For a change of pace, here is one of the finest short stories I’ve ever read.
The late Richard McKenna is best known for his novel The Sand Pebbles, which was later made into a movie of the same title. But he began his authorial career writing science fiction, and his best short story, “Casey Agonistes”, combines his naval experience with the fantasy genre.
I couldn’t find the text of this story online, so I scanned it from my copy of the magazine in which it was first published. It appeared originally in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in September 1958.
by Richard McKenna
You can’t just plain die. You got to do it by the book.
That’s how come I’m here in this TB ward with nine other recruits. Basic training to die.
You do it by stages. First a big ward, you walk around and go out and they call you mister. Then, if you got what it takes, a promotion to this isolation ward and they call you charles. You can’t go nowhere, you meet the masks, and you get the feel of being dead.
Being dead is being weak and walled off. You hear car noises and see little doll-people down on the sidewalks, but when they come to visit you they wear white masks and nightgowns and talk past you in the wrong voices. They’re scared you’ll rub some off on them. You would, too, if you knew how.
Nobody ever visits me. I had practice being dead before I come here. Maybe that’s how I got to be charles so quick.
It’s easy, playing dead here. You eat your pills, make out to sleep in the quiet hours and drink your milk like a good little charles. You grin at their phony joshing about how healthy you look and feel. You all know better, but them’s the rules.
Sick call is when they really make you know it. It’s a parade — the head doctor and nurse, the floor nurse Mary Howard and two interns, all in masks and nightgowns. Mary pushes the wheeled rack with our fever charts on it. The doc is a tall skinhead with wooden eyes and pinchnose glasses. The head nurse is fat, with little pig eyes and a deep voice.
The doc can’t see, hear, smell or touch you. He looks at your reflection in the chart and talks about you like you was real, but it’s Mary that pulls down the cover and opens your pajama coat, and the interns poke and look and listen and tell the doc what they see and hear. He asks them questions for you to answer. You tell them how good you feel and they tell him. He ain’t supposed to get contaminated.
Mary’s small, dark, and sweet and the head nurse gives her a bad time. One intern is small and dark like Mary, but with soft black eyes and very gentle. The other one is pink and chubby.
The doc’s voice is high and thin, like he ain’t all there below decks. The head nurse snaps at Mary, snips at the interns, and puts a kind of dog wiggle in her voice when she talks to the doc.
I’m glad not to know what’s under any of their masks, except maybe Mary’s, because I can likely imagine better faces for them than God did. The head nurse makes rounds, writing the book. When she catches us out of line, like smoking or being up in a quiet hour, she gives Mary hell.
She gives us hell too, like we was babies. She kind of hints that if we ain’t respectful to her and obey her rules maybe she won’t let us die after all.
Christ, how I hate this hag! I hope I meet her in hell.
That’s how it struck me, first day or two in isolation. I’d looked around for old shipmates, like a guy does, but didn’t see any. On the third day one recognized me. I thought I knew that gravel voice, but even after he told me I couldn’t hardly believe it was old Slop Chute Hewitt.
He was skin and bones and his blue eyes had a kind of puzzled look like I saw in them once years ago when a big limey sucker punched him in Nagasaki Joe’s. When I remembered that, it made me know, all right.
– – – – – – – – –
He said glad to see me there and we both laughed. Some of the others shuffled over in striped bathrobes and all of a sudden I was in like Flynn, knowing Slop Chute. I found out they called the head doc Uncle Death. The fat nurse was Mama Death. The blond intern was Pink Waldo, the dark one Curly Waldo, and Mary was Mary. Knowing things like that is a kind of password.
They said Curly Waldo was sweet on Mary, but he was a poor Italian. Pink Waldo come of good family and was trying to beat him out. They were pulling for Curly Waldo.
When they left, Slop Chute and me talked over old times in China. I kept seeing him like he was on the John D. Edwards, sitting with a cup of coffee topside by the aft fireroom hatch, while his snipes turned to down below. He wore bleached dungarees and shined shoes and he looked like a lord of the earth. His broad face and big belly. The way he stoked chow into himself in the guinea pullman — that’s what give him his name. The way he took aboard beer and samshu in the Kongmoon Happiness Garden. The way he swung the little ne-sans dancing in the hotels on Skibby Hill. Now … Godalmighty! It made me know.
But he still had the big jack-o-lantern grin.
“Remember little Connie that danced at the Palais?” he asked.
I remember her, half Portygee, cute as hell.
“You know, Charley, now I’m headed for scrap, the onliest one damn thing I’m sorry for is I didn’t shack with her when I had the chance.”
“She was nice,” I said.
“She was green fire in the velvet, Charley. I had her a few times when I was on the Monocacy. She wanted to shack and I wouldn’t never do it. Christ, Christ, I wish I did, now!”
“I ain’t sorry for anything, that I can think of.”
“You’ll come to it, sailor. For every guy there’s some one thing. Remember how Connie used to put her finger on her nose like a Jap girl?”
“Now, Mr. Noble, you mustn’t keep arthur awake in quiet hour. Lie down yourself, please.”
It was Mama Death, sneaked up on us.
“Now rest like a good boy, charles, and we’ll have you home before you know it,” she told me on her way out.
I thought a thought at her.
The ward had green-gray linoleum, high, narrow windows, a sparcolor overhead, and five bunks on a side. My bunk was at one end next to the solarium. Slop Chute was across from me in the middle. Six of us was sailors, three soldiers, and there was one marine.
We got mucho sack time, training for the long sleep. The marine bunked next to me and I saw a lot of him.
He was a strange guy. Name of Carnahan, with a pointed nose and a short upper lip and a go-to-hell stare. He most always wore his radio earphones and he was all the time grinning and chuckling like he was in a private world from the rest of us.
It wasn’t the program that made him grin, either, like I thought first. He’d do it even if some housewife was yapping about how to didify the dumplings. He carried on worst during sick call. Sometimes Uncle Death looked across almost like he could hear it direct.
I asked him about it and he put me off, but finally he told me. Seems he could hypnotize himself to see a big ape and then make the ape clown around. He told me I might could get to see it too. I wanted to try, so we did.
“He’s there,” Carnahan would say. “Sag your eyes, look out the corners. He won’t be plain at first.”
“Just expect him, he’ll come. Don’t want him to do anything. You just feel. He’ll do what’s natural,” he kept telling me.
I got where I could see the ape — Casey, Carnahan called him — in flashes. Then one day Mama Death was chewing out Mary and I saw him plain. He come up behind Mama and — I busted right out laughing.
He looked like a bow-legged man in an ape suit covered with red-brown hair. He grinned and made faces with a mouth full of big yellow teeth and he was furnished like John Keeno himself. I roared.
“Put on your phones so you’ll have an excuse for laughing,” Carnahan whispered. “Only you and me can see him, you know.”
Fixing to be dead, you’re ready for God knows what, but Casey was sure something.
“Hell, no he ain’t real,” Carnahan said. “We ain’t so real ourselves any more. That’s why we can see him.”
Carnahan told me it was okay to try and let Slop Chute in on it. It ended we cut the whole gang in, going slow so the masks wouldn’t get suspicious.
It bothered Casey at first, us all looking at him. It was like we all had a string on him and he didn’t know who to mind. He backed and filled and tacked and yawed all over the ward not able to steer himself. Only when Mama Death was there and Casey went after her, then it was like all the strings pulled the same way.
The more we watched him the plainer and stronger he got till finally he started being his own man. He came and went as he pleased and we never knew what he’d do next except that there’d be a laugh in it. Casey got more and more there for us, but he never made a sound.
He made a big difference. We all wore our earphones and giggled like idiots. Slop Chute wore his big sideways grin more often. Old Webster almost stopped griping.
There was a man filling in for a padre came to visitate us every week. Casey would sit on his knee and wiggle and drool, with one finger between those strong, yellow teeth. The man said the radio was a Godsend to us patient spirits in our hour of trial. He stopped coming.
Casey made a real show out of sick call. He kissed Mama Death smack on her mask, danced with her and bit her on the rump. He rode piggy back on Uncle Death. He even took a hand in Mary’s romance.
One Waldo always went in on each side of a bunk to look, listen and feel for Uncle. Mary could go on either side. We kept count of whose side she picked and how close she stood to him. That’s how we figured Pink Waldo was ahead.
Well, Casey started to shoo her gently in by Curly Waldo and then crowd her closer to him. And, you know, the count began to change in Curly’s favor. Casey had something.
If no masks were around to bedevil, Casey would dance and turn handsprings. He made us all feel good.
Uncle Death smelled a rat and had the radio turned off during sick call and quiet hours. But he couldn’t cut off Casey.
Something went wrong with Roby, the cheerful black boy next to Slop Chute. The masks were all upset about it and finally Mary come told him on the sly. He wasn’t going to make it. They were going to flunk him back to the big ward and maybe back to the world.
Mary’s good that way. We never see her face, of course, but I always imagine for her a mouth like Venus has, in that picture you see her standing in the shell.
When Roby had to go, he come around to each bunk and said goodbye. Casey stayed right behind him with his tongue stuck out. Roby kept looking around for Casey, but of course he couldn’t see him.
He turned around, just before he left the ward, and all of a sudden Casey was back in the middle and scowling at him. Roby stood looking at Casey with the saddest face I ever saw him wear. Then Casey grinned and waved a hand. Roby grinned back and tears run down his black face. He waved and shoved off.
Casey took to sleeping in Roby’s bunk till another recruit come in.
One day two masked orderlies loaded old Webster the whiner onto a go-to-Jesus cart and wheeled him off to X-ray. They said. But later one came back and wouldn’t look at us and pushed Webster’s locker out and we knew. The masks had him in a quiet room for the graduation exercises.
They always done that, Slop Chute told me, so’s not to hurt the morale of the guys not able to make the grade yet. Trouble was, when a guy went to X-ray on a go-to-Jesus cart he never knew till he got back whether he was going to see the gang again.
Next morning when Uncle Death fell in for sick call, Casey come bouncing down the ward and hit him a haymaker plumb on the mask.
I swear the bald-headed bastard staggered. I know his glasses fell off and Pink Waldo caught them. He said something about a moment of vertigo, and made a quick job of sick call. Casey stayed right behind him and kicked his stern post every step he took.
Mary favored Curly Waldo’s side that day without any help from Casey.
After that Mama Death really got ugly. She slobbered loving care all over us to keep us from knowing what we was there for. We got baths and back rubs we didn’t want. Quiet hour had to start on the dot and be really quiet. She was always reading Mary off in whispers, like she knew it bothered us.
Casey followed her around aping her duck waddle and poking her behind now and again. We laughed and she thought it was at her and I guess it was. So she got Uncle Death to order the routine temperatures taken rectally, which she knew we hated. We stopped laughing and she knocked off the rectal temperatures. It was a kind of unspoken agreement. Casey give her a worse time than ever, but we saved our laughing till she was gone.
Poor Slop Chute couldn’t do anything about his big, lopsided grin that was louder that a belly laugh. Mama give him a real bad time. She arthured the hell out of him.
He was coming along first rate, had another hemorrhage, and they started taking him to the clinic on a go-to-Jesus cart instead of in a chair. He was supposed to use ducks and a bedpan instead of going to the head, but he saved it up and after lights out we used to help him walk to the head. That made his reflection in the chart wrong and got him in deeper with Uncle Death.
I talked to him a lot, mostly about Connie. He said he dreamed about her pretty often now.
“I figure it means I’m near ready for the deep six, Charley.”
“Figure you’ll see Connie then?”
“No. Just hope I won’t have to go on thinking about her then. I want it to be all night in and no reveille.”
“Yeah,” I said, “me too. What ever become of Connie?”
“I heard she ate poison right after the Reds took over Shanghai. I wonder if she ever dreamed about me?”
“I bet she did, Slop Chute,” I said. “She likely used to wake up screaming and she ate the poison just to get rid of you.”
He put on his big grin.
“You regret something too, Charley. You find it yet?”
“Well, maybe,” I said. “Once on a stormy night at sea on the Black Hawk I had a chance to push King Brody over the side. I’m sorry now I didn’t.”
“Just come to you?”
“Hell, no, it come to me three days later when he give me a week’s restriction in Tsingtao. I been sorry ever since.”
“No. It’ll smell you out, Charley. You wait.”
Casey was shadow-boxing down the middle of the ward as I shuffled back to my bunk.
It must’ve been spring because the days were longer. One night, right after nurse come through, Casey and Carnahan and me helped Slop Chute walk to the head. While he was there he had another hemorrhage.
Carnahan started for help but Casey got in the way and motioned him back and we knew Slop Chute didn’t want it.
We pulled Slop Chute’s pajama top off and steadied him. He went on his knees in front of the bowl and the soft, bubbling cough went on for a long time. We kept flushing it. Casey opened the door and went out to keep away the nurse.
Finally it pretty well stopped. Slop Chute was too weak to stand. We cleaned him up and I put my pajama top on him, and we stood him up. If Casey hadn’t took half the load, we’d’a never got him back to his bunk.
Godalmighty! I used to carry hundred-kilo sacks of cement like they was nothing.
We went back and cleaned up the head. I washed out the pajama top and draped it on the radiator. I was in a cold sweat and my face burned when I turned in.
Across the ward Casey was sitting like a statue beside Slop Chute’s bunk.
Next day was Friday, because Pink Waldo made some crack about fish to Curly Waldo when they formed up for sick call. Mary moved closer to Curly Waldo and gave Pink Waldo a cold look. That was good.
Slop Chute looked waxy, and Uncle Death seemed to see it because a gleam come into his wooden eyes. Both Waldos listened all over Slop Chute and told uncle what they heard in their secret language. Uncle nodded, and Casey thumbed his nose at him.
No doubt about it, the ways was greased for Slop Chute. Mama Death come back soon as she could and began to loosen the chocks. She slobbered arthurs all over Slop Chute and flittered around like women do when they smell a wedding. Casey give her extra special hell, and we all laughed right out and she hardly noticed.
That afternoon two orderly-masks come with a go-to-Jesus cart and wanted to take Slop Chute to X-ray. Casey climbed on the cart and scowled at them.
Slop Chute told ‘em shove off, he wasn’t going.
They got Mary and she told Slop Chute please go, it was doctor’s orders.
Sorry, no, he said.
“Please, for me, Slop Chute,” she begged.
She knows our right names — that’s one reason we love her. But Slop Chute shook his head, and his big jawbone stuck out.
Mary — she had to then — called Mama Death. Mama waddled in, and Casey spit in her mask.
“Now, arthur, what is this, arthur, you know we want to help you get well and go home, arthur,” she arthured at Slop Chute. “Be a good boy now, arthur, and go along to the clinic.”
She motioned the orderlies to pick him up anyway. Casey hit one in the mask and Slop Chute growled, “Sheer off, you bastards!”
The orderlies hesitated.
Mama’s little eyes squinted and she wiggled her hands at them. “Let’s not be naughty, arthur. Doctor knows best, arthur.”
The orderlies looked at Slop Chute and at each other. Casey wrapped his arms around Mama Death and began chewing on her neck. He seemed to mix right into her, someway, and she broke and run out of the ward.
She come right back, though, trailing Uncle Death. Casey met him at the door and beat hell out of him all the way to Slop Chute’s bunk. Mama sent Mary for the chart, and Uncle Death studied Slop Chute’s reflection for a minute. He looked pale and swayed a little from Casey’s beating.
He turned toward Slop Chute and breathed in deep and Casey was on him again. Casey wrapped his arms and legs around him and chewed at his mask with those big yellow teeth. Casey’s hair bristled and his eyes were red as the flames of hell.
Uncle Death staggered back across the ward and fetched up against Carnahan’s bunk. The other masks were scared spitless, looking all around, kind of knowing.
Casey pulled away, and Uncle Death said maybe he was wrong, schedule it for tomorrow. All the masks left in a hurry except Mary. She went back to Slop Chute and took his hand.
“I’m sorry, Slop Chute,” she whispered.
“Bless you, Connie,” he said, and grinned. It was the last thing I ever heard him say.
Slop Chute went to sleep, and Casey sat beside his bunk. He motioned me off when I wanted to help Slop Chute to the head after lights out. I turned in and went to sleep.
I don’t know what woke me. Casey was moving around fidgety-like, but of course not making a sound. I could hear the others stirring and whispering in the dark too.
Then I heard a muffled noise — the bubbling cough again, and spitting. Slop Chute was having another hemorrhage and he had his head under the blankets to hide the sound. Carnahan started to get up. Casey waved him down.
I saw a deeper shadow high in the dark over Slop Chute’s bunk. It came down ever so gently and Casey would push it back up again. The muffled coughing went on.
Casey had a harder time pushing back the shadow. Finally he climbed on the bunk straddle of Slop Chute and kept a steady push against it.
The blackness came down anyway, little by little. Casey strained and shifted his footing. I could hear him grunt and hear his joints crack.
I was breathing forced draft with my heart like to pull off its bed bolts. I heard other bedsprings creaking. Somebody across from me whimpered low, but it was sure never Slop Chute that done it.
Casey went to his knees, his hands forced almost level with his head. He swung his head back and forth and I saw his lips curled back from the big teeth clenched tight together.… Then he had the blackness on his shoulders like the weight of the whole world.
Casey went down on hands and knees with his back arched like a bridge. Almost I thought I heard him grunt … and he gained a little.
Then the blackness settled heavier, and I heard Casey’s tendons pull out and his bones snap. Casey and Slop Chute disappeared under the blackness, and it overflowed from there over the whole bed … and more … and it seemed to fill the whole ward.
It wasn’t like going to sleep, but I don’t know anything it was like.
The masks must’ve towed off Slop Chute’s hulk in the night, because it was gone when I woke up.
So was Casey.
Casey didn’t show up for sick call and I knew then how much he meant to me. With him around to fight back I didn’t feel as dead as they wanted me to. Without him I felt deader than ever. I even almost liked Mama Death when she charlesed me.
Mary came on duty that morning with a diamond on her third finger and a brighter sparkle in her eye. It was a little diamond, but it was Curly Waldo’s and it kind of made up for Slop Chute.
I wished Casey was there to see it. He would’ve danced all around her and kissed her nice, the way he often did. Casey loved Mary.
It was Saturday, I know, because Mama Death come in and told some of us we could be wheeled to a special church hooraw before breakfast next morning if we wanted. We said no thanks. But it was a hell of a Saturday without Casey. Sharkey Brown said it for all of us — “With Casey gone, this place is like a morgue again.”
Not even Carnahan could call him up.
“Sometimes I think I feel him stir, and then again I ain’t sure,” he said. “It beats hell where he’s went to.”
Going to sleep that night was as much like dying as it could be for men already dead.
Music from far off woke me up when it was just getting light. I was going to try to cork off again, when I saw Carnahan was awake.
“Casey’s around somewhere,” he whispered.
“Where?” I asked, looking around. “I don’t see him.”
“I feel him,” Carnahan said. “He’s around.”
The others began to wake up and look around. It was like the night Casey and Slop Chute went under. Then something moved in the solarium.…
It was Casey.
He come in the ward slow and bashful-like, jerking his head all around, with his eyes open wide, and looking scared we was going to throw something at him. He stopped in the middle of the ward.
“Yea, Casey!” Carnahan said in a low, clear voice.
Casey looked at him sharp.
“Yea, Casey!” we all said. “Come aboard, you hairy old bastard!”
Casey shook hands with himself over his head and went into his dance. He grinned … and I swear to God it was Slop Chute’s big, lopsided grin he had on.
For the first time in my whole damn life I wanted to cry.