by Anthony Dobranski
(The third part of a serialized novel based on the people, places and events of World War Two Forest Hills. Read chapters one and two.)
Away from the house lights, the man in black was hard to see. Enos followed the crunch of the man’s steps. The garden plots had narrow gravel paths between them, rutted and hard to run on. The man seemed to know the ground, but Enos was faster. Almost close enough to grab him –
Enos was sliding, his calf scraping the gravel. It was a reflex from baseball, trying to get under a baseman’s hand. The man in black was swinging at him – not a leather glove, but a shovel. Enos smelled the rust and dirt of the shovel blade above his head.
Enos rolled away, jamming his breastbone against a garden stake. The man jabbed the shovel handle hard under his shoulder blade, painfully knocking the wind out of him. Enos sat up on his knees, gasping, arms raised to block the next swing. The man threw the shovel at him instead, and ran off. Its flat blade caught Enos in the chest. He batted it away and started after the man, but tripped on the shovel and fell. Under his right hand was a smooth round stick. He grabbed it and stood. It was a hand rake, rusty tines glinting in the dimness.
He heard a kick against wood. Enos ran toward the noise, fighting through spindly tomato vines and chicken wire. Enos could just make out the man, pulling himself over the tall back fence. When Enos caught up, he raised the hand rake and slammed it into the man’s leg, hard enough to send quivers up his own arm.
A kick scraped Enos’s left ear. Another kick caught Enos under his eye, pushing Enos back and the man over the fence. As Enos fell, he heard the thump of the man landing on the ground on the other side.
Enos’s hip landed on a pointed rock. He yelped at the pain, rolled over and tried to sit up. He was woozy.
A line of men hurried noisily up the garden path, the first carrying a flashlight. He shone it at Enos.
“He’s over the fence,” Enos managed to say over panting breaths. He tasted bile in his throat. “I hit him – I hit -” He looked around. Just behind him was the hand rake. He started to reach for it, pointed instead. “With that.”
The men said nothing. Through the flashlight’s glare Enos could just make them out: An old man with a small build, and behind him, a tall man in glasses and a plump bald man.
“Are you all right, Corporal?” the old man said.
“I’ll live.” He tried to stand but the pain in his hip stopped him.
“Let’s help him up,” the plump man said.
“He went over,” Enos said. “Look.”
“Oh, I see,” the old man said, with a calm that annoyed Enos. “Perhaps your quarry is still there.” The flashlight scanned the yard and landed on a wooden crate. “Leo, take my flashlight. If you can stand on that and look over the fence?”
The tall man flipped the crate over and stood on it to look over the fence. “No one here,” he called. When he came back, he picked up the hand rake. Two tines glistened wetly.
“Your uniform is in quite a state,” the old man said, taking back the flashlight. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”
They helped Enos stand and led him back to the house. He could walk all right, though his leg stung. His head throbbed, and breathing hurt both his chest and back.
On the porch, more people waited for them: Two younger women, two older women, and a boy. Both the younger women gasped to see him, covering their mouths with the same gesture. Enos laughed unthinkingly. It became a painful cough, probably just as well.
They took him through a side door to the kitchen. It smelled of chicken and coffee. Everyone stared at Enos.
“Enos Olsen,” he said, “Tech Corporal.”
“Ted Sanders,” the old man said. “These are Leo Ashe and Bill Jansen.” He didn’t introduce the women. “Who were you chasing through my yard, Corporal?”
“Someone was hiding in the bushes, watching you through –” he looked around to map out the house. “Through that window, I suppose. He wore black and a ski mask.”
“He was watching us?”
“I saw him from the street. When I called out, he bolted.”
The oldest woman pushed past the men. “Ted, he can tell everything to the police once you call them,” she said. “In the meantime let’s get him bandaged up. I’m afraid you’ll have to take off your shirt, Corporal. Millie, can I put you on laundry duty? Dorothy, looks like you’ll be a nurse after all. I’m Eleanor, by the way.”
Enos shucked his shirt, wincing as he did so, and gave it to the plump woman. “Is this wool or cotton?” she asked.
“Cotton,” Enos said.
“I think ammonia, don’t you, Millie?” Eleanor asked. “It’s in the closet with the pail.”
“What can I do?” the fourth woman said.
“Just sit and rest, Shirley. It’s a cramped washroom, and you and your little passenger don’t need to be around ammonia. Corporal, this way.”
Eleanor led, while Dorothy steered him gently by the arm. Her dress brushed against the wall as they went up the stairs.
Enos smiled at her. “Sorry to trouble you.”
“No trouble at all,” Dorothy said.
In the washroom, he saw the reason for the fuss. The man’s kicks had torn his ear and gouged his cheek under his eye. His cheekbone was red and swollen. “I think you’ll escape stitches,” Eleanor said. “But you’ll want some ice before it becomes a shiner.” From the medicine cabinet, she took out a bottle of Mercurochrome and Band-Aids. “Now this will sting, I fear.”
She patted the blood away with a washcloth and dabbed the Mercurochrome on the wounds. He gritted his teeth through it.
“Eleanor? He’s got blood on his pants too,” Dorothy said. She touched his leg. He hissed from the pain. “Sorry.”
He sat awkwardly on the bathtub rim while Dorothy knelt and undid his boots. He hesitated at his belt. “Down to your skivvies, Corporal,” Eleanor said. “We’re all adults here.”
He got them off. The wound was on his hamstring, hard to see. Dorothy bent down to look, her hand on his knee, her hair brushing his shin. “It’s not deep,” she said. “But it must smart.”
Eleanor took the pants. “Can you finish up? I’ll get the stain to Millie and find some gauze.”
Dorothy looked him in the eye and smiled. Her hand was still on his leg. A woman’s touch was an unaccustomed intimacy. The feeling flowed warmly up his leg like a bath. He had a hard time looking away from her big brown eyes.
She ducked her head shyly. “I should see to your leg,” she said. She lathered a washcloth and patted the wound clean. “Do you want Mercurochrome on your leg?”
“Not if I don’t have to.”
“I don’t think you’ll get gangrene.” She offered a hand. I’m Dorothy Sharpe.”
She stood. “Where you from?”
“New Mexico. Northwest, just south of the Colorado border.”
“That’s pretty country. Do you know O’Keeffe?”
“I’ve never heard of that town,” Enos said. Behind her the boy appeared in the doorway, with a glass and a tin. “Hello. What’s your name?”
“I’m Benny Ashe,” he said. “The policeman is here. Mrs. Sanders gave me the gauze. Mister Bill said to bring you this.”
Dorothy took the gauze. Enos bent forward to take the glass. It was hardly filled. Some kind of liquor. He put it down on the vanity, grunting with the movement.
“Are you hurt in the chest?” Dorothy asked. She lifted up his undershirt, self-consciousness gone. There was a hot red line across his ribcage and a purple welt on his breastbone.
“Hit me harder than I realized,” Enos said.
“You’re lucky you didn’t break a rib. What about your back?” Dorothy bent over him, pulling up his shirt. “Another nasty bruise here.”
“It’s all right,” he said, muffled by her warmth, her perfume, her sweat. He hadn’t been close to a woman since he left his fiancée – his ex-fiancée – back home.
A knock on the doorframe made Dorothy start up. “It looks painful, Corporal,” she said coolly, “but there’s nothing I can do for that. Oh, Officer. Hello.”
Behind her stood a policeman with gray-brown hair and a fleshy face. His black uniform was adorned only with buttons and a large gray patch reading MPDC. Even police badges had gone to the war effort.
“I’m Officer Perry,” he said. “How you feeling, son? Can you tell me what happened?”
While Dorothy dressed his thigh with gauze and tape, Enos explained how he had seen the man peeping in the window, and given chase. “I almost caught him, but he attacked me with the shovel. But, just to slow me down.”
“What makes you say that?”
“He had that shovel, and I was on the ground, dead to rights,” Enos said. “But he ran instead. He didn’t mind hurting me, but he wanted to get away. Maybe so I didn’t see his face.”
“Can you describe him?”
“My height, or thereabouts. Slender build. I hardly saw his face before he pulled the mask down. Fit, I’d say. He wasn’t breathing loud. I’ll tell you this, he could take a licking. I stabbed his leg with a hand rake and he fell over the fence. But the whole time he didn’t make a sound. Either he’s a mute or he’s been trained.”
“Like a soldier,” Officer Perry said. He flipped his notebook closed. “He can’t be moving fast. I’ll drive around the neighborhood. I’ll leave my card with the family here. You think of anything else, you give me a call.”
When the officer left, Eleanor came in with his cleaned uniform. “Millie did a fine job, I have to say. You’ll have to wear it wet. We pressed it between towels but Ted hasn’t seen fit to buy me one of those June Day drying machines yet.”
“That’s fine,” Enos said. “It’s very kind of you.”
“Not at all. Kind of you to chase our Peeping Tom. Dottie, let’s let the corporal get dressed.” She left.
Dorothy stood. “You gonna drink that vodka?”
“I’m lightheaded already.”
She touched her finger to her lips. “Shhh.” She tossed back the glass. “Yum. Drinks with a handsome soldier,” she said. “That’s a swell Friday night.” She smiled wide and left.
Enos had got as far as putting his pants on when Benny returned, holding his backpack. “This yours, Mr. Corporal?” he asked. He shook it. Metal parts rattled inside. “The cop ran over it with his car.”
“Just swell,” Enos said.
NEXT WEEK: A day at the Bureau of Standards