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Columns / Short Stories
Shep was always writing. . .

January 1970


Zinsmeister And The Treacherous Eighter From Decatur

"You CATHOLIC?" "Nope." The toadlike sergeant behind the desk at the Chicago induction center - where I stood naked in a line of naked men that must have stretched for two miles - hunched over my Yellow Form. "You Jewish?" "Nope." "OK. Yer Protestant." He stamped - with a heavy hand on my form. Weakly, I protested, "Nope." "Whaddaya mean, nope? Y' ain't no Catholic or Jew." His BB-shot eyes tried to focus on me. It wasn't easy. He had the look of a man who had been sitting at a desk with naked bodies moving past him for maybe a hundred years. It's almost impossible to see one body after that...

"I believe, sir, we'll go out and have a bite to eat and perhaps take in a show before we turn in for a good night's rest." Zinsmeister pocketed the key. Now we had a place to sleep. Things were looking up. "By the way, sir, would you recommend a good restaurant?" "Well, naow, whut're yew hankerin' fer in the way a' eats?" The clerk, his heavy jowls oscillating as he spoke, was obviously a man who knew eats. Zinsmeister gazed rapturously at the brass chandelier, his face lit with an inner light. "I see a succulent porterhouse sizzling on a pewter plate. Perhaps an inch and a half thick. Charred properly - rare. With just the .suggestion of garlic." He paused thoughtfully, then added, "Ali, yes. And petits pois with bay leaf. Do you have a suggestion, sir?" The clerk shifted his cud of tobacco and squinted at Zinsmeister. "Well, naow, alt would recommend the Blue Moon Diner. Down at the enda the street. Next to the feed store." "The Blue Moon Diner?" Zinsmeister's voice rose dubiously. "Yep. Yew damn betcha! Best hash house in town. Yew tell 'em ol' Luke sent cha." Since the line was getting long behind us, he indicated that the interview was over. Without a word, Zinsmeister plunged across the lobby toward the street. He seemed almost frenzied. We struggled through the mob, past a long line of silent soldiers who stood patiently before a darkened doorway, Zinsmeister moving like a halfback, picking up speed as he went. I struggled to keep up with him. After months of Company K mess hall chow, at last, by God at last, no matter what the cost, we would have one real and true meal, and then they could do what they wanted with us - feed us into the cannon. Face flushed, perspiring heavily, Zinsmeister muttered to himself as he ran, "No, I think I'll make it a filet mignon. Yes, yes, a filet! Center cut!" Above us, the neon lights unreeled dizzily: BIG ED'S BAR, JESUS SAVES, BEER, ACE ARMY-NAVY STORE - blue, red, green, yellow, in a kaleidoscopic blur. MPs, GIs, hound-dogs spun past us as we galloped toward our rendezvous with ecstasy. We skidded to a stop. The warning glint of brass twinkled in the night air. It was the clean-cut lieutenant in his natty pinks, with die only actual girl we had seen in town still on his arm. Instinctively, in snappy unison, we both saluted. We were taking no chances. The lieutenant threw a casual highball with the studied insolence of the true aristocrat. The girl, her baby-blue eyes sending out waves of worship at her hero, noticed us for the first time. "You men enjoying yourselves?" he asked, with a faint smile playing over his chiseled features. "Yessir!" we barked. "That's good. I'm always pleased to see the men enjoy themselves, in their own way." The girl's blue eyes scanned its both coldly, as one would scrutinize a particularly noxious breed of reptile. "Thank you, sir!" "Straighten that tie, soldier." The steel came into his eyes. "Yes, sir!" We both straightened our ties. The girl's cornflower-blue eyes grew colder by the second. We weren't reptiles anymore; we had turned into insects. "Proceed, men, And try to stay out of trouble." This last was delivered with the inflection of one instructing a two-year-old that it's time for potty. "Good night, sir! And thank you, sir!" we belted out in perfect synchronization. The lieutenant and Blue Eyes strolled on. As they receded, I heard him say, "You've got to watch them every minute. They're like children, you know." The musical lilt of laughter from the Ozark's fairest flower was the last we heard front them. A few steps farther and we were there. A crescent of flickering blue neon lit up the cracked sidewalk before us. A red-neon arrow jerked up and down, up and down, pointing at a bull's-eye outlining the magic words: EAT! EAT! EAT! The heavy thud of a jukebox pouring out of the pitted stainless-steel sides of the Blue Moon Diner jarred the fillings in my teeth. Zinsmeister stood quietly, gazing up at the blue-neon moon, as hunger pangs gnawed deep into my being. We hadn't eaten since noon. Then, taking a deep breath, Zinsmeister pushed in through the swinging doors. A powerful swamp gas of wet cardboard, French fries, fermenting dishrags, busy urinals and sputtering grease washed over us like lukewarm bath water. A row of burly forms, some in uniform, others wearing the jackets of cross-country truckers, bent low over chipped blue crockery, shoveling steadily. The booths behind us were packed with lank-haired, slack-jawed teenagers. The jukebox, fully 14 feet tall, cascading with blue and yellow waterfalls as tiny bubbles floated forever upward through fuchsia glass tubes encrusted with trumpets, roared out an unintelligible wall of thrumming sound. We sat on the only two empty stools at the counter. The guy behind it, his white cap fingerprinted with ketchup, shoved a menu across the counter at us. After scanning it with a mixture of revulsion and resignation, Zinsmeister said quietly, "A cheeseburger, please." "Y' want onions?" "No, thank you." "Somepin' to drink?" "Coffee." "How 'bout you, hub?" "I'll have the same." We sat numbly, listening to the jukebox. A brief scuffle broke out in one of the booths. The cook banged a length of rubber hose on the pie case. "Shuddup, you bastards, or I'll knock a few heads!" The cheeseburgers arrived. The cook shoved two cups of coffee at us. I peeked under my bun. Nothing. I rolled it back farther. Still nothing. Ale there it was! A tiny, wizened pastille of charred material dabbed with orange cheese. Zinsmeister didn't even look at his, Silently, we ate the buns, then washed them down with coffee. "Any dessert?" asked the cook, who was running the entire diner. I glanced at the pie case. Two cracked, petrified slabs of rubbery yellow pie and one dish of watery purple jell-0 was all they had. "I guess not," I answered. Zinsmeister said nothing. The cook ripped out a check from his dog-eared book and put it in front of Zinsmeister. A buck fifty for each cheeseburger, 25 cents for the coffee. We paid and headed for the door, just as another fight broke out. The rubber hose slapped clown hard on the counter. We were on the street again. An MP car screamed past, its red lights flashing, heading to some spot where the action was heating up. We stood under a street light for a couple of minutes, just looking around at nothing in particular, shifting from foot to foot, occasional puffs of poisonous exhalation from the cheeseburger drifting up from my mouth to my nostrils. The usual misty rain began to descend. Finally, I spoke: "Listen, I got an idea." Zinsmeister lit a cigarette and said, "Please reveal it to me." "How 'bout taking in a movie? Something with a lot of big fat jiggling boobs." "Not a bad idea. Not a bad idea at all." For the first time since our miserable bus ride, Zinsmeister began to perk up. "Ali, the cinema. How it moves us, uplifts us, raises our hopes. The one-and-only true escape...." "Yeah, but I wanna see a movie!" Zinsmeister laughed. "My boy, you are nobly upholding the splendid cultural tradition of Company K." "What do you mean by that?" Vaguely, I sensed a needle. "Come, let us away to the flickering land of the shadow play." The old Zinsmeister was back in charge. He hailed a passing native clad in worn Big Yank overalls, red bandanna, rubber boots and vacant look. "Excuse me, sir." "Huh?" "Could you tell me the location of the moviehouses here in town?" The red-faced rustic, almost a dead ringer for slim Summerville, only not as funny, shot a thin stream of tobacco juice at our feet. "Alt don't. cotton to sin." "Sin?" Zinsmeister was caught off guard. "Yup. Shameless wimmen an' unbridled lust are the damnation of the evildoer." His voice rose to a quavery fortissimo, the evangelical zeal of a veteran Bible thumper ringing clear and true. He stopped and shifted his curl to the other side of his adenoidal face, taking a deep breath to launch another broadside. "I agree," Zinsmeister cut in. "I would like to know where the moviehouses are in town, so that I can take this young soldier here, who could easily stray into the paths of unrighteousness. I wish to show him the fleshpots to be avoided." This was a new side of Zinsmeister had not suspected. He spoke the native's language. "Well, now, that's different. He does have the look of one about to fall. There's only one Hollywood vice den in town: the Bijou Thee-ayter. It's around on River Street, two blocks past Main an' turn left at the firehouse." "God bless you, brother." Zinsmeister smiled piously in the yellow street light, the misty rain adding a soft-focus religiosity to his profile. "May the Lord keep you, too. Arnen, brother." The native spat. expertly and clumped away. We rounded the corner onto River street. Zinsmeister slammed on the brakes. A long line of GIs stretched before us for a block and a half at least. At its head, in the distance, the marquee of the Bijou Theater glowed whitely. I squinted to make out the lettering. "It says, Seesomething." I squinted harder. "See Here...uh..." And still harder. "See...Here... Private...something." "OH, NO!" Zinsmeister, an avid cinema buff, bellowed in pain and outrage. "See Here, Private Hargrove! Oh, Christ, no! An ARMY movie!" He sat down on the curb, his feet amid the beer cans and cigar butts that littered the street, and buried his head in his hands, just the way John Barry-more always did in moments of distress. He rocked silently for a moment, his body racked with theatrical sobs. "See . . . Here ... Private . . . Fuckin' .. Hargrove! What the hell next?" Pounding his fist on the curb, he threw his head back and laughed a hollow, braying laugh. "The Blue Moon Diner . . . the Chteau Elegante Arms ... Private Hargrove . . . Howie's Hawaiian Jungle Inn. Christ Almighty, what have I done to deserve this?" "AWRIGHT, BUDDY. ON YER FEET. WE DON'T WANT NO DRUNKS CLUTTERIN' UP THE STREET." The two MPs had materialized out of the darkness. One of them kicked Zinsmeister heavily in the rump. "Get up, you slob. Yer disgracin' the uniform." Zinsmeister stood, a bit of dog dung clinging to his posterior-. He brushed himself off, discovering that the dog dung wasn't as old as he thought. "Straighten up, you drunken son of a bitch," the sergeant snapped. thwacking Iris night stick smartly across Zinsmeister's stoma& His white MP helmet glistened in the rain, his .45 Service automatic resting low on the hip. "I'm not " "SNAP TO, SOLDIER! You'll talk when I tell you to!" Zinsmeister stood as much at attention as he could. "And you, wipe that grin off yet map, Mack!" Tire sergeant, moving like a cobra, caught me totally off guard. THWUNK! A seething bubble of nausea roared up from down around my groin. For a moment, it felt like a grapefruit was loose in my chest. My tongue shot out of my mouth; my eyeballs seemed to push up at the top of my head. "Get out the book, Al." The sergeant slid his long wooden billy hack into the leather holder one his webbed belt. "Awright - name, serial number and company. And if you give me horse-shit names, I'll really have you snappin' shit." Between gasps, we told him. The sergeant's rich vocabulary had caught the attention of a strolling couple, who paused to watch our humiliation. Out of the corner of my eye, which was just beginning to refocus, I saw that it was the sharp lieutenant and Baby Blue-eyes. The lieutenant, after accepting the salutes of the MPs, said quietly: "These men have been causing trouble all night, sergeant. I've had my eye on them." "Yes, sir!" The sergeant saluted again, as the couple moved on toward the head of the line at the moviehouse. Officers never wait. We produced our passes. The sergeant laboriously pored over them again under the dim light of the street lamp, his lips moving as he read. Al, writing with a stubby yellow pencil, took down the information in his notebook. "Yer C. O. will be notified, and the next time you guys show up here in town actin' like drunken bums, I will personally, throw you in the can. Y' got it?" He stuck his face right up to Zinsmeister's nose. "I said, Y' got it?" Zinsmeister said nothing. "Mister, you talk when I ask you a question!" "Yessir, yessir, I understand, yessir!" "Don't 'sir' me, soldier. My name is sergeant." "Yes, sergeant, sir, SERGEANT!" "All right. Now, move on." We shot for the open sea. Seconds later, we cowered behind a Bull Durham billboard. Whimpering and nursing our wounds, we sat there amid the weeds and tomato cans for what seemed half the night. Finally, Zinsmeister stood up, kicked out at an old truck tire, took a deep breath and said, "Well, there's one thing we've got sewed up, anyway." I was busily retying my matted tie, which had somehow gotten twisted around to the back of my neck. "We sure are lucky," he continued, "that we've got a good hotel room. We can at least get a great night's sleep, away from that crummy barracks." "Yeah." I adjusted my cap, which was beginning to drip water down my spine. "Let's go, old buddy." Zinsmeister struggled out of the weeds and I followed. We walked a block or so in silence. Finally, Zinsmeister spoke up. "I can hardly wait to get between a set of snowy sheets and rest my battered head on a soft, fluffy pillow. I'll drift off into a dreamless sleep, unmarred by visions of marching figures, yelling sergeants and trays of S. 0. S." His voice trailed off with a sigh. Ahead, we could see the yellow light bulbs of the Chateau Elegante Arms. "You got the key?" I asked. "Have I got the key! They could strip me of my dog tags, my honor and whatever else they wanted, but they'd never get this key!" He patted Iris breast pocket. "It is the key to solitude and peace." Tire lobby was almost deserted now. A few dozing soldiers sprawled out under the potted palms. The blue-jowled night clerk, wearing bifocals, squinted studiously at a ragged copy of Spicy Detective. He looked up as we came in. "You registered?" Zinsmeister fished out the key and read off the room number from the bent brass tag that hung from it: 803. The clerk relaxed. "Go right on up, boys. You turn left out of the elevator. It's about halfway down the hall. You can't miss it." A truth we were soon to confirm. The elevator was a cage made out of iron bars. As it clanked upward through the black shaft. it occurred to me that this was the only kind of elevator they would have had in Transylvania, hauling people up and down from the dungeons. It creaked to a stop. I struggled to shove the sliding door back and finally succeeded, crunching my thumb nicely. I cursed tinder my breath as we walked down the dim, seedy hallway, reading off the numbers on the doors as we went: 799 .. . 801 . . 803. A faint rumble seemed to be flowing from under the door and out of the grimy transom. "Are you sure that key says eight-oh-three?" I asked Zinsmeister as we stood before the door, carrying our Dopp-Kits. He checked the key in the dim light. There was no mistake. "Give it a try." Zinsmeister slipped the key into the lock. ''At last," he said as he turned it, "peace and privacy." The door swung open. A blast of sound, a flood of light roared forth. For an instant, we were both too stunned to take in what was happening. "Welcome to good old eight-oh-three, boys. Come on in. And close the god. damn door." From wall to wall, the room was packed with folding Army bunks. A dozen or more GIs lay and squatted about the room, which was filled with billowing tobacco smoke and the aromatic stench of beer suds. "Join the club, suckers. You got took by that old babe down at the U. S. 0., too!" A weedy-looking GI wearing nothing but one sock greeted us. Zinsmeister stood framed in the doorway taking in the tableau, which included a string looped between the light fixture and the curtain rod, from which swung a couple of pairs of dripping underpants and some o. d. socks. Two Pfc.s wearing quarter-master patches Indian-wrestled over the bare sink, which hung from the dingy battleship-gray wall. Zinsmeister threw his head back, his eyes flashing in the reflected light from the ceiling fixture, and laughed that long, maniacal laugh, which I had come to know so well. The Pfc.s stopped Indian wrestling and looked up curiously. "Of course! It all fits! It had to he! There was no other way! The little old lady at the U. S. OA A shill! It's too good to be true!" He laughed again. "Hey, Zinsmeister." I dug him in the ribs. "Y' better cut it out. one of them guys might be an MP. You know what that sergeant said. We got enough trouble already." But Zinsmeister wouldn't stop. "Seven bucks apiece! Oh, my God!" "HEY, YOU JERK! CLOsE THE GODDAMN DOOR!" yelled a burly soldier from one of the hunks. He threw a beer can in our direction. It clattered against the wall, sending up a shower of suds. "WHO THE HELL YOU THINK YOU'RE SQUIRTIN'?" shouted another prone figure. "Ah, dry up! Yer lucky I didn't throw the can at you!" Since we were the latest to arrive, naturally our two cots were the worst in the room. The head of mine stuck into the empty closet and extended out into the maelstrom. Zinsmeister's was jammed up against the wall, and he had to walk over four other cots to get to it. "I thought they said a double room," I said rhetorically. Fifteen juicy raspberries resulted. Zinsmeister, face flushed and eyes glazed, crawled over the lumpy bedclothes to his cot. I sat on the edge of mine and unlaced my shoes. There was a kind of mad, hopeless gaiety in the room. We had all been caught in die same net and felt the universal empathy of one victim for another. I pulled off my soggy pants, yawned and shook my head to clear it. The full effect of the Aloha Blaster had not yet worn off. It would last for days. Somebody hollered out, "I wonder where that goddamn lieutenant is sleeping tonight." A ragged cheer at this witticism rattled the worn Venetian blinds. "How 'bout that broad?" Another cheer. "I'll bet they ain't sleepin' forty to a room!" 'FER CHRISSAKE, CAN IT, WILL YOU, GUYS! I'M TRYIN' TO SLEEP." This came from a bundle of blankets huddled in the corner cot. "FUCK YOU, MACK!" Five buddies gave the only possible answer. "Graaaahhhk . . ark . . . ark . . ark . . ." came from the bathroom. "Hey, Blotski, are you heavin' or just tryin' for laughs?" An ashen, sweat-dripping figure tottered front the toilet and wove unsteadily into the room. His red-rimmed eyes blinked at the light, like some subterranean animal unexpectedly unearthed. "Eeeeepp!" he squealed, grabbed his stomach and staggered back into the john, slamming the door behind him. "Jesus, what a load!" someone laughed. "He's got all that Hawaiian rotgut spread all over the floor in there." Someone farted long and hard. Immediately, a roar of appreciative applause arose. "What d'ya do for an encore, Fatso?" Fatso, who sat on the floor in his o. d. shorts, reading comic books, showed us all what he did for an encore, topping even his first effort. Even Zinsmeister was impressed. He felt that artistry of any tort should be encouraged. A knock on the door broke up the shouting. The crowd sat for a minute .in silence. Another knock. "Well, fer chrissake, stupid, open the door!" someone finally said. Stupid, the tall, skinny guy with the one sock, got up and dramatically swung the door open. Instantly, the room was in total uproar. A short, curvy WAC stood trapped in the blaze of light like a rabbit caught in the headlights of a car, her eyes wild with confusion. "Is... Maria here?" she stammered. Eight GIs made a lunge at her and she fled, terrified and screaming, down the corridor, out of our lives forever. "Well, that's our sex for tonight, boys," one of the GIs cracked. He was right and we all knew it. We knew a lot of things by that time of the night, although they were things you'd rather not talk about. Someone passed around a bottle without a label. "No, thanks." 1 waved it away. One soldier, who had said nothing throughout all this, fell heavily off his bunk, onto the floor. "Christ, that's the fourth time he's done that. Why don't we tie him to the floor? He's gonna bust his goddamn neck." The GI crawled heavily hack onto his bunk. The door to the toilet inched open again. Blotski crawled out of the darkness on all fours, his head hanging low over the tattered rug, his clog tags dragging on the floor. "Blotski's sure Navin' himself a great weekend, ain't he?" said one of the revelers. "Hey, Blotski, look up, so's I can get yer picture. Yer mother would like to see that her baby boy is havin' a good time." Blotski, unheeding, struggled bravely on toward his bed, stopping about three feet short and sinking to the floor, out cold. "Now, there's officer material, ain't he, men?" As I sat engulfed in this madness, I couldn't help remembering Zinsmeister's vision of the perfect pass. From the far corner of the room came the sound of steady, rhythmic, primal snoring. At least one GI can be found sleeping under all circumstances. This one, in a state of deep coma, slept through the whole night's uproar. He probably slept his way through the whole War. The bottle went around again, And finally, everything began to quiet down. "Hey, is everybody sleeping?" asked the tall, skinny GI finally, in a quiet voice. At the time, it sounded innocent. "HOW THE HELL CAN YOU SLEEP IN THIS NUT HOUSE?" someone hollered. "Who the hell wants to sleep on a pass, anyway?" someone else chimed in. Zinsmeister lay stretched out on his rack, eyes dosed. God knows what he was thinking. The skinny GI was fishing in his musette bag, which hung from the end of his cot. "You got some booze in there, Mack?" someone asked. He drew out his hand and sat upright, cross-legged on his hunk, fist clenched. "How 'bout . . , a little action? Just to pass the time." In a quick motion, his hand swept across the bunk. Two gleaming white objects spun and danced for a moment and then slid to a stop. His voice was low and sensual - the siren call of sin. For a minute, no one answered. Then Fatso, a cigarette dangling from his lips, heaved himself to his feet. "Why, I do believe I see a pair of gallopin' dominoes." He lumbered toward the bed. The skinny GI scooped them up and rolled them out again. The faint skittering, clattering sound they made filled the sudden silence that engulfed us all. A sleeping GI instantly awoke, his finely tuned inner ear responding to the call. Blotski rose to his knees, his ashen face now showing a bit of color. The skinny GI silently crossed over to the door and snapped the safety latch. "V can't be too sure. Them damn MPs are everywhere." He returned to his bunk, stripped it to the bare canvas, carefully laid a straight-backed chair on its side at the head of it, draped a threadbare blanket over the whole conglomeration, smoothed it down with his hands, straightened up and looked around the room. His pale-blue eyes issued the age-old diallenge that has been heeded by the privates who followed Hannibal's elephants with shovels, who curried Richard the Lionhearted's charger, who polished Napoleon's boots at Waterloo, who rowed Washington's boat at Trenton, who worked the garbage detail for Slier-man at the siege of Atlanta, who pulled latrine orderly under Pershing at the second battle of the Marne. A ruffle of drums, a trumpeting of phantom bugles, the mutter of distant artillery pieces and the roil of a pair of bones are the eternal lot of the enlisted man. Now, as it must to all common soldiers in the ranks, the call came loud and clear to Zinsmeister and to me, and to all the others in that moldy hotel room in the Ozarks. I had heard of Army crap games but had seen them only in the movies. For one reason or another, Company K had never been involved in this ancient Army vice. An occasional rack of pool in the clay room and the interminable ping-pong game was about the extent of the sporting life I had known in the Army. The same was true of Zinsmeister, who was now sitting half upright, leaning on his elbows, a look of intense interest in his eyes. "All right, boys," said the skinny soldier, "I'm rollin'." Again, his right hand lashed out in a cool, sweeping underhand movement. The twirl cubes shot over the bed, snicked up against the blanket-covered chair seat, spun for a moment and stopped dead. By now, the entire crowd, including Blotski, who seemed to have been sobered up by the sound of the dice, had formed a semicircle around the bed. Wallets had appeared; someone had turned off all the lights in the room except a single bulb over the arena. Great shadows loomed an the gray walls. I edged into the crowd. Zinsmeister moved in on time other side. "Little Joe!" the skinny soldier clipped out with mirthless pleasure, This puzzled me. I had heard no one in the room called Joe. "I'll fade." "I'll take a chunk of that." "You name the bad news." Quarters glittered in the air and flipped onto the bed. I edged closer as Fatso lit another cigarette and took a deep drag. His eyes were glowing like twin coals in the shadows. "I say Little Joe, Little Joe's my point." More quarters spun onto the bed. The skinny soldier looked around at the circle of faces, snatched up the dice, slowly massaged them between his palms. He seemed to be praying, his Adam's apple rising and falling like an imprisoned yo-yo in his long, scrawny neck. "Say, 'Lin," I whispered, "this looks like fun." "Yeah I" he answered hoarsely. "I say Little Joe, where are you!" The dice slammed against the chair, spun and stopped. Before I could even read the dots, the skinny soldier's hand whipped them up. "I'll fade you, Dad." "I'll take some more of that." More quarters rolled onto the bed. "Come on, Little Joe, I say Little Joe." Again, the dice streaked across the blanket. The skinny soldier, his veins standing out in concentration, hissed, "Yeah! Little Joe from Kokomo, you ain't let Daddy down!" His left hand scooped up the coins and tossed them into his musette bag, all in one smooth motion. The crowd muttered, cheered and cursed. "Oh, ah feels hot t'night," he said, again massaging the dice. "Is this anything like bunko?" I asked Fatso, who had just thrown a dollar onto the bed. He blew a cloud of smoke in my face and answered in a gravelly voice, "Yeah, like bunko. Why don't y' toss in, kid? Nothin' to it." "It certainly looks interesting." It was all I could think to say. "It is, kid." He lit another cigarette from the butt of the one in his mouth. Gingerly, I extracted a dollar from my wallet and tossed it onto the bed as I had seen the others do. Zinsmeister followed suit. "Yeah?" The skinny soldier, eying the dough, blew his hot breath long and hard into the cupped hands cradling the dice. "Daddy's on the center track tonight. Y' hear me, you two little sweethearts? You hear me good?" His eyes rolled toward the ceiling, beseeching the great god of craps. "And-a here we go!" The bones spun and stopped. "Ho-ho he chirped. "01' Daddy's flung an eighter front Decatur. Yessiree. Who wants a piece of that action?" "I'll back you." "I'll fade y', dogface." The skinny soldier scooped up the dice and talked confidentially to them. "Eighter, old eighter, y' hear me? From Decatur. Let's see them spots. We are hot tonight. Eighter-o The dice rolled again. By now, I was thoroughly confused. All I remember clearly is seeing my money disappear. Zinsmeister had edged over around to my side of the crowd. "What does eighter from Decatur mean?" he whispered. "You've got me. First it was Little Joe from Kokomo, now eighter from Decatur." More money was exchanged. There was a flurry of excitement and somebody else held the dice. More action. Then, mysteriously and without warning, I found the dice in my hand. I had watched the others yell, cajole, pray, sweat; so I tried to imitate the experts. The bones felt hot and slippery. I blew on them and tried to roll them the way I had seen the skinny soldier do, with a neat sidearm flip. One disappeared into the john; the other bounced under the bed. I felt redness coming up and washing over me in a hot wave. Somebody gave out with a raspberry. One soldier clashed into the john and flipped the lights on to read the die. Another crawled under the bunk. "Snake eyes." "Snake what?" I asked. "Snake eyes. Y' thrun snake eyes." More money down the drain, in more ways than one. I seemed to have lost again. I never knew why. The dice were tossed to Fatso. His style was dramatically different from that of the skinny soldier. He hunched low over the bed, his head almost touching the blanket, his naked belly hanging low. Sweat dripped from the matted hair on his chest. His dog tags clanked as he flipped the dice. He held them in both Bands, as in a hollow ball, shaking them fiercely and then rolling them out like a howler, with a low pendulum motion. The dice seemed to slide, as though on slick ire, and then hop high into the air at the end, when they hit the chair. As he bowled them out, his eyes closed tightly and he let out a low, animal grunt. "Natural?" More money drifted clown from the circle of faces, like beautiful green snow. Fatso threw again, grunted again, and again the money drifted down. Blotski, speaking for the first time, said simply, "You ain't makin' it this time, Fatso." "Let's see yer dough, Blotski," Fatso answered, without taking his eyes off the dice. Blotski threw a ten into the pot. A low mutter went up from the assemblage. Even I could understand a ten-dollar bin More side bets were laid. Fatso, puffing steadily on his cigarette, sweating as though be had just stepped from a steaming shower, tossed the dice. "Holy Christ! That's his third straight pass!" someone shouted, Another hubbub. Blotski, his face once again its normal ashen shade, muttered, "I'll be a son of a bitch." By now, a large stack of money had piled up in front of Fatso. "Here's a twenty says you don't throw another pass." The skinny soldier returned to the fray, his $20 bill joining the pile. Zinsmeister suddenly said, "I'll go with that." He drew a $20 bill out of his wallet and tossed it in. I cannot explain what happened in the next five minutes or so, since the human mind is so constructed that truly disastrous moments are often veiled in a smoke screen of incomprehension. I remember involuntarily placing bills of various denominations into the kitty. The dice leaped. Fatso swore and grunted, over and over. The skinny soldier's Adam's apple at times dipped all the way clown to his thorax, and the temperature soared, or at least it seemed to. Sweat poured into my eyes. Body odor rose from our huddled forms like shimmering heat from a pavement in August. I was gripped by an insane excitement such as I had never known. I vaguely understood, or at least thought I did, that if the right things happened with those accursed white cubes, I would come into a considerable portion of that growing stack of the elusive spondulics. Zinsmeister, too, swirled in the same maddened maelstrom. Fatso kept rolling the dice and grunting. One GI, his eyes popping, hissed, "Twelve straight passes? I never seen nothin' like it!" "Oh, my God, no! Ya fat bastard! Ya busted me!" one soldier cried out, toppling over backward, his last cent gone. Suddenly, Fatso stood up. "Boy, am dry! I can't stand it. You fellas mind if I knock off for a couple minutes and run down and git myself some coffee down in the lobby?" Uproar. "Look, you fat bastard, you ain't gonna run out on us now, with you holding all the dough!" The skinny soldier, his voice dripping with malevolence, glared at the fat one, who was gasping histrionically in thirst. "Well, I'll tell you, fellas, I just got to have some coffee. It's on account of my sinuses. Doctor says I gotta have coffee." "How 'bout room service?" I asked. "Are you kidding? Room service! This joint don't even have no bellboy." "I'll tell you what, Fatso. I'll go down-stairs with you, to make sure you come back and give us a chance to win our dough back." The skinny soldier, a heavy loser, sounded threatening. "sure. Why not? You can even hold the dough," Fatso agreed, but his innocent eyes showed pain and hurt. "You damn betcha I'll hold the dough! Any of you guys want coffee?" Nobody did. Fatso and the skinny soldier put on their uniforms to go down to the lobby. "I'll watch old Fatty here. He ain't gittin' outta my sight," the skinny soldier drawled reassuringly. He gathered up the pile of succulent lettuce, folded it into a wad, stuck it in his pocket and the two disappeared through' the door. A vague, undefined fear oozed out of the musty back rooms of my mind. "Boy, this sure is fun, isn't it?" I said uncertainly. Zinsmeister nodded silently, his eyes never leaving the door. Five minutes ticked by. The GIs milled restlessly, went to the john, coughed, scratched their ribs. Blotski had returned to the floor and was now snoozing lightly. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. Twenty minutes. It came over us all at almost the same time, like some silent jungle telegraph. We all knew. Blotski, lying prone, opened one eye and said it for all of us: "Men?" Someone said, "Yeah?" "We been blued, screwed and tattooed," A tired-looking corporal in horn-rimmed glasses said to no one in particular, "Them bastards were workin' as a team. They prob'ly don't even have a room here at the hotel." He flopped back onto his bunk, limp with disgust. Surreptitiously, I peeked into my wallet. Two skinny one-dollar bills remained. The bus fare back to camp was a dollar and a quarter. Outside, it was beginning to show gray light. Zinsmeister pulled on his pants, his eyes puffy with fatigue, his jaw black with stubble. "Where y' going?" 1 asked. "Let's get down to the bus station early. Then we won't have any eight-hour wait." Numbly, I dressed, a faint, low hum drumming through my brain. The Aloha Blaster, the cheeseburger, the crap game, all had become a sort of hazy blur. It seemed years since we had stood inspection and Goldberg had come through so miraculously and made this ecstasy possible. "Zinsmeister, what does 'fade' mean?" I asked as we rode down in the elevator. "Damned if I know." We walked through the silent streets, past a dreary little park. GIs were snoring in the bushes. From someplace, a flock of chickens had appeared and were pecking and clucking around the sprawled soldiers, scooping up tidbits left over from .the night's revelry. Twenty minutes later, we struggled aboard the first bus bound for camp. It was packed full. Gasser and Edwards - who had decided at the last minute to take his one last fling, after all, before being shipped to Burma - sat in the back just behind us, staring moodily out the window, After about 15 minutes of silence, Gasser leaned forward, his eyes bloodshot, his voice low and fuzzy: "How'd you guys make out?" "Shall we tell him, buddy?" Zinsmeister asked me with a conspiratorial nudge. I took the cue: "Oh, I don't know. You shoulda seen the WAC that came right up to our room and demanded to he let in." "A WAC ... came up to your room?" "You bet. she was really something!" "You mean . you actually got a female?" Edwards' face shone with admiration. "I would say more like she caught us, right?" "Right!" I chimed in. Zinsmeister pounded it home: "And we didn't sleep a wink all night after that, did we?" "You might say that," "Holy Kee-rist!" Gasser, fully awake, his eyes wide with respect, turned to Edwards. "I told y' we shoulda stuck with these two, but no, goddamn it, you knew better! I shoulda never listened!" Edwards, slightly riled, said, "Well, how the hell was I to know these two was gonna hit the jack pot:" "And how 'bout that meal?" Zinsmeister dug me in die ribs. "We had a splendid repast in the finest restaurant in town," Again, Gasser, his voice trembling with rage, attacked Edwards. "You and that damn chili joint! Yeah, you know all about where to go. That chili'll be cumin' up on me for a month!" Edwards remained silent, his ears brick red. "Well, Gasser, I don't wish to pry, but how did your pass go?" Gasser hesitated and glared at Edwards again. "Me and this meatball just messed around, that's what! We never even seen a girl. . ." His voice trailed off. "Or nothin' else, either, except the Dreamland Bowling Alley, where this horse's ass dragged me." "Well, you didn't have to go!" Edwards muttered weakly. "Balls!" was all Gasser said, "In fact," said Zinsmeister, his voice ringing out loud and clear, so that the other dogfaces from Company K who were scattered around in the bus would be sure to hear, "at one point, our roistering became so intense, our merriment so public, that we were detained by the MPs." Gasser, all color drained from his face, was now totally agog. Edwards just stared off glumly into space. "You mean you raised so much hell you got pinched?" "You might say that," Zinsmeister answered with just the right note of understatement. He fastidiously flicked a speck of dog manure from his shirt. The bus rattled on toward camp, toward the sanctuary of the PX, the day room, the post theater - our home away from home for a brief slice of time in the limping history of Company K. "Boy, I gotta hand it to ya. You guys really know the ropes." Gasser laid on his highest praise. Zinsmeister smiled his old, quiet, knowing smile. The buzzing in my head had picked up a hit. I sat very still and tried to smile the way Zinsmeister smiled, like William Powell in The Thin Man, about to name the murderer, A legend had begun.

Copyright: 1970 Playboy Magazine

Where Shep Made Reference To This Subject

January 1970

January 1970
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