“Philemon Fails”

Volume 8 | Spring 2018

by Bryce Piper

Please, help me!

I read Corporal Brown’s face from my office.

The Afghanistan invasion had recently begun, so that was all over the news at the time. Every couple months a nut job would wonder into our office, usually a Marine who served in the Gulf War or even Vietnam. Through cruel tricks of age or mental decline, these guys somehow thought they could get back in. They wanted to help out, but were invariably way too old or infirm. Besides, we weren’t even the actual recruiting office, which sat in a strip mall a half-mile away. God knows how they found us at the area headquarters. Their hearts were in the right place, though, so I always thanked them for their service while Brown tried to escort them out the door.

With his desk closest to the front door, Brown, the administrative clerk, bore the brunt of these time-wasting assaults. I thought I’d show mercy and help him shake this guy.

They made a stark contrast in the adjoining room. At twenty, Brown had smooth, unblemished skin, bright eyes and a white, ready smile. His smooth-shaven head topped a tall, athletic frame wrapped in an immaculate uniform. He was the poster boy for an African-American Marine about to hit his prime.

The old man sat half-turned away from me, bony legs crossed, spine curled and protruding. He shook a long, knobby white finger at the young corporal. His filthy, threadbare clothes hung from an emaciated frame. His tattered brown leather shoes looked as if they’d disintegrate at any moment.

As I approached I thought his shaggy hair was blonde. It wasn’t. Nicotine and God knows what else had stained it yellow. I asked if I could help. He stopped shouting at Brown long enough peer at me with sharp eyes over a pointed, varicose nose.

Then the smell hit me, the indescribable stench of months without a bath. I suppressed a gag, offering my hand. When he shook it I wanted to plunge it into hot coals.

Brown excused himself to step outside, no doubt to escape the stench flooding the office. As the old man rasped out why he came, I tried to identify things in his wild beard. I guessed at the sources of stains on his clothes and hair. I watched as flakes of skin escaped his gesticulating arms. A dirty, dime-sized patch broke from his elbow and drifted down like a filthy feather, settling on Brown’s desk.

He said something about a medal he had earned with the 5th Marines in Korea but never received. He wanted help getting his medal. Korea? I thought to myself. That was fifty years ago.

Yes, he’d already gone to the reserve station. They told him to come here. They said we handled awards. Those bastards sent him here as a prank. They knew damn well this kind of thing was their job.

I told him our office was only for recruiting, but he wouldn’t go.

He gestured wildly as he argued, the wrinkled skin of withered triceps flapping forth and back. The remnants of a long-faded tattoo peaked from under the ragged edges of short sleeves with a barely discernible cartoon-like eagle holding a waving ribbon in its fading beak. “Semper Fidelis,” a now long-dead hand once scrawled across the ribbon. I could barely make it out through the ravages of time and layers of grime. The tattoo hid there, worn and faded, yet indelible after all those years.

Eventually, I had to get the executive officer, as much for air as for help getting rid of him. It even took the XO about an hour to get him out the door. His smell permeated every nook of the suite. The whole time they spoke I wanted to take him back to our locker room and give him my soap, shampoo and towel. I wanted to buy him a hot meal, take him to a shelter, do something – anything – to help this guy. Though several generations and degrees of sanity apart, this guy was my brother. He was the Corporal Brown of his day. He defended freedom from the threat of communism. He held a rifle in his hands and trudged frozen mountains on the other side of the world in a land forsaken by everyone but God and the U.S. Marines. He didn’t want a medal. That was the thing his mind clung to, but what he really wanted was some brotherhood, some esprit de corps. He wanted someone to look him in the eye and call him ‘Devil Dog’ again.

And I didn’t do that.

I watched him stumble out the door, dejected and confused, clutching a paper with a hastily scrawled address to some military records facility. I said nothing. I offered nothing, mostly out of fear that if I paid him a kindness, like a stray dog you absentmindedly feed, he’d keep coming back.

It’s one of the things I’m most ashamed of in my life.

A short while later, the commanding officer strolled in from business elsewhere. His face soured as he walked briskly toward his office.

“What the hell’s that stench?” he growled.