes, but Rosie and me, we’re not into that barbecue scene, all them crawfish boils. Figure even the best of ‘em I see enough on the dock, if you know what I mean. And Rosie’s friends, they don’t drop by a lot either. I know some of the girls here, they do cash transactions, you might say. This close to the Quarters and all. Don’t know what I’d do if they tried to get her into that. So, like I said, they don’t hang around much.
Anyway, you can ask her, for me and Rosie the best time’s just her and me. She keeps all that girlie stuff all over the house, but I just have one rule – no perfume. You work around crates a bananas all day, leaky drums a molasses, you can understand you don’t wanna smell Avon all over your house. She’s good to me. Not much of a cook, but she’s learnin’. She’ll set me down a beer and light up a joint and I’ll just lay up in the cool a.c. And sometimes she’ll surprise me with one thing or another. Maybe she’s worked out a new tune on her uke, and she’ll have on some little nightgown and set up a candle, look at me with those cool green eyes while she’s playin’. And my achy back and the day’s stink and heat and all that noise from the diesels just float away on a song. She likes movie songs that tinkle along like fingertips up my back. And then she’ll come over and run those same fingers over my chest and maybe nudge my towel off. She’ll let that nightgown drop like it’s nothin’ to her. Her little round breasts full as oranges, her skin the coolest smoothest thing I’ve seen all day. It’s a shock every time like a thrill of ice when those long fingernails walk my dick, and I love the way her breathin’ gets so quick and shallow when I take a squeeze of hers. You know I’ve gotten up to go to work in the mornin’, more than once, and we was right there. Never even got off the sofa, just dozed off with her sweet head on my shoulder, holdin’ each other like that.
Good morning, my good friends. I think y’all know, but I’m Apostle Tommy Byrd and I’ll be preaching here every other Sunday now. Mr. Willy, Miz Jane, good to see you. I know you ain’t had a regular shepherd here for some time, but I’m here to change all that. My brethren and my sisters, you have waited long lacking the Word from this pulpit, you made do with song and patient prayer. And I tell you right here today that vigil of yours will not go unrewarded.
Oh you have lingered long in the singing of hymns to glory, and I tell you now it is time at last to move forward, to raise the cross of Jesus and march with your fellow believers up the path of Calgary to our heavenly home in Faith and Salvation. The Apostle Tommy Byrd is here. The Good Lord in His all-seeing wisdom has brought me past many a crossroads to come here and see you through. Has lit my heart with the Word of God, has pointed me to this sanctified chamber to heal the lame and lend strength to the sorely tempted. And He has gifted me with a vision that we will increase this flock like Christ Jesus increased the loaves and fishes, until those of us here today, this half a dozen followers of the True Light, one half as many as the Savior’s own disciples, we’ll gain strength and multiply and spread the Mighty Word of the Holy Ghost, one day fill to overflowing each school chair hand-me-down pew in this humble storefront church.
For don’t you know this is the way of the Lord? He likes to start off humble, in darkness. He likes to start with the Word. And that Word is a call to the wounded and the worried and the seekers among us. Who long for His living solace and salve. And He likes to bring Light. Yes, you know it, the very first page of The Bible, right up front, yes in the beginning. The Bible says it — “in the beginning” — but it is not just then, it is not just some long ago time, no, my friends, the Word, the Lord’s Holy Word, is always and now and forever more. That is what we see, is it not, my friends? The Word is His Light that creates all things. Wondrous and beyond all we understand. That Word and that Light, they lead us on, they show the way for His disciples straight into the fiercest den of inequity to cleanse and purify and bring back the souls of men and women, the spoils of a mighty battle.
We are new to each others’ acquaintance. You wonder who I am to speak this way. Maybe you say, who is this nub of a boy with the golden locks to come here to your humble sanctuary and preach as if he knows something. Well, good people, I’m here to tell you. That’s right, I am not from here. I was not weaned on hurricane drinks and the painted lips of high-heeled women. In my dry county, there was not even a bottle of beer in the grocery store and no dope, I will say, in my daddy’s garden patch. We woke to the smell of sweet honeysuckle and not to the sour cauldron of a street’s drunken night.
But don’t think I am naïve, that I know nothing of the city. Why there wasn’t nary a night in my school days when the pumping beat of the devil’s music didn’t find its way up through the evening air into that radio in my daddy’s house. I come from up in Kiln, Mississippi, some of you know where that is. That’s right, just a spit stain on a road map to Hattiesburg. But don’t think I haven’t turned my eyes and my ears on New Orleans. For a old redneck, for us dumb hicks, the lure of this city is a mighty draw. And the devil knows his business and all the ways of the modern world. You’ve seen it, how his music pounds with the bones of a million lost souls crackling on the burning coals of Eternal Damnation. That drum, always that boom boom drum, it’s a trick to catch your heart, to tug your body, to lull your soul to sleep. Creeps into your blood and runs it black as ink, and don’t you know that song of the serpent has turned many a good woman a harlot and many a man a sot. Can you hear it now, even with the sun just up of a Sunday morning on the Lord’s Day, outside these narrow walls, beating beating, begging like the black lust of a vampire for your blood, beating, begging, to please let me in!
Let me say this, when you’ve lived in a little red-dirt town and you’ve seen the men fall in of a Sunday morning stinkin’ vomit on their clothes, the sour rank of whiskey on their breath and a curse on their lips, unfit for the Word of God, well, up in Kiln, you just know where they been. Yes, I understood from my earliest callings that I would come here. I tell you it came to me in a vision of fire and glory. And find a pulpit even in the heart of that black beast. And a few weary souls still holding to the Holy Light. And there, and I mean here, my brothers and sisters, you and I will forge a mighty church upon a rock of faith in the swamp.
Oh, my heart was sore to lay eyes on this street where your travails are many. My friends, like you I see the harlots prancing with their painted faces and seven veils that mock the sex the Lord made them. And like you, I see how they creep about in the light, their bodies and souls given up to the devil. And drink in the seed of good young men. And lead them astray from their homes and wives and their children. Take the money from their pockets, and hand even that over to Satan, buying more paint for their faces, more drugs for their sickly bodies, more drink for their venal mouths.
We step along the brink of a yawning abyss, do we not? The curious and the lost from this whole world come to that French Quarter, from the whole of the southland and the nation and the foreigners from all lands fall here into the fat and greedy arms of lust and dissipation. Children with hooded eyes and the leer of a wolf dwell on street corners; doctors and lawyers buy them as they would a pint of whiskey. And they eat drugs and the devil’s weed for their nourishment. I could go on. I know you could tell me. And I know we agree that this street right here is a root source of evil in the world, but as Jesus Christ dwelt among publicans and sinners, so we must hold it our trust and duty to begin our crusade even here. Oh, it is a sore and a canker, and we must resist.
Let me pull out my comb and brush back my hair and let us gird ourselves. We shall go door-to-door aglow with the brilliant and shining light of His Word to root out the evil that lies like a cockroach at the baseboard of our souls. And our love will be the insecticide that chokes that evil bugger. And our righteousness the boot that crushes its back. Let me bring it down now. Let me bring it down. I ask each of you to consider what I have said. The Lord is here in this room today. Do you hear the Word? Do you feel the Light on your face? Look here, I am young and strong and see our way clear before us. This is the humble start of a great mission. Let us take up the sword of Jesus Christ, the shield of baptism in water and holy fire, and this very day we shall begin to make our homes an All-American City of the Lord. Right here on this fetid and forsaken street, in the very heart of the beast, we shall light the fire that will salvage our neighbors’ souls.
Half the trouble’s Miss Inez. I mean the gaudy way she attires herself for one thing. Those KMart slacks, her endless tacky t-shirts, and lately – exactly as if she were straight off the boat – one of those broad pointy Vietnamese sampan hats! The woman takes in clothes at the washateria, yes, but I declare she walks past my door a hundred times a day. I open my shutters in the morning, and there she stands, like some lumbering creature dressed-out for a circus to fill the whole window frame, all this before my coffee! Then plods out of sight, thank heavens, around the corner. But are we done? You would wish. Because here comes the old man, a wisp of a thing, so feeble and so slow. His belt cinched until it bends him at the waist, but of course his thrift store hand-me-downs would fall straight off his frame altogether, and – who knows – he might just blow away without it. To see the two of them, every morning, the ordeal!
And yes, I tried once speaking to her, you know, just the pleasant homilies, “Nice day,” that sort of thing. But she is past my door so often, her gaze just unbearable, and the old man so pitifully timid. I never liked that sly way of hers, how she’ll dawdle along like an addle-brained cow and then, just when you think she won’t speak, she gives you that goat’s eye, without even turning her head. That’s how I’ve always thought of her, the body of a cow and the head of a goat. No, I don’t mean to insult the poor thing. But most people resemble some kind of animal, don’t you think, and she’s a troubling combination. Plus consider her work, if you can call it that, the useless old man, the plodding back and forth. The word is blight. They’re a blight on the day I tell you.
Mother told me it was too early, but I said, no, you want to catch the neighborhood before it turns. And with my share of Father’s estate I was able to acquire this house, as you can see the only example of a Greek revival cottage on the block, and with a pedigree, having stood as part of the Duc de Marigny’s plantation when most of this town was little more than swamp. In fact, the only structure of earlier date is – can you believe it? – the washateria, and look at the shape it’s in! I’m proud to say my restoration – we’re up for an award, you know – stands as an example, a marker, of what this street could be, a pearl amid the general decay.
I require nothing, though for entertainment each season I take in a student or two to learn something of the classical piano. My “grand” was one of the first in the Delta, truly a magnificent antique, its keys the good old ivory, and like any fine instrument she requires a constant temperature and humidity. As with my tapestries, everything must be balanced against the ravages of a subtropical climate. So, if you find these rooms less airy than they might be, please defer if you will to one much older and more sensitive.
I must admit that I too have developed a somewhat delicate temperament across my lifelong dedication to the higher arts. I stepped outside last Christmas – how they convinced me to attend the caroling I don’t know – and came down with a nasty cold. I wouldn’t recommend the typhoons of summer to anyone, either, though look, do you think considerations of this sort cross the minds of the girls out there? Why, no more than the character of this historic cottage or the plaint of a sonatina. They would as soon play their radios all day.
One must admit, however, that they make intriguing studies. The stock phrase is to say how pitiful they look. God’s mistakes. But on second glance, what vitality, what persistence, what a remarkably sustained, even shameless, sense of irony. I mean, take Billy, please! Raylene as they’ve taken to calling him. The man could be a longshoreman, a redneck on a Delta farm. Those beefy feet, forced into some poor pair of sandals. Those football player’s shoulders, scarred and marbled and jutting like cauliflower from a strapless gown.
Oh Billy, that head of yours! Face broad as the prairies and just as pitted. I believe they reduced his nose and even shaved off some of his chin, but nothing could be done for that immense plain of forehead. Flat as an anvil, poor child. You know, I actually believe her cheekbones are her own. Her pride and joy, rouged just so, high and sharp, almost Indian. You may start at the toes and work your way up Billy’s improbably lumpy body, past the muscular hips and lumberman’s hands, past his budding chest all squeezed in a terry cloth jumpsuit or some such to make Miss Inez blush, but those cheekbones set you back. They’re diamonds in the rough, don’t you see. He squats on his front stoop across the way, trying to decide whether to hide his legs with his arms or the other way around, and I tell you he is magnificent. A Frankenstein built of surgery and hormonal medications and, one must admit I suppose, God’s will.
I mention Billy, because cheekbones aside, he’s the least feasible of the lot. The others may be too clumsy or too tall, running to fat or dizzy with the shots. They certainly dress no more wisely than he does. They may be tawdry or sad, but they’re not Billy. They just don’t have his star quality. They’re like cats, like stray cats on the prowl. If you happen to see them one day in their polyester tube tops and net hose and strapless heels, lounging against the wall at the washateria, you’d see how apt is my phrase. They are all sly, itching, underfed alley cats. And to see how they disperse when the police drive by – how catlike!
But to them it’s all in a day’s work. One might marvel at the variety of panel trucks and repair wagons that line up outside at midday. All the diving in and driving off, stopping at the corner to let them out again. Their leaning on a car door, not even bothering to affect a womanly glance. But there again, they surprise with their energy, their persistence, their sense of irony. In the end it’s all a bore. One day the city will wake up and cart them all away, and this street can again be what it was. Still, I wonder what might be lost, for instance that vision of Billy on his stoop each day. His chunky calves and regal cheekbones catching the slant of morning light. After all, wouldn’t you say he represents? Sums up in some way this truth, the naivety of any hope. You know there are times when I’ll set down my book, glance up and catch a glimpse of him there, that anvilled forehead gleaming like a lamp. He stops me dead. But really, these days, most of the time I keep my shutters closed.
Two Dollah a Load
That’s what it is, two dollah a load. ‘Bout a pillowcase full, that’s a load. I wash and dry, you want folded or hanger, two dollah. Half these machines is broke. You ever see a place like this? Run on gas fire, I believe they old as me. This place, it’s shaped crooked. No plaster on the wall and rain come in the roof. No doors, got to put up boards at night. This a old place, yes, like me.
You wash yourself, I show you what machine don’t work. They take your money. See the belt fall off in back. No, I tell you what to use. You like, I do it for you. Yes, I come here every day. The old man, you see him, he come, too. He take all day to drink a beer. I give him one first load, he sit out there in the sun, or if it’s too hot, maybe he sit in the shade. He don’t like it in here. All that noise. ‘Fraid he slip on a soap bubble. He drink that one beer all day long.
Hey, one day he sit on the stoop of that house there, next door. That crazy man chase him away. Yes, he crazy. I call him Snoopy. You look now, he could be starin’ out the curtain, he just look out, don’t never come out. Make him pale as a sheet. Just lookin’. I come here ten years, he speak to me once. You know, it almost knock me down. But then next day he’s not there, and then he act like he hide from me, so I let him be. Think he have his own washin’ machine. He don’t seem to have no friends his age. Sometime a little girl go in. Or a boy. I think they go to school with him. I don’t know if I could go in there; he’s too secret.
I’m not like that with my friends. We play bourré of a Saturday night, somebody get mean – you know that bourré, it’s a mean game of cards – but then everybody laugh, say sit down, and before long we tell everything. Old-time friends, we tell everything. One, her name is Irma, she have her birthday next week. All ten of us play bourré, we put in ten dollah each one, then on her birthday she get one hundred dollah. We make a cake, boil some crab, we have a big time. See, then my birthday come up, they all put in ten dollah, all for me.
That’s why today I put the boards up early. The old man and me, we go down to Venice, get us some crab. They cheap down there, yes. Dollah a dozen, big crab. The pirogue come in, they be full up in back. Sell you right there. You get a bushel, four dollah. I know where to go. See, I come up from Sulphur there, back when the men come back from war. The old man, he couldn’t go, he had consumption. He and I picked oranges there. He like beer, but me I still like a taste of orange wine. All my people do. And boil some crab, yes.
Don’t know how long I keep comin’ here. New washateria be open soon next block. They got doors on the place. Even a tv. But I don’t know. Been comin’ this way so long, only thing stop me if it burn down. I know a flood haven’t stop me. And truth, I like these girls. They do me alright. They good business, they little fru-fru’s. Keep you on your toes. I mean, you look at me now, why a man want to be a woman I cannot see. You got to consider somebody like that. And they good girls, too. I’d hate to miss ‘em is all. So, I wash some clothes today, boil some crab tonight for Miss Irma’s party. We have a big time. You know the crew of us play bourré, one of their sisters want to join. I think so, but we not sure. Hey, I say that be ten dollah more for the birthdays, me.
Leanin’ on a Panel Truck Door
Well, honey, it’s been a coon’s age. You lookin’ for Raylene? She don’t come round here no more. She got her pussy put in, and now she’s livin’ over in the Quarters. By Toulouse Street. Yeah, not too loose for her, I said the same thing. Most of the girls is gone. You got just me and Beulah, and ol’ snotty Rosie. But she ain’t showed her face since the washateria burned. Her ol’ man, he took a belt to her that night. Readed her to filth, poor child. Call her a whoe and a tramp – well. ‘Bout wound her up in Charity, that fool. But you think he left her? Had bought her a new piano, big ol’ Elton John kinda shiny white thing before the week was out. Couldn’t hardly get it in the door. He is crazy for that whoe.
They say was lint what burnt it, but you know. Ol’ Snoopy next door, he ‘bout have a stroke. Smoke got in and ruint his house. Then him draggin’ them rugs in the street, he ‘bout have a heart attack. Beulah say she doubt he be back. He see them rugs now, he will die.You here on business or just for the scenery? Look at that damn preacher boy. Been out here all mornin’ tryin’ to hang that sign. Ain’t but three people in his church and they so old and lame they cain’t hardly stand up, much less read a sign. Been tryin’ to hang it hisself all day. Look a that, say “Rock a Faith in the Swamp.” Now ain’t that a note? Boy get a stroke, he stay out in this heat. Boy got a head a hair on him, don’t he? Beulah, she like his ass alright, too. But I tell her she go to hell messin’ with a little boy like that. But that ain’t one a her worries.
Neighborhood’s goin’ down, ain’t it? Where Raylene lived at, some uptown couple bought it, paintin’ it pink, put them little shutters on there, rent it to the faggots for a luxury home. All up and down the street, that’s all it is. And look, you the first car stopped by here this week. C’mon honey, open that door. It’s warm out here in these hose. Alright, now what you want today? You want a big mac or just a little milk shake with a straw? You lay that tarp out back there, we get you a big mac and some fries, too. What you got, just a five? Now honey, don’t even stop drivin’ for that. You just mosey on up Dauphine. Is that all you got for true? Now I’m worried ‘bout you. What you gonna eat when I’m through?
Short Story Published
Happy to report that Richmond, VA literary journal Bottom Shelf Whiskey has posted my short story Confederate General A. P. Hill Opines on their website for your reading pleasure.
Here it is: https://bottom-shelf-whiskey.com/confed-gen-a-p-hill-opines/
Introducing my new story collection
Ernest Hemingway wrote, “All stories…end in death.” With ringing lyricism, cinematic detail, and wry humor, in this diverse collection of tales Tony Gentry interrogates that notion.
A father and son share a moment of everyday epiphany on their farm. An elderly widower must choose between a circumscribed life where every breath is an effort and a saving reunion he barely trusts, while another finds solace in the company of an old bear. The ghost of a Confederate general wanders the historic precincts of modern-day Richmond, Virginia. The First Lady deposes the President. A boy finds not love but purpose in a kiss. On a canoe trip, two middle-aged brothers confront mortality and the mystery of what lies beyond. Veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars face their demons, seeking reasons to go on. In the longest tale here, a fall from a wheelchair tests the will of a man haunted by the car crash that severed his spine and killed his young daughter years ago. And cancer tells its own origin story, that of a real estate mogul turned megalomaniac. Keenly observed, inventive, and thought-provoking, these stories test the curtain between everyday reality and the tempting whisperings that lie beyond, in that uncanny place where our hearts and minds collide.
“They tell me I shot myself in the chin, shot somebody else, too, but I don’t think that’s right. What happened was I fell off a fruit wagon.”
That’s Dr. Wagner. He’s a pharmacist, had his own small town pharmacy out in the Valley for years, seemed fine they say, until this happened. I’m his occupational therapist. It’s my job to determine how well he can perform his activities of daily living, things like brushing his teeth, making out a checkbook, but right now I’m conducting a cognitive screening called the O-Log. Checking for orientation to place, time, person, and situation. He’s not doing too well. Problem is he’s lobotomized himself with an old German Luger and can’t recall that two weeks ago he shot his wife and their twelve-year old daughter, then turned the gun on himself. So he does what they call confabulation, makes up something that seems probable in the moment, and even believes it. Would be funny except.
Race home from work and get dressed for my brother’s birthday celebration at our sister’s house. Leave in a huff halfway through after getting into an argument over the Confederate statues, which he has decided he worships now. Where did that come from? Out in the driveway, our sister wags her finger along the lines of, “You don’t remember much of when we were kids do you? You messed with him relentlessly and now you think he’s going to listen to your shit?”
“What are you talking about?” I ask.
“You know,” she replies, with that drum roll of the eyes sisters are so good at.
Next morning at the hospital I monitor the old pharmacist dressing and grooming. He manages fine, functioning on remote control, stuff he’s done without thinking his whole life. There’ll be an ugly court fight about this. The cops stationed outside his door may lead him to jail or to a mental hospital or maybe even just to a nursing home and none of it will matter a whit to him. He’s got a confabulous new story for every situation and it’s all just a walk in the park no matter what, which I guess is the beauty of blowing out your frontal lobes. If you don’t remember it, did it ever even happen? And if it never happened, what can you make up that might have, that at least for the moment anyway explains it all?
Sixth in a series of stories from my career as an occupational therapist working with military veterans.
When Carl came up out of it he knew something was seriously wrong. His dog – a rangy stray he’d befriended – had licked his face to wake him and now trembled at his side, whimpering in hunger. Nothing new there, but his arm seemed nailed to the floor and on inspection had swollen like a fat lady’s leg, his fingers black exclamation points sprouted from a purple balloon. Reluctantly he lifted his head, then sat up horrified, having to drag that appalling deformed appendage onto his lap. The dog retreated and cowered in a corner. It took Carl a while to calm himself down enough to stop screaming.
Weirdly, no pain. The arm lay dead as a log, rotting from the elbow. Bloated bodies afloat in yellow water, bursting the seams on their pajamas. They popped and deflated at a burst. Come home to roost now. Red light everywhere, then blue, then darkness again, the dog restless, half-mad hunger in its frightened eyes. Seeking to calm him, Carl explained that time is a lie, measured not by clocks but by suffering. For users and dogs alike, the pendulum swings between hunger and satiation, tick-tock, but in the elastic yet ungiving web that made up the night to come, that clock went still. The only measure Carl’s slow rocking on the floor, the arm in his lap an abomination, like some monster’s aborted fetus. The poison seeped closer, would choke him off. He apologized to the dog for having to leave him like this.
Probably at some point it would begin to hurt, might hurt like hell, but that wouldn’t last. Even a flayed homunculus squirming in the hot piss of soldiers eventually stills, invites the flies. So this was the fate he’d courted. He imagined that the room’s one grimy window was a gaping, hot and greedy maw. The traffic below emitted a persistent rumbling growl born from the dragon’s red and honking belly. It too pulsed with hunger. The city itself and the whole blue ball it rode on just a junkie in need. Then the floor and walls tipped. He’d expected pain but not hallucination, not these shadowy skeletons thrown up in newsreel black and white.
He watched a scrawny man squirm across a floor of chipped linoleum, dig a plastic knife out from under a crusty hot plate, and sit stabbing a black pig held tight in his arms, again and again. The pig squealed, the man laughed maniacally. Sirens sang in the mix. He felt so bad for the poor yellow dog. Across the room, its more than human eyes fixed on the creature to which it had hitched its wagon, who lifted a broken plastic shiv in his one good hand and plunged it deep and satisfying into the swollen bag of flesh, then carved down, mouth wailing, eyes wincing, eventually tugging out a vein and a broken needle tip oozing blood and pus. A river of festering gunk mushroomed out of the wound as if it would never stop. Suicide to have done such a thing. The one straggling drummer in a long suicide parade. Here in this broken ruin of paper walls, cry after cry of sheer anguish and horror across the empty hours after dinner and no one dares to knock, no one bothers to check, no one gives a tinker’s damn. Just stop it, will you? Just keel over and be still. Lie down, damn it. Down.
But see, what happened, that old yellow dog, he wouldn’t have it. Sprawled out junkie dead to the world and they’d find me when the stink seeped out to the hall one day. That was alright with me. I mean at the time. But that dog, I call him Mister now, because he’s a man of a dog, you know what he did? You ain’t gonna want to hear this, but it was real as day. He come over while I was out again and he drank it all, every lick of pus and blood, yes he did. Until my arm shrank back to size. And he licked up inside the wound and cleaned it all out with his raspy old tongue. And then he went over in a corner and barfed it all out, and then he came back for more. And he had to of been at it I’m telling you for at least a whole day. Eventually I guess I come to, and my arm was on fire, man, I tell you. Five alarm. I had to go. Left him there alone like the ungrateful son of a bitch I am. Straight to the ED and when they seen me they bumped the line and flushed me out with saline and pumped me up with antibiotics so strong I shit my pants. And you can best believe I hit the bodega for some Alpo when they let me go. Stood on the corner for an hour boosting coin to earn it. And we shared that dog’s dinner, I’m not ashamed to say. That’s Mister. It’s mostly his eyes, man, everything they see. So I decided one thing, and it’s true to this day. I don’t want to say it. Jinx it, but I’ll tell you. My plan is live up to those eyes. What Mister thinks of me.
Carl’s not the first man who’s broken down and cried in this clinic. It can be a heavy place. You come in off the street — some of these guys live right down below there in boxes under FDR Drive — and it’s warm and the light’s good up here on the tenth floor, and yes we’re paid to do it, but we sit you down and bathe your wounds and salve your muscles and stretch your joints in a gentle way we’ve learned. You can nap while your hands warm in paraffin gloves. Right now while this wiry Viet Nam vet pulls himself together, I’m at his side working my thumb up crosswise to the fiber along a nasty swath of old scar that runs from his wrist to his elbow. The cicatrix lies deep, thick between the long bones of his forearm, and blocks rotation, so he can’t hold his palm open without bending sideways from the trunk. Frankly, I don’t know if anything short of surgery will help. But for an hour three times a week, we try. He goes home with an elastic band that winds around his arm, tugging a twist. He wears a glove with rubber bands stretched from fingertip to wrist that pulls his mummified hand a few degrees closer to a fist. When he arrives, I measure the change, never much, swap out the rubber bands, work on that scarified flesh, and like it is with most of these lonely guys, maybe it’s just the physical touch, I don’t know. But they talk. And sometimes when the talk takes them down a particular tunnel, you hand them a box of Kleenex. It’s okay in here. Patients and therapists alike, we’re used to it.
After that day, all I can say is, I was woke. Me and Mister had a long talk. And then we took us a long walk. We went straight out on the GW Bridge, all the way across there, way up over the river. You ever done that? The wind running from upstate makes the wires sing and that hum from the tires on the grates? Way up high there like it’s all just for you and you decide. Still do it to this day. Went to Goodwill and got me one of them ten dollar an hour jobs, mine’s sorting books, a ton of books come in there every day, and I go through and pick the ones go to the store, the ones go to Africa, the ones go to the mill. VA found me a room but they won’t take Mister, so I’m okay in my squat. Hard to stay clean I won’t deny, the whole street’s a market, but what I found you walk with your dog nobody mess with you. Maybe nod or something but you walk on.
You should see my place. Got enough books in there now I could build an igloo. My new thing’s the slave tales, the bad old testimonies, you’d be surprised how many turn up. Mandingo shit, but for real. Seems like people been bad a long time, you know? We ain’t invented it in Nam. What you think about this arm? Somebody say I should just get them to take it off, be better off without it. But maybe you can fix it. I won’t give up if you don’t. And it’s a badge, too, right? Of how fucked up a man can be. How close you can walk it.
Summer day I get home and it’s still light, Mister and me walk over the bridge to the Jersey side and take that path up the Palisades. We just hike upriver some, it’s all woods along there. It’s a cliff we found and you can lie down on the grass. Highway’s right there, cars going by, but in the trees you don’t see them. And the whole wide river out before you. I’ll bring a box of dry food in my bag and feed him. Might chew a bite of that old crumbly shit myself. And he pulls up in the crook of this same fucked up arm. I tell you buddy, when the traffic dies down and the river fans the air and the trees rustle like they do, for me and Mister that’s the best sleep a man or dog can have. It’s our little vacation. In our little tricky place across the river. And if we don’t get a storm this afternoon, that’s where we’ll be tonight, too.
August 1991: Happyland
Fifth in a series of stories from my time working as an occupational therapist at the Manhattan VA Hospital.
Welcome to Happyland, my man! You know, like that place in the Bronx, disco that burned down? They only had one way out, that little door to make the bouncer look big? Even the windows bricked up? Happyland Leisure & Social Club they called it. That’s why I put the sign on my door. My one door. That won’t lock. The one window. That won’t open. Plexiglass, you can’t break it. Check out this beat, call it techno-Caribe, marracas like crickets, and I guess these girls what, ululations? Bed and a chair is what I got. Sun heats up the plexi glows all smeary gold and kinda pulses like. Bar drinks here, they liquid drugs in paper cups, fair shots, actually. But I can’t get to my baby. I can’t get to my girl. In Happyland, you gotta dance. If you can salsa, or at least you gotta shake it some.
Nights in here they show videos on the wall. You wouldn’t believe what they suppose is entertaining. And the only outfit you get is these old cheap pajamas, like pea green colored, with snaps you see on baby clothes, some kind of cheap polyester with all the stains the last guy oozed that they couldn’t get out. I mean, this whole line of grandpas, all of them in these itchy old pajamas, and they’re all one size and the men got missing legs, they got bony arms, they’re just swaddled in these things. You see them coming down this hallway that’s pea green, too, or sometimes it’s this pink shade somebody had to plan to clash so good with the pajamas. I mean somebody had to stay up late just to organize this mess!
These old guys, half of them not even shaved, and hooked up to IV bags and colostomy bags and feed tubes plugged straight into their gut or trachs jammed into their throats or lines up their nostrils strapped on with bandaids across the bridges of their nose so their heads rear back to try to make an airway. And they ogle at you in what has to be agony but of course their hands are strapped to the chair so they can’t rip the thing out or even get a scratch. And I wouldn’t blame them, man, they’d do it, they’d rip the tube right up out of their gullets like a fishing line hooked with blood and snot altogether in one wailing belch up through the nose, anything to get that fucking feeding tube out from where it don’t belong.
You don’t believe me, you look in their wild old eyes sometime. That would make a video. See your own fish-eyed reflection rolling there. Aww, look, guess who else be wearing them goofball slippers made of sponges, the designer pj’s. Oh yeah, you’re in it, too, baby, this is Happyland. You want the real disco, you know how the beat just drop, DJ front some nasty old flute shit. Come up eery and cold and everybody’s neck swivels, gone to church on the flute, on the float, baby, waiting for the drop, here it comes. Take your ass to Arabia, now we down! Disco got smoke and fire and a junkyard stink. Oil and blood all boiling up together make a black cloud Terminator world. And then that miles of void flat out to nowhere when the meds kick in and your head goes deep like sunset in the sand.
Hundred Hours War they call it, smart bomb take a left turn in a window and all that shit. Stealth bombers. The promo will tell you we cut in clean, look how cool we play. But that ain’t what it was. But you try to tell somebody. Which is why I got the pictures to prove it. Check out this one here. Page One: I call it the stone beginning of Happyland, my de-virgining over in the once upon a time. Cherry pop. You can’t tell from the picture, see, but on the road back from Kuwait they had these long ditches, these trenches, and we just chased them over the edge, where they thought they’d be safe or some shit. I mean, this is just the dirty desert, man, flat as a rug, there is no place you can hide, and this picture here, this is when they begin to get the picture.
You can’t see it too well, we were moving when I took it so it’s blurry, but believe me it came on fast and freaky. They want to get out now. This picture don’t show the noise, you have to imagine from the smoke. I’m in a bulldozer like you’ve never seen, got a 20-foot plow blade, and it can move. We had like 50 in a row and every one making tracks. Ran in a mile-wide phalanx side-by-side Mad Maxxing it. Kicked up our own sand storm behind us. And tanks, too, with blades on the front. This picture is like halfway through the job, I wouldn’t call it a battle. I’m not going to be taking pictures in a fire fight, right? There was nothing to do. And this picture, I pasted it in next to that one, because look, ten minutes later, where’s the ditch? Where’s the bad guys? Right? We’re sitting a thousand tons of bulldozer, a thousand tons of Abrams tank on them that’s where. And check this guy, he’s actually dug his way out, he’s just about out of there, got a leg up and that’s when he gets plugged, like a rat in his hole. Look at this other guy. Now you see him, now you don’t. Vaporized.
We just sat there in the desert, dead as Mars, machines idling. Climbed up on the hood and took pot shots. Or ran ‘em over. Or took a half-ton bulldozer blade and just smushed them. Like roaches coming out of their holes. Look how the sky, it’s white, it’s just as white as everything else, I mean like a white rubber skullcap clamped down on us all. But I know, hey, I get what it does to you, to look at my little photo album. I can imagine what you think of me for this. But dude you came in here, you see the sign. Happyland.
Night and day, sleep, awake, it’s the beat. Check this, how I got me these skanky pj’s and this ragged old wheelchair, first thing I know, I wake up on my living room floor and somebody’s howling. Turns out it’s me and I’m grabbing my knee, look up my wife she’s got a baseball bat, my own softball bat that goes plink when you get a hit, and she don’t have a stitch on and she’s howling too. Plinked me good, yeah she did. Check these knuckles, nobody’s even looked at it yet, feel like a handful of needles. Bedroom wall’s just moon craters, wake up and my arm’s up to my elbow in the next apartment. And this time, she’s preaching, says I kicked her clean across the room in my sleep. And came at her like some kind of zombie, thus the bat. I was asleep man. I was asleep at the disco! I mean, we used to like each other!
So I get up on this one knee, the other all smooshy like a bag of glass, still a mess really under these pins, and my leg I mean it folded backwards and I fell on it. You could hear the tendons pop like rubber bands. I’m laying there screaming and she’s standing over me not a stitch on screaming, I just want to jump up and take that bat. But my leg is folded up like a wallet in my lap, and that’s funny to both of us, really. Cops come in and we’re laughing and crying at the same time. I tried to throw a pillow at her. Put some clothes on girl! They think this is fucking hilarious. And that’s the last I know about that night.
Yo, whatever. I can lock my brakes. I can make it down the hall. I can get on and off the john, wipe my ass, I can do all that, no problem, okay? But buddy that ain’t the story. I’m just laying down some truth. People been sold a big con. Desert Storm is what they advertise. It’s all Happyland to me. Before all this, I was a dumbass, like you are, no offense, most people are. Like my little woman she so fine and we leave the Mets game early on a Sunday afternoon just to stretch out in the grass. She had seventeen bridesmaids, three day event two weeks before I left. I had to bring up cousins from the island just to get them escorts. She got pictures of all that and she can have them.
Look I want you to have this picture album. I know it cold anyway. They say this whole deployment wasn’t any kind of war, over in a week and all that, chased old Saddam back to his castle, but these pictures say different, right? The other ones, the pictures up in here between my ears, I can isolate, snapshot, do a still frame anytime. Which is the trick, I suppose. Pull a Michael Jackson, freeze it on tip toe, then walk it back and the girls all wet themselves. That’s why the sign on my door. Everywhere you look, it’s Happyland, and what I know now, what any of these old guys can tell you, we got a fire in the disco. All the exits blocked, man, the door’s lit up, all eyes be rolling, and we together understand what they won’t tell you yet. Busted knee or not, the only way out’s in a bag.
The Jazzman’s Lament
Fourth in a series of tales about talking old soldiers at the VA Hospital in Manhattan back when I worked there as an occupational therapist.
The drummer is a jazzman who has seen it all. He’s got this old-time jive way of talking that you trust. Like when he says he’s sucked ribs with Louis Armstrong then pauses to lick his own lips in revery and recalls how sweet women would squeal just to touch a lacquered finger to Armstrong’s leathery embouchure. Claims to have once stolen a jar of coconut oil from Chano Pozo, the Cuban conga drummer who was pure sex pounding out jungle rhythms shirtless in Gillespie’s band, that oil making his ebony torso glisten and shimmer under the stage lights. Says he had game, too, once stopped the show at Condon’s in counterpoint to Monk, who actually deigned to nod what he took to be approval. But in this lesser age he picks up gigs at weddings and bar mitzvah’s, sometimes in Broadway or off-Broadway pit crews, keeps his hand in, his chops up, his groove on. His old hands ache from the work, but after 50 years in the business, he’s just glad the phone still rings.
Because by all rights, like many of the old jazzmen, he can’t see how he’s still breathing. I mean, heroin, speed balls, loved the stuff. Then those scuffles with Uptown New York’s Finest adding up to broken ribs, a cracked jaw, a glass eye and a limp. Miraculously, no shattered hands, as if the brutes understood how that would have been a bridge too far. The jazzman appreciates the power of his drums. He would have it known that spirits hover and are drawn like children to rhythm. Especially rhythm and sweat, rhythm made prayer by hands available to possession, by a man willed and willing to roll with it.
If you listen, if you can travel with him that far, then he stops and seems to sniff the air, gauging how much these next words will travel in the busy clinic. Then he leans in, as if crouched above his traps, and dares to speak of those things that lead in this place straight to the shrink: Devils. You see, demons with hot breath and dagger teeth have swarmed into his house, have risen to his 20th floor apartment in the artist’s complex on the West Side, the one that overlooks the river, you know it. To take his young daughter. Called by the drums. So yes, he has wrestled more than one naked onyx-black tar creature with rubber muscles and flashing red eyes, has shoved them out the window, off the balcony, down roughly and gone into the icy river below, in order to save his daughter’s innocent soul, because she too weak to bar the door left open by the sins of her father in a land so far away that people there have different shapes and speak in tongues.
Korea. He was a kid then, like everybody else. Like everybody else, could not get warm. But the demons remind him that he cut his captives with the lids of tin cans, dropped candle wax into their wounds just to hear them whimper. As if their foreign noise somehow explained how they all ended up in such a dark corner of hades. He did that. And other things. Or says he did. Which is why, when the Boys in Blue caved in his ribs, kicked him so blood spouted out of his mouth and nose, smashed his jaw up into his eye, pummeled him in the back room of the station house as if they wished to flatten him like a cartoon character into the messy tiled floor on a Saturday night not two blocks from the club where his wife sat waiting, as they stomped and jabbed and clubbed him beyond their own dumb rage to the point of simple butt-ugly fatigue, as he went down and knew it all as some pain-dream happening both to him and out beyond him somewhere, right on the verge of death, even then as he coughed his own blood (and they lifted him like a sack and still they measured their punches and swung), he swore in his spirit-heart to the ghosts of his ancestors that he would remember this night and haunt the last days of each one of these thugs in sweaty disgusting patrolman blue.
“This is how,” he whispers now (that glass eye always watching the corner), “this is why I survived. Because the old ones, the ancestors, told me, ‘No. You cannot come. You must settle this on your side of the grave.’ They told me, ‘Live and heal.’” Then they gathered in a counsel about him, above the fray, and threw him back to the wolves. But this he kept from them, held deep in his wounded heart, a heart made black by all he had done, a heart that could not atone, except in this way. He would awaken broken and one-eyed and limp all the rest of his days, but hoped as the beating wore down that they would do their worst.
“You see,” he says, “I swore to them, ‘I curse you. You will never rest another night undisturbed or know another season of good health. All your loved ones will fade to smoke in horrible ways that will break your soul until you die alone to be buried in a grave without flowers on a bleak plot entirely unmarked and forgotten. You will walk the spirit world as one shunned across eternity, scorned even by the shades that are most despised on the other side. At the same time I plead for each of your beastly, race-hating, meat packer strong, bullying blows. I tell you my fathers, this is what I have lived for, walked the edge of, craved without ever knowing that I did. And here it is, the answer, my teeth like loose corn in my mouth.’”
He says they did him a favor and to this day believes they knew it. Says that something wild and beastly came unleashed in them that night, that even though they had beaten down Hispanics and blacks and Eyetalians every weekend shift of their brief careers and would again until their shoulders gave way from years of pounding, that this was the lost pinnacle they would seek across all the whippings to come, that one night when it really got good to them. “See,” he explains, “that was the night they walked with me into a place I inhabited alone, that I knew as I know my drums. I held the door for them, helped them down in the hole, and brutes that they were, how could they resist? Which, of course, is when I had them. And now they too will never rest.”
I don’t really know what to say to all that, so I just do my job. I unwrap the towels and peel the gummy paraffin from his aging, powerful hands. His perfectly manicured fingernails gleam as he wriggles his fingers in pleasure. “Ah, good as getting a nut,” he sighs. I drop the balls of wax back in their vats, toss the towels in the bin and turn back to him. I have to ask, “Did it help? This penance of yours, when the cops almost killed you. Have things been different since then?”
The jazzman stretches out his thick fingers and flattens his hands on the table, as if to examine their sheen. “Ah, young man, you have never been to war. How can I tell you this? You see, what I learned that night, you will not understand, but think on this if you will. I was mistaken. The living thing they beat, it was not me. My penance is elsewhere. It waits for me in an icy trench with candles that throw shadows on the wall. All these years, I’ve been waiting in line. And when my time comes, then I will go.”
A Good Way to Be
Third in a Series about Talking Old Soldiers. This one from a nursing home in Fort Wayne, IN.
On the way down the hall to the rehab gym, I find Uncle Adolph stuck in a corner with his broom again. Usually, you can just say good morning, take his elbow, turn him away from the wall and he’ll keep on sweeping. Something about his eyes, he sees spiders everywhere and tries to get them all. But today he takes my arm when I reach for his and says, Sonny I could stand a cup of joe, I surely could. As you know, there are unwritten rules for anywhere you work, deals cut without any kind of written protocol, and this is one of mine. I’ll step outside the boundaries of my job description, no problem, I’ll answer a nurse’s call bell if you need me to, clean up the incontinent and change their sheets, and I’ll still make my productivity quota even if I have to stay late to do it. But the payback is this. Stop the day in the middle when the opportunity arises and sit for a coffee with an old soldier. I mean, like so many of the old vets, my dad never talked about any of this, so I get it where I can.
They call him Uncle Adolph because of the flag in his room. It’s a Nazi swastika his daughter says he took down from a town hall in Germany in 1945, had all his buddies sign with their home addresses, and tucked away in his gunny for the ship ride home. She framed it like a museum piece and hung it on the wall. People hate the thing, it’s got that evil aura, but you have to admit it’s a powerful symbol of the biggest thing that ever happened to the old folks here, the event that made their lives. It’s like a pin stuck in a map, saying this is where we all began. We end up there with our coffees. He takes the wooden desk chair that eases his rickety back and I perch on the Barcalounger as best I can. In his line of sight as his rheumy eyes gaze about him are the flag, his narrow bed and a window framing a gloriously yellow ginkgo, its leaves flickering one by one to the lawn in a lazy breeze.
Maybe it’s the flag or a memory of a similar tree glimpsed long ago in France, but he starts right in, speaking aloud a stream of thought that goes like this. Shoot, when we was fightin’ the Germans, I was all up in there. It was a terror, but (he chuckles drily) there was some good boys among ‘em. We was fightin’ the Germans, and them folks that, well they wasn’t Germans, but you could call ‘em Germans and they was alright with that. And the English. No, we wasn’t fightin’ the English. They was with us. And the Ice Landers. They was with the Germans and then they was with us, I believe. He sets his Styrofoam cup on the desk and forgets it.
My daddy and me we built this place, this nursin’ home every brick. And now I live here. Ain’t that a hoot? And that house over there in the whadyacallit, development, the big one? That fella we built it for, he was a little bitty thing and then he grew up and he got on up to 8 feet. Head like a big old fat pumpkin. I mean 8 feet. Doorways in that house are ten. Every bit a that house is custom-built for giants. You oughta see the bath tub, now that’s a sight. Pretty day. Them trees is all yellow, I can see that. I wisht I could get out and walk among ‘em. But they’s afraid you’ll run off. Funny thing is, I’m the one put them alarms on the doors there myself. Built my own damn jail is what. We used to call them leaves dragon’s gold. Pile ’em up and play.
Them Ice Landers, now I’m gonna tell ya. They was some swimmin’ people and in the cold! They was one day I’m walkin’ along and this Ice Lander’s in this swimmin’ hole, he sees me comin’ and crawls on out and I ask him best I could if he’s alright. He says, Gut! Or Goot! Or whatever, so hell I take my own clothes off and jump right in. Come up, couldn’t get my breath for nothin’, no way. Like ta squeezed my lungs out. I mean cold, boy! And he’s just standin’ there buck nekkid and grinnin’. So I say, alright, and I just dive on down underwater and I’m just a swimmin’. Stayed in there til I was blue. ‘Fore long this Australian fella wanders up, call ‘em blokes. Say, bloke, is it cold? I say come on in, see for yourself. And wouldn’t you know it, he strips down and just dives in like a trouper. Cussed me up one side and down the other, and he knew some Australian words, except he couldn’t hardly get his breath either there at first. We laughed!
That dang flag, I don’t know. Them boys’ names on it, they’s all gone now, wouldn’t you say? I’d like to get down and fix these cracks here along the floor. My daddy wouldn’t have it, no sir. They was this hurricane come up. We dug down under a rock is all we had, felt this cold blow and looked up. That boulder was gone. The Quonset huts. City boys had put ‘em up. Flipped upside down like bowls and the boys with their legs stickin’ out. I can see that clear as day. I stayed on in, got up to three stripes, but that was as far as I wanted to go bossin’ boys around. Come on back here and went to work for my daddy buildin’ houses. You cain’t throw a rock in this town without you hit one we did. They’s a penny in a brick in every one and I can tell you where it is. Ward off tornadoes is what Daddy said. He’d let ya cut up, take a breather any time long’s ya got your work done. It’s a good way to be. Now give me that broom, they’s a big old bug in the corner there boy.