Poetry for the Curious across the Religious Spectrum
The Colonel


     {from Nightwork}



The day the Colonel arrived he was not on Tommy’s assignment, and then, only a few hours after he had settled in, they shipped the man over to Acute, and he stayed there for three weeks.  They said he had severe heart problems together with the stroke, and that he was nearly blind.  The day after his return to 4-2, it was obvious that there were other problems, perhaps not physical, not emotional even, maybe something else.

     He would be sitting perfectly erect in the mornings when Tom came in and flicked the lights and started handing out the basins of water.  He would be erect like that and holding his hands in front of his chest in the attitude of prayer but with the fingers spread and touching.  When addressed, he would answer politely and even smile, but he would look straight ahead no matter, the bright blue eyes out of focus, burning straight through the wall.

     “I heard you were a pilot,” Tommy said.  This was after assisting the man for a month.

     “You might say so.  Anything from a P-38 for the Chinese to a 747 for Boeing.  Anything in between.  Commercial airlines.  Even been a test pilot.  I dropped a load of bodies over the Red Sea for a government you never heard of, and some of them were still screaming so loud you could hear it carry on for about forty seconds.  I’ve done things.  You might say that.”

     He was sitting in his red vinyl chair with his hands joined.  His torso was bare and smooth, veins of old scars back and forth over the ribcage, the breast bone.  There was the slightest flicker of a smile on the sharp lips.  He was nearly bald, the remaining hair over the temples cut in tight to his skin.  His nose was sharp and thin like an eagle’s beak.  The face would cut a hole through what was left after the eyes finished.  And yet the eyes could see almost nothing.  He had shown him a picture of Barry, and the old lean veteran with the fierce countenance had to squint at it from a distance of several inches.

     “Were you an officer?  In the Air Force?”

     “Those days it was the Army Air Corps.  No, I’m from Canada, you know, and I’m not a citizen, and even then for some I was persona non grata, but they took me on to train their men and even fly some missions, and I had all the amenities of a full Colonel, but there was no rank involved.  I don’t think they even have me on the records.  I stayed on till it was nearly over, and then I went with Lockheed, and then I guess it was Pan American for about five years.  I never stayed long with anyone.  Some said I was bad luck.  Some said I was ruthless.  I'll tell you what ruthless means.  Put your money on the SS.  Hell, they’d slice off your family jewels and shove them in your mouth and hang you by the toes in the open market, no questions asked.  And they got things done that way, and you had to respect them for it.  Not like your Green Berets.  Hell, their hands were always tied.”

     Vic Kenyon had the smallest genitals Tom King had ever seen on a man.  They were nearly retracted.  And yet, strangely, Vic, the Colonel, hardly had the slightest trace of modesty, washing in the morning naked in front of the sink, the body with its welts and creases nearly handsome, a smooth pale of old striated skin and yet somehow young, somehow formidable, somehow something to fear.  With Vic Kenyon it was always Mister.  Even as he progressed in therapy to where the quad cane was optional, there was no mellowing in what one could not help detect as fierce determination, a single-minded thirst for survival.  Perhaps the man had lived with death so long it was only a cold drink of water.  It was a drink he’d take willingly, fearlessly, but not till he was good and ready, and now at over eighty, he was walking around with plastic tubing for arteries and the heart timed with a pacemaker, and a million and one things clogged or imperfect, but not quite willing to cash it in, not until he had dumped another load of bodies, perhaps, over the Red Sea.

     The strangest thing was that Vic Kenyon, butch as he was, hadn’t the slightest distaste for Tommy’s homosexuality.  And yet perhaps it was understandable.  One afternoon Tom had asked him about the elderly woman that came every second day to read him his letters and take care of his business concerns.  She was a kindly thing and took a lot of abuse.  Tom asked if it was a sister perhaps.  Vic Kenyon had only the one visitor.  If there had ever been a wife and children, Tom King didn’t know about it.  He asked Vic about the old woman who came to see him and wasn’t prepared for what he got.

     “Elsie?  She’s just around because she read somewhere it was good to be Christian.  She spent a lot of years being a slut, and now she’s trying to make up for it.  Don’t let the appearance fool you.  She’s been used by everything from Clark Kent to Popeye any way they could do it, and she wants to be a virgin, and she’s never going to make the grade.  But that’s women for you.  You’re better off leaving them alone.  The only way to deal with a slit is cash on the line, and if it’s Hong Kong, they’ll press your suit in the morning, and if it’s Manhattan, they’ll spit in your coffee.  If you’re lucky you’re a fag, but if you’re me you have to put up with someone like Elsie.  She even wants me to marry her.  I tried that once when I was very young and that’s enough.  They say there’s a son somewhere and maybe even grandchildren, but the bitch is dead and good riddance.  When it’s legal you always have to beg for it.”

     The only time Kenyon seemed frightened was the day he leaned too far forward in therapy and nearly plugged up his by-pass.  They brought him up on a litter and lowered him into bed, and cranked him vertical, and he was sitting there with all the color gone and his lips moving as if he was praying, strange as that seemed, and then the doctors were in there behind drawn curtains, and Tom had to wait another hour to talk to the man, and by then he was all right, the same sharp features, the same fierce sightless eyes, a face that would cut through stone and wood and even steel to get what it wanted, what it thought it wanted, cut through silver, cut through human flesh.

     As far as Tommy ever knew, the Colonel had been a dealer in weapons the very last years before the stroke brought him to Twin Oaks, and it certainly seemed that way the week he left.  They were sitting out on the porch, and Vic Kenyon reached across the gap between their chairs and dug his fingers into Tommy’s forearm, a grip like an eagle’s talon that left a mark for nearly three weeks, and said that if he’d just listen there was something the older man wanted to do for him, seeing that Tom had seen a bit of action on his own and that Vic Kenyon would be needing a pair of eyes and a strong young body to do the footwork, perhaps in China, maybe in Libya, but not to mention it to a soul, maybe in Nigeria if it turned out that way, all the while digging his thumb into Tommy’s flesh, digging his fingers in and staring out over the parking lot toward the distant throughway.  And then the Colonel handed him a scrap of paper with a local telephone number and told him to keep it in a safe place.

     “You’ll be getting a passport as soon as possible.  You’ll be saving up 2,000 dollars.  You’ll be buying three good suits, a herringbone, a check and a flannel.  Make the herringbone a tropical.  You’ll be buying expensive luggage, nothing ostentatious, on the other hand.  And a good watch and a pair of Stetson shoes.  And then about seven months from now you’ll be expecting a call.  It’ll come about three in the morning.  Exactly nine minutes past.  It will ring until you answer, and then the party on the other side will hang up.  And then you will be calling the number I gave you.  If anyone answers but me you’ll know I’m dead.  If I’m on the line you will be leaving for your assignment within 36 hours.  I can’t say anything more.  Oh yes, don’t call the number on impulse.  No.  Don’t do that.  It’s just too dangerous for both of us.  Whatever happens, don’t call.”

     And then the grip relaxed and then the man tried to borrow ten dollars from Tom King, and then Vic Kenyon was gone, just a day later discharged, and Tom was left with a number that he could barely read, and the last thin edge of a smile, a crease, a cut really, and the vague pale eyes unseeing, burning nevertheless past his shoulder.

     And he waited seven months and nothing happened.

     And he waited another month and then called the number, called it at 3:09 AM on one Sunday morning late in September, dialed and waited for nearly twenty rings.  There was no answer then and there was no answer an hour later, but then a day later in the heat of curiosity, he dialed again toward 6 PM.  No answer.  He called at 11.  Nothing.  He was nearly ready to go through the whole directory to find it.  He called the next day at noon.  An old woman answered.

     “Don’t be calling here no more.  He’s dead.”


     “That’s right.  Victor Kenyon’s dead.”

     “Why didn’t you answer the phone?”

     “Cause you’re the only one that had the number.”

     “You knew it was me?”

     “That’s right.  Now don’t be bothering about Vic anymore.  He’s dead.”

     “How did it happen?”

     “I wasn’t to tell anybody.  I ain’t telling you.”

     “He shot himself.”

     “How’d you guess?  How’d you guess that?”

     And then he hung up.  There was nothing more to do.