Wonder had him in its grip and worked him over, tossing him into past years as clean as a pistol shot. More than half a century flipped through his movie mind, stopping whenever he wanted, at whatever spot and breaking loose the sounds, the smells, the fingers touching, the skin knowing again, rocking him with total recall. He saw again the older woman who paraded nude behind a window, who finally beckoned when he was on the way to school one day, calling him on to manhood, and to silence and war, and to the eternal draw.
He didn’t even have to buy a ticket.
The night of the dark return he had come home the final time, all noise and universal bang behind him, the unforeseen places that promised to live on in his mind, the kind of places you know once and know forever because their grip won’t let go. Call them stark, call them chiseled, call them real yet only existing in the mind after the point of departure. Someone had called it war… their war, our war, his war… and he had said goodbye to it all but that goodbye would never hold.
Now the shapes around him, once both intimate and close to holy to him while at his distant posts, were all familiar, the houses with square faces and triangular peaks and domino markers on them even in the darkness, each one of them as though reaching out to him. And each house bearing a name, where for half a dozen young years he had delivered both morning and evening newspapers; each house face, even dark, told anew how he was paid in those days, how often, when late, when payment was absconded with; told him who was loyal and true to him and others.
Only his footsteps sounded on the black pavement of the road where he walked, with his duffel bag over his shoulder; no sound otherwise, yet a mere and airy whir came from the distant GE plant, five miles down the river and across to the other side, where his father for years worked eyeing those coming in and out, and all the property lines of that huge plant.
At the arrival of that image he could smell the river at high tide as it drew salt from the heavy sea and brought it here for his nose, like an awakening taking place, a righteous step up in the dark, and he could see, their figures simple and straight and rectangular in the night, the high and neat stacks of lobster traps that lined driveways all along Ballard Street and down the side roads.
They were like miniature towers full of nothing but air and waiting on their utilization… pre-dawn, the stacking aboard on the aft end, the ride out on the music of the river and then the music of the high sea, the severe and opposite smells of salt and diesel fuel, the bait being applied, the traps being let down below the ocean surface, the release of the first part of the day.
The river, just off to the side and behind a row of houses, locked them all together, the ultimate connection, and he knew its call had never left him, no matter where he had gone in his assignments in the war. And here it was, as if one time he might have thought it would never come back, yet it was now calling his name again, and out loud in its silent way, how it thrust on his eardrums, the hum of it, the subject of it. Being away, being a transient every place else for three long years, made it easier to return to the known.
It was all around him like shaking his hand in the dark, or clapping him on the shoulder, friends to the deep known. And down inside, as if pushing at his beltline, where he had worn strangeness and discomforts and almighty fear for weeks on end at times, it was telling him it was always his.
The familiar houses on the street, set back in further darkness, seemed so much the same, as if he had never left, and not a light to be seen from a lit room or a sleepless one, knowing it would be that way until he passed near Cutler’s house, and the old baker, if he was still at his eternal toil, would be getting ready for his early day. Soon he’d pass Marbrey’s house and then Priscilla Sue’s house. Past Marbrey’s colonial house he went, noting the soft plume of smoke rising from one of the huge chimneys, and all the old times of wood burning hailed him with its rich redolence, and the sweat that sawing and splitting and hauling and stacking brought to a man who was born to the task, like old Marbrey was the one man who would die by the ax on a Saturday noon with a beer shaded atop the woodpile waiting on him.
That picture all by itself warmed him all over, making comfort known on many Korean nights on numerous winter hills. He still had his judgments; he knew Marbrey in his imagination, in his memory, and it was more of the connection, and another completion.
A strong allegiance to names came upon him as he remembered all those about him in the days before he went off, in all the houses, and all down along the river where the lobster traps leaped like driveway pyramids.
It shocked him to find comfort there when all he had to do was think of Breda and Kujawski and Londo Leuter making new ways now. Others, like Jack Slack and Tom Durocko and Lee Bong Ha, were all moving at another speed in another place, slipping from the time being for his own comfort, displaced in his mind. He could not understand how he had forgotten them for a moment of self pleasure?
On this dark road, he wondered how many would remember him as he was, not as they supposed what he might have become. He wanted to be his old self all over again. But the age of him was too long, the night too dim, the hurt too sorrowful on both sides of his being, here and in his most recent past, that parcel of time back at hand.
He could see his whole life… as it was before, as it was now, what it had become by the advance of the war and his part in it. The war had brought the new friends, the new trust needed, the end of the old life, or so he thought. He might never have known there was a difference, except now, on this walk home in the darkness, only an owl for company, an edge of the moon daring to come over Vinegar Hill, one light shone in one house along the way. It was not Marbrey’s house, and not the baker, but one more oblong set back against the edge of the river, and an old thirst rushing at him again, the way it had rushed years before. Priscilla Sue’s house. The front room with a couch, the shades drawn. Her essence assailing him. Promise floating in the air and almost caught, except at the last minute, like a choke on his throat, he had withdrawn from her, let her draw the robe back over her whiteness, cover her forever.
He knew something was working on him… what he had been, where he went, what he had become; measurements truer in the aft end of life.
At Priscilla Sue’s house he saw her in the window. Closing on midnight, she was looking out the window, a hand over her eyes. A spirit of her was rushing out to see him in the darkness. In her sadness she glowed, her face showing it easily, and then the truth of it came. She looked nothing like her mother. No round angelic face, of pleasing sweetness. No face of lust, on fire. She slipped down the front walk toward him, darkness floating around her.
“I heard on the news you were coming back. They had a list of names. Yours was there. I prayed for that for a long time. Paul’s not coming back,” she said, the once pretty face smothered in a soft discredit of her old beauty.
“He was killed last year, in a place with a strange name that I’ll never remember, and I’ll always wonder if he even knew the name of the place, moving the way he did, always forward, always pushing, always in charge, as if neither the earth nor its time would or could wait for him.”
She had tried to reach out to touch him. But he moved on in the darkness.
The movie changed, but he knew it would come back to that scene again.
As he walked further in the sweet darkness of familiarity, he was conveyed to lighter, other places, areas of civility and uncommon goodness. They were trade-offs. They began to fester, not as sore spots, but as revelations, and he was caught up in possibilities and potentials.
He could talk about Slack and Leuter and Breda and other comrades for hours on end, and suddenly there was not a known person in his thoughts, in the movie, but a place coming off the horizon of imagination, and it was plain and simply Winslow, Arizona at its finest; and he was returning from Korea and riding a troop train the right way back across the mountains and fields and tar paper shack vistas of America, and the train commander saying they had to be shod going to the dining car for the next five or six days. They were all in brogans, weighing in at about three pounds a piece, buckles included, the best shoe or boot in the world but too damn heavy for after-combat aboard a lazy troop train heading home.
And there, in the breadbasket of America, in the wild lands of the old West, the train stopped for a fifteen-minute layover and that same train commander, a captain wearing more silver and braid than he can support, saying they can hang around outside “but don’t wander off.”
He loved his GI brogans, he’d say. The most comfortable shoe he ever wore; knew his skin, his toes, his heels like kinfolk. But their day was over, off the march, off the hills and mountains, off the midnight guard patrols, and being shot at and shelled and being smothered by heat or intense cold.
He rushed to a cab stand and asked if there was a shoe store real handy. “I only have 15 minutes,” he said, “before it pulls out.” He pointed over his shoulder at the train.” It could leave me here, and I’m heading home.”
Half a dozen cab drivers were lounging about, drinking coffee, smoking cigars, reading the daily paper, checking the numbers, watching early gains on the market, no rush to prosper.
But alacrity came afoot. One cabbie grabbed his arm, “C’mon, kid,’ he said. “Just down the street.” That dexterous and warm cab driver ran two red lights, with quick questions over his shoulder finding out the name of his outfit in Korea, swung a corner almost too tightly, and jumped the curb in front of a store.
The sign said, “Shoe Cob.” To this day he doesn’t know what that meant, but the cabbie ran him inside, yelled at a guy waiting on two women. “Harry, kid here’s just coming back from Korea. From Sonny’s outfit. And he needs a pair of eight and half moccasins, and in a hurry.”
Right then the train whistle sounded. It larruped down the street and slammed through the front door as it threatened his safe return home. The cabbie pointed back over his shoulder. Time had become the biggest enemy of all. It blew again, a long, low melancholy whistle full of new messages he did not want to hear. Late. AWOL. The stockade. Time away from home coming to greater length.
The clerk, the owner he suspected and Sonny’s father to boot, swung around, reached over his head and flung a shoe box at him. He reached for his wallet. “It’s on me, kid and promise you’ll say one for Sonny tonight when you’re on your knees thanking Him for getting back this way.”
The whistle sounded again. They rushed, cab horn blaring, back through the same two red lights to the train. He just made it. And for the next five or so days, he went to the chow line in moccasins, and every other body aboard that reverse troop train wore the heavy boots of the trade.
And then, for more than fifty years it would prove out, he carried that warmth with him, that unforgettable scene, those Winslow men, that place. He had allegiances. They flooded him.
Earlier that day of significant return, when the train unloaded its cargo at Fort Devens, the spillage eager for homes in all the New England states, he had told the train commander he was only 35 miles from home and could not wait for too many solemnities or too many ceremonies of separation.
The commander had heard about the moccasins, admired the ingenuity, and knew the man. When he lined the soldiers up, “A to L over here, M to Z over there,” and called out the first name, it was not “Abate, William,” it was him who had worn the moccasins and whose name was halfway down the second listing.
Thirty-five miles from home and he was the first soldier out of the building and into a cab. “North Station, Boston,” he said, and added “Wait five minutes for two more fares, to share the cost. If nobody’s here in five minutes, take off.”
The two fares came, and “Abate, William,” from Winthrop, Maine, made it and “Admerrian, Robert,” from Portsmouth, NH came too. They had not known each other in Korea, road six days on a train together, one hour or so in a cab, and never would see each other again. But they shared the ride, the vision, the hope, the release, and the $15 fare.
They parted at North Station. He caught a local train to Lynn, left his army greatcoat hanging on a hook on the back side of the train’s rest room door, the great coat he had slept under on the deck of the ship coming home, or slept on mere hundreds of miles from Hawaii, and could not face toting it about on leave for the month of March in New England. Sometimes the coat felt like it weighed an extra ten pounds. At a stop along the line, out on Cape Ann perhaps, a man would leave the train with the greatcoat tightly wrapped under his arm, or the conductor would give it to a friend or drop it in the lap of a man sleeping alongside North Station, age and night and destitution showing on his face. It would be the best of trade-offs. He had never worn the coat.
The other pieces of uncommon goodness and civility came rushing back, and each episode brought a deeper appreciation of what lay in front of him, the wide arms, the color of love lighting up eyes he had only seen in quick dreams for mere seconds at a time, if that long. They had stopped in Chicago, and the train captain said they had a three-hour layover, “and if you miss the train, you’re AWOL at the moment we leave the rail yard. A half dozen of them left and one said first left and the first bar on the left. The bar was three doors down the first left. The owner, behind the bar, asked where they were from.
He remembered the light in the barkeep’s eye when he replied, “I’m from Saugus, Mass.” “Hell,” said the barkeep,” I come from Wakefield,” and he started pouring the beers and nodded slyly at two women at the back of the room. The soldiers never paid for an ounce of beer and none for services and all made it back to the train, barely.
There was no moon, he remembered, that night of return. The light shone in Cutler the baker’s house, a shadow walked behind a curtain, the smoke still had a white presence lifting skyward in a pencil stroke from Marbrey’s house right across the street, an artist’s dash of hand. Some things had not changed, though he had. He had gotten down and dirty. He had learned in many places. He had learned here. Home he had come and the cohort of comrades he met in between, from that moment on, would chase him forever, would live with him, beside him, in his ear daylong and nightlong until he could hear no more.
The scene with Priscilla Sue sifted back into view, as it often did, bound by the conditions:
He had passed on, left her weeping in her misery, lost forever, and didn’t tell her then about her mother in the mornings and never told her later. What he couldn’t tell her was what her lovely unlovely mother said on one of those dawns of maturity; “I will bless you now and forever.”
That morning the most beautiful woman ever seen, sculped to perfection, energized by fire, rushed him into manhood, hardly fractionally, and years later shoved him off to war after he had fallen in love with her daughter. The young couple were at one moment children and then they were not, and the whole earth came between them, starting in her mother’s kitchen. Those early horrors were war-deep, rocked his soul with conflicting movies carrying on, the reels endless.
Finally, trod heavier, knees cumbersome, dimness afoot, the returns arrive softer, the movie scenes darting between one another with greater speed and less color. Allegiance is never broken either way.
Banner Image: Brogans