Joined: 15 Jan 2004
Location: New York
|Posted: Mon Jul 08, 2013 6:17 am Post subject: The Casualty
The soldier doesn’t miss a trick. His eye follows every movement of the nurse in the holding room. His doctors are looking at his x-rays through the illuminator and there is soft piano music coming from speakers in the ceiling.
He is in a cold sweat, and to hide his anxiety he clears his throat and starts to talk in a brittle voice ... to no one in particular.
"I could never figure Chopin. What the titles meant, I mean. Who knows what was on his mind. He called that piece an etude, that's all I know. “Etude”! That's a study, right? Well, what's that got to do with anything? I mean, you play it. You try to get the notes right ... you're not studying anything, you're just trying to get the fuckin’ notes right. Then there's old man Hemingway and his 85 percent crap below the surface ... I mean, it's all bull shit when you get right down to it ... show biz. You do the best you can."
"I didn’t tell you about the time I got quartered up in Portland, Maine, did I? There's nothing up there man, nothin’ to do but look out the window and stare at the snow. You know what kind of USO shows get sent up to Portland, Maine? You might as well stay in the barracks and play cards or maybe knock down a fifth in the day room. I got started reading in the Portland library the very day Anita O'Day came up to sing at the USO. I read guys like Joyce and Conrad and whatever and I kept the corners of my bunk sharp and square."
He looks over at the doctors ...
"Tell me how much it's going to hurt before you do it Doc, would you please? I want to be ready for the pain. I can stand a lot of pain when I'm ready for it, but when the bullet hits you before you hear it ... well, it hurts like hell. The hand will be all right won't it doc. I play the piano y'know."
He swallows hard and turns his head to the nurse again.
"There was this American Lieutenant named Pinkerton, he was stationed on a cruiser in Nagasaki harbor. He doesn't know a word of Japanese, you dig? He falls for a geisha girl, she doesn't know a word of English, so they decide to talk in Italian. Will you tell me how people can sit still for that? Two fingers you said, right? I'll have to get along with two fingers on the right hand?"
"What kind of glove? Soft kid with three artificial fingers. I'll have to get used to the idea of it, shakin’ hands y'know. Y'can't just walk up to a man and tell him he's going to live the rest of his life with only two fingers on his right hand––specially if he’s right-handed I mean. He’s gotta find a way to live with that. Like dialing a phone and opening a door. Did you know Maurice Ravel wrote a piano concerto for a man with no right arm? Had it shot off during double U double U 1. Pretty nice gesture I thought ... I'm rambling I guess ... How long does it take for the gas to kick in? I've been talking here y'know. Rambling like. You haven't given it yet? ... Oh, they're not ready yet? ... how long does it take? The operation I mean ... after that I'll be layin' out in recovery, right."
The soldier was quiet after that. He might have run out of things to say, or maybe he was so full of personal thoughts he was unaware of the anesthesiologist standing at his side. Whatever the reason, nothing was heard from him until he awoke in his bed with his hand in a soft cast. He felt no pain, there was a throbbing in the hand but no pain. It would have been nice, he thought, if somebody was here with him ... somebody who could tell him how the operation went. What came next? He had no idea, but he felt entirely unprepared for it––as unprepared as the day it happened.
That day ... the day it happened, there was a commotion at the corner. They pulled over and stopped diagonally at the curb so they could turn around fast if they had to. They stormed out of the hum-vee and stood on the lee side of it during the firing. Somebody said he saw a rocket grenade being fired––somebody down on one knee. That was about the time he was hit. He felt as though someone had brushed his hand aside––nothing more. Then he saw the bloody stump of his right hand and he got loose in his bowels. They helped him back in the vehicle and the driver got them out of there. He had his eyes shut tight all the way back––didn't even know somebody had tied his bloody arm up to stop the bleeding––his eyes were shut tight all the way.
From that afternoon to this he lost all track of time. It seemed like everything happened in one long continuous day. The medics were stringing him along, he was sure they were holding the bad news back ... "What did you do before the war?" ... they all asked him that to start off with. When he said he played piano they swore he'd play it even better when he got out of the hospital. "They do re-construction miracles these days," they said – "you'll play better than ever," they said. He didn't believe it for a minute.
He didn't give a damn either way. He was finished with the piano. That was why he signed up with the Guard in the first place. His trio was dead in the water. Never made it out of the East Side––even with that damn blonde soloist––she took them on one at a time. Changed her tune every time. Blues with him. R & B with Ernie on the alto and finally took off with a guitar player she met in the Village.
He was never happier than he was with the Guard, until he got to Iraq ... then it got dirty. He found himself firing blind sometimes, not giving a damn what he hit or if he hit anything at all. The people wore rags, head to foot, shifty eyed, mumbling together ... you couldn't turn your back, and in spite of his organization and his superior equipment during his tour in Iraq he always felt vulnerable.
... and now, with the war behind him, and his life ahead of him, he feels more vulnerable than ever.