There was no delay, no time given, no quarter extended by my body, nor begged for by my mind. I’d never detoxed before, although the pain had become an old bad friend. The codeine tablets in my nearby metal drawer, twenty-three of them, got me through the night and on into the next day but the awful nature of combining the pain with the horrid terrible shakes, hallucinations, sweating, and fear was horrific. I believed that I would have died if I had not had the prisoner-supplied supplement. Not only that, but the prisoners were there when the supply ran out to add more codeine. I wondered if I would have to detox from that at some future time, but future time meant nothing to me. There wasn’t even a clock to count the minutes of misery, the seconds of bitter terror, and the actual agonizing physical nature of all of it.
I did not sleep, I lay in moving, moaning misery, waiting for a sun to rise and fall behind the never to be opened blinds on the windows. I waited for more water, ice, and bed changes. Our ward had a bathroom and I spent hours inside it through the nights, using the toilet instead of the pans for the heaving vomit, that most often produced nothing except almost complete exhaustion. Hot showers were a very small relief, but the shower made noise and the other prisoners didn’t like noises in the night. None of them had been to Vietnam so none of them were creatures of the night.
The prisoners weren’t bad men, not in my view anyway. They seemed to care a whole lot more than the rest of the Oak Knoll staff thrown in together. Peterman had killed no one, which is what I expected. I was the only killer in the ward but wasn’t in the ward because of it. I also didn’t think the ‘killer’ had much chance of making it through the detox and lack of real pain drugs alive.
My wife came to visit in the afternoon of the second day. I knew when they came to tell me she was outside at the nurse’s station that she’d not taken long to penetrate the fiction I’d had the Marine Liaison Officer perpetrate on my behalf.
My wife was smart as a whip and nobody’s fool when it came to those things she was deeply concerned about.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked, as the attendant pulled the curtains back on the wall side. I didn’t miss the fact that the words ‘hello’ and ‘I love you’ were nowhere to be found in that sentence.
I wondered what I’d failed to tell her, since the question was uncommon, with respect to either my condition or the ‘treatment’ I was undergoing.
“You look terrible,” she concluded, after eyeing the mess of my body, bed, pajamas, and the debris laying around the bed.
“You’re losing weight, they say almost a pound a day,” she said.
I almost shook my head in wonder. I’d expected to hear about my drug addiction, my quartering with criminals, or something else entirely.
“You’re coming surgery isn’t on the schedule until March,” she said. “That simpleton Marine, Johannson, is working with the chief of surgery to get you a medical pass for three weeks because if you don’t gain weight then there’s not going to any reason to even do the surgery. Later today they’re giving you some solid food for the first time. If you keep that down then you can come home.”
I looked at her and had to smile through the pain and detox misery. She had no idea what I was going through and I wanted to keep it that way. Solid food wasn’t going to be a problem when they brought it. The toilet would eat that. I was in no condition to keep anything down, even water.
“They’re taking you out of this locked prison too, later today,” she went on, pacing next to my bed. “I told them I was calling the Commandant of the Marine Corps if they didn’t. What is wrong with these people?”
The only inmate who’d never said a word to me got out of his bed and walked to stand on the other side of the bed from where my wife stood.
“Hey, baby, you look hot and ready in that mini-skirt, and the loser you’re married to is good for about nothing, as you can see,” he said, his voice quiet but menacing.
My wife just looked back at him without changing her expression.
“You got something to say, hot stuff?” he went on, but again my wife didn’t respond, instead leaning down, picking up the call control, and pushing the button.
An attendant, or nurse, as all the staff I had met so far, except for the doctors, wore similar outfits, was there, outside the door and operating its locking mechanism. It was as if the staff knew they must be standing by as long as my wife was in the room with me.
The door opened. My wife turned, walked to it, pulled it fully open, and then walked out, her pump heels clicking out the only sound there was following the inmate’s comments. She didn’t look back at me or the inmate.
Once she was out of the room, the attendant slipped inside and approached my bed.
“They’ll be coming to disconnect you from the I.V. and the catheter soon,” she said, her voice almost a whisper, not looking across the bed where the inmate who’s spoken to my wife still stood, as if waiting for some answer to his nasty comment and question.
“They’ll bring you a regular light meal after that,” she continued, and if you keep that down for a few hours you’ll be on your way.
I was sick as hell, the room not exactly remaining still, the nausea I felt barely containable, and the pain from my abdominal and hip wounds hurting badly. I’d popped a couple of codeine pills an hour earlier, however, and they were allowing me to present some semblance of normality as I smiled and encouraged her to stay when all I wanted her to do was get the hell out of the room. Unfinished business stood next to my bed on the other side. Business that I was well accustomed to and very prepared to deal with.
“I don’t agree with the rest of them,” the attendant whispered.
“Agree with whom about what?” I asked, unable to keep the worry out of my voice. I needed the staff to want to get rid of me, not keep me for even another day.
“They protest the war all the time,” she replied, surprising me. “That’s why they don’t like you. There was another patient who came through here a couple of days before you. He talked about you. That’s how they knew you were Junior in Vietnam and how much you don’t like the name.
“Who was it?” I asked, but she only shook her head, either not knowing or unwilling to tell me.
“What’s your name?” I finally asked.
“Edith,” she replied. “I’m an R.N.”
“Thank you, Edith the R.N.” I replied, with a relieved smile. The mystery of why I’d been treated so badly was being revealed, and it was not likely to keep me from going home, at least for a while. It was also good to finally find out someone’s name. In Yokosuka all the personnel at the hospital I’d had any contact with wore nametags, but not at Oak Knoll.
Edith looked across the bed at the inmate, but she said nothing before turning and retreating toward the door. “I’ll be back when they come to help you,” she said, over her shoulder and going through the cracked open door.
The lock was then turned from the outside, and silence fell over the room. I looked up at the inmate standing nearby, wondering why he was still there. Peterman was in his bed. The inmate stood between where he was and my own bed.
“Your one of those hero veterans returned from the war, I’m guessing,” the inmate said, making sure his voice carried to everyone in the room. “You come out of some phony jungle war and think you’re tough, but I’ve got some news for you. I’ve been in and out of jails all my life. It’s why the Navy wanted me. They need tough men, not banged up pieces of shit who look like kewpie dolls.”
I looked at him, my face expressionless, but said nothing.
“That’s it, that’s all you got?” he asked, laughing out loud. I make a play for your wife right in front of you and you’ve got nothing to say?
He looked around the room at the other men, his laugh reduced to a huge grin. “That’s what I thought,” he went on. “I’ll be making a visit to your home address just as soon as I get out of here. Your wife’s quite the sex package.”
“I’m glad you have the same good taste in women, as I do,” I replied, quietly.
“What a chicken shit thing to say,” the inmate concluded, turning while he said the words and then slowly walking back to his bunk, his body moving like John Wayne walking his special walk.
A few moments went by, as I waited patiently for the medical team to return. I wondered when I should take the black beauty, but I felt it was too soon. The team would not release me. That would have to take the applied judgment of the young doctor who’d put me on the ward, I knew. I had to wait, getting by on the codeine tablets.
Peterman got out of his bunk. I presumed he was going to use the bathroom, located on the other side of my bunk, but he walked the few steps to the right side of my bed instead. He leaned down.
“Don’t do it,” he breathed out.
“Don’t do what? I replied, wondering what he was getting at.
“I know your background,” he went on. “I hear things in this place, even though it doesn’t seem that way. I heard about you. You’re this really nice, innocent, easy-going young guy who really does look like a kewpie doll.”
I stared up into Peterman’s eyes, still not sure of what he was getting at.
“He has no idea,” he said. “It’s all an act. You’re very intelligent and you’ve been to hell and back. He doesn’t have a clue that he might not live through this day, much less the night if you’re still here…or maybe sometime in the future when you choose to hunt him down.”
I was shocked at what he said. It was like Peterman was accessing parts of my mind and soul I was totally unaware were reachable by anyone, excepting myself.
“Don’t do it,” Peterman repeated. “He’s right about your wife. She’s not only a knockout but she’s smart and totally in your camp. You’ll lose her and your daughter if you go to prison like us, so it’s not worth the risk.”
I knew Peterman was right. I wasn’t going to be able to do anything about the other inmate’s behavior or what he’d said. All I must think about was the mission; somehow getting to the small apartment my wife and daughter shared with another Vietnam Veteran’s wife. He hadn’t come home early, more than likely because he was an attorney and would never see the bottom of the A Shau Valley or any other combat zone. My first objective to accomplish the mission was to get medically approved for disconnection. The second was getting disconnected. The third was being approved for solid food, no matter how limited the diet might be. Finally, actually getting physically transported would take the remainder of whatever extra energy I could generate. There was no place in any of my plan to destroy, maim or kill some lowlife career criminal.
“Your wife is one piece of work, no question about that,” Peterman said, and the other men laughed.
“Yes, she’s something else again,” I whispered, more to myself than to the men.
I was no longer in it alone, and that feeling warmed my heart, and put fight right back inside me. I went to work cleaning up the bed, the area around it, and making everything look almost as if there was a normal patient staying in it instead of the mess that was me.
“You’re going to need these,” Peterman said, walking over to where I was working, gagging, trying to breathe, and still get something accomplished in cleaning my area up. He handed me the pill bottle containing the remainder of the codeine pills.
“You’re also a long way from being through, and I don’t even know about the pain,” Peterman said. “They can’t release you with the catheter or the I.V. so you have to sell them on letting you go without you needing them anymore if you can do it. The black pill, the only one that’s not codeine, is called a Black Beauty, and it’ll raise you up from the dead long enough to allow you pass as a regular human being, for about two hours, and then you’re going down for quite a long sleep.”
I was surprised, as I tried to rest when they finally came just after noon. The single Salisbury steak lunch came right along with them. The doctor made no appearance, so my preparations to attempt to treat him with respect and care I felt nothing of was to no avail. They took the catheter out, with some difficulty, as it had been in place for some time. The I.V. was pulled with ease, however. I was quickly shown how to change the colostomy bag, which hadn’t been needed since my diet had been all liquid. The four-person crew departed, with only Edith remaining, my covered lunch plate on a swing-out arm table she held onto.
I let her start to slip the table across the bed, in order to get the plate before me, but I stopped her. I’d already slipped the pill bottle into the single pocket in the bottom of my flimsy hospital pajamas. I indicated that I had to use the bathroom, which was the truth since I could not take the Black Beauty in front of her. I knew I needed the drug, if it would work, to cover just how bad my withdrawals were proceeding. The hallucinations were the worst. I kept seeing my Marines standing around. In a corner here or at the distant window. When I’d look away, blink my eyes, and look back they’d be gone. I tried not to look at all but, in the daytime, I had to look somewhere. I couldn’t take enough codeine to be unconscious and I couldn’t afford to be that way in order to get free of the hospital anyway.
I took the Black Beauty, washing it down with handfuls of water from the tap inside the beautiful new and spacious bathroom. I wanted a shower before I left for home but didn’t want to put anything in the way of my leaving. I relieved myself for the first time since being in the field in Vietnam. It hurt badly to do so, but the relief was so overwhelming, that it all still worked, that I let out a sigh and said ‘thank the living Christ’ out loud, as I finished. I prepared myself to get back to my bed, in order to attempt to figure out how I was going to eat a whole meal when there was no hope I could possibly consume one bite without it coming right back up.
Edith was gone when I opened the bathroom door. I walked to the bed, once again feeling a near euphoria from not having to drag bottles and bags around with me whenever and wherever I moved. Edith was gone. That fact struck me like a flash of lightning. I grabbed the plate, walked quickly to the bathroom, and flushed the meat into the toilet, saving only a chunk of bread and some beans so it wouldn’t appear obvious what I’d done.
I had energy, I realized, as I got back into bed and repositioned the levered arm table, atop of which sat the empty plate, a filled water glass, and cheap silverware. I scrunched up the napkin after rubbing it slightly on the used plate surface. I was ready and all of a sudden feeling almost normal for the first time since the detox had kicked in two days before. I wanted to walk, even run. I controlled my breathing at that point. I realized the Black Beauty was kicking in and my state could not be observed to be too great or someone as experienced as Edith, or even as smart as the doctor, might figure it out.
I looked over at Peterman, who’d observed everything I’d done.
I’d closed the curtain around my bed, excepting the part between Peterman and me. The bad inmate was still to be feared, not for his physical intimidating presentation or possible action, but because he could observe and then talk.
Peterman got out of his bed quickly, cross the short space between us, and held out his hand.
“The pill bottle,” he whispered. “They’re going to change you out for travel and you can’t have them finding it. I’ll give it back when you’re ready to be transported.”
I thanked God for Peterman, wondered about whether the Black Beauty, making me feel human again, wasn’t also drawing down what intellect I might still have. I handed over the bottle. Peterman pushed me gently from a sitting position into the upward leaning mattress at the head of my bed. He pulled back just as the curtain was swept back and the doctor appeared, to stand with my chart in his hand at the foot of the bed.
“Looks like you can eat and hold it down,” he observed, marking something on his chart. “Take his blood pressure and vitals,” he instructed Edith, who appeared on his right.
I realized I had not heard the operation of the door lock. The Black Beauty was having effects on me that were beginning to scare me.
The apartment, located on a seemingly anonymous back street in Daly City, was small. The upper floor and lower all looked exactly alike up and down the street. When I’d dropped my wife to stay and wait for me to one day come home from Vietnam I’d sat looking up and down the street one day. I realized then that, if someone had too much to drink, then that someone might never find his or her actual apartment in the clone-like mass of hundreds of identical structures lining the narrow streets without going door to door and begging for help.
My wife had no trouble finding our place, however. I knew that, even with the street name and number memorized, in my current condition, I would have had a much tougher time finding the place without her.
The car quit running in the short driveway without my wife turning the ignition off.
I got out with a little difficulty and went straight through the lower doorway leading to the staircase that led to the upstairs apartment. My wife had been allowed to transport me in what turned out to be the battered and nearly not running GTO I’d purchased two days before she’d called while I was in the Basic School to announce the pregnancy. The car was going to be a problem but I wanted to see my daughter first and my .45 second. I’d won the .45 Colt for being the top candidate in the school in the Military Skills area (the jock area). I’d been without a .45 since the medevac to First Med from the Valley. I needed my daughter, my wife, and the .45. Everything would be okay if I just had those three things.
Pat, my wife’s roommate, waited at the top of the stairs with the door open, a great smile playing across her face. A song I recognized played from behind her, sounding just as tinny as the small speaker Fusner’s radio had produced on a daily basis. The song playing was “You’ll Never Walk Alone“. I stopped once I was inside the door. I was taken back, not visually not in a hallucination but just stopped dead in my tracks by memory. The words mid-song played into my ears but reached deep into my very soul: “Walk on through the wind, Walk on through the rain, though your dreams be tossed and blown. Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart and you’ll never walk alone…you’ll never walk…you’ll never walk…you’ll never walk alone.” Roy Orbison sang on, but the paralysis that stopped me didn’t reach into my wife’s roommate, now my roommate too.
“What is it?” Pat asked. I heard my wife’s footsteps coming up the stairs. She’d told me in a letter how a Marine Officer and a Staff Sergeant had come up those stairs’ months back, to inquire about whether a Marine Officer’s wife resided in the apartment. My wife and I had always thought that the Corps only sent personnel on such calls if the Marine was dead. All she could ask the Marines was “which one?” They’d had to take some time to talk and figure out that my wife didn’t know if it was her roommate’s husband or me who was dead.
“Nothing,” I said. The last time I’d heard that song had been while listening to the Jerry and the Pacemakers version sitting by a composition B fire while heating water for coffee with Zippo, Stevens, Fusner, and Nguyen. I forced myself to move. The .45 would have to wait. I wasn’t about to ask the two women where the gun was. I would have to wait. If the lowlife scum of an inmate came to visit then I would introduce him to the firearm.
I breathed in and out deeply. The Black Beauty was still affecting me deeply. I thought about Peterman. He’d taken my name and address in case he got out and might be able to find me in life, or he’d used that excuse in the hospital hall so he could get the pill bottle back to me. I owed him. I hoped I would see him again one day. I thought about what he’d said about not doing what I had been thinking of doing to the inmate. I had to keep that in front of my mind and not the .45. I also knew the drug was wearing off because tendrils of pain were beginning to surface and nausea was laying deep down inside me, getting ready to make itself evident again.
I was home. I’d made it. Even if I was never to take another step, I’d made it back, somehow.
Pat looked closely at me, as I went silent, waiting for my wife to join us.
“What happened to you?” she asked, leaning in close to examine my face. “No, I mean what the hell happened to you? It is you, isn’t it?”
My wife stepped through the door, no doubt overhearing the surprising shock in her roommate’s voice.
“She’s in the bedroom in her crib waiting,” My wife interrupted, changing the subject. “She’s always waiting, and she’s never even met you.”
I knew I didn’t have long. I had to get down, get fluids into me, get a pan or garbage can, and then go back into the detox that’d been put off for a bit but not finished. The car needed me, my wife needed me, although I also knew I needed her more than she needed me, and her short performance at the hospital had burned that in. I hoped my daughter needed me too. I followed my wife down the hall leading off from the living room. Christmas was days away, my mind fixated momentarily, as we walked, on an open corner of the room that the tree would fit into perfectly. I heard small gurgling sounds coming out through the bedroom door we were approaching. I smiled, for the first time since being in the hospital. I hoped my daughter was as ready to meet me as I was to meet her.
I walked through the door.