June 3, 1943
After all these years, his best friend is malaria.
Even on the brink of an Alaska summer, it comes calling: a bone-deep chill one night, a ministry of sweat the next. Calling him back to old battles. That afternoon he spent shivering in the Baghdad desert, say, while hundreds of Turkish camels and men rotted around him. Or those mornings on the Rio da Dúvida when old Dr. Cajazeira, like a miser with a golden hoard, would reach into his jaguar-skin pouch and dole out his drabs of quinine. Jesuit’s powder, they used to call it, and in memory it does sit like a Communion wafer on each man’s tongue. Never enough to keep the sickness at bay, but enough to keep it within bounds.
Vile stuff. The British had the right idea, stirring it into sugar water. In the old days, whenever Belle raised an eyebrow at one of his gin and tonics, Kermit would murmur, “Prophylaxis, sweetheart.”
Gin is lost to him now. Whiskey, too. Scotch and soda. His stomach sends it all back. Wine is the one drink he can hang on to: a glass upon rising, two more before lunch, and then punctually through the rest of the day and evening.
There are days he thinks he should give up even that. The problem, as always, is finding a replacement. Tobacco has lost its savor; sex is a memory. A year ago, there was some small hope of mortal peril. The Japanese still held a pair of Aleutian Islands, and any minute a fleet of Lilys and Bettys might come roaring out of the clouds, raining down fire.
But the skies have stayed silent, and the Japs have been blasted out of Attu, and word is they’ll soon be evacuating Kiska. The danger has passed, and Major Kermit Roosevelt—recipient of the Military Cross, veteran of campaigns in France and Norway and North Africa and Mesopotamia—is a toy soldier.
No one expects him to show up for reveille, drills, parades. His presence is no longer requested at officers’ mess. His pilot friends have long since shipped out. “We’re going where the action is,” they said.
Left to his own devices, he reads, a little. Plays poker if he can find anyone to play. Contract bridge, if he can snap his mind around it. When that fails, he strolls into town, although even this is not without its risks. He loses breath without warning and stumbles. He’s been known to tip over in the street. There are moments when he catches sight of himself in a shop window (tottering along like an ancient sexton, fleshy, freely sweating) or, worse still, finds a knot of young recruits studying him from a half-respectful distance. He shuts his eyes, but he can always hear someone whispering his name. And someone whispering back: “Him?”
It takes work, he wants to tell them. To look like this.
He is fifty-three. Father was roughly the same age when he took a bullet to the chest. Scorned the doctors and strode straight to the lectern of Milwaukee Auditorium. Flung open his coat to reveal the blood blossoming across his white vest. “It takes more than that to kill a bull moose!” he cried.
The doctors never did get the bullet out. He carried it, nestled against his rib cage, for the rest of his mortal coil.
Well, that’s how he was. Snubbed Death at every turn, wouldn’t give it the time of day. Kermit, being more hospitable, makes a point of greeting it each morning in the washstand mirror. Noting how much thinner the arms have grown since yesterday and, by contrast, how much more pronounced the bloat of his face and belly. Inch by inch, the finish line approaches, and all he can think is: Get on with it.
No, that’s not quite true. Sometimes he thinks: I have never looked more like Father.
Anchorage should have been just the tonic for him. Wilderness on every side. Black and brown bear, moose, Dall sheep. Salmon and trout and grayling practically climbing up your fishing line. Unholy numbers of stars.
Father would have loved the place. At least until evening, when Anchorage casts off its virgin’s weeds, and the soldiers swarm into the bars and canteens and USO clubs, seeking liquor and women, both of which come easily but never cheaply.
Even tonight—nine p.m. on a Thursday—the town is bursting at every seam. Fights are breaking out, only half in earnest, and privates are howling to a moon that is still hours away from appearing. The air is thick with beer and vomit and rotting sheepskin.
No, the Colonel would not have approved of Anchorage at night, but for someone with no stake in things, the town has its uses. Not a soul stops him as he traces his usual path past the Anchorage Hotel and the Arctic Commercial Store. He follows the ruts in the streets, stepping over discarded gas masks and bomber boots and coming at last to an old passenger car, formerly affiliated with the Alaska Railroad and now refitted as Nellie’s Diner. His second home.
Leaning his bulk against the door, he catches the familiar sting of grease smoke billowing from the kitchen stoves, the scents of bourbon and beef juice. His eyes, ranging through the half-light, pick out an empty stool at the end of the counter. Then he hears a voice calling after him.
In the newly built dining room, a man rises from one of the booths. Jug ears and a sun-fissured face and a nonregulation muskrat coat. Major Marvin Marston.
“Come join me,” says Marston.
Kermit is conscious now of his own panting. He takes a dodgy step forward. Pauses, then finishes the rest of the distance at his own pace.
“Nice surprise,” he says, easing himself onto the leather banquette. “Running into you here.”
“No surprise at all,” says Marston with his grim smile. “I was hoping to find you.”
“Well. I am found. If you like, you can make the rounds with me tonight. I’m supposed to enforce the blackout.”
“It would be my pleasure.”
A blur of movement at their flanks. Nellie herself: moonfaced, barely as tall as the table.
“Hiya, boys! Lemme guess: Dry muscat for Major Roosevelt. Shot of Johnnie Walker Swing for the other major.”
“Make it a double,” says Marston.
“Special tonight is calves’ liver and bacon.”
Kermit’s stomach performs a slow revolution.
“Just the cold ham sandwich, Nellie.”
“Toast is five cents extra.”
“So be it.”
“Sirloin,” says Marston. As Nellie strides back to the counter, he calls after her, “Keep it bloody, huh?” With a dreamlike slowness, he folds and refolds the napkin in his lap. “Say now,” he says. “This is some Army we got ourselves mixed up in.”
“General Buckner, is it?”
“Naw, it’s everyone underneath. Toadies, desk jockeys. A fella comes along with an idea—an honest-to-God idea—they want to drown it in paper.”
Kermit is familiar with Major Marston’s idea: the Tundra Army. A guerrilla force to be composed entirely of Eskimos and Indians, patrolling the Alaskan coastline for enemy incursions. The first and last word in homeland defense.
“I don’t understand,” says Kermit. “The Army’s given you rifles, haven’t they?”
“Springfields and Enfields. Older than my granny. Even that was a struggle. What if they turn around and use ’em on us? Morons. Not one of our bright shining military lights has a clue what these people are like.”
Two glasses come sliding across the table. Marston seizes his and drains it.
“I’m telling you, Major, my boys need a champion.”
“Someone way over Buckner’s head. Someone who can rally public sentiment.”
Smiling softly, Kermit begins the slow decanting of wine into throat. Feels the old flush of warmth in his sternum. The warning shot from his belly.
“I can’t be sure,” he says. “To which of my cousins are you referring?”
“With all due respect, the First Lady’d be just the ticket. Give me two days with Mrs. Roosevelt, my little army would never want for anything again.”
The food saves Kermit from replying. Very studiously, he prizes the slab of ham from his sandwich. Pushes it around the plate with his fork and then, on further consideration, leaves it alone.
“Well, you see . . .” He gnaws off a corner of bread. “My standing, you see, within the larger family . . . I mean, the only reason I’m even here, the reason I’m able to share this delightful meal with you, is that neither the president nor the First Lady particularly wants me to come knocking. Any more than my brothers do.” He stares at the bun and returns it to its plate. “Now, the U.S. Army may be every bit as incompetent as you say, but they have found the one stage in the entire theater of war where I can’t embarrass anyone. All of this by way of explaining—I’m not sure I’m the man to woo Cousin Eleanor for you. As happy as I would be to . . .”
His voice is already flagging. With a grunt of despair, he adds, “How about that governor of yours? Gruening. He’s a presidential appointee, isn’t he? Just the man to make your case in Washington.”
“You’re probably right.”
Marston has few social graces, but he never sulks. Blocked in one direction, he simply fixes his sights on another. Over, under, through, thinks Kermit, recalling Father’s old directive. But never around.
Kermit waits quietly for Marston to finish his steak. Then he tosses down a ten-dollar bill and, steadying himself against the table, rises from the banquette.
“Let’s take a stroll, shall we?”
Ten o’clock, and the sun has only begun to sink. It will be nearly midnight before it disappears altogether, and five hours later it will pop up again, taking with it the last promise of sleep. What a terror summer can be.
They walk past Providence Hospital, Marston’s loping stride held in check by Kermit’s shambling. The streets are thinning out, but at the boarded-up entrance to the Federal Building, they come across a young seaman earnestly negotiating with a woman. The sailor’s like something from a Maxfield Parrish print—ginger-bearded, with a gold earring—but it’s the woman who catches Kermit’s eyes. Anywhere from ten to twenty years older than her client. Rawboned, in a green silk dress, her face carved by cosmetics into a mask of scorn.
But that same mask, as Kermit passes, dissolves in the lamplight, and a new face flashes out at him. Dusky skin. Hair parted down the middle. Flecked hazel eyes. He stops.
“All right?” asks Marston.
“Yes . . .”
The woman and her suitor are squinting at him now.
“Nothing here for you, sir,” says the sailor.
Kermit staggers away. Marston follows close behind.
“Friend of yours?” he asks.
Just an old relation, he wants to say. Someone I see now and again.
The last time was in a hospital room in Vancouver. He’d been peeing blood, and a Canadian doctor, not knowing what else to do, had kept him on a soft tide of morphine. It rolled him in and out of consciousness and then woke him for good late in the evening. She was there, standing in the room’s shadows.
I want you to take him with you. . . .
And then the room reconfigured itself, and it was Belle standing there. Belle. The mother of his children. Looking tinier than ever in an ermine coat he was fairly certain he’d never bought for her. He almost called her by name, but she put a finger to her lips. A minute later, she was gone.
Such a long way to come, he’d thought, for such a brief audience. He can only believe that, before severing the last cord, she had needed to see him in that bare unaccommodated state, without the distractions of the other women—the other Roosevelts, all those voices telling her what to do. (Think of yourself, the children, your reputation.) Here she could look at the man who was her husband, at this lowest of ebbs, could stare into his damp, bleary, blood-drained face and realize there was no reclaiming him. That to be unreclaimed was, in fact, his fondest wish.
She came, she saw, she left without a word. And now she is gone—gone for good. And he is here.
Here. Where is here?
In this exact moment, as he walks with Marston through the streets of Anchorage, nothing seems real. The fat cadences of “Cow Cow Boogie” on an out-of-tune piano. A pickup truck parked halfway up the curb. A hardware-store owner rolling down his blackout screen. (“Many thanks,” calls Kermit.)
Or this: The sign posted at the turn for Fort Richardson. A bucktoothed, bespectacled Jap with talons for fingers. He likes your snapshots, the sign warns. Think before you snap. Kermit has seen it any number of times, but tonight those talons are actually rising from the signboard, promoting themselves to the third dimension.
“Ha,” says Marston, scowling at the sign. “That’s the closest we’ll ever get to the enemy.”
“Well, war is a . . . it’s . . .”
And now even Marston is changing. That pencil mustache, sidewinding like an eel.
Kermit jerks his head away. “War is a young man’s game. . . .”
“Are you sure you’re all right, Major?”
“I’m quite well, thank you.” He nods, several times in succession. “Another drink, that might be just the ticket.”
“Lights out for me, I’m afraid.”
“I’m happy to treat,” says Kermit, cringing at the hysteria in his voice. “I know how the local merchants gouge.”
“It’s very decent of you, Major, but I’m off to Seward tomorrow, 0600. Another time.”
Kermit gazes out at the jagged silhouette of the Chugach Mountains, marbling in the evening sun but holding their shape, too; that’s a relief. Maybe if he stands here long enough . . .
“I might write a letter or two,” he says. “If you think it would help. Naturally, I can’t promise anything.”
He hears Marston’s tiny grunt of satisfaction.
“You won’t regret it, Major. They’re good people, these Eskimos. Most self-reliant folks I’ve ever met. Loyal, dependable. Not an ounce of malice to ’em.”
Kermit grabs hold of the signpost, and it’s already too late. In the next instant, he’s borne away on a writhing, foaming river, black as tea. He stares at his feet, half expecting them to be submerged, but the river is inside him. And, somewhere in the canopy above, Marston is talking.
“The point is, these Eskimos are ready to serve Uncle Sam, and I mean to let ’em. Why, if you could have been with me last week in Ketchikan . . .”
Every joint, every fiber in Kermit’s body is blazing with ice.
“And do you know,” says Marston, “when I asked the local chief if he wanted to be compensated, he actually got steamed at me. ‘You give no money,’ he said. ‘We no want money.’ ”
A man doesn’t recoil from his friends. That’s what Father would say. He looks them dead in the eye.
And so, by agonizing degrees, Kermit turns toward the sound of Marston’s voice. Knowing what he will find there. Feeling once more the old tremble as he watches the skin and tissue peel in long serrated strips from Marston’s face.
And there stands the face’s owner, blathering in the twilight. His own skull grinning out of the depths.
Copyright © 2014 by Louis Bayard