Words By Steven W. Wise, Art By Art by BarbaraALane
How do you change the pictures in your mind
that won’t be quiet there
or go away, or go away?
From a song written by Dan Schuffman, who fought in WWII and remembered too much.
The old Marine wept.
He sat tilted to his left in the wheelchair, his eyes closed. There was no longer any reliable order to things present or past—faces, names, voices, noises, times, places, sometimes even the four walls of his tiny room—all of life muted in shape and sound, and now only the little one could order his mind, cause him to see and hear sharply, with a purpose. He opened his eyes, blinked into focus the food tray and the blue plastic plate, saw the uneaten chunk of meat, the pile of mashed potatoes, the dark puddle of pudding. He registered no hunger, ate only when the help came and urged him. Only the little one stirred life, and he was to visit this very evening, of that the old Marine was certain.
Voices in the corridor. One manly and vibrant, reminding him of a voice that once rumbled from his own chest. Another—the one he homed in on—small and delightfully squeaky. He raised his head, shifted his back straight, waited for a sliver of the bright world.
“Hey, Gramps, how you doing?”
“Fair, I reckon…fair.” He answered the man, but looked at the little boy. His hair was the color of straw, smoothed over his forehead but poking up in back where his cap had made it wild. Wide-set eyes, striking and blue and liquid. Nose still a button, cheeks round and ruddy from November’s night wind. A white-toothed smile, wide and innocent and true. The old Marine was alive now, lost in the blue eyes, and he felt the rigid muscles of his face work to curve the corners of his mouth upward.
The man leaned over the little boy and said, “Want to give it to Great Grampy now?”
The boy nodded eagerly, held up his hands, palms upward. His father reached into his coat pocket, pulled out a jack-o’-lantern not much larger than a softball, and then placed it in the boy’s hands. The boy turned, took two steps toward the old Marine, then said, “It’s for you, Great Grampy. Daddy helped me make the face.”
The dying Marine felt his smile slide, and then came screams echoing from a cave, foul and rocky, and visions that he could not blink away. In his chest he felt a wild fluttering, as if a bird caged within his ribs fought for freedom.
His grandson huffed a little laugh, said, “Not too fancy, for sure, but I wanted him to do most of it…and he insisted it had to have a tongue sticking out…so…that’s where the Tootsie Roll came in.” He made a sound, less than a laugh. “First jack-o’-lantern I ever saw with a tongue…I…uh…Gramps? Gramps? You all right?”
The wail of anguish filled the room, spilled into the corridor, and soon footfalls pounded over the tile, and then into the room. A black woman, fiftyish and sturdy as a man, commanded the close space. “Now, now, there, my old friend…what’s the matter now?” She knew there would be no answer, said, “Let’s get him laid on the bed, and I’ll calm him down…don’t worry.”
The little boy was crying, the jack-o’-lantern clutched to his middle like a teddy bear. The woman said, “Why don’t you take him on down to the lobby, I’ll manage now…just need a few minutes.”
Too soon, the door popped open behind them, and when the man turned around, a white-uniformed nurse locked eyes with him, her lips tightly pursed. She beckoned with two quick flips of her fingers. The man stood, took his son by one hand, and walked toward her, asked the question with his eyes. With a shake of her head that only the man could discern, the nurse leaned close, whispered, “I’m so sorry.” She looked down at the boy, said, “If that’s not the prettiest little jack-o’-lantern I ever laid eyes on, young sir, I don’t know what is. I have a lady inside that would just love to hear how you carved it…okay? Your daddy and I have some things to do.”
As they approached the door to the room, the nurse stopped, laid a hand on the man’s forearm. “We got him calmed down very quickly…and then…” she smiled firmly, patted his arm, “he just went to sleep. So peaceful…you should be thankful for that. Such a blessing.”
The Marine’s grandson tilted his head toward the ceiling, drew in a jagged breath, and nodded slowly. “He was quite a man in his day. World War II vet…survived Iwo Jima. I’ve read a lot about it.” He lowered his head, raised his eyebrows. “Had to…he would never say anything about it…even to my dad.”
“Hummm…I’m afraid I don’t know much about that.”
The man shook his head, shrugged his shoulders. “Not many do these days.”
The Marine rode toward the edge of town in a colorless 1929 Chevrolet pickup truck. The driver’s mouth was lost in the wilderness of a black beard that draped over the top of his coveralls and extended sideways to the straps. When he spoke—a frequent occurrence during the preceding half hour—it was as if a voice thundered from a brush thicket. He rendered pronouncements on subjects ranging from the habits of prime roosters to a surefire technique for eliminating a wasp nest without being stung. At first, the Marine had been pleasantly distracted from the duty he was soon to perform, the jabbering having reduced it to a flame burning low, like a pilot light at the edge of his brain. The bearded man paused, glanced at the Marine, waited a few seconds for a response. Stony silence, the silhouette a frozen visage. He tapped the dash gently with the fingertips of his right hand. “I know she ain’t much to look at now, but my oh my, in her day…” He shook his head. “Shiny and blue, 46 horsepower, 194 cubic inch cast iron overhead valve engine…first ever 6 cylinder, by the way…mercy, she was somethin’.”
The driver nodded to himself, and then pilfered another sidelong glance toward his rider. The only sounds were the whine of the engine and the crunch of gravel. The seconds collected, created a space in the driver’s brain, and he knew the Marine had already traveled forward to MOM’s house.
“You say she knows you’re comin’, huh?”
“Knows it’s today?”
“No…I wrote her it’d be the first of November or so before I got home.”
The driver reached up and tilted back his hat. “Well…he was the only one we lost around Hilltop. You and him was the only Marines…one more Army…the Hadley boy, and he come back like you. Three left, two come back…thankful for that anyhow.”
The Marine nodded, said nothing.
“Want me to take you clear to the house?”
“No thanks.” He pointed through the dirty windshield. “This’ll be fine. Need to walk a little first.”
“Figured that, I did.” He paused, made a sound in his throat. “Me…I druther sandpaper a lion’s ass than go talk to her about over there…but I know you got to.”
“Least you say he died of a sudden. Least you got that…thank goodness.”
The Marine drew in a long breath, pushed it past his lips.
The Marine stood in a small copse of hickories at the edge of town, waiting as the twilight thickened into darkness. A few vehicles rumbled slowly by, and he was careful to stand as still as the trees that guarded him. The shapes of roofs and walls faded away and yellow rectangles of light flicked into view, formed a path to the only two houses that mattered. He picked up his sea bag and stepped into the street, and then began to walk toward a particular rectangle of light. He passed his own house from the opposite side of the street, though not without a long glance. The breeze stiffened, cool and misty, and he allowed the elements to penetrate him, sucked them into his lungs as an offering. He concentrated on the gravelly cadence of his footfalls as the rectangle grew larger, and then a shadow passed through it.
An object, squat and round, leaked into his peripheral vision as he climbed the four porch steps, and he willed his gaze straight ahead toward the door, waged for several seconds the little battle he knew he would lose. He turned his head to the jack-o’-lantern, saw the dark shapes of eye and nose holes, the wide, sagging mouth.
God…give me a break…I’m trying so hard…so hard!
He sat the sea bag on the floor, and then made a fist with his right hand and punched himself squarely in the chest. “Buck up, dammit!”
From behind him neighborhood sounds gathered—a child’s laughter, the excited yap of a small dog, a door closing—and then only the wind again, whooshing around the corner of the house. The fist at his chest loosened, and he rapped his knuckles three times on the door, then swiped his cap off.
The door opened quickly. She placed crossed hands over her bosom, bowed her head for a moment, then reached out and gathered him into her arms. The sobs spurted for only seconds, and then she steadied herself with two open-handed claps to his back. “Come sit…please.”
The Marine followed her to the couch and they sat with knees angled toward one another. He parted his lips to speak, but his tongue was locked to the floor of his mouth, and he could look only at the collection in her lap—worn hands, ringless fingers, a crumpled apron of faded green.
She said, “I treasure your coming…but I know it’s hard. That’s why it’s treasure.” She paused, reached out and patted his knee. “I got iced tea made…course I imagine your momma’s got you suppered up good.” She smiled.
His lips parted wider as he tested his tongue for movement, and then he stole his first glance at her eyes. Warm and soft, they beckoned but did not plead. “I…uh…well, truth is…uh…I came straight here.”
“Oh…my.” She fished a handkerchief from the apron pocket, kneaded it with her fingertips. “I’m ready then. I just want you to tell me how it ended for him over there. I’ve heard said that some don’t want to know about their sons…but I do…can’t have no peace till I know.” She opened her fingers like the petals of a flower seeking the morning sun. “However…whatever…I just have to know the truth.”
The Marine inched closer to her, placed both of his hands over hers. “We weren’t more than a few steps apart when it happened. Nobody even heard the shot. He just kinda whoofed, reached around with one hand to his back…kinda swiped, like he felt a horsefly bite on him…and he just looked surprised for a second. Then he buckled and I grabbed him, eased him down. Wasn’t even time to call a corpsman…he just closed his eyes…and that was it. Sarge said it was a sniper, no doubt.”
The woman eased her right hand free, raised the handkerchief to her eyes, then her nose. “Oh my…thank you…you can never know how much this means to me. I take it as gifts from God Almighty…him passin’ like that…and you being there with him, best friend and all. It was meant to be.”
He nodded, said, “Yes’um…reckon it was.”
She bowed her head again, her body rocking gently to and fro, a hum rising from her throat—faint, yet melodious and sweet—and the Marine recognized the tune as a hymn, though he could not find words to fit it. When she finished, she raised her head and said, “I just don’t want him forgot. That’s not too much to want, is it? Surely people won’t forget.”
“I can’t believe they ever would.”
She sighed, scooted forward to stand, and he helped her up. “Well, listen here now…you get across the street to your ma and pa. I feel half guilty you coming here first.”
“You staying around these parts?”
“Not long. Goin’ down to Lexington to find a job.”
She wrapped an arm around his waist, walked him to the door, and they stepped onto the porch. She pointed to the jack-o’-lantern, said, “I carved it special for you two…you boys and your pumpkin carvings. Those were good days.”
He picked up his bag, walked down the steps and into the street. Her voice chased after him, and he stopped, turned around. “It’s still in pretty good shape. You come look again in the daylight. It’ll be a nice remembrance for you.”
He nodded, raised his free hand in farewell, did not reply.
The Marine found the sprawl of tortured flesh in a Jap cave. Two days before, the body had been his strapping nineteen-year-old best friend. The fading sunlight, weak and colorless, was without energy, but it served in funereal fashion as it seeped into the cave. It bathed the corpse in a soft light nearly identical to that which would bathe the evening mourners three weeks later in a cracker box of a church house hovered over by an ancient green ash tree in Hilltop, Kentucky. It would be a memorial service, not a funeral, for a funeral required a body. Two years would pass before the body was disinterred from the 5th Marine Division Cemetery in Iwo Jima’s dark sand and returned to American soil.
The Marine knelt on one knee, his fingers white-knuckled around the barrel of his M1 Garand rifle. He had been staring from the jagged sliver of the cave opening for three minutes when the guilt finally overcame the hammer strokes in his chest—as if someone of authority had righteously demanded that he account for his time—and he was obliged to reckon that it had been at least a quarter of an hour even though he could not yet make himself study particulars, save for one: the crudely tattooed MOM high on the left shoulder. But now it was time. At first, the Marine’s gaze registered large things—arms wired to a stake pounded into a crack in the rock floor, stretched backward and upward, sharp bone ends peeking whitely through skin, a torso sliced in black-blooded furrows along and below the rib cage, legs splayed at impossible angles, toeless feet—but as his gaze ascended, the small things appeared. A little toe on the left foot had escaped the cuttings. The right kneecap bore pencil-sized puncture wounds, and protruding from one was the broken stub of a rifle cleaning rod. Both upper thighs were covered with burn marks from cigarettes, like tiny animal tracks leading to the penis stub.
”Oh, Mary, mother of God…oh, Jesus Christ…no, no, no…the lousy bastarrrrds!”
He dropped his rifle, turned away, and retched a jet of partially digested C-rations against the cave wall. He heaved until his ribs hurt, then fumbled for his canteen and swished out his mouth with water. He willed himself to suck air into his lungs, waited for the process to even out, for the whirl of his brain to slow. But with the slowing came the burden, and the Marine could feel the weight of it—a cold, heavy blanket suddenly draped over his shoulders—and he knew that one day in the months ahead he must face his buddy’s mother and steel himself in her tiny living room. But that was an ocean and thousands of miles away, and he would have to survive to tell the lie, live past whatever lurked for him in the taking of this God-forsaken, black, Jap-infested rock jutting out of the Pacific. Then. Far away. If I live.
Only the now of it all mattered, emptying his brain of everything, save for dealing with the body. He would fix what was left of his friend before anyone else saw it, puked at its sight. He dropped his rifle, a consuming urgency now in control of his every movement.
He pivoted on a knee toward the corpse. The twisted wire unwound easily, releasing the body, and the Marine caught the cold weight in both arms. He lowered it, careful to cradle the head in one hand as it touched the floor of the cave, but he did not look at the face. The limbs were stiff and unwieldy, and the Marine grunted under his breath as he struggled to straighten them. He unsnapped his first aid pouch, took out the Carlisle bandage, and then placed it squarely over the black patch of pubic hair before covering it with the pressure pad of the bandage. He lifted the buttocks, wound the tails of the bandage around them, and tied them tightly. The uniform was in a clump behind the stake, the boots at the base of the wall, and the Marine retrieved the items. First, the shirt, and it was a struggle—stiff arms and knife-sharp bone ends to avoid and back-handed swipes at the sweat stinging his eyes—and then the buttons, only two to work with, and that was easy. Except for tugging out the cleaning rod stub, so were the trousers; he just bunched them around the feet, lined them up, and worked them up into position. Three trouser buttons remained, and then he fastened the belt buckle. Boots last, over the toe stubs, a peek at the little one on the left foot as it disappeared. Laced up, neat, final. He reached for his rifle and disengaged the bayonet, jerked out his shirt tail and cut a long, wide strip for the final, dreaded chore.
The Marine picked up his rifle and swung it like a baseball bat at the base of the stake, snapping it clean. He reattached the bayonet, laid the rifle aside. From outside the cave, voices began to drift toward him, unintelligible at first, but American voices, and he thought he heard his name at the end of a shouted question.
He whispered, “We ain’t got but a minute or two now…I have to look at you.”
But he could not, and he sought another task. The fingers. He could do the fingers. The Japs hadn’t chopped off the fingers. He bent the elbows, lifted the hands to the chest, laced the fingers, covered the brittle hands with his own. The voices from outside the cave grew louder, now mingled with the sound of boots on rocks.
“Jesus help me!”
Slowly, an inch at a time, his gaze crept upward. Green cloth, buttons, tangled black chest hair, the lump of Adam’s apple, the outline of jaw, crusted blood on the chin. He placed a hand over the mouth, and then stared into the eyeless, black holes of a jack-o’-lantern carved in Hell. The palm of his hand cradled the severed penis. “Godaaaaaaaaaaaammmmm!!” He pulled it from the mouth, and with great care, placed it on the strip of cloth. He unbuttoned the trousers, loosened the bandage, and then tucked the flesh of his friend back in its place. After he re-buttoned the trousers, he tied the cloth strip over the face.
The young Marine wept.