Flanked By These Heroes

In Issue 57 by C.W. Bigelow

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Photo by Orhan Cam on Shutterstock

One hundred stitches winding like a leafy vine across his backside kept Dorrey on his stomach and abruptly delayed his induction into the army. The weapon that wielded the damage had been the sharp edge of a tin can top, just an innocent bystander minding its own business. The blame lay somewhere between Dorrey, a fifth of Jack and a group of our friends gathered at a going-away party.

I hadn’t seen him since we rushed him to the hospital that night and, standing nervously in front of his white clapboard house on Elm Street, wasn’t sure what to expect. I was an undetermined part of that blame web and since the event I tried to establish just how much blame I should take. Randy warned me that he’d be in a foul mood and instructed me to be patient and empathetic. Of course, Randy was gone and didn’t have to face the jury.

His mother met me at the door. “Ben.” Her chiseled expression gave me chills and I could have picked my name out of the air from where it hung shrouded in icicles. She refused to make eye contact and it was obvious she had already decided who should shoulder the blame. Turning on a dime, she retreated in a duck step to the kitchen, mumbling, “He’s in his room.” I shouldn’t have found her response surprising. Dorrey rarely blamed himself for anything. Randy reminded me of that too.

Dorrey had been home two days and I had created excuses not to visit him, the whole time struggling with guilt, but knew it would only escalate if I held off any longer. Guilt at any age is a burden, but at seventeen, the weight had gathered so quickly I was barely able to function. Already vulnerable, his mother’s silent declaration had me floundering in his living room, wondering if it would be better to allow him more time to heal. I almost retreated but knew Randy would never forgive me.

The walk through the long-cramped hallway to his bedroom was excruciating, serenaded by the sad song of squeaking floorboards. They blatantly announced my arrival and made escape less of an option. With a deep breath, I grabbed the door handle and turned it, slowly pushing it into his dark bedroom, watching the light from the hallway slowly split the darkness like a laser.

“Are you awake? I’ll come back if you’re not up for a visit.”

“I don’t sleep worth a shit. I never could on my stomach.” Groggy, each word stumbled from his mouth in a drunk-like garble. “What took you so long?” The question was wrapped with a current of anger, but the underlying emotion was disappointment. My fear of being the target was confirmed in his tone, but I held my ground.

“It’s only been two days. I wasn’t sure how you felt. I didn’t want to bother you,” I explained, some of the explanation true, but hoping my own tone didn’t give away my blanket of guilt.

“Is that all it’s been? Two days. Seems like a lifetime. I’ve been slipping in and out of sleep and with these blinds closed, I’m never quite sure what time it is.”

I nodded. It seemed like that to me too. While he lay immobilized and in pain, I fought my own battle against immobilization and mental anguish.

The head of the bed was against a narrow window, but the shade was drawn. The dull light from the hallway illuminated baseball bats and mitts piled in one corner and dirty clothes strewn across the floor like carpeting. The converted attic was roomy, but all the clutter made it cramped. Hopping carefully across the mess to a chair by the bed, I was smacked by the stiff scent of rubbing alcohol, which brought back vivid, unpleasant memories of the hospital and its sterile, white hallways.

“Pretty dark in here,” I commented as I took a seat.

“Makes me antsy to look outside,” he mumbled, staring straight ahead. “It’s like being in jail. Watching everybody do what I can’t. I’ve never been cooped up like this.”

He tugged the shade, and it flew to the ceiling, rattling like rapid gunshots, allowing the blinding sun rush painfully into the room. Naked except for a white, blood-stained bandage over his rump, he had blood encrusted linear gashes forming crisscross patterns across his back and up and down his legs. His hair was greasy and matted where cowlicks weren’t reaching out wildly like antennae.

“I’d shake your hand, but I cramp up every time I twist.” His demeanor remained distant, but I was relieved because he was conversing. Dark circles thickly surrounded his gaunt eyes. His emaciated state was made more obvious by his nakedness, ribs forming a steep staircase all the way up his back. His exaggerated metabolism needed a constant intake of food and being off his feed for the last couple of days had a profound effect. “My neck and back are killing me. Each time I move I rip a stitch. And itch? My god I itch like hell. I need a shower, but they won’t let me do that either.”

“No shit.” It just slipped out. His pungent odor was winning a battle with the rubbing alcohol.

At first, there was silence, but suddenly like a stream of water, his high-pitched giggles echoed across the room. “Damn, don’t make me laugh. It hurts!”

“How long you going to be laid up?”

“Depends. I’m still taking penicillin. They lowered my painkillers to two a day because they don’t want me to get hooked. I keep telling them it’s not enough.” He let his face fall into the pillow where it remained a moment, long enough for me to start to reach for him, feeling the need to comfort him, before he popped up. Glaring with ghostly eyes, his voice choking back tears, he asked, “What happened?”

Initially, I was taken aback, because it hadn’t occurred to me that no one had informed him, though I certainly wasn’t surprised he didn’t remember. So, along with the pain and the immobilization he had to struggle the last two days wondering what had happened, imagining lurid scenarios that escalated his angst.

“I can’t even remember leaving the house that night. Think the last thing I remember is taking a piss downstairs, and then suddenly I woke up in the hospital. I was looking down onto a white linoleum floor and couldn’t distinguish a pattern. A sea of total white like I was dead.

“After, I got my bearings and realized I was strapped to a bed on my stomach, numb from the waist down. In a flash I went from thinking I was dead to thinking I’d lost my legs. Like I’d been in a car wreck. Scared shitless! I panicked and started screaming. Within seconds nurses surrounded me and without saying a fucking word, like to ease my fears, show a little sympathy, ya know, they stuck me with a needle. I was out for another twelve hours.”

His mother appeared at the door. “Ben, you’ll have to leave. It’s time for his pain medication and he’ll need to sleep.” She was still distant, but not quite as icy, or maybe it was my imagination. I hoped she overheard his giggles and felt there might be hope for his mental recovery. Maybe she realized he wasn’t totaling blaming me for the incident. My imagination or not, I walked out feeling a little better than when I walked in.

I waited outside the Tool Works for Randy and Dorrey in my car, “The Green Bomb,” so we could go swimming in the pond. I was too young to work at the Tool Works and earned money by cleaning garages and cutting lawns. Both a year older, Randy and Dorrey had just graduated from high school and had started their careers at the only company in town. Over a hundred degrees and humid as a wet towel, I’d looked forward all day to diving into the pond and washing myself clean of the sweat and grime. As the whistle blew, the last shift of the day filed out in slow motion with the energy of a funeral procession, each employee at the point of exhaustion due to the oppressive heat.

Randy and Dorrey walked slowly, heads down, noses buried curiously in some written notice, and I wondered what new policy the company had devised. My father was the foreman, so I was accustomed to changes to policy in the workplace. But after a quick survey of the crowd, I realized they were the only workers holding the papers.

Upon jumping into the car next to me, Dorrey announced, “Looks like we’re heading for Vietnam.” It was a statement, no emotion immediately evident, but I gulped and tilted my head waiting for more.

Randy was silent as he slowly climbed into the backseat. He gazed at the document as though it was written in a foreign language. After a few moments, he finally looked up and sighed, “I never thought they’d come this far for soldiers.” His face was washed out in a pale white, and he kept gasping for breath.

“We get our physicals in a week. Then its boot camp,” Dorrey explained. He grasped his hands behind his head and whistled. A smile spread across his thin face, and he began laughing. “Gonna whip some asses.”

Each night newsreels on television showed soldiers wading through waist-high rice paddies, balancing on the edge of survival, nervous fingers clutching their M-14’s. Black with sweaty dirt, their sinewy arms were flexed and ready, as muscle-rippled chests stretched their armless army shirts. Once my friends received their draft notices, those soldier’s vacant expressions became Randy’s and Dorrey’s, haunting me each night as I struggled to fall asleep. Until then, I’d looked at these images as older men, trained professional soldiers who were doing their job protecting our country. After the draft notices, I looked more closely at these filmstrips and realized they were just boys like we were.

Being the first soldiers of their generation in town, Dorrey and Randy’s hero status increased. They were already the biggest baseball stars in the league. Dorrey had pitched us to ten victories in a row, backed by Randy’s magical defense at shortstop and his league leading homerun count. My position was third base and I was immediately stricken with a sense of loneliness and a heavy aura of responsibility. Riding on their coattails had been a joy and I, like our other team members, basked in the glory they brought us. The ride to glory had been surreal and as we drove toward the pond, I felt it melting away in the heat.

Before their last game, the mayor presented them plaques with cross rifles engraved on metal. “From one uniform to another, you bring nothing but pride to our town. Our prayers will follow you every step of the way.”

The cheers from the stands were thunderous, and I tingled with pride for my two best friends. We went on to win 9 – 0. Dorrey pitched a two-hitter and Randy and I each had 3 RBIs. Walking slowly off the field, flanked by these heroes, I never felt so alone, knowing the next game they’d be gone. It was suffocating. Suddenly powerless for the first time in my life, I felt uncomfortable in my own skin, wishing I were someone else who didn’t have to deal with such sorrow.

Cotter’s Dump sat atop the highest hill south of Bensonville at the top of a long, steep, dirt road. Garbage trucks traveled it every Tuesday afternoon to deposit the town’s trash that became feed for the thousands of rats in the dump. The following day, a plow truck pushed the garbage off the landing into the pit, cans clanging, brakes squealing as the mounds of refuse tumbled slowly over the edge down the steep ravine and came to a stop atop years of rusted cans already accumulated at the bottom. Tuesday nights were prime for a rat shoot, and it was common to find a group of high school boys gathered atop their parked cars at the edge of the garbage line, rifles ready to fire at the unsuspecting rodents who were picking through the current week’s deposit.

A cloud of dust rose from the road behind my ’53 green Plymouth, as we chugged up to the dump. Randy was in the passenger’s seat with his feet resting on the dashboard, his blue eyes piercing the dusk in front of him with such seriousness that I slapped him and cried, “Lighten up! It’s your celebration,” but then I winced as soon as I used the term. It was hardly a celebration. With Randy, I was never quite sure he received my wit in the nature that I intended it to be. His stoic surface masked boiling emotions, which were revealed only to those closest to him. And even then, rarely. Fraught with his father’s Swedish genes, he wore his cool demeanor like a mask that I never questioned, respecting him to the point of reverence.

We parked at the edge of the new garbage, its pungent, putrid stench toxic before the breeze chased it downwind. Unable to count on the direction of the breeze on the hill, we always breathed through our mouths, saving the nostril hairs and avoiding nausea. The doors of the “Green Bomb” screeched as metal scraped metal, the ball bearings long gone, echoing woefully across the open mouth of the ravine as we climbed out and stretched our legs. Normally giddy prior to a shoot, Randy paced, his mind thousands of miles away, haunted by demons he had yet to meet and the pain of leaving his family behind. Sven, his father, was one of the last working farmers around town, and he relied heavily on Randy’s brawn to successfully plant and harvest his crop of vegetables.

I worried about Randy’s safety and had yet to deal with my own selfish feelings about being left behind.

Randy stopped pacing and hopped onto the hood, leaning against the windshield while spreading his thick legs straight out toward the grill. He took a swig of Jack and passed it to me while I continued pacing back and forth in the dust. Our automatic .22 calibers were nestled in their sheaths on the tattered backseat, loaded and ready for the kill. His expression was still indifferent, normally sparkling bright eyes clouded as a hard frown curled his thin lips. Randy was rightfully nervous, which was a posture I wasn’t used to seeing.

I spotted clouds of dust coming up the hill. “They’re coming.” I was ill-equipped to manage the situation alone and welcomed their arrival.

Carloads pulled on either side of the “Green Bomb” and the chatter and banter from the other guys began to pull Randy from his funk as he escaped his introspection and focused on them. The weight he’d been supporting lifted for the moment.

“Where the hell is Dorrey?” I asked, taking another swig from the bottle before passing it back to Randy.

Dorrey had promised to show up in his father’s new Ford pickup as soon as he could escape his family’s party. The fact that his family was celebrating along with us made little sense to me, but I figured it was better to drink and be merry than succumb to the depression that had me in its grip. If nothing else, he would get things moving in the right direction. When we decided a night at Cotter’s Dump would be their going away gathering, he guaranteed he would make it a night to remember. If Dorrey could be counted on for anything, it was his ability to create entertainment. His dark eyes, closely set above his long, straight nose, were a fuse to his antics and always lit up as he developed the script for his next performance.

The deep pit became shrouded in the evening’s long shadows, and the buzz from the group fell into a low murmur when the event we were celebrating grew into more of a reverence than a drunken party, the unknown becoming apparent to the others for the first time.

No one would have traded places with Randy and Dorrey, though getting anyone to admit it would have been unlikely. Such acknowledgement would have bordered on cowardice. Crickets eerily serenaded us from the field grass atop the far side of the ravine where a lone maple tree stood like a cross against the fading light.

The bottle of Jack was empty when the roar of a truck echoed from the road below. In the deep gloaming, spewing barely decipherable clouds of dust, the powerful vehicle churned easily up the hill and spun into a full circle as Dorrey slammed on the brakes, stopping just inches from the “Green Bomb.”

His high-pitched squeal pierced the peaceful countryside. “Mother fuck!” he screamed, as he leapt from the cab and landed with lanky legs spread wide apart. Arms raised high, he cut an electric silhouette in the dusky sky above the last glimmer of sunset. A ten-gallon cowboy hat resting leisurely on the crown of his head, he wobbled hesitantly in his sparkling cowboy boots as he fought to hold his balance under the influence of whatever liquor he’d consumed at his parents’ house. In one hand he held a pearl handle revolver and in the other, circling around his head like a lasso, catching the last flicker of daylight, was a two-foot machete. “Damn army is gonna shit when I show up!” His beady eyes were swollen and glazed. His motions were jerky, and it took two attempts before he finally mounted the hood of the truck and broke into a chaotic Irish jig, the heels of his boots echoing like gunshots as they dented the red metal. Dangling like a loose rubber band, he boasted, “Ain’t a drop of Jack left at my house.”

After a couple of inebriated attempts, he figured out how to put his machete on the hood then slumped to his knees. Like a blind man, he cautiously groped along the hood until he reached the windshield and flipped onto his back like a beached alewife. Stretched awkwardly across the hood, head propped disjointedly against the glass, he garbled, “They’re gonna be damn pleased they drafted two fighting men from Bensonville.” He waved to the group. “Fact, once they find out how tough we are they’ll come back for the rest of you.” In a few short moments, his breath grew wet and heavy, before his snores rivaled the songs of the crickets.

Darkness swallowed the dump, and we assigned guys to manage the car headlights. As the rattling of the rat’s claws against the cans drew within a few feet, the headlights were pulled on, freezing the rodents in the beams. Some rose on their haunches, beady eyes glazed, as if begging for mercy. For a half a minute, the time it took the survivors to retreat into the pit, our guns exploded. The dead rats were draped over the garbage like gleaming pieces of fur. Then the lights went out and the stillness of the night dropped like a tarp, the ringing of gun blasts echoing in our ears. The sulphury stench of gunpowder permeated the air while we reloaded for their next visit. And visit they did, time and time again, fearlessly stupid, driven by the added incentive of feeding on their own dead. The cycle could be repeated up to twenty times a night.

Smothered in pitch darkness, we listened to the eerie squeaking and scratchy clawing of the rats advancing again. I shivered at the thought of them getting past the gunfire and taking revenge, some faint connection to the newsreels from the rice paddies of Vietnam.

The headlights were pulled on cue, but only one shot rang out. We stood in muted shock. Fingers itching at the triggers, we froze in the face of the image before us. Awakened from his drunken slumber by the first round of shots, Dorrey stood before us, backside to the group, midway in the sea of garbage. Hatless, hair spiked in all directions, he stood, legs spread, machete and pistol raised for the kill.

“Come and get it!”

“What the hell is he doing?” Randy gasped, taking a step toward him.

Grabbing him by the arm I cautioned, “Better stay back. No telling who he’ll shoot in his condition.”

Stunned and helpless, we watched Dorrey wade through the garbage toward the edge of the pit, his thin, long legs kicking clumsily, yet determinedly at the piles of refuse. A rat, stretching a foot and a half, vaulted through the air at his face, its teeth bared like blades. The pistol fired, catching it in midair, sending it somersaulting until it landed with a thud where his brethren hungrily engulfed it. Another jumped, only to be halved by his machete, the separate parts falling to the ground and pounced upon by frenzied, anxious swarms of ravenous rats.

The piles of garbage transformed into a shimmering, writhing coat of fur, but we held our fire for fear of hitting Dorrey. He ignored our pleas to retreat. The rats continued leaping, clinging onto his clothes as he waded closer and closer to the edge of the pit.

Oblivious, pistol finally empty, he began swinging his machete like a baseball bat, each swing grew mightier as he swung for the fences. A haunting fog rose in swirls from the pit and crept slowly across the mounds of garbage, engulfing his legs.

Just as a voice from the crowd cried, “We can’t let him go down there,” Dorrey’s high-pitched screech pierced the night like a knife. After the recoil of his last machete swing, he slipped, feet flying straight out from under him, and he vanished under the cover of fog. Directed by his screams, we reached him in a moment, kicking through the mounds of squirming vermin. Blanketed by gnawing rodents by the time we reached him, he shrieked like a banshee, arms and legs flaying wildly.

I kicked one off his arm, the soft underbelly wrapping around my boot like a loose water balloon before it disappeared into the fog, then chased another out of his pant leg while Randy punched at them in a futile attempt to scare them off. He grabbed his arms as I clutched his boots, and we high-stepped and kicked our way through the throng, furry bodies crunching under our weight, to the safety of the car lights, while others swiped at the ones still clinging to him. His pant legs were soaked with a warm liquid, and I thought sure he’d pissed himself until the light revealed blood. At the sight of it, I wretched my entire Jack consumption. Once Dorrey was in the truck bed, Randy jumped into the “Green Bomb” and pulled it around to shine the lights on him.

He was convulsing so violently it was a struggle to hold him down. Dorrey kept screaming, “Did we get them?” Blood ran rampant from his backside, and a red stream flowed over the truck bed onto the ground. Afraid that his death was imminent, I struggled to keep him in the truck. He flopped from one side to another, blood gushing, as I concentrated on applying pressure to the wound. While reaching into his back pocket to find his keys, I discovered his buttocks had been sliced so deeply it felt like a hanging ham. I flipped the keys to Randy and jumped onto the bed. “Get it moving. He doesn’t have long!”

I forced Dorrey down and lay across him with all my weight. Applying pressure to his wound with one hand and grasping a two-by-four footing with the other for stability, we bounced and scraped against the bed as Randy guided the truck down the hill.

Chaos erupted as soon as we removed Dorrey from the dump, and it sounded like canon fire, as the rest of the group unloaded their ammunition with intense hatred and fury into what seemed the entire rat population, hellbent on avenging our fallen comrade. Gunshots still echoed in the distance as he hit the paved road and slammed the accelerator to the floor all the way to the hospital.

“He’s not going to believe it. He’ll despise the fact he must stay behind. You’re gonna have to keep his spirits up til he’s well enough to go. Keep him from doing something stupid.” The raspy grate in Randy’s voice signaled the sleepless night we’d spent at the hospital.

Dorrey was out of immediate danger. He’d passed the critical point about 5 A.M. after the five of us donated blood.

Sunlight peeked over the horizon, crimson cascading lightly across the fields as we pulled into Randy’s driveway. Chattering birds cracked the morning’s silence. An ominous sultriness already filled the dawn air, warning of the approaching scorcher.

One by one, his family appeared on the front porch. Sven had come from the fields and wore his jean overalls and flannel shirt, the sweat of his labor evident by the large dark circles under his arms. No matter what the weather, it was his uniform. He leaned on the railing, his mitt-like hands grasping it as though it was just a twig. A massive man, shoulders wide as the door and arms the thickness of a normal thigh, he appeared gaunt and shrunken as he hung his head and peered sullenly at his son from wide set, blue eyes.

His wife Greta, hair in curlers, dressed in a tattered, pink bathrobe followed with Randy’s battered suitcase in hand. It was the only suitcase the family owned, brought by Sven on his initial immigration from Sweden. She gulped and let out a muted cry as she shook her head reaching for Sven, finally breaking into tears.

Then Patty, his sister, who was in eighth grade and looked just like him, joined them. Due to Sven’s strict parenting, she would miss Randy the most; she was losing her best friend and guide to life outside the farm. Without him she faced an even more severe confinement in addition to having to take over his chores. Her vacant stare expressed the fear and loss with which she struggled.

“This is going to be a bitch,” Randy gulped as he grabbed the door handle.

Sven approached the car with long, thoughtful strides, as Greta wrapped Patty in her arms and remained on the porch. Their futility was heart-wrenching. Sven’s expression rarely changed, but there was anger in his ice-blue eyes. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be assaulted for keeping Randy out all night, or he was just angry at the situation. Though he rarely spoke, I could usually expect a nod, but he ignored me as he took his son into his arms and hugged him. When Randy surfaced for air, he leaned back into the window. “Give me fifteen minutes. I’ll meet you out on the road.”

Sven wrapped his arm around his son’s shoulders, and they trudged with long, deliberate strides, as though they could delay his departure by slowing their steps. It took an enormous effort to scale the porch steps, where they fell into a family hug. Their groans were like those of tormented animals. I suppose Sven was regretting the day he came to this country.

Randy climbed into the car, winded, eyes red and swollen, throat clogged with emotion. He was soaked with sweat, the stench of Jack flowing from his pores on the scalding morning.

As if self-powered, the “Green Bomb” lurched past the fertile fields, black and glimmering with dew in the early sun, as rich as devil’s food cake, on the way to town.

I recalled Randy, in the past, explaining, “I love the earth under my fingernails. I can smell and taste its richness. It’s not like that damn cutting oil at the Tool Works. The earth is the greatest tool of all.” Randy hated the fact he couldn’t farm for a living, but Sven could hardly support his family and strongly suggested a career at the Tool Works. His frustration often was expressed when least expected, usually using nature metaphors, and I listened quietly and digested what he said, because his words had a habit of echoing later, usually during times of stress when I most needed them.

In the silence, my temples throbbed from the booze and lack of sleep. Steam rose from the street and a pink haze engulfed the town, making it more contained, more suffocating. Panic set in at the thought of being left alone. My identity was wrapped up in our friendship. Every decision I made was based on what they would think and everything I did, I did with them. I wanted to say something meaningful, something Randy could carry with him and use to refuel when he was down, repay the wisdom he’d given me over the years.

The bloated silence was stifling and drove me crazy until Randy finally let out a couple of quick gasps and threw his head back, struggling to keep the tears from flowing. Pounding the seat with his fists, he shouted, “That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” Leaning back on the headrest he gazed out his window. “Mom was shaking. I kept trying to convince her it would be all right, but she couldn’t stop. Even Sven’s chin was bouncing.” He turned to me and gulped, tears running down his cheeks. “I’ve never seen him cry.”

Passing the Tool Works, he finally gathered himself, straightened up and wiped his tears. Gray smoke drifted lazily from the large smokestacks, and vibrations from the constant hammering of the forges shook the street.

With a deep breath he calmly stated, “Dorrey’s gonna be stuck on his stomach and that’s like caging a wild animal. He keeps everything in. His defense mechanism is his energy. While he’s hopping, joking, and carousing he can cover up his true feelings. I shudder to think what anger and spitefulness will surface when he doesn’t have an outlet.”

The buildings in town appeared tiny, as though they were part of a movie set. Soon, instead of hanging out at our regular haunts Randy would be one of those soldiers in the newsreels. Everything was spinning out of control, and I was helpless to do anything about it. We parked at the Mobil Station at the corner of Main and Highway 17 in the shadows of the high school. After he’d climbed from the car, Randy stretched and gazed down the street and said, “I never thought I’d leave.”

“It’ll be here when you get back.”

“It won’t be the same.” He looked up at the brick high school. “Hell, it seems different already.”

The roar of the bus shattered the early morning stillness just before emerging from the haze that masked the farms north on Highway 17. Its brakes screeched as it pulled up to the curb. I wanted to thank him for being like an older brother, for teaching me how to be a better ball player, teaching me how to become more successful with girls. I wanted to thank him for always being there when I needed him, but the driver stepped in and took his suitcase, tossing it into the belly of the bus. Randy took my hand and shook it firmly. Tears glazed his eyes, but he said nothing as he climbed aboard. My chest cramped as I watched the bus disappear in the haze on the south side of town.

“I sure as hell wouldn’t have let one of you guys walk into a fucking rat’s nest,” Dorrey complained the next time I visited. “I could’ve died.” He’d gained weight and the healthier he got the surlier he became. Stir crazy and depressed at his situation, he lashed out at anyone available to remove the responsibility from his shoulders.

“You appeared out of nowhere when the lights went on! You were so tanked we thought you’d blow one of us away. You should’ve seen yourself. You didn’t know where the hell you were.”

“Bullshit! You could have gotten me. I can see all you guys laughing at me, getting a big chuckle. ‘Watch the poor drunk sonofabitch stumble off to his death.’ Maybe I’ll find better friends in the army,” he threatened. “Just get the hell outta here!” he cried before burying his face in the pillow.

I left feeling guilty as Eve with apple on her breath. It wasn’t our fault he showed up drunk as he was; yet I could never quit second-guessing the decision not to rush in and save him right away. I spent the next ten days playing baseball, doing my odd jobs, and trying to come to terms with the incident. I had almost convinced myself his tirade had released me from my responsibility to visit him. I wondered if he would treat Randy the same way had he been there. But the longer I stayed away the worse I felt and decided being verbally abused to my face was better than dealing with it from afar. In short, I had decided to grovel and apologize for not rescuing him immediately. It still took me five trips around his block to gather enough nerve to go to the door.

His mother appeared shocked when she opened it.

Perplexed by her reaction, figuring he was asleep, I asked, “Is he awake?”

She stuck her hand on her hip and struck a sarcastic pose. “I certainly hope so,” she chuckled meanly while checking her watch. “I suspect he’s been doing exercises for a couple of hours by now.”

I shut my eyes tightly and sighed. “He left?”

“Two days ago,” she grunted as she slammed the door.

The flag draping over the coffin had no sparkle. The colors seemed muted, as though they’d been bleached. Over half the town crowded into the church for the service and followed to the cemetery. Numb expressions, disbelief, and shock; the grief was universal.

The sky was bright and magnificent in its clarity. Dew still clung to the grass, reminding me of the mornings we’d complained about how miserable it made the grip on the baseball. Late May and another season had begun. I kept having visions of him gliding into the hole, snagging a hot grounder, pirouetting in the air before firing a canon throw to nip the runner at first. The coffin was light when we carried it from the church and gently placed it into the hearse. Land mines have a habit of leaving few remains if they are stepped on at just the right angle.

Dorrey missed the funeral. Even now it’s doubtful he realizes Randy is dead if he remembers him at all. Hunched in a wheelchair, the only outside stimuli he responds to is food being fed him. His only movement is an occasional involuntary reflex that makes him lift an arm or straighten a leg. Head hanging limply to the left, his empty gaze is aimed at the floor. The doctors claim it’s psychological. Suffering from nightmares in the beginning, he startled the other patients in the middle of the night with animal-like howls, but they eventually stopped, and he hasn’t made a sound since.

He’d been missing in action for a month when a reconnaissance mission found him perched on the limb of a tree. Naked, filthy, full of blistering bug bites and long gashes from the jungle growth, he squatted on the branch, feet wrapped around it like a monkey’s, while gnawing a human’s severed arm. At the sight of his comrades, he dropped to the ground and ran back into the jungle. It took four men to wrestle him to the ground and restrain him with a rope. His anguished howls during the rescue were primitive as he flailed and thrashed. His awareness was already buried in some inner compartment of his brain.

I visit him periodically. Never miss his birthday. And each July 14th, on Randy’s birthday, I drive my van to the VA hospital. The attendants expect me now and have Dorrey prepared for the hour drive back to Bensonville. After all these years, there has been no change in his condition and, more amazing, no change in his appearance. Rail thin, he has a full head of black hair and skin as wrinkle-free as the day he left for boot camp.

Bruce, a massive attendant, dressed in a crisp white uniform, nods silently as he wheels Dorrey to the van. With as much effort as lifting a twig, he gently places him in the front seat and belts him in tightly, then places a blanket over his lap and legs. With a quick two-step process, the wheelchair is folded and then stored in the back next to four separate bunches of wildflowers and the picnic basket that holds the lunch my wife Patty has prepared for us. “Here’s an extra catheter bottle in case he fills the first one.” I’m familiar with the routine by now.

“It’s Randy’s birthday,” I announce as we pull past the security shack.

I don’t expect a reply, but it makes me feel better to talk. He stares down at the floor, his head limply leaning to the left.

“Patty packed us a lunch. It’s your favorite – chicken salad sandwiches,” I continue as I pull onto the Interstate. “Remember eating your mom’s sandwiches in your kitchen when we were kids after practice? I’m not sure Patty’s are as good as your mom’s, but I always tell her they are. You don’t mind, do you? Wouldn’t want to hurt her feelings, would we?”

As we drive through Niles, I remind him of the one-hitter he threw against them. It was the fourth game of the ten-game winning streak that last summer. “They still talk about that game. I was in Schultz’s Tavern last week and Barry Gunderson brought it up. Still, after all these years, they remember your fastball. No one since throws with as much heat. Course things have changed quite a bit since we played. There’s still a team, but they don’t come out to see them like they did for us.”

The sun is bright, but it’s unseasonably cool, so I wrap him tightly in the blanket after I get him into the wheelchair. It’s like lifting a child. Our first stop is the baseball field where I wheel him over the grass to the pitcher’s mound. I point him in the direction of home plate, spread a blanket for me on the dirt and sit down next to his chair.

The stands are in dire need of a fresh coat of paint and the backstop could use some remeshing. “Looks like the same rubber you pitched from,” I chuckle sadly.

He opens like a baby bird when I hold the sandwich to his mouth and chews the food slowly. After he swallows, he makes no motion for more, but he opens again when I hold it to his lips.

The first few years I hoped that these visits would spark something inside him. I gave up hope long ago, but they do help me.

We stop for a moment to pay our respects to his parents. As Dorrey sits, I do a little ground keeping, clearing some stray twigs before placing wildflowers on their graves. “Dorrey’s here to visit. He’s looking fit. Hasn’t aged a bit.” Turning to him, I ask, “Would you like to say hi to your mom and dad?” There is no response. “He sends his love to both of you.” I never really talked to his mom again after that afternoon she slammed the door in my face. I did go to her house after he was shipped back, but she wasn’t home, or didn’t want to see me.

Our next stop is Sven and Greta’s graves. There is no cleaning necessary because Patty keeps them neat. I place a bunch of flowers on each of their graves. “It’s Randy’s birthday today. Dorrey and I have come to wish him a happy one.”

I grab the handles of Dorrey’s chair, lifting his feet in the air as I turn it, and ask, “You remember Randy, don’t you, Dorrey? Your best friend.” At times I realize I’m talking to him as though he were a little child and quickly correct myself. He would be embarrassed.

After Sven and Greta died, I bought Randy a more fitting monument than the original military flat marker under which he was originally buried. I offered to purchase one when Sven was still alive, but he was too proud. If he couldn’t afford to change it, it wasn’t going to happen, even though he agreed Randy deserved a better one. It’s not huge or distasteful, but it is the tallest in the cemetery. Inlaid under glass, near the top, is the pencil etching on paper I took off his name from the Vietnam War Memorial. I made it when I visited Washington with the children and Patty a few years back on the Fourth of July. I’ve often wondered how he would feel about his sister marrying me. She used to joke with me, saying I only married her to get closer to him, but that’s nonsense. At least I think it is. She does look quite a bit like him.

“Happy birthday, Randy,” I greet cheerfully as we roll up. “Dorrey’s with me.” Reaching into the picnic basket, I pull out a baseball marked “R & D 2002.” I kneel next to the monument and unlock a metal display box and put the ball in its space. It’s the 35th ball I’ve placed. There are curved spaces for fifteen more. I don’t know what I’ll do after that.

After cleaning the thick glass window of the box, I lock it back up and step away to admire it. It sits between Randy’s marker and an empty plot. Dorrey’s monument is already paid for and is in storage at Baker’s Monuments in town. The doctors at the hospital know what to do if I’m not around.

Clouds are gathering to the west, and a cool, damp breeze has kicked up. I turn Dorrey’s chair toward Randy and say, “Wish Randy a happy birthday.” His empty gaze falls on the grave. After a few minutes of silence, I tuck his blanket in tighter around his pencil-thin legs and sigh, “It’s time we get going.”

I drive slowly along Main Street, past the Tool Works. It’s just a shell of the company it once was, the victim of four different owners since those days. My father always razzed me about working for Sven instead of joining him at the shop, but it was in good fun. Hell, his son was still around.

As I pull into the driveway, I honk and Patty appears on the porch, waving and calling for the girls, who are now grown with families of their own, to join us. I smile as I see them racing in from the fields, where the corn is doing nicely – easily waist high – the best crop we’ve had in years. Dorrey’s expression doesn’t change. It’s the same blank stare with empty black eyes. As I put him into his wheelchair, my girls gather around, happy to see him. I gaze out over the fields and hope that somewhere Randy is looking down and smiling.

About the Author

C.W. Bigelow

After receiving his B.A. in English from Colorado State University, C.W. Bigelow lived in nine northern states, before moving south to the Charlotte NC area. His fiction and poetry have appeared most recently in Midway Journal, The Blue Mountain Review, Glassworks, Blood & Bourbon, The Courtship of Winds, Poetry Super Highway, Good Works Review, Backchannels, The Saturday Evening Post, New Plains Review, DASH, and Blue Lake Review, Short Story Town, INK Babies, Flash Fiction Magazine and Hare’s Paw with a story forthcoming in Drunk Monkeys.