Tag Archives: Union Station

Phantom John (Part Four)



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’s 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.”

* A short story excerpt from my novel: Very Narrow Bridge.
To be continued next month on the 15th.


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Phantom John (Part Two)



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.

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?”
She nodded.
“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.”

* A short story excerpt from my novel: Very Narrow Bridge.
To be continued next month on the 15th.

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Phantom John (Part One)



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 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 waked 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 view: 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 totally 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, suddenly it was there, 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.

* A short story/excerpt from my novel: Very Narrow Bridge.
To be continued next month on the 15th.

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