The short story ‘Phantom John’ is an excerpt from my novel ‘Very Narrow Bridge.’ It was posted here back in 2014 in eight parts. Now, for the first time, the complete story is published below.
The train that brought Joy Plummer to Washington, D.C., entered Union Station on time at 1:37 p.m. on Wednesday, March 9, 1988. It was a cloudy, cold, but a rainless day so far. Joy’s state of mind, though, a mixture of low anxieties and high expectations, was not altered by the weather. Her inner weather was mostly sunny and warm.
She was grateful to the elderly couple, especially to the woman, who’d woke her up earlier and handed her the book, which had fallen to the floor. She was thankful because it was close to noon already, and while she was drinking the cup of coffee the elderly man had kindly given her, she had a chance to see some of the countryside: the view of Maryland and the view of the Capital from afar, getting closer.
She thanked them again when they got off the train and thought, as she watched them walking ahead toward the exit, hand in hand, how nice it would be to find such love. And grow old together this way, so in tune with each other.
Like the size and the beauty of this train station, which so overwhelmed her at first, she couldn’t even move. A luxury she could ill afford, as time was of the essence that day, and she didn’t want to waste any of it. Not even on food and drink, or on anything else, like going to the restrooms. The place though, a large, impressive mall, was crowded with opportunities. But not for her, and not today, she had to get out and find the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; find her father’s name on that wall. Which will become then, in her eyes at least, his grave.
A grave, however, needs flowers. So she bought a bouquet of a dozen red roses. She had enough money on her, due to the generosity of her mother, who had opened a bank account in her name back in Springfield, which helped facilitate this trip.
She bought a map, too, as she wanted to be independent, and not dependent on others for directions. She wanted to remain in her zone, alone in her bubble, and be self-contained as much as possible. The map was great, and gave her all the necessary info about the city, the Capital Beltway, and all the Monuments and Memorials. Including – most importantly – the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Everything she wanted to know about the memorial was there. Especially a line that she memorized as she walked along Constitution Avenue: “Its black granite walls are gritblasted with the names of more than 58,000 who gave their lives or who remain unaccounted for.” “… who remain unaccounted for,” she kept saying to herself again and again.
She was shocked by the huge number, 58,000, and didn’t exactly understand what the word “gritblasted” meant. But she didn’t let that, or the amazing sight of the Capitol, or all the other beautiful buildings, distract her from her goal. Nor did she let the cold air, or the many people coming and going, interfere with her march. The steady march of a grown, mature woman. No longer a waif; a runaway kid; a loose and confused teenager; an easy lay; an airhead. No – a determined person now. Not yet complete, though; in search of the one thing that would make her complete.
That one thing was waiting for her over there, she believed, not so far away. Where she first saw the white, imposing building of the Lincoln Memorial, the president of all presidents. And then, after she’d already passed the Constitution Gardens, it was there suddenly, as if buried in the ground. So black, so simple, yet so different from everything else around it. Causing her to halt her march, her heart aching with fear.
But she overcame her fear like the true warrior she sought to be, and approached the wall with a steadfast walk. And right away, among the crowd of strangers, she spotted the elderly couple from the train. They were standing still by one of the black panels, hugging each other, the head of the woman leaning on the shoulder of the man, his arm around her waist. United in grief.
A thought had crossed her mind in a flash: maybe, just maybe, they are his parents. Her grandparents. Why not? She would find out in a minute. So she hurried to join the few people waiting quietly in line beside a man, a Vietnam Vet, holding a thick book in his hands. She figured he could help her. And even though most of the people ahead of her, unlike her, were not by themselves, she didn’t feel lonely at all. Maybe because of the elderly couple, and maybe because of the folded piece of paper in her windbreaker’s pocket, which she now pulled out and unfolded. And read, not for the first time since she’d left her new home yesterday morning.
She read the name: Raymond De Rosi. And read the date of his death: February 11, 1969. And read the force: U.S. Marine Corps. It was written in her mother’s clear, round handwriting. The last thing Joy had asked her to do yesterday morning before Ursula rushed out with Trent, taking him to school and then ahead for her first day back at work. She didn’t tell her mother why she needed her to write it down, despite her mother’s protests.
It was a secret, her own little secret, now within reach. Maybe that’s why she didn’t mind waiting in line, and didn’t mind the dark clouds, either. It seemed appropriate, the way the clouds encircled the black wall, making it less distinguishable, but at the same time, strangely enough, more prominent.
Even the white piece of paper in her hand was covered with a layer of gray, she noticed when she handed it over to the Vietnam Vet, who was wearing his army uniform, colorfully decorated with medals and stuff. He smiled at her, then flipped quickly through the pages of the thick book, full to capacity with names.
The process, she’d observed before, was rather fast and problems free. Not this time, though. The first sign that something might be wrong came when the Vietnam Vet halted his search and raised his eyes at her. Suspiciously, she thought. Or maybe it was all in her head, as right away he directed his eyes back to his book-of-names and continued his search.
Until he stopped altogether and handed her back the piece of paper. “Sorry, ma’am,” he said with a heavy Southern accent, “he’s not listed.”
“What d’you mean, not listed?” she almost shouted, refusing to take her note back.
“His name’s not on the wall,” he answered patiently.
Her heart skipped a beat. The color of her face, most probably, had changed dramatically. Because he looked at her more concerned now when he asked: “Are you sure, ma’am, about the spelling of his name?”
“Do you know anything else about his tour of duty, by any chance?”
“He was a marine. That’s all I know.”
“Good enough,” he said, unimpressed, and handed her back the piece of paper. “Go up to the information booth over there,” he pointed the way. “They might be able to help you better.”
She felt like arguing her case, but people were breathing hard on her neck, and she didn’t want to create a scene there. So up she went, past the black wall and toward the white Lincoln Memorial. She was oblivious to all, walking in a tunnel until she reached the lit window of the information booth at the end of it, where no one was waiting but her, of course: only she had trouble finding a name on the wall.
Troubles all over. Because even there, the woman behind the desk, computer and all, couldn’t find her father’s name listed anywhere. She even asked Joy to say the name loud and clear, and then searched again, looking for a Rossi with an extra s. To no avail, though: she marked something on a separate piece of paper and handed it to Joy, together with Joy’s own note.
“There must be a mistake somewhere. He’s not listed.”
“How…” Joy began saying, but couldn’t continue.
“I don’t know how, sweetie. Here’s the list of the dates on the panels. I’ve circled his date, February sixty-nine, panel thirty-three west, line thirty. Why don’t you look for his name there, all right?”
She smiled politely, but Joy couldn’t return the smile, even if what she’d told her to do presented a glimmer of hope. Her tunnel had just lost all source of light. And in it, Joy drifted down blindly, hovering between life and death, until she hit the wall again. Where she opened her eyes and read the inscription on the first panel: “1959 IN HONOR OF THE MEN AND WOMEN OF THE ARMED FORCES OF THE UNITED STATES WHO SERVED IN THE VIETNAM WAR. THE NAMES OF THOSE WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES AND OF THOSE WHO REMAIN MISSING ARE INSCRIBED IN THE ORDER THEY WERE TAKEN FROM US.”
“Who remain missing…” was all Joy could think of while searching for her father’s panel and line. But when she found it – he was still missing. She could not find his name among those who died, or remained missing, on that whole panel. Nor did she find his name written on the panel to the left. Or on the panel to the right. Or anywhere else on this big, black, threatening wall.
She wanted to weep for the dead – like everybody else did. She wanted to put flowers down under his panel – like everybody else did. She wanted to kiss his name – like everybody else did. But instead, how humiliating, she bumped into someone. A grieving stranger. And had to apologize, just as a sudden weakness in her knees, and a hard, knot-like sensation in her stomach, almost took her down to the ground.
She saw, behind a foggy screen, other people finding the names they were looking for. And she wanted – oh, how much she wanted – to be among them. She saw how they stuck flowers in the crevices, and small flags too, and she wanted to do the same. She saw how they lit candles, left notes and even dog tags, and how, using special papers and crayons, they rubbed the names of their loved ones onto those papers. She wanted to do that, too, as a personal memento. But she didn’t have a name on the wall.
Frantically, obsessively, she began to read all the names on the wall. Left and right. But soon felt hopeless. She couldn’t even see the elderly couple any longer. She was alone: no father, no grandparents, no one. She was so weak, she was afraid she was going to pass out. But she used to be an athlete, and remembered how to respond in a situation such as this one, and when to stop. So she managed to walk a short distance away from the wall, still holding the flowers, and under the first tree she found she dropped down to the ground.
She didn’t mind the wet, cold grass. She folded her legs up, put her arms around her knees and buried her head in her arms. She wanted to die, right then and there. Because the wall that heals, as she once heard it was referred to, didn’t heal her. Truth was, it opened a bigger wound inside her, causing her to bleed and cry. She was shaken like a leaf in the wind, receiving finally some help and sympathy from above. In the form of light rain, falling on her gently, its sound dissolving into her cry. Until suddenly, coming out of nowhere, she heard a voice asking: “Why you crying, child?”
She was certain she heard the voice only in her head. Still, she raised her teary eyes and saw, behind a silver screen of steady rain, only the black wall. But the strange, male voice, spoke again: “Want one?”
She turned her head sideways toward the voice and met two shiny, ebony eyes, and a black face covered partly by a rough beard, surrounded by long thin dreadlocks, growing out of a colorful knit cap on top of his head. He smiled at her, revealing missing teeth, as well as some brownish, rotten ones. A wet cigarette was defying gravity by hanging loosely on his broken bottom lip, fighting the falling rain at the same time.
He offered her one. His dirty, yellow-coated fingers, were sticking out of his torn woolen gloves. “C’mon, don’t go shy on me,” he said, blowing smoke into the cold, damp air.
She couldn’t resist, not at her present situation, him or the cigarette. And even though she’d stopped smoking before her reunion with her birth mother, and stuck with it as long as she was there in Springfield – vowing, in truth, not to smoke ever again – she took his filter-less Camel cigarette. And only when he leaned forward to light it for her, protecting the cigarette and matches from the falling rain, did she notice that he was sitting in a wheelchair.
It felt good, man, smoking again. Real good. Like finding an old friend. And it made her warm inside, too: the hell with her health. She’ll never win the gold medal anyhow, as she used to daydream in her early teens, in the eight hundred-meter dash at the Olympics. No, she won’t. She was ready to die, anyway. She was dead already: part of her, at least. So what’s the diff?
“The dead are dead.”
She looked at him amazed. Was he a mind reader or what?
His eyes kept staring at the black wall while he continued speaking: “Ain’t nothing you can do about it, kiddo. Learned that long ago.”
She inspected him now all over and noticed that he was wearing a windbreaker too, not unlike her own windbreaker. It was covered with army badges and stuff, though, ribbons of all kinds and colors. And other such things she knew nothing about.
“But his name’s missing,” she spoke for the first time. “It’s not on the wall.”
He took a long, lasting drag at his cigarette, then tossed it on the wet grass. It was still alive there, smoke spiraling up from it, when he spoke again: “He ain’t dead, then.”
He didn’t even look at her when he’d said that. His eyes remained fixed on the black wall. But not Joy’s eyes – they stared at him shell-shocked. She was unable to speak or move, while everything around her froze accordingly: the trees and the birds and the wind and the clouds and the rain and the people and the city. And time; certainly time.
“Watch your fag,” he said and pointed at her cigarette, which fell from her fingers down to the ground and was still smoldering in the grass. So she quickly stumped her foot on it, crushing it with her wet sneaker. And then, gathering some strength from this simple act, she turned back to him and asked: “What you mean?”
“What I mean what?”
“That he ain’t dead?”
He smiled at her and laid his hand gently on her arm.
“If he ain’t on the wall, child, he ain’t dead.”
She just stared at him. Dumbfounded.
“Ain’t missin’, either,” he said, reading her mind again. And as if realizing that he didn’t convince her yet, he added: “I’m an expert, child, believe me.”
But she was yet to believe him. Her birth mother was standing in the way. And then she heard him saying, “Who is he, anyways?”
“You never met him?”
She shook her head. “He died in Vietnam on February eleventh, sixty-nine. The day I was born. That’s what my mother told me.”
“Yes. He was…” she hesitated to use the word hero. “He got a medal, too.”
“Of honor or something.”
He studied her for a moment, curiously.
“What else you know?”
She shrugged her shoulders. But then said, “He was a marine, nineteen when he died. Like I’m now. Never knew I was born, even.”
“Raymond De Rosi.”
He was quiet for a while, as if searching his memory. Finally, he shook his head and said, “Never heard of him.”
“So he ain’t on the wall.”
“’Cuse me,” she reacted quickly, “you know all the names on the wall?”
He nodded, smiling.
“All fifty-eight thousand something?”
“That’s right,” he said, a hint of pride in his voice. “Used to help people there myself, there by the wall.”
“Tell you something else, though.”
“If he ain’t on the wall, he ain’t dead.”
“You said that already.”
“Correcto, dear child, correcto. Because, you see, if he ain’t dead, he must be alive.”
He smiled at her and said, “Facto, if you ask me, facto. Must be kicking dust somewhere.”
She turned her back to him and looked away from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, her eyes stopping on a visible part of the Reflecting Pool, where she saw a reflection of a pair of big dark eyes. As if someone, deep inside the pool, was staring back at her, his eyes crying for help. But Joy, in horror, raised her eyes away from this frightening sight and looked at the city. A city unlike any other city she’d ever seen. Even more foreign to her now than when she first arrived here. And if her wishes at that very moment were to be granted, then that thick layer of dark clouds would have fallen over this city. Over the memorials and the buildings. Over him and her. And it would have buried them and everything else underneath it.
Instead, she heard his voice again: “Come with me, my child.”
And although she didn’t turn her head yet, she saw him coming into view in front of her, spinning the wheels of his chair on the wet grass. He didn’t look back and she knew that he wouldn’t. Deep down, she figured, he was still a proud soldier. But something – inexplicable as of yet – lifted her up from the ground, backpack and all, and pushed her forward until she reached him, until she placed her hands on the back of his wheelchair; leaving behind on the grass only her bouquet of red roses.
The black soldier led her first to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, then to the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial Iwo Jima Statue, and on to Arlington National Cemetery, to a place he called “Missing Men Hill.” There, her hopes high, she saw rows upon rows of somber white stones, without bodies in the ground, he told her.
She searched for her father’s name under the pouring rain, but couldn’t find it. So she wheeled the black soldier back to the city, as it got darker and the rain – answering her earlier wish – was falling harder, burying everything with its fury, including him and her.
She didn’t care anymore what happened to her. She just pushed him apathetically into narrow streets and dark alleyways, places she wasn’t, of course, familiar with. Nor did she want to be familiar with. But she pushed him anyway, why not, until he told her to stop, as they were in front of a shabby-looking building. A homeless shelter maybe, a flophouse or something. She couldn’t tell.
“Got me a room here, child,” he said. “You’re welcome to stay the night with me.”
She looked away from the building and studied him with unsparing eyes.
“Ain’t gonna touch a finger of yours, don’t worry.”
She believed him. Because she believed in him – even if the whole world would’ve said she shouldn’t. That this was a trap: a place and a man she shouldn’t trust. But Joy – unfortunately, or maybe not – was an experienced girl. And knew her turf well, bad characters included. From her adoptive father to the track team coach, from the boys at school to the men on the streets of L.A., from the runaway kids to the patrons at the strip clubs. She knew them all and figured she could trust him. So she went in with him. Didn’t even pay much attention to the other strange-looking men there, in the lobby, staring at her. Ready to eat her alive.
No such luck. She and the black soldier reached safely his small room on the ground floor. Where the walls – all four of them, all over – were covered with army stuff: pictures of him and his buddies in the army, some of the soldiers with black marking-pen crosses over them; pieces of camouflaged uniform and a helmet with a bullet hole in it; boots and shells and cartridges; guns of all kinds and ammunition; a long machete; a skull.
He gave her a dirty, much-used towel to dry herself, which she accepted. And didn’t hesitate much before taking off her rain-soaked T-shirt, remaining topless for a minute while digging into her backpack for a dry one, then putting it on. He then offered her a shot of whiskey, which she rejected, but asked him if she can order a pizza for them. He said yes and she did: a combination of cheese and salami for him, an extra-large pepperoni for her. She insisted on paying when the pizza delivery man arrived, then made a cup of tea for herself in his tiny kitchenette.
She sat on his old, worn, dirty-looking couch, preying on the pizza and drinking her tea. While he, after testing some pizza, drank whiskey straight from the bottle and smoked pot. She smoked too, his Camel cigarettes, and zipped open her backpack and brought out her book. She wanted to forget everything; she wanted to know if Florentino Ariza, the hero, would ever again win the heart of Fermina Daza, the heroine. But she couldn’t read. All she saw were black pages with white letters etched on them. With only one name, top to bottom: Raymond De Rosi, Raymond De Rosi, Raymond De Rosi…
Meanwhile, the black soldier (whose name she was yet to learn) sat in his wheelchair, drinking and smoking. Beside him, on his one and only crowded desk, there was (among leftover food, old magazines, empty bottles, artifacts, and drawings) an old, small record player. On it a single record was spinning, again and again. She wasn’t familiar with the song, but kept hearing these words: “Bye bye Miss American pie.”
It was the longest song she’d ever heard. Yet he didn’t seem to have enough of it. Because at the moment the needle hit the end, he started it all over again, without missing a beat. It helped put Joy into a certain mood as well. She felt at ease, and drank some of his whiskey, too, hoping it will help her forget her father. But it didn’t. So she sat on the desk beside him and tried his pot, believing that it might help her forget. But it only made her dizzy, causing her to drop onto his lap, swinging between crying and laughing.
True to his word and loyal to a marine soldier he’d never met, he didn’t take advantage of her and of the situation, even though she was his for the taking. He wheeled his chair to the couch and gently laid her down there, then covered her with an old army blanket. He locked the door, took a rifle off the wall and charged it.
He then lit a thick candle, planted it in the middle of his messy desk, and flicked off the overhead light with the muzzle of his rifle. Then aimed it at the door.
“Go to sleep, my child,” he whispered. “I’m on duty tonight.”
And again, he started that same old record, easing her journey into dreamland, singing quietly along: “Bye bye Miss American pie.”
A pie in the sky. High above the white city. Above even the dark clouds. Higher and higher into clear blue skies. Into celestial territory. Like a bird on wings alone, floating in windless air. Until boom – a shot. A black wall. But falling through a white hole; swimming among red roses; floating in a sea of green grass; sucking in a lot of water. Rainwater. Unable to stop the drowning; falling straight into the bottom of the pool. Where someone – who? – caught her in his arms. And saved her, lifting her up like a baby.
Was it her father, who had saved her? No: it was the black soldier, touching her arm now ever so gently. It was morning already, and the time, he showed her on his wristwatch, was exactly 7:00. His shift, guarding her, was over. Though the rifle was still on his lap.
She shook her head when he asked her whether she wanted some coffee. As suddenly, time was important again. She was yet to fully comprehend why. But she was in a hurry, and needed to catch the train. How did he know to wake her up on time, she couldn’t tell. But she returned the favor and gave up on the idea of the taxi when he insisted on leading her to the station. As this part of town, he explained, was a dangerous place for a girl like her to be walking alone. Even the taxis were no good here, he said, hanging his rifle back on the wall. He then opened the door for her, and that when she noticed – was she still dreaming or what – a bullet hole in the door; which wasn’t there, she could swear, when she entered the room last night.
Outside, a new day greeted them with lucid blue skies. The rain had gone away, leaving everything in mint condition. And again, she pushed his wheelchair while he directed her and protected her all the way, a long way, to Union Station. Where he refused to go in with her: it was time for her to walk alone, and go home. And for him, it was mission accomplished. She was safe.
She hugged him and kissed him on his broken lips. And he held her hand long and strong.
“Be happy, child. Your father is alive.”
“How can you tell?”
“I’m an old dog in this game,” he cracked a smile. “And if anyone ever asks you how you know he’s alive, you just tell them because I told you so.”
“You told me so?”
“That’s right, my child. Phantom John told you so.”
And only after he’d said that he released his hold on her hand and turned his wheelchair around. And rolled away from there so fast, he was gone in a second. Disappeared like a morning breeze. Like smoke in the air. A phantom.