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.


Pothole

Now Ramos and I, we’re in the groove. The kid on the stretcher is dead but still screaming, not dead enough yet. The ambulance gallops over every pothole like some kind of bullshit steeplechase. At a corner pause, we hear more gunshots outside and a block away, but barely notice. We’re doing a hundred things at once and exchanging no words. With great partners, it’s almost telepathy. I think of a large-bore IV, then Ramos is there, passing me two fourteens.

He’s brilliant and skilled and just a great guy to spend twelve hours on an ambulance with. We read each other’s minds and his folks own Pollo Tropica over on Bennington, so every shift we eat whole Cornish hens for free and buckets of Spanish rice. Although we’re on different ambulances tonight, right now it’s me and him in the back of my bus while his partner, Angie B, follows behind in their empty rig.

Foley drives. He’s new and sucks at it, but he can find the hospital without directions. I stick two large-bores in the kid’s massive neck, one on each side, and open the fluid wide.

On the right side, across his external jugular: Living My Best Life. Weird-ass life hack bullshit for a kid in his trade, but I don’t have time to dwell. Ramos corrals intestines that squirm and slide like wet snakes. He braces himself between the stretcher and the ambulance cabinets, while I’m pinned at the knees beneath the head of the stretcher near the kid’s face. Despite the fluid, the kid’s pressure is tanking and I know his heart won’t beat all the way to St. Bonhomme’s ED.

Foley wallops a huge pothole while turning to avoid it and the box where we struggle turns into a yard sale of equipment and people. Ramos ends up at the far end of the box, up against the doors and on his back, a flailing turtle unable to get up.

I land face down in thick puddle of carmine fluid tinged with caliginous brown vomit, and right before I lose my own cookies, I see it. Rolling in the blood just under the head of the stretcher. A thick, blood-soaked roll, with a hundred dollar bill on the outside.

Before I can think a moment more about it, I grab the roll and slide it into the side pocket of my uniform pants.

Back on my knees now, I see the kid looking at me. His skin is waxen and greying and he’s stopped throwing up.

“I’m dying,” he says.

Ramos is still on his back, cussing and struggling to get up.

“Come on, man. Almost there.”

The kid points toward my thigh. “Get something nice.”

He’s flatline on the monitor now but staring at me still.

I feel naked and corrupt.

But I keep the money in my pocket.

We lurch into the ambulance bay and the doors fly open and shapeless faces, my colleagues on other ambulances, some nurses, doctors, the whole trauma team it seems, excited to see us: gowned up, masked up, ghoulish and ready for action. The faceless mob reaches in and the stretcher is gone, zombies come for the feast.

I’m supposed to go in, give report, explain all this to the trauma team. But I don’t. The side pocket on my pants is alight, burning with possibilities; me, on the other side of the Styx, with a burden I will now have to bear.

I’ve never taken a dime before tonight.

I know others who have.

I need the cash, though. I’m broke, got a sick kid and an angry wife, both betrayed by the shit paycheck I bring home for all this.

I’m not sure I can do it, walk away with a dead kid’s money.

Then—I am.

Just like that.

Then he’s there. Foley. Standing in the open back doors, staring at me in his new uniform and new boots and new eyes void of nightmares, pitying me, still in the pool of blood and puke but on my knees now.

“I saw what you did,” he says. “What’s the split?”