There is happy commotion in the Marine squadbay. Along the rows of metal bunks men shuck their new field boots, let them thump to the deck, and gently peel socks off their blistered feet. Belt buckles jingle. Off come green dungaree shirts, darker where the men have sweated, and out from under the hoisted sopped tee-shirts pop heads almost shaved of hair. Down go trousers, skivvies—and the men, naked now but for the jingling of dogtags, step away from the mounds of sweated uniforms, grab towels, plop off down the squadbay to the showers.
Officer Candidate Wilson sees blood on his white tee-shirt, his skivvy shorts, and ringing fills his head. The sting had been there, along the scar on his belly, since he did the sit-ups in the PT test. Had done only five, only five. Could not pump out even one more. He had hoped the pain didn’t mean his incision had pulled open. Now he knows this has happened.
Wilson turns so Nix, his bunkmate, won’t see the blood on his tee-shirt and skivvies. Gently he peels up the sopped cloth. The vertical incision seven inches down his belly has pulled open at several places—damn, can see inside, the bloody tissue. His knees tremble. With his tee-shirt he dabs at the tender incision, but the blood continues to well-up at the points where the incision has pulled—wells up and spills and runs in chills down the skin of his belly. Won’t stop; the ringing in his head is louder. He quickly drops his skivvies—air sudden and cool on his groin—and wraps himself in a towel he pulls from the locker. In the showers he stands away from the other men, turns so they won’t see the messy incision. In a little while the bleeding stops, and the cool rush of the shower, the tile-echoing voices of the others, enclose Wilson in pleasant unthinking sensation.
The next day at Quantico is muggy and hotter. Late in the afternoon Wilson falls out in a field marching pack with his platoon. His blanket roll is tight around three-sides of his pack, his entrenching tool is snapped in its cover, and on his cartridge belt he carries a bayonet, two heavy canteens and a first-aid packet. With his Ml rifle and helmet in a jungle camouflage cover, Wilson is aware of looking like World War II Marines he has seen in newsreels, in movies. He and the others move stiffly. There is some nervous kidding, Sgt. Ski brings them to attention. The lieutenant announces a little hike—their first time over the hill trail. The lieutenant says he will personally lead them. They move out. Clearing the company area, the lieutenant orders double time. Their boots chuff in the white gravel. Wilson’s canteens thump off-rhythm against his butt, his knees feel loose, his tongue is thick in his mouth, and—this soon—his heart slams inside his chest, his head, his eyes. Only their boots in the gravel, the broken song of equipment, rifles, breathing, and the September sun beating down. Wilson’s belly is okay; he tells himself he can make it, can make it—puts that in the center of his mind.
Then the platoon is off the road, into cool woods, but climbing a hill so steep Wilson is looking into the canteens and the first aid packet of the man in front of him. Underfoot dirt as pale as bone, his knees burning, his lungs, guys up ahead dropping out. He breathes to the bottom, but the air hunger is no better, Knees weak, he throws himself over the top of the hill, runs half-staggering down the far side—clattering rifle and helmet and bayonet, boots slapping the hard earth, trying to close up on the lieutenant, who, through the leafy green, is already halfway up the next hill.
A Harvard guy drops to his knees, hands covering his face, his nose, and blood pours out from between his fingers.
Off balance from the heavy pack, the rifle, the thumping canteens, Wilson runs into the next hill.
Halfway up a guy plops down, drops his rifle across his knees. As Wilson approaches he grins, says “Enough for me,” Then the grin is gone and his head is down and his belly is heaving, and as Wilson passes grey milky vomit splatters on the trail.
The ringing in his head he knows is fear—up there a place where no matter how hard he yells don’t quit at himself, don’t quit, he will drop like these guys. He begins to float in this ringing: for long stretches the burning in his knees and lungs, the slapping of his boots, the banging of his rifle, his canteens—these gone into the brassy ringing.
He doesn’t know how many hills he has gone up, gone down,
Then he is standing on another road. The hot white gravel pounds in his eyes. He and about twelve others mill around while the lieutenant—winded too, but trying to conceal it—says a little run is nice before chow. Then the lieutenant’s high voice falls into the ringing in Wilson’s head. There is hot sun on his face, and there is the mixed smell of sweat and starch, and pinpricks are in his hands and feet, he shakes, and the thick hot vomit pumps into his throat, his mouth, but he swallows it back. The sour taste remains as the lieutenant forms them up, marches them at an easy route step back to the company area.
He has showered—no new bleeding—and changed into fresh dungarees when the others, looking sheepish, tramp back into the squadbay. There is good-natured kidding. Wilson, who still feels the shaking down inside himself, doesn’t kid Lassiter who has the next bunk and had dropped out on the hill trail. Wilson continues to polish the toe of his boot, to swirl tight circles.
After a couple of seconds Wilson realizes the squadbay door has banged open, attention has been yelled, and Sgt. Ski has said the lieutenant wants to see Candidate Wilson. Then Wilson realizes he is Wilson.
He hurries for the squadbay door. With Sgt. Ski gone, the squadbay falls back into kidding, chatter. The swinging door, when Wilson goes through it, flaps shut on that happy noise. The passageway is quiet but for the clicking of his boon-dockers on the waxed deck.
Wilson knocks at the hatchway, is told to enter. He marches through the platoon office to the desk where the lieutenant sits. The lieutenant is in fresh dungarees, which have been bleached to a salty green. Very stiff with starch. Out of the hard carapace of his uniform come thick wrists, baby-pink hands, a large round head. HUGHES is over the pocket. The shiny gold bars are on his collars. His expression—like he’s just swallowed something that’s too hot—burns him. His moist eyes are large, protrude, and white is visible all the way around the pale blue irises.
“This says you did five sit-ups.”
“How many did you do?”
“Jesus Christ, fivel”
Wilson fixes his attention on a spot on the wall behind and above Lt. Hughes’ head. Ought to explain about the sit-ups, ought to say something, say something.”Sir, I’ll try to do better next time.”
Roaring that is splitting and terrific. After a moment Wilson realizes it is Lt. Hughes’s voice bouncing off the walls, yelling, Lt. Hughes is out of his chair, leans across the desk, finger-thumps Wilson’s chest, wet breath on his face. Later Wilson remembers the lieutenant saying: “Sarcastic wise-ass . . . . Think this is a joke . . . . You’ll see . . . . Your butt is going out of Quantico on the train for Parris Island . . . . You’ll do enlisted time in the fuck-up platoon . . . never get near a commission in the Marine Corps. . . . You hear me! ? You hear what I am saying to you !?”
Wilson does not recall leaving the platoon office.
Nix asks what the lieutenant wanted. Wilson shrugs, pulls his rifle out of the wall locker and busies himself cleaning it. He waits for the roar to subside. He remembers what Lt. Hughes said. Happening to somebody else. Nix whispers to Lassiter. Two guys across the aisle speak very softly. This is happening to somebody else.
He dreams that night of the squadbay, of the shadowy red light—at the same time theatrical and bloody—and of the sleeping men who wallow in the cocoons of their blankets, constant mumbling, sudden shouts and cries, the iron of the bunks scraping with the restless twisting of the men. Wilson wakes up. The squadbay he sees is the squadbay he has just dreamed. He breathes fast, and there is sweat on his face, his lip. He does not want to sleep; he does not want to be awake. He remembers standing naked in a line of naked men at the Base Dispensary while the Medical Officer, who looked bored, sleepy, checked them for hernias. Remembers how the tile room echoed with the Med Officer’s voice, the coughs—how he just pointed at Wilson’s raw-looking incision. Wilson told him in a tight, rattling voice about the exploratory appendectomy six weeks ago. Without nodding, without saying a word, the Med Officer moved on to the next man.
Now Wilson is fully awake. He sits up, propping his head against the iron upright. By his watch five-fifteen, and some of the men are already up. He tells himself to think clearly about Lt. Hughes, about the pulled incision in his belly. He and Victoria, who still goes to school at Duke, want to get married at Christmas, and he can’t swing that unless he has the second lieutenant’s money, the commission. Can’t ask for a medical postponement. Knots pull tight on top of knots. And without something from the Med Officer, Lt. Hughes won’t believe he needs a medical postponement—would think he was just a coward. Knots on top of knots.
The duty NCO flips on the lights, slams the GI can with his swagger stick. Wilson swings his feet to the deck. He pulls on his socks. He rams his feet through the stiffly starched dungaree trousers. He works his stocking feet into the heavy, shined boots.
The damp air along the Potomac has turned cold. In the squadbay there are now twelve empty bunks, just metal springs, bolted-together iron—that many men shipped off to Parris Island. At morning formation a shiver leaps up Wilson’s spine. Lt. Hughes has plugged the cold tip of the swagger stick into Wilson’s ear, and while roll is called, the lieutenant tells Wilson that keeping up on the hikes isn’t going to save him.”Nothing’s going to save you, wise-ass, get what I mean? You’re going to hang yourself with a hundred unsat leadership chits. How many sit-ups you doing?”
“Twenty-two,” Wilson says.
“A real leader of men.”
For two hours they had learned intricate new squad-drill formations. At noon chow Wilson asks Nix if he remembers the commands as well as the execution of the commands. Nix asks Lassiter, and then they both grin, say nope, can’t help you. The other men at the mess table start eating again.
Back on the drill field, Lt. Hughes tells Sgt. Ski to put Wilson in command of the platoon. Sgt, Ski scowls, then grins and calls Wilson front and center.
Wilson gets the platoon moving, then in a slightly ragged voice he chants the first command. Miraculously the squads wheel, boot soles of the inside file chuffing, chuffing, until the ranks fall again into the slow funereal rhythm of heels-heels-heels. Wilson chants the cadence. His second command is correctly said, but he had forgotten (this realized later) that the platoon is in a column of squads, isn’t on line. Half the men ignore the command, but the others, in a tangle of ways, try to execute—milling confusion, snickers, knots, until Wilson orders platoon halt, freezing his mistake.
His head is full of ringing, and Lt. Hughes’s flushed, huge, mouth-working face is six inches from Wilson’s. The words are moist and warm sensation on Wilson’s face. Lt. Hughes’s breath smells of sour milk. The winter sunlight is on the nape of Wilson’s neck and his starched cuffs have chafed his wrists and his bones and muscles are rigidly locked at attention and the incision in his belly, under his belt, tickles and cool shivers of sweat trickle down between his shoulder blades and Lt. Hughes’s round face is a blur. The ringing that had filled his head has now fallen away, and in its place is a calm—one like the time, as a child, when Wilson stood alone in the dark of a summer forest.
Lt. Hughes puts Wilson in command of platoon calisthenics, which he must lead from a raised wooden platform. Flat on his back, he cannot do the 31st sit-up, but even so chants the up-down, up-down cadence for the platoon.
“There he is men,” Lt. Hughes yells out of the sky, “your leader. Can’t do them himself.”
Wilson continues the cadence, but his voice, like Lt. Hughes’s, seems to be out there, to belong to another realm.
He marches the platoon back to the company area. The good jarring of his legs when his heels strike, and the damp cool air in his lungs, and his right hand, the feel of it against the gritty butt plate, against the slick oiled rifle stock, and the subsiding burn in his belly—these where he is, not in the cadence he calls or with the platoon that marches to his voice or with Lieutenant Hughes who watches him.
At mail call Wilson is given a letter from Victoria: “Dear Ben, I wrote a long paper on Plato’s Symposium— may have even understood it. Old Ferguson gave me an A, which was nice. In the dope shop last night I ran into Charley Grainger. He said he had been meaning to write you. He was accepted at UVa Med School, and his folks have given him a trip to Europe next summer. Lucky him. Mother called last night, and she won’t come right out and ask, but she has a pretty good idea what we are planning to give ourselves for Christmas. I’m not going to be able to tease her along much longer. Second thoughts about announcing our plans at Thanksgiving? Speak now or forever hold your peace! Well, this isn’t getting The Age of Jackson read. I love you, Victoria.”
Wilson refolds the letter, puts it back in its blue envelope. He sits on the deck, warm sunlight on his shoulders, and his shin-splints shoot good pain up his legs. The world in Victoria’s letter seems like a dream he’s having trouble remembering. He recalls the guy who sat on the steps of the East Campus Library talking to Victoria about the challenge of the Marine Corps—had neglected to notice the night that was there, all around them, and the cold marble under their backsides.
Now there are 18 empty bunks in the squadbay, and the sounds of voices, of boots dropped to the deck, have echoes in them. Wilson has been singled out to lead the longest hike, 19 miles, and the others say—not hearing the echoes running in their voices—that Lt. Hughes will surely finish off Wilson this time, force him into enough leadership mistakes to drop him out of the OC program. Lt. Hughes is right beside Wilson when the column steps off on a bright, chilly November afternoon.
When they swing onto the gravel road, Lt. Hughes says in a low, hissing voice, “I got your number, Wilson. You gut it on hikes and study your ass off for the tests just to beat me. Cause you hate my guts. I read you Wilson. You hear what I’m saying? You could care less about being an officer in the Marine Corps. All you want to do is make an ass out of me in front of my platoon and the skipper.”
He’s talking to me, talking to me. The almost-song of their equipment, of their boots in the gravel.
“But the game’s over, Wilson. You get my meaning? It’s over. I’m going to bust your ass so bad the skipper himself will put you on the train to Parris Island.”
He’s talking to me, talking to me.
The company leaves the gravel road and enters thick woods. At the top of the first steep hill—the burning hunger for breath like an old friend—Lt. Hughes orders Wilson to go back down and come up again: “Check the rear of your platoon. And damnit, double-time!” Going down Wilson loses his footing, falls, rolls over, and the wickering tree-tops roll through the sky and branches switch by him and the smell of dead leaves blooms in his head. Bringing up the rear, Sgt. Ski prods along the platoon’s Ail-American tackle. He cusses Wilson for not waiting at the top, then says, “Jesus Christ, lieutenant’s making you climb this son-of-a-bitch twice!” Already Sgt. Ski’s sent three men back to the med jeep. Wilson does not remember climbing the hill again or working his way up through the platoon. He falls in by Lt. Hughes and reports. Lt. Hughes does not answer: his neck is blotched with red and he keeps pumping his arms, throwing himself into long strides.
They are out of the woods now and on the power line trail. It is a straight, apparently endless series of hills which rise and fall up to high ridges where the next three miles (like the last) are visible in the flat cold sunlight. In the air is the taunting, persistent crackle of electrical current—the wires 50 feet overhead. The sound bothers the other men, makes the trail worse, but Wilson likes it, welcomes it today.
The platoon clomps over a plank bridge—under it a singing little creek—and begins the long series of hills up to the ridge they had seen ten minutes ago. Coming off the bridge, Lt. Hughes turns, says, “Your platoon closed up, Wilson? Looking good to you?”
They are strung out over several hundred yards. Each man struggles by himself. A voice says, no sir.
Lt, Hughes steps out of the column, halts, and so does Wilson. The platoon continues to straggle by Lt. Hughes’s words slurr like a drunk’s: “Goddamnit Wilson, goddamnit, close them up, close them up!” He is a few steps above Wilson, his feet apart, his hands on his hips, and into the cold sky are thrust his shoulders and his head in the iron helmet. Suddenly all over him sunlight prickles and sheens, and what Wilson is seeing freezes him—his own worst and most hidden nightmare out in the light of day.
Then Lt. Hughes comes down—words no longer in the world—and grunting, his spit flecking silver in the sunlight, he slams a two-handed fist into Wilson’s chest, knocks him backward, off balance, boots breaking through the soft under-cut clay of the creek bank, stumbling, falling through the bright air, rifle and all into the ice cold stream. Backside, the heavy pack—both sopped.
Wilson scrambles to his feet among the slick stones. Lt. Hughes again looks like a lieutenant. He is pointing down at Wilson, and he forces a joke with a man who is passing. The man laughs. Lt. Hughes then double-times up the hill, yelling back, “Goddamnit Wilson, move when I tell you to move!”
He gets himself back up on the trail, and a voice is saying, Close it up, Close it up. The men slog along, eyes blank, mouths slack.
“Goddamnit, close it up! Close it up!”
Wilson shoves a guy who is then passing, a cool smiling guy who had gone to Princeton—shoves him hard enough to knock them both off balance. The guy’s smile is gone. Wilson shoves him again—the good hard hit of his hands against the guy’s pack.”Move, goddamnit, close it up!” a voice is yelling.
The air has turned a copper color. Wilson slams the Princeton guy’s helmet, gets him running uphill at a trot. He grabs Lassiter by the shirt, hauls him at a half-run up a hill, Lassiter yelling, cursing, but this like his own, just out there—simply not important any more. Wilson grabs the handle of a guy’s entrenching tool, and with it shoves him like a child’s push toy until the man is caught up with the platoon. He slams helmets, again and again, until the men start to move faster, and he bulldozes them from behind and he kicks at them and he hits them with his fist on the shoulders and back until they are up with the rest. He strips a heavy BAR off a guy, then hits him hard from behind with the butt until the guy has caught up. He gives the barrel of the BAR to the All-American, then digging hard hauls the hulk of him up with the rest of the platoon. The hoarse ragged yelling is still there with the soft crackle of the high tension wires. Heads turning to look back at him, the platoon stays closed up, smack behind Lt. Hughes.
Wilson trots past them as they climb another hill—just pure going now, no mind in it at all—and falls in beside Lt. Hughes at the head of the platoon. Lt. Hughes’s face is red blotched, and he pumps out the longest stride he can manage but it is not too long for Wilson. No, no, a ragged voice yells in Wilson’s head, and he doesn’t grab Lt. Hughes’s arm, run with him, jam him into the straggling rear of the next platoon. Wilson matches Lt. Hughes’s stride.
“You’re an animal,” Lt. Hughes says.
“Do that again,” says Lassiter in the squadbay, “and we’re going to take you out behind the barracks. Lieutenant says we ought to—that you deserve it.” Lassiter’s eyes are narrowed; Nix, the Ail-American, and the guy from Princeton are with him.
The prospect of a fight, even a beating, seems good. Wilson grins. For a moment Lassiter and the others stare, then they break up, and Wilson goes back to spit-shining the toe of his boot. The footlocker is hard against his butt, and there is a good hot ache in his legs and back. The voices in the empty echoing squadbay mix with the clattering lid of a shoeshine can and the shriek of the squadbay door as it opens, closes, opens, closes, and the scrape of the bunks as men drop into them. And in the shiny toe of his boot his own dim face looks blankly back at him.
Sometime after this a blue envelope is put into his hand. The ink inside is black, neat. The words have a faint and almost familiar hum to them: “Dear Ben, you haven’t written and I hope you are ok. I guess I would have heard if you weren’t. Hey, how about us beating Carolina! Sonny Jurgensen is the star of the hour! I feel so dumb writing you about this sort of thing. I know you don’t have much time, but please drop me a postcard, ok? I’m reading some of Andrew Jackson’s correspondence and trying to write an analysis of his character. In the stacks of the library I forget whether it is day or night. Try to write. Charley, whom I saw Sunday, sends his best. Love, Victoria.”
He sits on the squadbay deck, the wall cool against his back, the sun warm on his raised knees. He can’t remember anything from the letter. It is gone when he stops reading it.
All the time now Lt. Hughes is watching him—from the other side of the drill formation, or across the PT field, cold now, the grass like frayed wire—rocking to the pain Wilson can do 50 sit-ups now—or from down the squadbay, in the steam of the mess lines, in the brown gloom of the classroom huts. When Wilson glances up, Lt. Hughes is there—his look maybe angry, maybe wounded—but he disappears the moment Wilson looks away, that soon gone, just like Lassiter and Nix and the Ail-American and the guy from Princeton, who they are not mattering in the least, all—like him, Wilson— just some muscle and bone, shadows on the drill field.
In a cold twilight Wilson digs his foxhole into a hillside—he the odd-man-out when they paired for holes. The clay has a rich smell—he wants to eat it, to put handfuls into his mouth—and when he cuts out a root the bursting sad odor reminds him of a soprano’s highest natural note. How odd thinking that. Along the hillside men dig at their holes, and when an entrenching tool strikes stone, the note remains a moment in the cold twilight. The sun is down: men he can no longer recognize fall into the rising dark. Across the valley officers and NCOs—on this tactical exercise, the enemy, the aggressors—light huge cheerful bonfires and on a P. A. play love-sick music, say, “Hey Marine, we got nice hot chow and dancing girls. Come on over. Its okay.”
Wilson has arranged his gear, and now crawls into his hole. The air is cold, and so is the earth. He sits in the bottom of the hole, knees drawn up to his chest, head down. The cold seeps into the muscles of his back, comes into his jaws, his eyes.
He hears the distant throb of an engine. His belly lifts, holds, as he hears the engine become louder. It is a tank, and it is coming toward him, and suddenly he feels very calm. Still louder. He gets up enough to look over the parapet of his hole—sees the cyclops searchlight coming down the dirt road into the valley in front of their position. Nearby somebody says, “Jesus Christ!” At the foot of their hill the tank turns, treads chew dirt, clatter with stones, and it starts up the hill toward them. Coming over rough terrain—searchlight beam stabbing wildly in the dark. Though still oddly calm, the roaring of the engine almost fills his mind, and in its gulps, Wilson hears the assaulting cheers of the enemy infantry veed out behind the tank. The ground trembles; the night is full of roaring, slamming noise.”This is real!” a guy yells, and Wilson sees him scramble out of his hole. In Wilson’s mind the words LT. PATRICK HUGHES; in the crazy casts of the searchlight Wilson sees more men bug out, run from the tank. The calm remains; he is thankful for what is happening. The huge noise now a liquid he floats in—almost drowns in. Under him the earth shakes, and for a moment Wilson remembers walking alone on the beach at Ocean City, seeing for the first time a billion cold stars floating on the backs of the inky waves.
All breaks, and out of him pours noise, out of his mouth, nose, ears, and out of the night it pours, up out of the earth.
Then Wilson has him on the ground, between his knees, and he’s jarred by the man’s lack of fight, his victim’s submission, his close-up smell of talc, sweat, fire smoke. Wilson sees the helmet knocked askew the round dream face, dark in the hollows, in the mouth. Wilson’s bayonet, its tip, is at the throat of Lt. Hughes,
Then Wilson recalls being in his hole, calmly lifting his poncho off over his head, and springing out of the hole, the undergrowth switching at his legs, the run into the noise where Lt. Hughes was exactly where Wilson had thought he would be, in the enemy infantry veed behind the tank, Lt. Hughes cheering, firing his weapon, having a good time. Too easily grabbed, spun around, dropped, and then Wilson was on him with the bayonet already out and ready to rock gently in a quick smooth rhythm to spill Lt. Hughes’s blood into the night and the noise where he belonged, where they had both always been. Seemed all a dream—like it had already happened.
“No contact,” Lt. Hughes croaks. “No physical contact.”
Wilson swings off him, Lt. Hughes runs down the hill, toward the fires on the other side of the valley, and all the yelling, talking and confusion begins.
Lt. Hughes stops coming into the squadbay; it is Sgt. Ski who gives Wilson the message to see the skipper. Capt. Burr tells Wilson that Lt. Hughes has recommended immediate dismissal from the OC program and a court martial for assault on a superior officer. He says the court martial won’t stick, but in this case he will have to forward the dismissal recommendation to the regimental CO. In Wilson’s file there are enough uns at leadership reports to make a thick sandwich.
Col. Morris speaks in a gentle Mississippi accent, and he wears the stars and night blue of the Congressional Medal of Honor. He asks Wilson to tell him what happened. He asks Wilson to tell him why he did it, and Wilson tells him he doesn’t really know that. Col. Morris looks at him, then nods, and the Sgt. Major tells Wilson to return to his squadbay, Within an hour the last dismissal list is posted. Three more men will pack seabags, roll mattresses, take the train to Parris Island. At the bottom is a fourth name, WILSON. Beside it: retained for commissioning.These words seem only a remote concern of his. Wilson feels nothing.
The platoon buzzes with the news. The grinning guy from Princeton comes up, tells Wilson he’s a hero now—he’s the first guy out of 400 guys to be retained after seeing the regimental CO. Guys from other platoons come in to ask him if it is true, to ask if he really was going to kill Lt. Hughes, He shrugs them off. He lies down on his bunk, puts his arm across his eyes, A few feet away Nix, Lassiter, and the All-American talk about what has happened. The Princeton guy comes up. He tells them that Wilson was retained because he tried to kill the lieutenant. What other reason could there be? What’s a Marine supposed to do? What just as crazy thing had Col. Morris done to get his Congressional Medal of Honor? As Wilson listens, the words drop away, the voices become trail sounds, the rattle of equipment, the slap of boots against hard-packed earth. Wilson wants to sleep, to go away from all this, but a tight shaking fist is in his chest, and he can’t.
He is commissioned in the Quantico movie theater. Outside in the bright sunlight he shakes, with the others, Lt. Hughes’s limp hand. The lieutenant makes a gruff joke about Wilson being the bottom man in the platoon. Chilly wind beats at their uniforms, their officer’s greens, and both hold their barracks hats to keep them from blowing off.
That afternoon Wilson takes the bus to see Victoria. He arrives at dusk, and walks through the gothic quadrangles— who he was here still a dream. The grey stones laid to make these walls are now streaked wet with autumn rain—this sight a beautiful aching song he does not mention to Victoria. He listens to himself talk and talk and talk while he and Victoria stroll the quadrangles and eat eggs at the Toddle House and sit in the cozy side parlor of the dorm. Keep talking and the reason and sense and understanding will return, will return. He sees the vault of bone that is Victoria’s skull. His voice says, “I love you,” and he wants to gnaw his fingers, crack the bones with his teeth.
Three days after Christmas he is in Easton, Maryland, where Victoria’s family has been since before the Revolutionary War. Victoria is busy with wedding showers given by her mother’s friends, and Mr. Case, her father, drinks brandy with Wilson in the library of their 1763 house. Mr. Case was a Marine in the Big War, and he had been at Tarawa. He sloshes the amber brandy in his glass, muses about guys he hasn’t seen since 1946, says the Marine Corps is a damn fine fighting outfit—he’s proud as hell his son-in-law is a Marine, too.
Wilson’s father and mother arrive from Baltimore the day before the wedding, along with Wilson’s friends from college, from home. There is a bachelor dinner that night. Everybody gets a little drunk, and they talk about brushes with the cops, old girl friends, illegal night swimming in a spring-fed rock quarry half a mile deep and dark as night. Wilson and Charley Grainger, his ex-roommate at Duke, remain after the others have staggered off to bed. The tables are littered with empty champagne bottles, half-empty glasses, ash trays full of cigar butts. There is an awkward silence between them. Wilson rims his glass with his fingertip. The ventilation blowers are running in the hotel’s private dining room.
Then Charley is slurring on about the mock fights they used to have at school late at night, after dates, playfully wrestling in the room, in the dorm hall, in the bathroom where in the confusion of echoes each would get the other under a cold shower while the crowd they had gathered cheered them on. Charley’s eyes are shining, and Wilson knows why Charley has stayed later than the others and what is going to happen.
“Let’s just see what they taught you in the Mar-een-core,” Charley says as he shoves back his chair and stands up. He’s a little shaky on his feet but goes into a fighter’s crouch, fists up. He begins to bob around, to throw flurries of punches into the air—at the same time pretending and not pretending.
Wilson hopes he has a grin on his face. He has stood up. He backs away from Charley, holds up his palms to him.”Hey, take it easy. Will you take it easy?”
“Let’s go, big man. Come on.” Charley dances in closer, punches faster, and his grin has turned mean and Wilson is aware of the clutter left in the empty dining room, of the whirring of the ventilation blowers.
Then a roaring and slamming noise is in Wilson’s head, almost filling it up, and he realizes Charley has just hit him, half-accident, half-meaning-to, and the aching in his jaw is like the hand of an old friend. Stumbling, catching his balance. Charley coming at him now, eyes shining, fists up. No more play. Wants it real, to beat the Marine, and the slamming and roaring are there and the tight fist shaking in Wilson’s chest.
“Hey Charley,” Wilson’s voice says, sounding very distant, “Hey Charlie, I’m nothing.” With the words tears immediately sting Wilson’s eyes.
Charley comes on another half-step, then stops.
“No need to fool with me, Charley—I’m nothing,” Wilson says, tears blurring his eyes, hearing his voice fall into the whirring of the ventilation blowers, the roaring in his head. He hopes he is grinning.
Then Charley starts to laugh, hard chugging laughter, and he drops his fighter’s crouch and chucks Wilson on the shoulder, shoves him a little. Wilson lets himself sag back against the wall, shoulders bouncing off it. Charley, pumping with his mean laughter, repeats nothing, nothing, and again shoves Wilson against the wall. Wilson wants to be grinning; tears blur Charley. Charley is holding his belly—laughing that hard, filling the room with it.
When Charley has recovered, he puts a friendly arm around Wilson’s shoulders, guides them out of the dining room, while trying to remember the missing lyrics of a dirty song they had only half-recalled earlier in the evening.
To the wedding and reception Wilson wears his dress blue uniform, the bright gold bars on his shoulders. The receiving line is by the fireplace in the library, and it is flanked by two gorgeous banks of poinsettias—as red as the stripe along his trouser leg. Victoria is lively, beautiful, and when she looks at him his eyes fill with tears he tries to hide in jokes and laughter, Wilson hears the happy sound of voices—his own, Victoria’s, their folks’, the guests’—of a good combo with a thrumming base laying in the rhythm, of glasses, of champagne being popped, poured, of the heavy knocker on the front door, the door opening, closing, of the caterers clattering in the kitchen when the dining room door flops open, then closes, and at their backs, inside it all for Wilson, is the persistent crackling of the fire.