An issue about the beachhead at Tarawa brought to a halt things literary. “Where’d you go in the Islands, Armand?” Jack put an arm over his forehead. The air in the room shifted, though the untasted Labatt’s stayed preserved, cutting its way through all other scents. It had an appleness to it. Not a maltness. He wondered if he had a thing for acid or tartness.
Armand saw a hundred scenes at once, a hundred faces. The LST’s MotorMac looking directly into his eyes, as he headed to the ramp, probably seeing all the way to the back of his head as clear as a Sunday morning at home. Beached boats, tipped, burning, wrenched apart, wearing hands and arms and legs in grotesque salutes, even helmets without faces or eyes or mouths under the curved rims. Whole bodies and body parts everywhere on the beach. Stampede over. Butchery! The Corpsman with the odd mouth, as if partially torn from his face by some hateful god, looking down into his eyes. Acceptance. Knowledge of the most intimate kind exchanged. He’d know organs and secrets. And then the wide and endless Pacific stringing itself across the back of his eyelids the way the universe might unfold, or eternal night, or blindness. Only this blind survivor could bring such sights back to him. Only this blind and legless survivor.
“Three, four, maybe five or six steps up on the beach at Kwajalein.” Everything he said would sound like an apology, but he knew his voice was peculiar, different, trying not to stretch itself, overachieve. “Hit right in the thigh, left, thought the bone was coming out the back of my leg. Woke up back on the ship I just crawled off, like an empty going back to the friggin’ redemption center. Floated me all the way home. Glad I didn’t get paid by the hour. You?”
“With Chesty Puller and Fats Grabeski and John Bateman Yancy and Joe Dixon and Joe Ditson down in Nicaragua. I’m the only one left.”
“We’re survivors, Jack. One way or the other, we’re survivors.” If he had the wherewithal he would have pinned another medal or another ribbon on the thin figure in the bed. The thought made him nod. His head kept shaking, almost by itself. It was a wonder Jack couldn’t see him repeating himself, always in approval, the admiration and esteem exuding from him like steam from a heat exchanger. Jack’s thin red face, eyeless eyes, stubble still showing its old-field crop, the lower lip hollow where teeth once held the fort, shaping the new shape, drawing its new edge, all came at him in a flurry.
It was strange, his measuring a man who could not measure back. Canyon without an echo. One-way radar. This belayed creature, this prone creature in front of him, was a hero, a survivor and a hero, clasping to the ragged edges of life, the craggy edges. He tried to remember the poem about the eagle grasping the craggy walls/ and like a thunderbolt he falls, but he couldn’t get all of it. Jack, he knew, would have gone inland from the beach; he would have fought the glorious and awful fight because he was destined for it; he would have left his name in Corps annals even though they might have been in the sand. Then Dorrie’s blank expression ran right into him, a direct hit at a demolition derby. It crowded the long ago beach out of existence. Glencie, too, came broadside. A jarring, mind-shaking, earth-shaking impact. He could see her arms reaching.
“Glencie’s real bad. Jason called again last night and was crying. I’d go down but I can’t take Dorrie. It’s all so unfair.” He shifted in his seat, saw the little paunch of Jack’s gut pushing against the thin blanket, the yellowed fingers and thumb testing the thickness of his cover. Shouldn’t drink, he thought. Shouldn’t smoke. But what the hell does he have? He deserves something at the end, some kind of peace.
“I’m goddamn sorry about that, Armand. But something’ll happen, don’t worry. We’re all going through torture of one kind or another. Not like we haven’t been there before. I had these frigging arrows in my legs, one in my back, the natives shooting hundreds of them to land one and I get a whole Legation’s quota all to myself.”
Suddenly, momentarily, he appeared fragile to the mailman. Momentary and fragile. Armand said to himself: The survivor’s still talking in him, but hardly any of this is fair. They were always after me, whatever odds there were, whatever gods there were, they were always after me. Whatever odds and gods and lords there were, they were after me. The whole kit and caboodle of them. They still are. The gods of war. The lords of darkness. All the odds they dispense. Dorrie’s blank expression came back with all its power, raw, menacing, ground-shaking, time-diffusing. There were times now when she didn’t recognize him, or didn’t make a face of any kind, even at the mention of Glencie’s name. Didn’t ask about her daughter sometimes for days on end. Heavy-footed, he went down the stairs, leaving the canvas bag full of Talking Books at the foot of the bed.
The appointed rounds sounded itself in Armand’s head, being nothing more than conscience one might argue. Later, under cover of darkness, he was amazed to realize that darkness itself had had its antecedents. None of this had occurred to him before; they were as simple as doubt, as sharp as a cluster of lead tending to disfigure itself in flesh, as complex as a beach full of the organisms of war as far as the eyes could see.
Then, his eyes fading in his own deliberate and final and accurate assessment, the last thing he saw after Glencie’s reaching hands and Dorrie’s mouth struck open by her own indelicate awe, was the blind survivor, legless, clasping the craggy edges of life to his chest, as he placed a revolver under his chin. He argued that the metal was too cold to pull the trigger. He saw his next delivery, heard Jack Derrick say, one more time, “Shit, man, it’s about time they sent that one.”