What a silent, legless kick in the chest! A dead man afoot.
Here came a man I thought long dead, half smiling, book-laden, walking out of the library, not casually, not the least, but the way certain men leave libraries, loaded with surprise, excitement, a hope for new intelligence. Short of handsome he was, but rugged-looking for an older guy, a sense of confidence moving afoot. I thought, a man knowing what he wants and has his hands on it. In each arm nestled a clutch of books; rugged wrists and hands gripping the books tightly, his poplin jacket sleeves taut as ropes.
With a relevant dash at consequence I had studied him, how he handled the door with a shoulder thrust and forearm shiver like a fullback running interference, how he walked then at his athletic recovery, what he wore, what spoke from him unsaid but known. He shrugged one shoulder, tipped his head at my orbital inquisition, the way neighbors acknowledge the day and its greeting. In a flash I had checked his eyes, and knew a piece of him, as though all he ever owned, ever shared, ever deliberated on, was invested in his eyes.
I was unnerved by it: This was a man I had seen die in Korea, open wounds and all, him going down slope bouncing on a litter, his weapon shattered on the rock face of the trail, its magazine spilled open, its stock strewn about in pieces, and the dark green chopper thumping its throbbing wings against the air and the mountain, the absolute silence that followed, and the somehow silence trailing me yet… to this day, to this place. The look brought of his eyes caught me harsh as a roadway accident, the message deep as time as he passed out through the library exit in a mere poplin jacket and an armful of books, looking at me and past me en route to his day, history continuing. My age he was, closing on three quarters of a century, a signature shuffle in his gait the way a knee makes itself known, clothes neat as a farmer’s plow marks down to the pleats in his pants, hair with a clear half moon trim above his ears telling of his era and his past.
But a dead man, book-laden, walking.
Some capacities are mine, have always been so: For one, knowing identifiable characteristics of individuals leaping up for ongoing notice, long after first sight, long after first registration: coming at me like Bob Mitchum’s chin from an old black and white, Clark Gable’s ears at another dimension, the way one actor’s nostrils can flare taking a deep breath, gunner Alan Ladd’s furtive mistrust locked to his eyes, or an unknown person laden with a calm-blue sea mist or an act of fear still at jousting. Quickly I can rig up, close to fifty years ago, a surging patient at a mental hospital, who had finger command of a hundred card tricks, who bore, half a clown, deep red hair and matching red-rimmed eyes.
Stories with such starter material have longevity, right from the outset.
Biographical movies of my past rushed across an internal screen. Stabbed with instant hits I was, partial recollections, toned-down images working in a subdued, gray scale. Subdued they were, but real. My backside went stiff, like a knot had been found and tapped, and the years careened in leaps and rushes.
Our introduction, this library man’s and mine, had happened on the side of a mountain near Yang-du, Republic of Korea, more than half a century earlier. His name did not sound itself for me, but sudden realizations pounded upon my senses: a sucking chest wound leaves a most terrible recollection, eyes often speak more than the voice behind them. For most of my life, it seemed, I could always remember a person’s eyes. Gray, green, blue, an off-brown near a box color, nothing which or that made any difference.
Put those eyes near mascara, rouge, a beard, sideburns, dread locks, all color of hair, a twisted mouth or cleft lip, ears like Gable’s, I could find the person in my history; not necessarily the name, but the person surely, note his time, put him in a place or a situation, find his surroundings, the colors of the past, bring him back. For me it’s where people always carry their demigods and devils, like some kind of baggage they must bear to mark their whole person, in their eyes, in those mine shafts or private tunnels meeting like railroad tracks in the distance, at the point where their personal stories begin.
Now here comes a comrade back from the dead, toting his identical baggage, and looking right past me as if we twain had never met. That old day returned, a strange day, though, in all of those days marked by strife; the heat near noon intolerable, the dry throat and the sweaty limbs co-existing, the cannonade having lifted shortly, small arms fire withering to a far-flung silence, and the moans of a man cut at his prime. He had begged for water, not to drink, but to be blessed, knowing he was about to die. I blessed him, called him William, named him William, blessed him William.
The medics rushed him off to an evac point, just downhill, the copter’s blades thumping my ears away from logic of any kind, but I had seen too many wounded men not to know his fate as he stared into my eyes, making the last connection. He marked me and I marked him, and those tunnels of his stretching for something he might have seen, must have seen. There have been many times since then when I realized he was telling me he knew more than I did.
That day the eggbeater’s blades beat out a whirring tune as it tilted on lift-off and twisted over almost to a careening edge to gain access to a small valley between the mountains, to head south from the battle zone. I was positive he would die while airborne, the clumsy blades working like a father punishing a bad child, nearer heaven than here where I was left behind, the war taking a deep breath.
Compelled by connection, I followed this other man out of the library in this quiet town and down the short walk to the main street. A general comfort swelled over the whole area, as though a Utopian breath had given a warm reward. Traffic, slow, unhurried, as though it had no better place to be, was meager in the streets and on the sidewalks. A few cars, two other walkers across the street and headed away on errands or exercise. Atop the flagpole beside the library, the flag was aflutter. He nodded ceremoniously at that flutter. I believed I understood his nod, having made a similar pronouncement on my way into the library, and a thousand other times when the wind or a good breeze brought it to my attention. Often, at those declarative moments, it was the simple slap of a taut rope against a metal flagpole, a sound that belonged to both of us. It was evident that we shared some sympathies and celebrations.
** I know this man is following me, coy pursuit and the coy way he was staring at me in the library. Probably thinks I didn’t notice him, if he could be so dumb. He looks, from this end, harmless enough after some fashion. And he’s old enough anyway, to go where he wants to go. Bet he’s pushing 80, yet moves pretty well. No old knees bothering him that I can see, the way he steps out. Makes me wonder about the other end of things, that old business back there bothering me every now and then, but I know Melba would get her head out of joint, lose it for a day or two at least, if we upset our lives now. Crawling back into the past is tough business. There’s no doubt she feels comfortable here after all this time, after the moving around I did, ship to ship, station to station, her trudging from apartment to apartment, the kids being dragged every which way to heaven or hell and back. Her picnic started a long time ago. Mine’s never begun.
The library man walking ahead of me, stiffness saying he was alert, turned left into a bright morning, his left knee still at announcement. He had elbows patched by an impatient tailor, leather patches as irregular as an outline of trees, and appeared to be listening to morning sounds. Dwelled about us a host of birds, pigeons in a roof eave as if hovering for a meal, morning swallows as sulky as ever, a brigand blue jay across the road settling boundary issues. I was a stranger in a strange town and visiting my son newly located. From my home just outside Boston it had been a pleasant drive here of a full day and a half, and a pleasant stay with him even though he had to rush into work on each morning tide.
By good fortune, there was the town library down the street where I could wait out his day, wait out his return. It was like home in that matter, most of my favorite friends were lodged there, my old friends, often worth visiting again and again.
It was hard to believe; here was a comrade come back to haunt me, right from the front lines, from the zone itself, him in the flesh. Oh, I had met a few of my other Korean comrades, some after fifty years or more, some less, like those in Pennsylvania and New York within decent driving time. But this was a full day and a half on the road, and a new sighting. I carried that old shiver for a new pitch; wind in our faces in some camp quadrangle or company area, support and dependable bodies close upon me, the noise of weapons being handled, their promises being heard. Did he not feel the same thing coming at him, the old trust, the necessary concern of all for one? Did he not know me, this library man? Did he not see my eyes the way I saw his, looking to determine where we last crossed paths? I did not believe it to be Alzheimer’s, or some basic form of dementia or even common lapsed memory. Yet, for all that matter, I had an unremarkable face that could well be forgotten, my jaw softened from what it once bore, only worry lines sketching me a place in time, a brow substantially broader than ever. I carried no scars, no paramount feature above a slightly bent nose at deep breathing, hair undecided on its color move to a passive white or gray as decent clouds. Plain Joe from Schmoe. He must have made some determination, some association.
**I have not seen him in the library before, nor even anyplace in town. Up front he has a strange way about him, even being an old buck like me. Hell, I’ve almost run my course, as they say, and I like the pasture now, a few books, the kids off and running, Melba at ease in her kitchen, making the suppers she missed making all those years. Maybe that’s why I don’t want to dredge up the old stuff, wondering what it would cost me, tough enough as it is. If she gets upset there’s hell to pay until it runs its course. And who knows how long that’d be. If it’s going to take patience, I’ll muster a sufficient amount.
All this time, I’ll have you know, I was fighting for library man’s name, an exalted fight, running through a lexicon of first common names of friends and associates, old teammates and classmates, and then the gauntlet of the alphabet, trying to pin down a phonetic connection, a clue, a short whisper that would provide identification… an Alan, an Albert, an Augustus. Ahead of me, now a half mile from the library, his hands doing split duty as he carried his books in two clutches, he paused and looked down into the gutter.
I saw the flash even from where I was walking, a silver dot caught up in sunlight posing at a most proper angle. His steps halted, he spun slowly on his right leg and stepped into the gutter, swapping a pile of books from his right hand to those under his left arm. Reaching down, he picked up what obviously was a coin. Like a numismatist at surprise, he held it on high to study it, and then dropped it into a pants pocket. Over his shoulder he looked, back to where I was. Without any sign of embarrassment, he nodded his good fortune and turned back to his route. I was thinking he might be a little short of cash, perhaps a miser, yet hoping he might leave a coin for a child to find. I wondered what life had given the man in the way of rewards or career when for sure I had seen him about to die. Did he die or not? I was wrapped in a state of betwixt and between. What good doctor might have happened on the scene in the Land of the Morning Calm? And why did he not know me, if he had not died that day or soon after?
**Well, there’s another side of the coin. He saw me stop on a dime for a dime. He’s eyeing me all this time, like a sniper or a watchdog. He can’t be evil, not on this street, in this town. Maybe it’s plain curiosity that I look like someone he knows, or did know, back in his years, and there’s plenty of room back there for a hundredfold of faces, on both sides of the fence. I’ve dreamed about going back but never had a clear idea of why; and Melba bides her time to keep bringing it up. Find your roots before it’s too late! God, she’s said that a thousand times. And I’ve never told her how the dream hits me like a rock each time. Something terrible hangs out back there, waiting for me. Why find it? Why fight it?
I kept trying to think what his name was, only hearing it once when a medic said he was en route to the rear.
I was down the list a long way, to names that began with H. Soon I had discounted Harry and Harland and Harvey and Hank and Henry and Horace and Hubbard. Humberto and Humphrey came calling without fanfare. No hits there as he turned up a small side street, which I dared not enter. It was a cul de sac. No more than nine or ten houses stood in there and I was, most noticeably, a total stranger. He’d know in a minute I was following him. I graphed the name on the signpost, Parkstone Road, and continued bravely on, maybe with some slyness. He looked back one more time as I passed by the end of his street.
**There’s the first good move he’s made. At least he’s not coming up here. Wait until I tell Melba; she’ll call the cops in a minute, so I better not tell her. It’s been so damn peaceful, the good books, the silence, her letting me age properly. I wrote that one letter,
must be more than a year now and no answer ever. So, it can’t be that. I’m glad there was no answer.
Ichabod came and left, and Irvin and Irving, and Ignatius, Ingram, Isaac, and Ivan. I was doing alphas and countries and neighborhoods I had known as a kid with the cultural mix
strong as iron.
** Now I’ve got a few more books to carry my day. I don’t need any noise or any excitement. God, if anything popped up, I might get swept away in excitement. Ought’n’t to disturb the dust. Let it all be. For all I could ever know there’s nothing there, most likely never was, stupid dreams. Most of them gone now. Can’t remember the last one or when it was. Maybe a year ago. Maybe more. Maybe it’s all a dead issue.
I went back to Korea as I walked away from Parkstone Road, salting the street name away in my mind, aware that Jack and John and Jeffrey were coming with old faces and old reliefs from far away. I was caught up in the glory of distant moments and distant friends and the sadness ran after me as I went down the road, away from Parkstone Road and the known/unknown man. If you asked for clutches, I could give them to you, because they ran up my backside, with a fire running right behind them like lava straightaway downhill. Pain, without having to be the knockout kind, always has embers, smoke, the char of ashes in the grate, hot tattoos of its own.
A little more than 24 hours later, I went back to the library to return a thin mystery novel that had shifted me through the traffic of darkness. My strange new library friend was sitting in the periodical room reading a newspaper. When he looked up, I was amazed; again, with certainty, I saw the same eyes I had seen over 50 years ago, and his mounted quizzical look, in what I understood to be defiance, saying he only remembered me from the day before.
**Uh oh, here he is again. If you have to say something about him, he’s got perseverance. Changed his clothes since yesterday, so he’s not living in a culvert or under a bridge someplace or the back of a barn. He’s shaved clean. Had a recent haircut. Shoes are sort of polished. Must admit he looks like an old soldier who brought his habits with him. Uh, oh, here he comes.
I went over and sat beside my library man. “Excuse my interruption, sir. You are the spitting image of a man I saw in Korea many years ago. The eyes especially. I was knocked backward yesterday, seeing you, seeing them.” I looked directly into his eyes. “A striking resemblance,” I said, “the most striking I can recall.”
**I wonder if it’s possible. All those old dreams I was afraid to accept, afraid to ask about, as if everything was a big joke on me. The folks never once said anything, never asked a question or gave a hint of anything.
There was no death hanging in his eyes now, no alert to some vast beyond, but there also was the initial impact again… that I was looking into the same pair of eyes. My reaction must have startled him. He looked about as if there had to be an audience to believe what was going on. He was a little thin at the hair line, which was sandy and not yet white, apparently not going to get any whiter, though his eyebrows, still the same, were bushy to some extent and not trimmed for vanity’s sake. The eyebrows were half frames for his eyes. A few blemishes sprouted redness at the tip of his nose and I was sure he and I liked the same kind of beer, enough of it to be mellow in the late evening. It said to me that we were not wine drinkers. It was certain he had shaved within a dozen hours, though not this morning, as a stubble, light in appearance, had begun its crawl, heavier on the blocky chin, disappearing before it hit any other landmark. The sideburns beside his ears were not at a level, a remnant patch of whisker sat under his nose as if it was not worth the effort during the shave.
The man had no vanity, he was saying to my observations. Other notes quickly followed; a crease in both pants legs and down each sleeve of a blue denim shirt, not new, not old, saying he was tidy because of some routine that ran in his life, and not the better for vanity. I wondered if he ironed, or his wife. His fingers were thick, like a laborer’s fingers, and a wedding ring sat on one little finger as if it had to be removed to be kept on show. I judged him faithful for that. The poplin jacket he wore the day before was folded over a chair at his other side, today accompanied by a baseball cap with a trucker’s logo embraced above the visor. The jacket pocket, and his shirt pocket, carried the tops of at least half a dozen ball point pens; the man was a note taker. I looked for a journal, a small spiral notebook, a pad of smiling notepaper.
**Well, he’s taking it all in, that’s for sure.
He nodded, and we began a conversation. “Korea, you say? I never made the trip. I was in the Coast Guard for almost 22 years. Never left the states.” He put his hand out. “My name is Victor Mooers. I live over on Parkstone Road.” He paused. “Who was the guy in Korea? What was his name?” He looked very interested, his brow furrowed, inquisitive, as he leaned forward in his seat, interjecting his whole person into the conversation. I assumed it to be an involuntary move, not postured.
**Perhaps he does know something. What if he’s coming from the other end? What if an investigation, a search, has been started back there wherever it was?
“That’s the trouble. I heard it once, after he was wounded, as I said, and the name’s gone past me now. But it’s a remarkable thing how his eyes stayed with me. The same exact eyes. I swear it’s uncanny… one, that they look so much alike, and two, that I still remember them that way. Uncanny!”
“He was hit bad, this comrade? Do you remember the occasion more than the man?” The newspaper was now folded in his hands and he was making himself an apt listener, more than an inquisitor.
** It can’t be possible. Is it falling in my lap?
“I am sure he must have died. I was sure until I saw you here yesterday. I can’t get over it. Then, yesterday, in a flash, I swore it was you come back from the dead. At least what I thought was the dead.”
He tilted his head, as part of his question that followed. The broadness of his shoulders in the blue denim shirt was firm and full sleeves gave testimony of muscles at rest for the moment. “You’re not from town here, are you? I made that small note yesterday.” He feigned making a check mark on phantom paper, and closed it with a hint of smile.
I wondered if that note was actually the physical kind, perhaps signified by his many ball point pens. “My son recently relocated here from near Boston and I thought I’d take a ride to see him, spend a few days. But he has to work every day and the library is my favorite spot in a strange place, especially being alone.”
“Not a Chinese restaurant where they cook the hell out of everything and you don’t have to worry about what you eat in a strange city.”
We both laughed. He had been around, had some experience in transfers. He had an easy laugh, but the eyes, once seen buried in pain, still carried the past for me. “The boy the only one? Your son?” he said.
“No, another one in San Diego, but I’ll never make that drive. I’m not partial to flying. My wife’s been gone for a half dozen years. She’s the only one who could get me to fly.”
“What happened?” Victor Mooers tipped his head to one side. “Back there,” which qualified his question to be about Korea and not my wife.
In a strange library in a strange town for a strange man, I made that trip again, to the Land of the Morning Calm. Images of all kinds leaped from a memory still only sorely touched these days, and mostly by the stranger I was talking to. Pieces of faces I had not seen in years came out of the woodwork of my mind, from my own tunnels like those I found in others so easily. I saw quick chunks of Frank Mitman and Pete Leone and Chuck Rumfola and Eddie Lampack in still life. Londo Leuter and Jack Slack slipped in and dipped away, smiles, laughter, a quick patch of a voice, a long distance call on a poor connection. Dan’l Crowe, who was gone, departed most recently, came trudging back and I caught a flash of his eyes when we saw each other a dozen years earlier in Elizabethton, Tennessee. Then Tex Goode fled away on a rainy Fort Devens parade grounds. Each of them went away in a flash as usual, gray, indistinct, partial visages left like fingerprints on an empty photograph or footprints in the mud or sand.
I moved back into the conversation. “I had been a pioneer in ammunition, blowing bunkers, odd jobbing if you want to call it that, then a radio operator carrying a 300 Walkie Talkie for the S-3 officer directing tactical operations through the Iron Triangle, then I was an army correspondent because he found out I could write and he wanted coverage for his outfit in the Stars & Stripes. I did it for him, for them. Five stories the very next issue. On the spot he made me a corporal and promised the next stripe would come along soon.”
Mooers was listening, nodding at some portions he must have understood from experience of a sort, language or incident or atmosphere. I noted that acceptance, that sharing. Despite a questionable start, he did not make me feel uncomfortable about the initial connection.
“And one day, in Yang-du, hunkered down in a slim valley, I heard about a lead for a story at our Baker Company, dug in across a ridge, around the corner and up the hill from us, like right in the neighborhood. I was on my way up to check it out, up onto the ridge by a steep, lonely trail, when all hell broke loose. Barrage on top of barrage came in on us and I was caught on the open path. I was trying to squeeze into nothing and a body came down practically on top of me, his face slamming against mine, his eyes so vivid I swear to this minute it could have been you. It scared the hell out of me then, it does now.”
I had to catch my breath, so clear the path backward. “He was bleeding like crazy, mumbling about water, hurting something awful. He was a comrade I had not met before, and his stripes said he was a corporal. We were alone on that steep path, rock-clutter, sunlight, loose debris of earth, web equipment, metallic elements and personal fabric. I was screaming for a medic in short order, seeing his blood working freely. I had no trouble exposing his chest, his fatigue shirt ripped the way it was, much of it in tatters, and I saw where he’d been cut. Probably a chunk of shrapnel. I didn’t think it was a bullet, because we were on this side of the hill, away from small arms fire. He kept asking for water. I had my canteen. I told him he shouldn’t have a drink, not with such a chest wound, which I knew was working its way in him.
But it was evident he was going through some kind of torture besides the pain, I could feel it, like I could almost see the back of his head and all the mix on the way through there. Then he said, mumbling and tripping over his words, yet spitting them out in his hurry, that he’d never been to church, never been blessed or anointed either, and asked me to do it. He begged me to do it, like he was pretty close to the end of things, could see it coming clearer than I could. I said okay, I’d do it, and asked his name. He was out of it by that time, I’m pretty positive. I couldn’t find his dog tags; the chain was even gone. Chunks of his shirt had been ripped away and blood was everywhere. He had no name tag, no wallet. They must have been blown away. I kept asking him what his name was. I don’t think by that time he was lucid at all, ‘cause he never gave me his name. I called him William. I baptized him as William as I poured the water on his brow, those eyes still sending telegraphs, even though he was no longer talking by that time.”
“His eyes still like mine then, him ready to go or gone?”
“I won’t kid you. Identical,” I said, “to the color, the shape, the way to the past lit up for a while. If it isn’t possible, I’d say we’re in some kind of mix here that we can’t ever explain.”
Should I tell him now?
“You throw some awful weight around, Victor. Scary, isn’t it?
Melba’d really get a bang out of this, being right on the money most of the time all this time, like I was never in the game at all.
Victor Mooers, at decision time as declared by vaguest evidence coming at me, let something go from his depths. It was as though I could see whatever it was, nameless or without description, leaving him, the sly and ghostly route of it, the almost the shape of it, and dark as fear or hatred or loss. In its own way it got a leg up on him and left him, the way some things travel in this life, the way innocence may go or trust of long standing, like steam vapors stretching past themselves to oblivion, the way old friends are forgotten, or remembered.
“I was put up for adoption as a child,” Victor Mooers said, in proof of the exchange taking place, an alteration of good habit, a sudden belief in an old tenet. “I think I was about two years old. Maybe. I’m not sure. I was never told much, later on, by others, yet I was hiding a lot too. I don’t remember my mother or father, the real ones, and sometimes less of those who followed, but I’m sure I had a brother. Like every step of the way he’s there. Everything I feel says I had a brother.
I don’t know if he was older or not, but there has been an emptiness in my life all this time, a vacancy, a gnawing vacuum digging at me all hours of the day and night. It has an internal power that is limitless, that vacuum. You might say I was afraid of facing the truth, thinking I had a brother being a hell of a lot better than knowing I didn’t. I couldn’t take the chance of finding out. I didn’t like the odds. All these years that emptiness has been my own baggage, going wherever I went, to sea, inland hunting, on quiet streams by myself looking for the phantom trout, as well as the other specters in my life.”
His eyes faded into that soft tunnel, a trip into himself, as though he had gone hunting around at a significant depth, and then made their return. A subtle change entered his voice.
“Mostly it’s the brother I almost remember having, the phantom brother. But it carries more of the fears I had as a kid. I remember thinking about where he had gone off the night before, the day before the split, if indeed it was like that. That day disappeared. Poof! Went blank like a whole day just went dark at a scene change in a movie, only it never came back. Just stayed dark. Empty. Silent. Then, after all that, there was nothing about him. No gestures. No souvenirs. No touch. Nothing at all. I couldn’t hear his voice. I couldn’t feel his hands. And then I couldn’t smell him either. That loss was as strong as any loss, not inhaling his warmth, his being, his being there.
I think we must have shared a bed, but ever after my bed was empty and I knew he was not coming back. I’d stretch and there was nothing there. If I have true memory, I remember him more than any of the others, any of all my parents. I carry the pain too much, the departure, the empty bed, the lost odor. I’ve never told my wife Melba about that part of it. She might not understand it, the way it might mark her own bed, even though she pushes for ranks getting closed, or opened, however you want to look at it.”
Finally, moving past the dangers of losing what was already lost, he said he was going to go back in history, to the end of the first part and the beginning of the second part, the way Melba had been urging him, to find his real roots, to find out who Victor Mooers really is, his first name, not his second name, his first person, not his second person… saying that she knew the second part well enough but had her own questions on the first. And find out what belongs to him yet that belonged to him before, and all the in-between.
I don’t suppose it will take him long, if there are any such records, and chances are that there are such records, all so traceable that the door is now flung wide. I’m willing to bet he had a brother and his brother’s name was William, or became William. At least it was William when I knew him for the shortest time. I’m convinced of that twist, that he was William and William he remains.