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I watched the mass family reunion taking place in the dim gloom under the high roof of the pier. There was a lot of crying and hugging and so forth, but we weren’t involved in any of that. I wished to hell we could get going.
After about a half hour the buses started and we pulled away from the festivities. I slouched low in the seat and watched the city slide by. Several of the guys were pretty boisterous, and the bus driver had to tell them to quiet down several times.
“Look,” Benson said, nudging me in the ribs. “Eine amerikanische Fräulein.”
“Quit showing off,” I said, not bothering to look.
“What the hell’s buggin’ you?” he demanded.
“I’m tired, Benson.”
“You been tired all your life. Wake up, man. You’re home.”
“Big goddamn deal.”
He looked hurt, but he quit pestering me.
After they’d wandered around for a while, the guys who were driving the buses finally found a train station. There was a sergeant there, and he called roll, got us on the train, and then hung around to make sure none of us bugged out. That’s Army logic for you. You couldn’t have gotten most of those guys off that train with a machine gun.
After they got permission from the White House or someplace, the train started to move. I gave the sergeant standing on the platform the finger by way of farewell. I was in a foul humor.
First there was more city, and then we were out in the country.
“We in Pennsylvania yet?” Benson asked.
“I think so.”
“How many states we gonna go through before we get back to Washington?”
“Ten or twelve. I’m not sure.”
“Shit! That’ll take weeks.”
“It’ll just seem like it,” I told him.
“I’m dyin’ for a drink.”
“You’re too young to drink.”
“Oh, bullshit. Trouble is, I’m broke.”
“Don’t worry about it, Kid. I’ll buy you a drink when they open the club car.”
“Thanks,” he said. “That game cleaned me out.”
We watched Pennsylvania slide by outside.
“Different, huh?” Benson said.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “More than just a little bit.”
“But it’s home, man. It’s all part of the same country.”
“Sure, Kid,” I said flatly.
“You don’t give a shit about anything, do you, Alders?” Sometimes Benson could be pretty sharp. “Being in Germany, winning all that money in the game, coming home—none of it really means anything to you, does it?”
“Don’t worry about it, Kid.” I looked back out the window.
He was right though. At first I’d thought I was just cool—that I’d finally achieved a level of indifference to the material world that’s supposed to be the prelude to peace of mind or whatever the hell you call it. The last day or so, though, I’d begun to suspect that it was more just plain, old-fashioned alienation than anything else—and that’s a prelude to a vacation at the funny-farm. So I looked out at the farmland and the grubby backsides of little towns and really tried to feel something. It didn’t work.
A couple guys came by with a deck of cards, trying to get up a game. They had me figured for a big winner from the boat, and they wanted a shot at my ass. I was used up on poker though. I’d thought about what Riker had told me, and I decided that I wasn’t really a gambler. I was a bad winner. At least I could have let that poor bastard keep his pants, for Christ’s sake. The two guys with the cards got a little snotty about the whole thing, but I ignored them and they finally went away.
“You oughta get in,” Benson said, his eyes lighting up.
“I’ve had poker,” I told him.
“I don’t suppose you’d want to loan me a few dollars?” he asked wistfully.
“Not to gamble with,” I told him.
“I didn’t think so.”
“Come on, Kid. I’ll buy you a drink.”
“Sure,” he said.
The two of us walked on down the swaying aisles to the club car. I got myself about half in the basket, and I felt better.
In Chicago there was another mob of relatives waiting, and there was a general repetition of the scene on the dock back in New York. Once we changed trains though, we highballed right on through.
I spent a lot of time in the club car with my heels hooked over the rung of a bar stool, telling lies and war stories to a slightly cross-eyed Wave with an unlimited capacity for Budweiser and a pair of tightly crossed legs. At odd moments, when I got sick of listening to her high-pitched giggle and raucous voice, I’d ease back up the train to my seat and sit staring at North Dakota and Montana sliding by outside. The prairie country was burned yellow-brown and looked like the ass-end of no place. After a while we climbed up into the mountains and the timber. I felt better then.
I had a few wild daydreams about maybe looking up the guy Sue had told me about in her last letter and kicking out a few of his teeth, but I finally decided it wouldn’t be worth the effort. He was probably some poor creep her mother had picked out for her. Then I thought about blousing her mother’s eye, and that was a lot more satisfying. It’s hard to hate somebody you’ve never met, but I could work up a pretty good head of steam about Susan’s mother.
I generally wound up back at the club car. I’d peel my cockeyed Wave of whomever she’d promoted to beer-buyer first class and go back to pouring Budweiser into her and trying to convince her that we were both adults with adult needs.
Anyhow, they dropped us off in Tacoma about five thirty in the morning on the fourth day after we’d landed in New York. My uniform was rumpled, my head was throbbing, and my stomach felt like it had a blowtorch inside. The familiar OD trucks from Fort Lewis were waiting, and it only took about an hour to deliver us back to the drab, two-story yellow barracks and bare drill fields I’d seen on a half dozen posts from Fort Ord to Camp Kilmer.
They fed us, issued us bedding, assigned us space in the transient barracks, and then fell us out into a formation in the company street. While they were telling us about all the silly-ass games we were going to play, my eyes drifted on out across the parade ground to the inevitable, blue-white mound of Mount Ranier, looming up out of the hazy foothills. I was dirty, rumpled, hung over, and generally sick of the whole damned world. The mountain was still the same corny, picture-postcard thing it had always been—a ready-made tourist attraction, needing only a beer sign on the summit to make it complete. I’d made bad jokes about its ostentatious vulgarity all the way through college, but that morning after having been away for so damned long, I swear I got a lump in my throat just looking at it. It was the first time I’d really felt anything for a long time.
Maybe I was human after all.
THEY weren’t ready to start processing us yet, so they filled in the rest of the day with the usual Mickey-Mouse crap that the Army always comes up with to occupy a man’s spare time. At four-thirty, after frequent warnings that we were still in the Army and subject to court-martial, they gave us passes and told us to keep our noses clean. They really didn’t sound too hopeful about it.
I walked on past the mob-scene in the parking lot—parents, wives, girlfriends, and the like, crying and hugging and shaking hands and backslapping—and headed toward the bus stop. I’d had enough of all that stuff.
“Hey, Alders,” someone yelled. “You want a lift into town?” It was Benson naturally. He’d been embarrassingly grateful when I’d given him back the watch, and I guess he wanted to do something for me. His folks were with him, a tall, sunburned man and a little woman in a flowered dress who was hanging onto Benson’s arm like grim death. I could see that they weren’t really wild about having a stranger along on their reunion.
“No thanks,” I said, waving him off. “See you tomorrow.” I hurried on so he wouldn’t have time to insist. Benson was a nice enough kid, but he could be an awful pain in the ass sometimes.
The bus crawled slowly toward Tacoma, through a sea of traffic. By the time I got downtown, I’d worked up a real thirst. I hit one of the Pacific Avenue bars and poured down three beers, one after another. After German beer, the stuff still tasted just a wee bit like stud horsepiss with the foam blown off even with the acclimating I’d done on the train. I sat in the bar for about an hour until the place started to fill up. They kept turning the jukebox up until it got to the pain level. That’s when I left.
The sun was just going down when I came back out on the street. The sides of all the buildings were washed with a coppery kind of light, and everybody’s face was bright red in the reflected glow.
I loitered on down the sidewalk for a while, trying to think of something to do and watching the assorted GI’s, Airmen, and swab jockeys drifting up and down the Avenue in twos and threes. They seemed to be trying very hard to convince each other that they were having a good time. I walked slowly up one side of the street, stopping to look in the pawnshop windows with their clutter of overpriced junk and ignoring repeated invitations of sweaty little men to “come on in and look around, Soljer.”
I stuck my nose into a couple of the penny arcades. I watched a pinball addict carry on his misdirected love affair with a seductively blinking nickle-grabber. I even poked a few dimes into a peep-show machine and watched without much interest while a rather unpretty girl on scratchy film took off her clothes.
Up the street a couple girls from one of the local colleges were handing out “literature.” They both had straight hair and baggy-looking clothes, and it appeared that they were doing their level best to look as ugly as possible, even though they were both not really that bad. I knew the type. Most of the GI’s were ignoring them, and the two kids looked a little desperate.
“Here, soldier,” the short one said, mistaking my look of sympathy for interest. She thrust a leaflet into my hand. I glanced at it. It informed me that I was engaged in an immoral war and that decent people looked upon me as a swaggering bully with bloody hands. Further, it told me that if I wanted to desert, there were people who were willing to help me get out of the country.
“Interesting,” I said, handing it back to her.
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