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Authors: Max Gilbert

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BOOK: RENDEZVOUS IN BLACK
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Nevertheless, she'd begun to feel a little sorry for him. She wasn't conscious of it herself as yet, but it had already started. And pity is so inevitably a precursor to . . .

"Anyway," he said, "now you know you don't have to be afraid of me in any other way."

"What other way?"

"Oh, you know what I mean. A fellow in my position, he counts himself lucky just to be walking around at all, he doesn't try to--" And then he looked at her quite frankly, even cheerfully, and he smiled.

So she smiled back. That wasn't much to give anyone, a smile. You couldn't be that hardhearted. Even Buck would think less of you for it if you were.

They came to where the park was, opposite.

"There's a bench over there," he said. "Shall we cross over and sit down?"

"I'm not going inside that park," she warned him.

"No, just let's sit on the outside, under the light over there. Rest ourselves a minute."

He's sick, she reminded herself. The walk probably tired him. What harm could there be?

They went over and sat down, under a bleaching needle-like shower of violet-white arc rays.

"I have to be going back soon," she let him know. I'll get up in about three minutes time, she promised herself, and start back.

"Tell me about him," he said.

"What do you want to know?"

"Oh, everything. What he does, and what he says, and what he's like. . . ."

She put the picture away. "What time is it now?" she sighed blissfully. "It must be nearly ten o'clock." She hadn't been so happy, she hadn't known such peace of mind since the war had begun.

He looked. "It's five after twelve," he said quietly.

They'd been sitting there for three and a half hours.

He was waiting there for her by their bench--they called it that, "their" bench, now--under the dazzling orchid-tinted arclight. She came hurrying along, crossed the street at a little run to get to him even quicker.

He stood up. His hand was out, waiting, and hers went to it, and they shook.

"Hello, Joe."

"Hello, Sharon."

They settled down together, side by side, like the old friends they were. He spread out his arms along the top of the bench, but he didn't encircle her shoulders with the one that extended behind her, he just left it there inert on the top of the bench.

"I got another letter from him today," she confided happily. "I couldn't wait until I got here and showed it to you."

"Read it to me," he said comfortably, "while I light our cigarettes for us."

She only left out one or two short passages, that were too personal. And the number of passages she left out was growing smaller with each succeeding letter.

"I'm getting to know him so well," he said when she'd finished, "I'm almost beginning to feel like a brother to him."

"I wonder what he'd say if he knew I read them to you?"

"Don't tell him," he said again, as he already had before. "It might spoil things. You and I know there's no harm being done, but-- His letters might become self-conscious, lose their wonderful . . ." He didn't finish it.

"You don't think it's wrong, do you?"

"Do you?"

"No," she said with fervor. "No. Oh, Joe, you've been a godsend to me. You don't know what you've done for me. You make the hours pass so-I'm so happy whenever I'm with you. Just by being able to talk to you like I do, read you his letters, brings him so much closer to me. Sometimes I even get a little mixed up, and I mistake you for him and--him for you." She laughed a little in a shy manner.

"And I'm happy when I'm with you too. It does something for me. It's hard to explain but, through him, vicariously, I'm allowed to share in--in things I've never had in my own right, and never will have. A wife, a happy marriage, someone of my own to care . . ."

"We're two funny people, aren't we?" she mused.

"Read it to me," he said, "while I light the cigarettes."

She stripped the envelope away, unfolded it, held it slanted favorably to the light. Then nothing came.

"What's the matter?" he said presently. "Why don't you read?"

"I don't know," she said helplessly. But still nothing came.

"Is there something you can't? Does he say something about me?"

"No," she said. "I've never told him I know you."

The letter fell to the ground, disintegrated into its two or three separate sheets at her feet. Even from there, in the clarity of the arclight, its salutation could be made out. "My own darling little wife:"

"What is it?" he said. "Why are you crying?"

A stricken sob burst from her. "Because--all of a sudden--I don't care about his letters. I don't know what's happened! I'm not interested in reading them any more--or even getting them. It's coming here to the park, to sit with you, that--that--"

"Yes?" he prompted her. "Yes?"

She pressed her hands to her forehead despairingly. "I don't love him any more. It's you I love. Oh, Joe, whats happened to me? I saw you once too often, and I didn't see him once too many times. The two of you have changed places. Something went wrong. I didn't mean it, but--you're him now, and he's you." She was shuddering hysterically. "I'm sitting with my love on a park bench, but I keep getting letters from a stranger, in a uniform, in a faraway encampment."

He put his arms around her quivering form, he tried to console her. "What'll we do? Shall I get up and leave you? Shall I walk away, and stay away, and never come near you again? If you say so, I will."

She cried out in alarm. She clung to him with both hands.

"No! No! Joe, don't leave me. I couldn't bear it without you. You're all I have now. That'll leave me without anything , because I haven't got him any more."

"I can't lick it," he said in a smothered voice, "if you don't help."

"Don't fight it. Don't. I don't want you to. I can't help myself-- Oh, here I go--"

Their lips met in their first kiss. They clung together as if they had vertigo. The whole night somersaulted around them, stars and arclight and all.

On the ground her foot, unnoticed, shifting with her eagerness for his caresses, was now planted full and firmly on the fallen letter, grinding it into the dirt.

"My own . . . wife:" peered out, crushed, from under her heel.

Bucky, dear:

I'm sorry I missed writing you last week, but what with one thing and another

There's really not much new to tell you. Things have been going along about as usual, no change

The weather has been lovely lately, we seem to be getting a real break

I have to run now, the pooled car just stopped by for Rusty and me. More next time, dear.

My love, Sharon.

He looked at the second one curiously. It had come right with hers. "Soldier," it began. And then:

Somebody should tell you. So I guess I will. And just in case you think I'm making a mistake, have the wrong party, she's got brown hair and hazel eyes. She's five feet four, weight one hundred and five, stocking size eight and a half, and she wears a little locket, a four-leaf clover in gold. Now does that mean you or doesn't it?

Every night she meets him on a bench in City Park. You know where City Park is, don't you? Sure you do. Every night she comes running full tilt to meet him, as fast as her little legs will carry her. Did she ever run that fast to meet you, soldier? They kiss. Then I see them sit there, for the whole town to see. But they don't even know it, they only have eyes for each other.

Poor soldier, I feel sorry for you. Soldier, you're losing your wife.

(Unsigned)

He cried out so sharply that heads popped up all over the barracks, and voices asked, "What was that? Who did that? Somebody must have got a pin stuck in him just then."

And his buddy, in the bunks nearest to him, said, "What is it, Paige? Paige, what is it? What're you covering yourself up like that for?"

And the blanket, shaking all over, said with a strangled cough, "Nothing."

Always in twos now they came, always in twos.

. . . People do change sometimes, Bucky; you must look at it that way. Love isn't like concrete that's poured just once, and then forever after stays hard and fast. Love is fluid, and once in awhile it leaks out before you can stop it and runs away.

When two people find they've made a mistake, don't you think the most sensible thing for them to do is not to try to hang on to one another for dear life (that doesn't help any, that just prolongs the mistake), but to admit it to one another and try to find some way out? I wouldn't have mentioned this to you, now of all times, but you're the one has pleaded so in your last letters, asking if anything's wrong. . . .

They don't sit on the bench any longer, soldier. Where do they go? What do they do? I tried to find out for you, but I couldn't. They disappear from the time she meets him at 8. Then he brings her back, sometimes at 12, sometimes at i. Where have they been all that time?

She's going, soldier, going fast. Going, going, gone.

Any day now. Kiss your wife good-bye.

(Unsigned)

His C.O. had had kippers for breakfast. Kippers never agreed with him. His C.O. had a corn on his left foot. It was speaking up today, rain coming. His C.O. didn't like something about his face. It was too woebegone. Be hated soldiers with woebegone faces. In fact he hated soldiers with faces. In fact he hated soldiers. In fact he hated.

His C.O. had been deserted by his own wife ten years before. Ever since, he'd wanted every other man in the world to be deserted by his wife. He was jealous of all happily married men.

He was very gracious about it. "Of course," he said soothingly. "Glad you came to me about it. That's what we're here for, you know. To listen to your personal problems. We want you men to be happy. We're only too glad to stop the whole war for you--well, hold it up a short while--while you're getting your private affairs in order. I'm sure Washington won't mind. I'll send them a telegram at once. 'Private Paige has a little matter at home to attend to; suspend all operations.' Would two weeks be enough? Or do you require a thirty-day pass?"

The punchline came like the crack of a whip. It stung like one too. "Get the hell out of here. Request refused. Dismiss."

"Yes sir." Private Paige saluted, wheeled, and went out. Then he lurched a little, on the other side of the door; put his hand briefly to the wall to steady himself.

The barracks washroom was deserted in the earlymorning darkness, icy-cold; it reeked of ammonia fumes.

He came in just in his trousers and undershirt, holding a concealed bulge against his side. He looked around first, to make sure there was no one in there. Then he raised his shirt and took the gun out, and rested it on the edge of the washstand.

His breath formed vapor in front of his face. Well, that was easy to stop, very easy; that was the first thing that would stop.

He dragged a forlorn cigarette out of his pocket, lit it. The one he'd been saving for this. Then he kept walking back and forth, making quick turns each time, like something caged.

Finally he'd had enough. He threw down the cigarette and stepped on it out of old habit (otherwise it would have lasted longer than him, most likely). Then he swept the gun up, to cut out the fooling and get it over with fast.

The swing-door, which had fluctuated subtly once or twice before now, unseen by him, suddenly swept wide open and his buddy, Rubin, jumped in and dove at him. He caught Paige's upraised arm and brought it down, and twisted it around rearward so that the gun fell out of it. Then he held him pinned there against the washstand, kicked the gun out of the way, across the floor.

They wrestled a little, briefly. The plume of steam kept issuing faster than ever from Paige's nostrils. It had fooled him after all; it was still coming from him.

"I thought there was something up," Rubin heaved aggressively. "I been watching you."

"Get the hell out of here. Who asked you to butt in?"

"Sitting on the edge of your bunk-- Holding your head-- It was written all over you this was coming."

"Take your mitts off me. You don't have to keep pawing me."

"Now, steady. Now, take it easy. Turn around and douse some cold water in your face."

He held Paige's face down by main force and did it for him. Then let him raise it and get his breath back.

"How's that?" he wanted to know.

"Wet," was the sullen retort. "How'd you think it would be?"

"I know," said Rubin with a chuckle, "but it snapped you out of it." He packed a fist and pretended to swing it at the point of Paige's jaw, but just let it glance off easy. "What the hell. I don't want to have to start breaking in somebody new for a buddy, after all the trouble I've gone to with you. Who'll I borrow money offa, and forget to pay it back? Who'll I bum my smokes offa?"

"I can't take it, Rube. I can't stand it. I can't sleep any more."

"So all right. Be a man. Go there. Find out. Have a showdown. But don't lie down on it." He shrugged mountainously. "How do you know, anyway? It may not be true."

BOOK: RENDEZVOUS IN BLACK
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