THE RECRUIT — A STORY
PART ONE — THE MONGOOSE
He weighed about 130 pounds, scrawny and not too tall. He was probably nineteen. He had buck teeth, so pronounced that he could not eat hamburgers — the meat patty slid out in the gap between his front teeth, embarrassing him. Every week, he finished the obstacle course bountiful minutes before the next man. Then he stood, watching the rest. The Drill Sargents often ”adopted” a recruit, one they admired for his unusual height, or athletic muscles, or “can-do” leadership qualities — and they joked with him apart from the other recruits, and made him a squad leader, or whatever they thought suited him. But the short, scrawny recruit, though he excelled in every contest except those of absolute strength, was simply not noticed.
One Sargent drilled a bullet-point into his finger to teach him slowness. And from that point he squeezed the trigger so calmly that he became the best marksman in his company. No one noticed that either. One afternoon, as the company of trainees lined up in the narrow “street” between the steel quonset huts for a smoke break, another recruits jumped on him from behind.
The jumped-on recruit had worked in a small petting zoo a few years before on summer vacation. A mongoose had eaten through a plywood wall, through the 1/4 “ steel mesh, and through the next plywood wall, and eaten the brains of a mother possum and her ten children. The recruit found him sleeping, curled, in his own cage. He was mildly astounded. He pitied the possums, but he also felt for the mongoose. It was doing what it was born to do, and it was astoundingly effective at it.
He had to transport the mongoose to another cage. Gingerly, with heavy leather gloves, he tried to pick the mongoose up, and was surprised when it calmly let him. It was a long grey ground-hugging creature with a bushy tail about 2 feet long. He lifted it up and placed it on the concrete floor of the multi-terrarium building, holding its ample tail so it wouldn’t flee. He held the tail and walked outside with it. The mongoose was unflappably calm and pliable, perfectly content to walk with the boy. A perfect, diplomatic gentleman. The boy admired that.
He bent under the weight of the other recruit, who kept saying something about his bad marching, and that he’d better learn to march in cadence or he’d be sorry, while he tried to tie him up in a wrestling hold. He tried several holds while communicating all this. The other recruits watched. His holds, probably learned in a high school wrestling club, surrounded the recruit rather than pinning him, for he met no resistance, yet somehow could not seize and immobilize him. Finally the wrestler stood and the recruit stood. The recruit waited. The wrestler threw his arm into the air and walked away.
He was called into the D.I.’s tin quonset hut.
“Think you’re a tough guy? You want to fight, tough guy?” The D.I. slammed the recruit up against the metal lockers, and proceeded to punch him repeatedly in the stomach.
But they were only taps that would hardly hurt a guinea pig.
“Why do you do that?” the recruit asked, puzzled. “Why aren’t you punching me hard?” Something in this boy’s eyes, or something around him, had held the D.I.’s hand back.
“What? You say SIR when you speak! You worm! You shit-smelling asshole.” The D.I. called him many names, and finally said, “Get the fuck out of my sight!”
He grabbed the recruit’s shoulders and pushed him out the door and into the “street.”
“You want a real fight?” he said loudly. He shoved the recruit in the back, sending him a few steps forward. The other recruits, about forty of them, still ranged along both sides of the road for their smoke break, watched intently.
The recruit turned to face the D.I., but said nothing. The D.I. pushed him in the chest, then walked “at” him, pushing him again
They were about the same height, but the D.I. was stockier, about 30 pounds heavier, and held his chest high, aggressively. The recruit suddenly fell to his knees, threw his arms around the Drill Instructor’s calves, and pushed. The D.I. fell on his back. The recruit bounced up and kicked the Drill Instructor’s thigh once, with all his strength, with his combat boot. He stepped back and watched the D.I. stand up. He favoured his left leg.
He charged, lunging. The boy turned and ran. The D.I. ran after in determined silence, vengeance in his eyes but a noticeable wobble in his legs. It only took a moment, perhaps in the third or fourth stride — the boy dropped to his knees again with the Sargent swiftly on top of him, but the boy had dropped into a curved ball, like an armadillo, and the D.I. went flying, tumbling over the armadillo, onto his face this time. The boy jumped up and immediately began kicking the D.I.’s left thigh hard and repeatedly. The D.I. jerked up on his arms, rolled over and tried to grab the recruits’ legs. The recruit stepped back and waited. Another D.I., older, a gunny sarge, leaned against a post, arms crossed, watching.
The D.I. formed a tripod with his right foot and two hands and struggled to his feet. He looked furiously at the recruit, his face red and wet, his breathing aggressive, as if he was going to charge. Then, he threw his left arm into the air and stormed off, dragging his left leg.
The D.I. who had watched approached the recruit and said gently, “Son, you’d better go stand by your rack for now.” The recruit went into the quonset hut and stood by his bunk.
A minute later the hut filled with recruits. No one spoke to him. They gaped at him. Soon, two big MPs entered and stood at his bunk.
“Private Lindon? Pack your gear.”
It took 30 seconds. He looked up for the first time. The other recruits were staring at him in a strange way. He stared back, not comprehending. The high-school wrestler sat on his bunk, chin in hand, frowning. The recruit left, an MP on either side. As they reached the door, he turned. “I am not very developed,” he said loudly, apologizing.
“You’re fucking okay with us,” someone yelled. “Yeah!” “Take care, man!” The recruit was gone. “Gold Star, man,” someone yelled. “You can fuckin’ be with me in ‘Nam!” another shouted.
In the brig, he felt ashamed and alert. A new, dangerous place. But he knew how to be unnoticed.
A day later, MPs escorted him to a jeep, then to a room quite far from the drill field, in a building and an area he’d never seen — gardens, and greenery fell over the adobe balustrades. Rm. 205.
“Shut the door, Sargent, and wait outside,” The Colonel said. “You can sit,” he said to the recruit, gesturing.
“Sir, yes, Sir.” But he didn’t sit.
“Your drill instructor’s still laid up.”
The recruit said nothing.
“If he complains, you could be in the brig for a year or two.”
The recruit said nothing.
“How’d you learn to fight like that?”
“Sir, nowhere, Sir.”
“Have you ever had hand-to-hand training? Martial arts?”
“Sir, no sir.”
“You can stop calling me Sir for now.”
He read something from the desk.
“If I attacked you right now, would you fight me?”
“Because I’m an officer?”
The recruit said nothing.
“Private Lindon, you have to answer my questions. Would you not attack me because I’m an officer? Why would you abstain from fighting me, but will attack a Drill Sargent?”
“I didn’t attack the Drill Instructor, Sir. I have forty witnesses.”
The Colonel sighed loudly. “Private, why did you enlist in the Corps?”
The recruit hesitated.
“I was curious.”
The recruit’s eyes lowered, as if he was searching.
“And if, say, you killed or harmed me, how would you plan on getting away?”
“I… don’t really ever plan, Sir.”
The Colonel stared fiercely, intently at him.
“Plan! You make a plan, then you follow it. Can you understand that?”
“I understand, Sir. I just… don’t…”
“And no martial training?”
“I read a book on Judo once,” he said, as an offering.
The officer sat.
The recruit seemed neither hostile nor charmed nor friendly. Blank, but with something in the blankness: curiosity.
“I’ve seen your tests. You have a high I.Q. Most intelligent people are talkative; but you are not. Why? Keeping it all to yourself?”
“Usually I don’t understand something, Sir, so I just watch.”
He wanted to say, I did always try to march. I don’t know why they say I’m out of step. But he said nothing.
“It was strange that he gave up,” the recruit said. “I mean, in front of all the squads.”
“Are you saying your D.I. acted in a cowardly manner?”
“Oh, no, Sir. I think it has something to do with me.”
After a moment he said, “I think I’m strange.”
The Colonel looked out the window. After a minute he turned to the recruit and said, “We’ll find you another place. You’ll still be a Marine, but you’ll be doing something different. What do you think about that, Private?… Well?”
“I’m not sure what you mean, Sir.”
“I’m suggesting sending you to a school, intelligence work. Your test scores are high. Yet you are a strange duck… I’m giving you a way out here. Or, you could just return to the brig for a few years.”
The Colonel ended the interview by calling the Sargent to take the private back to the brig.
At sunrise, at reveille, they found him dressed in his fatigues, sitting on his bunk, weeping. An hour later the Colonel appeared….
“Do you have any reservations about serving your country in the way I mentioned? On a different battlefield?”
The recruit looked out the window. “Okay,” he said.
The Colonel had asked an MP to enter the cell immediately after he left, to push the recruit around, promising him a week’s leave and no repercussions. He left the recruit’s sight, waited until the MP entered, then watched, hidden, from the doorway, ready to call a halt if it looked damaging. As the MP entered, the recruit rose to his feet, to stand at “slack attention.” The MP suddenly pushed him in the chest, hard, without warning, so the recruit flew backwards about four steps, but he retained his balance.
The big man rushed to seize him, but the recruit, fast as an arrow, poked the MP’s left eye, and swiftly after, his right eye, with rigid fingers. The MP grabbed his face, let out a cry and stopped, blinded. The recruit grabbed his bunk — a metal frame with a thin mattress on it — lifted one end in the air, and brought one of the steel crossbars down as hard as he could on the middle of the MP’s back. The MP let out a cry of pain and rage, arching his back.
“Well, why are you attacking me then?” the recruit said, waiting nervously, pleading.
The MP stood to his full height, his eyes weeping, face red, pulled his truncheon out, and said, “Get against that wall.”
The recruit backed up against the cement block wall.
“Turn around.” The private did. The MP was about to handcuff him when two other MPs entered, escorted the sore-eyed one out, and locked the cell, without a word. The Colonel had moments before stepped to the guardhouse and said, “You’ve got an MP down, Cell 5. DON’T touch or talk to the prisoner. But lock his cell.”
“Yessir.” Two MPs rushed out, right hands on the truncheons in their wide belts.
The next day, the recruit was transferred. The receptors didn’t want him; he hadn’t even finished basic training, and hadn’t had infantry training at Pendleton. But after some discussions between the Colonel and the Lieutenant General commanding special ops training, the recruit entered their world. With instructions: Do not make him march.
His instructors soon remarked on his ability to disappear and reappear — almost like a cat. His suspicion of his own strangeness recurred: he had glimpses of a difference. The main difference was, he didn’t believe. He didn’t believe like the other trainees.
It was a long, snaking road home, to the port where he had lived. The rain-soaked faces were white as mushrooms. His little sister, 11, ran to hug him around the waist. His mother looked at him.
PART TWO — THE NURSING
He lies in the room in the bright sunless twilight. The satin quilt won’t absorb the sweat on his hands. He hears her feet, pad, pad. He rises on one elbow. He says, “How are you?”
“Why do you say that?” she says, in a soft, lilting, careless tone.
He notices, flat on his back now, that his hand trembles as he draws it through his hair.
“I said, how are you?” he says.
“I’m here every day,” she says. “I’m here every day and you don’t know how I am?”
He can say, rising on one elbow, Oh, come on. I drove by the hospital today. I saw you. But he doesn’t, he merely rises, to watch her body. Her uniform drops to the floor, she steps from the coils. With a light, limp gesture, she drops her brassiere on the bed, on his ankles. He watches her breasts swing.
He hears the shower. He imagines her body, smooth, the beads rolling off it. The swaying puppies between her elbows as she rubs her face. Once she said, Robert, Robert, Robert, and he answered, awkwardly, Maureen. He sucks on this, like a stone picked up in the field. He remembers his last laugh, oily with self-fright.
Now she sits at the vanity, nude on her towel, rubbing something on her face and throat. He rises, the bed like a seismograph. He approaches the warm, wet slab of her back. To make up. With a sober movement, she avoids him. He hasn’t. Unable. He stares at the mirror that a moment ago reflected her.
She’s dressing. She’s going out. Potato chips, mixers mixers. He stares. She doesn’t like him staring. Embarrassed, he keeps silent, and keeps staring. She goes. He rolls over on the bed. He takes her discarded nurse’s uniform from the floor to feel the white, cool fabric. When she moves, it is as though a statue just stirred, sudden and eternal. He cannot make the statue move. He tries on her dress. The fading twilight. He’s ghostly in the mirror, gray. Do I affect you at all? What do you mean, affect? I don’t know what you mean by affect. He takes it off, unexcited.
The ceiling light blossoms. It is like, when he killed someone, it would be that silent, lighting but not illuminating, blossom in his mind; afterwards. Sometimes a second later, sometimes not for a minute, or the next day: peace, like a slow ballet. But then he stops. He cannot make the statue move. When he approaches her from behind, lays an asking hand on her shoulder, only remains, just remains. It all remains.
Sometimes he is frozen. In wait, he waits, while his stomach hurts. Used to be his stomach hurt then, too. But then the peace, being driven away, the car dreaming through the obedient streets. Sometime she moves, she teases, they wrestle on the floor, he tries to laugh, “Ahhh….heh, heh,” he pleads, stiff, an oily laugh. Stiff. Used to be his feet knew which way to move, his eyes, without his help, knew what to see.
She works, she’s twenty-seven. He’s twenty-four. He used to go everywhere without luxury. He used to have justification. But it fell apart; or rather, he left justification, because it meant nothing. Maybe the government wanted him found. But now he lies on the bed. The streets bother him. He might meet Max, or Turd, or Lynn. Or maybe he’s made enemies. He doesn’t know. Enemies he doesn’t know. Maybe it’s Maureen who makes him lie on the bed. He doesn’t know if he changed his mind, or it was changed.
She didn’t respect the way he made money, she told him not to continue. I don’t like those people. Who? Them. After the first quiet night in her arms. When she discovered. He knows she doesn’t know exactly. Was that why he stopped? How did he arrive in this house? He wonders if the people he killed respected him. He wonders if they saw his movements, just a moment before, and thought, there’s an unusual young man. Maureen had a doctor. A lawyer. A newspaper man. Her picture in the paper. She’s never had a baby. The satin bed quilt won’t absorb the sweat in his hands.
He walks into the living room, perhaps to read. He doesn’t understand. Maureen reads, so he reads. Her books. Maureen lies in a thin film over the pages; their cryptic messages he takes for her soul. He searches and searches, but without depth, like a man who stares into the ocean and only sees the sky reflected. And today, he drove by the hospital where she works. Why, like a flower suddenly frozen, was she laughing in that doctors face? So he has stopped moving, can’t talk. Is that it? Has he found a nothing, where he should have been different?
They rent the house.
He hears her arrive, the staccato of her heels tacking down, what. Tacks down his apprehension. He rises, unaware that he has. He hovers. She enters the room, stops, stares at him, arms clasped around a bag. She speaks. He extracts a wet finger, rubbing guiltily on his pants. Nothing, he says. He waits for another clue, but she turns, walking towards the kitchen. No No Nnph, says the swinging door. His stomach hurts. He re-enters the bedroom, to sleep. The guests will arrive soon. He imagines her contempt for him, inviting all these strangers. He enters the kitchen. Help me, his eyes say. She does not notice, although she knows. She slices onions. Then he’s ashamed.
He re-enters the bedroom. He dozes, but a violent roar, internal, wakes him. The end of a laugh. Was she laughing? He goes to take a shower, surreptitiously to investigate. The telephone. Her voice stops. He passes, his stomach pushing against his chest. He showers, dries, sweats. Voices, on the other side of the door. He stops, one leg in his pants, to listen. He cannot understand them. The stereo booms against the door. The Rolling Stones.
He fingers his glass, turning it slowly on his knee. He is sitting alone, politely watching a voluble group. A woman’s hand held in the air, long rigid fingers; high, protesting voice. Laughter. They are like the books, pretty things, complicated things. His understanding glances off their sheen. Like the book, they tell stories. But he cannot understand the story, although he understands the stories. He cannot understand what he should say.
He knows stories too, but they are all – they are all — his mind shrugs, fluid. His hand, as though with memory, makes a movement. He thinks, it must be the drink, he hasn’t made that movement for so long, he hasn’t forgotten, or maybe there was no need to, and now, with the drink. He walks to the kitchen. He steps back. Maureen stares at him. He swallows, stares. Confused, this thin, supple mood.
He laughs. He thinks of going around the party: have you seen it? About 2 pounds? For my hand, I need it for my hand.
“So you’re Maureen’s boyfriend! You’re so quiet! Why don’t you mix? Come on, mix.” A woman, gaudy and perfect as a bird. She takes his arm and propels him to a group. But he stands, shy, and leaves when he can. The sweat in his hands won’t absorb into his pants. His pants catch at his knees. His belt catches awful at his fingers. He stands around, waiting for instructions. Instructions won’t catch at his pants. Lips won’t twist glass into rubber. – She is there, Maureen’s there, half sitting, half on her back on the couch. He watches her through the dancers and the smoke, the dim red light. He thinks, he will drift, casually. Her thighs shine; he imagines, remembers, her moist vagina. He will exchange a deliberate, lazy, confident word. He circles, his eyes carefully averted. Or, they glance off her. But it’s not her. In the dark, the shifting smoke, he sees a blonde, a doppelganger, suddenly, surprisingly, not her. He sees two or three guests observing him. He walks away quickly, furtively, weightless legs.
He enters the bedroom, to consume time. Maureen is sitting on the bed like a wax flower, legs crossed, arms heavy as gold. A burly man in a grey suit, maybe a doctor, sits beside her, elbows on knees. The doctor raises his head, crinkles his brow. His eyes squint through thick glasses. This is a private conversation, the doctor says. Because he doesn’t know who I am, he thinks. But he doesn’t speak, he waits helplessly. But she doesn’t speak. Then he leaves the room, privacy like hypnotism swarming over, overwhelming him.
He decides to walk to the front door. He decides to take a shower. He decides to pick up a woman. He decides everyone is watching him. He has only to say, I’ve —that’s how it was with Maureen. He said, I’ve — and then the blank, the blank that intrigued her. But she’s not intrigued any more. Her swaying doves. That he cupped in his hand. Or did she merely never say no, months ago? For an instant he understands and he doesn’t understand. How he is trapped in this suppleness. How he waits. How he cannot pick up a woman, or this party will never end, or he could walk to the front door and back again, or anything, yes, no, the 2 pounds, the café, crack! : for an instant glory, rebellion, rise in him. He sips very deliberately, but to no avail: his glass is empty again.
He decides he sees her disappearing through a doorway. No, No, Nnph. Yes. So he’s alone with her, in the kitchen. Counter studded with bottles, rye, vodka. She is flushed and excited, but not by him. Like a schoolgirl on the bus, and he feels an envy for the youth and vitality under her mildly older flesh. His eyes like mouths, sucking. He’s distracted, her attention on the swinging door where muffled comes the sound of a sudden but eternal activity. Thieves plunder the house. He knows their movements, they are quick, like dancers. Supple. He watches her eyes. How was your drive today? She says, helping him, but without conviction, without caring. And he: Fine. How was the hospital? And she: hateful again. I stole some Valiums again. And he: I’m sorry.
She looks at him, steadily. She lies in bed at night, clicking her nails. And suddenly animated, fluttering around him because he blocked her way. Saying, Why don’t you do something? Why don’t you do anything? Christ! Then she says in a new voice, hermetically sealed from the old one, I need more cigarettes, and then she starts out the swinging door, and he says, Tell him I’m your lover. Who? she says. Who is that doctor? he says. What doctor? Is he a doctor? He stumbles, apologetic. Who? she says. I’m not a doctor, he says. I have, he says, he turns, not to see her, determined; that is, unable. I’m sorry, he remembers.
It’s the hospital, she says later, apologetic. It makes me smoke. He has come to stand beside her like a married man, strollers in the park. The burly doctor pinches her in his passing, lurching. Her neck twists to the doctor’s flirting retreat, laughing, her eyes big as a cow, and charming, blinking. Robert turns also, pretend he hasn’t seen; he disappears among the dancers. Supple into the kitchen. He stares out the kitchen window.
He thinks of Lynn, who gave him his first street job. Who seemed bored by him after that. So he lived alone for a while, and then he lived with a girl who drank and stared out the window, and her teeth went grey and mossy, and then he lived alone again in a hotel room, rooms, rooms, and did his jobs, cities and flights and cities and at first it was okay in the dreaming cars, but then it was worse, and Max and Turd’s faces were strange, strangely unfamiliar, as though something else lived in them, maybe the devil, and he started staying alone, and he started reading his horoscope in the newspaper, and he was scared of the street, he didn’t know exactly why, like being scared of a shrill telephone. He thinks he hears Maureen behind him, or Lynn, but his mind is halfway out the window, he turns slowly, but anyway she is gone. He goes slowly through the swinging door. He hears her laughing, okay, okay.
She is laughing, bent double, kneeling on the carpet. The doctor lunges in again, pinches her, tickles her, and jumps back spryly, deep, soft chuckles. Her friends stand around, hooting and clapping. He wonders what a doctor is, or a lawyer. He watches, fascinated by their bravery and ease, these perfect, egotistical beings. His woman, that man. Is their abandon a result of some subterranean cleverness? He turns so Maureen, whose breast has popped from her velvet dress, will not see him helpless. He thinks, she might scratch it on the carpet. Her head jerks back as she sits up. Her breast floats like a drunken dove. He sees her tuck it away, to modest laughter and oh’s.
He starts walking. He has a desire to walk to the front door. He has a desire to walk quickly to the kitchen. He stops, poised, as though to leap or run, a statue. The party surrounds him, sudden and eternal. His head on his neck. With its voices, clinking, music. He starts walking. Pardon me. Excuse me. He searches the party vigorously, for invisibility.
They’re banging on the door. He rises from the toilet seat, stops. The door’s locked, he remembers swiftly. They’re jiggling the knob. He sits again. The light is too bright; it cannot withstand their knocking. Hey, whatsa hold up? He turns to speak, but she is not perched on the bathtub’s edge. He sees a ghost in the mirror. Behind the house there’s a field. He lowers himself onto the gravel, hands first, his toes catch on the small window’s ledge.
Because his eyes don’t care, he closes them as he walks. Because after a while he doesn’t know where he is, he flops to his knees. He curls his hands into his chest as he lies, bent, on his side. Sticks, rocks, sharp leaf stems dig into him. He lies awake, lucidly, sharply awake, and begins to shiver. He sleeps. Then wakes, and cannot sleep. Holding himself, shivering in the unmoved night, searching, hope a stranger, he remembers, just a fluke, what he had shouted out when leaving the barracks with the MPs: “I’m not fully developed yet.” It’s all he has, so he keeps repeating, through the hours, “I’m not fully developed yet.” Quietly lying rigid through the night.
Shivering, he watches the blue red dawn. His feet itch. He turns to lie so he can see the house. It rises in the early sun, whiter. Gliding cars, guns, cash registers. All clanging through his mind. He rises, walks, feeling his face jar with each step. She stands in the back doorway, in her pink quilted housecoat. One hand, white arm outstretched, cups the edge of the door behind her. He can hardly see the hand, though; the hot white wall stings his eyes.
“How are you?” he says.
“I said how are you,” he insists. He remains poised, unable to enter, to push forward. She retreats with a sleepy, thoughtful scowl. She’s left the door open. He sits in the kitchen, alone, waiting. He imagines he can hear whispering, but how can he hear whispering all the way from the bedroom? Maybe it’s the front hall. He decides merely to wait. He sees he must go a long way.
He sees he must wait forever. He’s glad there is no gun in the basement. He’s glad he’s forgotten all those telephone numbers. He thinks how he must go a long way, how he will make no progress, how he will wait anyway, and how humiliating it is, and how he will wait anyway, sucking on the waiting like a stone.