Memories and Love
Back in his own office after their meeting, Hog had finally opened the second package. It wasn’t a silver key with a red ribbon as he expected, but a folded piece of paper with a word of warning in the form of a question: what are you waiting for? “What was he waiting for?” he asked himself. He sat and stared at the key, turning it over in his hands and thinking. It was late, he should have been home already and he knew Laura and the kids would be waiting for him to arrive. But he couldn’t bring himself to move; he felt a dead weight on his chest. The seemingly chance meeting all those years ago with Tommy kept floating back into his mind and the more he thought about it, the more he felt that the whole moment was a set up. He mused to himself, “why had Tommy been in the churchyard on his wedding day? Why that day?” Hog remembered coming out of the church with Laura, light in his heart. She was swept away from him by a tidal wave of relatives who crowded around her and he was propelled in a separate direction, reveling in a moment of contentment and happiness. As he rounded the corner of the church, letting everyone congratulate him, he had seen Tommy standing by a car. He was just standing there. Hog hadn’t seen him in years; how long had it been? Certainly, before he had met Foil on the beaches of Normandy in June of ’44, so it must have been sometime in early ‘44 at least.
And in that moment of seeing Tommy, Hog was struck by a wave of emotions, many of which he couldn’t quite pin down, but one was paramount and that was a feeling of devotion for the man who had saved his life. And now, Hog looked down at the key in his hand and let it swim into focus. He examined it more closely. The red ribbon tied through the ring at the head of the key was like something that would be wrapped around a Christmas present; it had a rather silky texture that felt soft as he rubbed it between his thumb and index finger. It was tied in a knot that looked tight. The ribbon wasn’t going anywhere. The key itself was silver and old fashioned, like something out of the 19th century. It was an odd shape and Hog was sure it fit an original lock somewhere in Warehouse 1. He had received the key over a week ago and he knew that he would need to follow through on this first task, maybe even this very night. It was Wednesday, shipments were arriving tonight and the Port would be busy. He wondered aloud, “should I break into the warehouse on a busy night or a calm one?” He wasn’t sure, he just knew time was against him. The clue given, the third floor, felt ominous to him; this was where he had found the animals crammed into their tiny cages in their last case and where he had encountered the two thugs. He remembered the black eyes of the birds as he shone his flashlight at them and their crying voices when their cages accidentally toppled over, crashing to the floor in utter mayhem and chaos. That was a tough case, but solved in the end through the organized effort of all three of them; Hog thought of his friends and felt a moment of real regret that he could not tell Foil and Arms about this case.
It was late. He thought that he was the only one in the office. Usually, he was the first one out the door and off home, but tonight he couldn’t bring himself to leave. There was something about going home to his beautiful family and feeling their pure love for him that kept him at his desk. To lose them would be the greatest heartbreak of his life and this case, brought forward from his past, weighed on his heart. He thought of his children and Laura, “oh, Laura,” he said out loud in the silence of the dark office, “how I love and adore you.” To say those words suddenly gave him the energy he needed to stand up and get going. He would go home and see his family, and then tackle the warehouse tonight, late, and hope for the best. Laura was used to him leaving at odd hours anyway, and she never asked any questions about where he was going. But he knew something was different about the here and now. He had felt a distance between himself and Laura since the key had come into his possession. He had to trust that she sensed no difference in him, but he wasn’t entirely sure. He had stood up and now he remained standing in his office; a windowless box that served its purpose, he stood still and touched the key he had placed in his pants pocket. He thought about what he might find in Warehouse 1. He was stalling and knew it.
He reached over to his desk and picked up his 1911m military pistol, the very gun that he had used to fight alongside Tommy in the trenches of France and Germany. Standing in the dark, feeling the cold metal of the gun in his hands, he remembered the smell of death as he crawled in the rain and mud of the earth surrounding him and Tommy. He closed his eyes and could see it all. The closeness and fear of not knowing when shell fire was coming or who would be there to protect them. He heard the tanks rolling along, crushing the earth around them, and felt the chill of his wet uniform against his skin. Days and days of this torturous fighting and nothing ever really changed. What saved him was Tommy and his stories; Tommy and his friendship kept Hog going when he wanted to run away. Tommy helped him face the enemy and to fight, to become stronger, and to be a man. Tommy knew all his weaknesses and had seen Hog at his worst, but stayed by his side. A door slammed and Hog was jolted out of his memories of war. He heard someone walking down the hallway, and he knew it was Arms. He had probably come back to the office to retrieve something or to sit and listen to his blues music and to nurse some Famous Grouse. It was typical of Arms to be at the office late into the night. Hog stood still; he didn’t want Arms to know he was there. He couldn’t face his friend right now. He listened as Arms made his way down the hallway to his office. Then Hog slipped out quietly and drove home.
At his house, he pulled into the driveway and sat for a moment before going in and saying goodnight to Lilly and Jimmy. They had stayed up a little too late, waiting for Daddy to come home, and they were off to sleep fairly quickly. For Hog, these moments of being with his children were like a balm to his heart. He couldn’t imagine life without his family, they meant everything to him. Laura was bustling in the kitchen getting his dinner ready. He came out of the children’s bedrooms and saw her across the room. He watched her for a moment, and then something in him felt a longing to simply hold her. He walked over to her as she was standing at the kitchen counter and he touched her shoulder, she turned and looked at him expectantly. In his eyes, she saw a look of longing and of need. She stopped what she was doing, “what is it honey? Are you okay?” In response he merely pulled her close to him and held her tight, hugging her and burying his face in her soft brown, curly hair. She returned his hug, but felt in his gesture something that worried her. Again, that little sad and confused feeling entered her heart. It was just a mild feeling, but it was still there when he drew away from her and then kissed her. They stood in the kitchen, that heart of domesticity, sharing their love for one another and feeling that sensual passion that had connected them from the very beginning of their relationship.
Leaning against the kitchen counter, Laura felt that although she did not know where this amorousness was coming from in Hog, she certainly was not going to stop him. Of late, he had felt rather distant to her and this closeness was welcomed. But then Hog seemed to become aware of where this moment was heading and although his body was urging him on, his mind was beginning to calculate disengaging and refocusing on the task he needed to complete. Pragmatism and a slight fear about the night’s purpose kept him in check. He was not an abrupt man, one who simply stopped and pulled away from his wife, so that she would be left unhappy and feeling desolate. No, Hog was a careful lover and a conscientious one or as much as any man can be. He simply slowed his pace and gradually let Laura calm down; this passionate moment, such an impromptu happening had taken her by surprise, but now she felt a little bit like she was floating on a cloud of sensual dreaminess. Hog still held her, but the intensity of the moment was passing and soon domesticity would take over once again. Yet, Hog knew that leaving Laura tonight would be extraordinarily hard. Not because of anything physical, but because he felt his love for her as an all-consuming presence in his heart.
Drawing back from Laura, Hog looked into her brown eyes again and he could see her love for him. “I love you,” said Hog, feeling that he needed to say it, needed to hear the words himself and see her respond to him in kind. For her part, Laura felt her own heart swell for her husband, whom she believed completed her. This moment between them bridged the chasm that Laura had felt in the last week, and she sighed, turning away from Hog to continue her domestic chores of making dinner. She felt satisfied and happy, and Hog seemed to feel the same way too. Eating together afterwards, they didn’t talk much but both felt that they had connected once again and there wasn’t much to say. They just knew that their love was there between them and strong. Even when Hog gently told Laura that he would have to go out that night to handle some business, she knew he loved her and that was all that mattered. She trusted him and believed that he wouldn’t leave her unless he had to for something important. Standing at the front door of their home, feeling the soft, warm breeze around him, Hog looked at Laura, her eyes showing him nothing but love and trust, and he kissed her again and whispered to her, “I love you, baby.” He would carry that kiss with him as he faced his first daunting task in the case that had the potential to change his and her life forever.
Fear in Warehouse 1
Hog drove up to the unmanned gates of the Los Angeles Port, parking his car in an area where no one would pay much attention to him. It was close to midnight and the Port was still quite busy, but not so populated that he had much to worry about in terms of being noticed. He sat for a few minutes in his car, just sitting and organizing his mind, readying himself for the night ahead. Then he got out and walked nonchalantly towards Warehouse 1. This was about a quarter mile jaunt, and one that he took casually and without hurry. It was best to blend in to the pace of the night, rather than try to sneak along or hide in the shadows. That sort of movement might only serve to call attention to himself and he didn’t need that at the moment. Nearing the warehouse, he looked up to see the lion’s heads that ran the length of the south facing wall near the Port. This area of the Port seemed deserted; most business having taken place in the daytime. Hog was grateful for the cool night and the bright, clear sky. He was reminded of the last time he and Arms and Foil came to rescue Bella with Big Sam, Roy and Billy. It felt strange being back there alone, but he walked on towards the docking area where he knew he might be able to force a door and find his way to the third floor of the warehouse. He pulled out his pistol and held it close to his chest, ready to use it if necessary.
Getting into the warehouse was surprisingly easy; it felt almost too easy, as if someone had made sure that entering wouldn’t be a problem. As before, he knew that turning on lights in the warehouse would call attention to himself so he took out his flashlight. His memory of this part of the building was startlingly clear. He made his way to the door that he remembered exiting to the long hall that Arms took them down and, which he knew would lead to the stairwell and up to the third floor. He arrived at the foot of the stairwell, and began the climb. He paused at the second floor, but there was no longer the sound of generators running. The cold storage unit and all the furs had long since been removed. Hog continued up to the third floor and stopped before the door. He suddenly felt unbelievable trepidation and fear that unsettled him. “What lay beyond this door?” he wondered. He had to force himself to move forward. He had no choice; he had entered into a foolish bargain on his wedding day and now it had caught up with him and here he was about to embark on the biggest case of his life. He held his gun tight and opened the door, ready for anything to come at him in a moment. But what struck him before anything else was the stuffy, dank smell of an area that had not been touched in some time. He let the door close behind him and he stood for a moment in the stillness of the third floor. It was dark, but the windows weren’t blacked out as they had been before. The bright, moonlit night had its advantages and right now it helped illuminate a little bit of everything in front of him. He didn’t think much had been done with this floor of the warehouse in some time. He knew the animals had been cleared out because Arms had contacted the police and the Fish and Wildlife department a couple of days after the case concluded. It was in a short article in the crime section of the Los Angeles Times how the police found two men shot at point blank range in the warehouse. Though the article did not say on which floors, Foil Arms and Hog knew.
Now alone, and back in the same space without his friends, the third floor felt eerily quiet and unwelcome. In his left hand, he held the flashlight and in his right hand he had his gun; there was silence all around him and his eyes were starting to adjust to the hazy light. Moving slowly, Hog concentrated on what was directly in front of him; as he moved further into the space, he began to discover the cages that the animals had been in, scattered on the floor where they had fallen on that chaotic night in the warehouse with Foil and Arms. The bright, colorful feathers of the parrots lay on the floor in the dust that had gathered over the many months that no one had been in this part of the building. The air was stagnant and heavy with the smells of the previous inhabitants, the animals who had spent far too much time there. Hog wasn’t even sure what he was looking for, but suspected some kind of box or chest, considering the key that he had received, so he looked for anything unusual and out of place in this dark, cavernous space. In his experience, he knew that anything or anyone could be hidden in Warehouse 1, and with this mindset, he edged along cautiously. Then something suddenly flashed across his path and without thought he fired his gun, crying out, “Jesus Christ! What the fuck is that?” He had managed to hold on to the flashlight and now he aimed it at the spot where he had shot into the darkness. He couldn’t see anything, but he realized that it must have been a rat. “A big, fucking rat. I hate rats,” said Hog out loud, realizing that there wasn’t much point in being quiet now that he had used his gun. If anyone was in this space, which he highly doubted, they probably would have shown themselves at that moment.
Collecting himself, he continued on into the bowels of the third floor, shining his flashlight to the left and to the right, occasionally taking aim a little bit lower to make sure he didn’t miss seeing another rat come his way. And then he caught an object in the light. There it was, a large chest sitting on some kind of wooden table. There was a military familiarity to it that flashed into his mind like a moment of dejá vu, but he didn’t know why and after this a wave of ominous fear swept over him. He didn’t have any real understanding of the parameters of this case, what he would encounter, or how he would solve what he didn’t yet know existed. Hog was not a man to feel fear easily; he had always been able to disengage his feelings in moments of crises or when he had to think quickly on his feet, except in the war of course which brings fear to all men no matter who they are or what their experience is in life. But for a moment, standing in front of this unknown, he felt a sense of foreboding fear. Hog knew in his heart that if he failed to grasp even the smallest detail or clue, anything could happen and none of it good. Steadying his breathing as he stood in front of the table, he forced himself to clear his brain. “I can do this,” he said to himself in a whisper. “Just focus on what you need to do. Use your logic and take your time.” In giving himself this pep talk, he began to concentrate on what was in front of him. He first examined the chest, which was black and made of a heavy metal of some kind, probably iron. In the light it looked old and worn, like it had been used for a good long while, maybe even a couple hundred years. There was an ancientness to it and a definite history.
He put his hand out and touched the chest; it was cold and its edges felt rough. He ran the flashlight along the top and the sides. It looked impenetrable; there were no keyholes to be seen, yet Hog was sure that this was the chest he was meant to find and to open. He hoped that this would be his first and last task, but he felt in his heart that it would not be. Already he was sweating even though it wasn’t hot. He wiped his face with the sleeve of his suit and placed his gun down for a moment to examine the chest carefully. He heard a noise then and grabbing his gun, he spun around peering into the darkness, but saw nothing. He struggled to suppress an unreasonable fear. “It must have been another fuckin’ rat,” Hog said to himself. “Get a hold of yourself, man! Get your shit together and focus, stop fuckin’ around!” Another more severe pep-talk and he knew that he had to get a move on or else he would never get the hell out of there and back home to Laura and the kids. Thinking of them sobered him, and he regained a sense of calm. He whispered, “Laura, I love you, baby.” This brought a surge of strength to his heart and he turned around and faced the black chest in front of him, ready to tackle the puzzle.
“There must be a way in,” Hog said. He was sure that the lock would emerge if he felt around and touched as much of the chest as he could. Tucking the gun into the top of his trousers, he used the light to examine the chest, starting with the top and moving to each side until he came to the bottom left corner and felt something sticking out like a round knob. He pressed it and heard a click at the very top of the chest. He could see that there was a little hinged latch that had popped up. He lifted this and saw a keyhole. “This is it,” he said to himself. Taking the silver key out of his pocket, the red ribbon dangling loosely, he put the key in the lock and turned. Suddenly, there was a whirring noise and the top of the chest rose up and split in two, like a mechanical music box. Hog was not prepared for the moving parts with the accompanying noise and he jumped back thinking that perhaps this was a booby trap of some kind, but all he saw was an envelope sitting on a shelf that had appeared as the top of the chest whirred to life and opened.
The inside of the chest was bare except for the shelf, which was covered in red velvet. There seemed to be nothing else, though Hog could tell that there might be a false bottom. The moonlight shone through the dirty windows in a hazy effect that made Hog feel like the moment that the chest came to life had been right out of a fairytale. But, of course, this was not magic or a dream; he was standing in front of the chest staring at the envelope and he could see that on it was written in the same unrecognizable penmanship: “To Mr. Hog: Please Read Promptly”. He reached out and carefully picked up the envelope. As soon as he lifted it off the small shelf the entire contraption whirred into life slowly, and closed shut with a finality that Hog wasn’t really sure was final. With the envelope in his hand, he turned it over and looked at it closely. It was a standard issue office envelope, not fancy at all. He ran through the feel and sniff test, nothing of importance jumped out at him and then he opened it, ripping it across the top and removing the sheet of paper inside. He was almost scared to unfold it; he had a premonition that it would contain something strange and baffling and he was right.
Staring at the piece of paper he held in his hand, Hog had almost expected to see Tommy’s handwriting on the page. He remembered Tommy’s distinctive flair in his penmanship during the short time that they had corresponded after Tommy was first discharged from the army. As a badly injured soldier he had been sent home. Hog knew he and Tommy were a few of the lucky ones; so many never made it out of the war trenches, their young lives ending on the battlefields of foreign lands. The two friends had exchanged letters for about six months and then Hog heard nothing. He continued to write for a time, but he never got a return answer. When he came home after the war ended, he made an attempt to find Tommy again, but that turned out to be a fruitless search. And now, Hog wasn’t sure why he expected to see Tommy’s handwriting; maybe it was the sheer hope that he would communicate again after they had seen one another on Hog’s wedding day six years earlier. Tommy did seem to have a habit of disappearing and reappearing at the oddest times and places. But though Hog hoped for something in Tommy’s hand, he found that he was disappointed. Like the directions on the letter and the small packages he had received so far this penmanship was alien to him and made him feel uneasy. His life seemed surreal and the sense of dread and anguish were part of his everyday existence now. Even in this short time, “what was it?” he thought to himself, “just over a week?”, he felt burdened by his past and what he had left behind in the war. Tommy had brought it all back to him. He had brought it all back on Hog’s wedding day and now, as Hog was faced with what seemed like something out of a tale of fiction, he found himself remembering that day when he saw Tommy for the first time in years standing next to an old, beat up, black Studebaker near the church’s cemetery. Hog was surprised, shocked really, by this sighting but also elated to see his friend. His initial response to Tommy materializing on that day was one of happy acceptance. Here was the man who had saved his life, and to Hog it was just good to see his friend again after so many years apart. Tommy, he felt, was like a surprise gift one is given, but never expected to receive.
In the war Tommy was a robust young man with a ruddy complexion, a sturdy build and a big belly laugh, but now he looked gaunt, his jawline sharp and his cheekbones sunken. His reddish blonde hair was turning grey and he appeared older than Hog knew him to be. But the same jovial twinkle was in his blue eyes and Hog felt that old devotional camaraderie between them spring up instantly. He remembered striding over to Tommy, shaking his hand and then embracing him. His old friend felt frail under the big coat he was wearing and Hog realized it was hanging off his body. But Tommy’s genuine joy at seeing Hog was sincere. Strangely, Hog also felt that Tommy was grateful for his presence. Tommy had looked visibly relieved when he saw Hog, as if he knew to look for Hog but wasn’t sure he would find him. At the time and on the day, there was so much going on in his life that Hog barely registered these nuances of the moment. It was only after his and Laura’s honeymoon that he really examined this feeling again when Laura questioned him about where he had been when she was waiting to take pictures in front of the church. He didn’t want to discuss his friendship with Tommy, so he brushed those absent moments aside, saying only that he had been talking to an old friend, hoping she wouldn’t bring the subject up again, and in fact, she seemed to accept Hog’s answer as enough. Much later he thought to himself, “had he been gone that long that Laura would even notice?” Time with Tommy had seemed so fleeting, but perhaps not.
However, as the years went on in Hog’s life this chance meeting with Tommy seemed like too much of a strange coincidence. On the day, Tommy declared that he was at the church to see a family member’s grave. As Hog remembered it, Tommy was never close to his family nor did Hog know of any family members ever being in Los Angeles, let alone buried at St. Andrews church. Tommy’s family was from the South, in Mississippi, so what was he doing on that day at Hog’s local church. Hog thought about these details over the years when he had time to think about Tommy, which wasn’t very often. At the time, Hog was so happy he just accepted this reason of his friend’s, but much later he wondered whether this was really true. Hog also had the distinct feeling that Tommy might have been there with someone else, yet he didn’t remember seeing anyone near them as the they spoke together. Over the years, their conversation would come back to him every once in a while, and make him feel just a little bit unsettled.
And now as he stood in the dark warehouse on an errand that he didn’t really understand, he suddenly felt a desperate need to reconstruct the meeting with Tommy, in his mind; he had not let himself stray back to that time much except to recognize that he still felt confused about why Tommy was at the church in the first place. What could he really remember about that day, of their conversation, and of the bargain he agreed to in a moment of haste, was it? It was always easy to talk to Tommy; his southern drawl made all his words seem rather lazy and comfortable, but in fact, Tommy thought quickly on his feet and always had a wicked, sharp sense of humor. Hog liked to make everyone laugh, but he especially liked to hear Tommy’s big, bellowing laugh, which was full of life. He brought that sense of being alive to bear upon the sameness of war, the everyday drudgery and the continuous fighting. For long stretches of time, there wasn’t much to do except talk and smoke. People don’t understand how much waiting there is in the war, but Hog and Tommy made the best of these times and became fast friends, sharing stories about their lives and talking about anything that crossed their minds, often while waiting for something to happen in the fields or for their next set of instructions. When Hog saw Tommy again on his wedding day, he remembered falling into that old, familiar talk; he immediately felt that same sympatico that they had shared so much of in the war and that he missed desperately after Tommy was shipped home in early ‘44. The connection was immediate and he could tell that Tommy felt it too, though his friend was clearly troubled by something. “Had there been someone else there, lurking around that day I saw Tommy?” Hog wondered to himself. And then he stood still, closing his eyes in the dark warehouse, feeling the silence around him and forcing himself to try to remember exactly what happened on his wedding day.
I remember coming out into the sunshine holding Laura’s hand and feeling so in love with this beautiful woman who had agreed to be my wife. Our families were all there with us to celebrate. Laura was laughing and I turned and kissed her. Then Laura was carried away from me by her family and friends and I turned to greet my own friends and my parents who I saw just ahead of me. I stopped with them for a few moments before heading off to find Laura’s brother, Anthony, to make sure that the car was ready to go so Laura and I could start on our honeymoon trip to Las Vegas as soon as possible. We only had a week to be together alone and I wanted that week to start right away. It was pretty chaotic around me, but I made a beeline for where I thought Anthony would be around the back of the church building. As I turned the corner, it wasn’t Anthony I saw but Tommy. I stopped dead in my tracks and stared for a moment before striding over to the man who had saved my life all those years before in the war.
“Tommy, my god, man! Is it really you, after all these years? What are you doing here?” I said to him, completely astonished by the sudden vision of my friend. He grabbed my hand and shook it and then hugged me, giving me a good, tight squeeze. Breaking apart, I said to him, “it’s great to see you, my old friend!” But Tommy looked different to me and I stepped back from him to take in his gaunt face and greying hair. Yet, he had that same old jovial twinkle in his eyes and he looked at me and smiled with his big, toothy grin that I remembered so fondly. All those hours and years spent together came flooding back to me and suddenly I was completely at ease. “Hoaaag,” drawled Tommy, his strong Southern accent placing an emphasis on an “A” that was not in my name, but which he naturally inserted, “my man, how are you? I’m just here to see some old family over yonder,” and he gestured vaguely towards the church’s cemetery. “You got married! You, lucky dog! Who’s the pretty gal who caught ya, huh?” and he slapped me on the back and laughed. But that big belly sound came out with less force and suddenly Tommy’s laugh turned into a wheezing cough.
He seemed embarrassed by this and so to change the subject, I said, “what’s it been, about five years, since we saw each other last? Man, those were some hellish times we spent together. It’s good to be back on firm ground and still have our wits about us, right?” and I looked keenly at Tommy, whose cough had subsided now. But he still seemed to be breathing a bit too heavily, like he was trying to take deep breaths but he wasn’t able to get enough air into his lungs. It seemed to me that he looked sick, his face was pale and he had definitely lost quite a bit of weight. He saw me looking at him and turned away for a moment, lifting his foot and placing it on the big bumper of the Studebaker, pretending to tie his boot. There were a few moments of awkward silence, and then I said, “hey, man, I’m off on my honeymoon, but you gotta come by the apartment when I get back. I would love for you to meet Laura. Where are you staying? How long have you been in LA? Do you have a local address?” The questions just came tumbling out of me, quick and fast. I was in a hurry to get back to Laura and even though this was Tommy, I still had to find Anthony and get everything ready to go. I was feeling the tug for Laura even in those brief moments standing there and I didn’t want to be gone much longer from her. At this point, Tommy turned and looked at me, as if he just noticed that I was still standing there and talking. It was like he was taking me in for the first time and hadn’t heard a word I said to him previously.
“Hoaaag,” Tommy drawled again, “do you think you would do anything to save a man?” The question seemed to come out of nowhere and hang in the air for a minute, I was so taken aback. “What are you talking about Tommy?” I said, “you thinkin’ about somethin’ in the past, from the war?” My head was so full of what I needed to be doing and my heart was so full of Laura that I didn’t think I had much time to stand there and talk about old memories, but I didn’t want to brush him aside since I hadn’t seen him for at least five years. This was Tommy after all, the man who had pulled me to safety and saved my life when the land mine had gone off only a few feet from me and the other soldiers in that godforsaken field in France. It was clear that Tommy had something to say to me; I could tell it in the way that he leaned his body on the car and seemed to settle in for what he expected to be a long chat. How could I explain that I needed to get back to Laura, the woman I had just married? I couldn’t be standing there shootin’ the shit with my old friend, like we were in a bar or something. I had obligations now, even though those obligations were only minutes old. Tommy was looking around him, and seemed to be taking in where he was, like he had all day to just stand there with me. He took out a cigarette and lit it, inhaling and then coughing again. He offered me one, and I accepted it, thinking that I would smoke one cigarette and then get back to Laura. No harm done and all that, I couldn’t have been standing there for more than a couple of minutes at that point, but time seemed all of a sudden to be dragging out and ticking away into eternity.
“Hey, look Tommy, I gotta go, man. I’m sure you understand. I got a wife now. We’re off on our honeymoon after we take pictures and Laura will be waiting for me.” I tried to sound casual, but I was itching to get going. Tommy, on the other hand, looked like he had all the time in the world. “Hoaaag,” he said again, “think about this, friend, what would you give to save a man’s life? What would you sacrifice in your own life?” These were some strange questions and I looked at Tommy more seriously now. He had a faraway look in his eyes and he seemed lost in his own thoughts. “What are we talking about here? You in some kind of trouble, Tommy?” He glanced towards me and smiled, genially, “no, no trouble at all, just thinking, sort of thinking out loud,” and he took another drag on his cigarette. I was starting to feel uncomfortable. I wondered what Tommy was really doing at the church, but I didn’t want to ask; it seemed better to just stay the course with this weird talk of his and try to get back to Laura as soon as I could.
“Okay, Tommy, talk to me man, what’s going on in your head? You got something specific in mind, then?” Tommy’s cigarette was almost out, but he still held it in his hand, seemingly wanting to get every last little bit of nicotine into his lungs. The sun shone down on us and I took in my friend’s gaunt face, his chapped lips, and the large coat that seemed to hang off his thin body. Something wasn’t right with my friend; yeah, he looked sick, but he didn’t seem quite focused on anything real. And then he pulled something out of his coat pocket and showed it to me. It was a small, bright silver key tied with a red ribbon. He held it up for me to see it and the key glinted in the sun like a diamond. “Yeah, what’s that?” I asked. Tommy said slowly, “you know, Hoaaag, life seems like a puzzle sometimes. People come passing through and we don’t know why they’re there or when we might see them again.” “Tommy,” I said, more forcefully, “what are you talking about, man?” And now I was getting a bit frustrated with my old friend who seemed lost in his own reverie. I looked around and I could see off in the distance my family moving towards the front of the church. I had to get out of there and go with them, but I felt like I was glued to the spot
and couldn’t move. I needed to get some sense out of Tommy. Maybe he needed a doctor. He still held the key out in front of him and I felt suddenly obligated to take it. I reached out my hand towards it, but he withdrew the key and put it back in his pocket. “Hoaag, he said, dragging out the “A” syllable even longer this time, “life is a puzzle and we have to solve it, even when it’s dangerous.” And with those cryptic words, he looked up at the sky like maybe he hoped to find the answer there. I stood looking at him, not sure what to do but sensing that Tommy was about to reveal more; why did I know this? I wasn’t sure, but I almost felt like I had stepped into another world in that moment as time dragged on at an interminable rate.
Tommy seemed on a knife edge and like he could break at any moment. There was clear tension between us. My job now, like it had been when we fought together in the war, was to keep my friend focused on what he needed to do, needed to say to me. Nothing had changed really; there was Tommy off in the stars of his thoughts, way up in the heavens without a sense of his own place in the world, talking of strange things. The war does that to a man, keeps him in his dreams until he has to wake up and fight for his fellow man and country. It was only when Tommy laughed and made others laugh, too, that he came down to earth and was grounded in reality and that was when he helped me the most. We complimented one another, steadied each other in those perilous days. I thought about all of this as I stood in that moment in time, waiting for my friend to come to his senses and tell me why he was standing in the St. Andrew’s churchyard on my wedding day. Then he turned to me and said, “hey, Hoaaag, man, you game for anything in life? You like a challenge, right? You always did. You liked to puzzle things out and had a mind for solving problems.” “Yeah,” I said, slowly, not sure what he was getting at, “what of it?” He ignored my question, and went on, as if I hadn’t spoken. “Yeah, you Hoaaag, was always puzzling things out in your head and I was impressed with the way your mind worked.” I’m sure you could figure out how to save a man’s life, no matter the circumstances. Yeah, you’d have the answer to any man’s question about that kind of problem, wouldn’t you?” “Maybe,” I said, tentatively, still waiting to hear where this was all going. Was he thinking about when he saved my own life? Was he confusing the past with the present? Tommy was clearly warming to his subject though; he had taken out another cigarette, lit it, and was puffing away, seemingly lost in his thoughts. “Yeah, that key I showed you, it’s the answer to something, just not sure what yet. I bet you could figure it out, couldn’t you, Hoaaag,” he said, turning to look me in the eye. “Okay, Tommy, maybe I could figure out a puzzle like that, you’re probably right, but you know I really need to get back to Laura now and get going. It’s been great to see you, but it’s my wedding day.” He looked at me, then, and smiled, saying, “I knew I could count on you Hoaaag, you always were a reliable friend. Yes, always reliable and good for your word,” and here he reached out his hand towards me clearly intent on shaking mine. There was nothing for it, but to shake his hand. His grip was firm and I felt uneasily like something had just occurred that I would regret later. However, I would have agreed to anything just so that I could get back to Laura and get on with my new life.
But Tommy had one more request, a seemingly practical one now, and that was to help him push his car off and get it started. This was reasonable enough, and so as he got behind the wheel of the old Studebaker, I went to get ready to do my part. It was then that I noticed how quiet it was around us; I saw that we were alone. “Why hadn’t my family even come to look for me,” I wondered, “how long had I been standing there talking to Tommy?” Time had both seemed to stop and to be interminable. Tommy yelled from the driver’s seat, “you ready, Hoaaag?” “Yeah, put it in gear and I’ll push,” I yelled back. I leaned in with all my might and put my weight into the rear of the car. It didn’t start right away, and we had to go at it a couple of times before Tommy got the Studebaker moving. I started to stand up and say a final goodbye to Tommy, when I caught my new wedding jacket on a piece of metal and tore the top button off. Waving at Tommy as he drove away from me, I realized it was a small price to pay for being able to leave behind that strange meeting and return to the loving arms of my new wife.