"Where the fuck am I?" he asked a nurse.
"Chelsea Naval Hospital."
"Am I going to live," he said.
She was a fat gray-haired woman with deep circles under her eyes. She nodded.
"Yes," she said.
For weeks he was paranoid delusional. He heard the nurses whispering together at night. They had husbands in the army; they hated Marines. He could hear their husbands whispering with them, visiting them on the floor, parking their cars with the motors running just outside his window. The ceiling lights were recessed. He saw small figures in them, a man being greeted by a butler in an ornate hallway. He slept only in moments, watching the clock on the ward wall. 0300 hours. Dawn will be here in 180 minutes. He could see the tip of a steeple through the window on the opposite wall. Sometimes he thought it was the bridge of a troop ship. Sometimes he thought it was the church he used to go to in South Boston. Sometimes it was a church steeple outside his hospital window. His wife came to visit. He asked her if she would bring him a gun, it would make him feel safer. If he had a gun he wouldn't feel so scared. One day they disconnected him from his tubes and one of the nurses got him up and helped him walk the length of the ward. He had to sit for a while in a straight chair at the other end, before he made the return trip. The next time they took him for a short walk into the corridor, past the nurses' station to the visitors' lounge. He walked stoop-shouldered, shuffling his feet. He sat in the lounge for a while with a small red-haired nurse with freckles. Then he shuffled back. At night he woke up and heard the nurses plotting with their boyfriends, the engines of their parked cars murmuring outside his window. He mentioned it the next morning to a nurse.
"Cars with their motors running?" the nurse said.
"Yeah. I keep listening to them. I keep hoping that they'll leave, but they don't."
"Right outside the window?"
"You're on the ninth floor."
He heard her but the words meant nothing.
"Too many drugs," the nurse said. "Too long in the intensive care unit. It's making you crazy."
He knew she was right. He knew he was crazy, but oddly, knowing it didn't make him less crazy. Sometimes he knew both realities at the same time. He knew he was in a ward at the Chelsea Naval Hospital. He also knew he was being stalked in a stark diner in New Bedford on a bitter cold night. His wife hadn't brought him the gun. He wasn't sure if she'd come back again.
They had him walking every day now. One day he made it round trip-to the end of the ward and back-without stopping to rest. One day they brought him solid food. A ham sandwich on white bread. He couldn't eat it. They brought it again the next day. He took a bite but couldn't force himself to swallow. When no one was looking he spit it into a bedpan. One day a physical therapy nurse came and took him for a walk out of the ward. They went past the visitors' lounge to a stairwell.
"We'll just try a couple of stairs," the nurse said.
He walked up two and, clinging to the railing, walked back down. After that she came every day and took him to the stairs. One day he made the full flight. He drank a little soup. One of the doctors came and examined his wounds, sniffing them to see if they smelled of infection. In a few days the doctor came back and took out the stitches.
The red-haired nurse walked with him, a hand on his arm, when he came out of the hospital and got into a cab. She helped him into the cab and the cab took him home.
The cabbie carried his duffel to the front door of the second-floor apartment. Dragging it inside exhausted him. His wife wasn't there. He sat for a while on the wing chair near the front door, and then stood and walked slowly through the apartment to their bedroom. Her clothes were gone. He went slowly to the bathroom. Her toothbrush was not there. Her makeup was gone. With one hand on the wall he trudged to the kitchen. The refrigerator was empty. He sat on a chair in the tiny kitchen and rested. Then he stood effortfully and went slowly back to the living room. He sat on the couch. He put his head back against the cushions and closed his eyes. Silent. He opened his eyes and looked at the living room. Empty. On the coffee table was an envelope with his name on it. He knew her handwriting. He looked at the envelope for a while. He had so little energy that all his reactions were slow, and everything he did was languid. He picked up the envelope and opened it. He held the letter a moment while he rested. Then he unfolded the letter.
"I'm sorry," the letter said. "I wanted to tell you the day I came to the hospital. But you were so sick. I couldn't."
He rested the letter on his thigh for a moment and took in some air.
"While you were gone, I met somebody. Somebody I must be with. I'm sorry. I will always care for you. But I've got to be with him."
She was never much of a letter writer. Not much of a wife either. He put his head back against the cushions of the couch and closed his eyes and heard himself breathing.
What he remembered most about her was that she almost never wore stockings. He always remembered that when he thought of her. Her name was Carole Duke. In his mind she always looked the same. Dark blue dress with tiny white polka dots, hair worn short, like Claudette Colbert, carefully shaven legs white and stockingless, red high heels. He knew she wore many other things, and no things, but he always remembered her that way.
He met Carole at a USO, in the Back Bay, near Kenmore Square. He was eighteen, on leave between boot camp and the Pacific, at loose ends. His father had died the previous summer in a construction accident. His mother didn't seem to him like a mother. She seemed to him like a drunken slattern, so while everybody else went home after basic, he rented a room, and drifted around the city, waiting until it was time to ship out. He didn't feel particularly lonely. He missed his father, but his mother had ceased to matter a long time ago.
At the USO there was food and big band music, and hostesses who volunteered to dance with the young servicemen soon to be in combat. The room was full of men in uniform. One of the young women, a hostess wearing a blue dress with white polka dots, spoke to him.
"Want to dance, Marine?"
He said he did. And they swung out onto the dance floor to "American Patrol."
"So where are you from, Mr. Marine?"
"Boston," he said.
"Home on leave."
He told her that his mother lived here but they didn't get along. He told her he had rented a room on Huntington Avenue.
"You have your orders yet," she said.
The band played "There Are Such Things," and they slowed. She pressed herself against him.
"First Marines," he said.
"Sounds like the Pacific to me," she said.
Her face was near his as they danced. She smelled like good soap.
"Wow," she said. "I'd be so scared."
"I guess I'll be scared," he said. "I guess everybody is."
"But you do it."
"That's so brave," she said.
He pressed his hand into the small of her back as they danced. A female vocalist sang, "I don't want to walk without you, baby...."
"And you have no one to worry about you?"
"I'll worry about me," he said.
She laughed softly. He could feel her breath on his neck.
"Well, dammit," she said. "I will, too."
She had an apartment on Park Drive not far from the Harvard Medical School area where she worked. He looked around: small foyer, living room on the right, bath next to it, bedroom on the left, tiny kitchen ahead.
"You got your own apartment?" he said.
"You live alone here?"
"I been living in a barracks with a lot of guys. Alone seems nice."
"As long as it's not too alone," she said. "Would you like a drink?"
She brought out some Vat 69 scotch and some ice and a glass siphon with a lacy silver design on it. She poured two scotches, added some ice, and squirted the carbonated water from the siphon. She handed him one.
"Come on, Mr. Marine, sit with me on the couch."
He sat. She sat beside him. Her bare legs gleamed. He drank some scotch. It was good. His drinking experience was mostly beer up till now.
"How old are you?" she said.
He almost called her ma'am, but caught himself.
"Wow," she said. "I'm twenty-five."
He didn't know what to say about this, so he simply nodded.
"What do you think about that?" she said.
"Doesn't seem to matter," he said.
"No," she said. "It doesn't seem to."
"Were you in high school until the Marines?" she said.
"No. I quit school," he said. "I was doing high ironwork, with a bunch of Mohawk Indians."
"Yeah, you know, skyscrapers. Mostly the Mohawks do that stuff, but they needed a guy quick, and I was willing."
"My God," she said.
"You get used to it," he said. "My father did it too."
"And you don't get along with your mother?"
"No," he said.
He could feel the length of her thigh against his as she sat beside him.
"A lot of booze," he said. "A lot of men."
"How awful," she said.
"She does what she does," he said. "I do what I do."
She shifted on the couch and tucked her bare legs beneath her and turned toward him, holding the glass of scotch in both hands.
"And what do you do?" she said.
"Lately," he said, "I been learning to shoot a rifle."
"There are better things," she said.
"Not where I'm going."
"No, but you're not there yet."
He nodded. They were close now, and carefully he put his arm around her. She rested her head against his shoulder.
"You may be young but you seem awfully big and strong," she said.
"High iron does that," he said. "You should have seen my father."
"I should," she said. "Could you talk to him?"
"But not your mother."
"So you're going off to war with no one to talk to."
"I'm talking to you," he said.
"But you must have a lot of feelings bundled up in there," she said. "You need to be able to let go, let it all out."
"Marines mostly teach you to shut up about stuff," he said.
"Well, I will teach you differently," she said. "Have you ever had intercourse?"
He was silent for a moment. His impulse was to claim that he had, but there was something here, something between them. He didn't want to lie.
"No," he said. "I haven't."
"Then it's time," she said and leaned toward him and kissed him on the mouth.
In the summer of 1941, when I was nine, my father used to work around the yard on Sunday afternoons wearing a white undershirt and bear pants. The bear pants were overwashed khakis that he was wearing when, as a young man in Maine, he had shot a bear. The bear's blood still stained the pants, and they became known as the bear pants. The bear pants were, for me, though I would not have known how to say it, totemic, the tangible vestige of a warrior past no longer available.
We lived ninety miles west of Boston, in Springfield, in a white house with a screened back porch. My father used to play the radio loudly on the porch while he worked in the garden or clipped the hedge, so he could listen to the ball game. There were still blue laws in Boston in the days before the war, and baseball was not broadcast on Sundays. So while he staked his tomato plants and weeded among his string beans, my father listened to the Brooklyn Dodgers on WHN, which came clear channel up the Connecticut River Valley from New York.
Normally on Sundays teams played a doubleheader, so all the slow summer afternoon I would hear Red Barber's play-by-play with Connie Desmond, until the sound of it became the lullaby of summer, a song sung in unison with my father I saw Ebbets Field in my imagination long before I ever saw the bricks and mortar. The rotunda, the right field screen with Bedford Avenue behind it. Schaefer Beer, Old Gold cigarettes, the scoreboard and Abe Stark's sign. Brooklyn itself became a place of exotica and excitement for me, and the perfumed allure of New York City, gleaming between its rivers, wafted up the Connecticut Valley and lingered in my nostrils as it has lingered since, years before my father took me there and I found, to my adolescent delight, that it was what I'd imagined.
I learned something of triumph when the Dodgers won the National League pennant in 1941. I did not know who won in 1940. I learned years later that it was Cincinnati. I did not know any players in 1940. By the time I was nine, in September of 1941, the names of the Dodgers marched through my mind like lyrics: Dolph Camelli, Billy Herman, Pee Wee Reese, Cookie Lavagetto, Ducky Medwick, Pete Reiser, Dixie Walker, Mickey Owen. The pitchers: Higbe and Wyatt and Hugh Casey. And I learned something about tragedy in the World Series when Mickey Owen missed the third strike on Tommy Henrich to give the Yankees another chance to win, which they did. I regret it still.
Listening to the scores-Pittsburgh 4, Chicago 2; Cleveland 8, Detroit 1-I felt connected to all the great cities I'd never seen, across the vast rolling reaches of the Republic, connecting me with them and the people there watching the games. I saw them. I smelled the steamy heat in their streets. Philadelphia, Washington, Cincinnati.
In that last summer before the war, listening to the radio while my father wore his bear pants and worked in the yard, it was as if I learned the shaman incantations of a magic sect. The sound of the bat, amplified by the crowd mike. The call of the vendors, the organ playing, the sound of the fans yelling things you could never quite make out. The effortless and certain cadences of the play-by-play announcers, all of it became like the sound of a mother's heartbeat to her unborn child, the rhythm of life and certainty. The sound of permanence.
When my father was through working he'd have a beer, Ballantine as I recall, and he'd pour some in a shot glass and say to me, "Want a drink, Bob?"
It was, for me, the potion of initiation.
Excerpted from Double Play by Robert B. Parker Copyright © 2004 by Robert B. Parker. Excerpted by permission.
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