In the kitchen drawer with the can opener, forks, corkscrew, etc., are my combat medical patch, action ribbons, badges, two purples, including the one sent to my mother when they thought I had died, gallantry bars, the Polish and Kuwaiti and Albanian silver and bronze such and such for exceptional service and meritorious conduct, etc., along with the other hardware I sometimes clank from old bad place to new bad place.
My other decorations and souvenirs from the war? There is the blue ribbon with pasted-on gold stars Angelene made for me while I was first recovering in the hospital. There is the bottle-cap Christ of light. There is the wrecked eye. There are the inflamed-red gashes and purpled-over scabs. There are, so far, the four, no make that five now, surgeries, and the shrapnel still working its way out. There is the self-prescribed and self-administered whiskey cure. There is the sleeplessness. There are the dreams, and visions, and talks with the dead. There is the ruin of my marriage. There are all the vivid memories that mortar my mind. There is what all is left of me.
I look at what remains and know how lucky I am. Make no mistake about it, there is never a single instant of doubt as to my unearned and unbelievable luck. Even so, I often wonder why me and why not the others?
Sometimes, I need to wrap my hand around something solid from my war. The custom45 ACP works in that regard. I heft its two-pounds-and-eleven-solid ounces when fully loaded, finger off the side safety, sight down the five-inch-bull barrel. The worn-checkered grips fit my hand surprisingly right. I look along the length of the hard-chrome finish all the way to the night of my again stumbling-in hammered to the blinking red message of the answering machine telling me he is back from the shit.
“He asked me to place this call to you,” whispers a woman, who does not identify herself, or leave a telephone number, only the street address of a far-away city. “He’s not able to come to the phone right now. Is it possible you could come see him?”
Before catching the next bus out, I rummage around in the narrow drawer. I pull out the purple hearts, the badges and bronze. Preferring to leave all that to those more deserving, the ones who have not and will not come back, I return the medals, and badges, and all but one of the ribbons to the drawer. I loop my little girl’s gold-starred-blue ribbon around my neck, knowing how luck begets more luck.
The ride is old ladies huddled-scared up as close as they can sit next to the driver, and sweatshirt-hooded boys sunk down sullen in the back near the broken crapper with the heavy chemical smell, and the whooshing air brakes jerking me awake to murmured conversation from the seat behind, “Yeah, man, I got me my freedom now from giving six to a dumb motherfucker asking for it bad, and I am heading myself right back to the cage after I give a few more to his brother.”
Washington at night, away from the stream of lights from the traffic on the beltway, and the monuments to our founding fathers and heroes and wars, is low mist and homeless sprawled among wine bottles and newspaper bedding wadded wet on the sidewalk. Rainy drizzle and sirens in the distance, the crackle and pop of small-arms fire too, at least in the part of the city with the address I wrote on a slip of paper and put in my wallet. I walk past the place twice, before noticing the swinging sign squeaky-announcing guest lodging, before realizing it is not one more dark three-story house where the neighborhood collapsed after twenty-five years of paint flaking, and leaks steady-dripping, and stop-ups, and wrought-iron railing wrenched missing, and porch boards broken through, and upper windows busted-out.
Inside, in the stuttering fluorescent lighting, is the front desk with nobody on duty. A magazine lies open to an article about some celebrity and her struggle to master her ballooning weight. A transistor radio plays a baseball game droning into the late innings.
“Hey, anybody around?”
The tube lighting hums and ticks. Flies tap the tube and ceiling fixture. The born-rich celebrity gives up late-night chili-cheese fries and early-morning speedball binges. The batter trots to first on a walk and the manager heads out to the mound.
What little light is offered dims out into ticking darkness.
“Whose there at this hour?” asks one more disembodied voice from down the even darker hallway.
The tube lighting buzzes again, pales into flickering. Watching, waiting, I feel sweat start out along my back, run along the curve of spine hollow.
“Who is it, I say?”
Sounds of creaking floorboards and shuffling-slow feet follow. The voice and slippers belong to an old woman wearing nurse scrubs stained yellow against her sweat-streaked skin. She hangs back in the hallway’s jittery shadows looking me over.
“Doc, you say?”
“What you want?”
“Your brother? In here?”
“Yes, m’am, my werewolf brother.”
“Follow me, Doc, and see for yourself,” she says, sounding too tired to ask or explain much more of anything.
I follow her frayed-corduroy slippers shuffling down the narrow hallway past rooms that likely were once fine family parlors and reading rooms with little-glass-paned doors left open. Four and five to a room lit low, barely large enough to hold all the cots and the clicking machinery, are thrashing, and muttering, and weeping men. Some are ancient old with beards grown long and white. Others are boys you might see leaning on their pick-ups in Dairy Queen parking lots. I look without recognizing any. That is not the truth. I recognize all of them, each and every one, suffering from anything and everything you should be grateful you do not have wrong with you. I see, and hear, and smell each and every one in the human wreckage of their medicated staring with mouths slacked open, wheezing fluid-filled lungs, blackened toes whose gangrene-smell is stronger than the smell of bottle bleach splashed around. I do not see and recognize the one I have come for. Then I do.
“What the fuck!”
Halfway down the darkened hall, in a small closet, or a cupboard with the shelves taken out, I see him. Just happening to look into the open cupboard as we go by, I recognize something in the lift of his chin. Alone in there, tied-up like so much meat wrapped in butcher paper bleeding through, harnessed and strapped-up into hanging from the top of the cupboard, is what is left of him. The smell stings my eyes. The smell is worse than first thing Monday morning when they hose out the weekend filth and vermin from the courthouse holding tank, more an operating area of a field hospital after an artillery strike—the fresh blood smell, the piss and shit smells, the swarming flies too—only somehow worse, less sanitary, closed-up hotter in there, the smell stronger.
“This one your brother?” she says more than asks. “This my baby, the one I hold nights, and rock to sleep.”
“Is this a government hospital?”
“This the way it is with so many coming back as they are.”
Not knowing who, or what, to punch with both clenched fists, not knowing where to put my forced-open hands grabbing wildly at buckles and straps, or I stop. My hands hang before me, my sight blurred by the smell. Snot streams down the back of my throat.
“You the one then I called down in Georgia,” the old woman says, resting a hand on my shoulder. “Your brother is a good boy in a bad way with infections eating on him all over. Put some of your doctoring to use now, while I go see to some of the others.”
Standing in that place seized by darkness, I don’t have a clue, even with my training, where to begin. Pure static pours out of the radio. The front desk flickers illuminated, then shadows over. Beyond, rain glistens the glass of the outer door, the night a roiling of low clouds. I can almost feel the drizzle on the back of my neck. The other way, at the end of the hall, is more darkness. Both choices float so impossibly far, so close. I smell his smell. I listen to his clogged breathing. Getting in as close as I can, I see he is harness-rigged-up to help his breathing.
He is amputated above the knees with the stumps dirty-bandaged-around. His arms are nub-rounded above the elbows. I look into his eyes up-whited staring into the upper corner of the cupboard black and slick with mold. Puke, hanging crusty-dried from his chin, sways with every choked breath. I wave off the flies collected on his face, flies walking the crooked-black stitches over his arm nubs, flies circling and landing again.
Floating down the hallway, drifting, the wallpaper and floorboards rippling soggy, feeling around in the darkness for a clean rag or sheet, I hear voices rising and falling, splashing water, the high-whistling wind of eternity blowing in all the many cracks.
When the moment breaks all the way open, I am willing to give almost any thing—honor, pride, most of the reasons we fought, one more chance at drowning my aching bones in bad whiskey, any thing I can name, other than Angelene—for my tattered ruck slinging sixty-pounds heavy with fresh supplies.
Feeling my way back to the cupboard, I take her ribbon from around my neck. Pulling off my jean jacket and shirt, ripping my shirt into strips, I wipe at his mouth, his chin, around his throat and forehead. I clean and wrap his stitched-over-leg stumps raging red and oozing, the pus dripping dark onto the sleeve of my jacket tied around my waist. I clean and wrap his nubs, the skin flayed raw from the harness and straps, adjust the morphine’s slow drip. With both of us already again sweat soaked in the closeness, and stink, and crushing darkness of that place, with beads of sweat rolling down my ribs, I put her gold-starred ribbon around his neck.
Watching all the way into the deep heart of that night, I see how everything in that place burns with an inner black flame. I see breath follow breath. I know we are on a journey begun a long time ago, the two of us, and the whiskered-old men and boys, and the many others too, the innocent and otherwise destroyed by war—all of us together, all of us completely alone.
Lives and places later, he pulls me back by sighing loud. His breath is held out and out and out for so long I begin to wonder if he has floated out and away behind it. As I reach to check his throat pulse, Dwayne Dwight sighs again and whispers, “Doc, I was dreaming we were out in the desert again. All of us were there together again.”
I hold him. Under the bending-frail bones of his rib cage, I feel his steady-beating heart. Weeping, I hold myself hard against Dwayne Dwight’s bagged-soft bones and his croaky whispering, “There, there, Doc.”
The full darkness of that place—the house, and hallway, and cupboard—is enormous. All the many lives held inside the hot darkness, the great hollowness, are no more than the smallest mirrored images, near zero on some barometer of being where everything has been decided long ago, the faintest flickering of light on still water.
“Isn’t it something, Doc?” Dwayne Dwight whispers softly, so very softly though his broken lips.
“Isn’t every single minute of it something?
“Yes, it is.”
“Our dreams too, Doc, all of us there, so terrible and beautiful.”
“Yes,” I say.
“Top says so too,” Dwayne Dwight says, shiny-eyed, morphine-glazed. “He said so right before he broke himself loose of this place.”
“Top?” I ask, leaning back, keeping a hand on him. “In here too?”
“Shot all to pieces, half stitched-up, off the chain kicking out an upstairs window,” Dwayne Dwight says, breathing hard with the effort. “The old nurse said Top checked himself out the same night he told me he would come back for me, to count on it.”
He hacksaw works trying to catch his breath. When he does, after spitting up phlegm that I wipe away, he says, “Doc, go ahead and reach your hand into the upper drawer.”
I move the two steel prosthesis legs leaning against the cupboard’s bottom drawers. I tug out the upper drawer into falling to the floor with a clop!
“Get what’s in there.”
What is in there is a six-pack of sixteen-ouncers.
“The old night nurse feeds me some from a nippled-baby bottle now and then, but not tonight, not the way I want it,” Dwayne Dwight says huffing, his chest rising and falling with talking so much, the emotion of what he is saying. “Crack one, Doc! Pour it into a leg and let me drink it!”
Lifting a titanium leg with some sort of boating-deck-shoe on the flex foot, I pour Old Milwaukee into the stump socket. I try not to spill too much holding it up to his mouth.
“God damn, that’s good!” Dwayne Dwight says between ragged breaths, taking his time, roaming around between every sip, and every breath, and every heartbeat. “Get another, Doc!”
I pop another, pour it into the greasy-plastic socket, and hold it to his frothy lips. When he is done, I finish off the rest.
“I needed that,” Dwayne Dwight says gasping, already sweating out the warm beer. “Now reach into that bottom drawer and take out the bag in there.”
Pulling open the drawer, I lift out a duffel bag. What’s inside slings solid down to one end. Unzipping the long duffel, unwrapping the towel, I hold up the45 ACP semi-auto.
In the incredible darkness of that place, there is new clarity, as if the sudden arriving at the end of a long journey into the moment right before another is about to begin.
“Now go ahead, Doc, and stick it up under my chin,” Dwayne Dwight says, squeaky swinging from his harness, sweat popping all along his forehead. “I want to go out like the soldier I am.”
I pull back the slide, press the blunt muzzle against his pulsing artery. He smiles, closes his eyes.
We were soldiers together. We were among the first down range—watching and waiting long months and lives before the official shooting began—then at the front of the greatest charge in military history, at the tip of the plunging spear, our country’s avenging angels is what we were told. Ghost-faced professionals doing the job of steady killing is what I remember.
So many greasy-burning boys getting hosed away by our tracers. In the high-illumination specs of my scope, I can see the little clouds of blood when the slugs hit. Up closer, the smell of their fresh blood is mutton fat, the grease cooking in their blackened, burst-open bellies.
Blackjack pointing his experimental weapon at a scout sensing something, sniffing the air, raising his rocket-propelled-grenade launcher, when he evaporates into bone-and-blood mist from the waist up, disappearing so fast that what is left of his legs and his boots keep standing for a long moment before collapsing onto the sand.
The division field commander, watching the distant fireworks provided by our flyboys from the open hatch of a bunkered and camouflaged tank, barks orders into his headset. Dwayne Dwight has crosshairs settled on the commander’s ear. Before he finishes the orders, his skull explodes, penetrated by three shots from a five-shot clip grouped close enough to plug with your pointer finger, if there was anything left to plug.
“What you waiting for?” Dwayne Dwight says, sweating mightily, harness and straps creaking softly in the deeper darkness of the cupboard.
I lower the45.
With the understanding settling in, his face twisting and filling with blood, he gasps out, “Fuck you, Doc!”
Ashamed of myself, because I am the lucky one, and because the truth is everybody knows everything—whether we are willing to admit it to ourselves is something else—and how it then comes down to whether or not we are willing to pay the sweat-and-blood price of what we know.
I am also ashamed hearing myself say softly, evenly, deliberately, “Fuck you, Dwayne Dwight, because you are a little bent around, and fuck you again, because this is me you’re talking to, and because if I have a single anything to do with it you’re going to make it, so go ahead, and fuck yourself right now.”
“Fuck you!” Dwayne Dwight chokes softer, struggling against the straps.
“No, fuck you, because along with all that, if Top says count on it, then he means count on it.”
Gasping, cursing, with great big tears coursing down his cheeks, he jerks and twists the harness and straps. I wrap my arms around him. I hold him, until he steadies down.
When I finally let go, wipe at him sopping wet, he says, exhausted, hoarse,
“If only I could rig up something myself, get it ready”
“Yeah, well, between Top, and the two of us, we’ll think of something for you, although I am getting more than a little tired of bailing your sorry ass. First, before we go there, I have to come back and patch you up right, find some serious antibiotics and ointments. Then, and I mean if and only then, if you aren’t better, and if and when I think necessary, then I will let you have it. Then I will gladly and most personally light you up.”
Twisting the rag, flapping the rag so the flies lift off once more, I wipe his neck, and throat, and cracked lips, and all around his face looking the same as the face of a cried-out little boy right before drifting off to sleep.
“One more thing,” he whispers so softly I can barely hear him, even when I lean closer so my ear is right up against his bruised and broken mouth. “Take the piece. I want you to have it in case”
Since coming back from the killing ground of my war, I am naked walking around without a weapon. My flesh is stripped away with a black flame burning inside my bones. The smell coming off me is burning bones and old gunpowder. I am trying with everything in me not to become a ghost in my own life, another one of the dead ready at every moment to break out among the living.
I look down at his45 gleaming in the light coming through my kitchen’s broken blind slats.
I have gone back twice to that place of the mold-slick walls and haunted darkness to see Dwayne Dwight. Each time, it was with his piece ready in my backpack, fully loaded, stashed under antibiotics and bandages, bone books fresh in the plastic wrap, a couple of tall boy sixes in a brown paper sack.
The first time back, Dwayne Dwight was better, stronger, knowing the full measure of himself as the one paying the blood price for what we did, swallowing it down whole, going on. The second time, Dwayne Dwight was gone. The night nurse told me Top came and got him from that place of soul-killing darkness with nothing she could do to stop them, nothing she wanted to do that would get in the way of their refusing to surrender.
Me, I am one of those unbelievably lucky, if only for now.