January 1, 2015

FICTION BY PHILLIP BROWN "COMBAT"



Combat
by Phillip Brown


Walked to the side entrance of the VA hospital. Over thirty years ago fresh out of the Army I landed on the nut ward; top floor of the VA hospital. Since then I hadn’t had much contact. I thought maybe some current health survey glitch and, what do you know, I got a letter.
            I stepped inside an empty hallway, and cursed. I had no idea of what I was angry at. Directly across an elevator waited. At the fifth floor I got off. I walked down the hall to door 507. I studied the newspaper clipping scotch-taped to the front. Jagged around the edges someone cut hastily.
The clipping was a simple line drawing of a dog sitting in front of a man. The dog looked commanded to stay at sit. The man’s body had a dog’s head. The dog’s body had a man’s. The man’s arm cocked back ready to throw, gripped a blood dripping heart that looked ripped out of someone’s chest. Engorged blood vessels stuck out between thumb and forefinger. Above the heart “human” was printed in italics. Tongue lolling, eyes fixed, on the heart gripped in the throw-hand, the human face on the dog’s body, waited for its chance to fetch. I said under my breath, Get ‘em, boy. Get those feelings.
I knocked on the door. “Yes, come in,” I heard from the other side.
I opened the door and saw a woman sitting behind a modern glass-top desk. She had long, silver grey hair almost to the floor. The hem-line of her skirt was six or seven inches above the knee. I would have guessed her late fifties early sixties. She turned to face me. Lifting reader glasses and peering she said, “Please, sit down.”
The office layout was two chairs and a desk. I sat down in the plain straight-back chair.  On the wall was a crucifix with a cardboard sign underneath, hung by kite string. A black marker pen had printed the words, “For God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and of love and a sound mind.” II Timothy 1:7.
“You’re handsome as your picture,” the shrink said.
That was a little weird, calling me handsome. I was satisfied with my looks; but I wasn’t a movie star either. Compliments like that; I wondered what this woman wanted? Like most shrinks she was crazy.
She turned, facing away from me at an angle, and began to write. She said, “What do you think of my little newspaper clipping on the door?”
“Oh, you mean, the dog: Do I pee on what’s mine?”
She dropped her pen. She rose back. She let out a gut-laugh. Whirling around like someone celebrating a last minute score at a ballgame—arms up; fists beating the air—she said, “Exactly! Do you own what is yours?”  
I have had some strange things happen in my day; but this woman getting excited about my reaction to a newspaper clipping was a little much. It was as if she was congratulating me about what was plain to see: To be human is to feel.  
Dipping to peer over her reading glasses, as if to observe how I was going to react, she said, “I get a red flag,” and stopped. Then, continuing, “—when I click your file?”
“Department of Army,” she said. “They’ve blocked it.”
“You were in Southeast Asia?”
“No.”
“Were you in combat?”
“No.”
“You were a medic?”
“Yes.”
Then out of the blue, changing the subject, she said, “What do you think of Dr. Pou—her criminal case?”
This shift in direction gave me pause. Hearing the shrink say Dr. Pou I thought, “After all these years you’re going to send me to prison?” I had read about Dr. Pou’s misfortune with the terminally ill. But why did the shrink bring that up? It went through my mind: Was this like the Alcoholics Anonymous’ counselor trying to get me to admit I was alcoholic? “Yes, I’m a killer. I admit it.” But I wasn’t afraid to admit it. I helped soldiers die?
I knew this shrink had snooped past the block. She wanted my entire history. Not the part the VA used. It was a death ward, lady. I was thinking about my military experience on the hospital ward as a medic. None of us knew why the wounded were taken out of country to die stateside. I had heard the CIA was experimenting with LSD. But you heard a lot of things in those days too. We were told immunity, not prosecution, by those suit-and-tie types that hung around the hallways. I still panicked hearing the word “criminal” come out of this shrink’s mouth.
“Hurricane Katrina,” the shrink continued.
“You’ve heard—surely?”   
“Dr. Pou,” she said: “Gynecologist—New Orleans—flood waters rising—told to evacuate. Left terminally ill behind.”
“Doctor Pou said what she did was humane—injections before leaving.”     
“I’m not sure what I heard,” I said.
“What—?” she said. “You didn’t hear humane—or Doctor accused of murder?”
I said, “Mercy—I heard.”   
“No,” she said. “Prosecutors denied conditions warranted killing her patients.” I heard the shrink say the word “kill”.
I stood up.
I said, “Wasn’t lethal doses of morphine.” I fetched that one out of my own Katrina in the military years back. I didn’t mean doses of morphine per se. I meant not knowing how the parents would react seeing their son home from the war. A torso lying there cocooned in IV tube and gadgetry producing monotonous hums. Waiting for parents to come on the ward felt like an eternity. We were always in a cold sweat.
I couldn’t believe what came out of my mouth. I said, “We put some to sleep.”    
“Do you wish prosecutors would have charge you—like Dr. Pou?”
I thought to myself: “Lady, what do you know about banging bedrails for someone to kill you?”
I said, “Blood and guts are nothing. You get used to it. Death is final. Nothing left.”   
“What was left for you medics?” The shrink was talking to a part of me I thought I had come to terms with.
“What was left?” I said.
“I’ll tell you what was left.” As if outside myself, I caught a glimpse of me standing there spilling my guts. Then I saw the Intelligence Officer suit-and-tie types’ in the hallway warning us about talking. I was 19.
I said: “Johnny’s ex-Marine World War II daddy—and wife Susie—what’s left. They’re coming in to see their six-foot suntanned Johnny—six months ago put on a plane at Remember Iwo Jima Airport—now blown to hell banging the bedrail for someone to slip him a mickey.”
“You medics sat through nights with Johnny?”  
I said, “Doctors, nurses, dealt with daily activities; diagnostics, ordering drugs, that sort of thing. Those who had experienced combat said there’s something worse. Doctors paid us medic’s big money. Get out of being there when the parents came.”
“I understand why,” she said. “It’s a different kind of trauma.”
I said, “Doctors care about careers. How they’ll be affected in civilian life.”
“One daddy-Iwo Jima came in. He had a 45. Decided to take matters into his own hands. I wrestled him to the floor. Took his gun. One came with doctor-lawyer in tow to take their torso off base. Ammonia-capsules for wife-Susie.”
I sat down.
I heard myself say, “All over a Politician’s lie?”
The shrink looking inside herself at something still tender said, “Life is always someone else’s fault until you make the Johnny’s your own.”
            I left the shrink’s office that day and walked back down to the elevator. A little boy was standing next to his mother holding hands. I was just to the rear of them waiting also. The door opened and the little boy turned around and looked up. He said, “My dad killed the enemy.”  

~Phillip Brown

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