Green Hills Literary Lantern

Field Hospital No. 1

 

 

        A Story from WWII in the North Pacific

 

At first, none of the doctors could understand the popularity of broken ankles on the island.  They learned quickly though.  It’s because of the muskeg.  In order to make any progress into Jap territory, the infantry must hike around Fish Hook Ridge and all the way up the lowland valley—which is covered in a thin, spongy tundra called muskeg. Aside from being uneven ground, the muskeg gives way beneath the soldiers’ feet as they march.  What’s worse is when its surface breaks, and a soldier’s boot goes all the way through, down into the volcanic muck beneath.  This is how they twist their ankles.  However, they’re happy when only that happens.  In many places, huge bogs are waiting just beneath the surface of the land.  If a man breaks through over one of these spots, he could easily be lost for good. 

 

In most regions, the rain has softened the muskeg to a point where jeeps, tractors, and the 105-mm artillery the Army sends can’t get far before miring.  They spin their wheels, spraying bits of earth all over the place—often on the nearby infantry or the flimsy tents of Field Hospital No. 1.  As a result, Attu must be taken entirely by the men, who in turn must carry all they can on their backs.  After unloading on Red Beach, they pack their gear, sling tan knapsacks over their shoulders, and pull the green G.I. parkas tightly beneath their chins.  The columns pass by the hospital and then head for the inland mountains, each figure slightly bent forward, weighted down by so much food, ammunition, and equipment. 

 

Bed 99, a fractured left foot talus, once told Dr. Tom Church he believes the Jap soldiers to be dissolved in the fog that covers Attu.  This sounded melodramatic to Tom, though he did not say so to Bed 99.  Still, Bed 99 was right about one thing: fog is everywhere on Attu, every ice-covered cliff and cave, each stubby hillock that makes up the long hike to Chichagof Harbor—suspected site of the enemy.  Early in the morning, Tom can always see fog blowing in from the ocean, over the rocks that rise from the surface of Holtz Bay just a few yards off shore.  It normally gets worse as evening approaches, and by 4:30 even the jagged peaks of the interior will become invisible. 

 

Pal, it’s like you can’t even see who’s shooting at you out here, Bed 99 said, sitting up to take Tom by the arm. What can you do with that? I mean, really, what? 

 

I don’t know, Tom said. Wait it out, I guess.

 

Wait it out? Bed 99 said, beginning to laugh. You’ve obviously never been at the mercy of enemy fire, my friend. 

 

No, Tom said, marking Bed 99’s condition on a chart that hung from the foot of his white metal bed. Not really.

 

 

Whenever the wind keeps Tom up at night in the barracks tent, he works on his letter to Doug.  He’s made many drafts so far, each one on the back of a deceased patient’s medical chart since paper is a commodity here.  In his letters, Tom’s been trying to say something important to his son about everything that’s happened.  Though Tom will not admit it in his writing, his enrollment in the military is a result of his wife Margaret’s infidelity.   Think of this as a little time to get yourself straightened out, Tom said aloud as he sat in his car, parked just outside the Army recruitment office in downtown San Francisco.  He sat there for 20 minutes, repeating this to himself, before a man in uniform finally came outside and asked him if he was lost. 

 

In his letters, Doug almost never mentions the war, and if he does, it is only to say, Take it easy, Dad. Watch out for trouble.  Sometimes he mentions his mother, though even he doesn’t see her much anymore.  Tom wonders if Doug thinks his father deserved to be run out on.  After all, it had been going on so long right under his nose, right there with Gary Singer, his old partner in the practice, a friend—or at least he had thought so.  Tom can’t help but imagine what the two of them are doing right now:  probably sitting together in the long black Ford Gary had the foresight to buy just before the war, before rationing kicked in.  Tom often imagines them driving along the cliffs outside the city at high speed, Margaret reaching over to sweep Gary’s blond hair from his eyes. They most likely mention him in an offhanded way, saying things like That poor, sorry bastard, or What a buffoon

 

Whenever Tom tries to write back to Doug, he never gets more than a paragraph or two.  The letters often end with the sentence, What you need to understand about this, Doug, is . . . and then, Tom can never seem to say. After a while of staring at the page, he stuffs the draft under his mattress with dozens of others.

 

 

A new doctor arrived late to the hospital yesterday and Tom has been assigned to show him the ropes.  His name is Carlson and Tom thinks he looks like a young Bela Legosi.

 

So you got any kids at home, buddy? Carlson asks. Tom says he does—one; he’s actually working in a bomb factory back home now.

 

Tom and Carlson are doing rounds together, moving down the two rows of beds in Ward #4. 

 

I don’t see him much anymore, Tom says. He’s grown up now. Tom thinks about adding something about the divorce and how Doug had always been closer to Margaret, but doesn’t.

 

Huh, Carlson says, inspecting Bed 15 with a frown. Bed 15’s head is entirely wrapped in gauze.  Bed 15 is a lacerated face and singed corneas that will most likely result in blindness. 

 

Hey, King Tut, Carlson says to Bed 15. Mr. Mummy-head. Wake up, will you?

 

It doesn’t take Tom long to find out that he doesn’t like Carlson. Mainly, Carlson never shuts up. He talks about his wife and toddler son all the time.  According to him, at this very moment, they’re eagerly awaiting his return to Boston so they can head down to The Common and enjoy one of their afternoon walks near The Frog Pond.  Carlson also talks about the fact that he hasn’t even finished med school yet, though the Army is, apparently, willing to overlook that detail.

 

My kid’s going to be a ball player for sure, Tom. Carlson says, lighting up a cigarette just outside the mess tent before dinner. All the other doctors have gathered around to wait as well.  Carlson takes a baseball from his fatigue pocket and tosses it into the air. This kid’s got a grip like you wouldn’t believe, Carlson says.

 

Sounds like a real star, says Herkimer, a skinny Pole who was once a dentist and has little to actually do in the hospital. He stuffs his hands in his pockets.

 

Yeah, Carlson says.  He’s Grade A athletic material.

 

Tom nods, then a cook comes out of the tent to announce that food is ready. All through diner, Tom doesn’t talk because he’s thinking about Margaret and Doug again. What’s eating you, Tom? Carlson, asks, taking a huge bite of mashed potatoes, then laughing. He looks to the other doctors at the table. Get it? he says. Eating, right? Get it?

 

 

After Tom finishes operation on Bed 22 the following morning (a femur shattered by 22-cal machinegun fire), a jeep arrives in camp and a tall blonde sergeant steps from its passenger side.  Who is that? Carlson asks, setting down a cardboard box of morphine syrettes. Tom doesn’t know; he’s never seen him before.  A moment later, a lean brown boy hops down into the mud behind the visitor.  The boy’s a native. As the soldier and the boy walk down the lane, holding hands, the sergeant scans from side to side until he finally notices Tom, whom he recognizes from his insignia as a senior doc.  

 

Here’s the thing, the sergeant says. I’m in a bit of a pickle because my unit found this boy outside the Aleut Indian village over the hill. He was asleep in the missionary’s bed.

 

The boy looks about ten years old and wears a fur-trimmed, hide tunic that comes down to his knees.  He is furtive and paws at his eyes with a mittened hand.  The sergeant says the Japs didn’t leave much of the village, just some shacks with broken windows and things.  So he can’t leave him there, but he can’t take him along to the front either so he’ll have to leave him here.

 

Why here? Tom asks.

 

He sprained his wrist somehow, the sergeant says, pointing to the hand the boy is cradling. Isn’t that what you do here?

 

Sure, Carlson says. We’ll take him. I love kids. Kids are great.

 

Tom looks down at the boy.

 

I am William, he says, staring back. He holds his hand up for the men to see.  I hurt, he says.

 

 

   All of the doctors enjoy having William around and like to take turns babysitting him.  Head Doc, Ben Foley, shows him how to turn a syringe into a squirt gun and William has fun spraying the aidmen.  Everyone has a good laugh.  Whenever he squirts one, Ben Foley raises his big hands to his mouth to call out, Direct hit, William.  Enemy neutralized.

 

Gotcha! William shouts as he gives Tom a squirt. 

 

As it turns out, a missionary had taught William some good old American English.  William even knows who Frank Sinatra is, and tells Carlson to “stop pulling his chain” when he makes a dumb joke about his being an Eskimo. 

 

White teachers told me all about America, William says. Mr. Foster and his woman, we called them.

Everyone gathers around to listen to the little Aleutian boy at the end of the day.  They sit on the treads of a tractor mired on the hill just outside the hospital while William stands woodenly in front of them. The fog has blown in again, and the wards behind him begin to disappear behind a veil of milky white.

 

Mr. Foster first call me William, the boy says cradling his injured hand, which has been tightly wrapped in a bandage.  He fish with my father a lot and showed me America talk with his radio. 

 

After a while a few patients walk up to the tractor to listen as well. Their bloody gauze flutters in the wind.  A shell is heard, exploding in the mountains.

 

Sometimes Mr. Foster use the radio to know the storms, says the boy.

 

Predict them, Tom says from the tractor. That’s meteorology.

 

Predict, says William.

 

The boy looks back to one of the injured patients.  The man lifts a hand and waves. 

 

Predict, he says again.

 

 

The last letter Tom got before they landed talks about how the Army tried to draft Doug, but couldn’t because of the limp he’d gotten from polio as a baby.  As he read it, Tom imagined the way his son must look on the factory floor as he hobbles past the tall, hissing machines.  Then, of course, he thought of his son as a toddler—back when he was still recovering from the disease and waddled through the rooms of their home like a tiny redheaded duck.   Both Tom and Margaret liked to cheer him on.  They sat on the couch and called for him to march his way over.  Whenever he finally made it, Tom would stand up to lift the boy over his head and Margaret would shout something like All right! or You did it! In retrospect, this was the happiest time of Tom’s life.  Doug seemed to have conquered polio. The family pulled through.  Everything would be smooth sailing from there on. 

 

More than anything, Doug’s letters talk about his new job at the factory. He talks about riveting their shells together with the long steel pins, shipping them out in the crates to be used on the front. In France. Or the Philippines. In Tokyo, maybe.  He also met a new girl on the packing floor, he writes.  Tom understands why Doug talks about these things instead of asking about his father.  Doug is a young man now, he reminds himself.  He needs to go on and create his own life. 

 

Tom listens to the wind whip the sides of the tent as he puts away his letter to Doug and tries to go to sleep.  From his bed, he can see tranquil faces sleeping all around him.  There is Herkimer the Pole.  There is Ben Foley, sheets pulled up to his chin, up over his barrel of a chest. Then, on the bunk above Foley, Carlson—face peaceful and calm, mouth partly open.  Whenever Tom sees him like this, he can’t help picturing Carlson’s family waiting for him in Boston.  He imagines them in the rooms of his own home in California, sitting in the freshly painted, beige living room, in the kitchen, in the bedroom that once belonged to Margaret and him—all the places he’s unable to forget.

 

 

Bed 72 has 2nd  and 3rd  degree burns covering most of his back, buttocks and the dorsal side of the left thigh.  The top layers of skin are completely disintegrated and a long, yellow patch runs just to the left of the spine.  It’s yellow because Bed 72’s subcutaneous fat is exposed.  That’s where the flames had burned the longest, Bed 72 tells Tom.  He also says he’s pretty pissed off about it and that, in all reality, he shouldn’t even be here. He should be in North Africa because, after all, he was trained in the New Mexico Desert.  In the desert! He says.  After that, ending up in an icy hell-hole like Attu was a real son of a bitch, he says, lifting his face from the pillow to look Tom in the eye. It’s a real cosmic irony, he says.

 

Tom asks Carlson to wait with William outside the tent until he’s finished.  The boy wanted to come along on rounds, and Tom thought that would be all right.   He didn’t know he’d encounter something like this, however. Carlson stands with William at the opening of the tent, facing the road.  Carlson’s been particularly irritating this morning and even made a corny knock-knock joke as he assisted Tom in cutting a new airway into the throat of an emergency tracheotomy. Of course, Carlson could just take William on to the next ward, but Tom doesn’t want Carlson to have William all to himself.  He doesn’t want Carlson using the boy to become the hospital’s center of attention.

 

Do you know San Francisco? Tom calls to the boy as he bends to get a closer look at Bed 72’s burns. A few of the blisters will need to be drained.

 

America, William says, looking out into the lane. A jeep drives past. That’s where the big boats go from.

You’re pretty good for an Eskimo, William, Carlson says. You’re pretty sharp, kid.  

  

He’s not an Eskimo, Tom says.

 

You know what I mean, Carlson says.

 

I was a doctor in San Francisco before, William, Tom says, as he walks to the cabinet for a steel basin and scalpel. I was a doctor there before I came here. 

 

There was a before? Carlson asks, turning back.

 

I have a son at home too, Tom says, ignoring Carlson as he slowly drains a blister into the basin. He’s really not much older than you, William.

 

A mere ten years, says Carlson. C’mon, Tom. What’s with you, today?

 

Well, says Tom. He looked like William at his age.

 

Tom knows this is a lie, but he just wants Carlson to shut up.  He never seems to go away; why is he always so close at hand, making himself such a nuisance?  Tom just wants William to feel comfortable; so he lies.  He’s tired of struggling with the facts all the time, the facts of how his life went wrong. 

 

We also have a dog, Tom says.  It’s a golden retriever with a long shiny coat. We call him Goldie.

 

Goldie, William says. 

 

This is also a lie.  Goldie died when Doug was only eight.  He is buried in the backyard of Tom’s bungalow by the eight-foot rosebush.  However, Tom can’t seem to think of anything else to tell the boy, so he continues on about his life 15 years ago.  He tells him that Doug taught Goldie all kinds of tricks, that he could sit and roll over, that he could bark in two keys on command and even do a little dance on his hind legs. Carlson laughs a little at this and asks where Tom found such a miracle dog.

 

You miss them? Goldie? Doug? William says.

 

Yes, William, says Tom.  I feel like I left a piece of myself behind with them.

 

  

What Tom regrets most about this thing with Margaret was the way he discovered it.  Everything had been unexpected. He’d seen her in a booth at McGinley’s diner, leaning over to kiss Gary, then push a loose strand of hair from his eyes.  He and Doug were standing in the restaurant’s doorway, waiting to be seated. All the details have survived: the room ahead, long with a black and white checkered floor, the bell still ringing their entrance.  There were porcelain mugs and bundles of neatly wrapped silverware on every table and only a handful of customers sat and talked.  Somehow, though, neither Margaret or Gary had seen them.

 

Dad, said Doug. It’s mom.

 

Doug was 17 then and Tom was supposed to have taken him up the coast on a fishing trip.  There was a downpour just past Sausalito, though, and they turned around, stopping at the diner for lunch on the way home.  After they saw the kiss, Tom told Doug to get back in the car.  He stayed a second longer and then left as well.  On the drive back, Tom watched the jagged bites of the coast and the waves coming into shore as he wound carefully down the road back towards their house.  At a stop sign, Doug asked him if mom was having an affair.  Tom nodded. But he couldn’t say anything.  Really, what could he say?  Even a boy in high school is too young to understand these things.  Tom would rather have kept the truth from him, said something vague many years later instead, something about how his mother and father had simply drifted apart.  Even now, when Tom stares into the fog approaching the shore of the island, he can still see the face Doug made as his mother leaned forward to kiss a man who wasn’t his dad.  It seemed like a face, almost, of amazement.  

 

 

After Tom leaves William sitting cross-legged in his bunk, sucking on a handful of sugar cubes, he finds Bed 63 waiting for him in pre-op.  He told William this would only take a short while, but now he knows it will take a lot longer.  Bed 63 is frostbite.  In the more severe cases, like this one, fingers, toes, or even whole hands, must be amputated in order to prevent gangrene.  As the aidmen prepare Bed 63, Tom secures the right arm to the operating table and removes a bone saw from the nearby tray of shining tools.  Some of Bed 63’s skin is flaking from the right hand, and the whole thing’s turned black, like a small piece of rotten fruit.  More than any other operation, Tom hates amputations. They don’t heal anything for a patient; they’re just cutting his losses.  Still, after many amputations, patients will say they can still feel their missing appendages—only tingling and numb, as if they’d just fallen asleep. Sometimes they say this for weeks. 

 

The whole time Tom operates, he can’t stop thinking about Doug.  This has happened more and more since William arrived.  He knows it’s dangerous for the patients, but he can’t help it.  Even as he’s sowing up the wrist beneath the pale electric light of the operating lamp, he finds himself composing lines in his head for his letter.  Something about William has helped him get a hold on what Doug needs to hear.

 

After Bed 63 is finally finished and the hand is sent to be incinerated, there’s no further surgeries scheduled.  Tom heads back to the tent, planning to write to Doug.  However, when Tom opens the flap of the barracks tent, he finds William sitting on his bed, spreading out the drafts of his letter in front of him.  William looks at them like he’s concentrating, moving them around like pieces to a puzzle. 

 

What are these? William says. They made the bed crinkle.

 

They’re letters, Tom says. What are you doing with them?

 

Tom walks to the bed and takes one from William. He looks at the writing. It’s one- sentence long. Whatever it was Tom had intended to write to Doug, he suddenly can’t  think of it. All he sees now is the blankness of the page.

 

I don’t read, William says, picking one up and squinting at it. He tilts it back and closes one eye. But I don’t think these are saying very much.

 

Tom sits down on the bed beside him.  After a moment, Tom surprises himself by admitting that there’s a reason why his letters are so short.  It’s complicated though, he says. His family has recently broken up.  William puts down a letter and tells Tom he understands.

 

I don’t know where my family is either, says the boy. The other soldiers put them on a boat, but I got away. I think they are still on Attu somewhere, but I don’t know where.

 

I think you’ll see them again, Tom says, though he isn’t sure. You can’t ever rule out the possibility, he says. 

Can’t you? William says. He looks down at the letters and then at his injured wrist.  Tom is sad to think that this boy, who is so young, has no one to return to when things on the island return to normal.  What is the sense in that?   It makes him feel guilty for walking around in a stupor over Margaret and Doug the way he has. At least he knows his family is alive.

 

It is hard for you when you lose things, says William.

 

Well, Tom says. Sometimes you do find them again. There’s always the hope.

    

It’s hard to imagine how William survived alone on Attu for so long.  Most likely, he’d been stealing frozen fish from the troughs that the natives always keep near the backdoor of their tin-roofed houses.  Maybe William was out playing when the invasion occurred, and when he returned instead of his family he found an army of foreigners tearing the shutters from his home and burning them as firewood.  Tom can almost see it now. Some had swords.  Some had cherry blossoms tattooed beneath their dark eyes. They were men made lithe and stern by days spent trench digging in the faraway parts of the world, places like Manchuria.  Places William didn’t even know existed. 

 

               You’re lucky you held out long enough for us to find you, Tom says. He picks up one of his own letters and for a second doesn’t recognize the handwriting. William shrugs as if to say, I had no choice. 

 

Luck is nothing, William says, frowning a little.  Do you know that?

 

   Sometimes, the patients of Field Hospital No. 1 don’t survive.  If they’re still breathing by the time they arrive, that usually means they’ve made it through the hard part and that they’re going to be okay.  But sometimes they do go, and when they do it’s pretty much the same every time.  It’s another pair of dim eyes and limp hands that won’t be waving or pointing to anything ever again.  It’s hard for Tom to keep them straight. If you’ve got two or more lying outside as they wait for graves, they start to seem like a part of the landscape, like the rocks or thickets of brush, or the spits of sand winding into the bay.

 

   A few days after William’s arrival, several new bodies arrive around 1:00 a.m. and the doctors are called out of their bunks immediately.  This is an emergency. Tom drops his pen and stands up to rush to pre-op and get ready.  He tells William, who’s been given a cot in the tent, to stay in bed. 

 

What? William says, peeking out from under his blanket.

 

Nothing, Tom says. It’s nothing you need to be concerned about.

 

When Tom arrives at surgery, Carlson is already there, peering at a body over the sloping shoulders of two infantrymen.  It looks like it’s been hit by a Japanese grenade.  The troops adjust their comrade on the operating table beneath the white light and Tom can see that minor lacerations crisscross its face and the nose hangs by a strand of cartilage.  It seems like a corpse already.  That’s not the problem, though, Carlson explains as they scrub up with powdered soap outside.

 

The poor bastard’s got shrapnel all through his thorasic, Carlson says, holding his hands in the air so water can drain into the washtub.  From the position of the wounds, it looks like they’re right next to the heart and lungs so he’s probably a goner.

 

When they finish an aidman pulls up their surgical masks for them, and Carlson begins to hum “Them bones, Them bones.” Tom tells him to shut up.

 

It’s to lighten the mood, man, Carlson says. What’s your problem?

 

You, Tom says.

 

Jeez, Carlson says. Tom can tell from his face that Carlson is offended. Take it easy, Tom, he says. We’ve got some serious work here.

 

Yeah, Tom says. Okay.

 

Tom knows that heart surgeries never work.  There’s always too much blood loss, or a rupture that can't be properly mended.  But as they survey this patient, it’s obvious that if he’s not operated on soon, he’ll surely die anyway.  The patient moans as an aidman slips the black rubber mask over his face and gives the silver knob of the tank a twist.  Gas hisses through the tube and the man’s breathing slackens.  Tom begins a moment later.  He cuts.  He cracks. He pries open.  Things seem to be going well, actually; the bleeding is not as bad as expected.

 

Quick, Carlson says helping him to work around the plum-shaped musculature of the heart, retrieving the popcorn-sized pieces of metal and dropping them into a bowl.

 

I know, Tom says, but as he continues he suddenly begins to lose focus.  First, he begins thinking about William waiting in the tent.  And soon afterwards he’s thinking about San Francisco. He remembers something.  One day, Margaret, Doug, Tom and Gary all went down to the city together.  They had a lunch of sandwiches on rye and pickles in a deli.  They took a walk.   It was the first sunny day in spring and there were clouds in the air that looked like huge white boats.  Even after they walked all the way through the park, no one wanted to stop. So they kept going.  They went all the way to the Golden Gate.  Doug was 13 then and had started to walk pretty well, despite the polio.  He was so excited about the bridge that they let him walk half way out on his own, far above the gleaming surface of the bay below.  The wind blew through the cables all around them and the ocean swirled to the horizon in a pattern of foam. Wow, Doug said. 

 

Looking up a moment later, Tom saw Gary letting go of Margaret’s hand.  Dumb as he was, he didn’t think anything of it at the time.  He thought maybe he had pulled her back from the edge.  That’s when he should have known something was happening.  He shouldn’t have been caught years later, dumbfounded, trying to explain to his son where his mother was, why the family was over with.

 

Tom is still watching the San Francisco waves when he looks down at the operating table.  But instead of The Bay waters, he finds himself back on Attu.  What he sees below is the warm beating core of a man.  It shudders in the air, tightening around the bits of metal inside.  The heart looks awkward sitting there, off to the left.  It seems so small and alone, not the way you imagine it or see it in books.  It is all but smothered in its own yellowing fat, cut off from the rest of the body.  Only the red knobs of its chambers peek out, like tiny, sad little islands.  Beneath it the pink lungs expand and contract, framed by the delicate ribs and the wrinkling skin stained golden by iodine. Tom can scarcely take it all in.  He can't even see the intrusive objects, only the holes they left behind. 

 

What the fuck is with you, Tom? Carlson asks.  He’s begun doing the surgery himself  by now, but Tom can tell he’s working too rapidly. He’s sloppy.  He even tears a piece of the heart as he removes the last piece of shrapnel. Got it, he says holding it up in his forceps.  But it’s already too late. Tom looks to his right, towards the patient’s chest, he sees it rise, then fall, then stay.  They wait for a second.  Tom pulls the rubber mask off the body and bends over to hold his ear above the mouth.

 

   He’s dead, he says. 

 

   Tom breathes into the dead man’s lungs then reaches into the cavity to massage the heart.  None of this works.  After a moment, Carlson puts a hand on Tom’s shoulder. He’s dead, he says, then waves for the aidman who stands at the edge of the tent.  Carlson holds out a medical chart for Tom as he asks the aidman to report the death and find someone to bag it.

 

This is your fault Carlson, Tom says, taking the medical chart. You made it worse than it was, he says.

 

Give it a break, Tom, Carlson says.  He looks down at the back of his hands, then wipes them off on his pants.  Did I do this? Did I put those holes in him? We did the best we could.  This stuff happens, you know. It’s a war.

 

Tom knows he’s right, but doesn’t say anything.  He walks outside to wash his hands again, but as he opens the tent flap he spots William, crouching behind the washtub, head cocked toward the entrance of the tent. The boy stands up when Tom says his name. 

 

I thought I told you to stay in the tent, Tom says, trying not to sound angry.

 

Sorry, William says.

 

The boy begins peeking around Tom into the tent.

 

You can’t see what’s in there, William, says Tom.  It’s off limits to you.

 

William still tries to peer inside until Tom takes his hand

 

He takes the boy by the hand and leads him away from the tent.  He walks out into the hospital lane and turns toward the beach.  He’s pulling William along almost faster than he can walk.  

 

   William, are you listening to me? he asks as they move toward the shore.

 

   Yes.

 

   Carlson and I just lost a patient now, Tom says. Do you understand what that means?

 

   William nods and they come to a stop just short of the stony edge of the shore.  Ahead, the wind has blown all the fog away and, for once, the moon shines clearly in the sky. It casts a long white reflection on the water, like a path pointed towards the hospital. 

 

You see much men like that? William says. 

 

   If you mean dead—yes, says Tom, acting as if were a question and not a statement of fact. It occurs to Tom that William has probably seen a dead body before, and probably not so long ago.  Still, he doesn’t know that for sure.  There’s nothing he knows for sure about this boy, except for the fact that he’s been using him to fill up a hole in himself.  And, really, what good can that do, in the face of so much death, of so much gone wrong? Could he really manipulate himself into thinking that this boy would  make him feel better about his own mistakes, his short sightedness, his unwillingness to let go of a woman who had no respect for him—and worse: the fact that he’s placed all this, his self-pity, above the lives of his patients?  

 

What is his name? William asks. The man.

 

Tom nearly says, Gary Singer, but then realizes what William wants.  He checks the medical chart, which he still has in his hand.   His name was H.M. Woodson, he says.

 

William lets go of Tom’s hand and walks right to the edge of the water. A wave nearly touches his foot, and he looks down to watch it roll away.

 

He is good swimmer, says William, sounding certain.  Ech Em Woodson swim faster than anyone big and strong.  He is like fish.  Sometime he swim long and far. He get lost. Swim around and around.  He swim and swim.  Seals lead him home. And mother then said, ‘My fish you are bigger.  I miss you.  You are come home.’

Tom keeps quiet.  He’s not sure what is happening.

 

He swim good, that one, Ech Em Woodson.

 

The wind stops for a moment, and everything is caught in silence. Tom hears the hush of the waves as they break on the beach.

 

   He once had a dog too, says Tom. Like Goldie—a real super dog that lived for a very long time.

 

Another wave hits the beach as he says this. Then another. And another.  

 

Tom has heard that on the west side of the island a man can stare ahead to where the International dateline runs, and further.  On a clear day, he could see all the way to tomorrow.  But here, on this side, on the cold, ash-colored shore of Holtz Bay, Tom does not think about tomorrow, or even a few hours from now.  He does not think about his letter, or the empty home that awaits him, whether he will sell it or whether he will stay. It does not exist.  Tom just looks at the boy and then at the ocean.  He thinks of the lively surf far below the Golden Gate, looking somehow so close and immediate.  He thinks of the bay waters swirling behind him and, as always, the Pacific expanse, yawning ahead, dark, blue, and unknowable.

 

 

Cam Terwilliger is a poet and short story writer who recently graduated from Emerson College's MFA after completing his book of stories, Man & Machine. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Greensboro Review, 5 AM, and others. In 2005, he won an Academy of American Poets Award. Contact him at cam.terwilliger@gmail.com