Beyond the Western
He was back from his war as we waited ours, not too far off. too far for kids like us.
Hardly with a hop, skimp and a jump did Frank Parkinson come home from Tobruk, Egypt, North Africa, madness, World War II in general. A lot of pit stops were made along the way where delicate-handed surgeons and associates did their very best to get him back into working order. We never saw, from practically every vantage thereafter, facially or bodily, any scar, bunching of flesh, major or minor skin disturbance. There was no permanent redness, no welts as part of his features, no thin and faintly visible testaments to a doctor’s faulty hand or to the enemy’s angry fragmentation, as if he were the ultimate and perfect patient, the great recovery, the risen Lazarus.
But he was different, it was easy to see, by a whole long shot.
Parkie, legend, hero at Tobruk.
And it was at the end of some trying times for him when I realized, one afternoon as we sat looking over the sun looking over Lily Pond, a redness on the pond’s face as bright as an ache, the pond face we had skated on for almost twenty years, where we had whipped the long hand-held whip line of us and our friends screaming and wind-blown toward the frosted shore on countless coffee and cider evenings, that he had come home to die.
The September sun was on for a short stay, and we had bagged a dozen bottles of beer and laid them easily down in the pond, watching the flotilla of pickerel poking slowly about when the sediment settled, their shadowy thinness pointing, like inert submarines or torpedoes, at the bags.
Our differences were obvious, though we did not speak of them. The sands of North Africa had clutched at him and almost taken him. Off a mountain in Italy I had come with my feet nearly frozen, graceless pieces of marble under skin, thinking they might have been blown off the same quarry in which Michelangelo had once farmed torsos. Searching for the grace that might have been in them, I found none. I kept no souvenirs, especially none of Italy and its craggy mountains, and had seen nothing of his memento scenery, but once saw a pair of tanker goggles hanging like an outsize Rosary on the post of his bed at Dutch Siciliano’s garage where he roomed on the second floor. In each of his three small rooms, like the residue of a convoy’s passing still hanging in the air, telling of itself at the nostrils with sharp reminders, you could smell the oil and grease and, sometimes you’d swear, perhaps the acid-like cosmoline and spent gunpowder, rising right through the floorboards.
We left the war behind us. As much as we could. But with Parkie it was different…pieces of it hung on as if they were on for the long ride. I don’t mean that he was a flag waver or mufti hero, now that he was out of uniform, but the whole war kept coming back to him in ways he had no control over. There are people to whom such things befall. They don’t choose them, that’s for sure, but it’s as if they somehow get appointed for all the attendant crap life gets filled with.
And Parkie had no control over the visitations.
I don’t know how many times we have been sitting in the Angels’ Club, hanging out, the big booms long down the tubes, when someone from Parkie’s old outfit would show up out of the blue. It was like Lamont Cranston appearing from the shadows; there’d be a guy standing at the door looking in and we’d all notice him, and then his eyes and Parkie’s eyes’d lock. Recognition was instant; reaction was slower, as if neither one believed what he was seeing. There would be a quiet acceptance of the other’s presence, they’d draw their heads together, have a beer in a corner. Parkie, as sort of an announcement, would speak to no one in particular and the whole room in general, “This guy was with me in North Africa.” He never gave a name. All of them were odd lots, all of them; thin like Parkie, drawn in the face, little shoulders and long arms, nervous, itchy, wearing that same darkness in the eyes, a sum of darkness you’d think was too much for one man to carry. They would hang on for days at a time, holing up some place, sometimes at Parkie’s and sometimes elsewhere, drinking up a storm, carousing, and one morning would be gone and never seen again, as if a ritual had taken place. A solemn ritual. Apparitions almost from the slippery darkness! Dark-eyed. The nameless out of North Africa and whatever other place they had been to and come from. Noble wanderers, it seemed, but nameless, rankless, placeless, itinerants from who knows what!
Parkie never got a card or a letter from any one of them, never a phone call. Nothing. He never mentioned them after they were gone. That, to me, was notice he knew they would never be back. It was like a date had been kept, a vow paid off. It wasn’t at all like “We’ll meet at Trafalgar Square after the war, or Times Square, or under the clock at The Ritz.” Not at all. The sadness of it hit me solidly, frontally. I had had some good buddies, guy’s I’d be tickled to death to see again if they walked in just like his pals did, and I knew that I’d never see them again. Things were like that, cut and dried like adobe, a place and a job in the world and you couldn’t cry about it. Part of the fine-tuned fatalism that grows in your bones, becomes part of you, core deep, gut deep.
The sun‘s redness shivered under breeze. Pickerel nosed at the bags. The beer cooled. Parkie sipped at a bottle, his eyes dark and locked on the pond, seeing something I hadn’t seen, I guess. The long hatchet-like face, the full-blown Indian complexion he owned great allegiance to, made his dark visage darker than it might have been. With parted lips his teeth showed long and off-white or slightly yellowed, real incisors in a deep-red gum line. On a smooth gray rock he sat with his heels jammed up under his butt, the redness still locked in his eyes, and, like some long-gone Chief, locked in meditation of the spirits.
For a long while he was distant, who knows where, in what guise and in what act, out of touch, which really wasn’t that unusual with him before, and surely wasn’t now, since his return. Actually it was a little eerie, this sudden transport, but a lot of things had become eerie with Parkie around. He didn’t like being indoors for too long a stretch, he craved fresh air and walked a lot, and must have worn his own path around the pond. It went through the alders, then through the clump of birch that some nights looked like ghosts at attention, then down along the edge where all the kids went for kibby and sunfish, then over the knoll at the end of the pond where you’d go out of sight for maybe five minutes of a walk, and then down along the near shore and coming up to the Angels’ where we hung out.
Most of the guys said when you couldn’t find Parkie, you knew where to find him.
He looked up at me from his crouch, the bottle in his hand catching the sun, his eyes as dark as ever in their deep contrast. “Remember that Kirby kid, Ellen Kirby, when we pulled her out of the channel on Christmas vacation in her snowsuit and she kept skating around for a couple of hours, afraid to go home. We saved her for nothing, it seems, but for another try at it. I heard she drowned in a lake in Maine January of the year we went away. Like she never learned anything at all.” Parkie hadn’t taken his eyes off the pond, stillness still trying to take hold of him, and he sipped and sipped and finally drank off the bottle and reached into the water for another. The pickerel force moved away as quickly as minnows.
Their quickness seemed to make fun of our inertia. If there was a clock handy, I knew its hands would be moving, the ticking going on, but I seriously wouldn’t bet on it. We seemed to be holding our collected breath; the sun froze itself on the water’s face, the slightest breath of wind held itself off. There was no ticking, no bells, no alarms, no sudden disturbances in the air, no more war, and no passage of time. For a moment at least we hung at breathlessness and eternity. We were, as Parkie had said on more than one occasion, “Down-in deep counting the bones in ourselves, trying to get literate.”
“We just got her ready to die another time.” The church key opener in his hand pried at the bottle cap as slow as a crowbar and permitted a slight “pop,” and he palmed the cap in his hand and shook it like half a dice set and skipped it across the redness. The deliberate things he did came off as code transmissions, and I had spent hours trying to read what kind of messages were being carried along by them. They did not clamor for attention, but if you were only barely alert you knew something was cooking in him.
“You might not believe it,” I said, “but I thought of her when I was in the base hospital in Italy and swore my ass was ice. I remember how she skated around after we pulled her out with that gray-green snowsuit on and the old pilot’s cap on her head and the flaps down over her ears and the goggles against her eyes and the ice like a clear, fine lacquer all over her clothes. I thought she was going to freeze standing up right on the pond.”
Parkie said, “I used to think about the pond a lot when I was in the desert, at Tobruk, at Al Shar-Efan, at The Sod Oasis, at all the dry holes along the way, but it was always summer and fishing and swimming and going balliky off the rock at midnight or two or three in the morning on some hot-ass August night when we couldn’t sleep and sneaked out of the house. Remember how Gracie slipped into the pond that night and slipped out of her bathing suit and hung it up on a spike on the raft and told us she was going to teach us everything we’d ever need to know.” His head nodded two or three times, accenting its own movement, making a grand pronouncement, as if the recall was just as tender and just as complete as that long-ago compelling night. He sipped at the bottle again, and tried to look through its amber passage, dark eyes meeting dark obstacles of more than one sort. As much a fortuneteller he looked, peeking into life.
All across the pond a stillness made itself known, a stillness as pure as any I’ve known. I don’t know what he saw in the amber fluid, but it couldn’t have been anything he hadn’t seen before.
I just got the feeling it was nothing different.
When I called him Frank he looked at me squarely, thick black brows lifted like chunks of punctuation, his mouth an Oh of more punctuation, both of us suddenly serious. It had always been that way with us, the reliance on the more proper name to pull a halt to what was about us, or explain what was about us. He drank off a heavy draught of beer, his Adam’s apple flopping on his thin neck. The picture of a turkey wattle came uneasily to mind, making me feel slightly ridiculous, and slightly embarrassed. Frank was an announcement of sorts, a declaration that a change, no matter subtle or not, was being introduced into our conversation. It was not as serious as Francis but it was serious enough.
His comrades from North Africa, as always, had intrigued me, and on a number of instances I had searched in imagination’s land for stories that might lie there waiting to get plowed up. Nothing I had turned over had come anywhere close to reality, or the terror’s I had known in my own stead. No rubble. No chaff. No field residue.
Perhaps Parkie had seen something in that last bottle, something swimming about in the amber liquid, or something just on the other side of it, for he turned to me and said, “I think you want to know about my friends who visit, my friends from North Africa, from my tank outfit. I never told you their names because their names are not important. Where they come from or where they are going is not important either. That information would mean nothing to you.” For the moment the silence was accepted by both of us.
Across the stretch of water the sun was making its last retreat of the day. A quick grasp of reflection hung for a bare second on the face of the pond and then leaped off somewhere as if shot, past the worm-curled roots, a minute but energized flash darting into the trees, then it was gone, absolutely gone, none of it yet curling round a branch or root, and no evidence of it laying about…except for the life it had given sustenance to, had maintained at all levels. It was like the shutter of a camera had opened and closed at its own speed.
Parkie acknowledged that disappearance with a slight nod of his head. An additional twist was there: it was obvious he saw the darkness coming on even before it gathered itself to call on us, as though another kind of clock ticked for him, a clock of a far different dimension. He was still chipping away at what had been his old self. That came home clean as a desert bone; but where he was taking it all was as much mystery as ever.
The beer, though, was making sly headway, the beer and stillness, and the companionship we had shared over the years, the mystery of the sun’s quick disappearance on what we knew of the horizon, the thin edge of warmth it left behind, and all those strange comrades of his who had stood in the doorway of the Angel’s Club, framed as they were by the nowhere they had come from, almost purposeless in their missions. They too had been of dark visage. They too were lank and thin and narrow in the shoulder. They too were scored by that same pit of infinity locked deeply in their eyes. They were not haggard, but they were deep. I knew twin brothers who were not as close to their own core the same way these men were, men who had obviously leaned their souls entirely on some common element in their lives. I did not find it as intense even with battle brothers who had lain in the same hole with me while German 76’ers slammed overhead and all around us, Michelangelo’s marble still looking for a form to turn into as it flew its own shrapnel route in the awful trajectories.
The flotilla of pickerel nosed against the bags of beer. Parkie’s Adam’s apple bobbed on his thin neck. He began slowly, all that long reserve suddenly beginning to fall away: “We were behind German lines, but had no idea how we got there. We ran out of gas in a low crater and threw some canvas against the sides of the three tanks that had been left after our last battle. If we could keep out of sight, sort of camouflaged, we might have a chance. It got cold that night. We had little food, little water, little ammo, and no gas. It was best, we thought, to wait out our chances. If we didn't know where we were, perhaps the Jerries wouldn't know either. Sixteen of us were there. We had lost a lot of tanks, had our butts kicked.”
He wasn’t dramatizing anything, you could tell. It was coming as straight as he could make it. Whatever was coming, though, had to be pretty wild, or exorbitant, or eerie or, indeed, inhuman. The last option came home pretty cold to me. The hair on the back of my neck told me so.
“We woke up in the false dawn and they were all around us. Fish in the bottom of the tank is what we were. No two ways about it. Plain, all-out fish lying there, as flat as those pickerel. They took us without a shot being fired. Took us like babies in the pram.”
“All day they questioned us. One guy was an SS guy. A real mean son of a bitch if you ever met one. Once I spit at him and he jammed me with a rifle barrel I swear six inches deep. Ten times he must have kicked me in the guts. Ten times! I couldn’t get to his throat, I’d’ve taken him with me. They stripped our tanks, what was left in them. That night they pushed us into our tanks. I saw the flash of a torch through one of the gun holes. You could hear a generator working nearby. Something was crackling and blistering on the hull or the turret top. Blue light jumped every which way through the gun holes. It was getting hot. Then I realized the sounds and the smells and the weird lights were welding rods being burned. The sons of bitches were welding us inside our own tanks. A hell of a lot of arguing and screaming was going on outside us. The light went flashing on and off, like a strobe light, if you know what I mean. Blue and white. Blue and white. Off and on. Off and on. But no real terror yet. Not until we heard the roar of a huge diesel engine. And the sound of it getting louder. And then came scraping and brushing against the sides of our tanks. Sand began to seep through the gun holes and peep sights. The sons of bitches were burying us in our own tanks! All I could see was that rotten SS bastard smiling down at us. I saw his little mustache and his pale green eyes and his red nose and a smile the devil must have created. And his shining crow-black boots.”
I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t ask him a question. A stunned sensation swept clean through me. First, disbelief, a surging block of disbelief, as if my veins had frozen in place. The dark pit in his eyes could be read; the darkness inside the tank, the utter, inhuman darkness that had become part of Parkie and part of his comrades, the imagined sense of it hitting me slowly. It crept within me. I knew a sudden likeness to that feeling; it was peering over the edge of a high place, the ground rushing up to meet me and then falling away and the long descent, the torturous fall becoming part of me…in the veins, in the mind. A shiver ran through every part of my body. And then hate welled in me, stark, naked, unadorned hate, hate of the vilest kind.
Parkie put his hand on my knee. His grip was hard. “I never wanted to tell you, none of you. We all had our thing. You had yours. I had mine. I’m so sorry your feet are so screwed up. I wish nothing had happened to you. But a lot of guys’ve had worse.”
“What happened?” I said, letting his hand carry most of his message, letting my own small miseries fall away as if they did not exist. Not by comparison anyway. My feet had iced up practically in my sleep. I knew the ignoble difference.
“The sand was almost over all the tank, and the noise inside the tank started. Screaming and cursing and crying. Cries like you never heard in your life. Godawful cries. I know I never heard anything like them. And coming out of guys I’d known a long time, tough guys, valiant guys, guys with balls who had gone on the line for me. I heard some of them call for their mothers. There was screaming, and then whimpering and then screaming again. And curses! My God, curses that would raise the friggin’ dead. The most unholy of curses. Everything dead and unholy and illegitimate raised from wherever they were being brought against the Germans and that little SS bastard. He was castrated and ripped and damned and denounced to the fires of hell. You have not heard profanity and terror and utter and absolute hatred all in one voice at the same time. The volume was turned way up. It filled the tank. It filled that makeshift and permanent vault. And our useless and agonized banging barehanded against the hull of the tank. Knuckles and fists and back-handers against the steel. And the outside noise drowning all of it out.”
I was till reeling, kept shaking my head, kept feeling the same glacier-like ice in my veins. And the heat of hatred coexisted with that ice. I was a mass of contradictions. Parkie kept squeezing my knee. The pickerel kept nosing the bags, hung up in their own world of silence. Silence extended itself to the whole of Earth. The quiet out there, the final and eventual quiet out there, after the war, was all around us.
“Suddenly,” he continued, “there was nothing. The sand stopped its brushing and grating against the steel of the tank, then the diesel noise grew louder, as if it was coming right through us. And powerful thrusts came banging at the tank. I didn’t know what it was. And then we were being shoved and shaken, the whole structure. And I heard curses from outside and a lot of German on the air, and we seemed to be moving away from our hole in the ground. Whatever it was was pushing at us. And then it went away and we heard the same banging and grinding and grunting of the engine nearby. Then the blue and white light again as a torch burned around us and the tank heated up, and lots of screaming but all of it German. And there were more engine noises and more banging and smashing of big bodies of steel. Finally the turret was opened and we were hauled out and canteens shoved in our faces and the other tanks were being opened up and guys scrambling out, some of them still crying and screaming and cursing everything around them.”
He reached for the last bottle in one of the bags. The bag began to drift slowly away in wavy pieces. The pickerel had gone. The bottle cap snapped off in his hand. I thought of the tank’s turret top being snapped open, the rush of clean air filling his lungs, a new light in his eyes.
“Then I saw him,” Parkie said. “The minute I saw him I knew who he was. General Rommel. He was looking at us. He looked me right in the eye, straight and true and bone-steady and no shit at all in it. I didn’t think he was breathing, he was so still. But I read him right off the bat. The whole being of that man was right in his eyes. He shook his head and uttered a cry I can’t repeat. Then he took a pistol from another guy, maybe his driver, a skinny itchy little guy, and just shot that miserable SS son of a bitch right between the eyes as he stood in front of him. Shot him like he was the high executioner himself; no deliberation, no second thought, no pause in his movement. Bang! One shot heard round the world if you really think about it. He screamed something in German as if it were at the whole German army itself, each and every man of it, perhaps lifting to whatever god he might have believed in because it was so loud, so unearthly, and then he just walked off toward a personnel carrier, not looking at us anymore or the SS guy on the ground, a nice-sized hole in his forehead.”
He drained off the last bottle, mouthing the taste of it for a while, wetting his lips a few times, remembering, I thought, the dry sands, the heat, the embarrassed German general walking away on the desert, the ultimate graveyard for so many men, for so many dreams.“They gave us water and food, the Germans did. One of them brought up one of our own jeeps. It was beat to hell, but it was working. One German major, keeping his head down, his eyes on the sand, not looking at us, pointed off across the sand. We started out, the sixteen of us, some walking, some riding, some still crying or whimpering. Some still cursing. The next day we met some Brits. They brought us to their headquarters company. We were returned to our outfit. Some guys, of course, didn’t get to go back on line, but were sent home as head cases. Can’t blame them for that. I kept thinking about General Rommel, kept seeing his eyes in my mind. I can see them now, how they looked on his face, the shame that was in them. It was absolute, that shame, and he knew we knew. It was something he couldn’t talk about, I bet. If he could have talked to us, we might have been taken to one of their prison camps. But he knew he couldn’t do that to us. Make amends is what he had to do. He had to give us another chance. Just like we gave Ellen Kirby another chance at drowning.”
In his short flight he had circled all the way back to the Kirby circumstance and all that played with it.
Francis Dever Parkinson, tanker sergeant, survivor of Tobruk and other places in the northern horrors of Africa, who walked away from death in the sand on more than one occasion, who might be called Rommel’s last known foe, who rolled over three cars on U.S. Route 1 and waged six major and distinct bouts with John Barleycorn thereafter in his time, who got to know the insidious trek of cancer in his slight frame, whom I loved more than any comrade that had shared a hole with me, who hurt practically every day of his life after his return from Africa, hung on for twenty-five more torturous and tumultuous and mind-driven years. They found him one night at the far end of the pond when nobody knew where he was for two days. A handful of damp earth was squeezed into one fist, and the metal crypt, perhaps, was long gone, just as perhaps were the days of Africa.
But Parkie doesn’t go away! It was mere weeks ago I saw it all again: The Municipal Subterranean, who comes up goggled, out of a manhole in the middle of a street in my peaceful town, sun the sole brazier, like an old Saharan veteran, Rommel-pointing his tank across the four-year stretch of sand, shell holes and craters filling up quick as death. Oh, Subterranean, you bring me to Frank Parkinson, Tanker, Tiger of Tobruk, now in his grass roots, the acetylene smile on his oil-dirty face, the tanker goggles still high on his high forehead, his forever knowing the two dark eyes of Egypt.