Christine Rice

Winter, 1981

            The blaze of yellow ribbons outside Will’s bedroom window, ghostly in the twilight, served as a constant reminder of his disgrace.  In his absence, scout troops had tied the ribbons to every stationary object on the Goynes’s farm—on pines, beeches, the old oak, the fence posts surrounding what would be a summer kitchen garden.  How strange, he thought, that while he sat alone and naked in solitary, a near-hysterical patriotic fervor had strangled the country in the form of yellow ribbons.  They fluttered off gas station signs, on shopping carts, car antennas, strollers, three-ring binders, flagpoles. 

How strange, he thought, that while he sat alone and naked in solitary, a near-hysterical patriotic fervor had strangled the country in the form of yellow ribbons.

            Will’s old man told him that when it first happened, when he first heard the news of his son’s capture, he’d tried to distract himself by humming an old Andrews Sisters song about a woman who wore a yellow ribbon for her missing soldier.  It had been one of his favorites and reminded him of his jubilant return from World War II.  He didn’t know the current song by Tony Orlando and Dawn.  But Will Jr. did.  And he knew it was about a convict coming home from prison, waiting to see if his girl still wanted him.  Well, his girl didn’t want him.  And neither did the US Army.

            On a bitterly cold day in February, Will grabbed the freight’s steel handle and hopped the engine’s steps.  He’d been doing it since he was a kid:  ride to the edge of their fields and hop Harry Keck’s freight just as it slowed at the bend of Thread Creek.

            Harry’s orange, white-man fro nearly hit the engine’s ceiling and his long legs stuck out at odd angles when they weren’t engaged in running the freight.  With his deep voice, perfectly defined jaw, a head so square it sat like granite on his thick shoulders, his cheeks red and full, Will imagined Harry the redheaded Dudley Do-Right.  Shave his head, take away his weed and he’d be the picture perfect image of a Marine—except he’d had no interest in war.  He’d been drafted in 1970 and ever since had damned-to-hell Representative Alexander Pirnie every night in his prayers.

            A plume of weed smoke escaped as Will entered the cab.  Almost simultaneously, Harry wrapped him in a bone-crushing hug that lifted him off his feet.  “Let me look at you.”  Harry stepped back, shifted his gaze to the tracks ahead, turned back to Will.  “Bastards let you keep your fingers and toes, huh?”  He offered Will a fat blunt.  “Great stuff.”

            Will tried to smile but only managed a sullen nod.

            “Hit that thing!”  Keck pulled a lighter out of his overalls and relit a cigar that had gone cold.

             Will didn’t feel like smoking but took a small, reluctant hit.  The cab smelled skunky, sweaty, of engine grease and something indefinable that wasn’t unlike the smell of the room in which he’d been held.  The cab held the too-close smell of a human trapped in a small space.  The smell felt sentient and Will wondered how he’d never noticed it before.

            Harry settled back into his worn seat and kept the train slow as Will stamped his feet, took off his gloves and pulled up a milk crate.  Will looked out the spattered windshield to the track stretching in front of him like a long, dull promise. 

            Harry killed the blunt and filled the space with his encyclopedic knowledge of current events.  He devoured every paper he could get his hands on and had rigged a simple wooden frame with clothespins to hold newspapers so he could read while he kept an eye on the track.

            “Let’s see, man, what have you missed?” 

            Without waiting for Will’s reply, he explained how the FBI had entrapped some greedy bastard Congressmen in ABSCAM, President Carter’s missteps and Thatcher and Reagan and Castro and El Salvador and Qaddafi and on and on until Will just heard the timber of his voice, let the rise and fall and rhythm of it wash over him.  How did Harry store it all?  Why was it even important?  But as Harry talked, Will started to sense a connection between himself and all of these events.  A connection he couldn’t trace from point A to point B but a connection he felt now more than ever, pulling at the seams of him.  When he’d been in solitary he’d become convinced he was suspended in a spider’s web.  It wasn’t fine and invisible like the ones he’d walked through at home but moist, sticky and ominously dark.  In the murky cold, starving, his clothes conspired against him, became part of the web.  In a fit, he’d ripped them to shreds with his teeth and nails.  After that, the cold nearly killed him.  It took his captors a week to bring new trousers and a thin cotton shirt.

            Harry’s talk about gunrunning and underhanded government deals and his theory that Reagan sold arms to Iran in exchange for the hostages helped Will piece things together.  Hearing about the calculated dealings of politicians and officials softened his humiliation somewhat.  

            He’d always wondered at a person’s ability to withstand public humiliation, and now it was him they’d be talking about in hushed tones in diners and on street corners.  He wondered how long it would take for the rumors to begin.  

            Harry’s voice buzzed over Will’s internal chatter.  The night before, a freezing rain coated everything in a slick, glossy coat.  Branches bent and cracked like thousands of crystal candlesticks.  A thick crust armored the snow.  The tracks glistened and Will imagined the ice shattering, spraying, crushing beneath the train’s heft. 

            Will couldn’t tell you what the hell Harry’d been talking about.  It was like white noise or listening to Ernie Harwell call a Tiger’s game.  But as they passed a farm, its silos ice-coated and glistening, fields silent under the crust of ice, Harry asked, “Well, have you?”

             Smoke haloed Harry’s head and red blotches patterned his cheeks. 

            “Have I what?”

            “Heard of the Bath school bombing?”

            Will nodded.  He’d found his grandmother’s scrapbook complete with newspaper clippings from 1927.  In it, his grandmother detailed the gruesome bombing by a farmer who had wired a schoolhouse with explosives and detonated it one morning as kids settled into their classes.  Thirty-eight kids, two teachers and four others died that day.

            “That was my great-uncle.  The guy who blew up that school.  Fucking nutcase. Killed his wife, tied up his animals and blew up his own farm, then drove his car to the school where he’d wired explosives in the basement.  First explosion knocked the building four feet in the air.”

            The train picked up speed.  “Didn’t know until I was in high school.  My history teacher mentioned it in class.  As if I knew.  As if I’d had anything to do with it.  And then I realized, that guy’s DNA is inside me.  All tangled up in me.  What if, some day....”  He puffed on his stogie, “I mean, what was I supposed to do with that information?  God damn.  I mean, really?  What the hell?”

            Ahead, a huddled mass appeared on the tracks.  By the time Will recognized it as a big white dog feasting on a deer carcass, it’d started running ahead of the train.

            Harry pulled the air horn; which only panicked the dog.  It slipped, righting itself but couldn’t get footing on the icy ties.  Harry blasted the horn one last time and the dog leapt in the air just before the train hit.  The impact threw it ten feet up and out until it hit the snow and tumbled the rest of the way down the embankment to slide, blood etching its journey, across the frozen snow.

            Harry shook his head, “Shame.  Good looking dog, too.”

            “Up here, Harry.”  Will nodded to the sharp bend, just before the train got into Flint, where he usually got off. 

            “All right, man.  Take ‘er easy.”  Harry slapped Will on the back and opened the door, “Cuddy’ll let you hobo it back.  I’ll radio him a head’s up.”

            Will slogged through the deep snow until the train passed and then ran up onto the tracks toward where the dog had been hit.  It was at least a mile and slow going because of the ice.  By the time he saw the blood trail, he feared that the dog was dead.  He slid down the embankment and found the dog alive, its white coat matted with deep purple frozen blood and fresh, bright red patches.  Its back left leg had been nearly severed below the joint and hung by a tendon.  Shedding his coat, Will ripped his undershirt and used it as a tourniquet.  The cold, so brutal that it hurt to breathe, had stopped the dog from bleeding to death.

The cold, so brutal that it hurt to breathe, had stopped the dog from bleeding to death.

            Using his puffy down jacket as  a hammock, he cradled the dog as best he could, and started toward Saginaw Street in hopes of finding a pay phone or a ride.  But this part of town, especially in the cold, looked deserted and mean.  The little bungalows’ shutters hung askance, paint peeled, corner stores hid behind iron gates, garbage cans tipped by strays or raccoons.  It was only a mile or so from the heart of Flint, from St. Paul’s where he’d been confirmed, from all the memories of going downtown to Smith Bridgeman’s, the Capital Theater, Whiting Auditorium, the museums.  But ever since General Motors started pulling out of town, the streets looked thin and unwelcoming. 

            The dog’s breath was shallow but its eyes never left Will’s face.  It had one brown eye and one half-brown, half-blue on the bottom—split horizontally like the top rested in a milky pool.  Its coat looked Husky (scrappier and rougher, though, not as fluffy) but its body was long and lean like a shepherd.

            “You part Husky, girl?  Not sure what you are, huh?”

            He found a pay phone and called the Old Man who had, luckily, just walked in from church.  He picked up Will, took him to Dr. Rupert’s office and, sitting in the car, said, “Call me when you’re done, son.  And good luck with Rupert.” 

            Dr. Rupert’s specialty was farm animals, but since farmers were selling their land to developers he’d converted a pole barn behind his house into a clinic. 

            Holding the dog like a baby, Will rang the doorbell with his elbow.  Dr. Rupert appeared instantly, as if he’d been expecting him to show up on a Sunday with a half-dead dog. 

            Without missing a beat, he opened the door to let Will in. “Who picks up a dog in this weather?  On a Sunday to boot?”  Ruperts’s black-framed glasses rested in what looked like a painful red divot on the bridge of his nose.  His avian features—a beakish nose and long, curved back—reminded Will of a vulture.  Even disheveled and cantankerous, he always looked elegant in his black trousers and starched white shirts.

            He kept grumbling as they made their way out the back door, across the lawn, into the clinic.  Entering the clinic, a series of sounds erupted from the back:  bleating, whining, meowing, barking. 

            “I was watching Steel Magnolias.  You rang the doorbell right when Olivia Dukakis says to Dolly Parton, If you can’t say anything nice about anybody, sit by me.  You think I wanted to tear myself away from that to see your mug at the door?”

            As long as he’d known him, and he’d known him all his life, Rupert had greeted him with rhetorical questions and, unless he was talking about an animal, mostly spoke to himself.  He pointed to the stainless steel table, “Put that bag of bones there.”  He turned to wash his hands.  “You probably think it’s hysterical that I watch old-lady shows?” 

            If Will had bothered to answer, Rupert would’ve ignored him.  Once he leaned over the dog, though, his face softened.  He started cooing, talking like a lover.  He lifted the dog gently and motioned for Will to pull his coat out from under her as he whistled low and mournful.  “What happened?”

Once he leaned over the dog, though, his face softened.  He started cooing, talking like a lover.

            Will could barely talk through chattering teeth.  “Train.”

            “Ah.  What were you thinking tangling with a train?  Huh, girl?”  He checked her thoroughly, gently prodded and poked. “I’ll have to do X-rays, of course.  She’s not bleeding from the mouth.  Good sign.  But she could be all busted up inside and, well, this leg.”  He lifted the severed paw. “If she lives at all, that leg’ll have to come off at the hip.” 

            “Will she be able to walk?”

            “They get along fine—adapt much better than humans.  But like I said, she could be all busted up inside.  Things we can’t see.”

            The dog kept her quiet, pleading eyes on Will until the tranquilizer kicked in.  “Whatever it takes.  I don’t care how much it costs.”

            “I’ll do what I can.  On the house.”  He added, sarcastically, “You being a true American hero and all.”

            Will leaned against the doorframe.  He wished everyone would just give it a break.

            Dr. Rupert motioned for Will to help him slide the dog onto a board.  “That bubble-headed realtor must have asked me a half-dozen times to tie a yellow ribbon on my sign, for Chee-rist sake.  Babies had ribbons tied around their wrists.  I contemplated self-medication with a solid dose of ketamine after seeing that.”

            They pushed through a swinging door and entered the back room where Rupert performed surgeries and X-rays.  It smelled of antiseptic and something else—yeast, maybe?  A goat with an eye patch tried wrapping its agile lips around the bars of its cage.  A tabby extended a paw to Will.  Two retrievers sat at attention, anticipating freedom.

            While Dr. Rupert got to work, Will gazed at the abnormalities Rupert had preserved in murky jars of formaldehyde.  Grotesque, spaghetti-like heartworms twisted through damaged hearts.  Tapeworms, diseased livers, a baby pig born without a heart, kittens with five legs, puppies with two noses, you name it, Rupert preserved it.  Ever since they were kids, Will and his sister Blanche had wandered around the clinic to gaze at the labeled jars set neatly on wooden bookshelves:  FETAL PIG DEFORMED SNOUT (circa 1963), EQUIDAE TAPEWORM (circa 1970), BOVINAE DISEASED LIVER (circa 1979).

             “Why all the abnormal organs?”

            “More specific?”

            “I mean, why not healthy specimens?”

            Rupert studied an X-ray and answered distractedly, “Pathology is always more interesting.”

            Will lifted a large jar labeled ‘OVIS ARIES MAMMARY TUMOR.’  A pink, gelatinous blob floated inside and he contemplated its grotesque, alien form.  His entire life had been normal.  Everything he’d done had taught him that there is only one standard:  grades, sports, the Marines.  Being a farmer’s kid had taught him to fear too-dry summers, snowless winters, swarms, disease, ectopic omens.  But, here and now, as with the rest of the world, what shouldn’t be seemed normal.  Or at the very least, not surprising.

            Will kept his eyes on the tumor.  “I’m not a hero.”

            Dr. Rupert hesitated only a moment before administering an IV into the dog’s shaved forearm.  “You don’t say.”

            “I broke in solitary.”

            There was a long pause before Will turned to find Rupert’s black eyes fixed on him.  His voice remained eerily unemotional.  “People break every day.  Think you’re something special?”

             Will stammered.  “I meant that you didn’t have to do it for free.”

            Rupert began shaving the dog’s hip, “Oh, false advertising, huh?”

            “I just meant—”  Will walked back to the dog and gently stroked her soft ear.  “I’m ashamed—”

            Rupert handed Will a huge magnifying glass and told him to hold it right over the severed leg, “Ashamed?  Damnit.”   He unwrapped the blood-soaked rag from the dog’s upper leg.  “This is the sloppiest tourniquet I’ve ever seen.  That’s what you should be ashamed about—”

            “It’s cold as hell out there in case you hadn’t noticed.”

            “I noticed while I sat comfortably on my couch watching TV on a Sunday afternoon.”

            “Steel Magnolias.”

            “Makes me cry.  Every time.  Every single time.”  He examined the dog’s hip.   “So let me get this straight:  you blubbered to those bastards, gave away national secrets, undermined the security of the good ol’ USA and you’re ashamed.”

            “No.  I mean—Yes.  Not national secrets—I”

            “It’s a real, crying shame that you’re ashamed.  I got it.  Now shut up and let’s concentrate on this poor animal.”

            Rupert steadied his hand just above the dog’s hip and began.  Blood bloomed onto the dog’s white coat.  Will’s knees buckled and he dropped the magnifying glass.

            “Pick that up,” Rupert snapped, “and go sit over there.  I don’t need you distracting me.” 

            The ancient smell of fresh blood filled Will’s head.  Working in silence, Dr. Rupert removed the leg.  Will stared at the floor. 

            “This much blood is never good.” 

            Will looked up to see the upper half of dog’s leg on the table.  “You see it all the time, though.  You must get used to it.”

            Dr. Rupert’s voice softened. “You never get used to it.  I grew up on a farm, like you, but a pig farm.  So I saw a lot of blood.  Always had dinner at 4:30 pm.  Sharp.”  He began to clean the joint where the hip used to be.  His voice became very quiet.  “I was ten when my sister’s boyfriend walked into the kitchen and leveled a shotgun at her chest.  Right over my shoulder.”  He pointed one bloody, gloved hand over his right shoulder.  “I saw the barrel out of the corner of my eye, but before I could register what was going on, he pulled the trigger.  Killed her right in front of my folks.”

            Dr. Rupert pushed his face into his shoulder to reposition his glasses.  “If I’d been clever or quick, I’d have knocked the gun and given my old man time to stop him.”

            Will recalled his mother telling him about the Ruperts’ tragedy.  He must have been in fourth or fifth grade when she’d read him the Journal article about the murderer’s early release from prison.  It had always seemed like a fable, though, because Will couldn’t imagine Dr. Rupert as a child.  Couldn’t imagine him in anything but a white shirt and black pants with glasses perched on that enormous beak.

            “It’s been fifty years.  I try like hell to forget but the only relief I get is when I dream.  I see her, alive, and I have this wonderful feeling—I can’t even describe it—but it’s not so much that she’s alive.  I mean that’s part of it.  But the real reason I’m happy, I guess, is the weight of all that shame—”

            Will watched as Dr. Rupert’s bloody palms fanned out like a magician’s while he searched for the right words:
“—it just disappears."