01 Feb A Strange Night in the City of Angels
The war had been over for about three months. For me, that meant trading the pot-marked and bloodstained fields of France for the no less unsanitary streets of Los Angeles – my home. I was fortunate enough to have been on sick leave during the deployment of my company to Japan on account of a shrapnel wound courtesy of the panzer division I came across a few miles away from Berlin.
As it was, by the time I was healthy enough to fight again the whole mess was over and I got shipped back. My brother had passed away during my time abroad whilst in the throes of a bar brawl with some other draft-dodgers, or so I’d been told via telegram. My parents were as disappointed as ever with their progeny; a medical school dropout and a dead layabout branded a traitor by the authorities.
As such, the only thing to greet me off of the boat was the prospect of trying to find a job that might accept invalidated GIs as prospective employees. I ended up tending a bar at a dead-end joint somewhere near Chinatown. The place was a dive of the sort that made Normandy look like a palatable place to drink. But the owner had a soft-spot for returning army hacks and paid comparatively well as a result. By the time those three months had crawled past I’d settled into life at home relatively well and I even had a steady string of dates going on with a local broad I knew back before getting dragged into the war.
The nights still got to me though. Sometimes, not all the time, I’d wake up drenched in more sweat than was normal even for trying to sleep within the clutches of typical LA heat. The damnedest thing was that I couldn’t remember why I had woken up once I found myself fully conscious. All I knew was that it wasn’t about to stop simply on account of me wanting it to. So I started to work the long night shifts at the bar. I figured that I could make something of the time that my head was forcing me to remain awake through.
This night in particular saw whatever it was scratching particularly hard at my skull. Whenever I stumbled onto the cusp of knowing what it was, I’d be thrown into the depths of a fit of uneasiness that tore me away from an atmosphere of sawdust and sweat and into one composed of cordite and screaming. The fact that the place was near dead that night didn’t help me any and I spent most of the evening pacing up and down the bar between bouts of chills that ate through the humidity that smothered everything else. I knew that the government shrinks were rounding up all of the ‘disturbed veterans’ on their return home, but the last place I wanted to be was in the presence of a doctor.
I knew that I’d seen enough medical paraphernalia to last me a lifetime and a few more besides. I was running out of options though, I knew that much. The hours ticked wearily on and I became more and more resolved to pay the local veterans’ office a visit once the sun decided to crawl back into the sky. By about midnight what little patronage the place had managed to lure in from the streets had bled back out into the city. Sailors and marines on shore leave regularly stumbled in and out as a consequence of the place sitting on the warpath towards the clubs and backstreets of Chinatown. Occasionally, a regular or two would materialize at the bar, sometimes in conjunction with some floozy procured from any number of the other holes that dotted the neighbourhood. As it was, midnight saw both groups noticeably absent.
They had been around earlier on, of course, but the ebb and flow of the night had replaced them with a single patron. Amongst wrestling with whatever monkey had set up residence on my back and serving the regulars, I had noticed him gravitate closer and closer to the bar through the evening. With the place empty it was plain to see that he had finally completed his journey as he sat atop a stool by the far end of the tabletop. Though I was tired I knew that any sleep I could wrap my hands around would promptly escape my grasp and leave me sat bolt upright as per so many nights before. So instead of throwing the guy out and shutting the place up, I sidled over to him and asked for his order.
“I’ll take a brandy, straight up if you please.” He spoke with something of a familiar tone, but it was one that I couldn’t place for the life of me. Maybe it was just one of those voices that everyone just knows; patriarchal in a way, in the blood. Like a grandfather perhaps. A voice that says ‘relax, trust me’ regardless of what words litter it. I gave him a nod and fumbled with a bottle of the cheap stuff that riddled the racks up on the back wall.
Once I turned back, I noticed that he had changed his seat so as to be at the centre of the bar. He had a look about him that belied a certain something. I don’t know, sadness maybe. No, melancholy would be a better ringer for it, but that still doesn’t do it justice. Whatever it was, it gnawed at me enough to ensure I took extra care in setting down his drink. For a moment I didn’t think he had noticed, but then he looked me square in the face and gave me a nod.
“Much obliged, friend.” Again, his voice seemed to have something of an ethereal quality to it. It almost echoed despite the fact that the place was about as small as a coffin. I returned the nod and set myself against the wall, my arms crossed over my chest in expectancy of a conversation that I wasn’t even sure I wanted. The man took a few shallow sips of his spirit before setting the glass down on the bar followed by hefting a satchel up next to it.
He couldn’t have been more than twenty and yet his face had the kind of haggard look to it that only age ought to punish a person with. It was the same one I had myself, as did almost everyone else I knew once they made it back from France or Japan or Italy. If they came back at all. His hands disappeared into the battered leather bag that he had laid on the bar-top and yet he kept his eyes fixed on me for the duration of their absence. They had a deep set hazel nature that spoke the same story the premature lines of his face did. Needless to say, they did nothing to put me at ease. After this standoff persisted for what felt like the entire night and several more, he withdrew a wallet from the satchel and eased it onto the bar with a dry snap.
“It appears that I don’t have enough to cover the drink. Perhaps I can offer you an ear instead?” The warmth of his previous tone had become submerged beneath something uncertain that was becoming rapidly goddamned terrifying. All intonation had drained out of his voice so that I became reminded of the steady scratching of a record left to spin long after concluding. Sleep and profit margins be damned I thought, I wanted him gone. And yet there was something so bizarre about him that I couldn’t let him simply slip out into the wilds of the darkness outside to never be seen again.
“It’s on the house. But what do you mean about…” Before I could even finish he interrupted with the same monotone as before.
“An ear, my friend. Someone you can confide in. You were in the war, yes?” I nodded to the affirmative.
“I have an eye for these things, you see. I was serving myself. Perhaps you’d like to hear about myself before you start with your own tale?” Thankfully, by this point the monotone had given way to the more agreeable voice of before. Again all I could do was nod my head. He replaced the wallet back to the confines of the satchel from which it had appeared and finished off what liquor remained in his glass.
“I was a chaplain. Enlisted… what seems like a lifetime ago. I ministered to the men from Sicily to Iwo Jima. It was difficult work to be sure. But then, any work worth doing always is. And surely there is no task greater than that which is appointed by God.” He shuffled around a little after he had finished. Silence drifted from wall to wall for a few seconds until I felt compelled to break it with my own contribution – if only to expedite the lone drinker’s departure. Something about his overall demeanour combined with the newly learned fact that he was a preacher to ruin any mystique he had in favour of beginning to irritate me.
“I was a medic myself. Only ever saw action in France thankfully. What’s with the drinking then, I thought you types weren’t allowed to do that?” He shifted again on his seat and set his eyes into a dark stare that trailed off into nowhere.
“I said I was a man of God, friend. The war is over now. I have other duties to attend to. Though they might still be under his purview, they don’t require as much regulation.” A chuckle punctuated his clarification- a sound that I’d rather not hear ever again. “Do go on about your own time in service though.”
I hadn’t had the opportunity to talk about it much till then. I figured that if I kept quiet about it then the insomnia would stop, maybe I’d be able to forget. Maybe I just didn’t talk about it because there was nobody to talk to. For whatever reason, I decided to comply with his request.
“Did a year or so of medical school then dropped out to sign up. Could have probably gone in as a doctor rather than an orderly but I wanted in as soon as I could. My folks weren’t happy about it, still aren’t. I know I did good though. Saved a lot of lives.” I’m not sure how much of that I believed at the time, but it seemed to interest the ‘man of God’. The blank expression that he had worn for the entirety of our conversation shifted into one approaching brief concern.
“And your greatest failure?”
“We all have them. Times when we think we should have done better. And yours is?” I scratched at the back of my neck in expectation of catching onto the palpable sense of dread that was building there but felt only the clammy flesh to which I had become accustomed.
“There was one patient we couldn’t save. A kid, probably about the same age as me at the time. He’d taken some gunshot wounds from a German sniper nest near a road a few miles away from Normandy.” The self-proclaimed retired chaplain listened intently before I took a few moments to compose myself.
“I’m not saying we never lost guys before then, or hell, afterwards either. But this one could have gone differently. If we had the right tools, we could have gotten to the bullets and patched him up. He took three rounds to the leg- not typically a fatal wound if you can get the right medical attention. But I guess we weren’t good enough.” The wail of a siren etching through the night filled the void that followed. I didn’t have anything else to say to the priest and it appeared that he didn’t have anything for me either. Eventually I had to speak up just to placate my own sanity.
“What about you, padre, what’s your greatest failure?”
A wry smile stretched out across his face before he nudged his glass over to me.
“I regret the fact that I couldn’t minister to more soldiers before the war ended. You see, a majority of my duties were related to giving the dying their last rights. Only rarely was I able to assist those who weren’t on the cusp of death. Many men made it through the war alive only to be returned home with demons like yours. I wish I had had more time to exorcise them before their return.” His pointed remark aimed squarely at me hit too close to home and I realised that enough was enough. I took his glass and returned it beneath the bar before leaning on the counter.
“Well, I’m sure they’re getting along just fine without you, padre. If you don’t mind, I’d like to close up now.” Tapping on my watch seemed to help the situation sink in with him, and he responded by standing up and apparently readying himself to leave. But before he did, he plunged one of his hands back into the satchel that clung to his waist. Shortly thereafter, he withdrew the same hand and dropped a handful of items that clattered onto the bar.
“It appears that I have enough to cover my tab after all. People often forget that it is the duty of a chaplain to pray for both the souls of the departed and the living alike.” With that he turned and strode out into the balmy night. I breathed a sigh of relief and leaned with all of my weight onto the bar for fear of collapsing. Eventually I lifted my head back up and went over to where the handful had dropped. An assortment of coins lay on the surface adding up to exactly the cost of the brandy that night’s final patron had ordered, despite the fact that I never told him how much he owed. And amongst the familiar glint of silver coins shone a ruddy brass glow that I hadn’t seen since coming back home. The faint glow emanated from three discharged bullet casings.