A pack of cigarettes, Kools. What the black guys smoke. Pack open, cellophane wrinkled, one butt poking out. The pack is on the “coffee table” with a bottle of whiskey, a pistol, and a stone. Usually there’s a coffee there, too. Having coffee is touching base with the routine back home.
Three soldiers sit around the table in their low-slung, sandbag bunker where almost everything is that drab green. Black girls smoke Newports but there are none here. No Newports. No black girls. The girls are back home. Cedric’s girl is the furthest thing from a soldier–fiercely individual, not hardened or armed, unique choices in clothing, funny in the way a drill sergeant isn’t.
Cedric leans into the coffee table, moves the whiskey bottle, moves the stone Orlando pulled from the river bottom to bring home and show to people, grabs the ready-to-go butt. The bottle is half-empty, the stone is rounded from the water-borne pebblets that scour everything but the mud from the Mekong, the butt is filtered. Nobody smokes the unfiltered Kools.
The small room is hazy with smoke, Orlando is puffing now, Cedric getting ready to, Leonard just done. The half-finished bottle is like Cedric’s tour, what will he do after, he wonders. His girl smokes Newports. But he doesn’t talk about her. The married guys talk about their wives. The single guys get Dear John letters. The wet sandbags smell like a bad day at the beach.
There’s a .45 semi-automatic pistol on the table, the drawn-back slide ready to bolt forward and ram in cartridge when the catch is released. When you pick up a .45, your index finger slides onto the trigger while your thumb slides up the grip to loosen the catch. When Cedric holds his girl, one hand slides down to her backside, the other up her back to unzip her dress.
A geologist who’d been drafted says Orlando’s stone slowly washed downstream from an origin in China, just like Communism. He said something about flecks and colors and density. Orlando is from L.A. and sees only concrete. This round stuff has him baffled.
Cedric nestles the unlit cigarette between his fingers, thinks of his girl, and holds the whiskey bottle up into the shaft of light that osmotes through the entryway like everything else. The golden color of the low sun and the nervousness of Cedric after patrol make the whiskey shine like a jar of wedding bands. He’ll be wearing one soon, he thinks. Then he hopes. Then he prays. Then he takes a long pull and hands the bottle to Orlando. Leonard shifts on the ammo box under his butt and eyes the bottle.
The coffee table is an expanded metal surface produced by the war machine. It’s basically a rectangular steel sheet ventilated during manufacture by a thousand punches then stretched laterally and longitudinally. Cedric used it for a shrapnel guard on a Swift boat. Because you can see through the table, in addition to the shell-holes that is, you can’t put anything under it without it being seen… and because it can easily be seen by an officer coming in the entryway, the marijuana is kept inside a sock casually laying under the table. Too obvious, thus easily overlooked. Had the American military understood schemes like that, they would have won the war years ago.
Cedric puts the cig between his lips, Orlando hands the bottle to Leonard, the three cots that line the three full walls soon will beckon. The pistol has been on the table since Osgood left without it when he was transferred to Khe Sanh. When asked which way Khe Sanh was, Osgood had spun the pistol to point toward it. It seemed like it would now be bad luck for Osgood if one were to point the pistol at someplace else. Oz is a short-timer and in a month no one will worry about which way the pistol points.
Everyone in the Army keeps the cellophane on their cigarette packs. A hit to the chest might create a pathway to the lungs and that’s a bad thing. If you hear a sucking sound coming from the chest, you take the cellophane off the pack and press it over the hole. It’s supposed to help, somehow.
Movement from under the table, a two-foot snake has found the marijuana, its tongue flicking at the drab green sock. There’s no triangular head to the snake, so there’s no problem. Snakes are no problem really, but a triangle-head means poisonous and that could be bad news on a bad day and the hell with the snake and the hell with Oz… if that slithering thing meant bad business, the .45 on the table would be pointed at it. Come to think of it, the hell with Osgood, says Cedric. He spins the pistol so it points back home, toward his girl.
Cedric adjusts his cig to the perfect spot, a notch in his upper lip, a notch created from smoking since age twelve. He thinks about how harsh and metallic his environment is, he thinks about the silky curves of his girl. He leans toward Orlando, moving slowly, reaching for the cig Orlando has in his mouth. With soft fingers, he grips Orlando’s cig and holds it steady for Orlando while Orlando inhales. Cedric waits for Orlando to set his chest tight, inhale complete, he pulls the cigarette away. Lining up the business ends of the two cigs, Cedric takes a draw and both cigs are glowing. He carefully places Orlando’s cig back between Orlando’s lips and nods to him. As he exhales, the thought comes to Cedric that he will design ladies’ dresses when his tour is done.
Jefferson Rose is a published short story writer and essayist and was the first humorist for the ITV television and F1 magazine partnership where he wrote a weekly column on one of his early loves, Formula One Grand Prix racing.