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In A Yokohama Hospital On My Way Back Home, 1969
By rg cantalupo
Excerpt from Kill Today, So Tomorrow Will Not Come (New World Publishers, 2018)
I'm done with half-truths.
I'm done with being told I'm going to get better when I don't know who I am, or who I was.
I need to see my face.
I need to see the I hidden under the gauze bandage that's covered my head for the past two months.
I swivel out of bed, lift myself into my wheelchair, and roll into the bathroom reeking of antiseptic and piss.
The harsh fluorescent light kills my eyes.
I peel the bandage back from my skull, grip the sink, and pull myself up from the wheelchair.
A sharp stab shoots through the open wound on my left arm.
I grip tighter to stand, but my good hand can't hold me.
I fall back, almost topple over, rest to catch my breath.
Sweat slides over the wire sutures running along my jugular vein and across my skull. I wipe the beads off with the fingers of my right hand, scratch at the
prickly stitches on my head.
What are the wire sutures for?
To keep my brain from falling out?
If I bend my head down, will the gray entrails of my brain spill out, my life dangle from the wire sutures like thick worms?
My fingers search for a hole in my frontal lobe, but there's only a depression where the shrapnel pierced my skull.
I want to give up, roll back to the Head Ward and sit in front of the window, gaze absently at the snow-capped mountain rising from the distant horizon.
I want to, but I can't.
I roll a few inches closer, grip the sink with my good hand, lift, stand, hold.
As I rise to stand, my hand weakens, and starts to slip off the edge.
I thrust my left arm out to stop my fall.
A red-hot knife pierces my arm and shoots up to my brain.
I've stretched too far.
The four-inch by three-inch gash along my left forearm tears open and starts to bleed.
The raw flesh, jagged and torn like the frayed belly of a salmon, trickles a thin, red stream.
The gauze bandage turns pink.
I bite back the pain, grip the sink, and lift my head to the mirror.
Tiny wire stitches run from one side of my skull to the other where the cranial flap was pulled back for the neurosurgeon's saw.
There's a dent about the size of a matchbook where the shrapnel smashed into my right forehead, pierced the skull, and lodged inside my frontal lobe.
This is not my face.
No, the eyes are wrong, the cheeks stretched too tight against the bone.
I want to kill this face.
I want to break it into a million mirrored shards.
I raise my right hand, ball it up, reach back to shatter its reflection with my fist. Halfway through the punch, I pull back, press my bare knuckles against the glass.
I open my hand, touch my face, walk my fingers over the cheeks, lips, and eyes, wonder what name I can put on this pain I feel throbbing in my mind.
But there is no name, not for this.
Absence maybe, but absence stained with grief.
The heartache of something taken, of something lost; the grief of a body tagged with no name.
I am nineteen.
I am in a hospital in Yokohama, Japan.
My future stares back with dead eyes.
* * *
Darkness bleeds to dim light.
Beside me, a man moans.
He moans like an animal, like a dog run over by a car lying along the side of a road.
Two enormous purple-black eyes punctuate his face.
But there are no bandages on his body, no bloody gauze wrapped around his head like mine.
Probably a percussion wound, a high-intensity explosion too close to his head. Brain trauma. Air particles propelled so fast and hard they shot through his skull and jellied his brain.
A 122-millimeter rocket exploding on his bunker as he slept, maybe.
Or a five hundred pound bomb—a 155 short-rounder—a misplaced dot on a grid—some fuck up somewhere.
Nothing worse than to get wasted by your own bad intentions.
Probably never knew it was coming.
Probably never even woke from the percussive shock, and doesn't know he's here.
Aces and eights, man. That's all this war deals—Aces and eights every hand.
I wonder if he'll ever wake, or if his brain is too filled with holes.
Luck. Dumb fucking bad luck.
And something else, something that I saw yesterday when they were turning him from one position to the other.
A small wound, maybe a half an inch long, at the base of his neck.
One tiny piece of shrapnel—that's all it took to sever his spine, to paralyze his body from the neck down.
Aces and eights, man. Nothing but aces and eights all the way down the line.
He moans and moans.
He wants to scratch out his eyes, to dig into his eye sockets and tear out the pain throbbing in his head.
But he can't.
His arms are bound, strapped to the bed.
Every two hours someone comes to rotate him 180 degrees.
Each time someone comes, his moans rise to a crescendo.
Each time they leave, his moans die out to a dull bay like a wounded water buffalo.
I call him Panda.
In the Head Ward's black night, when I hear the shuffling feet of the somnambulant moving through the ward, his moans give content and context to my terror dreams.
I see Panda's purple-black eyes wide open, blank, empty as bullet holes in the night ward's dusk—eyes that haunt me like the eyes of the undead—a ghost's eyes gazing into a tomorrow that will never come.
Panda's enormous purple-splotched eyes are ethereal in the waking ward.
I wonder if that's what his brain looks like—bruised, purplish, blotched like a too-ripe fig inside his skull?
Is that why his eyes are purple as if his bloody brain were squished out his eye sockets leaving purple-black splotches?
His mouth opens, and a long "Oooooooooooooh!!!" thunders over the sleepless ward.
"Nurse!" I call. "NURSE!!!"
But no one comes.
No one ever comes.
Not now anyway.
Later, someone will come, turn him upside down, turn his dark eyes toward the night ward's starless floor.
His "Oooooohs" will rise then, crescendo, sound like a chanting prayer: "oooh, oooh, oooh, oooh."
I shut my eyes.
rg cantalupo, (Ross Canton), is a poet, playwright, filmmaker, novelist, and director. His work has been published widely in literary journals in the United States, England, and Australia. He served in the 25th Infantry Division as an RTO for an infantry company from 1968-69 and received three purple hearts and a Bronze Star with a combat V for Valor under fire.