Richard Aubrey, with fiction from the front lines.
I knocked peremptorily. The kind of knock that says I’m coming in even if you don’t answer. He answered quickly, which is something that peremptory knocks frequently elicit.
The apartment did not smell particularly bad. This time of year, most people kept their windows open, so it was reasonably fresh. That being the only good thing about it. It was cluttered, which is one thing, and actually dirty, another thing entirely.
He looked awful. I went to the refrigerator. Cheap port and cream sherry. The choice of the amateur alcoholic. You could get just as wasted as on whiskey, but you could enjoy the process longer. The volume of beer it would take to get the way he wanted to get would be…prohibitive.
“Okay,” I said. “The captain had a meeting of the senior noncoms. Said we still had time to get new bodies in before deployment if there were any not pulling their weight. I’m the executive officer. My business is to know how many experienced lieutenants there are at corps who could take over your platoon. I’m guessing you have three days to pull it together before you’re running a desk at corps and forgetting making even first lieutenant.”
He looked at me silently.
“Do you want to deploy?”
“Hell, yes,” he said, with a degree of animation not expressed by his slack expression.
“Tomorrow’s Monday, in case you lost track. You’d better show up squared away, smelling of Aqua Velva and buttermilk at zero dark thirty.”
“I will,” he said, in a tone that made me think he was not so far gone that I couldn’t believe a word he said.
“So, what’s the problem?” We executive officers get a lot of experience on the way to the exalted position of company commander.
He gestured at the mess on the table. I looked at without moving.
“The picture,” he said.
It was a picture, alright. Somebody had taken a color picture from a newspaper, blown it up, and laminated it. And, judging by the torn envelope next to it, mailed it about the time this sad sack had started to go downhill. Fall off the cliff, more like it.
There were three people in the picture, taken when they were being awarded some prize for some kind of scholarship in anthropology at a university halfway across the continent.
One was a tall, skinny guy. Even as the recipient of an award, he hadn’t bothered to do anything about his bed hair. Despite the loss of what might be described as “information” in computer slang due to the picture being published on newsprint, copied and blown up, and then seen through plastic, he had the appearance of somebody who hadn’t washed his face recently. Being a combat soldier, I was used to, sometimes sorry for, judging men instantly on their suitability for combat and this guy looked unpromising. Which, when I thought a bit more about it, might have been premature. Like archaeologists, anthropologists frequently leave the faculty lounge for dicey places with bugs, diarrhea, and kidnap-prone tribesmen.
Another was a short, dumpy woman with a brilliant smile. She was not ugly, ranging from plain to homely except for the smile. She had obviously given up on the possibility of love and being loved. Her kind would, as far as I had seen, be married to an undistinguished guy in two or three years in a relationship of incandescent intensity. I hoped she knew that.
The trouble was in between them.
She was as tall as the guy, with considerably more shoulder. Her features were classic. It looked as if she could have modeled eye makeup for national accounts. Her dress showed that her upper story was emphatic while the fabric slanted inward, hinting at a narrow waist before being cut off at the bottom of the picture. Her hair was long with carelessly arranged soft curls. Two things got my attention. She had a knowing smile. Not a happy, pleased smile. Not cheerful. Knowing. That might have been a trick of the camera and lights. And her head was turned slightly. Lots of models do that. Not to turn the head so they’re looking at you sideways. Just a couple of degrees, giving a hint of profile and an illusion of depth. Makes a big difference, even in the most attractive, compared to the full-on, mug-shot straight ahead pictures. This woman knew what to do with a camera.
“So?” I wasn’t going to sympathize. That could be taken as agreeing he had a problem. As far as I was concerned, his platoon and the company had a problem and the problem was him.
“I hadn’t heard from her since just before we graduated. Then this.”
“Yeah,” he said, rubbing his face. “More information. We were in some of the same classes our junior year. Worked on a project for a couple of weeks. She was bright. Cheerful, personable, competent. We chatted a couple of times. She called me once or twice to talk about something in class.”
“Just before graduation, I was doing intervals, getting in shape for the ROTC summer camp.”
That would follow. Sober, this guy was good, and smart. Intervals are alternating fast and slow pace while running. The classic is the “thirty-forty”, where you get on a quarter mile track, run the first half lap in thirty seconds, the second in forty seconds, and the third in thirty seconds and so on. The slow-down prolongs the agony.
“There was a three-mile running path across the south part of campus. Nice. Trees and so forth. I was doing pretty well.”
On a straight away, you run hard until your legs burn and your breath is coming like a freight train, then you slow down until you have the guts to start up again.
“I was coming to the end, just slowing down, when she appeared, as if she’d just gotten to the end and was coming back. Damn. She looked good.”
I could imagine. Late spring at a university in the middle South was going to be sweaty weather no matter what.
“She was wearing old, blue athletic shorts. The athletic department kind. Short. And an ancient, threadbare gray teeshirt. I figured that with graduation coming, she’d just put her other used conditioning gear in the dirty laundry to take home. This stuff was in the bottom of the drawer.”
I could imagine.
“We chatted for a moment. Then she said, ‘You seem to know a lot about working out.’”
“I thought she meant I knew what to do to get the results I wanted.”
He was big, even for a paratrooper officer. Shoulders out to here, rangy, flat-chested build. His face, working backwards and taking off several years of hardening in the Airborne, would have still been masculine and mature.
I was getting the idea.
“She asked me to help her work out.”
I drew a breath.
“So I asked her what she wanted to accomplish. Agility. Endurance.”
I slowly released my breath. It was all over.
“She said, ‘I want to look better.’”
“I was floored. It wasn’t possible. So I thought I’d compliment her, joke a bit. She’d always had this short hair, page boy or something. So I told her that she should do this every day. Waited a second to let her wonder. Then I said, each day, you go into the bathroom in the morning, look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘This is the day I will not have my hair cut.’ Do that for three years.”
I looked at the postmark on the envelope.
“Just about three years, right?”
“Yeah. Okay. I’m an idiot. But she wanted me to know what I missed. Gave away, actually. Shove it up my ass. Make it hurt. Bitch.”
I was about to sympathize with the man. Obviously there had been a good deal more boy in the man’s body than had been apparent three years ago. From his description of her, he’d probably been intimidated without even knowing it. Not oblivious. Just frozen in whatever they had going at the time.
He got up, took the bottles from the refrigerator and emptied them in the sink, rinsing each as he did. Even recycled bottles should be clean and he was showing me that he was as squared away as ever. I thought I’d see that tomorrow morning.
“Before reveille,” I said, leaving.
This poor, miserable son of a bitch, squared away as he might be, was going to be looking for his bullet and take some good men with him.
I decided to make some calls to guys I knew at corps who would cheerfully sell their mother for a platoon leader’s slot in our upcoming deployment, and who knew their business.
My sympathy was entirely for the thirty-four men in his platoon.
photo: juliesjournal / flickr