Fall 2009, Volume 7

Fiction by Michael J. Shepley

The Pacific

SAND. Tons of it avalanching down, cascading, not with the rumble of thunder, but with the soft hushing sound that betrayed its weight as it slid down the acute slope. Al was running for his life in it, scrambling, his muscles aching, his breath hot in his lungs and throat. He was desperate, he could not cry out, not for human help, nor divine intervention as he struggled against the inexorable tide of sliding sand. Then, as he scrambled unmoving up the slope, as he had been for all memory, his left hand struck something solid and swiped away the sand that covered it. He saw a mask, almond eyed, frozen in a silent scream. He drew back in horror and stopped. The sand washed over him. And, realizing he was buried alive, he began to scream.

He was still screaming when the alarm clock focused the world into reality at 1:17 AM. Sitting straight up in the old king bed… he was home, in the room with the old mahogany dressing mirror and the red plush chair now a shadow in darkness, and the walnut dresser his grandfather had bought in 1897, the metal desk with the Dell personal computer set up before the open window where lace curtains fidgeted and billowed ghostlike. A breeze rustled the small leaves of the climbing bushes below the second story window so that they sounded like a small waterfall. Or a ton of shifting sand. This had happened maybe a hundred fifty times in the past fifty three years. Sometimes, it made Liddy cry.

For all those years they’d been married, she’d teased him. When he woke she would be holding her breath, staring unblinking until she would smile, turn to him and say, "One day I'm going to stay just like this, Al. I promise you."

Just two years ago she had.

In the dark, the fearsome shapes of the room settled, sorted themselves out. The water sound of the leaves rustling took him back to the depths of wartime: A waterfall in the jungle. An ersatz shower. The time keeper, with obsidian eyes, and a beard like coal dust smudged across his cheeks, kept checking his stop watch. Every hundred and fifty seconds he would grunt "next", then chug a couple slugs from the can of Schlitz that was part of his pay for the fateful task.

Each young dogface in line, dressed in just his chain, tags and a wet sheen, took a step up as the clean gave way, or shared a dirty word with the time keeper.

"And what if ya mutha’ heard ya say that, mutt?" the time keeper always replied. A ritual that didn't change. It could never change.

Al was there, in line, waiting with the rest of the skeletal young men, naked, pasty white except for arms and faces because they kept themselves covered up inside the festering twilight of the jungle on this South Pacific island. They looked like POW's from German camps. Later, Al would go home and find out German POW's in the States had eaten better and done no labor.

Of course, in the line there were a couple of bronzed sailors from some supply transport. Confident, well‑fed. And wasn't that close to the same?  They stood out like pagan gods among shell‑shocked lambs.

"Time" the timekeeper said. The ritual advanced. A wet one said his parting word. A dry one stepped into the rainbow heaven, luke-warm as it was.

Heaven in waiting, but then came a whistle too‑well‑known. A mortar round. Instinctively, they dove to the ground. The explosion shook the world from somewhere in the brush. As they lifted their heads, leaves rained slowly down like the feathers of some blasted giant green bird. When Al stood up he saw the boy in the shower, eyes heavenward, like an Italian painting of St. Sebastian, arrows unseen, before the boy pitched face first to the round pebbled stream at his feet. The water began to run blood red.

In less than thirty seconds four half‑dressed men had dragged the dead boy down a trail out of sight. They would take him to an Aid Station where everything would be neatly handled. The medics would get the dog tags and fill out a form so those who knew and loved his flesh would get to know exactly how the end had been. They would put him in a box and plant it near the sand on the beach.

"Your turn," the timekeeper had growled. Al had been next in line. By the time he stepped into the shower the little stream had washed itself sparkling clean again.

That was the war. Probably that was all war. One bullet. A fragment of shell. Theirs. Yours. Oh yes, your own, too. Aimed, or not.

Al stared, heart pounding, at the nebulous half light on the ceiling, wishing, but knowing that the dream would never die. It was a brand, as surely as the three screaming skulls stripped of skin that his squad had stumbled on in a pocket of wood bowled between tall hills. Eddy, a stringbean with greasy hair and blue eyes, from Duluth, had gone nuts at the sight, claiming he saw some sort of big black bird coming down on them all. He had opened up at the sky with his Thompson. It was the Sergeant who punched him out and took his gun. The gunfire had sent every real bird for acres screaming through the green roof into the unseen sky. Soon, the shells started dumping in, and they were chewing fetid mud; all moaning prayers and curses, Eddy, bleeding from a lost tooth, begging god and all the squad in turn to forgive him.

"Get some counseling," Liddy would whisper in the dark after Al woke screaming.

Back at the start of the ‘60’s, they believed you could fix anything, including a broken mind. Like there could be some pill that would remove those pictures from your head forever. All you had to do was find it.

But he had known it would not work from the get go. Still, he went to the crew-cut guy's office and BS’d with him for 25 bucks an hour every week. They sat in plastic armchairs. Al tended to stare at the guy's narrow black tie. The shrink always seemed to wear a tweedy jacket about a size or two beyond his shoulders. He smoked a straight pipe, and there always seemed to be the same late afternoon light, like rancid butter smeared over the room. The shrink had mostly stared out of the window.

Three years in that chair got him nowhere. The dreams still came at night. The faces and places chased him through the day.

Some of the boys on the bowling team told Al for 25 bucks an hour he could do more with a pretty face. He was tempted to try that, too. But the girls were dumb and lazy, and soon the thought of that business brought him back other faces.

 Like the time in the "tea house". The smell of fish oil and ginger, two serving girls in traditional kimonos waiting on five of them, GIs not yet sent home after the war, all crowded in a little paper room. The girls laid food out: vegetables in batter; and raw fish; and little ceramic bottles of heated liquor as tasteless as vodka. There were big bowls of sticky white rice. Potato eaters, they hadn’t much dug into the rice. Until Eddy, a few warm bottles inside him, grabbed a bowl and started shoveling the stuff with his hand. He’d chewed with bulging eyes, clowning about. Then he had run his sticky fingers through his greasy hair and growled, "Now that was real good!"

The two young women sat tittering at the spectacle, hands hiding their mouths. Eddy gave them a coyote grin, ran his tongue over his lips to clean off the rice sticking there. Then he laughed low, "Now for the main course!"

With a finger he pointed at one woman, turned the finger around and crooked it towards himself. Eyes lowered, she obeyed his silent command, her steps hidden in the long robe as she came across the woven mats to his side. He stood quickly and took her right shoulder with his left hand, lifted her chin with his right, and put his mouth to her petal lips like a cowboy sticking a brand on a calf.

Al had watched Eddy strip her, shuck the kimono like a shell off a shrimp, then make her kneel naked before him. One of the other guys did the same with the other young woman. Nobody hurried.

After he was finished Eddy motioned with his hand. “She’s all yours now.”

And Al had taken his turn too. The girl smelled of jasmine. He could still remember the sound of her voice, talking to who, or what, he never knew, but he could still feel her.

Later, drunk, stumbling down the tea house steps, waving to the bowing mama-san, Eddy had slapped him on the shoulder. "To the victor goes the spoils, eh?"

"It isn't right," Al had mumbled.

Eddy stopped, wavered, eyed him oddly.

"Whadarya, sum kinda preacher?"

Al had shrugged off the taunt.

"Lookee," Eddy said, "We paid, right? Tha's more’n them Roman or Greek guys woulda done, buddyboy. Them girls got cash. They gets to eat this week. Now, tell it true, preacher boy, dinja love every single secon? Even the rice?”

Al had stood there, felt his face flame, turned away because Eddy knew. They all did.

Eddy gave him a big wink, and skipped two quick steps. And Al had followed them down the flower-belled gravel path.

To the victor go the spoils.

But survivors get ghosts, also. In dreams first, then in passing thoughts. More and more these memories were set off by a passing Asian face in the street, or on TV.

"If you can just put it together in words─just say it─maybe that will finally set you free."

That was the last thing the shrink had told him. Maybe the guy had been right. But the only person he could ever tell was gone.

Just to test the theory, he had told Liddy, while they sat in the kitchen with cold tea, about the Japanese girl and Eddy and the rest. He had shared that much. But left out his own part.

And then she had felt compelled to tit for tat, telling him about a local boy, slightly wounded, who came back on leave and was just plain lonely at home.

He needed her eyes to do it. She had "listening eyes" he had told her sitting under a moonlit tree one high school night. Round and warm, soft and intent, her eyes had always loosened his tongue, opened the heart. They had sat there, his arm across her shoulder.

Yet, he had never told her. And he had always known, if not her, there was no one.

He had tried. As his friends got older, got bad backs, beer bellies and real jobs, weeknight bowling had gone the way of the dodo, becoming instead Saturday morning golf, or Monday Night Football that brought some of the wild bunch back together. At first, they had done a circuit, moving from one living room couch to another, castle to castle, so as not to impinge on each queen more than twice a season. Still, things got frosty after a couple years, so they found a neon-signed corner bar in the neighborhood, where they could whoop and holler like men.

One Monday in fall, staring at the TV screen, sucking on their brews, Howard Cossel had broken the news: a Beatle, the radical one with the glasses, had been blown away. A Colt 45 at close range made a real mess. Al had seen it himself, up close and personal.

That had shut them up. Even his pals. It was a lot like when the troops heard Glenn was dead. No more sentimental journey. The younger kids in the place had tears all over their faces. The serving girls too.

"Could’ve happened to any of us," said Dave, a guy with three kids busted for pot. Dave used to laugh about buying his lawyer a swimming pool.

"Bull,"  Al said. That night words just rubbed a sore somewhere.

Dave rounded his eyes, lifted his beer and said softly, "Jeez, Al, it was just a nut with a gun."

"Yeah, hired by the same thugs who blew Kennedy's brain all over Elm Street."

Dave had thrown up his hands saying softly, "Stuff happens. Why make a big conspiracy out of everything? Crazy things happen all the time."

That was when he nearly blurted the whole damn thing out. Just to hit back. To bust up the china shop. Just like happy dreams got busted up.

But he felt his voice strangled in his throat. He actually got a coughing fit. Dave thumped him gently between the shoulders, took up the pitcher and filled his glass. "Here,” he said. “Take a drink.”

And the moment was gone, the secret coiled back down into Al’s gut.

It was that sound. The bush’s branches transformed into sand sliding by the ton.

He had seen it all.

First the flak, flying metal all over the place, covering every machine gun slit and cannon slot in the concrete bunkers dotting the hillside. They blasted the holy hell out of everything for half an hour. Spouts of smoke and dirt, balls of fire, all rolled up in a constant growl of thunder. He had seen fireworks.

As his heart drummed its tattoo, he had almost felt sorry for those Japs trapped in the bunkers.

A few camouflaged figures started running in the dust of the bombardment. They looked like praying mantises, running in a crouch. Then streams of liquid fire arced and played like fire hoses washing embrasures. Other soldiers got closer to the concrete. The flame-throwers stopped. Things were thrown. The insects retreated, crouched, hit the ground. The mouths of the concrete fortifications vomited flame and thunder.

Then, a single squat tank rumbled into the clearing. That was his cue to fire up the dump truck. What they wanted from the sand they had dug from the beach and filled the truck with, no one had told him. He had been with a party dumping boxed men on the beach. A sergeant had come up.

"GI, can you drive?"

He had said yes, so he was drafted. He had not yet learned never to volunteer. They put him behind the wheel of a truck filled with sand. He had never driven a truck. Of course, they had not asked. The Sergeant pointed to a small trail through the jungle brush. He was told to go up it. Grinding in first gear, he climbed the narrow trail up the ridge to where a sergeant waved him down.

"End of the line. Park it. Get some chow and wait."

He had waited. Two days and two nights. Then the same Sergeant returned and pointed to a new trail cut through the bush.

"Go through there when you see the tank."

“How far?”

The Sergeant shot him the evil eye. "You'll see."

Al saw the tank through a break in the wood, cranked the truck and drove. He ground the gears uphill, came to the tank tracks the other side of the cut and followed them into the open, up a thick grassed slope. As he got closer, he saw the tank, now parked, had grown a snout like an elephant and all the mess of the attack was gone and things were quiet. The trunk snaked from the turret of the Sherman into the narrow rectangle opening in the squat concrete wall.

Then the Sergeant jumped up on the truck’s running board. He wore a pig snout gas mask. That had nearly made Al laugh, but the Sergeant shoved another one at him and told him to put it on.

That was when he felt a heavy shot of cold fear. He obeyed quickly, tossing his helmet to the truck's floor.

By the time he got the pig snout on the Sergeant was on the ground, motioning slowly. The Sergeant wanted him to turn the truck around and then back up. He obeyed. Finally, in the big mirror projecting from the driver side door, the Sergeant stopped him with two thumbs up.

Al engaged the dump lever, and as the back rose he had heard the waterfall of shifting sand. As the sand dumped he had jumped out of the truck's cab to watch. The pile built up against the concrete wall, closing the rectangle hole and holding the tank snout tight against it. Then the Sergeant whirled his arm to the guy sitting in the turret hatch of the tank, who disappeared inside. Al had seen and understood without a word being told, "Jesus!" he had screamed in his muffling mask. Half an hour later, the tank pulled its snout out and the sand left no hole.

The Sergeant had torn off his mask and smiled. When he followed pulling off his own mask, he heard the Sergeant shout, "NOW THAT'S AMERICAN CAN DO!"

He felt sick, but figured the mask had worked.

The Sergeant punched him in the shoulder. "To the victor go the spoils!"

Al had looked around. "What spoils?"

The Sergeant had laughed, wild eyed, like Eddy. "Life, you knucklehead. Life!"

Ghosts of kids gassed like bugs, or rodents. Faces he never saw, but imagined...

He lay watching the dark ceiling lighten slowly in the dawning day, the truth now his only companion.


BIO:  Michael Shepley is a freelance writer/researcher who has had poetry, journalism, and sundry other genres published over the past 30 years. He still refuses to quit scribbling his short stories.