Most of my high school friends volunteered for the war effort after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Call them crazy if you like. I know it can be hard for kids these days to understand the conscious choice to leave home and family to feed the fire of patriotism in your soul. But I know some of you will understand, and you’re the ones I’m chiefly talking to.
I went and volunteered, too, in fact. They didn’t take me. I’d been in an automobile accident just a few months before, one that left me with a bum leg that took quite a few years of physical therapy to overcome. It still gives me a little trouble sometimes, but I attribute most of that to the fact that I’m an old dog now.
If it matters either way to you, my name’s Elmer. You’ll need to know it later on.
Anyway, the four friends I was saddest to see go overseas were the best boys I’ve ever known, the ones who’d been there for me through every ditch and dirge. There was Jack Coleander – or Jameson Arthur Coleander, but everyone called him Jack; Martin “Whistle” Gillespie, so called because he was known for whistling for you when you did anything impressive or good (“Good boy, Elm!”); Hayden Barrish, whose nose was chronically stuck in everyone’s business, but whose heart was usually in a better place; and Butch Winkler, who had a keen eye and a mouth for good advice.
They’re all dead now. Jack, Whistle, Hayden, and Butch. Old Jack died just last year from heart failure. The others all died overseas, feeding the fire of patriotism so the rest of us at home could stay warm by it.
You could say I went into a bit of a spell after I heard the news that a third of my four closest friends had bitten foreign dust. That was 1943. I was newly married back then, working my way through a bum leg and trying to give my wife a few babies. I spiraled. I suppose I had some buried guilt over the fact that I hadn’t been conscripted and at least been there with them when they flew off. I’d been sitting here on the home front, working as a salesman, sitting helplessly by as war took those boys from me.
Even after our little girl, Gina, was born, happy though I was, I was plagued by thoughts of She’ll never have an Uncle Hayden, or She’ll never ask how Whistle got his name. I developed a hankering for alcohol, too, which made my spells of temper much worse. My wife Juanita took our little girl and moved back to her mother’s. Looking back, I think I’m glad she did. It took two years of crying and fighting and sobering up to win her back. But she did come back, and brought our little girl with her.
That was when the sound started.
I don’t remember the first episode too well, because I probably brushed it off as nothing. It’s easy to see how I could’ve thought it was nothing. But the second or third time, I started to mind it.
Juanita and Little G had just moved back into our house with me, and the sun was coming through the windows much brighter than it had lately. I was bent over the stove making us all a batch of grits and sausage as celebration. I’d let the girls sleep in. I remember how overjoyed I was, how bright and clear everything finally seemed. In truth, I hadn’t been that happy since before the boys died.
On this occasion, I minded the sound because it was right over my damn shoulder.
It sounded like something scraping on the floor. No, not even scraping – just dragging. Multiple times. Sometimes a long drag, sometimes a short scuff. Over and over. Drag. Drag. Drag.
It sent a prickly tremor up my spine and neck. I whirled around, brandishing a spatula and ready to wallop whatever stray animal was scratching up my hardwoods. There was nothing.
It didn’t just happen inside the house. Years later, when Juanita and I had gone out for dinner and a play to celebrate our fifteenth anniversary – a day we’d once thought would never come – the dragging started up again. At first I couldn’t be sure. It was in the restaurant. But it repeated itself, over and over until my ears pricked and I realized it, the sound worming its way into my ears through the low chatter and clinking of dinner service.
Drag. Drag. Drag.
I remember interrupting my wife in the middle of a sentence, making her start. “Do you hear that sound, J?”
“Pardon?” she answered, her pretty lips fighting a smile. “What sound, Elm?”
I tried to describe it to her, but it wasn’t any use. The damned thing had stopped.
I couldn’t shake that sound. The dragging followed me everywhere, cropping up at random moments and places. When we sold our house. At my daughter’s high school graduation. In my boss’s office when I got a much-coveted promotion. When I quit that job in favor of one that wouldn’t take me from my family so often. I started to notice that that awful, sickening drag, drag, drag would echo in my ears every time a good thing happened to me, as if it existed solely to spoil my happy moments. It kindled a rage in me like no other. One night I had a fit, shouting and breaking everything I could reach while Juanita tried in vain to calm me.
“That damned sound!” I cried, every inch of me shaking in the spasms of a madman. “Take it from me! Get it away from me! My God, what are you?!”
And then the sound stopped. For months, for years, the dragging did not come again. Good things came and went. My little Gina, not so little anymore, got engaged to a hardworking man who knew how to look me in the eye. I was pacified, but something felt wrong. Emptier, somehow.
It all hit me one night when I’d mustered the strength to go through a collection of old photographs. As I handled a picture Jack had given me of him, Hayden, Butch, and Whistle in uniform, smiling, I thought of something I’d never had the stomach to ask before. How they had died.
In combat, of course, I’d known that much. But all these years, I’d been much too busy grieving and trying to get on with my little life to seek out the details. Was it quick and painless? Did they suffer? Overcome with guilt about my insensitivity, my selfish oversight, I phoned Jack the next morning.
Jack wasn’t startled by the question. He’d known I would want to know eventually, and so he told me. Butch and Hayden had died together in a fox hole, and so far as he knew, it was a grenade or a shell. The quickest way to go. Poor Whistle, he said, had gotten the worst of it.
“Shot in the leg, neck, and spine,” said Jack, his warbling voice low as he remembered. “Poor Whistle. He hung on for a week and a half after, just lying in a bed, all glazed-over looking. Couldn’t move a thing, except for his one good leg. Couldn’t even talk.”
My throat swelled up and I couldn’t say a word, either.
“But you know Whistle, always the optimist. When I asked him how much it hurt, he’d only say ‘a little.’ Can you imagine?”
“You said he couldn’t talk,” I interjected.
“That’s right,” rebuffed Jack. “He’d do this thing with his good leg, see. He’d bend it at the knee and drag his heel along the bed. Sometimes slow, sometimes a little jerk, and he’d use the dragging noise of it to talk in Morse code. Poor Whistle. When I told him I was being shipped home, knowing I’d be leaving him there to die, you know what he said to me? ‘Good boy, Jack’ – he said that to me.”
I wasn’t listening anymore. My whole body had gone cold. I dropped the phone receiver and let it hang on the cord, my jaw open like a flytrap for what felt like eternity.
For the next week I didn’t sleep, pouring over old textbooks I kept in the attic, staring at dots and dashes until my eyes crossed. The dragging. Long and short. How it came whenever something good happened in my life. Impossible, I told myself over and over. But it was too late for that. I couldn’t rest until I knew.
Then I remembered my night of screaming and smashing the house apart. I’d told the sound to get away from me, and I hadn’t heard it since. Faced with reality, drowning in guilt, I gave up. It couldn’t be true, anyhow. Gradually I got back to my old self, distracted in part by the impending doom of my daughter’s wedding. It’s a traumatic thing, giving your little girl away to the man she loves.
On the day itself, I was inconsolable, but you wouldn’t have known by seeing me. I’m not one to cry, not after all life has dealt me. I kept myself together for our girl, and even survived walking her down to the altar. I survived her kiss on the cheek. I didn’t trip on the way back to my pew. I didn’t shoot the groom any threatening looks. I just sat there and reveled in the traumatizing happiness of it all, holding on to the hand of the wife I almost lost.
Then I heard it.
My shoulders straightened and my jaw locked. I didn’t turn. I knew nothing would be there. It was coming from the floor, as if something heavy were being dragged slowly down the carpeted aisle of the church.
Scuff! Drag. Drag.
I held on tighter to Juanita’s hand and closed my eyes. I listened through the preacher introducing the vows.
Drag. Drag. Drag. Scuff!
The pattern was there. I squeezed my eyes tighter shut, and spelled it in my mind. Letter by letter.
G O O D – B O Y – E L M
My in-laws will tell you they’d never heard a man sob harder in his life. I disagree for the sake of saving face, but in truth, they’re probably right. I remember going blind with tears, and Juanita grabbing my shoulders in alarm, not understanding the weight of mingled joy and grief crushing me. Years and years of validation, finally realized.
I still hear the dragging from time to time. What was a torturous mystery is now a comfort. Whistle’s told me that the other boys are watching, too. That they’re happy for me and the joys life has brought. That they’re glad I didn’t get sent overseas with them to die, and that they miss me, too.
“Thanks, Whistle,” I tell him.
I know he hears me. He always has.