Sunday, July 14, 2019

On Patmos, Kneeling in the Panagea by Samuel Green

On Patmos, Kneeling in the Panagea
we hear the sound of a woman’s high-heeled 
       shoes striking the stones of the floor,
confident stride, strong hips, & I am 
       back in a hospital bed at Clark Air
Force Base, the Philippines, September, 
       1969, hearing a pair of shoes tapping their way
down the corridor outside my ward. I’d been 
       knocked off a motorcycle by a drunk jitney
driver in Cavite City five days before, 
       left leg shattered, compound fractures,
bone left on the street, flown to the surgeons 
       at Clark who cleaned, debrided, sutured
& hung me up in traction. There were three 
       of us in the ward. An air force guy
had blown the fingers off his left hand with a 
       homemade bomb. He’d been at Cam Ranh Bay
at a party on the beach. Stupid, stupid, he said. 
       The other guy was army, only seventeen,
right leg gone below the knee, left arm 
       just above the elbow. Out on a routine
patrol his first week in-country, stood up to pee 
       & the other newbie, pulling first guard,
shot him. We went through boot together. He spent 
       his days with a model ship, awkward
as it was to snap the pieces off & glue them into 
       place one-handed. If I can do this, maybe
I can put myself together again, he said. Each night 
       after lights out, he cried for an hour, softly,
into the snot on his pillow. The staff shrink was pissed 
       I wouldn’t say yes to amputation, said
I was immature. By that time I was hooked 
       on Demerol, my butt cheeks already bared
at the stroke of each third hour, ready 
       for the needle. End of that week,
late, they wheeled in three gurneys, jammed 
       them tight against the walls, woke
us up. One held an army captain, left leg just 
       a stump. He was hyper. Twitchy. Talked
a nurse into a telephone, called his wife. I’m fine, 
       sweetheart, just fineI’m coming home, voice cracked.
He didn’t mention the leg. Second guy was nothing 
       but plaster & gauze, both arms in casts, slits
at eyes & mouth. He didn’t move, didn’t make 
       a noise. Third man didn’t have any sheets
over him, only a gown. Both legs gone, left arm missing 
       nearly to the shoulder, rubber tubes in both
nostrils, a pair of IV bags hung on posts 
       from either side of the gurney. His mouth
was open, eyes glazed. He made a sound like a pair 
       of house slippers shuffling across a bare
carpet. His catheter bag was half full. 
       One of the volunteers came in the door
just as the orderlies left. They were officers’ wives 
       for the most part, helping out while their
husbands flew supply runs or medevacs, stabilized 
       patients, wrote long, exacting reports. The war
was far away, except for the wards. They fetched us 
       decks of cards, looked for paperbacks,
helped us fill out daily menus, poured out 
       cups of water, let us flirt a bit, ignored our looks
of lust. This one looked tired. She talked with 
       the captain, who still seemed buzzed, his hands
fluttering like bats. His stump thumped up 
       & down as he talked. His top sheet was stained
brown. He kept repeating home, home, home. I heard her 
       say the plane would load & leave real early, he
should try to sleep. She put a hand on his 
       forehead. He settled, closed his eyes. She
moved on to the gauze man, but didn’t do much 
       more than stand. She reached a hand as though
to touch, but stopped, adjusted the edge of a sheet 
       & turned away. She murmured something low
to the third soldier, put her ear down near 
       his face & nodded. She took a cup of ice
from a stand, carefully placed a chip between 
       his lips & let it melt. She did it twice
more. Anything I can get you, soldier? Her voice 
       was soft. He made a groan, like
a rusted nut coming loose on a bolt. Yeah
       he said, I want some cake, a chocolate cake.
She watched as water dribbled down his neck, said 
       What? He said it again. She shook her head.
I’m sorry, she said, but you can’t eat. She tried to give him 
       one more piece of ice. Lady, he said,

Jesus, lady, I don’t wanna eat it. I just wanna look 
       at it. He clamped his teeth down hard
grinding away at pain, turned his head to 
       the wall. A minute more, she left the ward,
gone for the night. Then it was another shot 
       for me, lights out again & sleep. They came
before breakfast, the nurses, changing linen, 
       bags, IVs, a single bed pan. The same
orderlies took the captain first. He waved 
       at us when he left. Then they took the white
ghost who never moved or spoke. That was when 
       we heard the click of high heels out
in the hall & the volunteer walked in, dressed 
       for a date, strapless bright green gown,
blonde hair hanging over bare shoulders. She was 
       carrying a cake in two hands, a big round
three-layer cake, a single candle lit. She walked to 
       the soldier’s gurney & stopped. He heard
her coming & turned to look: the froth of chocolate 
       same color as his skin. They didn’t say a word.
The orderlies returned. One checked the blood 
       pressure in his remaining arm; one
changed the flow on both IVs. The soldier 
       raised the stump of his arm, let it down
soft on the rumpled sheet. His nose & eyes 
       were leaking. The orderlies released
the gurney’s brake & wheeled him out. She took 
       a few steps back to let them pass.
We saw her shoulders shake. She stayed like that 
       a long, long time, then turned & left
without speaking. The candle had gone out, 
       left a trail of smoke, like a fighter jet
leaves across a clear sky. The guy who blew off 
       his own hand said, She could have left us
some. But it was all right. We couldn’t have eaten 
       the smallest bite of that darkness,
as here, on a Greek island thousands of miles 
       & more than forty years away,
I wait for the bread of the body, kneeling 
       beside a woman who feeds me every day.

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