“LOCAL ORPHAN IS HERO’
By John William Tuohy
He walked to work because he couldn’t drive a car. He never learned how. So five mornings a week, at 5:45 AM, he began the half-mile journey to the Diner. He walked slowly because he was aging now and because of his limp and the defined tilt his body took to the left because of what happened to him in the war.
Although it happened so long ago, when he was a younger and thinner man than he is now, every morning it all came back to him, and it was all still very fresh in his mind. He still felt himself being flung backwards on to the ground, and that tiny piece of burning hot metal that flew inside his left ear and lodged there, scalding him from the inside. Dozens of bits of metallic specs burned his face, his chest, and his stomach. It hurt and it all hurt in the same way. First, it burned for a while and then it stopped after it melted onto his skin. Even after the hospital dislodged dozens and dozens of tiny bits of the scrap with a razor sharp scalpel, black scars pot marked his face and gave him a rough, slightly intimidating appearance. The big piece, the one that went inside his ear, did the most damage. When it went in, it felt like someone had shoved a pair of burning pliers into his head and then tried to open them. He remembered that feeling and he remembered that all he wanted to do was to open his mouth as wide as he could because that made the pressure go away for a few seconds. It was during one of those brief reprieves from the pain that he realized he couldn’t hear anything. He thought maybe he was dead.
He looked around himself and realized he was sprawled out on the ground and looked to his right and saw Machaon, that guy from...where was he from? That place in the south. He couldn’t remember. Machaon’s eyes were open so wide he wondered if it hurt to do that, to open your eyes that wide.
He narrowed his eyes to see what Machaon was staring at and he saw that he was staring at his stomach and all the things that go into the makings of Machaon’s stomach, except they were outside of him now. There were blue veins and red veins and long skinny white things that looked like they could be veins and there was something purple still inside his stomach that seemed like it was bouncing up and down and that was purple.
He lifted his eyes back to Machaon’s face and his eyes were still open wide and his mouth was open too, wide, just like his eyes. He was startled when Machaon shook violently from head to toe, so he looked like he was dancing on his back. Then, as suddenly as he started shaking, he stopped. After a few seconds, his head snapped backwards, fast like, and then he was perfectly still. And that’s when he got nervous, because he never saw anything like that before. He never saw a human being do those things and look that way.
Arriving at the Diner through a light rain, he unlocked the large glass doors that led to the vestibule area and then unlocked the second set of small glass doors that opened to the main dining floor, and entering the darkened restaurant, found the main switch and turned on the lights. He looked around the room, relaxed, and let the warm glow of familiarity sweep over him. He liked it here in the Diner. It relaxed him. He made his way behind the gleaming white Formica topped counter and pushed open the swinging black door that led to the kitchen and turned on the grill and started the coffee.
He remembered that he had been nothing but nervous since he left the Valley, and after two years in the Army, although he was a good solider, he never felt like he belonged among those people. He belonged to the Valley. That was where he felt safe, living on a cliff on a side street above the Naugatuck River, protected by the long, steep hills of the place that raised him. His entire life was there, although he didn’t remember a lot of it but that was okay because he knew that people like him, slow people, can’t remember a lot of things. He barely remembered his mother and he recalled that they lived in an apartment on a hill, somewhere, with almost no furniture except the black and white television. One morning his mother went out and never came back and after a few days, the police came and turne dhim over to a social worker who delivered him to his foster mother, Miss Ivy Day. She was a heavyset woman that watched television all day and complained about her illnesses. Ivy Day didn’t have a husband either, although she did have one, once. That’s what she said. That’s what she told him.
In the years they were together he and Ivy were happy together up there in a third floor walk-up with tin ceilings and linoleum covered floors and windows covered in ancient paint that had dried solid from the heat of the iron radiators. It wasn’t nice or pretty but they were happy and comfortable and Ivy Day wasn’t a stickler when it came to his schooling. On cold days she let him stay home and they would watch her soap opera drama shows, eat TV dinners, and be happy all the cold daylong.
One day Ivy died. She just didn’t wake up out of her chair in front of the TV. After a day and a night had passed, he went down to the corner and called the police from the phone there and they came and said, yep, she was dead all right and they took her body away. After that, the rent went unpaid. So did the lights and the gas and the telephone and, one by one, every week, the companies turned some thing off. And then all the food was gone.
After a few days of not eating anything, he went down to the corner drugstore. He told the man there that he needed to eat and why he was hungry and everything, and the man called somebody. Later that afternoon the social worker knocked on his door and talked to him for a long time.
The social worker told him he had to leave the third floor walk-up with the linoleum floors and the tin ceiling. She made him go live in a small room upstairs at the YMCA where a lot of old men lived and everybody watched TV in a big room together. She, the social worker lady, said there was really no point in going back to school because he had missed so much schooling. She didn’t see what kind of difference it would make if he just got a job and went to work someplace. She came back to the YMCA a few days later and drove him to a bigger city to see a solider. He liked the army. People told him what to do and how to do it.
He didn’t know where the country was that the Army had sent him to. It wasn’t in the United States, he knew that much. It was far away and he didn’t see much of that country anyways. Mostly he just saw the countryside that always smelled damp and moldy and it was hot all the time.
At 6:15, Angel the cook tapped on the heavy metal kitchen door. He unlocked the door and pushed it open, silently allowing the stout cook with the shock of raven black hair in. He noticed that the rain had increased but that the day ahead held no promise of sunlight. He closed the door and loaded a cart with water glasses, paper napkins, and silverware and made his way out to the dining room to set the tables.
After that bomb blew up back in that foreign country all of those years ago and spit hot metal all over him, his senses were filled with the smell of crisp, cold New England salt air. A cool burst of it had floated up from the Long Island Sound, over the jungle and landed protectively around his sweat and blood drenched body. Then Ivy was there, and she wasn’t dead anymore. She was the way she was when he first saw her, tall and large and robust with a healthy red face. She smiled at him like she always did and she said, “You had better get up now. Those men over there are coming to kill you, Hon.”
He lifted his head from the red-brown soil and saw a thin line of young men, some even younger than him, walking towards them, yelling and firing their weapons. A few feet in front of him was Sergeant Sentor, lying silent on the ground. His legs were gone. So were his hands. He must have been the one who stepped on the mine. He liked Sergeant Sentor because he was kind and when he spoke to him he spoke slowly and always asked, “Do you understand? Cause if you don’t you just tell me,” and he chewed Dentyne and smoked cigarettes and rested his hands on his hips, sometimes all at the same time.
He heard the Sergeant’s voice and looked over to his left and there was Sergeant Sentor, standing above him, looking down at him. He still had his legs and his hands.
“You remember what I told you?” the Sergeant asked. “When it hits the fan you grab on to that fifty,” the sergeant said, pointing to the .50 caliber machine gun, “and shoot everything that looks, acts, walks, talks, crawls or otherwise fits into the general description of the goddamn enemy.”
“Yes sir,” he answered.
“Don’t call me sir,” the sergeant said, “ I work for a living.”
Sergeant Sentor looked across the field at the young men who were approaching and said gently, “This don’t look real good son, but you do your best.”
“Yes sir,” he answered.
“You take care now,” the Sergeant replied.
“You’re not gonna stay, Sergeant?” he asked.
“Nope,” he answered. “I gotta go. It’s my time. You’ll be alright, I guarantee it.”
They grow them tough in the Valley. Although every inch of him ached and he was pretty sure his left eye was gone and there was a lot of blood inside his mouth, he lifted himself up to his elbows and then to his knees and he did what the sergeant told him to do. He crawled over to the weapon and he laid in on the fifty and didn’t let up until the cotter pin got too hot and broke and the shells jammed. When he released the trigger he was the only person there who wasn’t dead. Out in front of him were rows and rows of boys, all shot to holy hell and as dead as dead gets.
He lifted his exhausted and bloody body and half fell and half walked over to Machaon who wasn’t breathing or moving but his eyes were open and he was staring up to heaven. He knelt next to Machaon and started stuffing his scattered body parts back into his stomach where they belonged because that seemed liked the right thing to do. While he pushed the multicolored veins and pieces of purple and red muscle back into Machaon, he thought that blood doesn’t feel the way you think it will feel, like red water, maybe. It feels more like greasy paint and it dries brown not red. He didn’t know there was all that stuff inside the human body.
When he finished he crawled silently to the others, doing whatever he could to soothe them but there really was not much he could do to treat the ones who were still alive. Most of them were dead. Hylas, the tall guy, was alive but not by much. When he got to him and gave him some water, Hylas said to him, “Kill me,” and just kept saying that over and over again so he put his hands over his ears so he wouldn’t hear him.
He didn’t remember much past that. It was nighttime when he woke up and some guys from a recon platoon were talking to him but he couldn’t hear them. One of them was chewing Dentyne and he gave him a stick and winked at him. He seemed like a real nice guy.
When he was finished placing the water glasses and silverware on the tables, and checking the levels in the salt and pepper shakers, he slowly pushed his cart back into the kitchen. There he washed and dried the mustard and ketchup bottles, loaded them onto his cart and wheeled it back out to the dining room and stocked the bottles in the waitress’ shelf. He looked at the large clock on the wall, the one with the white face and black glass trim, and noted it was stuck on 12 just as it had always been. It was 6:25 and Dolores the waitress was late, just as she had always been.
A long, long time went by when he was in that army hospital and one day a colonel had come to see him to give him a medal. The Colonel had a Captain and a couple of Second Lieutenants with him. They smiled at him and they said they were proud to know him, that he was a good man, a good solider and a hero.
The Colonel said, “Now you’ll catch all the pretty gals,” and then winked and smiled at him. But he knew that wasn’t true. The pretty gals always passed him by and now that the hand grenades had made him look ugly, he was sure that the pretty gals would look away from him because he wasn’t a good sight to look at.
They said they were going to put him in a hospital in southern California and it was a nice place and the nurses were all pretty. And that’s what they did and after a year in the hospital, they sent him home but not with hearing, most of that was gone along with a couple of his fingers and toes and his left eye. He could still hear some anyways, out of his right ear and a lot of the time he would get dizzy and it felt like the ground was moving under him but it wasn’t really. That’s just what happens when you lose your hearing. His left eye was hurt too even though it wasn’t there anymore.
He went home to the Valley and took a room at the YMCA on State Street across from the armory. He didn’t have to work anymore, because every month the army sent a check for a lot of money but he got a job anyway, up at the Valley Diner, because there was nothing else to do all day and he liked it there because they needed him, and because they made him feel regular, like he was just like everyone else.
One day a man from The Evening Sentinel came by the Diner. He sat on the stools that twirl around and talked to him for a long time. The man knew a lot of stuff about what happened to him in the war and about the hospital in California. He wrote things down and when he was done he stood up and shook his hand. He said, “Thank you for your sacrifice.” I told him that was okay since talking to him really was not all that much of a sacrifice.
The Evening Sentinel ran a story about him the next day with a headline that read, Local Orphan is Hero. After the story ran, people came into the Diner to meet him. Some of them drank a fifty-cent cup of coffee and left a twenty-dollar tip. One lady wrote a note to him on a napkin that said, “We are all real proud of you.” He kept that note, in a plastic baggie in his sock draw. Whenever he felt bad about things, he took that note out and looked at it and sometimes he read it out loud, and then felt good again.