By Dr. Fernando A. Ojeda
As a faculty member at SPC for 28 years, I not only wish to participate in the endeavor of sharing my creative work with our college family, I also wish to dedicate the work I am submitting to all of the wonderful Veterans who have graced, are gracing, and will grace my classes. I am submitting a short story that is based on a true event which I experienced many years ago. It is a gripping story of a chance encounter with a stranger and a very surprising series of events.
A brief inner struggle, then curiosity overcomes apprehension, and I cautiously part the curtains. My squinted eyes peer through the sliver and dilate at the slow growth of a shadow. Behind and all around me, heavy knocks from the door still echo through the house. To my left, in the distance: an insipid light. The only source of light burning in the house is cast from the room where I had been moments before. The hallway is long and dark, particularly so on nights when I’m alone. I curse under my breath as I recall feeling my way through the house, beckoned by a knock at the door when reason and intuition held that I should remain still and quiet, in the comfort of my room.
A figure finally blurs by the reduced field of vision and my eyes follow intently. Darkness begins to swallow him when his head swivels in my direction, and his eyes lock in on mine. We remain static, momentarily. Somehow I feel obliged to answer the door,
-George in? I’m the paperboy.
He was a man of indiscernible age; while the lines in his face added years to his age, his sprouty hair and youthful attire of jeans, sneakers, and t-shirt subtracted years. Above his fiery eyes he bore a deeply furrowed brow: like cords being pulled taught by an acking heart.
-No, he’s not in. He’s working. He’ll be here Saturday morning.
-I swear, I’ aint never get’n paid. Don’t matter when I come, he ain’t never home. Ain’t you got no money?
-Sorry, no I don’t. I’m sure he’ll be here on Saturday if you want to come back. His restaurant keeps him busy during the week.
I was set to dispatch the paperboy when, with the casual air one asks a stranger for the time, he queried,
–You got a wrench you can hit me with? I cain’t stand the pain.
He cups his left cheek with his right hand and presses firmly while slowly and intermittently biting down on his jaw. To my numbed silence he adds:
-Then punch me and knock this dang tooth out.
-I’m sorry, I can’t do that! If it hurts so much, why don’t you get a dentist to look at it? You can get it pulled.
-I cain’t afford a dentist, man; where am I gonna git the money from? Tell you what, if you got you some hard liquor to ease the pain, I’ll have me some and be on my way.
Abruptly, a ring pierces the air, now tensed. Like an alarm clock going off when your dream most resembles reality, the phone startles me back (just as reality is taking the form of a bad dream).
-S-su-sure. The liquor’s in the kitchen, on the counter. Help yourself.
I turn my back to him pointing towards the kitchen and hiding the regret in my eyes; I follow the ringing sound and answer the phone,
-Hello, Elaine, thanks for calling back. Yes, I heard. Congratulations! You passed your comps! So, tell me, what were the questions …
A swift, backward movement of his head followed by a hard swallow turns my attention to the kitchen. When his hand begins tilting over the bottles of different liquors into his glass for a second (maybe a third) round I choose to cut the caller off prematurely.
-Listen, I have to go now. I’ll call you later. Thanks for the information.
Precipitously the glass gets refilled. This time he sips the contents slowly and in my presence. He rinses his mouth with the liquor before he swallows, as if to offer proof that his concern is with the toothache.
–Are you sure you can’t get a dentist to see that tooth?
-I ain’t got no insurance. I cain’t barely make enough money to support my family…Ever since I returned from Nam, I ain’t had no luck getting a good job. Ain’t even got my high school diploma!
-You were in Viet Nam? Do you mind talking about it? I’ve read quite a few books on it, and I’m very interested…
-If I can still dream about it after 12 years, you damn right I can fucking talk about it…’thing is, nobody ever bothered to ask…
His voice trails off as he says these words, staring into that middle distance that signals introspection. He is not directing his words at me now, I have become incidental; thus, he begins a lengthy monologue,
-…I got this box of pictures under my bed that my wife don’t even know I got. I gotta look at these pictures from time to time. They show these gooks with their faces blown off, arms and legs all over the place, bodies lying around, like in my dreams…Cain’t get it out of my mind…don’t know that I want to neither….It’s like an addiction. I get a rush when I see em; I feel that I’m back there, with the buddies, where life had a purpose…
He delivers a litany of horror and sadness, of bravery and glory, of living and dying. In a rustic eloquence common in many folk borne of the earth in rural North Carolina, he weaves a gripping tale that grows melancholy as he grows more and more animated. His voice rises to a level one might describe alarming had it not risen so gradually. However, the impact of the alcohol is not so gradual. His gestures abruptly become exaggerated. As if shaken by a demonic force from within, his body rattles and dances grotesquely. He plays out the war that slurs out of his mouth in torrents. He pauses momentarily, staring into a void directly in front and below. His stare burns. He breaks out into his macabre dance. Then he pauses again. He stares. Rivulets of sweat run from his temples and dampen his t-shirt. He dances and slurs some more. His words skillfully braid his past with his present into a knot of despair that renders any possible outlet seemingly null and void.
-My life ain’t worth nuthin I cain’t seem to connect with nobody; nobody understands me, even my wife. My wife says that I’m distant, too distant to reach; my children don’t hardly talk to me, just some big eyes that stare from behind their mother, like I was some kinda animal or somethin’. I ain’t got no hope; I done left it in Nam…
A momentary pause, punctuated by a deep and sorrowful sigh gives me a chance to intervene:
-There is always hope; I disagree with you. There is always hope. We live in a country of second and third chances. You can change your life if you really want to; you can turn it around, but you need to believe in yourself. You are intelligent and perceptive; you need to finish your education, maybe night school…
I offer him my optimism and speak to him of opportunity and hope; I believe what I say. He senses my sincerity and appreciates it, but he is not convinced. He was led by the alcohol into a state of self-pity and bitterness. Yet, he is comforted by an unforeseen and chance connection with a stranger who seems to listen.
His eyes dance in their sockets as he says,
–I want to believe you, but I need support and nobody loves me. Do you love me?
-I love humanity. So,…yes,… I…love you.
I do not feel comfortable saying this but he needs to hear it. His eyes are softened by tears that slowly fill his lower lids and cascade from his lashes, one at a time.
-Can I hug you? He asks.
-Yes, you can.
I feel the strength and power of years of caged emotions; I had never before felt so much loneliness and despair tremor from someone’s core. He releases his arms with the help of a sigh and his eyes avert mine in embarrassment.
-Where’s the john?
-There, to your left.
He totters to the bathroom. The door closes. Shortly thereafter, a cacophonous sound alarms me. He has fallen into the tub with the curtain and curtain rod. Urine stains his jeans. He staggers out defiantly and claims that he is leaving. I protest. His eyes spark differently, wildly.
-It don’t matter if I git killed in my car. I’m gonna die anyways.
-You could inadvertently take someone with you.
-Look, man, you might be reading about me in the papers tomorrow anyway. Yeah, you’ll read about me in the papers…
-What do you mean? You can’t be serious. Life is too beautiful to do something so foolish.
-Death could be beautiful too. Come on, man, we’re tight now! You understand me. Come with me. It would be so easy. We could leave this hell together. I done already thought about it….easy, man…so easy.
I am visibly angry. It is an affront to my way of thinking. I grow in stature. He shrinks but is defiant,
-Aw right. You do what you want, but you cain’t stop me from going.
I decide I will call the police if he succeeds in leaving; I offer last minute persuasions that go ignored. He flings the front door open and loses his balance as he steps out. To regain equilibrium, he reaches out and grabs a swinging bench that hangs from the porch ceiling. The swing gives and he collapses against the front wall. His forehead impacts the bricks and makes a hollow, meaty thump. I reach for his arm and help him to his feet with a firm grip that demands submission. He is docile and I tug at him.
-Let’s go in. You should lie down on the couch; I’ll get some tissue paper for the blood on your face. Try to get some sleep. I’ll start some coffee; when you wake up I’ll give you some, and then you can go.
I return to the bedroom to get my books. Back in the living room I attempt to read in vain.
-I’m studying for a comprehensive exam. It’s literature. A Master’s…
-Ain’t that somethin, you come here from a foreign country and git to study for a Master’s test. I was born in North Carolina, a small farm, and I cain’t do nuthin…
With these words he surrenders to sleep. I sit perpendicular to him with my book resting in my lap, open at a random page. I beg for my friends to hurry home, but they don’t. I shake with a subtle fear of what could have happened tonight. The night lingers. His breathing is rhythmic and heavy. Mine isn’t.
George is the first one in, followed by three other housemates. We had all met in college. They are surprised by the presence of our guest. He wakes up confused by the noise. George reacts to my signal and meets me in the kitchen. I whisper explanations. He rushes to pay the paperboy.
-Coffee is ready.
He holds the mug with two hands and brings his head to greet it. He looks at no one and drinks noisily and fast. I see him to the door from where he grows smaller as he shuffles away. He stops, turns his head, and holds a rare and ambiguous look that incites warm feelings inside of me. As he drives away, I wonder if I might have made the slightest difference in his opinion of life and of hope. A smile creeps into the corners of my mouth. I feel a little confident. However, tomorrow morning, early, I will be standing here, facing the paper, my eyes darting and searching, with an acute interest and a heavy heart.