The View From Here
Yvonne could tell by the way he was breathing that he didn’t have much time left. There were pauses after the congested exhales where she found herself holding her own breath. Then he would inhale again, and it sounded like a fierce wind off the ocean jostling her bedroom window at the cabin, made asperous by a hundred years and the shifting of land underneath. Her father always said that the cold was good for you, even if she had to wear a wool hat pulled low, and hold a hand over her nose with the covers pulled up high while she watched the painted paper mache salmon mobile she had made as a child spinning slowly as the ocean wind paced around her room.
Her father was not cruel. He was of Nordic descent, and he believed in the both the curative power of the cold, and the use of, as he called it, having a little history in things. Up until two years ago he had never been sick even during those winter weekends when their family stayed in their tiny cabin at the coast. He would walk over the pale crusty sand until he was a tiny and tinier figure amid the gulls that flew up in protest of their disturbed formations, until there were only his footprints that curved off and disappeared into the mist. Yvonne would hold her breath then too. She’d look at her brother quietly stacking blocks in the corner, not paying attention. She loved both the anticipation and anxiety of her father’s return, but nothing better than that first sight of him emerging, a small form who would begin to run, a blanket wrapped around him and over his head, then his wild grin to her through the window before he burst into the house with a roar, hopping as he removed his wet sneakers, and then rushing to sit with his back against the fire, to toast his face over a steaming cup of strong smelling coffee.
The boy in front of her took another feeble breath. He was neither asleep nor awake. His eyes moved underneath his closed lids. His hands twitched a little on either side of his head, his copper colored hair was long and dirty. She knew, from his chart, that he was twenty, but his face had very little beard growth, and because he had lost both legs in the war and seemed very small, he could easily have been mistaken for a child. For unknown reasons, he was succumbing to pneumonia.
She sat on the edge of chair, leaning her mouth down near his ear to whisper. She tasted the unnatural taste of her lipstick as she thought about where to put him. He was local, so she decided on somewhere lovely but where his family could come and visit. “There is a little patch of grass on a cliff by the ocean. All the trees that stand guard on the bluff look like ladies with their hair blown back into permanent leaf hairstyles. the mist hides the ocean but when the sun burns it off you can see for miles only ocean and beach, and driftwood, bleached and smooth, spit out like the bones from a good meal. They will put you there looking over out over the ocean, with trees and wind and sea and bird to watch over you, and keep you company. You’ll like it there; you’ll be safe there.”
She felt good about describing to the boys what would happen to them after they died. It seemed morbid at first but where you were going to be buried wasn’t morbid to you if you were dying, it was of great importance to these boys. She called them boys, though they none of them really were. They were all too weary. At first she had taken to reading travel books in her time off so she could describe exotic locations for them, with pale blue water, and exotic and brightly colored flowers, but she quickly realized that they all just wanted to be home, safe at home.
Her brother Dennis was listed missing in action in 1968, and they’d had no word since then, no delayed letters, no unidentifiable remains, no sightings by other returned soldiers. She’d left her job at Swedish for the Ft. Lewis veteran’s hospital hoping someone would have seen or heard something, or they’re be something she could do. Jackson had just been transferred to Ft. Lewis from a hospital back east.
“I don’t know anything for sure, darlin’, only God Almightly knows for sure, but I tell you this much, most our boys who are missin’ in action, as our government likes to call it, they will most likely not be returning.” All the soldiers said the same thing, but Yvonne couldn’t stop herself from asking each time she met someone new.
“I know it’s hard to hear it, but I want to tell you straight up, I wanted to tell you so your hopes weren’t up too high.”
“You think he’s dead?”
“Would you like me to say a prayer for him?” Yvonne had given up on God before Dennis had disappeared, in her six years as a nurse, and with the war, she’d seen far too much inflicted on human the body, and never for any conceivable reason. It was enough to convince her that no one and nothing was intervening, not on behalf of good, anyway, but she didn’t want to be rude. Jackson held a hand out to her.
“Come on sweetheart, cain’t hurt him.” It hadn’t seemed like anything could ever hurt Dennis. She sat down next to Jackson’s bed and gave him her hand. He engulfed it with both of his and then he shut his eyes. “Father, who art in Heaven, please accept the soul of our friend, son and brother, Dennis, who has given his life for this great country…”
Before she could help herself, but felt her eyes go teary, but she didn’t want to pull out of his grip in the middle of the prayer, so she just blinked. Hearing someone say a prayer for him, it hit her like a bomb: Dennis was dead, of course. It was no surprise there wasn’t a body, she had seen what was coming back from Vietnam, bodies reshaped as if through a meat grinder. Parts hacked off or rendered useless, holes that went right through, metal lodged in every conceivable secret place like eggs hidden for the Easter hunt. No, after a year and a half of no word, and no sightings and no end in sight, she knew with a small ringing certainty that Dennis was dead.
The thing was, she had never really been that close to Dennis. As he baby he hadn’t smiled very much—like my father, her father said, with that damned stoic side—and he hadn’t liked to cuddle, which quickly bored his three-year-old sister. He had been born with a full head of blond hair, so by a year old, he looked much older than his age. He couldn’t talk yet, but he looked like he knew something that he purposefully withholding. There had been a time that he had mimicked everything his older sister did, following her around, eating what she ate, repeating her words. It drove Yvonne crazy. She wanted a playmate, but he didn’t want to play, he just stared at her over the Candyland board game she’d set up and aped her every move. It was the one time, she remembered her mother getting angry with her. Trying to be like you, she said, is a way of expressing love. Why can’t you be more understanding? Later, she said pushing him away, we’re going to get rid of you, if you don’t stop, we’re going to drop you in a river, and believe me, no one will miss you. Her father bought them each a hamster, and Dennis finally left her alone. Several years later, after months of riding her bike with an annoying clicking noise coming from the wheel, she found two separate and disconnected spokes hammered out of shape. Dennis. She mangled the lock on his door, sticking a found key in and out, eventually breaking the key, and rendering it useless.
He had always been intensely intelligent, especially with numbers, but he hadn’t bothered to stand out in school. He was clever, and once he fixed her record player for her. He never said that much, and he had one real friend, Dan—they played music together, two guitars, or kicked the soccer ball around outside. They’d go to the Deschutes with their fly-fishing rods and bring home 15-inch rainbow trout that their father grilled. He smoked both cigarettes and marijuana but without too much intent. She had seen him staring at her girlfriends, but he’d never brought anyone home. He was just her annoying little brother, and she’d always wanted him to just grow up and be a normal person.
Her father had wanted him to be an engineer and study at the University of Washington, and because he’d never said otherwise, they all thought he was going to go follow this prescribed path. Yvonne couldn’t remember if he’d actually applied, but after graduation, without saying a word, he’d enlisted.
Her parents had been livid. “Just what on earth do you think you’re doing,” asked her father?
“I’m going to stop the spreading of communism.”
“That’s absurd,” he said.
“I’m going to see the world.”
“Can’t we get him out of it,” asked her mother?
“No,” said her father, “we cannot. He’s eighteen and in the eyes of the law, old enough to do what ever stupid thing he wants.”
“But, but, Dennis,” her mother whispered, blonde tendrils wild around her face, “why are you doing this?”
“Please,” he said, “don’t start.”
The day before he left, Yvonne knocked on his door, not knowing what she would say, but wanting to say something.
“It’s funny,” she said, “I always thought I would be the first to leave home.”
“Yeah, I guess I beat you to it,” he said. She shifted back and forth sliding her stocking feet against the green shag rug, lifting each foot a little and attached by static electricity the little greens strings. His room was in perfect order. Books evenly lined up on the bookcase. There was Asimov, she remembered, and some books about baseball.
“Why are you going?” Yvonne asked. He stopped packing then, and looked at her. His hair was the lighter than hers, but the face structure, the eye color—two peas in a pod, her father liked to say.
“What?” he said, “Did you really think I was going to stay around here my whole life?”
“Well, no, but…”
“I’m going to go do something.”
“Can’t you just do something here?”
“Well…” she said.
“Try to be careful.”
“Will do,” he said.
Yvonne still lived at home. She had been thinking of getting an apartment with a friend, but she hadn’t done it yet. Every night she and parent had dinner together with the place opposite Yvonne a silent and empty altar to Dennis. Somehow all objects were repelled from his side of the table, so much so, that there was a place set for Dennis outlined by the absence of all other things. A very distinguished void that Yvonne had to look into. She started coming home from work later and later, stopping by the library, or catching a movie, or sitting on a bench overlooking the bay, but no matter how late she came home, her parents, hearing her come in would take up at seat at each end of table—just to keep you company, her father said, and watch her eat largely in silence.
When Dennis had first left home, Yvonne had secretly been excited to have her parents all to herself. She knew this was childish and yet she couldn’t help herself. In the beginning, although her parents worried constantly about Dennis, her father still told funny stories about the mill in Tacoma where he a was manager, and she recalled humorously, she hoped, the gruesome details of nursing school which she had started around the same time. She went out on dates, mostly with doctors, and her father teased her about dating “squares” and being an old-fashioned girl in the midst of a changing culture. She had girl friends come over and they baked shortbread cookies with dried cherries, her mother quietly taking the butter out of the fridge or washing the dishes as they chatted and laughed.
Picking at the cooled innards of a baked potato, her father with a constant cough on her right, her mother drawn and tired on her left, Yvonne was feeling more and more pressure to tell them what she knew. Dennis was not coming back, and she was letting her parents continuing to wait. She knew they wouldn’t believe her, not without something to touch, to look at, to put in a box in the ground. Her mother had become so clenched over the last two years with anticipation, and with hope that Yvonne was afraid she was going to die from the effort. She had seen people die from heartbreak, and her mother was starting to look painfully skinny.
“You’d should get that cold looked into,” Yvonne said to her father, “how long have you had that?”
“It’s not a cold,” he said, “it’s allergies.”
“Since when have you had allergies?”
“How’s that potato?”
Jackson was screaming incoherent words, and fragments of words, and moaning, some sort of primal call from deep down. She had heard it many times before. Yvonne shook him awake but he didn’t seem to know where he was.
“I need to get home,” he said.
“You are home.”
“No,” he said, “I can still hear it.” So she rolled his bed over to the window, lifted it, felt the cool, fresh air, and pushed his hand out into the night.
“Feel that?” she asked, “You feel that? That is good old pacific Northwest rain. I don’t believe they have that in the jungle.” She watched a sort of sense come back into his eyes, and then he was embarrassed.
“Damn it girl, get my hand out of the rain.”
“Okay,” she said, “whatever you say major.”
“I’m am not, and ain’t never will be, no kind of major in these united states armies.
“Let me dry your arm.”
“Okay, angel.” The hospital towels were thin and small, not as good for drying as they were for feeling what was beneath. Jackson was silent as she rubbed the towel from his hand to his bicep.
“You know,” he said, “ I don’t think I’ve ever seen a girl with hair as true blonde as you are.”
“We’re from Sweden originally.”
“I’m just a hick from Alabama.”
“Your family probably came from somewhere.”
“How’s the therapy going?”
“Well, it’s going alright.”
When she did things like empty the urine or shit that accumulated in a bag at his side, Jackson tuned out. He hung up his charm and just became a body for a little while she attended to him. Once she was done and he was covered up again, he’s snap back, and he’d look at her straight in the face, like the whole thing hadn’t happened. A lot of the soldiers were like that. The loss of control was so humiliating for these young men, especially as trained, tough guys that the change was literally impossible for them to believe. Denial ain’t just a river… the nurses joked. Some of the men could joke about it too, grimly, but those were usually the ones who had a sunnier prognosis.
Jackson was unusual. He had incomplete lower parapalegia, and yet the doctors could find anything actually wrong with his spinal cord. No disconnection, just a decent amount of swelling. When Yvonne asked Dr. Swift about it, he just said that they didn’t know, and what the hell, maybe it was psychological but until they figured it out, they were just treating him as an other para. The mind is a strange thing isn’t? Then he winked at her.
Yvonne asked Rhonda to switch with her for the night shift.
“If you want it, you got it,” Rhonda, “things get crazy there at night, you know? Those guys go loopy as soon as the sun sinks.” They were smoking cigarettes and looking over the delta.
“Girl, Sherlynn’s leaving her room at the end of the month, and it’s yours if you want it. We’d love to have you.”
“Thanks, I’ll have to see.”
“I didn’t want to have to bring this up, but you are 26, are you not? You really want to still be living with your parents? Are you aware we are a crazy kind of free. It’s fun girl, you’re missing out.”
“I’d love to take the room, I really would. Let me think about it.”
“Thanks again, Rhonda.”
“I should be thanking you.”
Jackson was awake and alone when she came into his room. The men who could move usually hung out and played cards or watched TV in the rooms of those who couldn’t, but each had his own room to sleep in. Thus was the luxury at Ft. Lewis.
“How about a bath?” asked Yvonne, going over to fill up a pan with warm water. Thinking Jackson would tune out as he usually did, she was surprised to find him staring at her.
“This isn’t me,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, there you are, your normal self, just doing all your daily things, just fine, not thinking too much about anything, and here I am, a bump on a log, with these useless legs, but I wasn’t like this, I was…” he fumbled for the words, “I was a man. Just a normal, stupid guy.”
“You’re still a man.”
“Naw, I’m a child now, ain’t no one washed me since my mama. And now what? I go home… who else but my mama is going to take care of me now?”
“Well, I like taking care of you.”
“It’s just your job, you’ve got to say that.”
“I don’t have to say it, I have to do it maybe, but I don’t have to say it.” He grabbed her arm, she could feel the rough tips as they squeezed five spots.
“That’s a real nice thing to say. I appreciate that.”
“You gonna let me do this or what? He let her go, and wrapping the sheet tightly around his legs, said, “Let’s move you to the small bed.” Lowering the arm bars, Jackson worked his way over, sweating, muscles straining with effort. Carefully, Yvonne lifted his legs across.
“Yes, ma’am.” She changed the sheets on his bed.
“Why do you do a job like this?” he asked. “It’s gotta be the worst.”
“I told you, I like taking care of people. I like to feel useful.”
“You said you liked talking care of me, not just of all people.” She laughed and soaped up her sponge. She clenched, enjoying the warm water.
“It’s all true,” she said. For a moment there was an awkward silence, as she realized it wasn’t just less awkward for the men if they turned out the intimate moments of their care, it was a lot easier for her too. That was nice of them, she thought. Jackson was staring at her, looking as lucid as he ever.
“I hope I don’t embarrass myself,” he said with a grin, “at least some parts of me still work, sometimes.” Yvonne blushed. She felt ridiculous. She had bathed hundreds of men in both flaccid and erect states. That was just the way it went with these things, but all of a sudden she felt shy with Jackson staring at her. He was helpless, legless, and yet he was had a look that could only be described as predatory.
“Likewise,” she said, instantly regretting it. She shouldn’t be embarrassed and yet she felt as if she was huddled against the wall of her middle high school gym, hoping someone would ask her to dance, but failing to find the courage to make eye contact.
“Don’t you go scalding me, there darlin’, I’m trusting you with some very delicate parts.”
“Oh, please,” she said, trying to snap herself out of it. She pulled the sheet up just keeping his privates covered and started quickly and expertly, washing and massaging as she went along, from his feet up one leg and down the other. His legs were still fairly well muscled, and as she covered him in soapy water, she pinched him hard once or twice just to see. When she looked up, he was still staring at her, now with a small smile. She propped a leg up and lifted the sheet off him completely.
This was the part that was always a little awkward, no matter what, because the sponge to penis contact aroused the men who had genital sensation, and frustrated the ones who did not. She did it quickly with Jackson, soaping him up, and noting that he did not get erect. She rinsed him off, and covered him back up. When she touched the sponge to his stomach, he moaned with pleasure.
“Sorry,” he said, “but, ahh, thats feel good.” Nerves often became much more sensitive on the undamaged parts of palegics. She ran the sponge up his chest and over his shoulder, down his arm. “Mmmm. Ah, Yvonne,” he said. His body was beautiful, his upper body especially had gotten strong as the burden of movement shifted from his legs to his arms, and he had a medium amount of chest hair, now soapy. She couldn’t help massaging the hair of his underarms with her bare hands, and when she touched him, his eyes opened and he stared at her. “Don’t,” he said, “I mean…”
Yvonne’s hands were shaking and she was heating up, unbearably. She shot a look at the door which was closed, but probably not locked. It had to be around two in the morning. She shouldn’t have been doing this. She knew it was a bad, horrible, terrible, worthless idea, and her mind ran over the myriad negative outcomes that were quickly suppressed by her desire. She wanted to kiss Jackson more than she could remember wanting anything else, an urge so potent, like hunger, it overcame all reason.
His hands were damp, pulling at the bun in her hair, sliding over her face and breasts with intense speed, and heart wrenching feeling. Their first kiss was deep and his tongue explored her mouth pulling her sloppily onto him. His hands were on her ass and forgetting for a moment, she felt him push against her, they both had the same thought in the same instant, and then he began to sob. Huge spasms of rage and grief, expelled in salty water, waned and waxed before his turned his face away from her. It had happened so quickly, and yet this had been a fleetingly thought from a few minutes ago.
She left the warmth of his body. He let himself cry while she straightened her uniform, and refastened her hair. She rinsed the soap off of him and dried him with a towel. He rubbed his nose and wouldn’t look at her.
“Jackson, I’d like you to move back to bed now.” With the same tortured exertion, he did as he was told. She moved his legs across and he lay back. She tucked the blankets in around him. “You okay,” she asked.
“Just fucking great. She left him alone.
She spent the rest of the night tending to the other patients, chiding herself, alternately trembling with desire and sheer emotional release, she slid her hands up the walls, feeling their rough texture, and then sliding her knuckles painfully back down. It was not like her to do something so very unprofessional, risky both to her reputation, to a job that was important and to his emotional state. She knew better, and yet she hadn’t been able to resist him. Resist breaking the rules. What about him, really, was there? But she had never felt it like this, this was what Rhonda must have been talking when she lingered with her lips over the word fun.
By five a.m. she had experienced both wild euphoria and profound depression. She knew she couldn’t totally trust herself. She had seen nurses fall for patients before. Inside, the life was much more dramatic, men were more vulnerable, but was it that, she asked herself over and over. She felt her stockings cause a little friction between her thighs. For a moment, she felt entirely grateful that she could walk, and she silently thanked God. She remembered she didn’t believe.
Before she left, she poked her head into his room. He acknowledged her and she came over, trying to silence the sad tap, tap of her heels.
“Look…” They both said it at the same time.
“I don’t really know what to say,” he said, “my life is over, your life is beginnin’. You’re a beautiful, kind woman, and I wish I was dead. I’m sorry for my behavior but I’m in hell.”
“I really like you,” said Yvonne. “I thought… It’s a bad situation, and I’m sorry too. I shouldn’t have crossed that line, but to be totally honest, I couldn’t’ resist you.”
“Please,” he said, “I know you’re sayin’ this to make me feel better, but it’s really not possible to make me feel better. I’ll never work again. I’ll never be any use again. I’ll never walk again. I cain’t even really begin to think about all the things I’ll never do again or I really will kill myself. His face was solemn. “I’ve murdered people for no reason, and this is my punishment. God is punishing me for my being a bad person. I’m a sinner in a very true way. My only consolation is that I deserve this. That’s the only reason I can go on, I deserve to suffer.”
“Oh for Christ’s sake, that’s the most—“
“Don’t. You can only make it worse. And I know you don’t want to do that.”
“What?” She wanted to ask why but she knew why–she understood and she didn’t blame him–and she didn’t understand herself and she liked him and wanted to make him happy and she knew it wasn’t possible but she had this feeling, all at once.
On her way out of the hospital she bumped into Dr. Swift. “So, it turns out,” he said, “Jackson does have a complete spinal sever. Swelling went down finally and we can see it. That’s too bad, I thought he was going to be one of the lucky ones.” Yvonne’s swallowed loudly. She hadn’t realized she’d been hoping against all rational hope. “You look pale,” Dr. Swift said, “you should get some rest. This lousy war.” Then he winked at her.
When she got home, her mother was in the kitchen cooking eggs. Then smelled up the house. The kitchen was typically dim, the light outside was winter light. Yvonne threw her coat over a chair and let her purse knock loudly on the table.
“Do you think people deserve everything that comes to them?” she asked. Her mother put the eggs on a plate just as the toast popped up. She buttered it, both sides, just like Dennis had always liked.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Well I know,” said Yvonne, “and the answer is no.” Her mother was dying, she was a corpse with just a little movement left in her.
“I shouldn’t have let him go.” She was frozen in space, holding the plate, steam came off the eggs, butter softened on the toast.
“You don’t know that.”
“I don’t know it, but I feel that’s it true.” Her mother took another step toward reaching the plate out to her. “You should have tried harder with him. It was hard for him.”
“Maybe,” said Yvonne, “maybe I should have, but I still think he would have left. He did what he wanted to. They always do that.” She could see her mother shaking. “Mom, let’s please not do this anymore.” She took the plate from her mother, and put it in the sink. She hugged her mother, whose body trembled with the silent pain. She went upstairs to her brother’s bedroom.
It was just the way he left it, very neat, everything in order. She couldn’t believe she hadn’t been in there once in the past six years. Yvonne touched his desk, the wood was dark and dustless. She sat down and opened the big main drawer. It stuck a little and she had to tug at it. There was a collection of charcoal pencils, and pens, many of which no longer had caps. There was a stack of photos of Dan and Dennis in waders up to their thighs, often on one knee proudly holding up a fish, a broad grin spread across her brother’s face. He was a good-looking man. There were some of Mr. Rainer, and some of a group girls pushed up against each other, their chins down, eyes up, with small smiles. There were some old Mariner’s game ticket stubs, some fishing hooks, and line, a decent amount of change, a few buttons, a battery, an old watchstrap. There was a notebook from school with the word Calc written on it. Just a bunch of normal things, she thought, regular, everyday things. She pulled out the notebook and looked at the equations that were made mostly of words and letters. Come back to this later, he wrote, Very hungry. And M looks mmmnn, all in the margins. Seeing his handwriting filled her with an ache, and then an acute longing for things she couldn’t quite name.
She turned to the end of his notebook, to a blank page, and picked up a pen. Dear Dennis, she wrote, you will be… Then she paused. I don’t know, she thought, I really don’t. Then she wrote it down and closed the book.