Monday, December 02, 2013

Overheard in a Bar - Chapter 3

I climbed down from my perch on the bar stool.  I felt nervous and unsteady, as though getting up was a brand new thing I hadn't learned yet.  I grabbed the bar to keep my hand from shaking and convince myself I wouldn't fall over.  Fred stared as I stumped over and stood by the chair opposite him.  I set my drink on the table and gave him my best Corporal's glare that right away told him he couldn't say no.

"Can I join you for a moment?  Just until your girl comes back."  I tried to sound casual, but not really. 

He looked guarded and aware.  He looked back toward the entrance to the hallway where the ladies room was located, then back at me, and silently waved at the empty chair with his chin.  I sat down.  He sat up but didn't relax, didn't take his hand from his pocket.  He didn't say anything right away.  I just looked him in the eye, as I lit another.  He looked at my lighter and my tremble.  His eyes narrowed.

"You know, she's gonna be back any minute.  What can I do for you?"

"It's what you can do for me, Son."  He didn't like that much, being called "Son" but that's the way I used to talk to the privates after I made corporal, and old habits die hard.  He straightened up a little.  "I don't think she's gonna be right back, Fred.  Not for a little while.  She needs to get herself together.  Maybe Miranda's in there helping her out."  His eyes grew a little larger at this.  "Don't look so surprised.  I've been sitting there the last hour or so listening to you two bat it around."

"She's not my girl." He said it as though he wished she was.  "What's it to you anyway?"  He was feisty, this kid.  I gave him that.  He'd make it through boot camp OK if I failed. 

"Oh, she's your girl alright." I grinned.  "Take it easy.  I'm not gonna do anything rash.  I just need to pass on a little hard earned wisdom.  You need it."  He started to interrupt but I held up my hand and he stopped.  "Hold on, Son.  I think you're on the verge of throwing something away and I can't let that happen without a fight."  Poor choice of words, but I said it anyway. 

"Who are you?" 

I offered my hand.  He didn't take it.  "Call me Bill.  Call me someone who's been where you seem to want awfully badly to go.  I just came over here to try and stop you.  It's not a place anyone should want to go."

"How would you know?"

"I think maybe you already figured that out, Fred.  You saw the way I walked over here.  I don't limp around like that for fun...wasn't born with it, either."

He cleared his throat and took his hand out of his pocket and put it on the table and shifted his chair forward a little.  I took that as a signal that he was ready to listen.  My nerves twanged and I knew this wouldn't be any easier on me than on him.  I really didn't want to talk about any of it again, just like Jenny.  I fished a couple of bucks out of my pocket and handed it across the table.

"Get us a couple.  Bourbon.  Rocks."  I pulled on my Lucky Strike and held the table with my free hand.  OK, easy now.  No grenades, no Type 92s traversing the river bank.  No bullets cracking overhead.  No screams.  I listened to the people laughing and the glasses clinking and the music and told myself again, there was nothing to fear in this nice friendly bar in Oakland, California.  By the time Fred returned I'd collected myself.  I took a swallow and thanked him.

"What happened to you . . . uh, Bill?"  Well, that was progress.

"Details are not important." He might not guess that I just couldn't recite them again.  "I was on Guadalcanal.  A Japanese grenade went off near my foot and shattered my lower leg.  So, I had to have it off below the knee.  I'm just out of the Naval Hospital over at Oak Knoll.  They fouled up my phony leg and made it too short, so I limp."  I chuckled, and I could feel myself grinning slightly with half my face, but I didn't mean a millimeter of it.

He winced as I told him, and quickly took a sip.  He just stared at me, evidently not finding the humor in it either.  I continued, and felt myself shaking inside.

"It was pretty awful, Fred, and I suggest you stay pu-"

"Were you at Bloody Ridge?"  They always asked about that. 

"Yeah, first at Alligator Creek, then up on the Ridge where I lost my foot.  Now look-"

"Edson's Raiders?" He'd quickly gone from suspicious to awestruck, the way guys like him always did when they heard about it.  If they only knew.  

"No, 2nd Battalion, First Marines.  I was a runner and took ammo up up there just as the second attack came in.  They needed every rifle they could get so I just stayed put." I foolishly thought that would satisfy him. 

"What was it like?  Did you shoot anyone?"  I didn't answer.  Not because it was a dumb question, but because I had to grit my teeth at the memory.  A shiver passed through me.  When I didn't reply he gushed, "I guess you guys whipped those Nips in the end, anyway."

He was a little wide-eyed with something like fearful admiration.  I suppose he figured I still carried a k-bar around just in case I needed to deal with someone.  Something about that bothered me.  It wasn't the same thing as when the corpsmen and nurses in the hospital asked those questions.  That was distasteful, but you could understand in a way since they had to deal with those of us who got chopped up but lived to tell about it.  This was beyond that.  I shivered again and just looked at him. 

Then the flood gates opened and I let him have it.

"Listen kid, they broke through in a bunch of places and you wouldn't wanna know what we had to do to drive them out.  Yeah, we whipped 'em in the end, but it was almost the end of us.  Those posters you see, and those stupid goddamn cartoons where the Japs are these little guys with glasses and big teeth?  It's all horseshit!  Got it?  They aren't little guys with glasses and big teeth.  They're a lot of tough sons of bitches, ready to fucking die on order!  They ran right into our rifles and machine guns and just kept coming.  We killed those fuckers by the bucketful and they didn't even slow down!"

I stopped then, realizing I was yelling.  I was gripping the table with one hand and my drink with the other.  My smoke had disappeared.  Fred was staring at me and he'd eased back from the table holding his drink.  He looked like he was getting ready to take off.  The couple at the next table was staring at me the same way, the girl with her handbag tightly clutched.  I guess they didn't hear that kind of talk much.

I felt the tension ebb slowly.  I put my drink down carefully, and ran a hand over my face then wiped my sweaty palms on my trousers.  I took a deep breath through my nose the way they taught me at the hospital.  OK.  I hadn't burst out like that in the whole year I'd been home, but I should've known it would happen sooner or later. 

"Sorry, Fred."  I held my hands up, nodded to the couple, who didn't seem to relax at all.  "Sorry, folks."  I turned back to Fred.  He had relaxed a little.

"Go easy, Bill.  No enemy here.  Just us."  He waved his hand to take in the crowd but never took his eyes off me.  This kid had something.  He didn't run, he wasn't afraid to talk to me.  He took a sip and slowly put his drink back on the table, never taking his eyes off me.  I was calming down, but I felt sick again.  I was sweating and beginning to feel disoriented.  I quickly lit up and took a sip.  The couple hadn't stopped staring at me.  The girl leaned over and murmured something in the guy's ear, then they got up and left.  I noticed one of the bartenders staring at me with an appraising look.  He signaled with two fingers and a large black haired guy in a dark suit came over from the near the door.  Without taking his eyes off me the bartender leaned over and said something to the big guy, who gave me a look of tired regret.  He drifted slowly over toward our table like an aircraft carrier through a fleet of sailboats.  His piercing black eyes looked down at me from a large soft face as his mouth moved slightly.

"Are we having a problem over here?" he rumbled in a voice that came up from somewhere below the cellar.  I didn't say a word, just stared at him.  I wasn't scared.  I would never again be scared of anything another man could send my way.  He could tell he hadn't rattled me and didn't seem to like it too well.  He leaned down and put a hand like a baseball mitt on the table, which he softly tapped with his forefinger to make his point.

"Pal, you can't go nuts in here and chase good customers out with wild talk about Japs.  Got it?"

I still didn't say a word.

"You read me?  What's your friend's problem here?" This last bit to Fred, who seemed to come out of a stupor.

"No, look . . . he's had a bad time.  Guadalcanal.  He's OK now.  We'll be fine over here.  No problems.  Just gonna drink our drinks and wait for, uh, my girl to come back from the Ladies Room."

The black eyes turned back to me.  "Marine?"

I nodded.

"Huh!  Another Marine.  I don't like Marines.  Especially ones who don't speak.  Think you're some kinda blood drinker, huh?"

He was doing his best, but I wasn't biting.  

"You take it easy in here, Mack.  I'm watchin' you.  One more time and you're out."

He straightened up, gave me that raised eyebrow look to make sure I knew he really meant it, and turned away and drifted off to his perch at the far end of the bar.  I could see him sit with his arms folded, staring at me as though I'd ruined his night.  I took a breath and realized I felt better.  King Kong had taken my mind off my troubles and oddly settled my nerves with his threat.  Facing off against him I didn't worry about myself.  I turned back to Fred.

"Son, it was the worst night of my life.  I wasn't scared at first.  I'd been though a fight down at Alligator Creek and that was bad.  Most of my squad got killed.  Still, I found out I could shoot straight and fast when I had to, and kill a man no problem if he was coming to kill me.  It's not so hard to do when they're a hundred yards away, or even fifty.  It's a whole different thing when they're right in front of you and it's either get your bayonet into 'em or die.  You do it because there's no time to think about it first."

I had to stop and take a sip.  My mind was going a thousand miles an hour and I started to feel the urge to run that I had every time I thought of what I'd done and seen that night.  Fred was just scowling thoughtfully at me.  I went on.

"Later on, when they stopped attacking and we had a few moments, I started to realize what I'd done and I started shaking and I couldn't stop.  Someone must've noticed 'cause the Lieutenant sent me back for more ammo.  Just before I got to my feet they took the Jap I'd killed and rolled him away from our hole.  I can't forget his guts running out over my boondockers.  That's when the grenade came in out of the dark and the next attack began.  I remember being lifted off my feet and landing a few feet away then being dragged away from the gunfire.  Someone picked me up and carried me toward our rear area.  Bullets cracked overhead and I could hear myself screaming."

At this point I had to stop. I was about to fall apart.  The images were moving through my mind at frightening speed.  I was gripping the table again and raising my voice.  The sounds of the bar were receding and I could only hear my breathing and smell stale tobacco and whiskey.  I swallowed uncomfortably to fight down the coppery taste of panic in my mouth and ran a trembling hand through my hair.  The tough Marine combat vet at the bar who had decided to show Fred the error of his ways was about to collapse into a puddle.  I leaned back and slapped my hands flat on the table top and looked around, not seeing anyone in particular or any escape.  Fred was good to the moment. 

"Bill, just take it easy.  I get the point.  You don't need to say any more."

I could feel tears starting in my eyes.  Somehow I kept it together.  I looked down at the table but out of the corner of my eye I could see a dark haired girl who must've Jenny navigating through the crowd toward our table looking at me with rising alarm, and I suddenly felt like a bum who'd stumbled in from the dark to cadge a drink.  I felt dirty and out of place.  I started to get up, but Fred stopped me.

"Stay here a minute.  I don't think you're in any shape to go anywhere just yet."

"I'm in fine fucking shape!  Look, your girl's coming back.  Just one last word.  Stay the hell outta combat arms.  It's the worst feeling you can have, to kill someone.  Reasons don't matter.  Doesn't matter if you had to kill him, you still did it, and you will suffer.  I never saw his face clearly, but I think about him every goddamn day.  I did my duty and fought for my country and my brothers and I'm proud of all of that, but I can't get over it.  If you have to serve, go join the Navy and be a corpsman and save people.  Be a hero saving lives.  You'd be good at it.  Marines will love you for it."

At this point I noticed Jenny standing there staring at me.  She'd heard me and the look on her face was kind.  She half lifted her hand and was about to speak when she looked up past me.  King Kong was looming out of the crowd, scowling at me and hooking his thumb toward the door with a sudden movement.  Something inside me switched off and I felt myself go cold the same way I did when the enemy came howling across the mouth of Alligator Creek.


Blogger Don said...

I think in that last moment you just went from short story about to wrap up to novel just getting started. Damn, dude, you've been storing up some good story-telling juju.

3:55 PM  
Blogger Harry said...

Yes, I realized that too, but I have a plan . . . .

7:16 PM  
Blogger Harry said...

Oh yeah, I mean to say thanks, also. Interesting that when I sit down to get some of it, it's just like turning on the faucet. Lucky, so far.

9:48 PM  

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