At first the old man’s voice would fall upon the boy like a thin rain, and listening to it took every grain of his patience:
“We all had malaria in the Philippines. The Japanese would march us from one side of the island to the other and back again, even in a gale. The fever curved my spine slightly, you see, a condition which persists. We were not allowed to speak to one another at all, and we were marched single file so we could not see one another’s eyes.”
Before long, though, he had mastered the art of escape, so that as the old man talked, within himself he was following his own trail of daydreams, and it no longer annoyed him – the sitting in unkind hospital chairs in the cold tedium of waiting rooms whose long windows looked out on the final and ordinary scenes which dying people have. Neither did watching his mother’s face grow more haggard and, it seemed, more distant from him each day. It was as if – as they slumped more completely each day into their roles as watchers of the dying – their own connection to one other became corroded and unclear; the dying man whom they watched and who talked about the Philippines seemed to be reconciled to his part as well, even though Roy still had his doubts about his real identity.
Sometimes he suspected this man was his grandfather, his mother’s father, but he could not be certain: he vaguely recalled having met him years earlier, but he had never acted as the grandparents of his friends at school acted, never had come to Thanksgiving or Christmas, never had bought him anything at all, and it had, in fact, become a great trouble to try and imagine him in any other way than he appeared now. Mostly he was just a fading creature at one with the tall, white bed, and the three stacks of books between the bed and the window were like rickety headstones.
Besides, since they had arrived in Valdosta three months earlier, his mother had given him no sign whatsoever as to what he should say. She seldom spoke to the old man herself, and she never touched him – mostly she sat with her eyes closed or watched her soap operas on the black television which hung above them like an alien pod. The chart on the back of the door said that the dying man was Colonel Henry Donaldson, and all of the hospital staff and everyone else called him “Colonel,” even the boy’s mother. He had been a Marine Corps pilot in World War II and had flown in combat over the Pacific. The boy, who was eight years old, had gone into the library at his new school and read about it in the thick books there, all about Midway and Iwo Jima and so on, but nowhere in the tiny black print had he been able to find the Colonel’s name.
“It was a big war,” the Colonel said.
That had been during the second month of the Colonel’s hospitalization, when the boy had still been trying hard to picture the old man without the white nightgown or pajamas and his knobby, bluish bones showing. He failed to imagine such a man at the console of a fighter plane.
“Are you sure you were there?” he asked.
“Roy,” his mother said, her eyes closed, “please leave the Colonel alone.”
Just then a brown-skinned nurse arrived and announced that it was time for the Colonel’s “cleanin’ out.” Breakfast, which he had not eaten, lay cold and congealed on the tray before him. The old man grimaced.
On the ninety-fifth day of the Colonel’s hospitalization, the mother excused herself to go to the rest room. She often did so, and would not return for at least half an hour. Usually at these times, the old man and the boy sat in silence, or they would stare at the TV overhead, or else the Colonel would punch the button in his head and the talking about the Philippines would begin again. But this time he said,
“Come over here, Roy.”
The boy came to the edge of the bed; he could smell the old man’s witch-hazel smell.
“I have a favor to ask of you,” the Colonel said.
“I’m going to have your mother go to my house again tomorrow. When she does, you must find a way to do what I’m going to ask you. You mustn’t tell her. This may take a good deal of intelligence and courage on your part.”
Roy nodded, a new eagerness creeping into him.
“She will be going there to pick up a few things for me, and when she does, you must go into my study. You know where?”
“Yep,” Roy said. He knew the house well enough, had been there many times, although he had never slept there. He and his mother were still staying at the Motor Court. They had retrieved lots of things for the Colonel: pairs of moth-eaten pajamas, books with water-stained covers which the Colonel had left unopened at the bedside, a navy blue suit-coat which, Roy supposed, the Colonel intended to wear upon his release from the hospital, and various other odds and ends. During most of their visits, the mother sat on a bench in the foyer, and it was Roy who searched the house’s musty rooms for the items the old man had requested.
“Now, in my study, in the big desk, in the second drawer on your right, you will find a black leather case. It’s not very big. It has a little brass lock on it. It should just fit into the inside pocket of your jacket. Bring it to me, but you mustn’t let your mother know about it. That is the most crucial part of this mission – keeping it secret. I’ll tell her I need some more of my pajamas. Can you do it?”
“Why does it have to be a secret?” he asked.
“It’s a test,” the Colonel said. “I have to know whether you could fool the Japanese. If you can’t fool her, you can’t expect to be able to fool them.”
“Why do I have to fool the Japanese?”
The Colonel blinked at him. “It will be part of your training, of course.” The old man seemed so sincerely astounded by the question that Roy could not bring himself to ask what sort of training he was to take part in. He thought it over. He knew he could indeed do what the Colonel had asked of him, quite easily, without detection. He had heard over and over in recent weeks about how soldiers do not question their commanders, even when they are prisoners and quite sick and afraid. But he was only a boy and not a soldier, and so at last he said, “She doesn’t like secrets. It’s the same as lying, she says.”
The Colonel looked out the window. “How old are you?” he asked.
“Eight and a half,” the boy said.
“What’s the worst pain you ever knew?”
“I fell off the monkey bars two years ago and broke my collarbone,” the boy said. “That hurt like hell.”
“Okay,” the Colonel said. “In only eight and one-half years of life, that’s the worst pain you’ve had. Well, I’m eighty-five. Did you know that?”
Roy shook his head.
“Well, I am. So imagine breaking your collarbone ten more times. You’d like to get up and go home to be with your own things, but they won’t let you, because you’re laid up. Does any of this make sense?” He looked at the boy; his eyes were not clouded at all this time but were as clear as polished glass.
“What’s in this case that’s so special?” Roy asked.
“Just some old maps. A few papers. Souvenirs of mine from the war. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I told you – it’s a test.”
“Is there a key?”
“I have it.”
“I don’t know about this.”
The Colonel looked out the window again. “I’ll tell you what,” he said. “Let’s make us a bargain. You complete this training exercise successfully, and I’ll do something for you as a reward. What do you want?”
Roy pondered this. “I can’t think of anything,” he said at last.
“Sure you can,” said the Colonel. “Have you ever been up in a plane?”
“Every summer Dad says he’ll come and get me and we’ll fly out to Oklahoma, but he never does it.”
“I still own a plane, you know. I could take you up.”
Indeed, Roy knew there was truth in this. The Colonel had talked about a plane before, which he kept at a small private airport outside of town, but by his own admission he had not flown in at least fifteen years. Still, at the first mention of it, the boy had had a fleeting vision of himself in pilot’s goggles and flyer’s garb, with the wind on his face, and now that exhilarating picture flashed through his mind once again. Then he imagined himself in the lunch line at his new school, staring menacingly back at the two big boys, instead of cowering before them:
“You live at the goddam Motor Court, don’t you?” one of them said. “You don’t talk like us. You don’t even play football. Little pussy!”
“Have you ever been at the throttle of a fighter plane, dumbshit?”
Now he said to the old man, “Are you sure they’ll still let you fly? Maybe you’re too old.”
“Listen,” said the Colonel. “They can stick all the needles and hoses in me they want to. But they’ll never keep me out of a cockpit.”
Doing as the old man had asked him was the easy part. His mother was typically so distracted these days that she seemed hardly to notice him, and he had no trouble stealing into the Colonel’s study the following day as his mother sat in the foyer and literally stared at the peeling wallpaper, with her shoulders rounded and arms crossed; she did not even remove her coat. The house, even though it had not been occupied in more than three months, had that thick, vaguely nauseating odor which he had smelled in the homes of old people, but it was still preferable to the antiseptic smells of the hospital. And there was mystery in this house: he wondered why his mother would not go in very far, as if some sort of invisible stopper kept her out, while to him, there was a dark silence here he wished to know about. It was a narrow place, with only two bedrooms upstairs: the Colonel’s room, with his study off its far wall, and another room at the end of the hallway which was locked (in fact, the glass knob would not even turn at all); on this door were the traces of a stick-on picture which someone had peeled away, and all that remained of it was what looked like the toe of a ballerina’s slipper, but he couldn’t be sure.
He went into the Colonel’s bedroom – there was the glass of water, still slowly evaporating right where the old man had left it on the bedside table; there was the dresser with the single photo, stuck in the mirror’s frame, of a very young officer and an Asian girl, both looking quite serious – the only war memento Roy had seen in the house. Most of the books were gone, as he had already taken them to the Colonel, but he had not remembered that there were no more pajamas left in the dresser, either. He would have to make an excuse.
He proceeded to the study. This room smelled of wood and pipe tobacco and the insides of old cabinets, and although – again – half of the shelves were already empty, there hung a pall of aging books and paper. It was nothing like the library at school, with its gleaming, freshly polished tables.
He sat down at the big pecan desk, turned on the green lamp, slid open the second drawer down on the right, and there was the leather case, about the size of a cigar box, only a bit narrower, just where the Colonel had said it would be; but the old man had been wrong about the key, for he saw immediately that it was snug in the little brass lock.
Guess his memory’s not as good as he thinks.
Roy lifted the case; it was heavy – too heavy for just maps and old papers. Carefully, he placed thumb and forefinger on the key and turned it; inside, on a piece of foam padding, was a short, silver pistol. There were four bullets stuck into the foam as well, with a little rag tucked into the corner of the box, and he caught the scent of oil and steel. A dust-speckled bar of afternoon sunlight which streamed through the gap in the curtains glimmered across the gun, and he shut the lid again, leaving the key in it. Just as the Colonel had said, the whole case fit neatly into the inner pocket of his jacket. It was the heaviest thing he had ever carried there, though, and he placed his elbow against it to keep its weight from swinging too much.
Suddenly his mother’s voice came hurtling up to him: “Roy! Did you get lost up there?” She had ventured as far as the bottom of the stairs.
“No,” he called. “There’s no more pajamas.”
“I’m not surprised,” she answered. “A person can only have so many pairs of those ratty old things.”
“Which ones did he say?”
“He was wearing them, wasn’t he?”
“Well, I don’t know, do I?” His mother’s voice seemed strange now, half-wailing, almost childlike, and he thought she might be crying. “It’s not my duty to keep track of these things, is it? Just let’s go.”
When they were in the car once again, and it was plain that she had not been crying after all, she remarked, to no one in particular: “Damn those painkillers. The body is one thing, but I hate to see his mind going, too. He might have been mean and nasty sometimes, but he certainly never was one to forget a damn thing.”
He knew that the old man’s mind was very good. It was good enough, in fact, for him to recall very well nearly everything that had ever happened to him, with a precision so sharp it seemed to carve people and places out of thin air. More and more, he had talked freely and vividly, to whomever was in the room, about his experiences as a prisoner of war. For instance, one morning, out of the blue, he had said, “It was the seventy-third day of my internment. On that day, they led me out and down the dirt corridor, to a room lined with bamboo reeds. There was another American officer there, and they made us lie face-down on the floor. They put thick wooden poles on our calves and hamstrings, and the guards stood on them and rolled them up and down our legs, like you’ve seen lumberjacks do in log-rolling contests, only much more slowly. They did this again on the seventy-fourth and seventy-fifth days. Of course, we yelled and swore at them, but neither I nor the other prisoner, whose name I never learned, ever broke. The legs just get numb after a while. Later, they hammered long slivers of bamboo under my fingernails and toenails with a little wooden mallet, and I did break then. I told them everything I knew about our air tactics and what I believed were our specific objectives in the Pacific. It was nothing they hadn’t already figured out. Anyway, by then it was only a matter of waiting.”
Looking up at the ceiling, or out of the long windows over the tops of the pine trees, the Colonel could go on this way for hours at a time, not necessarily to the boy or the woman, but almost as if just to hear himself. Once in a while a nurse would come in and refill the I.V. bag, and then soon the old man would drift away to sleep, but after an hour or so, his voice would begin again, sometimes in the middle of a sentence, with the thread of his narrative intact.
But on the evening of the ninety-sixth day of the Colonel’s hospitalization, as Roy sat there with the weight of the black leather case against his ribs, he thought: He didn’t remember about the key, though. It was also plain that the Colonel had lied about the case’s contents, so who was to say whether anything he told about had really happened? Perhaps it was all made up.
After nearly two hours of sitting, his mother excused herself, her heels clicking wearily off down the corridor. The old man rolled his head over on the pillow and looked at the boy.
“I brought it,” Roy said.
The Colonel smiled weakly. “Hand it to me.”
He walked to the bed and slipped the case into the old man’s thin, spotted hand. He looked at it, touched the key which was still inserted in the brass lock, and then placed the object under his right thigh; he pulled the bed sheet up to his armpits. “Thank you, Roy,” he said. “Did you look inside?”
He had decided during the ride to the hospital to refuse to confess that he had indeed looked, knowing that the Colonel would ask him, of course. And why not? The old man had not been truthful about it. But now he found that he could not withstand the Colonel’s clear blue gaze. It was like looking into a small, very bright light which hurt his eyes. He looked away.
“I mean yes.”
“I don’t know why you thought you had to lie about it.”
“I believed you might misunderstand.”
“Well, why do you need it? They won’t let you shoot it off in here, you know.”
“I told you. I need my own things around me.”
Roy thought of the packing boxes which were still sitting by his bed at the Motor Court; he understood about wanting your things, all right, but he found he was hurt that the Colonel had not trusted him completely.
“So, did I pass?”
The Colonel gazed at him.
“The training test?”
“Absolutely. No question.”
The boy stood by patiently, but now the Colonel closed his eyes and let his head nod forward; he suddenly seemed very tired. “When are we going flying, then?” Roy blurted.
“You said you’d take me up in your plane if… Don’t you remember?”
“Yes, I know I said that. But let’s be realistic – I can’t do that, can I?”
Roy was dumfounded. “You promised.” His heroic image of himself in pilot’s gear – goggles and leather jacket – flashed in his mind again and then was gone for good. The Colonel’s eyelids fluttered as he spoke.
“I guess I did. But you and I both know that I’ll never get up out of this bed again. Even if I could, there’s no way in hell I’d get clearance for flying. Anyway, I sold that plane long ago.”
Roy stared at the feeble, spotted head. He could hear his mother’s heels far off down the corridor.
“Liar,” he whispered. But the Colonel fell further into sleep, and suddenly the boy was filled with a wild resentment and bitterness; still, the patience he had been forced to learn through all of the hours of sitting and watching and listening asserted itself, and he managed to rule his impulses and to contain them; the only possible sign was the burning of the tears which had welled up in his eyes, but which he refused to allow to spill out.
He leaned over the bed. “I never believed you anyway,” he hissed, wiping his eyes with his sleeve. “You and your damn stories. I bet you were never even in any war. I bet you’ve never even been in a plane yourself. You made all that crap up just to trick me into doing what you wanted.”
But the Colonel would not reply. He was now lying quite still, and in another minute or two his breathing became slow and steady, his head rising and falling on his chest like a drifting balloon. Roy wondered whether he could wedge his fingers under the old man’s leg and pull the case out and put it back in his own pocket. That would show him. But before he could make up his mind to do it, he heard the clicking of his mother’s shoes just outside the door.
“Liar,” he whispered again, but the old man was asleep.
For the next hour or so, until visitors’ time ended and they had to go back to the Motor Court, he debated with himself whether to tell his mother all about the gun. In the end, he decided not to tell – not out of any loyalty to the Colonel, by any means, but because his sense of honor had been so deeply offended, and to tell would be childish. Also, he now saw that his silence over it would amount to a sort of heroism: if the old man could not keep his word, the boy thought, he would at least keep his own.
“Time to go, Roy,” his mother said. “Don’t wake him up.”
Roy looked closely at the Colonel, believing for only a moment that he might be feigning sleep; but his mouth was open, the small networks of green veins on his eyelids lay still, map-like, and his breathing was like the long and measured stride of a man walking through his own dreams. His face looked quite tired, but surprisingly smooth and untroubled. They put on their coats quietly and left.
Outside, it was cold. They rode in dead quiet in the car, and the boy sensed that he ought to talk to his mother – he hated it when she fell into her terrible silences because it was like falling and falling through utter darkness, with a freezing wind blowing right through his ears. He almost spoke up, but the odd feeling of the aftermath of anger, the awareness that he was still suffering from the way in which the Colonel had betrayed him about the flying, had seemed to trap him in solitude. He knew, of course, that the old man really had been in the war, and that he himself had only denied it out of bitterness.
At last a tendril of hope took hold of him: perhaps the Colonel would be well soon and they would fly after all. Perhaps his mother was right and the medicine was muddling up the old man’s head. But no – that wasn’t likely. Bitterness and dismay threatened at his heart once more, as he realized the vast gulf between any one person’s mind and that of another. It might be best simply not to trust anyone, especially not grown-ups, especially not the Colonel, and maybe not even his mother, who – far away on the other side of the car – was now buried in silence. He felt quite sure he could keep all secrets within himself, and he would accept no more promises and make no more bargains.
A light rain began to streak the windshield, and the groaning of the wipers broke the quiet. His mother looked over, as if just realizing that he was there. “Straight to bed with you when we get back,” she said. “School tomorrow.”
School – he would show them. He would be a man of mysteries and secrets; his superiority, his suffering and heroism would become obvious in his silence and secrecy. Now the coldness and doubt were gone, and he felt safe and certain inside the warm car. The wet road stretched out ahead of them, on and on, and he knew that he had plenty of time in which to dwell in his new life of secrecy. He shook his head as if to cast off the childishness he had shown such a short while ago.
He was no longer angry with the Colonel.