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Trip of a Lifetime

Everything Was Wonderful

By Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest

A Note to the Reader

Jack's unsettling discovery in the back room last week launched him on an unscheduled trip to "A Foreign Country." It also left him wondering if the Ed he thought he knew is gone for good. Happily, though things aren't always what they seem.

February 27, 2001

Chapter Twelve

Jack's eyes never left the knife, now balanced in Ed's right hand. Ed placed the sheath back on the table. His fingers curled around the grip, thumb resting lightly on the ridge of the double-edged blade, just below the cross-guard. The greased steel shone in the light of the naked bulb.

With practiced ease and startling speed, Ed spun the knife around his middle finger, reversing it. Now he held it by the blade. The grip extended toward Jack. "Want to take a closer look?" Ed asked, his eyes in shadow, his face expressionless.

Jack took the knife. Without his being aware of it, a long, whistling sigh escaped from his lips. He held the knife at arm's length, examining it more carefully. The blade and grip had once been black, but the finish on both was now well-worn. Jack saw where Ed's fingers and thumb had rubbed through to the dull bronze of the knurled brass grip. He touched one blade edge lightly with his thumb nail. It caught immediately, peeling away a thin sliver of nail. No surprise there. The edges showed evidence of much careful sharpening. And that wasn't all. The entire seven-inch length of the blade was clean and free from any trace of rust or pitting.

"It's a fine knife," Jack said, meeting Ed's eyes again. "You took mighty good care of it."

"And it took care of me," Ed replied, sounding a bit more like his old self. Jack thought he heard a hint of a chuckle in Ed's voice. He hoped he wasn't wrong. Carefully, Jack took the blade in his left hand and gave the knife back to Ed.

"I'm sorry, Jack," Ed said by way of acknowledgement, returning the blade to its sheath. "You weren't meant to see what was in that file box. I showed the stuff to Brenna once…when was it? Almost thirty years ago. I thought she ought to know. But that was the last time I had it out. It wasn't something I wanted to advertise. It's like they say: the past is a foreign country. People do things differently there. I read that…somewhere." He paused. "Wish I could remember where."

Jack nodded, reminded of things in his own life that he'd be happy to put away in a box on a shelf. Not that he wanted to forget them, exactly. No point in trying to cut pieces out of your past, after all. Just put them someplace dark and private—someplace where you wouldn't stumble over them every day.

"Still," Ed continued, looking Jack square in the eye, "there's no undoing what's done, is there? If you'd rather not stay on in the apartment…."

Jack laughed for the first time in what seemed like a very long while. "You don't think I'm going to give up the best home I've had in years, do ya? And what makes ya think you're the only man who's done things he ain't proud of, anyway? It's…whaddaya call it?…the human condition, right?" And then he stopped short, a little surprised at his own eloquence.

"You've got a point, there, Jack," said Ed, grinning. His glance swept over the table. Then he caught sight of the book that Jack had come into the back room to find. "I think you're going to like Slaughterhouse Five," he continued. "Heroes like me"—here he rolled his eyes up toward the ceiling, as if inviting divine contradiction—"heroes like me, we're just small-time operators, if you know what I mean. Now the boys who dreamed that one up"—he gestured toward Slaughterhouse Five—"they were big-time heroes. The real thing. World-class."

He noticed Jack's puzzled expression. "Sorry," Ed said for the second time in as many minutes. "You haven't read the book yet, have you? It's a novel about the bombing of Dresden. By the Brits and the Americans. World War II. A comic novel." Jack looked even more puzzled now, so Ed added, "That's right. A comic novel. Sort of. What literary types call 'black comedy.' Of course, the bombing was real enough. It was no joke. And Vonnegut was there. He was an American POW, and he'd just been evacuated to Dresden. When the bombers came over, he was ordered into a shelter in an underground meat-locker. That's where "slaughterhouse five" comes in. Anyway, Vonnegut was a lucky man. He lived through the bombing—and the firestorm that followed. 150,000 didn't, including thousands of Allied POWs and civilian refugees."

Here Ed paused for a second, shaking his head in a sort of quizzical bewilderment, like a fighter who'd just taken a hard right to the head that he hadn't seen coming. Then he continued: "When Vonnegut wrote the book, he gave his hero the name Billy Pilgrim. Billy's also an Allied POW in Dresden, see? He lives through the bombing, too. And when he comes out of his slaughterhouse shelter, the Germans make him help with the job of burning the bodies of the dead. Later, whenever anyone asks him what it was like, Billy Pilgrim answers, 'Everything was wonderful and nothing hurt.'" Ed hesitated for a long minute. "I don't think there's a better answer."

After that, a long silence enfolded the two men as they stood on either side of the table in the crowded, dusty, book-filled storeroom, in the harsh light of a single naked bulb.

Ed was the first to speak. He sounded surprisingly cheerful. He sounded like a man who'd just found a way out of a long, dark tunnel into daylight, and who was damned glad of it. "Look, Jack," he said, "I can't leave this stuff lying around here, and I'm getting a little tired of finding out-of-the-way places to store it. It's time for me to burn my dead, I think. You want to give me a hand?" And, without waiting for a reply, he scooped everything off the table—knife, t-shirt, pictures, medals, even the big envelope full of papers—and stuffed them all back into the cardboard file box. "Come on!" he said. "It's getting late. Brenna's going to be wondering what's happened to me." And he pushed out through the door onto the back porch, with Jack following close behind him.

Ed grabbed the lid of the big steel trash can and carried it out to the flagstone patio. Then he squatted down beside it and dumped the contents of the file box on the ground. Handing the large envelope to Jack, Ed told him to open it, crumple the papers one by one, and place them on the inverted trash-can lid. Jack did as he was told. Soon, a growing mound of wadded paper filled the lid. Only occasional, isolated words and phrases were visible. "Citation"…"disregard for his personal"…"Commendation"…"accounted for many." Jack wanted to look at what he was crumpling up, but Ed hurried him along, emphasizing his haste by starting to tear up the three photos. Only once did Jack stop.

He'd found a plain sheet of typewriter paper. A long time ago it had been white, but now it was yellowed and damp-stained. Rather than bearing the boilerplate of official correspondence, it bore a simple, well-executed pencil sketch. The drawing showed a weasel popping out of a hole in the ground. The creature had a Vietnamese youth in its jaws, transfixed by two enormous canine teeth. Jack held the sketch out at arm's length and squinted in an attempt to see more clearly in the fading evening light. The weasel's "teeth" weren't teeth at all. They were knife blades, identical to the blade of the knife that now lay on the ground at Ed's side. And the weasel wore wire-rimmed glasses.

The sketch was labeled and signed. The label said "North American Flat-Footed Ferret." The artist's signature was a single improbable name: Cockburn.

Jack handed the sketch to Ed, who glanced at it and handed it back. "Add it to the pile," he said, in a voice that made no allowance for argument.

But Jack thought he'd try again. It was a good sketch. "This Cock-burn fella—he somebody you knew?"

"He pronounced it COE-burn. And he was very particular about it, too. A medic. A volunteer. Right out of a little Quaker college in Pennsylvania. And a conscientious objector, no less. I thought he was crazy. He was, too, but he wasn't just crazy in the way I thought."

"Meanin'?" Jack asked, still waving the sketch in the air.

"Meaning he was always complaining about the food." When Jack looked as if this wasn't enough, Ed continued: "Cockburn's folks came from Iowa, and he always said he couldn't get good bacon in 'Nam. He wouldn't eat the crap we got. Then he started getting his own. Fine-tasting stuff, too. Every man in the company had some, one time or another. Cockburn cooked it himself—cooked it nice and crispy. We all thought he'd done a deal. You know, found a local source. He had. Turned out he was butchering bodies. When they weren't fresh enough, he started 'making meat' on the side. That's what he called it anyway. And he wasn't too fussy where he got it. He ate most of the ass off a brand-new second lieutenant, for one thing. About all the lieutenant was good for, in fact. But, hell, somebody had to do something. Can't have medics eating the dead. It doesn't play well on the evening news. And it's not good for morale, either. So we drew straws and the loser took care of things. It was either that or watch Cockburn get sent off to Leavenworth. None of us wanted him doing that kind of hard time. Most of us owed him a favor or three. It was a hell of a shame, though. He was a good medic. And a mighty fine cartoonist. He must have done dozens of those sketches." Ed looked at the sheet of paper in Jack's hand and shook his head from side to side. "Now put the damn thing on the pile."

This time Jack didn't argue.

When all the papers were crumpled and the photos had been reduced to tiny squares, Ed tore the t-shirt into strips and added these to the growing mound before him. Then he tossed the medals on the top and stood up, holding the knife in his hands.

"Can't burn that," Jack said.

"Nope. Don't think I could," Ed replied. "Don't think I want to. Think I'll hang on to it a while longer."

"Right," said Jack. "There's never any call to throw away good tools. Never know when you might need 'em." And he winked at Ed.

Ed grinned back. "Got a match?" he asked.

"Think so," said Jack, reaching into his pocket.

A minute later, the two men stood watching the multi-colored ribbons shrivel and burn in the small, smelly fire. "Go on, now. Go in," said Ed. "And tell Brenna that I'll be right along, OK? Have to get up early. We're looking at a canoe in the morning. Might be just the boat we need for the trip. Don't want to miss our chance at it."

"OK," said Jack, starting to walk toward the house. Suddenly he turned around and said, "Everythin' was wonderful…?"

"And nothing hurt," finished Ed. Then the two men's laughter echoed in the night.

To be continued…

Fire at Sea

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

















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