For the briefest of moments, Bailey considered putting a fist into that big ugly jib of Martin's. But he didn't and he knew he wouldn't. He realized what even a single punch would mean..."
story by j.b.hogan
As soon as Lt. Berkowich went for a week's TDY at Fuchu, the flight sergeants went for Bailey.
You're a screw up, Bailey, Master Sergeant Martin hissed, running a thick hand over his quarter-inch tall fuzz cut, a real malcontent.
You're just bringing the trouble on yourself, boy, Technical Sergeant Armand said, and we're it. Now you don't have a . . . uh, the lieutenant around to let you keep gettin' away with this crap.
Bailey stared at his inquisitors but didn't speak. He'd been in their doghouse before. He knew it wasn't a good time to wise off. He knew he didn't have any power on his side and he knew how bad they wanted him.
Two weeks restriction in January, Sergeant Martin began summarizing Bailey's record over the past months, then another three . . . .
The great bottle breaking incident at the Second Show in the machi, Sergeant Armand interrupted. You boys really fouled that one up. Busting bottles in front of an officer and his wife. And you take the fall.
Bailey barely stifled a laugh as Armand punctuated his point with an index finger in Bailey's face.
Sixty days restriction, forty-two days extra detail, Martin went on, then the Article 15, ninety days tacked on . . . shall I continue?
Bailey shrugged his shoulders.
We've tried to be patient with you, Bailey, Armand said, easing up a little, tried to get you to take up some constructive hobbies. Let you play on the base baseball team.
You wouldn't let me travel, Bailey countered, the coach said he couldn't use me part time.
We're here to do a job for our country, boy, Martin said, not to play ball.
Bailey rolled his eyes.
Listen, Bailey, Armand said, leaning forward, we're looking for the Whole Man here. You've seen the signs on the bulletin boards here, at CQ, in the barracks, right?
Hmph, Bailey grunted acknowledgement.
Well, that's what our country is looking for - whole men, Armand went on. Men who do their job well and keep clean off duty, too. It's not just here at work you have to excel, but all the time. You understand that, don't you?
I do my job as good as I can, Bailey said.
We know that, Armand said, but there's more to it than that.
What I do when I'm off duty is my business, Bailey said flatly.
That's exactly the attitude that's got your tail in the skillet as is, boy, Martin put in. This is the military, not a Goddamn prep school.
Bailey did laugh this time. Martin glared at him.
We're not civilians, Bailey, Armand explained the all too obvious, maybe you can do that back in the world, but not in the service and sure enough not in the service over here.
I should be able to do my job, Bailey said, and be left alone. I don't see . . . .
Never mind that, Martin cut him off, this ain't no debatin' society. You're here because we've decided you need a little more . . . more . . . .
Motivation, Armand supplied the correct terminology.
. . . motivation, yeah, that's the word, Martin nodded. You need motivation, and we're gonna give you some.
We've decided to take away some of your privileges, Bailey, Armand explained. Sergeant Martin has a list of them.
You ain't got anything on me, Bailey said heatedly.
Bailey, Martin sighed, you've done enough crap to spend a year in the stockade.
Lieutenant B. wouldn't let you do this, Bailey argued, fists clenching and unclenching at his side.
Your precious Lieutenant Berkowich has nothing to do with this, Martin growled, his face nearly touching Bailey's.
For the briefest of moments, Bailey considered putting a fist into that big ugly jib of Martin's. But he didn't and he knew he wouldn't. He realized what even a single punch would mean. They would bury him so deep he'd never find his way out.
Read him the list, Sergeant Martin, Sergeant Armand interjected, snapping the tension between Bailey and Martin.
Martin held up a memo and prepared to read it. Bailey looked over at a blank wall opposite Armand. He knew they had him. As long as you were in, they always had you. They called the last shot. He felt a wave of resignation sweep over him. He listened to Martin passively.
First, Martin said, one week of extra detail. Four hours a day, starting today. Second, restriction to base over the next big break. Third, you are indefinitely prohibited from wearing your A-Shift baseball hat or any other non-military apparel that would identify you with this outfit.
Martin looked up for a reaction but Bailey betrayed none. Martin frowned.
You understand what Sergeant Martin read? Armand asked, peering closely at Bailey.
Any questions? Martin asked, jaw jutting out combatively.
The histrionics were wasted on Bailey. He looked at Armand.
Am I dismissed? he asked.
Armand glanced at Martin. Martin waved the memo around as if to make a further point, seemed to think better of it, and then stalked off towards the work floor. Armand and Bailey watched him for a moment. They saw him cross in front of the big board, a huge clear plastic map of the Far East, and storm passed it.
Dismissed, Armand said.
Tomlinson from B-Shift was working the burn room when Bailey reported for his first session of extra detail.
Well, I'll be danged, dude, he greeted Bailey, they drill you again?
Sure enough, Bailey sighed.
You're on the shit list more'n anybody I ever seen, Tomlinson said, shaking his head.
Me and Romano, Bailey said.
Is that that red headed guy who's always punchin' somebody?
You boys are gonna end up in jail, Tomlinson said, pitching a huge pile of paper into the incinerator.
A blast of hot air filled the sterile white room. Bailey smiled grimly at the orange-yellow flames. Working the burn room always made him think of hell. He looked away.
What? he asked Tomlinson. I didn't hear you.
I was sayin' you better be careful or they're goin' to court martial you and that guy and put you in the brig.
They threatened me with that when I got my Article 15.
You already got an Article 15?
What'd they give you?
Ninety days restriction; fined me half my pay for two months.
That's nothin', before I got the Article 15 I was already forty-five days into another ninety days restriction and had just finished forty-two days extra detail. At the beginning, I was supposed to sign in at HQ every four hours when I was off duty.
To prove I wasn't drinkin'.
I didn't really do the signin' in part, though, Bailey explained. That was for fifteen days and I just quit doin' it after a couple of days. Nobody come after me.
Tomlinson tossed another load of paper into the fire and shut the incinerator door. He breathed deeply and sat down on a huge stack of paper.
What happened this time, dude? he asked.
Nothin', Bailey said, really. For a change I didn't do anything. It's a couple of sergeants that are after me. They restricted me again and put me on this extra detail. But what really bugs me is they won't let me wear my A-Shift baseball hat or our flight jacket. That's really penny ante shit. It really steams me.
That's the deal right there, pal, Tomlinson said, you let these guys get to you. You gotta just ignore 'em.
Hmph, Bailey grunted, pretty hard to do.
Yeah, but who's gettin' burned here?
Ha, Bailey laughed, looking at the incinerator, that's a good one. Tomlinson smiled.
You have to back off sometime, Bailey, he said, or they'll drum you out of here. And man, a DD or an Undesirable will mess you up the rest of your life.
I know, Bailey said.
Then don't fight the system so hard. Bide your time. Get out. Get back to the real world.
Yeah, Bailey said, for some reason thinking of his old girl friend in California. He hadn't thought about her in over a year.
You'll be better off, Tomlinson added.
I been tryin' to lately, Bailey said. Really.
Good, Tomlinson said, good. That's the way to do it. Don't give 'em no reason to get to you.
Right, Bailey said, resolving with himself to back off a little. To try and stay out of trouble. Thanks a lot, Tomlinson. You got some good ideas.
Okay, dude, Tomlinson said, getting up and opening the incinerator door. Let's burn some more paper.
Great, Bailey said cheerily. He picked up a chunk of paper and flipped it into the fire. Sergeant Martin, he laughed as the paper burned, Sergeant Armand.
Tomlinson joined in the laughter. They both thought that was pretty funny.
Bailey went directly from extra detail in the burn room to an on base club for a beer. He had about two hours before the rest of his buddies would get back from downtown. He didn't waste the time. When the drunks piled off the last bus and stumbled into the club for a last drink, they found Bailey balanced precariously on the edge of a stool watching Thai kick boxing on the TV above the bar. Bailey's A-Shift buddies, Dawson, Peters, and Dunn, crowded round as they all polished off a final Black Label.
This stuff sucks, Dawson said, looking at his beer.
It's never cold, Peters lamented.
It can't be made cold, Bailey laughed, it's made that way. There's shit in it that won't let it get cold.
Gimme a cigarette, Dawson said to Bailey. Bailey offered him a Chesterfield. Oh, God, not this unfiltered crap again. Peters?
Ain't got any, Peters slurred.
Boob tube, Dawson said to Dunn, . . . ah, man, you don't smoke.
Dunn let out a high pitched giggle. The bartender gave them a sharp look.
We close now, he said.
Great, Dawson told him. Who cares.
You go now, the bartender said. We close.
Fuck you, Dawson said.
Come on, Andy, Dunn said, let's go over to the bowling alley. Maybe it's still open.
Good idea, Peters seconded.
Taking their half empty, warm beers along, the four of them banged out of the club and into the chill night air. Singing risque limericks and laughing loudly, they passed the combined mail room and recreation building, past the tiny photo lab, and staggered off back to the bowling alley. It was already closed.
This place eats it, Dawson grumbled.
He looked around, and seeing no one, smashed his bottle against the concrete base of the building.
Whee, Dunn cheered, laughing.
Peters threw his beer at a parking pole. It missed, landing quietly in the grass beside the bowling alley.
Gimme yours, Dawson said, grabbing Bailey's beer.
Hey, Bailey said.
Dawson flung Bailey's bottle at the wall of the building. It crashed against the side, but dropped to the ground without breaking. Peters and Dunn howled.
Damn, Dawson said.
Watch this, Bailey said, wobbling up to a small side window.
Don't do . . . . , Peters began.
It was too late. Bailey drove a straight left through the window, shattering it to pieces. In his drunkenness he forgot to leave the hand extended, so that the glass would fall harmlessly around it. Instead, he quickly pulled his hand back out of the window. A hanging shard of glass cut a diagonal gash across the top of the knuckle on his middle finger from one side to the other. Blood spurted from the wound out onto the ground.
Jesus Christ, Bailey, Peters said, what'dya do that for? Let's get out of here.
I cut myself, Bailey said, staring dully at the wound.
Look at the blood, Dawson said.
Bailey bent his finger. He could see the bone between bursts of blood.
Ooh, he moaned, ugh. He stuck the hand in his pocket.
Come on, Bailey, Peters said, we gotta get you to a doctor. You're bleeding like hell, man.
I'm all right, Bailey said, pulling the pulsating finger out of his pocket. It's okay.
Why are you always bustin' out windows and shit, anyway, Bailey? Dawson said, shaking his head. You really are nuts.
I don't know, Bailey said. Screw the windows.
Get somebody with a car, Boob Tube, Peters told Dunn, hurry up. We gotta get this asshole to the main base hospital.
Dunn ran off in the direction of the barracks. Bailey, alternately putting the bleeding finger in and out of his pants pocket, walked between Dawson and Peters towards the barracks.
Damn it, Bailey, Peters scolded his friend, you're really gonna get it if they find out about this. We gotta make a good story for the doctors so they don't rat on you.
Yeah, Dawson agreed, staring at Bailey's blood stained pants.
Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke, Bailey growled. I'm all right.
Come on, Dawson, Peters said, let's get him back to the barracks and clean him up. We better not take him down lookin' like this.
Yeah, Dawson said. Okay.
Screw the whole deal, Bailey slurred.
Peters and Dawson hustled Bailey on to the barracks. His cut was still pumping blood.
Bailey reached up to scratch his nose and banged his splinted middle finger against the side of his face.
Ow, he grimaced, then grabbed the source of his double pain, the aching finger. Ohh!
That thing's really sore, huh? Peters asked.
You think? Bailey said.
Hey, Bailey, Peters said, pointing to the front of the Prince Bar, Lieutenant B. just came in. Look.
Yeah, I see him, Bailey said, lightly squeezing his left hand.
Well, Peters prompted, this is your chance. Go on. Go ahead. Tell him.
Like this? Bailey asked, holding up his wounded finger. Peters laughed.
Well, don't point it at him like that, he said. He's the only officer we got who will hang out with his men. He'll listen to you.
You forget I'm on restriction. I'm breaking restriction.
He didn't give it to you.
It's still restriction.
Tomorrow's the last day.
Let's have another beer first, Bailey said.
All right, Peters said, but don't chicken out.
Bailey nursed the new beer until it was nearly warm. Peters fidgeted around at the bar.
Come on, man, he said, you're just puttin' it off.
It feels like rattin' on somebody, Bailey said.
You can't rat on a rat, Peters said.
I don't like doin' it.
They didn't mind screwin' you.
What about this finger?
Keep it behind your back.
I don't know.
Get goin', Peters nudged Bailey. Get up there and get this squared away. Come on. He pushed Bailey. Bailey slowly got up.
Go on, go on, Peters said.
Bailey laughed. He walked over to the flight commander who stood at the bar drinking with a couple of men from the group.
Hello, Bailey, Lt. Berkowich said.
Hello, Lieutenant, Bailey said.
Get you a beer? Lt. Berkowich offered.
Uh, no thanks, sir, Bailey declined.
He stood to the Lieutenant's right, patiently waiting for a lull in the conversation he'd come into. Finally there was a pause. Bailey gathered up his nerve.
Uh . . . Lieutenant, he hesitated.
What's up? the lieutenant asked.
While you were gone Sergeant Martin really put some stuff on me.
What do you mean?
Restriction and extra duty.
He wasn't authorized to do that, the lieutenant said, surprised.
I don't mind that so much, Lieutenant, Bailey confessed, I been there before.
I'd say you have, Lt. Berkowich grinned. Bailey pushed on.
They won't let me wear our flight jacket or baseball hat either, he complained. Saying it made him feel like an idiot, or like a little kid telling on an older brother. I don't know, he stammered, it just didn't seem . . . I don't know.
No sweat, Bailey, Lt. Berkowich let the red-faced Bailey off the hook. As of right now, you're off restriction, no more extra work, and your right to wear authorized non-military gear is restored.
Bailey was nearly floored by Lt. Berkowich's out of hand solution to his problem. He could hardly believe it.
You've done enough paying back for me, Bailey, the lieutenant said, Don't worry about it anymore.
Jesus, Bailey said gratefully, thank you, sir. Thanks a lot.
Don't mention it, Berkowich said.
Bailey pumped the lieutenant's hand. In his entire tour of duty, no one in authority had ever done anything even remotely this positive for him. He was staggered, but happily so, by the arbitrariness of power.
I really appreciate this, sir, he said.
Lt. Berkowich smiled and ordered another beer. He and his company moved off down the bar to play cards at a corner table. Bailey waited a moment, then headed back to the bar and Peters.
Hot damn, Bailey celebrated, almost kicking his heels together, hot diggety damn.
On the first work night after big break, Sergeant Martin waited until the shift was nearly over and Lt. Berkowich was occupied somewhere on the far side of the huge communications room before he sidled up next to Bailey. He reached over and lifted up the left earphone of Bailey's headset.
You got your precious lieutenant back to save your butt, he said, his voice grating through the residue of Bailey's hangover like a Dempster Dumpster being scraped across concrete, but I know you screwed up again.
He checked Bailey for a reaction. There didn't seem to be one.
I'm watchin' you, boy, Martin hissed. I'm gonna get you yet.
You got nothin' on me, Bailey copped his usual plea, hoping like hell it was true.
Martin reached for Bailey's splinted finger. Bailey pulled it away. Martin laughed.
How'd your finger get that way? he asked.
Fell, Bailey mumbled. Tripped.
You just remember this, boy, Martin snorted, I'll be keepin' an eye on you. Watchin' and waitin'. Every move you make.
Bailey adjusted his headset and tried to pretend he was cool. Martin walked to the front of Bailey's work aisle and stood in front of the big board. He leered back at Bailey. Bailey sighed. Sometimes being in the service was like being in Hell. There was always another Martin lurking around, at least a dozen of them for every Lieutenant Berkowich, ready to trash you just for the pleasure of it.
The service was full of people like that. But they hadn't gotten him this time. If Martin had known the truth about how he had cut his hand he'd have already made a move. Another Article 15. Really big trouble. Bailey thought about that for a minute and then burst out laughing. He had gotten away with one. The idea was exhilarating.
His position got busy then and for a change he did not resent the pounding sound of the radio in his ears. He worked quickly, adroitly typing with one hand. He whistled, waving his left hand around, the middle finger sticking up prominently and conducting the extemporaneous melody running through his head.
Sergeant Martin glared at Bailey for a few more minutes, then turned and strode haughtily away. Bailey jabbed his splinted finger at the spot where Martin disappeared. For the moment at least, he was happy. He couldn't wait for the next big break between sets of shifts. He was going to celebrate this little victory. He was really going to tie one on.
(illustrations: kurt eisenlohr)
J. B. Hogan is an award-winning author with over two-hundred publications in such journals as Cynic Online Magazine, Istanbul Literary Review, Every Day Poets and Dead Mule. His work has been anthologized in Flash of Aphelion, The Best of Frontier Tales Volume 1, The Best of Everyday Poets Two and Tales from the South Volume 6. He was nominated for a 2010 Pushcart Prize for his story Kerosene Heat. When not writing fiction and poetry, he is a local historian and bass player in his hometown of Fayetteville, Arkansas. His latest book, The Apostate, is available from Pen-L Press: http://pen-l.com/TheApostate.html More from J.B. Hogan can be found in the Smokebox Archives.