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Jan/Feb 2014 Fiction

A Rogue Age

by Will Lasky

Image courtesy of British Library Photostream

Image courtesy of British Library Photostream


Toward evening they gathered in the crater. It must have been one of those craters produced by the bombs they had just begun to build before the very end, when bomb artistry had reached its peak and the bombs were less dropped for strategic purposes and more in a celebration of mastery.

It felt like only yesterday, thought Sgt. Drummond, when they leaped out of the hatch into the night. They fell into the deep green forest, their speed broken by huge white sheets sewn presumably by all sorts of women. They lost Moreno on the fall, broken on the branches or else evaporated upon the night, snagged upon a flock of northward migrating storks. When they hit the earth, they had already gone from 20 to 19 American soldiers playing hide and seek with ghosts. Over the course of their guerrilla sabotage campaign, 19 became 10 navigating a sheer billy goat trail into Bavaria, their vision distilled into sunlight on water, hands on loose earth, teeth unstopping corks, releasing straps, excess baggage plummeting hundreds of meters.

McCoy lost his leg to the mine, perhaps the only one planted on a lark in that beautiful green field on the edge of the rundown estate at the foot of the mountains. When they heard the blast, the men instinctively dove for cover. They watched shifty-eyed from behind the huge animal topiary fringing the field as a man in a white tuxedo decorated with Dalmatian spots dashed down a long gravel drive and out into the field toward the wounded soldier. The eccentric Baron Hansel Wolfgang Hasselhoff raised the alarm, summoning the local nuns from the convent of St. Bernice. The nuns raised McCoy aloft like some flimsy effigy and carried him away.

It was in Hasselhoff's orchards that Drummond's men spent a two week stretch gorging themselves on peaches washed down with cognac. Hasselhoff himself, always dressed in that weird Dalmatian suit, brought out new bottles of wine and brandy every evening as an incentive for the men to listen to him lecture on the science of insects, the art of upholstery, and other random things. In the middle of an interminable lecture on the heretic astronomer Giovanni Bruno, Stevens decided to walk out of the war, which meant he merely stood, brushed off his grassy pants, and set off south west, a bag of peaches and cognac slung over his shoulder.

Revived by two weeks of orchard living, the men fought on, setting fire to a checkpoint house on the outskirts of Munich and removing the rivets from a large segment of railway before joining with the regiment in Dresden. By that time however, the war was over. Or was it?

 

Dresden, a desolate recall of rubble and pain, always reminded Drummond of the fine burning cooking coals on which as a boy beneath an ancestral grey, he cooked the oysters he caught in the cove with the other boys who grew up in the area and ran wild during the summer, eating all manner of sea things: mussels, clams, the rock crabs whose shells you sucked for their sweet, salty juices.

Then the spirit of looting took hold in their souls when they strode the ruins of Dresden. They became alert and on the lookout for gleaming things. "Get down from there!" Diaz shouted at Corporal Biggs who, after finding a diamond brooch in a rock pile, made a euphoric dash up the bombed out steeple steps, where he raised his prize to the light. He bounded higher and higher until he reached the top, exposed like a stylite, brained. "I can see the Elbe from here!" he shouted, holding the jewels aloft, his goofy voice the only sound within miles before the thinly echoing shot. He went down like a defenestrated duke, his surprise along with a splash of blood momentarily ornamenting the vision of the men.

Leonard succumbed on the road north. He had faked a semblance of arches upon enlistment out of Newark and had suffered ever since, propping his recalcitrant feet with various doomed methods: wadded socks, bandaging, hay. Now he could go no further and merely sat down on the roadside. He said he would wait for the medical unit to come. He said he would wait. Leonard did not return home from the war. No one knew what had happened to Leonard.

 

"Bring it out!" barked Lt. Gracey. "Bring out your shit!"

And mechanically everyone came forward one by one, dumping random items into the center of the crater. Someone shepherded in two beautiful, white billy goats like soul-cleansing autumnal snow, like angels' wings. Someone emptied out a bag of German guns clanking onto the hard, yellow ground. Corporal Clemens, known as "shrimp," emerged from the crowd with a gigantic painting of an aristocrat mounted upon a rearing horse.

"That's gold!" said Corporal Clemens, tapping on the gilt frame with his rifle. "The frame is probably more valuable than the painting itself," he claimed, putting his pike through the canvas.

"Bring it out!" barked Gracey. "Withholding is a capital offense! Bring it all out!"

Someone came forward with a large mounted globe containing disproved geographies from a grandfatherly era; another offered a white stone bust of an old composer or philosopher or merely parlor narcissist.

As the mist rolled in over the crater, Lt. Gracey urinated on the head of the philosopher or the composer or the somebody. The urine's steam rose into the night like the vapors of some primeval libation from a time when blasphemy and worship were one and the same act. After that solemn piss, the men lit their bonfire, broke out the casks of wine and whiskey and tilted toward oblivion.

In the morning, Drummond awoke. The men sleeping around him, caked in mud and goat fat, looked dead. There was something about embracing that look in war, about embracing the dead look. An act of camouflage, a death defying self-effacement. He blindly grasped about his immediate vicinity for drink, and then once fortified he marched to the center of the circle, armed himself with three German Lugers—one in the belt, another in the holster, and one in the inside pocket of his jacket—then strode off into the forest, bottle in hand.

He walked for a long time, building up a sweat, bringing himself back to life with drinking and song and by recounting the things he knew.

"Bubbling Over won the Kentucky Derby in 1926," Drummond said. "Then came Whiskery and then came Reigh Count and then came Clyde Van Dusen, the horse with a Dutchman's name."

The sight of the man in the black and white pajamas reminded him of a film he had seen about Alcatraz. The inmates of Alcatraz. One makes chess pieces out of soap stone. Another feeds a pet mouse or a sparrow. People did such things on Alcatraz. After he saw two or three more of the wandering jailbirds, he began to notice how slender they were. Emaciated was the word. These jailbirds were starving. He approached one. The wandering jailbird stared him in the face. The starvation had made him all eyes, nose, and mouth. The cheek skin draped against the jaw like leather tenting. Drummond offered him his bottle. The jailbird declined, muttered something incomprehensible, and then walked off into the mist.

Jailbird Sing, Jailbird Cry
But we all know that a jailbird can't fly

The lines came to him, something he had read as a child scrawled on the wall of a baseball dugout. Jailbirds. Jail. Drummond's uncle Clem did a stretch in Sing Sing for the armed robbery of the bathtub factory. He had worked in the bathtub factory. Everyone said it was a stupid idea.

"Never bite the hand that feeds you," Drummond said.

Luger in hand, he scrambled to the top of the hill, where he came out onto a pine cone littered road.

"Pine cone road," he muttered, surveying the clearing. "Old pine cone road's the place I like to go in a light snow if you must know."

Drummond peered to the left and then to the right. To the north smoke trailed up from somewhere, a house or an enemy camp. Southwest, a pine branch hung low over the road, carrying at its very tip a cone. He leveled the muzzle of his pistol. Heavy, like a real pistol and powerful, but with that wacko Kraut design that made no sense. His shot rang out. He missed.

"Shoeless Joe Jackson played center field for old Chicago," sang Drummond, taking another drink, heading south away from the ominous smoke trail. "Pine Cone Road's the place I like to go... in a light snow. Jailbirds, jailbirds, a horse with a Dutchman's name..."

 

They had been out on the clam flats all day when Jimmy got his legs stuck. He had been digging too long in one place and had forgot to move. "Go get help!" Jimmy said. By the time help arrived, he was already up to his chest in water.

"We'll get ya out of there," said Fireman Perry, himself up to his waist in freezing sea water.

Boy Drummond watched from the shore as all efforts failed. The mud could not be beat, had an army of mud backing it up ready to fill the fireman's breach. Hank from the autobody came out with a hacksaw and Doctor Bender, the strands of his comb-over flailing like rat tails, sawed Jimmy's legs off right below the knees. When they hauled him to shore, Jimmy was fighting the pain real well, not even crying even though now he only had two grisly stumps which trailed through the cove's little breakers leaving a scent for the little shark fish that later that night came thrashing.

"Guess no more clamming," Jimmy said, looking up at Drummond age twelve.

"That clay is like a vice," said Fireman Perry. "If you stay still long enough, it bonds like cement."

"Not cement. It's the suction that clinches it," said Doctor Bender, drenched, sitting on a drift wood log, trying to get his right hand to stop shaking. "Does that sometimes," he said of his hand.

That's when Drummond first tasted a different shade of life. The moments of his childhood were eternally gray like the gray sky, gray sea, gray mud with splashes of red, the red of Jimmy's blood on the gray stones, which reminded him of the red of Biggs's brain matter momentarily suspended against the Dresden sky. All that was a preamble to this, like the past was constantly giving birth to the one gray moment. Walking down Pine Cone Road, Drummond wondered if he would ever reach the front of it, when gray gave way to gold, when that thing called sex came along and cracked him open on the inside so that the golden blood of love flowed in torrents.

 

"You shall refer to me no longer as Lieutenant, but as King. I'm the King of this place, this mud, this filth. Bring out your shit! Bring it all out!"

The soldiers stood around Lt. Gracey, who stood on a tree stump in the center of the crater ringed round by fragrant pine. There were mutterings of approval. This was the logical next step to what came before and to what came before that back to the beginning. That evening Private Polanco brought in a large sow, which they cast alive like a Hindu widow onto the pyre. Then they plunged their pikes into the broiling flesh, solemnly, none speaking, stubbly mouths swallowing fat, gulping alcohol that had the earthy water flavor river stones hold.

Even after the soldiers had forced themselves to forget everything associated with that rogue age, a part of each of them always disobediently remembered that meal and found all other meals lacking.

In the morning, Drummond found his way back to the road. This time, the walk took a lot out of him. He was exhausted by the time he made it, yet he felt driven by something, some mystery unfolding within himself that found its mirror in external things that hinted at a deeper poetry. Before him stood a man on a horse. A Russian. He could tell by the hat. That Russki bastard.

"Amerikanitz," said the Russian.

They walked some ways together down Pine Cone Road, passing the bottle.

Amerikanitz. That's all the Russian said.

Instead of winding to the left, they walked down a side trail to the right, coming out on the edges of a huge compound. Presumably, from the look of it, a crumbling jailhouse.

"Robbed a bathtub factory," said Drummond. "My uncle did a stretch in Sing Sing."

The Russian, bottle in hand, pointed at the emaciated jailbirds milling about the yard, let out a gleeful whoop, and then, driving his boots into the ribs of the horse, proceeded to charge one of the poor fellows, shouting the incomprehensible words, Bizhi Yivre bizhi! The frail man, young, old, it was impossible to tell, preemptively collapsed before the onslaught of horse and man hurtling through the beleaguered atmosphere. When Drummond came upon him, he was clutching his stick-like calf. Drummond took out his gun, leveled it at the Russian's horse some 20 paces away and fired. The horse collapsed. The Russian stood in the mud, wrangling with his rifle strap, struggling with the mud-clogged mechanism. Drummond fired again. The Russian fell.

Drummond rummaged through the dead Russian's pockets. A gold Star of David. Leonard's. No. Like Leonard's. Someone else's. Who could say whose it was? He dropped the religious artifact.

"God save the queen." Drummond had no churchward loyalties.

At the top of Pine Cone Road, instead of cutting back into the forest, on a whim he decided to investigate the smoke. The trail dipped down a hill, crossed a shallow creek, and then wound up again into the pine woods. He followed it north for a ways, winding up and down until he arrived at a log cabin with a Mercedes Benz parked out front.

He pounded on the door. The door opened. The first thing he thought was Marlene Dietrich. The blond, middle-aged woman was wearing a weird trench coat. The trench coat reminded him of his German pistol, of Baron Hansel Wolfgang Hasselhoff, of Germans in general. There was no use making sense of them.

"Is that your car, lady?" he asked.

"Vas?"

"Is that your car!"

"Mercedes," she said.

"Gimme the keys."

"Wait."

Drummond watched her walk into the inner recesses of the house. He devoured the woman with his eyes as the darkness took her. He wished he was the darkness itself.

She returned with a note:

I ________ will return the Mercedes of Fräulein Schmidt
undamaged and intact on the date of ________.

"You gotta be kidding."

"Sign please."

"This is wartime, lady."

The lady, Fräulein Schmidt, produced a pen.

"Gimme the pen. Damned bureaucrats."

 

It had been a long time since Drummond had had an experience with a woman, ever since the pillaging of Wik. At least the map referred to it as Wik: a low-lying zone of thatchery and pig sties on the German-Polish border.

"We aren't leaving this godforsaken place until every last one of you has left his seed behind in a Kraut woman!" shouted Lt. Gracey from atop the Jeep that still worked.

The men standing around Lt. Gracey's jeep muttered their approval, although the women in the neighborhood were all Polish. They had passed the point of no return shortly beyond Dresden. Perhaps Leonard had intuited savagery's onset.

The village of Wik was mostly made up of a bunch of huts with thatched roofs. Drummond did his best to save a beautiful black horse as the barns burnt. He let the horse flee, and the sight of it running reminded him of winter waves breaking on the nighttime dunes the day after a hurricane made landfall in the south. He found a darkened hut. Someone had put out all the lights. He tried the door. Locked. He put his weight against it ever so slightly. The door opened. A stray moonbeam filtered through the window onto a beautiful girl huddled in the corner in loose man's clothes. She couldn't have been more than sixteen. It was if the encounter was scripted. So. This was Drummond’s time.

Drummond approached her. He put his rifle on the table. He began unbuttoning his jacket. The girl cowered. Drummond looked at the girl. Drummond sat on the table. He lay down on the table. He unfastened his helmet and struggled out of his backpack and lay flat on his back.

"Oh, I don't know what to do! What am I supposed to do, God damn it!" he said to the darkness bunched among the flimsy rafters. "I'm not good at this sort of thing, God damn it!" he shouted to the rafters, beyond which lay endless thatching. It was the kind of roofing Europeans burnt with torches in mad political fits.

The girl eventually rose and brought him a half empty bottle of liquor and a plate of cold stew. Drummond ate the stew, rapidly drank the liquor, after which he started to sing "Danny Boy." He was not Irish, but Jimmy had been Irish, and he sang "Danny Boy" all the time out on the clam flats so that it got under Drummond's skin and became a part of his brain.

Suddenly Lt. Gracey burst into the room.

"What's going on in here, Sergeant?!"

'I've raped this girl here!' slurred Drummond. "And now I'm drinkin' up all her liquor."

"Good job, soldier!"

Drummond stood up and shut the door in the lieutenant's face. Then he returned to the table, where he fell asleep, his head resting on his fetid sleeve. In the morning, the girl was gone. Drummond would think about the girl as often as he thought of Shoeless Joe Jackson, which was all the time.

 

Sergeant Drummond revved the motor. Soon, he was careening joyously down Pine Cone Road, across the creek, up to the smoky summit. He had an idea. At the bottom he turned southwest, arriving at the gates of the prison, bursting into the courtyard, slicing through the gravelly mud. He stopped.

"Get in!" he said to the jailbird with the hurt leg who lay on his back in the mud, half frozen, staring at the sky. Drummond motioned. The man slowly rose and got in.

"Where you from?" he asked the man. "Watcha do? Petty theft? Robbery? These Krauts are merciless. I bet they didn't even feed you in there. Here, take a drink. I haven't done no time myself, but my uncle did a stretch in Sing Sing for robbing a bathtub factory, same factory he worked at. Smart, right? He thought so at first before it landed him in the clink. Well, whatever you did, whatever they think you did, it's over now. Now, you're going to be OK. Everything is going to be OK. You're busted out and free. The both of us. Everything is jim dandy."

They drove east past an encampment of Russians sitting by a fire. The Russians were dressed in some motley that reminded Drummond of when the carnival came to town. They watched the car as it passed, watched it all the way over the hump in the road.

"These people remind me of Vikings. You know the Vikings? They used to rape and pillage the coasts of Ireland. Had these ships carved like dragons. Horned helmets. The Vikings. I liked history. History was always my favorite subject. Mr. Winkelblech's history class was my favorite. Do you know Shoeless Joe Jackson batted 408 in 1911?"

The jailbird looked terrified, braced his hands on the door, his feet against the floor. When Drummond slowed down, the jailbird opened the door and leaped out. Drummond saw him in the rear, barrel rolling back down the road. "Crazy jailbird," he said. "Suit yourself."

He drove down into a misty valley in the center of which was the ruin of a barn and a house, both burnt to a skeletal char. His wheels got stuck in the mud, and he spent some time getting loose by putting hay underneath the tires. Sometimes, pausing in his labor, he looked around. Total, utter silence. The snowy mountains in the distance sang of silence, and for Drummond that silence was terror itself, and so he sang "Mac the Knife" at the top of his lungs although he had an imperfect recall of the song's lyrics and ended up repeating "It's Mac the Knife!" again and again.

When he returned along the road, the Russians left their campfire to throw rocks. They cracked one of the side windows. "Freulein Schmidt ain't gonna like this," said Drummond as he motored along the prison's barbed wire.

Still, the jailbirds milled around in the courtyard. They had built a bonfire in the center. Drummond stopped the car, opened the door, shouted. "Get on outta here! What are you all waiting for?!"

What were they waiting for? He got out of the car, trudged across the mud, seized a jailbird by the shoulders. "Don't you get it? You're free! The war is over. They can't touch you now, don't you see? All the records have been destroyed! You've got a clean slate!"

Looking around himself, he noticed that someone had removed the dead Russian. Then he noticed the smell. Flesh. They were eating the Russian's old nag, roasting it in a pit and feeding off it in increments as the outer flesh cooked. An inmate offered him some boiled red muscle, which Drummond took gratefully (he had missed lunch) and hunkered down. He sat by the burning horse for a long time until the stars came out. He was exhausted, sick of the sound of his own voice shouting "It's Mac the Knife!"

"Where are you from?" After an eternity, the jailbird next to him spoke. He was a husk of a man, as if he had been inflated to bursting point and then gradually deflated so that his structure still held the suggestion of a former size. His big-featured face was gray. His hands were gray. The grayness gave him an ageless feel so that Drummond couldn't be sure if he was 30 or seventy.

"Cape Cod."

"Ah, Cape Cod! I know it well. My brother lives in Albany."

"What's he do there?"

"He owns a paint store."

"Like house paint?"

"Sure! House paint, acrylic paint, oil paint. Any paint you want. You like paint?"

"Sure, so how long you've been here?"

"Since two years."

"What did you do?"

"What did I do?"

"Yeah, what did you do?"

"I was born."

Drummond smiled. Jailbirds. Innocent to the last man, like his uncle. Uncle Clem. What a piece of work was Clem. He thought himself smart and in control. "Well, I guess it doesn't matter much anymore," he said.

"I guess not," said the man with a brother in Albany.

"Listen," Drummond said. "Let's get out of here."

"Where will we go?"

"I know of a place. German lady. German trenchcoat lady."

Drummond felt full of this lonely childhood feeling like love's unmet invitation.

They drove through the night up Pine Cone Road. For some reason, Drummond wanted to talk. He was a man of few words, but in the presence of the jailbird, he felt like overflowing. It was like a secret mechanism had been released. Maybe this was it. Maybe this was the prelude to the symphony.

"When I was a kid, we used to go clamming on the mud flats..." Drummond told the story of Jimmy who got stuck in the mud and had his legs sawed off.

"What are all these people doing around here?" asked Drummond.

"Just animals," said the jailbird.

The powerful Mercedes headlights picked up everything along Pine Cone Road, including a pack of Russians crouched like wolves around some kind of carcass.

"What are they doing here? What are you doing here?"

"Riding in this car with you."

"But what's the significance of that? I tell it to stop, it stops. I tell it to go, it goes, and that's how the whole mechanism of things seems designed, but the tide catches you, and that's it. You're stuck, and either you leave the best piece of yourself behind, or you just chuck the entire thing."

 

Fräulein Schmidt, dressed in her trench coat, opened the door and ushered them into a dimly lit parlor. The parlor was lit by two gas lamps, one by the window and the other by the entryway to the neighboring room. Framed photographs covered the walls. A clock somewhere chimed seven. A grandfather clock somewhere in the recesses. Why did they call them grandfather clocks?

"Please sit. Schnapps?" asked Fräulein Schmidt, retreating to the kitchen.

The men watched her go, her golden calves.

"What a woman," said Drummond.

"You think so?"

"What does it matter?"

The man didn't respond, just smiled faintly and hunkered down into the arm chair.

Fräulein Schmidt brought out a bottle of schnapps and poured three large glasses full to the brim. She sat in the chair next to the fireplace and took several long swallows. Drummond noticed that the prisoner couldn't take his eyes off her.

"Is something so interesting?" asked Fräulein Schmidt.

The prisoner laughed. "Nothing. It's just that I never thought I would find myself in this situation."

Fräulein Schmidt choked on her schnapps, coughed up a line of snot streaking from her craw, stooped over in her chair, breathing heavily.

"Why do you always wear that trench coat? Are you naked underneath or something?" asked Drummond. "That's what I wanna know."

Then, the jailbird spoke, his voice level and commanding: "So let us drink a toast to the dead. All the dead, right Fräu Schmidt? Let us toast the dead this evening."

Now Fräulein Schmidt's boggly eyes were overflowing with tears. Fräulein, Drummond thought. She's a little old to be a fräulein, but still I'd like to see what's going on underneath that trench coat.

"Schnapps and wurst," said the jailbird. "This reminds me of Saturday afternoons, just an ordinary Saturday afternoon."

By the lamplight, Drummond noticed the jailbird was also crying silently. Cry babies.

"You got a radio or something?" asked Drummond.

"Yes, I do," said Fräulein Schmidt, who stood up, retreated to the other room, and returned with an old time phonograph thing. She put on a record. The record started to play. Some kind of symphony music. German music, echoing and brassy and full of puffed up sentiment.

Drummond removed his jacket and rose to meet Fräulein Schmidt in the middle of the room. When they began to dance, softness pressing on softness, the drawstrings of her trench coat came undone. The garment relaxed its grip entirely before pooling around her elegant red slippers, creating the halo in which they moved. Drummond found himself sheltering her nakedness from the hard pressing night, the ex-con's gaze. He wondered if this was the beginning of the future proper, the past having run its course, the gray half-birth present worn through like old wall paper. He held her, caressed her, kissed the tears from the eyes of the naked, dancing Kraut.

 

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