A Short Story – Fiction
by Charlie Leck
It was a perfect summer morning in 1956, just about exactly eleven years after the war in Europe and the South Pacific had ended. Perfect means that it wasn’t particularly hot on this morning and it wasn’t raining. More precisely it was on the cool side for the end of June, just a few days short of July, and there was heavy dew on the grass there in our small New Jersey town. My old man’s little luncheonette was hopping with breakfast customers on this weekday morning. Every table was taken by its usual and standard occupants.
Ordinarily, I, 15 years old, would have been up at Pleasant Hill Farm already, getting ready for a day of making hay out there in the rolling hillsides south of the big dairy barns. The dew delayed all that, however, and work wouldn’t commence for a couple of ours now, because the mown hay needed to dry awhile before it was raked and baled.
So, I just stood up there near the entrance of our general store, thumbing through some of the magazines that the old man sold to his customers. I was probably hoping to come upon a photograph of a large busted woman with provocative eyes and an inviting smile. I was that age, you know.
Donny Mercanto’s brand new ’56 Ford was sitting in the parking area in front of the store. It was a swell looking car with a soft green and white paint job and lots of chrome. Everyone wondered how this young guy could afford such a swell set of wheels.
“Maybe it’s better if we don’t know,” my mom had said at the dinner table one night. I had some vague ideas about what she might have meant. Donny had uncles who lived in the Bronx. They came out here into the country to visit the Mercanto household once in a while. They drove big, long and dark colored Cadillacs and they always wore ill-fitting suits, even in the hottest weather. My little town wasn’t a suit kind of place. Only the two preachers, from the Congregational and Presbyterian Churches, wore suits and ties, even in the summertime.
Fred Thompson was walking along the narrow, gravel roadway that led up to our place from the firehouse down the street. Fred was in one of his stinking moods. It was easy to tell. It was common knowledge all around town about Fred. Sometimes a big, black cloud came and settled over him and he became a different person. His mind went off somewhere else it seemed. His eyes didn’t have any movement when he was like that. If he wanted to look off to the side, to inspect some kind of movement, he had to move his whole head in that direction. His eyes remained glued to their singularly concrete position. Instead of walking, Fred would tromp. His feet came down flatfooted and solidly, one after another in a steady, rhythmic and heavy motion.
My old man had come up beside me. He was fetching a newspaper from the counter in front of me. I suppose he was getting it so he could show old Henry Milton something about the Giants game against the Dodgers on the night before. He looked across the way and saw Fred approaching.
“He’s in one of those stinking moods this morning,” the old man warned me. “You be careful of him.”
“Why’s he get like this, Pop?”
“Hard to tell, boy. Probably the war. It was hard on some people. Some take longer than others to get over it.”
I had other questions, but the old man was heading back to the luncheonette side of the store with the New York Herald Tribune in hand. Fred had gotten as far as our front porch and he stood looking at the single step he had to take to get up on it and come in. As if it was too much for him to lift his heavy foot that far up, he turned and just sat down on the porch instead. He stared directly into the front grill of Donny Mercanto’s slick, new Ford.
Fred had been 19 when he went off to war. I’d heard my folks talk about it. Like most kids, he was pretty excited about it. He got sent to England and had nothing much to do but train over and over again for some coming exercise of war. In ’44, he was with the troops that stormed Normandy’s beaches.
“It was the beginning of the end of the war, my old man always said.”
Fred Thompson could have been a handsome man. He had a trim and lengthy body and an unusually well sculpted face.
I went back to the kitchen where my old lady was trying as best she could to keep the popular egg sandwiches coming. There was one on the counter, ready to go out to the luncheonette for the next customer who ordered it.
“Can I take this?”
“You already ate,” she said. “You want another one?”
“Yup. I’m hungry.”
“Guess you growing plenty. Go ahead.”
I lifted the top slices of bread and dumped some ketchup on the egg. I piled some chips on the plate next to the sandwich and poured out a hot cup of black coffee. The old lady looked at me strangely. I never drank coffee. She shook her head, kind of like she was surrendering. I knew my family thought I was the strangest of the litter and they kind of gave me room for that.
I took the plate of food and the cup of coffee to the very front of the store and struggled with the door that went out to the porch. I walked up behind Fred and looked down at him.
“Want some breakfast?”
Fred turned the entire upper part of his body around and looked back at me. His eyes were rock hard and never moved.
Well, that was a helluva question and, frankly, I didn’t have any ready answer. So, like one kid talking to another, I just threw something out there.
“Don’t have enough money this morning.”
I sat down next to Fred, so he could turn his awkward looking body back around to face the green Ford again.
“It’s mine,” I said. “And I don’t want it after all. It shouldn’t go to waste, so eat it. Here.”
I handed the plate over to him and put the coffee down between us.
“You drink your coffee black, don’t you?”
Fred took the plate from me and looked at it stoically and seemed to wonder if I was fibbing to him.
“When’d you start drinking coffee?”
“I don’t,” I answered truthfully. “I poured that for you when I saw you out here on the porch. You don’t have to pay for it.”
Coffee was a nickel in those days and you could get a refill or two for that price, too. Some of the old guys sitting in the luncheonette with my old man were there for the morning. They had nothing better to do than talk and tell lies about what they did when they were young. My old man liked them all and he didn’t mind how long they stayed or how many cups of coffee they had. He’d hop up occasionally to take care of some customer who came into the store for a pack of cigarettes and a quart of homogenized milk.
“You’re a strange kid,” Fred said to me without turning his eyes from the grill of the car. He lifted the coffee cup to his lips and slurped a good sized swallow. He put the cup back down between us and tore off a bite of the fried egg sandwich. It was on toasted white bread that had been smothered with melted butter. “You’re a strange kid.”
“Yeh, I know. Everyone thinks so. I got two brothers, you know, who are sort of the saints of this shitty town, and I don’t look so hot when folks compare me to them.”
“You better watch your mouth, kiddo. Your mother hear that and she’ll stick a bar of soap in there and make you eat it.”
“Yeh. You know her pretty good, don’t you?”
“Best woman in town,” Fred said, with another bite of the egg sandwich in his mouth.
“What makes you say that?”
“She wrote to me. When I was sitting there in England, waiting for we didn’t know what, I got letters from her. Lord, it was good to get them and hear news of home. The boredom was awful and I was so homesick. Somehow she knew that. Just like she knows how much I like these egg sandwiches and black coffee. I know she sent this stuff out here for me.”
I didn’t correct him. He was happy in the thought.
“What were you waiting for?” I wanted to keep him talking. I wanted to understand his stinking mood.
“You know, my own mother didn’t write. Neither did anyone else in the family. But your old lady did. She’d always sign the letters from Milly. ‘With love, from Milly,’ she'd write. Made me feel good. She’d tell me all about what was going on in town – even about my own family. She’d tell me about your brother, Johnny, and what he was doing, and how you were always wearing a sailor suit all the time.”
Fred finished the sandwich and the chips up while he was doing that talking and he slurped at the hot coffee ‘til it was gone.
“You want some more coffee?”
“You think it’s all right?”
“Sure!” I’ll tell mom it’s for you.”
I grabbed the cup and shot up to my feet and went excitedly back to the store. I’d never heard Fred talk so much before. I wanted to get back to the porch before he closed himself down again.
“Can I take another coffee out to Fred?”
“Oh you! That’s who that sandwich and coffee was for, wasn’t it?”
“Yup! He said you wrote to him all the time during the war.”
She nodded and gave it some thought.
“It wasn’t all the time, but I wrote to him regularly. I wrote to all the soldiers and sailors from our town. Your father told me what it was like in the Great War, and how lonely the men got. I thought letters from people in town would help.” She went quiet, thinking again.
“He said you signed them with love from Milly.”
“That don’t mean nothing, you silly boy. You go up there to church all the time. You know what Christian love is. Saint Paul signed his letters with love, too. Don’t start over thinking things here. I wrote that at the end of my letters to all the boys.”
I poured out a full cup of the hot coffee for Fred and headed back toward the front porch. My old man saw me and signaled me over to him. He sat at a table with a couple of other old, town guys.
“I see you out there,” he said. “You be careful. I don’t know about Fred when he gets in one of these stinking moods.”
“I will,” I promised him, turning to get the hot coffee out to the porch.
I sat down next to Fred again and handed him the coffee. He took it without looking over at me.
“My mom said to say hi.”
“She did? Really?”
“Sure did,” I replied, wondering about his excitement.
“Best woman in the whole town,” he said again. “Your dad is damned lucky.”
“No guesses about it,” he said with sudden firmness and a bit of anger. “You should appreciate her, the way she’s sick and all. You make sure, you hear?”
“You know she’s sick?” I was, for some reason, genuinely surprised.
“You stupid or something?” Fred reddened some and turned and looked me square in the eyes.
“No. I didn’t think people knew.”
“God, boy, you are missing a beat or two compared to your brothers. I guess folks is right. Any fool can see how much weight she’s lost. What? A hundred pounds or so? Feet all swelled up like that! Course we can tell she’s sick, you dumb duckling, you.”
I looked straight down at the gravel by my feet, genuinely embarrassed to be told how stupid I was and also sorry for my mother. I got really quiet for a while and just listened to Fred slurping his coffee. After some time passed and a number of people had passed behind us on the porch, entering the store and leaving it, I got up the nerve to ask something new, hoping it didn’t make me again sound stupid.
“What was it like over there?”
Fred pitched the last of the coffee into his mouth and swallowed, smacking his lips. He continued to look straight into the grill of the car just a couple of feet in front of him.
“You want another sandwich?”
“You ask too many questions,” Fred said sternly.
Questions were all I had. They were running around in my head at a high speed, swirling and wanting to get out.
“I’ll tell you,” Fred said, breaking the awkward moment for me, “it was damned boring at first.”
He shook his head and I could see that he was getting prepared to tell me a lot. I was boiling up inside, hoping no one would come out on to the porch and break the spell.
“We didn’t do nothing but those damned training exercises for two years. Lot of marching. Lot of shooting our guns at targets. Climbing steep hills and cliffs. Moving machine guns over rough and rugged ground. We ate lousy food and got tea instead of coffee. Generals were always coming and inspecting us. We’d ask when we were going to move? Get in the war, you know? They’d always tell us that we’d go when the time was right. Not before.”
Fred kicked some gravel with his foot. He sat silently for a few seconds, thinking.
“We landed in a place called Mercyside, in Liverpool. It was one of England’s biggest ports and soldiers from America came streaming into the country through it. We traveled about 30 miles north of the city, to a camp that had been built for us there. Boring as hell. We worked on building bunkers and pill boxes that would be like the ones we’d see when we invaded the continent. All the soldiers knew that we were preparing for it, that we were gonna do it. We’d practice attacking those things and taking them out. The strange thing was that guys never died next to you, you know. I mean, we were all safe and we always won. We’d take the bunkers out and wreck the pill boxes. We always won. No casualties. No buddies died.”
“For almost two years it was practice, practice and practice again. Amazing how cold it was there. Cold, cold rain. Mud. Never a good meal. We’d wear heavy clothing, but it’d get wet and stinking. I got moved eventually into a mortar detail. Carry those damned mortar shells all over our practice area. Heavy crap! Make your knees buckle trying to haul it up a hillside. March 10 miles a day at the fastest pace possible. Then we’d fire those mortars at targets placed out in the moors. Then we’d spend Saturdays cleaning up all our equipment – especially the guns and the mortar. On Saturday nights we’d get to go into the city to have a beer or two, if you want to call it that. It was more like warm piss. English don’t know about cold, chilled beer and they don’t understand about hot, black coffee. Boring is mostly what it was. Getting ready, that is. Waiting. Homesick as hell. Your mother’s nice letters helped. They brought me news of home. Oh, how I wanted to be home. Right here in Chester.”
Someone drove by out on Main Street and a horn sounded loudly. The two of us, sitting on the porch, tucked in right behind the ’56 Ford, weren’t very visible. It was probably some jerk friend of one of my brothers, just sounding the horn for the hell of it. When Fred knew I was listening again, he went on.
“It was about the middle of May in ’44 that they put us on trains and sent us down to Plymouth, in the south of England, right on the sea. Soldiers were packed in there like sardines in a can. Thousands and thousands of us and we all knew what it meant. Practice was over. No more rehearsals. We were going in for real. The food improved, though. They began to feed us real good. There was no more mail coming. That was all back in Mercyside. It was at the very end of May when a big group of us, the 116th infantry regiment, 29th Division, was gathered in a big tent and a Commander pointed to a model that had been built on a table in front of him. He had a long pointer in his hand and he tapped on a spot below a steep cliff and said that this was Omaha Beach.
“This is how we’ll defeat the Germans, boys,” the commander said to the gathered troops. “We’ll establish a bridgehead right here. It will enable the Allies to land in force. Proudly, boys, we will be in the first wave to land on the beaches.”
Both of us sat silently. I wanted to ask about the real war and the invasion, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. As if he understood, Fred spoke in a whisper.
“You don’t want to know about the invasion. You’re too young and too stupid. You’ll never get it. It was just after 6:30 in the morning when the ramps of the landing craft dropped down and we jumped into the water. I was in about waste high and I started wading for shore when the machine gun fire opened up on us, sweeping back and forth into the men trying to make it ashore. The water, I swear, turned red. Why send men on to a beach like that? Sitting ducks, you know. Guys right next to me getting ripped to pieces, shredded by a line of fire from machine guns. Mortar and cannon fire rained down us. Guys were crying for their mommas – screaming and crying like babies. Somehow I got to the cliff all right and huddled against it and wished I was back in the moors, in those cold, miserable, boring moors. Lost about everyone in my unit. I looked back at them there on the beach. Dead. Mangled bodies. Some were just dying. They were out there squirming and crying and it was impossible to go to them. Couldn’t help them. I’d dropped my mortar shells as I crossed the beach. Didn’t matter. None of the mortar firing equipment made it across the beach either. I had a rifle slung across my back and a few grenades hung on my belt. I hugged the steep cliff for hours and hours. Slowly the crying and moaning out on the beach came to an end. Finally, at some time, hours and hours after we landed, the order came to scale the cliffs, to climb to the top and face the bunkers and the pill boxes. Less than half my unit was left. A lot less than half. I knew we’d lose another half at the top of the cliffs and I figured I’d probably be one of them. But, we climbed.”
I was trembling and couldn’t stop myself. Fred went on and on, but I stopped listening. This isn’t the way the movies made the war look. Just the year before I’d seen Audie Murphy in his heroic film, To Hell and Back. It made war look colorful and bright and the death in it wasn’t very real. Now I was listening to a broken man who had been whole and healthy until that day when he stormed the beaches in Normandy.
My dad wondered why Fred got himself into these stinking moods. I wondered now how he could not.
Fred had finished the climb to the top, when my old man came out on to the porch. He could see that Fred was in a daze and that I shook. I think he wanted to kick Fred in the back. He was mighty angry. He’d been at war and he knew what it did to men. No reason to share it with kids, though. That’s how he thought.
“Cullen called,” he said loudly to me, hoping to break Fred out of his mood. “They’re on their way for you. Going to pick you and Bobby up here. I’ll call Bobby’s house. You get yourself ready to go.”
I rose and that seemed to satisfy my old man. He went back into the store. I looked down at Fred. He was silent, but his head shook back and forth and he was sobbing quietly. I bent and picked up the empty coffee cup and the plate. I touched the man lightly on the shoulder and went back inside to get away from the horror of it all.
When the truck pulled up out on Main Street and honked for me, I moved to the porch quickly. Fred was gone and so were his stories. Bobby was climbing into the back of the truck. I followed him and the vehicle pulled away and headed up Hillside Road toward the big farm that was four or five miles out of town. Bobby spoke.
“Did you see, Fred?”
Bobby had seen Fred walking away from the store and it had frightened him. Fred was shaking his head, crying and swearing, Bobby told me.
“He was sure in one of his stinking moods,” Bobby said, mimicking his father. “He must be one of the dumbest shits in the world.”
“Naw,” I said, “you’re the dumb shit.”
But he didn’t hear me because of the roaring of the truck and the lashing sound the wind made as it blew past us. I wondered where Fred would go and what he would do with his day. All day long we lifted hay bales. We threw them from the ground up on to the wagons. We stacked them neatly for the ride back to the barns. We unloaded the wagons into the hay lofts and stacked the bales up to the hot, hot ceiling. Then we returned to the fields and did it all over again and again. Fred was on my mind all day long and I did not talk to the other boys who spent the day cussing and telling lies about the girls they’d kissed.
Fred Thompson left our store and walked down to his little apartment in the long, rotting building on Warren Street. He closed himself in his dank, miserable room and locked the door. Some kids, playing out in the street, heard the deafening roar that the big gun made.
That evening, at the dinner table, my old man told me about it. He was angry at Fred and called him a coward. I was in a stinking mood for the rest of the summer. Only getting back to school in September did anything to help. They buried Fred in the little cemetery up by the Congregational Church, on Hillside Avenue, on the way up to Pleasant Hill Farm.
I wondered if anyone had saved my mother’s letters to Fred. I would like to read them, pretending to be in Mercyside, bored and lonely for home.