I dropped my bow saw and walked down to the end of our driveway when I saw the silver-grey pickup truck pull up.
Tom sat behind the wheel. A green plastic oxygen line ran from the container on the seat up to his nostrils. He wheezed when he talked. “Just wanted to let you know there’s gas to be had down on Route 44. The Shell station at the corner of Bushy Hill ran out, but the guy says he’ll have another delivery in by 1:30 PM. Otherwise you can get some at the Citgo station a little further down the road.”
“I appreciate the info,” I told him. I’d been out with my son-in-law the day before looking for gasoline, but no local service stations were open. “Maybe I’ll take a run down there after I finish cutting up the fallen limbs in my back yard.”
Tom and the old man sitting beside him shook their heads. “Ain’t never seen it this bad before,” the old man said in a raspy voice. He held his thumb up to cover the small hole at the base of his throat when he spoke.
“Me neither,” said Tom.
“That makes three of us,” I said.
“Just wanted to let you know about the gas,” Tom said.
“Thanks,” I said.
They drove off down the street below the cracked tree limbs that dangled overhead. I walked up the driveway to the back yard and started in again on the fallen branches. Minutes later I noticed the old man walking up the driveway. I stood up from the downed limb I was sawing as he approached.
“Say,” he said, plugging the hole in his throat with his thumb, “I heared you was a hospital corpsman in the Navy, that right?”
“Coast Guard—but yes, I was a corpsman.”
The old man hesitated a moment, then he brought his thumb up to his throat. “I was wonderin’,” he said, “if you would take these out for me.” He pointed to the back of his neck. Four sutures marked the line of a healed incision. “I was operated on for skin cancer.”
“How long have they been in?”
The old man squinted his eyes. “About two weeks,” he said. “Actually, it’s two weeks today!”
I looked at the wound. It was clean and dry. It would be easy to take the sutures out, but I didn’t have the instruments on hand.
“What do you need?” he asked.
“A pair of suture scissors, tweezers and some rubbing alcohol,” I told him.
“Peroxide okay?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said. “That’ll do.”
He gave me a thumb’s up and walked back down the driveway. Twenty minutes later he returned with an iris scissors, a pair of tweezers from a make-up kit and a small brown plastic bottle of hydrogen peroxide.
I rummaged through the garage and found two plastic crates that I stacked at the head of the driveway and motioned for the old man to sit down in the warm sun. I moistened a paper towel with the peroxide and dabbed the wound. “Might be cold,” I said. The old man didn’t flinch as I cut and pulled each suture out in turn, laying them on the paper towel.
“There you are,” I said, showing him the tiny blue remnants of nylon thread. He looked up at me and smiled.
“How much you want?” he said, his thumb at his throat.
“Nothing,” I said.
I wiped the instruments with peroxide and handed them back to him. His fingers were gnarled, his hands thick and calloused.
“Where were you stationed in the service?” he asked.
“Took basic training at Cape May, New Jersey; corps school at Great Lakes; shipped on a cutter out of Boston. Saw San Juan, Gitmo Bay, Lisbon. Spent a year in Spain, then came stateside for my last year at Southwest Harbor, Maine.”
He listened intently, nodding his head. “Tell you a story,” he said. “One morning I was fishing off the rocks at the Beavertail in Jamestown, plugging for striped bass. It was early, and a mist was coming off the water. I cast my plug out, and all of a sudden two frogmen come up out of the sea. They come up through the mist onto the rocks right before my eyes. I was so scared, I started to shake; I thought they was coming for me.
“Well, sir, they raised their hands to show me the collection of bass plugs they’d got. Turns out they’d been fishing for a different sort of fish — lures that had been snagged underwater on the rock ledges!
“They offered me a couple of them plugs and disappeared back into the water. That was one morning of fishing I’ll never forget. Say, you sure you don’t want nothing for taking out those stitches?”
I shook my head and smiled. With that story, I figured I’d been paid in full.