Locals often measured the duration of a walk by how many squares were passed. Savannah was established around twenty-four squares, the oldest of which had been in existence since 1733. The squares began at Bay Street and were evenly spaced all the way to Gaston. These small, geometrically matched parks ranged from elegant to seedy. Some were surrounded by graceful homes reflecting the architecture of different eras. Others had restaurants, banks and commercial establishments in the surround, while a few had become bleak reminders of the poverty that scratched at the underbelly of the city. These blighted squares were more dirt than grass or verdant flowers. Disreputable people slept on the park benches, and the surrounding structures were in dire need of upkeep.
Harold and Frannie lived off of Liberty Square, which was west of the main phalanx of successive north to south squares. Liberty was somewhere between working class and seedy in appearance. The low iron fence surrounding the park needed painting. The flowers and shrubbery grew in wild abundance, while wispy gray Spanish moss shrouded the square’s main oak tree in tattered grave clothes.
It was still safe for kids to play in the park. A lady could read a book on a bench, unmolested. But the houses overlooking Liberty Square were losing ground against the never-ending battle waged by a climate that bred rot, mold and decay. The people around Liberty were working folk, who got by well enough, but who lacked the extra money required to keep centuries old homes in repair. More and more of the neighbors were looking for newer, easier to maintain properties in suburban Chatham. Only the difficulty in selling one of these old relics kept the gates closed on flight.
“The gnats are back,” Frannie complained, swatting at the almost invisible annoyance that was such a part of their city. Harold smiled.
“The gnats were here before us and will be here after us.”
“I wish they’d cross Back River and take up life in South Carolina.” The Savannah River was known as “Back” River since it was the northern most point of town, with South Carolina beginning on its far banks.
“South Carolina has her own gnat colonies, Frannie.”
“How come they never seem to bother you?”
“If I were a gnat, I’d rather land on your fine skin than on my bones.”
She giggled. “You say the funniest things, Harold. I never knew a man with more reason to be full of himself, who wasn’t at all.”
Harold couldn’t think of a single reason why he should be full of himself as he walked her to her door and gave her back her package. “Do you and Emma want to come over for a boiled dinner this evening?” She asked as she took the bag from him. Emma was his grandmother’s name.
“Thanks, Frannie, but I have to work, and this is the day that Grandma makes that shrimp and grits low country dish of hers.”
“It’s good eating, that’s true. But thanks anyway.” Escaping Frannie’s boiled cabbage, potatoes and corned beef was a goal even when he was hungry. The methane his body produced after eating that meal would knock a buzzard off a shit wagon.
“See ya, slim,” she called out as she opened the screened door of her house. “Thanks for lunch.”
He waved goodbye, crossed through the cut-out in the hedge that separated their properties, and entered the house where his grandmother lived. Like many of the old homes in Savannah, curved stairs at the front of the house led up to the main doors, called the “parlor” entrance, while the door on the ground level was called the “garden” entrance. Since he was injured, it all meant the same thing to Harold: stairs and more stairs. Everything was vertical.
“Grandma? It’s me.” He knew where to find her. She would be in the main parlor, perched on one of the faded brocade divans, with the sheers closed against the sun as she did her needlework and listened to her “stories” on the radio. She always dressed precisely, even if she had no plans to go out. She smiled as Harold leaned over to kiss her forehead.
“Why are you home so early, son?”
He fished her talcum powder, a Life Magazine, and a Good Housekeeping out of his bag and handed them to her. “I need to borrow the car. I have a case, Grandma.” Her old pre-War Buick still ran well enough even though she was too old to drive it and Harold seldom had the cash for fuel.
She took her gifts with a sigh. “You spending your money on me when you have back rent hanging over you, Trip?” She was the only one, the only one, allowed to refer to the fact he was the third in line with the same name. Her husband had been the first, Harold’s father was junior, and now he was the triple play. He couldn’t stop her if he tried, so he didn’t bother.
“Paid up, Grandma. I stopped on my way home just so it wouldn’t burn a hole in my pocket. Had some to spare, so I got you a few things. Just accept them graciously, the same way you tell me to accept kindnesses from others.”
She smiled at having her own life’s lesson thrown back at her by her grandson. “Go fix yourself a sandwich. Still some ham left over in the ice box.”
“I ate at the drug store. Ran into Frannie and bought her a salad.”
“Good for you, Trip. She’s a darling girl.”
“She invited us to dinner. She’s making her boil.”
His grandmother’s face said it all. “That was sweet of her.”
“I told her you were making your shrimp and grits tonight,” he said with a wry smile. She read his implied message and laughed.
“Girls who look like Frannie don’t have to be good cooks. I guess you’d better pick up some fresh shrimp at the waterfront while you’re out, so you don’t make a liar out of yourself. Get me my purse.”
“Shrimp’s on me, Grandma. I told Jim I’d buy him a beer after his shift, so can we eat a little early? Or a little late?”
“Early is better. I may be working on the case this evening.”
“Is it some unfaithful wife?” She asked with a glare. Laura, again. Not to mention Harold’s father, her son. Lots of cheaters in their family, including cheating she knew nothing about.
“No, Grandma. Missing person.”
“Dead most likely.”
“Why do you say that?”
“They’re always dead in my stories on the radio and in those detective novels you’re so fond of reading.”
Harold smiled. And she was so anxious to “borrow” as soon as he was finished reading one. “Like I always tell you, real life detective work isn’t nearly as interesting as Phillip Marlowe.” His grandmother listened to Raymond Chandler’s fictional character on the radio since Dick Powell introduced the detective on the old Lux Theatre hour. She complained when Van Heflin replaced Powell, but was satisfied with the current Marlowe, Gerald Mohr. She said his voice was better suited to dirty dealings.
“Go upstairs and change that shirt, Trip. No respectable people are going to give information to a man dressed like a bookie.”
He laughed. “And you know how a bookie dresses?”
“I can imagine.”
“I’ll be home later. With the shrimp.”
“Trip, thank you for the powder and the magazines, honey.”
He exited through the door he used to make his entrance and then climbed the wooden steps that led up to his apartment over the garage. The climb wasn’t so bad today, although sometimes, because of his injuries, it was exhausting. There were bedrooms in the big house, including the one his grandmother converted from the small drawing room on the garden level when he was recuperating and stairs were impossible for him. Now that he was able, he needed the separation. He had his own small kitchen, a bathroom with a tub and a handheld shower, both leading off a combination bed-sitting room. It wasn’t much, but he could come and go without feeling like a child still living at home.
The closed up apartment felt stuffy. Harold opened the windows and admitted a gentle spring breeze for ventilation. Screens kept out the gnats and other six-legged visitors. He glanced up at the ceiling fan, but decided it wasn’t yet hot enough for that luxury. His colorful shirt still smelled clean when he pressed it to his face to test whether it was time for a wash, after shedding it. Despite a prolonged convalescence, Harold still had strong biceps and shoulders, revealed by his sleeveless undershirt, and a smooth, slim line to his body.
He switched on the radio and heard Dinah Shore singing “Buttons and Bows”. Harold fished until he found something jazzier. Curtains made from a palmetto leaf fabric covered his closet rack and Harold separated them to stare at the sparse selection of clothing that hung there. Long fingers drifted over to the olive green uniform, resplendent with service ribbons, a brasher of medals, shiny buttons and stripes on the sleeve. This was the uniform of a war hero. A colorful red and blue patch read “Hell On Wheels”, the symbol of the famed 2nd Division. As he looked at it, a voice echoed a whispered phrase in his mind, “What are you doing for the rest of my life?”
Harold inhaled sharply, as if someone plunged a shiv between his ribs. He stumbled back and sat on the edge of his bed, resting his elbows on his thighs and his face in his hands. Lips against his ear, whispering, “What are you doing for the rest of my life?”
“Stop it, stop it, stop it,” Harold muttered aloud, trying to shake the ghost from his memory. He fell back on the mattress, staring blankly at the dusty blades of the still ceiling fan above him. The smell of pine returned , along with the crunch of snow, the cold, cold, unrelenting bitter chill that was winter of 1944-45 in northern Europe. Memories caused him to shudder. Cold so intense that weapons froze and fuel in vehicles gelled unless the engines were revved every half hour. The coldest winter in the history of the Ardennes Forest, that bordered Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg was soon to become the bloodiest.
Ardennes December, 1944
Ardennes was supposed to be a brief respite for the battle-weary soldiers of the U.S. 2nd Division, who had already seen too much fighting in Normandy and other campaigns. The Army believed Ardennes was “quiet” so they let the experienced troops rest there, camping beside rookies who were sent to Ardennes to train and to ultimately relieve the 2nd. The rookies in the 96th and 106th Divisions were alternately amusing and annoying, with their eagerness to engage the enemy. Harold had caused and seen enough death, and swallowed enough fear, to last him several life times. He and his comrades avoided the new troops, who still viewed battle with excited anticipation. Rookies might long for enemy engagement, but all Harold longed for was smokes, food, warmth and being sent home. He vowed if he survived this war, he would never again live in a climate where snow was a common occurrence. He would never again complain about the swampy heat of Savannah in summer. He would never again wear a coat.
“Have you seen much action, soldier?”
Seated on an upturned pail, smoking, awaiting the latest delivery of supplies by the Red Ball Express, Harold was approached by a new recruit. That morning, early in December, 1944, broke clear and sunny. The gold of the sun refracted off the fresh crust of snow that had not yet been muddied by men in heavy boots. The encampment was awake. Breakfast, such as it was, had been eaten, and supplies were due soon. It had been so long since these troops had been fully supplied, that any delivery was met with great anticipation. The promise of fresh food, clothing, maybe even mail, along with a break from being under fire, day after day, meant Harold had no complaints, other than to curse the bitter cold. Action, the kid asked? Harold had been to Normandy. He saw the surf run red with blood. Yeah, you might say he’d seen action.
“Aren’t you supposed to be training?” He asked the soldier who had so recently arrived that he still bore a trace of color from his native state, Florida. Harold thought of him as a kid, although he was only twenty-four himself. He had seen this one around for a couple of days. He was too striking to merely blend in with the other rookies. There was just something sparkly about him, like a Hollywood version of a G.I.
“Just finished artillery,” he upturned a bucket and sat beside Harold, reaching over to light his cigarette for him. “I’ve seen you around. You don’t seem as sucked dry as those other GI’s in the 2nd.”
The rookie had deep blue eyes and when he shoved his helmet back, Harold saw hair that was the color of wheat. He should be showing off his muscles to some girls on a beach somewhere, not sitting out here in Frozen Hell, waiting to be killed. “You spend a little time here and see how sucked dry you feel.”
“My name’s Dutch,” he extended a gloved hand, and Harold reluctantly shook it. He didn’t need to make any new friends. Friends just meant men to lose and men to mourn.
“Harold. How old are you?”
“Twenty-four. What took the Army so long to get you?”
“I doubt it. Try me.”
“I joined up as soon as I was old enough. Instead of sending me to war, they put me in war bond films and on recruiting posters. Can you believe that? I got sent to Los Angeles where they film that stuff. I got to meet Clark Gable, of all things.”
Harold stared long and hard at his handsome, all American face. “The Army made you a movie star?”
“Naw, nothing like that. I was the soldier in the background, you know? Just filling up the blank space.”
“Now that’s a job I want. Reckon they need an ugly mug like mine to take your place over there in Hollywood?”
Dutch grinned at him. “You know you’re handsome. Why do you even say that?”
“No one wanted to make me a movie star.”
And there it was. Harold inhaled deeply from his smoke and stamped his boots on the hard ground, to revive the circulation in his feet. Lately the cold and the wet snow had given him some trouble with trench foot. He didn’t want to end up in some hospital somewhere with gangrene, or worse still, with no feet at all. He hoped supplies meant more wool socks would be distributed. “How’d you end up here? Make an unwelcome pass at Betty Grable?”
“No such luck. I asked to be assigned to the real war and they sent me over here. So here I am. Still haven’t fired a weapon, except in artillery training.”
“Consider yourself charmed. You must be stupid to give up a dream job like that to come over here. No one with half a brain wants to be here.”
“I joined up to fight the Nazis, not to pose for pictures.”
Harold saw the elegant line of Dutch’s jaw twitch, and he refrained from reaching over and shaking some sense into him. It was too late for that now, anyway. The Red Ball Express began to arrive, one vehicle after another, and Harold stood up with a groan. The cold made every joint ache, but it was his beleaguered feet that gave him hell. “Gotta go. I’m on unloading duty today.”
“Me too,” Dutch went right along with him.
The experienced 2nd Division had constructed sturdy log bunkers to shelter their riflemen. The dugouts were equipped with stoves, as were the squad huts. The kitchen stoves were in secure log dugouts near the front of the encampment. Harold sensed these precautions weren’t worth much if the temperatures continued to plummet. Soon they’d be leaving all this to the rookies as they moved on, towards the river.
Harold and Dutch spent the bulk of their day unloading and stacking crates of canned goods, seasonings, rations and other edibles. Inside the cooks’ dugout, their effort and the surrounding stoves provided enough warmth that they shed down to their shirts. Harold appreciated that Dutch pitched in with sufficient enthusiasm, doing more than his fair share, even though he never broke his constant stream of conversation. He could talk the warts off a hog.
“You don’t say much, do you?” Dutch asked as they stacked the final crate, finding themselves alone in a maze created by tall rows of wooden boxes. To an experienced soldier like Harold, the high stacks felt like a bunker, which gave him a sense of false security. Cans of powdered milk were not going to stop enemy fire. They could hear the distant chatter of the cooks who were preparing the evening meal in another part of the enclosure. Where they were, the lamps burned low, throwing them into heavy shadow as the sun set and darkness descended. A mantle of arctic chill danced with the dark.
“You don’t leave a man much space to say anything,” Harold replied, causing Dutch to smile.
“Everyone tells me that. Are you married?”
“Not yet. You?”
“No, but my girlfriend was in the Miss Florida contest,” he responded. Harold didn’t get the connection to his question, but figured he just wanted to brag. “She should have won. She was the prettiest one there.”
“Fix was in, probably.”
“You always so cynical?” Dutch asked along with one of his camera- ready smiles.
Harold sat down on a crate as he looked up at the shadowy outline of the young soldier. Dutch was not as tall as Harold, but he wasn’t short, either. He had a hard, conditioned body and arms like a fighter. After he served on the front for awhile, short rations and endless combat would waste that muscle and healthy girth. Harold averted his eyes, staring down at the shabby toes of his own boots. “We should get back. They’ll be calling us for mess soon and I’ve worked up an appetite.” Mess meant eating as fast as you could shovel it down, before all the residual heat in the food was lost to the prevailing cold.
“You get lonely out here, soldier? How long have you been away from home?” There was a subtle shift in Dutch’s tone of voice, becoming softer, more intimate.
“Miss your wife?”
“What’s it to you?” Harold was uneasy with this change in the conversation.
Dutch reached out and let his fingers drift through Harold’s thick, uncombed hair. Harold leaned back, away from his touch. “What are you doing?”
“I’ve been watching you since I got here. You’re a handsome man, Harold. I’ve seen you catch my eye. I know how it is. A man’s away from home, he gets lonely. Sometimes a friend can be a good thing to have.”
Harold stood and shoved the kid up against the nearest stack of crates, causing them to rattle under the stress. He grasped Dutch’s shirt in his fists as he seethed, “You keep this shit up and you won’t live to see battle, you fucking fruit. Lucky for you I’m a nice guy, so I’m not going to break your nose or call you out to the others, but you may not get so lucky the second time. The next ol’ boy you try to trip up may just end your military career right here on the spot.”
Instead of reacting with fear, denial or shame, Dutch gave him a smile as he reached up to grip Harold’s flexed biceps and said in that same, intimate voice, “You know you want it as much as I do. No one has to know. It will be our secret, Harold. Don’t be afraid.”
Harold shoved him again and stalked off, gathering his coat, his helmet and his weapon as he went. He felt angry, compromised. He wanted to hit something, to shoot some fucking Nazi, to stick his stiff cock up some whore. He wanted to find a way to get that kid’s face, his smile, his body, the sound of his voice, out of his head. He wanted to believe it hadn’t happened. He collided with a comrade, who glared as Harold steadied him with both hands.
“What’s with you, Harold? Watch where you’re going!”
“Sorry,” he retreated to a latrine, one of the few private places in the encampment. He stood there, his eyes closed, his heavy breathing leaving wisps in the cold air as he balled his hands into fists and seized on a single word to give him strength. He had relied on this word before when these familiar feelings of panic gripped him in a vise.
“Resist,” he whispered into the squalid darkness. “Resist.”