combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 02 Spring ©Apr 2006


"Strange, is it not? That of the myriads who / Before us passed the Door of Darkness through, / Not one returns to tell us of the Road, / Which to discover we must travel too."
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

          The black slab-sided '49 Ford coupe usually braked on a dime. But at 120 miles per hour, unless the Jolly Green Giant had been around and dropped some pocket change, the six -year-old crate, with a bullet hole an inch above the chrome strip on the driver's door, wasn't stopping on any dime that day. Ten-year-old Dave Flanagan had begged his Detective father Mike, to floor it, and Mike complied, just the way the boy knew he would, because Mike had been in the War and was that way – had an edge to him, unlike Joe Anderson's long-faced, crepe-hanging dad, Mister 4-F-er, who sold insurance and droned on to the boys about the dangers of speeding. Even better, his old man replied in the military phonetics the War had drilled into his head: "Roger. Will co, son." After they abruptly banked a curve, Mike yelled, "Hang on, Dave," and shoved the brake pedal halfway through the floor pan.

          Dave had been show-boating to his father by speed-reading seven Burma Shave signs as they whizzed by, each on its own flaking white post: Slap – the – Jap – With – Iron – Scrap – Burma Shave. The road's dust swirled around them as the car fishtailed, veered to the left and barreled sprucewards. The boy's hand shot back and up through the assist strap on the B-pillar as a thought flashed through his mind. Iron scrap. Maybe their Ford was about to become a late contribution to the War effort. His teeth clenched, and the red end of his candy cigarette plunged into his lap.

          His father's arm whipped out across the boy's chest. If it hadn't, Dave would have been wearing chevron-shaped glasses that a few seconds before had been his kneecaps. The kid's head swiveled round like the bobbing head on one of those ceramic knickknacks marked Made in Occupied Japan. Only this knickknack was wearing a cub scout cap over a mop of blonde hair that now covered his eyes. His limbs jerked like a Howdy Doody puppet whose string-puller had been snorting from a flask of amber fluid hidden deep in Clarabell's waist box. The Ford, cartoon-like, accordioned to a halt, and two chromed hubcaps sliced through the air. The sunlight on their curved surfaces radiated like Death Ray beams in a Flash Gordon serial, bringing the Purple Death to the unwary denizens of the shadowy spruce hedging the dirt road. As he gaped at the chromed discs, the taut muscles in the boy's face slackened. The rest of his candy cigarette, still dangling from his lips, dropped as he shouted, "Jeez, Dad, Earth Versus the Flying Saucers."

          "Wait here, son." Dave drew his .45 semiautomatic cap pistol from the shoulder holster Mike had cut down for him and clambered into the back seat over some tattered American Rifleman magazines and green boxes of empty cartridges. He caterpillared into the catwalk like the tail gunner in a B-25 and peered out past a sun-bleached NRA sticker. The Adirondack spruce became tremulous coconut palms, emerging from the dank humidity of some South Pacific island. His blue eyes scanned the perimeter for any sign of Tojo aiming to bushwhack his buddy. His father, the Pearl Harbor survivor and jungle scout, wasn't going to get plugged on his watch. He slid back the cast iron lid on his cap chamber. Two rolls of super Atomic Disintegrator caps glared up like the red eyes of rummies his old man put the slough on down at the station.

          But now Mike was bending over whatever it was, giving him the all clear and motioning for him to advance.

          Secure behind his father, the boy leaned against his broad back and stood on tiptoe to look over his shoulder. "What is it, Dad?"

          "A black Labrador. She's been lying here for a spell." Mike's hand stroked the dog's head. "Her fur's stiff and matted where the blood's clotted."

          "Jeez, Dad, she's still sucking air."

          "Yeah, kid. And that's the problem. See that blood and fluid coming out of her ears and nose. She's partly paralyzed and bleeding deep inside. Left pupil's blown. Got her a brain injury. Ain't a damn thing we can do, except ...."

          "What, Dad?"

          "Put her down, son. Take the pain away. She'll probably live at least another hour, maybe forty-five minutes, but she's going to be hurting like hell. What do you think, buddy?"

          "Jeez, Dad ... ain't no call letting her hurt like that." The boy brushed his thick hair out of his blue eyes and thrust his .45 back into his holster.

          Mike stood up, fished deep inside his double-breasted suit and drew out his .38/44 Outdoorsman. The nickel-plated double-action revolver with its pinned five-inch barrel and shrouded extractor glittered like a futuristic ray gun in the brilliant afternoon glare, the kind of gun Flash Gordon could use on one of Ming the Merciless's henchmen. "How'd you like to perform the last rites, son?"

          "Jesus, Dad." His words had slipped out spontaneously, but he reckoned he was owed one Jesus, given his father's invite. His father Mike took no notice. "I don't know, Dad."

          "It's up to you, partner. I ain't pushing you. But there are things, kid, you got to learn sometime. And you got to learn them early and quick."

          The dog gurgled, and the boy's eyes riveted on the Lab's deep hazel headlights. The blown left pupil appeared as large as a purple plum. He felt his own eyeballs swelling and a hitch in his side from eight cracked ribs. His nose dripped, as though his own brains in the form of pinkish-gray goo were leaking out. He'd sure want someone to put him down if he ended up that way. But still he wished some one else, even a North Korean organ-grinder with a chatterer, would come by and snuff Lassie out, cancel her Christmas. But his father the detective had called him partner. And as Bogie said in The Maltese Falcon, a guy never lets his partner down.

          He was wearing the same white shirt as the old man, the same navy blue tie, the same shoulder holster. His small hand nervously brushed down a wrinkle in the hip pocket of his gray doubled-breasted suit that matched his father's seam for seam. When he and his old man showed up at the station, the guys called them Dick Tracy Senior and Junior.

          He was his father's son, and somehow what his father was asking him to do – putting down, killing, whatever you wanted to call it – was part of becoming a man. It was what his father had done for four years in the War, was still doing in his line of work ... that article in last Saturday's paper about how his old man dusted some punk who was fixing to squirt lead in his direction down at the docks ... a bullet in the face, right between the eyes, real clean.

          He had run into the kitchen waving the paper flag-like as though he'd just reached the summit of Mount Suribachi. "Ma, Dad put the chill on some yegg." She was at the sink washing the breakfast dishes in a turquoise polka-dot shirtdress she had stitched up for herself out of a pattern a week ago. A gray Fiesta plate clattered against chipped yellow porcelain. Her back stiffened, and she brushed raven black hair out of her face.

          Half turning, she took the paper out of his hands, glanced at the photo of a mugg in a leather aviator jacket, his face covered by his slouch brim, slumped over some furniture crates. His fingers curved gracefully, almost girl-like, around a nickel-plated .45 that seemed to have blossomed like some strange orchid, out of a dark pool on the warehouse floor. Two huge stevedores, like a Martin and Lewis comedy routine, stood to the side grinning, one with his finger across his throat, the other gesturing with his thumb down.

          It was a grand photo, straight from the fridge – the kind you saw in the news racks down at McCreary's drugstore in those tabloids shipped up from New York. Deadly mob hit in barbershop. Three dead. Forty shots fired. Candid close-up photos inside. Photos like that had the pulp mags all beat ... a mob hit compared to some tomato running through the jungles with her babaloos hanging out being menaced by a Jap with a bayonet who was leering so hard he looked like he was testing for a Pepsodent commercial. He had seen enough of that baloney, and anyway his father told him he saw plenty in the jungle, but never any frills running around like that – just some native women in New Guinea. And he hadn't stuck round for a gander because they seemed to be hankering to make him into the blue-plate special.

          From her invisible lips issued a terse monotonic command, "Go out and play."

          "Ain't Dad the greatest ? Ain't you proud, Ma?"

          She whirled around with a grin that looked like the Joker's in a Batman comic. "Oh Jesus, yes, I'm proud, boy, so proud, tell you what I gonna do. I'm gonna cut this photo out, clip it real neat-like with my sewing shears." She formed her right hand into scissors and clicked her fingers together. "See? Snip, snip, snip. And then I'm gonna paste it on a piece of cardboard. Got some turquoise polka-dot material left over from making this ratty dress that we can use as a border. And Monday, bright and early, crack of dawn, buddy, you can take it to school, to Holy Cross, and give just about the rootingest, tootingest show-and-tell those little Holy-Joe assholes ever seen."

          "Oh geez, can I, Ma? I don't know about those turquoise polka-dots, though. Don't you think that'd look –"

          Her grin flipped upside down. Usually, he could gauge her moods, but he had been too enthralled with the photo. Just behind her on the chipped red Formica counter, he saw his yellow Davy Crockett glass half filled with Jack Daniels. She hauled off and slapped him upside the head, and he vamoosed out the back door before she could get the belt out of the cellar-way. The screen door flared open, and she yelled, "Maybe Sunday we could take it to Church, lean it up against the Communion rail, so everyone can see what kind of folks we are. I can just hear them. 'The old man's a real killer, Duke Mantee hisself fresh out of the Petrified Forest. Older boy's a gimp, got the polio, and they squirreled him away in an iron lung somewhere. And the younger – well, he's addled, the other half of a half-wit – always daydreaming and living in some fantasy world.'"

          He spun round, stamped his foot, and hollered, "Yeah, that's us all right. Ma and Pa Kettle and the kids. Only Ma Kettle's been keeping company with a guy named Jack."

          She pointed the strap at him. "Better stay out all night tonight, buster."

          "I ain't gotta. The Sandman'll have you and Jack cutting z's in two hours – tops."

          Yeah, well what did she know? She was like Sister Marie in school. One day, they'd been learning to read out of those silly Dick and Jane readers. The only guy who talked like those repetitive birds was Dickie Brown down at the docks. A furniture crate had clipped him in the noggin one day while he was unloading cargo. Now he went around all day saying, "Time to work. Work everybody. Work. Work. Work. Dickie works. You work. Work. Work. Work."

          Anyway, it was dinner time, and the whole family was sitting around a long table covered with a glittering white cloth. The one time he'd seen a tablecloth like that was when his great-grandmother was waked in her dining room. The old lady was lying on top of it deep into the Big Sleep, so unless your hailed from New Guinea, chow wasn't exactly the first thing on your mind. Dick's father in an equally brilliant white shirt was carving the turkey. Even Spot was in the picture, curled up against the wall. Then Dave noticed what was missing and took out his pencil and began to draw a triangular form below the father's left arm.

          Sister Marie came by. "What are you doing, David?"

          "Giving Dick's old man a heater, a .38/44 Outdoorsman, just like my father's. Got a five-inch barrel too. Ain't many of them around."

          "But why, in a nice neighborhood like that, would his father need a gun?"

          He looked at her as if she were bucking for a section-eight. "Who knows? Maybe some crumb bum commie might come around pushing the mooch or try to put the snatch on Dick's kid sister, Sally, and then the old man'd have to plug him with his mahoska." Sister gave him the works – the whole magilla – a lecture on the fifth commandment, about turning the other cheek, how violence never solved anything – and when she finished the yammer, she whacked him three times, violently, with her ruler for drawing in his book. Told him that was for his sanctification and someday he'd thank her kindly for it. This all happened two years ago, and a fervent Thank you, Sister, had yet to materialize on his lips.

          But now, out there, on that road, he locked eyes with his father and said, "Show me what to do, Dad." Mike passed the gun down to him, and his trained hand automatically pointed it to the ground. He had shot it many times before – at tin cans and bottles. The walnut grip was warm in his hand, and today, each diamond cut in the wood seemed to have its own point.

          "Stroke her back toward her tail. When she gapes wide, put the barrel in. She's too splitsville to snap – I think. There'll be a soft spot in the roof. Not too far les'n you gag her. Aim slightly upwards and pull the trigger. Shoot like I always taught you. Cock the hammer so the trigger'll pull light. Then pull gentle so you don't know when it's going off. Close your eyes while you pull, and I'll take Lassie over to that high grass, over yonder, so you won't have to view the remains afterwards."

          Mike turned toward the other side of the road and seemed to drift as he stared at the shrubs that hedged the road. "Over yonder ..." he repeated.

          "What is it, Dad?"

          "Those shrubs over there – they're Jimson weed."

          The boy had walked the woods with his father since he was five, and his trained eyes scanned the perimeter. The road shelved over a conifer swamp crowded with black spruce and tamarack with their reddish-gray bark. In a few spots the trees gave way, and there bog shrubs and pale green sphagnum moss prevailed. Once when he had cut his foot, his father had wrapped his wound in the soft, spongy moss, and it had stopped the bleeding. Near the raised, drier road itself were four-foot shrubs out of which grew whitish-violet funnel-shaped flowers. Stink Weed he and his pals called it, because when you thrashed your way through it with sticks, the crushed leaves gave off a smell somewhere between a hospital and an outhouse that hadn't seen its share of lime in a spell. His father seemed to be waiting for some fanfare to issue from the trumpet-like flowers to get Lassie's going-away party up and on.

          "The Indians used to chew the seeds or make it into a tea to bring on dreams and visions."

          "Did you ever try it?"

          His father's shoulders stiffened. "No, Jesus, no. I don't need locoweed to help me have dreams and visions. I got me a whole sideshow – right in here." He tilted back his Panama and tapped his head. Then he turned to the boy. "And don't you have a mind to either. You take too much of that weed and you'll be taking a trip to the Cackle Factory or Marble City. Go right off the deep end. And you, kid, well, I don't know how to put it polite-like, but you already got one foot in the water."

          As the boy stroked the dog's lower side, he felt a swelling quicken under his grasp. He grimaced. Inside he imagined a bus station, not a Greyhound bus station, but one with Labradors painted on the side of the buses, and in it a tiny Lab was playing around the door and looking down the road for a bus that was about to change routes. Ralph Cramden was on a bender and was going to take a little detour. Pow and straight to the moon, straight to the moon, Alice. Do not pass Go. Do not collect two-hundred dollars. His chest felt as though some one were tightening barrel staves around it, and his small hand felt like a predator's claw. But when he spoke to his father, he steeled himself as though he were addressing a fellow-hitman, "Uh oh, we got us a witness, a gapper."

          His father's eyes narrowed as though someone had stuck a shiv in his kidneys, but then he just said, "Luck of the Irish, Bright Boy. Two for the price of one." Then he flicked his cigarette onto the road, ground it out with the heel of his black wing-tip, and lit another, fumbling slightly. "Junior's probably dead already, but if you want to take a run-out powder, I ain't gonna squawk. Your call. This is going to be one hell of a cold-meat party, and when you've finished here, Lassie ain't gonna look like any mutt you'd want to enter in a dog show."

          "Not unless you had a hankering for last prize," the boy cracked.

          "Jeez, kid, you're a panic," his old man said.

          "Yeah, Dad, I'm a real hoot, a triple scream and yell."

          He and his father could milk any situation for a yuk, and if the boy's foot was in the water off the deep end of the pier, maybe, just maybe, there was another foot in there too, size twelve, in a black wing-tip. A week ago, down at the police station, Dave had been sitting at the old man's desk with his feet up, smoking a candy fag and reading a Crimebusters comic. In the corner, by the door, metal keys tapped against a platen as his father typed a domestic violence report – a Lizzie Borden job his father called it, whatever that meant. Through the door's open transom, they heard furniture crashing and a guy jabbering away in a funny accent.

          When Mike's partner, Mac, stuck his head in the door, Mike spun round in his chair. "What kind of burlesque act you got out there, Mac?"

          Mac glanced at Dave and ran his left index finger horizontally under his nose. Dave looked over his comic. "Got you a snowbird, eh Mac?" Dave said.

          Mac's jaw dropped. "Jeez, Mike, that kid of yours is going to be drawing his pension when he's fifteen."

          "If he lives that long, Mac," Mike said.

          Mac turned to Dave. "That's right, kid. Got us a guy who took a ski trip, got hisself caught in a snowstorm – the white powder, coke, up the nose. Makes 'em want to fight. This yegg's wound up like an eight-day clock."

          When Mike got up for a look-see, Mister Accent broke away from the cop who had him in a chokehold and headed straight for Mike's office door. Mike floored him with a right hook and shoved his .38 down his throat. "Hey Palooka, you got a cavity down there. Want me to fill it? We use lead around here. None of that mercury crap." The guy's eyes were bulging like Mister Potato Head's. The way he was wagging his head, dental work was not high up there on Mister Accent's wish list.

          Mike's offer brought the house down. Dave doubled up and nearly choked on his candy cigarette. Sure Mike had an edge to him, but he still was top drawer, and Dave wanted to be just like him. He could make everybody feel good in a tense situation. When Dave left the office later that afternoon, even Mister Accent was still laughing to himself, and he'd been sitting in the holding drum for over an hour – a strange sort of laugh, hyena-like, but maybe if a guy talked with an accent, he laughed funny too.

          His mother had other ideas. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph, you two are sick bastards together," he had heard her say once to Mike. "That kid is going to be screwed up when he grows up."

          She'd never understand. Maybe the way they were was a little screwy, but it all had something to do with the War. All the vets in the neighborhood were like that. Danny O'Shea, who lost both legs in the Jap turkey-shoot at Pearl, was funny that way. He was over playing Canasta one night and told a story so hilarious the boy choked and blew his coke out his nose. "So I goes into the shoe store, and I says to the clerk, 'I need some loafers, size ten.' And he gives me one duzey of a look and goes in the back. Out he comes all shaky-wakey – worst case of the heebie-jeebies you ever seen – with a size twelve and hands them to me. And I stare at them and say, 'Jesus, buddy, I said a size ten. I got me kind of a narrow foot, and these are gonna slip right off.'"

          Mike had told him a story about something that had happened to him on Guadalcanal. Mike and his best friend Joe Flynn had come under bombardment by Jap artillery. Joe was a great guy, always cutting up. His only fault was he always bummed cigarettes off Mike.

          A shell hit a coconut tree, and it flew up like a rocket and impaled Joe right through the midsection. Joe cashed in his chips instantly, and when the tree plowed into the ground he was left sprawled out like a human starfish. His legs jerked for a while as though he were Fred Astaire waiting for Ginger Rogers to show up.

          Mike and his two buddies in nearby slit trenches just stared at the floor show for a while. When the spasms stopped, Mike crawled out and put a half-smoked Camel between Joe's fingers. "Make it last, buster. That's the last cigarette you're bumming off me." Then the three of them started to laugh, long and hard. Christ, what else could they do Mike had said. Crawl in their holes, put their hands over their heads and start bawling until some Code of Bushido guy came by and took them off the payroll by kindly planting a knife in their backs.

          But his great-grandmother, the most educated of the entire family, had once said something that stuck in his mind, though he did not entirely understand her words. "Give the boy more time, Mike. This isn't ancient Greece. You act as though you were Homer chanting war poetry to this child. What you saw wasn't poetry, and it's crowding out other decent thoughts."

          His father had held her paralyzed hand and smiled, but replied grimly, "There never will be enough time, not the way things are nowadays in this cockamamie world. It'll be easier for him when it's his time. I don't want him learning the way I did."

          "Your ghosts will become his ghosts. And, in Homer, to make the ghosts speak requires blood," she said.

          "Whatever it takes, Grandmother," Mike had answered, looking directly into her eyes. Perhaps it was just a gleam from her ornate brass bed, but the boy thought he had seen water bead in their eyes. But since his father never cried, at least for him it must have been the play of late afternoon light. Great-grandmother died two days afterwards in that bedroom while the boy was holding her already motionless hand. She'd choked at the end, her eyes stayed open despite Mike's efforts to close them, and, though all the years he knew her to have been a dignified personage, she'd pissed herself. The boy leapt away from the bed with his trousers dampened. Mike just said, "That happens, kid. I seen worse, plenty worse, and maybe you will too some day."

          Yeah, maybe he would. His mother and his brother Pete had already forced him to realize he'd been dealt a bum hand in one mean low-down floating card game. He knew too that his father, Danny, and the other vets in that run-down river neighborhood had suffered something terrible in the War. And yet they were survivors. They'd returned home with some secret knowledge of getting on in life, even those who'd been half blown away – knowledge so precious that it could get you through anything, no matter what kind of shit-ass hand you were holding. And he wanted to learn that secret to survive and get on in his own world. Feather merchants like Joe Anderson's dad, who lived over on Mansion Avenue, what could they tell him to stop the pain that gnawed his insides like a rabid coon?

          Another night Danny had called, and his father grasped the ameche like it was a walkie-talkie. All Mike said was "On my way." And when the boy asked his father what was up, he replied, "Danny's in trouble." He asked to go, and his father stared at him for a while as if sizing him up for a heist-job, then just said, "Okay, but it ain't gonna be any picnic. Get that bottle of Jack Daniels from under the sink."

          They came up the single crazed-concrete step onto a tottering porch jaundiced by a solitary bulb encircled by shadflies up from the river. Mike shouldered open the stuck door. The boy half expected him to flash his buzzer and yell, "Police. Open her up." The door, with its alligatored black paint, groaned open on hinges loose in a frame spreading along a grain. For a moment, the boy studied the doorjamb. It was so eroded it looked like a picture of a dustbowl farm he'd seen in an old Life magazine.

          A familiar smell invaded his nostrils – carbolic acid, He had smelled the disinfectant before in his great-grandmother's room and in the hospital where Pete was – down at the station, too, on some bindlestiffs the cops had pinched on Water Street on a vag charge. "Should have got a whiff of them rosebuds when they was registering for a night at the inn. Had to give 'em the Carbolic Dip," the booking sergeant had told him. And then there was that other smell – piss, shit, sweat – what people called old people's smell. Only Danny wasn't old, just thirty-one – thirty-one going on eighty.

          What appeared to be a sack of ashes was propped up in a tattered parrot-green Art Deco lounger with tufted, flamboyant rolled arms. Curtains decked out with mutant yellow and blue tropical flowers were drawn shut as if the occupants were expecting Jap zeroes to pay a call. In the blacked-out room, a solitary cracked plaster lamp cast a cone of light near the chair. Its base was a Nubian jitterbug musician with cherry lips and a squeeze-box. One of those new-fangled aluminum TV dinners, half consumed, graced a rusty metal side table. Dust motes, like the porch shadflies, speckled the cone. On a shelf on the north wall, an old cathedral-style superheterodyne, with a bad capacitor, hummed out Glenn Miller's Over the Rainbow.

          Then the sack stirred, and he realized it was Danny. His color actually was like ashes, like the ashes Dave shoveled out of the coal furnace on cold December mornings – all grayish-yellow with white streaks. Sweat pebbled his forehead, and his thick black hair hung limply over one eye. One of his stumps projected from a ratty maroon bathrobe with white braided trim – red and channeled deep black like a picture of the angry planet Mars he'd seen in a science book. It stuck out like a middle finger, as if it were signaling, "See this? Don't like it? Well you know what you can do, buddy."

          His father turned Good Humor man and began to sling the lingo, speak like the characters in the kid's radio plays and pulp magazines. By tin-earing, the boy had trained himself in the dialect for a while now, but could still only completely decipher sixty per cent of most conversations. If the topic was mayhem – gangland killings and such, ok, but if it was women, his comprehension dropped to fifteen per cent.

          "Hey Fred Astaire, ready to put on the ritz and take a trip over the rainbow?"

          "Aw, Jesus, you ain't kidding, guy. They're burning like hellfire tonight. You ain't got a bindle of C on ya, Mike, have ya, cuz I'm telling ya this is one hophead who's looking to have his ticket punched on the Rainbow Express – an all nighter.

          "Sorry, kid, fresh out. They nearly pinched Flaherty on that last score. Wanted to put him under the light, but I ixnayed that. Told them they could pin my buzzer you know where if they played that game. Evidence room is buttoned down tight. All the guys down at the station are on the prowl, looking to find you some free Sweet Dreams, but the heat's on right now."

          "They don't give me enough of the M. Fraid I'll pull the Dutch Act, take a backgate commute out of this drum." He lifted himself with his arms, and his whole torso twisted. His mouth squared with the pain.

          "Hey Fred, where Ginger Rogers this fine evening?"

          "Tripping the light fantastic at Nick's. What you expect with a frill like that? I ain't exactly been pushing smoke out her chimney lately."

          Mike drew out a pack of Luckys, buddied one up for Danny, then served himself. After a long drag he remarked, "Geez, Mister Giggles, I always thought half a loaf was better than none."

          Danny's jaw dropped, then the sack and Mike exploded into laughter. "Oh Jesus, Mike, you are one flask of healing balm. You bring me more comfort than some Holy Joe sprinkling my stumps with the sacred water. You can play the abbey any day over here, Mike." The kid didn't get what they were laughing at, but, unwilling to be left behind, Giggles Junior joined in the yuks.

          "Tell you, Danny, she hangs around that nautch joint too long, she'll end up with a full house. More than smoke'll be coming out her chimney. We had two calls up there this week on a skin-heist beef. Real bad crop of gash-hounds creeping around there."

          "You ain't whistling Dixie, pal. Serve her right. And when she starts burning and itching and hopping around, dancing the fandango, I'll invite you over for the floorshow."

          "Wouldn't miss it. That gig'll make the Rockettes look like ten-cents-a-dance floosies. She'll be ready to join a nunnery."

          "Yeah, but it'll have to be one of those border jobs." As if on cue, the radio belted out Crosby crooning South of the Border.

          They laughed again. Then his father turned to the boy. "Hey Mortimer, quit gawking around. Make yourself useful. Go draw Monsieur Stubbs' bath.

          "Not too cold, not too hot, kid. I mean it, or the only tip you'll get will be a box on the ears."

          The boy had caught the rhythm. "Okay, Monsieur Stubbs, okay. At least I ain't gotta worry about getting a boot in the tail."

          The two of them howled appreciatively. Danny added, "Oh, Jesus, Mike, that's one kid on this block that ain't the milkman's son."

          The old-fashioned cast-iron tub rose up on four claw feet off fissured turquoise linoleum, the fifty-cents-a-yard special down at Woolworth's. To flush the toilet, you had to pull a chain that hung down from an overhead tank. A single sixty-watt exposed bulb dangled on a frayed cord from a plaster ceiling spider-webbed with cracks. Dave's bathroom looked much the same. His mother used to joke House Beautiful had called. Wanted to use their bathroom for a before shot in an article titled Still Living in the Dark Ages? The boy twisted the yellowed porcelain faucets, and water dribbled from a corroded spigot. Joe Anderson's tub over on Mansion Avenue had one of those new huge square faucets that shot the water out quicksville. He swore and slammed his hand against the spigot. His peedie could fill the tub faster than this job.

          Ten minutes later, he came back up the hall. Mike had removed Danny's robe and undershirt, but, thankfully, had draped the shirt over his mid-section. Or did you still call that part of him his mid-section now that ... Christ, thinking like that, always analyzing, maybe he was addled.

          Mike reached down and cradled Danny against his chest as if he were an infant. The boy blushed – his old man, the jungle scout, the killer, Duke Mantee straight out of the Petrified Forest, holding another guy like he was a baby. "Bring old Jack along, kid." The officiants, each with his ritual bundle, processed down the darkened hallway. As he listened to Danny talk, he came to understand that the pain he was beefing about was searing up from his feet. But Danny had no feet. The boy couldn't figure. Maybe Danny was going off his nut from the pain.

          His father lowered Danny real gentle-like into the tub, the way a priest lowers a baby into the baptismal fount. Danny sighed and muttered, "Bless ya, Mikey, bless ya."

          "Give him a nip,' father ordered son, and Dave unscrewed the cap and handed the bottle to Danny who thanked him and took a long swig. Then Danny squirmed as if someone had shot a jolt of electricity up his ass.

          Dave stood near Danny's shoulder and gripped the tub's rolled edge. "I sure feel low seeing you this way Danny, all hurting and so."

          "Don't you go fretting none, boy. The way I got it figured, I'm the luckiest guy in the world. I got no feet."

          "Why, what you mean, Danny?"

          "Well if my feet hurt this much – and I ain't got no feet – just imagine how much they'd hurt if I still had them."They all burst into laughter. Danny took another long swig, and passed the open bottle, neck up to the boy. The boy looked up at Mike.

          "Go ahead. I reckon you earned it. But make it a short one. I ain't running after you if you nose-dive out the window."

          The booze felt like Sherman was leading a path of destruction down his throat, like the cough medicines of all cough medicines. He passed it to his father who took his turn and then passed it again to Danny. After a few revolutions, one of them, probably the kid, began to sing and they all joined in – old war songs from the forties – some still popular and others long forgotten – Remember Pearl Harbor, Something to Remember You By, Sweet Leilani, I Came Here to Speak for Joe, and finally, they all were crooning Crosby-like versions of White Christmas, and there it was, one fine July evening in the middle of a hot spell.

          They had cut the kid off after three rounds. He had held out his hand and said, "Givesky," and Mike had replied, "Nuffsky." But three rounds were all Jack needed to work his magic on the boy's small frame. At some point, the turquoise linoleum got a mind of its own, rose up, and slammed him in the puss . He crawled to the toilet wall that sported a mouse-hole and slumped against it. His arms flailed and with both hands he yanked the toilet chain for support. The toilet flushed. As he hung there from the chain, Danny looked over the tub. "Well if this ain't a treat. Howdy Doody's done shown up for my little hoe-down."

          Howdy felt like one of those private dicks in a crime movie who's been slipped a Micky Finn or a double dose of mooch and ankles over to Gonesville where they're projecting a triple-feature. The room shifted like a Tilt-a-whirl, and suddenly turned Grand Central station. His old lady jumped up from behind the tub. "You just wait till you get home, you stinking little lush-hound. I got something real special planned for you." Then his great-grandmother was perched on the edge of the tub, only she was smoking a big fat stogie like tough old Jim Michaels down at the dock always had sticking out of his kisser, and she kept saying, "His ghosts will become your ghosts." And to the right a hopped-up Sister Marie was playing Midnight Boogie-woogie on the drums in a crazed Gene-Krupa-style with her black veil swaying like a smoke plume. Only instead of drumsticks, she was using wooden rulers like the ones she worked him over with. Then in the corner, he saw his brother Pete, with his head sticking out of the iron lung, and he was singing in a low, melancholy voice, "I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams."

          Next stop, The Funny Factory. All out. Then the figures melted away, and, as if through a fog, he saw his old man shooting Danny up with a needle and muttering, "Sweet dreams, buddy, sweet dreams and plenty of them."

          Small hand grenades, strategically positioned, were going off in his head. His stomach was burning like the forest fire that snuffed Bambi's mother. The walls were all crazy-angled. He leaned left and made a votive offering at the porcelain altar. He groped again for the chain which a chortling Mickey Mouse seemed to have hauled up into the ceiling. He could smell shit, piss, and other attendant odors. The mildew under the cracked linoleum seemed to have worked its way into his mouth.

          He had never felt so sick in his life. And yet, he was so happy he didn't know whether to shit or go blind. It made no sense how something could be good and bad at the same time. All he could think of was the opening of a Classics Illustrated comic he'd read by Dickens about guys getting their noggins chopped off in France way back when. How did it go? "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness ... it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness ... the spring of hope ... the winter of despair."

          He had seen something very special this night. It was as if he'd been wandering all his life through a tractless jungle in search of something, then suddenly stumbled into a small clearing and witnessed a secret rite passed down out of a long dead time – a time when men wearing skins fought with stones tied to sticks. He had caught a glimpse into the world of these vets – glimpsed a scene played out again and again on Guadalcanal, New Georgia, Mindanao, and Iwo Jima. – these vets who had given everything, seen everything, had their guts torn out, hard men who had shot, strangled, knifed, burned other men alive. In the measure of care he'd seen between legless Danny and his killer father who had been touched by the War, he had felt a sense of hope that shaded into trust.

          When the pain came, you could be hard and still not be alone – drained the way he felt when one rainy night a damp darkness came up from the river and he awoke cold and by himself in the huge double-bed where he and his brother had always slept. There was his brother Pete standing by the window looking out. "Petey, where'd you come from?" His brother replied, "Up from the river." Pete turned round. "It's your brother Pete up from the river, Dave, come to see you."

          It sure looked like his brother, but he was dripping water everywhere. A full moon played upon his features. His thick blonde hair hung in ringlets over an ivory forehead, the way it did when he was playing ball. But when Dave looked into his eyes, his pupils were all dilated and black. He had seen eyes like that before, in the swollen dead bass that littered the river's banks and that time with his great-grandmother.

          "You son of a bitch. You ain't Pete!" the boy yelled. He gasped and groped in the darkness for a squeeze bottle of holy water – straight from Lourdes – a bottle he kept near his bed in case the devil showed up one night to fetch him off to Hell. When he sprinkled it, the figure melted away like the witch in The Wizard of Oz. Drenched in sweat, he lay awake and alone for hours, shaking and clutching the water.

          But that night and the night at Danny's now drifted out of his mind. Here he was again in the road with this dog. It wasn't Old Yeller or Flag the yearling down there. Just some mutt who couldn't stay out of the way.

          The Labrador's jaws were grasping at the air. Dave wanted to be hard like Mike, but the mutt was getting to him. When his great-grandmother died, her soft, girl-like voice right at the end had turned into a choked rattle. He wanted it over, fast and smooth, easy on the sound effects and water works.

          The dog gaped, and he slipped the gun in as though it were an L-shaped dog biscuit . It glided backwards as Doctor Kildare probed for the soft spot. What was that line in The Maltese Falcon Bogart came out with just before he turned his girlfriend over to the cops to be hanged? Oh yeah. I'll have some rotten nights after sending you over, but that'll pass. At the last second, he leaned in close and muttered them.

          He heard his father call out, "Wait, Dave, don't ...." Then the gun fired, and the boy felt as though a stick of dynamite had exploded inside his skull.

          A stream trickled by the side of the road. In spots it murmured over a mosaic of variegated stones and bonelike pebbles worn smooth by countless experience. His father knelt beside him and with a moistened handkerchief from his breast pocket wiped away the pieces of Labrador brain and bone that covered his son's face. His huge square hands were warm and gentle on the boy's face and around his shoulders as Dave had rarely felt them before. Usually his father playfully slapped him around or slugged him in the stomach when they were near one another. Or else he was working him over with his belt when he screwed up. And lately, since his older brother Pete had gotten the polio and ended up in an iron lung, Dave had been screwing up plenty. Otherwise, why would his father be working him over all the time?

          Dave had removed his suit jacket and folded it on a flat granite rock whose crystalline surface danced with light. His white shirt was sticking to his back, and he had loosened his frayed blue tie. He still held the revolver. When his father had reached for it, he had glared at him and clung to it. And his father had said in a quiet soothing tone, "That's ok boy. That's just fine. You hang right on to that rod. Sometimes when you kill something, it feels like the weapon is part of you. You can't rightly tell where your hand ends and the heater begins. It'll pass. When you're ready, you just give old Dad his piece back."

          Then his father knelt before him and held his shoulders. "Don't ever get close to something you have to put down, son. It can get messy, real messy," his father said. "You won't forget that, will you, son ?"

          "No, Dad, I'll never forget. Never." Not until they put me to bed with a shovel, Dad. And maybe, just maybe, Dad, when the dirt hits my face down there, I'll still be remembering.

          The boy stared straight ahead past his father, his eyes unfocused. "I saw something, Pa, something in there where the shell went. Just for a second when everything exploded, I thought I saw a star like the star on a Christmas manger that marks the coming of –"

          "Death, kid, the Reaper. Got nothing to do with the Christ child. When you shoot something ... or someone ... up close, so close the muzzle is touching tissue and bone, the gases from the gunpowder tear the skin or tissue into a star pattern. Seen that plenty in the War in the jungle. The Japs and us, we were always stumbling over one another in the high grass. Barely had time to shoot. And then we'd shove our guns right up next to one another's skulls. And we made stars, oh Jesus yes, we were all star makers out there, just like little tin gods. Shaped us whole new sets of galaxies."

          The boy's face was close to his father's, and, for a moment, he could see in his dark eyes, a night sky glittering with stars, the stars of all the men who had died by his hands, in the War and after. Shot, strangled, knifed, they were all in there, each now a mere point of light in an endless darkness. If he could look into his own eyes, would he see just one star or two, close together?

          Against the yellow afternoon light, his father's slouch-brimmed Panama cast a dark violet shadow across both their faces as Mike leaned in. The violet that tinged the Jimson weeds' flowers, the violet that lurked in the swamp on the shadowed side of the spruce and tamarack, shaded the ground under the Ford, that tinted even the distant mountains, seemed to be the color of death itself. He had seen that violet before, in his brother's legs, in his great-grandmother's feet. And when he asked his father why they were that way, his father had just said, "It's a sign, boy, a sign of things to come."

          His father was still speaking to him, but when Dave looked into his eyes now, he no longer saw stars, but a glazed look he knew well. His father's eyes were focused faraway, because he was thinking of another time and place. It was the Islands' look he had come to know so well. Mike was back in the War again, his War from which only part of him had returned – his War which he had recounted to Dave as soon as the boy could understand words, the way other fathers recited The Night Before Christmas.

          The boy never could figure it. Either his father went away to a place deep in himself or part of him left his body, traveled west, back to the Pacific. He was like one of those prophet guys he had seen in a Biblical movie yammering on and on, but really it was as if someone else were speaking through him, as if the prophet himself weren't there.

          "There was a guy in the War I was close to. We trained together, fought at Guadalcanal. I was as close to him as I was to my kid brother Frankie, who got it in the belly taking that air field at Munda. He wanted to go out scouting once with me. Talked Sergeant into it. The short of it was he got hit by a stray artillery shell in the legs. He was dying, and he knew it, he damn well knew it. He begged me to kill him. It wasn't like he was hurting that much. Wound like that puts you into shock quicksville. Nerves go dead pronto." He snapped his fingers. "If a guy's yelling his lungs out, you figure, ain't you the lucky shit, buddy, you still got a chance. But when they turn quiet and still .... He was scared some Jap'd come along before he cashed his chips in and find him, then start hacking out his liver while he was still alive. Some of those Nips were worse than headhunters when their stomachs started growling."

          "Couldn't you save him? We learned in Scouts how to treat leg wounds – using a tourniquet and elevating the legs and stuff."

          His father, apparently momentarily distracted by the question, came out of his trance and laughed. He drew a chromed flask from his left breast-pocket and took a short swig. "Geez, you're a bright kid, really on-the-beam. Problem was his legs were already elevated – about twenty feet away, up in a tree."

          The boy's jaw dropped.

          "Sometimes we carried morphine for just such occasions, but I didn't have enough to kill him. Needed to use a knife, but neither one of us wanted to go that way. One shot in the mouth from his rifle was what we decided. It was a dumb choice because the shot could give our position away, but, like I said, that's what we decided. He held my hand, and we pulled together, gentle-like. I leaned in to say, "Sorry, pal." He was up against a rock, and the backfire blew him all over me, decorating me up to beat the band, just the way Lassie decked you out in style.

          "Yeah, right up against a rock." He stood up and fixed his eyes on the granite rock on which the boy had laid his jacket. "You see that rock over there? I hunted these woods when I was a boy. Used to sprawl out and have my lunch right on that rock. Ma'd slather butter on two slices of bread and dump sugar on it to make a sandwich. Thought a lot about that rock in the War." His eyes glazed. He was traveling again, but back and forth, one minute here, another, there.

          "One afternoon, all the while we were coming in in the LCVPs, we kept wondering if somewhere in the shallows the Japs had planted mines. A Model 96 contained forty-six pounds of explosive, enough to destroy a whole vehicle. The older guys were more scared than the younger, and some were watering their ponies and spitting beef. Us seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds – we were so jazzed up we were just wondering what it would feel like to be blown to pieces. More curious than scared. Thought we'd live forever. Damn fools. Did lose a boat to our right, but from Jap artillery fire from a high ridge on the island.

          "When we hit the beach, cordite singed our nostrils. Sand cut into our eyes. You couldn't hear anything, your ears were ringing so hard. There was a haze of small-arm fire and a 20mm gun emplacement was raking the whole MLR. We were like dogs trying to dig a hole for our bones, scrappling the sand with our hand and knees and chins. I uncovered a saucer-shaped mine, a twelve pound Model 93. Didn't go off. Could have been a dud, but there was a pressure device you could set to different degrees of sensitivity from 7 to 250 pounds. Maybe I didn't hit it hard enough, but I didn't stick around to make tests.

          "Farther up, I twisted my head sideways and a giant spigot mortar shell burst just down the beach, and two guys I knew turned into nothing but a smoldering pile of uniforms and rags. It was like the beach was alive. Every square inch was dancing upward under the shelling and arms. I stared at a small piece of volcanic rock that hadn't been hit yet. Then shrapnel pulverized it and a piece cut over my eye." His hand brushed a small scar over his left eyebrow.

          "Nothing stayed still. That's when a picture of that granite rock over there came into my mind. I started thinking how it'd been there long before I was born – maybe thousands of years. And how long after I hit the long road, it'd still be there. So I lay flat on my stomach under all that raking fire and imagined I was a boy again, all sprawled out on that rock and enjoying my sugar sandwich. For a while in that hell-hole, everything stood still – time too – and I found me a measure of peace. Then before I knew it, we had to move out. And that's just exactly what I did.

          "Me – and a lot of other vets too – we need sometimes to get up in the mountains, deep in the wilderness. We drift in time for a spell out here, and it's like there ain't no past, present or future locking us in. A man can be in control, breathe without everything changing around him. There's a sense of rest here. When you stand on that rock, you're standing in the long ago when you didn't exist and in the not so long ago when you were a boy. And in the present, and, in some crazy way, in a future too, a future you'll never know, because that rock will be there long after you and I are dust. Probably doesn't make much sense to you now, but maybe someday, when you need to, you'll drift back the way I did to this very spot. Funny, when your life is going to pieces, when you're losing control, it's the small things you anchor back to, the things that don't seem to mean much at the time."

          How the past, present and future could meld, made no sense to the boy. There were times when he was in the woods and heard twigs cracking, he'd felt the Mohawk and Algonquin braves still moving through in a hunting party. They were there, but not there, as if the past and present could somehow converge. But the future – how could you stand in the future? His father was drawing on his secret knowledge, passing it on to him, but it wasn't like learning to read or tell time. It would come into him only gradually, over time.

          For a few moments, as his father gently wiped his forehead, the Catholic boy recalled the opening of Mark's gospel, the story of Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan. And how the Holy Ghost had descended like a white dove upon Christ.

          He had been baptized here in a sense. But when he looked heavenwards, his mood broke. There was no white dove. Only a black crow looking for what was left of Lassie and son. He flew in from the left, his two wings alternating up and down machine-like. When he'd had his fill, he'd probably be back to leave a tip for Dave by shitting on his head. If the buzzard pulled that stunt, the Lassies would be his Last Supper.

          The boy tightened his hold on the gun, for the moment pointed downwards. His shoulders tautened against his father's grip. As if in understanding, Mike said, "No, son. He just takes what God doesn't want. That's what God made him for."

          His father's response evoked in the boy's mind a question from the first page of his CatechismWhy did God make us? He turned to his father and said, "And us, Dad – why did God make us?"

          His father chuckled. "A nun beat that answer into me a long time ago, boy. To know, love and serve him on this earth and in the next world. Only she left part out – to feed his crows. That's my job, a soldier's job, and maybe yours someday too, in another war."

          "In that next world, will we still be feeding the crows?"

          His father stared toward the patch of locoweed. "Jesus, if I know, kid."

          The afternoon's work was finished. He could be hard like his old man and Danny and the other vets he respected. He could do what he had to do when it had to be done. Church Baptism removed Original Sin from your soul. This baptism had put a mark on it. But that was just fine. The mark probably covered some soft spot in him – covered, but not buried. His act had nothing to do with salvation, but it had to be done. It was right and fitting in some dark way that he did not yet fully comprehend.

          Otherwise, his father would never have asked him to do it. Roger. Will co, Dad. The warmth in his father's hands came from blood. His experience with the fragments of Lassie had taught him that. And his father's blood flowed through him. And yet in some sense he knew he had played with Death, the way Mike had played with Joe on the 'Canal, and no matter how much his father cleansed his face, something would remain on him from here on in. He had passed through some dark doorway. A store of knowledge lay behind it, and that was his treasure, but it came at a price. There was no turning back.

          But that was ok, because he wanted, needed, the hardness that his father and guys like Danny O'Shea had. His brother was never going to stroll out of that iron tube, and his Ma was just going to keep on hitting the bottle and him. And his father – he was a good and decent man, a vet who had done his duty, and he could learn things from him and depend on him – sometimes. Sometimes, because the War had touched Mike, and now he was a traveling man, to parts unknown. So he had to look inside himself for some of that knowledge, buried deep within – knowledge he knew intuitively existed but for which at this point he had no words nor way of uncovering.

          For a moment, the road, the Jimson weed, the spruce and tamaracks dissolved, and he had a vision. He and his father were in a boat in an endless gray sea where the water and sky on the horizon were seamlessly welded together. And a great wave came on, and he fell out of the boat and cried out to his father. His father rushed to the stern and stretched forth his hand, and the boy took it. But just as his father was drawing him in, his father's eyes changed to what seemed like hard flawed onyx. He let the boy's hand slip away as he stood up in the boat and intoned, "There was no moon that night, and when the Japs attacked, all along the MLR, we ...." The boy felt the water encircling him, pulling him down, and cried out again, but his father didn't hear him because he was no longer there. And then the darkness came on – the Big Sleep.

          His father was not Christ, only a man, a good and decent man, a vet who had done his duty and took on his share in life. To a certain extent, he'd have to learn on his own how to still the wind and raging of water in his life. And if some fine day he got himself half-blown apart like Danny, well, he'd work out a routine he could take on the road. He'd have them laughing so hard they'd be rolling in the aisles and throwing babies out of the balcony.

          That night at Cub Scouts, each boy was asked what good deed he had done that week. Tommy Doyle told how he had helped Mrs. McCarthy, whose hands were all crippled up and twisted from the rheumatism, carry her groceries home from Boyer's. Jimmie Fox told how he had earned a quarter hauling ashes all day for Mister Flynn and then gone and bought twenty twizzlers for little Sean Kelly who had gotten bitten by a river rat one morning while bringing in the milk from the porch. Now Sean had to go for the twenty-in-the-belly cure, and he was scared stiff, but he brightened up when Jimmie told him he could take one twizzler every time he had to go for a shot.

          And when they came to Dave, there was an excited murmur among the boys, and they nudged one another with their elbows. Dave could really spin a good tale with all kinds of funny words nobody had ever heard before. But that night, the kid just stood up in his newly spotted gray double-breasted suit, with his cap in his hand, and said in a matter-of-fact way, "I blew a yap's brains out today."

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.

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones