For Those Who Have Also Dared
by Mike Schiavone
We're watching Lost on my new flat screen when Rufus tells me how he strangled the German."With these hands," he declares, rubbing the sofa arms. "I killed that Kraut dead."
I pause the show and listen. After six weeks together I've learned all about the 26th infantry, how Rufus went right to France as a rifleman at eighteen, that he was hit in the leg by friendly fire and spent fourteen months in a hospital. And of course I know he murdered a German soldier during a Yankee Division ambush in Kalhausen.
Pulling up his sleeves, Rufus shows his wrists. "When it rains," he says, "I can feel where his fingernails dug beneath my skin."
Whenever Rufus goes on about war I usually bow my head and stay quiet as if in church. Offering my two cents on the Japanese internment camps would only be picking a fight. Besides, the closest I've come to war were front row seats to Miss Saigon on Broadway. If I were ever forced into battle I'd play dead until everybody left, until the coast was clear. The morning I told Rufus we have no business being in Iraq, he said every generation deserves a war, that men like me weren't fit to carry a soldier's water. Since then I make sure all issues of The Nation are out of sight when he visits.
Like anyone else in their late eighties, Rufus is shrunken and hunched, well decorated with liver spots and scrapes that won't heal. What's criminal is he's adorable, cuddly even, the kind of old man you see volunteering as a crossing guard for children. If you passed him in the grocery store you'd want to carry his bags, buy him a coffee at Dunkin' Donuts, bring him home to live with your family. But then he opens his mouth. Before meeting Rufus I never second-guessed the little old ladies feeding bread crumbs to the birds. I never considered the grandfathers playing pinochle in the park were anything but agreeable. He's ruined old folks for me.
"He ejaculated as he died," Rufus continues, squeezing his Styrofoam cup. "I could've killed him all over again for that."
I should tell Rufus about the Discovery Channel special I watched on death erections, how men who are hung often ejaculate as they die, but instead I click on the Dustbuster and vacuum the sand from the Iranian carpet. I've tried to explain to Rufus the value of a shoe-free home, but he said only Japs prance around stockinged foot, that he couldn't kick off his sneakers and still call himself an American.
"I shot him in the face before moving on," Rufus tells me. "That helped some."
"How did that help?" I ask, emptying the vacuum cartridge in the trash.
"Helped me forget his happy ending."
"Why didn't you just shoot him in the first place?"
"I shot plenty of Krauts," he snaps. "It was getting toward the end of the war, my last chance to try something new."
Three mornings a week Rufus and I watch television in my living room. I pick him up at Serenity Grove at nine and return him by one before the cafeteria closes for lunch. In just a month and a half we've gone through Prison Break and The Sopranos. While the companion agency would prefer I take him to the park or read to him, Rufus told me from morning one that he'd rather watch TV and drink coffee than play Tuesdays with Morrie. Me, I wanted Tuesdays with Morrie, but instead of Jack Lemmon I got Andy Rooney. It was my wife, Pat, who emailed the agency my résumé, telling me it was the perfect opportunity to lose myself during this period of transition, that pitying another would stabilize me until I was back on my feet. But she's never met Rufus, has no idea there's a murderer sitting in her Savannah armchair.
As a senior companion, Rufus is my ten hour a week work obligation, my first job since being laid off from Schwab three months ago. My position was relocated to the Arizona desert, but we're married to Boston since Pat's a senior portfolio manager downtown. On my business card it said I was an Equity Trading Analyst, but that was just a euphemism for customer service rep. From opening bell until close I spent fourteen years on the phone telling small-timers why they weren't entitled to a better execution on their ten share order of some dog shit penny stock. As Pat was reviewing hedge funds in Reykjavik with the King of Iceland, I was placating from middle management schnook who saw Wall Street one too many times. So while I don't miss the only job I've had since graduating Vassar, I do miss being owned.
"After I rung his neck," Rufus continues, "I knew that was it for me, that there'd never be anything higher."
"Maybe I should kill someone," I announce, pressing play, resuming Lost. He scratches the mole on his neck, then sits back in Pat's chair. "You just stick to handling the remote."
Rufus smokes a Viceroy on the porch while I wait for him in the car. Water flows from the gutters, a week's worth of heavy snow melting from the shingles. I suspect it'll be more troublesome to watch TV in the mornings once the sun comes back around, when people start going outside again. Chirping birds, laughing children, buzzing lawnmowers. The sweet sounds of Spring might sting being around the house all day long.
The night I was laid off I drank a bottle of Veuve Clicquot and vowed to write, really write, to finally call myself a poet, but when I woke up the next morning the bravado had vanished. When I was working there was never enough time to write. Now I guess there's too much. Pat says I don't need a job, that I can do whatever I want, but all I seem to do is nap. Thank god she has to travel because I couldn't stand for anyone to see me in bed on a Tuesday afternoon. A few weeks ago I put the sea kayaks away in storage so my car would fit in the garage, so the neighbors will think I'm at work when I'm snoring upstairs.
As we drive into the rotary a handful of Obama supporters wave from behind the guardrail. Their signs say to honk if you want change and I'm about to do just that when Rufus rolls down the window and gives them the finger.
"Rufus!" I shout, rolling up his window and applying the child lock.
"Hope and change," he says. "What a bunch of shit."
"Why is it a bunch of shit?"
"That nigger's selling fairy dust."
"I hate that word," I say, braking hard at the Washington Street traffic light.
The high school wrestling team jogs past us in a two by two formation, thick calves and shaves heads. I can still remember being pinned by Toby Petrillo in middle school gym class, the way it made me feel like a girl to cave in so easily. Go figure I was reared by jocks. Mom played center on the Boston College women's hockey team, Dad an Olympic alternate in wrestling, my older brother, Rick, an All-American lacrosse player at Duke. My freshman year at prep school my father wanted me to wrestle, but I instead chose to play Damis in the winter production of Molière's Tartuffe. Sports have always made me skittish, but I guess I'm just antsy around other men.
Once inside Rufus's room at Serenity Grove I open the blinds. Strings of black lint from his cheap socks litter the carpet. One bulky wooden desk, a single bed and pillow, a small table where a Vince Flynn paperback is spread-eagle. Rufus keeps his personals in the middle desk drawer, which I sometimes sort through when he's busy on the toilet. Inside there's black and white Polaroids, pictures of young, handsome men in uniform, fresh faced and clean. I can't tell which is him so I choose a different boy each time to call Rufus. The time I inquired about his family he simply said none, but his care coordinator told me in confidence about "a son in Cincinnati who Mr. Brewer disowned many years back for being HIV positive." Beneath the stack of pictures is his Purple Heart, which I haven't touched yet. When I once asked to see his war medallions he said no, that he only shows his medals to those who have also dared. "Rufus," I ask, setting the carton of Viceroys I bought him on the bed spread, "how did you know for sure the German ejaculated?"
He kicks off his socks and picks at his yellowed pinky nail. Capillaries swarm his ankles. "What kind of question is that?"
"An honest one."
Rufus itches his heels across the carpet. "His pants were wet," he says flatly.
"But how do you know he didn't pee himself?"
He leans over and puts his socks back on inside-out. "Because I looked inside."
Pat calls me from the Westin in Atlanta. I pause Top Chef.
"I thought you were in San Francisco."
"I was this morning," she says. "What are you up to?"
"Writing," I say, though I haven't written a decent stanza in months.
"Well that's good news," she says. "Can you email it to me?"
"It's a piece of shit."
"Are you drinking?"
"No," I say, covering my champagne flute with a napkin. "How's work?"
"Good. I should be able to come home next week." I hear a television power on in the background. "How's your senior companion?"
"We're on the third season of Lost. Moving right along."
"Hey, I found a lead at Mellon Bank," she says brightly. "You'd be a bit overqualified, but it'd get you back in the finance door." Through the phone I listen to Padma from Top Chef present the next challenge to the contestants. Here at home I'm still paused, several minutes behind my wife's TV. "No pressure," Pat continues. "You can do whatever you want."
"I've been instant-messaging with a sergeant in Virginia," I say, pulling up the goarmy.com webpage from my laptop. "I'm thinking about a tour of duty."
"You're almost forty," she says, turning down her television. "I knew you were drinking."
"If I made it through Iraq and back everything would be settled."
"Exactly what would be settled?"
"I'd be free."
"From what shackles? You're a poet, Julian, not a warrior."
I drain the rest of my flute. "Don't you think two years in the Middle East might change me?"
"Is that old man still talking war heroics with you? Is that where all this is coming from?"
"This might be my last chance to try something new."
"Why don't you look into an Outward Bound trip?"
"You can't kill anyone on Outward Bound."
"Jesus," she says. "I'm calling tomorrow and getting you assigned to a new old man."
"No," I say. "I'm going to see Rufus through."
"Then stop emailing with G.I. Joe," she snaps. "Just stop fighting."
"I'm not fighting."
Her work cell phone rings, Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. "Shit, I gotta go. We have a cocktail meeting at some good ol' boy country club in Buckhead."
"Leave the TV on while you're gone," I say. "And have the bellman escort you to the room when you get back."
"I miss you," she says as if asking a question.
On the glass table in front of the Savannah chair I've laid out three literary journals where my poems have been published, but Rufus has decided the Spoon River Poetry Review is just the coaster for his Cumberland Farms coffee thermos. As the final episode of Lost comes to its conclusion, I notice the ugly brown residue on the book cover, Rufus's coffee ring forever marked on my work. While I didn't expect him to read my poems, I did hope he'd recognize me, if only for a moment.
"They don't know shit about beach warfare," he says, shaking his head. "Not one veteran among them except that Iraqi."
"They're still surviving," I say, ejecting the DVD and sealing it in the Netflix envelope.
"Yankee Division would've wiped them out lickety-split."
"Then what nothing," he says, sipping his coffee. "Mission accomplished."
I stack my journals and return them to the bookshelf in the den. "You ever read any poetry, Rufus?"
"Sure," he says. "Randall Jarrell's 'The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.'"
"From my mother's sleep I fell into the State," I recite from memory.
"That's the one."
"It's a beauty."
"Jarrell was a vet." "And a poet," I say. "Have you ever read anything besides war?"
He pushes himself up and finagles on his coat, our cue to leave. "When you've been to war," he says, fixing his collar, "there is nothing else besides."
"Well that's sad," I say, reaching for my scarf.
"No," Rufus says, "that's true."
Later that night as I watch the lunar eclipse alone from our patio I can't help but dwell over how profoundly Rufus disappoints me, how I wish I could share this moment with an old man who'd cherish seeing the earth's celestial shadow one last time. When I asked him over tonight he told me he'd prefer to watch late night Cinemax than stare at the moon. Even if Pat were home she'd only soak it in for a minute or two before finding her laptop. For the life of me I can't see what can possibly compete with this astronomical marvel, why it's so hard for others to see what really matters. Sure I hate war because it's bloody, but even more so since it won't allow men like Rufus this one pure moment of liberty.
Not once has he asked why it is I wear a suit every day, why I bother to dress for success when he's my only source of income. He must wonder what I used to do, what I want to do, but he can't bring himself to ask because I didn't fight, because I haven't killed. I'm delighted how the German left Rufus confused, grateful he left his stain on Captain America. I tip my flute to the defiant Kraut knowing Rufus wouldn't hesitate to strangle me if he found out what I was wearing underneath this suit, if he could see my wife's slinky black stockings hugging my thighs, her Elle MacPherson Intimates snug around my package. You bet he'd wipe me right off his planet.
I find Rufus playing backgammon by himself in the rec room, The View blasting to an audience of three old ladies who all look asleep.
"I saw the Kraut last night," he says, without looking up from the board.
"In a dream?" I ask, taking a seat meant for a toddler.
"How else?" He rolls the dice and moves a white chip seven places. "For sixty years my slumber's been black until last evening."
I pout a Dixie cup of water from the plastic carafe at the table. "So what happened?"
"It was a faggot dream," he says. "I start hanging around with you and all of a sudden I'm having cock nightmares."
I laugh, but Rufus only frowns, his lips sinking into his jowls. "What did he do to you?"
"He didn't do anything to me."
"Was I there?"
Rufus takes a drink from my cup. "It was you who brought him."
"But it was your dream, Rufus."
"You and me," he says, capturing a black chip with a white one, "we're done here."
"Because of a dream?"
"Yeah," he says, folding up the board, because of a dream."
I take the board from his hands. "You might want to reconsider."
"Band of Brothers came in the mail yesterday."
"I never did see that in HD," Rufus says, nodding pensively. "I bet it's something,"
"Out of this world."
"Fine," he says. "Band of Brothers and then we're through."
As we walk down the hall toward his room I notice all the patients' doors are closed.
"Is everyone at church?" I ask, reading the name tags above the knobs.
"Nope. Everyone just hides from each other on the holy day," he says, keying open his door. "I need to use the toilet before we go."
Sitting on Rufus's bed, I flip through his Vince Flynn novel, the print large and bold for an old man's eyes. "You need any help in there?"
"Not from you," he says, switching on the bathroom fan.
As Rufus struggles with his bowels, I unravel my tie and remove the bull and bear cuff links Pat bought for me one Christmas. Standing in front of Rufus's broken mirror, I undo the buttons on my shirt, from collar on southward. My undershirt smells like coconut as I pull it over my head. I unclasp the belt buckle and shimmy out of my slacks, kicking off my wing tips and socks. In Rufus's mirror my body glows.
My fingertips tingle as I pull out the Purple Heart from beneath the photographs in the middle drawer. Now resting in my soft palm is the golden profile of George Washington, his stately head embossed in the center of a heart, the Coat of Arms just above the late General's crown. When I flip over the medallion I scratch my pinky nail over the engraved words For Military Merit. The bathroom door opens. "You have no hair on you," Rufus shouts, pointing at my shins, my chest.
"I like to be light," I say, concealing his Purple Heart in my fist. "Is this what you saw last night, Rufus?"
He gulps as his eyes pass over Pat's Hanky Panky Lace Thong, my love handles stretching the baby blue elastic to its breaking point.
"What kind of a man doesn't have hair?" he asks sadly.
"This man," I say, hands on my hips.
He folds his arms and snuffs. I stick my neck out to make it easy for him, but he doesn't take the bait. Falling back, I drag him onto the bed with me.
"My angina!" he shouts as our bodies crash.
"Shhh," I whisper, his face cold against my cheek.
The springs creak when I flip him over, wrestling him down with my heft. Thong aside, I think my father would be proud to see me employing the cradle to pin my opponent. Yet not until I drive him into submission, not until he goes limp does Rufus finally look me in the eye as a man. And that look is surrender.
Back home I rest the Purple Heart in my lap and write about what it means for someone like me to own another man.
Michael Schiavone's fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, Carve, New Letters, Mississippi Review, Reed Magazine, Connecticut Review, GSU Review, Cutthroat, Santa Fe Writers Project, and the Tartts 2 Fiction Anthology. His work has also been recognized by over a dozen award programs. Michael lives in Gloucester, MA, where he just finished his first novel, "Call Me When You Land". For more information, visit www.michaelschiavone.com.