I had boarded the wrong bus. This one was bound for Los Angeles but not by the express route. We stopped in San Mateo, Palo Alto, San Jose, Castroville. When we left Castroville it began to rain, hard; my window wouldn't close all the way, and a thin stream of water ran down the panel onto my seat. To keep dry I had to lean forward and away from the window. The rain fell harder. The engine of the bus sounded as though it were coming apart.
In Salinas the man sleeping beside me jumped up but before I had a chance to change seats his place was taken by an enormous woman in a print dress, carrying a shopping bag. She took possession of her seat and spilled over onto half of mine. "That's a storm," she said loudly, then turned and looked at me. "Hungry?" Without waiting for an answer she dipped into her bag and pulled out a piece of chicken and thrust it at me. "Hey, by God," she hooted, "look at him go to town on that drumstick!" A few people turned and smiled. I smiled back around the bone and kept at it. I finished that piece and she handed me another. Then she started handing out chicken to the people in the seats near us.
Outside of San Luis Obispo the noise from the engine grew louder and just as suddenly there was no noise at all. The driver pulled off to the side of the road and got out, then got on again dripping wet. A few moments later he announced that the bus had broken down and they were sending another one to pick us up. Someone asked how long that might take and the driver said he had no idea. "Keep your pants on!" shouted the woman next to me. "Anybody in a huriy to get to LA ought to have his head examined."
The wind was blowing hard, driving sheets of rain against the windows on both sides. The bus swayed gently. Outside the light was brown and thick. The woman next to me pumped all the people around us for their itineraries and said whether or not she'd ever been where they were from or where they were going. "How about you?" She slapped my knee. "Parents own a chicken ranch? I hope so!" She laughed. I told her I was from San Francisco. "San Francisco, that's where my husband was stationed." She asked me what I did there and I told her I worked with refugees from Tibet.
" Is that right? What do you do with a bunch of Tibetans? "
"Seems like there's plenty of other places they could've gone," said a man in front of us. "We don't go there."
"What do you do with a bunch of Tibetans?" the woman repeated.
"Tiy to find them jobs, locate housing, listen to their problems."
"You understand that kind of talk?"
"Pretty well. I was born and raised in Tibet. My parents were missionaries over there."
"They were killed when the Communists took over."
The big woman patted my arm.
"It's all right," I said.
"Why don't you say some of that Tibetan?"
"What would you like to hear?"
"Say 'The cow jumped over the moon.'" She watched me, smiling, and when I finished she looked at the others and shook her head. "That was pretty. Like music. Say some more."
They bent toward me. The windows went blind with rain. The driver had fallen asleep and was snoring gently to the swaying of the bus. Outside the muddy light flickered to pale yellow, and far off there was thunder. The woman next to me leaned back and closed her eyes and then so did all the others as I sang to them in what was surely an ancient and holy tongue.
On Friday Hooper was named driver of the guard for the third night that week. He'd recently been broken in rank again, this time from corporal to PFC, and the first sergeant had decided to keep Hooper's evenings busy so he wouldn't have leisure to brood. That was what the first sergeant told him when Hooper came to the orderly room to complain.
"It's for your own good," the first sergeant said. "Not that I expect you to thank me." He moved the book he'd been reading to one side of his desk and leaned back. "Hooper, I have a theory about you," he said. "Want to hear it?"
"I'm all ears, Top," Hooper said.
The first sergeant put his boots up on the desk and stared out the window to his left. It was getting on toward five o'clock. Work details had begun to return from the rifle range and the post laundiy and the day-care center, where Hooper and several other men were excavating a wading pool without aid of machinery. As the trucks let them out they gathered on the barracks steps and under the dead elm beside the mess hall, their voices a steady murmur in the orderly room where Hooper stood waiting to hear himself analyzed.
"You resent me," the first sergeant said. "You think you should be sitting here. You don't know that's what you think because you've totally sublimated your resentment, but that's what it is, all right, and that's why you and me are developing a definite conflict profile. It's like you have to keep fucking up to prove to yourself that you don't really care. That's my theory. You follow me?"
"Top, I'm way ahead of you," Hooper said. "That's night school talking."
The first sergeant continued to look out the window. "I don't know," he said. "I don't know what you're doing in my army. You've put your twenty years in. You could retire to Mexico and live like a dictator. So what are you doing in my army, Hooper?"
Hooper looked down at the desk. He cleared his throat but said nothing.
"Give it some thought," the first sergeant said. He stood and walked Hooper to the door. "I'm not hostile," he said. "I'm prepared to be supportive. Just think nice thoughts about Mexico, okay? Okay, Hooper?"
Hooper called Mickey and told her he wouldn't be coming by that night after all. She reminded him that this was the third time in one week, and said that she wasn't getting any younger.
"What am I supposed to do?" Hooper asked. "Go AWOL?"
"I cried three times today," Mickey said. "I just broke down and cried, and you know what? I don't even know why."
"What did you do last night?" Hooper asked. When Mickey didn't answer he said, "Did Briggs come over?"
"I've been inside all day," Mickey said. "Just sitting here. I'm going out of my tree." Then, in the same weaiy voice, she said, "Touch it, Hoop."
"I have to get going," Hooper said.
"Not yet. Wait. I'm going into the bedroom. I'm going to pick up the phone in there. Hang on, Hoop. Think of the bedroom. Think of me lying on the bed. Wait, baby."
There were men passing by the phone booth. Hooper watched them and tried not to think of Mickey's bedroom but now he could think of nothing else. Mickey's husband was a supply sergeant. The walls of the bedroom were knotty pine he'd derailed en route to some colonel's office. The brass lamps beside the bed were made from howitzer casings. The sheets were parachute silk. Sometimes, lying on those sheets, Hooper thought of the men who'd drifted to earth below them. He was no great lover, as the women he went with usually got around to telling him, but in Mickey's bedroom Hooper had turned in his saddest performances and always when he was most aware that everything around him was stolen. He wasn't exactly sure why he kept going back. It was just something he did, again and again.
"Okay," Mickey said. "I'm here."
"There's a guy waiting to use the phone," Hooper told her.
"Hoop, I'm on the bed. I'm taking off my shoes."
Hooper could see her perfectly. He lit a cigarette and opened the door of the booth to let the smoke out.
"Hoop?" she said.
"I told you, there's a guy waiting."
"Turn around, then."
"You don't need me," Hooper said. "All you need is the telephone. Why don't you call Briggs? That's what you're going to do after I hang up."
"I probably will," she said. "Listen, Hoop, I'm not really on the bed. I was just pulling your chain."
"Yeah, they drove up to this man's house and dumped a truckload of logs in his yard and gave him a chain saw. This was his fantasy."
"Maybe I can swing by later tonight," Hooper said. "Just for a minute."
"I don't know," Mickey said. "Better give me a ring first."
After Mickey hungup Hooper tried to call his wife but there was no answer. He stood there and listened to the phone ringing. At last he put the receiver down and stepped outside the booth, just as they began to sound retreat over the company loudspeaker. With the men around him Hooper came to attention and saluted. The record was scratchy, but the music, as always, caused Hooper's mind to go abruptly and perfectly still. He held his salute until the last note died away, then broke off smartly and walked down the street toward the mess hall.
The Officer of the Day was Captain King from Headquarters Company. He had also been Officer of the Day on Monday and Tuesday nights, and Hooper was glad to see him again because Captain King was too lazy to do his own job or to make sure that the guards were doing theirs. He stayed in the guardhouse and left everything up to Hooper.
Captain King had gray hair and a long, grayish face. He was a West Point graduate. His classmates were majors or even lieutenant colonels but he himself had been held back for good reasons, many of which he admitted to Hooper their first night together. It puzzled Hooper at first, this officer telling him about his failures to perform, his nervous breakdowns and Valium habit, but finally he understood: Captain King regarded him, a PFC with twenty-one years' service, as a comrade in dereliction, a disaster like himself with no room left for judgment against anyone.
The evening was hot and muggy. Captain King proceeded along the rank of men drawn up before the guardhouse steps. He objected to the alignment of someone's belt buckle. He asked questions about the chain of command but gave no sign as to whether the answers he received were right or wrong. He inspected a couple of rifles and pretended to find something amiss with each of them, and when he reached the last man in line he began to deliver a speech. He said he'd never seen such sorry troops in his life. He asked how they expected to stand up to a determined enemy. On and on he went. Hooper lit another cigarette and sat down on the running board of the truck he'd been leaning against.
The sky was turning a weird purple. It had a damp, heavy look and it felt heavy too, hanging close overhead, nervous with rumblings and small flashes in the distance. Just sitting there made Hooper sweat. Beyond the guardhouse a stream of cars rushed along the road to Tacoma. From the officers' club farther up the road came the muffled beat of rock music, which was almost lost, like every other sound of the evening, in the purr of crickets that rose up everywhere and thickened the air like heat.
When Captain King finished talking he turned the men over to Hooper for transportation to their posts. Two of them, both privates, were from Hooper's company, and these he allowed to ride with him in the cab of the truck while everybody else slid around in back. One was a cook named Porchoff, known as Porkchop. The other was a radio operator named Trac who'd supposedly managed to airlift himself out of Saigon during the fall of the city by hanging on to the skids of a helicopter. That was the story, anyway. Hooper didn't believe it. When he tried to picture his son Woody at the same age, eight or nine, doing that, dangling over a burning city by his fingertips, he had to smile.
Trac didn't talk about it. Nothing about him suggested a hard past except perhaps the deep, sickle-shaped scar above his right eye. To Hooper there was something familiar about this scar. One night, watching Trac play the pinball machine in the company rec room, he was overcome with the certainty that he'd seen him before somewhere-astride a water buffalo in some reeking paddy or running alongside Hooper's APC with a bunch of other kids begging money, holding up melons or a bag full of weed or a starving monkey on a stick.
Though Hooper had the windows open, the cab of the truck smelled strongly of aftershave. Hooper noticed that Trac was wearing orange Walkman earphones under his helmet liner. They were against regulations but Hooper said nothing. As long as Trac had his ears plugged he wouldn't be listening for trespassers and end up blasting away at some squirrel cracking open an acorn. Of all the guards only Porchoff and Trac would be carrying ammunition, because they'd been assigned to the battalion communications center, which was tied into the division mainframe computer. The theory was that an intruder who knew his stuff could get his hands on highly classified material. That was how it had been explained to Hooper, who thought it was a load of crap. The Russians knew everything anyway.
Hooper let out the first two men at the PX and the next two at the parking lot outside the main officers' club, where lately there'd been several cars vandalized. As they pulled away, Porchoff leaned past Trac and grabbed Hooper's sleeve. "You used to be a corporal," he said.
Hooper shook his hand loose and said, "I'm driving a truck, in case you didn't notice."
" How come you got busted? "
"None of your business."
"I'm just asking," Porchoff said. "So what happened, anyway?"
"Cool it, Porkchop," said Trac. "The man doesn't want to talk about it, okay?"
"Cool it yourself, fuckface." Porchoff looked at Trac. "Was I addressingyou?"
Trac said, "Man, you must've been eating some of your own food."
"I don't believe I was addressingyou," Porchoff said. "In fact, I don't believe you and me have been properly introduced. That's another thing I don't like about the army, the way people you haven't been introduced to feel perfectly free to get right in your face and unload whatever shit they've got in their brains. It happens all the time. But I never heard anyone say 'cool it' before. You're a real phrasemaker, fuckface."
"That's enough," Hooper said.
Porchoff leaned back and said, "That's enough," in a falsetto voice. A few moments later he started humming to himself.
Hooper dropped off the rest of the guards and turned up the hill toward the communications center. There were chokeberty bushes along the gravel drive, with white blossoms going gray in the dusky light. Gravel sprayed up under the tires and rattled against the floorboards. Porchoff stopped humming. "I've got a cramp," he said.
Hooper pulled up next to the gate and turned off the engine, then looked over at Porchoff. "Now what's your problem?" he said.
"I've got a cramp," Porchoff repeated.
"For Christ's sake," Hooper said. "Why didn't you say something before?"
"I did. I went on sick call but the doctor couldn't find it. It keeps moving around. It's here now." Porchoff touched his neck. "I swear to God."
"Keep track of it," Hooper told him. "You can go on sick call again in the morning."
"You don't believe me." Porchoff said.
The three of them got out of the truck. Hooper counted out the ammunition to Porchoff and Trac and watched as they loaded their clips. "That ammo's strictly for show," he said. "Forget I even gave it to you. If you run into a problem, which you won't, use the phone in the guard shack. You can work out your own shifts." Hooper opened the gate and locked the two men inside. They stood watching him, faces in shadow, black rifle barrels poking over their shoulders. "Listen," Hooper said, "nobody's going to break in here, understand?"
Trac nodded. Porchoff just looked at him.
"Okay," Hooper said. "I'll drop by later. Me and the captain." Captain King wasn't about to go anywhere, but Trac and Porchoff didn't know that. Hooper behaved better when he thought he was being watched and he supposed the same was true of everyone else.
He climbed back inside the truck, started the engine, and gave the V sign to the men at the gate. Trac gave the sign back and turned away. Porchoff didn't move. He stayed where he was, fingers laced through the wire. He looked about ready to ciy. "Damn," Hooper said, and hit the gas. Gravel clattered in the wheel wells. When Hooper reached the main road a light rain began to fall, but it stopped before he'd even turned the wipers on.
Hooper and Captain King sat on adjacent bunks in the guardhouse, which was empty except for them and a bat that was flitting back and forth among the dim rafters. As on Monday and Tuesday nights, Captain King had brought along an ice chest filled with little bottles of Perrier water. From time to time he tried pressing one on Hooper, whose refusals made Captain King apologetic. "It's not a class thing," he said, looking at the bottle in his hand. "I don't drink this fancy stuff because I went to the Point or anything like that." He leaned down and put the bottle between his bare feet. "I'm allergic to alcohol," he said. "Otherwise I'd probably be an alcoholic. Why not? I'm eveiything else." He smiled at Hooper.
Hooper lay back and clasped his hands behind his head and stared up at the mattress above him. "I'm not much of a drinker myself," he said. He knew that Captain King wanted him to explain why he refused the Perrier, but there was really no reason in particular.
"I drank eggnog one Christmas when I was a kid and it almost killed me," Captain King said. "My arms and legs swelled up to twice their normal size. The doctors couldn't get my glasses off because my skin was all puffed up around them. You know how a tree will grow around a rock? It was like that. A few months later I tried beer at some kid's graduation party and the same thing happened. Pretty strange, eh?"
"Yes sir," Hooper said.
"I used to think it was all for the best. I have an addictive personality and you can bet your bottom dollar I would've been a problem drinker. No question about it. But now I wonder. If I'd had one big weakness like that maybe I wouldn't have had all these little pissant weaknesses instead. I know that sounds like bull-pucky, but look at Alexander the Great. Alexander the Great was a boozer. Did you know that?"
"No sir," Hooper said.
"Well, he was. Read your histoiy. So was Churchill. Churchill drank a bottle of cognac a day. And of course Grant. You know what Lincoln said when someone complained about Grant's drinking?"
"Yes sir. I've heard the story."
"He said, 'Find out what brand he uses so I can ship a case to the rest of my generals.' Is that the way you heard it?"
Captain King nodded. "I'm beat," he said. He stretched out and assumed exactly the position Hooper was in. It made Hooper uncomfortable. He sat up and put his feet on the floor.
"Married? " Captain King asked.
"Yes sir. One. Woodrow."
"Oh my God, a boy," Captain King said. "They're nothing but trouble, take my word for it. They're programmed to hate you. It has to be like that, otherwise they'd spend their whole lives moping around the house. Just the same, it's no fun when it starts. I have two, and neither one can stand me. Breaks my heart. Of course I was a worse father than most. How old is your boy? "
"Sixteen or seventeen," Hooper said. He put his hands on his knees and looked at the floor. "Seventeen. He lives with my wife's sister in Spokane."
Captain King turned his head and looked at him. "Sounds like you're not much of a dad yourself."
Hooper began to lace his boots up.
"I'm not criticizing," Captain King said. "At least you were smart enough to get someone else to do the job." He yawned. "You need me for anything? You want me to make the rounds with you?"
"I'll take care of things, sir."
"Fair enough." Captain King closed his eyes. "If you need me just shout."
Hooper went outside and lit a cigarette. It was almost midnight, well past the time appointed for inspecting the guards. As he walked toward the truck mosquitoes droned around his head. A breeze was rustling the treetops, but on the ground the air was hot and still.
Hooper took his time making the rounds. He visited all the guards except Porchoff and Trac and found everything in order. There were no problems. He started down the road toward the communications center but when he reached the turnoff he drove past. Warm, fragrant air rushed into his face from the open window. The road ahead was empty. Hooper leaned back and mashed the accelerator. The engine roared. He was moving now, really moving, past darkened barracks and bare flagpoles and bushes whose flowers blazed up in the glare of the headlights. Hooper grinned. He felt no pleasure but he grinned and pushed the truck as hard as it would go.
Hooper slowed down when he left the post. He was AWOL now. Even if he couldn't find it in him to care much about that, he saw no point in calling attention to himself.
Drunk drivers were jerking their cars back and forth between lanes. It seemed like every half mile or so a police car with flashing lights had someone stopped by the roadside. Other cruisers sat idling behind billboards. Hooper stayed in the right lane and drove slowly until he reached his turn, then he gunned the engine again and raced down the pitted street that led to Mickey's house. He passed a bunch of kids sitting on the hood of a car with cans of beer in their hands. The car door was open and Hooper had to swerve to miss it. As he went by he heard a blast of music.
When he reached Mickey's block Hooper turned off the engine. The truck coasted silently down the street, and again Hooper became aware of the sound of crickets. He stopped on the shoulder across from Mickey's house and sat listening. The thick, pulsing sound seemed to grow louder every moment. Hooper drifted into memory, his cigarette dangling unsmoked, burning down toward his fingers. At the same instant he felt the heat of the ember against his skin Hooper was startled by another pain, the pain of finding himself where he was. He roused himself and got out of the truck.
The windows were dark. Mickey's Buick was parked in the driveway beside a car Hooper didn't recognize. It didn't belong to her husband and it didn't belong to Briggs. Hooper glanced around at the other houses, then walked across the street and ducked under the hanging leaves of the willow tree in Mickey's front yard. He knelt there, holding his breath to hear better, but there was no sound but the song of the crickets and the rushing of the air conditioner. Hooper got up and walked over to the house. He looked around again, then went into a crouch and moved along the wall. He rounded the corner of the house and was startingup the side toward Mickey's bedroom when a circle of light burst around his head and a woman's voice said. "Thou shalt not commit adultery."
Hooper closed his eyes. There was a long silence. Then the woman said, "Come here."
She was standing in the driveway of the house next door. When Hooper came up to her she stuck a pistol in his face and told him to raise his hands. "A soldier," she said, moving the beam of light up and down his uniform. "All right, put your hands down." She snapped the light off and stood watching Hooper in the flickering blue glow that came from the open door behind her. Hooper heard a dog bark twice and a man say, "Remember-nothing is too good for your dog. It's ruff-rujf at the sign of the double R." The dog barked twice again.
"I want to know what you think you're doing," the woman said.
Hooper said, "I'm not exactly sure." He saw her more clearly now. She was thin and tall. She wore glasses with black frames, and she had on a blue bathrobe cinched at the waist with a leather belt. Shadows darkened the hollows of her cheeks. Under the hem of the bathrobe her feet were big and bare.
"I know what you're doing," she said. She pointed the pistol, a small silver automatic, at Mickey's house. "You're sniffing around that whore over there."