Beyond the Western
In the bedroom, upstairs, front corner, blind amid the toss of linens he had known intimately for seven long years, in touch with passing traffic and summer conversations when the windows were open, Jack Derrick lay in the middle of sound, in the middle of darkness. His left leg, or most of it, set upon by diabetes and the perfection of the surgeon, was elsewhere; his right hand was stained by nicotine, the index finger and close companion yellowed as shoe leather, and those fingernails bore fragments of that same deep stain. Gray, thin hair, most of it about his ears except for one thatch above his forehead as if an odd bird, at length, would roost there, drooped like fallen stalk. The stubble of his beard sprouted as off-white as an old field of corn waiting the last reaper.
Once, Jack Derrick’s eyes were as blue as eggs dipped at Easter. Once, too, back in the hey day, they were deadly remarkable over the sights of a Springfield Ought-Three, shot of shots, sniper of snipers. now shrunken, middling, brought back to an Earth-clutching sanity where he felt the grab but could never see it.
Darkness, most of us know, normally has its antecedents… the last of sunlight long over the horizon cutting the world in half, and the day, like a lamp being switched off or a fire snuffed to gray smoke and ashen smell, time eventually giving itself up to a new caretaker. Blindness, though, as with bed-ridden Jack Derrick, is prefaced at times not out of color, or the memory of it, but erupts ringing out of a collection of sounds.
Those sounds, for Jack Derrick, are never in order, are as diverse as fragmentation.
They can be a voice coming back from a distant tonal island where conversations are mustered, words soft or harsh enough in either case to be cause of memory. Or a yelp or a cry burned into the endless black space of the mind only stars might otherwise occupy, or transient moons. Oft times it may be two or three lines of poetry thought over and said so many times they constantly repeat themselves with undeniable energy… 'Who will know us in the time to come? Let them say there was a burst of fragrance from black branches" or "His name, once grey in convent writing, neat on themes, cut like erosion of fire the peaks of heaven." At times it is a miraculous bat sounding on a pitched baseball as if an ammunition round has been fired and the crowd leaps noisier than rockets on the Fourth of July. It is coupled with a father’s gasp frozen in time between that game day and the soft, useless fall of Saigon as he continually sees the ball rocket into centerfield, remembers the fielder cursing loudly in his scrambling uncertainly. Finally, it is his wife’s halting steps on the hall floor late at night, where nothing else sounds, or no one.
In the midst of another reverie, mechanics of the hungry blind taking over, Jack Derrick reached over the side of the bed, felt with the stained hand, found the top record of a set, slid it on his machine, and flipped the switch.
He heard, after mute seconds, a soft, unobtrusive voice: "Your reader is Alexander Scourby, the book is TEMUJIN, by Charles Enright, and is the life story of Genghis Khan, the Mongol conqueror, who lived from about 1162 to 1227."
Nuzzling his shoulders into the pillow, vaguely remembering his last back rub, the musky oil, the wings of wintergreen, he felt care and comfort slide through in an effortless shift into neutral gear. The man’s voice was comforting though distinctive, but carried little inflection, not trying to steer him, not by a long shot. A car rode by. He thought: Pontiac drive shaft and knew he was right. That ring was unmistakable, he could have identified it if it had been all the way out on the Turnpike. His own past words sounded out their judgments, singled themselves out in his ears: Pontiac drive shafts. Chevie tappets. Ford rattles, a recognition system he had put in place far too long ago. Old Jud Kearney had tried him on ten straight times before he gave up the quest. Ditto with Al Pinkney. On and on he could go. Rugged as a tank, his old Pierce Arrow came from a long way out in the left field of his memory, gave him a burst of sweet humming energy, and a faded picture he couldn’t focus on except for headlights sitting defiantly on the fenders. Andirons he thought of, turtles, parapets. Nothing worked for him. She’d been a piece of steel through and through. Up the long climb of Passport Hill her heard the hum again, the steady slow swing through the Maritimes, in Nova Scotia the radio keeping cadence count with a military tattoo, crescendo of drums, fifes flirting with his soul, brass beating up his past, the quick-step of bagged air.
“You awake, Jack?” The front door, opened, was closed by a heavy hand. The voice was heavy too. A creak of the first step echoed in wooden framework. “Special delivery from the Perkins Institute. A full bag. Could be a Nobel winner here.” The voice was a diaphragm voice, right up out of a broad chest, not an ounce of sarcasm in it.
His wife had described the mailman to him early in the new assignment. “Name’s Armand Kingsley. A big man with a big smile, brown hair, blue eyes, glasses dark on the rim, steady in his walk no matter how fat his bag is. Never shifts it like he’s uncomfortable with it. Lives over on Mulvern Road. And the first full load that came, when you thought your reading for the summer came in one fell swoop, well, he wouldn’t let me carry it upstairs. Lugged it himself.”
Jack, as he did when trying to lock a new person into his mind, scratching for a face, an image, went back to the Corps for a proxy, a viable stand-in, a moving faute de mieux. Came leaping to him from out of Nicaragua and Philadelphia and the old Charlestown Navy Yard, tough and leathery and sure as a calendar, John Bateman Yancy, three up and three down, six-foot-two and trouble for you! He reserved that image in his mind, saving it for the mailman, a former Marine himself he had found out early in their talks....Semper Fidelis, Nor Heat of Day Nor Gloom of Night, dress blues striding down Germantown Ave. and a whole weekend about to fall at his and Yancy’s feet. The time they were alone in Atlanta, long after midnight, rebels without a cause, came crushing back with its weights, its sounds, the night air cool again on his cheeks, on his brow, coming out of the northeast.
“Awake as I’ll ever be. C’mon up. Rise and stein!”
“You sure you want a beer at this hour?” Jack heard the creak of the second step, a nail losing some of its grip, a good century of clutch tired of the holding on. The first step again, sending out its signature as he pictured Yancy-Kingsley pivoting, shifting his weight, the bag over one shoulder like a hunchback’s extra load. A flash of dress blues, mailman gray, black-visored hat stiff as funerals.
“Just one, if you’ve got a free hand, Armand.”
The mailman-Corpsman settled his load on the floor, the bottle top snapped off like a period being popped from the end of a long, long sentence, the cold surface of delight placed against his hand signaling high noon, okaying its high noonness, high noon and the good elixir. One bubble sometimes was good enough. For a moment there was a joyful vacancy in his mind as if he were lost in some mid-world. It was a delicious moment.
Cushions of the Morris chair exhaled, cloths rubbed each other, wood said in protest it was being employed by significant weight. Floorboards accented a load shift, a center of gravity change, nail-wood talk. The cord about the canvas bag was loosened, sounding like a noose coming off a neck in The Oxbow Incident. Christ, he vowed to himself, I could watch a Fonda film all day long. Long as he wore a hat and wasn’t shaved.
Jack Derrick, dexterity not lost in him, poured the bottle of beer into a glass mug he’d caught off a hook on the side of a small table. Armand Kingsley watched the amber fluid trace itself across a yellowed fingertip, guiding the way, assuring the way; he wondered how much feeling was left in the finger. Could he phony it up? Was Jack’s timing impeccable?
“You have time to read the titles?” Jack said, hoisting the full glass, not a drop spilled, to his lips. His question was more suggestion than question.
“Yes, some of them. I told Dorrie I’d be home early today, as early as possible.” He had slid a foot across the floor, putting it under his big frame, as if to rise.
“How she doing?” Jack wet his lips after the first taste of the day, doubling up his taste. Armand smiled at the licking. Tasted it himself. Made it Guinness, brown bottle, room temperature, from under a bar in Ballyniskallin so many years ago he couldn’t time it.
“I’m never sure, Jack. She hides a lot. We talked about that before. She doesn’t want to drop anything else on me. On top of housework, shopping and cooking just about every night. Don’t get to many games at the park any more. But she’ll be fine, I think. Doc says she’ll live another hundred years. If she has her way!” And in the same breath and with the same stress, continued, “Say! I heard you had some poor soul up here the other night and gave him the old treatment, like back at Paris Island. Herb told me, all his gestures, too. I saw him just this morning. Heard you cutting loose on somebody. What happened?”
“You met my niece Paula?”
“Yah, the one from the West Coast.”
“Staying for a bit with us, looking for a job, seeing old friends. Met one of her old boyfriends. Came by one night real late and three sheets to you know where, made a hell of a racket, woke the neighbors up. Was a real pain in the ass. I got rip. Told Paula when he sobers up he had to come by and apologize.” He took another sip of beer, sure, easy, a method drinker, practice perfect. Armand nodding his appreciation, biting his lip lightly in doing so, still recalling the Guiness he had pulled back from the long ago. In spite of Jack’s inability to see, Armand felt open, exposed, as if secrets were being given up. Pulling at his jacket, he faked a button check in front of the blind man. He shook his head disbelieving himself.
“So you pulled the old D.I. routine on him?” Armand’s face filled with memory. An outsider could have spaded his way through the recollections, an archeologist down and dirty. It could have been a signpost or a trail marker, the way his lip curved, a half smile moved, a cheek puffed. His head kept nodding appreciation. His jaw was solid, his neck thick, his shoulders wide, giving all the appearance that he was as rugged as a locomotive, as dependable.
“Yeh, but you were telling me about Dorrie. Can Glencie get home at all?” Jack asked about Armand’s only child, married, living just outside Atlanta. He’d never met her, only the idea of her that had been set in his mind...blonde, giggly, field hockey, basketball, scholarship, college, pregnant, Georgia.
“I’m afraid not, Jack. Things aren’t so good there either. Jason called last week. We haven’t heard from them in some time. She’s going to have to have a mastectomy, maybe both sides. Jason says she’s falling away so quick you can’t believe it. Like she’s shrinking. Just plain shrinking.” His eyes fastened on the pair of blind eyes, trying to see the end of the tunnel, the convergence. “Doesn’t think it would do any good for her mom to see her the way she is now. Not me either. Scares the hell out of me. I have all kinds of trouble thinking about things like that. Like it’s a mystery and we’re not supposed to know anything about it.” There was, he realized, no convergence, no meeting of light and sound.
“Jayzuz, Armand, I’m sorry.” Jack’s forearm wiped itself across his brow. “That’s tough. But you’ll get through it.” Jack lifted himself in the bed, put one elbow under him. The move was not effortless. “All of you will. Tons of things coming at all of us every which way to Hell, they always have, and we all get by. One way or another. Every one of us.”
Armand had not yet stopped nodding. He reached for the top packet in the gray canvas mailbag stout as a fire hydrant at his feet.
“We have Two Years before the Mast by…”
Jack cut him off with a wave of his hand. “Had it six times now. Still love it.”
“The Guns of Navarone and H.M.S. Ulysses and South by Java Head, all in one box, by All-star Makear. Funny name, that one.” He proceeded to wipe his glasses.
Jack heard him blow across the glasses, pull a handkerchief from a deep pocket (he thought of a magician doing the kerchief bit, pennants coming out of a secret pocket), blow again. Armand had read the name wrong, or was punning. He didn’t say anything. God! he loved how that man wrote! Adventure at its best. High romance the way it should always be. Navarone back now for the seventh or eighth time, at least. They knew what he liked. Java the first pearl he’d found by him, long before his eyes had gone, now that too, back for his pleasure. The pillow at his neck, at his shoulders, was a bit softer. Not a crease in it. The taste of the beer came on his lips again and said Labatt’s Blue under his breath. From off some place he inhaled the open crock in the hallway back in Charlestown, across from the Navy Yard. For the briefest moment the entire hallway came into focus, down beside the door the clay crock whose cover when moved sounded like rocks moving over each other, the walls slated with corrugated tin, green paint like every faded John in the world, but he had never seen Dorrie.
Her face continued to be just an oval with a mouth that must have been red at one time. He only thought red, he didn’t see it. You can’t have everything, sounded itself way off, like the echo of a train crawling off the end of the Earth, the caboose light fading to darkness (frigging time chasing itself.) A teacher must have said that, the first part, in grade school or high school, some school some place. Perhaps it was a movie with Franchot Tone in it, or Frederick March, black and white all the way. They’d be in tight gray pants, vests, dangling their watches on fobs. The face he fished for never came and knew it wouldn’t come. You can’t have everything. Another Pontiac whined by the house. Then tappets in unison, though each cough or click a signature in itself. A Chevie spit its name. Morse Code in another form. Armand Kingsley read off more titles as he took them from the bag, then he loaded the emptied bag with strapped boxes of records already read, as Jack loved to point out....Six novels READ this week and one an epic to boot!
A week to the day, almost to the hour of noon, as if he had waited for the legal hour of tending bar, Armand Kingsley brought another bag load, another Labatt’s Blue, more bad news. He didn’t tell Jack right off, though, about the bad news. Didn’t want him to get depressed over something he could not help in any way; had enough of his own, this Derrick guy, who hung in like a real trooper. Still Marine to the core. He read titles of the new issues out of Perkins Institute For The Blind; White Lotus, by John Hershey (Send it back! Put it back in the bag right now!); Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis (What the hell happened to their screening committee? They were right on the mark last week. Must be on vacation now. Maybe a new hire. Well, it can’t hurt anything. Neuter. Pap. Corn flakes. Leave it.); Billy Budd and Other Tales, by Herman Melville. (Well, whataya know? Finally, a three bagger right down the line, a lefty pumping one so that it would run crazy off the right field wall of Fenway!).
An issue about the beachhead at Tarawa brought to a halt things literary. “Where’d you go in the Islands, Armand?” Jack put an arm over his forehead. The air in the room shifted, though the untasted Labatt’s stayed preserved, cutting its way through all other scents. It had an appleness to it. Not a maltness. He wondered if he had a thing for acid or tartness.
Armand saw a hundred scenes at once, a hundred faces. The LST’s MotorMac looking directly into his eyes, as he headed to the ramp, probably seeing all the way to the back of his head as clear as a Sunday morning at home. Beached boats, tipped, burning, wrenched apart, wearing hands and arms and legs in grotesque salutes, even helmets without faces or eyes or mouths under the curved rims. Whole bodies and body parts everywhere on the beach. Stampede over. Butchery! The Corpsman with the odd mouth, as if partially torn from his face by some hateful god, looking down into his eyes. Acceptance. Knowledge of the most intimate kind exchanged. He’d know organs and secrets. And then the wide and endless Pacific stringing itself across the back of his eyelids the way the universe might unfold, or eternal night, or blindness. Only this blind survivor could bring such sights back to him. Only this blind and legless survivor.
“Three, four, maybe five or six steps up on the beach at Kwajalein.” Everything he said would sound like an apology, but he knew his voice was peculiar, different, trying not to stretch itself, overachieve. “Hit right in the thigh, left, thought the bone was coming out the back of my leg. Woke up back on the ship I just crawled off, like an empty going back to the friggin’ redemption center. Floated me all the way home. Glad I didn’t get paid by the hour. You?”
“With Chesty Puller and Fats Grabeski and John Bateman Yancy and Joe Dixon and Joe Ditson down in Nicaragua. I’m the only one left.”
“We’re survivors, Jack. One way or the other, we’re survivors.” If he had the wherewithal he would have pinned another medal or another ribbon on the thin figure in the bed. The thought made him nod. His head kept shaking, almost by itself. It was a wonder Jack couldn’t see him repeating himself, always in approval, the admiration and esteem exuding from him like steam from a heat exchanger. Jack’s thin red face, eyeless eyes, stubble still showing its old-field crop, the lower lip hollow where teeth once held the fort, shaping the new shape, drawing its new edge, all came at him in a flurry.
It was strange, his measuring a man who could not measure back. Canyon without an echo. One-way radar. This belayed creature, this prone creature in front of him, was a hero, a survivor and a hero, clasping to the ragged edges of life, the craggy edges. He tried to remember the poem about the eagle grasping the craggy walls/ and like a thunderbolt he falls, but he couldn’t get all of it. Jack, he knew, would have gone inland from the beach; he would have fought the glorious and awful fight because he was destined for it; he would have left his name in Corps annals even though they might have been in the sand. Then Dorrie’s blank expression ran right into him, an abrupt hit at a demolition derby. It crowded the long ago beach out of existence. Glencie, too, came broadside. A jarring, mind-shaking, earth-shaking impact. He could see her arms reaching.
“Glencie’s real bad. Jason called again last night and was crying. I’d go down but I can’t take Dorrie. It’s all so unfair.” He shifted in his seat, saw the little paunch of Jack’s gut pushing against the thin blanket, the yellowed fingers and thumb testing the thickness of his cover. Shouldn’t drink, he thought. Shouldn’t smoke. But what the hell does he have? He deserves something at the end, some kind of peace.
“I’m goddamn sorry about that, Armand. But something’ll happen, don’t worry. We’re all going through torture of one kind or another. Not like we haven’t been there before. I had these frigging arrows in my legs, one in my back, the natives shooting hundreds of them to land one and I get a whole Legation’s quota all to myself.”
Suddenly, momentarily, he appeared fragile to the mailman. Momentary and fragile. Armand said to himself: The survivor’s still talking in him, but hardly any of this is fair. They were always after me, whatever odds there were, whatever gods there were, they were always after me. Whatever odds and gods and lords there were, they were after me. The whole kit and caboodle of them. They still are. The gods of war. The lords of darkness. All the odds they dispense. Dorrie’s blank expression came back with all its power, raw, menacing, ground-shaking, time-diffusing. There were times now when she didn’t recognize him, or didn’t make a face of any kind, even at the mention of Glencie’s name. Didn’t ask about her daughter sometimes for days on end. Heavy-footed, he went down the stairs, leaving the canvas bag full of Talking Books at the foot of the bed.
The appointed rounds sounded itself in Armand’s head, being nothing more than conscience one might argue. Later, under cover of darkness, he was amazed to realize that darkness itself had had its antecedents. None of this had occurred to him before; they were as simple as doubt, as sharp as a cluster of lead tending to disfigure itself in flesh, as complex as a beach full of the organisms of war as far as the eyes could see.
Then, his eyes fading in his own deliberate and final and accurate assessment, the last thing he saw after Glencie’s reaching hands and Dorrie’s mouth struck open by her own indelicate awe, was the blind survivor, legless, clasping the craggy edges of life to his chest, as he placed a revolver under his chin. He argued that the metal was too cold to pull the trigger. He saw his next delivery, heard Jack Derrick say, one more time, “Shit, man, it’s about time they sent that one.”