THE NIGHT WATCH
The sun was up, but it would be another hour before Bobby would relieve Wes from his watch.
Wes yawned, then suddenly thought, My God, have I been asleep? He lurched up from the chair and looked at Randall’s bed. But there he still was, lying propped up on one elbow and grinning at him.
“Napping on guard duty? You’ll get your ass court-martialed, young private,” Randall said, chuckling.
“That’s Spec 4 to you, mister, and don’t forget I have time in grade on you.”
Old vet banter.
Randall shook his head, still smiling but more sympathetically now.
“How long do you guys intend to keep this up?” he said. “You have your own lives to lead.”
“So do you.”
“Not if you’d just leave me alone for a while.”
Wes winced. He got up from the chair and, his bursitis acting up on him, began to hobble nervously around the bedroom, peering into this, looking under that.
He picked up the jewelry box from the vanity. He started to open it but hesitated.
“You already looked in there,” Randall said.
“No, I didn’t.”
“Oh. Right. That was Bobby. Go ahead, then.”
Still, Wes hesitated. It had belonged to Annie, Randall’s wife, who’d died earlier that spring. He set it back on the vanity.
“Just tell me you didn’t put it in there, and I’ll take your word for it,” he said.
Randall said, “I told you Bobby already checked. Besides, it’s too small to hold it.”
“Oh, there’re plenty of pistols that would fit in there.”
“Not the .45. You know it’s going to be the .45.”
Randall had come back from Nam with the Colt .45. Wes and Bobby were envious as hell but had only themselves to blame. They’d all been buddies with Buford, the company armorer. Buford had assured them he could, for a small price, get them .45s, but Wes and Bobby hadn’t had the guts to go through with it. You could wind up in the stockade for that, and they were shocked when Randall, not a guy to go out on a limb, had taken the armorer up on it.
There were moments when Wes wondered if Randall hadn’t done it with just this day in mind.
“That thing is over a half-century old. It’s probably so rusted you couldn’t get a bullet through the barrel with a hammer and chisel,” Wes said without much conviction. It wouldn’t have surprised him if Randall had never fired the gun, but he would have kept it cleaned and oiled.
Randall was fastidious. One of his nicknames among the guys in the platoon was Miss Priss. The .45, wherever it was, if he did get his hands on it, would leave a big mess. That’s probably why he’d called Tim Shelby instead of Wes or Bobby to announce what he was about to do. Tim was a good guy. They’d gotten to know him a half-dozen years ago when he began joining them for coffee at McDonald’s mornings. But he hadn’t been in Nam, hadn’t even been in the military. They didn’t hold that against him, but he wasn’t really one of them, not close like they were close. So it was Tim Randall chose to find him, to spare Wes and Bobby the mess. Wouldn’t you know it, though, Tim had been pulling up to Randall’s house to borrow that leaf blower the very moment he’d gotten Randall’s call, rushed in, and stopped Randall from going through with it. He’d taken the gun and put it under his jacket on the sofa. Later, though, after Wes and Bobby had come over and they’d all sat in the kitchen drinking coffee and talking, the gun was no longer there. That was two days ago, and they were still trying to find where Randall had hidden it.
Tim’s was the swing shift, 4:00 to midnight.
Wes raised the lid on the cedar chest at the foot of the bed.
“Bobby already looked in there, too. But go ahead if you want to,” Randall said.
Wes looked under a musty-smelling quilt and moved some pillow cases, then lowered the lid.
Randall lay back on the bed and put his forearm across his eyes as if the sun were blinding him. But he wasn’t lying in the sun.
“You can’t keep this up forever,” he said to the ceiling.
Wes sat back down. “We don’t have to keep this up forever,” he said, “only until you come to your senses and realize you still have things to live for, even if Annie is gone. God knows I know it can’t be easy. I’d probably feel just like you do if I lost Marcia, but—”
“The thing is, I just got so scared. So scared, and I never got over it. It poisoned everything for me, everything except sometimes with Annie, and now that she’s gone, there’s nothing left for me except being scared.”
Wes waited for him to go on, but he didn’t, so Wes prompted, “Scared?”
“In the valley,” he said.
Wes knew what he was talking about, of course. It hadn’t had a name as far as they knew, just a narrow valley between two ridges, flat as a floor and covered in elephant grass. The company walked single file through the elephant grass, sure they were going to get hit any second, but Mr. Charles waited until they were across the valley and winding up the wooded hillside and then hit them. It’d been bad.
“Hell, everybody was scared, Randall. Up on that hill, wow, I can still—”
“No. In the valley. That’s where I got scared.”
Randall lowered his arm from his eyes, pushed himself up on his elbow, and looked at Wes.
“It was you, Wes.”
“What do you mean? What was me?”
“You sang that song. That’s when I got scared.”
“You know what I’m talking about. The song about the bears in the woods. You sang it as we were walking across the valley toward the tree line.”
Then, his face twisted as if the singing hurt him, he sang
If you go down to the woods today,
You’re in for a big surprise.
If you go down to the woods today,
You’d better go in disguise.
“‘The Teddy Bears’ Picnic’!”
“You sang that, and then as we went on through the elephant grass, getting closer to the tree line, you stopped singing and started chanting those first two lines over and over—“If you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise”—and I got so scared. I got so scared that I wanted to die so I wouldn’t have to be scared any more, and I haven’t gotten over it except with Annie. Now, though . . .”
Wes couldn’t have said what the expression was on his own face, but it must have been disturbing because Randall came over and put a hand on his shoulder.
“I’m sorry, Wes. I wasn’t blaming you, I didn’t mean it like that. I was just trying to explain what it was. It was me. It’s not normal, is it, to react that way over a song? I guess I was always, I don’t know, just not strong enough. That’s why . . .”
He didn’t finish the sentence. Wes reached up and patted the hand on his shoulder, and Randall went back and sat on the edge of the bed. He looked off into the distance a moment, then said, “You remember—now what was his name?—Little Al, we called him, I think.”
“I do remember Little Al. But I’d rather not.”
“We got to that clearing in the woods up on the hill, and a mortar round almost cut him in two.”
“Yeah yeah yeah.”
“He was hurting bad, and he wasn’t going to make it, and he was going to be hurting bad until he died. We just kept pushing more and more morphine into him until it was the morphine that killed him. It was the kindest thing.”
“Yeah yeah yeah.”
They sat for several minutes in silence. Then Wes stood up and said, “Think I’ll go out for a cigarette.”
“Smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em,” Randall said, a thing sergeants would say when giving the men a rest break. Wes walked out of the bedroom as if he hadn’t heard.
He went through the kitchen and out the side door into the carport where Randall’s Jeep Cherokee was parked. He took out a pack of Marlboro’s but then just held it in his hand. He waited.
The .45, with its short barrel and large caliber, sounded like a cannon when it went off, and Wes flinched but did not hit the dirt as he would have fifty years ago in Nam.
He took a cigarette from the pack, then saw his reflection in the window of the Jeep. He didn’t light the cigarette but held it in one hand and the pack in the other.
Three deep wrinkles furrowed his forehead, and deltas of wrinkles spread from the corners of his eyes across his temples and down his cheeks. His eyes, sunken in grayish flesh, looked rheumy. His jowls hung down slack, and a long white hair dangled from his Adam’s apple.
To himself he began to sing the song, not chanting it as Randall said he had walking through the elephant grass but as he had as a little boy singing along with the radio in the kitchen as his mother kneaded bread at the counter, every few seconds looking back at him and smiling, with such love.
She was gone now, died decades ago, gone, too, that young boy she’d gazed at with such love, gone all the old times, even the brightest memories of which were fading away like old soldiers.
We all walk across the valley, he thought. Then he began to sing the song again.
DENNIS VANNATTA is a Pushcart and Porter Prize winner, with essays and stories published in many magazines and anthologies, including River Styx, Chariton Review, Boulevard, and Antioch Review. His sixth collection of stories, The Only World You Get¸ was published by Et Alia Press.