Their Pain – Erin Donoho
“I’ll see you soon,” Denny says, drawing back, and takes his hand off Rich’s shoulder. They shake hands, and for a second, here in their uniforms, it’s nearly like they’re back at Corregidor, before it all went to hell. They grin at each other, grinning away the fear, and Denny gives him a thumbs-up and turns.
Rich watches him walk into the crowd of people until he disappears. Even then Denny’s words ring in his ears. Rich promised he’d show him Milwaukee one day, if he ever came. Laying in the bunk in the dark, Denny limp next to him, burning with fever from the dysentery, Rich spoke of anything he could think of to take Denny’s mind—and his own—off the pain.
Rich steps onto the train and sits, once again, and stares out the window into Chicago’s giant Union Station, gray and jam-packed, where he’s leaving Denny. Denny is going on to Huntington; Rich, to Milwaukee.
Home. He can’t imagine being there now, after all that’s happened. Just a few weeks ago he was in Japan. Before that, China: Mukden, the POW camp. Now he’s not even a soldier anymore.
Already the train car feels colder, emptier, without Denny. Be a man, Rich thinks, that’s what he should do—but what that means he doesn’t know anymore. He has done so much that should have made him a man, and all he feels is tired.
“Lots of churches.” That was one thing he had spoken of, to Denny, trying to distract him. “Catholic churches.” He glanced to the side to see if Denny would take the bait, tease him about worshipping Mary. Denny was a Baptist, and thought all Catholics did was pray to Mary.
But Denny didn’t say anything. He lay still with his eyes closed, listening.
“And bakeries. And the Grand Market, got all kinds of stuff, barrels of candy and fruit and vegetables, bread, all the food you can imagine. Barrels of penny candy . . .”
“Shit.” Denny grimaced, face contorted. “Sounds like a real exciting city.”
“If you ever come to Milwaukee, I’ll show you around.”
“Yeah?” Denny’s eyes opened, fever and pain and exhaustion in them, but a spark of hope, too. “That’d be fun. I never been to a place bigger than Cincinnati.”
“Yeah, sure. You come visit, I promise I’ll show you everything.”
Denny clutched his hand, eyes closed. “I’ll hold you to that.”
Soon, Denny said. Soon could be six months. A year. Ten years. In heaven.
The train rolls forward, chugging, that hypnotic rhythm that has carried them all the way across the country from San Francisco. Rich was so glad to be back on land, and he is still glad. And yet.
He opens his eyes. The conductor has stopped at the front row of seats, chatting with a woman as she hands him her ticket. He’s not staring at Rich; he’s not demanding anything from him. He doesn’t have an Asian face.
They were both a little nervous about the conductors. Denny and Rich, a.k.a. Specialists Freeley and Pietrlechski as their insignias proclaimed, had all the power in the world in their uniforms. Practically every man bowed at their feet, thanking them, and women and girls stared, often smiling. But Rich still couldn’t quite bring himself to meet the conductors’ eyes. He can’t bring himself to look at this one, either. So much for being a man, he thinks, but then he remembers what Denny told him, about perseverance and having courage just by living. Denny himself may or may not have believed the words, but they seemed so true back at Mukden, and in Japan, and even on the ship home. They can’t lose their meaning now. Rich can’t let them.
But he lost control of everything a long time ago. Does he still have control over the meaning of words? He is so tired.
The closer to home he gets the less sure of everything he is.
His parents know he is coming—he sent them a letter when he was still in Japan—but not exactly when. He might surprise them. It is noon now (morning and night feel the same to him after all this train travel, reminding him of the room, darkness, no light, no sense of time); he might get into Milwaukee at eight, if he’s lucky.
At least the train is bright, lit up with sunlight; the last train was dark most of the time, with people trying to sleep. Even then though, Rich was sleepless alongside Denny, both of them staring out the black windows and humming and drinking soda after soda, going to the can constantly, trying to keep awake. They were tired; both could have easily slept. But sleep is not worth it, not with the darkness that comes.
Rich hasn’t eaten since early this morning on the train, when he forced himself to eat a couple pieces of toast. He still has to be careful about what he eats. It’s lunchtime now, but he’s so screwed up he doesn’t feel hungry. He lets his eyelids fall and his body sink into the seat, swaying with the train.
He lurches to the right and jerks awake, but instead of seeing the dank black boxcar packed with men and shit he sees light, and red seats, everyone sitting and talking and calm.
Trains are the same everywhere, in Manila or San Francisco or Chicago.
He is going home. Without Ham, or Jerry, or Weaver, or Denny.
He wonders where Denny is at. He doesn’t know how long it takes to get to Huntington. West Virginia seems like a long way away.
He sways along, a passenger, being served, taking everything in.
At their mercy.
His heart lurches and he nearly stands, but no one else is standing, everyone else is relaxed. They’re not taking him anywhere dangerous. He can get off any time.
Sweat pools under his arms and he clutches the edge of his seat, staring out the window, praying the conductor doesn’t speak to him again.
We’re free, Hamilton had said when the Russians came. Hey Freeley, he had grinned at Denny, we’re free. They had all laughed for no reason at all. They were free.
Rich still doesn’t know what that means.
The Milwaukee station is quiet and mostly empty when he steps off the train. He is hungry and thirsty, but all he wants is to get to somewhere with a bed. A real bed. When was the last time he slept in a real bed? He can’t remember.
Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto. After repeating it for three years it’s ingrained in his subconscious. He is tired but his brain won’t stop repeating Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto. Gloria Patri. Et Filio. Et Spiritui Sancto. Gloria.
He doesn’t need physical saving anymore. His spiritual condition, as always, remains the same.
No cabs line the street. Rich adjusts his bag and looks around for a phone. He can’t find one.
“What is that, some prayer to Mary?” Denny had asked him, when he had noticed Rich saying the prayer a few times.
“Praise to God, you heathen,” Rich retorted, grinning.
“As if I know Latin.”
It is dark and he keeps thinking someone is going to come tell him to get inside, to get where he is supposed to be. But nothing holds him here. There is no fence that he can see, no barbed wire. No barracks. He is free.
His gut clenches in the cool air.
Tears sting his eyes. He is back in his hometown, and already he doesn’t want to be. It’s home, but it’s home from before. He is nothing like he was before.
A taxi pulls to the curb, and Rich hails it.
“Welcome home,” the driver says as he takes Rich’s bag. His face is wrinkled, calm, absolutely kind.
Rich tells him the address and the driver accelerates, turning down the dark city streets, south toward home. Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto. He knows the intricacies of every syllable. Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.
He lay in the dark praying, seeing nothing with eyes open and pain everywhere, head floating, silence so intense he could hear it echoing. Gloria. Dark. Patri. His head is separate from his body. Et Filio. He has given up listening for sound. It is no use. Et Spiritui. They will come in when they wish and do whatever they want to him, but he cannot make them come. Sancto. He cannot make anything happen. Gloria. Floating in darkness.
The door creaks and the staccatos drive into his ears. Hands grab him, overpowering him. He is grateful for human touch.
The driver speaks, voice deep and loud. “What?” Rich snaps.
The driver stares at him in the rearview mirror. “I said where you coming from?”
“San Francisco. Japan.”
“You guys did a helluva job over there. That’s for sure. Going home now?”
“Good for you.”
Thankfully he doesn’t say any more.
A light shines from behind the curtain of the living room. Rich climbs out of the cab, pays the driver, takes his bag and says, “Thanks.”
The yard looks the same as ever; so do the neighbors’. There is the stoop where he stacked blocks in intricate structures until they toppled; the sidewalk where he lined up his model planes, shining in the sun; where he ran each day to school, full of dread despite having friends. The lawn where Mom made everyone stand to get the once-a-year Easter photograph. The porch where Nora stood hollering for him in the dark, to come in from playing with the neighbor boys. All of whom have probably been home a while already. He doesn’t know what happened to them. They never were that close.
With each step to the porch his heart pulses a little larger, more painful.
The door is open, showing the hall and living room through the screen. He shouldn’t be here. This is him before, and he is no longer him before.
He holds his breath, knocks, and swallows a wave of pain in his chest.
Mom approaches, in a housedress and slippers. She probably can’t see him yet.
Then she gasps and pushes open the screen.
“Richard.” She hugs him, and he hugs her back, his bag somehow out of his hand. She’s squeezing him so damn tight his mostly-healed ribs spit fire through his insides.
She wipes her eyes, looking at him. “I didn’t know—we didn’t know when you’d get in.”
“I didn’t call. Sorry.”
“No. Come in.” She turns. “Richard’s home!”
She has taken his bag. Feet pound upstairs, and a girl shrieks, “Rich?”
Dad stands near the radio, broad-shouldered as ever, wearing that same tan sweater he’s worn for years—“Welcome home son,” he says, pulling Rich in for a quick hug. He smells of the same cologne, the same sharp minty pipe tobacco.
And there is Cathy, his kid sister, slender as ever but grown up as hell. Her shiny brown hair hangs curled and neat around her face, which is slimmer than he remembers. How old is she now?—how old is he? “Hi there,” Rich says as she squeezes him. It’s been so long. He’s missed her growing up.
She sniffs into his shoulder. She’s crying.
A great fear descends into his stomach, a black cloud not unlike the one that came in the late days at Mukden, during that last winter, starving and guts running out and voices cracking instead of singing. Everyone was dying, and there hung that black cloud of doom.
“Cathy, take Rich’s bag upstairs,” Mom commands. “Rich, are you hungry? Come have some szarlotka.”
He isn’t hungry, he just wants to sleep, but he cannot refuse, with Mom turning on the light in the kitchen and unwrapping a dish on the counter. Dad follows him into the kitchen and mumbles to Mom, “Powinniśmy zadzwonić do Nora.”
The last letter he got from Mom and Dad was in forty-two. He wonders if Nora, his older sister, and her husband John have kids now.
He didn’t expect a Polish dessert so soon after coming home, but he shouldn’t be surprised. He told the guys about chrusciki; karpatka, his grandmother’s cream cake; but sernik, cheesecake, was the big hit. They spent hours discussing the intricacies of making it, which weren’t many, and within weeks Rich knew if he had access to his mother’s kitchen he could make it by heart. Sometimes he’d dream of it, of the sweet creamy texture in his mouth.
But he never told the men about szarlotka, somehow. Now a large slice sits in front of him, strips of crust overlapping on top of cooked golden apples.
The metal fork is cool in his fingers, not at all like the parts they had to put together in the factory, and he knows it’s an old fork, not made in Japan. He takes a bite of the szarlotka and the sweetness overwhelms him. It’s been—how long? At least six, maybe eight weeks since the Russians liberated them and they got their Red Cross packages, and he ate real food in the Tokyo hospital. And still the szarlotka is too much.
Mom talks excitedly into the phone: “Yes! Have John drive you! Tak!”
She smiles as she sits next to Rich. “Eat. You are so thin,” she says, as if she didn’t expect it. She knew he was coming from Mukden; she knew he had been a prisoner. At least he looks better than he did when they were first liberated.
His guts twist and he swallows and sets the fork down.
“Nora is coming over,” Mom says. “John is driving her.”
Cathy bounds into the kitchen still in her nightgown, beams at Rich, and says, “Can I have a piece?”
“Wait for Nora,” Mom says. “See if she wants some.”
Dad’s voice booms from the living room and yet another feminine voice calls, “Richard?”
Rich stands and walks to greet Nora, who is dressed in a flowered housedress and slippers, a younger replica of their mother. Behind her is her husband John, who last Rich heard was serving in England.
“Rich!” Nora throws her arms around his neck. “You rascal! You’re so thin.”
He can say nothing to that, so he says, “Good to see you.”
“I’m so glad you’re home. You’re—all right.” She blinks back tears as she gazes at him, holding him by the shoulders, looking up because he has five inches on her. In a family of sisters he’s always felt tall. “Oh Rich.”
“Don’t cry over the man, he’s home,” John says, and shakes Rich’s hand. John is broad-shouldered like Rich’s father, but is of Irish descent. His last name is Reilly; Rich can remember that. “Welcome home.”
“Thanks,” Rich says. “When’d you get back?”
“July. Spent a bit of time in Paris after the fighting stopped.” John’s eyes rove over him. “Feeling better?”
Rich shrugs. “Sure.” Thankfully Mom ushers everyone into the kitchen so no one notices his flat tone. He’s never been good at lying.
“You hurting? Huh?” Denny had asked him once, probably multiple times, Rich can’t remember. He does remember lying in the bunk, Denny over him, Rich’s head with that floating sensation again and pain everywhere, especially in his head—it was after one of the beatings—and saying “No” because he was tired of Denny’s concern. Denny was hurting, too. He had dysentery as bad as any other guy.
“You’re a terrible liar,” Denny said, and squeezed Rich’s hand. “A terrible liar. You know that?” He kept saying it because Rich was fading in and out. At least that’s what Rich remembers. A lot of those moments are fuzzy.
In the kitchen the others eat szarlotka and chat, and Rich sits trying to not blush and stares at the table, the yellow curtains, the icebox and stove. It’s all the same as before. He should be younger, at least five years younger, so everything would fit. Now, at his age, he doesn’t fit.
“Richard, eat,” Mom says from next to him.
“Oh.” What can he say to that? “You have it, Mom.”
She frowns at him, but in order to not make a scene she takes the plate. He thanks the Lord and his mother’s good sense.
When everyone’s left he goes upstairs. Cathy placed his bag right by his bed, which looks the same, along with everything else. They assumed he would return.
Ham, Sellitt, Weaver, Jerry, Jul, Durbin—they all won’t be returning. Thousands of others won’t be returning.
Rich tried so hard. But Jul lay on that table and fought and fought until he couldn’t fight anymore. And then he still resisted death, writhing and moaning, crying for God until he went quiet.
And Rich lay right next to him, wanting to escape the camp hospital and at the same time knowing he couldn’t—he wouldn’t. He had tried so hard. One orange would not have saved Jul, but maybe, maybe, it would have. If only Rich had been able to sneak it past the guards. He probably still could have, despite the increased surveillance on their walks to and from the factory. He could have been sneakier.
Rich grabs a towel from downstairs, hangs up his uniform, wraps the towel around himself and takes a shower. The water pounds like icicles against his skin, but still the dim light and small space make him sweat. He will not turn his head up, not anymore. He keeps his face well away from the spray and splashes water onto his face with his hands.
He turns off the water quickly and listens for voices.
He hears only Polish and English. No staccato.
He lays in his childhood bed and wonders about his friends from school, Jack Tibbitt and Carroll Ostrowski. Last he knew, in late forty-one, they were in the Navy and Army, respectively, but still in-country. They are distant figures. He doesn’t really want to see them.
He stands with Denny on his left, Ham on his right. For three years, it was the three of them, always lined up the same. The guard hits a sergeant with his rifle butt, and the sergeant staggers but stays standing. The guard hits him again, and again. Blood flows from the sergeant’s nose and mouth. Finally he goes down. The guard kicks him, yelling at him in Japanese to stand.
Someone else moves, but the guard doesn’t notice. Another man falls. He doesn’t try to get up.
Water. Water everywhere, pouring onto his face, not stopping, they’re holding him down and he’s breathing in water—
Rich gags and sits up, then clings to the edge of the bed, dizzy.
The room is dark. He’s alone. He scrambles to the window.
The street. Home. Is he dreaming? He dreamed of home often, at first. Maybe this is the dream.
He pinches himself, driving his fingernail into his forearm. Pulls his hair. The water won’t stop filling up his lungs.
The bed is small and lonely. He doesn’t want to sleep again. He sees the guard beating, beating, beating, blood spurting, the sergeant a crumpled mound of bloody flesh on the ground. He hears the voices when he closes his eyes. He was foolish to think it would stop when he got home. Well, he never really thought it would. But—but. Something.
Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto. Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.
He never thought sleeping alone would be so horrifying.
Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto.
In the morning he will write Denny a letter.
Well I got in to Milwaukee okay. Mom called my sister Nora home, and everyone ate szarlotka, which is like Polish apple pie. I don’t know why I never told you all about that. Anyway Mom ate most of my piece (ha ha). It’s pretty sweet. I hope you got to Huntington all right. It is very strange sleeping in a bed alone. I dreamed—
Rich stops and crumples up the paper. He can’t re-live that dream. He wouldn’t be able to describe it accurately anyway. And what a dull letter. He’s never written to Denny before, and it’s infinitely harder than talking. They spent four and a half years talking, about everything. Writing should be just the same.
I got to Milwaukee okay. Mom called Nora, my sister, to come, and everyone ate szarlotka, Polish apple pie, except me (Mom ate my piece ha ha). It’s very lonely here.
He crumples up that piece too. Who is he to come right out and say he’s lonely? Denny’s probably lonely too. Probably all the soldiers and sailors and marines all over America are lonely. Who is he to complain, in the second line of a letter?
At the machine plant at Mukden they worked standing side by side. When a man fell the guy next to him would grab him, help him up. When Rich fell, that last time, Denny had nearly caught him and was hauling him up when the guards started their beating. Then Denny was yelling, trying to stop it, to put himself between Rich and the guards, but the guards yanked Rich away from him.
“Just wave your hand,” Denny had said at some point after that, lifting the spoon to Rich’s mouth—that was before Rich’s hands could grip the damn spoon; he still doesn’t know why he couldn’t hold it. “Let me know if you’re going to fall. You have to speak up.”
“I don’t know why I can’t hold it,” Rich had tried to say, staring at the spoon. None of them ever wanted to ask for help.
“They beat you to a pulp, besides everything else,” Denny had said. “Of course you can’t hold it.” The small fire lit the room dark orange, and Denny’s face wavered in front of him like a ghost’s, cheekbones jutting out above sunken hollows. “You have to tell me. It’s vital to the war effort.”
That had made Rich smile. To think he was at all vital to the war effort, at that point, was ridiculous.
“Okay. You, too,” Rich said. Denny shook his head and promised. They looked out for each other all the time, anyway.
He should call up Jack or Carroll, or his cousins Ted and Frank. They’ve been home, Mom said. She told him this morning. She forced him to eat some eggs but thankfully didn’t push him past half a plate. His stomach is still a pain in the ass, literally.
All he wants is to see Denny.
It will be a long time before he sees him again.
Maybe he’ll give Jack Tibbitt a call.
The streets of Milwaukee are louder than Rich remembers. Every time a horn honks he jumps out of his skin. He hesitates to cross at each intersection, even though getting hit by a car is nothing compared to what went on at Mukden.
But somehow he makes it to Maddy’s, the bar Jack and Carroll wanted to meet at. They’ve both been home since July, Jack from a ship in the Pacific (we might have passed each other on the sea, he laughed over the phone), and Carroll from torn-up France.
They’re both cheerful and drinking alcohol, Jack a gin and tonic, Carroll a beer. Rich doesn’t drink, a habit formed after years of watching his alcoholic uncle turn his children into trembling wrecks. Jack and Carroll slap him on the back and comment on his thinness, which he tries to make a joke about, and they tell him about what they’ve been doing since they got home. “Got a job at a machine plant,” Carroll says. “Pays good, and they’re hiring men just back even if you don’t have training.”
Rich only nods. He will never work with metal again, not after Mukden where they worked building machinery, war machinery, and some guy who refused, stealing Rich’s idea, got pounded to a pulp and never came back.
It was the Japs, not the Army, who gave him real practical training. All he did in the Army was maintain and load and shoot off GPFs. The cannon was like their pet in a way; they kept it clean and fed it ammunition and talked to it. And it did nothing to deter the Japs from overrunning Corregidor.
He is so tired. He was working fifteen-hour days at Mukden, starving but still working, and now he’s tired doing nothing. It doesn’t make sense. He imagines going to work, carrying a lunch like he did before the war—free, free to do anything—and it’s exhausting.
Be a man, his father would say.
He wants to cry.
“Best way to get back into things is to get a job,” Jack says, puffing out smoke. “Gets your mind off things. My old man said that to me and he was right. You have to get into things. Go out to dances, meet women. Forget the war. There’s a party coming up, Rich, wanna come?”
Rich wants to punch him, but he knows Jack is right. He wishes he wasn’t. In some ways, Rich doesn’t want to forget.
Lying with Denny in their lice-infested bunk, sharing body heat and still shivering; watching one guy feed another whose hands were shaking too bad to hold a spoon; laughing at Jerry’s awful jokes about the guards and food and dysentery; feeling Denny’s presence next to him in the factory; seeing Denny’s grin at the end of the day; feeling his arm around his shoulder. Knowing that despite the threat of death at any moment, he was in some miniscule way, safe.
He doesn’t know that now. He may be safe from death, but he’s not safe.
His hands are shaking. He needs to stand, to walk, to get home to quiet.
“Rich?” Jack says.
The air around them vibrates. “That party,” Jack says. “Wanna come? Next Saturday.”
“Nah,” Rich says. “Maybe—next time.”
“Sure, no problem. Gotta come out to a party sometime soon, though.”
The last thing Rich wants to do is go to a party, with all the noise and voices and smoke, and people packed in like sardines.
Packed in like sardines and drowning in shit, Durbin had said. And then he died. It was too quick. He was one of the ones the Japs had deemed healthy enough to go to Mukden, after all. But all the men were all already coughing, and in the ship’s hold you couldn’t get more than a few inches away from another guy. And they were on the ship so damn long.
Rich had to stare at and poke men who were lying down to see if they were asleep or dead. The smell didn’t come until a few days later. Eventually they piled the bodies on top of one another, and that made some room. Until some fell off the top of the piles. And Durbin would never see the light of day again.
At home Mom is catching on that Rich can’t eat like before, but she still forces him to eat, and that’s hard enough. Her potatoes go down like rocks in his throat, throbbing in his chest, and afterwards his stomach squirms.
Dear Denny, he writes. And writes. I don’t know why this isn’t the way I thought coming home would be. I don’t know why I can’t behave like a normal person. It’d be funny if it wasn’t so strange. Before he can destroy this letter he folds it, posts and mails it. It’s as close as he can get to the only person who might understand.
“Want to come to the Y dance with me tonight?” Cathy asks some night later. It has to be a Saturday since she’s not working. He still can’t seem to remember what day it is, or that remembering actually matters now. They had lost track of that early on at Mukden; they tried to figure it out, one guy even attempted to sneak in and glance at one of the guard’s newspapers, but they never did determine just what day it was. The snow told them when it was winter, and they huddled around their meager fire in the dark, bones rattling.
“You should go,” Mom says, appearing on Rich’s right, and he tries to calm his heart. He’s sitting in the chair in the living room, attempting to read the newspaper. The words tilt and blur before his eyes. “Dance, have fun.”
Cathy takes his hand, her sweet face hopeful. Despite being a woman she is still so innocent. “Come on Rich. You can be my date.”
So he goes with Cathy, joking about fending off men, which she doesn’t seem to mind, and stands in a corner holding a glass of punch, watching her dance with her friends and a few guys. They seem decent enough, although you can never tell for sure. Maybe Cathy should simply never marry. All those Jap guards probably have families. Even children.
Cathy makes Rich dance with her, and it is kind of nice, swaying to an old Harry James tune. Then someone yells, and Rich spins around, looking. Another one’s fallen. How many hours has it been? Still standing, the sky pitch black, legs trembling underneath him like pudding. The guard beats the fallen man as if he thinks he’s going to try to get up. Gloria Patri, et Filio—
“Rich,” Cathy says. “Hey.” She touches his face. He flinches and tries to smile at her, but her frown makes him nervous. “It’s all right,” she says.
He gets a letter back from Denny. Been looking around for a job, though not too seriously, and not even my old man is hounding me about it. So I’ve been out to the creek—too cold already to fish, I’ll have to wait until spring for that—and driving around. It’s like being a celebrity, kind of. But no one wants to know about what really went on, of course. Mom and Dad asked me about the food and the Red Cross and the Chinese civilians, and that was it. I wouldn’t tell them any more anyway. It’s horrible to remember, but it’s something, too, to hang on to. Here there’s nothing to hold on to. I wish you were here.
As for behaving normally, don’t tell me you’re losing those wonderful memories. They did things to you they didn’t do to a lot of guys. You have a right to not be normal.
Rich supposes that’s true. I guess we all have a right to not be normal. He writes about anything and everything he can think of. His handwriting has become horrible, but somehow Denny can read it.
He applies and gets a job at a brickyard, and tells Denny in his next letter. You still lazing around or are you working now too? Denny replies, Much to your chagrin, I’m sure, I got a job about a week ago at a container plant making stuff out of rubber. Much better than metal, even though it smells awful. A lot of guys who just got back work there. How’s hauling bricks? See, you’re getting there.
“Come to the party,” Jack tells Rich over the phone. “You remember Denise Solan. She and her husband got a nice apartment. I’ll pick you up.”
Maybe it’ll be good for me, he writes Denny. Get me out of myself. Still, come visit soon, or else I can come to Huntington. I keep remembering everything, even at home and at work. Sometimes at work I’ll just freeze up, forget where I am for a second. It’s bad, sometimes. A real pain in the ass, anyway. How’s work? Do you ever get like that, remembering everything, unable to move?
He mails the letter and waits for Jack’s car.
The apartment is filled with people: the kitchen, living and dining rooms are all packed, and Rich stands by the window to get an illusion of air. He holds a glass of water, sweats in his wool sweater despite the freezing weather, and dances with a few pretty women whom Jack introduces him to.
A woman’s cry freezes him, and he sees the old woman, hunched over, helpless. The air is smoky and cold, and civilians rush along the city streets, ignoring the guard beating the woman. But where is the damn orange? The guard better not squash it. It fell near the gutter. The women already handed it to the private; it’s his now. Did someone pick it up?
Rich leaps and sees the girl staring up at him—not a Chinese woman but an American, red-haired and concerned. He never helped that woman in the street. No one helped her. The soldier who had been trying to buy something from her stall had been beaten and hadn’t worked for a month. That was the end of being able to buy food from the markets.
“Rich.” A hand slaps his face.
He flinches, cowering. A man looms above him, and the room is too dark, too small, no light anywhere. He sprints to the door, tries the knob and the door opens and he strides into the hall, gasping for a window, fresh air, the water rolling in his stomach. The stairwell is dark, his footsteps clatter and he swallows, flying—
On the sidewalk he gasps, clutching his hair, not knowing what else to do to get air into his lungs. Because so long ago they locked him in darkness, all alone, and there was nothing, no sound, only wood and dirt, and if there had been anything in that room that he could have killed himself with, he would have used it to do just that. Instead he banged his head against the wall and sung and screamed every hymn and prayer he knew, but he kept coming back to Gloria Patri.
In all his piety he never moved to help that woman selling the orange.
“Rich!” Jack bursts from the building and Rich jumps. His underarms are soaked in sweat. “Sorry,” Jack says. “You all right?”
“Yeah.” Rich pulls his hair to feel a sensation.
“Shit, I’m sorry about that. You okay? Wanna go back in, or you gonna leave?”
He can’t go back into that space. He can’t go inside at all right now. “I’m gonna go. Thanks for the ride.”
He walks the three miles home in the dark, shivering, staring up at the open sky and wandering blocks and blocks just to prove to himself that there is actually no fence keeping him in, no guards watching his every move.
Yeah, all the time, Denny writes back about his job. I’m in a warehouse all day, and sometimes I just can’t breathe and have to get out. I think someone’s going to sneak up behind me, or that someone’s going to start yelling in Japanese. Which is funny, because Huntington is the last place you’d see a Jap. Then when I get outside, I start looking for the guards, and the fence. And there’s still no one I can tell about it. I wish I could talk to you, face to face. My whole family’s here and I’m lonely as hell. Maybe I’ll try to come to Milwaukee. It’d be a lot more interesting than you coming here. What do you think?
Rich thinks that’s a grand idea. You can come any time. Let me know. Or else I’ll come to Huntington. I don’t mind. He doesn’t much want to travel by train again but he would, if he could see Denny. He can’t get those words out of his head: I’m lonely as hell. They sit like weights on his chest.
At work he pushes wheelbarrows and says “Yes sir,” and it’s almost like being in the Army again. Then a guard yells and he holds his breath, silent, trying to blend in. But the guard is mad. Rich moved, that’s what he’s mad about. He tries to stand still, he does, but his limbs won’t stop shaking. The rifle butt pounds into his temple and blinding light flashes behind his eyes. There is nothing he can do, but he has to do something. He won’t leave the others, not again.
“What the hell, Rich?”
That’s not a guard. What did he do to the other men? Are they being punished because of Rich? If only the butt would stop ramming into his head.
Fire shoots through his cheek and he stares into the eyes of his manager, Wojokowski. But that’s his last name. His first is—Rich doesn’t know.
Men mill past him pushing wheelbarrows and carrying buckets. Far off a machine whirs.
Another man in Rich’s row falls, and before the guy’s buddy can help him up a guard descends, yelling, and the man stumbles into the table. Tools buzz and whir and Rich keeps pounding the metal. The guard pummels the fallen man in the back.
“Sir.” Rich blinks. He is in the brickyard. His hands are shaking and his undershirt is soaked.
“Come with me.” Wojokowski drags him toward the office.
He doesn’t tell anyone until his mother asks the next morning, “Aren’t you going to work, Richard?” He doesn’t have to speak for her to know.
His father stares at him over supper and asks, “What happened?”
“Dropped—” his breath catches in his throat. He can feel the eyes, locked on him.
But this isn’t Mukden. His father isn’t a Jap and yet it’s as if he is one, a guard back to haunt him, seeing into his soul where his heart flails out of rhythm. Staring at him, laughing, hitting him with his rifle butt, saying things Rich doesn’t understand.
“I dropped a bucket. Of cement. On a guy’s foot.” Rich apologized to Jones when he saw him, after. Jones’ foot was broken.
His father’s eyes widen. “Wet cement?”
“Yeah. Spilled everywhere.” Rich almost laughs. It’s strangely funny.
“Why did you do that?”
“I don’t know. Lost—lost track, heard a yell and just froze.” He doesn’t know what he’s trying to say. He doesn’t want to talk about the memories.
His father spears some meat and says, “Well, you can’t freeze up on the job. You said you made metal machinery in China, why don’t you apply to a metal shop?”
Bile rises in his throat and Rich squeezes the edge of the table until the pain pushes away the images.
I really thought my father was a Jap guard tonight—he seemed just like one, staring with those accusing eyes. You ever had that happen? Just when you think those damn guards are gone. Makes you think you’re really starting to lose your marbles.
I tried telling my boss about it, but he said he couldn’t risk having me on. Mom is disappointed, I can tell. None of the other guys I know have lost jobs. It gives me a lot of hope for the next one.
He writes everything he thinks to Denny, and yet there’s so much more he wants to say that he cannot put into words. It was easier, for some reason, to find the words at Mukden.
You’ll probably get this around the 25th, so Merry Christmas. Tell me all about it. Wish I could see you, but have a gift from me anyway.
He draws a picture of a gift under a tree.
Two days after New Year’s Day he gets a letter, along with a picture: Denny standing with his folks on the front porch of a house. On the back Denny’s scribbled, Thought I’d let you see what the house looks like. 12/24/45.
Denny looks just the same. He and his parents smile into the camera, them behind him, their hands on their son’s shoulders. The letter reads:
Remind me to look out for my feet when I come to see you in a month. I’m taking a train up to Chicago and then to Milwaukee. I should get in around 10 Saturday morning, February 2, so be ready for me.
Rich barely reads the rest.
He looks for jobs at his father’s insistence, but his mother tells him to rest, and though he’d never tell Dad, resting is all he wants to do. For now he lets Dad frown at him and tries to read, to focus on anything; takes walks around the neighborhood where it’s quiet; and plays rummy, Monopoly and Scrabble with Cathy, and with Nora and John when they come over. He tries to think of what to prepare for Denny’s arrival. Denny will have to use Nora’s old bed in the other bedroom upstairs, but he won’t mind, and Rich will introduce him to Polish food and show him all the sights of Milwaukee, the lake and beach, even if it kills him, because he promised he would, long ago, sitting around the fire in the barracks eating their rice. “Come to Milwaukee, you’ll get all the pastries you can eat.”
The train station is crowded when he gets there, and he dodges people, searching for the correct train. Then he sees Denny, and throws himself at him and holds on. Denny does the same and mutters, “Not gonna break my foot, are you?”
And Rich grins and laughs, because Denny understands. He is just the same as three months ago, and they lean into each other, supporting each other like they always have, understanding and carrying each other’s pain.
Finally Denny pulls back. “Good to see you. Getting damn lonely down there.”
Rich knows exactly what he means, and squeezes Denny’s shoulder. “Want some good Polish food?”
“You bet. I’m starving.”
Not as starving as at Mukden. Saying starving here doesn’t really mean anything, now. They’re back in America. For good.
But they’re together.
Rich grins at Denny and takes his bag. They walk out of the station side-by-side into the cold air. He will introduce Denny to his family, and he will show him the neighborhood: St. Adalbert’s with the stained glass and statues; Mickey’s Diner; the Grand Market with the barrels of candy and displays of pastries. Because he promised, so long ago, in that damned camp. And now Denny is here.
Erin Donoho has an M.F.A in Creative Writing from Arcadia University, and has had a short story, “Remembering Joe,” and a collection of poems, Breaking the Ice, published in Metonym Literary Magazine. She resides in California, and besides writing enjoys studying history and psychology and getting lost in music.