The Devil of Dijon
On a winter Sunday in 1982, I was visiting my grandfather in the Summer Sun Nursing home when he told me the craziest war story I’ve ever heard. In three hours, he destroyed my entire life. Long widowed, and not wanting to burden his own children with his care, he’d checked himself into Summer Sun back in 1980 after a rough brush with the flu. My father speculated that suddenly grandpa had seen his mortality face to face, and realized he would need real and immediate help should he ever get that sick again.
Grandpa had called me on the previous Thursday and practically demanded I visit him, which was truly unusual. It was so unusual that I agreed right away, and made plans to get over there on Sunday. You had to know my grandfather to appreciate the strangeness of the entire thing - he never called anyone on the phone, which he regarded as a nuisance. He didn’t ever seem to want visitors, preferring that his family live their own lives and not worry with him. And he certainly didn’t beg for anything. He’d been in the infantry in World War II, and scratched out a living after the war working every day with his hands. He was a hard man, and he made his own way. Hell, everyone called him Thorny because he was...thorny. Also strange was that he called me directly at my apartment instead of calling my father. I don’t know that he had ever called me on the phone before, to be honest.
I was in my second year at college. I was poor as dirt, sharing an apartment with three other people. My dad had offered to help me upgrade my situation a little, but once I turned twenty two, I’d made a vow never to take another penny of his money. It wasn’t anything against him; it was something in me. I just couldn’t feel like a grown up if I wasn’t handling it all. I got a job bartending at night, and I moved into an apartment with three strangers and a cat named Loopy.
During the days, I went to Alberton College, just outside of Atlanta. It was a good school, and I was chasing a degree in English, which I knew would be almost completely useless. I felt strongly that I had to do the things I loved in this life, even though it wasn’t always the most sensible set of things. So, just like the money thing, I made up my mind and I declared my major.
I lived with Jonathan Franks, Edward Frances and Bob Governs. Jonathan was a long haired guy who played the guitar, and he had a constant stream of young ladies
coming through the apartment. I have no idea what his major was, or if he even had one. He paid his rent on time, so he was ok with me. I didn’t talk much, so I hadn’t gotten to know him very well. He was way too out there for me. I won’t lie, though. I was pretty happy with the amount of female traffic coming through the place. Where was I going to meet a girl otherwise? A party? Come on.
Edward (or “The Ed” as we called him) was a whole different kind of character. He was a really big guy; probably 6’4”, maybe 300 pounds. He was strong as an ox. The first time we met was on the day I was moving in. He was outside the apartment with a truck, and it turns out he was moving in on the same day. We shook hands and said hello, and agreed we’d help each other. And thank god we did; he was a limitless source of physical labor. He practically carried all my furniture himself up two flights of stairs. I don’t think he broke a sweat. All that day he talked and carried stuff, and I learned that he was on scholarship at Alberton for football, that he really just wanted to be a singer, and that his dad had threatened to disown him if Alberton didn’t go to the playoffs this year. I really liked The Ed, and we were fast friends. He seemed to like that I didn’t talk much, and I liked that he was just a good guy. And it didn’t hurt that he could carry on a conversation without me helping very much.
Then there was Bob, a constant source of headaches. Bob was that inevitable roommate who left food on the counter, didn’t do dishes, was never home, and was constantly late on the rent.
Anyway, I’d been living there with them a while, and when the phone rang and it was actually for me, everyone acted super weird. I think they thought someone might have died. No one calls me except my dad, and they all knew his voice.
After the strange call with my grandfather, I called my dad up just to see if something was going on and to let him know what had happened. He didn’t know what to make of it, either. He said he’d spoken to his dad just yesterday, and that he was his normal cold self. “He told me he was fine, he complained again about the smoking rules, he told me not to bother visiting this week, and then he hung up. A pretty standard chat with the old man.”
My dad loved his father, of course, but there had been some distance between them. I think my grandfather had been pretty hard on my dad growing up, pushing him in directions he didn’t really want to go. In contrast to my grandfather, my dad was a plump and happy man of fairly good humor. He could, of course, flash anger once in a while - but nothing like grandfather. My dad told me that he could never really please his father, and once he was a grown man he realized he didn’t need to. So he humored his dad, took a little abuse even still, but it didn’t eat at him.
Anyway, on Sunday I drove out to the nursing home, signed in, and waited for grandfather in the foyer. The nursing home had a certain institutional smell to it; that sort of smell that lets you know it is regularly cleaned with harsh detergents. The base
detergent smell had that light layer of “old ladies wearing too much perfume” on top. Everything in the foyer was brown; brown couch, brown chairs, brown rug, brown sign in book; it was a little dark. They lit it with lamps that have the green glass on top; I guess the idea is to seem calm and peaceful. Honestly, it made me a little depressed.
They didn’t let you just roam back to the apartments; someone had to come escort you. I guess this was for the safety of the elderly residents; they wanted to be sure someone knew you and was with you, so you weren’t rampaging down the hall stealing hard candy, rice cereal and denture cream. Or something...who knows? I had to sign in, and then an overly happy young lady dialed back to grandpa’s room.
When I saw grandfather come through the doorway into the foyer, I could see in his eyes that this was going to be a memorable visit.
“Well, come on then. Get up and come on back. I don’t want to visit out here in this coffin.” He gestured for me to come with real haste. “Hustle. Let’s move it.” He started walking back down the hall before I even got up out of the faux leather chair I had sunk into. This part of our interaction wasn’t too odd; he was always a little rough around the edges, as I already mentioned. The girl at the desk looked like she felt awkward; I guess most of the residents were polite and docile. Not my grandpa. What was odd was that it wasn’t just gruffness in his eyes and voice; it was worry. Or fear? I got up as fast as I could, grabbed my bag, and followed him back.
His room was what you would imagine it might be, given his military background; sparse, orderly and smelling oddly of tobacco - which of course was forbidden here. My guess was that a cigar sometimes found its way in here somehow, and somehow got smoked without setting off alarms. There were just a few pictures on the wall - him in the military with his war buddies, a picture of my grandmother, a few pictures of all the grandkids. Nothing out of place; the bed made taut, his shoes all lined up - classic grandfather. “Sit, sit. You old enough to drink? You are today, goddammit.” I was twenty eight, but I could tell he didn’t care if I answered or not.
I sat on a wood chair that pulled up to a small table by the window; there was one other chair on the other side of the table. Grandpa had scrambled off and was rummaging in a cabinet against the far wall. When he returned he had two tumblers, and a bottle of scotch. Like tobacco, alcohol was also forbidden here, yet here it was. He didn’t ask me how I took it, or if I wanted it - he poured two neat glasses and took a hard pull on his right away, topped it off, and then sat across from me.
“Good to see you, grandpa. Hey, I’m a little worried. What’s going on? It was odd for you to call and invite me out. I mean, I’m happy for the invite, but it isn’t like you. They treating you ok here? Things ok?” He was looking at me intently, then cracked a little smile. “I always liked you best, you know. I mean, out of the grandkids. You aren’t supposed to say stuff like that now that everyone thinks it’s ok for men to cry and all that, but that’s how it is. You never bullshit around. No small talk. You do your
own thing, speak your mind, and get right to it. That’s how I know we’re related. I guess your dad was more like your grandma; his heart is too big and soft, and he works to please everyone all the time. And you know your sister is addled, so she can’t really deal with me. I spook her.”
I took the compliment but was put off by his description of my sister. She was autistic. Highly functioning, able to work and pay her own bills, but she was definitely different. To me, she was special, unique and interesting. To him, she was addled. I took a sip at this point. I figured it was going to just get weirder and more uncomfortable from here. Boy was I right.
“Ok Clark, listen. I’m going to tell you a story, and you’re going to listen. That’s why I called you out here today. It’s going to take me a little while to get through it. This is a good bottle here, and I have some food in the fridge; we’re just going to get it done. I’ve never asked you for anything, but I’m asking you to sit through this story until I’m done telling it. What you do after is your own affair. I have to hand a burden down to you. I don’t want to, but I have to.” He looked remorseful and he leaned back in his chair a little, and he turned his face to the window. “This story is just for you, Clark. No one has ever heard this before. A few other people were involved in what I’m going to tell you, but they are all long dead.”
Well, I’d cleared my whole afternoon for this visit. I didn’t have any pressing business elsewhere. And now I was intrigued of course. I was sitting across from a man who probably said less than 100 words to me in my entire life, and he just let me know that not only was I his favorite grandkid, but that he was about to impart some secret knowledge to me. I took a much longer sip, and said “Ok grandpa, I’m here. I’ll listen.”
He looked immediately relieved. I guess he was worried I’d say no and call a nurse to check his meds or something. He leaned forward and took a big sip, topped his glass up again, and closed his eyes. You could almost see shadows gathering behind him as he started to speak. No kidding. I felt like the room got a little darker, but of course that didn’t happen.
“You know I was in the war, and that I was goddamn good at being in the war. I killed a bunch of people, Clark. One time I blew up a whole building in Germany; there were probably kids in it. One time I shot a woman on a bicycle because a Staff Sergeant told me to. I don’t even know why I shot her, other than I got the order. Anyway, you get the picture. It was war, and I killed a bunch of people.”
Ok, this was making sense now. He was an old guy, and he had some regrets or sins he wanted off his chest. I actually felt much more at ease now, even though the things he just said were horrible; he was going to drink and tell me about his regrets, I was going to comfort him, then I’d leave and he’d feel relieved. Wins all around, except I’d have to hear some unpleasant stuff.
“Well, none of them killings mattered much to me Clark. I’m just being honest with you. They were bad guys, I was the good guy. I didn’t kill them for fun, I killed them because America told me to. I don’t even think about those folks most days. But there was one fella I killed that you need to know about, because he wasn’t normal.” Grandpa looked at me, and I could see in his eyes that just remembering made him scared. “And because I done him in, I got a burden and a debt I can’t seem to shake; and it’s going to fall on you, boy. I tried to get it settled, I swear I did. But I can’t get it paid. And when I go under the earth, you are going to find yourself holding the bag - and I’d be a pretty shit grandfather if I didn’t give you some heads up. If I didn’t tell you what I tried, what I meant to try, and what I think I know. And of course, if you don’t get it fixed, it’s going to fall on another generation, and another. I can’t have that; you need to get it right.”
By now, of course, I really was considering calling the nurse. I mean, this was all super weird. And now it was getting out of character a bit. He saw I was starting to consider some options and he leaned in close over the table “You just goddamn told me you’d listen, Clark. And I’m holding you to it. If you get up or call that damned nurse in here, I’m not going to feel bad at all about what happens to you when the burden comes down the line. Hell, I’ll try to make it happen faster and you can just shit your pants when he comes calling. Jesus Christ this family.”
“I’m listening, grandpa - Jesus. Give me a break, ok? This is some weird stuff happening right here. Damn. Just calm down. So who is this guy, and what do you mean comes calling? You said you killed him, right?”
“Ok, here’s the thing about the world. I learned this during the war, and your generation doesn’t really seem to have a sense for it. The world is big. And that big world has a lot of different kinds of people in it. But beyond just those people, the world has a few other kinds of things in it that you can’t even guess at. Most people go their whole lives and never meet nothing stranger than some oddball person. A fella with a curly mustache or a seven foot tall lady or something. Most people just have to deal with other people, and that’s hard enough. But during the war, I met something else. And when all the shit was coming down around us, I’m the guy that did for him; and so here we are. Anyway, just sit back and quit making that face. This scotch is 50 years old, just enjoy that if you can’t think of any other reason to stay around. I’m going to tell it true from the start, and you can just fuck off if you don’t believe it. You’ll believe it eventually. And you better stay and listen like you said, or you are going to get murdered right to death and not even know it.” Then he began again.
“I was in World War II. You already know that; I’m sure your dad told you what he knows about it, which is jack shit. I never talked to your dad much about it; he was too soft as a kid, and by the time he was old enough I’d already got him out of the line of fire. I’ll explain that in a little while. What I’m saying is, even your old man hasn’t heard all this.”
“When they shipped me out, I was a Private First Class. By the end of the war, I was a Staff Sergeant. I was good at war, like I already told you. I was good at everything in the Army - keeping tidy, being orderly, using guns, throwing grenades - hell, I was even good at filling out paperwork three times in a row. I was just born to it I guess. I had some real brothers over there, something I hadn’t had in my civilian life. People like me are hard from the start - I didn’t need training to be tough and grumpy and hard headed.”
“I won’t start with the cooling of the earth, and how mean my old man was and all that shit; I’m going to get right to it. I was part of Operation Dragoon. You ever hear of that? Probably not; our public school system is shit garbage. Operation Dragoon was a big invasion of Southern France. Some big wig somewhere decided we needed to take over some of the ports there to put pressure on the Germans. We had a bunch of French fellas out there with us, and the whole thing went pretty well until the Germans backed up a ways to Dijon, where we had to fight constantly and never did seem to get any luck.”
“I was up at Dijon, having survived the action down around the ports. One night I was sent out to see if there was some good cover on the east side of the town; the idea was to find a hole we could exploit to move some of our hard hitters through. We were stuck in a stalemate and we needed to find a way to get through. Anyway, me and this other fella - his name was Albert Smith - were assigned the shit job of roaming around in the countryside. Not because we were hated and disposable, but because we were good at being quiet, and good at making the tough calls, and good about killing bad guys. If anyone was going to come back from looking around, it was us.”
“I liked Albert. Hell, he’s one of three or four guys I’d have jumped on a grenade for. He talked too much for my taste, but everyone does. He was a big fella from somewhere in Texas, and he had a good head on his shoulders. He knew a few jokes, was a terrible card player, and could shoot the lid off a beer at 200 yards with his handgun. He was good people.”
“We set out one cold evening, on foot, and walked for miles. We walked and crouched and hid and walked. It was scary - every noise out there could have been a
German, or 100 Germans or a mouse. You just didn’t know. Being two fellas, we had pretty good odds of not being spotted, but nothing’s perfect in life. And like I told you, Albert was a big guy, so it wasn’t easy for him to be discreet, but somehow he was one of the best at being quiet on a mission like this”.
“It was cold there. I didn’t love France, because all I ever saw of it was really old buildings, people trying to kill me, and my own breath. Cold and cloudy, and every step away from camp was colder. After about four or five hours of this, we came up on a small shed in the woods.”
Grandpa clenched his teeth and looked down at his hand for a second. I could tell he was vividly reliving this moment. It really might have been the first time he ever talked about it to anyone.
“We were a good ways off, and you could hear the sounds of suffering coming from the shed. Someone was in there getting a bad time. Like I told you, I killed folks during the war - I had to. I don’t have dreams about any of that. But I do have dreams about this sound; the sound of someone really, really suffering. I can’t explain it to you - you’ve always been in soft places is my guess. But once a man sees no way out, hasn’t rested, hasn’t eaten, and someone is making him feel real pain - there is a hopeless and hollow sound to his moans and his cries. It will fuck you all up inside, and make you go off mission.”
“Well, I didn’t like to hear that sound, and I decided we better do something about it one way or another. If it was one of our guys, or one of these French fellas, in there getting gutted - well, it was our duty to try to grab him out. And if it was our guys doing something to a German, I wanted to know what was happening and why. I don’t like the idea of torture. Just shoot the guy already. “
“Albert and I had stopped a few hundred feet out and we chatted for a minute. We were down a hill from the shed, standing behind some scrubby trees in the dart. I told Albert my thoughts on the matter; I was going to have do something. I outranked him, but I told him I wasn’t ordering him to do anything here. This was off mission, and was probably going to get me killed. I mean, TV makes it look easy, but busting into a room with your rifle out is a pretty good way to get shot by a room full of Germans - and that was about the extent of my plan. “
“Albert was a smarter fella than me, and it turns out he didn’t intend to walk past this shed either. He told me he was on board with getting in there; but he wasn’t about to rush up and kick the door down. His plan was much better - I’d stand off a good ways to the side of the shack’s door, and he’d create a bit of a ruckus several hundred feet back down the hill. Hopefully, someone would step out to see what was going on, and I could either shoot them (if the uniform was wrong, or the person gave me a bad feeling or whatever) or rush them while shouting English - that was always a good way to let an ally know you were on the right team. The shed was a really small place, so I
figured there might be two or three guys in there doing something bad to one other guy. There wasn’t room for much else. If the first guy ran out and we popped him, we’d have a good chance at drawing at least one more guy out (people like to know what happened instead of making good choices). Then we’d just move in. Best case, we’d kill the one or two bad guys and there would be no other trouble for us in the shed. Worse case is there were several smart, highly armed people in there and we’d get killed trying to go in. I wasn’t too scared about it, though. I never seemed to miss when I shot at someone, and I never seemed to get hit. I was made for World War II, no joke.”
“I’d moved out, and Albert was already down the hill a good ways, and then Albert started in with making a racket. The moans and groans in the shed never stopped this whole time, so Albert really had to get creative. He was banging stuff from his kit together, and shouting all manner of nonsense; all while trying to stay out of the direct line of site of the door. He carried on for a few minutes, and finally the door opened and out came the Devil.”
I’d been quiet and raptly attentive up till now; it was a good story. But when he said the devil came out of the shed, I must have raised an eyebrow or something. I was hoping he meant “German”. He got a little pissy, and I could tell he was deciding whether to go on or not. I topped off my glass as a sign of trust and fellowship, and he continued on. “The actual devil Grandpa?”
“Listen, this is the crazy part of the story, so just let me get through it. I’m not making it up; you’ll find out. So, out of the door comes the Devil. It was about seven feet tall and walked like a man, but you couldn’t mistake that it wasn’t a man. Its hands were black and clawed, the fingers too long and too sharp. Its head was all angles, its face coming to a point like a beak. It strode out the door and shrieked; another sound from that night that gives me the willies. What it did was crouch over, and open that weird maw it had, and that noise just came out. I can’t tell you what it sounded like, to be honest. It sounded like someone ripping a part of your soul off. I don’t know how to tell you about it. It was like everything in the world screamed at once. It was such a strange and horrible sound that it affected me inside and out. I was frozen and scared. The air got colder, I swear to god. And it seemed like it was somehow darker out.”
“Well, that shriek fucked Albert right up as well - I could see that he and I were both frozen up. He couldn’t seem to shake it loose, but once I realized that I was standing there just like Albert, I unscrewed myself quick and started firing on the thing. Like I said, I’ve always been a little tougher than other folks, and I’m quick to adjust a plan if the current one is falling apart. I had my M1 out, and was just unloading constantly. The Devil turned on me quick, and seemed to rise up off the ground a little as it let out another one of those shrieks. I could feel the sound pushing against me, trying to keep me back. I kept shooting, and because I’m an idiot I was also running
right at it. I know I hit it several times; I saw black fluid running out of the thing from the holes I was making. But it never once flinched or acted like it was hurt. It just made that noise, hovered and turned on me. It didn’t take me long to close the distance, and once I did I realized that I’d made a bad mistake.”
“With one hand, that thing grabbed my left shoulder and threw me into the shack. And I don’t mean it shoved me or something like that - it lifted me clear off the ground and threw me through the door. The claws ripped at my skin when it lifted me, and when I hit the inside of the shack that was lights out for me.”
“I’m hungry. You hungry?” Grandpa stood up now, and went to rummage in the pantry. I took careful sips of my drink and thought about what I’d heard. It was a good yarn; and grandpa had put a lot of details into it. I wondered if he was blending reality and delusion; maybe the story sounded so good because parts of it are true. He was in the war, he was in Operation Dragoon, he did suffer an injury to his shoulder. He never could throw the football worth a damn, and I remember him telling me it was because some devil stabbed him in the war. Who knew he meant it so literally; I always thought he meant a German soldier.
I was ready to hear more, though. I won’t lie - real or imagined, he was very earnest about the whole thing. The scotch was excellent. I was enjoying the tale, but wondering if I should be - if this was the start of some dementia with him, maybe I shouldn’t be so casual. But I decided to keep listening; I’d promised after all. And this was pretty much the most he had ever spoken to me, and certainly the most he’d ever told me about his time in the war.
He came back and put some chips and cookies out on the table, sat down, and leaned back. He was analyzing me across the table. I ate a chip or two, but didn’t say anything. He kept staring. Eventually he chuckled a little under his breath and said “I always liked you Clark. You shut up when you should shut up, and you try to play things cool. Maybe you can beat this thing. Jesus. Yeah, maybe you will be able to beat this thing.” He got a little sad after he said that.
“Ok, where was I. That thing had knocked me out cold. When I woke up, Albert was in the shed shaking me and telling me I needed to wake up. When all the shadows started to resolve into images, I realized it was him, and I remembered where we were. I jumped up ready for more action, and Albert was yelling “No, man. Calm down. Calm down.” It took me second, but I was able to relax a little. I was pretty wobbly anyway. My shoulder was torn up, and I’d find out later that my clavicle was broken. I slumped back down to the shed floor, and I realized we had company.”
“The inside of the shed was sparse; it was tiny, so it had to be. There was a small table like this one we’re using, and a few chairs. There was a man tied into a wooden chair against the center of the far wall, and there was a tall blonde man
standing next to him, holding a small knife. It was like a letter opener, only it was shimmering. Yeah, yeah. Sounds crazy. Just keep listening.”
“The tall guy was staring at me, and Albert was whispering to me “Let’s get you fixed up and we’ll get out of there. You don’t want to mess with that guy, man. We’re lucky he’s not interested in us; I told him we’d go, and he’s just been staring ever since. I think he’ll let us walk out if we get moving. I’ve seen some fucked up stuff, and we gotta go man. Get up.” Albert was scared shitless and witless. I looked at the man tied into the chair; he was dark haired with dark skin. I thought he looked italian maybe. His shirt was off and he was covered in what looked like tattoos, but really were scratches all over his body; and the scratches made symbols and patterns. I couldn’t tell if the poor bastard was one of ours or not. I asked Albert about it, and he insisted we just needed to leave. But I wasn’t about to leave someone like that, tied to a chair and getting all mangled.
“Hey. Hey, you. What’s going on here? What are you doing to that guy?” The tall guy didn’t look at me, but did something screwy with his hand and said some stuff in a language that literally burned my ears, and then Albert and I were shoved out of the shed by...something. By nothing. I don’t know what the hell it was. It wasn’t like a wind exactly, but like a bunch of hands pushing us.
Albert was really giving it to me now, “Dammit, let’s just go. I don’t know what that guy is, but we do not need to deal with this. Jesus, man. This isn’t right.” Albert was already scrambling off down the hill. But I couldn’t let it stand. The noises of pain and suffering inside that shed were too much for me. You’ve met me, you know how I am. There wasn’t any chance I was leaving without that italian fella. I looked all around for the Devil, then I crept back to the door of the shed and looked in. I won’t lie to you, that Devil had me pretty scared. I thought maybe I could deal with this tall guy, but if that Devil had come back I probably would have run off. I hadn’t had a chance to ask Albert what happened after it threw me, and he was way down the hill now.”
“So, there was that tall blonde guy standing in there with that weird knife. You know how you seen elves in all those movies? He was like that; he was tall and so pale that he seemed to give off light. Hell, he may have actually been giving off light. I can’t tell you for sure. His eyes were that kind of deep blue that doesn’t seem natural. He wasn’t wearing army clothes. He was dressed like he was headed out to a fancy party. He had on a light gray suit that was surely handmade for him. He was saying stuff in a weird language I didn’t recognize, but it was like a poem or a song. He’d get through what seemed like a verse, then he’d turn his hands all funny in the air, then he’d lean in and draw a new symbol with a knife right on the italian guy. The italian guy would moan and groan, and then it would all start again. The poor guy was wailing and crying, but I couldn’t figure out what to do next. I looked around as best I could, I didn’t see that the tall fella had any other weapon but that little knife and whatever it was that he did to
shove us out of the shed. I’d noticed he’d said words and waggled his hand to push us out; maybe if he couldn’t do those things, I’d get another chance at grabbing the italian guy.”
“I had a Colt revolver, a .45. I carried it everywhere just in case things ever got up close. You should get one, Clark. Damn thing was indestructible, and I had it sighted pretty dead on. I decided to try to keep that tall guy alive; I wanted to know what the fuck was going on. But I was about to ruin his day, no kidding. I propped myself against the door frame, aimed, and just as he finished swooping his hands around and was leaning in to scratch up his prisoner again, I shot him through both his hands with a single round. No shit. I was that good. He screamed like the dickens, and he dropped his little knife. He was screaming and screaming and he turned and saw me there, and for the second time that day I was frozen solid with fear. Or magic. Or something. His eyes went dark like midnight, and he started rubbing his busted hands together. I could see they were starting to radiate a dull light, and the holes were getting smaller and smaller. Well, I made myself move again and my animal brain did what it did; I shot that fella right in the head. He dropped like a stone to the ground. I ran up on him after he dropped just to make sure; I wasn’t going to have any more of it. My shoulder hurt like hell, and I was bleeding, but I still wanted to know who this guy was. It’s not my fault he wasn’t the kind of guy you could take prisoner.”
“I grabbed everything I could out of his pockets - I didn’t look at nothing right there and then, I just shoved it all in my coat pocket. Something like a wallet, a little bag, some pieces of paper - he had a weird bunch of stuff on him. I took a necklace off him and a couple of weird rings. I wasn’t robbing his corpse, I swear - I was just making sure I got everything I could that might identify this son of a bitch later. If I was going to get this italian guy out of here, I sure wasn’t going to be able to drag the dead guy around with me too. I had no idea if my commanding officer would even send anyone back out here to verify our crazy ass story, so it was now or never. I cut that italian guy loose, and helped him out of the shed. I tried talking to him, but he was out of it. Really messed up. We staggered together out the door. I heard a sound behind me like rushing wind, and when I turned my head to look back I saw that tall guy dissolve like a shadow. I shit you not. His bright skin got darker and darker and he turned into tendrils of black shadow. He swooshed and nothing was left but that suit.”
“Now I’m all bloody and messed up, the guy I rescued is barely able to put one foot in front of the other...it was a shitshow. I didn’t see Albert anywhere. I somehow got lumbered to the bottom of the hill, then it was lights out for me again. The body can only do so much before it has to take a break. I hit the ground, and didn’t know anything else till I woke up in the infirmary at our forward post.”
Grandpa got up again, only this time he didn’t seem to have anywhere he was trying to go. He paced around the little table where we were sitting. He looked worried
and anxious. He looked at the clock, then back at me. It was close to lunch time. He rubbed his balding head with both hands, rolled his head so that his neck cracked a few times, then sat back down. “Look, I gotta go a little faster here. I’m sorry. You aren’t going to get every last detail out of this talk, but you’ll get enough. And you’ll know where to find the rest. Then it’s on you.”
“Look grandpa, I can come back sometime if you want to rest. I mean, I’m going to hear you out - but you’re getting a little worked up.” He slammed his hands on the table all at once, and scared me near to death. He leaned in and growled “This is the only time, Clark.” Then sat back and stared at me again.
The Meat And Potatoes
“Here is the meat and potatoes, Clark. That tall guy didn’t die exactly. And that Devil didn’t disappear, never to be seen again. That Devil. That Devil tries to kill everyone, but I keep ruining things. Anyway. Where was I?”
“When I woke up in that infirmary, Albert was there. He was sitting on a little chair next to the bed, and the minute my eyes opened he leaned in and whispered to me.
“‘Thorny, we gotta get a story together quick - they been asking me and asking me for details, but keep pushing them off. They thought was just super worried about you, so they’ve left me alone a little. But listen, I’m not telling the C.O. that we were attacked by some flying devil man. Just ain’t happening. I don’t know what happened out there, but I feel ok with just you and me knowing the details. I told him we rescued that fella from Germans. I told them we killed three of them, but one set a dog on you and messed up your shoulder. Ok? That story ok?’ I almost laughed at Albert. I mean, he was more worked up than I’d ever seen him. But I could see the sense in what he was saying.”
“If we told the truth, we’d probably be held in the infirmary a long time. And we’d either be labelled crazy and shipped home, or accused of using dope, or conspiring for some reason to deceive US military. It just wouldn’t be good. So I told him his story was good for me; I’d back it. I’d tell the same story. And that’s the story we told. The italian guy evidently slipped into a coma or something, so his story wasn’t any different than ours. I could see him on a bed across the walkway, and he wasn’t looking so good. I guessed he’d kick off sooner than later; I’d seen so much death that I was pretty good about stuff like that. I couldn’t really focus too well, and I slipped back off to sleep. I slept a whole night. Sure enough, the next morning that italian guy was dead.”
“My pal William was one of the guys wheeling him out that next morning, and I called him over real quick. I told him he could have a whole carton of smokes if he’d take pictures of the cuts on that guy for me. At first he wrinkled his nose at me and asked me if I was a fag or something. Goddammit Clark, don’t go calling the police on me or start crying or something. Back then stuff was different.”
I rolled my eyes internally. Spiritually. The struggle with the elderly is that you aren’t really going to change them all that much past a certain point. They have dug into their patterns and habits. I braced myself for more of the salt and he continued on.
“Anyway, I told him I was going to bust his nose if he asked me that again, and then I explained about the cuts. The shapes and patterns; I didn’t want that to go into the ground without some record. I told him it looked like he might have tried to smuggle out important information from the Germans. I told him it might be a Nazi plan or something, and we needed to keep hold of it. He had a camera, so it had to be him. He agreed, once it seemed like it was a patriotic duty. And once he was sure I had that carton to give him.”
“Once that was off my mind, looked around for my stuff. They’d stripped me off pretty good to doctor me up; I just had on my undies under the thin sheets of the bed. Fresh pants were hanging nearby; clean and pressed. What I wanted was all the stuff I’d put in my pockets. I wanted to use this bed time to get see what I could make sense of. I was nearly panicked when I couldn’t find any of it, and just as I started to get out of bed one of the docs ran over and calmed me down, and pointed me to the box next to the bed. All my shit was in there. He gave me a pill to take, and wandered off again. I think a guy two beds down had taken a bayonet to the gut or something, and was a long time dying. The doctors seemed a lot less interested in me than that guy. Which was fine with me.”
“Clark, everything in that box is still in a box. I got those pictures in there, too. You are going to take it with you today. Hell, I snuck the Colt in there for you. Won’t do you much good, but might come in handy somewhere. You are going leave here thinking I’m batshit crazy or demented or something, and then you are going to get home and go through that box, and you are going to be a changed man.” He laughed and laughed, delighted in himself. After a minute he calmed down and then looked grim again.
“Ok, so, here is the gist of it kid. That Devil shows up for me sometimes. He shows up, and he tries to kill people. He killed your grandma. I know everyone said that it was an accident and all. I think some people even wondered if I killed her. But it wasn’t me, and it wasn’t an accident. That Devil shows up, Clark. And after he killed my sweet wife, I broke. I couldn’t fight him no more. And I made a deal when he showed up for my son. I made a deal. A rotten deal. But I made it.” Suddenly he was
crying. My Grandpa, the toughest guy I ever met, was weeping bitter tears now. He was leaned over his knees, his face in his hands.
I was much younger when grandma died, but I remember there being a lot of foot traffic through our house. A lot of police coming by, and grandpa yelling at all kinds of people. My dad said that he was just grieving in the best way he could. I wouldn’t learn till a few years later that grandpa was actually under investigation, because grandma died of blunt force trauma. The family story was that she fell down the the basement stairs at their house, and grandpa wasn’t home to help her. It seems like grandpa had a different take on things now, but I was getting pretty sure that he was moving further out of reality. The more his story went on, the more worried I got.
There isn’t a way to adequately convey that awkwardness you experience as a man when another man is breaking down in front of you. We aren’t raised to handle it well; at least I wasn’t. I put my hand on his shoulder, and teared up a little myself, but I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want him getting embarrassed or yell at me or...who knows. So I just sat there while he cried for a few minutes. I sipped my drink every now and again, too. I put my hand on his shoulder again and told him it was alright. I decided I’d leave sooner than later, story be damned.
He was obviously on some bad medicine or taking the wrong pills or something. Or maybe he really was getting dementia, or suffering some other effects of the war. I was even willing to believe he had seen something unusual in the war; something strange that the Nazis had cooked up to frighten the poor American grunts. And maybe he’d bought into it, and it was now pathology. But I wasn’t going to cause him to break down further - he needed rest. I’d tell my dad about the whole thing, and he’d straighten this facility out if they weren’t looking after grandpa.
“Grandpa, I better go. I mean, this doesn’t seem like it’s good for you.” He looked up from his hands, and stopped crying for a second. He wiped his face on his shoulder, and he thought for a second.
“You know what kid, you’re right. Listen, I’m going to get that box for you. Everything is in there. Everything I got off that guy, all my notes - it’s all in there. You can get the rest of the story there, just as easy as here. I hope seeing and hearing me in person will make you give it real look, though. It’s important. We’re out of time today, anyway.”
He made me go back to the bedroom with him and there, on his bed, was a pretty big box. “Take that out of here, Clark. I don’t need it no more. But you will. Don’t wait too long to go through it, either. It may not seem urgent to you right now, but in a year or so it will be all that matters. I’m sorry I couldn’t take care of the whole thing.” He hugged me. What a weird day. I picked up the box, and he walked me to the door. I was heading back down the hall when he said “Clark, don’t wait too long. And don’t tell your dad about his mom, or what I done for him. It’s in the journal in the box, that deal I
made. He’s too damn soft, and needs to stay that way.” Then he shut his door, and that was the last time I saw him alive.
The next day we’d learn that he was dead. The newspaper wrote a story about it, here is the headline and first paragraph:
WWII Veteran Found Dead In Woods A WWII veteran, Reginald James “Thorny” Stone was found dead on Monday in the woods behind the Summer Sun retirement home. The police department has refused to share whether his death was an accident, suicide or if foul play was involved. People on the scene reported that the body showed signs of violence.
1982 ended with sadness, depression and confusion all around. I was the last relative that saw grandpa alive, and everyone had questions for me. The police, my dad, and every journalist that could hunt me down - they all wanted more details than I would, or could, give. It turns out that grandpa didn’t get lost in the woods behind Summer Sun and die casually of a heart attack. He had a broken neck, his left arm was broken, and someone had cut a strange symbol into his skin.
I didn’t know all this when the police were talking to me, but I found out that my grandma’s death had some eerie similarities, and the local cops who remembered it were full of speculation. One of the older officers seemed to recall her having a strange symbol carved on her body, but it wasn’t in any of the police reports. You’d think that would have made the news when it happened, but I found out much later why it didn’t. The police chief back in 1976 was James McMurry, and it turns out that grandpa and James had a deeper history than most people knew, and he personally took care of some of the details in the police reports so that everything simmered down a quickly as possible. Grandpa never even had to go to court.
Anyway, things were a mess. My dad was a wreck. I spent the rest of that winter at his house trying to help him out. But the media frenzy went on and on. I kept telling them that grandpa had called out, told me some war stories and shared a drink with me, then sent me home with some war memorabilia. I mean, that’s what happened. A lie detector would back me up, and witnesses couldn’t say anything different. But one of those old police officers had been pretty quick to tell the local paper about the symbols that he seemed to remember being on grandma as well. They even had someone draw a picture for the article, with half the box being the symbol carved on my grandmother and half the box being the symbol carved on grandad. Gruesome stuff to have in a small town paper, and even harder to deal with when the dead people are family.
The rest of 1983 was a wash. Grandpa didn’t leave much behind, but he left it all to dad.