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Water in Darkness

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A taut, disturbing novel that examines the Vietnam War’s living legacy and plumbs the depths of human sadness.

$14.95 $11.21

Excerpt from Water in Darkness

Chapter 1

The C-130 gained altitude out of Honduras so suddenly that the soldiers reeled in the seats where they sat facing each other in long rows. They vomited bile into MRE ration bags. They swallowed plug tobacco and doubled over, coughing dryly. Their jungle fatigues were kneeless and sweat black and without crotches. PFC Russell Fredericks fell forward and busted the piss-tube from the airplane wall before landing face down among the muddy boots of the soldiers. They laughed at this chubby hairlip from Tennessee where he lay helpless and pissing while the airplane held a steep northeast by southwest. He flailed his arms like a cartoon idiot and slid backward on his chest, followed by the rivulet of a hundred soldiers’ urine floating cigarette butts and tobacco twists. The men cussed him in a babel of accents and lifted their shineless boots.

Fredericks’ squirting penis dangled when he knelt, the legs of his fatigues black. The airplane banked through a wall of dark clouds and knocked him back down. He spat, his lips glazed with urine. The soldiers laughed and shot burning matches at his cushy backside or threw what they had in their hands. Wads of gum. Snuff tins. Pieces of ham and chicken loaf from their rations. Harold Felder, a stringy black from Miami, whipped red welts into his ass with a length of knotted parachute chord. The rest waited with tired faces to rig up for the jump back into Fort Bragg.

Crack the cracker motherfucker, Felder said.

That’s it, said a yellow-skinned black named Pickens.

Ain’t no joking when we ain’t toking.

Jack Tyne sat on the web seats next to Jimmy Wilder, the short Virginian the NCO’s called Nub. Wilder was livid, rolling his eyes like a mad preacher when Corporal Keller jumped up and pushed Fredericks back down into his piss wake after the airplane straightened itself at cruising altitude. Keller was a handsome lawyer’s son from Pittsburgh who had gone to Rutgers on a wrestling scholarship and flunked out. Jack hated him, but they’d been together since the first day of boot camp, even before the barbers shaved their heads and the drill sergeants boxed up their civilian clothes to send home. He smiled at Jack and gave him the peace sign. Wilder shook his head and stared out the window at the sky flowing past. Only the maniacs are alive here, Jack thought, only they can stand to run things.

The soldiers howled and congratulated Keller with back slaps and high fives for prolonging the floor show. Two boy-faced lieutenants looked on with disgust before laughing themselves when Fredericks stood with his pants around his ankles, looking like he’d wandered in from an overturned bus of idiots. Sergeant Nien, pock-faced and two months off drill sergeant’s duty, ordered Fredericks to leave his pants undone and jam his thumb into his mouth. After a five-thousand count he was to take it from his wet lips and proclaim loudly that he was a shitbird. Keller was stung, red-faced, huffing like a scorned woman at being outdone by Nien. Jack Tyne and Wilder lit cigarettes while Fredericks affirmed his new name every five seconds.

I’m a shitbird.

I’m a shitbird.

Look at Keller, Wilder said. I bet he feels worse than a dog kicked at suppertime.

I went through boot camp with him, Jack said. He was the first of all the assholes to start talking like the drill sergeants. There was this kid Miller with a big head and small girl hands and Keller gave him hell for sixteen weeks just like the drills did. You’d hear Miller crying in the latrine at night and then he tried to kill himself with a disposable razor. I don’t know what Keller’s going to do when he gets out.

He’s a lifer, Jacky. We’ll come back in twenty years after he’s a retired first sergeant and see him driving a taxicab from division out to all the titty bars. He’ll be telling the new joes how hard it all was back in 1987.

Keller pointed at Fredericks where he sat nervously sucking his teeth, black from snuff. Keller was trying to get their attention with his game-show-host face before slapping Fredericks upside his head and telling him to close his mouth. Fredericks rubbed the back of his neck and held his peter through his pants like a boy who had to piss during a church service.

Hey Jacky, Keller said. Who told this shitbird there was anybody who wanted to see his teeth?

Jack smiled vaguely. Wilder gave Keller the finger without even looking at him.

Buddy fuckers, Keller yelled. You buddy fucking sons of bitches.

You know, Jack, Wilder said. You never get to pick who you spend your life seeing.

Jack pointed at Fredericks with his tired eyes.

Or what the hell you look like, he said.

I know it ain’t nice, but Fredericks’ face kind of invites it all. He looks like the offspring of cousins. But Keller is an asshole.

And he thought he was going to see a war in Honduras, Jack said.

Just to think.

The jump masters stood barrel-chested beside the jump doors and cursed the men to their feet. The smokers took final drags from cigarettes and held the smoke until none came out. The outboard seats were locked upright and the inboard seats followed suit. Parachutes packed in green nylon were ferried down the rows of pimple-faced soldiers; the yellow static lines were bound to the pack trays by rubberbands and the boys were careful not to mess them. Reserve chutes like couch pillows were passed nervously along. Jack Tyne knew the reserves would be useless; the jump altitude back into Fort Bragg was only seven hundred feet and they would not have time to fully deploy. The battalion commander—Old Buck they called him—wanted to simulate the conditions of a combat jump because an occasion for training could never be wasted. When it’s for real, he said, you don’t want your balls hanging too long in the sky. He had promised the boys of the 3/504th Parachute Infantry a fight in Honduras with the fury of a minister testifying grace. Many thought the old man with steel eyes half hidden away in the deep seams of his face wanted to avenge the American dead he had seen in Vietnam when he led a platoon from the 101st Airborne through the A Shau Valley. But no fight along the Honduran-Nicaraguan border came to pass and he would retire at the end of the year without hope of getting his full bird. When all of the live ammunition and grenades were returned, the old man sulked darkly, exuding the inconsolable sadness of a man passed over who knows that all a retired warrior can do on the outside is sell real estate or teach high school history. But his soldiers had fun, joking and calling the absent Nicaraguans Juan Cong, the killers of rum bottles and bags of Panama Red. They jeered the jungle and the orange frogs and claimed that they feared no evil in the valley of the shadow of death because they were the meanest motherfuckers in the valley. They acted like Hollywood actors in every movie they had ever seen about the Vietnam War, sketching peace signs on their helmet covers, talking about The Man, playing air guitar with the butts of their M-16 rifles to ill-hummed riffs of Jimi Hendrix, once a paratrooper like themselves.

Wilder adjusted the sizing straps on his chute back to fit his small body. His teeth were crooked and gapped, yellow from too long in the field.

I’m glad I’m out next month, he said to Jack. Keller’s going to be impossible with him having Honduras. I just can’t stand to hear none of his bullshit anymore.

Jack inspected his parachute without any idea of what he was looking for. He wiped a muddy bootprint off its nylon cover.

Keller can’t have what didn’t happen, he said. We sat around down there scaring each other with dead snakes.

That doesn’t mean nothing to a jerk-off like Keller. He was there and they let him load his rifle and lead a patrol. He’ll be telling that to every new guy this year.

What do you think gets a guy started telling the same story? Jack said.

He don’t have shit else to say. The army is already the high point of his life at twenty-one. I think once an idiot gets started on something, he more or less sticks to it his whole life.

I guess.

There ain’t nothing to guess, Jacky. Back home, there’s this old drunk named Larry Ray who lives in the trailer park and drinks one of them big jugs of vodka every couple days. You always see him staggering to town every Monday and Wednesday and Friday and sometimes Saturday if it’s cold out. He tells the guy at the Piggly Wiggly about how he don’t call blacks niggers. No, sir, he says. He calls them South American Dignitaries like Sanders did in the navy. Nobody knows what he means let alone who Sanders is. But we think he might be the dumb son of a bitch who once talked him up from a barstool and made him think he was a comedian.

Jack nodded while the sunlight strafed through the windows.

You can’t give an idiot the time of day, Wilder said. If you listen once, you’re fucking everybody that’s ever got to watch his mouth move.

Jack and Wilder helped each other into their parachutes, then fought to keep their shoulders square from the weight of the overstuffed rucksacks hanging before their legs. They waited to be inspected. Jack steadied himself with a hand against the insulated wall of the airplane, counting five months until discharge.

Fredericks was still unrigged and lay wide-eyed on a pile of unused reserve parachutes. Jack knew his type—slow, mulish, looking at a future of moving between welfare lines and county jobs and cheap rents. He was the fat boy who made the drill sergeants at Fort Benning love their duty. They sought his kind out that first day of boot camp as if he were the finest piece of meat on the platter, calling him before the formation of scrotum-headed boys and declaring that the best part of him ran down his momma’s leg. They jammed the brims of their Smokey-the-Bear hats into his bovine face and left them there for twelve weeks, hoping to run him AWOL from their army. But Fredericks endured, his destitute imagination never knowing the difference unless the drill sergeant was black; most of them cussed him with his own accent. Jack figured guys like him stuck around for the chow that came hot and regular, chili-mac and Wonder Bread.

Sergeant Nien, wild-eyed for a drink, crossed his arms and tilted his head down to see into Fredericks’ face. Perhaps it was a vision of some hill girl gotten in the cab of a pickup truck that was making Fredericks’ feet tremble. Jack elbowed Wilder and pointed for him to look.

Fredericks, Sergeant Nien said. His crazy boozer’s face twitched grimly.

Fredericks looked up with the graceless eyes of a cow.

Yes, Sergeant, he said.

You get a good rest?

Yes.

You feel like you’re ready for the jump?

I sure do.

We have a parachute all ready for you, Nien said. But only if you’re rested.

This one? Fredericks said.

You don’t mind, do you?

Hell no, Sergeant. I volunteered to be airborne.

I’m really happy you’re a man of his word.

My daddy says that all a man has is his word and his balls and that he shouldn’t go breaking them for nobody.

That’s some good advice. Uncle Sugar does not want anybody making his daddy ashamed. Damn, Sergeant, you even remind me of my daddy.

When Fredericks stooped down for the parachute, Nien fetched him a kick to his backside, once again laying him among the boots of the soldiers. Lemmings, the lanky machine gunner from third squad, pulled him up by his neck in time to keep Felder from stumbling over his head. Nien smirked and made his way up the aisle to inspect parachutes. Keller’s rat eyes followed him with jealous respect, as if this were the man he knew he wanted to become.

Get rigged, you moron, Lemmings said. Nien ain’t had a drink in twelve days and if you make him any more pissed off, I’ll blindside you myself.

I didn’t know which parachute was mine, Fredericks said.

Well, said Lemmings, there ain’t a wrong one.

Wilder was shaking his head while he held up his rucksack to have its lowering line inspected by Sergeant Tommy Brown, a man who got so drunk on Saturday night that he gave himself two IVs every Sunday morning to rehydrate himself, watching professional wrestling on a black-and-white TV as the bags drained into his thick arms. He looked over his shoulder at Jack.

Good thing we didn’t fight them people, he said. Half of these fools are just here because the factories closed back home, the other half are only wanting to talk shit. We’d a died in place.

You really think so, Jack said.

Shit.

Jack sat with the others, a parachute and rucksack across his knees. He buried his head in his folded arms atop his reserve, smelling the putrid breath from a soldier’s nicotine cough. He closed his eyes and feigned sleep.

There are nights when I fool myself that I can remember my father. It’s mostly the small things I pretend I once saw. The worn heels of his work boots. The way his eyes would half close when he drew his cigarette. The soap smell of his neck when he held me on his shoulders to watch two buck deer duel on a bluff above the Watega River. I even stare unblinking at the cinder blocks of the barracks wall until I see him telling me things about the world. He explains to me that where there is true sadness, no consolation is possible. His face always shows great concern, as if hoping that in my youth I will understand his wisdom and experience. I listen intently to my own delusion, even on nights when his mouth moves without sound.

I have tricks I do when I cannot imagine him talking to me anymore. I close my eyes and open them quickly. I shake my head hard with my eyes open. But he never returns. He dies again among the wet ruins of Hue City the way I have always seen him when I cannot lie anymore to myself that he might have been a father who did something that warranted a memory. His wet boots protrude from the burst concrete; the rats climb about the slabs like children at play. He is dead by a gut-shot, his PX wristwatch smashed. All of the dead marines wear the same PX wristwatch and the few that remain ticking are stolen by smiling children in pointed hats. The dropped arms bounce lifelessly on the broken glass.

Number one, the children giggle. Number one dead joes.

In my sister’s last letter she wrote for the first time of her sadness about his death. I never knew Gina thought of him. She was always my brown-eyed sister so beautiful too young, taking the stares of men as if a statue before she was thirteen years old. Our father was only a young marine in a picture on the television set, his face phony grim. Our mother took it away when she married Donny, the man who stayed too fat for the draft until the Vietnam War was over, his face scarred from bad acne, his clothes smelling of the dog food he made at General Foods on the afternoon shift. It was like our mother killed him for the second time, because he became nothing but a VA headstone, the flat sheet of bronze, and she asked with her cold eyes that we call this fat man father. But Gina wrote that there are many things a woman cannot even begin to know without her father’s love.

Her vague words haunt me because I never meant to watch her and Donny for so long on those nights. I even held a tire iron against my leg, feeling the coldness of the metal, telling myself that this would be the night I would use it, open his curly head like an egg and kill him atop her. But I did nothing and only watched them through the cracked door of her bedroom, the darkness wet beyond the window, the rain lulled as if a calmed hysteric. Then she was forever atop him, so much like lovers, his calloused fingers about her slender hips, working her against his hardness, until embracing Gina to lick the undersides of her breasts. She was not fifteen. But I tell myself over and over that I saw her child’s face die when she never really had one.

Our mother was awake like me. She heard those nights the way I saw them. The rain blowing against the bungalow windows in tiny squalls. Their breath sucking like the wind in the trees. But I never meant to watch so long and I wonder if our mother meant to listen.

A frayed light leaked through the airplane windows when the jump masters ordered the soldiers to their blistered feet. The boys moaned sadly while they helped each other up with outstretched hands across the aisles. Rucksacks swung and busted shins. Wilder spat and murmured that his time was way too short in the army for a jump to break his back. They hooked their static lines to the cables above, halved the slack, and held it tightly, checking rucksack lowering-lines with hard tugs. The RTOs sighed from the weight of radios. The machine gunners examined the rigging of their weapons, stroking the black gunmetal like beloved pets. They all rocked back and forth with the maneuverings of the crazed pilot.

The jump masters, shrouded in the red light from the cabin, pushed open the doors and kicked down the jump platforms, the wind forcing their pants tightly about their thighs. The cold dark air drenched the airplane and woke Jack and a hundred others from their thoughts. The jump masters hung from the doors, looking for the leading edge of the drop zone, only their boot heels and fingers visible. The soldiers stomped like straining horses and chanted for death to come quickly if death were to come at all.

When the safeties pulled the jump masters from the doors, they straightened their kevlar helmets upon their heads and gave the thirty-second warning by hand signal. The first jumper, a soft-faced lieutenant named Rhodes, took his position in the door. His knees trembled. The safety held the yellow static line behind his back.

The green light popped and the soldiers yelled that the bullshit must stop. The jump masters howled go and Rhodes went. The stick of jumpers shuffled to the door and reeled from the cruel blast of wind. They handed off their static lines with extreme care, their bodies suicidally beautiful as they walked into the blast and cursed the souls of the men who led them. Jack followed Wilder and closed his eyes after handing off his line, and soon there was nothing below his feet but the darkness.

The night was sodden and cool when Jack Tyne pitched his rucksack over the gate of the canopied deuce-and-a-half. He jumped down into the sterile quiet of Fort Bragg, the painted rocks marking formation areas, the raked dirt beneath manicured bushes. He blew cold while he slung his rifle and searched for Wilder in the line of soldiers filing along the regimental street, their faces whisker-dark, orange from cigarette embers.

Felder and Pickens shot hot butts at a fat motor sergeant who stood on the running board of an idling deuce. His uniform was starched; his stomach bulged against his blouse. He ordered the lazy grunts to stop dick-dancing and shag ass off his trucks. The cigarette butts bounced off his head. Passing soldiers called him a cake-eater, a pogue, a dirty leg motherfucker.

Who did that? he said. He brushed the singe out of his hair.

Nobody here but us niggers, said Felder and Pickens. Not a soul.

Jack leaned forward from the weight on his back while the fat sergeant was barraged with hot butts, the sparks flying like the wake from tracers. The barracks buildings were built of cinder blocks, rowed four deep, as if a hundred sets of clean teeth. Wilder and Keller were at ease on the rocks of the formation area with the forming company, wiping grime from their lips, scratching bug bites into runny welts. Keller held a Zippo against the asshole of farting Gruber and swore blue flames would appear; none did even though Gruber’s forehead was red from straining. Wilder looked like he would sit down with his face in his hands if somebody let him. Jack fell in beside Cassiday, a buck-toothed kid from Kansas who shit on the latrine floor whenever he got drunk. His eyelids were pus bags from some bug bite and hung like awnings overfilled with rain.

Do my eyes look real bad, Jacky? Cassiday said.

They sure the fuck do, Jack said.

Really?

All fucked up.

First Sergeant Johnny Johnson took his place before Bravo Company on a cement pallet formed into the grass. He was a black man, tall and hard like a framing nail, his face pockmarked with bullet scars from the Ia Drang Valley. The combat infantrymen’s badge and master jumpwings were stitched above his left pocket, the ranger tab on his shoulder. Behind him were a row of white crosses against the billet walls with the name of every AWOL and dope fiend and barracks thief he had ever sent to military prison. For six days the first sergeant patrolled the Honduran frontier with his soldiers, and his jungle fatigues still bore a starch crease, his boots brush-shined. Cleanliness in the face of squalor, men, he would say. That is all a soldier can offer this world of pig-fucking civilians. He laughed in the faces of the young blood officers who were sure they would fight the Sandanistas, as if he knew the operation was a dog-and-pony show ordered by President Reagan himself. A gang of spics won’t fight for anything except whores and drugs, he said. But Charlie Cong would have killed half you fist-fuckers the first day out. You would be dead, still trying to drop your cocks and find your socks. The first sergeant consulted his wristwatch with hard glances and waited for his men to form.

Two new guys from the replacement depot walked down the barracks stairway. They were freshly hatched from boot camp and jump school at Fort Benning, fitted in new fatigues full of pocket strings. Jack watched them take slow steps as if walking across ice. Bravo Company howled and whistled, called places in the love train they promised would run all night long. There was a lanky white boy with soft gray eyes and willowy legs who sauntered rather than walked, a stigma he never knew he had until the first day of boot camp when the drill sergeants asked him if he joined the Army to fight or fall in love. A black kid followed him, scowling and eyeing all as if he’d killed up close with a zip gun, even bitten off noses in night fights on the wintry streets of Detroit.

The first sergeant called the company to attention with gravel dead eyes and never once looked up from his wristwatch. One hundred and fifty boots locked heels in uncanny unison. He studied his charges, not liking half of what he saw. This motley of drawling Klansmen and tattooed skinheads and black gangbangers from the west side of all places and Mexicans raised in the border barrios where the sunrises looked like graffiti. Every one of them was unfit for real work and wore a smirk that no amount of pain could wipe away. He pointed into the formation with a karate chop where the soldiers fought the desire to scratch mosquito bites.

You pissants have three minutes to baptize these men and make them real paratroopers, he said. Are you all clear?

The soldiers screamed that they were very clear.

Prepare to baptize, he said.

Many hooted the rebel yell as their doomed forebears had done across a wheat field so long ago.

Baptize. The first sergeant’s hand came down with violence.

The formation area became a stampede and the new soldiers were set upon by the feral herd. Jack and Wilder stood back, as if wrapped in an odd nimbus of calm. Keller led a wave of men against the pretty boy and soon held his frail body high like a coffin. The soldiers took turns slapping his stomach red. He offered no resistance and they struck him harder for it.

The black stood his ground and swung first against Fredericks, the punch solid upon his jaw followed by a clean uppercut. Fredericks reeled and spat blood. The black kicked against his head when he came to his knees and sent him back flat. He was trampled by his avengers and they circled the black, unsure of how to bay him. He guarded his face with his fists and punched coolly, sending three to the gravel before going down beneath a dog pile. He kicked and gouged and bit all things within reach. A soldier named Rawlins with a bad tick rolled from the pile holding his testicles.

The nigger bit my cock, he said.

Gruber with his crooked eyetooth ran to the barracks wall and turned on the water spigot. Keller led his herd toward it with the pretty boy high on their hands. They banged his head against the wall. His eyes swam, his tongue lolled from his mouth. His new fatigues were heavy with water. Keller and Gruber held him upside down by his ankles. Soldiers huddled five deep and peered over shoulders to see, fighting one another for a better view.

Shake the cherry, Gruber, Keller said. Get the water down into his nose.

The cocksucker won’t keep still, Gruber said.

I got his head, said an ugly voice. I got his head right here.

The first sergeant looked skyward and yelled that it was finished and it was. The soldiers filed back to their platoons. The pretty boy rose dazed and coughing from the harsh flow of water. He took a short step before collapsing into the puddled grass, then stood again, his eyes crossed and swelling badly. No soldier offered him aid because he had refused to fight. He was now marked weak and the weak were useless, and Jack Tyne knew that there was no future in helping a marked man. It was only a matter of weeks before they came for him in the barracks dark and beat him until he went AWOL.

The black jumped to his feet, picked up his maroon beret, and brushed it off against his leg. The soldiers from his new platoon cheered him for his toughness. There was no mark upon his face nor would one ever come to it. Even his bloody-nosed victims shook his hand.

There’s one tough nigger, Keller said. I wish we had him in our platoon.

Wilder looked at him and forced laughter as if to keep from crying.

I wouldn’t go saying that too loud, he said.

What am I saying that’s bad, Keller said. He’s a tough nigger, ain’t he?

Go on, Killer, yell it out. First Sergeant Johnson ain’t heard what you have to say about his momma.

The orange-haired corporals Gilligan and Hoey of South Boston poured swallows of beer on the barracks hallway, then jigged new scuff marks into the brown tiles. Jimmy Cross waited by the broom closet for them to pass on into the night and find the road to the tavern. He held the mop in the ringer, the bucket water black as river mud. Cross had broken his ankle on a jump two months ago and had pins in his knee. The first sergeant turned him into a janitor until his medical profile expired and took him from the shame of light duty.

Cross kicked the bucket with his good leg when the Irish corporals walked down the stairs. The water lopped on the floor, thin puddles of filthy suds and pine oil. His cast was wrapped in a trash bag and he swung the mop head back over the tiles he had just cleaned.

Jack stood in the doorway of the room he shared with Keller. He slipped a clean sweatshirt over his head still wet from a cold barracks shower. Cross hobbled behind his mop and mouthed curses under his breath.

Go easy, Cross, Jack said.

I’ve mopped this son of a bitch nine times. You know that. Nine goddamned times.

Cross bent down to pull cigarette butts from the mop head.

Like it’s my fucking fault for breaking a leg, he said. I ain’t no pogue, Tyne. I never fell out of anything.

Jack watched Cross move the mop faster, almost stabbing the floor with it.

They’ve had me on detail every day since, Cross said.

They have, Jack said.

Jumping out of airplanes ain’t natural. Anybody could break a leg. Even first sergeant. Even the shitting colonel. This will fuck me out of the sergeant’s board. This could have happened to any of you.

But it was you, Jack said.

Cross grit his teeth and shook his head.

I ain’t even started laying wax yet, he said. You know what these fuckheads will do then?

At least they’re still pissing in the latrine.

The night’s young, Tyne. And you guys got a four-day pass.

Jack lit Cross’s cigarette with a match and walked down the hall. Soldiers too poor for the taverns and the clip joints and the trailer park brothels off post lazed in the rooms. They drank canned beer and sipped whiskey from pint bottles. He stood in the doorway of Wilder’s NCO room with one hand on the knob and a cigarette in his mouth. Wilder coughed and packed an overnight bag, his body still filthy from the jungle though he was dressed in jeans and a clean mackinaw. I’m getting away from these idiots, Jack Tyne, he said. They’re already down in Gruber’s room with a case of Busch and Keller’s passing a fifth of Early Times.

Since when did you stop drinking? Jack said.

That ain’t it. I don’t want to listen to them later. The howling and Keller wandering around with his jaw stuck out and wanting to wrestle third platoon. Not tonight. I’m getting me a room at the Fayetteville Motor Lodge and eating pizza until I forget my name.

Jack sat on the bunk and laughed at his friend.

They aren’t going to give you a room smelling like that, he said.

I’ll pay them double. Why don’t you come on and we’ll go halves.

I got to save my money for discharge, Jack said. I don’t know what kind of home I have to go back to.

There isn’t a shitface up and down this hallway who knows that. We’re rolling the dice that the people back home will treat us like the heroes we ain’t. Why don’t you come on?

I can’t.

Anders is on CQ and you know that dumbass don’t care if they get drunk and go after that new kid again. He should have taken a swing or something. Keller’s convinced he’s a faggot. You know how they ran Kirkau AWOL last year.

Kirkau didn’t have any business coming here.

They didn’t even know if he was gay or not.

The barracks has its own law, Jack said.

With talk like that, you better get down to Gruber’s room.

I don’t see you sticking around to guard him, Jack said.

Get out of here. I don’t want to listen to you either.

Jack walked off smiling. In Felder’s room lolled an arrangement of blacks who were drunk or becoming that way. Coal faces, tawny faces, all inhaling wisps of menthol smoke. They fought to laugh the loudest over raps about forcible sodomy and gut-shot cops. Felder raised his soused eyes when Jack passed the doorway and staggered to his feet with a bottle of Bacardi 151 in one hand. The new black sat against a wall locker, still in uniform. Pickens was barefoot on the bunk, rapping with the stereo.

Hey Jacky Tyne, said Felder. You feeling all-white tonight.

He extended the bottle to Jack but Jack waved it away with his hand.

Come on and have a drink, Felder said.

Jack met the new black’s cold eyes.

No, he said.

I was telling my boys here that you ain’t too proud to drink after a nigger, Felder said. None of them believe me. That’s why I’m saying you’re all-white.

Pickens reeled on the bunk, keeping rhythm with his hands tapping his knees.

This cracker just wants to drink before a nigger and spit in the backwash, he said. Then beat my old boy up. Lynch the poor nigger before he gets to talking with the other niggers. Say that’s what you wanted to do, Jacky Tyne. The truth shall set you free.

First Sergeant gave the order, Jack said.

Shit cracker, said Pickens. That tom motherfucker has been in the army so long he’s whiter than your momma.

Felder rolled his saucer eyes.

Who gave this punk-ass motherfucker the rum? he said.

Pickens blew smoke hard at Jack from where he lay on the bunk.

Don’t worry, cracker, he said. We niggers learn in school just how far we can go.

Shut your mouth, Felder said. I told you Jacky Tyne’s all-white.

That’s about it, said Pickens.

Nobody knows what to do with a drunk nigger, Felder said.

Not even us niggers, Pickens said. You got any ideas, cracker?

Their laughter blared like police sirens when Jack left the doorway and headed for the far end of the hallway, down toward Gruber’s room for a beer chilled on the window ledge and a mouthful of Early Times and the chain-smoking of Marlboro Reds.

The new boy had left his door wide open. He sat motionless on his bunk in GI-issue brown skivvies. His duffel bags were slumped against the wall. He held a cigarette between his fingers and drew it, his blue eyes swimming like tropical fish in an aquarium way too small. Jack Tyne knew that Bravo Company would never forgive a quiet boy with skinny legs and full lips for ending up in their ranks. The only question now was what night they would come for him. Jack figured this boy understood it by the way he stared at the white wall as if he could see beyond the cold cinder blocks.

When Jack turned to leave, the new boy looked at him and smiled around his cigarette, one eye swollen shut and blackening.

My name is Andrew Thomas, he said.

Jack Tyne. Where are you from, Thomas?

You can call me Andrew.

Nobody else will, Jack said.

I’m from a lot of different places, Jack. I enlisted in Boston.

Your folks there, Thomas?

I was just in college. I had a hard time paying attention to things.

I’m from Watega, Illinois, Jack said. Don’t tell anybody else about having been in college.

Thomas nodded and smoked his cigarette as if a woman who knew she was being watched.

My mother lives in Chicago, he said. My father never came home from Vietnam.

Neither did mine. He died at Hue City.

My mother was pregnant with me, Thomas said.

Mine was with my sister, Jack said. I was barely one year old.

We have a lot in common then.

Jack hated him for saying that. Andrew Thomas was already run AWOL and slinking off post in the dark with a broken nose from being beaten with soap tied into socks. There was no point in knowing him.

It’s strange, Jack, Thomas said. But I keep looking for him. This man who has never been more than a dozen pictures. I came here to find him even though I know he’s nowhere to be found. Mine’s just a dead guy to me, Jack said.

Wouldn’t you like to have known him?

I’ve gotten along fine without a father, Jack said.

Thomas offered Jack a cigarette but he said no with his hand.

You don’t smoke, Jack, he said.

Too many already. You spend a lot of time here sitting around and waiting to go someplace else and wait.

Thomas nodded and looked at Jack with wet eyes.

The game of hating the new guy will end when more new guys come, Jack said.

I’ve made a terrible mistake, Thomas said. My father is not here.

No, Jack lied. The game has rules.

Jack turned away from this sad boy and walked off to where Cross was buffing the tiles to a high shine and dragging his gimp leg behind him.The garbage bag that covered his cast was splattered with wax. Jack headed for the cocktail party in Gruber’s room where the laughter had already gained a vulgar pitch.

How do you know of such love, Gina? Where have you seen it?

Maybe you thought he would save us, but even in dreams he is a dead man, capable of nothing, his mud wet fatigues making him heavier for the graves detail that pulls him from the rubble by his ankles. The rain flecks the moist blood on his stomach, red like the catsup spilled from the hot dogs at Saint Joe’s picnic onto the guts of laughing fat men who drink beer with Father Stremkowski. They ask the graying priest how many trips around the beads he will take for eyeing your breasts with them. The father smiles like cracked glass, nodding instead of saying a word. When did you first know that so many men wanted to fuck you? Our father could have done nothing. He is even a burden to the marines who carry his corpse. They cuss the size of his shoulders. Why do we always get the big guys? they say. The men drop him without watching him fall on the cratered street. We ain’t carrying no more dead motherfuckers, they say. He is now one in a long row of corpses, their pants undone to check their testicles before they died, as if the package must be secured for the other side. What is heaven but the longest of our wet dreams?



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