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The rains were torrential northeast of Naples on the twenty-fourth of December 1943, and Sam Walker huddled in his foxhole with his rain gear pulled tightly around him. He was twenty-one years old and he had never been in Europe before the war. It was a hell of a way to see the world, and he had seen more than he'd ever wanted. He had been overseas since November of '42, fighting in North Africa, and taking part in Operation Torch until May of '43. He had thought Africa was bad with the deadly heat and desert winds and the sandstorms that left you half blind with red eyes that burned for days and tears constantly pouring down your cheeks, but this was worse. His hands were so numb he could hardly hold the cigarette butt his buddy had given him as a Christmas gift, let alone light it.
The wind from the mountains went right through your bones, it was the worst winter Italy had ever seen, or so they said, and he suddenly longed for the torrid heat of the desert. He had reached Sicily in July, with the 45th Infantry, attached to Clark's Fifth Army, and after Sicily they had been in the battle of Naples in October. And the battle of Termoli after that, but for two months now they had crawled over rocks and through ditches toward Rome, hiding in barns when they found them, stealing what food they could, fighting the Germans every inch of the way, and bleeding over every inch they covered.
"Shit. . . ." His last match was drenched, and by then so was the butt that had been his only Christmas present. He was twenty-one years old, and when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor he had been at Harvard. Harvard. . . the thought of it would have made him laugh if he hadn't been so bone tired.
Harvard. . . with its perfect life and its pristine Quad and its bright young faces so sure they would one day run the world. If they only knew. . . it was difficult to believe now that he had ever been a part of all that. He had worked so damn hard to get there. He was a "townie" from Somerville, and all his life he had dreamed of going to Harvard. His sister had laughed at him, all she had wanted was to marry one of the boys in her high school senior class, any of them would do, and she had certainly slept with enough of them to audition for the part. She was three years older than Sam and she had already been married and divorced by the time Sam finally got into Harvard, after working at every odd job he could for a year after finishing high school. Their parents had died when he was fifteen, in a car accident on a trip to Cape Cod, and he had wound up living with Eileen and her eighteen-year-old "husband." Sam had walked out four months before Eileen's erstwhile spouse, and they had hardly seen each other after that. He had gone to see her once, to say good-bye, three days after he'd been drafted. She'd been working in a bar, had dyed her hair blond, and he had hardly recognized her in the dim light when he'd first seen her. She'd looked embarrassed at first, and there was the same cunning light in her eyes he had remembered and always hated. Eileen looked out for number one, and her little brother had never meant much to her.
"Well, good luck . . ." She'd stood awkwardly staring at him in a dark corner of the bar, as he wondered if he should kiss her good-bye, but she'd seemed anxious to get back to work, and didn't seem to have anything more to say to him. "Let me know where you are. . . ."
"Yeah. . . sure. . . take care of yourself. . . ." He had felt twelve years old again, saying good-bye to her, and he remembered all of the things he had never liked about his sister. It was hard to remember anything he had liked. They had always seemed like two people from different worlds, different lives, almost different planets. She had tortured him as a child, by telling him he was adopted, and he had believed her until their mother had whipped her one day and told Sam in her pathetic boozy way that Eileen was lying. Eileen always lied, she lied about everything, and whenever possible she had blamed Sam for whatever she'd done, and most of the time their father believed her. Sam had felt foreign to all of them, the big, burly father who had worked on a fishing boat all his life, the mother who drank too much, and the sister who partied all night. He had lain in his bed at times, imagining what it would be like to be part of a "real" family, the kind with hot meals on the table, and clean sheets on the bed. . . a family from Beacon Hill perhaps. . . who summered on Cape Cod. . . a family with little children and dogs, and parents who laughed a lot. He couldn't remember ever seeing his parents laugh or smile or hold hands, and sometimes he wondered if they ever had. Secretly, he hated them for the tawdry lives they led, and the life they had condemned him to. He wanted so much more than that. And they hated him in return for his good grades, his bright mind, his starring roles in his high school plays, and the things he said to them, about other lives, other worlds, other people. He had once confided to his father that he wanted to go to Harvard one day, and his father had stared at him as though he were a stranger. And he was, to all of them. When he finally went to Harvard, it was a dream come true, and the scholarship he had won had been the gift of a lifetime. . . the gift of a lifetime. . . and then that magical first day, after working so hard for so long, and then suddenly three months later it was over.
The rain beat on his frozen hands and he heard a voice next to him for the first time, as he glanced over his shoulder.
"Need a light?"
He nodded, startled out of his memories, and looked up to see a tall blond man with blue eyes and rivers of rain pouring down his thin cheeks. They all looked like they were crying.
"Yeah. . . thanks . . ." Sam smiled, and for a moment his eyes danced as they had years before. He had been full of mischief once, aeons before. He had dreamt of being the life and soul of the drama club at Harvard. "Nice Christmas, huh?"
The other man smiled. He looked older than Sam, but even Sam looked older than his years now. After North Africa and the Italian campaign, they all felt like old men, and some of them looked it. "Arthur Patterson." He introduced himself formally and Sam laughed out loud as a gust of wind swept them both against the side of the foxhole.
"Charming place, Italy, isn't it? I've always wanted to come here. A truly marvelous vacation." He looked around him as though seeing beautiful girls in bathing suits and beaches with endless lovely bodies, as Patterson grinned and chuckled in spite of himself.
"Been here long?"
"Oh, about a thousand years. I was in North Africa last Christmas. Terrific place. We were invited by Rommel." He gratefully took the light from the tall blond man, lit the butt and got two good drags before burning his fingers. He'd have offered it to his new friend but there wasn't time before the rain put out the mere half inch that remained, and he looked apologetically at his benefactor. "I'm Sam Walker, by the way."
"Where you from?"
He wanted to say Harvard, just for old times' sake, but that would have sounded crazy. "Boston."
"New York." As though it mattered now. Nothing mattered now, they were all names of places that didn't exist. All that existed were Palermo, Sicily, and Salerno, and Naples, and Rome, their ultimate goal, if they ever got there.
The tall blond man looked around him, squinting in the wind and rain. "I was a lawyer before all this."
Sam would have been impressed, but like the places they were from, the people they had been no longer mattered. "I wanted to be an actor." It was something he had told hardly anyone, certainly not his parents before they died, or his sister after that, and only a few friends, but even they had laughed at him. And his teachers had told him that he needed to study something more worthwhile. But none of them understood just what acting meant to him, what happened when he stepped onstage. It was like magic reaching from his soul, transforming him into the character he was playing. Gone the parents he had hated, the sister he had loathed, and all his own fears and insecurities with them. But no one seemed to understand that. Not even at Harvard. Harvard men weren't actors, they were doctors and lawyers and businessmen, heads of corporations and foundations, and ambassadors. . . He laughed softly to himself again. He sure as hell was an ambassador now, with a gun in his hand, and his bayonet fixed all the time so that he could run it through the guts of his enemies as he had time and time again in the past year. He wondered how many men Patterson had killed, and how he felt about it now, but it was a question you didn't ask anyone, you just lived with your own thoughts and the memories of the twisted faces and staring eyes as you pulled your bayonet out again and wiped it on the ground. . . . He looked up at Arthur Patterson with the eyes of an old man and wondered briefly if either of them would be alive to see another Christmas.
"What made you want to be an actor?"
"Hmm?" He was startled by the serious look in the other man's eyes, as they both sank to a sitting position on a rock planted in the mud near their feet as the water in the foxhole swirled around them. "Oh, that. . . Christ, I don't know. . . it seemed like an interesting thing to do." But it was more than that, much more than that, it was the only time he felt whole, that he felt powerful and sure of himself. But he couldn't tell this guy that. It was ridiculous to talk about dreams sitting in a foxhole on Christmas Eve.
"I was in the glee club at Princeton." It was an absurd exchange, and suddenly Sam Walker gave a crack of laughter.
"Do you realize how crazy we are? Talking about glee clubs and drama clubs and Princeton, sitting in this goddam foxhole? Do you realize we probably won't even be alive by next week, and I'm telling you I wanted to be an actor. . . ." He suddenly wanted to cry through his own laughter. It was all so goddam awful, but it was real, it was so real they could taste it and feel it and smell it. He had smelled nothing but death in a year, and he was sick of it. They all were, while the generals planned their attack on Rome. Who gave a damn about Rome anyway? Or Naples or Palermo? What were they fighting for? Freedom in Boston and New York and San Francisco? They already were free, and at home people were driving to work, and dancing at the USO and going to the movies. What the hell did they know about all this? Nothing. Absolutely goddam nothing. Sam looked up at the tall blond man and shook his head, his eyes full of wisdom and sadness, the sudden laughter gone. He wanted to go home. . . to anyone. . . even his sister, who had not written to him once since he'd left Boston. He'd written to her twice and then decided it wasn't worth the trouble. The thought of her always made him angry. She had embarrassed him for all of his teen years, and several before that, just as his mother had. . . and his stolid, taciturn father. He hated all of them, and now he was here, alone, with a stranger who had been in the glee club at Princeton, but he already liked him.
"Where'd you go to school?" Patterson seemed desperate to hold on to the past, to remember old times, as though thinking about it would take them back there, but Sam knew better than that. The present was right here, in the filth and frozen rain of the foxhole.
Sam looked at him with a lopsided grin, wishing he had another cigarette, a real one, not just half an inch of someone else's. "Harvard." At Harvard he had had real cigarettes, anytime he wanted, Lucky Strikes. The thought of them almost made him weep with longing.
Patterson looked impressed. "And you wanted to be an actor?"
Sam shrugged. "I guess. . . I was majoring in English lit. I probably would have ended up teaching somewhere, and running the school plays for snotty freshmen."
"That's not a bad life. I went to St. Paul's, we had a hell of a drama club there." Sam stared at him, wondering if he was for real. . . Princeton, St. Paul's. . . what were they all doing here? What were any of them doing here?. . . especially the boys who had died here.
"You married?" Sam was curious about him now, like a Christmas angel who had been visited on him, they seemed different in every possible way, and yet they seemed to have some things in common.
Arthur shook his head. "I was too busy starting my career. I worked for a law firm in New York. I'd been there for eight months when I signed up." He was twenty-seven and his eyes were serious and sad where Sam's were full of mischief. Sam's hair was as black as Arthur's was fair, and he had a medium build with powerful shoulders, long legs for his size, and a kind of energy about him which Arthur seemed to lack. Everything about Arthur Patterson was more restrained, more tentative, quieter, but Sam was also younger.
"I have a sister in Boston, if she hasn't gotten herself killed by some guy in a bar by now." It seemed important to share information about themselves, as though they might not have another chance, and they each wanted someone to know them. They wanted to be known before they died, to make friends, to be remembered. "We never got along. I went to see her before I left, but she hasn't written since I've been gone. You? Sisters? Brothers?"
Arthur smiled for the first time in a while. "I'm an only child, of only children. My father died when I was away at school, and my mother never remarried. This is pretty hard on her. I can tell in her letters."
"I'll bet." Sam nodded, trying to think of what Arthur's mother would be like, trying to envision her, a tall, spare woman with white hair that had once been blond, probably from New England. "My parents died in a car accident when I was fifteen." He didn't tell Arthur that it was no loss, that he had hated them, and they had never understood him. It would have been too maudlin now, and it was no longer important. "Have you heard anything about where we go from here?" It was time to think about the war again, there was no point dwelling too much in the past. It would get them nowhere. Reality was here, northeast of Naples. "I heard something about Cassino yesterday, that's over the mountains. It ought to be fun getting there." Then they could worry about snow instead of rain. Sam wondered what other tortures they had in store for them at the hands of the generals who owned their lives now.
"The sergeant said something about Anzio last night, on the coast."
"Great." Sam smiled wickedly. "Maybe we can go swimming."
Arthur Patterson smiled, he liked this outspoken boy from Boston. One sensed that beneath the bitterness born of war, there was a light heart and a bright mind, and at least it was someone he could talk to. The war had been hard on Arthur in a lot of ways. Spoiled as a boy, overprotected as a young man, particularly after his father died, and brought up by a doting mother, in a highly civilized world, war had come a
From the Paperback edition.