The seventh time almost worked.
Officer Bo Velez hovered in the hallway, poking his large, shaved head into the trauma room whenever nurses turned their backs. They knew him and didn’t kick him out, but they hated cops hanging around after they’d brought in their trauma victim. And this particular victim, a suicide attempt hanging on by his whiskers, they knew very well: a “regular,” a walking catastrophe named Rod.
They worked like possessed heathens on Rodolfo, a skeleton in a camo t-shirt scissored open. His broomstick arms dangled off the gurney as a doctor straddled Rod to pump his chest, and nurses fumbled to get IVs going. Officer Bo watched from the doorway and muttered a prayer for the vet.
Rodolfo rarely recalled where he was upon awakening. He was often drunk the night before, or high on whatever he hustled, but when the sun hit him, his eyes sprang open, his body bolted upright, off the concrete, the grass or dirt, the asphalt, or the soiled blanket he was on. Each night varied, so each awakening was new. The only constants were his pulsating head, cotton mouth, and regretful realization that he was still alive.
This day, Rod woke next to Walter, another Vietnam vet he’d met on the streets three years prior. Both men often dressed in camos and combat boots — vestiges of days when they might’ve been heroes. Their clothing hailed from the Salvation Army, Goodwill, or the street. Both men wore beards: Rod’s was gray and bunched in greasy tangles, Walter’s snow-white in curlicues matching his ‘fro.
They knew all the crannies and abandoned buildings of the city, the warmest doorways, the safest places to be drunk in public. They smashed each other’s faces when they brawled or told fevered stories of their days in ‘Nam. Officer Bo knew Rod better than all the other cops in town, true enough. But no one, no one knew Rod better than Walter did.
This morning Rod had been more lucid than usual.
“Did your family love you?” he asked Walter. They were alone in a clearing on the edge of the arroyo. Their belongings stuffed in plastic bags behind them. Walter was awake but still reeling from the night before.
“Naw, man.” He closed his eyes and snored briefly.
“My father was a war hero,” said Rod. “Korean War. Real proud of me when I made sergeant…” He closed his eyes and sniffed. “Had a brother, too. Younger brother. Albert.”
Walter opened an eye and glanced at Rod. “Yeah, I remember.” He sat up to prepare for what was next. “You couldn’t help it, man. Really. Don’t sweat it. It wasn’t your fault.”
But Rod collapsed on the blanket and curled into a ball. He sobbed, his emaciated frame in spasms.
“I wasn’t his keeper,” he moaned. He muttered this again and again till, exhausted, he closed his eyes and seemed to fall asleep.
Officer Bo spied Rodolfo alone behind the maintenance building at Brookside Park.
Rod’s back seemed plastered to the dusty hut. His eyes bulged at nothing in particular. Bo pulled his cruiser as close as he could to the building and strolled toward the man he’d often tussled with, often helped carry to paramedics’ vans, often checked on at the hospital. He remembered a line from a favorite poem: “War scorches the soul, cremates a man’s spirit quicker than flames.” Bo crossed himself.
Rod didn’t acknowledge the cop. He stared ahead and muttered. Bo bent close to Rod and sniffed. No alcohol. He put his face in front of Rod’s. No reaction.
“Looky here, bro,” Rod mumbled. “You chose to come here. I didn’t put no gun to your head and force you.”
Bo started to respond then realized that Rod wasn’t addressing him.
“Always the hotshot, yeah.” Rod chuckled. “Big man on campus, you. ROTC, yeah. Lieutenant, yeah. That was you. Real hero.” Rod squinted and shook his greasy head. “Is that what you want, huh? Home?” He put his bony hand to his ear and pretended to listen. “You want me to do what? What?”
Rod doubled over in laughter. He slid on his side to the dirt. Soon his face was wet with tears, dust streaking his cheeks. Bo knelt beside him then leaned the weeping man onto his body and rocked him back and forth, back and forth.
The doctors and nurses struggled to revive Rod. They knew he’d tried to kill himself six other times. As he watched from the doorway, Officer Bo couldn’t forgive himself for having left him alone today, for having taken another call, for abandoning Rod.
When the call crackled on his radio, Bo had been first on the scene. Rod’s body hung from a brown leather belt hitched around the window bars of an abandoned house. Walter sat near his feet, discombobulated and weary. As Bo and other officers freed Rod, the two passersby who’d called police proffered an agitated report: The white-haired transient had tried to hold the body up, they said. He was hugging the man’s legs and pushing them up, cursing at the hanging man, they said.
In the trauma room, Rod finally sputtered feeble signs of life. Bo exhaled like a dying man and sank into a chair by the doorway. Nurses tucked a blanket around Rod and secured his IVs before rolling him out to the Critical Care unit upstairs.
“Will he live?” Bo asked the nearest nurse.
She shrugged. “Yes, for now.”
As a veteran of the Iraq War, Bo knew about demons. He still had nightmares, and certain smells, certain sounds of war were indelibly locked in his skull. But the demons that haunt us, thought Bo, aren’t just sensory.
Off-duty, he drove around the homeless haunts of the city, looking for Walter. By now, Walter would have been interrogated at headquarters and released. Bo parked his car by a freeway underpass where he’d often seen Walter, and stepped into the darkness, his flashlight cutting a swath before him. There, up on the berm, inches away from the concrete beast roaring above, a white afro poked from a blanket.
Bending close to the sleeping man, Bo smelled alcohol. He gently shook the man. Walter moaned a few times and slowly peeled his eyes open.
“I’ve got to know,” said the officer. “Walter, why is Rod always wanting to die?”
Walter sat up and rolled his fists in his eyeballs. He sighed, an exhausted man, a man who might not have the energy, or the desire, to resurrect another’s demons to clarify them.
“Had a brother,” Walter muttered and slumped back into his blanket.
“Yes, I know,” said Bo. “Rod’s told me many times.” He patted Walter’s shoulder to keep him conscious. “What else?”
“In ‘Nam,” he said, “combat, same time. Can’t do that, illegal or something.” Walter closed his eyes and seemed to be gathering his recollections. “Guv’ment took ‘em out a few days, talk about it.” Walter opened his eyes and stared straight ahead. “One of ‘em goes, one stays.” He covered his face with his arms and sighed.
“They were given a choice?” asked Bo.
Walter nodded. “Little bro was scared. Just married, wife was pregnant, he was green, scared shitless. Begged. Cried.” Walter coughed, spat, and closed his eyes again, rolling onto his side.
“Walter, stay with me,” Bo pleaded. He knew Walter was inebriated, but some truth is better than none. “Did Rod leave ‘Nam?”
Walter was snoring softly. Bo shook him harder and raised his voice.
“Walter, please. Did Rod choose to leave?”
Walter stirred and muttered. He nodded and stared at the officer, as if in a trance. “Just like that. Laughed. Called him coward. Spat on his uniform. Says ‘you stay, Lieutenant.’”
Bo was silent. He feared his next question.
“What happened to Little Bro?”
Walter’s eyes were fierce in the officer’s flashlight, his mouth sealed shut.
“He died in combat, didn’t he?” said Bo.
Walter was silent. His eyes watered, and he muttered. “Ain’t no man outrun the past. Past always wins.” Exhaling a tremulous sigh, he lapsed into snoring.
Rod retraced his steps in golden light back down the berm, back to his car, and thought of how some wrongs just keep twisting inside us like knives.
Thelma T. Reyna’s books have collectively won 8 national literary awards. She has written 4 books: a short story collection, “The Heavens Weep for Us and Other Stories”; 2 poetry chapbooks, “Breath & Bone” and “Hearts in Common”; and a full-length poetry collection, “Rising, Falling, All of Us.” Her fiction, poetry, and nonfiction have appeared in literary journals, anthologies, textbooks, blogs, and regional media for over 25 years. As Poet Laureate in Altadena, 2014-2016, she edited the Altadena Poetry Review Anthology: 2015, as well as the 2016 anthology, which was the Winner of the 2016 Book Excellence Award (Anthology category) and Beverly Hills Book Award/Anthology.