Danny walked along the dirt path up to the guard shack, his red box under one arm and a tattered copy of Paradise Lost under the other. A small notebook with a pencil through the spiral stuck out of the back pocket of his fatigues which hung loosely on his thin hips. At nineteen, he had decided to become a writer. Milton, he assured himself as he walked into the shack, tapping the guard with familiarity, had written at his age.
“Hey man. Ready to wash ‘em down?” Jack, the guard, laughed.
Danny felt a grimace on his face, but tried to hide it. “Yeah, I guess. How many guys signed out tonight?”
Jack checked a clip board. “Only thirty-eight. Most of ‘em a while ago. It should be an early night. Hitler seems to have gotten rid of all the girls ready to put out – not much pussy out there that isn’t for sale, you know?”
He didn’t respond. He had never had much use for crass language but was becoming immune to it in the Army.
“Oh, hey, how’s your girl?” Jack asked, as though his previous comment had reminded him.
Danny blushed, hating himself for it. He wished he could grow a beard to cover it up, but when he did, his mustache was blonde and looked like it wasn’t there and his beard was red. It didn’t seem to fit with his brown hair. But blushing seemed to be outside his control, like so many other things. But he liked to keep up the veneer that he and Rosa were having sex. That they were waiting for their wedding night wasn’t “normal” to these guys. “She’s good. Fine, just fine.”
“I heard you’re tying the knot?”
“Yeah, yeah.” He smiled proudly now. “Two more months. And I go back stateside in six months, so it should be real good. I’m going to college, too.” He immediately regretted saying it, although the news of the GI Bill that would pay for college was often talked about.
“Oh, yeah? I remember when you took the equivalency test. You passed first try?”
Danny bit his tongue, not saying “of course.” Most of the guys around here didn’t pass first try. He had only dropped out of high school – an expensive Catholic prep school that ate half his mother’s wages from the three jobs she worked to send him there – because one of the nuns had promised he could carry the paschal candle at Easter services and then reneged. In a fit of rage, he dropped just before Easter, faked his birth certificate and joined the army. To his disappointment, the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and the war mostly ended before he could get in on any of the good action. “Yeah, what luck.”
An old man came up to the guard shack screaming drunkenly in German that the damned Americans had done enough, go home already. Jack tried to tell the man to leave, but he understood no English and Jack spoke no German. Danny stepped in.
“My dear man,” he said in his most formal German, “we will leave as soon as possible, I assure you. You may notice, though, that we are heavily armed and screaming will only get this Philistine over here to shoot you in the head.” He raised his eyebrows.
The old man walked off, stinking of beer and waving, muttering about how all Americans were Philistines.
“Hey, cool. You shprec-ee zee Deutsch pretty damn well there, Danny. How’d ya learn it?”
Danny smiled coolly. “Rosa doesn’t speak much English,” he said offhandedly.
The truth was that her father was a professor of classical German at the Universität Stuttgart and had been tutoring him for the year and a half that Rosa and he had been dating. Rosa sometimes accused him of wanting to see her father more than he wanted to see her. He had first learned the German of Stuttgart with a fluency bred by sexual desire. It had landed him Rosa, a proper Catholic girl who consented to heavy petting and nothing more. He redoubled his efforts to learn German, a sort of cold shower of the mind. Once her father began teaching him Classical German, and now that he was starting to study Latin, he realized that he loved language. Memorizing and reading German was a way to calm his over anxious body and sitting with Rosa’s father was almost easier than sitting with Rosa, who seemed to have the gifts of the world in a package that couldn’t be opened for two more months. So, he loved language instead, finding it rather cold comfort as he sat in the guard shack night after night.
But the son of a hard rock miner’s daughter and a migrant laborer (who had run out fifteen years before anyway) didn’t just admit outright that he loved language. Who would he say that to? He sometimes showed his mother his poetry and even mailed her a poem that he had attempted in Latin, just to impress her, knowing that even though it was very bad she wouldn’t understand. Very nice, Danny, she would say and then talk about job possibilities for when he got home. His upcoming marriage already squashed her dreams of him becoming a priest. Writer, he wanted to answer, but that would only get him another lecture, similar to the one when he screamed at Sister Felicia and withdrew from school, losing her more than twenty dollars and fifty-three cents in tuition, not to mention her good name with the sisters.
Jack fell asleep in a cot in the back of the shack a short time later. He had a longer shift than Danny, so Danny usually covered for the guards, sitting alone reading into the small hours of the night. He sat reading for about an hour before the first of the thirty-eight men came back from a night on the town. He looked sober and frustrated.
“Hey,” said Danny, as Private Clemons signed in, “how’d ya do tonight? Get lucky?” This was his least favorite part of his job, but he was somewhat inured by the months that it had been his assignment. It became a role that he played, acting like one of the guys and like this medic job was no big deal and he didn’t mind it or like it or hate it. It was just a job.
“No,” said Clemons belligerently. “These fucking German bitches, man, they ain’t worth shit. I can’t wait, man, I can’t wait to get back stateside. Fuck these broads, man, fuck em!” he declared, walking away into the moonlit night.
He tried to put Clemons out of his head as quickly as possible to return his attention to Paradise Lost. But after only ten minutes another solider walked up. He staggered up to the shack and smiled. It was Private Harrison, one of the regular night owls.
Danny got himself into what he felt was his professional mode. “Hey Harrison.” He raised his eyebrows slightly. “D’ja get lucky?” He smiled invitingly to Harrison.
“Oh, man, did I!” He reached down and stroked himself, as if to show just how lucky he had gotten.
“Well, we’ve gotta use the stuff then, Harrison. You know the drill.”
“Yeah, okay, okay. I know.”
Harrison and Danny walked into the shack and kicked Jack’s cot. “Cover for me while I take care of Harrison, ‘kay?”
Jack murmured his assent.
Danny picked up his medic box and led Harrison over to a sink in a room off to the side of the guard shack that had been installed specially for this function. Harrison dropped his pants and drawers without having to be told.
Danny nervously turned on the water, making sure it was warm. His first few nights he hadn’t thought to do that and he found that warm water greatly increased his patient’s receptivity. He took out the red box and slowly opened it. He glanced at the directions, killing time before the act. Some stations the men did it themselves, but Stuttgart had had an unusually high incidence of syphilis and the cures back in the states hadn’t made their way here. He pulled out a paper packet with: Item #9118100, Prophylactic, Mechanical, Individual, 144 imprinted on it. There was a syringe that he had to use to shoot the medicine up the man’s urethra and then soap and a cleansing cloth to clean him off. Many men preferred to do it themselves – but not Harrison.
Most of the men got erections. The doctor had told the medics to expect that and not to get too disconcerted by it. Danny had gone on a two-day training course in Mannheim about the method. Harrison was his most frequent patient. Sometimes Danny wondered if Harrison really had gotten any or if he just wanted the soapy treatment.
“Well, you gonna do it or what?” Harrison asked.
Danny looked up at him. He was easily six three or four – definitely taller than Danny’s 5”11 ½ (that he said was six feet) — and built like the tank he was gunner on. He couldn’t ride inside. He was too big. His hair was a shade darker than one would call blonde and his blue eyes sparkled with drink or enjoyment at what he was about to receive. “Yeah man, I’m getting to it.”
Danny ran the soap under the water for a full minute, getting his hands thick with the lather. He squirted the prophylactic into Harrison’s urethra – which wasn’t that unpleasant – and set to work washing him. Harrison leaned forward. Danny saw he was already half erect. He took the warm lather and swathed the area dutifully as he had been instructed.
“Aren’t you supposed to do it two times?” Harrison said. “I don’t want to get syphilis.”
Danny again lathered his hands with the soap and gently began to wash Harrison once more. He lifted Harrison’s testicles and rubbed the soft underside, almost enjoying the prickling sensation of the pubic hair. “So…” he said, in what he hoped was a nonchalant way, “what was she like?”
Harrison smiled. “You wouldn’t believe it, man. Long blonde hair, big tits like you never seen. She don’t even shave anything, man. Not like American chicks, all fussy and shit.”
Danny rubbed the soap around the shaft and slowly rinsed away the residue. He fantasized about the woman on Harrison, if there had been a woman, her hands on him, washing. He tried to think of Rosa, but it was Harrison he was focused on. They both got into a rhythm, his mind blissfully blank and Harrison put his hands on Danny’s shoulders. When a splash came, unexpectedly, he pulled back, red and horrified.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Danny said, quickly reaching for a towel. Harrison pushed it away.
“No problem, man.” Harrison smiled, pulling up his pants. “See you again tomorrow.” He tied the drawstring of his wet pants and walked out of the shack, playfully punching Danny’s shoulder.
Danny watched him go down the path, not sure what to feel, but unwilling to open Paradise Lost again. When he was out of sight, he sat back on the hard stool in the guard shack and waited for the next guy to come back.
Judy Ryan Hall is a writer and itinerant teacher of writing who has lived in such far flung places as Iceland, Sudan, Germany and New Jersey. She has been published and anthologized in many places. Her novel, Max Runs, published in 2019 by Eliezer Tristan, is about a woman raising a child with bipolar disorder.