Authors: John Domini
“Put a stop on F.L.A.,” Garbeau said into the phone. She spoke pointedly, loudly, her eyes fixed on Hartley. “No, this is just paper. We'll promote the same S.A. Just reroute the signatures through Ayer, Mass.”
“Let's get this exercise locked in as of thirteen-hundred,” Hartley said to the man at Fort Pope, glaring back at Garbeau word for word. He felt the sea-salt inside her knee. “The C.O. and the gate should understand it's strictly S.O.P.”
Hartley was back behind the plexiglass divider, back with the driver whose face he found so reliable, so soggy. He'd finished sneezing at the limo's air-conditioning. He lit a joint. He'd bought about a half-dozen before leaving Garbeau's room. She'd asked a high price and he'd insisted on paying what he called “recreation tax.” Now, outside the big car's tinted windows, he saw the foliage closing together to make jungle, the Everglades.
“You know,” the driver said, “Louisiana's a
Hartley hadn't noticed the divider coming down.
“You're getting paid,” he said.
“Gettin' paid is just bidnis as usual.” The driver gestured for the joint and Hartley saw no reason not to pass it. “But I think you and me can work out a better ârangement.”
Toke. Hartley wondered if he'd missed something said earlier. Also, for no reason, he realized he wouldn't have any lunch and for breakfast there'd only been that coffee.
“Army got installations in Florida, you know,” the driver said later. By this time they'd pulled over to the side of the road. They sat under some powerful flowers, like morning glories on spiralling vines, and were sharing a bottle of Catawba Pink. Hot pebbles dug into Hartley's behind.
“Now I can cover for you with any kind of story you like,” the driver said. “Army won't mind. A war hero like y'self, you can bend the rules a little.”
.” Hartley felt he had to stand up. “The Army”âhe groaned and made itâ“expects a man to be where he
he's going to be.”
“Hey, I'm not kidding, I'm not kidding. The Army, I know just where I'd be if it wasn't for them. I'd be up in those woods living out of some two-bit mobile home, working on the heat, working on the car, working every goddamn minute of the weekend. Breaking my back not to get laid off. Half the time I'd be scared of my own children. I've seen it. I
“I got granchillen, myself,” the driver said.
But Hartley went on pacing, back and forth along the unshaded road. Every step in his heavy boots seemed to send the point of a spear poking through the top of his head.
“What you're talking about,” he said, “is
the kind of thing they show on TV. They think they can tell any lie they want to. Right out there on
“That's right, Soldier-boy,” the driver said. “Be fifty, sixty million see it anyway. So why notâ”
“Never mind Louisiana.”
“Now you talking.”
“We're going to find that shooting site.”
The driver's grin dropped fast. His whole sloppy middleaged face seemed to shrink while he argued that, man you gotta know, the site moved on different days. And he'd never been any too clear on Everglades roads, especially halfway in the bag like he was now. And then
, Soldier-boy couldn't do much except maybe mess up their timetable a little. Hartley wouldn't hear it. Finally he promised to let the driver go home as soon as they found the place. Deal. Hartley performed isometrics in the back seat as they moved into the jungle. He did up another joint, smoking almost all of it himself, when he felt his thoughts get foggy. He ordered the driver to keep the air conditioning off and the windows open; he wanted to hear what was going on outside. From bigger roads they pulled onto smaller, muddy even this late in the year. The smaller roads ended soon in blank swamp walls. Insects would fill the halted car. The fourth time they came to one of these dead ends, just as the driver had started to shout that Soldier-boy didn't scare him, he'd been in the service himself, the Coast Guard just like Alex Haley, and a deal was a deal but he sure didn't need no ofay Yankee asshole racist Soldier-boy comin' down here tellin' him to drive with the damn
openâjust then they found something. Hartley was outside before the car had stopped rolling. On the wet ground lay a clipboard with a yellow legal pad attached.
.” The driver scowled.
Hartley turned the thing over in his hands. The paper was blank and the lines had run. The clip hinges were dark with rust.
“Man,” the driver called from behind the wheel.
“Don't you be giving me no more orders, Soldier-boy. You don't know what I'm cap'ble of.”
“They're here. I can smell em.”
“All right Tarzan, you just go find 'em then.”
Without a word, Hartley dropped the clipboard and headed into the bush. Another half-dozen ducking steps, holding his hands before his chest as if cradling a rifle, and he knew the driver would never find him.
What was Hartley
in here? Maybe an hour had passed since he'd left the road; the sun was beyond its high mid-point. Siesta time, Hartley thought, and where he came from they didn't have siestas. That should give him some advantage. He'd smeared mud on his face, partly to prevent his white skin from being seen and partly to keep off the incredible bugs. His neck was already misshapen with bites. His hands kept moving, slapping, moving. Despite the bugs however, this apparently was some drier patch of the âGlades, perhaps one of the Seminoles' old hideaways. He'd gone this entire time without hitting any impassable stretches of river or lake. He seemed instead on an endless waterlogged plain, broken up by occasional cypress or crucified oaks and palms, but for the most part a monotonous trudge through nasty long grass with saw edges that cut the skin. He stumbled often. He recalled a statistic from yesterday's tour: the Everglades occupy over 4000 square miles. Then what, he sometimes had to wonder, was he doing? Yet the answer always came to him at once, a grappling hook slung easily across the gap of hesitation, slung that much more easily because Hartley would never take a moment to gauge the depths. He would think only:
I'll get them
. And he'd crash ahead.
Not that Hartley didn't experience other inklings, other thoughts. He felt pervadingly alone, an ant crossing a gymnasium floor. He recalled the rare look his son had given him the first time Bobby understood why his father was called a war hero. Also the soldier could picture his victory, cue cards floating on the surface of a pool, powerlines shorting out and everything going up like the slow lightning of tracer fire. Yet these other inklings were no more than inklings. Wing shots at something glimpsed once and then out of sight. By and large Hartley was going on nothing but the grapple-hook-swing of action itself. He didn't think. For miles of forced march it seemed as if Hartley wasn't there at all. Whenever he felt his mind beginning to slow, grow foggy again, he did up another joint.
Untilâ¦Hartley forced his head through a particularly dense section of vines and brush and so came down face-first within an inch of standing gray water. The surface stank of pupae and limestone. He held his position a while. His mudsmeared face became visible, crossed here and there by water striders, in the rank pool before him. Then Hartley, maybe, sensed something. He looked over his right shoulder. Not ten feet away a solitary alligator lay sunning itself on a strip of flattened grass.
Hartley froze. His head out over the water, his body trapped in sawtoothed vines, he saw himself as perfect prey. And the alligator's eye was open. Hartley couldn't miss it, a yellow and pink smudge of goo. The pupil was a black chip. Hartley kept still through a feast of mosquitos, kept still while the scars on his lower back numbly repeated one word of pain over and over. He ignored even the massive bees. These tickled the back of his ear, going in and out of some fragrant orchid or honeysuckle behind him.
Just when Hartley went up on his palms, began to move, he couldn't say. But he started to pull his long trunk forward, forward by inches with one eye on the reptile the whole way, until he got his boots under him and could squat carefully, finally, on the edge of limestone over the water. His head was hot but clear. The gator hadn't come for him yet. Hartley flexed his ankles, risked turning a couple degrees on the balls of his feet. No response.
Instinctively or from soldier's habit, he sized up the beast.
The blunt snout, the blunt tail thicker than the body where they joined. The inward pinch between tail and snout, just behind the blunted cone of the skull. Christ Jesus, an alligator was ugly. The color effects were sick, snotgreen with diarrhetic yellows and browns. Under the mouth sagged an awful bulk of jowls. Vivid teeth protruded from the lower jaw over the upper lip like the sneer of a mongoloid. The legs were pudgy as a baby's. Then all the way to the back, beneath the enormous tail, Hartley saw the bloody half-head of what must have been a swamp dog. Indeed there were traces of blood, and shitty bits of stuck hair, up and down the gator's rough length. The teeth also bore a stain. Meantime that clouded eye stared Hartley's way and never blinked. A baby's legs and an old man's eye. The alligator was a stained bag of diseases, stitched together from wrinkles and stones. Hartley wasn't sure when he began moving towards the animal.
He paused after a couple stalking half-steps and laid out a thick line of his cocaine. On the back of his hand, the stuff felt icy and wonderful against his mosquito bites. Hartley snorted and then saw plainly what he must do. This creature was the thing he'd been after since coming down here. The shooting site he couldn't visit, the questions he couldn't ask Garbeau, the deals everyone wanted to make and he could never get free ofâthis was the horny soul of them all. Beyond this, Hartley couldn't think. He eased forward another step, another half-step. Impossible to move without the saw grass rasping against his fatigues. Impossible not to set off insects, popping up comically or buzzing away at slow speed, every time he covered another few inches of ground. Yet Hartley pressed on. With each pause, each new trace of gator's blood smell, he felt more positive. The grappling hook was already caught in that ridged and cracked hide. Hartley himself was already deep in enemy territory. When he straightened his knees, his shadow reached the animal's belly. He waited out another insect uproar. He turned and his shadow fell across the vulnerable pinch of jowl and backbone that was the neck. He stood fully upright now, savoring the meaty stink. He saw how, blackened by shade, the alligator looked ancient and brittle as some fossil washed up in a storm. And then Hartley sneezed.
He sneezed twice. The second time was louder and more wracking than the first. The explosion emptied his head, left his senses reeling with dispersed cocaine.
The next thing he was aware of were some tiny swamp pansies between his knees. After that, the reptile's gummed and staring eye. Farther away, he saw a beetle with red horns fish out a tick from behind the dead dog's lip.
Slowly, very frightened, Hartley hauled himself upright once more. An agonizing rise, as if he had a rachet binding his neck to his ankles. But once on his feet he turned and headed into the swamp water. In his mind there was no question. If he could sneeze in the gator's ear, if he could drop senseless for who knows how many dopey moments almost eyeball to eyeball with itâthen what was the point? He hadn't come this far to cuddle up with a teddy bear. Was Hartley no better than another insect, like the beetles under the tail or the dragonflies teasing the snout? The water, in the water now, that was more what he needed. The heat actually stung him, weakened his calves like when he took steam at the officer's club. His boots sank to the straps in sludge. When the water reached his genitals, Hartley thought:
I'm not a kid any more
. He wasn't some teenage draftee with a teenage wife, married before bootcamp and sent overseas before he knew what an orgasm was. No. These days Hartley saw under the wallpaper. He'd reupped, done his time in OCS, made captain, all with the private understanding that he'd get another crack at it. Now in water up to his waist, his feet trapped in mud, the muscles in his legs slack and tickled by invisible fish, his upper body tangled in gnats and mosquitos like a dead tree in vines, Hartley turned to face the alligator. Once more he took in that mongoloid sneer, those wino eyes. He began to splash.
He used his fists, they were louder. He used his entire body, a wildman boogaloo. In his mind's eye he saw two down-home grunts who had done an insane dance out on the Cu Chi perimeter. Hot water streamed down his face. He began to scream. No words yet, no sense, nothing but grunts and howls growing louder and going deeper down his throat with each jerk of his hips and clenched stomach. In no time the hams of his hands burned from the pounding. And Hartley bit them, bit them to draw blood. To draw blood and have that juice draw the beast. Then with the salty taste on his teeth actual words started to come:
Freak, slope bitch, dink freak asshole racist trash meat
. Hartley's cap dropped and sank. His long pants pockets seemed to be filling with silt. Against the walls of his mind now were flashing pictures from last spring, a stockade riot at Devens, prisoners cracking guards with two-by-fours as they tried to bust out. Still the words came,
bitch freak bastard ape
. Solid words that never echoed in the muggy swamp air. The screaming went on till the soldier suffered the raw scrapes of three days' smoking, screaming with mouth wide open till he got an insect in there, some spread-wing creature that felt like stiff paper against the tongue, so that Hartley choked and coughed weakly but kept on splashing as best he could. The alligator lay where it was. Throughout, it lay where it was and didn't move.