Flashbacks, Part 7
It would have been cruel for me to let them leave as anything more than War Machines. I didn't meet anyone quite like that for another 20 years.
As I ended my story, the bus opposite me looked at me with a curious expression, as if that couldn't possibly be the end, and please, go on. His eyes squinted at me and his mouth hung open slightly, and I cleared my throat loudly to see if it would snap him out of it.
Whozzat? he said when I didn't continue, smiling slightly. Stupidly.
I rolled my eyes. We were in my living room. Grey carpets, a black and white wooden television set against the west wall, standing in front of the single window. To the north was a dresser, which I had opened to take out the box of my medals.
An uncomfortable but not overly severe flashback had led to him becoming inquisitive about my past experiences.
I had been arranging the products on the shelves in the store, as I did every day, as well as making sure there wasn't a speck of dust brave enough to settle there, when Fillmore had knocked over a box of light bulbs. The stunned beatnik had backed up over them in a fuddled attempt to pick them up, and at his snail's pace I could hear each one of them break, pop, pop, pop.
Now don't get me wrong. I'm not a nut case. I'm not a coward, and I'm not a whimpering sissy who goes into shock every time he hears a loud noise. On any other day the same thing could have happened and I would have been nothing but annoyed. I've got to be in the right or wrong place in my mind for something like that to set me off, and it just so happens I had been thinking about one ordeal or the other when that noise went off like gunshots in my brain.
I lost myself a bit. If you've ever struggled on the edge of fainting, you might understand this in a mechanical sense. Everything seemed far away, and my peripheral vision faded to a murky grey. I was floating, though in actuality Fillmore told me later I was wobbling like a drunk, and he was half expecting me to tip over. I could hear shouts and more gunshots, whizzing past my sides. I felt sick, and then it was over, like a bad dream.
Yes, that was it. Sorry if you were expecting me to grab my rifle and go on a murderous rampage.
When my vision returned, however, I thought maybe it wasn't over, because I could see Robert's brown eyes looking down at me with that familiar, gentle concern.
You okay, man?
I stood up straight, cleared my throat, picked up the duster and resumed working. Fine.
Sorry about the light bulbs, sirdude. I'll pay for 'em.
Light bulbs..? Oh. Don't worry about it, hippie. They're cheap. Just clean them up, and for Ford's sake don't leave any little bits of glass lying around to get stuck in my treads later.
Fillmore saluted. Yes, sir! he said, and I turned my grille away and smiled. As I continued to arrange items and dust, I heard the sound of glass shards being swept into a dustpan.
You ever gonna tell me about what happened to you? he said after a while. Infuriatingly stubborn.
Why should I? I grumbled, half hoping he wouldn't hear and would just drop it, but once again the hippie proved he was more on the ball than you would think.
'Cause I dunno what to do when you do stuff like that. When you get all weird. It like, worries me, man. You're my best buddy and I wanna know how to act when you have one of them things.
One of those things, Fillmore. I could hear him disposing of the broken glass and putting the dustpan away. He was at my side again.
You're in my way, I muttered.
What are you afraid of?
I paused. Then I set down the duster carefully and fixed Fillmore with what I hoped was a piercing glare. What do you mean, afraid?
I'm not gonna force you to tell me, man, but, like, you can, you know?
His expression looked so genuinely concerned, so genuinely sad, even, that I gave in. I took him into the living room and showed him my medals. I didn't tell him everything. He didn't need to know about my father. He didn't need to know about Tom.
So I told him about Robert.
So, who was it? he repeated. Who did you meet 20 years later?
I fixed him with a meaningful look, but he just kept that same smile plastered on his face. Either he didn't get it or he just wanted to hear me say it.
I'm not giving you the satisfaction, I said, and he managed to squint a little more, and that infuriating wrinkle of the Volkswagen symbol in the centre of his face told me he had been f*cking with me the whole time. He was sharper than most people gave him credit for.
So, is that it? he said, shifting a bit in his relaxed position on the carpet.
You know the rest. I was promoted to sergeant, the war ended, and I moved here. You've plagued me ever since.
The big bus was holding the wooden box of medals close to himself, and he looked down at them again. He pulled one out, hooking it around one of his small, smooth tires that he didn't bother to replace, even when they had no treads to speak of. Waste not, reduce, reuse, recycle, blah blah blah.
You forgot this one, he said, lifting it a bit as if I needed to see it to know what he was talking about. How'd you get this one?
I looked down at the medal, strung on a purple ribbon with a white stripe down the centre. The medal itself was silver, with seven grille-slot shaped holes in it, and two circular holes on either side, close to the top. It had been designed to look like a Jeep's grille, and it was the only medal I had received that I wasn't proud of.
I let the bus fiddle with it as I spoke. I got that one during the Battle of the Bulge. It was my first medal. I received it for towing a tank to safety. He had lost a tread and was going in circles, and I removed him from the range of enemy fire.
Woaah. You pulled a tank?
I nodded, unable to stop my bumper from twitching upward slightly. Right.
I left it at that. You're probably wondering why I wasn't proud of what I had done. Well, it wasn't that I wasn't proud of what I had done, it was that I wasn't proud of what I hadn't done. I know Robert died in that battle, even if I don't know how, and I know that his life was draining away somewhere while I was towing a complete stranger to safety. The grille on that medal looks more like a nasty sneer to me than anything else.
I must have paused, or shown some emotion, because when I looked back up Fillmore was inches from me, looking down at me with a stunned but none the less concerned expression. He didn't understand the concept of boundaries or personal space, with me most of all. I gently pushed him away with a tire, and he slid backwards easily.
You have to stop doing that, I said. I wonder what cruel twist of fate had decided to plunk those dark brown eyes in that stupid hippie's head. Fillmore seemed nothing but infuriatingly amused by my discomfort, and he chuckled the hoarse chuckle of a veteran pot smoker.
You need to relax, man, he said. Oh Chrysler, here it comes. I tapped my tire impatiently against the carpet, raised an eye ridge, and looked at him with a get on with it expression. Do you know what I do when I need to relax?
I refuse to partake in such things.
Fillmore stared at me, confused, before the smile returned. Noo no. I go to the beach. I think you should go to the beach. The hopeful look in his eyes left no doubt in my mind that by you he meant we.
I don't enjoy crowds, you know that, I countered immediately. Apparently the bus didn't pick up on my end of conversation tone, and kept going.
You don't have to put up with crowds, man. I know this nice little spot on the coast. You and I should, like, go. I've been meaning to myself, but you really seem like you need a vacation.
What in the world makes you think I would go to the beach with you, hippie? Honestly!
He looked downcast for only a brief second, damn him. 'Cause we're buddies.
According to you.
For someone who isn't my friend, you just told me a looot a' personal stuff, Sarge. Think of it as me paying you back for saving my life...
You just won't let that go...
I'll pay for everything, gas, snacks, the works. I'll even buy you a case of beer. And I won't do any smoking.
I regarded him for a long time. Thought about the situation over and over. There were no excuses left, were there? Business at the store was lousy, the weather was disgustingly hot, and I wouldn't have to pay a cent. I sighed.
All right. I'll go with you for the day. But do not, I said, jabbing a tire at him under any circumstances gloat about it, gossip about it, or take it the wrong damn way, do you understand?
He held out his smooth tire, and I clasped mine around it tightly and shook, jarring him up and down.
No problem, man!