By John-Henry Doucette
A few nights before the O’Connells held their first and only pig roast, I named a ship I served aboard long before I retired as a corpsman and landed my hospice job here in Poughkeepsie. The mention came in passing, amid a wildly unstructured discussion of our troubles with Arabs, but Philip O’Connell grinned at me like a right idiot. He bashed the bar that ran through Ultach’s Pub, the tavern he owned with his wife, Aideen. Six months and forty pounds after Navy life, I was becoming a regular. It turned out I’d made USS Kearsarge’s maiden deployment with their son, one of the Marines my ship carried across the Atlantic Ocean and back. We hadn’t known each other.
“My height,” Philip said. “Real short hair.”
“Narrow it down, Big Phil,” I said. “She was a lot of boat.”
The next night, I brought in a blue-bound memento from my leaner years aboard Kearsarge, an amphibious assault ship out of Virginia. Philip methodically flipped pages of my souvenir cruise book until he found his kid among portraits of young men dressed like cartoon jungles. “Here’s Little Phil in Fat Mike’s book,” he exclaimed.
Aideen hustled in from the kitchen. “You let me see him.”
Philip pointed out the picture, one of dozens on the page. I couldn’t tell one from the next, but Aideen gently touched Little Phil’s square inch of the book as though it were drawn in the dust atop a gold chalice. I wanted to show them how, in my photo, I was bald as a cue ball, that I’d shaved off my hair for that particular deployment knowing it would grow back well before we returned, a haircut we called a “Med Head” in honor of the Mediterranean Sea, but Aideen had eyes for only one boy in that book.
“You’re sure you didn’t know him?” she asked.
“If he went to medical, maybe I gave him an aspirin.”
“He was twenty here,” Aideen said.
“Me, too.” I still wanted to show my own little picture. “Twenty didn’t last.”
“He was wild before the Marines,” she said, “but he made himself sound.”
“They help you out with that,” I said.
“We saw him off last month in North Carolina,” Philip said. “They’d painted trucks like sand. All the boys were dressed to match.”
“We’ll get those bastards yet,” I promised.
“He’s a master sergeant now,” Philip said.
“It’s a long road to general,” I replied.
“Sweet God,” Aideen said, cradling the book. “Look upon all men.”
“That cruise was six months out, Big Phil,” I said. “We hit Malta and Corfu and Barcelona, and I think one was Rota. We helped get back that Air Force pilot who got shot down over Bosnia and wandered for days. I guess we carried your jarhead around near as long as Aideen. A damn sight further, too.”
“Nah, Michael, I carried him in my belly from Belfast,” she said.
Philip jabbed my gut. “You really fit on a ship?”
I pointed to the book in his wife’s arms. “This here boat was named for a mountain.”
“Let me hold this a bit,” Aideen said. “I’ll show it ’round.”
“Be careful with it,” I said. “I get sentimental.”
“You’ll come to our pig roast, Michael,” Aideen said. “I won’t hear no.”
“Fat former sailors eat half-off,” Philip said. “Even if you don’t eat half as much.”
“You tell him the special,” Aideen said.
“We’ll eat a pig, as you’d imagine,” Philip said.
“I’ve got quite an imagination,” I said.
“We raised up our own sow for it,” Philip said. “We even named her Dinner.”
“I pray for her sacrifice to be delicious.”
Philip laughed. “You’re really a nurse?”
“I hope you’re more sensitive on the clock,” he said.
I smiled. “You know what they say about hospice work?”
“It’s a living.”
Two nights later, I shuffled back in to eat my pound of pig. Philip started pouring my Beamish before I was in the door.
“Cheers,” I said, sitting at the bar.
“Sláinte.” He handed over my glass.
A few regulars griped about the menu.
“They came the wrong night if they don’t like pig,” I told Philip.
“You came the wrong night if you do,” he said. “Little Phil, he hasn’t called since the weekend. Aideen’s doing loops. She wouldn’t let me harvest the damned pig. I told her she’s mad, and I headed to the barn. She followed me out. It was a holy show. Yelling at me there in the barn. Scaring the hell out of that pig, let me tell you. Shouting, ‘Don’t you do it, Philip O’Connell!’ And I suppose you can see how I didn’t.”
I could. “Did she hit you with the waterworks?”
“The yelling was enough.”
There was the best kind of prayer before we ate. It went real quick. Since the pig roast lacked its pig, Philip blessed six trays of store-bought beef.
“Got it from those Italians on Main Street,” he confided when I returned from trading elbows in the buffet line. Philip shook his head ashamedly, as though the white-bearded God of Irish Catholicism Himself disapproved of such transactions.
One of the regulars toasted the memory of martyred volunteers and the Sept. 11 dead, both as one, and I raised my glass to have it refilled.
Aideen kept behind the bar. She carried the old book I had loaned to her. She showed it to all the folks filling the place and themselves, even those who already had seen it. Philip fixed his old lady a plate when everyone had taken the firsts. It was no use. She would not put down such a lovely thing just to eat. She stood across the bar from me. She held my book, touched an image, but one of a good many young men all dolled up in yesterday’s clothes.
I was in there somewhere, bald as a baby, but I never got to show her how sure I looked when I gave myself to it.
“Michael, look at my fine Marine,” she said and she pushed the book toward me. She held it a bit dangerously, with shaky hands, directly above my greasy plate.
“I can see him from here,” I said.
Recovering journalist John-Henry Doucette is a writer and trainer for a public relations firm. He is a graduate of Virginia Wesleyan College and a recent graduate of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University. He lives with his family in Virginia and neglects his writing blog, jhdoucette.com.