Palo Alto Weekly 19th Annual Short Story
My Right-Hand Man
by Sakeena Ahsan
"Upon investigation at the scene of the fatal
accident it was discovered that there was nothing wrong with
The unopened chute was on the right-handed soldier who had been
given a left-handed parachute."
- report on the Korean War
Who's Paul? Paul - he's my buddy. I mean -- Oh, God, I
mean, was. We were like brothers, stuck to each other like nobody's
business. As a paratrooper, that comes with some responsibilities.
That means that we have to look out for each other. And that it's
up to us to break it to each other's moms before the telegraph.
I knew my mother, for one, would take it better if a person told
her rather than a piece of paper that regrets to inform her. It
was hard. Because I was the one who ended up having to do it.
We never promised or anything, but it's not like I could just let it pass.
I mean, Mrs. O'Neill didn't even know me. But I can't pretend it wasn't my
responsibility. Because it was. Oh, it was.
We were in the same squadron, in the same tent, for God's
sake. I still remember the day we met. Jack Sweney, the kid I was bunking with,
had shot himself in the foot, and, times not being so bad, it was enough to
get him a one-way ticket out of our hell. Naturally, they filled his place
within hours, just like Eli Whitney with his goddamn removable parts. Except
with flesh and soul, not just metal. I was in the middle of A
Tale of Two Cities for the fifth time when this removable part snuck up
on me. Just walked into the tent. Didn't even wait for proper introductions
from the soldier who was briefing him. Just walks in, comes in so quiet, quieter
than anyone's got a business to. Doesn't mean to spook anyone. He's just not
loud. Anyway, he just walks over to me and pulls my book down and next thing
I know there's these eyes in my face, these huge brown eyes, and the guy says, "I'd
prefer Madame Defarge over old fruitcake Lucie any day. And, personally,
I was routing for Carton the whole lot through."
"Paul O'Neill. I see you like Dickens." I had half forgotten
to wonder who the hell the guy was. I took his hand and waved it
caught up with what he'd said.
"I'm Johnny Abrams and Lucie is a swell girl. What's Defarge
to a doll like --"
"Passion! Passion for what matters.
Tell me something. You know why we're here?"
Heaps of people had asked me the same thing. This time I was ready
with an answer. "War, man! The bloodthirsty -- "
"You think old Truman could care a baby's behind about the Koreans, North
or South? It's the United States he cares about.
We're fighting our own war, not theirs."
"Yeah. I still don't see what this -- "
"It's got nothing to do with Lucie and her fine head of curls. Just like
we have nothing to do with Korea." It was odd. If he had talked
like that to anyone more brainwashed than me, they would have shot
him. He said
controversial things, but he didn't speak offensively. He was talking.
And I wasn't feeling too heated up about it. I was thinking. Even
though I didn't
then to what he was saying, I thought about it. It was probably
the first time I'd thought since I had enlisted.
He isn't like the other chaps in the army. You can't even call
him a chap. He's no Joe Chap. He's the kind of guy that only calls
you "Johnny" if
that's what you've told him to call you. He's the kind of guy
that saves all his letters in their envelopes and keeps them in
not the kind of guy that, to be polite, turns around and leaves
you to yourself when you're sobbing.
Mother sent me lots of stuff with her letters. Mementos. I didn't cry when
she sent me the photo of me and my girl at the homecoming dance about a year
before, or the picture of my baby sister Carol with her son William. I didn't
cry when she sent me the botton nose off my teddy bear. I didn't cry when she
sent me a leaf from the oak outside the front porch. But when I opened the
letter, the letter she had sprayed with her tangy perfume, the one she wears
all the time. That perfume. That letter. Home drifted through the suffocating
army stench around me; Mother was in the air I breathed again. I put the letter
to my nose and I can't stop. The tears just go. They're pouring and I'm drowning
in my tears and Mother's perfume. Then, there's a hand on my back, a familiar
hand. Reliable. Reassuring. Irreplaceable.
Paul stands me up and then does something my own father never
does. He wraps me in this huge bear hug. The letter falls; the
stops. Paul pulls
me back and grips my shoulders. Gives me a little shake, says, "Hey, hey,
Johnny kid, you gotta stay together. Get a hold, Johnny. It's okay, Johnny
kid. We're gonna do this, we're gonna finish, and we're gonna get home." He
was that kind of guy.
When I pissed in my pants at nights, he'd give me his last pair of clean Long
Johns and keep quite about it. We shared rations, covered each other in battle,
and always made sure the other guy was still alive. We were each other's right-hand
men. That's why he gave me the parachute. That's why it's my fault.
Okay, okay. I'll back up a bit, although, you must understand,
it's really difficult to run through the details of that part.
a mission, flying somewhere over Korea. Ever flown over Korea?
Well, today, I mean, thatday
was cloudy. The commanding officer is a little apprehensive about
going on with the mission, but that never matters, does it? You
do what the
whether or not there's a flaw in the plot. Just do it. But weather
doesn't cut it. It has to be worse. We don't have enough parachutes.
We do have enough parachutes, technically. Technically. If
it's technically okay, then it's okay, and
the mission is all a-okay. But, in reality, we're not okay.
We are short one right-handed parachute. Jonesy's barking orders
everywhere. I never thought "bark" was an appropriate way to define human action
until I heard Jonesy. Jonesy barks. Anyway, Paul and I are the only ones left
who don't have chutes when Jonesy holds up the last righty and barks, "Here,
O'Neill. Abrams, you get a lefty." My face falls. Paul grabs
the chute and tosses it to me in one smooth move.
"You think I could take that after seeing the look on your
I shrug. "I could handle a lefty. It's no big deal." But
even as I say it, I am putting on the righty, asserting that it's
mine. You have to understand. In the army, when nothing is familiar, the least
can have is the type of chute he trained with. If Paul weren't
my best friend, I would be wondering what got into him.
But, it is, really, no big deal. It's not. Jonesy hurriedly explains that the
only difference is that the ripcord is on the left side. The ripcord is a --
it's the thing that lets the parachute out. Anyway, that's it: left side. No
Paul is still strapping himself in as I prepare to jump.
I see his hand reach up and pat my back. "Let's go, Johnny." I
Even as I jump, I can hear Jonesy screaming, "Remember,
soldier, it's the left!"
How were we supposed to know he wouldn't remember?
When we found his body, I had to wretch for a good five minutes.
You wouldn't, just couldn't understand. His whole right strap was shredded.
The right side of his shirt was shredded and
his right sleeve was falling off. He had even started to
shred his skin.
oh the blood!
Oh God. The nails were ground to the quick. The left hand
was clenching the strap so bad that the knuckles had turned
white in the
space of two
minutes, what must have seemed to him like two eons and two
milliseconds wrapped into
each other. His ripcord was completely unscathed, tucked
neatly into the palm of his left hand. He was twenty-four.
I looked into his eyes. Ever stared into a dead man's eyes?
I know it's morbid, but I couldn't help thinking I shouldn't
I should be there,
splat on the ground, with my chute intact and my bones...not.
I think people are never the same, not even from second to second. I sometimes
wonder if the Paul falling through the sky would have done the same thing as
the Paul I had left on the plane. At the time, all I could do about it was
hope he hadn't had time to remember that it was really supposed to be my chute.
And that he hadn't insulted me or my mother. Oh God, I hope, for his sake,
that it wasn't my mother.
Maybe I wouldn't have forgotten it was
a lefty. But I know he didn't forget. You don't forget something
don't think about
it. You just go for the right, like you're putting on your
pants or holding a pencil. The right, the right, the right,
the right means the ripcord means the canopy means life.
I know I'm being too hard on myself. Hell, he volunteered. He gave me the right-handed
parachute. He let me have it. He didn't have to. He didn't have to. But that's
just it. He didn't have to. He offered it, like a trooper, like a man.
I took leave soon after and took the opportunity to tell his mom. Face to face. Like it was supposed to be. Mrs. O'Neill took it real hard. I would have explained, truthfully, that I technically cheated her son of life by taking the chute he had offered me after it was assigned to him --- except in milder words. So that she could have savored the Paul I know. So that she could know that there was in him the kind of character you only get to discover in people in the worst of times. But, she would have assumed me a murderer, no matter how I described it. She wouldn't have understood. Mother said she did. I wonder if she still would, if it had been me. I hope she would. I really do.
"My Right-Hand Man" is a very strong story. The writer establishes a clear, engaging voice, and then fills the story with vivid scenes and well-realized characters.