The Boy I Once Knew
by Tom Sheehan
I who lost a brother and nearly lost another remember the headlines, newsreels, songs of bond-selling, gas-griping, and movies too true to hate. The whole Earth bent inwards, imploding bombs, bullets, blood, shrieking some terrible bird cry in my ears only sleep could lose. Near sleep I could only remember the nifty bellbottom blues he wore in the picture my mother cleaned and cleaned and cleaned on the altar of her bureau as if he were the Christ or the Buddha, but he was out there in the sun and the sand and the rain of shells and sounds I came to know years later moving up from Pusan. I never really knew about him until he came home and I saw his sea bag decorated with his wife’s picture, and a map and the names Saipan, Iwo Jima, Kwajalein, the war.
This conversation is with old red wine that brings you out of surging daylight to fill the doorway like a mailman with a bad letter or telegram. Specters leap out of this old mixture, the blood of grape, the fine chalk it paints teeth with, a whole day of sunlight collared in a tumbler, a red sunset too far away to tell where. You went off to that sunset once, around the corner of the barn tipping toward its knees and Sam Parker’s garden paving the ripe earth all way to the Lovett house sitting white as a pepper-mint down the lane.
When you waved at me you did it with both hands and only later, when it had gone down the mortal chute, was significance found as I remembered the leaning barn’s shade swallow you up, taking one bite of the car. And you were gone with a two-hand wave like signaling Saturday’s lone touchdown.
So I have an old wine or two, a buzzed-vine beauty of taste sometimes more like apple cores or flesh from a peach nearer the pit, and hum the old sad songs, scribble crazy designs and whorls on a blank paper waiting a poem up to its knees in mud in my mind, and think about your waving at sunset because I never see it the same way twice. Often it is pieces I see; your eyebrows thick and dark and sure as cordage; or gray-green eyes wide as dial faces on test equipment measuring tasks I was at and how you appraised with a nod so slight I shivered before recognition; the little off-center tilt of your head in question the way a dog takes a first look at the new neighbor’s cat or fingers snapped behind the back; perhaps, deep in the sunset of the second glass, down past the red and purple and fiery collars, past all the striae a shining breaks out in wine, a shadow of you walking across Pacific waters, sea bag shouldered, stride long and unhurried, smiling, waving to us, coming home, gigantic fire fading behind you, awful nightmare blasts, bombs, aerial explosions, fracture of a ship, swimming alone, fading too.
I find you in the glass, tall, lean, crowbar true, warm as rubbed pine, immovable as bottom rock, close, reaching, bending, lifting up, still building all our dreams you drafted in darkness in the bedroom the night before the end began.
A sweater too long hung on an iron spike near leathergoods of an old horse, tells tales.One glove, fractured at wrist and thumb, three gardens old, capped on a spade handle, clues. Scythe handle, spine scattered to every degree, two blades dead, holds a hundred years of sweat waiting raccoon’s discovery the slow night of a full moon and wheat fields curling wet. Size eleven khaki waders, hung to dry ten years ago, exhibit river remembrance in deep-scarred veins the way lake bottoms dry, and whisper of accidents.
A red and black lumber jacket, buoyant exclamation mark beside the cellar door, rigid as winter pond yet soft behind my eyes, holds the last day my brother knew. If I were to gather all these moderate artifacts, the yield would be tender.
An infantry of stars swarms the slow sky wide as a Vicksburg field between shots. The guidon ripples the slow torment of deep passage just beyond Polaris. Near giant Orion’s eastward shoulder, a torchbearer pops an impetuous gleam. Small encampments, sometimes sevenfold, tighten their ranks in bright bivouacs. Others, loners and post guards, circle wide circles like the dog star Procyon hunting. This vast array does not appall me, though I diminish before its deployment. I have been told, in good faith, that many of these stars are dead, but we know their shining, like old soldiers, long-gone, cement themselves into statues, dim ribbons and old medals whose scriptures fade at sun and slowly, gram by gram, inch toward minerals and memory. beneath my feet this veteran earth slips into the far side of another’s telescope.
I remember Lake Hwachon. There was nothing to do on this side, that’s for sure. We boated over. There was nothing to do on the other side either, but die, or stand in line, or check out your gear. No rentals. no two-piece bathing suits catching up the sun. No hot dogs in short buns. No sand-oil grit spread. Dale Morgan lost a calf muscle to a Bouncing Betty. Oh, there were lots of them, locally-flavored, territorial. They made stupid noises that said, “It’s too late, pal.” Those were the only umbrellas at this lake, you can bet.
Tony M. was luckier at calves, losing both, and everything you can name in between. Waco used to be his hometown. He didn’t like lakes, this one. When we crossed on pontoons and rafts and dories with out-board motors, I watched him undo his booted laces, then unstring his weapon, set his small pack under his butt. He smiled at me, telling me about water, rivers he must have grown up worrying about. How to hold your breath. We knew about mortars’ impacts. Water does them up funny.
I talked to old Ski in Chicago just the other night. He’s buried his Japanese wife in Arlington, his daughter is dying, he’s sad. He had so much shit then, and now, it piles up again. He didn’t like lakes, not that one, or the one that’s sifting its swim of cancer around Chi-Town. Breda’s near Mattoon and he says the Old Polack’s just not the same, got this old-time look in his eyes, like when we beached and he asked what date it was and counted there, right in the open, his damned points.
He’d been through Frozen Chosen, Hungnam and all the stops between. Oh, he had a before and an after: the Philippines, Kwajalein, Saipan, not necessarily in that First Cavalry order, and then Chi-ROTC for years, and death still hanging all around him like a turd on the bottom of his boot. And tears on the phone he can’t hide, tough old bastard he is, two-wars dying at that. He didn’t like the lake shore either. I bet he still doesn’t. I can see him, even all these years later, stepping ashore, rifle down-range, ears picked up, more a cougar than a deer, intent, a Polack with a piece of Apache in him trying to find its way out of his eyes. Maybe a New World Comanche in tow. Perhaps, I often thought, an old Prussian bloodline left over from ancient and shortened guard duty.
But lakes have a way of undermining you, make you sit too easy on the fat duff, make dreams and nightmares quick-wedded, stick it to you where you least expect it, make it happen. Ski happened. He exploded! I shut that mastery out of mind. You fail, too often, in its measurement, its contrast.
But still he’s sad and hates lakeside, shore, waters of the giving and taking lake, time. Old Man Mac was right; Ski’s just floating away on the invisible waters, drifting off, leaving me, finally, way down the line here, like the others promise, numbers mounting, this strange way of saying goodbye, comrade I met in a hole, the 76-er mm weapons in alien hands, screaming over our heads all that so ungodly night, over half century ago still here.
It stretched all the way home: Eddie Smiledge was the houseman at The Rathole, racked the balls, collected coin, was a judge with a hundred dollar bill in the side pocket. He smoked cigars thick as cue sticks, ate Baby Ruths until his teeth stuck, sent us home abruptly when our eyes became hazy or midnight slipped like a footpad over the green felt on table No. 4. He did not lend us money, but let the clock work in our favor; at a nickel a game he didn't see the eight ball eight times in the side pocket, and forgot to lock away all the nickel bags of potato chips.
One night we played One-Ball-in-the-Side- pocket past closing and Eddie sat in a corner waving off the game costs. We walked off under a September moon all the way to Korea. The night I came back, chevrons up and down, deep new wrinkles struck across my face, measureless but valid, reaching for my yesteryear, a skinny bald-headed man was racking the balls. He didn't know my name, who was home from Korea and who wasn't, why Eddie Smiledge had drifted off someplace the day after we left ... never to be seen again.
Bio note: Sheehan (31st Infantry, Korea 1951-52; Boston College 1952-56) has published 30 books, has multiple works in Rosebud, Linnet’s Wings, Serving House Journal, Literally Stories, Copperfield Review, Literary Orphans, Indiana Voices Journal, Frontier Tales, Western Online Magazine, Faith-Hope and Fiction, Eastlit, Rope & Wire Magazine, The Literary Yard, Green Silk Journal, Fiction on the Web, The Path, etc. He has 32 Pushcart nominations, 5 Best of the Net nominations (one winner). Latest book publications include Swan River Daisy by KY Stories, The Cowboys by Pocol Press, and Jehrico by Danse Macabre. Back Home in Saugus (a collection) is being considered, as is Elements & Accessories (poetry), and Valor's Commission ( a collection of war and post war tales reflecting the impact of PTSD). Beside the Broken Trail just accepted by Pocol Press, which will be the 8th book from them. He was 2016 Writer-in-Residence at Danse Macabre in Las Vegas.