Issue 25, Winter-Spring 1961
That morning the Italian air was filled with distant dust, thin, hanging on horizons and blurring far away outlines as it had all that wartime summer. From the heights the valley floors faded into milky flatness: it was difficult to see accurately beyond the nearest villages. The roads looked like beds of chalk laid open by diggers, white and empty beyond the river.
The highway was not white, but a dirty, asphalt blue. It came down the valley out of the north haze as straight as new wire, halted at the river, then continued on the other bank and disappeared into Cassino in a tight, lefthand curve. When the highway came south out of the town it was changed, familiar, pitted and despised. It dipped and rose, bent itself around the hills and straightened, going south a hundred miles across the plain.
South along the highway, as far from the river as a man could move on the ground in a day, for the highway was broken and twisted and the traffic thick, the mouth of a sun-ken road touched the highway’s shoulder. In this road men traveled below the level of the fields as though in a deep, eroded trench which twisted across the countryside. Overhead the sky was a pale, empty blue, its color weakened by the dust which hung high and formless in the air.
The road was so old that no one could remember its name, nor if it had ever had a name. If anyone asked the people who lived near it what it was called they moved their hands quickly but inconclusively, jerking up their hands and spreading the fingers before their chests, opening their mouths several times but saying nothing. Their eyes would widen at the question: they would look at the road and then at the questioner, then back at the road.
“The road!” they would cry. It was the road from the village, and there was no other. “The road! The road!” and they would glare, and shrug, and walk away.
Ten minutes walk from the village the floor of the road rose until the traveler was again in the open, crossing the neat fields toward the first houses, the outpost houses scattered thinly around the base of the rocky hill where the stone buildings of the village jutted up like rocks themselves. Hill and village were a light, streaked gray, their details and outlines blurred by age and weather until each merged with the other in a dead mass. The village lay like a shattered stone, loosely whole, ready to fall apart when struck again by the convict’s hammer. Its blank windows looked down on the dry fields and the two monoplanes.
They were small and weak, but their color was a dark, heavy green. They were tethered with ropes to stakes driven into the stubble field, and they rocked and quivered in the hot wind which blew over the plain and might have tumbled away like leaves if the ropes had not held them, for they were only skeletons of aluminum tubing covered with painted linen. A man could lift one by the tail and pull it along behind him.
In heavy, solid contrast with the trembling airplanes, a half-track stood nearby, plated and squat on its flat caterpillar treads. It anchored the ropes along one side of a green pyramidal tent. The tent was smeared with patches of dried mud and had a worn, sagging look, as though its canvas had been allowed to slacken in wind and sun.
Inside, three men sat on army cots, surrounded and encumbered by a jumble of metal rods, engine parts, coils of wire, aluminum tubing and splintered, useless propellers. They collected such things from wrecked airplanes and were especially fond of instrument panels: each man had one, but could not use it, nor had they any use for the rest of their collection. Still, they were unable to throw it away: they carried it with them wherever they went, loading it into the half-track with curses and threats against each other. Each man considered his share the most interesting and could not understand the portions of the others, although a visitor from the village could not have told one portion from another.
The slippery heap of a white nylon parachute was piled on the cot of one of the men: he snipped at it with a pair of chromium pinking shears, cutting along the corded seams. Like the others he was dressed in green cotton coveralls with four chevrons on the sleeves. His name was Schultz, and he was the mechanic of the monoplanes.
He was a round-faced man in his late thirties, with a red, rubbery nose and puffy cheeks. A sudden little potbelly sat on his thighs under the coveralls and when he wore trousers he pulled the belt tightly across the belly, trying to disguise it, but only succeeded in making two melons where there had been one. His stomach had a permanent crease in it from this practice and those who saw him naked, his white, damp flesh creased in this way, sometimes pictured the organs inside as squashed and deformed by his vain habit. Schultz was aware of his peculiar looking stomach but no longer worried about it. It was common among men of his age and habits, he believed. He was about fifteen years older than the other two sergeants, the pilots of the monoplanes, and it was they, more than any others, who had to look at his stomach.
He dropped the parachute, which he was cutting into scarves, took a cigarette from his coveralls and lighted it.
“I knew a girl in Berlin, worked in a parachute factory,” he said, and he looked at his cigarette with distaste. “She lived across the hall from me in the second house I lived in. A Latvian, from Riga. We used to go out together and she’d have to sneak back upstairs with her shoes off.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Schultz!” cried Moore. He got up from his cot and stood jiggling on first one foot and then the other, his fists clenched and held in front of him in a boxing position.
Schultz smiled and started to speak, but Moore shouted at him.
“I don’t care, you know!” he cried. “But the fact is, Schultz, there’s a war on, you know I I’ve heard enough about you and your German friends.”
He sat down suddenly, holding his clasped hands tightly between his knees. “I’m the one who has to take it, you know. I’m the one who was always making excuses to the Captain for you, telling him you were flying to group, or checking the rigging or breaking in a new engine. If he knew anything about airplanes anything at all!you’d both be in the stockade.”
The third sergeant, a young man with sleepy eyes, swung his legs over and sat on the edge of his cot.
“Ho!” he said, squirming happily, jiggling his feet up and down. His name was Miller, and Moore was pretty sure he hated him as much as he hated Schultz. “I’ll take that, wouldn’t you, Schultz? I’ll take the stockade, come on, come on, put the cuffs on me,” and he held his hands out toward Moore, his wrists together. “Duncan only thirty miles away”
Moore glared at him for a moment, then stood.
“Miller, I really believe you’re a moron,” he said. He turned, stooped and left the tent.
Miller and Schultz sat without speaking until they heard Moore’s footsteps fade away. Schultz lighted another cigarette and resumed his preoccupied look, ignoring the swaths of nylon which lay around him like an unfinished bridal gown.
Miller hummed a passage from then fell back on his cot.
“Let’s have a drink somewhere,” he said.
“Call room service,” said Schultz, without changing his expression.
“One of these gooks around here will have something,” Miller said, staring sleepily at the tent roof. “You’re a college man, you can find it.”
“Let’s have a drink somewhere,” he said.
Schultz frowned. “Don’t be a jerk,” he said.
“The cup that cheers,” Miller said. “Past regrets and future fears, hot damn! What gets into Mm, anyway?”
Schultz flipped cigarette ashes onto the white nylon.
“He tries too hard,” he said. “He’s from Texas. How the hell do I know what’s the matter with him?”
The hot sun fell on the tent and on the fields, and the mountains quivered in the heat. In the distance they heard a machine gun firing in short practice bursts and the harsh voice of a peasant driving oxen came to them from the road.
“I’m ready to go back up,” Schultz said, wiping the sweat from his face with his sleeve. “I’m sick to death of this hole.”
“Why, certainly,” Miller said angrily. “Why not, why not? All you do is sit on your can at the strip, you can’t even cook.”
“Just the same,” said Schultz. “Just the same. They don’t even do your laundry around here the way they should. Besides, I’m not a flieger, I ain’t the type. That’s for you, bright boy.”
“Ain’t?” said Miller, sitting up and staring at the mechanic.
“I thought you were gonna help me with my English.”
Schultz sighed and pushed the nylon away from him.
“You’re corrupting me,” he said, lying down on his cot.
“You’re a stinking influence. Miller.”
Remember now, he told himself, lying down and closing his eyes, remember, there is no such thing as a bad boy.