Waiting Our Turn
“You have nothing to be scared about. You’ll be fine.”
“That’s what you told your father. Just before they told him he had cancer that spread like a forest fire.”
Mom looks at me with those deer-in-the-headlights eyes I’ve been seeing more and more lately.
“I was a little off base with that. But you,” I say. “You’ve never smoked. Or drank. Or — did anything. I mean that was bad for you.”
“I’ve done things. You don’t know.”
“What things, Mom?”
“Never mind. I’ll take them to my grave.” She makes the sign of the cross, as if warding off something evil. And in her graying eyes — that fear. It makes me uncomfortable. There’re only two other people in the doctor’s office waiting their turn. They don’t look too comfortable either.
“Have you read this one?” I ask, passing her a copy of People magazine. “Look, it’s got a list of the sexiest men alive.”
“Don’t talk about the sexiest men to your mother, Peter. That’s not right. Who do you think I am, one of your girlfriends?”
“I don’t know who you are,” I say. “Mata Hari? Lizzie Borden? Jackie the Rippette? A woman with dark secrets, apparently.”
Mom turns to an old man sitting next to her. “He thinks I was always his mother.”
“They all do,” says the old man. “They think we didn’t exist before they came along.”
The old man looks even older than Mom. He must be a hundred. His face is a riot of wrinkles and liver spots, his eyes so hooded by crinkly lids you can hardly see them. Just little black dots peeping through. “My daughter thinks I was born delivering mail. I was a mailman for fifty years. Then I retired and didn’t do nothing.”
My mother nods.
“But I did things.”
“I’m sure,” I say, just to be agreeable.
“I killed a man,” he says.
Mom and I both look at him.
“On the beach at Anzio.”
“Was he a Nazi?” Mom asks hopefully.
“I wish,” says the old man. He takes a long breath and sighs. “I never told nobody about it. But I think I got to now. Tell somebody. Before it’s too late.” He looks at us hard, like he’s making a decision.
“Maybe you shouldn’t,” I say.
Mom’s eyes are as big as quarters.
The old man nudges his chair closer to my mother. She nudges her chair closer to me. I’m against the wall and can’t nudge anywhere.
“It was like this,” the old man whispers. He pauses and looks at the blue-haired woman opposite him who has stopped reading her magazine and is listening. She jerks the magazine back up in front of her face. “It’s after the landing. I’m in supply, see? I’m driving my Dodge WC62 down a rutted road off the beach —”
“You had a Dodge in the War?” I ask.
“That’s a truck, junior.”
“Don’t interrupt,” Mom tells me. “You always interrupt.”
“It’s raining cats and dogs, see? I’m slipping and sliding in the mud. There’s mud all over my windshield. I can’t see — well, you know what. Then I hit something. Hard.”
“Oh my God,” says Mom and makes the sign of the cross.
“Yeah, that’s right, lady. I get out of the truck and take a look. It’s a GI. About my age. I mean back then. Twenty or so, you know?”
“Maybe you shouldn’t tell us anymore,” I say, watching my mother’s blood pressure rise visibly in her face. “Isn’t this kind of thing classified?”
“I don’t see no blood or anything, but the guy’s dead. I hit him so hard he flew twenty feet. Maybe he landed on his head,” says the old man, ignoring me. “So I don’t know what to do, see?”
“The poor boy’s mother,” says Mom.
“I look at his tags. He’s J Cristofori. A marine.” The old man wipes a tear from his murky eye. “I’m scared, you know? I mean I killed a marine. And there’s no one around. Just me and him.”
A white uniformed assistant appears and calls, “Mr. Sandman?”
The old man looks up. “Hold on a minute,” he says.
“Sandman? You put that poor boy to sleep, didn’t you?” says Mom. She nods to me gravely.
“So I panic. I just leave him there. In the mud and the rain. And I never told nobody. Until now.” The old man struggles up from his chair.
“Are you ready Mr. Sandman?” asks the assistant. She’s impatient.
Mr. Sandman leans over and whispers to my mother. “And now I got the cancer. Bad.” He touches his crotch. “You don’t get away with nothing in this life, do you, lady? We’re just all waiting our turn.”
Mom just looks at him. Then she smiles. “You’ll be fine,” she says.
The assistant takes Mr. Sandman by the arm and he goes reluctantly with her through the office door.
I wait for Mom to say something. She’s oddly silent, just sits there nodding her head. Then she lets out this big long sigh and kind of crumples up, but not in a bad way, more like relaxing.
That crazy old man probably made up the whole thing, but how will I convince Mom of that?
“Peter,” she says finally, “you got that magazine? The one with the sexiest men?”
“Sure,” I say and hand her the People. “So I guess he tops you, Mom. I bet you never killed a man,” I joke.
Mom puts down the magazine. “Not a marine,” she whispers. And a look comes over her like a sudden cloud on a sunny day, changing the familiar geography of her face to a place I don’t know, and don’t want to know, and I get a really bad feeling in my bones.
I try to laugh, but I can’t.
Paul Negri is the editor of a dozen literary anthologies of poetry and fiction. His stories have appeared in The Vestal Review, Bartleby Snopes, Pif Magazine, The Mulberry Fork Review, and other publications. He is the Gold Medal Winner of the 2015 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Writing Competition for a novella. He lives in Clifton, New Jersey.
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(Picture derived from author’s own photograph of a George Segal sculpture.)