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The Whistler

ISSUE:  Spring 1970

There are suggestions of affluence in the decor of the Pattersons’ living room—Chinese lamp bases, vases, handsomely framed prints on the walls, a French clock on the mantel shelf at the left end of the room. Here and there is a choice family antique. But the chairs and the couch near the fireplace have clearly been chosen for comfort. Altogether, the emphasis is upon comfort and conventional good taste. It is a modest house with a front door opening directly into the right end of the living room, but the room itself is spacious. Above the clock on the mantel hangs a pastel portrait of a child. It is Emma and Harry Patterson’s son Tom. A charcoal drawing of the boy as an adolescent hangs to the right of a doorway in the rear wall, a doorway leading to the boxed stair that twists upward to the bedrooms above.

It is nearly four o’clock in the morning. Emma sits alone on a small bench, occasionally poking the wood fire. After several moments of silence, she speaks in a monotone to herself.

EMMA: He always liked to have a fire. Especially when all three of us were up late at night. He said a fire made it seem like there were more of us. (laughing dully) He used to wish so for brothers and sisters. (A silence. She pokes the fire.) ……….He may be poking up a fire somewhere at this moment, not for effect but for warmth ………… (The delicate chime of the clock strikes four.) It’s four here. What time is it over there?

Several moments pass in silence. Emma Yawns. She rests her forehead on the heels of her hands momentarily. “Oh, God,” she mutters, without feeling. “If only I could pray.” After another silence, Emma yawns again. At the sound of an automobile outside, she comes slowly to her feet. A car door is heard to slam, but Emma doesn’t turn around until there comes the sound of Harry’s footsteps outside the door at the opposite end of the room. When he opens the door, she only stands looking at him.

Harry speaks without really looking at Emma. He drops his small suitcase beside the door, removes his hat, and begins clumsily getting out of his coat.

EMMA: Nothing?

HARRY: I know nothing we didn’t know before I left here.

EMMA: (laughing scornfully) Washington!


HARRY: “Missing in action, presumed to be dead.” Like some kind of chorus they keep repeating.

EMMA: (tearful) Yes, why can’t it be “Missing in action, presumed to be alive”?

HARRY: And “in enemy hands”?

Emma gives way to tears. Harry runs the length of the room to her, with uncertain step and dragging his overcoat. His movements and gestures, but never his speech, suggest how much he has had to drink.

EMMA: (weeping, bordering on hysterics) Why? Why? Why not “presumed to be alive”?

HARRY: (taking hold of her) We do know the circumstances, Emma. We do know the circumstances. The platoon was ambushed there in the foothills. It is an honest presumption.

EMMA: (still tearful) Hearsay! Hearsay!

HARRY: It’s all we have. It’s all they have. (His coat falls to the floor.)

EMMA: And you’ve been drinking! (Pulling away from him, she picks up his coat and folds it over the chair arm.) Drinking and driving on that highway at this hour.

HARRY: There wasn’t much traffic.

EMMA: You’re trembling all over. You’re staggering drunk.

HARRY: (moving further away from her) And why are you waiting up? You promised you’d sleep.

EMMA: Sleep? When this was our last hope?

HARRY: You ought to have gone to bed. I’ll bet you haven’t even tried to sleep. Have you taken one of your pills? (She shakes her head.) But you can’t start this sort of thing, Emma. I told you I wouldn’t be coming back till tomorrow.

EMMA: And I knew you would be coming back tonight. If the news had been good, you would have telephoned. And with it bad, did you think I would imagine you settling down in a hotel room with a good book or even a good bottle. I knew you would drive straight through, the whole five hundred miles, and drink all the way, too.

HARRY: Yes, and I knew you knew.

Suddenly she throws herself into his arms. He holds her a moment. Then she draws away, in command of herself.

HARRY: And now I am going to have one more drink. There would be no use in my going to bed. It will be morning soon. And after a while I’m going to the office and try to start life. (He has opened a small cabinet and is making himself a drink.)

EMMA: You are giving up hope, Harry?

HARRY: (He stares at her for a moment before he speaks.) Not until he is brought in this house, dead. 

EMMA: Don’t say that. Don’t say it that way. 

HARRY: (after a silence) I sent him.

EMMA: (with a moan that comes just short of being a scream) We musn’t begin saying such things ……….. He’s alive somewhere, Harry. I would feel it if he were not.

HARRY: He came to me and stood right where you’re standing now. He said, “Dad, I’m against this war. What would you think of my registering as a conscientious objector?” At first I think I only just smiled at him. What a way to answer a young per­ son. What a way to answer the most serious question your child ever asked you.

EMMA: Don’t tell it again, Harry. It doesn’t help to go over and over it.

HARRY: And finally I said to him, ”I suppose you could, Tom, if that’s how you feel about matters.” Then I asked, “How would you feel about the others in the category you would be putting yourself in?” Then I smiled again—idiotically—and said, “Have you ever had the impulse to let your hair grow­ maybe down on your shoulders—and wear one of those necklaces?”

EMMA: Harry—

HARRY: (lifting his head) No, don’t interrupt. The awful thing was—

EMMA: Stop it, Harry. It doesn’t matter.

HARRY: The awful thing was, he gave me a look—or, rather, he looked right through me for a moment as though he were considering right at that moment what it would be like to dress so, or as though he actually had been considering the possibility for some time.

EMMA: You imagined that, Harry. Tom has never once considered doing that sort of thing. He’s too sensible for that. He has too much sense of humor for it. Why, I used to try to get him to let his sideburns be a little longer. I thought it would be sort of cute. I—

HARRY: Let me finish, Emma.

EMMA: No, I don’t want you to finish.

HARRY: I said, “I would rather see you in an infantryman’s uniform than dressed like that.” I said, “Do you know what I would do if I were your age, Tom? Well, I’ll tell you. I wouldn’t be going to my father with talk about pacifism. And I wouldn’t be waiting around for my draft number to be called. I would go out and enlist in the Marines and get my ass over to where the fighting is so that I wouldn’t feel ashamed the rest of my life every time the subject of the War came up.” ………. (raising his voice) Emma, I didn’t mean it, I didn’t mean it! It wasn’t what I had intended to say to him! It wasn’t what I really thought or felt!

EMMA: Hush, Harry. Don’t you know that you’re torturing me. I said worse things to him, myself.

HARRY: (He sits down in a straight chair and speaks softly.) And when I had finished, he just said, “Well, you’re not me, you’re not my age.” And then, as if we had been discussing something that wasn’t very important to either of us, he bent over and began tightening his shoe laces, and then went over to the mirror there and tightened his necktie, and began whistling softly to himself. (laughs quietly) He was always whistling. He had a whistle for every occasion.

Harry has not observed that Emma has turned her back to him and, no longer listening, is standing rigid before the fire.

EMMA: Harry, I haven’t ever told you what I said to him.

HARRY: (after a silence) It doesn’t matter, Emma. As you say, it doesn’t help to go over it.

EMMA: I have never told you that I knew he was going to enlist before he wrote us.

HARRY: I suspected you knew in advance, and suspected that you blamed me for it.

EMMA: No, you’re wrong. He never repeated to me what you had said. Not even on the day he let me know he was going to enlist. It was during his spring holidays. Our conversation, too, took place in this room. (smiling fondly) He came in whistling, of course. I was over there, poking at my needlepoint. I didn’t notice at first what he was whistling. When I did notice, looked up. He was standing there at attention. When I looked up at him, he quit whistling. It had been the Marine Corps song, of course. “What do you mean?” I asked him. “I mean I’m going to leave college and join the Marines.” Naturally I didn’t think he was serious. I went back to my needlepoint. “I really am going to, Mother,” he said. “You are not, either,” I said. “Or over my dead body you are.” ……… After a minute, he asked me why not. I said that he should finish his education, that he should plan on graduate school, even. “Bull,” he said ………. That was when I first realized he was serious, when he said, “Bull,” and I put away my needlework ………. “I hope you won’t tell Dad,” he said. “Not yet. But I’ve already made up my mind. I’m going back to school after the holidays, but as soon as I get there I’m going to see the man at the enlistment office. It takes time, you know.” I told him that I certainly would tell you and that we were not going to let him do it. He said to wait a while before telling you and he agreed to think about it some more. We had another conversation about it the night before he went back to school. That was when I said the awful things to him. I said he didn’t appreciate all we had done for him, that if he loved us the way a son should he wouldn’t think for a moment about stopping his education and going into the army. I said (her voice breaking) I said it was a coward’s way out.

Emma and Harry look at each other in silence for several moments, neither of them moving a muscle.

HARRY: He got it from us both ways.

EMMA: But that’s not the worst of what I said. 

HARRY: That’s enough, though, Emma.

EMMA: But it’s not all ………. I felt he was not listening to me. He was standing by that window, looking out, whistling under his breath. It was almost as if he were already on his way. I suppose I felt I had to make an impression on him. “Stop that infernal whistling, Tom,” I said, “and listen to me.” He faced around, and if my life drags out for a thousand years, I won’t forget his eyes while I said what I said to him. “Tom,” I said, “war isn’t what men make it out to be. It never has been. The worst of it has never got into history books. The killing is not the worst of it. It’s what the killing does to the killers. You would ask me how I know. Well, I heard it from my mother and from my grandmother. It’s something women have always known and feared to speak of above a whisper—even among themselves.” Tom laughed at me. “You laugh,” I said, “but you listen! It’s not killing the enemy I’m speaking of. It’s the other killing that does things to men and that never gets into history books. Soldiers of an army kill each other, Tom. They always have. They shoot each other in the back, over nothing almost.” (Harry comes to Emma and tries to stop her.)

HARRY: Now, you hush this, Emma.

EMMA: He tried to stop me, too. Just at this point. But I won’t be stopped. “Once they have killed,” I told him, “it doesn’t matter who they kill. When they don’t want to obey their officers, they shoot them. When their subordinates won’t obey, they shoot them. And there’s worse to come,” I fairly shouted at him. But then he did stop me. Yes, Harry, he put his hand over my mouth very gently and firmly and held me till he could see I had gone limp and till he could see the tears on my cheeks. When he let me go, I blurted out, “It will make an animal of you! I had rather see you in your grave!” (Harry takes her in his arms.) I didn’t mean it, either, Harry, I didn’t. But Tom looked down at me and said, “Who are you to decide I should be alive or dead?”

HARRY: (taking his drink from the table) Have a few sips of this—

EMMA:  I don’t want it, Harry. That’s all right for you, but I don’t want anything to drink and I don’t want tranquilizers or sleeping pills.

HARRY: (forcing her to take a few swallows) Have a few sips and then go up and make yourself lie down for awhile. I’m going to sit here or maybe lie down on the couch. We had better not talk any more. It will be morning in a little while.

EMMA: brushing back her hair, staring about the room as though she hardly knows where she is.) All right, Harry. I’ll go up for a while.

He goes with her to the doorway, kisses her on the forehead and on the cheek. She goes up the stairs. Harry sets his empty glass on a table. He goes and pokes the fire, puts on another log. Then he drifts half way across the room and drops down into a straight chair beside the liquor cabinet. He sits there in silence for several moments. Footsteps are heard outside. Harry rises mechanically and gazes toward the front door, at right end of room. The knob on the door turns. A tall, stooped young man with shoulder-length hair and wearing striped bell-bottom trousers and a pea coat opens the door slowly and enters. Under his unbuttoned coat a heavy necklace is visible, hung about his turtle-neck shirt. As Harry watches, the young man carefully, even stealthily, closes the door after him.

HARRY: (coming forward) Hold it, my friend! What do you think you’re doing?

TOM: Don’t you know me?

Tom laughs nervously. Then he quietly whistles a few bars of “Over There.” Harry rushes toward him. But Tom raises his two hands in a rather delicate gesture, to stop him.

HARRY: Tom! Oh, Tom, my boy!

TOM: Yes, “Tom.” Long hair, necklace and all.

HARRY: But—. But what does it mean? Tom, you can’t know—. Tom, my boy, what a miracle.

TOM: You’re glad to see me? Even like this?

HARRY: It’s all I’ve dreamed of: if I could just see you like this! I can ask for no more except to have you forgive me the things I said. Let me call your mother.

TOM: No. No, don’t call her.

HARRY: But what does it mean, your coming in like this—unannounced and, and at this hour of the night. 

TOM: It’s almost morning.

HARRY: Yes, but the time doesn’t matter. What I mean is—. Let me call your mother now.

TOM: The time does matter. And you mustn’t call vMother. I had to come at this time. 

HARRY: Tom, son, how wrong I was.

TOM: You’d really take me back like this? (incredulous) With no complaints?

HARRY: Of course we will. All we want is to have you back, alive and safe. Let me have your coat. Come over by the fire.

TOM: No. I won’t take off my coat, Dad. I am alive, yes, but not safe.

HARRY: What is it, son? Come over by the fire. We’ll talk some, and then we’ll call your mother.

They walk together the length of the room, Tom looking all about him with much affection in his glance. Harry’s eyes are on Tom.

HARRY: I’ve just got back from Washington this very night, making one last insistent check. Tom, you do know the report we’ve had?

TOM: Yes, sir, I read it in the paper on the West Coast. That’s why I’m here, you see. I came in on a bus a week ago. I’ve been watching the house to see if you were being watched by them. (He sits down near the fire.)

HARRY: Watched by whom?

TOM: Like the Army, like the State Department, like the F.B.I. By God knows who. I saw you come in a while ago. Not another car had gone by in two hours. I knew this was my chance.

HARRY: But how did you—how did you ever get back into the country? What happened to you? You weren’t ambushed in the foothills, the way they said?

TOM: I never left this country. And they well knew it in Washington. Unless there has been some mix up about names, this is all a trick to try to bring me out of cover.

HARRY: Tom, believe me, you must—

TOM No, I won’t turn myself in…. Are you going to turn me in?

HARRY: Of course I’m not, Tom! You know we’ll do every­ thing we can do to help you; but you can’t stay in hiding the rest of your life.

TOM: Oh, yes, I can. But I sort of wanted both you and Mother to know for certain that I am alive. I watched you through the window. I saw {other go upstairs. I knew when I headed back here that I mustn’t let her see me. She would never let me leave (he rises.) But I have to go. Only say to her when she comes down that I am alive. (Begins moving toward door.)

HARRY: But is there nothing I can do?

TOM: (after a moment’s hesitation) I need money, Dad. I need a lot of money.

HARRY: Well, you know I’m not a rich man, Tom, but—

TOM: (smiling) What live on takes a lot of money, Dad. 

HARRY: (pretending not to understand) Hiding yourself, that is? You can’t hold a job. 

TOM: (still smiling) I can’t hold a job.

HARRY: I could write you a check for some amount.

TOM: A check wouldn’t do.

HARRY: But you know I never keep any cash, Tom.

TOM: Yes, I remember.

HARRY: (feeling for his wallet, though not producing it) And I spent the last dollar I had in Washington. I drove home—

TOM: (looking about the room as if appraising everything) Could you let me have something I might sell?

HARRY: Well, then your Mother would have to know.

TOM: I must run, Dad. (He is nearly at the door. Harry has followed him and stands only a few feet from him.)

HARRY: Tom, son. You know you were our pride and joy.

TOM: I know.

Tom turns and runs out, closing the door silently behind him. Harry gazes at the closed door. At last he begins backing away and across the room. Midway, he turns and goes slowly back to the straight chair where he had been sitting before. He sits there for several moments, staring straight before him. Finally he gets up, finds his glass, makes himself another drink. He drinks it down in three swallows. Makes himself another. With the drink in his hand he goes to the couch, near the fireplace, and sits down. He finishes the second drink and lies down on the couch, setting the glass on the floor beside him. He sleeps.

Presently Emma is heard on the stairway and makes her entrance. She goes to Harry and looks down at him tenderly. She covers him to his waist with a plaid rug. Then she takes up his glass and places it on the cabinet. She moves to the window at right and rear, stands there looking out. It has grown somewhat lighter outside. A whistle is heard from out of doors, at right. Emma draws back, one hand brought to her mouth. “Harry,” she whispers. She turns back to the window for a few moments, then toward the door. Hurried footsteps are heard. The door bursts open. Tom, with close cropped hair, holding himself very erect, and wearing the same pea jacket but with a sports jacket underneath, with tie and grey flannel trousers, enters. Emma takes a step toward him. Tom holds up one hand, belligerently.

TOM: Stay there, Mother. Don’t come any closer. (Emma takes another step.) Don’t make me tell you again, Mother. Stay where you are.

EMMA: (frightened) Harry!

TOM: And don’t call Dad.

EMMA: Tom, my child, where have you come from? Let me come to you, Tom.

TOM: No, that’s what I won’t do.

EMMA: Tom, Tom—

TOM: (seeing his father) Sh-sh. Is he asleep?

EMMA: He’s dead to the world, poor fellow. He’s been drinking all night. Tom, we thought—

TOM: I know, I know. (toughly) But here I am alive and kicking

EMMA: (suddenly skeptical, moving further away from him) You look like Tom, but is it really you?

TOM: (laughing at her) It’s me all right. I thought you recognized me out in the street. I saw you at the window.

EMMA: It was the whistle made me think you were Tom. How can it be you? But of course it is. Oh let me come to you, Tom.

TOM: (laughing at her) You keep backing off and saying, “Let me come to you.” (She takes a step toward him.) Stay there where you are! You might be sorry if you don’t do as I say.

EMMA: But, Tommy, you’re home, my love.  I don’t know how you got here. I don’t care. But this is the moment we’ve lived for. (She weeps.) I’ve never doubted you, my dear child. I felt you were alive, and I have only wanted you to come back and let me beg you to forgive me. I know you had to go. You did what you had to do.

TOM: (laughing) You’re right, there. I did what I had to do if I was ever to get stateside again.

EMMA: (Speaking to him as to a madman, with fake calm, she eases herself down into a chair.) Tom, my baby, sit down. Take off your coat. You’re home, my baby. Everything is all right now.

TOM: You needn’t be afraid of me. I wouldn’t have come all this way to see you if I were going to harm you. But keep your voice down. I don’t want to wake Dad.

EMMA: Tom, would you mind telling me what happened? Your father has just got back tonight from Washington, making one last desperate effort to get information about you.

TOM: They don’t have any information about me. They won’t ever have any if you don’t give it to them.

EMMA: How can I give them any? I don’t know what’s happened and don’t want to know.

TOM: I’m afraid you’re going to have to know.

EMMA: All I need to know is that you’re really here.

TOM: You mean, I could come home with no questions asked?

EMMA: Absolutely, Tom. We are your parents. Nothing you could do could make us stop loving you. And nothing you could do could make me wish for anything but to have you safely back home. Well, unfortunately, I’m afraid you’re going to have to know my whole story. But first let me make this clear: I had to come here and see you once more and tell you I was alive.

EMMA: And that’s all that matters. 

TOM: I’m afraid it isn’t.

EMMA: What is it, son? Are you absent without leave?

TOM: (laughing) Absent without leave, indeed! ……….. Can’t you look at me and tell I’m a killer now? Can you honestly look at me and say, “My son is a killer but I want him home, alive?” 

EMMA: My son is a killer and I want him home, alive. 

TOM: (going to her and leaning over her, threateningly) Say it again.

EMMA: (her voice trembling) My son is a killer and I want him home, alive.

TOM: Now say this: “My son killed more of the enemy than he could count, more than was necessary. My son killed prisoners of war, rather than bring them in. And I want him home, alive.”

EMMA: My son killed more of the enemy than he could count, more than was necessary. My son killed prisoners of war, rather than bring them in. And I want him home, alive.

TOM: Say this: “My son left his best buddy to die in a ditch, and I want him home, alive.”

EMMA: My son left his best buddy to die in a ditch, and I want him home, alive.

TOM: Say this: “My son killed his officer who had twice saved his life, and I want him home, alive.” 

EMMA: (weeping) My son killed his officer who had twice saved his life, and I want him home, alive.

TOM: Say this: “My son murdered ignorant, innocent women and children, and I want him home, alive.” 

EMMA: (weeping) Stop! Stop!

TOM: Say it.

EMMA: (weeping) My son murdered ignorant, innocent women and children, and I want him home, alive. 

TOM: (turning and walking toward the front door) I came home to hear you tell those lies. I deserted to escape court martial and execution, and I crossed the mountains into another country, and I made my way half way round the world just to hear those lies. It was all that kept me going.

EMMA: They are not lies. (She has buried her face in her hands.) They are not lies.

TOM: But why don’t you look at me? Somehow you can’t look at me now.

EMMA: Wait a moment. Only wait a moment …….. (removing her hands from her face and rising) Poor Tom. My poor Tommy ………. Let me come to you now. You must stay with us here. We’ll help you work things out.

TOM: No, there are some things that can’t be worked out. I only wanted to see you this once more in this house. Beyond that, there is only one other piece of business—a favor, the greatest favor I could ask. Ask it, ask it. Anything in the world, Tom.

TOM: Come away with me. You and Dad simply put on your coats and come away with me. I made a fortune in the army. I need not tell you how. I can get us all three out of this country by noon today. You will never want for anything.

EMMA: Tom, let me wake Harry.

TOM: No, you must decide before you wake him. If you have decided, then he will agree to go along. If you have not, he will make the decision. And I know what that would be. And he would never let me leave. He would make me stay here and “work things out.”

EMMA: Tom, I’ve never lived anywhere else. You know how lost I would be.

TOM: You would have me.

EMMA: But we would not have you here. We would be lost anywhere else.

TOM: Yes, I know you would ………. (after a silence) Well, there’s a plane waiting. I have to hurry. (peering over at his father) Tell him, tell Dad—

EMMA: Yes, what shall I tell him, Tom?

TOM: Only tell him that I am alive. (He goes out quickly.)

Emma returns to the window and looks out. After several moments she begins to sob. Harry sits up on the couch. He hears her sobbing and looks about for her. Finally he locates her at the window. It is growing light outside.

HARRY: Emma, dear.

He rises from the couch and crosses slowly toward her. She manages to stifle her sobs. She turns and faces him. He comes closer, reaches out and takes one of her hands.

HARRY: He is dead, Emma.

EMMA: Yes, he is dead. We mustn’t deny it again.








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