Tinian Then Saipan

Tinian then Saipan, one worse than the other, Jenkins falling in that mangrove swamp, so utterly gone it was like he’d never been there. Whose hand is this? Gloria’s? Gloria’s been dead for years. Months? Yesterday?

Better not let the Mulcahy kid make the collections. Useless. Never gets the count right, shorts all the working guys on his route.

Monty: “We don’t do that here. It’s one thing to be a crook, but don’t be a crook.”

Monty: I never stole a dime, even when I was stealing for a living. It’s short-sighted.

My old man delivered coal back when it heated every house and tenement and triple decker in Worcester.

Sometimes now, when the train goes by the home, he smells it, the acrid exhaust, a bitter reminder that memory evaporates, too. Rising to the clouds, vaporous and black-tinged.

How many medals they pin to my chest? Monty asks himself every night, right before falling asleep. He drifts off to the memories of an American flag whipped by Pacific Ocean breezes, General Schmidt’s mutterings carried off and over the valley below, over Jenkins and his body under the mangrove swamp, somewhere in the muck, out of sight, but caught in the blinkered reflections from yet another Silver Star.

Five in all.

Probably a record.

Most of all the city fellas, anyway. In Monty’s world, that was all there was. That was like being the most famous man in the universe.

Camera flash and now he’s in the room with the white ceramic wall tiles stained with brown and black spots. Institutional leather chairs with the moist wooden armrests with fingernail scratches from bored great-grandchildren.

Standing next to the bed, leaning into the metal rails, the rails that keep Monty from throwing himself out of the bed those nights when he’s back in Saipan and he swears he hears the ping of a grenade spoon springing loose, is the guy. Again. Young guy with the hair parted to the side, suit and overcoat, the sort of jacket they stopped wearing thirty years ago. He’s flashing a badge and he’s got an offer.

“You can make this right, give the families some closure,” the guy is saying. His identical twin, except maybe taller, right behind him. “Monty, you know you don’t have a lot of time left.”

He’s holding up a picture and for a moment Monty thinks it’s Jenkins. He hasn’t seen that face since 1945. Descending beneath the muck, taking the secret with him, that they’d given him a medal for trying to save Jenkins when he’s the one put the bullet in his head, not the Japanese, revenge for the missing money from that craps game on the El Dorado, the troop ship they’d shared. Jenkins below the muck, his first illegal kill but not his last, no, definitely not his last.

Monty a man of principle. Over the years, the killing stopped bothering him. Never did after Jenkins. If he could kill a man like that, who couldn’t he kill?

The two men with the hair and the overcoats were back again. Background guy up front this time, holding up three pictures, black and white. A skinny guy and two beefy guys, all hair oil and choirboy stares, criminals just by looking at them. Recollection hit him like a bayonet between the eyes. One of them, he remembered.

“Come on, Monty. You want to go to the grave, leave all these people wondering what happened to their loved ones?”

He’d told Gloria their names. Every one. Near the end. A machine pumped air in her lungs but she was already gone to wherever. Monty prayed she’d prepare a place for him, that maybe they could walk in warm ankle-deep water again, like in Hyannis Harbor, before the kids. Wash the sins off his feet because that’s where the blood always pooled.

“I don’t know them,” he cried. Eyes filled with tears because he knew only that he’d killed lots of men after Del Jenkins of Dothan, Alabama, a state he’d never visited, and they’d all be waiting, waiting for him in a mangrove swamp of darkness where memory never fades.