By Marc Levy
Patrol, jungle, ambush, monsoon. Done, thought Stevie, who now ate only cooked meals, showered daily, wore fresh fatigues, polished boots. Except for the tropic heat and menial work, life on the base was considered pleasant.
“So, you the one they sent me,” said Worth. The sergeant bit down hard on the toothpick lodged in the right corner of his mouth. A brawny, heavy-set man with a permanent scowl, and prone to drink, he stared at Stevie, hands on hips. Apprised him up and down, as Stevie, in turn, surveyed the forest of shelves which lined the Quonset hut end to end, row upon row, stocked with uniforms, boots, canteens, all manner of gear.
“Chaplin says we gotta inventory their personal effects. Send that shit home.”
Worth pressed the tip of his pale tongue to the roof of his mouth, quickly drew it back, producing a slight clicking sound.
“I hate this fuckin’ job,” he muttered. “Fuckin’ hate it.” He nodded dismissively at the green duffle bag which sat atop his gray metal desk. “Lennox. You know him?”
“No,” said Stevie. “You?”
The sergeant walked unsteadily to the desk, reached into the top drawer, pulled out a pair of shiny dog tags, dangled them in front of Stevie, watched as they fell and clattered noisily upon the smooth cement floor.
“Lemme see...lemme see. Got his orders somewhere.” Worth’s thick white fingers
plundered a drawer crammed with daily reports. “One of mine!” he shouted, waving the neatly typed page like a checkered flag. “Ain’t that a son of a bitch? Cocksucker’s one of mine!”
Crumpling the page into his back pocket, with great deliberation, Worth lifted the engorged duffle off the desk, partially upended it, kicked and spread apart the myriad contents which fell to the floor.
“Well, my oh, fuckin’ my,” he said. “Will you look at that. Jesus H Christ, this boy got enough shit, outfit a whole fuckin’ army!”
When Stevie did not move, did not flinch, though his jaw muscles could be seen to clench tight, Worth narrowed his rheumy eyes, worked his pale tongue once more upon the roof of his mouth, momentarily looked sideways, and spit. Slowly turning his head, he fixed his gaze upon Stevie.
“What’d you say your name was?”
And Stevie said his name.
“Well, what’s your fuckin’ job, Sammy? You drive truck? You cook? I ain’t never seen you before. No sir. I don’t believe we’ve met!”
As the two men gazed upon each other Worth, at least twenty years Stevie’s senior, lowered his head, sniffled, retracted his upper lip to poke lightly at the small gaps between his large irregular teeth.
“Now, Sammy. Stanley. Whatever the fuck your name is. What you been doing before you got here?” As if startled from a dream, Worth looked up; his upturned eyes tacking left to right. “Hey!” he exclaimed, “you wanna work in Supply?”
Inside the sweltering hut, a rigid caterpillar of canvas stretched upon immense steel ribs, the alien structure resting heavily upon the dry red earth, his shrill laughter echoed loudly.
He would frag him. That’s what he would do. What any good grunt would do. In his minds eye, Stevie went through the steps. He would find a bowl and fill it with diesel oil. He would take a frag, a grenade, and carefully pull the pin while holding the safety handle, “the spoon” tight. He would wrap a half-dozen elastic bands around the live grenade, around a thinly curved metal spoon, which rendered it safe. He would sit the frag in the bowl of diesel oil. Submerge the fucker. Stealthily, he would put the bowl with the live grenade beneath the sergeants bunk. Cover it with a plate to hide the acrid fumes. Five hours later the diesel would dissolve the rubber bands, BOOM. Stevie imagined the violent flames and wispy smoke, the spray of red mist, the quivering flesh. He would do that. Do it.
Worth cleared his throat. “Boy, I’m talking to you. What kinda work you done all this time?”
“Medic,” said Stevie.
“No shit! You infantry?”
A slight hesitation. “Yeah.”
Worth bunched his lips forward, thoughtfully jutted his narrow chin, rumpled his brow. Priestlike, he raised his pointing hand toward the arched dome of the canvas roof, boldly shouted, “Well, Christ all fuckin’ mighty! As I live and fuckin’ breathe. Yes, sir! Yes, ma’m! What we got here is a grunt with gauze humping the boonies! Someone sick, shot, wounded, oh, they all fucked up, they call you, right? They call medic! Yes, sir! They call MEH-DIC!”
The sergeant rolled his bloodshot eyes, spread his muscular arms, loudly repeated the heralding word, then stepped to the upended duffle and fervently kicked the green bag, stomped it, buckling the heavy fabric, which crumpled like a living thing.
“Well, give a look, Mr. Medic,” he said, catching his breath, eyeing the battered sack. “You take a look see. You tell old sarge what you got.”
Stevie knelt at the canvas bag. He pulled from it a half dozen white towels, two pair of shined boots, six pair of socks, three unused poncho liners, four immaculate fatigue shirts and pants. A small red box tied with string. As he did this, from the corner of his eye he saw Worth pull the crumpled sheet from his back pocket and carefully scan its secrets.
“Fuckin’ no good black bastard son of a bitch. Neeehgrow!” Worth shouted. “Says so right here! Right fuckin’ here!” He stabbed the rumpled page with his index finger, shook it roughly, steadied it with both hands. “Neeehgrow!”
Beads of sweat bloomed and clung to his reddening brow, trickled down either side of his brightening face. “Ain’t that a mothafuckin’ bitch?” In despair, he shook his head, causing large salty droplets to scatter between himself and Stevie. “Well, ain’t it?”
In the eye of his mind, in the heat of the ambush, Stevie had sprinted, then crawled to the dying man. “Lieutenant,” he whispered, “Everyone loves you.”
“You mean black,” said Stevie. His voice was not pleasant.
Worth glared at him. “Don’t you gimme no lip,” he snarled. “This ain’t your fuckin’ jungle. This here is my world,” he said. His pale hand swept an unsteady arc across the hut’s
dismal interior, proclaiming the row upon row of his power. “Yes, sir, he declared, “Mine,” and
he worked his mouth to hawk spit, the enormous gob whizzing just past Stevie. “Don’t fuck with me, son,” he scowled. “Don’t you do that.”
Unafraid, Stevie retreated into the safety of himself. Patrol. Jungle. Ambush. Monsoon. There’s a rhythm to it. We walk into them. They walk into us. We ambush them. They ambush us. Or they fire rockets, we call in artillery. Between kicking ass or getting our asses kicked, the tension starts small, builds and builds, until secretly grunts pray it will happen. Days, weeks go by. Then terror, instant and deep, then relief, like paradise, until BOOM, it starts all over again. Look at him. Look at this fat old man who spends his nights drunk, his days in the safety of dry good supplies. What does he know about war?
Stevie looked to his left, to his right, forcefully breathed in the stagnant air. Forcefully, let it out.
“That’s better,” said Worth. He swept his hand through his hair, coated with the stench of rum and cigarettes. “Now, you take a look-see, Mr. Medic,” he said, jutting his chin to the small red box. “Yes, sir. That shit right there.”
Slowly, Stevie undid the frayed white string, carefully raised the lid, dipped his hand inside, fished out a shiny rectangle.
“One Zippo,” he said, his voice barely audible.
“Say it right,” bellowed Worth. “Say it loud and clear like you got a pair. One genuine made-in-fuckin-America cigarette lighter!”
Blood crept into Stevie’s face. Warmed his cheeks. Hambleton. Hamilton. Everyone mixed it up. “Call me Soul Brother,” said the new man. On his first patrol, a soft fiery cloud
lifted him up, tumbled his body, sheathed it in light, his face, his dumbstruck tumbling face, the saddest sight. Stevie managed to subdue himself, again dipped his hand into the box.
“One US Army ID card,” he said. The sepia man in the one-inch photograph had stared directly into the camera, defying its mechanical logic; he seemed to choke back tears.
“One official United States Armed Forces identification card,” roared Worth. “Tell it right, Mr. Medic. Goddamn it. Tell it right.” Worth closed his eyes, winged his right arm to his head, raked his forearm across his brow. “OK .OK. What else you got?” he panted, blinking away sweat.
Once more, Stevie lowered his hand into the box, tenderly scooped up the angular object as if it were a rare butterfly, some delicate thing, which he obediently held forth in the palm of one hand.
“One lucky charm,” he muttered.
On the twenty-third day of his tenth month in combat, the lieutenant had said to Stevie, “Stay behind. We’ll be right back.” And he winked and smiled. Stevie, one month to home, stayed back. Minutes later, a single ear-splitting shot rang out, the platoon returned hectic fire, killing her, loudly shouted for Stevie, shouted, and Stevie ran pell-mell, zig-zagged through the jungle, low crawled, beheld the officer who everyone loved, whose right hand clutched tight the stick figure, would not let it slip from his grasp. “Lieutenant,” he whispered...
“Jesus H. Christ,” said Worth. “It’s a fuckin’ crucifix for Christ’s sake! Don’t you grunts know anything?”
Livid, Stevie plunged his hand into the box. As if it was poison, he held the object away
from his body, pinching the strap between his thumb and index finger. “One wristwatch,” he said.
A woman’s name was inscribed on the back. “Love you always,” it said.
“One fuckin’ First Cavalry gold-plated commemorative wristwatch!” Worth howled. Wake up! Mr. Medic. Wake up!”
Stevie unzipped the small leather pouch. Poked his finger into it. Shook his head and did not, could not and would not speak.
“Well, what is it, Stanley? It’s HOT. Fuckin’ HOT! We ain’t got all fuckin’ day.”
Overcome by the heat and the previous nights drink, Worth swayed, moved incautiously closer to Stevie, fumbled, snared the frizzy clump to his palm, proceeded to pinch, to prod it, coaxing the tangled fibers to partially un-mat. His eyes widened as he stared at the darkened thing. His mouth formed a widening oval, his eyes widened in lunatic glee.
“ What we got here...What we got is... It’s a ball of cunt hair!” he roared. “Motherfuckin’ cunt hair!”
Hurling the frizzy black knot to the floor, Worth stormed to the desk, removed the crumpled page from his back pocket, slapped it upon the desk, thwack, picked it up, ferociously pondered, screamed at Stevie,“Son-of-a-bitch! The black bastard was married! Says so right here!”
Enough thought Stevie. One last time he stared at Worth with all his strength, mumbled indecent words, turned around and walked away. Upon opening the door, for several seconds the blazing sun shot past Stevie, trembling the air, illuminating every nook and cranny inside the hut.
“Hey!” yelled Worth, his right hand shielding his face from the light. “Where the fuck you think you’re going? Hey, Mr. Medic! Who the fuck you think you are?”