The Soldier

The upstairs lounge bar was practically empty and very quiet when I arrived and there was no sign of my friends. I stood at the entrance uncertain as to whether I should go in or not when the man sitting by himself at the bar called me over. I hadn’t noticed him when I had glanced around the lounge area but now I recognised him as the American who lived on the opposite side of the square to us. My parents knew his vaguely.

‘Well, young Sullivan, I haven’t seen you in a helluva long time What’ll you have – a pint?’

He was lean and rangy and very tall and sitting beside him I felt like a child. He bought me a pint and ‘the same again’, as he called it for himself, and I offered him a cigarette.

‘Anyway, how are your mum and dad and the rest of the family?’ He asked, blowing a stream of smoke rings at his drink.

‘Fine, fine thanks’ I said, wiping the creamy head of the Guinness off my lips with the back of my hand. ‘Actually, my brother got engaged last week and he’s thinking of getting married at the end of the summer.’

‘Goddamn fool, if he’s any sense, he’ll stay single. Marriage is the worst thing he could do.’

A bit taken aback by the conviction and force in his voice, I said nothing for a while. ‘You may be right but they say it’s hard to beat the married life – marital comfort and security, you know.’

‘Don’t give me that crap, kiddo’, he snapped. ‘Look what your marital comfort and security did for me, for chrissakes – I ended up in a divorce court. You tell your brother from me to stay single and to be grateful.’

Again I didn’t know what to say – I hadn’t known he had been divorced. Perhaps he was just an unlucky guy. Both of us smoked and sipped our drinks in silence until I felt bound to say something.

How’s your younger brother Paul? I haven’t seen him around for a while. Someone mentioned that he had returned to the States.’

‘I tell you, that kid is making out alright for himself – got into the Steel Corporation in Canada and he’s in the big time now. He’s doing fine.’

‘Canada? I would have thought he’d have got a job in America. I mean, you’ve still got lots of friends and relatives there, haven’t you? Of course, I suppose he’s a bit wary of the draft. That war – the way it is dragging on – is terrible. It is the one thing that would put me off from going to the States. It’s such a shameful war.’ 

He turned on me viciously. 

‘Don’t be so bloody goddamn superior, kiddo. That’s a moral war we are fighting and every American citizen has an obligation to fight in it.’ His voice had risen and he was squeezing my arm tightly, his eyes not seeing me, remembering …

‘I was there twice, right in the thick of it, and I know. It was the best thing possible for me, at the time.The marines took me in as some little jerky crumb that didn’t know his ass from his elbow and when it spat me out later, I was a man, but it had turned me into some kinda  animal in the meantime. I was discharged – I’d been wounded and sharpnel took half my head away – you can still see the scars.’ He leaned forward and brushed back his hair so I could see the pale white lines criss-crossing his temple and vanishing into his hair. I muttered something stupid like he was lucky he didn’t get his complete head blown away, which he ignored.

‘Anyway, when I came out,’ he said slowly, as if by speaking that way, he could re-live those days that sometimes frightened him and sometimes made him smile again. ‘I just realised I didn’t love my wife any more. I had no feelings for her one way or the other. I just didn’t give a shit about anything then, I suppose. I was on this stuff the docs gave me for my head and I was going to se some crummy psychiatrist at the same time and I suppose I wasn’t feeling too well. Anyway, once I realised that I hadn’t loved Louise for about the last then years – we had been married eleven – and the only thing I could do was leave her. I said to her, look Louise, you can have everything – I don’t want a thing. I just took a few clothes and left her the apartment, the car, all the furniture we had bought together – everything. Anyway, I moved way down, away from her, to another country and I started to live with this girl – God, she was beautiful. I tell you, I really loved that kid, I swear to Christ I did. We were just waiting for my divorce to come through – Louise had agreed to it – and then we were going to get married. And then – oh Jesus, when I think of it …’ he broke off and finished his drink in a gulp before ordering another one and another pint for me.

‘What’s that you’re drinking there anyway?’ I asked as the barman placed the tall glass full of transparent something or other in front of him. ‘It looks like Seven-Up or tonic water, or something.’

‘For all you know, kiddo, that’s right. I’m meant to be on the dry – according to my old man and the doc but I couldn’t, I just couldn’t. Anyway …’ he paused, lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply and I noticed his hands were trembling slightly.

‘Anyway,’ he repeated ‘Two days before my divorce was due to come through, she shot herself. The bitch shot herself through the head with my service pistol. Just as I grabbed the gun, she shot herself.’ He paused again and drank deeply, rolling the glass between his thumb and forefinger. His eyes, staring at me, were blank and a nerve was jumping high up in his cheek. I turned away, embarrassed.

‘Anyway,’ he went on quietly, ‘when the cops arrived there ten minutes later, I was still standing over the body with the gun in my hand. My prints were all over the sonuva bitch and the bastards laid into me, two of them held me and the third smashed me – they were so sure it was first degree murder and they scented promotion – you know the crap – determined cops overcome ruthless killer at risk to themselves,’

I nodded, as if I knew. ‘Go on anyway, what happened?’ I was completely involved in his story now, my pint forgotten.

‘Christ, I was lucky. I knew the sheriff and he gave me a chance to tell it how it was, otherwise I would have been up shit creek. When you are just out of the service, you have no friends – they are all either still inside, dead or else dodging the draft and you have no-one to help you if you’re in trouble. I was goddamn lucky in that the sheriff believed me and the court turned in a verdict of suicide. I don’t know, I didn’t feel relieved. In fact, if you want to know the truth, I felt sweet shit all. I mean – I had nothing left – I was completely alone and the realisation was only just beginning to hit home. The only thing I could do was re-enlist.’

I tool a long drink and lit a fresh cigarette. ‘I don’t know, I said, ‘I don’t think I would have done that.’

He didn’t answer, concentrating on blowing smoke rings, gathering his thoughts.

‘I became a squad leader and about a month later we were out on patrol when we walked straight into a goddamn ambush The little bastards hit us with everything they had. The squad was wiped out except for myself and a pfc – and we were both wounded pretty badly. – I got it in the guts …’ he traced the area on the outside of his shirt with a long forefinger – and the private got it in the arms and legs. Well, I tell you, that, for me, was the end. I just lay in this stinking little hospital praying that I’d die – I had nothing to live for – there wasn’t a goddamn thing worth anything to me. Anyway, I got out of hospital first and went to se the other guy. The docs had had to amputate both his arms and his two legs and the guy was just literally a torso. Anyway, I told him I was going to top myself and that everything I had I was leaving to him. I swear the little bastard just looked at me and then he called me a pot-bellied motherfucker and threatened to beat the shit outta me. I laughed then for the first time in months, I reckon  – I mean the whole idea of that ‘body’ getting out of bed and working me over – Jesus, he had no arms or legs and even if he had, he would still only be half my size. So I just asked who’d lift him out of bed and he said the nurse would and he’d beat me to death with his stumps. Christ, the nurse walked in then, she was a beautiful woman and she sat beside this little runt. Then he said to me, look, Billy, do me a favour and be my best man, we’re getting married when I get outta this place and I want you to come to my wedding. I’m telling you kiddo, I couldn’t believe it – a half-pint bastard with those disabilities and he was talking of getting married. I thought he was only joking but he was real serious. I didn’t know what to say or do, for chrissakes. I suppose I musta congratulated him or something and I promised to be the best man – but Jesus, I just couldn’t. I mean after Louise and the other woman and … and everything, I just couldn’t. Anyway, I left soon after that, I didn’t even say goodbye to the poor little sonuva bitch. I didn’t even write him a note or anything.’

I took another gulp of Guinness and felt that light-headed feeling come over me when I drink too much on an empty stomach. Curiosity gnawed at me yet I didn’t want him to think I was prying. I glanced quickly at him out of the corner of my eye – he was staring at his drink but I felt he wasn’t seeing it or even aware that he was in a bar.

‘Go on, anyway.’ I prompted gently.

‘It wasn’t all my fault, kid, I swear it.’ He insisted, grabbing my arm tightly. ‘It wasn’t really my fault, was it?’

I shook my head. ‘No, no, of course not. You were all broken up over everything that had happened.’

‘Yeah, that was it, kid. I mean, Jesus, when I came out I was just plain shagged. I was still going to this crummy shrink and I was drinking. Jesus, I was really drinking – two bottles of whisky a night – and the worst thing was I wouldn’t even be plastered after that. I’d just sit in this crappy little room, drinking my guts out, afraid to sleep. I suppose my nerves must have been shot too – every girl I saw, I’d think it was Marion and every time I fell asleep, I’d see her lying on the floor and me standing over her with the gun in my hand. Christ, I even began  to wonder if I had shot her. I tell you, I was going mad.

I gestured at the barman for another round and Billy nodded his thanks.

‘The next thing was, my old man came to see me. I hadn’t gone home since I had left Louise and I don’t know how the hell he got my address. Anyway, the old bastard starts in on me, calling me a drunken layabout and to pull myself together. I could take all of that – I mean, it was true. Then the bastard started to blame Marion, it was that whore you were living with, he said. Christ, I got the little sonuva bitch by his scrawny neck and, Jesus, I really hit him. He was lying half off the bed and I was just about to boot him when I realised, Jesus, Billy, this is your old man, your father and I just couldn’t hit him again. I just stood there, holding him and I began to cry. I was just shot, my nerves were gone, every goddamn thing was ruined. But I just couldn’t take what he said about Marion – I loved her, Jesus, I really did. I mean, if my old man walked in here right now and said the same thing, I swear, I’d kill him.’

 He paused and sipped the new drink the barman placed in front of him. ‘He wouldn’t though, the poor old bastard is still a bit scared of me although he pretends he has forgotten all about it.

Anyway, the folks decided to go back to the old country and mom wanted me to go with them. I mean, there wasn’t much left for me in the States – no goddamn friends, separated from my wife, and a suicide, I was really just in the shits and I suppose I knew I couldn’t just keep on going the way I was. Anyway, I reckoned the change would be good for me – Ireland couldn’t be much worse than the crummy slum I was living in at the time.’

He stubbed out his cigarette and lit another one immediately, playing with the match while it burnt down.

‘Well, how do you feel now, over here? I asked. “Do you feel better?’

‘Jesus’, he said thoughtfully, as if the idea had never struck him before. ‘I don’t know, I guess not. I’m still one helluva bastard. Even though I’m not fully divorced – Louise doesn’t want to give me one now, she still loves me, she says and thinks I’ll change my mind and come back to her – but I’m seeing someone else here. In fact, I’m supposed to be meeting her here around now. I’m sure you know her, at least to see In a village this size, everybody know everybody else, right? I mean there’s no secret about it. She and her parents know I am waiting for a divorce. My old man knows about her too – he even knows her parents for chrissakes.’

He finished his drink and when I tried to buy him another one, he called me a sonuva bitch and ordered another pint for me and another for himself. I wanted to ask him how he could call the war a ‘moral’ one while claiming it had ruined his life and made an animal out of him but I hadn’t the nerve.

‘I’ll tell you one thing I either gained or lost in the war, kiddo, I don’t know, you may think it good or bad, it’s up to you to decide yourself,’ he said blowing a string of smoke rings.

I nodded wisely, sipping my Guinness slowly.

‘I lost any belief I ever had in God – no, don’t condemn me  …’ – I hadn’t said anything – ‘let me finish. I was fighting, right. I had to kill or be killed There were people dying all over the goddamn place – in screaming agony. I come out of the war, I leave my wife, and then the only woman I have ever loved goes and kills herself. Now, okay, you might say it was my own fault in the first place – getting called up, for leaving my wife, for living with another woman and I’d say to you, horseshit! If God is good, why the hell would he let it all happen?Why does he let people wade through all the crap and then, at the end of it – who knows? Maybe it was worth waiting your entire life for, while, on the other hand, there could be nothing there at all when you die. Anyway, I’ve decided to take my chances – I just can’t believe in God anymore. You just go and tell me why people suffer and then I might believe again.’

He leaned back on his stool and smiled. I said nothing. What could I say that meant anything?

‘Another thing I learned was to fight. I’m telling you, kiddo, if you’re ever in a fight, just remember, the fastest boot wins. If you get in first, you win. If you don’t, you’ll end up in a goddamn hospital for a month. Christ, I remember once down in Alabama.’

His eyes lost their focus again, remembering. ‘I was there with these guys, we had just got out on leave. Jesus, we had been drinking all night and the bar keep finally threw us out and we started looking for another place to drink when the cops stopped us. One of the guys with me was black and the cops started to push him around. We were all in plain clothes, they didn’t know we were in the marines so we weren’t taking any shit so I jumped one of the bastards and smashed him. Jesus, it was just a free-for-all in the middle of the goddamn street when one of the fat sons of bitches pulls out his pistol. Jesus, there wasn’t much point in getting our asses shot off. They took us down to the courthouse basement and started to take us apart.Two of them held Joe – he was the black guy and the third cop pistol whipped him. Jesus, I screamed and screamed until the sheriff came down and told them to lay off. When he found out we were in the service, he let us out with a helluva fine and told us to get our asses out of town. Christ, all I wanted to do was to take the fat bastard apart. I told the sheriff straight, I said if I ever met his fat, pot-bellied motherfucker of a deputy again, I’d castrate the bastard. I meant it too. Jesus, I really meant it. The sheriff knew and so too did the fat little sonuva bitch and he was scared of me, he really was, even though he had the badge and the gun. But the way he had two guys hold Joe while he smashed him with his gun – Jesus, it really sickened me. But the little bastard was definitely frightened.’

‘Yeah, I’d say he was.’ I said truthfully, thinking I’d be frightened if I had Billy after me too.

‘Lemme give you a bitta advice, kid.’ He leant forward unsteadily. The drink must have been taking effect now for his speech was a bit slurred too.’Hold on a minute, willya, kid, I’m gonna take myself a slash.’ He pushed himself off the stool and walked steadily enough across the lounge.

I lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, trying to clear my head. I was confused and slightly depressed but I wasn’t sure by what – the actual squalid facts or the way he had told it all, so dead-pan, unemotionally, except for the occasional pause to grip my arm for intensity.

‘Let me give you some advice from what I’ve picked up, kiddo, okay?’ He sat back down on his stool and drained his glass before gesturing at the barman for refills. Miraculously, his speech had cleared and his eyes were sharp and focused. No matter what else, I could well believe he could drink two bottles of whisky a night.

‘Never back down from a fight,’ he insisted. ‘Never let the other sonuva bitch know you’re afraid. Even if you’re shitting bricks, at least pretend to be eager for the fight and for chrissakes, get your boot in first.’

‘Hello Billy, I’m sorry I’m a bit late, I just couldn’t get away earlier.’ The woman stood slightly behind us, smiling. He immediately got up to offer her his stool, introducing us. “Right then, what’ll you have to drink?

‘Look, really, no more for me,’ I insisted. ‘Thanks a lot all the same. Anyway, I’ve just seen some friends of mine over there and I’d better go.’

‘Sure kiddo, sure. Just remember the advice I gave you and you’ll make it fine. Give my regards to your mom and pop, okay?’

I walked slightly unsteadily over to the table where my friends were sitting on the opposite side of the lounge bar and sank down onto a chair  ‘Sorry, I never noticed you guys coming in. Have you been here long?’

‘Long enough but it doesn’t matter. Who’s your man over there? Every time I looked over, there was a fresh pint in front of you.’

‘Ahh, he just lives on the other side of the square,’ I said quietly, trying to forget, but pictures I had never seen before, flashed, like a disjointed film, in front of my eyes. When I closed them it was worse. I opened them and lit another cigarette I didn’t really want.

‘Anyway, let’s finish up here  now, there’s party around the corner and we’re all invited,’ Jay told me.

‘Look, I don’t feel too well,’ I partially lied. D’you mind if I don’t go with you. I think I’ll just go back home.’