Earl Chatsby, six years ceased being a father for real, felt an odd distinction coming into his place of being. The newspaper for the moment loomed an idle bundle in his lap, the way it stayed weighty and rolled and unread. Walls of the kitchen widened, and the room took in more air. He could feel the huge gulp of it. The coffee pot was perking loudly its 6 AM sound and the faucet drip, fixed three nights earlier at Melba’s insistence, had hastened again its freedom, the discord highly audible. Atop the oil cloth over the kitchen table the mid-May sun continued dropping its slanting hellos, allowing them to spread the room into further colors. Yet to this day he cannot agree to what happened first, the front porch shadow at the window coming vaguely visible in a corner of his eye, a familiar shadow, or the slight give-away trod heard from the porch floor, that too familiar, the board loose it seemed forever and abraded by Melba’s occasional demands to fix it.
Change, evermore to be remembered, was at hand.
In one desperate moment, before trying to make up his mind between the selection of the shadow or the footstep as being the initial impact, Earl Chatsby ran his engine of recall. Morning crowded him into the past with a push so harsh and thorough his head spun atop his shoulders. The fleetness of crowded memory was punishing. He saw that other sun, the high sky with endless blue, that other day itself crowded with so many small glimpses of personal data that he shuddered. In a pale reflection there was Paul Moffie, peering out his front room window across the street; Paul had leaped back so many times after his death with a constant apology that he had neglected to say goodbye to Purly. It had happened hundreds of times, that ghostly re-appearance becoming Paul’s legacy.
Purly’s steps that last morning had a pause to them, an intricate measurement, as he came down from his bedroom, the sound coming off as a slowed-down metronome full of careful cadence. Earl had measured that tread too, that slow tread, knowing the hesitation in it, the built-in delay in getting on in the world as though it was all visible to his son, seeing what was out there in front of him. That other day was also a May day, and still holding its breath, a treasure to be kept and hidden and only used when absolutely needed for the spirit. Earl once tried to categorize that treasure and only found plausible options, forced memory or forceful memory, and then he tossed them each aside.
Earl looked up and saw his son’s uniform pressed so clearly and squarely that Melba must have outdone herself. The corporal stripes appeared as sharp as razor blades on the sleeves of his army shirt, what he called his sun tans or summer issue. The pants, bloused into his boots, seemed sheet metal stiff as he stepped away from the stairs, stiff enough to break apart.
“Looks like Mum honed you up on a razor strop, Purly. Them pants appear like she had them corrugated.” Pride rode a small flush in Earl Chatsby’s face as he looked upon his son so near to departure. That he was going off to the war was a hidden fact for the merest second, and then it slammed home, overtaking and overpowering the pride he had felt flushing him so deeply inside it must have shown outside. The felt redness was proof. A knock began in his chest, a dreadful music marking him, sighing, not singing, as mean as a flag waving in front of his eyes. It was almost wanton from then on, that feeling. He had always hated the prideful thought that hung forever in his mind: my son looks like he’s a soldier ready for anything out and about in the world.
The young corporal, just turned twenty years of age, nodded agreement. “I won’t sit down in them until I get on the train.” He grinned further. “If I skip breakfast, Mom will get upset, so I have no way out of it. They’ll get creased up plenty on the train anyway.” He sat stiffly at the table. A bright patch of sun, an amber touch of gold alive in it, caressed his hands spread on the table, letting the warm rays bathe the backs of his hands, his wrists, accepting the final comfort of home.
“What time’s the train?” Earl said as a portion of morning silence began to eat at him, the kitchen spreading with the sun, yet thinking how the room would diminish in days to come. Perhaps before this day was all the way gone.
The shoulders of his son had widened in the few months since basic training began. Melba, on the other hand, had seen the facial lines develop in her son, the shaving traces, the worry lines, the light shadows in the blond boy’s face. The endurance marks, she had called them in her contemplative hours getting ready for bed, shutting down her day. Earl, at counter, had noted the progress of body mass, how the chest deepened, the neck thickened, marking the quick run to manhood. He was no longer the slim defenseman who had little bulk but who had to skate faster than others to stay competitive.
Purly maintained the bright freshness in his face he had always sported. With it he had hidden pain on odd occasions… two broken bones, a collapsed rib or two, and teenage disappointment in the “girlie department,” as Earl had called it. “It’s running early,” Purly said, “real early, collecting other guys on the way here, all the way from Gloucester and Rockport and Ipswich. It’ll be here just around 7:30. Six more from here being picked up; Bob Mercer and Chet Russo and Mac Duval, all getting aboard, with some others. Like we’re going off on a hockey trip to Canada.” He went right to that bright freshness. “Weren’t those great days.” A heavy laugh rose from his chest, the corporal stripes carried sharper edges, a young man with memories. “I was just thinking about Smitty’s father. When I tell that story to some of the guys in the barracks they crack up.”
Earl joined the masquerade, his laughter loud and joyous. “That time on the bus?” He had played such games before.
“Oh, yah. How everybody had to keep an eye on him all during the trip, so he wouldn’t get caught up in the booze, on his best behavior for a final run. We were all watching him in that last stop in Canada, buying those little nips, then sitting at the back of the bus and getting ready to knock off the first one.”
Both of them roared. Earl finished it off, as Purly knew he would. “Tipped that first one and almost drained it off, thinking he had something like Southern Comfort, only Northern Comfort nips were plain maple syrup. ‘Member how he almost gagged?”
The two were still laughing, when wife and mother, in full Sunday dress, came into the room.
“What are you two laughing at so early on this morning?” Her whole posture accented her question, her surprise on this last morning. She was dressed for Sunday at church, her hair tied back in a bun. In half an hour she’d have her Sunday hat on her head. The question marked her face, departure of her only son at hand.
Purly got right to the situation. “Mom,” he said, “I’d really rather say goodbye here at home, rather than down at the train station in the Center. It’d be a lot easier to cry here.”
Earl could never forget the look on Melba’s face as she turned to look at her husband, the well-veiled look hidden from her son so that only her husband would know it. “Of course, Purly. You’re right. I know I’ll cry like a baby and we don’t want that.”
Earl could easily recall that Purly, even a month younger, could not have said that to his mother. Broader and thicker, he thought, and older.
In a shake of her head she was at the stove, scrambling eggs, bacon cooked beforehand and sitting under a paper towel, coffee aroma hanging in the air. They half joked in talk, a note about where Smitty and his father had gone, what one old girlfriend of Purly’s had said one day when Melba was in the market. Melba never mentioned the suffused blush on the girl’s face, and never mentioned it to Earl, even in one of her contemplative moods at the side of the bed.
Breakfast, on that harsh morning trying to be casual as ever, was quicker than she wanted, quicker than Earl wanted, but Purly was having his way. He hugged them both in an abrupt moment, grabbed his bag, hugged them again and strode out the front door and down the street. He looked back a few times, locked them on the porch, turned the corner.
In a minute’s time they sped out the back door, Earl going behind the wheel of the old Dodge in a sharp move. Melba closed her door as softly as she could, fearing the echo would rumble down the street, chase her boy around the corner and down Summer Street heading to the center of town, a half mile away.
Earl drove around odd corners, breath heavy in his chest, pulling at unknown parts, scattering in dim places. The knots were there being tied tighter. He tried not to look at Melba stoic in her seat, and he was thinking that she knew then, at one instant, more than he’d ever know. She was made that way. It was partly why he loved her; the way she noted the noisy board on the porch and that he would never fix it because there was a reason for its being. He felt stupid being stupid, and then clarity hit him bordering on the omnipotent; he too had his values, and the wheel turned in his hands as part of his minor celebration. Past Vinegar Hill he drove, on the far side, and came out behind the fire station. In two more turns she would never have found, he had them three houses down from the railroad station and across the small creek. From the side of friend Greg Satchell’s garage they watched Purly, and five or six others in uniform, board the train and leave home, outbound, bound for war.
They never saw Purly again.
A little over a year later the fire chief started up the front walk, his uniform so crisp it looked brand new, the white hat with dark visor square on his head, and the yellow telegram in one hand. He was the emissary, the arch volunteer, the wound carrier, the harbinger of death, the missing period at the end of a life sentence. His step was hesitant, his chin stolid and grimly in place, all of it making his uniform crisper, neater, deadlier.
Purly was officially lost in combat in Asia someplace. No country named, no town named, no battle site named. Lost. Missing in action. Just twenty-one, blond and gone forever. When tulips went haywire each May after that, Earl and Melba could put themselves right beside Greg Satchell’s little plot of tulips and jonquils, their eyes locked on one figure in uniform. There were days they hated May, days when they waited desperately for the tulips to leap out of bulbs put down in October.
Earl, as personalities continually develop, was the dreamer and Melba the curator of best memories, and owner of tears that Earl had never seen. Earl wrote survival scenarios in his mind, series on top of series of them, plush with dialogue, revelations, possibilities, options, and ultimate survival escapades. Such selections of joy gripped him sometimes for a solid minute of his life, a minute he could carry for an entire day. His thoughts were never clear of them, one or the other hanging by at the back of his head, at immediate bidding.
Now, on this new morning six years later, the war over and never over, his mind at odds, his eyes working extra cautions, his ears like tonal islands except for the most familiar sounds, he saw the shadow in a corner of his eye from a corner of the window. Then he heard the tread on the middle board of the porch.
What? How? He had seen and heard all this before, a hundred times. A hundred times or more. Six years worth of loss and he had seen it all, had heard the same sound, the same shift of weight on one board, and the shade and shape of the shadow now falling into his house again.
Earl Chatsby came up in his chair, erect, mouth open for sound.
He wanted to yell to Melba, but he found no voice. He wanted to believe what he had seen, what he had heard. He wanted to shout, but nothing was down in his throat except an expanse of air. He could not negotiate its passage. It jammed tightly in one place.
When he opened the door to the porch, a blond man stood there, heavy in the face, twisted mustache hanging bars at each corner of his mouth, shoulders not so broad as to mark him. All the scenarios Earl had written for six years fell away, all the survivals, all the hopes, for he had seen this moment coming, but not this man… not this narrow-shouldered man, not this bearer of a wide mustache, not this stranger.
Yet Earl Chatsby also knew he himself had come into a new place, or gone back to an old place.
The man’s hands were folded, as in prayer. “Mr. Chatsby,” he said in a half voice, as though only half of him was making this visit, “my name is Carl Bollis. It’s taken me years to knock at your door.” He wrung his hands tighter. “I was with Purly when he died.” He started to cry with deep and cumbersome sobs. His body shook. “I always meant to come, but something always held me back.’ Then another torment broke from him. “It was all my fault. All my fault and he laid down on top of me and took the bullets, took them all.”
Earl Chatsby thought the man was going to collapse. All the signs were there. The distinctive ones leaped out; haggard eyes, malnourished face, a man beaten by an awesome enemy without a name as yet. Earl grabbed his arm and ushered him inside. “You have to tell my wife, you have to tell Purly’s mother. Please sit down.” He thrust him into a chair.
Melba came into the room unprepared for what she saw; a young man who was hungry-looking, malnourished from the first glimpse. Part of the introduction she had heard from the other room. The mother’s steps took her back into the kitchen. “Bring him in here, Earl. I’ll get him something to eat.” She banged about the kitchen as Earl sat their guest at the long kitchen table that he and Purly had built.
“You talk,” she said, “and I’ll cook. Do you like home fries and sausages and eggs? Don’t say no because that’s all I have right now.” She broke three eggs into a mixing bowl, lit a fire under a frying pan and turned to him. “Please go on.”
There followed a long morning between the three, the grieving parents, the grieving comrade, but with minor patchwork changes began to incorporate themselves into and about the trio.
Carl Bollis, ever at odds with peace of any kind, at odds with his world for months at a time, felt comfort slowly squeezing around him, like a blanket draping on his body. “I feel Purly here. He talked a lot about this house, about you folks, about hockey trips. I think I know some of your friends, some of his friends. That’s hard to say, seeing what I did, what happened back there.” A cup of coffee appeared at his hand. One leg stretched out under the table, then the second leg.
Earl and Melba understood Carl Bollis was reaching for something, trying to find a place or a way to a place. Melba placed a full dish in front of Carl, the eggs golden and piled high, the sausages brown as fall, the toast buttered and cut, just the way she set it out for Purly.
Carl Bollis continued. “We were in Burma, part of a special group, specially trained, in great shape. We wanted to do our part. We were ready for it. And Purly was an exceptional soldier. We all knew that from the very beginning. But we were captured by the Japanese because a native betrayed us. We were captives for two years or more. I’m not sure how long, or didn’t know then, because everything ran together in the two camps where we were kept prisoners; abuse, pain, hunger, sickness, and more abuse. I won’t give any of those details, but Purly always had an idea we could get away, always saying we had to do it by ourselves, not depend on the natives. They were on the sorry end of everything and we couldn’t blame them, yet we couldn’t trust them. At least, not in the face of torture or worse for their families.”
Melba Chatsby, ever-mourning mother, watched the young man talking and eating in her kitchen. Her face gained color, her arms. Something new had become something old, something reaching for her. Air filled her lungs with expectation. Down inside rode a new knowledge. It had become, she suddenly knew, her story. All Earl’s scenarios had been related and retold, but now it was her story. She was, in essence, searching for in this stranger a composite trait, a characteristic move that she would recognize in an instant to be what it was, a piece of her son. A composite but nevertheless a piece of her son. Anything was better than nothing. Anything! The fork full of scrambled eggs moved slowly and precipitously to Carl Bollis’s mouth, a small chunk falling back on the plate. A speared half link of sausage was chewed only on one side of his mouth. Soon she saw his jaw hanging loose, as if he were enjoying a lingering taste. She looked for Purly, even as the visitor kept talking, kept trying to re-insert her son into her life, right there in her kitchen.
“Purly was working it all the time,” Carl Bollis added, “his vision, seeing how we could do it, how many ways and how many pitfalls. But we did it! One night it happened and come morning we were at last five miles from the camp and moving down a stream, three of us. Purly said we couldn’t run for ever, we’d have to live off the land for perhaps a year, maybe more. We’d have to learn, he said, more than we knew. Stagner got sick and died. We buried him at the back end of a cave, away from animals and the enemy. We were free for a couple of months and were learning. I think Stagner ate something bad or poisonous, because he just rolled over one night sick as hell and was dead by morning. He bloated up terribly.”
Earl’s mind moved within each descriptive passage delivered by Carl, seeing it all, how Purly moved, how his shoulders were carried by attitude and disposition of the moment, how certain physical motions, precursors or stimuli, were followed by other reflex actions. He remembered all the signatures of his son. And he also saw his wife’s intensity filling the room, coming up as wide as life itself.
“We were comfortable, but careful, worried mostly about getting sick. But we had plenty of food. Once we found an aircraft that had crashed in the jungle and we got supplies we hadn’t dreamed of. Some medical stuff we wanted desperately. Purly said we were more than a hundred miles by river from Myitkyina, but river travel would seriously expose us. It was the Malikha Stream and would only expose us to the enemy unless we had a target to get to and traveled by night. The odds were against us. Often he talked about waiting out the war, but also laughed at the thought, it was so far out. He had a way of control that was sparkling. He was responsible and he knew it. Smarter than me he was, all the way. We moved away from that place then, worried that the Japanese would find about the plane, or the natives would kick something loose on us. It took us about a week to find another place. We hid from every contact with the natives, afraid to put them at greater risk.”
“All the time we watched the skies, and the frequency of our planes. We could feel things changing for the better. Then we were surprised again. They shot at us. I was hit in the leg and the shoulder and fell down. Purly jumped on top of me. They shot at us, straight down at us. Purly took all the bullets. His blood flowed down across my face, flowed into my mouth. I drank his blood. Can you believe that… I drank his blood. I could not cough or gulp and move my eyes. I couldn’t blink. I didn’t dare blink. The pain was horrible, but I couldn’t blink. They kicked us, and laughed and got ready for night.”
“Later, one of them, really young, stood over us, his weapon pointing down at us, at me. I swear he was looking at me eye to eye. Firelight was in our eyes, the flames bouncing around. His comrades yelled at him, maybe calling him or ridiculing him. I don’t know. They made silly gestures by the fire, as though they were having fun. But he looked hard at me, pointed his rifle and then shot into the ground, right near my face. Right beside my face. I could have been dead. I was thinking all the time, I’ll never get away with pretending. Then his buddies began heating water, for making tea I’d guess. I think I could smell it. It was almost totally dark, the fire was bright in the jungle night, and suddenly a plane leaped right out of the sky and strafed us all, killed some of them, scattered the rest. The plane came back and dropped a bomb, and then went on its way. But that soldier, who was my comrade evermore, was killed. The bomb practically dropped right on top of him. I saw him go into pieces. But he was my comrade. Purly was my comrade. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here. Both of them were my comrades. That means forever.”
That oath was a fire in his eyes.
He continued his tale, his plate now empty. “In the morning they were gone. I buried Purly under a small tree. All I know is what Purly told me, we were on the Malikha Stream above Myitkyina in Burma. Next day a native boy found me and took me to his village. A runner went off and three days later some of the Marauders came by and brought me to a pick-up point. Later, I was flown out, came home, was discharged after a few months in the hospital, and have worried about this visit every one of my days.”
“It’s been a bad time of it for me. I’ve had jobs and lost jobs, maybe dozens of them, but I’m always going back there in my mind, back where Purly is. I have a hard time concentrating. I’m amazed I can tell you all this, mostly because I didn’t want to, but I’ve talked to a lot of guys and they mostly say I owe it to you and Purly. And mostly to Purly at that.”
The pause was a long duration. For heavy seconds he turned inward and the kitchen filled with silence floating in air. A heartbeat was heard. A final pronouncement came. “What is not strange is whenever I get a paper cut or nick my finger or bite my lip and try to stop the bleeding, I taste Purly’s blood. Without fail,” he said. “Without fail.”
And there it was for Melba, that absolutely identical tone of his voice, the way his words were finally carried out of his mouth, the way his lips closed down on some words and his eyes cast further explanation. As if he had lost a hockey game and he was at fault. Hockey had never been important to her, but now it was. It was a piece of her son, this sign, his blood having made its move. The sound of Carl Bollis’s voice was filling her kitchen with a tell-tale recognition. She heard other sounds; a minor sob, a secret laugh, a last word at the door on the way to school. Whole years rushed at her.
She leaned across the table and looked at him directly. “I figure you may not want what I’m going to say, but you can always hang your hat with us.”
Earl stepped in as Carl Bollis stared at his wife. “It’s like you brought Purly home with you, Carl. Brought him right back to us from halfway around the world. This is home.”
For a fraction of a second Earl Chatsby thought he heard the loose board on the porch give itself away, and a shadow loom in a corner of his eye.