Tommy Can You Hear Me?
by William Lapham
Tommy and I had been living more or less together in a trench dug in the earth in France for going on two weeks. We didn’t dig the thing; it was waiting for us when we got there. Tommy had just turn eighteen but he looked twelve, freckles, red hair. Not that anyone could tell, two weeks after getting there, no bath, no shave, no hot food, he looked old.
Go out into your backyard and dig a hole five to six feet deep and live in it for two weeks, rain or shine, snow, cold, day, night. Eat there, shit there, piss there. Now imagine your death coming the instant you raise your head above rim of the hole; imagine bombs going off constantly, day and night, around the clock, right next to your hole, shrapnel whirling overhead, a horizontal curtain of steel, each piece intent on ripping your head off. We stayed low, if you know what I mean.
Tommy and I had become good friends. We knew a lot about each other. Where we were from, family makeup, schools, chums, girls, hopes, dreams, all that crap. We knew how we reacted to shells landing far away and nearby. The shelling had squeezed the flinch out of our nervous systems. We knew by the sound how close our heads were to the top of the trench. If the ambient noise got louder, we were too close to the top and we ducked. Or someone would grab a sleeve and pull us down.
Tommy was talking about his girlfriend when he disappeared. I got blown back by the blast, laid flat on the bottom of the trench. When I came back to, I looked to where Tommy had been. His legs lay twisted in the mud. I could see an arm. But that was it.
I wiped my face with my muddy hand. There was blood and tissue. Tommy, I guessed. It couldn’t have been a big shell or I would have killed me, too. It must’ve been a mortar, launched on a high arc. I remember it whistling on the way down. The shell must have hit Tommy on his helmet, blew the top half of his body to smithereens.
I got up, bent over, undid my shovel from my pack, dug a hole in the bottom of the trench. Wasn’t no way we could evacuate the wounded or the dead from those holes. You’d get killed trying. I dug a fairly deep hole. The work kept me warm. Other fellows watched. I didn’t want their help no ways. I laid Tommy’s legs and arm in the hole, any other little pieces I could find, and filled the hole. Made the sign of the cross, and said an Our Father, a couple of Hail, Marys. That’s all I knew; figured that’s all Tommy’d want. He never made no big deal about being Catholic, but I knew he was one. I couldn’t find the crucifix he wore as a necklace.
We weren’t supposed to smoke but I lit up anyway. Stale. I breathed in the smoke, exhaled. The buzz felt good. I got a little dizzy because of the exertion and the smoke and the lack of any goddamn decent food. I was fuckin tired. The kind of tired that drags you down. Cellular tired. My feet were wet, and cold. I inhaled, exhaled, the smoke hovered in the trench with me.
The mortar that killed Tommy hadn’t come from very far away. Maybe a hundred yards, a hundred and a half maybe. At that distance the mortarman needed only shift the angle of his tube a fraction of a degree, a hair’s breath, and the bomb hits me and not Tommy. The wind blows from the South instead of the Northwest and the projectile drifts five feet over and I’m gone. Tommy is burying me instead of the other way around.
My dirty hand shook, clutched the cigarette in crusted fingers. It would stop, the shaking. I liked Tommy. He didn’t even know what had happened to him. One second he’s talkin’ to me and the next he’s talkin’ to God. Or the devil. Or nobody. Maybe he just slipped into that dark place that knows neither good nor evil, neither light nor pain nor war, just peace, and darkness, forever and ever. Amen.
William Lapham is a retired chief of the boat in the U.S. Navy submarine service. He earned an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College in Vermont using the GI Bill Yellow Ribbon program. He teaches first year composition at Lansing Community College in Michigan.