Aging Memories can be Dangerous
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I hate these gatherings – maybe that's why I'm always first to arrive. So it surprises me to see Eddie already sitting at the back corner booth in the tavern. Christ, he looks old! Like a big balloon man half the air leaked out of. Em used to say hell would freeze over before Eddie ever got anywhere on time, and here he is early. Satan must be digging out the old long-johns.
"Hey, Eddie. How's it hanging?" Like it still matters.
"Oh, hi, Frank. Good, real good. And you?" He wraps my hand in his large one, but gently, gingerly. His hand feels like a paper sack full of bones.
"Can't complain. Wouldn't do any good anyway. Been here long?"
"About two of these," he holds up his near-empty Coke. "Made better time than I figured. They change the roads so much these days, it's easy to get lost... not that I get lost or anything, but you could."
"Yeah, know what you mean.... Oh, Hon: how about a couple of Cokes over here. Thanks.... So, how is everybody?"
"Pretty good. Sally's hassling me again about living alone, wants me to move into one of those sorry homes. Afraid I'll fall in the tub or something and they won't find me until it's too late." He looks around, then leans closer, grins slyly, and lowers his voice, "She don't even know I'm here – made me promise I wouldn't drive at night." He straightens up, continues, "Rest of the family's about the same as ever. And yours?"
"Well, since Em died, you guys are about all I've got left."
"Oh, yeah. Sorry, Frank – wasn't thinking."
"No problem. Been five years now; don't hurt half so much any more," I lied. "Look, isn't that Jack and Porter?... Hey guys – over here.... Hon, two more Cokes, please." That's all we ever drink at these gatherings, even Carlos when he used to come.
We say our hellos, shake hands, slap shoulders, all that ritual banter of men meeting men they've known for years. "Hey, Jack, you're looking good."
"Yeah, yeah, Frank: not a day over ninety, right? How's it going, Eddie?"
"Fuckin' A, man. Hi, Porter. How you doing? How's Marge?"
"Marge was my first wife, Eddie. Diane and I are both doing well... So, Frank, still economizing on shampoo, I see," as he hangs his walking stick on the hook with Eddie's cane and slides gingerly into the booth.
I glance at Jack: looks like his hair – what there is of it – has mostly all grown back in, so I guess hair jokes are cool again. "Yeah, Port, but spending more on face soap, so it all evens out. Maybe I should get a rug, too: save on both ends."
"I'll have you know this is all mine," Porter retorts in an indignant tone, running his hand fondly over his fluffy white locks.
“Yeah," Jack retorts in his new gentle voice, "And he's got the receipt to prove it!"
Funny, I think, how I automatically call Eddie's a cane and Porter's a walking stick. Bet it's even got one of those stupid swords in it.
"Well, now to the business at hand," Porter announces after the waitress leaves the Cokes (that's how he talks, like he's chairman of the board or something; I think he still gets off on this shit – surprised he don't make us give passwords and use code names, like the old days). "I spoke to my most reliable contact at the outfit..." we all pretend we don't know he means Bradley "...and he assures me they've neutralized this latest threat."
Porter always has to be doing something with his hands and picks up a couple of the straws the waitress left lying on the table, tapping them to emphasize his words, "The files were well sanitized long ago and what they had to release under the Freedom of Information Act doesn't add anything to the original reports. Even if somebody does put together what happened, there's nothing to point to any of us."
"Sons of bitches!" Jack growls softly. I still can't get used to his voice, but it could be worse: he could have to hold one of those boxes to his throat to talk at all. He continues, "Those bastards make a mess and send us in to clean it up, and now all these years later we still sweat bullets every time some snot-nosed reporter starts asking questions. And if the shit does hit the fan, you can bet they'll be at the front of the line, shaking their heads, wringing their hands, and crying about atrocities, poor innocent civilians. Forgetting they was the enemy then, too. We did what they wanted us to do, for Christ's sake. Wasn't our fault it got so wet, but they'd burn us if they could."
"That ain't gonna happen," I say. "All those clowns are long gone – they're older than we are, for Christ's sake. But their kids are still around, and grandkids, too. They may not know exactly what happened, but they know it'd make one hell of a stink and that we got enough evidence stashed away that before the shit ever splatters our shoes, it'll be up to their damn noses. They'll keep the lid on at their end. All we have to worry about is ourselves."
"Score one for nepotism," Porter toasts sourly with his Coke, then adds, "And for family pride."
"Fuckin' A," Eddie says.
"Christ! It wouldn't matter if it was only us – what the hell can they do to a bunch of dried up old farts like us?" Jack looks around, making sure the waitress is still out of earshot, "But our families! The reporters would be all over them. They wouldn't understand how it was, nobody would. Even the guys who were there have forgotten... or pretend they have. Sometimes I think we're the only ones remember, and I wish we could forget, too."
"We can't do that," Porter snaps, "When you forget, you make mistakes. And we can't afford to let anything slip."
"Yeah," Eddie chimes in, "Well, we kept ourselves straight all these years, so that's no problem, right Frank?"
"Right," Porter answers for me, still playing with his straws, "Especially since Carlos's accident."
"Huh?" Eddie looks at Porter questioningly, "That why he ain't here?"
"You remember, he hit his head diving in his pool and drowned. It happened a couple of years ago."
"Yeah, yeah, 'course I remember," Eddie retorts, "Fuckin' A. Just as good he had that accident. Damn drunk! Never trust no damn drunk."
Porter picks up another straw and looks at me before he responds, "That's what you told me in Vienna, Eddie. I have to admit you were right... Ah, Miss? Another round of Cokes – and put a cherry in mine, would you?... Anybody else want a cherry?... Ok, just the one, then."
"Yeah, in Vienna, I remember," Eddie exclaims, "I told you never to trust no damn drunk then, in Vienna after the hospital, just before we went back in-country." He turns to me, and adds, "You wasn't there, Frank; just me and Porter and Carlos, and I told Porter you can't never trust no damn drunk, 'cause Carlos got wasted and missed..."
"Hold it down, Eddie," I say, looking around; his voice is getting louder and it carries, "We all know what happened. You were right; Porter told me so."
"Yeah, Fuckin' A, I was right!" Eddie confirms proudly, then pushes at me urgently to get up so he can slide out of the booth, grumbling, "Goddamn old man's prostate! Makes your bladder smaller'n a pregnant woman."
Jack watches Eddie limp off toward the men's room, then shakes his head sadly, "Bloody shame, Frank. Eddie's the youngest of all of us."
"Yeah," I reply, thinking what Jack don't want to say, that Eddie may be the youngest, but he was the strong one, the one who always took charge when things went sour. My leg gives a twinge, as if to remind me of Eddie carrying me back to the LZ with a bullet in my thigh – when he had one in his gut. "And the toughest. Goddamn, I thought he was indestructible!"
"Weren't we all," Porter sighs. "What's with all this 'Fucking A' stuff, Frank? Eddie never used to swear, not even 'hell' or 'damn.'"
"Oh, he watched The Deer Hunter about six months ago. Sally says that's his favorite expression ever since – thinks he does it mostly to piss her off."
"It's more than that," Porter shakes his head, pulling the stem off his cherry, "Sounds as if he might have Alzheimer's."
I shudder inside. Even the mention of that miserable disease gives me the willies, ever since I saw what it did to Gramps. "Yeah, could be," I agree reluctantly, "But he's just starting; he ain't bad yet. My grandfather... friend of his had it. Took years and years till he got really off the wall – couldn't remember what he had for breakfast or even that his wife was dead, but he could give you play-by-play every world series game the Yankees ever played."
"But it isn't what somebody forgets, it's what he remembers – and forgets he shouldn't remember," Porter replies, fiddling with those damn straws again. "That's what matters, Frank."
They both look at me. "Yeah," I finally answer, grabbing one of Porter's stupid straws. Eddie made a career out of taking care of us; now it's our turn. "That's always been the only goddamn thing that matters – what you forget to forget."
Porter nods solemnly, then looks at his watch as he holds his hand out to Jack, "Well, I'm afraid it's about time we called it a night, gentlemen. It's Eddie's turn to make the arrangements for next year, but I'll handle it; I'll let you know where to meet."
Everybody's quiet, thinking their own thoughts until Eddie gets back, then we all shake and say goodbye, see ya, till next time.
In the parking lot we wave and head for our cars. I shuffle along with Eddie to his old Buick and we shake again before he gets in. I go on to my car and we all drive off in different directions. I take the curves of the winding two-lane road a little faster than normal, thinking about Eddie, why Eddie? Forget it: why don't matter. What is matters.
I reach the intersection and turn out the lights. The seconds crawl by. Just as I'm starting to think he beat me or took the wrong damn road, the headlights appear, weaving slightly, driving half the speed limit. I give it a full five minutes before I pull out. Three, four miles and his car's parked, half on, half off the road. I douse my lights and coast in behind.
I wait a couple of minutes more, but not long enough. "Hi, Frank," he says, swaying like he's having trouble focusing, "I don't feel so good."
"Lucky I spotted your car, Eddie. You probably had too many Cokes – you'll feel better in a few minutes."
"Yeah," he closes his eyes and leans back. He's real quiet for a long time and I think he's asleep, then, without opening his eyes, he says, so low I hardly hear, "I'm glad you're here, Frank."
He's really out this time, but I wait a little longer just to be sure. Then I pull on my gloves, open the door, release his seatbelt, aim the steering wheel straight down the road, and jam his cane between it and the gas pedal. I reach across, put the shift into neutral, and turn the key; the engine catches and races. Then I hold the door, take a deep breath, and drop the shift into drive. I almost get my arm out in time, but the edge of the doorjamb catches my shoulder and spins me around. Son of a bitch! That hurts – I know I pulled something! I'm getting too old for this shit.
The car tears off, spitting gravel from both rear tires. It goes almost a hundred fifty yards and just when I'm thinking it's gonna make it all the way to Cleveland, it drifts off the far side of the road, hops the ditch, and smashes into a tree. It had to hit a tree; that's all there is around here, is fucking trees.
The driver's door is open, near snapped off its hinges. The cane slides right out from under the pedal, leaving not a trace. I luck out big time: Eddie's dead. Put his head right through the windshield and smack into that tree. I pack the needle away, grateful. The stuff in it is natural and metabolizes completely in a couple of hours, even in a corpse, just like the shit Porter slipped into Eddie's last Coke: only the outfit's finest for her faithful servants. But in order to make sure no nosy medical examiner would find the needle mark – these days the bastards can spot 'em even inside an open wound – I'd have had to get more personal than I ever wanted to get with any man, even Eddie. Especially Eddie.
I spend too long looking at him, not feeling anything yet. The old conditioning still strong: you don't feel in the field, you just act. But the feelings will come. Damn, he knew how it could end – we all did. And I ain't the one with a pack of great-grandkids think he's God's boss; this is more for him than me, anyway. Better than ending up like Gramps.
One last check to make sure I didn't miss anything, just from old habit, and I'm on my way. The damn straw's still lying on the other seat so I blow the cherry stem out the window then crumple the straw and toss it out, too. Wonder if Porter knew the stem gave that straw a slight pink tinge, even in the dim light. Wonder who'll pick the meeting place next year – was supposed to be Eddie's turn. Heard the outfit don't assign brothers to work together any more. Maybe that's for the best.