Happy Talk

By Richard Melo

Red Lemonade
June 2013


1953. P.F.C. B.J. Roper-Melo is the lone, lost Marine from the 1st Guadlacanal Division, a self-exiled holdover from a bygone American invasion of Haiti, maintaining his post, casting a watchful eye, mindful of any danger to American interests inflicted in the Haitian theatre.

There is a saying among Haitians that all Americans look alike, and here in the Nord Department, Roper-Melo is the only American many of the outskirt characters have ever seen. Yet in the eyes of other Americans, the P.F.C. bears little resemblance to the Modern American Man. Roper-Melo's style of mustache, a throwback to the days of the War Between States when such whiskers were more fashionable, gives him the look of a Scottish Terrier. He casts the air of the type of younger man who seems like an older man, while it is just as possible that he is the type of older man who seems like a younger man who seems old.

His vigilant surveillance of the sky over Cap Haitien leads him to witness firsthand the skywriter's distress.

Following the parachute as it plunges from the sky, Roper-Melo high steps over uneven ground, leaping across short crevasses and dry stream beds, climbing piles of jagged rock, and throwing himself down the other side, all in the name of rescuing the fallen flying ace.

Culprit Clutch's parachute catches in a tall tree. The unconscious and remarkably unbroken pilot dangles by his shoulders from the parachute's cords. The P.F.C. unsheathes his machete and scales the tree.

In perhaps not the best of rescue plans, he begins to hack away at the cords that are keeping Culprit Clutch from falling to the rocky ground like a heavy sack of bones.


The angels are ringing their little bells. Behind a white, semi-transparent curtain, they circle his bed, ghostly apparitions, more like convent sisters clad in white than small-town American girls in Haiti learning to become nurses. Angels or not, it is all the same to him. He cannot feel his body, but he feels his heartbeat, his heart pushing to maintain blood flow through so many swollen extremities. The beat itself is loud enough to wake the dead in the next room over, if only there were dead in the next room over.

A switch is thrown and a lamp casts its scorching light down on him; it is so bright that he can see the skin pores on his arms, his hair follicles, blotches from the sun, blotches of unknown origin. It is stage lighting, although these were the physical traits you would never want to show off on stage.

With scissors, the Nightingales snip away at the last of his trousers, his undershirt, careful not to cut him, fat chance he would feel it anyway. They photograph him without clothes, hands propping his broken body in various positions to get the shots they need. They poke their fingers in his gut, feeling for cancer, not that they know what cancer feels like any more than what a kidney feels like, but figuring that as long as they have him here, they should check him for cancer.

All the while, one student nurse holds his hand. They are wearing masks and hats and look the same to him. He can neither tell whose hands are whose nor whose hand is holding his. He thinks it is that one there, but then again, it couldn't be, because she walks away and the hand is still holding his.

They find a blotch and cut off a piece of mottled skin. (—We ought to have that checked.) They snip a fragment of muscle. (—Let's get that checked, too; we can send it out with the other samples and film.) There is one last bodily sample they need. They roll him over, and a Nightingale sticks a long needle into the base of his spine and draws the milky fluid out. (—If there is anything wrong with you, anything, we'll find out what it is.)

—You've come all the way to Haiti, and you still get the best medical care in the world, the same exact care you'd get back home in the U.S.A. We've run a battery of tests on you, and we'll send your samples back to Washington, and when they write back and tell us what's wrong with you, we'll know how to treat you.

—In the meantime, we'll set your bones in a plaster cast. It looks like you broke a few.

He's unable to reply, nod, or even open his eyes. They can't be sure he's listening.

—Samantha Sound says you have 400 bones when 206 are all you need.

—Which bones does Samantha say are broken?

—I think it's fair to say they all are, or pretty close.

—Let's set even the unbroken ones for good measure.

—Poor thing, let's at least give him morphine.


—Why? I know the protocol is only to administer morphine to dying soldiers in the field of battle, but since we are at peace, and he probably feels like he's dying, it's fair to give him a few cc's.

—We're out of morphine.

—How can we be out of morphine?

—This is a nursing school, not a dispensary. Who do you think we are? We never practice on live patients.

—What do we have here then? Chopped liver?

—Opal, what happened to the morphine?

—I get a headache every month, and morphine is the only way to kill the pain.

—But we had so much.

—Sometimes, the headaches come more than once a month.

—What should we tell our friend here?

—Tell him I'm not the only girl around here who gets a headache.

—Why don't you explain it to him yourself.

—Consider yourself lucky you're not a woman, Mister.

—Miss Penny has gone to get doctors Millidieu and Bast. They'll know what to do.


Every two hours a pair of Nightingales come to check on Culprit Clutch. At daybreak, they bring him a bowl of cereal, spoon feed him, and wipe his chin. The cereal is too hot; she blows across the top to cool it down. Her breath smells like cinnamon. It might be the cereal.

They scooch him one way, then the other, changing his sheets without moving him out of bed. They brush against him, lean into him. He loves them all, and even more since he can't tell them apart. Even their voices sound the same, as do the things they say. Take any one of them, and before long you'll see only her flaws. Take them all, and you have the perfect woman.

Over time, they come to check in on him less often. His vital signs are always the same. They leave him alone at night, knowing his bed pan can wait for morning, and that as long as the windows are closed, flies won't come in the room.



These are the good old days, now that Culprit is here, and I sleep so much better knowing there is a man in the house, even if it's a man in such condition.



A fine figure of a man he makes encased in full-body plaster across all but his eyes and mouth, his arms and legs elevated and dangling from straps. He creates the impression that he is bouncing off his bottom like a rubber ball.


—What is that expression Sally had for him?

—Comically infirm.

—Comic is always better than chronic.


The doctors, Bast, Millidieu and Hockey, come to see him once he's patched up.

—Serves you right, Ace, taking a plane up without learning how to fly ahead of time, says Doctor Millidieu.

—I think Mr. Clutch did an admirable job of flying. He even wrote words in broad pen strokes across the sky, Samantha Sound says. —His penmanship is very neat.

—Better than his flying, that's for sure, Doctor Hockey says.

—That's nothing. Let's see him try skywriting in the creyol, I bet he can't spell anything in the creyol, Doctor Millidieu says.

—The pain must be killing him, says Gwen whose sense of Culprit's pain is due to the orange aura surrounding him that only she can see. (—If I can take his pain on myself, she says under her breath, —I would do so, which is more than these other so-called Nightingales can say.)

—He actually feels much better than you or me right now, Doctor Hockey says.

—Even with all those cracked up bones?

—Morphine is good medicine and will take care of him fine for the next few days until the worst of the swelling goes down. (Doctor Hockey leans in over Culprit and adds, —You're lucky to be getting morphine. Protocol says you need to be dying.)


The bat-wing doors of the examination room are swinging. The three doctors are gone, back to sipping cocktails by the swimming pool at their swanky hotel in Le Cap.

—You didn't tell them.

—Tell them what?

—That there is no morphine.

—Of course not, do you think I'm stupid?

—What's the worst that can happen if the doctors find out? They send you home. Isn't that what we all want?

—They could send me to Diego Garcia.

—Sounds more exotic than this place.

—It's an atomic graveyard.

—What was in the shot they gave him?

—Simple sugar syrup.

—Poor Culprit! You'll have to tough it out for a few more days, my love, she shouts to him, patting him on the chest and acting as if the wires keeping his jaw shut affect his hearing.


Down the stairs and to the left, through an open door and long hallway, Sonia finds a small gathering of Nightingales gathered in the Great Room just as they hear knocking at the door. It is a strong rat-a-tat-tat-tat, a pause, and then another.

They pull the door open to find a man standing there. He is dressed all in black with a white shirt, a tuxedo it turns out, with a tail and a cane and his hat is in his hand pressed against his chest.

—He must be hungry.

(This is how they talk, as if he wasn't there.)

—He looks hungry something awful.

—What are we having tonight, what is Henry Greathead preparing for us?

—Chicken and rice pilaf.

They take his hand and guide him through their school toward the dining room where they seat him and tie a napkin around his neck.

—Bring him a drumstick and thigh.

—Henry Greathead is a wonderful cook.

—What is Henry supposed to be anyway?

—He's our butler.

—That doesn't make any sense. We're not rich, and this is not an estate or plantation.

—He can't be our butler because we never receive visitors.

—He's our pastry chef.

—Don't you wish!

—He prepares our meals. That's good enough for me.

—I'm glad he's here.

—I didn't say I wasn't.

—You must really meet Henry Greathead, Samantha Sound says to the stranger. —I think the two of you will get along famously.

—I'll tell you what Henry Greathead is if you promise to keep a secret, Hedy whispers to the Haitian. —He's a spy.

—You think everyone is a spy.

—Henry Greathead really is a spy, no lie!

—That's the most ridiculous thing I ever heard.

—Who's he spying on? Us?

—Them! She points at the wall as to indicate she means the people who live on the other side of the wall. For a moment, it's as if the wall turns transparent, and she can see right through it, the dense thicket, the glowing eyes of small nocturnal creatures stacked on top of each other.

—There's nobody out there.

—When it looks like nobody is out there, the Communists are out there. That's why they are so dangerous.

—If Henry Greathead was sent to spy on Communists, why is he always here?

—He's not here now.

—That doesn't make him a spy.


Upstairs, the Nightingales on the evening shift do rounds, meaning they pay Culprit a visit and leave just in time to pay him another visit. They bring him aspirin and change his bed pan. They smell their supper downstairs and decide to call it a day.

—Do you want your light on or off?

He gives no indication. His jaw is wired shut, and his extremities are encased in plaster.

—Off it goes then.

Once the light goes off, it sends the message to others that he's sleeping, and sleep is what's best for him, don't you dare turn on a light and wake him up. We should all go downstairs and let him sleep.

—Help me.

No one hears him.

—Help me.

No one hears him.