Less than three weeks after I wrote to O’Hara about Keller, my fears are confirmed. I’m in the lounge alone. Its late, and I’m working on a watercolor, when I hear the shuffle of slippers coming from the sleeping quarters. Someone is up to go to the head I think, but the shuffling stops. I listen, and it begins again. Looking out into the ward, I see movement in the shadows. It’s a patient moving along the ends of the racks, stopping at each one, and then moving on.
I leave my work and peek around the lounge doorway to get a better look. The figure stops at my empty rack and stands there. Then I see a glint of something in his hand. Again the glint. Something long and shiny. My eyes adjust to the darkened ward, and I see the figure more clearly. He is staring at my empty rack. Then he turns his gaze toward the lounge and back to the rack. It is a knife in his hand, and I can make out his face. It’s Keller. Again he looks toward the lounge. Now I’m down on my knees stooping over and peeking around the doorjamb with one eye. I am stone still and pretty sure Keller can’t see me. Slowly he turns, shuffles back into the shadows, and all is quiet.
My heart is racing. Keller is even crazier than I thought. He is really dangerous, and he’s after me. What to do? The incident should to be reported, but the doctor is gone. As he left for the weekend, I heard him tell one of the corpsmen that he would not be in until Monday. I could tell the duty corpsmen, but they would probably screw it up, and Keller would be out to get me more than ever. I’ve heard stories of nut cases aboard ships pushing people overboard in the night or paying an assassin to kill them when they go ashore in a foreign port. Keller is that crazy. He could do something like that.
I need to get out of the ward, or Keller needs to go. One or the other. I could just walk out, triggering the alarms, but I’d be caught, there would be hell to pay, and I could be sent right back.
I know how the transfer process works. I’ve watched several guys get well enough to be transferred out, and during my mopping chores I’ve snooped around in the examining room enough to know where the paperwork is stored and how it works. If I forge my own transfer I’m afraid the corpsmen will know that it’s phony. The doctor would not transfer me without discussing my work replacement with the corpsmen, and they would not let me go without asking him about it. Because of their sweetheart deal I’m stuck. But Keller isn’t. He is just one of the patients. His surgery is nearly healed and a transfer request for him, signed by the doctor, would be believable.
Quietly, I get my mop and bucket from the utility room and take them to the examining room, push the door nearly closed, turn on the lights and listen for any movement in the ward. All is quiet. With the mop and bucket for cover, I can go to work. If I’m discovered in the examining room at this hour by a corpsman, I will tell him that I wasn’t feeling well earlier and I’m trying to catch up on my work before morning.
In a basket on the doctor’s desk there are two files with transfer forms attached. Both bear today’s date, the patient’s name, transfer destination and the doctor’s initials at the bottom. I need a place to send Keller. An inter-ward transfer would be best; it would be least suspicious. Leafing through the hospital directory on the doctor’s desk, I come across the Psychological Evaluation Unit. Perfect. Then to the record files. They are never locked. I’ve been into them to check what is noted in my file. I pull Keller’s file, practice the doctor’s writing and initials a few times, complete, sign the transfer form, attach it to Keller’s file, tuck it under one of the other files in the basket, stuff the practice paper in my pocket, turn out the light, and return my mop and bucket to the utility room.
The ward is still quiet. I collect my art supplies from the lounge and go to my rack. I can’t sleep. My thoughts are racing. I imagine Keller in the shadows with a knife, and I ponder what will happen to me if my caper is discovered, but I am confident that if the forgery were discovered, there would be no way to pin it on me. Reminded of the practice paper in my pocket, I take a quiet walk to the head and I flush it away.
The next morning, following breakfast, one of the day corpsmen calls off three names; Keller is among of them. The three report to the corpsmen’s office, there is some give and take, bedside lockers are emptied, sea bags appear, and the three are escorted out of the ward by one of the corpsmen.
I get a broom from the utility room and do some sweeping around Keller’s rack. When no one is looking I check under his mattress. There I find a rolled up newspaper with a six-inch butcher knife inside. I palm the knife and later hide it in the utility room.
I am very relieved that Keller is gone, and I think that my part in it will never be discovered by anyone. I’m sure that the people at the psychology ward will take one look at Keller and realize he belongs there. Even if they call the doctor to discuss the transfer, I think I will be all right. If the doctor doesn’t recall sending Keller there, he will see the logic in it and chalk it up to being too busy to remember. I close my eyes, and for the first time in eighteen hours, doze off.
The doctor bursts into the ward waving a February 1964 issue of Time magazine over his head. On the cover is a picture of Leonid Brezhnev.
“Here’s the proof. The son-of-a-bitch has a pilonidal cyst. Look at the hair between his eyebrows. It’s a dead give away. No doubt about it. Look at him.” He presents the picture to the guys in the front racks of the ward, pacing back and forth, playing the moment for all it’s worth. “I tell you. I’ve been studying this for years. Hair between eyebrows and pilonidal cysts go together like ducks and duck shit. It’s a dead give away. He’s going to need surgery, and I’d love to have a shot at it,” he laughs, slapping the magazine against his thigh. “Oh yeah,” he shakes his head, “I’d give a lot for a chance to slice his ass.”
“All right,” he says, tossing the magazine on a table by the row of racks. “Who’s up for scoping?”
“Oooh,” the men moan.
“Let me check my chart,” he laughs and disappears into his office.
He’s in a good mood. This is the opportunity I have been waiting for, and I follow him to his office.
“Sir,” I begin, standing in the doorway.
“Come in, Landerman. Are you up for scoping?”
“No, Sir. All done with that, but I’ve been thinking about something else.
“About Brezhnev, that son-of-a-bitch?” he jokes.
“No, sir. It’s about my situation.”
“Sir, we both know that I am completely healed up, and probably shouldn’t have been sent here in the first place.”
“Oh, that. I was wondering when you would get around to that. You want out.”
“Not exactly, Sir. I have a proposition.”
“A proposition? Never proposition a proctologist, Landerman,” he laughs.
“Sir, I would like to stay on in the ward,” I pause expecting an interruption, but there is none, so I go on, “I could help you with the men and continue to clean the baths and do the mopping, but since I am well, I would like to have occasional liberty to leave the ward.”
“I can understand you wanting to leave the ward when you are well. That makes sense,
but wanting to stay on? And leaving and coming back in isn’t possible,” the doctor protests.
“This is a quarantined ward. You know that.”
“I know,” I go on. “But I can also be an ongoing help to you, and I would follow the
same disinfectant protocol that you, the corpsmen and the barber follow when you come in.”
The doctor leans back in his chair, looks askance at me and reaches for the pack of
cigarettes on his desk. He offers me one and we light up.
“I like you, Landerman. You’re bright and you do good work. I sensed when I met you
that you are not a whiskey and women kind of guy, but if you leave here you should go back to
“I can’t, sir. I’ve missed movement, the ship has gone to sea, and I am not attached there
anymore. My file is here at the hospital.”
“Of course. You’re right,” he remembers. “I read your file when it came over. You have a degree, and you were studying to be a priest once.”
“A monk…a priest…why did you give it up?” There was a hint of affinity in his question.
“I wanted to study art…and I met a fantastic woman.”
“That will do it. Then you got drafted?”
“Why didn’t you ask to be an officer?”
“The truth is, an officer’s hitch is twice as long, and what I really want is to get back to the life and work I left behind.”
“So now your work is mopping floors and cleaning sitz baths…and you want to continue doing that?”
“Yes, sir. I’m asking to finish the last five months of my hitch here with you. I’d rather
be here than on any ship.” I chance going a little deeper. “This place is a kind of weird temple of healing, and that is worthwhile in my scheme of things. I’d rather be here helping the guys get well and get back to their ships than have a new shipboard assignment myself.”
“A temple of healing? I’ve never heard it called that before,” the doctor replies.
“A weird temple of healing,” I clarify, and the doctor laughs.
“And what does that make me?” he asks with some seriousness.
“You took a degree from the Jesuits at Boston College. I think you know what that makes you, doctor.” I answer.
My answer is a conversation stopper, and the doctor draws on his cigarette and looks me
in the eyes. “What about this liberty idea?”
“Two evenings a week and two weekends a month,” I answer.
“If you are gone, who would cover for you?” he asks.
I think of suggesting that the corpsmen could do their job for a change, but don’t. “I’d break in one of the patients in the ward who is coming along and is well enough to handle it,” I answer. “For instance, Wasczneski has been helping me, and I’m sure he could handle it if I were away.”
“Well, I suppose there is no fixed term for rehabilitation,” the doctor concedes. Then he stands and offers his hand. “All right, let’s give it a try.” He looks me in the eyes as we shake hands, and adds, “Five months?”
“You’re sure you want to do this?”
“I’m sure. Thank you, sir.”
Sometimes things work out. It’s a peculiar deal, but a done deal, and there is something satisfying about having my tour in the ward be the last punch on my ticket home.
I poke my head into the lounge. “I’m going to the Coke machine. Anybody else want one?” I announce.
When I return, I light a cigarette, pass out the Cokes and collect the quarters from the patients scattered around the room watching television.
“Sit down.” An invitation comes from across the room. It’s Weasel, and I join him at his table. I want to tell him about my deal with the doctor, but I’m not quite ready. I want a little time to organize my thoughts.
“My Mom, she likes you,” he says, as I pull out a chair to sit down.
“Your Mom?” I question.
“Yeah, she says she prays for you every day.”
“Yeah, I told her in a letter that you’re the nicest person I’ve met in the Navy so far.”
Weasel’s revelation chokes me up. I draw on my cigarette and slowly blow the smoke out in a long straight stream. “Tell her,” I say, turning away, so he won’t see me tearing up.
“Tell her I said thank you. Will you do that?”