Veteran || Joel Fishbane

The show was a vaudeville tour and I was supposed to be the comedian between acts, but the joke was on me cause after we got to Europe, they told me there was a war to end all wars and the tour broke up. I bummed around and followed a girl to Brussels but the girl, unlike the war, only lasted a few weeks. But Belgium was neutral and I didn’t want to get mustered into service so I stuck around and burned through my money while trying to write. By the time I was broke, they were striking in Paris and someone told me I could make money as a scab. My French is pretty good so I went down there but as I got to the factory, a man was getting beaten by the strikers. They broke his fingers and beat in his face and after that, I lost my nerve. 

That’s when I met Drum and Bill. They’d come from New York as reporters but their paper had gone bust. Drum was feigning a bad leg and Bill had papers that said he was Swiss. We told each other we were conscientious objectors, but the truth was we just didn’t want to fight. They had a line on a flop and Bill sold me on it by saying how I could use them as material for a story, as long as I called it fiction in the end. They knew all the wrong people and found me an actual Belgium passport, so all I had to do was assume the accent, which wasn’t a problem because accents were my specialty. We adopted fake names and I watched them run all sorts of schemes and wrote it all down, thinking it would one day make a fine book. I got some work editing and gave English lessons in my Belgian accent. Up until then, it was the challenge of my life. 

One night, while Drum was away, a couple of dancers followed Bill home. Suzette was warm on Bill which left me with Calista, who was thin with mint-green eyes and a crooked nose. She didn’t have happy thoughts about the war, not even with the U.S. in the fight, because she had met plenty of Americans and she said all they were good for was shooting girls with the clap. Bill and Suzette went inside and I tried to get Calista to follow, but she wanted to keep talking, so we spent an hour debating what had gone wrong at the River Somme. We argued in English, so she could practice, and I started to like the streetlamps in her eyes and thought of it long after she left. 

Later, Bill and I were shooting stick when I saw her cross the street with a guy on her arm. She usually wore her hair up but that night it was past her shoulders and she looked like a china doll. After that, I was crazy for her and told Bill to tell Suzette to bring her around. So we made a party out of it and I got Calista out on the balcony again and told her how I had seen her with her hair down and asked her about the jack on her arm.

You are jealous?

A bit.

Can I not have a cousin?  

I turned beet and told her she could have all the cousins in the world, it was all the same to me. Then she laughed and kissed me full. Her mouth was good and she whispered my name, only it wasn’t my name. She was calling me Brussels, cause that’s where she thought I was from.

We started seeing each other all the time and she made me feel new cause she wasn’t stirred by the usual things, like flowers and gifts. It hurt her to see other people dance because she missed it and hated that she couldn’t find work. We walked everywhere and sat in cafés and kissed a lot and she sometimes let me touch the skin beneath her skirt. She was a good Christian and wouldn’t do much more. 

One week, we were by the Seine when these soldiers came by. They were swillers and one of them had his eye shot out and was talking how we should surrender. Calista yelled at him and he told her to mind her business and shoved her so hard she almost went into the river. He looked at me like he thought I was going to take a swing but I just grabbed her and tried to run. Then they blocked the way and grabbed me and pounded me pretty hard. Calista yelled at them to stop and then the law was there and all of us got taken in. 

The swillers were handed over to the army but I had to sit in a cell until I could tell the judge I was just a humble Belgian who had been in the wrong place. I escaped with a fine, but when I went to pay it, Calista was there waving the receipt. She’d hocked her jewelry as soon as I was arrested cause she knew I would need the cash and the way she flung her arms around me was enough to make a man bust. It was almost worth two days in the tomb just to get held like that. 

At the flop, everyone was waiting and we had one hell of a party. Calista spent the time pressed up to me and I wanted her like I wanted to breathe. I took her to my room and kissed her mouth and asked if I could take off her dress.

You love me, yes?

Sure, kid. You’re swell. 

This wasn’t what she wanted to hear and I knew I had let her down and she went back to the party. I knew I’d done wrong but she thought I was the man from Brussels and if I was going to love her right, I’d have to tell her the truth. That would mean telling her all the fears inside me and the thing that had made me try to run from the men on the bridge and from the fight going on in the world. 

Not long after, Calista asked to meet at a cafe and she had this serious look and I thought, well, that’s it for me. Then someone ran in with the news that the war was over and the café erupted and every conversation in the world stopped cold. We poured into the street and everyone hugged everyone and it didn’t matter that no one knew each other because what was to know other than we were all survivors, even us cowards who had never fought. I thought that now I could tell Calista the truth because she deserved to know why I had told her she was swell when I should have said, My name is Dean Morgan and I love you like the moon. 

But when I turned round to say this, Calista was nowhere to be seen. We looked all over but she was gone and I panicked, thinking she might have been hurt in the crowd. I went to her boardinghouse and sat outside all night until Bill came round the corner and told me Calista was at the flop. The streets were still noise and heat and Bill was mum the whole way so I was stunned when I found Calista tattered and caked with mud. She cowered when we touched and had a fat lip and a face colored like a bad peach. I demanded to know who had done this but she said it didn’t matter and I’d only get hurt, like I had that day on the bridge. This hit me hard and I yelled at her and headed into the street to prove her wrong. I’d have picked a fight with the first doughboy I saw, but Drum was there to talk me into sense. 

I wanted out of Paris and decided I’d tell Calista the truth as soon as she was well. Then I’d propose and let the chips fall. But Calista was unhappy all the time and it never seemed like the right time. I still had no money. She wouldn’t leave our flop and slept in my room but nothing went on between us. She cried constantly and still didn’t like to be touched. 

Then, one night, I came home drunk and found her in a rage because she’d found my passport, my real one, and Bill had been forced to tell her the truth. It all came out after that, every last inch of it. She was wild and not just because of the lie. She was going to have a baby, she said, and my stomach twisted because I knew what was what.

I’ll still marry you, I told her. And I’ll treat the baby as my own.

Non. I can’t do that, Dean.  

The way she said my real name hurt more than a punch. She said I was worse than the man who had hurt her because he had attacked her once but I had done it every day by lying to her each time I spoke. I didn’t like that and raised my fist.

You will not hit me, she said. You ran from all the fights in the world and you will run from this one too. 

And she was right cause I just fell back and never raised my voice to her again.

Drum knew a doc who worked behind a flower shop. I borrowed money to pay him but just as he was setting to work, this Englishman burst in full of shouts because his sister had died under the doc’s knife. Now he had a knife of his own. I threw myself in the middle and socked the Englishman, which gave the doc time to scramble out the window. Then I grabbed Calista and we got the hell out of there. But the doc disappeared after that and we never saw him again.

Calista sobbed because now we had no more money and the baby was still on its way. 

Listen, I said. The thing to do is get married and make a go at it. 

Look at you. One punch and you think you are a hero. 

I told her I’d find work and I’d take anything so long as it paid enough so we could marry. I got hired at the boatyard and for a week I fixed damaged ships and bounced home, feeling good about the world. But, one day, I found Calista curled on the straw, clutching her gut and looking white as death. Bill and Drum didn’t know what to do but there was a bottle nearby and I knew right away what she’d done. I tried to take her to the hospital but she said no because she might get in trouble. I fell to my knees and she put her head in my lap and asked me to talk to her so I talked about the wedding and what it would be like but my voice kept cracking and I knew I was talking about something that would never be.

After that, she went to live with her cousin and I left Paris and never wrote about Bill and Drum or any of their schemes. Bill once came round looking for me but I told him I couldn’t see him, and years later I saw Drum but I crossed the street and kept my head down. For a while, I wished the war had gone on because the peace saved a lot of men but it didn’t save me and I know I never saw a bit of action but something about those times killed me just the same. ∙

Joel Fishbane’s fiction has been widely published, most recently in Ploughshares, Joyland, and Every Day Fiction. His novel “The Thunder of Giants” is now available from St. Martin’s Press. If you believe his mother, and why wouldn’t you, he started writing stories when he was three. www.joelfishbane.net.

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