Sometimes you just can’t understand how someone else can see things the way they do. Sometimes you can understand how, but you know they’re blazingly wrong. And sometimes you get the inkling that you’re wrong, too.
Over There was published in the literary magazine of Yolo county (California), The Yolo Crow in July, 2006.
Carl turned to dust the whiskey bottles displayed on the shelves behind the counter. He slowly bent his portly frame to reach those on the bottom, pulling up his green apron and the legs of his pants a bit to give him more flexibility.
Morris came in. He was a gaunt looking figure, wearing a white t-shirt that no longer was white and khaki work pants. His thinning grey hair was cut short, so he looked almost bald. On his feet were sandals, the kind that have two straps that cross over the top of the foot. The straps originally were black but through wear and dust were now almost the color of his pants. His toe nails were chipped and dull brown. After he stepped inside he paused to enjoy the air conditioning. He pulled a red handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his brow and neck. He stuffed it back into his pocket, leaving a bulge there.
Carl looked up. “Hi, Morris. It looks like a scorcher out there today.”
“Yep.” He sauntered past Johnny in the second aisle where he was putting cans of peaches on the shelf. At the produce section Morris selected three white rose potatoes and placed them in a paper produce bag. Then he went to the cooler and got a package of frankfurters and an orange Nehi soda.
Meanwhile, Alma brought her few items to the counter and stood waiting quietly. Carl put down his feather duster and turned toward Alma. “Now, Alma,” Carl said, mustering his most authoritative tone. “You’re going to pay for that gum you put in your pocket, aren’t you.” This was not a question. Alma’s eyes darted back and forth, looking everywhere but at Carl. Slowly she slipped her hand into her shirt pocket, retrieved a package of gum and placed it on the counter with her bread, mayonnaise, and can of beans.
Carl rang up her groceries on the cash register. “That’ll be seventy-three cents, Alma.” He reached for a paper bag as Alma pulled a crumpled dollar bill from her jeans pocket and placed it on the counter. She stood there, waiting for Carl to finish bagging her groceries, a vacant look in her eyes. Her long, uncombed hair was a dull brown with strands of grey running through it, and she had an unbathed essence about her. Carl handed her change to her with a polite, “Thanks, Alma.” She didn’t answer but merely picked up her bag of groceries and shuffled out the door. Her dirty sneakers had no laces and had large rips across the toes.
Carl watched through the glass doors as Alma crossed the dirt parking lot toward the clapboard house where she lived with some friends a few blocks away. The glaring mid-day sun was heating up the day rapidly. The only thing moving out there besides Alma was the dust.
Johnny had come up to the front and put his hands on his hips, watching Alma as she walked away. “You’d think she knows you have her figured out by now. You must catch her trying to steal something every time she comes in.” He fiddled with the marker pen in his apron pocket as he turned toward Carl.
“Alma’s a little slow, but she doesn’t cause any trouble. You just have to watch her.”
Morris came up to the counter and put his groceries down. He pulled a Band Aid can from the pocket without the handkerchief. He opened it and pulled out a one-dollar bill rolled tightly like a cigarette and handed it to Carl.
Carl rang up the groceries, patiently unrolled the dollar bill, and handed Morris his change. “Here you go, Morris. Don’t spend it all in one place.” He placed the potatoes and franks in a bag and opened the Nehi. He handed it to Morris.
“Thanks.” Morris pushed his bag of groceries to the end of the counter and stepped back to drink his soda. Carl picked up his feather duster and resumed dusting.
Johnny came over. “Hi, Morris. How are you doing today?”
In his soft voice, Morris responded, “Fine. And you?”
Johnny’s eyes lit up. “I’m doing great! I graduated last month. Did I tell you?”
Morris spoke slowly. “No. But congratulations. What are you going to do now?” Morris took another swallow of his soda.
“Well, in a couple of weeks I’m joining the army. I’ve already signed the papers.” Johnny gestured with his arms, his lean frame bent slightly forward. “I think it’s going to be great. I’ve kept in shape even after football season ended so training should be easy. Were you ever in the military, Morris?” Johnny had the start of a smile on his face.
“I was in the army.”
“Really?” Johnny looked surprised. He paused, like he didn’t know exactly what to say next. Morris gave a little twist to his head and waved his left hand in front of his face like he was chasing away a fly. Only there was no fly.
Carl stopped dusting and looked over at the two of them. “Morris is a World War Two veteran, Johnny. He was in both Europe and the Pacific.”
Johnny looked at Carl then turned to look back at Morris. “Really? It sounds like you got in some fighting.”
“Was it bad?” Johnny leaned forward again, his eyes wider, ready to take in some true war stories.
“It was awful. Don’t go.” He twisted his head and waved his hand across his face again.
“I bet it was noisy, huh?” Johnny said, trying to sound casual.
Morris’ voice seemed to get softer. “I saw my best friend get his head blown clean off at Normandy. There were men wounded and dead all around me. I don’t remember the noise.” Morris’ gaze drifted off to a distant place and time.
“Oh.” Johnny seemed a little deflated.
Carl interjected, “Morris, have you heard from your sister this week?”
Before Morris could answer, Johnny asked, “How did you get to the Pacific from Normandy?”
“Oh, the generals thought we did such a great job landing at Normandy, a couple of months later, they sent us to the Pacific. They had too many beaches for the marines to land on, so they called in the army.”
“Was the fighting just as nasty over there?”
Morris twisted his head and waved his hand across his face again. “It was terrible.”
“Did you get wounded?”
Morris paused. Then, in measured tones, “I got a bullet wound and six shrapnel wounds and spent eighty-seven days in a hospital.”
Johnny had a surprised look on his face. “That sounds terrible. How did it happen?”
“I was shot when I went to pull a wounded friend out of the line of fire. Then a hand grenade landed close by. I laid there until the shooting stopped. When they came to get me, my friend was dead.” He looked Johnny directly in the eyes and slowly shook his head. “Don’t go.”
Johnny hesitated, then flashed his Homecoming King smile at Morris. “I’ll be all right. This is just a small local war in the southeast corner of Asia. There are 15,000 US Army advisers there now so this might be over even before I finish my training. Anyway, I’ll be doing my duty and getting all those GI benefits. I’m in great shape, and I have fast reflexes. I’ll be fine.”
Morris finished his soda and put the bottle in the rack with the other empty ones. He turned to go and looked at Johnny with sadness in his eyes. “Don’t go.” Then he picked up his bag, pushed open the door, and stepped out into the glare.
Carl and Johnny watched him slowly walk across the parking lot, a small cloud of dust forming with each step. He twisted his head and waved his hand again. “You know, Carl, Morris is a nice guy, but he’s kind of strange.”
“Yeah.” Carl nodded.
“What kind of work does he do, anyway?”
“He can’t work. He lives on his disability check.”
Then, snapping back to business, “Be sure that beer gets in the walk-in cooler, so it will be cold for tomorrow.”
“I’ll get right on it.” Johnny headed for the back room and flashed Carl a smile. “Only two more weeks of this, Carl. After that, the next time you see me, you can count my medals.”