The First Job
I am lonely, hacked with steel, wounded by weapons; the toil of battle has wearied me, swords have worn me out. Often have I seen war, the rage of battle, nor do I hope for rest from strife before I die ... I can never find a leech-physician to heal my wounds with herbs, but only more mortal blows and deeper wounds each day and night.
On Thursdays in the summer, his father usually rose first to fry the bacon strips, but this special morning the boy slipped down the stairs just before sun-up. The fissures in the kitchen's yellow and gray linoleum tiles caught on the holes in his Hopalong Cassidy socks. Battleship linoleum his father called it. His mother's name for it differed in only the final letter.
He nudged open the unlocked screen door, then stamped his foot to startle any river rats conducting early morning maneuvers on the porch planks. A breeze from the river to the north murmured through the corroded mesh and took on the smell of old zinc. The doorframe's crazed green paint scraped his well-muscled arm as he stretched for a glass bottle of milk. Beside the bottle on the porch, a newspaper, emblazoned with a headline about the Korean War, flapped in a slow rhythm.
He shook the moist, cool bottle to disperse the cream at the top, untwisted the metal lid, and then ripped back the paper tab. His stomach was churning with excitement. Breakfast was the last thing on his mind that day.
He glanced round, brushed his thick blonde hair out of his blue eyes, then took a long swig. He was wiping the mustache away when suddenly he felt a powerful arm shoot around his neck and the blade of a knife slashing across his throat.
"Hey, buddy, how many times have I told you to keep that dirty little kisser of yours off the milk? You want to live to be ten or not?"
His father stabbed him playfully in the gut with the rubber thirty-nine cent Woolworth knife, and the boy doubled over grasping it with one hand. "And what's worse, kid, I got right up behind you and you didn't know it. If I'd been a Jap, I could have slit your throat while you were sucking on your baby bottle."
"I know, Dad, but I can't think about anything except getting over to Joe Blake's. My first job. He's actually going to pay me for two-hours work on his lawn."
His father tilted back his snap-brim hat, and a shock of jet black hair cascaded downwards. Then he drew his nickeled .38 revolver from a Mexican-tooled shoulder holster. Against a brilliant white shirt, the holster's black leather set sharply defined. With a flick of his wrist, he broke out the police special's fluted cylinder and then tightened a Windsor knot in his hand-painted silk tie. "What's he paying?"
He flicked the cylinder in and whistled. "A halver? Two bits and two bits? What the hell am I doing up? We're going to start living on your wages, Mister Big Bucks."
"Yeah, ain't it great? That's two movies at the Strand, ten Cokes, or fifty penny candies at Boyer's grocery."
His father holstered the rod and lit a Camel with a chromed Zippo on which a skull leered. It was his lucky piece that he'd carried as a jungle scout in the Pacific, all the way through the War. He was always joking he and the lighter were like Timex's ... they'd both taken a licking and were still ticking.
His brow furrowed, and he spoke to the boy deliberately, punctuating his remarks with a cigarette that moved in and out like an ack-ack gun. "Look, kid, Joe's a vet and an up-front guy, but he can be a little funny. You work for Joe Blake, you follow his instructions, to the T, buddy boy. Capiche?"
"Sure, Dad, sure. I always pay attention."
"Yeah, kid, like on that milk, huh? You got a mind of your own, boy. Adam and Eve rolled up into one. If you'd been in the Garden of Eden, after five days, God would have created the first .45 automatic and then pumped seven slugs into you. Sometimes thinking on your own is okay, but other times it gets you in dutch. So watch it over there. I mean it. I don't want any trouble. Standard Operating Procedure. Here, gimme a belt."
The boy passed the bottle to his father, who gripped the rim, then wiped it with a rotary motion of his hand. "Ain't gonna catch any of your cooties, buster." He drained a quarter of the bottle while the boy laced his frayed black Jeepers. "Okay, get your butt moving while it's still cool. And sharpen the blades again on that piss-ass lawnmower of yours before you leave. You give the guy a shoddy job, you don't take a cent. The Eagle don't shit. Hear?"
The boy liked it when his old man used Army talk with him. He stood straight up and saluted. "Yes sir. The Eagle don't shit, fly or scream. No payday."
"And remember what I said. If Joe tells you to cut the lawn with your head up your ass, just do what he says."
"Aw, he ain't gonna do that, Dad. That's nuts."
"Yeah, kid, I guess it is. I guess it is." His father's voice trailed off, and his face grew distant, as it did sometimes when he was thinking about the War. This morning, though, it was not his usual vacant stare, but more as though he were brooding over something.
Ten minutes later, the boy was headed for Joe's, dragging an old Dunlap push mower behind him. In the quiet of the early morning, the mower's upside-down blades made a loud pang-pang-pang sound, and an old Army canteen clanked against his brass Army belt buckle. There was still a breeze from the river, and he inhaled the honeysuckle from Mrs. O'Flaherty's yard, drew it in till he felt he could sail away like a dandelion seed. He shoved his Army cap back off his forehead and sucked on a candy cigarette. The mower was heavy, but so what? Soon he'd be rolling in it, riches beyond description. He started to whistle an old Depression tune that his Grandmother, inspirited by a few afternoon beers, had taught him, Happy Days Are Here Again.
He had discovered the Dunlap mower in the dump, two weeks earlier. He went there to shoot rats with his Red Ryder BB-gun and look for Coke bottles. There too he ran into Tommie Flynn, and they spent fifteen minutes beating each other's brains out over two bottles. Finally, the boy, on his back and rubbing his jaw, called a truce. He offered Tommie the bottles if he'd let him use his wagon to lug the mower home. So Tommie helped him load the forty-pound mower into his rusty Radio Flyer, and together they hauled it four blocks to the boy's house.
The handle was cracked and splintered; the five carbon steel blades were corroded. Still, he displayed it proudly to his father who asked him how much he paid for it. "Found it at the dump. Didn't pay a red cent." "You got your money's worth, Sad Sack." Then he helped the boy file the rust away and sharpen the blades.
"The right way to fix that handle is to saw it at the crack, drill holes, and insert dowels, but you're out-of-luck there, kid. I don't have a decent saw, and I don't have a drill." In the end, they had forced some wood glue into the crack and bandaged it in yards of white cloth tape. When they were finished, his old man said it looked like one of his buddies who had gotten the works on Iwo Jima. He laughed when the boy, with some black paint, crossed off Dunlap and scrawled The Vet Mower on the handle.
But now ten minutes had passed, and the boy was within sight of Joe's gray asphalt-sided house. All the ramshackle houses in that river neighborhood were sided with cheap ceramic asphalt, guaranteed to create the illusion of Lannon stone, brick, and shingles if viewed from the proper distance — about a mile. He saw him sitting on the steps of his porch, smoking and sipping Java in his gas monkey uniform minus his small black bowtie and porkpie hat. Beside him were a pair of hardwood crutches. A week ago, he had slipped on some oil down at his station and fractured a bone in his left leg, which had aggravated a war wound.
Joe was old like his father, almost thirty. His thick black hair was always hanging over one eye. His lips seemed forever locked in a one-hundred-sixty degree grin — a smile, but a spare one. His father was right about him. He was solid and decent. If you drove into his station over the bell hose, it didn't matter whether you were driving a Cadillac or some beat-up heap, like his old man's '36 Plymouth. He limped out of the white-tiled office, smiled and tipped his cap, the way the boy had been trained to tip his on the street when he encountered his elders. Then you got the full treatment — fluid and tire check, windshield cleaned, and of course fill-up. Only, for vets' kids, he always had a piece of Bazooka bubble gum lying around.
He always smelled of gasoline and Adirondack Club, a local brew to which the boy's grandmother was partial. Its smell reminded the boy of skunk piss. A cigarette always protruded from his puss, which he smoked faster than his father, in a rapid in-and-out motion. Between the booze, gas, and cigs, the boy halfway expected Joe to explode one day into a human fireball.
But he was, all in all, a real decent guy and a vet, which automatically made him A-1 in the boy's eyes. Not everybody in town thought like the kid. Some people had funny ideas about active military guys and vets. One night he and his father had gone to the Strand to see Frank Sinatra in Suddenly. Ol' Blue Eyes played a vet sniper who had received a Silver Star for knocking off Germans. Now, with the War behind him, he'd become a psycho, hired for $500,000 to knock off the President.
Under the marquee with its pulsating red, yellow, and blue lights, his father had complained to the boy, still munching on his popcorn, "Too many damn books and movies giving people the notion that vets are human time bombs, a lower order of life, just ready to run amok. Most of the guys I know are too busy hurting themselves to hurt anybody else. But it's like that cowboy movie we saw, kid. Decent folks hire gunslingers to plug the bad guys. Then when the job's done, they want the gunslingers to disappear, move on, because they're scared of them, and they remind them of the bad old days. Where the hell're we supposed to move to?"
A week after the movie, he and his father had gone to the A&P grocery store. An older bagboy was helping his father load the groceries into the old Plymouth's trunk. His father told the bagboy to put the cartons of beer in the back on the floor. The bagboy swung the door open and dropped the cartons on the floor, which promptly sagged under the weight. The boy, his feet dangling off the high rolled backseat, was wearing his father's military cap and his tattered Army blouse with Tropic Lightning patches. He said politely, "Better put them on this side, mister. The floorpan's rusted bad on that side."
It was a hot day, and the bagboy, inspired by the extra effort he had to expend shoving the cartons across, grunted a profanity. If the boy used that word at his Catholic school, he knew Sister Marie'd take the strap to his butt, then make him spend two years standing in a trashbasket with a bar of Fels-naptha soap lodged in his mouth. The bagboy sneered at the kid and said, "Good enough for you, Little Private Down-At-His-Heels?"
The sign inside the store had read, Service with a Smile — Always. The kid was smart enough to figure out the difference between a smile and a sneer. And so he imitated something he had seen his mother do when she was fighting with his father — something that made his father furious. He stuck his middle finger out and closely repeated his mother's words, "Hey, up yours, buddy. Up yours, with a royal flaming Jap bayonet." The bagboy muttered something about expecting that sort of language from Army trash and slammed the door. He went back to the rear and held his hand out for a tip.
His father, whose jungle senses had missed nothing, drew his .38 from under his suitcoat and peered nonchalantly into the ejected cylinder. Without looking at the bagboy, he reprised Sinatra's role as psychopath in Suddenly. "You running a scam here, Dilbert? Private Down-At-His-Heels up front already gave you your tip. And I thought that he was right generous, given the service he got. The Private and I — we don't cotton to guys trying to scam us."
The bagboy started to shake his hips as though any minute he were going to break into the Rumba. From the rear window, the boy, his hand over his mouth, imagined what must be going through Dilbert's head: "Oh sweet Jesus, this wacko vet gonna plug me for mouthing his kid. Then he's gonna shove my body in the trunk and him and that little half-wit up front'll take me out to the woods behind their rusted-out Airstream trailer and ram me down a woodchuck hole. And that Idiot Boy'll whoop and do a war dance around the hole for a finale." Suddenly the bagboy turned and sprinted into the store with his dirty white apron strings beating his butt.
When his father got back in, he asked if the boy wanted to learn to shoot a real gun some day. The boy jumped up in the seat, yelling, "You know I do, Dad."
"Well then, don't ever let me catch you using your fingers like that again, kid, because I'll personally cut them off, one by one, with my Kabar. Only way you'll be able to pull a trigger is with your toes."
Then his father turned back with his face close to the boy's. "But this one time, I'm giving you a pass. We don't take that kind of guff from anybody — not even the Pope. We did our part over there. We gave everything we had. Jesus, I lost one of my kid brothers in the Solomons, fighting for that airfield at Munda on New Georgia. We were all fighting like hell while other guys were lining their pockets. We've got nothing to be ashamed of.
"They found Jimmie's body just fifty feet behind Rodger Young's. You know him — died rushing a pillbox with his M-1, even after he'd gotten all shot up. Young got the Congressional Medal of Honor — posthumously. He deserved it for blasting that pillbox with a grenade. He was a hero all right, the pride of the Infantry. But my brother — all he got was a belly full of hot lead.
"No matter what happens to you in the years to come, don't you ever forget what we did." He turned front again, and his right hand clenched the ivory steering wheel until its blood drained, and its color merged with the wheel. "Don't you ever forget that and where you came from until the day you die. That's your legacy, boy. There ain't gonna be any pot of gold."
The boy put his hand on his father's shoulder. "I won't, Dad. Not till the day they put me to bed with a shovel."
"Okay, kid, okay. Now get your flaps down before you take off."
As they drove home, the boy sat quietly until his father's shoulders loosened and the color came back into his hands, a sign that his tense mood was passing. The boy began to hum The Ballad of Rodger Young, which he knew as well as The Ballad of Davy Crockett. The stores on Ford Street sped by — Woolworth's, Newberry's, Triangle Shoes, Marion's Record Shop — and then almost simultaneously they broke into low song, No, they've got no time for glory in the Infantry, / No, they've got no use for praises widely sung, / But in every soldier's heart in all the Infantry / Shines the name, shines the name of Rodger Young. And on they went, singing of New Georgia and the wooden cross, and the coralled Solomons across the boundless Pacific.
On the bridge over the Oswegatchie, his old man finally spoke, "By the way, kid, where'd you get that royal' bit? Your mother doesn't say that."
"Just popped into my head, Dad. That guy was mean as a timber rattler, and he had a dirty mouth too. If you're going to do a guy like that right, seemed to me you'd want a bigger, wider, sharper bayonet — one fit for a king, a royal bayonet." The boy's hands spread out as though he were describing a fish he'd caught.
"You keep thinking like that, kid, and you just might end up a writer some day ... or a hitman for the mob. Either way you're going to need fingers, so just remember .... And you still got a lot to learn, Sad Sack. A guy like that — you'd want a dull bayonet with plenty of rust on it. A bout of lockjaw would serve a snake like that right."
So Joe was a vet and that made him a regular guy in the kid's book. In fact, all the military families in the neighborhood watched out for one another. When the boy went out canvassing for work, the civilians had just slammed the door in the kid's face or told him to amscray, drift or put an egg on his shoe and beat it.
At Mrs. Day's, he had twisted the scrolled old-fashioned doorbell spring three times. She swooped down the hall carrying one of the twins she had had six months ago. She now had seven kids. Her hair was up in curlers, and she was all wild-eyed and yelling, "You woke the little bastards up. Oh Jesus, buddy boy, I'm gonna cut your mickey off."
In his short life, he had come to realize that most of the adults in his environment displayed exaggerated emotions. He couldn't quite figure it. It was as though they been born with great big rubber bands attached to their asses and if you pulled too hard .... If his father and mother were arguing, his old man might say, "Okay, sister, on your knees. Say your prayers. I'm gonna cash your chips in quicksville. I'm going for my .45. Say them fast, toots. I'm taking you off the payroll." And his old lady had often sworn she was gonna fix Mike down there for good.
Sometimes it was like that TV show, The Honeymooners. "One of these days, Alice, pow and straight to the moon," only he couldn't imagine Alice telling Ralph she was going to fix him down there. Fat Boy's eyes would really bulge out when Alice laid out her plans, especially if she were slicing tomatoes at the time. He just bet Ralph'd run right out and buy her a new icebox to make up for that dump kitchen she had to work in. Sometimes he thought it all was so damn funny, just like the TV show. And other times it had made him feel bad inside, especially at night when they were going at it and their yammering came through the cracked plaster wall when he was trying to sleep.
So, being used to high drama and hyperbole, for a moment he just stood there with a silly grin on his face. But when the screen door swung open and he saw in Mrs. Day's right hand a six-inch kitchen knife, he hurtled over the porch railing and skedaddled to his mower on the sidewalk. "I guess this means you won't be wanting a clip today, huh, Mrs. Day?" "You're the one that'll be getting a clip, buster, if you come round here again." A few days later, when he told Joe down at the station what had happened, Joe had smiled and said a lot of people had stuff bottled up inside them. And if there was any clipping to be done, Mrs. Day ought to be doing some pruning closer to home — whatever that meant. Then Joe told the boy to come over on Thursday.
The boy now waved to Joe from a distance and then came up to the porch. Joe stared at the boy's lawn mower. He ran his hand over the bandaging and read the boy's inscription, but, unlike the boy's father, he didn't laugh. He just said, "Saw a lot of guys wrapped up like this in the War. All busted up inside." He turned to the boy and said, "You'll have to use your mower, I reckon. I've got a reel-type gas mower with combination chain and belt drive. But I can't let a little piss-ass like you use it. You might end up all bandaged up like that mower of yours."
The designation "piss-ass," coming from a vet, did not insult the boy. He had been around military-types all his short life and knew that, depending upon inflection of voice, when a vet called his own kid or another vet's kid Shit-for-Brains, Piss-ass, Dilbert, Sad Sack, Numbnuts," that was just his affectionate way of letting the kid know he was in the corps, and the guy knew he could take it. When used of non-military outsiders, the terms were to be taken non-affectionately.
"Before we get to the lawn, boy, I want you to trim these hedges near the porch. Now listen up. On these hedges, always cut them left to right, left to right, left to right." Joe emphasized each "left to right" with a sweep of his hand, from left to right. "Got it, kid?"
"Sure, Mister Blake. Left to right, left to right."
"Good. Now get started. And remember —
"Yes sir. Left to right, left to right." He watched Joe hobble around the corner of the porch, and then he shook his head. He wiped his hand across his forehead. Nope, no ink on it. For a minute he thought his father had sneaked in while he was sleeping and written up there: Mister Shit-for-Brains. The genuine article. Accept no substitutes. Jeez, did Joe think he was a moron?
If Joe came back and said, "left to right" one more time, he swore to God he'd screw his face up, get a real blank look in his eyes, and let his tongue hang out the side of his mouth. After drooling like a rabid squirrel, he'd look at Joe and say, "That was right to left, wasn't it, Mister?" He just bet that'd put a firecracker up old Joe's ass.
For an hour, he worked his way from left to right around the porch. Every now and then Joe would come round, and move his hands in the prescribed direction. They exchanged no words. The boy would merely nod, gesture with the clippers from left to right, and continue on.
After raking up the branches the boy went around the back to look for Joe. He came up behind him as he was bent over, tightening a spigot. He touched him gently on the shoulder. "Mister Blake, I'm — Before he could finish, Joe, pivoting on one crutch, swung round like a crazed ballet dancer. The other crutch was aimed directly at the boy's head. The boy ducked, the way his father had taught him to do in the cellar when he gave him boxing lessons. Otherwise, his head would now have crossed the Saint Lawrence River and been making an illegal entry into Canada.
"Jesus, boy, you're the son of a vet. Didn't your old man ever tell you not to come up behind a guy like that?" The kid was shaking and stuttered an apology. Joe flushed, smiled and spoke softly, "I didn't mean to scare you. It's just something left over from the War. Let's get to that lawn."
Early on, the boy had learned that his father's senses were hypervigilant. When they were woodchuck hunting, his father would often stop, draw in the air or tilt his ear toward some shrubs and say, "Smell that? Hear that?" But the boy smelled and heard nothing. He also learned early on he could easily startle him by jumping out a door as he came down the hall. Sometimes his father would yell and jump up in the air with his hand halfway up his ass. But then his father would just laugh and playfully slap him around. Jesus, Joe acted like the boy was trying to kill him.
After the hedges, every muscle in the boy's back and arms ached. His white T-shirt clung to him, and he felt as though Al Capone and Babe Ruth had taken turns with a Louisville Slugger on his legs. And now the lawn — it appeared to stretch back infinitely to a cluster of lilac bushes, like one of those Dalí pictures he had seen in Life magazine. He imagined an endless row of white crosses, his own personal Flanders Field, every one with his name on it: Shit-for-Brains.
But then he imagined himself taking his old man out to Philip's Diner Saturday night — ten cent hamburgers, nickel Cokes, and, when his father stared at a piece of pie in the glass display, he'd say to the waitress, "Piece of apple pie for my old man." Oh yeah, he was going to be one grand fellow. There'd even be enough left for a nickel tip. He could just see Mabel the waitress, snapping her gum and waving at him as they strode out. "Thanks, big spender."
Joe's instructions on the lawn were as precise as on the hedges. "Always cut from front to back. Just think up, up, up."
"But wouldn't it be easier to just turn the mower at the lilac bushes and come down every other row?"
"No, kid. It can't be done that way. It's has to be cut in only one direction. Up, up, up."
So the boy set to work, thanking his lucky stars that Joe had not said, "You can cut the lawn any direction you want, kid, as long as you stick your head up your ass while you're doing it. Up, up, up." He liked Joe but he was tired and frustrated. He could still see the white crosses on the lawn, but now they had on them an explanation of his premature demise: "Here lies an idiot boy who bit off more than he could chew."
Fifty minutes later he was more than three-quarters through. He had never been so tired. His thick blonde hair was plastered to his forehead, and someone had rammed a hot poker up his spine. If Joe came back and started that up-business, he swore he'd start a little routine of his own: "Yeah, up, up, up, Joe. Up yours, buddy." Then out would flash his middle finger ... and just as quickly out would flash his father's Kabar, probably right out of those lilac bushes — so forget that stunt.
He unscrewed the cap from his Army canteen and took a long drink. Piss-warm with the usual metallic aftertaste. Maybe a hint of iodine too. Probably halizone left over from the War. There seemed to be another taste in there also. He envisioned some grunt in the Philippines on the Luzon Plain along Highway 1 heading for Manila sipping from his canteen and a Jap sniper splattering his brains into it. Christ, this job was turning him into a section eight. He had to finish quickly. He screwed the cap back on and continued.
Joe had been in front of the house scraping paint from the doorframe. Every ten minutes or so, he'd come round and nod his approval at the boy's work. Now he came round and called out, "How about some ice-cold lemonade, kid? I've got a few things to do inside. I'll bring it out in a few minutes." The boy grinned and nodded.
There were four strips left to do, but they might as well have been forty. The problem was flipping the heavy lawn mower over at the bushes. His arms felt like two jets of fire. If he could just come down the last few rows ... Joe would never know. He came up a row, then at the lilac bushes, he stared at the porch door, right-angled the mower and came down. Still no Joe. Okay, up now. At the end, he looked toward the door. Still no Mister Uppity Up. So he started down the row, pushing as fast as he could.
He was in the middle of that last row when he heard glass shattering off to his left and a voice — Joe's but higher pitched than usual. "Oh Jesus, no, boy, no. What you doing there?" There was Joe on the porch with the lemonade glasses smashed at his feet and his eyes wide open. Same funny grin on his face, punctuated by a Camel. Actually, maybe a little broader grin — sort of like Richard Widmark's psycho character's in that crime movie Kiss of Death — just before he shoves the old lady in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs.
Joe took off after him like a Tiny Tim, only bigger and with a pitchfork up his ass — the sort of Tiny Tim that wouldn't wait around for Scrooge to pony up a turkey. No, this Tiny Tim'd wring the old buzzard's neck and pry the bird from his cold dead hand. Then, for good measure, maybe whack him with it a few times.
A line from another old movie came into his mind: "Feet, don't fail me now." But his feet failed him, and he stood frozen awaiting Joe's onslaught. He started to say a Hail Mary, then a Perfect Act of Contrition, and finally a few phrases from the Confiteor, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa ("through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault"). Oh yeah, he was going be in a sanctified state when Joe presently dispatched him to his Maker. Right after Joe snapped his neck, he'd be Alleluia Glory bound.
But when Joe reached him, all Joe did was kneel on one leg and run his hand through the grass and say, "Oh Jesus, kid, why didn't you listen?" Joe kept caressing the grass as though it were a pal the boy had just flattened with a coal truck.
"Oh jumping Jesus, I'm sorry, Mister Blake. I can go over it again. I can go up over it."
Joe just shook his head sadly. "That's no good. It doesn't work that way."
The boy could not comprehend what he had done. He watched Joe tremble and pass his hands again and again over the section of grass. Once he had helped Billie Moore look for his puppy, and they had found him — dead, all torn up by the Clark's Boxer. He had stood behind Billie as the boy ran his hands over the puppy in some futile attempt to revive him. Finally he had pulled him away. Now Joe, who was no six-year-old, seemed to be doing the same thing, trying to set right something with his hands that could never be righted.
It was as though some great sorrow or trouble had been nesting in that grass, and the boy had somehow unleashed it. In school one day, Sister Marie had recounted the Greek myth of Pandora, the first woman, who disobeyed her husband's instructions not to open a box the gods had given her and thus brought forth every evil on mankind. Sister showed the class a picture of the girl waving her hands in vain over vaporous beings emerging from the small chest. "Death, destruction, war, pestilence, every evil that plagues mankind was set loose when that box was opened, and all because someone just couldn't abide by the rules and obey," she said, all the while staring at him squirming in the third row.
She had him pegged all right, and now he had loosed on Joe some great sorrow, but how he had done that escaped him. He wanted to reach down and touch Joe's shoulder and tell him whatever it was, it would be all right, but he did not. He just said, "Oh Jesus, Mother of God, I'm sorry, Mister Blake."
At last, Joe rose stiffly and turned toward the porch. "Look, boy, you better take your stuff and clear out." There was no anger in Joe's voice, just profound sadness and resignation. He hunched on the porch. The boy gathered up the tools and put them beside the shrubs. Then he flipped the mower over and passed by Joe.
"Wait a minute, kid, your pay."
"I screwed up, Mister Blake. Keep your money."
"No, no, boy, you worked hard, did a fine job on the hedges and most of the lawn. You gotta take something."
"If my old man knew I came over here and messed up and still took money, he'd take the strap to my butt and then make me bring every cent back."
"He doesn't have to know. It can be just between us."
"My old man and me — we don't play like that. But thanks anyway."
"No, I don't suppose you and Mike operate that way. I' m sorry I said that. You're Mike's kid all right." He gave the boy a playful punch in the arm and said, "In New Guinea, kid, I would have felt real safe having a guy like you at my back. It'll work out somehow. We're all in a hole right now. It'll work out for all of us ... you too."
He looked up for a moment, and the boy thought he saw in Joe's deep brown eyes indistinct shapes and forms moving, some hobbling just like Joe, against a strange mountainous landscape shaded in countless jungle greens drenched with rain. And exotic birds were flying in the air, like those in that prehistoric epic Lost World. And for just a few seconds, he thought he heard drums far off in the distance, but it was probably just the blood pounding in his ears. Then Joe lowered his head again and spoke quietly, "But now you just get on home, kid."
The boy headed up the sidewalk. When he looked back, Joe had returned to the scene of the crime. He was bent over the grass, and his shoulders were shaking. Jesus, Joe was crying, just like a little kid. He pulled hard on the mower, and the oak handle rammed into his stomach and knocked the air out of him. Serves you right, Shit-for-Brains. Oh you'd have to look high and low in the barnyard to find a quality piece of shit like you. The nuns had him pegged all right. On the deportment side of his report card, under the column Annoys Others, they marked Always. Annoys? He had taken this guy's morning to the cleaners.
He shambled home, stopping every now and then to tell himself how worthless he was. The plunk-plunk-plunk of the lawnmower now sounded more like water dripping on the forehead of a victim of the Chinese water torture. When he sucked in the air now, all he smelled was the stench of hydrogen sulfide from the paper factory. The boy could just see God in the Garden of Eden proudly looking at his newly created shiny .45 automatic and saying, "Now all I gotta do is find me that little peckerhead. Gonna put seven slugs in him, one for each of the days of creation. That boy's convinced me this Mankind-business ain't gonna be worth the trouble."
By the time he meandered home, his father had returned for lunch and was standing on the porch drinking a beer. Mike was not like that detective on Dragnet. If some dame offered Joe Friday a drink, Officer Cork-Up-His-Ass always said, "Thanks Ma'am, but I'm on duty." Not Mike. He'd tilt back his snap-brim, unbutton his double-breasted suit coat, and say, "Now you're talking my lingo, sister. I'm on duty, and it sure is one hell of a scorcher. How about a coke for my partner, the kid?"
Then the kid would sit in the squad car, swigging his coke and reading his war comics while Mike went in to "take a report" from the nice lady. If the dispatcher called on the radio, that's what his father trained him to say. For some reason, the dispatcher, one of Mike's vet pals, always laughed when the boy said that. "Roger, kid," he'd sign off military-style, but then some times he'd add, giggling, "Tell Mike to take one for me." What the hell was so funny about taking a report? Other times he'd just say, "Same old A&A Mike." The boy knew what R&R meant in Army talk, but not A&A. When he asked his father, Mike flushed and just said, "Asking and asking — same as taking a report. Jesus, for a little piss-ass, you ask a lot of questions."
But now he looked up carefully at his father's mouth as he stood on the porch. One side of his lips were curved downward, the other upwards. In school a nun had drawn that curve on the board, described it as a line of beauty, and said everything in art was contained in it; contrast, balance, perfect harmony. When it shaped his father's mouth, it had a different significance. Expressed in words it had one specific meaning: Welcome home, Shit-for-Brains. Screwed up again, huh? If the words were uttered out loud, the first word of Shit-for-Brains would be sustained in pronunciation and given a downward tonal thrust — the non-affectionate, contemptuous enunciation.
"Duck day, eh kid? Nervous and out of the service?"
"You ain't kidding, brother. And a dishonorable discharge to boot." The boy shoved the mower onto the lawn, came up the steps, and slumped into a chair. His hair completely covered his eyes, but he did not brush it back. The dry, splintered wicker jabbed his legs and arms. Not hard enough, he thought.
His father's eyes focused intently on him. "Did the Eagle shit, boy?"
The boy pushed the hair out of his eyes and stared straight at his father. "No sir. I didn't take one red cent from Joe."
His father smiled and nodded. "Okay, kid. Okay. That was right."
Then he told his father all that had happened that morning. Mike listened without interruption. Now and then he tapped his beer bottle with one finger as though he were sending out Morse music to parties unknown. He sucked in his cigarette, never seeming to exhale.
"And when I left, Dad, I swear he was crying."
His father thrust his hand into the boy's hair. "Go in and wash up. Soak that head of yours under the faucet and comb it. We'll talk over lunch." The smell of frying Spam and coffee wafted from the kitchen.
On the red pearl Formica table, his father clunked down spam sandwiches on yellow Fiesta plates and poured coffee into his and the boy's cups. The boy added a half-cup of milk to his Java. Even through his jeans, the cracked vinyl of the chair cut the back of the boy's legs, but all he did was force his legs harder against the chair.
"In '42 and '43, when I was on Guadalcanal, Joe was in New Guinea with the 32nd Infantry Division trying to block the Jap drive for Australia. Guadalcanal was no picnic, but New Guinea was like another planet. The dense jungle slopes there rose up over thirteen thousand feet. Constant rain, jungle rot, malaria, and disease that made parts of your body swell up you don't even want to think about.
"You know that little bit of fungus I've still fighting on my big toe. Imagine your whole body covered with that brown shit. At night you could hear the jungle drums — headhunters in the mountains communicating with one another. All that and then some of the meanest Japs you'd ever want to run into, partly because they were royally pissed off that they too were stationed in that hellhole. Joe's Division suffered a ninety per cent casualty rate. He took it in the leg — a load of shrapnel fragments, some still in there. That's why he limps. And sometimes he still gets shooting pains up that leg.
"They sent him home in '43 all broken up physically and mentally. In and out of the VA for nearly five years. The bastards tried to cheat him on his pension. When he had the shakes, they'd told him he was "predisposed," fancy way of saying "nuts to begin with." Supposedly had something to do with his relation to his father.
Joe and I grew up together. Our fathers shared a bootlegging operation, made panther piss in that shed behind your Grandpa's. After school they forced Joe and me to go to the dump to hunt for flat whiskey bottles. If we didn't bring enough home, they'd take turns beating the hell out of us with a razor strap and then send us right back out again.
"We both had screwed-up fathers. That wasn't Joe's problem. It was the War and the quacks down at the VA. We had a joke about those medicos. On a summer day, a G.I.'s standing on a corner, eating an ice cream cone. Some Nips come by, fill his belly with lead. A VA doc comes along, and the guy says to the doc, "Oh Jesus, my gut hurts." And the doc says, "Could be the slugs. But what's that in your hand? Ice cream? Don't you know eating ice cream on a hot day like this'll give you an awful bellyache? Yeah I bet that's it. T.S. We don't cover that, buddy. In the future, watch what you eat."'
"To understand Joe you gotta get inside his head. The layout in there ain't so different from the rest of us vets in the neighborhood.
"You know how you and Tommie Flynn are always fighting? Tommie's a square kid. He always fights fair. But suppose one day he played Jap-dirty, reached for your jewels, squeezed hard, and said, Okay, Buster Brown, start singing.' What would you do?"
The boy pressed his legs together and thought for a minute. "I'd say, Hi folks. My name is Tony Bennett Junior, and I'm here to take requests.'"
"You better believe it, kid. The War was like that. Half the time we felt like that Howdy Doody puppet on the wall in your room, only the strings weren't attached to our arms and legs. It was like someone had us by the balls and was forcing us to do things, things we didn't want to do, all the time.
"We wanted to be tough. We wanted to feel that we were in control, that we were calling the shots, but it didn't work that way. In the beginning, okay, but then months glided into years out in those jungles. The leeches and mosquitoes sucked away more than our blood. One day we woke up, and there was a voice in the back of our heads telling us what to do. Mister Big we called him. Wasn't God and wasn't the Devil. Somebody in between.
"Once on Guadalcanal my sergeant ordered me to crawl through some dense undergrowth to scout out what the Japs were doing on the top of a formation we called the Galloping Horse. When I started in, a huge snake glided right in front of me. I was scared, but I heard a voice inside me, C'mon, kid, get your ass moving. You heard Sarge. What's that? You're scared of big snakes. Have been ever since you were a little tyke? Oh Jesus, ain't that too bad? You're breaking my heart, buddy. Strike up the violins. I'm ready for the crying towel. Look, get your ass moving or I'll give a tug that'll guarantee you the lead soprano job in your church choir all the remaining days of your stinking life.'"
"I didn't think you were scared of anything, Dad."
"Yeah, well you were misinformed, Sad Sack. There were a few guys like that, but they were either dumb or crazy. They're still there, pushing up palm trees. Being scared kept you thinking, kept you alive.
"Another time, in the Philippines, Sarge wanted me to run across a clearing and bring some ammo belts to our guys on the other side. Problem was, there were a few Japs, one with a Nambu light machine gun, just south of the clearing. And they were operating under the misapprehension that the clearing was a shooting gallery.
"The last guy who tried to cross was lying on some shrubs, howling with a gut full of hot lead. A real college cheerleader — Mister Rah-rah, just made you want to get up and go. So I hesitated. Then the voice came. Move it, boy. You scared? Yellow streak down your back? Why, you little piss-ass, that's just a Nambu Light. Only holds thirty rounds. I just bet you can make it over there with nothing more than twelve or thirteen rounds in your sorry ass. Okay, maybe seventeen, tops. But who's counting? That Jack was a gimp compared to you. You can run faster. Don't make me pull the chain, boy. Look, all the other guys are watching you, Mister Hero. What would you rather have them see running down your leg — piss or blood? That's what I thought. Bye-bye, Ammo Boy.'
"As time passed and we knew we were coming towards the end, the voice changed. It became more like a cowardly, sneering little monkey's, always sarcastic and tormenting us. Going out scouting tonight, buddy? Big hero, huh? Hey, did you get a load of Jonesy this morning when they brought him in? Real pretty sight with half his face gone. Jaw was AWOL, wasn't it? Hard to tell in all that raw hamburger. Hey, if you come back like that, just imagine how all the kids in the old river neighborhood are going to rush up to you and ask for your autograph. Why Uncle Sugar might even want to put your cute little mug on a war bond poster. Okay, hero, time to pull out.'
"Joe heard those voices too. That lawn business — being so particular about the way he wanted everything done — all he was trying to say was I survived, Mister Big. You ain't got me by the balls anymore. I'm my own man now. I control things. See I can cut my hedges left to right, left to right and my lawn up, up, up." Sad thing about Joe is his balls are still being pulled, but he's the one yanking the strings now. But those little repetitions are his way of coping, of getting on for now, of putting his life in order. He'll work his way out of it some day, just not now. We all will.
"Out there in the Islands, we faced wave after wave of banzai charges, one night after another. Night? Jesus, sometimes you couldn't see your hand in front of your face. It was like being at the bottom of a muddy black hole with no way out. We were all like blinks, bunch of blind guys, groping in the dark trying to kill each other.
"Every morning we engaged in our own little repetitions, our own little rituals. We'd lie in our holes and do a body check on ourselves. Wake up in the morning, feel our arms, our fingers to make sure all ten were there, our legs, our toes, and, last of all, our you-know-what. Didn't touch food until we played that little game."
"Guys didn't get shot down there, did they, Dad?"
"Actually, no, son. We had a pact with the Nips. We both used the same kind of special bullets. If the bullets came anywhere near down there, they deflected, curved sort of, and entered your leg or your stomach." His father drew an arc in the air with his cup. "We called them Curveball Ammo."
The boy's mouth gaped open. "Jeez, Dad, how did they cast those?"
His father looked at his son as though he were bucking for a Section Eight. "Sometimes, boy, I think you're just about the brightest kid in the neighborhood — the way you're always reading everything — signs, cereal boxes, and all the books you can get your hands on. And other times, I say to myself if I ever find out I'm going to croak, I'll have to remember to put that kid down with my .38. Just wouldn't seem right to leave a poor, helpless little idiot boy alone, a little Dilbert like that, who couldn't fend for himself.
"Sure, guys got shot there. We called it The Big Wound or Eternity on the Rag. Half the time guys were wearing their helmets down there rather than on their heads."
The boy laughed. "I can't see John Wayne doing that."
"Yeah, well, guys did a lot of things you don't see in the movies. Like pissing themselves and sometimes even shitting their pants because they were so damned scared."
"Dad, did you ever —"
"Between me and Maker, kid, me and my Maker. Tell you this much. At night you didn't leave your hole, not unless you had a hankering to chat with Saint Pete. Anything that moved — kapow!" He shaped his hand into a pistol and aimed at the kid. "Come morning, a lot of guys were scrubbing their helmet liners out hard enough to beat the band. And the smell all along the line ...."
"Sometimes I wish the War weren't over. I wish I could have fought with you guys. I don't care how bad it was."
"You'll get your chance," his father said and slapped the newspaper emblazoned with the Korean headlines. "And I just bet it'll be in Asia, with Mao's boys getting their noses into everything. But one thing you and a lot of other people don't realize. The War isn't really over. It's still going on, in this neighborhood and thousands like it. There're still Japs around and incoming mortar rounds and men dying — only in a different way, a little bit every day."
"There ain't no more Japs around, Dad. What do you mean?"
"You think just because one morning in September '45 some guys sat down on that battleship in Tokyo harbor and signed papers the War ended? Nobody asked us shit-birds for our John Hancocks. No, the War's still going on all around you, kid. You just need eyes to see it, ears to hear it.
"When you pour Frank Murphy his cup of Joe and his hands tremble, that's the War. Or when my pals and I are sitting round over beers and telling jokes, you know how Jim Leary keeps laughing long after the rest of us have stopped. If you listen, the War's there, in that hollow laugh of his. And that time downtown, when Dick O'Malley and I were talking and that old Desoto backfired behind us and we jumped into each other's arms — remember how you and his kid just about doubled up laughing?"
The boy chuckled. "Yeah, and I yelled out, Lovers' Lane's on the other side of the park, boys.'"
"In the Islands, if you heard that sound, you bit dirt fast. Lucky there wasn't an open manhole or both of us would have tried to dive into it. When you touched Joe from behind, it was that kind of startle reflex. In the jungle you developed those reflexes to stay alive. After a while out there, you'd be ready to blast a leaf or a vine that got a little too chummy. Problem is your body just doesn't up and forget habits like that — even after they've lost their usefulness.
"No, the War is still alive in all of us, boy — in our thoughts, in our reflexes, in our dreams. It's all around you, and there's still fighting going on. Just open your eyes and your ears. Some days you can even smell it. We all came out of those jungles, each of us, with his own little special madness, his own little personal brand of screwiness."
"Not you, Dad. You ain't screwy at all."
"You ever counted how many times a day I break open my .38? That's a little trick left over from combat. In the War, guys were always doing ammo checks. In their heads, they knew their rifles were loaded, but a voice was telling them, Better just have a little look-see, buddy. Better safe than sorry. Sure, sure, chances are you're ready to go, but those samurai swords — they'll give you one mean haircut — put some sunshine right down your neck, buster.'
"I carried a Thompson with a fifty-round drum magazine — one of the last ones like that. Most of the newer ones had twenty- and thirty-round box magazines. The guys used to say, Mike, how many dead Nips in there? "And from the weight I'd say 39', or 45,' and I was always right on the money within one round. And we'd all have one big yuk. But sometimes at night, I'd be opening it, feeling the rounds the way a blink reads Braille, just to make sure. Now, even when I'm not going on some heavy detail, Dick Tracy's still counting six lousy slugs."
"Jeez, Dad, that's like when I'm listening to Gangbusters on the radio in the living room. A commercial for hair tonic comes on. So I go to the refrigerator and look for something good to eat and there's nothing. So I go back and listen to the show for a while. Next commercial, I'm back looking again, even though I know in my head there's still nothing there."
"Yeah, like that, kid. Only you feel your life depends on having that look-see. That's what makes the difference.
"Sometimes, too, the War is there at supper time around the kitchen table. That time you were over to Tommie's and he and you and his Dad were all excited about going up to the lake and fishing the next day. And then Tommie said something that set Steve off, and he reached over and slapped the kid hard right across the face.
"Next day you were all pals again, fishing away, but Tommie was still sporting his Dad's handprint on his face. Steve's edgy because he never gets much sleep. He cleared Jap caves on Mindanao with a flamethrower. There're nights some of the Nips he charred pay their old pal a visit, right in his bedroom. And he wakes up and sees them all around his bed, and they're all burning and screaming, but no sounds are coming out of their mouths. And they're trying to grab him."
The boy set his sandwich down and looked at his father. "That's what was going on the night I stayed over. He took off down the hall, yelling, They're on fire, but they're still coming. Shoot them. Why don't you shoot them? Kill the yellow bastards.' Tommie's Ma made us sleep in the downstairs bedroom. Told us his Pa just had a bad dream. Tommie told me his old man had plenty of bad dreams — in spades."
He picked up his sandwich again and took a few nibbles. "Dad, do you have dreams?" Mike rose and poured himself another cup of coffee. He leaned hard against the gas range, and his shoulder blades stood out sharply from his white shirt. His back still to the boy, he said, "You asking questions you already know the answers to?"
The boy brushed the hair out of his eyes and stirred more sugar into his cup. "Just after Christmas, you and Ma were fighting. It woke me up, and I heard her say, That's it, Mike. No more dreams. I can't take it anymore. You get your ass downstairs and sleep.'"
"Yeah, I got my own magic lantern show. It ain't exactly a kiddie story, but I guess, after all that's happened, you need to know some time.
"At night, in those foxholes we were so damn wet and cold we'd huddle up next to each other, just for body heat. Guys with their arms around one another — you saw that a lot in the infantry. Sometimes when two guys got hit with the same shell and knew they weren't gonna make it, they'd just lay there with their arms around each other and wait. Sometimes they'd cry, and sometimes they'd just lay there, real still-like.
"Jesus, that was a hard thing to see. If I live to be a hundred, I ain't ever gonna see anything as hard as that again. Like looking at two little kids huddled together watching a scary movie, but these were men — men you ate with, drank with, trained with. You wanted to go over and hold them and wait with them, but the lead was whizzing all over the place." He coughed and cleared his throat while the boy looked away.
"Jungle warfare wasn't like in Europe. There weren't any polite cease-fires for Christmas, and the Geneva Convention meant nothing out there. I can just see me traipsing into that jungle on Christmas Eve with a white flag and saying to the Nips, Hey, boys, we gonna sing Christmas carols tonight. Come on over. Maybe bring some sake.' They would have smiled and said, Tell you what, soldier boy, you stay with us tonight and we'll have our own little songfest, nice little wingding. Oh yeah, Fred Astaire, you're gonna sing loud and clear, and it ain't gonna be Silent Night. We're all gonna have a real hotsy-totsy time. Really put on the Ritz.'
"They captured one of our guys once, and all night we sat there and listened to him. At first I thought it was a jungle bird ... a macaw maybe. I never thought a man could make those sounds out of his throat ... the whole damn night ... and there wasn't a thing we could do. Took three guys to hold me down. I wanted to go out there, with my Kabar in my teeth, and start spraying the whole jungle with my Tommie. My buddy Jim collared me. Get your flaps down, Tarzan. We ain't a-hankering to hear a duet.' The next day, we found what was left of him."
"Jeez, Dad, what'd they do to him?"
"I ain't gonna tell you because if I did, you wouldn't sleep nights. You and Tommie's dad'd be up all night playing Canasta. Let me tell you one thing, boy. There were some guys on our side too, if your name was Hiroshige or Teriyaki or Soy Sauce ... well, let's just say you wouldn't want them getting their mitts on you. Jungle warfare turned some guys funny, and some guys were like that to begin with. There were ways you could kill a man ... ways to make it go on and on .... He stopped and gripped his cup with both hands as though it were a pair of binoculars. He was drifting. The boy knew from experience he was thousands of miles away, back in the Pacific. Then he returned. "Me ... I stayed away from that shit ... far away, I swear to God."
For a moment, the boy felt as though he were Father O'Malley behind the screen in the Confessional. Absolvo te tuis peccatis. I absolve thee from thy sins.
His father swirled the coffee in his cup, then continued, "The Japs were always around, real close, so we'd have to take turns sleeping — two hours at a time. We cared about each other just like we were family. But after you'd been out in those jungles for months, for years, with death all around you, you'd start getting funny ideas.
"If you fell asleep on a guy's right, you'd tell yourself if the Nips come tonight, they'll slip in on the left. The other guy became your security blanket. They'd get him first and you'd have a chance to fight or escape. If you fell asleep on a guy's left, you'd say to yourself, Tonight the bastards'll attack on the right and come morning, I'll still be sucking air, but you, Jim Beau. old buddy ... them's the breaks. Luck of the draw, buddy.' When Jim's turn came to sleep, he'd be thinking the same thing. We use to joke about it, but deep down, we weren't laughing.
"Those Nips on the Canal were hungry like us. In Jap lingo, Gato was their short name for Guadalcanal. It also could mean starvation.' They'd come quiet-like to your hole at night, thank you kindly for your K-rations by slitting your throat, and then slip back into their holes. The only way you could get to sleep was to convince yourself the other guy was going to buy the farm before you. Somebody was going to get dusted. It just wasn't going to be you. All those years out there — your sense of decency gave way to pure animal survival."
The boy drew out a candy cigarette, tapped it on his leg, as though it were fresh-rolled, and gave his father a been-there-done-that look. "You know, Dad, once in school, Frankie Brown and I were talking in the back of the class while Sister Marie was trying to explain to us how to tell time. So she comes down the aisle with this thick oak yardstick, yelling she's gonna fix our little clocks.
"Frankie was in front of me, so she starts whacking him first, real bad. After a while, something decent inside is telling me to stand up and say, Hey Sister, knock it off. You ain't gotta beat a mug half to death just for a little yammering. C'mon, I was yacking too. Give me some of that.' But inside me there was another little voice saying, That's it, Sister. Give him the works. Serves the bum right, the big blabbermouth. Beat the living sh — stuffing out of him. You missed a spot, Sister. That's it. There you go. Break that ruler over him.'
"I was hoping by the time she'd expended her ordnance on him, she was gonna be too tired to work me over. I felt real low about thinking like that, being selfish that way. Frankie's my best friend. Didn't matter anyway, though. When she came for me, I said, Don't you want to take a breather, Sister?' She just smiled and said, Don't need to, boy. I got the power of the Holy Ghost in me.' Holy Ghost? By the time she was done working me over, I felt like the whole Trinity had done a bombing run on me — Father, Son and Holy Ghost."
"That's what it was like, kid. There were times in those Islands we were like dogs at the pound. And every day, the keeper would come around and say, You know the rules, boys. One of you mutts has to take the Express to Slumbertown every day. So who's taking the ride today?' And then one day there're only you and this other puppy left in the cage, and you've been real pals, playing together, sharing your bones and everything. And suddenly you're pointing your paw at him and saying, Oh Jesus, take him. Did you ever see such a mangy, lice-ridden mutt? One more day, one day, please. Tomorrow, I'll go. Promise. No whining. I'll stick my head right outside the cage so you can lop it off. Just not today. Tomorrow.'
"And sometimes you'd be bargaining with Mister Big: Hey, I'm only nineteen, he's twenty. Fair is fair. Take him first.' That guy had a car before the War. I ain't never had a decent bike. Easy choice, Mister Big, easy choice. That guy's gotten ten times the nookie that I've had. He's gotta go first.'"
"Sort of like ice cream. Real fun stuff."
"Okay, off with his head. Fair is fair."
"That wasn't us talking. That was the voice of that dirty little monkey inside us, and every time he started up, we slapped him down and said, Cut the static, baboon-ass.' We kept struggling to be the way we had been before the War. I always kept a picture in my head. Deep inside me there was one little round spot, all bright and shiny that all that mud and filth and blood and death hadn't touched. You know, the way you figure your soul looks when you've made a good Confession and just received Communion. But it was hard to keep your sense of decency when you started thinking like that.
"But the dream business — one night after an assault, I fell asleep out of turn, next to my best friend Jim. And the monkey was chanting in my head. Real silly stuff: Jim comes before Mike in the alphabet, same as on the Obit page ....' When I woke up next morning, there was Jim right next to me grinning with two smiles on his face."
"How can a guy have two smiles on his face?"
"That was our polite way of saying his throat was slit."
"You mean ...." The boy drew an arc across his throat. His father nodded. "Was he really grinning?"
His father held his cigarette in a Marine roll and gestured toward him with it. "You're never satisfied unless you get all the details. This ain't stuff for kids, but then you aren't just any kid. You're an odd one. You fight like the other kids, and you take your licks without whining — from me and them. But you're deeper somehow, always trying to piece things together. It's like something in your head is always going clickity-click, looking for answers."
He stirred more sugar into his coffee and looked down into it. "When a guy's been dead for three or four hours, his body stiffens, and his muscles contract, tighten. Sometimes the tension draws his lips up in a smile." He picked up a Batman comic that was lying on the table. "You see that smile on the Joker. That's it."
The boy stared at the cover of the comic book and traced the Joker's leering grin with a finger. "Jeez, Dad, they call that the Smile of Death, but I never knew why."
There in front of him, all these years, had been one piece of the puzzle of the great mystery of life and death — the mystery that had played itself out in those Pacific Islands thousands of miles to the west — one hidden truth — right there in his favorite comic — and he had never known it.
One morning, his mother had stormed into his bedroom and grabbed all his war comics. She was dressed to the nines, but she and Jack Daniels had been playing Tiddlywinks, and Jack had won. "I'm going to put the match to every last one of these damn things." From experience, he knew better than to shoot his yap off when she was behind the cork and burning with a low blue flame. That was one-hundred percent guaranteed to get the deuce of clubs played smack dab on top of you — hard and fast. But he'd be damned if he'd let his pal Sergeant Rock get his ass smoked without a fight.
He snatched them back and yelled, "You ain't got no right!"
"I got every right. That War — that goddamned War — wrecked everything for us, stole everything away." He clutched the pile and pulled back. She finally slapped him hard across the face, and he fell losing his grip. The room's white ceiling transformed into the lid of a Maxwell House coffee jar — brilliant red background studded with white stars — good to the last drop.
Instinctively he kicked one of her high-heeled shoes, and the heel snapped. She nearly toppled, but recovered her balance, yanked the shoe off and, with what seemed to be a rage long stored up, flailed him with it over and over. "You don't mouth me. I got every right, every right in the world. These damn things are junk that'll ruin your mind. You want to end up like your damn screwed-up vet father?" She beat him till she was out of breath, then stumbled toward the door.
"What's wrong with that?" he hollered from the head of the stairs as she hobbled down. "There ain't nothing the matter with dad."
She whirled round, her hair disheveled, and with the back of her hand wiped her eyes, smearing her mascara. For just a moment, despite what she had done, he felt bad for her. She was his ma, and yet she stood there wiping her eyes like a little kid crying, like Billie Moore that time his puppy had gotten his ticket punched to the great doghouse in the sky.
But then she raged on and brandished her shoe at him. "Some day you'll piece it all together. You're a bright one, just like one of those original whiz kids on TV. You'll figure it out." She turned and descended.
The boy came partway down the stairs, clutched the banister with both hands and shook with anger and pain. "Ain't ya heard the news, Ma? The War's over. It's goddamned over. Dad came home. At least he came back, Ma."
This time she didn't turn round, but just stood there frozen, with her back to him, and spoke in a low monotone. "Your father — he never really came back. We might as well just left a Blue Star up in the front window. Mike ain't here. And the War — it's not over. It's never going to be over, not for people like us. Maybe some day, after we've lived for years and years, when they shovel dirt in our faces .... But sometimes I think even down there in our graves, we'll be lying there remembering." She headed down the hall to the kitchen.
He kicked in his bedroom door and strode to the rear window to watch as she paraded in her nylons out the kitchen door and burned the comics in the rusted-out oil barrel behind the house.
In between them, on the back shed's galvanized roof, the sun's rays skittered across corroded metal. He drew a bead on Mother Goose with his Thompson squirt gun while his father's words came back to him: "A Tommie's not much good for distance. It's a stopper. And in the jungle there's always a lot around you that needs stopping."
In the jungle — that's where he was — and stopping — that's what he wanted — to stop her, to stop her from saying bad things about his father, to stop her from fighting with his old man. Sometimes her voice reminded him of that Tokyo Rose dame in the movies — always lying to the G.I.'s, trying to break them down. So he drew a bead on her, not for her actions, not for the beating she'd given him, but for her words. They had wounded him far deeper than her shoe with its exposed tacks. The tiny nails had left his white T-shirt splattered with red dots, as though he taken a load of buckshot.
Since his gun lacked a compensator, he locked onto the foregrip to counteract the upward "thrust" of the barrel, then he held his breath and squeezed the trigger hard, imagined 750 rounds per minute coming out at a muzzle velocity of 900 feet per second. "Sign-off time, Tokyo Rose," he muttered. "Rat-a-tat-tat."
She had been wrong about, comics and about other things as well. You could learn a lot from them, but especially about war. Some day he'd travel across the Pacific, come to know what his father had experienced, and fight and maybe kill too. It was a journey he believed he had to take, without which he never could get on in life.
That was the path boys in his neighborhood took during the Depression, and nothing much had changed in that piss-poor river neighborhood since that time. What else was there? Working in a shade-roller factory all day, like his grandfather? For thirty lousy years? Then drinking all night just to forget about it? Cutting lawns? Yeah, well he had been down that road, hadn't he? Maybe he'd put an ad in the paper: Shit-for-Brains' Lawn Service. You've never seen work like ours. Our work'll bring tears to your eyes. References available. If you want to know, ask Joe.
The Army was a way out. It set the code in this neighborhood, where windows displayed not only Gold Stars but even some Blue ones, years after the veterans returned. This much he knew, and he knew it because it was in his blood. It had always been there, since the day he was born, and it would be there when he came to die.
"You know everything, Dad."
His father was absorbed in his own thoughts. "I felt like I'd put the whammy on Jim. Got him killed. Never could figure out why I wasn't killed. His K-rations were gone. Maybe the Jap got startled by something and took off before finishing the barbering job.
"That stuff happened over ten years ago. Some nights, after the War, I'd be lying in bed snuggling with your mother. Only I'd be dreaming I was in that foxhole again next to Jim. And I'd dream I'd wake up, and there'd be my old pal, and he'd turn over and flash two smiles at me and say, Why didn't ya stay awake, buddy? Jesus, Mike, why didn't ya stay awake?' His words'd come out of two mouths and just be a little out of sync. I'd jump out of bed, and your mother'd wake up and be pissed as hell.
"There were other things she got pissed at, but you ain't gotta know them all — at least not now. Sometimes after a War, things between people don't work the same ... even if there aren't any physical wounds ... wounds that bleed. Some vets carry those wounds a long time.
"In school the nuns made us memorize a poem by Tennyson — about a king named Ulysses who went to a great war far away in a place called Troy, and fought and wandered for twenty years. When he finally came home, he couldn't stop thinking about the war and all he had done. As he grew older, it made him restless and discontented, and he found himself dreaming about roaming and fighting again: Tho' much is taken, much abides; and though / We are not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are — / One equal temper of heroic hearts, / Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will / to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.'
"Funny thing — when we were over there, all we could think about was getting home. But when we returned, there was something deep inside, haunting some of us, drawing us back there, drawing us away from home all over again, like hopheads needing a fix. We never felt so much alive again as we did in the Islands when we were closest to death. At night, they'd hit us with one banzai attack after another. There's a rush that comes over you in battle, and the next morning you'd wake up with guys dead all around you — and there, in the middle of all that death, you'd feel scared, exhausted, but somehow more alive than you ever had since the day you were born. Life was like an electricity surging through you, linked to everything around that was still breathing or growing — a leech, a blade of grass, a jungle bird. Never felt that way again after the War."
His father fell silent. Though the boy wanted to probe what he meant, instinctively he remained still, as he had that time in the car. He had never heard his father recite poetry. Poetry out of his old man's mouth — Mister Jungle Scout, Dick Tracy, Sergeant Rock. What a day this had been. If he lived to be an old man, the memory of it would always linger there in his mind.
Once, in school, Sister Marie had asked them to write a poem about the Blessed Virgin, and she had read his poem out loud, with her hand over her heart. "You might turn out to be a poet some day ... if you could just stop messing around for a while." He flushed, completely mortified. He glanced around. Jesus. At least four guys, all bigger, were smirking at him with their hands fisted over their hearts. Sure enough, on his way home, Sean O'Meara, hand over his heart, jumped out from behind a dying Dutch elm and allowed as only sissies wrote poetry. He engaged Sean in a discussion on the point, and Sean finally agreed that there might be some value in writing poetry. At least that's what he thought Sean said. His words were a trifle muffled since, at the time, Sean's face was jammed into the soil bed of Mrs. O'Flaherty's begonias.
He had never told his father that Sister Marie thought he might end up a poet. "Is that right, kid? Sensitive type, huh? That's nice, that's real nice. Hey, on your way out to play, would you get my .45 on the cellar door? Bring it to old Dad, willya?" His old man wouldn't use the .38 on him. No, he'd put Master Sensitive down quicksville with the .45 — full clip, seven shots.
But maybe he didn't quite have his father figured. There was something deeper in him — something he couldn't yet understand — and pain too, more pain than he could comprehend. And there was some of that pain in his mother, and it had come from the War.
Sister had said poetry was a way of saying something very important in as few carefully chosen words as possible. In a simple way, he understood that his father — and maybe indirectly he and his mother too — had lost something in the War, something, since too many years had passed, they would never get back. And yet something still remained — something that kept a guy going, no matter what happened to him.
He finished his sandwich, leaving only the crust, and took his Fiesta plate to the chipped yellow porcelain sink and looked out the window for a while. "Dad, what about Joe? Will he be all right?"
"Joe's a survivor, kid. If he survived the War, headhunters, shrapnel, malaria, he sure as hell can survive a morning even with an annoying little piss-ass like you."
The boy turned round and chuckled. "Yeah, that makes sense."
"I'll stop by tonight to see him. Now get your ass upstairs. I left a pile of socks on the bed for you to sort."
At the doorway to the hall, the boy turned back toward his father and leaned against the frame with his left hand thrust deep in his pocket. "She ain't coming back, is she, Dad?"
"No, son, she ain't. But we'll get along."
In his bedroom, a mound of socks rose upwards from a chenille turquoise Hopalong Cassidy bedspread — so high that it seemed to have cascaded downwards from the cracks that spider-webbed his plastered ceiling. For the children of Israel in the wilderness, God had rained down bread from heaven, manna. Him — he got socks.
He shook his head in disgust. From beneath his bed he drew out a matchbook from Nick's Tavern and a crumpled pack of Lucky Strikes, both of which he'd found a month ago in his mother's nightstand. The pack had contained five cigarettes, but now there was only one left. He ran his thumb over it, lit it, then took a long drag and blew three smoke rings, just the way his grandmother had taught him one long, boozey afternoon. He watched the rings drift apart and dissipate into the air.
On the wall to his right, a Howdy Doody puppet hung by its strings. That morning as he left, he had saluted Howdy's toothy drawn-up grin with a buoyant "Sunny side of the street from now on, Howdy." But now Howdy's smile seemed mask-like, frozen, mortal. "Tojo slit your throat too, huh Howdy? Them's the breaks. Shouldn't have fallen asleep with Clarabelle the Clown watching your wooden ass." Then he sat on the edge of the bed, and his deep blue eyes focused on an old golden-oak bureau with chipped veneer.
In the slant of afternoon light, a chromed art deco frame glinted. Mounted within its maroon painted geometric glass was a black and white photo of his mother and him, taken on Easter morning two years ago. There they were in their Sunday best — her in a stylish New Look dress and him in a serge pinstriped double-breasted suit his uncle had worn to the New York World's Fair in 1939. A broad-brimmed fedora sat at a slant on his head. Al Capone Junior his father had called him. The moniker had delighted the boy, and he had run and gotten his Tommie and grinned a real shit-faced grin that his father insisted on capturing with the box camera.
She had been gone three months now. Somewhere in California. "Off to pursue her own private vision of Manifest Destiny" — whatever that meant. That's what his father had told him the day he came home from school and she was gone.
He pulled two matching argyle socks out. His small hands smoothed them, folded them over and laid them to the right. He repeated the operation on a pair of Roy Rogers socks. He began to think how he had felt that morning. A first job, riches, and responsibility — the whole world had been within his grasp. Mister Big Bucks. He was going to be rolling in it. He was rolling in it now all right, but it wasn't exactly what he had in mind that morning.
He had nothing again. He balled two socks and flung them carelessly to his left. He could feel something choking up inside him.
Then he paused, stared for a while at the last pair of socks with narrowed eyes and unballed them. He smoothed the socks, folded them over and laid them to his right in precisely the way he had handled the first two pairs. For ten minutes, he labored on the pile, repeating the operation again and again, and muttering, "Fold and to the right. Fold and to the right." Then, a faint smile broke across his face, which cracked into a broader grin, making his cigarette dangle from his lips. It was working.
His old man and Joe had gotten on after the War by being a little nuts. If that's what it took to play the game with the bum hand he'd been dealt, okay, he'd be a little nuts too. All his life he had dreamed of being in a war, and now he realized, like Joe and his father, and all the vets in that neighborhood, he was in one, and they were all fighting, each in his own way — not for their country now, but for themselves. His real first job was just to get on, survive. And he knew now he'd make it. Sure he would.
After all, he was the son of a jungle scout.
by David J. Ladouceur
... who is a teacher and historian, and has previously published creative writing in this magazine, as well as non-fiction in professional journals. He is currently working on a novel, After the War, set in the early 1950's which deals with a veteran who returns from the conflict and shares not only his stories but his ghosts with his son. Born into a military family, Dr Ladouceur is the son of a jungle scout who served in the Pacific Theater from Pearl Harbor through the end of World War Two.