The Umbrella

The BarHarvey Paine sat at a round, beat up table in The Captain’s Quarters. He watched as Fred stumbled from the bathroom and stretched for the bar like a marathon runner for finish tape. “I’ll take anoder one,” Fred demanded with slurred voice, pulling a worn, crumpled dollar bill from his pocket and handing it over like his soul to the devil.  The television over the bar squawked about the recent assassination attempt on President Reagan. The newscaster’s voice said, “Once again, President Reagan has been shot. Details are still coming in at this time, but we have reports that the president and two other men, one of which may be James Brady, have been gunned down by an unknown shooter.”

Fred gripped the edge of the bar, closing one eye to get a better look at the television screen. “Good,” he bellowed, “I wisssh they killed the muva Fuga. He’s a fuggin actor, not a prez-dent.”

The bartender of the Captain’s Quarters at that time was Gray Lewis. Gray was drying a clean glass with a dirty rag and he didn’t bother to look at the man gripping his bar. Gray said, “Take it easy, Fred.”

Fred, who complained about four prior presidents while gripping the same bar, pointed at Gray, Fred closing one eye again to get a better view. He said “Look, you led me tell you something about Prezdent Reagan.” Of course, Fred could say all he wanted, Gray wouldn’t bother to hear it.

Charlene, the waitress at The Captain’s Quarters, stood beside Harvey’s table. “That’s something about the President, huh?” she said.

Harvey flinched. He hadn’t noticed that the woman was standing beside him. “What?” Harvey said.

Charlene said, “The President. Getting shot and all. It’s kind of crazy.”

“Oh, the president, yeah.” Harvey didn’t look at the waitress or the newscast on the television, or at Fred any longer, for that matter. He now stared at the beer bottle across the table from him, the bottle a twin of the one in his own hand.

Charlene said, “You want me to put that on ice, hon?”

Harvey regarded the beer for a moment and said, “Um, no, it’s fine, Charlene, its owner should be here any minute.” Harvey reached for a pack of cigarettes sitting in the center of the table, but when he noticed the bar’s front door open and shut, he stopped, pushing the cigarette pack back to the table’s center. A well-dressed man, younger than Harvey, more clean-cut than Harvey, slighter than Harvey, stepped into the bar. The man scanned the bar, his eyes fighting their sudden plunge into the dimness of The Captain’s Quarters. When the man’s eyes were adjusted, he spotted Harvey. Then the younger, better dressed, slighter version of Harvey approached the table. Harvey said to Charlene, “In fact, here he is now.”

Charlene turned and spotted the man, and without a word, she slinked away into the corners of the bar.

A smile touched Harvey’s mouth—the smile vacant from his eyes—Harvey saying, “Tom, my loving bro. I bought you a brew.”

Tom looked down at his brother, Tom regarding Harvey’s ringed eyes and the scruff stretching across his chin like corn ready for harvest. Harvey inflated his chest, lifting the listless, wide shoulders drooping beneath the faded fatigues jacket. “You’re drunk,” Tom said.

“And you’re ugly,” Harvey said, “but I’ll be sober in the morning.”

“No you won’t,” Tom said.

Harvey nodded, and with a nasal chuckle, he said, “All right.” Harvey then motioned to the chair across the table from him. “Have a seat. You’re looking good.”

Tom glanced around the bar as he pulled the chair from the table. He sat down across from his brother, looking a moment at the beer bottle before him. He motioned to the beer, saying, “This mine?” Harvey stared at the beer in front of his brother. He nodded, as if responding to a question asked by the bottle. Tom took a sip from the beer and then studied the bottle’s label. “So, how’re you doing?” he asked, he, too, seeming to address the bottle and not the person across the table from him.

Harvey said, “Tom, let’s skip the bullshit, what do you want?”

“What do you mean?”

“What are you doing here? Why did you call me? What do you want?”

“Well,” Tom said, “I just. . . you know Saturday’s Mom’s birthday, right? And we were wondering if you’re coming home to see her?”

Harvey grinned. “Yeah, I’m jumping out of the cake.”

“Harvey, why are you. . . Why do you do this?”

“Do what?”

“This bullshit act you do,” Tom said. He gestured across the table as if Harvey was a spot of dirt missed by a cleaning woman, Tom saying, “Look at you.”

Harvey looked down, inspecting himself. “Yeah?”

“Don’t you think you’re being a little self-destructive?” Tom said in a patronizing, sarcastic tone. Harvey hated that tone.

“I’m fine.”

“You look like shit.”

“Thanks,” Harvey said. He watched Fred fumble in his wallet for another soul.

“When’s the last time you were sober?” Tom said.

“1972.”

“I don’t doubt it.”

“Look, Tom, I’m fine, so you can just. . .”

“You think you’re fine? Look at you.” Tom’s voice cracked on these last three words.

Harvey’s voice was steady. “Look, Tom, it’s nice to see you and all, but I don’t need to listen to your preacher bit today. I’ve already heard enough shit to. . .”

Tom said, “Mom and Dad want to. . .”

Harvey’s voice suddenly rose as he growled, “Fuck Mom and Dad.”

Gray, Charlene, and even the almost comatose Fred, glanced over uneasily at Harvey and his brother.

Harvey lowered his voice and said, “Mom and Dad don’t give a shit. And don’t pretend like they do. They don’t know, or care to know, anything about me. Why? Because they didn’t want to hear it then. And they still don’t want to hear it now.”

“Look, Harvey, we’ve all got problems.”

“Oh, really? And I suppose you know all about it.”

“I’m guessing this is all about the war again.”

“Don’t start, Tom.”

“No, really, Harvey, you’re blaming it all on the war still, right? Same bullshit as before?”

“Tom, don’t start, you don’t know what you’re talking about. So don’t go looking like an asshole, or stupid, or both.”

“Hey, Harvey, I got a news flash for you. War’s over, man. Has been for years. So you can stop fighting it.”

“Stop fighting it? Is that what you just said to me? Huh, College Boy?”

Tom looked down at the bottle in his hand. He muttered, “Don’t call me that.” He took a sip of his beer and then played with the bottle’s label as he gathered his words. Harvey watched the television over the bar, the news showing—for what seemed the millionth time—Reagan waving to the crowd and being sacked by secret service men. Tom said, “Look, Harvey, we all care about you.”

Harvey rolled his eyes.

Tom continued, saying, “No, we do. And we don’t want. . .”

Harvey interrupted him, and in a bellowing voice said, “To have to listen to Dad saying, yep, in W-W-two, we saw people dying, but we didn’t come home to mope and only be satisfied when we lost all our jobs and get so drunk we puke up our guts in the toilet.”

“Harvey, stop the dramatics. You. . .”

“It’s a zit. Get it?”

“Excuse me?” Tom said, raising his eyebrows.

“Animal House, you remember?” Harvey said.

“What are you talking about?” Tom asked, shaking his head.

Harvey shrugged and gulped his beer. He watched the television hanging over the bar, the Secret Service Agents tackling Reagan in super-slow-motion. “I don’t know. That line keeps popping into my head.”

“Okay?” Tom said in the tone of one missing a punch line.

Harvey broke his gaze with the television and looked at his brother, Harvey saying, “You know that scene from Animal House? It popped into my head last night, and it’s been there ever since. It popped into my head when I was bent over the toilet puking out my guts. Is that what you want to hear? That that was my last thought before I passed out, and the pink elephants went once more on parade?”

“That was your last thought?” Tom said, his tone now one who finally got the punch line, but who had deemed the joke unfunny.

“Yeah,” Harvey said.

“Belushi spitting out mashed potatoes,” Tom said.

“Yeah.”

“So, just to get this straight, as you’re puking your guts out, a line from Animal House is what you think of?”

“Yup.”

“Why?”

“Because I forgot my umbrella,” Harvey said.

“Harvey, I’m getting pissed off. What are you talking about?”

“It’s just a little tool I picked up.”

“An umbrella,” Tom said.

“Yeah.” Harvey took a sip of beer and then said, “Whenever a thought creeps into my head that I don’t want there, I snuff it out by concentrating on something else.”

“Like an umbrella.”

“Yeah. Like an umbrella. I open that umbrella in my head, and it fills my thoughts, blocking whatever was fucking with me.”

“What’s this got to do with Animal House?”

Harvey said, seemingly addressing his beer, “I don’t know. Last night I was real messed up. Puking out my guts, and all.”

“Yeah, I think we’ve established that already,” Tom said. “So then Belushi pops into your head?”

“No. I was looking for that umbrella. . . Like I said, I was real messed up, and I just wanted it to end. I even had the .45 to my temple.”

Tom moaned, “Here we go.”

“One second, and it could be over. A lifetime of pain packed into a barrel. And I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to think about. Funny, because it was always automatic—I got more trick umbrellas than the Penguin on Batman—but I couldn’t remember it. I felt like I was dying, like my insides were decomposing, and all I had to do was put myself down like a sick animal. But that umbrella didn’t come. It never came. So I thought about Belushi in Animal House—my favorite scene in my favorite movie.” Harvey took a sip of the beer he’d been addressing, and then he put down the bottle and looked at his brother, his brother silently regarding him. Harvey said, “So, you know, man, don’t go preaching to me about any war being over. That war’s still in me, always will be. It grows in me, eats away like some kind of parasite or cancer. That war took everything from me, and all I’m left with is a fucking umbrella.”

Tom continued to regard his brother in silence. Then he began a loud slow applause, Tom saying, “Bravo, big brother. Magnificent speech. But you forget, I happen to know you’re full of shit. I know that you’re just feeling sorry for yourself. And we are all tired of having to watch you self-destruct. We’re all tired of it. So why don’t you. . .”

Harvey said in a low voice, “You ever see a body?”

But Tom didn’t hear him, Tom continuing on with his own speech, “. . .just let go. I mean, sure, I wasn’t there, sure I don’t. . .”

Harvey said again in his low voice, “You ever see a body?”

“What?”

“A body. You ever seen one?”

Tom said with a dismissive shrug, “I’ve seen a few nice ones at the Naked Eye.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“I know what you meant. I was just making light.”

“Nothing light about a dead body, “ Harvey said. “Fact, they’re pretty heavy. Dead weight. Where do you think that expression came from? The soul doesn’t weigh much, makes no difference in a body’s heft when it’s gone. So tell me, you ever see a body?”

“Harvey, look, I don’t want to get into. . .”

Harvey’s voice was just above a whisper, “You ever see a body?”

Tom said, “Yeah. Granddad’s wake. . .”

Harvey burst into laughter, “Ha. Granddad lying in the suit he was married in. Lying there, being viewed by his grandson, future Mr. College Boy. They were all so proud of College Boy. Our hero.”

“Harvey. . .”

“Know what happens when Granddad’s lid is shut, And he’s lowered into the ground? They rot you know.”

“Harvey, stop. . .”

“No, they do. Bugs crawl in and out of their nose and mouth. I’ve seen plenty of dead bodies. Skin gets bloated and this weird color, like it’s pale, but not. Like a purple tinge or something. And sometimes the eyes are open, and you can see his last expression and wonder what was going through his mind at that final moment. Mom? Dad? Wife? Children? Or just, Fuck, this is it, this is really it, I’m dying. I can still see them, those bodies.” Harvey reached for the pack of cigarettes sitting in the center of the table. “I lie in bed, and they’re there, hovering above me like ghosts. I throw the covers over my head, but I know they’re there. They’ll always be there.” He extracted a cigarette and lit it with a silver plated lighter. He inhaled the smoke and then allowed it to seep from his mouth and nose. He looked at his brother as if he’d forgotten he was even sitting there. “Want a cigarette?” Harvey said, nudging the cigarette pack toward his brother.

“Haven’t smoked in years. You know that,” Tom said.

“Oh yeah.” Harvey took another haul from the cigarette and looked at his brother. He said, “You know anything about fear? I mean real fear. Know what it’s like to hit the ground because someone lit off a bottle rocket? Or the panic when you step out your front door and a little kid sneaks up with a toy gun, hollering, Bang.

“You’re blaming little kids now?” Tom said.

Harvey looked at his brother with weary contempt. He brought the cigarette to his lips, the end igniting with an orange flicker. He let the smoke roll slowly from his mouth, the smoke hanging in the air above the men like whales fluidly diving and rising toward the ceiling. “I’m not blaming anyone,” Harvey said. “I’m simply telling you what it’s like late at night, the darkness creeping upon you, and you wait, tensed, ready for something to spring from the dark, and your fear, and nightmares, and reality become one big blur.

“Get a nightlight.”

Harvey ignored his brother’s remark and let another drag of smoke roll from his mouth. He said, “You see, you try and find a reason to stumble out of bed in the morning, and sometimes the only reason you can muster is to find something to dull the pain.” He gulped the last of his beer and held up the bottle, saying, “It just helps me get by.”

“Everyone else gets by,” Tom said. “Look, Harvey, you’ve never bothered telling anyone what happened to you in the war, but there were thousands of guys, just like you, and they find ways to get by.”

“Look at Dad,” Harvey and Tom say this at the same time.

Tom shrugged, disgusted.

Harvey looked off toward the bar, as if focusing on a distant, phantom horizon. Harvey’s voice took a dreamy quality as he said, “Know something? It was easy to find a reason to get up in the war. Always a reason to get up there. Number one, the bugs stung you awake. And when you did wake, you sometimes thought you were home. Sometimes you’d wake up forgetting about the war altogether. But then you opened your eyes and the illusion was gone. Yeah, it was easy to get up when you had something to work for, like staying alive. I remember this one dawn Charlie stumbled over us. What a fucking mess. I shot bolt upright in a sleepy daze, saw tracers scurry through the camp like fireflies, heard crackling pops like firecrackers on the Fourth of July. . . and the yelling. The yelling seemed louder than the actual firefight. Some commanding, some panicking, some screaming like a little kid getting stung by a swarm of hornets. I looked at my buddy, Bobby Carrigan. We called him Bobcat. We looked at each other, my heart pounding in my chest like the artillery fire, and we couldn’t say anything, not a goddamn thing. Yet whole conversations passed in that split second look into each other’s eyes. I remember noticing my weapon was already in my hands. It was automatic, like a baby reaching for its mamma’s breast, but I didn’t know where to fire, which way to run. I wanted to find better cover, but I didn’t know if I’d just run into enemy fire. Bobcat shouted verses of the Hail Mary: ‘Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. . .’ and I felt something spray in my face. I looked down and Bobby’s blood was all over me, I could taste it, smell burning flesh. I remember the noise he made, high pitched, like a dog getting hit by a car. We looked at each other for the split second before he hit the deck, and you know, whole conversations can pass in those split second looks, and his was a look of. . . confusion. Good guy Bobby. Anyway, I got up and ran then. I ran pretty fucking fast, never letting go of a round. I kept my head down, held that rifle tight, crashing through bushes, almost tripping over my own feet, rocks and debris flying by my head, and bullets zinging past my ears with high-pitched buzzes like screaming bees. And I stumbled into a small clearing, and I. . . I saw one running, his back to me, and I felt my weapon go off. It vibrated in my hand, I couldn’t let go of the trigger. I emptied the entire clip into that gook’s back, and every time a round hit, he let out a higher screech. Like some horrible instrument playing scales. He didn’t even know he was in my sights, he was just running, like me. And I knew if I looked into his face, if I looked into his eyes, I knew what I’d see. Wife. Mother. Father. Or just, fuck, this is it, I’m really dead.” Harvey stood, looking down at his brother, Harvey saying, “I sent that gook running straight to hell. No one saw his last moment, but me. To everyone else, he was just another body found in the jungle, but for me, he’ll always be running.” Harvey pulled a couple of faded, crumpled bills from his pocket and slapped them on the table. He said, “And I’ll always be running after him, clinging to a goddamn umbrella.”

Harvey walked from the round, beat up table to the bar’s front door. He plunged from the darkness into the bright daylight, a ghost of a satisfied smile stretching across his lips.

Tom sat alone, staring at his beer. He glanced at the pack of cigarettes his brother left on the table and he reached for one.

The End

Haiku Etched into a Bench at Half Moon

logo-bg.pngThe haiku below is etched into a wooden bench at Half Moon Pond. The people that read it never realize that it was written by a military fugitive, the writer Louis Ting.

 

Squirrel leaping branches,

Acrobat without a net,

Does not pause for praise.