It’s hot, my tee shirt is wringing wet, my left arm throbs, my pajama bottoms are wadded up in my crotch, my mouth is painfully dry and I have to take a leak. The clock glows an eerie green 2:06 AM. Damn it all, I’d better get to the bathroom. Is this what getting old is all about -- tossing, turning, aching, and peeing?
I turn on the lamp on my side of the bed and put on my glasses. Maybe if I read for a bit I can fall back to sleep. This rarely works but I don’t know what else to do, it’s too damn early to get up. Get up and do what? This book isn’t half bad, it’s not a page-turner but it’s a notch above my usual who-done-it. I think Marla did it by the way. Why do we itch when we’re trying to read? Is it some allergic reaction to bed linen or is it something psychological? Anyway, I scratch, read, read, scratch. The clock blinks 2:43. Maybe Marla didn’t do it after all. That new guy, Alex is a scumbag. He probably did it.
I turn off my light at 3:04 and feel like I might be able to sleep a little while longer. My mental images are winding down. I’m now not so sure about Alex.
“Bobby, Bobby.” Someone is calling me by my boyhood name or am I dreaming? I hear a woman say “Bobby” again and I open my eyes and prop myself up on my pillow.
My mother is sitting on the edge of my bed. Is it really my mom? Mom is a young twenty-something and beautiful; not the older woman I buried over twenty years ago. I wrestle with my bedding trying to get to her. She moves back a little and is just out of my reach.
“Bobby, your dad and I have been watching over you. We’re both worried about you and he asked me to come to you tonight to warn you of a coming danger.”
“Mom, oh mom, can it really be you?”
“I’ve only got a few minutes to tell you to be careful when you’re in Denver next week. Watch out for an old Marine with a grudge. Bye, for now, my dear.”
“Mom, mom … mom,” I mumbled to an empty room. What had just gone on here? Was I dreaming or did I just have a chat with my long deceased mother? I lay back down in the dark room, my mind racing.
I jump out of bed, turn on the lights and race around the room hoping to find some sign of my mom’s visit. No such luck, my bedroom is just as it should be. I sit and try to calm down and think this out. Let’s see, what do I remember? My mom or a much younger version of her was sitting at the foot of my bed. She wore a 40s-like print dress and her hair was in ringlets like she wore as a young woman. I don’t remember her that young but she looked to me like she does in my old photos of her. No one could look as she did but her. It had to be her. Was she real? Was she a ghost or was she a character in my dream?
What did she say? She warned me to be careful in Denver, something about an old Marine with a grudge. Who’s this Marine? Marines don’t normally hold grudges; they get it all out of their system at the time by throwing a shit-fit or killing somebody.
This had to be a dream. Mom wouldn’t come back from wherever just to give me this cryptic message. My real mom would have told me right up front what to look out for.
The day begins and I can’t seem to get going. I’m obsessed with the image of my mother. Not her warning particularly, just her, seeing her, talking to her. I don’t know how to tell my wife, Linda. Tell her what, about my dream or my encounter with a ghost? She actually believes in that sort of stuff and would freak if I could ever get her to believe me. She’d probably blame it on the martinis we had last night and tell me to lay off the booze for a while and see if my mom comes back.
We have a long day’s drive to Denver, a little over ten hours. The hours pass as uneventful as they did in our last seven trips. I keep thinking of my mom, her visit and her warning. What could be so important that mom would come back from wherever and warn me and who is this Marine I’m supposed to look out for?
We get to Linda’s dad’s house in Thornton, a north Denver suburb, about dinner time. I don’t mention my mom’s warning to anyone or my new obsession with an “old Marine with a grudge.”
The next morning we get up early and head to National Jewish Hospital. Linda has been receiving treatment here for a mysterious lung ailment. The waiting room with its rumpled magazines and comfortable couches seems as familiar to me as an old shoe. Linda is called for her first appointment and I settle in with a nine-month-old copy of National Geographic. I’m half way though an article on the death of the Amazon rain forest when I hear a male voice shout, “Bob … Bob … Bob Rockwell.”
Who could be paging me? I’m not a patient here. Maybe it has something to do with Linda? Maybe she needs me? I put down my magazine and yell, “Yo” to the waiting male nurse. He’s about my age and too scruffy to be anybody important. He introduces himself. “I’m Paul Gasnor and I’ll escort you back to the examining room.” I follow him wondering what’s up.
He shows me into a typical doctor’s exam room with a paper covered examination table, two uncomfortable plastic chairs and the usual sink and cabinet. I grab one of the chairs for a minute or so before Paul returns with a syringe and some other stuff on a little tray. I wonder what the hell’s going on; does he intend that shot for me? He says, “I’ll just give you this to relax you a bit. The doctor will be right in.”
“You must be confused; I’m not a patient here. I don’t have an appointment with anyone.”
“Let me give you this relaxant and then we’ll talk. I’ve waited nearly 50 years for this moment.”
“Bullshit, you’re not giving me anything,” I say as I jump out of my chair ready to fend off the syringe.
Paul makes a grab for my upper arm and I see this as an opportunity to end whatever’s going on here. I raise my left arm and I swing my elbow with all my might directly into his chin. My unexpected punch sends Paul to the floor. His tray and its contents hit the tile with a loud metallic crash. He has this demonic glare in his eyes as he tries to get to his feet. I kick him squarely in the jaw. He goes down again, this time for the count.
Is he the old Marine mom warned me about? He must be. He said he’d been waiting nearly 50 years for this moment. Who in the hell is he and what did I do so long ago to evoke this kind of hatred? I feel compelled to pick up the syringe, raise his shirt sleeve and inject the solution meant for me into Paul’s left bicep. I wipe the syringe with Paul’s shirttail and place it in his right hand, wipe down the arm of the chair with my handkerchief, prop Paul up against the wall and sneak out of the room.
I go back to the waiting room too nervous and excited to read. I expect to hear an emergency call, alarm or something. Nothing happens out of the ordinary. Linda finishes her last appointment and we head back to her sister’s house for dinner.
I listen to the evening news and pore over the next morning’s Denver Post. Nothing, no news about an injured technician or nurse found in an examining room at National Jewish. How come no news? Maybe Paul came to and returned to work without his absence being noticed. Maybe someone found him and called the police. Maybe he’s dead and there’s a murder investigation underway. Maybe, maybe, maybe … my mind races with possibilities.
Two more uneventful days pass, Linda taking tests and seeing doctors while I exercise my backside in the waiting room. I’m too nervous to read so I sit and people watch waiting for the tap on the shoulder that I know is coming. Nothing happens.
On the third day after my scuffle with Paul I see his obituary in the Post. It doesn’t say anything about his cause of death, only that he had died two days earlier, was an ex-Marine, a long-term employee of the hospital and is survived by his wife, Mary Ann. I read and reread the obit trying to put my puzzle together. Had I killed him? Who was he and why did he hold a grudge against me for all of this time?
All I know for sure is that Paul was my age and an ex-Marine who seemed to know me and talked about waiting 50 years to inject me with a needle. Oh yeah, he had a wife. Maybe she can tell me something. I find their number easily and call.
“I’d like to express my condolences for your loss. I’m Jeff Fischer, an old Marine buddy of Paul’s from Twenynine Palms. I read about his death in the paper.”
“Thank you, but Paul never mentioned any old Marine buddies. In fact he hated everything about the Marine Corps and Twentynine Palms. Where did you say you’re from?”
“I’m from here in Denver. Were they able to determine the cause of death?” The sweat ran down my back as I waited for her response.
“Something about a drug interaction. The hospital isn’t saying much, only that he died at work from an adverse reaction to a drug.”
“Do you think the hospital could be hiding something?”
“If they are it would be because they are embarrassed that Paul had access to drugs like that.”
“Did he ever talk about his tour of duty at Twentynine Palms?”
“Not much, only that he was thrown in the brig there and was later transported to the brig at Camp Pendleton by a Marine that he couldn’t stand and he hates to this day.”
“I don’t know anything about any of that. Thank you for talking to me and again please accept my condolences. Goodbye.”
“Goodbye Mister … what did you say your name was?”
“Jeff Fischer,” I repeated the name I dreamt up a few minutes ago.
The puzzle is now complete. I was temporarily assigned as a chaser (the Marine word for a prison guard) at the detention barracks in Twentynine Palms. The base wasn’t big enough to warrant a real brig so we held prisoners until their sentencing and then escorted them to Camp Pendleton by bus to do their time. I had to take one I prisoner who was sentenced on a Friday to Pendleton in a jeep with a driver on Saturday morning because he was too big a risk for our make-shift little brig. He was a tough guy and I took precautions in our four-hour trip over the mountains.
I don’t remember doing anything that would warrant his kind of hatred. Oh, there might have been one thing. When we stopped for lunch I marched the prisoner into the roadside diner and stood him at parade rest with his nose to the wall while the driver and I ate. The civilians in the restaurant must have thought we were a strange lot, my prisoner in handcuffs, the driver in utilities and me in my tropicals wearing a loaded 45. The driver and I ate while our prisoner made sure that the diner’s wall was secure. He gave me some lip about not being allowed to eat so I jabbed him in the kidneys, maybe a little too hard, with my night stick. He crashed to the floor whining obscenities. Our little Marine drama really amused the civilian diners. I got him back on his feet and shoved his face, maybe a bit too hard, into the wall and went back to my lunch.
The rest of the trip was uneventful. I checked him into the brig, got my paperwork signed and headed out to look up a high school buddy, a swabbie corpsman (Navy medic) going to school at Pendleton to work with the Marines.
I don’t remember anything about Paul’s stay in our detention barracks. I must have had contact with him but nothing comes to mind. Could our little scene in the diner be the source of his hatred? Did I embarrass him that much? Maybe I injured him permanently with my jab to his kidneys. Maybe he’s been pissing blood and thinking of me for all of these years.
Anyway, I just killed this guy and I don’t know why.
Our drive back to Deming was a normal trip for us. We listened to a book on tape so we didn’t talk much to each other. My mind raced with the events of the past few days and I didn’t hear a word of the book. Had I really killed someone? Would I be charged with murder? I kept thinking that I could argue it was self defense, and it was, but could I prove it. It’s amazing but I didn’t feel any remorse about killing Paul, if I did indeed kill him, I did it with his own weapon. He was just an asshole who tried to kill or do some serious harm to me. I can still see him sprawled on the floor emanating pure evil in what must have been his last conscious moment before I put his lights out. As it turned out, out for good.
Once home we settle in to our usual retirement lifestyle but I’m tense, really tense. Much more tense than normal. Not because I might have killed some asshole but because the authorities could knock on my door at any minute. There’s no statue of limitations for murder. I’ve got to live with this fear for the rest of my life. I can’t live like this knowing that I could be charged with murder at any time.
The days pass slowly; I toss and turn even more at night. My mind races with possibilities. Could the hospital have covered up his death for some reason? People die all the time in hospitals and they routinely sign death certificates. Maybe Paul had some history with drugs and they were embarrassed that he had access to theirs. This has to be it. Wouldn’t they do an autopsy and find a big bump on his chin in addition to his drug induced death? Maybe they rationalized his fall caused his bruises? These questions and millions more race through my mind. I can’t sleep, I can barely function.
Now I know why criminals confess. The mental torment of waiting for the ax to fall is unbearable.
A couple weeks later I’m was tossing, turning, sweating and scratching in the wee hours of the morning when I am awakened or I think I am by a now familiar voice calling “Bobby, Bobby.”
I rise to see my mother much as she was months earlier. “Mom, oh mom,” I mumble.
“You’ve had a tough time with your experience in Denver, haven’t you?” Mom says this with the same compassionate voice I recognize from my childhood. “You should stop fretting; I was with you the whole time. I watched the hospital prepare their paper work and I looked in on the autopsy. Yuck, autopsies are really awful; I’ll never do that again. Their conclusions were that Paul Gasnor died from a self-induced drug overdose. Now go back to sleep. Sleep well my son.”
©2009 by Bob Rockwell