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Marked Men: Stories

Marked Men: Stories

by Michael C. White

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From Michael C. White, the author of the critically acclaimed novels A Brother's Blood and The Blind Side of the Heart, comes a new book, Marked Men. It is a gripping collection of twelve wide-ranging stories about those unexpected moments in our lives when the layers of our defenses are peeled away, one by one, and we are left with the harsh


From Michael C. White, the author of the critically acclaimed novels A Brother's Blood and The Blind Side of the Heart, comes a new book, Marked Men. It is a gripping collection of twelve wide-ranging stories about those unexpected moments in our lives when the layers of our defenses are peeled away, one by one, and we are left with the harsh inevitability of our fates. Touching on themes of loneliness and isolation, Marked Men deals with characters who have been alienated from society, from family and friends, from their past, and sometimes from their own feelings.

In "Heights," we meet a young woman whose husband is paralyzed and who must come to grips with the life she now finds herself inhabiting; in "Disturbances," a doctor is called to the scene of a brutal murder, only to discover he will be asked to do much more than pronounce the man dead; in "Burn Patterns," an arson investigator traveling to the scene of a fire picks up a young runaway drifter, an event that causes him to reflect on his own failed marriage; in "The Crossing," a recent widow learns to deal with her fears regarding her alien new life; and in "The Cardiologist's House," the narrator builds model houses at night when he can't sleep and at the same time keeps watch on a neighbor who is having an affair.

These are powerful and moving stories told in White's distinctive style. His earlier prose has been hailed by the New York Times as "stunningly well written" and by Booklist as "remarkable." Engaging the reader from the first line, White provides a suspenseful and surprise-filled journey as his characters face and resolve their conflicts.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
What does it take to derail a life? In White's first story collection (after two novels, A Brother's Blood and The Blind Side of the Heart), it can be something dramatic, like the death of a child or a crippling accident, or it can be something more quiet, like an early retirement or just too many years on the road. White seizes on pivotal incidents like these in 12 thoughtful tales about doggedly regular people and their private struggles to make one day move into the next. In the title story, a father and son--one a veteran of WWII, the other of Vietnam--drink through a long night, arguing about who had a more difficult tour of duty. Intent on judging who suffered most, they seem unable to recognize how intimately their experiences connect them. In "Burn Patterns," a traveling arson investigator is jerked out of his numbing routine when he picks up a quirky female hitchhiker, while in "Disturbances," a rural doctor is more literally yanked awake by a late-night call to pronounce a man dead. He does indeed find the man stone cold--blown open by a shotgun--but also discovers a complicated moral situation that stirs old memories. Like that story, "Ray's Shoes" shows ordinary people in a situation more complex than they had anticipated, as a couple agrees to help a young man whose wife has just died. The collection is flawed because certain situations resemble others too closely; a narrative featuring a man in a wheelchair, for example, is followed immediately by another story with a character in a wheelchair, so that the image loses freshness. Overall, however, White offers simple observations that resonate in the reader's mind. (Aug.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

University of Missouri Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range:
14 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Marked Men

    Pop and Toby are still at it when I get back. I'm barely in the kitchen door when Pop says, "Their Nebelwerfer launched six rockets at once. Plus they had a sweet little number called the Panzerfaust. Knock the stuffing out of our Shermans."

    "You're comparing apples and oranges, Pop. NVA and VC didn't dig in. They didn't need armor. It was guerrilla warfare."

    "Nobody dug in over there. That was the problem."

    Toby looks at me, shakes his head. Then he grabs for the bottle of Chivas on the table and pours himself another drink. "Anybody with me?"

    I tell him I'll pass.

    When I was out walking my old neighborhood, I'd hoped they would have brains enough to give it up and go to bed. But I should've known better. Not those two. Before I left—the reason why I left—they'd been telling war stories. It's what they argue about now when they get together. A few drinks and Pop's back taking Anzio, while Toby's on patrol in some place like Quang Tri. All this stuff about assaults, body counts, ambushes, snipers, fear in your gut, tracers buzzing over your head. M-1's and M-16's. Krauts and gooks. Last time we got together, for Pop's sixty-ninth, they argued over what was worse, desert heat or jungle heat. Pop went on about how in Tunisia they used to fry eggs right on the tank turrets, while Toby said if you wanted heat, if you really wanted to scramble your brains, just try humping it through the Delta with a sixty-pound pack and it's a hundred andten out.

    After a while you want to tell them to knock it off. You want to tell them, who cares? When Toby got back in '71, you couldn't get him to say anything about over there. And Pop, the only thing he'd tell you was the time they shot some Arab's cow and one of the guys in his outfit, a butcher from Cleveland, cut it up and they all had steaks. That was WWII for me—Pop eating steaks in the desert somewhere. But now it's different. Give them half a chance and you're going to get a belly full of war, whether you like it or not.

    "Run into anything out there?" Toby asks me. My brother has melted into his chair. His head is tipped back against the wall, his eyes glowing reddish like a deer's jacklighted in the night. Pop is sitting across from him, playing solitaire and not having much luck. He stares down at the cards the way a lost man would stare at a road map, trying to figure out just where he'd made the wrong turn.

    "What was I supposed to run into?" I ask.

    "You tell me. You're the one on night patrol."

    Night patrol, I think. "I just needed some air."

    "Yeah, air. There's plenty of that in here," he says, darting a look at Pop, who's concentrating on his game. "Sit down and take a load off, little bro."

    "No, I should hit it. We want to get an early start tomorrow."

    It's four hours back to Long Island, where we live. We'd come up to my parents' house in western Massachusetts, like we do for a few days around Christmas every year. But we want to leave early, beat the holiday traffic on the Throg's Neck. Stace has to be back for work on Monday, and though I'm on semester break I still have a ton of exams to grade. Besides, two days home is about all of home I can stomach anymore. Pop is hard to get along with now. He's always jumping on my son, Joel, for the least little thing, or complaining about the neighbors not taking care of their yards. He's getting old and cranky, starting to fray at the edges. And my brother's not much better. He drinks way too much, has crossed over the great divide separating a fun drinker from a full-fledged alky. He goes on and on about his ex-wife's new boyfriend or how much he hates his latest job. He's depressing to be around for longer than ten minutes.

    "What's the big rush, Bry?" Toby says.

    "Got to leave early tomorrow."

    "Lighten up, will you. The professor's on friggin vacation."

    "Stacey isn't," I say. Gutlessly, I blame our having to leave early on my wife when I'm the one who really wants to be gone.

    But I make the mistake of standing there for another moment looking down at Pop. I know I should just head upstairs to my old room, where my wife and son are already in dream land. It's late, after midnight. Ma's in bed, and Toby's girls, who he has for the weekend, are wrapped in sleeping bags in the den. Despite the walk in the cold night air, I feel groggy from too much booze and too much food, and too much talk, and I'd like nothing better than to drop into bed. But something about Pop catches my attention. He looks different, not just older, more shabby and careless about his appearance. There's something about him I've not seen, or at least not noticed, before.

    "Humor an old fart for five minutes," he says, looking up at me suddenly. His eyes are loose, swollen under his thick reading glasses. I shake my head but without conviction, and before I know it he's already pouring me a drink in somebody else's coffee mug and kicking a chair out with his foot. The leftover coffee turns the Scotch a rich dark honey color. "Park it, Bry," he commands, turning me into a little kid again. So I sit. I figure Stace can drive tomorrow while I sleep.

    "The Wasniewskis move?" I ask, trying for neutral territory, for safe, high ground. "I saw a different name on the mailbox."

    "Move?" Toby says. "Where the Christ've you been?"

    "Hell, that crew's been there three, four years already," Pop adds. "They never heard of a lawn mower, that bunch."

    My father downs his juice glass of booze, winces out of habit, pours another. He's beyond troubling himself with sipping, or with the amenities of water or ice. He's too old for such subtle distinctions. And if we weren't here I doubt if he'd even bother with a glass. How many times did I come home late from a night out with friends and catch him sitting here alone drinking straight from a bottle of Wild Turkey? His face is a raging brush fire of broken capillaries, the stern, bony nose the only brace against sagging flesh. With his heart attack last year he's supposed to go easy on the sauce, but when Ma's not around he cheats. Out in the garage he'll sneak a smoke now and then too. He keeps a pack of Luckies behind the water heater, a pint in his tool box. The Chivas is OK because it's a present from a guy he used to work with at Pratt & Whitney and therefore is condoned. Besides, it's the holidays so Ma has cut him some slack. But Pop's attitude is, What difference does it make? What's he saving it up for?

    "The Wasniewskis? Try like eight years, Pop," Toby says.

    "Can't be," he counters. I watch him throw an eight of clubs on a nine of spades, wait for him to catch his mistake, then see that he's not going to. "Hank just retired a couple of years ago. They can't be gone that long."

    "Take my word for it," Toby says. "At least eight."

    "I never noticed," I say, sipping the coffee-flavored booze.

    "No offense, little bro, but you always did have your head up your ass. Or should I say, up your nether ye?" Toby smiles at his literary allusion he's made for my benefit.

    "I don't get back up here that often," I say.

    "The Absentminded Professor. Remember him in Little League, Pop?"

    "You never mind. Bry was a good little ballplayer," my father says, not looking up. As usual he takes my side against Toby. I was always the fair-haired son: good in school, the one who went on to grad school, the one Ma can brag about to her bingo friends as being "a doctor of English," the one who stayed married, stayed off the booze, made something of himself. Toby, on the other hand, was the black sheep, the one who flunked out of college and got drafted, the one who screwed up his job, his marriage, his life, the one about whom Ma usually says, as a kind of loyal afterthought, "And my other son's doing good, too." Toby's the "other" son.

    "Yeah, but he always had his head in the clouds," Toby says. "I remember you yelling at him, `For crissakes, Bry, get in the goddamn ball game.'"

    "I never said any such thing," Pop says.

    "Sure you did. I was there."

    "Don't tell me what I said. I ought to know what I said. Bry had a good arm on him. And he was a good little hitter too. I remember."

    "Oh, Christ. I'm not saying he wasn't good, Pop. I'm just saying he was kind of flakey. No offense, bro. But you know what I'm saying, right?"

    I figure it's easier to nod than to argue, so I nod.

    "And look who's talking," Pop says to Toby.

    My brother pauses, tips his head back trying to get an ice cube stuck in the bottom of his glass. He taps the bottom, and finally the ice comes loose and clinks against his teeth.

    "I remember this guy in our unit," Toby says, crunching on the ice. "Horace T. Pelky. He never wanted anybody to forget the T part. This guy was certifiably fucked up. Not a bad guy but he wasn't firing on all eight, if you know what I mean. An airhead. Just like you, Bry."

    "I manage," I say.

    "Sure you do. You get by just fine. You got the Ph.D. and all those horny college chicks eating out of your hand. And nobody's trying to take that away from you. But you get by with that here."

    "What's that supposed to mean?"

    "It means it's a different set of rules here. You can go out for your little stroll and step in a pile of dog shit and that's cool. Nothing happens."

    "What?" I say.

    "What I'm talking about is you can be an airhead over here, and they pat you on the back and hand you a degree and everything's fine and dandy. You don't have to pay the consequences."

    I don't have any idea where he's going with this, but I nonetheless feel myself being sucked into something I want no part of. I tell myself, It's late. Much too late to get into this. Yet I find myself saying, "What consequences, Toby?"

    "Over there, bro."

    Other there, I think. So that's it.

    "Where?" I ask, though I know exactly where he means.

    "Nam. Always consequences there. We're talking a whole 'nother situation. Different playbook. Over there, you fuck up just once—don't watch where you put your foot, open your mouth the wrong time—yo ass is grass, muhfucker. They cut your balls off and hand 'em to you on a platter."

    "Watch your mouth," says Pop, who's been quietly playing his cards. "This isn't a barn."

    "What I'm saying is what passes over here, wouldn't cut it over there, my man. I'm talkin' 'bout one narrow margin for fuckin' up. Sorry, Pop."

    When Toby gets on this kick, he starts in with this phony black talk. He's really a blue-collar white kid from the suburbs, but for Nam he has to become this ghetto dude, he thinks. Tough, supercool, like one of the bro's I've heard him mention. When he came back from a vets rally in Hartford a few weeks ago, he talked about guys with names like Curtis, Monroe, somebody he referred to as Sweet Henry J. The brothers.

    "But I'm not over there," I explain. "I'm right here. I didn't go to Nam and I wouldn't have either."

    "Lucky for you. Over there, something you take for granted, say like putting one foot in front of the other, becomes this big deal. It can mean the difference between coming home first-class and coming home in baggage with a toe-tag on. That's the difference, little bro," Toby says.

    I think about saying something. I could tell him how I'd made my choice, how I'd protested against the war. How that's all in the past anyway, and he has to move on. I could say that to him. But Toby's more than half-ripped and there's no sense arguing with him when he's like this.

    Pop, who's been pretty quiet, snorts.

    Toby looks over at him. "What's your fuckin' problem?"

    Pop says, "Can't you go two words without a fuck?"

    "Sure, I can go two fuckin' words without a fuck. See, no fuckin' problem."

    "You think everything's so funny. That what you learned over there? To be a disrespectful gutter-mouth?"

    "No, that I picked up over here. But I learned the real meaning of the word fuck over there. Since we got it but good."

    Pop sips his drink. He's looking at me when he says, "A conflict."

    "What are you talking about?" my brother asks.

    "A conflict, not a real war."

    "It was a war if you were there," Toby says.

    "Huh. We lost more men in North Africa and Italy alone than in your whole damn conflict. And we weren't up against some little punks wearing black pajamas and eating rice. We faced Panzer divisions."

    "You don't know what you're talking about, Pop. The VC were fighting before you were born. Before Hitler was born."

    "Rice farmers."

    "Tell me about it. They were breast-fed on war. Sucking tits filled with war while Uncle Sam was trying to bugger the hell out of them. And before us the French. And before the fuckin' French—"

    "I told you to watch your filthy mouth. What if one of the girls hears you?"

    "They're sleeping, Pop. And besides, they've heard it before."

    "I have no doubt of that."

    "Don't worry. Gonna give yourself a heart attack you don't watch it."

    Pop stares across the table at Toby. I can see the big vein in my father's forehead, like a blue earthworm, moving beneath the skin. He slowly picks up his cards. Then he starts laying them down again, but this time it's not solitaire. It's not any game I know of. He arranges half a dozen cards in an arc across the table. Then he lines up several below the arc.

    "Kasserine Pass," he says. "February 19th, 1943. We were right here, trying to defend it. Part of the First Armored Division. We'd been in Tunisia only a few weeks. Raw kids. What the hell did we know about war? We came up against Rommel's Afrika Corps and his Tenth Panzer. Hardened troops. Fighting since '39. They hit us at night. Rommel figured he'd take us on, instead of the Brits who'd been in Africa a while and knew what was up. That kraut kicked the living daylights out of us. I was never so scared. Every time one of those twenty-one-pounders hit something, I thought the earth would open up and I'd get swallowed. That was a war."

    Toby looks over at me and mouths the words "Audie Murphy."

    "We fought the best fighting machine the world ever knew," Pop continues. "And kicked their ass, too. We didn't come home with our tail between our legs expecting sympathy and handouts."

    "Here we go," Toby says. "The Pop McNally Story."

    "Stupid souse." Pop gets up from the table. He undoes his belt and drops his pants down around his ankles. A pale scar, the one we used to ask about as children but have had no interest in for years, slithers across his knee. "A pin is all that's holding it together."

    Toby pretends he's playing a violin.

    "They took out six pieces of shrapnel," my father explains. "One of those kraut 88's hit a Grant in front of us. Killed two guys in my unit. I still remember. Battle of Kasserine Pass. February 19th, `43. Rommel was trying to keep the krauts from losing Africa. He damn near pulled it off, too."

    My father stands there in the middle of the kitchen with his pants down. His calves, big and pale as plucked chickens, are knotted with purple veins. In his hands he's holding something invisible, a carbine maybe, and looking through the kitchen window as if he expects the Germans somewhere out in the night. It's hard not to smile, the sight of him standing there in his yellowed Fruit-of-the-Loom's, his knees wobbly from too much Chivas—going on about some desert battle half a century ago.

    I'm hoping Toby still has enough sense to give it up, to see that Pop is just a tired old man with a bad heart and caught in an old battle with his pants down. But Toby's just as bad now, perhaps even worse. He unlaces one of his boots, takes it and his sock off, and puts a foot up on the kitchen table. The toes are puffy and deformed, several of them have no nails, just scaly pink stubs. Though it's been almost twenty years, he still has problems with his feet. The skin peels away in white, rubbery layers.

    "Jungle rot," he says. "They still freakin' hurt. I don't even go to the VA anymore. They can't do fuck so what's the use."

    "Take your feet down from the table," Pop says. "We have to eat here. And if you can't keep a civil tongue in your head, there's the door."

    "I'm just making a point."

    "What point? A little skin ain't the same as taking a direct hit from an 88."

    "Don't give me that crap. Charlie had his RPG's and chicons," Toby says, getting up from the table. Still with one boot off, he hobbles over to the fridge and starts poking around inside. Finally he settles on a drumstick, some leftover stuffing and potatoes. "They had this mine called a bouncing betty. Where'd Ma put the gravy?" he asks.

    "Look, why don't you," Pop says.

    "It had two charges. The first one put it up about waist level. Then the second one went off. A real sweetheart. Cut you in half."

    "That's why your feet hurt," Pop says. "You're carrying too much weight."

    I don't know exactly when this all began, when these two got into this war thing. With Pop it might've started a year ago after he'd had the heart attack. It turned out to be only a mild one. Outside his hospital room Toby said to me, "This was just to get our attention, you know. The old fart will bury both of us. Mark my words." But it scared us. Probably scared Pop more than anybody. Maybe that's when all this really started. Ma would call me when Pop wasn't around. She'd say, "He hardly sleeps anymore, Bryan. He just walks around the house all night."

    "Try sleeping pills," I suggested.

    "Three o'clock in the morning he's sitting at the table, writing all these names down on a piece of paper."

    "Names?" I asked.

    She told me they were the names of dead soldiers. Men he fought with in the war. Pop had never been the sort to talk much about it. Some men did—talked about it all the time. Mr. Wasniewski, our former neighbor, was always telling stories about the war, about the time he was shot. His son Walter and I used to go through a scrapbook he kept down in the basement. It had pictures of him in uniform, his Purple Heart, other medals and souvenirs. Mr. Wasniewski had a Luger he'd taken off a dead German, a heavy, blue-black gun he kept in his bedside bureau. Like it was nothing, some trophy he'd won. When I'd tell Pop about something Mr. Wasniewski had told us, he'd say the guy was just a big bullshitter. With Pop, it was different. You got the sense the war wasn't something he was proud of or ashamed of either. It was just something private, finished business for him. Something he'd tucked away and covered with mothballs, like his old uniform.

    But in the last few years Pop has started going to these reunions, gatherings for men who fought in the war. Last year, on the forty-fifth anniversary of the capture of Monte Casino, he flew to Lincoln, Nebraska. That's all he talked about for weeks afterwards. On the phone he went on about his "comrades in arms." "Bry, you never fought so you don't know what it means. But I tell you, it's something else to see all your old buddies. Guys who saved your butt." Ma says he brought back addresses and that he writes letters to these men, as if they're long-lost relatives. When he gets word that one of them has died, Ma says he's in a lousy mood for days. I don't pretend to understand it.

    Right after he got back from Nam, Toby got a job doing refrigeration work for a company in town. He married Jen, a girl he'd dated in high school, had two kids right away, and it was like he'd never even been to war. He didn't belong to any of those vet groups, didn't say much about it at all. And he didn't sit around feeling sorry for himself. When he saw some vet in a TV cop show go bananas and start killing people, he'd just say it was bullshit. Pure bullshit, he'd scoff. He said it wasn't like that at all. He said they were making a big deal out of nothing. Even before he came home, in his letters, he didn't say much about over there. I was in high school then and he'd write to me about what he did on R&R, some joke they played on a guy in his platoon. He made it almost sound fun, like the football camp he used to go to. Toby, who's big like Pop, used to be a pretty good linebacker. He'd wanted to play for Boston College but he flunked out his freshman year and went to Vietnam instead. When he came back his feet gave him problems and he no longer cared much about football. And he came back skinny, too, built more like a runner than a football player. I remember that was what shocked me the most when we picked him up at Logan. I almost didn't recognize him. His cheekbones stuck out and his head looked too big. Something over there had whittled him down, had cut away all the baby fat and even some of the muscle, too. If you tried to get him to talk about the war, he'd just say, "It was all nothing but a circle jerk, Bry. Everybody pulling everybody else's meat."

    Three years ago he and Jen split up. That's when things started to fall apart for him. He began to drink and kept it up until he was doing it in a big-time way. He gained back all the weight he'd lost, became actually fat, smoked two packs a day, got into doing coke and who knows what. The guy looked like hell. He'd had a good job in the front office of his company, but he started calling in sick and after a while they canned him. He was forty-one, alone, unemployed, and his life was a mess. He used to visit Stace and me a lot then because he didn't have any other place to go. When he was coming, it got so we had to hide the booze. Over a weekend he'd knock off a case of beer and a half-gallon, plus a few joints or some coke if he could lay his hands on it. In those days he was hard to be around. Sober, Toby's the nicest guy you'd want to meet. But when he gets ripped he turns nasty and he was ripped a good part of the time now. A couple of times he said things about me or Stace and I don't know why I didn't send him out on his ear. But he's my brother, so I let it slide. I knew he was going through a rough time.

    About a month ago he took a trip down to Washington, to see the Memorial. Up until then he'd been doing OK. He'd joined AA and seemed serious about putting his life back together. He'd gotten another job, one he seemed to like, and had a new girlfriend named Maria. I thought maybe he was over the hump. We'd invited him and Maria down to our place for Thanksgiving. We were sitting in the den talking, having a good time. It was like the old days with Jen. Then Stace said something about how it was good to be with family for the holidays. And Toby gets quiet all of a sudden. He's just sitting there staring off into space. I knew something was up. Pretty soon his eyes get watery and the next thing we know he's crying. It was terrible. This big, fat, middle-aged guy balling his eyes out. Of course we all thought it was on account of his girls being with their mother for the holidays. She was engaged to some guy Toby couldn't stand, and he hated the thought of the girls living with him.

    "I got an idea," Stace said. "Why don't you bring Suzy and Paula down here for Christmas?"

    But Toby looks up at us and shakes his head. After a while he stops crying enough to talk. He tells us he was thinking about this guy from Nam. Horace T. Pelky.

    "This real dopey redneck kid from some place like Arkansas. I ran into his brother when I was down in Washington," Toby says. "Horace T. was supposed to get his DEROS just after the first of the year. But on Thanksgiving day we're out on recon, and the stupid fuck steps on a mine. Must've been one of those big chicons," Toby says. "It's plastic explosive sitting on top of a fifty-gallon drum of gasoline. Could knock a twenty-ton track right on its ass. You get the picture. There wasn't much left of old Horace T. I'm not shitting you. The poor bastard was there one minute and—like that!—gone the next," Toby said, snapping his fingers. "You can't imagine what can happen to the human body." Somewhere along the line Toby's crying had turned to laughter. Like it was suddenly the funniest thing he'd ever heard. Stace and Maria and I are all looking at each other, wondering if the guy had flipped out. Then he says, "Get this. First Sarge had us on our hands and knees looking for something of old Horace T's—a finger, a toe, anything. I mean, you had to have something for Dust Off to pick up. And you know what some guy in our unit says? I swear to God. True story. He says, `How in the hell are we going to tell the difference between Horace T's pinky and his pisser?' And we all bust up. I mean, we're howling."

    Stacey and Maria got up and went to bed. Afterwards I said to him, "What the hell's the matter with you?"

    "What do you mean?" he said.

    "Why do you want to go and say stuff like that? We're having a good time and you got to spoil it, you stupid asshole."

    And Toby said, "It happened, man," like that made it all right, like anybody really wanted to hear that crap just because it happened.

    Pop has left the kitchen and gone to the bathroom. Toby's tearing into his drumstick and wolfing down his potatoes. With a slice of bread he's mopping up the cold gravy.

    "Why don't you let up on him?" I say.

    "Fuck him. He deserves it. I'm sick of his war hero bullshit."

    "He's an old man. Let him talk."

    "An old bullshitter, is what you mean."

    "He won't be around long," I say.

    "Give me a break, would you. He's got you buying that line. Mark my words, bro—he'll bury both of us. He'll be dancing on our graves." He reaches across the table and grabs the bottle and pours himself another glass.

    "Don't you think you ought to ease up on that?" I say.

    "You sound just like Jennifer."

    I'm about to say maybe she had a point, but I sense Pop standing in the doorway. When I turn, I see he's holding a sheet of paper. He doesn't say anything for a few seconds, just stands there staring at the paper. I wonder if he overheard us.

    "It was so black out," Pop begins, "you couldn't see your hand in front of your face." Toby and I look at each other, then at Pop. He's into something now, deep into it, so far in it scares me. And I recognize what it was I noticed in him before, the thing I couldn't quite put my finger on: he's dying. That's it. I don't mean now or a month from now. But dying nonetheless. I can see it so clearly—the drawn flesh around his mouth, the hollowness of his stare, how it's not really Toby and me he sees when he's looking right at us. I wonder why I never noticed it before.

    "What was so black, Pop?" I ask.

    "That night."

    "What night?"

    "You couldn't see anything. Except for a tracer now and then. We were all dug into foxholes on the side of this hill. Fifty, sixty miles from Rome. A place called Carroceto. We'd fought our way up. North Africa. Sicily. The Italian coast. It was black out. Then the flares would go up. Every night, like clockwork. And you knew the krauts were about to drop the kitchen sink on you. So this night the flares go up and we're getting ready for a barrage. But we look out, and guess what's out in the middle of the field?"

    "Sophia Loren," Toby jokes.

    Pop glares at my brother but keeps talking.

    "This little wop girl in a long, white dress. She couldn't have been more than eight or nine. She's got her dress lifted up to her face. We thought because she was afraid, you know. She's walking toward us. I keep watching her, we're all watching her. Just waiting for her to get it. We figure, no way the krauts are going to let her walk over to our lines. Her dress is so white, like she's a ghost or something, and everybody in the whole valley can see it. But she made it. She really did. The cutest little Italian girl you ever saw. And guess what she's got in her dress?"

    "Raviolis," Toby says.

    "You want to hear this or not, you stupid souse?"

    "Yeah, I want to, Pop," I say. "What'd she have in her dress?"

    "Figs. In her dress she's got a pile of figs and she gives them all away to us. The damndest thing I ever saw."

    There's silence for a time. I can hear the sink dripping water, going tick ... tick ... tick.

    "So?" Toby says finally.

    "What do you mean, `so'?"

    "What's the point? Who gives a flying fuck if she had figs in her dress?"

    Pop takes a couple of steps toward Toby likes he means business, the way he once did when we were little and we knew we were in trouble. I stand quickly and get in front of Pop, cut him off.

    "Get out of my way, Bryan."

    "Easy, Pop," I say. "Watch your blood pressure."

    "You let me worry about my blood pressure. That stewed brother of yours better watch his big mouth."

    "Toby didn't mean anything. Did you, Toby?"

    My brother looks at me, wags his head. Finally he says, "You know I never mean anything, little bro." He pours himself another drink. Then with the bottle still in his hand he says, "How about you, Pop? Want me to grease your slide?"

    "To you, everything's a goddamned joke."

    "Not at all, Pop. You say you're living on borrowed time, I believe it."

    Toby pours Pop another drink. He's about to pour me one too, but I put my hand over the cup. "Not for me. I got to go to bed," I say. Yet he pours anyway and it spills over my hand, onto the table. The alcohol is cool, making my skin tingle.

    "Christ, you don't want to waste twelve-year-old booze," Pop warns us. "What was I saying?"

    "The little wop girl with the fig newtons," Toby says. "How you saved us from the Huns."

    "No. I mean before Bry came back. What were we talking about?"

    "Marked men," Toby says. "Marked bleeping men, Pop."

    "What?" I ask.

    "Pop and me were talking about marked men," Toby explains matter-of-factly. "Guys you could tell were gonna get nailed."

    "Cut the crap," I say.

    Toby shrugs.

    "He's right—for once," Pop says, looking out the window again, into the darkness. "It was something in their eyes. They got this look just before and then ... bingo."

    "Bingo?" I said.

    "The next day, two days later, a week—they'd get it. Killed. I swear, it never failed. You could spot it a mile off. You ever see those pictures of saints? That halo and that long-distance look. Well, that's the look they had."

    "So what about the little girl?" I ask skeptically. "Did she have that look?"

    "Her? Christ, no. She's probably got a dozen kids and weighs two hundred pounds now. Not her. The funny thing was she gave everybody in my unit a fig. Except one guy. Walt Trewell. A truck driver from Philly. When she got to him she'd run out. He said, `What about me? Don't I rate a fig?' Everybody laughed because Walt was a joker. Always joking around. For the next couple of days we needled him about it, but you could see the fig business stuck with him. He got that look, I swear to God. He started seeing way off, for miles. A few days later we were marching through a small village just outside of Rome. We'd secured it, supposedly."

    "Secured," Toby adds. "I've heard that before."

    "A sniper bullet hit him right here." With his thumb Pop makes a mark on his forehead the way the priest used to on Ash Wednesday.

    "A coincidence," I say.

    "Don't tell me about coincidence, Bry. I saw it time after time. They'd get that look and then bingo."

    I shake my head. "I don't buy it, Pop." I look over at Toby, waiting for him to jump in but he doesn't. He smiles at me instead, then says, "Got to agree with the old man, little bro. You could smell it on them. Their body would smell a certain way. Even their piss. A sour smell, the way piss smells when you're taking penicillin. I'm sure there's a scientific explanation for it. Maybe it was fear. Maybe the dinks could smell it on you like it was aftershave. Some biochemical reaction. Who knows? But they'd get it and then sayonara. Every stinking time."

    "Jesus," I say. "You're both nuts."

    "Something to it, bro."

    "Cut it out."

    "Really," Toby says. "But you had to be there. Ain't that right, Pop? You had to be there."

    Pop leans against the stove, folds his arms across his large belly. "Christ, it got so I wouldn't even look at myself in a mirror. I didn't want to know if I had it. Ignorance is bliss, they say."

    He walks over and drops the paper he's been holding onto the table. It's heavily creased, as if it's been folded and unfolded many times. It's curved, too, and you can tell he's been keeping it in his wallet. Because of this it's hard to read. Yet slowly I make out that it's a list, the sort my father makes out when he goes grocery shopping with Ma. This one, however, is a list of names. Dead men, I think suddenly, remembering what my mother told me. We all stare at it. No one moves for several seconds. It's as if something, a piece of the moon, say, has fallen from the sky and dropped in our midst, and we're too stunned to move or say anything, almost afraid more will fall. We have no words for this. Just silence. Then my father leans over my shoulder, close enough so I can catch the stale odor of his underarms, see his nostrils rimmed with white as he strains to suck in another mouthful of air. With his thumb, the same one he touched his forehead with just a minute ago, he touches one name. "There," he says. "If you don't believe me, read it." I do: it says Walter Trewel. The guy who didn't get the fig. I look up at my father, about to say something, but I see that he's staring hard at Toby. And when I look at my brother I see that his eyes are closed, as if he's finally had enough of this.

Meet the Author

Assistant Professor of English at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut, Michael C. White has written more than forty short stories, which have appeared in publications such as New Letters and Redbook. He is also the founding editor of the yearly anthology American Fiction.

Brief Biography

Guilford, CT, USA
Date of Birth:
Place of Birth:
Hartford, CT, USA
University of Connecticut - B.A., English; M.A., English, 1975, 1977; University of Denver - Ph.D., English

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