Saint Vith

by Oscar Deadwood

Horace had all but shriveled and rotted away.

He was five years older than his wife, and as they approached their twilight years together - as the vague and distant promise of mortality suddenly became very real - he assumed he would go first. He smoked, he drank. She did neither.

She was only seventy-five when she passed, a heart attack that she suffered sleeping, while lying next to him in bed. He remembered that night vividly. They had talked quietly in bed until the wee hours of the morning, the light of a full and winter moon streaming through the partially open curtains, illuminating her face. He remembered how young the soft and white moonlight made her look; the outline of her face clearly visible, the twinkle in her eyes restored by the reflecting moonlight, but the wounds of aging, the wrinkles and loose skin, remained hidden in the shadows. The sight made him feel giddy, sort of, as he recalled the past, remembering the way she used to look, and the way he used to feel. They had been talking about their son while lying in bed, their only son, their middle-aged and vagabond son who had just phoned them earlier in the day for the first time in nearly a year. He had popped up in Oregon, clear on the other side of the country, and told them he was driving a cement truck, and had taken residence in a trailer with a woman he had known for just over a month.

“That’s nice dear,” Horace heard his wife say into the phone, in response to their son’s latest news. His wife had offered Horace the phone, but he refused to talk. His paternal disappointment had long ago turned into resentment and a simmering anger.

But that morning, when he awoke, he knew something was amiss. His wife had always risen first, made coffee, cracked eggs, and he would expectantly wander into the kitchen where a steaming mug would be placed automatically in his hand.

But on this morning she was still in bed, lying on her back. The sunlight creeping through the window allowed no lies – it displayed the aged face and white hair of his now senior wife.

And her lips, overnight, had turned blue.

He nudged her gently with his hand, and harder still when there was no response. He ripped the sheets off the bed and leaned his head over her chest, trying to find her heartbeat.

There wasn’t one.

He jumped off the bed, terrified, and called an ambulance. But it was too late and he knew it was too late.

They took her away on a stretcher, with a sheet drawn over her face, and Horace was never the same after that.

He became chronically melancholic.

The first thing to go was his appearance. He always kept himself groomed via bimonthly visits to the barbershop, and he always wore oxford style shirts neatly tucked into pressed slacks.

His hair became unruly, his nails longish, he seldom showered, and he often wore the same clothes for a week at a time. He had always walked with a certain degree of confidence, and exuded a sort of vitality, standing straight up. He felt loved, loved by his wife, and buoyed by this love he would walk, like a peacock, chest out and eyes straight ahead. But soon, after she passed, he took to walking like a typical old man, bent over at the waist, and his eyes focused on the ground.

The state of the house soon followed in its decline. Friends had urged Horace to sell the house and find an apartment in a senior complex where there wouldn’t be anything to take care of, but he refused. The house had too many memories, and the scent of his late wife still lingered in the air…

Horace had been a man of routine for all of his life, especially after his retirement. Seven days a week he and his wife would automatically pop up in a diner in a local strip mall at precisely 9:30 a.m. to drink coffee and chit-chat with other older couples in the area who happened to gather at the same diner. Horace tried to keep this ritual after his wife passed, but being by himself made the smiling faces of his friends too much to bear.

So he remained at home, except for weekly visits to the grocery store, where he would buy Ritz crackers, salami, yellow and processed cheese, the cheapest Vodka, and prune juice. The vodka and prune juice he mixed together and had taken to drinking all day long as a sort of pleasant laxative.

By the time Horace had been a widower for about six months, he found himself practically an alcoholic, usually far from sober by twelve noon.

He would spend all day in his sitting chair with the television constantly on, his sole source of companionship coming from the canned sound and flickering images of the television set.

And he thought about his life, waiting to die.

He had regrets, and as he sorted out the actions of his years in a way he had never done before, the regrets managed to manifest themselves in the forefront of his consciousness.

The man his son had become, was his biggest regret, and as he sat alone in his easy chair for hours without interruption, mindlessly watching television, he tried to pinpoint where in his son’s upbringing he had gone wrong.

He couldn’t find anything, except that he never made his son finish anything. He tried football and quit, he tried basketball and quit.

He tried college, and quit. And then the draft came and the army took his son, and took him to Vietnam, and Horace knew he couldn’t quit that.

But his son was different after the war, he became distant, and started his lifelong career of drifting from low-paying job to low-paying job.

In short, he realized he raised a quitter and the failure he felt as a result stung through the vodka and prune juice.

So he thought about other regrets. He never really traveled. He did join the Army just as World War II broke out and he assumed he would find himself somewhere in Europe, but he didn’t.

He spent his whole enlistment and the bulk of the war at Fort Dix, New Jersey, as a supply clerk working for a colonel, shipping armaments overseas.

All his peers saw tragedy and blood and carnage and parts of the world that they only knew from picture books, and Horace only saw an Army base less than a day’s drive from his hometown.

So, he told himself and his wife in their infancy of their marriage, they would do things, take long trips, see the world, and drag their future children with them. But they never did, save a trip to Niagara Falls when their son was a small child. Horace and his wife became stuck in too many routines to find the time or money to travel.

Now that his wife was gone, Horace thought that maybe he could do some things, it was just him now, who could stop him? He thought about getting up from his chair, going out to his garage and firing up the Buick, and finding a stretch of road that went nowhere.

But his bottom never left his chair.

He did start to watch travel programs, and his wife had taken to subscribing to magazines, to practically every magazine under the sun, even the special interest ones, like Organic Gardening, even though she never gardened and never cared if the food she ate was organic.

Horace did extract the travel magazines from the daily flow of magazines that still came through the mail. He would read the articles about faraway places and sit and daydream about traveling. The unread magazines wound up in stacks around his chair and throughout the living room, leaving only a narrow, labyrinth-like path from the front door to his easy chair, and a similar route from his chair to the kitchen and bathroom.

He couldn’t throw the magazines away, they were his wife’s, and he hoped that someday she would somehow come back to read them. And the magazine piles grew, gathering dust that Horace left undisturbed.

One afternoon, late in the summer as the sun started its slow descent, the rays filtered by the dirty glass of the picture window in the front of Horace’s house, Horace closed his eyes and imagined himself at the foot of the great pyramids. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back and aided by the now vanished fifth of vodka he found himself floating quickly over the Atlantic past the straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean and landing on a dusty and crowded street in Alexandria, Egypt.

And it felt very real. Horace felt the hot and humid air splash across his face and permeate his body, the heat and humidity intensified by the exhaust of countless motorbikes and small cars that careened through the street in no particular direction, the constant honking of horns ringing in his ears.

Horace found himself walking, walking past a myriad of shops and stalls, vendors hawking clothes and tobacco and coffee and tea. Horace tended to linger in front of each stall. From what he knew of Egypt and the Middle East, he was sure he would be accosted, asked to buy something or be victimized by the multitude of beggar children.

But no one saw him, and Horace kept walking, effortlessly through the teeming crowd that jammed the narrow sidewalk along the narrow road, it was as if he could walk through anything or anyone.

At the end of the street which appeared like a tunnel shrouded by the low buildings of Alexandria, one of the pyramids stood, and though it appeared miles away, its shadow started to creep on the street as Horace drew closer. Just as Horace stepped into the shadow he found himself back in his easy chair. The daylight that was visible before he left had now been replaced by twilight.

Horace stood up, shaken with what he assumed to be a dream, a vivid dream intensified by the vodka that constantly flowed through his veins. But his pants were dusty, the dust a clayish color, the same tint of red that hung in the Alexandria air. Horace felt the back of his neck, and it was damp, as was the underarms of his shirt, even though the temperature of the house was constantly maintained at 72 degrees.

Horace had never been one for religion, much less mysticism, but his apparent trip to Alexandria left him shaken, and he quickly found his way to the supermarket where he bought more vodka to calm his nerves. The clerks in the store shuddered at the sight and smell of the dirty and insane looking old man and all hoped he would avoid their checkout line.

Horace had seen television programs before, about strange phenomena, outer body experiences and astral projections and other occurrences that he always thought were silly and the province of the shallow and narrow minded.

His trip to Alexandria couldn’t have been real, he thought, it was just his imagination playing tricks on him. He had to stop drinking so much…

The next day, at the same junction of the afternoon, Horace again closed his eyes and tilted his head back. He had been flipping through an outdoor magazine and studied the pictures of men fly-fishing somewhere in the western part of the country, men standing in rushing streams surrounded by the greenest of pine trees, snow-capped and rugged and noble peaks underneath a cloudless and nearly indigo sky.

He had always wanted to fish, his own father had taken him when he was small and he always intended to take his own son, but alas, so many routines couldn’t be interrupted and every summer would pass without a single trip to a local pond.

Again, Horace felt his body lift out of his chair and rapidly float west, following the descending sun. He saw himself float over cities and towns and patchworks of fields and hills and clouds and he saw the slice of serpentine blue cutting the country into imperfect halves that would be the Mississippi River and he saw the vast expanse of golden earth that are the Great Plains and just after the prairies ended he felt himself descend and slowly, slowly land at the bank of a cool and crystal stream lying in the shadow of so much wilderness. A fishing pole appeared in his hand, as did a bag for keeping fish that was slung over his shoulder and he felt like someone who spent a lot of time fishing, as if he belonged to the landscape of towering pines and rolling mountains.

And confidently he wandered to the middle of the stream, gingerly stepping on the smooth and worn rocks that rested just beneath the surface until the water reached his knees and expertly he cast his fly and stood there in the quiet and felt a certain regret wash away. He had always wanted to go fishing, albeit with his son, but here he was, fishing.

After what seemed like a quarter of an hour, Horace felt a tug and he started retrieving a trout, thrilled with the challenge of reeling it in , bolstered by the sense of conquest of man over nature. Just as the trout was within his reach, his arm outstretched and his hand open, tense with excitement, ready to grasp the fish and deposit it in his bag, he found himself back in his chair, in his dusty and cluttered living room.

This time, he was one-hundred percent sure his trip had been real.

He sat in his chair, dripping water from his pant legs, and his shoes and socks were soaked.

He suddenly felt very, very sober and his mind began to feel as sharp as it once was and he wondered whose hand was involved in his recent travels. God’s? The Devil’s? He wasn’t sure and he felt sort of afraid of something so supernatural yet so apparently real.

But his fear didn’t stop him from drinking or traveling. As summer gave way to fall he would take late-afternoon trips, almost daily, to places that always made him wonder: Katmandu, the Peruvian Andes, Mount Kilamanjaro, Alaska, the Falkland Islands, the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal.

And some trips weren’t so glamorous. He found himself spying on distant relatives that he always resented or even disliked, standing outside their windows or in their kitchens, leaning against a counter close enough to touch them. But they could never see him. And after these familial visits to relatives he used to dislike for some past and distant transgression, he found himself liking them, they seemed very human sitting in their kitchens talking amongst themselves about nothing at all, not so unlike himself when his wife was alive, sitting in their kitchen, talking about nothing or wringing their hands over bills.

He then visited his son.

He found himself near a bend in the Willamette River, in a trailer park behind an old and bleak shopping center that was nearly empty of occupants, save a dollar-store and a laundromat.

He found himself drawn to a smallish and seemingly older trailer resting on cinder blocks, shrouded in sheet-metal, with webs of rust fanning from the corners of the house and from the bolts holding the windows in place. He walked to the trailer and looked through the largest window, the window next to the only door, and there, at the kitchen table sat his son and the woman he had called and told his wife about.

It had been a number of years since he last saw his son, and he never bothered to call him about the passing of his wife. Guiltily, he realized that he hadn’t even thought about his son at that time, he focused solely on his own remorse and anger, angry that he didn’t pass away first.

His son looked much, much older then when he last saw him. His long hair tied into a pony tail was more gray than brown, he had taken to growing a beard, and he had grown a large stomach that caused Horace to snicker through the glass.

But his son looked happy, talking to the woman at the kitchen table, a thin woman, roughly his son’s age, with straggly blonde hair. They sat at the table, smiling at one another, nursing cups of coffee, the smoke of countless spent cigarettes hovering in the air.

Horace lingered at the window for just a moment, long enough to see that his son was smiling, in a way he hadn’t seen him smile since he was a child, and then, in an instant, Horace found himself back in his sitting chair, the flat sound of the television speaking to him softly as he took in the sight of his living room.

He made himself a snack, his usual, of crackers and salami and cheese and returned to his chair.

The telephone rang.

He reached for the phone that rested on a table, in between his chair and the chair that used to be his wife’s.

“Hello,” Horace answered, nervously, it had been such a long time since the phone rang, and the sound interrupted the rhythm of his mind.

There was a pause on the other end.

“Hello?” Horace repeated.

“Dad? I didn’t expect you to answer the phone. How are ya’?”

“Fine, fine.”

“Well, good, good. Say, today, this afternoon, I found myself thinking about you, it was kind of strange, but I felt like you or Mom were watching me,,, so I’d thought I’d call, say hi, you know. Is Mom there?”

Horace took a deep breath and searched his table for a glass of vodka and prune juice. He grimaced when he only found a clutter of empty glasses surrounding the television’s remote control.

Horace took another deep breath and held back an avalanche of tears, “Listen, about your mother…”

And Horace told his son, his one and only son, something he should have known months ago. And as it all sunk in, and as Horace explained himself, why he failed to call, it seemed a sort of peace had been reached, between him and his son.

They cried for a while, together, over the phone, and Horace, hearing his son’s tears, remembered the child his son used to be, and he felt awash in tenderness, and the certain contempt he had for his son for so many years started to drain away, as if the contempt was mercury in a thermometer, and the temperature fell way below zero.

They talked and cried for nearly a quarter of an hour, and as they hung up, Horace felt he may never talk to his son again,,, he wanted to say “I love you”, but couldn’t.

“Take care of yourself son,” Horace said.

“Yeah, you too Dad,” replied his son.

“Remember one thing, will ya’?” “Yeah, sure Dad, what?”

“Try to live your life without regret, because let me tell ya’, regrets will eat you up when you get old, when you’re waitin’ to die.”

And that was that.

Horace didn’t travel for a while after visiting and talking with his son, that journey and conversation left him too emotionally drained, but his soul started to stir again on Veteran’s Day, November 11.

Horace had always been jealous of his peers, the men he worked with, the men his age who haunted the coffee shop. They had all served in the War, and had wounds, emotional or physical, to show for it.

Horace too, wished he had contributed more directly in the war, rather than remaining stateside. He too, enjoyed the hometown heroes welcome that all his friends did when the war was over.

But he felt like a fraud, and the chest of his ribbon-less uniform stuck out like a sore thumb as he paraded down Main St. one sunny afternoon in 1945 in a bath of confetti thrown from the second story windows that stood anonymously over the storefronts of his hometown.

He began to think,,, if he could travel anywhere in the world while in his living room, then maybe he could go back in time…

He rushed to the kitchen, poured himself a tall glass of vodka and prune juice and returned to his chair, contemplating the possibilities.

He sat for an hour or so, salivating at the possibility of traveling, across time and space, and wondered, why not?

The phone rang abruptly and roused him from his fantasy, his fantasy of holding a rifle in his hand, grenades and shrapnel buzzing past his ears.

“Huh, huh, hello?” Horace stammered.

He was answered in silence.

“Hellooo?” Horace continued, wondering if his son was calling again.

“Hello my dear,” a soft and familiar and feminine voice answered, though Horace couldn’t identify it readily.

“Be careful what you wish for.” The sweet, and syrupy voice continued.

“Who,,, who is this?” Horace asked, in a frightened voice he was embarrassed to use.

“See you soon,,,” and the voice trailed off.

Horace did recognize the voice, but he couldn’t be sure. It sounded like his wife, but not in the voice she had before she passed away. It was her long ago voice, the voice she had the first time they met, dancing close together so many starry nights ago by the long-vanished band shell in the town square.

The phone call disconcerted Horace, but not greatly, he drank more vodka and closed his eyes, and drifted away.

He felt himself drifting, but instead of drifting across the globe, he felt himself drifting past memories, memories in reverse order, memories of his wife, his job, his career, of his son, and the images of memories became a blur, a rapid blur until he found himself standing along the side of a snow covered road, shoulder to shoulder with two young men dressed in army green, walking timidly and slowly along the open road, walking towards the specter of a village looming ahead of them, the twilight silent save the quiet footfalls of Horace and his two fellow soldiers, their heads constantly turning in an anxious and furious arc.

Horace saw a sign, just as they approached the village. Saint-Vith, the sign read, and Horace knew from history that he was in the Ardennes Forest, in the southeast corner of Belgium.

The Battle of the Bulge.

Horace studied himself. He no longer felt like the crooked man burdened by age and affliction and sadness. He was his twenty-three year old self again, thin, alert, strong, and he felt rugged and handsome, like a movie star in an old black and white war movie.

Finally, he was actually fighting, in a war, earning the adoration he had received so long ago.

But his pride was short-lived.

A figure camouflaged in white came from behind an ancient and bare oak tree, the branches laden with snow. Horace wouldn’t have seen him, except for the flare of the gun as many bullets fired, striking his two companions, somehow missing Horace.

Horace fell forward as his two fellow soldiers fell backward and he spotted the soldier, and judging by the shape of the helmet it was a German soldier, just ten yards away, readying to fire again.

Horace aimed his rifle, a rifle he had no clue on how to use, but recalling movies, he squinted his eyes shut, rested the butt of the rifle against his shoulder and pulled the trigger, hoping it would fire.

And it did, hitting the German soldier in the ankle, causing the soldier to fall on the ground.

Foolishly, Horace hopped to his feet and ran to the soldier, thinking he had killed the German. But he didn’t. As Horace stood over the very much alive German he knew he did something wrong.

The German soldier was very fair of complexion, very young looking, and looked, to Horace, very frightened.

When Horace realized the soldier was still alive, it was too late, the soldier emptied the bullets of his rifle into Horace’s chest, just as Horace stood a few feet from him, standing over the soldier who was merely bleeding from the ankle.

The pain of the bullets ripped through Horace’s chest and stomach like so many hot knives hacking away at his flesh.

He didn’t remain in Saint-Vith long enough to endure too much pain.

As he felt himself drift out of consciousness, he expected to wake up in his easy chair, in the middle of his dusty and cluttered living room, a glass of vodka waiting at his side.

But he didn’t return to his chair.

Horace found himself laying on his back in total darkness, his head resting on a velvety pillow. He tried to stand up, but couldn’t. He realized he was in some kind of box, with no room to move.

That same Veteran’s Day, a lady, planting flowers among the homogenous and unremarkable headstones of the state’s veteran’s cemetery, heard a piercing scream from somewhere beneath the ground.

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