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Men at War

by Robert Perron

Darlene looks at her Mary Janes, brown with one strap. She folds her hands in her lap. Two sets of black leather shoes approach, spit shined. It kills Darlene that they wear military shoes with civvies, second lieutenants, no doubt, somewhere between officer candidate school and Vietnam. The one standing to her front complements his ebonies with tan slacks and blue dress shirt. Darlene rubs her left ring finger with thumb and forefinger from the other hand. Round and round. She raises her eyes and her peripheral catches Sally’s pucker smile, blond bouffant, and pyramid breasts. Sally’s soldier sounds like a cowboy from the Texas Panhandle.

“Couldn’t help but notice y’all two charming ladies sitting here in desperate need of escorts.”

Wide face, loose shoulders, buzz cut. Her soldier thin, brown hair an inch long, light gray military glasses, a half step behind his buddy. Sally takes to the banter like a puppy to Purina.

“If you all are asking us to dance, you all best do it before the music is over.”

Texas gives a slight bow and extends a hand. Sally flicks eyebrows at Darlene and prances to her feet. Gray-glasses shifts weight from one leg to the other.

“May I?”

Darlene unfurls a smile and rises. What’s the point of coming out to the officers club to be a wet blanket? Then again, what’s the point of coming out to the officers club? On the dance floor, gray-glasses tightens the hand in the small of Darlene’s back. Darlene keeps her butt out and her face away from his, and they settle into a two-step. She raises her voice over the horns from the band.

“What did you say?”

“Brad,” he says. “My name’s Brad.”

Sally and Texas whir alongside as the horns climax. The boys grab a table and buy drinks. They’re TAC officers at the Infantry OCS. Texas tells a story.

“So here we all are,” he says, “on this hilltop after dark and one of the sergeants looks across to another hilltop and sees a fire. I mean like a brush fire. An actual fire.”

Brad shakes his head and chuckles. Sally chuckles.

“So the sergeant yells, fire. And everyone looks at him. He yells, fire, fire. So they all start shooting their rifles. And he yells, no, goddamnit, a real fire, a real fire.”

Brad and Texas push back in their chairs laughing. Sally laughs.

“Oh my god,” she says, “that’s such a riot. Darlene, powder room?”

The boys jump up as the girls exit. Sally takes Darlene’s arm and spouts into one ear.

“Here’s the deal,” she says. “Your Brad has a car. I have a car. We’re splitting up.”

That might be Sally’s deal, thinks Darlene.

“I’m not leaving here with Brad,” she says.

They’re in the wide hallway between the bathrooms. Sally stamps a foot.

“Don’t spoil this for me,” she says. She brushes four fingertips alongside Darlene’s face. “And your hair. Why do you let it hang straight like that?”

“I’m not ready.”

The foot trounces the carpet again.

“You don’t have todo anything. Just say good night and get out of the carif that’s what you want.”

***

A warm Georgia night, starlight, midnight. Brad has a Chevy Impala, light green, with wide seats and an automatic transmission. It noses into a parking spot. Lights off. Motor off. Darlene stays on the passenger side close to the door. Brad looks across.

“I guess you’re not inviting me in for a cup of coffee,” he says.

Darlene pushes the door open and gains footing on the pavement. She swings the door shut and leans both elbows through the passenger window. Brad looks like a stray tabby. Darlene sighs.

“I want you to understand. You can come in but nothing’s happening between us.”

Brad jumps from the car and follows Darlene toward concrete outside stairs. Darlene glances back.

“Aren’t you locking up?”

Brad scampers back to the Impala, rolls up windows, pushes locks, closes doors, and scampers back. Darlene climbs to the second level of the apartment complex, opens a front door into a living room, tosses a light switch, crosses to the kitchen, tosses another light switch. When she turns, Brad is staring at the eight-by-ten picture on the end table next to the couch, snapped twenty months before. In it, her left arm holds a man about the waist and his right arm encircles her shoulders. The man’s hair is longer than Brad’s, darker. No glasses. He wears a navy suit and her a pink dress, her lips deep red.

“My husband.”

Brad moves his eyes from the photo to Darlene then around the apartment. Not much to see, thinks Darlene. No wall separating living room and kitchen. A foyer-like hallway with doors for bedroom, bathroom, and linen closet. Brad’s eyes are a soft brown. Another difference. The man in the picture has green eyes. The brown eyes return to Darlene and drop toward her left hand. She holds it up, knuckles out, fingers spread.

“Sally talked me into taking the rings off,” she says.

“Where is he?”

“He’s not anywhere, Brad.”

But she shouldn’t be flippant. Darlene squeezes her eyelids and tastes residue of ginger and rye. She opens her eyes.

“He died in Vietnam seven weeks ago.”

Darlene doesn’t take to the role of grieving widow. Wants to be the former grieving widow, that’s it, the former grieving widow. She scoops coffee into the percolator basket. Pours water into the pot. Fires the stove as she listens to Brad.

“Wow. I mean, I’m sorry. I’m sorry to hear that.”

Darlene opens an overhead cupboard. Cups and saucers jangle. The percolator slurps.

“Sally,” Darlene says, “she’s my best friend sort of. Our husbands were in the same OCS class.”

A quart bottle of milk exits the refrigerator.

“They both got assigned here afterward. TAC officers just like you. One year here, off to Vietnam.”

The coffee gurgles and settles.

“So Sally decided, you know, it was time I got out. Stopped feeling sorry for myself.”

Brad says, “Is Sally a widow too?”

Darlene’s first good laugh in a while rolls out. She takes the coffee pot off the stove and pours.

“Sally doesn’t like to sit around.”

Darlene sits in the chair across from Brad.

“I guess you wished you were the one with Sally,” she says.

“I don’t think so. I think I’d be in over my head.”

Darlene can’t tell if Brad’s deadpan face is earnest or joking. She laughs her second good laugh in a while. Brad lowers his voice.

“Besides. I like you.”

Oh Jesus.

“I like you too, Brad, but as I said, nothing’s happening between us.”

Brad stirs his coffee.

“Why is it you’re still down here at Fort Benning?”

“Good question.” Darlene sips at the edge of her cup and lowers it to the table. “I followed my husband down when he started OCS. An OC wife.” Brad smiles. “Landed a job at the Infantry School, secretary, fifth floor. I can type like a bandit.”

“So you’re still here,” says Brad.

“Still here.”

Brad asks for the bathroom and Darlene moves to the living room, to the end of the couch near her husband’s picture. James. Jim. Out of high school, Darlene had worked the Massachusetts high-tech belt through temp agencies, always got work, could type like a bandit. Used the family junker to commute. Turned twenty-one, stepped out to the bars, and met Jim, a senior at Boston University. She’d had other boyfriends. Larry, from high school, who worked at the Hi-Delite plant in Needham. Darlene wasn’t catching the love vibes she thought she should with Jim but her mom told her, this one with the college, he’s a keeper, forget about Larry the loser.

Jim graduated. They announced their engagement. Then he walked into a recruiting office and enlisted in the army. He’d be drafted anyway, he explained, and enlisting gave him a guaranteed shot at OCS. But a deferment, she said, he could get a deferment for marriage, for grad school, for teaching, for high-tech. Jim talked about duty, patriotism, communism, the domino theory, being a man. Darlene didn’t get it. Here she was, investing her future in his smarts and this wasn’t smart. Even Larry the loser had enough brains to flunk his induction physical.

The bathroom door opens and Brad meanders to the middle of the living room. Meanders toward the center of the couch. He sits. He edges closer and puts his right arm behind Darlene like he’s stretching or enjoys the texture of couch fabric. His wrist drops against her shoulder and his coffee breath approaches. What’s wrong with his face? Ah, he’s removed his glasses. Darlene remembers her first impression of officer candidates at Fort Benning, marching, standing at attention, saluting, double-timing, rifles, steel helmets, bayonets; chests out, peckers in. They reminded her of her little brother and the neighborhood prepubescents playing war or cowboys and Indians. Bang, bang. Gotcha, you’re dead. Didn’t neither. Bang, bang.

“Brad?”

“Um.”

“Nothing below the neck. Okay? Those are the rules.”

Brad’s brown eyes widen. Darlene absorbs the pressure of his hand behind her neck and his lips against hers. Reminds her of Jim in the beginning, not a great kisser either. Larry was a great kisser. But a loser.

Jim’s family lived north of Detroit. High-salary white-collar job in the auto industry. Could afford to fly to the wedding, rent a car, stay at the Boston Park Plaza, hoity toity. Nothing wrong with hoity toity, said Darlene’s mom. After the wedding, after basic training, after OCS, after going over, after the notification team left the apartment, Darlene stood at the wall phone and dialed Jim’s mom. They agreed his remains should return to his childhood home north of Detroit and Darlene drove there for the funeral. She listened to rifles and taps and prayers and clasped a triangle of American flag which she passed to her mother-in-law.

Brad’s left hand drops along the front of Darlene’s blouse past the collar bone. Darlene pushes it back up to her shoulder. He doesn’t try again. An obedient soldier. One minor infraction. At the funeral reception, Darlene felt her mother-in-law’s gaze. Was she angry about the flag? Wasn’t that the right thing to do? Then Darlene understood. She was checking for a four-month tummy bulge. Sorry, mom. She pushes a palm against Brad’s chest and makes light with her voice.

“Slow down, lieutenant.”

She rises from the couch and pulls Brad by the hands. He talks about seeing her again, about a phone number. She removes his glasses from his shirt pocket, places them on his face, leads him to the door. A short kiss.

“It’s been a nice night, Brad.”

Another short kiss. A nudge. He’s across the threshold, turning away, looking back, descending the stairs. The Impala motor starts and its headlamps sweep a quarter circle as the car backs into the street. Darlene douses the outside light. The living room light. Crosses to the kitchen and washes the coffee cups. She wonders if Brad will have sex before he dies and sighs. Not her problem.

Darlene locates her spiral notebook in the pull-out drawer next to the stove and takes it to the kitchen table. She clicks open a blue ballpoint and cocks her elbow. Dear Sir, she writes, I cannot begin to tell you how much I’ve enjoyed working at the Infantry School. I will never forget the kindness your section showed me after.

Darlene rips out the page and crumples it. She reapplies her cocked elbow. Dear Sir, It is with regret that I inform you of my resignation from your.

Darlene crumples another page. She wonders what she’ll do. The thought of going back to Massachusetts depresses her. The thought of going anywhere depresses her. Maybe she’ll go to San Francisco and join the hippies. Maybe she’ll just get in the car and drive and drive.

Dear Sir.