by Jerad Alexander
Big Randal propped his rifle against the trench wall and slumped beside it on the packed dirt of the firing step. He hunched his back against the sandbags, and the early morning dew that stained the moldy canvas leaked into his wool coat and touched his skin, where parked days of dirt and grease and petulant pride, too.
He squeezed his eyes and opened them, then fished a Cavender from his pocket and lit it with a split match from a heavy hand and dropped it to the duckboards before the flame snapped his thumb. A single shell rattled high overhead. His spine stiffened, but stopped, and he sat upright. The shell crashed somewhere beyond, out on that sightless flat and quiet elsewhere world. He knew the shell was not meant for him; he knew by the sound, by the air, and by the weather and even by the smell. But there was a time, not too far along now, when he couldn’t tell it, and his spine had twitched for a good long while because he did not know.
Most of the mist had burnt off the broken ground above the trench line where sat the chaos of razor wire and shell craters and the other France war whatnots, detritus Big Randal had for a time found himself inheriting as his own. There had been no ghouls in coal scuttle helmets storming through the mist of the predawn darkness, bayonets fixed and shimmering the hell of sick orange flare light. There had been nothing during the daily hour of the morning hate but the ritual tossing of errant shells that whispered across the sky like final breathy summons, and blossomed at odd hot intervals with bass drum promotions to glory. The nearby Browning’s had spoken to the Maxim’s across the long way, clattered back and forth with machinegun verbs in tired taunts and vituperations. The sun had broken past the sick horizon skyward now, and there was enough reason to not bother any longer.
He felt Walter sit next to him. Walter smelled like wet canvas and rifle oil and greasy dead skin that fell from under his dinged helmet like salt. Randal did not like Walter because Walter was a corporal while Big Randal was a private. Walter did not act like a corporal, and Randal continued to act like the sergeant he once was. Walter was not from the same county as Randal, and so he did not like Walter because Walter was a dimwit, or maybe just a lost child.
“Hoowee, boy. You hear about that wiring party out of Comp’ny I?” Walter asked with a mask of morning joviality.
Randal breathed tired words one-by-one with pure, simple mechanics. “I don’t give a goddamn about any wiring party from any comp’ny, in any part of the goddamn line, in this or any other goddamn sector, in any army in all of the big goddamn Western Front, and I don’t want to hear about any of it so just shut your big goddamn mouth.”
Walter rested his morning ration in his lap— just a small handful of hardtack biscuits. He crunched one with his heavy jaw, ruminated, and swallowed a few stiff times. He was not upset at having his friend, or who he reckoned was his friend, cuss at him. Sergeant-turned-Private Randal Baggett cussed at him often. Walter just figured that was all part of this place, which he hated, but had accepted without knowing he had done so.
Word had gotten around that a squad from nearby Comp’ny I had snuck over the top into No-Man’s-Land some twenty minutes after one in the morning, ordered out by a lieutenant no one liked to repair a section of razor wire cut up by a Hun shell. They had moved along all right, even managed to get most the work done without drawing fire from the far side, when one Private Jenkins who, well… he went to screw in the last post, and as luck would have it, the last place the last post stabbed into the earth also happened to be the same earth that hid an unexploded sixteen-inch shell. It being dark and him being tired, Jenkins could not know what he had tapped with the sharp screw end of the wire post. He figured maybe it was a rock or some such, and so he stabbed it down again with his twenty-year-old muscles and terror-frustration and moved that old shell just enough to wake it and send bits of Jenkins as far north as Ypres, and carry along with him good chucks of his buddies. At least that’s what Walter had heard, at any rate.
Walter took another hard bite and crumbs flowed south. “They said one of them made it back to the line, said he—” he swallowed. “Said—“
“You realize I don’t give a rat’s ass about some wiring party?” Randal said, breathing smoke. “My boy, Little Randal, my own flesh and blood alive ten years now, he’s back at home turning my Packard into his playground, you realize that? He’s probably broke the goddamn thing, by now.” He put his face in his hands then rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger.
“Di’nt know you had an automobile, B-R,” Walter said. Sometimes the boys in Comp’ny K called him B-R for short. There were boys across the whole battalion who had known him as B-R since before the war, on account of having signed up together from the same place. Back home, Big Randal was the only B-R in all of Burke County, and that was final.
“Course you di’nt. I don’t tell you nothing,” he said.
“I ain’t never been in a Packard,” Walter said.
B-R buried his head his hands again. “I ain’t surprised,” he mumbled. He looked up, pleaded to the warming sky. “Oh my good Lord, what am I doing here?”
He turned at Walter and wagged a finger in his face. “Hear me now, I’m gonna whip that boy if there’s so much as a smudge on the steering wheel. So much as one.”
“Well how’d you know he even done all that?” Walter asked.
B-R jerked a hand into his coat and ripped out a crumpled envelope and wagged it Walter’s face.
“Yesterday’s mail call, you ignorant…” he trailed off. “My wife wrote me. Says the little bastard done took to the thing, even takes to sleeping in it nights.”
His wife had written him about the household happenings over the past few weeks as if recounting the minutes of some aldermen meeting. There was his daddy, who was sick again or some such, and his daughter Martha who was six and coming up all right, and his brother-in-law who had moved to Augusta to pastor some old church and took up with the sixteen-year-old daughter of one of his deacons and prompted a scandal. Oh, and there was Little Randal, who wasn’t but ten, and had really taken to what she had called “the family Packard.” She’d caught the boy playing war with his little lead army men in the back seat and sleeping in it some nights, curled up in the front seat in a ball with a quilt over him, even after she’d hustled him off to bed. She said sometimes the boy would pretend to drive it like a free getaway car, and when B-R had read that he stopped and read nothing else, as if to continue, to finish the letter, was to accept his son was laying his hands on his daddy’s car as if it were his own, and he’d be goddamned if he’d accept any such thing.
“Why’re you so worried about your boy in your car?” Walter asked.
“It’s my car,” B-R said, incensed. “I’m over here payin’ for it. I get to decide who sits in it or not, or who drives it. I told my wife when I signed up, ‘No one drives it. No one touches it. Not even you,’ and look how she minds me.”
B-R stood up. He snatched his rifle from the trench wall and uncoupled the bayonet from the lug. He controlled his anger long enough to guide the tip of the knife into the slit of the sheath before slamming it home with a hard metal tock. He tossed the rifle back against the firing step.
Walter looked down. He fiddled with the hardtack in his hand. He looked up wide-eyed.
“I keep thinking about that fella. You know, from the wiring party? The one that made it back to the line?” Walter said.
B-R stopped pacing and flagged Walter a hard look. “I told you I don’t care about any of that,” he said. “I don’t want to hear it.”
Walter bucked up. “Right. Sorry, buddy.” He shifted in his seat and smiled some. “It sounds like your boy just misses his old man,” he said.
“He needs to be helping out around the house, not messing with my Packard,” B-R said, thumbing his own chest. He fished in his pocket and drew out another Cavender and lit it with the cherry of his first one then tried to flick the butt out of the trench toward the Huns, but it bounced off the top and spun back to the duckboards.
Walter took another bite of hardtack. He talked with his mouth full. “I don’t ‘member my daddy,” he said. “Died when I wasn’t but two, so I’m told.” He shrugged like it was of no importance. “But that Comp’ny I boy, they said both his ears were blow’d—“
“I don’t care about all that now,” B-R snapped. He rubbed his forehead, the cigarette tucked between two fingers. The cherry smoldered. Smoke idled skyward.
“Yeah, but they said he—“
“Shut up,” B-R hissed. “I don’t want to hear it. Just shut the hell up. I done saved for and bought my automobile fair and square, and now he’s all over it like I’m dead and gone—“
“Don’t argue with me. He’s all over it, just like the letter says. I guess he figures on taking it, figures I’m as good as dead, and I cain’t do nothin about it.”
“But they said that boy had his hands blow’d off, and his eyes—“
B-R flicked the Cavender toward the Huns in a grunt. It too failed clear the trench and landed under the duckboards. He grabbed Walter by the lapels of his wool coat with singular, venomous purpose and lifted him to his feet with a growl and display of snarled teeth. His eyes widened; the sharp blue cooled from them.
“I tol’ you to shut the hell up about all that,” he said. “That car is mine. He can’t have it, you hear?” He shook the scared Walter until crumbs fell from Walter’s hand. “It’s mine and I want to get back to it. He can’t have it yet.”
Walter brought his pale hands to his chest, the nails dirty. His fingers clutched the crumbled remains of hardtack. The browns of his irises were rich and full and wet with sorrow.
“But they said,” Walter cried. “They said the boy had his eyes blow’d out their sockets. They said they hung down his face by the cords, and we’re tangled up in razor wire.”
B-R shoved Walter hard against the wall of the trench. The rest of the hardtack fell from the bottom of Walter’s hand, and he slumped against the firing step. He breathed.
“They said he got hung up in the wire,” Walter said. “They said he was crazy. They said he was babbling on, screaming. They said he was out of his mind. Lord, I don’t… Do you think…?”
Walter choked the remains of sepulchral visions— the razor wire eyes that scraped across the soft skin of the cheekbone, the blind footfalls that walked the blistered ground, searching, aiming for relief, crying for the Browning’s, or maybe for the distant Maxim’s, screaming, pleading for death.
“They said he wanted them to—“
B-R slumped down to the duckboards and sat cross-legged. He leaned back against the trench wall opposite Walter and rested his big hands on his thighs. His head sat loose on his neck, swaying as if dizzy. His eyes transmitted a wet sorrow his massive body would not allow. He gathered himself and stood and straightened his coat.
“They said they had to shoot him. They shot—”
B-R waved him away. “I know what happened,” he mumbled. “I heard it.”
Walter blinked at him.
“His name was Yarborough. Johnny Yarborough,” B-R said. He reached into his pocket for another Cavender.
Shells howled like screaming steel banshees. Backs stiffened and snapped and B-R and Walter fell to the duckboards with their arms over their helmets. B-R clenched his eyes tight and bared his teeth wide open and breathed nothing in anticipation. Walter groaned and sobbed wordless litanies skyward. The shells crunched the earth in No-Man’s-Land as well as behind the trench near the support line. They did not explode, but an insidious hiss filled the morning with a hot garlic fragrance.
“Get your masks on, boys,” an officer hollered from down the line. “Get ready. They might be coming through.”
A siren cranked to life and there was nothing more to be said. The trench line dissolved into a scramble and B-R and Walter with it. Their boots mashed the hardtack waste and smoldering Cavenders. They fumbled for their gasmasks and slipped the crumpled and sticky rubber over their faces and breathed only shallow breathes through their canisters, and not because they had to. Their spines itched and their muscles and bowels tightened and loosed and quivered and waited. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the firing step and watched the mustard gas shellfire and the barbed wire madness between them and the death elsewhere, all through the sick yellow cast of their oculars.
“How’d you know that fella, B-R?” Walter yelled through his mask.
B-R did not look at him. “His daddy sold me the car.”