Bucks County Writers Workshop
The Yellow Bus
lindness can be a blessing was what Don Hoerth thought about Marvin Munford. He watched Marvin lean back, belch, and take a long sip of the beer that kept him half-buzzed all day. With an unerring hand, he set the can back on the table and called out, "Rook to Queen one." His smile was sly.
Hoerth stuck out his hand and moved the rook four squares to the Queen's home square. Now the rook dominated the open Queen file and allowed Hoerth two fewer spaces to use for his king to escape the assault of Hoerth's white pieces.
Yes, blindness had blessings; it concentrated the mind admirably. Hoerth had never been a great chess player but after twenty-six months in the hospital with little else to pass the time he thought he'd improved his game well enough to defeat an opponent who couldn't see the board.
But as Father Greene would have said, that was his vanity speaking.
Forgetting his opponent for the moment, he smiled over the board. Frowning at his stupidity, he tried to move the smile to his voice. "A very good move."
"You're not concentrating today."
"I apologize, Marvin, I know how you enjoy playing. But next week I go back to the hospital for another operation and that's heavy on my mind today. I'm tired, Marvin, I'm tired of all that ..."
The dog looked up from his steady sleep and whined at the emotion in Hoerth's voice. "Hush," Marvin whispered softly to the shepherd. The animal's tail beat the floor.
Embarrassed at what he'd said, Hoerth reached for his own beer and let the liquid roll around what was left of his lips.
"My poor friend," Marvin said in the same tone he used for the dog. Like a thing separate from his voice, his hand came up and stroked Hoerth's face. Although the alien skin was dead and no nerve endings connected it to Hoerth's sense of touch, he knew the touch was kind. He wondered what Marvin felt through his fingers behind his blind eyes. "You've been through so much," Marvin added with feeling.
The first time they'd met, Marvin insisted on touching his face while Hoerth trembled with loathing as he watched the eager fingers exploring the crevices and rubbing along the foreign skin as if they would peel the truth from him the way the fire had peeled the skin from his face. "Now we will know each other," he'd said.
Marvin was one of the few who did not automatically recoil from him. He did not know that Hoerth had been so badly burned on September 11 he had virtually no face left. When Rudy Giuliani and others came to his hospital bed to honor him for being one of the policemen who'd dashed into the doomed World Trade Center to rescue those trapped, they were unable to conceal the looks of distaste and horror that distorted their honorable words. Hoerth had hated them for their wholeness and their sympathy.
He'd spent almost two years in the burn ward and its antiseptic smell and endured fourteen operations, grafting skin from other parts of the body, rebuilding his nose, fitting his battered gums for new teeth. Finally, in between operations, although his face resembled poorly farmed land and there was still some seepage and pain, they'd allowed him to retire to the few acres remaining from an old family holding in Havre De Grace.
The only man he missed was Father Greene, an elderly priest dying of cancer, who was the only other man who looked at him without flinching. Many nights he'd stayed up with Hoerth, alternating prayers and casual talk when the pain threatened to turn him into a screaming carcass. Although Hoerth had been raised a Catholic, eight years in the paratroops, work as a parole officer, and five years on the police had rinsed away the remnants of his boyhood faith like coffee grounds from the sink. Still, the priest's compassion for others' suffering and his simple courage in the face of the cancer that was rotting out his stomach so that the priest spent entire nights vomiting up his insides in a red stream, reinvigorated church teachings that no lapsed Catholic can forget.
"I'm living my death," the priest had said of his life and talked of the Desert Fathers who went into the desert to purge the soul of its human weakness and greet the Dark Night of the Soul with Saint John of the Cross.
"We must look upon our suffering as a special gift not granted to others. We must dedicate our pain to God," the priest told Hoerth. "In suffering we are like the innocent little children."
"I don't believe it."
"I will pray that you will believe someday. I will pray for a brave man. I will pray for your almighty soul. We are all empty vessels until God fills us with his love."
The priest had died during Hoerth's second year in the hospital.
"You didn't become a Catholic, though, did you?" Marvin asked.
"I honored Father Greene's bravery if not his delusion," Hoerth replied. He didn't add that it was as much pride as intellectual arguments that would not allow him to return to his faith at the point of death.
"There is no defense against the charitable act," Marvin said, as if it was something he was intimately familiar with.
Marvin's home had much of the ascetic about it. There were no fancy rugs to trip over, no paintings or photos to admire on the walls. Just a few soft chairs and the coffee table with its chess set and small gouges in the wood floor to guide Marvin to his kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom even when he was drunk.
Hoerth had been nervous to move to a strange town and pleased to find Marvin for his neighbor. And Marvin appreciated his presence. Now Marvin could extend his walks to the bayside where he could hear the chop of water and the cries of waterfowl.
"Maybe we should walk," Marvin suggested. "It would be nice to be on the move. It feels like a beautiful day. The sun is warm." At the sound of his voice, the shepherd perked up his head and slapped the floor with his tail. "Out Willy," Marvin said, and the dog went over and grasped the holder in his teeth and brought it back to Marvin.
Hoerth scanned the chessboard. "I think the game is yours anyway."
Marvin shrugged. "I expect a checkmate in six moves. Would you like me to demonstrate?"
"I'll take your word for it."
The dog was standing still to allow Marvin to attach the strong leather around his shoulders. For not the first time, Hoerth wondered if dogs felt bound by duty. Who do they dedicate their lives to?
The sun was bright and he donned sunglasses to shield his weak eyes. He wished he could wear a hat but the scars on his head were too recent. Marvin and he made a nice matched set with their oversized sunglasses. He paused in the doorway watching the shepherd guide Marvin off the porch with bumps and pulls on the leash. It would be pleasant to sit here in the breeze, he thought.
Then he heard the insistent blaring of a car horn. It wasn't just a toot telling someone to get out of the way, it was strong and steady. Obnoxious.
It grew louder, approaching. The dog stood in front of Marvin, holding him back from the road.
"What is that?" Marvin asked.
"It's a van and it's coming this way."
A van with a rug unrolling from around a beautiful woman came around the corner and bounced along the gravel, the driver leaning on the horn. Marvin seemed to shrivel at the noise and the shepherd leaned against his leash, on the alert.
Without another thought, Hoerth remembered his police training and stepped out on the grass and faced the van as it slid to a stop. The driver was as bald as he was. It must be his imagination but he thought he heard the cries of children inside.
He could see the look of horror on the driver's face. He laughed. Let him look.
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Bucks County Writers Workshop