by Christopher Farris
Platoon Sergeant Borrman interrupted lunch to give Hawkins his “Welcome to your new Army unit” orientation. The soldiers had lined up to collect brown paper sacks from a table in the middle of the Drill Hall. No one had given Hawkins instructions all day, long enough for his excitement to flag, long enough for him to begin to wonder if his wife’s anger over his rejoining the military had been justified. He’d snagged his bag along with the rest of the men.
Hawkins found a place on the floor, sat with his back against the Humvee leaking guilty oil onto the concrete and rifled through the sack. It wasn’t inspiring chow. He plucked out two bologna sandwiches, no mustard, no mayonnaise, a bag of potato chips and a bottle of water. The bottle was dented and coated in dirt. Hawkins rubbed the lid clean on his blouse and took a swig. It left grit on his teeth. He found a banana at the bottom of the bag. It had gone past browning and into a strange area that involved greasy black spots. It squelched under his fingers suspiciously. Hawkins gave the banana away. In a military formation, no matter how bad something looked or tasted, some sucker was always willing to eat it.
He took a bite of one of the sandwiches and fished his wife’s note from his pocket to read again. “I’m sorry we argued,” she’d written, “I know you’re excited. You’re going to be a great officer; they’re going to be thrilled to have you.” At the bottom of the note, she’d written, “Love you very much,” and drawn a little heart and smiley face. It made him wish he’d been kinder to her when he’d said good-bye in the pre-dawn darkness.
Hawkins bit and chewed the sandwich, working with his tongue to peel the white bread from the top of his mouth. Sergeant Borrman yelled for him from across the drill hall.
“Hawkins!” the portly man shouted. He was smiling but the smile lurked under his mustache, didn’t quite make it up to his eyes. Hawkins thought the man looked cold, annoyed. Most of all, he looked impatient.
The other soldiers looked up at Borrman and then turned uninterested eyes on Hawkins. Their jaws worked to process their lunch, chewing, chewing. They looked like cattle.
“Mo-“ Hawkins swallowed again, “moving, Sergeant!”
“Bring your lunch, Specialist,” Borrman said. “It ain’t every day you get a gourmet meal like that in an Army unit.”
“Hell, sarge,” one of the soldiers yelled in return, “this is pure-D shit!”
“Yeah,” Borrman replied, “you’re in the Army now boy, when we give you food and tell you it’s gourmet, whaddya do? You damn well eat it! That’s what you do.”
The sergeant ran his eyes over the crowd, looking for a reaction. The men laughed and it didn’t sound forced. Hawkins heard several of them repeat the sergeant’s words, “Eat it!” and laugh again. They seemed to like Borrman. Hawkins wondered why. The older sergeant didn’t look like the kind of man that inspired trust. He looked like the kind that used it.
Hawkins followed the sergeant into his dusty office and watched the man move piles of paper around on his desk. The platoon sergeant told him to take a seat. Hawkins pulled up a chair and sat on the front of the pad, back upright. Not quite at attention, but close. The chair rocked a little. It was warped, or the pads were out of alignment, something. It was an old chair. Borrman’s lips twitched into a smile when he saw Hawkins uncomfortable perch. The man didn’t tell him to relax. He said:
“I’ll be with you in a minute. Too much damn stuff to do around here for one lonely feller. Not when I’ve got important folks like you to deal with. I always say it’s the enlisted that are the most important in this here Army. All us sergeants are just working all day to keep ya’ll happy. Hah.”
When Borrman spoke, his accent sounded contrived, each word perfectly enunciated, his vowels rounded and rich, his consonants sharp and fresh.
“What do you think about that?” Borrman asked and his eyes were on Hawkins like probes, testing.
“Oh,” Hawkins replied, “if you say so, Sergeant.”
“Sergeant, huh?” Borrman said and took his seat behind the desk. A frown arrived and disappeared on his face. “You gotta know, Hawkins. In the Army, that’s pretty proper speech. Most of what you’ll hear coming out of a private’s mouth is Sarge or Sarn’t. Sarn’t’s how a real sohjer says it. They say Sarge when they’re feeling, I don’t know, cocky or something. Sohjer is another word you’re gonna need to learn. Around here soldiers are really sohjers. Ha ha. I guess they still say soldier the proper way in the Air Force. Like sol-dier,” the sergeant enunciated the word. “You Air Force guys are always very proper. That right?”
“Yes, sir.” Hawkins replied. “I guess so.”
“Sir!” Borrman said. “Hell, get that right outta yer mouth, Hawkins. I ain’t no, sir. I work for a living. The only sirs around here are the officers. You got that?”
Borrman leaned back in his chair to yell around the wall into the commander’s office. Hawkins jumped a little, nervous. This wasn’t going the way he’d expected.
“Hey, sir?” Borrman yelled, “I ain’t even gonna tell ya what Hawkins just called me.”
“Oh?” Came the commander’s shouted response, “I reckon you probably deserved it, Borry, whatever it was.”
“You wound me, sir, you really do,” he shouted back and then turned his painted smile back to Hawkins.
That was a show, Hawkins thought, and he clenched up a little inside. He didn’t like being the target of this man’s humor.
“I’m sorry, sergeant,” Hawkins said, “in the Air Force, we called everybody senior to us sir. I didn’t mean any—“
“Yeah,” Borrman said and his smile slipped away, “I know that. You’re not in the Air Force anymore.”
“I’m your Platoon Sergeant, you know what that is?” Borrman made it sound like Hawkins wouldn’t.
“Yes, sergeant. I think so.” Hawkins replied.
“It means that you’re going to be assigned to a squad leader. He’ll report to me. I report to the first sergeant who reports to the Commander. The Commander is the top dog around here. Got it?”
“Got it.” Sort of.
“Until you go off to Officer Candidate School to be my boss.” Borrman raised his hand to his mouth in a gesture of remembrance. “I almost forgot about that. You’re a future officer, ain’t ya?” Then the smile was back, nestled below the man’s tight eyes.
“Hope to be, sergeant,” Hawkins replied, his discomfort growing. He didn’t quite know where to put his hands or what to say. The silence went on a little too long while Borrman weighed and measured him.
“We don’t do Home Station drill very often.” Borrman waved his hands around the room. “This is your Home Station. Don’t get used to it. You’ll only be here once or twice a year. Usually Christmas. We spend the rest of our time over at the Fort.” The sergeant leaned back in his chair and yelled through the door into the Commander’s office. “Bring-ing thun-der!”
Hawkins saw Borrman watching him from the corner of his eye while he waited for a response from the man in the next room.
“Rain-ing buh-lood!” the Commander shouted back. The unseen man sounded bored.
“Yeah,” Borrman continued in his normal voice. “We’ll be out in the Field. That’s on the other side of the mountains. Closer to where you live. Recruiter tell you that?”
“He did, sergeant.” He had. Hawkins hadn’t understood the scheduling. Still didn’t, but he didn’t think it mattered. Hawkins expected that he’d be gone to Officer Candidate School in the next couple of weeks. He’d be an officer before he ever had to go to the Field or anywhere else.
“Good. I could tell ya were a right smart fella as soon as I laid eyes on ya.” The silence stretched. “You do know what the field is, right? You did that in the Air Force?”
“No, no, sergeant,” Hawkins replied. “I mean I’ve got an idea that it’s, maybe—“
“I’ll let your squad leader tell you about it,” Borrman interrupted and shoved a folder across the desk to Hawkins, tossed a pen after. “Sign there and there,” he pointed with a pudgy finger, “and the rest of those places. It means that we’ve got you for six more years. Read all those sheets about insurance and such. Make sure you sign them all and that we got all your family details right. You don’t want me getting your insurance if you’re killed in a combat zone. Believe me; if you don’t do that form right, I’m gonna put my name in there. Nothing would make me happier than cashing an officer’s insurance check. Yessir. Haha. Just kidding, of course.”
The sergeant rose from his seat, picked up a coffee cup with an embossed unit crest and the word “Assassins” written around the rim in red.
“I’ll be back in ten,” he said. “Make sure you review it all now. Show me you’re real officer material.” Borrman walked out of his office. Hawkins could hear his bootsteps receding across the drill hall. Could hear his sonorous voice echoing back and forth. He was bantering with one of the young soldiers out there. Hawkins heard laughter. He wondered what was funny. Someone started up the Humvee parked out in the bay and the rumble of the diesel engine washed out the sergeant’s voice. Hawkins looked down at the folder Borrman had given him. It had his name printed in the corner, Hawkins, Gabriel Jeremiah. In the box marked Supervisor, someone had written in pencil, Staff Sergeant Ronald Bobby.
“Staff Sergeant Bobby,” Borrman told him from behind his desk. He had a cup of fresh coffee steaming in his hand and smelled of stale tobacco. “Well, Bobby can be different.”
Still,” Borrman continued, “he has a lot of active duty service behind him and he spent most of that time as an Infantry grunt. In some pretty, shitty places, actually. You’re coming over from the Air Force and you don’t know shit. Bobby should be able to break you in pretty quick. We’ve gotta get ya from blue to green, otherwise you don’t have a hope in hell of making it as a sohjer, let alone makin’ it through OCS.” He smiled and crossed his hands across his soft stomach.
“You’re older than the average enlisted man—,“ Borrman said. It sounded like he was thinking aloud. “That’s not a bad thing. I mean, you two, Bobby and you, are about the same age. Well, he’s got a few years on you, but still,” he paused briefly, waved a hand in dismissal, shrugged and eyed Hawkins. “He’s more likely to listen to you and…,” he stopped and his lips tightened.
“Well,” the sergeant continued, “he’ll be able to help you out is what I meant to say. Especially since you’re going to be an officer and all. Bobby just loves training officers.” Borrman paused again. Hawkins searched his face for sarcasm but came up blank. Borrman was deadpan.
Sergeant Borrman shrugged and took a sip of his coffee.
“Any alibis?” The sergeant asked.
What the hell is an alibi? Hawkins wondered.
“Good!” Borrman said. “You’ll probably find Bobby in one of the offices by the kitchen. Let me know if you need anything.” He grinned, eyes slitted and looked back to his papers. Picked up his pen.
“You mind if I smoke first, sergeant?” Hawkins asked. “I haven’t had one—“
“You smoke?” Borrman asked. “Nasty habit that. You’re gonna have to give that up if you wanna be an officer.”
“Yes, sergeant,” Hawkins thought and grimaced on the inside. Somehow he just couldn’t seem to get and stay on the right side of this man.
“Yeah,” Borrman said. “Go smoke and then go see Bobby. Better hustle though; he doesn’t like being made to wait.”
Hawkins smoked. He kept himself under the overhang, tried to use the edge of the building and the azalea bush to hide himself from the others’ eyes. When he finished his cigarette, he hurried off toward the kitchens.
Staff Sergeant Bobby wasn’t where he was supposed to be. Hawkins spent twenty minutes opening and closing doors, asking other soldiers if they’d seen the man and wandering around the outside of the building before he found Bobby and his squad hiding in a storeroom.
The big man reclined in a government chair behind a table. His stocking-clad feet rested on the center of the makeshift desk. His boots were on the floor, long strings dangling. They were huge and scuffed. Bobby picked his teeth with a toothpick and eyed Hawkins. The sergeant’s bald dome was odd. It looked like the man was wearing a skullcap or helmet under his skin. He was scarred across the left brow, legacy of a grazing bullet.
Bobby made a clicking noise with his teeth. It sounded like disgust.
“Air Force, huh?”
“More like fuckin’ Chair Force.” Bobby chortled to himself.
His squad, two other young men, chuckled as well. The chubby one laughed because he was expected to, Hawkins could tell, but the other guy, the little one, had a laugh that sounded greasy and intimate.
“Wanna be an officer, huh?” the sergeant asked.
“Trying to be, sergeant.”
The little soldier sneered openly.
“Why the hell,” Bobby asked, “did you wanna go Army after the Air Force, shoooo…” The big man blew his cheeks out in disbelief.
Hawkins opened his mouth to respond but didn’t. Bobby jerked in his chair, lurched to face the other two men, pounded his great fist on the desk. Hawkins watched him closely. The sergeant was suddenly putting off a vibe of barely controlled violence. Hawkins felt like he was standing too close to an animal, unpredictable. Hawkins took a step back. Instead of erupting, the big man relaxed into his seat and spoke.
“You ever spend any time on an Air Force base, Renfro?” he barked at the chubby soldier.
“No, sergeant,” Private Renfro replied owlishly. The other soldier, the little guy, scooted his chair forward.
“They have hot women there, Sarge?” the little man asked eagerly. The name on his blouse read Buckner and he had the largest set of bucked teeth Hawkins had ever seen.
“Shee-it.” Bobby said. “What the hell you care, Beaver? Ain’t no woman gonna be interested in yore snaggle-tooth self.” Bobby’s face was alight with excitement now. “Nah. I dunno. Maybe they did. I got sent to–what’s the name o’ that place? Umm… Randolph! Yeah. Randolph Air Force Base. I got sent there from Germany. Got some psych stuff done there. Right near San Antonio.”
Renfro gave the appearance of listening but probably wasn’t. Beaver nodded his head, smiling.
“Yeah? Yeah?” the bucktoothed man prompted.
“Yeah. They put me in this TLF unit see–”
“What’s TLF mean, Sarge?” asked Beaver.
“I dunno, stop interrupting. It’s like a hotel room but on post. That’s what I’m gettin’ to.” He popped his lips and frowned at Beaver. “You assholes,” he gestured at Beaver and Renfro, “ya’ll don’t know nothin’ but the shithole barracks we stay in, right? Right? Yeah. Well, that TLF, duuuuddde, it was air-conditioned and I didn’t have to share it with nobody. It was just like staying at the Holiday Inn. Man, they even had cable TV and a movie channel. And they had a VCR hooked up so I could go rent movies down at the BX. Hell, I was there like four months. Watching movies, drinking booze. There was a little fridge in there, too. I’d fill that son of a bitch up ever’ damn day. I didn’t ever wanna come back home. I only had to polish my boots like once a week or so. Everything was clean and– I’m just saying. Those guys never go out in the field. You’d have to go lookin’ for mud if you wanted to find some.”
Bobby waited for them to take that in. Beaver looked impressed. Renfro stared at his boots.
“Yeah,” the sergeant continued, “they had good chow, too. And the chow halls was pretty nice. They was clean and new, at least. Like eating in a Gold Corral or something. Real nice. They had pictures on the walls and padded booths and whatnot. Steak ever’ Friday. It was like a real steak, too. Not just chopped up pieces of stuff. Not like the shit they pitch at us round here. Tellin’ you boys, those Air Force guys got it pretty damn good. If I was gonna do it over again, I’d go Air Force in a fuckin’ minute.” He looked over his shoulder at Hawkins, gave a half-sneer and made the lip-popping sound. “Shee-it.”
Bobby settled back in his seat. Beaver looked vaguely disappointed.
“Didn’t you go to no strip clubs or nothin’, Sarge?” he asked.
“What the hell you talking about, Beaver?” Bobby replied in a bored voice. He’d gone back to picking his teeth and staring at the ceiling.
“Do you need me to do anything sergeant?” Hawkins asked. “Need me to sweep up or anything?”
Bobby snorted. “What? This fuckin’ place? Hell, no. Let the REMFs do it. Stop bein’ such a kiss-ass. Just sit down and shut up.”
Bobby pried a can of Skoal from his pocket, pinched a wedge into his cheek, closed his eyes and leaned back in the chair, half-full-of-spit Sprite bottle in his lap.
“Wake me up,” he growled, “if anyone looks to come in.”
Renfro pulled a video game from his pocket and slumped against the wall. Occasional beeps and bloops came from the device until Bobby growled at him to shut the thing up. Beaver cocked back in his chair like Sergeant Bobby. Hawkins could tell that the little man was debating whether to put his feet up on Bobby’s desk. He saw Beaver give up on the idea and stretch his legs out crossed at the ankles. Hawkins sighed and explored the room. Kicked up clouds of dust. No one came and Sergeant Bobby snored until final formation was called. Hawkins drove home wondering if there was a point to the whole thing, if he’d made a mistake.
Over his favorite dinner, Hawkins’ wife asked him how it was, did it go as well as he’d hoped, told him that she really thought that she was going to be okay with him going back in the service, that she’d been praying about it and that she was sorry that they’d argued. He told her that everything was okay, that it was good to be back in the military, that he was looking forward to officers’ school. He watched her through the candles that she’d lit and moved some marinara around on his plate with a piece of bread.
“Well, Gabe, anything interesting happen?” she asked.
“Just stuff,” he said. “Just, you know, met the guys and all. Did some in-processing with the platoon sergeant. Met my new boss. No big deal.”
“Come on,” she said, trying to be happy for him, “give me the details. I bet they love you already. What are you going to be doing? They give you a gun yet? The recruiter said they might let you get some leadership practice; is that happening, or is it too soon?”
“Not yet,” he said. “I’m still, you know, new right now.”
“Well,” she asked, “did you at least make a friend or something? You said this was going to give you something that was missing in your life,” and now her voice took on an edge. “No, wait, you said you needed this. You don’t seem very excited about it.” She stopped and looked at him. Gabe saw her brow wrinkle. He began to feel hunted.
“What’s to be excited about?” he asked and locked his jaw.
“What’s going on?” she asked. “This is what I was afraid of. You’ve chosen to sacrifice your family and you won’t even talk to me about it.”
“Look,” he replied with his eyes on his plate, his cheek-muscles working, “I already told you, everything’s fine. Just let it go. I’m eating.”
He made a throw-away gesture. He didn’t meet her eyes.
“But—“ she said.
“Look,” he said, “it’s been a long day and I’m really tired so, please, please, please, just sit there and shut the hell up.”
Her fork rattled on her plate and her hip bumped the table hard as she left. Gabe’s glass of Chianti spilled sideways across his meal. The red wine pooled in his spaghetti, sloshed onto the tabletop, ran to the edge and dripped, dripped onto the floor. He could hear the sound of her crying through the door of their bedroom.
Gabe sighed, made to push his chair back from the table to go to her but stopped. He sat for a moment, aching for his wife, trying to understand what had come over him. He couldn’t seem to move. He was overcome with a hopeless weariness. He sat looking at the spill on the floor, his eyes dry, itching, and then pulled his chair back to the table, lifted his fork and speared a meatball lying in a pool of wine, shoved it into his mouth and began chewing. He reached over, picked up his salad bowl and turned it over onto his plate of spaghetti, reached for the salad dressing, and poured it over as well. He stirred the mess with his spoon. It looked like an animal’s entrails.
Gabe sat, chewing the last of the meatball, and looked at the slop for a long time. He could no longer hear his wife crying. He reached a decision, took up his fork and spun it, then raised the mess to his mouth, bit into it and chewed. Fork after fork, he worked his way through the dish. Fork after fork, the food went down. It was awful, worse than he’d thought it could be, but he didn’t stop.
When the Army gives you a gourmet meal, he thought, you damn well eat it.
Even when they didn’t taste good, even when your stomach rebelled and your heart was no longer in it, even when you wanted to take it back, you didn’t. His fork swam in the mess, hooked the last meatball and popped it into his mouth. The taste of red wine, dressing and marinara flooded his mouth with regret. Gabe paused, then grimaced and, with stoic determination, chewed.
He ate it all.