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"The Visitor" by Jared Carter 

Jared has published three books of poetry with the Cleveland State University Poetry Center.  He lives in Indianapolis.  His website:


© 2006 Jared Carter


They were two old men sitting on a bench under a parched sycamore tree.  In the clear, windless air, with early morning sunlight slanting through the leaves, everything seemed made of gauze. 


Across the street, the brick-veneer bank and the drugstore with its drive-up window were set back a few feet from the sidewalk and the curb.  Nothing grew in that dusty space.  Petunias had been planted there by the town council but no one had watered them and they died. 


The supermarket, its pocked and pitted parking lot empty except for a few wire carts, was farther down, beyond the filling station. 


The old man with white hair had just made a phone call from a pay booth.  He looked uncomfortable in his brown suit and tie and his brown leather shoes.  The phone was inside a yellow plastic shell that stood to one side of the civic park, near the skateboard ramp. 


He had called the nursing home to ask about the man who had been president of the town council many years ago.  But that man was dead now.   He came back to sit down on the bench.  He sighed, and took a road map from his pocket and began to unfold it. 


"I heard what you was asking," the second man said.  He wore jeans and a blue work shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and non-glare sunglasses.  A battered western hat was pulled low on his forehead.  His boots were scuffed and worn, and the leather sheath on his belt held a pair of wire-cutters. 


The white-haired man looked up.  His sunglasses, which still had a small price sticker in the left corner, kept slipping down his nose.  He put down the map and peered at the stranger.


"About the old P.O.W. camp," the man in the western hat said.   "How you wanted to visit it."


"I was a prisoner there once," the white-haired man said. "A long time ago."  He spoke with a foreign accent.  He returned to his map.


"So I gathered.  But old Bob Dean's been dead for years now.  Did you know him?"


"I wrote to him," the white-haired man said, glancing up.  "Ten years ago.  I wanted to know about the camp.  He knew something about it.  He wrote back.  Or his secretary.  I cannot remember."


"And you haven't been able to visit until now."


"You are correct."


"And now you don't know where it was.  Or how to find it."


The white-haired man nodded.


"I could take you out there."


The other man did not reply.


"I remember it," the man in the hat said.  "I was just a kid."   He paused.  "You couldn't have been very old, either."


"I was fifteen," the white-haired man said, "when they sent me to that place."


The other man reached down and caught at a blade of timothy grass growing up through the slats of the park bench.  "Fifteen," he said.  "I was thirteen when the war ended.  I can remember the camp.  But it's been a long time."


The white-haired man got up.  He began folding the map.  "I must go now."  He turned toward the blue Honda rental car at the curb.


"Hey, look, mister, I don't want to intrude, I mean, that was probably a bad time for you, being over here and being a prisoner and all.  But if you're going to go out there and look for it, I can tell you, there ain't nothing left."




"Not a damned thing.  It's all gone back to desert now.  The council went out there and  plowed it under and sowed it with salt."




"It's an old expression -- from the Bible."  He stood up.  "It means they took care of it.  Wiped it out.  That camp's gone.  Them old wooden buildings got hauled away for firewood.  Must have been back in the sixties.  Nobody had any use for it anymore.  It was getting to be a nuisance.  Kids always trying to shinny up the towers.  Bob and the others, the people who ran this town back then, they decided to take it down.  They sold it for scrap.  It's all gone now."


"I can find it."


"Suit yourself.  Nice talking to you."  He tipped his hat.


The white-haired man got into the car, started it, and pulled away from the curb.  After the car had gone about ten feet, it came to a stop, with the engine running.


The man on the bench got up and walked over to the car.  There was no other traffic on the street.  It was going to be a hot day, but it was still early.  The window on the driver's side came down automatically.


"Which direction?" the white-haired man asked.  There was only one main highway out of town.


"Thataway," he said, pointing west.  The white-haired man nodded and drove off. 


He returned to the bench and sat down.  Several more cars came by.  Their drivers waved at him.  Most of them were younger; one or two were about his age.  Most were on their way to the supermarket, which opened at eight o'clock.  That was still too early for the drugstore, or for the bank.  The bank was open only three days a week, and there was talk that it might close altogether.  Nobody wanted that to happen.


At the west end of town the blue Honda reappeared and drove back toward the park.  The white-haired man made a U-turn in the middle of the empty street and pulled up alongside the park bench.  This time the window on the shotgun side went down.


"Need some help?" the man on the park bench called.  The other man smiled and nodded.  The man on the bench went over and got in.  The air-conditioning was turned on high, and it was cool inside.   He took off his sun-glasses and rubbed his eyes.


The white-haired man pulled the car away from the curb and headed west.  He glanced at the other man.  "My name is Hans," he said.  "Hans Eigendorf."


"Dobson.  Frank Dobson."  They shook hands, awkwardly.  "So you were fifteen when they sent you here?"


"Yes."  The town was soon behind them.   The car went smoothly along the new blacktop road.  Ahead of them were the mountains, and the sky lined with faint bleached clouds.  All around them was yellow scrubland with no trees, and an occasional low patch of mesquite.  Heat waves distorted the far lines of the horizon. 


"And you went out and planted trees," Frank Dobson said.  "That's what they did in that camp.  I remember."


"We planted many trees," Hans Eigendorf said.  "I never saw so many trees.  Up there."  He pointed west.  "Over there, close to the mountains.  Miles of trees we planted.  Walking all day, with the wagons behind us.  What happened to those trees?  Did they grow up?  Are they big now?"


"Oh, they're doing all right.  It was for conservation.  They weren't profitable commercial trees.  But they reduced soil erosion, and helped with flood control.  That sort of thing.   We can drive over there if you want, and have a look at them."


"No -- I mean, I came to see only the camp."


"Well, like I said before, there ain't much left to see.  But we're getting close.  We go around this curve, you'll see a turn-off on the right.   You take that, and we'll come to it eventually -- the place where the camp stood."


He made the turn, and they entered the rough, rolling land that seemed emptied of everything except tufts of low-lying sage grass and an occasional jackrabbit zigging out through the barren spaces.  The road itself was nearly erased, but he followed the two faint ruts. 


They bumped along into a wide, level place and a turnaround.  Beyond, everything was the same dry, undulating terrain spreading in all directions.  Nothing man-made could be seen.  A mile away, a row of cottonwoods marked the bed of a small stream. 


They got out and stood and looked around.  It was a big place.  Hans studied the gradual slope of the land down to the line of cottonwoods.  He took a couple of steps and stopped, glancing back at the other man.  He seemed bewildered.


"Told you it was gone," Frank said.  "Ain't easy to find, even when you're standing on it."  He began walking toward a mound of debris that had evidently been pushed up by a bulldozer during the final clearing of the area.  Hans followed.


"What made you come back?"  Frank called.  "You looking for something in particular?"


The other man came alongside him.  He shook his head.


"I can remember it," Frank said.  "My dad brought me out here a couple of times, in his pick-up, when it was going full swing.  He was an electrician.  They probably called him out to fix something or other.  We came through the gates.  There were soldiers, guards, with rifles.  He left me in the truck, told me to stay there.  But I could look around.  I could see what was going on."


"There were hundreds of men here," Hans said.  "Veterans.  Men and boys.  Mostly boys.  Young men.  We went out every day and planted trees.  There were only two trucks.  We had to walk a long way."


"I came out later, on my bicycle," Frank said.  "Me and a couple of the other kids.  We weren't supposed to.  They told us to keep away.  But everybody was curious.  We'd come out in the evenings, and watch from that road back there.  You could see all the men in the yard, on the inside.  Some of them would come up to the fence.  They weren't much older than we were."


"No," Hans said.  They had reached the debris pile -- the charred ends of what looked like railroad ties.  Near a tangle of barbed wire was a scattering of flattened tin cans, bits of broken glass, rusty nails. 


Hans reached down and picked up a nail and balanced it in his palm.


"The guards would shout at us to go away, get the hell out of there," Frank said, "but nobody really cared.  A couple of times we came up close.  The men behind the fence would call out to us.  They'd say 'Hey Yank!  Hey G.I. Joe!'  Do you remember?"


"I heard about it," Hans said.  "I never went up to the fence."


"Once we bought some packs of chewing gum at the store, we had seen that in the movies, and we went out there, and when they started calling 'Hey Joe, hey Yank!'  we tossed sticks of gum to them.  They caught them, or they picked them up.  They called back 'Danke, danke.'  I remember that."


"It was a long time ago," Hans said. 


Frank shaded his eyes with his hand and studied a point off in the brush.  "There was four towers," he said.  "Fairly high.  Maybe thirty feet.  One at each corner.  The people up there was supposed to be guarding the place.  But I never heard of anybody escaping, or even trying to get out."


"No," Hans said.  "We didn't want any trouble.  We only wanted the war to be over, so we could go home.  That's what we lived for."  He picked up a piece of wood and stirred it around in the debris.


"You looking for something?   Something you could take back -- a souvenir?  A button, maybe, or a penny?"


"No, nothing."  He tossed the stick away.  He pointed to the far edge of the plateau.  "I am going to walk over there."  He said this in a way that indicated he did not wish Frank to go with him. 


Frank turned back to the car.  There was something about fifty or sixty yards away that looked like it might have been a wellhead.  He want over to have a look.  It turned out to be a slab of concrete six inches thick and about as big as a garage door, but broken in half.  He couldn't figure out what it had been, or what it was doing there -- why they hadn't scooped it up, years ago, and shoved it in a hole.  Too big, maybe.  Too much trouble.


He looked around.  Hans was coming back up the trail.  "I found a button," he called.  When he came up to Frank he held it out.  It was a corroded iron button about as big as a dime.  Frank took it.  He slipped off his sun-glasses and peered at it up close.  There was a trace of some sort of emblem visible through the corrosion, but he couldn't make it out.  An eagle?  A shield? 


"It's from a uniform," Hans said.  "Not prison clothing.  Somebody had it.  Somebody brought it here."


"So you found something," Frank said.


"I did."  They had begun to walk back toward the car.


"Are you -- have you stayed in touch with any of the men -- the people -- you knew here?" Frank asked.  "Any of your fellow -- prisoners?"


"No, nobody.  It wasn't real, this place.  It was like a dream.  We could think only of leaving, of going home."


"Did they treat you OK?"


"How do you mean?"


"You know, the guards.  The food.  The people running the camp."


"For some of us, the young people, the ones captured late in the war, it was the first time we had enough to eat, or a place to sleep, without worrying about getting blown up or killed.  For some of the older ones, some of Rommel's army, that had been captured in the desert, in Africa, they thought the war could still be won.  For them, it wasn't quite the same. 


"They had been in this country a couple of years.  They had different ideas.  They didn't know how bad everything was back home.  But it was a camp.  All camps are the same.  There are weak people and there are strong people."


"Was this the only -- "


"I was in three camps in this country, and two before I came to this place," he said.  "After we got captured, they kept moving us, putting us in boxcars, or in trucks, or on a ship, moving us, always moving us, until we got to some place like this, where they could put us to work."


"And you came here and planted trees."


"I was first in a camp in the state called Indiana, where we picked tomatoes.  That was late summer of the first year.  Then we got on a train and sent down to Texas to pick cotton.  Then I come here.  I stay here until the war ended.  We planted trees all that spring.  Then word came the war was over."


"Did you go back to the other places -- I mean, on this trip?"


"No, only this one."  They walked on for a while. 


"I had a friend," Hans said.  "His name was Meyer.  Rolf Meyer.  He was my best friend.  We were from the same village.  We had been together all along.  We were in school together.  Then we join the Army together, we even got captured together.  We always managed to stay together."


"What happened to him?"  Frank asked. 


Hans stopped.  "He died," he said.   He was silent for a moment.  "You see that line of trees down there?"   Frank nodded.  "He drowned.  In that creek." 


They walked on.


"Not much water in that creek these days," Frank said. 


"Not much water back then," Hans said.


"So you got outside the compound sometimes," Frank said.  "For a swim, maybe.  Or to cool off.  Or just to look around."


Hans did not reply.  He turned as if to take a last look at the line of cottonwoods.  "There are strong people, and there are weak people," he said. 


"What happened to this friend of yours?  Where did they take him?"


"I don't know," Hans said, his voice rising.  "For many years, I tried to find out.  I wrote letters to this town, to the old mayor, to the new mayor, to the ministers.  They couldn't tell me nothing.  Nobody knew."


"Didn't the government know?  Wasn't there anybody in charge who could tell you where that boy had been -- "


"They took him away in a truck," Hans said.  "They carried him from the creek, and they said he had died, all by himself, and he shouldn't have been down there.  They put him on the truck.  They wouldn't let me see him.  They pushed me back.  And then the truck drove away, and I never saw him again."


"That's terrible," Frank said.  "And now nobody knows -- "


"Nobody knows nothing!" Hans said.  He took a few steps and stopped.  He took off his sun-glasses and held them in one hand.   He kept looking away.    


Frank waited.  Finally he took off his hat and straightened the brim and brushed it carefully and put it on again.


Hans shrugged.  "It was a long time ago," he said.  He gazed around the plateau.  "I don't want to talk about it anymore."  


Frank began walking toward the car.   He waited for the other man.  Hans came up, opened the driver's door and got in, and proceeded to fasten his seat belt.


Frank got in on the other side.  "I'm sorry," he said, as he closed the door.  "It must have been hard to deal with."


"Put on your seat belt, my friend," Hans said.  "No more accidents this time." 


He started the car and turned it around, and they made their way back toward the town.









All work is copyrighted property of Jared Carter.





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