Max was so old he was there on D-day. He had the uniform in his closet, beat to shit, the pockets still holding sand from Normandy, and one impossibly preserved rose from a drunk French girl. He was here at the Valley View Home—with me, his evening orderly—but a big part of his mind was still in France, in those glory days.
D-day was coming up, and I was training Max a bit, walking him up the halls and outside more than usual, increasing the distance each day. He was getting less winded. We passed Eva a lot, another resident, and she always had a flower in her hair and spoke French. Her skin was pale and smooth. She was sexy. Max smiled and nodded to her. He seemed shy, and I don't think he spoke French.
After dinner I took Max out to my car, where I had my bee-bee gun. I looked around, and then slid it down my pant leg. I walked stiff-legged toward the pine trees behind the home where we could shoot. Max seemed to think he had to walk like me; we were two Frankensteins. I caught Eva peeking from her window. She quickly hid behind her curtain.
We pushed through the pines. Max's silver hair was standing up, a tangled mess. I'd have to bring in clippers to make him back into a soldier, since the barber had stopped coming.
I'd set up cans from the recycle bin. Max fell on his belly and crawled along in the grass. He fired but hit nothing but trees and a neighbor's shed. He said, "Die, fuckers," and then told me he'd shit himself. So I hid the gun in the trees and led him to his room.
"Tonight's Caf é Night," I told him. "We'll get you a bath. Get you dolled up."
"I don't know, Donny. I have to be out there killing." My name was John but he called me Donny. He shuffled along in his weighty diaper.
"There will be a time for that."
I took him to the tiled room with the oversized tub and hydraulic lift. I put his diaper in the metal diaper can and wiped feces from his thin butt and wasted legs. I had gotten used to this, and so had he. It was no longer humiliating; it was an act of love, one man to another, a bond in horrible times, as in war. I worked the controls and lowered his small body into the tub. His plastic battleships were floating, including the model troop carrier, the amphibious vehicles. He always blows one up in there, enemy fire tossing it over the rim. I used the washcloth on him, which ended up looking like a burnt fragment of flag, like hard times.
Then I powdered him up and put him in his robe with the big "M."
Back in his room I helped him into his suit, combed his hair; slicked it down. On his dresser the photo of him as a young man looked like me. Maybe that was why I took to him. Anyway, I was all he had. His son was dead, and the day orderly treated him like shit, let him sit in a chair and sleep all day. When I came on I attended first to the other two men I had; but they were bedridden and uncommunicative. I spent most of the time with Max.
Café Night they decked out the dining room with checkered table cloths and candles and dimmed the lights. The folks could dream of the nights when they had been in such romantic places. They served tiny espresso cups of decaf. A man named Jose came and played classical guitar.
I sat at a tiny round table with Max. His moist eyes glowed in the candlelight. "Gotta smoke?" he said.
"Can't smoke in here."
"Since it will kill you."
He forgot about it. He saw Eva at her table, her face luminous. "That French girl, Donny." He nodded to her. His shaky hand toasted her with his cup. She lifted her water goblet. They couldn't take their eyes from each other. Max finally dropped his head. I knew he'd had a wife, but he only ever mentioned a "lost love."
The next day I brought my clippers and an army helmet I got at a flea market. It was beat up, like the person had been shot. Coming in the front door my supervisor grabbed me and again voiced her concern over Max, that perhaps I shouldn't work him so hard or take him "off ground." I just nodded agreement. I figured if Max died I would leave anyway.
In his room I threw a sheet over him and buzzed his hair. His jaw hardened when he saw the result. He looked at his picture on the dresser. He said that no one could stop him now. We put on his uniform, which hung on him, but even so he walked without a shuffle, proudly with his head up, and when we passed Eva she blushed and he gave her a confident glance, almost a sneer. "Tomorrow we will save your people," he said. She smiled. They were her real teeth, I knew, and she was like a girl in her summer dress and sandals.
We marched out the front door and sat on a bench. We had a view of the golf course, and once in a while a ball would slice through the pines near the ninth hole and bounce near us. That always set Max in motion. "Explosive device!" he would say, and he'd spring up and snatch the ball and stomp it through the drainage grate. Then, with an amazing display of spryness, he'd return to the bench before the golfers came through the trees, looking around. "Off the property!" he would yell. He had a voracious hate for golfers; I found out during one of these episodes the one detail about his wife: she had left him for a golfer. "No golfers should have balls," he said.
I had already decided that tomorrow, for the anniversary of D-day, we would storm the bunker of the ninth hole, which was exceptionally large and steep and pristine.
Today we crept back to our shooting range. Max fired standing up this time. He hit two of the cans while yelling, "Nazi fuckers!" Then he shot himself in the helmet. The bee-bee pinged and hit my cheek. I felt the immediate flow of blood. Max screamed, "Donny, you're hit!" With a sudden burst of strength he yanked me to the ground, knocking the breath from both of us. Then he started to roll, between the trees and down the sharp rise and onto the pavement. The driveway sloped steadily from there to the main road, and he was picking up speed, yelling, "Ahhh! Die!" His helmet clunked the asphalt. There was a small group of spectators— visitors and residents, and my supervisor was probably watching from somewhere with her binoculars. Somehow I had developed a limp, and I barely reached Max before he hit traffic. He reached up and pulled me to him. He kissed my bloody face and said, "Brother. You are alive."
Later I found myself in the supervisor's office. She was watching the golf course with her binoculars. With her back to me, she told me I should take a few days off. She was not happy with my behavior. "Max is too old for this."
"What? For living? This is what he wants. To revisit glory."
"Don't be foolish. You make a fool of him."
On my way out I responded, quite loudly, "You're the fool!"
I was not missing D-day. I borrowed my father's clown outfit, and he carefully painted my face. He let me take his accordion. In a basket I took a bottle of wine for Max to celebrate afterwards. I signed in at the home as Pierre the Entertainer. I pulled fake flowers from my pants for the old ladies, and strolled around playing the one song I knew: "Michelle," by the Beatles.
I made my way to Max's room. Norton, the day orderly, had Max tied in a chair with a sheet, so he couldn't get up and wander. He always did it. Max was asleep, oatmeal still on his unshaven chin. "Max," I said, shaking his shoulder. He jumped. "I'm not talking," he said. "You'll get nothing from me."
"It's Donny, Max. Let's get you ready."
"I have to say, commander, war has taken a toll on you. You need help."
"It's my disguise."
"Clever. They'll kill you first."
I started working on him. Norton wouldn't be around; he flirted with nurses all day. I got Max's soaked diaper off, cleaned him carefully. He wouldn't let me put another one on. He grabbed my arm and said: "Not today," in an Eastwood tone.
I shaved him and helped him with the uniform. On the pocket his name had faded away, and I looked at him in the mirror, the fierce look on his face, and said, "Glory never fades, Max." He nodded his head.
I opened his window, sliced the screen out, and climbed through. My clown feet gave me trouble. Then I lifted Max through. He was light as a bird and I felt his heart racing. I thought about his heart on the real D-day, pumping to muscles which were strong, to a mind alert and filled with the chemicals that push one past fear.
I fetched the gun from the trees and we crept among those pines for cover. The trees wound and became the border of the golf course; there was no fence. We crouched and watched the ninth hole, having a last cigarette, and then field stripping them. I looked through my binoculars. There was a party of four just putting through. They took many strokes, and Max whispered, "Those things could go off any time! They're so stupid!" We kept low, circling to the sand trap, where the magnificent white sand shone brilliantly in the morning light. I handed Max the gun, fully loaded, and he saluted and then dove into the bunker, pressing down, wiggling his hips to be at the lowest point. He would wait for my signal to go, and then there was only forward, full blast, no turning back, no prisoners, leaping from the ridge of sand in full-out fire, stepping over the dead, chasing back to the trees and firing the new white grenade balls to take out cover, and they will be ours. A free France will thank and love us.
The next group was coming down the fairway. They were middle-aged men with bellies. "Max, their best have been used up. Look what's left." They had their white shoes and belts, and plaids like targets. They were coming in a slow vehicle that was not even armored. They stopped a hundred yards out and fired their white balls in our direction. One landed next to Max in the sand, and he immediately tossed it into the rough. Someone yelled, "Hey!" I hunkered next to Max and straightened his helmet. When we heard the little gay vehicle whine near the green I said, "It's go time, Max."
My little friend was so alive! He belly-crawled like a seasoned caterpillar, hit the ridge of the bunker and came up firing, yelling, "Die, Nazi golfing bastards!" His aim was true. I could hear the bee-bees pinging off belt buckles, whacking the white shoes, peppering the cart; eyeglasses flew and men fell, blood on their faces. They retreated on hands and knees, hiding behind the cart. One blubbered over a radio: "Security! We're under attack! Old man and a clown on hole nine!"
They fumbled into the cart and tore off. Max got off some parting shots, and threw his arms up. He grabbed the flag from the hole and held it up. "Victory is ours," he said.
I started to worry, the reality of what I had done sinking in. I would certainly never work here again. The owner of Valley View owned part of the golf course. I'd never see Max again. There was some commotion in the distance, more carts coming, so I threw Max over my shoulder and ran with my big feet into the trees. He thought it was some victory celebration; he whooped and exclaimed, "To town! To drink!"
We buried the gun, his uniform, and the clown suit. In our underwear we crept to the neighbor's clothes line and found two dresses and scarves. We entered the building silently and humbly, bare foot peasant ladies who went to the chapel to light a candle for D-day. We knelt and prayed with no regard to rumors growing behind us. When the distraction reached its peak, we made our way unnoticed to Max's room, where I helped him into his best suit, combed sand from his hair, put some nice cologne on him. We made our way to Eva's room. She was expecting us. She quickly let us in. She used her eyeliner on me and some makeup and gave me a black wig. I opened the wine for them and lit some candles.
Eva hugged Max, put her soft cheek on his. "We will celebrate," she said, along with some sultry French words that nearly gave me wood in my dress.
I left them with their door locked. I went outside with my accordion and stood beneath her window and played my song, softly at first, when they were getting to know each other...tres bien ensemble...but picking up volume as the throes of their passion grew. This was their secret love from long ago, consummated at last. But I worried about Max's heart, after all this, and in fact Eva cried out the window to me several times: she thought he was dying. I lit a cigarette. "He's probably just tired," I said.
After a while my accordion seemed to lose its breath; it wheezed, notes dribbling in minor keys. Then it was silent.
I turned and saluted for a full minute. "Goodbye, my friend."