Stephen closed his eyes and smiled as the music from the radio rose with a chaotic, atonal beauty, a mash of notes clashing, swirling strings dragging along the brash brass, the sound a whirlwind, an anxious tempest that ended in the majestic affirmative piano crash at the end of “Sgt. Pepper.”
“Wow,” he said softly, pleased. “That was something.”
As the DJ introduced the next song, Stephen heard the low moan coming from Mr. Walters.
“No, no, no, no,” the soft, growling voice said. “No, no, no.”
Stephen glanced up from the kitchen table where he sat with his head cradled by folded arms and saw the old man’s face balled up like a fist, eyes tightly closed, brows drawn in terror, mouth sucked in and his hands covering his ears. He rocked forward and back, slowly at first, then quicker, “No. No, no.” Then he coiled into as much of a ball as his wheelchair allowed and moaned.
“Mr. Walters?” Stephen asked. “Are you okay?”
When the old man failed to respond, Stephen pushed back his chair and crossed to the wheelchair. Stephen’s hands were shaking. Mrs. Walters would know what to do, he thought. She had told him sometimes her husband remembers things from his past.
The old man moaned again, as lonely a sound as Stephen had ever heard.
He knelt and touched the old man’s clenched hands.
“Mr. Walters. It’s okay. It’s Stephen. Mrs. Walters will be home soon.” He patted the old man’s spotted hands; they were so white, the skin nearly translucent, the veins blue among the wrinkles. “Mr. Walters.”
Stephen dropped to his knees and with a tissue, wiped away the clear liquid dripping from the old man’s nose. He gently guided the old man to sit upright again.
Sitting up, his face relaxed and the old man opened his eyes, blinking hard, then staring, eyes hollow, unfocused, then worried.
“Manny,” he whispered. “Manny, you made it.”
“Mr. Walters?” Stephen asked, confused. “I’m Stephen.”
The old man touched Stephen’s shoulder.
“Did we get that 88?”
Then he wiped his face with his hand, and Stephen saw that he seemed to have regained the present.
“Who are you?”
Stephen stood up, “I’m Stephen. I rent… I rent a room upstairs.”
Mr. Walters stared suspiciously, then leaned back, accepting the information. “Yeah. Okay. Where’s my wife?”
“She’s shopping,” Stephen stammered. “Groceries. She’s supposed to be back soon.”
A smiled crossed the old man’s face.
“Hope she brings back that good bread.” He licked his lips. “We had it in France. Hard crusted, slathered in butter. Given to us by the prettiest French girls. They winked, kissed our cheeks and bent over to flash their beautiful French tits in our faces. No shame, Just beautiful girls and some of our guys in hay barns…”
The tale wandered off and Stephen smiled. Mr. Walters had done this before. Started talking about something, usually his bank and how he arranged loans for families, built subdivisions, and it was then that Stephen learned he had built the house his family had rented for a couple years out at the edge of Fulton on the Volney townline; behind the house were grass covered piles of dirt and hidden cellar holes left when the construction had stopped for some reason.
“Them 88s.” the old man started up again. “The sound. Screeeeee, then wham!” Then again. “Screee, screee, then wham. Then the tanks, that awful grinding, clanking metal sound as the ground shook, shooting through the hedgerows, smashing the undergrowth…”
Stephen watched as the old man’s face again coiled in fear and then in anger.
“Some of them girls didn’t make it. Gang raped and shot in the head. We found them outside their homes. We wanted to bury them but the Captain said, no. We’d be targets, and they were just collateral damage.”
He stopped, and seemed to sleep.
“You ever fight?” the old man asked, suspiciously. “Lotta guys didn’t make it. Left them there, took their dog tags. Like them French girls. Kids with dreams. I used to dream about her, this girl. Skinny, but beautiful. Soft mouth and hands. We’d neck in the woods by the swimming pond. I’d think about her when we were on that troop ship heading to England. I’d want her to be there so I could fold her into my slicker and feel her warm body and maybe slip my hand down her pants and she’d unzip me and jerk me off … but it was all a dream. Nothing ever happened between us and I shipped out and all I saw on that damn ship was the dark Atlantic, wondering where the Nazi subs were.”
Mr. Walters glanced up and his eyes sharpened.
“Don’t go to war, kid. Nothing changes and you come home with bad dreams that you’ll take to your grave.”
He leaned back, silent, but his face was contorted, and tears leaked from his eyes. He snored.
Stephen wondered when Mrs. Walters would be home. This was part of his arrangement: He had to sit with Mr. Walters while she ran her errands. Usually the old man slept. He had just grown old, she said. So Stephen served him warm tea, cleaned crumbs off his chin and, holding his nose, wiped the old man’s ass. Stephen was uncertain what would happen next. He had six months to go before he graduated from high school. His family was gone and he had stayed. When he thought about it, he was glad he had found this room and this old couple. It wasn’t home, but it was warm and Mrs. Walters never said a word when Stephen stole her fresh baked cookies.
Mr. Walters grumbled awake.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Stephen…Stephen. I rent…”
“Okay, right. Sam…”
“Where’s my wife?”
“I hope she remembers that bread…”