Dudley’s not such a great name, huh? I’ve never thought so and I’m one of the sad sacks saddled with it.
Dudley Stephen Smith.
Technically the second, I think, but I’m not well versed enough in generational naming semantics to be sure.
What I do know, however, was that the guy I’m named for, my paternal great uncle, was widely considered to be a real mean son of a bitch. So yeah, if being called “Dudley” wasn’t bad enough, I inherited it from someone that nobody actually seemed to liked. As confusing as it is unfortunate, isn’t it.
Thanks, Mom and Dad.
Luckily, I’m a passable “Steve” and most people were happy to let me use my middle name growing up, especially those on my dad’s side. Grandpa was the only hold out. Dudley had been his brother and he’d begged my parents throughout the pregnancy to use his name. They eventually caved, despite knowing that Dudley The First wasn’t very well thought of.
“It meant so much to him for you to be called Dudley,” Mom explained to me when I was seven and wanted to make Steve my real name. “It still does. Maybe he’s hoping you can take the name and make it good again; it’s been in the family a long time.”
That was a lot of responsibility to put on a kid, especially one who didn’t know what the original Dudley had done to become the black sheep. I decided that if Grandpa wanted me to reclaim the name, he’d have to tell me what had happened to it in the first place. It was only fair that I knew the kind of odds I was up against.
Grandpa was tight lipped, though, and wouldn’t say much.
“Don’t listen to those rumors,” He said firmly. “The war might have changed him, he might have made mistakes, but he was still a good man. He was still my brother.”
Other family members weren’t so shy on the details as I got older. Through them, I was able to piece together enough to get a pretty good idea of what Great Uncle Dudley had done and why it was definitely better to go by Steve.
He’d been an enlisted man at the height of World War Two and deployed out in the pacific. If he’d been something of a serious sort before he’d gone, he was downright dark when he got back. There were no more small smiles, none of his deadpan humor, just a lot of brooding and drinking and anger.
“The littlest things set him off,” Great Aunt Ruth, his former wife, said with a derisive sniff. “A dog barking suddenly in the night, the kids dropping a toy on the floor. Normal things. He’d whip around and get this awful look in his eye and I thought I was about to watch my husband beat one of our sons for just being a noisy toddler. He couldn’t even hold a job for more than a few months. The man I married went overseas and, as far as I’m concerned, he never came back.”
The others who had known him had similar accounts, but they swore they never thought it would get so out of hand as it did in January of 1947, when Great Uncle Dudley murdered two fellow servicemen in cold blood.
“What did he do?” I asked. I remember gripping the arms of my chair and staring with wide eyes at my dad, who’d been recounting the tale.
He opened his mouth, gave me a long once over, and then closed it again. “When you’re older,” he said.
I was thirteen! I was old enough! But Dad just shook his head.
That night, I had the first dream. There would be many like it afterwards, but none quite so vivid.
I was still Dudley, but not me Dudley; I was the other one, the original. I was on a beach, surrounded by other men and screaming and gunfire. I was running, trying to ignore the young man lying off to the side who was quickly staining the sand a deep, wet red from where his legs used to be. Trying to ignore that I knew him.
Sand exploded in a hot ball beside me and I dropped to my stomach. Someone was shouting orders from behind me, but I couldn’t hear, I couldn’t hear! I squirmed forward on my stomach, my gun clutched tight in white knuckled fists, and I tried to find cover. Bullets, like so many furious bees, buzzed overhead. More explosions, more screaming.
I found Benny lying on his side, his face half buried in the sand, completely blank and staring. It was like looking at an all-too-real mask that had once been my friend.
I think I might have screamed then, too, just once, and then I was moving forward again, standing, taking shot after shot, and for some reason all I could think about was how blue Benny’s eyes had been.
I killed my first man that day. He was young and Japanese and the enemy. He looked out from behind a tree at the wrong time. It wasn’t a slow death. One minute he was a person, someone’s son, brother, husband. The next, he was just another empty shell on the beach, like Benny. I don’t even think he saw me.
A gun fired beside suddenly beside my head.
And then I was awake, and I was a thirteen year old boy tucked away in the safety of his twin sized bed again.
I didn’t sleep much the rest of the night. I kept thinking about Benny and his blue eyes, the Japanese soldier, and how real it had all seemed. My heart continued to thunder in my chest long after I had woken.
What followed in the next few months was a series of similar dreams, all of war, of pain, of death. Any time anyone mentioned my great uncle, which happened frequently since I was asking about him more and more, or called me Dudley, I would have another, and every time I woke up, it took longer and longer to convince myself that I was safe and nothing and no one was trying to hurt me.
It took its toll on my young self and my parents started to worry, but I didn’t tell them of my odd dreams. They would say I’d been asking about the other Dudley too much, that it was just my imagination getting to me and I needed to stop with the nonsense. I guess I didn’t want to hear it. It was too real, and so were the effects. Loud noises had me jumping, I found myself growing more uncomfortable if someone was standing behind me, crowds were making me nervous.
But I kept asking about my great uncle. Why had he killed those two men? What had he done? They just told me he was crazy, that he missed the war, that he enjoyed killing. How many other men had come back and were able to resume their lives? He should have been able to do the same.
“Dudley wasn’t right in the head. I guess I’d always known he’d not been totally normal, but I just thought he was stoic and unemotional. That’s just how men were. War though, it brought something out in him, and if I’d known what he was capable of, I never would have married him,” Ruth said.
I knew they were wrong though, knew it the same way I knew I wasn’t crazy.
My parents eventually got so worried over how pale and worn I looked that they pulled me from school for a few days and had Grandpa come watch me under the stipulation that he did not talk about his brother.
That didn’t last long.
“You look tired,” Grandpa said when he saw me.
“Anything you want to talk about?”
He was watching me carefully from beneath his bushy brows, like he was looking for something.
“No, I’m ok.”
“Your dad said you’ve not been sleeping well.”
I just shrugged.
“He’s been coming to you, hasn’t he?”
“Dad?” I frowned.
“No,” Grandpa said. “Dudley.”
I couldn’t hide my surprise and Grandpa nodded slowly, knowingly. “You’ve been dreaming of the war.”
“You’ve had them too? The dreams?”
“I did, years ago, shortly after he passed.”
“So they are real!” A weight I hadn’t realized had been pressing down on me was suddenly lifted. “What are they? Why are they happening?”
“I think because we wanted the answers no one else did,” Grandpa said. “I want to show you something. You want to go to my house?”
I sat in Grandpa’s easy chair in his living while he went to the attic. He came back down with a beaten up box in his hands, which he put on the floor in front of me. He sat down stiffly beside it and pulled it open. Inside, it was stuffed with old newspapers with headlines like “Two American Heroes Remembered” and “Dudley Smith Found Guilty Of Murder”, and below that, some war memorabilia and old letters.
“I kept this box after Dudley was arrested.”
“So he did kill those guys,” I said.
“He did,” Grandpa said and their was a slight tremble in his voice. “He shot them as they were coming out of a bar downtown in plain sight. Didn’t try to hide it, didn’t try to run.”
“Why did you want me named after a murderer, Grandpa?”
It wasn’t fair. First Dudley’s legacy had haunted me and then these stupid dreams which I couldn’t begin to explain and now I was finding out he really was just as crazy as everyone had said. Was that why I was being tormented now? He wanted me to suffer, too? Was it because I had his name?
Grandpa saw the flurry of emotions crossing my face and reached up to pat my knee.
“Before you get all worked up, let me explain.”
The Great American Heroes that were written about in the newspaper articles had been Wyatt Paisley and Emmet Lawrence, a pair of US soldiers who had come back with all kinds of medals and tales of bravery between them. They were local celebrities and given the white glove treatment wherever they went.
After Dudley gunned them down, he refused to give a reason, not to the cops, not to the court, not even to his own family. He sat quietly while they read off his guilty verdict and showed no emotion when he was sentenced to be executed. He accepted his fate in much the same way he’d lived the rest of his life; stoically, grimly.
“The family was quick to jump on the bandwagon; if they hated him the same as everyone else, they were just more victims. It wasn’t their fault he’d been crazy, they didn’t know, they couldn’t stop him. I was the only one who wanted answers, but that put me at odds with the others. I couldn’t just accept that he’d ‘gone bad’. That’s when the dreams started.”
He’d had them for months, just like me, but his continued past the war, to when Dudley had come home, and in them, he didn’t see a crazy man, but a hurting one, a haunted one. The things he’d seen and done followed Dudley and, unlike Wyatt and Emmet, he’d been unable to celebrate any part of the war. His moods were often dark and he drank, hoping to ease the memories and the guilt and the pain, but it only made things worse.
He started lashing out at his wife and kids, his family and friends, and he’d stay away for long stretches of time. Those stretches took him to many places, until he eventually ended up in the Japanese part of downtown.
The war was still too fresh for a lot of people and there was a lot of imagined bad blood towards the Japanese. Dudley must have felt some kinship with them, the outcasts and the looked down upon, and he went to the bars there frequently.
That was where he started seeing Wyatt and Emmet.
“They did…bad things,” Grandpa said delicately. “To the women, especially. If any of the men tried to stop them, they’d beat them. They stole from them, abused them in every way, and they knew they could get away with it.”
It came to a head when they went after a teen girl. Her father had intervened and they beat him viciously and left him in an alley. He died from his injuries days later. Fear of the police kept his family from going to the authorities.
The next night, Dudley murdered Wyatt and Emmet.
“When it happened, I couldn’t understand why he would do it,” Grandpa said. Tears shimmered in his eyes. “I knew he was shell shocked, but…well, after he passed and the dreams started, I went to Japanese neighborhood and started asking around. I knew Wyatt and Emmet had been horrible men, but I still needed to know why Dudley had killed them, why he had thrown his life away for a stranger. No one wanted to talk to me and I thought I’d never know, but then this showed up on my porch.”
Grandpa handed me an unmarked envelope and motioned for me to open it. The first piece of paper had only a couple of lines of hurriedly written text.
Mr. Smith gave this to my mama after my father’s death. Maybe it will help you now.
Behind it, there was a longer letter in different, more precise handwriting.
Fumiko, I am sorry that I sat idly by and did nothing for your husband. For any of you. I hope what I am about to do will help make up for that. There is no place in peace for me anymore, I’ve known that since I returned home, and there is no place anywhere for the others. But there should be a place for you and your children, who have done no wrong, and I will do my best to ensure that you get it.
After tonight, you will not see me again. Throw this letter away, forget about me, and do not mention me to anyone. I do not want anyone to have any reason to believe you were involved in what I am about to do. Let them place the blame where it belongs and live well.
I looked up at Grandpa, who was staring at the paper with a quivering chin, and held the letter out to him. “So he was helping people! We should show the family!”
Grandpa took it from me and gently refolded it. “It’s not what Dudley wanted.”
He shook his head. “Dudley didn’t want anyone knowing why he did it. He didn’t want to bring attention to the Japanese neighborhood during those turbulent times, he didn’t want his family thinking they could have stopped him or changed his mind, he didn’t want to corrupt the image of Wyatt and Emmet. Our city needed heroes.”
“But why?” It didn’t make sense to me that he would prefer to be a villain.
“He thought it would be easier on his family for him to be gone. He didn’t want us holding on to sympathy or fighting for him. He’d done enough fighting. He just wanted to let go and he wanted the rest of us to do the same. He believed it would be easier for his wife especially to move on if she thought the worst of him. That’s all he wanted; for his family to keep living, even if he couldn’t.”
“Did you dream about it? When he wrote the letter?”
Grandpa smiled, and it was small and sad. “I did after I got it, and I felt what he felt and I thought his thoughts and I understand.”
We put the unmarked letter away and repacked the box so Grandpa could bring it back to the attic. On the drive back to my house, I felt a deep sense of peace spreading slowly and warmly through me. The questions I’d had about who Dudley had been and why Grandpa insisted on naming me after him had been answered and I knew, for the first time in months, that I would sleep well that night.
When it came time for Grandpa to return home some hours later, after my parents had finished work, I walked him out to his car.
“You’re ok? With…everything?” He asked.
“Yeah, I think I will be.” The jumpiness and feelings of insecurity that had been plaguing me were already fading.
“Good. If you need anything, just call.” He ruffled my hair. “Goodnight, Steve.”
“Dudley,” I said suddenly. “I think I’m going to go by Dudley now.”
I don’t think I ever saw my grandpa smile quite so wide as he did when he pulled out of our driveway that night.
Dudley might not be such a great name, but the man who I was named for makes me proud to have it.