Some mornings I’d awake to discover him slumped behind the steering wheel of our father’s car, and the nights he didn’t come home at all Mother paced.
Once after midnight he crashed into our room and flopped backwards onto the bed. His sweat dripped road dust on the sheets.
“What the hell happened to you?” I asked.
He looked as if he’d been rolled out of a moving car.
“Don’t lie to me.”
“You know Sammy Javonis?” he said.
“Sonofabitch tried to run me off Neshannock Road.”
“Jenny—why else? I yanked him out of his dink Chevy and ripped the lapels right off his blue blazer. Asshole.”
Jeremiah’s shirt buttons had popped, revealing muddy lacerations on his chest. His shoes fell to the floor. An arm resting over his eyes. “Ethan.”
“When she phones, I’m not home. D’ya hear?”
Jeremiah always had a penchant for scaring the hell out of people, throwing himself into the teeth of danger, then after the show when everybody went home—he’d crawl back out. He wasn’t the kid brother I’d once known. He was more like a power line blown down in a windstorm.
When he told me he was seeing Jenny Gates, I wasn’t surprised. Jenny’s father owned the Chrysler dealership in town, and that summer it wasn’t uncommon to hear her pull up in our driveway in her indigo-blue convertible demonstrator looking for Jeremiah. I’d go out to speak with her since he was either sleeping or not around. I complained to him about it, saying he should be more considerate.
“Who are you afraid of, Ethan?” He laughed.
“You got to learn how to treat a woman.”
“You can’t be afraid of them.”
“I’m not afraid of women.”
“The real ones, you are,” he said. “The kind that chew your balls off, huh? Not Jeremiah Muller. I grab their headlights and yank them right to me. Laugh in their faces. That’s when they bend. That’s how to treat Mr. Taps too.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Remember when you found Mama bent over the canning stove in the cellar with the gas cocks open? Mr. Taps smells like a woman.”
“You’re full of shit, Jeremiah.”
“Do you think men hang themselves because they want to die?”
His impish grin curled up revealing a splinter of teeth. “Huh-uh. They do it because they smell cunt.”
“You saying death smells like a woman?”
“Under the armpits. Between the legs.”
“You got a big imagination too,” I countered.
“Mr. Taps smells just like a broad.” Jeremiah’s face was one of intense resolve.
“Sure,” I said, half mocking.
Jenny phoned after nine o’clock that Saturday evening. “Has he left the house yet?” “Tell her I’m leaving now,” Jeremiah answered and rolled back to sleep. She called at nine-thirty, then ten. “Ethan, lie for chrissake!” He jumped up both times, switched off the overhead light, and fell back into our bed.
“Jeremiah’s sleeping, isn’t he, Ethan?” It was after eleven.
I didn’t answer.
“Well, you don’t have to protect him any longer. Tell him not to bother showing up.”
Minutes later he came down the stairs fully dressed to go out.
“She’s pissed, Jeremiah.”
“They bore you to tears when they aren’t,” he said.
It was Mrs. Gates who phoned at two a.m. Mother hollered up the stairs, “Your brother’s in some kind of trouble, Ethan.” Mother handed me the phone. Jenny was on the line.
Jeremiah had taken her out the Old Wilmington Road for a ride. She was angry because of his apathy—“Always late, Ethan,” as Jenny put it. “I’m tired of it. Sometimes even missing our date.”
“Where is he?” I asked.
“You know the ravine behind Cringle’s farm?”
“Yes . . .”
“Down in there somewhere.”
“What do you mean?”
“He got hot over something I said. Stepped on the accelerator, began double and triple shifting—taking the country roads at high speed. I wanted out, but he kept accusing me.”
“What else? What causes you boys to go nuts?”
“Who is it, Jenny?”
“Acne Head.” She laughed derisively. That’s what Jeremiah called Sammy Javonis, quarterback for Slippery Rock College and Hebron classmate of mine.
“Your brother asked me what I was doing Sunday evening. ‘You and I aren’t doing anything,’ I tell him. ‘I’ve got a date.’ That’s when he throttled it.”
“Is he hurt?”
“Don’t know. We’re heading straight down Cliff Road—when he stiffens and jams on the brakes. The car fishtails. He opens his door and Johnny-Weissmullers into the gorge.”
“Not a drop of water runs through that canyon, Jenny.” “He knows that.”
“Did you go looking for him?”
I heard the whoosh of her cigarette lighter.
“You considered that he might be lying down in that ravine dead?” I cried.
“Dead? Jeremiah Muller dead?” She laughed. “Fat chance—and when he does come up that ravine, tell him Mama and me decided I ain’t to see him no more. You hear? He’s not to phone me up either.”
We didn’t know much about psychiatrists then. Only asylums like neighboring Danville State Hospital employed them. Jeremiah began lying up in our room and refused to come downstairs.
EXIT sign above doorways in movie theaters? In houses like ours those little signs existed in medicine cabinets and the bedside table drawers where the sleeping pills were kept. Sometimes in the basement. Come home one Sunday at dusk, Dad gone and Mother lying up in her bedroom with the door closed. Then those little EXIT lights flicked on.
Jeremiah found one under the hood of his car.
Driving our father’s car one Sunday morning back from Marine Reserves at our local airstrip, where there were several Piper Cubs and a grounded World War II twin-engine P-38, Jeremiah needed gas. He’d planned it so he could call Jenny.
He was going a little crazy. Morosity filling him like purple ink. Said he wanted to become a Navy pilot. It was that surplus P-38 out at the airstrip. One of those EXIT signs.
Jeremiah announced to all of us that Saturday he’d enlisted, was shipping out the following Wednesday. He’d just landed a steady job driving ambulance for Earl Wright and was going to Marine Reserves on the weekends. The old man, Mother, and me were worried. But Jeremiah didn’t want to talk about it. Like a bomb about to go off.
Get his wings, fly that Fork-tailed Devil out there in Deshon Field over Hebron. Strafe the local bank, the high school, and Earl’s mortuary. Then dive-bomb it straight into Ulysses S. Grant’s statue on the Diamond, causing a horrible conflagration.
I kept visualizing the P-38 smashing through our dining room window, my brother inside wearing a leather bomber jacket, flight hat with a chin strap, the big black flight goggles and an ironic grin on his face, waving to me at impact. There was this nervous premonition that we all shared that Jeremiah would never leave town quietly.
At the first sign of the old man’s car’s dying, Jeremiah let it come to a peaceful stall. He got out and trekked back to the last farmhouse he’d passed. A young boy wearing a pitcher’s mitt lobbed a baseball through a tractor tire hanging under a tall maple in the dooryard.
“Say, Ace, can I use your telephone. Car’s stalled down there a bit on the road.”
The boy’s mother appeared behind the screen door and looked Jeremiah over before inquiring. “What is it?”
“Car’s run out of gas, ma’am. Just coming from a reserve meeting up at the airport. I’d like to call my friend and have some brought out to me.”
“Phone’s on the dining room wall.”
Jeremiah thanked the woman, and after placing his call, waved to the kid and shambled back to the car. He popped open the hood. Shortly Jenny Gates pulled alongside in her father’s Chrysler Town and Country. She refused eye contact. “It’s on the floor of the backseat.”
Jeremiah smiled. He’d finesse this. Maybe it would be like old times again. It was all a misunderstanding, right?
“Jeremiah, I got no time to talk.”
Christ, you want me to be a little jealous, don’t you?
“Mama says, ‘Nothin’ turns a woman’s blood icier than a stillborn—or the caress of a man she’s spurned.’ I’d sooner lie in the alfalfa up there with the ruttin’ farmer than imagine the whisper of your hand cross my body. Wasn’t always that way, was it, Jeremiah?”
She studied his unmoving shadow on the roadway.
“Get the gas out the back seat and shut the goddamn door, please!” Jenny jumped out of the car, shoved him to one side, deposited the five-gallon can of gas on the road, then took off.
The gravel spat back into his pant legs.
The hood to our old man’s car stood open like the lid of a music box.
Jeremiah bent over, twisted the cylindrical air filter loose from the carburetor. Grabbing hold of the can, he poured gas into the mouth of the carburetor. He splashed it across the manifold and onto his hands and arms and down onto the automobile’s fender. Setting the can down, he slid into the driver’s seat, turned the key in the ignition, pumped the accelerator in 4/4 time, took out a cigarette, then insouciantly struck a match.
And the P-38 caught fire. Jeremiah sat grinning in the cockpit of the old man’s car. He watched the fire jump from his hands up the sleeves of his Marine issue, then leap down to his thighs; he switched on the radio. “Clemente steps up to bat. Struck out in the fourth and grounded out to left field in the sixth. He’s due for one, wouldn’t you say, folks? Open your window, Aunt Minnie!” Jeremiah broke out laughing as he bailed out of the cockpit and ran flaming across the meadow of Josiah Cringle’s farm.
His mind was sharp with pain. It hadn’t entered his feet. His legs carried him. He parted the dry meadow, igniting the grasses. The fiery gash hissed across the meadow, stalking each stride he took. Running to where? Jeremiah never knew. Keep this craft up. Ride the sonofabitch until it falls out of the sky.
The kid had stopped pitching to the tire swing. His mother came out on the porch. Jeremiah’s monkey suit was burning like a cattail dipped in benzene.
How do you stop this goddamn contraption?
A Reserve officer spotted him from the road, yelling for him to stop, and commenced the chase. Jeremiah was deaf. Just a slight popping in his ears. Like they were filling up with water. Diving toward the town’s Diamond. General Grant astride his bronze horse—Jeremiah hollering for him to get the hell out of the way. I’m coming in, his craft all aflame and surer than God it was going to smack into old Ulysses. Jeremiah Muller lands in Hebron town square, ablaze!
The officer wrestled the human torch to the ground, blanketed him in his overcoat, then boot-stamped the khaki-green ball. Jeremiah looked bewildered as the officer lifted him up.
At the hospital later that day, I asked Jeremiah how long he had planned to keep on running.
“Until I fell,” he said.
Strange, the calm that came over us all. Jeremiah lay in bed, voluble, smoking and laughing, regaling everybody about the pretty “tail of a March kite” he cut in Cringle’s grain. “Is our old man going to have to pay for the damages?”
Standing by his bedside watching him, I wondered what the hell is going on here? He seems fine. Why have they got him all bandaged up? Maybe he’ll go to the Navy after all.
“Thank you, Bud, for saving Jeremiah’s life.” Jeremiah thanked the reservist who tackled him in the wheat. Bud modestly nodded and muttered, “I ain’t ever stomped on a man to save his life. Weird, wouldn’t you say, Jer?”
“Christ, I swear, I didn’t feel a thing. Still don’t for that matter.
“Ethan . . . ” Jeremiah pointed to the phone. “Call Miss Gates. OL-4-9225. Tell her it’s her old flame.”
“I ain’t shitting, Ethan. Do it.”
Jenny answered. I held the receiver to his ear.
“I’ve had an accident and am over here at Hebron Memorial. Would you drop by for a minute? Not certain how long I’m staying.”
She hung up on him.
A day or so passed. We set a rollaway cot up in the dining room alongside the old Kimball upright. Jeremiah would come home and recuperate. But when the old man got off the phone, he was milk-white.
“What’s the matter?” I said.
“They say he’s fading,” Father wheezed.
Mr. Taps, I thought. A nurse stood at the bed alongside tubes running out of him. His face, now a shade of dark mustard. His eyes shut. It was the dying him, the dead Jeremiah. Where in the hell was the real one? The one I’d slept alongside for 18 years? I looked about the room, expecting to see him smiling conspiratorially from behind the aluminum and green vinyl visitor’s chair.
Mother turned and opened the window. The old man bent over as if he were tinkering with the damn Ford, repeating over and over again, “Jeremiah, Jeremiah, do you hear me?”
Jeremiah opened his eyes. He smiled pacifically at the old man, asking him why he stood there. “Taking a ride with you, son. Making sure you don’t get lost.”
“Lost? In Hebron, Pap?”
“You come back home now with us?” the old man coaxed.
“She cook dinner, Pap?”
“Flank steak and parsley potatoes, cornbread.”
The old man bent over Jeremiah like he wasn’t about to let go.
“But, Pap . . .”
“What is it?”
“Pap . . .”
“What is it, son?”
“If I jump. Toss me a line, huh, Pap?”
The dialogue came to an abrupt halt. Yes, a big goddamn ditch. Between the old man and him. Jeremiah would jump, by God—toss himself mightily across the crack in the earth, propelling himself toward Dad.
That night I dreamed I saw Jeremiah dive into the bottomless space, bundled up like a mummy, and the gauze began to unroll off him like a spool of thread; it smoked comet-like, and Jeremiah, tumbling wildly in his descent, sparkling, brighter and brighter until he turned opal star white, and stopped.
“He’s going to die,” I told Dad early the next morning.
“Call Earl Wright, Katherine. We got to get Jeremiah out of Hebron.”
An hour later, the old man and I sat on either side of the gurney in back of Earl Wright’s new Buick ambulance, its red emergency light gyrating, heading for Veteran’s Hospital in Pittsburgh. Mother sat up front next to Earl.
For three years Jeremiah lay in the VA, his skin grafts failing one after the other. Dr. Willy Starts stripped so much skin off his buttocks, chest, and stomach his torso looked like a beginner’s quilt. Each time infection would set in and cause the skin to turn to puss and slip off his arms and legs.
Jeremiah kept hoping he’d die in the operating room one day. He spent most of his time, when he could get out of his bed, in a wheelchair roaming the ward with a pack of paraplegics, the Polish Air Force aka Deathers. Each with his own private hell—you had to be in extremis to belong. They gave a damn about nothing.
I moved into an SRO close to the VA, hired out as a day laborer, took philosophy and English classes at the University of Pittsburgh, and, against Jeremiah’s will, went and sat next to his bed many nights.
“Stay the fuck away.”
Mother and Father obliged. Jeremiah stared into the Venetian blinds, his legs gauzed and hanging from wires like asbestos pipes. When the skin grafts on his legs kept breaking down, to brace him up I went out and bought him a new pair of Cordovan Wejuns and set them up on his bureau like flower pots. One day in black anger he pissed from his bed up into them, delighted they held water.
Jeremiah downright ignored my presence. Instead he’d propel his chair down the ward’s hallway to speak to one of his buddies; or, if he was recovering from yet another operation, the able Deathers would queue up to him. Whoever hadn’t lifted Cold Mary’s red-lace veil was an outsider. Big goddamned joke what they’d spied. So when they slapped the playing cards on the food tray of their sickest member’s bed, they’d indulge their black wit.
“Can you smell her fucking breath, Ethan? Ain’t it sweet?” Jeremiah would taunt.
One day, Jeremiah’s surgeon, Dr. Willy Starts, walked into his room and, trying to guide the hoary ingot of life back down Jeremiah’s spine, blithely announced: “You pull through this, Muller, and your university education’s on me.” But Grotowski, a one-armed Korean vet and the Deather’s “Air Colonel,” straight-out told Jeremiah the end was just a matter of time.
Early one Sunday morning several of the Deathers—three in wheelchairs and one, McGonigle, closest to dying, on a gurney—entered Jeremiah’s room singing a Black Mass. Drawing the shades, Grotowski, with exaggerated military flourish, unveiled a fox-hole shovel, its blade illustrated with a Chinese-red, laughing skull. Grotowski laid it across Jeremiah’s chest. Whereupon each acolyte lifted a pot of flowers, pilfered from the bedsides of other patients, and on command tore out the blooms—hyacinths, poppies, red and yellow spring tulips—and tossed them into a bedpan they’d placed like a holy water basin at Jeremiah’s feet. One by one, the Deathers shook the dirt out of the pots onto Jeremiah’s torso and legs. “You are one of us,” the Deathers chanted like drunken Carthusian monks.
When all the dirt had been dumped on his mock grave, each man cupped a trinket of personal value into Jeremiah’s hand: four medals for heroism, one ruby-stone athletic track ring, a wedding band, and a cheap gold necklace with a heart pendant—a woman’s photograph inside etched by Iodine. Grotowski lifted a disguised flask of whiskey off his backside, took the first long drink, wet-dog-shook it off, then passed it around.
Jeremiah was broken up. He handed the pendant back to McGonigle in the gurney. “This means something to you.”
“Only for a little longer,” McGonigle laughed. He swung his arm down, scooping soil from the bed, broadcasting it across Jeremiah’s face.
“Don’t lose the ring, cocksucker. Buckeye State Track Champions, ’49!” a chain-smoking paraplegic, Mose Jacobs, spoke up at the rear of the cluster. “It’s a real ruby.”
“What’s your event, Mose?” one of the men asked.
“No, I want to know.”
“Javelin,” Mose answered. The men laughed again, and two spit contemptuously on Jeremiah’s feet.
Jeremiah winced. “Fuck it, I never even went out for any sport.”
“Slip it over your dick, boy. Make us all proud,” Lazar called.
“Shining hour,” Grotowski announced, taking another drink.
“Muller, you ain’t been around here long enough.” The irony contained in McGonigle’s remark passed over no one’s head except the initiate’s. “How’s it feel under it all, hydrangea-legs?”
“Get a life, you bastards.” But Jeremiah was still a beat behind.
The men gradually became somber. Grotowski passed the flask for the third time. A loud knock sounded on Jeremiah’s door. “Who’s there?”
“Breakfast. Open up.”
The Deathers all looked at Jeremiah to see how he was going to handle it. If caught, they could be confined to their rooms for two weeks—no card playing, their run of the ward restricted.
“What kind of breakfast?”
“Wheat cakes, gen-u-ine maple syrup ’n’ sausage.”
“Beat it, Molasses Ass,” said Jeremiah.
The men all nodded approvingly.
“It’s your appetite, Sugar,” the orderly sang.
Lazar gave a thumbs up to Jeremiah, who moaned, “Cocksuckers. I love pancakes.”
“Even if Raymond’s dicky-licked ’em?”
“Probably even then,” Jeremiah sighed.
It was cool to show affection for flapjacks.
Mose, whose legs were progressively being amputated up to his ass, spoke: “You’ll have ’em, Fritzie. But first crawl out of that dirt bed and comb your fucking hair. Meet us back in my room, ten minutes, we’ll all eat pancakes together.” Grotowski sent Jacobs to check the corridor. Then one after the other in a sober cortege, the Deathers rolled back up the wide hospital corridor to McGonigle’s room singing “Amazing Grace” to the melody of “Louie Louie.”
On Sunday mornings, a group of church members converged on the Veterans Administration Hospital to sing hymns and pray. The Deathers, hearing these believers coming, would crawl or wheel themselves into their bathrooms and lock the doors.
When the religious visitors spotted the empty beds and registered the lavatories shut tight, they’d utter a high-pitched “Good morning, brother. Just a few of us from the Evangelical Church of Christ wanting to share some of God’s joy with you here on this fine Sunday morning. Are you planning to come out of there soon?”
“That’s okay, sir. We brought you a few pamphlets here, and we’ll slip them right under the door. God bless you, son. See you next Sabbath.”
Why weren’t the Deathers buying it? What did they have to lose?
The vaporous mien of the baptized the Deathers found unsettling. Those folk were ice skaters with no clothes on.
“Are they gone?” Mose asked.
Grotowski glanced out the casement window. “Sabbath birds now exiting the parking lot.”
Lazar closed the door while the men wheeled up to Jeremiah’s bedside. Mose placed the black cartridge box on McGonigle’s gurney and dealt the cards.
“I don’t like the way the fuckers smile,” Mose said.
“They smile ’cause they’re saved,” McGonigle answered.
“They got a Jesus pass to slide into home plate without touching the bases,” Grotowski offered.
“Why aren’t we so lucky?” Jeremiah asked.
“Cause we’re Deathers and they’re fuckin’ Lifers,” Lazar drawled. “McGonigle, when your time comes, who would you prefer to lead you across the great divide? Me or a Bible thumper?”
“What’s your cup size?”
Lazar threw McGonigle a kiss. “You’re fucking A. And you know why, Muller? ’Cause there ain’t no pussy in heaven!”
They ceased talking now, slapping their cards on Jeremiah’s bed and smoking. The men’s ward. But the Deathers weren’t fooling me. A Saint Joseph medal hung about Grotowski’s neck, and at night, after the ward’s lights were out, boy-Jeremiah still mouthed our bedtime prayer.
Stay with me, God. The night is dark, The night is cold: my little spark Of courage dies. The night is long; Be with me, God, and make me strong.
Within six months only two patients remained of the original five-card circle—Jeremiah and Mose. All the cash the Deathers had won off each other lay secreted in a “winner’s pot.” Early on the men had agreed that their sole survivor was to purchase a showroom-condition Mustang convertible, stock its trunk with Chivas Regal, then motor non-stop to Las Vegas and dump the remainder on a blackjack table at El Cortez. If he blew it—OK. But if he won more than he dropped on the green felt, he swore to slip a thousand back into an envelope, posting it to Dr. Willy at the VA Hospital in Pittsburgh, stipulating that in the spirit of goodwill the money was for the anguish Deathers had caused when they yanked the catheters out of their less fortunate brethren.
The morning of Jeremiah’s discharge, his right leg looked like a crude prosthesis—ivory bone under a confection of flesh.
“It’s me, fucking skin-on-a-stick Muller,” he said.
I cloaked the bureau mirror with a cover off his bed. “Now, get on with it.”
His last uniform—the Marine reserve issue. A navy-blue blazer, white shirt and tie, and khaki pants lay draped over the visitor’s chair. His Cordovan loafers spit-shined. “What are you planning to do, Jeremiah?”
“Not certain. How about you?” He pulled his shorts on.
I shrugged. “Won’t be spending my time here anymore.” Nights on end I sat in his room with few words passing between us. Most often he lay there staring at the apple-green ceiling.
“You going back home?” Jeremiah said.
“No way. You?”
He shook his head.
He walked down the ward, entered Mose’s room, and slipped the black metal box the size of a dictionary next to him in the bed. Mose flinched from the chill. I lingered just inside the door.
“Whaddaya think you’re doin’, man?” Mose spat.
“It’s the pot,” replied Jeremiah.
“Fuck the pot.”
“It’s yours. We agreed. You’re the remainder man.”
“What am I going to do with it, Muller?”
“I ain’t goin’ back on no promises. It’s yours.”
“They’re fucking dead. Blow with it.” Mose grabbed the box and motioned for Jeremiah to shut the hospital door. Pulling the sheet off his body, he took out two handfuls of the hundred dollar bills neatly stacked inside the metal box and with each hand buffed the base of his trunk as if he were administering salve. When the surgeons commenced amputating his extremities a few years earlier just above his knees, he was philosophical about it. Now their scalpels were feathering his torso.
“There, deuce. I feel much better already. Now you got the Joker. Take the juice and run.”
“I ain’t leaving on a bad note, Mose.”
Jeremiah stared at him.
“D’ya hear, prick?” Mose was now raising his voice. “You’re an outsider now. We don’t take shit from outsiders.”
Mose tossed the black box across the hospital room’s floor. Jeremiah stacked the currency back inside and placed it on the metal bureau. “I’d planned on stopping by now and then, Mose.”
Mose punched the nurse-alert button alongside his pillow. The black day orderly stood at the door.
“What is it?”
“Get this crazy sonofabitch out of my room.”
Raymond motioned for Jeremiah to leave.
Jeremiah stepped backwards into the hallway, then hesitated.
“The Purple Heart box on the fucking bureau, give it to me, Raymond,” Mose ordered. Over the amputee’s headboard, a calendar. Another joke shared by the five.
The orderly handed over the box, and Mose slid it under the sheet.
“Now the ring, Muller.”
Jeremiah looked at me then slipped Mose’s ring off his finger, tossing it to him.
“You find me a new card partner, Raymond. Muller’s a pussy casualty, I always said he was a phony. And the ruby’s yours, man.” The orderly rolled the wheelchair to the bed and pocketed the ring.
Mose grabbed the strap suspended from the ceiling, and with both hands, slid his torso down into the nest of straps the hospital staff had rigged for him; he slid the cache behind him and implacably jerked himself up the glassy hallway.
“Fuck you, Mose!” Jeremiah cried.
Midway down the hospital’s granite steps, he stopped and began laughing. “Those fuckers who’d concocted this dream knew the end. What the hell was Mose going to do with the money? Those sick bastards.” Then he glanced back at the inscrutable brick facade of the medical institution where he had lain suspended over the ravine, playing a game with the Deathers, and considered man’s propensity for making bad deals worse.