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Jake Teeny

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Jake Teeny writer

Recalling the Cold

by Jake Teeny

 

 

Drop Cap Along with their tray of food for the day, came a pistol. It slid across the cracked concrete of their jail cell like the sound of a rake against an icy sidewalk. None of the three men noticed it at first; each sat with his back against a different slate wall, no cots, just one bucket, their eyes, all bloodshot and purpled in degrees of retaliation, were closed, their chins against their chests. Praying? Trying to sleep? For them, there wasn’t much difference. If a Gestapo peered through the square cut in the upper third of their door, he would have seen James against the left wall, Raymond against the back, and Harold against the right. The scarred wooden tray holding three tin cups of mashed potatoes and three tin cups of coffee—all certain to have another cigarette butt floating in the middle of them—remained a few feet from the flap at the bottom of the door. Motionless.

Although none of them had seen it yet, the gun would be recognized as a revolver. An Enfield Mk II. A British made pistol more commonly known as the No. 2. The Germans fancied Allied guns, not too unlike the Indians’ collection of scalps. The No. 2 had a thin walnut handgrip and weighed less than two pounds. From barrel to butt, it was eleven and a half inches long with an iron, six-round cylinder. At the base of the handgrip was a small steel ring a soldier could use to attach it to his belt. And if any of the three men had scrutinized the gun (which none of them ever would) they’d have seen its serial number read O9624, the number issued to British infantryman Charles Cartwright, an unextraordinary solider shot by an elderly German civilian whose finger had accidentally, tremulously pulled the trigger on a rifle.

Now, that pistol lay in the middle of their cell.

Harold’s stomach growled, and his eyes opened, not because a new sound had broken the routine—flap slaps open, tray slides in, flap slaps close—but because one cup of mashed potatoes might trick his stomach into thinking, Enough. It never did. Harold was nineteen-years-old and had enlisted on July 14th, 1943, exactly thirty days after he had graduated from high school (a stipulation his mother had begged of him) and sixteen days (his lucky number) after he had asked his girlfriend since sophomore year, Betty Dawson, to marry him. She had said yes. Harold wore his blond hair as fashionably as the army would allow him, short on the sides, long on top, which complemented his lovely blue eyes, blue eyes always twinkling like birthday present watches. Now, however, only one of those eyes could open, the other like a large moldy grape sewn over the socket. He didn’t know it, but the German’s fist, Niklas Fleisher’s fist, had actually fractured Harold’s cheekbone, the same blow that had severed half a dime’s worth of tongue as Harold bit down in pain. The loosed pinch of flesh, sliced off in one snap, had rolled over the back of his tongue and caught in the back of his throat as he tried to swallow, gasp out a scream. Days later, and Harold’s raw hook of muscle still exploded with pain every time he tried to eat, but the moaning of his stomach was apathetic to such discomfort.

Harold’s good eye peeled open wider to stare at the revolver. He closed it. His mind must not have fully unglued from the darkness. He opened it again. The revolver was still there. The unintentional click of his throat summoned James’ attention across from him. James. He was twenty-three with hazel eyes, a venerable depth to them even as a child, both painted, now, with yellowy bruises. His nose was swollen, red, and crooked down the bridge, but before it had been dismantled, you could have seen the destined structure for his eldest daughter, Sandra, in it. His other daughter, Carolyn, was still too young, but James had hope. His nose had always been something he secretly prided himself for, and it was his nose, or so he told people, that had caught him his wife, Marie. He told it as though he had followed her perfume like a pink nimbus wafting the dance hall, his nose informing him he was in love before he even knew what she looked like. And when he had seen her, spotlighted in that yellow shoulder-strap dress, alone, between jitterbugging couples, he was prepared to get down on one knee right then. Imagining that story, now, however, just made him realize how much it would hurt his knee to shove it against the concrete. Imagining that story, now, and he didn’t even care if he had tracked her down in that dance hall at all. With his left hand—every finger but his thumb on his right hand, his dominant hand, broken in ghastly contortions—he brushed some of his long black hair off his forehead. The lice loved the length of his hair, gnawed and gnawed and stabbed at his scalp, but he had no scissors to cut it. They wouldn’t give him any. Tell us who planned it, they said. Name, rank, serial number. Name, rank, serial number. Tell us! The three prisoners all wore the same outfit over their slimming bodies: beige button down collared shirt, beige cotton slacks. Their clothes reeked of sweat and dirt, the stuffy, oniony smell of a moldering body. Before the three of them had been placed in this jail cell, when they were outside in the P.O.W. camp with the other Allied forces held in Stalag Luft I, where they could stare off at the Barth forest of beech trees, English oaks, pine, stare off at the flying “V” of geese, the lone herons, they could have traded cigarettes for soap. They could have traded enough cigarettes for someone else’s clothes. But in here…How many days was it now?

Raymond, the eldest at twenty-nine, gazed through slit eyes at the revolver on the floor between them. The square of flat ashen light from the door, filtered once through wintery clouds, again through the filthy window opposite their cell, told Raymond nothing about how many days he had been dragged out, interrogated (beaten), thrown back in, dragged out, interrogated (tortured), thrown back in. Raymond had come to judge how long he had been in there by how well he could remember the crunch of frosted grass beneath his boots. Time measured through the sharpness of memories: a crooked yardstick but a yardstick nonetheless. Raymond had sienna hair and sienna eyes. He wasn’t married, not because he didn’t want to be, but because he always intended to move out of Vineyard, Utah first. Before the war, though, he had just never got around to doing it. Silence rarely bothered Raymond (uninterrupted thoughts were an invaluable freedom), so even when a revolver suddenly slid into their cell, he appreciated the quiet. The three men never discussed plans for escape, didn’t ask what happened when they were individually pulled away. Harold used to blather on about his hometown of Portland, Maine, about his beautiful fiancé Betty Dawson, about the house they planned to buy, about his plans to go to college, about the names for the five children he’d have, the names for the three dogs he’d have—And then the incident with his tongue. Back with the other men, you were always hesitant to complain about your tragedies because there was always some poor devil worse off than you. Out of these three, though, Raymond considered himself unmatched, unless of course Harold continued chewing off more of his tongue. It had been an uncontrollable, almost instinctual pleasure for Raymond when Harold had been thrown back into the cell, blood leaking from the corner of his lips, whining lowly, like the words of deaf people, when he had opened his mouth and shown them. No more Betty. No more children’s names. Raymond had never wanted that, had never asked the boy to keep quiet or told him to shut up, but now that it had happened, there was nothing Raymond could do. Nothing he could have done. Still, that unfounded, cursed guilt for his initial thanksgiving burrowed trails through his stomach, and Raymond was helpless to fill them.

James had been on patrol with his good friend Ed Hathaway, before he’d been taken to Stalag Luft I. They had been walking the perimeter of their base in Obstgarten forest, snow everywhere, the boughs of pines, the wormwood, shoes, clothes, but it hadn’t been windy so it hadn’t been terrible. James was from Brunswick, Georgia, where winter just meant you didn’t wear your sunglasses as often. He had never imagined that such a cold existed until he ended up in Germany. Such a ruthless, insidious chill. He had been about to remark on the cold for the countless time to Ed (“it’s so cold my balls are up to my nipples!”) when the Jerrys had stepped out of the brush. Everyone but the leader had a rifle leveled at them, while the German in charge had an American made pistol, a Smith & Wesson .38/200, aimed at them. It, too, was a revolver, one of similar design to the pistol that lay in front of them now. Intentional? Of course not. But James couldn’t resist the anxiety at seeing such a similar weapon here.

The three men continued to stare at the gun, only glancing at the others when the others weren’t glancing at them. Their meager food, usually retrieved and distributed seconds after the flap closed, was forgotten. And after another moment of precipitous silence, James reached forward and picked up the pistol.

To most, the revolver would have felt surprisingly heavy. But to James, it seemed surprisingly light. Something so inanimate, so uncomplicated—kinetic force of the hammer strikes the firing pin, firing pin ignites the gunpowder, gunpowder propels the steel jacket down the spirally grooved barrel—could end something so animate, so complicated as life. Back in Georgia, James had kept a pistol of his own in a shoebox at the top of his closet, far out of the reach of Sandra or Carolyn. In truth, he had never wanted the pistol in the house, but Marie told him it would make her feel safer. Anything for that. She was always so worried, as if she went out of her way to scour the newspaper or misinterpret gossip to have something to fret over. Once James had been drafted, he had had to talk her down from numerous plans of escape to Canada. She had cried so much. Sandra hadn’t understood. Carolyn wailed because her mommy did. And all James could do was wave.

Raymond didn’t like that James had grabbed the pistol first. Raymond was the oldest by five years or so, and even in the most mangled cages of the most dehumanized creatures, seniority meant something. But the revolver had been farthest from him. To scoot and twist, to wring the pain from him like brown water from a soiled dishrag wasn’t worth it. Not when he could just sit there and breathe. James rotated the pistol in his one hand, twisted it this way then that, even stared into the barrel, something you were told never to do unless you were certain it was unloaded. Though such a decree was difficult to follow when you weren’t always the one directing the gun.

Across from James, Harold wanted to ask, What is it? but knew that such a question was terribly stupid. A gun, you dummy!—What do you think? So he said nothing and waited as James examined the chambers. He found only one round. One bullet. Five clicks, one bang. James couldn’t punch the cylinder out with just one hand to confirm this, but he was pretty sure. Damn, the fingers on his right hand. Name, rank, serial number. That’s what the pain spelled. That, and the name, rank, serial numbers of the forty-seven men those Germans had stood in front of them and shot. The Germans had taken fifty men; he, Harold, and Raymond were the lucky three. The lucky ones. The fortunate guys beaten day after day but not killed. Struck in the liver and screamed at, fingers snapped backwards. But alive. Stripped naked in officer’s quarters. Humiliated. Prideless. Worthless. Alive. And now this revolver. Given to them. Loaded with one slug. Either it made no sense or it made too much, and James was unsure which he preferred. So holding the gun for only another lingering second, he set it back on the floor in front of him.

There was a distinct difference between wanting and needing. Most people missed it, but Raymond didn’t. And he was pretty sure at this moment he just wanted the pistol. Wanted to hold it. To touch it. To press its outline against his chest. But no matter how much Raymond wanted something—even needed something—he never begged for anything. Never. Anything. His father had worked at Geneva Steel. Raymond worked at Geneva Steel. Well, used to work there before he became a putrid solider. On the drive over to the military base—after Raymond had won the first lottery of his life—his co-worker, David Atkinson, had been telling Ray (not Raymond) how much they were going to miss his talents at “fixin’ stuff” at the mill. His talents, that’s what they’d miss. True, Raymond was a gifted millwright, inspecting, repairing, replacing, installing, adjusting, maintaining, all the mechanical equipment involved with ingot production, even the giant boilers that poured the golden sludge of molten steel. The heat, the long hours, the hard work. Always dirty and hot. Oily and hot. Sweating his soul into his socks and undershirt, all to keep himself above the poverty line. Raymond should have been a foreman, managing rather than being managed. Twenty-nine may have seemed young, but Raymond was smarter than the average twenty-niner in there. Hell, he was smarter than the average thirty-fiver. How else could he have been so successful as a millwright? But they, too, knew this (“that position’s just not ready yet”), and they, too, knew (“we believe Dale’s going to take over—he’s got the years”) that if Raymond went from laborer to foreman (“look at your pa; he’s been grinding for decades”) it would mean the others would wonder why they were skipped over. And in this jail cell, nothing had changed. He was still sweaty, oily, starving, while the others skipped over him; while he watched Harold’s slender fingers pick up the gun next.

The first time Harold had held a gun was in Atlantic City. That’s where he had conducted his training after enlisting. There wasn’t enough room in the barracks, so they put him and a majority of the other enlisted up in hotels. It was the first time Harold had stayed in a hotel, too. Certain events bond people together, and when Harold had traveled on the bus out to the countryside, followed the drill sergeant to an open field with hay bales and targets on one end, a line of shooting stations and rifles on the other, was one of those moments for Harold and Kevin Lewin. Harold vaguely knew Kevin from high school baseball. Harold was the starting shortstop—wearing number sixteen—for his varsity team. Kevin, who Harold didn’t remember at first, had been a bench player for an opposing high school. Through pure luck (destiny?) Harold and Kevin ended up side-by-side at the shooting range. Neither boy had much of a clue what they were doing (“how do you work the bolt?”), but through the smell of sulfur, the shoulder bruises from the rifle’s kick, and the stories of high school sports, they became friends. Harold told Kevin about the first and only time he had tried a puff of a marijuana cigarette. Kevin, on a stroll one dark night, told Harold that his mother was Mexican (though Harold would have never guessed). But when they were deployed, Harold went one way, Kevin another. Harold still remembered the sound of Kevin’s laugh when Harold told the story of how he got chased by a cat. Harold still remembered Kevin’s squirrel-nosed look after he and Harold had their first meal in the mess (“you have to try my mother’s enchiladas”). But the nostalgia was only a brief guard against the fiery pain in Harold’s mouth. God, he hoped Kevin was all right. It was a selfish reason, but if Kevin was all right, then maybe Harold would turn out all right, too.

After what couldn’t have been more than twenty seconds, Harold returned the pistol to the middle of the concrete. He wasn’t sure why he had grabbed it—maybe because James had; maybe because there was nothing else to do—but he didn’t feel like holding it anymore. The way Raymond had been watching him, even James… Maybe it was the attention after such paradoxical solitude. Maybe it was just the simple weight of the gun in his weary arms. No matter. Back on the concrete, no more cold wood or cold iron in his hands, Harold felt better. And across from him, James was already reaching to retrieve the gun again. But from the back of the room, Raymond’s upturned palm extended toward him. Wanting.

This wasn’t begging, merely fairness. James got a turn. Harold got a turn. Therefore… James laced gazes with his cellmate, and Raymond knew those secret hazel eyes shared an understanding. Raymond just wondered if James, too, had searched the floor for three slips of straw. Only one chamber blocked the light passing through the cylinder. Just one. James didn’t break eye contact as he laid the pistol on the ground, his full left palm spidered over it. After a hesitation, he slid it forward. A sound like teeth scraped across brick. The revolver skated past Raymond’s left foot and through to where the lower part of his right leg should have been, catching the pistol before it thunked into the wad of thigh removed above the knee. He judged how long ago he’d had an intact right leg by how well he could remember the sweat. The lice were always bad but they didn’t stray from your head. The sweat…The sweat was everywhere. Inexorable. Not the runny kind of sweat, like the juices of a blueberry pie bubbling up in the oven. But the painful, stinging kind, like the sparks of burnt grease. On his shoulders. His abdomen. The backs of his hands. By the time he had been given to a doctor, he had lost a lot of blood from his wrecked knee. He had even distantly thought they could pour some of the blood that leaked into his shoe back into his veins, but he worried that it might be dirty blood, bad blood, if his feet had been swimming in it. On the surgery table—a butcher’s long aluminum workbench still flecked with dried cow’s blood—lay Raymond with one electric bulb, a forty watt, above him. Nothing too bright on its own, but surrounding that one light bulb were dozens of reflectors, repurposed Klim powdered milk cans, arranged in a geometrical cone. The doctor’s head bumped the lamp at one point, and it performed a dazzling twirl of lights, like the way a lovely woman’s dress bells out when she spins, and Raymond lay there stroking the cold table with his fingertips, entranced upward, as the Polish doctor prodded and mumbled at his knee. Do you want to be a legless son or a dead hero? Raymond couldn’t remember his answer, but he didn’t think it would have mattered to the doctor. Just like it didn’t matter to the revolver.

Harold had to turn his whole head to watch Raymond examine the gun, his swollen right eye just a throb of ungodly pain. But his left still worked fine, and that was good enough. Secretly—Harold knew the other two would mock this idea—he thought they could use the gun for escape. Why else would someone have snuck it into their cell? He figured they could hold it up to that square at the top of the door and threaten the next Nazi who passed. You better open up or you’ll eat a bullet with your forehead! But elaborating that plan to James and Raymond would cause his tongue far too much pain. He would just wait for one of them to suggest it, then nod as enthusiastically as his aching head would allow. Until then, though, his mind kept skimming, wouldn’t settle, kept rippling like the water in a glass from all the footsteps around the house. He kept thinking about his golden retriever back home, Dice. His warm body. Wet tongue. If Harold closed his eye and thought hard enough, he could just about imagine that pillowy amber fur curled against him. Dice, three-years old at the time, had been there when Harold had first met Betty outside the bowling alley on Lancaster Street. At school, he had seen her in the hall outside his locker a couple of times, chestnut hair, heart-shaped face, fine calves, but he’d never had a reason to talk to her. Only weirdos talked to girls they had no business talking to, and Harold was no weirdo. But walking down the sidewalk on Lancaster Street, a beautiful spring day, something Bing Crosby might sing about, he had spotted her in the middle of the block. Immediately, he loosened his grip on the leash to fuss with his hair, when all of a sudden Dice bolted forward after a passing milk truck. Using all his strength, Harold slowed Dice before they crashed into Betty. They came close, though, and she giggled, Who’s walking who? and Harold, so fuddled by the energy to restrain his dog, the chance encounter with Betty Dawson, said the first thing that came to his mind: I once bowled a 216, you know? Which, putting a “two” in front of his favorite number, resulted in a complete lie. It took him three months of going steady before he finally admitted the deceit, the whole time, not once taking her bowling.

Raymond continued to run his index finger all over that dirty iron before he popped out the cylinder and spun it. Someone had treated this gun well, oiled it, cleaned it. The cylinder spun fast, all the holes seeming to blend into one. Blend into one except one. But before the cylinder rested, with a flick of his wrist, Raymond snapped it back into the gun. Outside with the other men, there had been a German guard named Lukas Gottschalk, a slender man with dark hair and a narrow chin. Lukas had been a piano teacher before the war (“if you don’t like classical music, then you have never listened to Debussy”), and spoke relatively fine English. There was something different about Lukas: he held his rifle more loosely against his shoulder; he smiled resignedly when checking count. You actually like being a Nazi? Raymond had asked once as Lukas shared a sip of toasty coffee with him. They stood obscured, or so they thought, at the base of a wooden guard tower. Me? A Nazi? No, I just do what I have to. You understand. Raymond nodded. Sometimes I get a student who I know does not like piano. Does not like me. But he pretends; he moves his fingers and taps his foot. He plays the notes for his mother. He does not feel the music. You can play notes without playing music. Raymond let the revolver rest on his lap; he should really slide it back into the middle but couldn’t persuade himself to do so. Not while there was still the question. After his talk with Lukas, he didn’t see the guard for two and a half months. When Lukas finally returned, his dark hair was now cloud white, his slender frame slimmer. When Raymond approached him, Lukas appeared as though he saw the world through turned around binoculars. At the time, Raymond couldn’t bring himself to ask what had happened, but now, given the chance, he would have had one question for Lukas: did they give you a revolver, too?

From the moment Raymond had extended his hand—No. From the moment Raymond had staggered in after his first interrogation, James had known what Raymond would do with the gun. Raymond’s eyes hadn’t given it away. His slumped posture hadn’t revealed anything. James had known what Raymond would do with that gun, because James himself wanted to do the same. That’s why he had given it to Raymond, wasn’t it? Let him spend the temptation. Rid James of the choice. Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire, John 1:14. The solitary confinement cell of Stalag Luft I did not welcome God. James did not welcome God. But all those Sunday mornings with his mother, with Marie (“you should have given me that shirt earlier, I could have ironed it!”), had made it instinct to turn to Him. Not a conscious choice. He should say something to Raymond. Say something.But what could he say when the cold was only beautiful in memory? What should he have said to Ed? Ed Hathaway, his friend. Those Jerrys had come out of nowhere. Had James been the one to lead them down that trail? Hadn’t he said the trees would buffet the wind better this way? He couldn’t remember. Didn’t want to. But James had said something then. With all those Nazi’s jabbering at them in that spiky-balled language. James had told Ed to take his hand out of his breast pocket. Take it out! But I just want to give ‘em some smokes. Show ‘em we’re alright, you know. Just want to—

Raymond knew the question, but not the answer. The answer. But that’s how it worked. You weren’t supposed to know the answer. Just the question. They had kept him, James, and Harold alive because of a question. Who was planning it? What did they know? Those greedy prisoners at Stalag Luft III, tunneling and digging and tunneling and escaping, had cost those in Stalag Luft I the lives of forty-seven men, (“German honor will not be affronted!”) had cost them their own escape tunnels when the Gestapo had raided their living blocks, torn up the floor, upended mattresses, found the bunk-bed slats structuring the crawlspaces that led to life with invisible walls, not fenced or concrete ones. The only thing left for the Gestapo to upturn was those behind it. Who were the leaders? The question asked before forty-seven men were shot in cold blood. The question asked every time Raymond was dragged into the officer’s quarter, interrogated (whipped), thrown back in. But if they still wanted an answer, why give the three of them a pistol? Why? Why? Because those Nazi bastards already knew the answer. They knew it from the beginning when those skinny Krauts with a working knowledge of English crawled under their living blocks and eavesdropped on their conversations. So as Raymond understood, it was never about the answer. Always the question. The question. The question. The question. Like the one right now. Which of these six chambers held the .87 inches of steel that would enter through the lower part of his jaw and exit through the base of his brain?

Harold’s tongue clung to the floor of his mouth like a corpse at the base of the ocean. Seeing Raymond now, the jitteriness of his eyes, the way the gun kept moving slightly into the air, then back to his lap, angled up to his shoulder, then back to his lap, Harold knew that he needed to swallow the pain and speak. If he hadn’t been so stupid. The gun wasn’t about escaping, at least not escaping in the way Harold had imagined. This was a method of escape. Even a fine one considering the circumstances, but never a good one. Like the way Harold had been forced to exit his bomber. Shot down, just like everybody else. Jumped out, just like everybody else. The only option for escape considering the circumstances. Not a good one, but he hadn’t any others. Raymond still did. He had to have a dog like Dice or a girl like Betty Dawson, or at least he had to know that there were other brothers with guns still out there. Harold reached out his hand. It was not nearly as firm as he would have liked it, soggy from all the punches into his bicep and shoulder, but it was out there. Calling. Please, thought Harold. Calling. Please.

Raymond judged how long ago he had felt safe by how well he could remember the taste of real eggs. They always served you real eggs on the day of an actual mission, not that powdered, yellowy rubber. He’d had his Sunnyside up, greasy and hot. The B-24 he’d been flying in that day, named Bad Luck 13—an attempt at jinxing a jinx—had been making a bombing run on Velgast, a city about eight and half miles south of Barth where he was held now. Raymond was the plane’s engineer, his aptitude as a millwright supposedly qualifying him for the role. They had still been ten miles outside of Velgast when the German fighters flew in, tattering every Allied plane in the sky. The vroom of engines and air were quickly replaced with the patter of flak, the sound of a Spanish god rolling his “r’s.” The men in the hull, Clarence Wiggs, navigator, Fred Brinson, bombardier, Craig Furman, left waist gunner, Arthur Powell, right waist gunner, and William Sternberg, tail gunner, lost their footing as the plane rocked and swiveled to evade the anti-aircraft fire. Within seconds, a bullet pierced the right-side window of the cockpit, splattering the co-pilot’s, Todd Greeley’s, blood and brain matter against the side of Captain Jeffrey Ragland’s face. Three feet back in the engineer’s jump seat, Raymond screamed horrifically, barely able to hear Captain Ragland shout at him to retrieve their chutes. Cold air whistled through the hole in the thick glass, Raymond’s fingers numb as he fumbled at the clasp on his waist. Open the emergency hatches! shouted Ragland into the radio. Open the hatches and prepare to—A triplet of flak tore through the cockpit’s front windshield, burrowing two bullets in Ragland’s throat, another in his chest. Nausea and fear. Raymond finally undid his seatbelt and staggered to the back. Bright morning light flooded through the open bombing bay as Wiggs and Brinson tried to shovel out as much of the explosives as they could. The target was still miles out, but with leaking gasoline, a hull crammed with explosives, and an onslaught of flak, any errant spark would turn this hulk of metal into a careening fireball. Raymond stumbled to the parachutes attached to the netting on the side of the plane, but two steps away, a round of flak burst through the floor, rocketed through metal, then cabin air, then the skin behind Raymond’s knee, then his femur, then his lateral condyle, then his patellar tendon, then the skin on the front of his knee, then more cabin air, then back through the side of the plane. Raymond lurched forward—pain like a jagged bullhorn jammed and twisted in his knee—and reached for a chute. Somehow, he grabbed one. Shaking, crying, he attached it to the clasps on his suit, when all of a sudden the vertical stabilizers were shot, and the nose of the plane began to rise, Raymond beginning to roll toward the tail. Through the flashes of his spinning world, he saw Fred Brinson and Arthur Powell get sucked out the bay without parachutes. William Sternberg and Clarence Wigg clung to the sides of the plane. Then Raymond tumbled over the cold, ridged metal and into the nothingness of morning sky. He fell…Fell…Emptiness. Then his fingers behaved automatically, reaching for the ring on the front of his jacket and pulling. In a righter state of mind, however, he would have remembered to wait for his body to slow down before he sprung the chute. Gravity could only pull the human body at a speed of 125 mph, but coming out of the plane like that, he was moving close to 165 mph. The wide canvas sail snagged the air and jerked every strap attached to Raymond’s body with the force of a high-rise noose. He screamed. The already severed tendons in his knee ripped further. Warm blood pooled in his shoe; his unstitching leg swung like a hypnotist’s fraying pendulum. All this, pain, unconsciousness, helplessness, as he delicately floated down to earth. If he just hadn’t grabbed that parachute in the first place. If he had just tumbled out with Fred Brinson and Arthur Powell. The parachute handle in his memory slowly transformed into a revolver. A No. 2. In his hand. Raise. Pull the trigger. What’s the answer? Where’s the chamber?

The slight paling in James’ right hand had alerted him first. Paling and then a subtle reddening. He wasn’t sure if the light whiffs, difficult to distinguish form the other noxious odors permeating the cell, came from his hand or not. Sickeningly sweet. Like whiskey with a hint of rotted tomatoes. The lack of blood flow from the horrific breaks in his fingers could be causing it. The gangrene. The dying, decomposition of his flesh. He couldn’t be sure (could you ever be?), but he believed it was gangrene. A disease that spread if untreated. Do you want to be an armless father or a wartime hero? In a sick way, James wanted Raymond to pull that trigger. He wanted his ears to crack with the shatter of gunpowder. He wanted to hear it in his head, not feel it in his head. Because if Raymond didn’t do it, if someone didn’t dispose of that steel bullet, James was afraid he might. Afraid. Marie, Sandra, Carolyn. Metal to metal could end it all. The pressure, the stress, the weight. Life was so heavy—so heavy—while death was just…a scrap of parchment? a swimming leaf? a fluttering snowflake? Damn the cold! The revolver in Raymond’s hand continued to rise—an iron finger accusing the heavens; Harold’s arm reached outward, bent at the elbow. Limp. And what did James do? The same thing he had done for Ed. The same thing he had done when they shot those forty-seven men. But there was only so much you couldn’t claim to know. Outside this cell, there had been a night where the guards had thrown them some bones from a dead horse. Grass soup with horse bones for supper! And afterward, after their cramping stomachs had been lightly patted, the men had drawn cards to see who would get to suck the marrow from the bones. They had given James the task of fanning the deck. If only he hadn’t seen the bottom card he would have never been tempted. But his sticky eyes led to a sticky palm, and he and two others got to crack open the bones and slurp up the fat. Ice on the ground. A jacket too few. Plenty of spoons but not enough bowls. Pull the trigger, Raymond. Pull the trigger! Please (James couldn’t say it, but he could extend his hand) please, Raymond. Please.

Harold saw James outstretch his hand, and Harold knew that Raymond wouldn’t do it with both of them pleading otherwise. He couldn’t. Harold hadn’t told anyone this, but he had never killed anyone in the war. He had never even fired his gun. Working up in that B-17 as a navigator (a job of guessing and estimation; “the compass is vibrating six degrees that way then ten degrees this way—we’ll call it eight”), his responsibility was to direct people. Never to release the bombs. Never to pull a trigger. After bailing from the plane and diving through the clouds, his parachute got tangled in the lower limbs of a beech tree. The gray evening, the ratatat of gunfire, explosions in the sky. Harold rustled and fidgeted—the German shouts always seeming to get closer—but his release latch was tangled in the cording attached to his sail. Unexpectedly, though, on his forth yank, the lines released with a woosh and he fell ten feet, crashing hard on his left ankle. Pain torched the outside of his foot and up the side of his shin. But before he could even consider the injury, a rustle came from the nearby brush. The dirt was damp and smeared with decomposing leaves. Harold fumbled at the revolver attached to his belt and aimed it at the sound. He had no idea where his other men had landed, where he was supposed to get back to. A rustle in a different direction. Harold scooted along the matted leaves—the wet ground soaking through his pants—till his back struck the trunk of the tree. He would wait for the man to show himself. Ally or enemy? A moment later, his question was answered. The dim, setting sun illuminated a figure in a knee-length dark coat, a Nazi symbol emblazoned on a red band around his arm. With Harold’s back against the tree, he was silhouetted, hidden. He had his pistol surreptitiously raised at the figure (pull the trigger, Harold! pull it!), but no matter how much he tried to steady himself, his hand was too shaky, the gun felt too heavy. He had a clear shot. An easy point and…But he couldn’t; he just couldn’t. And instead, he did the last thing he should have ever done. He cried. The German startled at the sound, but quickly approached Harold. When he came close, however, he bent and said, Friendly, friendly, and pulled a badge from his jacket. He was a Frenchman with a zippy, bee-like accent, pale blue eyes, red cheeks. Steamy tears rolled down Harold’s face—his ankle, this war—and he did his best to smother his sobs. Up in that plane, away from it all, distanced, separate. Now down here…Can you walk? We need to move. They are coming. We must hurry. Harold stuffed a sob back down his throat. My ankle, mister. My ankle. The Frenchman was confused at first, but then quickly turned and pulled back Harold’s cuff, examining the injury. How you say? Not broke. Okay. Can you move? Harold wasn’t sure. He didn’t even know if he could try. Flashlight beams bounced through the woods behind them. Here, we put you up against—No, cut in Harold. Go. Just go, mister. The Frenchman hesitated, glanced up at the approaching slash of lights, then crouched down to face Harold. Carefully, he kissed Harold on both cheeks, and mumbled something in French. He made eye contact, hesitated again, then hurried off in the other direction. Minutes later, the Nazis found Harold, back against the tree, hands in the air. And now, in this jail cell, Harold again had his hand in the air, but he was beginning to worry it wouldn’t save him this time.

When your whole body’s cold, you can hardly feel the tip of a revolver underneath your chin. Raymond’s eyes had been closed for half a minute now. He couldn’t stand their looks, their outstretched hands, this cell. He hoped he could ride this bullet somewhere else. Ride it like a hitchhiker going wherever the driver headed. Somewhere different. His finger was taut against the trigger. The cell was completely silent, soundless, noiseless, a vacuum. It took an intentional amount of effort to make a revolver’s trigger fire. The finger had to overcome steady resistance until it finally tottered—a tenth of a second; a flexed wrist—before squeezing so gently, so airily the rest of the way. A world decided by finger strength. They say your life passes before your eyes but for Raymond, it was just a random smattering of images. The flickering of his bedroom, closet lamp, three, four times before it finally turned on. The squawk of crows perched along the power lines as he walked down Amiron Way. The bruised Granny Smith apples Tuck Nicolson would sell for half the usual price. In the darkness behind his eyelids, in the mute cell, he could hardly distinguish his legs—leg—from the floor. The only difference between concrete and bones? You didn’t bury concrete in a mass grave of bodies when you were done with it. Raymond wondered if he should say something. Some kind of final word. Something for them to—

He pulled the trigger.

Click.

Raymond opened his eyes, his breath heavy. An answer to the question. Both men across from him said nothing. Hardly breathed. Raymond had needed to pull the trigger mid-thought if he had wanted it to happen. If he had waited and tried to—

(screamingscreamingscreaming)

Click. Click. Click. Click.

Raymond raggedly exhaled through his mouth and nose at the same time. Like a racing horse beaten and whipped but still losing. The gun rattled against his chin. Five answers now. Five answers to his one question. The cylinder had spun, spun, spun so fast, when he snapped it in. What were the odds? Was this a sign? Should he—

He half-dropped, half-slid slid the gun back to the middle of the floor—the sound of a silver lighter clattering, skidding along asphalt—and broke into tears. Snotty, coughing tears. His chest thrummed, his grimy hands clutched his face. Why him? Why did this have to happen to him? The earth had flipped and flipped like a coin until it finally hit and jangled with his face up. His face. Him. Raymond. He deplored pushing that revolver back into the middle of the floor. One more simple motion with his index finger. That’s all it would have taken. But no. No, no, no. Raymond never begged for anything. Was it fear? Was it cowardice? Was there a difference? Raymond had no answers, just tears and pain and guilt and his dirty hands shielding his dirty face, these teardrops the closest thing to a wash that Raymond had in…how well did he remember that loathsome crunch of frosted grass?

Across from one another, Harold and James made eye contact. The revolver again lay on the floor between them. Slightly closer to Harold this time. But just slightly. Both men did nothing for a moment—neither looking at Raymond, neither looking at the gun. Just each other. James had the feeling of a hundred tentacles all wriggling inside of his stomach. It was right there. Right there. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall, Isaiah, 40:30. James had seen how Harold had been looking at the gun. The boy didn’t even want it. Didn’t understand it. Didn’t realize that James had given more than his name, rank, serial number when they started to crank that second finger back toward the top of his hand. Why break the rest when they had the answers? Why? Because it was never about the answers. Raymond knew that. Knew that a man not interested in answers could ask questions forever. What about Marie, Sandra, Carolyn? …But what about James? Having your body rot away while you were still alive seemed a high price for a scrap of metal pinned to your chest. Maybe Ed hadn’t really wanted to give those Jerrys some cigarettes. Maybe he had just been tired of the cold. Maybe he had just been tired of seeing so many brothers die. Tired of every question those mortars asked. Every question those machine guns pattered off. Maybe, in the end, James was just tired, too. And when you’re tired, nothing sounds better than undisturbed sleep.

He lurched toward the gun.

Harold reacted automatically. Just like in baseball, you had to wait for the batter to swing first. You could try to anticipate it, try to guess. But in truth, you always had to react. And reaction always meant starting a second, a half of a second, a tenth of a second behind. James’ left hand reached the revolver first, and Harold’s hand landed on top of it. Warm skin on warm skin. Just like the way he had been transported to Stalg Luft I on that train. Hundreds of strange, fetid Americans all crammed into a single train car. Flesh against flesh. Cordwood bundled, strapped together to be pitched to the flames. No room to sit, to lay, no room for claustrophobia, human waste on the ground, cold and gummy in their pants, the desire to scream, to push your way to fresh air. To openness. Bodies so tight against one another that a man could be standing dead beside you and you wouldn’t even notice. Betty had stopped sending letters four months before they’d taken Harold. His mother hadn’t stopped but Betty had. The last letter not signed, Love Betty. Just Betty. Harold’s fingers clamped down on James’, neither able to move the gun at first. Flesh, flesh, pistol, concrete. But James quickly began tugging, inching the gun closer to him, Harold equally fervent, back leaned forward, blood thunking in his head, his fingers trying to slip around that iron. Then—maybe James’ left hand was clumsy, maybe he miscalculated Harold’s dexterity, maybe he just grew tired of fighting—Harold wrenched the gun away. To the side, Raymond continued to sob, to bray terribly, but James and Harold ignored him. Both locked gazes. Both asked each other the same question with their eyes. But before any answer could be given, Harold aimed the gun and fired.

An avalanche of sound crashed about the room, and in the same instant, glass shattered, the bullet traveling through the square cut at the top of their door and out through the window across from it. The ringing in their ears took a moment to subside, Raymond’s own sobs quieting along with it. Then all three heard it.

The whistle of wind through the broken glass, the call of geese flying high above them, the shouting voices of Allied men.

 

 

BIO

Jake TeenyJake Teeny has a B.S. in psychology and philosophy and is currently working toward a doctoral degree in social psychology at Ohio State University. In his spare time (if such a mystical thing exists) he keeps a weekly blog, continues to write short stories, and is currently in the final stages of submitting his first full-length manuscript for publication. More of his writing can be found at jaketeeny.com.

The Writing Disorder is a quarterly literary journal. We publish exceptional new works of fiction, poetry, nonfiction and art. We also feature interviews with writers and artists, as well as reviews.

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