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They Died with their Boots On

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"You could screw a woman for a pack of Lucky Strikes.” I listened.

“It wasn’t the way you see it in the movies, maybe that D-Day one with what’s his name, but I wasn’t part of that.  And I’ll tell you the truth, I’m glad.  Those beaches were abattoirs.”  He paused and coughed up a wad of phlegm.

"I was D-Day plus seven, lucky seven or craps, it all depends where you are in a roll.”  He looked out the window to the parking lot and the field beyond it full of Canadian geese.

“Came home in a blizzard on a transport plane from England.  Had to land in Halifax, Canada, never been so scared in all my life.  Didn’t think we were going to make it.

The plane’s wings were tipping back and forth weighed down with ice as we landed.  Never liked flying after that, thought we were going to crash for sure.”  He paused and pushed a bowl from his tray toward me.  “You want my Jell-O?  The wife loved to make it, but I never had the stomach for it, reminded me of a pile of blood after it sat awhile, there’s a word for it but damn if I can remember it, anyway a pool of it would congeal and if you pressed the air-hardened skin of it, it felt like Jell-O.  I was in a foxhole with Billy Jackson from Ralston, Nebraska, he took a shell fragment and saved my life, his blood turned to Jell-O, I was with him for a day and a night in that hole pinned down by the Krauts.  War was nothing like the movies, all that John Wayne, Audie Murphy stuff was a joke.  War is blood and shit and you do and see things that stick with you forever.”

 

He paused and looked out the window to the field, spring was a week away but the grass was mottled brown and limp from a brutal winter.  The geese wandered, bending down to pick at something occasionally.  “Damn flying rats, can’t go outside for weeks, their green plugs of shit everywhere, we were better off without them, now they have more protection than you or me, a god-damned goose, but the government never had any sense to begin with.  I’m going to tell you something – It was the Russians who crushed the Nazis, without them it would have been a different war, don’t even want to think about it.”

He stabbed the Jell-O with his fork, like plunging a dagger into the heart of a man.  “This isn’t any way to live.  A bunch of busy bodies is all.  A lot of talk about nothing.”  He pointed to his door leading to the hallway leading to the sitting room where white-haired women smiled at me when I passed  He wouldn’t come out to the dining room to eat, preferring to sit covered in an old crocheted throw in a room that was already too warm.

“Betty, no more Jell-O, you hear me.”  He said it like his wife was a room away.  “You have to tell them or they’ll keep making it, a wife isn’t a mind reader.  You’re not married, are you?  The man is supposed to die first, that’s the way God intended it, a woman can live without a man, probably glad to be rid of him, but a man who survives a wife, that’s as tragic as anything Shakespeare wrote.  Billy was always quoting Shakespeare. 'What a piece of work is man.'  I remember him saying that.”  He held out his tremulous hands and stared at them silently for a bit.

“You don’t know the pain in these hands.  Billy was the lucky one, his hands never ached, he didn’t spend a lifetime calling his wife in the kitchen, raising children, or going to a lousy job every day, he had a head full of Shakespeare and a heart full of words, I couldn’t quote a word of it but I can hear Billy saying, ‘What a piece of work is man’ like he was standing in a museum looking at a painting."

I never made it past high school, had to read the play about the Jew and the pound of flesh, which one was that again, Billy would know, often thought of him through the years, he was the lucky one…”  He trailed off, looking past me.

“Do you believe in God?  I went to services at the same church for forty years, forty years, you’d think God would look kindly on a man who went to church for forty years, hell, the Jews wandered in the desert for forty years and God gave them a country, I would have at least liked the pain in my hands to have gone away, but it was too much to expect – that’s why I’m talking to you. I took communion all my life, body of Christ, blood of Christ, blood of Billy, bowl of Jell-O, Betty, come here and sit down, there’s no need for you to be stuck in that kitchen all day.”  He cupped his hand around his mouth when he called and craned his neck trying to see around a corner that wasn’t there, leaning forward waiting for her to walk in and take a seat next to him.

“War is hell, did Shakespeare say that?  You’ll never know what war is unless you’re there in the middle of it, and you smell it and taste it.  Do you know what happens if you have to piss and you’re trapped in a foxhole, or you’re hungry and trapped in a foxhole and there’s a glob of blood like Jell-O, God, and Shakespeare don’t make a damn bit of difference, would you rather die or piss in your pants, go hungry or cup your hand into that glob and eat another man’s blood by moonlight, a dog would do the same –what a piece of shit is man‒ look at my trembling hands, do you see any art?”

I looked.

“I never shot anyone, saved anyone, or did anything other than slog along.  The Russians did the real fighting, but we came home the heroes, most of the Jews were dead by the time we got there and half of Europe was lost to Stalin, none of us wanted to fuck with the Russians.  It was easier to fuck hungry women for a pack of cigarettes or a pair of nylons and come home and get a job, a house, a car, wood cabinets to hold God knows how many boxes of Jell-O and become hypnotized by Jackie Gleason, Ed Sullivan, Uncle Miltie, cheap gas, Disneyland and Las Vegas.”

He coughed into a phlegm caked handkerchief.

"Billy wanted to teach high school English after the war.  Me, well I guess you already know, a barber – barbers used to be the doctors, bleed people to heal them – can’t do a thing anymore with these hands, that’s why you’re here.  Did you bring it?”

He looked at me with yellow eyes.  I took a velvet bag out of my pocket, opened it and let the straight razor fall out on the table.  The handle was inlaid with ivory.

“Open it.”

I did as he asked.  The blade reflected my eyes, the edge honed sharp.

“Shaved a lot of faces in my day, never cut a customer, not once.”  He tried to get up, but fell back into his chair.  He was ready, he just needed a hand.  I pulled him up.

“Wait, my hat.”  He pointed his trembling hand to an old army hat.  I put it on his head.

“Only thing from the old uniform that still fits.”

We walked together into his bathroom and I helped him into the tub.  He pulled up his robe sleeves and exposed his wrists.  I made two quick slits, it’s best to do it without advance warning like a doctor giving an injection to a toddler.

“Don’t feel anything, shouldn’t I feel something?”

I shook my head and covered him with the old crocheted throw that must have been made by his wife.

“You’re not going to leave yet?”

I shook my head again, watching the steady progress of blood.

“They won’t understand, but to hell with them I say.”

He looked up at me, it wouldn’t be much longer.

“Crucifixes always show nails through Christ’s hands, but the Romans put the nails through the wrist bones for support.”

He started to hum something and lost consciousness.  I waited to make sure no one came in.   When I left, the white-haired women smiled, and I told the day room director that Mr. Harper didn’t want to be disturbed.  She told me to have a nice day.  I nodded.

People see what they want to see. I’m not at liberty to divulge anything else, or even if there is anything else, that’s not my job and quite frankly I’m glad, life and death are complicated enough.

 

 

 

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