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The Cage

Davis straightened the diagonal fold in the blanket at the foot of his hospital bed, smoothing the U.S.N. initials. He knew the corpsman, Blackie, was standing behind him, and Davis wondered if he’d be able to take it as he’d seen some of the others do. He’d seen it coming in the corpsman’s small, close-set eyes—the way they watched out of the corners—and the sadistic twist of the mouth that smiled without showing teeth. Davis knew he was lucky to have stayed in the ward three days without getting it sooner. “Seventeen” was notorious: Igor Blackston ran it on fear, and he seemed to have a sixth sense to tell him which of the “observation cases” would not rebel at his treatment.

Out of the corner of his eye, Davis watched the corpsman’s feet advancing, and the fear began to rise. Blackie leaned over to examine the bed. That was the way it always started. Criss-crossed shadows from the barred window at the head of the bed framed one eye in the corpsman’s square face. This man was all dark corners, Davis thought.

“A lousy job!” Blackie said. He ripped the blankets off the bed. “Do it again—right this time.”

Turning, he placed a heel on Davis’ slippered left foot, grinding it deliberately. Davis screamed. Blackie lifted his foot and turned back. He put his right hand to his chin as though pondering some question. “Oh, did I step on your foot? I’m sorry.” The right hand described a short arc and cracked against Davis’ jaw, staggering him back onto the bed.

“Don’t scream,” Blackie said. “It gives people the wrong idea. Only crazy people scream.”

Davis clenched his fist and started to push himself off the bed. Out of the corner of his eye he saw two others, the red-haired corpsman and the stocky one they called Shorty, moving down the passage between the beds. Suddenly Davis realized they were afraid of Blackie, too. But Blackie was in charge here.

“Don’t get tough,” Blackie said. “We’d have to restrain you.”

Davis waited, and the others paused.

“If the bed isn’t made when the chow cart comes through, you don’t eat,” the corpsman said, and turned away.

Lifting the covers off the floor, Davis shook the spread free and placed it over the back of his chair. He took a blanket and threw it over the bed. As he smoothed it, he saw the occupant of the next bed standing at the foot.

“Just take it,” the other said. “It’s easier that way.”

The chow cart banged against the outside bars as Davis finished. He looked up. The corpsmen gathered at the head desk apparently weren’t paying any attention to him. He stepped to the foot of the bed and waited his turn. The cart was pushed through the doors, and Blackie took up the ladle. That was a bad sign. The head corpsman didn’t have to do the menial work. When the cart came up, Davis took a spoon, picked a bowl, and held it out. Blackie dipped a small portion of mush into the ladle and upended it into the bowl, poured a few drops of milk over it, and moved on. Davis compressed his lips and remained silent. He knew better than to reach for a cup of coffee or one of the halved grapefruits. He’d seen the young marine across the ward try it yesterday. Blackie’d sent the boy out back to the loony ward last night.

Blackie pushed the cart on up the line, stopping at each bed to give the others a complete breakfast. Davis, watching the corpsman, noticed that Blackie never turned his back on any of the patients, and when he stopped to serve the big Negro at the head of the ward, he stayed on the opposite side of the cart. “Blackie’s afraid,” he thought.

After breakfast, Davis moved over and took his place in the line at the shaving stand. The clang of the inner door brought his head around. A corpsman stood outside the bars with a sheaf of papers. Blackie opened the door and took the papers.

A cuff on his arm brought Davis around. Shorty was holding out a razor and one of the tiny shaving cream tubes. Automatically, Davis took the razor and tube. He stepped into the washroom and found an unoccupied bowl and mirror. The day’s growth of beard made his cheeks appear hollow. “More of their program to lower morale,” he thought: “let you shave only every other day.” His eyes were bloodshot under their thin brows. He put a hand to his head where the cargo hatch had hit him. It still felt tender after all these weeks. Funny they’d stick him in a place like this just because he was hit on the head … take all his clothes, censor his mail, even light his cigarettes for him because he couldn’t have matches.

Looking sideways, Davis saw the eyes of the man beside him staring back from the mirror. Their wild light suddenly made him glad the corpsman was watching from the door. He opened his shaving cream tube and began to lather his face.

After returning the razor, Davis headed for the magazine rack. If he could read for a while, maybe he could forget these sadistic bastards. He debated whether or not it would be wise to try to talk to the doctor. Then he wondered why no one else had ever talked. The white walls of the ward seemed too close to him. He shook his head.


Blackie was sitting at the desk by the inner door. “Come here,” he said.

Davis walked up to the desk and stood before it, pulling his bathrobe tighter around him.

“You’re up for X-ray today,” the corpsman said. “Be ready at ten thirty.”

Nodding his head, Davis turned away.

“When I’m through talking to you, I’ll let you know.” Blackie’s voice was low. Davis turned back and saw that the corpsman was standing.

“I just wanted to warn you against telling any funny stories while you’re outside. It’d be easy for me to turn in a report that you have a persecution complex. Know what that means?”

Davis remained silent.

“That means you’d be diagnosed as a paranoid. They’d send you up the river to Bethesda and a nice, quiet padded cell. You’d think this cage was heaven.” He paused. “Don’t forget it. That’s all.” He waved the back of his hand toward Davis to signify that he was finished.

At ten thirty, Shorty came down the bed line with a sheaf of papers. “Emlot, Davis, Granowski, Parker, come with me.”

Davis took his place with the others and followed the corpsman outside. They went up the disinfectant smelling hall, climbed some stairs, down another hall, and sat on a bench outside a door marked “X-ray Lab.” Davis went in after Emlot. The impersonal technician ordered him up nude on a bare table and set his head for the picture.

In the chill of the room, with his skin against the cold slab, Davis felt as if this was the way he’d appear on a morgue slab. He pushed the thought out of his mind. Those sons of bitches had him thinking like a crazy man.

When the X-rays were completed, the corpsman led them downstairs again and rapped for the outer door of the cage to be opened. He held Davis’ arm and allowed the others to pass through.

“You gotta see Doctor Knauffer,” he said.

They went down another hallway and through the fracture ward. Davis wondered if the patients in here knew he was from Seventeen. They didn’t seem to be paying any particular attention. At the end of the ward was an office with a lettered board across the door: “R.J. Knauffer, Lieut. Comdr., MC, U.S.N.” The corpsman rapped twice.

“Come in,” a voice said.

Davis entered and sat down on a chair opposite the tailored neatness of the doctor. He felt out of place in the bathrobe.

A full-toothed smile passed across Doctor Knauffer’s tanned face. He raised his manicured hands and steepled them before him, elbows resting on the desk.

“Do people pick on you or talk about you behind your back?” he asked.

Davis felt his body grow chill. What had that son of a bitch Blackie said?

“No … no, sir.”

Doctor Knauffer glanced down at a paper between his elbows.

Was that the ward report?

The doctor looked up. “Have you ever been hit on the head before?”

“A couple of times, sir. When I was a kid I was hit with a baseball. And a girl beaned me with her books once.”

Doctor Knauffer smiled. “Well, you see, what bothers us is that you fainted after being discharged from sickbay and sent back to duty. I went to school with Doctor Logan and have every confidence in his diagnosis. There really was no reason for you to faint unless …” The doctor lowered his hands and picked up the papers. “Are you certain you fainted? After all, the navy does get tiresome at times, and a good rest in a hospital …”

Davis felt the fear tightening his throat, constricting his chest. What were they trying to do to him? He hadn’t asked to come here. “I … I guess I really fainted, sir.”

“You guess you fainted, but you’re not certain. Is that it?”

“Sir, I passed out.”

“Have you ever spent much time in a hospital before?”

“No, sir.”

“I find from the report here that you were in sick bay on the Ajax for three days after you were hit by the hatch.”

“That isn’t very long, sir.”

The doctor’s face hardened. “No, it isn’t. Well, you go back to your ward, and we’ll wait until we see the pictures. They’ll be down shortly.”

Davis stood up. “Uh, doctor …”

“Yes.” Doctor Knauffer already was going on to other papers.

“I wonder if it would be possible for me to get transferred to another ward?”

The doctor looked up sharply. “Why do you want to be transferred?”

“Why, I … uh …”

“Are you certain no one is picking on you—the corpsmen, for instance?”

“Oh, no, sir. They’re very good to me.”

“I see. Well, why do you want a transfer?”

“It’s just that I don’t like the atmosphere in there, sir … all of the …”

“I’m sorry, but you’ll have to stand that atmosphere for at least a week. We have to make a thorough check on you.”

Back in the ward, Blackie caught his arm as he came through the door. “And what did we tell the doctor this morning?” he asked.

Davis was pleased to notice the fear in Blackie’s eyes. He stifled the urge to give a flip answer. “I didn’t tell him anything.”

Blackie brought up his knee and caught Davis in the groin. Davis collapsed on the floor with his leg doubled under him.

“See that you don’t,” the corpsman said.

Rolling over, Davis started to rise. Through the bars he saw Doctor Knauffer turn the corner down the hall and come striding toward the cage. Davis stood up and hobbled toward his bed.

Doctor Knauffer rapped on the bars and the corpsman in the middle cage pushed the buzzer for the outer door. The doctor paused at the head desk a moment, talking to Blackie, then made his way down the aisle to Davis’ bed.

“I saw you on the floor as I came down the hall,” he said. “What happened?”

Davis looked up and saw Blackie’s eyes on him. Did he dare tell the doctor the truth? Blackie’s eyes were unwavering.

“I tripped, sir.”

“Tripped? On what?”

“On my slippers, sir.”

“Oh? Blackston said you seemed to fall down in a faint, but that you got right back up, so he didn’t assist you. Has there ever been any epilepsy in your family?”

Again Davis felt the chill. Why wouldn’t they leave him alone and send him back to duty? A fellow could take that out there, but not this.

“I asked you if there’s ever been any epilepsy in your family,” the doctor repeated.

“Huh? Oh. I don’t know, sir.”

“Well, I came over to have another chat with you, son. The pictures came down right after you left. They show no fracture. Frankly, I’m afraid we may have to send you up to Bethesda for further examination unless we can get some ready explanation of your case.”

Davis turned his head and looked out the barred window to the other barred windows across the courtyard. “This … this epilepsy—you think I have it, sir?”

“No, but you could have a mild form—petit mal.”

“Is that bad, sir?”

“Well, not too bad. But of course we’d have to discharge you from the service. You understand that such a condition would endanger your shipmates. You might pass out sometime when it was important.”

Davis looked up the ward at Blackie. The corpsman was still watching him. “Why not?” he asked himself. “Why not? It’d get me away from these bastards.”

“I had a cousin once with epilepsy,” he said.

The doctor pounced. “I thought so. Did you ever have these fainting spells before?”

“Off and on, sir.”

“Uh-huh. Just as I thought. You know, of course, that you should have told your recruiting officer about this.”

Davis nodded.

“Well, I’ll have you sent to an out ward tomorrow morning. You’ll have to wait several weeks to come up before the board, and then you can go home.”

The first thing Davis noticed about the out ward was that it had no bars on the windows. Maybe the lie was worth it, he thought. It was good to get out of the bathrobe and into his uniform again, too. The corpsman in the office at the end of the ward smiled at him. “Take lower eight,” he said. “You’re in the port watch—cleaning detail every other day. You start tomorrow. The bulletin board is right around that corner. Your name will be posted the day before your survey date.”

Davis went down the ward, found bunk eight, and hung his sea bag from the headpost. He sat down on the bunk and tried the springs. Then he thought of the “No sitting on beds” order in Seventeen. He looked around. Men were sitting on their bunks all up and down the ward. He felt like crying.

The following morning when he returned from the chow hall, Davis found the bulletin board and examined the mimeographed sheet with the names of the men who would come up before the survey board the next day. The names were in purple ink in long, even rows. For ten days he studied the sheet every morning. On the tenth day, a Friday, he found his name fourth from the top in the middle row: “Davis, Charles, S1c.” He went back to his bunk and began putting his sea bag in order.

There was no elation in Davis when he awoke the next morning. He was nervous. What if there’d been a slip? What if they’d written his folks and gotten some wrong answers? He walked over to the main building a half hour early and joined the group waiting on a bench outside the board room. The others appeared nervous, too. “This is it,” someone said. There was a ripple of tight laughter.

Davis hoped he wouldn’t see Blackie. This was in the same wing as Seventeen, but maybe he’d be lucky. Then his name was called, and he stepped through the mahogany door. Blackie sat at a desk just inside the door. Five doctors were in a circle around a table in the center of the room. Doctor Knauffer was in the middle on the far side of the table.

Stepping forward, Davis stood at attention.

“Have you any objection to being discharged?” Doctor Knauffer asked.

“No, sir.” He hoped his voice wouldn’t crack.

“Then please sign the papers the corpsman has over there,” the doctor said.

Davis remained standing before the table. There should be more to it than this.

“That’s all.” The doctor gestured with the back of his hand.

Davis turned and stepped over to the table.

Blackie held out a pen and pointed to a line on a paper. Davis signed. Blackie pointed to another line. Again Davis signed. He looked up and his eyes met Blackie’s. The corpsman smiled and pointed down to the paper. Davis followed the finger to a single word: “Epilepsy.”


Waiting in the station for the train to take him home, Davis knotted and unknotted the rope on his sea bag. “Well, I’m outta that,” he told himself. “I oughta feel great. That’s the way I oughta feel.”

The dispatcher’s loudspeaker came to life: “Chicago passengers! Chicago passengers! Through gate five!”

Davis arose, picked up his sea bag, and joined the crowd jostling and pushing one another across the depot and through the tall, barred gates.

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