A MARTIN J. RYAN SHORT STORY
There are two of them. One of them is Joe. It has been snowing all day and the forecast is for two to three days of it, which fits neatly into Joe’s plans. The other man has been here two weeks, though he and Joe have hardly spoken. In fact Joe can’t recall his name. An IV was inserted into the man’s arm this afternoon, and as his vein takes in the drips he mutters words comprehensible to him alone; engaged in half-drowned memories, Joe supposes, which struggle to surface in the murky seas of his dreams..
Joe looks through his ground floor window where the winter grass lies dormant beneath the deepening snow. A young doe steps through a swirling veil on bone-lean legs that are lifted and placed as precisely and delicately as a prima ballerina’s. He remembers a teenage Helen Donahue moving in similar fashion across another field until she reached its middle, whereupon she fell backward in complete abandon with her arms flung outward to pattern the wings of an angel. Today, farther back and harder to see, a mature buck with a proud rack of antlers, moves along the tree line. It is a shrewd beast, as wise to the ways of the world as Joe is, and takes no chances with the dangerous two-legged ones who kill. Joe understands.
He recalls another snowy woodland scene where he advances through a dense Belgian forest, and wet-blackened trees are softened by the sweep of flurries into sepias and greys. Upper branches gently hum like a ghost chorale testing chords when strummed by passing winds, and the indistinct thumps and rumblings of a distant barrage create the illusion of a disturbed subterranean god growling disapproval. Joe, a private first class, steps with care into the foot-deep prints made by the corporal who has taken the lead, Joe straying only when he stumbles since he fears the mines the Germans have been laying. The two had come upon one another after being separated from their respective platoons, when they were ordered to withdraw under cover of darkness. They head toward this new far-off battle hoping to find an American regiment. Underneath Joe’s steel helmet and wrapped around his head, chin and neck, is a knitted wool scarf he has taken from a recently killed German. He had carefully examined it for traces of blood, and finding none he claimed it for his own.
Joe assumes the corporal, who has a southern accent, has lost as many friends as he has, since neither has confided his name, never mind his history. But during one of their whispered conversations the frightened corporal did confess to believing that if he were killed he’d eventually be reborn, to either relive his life or become another person altogether. These notions comforted Joe not at all; though when he gave the alternatives his hurried consideration he decided he’d choose to be Joe with Helen all over again.
After a time the distant thunder falls into a lull, and the winds subside, and they know there is danger in this silence, that they can be heard. If they could stop breathing they would. Even the fall of snow deserts them, allowing them to be seen more easily.
The sudden, thin-edged cry of a nearby crow knifes the air and terrifies them. Which side does it warn? Some of the surrounding trees are freshly shredded, and a frozen hand reaches up through an odd-shaped mound in the snow — to touch the finger of God, Joe thinks. When a clearing appears ahead of the corporal, Joe can see it is dangerously wide. Farmland. They hunker down behind a large tree for about half an hour, gazing across the uncharted space to where the forest begins again, looking for movement, for a reflection of metal, for smoke. Nothing. An unnatural peace, Joe thinks. He wants to go around it, but the corporal says, no, going around it means too many more hours on their own. He wants his army, if not his platoon, figuring safety in numbers. They argue in whispers, close up, their breaths angry bursts of vapor. Joe agonizes. He doesn’t trust this nineteen-year-old corporal’s judgment any more than he trusts his own. Decisions are awful. And his foot-soldier superstition is, every right move has an opposing wrong, and when two guys are choosing—Jesus–one lives, one dies, no escaping it. That’s the friggin’ rule and he can’t stand it, so he thinks about sitting astride Daddy’s shoulders to put the hat on the snowman’s head. Finally, “There’s no one out there, I’m tellin’ you,” the corporal says. “I’m goin’ across the fucker.”
Joe says, “I’m not,” while wondering if he looks as crazed with fear as the corporal does. He bites down hard on his lower lip so as not to sob in terror that he is the one making the mistake.
“Mister Cochran, would you—“ a female voice begins, but he wards off this intrusion while the corporal and he shake hands, wish each other good luck, and the corporal moves out across the field carrying his M-1 at port arms. The heavy sky muffles Joe’s world, and while his chest labors with fear he believes that all living things have ceased to breathe. It begins to snow again. At about fifty yards, the corporal slows and comes to a halt. He turns and waves, wants Joe to come ahead, but Joe doesn’t move. And then the corporal looks ahead of him again and just stands there like a friggin’ statue, like maybe he thinks he’s seen or heard something. His head tilts back as if he gazes straight up, like he’s waiting for heaven to open and lift him skyward, for Christ’s sake, away from his decision; looks skyward until he is cut down by a spray of machine gun fire, with the excess slugs traveling beyond their target and ripping into the trees around Joe. It stops. He peeks. No sound, no movement except for the falling snow, instant death for the no-name southern corporal.
Joe tries to claw his way to soil at the base of his tree when he hears the incoming mortar. It flashes and dirties the pristine snow to the color of shit as it erupts with a vengeance and peppers his tree with shrapnel, and drills his ears to a high-pitched ring. Two more come in close together, spewing fire and earth, and he thinks Helen, Helen! as his helmet is scarred by a razor-like shard, jarring his skull. This, too, stops. Only the smoke remains, cordite burning his nostrils. He tries to resist the notion that God is a sadist and whispers, Thankyou God, thankyou, while he retches bile. You didn’t fucking kill me today.
He is alive and his heart threatens to explode like the friggin’ rounds. To calm himself he recalls his Mama pulling him along on his American Flyer, remembers the sound of runners skimming ice. His ears are still ringing as he watches the corporal being covered over, and he is grateful he didn’t know him.
He doesn’t mind recalling the day of the corporal because he was young and strong and eager for his future. When he woke this morning he recalled his dream of ten years earlier, when the corporal had come to him and said that he was waiting for Joe, that he, the corporal, was carrying out his part of their bargain, and that he could be reborn only when Joe abided by his. Joe remembered his equation of every right having an opposing wrong, yet saw no logic to his dream.
Joe has an affinity for snow. It mesmerizes and takes him into it, takes him away. The doe and the buck are lucky, he thinks. The hunting season has passed and they’ve survived another year.
“Would you like a little more light, Mister Cochran?” the woman persists as she switches on his lamp, damn it, not waiting for his response. Her persistence, he figures, is an expression of her misguided conviction that light is the soul’s healer, and darkness its cancer. She seems not to understand that light allows the mirror to reflect what time has wrought.
It’s with effort that his gaze shifts from his window to her face. Patience, Joe, she’s young. Half a century younger than him, probably more. At least she never tries to call him Joe, like the older one on the early shift, who always asks him how we are doing, as if he were a child, or worse, an idiot; and raising her voice and mouthing her words as if he were a friggin’ deaf mute. This one is called Cindy, sweet but tougher than she looks, and he is torn between looking and not looking at her lovely face. Pleasure and pain. She reminds him of his bride who was just as young in nineteen-forty-six. No one ever believed Joe when he told them that he and Helen had known each other since kindergarten. Two days ago, to his dismay, he couldn’t recall her face, and in a panic he twisted around in his chair to study her photo on his dresser.
He never could bring back the corporal’s face. He wonders, now, did the corporal’s wrong choice give Joe his life? Maybe so, and maybe that’s a kind of rule. Maybe he owes him. Yeah, the dream was really a visitation, putting him on notice. The time was approaching. “Thank you, corporal,” he whispers.
“Pardon?” Cindy asks as she begins to turn his wheelchair.
“Just thinking out loud.”
“Uh-huh, thinking’s good exercise for the brain, Mister Cochran.”
“Thanks for sharing that.”
“You’re welcome. It’s time for dinner, do you have to go first?”
“Yes, ‘fraid so.” Early on, the older one had asked him if he had to winkie, and he told her he’d winkie on her if she used that word with him again. Having been spun around he sees past the other man’s bed, beyond his room’s door to a parade of wheelchairs passing by. After six months it’s still unreal. It was a good life with Helen, so thank you, corporal, but this golden years stuff is a bunch of shit.
“I’ll get Larry,” Cindy says.
Alone for the moment he studies the other man lying quietly in shadow. He wheels himself forward, then turns and moves close enough to touch the man. After a moment he propels himself back.
Handsome Larry comes in, large and strong and open-faced, and always wearying Joe with his overwhelming health and enthusiasm; a boy the same age that Joe was on the day of the corporal.
“How we doin’, Mister Cochran?”
“We have to take a leak,” says a piss-ant Joe.
Larry maneuvers the chair past the other man’s bed and opens the bathroom door. “Sorry. Forgot you didn’t like we,” his contrition genuine though impeded somewhat by the sting of Joe’s cranky-old-man routine.
Although Joe’s words are always understood, he sometimes has to work at forming them because of his tricky mouth, the result of his second stroke. And Joe is skin and bones because he starves himself, and he is lifted to standing as easily as if he were papier-mâché. Last month a woman across the hall whom he greatly admired, managed not to eat until she died. Joe is trying, but his will, regarding food, is not as strong as hers, and he still nibbles a bit. His arms are much stronger than he lets on, though, and while he hasn’t tried it, he’s certain he’d be able to push himself upright, and do other things, without help. He is always secretive. The less they know, the better. Avoiding his own image in the mirror before him, he sees Larry’s ever-happy kisser. He observes his clear eyes, wide, shining and eager, and wonders if you have to be as dumb as a bucket of cement to be so eternally full of cheer?
Joe shakes out the last take-your-damn-time drops, zippers up and settles back into his chair with a grateful sigh. As he is drawn backward and turned about, he says, “Larry, that man, there, has bought it.”
Joe reaches and touches the foot of the other man’s bed and says, “This fella. What’s his name again?”
“Jack?” Remembering Joe’s preference for last names: “Mister Middleton?”
“Right. Middleton. He’s dead as a doornail.”
Gosh? Next it’ll be golly.
Larry switches on Jack Middleton’s lamp and try’s for a pulse. “You’re right,” he says, adding, “Poor man.”
“Lucky man,” Joe corrects him. Though he has heard the aides addressing the man by name, it has always escaped his memory; and he himself has never asked. Come to think of it, the dead man had never asked his, as well. Smart.
Joe’s eyes are drawn to the window, and he sees Jack Middleton walking through the gently falling snow and glancing back at him with a smile. His hand comes up to wave, but feeling Larry’s eyes on him, he diverts it and palms his wispy hair instead.
The nurse in charge is called, plus an administrative aide, and Joe is drawn away to join the wheelchair parade which moves toward the elevator, then up to the dining room on the second floor. No one talks, a few doze. He guesses some are confused enough to believe they’re being hauled up to enter the pearly gates.
Husbands die sooner, so he is the only man at his dining table of five. Two of the women arrive dozing. One of them wakes as her chair bumps the table’s edge, and Joe swears she whispers, “I told that little shit where to—“ before she looks around and colors. The very alert woman to his right, who is new and has to be all of ninety, pats his hand resting on the table, and gives him a flirtatious smile. Good Lord! The second dozing lady comes to with a start and glances around wide-eyed, and Joe says to her, “Hi, welcome! I’m Saint Peter!”
When he arrives back at his room, Jack Middleton’s body is gone and his bed is stripped to the metal springs. He dims the light and wheels himself to the window to watch the seamless swirl of snow, nearly invisible until it enters the lamplight’s glow, luminous and flighty as summer moths. As usual, it draws him in and takes him to a place of his choosing. At the moment he is a child at his open bedroom window catching snowflakes on his tongue, and listening to Mama from across the hall, singing one of those Cole Porter tunes while brushing her hair.
After a while his thoughts return to the present and he tests his strength—finds with a small grunt he is able to push himself to standing. He knew it! Later, after he is helped into bed by the night shift aide, he manages to stay awake for over an hour, then rings the buzzer to request a sleeping pill. The nurse brings the pill with water in a paper cup, then watches him take both into his mouth. But he swallows the water and not the pill.
In the morning George, the early shift man who is older than Larry, comes in to help Joe shower. He is a serious but friendly man—not a wide-eyed wonder like Larry—and Joe never gives him a problem. Joe lifts his face to take the full force of the spray and hums the tune his mother sang. George, standing by to catch Joe if he falters, says, “Well you’re a chipper guy today, Mister Cochran.”
“Hell, George,” Joe says as he holds onto the bar while George turns off the water. “I’m gettin’ outa here today.”
George grabs a towel and says, “Good for you. When you comin’ back?”
“Aahh…George boy, when you finish helpin’ me dry and gettin’ dressed, will you get my storm Jacket outa the closet?”
“Not the overcoat, mind you.”
Walter, a large robust and loving man, comes in pink-cheeked and full of all-out-doors. Sparkles of melted snow decorate the shoulders of his buffalo-check coat. “How’s it going, Pop?” he says in his big voice as he bends smelling of wet wool, to peck his father’s cheek with chilled lips. He is bigger, up and down and sideways, than his father ever was, and Joe feels shriveled before this middle-aged mountain of healthy vigor, whose only experience with death has been the loss of his mother, and his grandparents who died at a distance in Florida. A man who has never daily feared annihilation, or who has had to kill or been forced to tread through armies of the dead and dying
“It’s goin’ okay, Son,” Joe replies as Walter helps him on with his storm coat, which is not an easy thing to do. Lifting Joe and getting his arms into the sleeves, and slipping, tugging and straightening the rest of the coat under and around his father, with George hovering and observing the struggle and asking if he can assist, and Walter telling him, “No, no problem, George,” with Joe understanding Walter wants to do it alone, wants to do this for his father.
“Nancy’s lookin’ forward to seeing you,” his son tells him, pumping energy into his words as he wheels Joe along the hallway.
“Same here, Walter,” Joe says as they pass a number of residents who have parked their wheelchairs outside their rooms, all of them facing in one direction as if sitting on a boardwalk and catching an ocean breeze. Joe as usual views them as half people, half ghosts, who see their endings and dream their pasts, as he does.
In spite of his ultimate goal which should level all else before him, he experiences a mix of excitement and anxiety at the thought of freedom and its measured chaos, and feels his heart inventing something akin to a new dance-step. Snow flurries anoint him as nature’s healing balm, sweeping away the unnatural orders of his confinement. Wheeling down the ramp, he raises his face and sticks out his tongue to catch a snowflake.
As they pull away in Walter’s giant SUV, Walter tells him, “Nancy’s making your favorite, Pop. Baked ham with pineapples.”
“That’s great, Walter. I’ll enjoy the hell outa that, for sure.” He’s not quite as fond of Nancy as he is of Walter; yet he and Nancy like each other, probably because they are joined in their way of seeing the world, more than he and Walter are.
Joe understands that old people in wheelchairs, aside from the difficulties of accommodation, cause those who are younger and healthier to be uncomfortably mindful of one of the possible outcomes of aging. And he finds it remarkable how well most people do when it comes to living their lives so fully, from one end to the other, while seeing so clearly what they face at the finish. He glances at his son and recalls that Helen, the only and absolute love of Joe’s life, had been more joined to Walter’s views, than his.
Walter’s powerfully efficient vehicle hisses along while sending out sprays of slush like the hypnotic wake at the prow of a ship, the hiss accompanied by the easy flow of Walter’s words and the equally lulling tick-tacks of the wipers sweeping away the rushing snow. Close at hand are flitting trees and hurrying walls of stone that rise and fall and curve then change to post-and-rail, to picket, to stone, to hedge, to stone, while at a distance and slower moving, farmland fields and barns and stands of hemlock moving fluidly into densely textured forests. Then another field emerges as an unbroken and undulating swath until it meets another forest, then another field with barns and silos, then forest, then field—streaming images softened and chalked by the falling snow.
Now more settled in his heart, Joe’s eyes receive this sleep-inducing glide as the ever-renewable invitation to be drawn back and away; to be relieved of the constraints of time, of the futures of other people and the demands it makes of them in the present, removed from Walter’s words on the present and future of his third sportsman’s shop, of his college-age daughter and son, of Nancy’s success in public relations; and he sees across the sweep of a field beyond the darting trees, the young corporal standing alone and waiting, his head slowly turning to watch Joe racing by.
The interior of Walter and Nancy’s two-story house has large open spaces and very few doors, which afford Joe the opportunity to wheel himself from space to space without difficulty. At the moment he is in the kitchen with Nancy, watching her prepare the baked ham. He wheels forward as she reaches out with a ring-slice of canned pineapple and he dutifully gobbles it up. “Mmm, God I love that,” he manages to say while trying in earnest to resist the lure of the fruit’s nectar, seeing it as one of false hope’s sweet seductions.
“I know you do,” she says as she pushes the last clove into the ham and places it in the oven. “I remember Helen smacking your hand when you’d steal a slice.” She glances up at him and says, “Can’t believe she’s gone three years.”
“I can,” slips out of him.
She pauses to gaze at him, then nods without comment.
He has lately settled on the notion that Helen is close by, waiting, which gives him some comfort; but after his second stroke put him in the nursing home, there were times when he’d get downright weepy. Doctors and family ganged up on him, then, wanting him to take an anti-depressant; but he’d be god damned if he’d swallow a chemical to elevate his mood, just so he’d be more cheerful in his friggin wheelchair! And just to make everybody else feel better. Besides, they wanted to bring him forward, and he wanted only to go back.
Nancy puts a few things into the dishwasher and pushes rinse-and-hold, then says, “Walter said something about a football or basketball game. I thought you’d be in front of the tee-vee by now.” She cocks her head to one side and searches his face, but he is looking past her to the fall of snow beyond the kitchen window.
He wakes to her, and wary of her intelligence, says, “Eh? Oh, basketball, uh-huh, I’ll do that…. Up at the Care Center the gals dominate, you know, and all you get to look at are those weird talk shows and soaps, and movies as dull and inoffensive as the food. And the news is real uplifting. Violence, dirty politics, plastic people celebrated for acting like stupid shits. People aren’t what they used to be, Nancy.”
Nancy comes around the island to stand before him. She is wearing a no-nonsense blouse with a bow at the neck, and a plaid skirt. “There was a time,” she says, “when Helen and I would have to drag you and Walter away from a game on television, to come to dinner.
“Mmm, true,” he replies, understanding her statement is a probe, yet caving in a bit with, “Trouble is, I don’t much like the guys who’re playin’ the game, these days. And besides, it doesn’t seem all that important to me anymore.” Damn! Did that sound self-pitying?
“Uh-huh,” she murmurs, chewing on his remarks, he sees, like she’s testing for pits, and he hates himself for his weakness.
“You okay, Joe?”
She doesn’t respond, just stands there with her feet apart and her hands on her hips; a tall athletic and authoritative woman in her late forties, with a very pretty face. She, like Walter, radiates so much health, he can feel the force of it pressing in on him, and he retreats from it by wheeling his chair several inches back.
She tells him, “I can’t help feeling you’re hanging out here in the kitchen, ‘cause you’ve got something on your mind that you wanna talk about.”
“Mmm…yeah…I do,” he admits, realizing he had probably backed away from her clear brown eyes, more than from her health, knowing that what lurks behind her gaze is a mind that may be too full of insight, for this conversation. Being cagey now, he says, “So…first, let’s see…. Aah, I’d guess you and I are two of a kind, don’t you think?”
“Well over time, I have to confess, I’ve given that some thought, and yes, I’d agree. We are.”
“Both very practical types. Realists.”
“Yep,” she says.
“Whereas Walter, though smart and efficient in his business, is just about as sweet as a puppy when it comes to personal things.”
She says, “Like his mom, as I recall.”
“As a matter of fact,” she continues, “during our first and last pop psychology discussion about family—I suppose about five years ago—I suggested to Walter that when he married me, he married his father, not his mother.”
“Ha! Bet he loved that,” Joe puts in, “And not only didn’t believe, didn’t understand.”
She gives a genuine laugh and says, “Not for a moment, poor dear hulk that he is. His first response was, Huh?’ and his second was, ‘Baloney!’ Nevertheless—and lord knows I hate getting too sentimental about these things–when you and Helen brought him into the world, I in the end was the one who benefited most. So thanks, Joe.”
She then folds her arms, cocks her head and asks him, “So…. Where is this going?”
“Okay, good question…. Well, lemmie get it up front, right off. It’s no damn secret, I don’t have a lot of time.”
Her arms unfold as she reacts: “Joe, no one knows when his time is up. And the doctor—“
“Hell with the doctor. I’m the one knows me best, for cripes sake. All my various parts are betrayin’ me, one by one, and my heart does so many acrobatics these days, I just don’t bother to mention it anymore.” He makes himself grin to show amusement. “I mean sometimes it skips and stops, then races on and on, you know, and I just sit there astonished and holdin’ my breath, waitin’ for some kinda spectacular finale.”
She frowns and says, “Oh, Joe,” as she starts to move toward him, but he wards her off with a raised palm, and she settles back.
He really likes women and sure wouldn’t mind a hug, but he says, “No, I’ve had a good run, Nancy. No complaints. Now to get right to it, Walter feels guilty as hell about me bein’ in a nursing home, there’s no denyin’ it. Oh, he says it’s not true, and all, but I know he feels like he’s abandoned me; and nothin’ I’ve said about there bein’ no alternative, has changed his mind. And I don’t think anything will, ‘cause that’s Walter. And you know what I mean.”
She nods her head.
“The thing is, Nancy, I recently signed a paper which says I don’t wanna be resuscitated. No matter what happens. Where, how, when. Makes no difference. I don’t wanna come back, for all the reasons I know I don’t have to explain to you. Right?”
“Right,” she tells him.
From his pocket he retrieves a wrinkled sheet of paper folded in quarters. “This is a copy for you to hold, to show to Walter at the appropriate time. To reinforce what I’m saying now. I also wrote a little note on it, to Walter. Just one sentence tellin’ him to pay attention to what you’re sayin’…. Okay?”
He wheels forward, reaches out and hands her the paper, then backs away. They look at each other for a long moment while his heart suddenly gallops, slows, leaps, altering as if scrambling to align itself with a savage alien rhythm, then just as suddenly returns to normal; all of this in seconds while his gaze remains steady enough to cover this tumultuous rebellion within his body .
Recovered, Joe wheels himself farther away from Nancy, needing to increase their physical separation while he says this one last thing:
“I just wanna tell you, Nancy, that I think the world of you. That Walter and and your kids are three very lucky people, to have you. And if Helen were here she’d say the same. ‘Cause she’s said it to me more than once, I want you to know.”
She sees the distance he needs and doesn’t move. She tells him: “Joe, I love you. Thank you so much for those words.”
He raises his palm again and says, “That’s all right,” as he retreats a few feet and spins his chair away. “Just wanted you to know, is all,” he says over his shoulder; then finishes with, “Think I’ll watch the ballgame awhile.”
In the den, he switches on the game, but instead looks through the French doors to the snow-covered lawn and the pastel forest of pines beyond. He thinks of the special place he found when exploring, before his second stroke, where the deer bed down at night.
It is close to one in the morning. Walter and Nancy are asleep on the second floor. Joe is in the den on the opened studio couch, awake, staring at the snow. His wheelchair is locked against the couch. He pushes up to a sitting position with his feet on the floor. In his old age, he has pictured himself in three parts: mind, body, and heart; and he worries now about having them all pull together. He reaches to the table next to the bed, grabs a galvanized bucket Walter left for him, and urinates into it with his usual stops and starts and his, “C’mon, c’mon!” He finishes and replaces the bucket, sets it next to the police whistle Walter also provided, in case Joe needs help, which is next to a glass of water in case he’s thirsty. Good old Walter. He listens to a scratchy mouse chasing a rolling acorn in the ceiling, and briefly envies the preoccupied doings of a small snug life. He manages to slide into his chair and wheel himself over to a closet, where he retrieves his storm-coat by shaking it until it lifts from the hook and falls. He takes his clothes and shoes from an armchair and brings everything to the couch where he struggles mightily with muffled grunts, to dress himself in everything but his hat, coat and gloves. He succeeds, if messily and a bit breathless.
Next he reaches into the right-hand pocket of his coat and hooks his finger into a hole. He yanks several times until it tears, then he reaches down inside the lining to the coat’s hem and collects a handful of sleeping pills.
It is a moment in time when the furnace stops and the refrigerator stops and the mouse stops, and he hears and feels the wild rhythm of his heart, which makes him smile, this deceitful abnormality—this trickery of his last temptation. We’ve come a long way, he tells this lifelong companion, this heart that ached him when he found his love, and ached him when he lost it. Joe will not be fooled by this heart that promises death and never delivers.
He takes a folded sheet of paper from his trouser pocket and places it under the whistle—his apology. He struggles into his coat, dons his hat and swallows the pills with the water. He pulls on his gloves, slides into his chair and wheels himself to the French doors. He slips clumsily to the floor, reaches up and opens one of the doors; maneuvers himself outside and reaches again, with a grunt, and pulls the door shut.
He is struck by the cold but is not discomforted. The snow-cover, as if lit from within, illuminates his world. The large flakes falling silent begin to speckle him as he lays stretched on his side, propped on an elbow. He catches a fluffy one on his tongue.
Now, stomach down, Joe pulls himself forward by inches, using his elbows, his forearms, digs his gloved hands into the snow. It is difficult and he quickly tires. He looks back and sees he has come six or seven feet; looks forward and guesses another eleven or twelve to the pines. He shivers, struggles onward until he tires again—can’t- make-it tired. He looks up, sees another seven or eight to go. He’s come so far, but he’s feeling the cold. Move a few feet, he tells the half-starved body that is turning slightly numb, reminding it of its obligation. Head, he says, you go to sleep here, they’re liable to find our body too soon. A thickening lace of snow spreads across his form as he fights this letting go, this dozing, until he hears, “C’mon!” He raises his dizzying head and sees the corporal at the edge of the pines, waving, urging him on. Everything is fine, this time. Joe obeys and crawls forward, for he is leaving the field and going for cover.
In the dense but still-luminous safety of the pines there is less snow, and in some places layers of needles reveal themselves as a texture against his cheek. He picks up the faint scent of a deer’s urine, then selects one of the shallow, snow-soft depressions familiar to him, slides in and pulls himself to sitting against a rough trunk. He watches the snow filtering through an open space, falling silent, falling deep. Sleep draws him into darkness until a small snapping sound pulls him back, and he sees the corporal beckoning, wanting him to follow. He sees two deer gazing in his direction and sniffing in vain for his airborne chemistry as if he is already spirit, then remaining passive as though understanding this spirit’s need to share this place, and he watches as they settle into nearby depressions. The corporal smiles and says, “You, too,” and beckons once again.
An eager Joe, no longer tired, rises without hesitation to follow; but the young soldier moves away with elusive ease and Joe must hurry to keep him in sight; though after only moments he has lost him. Joe now runs on stronger legs, past other deer and pines and different trees, searching for the vanished corporal, fearing even while the trees thin out that he has gone in circles. He feels the terror of a child which causes a surprisingly robust heart to pound; until at last he finds himself unexpectedly free of the woods where he stops, hardly short of breath. His gaze follows a row of oak and maple lining an icy sidewalk, and the lamp lit street is so intimately known to him that the joy he feels is absolute. He spies the figure of a woman coming toward him, and as she draws closer he sees she is pulling his American Flyer behind her. She says, “I’ve been looking for you, Joey,” and scoops him into her arms and kisses him; and he feels her warm breath, tastes her lipstick, feels her fur collar against his cheek. “Hop on,” she tells him, and he belly flops and listens to the runners on the ice, then asks her, “Where we goin, Mama?” And she says, “To visit with Misses Donahue, and you can play with little Helen.” And he tells her, “Faster, Mama, faster!”
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Martin J. Ryan