There was a knock at my door.
“I need to talk to you,” he said, and pushed by me, nudging me aside as if I wasn’t there. A stout fellow, over the years many people made the mistake of playing the dozens with him, then quickly regretted it when they realized his size was almost all muscle.
“Come on in,” I said, as an afterthought, and pointed to the open bottle.
“Carrot infused Vodka?” He took a sniff, revolted, then put the bottle down.
“Jesus, I don’t know how the Hell you d-d-d-d-d-o it.”
Since the war, he’d developed quite a stammer. Shellshocked they called it. He sat down on my couch and put his feet up on the coffee table. He’d dropped some weight since I last saw him but was still pushing three hundred pounds.
“Vitamin A, good for the eyesight.” I took a seat across from him.
“What’s up, Doc?”
He took out a handkerchief and wiped his brow. His uniform was soaked through with the humidity, and his weight didn’t help things.
“We have a problem.”
October 1944. We had been part of a small night patrol, from the 28th division, what would later come to be known as LRRP’s or long range reconnaissance patrols. Taking heavy casualties, in the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest, we were tasked with removing artillery pieces, which had been shredding us. Dragon’s teeth had proven impossible to negotiate with tanks or mechanized infantry.
It was Winter, and the trees had stripped their leaves. A thick layer of frost still showed crimson residue of contorted outlines like fallen snow angels. Eating from heated cans of rations, smoking poorly rolled standard issue, just inside the wire, our Sergeant briefed us on our latest missive.
“What are the chances we make it back?” Sam had drawled after the plan was revealed. A Texan with a red long Fu-Manchu mustache, he was prone to violent outbursts with twin service revolvers. He’d been busted back down to E-1 for his insubordination, but we tolerated him since he’d sent so many Jerry’s to Hell. When drunk, he’d go on long winded rhyming diatribes claiming to be the most dangerous outlaw of all time.
“It’s suicide, but we got wittle choice.” Our Sergeant replied.
The Sergeant took off his cap and rubbed his bald head. Steam escaped in the firelight and resembled a halo. Though he seemed slow, made only more so by his impediment, our Sergeant was a decorated soldier. Fearless, a crack shot, he’d refer to our patrols as hunting season. He made his home on the precipice of sanity, and at times we thought he was close to drawing a section 8. But, The Sergeant had kept us alive, and we all had blind faith in his abilities to continue to do so.
Fire and smokes extinguished, gear stowed, weapons locked and loaded, we entered the forest.
“Suicide,” he said.
“Are they sure?”
He took a slug of vodka and winced. The shot glass looked like a thimble in his enormous hand. Staring at it like he was searching for the answer, he squinted his eye.
“I read the r-r-r-r-report.”
Even with the stammer, he’d been able to find a job as a police officer when we returned. It’s how he got the nickname “Porky.” How he was ever able to pass the physical exam was a mystery, but his service record was impeccable. If every cop looked like him, there wouldn’t be any crime.
“So, the guy couldn’t cope,” I offered and killed what was in my glass. Porky refilled both, and we sat in silence.
“What about you? Have you been sleeping?” He swirled the concoction in front of him.
I’d bummed around mostly when I got back. Brooklyn seemed a strange land. Took a job as a groundskeeper at Ebbet’s field. Tried out for a minor league team, The Gashouse Gorillas, but couldn’t make the rotation.
“We all did things in those woods…”
Porky left the words to hang in the air like a recently executed prisoner.
Stalin had called artillery “The God of War.” We could hear the screams of shells accelerate on their trajectories and feel the land vibrate in the distance as they exploded. Thankfully, the screams were muted. It had taken us all day to reach the enemy encampment.
We waited for the cover of nightfall. A rag tag bunch; by looking at us, you’d never know we were one of the more decorated and efficient killing forces.
Syl and Tweedy, best friends, though you wouldn’t know it, argued about who would take out more Jerry’s. Words were soon replaced by actions, and they were at each other again. Syl, a giant of a man towered over Tweedy, who barely came up to his navel. Separated and told to cool off, Syl’s last threat was how he’d kill, and eat, Tweedy.
Wiley never spoke.
He was our demolitions man and spent most of his time tinkering with his explosives, talking about how when he rotated back to the world, he was going to finally get revenge on this speed freak who ruled the racing scene in Arizona where Wiley called home.
As we braced ourselves for the final push, the only one who scared me was the cherry. Only recently added to our group, he was an eccentric fellow, to say the least, more concerned with how his life would be after the war, yammering nonsequiturs and spraying saliva everywhere as he spoke.
“A Methersthmidt. A Whole meth of Mtherschmidts… A METH of METHERSCHMIDTS!!!!” He’d scream when told about the approaching unit’s advancements.
While some of the more peculiar traits of our group got on my nerves, there was something about this daffy bastard which made me want to see him suffer.
The Sergeant gave us the signal. I knocked my clips on my helmet to align the bullets, taped them jungle style, and loaded my M3 “Greaser.” I felt the familiar rush take hold; people have told me I go crazy during these moments; it’s why they call me “Bugs.”
Unleashed, we slithered into The German Camp and, like old testament wraiths, disposed of enemy personnel with extreme prejudice. All but Sam made it through, but he took enough varmints to Valhalla to feel worthy of being deemed “The Rootenest Tootenest Hombre this Side of the Pecos.”
After The Sergeant had offered a few words, we took Sam’s body, reconnoitered, and set up camp. Though still jazzed with adrenalin, sleep found me almost immediately. I was plagued by surrealistic dreams of dressing like a woman, singing Viking opera, and antagonizing the members of our patrol. Maybe it was Sam’s mention of Valhalla. I awoke to a bayonet blade an inch from my nose. Alarmed, I almost spoke, when the Sergeant hushed me.
“Be wery wery quiet,” he said.
He was gone, eyes glazed over, the thousand yard stare. I slowly stood up being guided by the point of the blade. I looked over; the rest of them were sleeping. Somehow, even in this predicament, I felt the need to kick the hornet’s nest.
“You do realize, this means war — Elmer,” I said.
“Move, you wascal.” The Seargent jabbed at me.
When I was to my feet, The Sergeant kicked the still sleeping Daffy.
“You’re desssssthpicable.” Came from the underneath the blanket.
“Wake up.” The Sergeant’s voice was sandpaper. Daffy stirred and turned over.
“Jesuthhhhh,” he said.
The bayonet jutted forward, and the three of us marched deeper into the forest. Surrounded by giant conifers, we began to embrace the inevitable. As we walked, with our hands raised, I turned my head.
“Shoot him, Sarge,” I said, pointing to Daffy, who’d stopped in his tracks and was almost run through.
“No, shoot him!” Daffy screamed, pointing at me.
“No, shoot him!”
The rifle swung like a pendulum back and forth each revolution exasperating The Sergeant further. The shot rang out from a distance, and The Sergeant fell. He uttered his last words as the life left his body.
“You saved my life,” I said and poured us the remnants of the bottle. We clinked glasses as the silence got more palatable.
The group had all made a pact at that moment: Both Sam and The Sarge had been taken out by The Jerry’s. At the time, we were happy to put it all behind us. Unified in the idea we’d gotten away with it, our only concern was surviving. Soon after, our campaign ended. Posthumous medals were bestowed, and that seemed to be the end of it. Then the War Crimes Tribunals started, and word began spreading of investigations into what had been perpetrated by both sides during the war.
“Still, I can’t believe Daffy shot himself.” Porky’s inflection was flat, and for the first time in the evening, I couldn’t tell what he was thinking.
“Maybe the strain finally got to him? Like you said, we did things in those woods,” I offered.
He finished the tumbler and placed it back on the table.
“And what about the others?” he said. “Seems like a pretty bad run of luck.”
I sat back and took another solid hit.
Wiley had perished in a road race; the explosion left him burned beyond recognition except for dental records. He’d outfitted his vehicle with dynamite, hoping the blast would propel his car like a rocket. He’d finally succumbed to that “Road Runner.”
Tweedy was found caged in Syl’s apartment, his neck broken. He’d been slathered in salt, pepper, and olive oil. Syl claimed innocence, but the evidence was overwhelming. He was in his second year of a thirty-year stretch in a maximum security penitentiary in Corcoran.
“I should get going,” Porky finally said, keeping his eyes locked on mine like he was trying to read me.
“Just wanted to let you know.”
We both rose and shook hands. He held it for longer than was necessary, but didn’t say anything, then left. I walked to the pantry and removed another bottle. Cracking the seal, I surmised he must know Daffy’s death wasn’t suicide.
Daffy had called me in hysterics, and I went over to his apartment. He was flicking the safety of his weapon off and on while he spoke a mile a minute. Sufferin Succotash, he kept repeating while pacing back and forth.
The War Crimes Tribunal weighed heavily on his mind. He was sure we’d be caught sooner or later. When I approached, he pointed the weapon at me. Deep within the recesses of my mind, something was once again awakened. The antagonist within me took over. I snatched the piece from him, and he jumped back.
“Why don’t we play Russian Roulette,” I had said, “You go first.” I thrust the weapon in his direction. Confusion gave way to anger.
“No, you go first,” he said and crossed his arms.
“No, you go first,” I said, and shoved it toward him again.
“No, you go first!”
“No, you go first!”
“No, I’ll go first!”
“NO, I’ll GO FIRST!”
The seal on the bottle broken, I took a slug, and let sanity take a brief respite. Of course, fear had dictated my actions, and self-preservation, but it was more than that. Like with the others, there was an insatiable yearning to see everyone else suffer. I didn’t feel remorse when I snapped Tweedy’s neck and framed Syl. Nor, did I hesitate when I cut the brake line on Wiley’s ride. Now that Porky was on to me, he’d have to go too.
I shut off the light, sat in the darkness, and looked up at the sky, and debated whether or not I truly was a stinker.
Andrew Davie received an MFA in creative writing from Adelphi University. He taught English in Macau on a Fulbright Grant. He has also taught in New York, Hong Kong, and Virginia. In June of 2018, he survived a ruptured brain aneurysm and subarachnoid hemorrhage. His work can be read through links from his website: asdavie.wordpress.com