THE LIEUTENANT scraped his wet forehead with his finger and flicked the sweat to the floor. “Oh, that idiot Captain,” he thought. “If I’d wanted jobs like this I’d have been a chaplain. How can I write to a boy’s mother about his heroic death when the damn fool killed himself by falling on a whiskey bottle in his own pocket? Why didn’t the army wire his mother that it was an accident? ‘Killed in action,’ indeed. At least our stupid CO could leave it at that. He’s just trying to be nasty.” He typed:
Dear Mrs. Moreno:
Your no-good, stupid son died as stupidly as he did everything else. Of all the lousy soldiers he jfghxxx
He pulled the paper out of the portable typewriter, wadded it up, and threw it on the floor.
The screen door of the hut was opened letting in a horde of insects which surrounded the single bare bulb. The captain eased his long frame down, reclined on his cot, and grinned. “Having trouble?” he said. “I thought you hotshot writers liked to write lies.”
“Listen, I’m not a writer. I want to be a writer, but there’s a big difference in wanting and being. Suppose I just say I can’t write the letter?”
“You’ll write it all right. That’s an order. You write it, or I’ll have you up on charges, and you’ll wind up as a buck-assed private in the infantry.”
“I might like it better than this.”
“Well, they’ll sure as hell teach you things you didn’t learn in your fancy college. Write the damn letter and quit horsing around. Talk to some of the men if you need more information about him.” The captain kicked open the screen door and strode out.
“He was a foul up,” said the sergeant. “Everything you put him on, he fouled it up. Let him go to town, you have to get him back from the MP’s; cover up a day’s AWOL for him, he’s gone again next day; put him on guard duty, he accidentally shoots his friend. The only thing that ever went right that he was in was his funeral. In my ten years I’ve seen some bad soldiers, but he topped them all.”
“Well, he did all right in the kitchen, didn’t he?”
“No, he didn’t. They’ll get along better without him. He didn’t show up when he was supposed to, and he’d disappear when the work was hardest. Pop spent more time trying to get him to work than his work was worth.”
“I never heard any complaints from Pop about him.”
“Hell, you know how Pop is. He is the original soft touch. He’s the only guy in the world that would have put up with him.”
“I thought he did all right when he waited on the officers’ table.”
“You think so, huh. That shows how much officers know about what goes on. Why do you think he was taken off that job?”
“I’ll bite,” said the lieutenant. “Why?”
“Because, one day I caught him putting flies in the biscuits, that’s why. He was punching holes in them with a broomstraw and poking dead flies into the holes.”
“May I ask, Sergeant, why you didn’t tell us about this? Don’t you think something more should have been done?”
The sergeant clamped his lips to a thin line and looked speculatively at the lieutenant for a few seconds. Finally, he said, “Well, Lieutenant, you’re ok, and so are most of the others, but these were the captain’s biscuits.”
“All right, that’s enough. He’s our commanding officer.”
“Yes, sir,” said the sergeant. He turned quickly and left without being dismissed.
The lieutenant took a deep breath. “If I had any guts,” he thought, “I’d order him back here.” But he was honest enough with himself to know that he didn’t want a confrontation with the sergeant.
“He was a trouble maker,” said the corporal. “I never seen any one man who could cause so much trouble. This here native whiskey was bound to kill him one way or another. If he hadn’t bled to death on that broken bottle, he’d a drunk hisself to death.”
“Did you know him pretty well?”
“No, I didn’t. He wouldn’t talk to anybody above a private. To him even a corporal was an enemy. At least when he was sober he just stayed away from me. Now, when he was drunk, that was a different story.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, two or three times a week he’d come back to camp about two a.m. drunk as a skunk, and he’d come in my tent and wake me up and want to fight. ‘Get up,’ he’d say, ‘so I can beat the hell out of you.’ Tell you the truth, I kind of miss him.”
“What did you do?”
“Nothin’. I’d just lay there and he’d finally go away. Worst thing that happened was one night he hit his cigarette against my mosquito net and burned a hole you could stick your head through.”
“You should have charged him with insubordination.”
“Oh, for God’s sakes,” said the corporal, “I leave that kind of chicken stuff to the officers.”
“All right, Corporal. You may go. See if Chico is in camp and send him over.”
“Tell me about him, Chico,” said the lieutenant.
“He was my friend,” said Chico.
“Even after he accidentally shot you that night?”
“Yes,” replied Chico and seemed to want to say more.
“Go on,” encouraged the lieutenant.
“Well, he’s dead now and the truth won’t hurt him. That was no accident, he meant to shoot me,” said Chico.
“For God’s sakes! Why?”
“Well, uh, he was on guard duty, and when I came back to camp, I’d been on a pass to town, and as I came along the path, he yelled, ‘Halt! Who goes there?’ I said, ‘Quit acting like a stupid movie. Cut it out.’”
“ ‘Halt, or I’ll shoot!’ he yelled. That made me mad. I just kept walking toward him, he raised his rifle, and I said, ‘Shoot, damn you!’ And he did.”
“He was sorry about it afterward, said he didn’t know what made him do it, and I believed him.”
“But he might have killed you.”
“Yeah, it’s just lucky that he didn’t. It was just a flesh wound in my arm. It hurt like hell, but soon healed up.”
“Did he ask you to lie about it, afterwards?”
“No, but he’d been in so much trouble I knew he’d get the guardhouse for many years. Just the army was bad enough for him, he would have died in the guardhouse.”
“Why was the army so bad for him, Chico?”
“He hated it,” said Chico.
“Well, hell, Chico, we all do,” said the lieutenant.
“Not like him, he really hated it. It was like a fire inside him. He felt like a prisoner and a slave. ‘A slave of the gringos,’ he used to say.”
“Now, damn it, there’s none of that in this outfit. You know there isn’t.”
Chico glanced away and said nothing.
“Is there, Chico?”
“No, sir,” said Chico.
“Oh, hell. What else can you tell me about him?”
“Well,” said Chico, “he hated Marines. In Florida he and I used to go in one bar after another until we found a bunch of Marines. Then he’d yell, ‘I can lick every Marine in the house.’ Of course, we always got the hell beat out of us, but he’d do it again next time. Maybe he just liked to fight Marines. I never did really know.”
“Well, why did you go with him?”
“Oh, it was kind of fun. See, you can’t win such a fight. You just wade in and do as much damage as you can while you’re able and then, Bingo! They’re always so surprised, they think you should be afraid of them. You should see their stupid looks.” Chico grinned, remembering.
The lieutenant shook his head. “Sounds to me like you were both crazy. OK, see if you can find Pop for me.”
“Yes, sir,” said Chico and moved quickly out of the hut closing the screen door gently behind him.
The lieutenant found an opener, pierced the top of a beer can, and took a long drink. There was a soft knocking on the door. “Have a seat, Pop,” said the lieutenant. “Want a beer? They’re hot, but I guess you’re used to it.”
“No, thanks,” said Pop, sitting calmly with his arms folded. His pale blue eyes were questioning.
“What about him, Pop?” said the lieutenant. “You knew him as well as anyone, I guess.”
“Yes,” said Pop, “I did.” He sat quietly, everything about him seemed to be in repose. For several minutes he sat silently. Then he said, “He was a loser, a born loser. Everything he did, everything he tried, went sour. He gave up long before the army got him. He never felt like he was anybody, and he knew he was never going to. When we first came here he felt at home with the natives, but it didn’t last. To them he was a foreigner, an American, and they soon realized his low status – they know all about that. He was a born loser.”
“There’s no such thing as a born loser.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, son,” Pop said. “I’m one myself. Believe me, I know.”
“I’ve often wondered why a man of your education and talents is only a cook. Especially when you are too old to have been drafted. Now, understand, Pop, I don’t want to pry, but I am curious.”
“Well,” said Pop, “I’ve had my ups and downs. An easy explanation is that I’m an alcoholic, but that’s not quite it. As long as I am nothing and have nothing, like now, alcohol is no problem. But if I start to succeed in anything, anything at all, I throw it away with alcohol. You wouldn’t believe what I’ve run through. Position, money, family. But we’re not talking about me. He hated the army, he hated his life here, and he hated you.”
“Me.” said the lieutenant, “why me?”
“Well, you were about his age. He hated you because you are what he would have liked to be. To him you looked like success – everything he wanted. He said you had everything handed to you on a silver platter.”
“Now wait a minute. I worked and scrounged for what little I have. I worked forty hours a week to afford to go school. Nobody gave me anything on any silver platter.”
“Take it easy, son,” Pop said. “In a way, he was right. It isn’t always so easy to recognize the silver platter.”
“I’ll never be a writer,” thought the lieutenant. “How could I be? I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t understand anything. What’s it all about?”
A feeling of depression crept over the lieutenant. It was as if he were pulling on a tight garment. A black heaviness started at the top of his skull and crept downward tightening his scalp and tensing his jaw muscles until the pressure made his teeth hurt. His shoulder muscles turned to ropes. He shook his head like a stunned boxer and began to type:
Dear Mrs. Moreno:
“No tilde,” he thought. “If I had a tilde to put over that n, I could write this letter.”
He shoved the typewriter aside, put his elbows on the table, supported his head in both hands, and stared into the hot, black void. Suddenly, unseen rain began a steady drumming, and there was in the hut a movement of humid, fetid air.
Except for the incredible portions, the above is fiction. A man was killed in the manner described, and another soldier who loved to fight Marines did shoot his friend as described.
Published and printed by Jake Warner at his private press. Greenbelt, Maryland 20770