for b. j.-c.
"...one man's night, another man's noon ..."
W. J. C. O'B.
Suddenly they were ripped out of my arms, my wife, the baby, and it was hot morning wind beating my face, hot wind in eyes and ears, and I was flying, there were fields below, brown and sunny green fields, and immediately I knew, I knew where I was. I couldn't believe it. Alfalfa hillsides, barns, out-buildings, a windbreak of poplars; acres ploughed under, rich and loamy, strewn with cornstalk. I couldn't believe it looked just like Iowa. And an interstate running out below as we swung along the fields: troop trucks roaring in the diesel shimmer, unending lines of them rolling east and west headlights on, and in the grassy island between the lanes yellow mowers wagging little red flags. They were gone, my wife, the baby ...I had to get back, had to get back, but ... sunny air, blue, deep, bright with high bursts of cloud, morning sky radiant ... Iwas here... how I didn't know–
The twin highways, beautifully black, curving over the countryside to the west.
No doing of my own.
In the mowing between the lanes I could see the smell of summer grass.
Suddenly there was shouting, excited fingers pointing out. The machine began violently to turn. No more trucks below. The highway was deserted, weed-grown. Several roadside trees passed before I realized what we were staring at. Small white bundles in the branches, diapers white as snow, brown bodies, all facing away, down the embankment toward the field below, rifles on knees, riding the helicopter wind like blossoms in a horsechestnut.
A breathless silence filled our voices. The noise grew deafening, trembling the whole machine.
A huge oak rose slowly out of the red dirt. Down the embankment from the highway wound a queue of men in coolie hats, berry-brown and loinclothed, machetes at shoulder arms. Nothing in their faces moved. At the feet of one of them lay a heap of khaki and buzzing flies: a dead G.I. Red dirt burned in the sunshine. Beneath the branches of the oak a trim row of tents stood. White men in American uniforms milled about beneath the leaves. Sun had ripened their faces to a worn, unhealthy red. They squinted, arms akimbo, moving in slow, tedious circles in and out of the oakshade. The day was hot, full of dust. The dead G.I. had been lying there a week. No one could touch him, no one could do anything but keep walking, slowly, in and out of the sun. Never looking at the rifles trained on them from the roadside trees. One false move, one uncautious glance or word raised above a whisper and--.
I knew what was coming, and if I ever wanted to get back, if there was any getting back ...
As the ground rose, trembling and deafening, all thought of getting back remained above the highway, my breath with it; but I couldn't look back. Didn't dare.
I hit the ground and turned to run, then stopped.
But nothing was different, nothing had changed.
The huge tent strained in the field of mud, in boisterous laughter and yellow bulblight. From the sidewalk I stared at the roaring men, stared in pale blue buttondown and blue pinstripe flairs.
And there he was. Was he still a priest? I looked for the Roman collar in his combat fatigues. What difference did a collar or no collar make? Of course he was still a priest. Spent the Second War in a C.O. camp – but he was still a priest, all right.
Crowded at a muddy table by the other G.I.’s, shaking the tent with his laughter.
He'd gone to prison once not to wear combat fatigues.
I stood in the mud, right in front of them. He was laughing, eyes pinched tight behind glasses, the flesh of his cheeks turning rose, beating the table with a flat, fat hand.
"Padre!" was shouted, over gravy and vegetables.
"Kick 'er through the uprights!"
"Wham! Bam! Grandslam!"
"Reverend," he wheezed, "Peckerhead -- Muckinfutch-- D.D.!"
The tent roared again.
"Oh, Jack!" he said to me, with no surprise, with that sly, fighting grin of his, wiping his eyes, that always preceded a new intimacy. "Oh, Jack, oh, Jack! These are the real men, Jack, the realmen!"
I stared from the mud. All I had to do was step forward. Or, in protest, stand still, in firm mud. Forever. Impossible to turn away. Besides, the bulblight left nowhere to turn, so bright and harsh against the paint-smooth walls, against the yellow prison ceiling and the yellow floor. It felt strange holding the bars that made the fourth wall; I thought I was holding them from the outside, just visiting. I thought we were visiting draft resisters, for only an hour. I didn't want even to glance at the two guys chessplaying on the bunk bed. It was horror enough watching the resister himself. The ex-resister, the unresister. All he did was shamble, shamble back and forth, rosy-cheeked, rosy-chested, in baggy wet dungarees and ripped workshirt, turning and turning as the chessmen tapped.
Tap, tap-- turn, turn -- like a duck in a shooting gallery. Snickers from the bunk bed. For almost two hours.
Only the first two hours. Day One. Seven days of it, then seven days again, then only the beginning of Week Three. No difference night and day. Light like an unending explosion against the walls, and not a pit or wrinkle in their white enamel to cast the tiniest shadow. Night, day, no difference, except night was brighter and longer.
"Springtime in the Rockies!"
Like a heavy gay icepick in the neck. The other voice snickering and scratching; and the resister turning, turning, with a driven, doomed yet unfar-away look in shiny blue eyes, a look that would see no horror in its own face.
Then cast himself on his own bunk like a wasting odalisque.
I couldn't look at him any more. I looked for a chair. There were no chairs, there were only three bunks, hanging from the three walls. How long could I stand? Year after year? There was the floor, white with new bright paint. Not even small shadows as my feet moved. Only the smell of paint, white, of granite cold and hard, and iron.
"Yes, it's springtime, Cookie! Springtime in the Rockies!"
Chessman pacing the chessboard, and loose-boned monkey snickers.
I still would not look at them.
I felt my pants: still blue seersucker.
Snickers jabbed me in the shoulder, but that was only Cookie: hairy-eyed, grinny, skinny Cookie.
The other one leaned his curly gray head against the wall like a sly satyr, chessboard on his knee. Balanced on the knee like a long-playing record. Balanced like it could stay there any number of days, without knee moving. All the time in the world. No rush. No place for anyone to go. No exit. The big head against the wall, wry and deadpan.
"You play chest." Not a question.
I didn't answer.
"Youplay chest." A breath of stale vegetable soup.
This time I managed a grunt.
"Then I'll be your chest master."
A chill in my ear. But the voice still slouched on the bunk.
I glanced at the wasting one.
"Him? He's nothin'. He's apple-blossom time."
An enfilade of hairy snickers, freckles, scratching on a bony arm.
"But you're O.K. Jesus loves you. Jesus loves me. We're all gone love Jesus together. Keep those eyes open."
Snickers and monkey howls.
The light in the cell aching. I closed them a second, my eyes, to keep them open.
"I don't play for checkmate," the voice droned on, "I play for Bos'n's mate!"
Then my own voice startled me.
The Bos'n frowned.
But he didn't hit me.
Didn't even reach for my throat. Maybe he thought it would rock the boat too much. But his big hands dangled at his sides, his dark head blocking the sun, his fat workshirt belly hanging in my face. I gripped a gunwale, sliding my knees, my feet into position. He let the corners of his mouth sag and his head shake in sad pissed-off indignation and disappointment, sun peeking from behind, dazzling the choppy water between his legs. He stared down the mean pleats of his upper lip. "You think you're too good for us. You think you can get out of here with a clean prick. Well, I'm gonna wash your mouth out. Then I'm gonna spankyou, I'm gonna pull your pants down and then we be Jesus together. Then we get a good whore. I be your Sea Daddy, hahaha!"
I wondered what could I do -- nonviolently.
Dive between the legs. If I didn't get caught between. All I had to do was rock.
"Hey! Giddy up–!”
Suddenly I realized, staring at the dazzle between his legs, there was water behind me too, he didn't have to be the one to fall!
And with that I was somersaulting backwards, saltwater bursting cold all over me, throwing me, rolling and spitting and blind, head over heels, and the sun struck my back as though shot from the same breaker. Another wave crashed around my knees and up onto the hard sand, losing its shadow to the undertow, leaving my neck and arms and legs feeling bloodied by infinite pieces of coral; and there before me it spread, a forest primeval, all along the shore, into a bright haze of miles to the north, to the south. The breeze blowing under my shirt, filling my lungs with the clean strong fragrance of a morning at the end of winter. Sunshine riding among the palm shadows; the ground as sandy as a pinewoods on Hatteras. From behind a slim trunk a man appeared. He opened a soft smile of broken teeth but made no move to unsling the carbine from his shoulder. The breeze was in our ears, which only made us laugh the harder, the montagnard with urgent precise gestures, me in a textbook pidgin English no help against the dialect. So we threw up our hands, both of us, laughing, and let the gusting ocean turn us in to the sun-filled darkness of the rain forest.
Entering the village was like entering a new time. Around the roofs on bamboo stilts along the forest edge sunshine was misting. All over the village grounds old men squatted cutting roots into sunken fires. An aroma drifted, crisp and thick-fruity. Younger men shouldered carbines, patrolling in khaki shorts or sweeping, keeping the grounds clean. The air was moist and light with sunshine. Helping the old men were girls with naked young breasts. The sun was hot on my eyes, on my lips, the ground breeze fresh against my legs. Many of the older women, braiding leaves or energetic over grinding bowls, wore cotton prints still bright with flower patterns from World War II. One woman squatting by a hut caught a naked boy and slap-slapped dust out of him. Children darted about, staring at us, naked, in shirts; one boy hugged my leg for a funny step or two before the escort brushed him away. With glances toward us the adults kept to business. I smiled and nodded. A fuss would have unsettled everything. I tried to keep my jaw and hands from trembling but how was it possible? I was here, hereat last! Unbelievable! Who could resist a place and moment so impossible?
The entire central committee burst into greetings as I climbed into the great hut.
Hands delicate but firm reached to squeeze, press gourds of coconut into my hands. I ducked and saluted and sank fast among their shirts, straining an earnest smile to turn their faces back toward the trim smiling gap-toothed man with a pointer before the wall-map. "Welcome! Welcome!" He smiled the smile of a teacher suddenly given a new pupil of unknown ability. Big smile. "We are very glad and honored!"
I waved a self-effacing hand.
"We will tell you everything. Everything!" And proceeded to do so: recounting the history of the poor and the rich, of taxes and confiscations and people taken away, of villages burned and mass graves found, and I listened rapt, sitting among them; and, of course, I noticed too, in the cool shadow, the pictures on the grass walls: the one bald, keen-bearded, vigorous of eye and brow; and the other smiling, round-faced like a benignant sun. "It is a struggle not to the death," the chairman was saying, "but to the life! We shall die so our children and grandchildren shall live!"
I raised my hand. "I understand--" what they had to do -- from their history, their suffering -- and I, of course, had not suffered that -- and, of course, America was backing, was shootingthe guns that kept them -- but that was just it, the children, the future --violence-- the use -- both sides -- the society that followed afterthe Revolution -- if the violence stopped-- if America stoppedthe violence -- "I mean, I want America outnot America -- dead--."
"Nonviolence! We understand completely!" He shook the pointer like a baton, and all their voices, their many, very different voices, cried in chorus around me, eyes eagerly seeking mine, urging me, reassuring, their hands clapping my shoulders. "This is ourstruggle and you are an American middleclass! You will be true to your integrity, we expect nothing less. We must all be true to our integrity!" He was not smiling; he spoke seriously; he peered closely at me. "You will help us, and be one of us! Our children will be yourchildren. It will be our honor to accept."
I would need time.
"Time!" he exclaimed, and all the committee laughed with him. He spread his arms, and the pointer, as though to the whole world. "Time is ours. We have struggled ... a long time!"
So I stood up, flushed, with the help of all their hands, greatly relieved and with a sense of the village, sunny and cool, opening out with the chairman's arms and pointer to all the horizon, and sidling forward to give my thanks, from my tray neatly distributed dishes of rice, vegetables, and gravied meats, the women elegant in the candlelight, paying me no attention; they seemed not to notice that I too was American. A small humiliation but welcome; it gave me time.
I knew what it meant to join them. A gun in my hands. I knew what it meant not to join them. Slouching homeward to the States, a shell of a drone, disemboweled --.
In the dusk of the restaurant not a glance looked my way, and the murmur of conversation with its garnish of quiet feminine laughter went on.
With a dirty tray I backed into the bright kitchen light, and noticed, between swings of the doors, one of the native busboys I hadn't seen before, clearing a table in my section.
I froze. I had never seen him before. And he did not look at me.
The door kicked open, the busboy pushed through a piled tray, brushed against me without a glance; I noticed his fingernails were painted red. Briskly unpiled dirty dishes and dumped silverware into the suds.
And my time was up.
The red fingernails, the light on the chrome fixtures, the oven heat, the hard kitchen laughter drove me back through the door.
It was dim, cool in the dining room. The signs had been removed from the closed sections and the candlelit tables were beginning to fill. In the candle glimmer along the walls teak Moorish boys bore gilt platters of cakes and candies. Many people were dining now. At the nearest table a lady with beautiful Eurasian eyes and dainty puffed sleeves was lunching with a freckled American wife, her face a generous serving of smiles, a face behind the wheel of a stationwagon full of lively kids.
Promptly the kitchen door swung open and the busboy, if boy it really was, re-entered with an American-type suitcase and placed it neatly in full view, though no one paid attention, beside the door, behind a table, as though it had been asked for.
I stared at the suitcase. I could not move; I stared; a curious detached clarity came into my eyes, mocking; they fastened on the filigree of a candlestick, the uneaten buttery flesh of lobster on a fork, the down on the chewing lip of the American wife: so many details so fine they lost all sense.
I wanted to scream at them.
My hands and feet wanted to scream.
I screamed at myself.
They had no idea, no idea at all, who would be betrayed if I opened my mouth--.
Yes! And do my part to betray the people! Get belly slit from throat to penis. Richly deserved!
DO YOU KNOW,I wanted to scream at her, at the American wife, DO YOU KNOW THE IMPLICATIONS OF A FORKFUL OF RICE--?!
No, of course, she didn't, sharing a chuckle over her fork, she knew not what--.
I couldn't look at the suitcase; I couldn't take my eyes off it.
I'd never done anything nonviolent in my life.
I opened my mouth--.
The blast was so loud it seemed I didn't hear it at all.
Didn't see; didn't feel. Smoke hitting everywhere. There had to be other screams but can't even hear my own. I listen and listen; listen and listen and listen. I try to open my eyes; then notice, rubbing hands lightly, they're not wet, or numb; they're fine, they are whole. Smoke in my nose, my lungs can't hold out. I let go. Let go. And breathe in cool air.
My legs are upright and I am still on top of them.
Carefully I opened my eyes; dark but the smoke thinning in light from distant windows. In the light leaking through the wreckage -- chairs, tables, collapsed beams. There had to be bodies; arms, legs; but I could make out nothing. No screams, no cries -- no whimpers. It was still.
Only a faint whine of sirens beginning to come in with the light. And I'm untouched.
One moral dilemma summarily executed; and into its place stepping ...
Sudden brightness across the dark. From the kitchen, which also was unscathed. A head glancing gingerly in the doorway: thick dark bangs, wan feminine face. Then it found me. A pistol rose, gripped by red-nailed fingers. A red-nailed finger on the trigger. The eyes wide, nodding (it seemed) encouragement. I understood. I stared at her. She flicked the muzzle, nodding more urgently. I stared into the wreckage, stared at her.
Sirens. Running gun-drawn shouts.
My contribution, my atonement. And be shot on the spot, by one or by the other: a small, quickly buried and forgotten pittance for a twenty-year, a thirty-, a fifty-year movement that might yet go nowhere.
While in the sunshine: herding their children, squatting by the huts, tending the pits, sweeping sand into a breeze: a people again, about to make themselves a People.
And they were forgiven. There was nothing I could do; they were forgiven. They had decided how best the "American middleclass" could serve, nonviolently. To the last gram of blood and sweat they had measured the most he could give: to stand still, in the smoke.
Shouts crashed through the debris; a shot was fired.
The wide eyes beneath the bangs in the kitchen light narrowed, raised chin for an answer. The red-nailed finger on the pistol trigger began to squeeze.
I could stand still, take the rap. Bless the murders. Betray everything and everyone but the People. Or I could scream and point at the wide-eyed face in the kitchen light, betray the People -- betray everything else. I could stand still, I could turn right.
I turned left.
Off the boardwalk, to the left, out in the mountain sun, the street was full of people coming to market. A vast unending drove coming down the road under the hot sun, women heaving rice in the air, old men on nimble girl's legs shouldering bouncing baskets, an old bus rocking slowly over the mounds of red clay, spilling young men from its windows, children underfoot everywhere, all the people moving along, an unending noon herd of bicyclists, unhurried, unhurried, raising a red dust to the sun.
But on the boardwalk the shops remained clean of dust, remained clear of people who weren't American, even as the old bus whined and rocked the edges of the people into the hitching posts. From the sunny boardwalk, squinting north, eyes could see the city park, could make out through the red dusty haze the green leaves of the maples standing there.
But peeped at from behind a maple in the park, the market street was deserted, the mounds of clay bare, the clay gray, the sky gray and the air cold, clear, as mountain air is supposed to be, the spears of grass in the park a green nearly gray.
Out of the silence voices near, thin singsong voices accompanied by the tick-thuck of sandals. Behind each tree in the line of maples cameras quietly rise. The voices grow close. The cameras poise. Suddenly a whistle blows three times and -- out we charge from the trees roaring like linebackers, down upon the startled voices in the November road. Miniature peasant faces gaping on the lens-screen; then scuttling, old folks and child, across a baseball field, stumbling on the dirt of the baselines, toward the frame houses on the far side of the park.
A rubber viewer grips the whole face above the nose: nothing can be seen but the square of blue daylight and tiny figures. Outside the viewer throats roar hoarse, there are the cries of peasants and the wind in our ears like lions. But in the viewer all is silent, dark, just the pale blue square and miniature G.I.'s with cameras to their faces, running about, the park and the houses wheeling, the peasants halted then scrambling another way only to have another camera-faced G.I. dance in front, and their frightened eyes zoom Bozo big. But if they're smart they won't yell out, they won't fight but keep running -- and then dancers halt suddenly, out of film, and watch the black pajamas scurry off across the street. Heading for home, at least; to stay indoors the rest of this day. Lives saved.
Oh, but what a camera! Handled like a toy, a big thing too, big as an underwater camera yet light as a beachball.
Back on the boardwalk, in the hot mountain sunshine, leaning against the hitching post, gazing into the shallows of the noon-time crowd, I feel I can almost love the job. A contribution at last! No longer an outsider looking in, lost and unsure. (Ugly looks from the young men swinging onto the spilling bus but what can you do.) It's nonviolent, and easy not to take cruelpleasure in -- part of the war effort, yes, yes, O.K., but it's only crowd control, to keep people off the streets, out of danger, it's only for a day, just 36 hours, and -- no longer -- this is the strong feeling, the conviction -- no longer is it enough to protest this thing without suffering at least a weekend of it. There's a price -- but I hadn't stopped paying taxes, or accepting refunds. To that extent I was already an accomplice. Now to drive the nail in all the way -- to pry it out once and for all.
So ... down the stairs, bang bang bang bang, always turning right, plunging, far beneath the boardwalk, until a red glow grows, a shaft of light bangs open, hands clap your shoulder and the stairs ring doubletime back up to the street.
The processors ran the Film Room like a hamburger stand. Packed with dancers and busy friendly shit-talk, very small, very bright, a cell of cinderblock bright green from the waist down, bright yellow from the waist up, that's the Film Room. Hot naked bulbs baking the hair on your head but the air itself lovely, cool, serene. Strips of film hanging like flypaper all over the place. The seven pro's standing in rubber aprons behind their metal bench, cigarettes dangling at every lip. Taking film round the clock; they never quit. Always winding it out of the developing trays like med students playing with a cadaver's colon. Snipping the reels in five-foot strips and pinning them to wires hanging like clotheslines from the ceiling.
Give the pro your reels, get four more, and -- clear it hot!
Hot. And aching. Dancing being the hardest workout an ungymnastic body ever could get in one day. But you can always knock off for an hour, sink into a cot. Not only for the cool, the dark of the barrack aisles; but for just lying still and not listening, hearing but not listening through the door left ajar on the wooden stairs down to the street where the heat goes on, the clamor and the carts and buses, the trucks and outcries in the market, and the bicycles, bicycles, the clouds of red dust stirring up among all those feet.
But I never close my eyes. Because what I'm looking for, whatever it is I'm looking for, something I lost, something I never had: I still don't have it. I'm still looking.
I turn to the edge of the cot, the bed, straining, in the dark, to read my New Testament. But a girl with a soothing tongue keeps saying:
"He goes to Mass on Monday."
Trying to catch my eye.
"He goes to Mass on Monday," softly chants a young officer, mouth to mouth, with her.
I don't like it. It's my bed, my bedspread and mattress they're kneeling on, on which their knees are giving way to hands and thighs. My lamp they won't let me switch on. My watery late autumn bedroom twilight they want me out of. Going down, foreheads kissing. His hat cocking up, rolling down against mybutt.
And all this He goes to Mass on Monday! What do they care! If I go on Monday, Tuesday or Friday --! Ridiculous! Utterly beside the point.
Of course they can't understand that. I understand they can't understand. Beside the point.
Out the window, across the evening backstreet is the woods of bamboo that I broke out of, that my hands, my whole body in its frenzy axed and burst through; and stopped, and stood, and gazed in fright and wonder at the parade dress, olive green, wrinkled and dusty I was helpless to remember getting into. I touched the ribbons, the insignia on the brass buttons. But by the time I crossed the backstreet, climbed the stairs, unlocked the dusk of this room there was no getting rid of it.
I took off the blouse, folded and slumped it over a chair, hung my hat on it and sat on the bed.
Panels of glass shook behind me. The French doors opened, disclosing rooms of twilight behind, made less vacant by the presence of sofas and divans of a gloomy sumptuousness, and several girls, college girls by the cut of their hair, the keenness of their movements, dressing up as though for cocktails.
The one who had opened the doors hesitated, then let them go wide. I remained on the edge of the bed, reading Acts, back turned, but saw her perfectly, all right: the fall of butter gold hair on a satin shoulder, the leg thrust idling on a narrow heel. Even in the poor light her face stunning with shapely frank intelligence, and distance. She held her gaze reserved, without lies, without anything but a not unfriendly impatience for me to be gone.
Then a party of officers burst in; shouts rang out, shrieks pierced, glass shattered. They stuffed into the mean dusky room, falling all over with the girlfriends she had come West with.
She bounced onto the bed. Her knees crept up to a happy drunk of a youngster and she cooed, from her distance, into his liquorish eyes:
"Hegoes to Mass on Monday."
Uncomfortably I shifted to keep my place, then turned in disgust and let a fart. I stepped over a couple of officers.
But I was here for the day only.
It was getting to be a very long day.
In the park the weather was darkening, the wind blowing damper; and it was getting so I had to film every peasant I saw, just to be safe, to be sure I could turn civilian again.
There was one old woman had nothing better to do than stare at me. She would not let me go, would not scuttle off to safety. I circled and circled her, she just stood her miniature ground in the pale blue square, barely moving her feet turning with me -- spitting at the lens. There were four of us dancing at her, she paid no attention to the others. In the silence of the pale blue square she stood smaller than an inch. Her mouth writhed and a gob of spit hit the screen.
It was hard to keep dancing; my leg muscles rebelled. Dizzying too, dancing round and round, darting in and out. Wind in my ears, the only sound in the closing afternoon, and a hawk and spit from bitter old lips. I halted, dizzy, lungs icy and about to burst, but the little woman kept revolving. The old face zoomed big: big eyes in a thin furious face. Then it disappeared and a baby squealed. The screen shot long and wide, caught the old woman across the street shooing two toddlers toward a rose hedge. There was a gap in the hedge. One toddler scrambled into it on all-fours, the second right behind. The old woman turned on the screen, zoomed big, teeth bared, zoomed small; she tugged at something in her deep sleeve.
There was only one thing to do.
The scream inside me seemed deeper, further down, not as loud as I would have expected; still, it screamed.
But for all that, without hesitation, my thumb hit the red button on the camera. Pistol out of the sleeve, the old face dived for the gap in the dark roses, a flame spit at the screen. But just before the old neck disappeared under the hedge it took four clean orange electric bolts.
Only half the day gone and I'm ready to go home. It hadn't worked out at all, the whole opportunity wasted. I walked away. Nobody stopped me; nobody stops anybody here, nobody stops anything.
The drug store I'd seen back on the boardwalk turned out not to have a soda fountain or candy racks or anything else you go to a drugstore for, including drugs. It was filled with books, shelves and unsteady stacks of every kind of used book nobody would ever read. Sun all over the floor, no glass in the display window, hot and still; dust filling the shaft of sunshine on the pyramid of new books. And the clerk sat in back, feet on a table, in a cool wooden corner of the day, swapping one-liners with a Marine buddy. They paid the newcomer a sardonic disregard.
On the floor shelf, behind the wide-open door, I was surprised to find several anti-war books. I squatted, thumbed through a couple. They were years old, read many times, the jackets missing, the pages sandy and damp. The print did not engage me.
I stood up. The new books were all the same book, jackets shiny in the sun.
I picked it up. But the General's face was only in quarter profile. It was the Airman he was facing who filled the cover: a bear of a face, in glossy white helmet, bushwacker 'stache and happy beef cheeks, eyeing the General like a son who knows his Daddy.
There it was, suddenly. I saw it. Knew. There was no life outside it. That was what they had learned in Europe and in the Pacific and again in Southeast Asia and everywhere else. What two generations knew, I was way behind in learning. Victory was beside the point. It ends everything, it's the road home. There are always Generals, there have to be Generals, there are plans and battles. But no one takes control, no one can; and, besides, it would be suicide. Suicide.
My lungs breathed in the warm dust, slowly, without coughing. I began to feel its pleasure.
But a thoughtless laugh broke on my neck from the back of the room:
And I was back at the rose hedge. The trigger kept snapping -- the pistol was emptied but it kept snapping -- the old woman looked out of the hedge and kept snapping it at me. Suddenly her mouth was too big, and I hadn't zoomed. Nose mashed I hit the ground and something in my neck snapped, but I could see.
She was grappling with the camera, blood blowing out around her teeth.
But we'd been dancing all morning and the batteries were low.
The orange bolts gave my neck a few stiff shocks, the hammering a finger gets in a light socket, but that's all. That's all.
I woke up.
My eyes opened, and then my mouth. Alone. In a bed of leaves, staring up, in chilly morning sunshine, at trees. At a brilliant white mist in the trees, at the shining leaves in the dark branches, so wet and green. I gazed, lost. So cool, lying in the wet leaves, sweet with a faint, pungent odor.
Rifle by my side. I stiffened. But taped to the stock, unremovable: my name. The shirt and pants I wear, wet and wrinkled and olive, mine, caked with mud.
But. Nothing to be done. Now.
The morning so lovely. Tears come near my eyes. I know what the beauty means, and all shame of tears is gone; but I don't cry. I laugh; a little shamefaced.
The others in the clearing too busy inching out of their tents to notice. Sam the Bear up already, a long time, up and quacking at us, making faces, wringing basin water out of his hippie beard. Little dogtags on his huge T-shirt, tinkling in the sunny silence. The whole platoon getting to its feet, stretching, laughing in the silence with him.
So pretty in the clearing, the sunshine in the mist, the wet leaves.
But they'reout in the grass, in the grass under the wind.
We are going to be dead. We're not going to leave until it happens. Then we can leave.
But they'll have to hit hard. Last night they got blasted right back into the grass. Sam shaking his beard and wringing it with his big papa hands. I love him. We can all love him now. Sam the Bear.
It's impossible to think about.
They'reout in the grass. Out in the grass. To wear us down.
The imminence and certainty of death shone in the early morning sun. Death so certain it was almost holy.
So long as we don't hope.
Out in the grass only the baby corpse. Theirbaby. Somebody shot it; no obligation to be blown up by a baby. Not ours.
"Get up, hog caller," says Sam.
"Ain' no Hog Hauler," I smile. "I'm a Maintenance Man."
Like letting out a deep breath, to keep on breathing. Resist the breath I'm as bad as them in the grass.
Corporal Frank says, "You want to see something?"
He held up a picture.
The top was torn off, the head. But from there on down she charged like a bull, tits, belly and fanny in the sunshine, so good and so ripe she was orange.
"I'd sure like to rape that," Corporal Frank says.
And yet. I didn't have to. It seemed I'd always known that.
But if he found one, one of Those we Left Behind, cute little cunt tits stuck up. If he tried ....
They wouldn't know what hit them, wouldn't have the least idea. Scream bloody murder. Wouldn't know the honor he was paying. More than an act of love. An act of life. Homage.
Then I recognized her, from a long time ago. Grass sticking up between her legs, her arms reaching up. The face different, hers and not hers, but her all right, much too late. No big tits. Nobody else. Breasts the smallest breasts I've ever seen, but breasts still, breasts I could always dip my hands in and fall into her with a soft splash.
And make her breathe. Breathe! I don't want her dead, I don't want to kill her. But if she's out there. If she stays out there.
I reach out for her, miss.
Coffee boiling. All over the clearing its smell on the breeze, and bacon frying. I turn my rifle toward the windy grass. What did it matter who it was, it was all over, too late, too late. If they wanted the Goddamn baby to live they wouldn't put a fucking grenade in its hand.
Easing finger on the trigger. With careful breaths freeing myself from what was left out there last night. Eggs and bacon frying on the breeze, everybody eating, laughing. I know. I know who he is I know. But I didn't put him. He's not there because I. If he lives we die. If we live hedies. What am I supposed to do. Shoot him back into the grass so they won't send him out again. So I can't shoot. I didn't put him. Just let them send him out. Like last time. And the next time. And the last time and the next time. Him or me. Him or us. Die now or die a minute from now. All the difference between heaven and hell. Can always make more babies. I remember. Being born, crying his lungs out even before his head was clear, red as an apple, not a patch of blue on him anywhere, crying and flailing and pissing on all the doctors. So far away. Not here. Not now.
No more death!
If they send him again I shoot him again. Him and all the children he'll never have. And all the grandchildren and their children. Forever and ever. Just let his little hand push out of the grass with the thing in it, just let me see his little belly hanging over little penis. Again and forever. Ag--