With eight hundred miles of road under my butt in the last three days, my blood sugar barely holding the line, a couple of old wounds still talking sass to me, whatever else was bugging me besides my errand, fell off the face of the Earth when Disher Menkin’s wife Elsie, the new widow, still somewhat of a knockout though she’d collected some flesh under her chin she’d never try to hide, a few other imperfections lost in a surprisingly good figure, hardly ever taciturn at best, said, “Where the hell have you been, Coop, when we needed you most?”
A kick in the ass if you ever had one. And she didn’t bat an eyelash, stood there at her doorway as though she was measuring, or sorting out, what other kind of welcome she could generate in my direction, finding her own energy before she could dash mine into some ugly pieces. I’d always known how she’d handle a few things from Disher’s outspoken resume of her total attributes.
Of course, he’d always arrive at a final delivery with, “That’s some kind of woman I married. Some kind of woman.” That probably meant, “I love her nevertheless,” or “You can really skip most parts except for the good parts.”
I’d made that long drive to bury a good buddy and comrade, Disher Menkin, whom I had not conversed with lucidly and face to face in more than thirty-five years. We’d sized up death before, me and Disher. Me, an old man now, Cooper Bothwaite, feeling the grenade rolling in my gut, road dust a new talcum on my teeth, the continual gray light coming off the hood of the car hurting my eyes, as if a mirror had sat mounted on the dashboard the whole way. This is the way it is every day now, stuff coming in bunches, life a bit of companionable misery or whatever you want to call it.
Normally that kind of jibe Elsie threw at me will knock the hell out of any kind of gathering, but in a funeral home, the body on display like sleep was unbroken from
the night before, it’s as strident as early morning bugle calls. But I always hated reveille and all the other horn-blowing, for that matter. The only one I liked was Call to the Colors. It still gets me, right where it hurts the most. But here’s this hard-line new widow giving it to me who’s been out of the picture more or less for those long thirty-five years, and her, I know, with a chain saw tearing up her heart and loneliness and doubt hitting her right in the face with the reality of five-card draw.
It’s not new. I’ve been there, and it is an odd lot.
God, even being trim and shapely outside of the neck thing, she looked tough, bags under her eyes, tunnels leaning backwards out of them as if she had been there and back in a hurry, large dark spots on her arms as if they were badges of some sort not to be hidden. I know what those oversize freckles are saying out loud to the whole world. But there’s no long sleeve cover-up for Disher Menkin’s lady. She was front and center as she had always been, as memory served me. Truth is, she had scared the hell out of Disher right from the start. Thing was, he could not stand fakers. The claptrap of bull-shitters really bothered the man. With Disher you had to be up front, and not piecemeal. No phonies ever made it with him, so the straight-out talking lady from Brunswick, Maine impressed him the first time she opened her mouth: “You know, soldier, your uniform looks like frigging hell. Why didn’t you have it pressed?” I think Disher fell in love with her right then. Must have been something, because it went on for more than forty-five years, her speaking her mind, Disher hearing every word.
Whether he believed it all is something else. Even foxhole buddies like we were don’t tell all, even when the Grim Reaper sits atop the hole with his dark visage and terrible eyes and the edge of the scythe keen as a new bayonet, the sun’s glow sitting on the thinnest edge like a match’d been struck.
“Coop,” she said, not at all backing off, as if nothing else had happened in the way of the curt introduction, “this is my daughter MayBelle and her husband Nicholas.” I could remember Disher saying, on that old gray bucket going toward Europe in 1943, the Atlantic in its own turmoil, rank odors like real characters aboard every corner and stairwell of the ship, “My first-born, if it’s a girl, will be called MayBelle. Was my mother’s sister’s name, and she drowned in the Amicalola River down in topper Ca’lina looking for frogs when she was a kid.”
I swear MayBelle looked a bit like her father, eyes as serious as one can make them, like measurement is always going on, and blue-green as if not sure which way to lead. I measured her at the forty years of age I knew her to be. Her skin was nice, and there was no tiredness coming off her face. The ease of one good child can do that for you, and she had but the one boy.
I bet she was more like her father than her mother. Her husband Nicholas, somewhat uncomfortable in a dark suit, was another case. On one hand there was but a finger and a thumb, and the thumb oversize to begin with. Immediately I wondered about their lovemaking; did he make special use of that odd hand? I had heard other stories of such graceful impairment. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. But Nicholas was of good size, perhaps a shade over six feet, a full head of blond hair, dark brown eyes rather at acceptance than measurement. I was pretty sure that he was unaware of all the other people in the room. Something in him, in his handshake, in those dark eyes, said he seriously wanted to talk to me.
A crisp impatience kept touching at his person, like a loose ignition wire working its way to something unusual.
“So, you’re Coop!” he said, shaking my hand with that odd hand, the grip almost malevolently hard, like handcuffs in operation, but he released the grip quickly. If I didn’t have a thumb to counter its slide, he could have manacled me in a hurry. “I’ve always wanted to meet you. Knew it would come sometime, but never thought it would be this way. Disher loved you, Coop. I can say that without a bit of reservation. We used to sit down in the cellar in summers, cooling off from the hot sun, sipping on beer he made in a big porcelain crock, like dipping in a well with a ladle, stories falling by the wayside on occasion. Those were good times. I think he liked them too, as much as me.”
The smile on his face was a full and bright smile loaded with memory. I decided, on the spot, I trusted him. The ladies looked surprised at the quick revelations he spun off. I truly believed he had not spoken of such things with them, had not shared Disher with them, at least not that way, but he could readily share with me.
“He said I’d get to see you sometime if you were still alive, Coop. I guess he was thinking about this.” Around the room he looked, a long while as Disher’s face over the edge of the casket, then shrugged his shoulders.
“He was positive that I’d meet you. I guess what he was saying is that he knew you’d be here if this happened.” He went through the survey with his eyes again. Not once did he look at his wife or his mother-in-law but kept his eyes on mine. I knew he had something else to say; it was there, just off the edge of his voice, behind a small screen in his eyes. His mouth seemed to hold back other words. I felt the impatience again, the distraction of it almost electrical.
Disher’s widow said, “Why didn’t you come earlier, Cooper? He was ranting and raving at the end. Said your name a hundred times. I sure thought you’d be here earlier. Your buddy, huh?” Pure iron-plate caustic with a phony question mark.
When MayBelle put her hand on her mother’s arm, to hold her back a mite, her mother continued, “Disher must have been hiding something all the time. Never once ever said anything to me about a fire, or kids. Never once. But I thank you for making the long trip. They don’t get any easier.”
Even with that the edge was ax-sharp in her voice. MayBelle jumped in again. “I’m sure Nicholas would like to talk to you away from all this.” She took her mother by the arm and was about to lead her toward a couple that had just come into the viewing room. With that move I knew she was Disher’s daughter.
Disher’s widow Elsie said, “I tried to call you for the last four days. There was no answer. Why don’t you have an answering machine? Everybody has one of those
contraptions these days. How did you find out about Disher?”
I said, “They called me from the vet’s hospital.”
“How’d they get your number?” There was a jiggle to the flesh under her chin, and her head was cocked at an angle, the measuring mode still in place.
“I gave it to them four or five weeks ago when I was there to see him.”
The bare bones of surprise came up lightly on her face. “He didn’t tell me. Why didn’t you call me?”
“He couldn’t tell anybody anything. And I came to see Disher, not to socialize.” It was a slice of her own cake and she ate it easily. We had made a small peace, if that’s what it can be called. I knew that I had been between her and Disher forever. It’s like that sometimes, but we never exploited it.
Nicholas, that large thumb hooked onto his pants pocket and partially hidden, and the single finger sitting like a curse along the edge of his pocket, though somewhat undisturbed by any of it, walked me to an anteroom. It was quite evident that he wanted to talk out of earshot of the two women, that he had broached the possibility in front of them and it seemed he had depended on his wife to carry off his subtle need. Her response was, I thought, expected.
Nicholas’ shoulders were a good span, his head shapely in an angular and regal manner and the blond head near full of curly tresses cresting the back of his neck. Though there was no other hippie look about him; no beard, no mustache, no heavy growth over the ears, a bit of the rebel mark sat on him, sort of an invisible tattoo. I was not sure if it was the hand that made him different or his locks. With faint stripes that may have been a tint of orange, the dark suit he wore fit him well, saying he was somewhat comfortable in such dress, but not fully at ease. I’d bet he’d get out of it quickly when this occasion was finished.
The anteroom’s No Smoking sign was small and almost unobtrusively noticeable, the law now a matter of fact, and three elderly gents, sure to be older than my 78 years, had gathered their almost three centuries of experience in a small huddle. It appeared as if they did much of their talking with their hands, their eyes, the almost casual shrug of a shoulder. They could have been marionettes. It reminded me of the ward in the vet’s hospital where I last saw my buddy Disher breathing, rolling his eyes at some unknown and past sight, mumbles buried and barreled deep in his throat. I remember thinking then that if this was down the road for me, I’d make sure the road had a bridge that was washed out and I’d drive like hell heading for it.
With that solitary and awful finger, showing an ordinary use, Nicholas pointed to two big easy chairs sitting in a far corner of the second anteroom. “Those ought to do us.” Over his shoulder he looked and said, “There are times when I have to stay out of earshot of that woman. She does take aim when she wants. Never bothered Disher, that I know of.”
I just had to ask. “What was all that about back there, other than Elsie being her curt self? She hasn’t changed a bit though I haven’t seen her practically since ever. You and MayBelle must keep a good chunk of Disher handy.”
Nicholas had made himself comfortable in one of the chairs, though sitting near the edge, and he let the awful hand sit in his lap like a bone remnant on an empty plate. Looking at me, his eyes were locked on a sadness I could only guess at. His blond eyebrows, close to a gray snow left over from plowing, aged him slightly but with a kindness. He would have been, I assessed quickly, a welcome companion, a comrade, dependable, durable, on for the long ride wherever it went, Grim Reaper and all.
“I wanted to talk to you about that,” Nicholas said. “It’s been bugging me. Hell, it’s been bugging Elsie like a burr under her bonnet. I guess she suspects that whatever was going on with Disher at the end, down there at the vet’s hospital where they took such damned good care of him, like a baby I swear, you somehow have privy to and she doesn’t. It was not something he was letting go of, perhaps repressed and trying to come out of him at the end. And it looks like she can’t let go of it either, her not knowing. She’s one tough woman, fair as hell, but tough. The shot’s there to be fired, take it; or take the one coming back at you.”
“You mean Disher was talking at the end? I was with him for four hours one day, just weeks ago, and he never uttered a sound. He looked at me a few times, like he knew who I was. I suspect he did, his eyes settling on me an old look, a glance of sorts I might have seen before in him, but never said my name once, nor anybody’s name. None of the old outfit. Not a one.”
I twisted around in the chair as Nicholas’ awful hand settled in his good hand, peace settling down in place like ashes. “What happened? What did Disher say that’s got to Elsie so hard?” I wanted to ask if it was the French girl he had spent the night with in an old farmhouse one Christmas Eve. It hung on him for a long while afterward, but I kept it all back where it belonged, in the past.
Nicholas looked over his shoulder, back at the viewing room, and the ladies out of sight, the first nervous strain he’d shown to me, a new side of him under some import I am sure. “He was kind of noisy at the end, old Disher, the last couple of weeks, on the downhill run if you want to know, getting so thin, like he was melting away. I’d swear to God his face was like the side of a cereal box, pushed in, his dentures big as lumps in his face, oversize like. Lots of crying, calling out some strange names, ones I’d never heard, then kept crying more and yelling out, “The babies! The babies! He did that loudest. I mean, that’s when he got real loud, and then wailed like a lost kid himself, shaking in the bed. Jeezus, his arms were going crazy, his legs kicking, his head jerking around like he’s looking for somebody or something. We had to tie him in a few times, get restraints from the ward nurse. I don’t mind telling you, Coop, he scared the hell out of me.”
Again, he looked back at the other room. “I know some of the names were French girls’ names, at least they sounded that way to me. Elsie never heard or never said anything. I figured she didn’t hear or recognize them because, knowing her, she sure would have had a few things to say about it. Wouldn’t be like her to let something like that get by her, I don’t care how long ago it was.”
At first nothing came to me, as if a silence had been etched, a darkness convened. Being notoriously drunk for some period of your life locks away lots of memories. For a drunken rifleman, a footslogger, soldier of the earth, being a stranger in a strange land, loss of some kind is guaranteed. So, it was not surprising that nothing immediately in that anteroom, near the visible death of my old comrade and fellow warrior, his widow’s tongue tart and afoot, made a connection for me; not Nicholas, not any picture on the walls, not the ladies in the other room whose voices were barely audible in turning that corner between us.
To me there is such a thing as horizon-peeking, a cyclical break in the clouds, an opening. Perhaps it’s a light down a narrow tunnel or through an old casement window of sorts, and, at best, ephemeral. Slowly but surely the face of a French girl came to me, pale but pretty, eyes set up with a haunting deep as caves, the half globes of her cheeks tarnished by something I could not read other than war. Perhaps, I surmised, she came out of a cloud, certainly she was cloud-like, just as if she was lit up, neon-ed, her face in a sunny glow, the softness of her lips her sole and most animate prize.
She had spent the night in a barn with Disher, a barn leaning every which way to ruin; the doors missing so that you could see out the back end, but not see the stalls or the haymow, or where the dusk coming in took them. They were like kids in love for one night.
Next morning a German .88 took her and a kid brother at the well. She was standing there in a blue dress with the ladle in her hand, leaning against the rock wall like sex personified and perfected, the thrust of her stomach arched and tormenting, the little brother waiting to take his turn, and wham! they’re gone. Just like that! I heard the stuff coming in but didn’t even have time to duck. You couldn’t pick them up with a blotter, neither one of them. Of course, I’d been on that royal drunk and didn’t know how much it hit Disher until later. But we were all screwed up. We’d pillaged a small village. Brandy and cognac were like water around us, coming up out of cellars and dim recesses and who knows where else. Some was given to us, some was taken, retribution for time spent, wounds received, hell paying out its dues. I drank the stuff like I drink beer sometimes, guzzling it. Lord, I could have washed in it. I was thinking that a whole bunch of some of those days had passed me by, lost for years.
Now here’s my buddy, gone from me, gone from all of us, bringing me back, waking me up. I can smell the day, the village, the liquor, the hay, the barn, the smoke, can see them at the well and then gone from the well. In the back of my head, at some point where it seemed I had been raking the compost of that mind, scenes and images are breaking down, coming apart, falling out of the darkness like a pile of dominoes being spilled. Pictures. Pictures. Pictures.
Then it came. Over the long years it came. Over half a century of my life, through darkness and uncertainty, through turmoil, and this newest death, it came. And there was another barn and a German trooper, half dressed, we’d cut down in a small farmyard, a hail of bullets going in there, raking him, a gray tunic in one hand and his rifle in the other, not quite ready for the rest of the war. I saw smoke, and the barn is burning and tossing off clouds of black smoke and a woman’s screaming, and we see her at the haymow window. She’s holding a baby. There’s another kid at her elbows, standing right beside her. Disher runs up to the barn. ‘Throw the baby down! Throw the baby down!’ he yells. She doesn’t know what to do I guess, Disher probably no different from the German we’d just shot, the one not dressed all the way like he’d been taking his own liberties. Then Disher says, back over his shoulder, after trying to get the door open, “There’s a lock on the door. The Kraut locked her in!” Disher doesn’t use his rifle to shoot the lock off. He runs back to get an ax or something from the farmhouse porch and a Six-by drives into the yard. Disher jumps up in the seat and pushes the driver over. I heard him yell, ‘There’s kids in there.” He drives the Six-by over to the barn and points to the canvas top. ‘Throw the baby down,’ he says and makes gestures to the mother.
She throws the baby down and it lands on the canvas top. Christ, it almost bounced off the canvas, the baby. Another GI grabs the kid. Disher yells at her again. “Throw the other one down.” She doesn’t move. He backs the truck up and rams the locked door. The building shakes and the woman disappears. Puff she’s gone! And the other kid disappears, and the roof comes down on the whole goddamn barn. Flames come shooting like only dust is burning, or gases. Lots of it. Like acetylene. Like a frigging torch and Disher goes batty. Loses it, he does. The whole thing. Thinks he knocked her deeper into the fire, was the cause of her death, who knows how many kids might have been in there.
You think I’d been drunk on that toot, man? You ought to see Disher after that, fucking hoot-owl drunk for nearly three days, and we kept moving and I kept him out of the limelight and out of serious trouble. Pulled a detail or two for him. When he woke up one morning, rank but sober, he never mentioned it again. Hell, I had forgotten it too. But it looks like Disher never let go of it, him being with that other girl too, like he had been punished for the little fun he had. Like he worried about Elsie coming at him the way she can, all mouth and hellfire, and I swear the end of the world in it. But he loved her. Old Disher never let go of that either. He loved her right to the bitter end.”
I had to lay off Nicholas after that, so much coming at him all at once, and the voices rising in the other room, as if they were on the way to invade our privacy. I looked at Nick and said, trying to poke it all together for him, “They’re going to say in the funeral service that he’ll soon be in the company of angels. I knew him in the company of men. And he was the best of them, old Disher was.”
“There they are, locked up in some more damn secrets I’ll bet.” I didn’t even have to look up to see who was talking. And Disher was probably totally deaf by then.
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