Visitation Angels, 1975
Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation? – Hebrews 1:14
This is how I remember that summer.
It seems to me that it was 1975, hot and muggy in Georgia, where I was stuck with almost nothing to do while the army processed my paperwork. Officially, it seemed, I didn’t exist. I waited around for weeks reading Stars and Stripes, then The Catcher in the Rye, and finally Frankenstein, on my lonely cot with no one to talk to. It must have been a massive screw up, because since drafted I'd never spent more than 48 hours without a clear task to get done.
And now I was free and so bored that I was actually glad when a staff sergeant whose name I can’t recall showed me a big shed full of dozens of animal traps and turned me loose to set them up all around the base.
“If you tell anyone I gave you permission, I’ll deny it to your face,” he said, but in that Southern way which, to Northern ears, somehow can’t help but sound friendly.
A few grunts had got bit trying to feed and tame the local squirrels, so now they were to be destroyed – first, the squirrels. I tried to slap together a poor joke relating this mishap to some of what I'd seen going on in Nam but got no laughs. Maybe I didn’t tell it right.
I was stateside, in limbo, unsure of the way ahead and no going back. Still, I was stateside and now I had a reason to get out of bed, even if it was vector control. Every man needs something to look forward to. The base stretched off several square miles, then disappeared into some woods that looked nice but quickly thickened, then repelled you with mosquitoes. That’s where my prey would crawl out of looking for food. It was my job to stop them.
I did it with gusto. Each morning I'd rise with the sun. While the other men shaved, showered, and fell in, I’d pass through their midst unseen and head for where I’d laid my traps. The way to the woods and water sloped downward, of course, usually into morning fog, and by the time I'd got there I felt like the last man on earth.
Every time I went to walk my grim frontier I was sure that I would find nothing. In each case, I was wrong. No less than ten a day contained their quarry. At first, this was just a bit of news and I did nothing, figuring they’d die of thirst if left long enough out in the hot sun. But then I began to run out of traps and had to do something about it. I scouted down a water source in an abandoned latrine, rolled a bunch of flour barrels toward it all the way from the back of the mess, filled them bucket by bucket, and set myself up a drowning station to drop the traps into.
So that, then, became my work in that way station. I'd just about grown used to it when the call came telling me that my stint there was now at an end. Even though I didn’t know it at the time, the reason was sad, and I must have felt this sadness pushing down all the hurry up and wait I'd been through. After weeks of sitting around, now I was supposed to pack, sign a bunch of papers, get poked and probed by a doc, and wrap up a hundred other little details I can’t recall in about three hours, then get on a Greyhound headed north by 5:30.
Even with the rush, I still ended up sitting in the station for over two hours while more buses came and went, most conveying soldiers one way forward or back. I wasn’t wearing my uniform, rather my stained up work pants and pair of tennis shoes lifted from somewhere along my travels on the base. They were still, probably stank of sweat and some scents only animals could smell, but I preferred them to whatever else was available though I couldn’t quite say why.
Though anyone could still peg me as a grunt, being around the right age, buzzcut and all, nobody else noticed or bugged me, not to bum a cigarette or any for other reason. They were all traveling in pairs and packs, coming in for basic from Memphis or Tampa, or wherever else they were from, or maybe shipping out.
Wherever they were in this half-assed procession, I’d already been, and if they’d asked I might have told them something. Or maybe not. There are old folks wasting out their days in old folks’ homes who could tell you their stories, too. But then, you think, does it matter anyway, whether those with kids to feed and homes to pay down fail to turn their heads and address some forgotten uncle who's slowly slipping off into the fog, and then beyond?
In this way, I took three steps up and made my farewell to that portion of life I’d finished at twenty.
You always think any trip, even one by bus, will have its romance, and to some extent this is true. I ended up sitting next to a coed named Jill, in whose face I could see in our first five minutes how sad my eyes must have looked to her.
“What was it like over there?” she asked me, expecting to hear, I guess, a dispatch: something either to confirm or challenge her convictions of that year on all that'd transpired in her lifetime. Instead, I told her I'd received word that my sister’s boy was ill and probably not going to live more than a few months, then excused myself to the rest room in the back because I didn’t want to break down in tears in front of her, and ended up throwing up into the stainless steel toilet bowl. Washing my mouth out, I caught a glimpse of my own ugly face in the warped mirror over that tiny sink and thought I looked sixty.
Jill was nice, though, rolled us a joint to take the edge off. We blew smoke out the open bus window and suddenly the summer air was warm and fresh, and I felt glad to be alive. Everything out there that'd seemed hazy and sad for so long now took on a shimmer of hope. And as we rolled down the highway, I began to feel connected to a thousand other folks our age I couldn't see who were also leaving home, coming home, or simply traveling from one point to another with no destination at all. We listened together on her little tape deck to a Who cassette and the music plus the wind through the window all swirled into one wave of sound that washed across us as we started to make out. I was raised to be good, and would have been, but a revolution among women, it seemed, had taken place while I was away. In open defiance of those around us on the bus, Jill kept putting my hands on her T-shirt over her tits until I took her at her word and got grinding and didn’t stop until I’d shot in my pants, which is exactly what her hand had been up to, and she knew full well what she was doing the whole time.
We curled up and slept drooling on each other for a few hours as the bus got dark and quiet. Then sometime in the middle of the night, maybe in Charlotte or Charlottesville, she kissed me on the forehead and took off.
When I woke up for real it was light and we were passing through Jersey, maybe an hour and a half from where I had to change buses in New York. I thought about Holden Caulfield riding like this in his red cap but instead on a train as we rode up the Turnpike, feeling sad that it was summer and wishing it were winter so I could just forget.
You won’t remember this, but in those days Times Square was a total shithole, not all shiny like today, but the dregs of the stinking dregs, Calcutta, Djakarta. Thrown off that bus with a two-hour stopover at the Port Authority, I finally figured out that my dizziness wasn’t the effect of the pot but just plain hunger, and staggered the bus off in search of food. I remembered hearing that when Jesse Owens first got to New York, some manager or somebody promised to take him out to lunch at Sabrett’s and made it sound like it was this fancy cuisine when in fact it turned out to be just a hot dog stand. I must have eaten six of them that day, full on drenched in mustard and kraut as I stood outside a Korean grocery, all washed down with can after can of hot Coke.
“Jesus Christ!” I heard from behind me, “You’re not where you’re supposed to be. I thought I’d never find you.”
I turned around and it was my mother, in a green dress and white hat, the same outfit that I remembered her wearing at my uncle’s wedding when it was still new and in style. Now, years later, it looked worn and faded, like something someone might have pulled out of a bottom drawer for her to have been buried in.
“Where am I supposed to be?” I asked her, the first words I’d spoken to her face to face in years.
“Well, not here, stuffing your face,” she said, and I leaned down and kissed her out of habit more than love, leaving mustard on her right cheek. “Haven’t you been up to see Jill yet?” To be clear, my sister’s also named Jill.
“No, of course not,” I told her. “She’s in Rochester. Where do you think I’m going? Anyway, what are you doing here? Why aren’t you there?”
“Stupid question number 94,” she answered. “Your lovely sister, what do you think? She won’t see me.” We found a coffee shop and she ordered a tuna fish sandwich, and I ate that, too. She’d taken the bus from Journal Square, where she lived in the same apartment that her mother had occupied until her death. Funny, even now, whenever I think of that apartment, I always think of being rushed to poison control after drinking a bottle of iodine that had been left under the bathroom sink. One of my first-ever memories. They pumped my stomach and what I remember most is being wheeled around on a gurney, flat on my back surrounded by masked attendants. When I told this to a Marine I met in a bar in Saigon, he said it was a sure sign that I’d been abducted by aliens, because this is the only memory that all abductees uniformly agree on. He then asked me, spookily, if I'd had any other operations at a young age, especially ear, nose, and throat operations. So I told him that, like most kids my age, I’d had my tonsils out, and he said “Hmmmm... what else?” So then I fessed up and admitted that when I was four I was having trouble hearing, so they’d put tubes in my ears to help the fluid drain out.
Like a defense attorney grilling a witness, he asked, “And do you recall being specifically unable to hear, or is that just something they told you post facto?”
Now, I ask you, how could a kid remember something like that from such an early age? But honestly, people will believe anything.
So that’s what was going through my mind as my mom went on and on with the details of her and my sister’s estrangement, twirling her cigarette around in the air and sending out sparks as she spoke. Apparently, the kid wasn’t allowed to see her, either, though God knows, Jill was probably right. It had been a year and a half since I’d seen her and in just twenty minutes I was already convinced that our mother was no less nuts that she’d been the day I’d stepped on the plane, and probably further gone at that. My grandmother had died the year before I left, and her decision to stay on afterwards in the home she’d grown up in was turning out to be, in my opinion, a first class ticket to the Bellevue loony bin.
The time evaporated and it turned out her bus was to leave before mine. I kissed her again, this time goodbye, though I didn’t stay to watch her board the bus, but figured I’d hit the head before finding my own. At this point, I’d been wearing the same clothes for more than twenty-four hours, so it just made sense to get back into my uniform, hot as the weather might be. I bent down in the filthy stall and changed everything I was wearing right down to my underwear and socks. As I finished, I could hear something going on one stall over, and there was a little hole drilled into the wall partition between them. Holy shit! I was riveted to the spot and damn near missed my bus.
Only after the bus had pulled out and was halfway through the Lincoln Tunnel did I realize that one of my two bags was missing. I freaked out for about forty-five minutes until it slowly dawned on me that I needed absolutely nothing that had been taken: my dress blues and shoes, a couple of shirts, my torn-up copy of Salinger, a few postcards I’d written and forgotten to send, even a notebook in which I’d occupied myself by writing at night over the last month or so. It was all expendable, as was the stuff in the bag I was still holding on to. I simply didn’t care about any of it. In fact, I felt lighter than I’d been in years.
“Do you see sparkles when you close your eyes really tight, like this?” he asked me. A kid question.
Another of my first-ever memories: of me and my dad going out in his car and bringing home my first bed that wasn’t a crib some spring morning when I was two maybe three at most. So young anyway that it doesn’t even seem like really me or that it ever happened, except that there now in front of me is that same bed, which seems uncanny if it had only been a dream.
“I think I used to when I was your age,” I told him. “But now I don’t really see them anymore.”
If I am to talk about John, it’s only this that I really remember: Him now on his back in that bed, my bed when I was even younger than he was now, staring at that blank ceiling now in the hot September sun. That’s the sad truth and it’s not the way a boy should live. But that was his life those six weeks or so I knew him.
“Are they still there and you just don’t see them? Or do they go away when you grow up?”
Time just stood still during those weeks, when I read to him, page after page in the hundred-degree heat, before anybody it seemed had invented air conditioning. I would watch the sweat build up on his brow and forehead, and when it overflowed and ran down his cheek, mop it up before it touched his sheets, ran down onto his pillowcase. These, then, were my tears for whatever, unwept.
“Maybe you just forget how to see them,” I answered.
I could pull any book off his shelf and he’d heard it read at least ten times, could recite it just about word for word, and yet he was happy to hear it again read from another set of lips as if for the first time. The Little Prince was his favorite, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was next, and then the Pippi Longstocking books.It was into this childhood purgatory that I stepped willingly and hoped never to leave.
“I could show you,” he said. “That is, if you still want to.”
There was a time long ago, I suppose, when the word cancer stayed unspoken, too horrible was it to mention, a death sentence. But so much became discussable in those weird days after Saigon fell. Why I put those two things together when they truthfully have no right to be linked remains a mystery to me as well. It was an afterthought, losing that war we always thought we’d lose and never wished to win – and what winning have looked like, anyway? Like a game of solitaire started some tedious Sunday, which nobody ever had cared about or ever could. But into this morass we’d soon found ourselves committed, immersed, and then hammered without end. What good could possibly come of it?
That question hung: Did I still want to? “Well, do you?”
So why did I feel that this boy had somehow taken on our expression of this endless grief or maybe karma? From the first, it was probably my own self-pity projected upon him, mine alone to wade through, and yet here I was inflicting him with this misery. Or was that crazy thinking just the only kind I could manage at that red hot moment in my life, with everything in flux and decay, the walls around me loosening and coming down on me in rubble? Because, in fact, he was just a kid whom God had dealt a jilted hand, a sad and twisted fate, which I was there to witness for those six weeks while he died.
“You can see them even when your eyes aren’t closed. I used to think that they were protons, neutrons, and electrons, but mom told me those are too small to see, at least with the naked eye.”
The town he lived in was so close to the Erie Canal that he would cross over it on a yellow bus ride twice a day to and from school. Or should have, anyway, were he well enough to go. I didn’t think about it much until I realized that the bus that’d carried me up his way from New York had also crossed this route not twice but three times, over antique and rickety bridges that looked built to fall soon. Could you even these days still pick your path from Manhattan to the Saint Lawrence all the way by water? It seemed unlikely, and yet it seemed so. And who would even want to anymore?
I heard myself saying: “They told me that, too, but I didn’t believe them. I think they are.”
Though by the time that trench was dug, those who might have lived along its banks had been swept far away by an enemy invisible, unvanquishable, legion.
“I know what you mean, but then she explained that it’s just that the eye is made of little tiny sensors that do the seeing. So it’s like the eye is seeing itself – kinda cool, huh?” Jill could be pretty smart.
When I was still learning my alphabet, I would write the four letters of my name in order as children are supposed to do. And even when I was told that this was me, I could never connect to them. The sound of my name made less sense the more I said it to myself. Then in school, there were always four Johns in each class, this being the most common name among boys, and I understood for the first time that this was not me, that the word meant nothing, I could be anyone but not this name. From then on, I would reside unseen wherever I was because, lacking that most basic function – a name – I had no identity, and for whatever reason this was fine with me.
Then we were silent for a while when I saw that the hot sun had started to cool down and it was just a bit before dusk. I mopped his brow for him this time.
It was only in basic training that they began to call me by my last name, Cleveland, and now for whatever reason this made sense and healed the disconnect. Even though this person Cleveland, who apparently I was, was entirely alien to me, and remained that way, he was still more me than this John had ever been. No matter how large a platoon I found myself in, there was only one Cleveland, and he was me, I was him. There was no dispute either inside or around me that this was so, and somehow this cured the divide once and for all.
Another kid question: “Do you believe in ghosts?”
One day while at the local library, looking for a copy of Charlotte’s Web to replace the one John'd lost somewhere along the way, I saw an exhibit, when it must’ve first been planted it in my head.
“Yes and no,” I said first, and then the truth, “Not really, no.”
What you’d expect, I guess, just some arrowheads and hatchets, plus other stuff, displayed under Plexiglas by remnants of a historical preservation group. Nothing worth a look, except that hung on the wall just above was this plaque with the words Oneida Swamp Ghost and then two small-print columns I didn’t bother to read about a local legend that was, of course, tame enough to end up in a place like this.
He asked “Why not?” but what was I supposed to say? Because hadn't I seen for myself that dead folks don’t get up and walk around again, no matter how much we cry and beg them to? That time doesn’t furl itself back and undo what you wished had never happened just cause you wished it?
"Well, have you ever seen one?" I asked.
This history would have been way out toward Waterville, so how the plaque even ended up down here remains unknown to me. I guess I should have looked more closely but it was just by pass-through glance that I noticed it at all. Just going to get that book for John.
"Of course," he told me. "Every night." That was unexpected.
Something connected with a sort of proto Ma Barker crime family, but much earlier, way back before the Civil War, a gang of dozens or even more. So I wondered, what even was there back then that you'd want to steal, and from who? The land? That had been snatched a good fourscore years before, right? Don't they still teach kids this age these days about what they used to call the French and Indian War, and what would they call it now, as they drew a line on the map between us and Canada, conveniently excluding – who?
"They connect me to them with wires" he continued. Then, almost an adult, "You don't normally think of wires when you think of ghosts, do you? But that's how it happens. They hurt going in, but then you don't feel them."
A genuine matriarchy, brutal I imagine. The Oneida reference, apparently, only a place name, familiar, same as Irondequoit or for that matter Ontario, just a sequence of letters. Did they sink their corpses down in that wide shallow water? If so, those couldn't have been the first. In whichever hemisphere you name, a swamp's a natural cache for what's left after a grudge has been ended. I could name three wars off the top of my head that'd been fought here, so just imagine the ones that even legends had by now forgot.
"That's when the white light comes." My words this time, also unexpected.
That bed still had no headboard and had never had one. John's pillows, stained with sweat, stood propped up against the room's blue wall. It looked like the shade you'd paint a room the week you found out your wife was having a boy. But this was years before docs could tell. Why did I notice that blue just then?
"White light inside, blue light outside," he said. Which I'd already known from my own boyhood bed. That bed.
Them standing on wet pebbles at the blue water's edge watch their fate take shape in the form of tall ships. Convene a circle of elders at dusk, discuss in hushed tones until the first white spark turns to embers what this new upshot's all about. Hushed, that the children shouldn't hear, though each child's ears are open cones ever inviting flowing whirlpools in. You can't keep secrets from a kid.
"You're bleeding." He pointed out the red drops streaming down my nose and over my upper lip and handed me his sweat-drenched hanky. On this, I blotted my blood once or twice, then paused to see just how much of it was there.
A buddy of mine once asked me, "Can't you just feel the land itself is in pain?" According to Scripture, water heals, washes away. But now I know that never was truth. Water may be where life starts and often ends, but what rises up out of the steam and fog endures, hangs around, triggers mischief.
"It's overdue," he said, pointing to an old library copy of "The Waste Land" in weirdly mint condition. As if it had sat all this time on a shelf waiting until, one day, John had been drawn to it. "I don't really think you're supposed to read it, though." I thought he'd been talking about all the Greek and other foreign words. But I get it now. It's not really a poem for reading, is it? It's to be remembered, isn't it – accurately or inaccurately, to surface or be dredged up whenever life calls it forth.
Like every town library, this one was a relic filled with fossils. And of course I am referring to the librarians who damn well could've been the same ones from when I was John's age. Same town, same town library, same musty odor as back then. Same old pinewood card catalog, only now it looked less imposing. I must've grown a foot since I'd last been in here as a kid.
Only the exhibit had changed. Even in one week, which surprised me, because who could really give a shit about the local history of a suburb that's no more than a discontiguous series of strip malls out on Route 20?
Esther Lepied Kandel, according to the little embossed sign on the wall, had fashioned this display, called “Lights above the Fog,” and presumably the one I’d glanced at the week before, about the outlaw matriarch. A sequence of twelve or fourteen sepia-toned images mounted on dry and cracking wood under glass, each captioned in penmanship I immediately recognized from the previous week, claimed to document what they’d all seen, half the county apparently, floating out over Lake Ontario at one time or another. But, 1870s photography being what it was, no amount of staring or squinting on my part revealed more than I’d seen in those prints at first glance: white splotches on shade overlapped in shadow. I could’ve been looking at them upside-down for all I knew.
“We’ll be closing soon,” said a voice behind me. I looked up and saw the sun had slipped down out of sight behind the trees in the parking lot. How long had I been standing there? “Go home, son.” I turned around, saw a tweed-jacketed man of maybe 70 approaching, leaning heavily on his cane, and noticed I was cold for the first time in a month from the air-conditioner that had been humming continuously since I’d arrived.
"How old is she, Sir?" I asked, hardly aware that the question had been forming in my mind for hours.
"Welllll…” he smiled, “She admits to 118. But then, you know how vain a woman can be, so who knows for sure?"
And before the next question was out of my mouth, he'd answered it, "At the Bellafontaine Rest Home out on Route 20."
"But I was here just last week," I said, "So she changes the exhibit every week, every month?"
"Heavens no," he said, "She's no longer ambulatory. No, we keep all of her exhibits under glass in the basement. My nephew stops by and swaps them out as often as I can get him over here. When he heads to State in the fall, I suppose we’ll have to find someone else to do it.” And then he said again, “Go home, son.” But then, looking me up and down, added, “You do have a place to go to, don’t you?”
“Please show me, Sir.”
He shook his head and said, “You’re just like the rest, aren’t you?” But he was already fishing around his pocket for the key, so I didn’t press him for an explanation. Anyway, I didn’t need to.
[more to come]