The hammering woke him, as it always did, and lately woke him more often. It was the thing that came next that terrified him.
He didn’t lay there long, in the dark next to his peaceful wife, once it started, because once it started he knew what was coming, and he knew if it came while he lay there his wife would sense it and she would no longer be peaceful. That probably bothered him more than anything else, more than anything it might do it him. He knew he was doomed. But his wife, she hadn’t done anything to anybody; nothing but give her love to one such as he, and he would do what he could to protect her from it. He slid quietly from the covers, rustling the bed as little as possible, moonlight leaking through the window curtain illuminating his robe on the chair. He put the robe on and stepped into his slippers and slowly closed the door behind him, silent but for the slow hammering that only he could hear.
He knew the best path to the living room, the path least likely to find any creaks in the floor, the path away from his girls’ room and least likely to draw their attention. Just enough moonlight guided his steps but drained all the color and joy his wife had swirled into their home; drained and desolate, just like him. He filled up most of a tumbler of scotch. It would help now, and he would need it later. Sat in the big ottoman under the window next to the bookcase in the moonlight. The trick would be to finish the scotch and get through the terrors and then back to bed before his wife woke. He didn’t always make it. She must be sleeping lighter because she’d been catching him more often. She always came right over to him and knelt beside him and put her head in his lap and said, “There, there, my love, it’s alright. It’s all over. There, there,” and it was as though she were trying to suck the pain out of him, take it upon herself, her sweet innocence soiled by his sins, and he just couldn’t have that. His girls might be hurt next if he couldn’t fix this, he feared, and his son, his strong and brave son, he thought, he’s already started to figure it out. He knows there’s something wrong. He was out on his own now, his son, working construction and probably looking at military service himself soon, but he still came home for Sunday dinner and looked at him with such perceptiveness that he knew, he knew, his son sensed something wrong. And he knew he was going to have to sit his son down soon and tell him.
He’d tell him, “I was just a kid, then. Not even as old as you are. I didn’t get shore leave very often, so me and another guy went down to Hotel Street. Always a crowd of sailors up and down there on Saturday night drinking cheap beer. Not good beer, either. Just cheap. You’ve no idea, but we drank it because it was all we could afford and we really wanted to tie one on, you know?” He imagined that his son would nod and smile in empathy. Just understand what he was saying a little, that’s what he really wanted. “Trouble was, along with all us sailors there were also marines, always so damn superior. I’ve always hated those jarheads. Sure enough, we got into a drunken brawl, then missed curfew, and wound up in the brig. That’s where I was Sunday morning when the bombs fell.”
He gulped scotch, the hammering loud and clear, looked across to where he imagined his son was sitting. “If we’d made curfew, I’d have still been in my bunk. I’d have probably gone down with the ship. With all my buddies. As it was, when everything got sorted out they put me on guard duty at night, right there on the dock next to my sunken ship. Right where my buddies were entombed.”
He took another long draw; he couldn’t look his son in the eye even in his imagination. “When the Arizona went down, she didn’t completely flood. There were air pockets, and there were men in those pockets. Living men. But nobody could get to them, see. Not without endangering themselves. Word came down to stop rescue attempts so no one else would get killed. But those men alive in those pockets, they had hammers, and they began hammering the hull to let us know they were there. But we couldn’t do anything. We couldn’t do anything but stand there and listen to it.” Another long draw, emptying the tumbler. He crossed the dark room to fill it again, sat back down. “First there were several guys hammering, then just a few. One night, there was just one, me standing there alone on guard, middle of the night, listening to that one guy slowly hammering. Then all of a sudden it just stopped. Dead silence. And I’ve never been so scared in my life. I started trembling head to toe, teeth chattering. Took me hours to push it back down and keep it there.
“But, son, since then, and more often lately, at night when the world is quiet, that hammering…“
And it was right then, there in his chair in the dark by the window, that the hammering in his head stopped. And the terror engulfed him as a cold wave, icy and menacing. He gulped his scotch, spilling much of it down his chin, squeezed his eyes as tight as he could, his whole body in combat with his brain to push the terror back down, down, into the dark water. Then his wife’s head was there in his lap and her soothing voice saying, “There, there. There, there.”
All my life I have had to learn to do things differently. To see the world differently.