Thump. Bump. Bang. Sixty years collapsed around his feet as if they were a single lump. Merricut was one step inside the front door of the antique shop, an hour-old beer settling within him, his wife Lynette three steps ahead of him.
He was breathing heavily from the short walk from the car. And there, prominently exhibited in the center of the first table, was the oldest of icons, a Springfield Garand M1 rifle with initials carved into the butt. He did know why he had looked directly at the rifle, though it grabbed at him with base familiarity. It was branded, like a dormant fingerprint revealed for the first time to a practiced eye, or the remnant of a dream salvaged at the stroke of dawn, sunlight slamming into an aware eye. Inertia, a whole fist of it, hit him, yet he was drawn closer to the table’s centerpiece.
It was, at once, magnetic, inviting, open.
The sixty years behind him had an implosive echo, stretching around his senses and touching the deep holes of them, every holding pit. He did not know if the years were regenerated, recalled, or reconstituted, but they lived again. Faces came back, voices with the faces, partial faces, subdued voices, no sentences, bare phrases, short words, the worked echoes of war, the brevity of battle, abrupt calls for recognition, a hand waving hello or goodbye… take your pick, soldier; take your pick.
The quick smell of death atop war gathered its own breath, had the relentless company with it; his own sour body and dense battle uniform’s personal acid, spent gunpowder, cosmoline, blood two or three days old or as new as dawn, corpse fumes, fog puree thick with an invasive taste moving past his lips, the gracious trail of silence after great noise, after Howitzers, after mortars, after the clusters of small arms galore, after a single ping of a stray slug a survivor was glad went awry, tailing off to wherever, or whoever. Elsewhere was always beautiful, acceptable, even if momentary.
Once more he could trust the interplay of his senses, the necessary tolerance, the often intolerance sneaking in sly as a spy. En masse they made him struggle to return to the antique shop, a swimmer caught up in a swift current, but the effort made him feel disloyal to leave where he had suddenly come to, leave those who had greeted him.
In one quick image, wrapped in wet weather including remnants of a sudden torrential rain encountered in the previous valley of the march, he recalled his poncho still folded over his back beltline. With his duds sodden and heavy, hanging on his shoulders, laying on his back like a slab, there came back to him a wooden plow sitting its bared utility beside the open door of a small thatch-roofed, deserted home. All around the small farmer’s house, the rice paddies, mucked up by the energies of war, possibly reaped forever, glistened with a silver under-skin as if lit up from Hell. The outside fireplace, leading under one edge of the house, was cluttered with a lumpy, sodden gray ash. Beside the plow and the front door, a honey bucket noted its own utility. One of the squad of soldiers brought a small dry wooden box out of the house, smashed it, set it afire. A chair was added, then a bench of sorts with scraggly legs and a few pieces of scrap wood. Odd pieces of lifetimes.
Another comrade, obviously never a farmer or a farmer’s son, leaned his weapon bore-up against the house and, struggling awkwardly, hauled the earth-worn plow to the growing fire. In a few minutes the rice farmer’s first tool of sustenance was aflame. In those few minutes the ransomed plow reaped only momentary heat for the squad of soldiers.
Two look-outs, gray in the mist, one out forward, one to the rear, were denied those precious moments of heat. Merricut could almost see them too, even in the once- mist and in that imaginable distance. One was Malvern Joe, the Pennsy Slateman, gone forever. He couldn’t remember the other scout and it bothered him; no name, no face, nothing at all.
Merricut had begun to shiver. Parts of his past became noisier as they gathered themselves again and again, made a movement into a newer collective. Long ago he had forgotten all things of the war, every damned piece of it, for his own salvation. Buried them, he did, dropped them into a hole he would not look down into on a bet. He let them fall away as if they were hot coals in his thin fingers. Saw one piece go end over end in a free fall into the pit of memories and last saw it as an ember in the free-float. The new replacement Dilboy’s face came back to him as a doll might make itself retrievable, even with the chest wound emitting knowledgable sounds; the eyes giving off their pale green honesty about his pain, his cheeks no more the scrubbed look of a teener coming on old age in the matter of two nights on the line, his mouth silent for the first time in the long nights. The crazy words in small frenzies had been his nerves torn loose among his torso remnants.
Merricut knew this day’s long drive with Lynette had been working on eyes as well as muscles, the eyes sensing a strain, the knees and buttocks and one shoulder, the right one where he had fought to keep the van from running into miles of jersey barriers, all telling him of age and stretching the form too far on the first day of their trip. Lynette was different. “If I’m going somewhere, I want to get there.” That meant she was not a sign reader, did not stop long enough to smell the flowers, could not attach to an old barn or an old farmhouse the endless years of labor worn in sad make-up, or could not imagine how such buildings yawned into a new century, could not feel the misery in the passage of time, in the slow but sure expenditure of homely assets.
“Hurry,” she could have said, “don’t dawdle. You know how I excited I am when I get a new piece of cut glass for my collection.” “It’s what most matters most days,” she also might have said, the way some collectors and hobbyists get locked into a singular interest.
Now she said, “Over here, Harry. This section here has all that Irish glass we’re always talking about.” Harry Merricut could have echoed, “I’m” instead of “we’re,” but let it go as he always managed, his sense of time too narrow to dawdle in diddles and frills. His memory was also short there, with fair reason. But he loved her and bore her no enmity on any of her small appropriations. And she loved him back, of course, all the way back. He had not doubted that for any of their 50 years together.
“We can look for that vase we’re always looking for.” The captivating smile was there, in place, a warmth she generated almost at will. Such as for a vase search. She had been looking for it for close to five years, he figured, and that meant he had spent the same amount of time. What would they do when they found it? Put it on the same shelf with the other cut glass pieces and let them be until the end of time? Stare at them on every Friday night when a better show was at the theater, on Saturday night when he was playing cards with the guys and she was back home polishing what didn’t need to be polished in the first place? The still life of a still life. For him, memories counted. All the way, except for the war; the war had no place in it. All that had been shunted aside in the hospital, where the horrors had come ten-fold on top of the pain that lasted for what seemed months, but maybe was a week of agony. In the end, he let the pain and the memory of every battle fall off the very edge of the world. I am done with it, he said.
The vow was sixty years old.
But now something was in the way and, in a way, would not let go again. The realization was like a rifle shot, and long-forgotten scenes popped at him like empty shells ejected from the weapon. Whole scenes leaped at him and past him with such speed his head was spinning, and Lynette was drawing him back, pulling at him, yanking him: “Harry, it’s here! It’s here!” No doubt the shop keeper already was raising the price.
Merricut stared at the weapon on the table. It was his old M1 with his initials cut into the stock. He could feel the knife in his hand, the one he had gotten in a swap with a Turkish corporal, Charlie Flynn’s eyes on him as he cut the last leg on the M. Charlie’s chin came back again, a boulder of bone, a thrust forward of his whole personality, a warrior come from a long line of warriors, centuries old, magnificent in the noise of battle, who stood up one moment on the quiet hillside and fell down the next and went to dust. “You’re right about that, Hurry (the way he said his name from the very first meeting); we got a right to mark our weapons any goddamned way we want and fook ‘em who says no we can’t.”
Caught in a flash of measurements, he heard Lynette calling, “Harry, oh, Harry,” the excitement spilling from her, the beautiful lilt to her voice as if she was splayed in the bedroom one more time, one last time, her hand pulling at his arm, and he was knowing the 9.5 pounds of the rifle in his hands, right to the extra ounces. The curve of the trigger shaped his finger again; the strap fabric dangled against his little finger, all as if the parts still balanced his life at each touch. If he could have recorded his trust in that weapon, an idea suggested, he would have composed a great tribute, more an anthem than a pop song, more a sonnet than a ditty. It had traversed his personal proving grounds, lived up to the hype from another war.
“I’ll be with you shortly, Lynette,” he said into the depths of the shop, to wherever she was. Maybe a bit more than half a century, he thought, a bit more, the Charlie Flynn and kid Dilboy anchors holding fast in his mind.
“I’ll tell you where the rifle came from, how it got here,” the shopkeeper said. “I’ll give you the whole itinerary, the odyssey of it. I know it came out of Inchon, Korea in late 1952, in pieces in a duffle bag, after a shakedown inspection for weapons. The soldiers were trying to bring souvenirs home and had to hide them under fireboxes and in sand pits in a fenced tent area where they had slept overnight, expecting to dig them out after the shakedown, but they were simply shunted behind a separate barbed wire section and the MPs walked in and did the real shakedown, squeezing all kinds of stuff out of there, boxes of it, collectors’ dreams. The soldiers’ duffel bags were never checked; it was all a ploy, a ruse.”
He paused in mid-statement, apparently aware of an idea shaking itself awake, and then carried on. “But my cousin brought it out, never once taking it out of his duffle bag. Brought it all the way home by boat and train clear across the country to Fort Devens, and then in a taxi to North Station in Boston and a train to Lynn and then by bus right to the house next door to where I lived. He had it in the attic for years. Probably slipped his mind after a while. I forgot about it too. Then a few weeks ago he popped it on me, and here we are.” He slapped his hands, having wrapped up the whole story.
Merricut, trying to stabilize his voice, hold surprise in abeyance, said, “What outfit was he in?”
With raised eyebrows preceding his answer, further awareness almost celebrating itself on his face, mystical connections narrowing, the shopkeeper said, “The 17th Regiment of the 7th Division.”
“That’s the Buffaloes,” Merricut said, “a sister regiment of my outfit, the 31st Infantry. Know who HM is?” He pointed to the initials.
“No, but I have a sneaking idea about it. That you? Those your initials? You HM?”
“Yes, that was my weapon. Must have been re-issued within the division when I was rotated out of Korea and came home. Early in February of 1952, I think.” The doorway beside him lead to the room where Lynnette was still calling him. Merricut was already leaning that way.
“You been looking for it or similar stuff?” the shopkeeper said. “I have a bunch of stuff out back that might interest you. Real top notch stuff. I could say practically right from the front lines where you guys did such good work, I swear.” He nodded and his smile was laden and without cover, and his hand was out, ready to shake Merricut’s hand, a late welcome home, a welcome to his shop where he unknowingly had cut onto private grounds, into the private war of Harry Merricut.
Merricut cut it short. “No,” he said, almost stabilized, the old sights stock still for the moment, him trying for an exit of imagery and the moment, “we’re just looking for a cut glass vase. I think my wife’s found it. We’ll be out of here pretty quick, I’d say.”
Charlie Flynn went away again, and the kid Dilboy, behind a whole dark mountain. He didn’t know how long they’d be gone this time.
Image: English: Springfield Armory M1 Garand Rifle – AF.42045; Springfield Armory M1 Garand Rifle. – Smithsonian museum – public domain.