He and Jimmy drove along without talking pulled by a rig filled with ten tons of black top. His mind drifted, like it always did when he had nothing else to think about. The white and black clouds smoldered in the morning sky like the burnt out coals of a campfire. Rain pelted the windshield. David’s mind left the tobacco-laced hills of Connecticut and took him back to Guadalcanal.
He was lying in the jungle again, hiding himself under a dead Jap, holding his breath, frozen in fear. The mosquitos screamed and the stench stuck to his skin like syrup. Two of the emperor’s patrolmen marched towards him, spitting their ancient language, grinding twigs beneath their feet. Like a half awake boy paralyzed during a nightmare, he couldn’t make a sound if he wanted to.
“David!” Jimmy said. “Stop, I said.”
He jumped back into Connecticut nearly passing by their first job of the day. Jobs were hard to come by in 1945. He was lucky to be pushing tar on driveways. At least that’s what he kept telling himself. David was just twenty-six, and he was trying to convince himself that he had a whole other lifetime in front of him.
“You wait here. I’ll go ring the bell,” David said as he hopped off his truck.
“Say, what’s with you? You going to be ok, or what?”
“I’m fine. Just tired, that’s all. You wait here,” and he slammed the truck door behind him.
He lit a Lucky and drew in the smoke. David found it hard to believe that just six months ago he was shivering in an Army hospital bed. War prizes. All he left his war with was malaria. But that was all history now, or at least that’s what he told himself. He was home. David was trying to get on with his life.
He circled behind the tar-filled dump and thought he heard a pop. David then noticed it had stopped raining. He paused for a moment, turned around, took another drag from his cigarette, and closed his eyes. The New England sun was warm on his face. The air was thick and quiet.
But sometimes the world just doesn’t make any sense. For example, it made no sense to David that he was now under the truck. How did this happen? What was happening to him? His slowed perception of time galvanized his instincts. He reached up and grabbed the truck’s axle. The machine dragged him for several feet and then he lost his grip. As the truck’s front wheel rolled over his jaw and onto his head, the sun blinded him and he lost consciousness.
When David came to he knew two things. First, he knew he was in a hospital. Second, he knew he was in the wrong hospital, because the people working on him were killing him. They yanked and twisted his broken spine, sending lightning through his nervous system. Thunder clapped in his brain and his soul screamed. Why?
“Stop it! Please! Leave me alone! Get me a phone, please!”
His torturers relented and David called his brother. An hour later an ambulance picked David up and drove towards St. Francis hospital in Hartford.
David’s spine snapped and gnashed as he bounced on the gurney on he lost himself in his thoughts again. The Depression. The War. Sickness. All of this suffering. What’s the point? He blinked slowly, prayed for death, and then he lost consciousness again.
David found himself in traction when he woke and she was by his side explaining what had happened. The nurse, that is.
“He stopped just before he rolled over your head. You’re a lucky one,” she said.
Gertrude. That’s what it said on his name tag. Her skin was white like her uniform, and her lips were red like the cross on her hat. A halo of blonde waves burst around her face. She had narrow battleship-grey eyes, and her high blush cheekbones warmed her pale skin.
She smirked, and this smirk puzzled David. He stared and wondered what she knew that he didn’t.
As he stared David began to see something in Gertrude that he had not seen in a long time, but he couldn’t remember what it was. He stared longer, and lost the thought. His anxiety returned, and he felt sorry for himself. He sighed and his eyes closed themselves. Then he slept a dead dreamless sleep for a long long time.
When he awoke he saw her gliding about the room, and his eyes followed. He watch as she deftly changed his IV bag and dabbed his brow with a cool towel.
“You’re awake,” she said.
“My head. It’s throbbing.”
“You’re going to be just fine, David, just fine. Don’t you worry. You’ll be up on your feet in no-time.”
“Ya ya, we’ll see about that. What’s your name sweetheart?”
She giggled, and pointed to her name tag. “My name’s Gertrude. Says so right here, doesn’t it?”
“I guess it does, Gertrude. It’s nice to meet you. I sure wish I didn’t have to break my back to do it, but it’s very nice to meet you.”
She blushed and smiled and said, “Get some rest. I’ll see you around,” and she left the room.
Her innocence stirred something in David. Maybe he could be happy again.
A month later David was learning to walk again, and Gertrude was by his side for every step. He felt warm and strong whenever she was around.
But at night his mind would wander back to the darkness. One night he dreamt he was out on the ocean. He was alone in a skiff during a monsoon in the dead of night. The rain stung. He screamed, but there was no sound. He paddled hard, but his oars snapped. The waves swelled and then David was swallowed by the maw of the inky sea. Underwater it was blackness, and he clawed for the surface, but kept falling further. He opened his mouth, gasped for air, and just as the water entered his lungs he woke up.
When he awoke, it was dawn and she was standing in the doorway.
“Good morning,” said Gertrude.
David was silent, and white as his sheets.
She saw the terror in his eyes. “You OK there fella?”
“A dream,” David explained to himself out loud.
“Oh, there there. Look at you. You’re a mess. It’s ok, now. Everything’s ok. You’re just fine, you hear me?”
She set her hands on David’s shoulders and she felt the trembling subside. He reached behind the small of her back, clasped his hands, and drew her close, and this startled Gertrude. Her reaction was to pull back, but then David looked up at her and she froze. His eyes were forlorn, fragile, and kind. They drifted towards her, his forlorn eyes, through space, and time froze. All that was left in the room was her eyes trapped in his. And then he kissed her, and then they both knew. Like they didn’t already know.
David and Gertrude were married for thirty years before she passed. He never remarried and thought about her everyday for the next thirty years. She saved him. She was Peace, Happiness, Salvation. There were dark days – cancer, disease, the tragic loss of a child. But her love always saved him, whether she was with him or not, and her light always pulled him from whatever darkness passed over David’s life.
Later in life David wondered how strange it all was, the circumstances of his first meeting with Gertrude. If he hadn’t caught malaria, he might have never come home from the Pacific. If his partner hadn’t run him over and crushed his body, he would have never gone to the hospital. If the doctors at the first hospital game him proper care, he would have never ended up at St. Francis, and he would have never met her. David realized the impossibility of this series of painful coincidences.
As an old man David found peace in the simplest places. Hand-making a bird house. Writing a poem. Growing flowers and vegetables. Having suffered, he appreciated every moment of peace God gave him. He realized beauty grew from his suffering, which all seemed so trivial and distant now. And in the beauty of his everyday peaceful life, he saw her face.