Nightlight

Rudy Koshar

You walk into my room at four in the morning. I have been awake for an hour, not by myself but with my mind. Now you are here. It’s the third time this week. Or has a month passed since you last visited me? You sit in the blue La-Z-Boy across from my bed and turn on the nightlight. The one I usually forget to turn on when I go to bed. I ask you what you’re doing here, but you smile, and raise your finger to your lips. Minutes pass. I close my eyes once, twice, but it is no good. I can’t sleep. I must have it out with you.

    I throw back the cover and slowly, very slowly—because I’m ninety today—swing my legs from the bed to the floor. The carpet feels cold. I look in the dimness for my slippers but I see that I’ve left them by the La-Z-Boy. I begin to get up, but you immediately recognize what I want and bring the slippers to me. You put them, evenly placed, by my old man’s knobby feet. I slip them on and notice that my big toe is still sore. Two nights ago I ripped at the nail and tore it too short and now it is red and swollen. If it gets infected, that simpering Miss Crawford will have to come to my room and tend to it.

My robe waits at the end of the bed. I rise, take the robe, put it on. You sit and watch. I’m glad I was able to do this on my own. Small triumphs have big meaning when you’re my age.

“Why are you here?” I ask. You do not answer. Only your smile suggests there is an answer, but you will not give it. I realize I might kill to get you to open your mouth and speak, but I am not a violent man. At least, I don’t exercise violence against others. Except that once, but that was different.

“You look too young,” I say. In fact, you look as I did when I was twenty-three years old. Tall, skinny, green; a stalk of parsley bending in the breeze.

“You’re here to cross-examine me again, aren’t you?” I say.

In times past, I’ve thought I saw your readiness to respond to my questions. It was not only the smile but the way you sat. As if your body formed the punctuation mark of a sentence with noun and verb and everything. First, you sat as a question mark, all crooked and inquisitive. Lawyerly. You asked too many questions without speaking. You responded to my questions by posturing as more questions. Then you shifted—I think you shifted—into an exclamation point. But I have no idea what the sentence was that preceded the exclamation point. I have no idea if it was, “What an outrage!” Or “What an inexcusable act!” I have no idea if you thought you were a vengeful judge. Then your long, muscular legs turned in a bit, and you were a semi-colon. But after a semi-colon comes another clause and, damn you, you do not utter a second clause or anything else. So I have to guess about your silence. The silence of the jury that deliberates till everyone is bursting with anticipation.

I get up to go to the bathroom. At this time of the morning, I wouldn’t bother to close the bathroom door. Why bother, when you’re ninety and you don’t give a damn if the rest home staff hears you letting out a good, long stream of piss that sibilates in the early morning silence? Why bother when you know that on the day you die they’ll strip off your clothes and swab your private parts and you’ll be defenseless, not even capable of shame, no alibi? But I close the bathroom door now because you are there.

I sit back on my bed with a glass of water in my hand. Three, four sips of flaccid tap water—that sums up my life today.

“We have to stop seeing each other this way,” I say in an attempt at humor.

I smile but you don’t. Your body is no longer forming punctuation marks. You sit rigidly and you look uncomfortable even though you’re sitting in the most comfortable chair in the room. That recliner has held my bag of bones for more than four years now. After I broke my leg. Sometimes I fall asleep in it and wish I would never wake up. “Lazy Man Dies in La-Z-Boy.” That would be the headline in the Oak Forest Rest Home Newsletter, the rag written by that chatterbox Margaret down in eleven. She’d love to write about my tragic demise, I’m sure of it. She tries to get me to play cards, or to sit with her at the concerts they put on for us. And when I refuse she pouts. She has the air of a woman who always gets her way, and that burns me. I think she’s even spread rumors about me that I’ve got something to hide and I don’t want to talk to anyone because I’m afraid I’ll reveal myself. She says the staff hears me screaming in my sleep. What idiocy! My dear Ellie never said anything about my screaming in my sleep. And I lived with the woman for over sixty years, mind you.

You sit and I hate you for your unresponsiveness. It’s worse this morning than previous times. It’s an icicle through the heart. Maybe because it’s my birthday? It’s an insult to me, to what I’ve accomplished. All the money I made, and the respect, the partnership in one of the best law firms in town, and to you it doesn’t amount to a damned thing.

I study the glass, turn it in my hand, make a quick decision. I splash the water in your ashen face. Bastard! Now maybe you’ll present your case. Now maybe you’ll speak instead of sitting like a shadow.

***

You wipe your face with your sleeve and I see that you’ve changed. You’ve aged. You look to be in your thirties. You’ve bulked up a little. A little broader in the shoulders, thank God. And you’re wearing nicer clothes. Sharp. You’ve had a little success, have you? The smile is back. You actually look happy. You look like someone who knows the score. Like a successful attorney doing corporate law and getting some rather nice fees in the process, thank you.

“I think you must be gettin’ a little,” I say. Maybe some manly locker-room talk will loosen you up.

It doesn’t. You’re as silent as a frozen pond, like the one Ellie and I used to skate on before the kids came along and all we heard was the scrape, scrape, scrape of our skates. So I ignore you now. I go about my business. Shave, shower, brush my teeth—I go from one success to the next—and turn on the radio to hear what outrages the liberals have cooked up this time. They serve up the outrages like sloppy joes in a soup kitchen, they do. I’ll get all the details from Rush Limbaugh’s show later today. But this is my preview. I turn to you, but what the hell, you don’t say a thing.

Why bother to say anything halfway intelligent to someone like you? Or someone like me. You look like I did when I was a young buck on the make, driving around in that BMW. That was a car, man. Ellie hated it, but she always wanted something boring, a station wagon or something. A station wagon! Christ. My wife wasn’t going to drive around in a station wagon. Not when I was starting to make a name for myself and getting some really spectacular cases. That was about the time my team got Kehl Mining off the hook for groundwater contamination up in northern Michigan. We were brilliant!

If it were really me sitting there like you are now, I would have said a lot by now. I would have told me to stop complaining, old man. You’ve got it made. What’s the worry, old guy? You had a good-looking wife, big house, any car you wanted, a successful practice, the condo in Florida, everything the best country on the face of the earth had to offer. And you’re worried about some dream or image? Something you did how many years ago? Sixty-five years? At the end of the war? Some kraut got in your way and you…? Oh hell, I don’t want to hear about it. Why even bring it up again? Especially on your birthday. You won’t have too many more of those, will you, old boy? Just get over it. Like the mindless ‘60s song said, just walk away René!

***

“Good morning, Gregory,” says Margaret.

“Good morning,” I grunt. I glare, but she’s as unperturbed as ever.

“May I join you?” she says. Of course she does.

I like to eat breakfast by myself. I read the sports pages in the local rag. No reason to read the news section because of the liberal bias. I stick to talk radio for the news. But today, even the sports section is infected. I’m trying to catch up on what the Tigers are doing—I had season tickets back in the days when Whitaker and Trammell were the best double play combo in the world—but there it is, right on the first page, a story about their second basemen who has asked for an indefinite leave of absence while he takes care of some mental issues. Mental issues? The guy was in Iraq. A war vet who came back, picked up his baseball career, made it to the majors as the Tigers’ starting second baseman, and he wants a leave of absence? Post-traumatic stress disorder? Depression? Anxiety? The guy was nearly rookie of the year last year! Hit .288!There’s no PTSD, or whatever the hell they call it, in the Bigs! It’s like Tom Hanks says in A League of Their Own: “there’s no crying in baseball!” You made it, son! Nothing to gripe about. And you want a goddamned leave of absence?

“Suit yourself,” I shrug to Margaret, who sits down across from me. I have to be especially guarded around her this morning. The staff knows they’re forbidden to celebrate my birthday. I stipulated that when I got here. They’re not allowed to make a cake for me or have a party like they do for some of the shriveled-up old farts vegetating here. No silly hats. No birthday kisses. I’m not going to sit there and drool, with a vacant look on my face, while the staff and Margaret and a gaggle of her co-conspirators pretend to be happy for me. But if I know Margaret, she will have found out the date of my birthday. She has a nose for that kind of thing, like a goddamned D.A.

I decide diversion is the best course of action. “They’ve ruined the sports pages this morning with politics and weak-kneed stuff like what you see on Oprah or Dr. Phil.”

“Oh?” says Margaret. I hate that “oh.”

I realize immediately my mistake. I didn’t divert her, I gave her a conversation starter. If we stick to subjects like the oatmeal or the omelet, there’s normally no problem. Or the new gazebo they’re putting up between our building and the dementia unit. That has provided a good source of pointless chatter over the past few months. I normally give Margaret single-syllable replies and she talks. I tune her out, nod occasionally, than tell her I have an upset stomach or something and I’m going back to my room. But this morning, I’ve made a tactical error. I’ve given her an opening on something with substance, steak instead of salad. I let my guard down in the courtroom.

“What was the article about?” she asks, brushing back her hair like a much younger woman would. That galls me too. It’s not only the gesture she makes, which reminds me of one the flirtatious secretaries I used to have. Sally was her name, if memory serves. It’s that she tints her hair with red highlights. I’m sure she’s totally gray underneath the coloring, as gray as I am, and yet here she is trying to look like a woman thirty, forty years younger, at least.

“You seem pretty worked up about something in the sports page,” she says.

Worked up? Honey, I’m more than worked up. So I tell her about the story. And how the young guy ought to man up, as they say today. I like the phrase. One of the few things I can stand about the way young folks talk today. Man up! The second baseman ought to take a good long look at himself and stop whining. Why, my generation of vets, the guys who did three, four, even five years over there, no matter if they were in Europe like I was, or Japan, they didn’t have post-traumatic anything. They just came back, got jobs or went to school on the GI Bill like I did, and they built the most prosperous country the world had ever seen. They grit their teeth. They created jobs, built houses and cars, and look at what we had! Till the sixties. Then all hell breaks loose and people start talking about their feelings. Feelings, mind you! And they’re still talking about their feelings, even the second baseman who has the world by the short hairs but can’t seal the deal.

I tell Margaret all this. She should hear it. I know she’s one of the touchy-feely types, you can just tell. Probably voted Democrat all her life. Not like my Ellie. Ellie was as tough as I was, except for the station wagon thing. And she was soft on the kids too. That’s why they’re the way they are. Useless. Beyond hope. Even today, when they’re in their sixties. They don’t come to see me and it doesn’t bother me at all. Not at all. Except for those two things, then, and maybe a few other minor items, my Ellie was tough.

Then, very quietly, as if she’s delivering a slow-motion sucker punch, Margaret says, “isn’t it a healthy thing that returning war vets talk about what they’ve experienced? Isn’t it healthier than keeping it all inside? It wouldn’t surprise me at all to hear that World War II vets had as many battle-related traumas as today’s vets do, but they never talked about it. They suppressed it. They were psychologically damaged and all of society paid for their pain. I know. My Roger had trouble for years after coming back, and it was only after we found a good therapist for him that he felt better.”

My Roger? A therapist? Jesus.

***                            

I’m back in my room after the sucker-punch. I wanted to do something outrageous. Sweep all the plates off the table. Cause a scene. But if I did that here they’d have every nurse and shrink and priest within ten miles asking me questions and sticking needles in my arm. And I don’t need any more visitors to my room than I already have. My consultation hours ended years ago.

So I suck it up. I don’t tell Margaret to go to hell, though she deserves it. I keep it all inside. I man up. And I avoid any discussion with her about birthdays. I make a quick retreat. A clean getaway. I’ll prepare my defense for another day in court.

And what do I come back to? You. My unbidden visitor. Sitting in my La-Z-Boy. This is the first time I can remember your being here in broad daylight. The morning sun’s streaming through the blinds and you’re looking even older than before. Like I did when I was in my late sixties or so. The age my kids are now, wherever they are. You looked better in the nightlight.

But now there’s something different. You’re holding something in your hand. Ah, I see what it is. The knife. The old M3 Trench Knife, military issue. Good for hand-to-hand combat, that baby was. Not so much for ordinary stuff like opening food tins or cutting wire.

I remember the last time I held that knife. The day I closed up my office and they had the big retirement party for me. I swore I’d never hold it again, never let it bother me. And so you have it there, do you? Very funny. If you wanted to be realistic about it, you should have me holding it like I did when I was twenty-three. Like you looked earlier this morning. But now you’re just you/me, whoever the hell you are, and you look like the old sad sack I was the day they presented Ellie and me with a two-week Switzerland vacation, courtesy of the firm. Didn’t want to quit, but it was time. In law, you have to be tough enough to withstand the competition. I wasn’t anymore. And the thought of having to walk away from it all had me holding that knife, the M3, just thinking. Thinking about what it would be like to use it again. The way I did back then, back in Germany.

You think you need to remind me, don’t you? You’re asking me—no, ordering me—to repeat it so I won’t forget. Like going over testimony again and again, till you begin to doubt whether what you’re describing ever happened. But I remember the whole thing like a black and white photograph, without your help. The way my best buddy Lenny looked and the clear, sunny day. We were just doing a simple cleanup operation. Four of us. Just patrolling the streets of Kassel in April ’45 after the Germans had already capitulated in that wretched, mutilated hulk of a city. I told my guys it would be an easy morning. No worries. And they believed their lieutenant. They thought we’d just check things out, make sure there was nothing amiss. But I had no idea there were still two snipers. Fuckers were crouching behind a bombed-out streetcar. And when we were in their range, four shots. Three missed, but one got Lenny. Blood oozing from just between the eyes. I saw the hole, and then the blood, and I laid right next to him and said, “Lenny, Lenny, Lenny.” But there was no answer.

We ran after the snipers. They’d holed up in a burnt-out building. We found them and it was like the pinball games Lenny and I used to play at the Driftwood. When the shooting was over and we had dragged the corpses out onto the street and I realized what I did with the blade of that M3…those two krauts’ bloody ears were in my hand, in this very hand, in your hand. And I was the lieutenant, and the other guys weren’t going to say a thing. Then we were back home, and we’d fought the Good War, right?

I go into the bathroom. I look at the backs of my hands in the fluorescent light. Blue veins running through red, arid deserts. Arthritic knuckles swollen into jagged outcroppings. A wedding ring. With this ring, I thee wed. With this M3, I thee…

***

I am seated in the La-Z-Boy. I am composed but you are not. I look at you as you stand at the bathroom sink and wonder why it was so hard. And why it’s still so hard. And why you don’t let your hands speak, finally. And whether anyone knows the cost of it all. And why they keep doing it again and again.

I switch off the nightlight. You left it on when you went to breakfast and had your pleasant little chat with Margaret. Now there’s sunlight. Natural light. It’s better that way. 

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