Saturday, August 6, 2016

#212: "A Memorial for Hammerhead" by Richard K. Weems

~This story was originally published in Dogwood (2003).

             Bad enough it had to be a rhino like Hammerhead, a fighter who at forty-seven could still hold down solo one of those high-yield elephant trunk hoses that sprayed gallons by the heartbeat.  We knew fighters who went down in the Towers, and they had their names carved into brass and stone, but Hammer went out in a lame-ass way and didn’t get any such remembrance.  He came off the ladder after a routine blaze at an apartment house.  He was spraying down the remains of the roof, his safety line not hooked properly.  I guess we all make mistakes, but I had a hard time feeling something other than a gyrating anger that Hammer had to go out like a granite-headed rookie and leave Meg, Danny and me to make a go of it without him.
            The fighters who came for the service had on their game faces.  They looked like they were attending a mandatory staff meeting—dutiful, but wanting clearly to be out barbecuing on a day like this.  Meg, Danny and I knew where they were coming from.  We three were the closest thing to surviving family, but no one looked to us to say anything.  We sat in the back like pewter-cast figures.  I could barely even look at Hammerhead, his hands folded over his chest as if someone were holding him down for the three-count.  The chief brought out his usual platitudes about duty, and then we were made to stare at a radio as it played “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”  Danny’s metal joints clinked rhythmically during the chorus.  When it came time to pay respects, I stayed where I was.  I could think of nothing new to say to the rat bastard.
            But Meg thought differently.  “Here we go,” she said and got up.  As she joined the line that had formed in the aisle, Danny tapped my leg with his flask.  One of the fighters in front of us, a volunteer from Hamilton Township, turned back and gave me a brief, knowing nod.  Like hell I was going to offer him any whiskey.  And I didn’t need his damn permission to get lit at a buddy’s funeral.
            When Meg’s turn came, she strode past the casket as though she just wanted to make sure it was Hammer crammed in there and not some other thick-necked slob in a dark blue uniform.  As she walked back up the aisle, she bowed her head to keep her sun-bleached curls in her face and avoid eye contact with anyone else.  When she sat down, Danny murmured, “Worse than a high fucking school graduation.”
            “Feel any better?” I said.
            Meg scratched her nose boxer-like.  “Anything to make this crap go by a little faster,” she said.
            As soon as things came to an end, the three of us made a hasty exit and manned Danny’s pickup.  I needed air and crashing waves and a wide fucking berth.  I needed beer with sea air mixed into it.  Anything to make me forget the funeral parlor smell of stale antiseptic.  Danny gunned the engine, took his arms off, and we shot out of the parking lot.


“I feel like I have just taken a major dump,” Danny said, his left stump controlling the wheel from the gap over the horn.  He flipped on his blue lights, and we charged forward with little regard for the rules of the road.  “Another minute in there, and there would have been a system-wide meltdown of global proportions, I shit you not.”  He swerved among traffic, barely slicing past cars had only just started to yield.
“It was close in there,” Meg said.  She sat in the middle and bumped up against my shoulder every time Danny banked left.  “I want to say those things never get any easier, but that’s not it.  I think they’ve gotten too easy to get through, if that makes any sense.”
“I just have a hard time distinguishing one service from another,” I said.  “It’s like I’ve been looking at the same wallpaper every damn time.”  Even as I said it, I knew it was a lie.  I was going to forget my birthday before I forgot the sight of Hammer squeezed into that box.  In that moment, my anger at Hammerhead became so intense I could have torn the upholstery from the cab ceiling.  Fighters died, fighters got injured beyond belief, and some took years to cough the rest of their lives out of them.  The survivors were supposed to keep doing the job despite the fallen, or because of them.  Hammer was gone, and I just wanted to stop everything so I could slap him around for being a careless son of a bitch.
            “Open road, bad-ass.”  Danny shouted encouragement to his truck as small avenues opened up among the cars.  The exposed electrical cables at a four-alarm ten years ago that had taken both of Danny’s arms just below the elbows had only deepened his need for speed, and today of all days there was a craving for close shaving.  I stuck my head out the window and howled into the wind.  The wind blew my voice right back into my face.
            It was a beautiful day, breezy and warm.  We were headed for the North End, the tip of the island, the outer rim of the civilized world.  A good place to get primal and pretend away a lot of bad shit.

            At the entrance for the beach, state signs mandating only off-roaders with permits, Danny raced for the g’s, cut a severe left and kicked up a Sahara dust cloud as we curved onto the tire path.  Meg slid into me.
            “Whoa,” she said.  She used my knee to push herself back to the middle.  Her hands always surprised me—so small, but managing quite a pinch on my patella as she steadied herself.
We motored past a row of rinky-dink 4X4’s parked in the hard sand and kept our sites due north, to the end of the End, where most every fiberglass import of a jeep or light truck rooted into the deep, soft beach and needed a real vehicle to get it out.  Hard not to think of how Hammerhead used to ride on a beach chair in the bed of Danny’s truck and raise a beer to the Suzukis and Toyotas.
“We’ll be in the deep end,” he’d yell, his rump wedged so tightly into the chair that it could have melded with it—Hammer looked like he could get hit by a semi and come up pissed at the guy who did it to him.  “We don’t do the kiddy pool,” he’d say.  “We ain’t playing it safe.”  Atlantic City to the south looked like a row of models fit for a good goddamn Godzilla stomping.  Meg and I were already pulling at our uniforms, itching to get down to the bathing suits we had on underneath.
            We parked in our usual spot, far enough from the water to account for the tide, and we made motions like it was any other day.  Meg helped Danny out of his clothes and put lotion on him.  I set up the chairs, opened the beers, and we all had things to do to keep our minds clear until we sat down and stared at the ocean.
            The surf was low.  The ocean looked like corrugated glass, waves breaking only just on top of the sand.  No one but us and some gulls.  Every now and then, one of the chairs creaked.  Sometimes boaters rode right up onto the beach, but not today.  Danny had put one of his arms back on so he could hold his beer.  The steel hook gave the can a small, involuntary crunch.
            “Think we’ll get a call today?”  Meg put her beer against her left cheek, then her right.
            “Doubtful,” I said.
            “Only if they really need us,” Danny said, “considering.  I turned the receiver up just in case.”
            I looked at the water and thought about how long today would be with Hammerhead’s death looming inside of every second.  Tomorrow, too.  The day after that would still be a struggle, but less so, and so on, the lead ball of doubt, that annoying second-guessing about what you do and whether it is worth the trouble, sinking a little deeper in the sand until it became just another lump I’d be able to travel over again.
            Danny stretched and regarded his bare stump.  The prosthetic’s brace clinked beneath him like a robot out of juice.  He bent his elbow, the flesh beneath it smooth and soft and shiny with sunscreen.
            “Goddamn,” he said.  “My nubs hurt.  It’s like they’re getting pinched at the ends.”
            “Could be you’re growing back,” I said.
            Danny put his beer to his forehead.
            “Might make you a better driver,” I said.  Meg, between us, laughed once.
            Danny crunched his beer can, this time with purpose.
            And here we were, our conversation in packets, the space between each packet filled with meaningless nods and little eye contact.
            “Enough.”  Meg stood, left behind her beer and sunglasses and made for the water.  “I’m leaving the funeral,” she called out as she went.  The ocean was filled with bright spots of sunlight that moved around as if they were living things playing on the surface of the water.  Meg walked in to her elbows before she dove in and started a stroke.  Danny and I watched her the whole way.
            “She was at that warehouse blaze,” Danny said.
            I sat up to let sweat roll down my back.  “She got called in for that?”
            “We all did, bud.  Some of us just weren’t up to it.”
            He was right.  That blaze was the night after Hammerhead died.  Two fighters got inhalation.  The kids who started it were trapped inside.  News vans all over the place.   Not the kind of low drama that took Hammerhead.  Danny and I were in no shape to take on that one.  We were at Danny’s place, drunk.  I was talking about getting out, quitting.  Who was going to miss Hammerhead outside of Danny, Meg and me?  Why the hell was I slowly getting burned to a crisp?  But then I had nothing to say when Danny asked, “So what the fuck are you going to do instead?”
 “Meg got one of those kids out herself,” Danny said as he considered his beer can.  “Cut in under the floor, since no one could get an alley sprayed down.  Tough as shit, that one.”  Meg was doing backstrokes.  Sometimes her head poked up over the swells, but mostly she was just two arms making arcs in the water.
            “Damn,” I said.  It was something to think about: Meg out there on a call while Danny and I were fumbling drunks over at Danny’s apartment; Meg out there doing the job when all I could do was whine about wanting out.  “And then she wastes her time with a crew like us.”
            “Go figure,” Danny said.  “I have to think sometimes she’s keeping an eye on us, not protecting us because I know I’d be a real jerkasaur to anyone trying to mother me.”
            “I’d hate to see that,” I said, though I liked the idea of Meg looking out for me.
            “It’s more like observing,” Danny said.  “Like watching a school of mackerel in the shark tank.  You can’t do shit about the food chain, but it doesn’t mean you don’t feel bad when nature takes its course.”
            “Something’s keeping her single,” I said, “and it’s not her looks.”  I watched those arms as they emerged and dipped back under.  I had a thing for her when she was a kid fighter who kicked guys around the kitchen to make sure we couldn’t fuck with her.  We slept together now and then, usually when we were both drunk, but she never wanted anything more with me.  Instead, she married a fighter named Sammy, and then Sammy fell asleep behind the wheel one night and plowed through a Chevette before he stopped dead on a highway divider.  Meg never gave me any sign that she wanted to pick up with me again, but every time we were out together I waited for her to get that look she used to get.
            Danny put both his prosthetics up on the armrests as though he wanted them to get a little sun.  “Strong kid,” he said.  “Hell of a fighter.”
            I finished my beer and got up.  I went down to the water and found Meg among the splashes of sun.  Usually she swam hard in long laps, as if in training.  Today she was just pushing herself along on her back, her face relaxed.  I went out to her, took her in my arms and helped her float.  What I liked most about Meg was her calm center, the way she offered composure while us guys got bullheaded or plain-out crazy.  A dead husband, one friend fried down to a couple stumps and now another friend dead and good as buried, and she looked as calm as the water we waded in.
Through the water I could see a long, spoon-shaped scar under the deep tan on her thigh.  Except for a slight deceleration of her already methodical pace, she gave no hint of noticing me.  I guided her around and around in a circle, stretching out my arms to give her as long a diameter as possible.  Back on shore, Danny was little more than a tanned smudge in bright green trunks sitting in front of his truck.  Meg waved her limbs slowly under the water, her eyes still closed.  Perhaps she too was seeing the image of the bad make-up job that had made Hammerhead look more like Ethel Merman.

            When the kids pulled up, the three of us were pretty drunk.  The kids had to be, too.  That, or they were working on it.  It was also getting dark.  The sun was behind us, but over the ocean it was already night.  Atlantic City was lit up, making the clouds glow like God had something to say.
            The kids had one of those jeeps that usually didn’t make it out this far.  Who knows how many times they’d gotten out to push.  They had their rap music up high, their KC lights going, and they parked not fifty feet from us.  We had seen them coming of course, but who thought anyone else cared to huff it out this far?
            Danny had switched arms later in the afternoon, holding his beer in his right now, but when the kids brought their jeep to a halt close enough to light a sand breeze our way, Danny quickly snapped on his other arm and stood.  Danny lost patience easily with kids who made a lot of bad noise.  Usually it took them doing something stupid or violent before Danny got into it with them, but Danny was a little angry tonight, a little too eager to get pushed over the edge.
            “Do they have to pull in so goddamn close?” he said.
            “Not like there’s much room around here,” Meg said.
            “Gotta love that music,” I said.
            All three of the kids wore neon tanktops, white shorts and baseball caps.  All of them had lifeguard tans.  Tans from sitting around in a perch waiting for something to happen.  They drank from silver beer cans and laughed for reasons none of us knew.
            When they turned their music down, Danny called out, “Better be careful, boys.  You don’t want to go spoiling Daddy’s jeep.”
            The driver was pulling back the top.  He stopped and took a few steps towards us.  He cupped his ear.  “What was that?”
            “I’m talking about your Matchbox,” Danny said.  “They don’t do the loop-the-loop so well with sand on the wheels.”
            The kid nodded and went back.  His friends asked him what happened, and as the driver talked his buddies took turns looking at Danny.  Danny still faced them.  The smile on his face was his forced one, his dangerous one.  Danny was looking to make something go down, and he didn’t care what it was.  All he needed was an excuse.  Even worse, he may not have needed an excuse at all.
            “What’s the point?” Meg said.  She turned to the ocean again.  She was determined not to let the kids disturb her.
“I’m just saying I have no intention of pulling out that Tonka toy piece of shit when it can’t dig its own weight into the sand,” Danny said to Meg and the driver both.  “I’m just saying we were just sitting here.  They knew where the fuck we were.  I’m just saying it’s a big goddamn beach.”
            The driver of the jeep asked his buddies something we couldn’t hear.  One of his buddies answered and nodded Danny’s way.
            “Yeah, that’s me,” Danny said.
            “Let’s be cool,” I said, but that’s something you say when things are already out of control.  Danny walked by in front of us and went towards the jeep.  I sat forward, ready to back Danny up if I had to.  Meg was clenching a fist and shaking her head.
            Danny stopped halfway between the kids and us.  “You got something you want to say?”
            The driver’s friends were the looking types; they could look mean, but they weren’t ready to take risks.  Those kinds traveled in packs because they didn’t know what it was to act on their own.  They didn’t know what it was like to be cut-off, unsure if your air tank was going to last before someone could get you out, the heat burning you right through your suit.  Danny was on his own the night he lost his arms, and even if these kids had known that they wouldn’t have given a shit.  At least, that’s what Danny was probably thinking.  The kids shook their heads as Danny held his ground.  One, a dirty blond in a pink neon top, seemed to notice for the first time Danny’s prosthetics.  He looked a little scared now.
            The driver himself took a step forward.  “Hey man,” he said.  “We’re just here to party.”
            “So are we,” Danny said.  “We got a whole cooler.”  He pointed back towards Meg and me.  “We got nowhere to be tomorrow.  We can stay out here all night.”
            “Come on man,” the kid said.  He was ready to say something else, then he changed his mind.  “Are we bothering you?  You want us to move man?”
            “This is a soft beach,” Danny said, “man.  But my fucking arms are hurting.”  He lifted them for emphasis.  “I just want to know how you guys got that piece of fiberglass shit down this far.”
            One of the driver’s buddies, the kid in the orange tank who looked like he played defense, went around to the other side of the jeep.  Maybe he was just hovering, ready to pack up if necessary, ready to just hang around, ready to join in the fight.  The kid in pink, though, was still mesmerized by Danny’s arms.
            I turned to Meg and put my hand on her shoulder.  “Danny’s just letting off steam,” I said.
            Meg released the tension holding her lips together long enough to say, “Him too.”
            “We can move if you want us to,” the driver said.  “How about we just move, okay man?  We’ll just take a spot back down the End a ways.”  He took out his keys as a peace offering.
            Danny turned around.  He went right past Meg and me and got into his truck.  Meg didn’t move, but I got up.  Danny started his truck before I could get anywhere close to him, and he pulled around into the jeep’s headlights.  There, he put the truck in neutral and revved the engine.  He turned the blue lights on and off.  He leaned on the horn.
            “Once up the dune,” he yelled out the passenger window.  “Let’s get that Micro Machine going.”
            The driver knew better than to do anything but look at the sand.  But his buddy the defenseman didn’t have the same presence of mind.  He came out from the other side of the jeep and taunted Danny.  The kid had a jock’s fat face.  He thought he was indestructible.
Were any of us, Danny, Meg, me, Hammerhead, even Sammy, ever that young? 
            “Hang it up,” he said to Danny.  “Hang it up.  Give it a rest.”
            That was all Danny needed.  Danny wasn’t so drunk as to start off too fast, but he did veer close to the jock on his way upbeach towards the dune.  The stupid, stupid jock thought he was too tough for even a drunk driver with no arms in a large-cab Ford and didn’t budge an inch.
            We all watched Danny motor up to the biggest dune.  Meg got up from her chair.  Maybe Danny meant to go up near the top and cut back down, but something, probably the beer, made him cut the wheel too soon and too hard, and he tipped.  The truck fell onto its right side and slid, front first, back down.
            It was crazy.  The kids had to be thinking that they were dealing with a madman.  If throwing your body to the flames as a way of making a living meant being able to go balls to the wall up a dune and picking a fight with a crew of kid lifeguards with little hesitation, then I was in for the long haul.  It may not sound like too good a reason, but it was the simple pleasure of it all that really excited me.  I cupped my mouth to howl out Danny’s name, but Meg cut me off.
            “Get him out of there,” she screamed.
            I turned and looked back at her.  It was hard at first to make out her face in the dark, but when I did I didn’t know how I couldn’t have seen it before.  She was horrified.  Her eyes, glistening like the ocean, were wide and could have been the actual source of the scream.  I had never seen anything like this from her before.
            “Goddamn it, get him out of there,” she yelled, her hands and head trembling.  “Someone’s got to get him out of there.”
            The kids had a head start since they were closer and I was too shocked by Meg’s reaction to do anything at first.  Even so, they were way faster than me and had some time at the truck before I could get there.  Two of them, the driver and the jock, climbed up onto the driver’s side and opened the door.  The jock held the door up while the driver got down on his knees to fish Danny out.  Behind me, Meg continued to yell.
            By the time I got to the truck, I could hear Danny cursing out the kid who had reached down inside.  The blond kid was standing in front of the underbelly.  Without a word, his face all business, he hoisted me up like a pro.  Maybe there was some hope for these kids after all.
            I got down low to keep the truck balanced.  We had to save tipping it back onto its wheels for later.  While the jock and driver climbed back down onto the sand, I crawled to the open door and looked down.
            “You okay, amigo?”
            The only light in the cab came from the dashboard display, but still I could make out Danny wiggling around helplessly against the passenger door.  It was a sad sight.  His prostheses clanked around unattached and Danny waved his stumps like he was trying to catch a hold of something.  “Goddamn it, Jimmy,” he said.  “Goddamn it.  What the fuck, Jimmy?  What the fuck?  I can’t get a grip.”
            I had a hard time hearing him over Meg screaming.  A scary thing, hearing her scream like that.  Below me, Danny looked already in the grave himself, the green dashboard display making him a regular zombie.
            “Jesus,” Danny said.  “Jesus.  What’s with the screeching?”
            “That’s Meg,” I told him.
            “I’m fine, for fuck’s sake,” Danny said.  “Tell her I’m in one piece.”
            But Meg wasn’t screaming because of what happened to Danny.  She was screaming about everything—Hammerhead, Sammy, Danny’s missing arms, all those little pieces that burned off of us every time we went in to do our jobs.  When I thought about it, I couldn’t imagine what kept her from screaming every minute of the day.
            “Let her scream a bit,” I said to Danny.
            Danny floundered about even more intensely, trying to push himself up, but there was nothing Danny or I could do to help Meg except stay alive for now and give her nothing more to grieve over.
            “Stay down, Danny,” I said.  “Keep still until we can upright you.”
            “Someone’s got to stop her,” Danny said.  “I don’t think I can take much more of this.”
I looked up to find Meg and tell her Danny was okay, we were all okay, and we were going to get out this just fine, but I couldn’t say a thing when I heard her crying with large, lung-gulping sobs.  Night was official, and I could see the jeep and its lights, but Meg was out there in the dark.  The sound carried along the beach like an air raid siren.  I didn’t know if she was still standing or if she was a heap on the sand.  The kids and I all looked out into the dark, to the source of misery, all of us clueless as to how to remedy this situation.
             “You gotta get him out of there,” she wailed.





*****
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY

            I spent a day four-wheeling on a beach with a group of fire fighters. As expected, they tread dangerous boundaries with their drinking and passion for testing the strengths of their rollbars. One surprise was that they didn’t tell war stories. Tales of other beach excursions or drink-related stunts, but almost nothing about their jobs. An occasional mention of a memorable fire or rescue event, but only to give context for another story. Later I learned one of their own was in the hospital, so their reticence seemed an act of respect.
            Another surprise was meeting a fighter who had lost both forearms in a fire. Not just his forearms but his left leg at the knee and his right foot. Yet he still pulled shifts at the station, drank as much as anyone else and was their most reckless driver. When I made him a fictional character, however, I found that I couldn’t get anyone to believe that anyone missing so many limbs could still maintain that level of activity. In a classic case of revision (and of truth being stranger than fiction), I had to grow him back a limb.

*****
ABOUT RICHARD K. WEEMS
Richard K. Weems (www.weemsnet.net) is the author of Anything He Wants, winner of the Spire Fiction Prize and finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Award, and the Cheap Stories eBook series, an Amazon bestseller. He lives and teaches in New Jersey.


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