“I just pulled out my 45 and shot her,” Walt said, shaking his head behind the steering wheel. The small straight bed truck’s lights made the early morning snow on the roadside sparkle. His partner for today, a young kid, leaned against the inside of the passenger door and looked apprehensively at the aging man. The temp agency had put the two of them together for the day.
“No, no. I wanted to do it,” Walt said aloud, as he stared through the windshield. His Naugahyde flapped hat with a metal cow horn stapled to the front sat perched on him like a poor man’s crown. He held the wheel exactly at 10 and 2. It was snowing again.
Walt came to and cleared his throat. On the bench seat was the list of stops.
“What’s first?” he asked.
Ethan picked up the list. He sat, ears sharp, heightened by what he’d heard. The guy’s about my father’s age, he thought. He looked at the door handle by his hand.
“So what do ya figure?” asked Walt.
I figure I want out of this, thought Ethan.
“Looks like they got Markin’s Market first. On Sutter.”
Long day is one thing, thought Ethan, but riding shotgun with a crazy guy… they wouldn’t hire a crazy guy, he thought. He remembered their greeting a few minutes back, his bad teeth, their handshake. This guy’s hands were rock hard. He felt his own again. How soft his must have seemed to him.
“No time for breakfast,” Walt said. He let his eyes slide toward the kid to see how that took. He rolled down his window, tugged on the large mirror and checked the mirror out Ethan’s window. “Pull it in. Yep, right there, good.” Cold air filled the cab; the first stop several blocks away. They sat silent for a few moments as they drove. Ethan was locked in “what if” thoughts.
He made a move towards the radio knob.
“Mind?” asked Ethan.
Walt was focused on the new truck and didn’t respond, so Ethan eased back. They were to deliver and set-up soap promotions, signs, small cardboard displays. Walt asked where he was from, and Ethan did the same. Ethan glanced again at the list and said “Turn at the next right.” Walt brought the truck into the loading dock.
“How ‘bout this,” Walter said as he backed into the bay, “I drive and you handle the paperwork.”
“I bet you went to college.”
“Going,” Ethan added.
“Mor’n I did. I’ll get the boxes, you go ahead and do the talking.”
The job barely paid minimum wage. Ethan mulled over what this guy was doing working for hardly anything. A nut, that’s what he is, he thought. But they hire him; I think he’s a regular there.
Walt got a kick out of the new 1969 truck, an automatic. For Ethan it was a winter-break adventure, a ride along, getting up, working. Living at home, in a better neighborhood, Ethan saw the pay as spending money.
“Here sir,” said Ethan handing the paperwork to the store manager. Walt stood back a step, rigid, holding the cardboard display with a couple of boxes at his feet.
“You’re kidding,” said the manager in bow tie about their sudden appearance in the well-lighted store. “Is there a day you guys don’t drop off something?” Walt tensed, kept his eyes straight, yet peripheral to the two of them.
“Where do you think I can fit that?”
Ethan looked over his shoulder, “Maybe over –“
“I know where. Set it up over there. What is it anyway?”
“Just set it up over there.” The manager turned and walked down an aisle.
“Jeez,” said Walt.
The old man and the boy unfolded the cardboard with inserts and a shelf, Walt’s hands moved over the display as Ethan tried to figure out the assembly instructions.
“That goes there and this in the slot here,” Walter muttered. Ethan watched the tall thin man rapidly figure it out. The holiday display was up.
And so it went.
Walt glanced at his wristwatch.
“Noon in five minutes. Gettin’ hungry?”
“Yeah, a little,” said Ethan.
They rode a bit longer through the streets of the small city until Walt spotted a church parking lot and pulled in. The truck rumbled into the empty lot and panted steady as it idled.
“Whatcha got?” Walt’s tone had been warming up during the morning, especially now when he was about to eat. Several stores done, Ethan had forgotten his apprehension. Walt set his lunchbox in his lap as the sun lit his long, pocked face. Ethan caught a smirk on Walt as he flipped the latch on his box . Walt took his time pulling out a sandwich wrapped tight in waxed paper. Ethan listened to the crinkle and salivated. He pretended to fish around for something in his pocket.
“Where’s yours?” Walt feigned. Nice kid though, he thought.
Walt shook his head and unfolded the sandwich.
“Here,” Walt said, and presented it to the boy.
“That’s OK Walt.”
“Take it. I got another.”
Ethan cocked his head, smiled and took half the sandwich; butter and baloney, cut at an angle.
“Go on,” said Walt, pushing the other half at Ethan.
Walt nodded and retrieved his second sandwich from his pail. He adjusted himself in the driver’s seat and smiled like a kid who just made a new friend. Walt took a big bite, grinning. Ethan took his bite and smiled back. Both men sat in the box truck looking out the windows as the sound of lunch filled the cab. Every few seconds Walter turned to look at Ethan offering a small head shake and Ethan nodded. Work, thought Ethan, adult work, not bad. Walt rested his hand holding his sandwich on the steering wheel, and shook his head at the day. He unscrewed the top on his Thermos and poured black coffee into the cup, took a sip, and let out a long accentuated “Ah.”
He let it settle, and then looked over at Ethan.
“That’s OK,” said Ethan.
“Wash it down.”
Walt handed him the cup and Ethan sipped the hot, bitter coffee, and handed it back with a nod of thanks. Walt took a louder sip from the cup.
“You married Walt? Got family?”
Walt snorted, “Couple times, no kids. How ‘bout you?”
Ethan laughed. “Na.”
“There’s plenty out there for a young, smart one like you.”
“I have a girl, but no plans right now.” Ethan hadn’t given it a thought, but figured it made him seem more mature. So this is it, Ethan thought, so this is what they do.
“Don’t wait too long, someday you’ll be old like me.”
Ethan offered the obligatory chuckle.
In a few minutes Ethan picked up the delivery sheet from the seat, and Walt snap- responded, closing his lunchbox and checking the mirrors. The afternoon was passing more quickly as they made their deliveries and then relived the stores and people they encountered. Walt drove relaxed, hat pushed a bit back. Ethan felt a lot better, in fact, almost good, really good. They were making the art of small talk work.
Their last stop was a call on a country store miles out. The two rode sometimes silent, enjoying the serenity. Farms and pastures stood quiet against the descending light casting its blue tint over the snow and fields; barns drifted into purple hues, farm equipment left out to the weather turned into silhouettes.
Ethan wondered what his mother was making for supper, what he was going to do with his night.
“You comin’ back tomorrow?” Walt asked. “Maybe we’ll get paired up again.”
“Not sure, maybe,” offered Ethan. “Not sure if I can. Sounds great though.”
Walt glanced at Ethan and thought about himself at Ethan’s age. And then that Goddamn thought, that thought he kept at bay since early morning, started again. He shook his head like he was shaking off a stiff jab to the face.
“Walt,” said Ethan.
“Come on,” said Walt to himself.
“Yeah well,” said Walt, barely audible. Then he looked at Ethan and smiled a bit. ‘Sorry.”
“Sure,” said Ethan.
“I was just thinkin’.” It got quiet then Ethan spoke.
“Me too, I guess.”
Ethan looked out his window.
“I got my draft notice a couple days ago.”
“I kinda want to go and kinda don’t.”
Walt said nothing for a moment.
“If you got to, you got to,” Walt said.
“Were you in the war?”
“The big one.”
“Scary?” Ethan asked.
Walt adjusted his hands on the wheel.
“Pretty scary. Ya know I was just about your age.”
“What branch were you in?”
“Army.” The questions were alright,Walt thought, he has a right to ask them.
“Where were you stationed?”
“All over. France, Belgium, Germany after the war ended.”
“What was it like? I mean…”
“Good and bad. Mostly bad. We ate pretty good, and some of those guys were pretty decent fellas.”
Walt saw young faces, some smiling, joking around, some crying, some with half a jaw or head, some sticking out of snow.
“Food was in cans right?” Ethan asked.
“Your food was in those small tins?”
“Yep. C-rations. Ready mades, beans and franks, my favorites. They were good even eatin’ ‘em cold. We wasn’t allowed to have a fire most times. Beans and franks, hard to get.”
“See any combat?”
Walt kept his stare on the road.
“Got pretty rough,” Walt added. He soon found himself creeping into a snow filled shell crater. He could feel the cold and fear running up his back again, could hear the snow’s dry squeak as he crawled, elbows and knees hitting frozen ground, frozen boots slipping against the incline. “Near zero.”
“Near zero?” Ethan asked.
Walt looked at the winter stripped trees outside. He remembered the stillness out there, how his hands froze to his rifle.
“It was so Goddamned cold.”
Ethan got his images from films and the old black and white Life magazines his mother now kept in the attic.
They say that was one hell of a battle.”
“Hell’s right. We was pushed pretty hard and then pushed again. I never liked being pushed. It never seemed to end. ”
“You made it out OK though.”
“I was on point, dug in, two, three hundred yards out ahead of our company. The main body was in the forest behind me. They’d always put one of us out on point. I guess it was my turn. So I went out, just an open field like that over there, nothin’ but snow between them and us. Damn. It was so cold you almost couldn’t move, my feet… I was out there with a pair of field glasses. They were no damned good, iced up, and I was supposed to keep an eye on the Jerrys set back in their side of the forest. I didn’t have one bullet; our whole company was out of ammo. Can you believe it? I didn’t have a single bullet. Not one. What am I supposed to do. What the hell am I gonna do? I thought about trying to get over to a guy lyin’ over there in the snow, but it was gettin’ too light, too far. Don’t think he had any anyways. So I just kept still.”
“Did the Germans attack?”
“Oh, hell yeah. Just before daybreak they unloaded. Trees back behind me went flyin’, they cracked hard as a strike a lightning.’ Fallin’ everywhere. I’m out there in this empty field, frozen, alone with nothin.’ Never make it back even if I wanted to.”
“After the first barrage, the ground starts shakin,’ I mean shakin.’ Tanks, Panzers.”
“What’d you do?”
“Prayed those sons o’ bitches didn’t run me over. Wheels was so close I could hear the treads packing the snow right next to my head. My teeth rattled. Then hundreds of ‘em come, infantry, screamin’ and runnin.’ I pushed my rifle away, tucked the glasses under me, laid face down and pulled some snow down over my head like I was already dead. You know, I still hear that one set of boots slipping down the side of the hole and stopping above me. He musta’ just stood there. Then he stuck me, stuck me in the rear end with his bayonet.”
“ Jesus,” Ethan winced.
“They never came back that way.”
Ethan thought about getting stabbed in the ass. Walter looked over to see if there was anything shameful or wrong registering in the young man.
“But that wasn’t the worst of it for me.”
Evan looked at the man whose voice softened.
“I did a really bad thing. God dammit, God dammit.”
“During the war?”
“Yeah. Well, no. No, it wasn’t.” It was almost dark in the cab as they drove.
“After the war ended, we was told we had to police the roads and towns. There was nothin’ left of much of anything. So they took us out in the country, near some German village. I was assigned to a checkpoint on a dirt road, just a small country road. And one night this woman comes, all hunched over, comes down the road hurryin,’ walkin’ fast. It’s dark so I shout, ‘Halt!’ She just keeps walkin.’ I shout again. She still keeps comin.’ ‘Halt or I’ll shoot!’ She didn’t stop. So I just pulled out my 45 and shot her. Right in the back. God dammit. Killed her. Worst thing I ever done. Son of a bitch.”
Ethan kept still.
She’s layin’ there in her coat. Wished to God I didn’t do it. For Christ’s sake the war was over. What difference did she make?”
“Did you get in trouble?”
Walt loosened his grip on the wheel.
“Me? No. I was told I did my duty. They transferred me home pretty soon after that.”
By the time they finished the last delivery it was dark. The country sky was letting the stars out one at a time. On their way home what sound and light that filled the cab came from the radio neither of them heard.∎