The Things I Did
He joined the Marines at eighteen. A soldier through and through. He was tall, sturdy and always friendly. Daniel was my neighbor for nearly five years. He had moved from the high desert to the suburbs of L.A. so he could be closer to his grown children.
“I have six” he once told me. “Seven” he corrected himself a second later. Two from three ex-wives and one boy whom he had picked up during a mission while his platoon was making their way through the country side in Vietnam in early ‘73. The village had been raided just a few days before they got there. There were bodies everywhere he said. Some people still lingered trying to salvage what they could. He came up on a broken hut when a little girl walked up, speaking Vietnamese and crying, asking him to take the 9 month old baby she held in her arms. The child was crying and hungry.
He took the baby, fed him some MREs and they walked for nearly two days into the next town. When they arrived there was a mobile red-cross. He gave the child to them, put down his information and registered the baby as his own giving the baby an American name. However with the mess that was the war he didn’t follow-up for years.
He was a career soldier, he’d been in South America, Central America and other missions he still couldn’t talk about. He’d seen the ugly side of humanity for many years.
Every morning I’d hear him working on his backyard as the music played from his garage, always classical rock. I would usually see him working on old cars, tinkling with things, taken them apart and putting them back together. One time he souped up a ’92 Geo Metro that he’d race at the track. He and I would spend a good amount of time on the weekends talking through an opening in the fence that separated our properties. Once in a while, his old buddies would drive up in Harleys to come visit him.
And like clockwork, Daniel was out in his backyard working on something. If not, he would be in garage working a new project. Classic rock and roll played in his old radio, an old radio you’d find in an antique store. But as far I remember in those five years he’d been my neighbor, his kids never came to visit him.
Daniel would sometimes tell his stories, almost with a smile, recalling his childhood and his teens. How signed up to be a Marine the day after he graduated high school simply because he didn’t want to school anymore. He would recollect the most vivid details , with nostalgia and sadness.
One beautiful Sunday morning, as my family and I came back from mass, I had prepared some steaks to grill in the backyard, I thought of inviting old Daniel to come and joins for lunch and refreshments. My kids always enjoyed talking to him and he was great with them. However he was nowhere to be seen. His Oldsmobile was parked in the front driveway, the motorcycle he’d been working on was in the backyard along with the little Geo Metro. I could hear music coming from the garage. I called out to him a couple of times but I didn’t hear a response. I waited a couple of minutes and called out to him again, telling him I was making some steaks, still no response.
I knocked on his front door, no response. I went around to the wood door on the side the house but it was locked. I called his name again but nothing. I went back to my house and went about my business, tidy up the backyard and clean the grill. “Maybe he went out with one of his friends” I told myself.
My wife was inside the house taking a nap and my kids were in the living room playing video games. As I started to clean the grill, expecting him to show up on with one of his friends, suddenly I heard a noise beside the music coming from his garage. At that moment I decided to jump the fence, I went past the motorcycle and the car, past all the junk he’d collected over the years, computers, car parts, boxes and crates and peered through the window of the door into the garage.
There he was, on the floor, he had fallen from a chair under his workbench. The door was locked. I called out his name but he didn’t respond. I tried to pry the door open. Then I punched the window in, removing the screen and unlocking it from the inside. I rushed to his side, he was still breathing, but his face was pale. On his workbench was a gun, a bottle of aspirin and a bunch of old pictures. He had slit his wrists with his old switchblade, the cut ran along the veins. Blood was everywhere, his jeans were covered in it. He was struggling to breathe. As I bent down, my white shoes suddenly became soaked in the crimson liquid. I panicked for a second and that’s when he turned his head slightly and softly said “I’m sorry”.
“I got a call for help” I said as my heart beat fast, my mind racing. I could feel myself shaking a bit.
“No” he said softly. I could barely hear him with the music coming from the old radio that hung from the wall.
“I have to call 9-1-1” I started again seeing his pale face.
“It’s too late” Daniel said. “I’m alone, my family is far away…” he added. “All my buddies are gone, I saw them die. The things we did, the things I did, it’s unforgivable.”
“Don’t say that” I replied as I held his hand. His hands were rough, cold and weak now.
“The things I did” he repeated “I’m sorry for the things I did” he told me, apologizing to me as if I had been a victim of his past, of the unmentionable actions.
My phone was in my backyard and everyone was still in the house. I could feel my voice breaking, my eyes welling up. CCR’s Fortunate Son suddenly came on the radio. He smile one last smile, through the thick mustache and mutter “I’m sorry” one last time.
I yelled out to my wife.
I stood up, my legs were shaking and noticed the gun wasn’t loaded. He had taken several aspirin and the photographs were of him and his old buddies from his platoon. In one of the pictures I saw a much younger Daniel. Next to the photographs was a pile of letters in envelopes with different names. It seemed he wanted to go slowly, listening to the music of youth.