The Ardennes, later known as the Battle of the Bulge, had been history for years. Heroes were honored, the fallen were buried and mourned. Life went on. Those who fought in the Bulge preferred not to talk about it. But sometimes, like today, the freezer of death crept back to the soldiers who made it out alive and reminded them of those who didn’t.
“Harold?” Frannie left the door to his apartment open as she went inside. She was worried after he failed to respond to her knock. Harold seemed like an easy- going guy, most of the time, but they lived close enough that she had seen evidence of the damage left by the war, and that damage wasn’t limited to his physical injuries. She flipped on the small lamp on the table in the main room, illuminating the cramped quarters in shadow. She found Harold on his bed, covered by the sheet, a quilt, an extra blanket, even a coat had been piled on top of the mound. When he didn’t stir, she touched his face. He was burning up. His hair was drenched, and he had sweated into the pillow, leaving a dark stain beneath his cheek.
“Harold!” She began throwing the layers off of him. His body was soaking wet, his undershirt plastered to his skin like a bandage. The flesh she exposed felt hot to her touch. He finally moaned, coming out of his stupor. She went into the bathroom and returned with a damp towel, smoothing it over his skin, letting the breeze from the open windows blow over the damp to cool him down. She fetched some water and held the glass up to his parched lips. He took a sip and coughed, squinting his eyes open to look at her as if he had never seen her before.
“Harold, what’s wrong? You’re burning up.”
“Frannie?” he needed confirmation. She ran the towel over his wet hair and sat beside him on the bed.
“Yes, it’s Frannie, from next door. Your grandmother got worried when you didn’t come back with the shrimp. She said the engine on the Buick was cold. She tried calling out to you, but you didn’t answer. She came over to use my phone so she could call Jim. He said you never made it to the bar. She asked if I would come up here and check on you because those stairs are steep and she’s afraid of them in the dark. What happened?”
“Beautiful Frannie,” he reached over and ran his hand up her bare arm and down again, pulling her towards him. “Kiss me, Frannie.”
She leaned over and kissed his forehead, noticing his temperature had dropped already. He unexpectedly put a hand on the back of her neck and said, “Not like that.”
His lips pressed hers, but she moved out of his embrace and sat up, holding his hand tightly when he reached for her again. “Lie down with me, Frannie,” he invited. His voice sounded raspy, unused. She sighed and brought his knuckles up to her cheek, pressing them to her skin.
“Sweetie, if there was any man who could convince me to lie down beside him, it would be you. But there isn’t. And you don’t want that either. You’re just not yourself.” He moaned and dropped his arm over his eyes, trying to press the memories out of his mind, into the pillow. “I’m going to tell your Grandma that you just fell asleep, and that you’re fine. You take a shower, and I’ll be back up. Can you do that, Harold? Can you get up on your own?”
He nodded, without removing his arm from his face. He listened for her retreating footsteps on the stairs, and only then did he sit up. He was weak. His legs were like rubber, and his stomach was queasy, as he forced himself off of the clammy mattress. He left his wet clothes in a pile on the floor and stood under the hand-held shower until all of the sweat and most of the nightmare was gone. Wrapped in an Indian print robe, his wet hair flopping across his forehead, he found that Frannie had returned while he showered. She was stripping his bed of the soaked linens.
“I’ll do that,” he said as his trembling fingers opened a pack of Camels he withdrew from his drug store bag.
“I’ve got it. I’m doing some laundry for the kids tonight, anyway. I’ll just throw these in the washing machine.”
“You don’t have to do that, Frannie.”
“Help me turn the mattress over.”
He did so and then sat down on the dry side, that little effort exhausting him. “Grandma has to eat.”
“Don’t worry, she shared our boil with us.”
Swell, Harold thought. Just what she didn’t want for dinner. She asked where his clean linens were kept and he motioned to a shelf in the bathroom. He only had one other set, but that was enough. He moved to the small wicker loveseat that was his sofa as she carefully tucked and arranged his bedding. He was reminded of when he was a child and he had a bedwetting incident that caused his mother to change his sheets in the middle of the night. She wasn’t so nice about it, however. She berated him for his loss of control and reminded him of all the extra work he caused for her.
When Frannie’s task was done, she sat beside him. Harold stared at the braided rug on the wooden floor, unable to meet her eyes as he said, “I’m sorry for what I did, Frannie. I wasn’t thinking. It was wrong.”
She rested her hand on his shoulder. “I know you weren’t in your right mind, Harold. What happened? Why were you so covered up in this mild weather?”
“I don’t know. Sometimes, when I think about the war, this cold comes over me that I just can’t shake. It’s like it’s in my bones. I can’t stop shivering, I can’t get warm.”
“Oh Harold, why do you have to think about that terrible place?” She glanced down at the portion of his legs that were revealed by his robe. The scars started midway up his right calf and the rest she couldn’t see. What was visible was bad enough.
He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose as he shook his head. If he could answer that question, he would be a much happier man. “I’m okay, now. You don’t have to stay. I know the kids are…”
“Your grandma is with them. They’re fine. They mind her much better than they mind me. You need to eat something.”
“No, I couldn’t keep it down.”
“Not even some tomato soup? And a grilled cheese sandwich?”
He smiled. Those were favorites of his and even Frannie couldn’t ruin canned soup and a grilled cheese. He had the fixings for it in his kitchenette and she got busy with the preparations as he smoked and waited for his ghosts to retreat completely into the recesses of his mind. “Maybe I could help you with your case, Harold,” she said when she placed his meal on the dinette table, that doubled as his desk. He wasn’t sure he could eat it, but it went down remarkably easy, chasing away the last vestiges of his phantom chill.
“What do you mean?”
“Help you find your missing person.”
“I can’t afford hired help, Frannie.”
“I don’t want to be paid. I just want something to do. There must be times when people would say more to a pretty girl than to a tall, lanky man?”
He smiled. “You wouldn’t know what to ask.”
“You could coach me.”
“What is this? Is my grandmother afraid I can’t handle a case on my own? Did she ask you to help?”
“Of course not, Harold. We both know you can handle it on your own. I just thought you might want some company. You spend too much time alone. And so do I. The twins don’t count as company.”
“I appreciate the offer, Frannie. We’ll see.”
“Are you going to be okay? You think you might want to stay in the big house with Emma tonight?”
“No, I’d rather stay here. I’m fine. Thanks for helping out.” She stood to carry his dishes over to the sink. He stopped her by grabbing her wrist. “I mean it, Frannie. Thank you.”
“Any time, Harold. What are neighbors for?” She kissed the top of his head and left him there, closing the door firmly behind her. He didn’t deserve friends like Jim and Frannie. Didn’t deserve his grandmother’s devotion. Didn’t deserve to be a survivor when over eighty-thousand of his comrades died in that final battle.
“What are you doing for the rest of my life?” That whisper sounded in his ear. Harold took a deep drag of his cigarette as he whispered back with a question of his own,
“What am I supposed to do with the rest of my life?”
Unfortunately, there was no answer to that haunting question.
By the time Harold awoke the next morning, the day was already underway outside his window. Children had left for school, counting the days until summer break. Men had gone to their jobs, while their wives were hanging out washing or busy with other chores. His own sheets fluttered from Frannie’s clothesline like an embarrassing reminder of his lapse. Just because he didn’t urinate in his bed didn’t mean he hadn’t made a damned fool of himself. He dressed in a pressed white Hathaway shirt instead of one of his Aloha shirts, and belted his pleated trousers before carefully pomading and slicking back his hair. He hoped he wouldn’t see Frannie as he walked down the stairs, and he didn’t. Sometimes she walked her twins to school, which always made them sullen.
He entered his grandmother’s house and found her in the kitchen. She was stirring a pot of oatmeal as he walked up behind her and hugged her slim frame gently. “Sorry about last night, Grandma. I guess I was worn out.”
She didn’t question that explanation. She knew better, understood more than she said, but she was one of those women who never demanded a full story. “You smell good. I like that after-shave. Pour yourself some coffee and I’ll spoon up a bowl of oatmeal for you.”
He did so, sitting at the blue and white gingham oil cloth-covered table by the kitchen window. She put an orange Fiesta ware bowl, brimming with oatmeal, butter and brown sugar in front of him. She never missed a chance to add bulk to his slim physique.
“What happened to your face?”
He touched the shred of toilet paper stuck to the point of his chin. “Need to sharpen that razor.”
“They have those kind where you replace the blade, you know.”
“Seems a waste to me. Grandpa’s straight razor was good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.”
She smiled as she filled a mug with coffee and sat down with her only grandson. “You remember your Grandpa, Trip? You were so small when we lost him.”
“Sure I do,” Harold insisted. “He was tall and skinny like the rest of us men in this family, and he was always humming some Duke Ellington or Cab Calloway song. We’d listen to baseball on the radio on the sleeping porch in summer. He called you Emma Jean.”
She laughed and shook her head. “I hated that, but he never paid me the least bit of notice on what I wanted to be called. He just loved you to pieces, Trip.”
His grandfather died in a fire at the paper mill where he had been foreman. He got out safely, but went back in to rescue some trapped men on his crew, and became a victim himself. They said it was smoke inhalation that did it, because he had no burn marks when he was found, huddled near a back exit with three others on his crew. They were mere inches from escape. His grandmother still received a monthly pittance from the insurance settlement the plant negotiated. Sometimes that was all that she had to get by on. He reached over to pat her hand and she smiled at him.
“I’m fine, honey. We had more years together and better ones than most can hope to know. That’s what I want for you, Trip. Someone solid like your Grandpa was for me.”
He nodded, aware of how unlikely that was. No, how impossible it was. “I need to get going, Grandma. I lost a day. I want to start unraveling this mystery.” He showed her the photograph of the missing Johnny Randolph. “Ever seen this kid? Drives a new cherry red Dodge?”
She looked at it and then shook her head. “Nice looking boy. He ran away from home?”
“He’s twenty, Grandma.”
“Doesn’t look it. What makes him missing?”
“I’m not sure I know.” He put the photo back in his pocket. “But I’ll find him. Dead or alive.”
“Take that toilet paper off your chin before you go out amongst folk,” she reminded him and he peeled off the bloody patch and threw it away in her trash. The bleeding had stopped.
“I’ll bring that shrimp home tonight. Maybe you could ask Frannie to join us? I owe her.”
“I’ll do that. Be careful out there, son. Sometimes rich people have their own way of doing things and it’s best not to get in their way.”
“How do you know they’re rich?”
“They hired a detective, didn’t they? And the boy drives a new Dodge. You’re not the only one who can follow a clue.”
He smiled at her as he leaned over to kiss her cheek. Mickey Spillane strikes again.