Parkie said, “I used to think about the pond a lot when I was in the desert, at Tobruk,
at Al Shar-Efan, at The Sod Oasis, at all the dry holes along the way, but it was always
summer and fishing and swimming and going ballicky off the rock at midnight or two
or three in the morning on some hot-ass August night when we couldn’t sleep and
sneaked out of the house. Remember how Gracie slipped into the pond that night and slipped out of her bathing suit and hung it up on a spike on the raft and told us she was
going to teach us everything we’d ever need to know.”
His head nodded two or three times, accenting its own movement, making a grand
pronouncement, as if the recall was just as tender and just as complete as that long-ago
compelling night. He sipped at the bottle again and tried to look through its amber
passage, dark eyes meeting dark obstacles of more than one sort. As much a
fortuneteller he looked, peeking into life.
All across the pond stillness made itself known, stillness as pure as any I’ve known. I
don’t know what he saw in the amber fluid, but it couldn’t have been anything he
hadn’t seen before.
I just had the feeling it was nothing different.
When I called him Frank he looked at me squarely, thick black brows lifted like
chunks of punctuation, his mouth an Oh of more punctuation, both of us suddenly
serious. It had always been that way with us, the reliance on the more proper name to
pull a halt to what was about us or explain what was about us. He drank off a heavy
draught of beer, his Adam’s apple flopping on his thin neck. The picture of a turkey
wattle came uneasily to mind, making me feel slightly ridiculous, and slightly
embarrassed. Frank was an announcement of sorts, a declaration that a change, no
matter subtle or not, was being introduced into our conversation. It was not as serious
as Francis, but it was serious enough.
His comrades from North Africa, as always, had intrigued me, and on a number of
instances I had searched in imagination’s land for stories that might lie there waiting to
get plowed up. Nothing I had turned over came anywhere close to reality, or the terrors
I had known in my own stead. No rubble. No chaff. No field residue.
Perhaps Parkie had seen something in that last bottle, something swimming about in
the amber liquid, or something just on the other side of it, for he turned to me and said,
“I think you want to know about my friends who visit, my friends from North Africa,
from my tank outfit. I never told you their names because their names are not
important. Where they come from or where they are going is not important either. That
information would mean nothing to you.”
For the moment silence was accepted by both of us.
Across the stretch of water, the sun was making its last retreat of the day. A quick
grasp of reflection hung for a bare second on the face of the pond and then leaped off
somewhere as if shot, past the worm-curled roots, a minute but energized flash darting
into the trees, then it was gone, absolutely gone, none of it yet curling round a branch
or root, and no evidence of it lying about…except for the life it had given sustenance
to, had maintained at all levels. It was like the shutter of a camera had opened and
closed at its own speed.
Parkie acknowledged that disappearance with a slight nod of his head. An additional
twist was there: it was obvious he saw the darkness coming on even before it gathered
itself to call on us, as though another kind of clock ticked for him, a clock of a far
different dimension. He was still chipping away at what had been his old self. That
came home clean as a desert bone; but where he was taking it all was as much mystery
The beer, though, was making sly headway, beer and stillness, and the companionship
we had shared over the years, the mystery of the sun’s quick disappearance on what
we knew of the horizon, the thin edge of warmth it left behind, and all those strange
comrades of his who had stood in the doorway of the Angel’s Club, framed as they
were by the nowhere they had come from, almost purposeless in their missions. They,
too, had been of dark visage. They too were lank and thin and narrow in the shoulder.
They, too, were scored by that same pit of infinity locked deeply in their eyes. They
were not haggard, but they were deep. I knew twin brothers who were not as close to
their own core the same way these men were, men who had obviously leaned their
souls entirely on some common element in their lives. I did not find it as intense even
with battle brothers who had lain in the same hole with me while German 76’ers
slammed overhead and all around us, chunks of grand Italian marble in the awful