Carmine Tortola and Andrew (Andy) Higgins are residents in the Esplanade, a facility for independent seniors where my wife, Anita, and I live. Carmine’s room is on the third floor, the same as ours, but closer to the elevator. I have no idea on what level Andy’s room is located. But I know it’s not of the second floor, which is where the residents who have Alzheimer’s disease or dementia live, and first or ground floor is where the dining room is located, also the kitchen, the front desk, and an assortment of rooms for those people who ensure that Esplanade runs smoothly.
Anita and I occupy a table close to the far wall and across from the dining room’s doors. Between where we are, and the doors are two additional tables. One is occupied by Carmine, while, the other table is Andy’s territory. They sit perpendicular to each other. Andy is closest to our table. But from where we are situated, we have a clear view of whatever they do. And what each one of them does is to antagonize the other one. Carmine takes the napkins from Andy’s setting often a fork or a spoon, while Andy moves Carmine’s salt and pepper shakers to his table or helps himself to the large dinner plate. Much of this is done by which one arrives at the table first. What follows is a barrage of invective when the other one comes at the table and sees that he’s been had.
Both men are in their early nineties. Both are veterans of WW II and, coincidentally, fought on Guadalcanal at the same time in different Marine units. A Japanese bullet shattered Andy’s left knee. He has prostheses and uses a walker. Of the two, Andy is the frailer one and looks like a cartoon character with a large bald head, wire-framed glasses, and big gray eyes. Carmine is slightly bent, uses a cane or a walker, has chiseled features that gives Andy a, “don’t fuck with me” look. He is usually clean-shaven and seems to be particular about his clothes. He is as much a loner as Andy. Other residents avoid them.
Andy has a brother, a big, broad-shouldered man with a stomach to match, who visits him; while Carmine’s daughter, holding a boutique dog, also visits once a week. Both bring clean clothing and packages of food. Carmine’s son visits during breakfast on Sunday. There is a slight resemblance between them, He leaves when Carmine goes up to his room. Then, his visits stop.
I don’t have much to do with either of the men. But on two separate occasions, I have a conversation with each of them. I tell Andy that my nephew, Frank, had recently retired from the Corps with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel after twenty-four years of service. He is duly impressed, especially when I add that he had three deployments to the Middle East.
The conversation with Carmine takes place outside the dining room. À propos of nothing, he turns to me and says, “I was a BAR man.” Of course, I know that the initials stand for Browning Automatic- Rifle.
Carmine nods, and says, “Our jackass lieutenant tells me to guard fifteen Jap prisoners. We took them after a firefight. Fifteen surrendered. We usually didn’t take prisoners because it was too much trouble to take care of them.” He pauses for a few moments before he says, “Son-of-bitch, I wasn’t goin’ to babysit fifteen Japs, so I killed the fuckers fifteen of them just like that.” And he snaps his fingers to emphasize what he just said; “The lieutenant came running back when he heard the shots and wanted to know what happened. Yeah, I told him that they tried to escape. He looked at me, shook his head, and walked away.”
I guess the expression on my face is enough to tell Carmine what I think of his story; “Yeah, I killed them,” he says defiantly.
“Let it go, Carmine,” I say, adding, “It’s also your problem.” He didn’t answer.
The doors to the dining room are opened, and we walk into it. Anita is already seated at the table, “You look like you swallowed a worm,” she says.
My relationship with Andy and Carmine doesn’t change. Actually, I become closer to Carmine than to Andy because we live on the same floor and often are in the elevator at the same time. He never mentions the Marines or World War Two again, and I never tell him or anyone else about my time in Korea, though my cap has that country’s name emblazoned on it.
He doesn’t like living at the Esplanade. I commiserate with him, neither to do I. Both of us remark from time to time on the poor quality of food. It is too highly seasoned for older people.
Then, one day at lunchtime, Carmine falls. I see him going down, and I rush to him; “Stay still,” I order him; “Don’t move.” I tell the other residents who crowd around us to, “Back off.” I stay with him until EMS people arrive, lift him on to a gurney, and take to the North Shore University Hospital. He returns the next day by ambulate. But that fall was the beginning of his downward spiral. There were several more falls, none of them severe but none-the-less frightening to him.
Anita has a series of falls that put her in the hospital, followed by a stay in Rehab. Facility. Carmine is concerned about her condition, which is slow to improve. I visit her every other day. I can’t stay for more than an hour or so. Over the years, I have been in too many hospitals both as a patient and a visitor. When I’m at the Esplanade, I spend my time reading, while at the hospital, I make sure Anita has whatever she needs.
One evening during the time that Anita is away, Carmine and I again sit close to each other, waiting for the dining room doors to open. And he says, “I was given a special letter for meritorious service.”
I’m not in the mood for another one of Carmine, the killer, stories, and ready to change my seat when he says, almost in a whisper, “Imagine that.” I catch something in the low tone of his voice that’s virtually reverential, and I remain seated.
“A standoff,” he says; “Cops all over the place and perp hold up in a ground-floor apartment in an abandoned building. We couldn’t get at him from the rear because it was blocked by debris. The perp killed two people and wounded a cop. I don’t like it when we can’t do anything. So, I go up to the captain in charge of the operation and ask permission to go into the building and bring the perp out. He gives me a long look like, who the fuck are you? I just stand there waiting for him to say yes or no. He finally nods and says, “‘Go.’”
I don’t have to call Anita’s attention to it. She has seen it, and whispers to me, “Do you think he knows?” I answer with a shrug, and suddenly I am filled with an enormous feeling of helplessness, knowing that if I were a pagan, I would hear the gods laugh. Other residents must have seen and smelled it, especially when he went into the elevator.
During the next couple of weeks, his daughter comes every other day and always carries a laundry bag. I avoid going anywhere near him. But circumstances intervene, and once again, we sit next to each other, waiting for the dining room doors to open. Carmine is on my right, and Anita is on my left. We sit next to each other, waiting for the dining room doors to open. He doesn’t look well and needs a shave.
“That woman you saw me with is my ex-wife,” he says, à propos of nothing.
I did see him with a short dumpy looking woman the previous afternoon when I went to the desk to collect my mail. “Yeah, she came to see me,” he says; “I didn’t ask her to, but my daughter must have put the pressure on her.”
I have no need to pursue the conversation, so I nod and say nothing. I don’t want any part of his marital baggage.
The doors to the dining room are opened. I let him precede Anita and me. A week, maybe ten days pass, and I don’t see him at the table. Like many of the residents, he could have his meals delivered to his room. Somehow, the idea of eating alone doesn’t fit him. Not that he is in any way a gregarious person. But eating in the dining room connects him with other residents even if it’s a nod or a voiced, “hello.”
“I’m going to go to the desk and ask,” I tell Anita.
She knows I mean about Carmine, and says, “I thought you didn’t want to get involved.”
“I don’t,” I answer. “But…”
She shrugs and says, “I’m curious, too.”
When we leave the dining room, I go to the front desk while Anita waits for me near the elevators. Even before I reach it, my heart begins to race. I stop walking and wait a few moments. But it doesn’t help. I take a couple of deep breaths and continue to the desk. Another resident is speaking to Jeff, the night clerk. I wait until he’s finished and out of earshot before I ask about Carmine. Jeff looks straight at me. He has piercing grey eyes; “Dead,” he says.
My grip on my cane tightens, while Jeff occupies himself with some papers in front of him. I start to walk slowly back to where Anita is waiting. I am surprised at my own feelings. Though Carmine meant nothing to me, I’m painfully aware of that fact that I will never see him again.
From the look on my face and the way I walk, I don’t have to tell her that Carmine is dead. There’s nothing either of us can say. But until my time comes, I will remember his letter, “For Meritorious Service.”
Dr. Greenfield is published in Amarillo Bay, Runaway Parade, Writing For Tomorrow, Stone Hobo, Prime Mincer, THE STONE CANOE, electronic edition, The Raven’s Perch, among others. He is cited in Wikipedia. He and his wife live on Staten Island. He has been a sailor, soldier, college professor, playwright, and novelist.