Short fiction by Richard Aubrey
“Mac, you’re the only guy in the platoon who looks like a soldier.”
MacKenzie smiled briefly in automatic response, realized it was too dark to see a smile, and kept staring at the berm stretching along the Kuwaiti border. They were awaiting Schwartzkopf’s order to move to contact to begin the ground offensive of Desert Storm. What rumors they’d heard of the dust-up at Khaffji led some of them to think it would be a movement to a shooting gallery.
MacKenzie liked wishful thinking as well as the next guy, and particularly at moments like this. But he thought even pop-up targets, shoot-back types could get lucky. He never minded that some of his tax dollars, such as they had been thus far, would allow the Army to pay its corps of devoted embalmers and acquire none but state-of-the-art prosthetics.
“Hey,” said Latch, as if ready to propose an idea. His grandfather would have begun with “Say”, but some military traditions change.
“I bet you’re like the slim girls with the huge jugs. Never know what people might think of you except for….” The hours just before combat saw many odd conversations, many more personal than this.
MacKenzie grunted. Images of slim, pretty girls with emphatic chests had been an increasing distraction in the last week or so. No, he thought. It wasn’t the same. The women in question were admired for their breasts. Or perhaps it was their breasts that were admired.
No. MacKenzie knew he was handsome. He had heavy cheekbones, a wide jaw and a prominent chin. His slate-blue eyes were adorned with the hero-cowboy slanted fold. His teeth were even and straight in a generous mouth and seemed to fluoresce in dim light. His nose had originally been destined to be the high-bridged arch of a noble Roman, or a Shakespearean character actor. Instead, a scuffle in junior high had broken it thoroughly. This was approximately the contingency that had given Charlton Heston his famous prow, with approximately the same result for MacKenzie.
It was too much to be borne that his obvious nickname was “Mac”.
No. He was not admired for his face. People thought he was what he looked like. Reliable. Self-reliant. Possessed of moral and physical courage and a firm sense of right and wrong. Compassion. Competence. Were he in films, he’d have started as the hero’s Best Friend. He’d have been slightly in the background. Tall. Rangy. A bulwark.
People thought he was who he looked like. Their presumptions were so consistent and thoughtless, and their disappointment so profound at being disappointed that MacKenzie was finding it easier to go along with the program.
Shortly thereafter, the order came to move out. A hundred hours after that, they were done. Eventually, the Army made formal acknowledgement of one or two acts of valor MacKenzie had not noted at the time, and sent him home with thanks.
He sometimes wondered who he really was. Or whether the question should be who he really might have been. It was either his nature, or his reactions to expectations, that caused him to react positively to difficulties. He thought it might be residual Army training and others’ expectations. He’d saved lives, come close to taking it once—bailing a couple of young women out of murderous trouble. He was the man others thought of when difficulty of any kind struck. Parents wanted him to talk to wayward children. That was a shock, considering he had no children and, was not even married during the earliest of the requests. Apparently if you can do other things well, you can talk to a disgruntled teen better than his parents. MacKenzie couldn’t recall if any of those efforts had done anybody any good. But people were grateful.
The marriage counselor wanted to talk to him privately, as he had talked to Mackenzie’s wife. “She thinks she’s not up to you. Not good enough. That’s a very difficult issue to address, especially when it’s true.” The soft, doughy man had a permanent smile of commiseration and was, at this moment, adding complacency.
“That’s not right!” MacKenzie screamed silently, “That’s not how it is. She’s better than me. It’s wrong!” He came as close as he had ever come, before or since, to punching a man who’d not first attacked him.
The woman across the table touched his hand. “Twentieth anniversary of going over the berm.”
MacKenzie watched her smiling at him. “Did I tell you about that? I don’t think I did. Did I?”
“No, but various things you’ve said…putting a couple or three things together.”
Her eyes left his and wandered over his face. MacKenzie wondered if she was thinking about various studies widely available which claimed to correlate heavy, regular masculine features with high testosterone. It was supposedly more attractive at one time in a woman’s month than at another, but MacKenzie couldn’t remember which.
“It wasn’t as bad as it could have been,” he said, thinking of uncles’ stories of the Second World War and Korea.
“You’re supposed to say that,” she said, “it’s in the basic manual or whatever it is, right?”
He shook his head, making no answer.
“It’s too bad how it worked out with your wife.”
“I can’t say I had no idea. It’s just that I didn’t understand, or agree with the conclusions. But they were good enough for her.” That would be personal enough, naturally foreclosing any further exploration of what he didn’t understand or agree with. Should end the discussion efficiently.
The woman glanced sideways at a table of other women and put her hand on his forearm with somewhat more movement than absolutely necessary.
He looked around for the waitress, spotted her looking in their direction and nodded.
“We’re early for the showing,” said the woman, “aren’t we?”
“We are, but I want to stop by a bookstore on the way. They’ve got something for me.”
The woman’s face softened. They’d been moving through their date at the behest of the impersonal Plan, agreed to in advance. Now, she was under the command of a man.
He was too tired of this to even swear to himself. No matter how he tried, he couldn’t make one woman or another believe that what he wanted was for-grins, scratch-an-itch sex. When he attempted to move on, he was greeted with frequently tearful recriminations based on what seemed honestly felt betrayal.
The waitress brought the bill and he tipped generously. He didn’t want to be remembered as that cheap bastard who thought he could get by on his charming smile.
As they left, the woman took his arm. He figured she was right that others would be looking and knowing she was really with him.
Maybe if he stood in front of a mirror and practiced grim-and-menacing.
As they left the restaurant, he scanned the street for trouble. He thought that was Army training. “What’s wrong with this picture?” the instructor in scouting and recon asked over and over. But since then, he was the man who was supposed to do it.
They reached a street corner. A bright gaggle of what looked like college women on an upscale shopping trip approached and the woman took his arm again.
He saw a UPS truck coming up the street in the near lane. Maybe if he tried to tackle it. Afterwards, perhaps he could induce the plastic surgeon to pull some ordinary out of his box of tricks.
The light changed, the UPS truck stopped, he felt the young women’s gaze on his cheek, and the woman looked up at him for an instant before pulling on his arm to cross the street.
photo: maxwellgs / flickr