A Gambling Man

Charles II's Restoration Game

Jenny Uglow

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

NO ONE THINKS OF GREENLAND (Chapter One)

"You'll want to scratch," said the nurse.

"Don't," said the orderly.

Corporal Rudy Spruance looked up at them from his bed. Something was wrong with his skin. He was having trouble opening his eyes; they were sticky and almost swollen shut. He could barely focus. Although the nurse and the orderly stood at the foot of his bed, they seemed much farther away, giving Rudy the illusion of being marooned in a vast place. He'd felt that way before.

"To keep you from scratching," the nurse said, "we put mittens on you."

"Winter issue," said the orderly. "They were the only things big enough to fit over your hands."

"You got bit bad," said the nurse.

There was movement near the limits of Rudy's vision, then a light shot into his eyes, making him wince. He tried to turn his head but the spot followed him.

"What day of the week is it?" This was a new voice, male.

"No trick questions, Doc," the nurse said.

Rudy couldn't see anyone, just light.

"All right then, what month is it?"

"Still a trick question," said the orderly. "Give the guy a break."

The spot kept harassing Rudy.

"Jesus Christ," said the voice. "All right, then. What year is it?"

"Nineteen..." Rudy said. The word sounded slushy; he barely understood it himself. "Fifty-nine."

The spot clicked off. Everything looked green and purple. The feeling of being stranded came back, this time worrying Rudy. He had a memory of a huge landscape, of being alone. Then, unaccountably, he remembered standing before a flickering television, and a pang of longing struck through all the other sensations. The pang wasn't comforting, but it was better than anything else he was feeling, so he tried to hold onto it. His mind jumped, though, when he heard receding footsteps.

"He'll be fine," the doctor said from afar. "I've got a plane to catch."

Rudy tried to rub his eyes and felt soft balloons against his cheeks. He held his hands up in front of his face. Two large, olive drab pillows hovered there: mittens as big as boxing gloves.

"Have I been asleep?" Rudy said, not sure if anyone was still in the room. The words came like staggering drunks out his swollen lips.

"Yep," said the orderly. "For hours." The orderly and the nurse were still at the end of Rudy's bed.

"We sedated you," said the nurse. "You were a little worked up."

"My skin feels funny."

"It's swollen," said the nurse. "Also we put calamine lotion all over you. Didn't anybody tell you about the bugs?"

"No," Rudy said. "Where am I?"

"Didn't they tell you?"

"No. They just let me out with a couple of mail sacks and took off."

"Why were you out wandering around?" the orderly asked.

"Nobody came for in-processing. I couldn't sleep. There was too much light. So I stepped out for a stroll."

"'And pretty soon I heard a buzzing in my ears,'" said the nurse.

"'It got louder and louder,'" said the orderly. "'I started brushing them away.'"

"'I brushed and brushed, but it was like I was signaling them to come and get it,'" said the nurse.

"Yah!" said the orderly, and he slapped his hip and snapped his fingers like a hepcat horn player jamming.

"'I began to run,'" said the nurse.

"'It was awful,'" said the orderly.

"'I just wanted to get away.'"

"'But there was nowhere to go.'"

"'I didn't know where I was.'"

"Well, soldier, we'll tell you where you are," the orderly said. "You're on top of the world."

"That's it!" said the nurse. "Bitten on top of the world!"

"Ooooo, yeahhh!" said the orderly. "Bitten on top of the world!" And they dissolved into laughter and self-congratulatory slaps and nudges until they both spun around and did a one-leg-forward, hot-cha turn toward the bed, hands out, grinning, almost gloating. Rudy thought for a moment that they were expecting applause for their vaudeville.

He twisted uncomfortably. Calamine lotion crinkled on his pillow.

"Did I say all that?" he asked.

"Nope," said the nurse, and she leaned down toward his face. "But it's what you would have said. Isn't it?"

They'd gotten that right. The mosquitoes had clouded the sky around him. They'd risen up out of the rivulets and grasses on the bright, sunny tundra where he'd been walking, trying to piece together where the hell he was and what had been happening to him since he'd left the States and, for that matter, since his enlistment, since the arrest, since before the arrest.

The mosquitoes had come at him so quickly and in such numbers that it was like hitting a wall. He couldn't see a thing, and he'd begun to run. The whining of the tiny wings had sounded as if it came from inside his head. That was what had finally panicked him. He thought they were boring into his brain through his ears. He was getting bitten everywhere. The pinpricks gathered into a fire all over his skin, down his collar, up his nose, in his pants. He started screaming, calling for help, inhaling mosquitoes, bellowing, crying. He'd had no idea where he was going.

Then someone had tackled him, and they fell onto the soft, lumpy moss and grass. Whoever it was had wrapped him in a wet towel. Moist OD terry cloth all around his head, a strong grip around his arms that he'd tried to buck against as his panic fought even aid. The person had yelled at him to get a grip. Whoever it was had hauled him to his feet and forced him to walk, blindfolded and whimpering in the towel, back to safety. He remembered picturing what he must have looked like as he stumbled along: a prisoner of war.

"What's your assignment..." The orderly was looking at the name tag on Rudy's fatigue shirt that was draped over a metal folding chair. "...Corporal Spruance?"

"PIO," Rudy mumbled.

"Public Information Office?" asked the nurse. "That's crazy. There isn't one. Not here."

"There isn't any public," said the orderly. "And there better not be any information."

"Tenn-hutt!" The nurse stabbed the orderly with her elbow, and they both immediately pulled back from Rudy's cot and shot to attention.

Rudy could see the door. For an instant he glimpsed a young woman there. She was wearing a nurse's skirt and a women's OD army blouse. She had red hair, almost strawberry blond, brushed back but about as long as army regs would allow. Rudy wanted to see more, when a tall, striding man filled the door and advanced on Rudy's cot. The man was a lieutenant colonel.

Since he couldn't come to attention, Rudy saluted, his balloon mitt chuffing against his brow and sending tiny flakes of dried lotion raining into his right eye.

"Corporal Spruance."

"Sir?"

"Colonel Lane Woolwrap. Base CO."

The colonel did not return Rudy's salute, and Rudy didn't know what to do with his hand. For a moment he let the mitt hover in the air off to the side of his head, then he let it plop onto the sheets.

"We've already met," the colonel said. "Out on the flats. I was your rescue party. Sergeant Teal here saw you doing the hurt dance out our window. I donned my M1-E1 OD mosquito bonnet and jeté'd my way with a wet towel across the arctic waste to save your ass. Didn't anyone tell you about the bugs?"

"No, sir."

"Well then, you got a little OJT. The lecture portion of the Bug Briefing goes something like this: Springtime is the worst, the first big hatch. Anytime the temp goes above fifty-two degrees Fahrenheit. They've been known to drive reindeer to leap off cliffs and to run musk oxen to exhaustion. They drove you so nuts, you were running away from the base. You'd've run straight for the ice cap if I hadn't stopped you. We hose the grounds down with DDT, and that helps, but obviously you walked out beyond the perimeter. So how do you like Greenland?"

"Sir?"

The colonel exploded into laughter. He was a handsome man, probably in his early fifties, big boned, blond, curly hair, balding on top, but somehow that looked okay with his muscular build. He had one boot up on the frame of Rudy's bed. He even slapped his knee as he laughed.

But Rudy was still dumbfounded by the word Greenland. He'd had no idea.

Now that he thought about it, though, it made sense. There had been mountains, huge ones, and ice in the distance, a flat plain with tufts of grass, him alone in the middle of vastness.

"No doubt," the colonel said. "We're not supposed to like Greenland. But we will endure Greenland, and Greenland will endure us. And while we're here, we have our mission. What would yours be, Corporal Spruance?"

"Sir?"

The colonel rolled his eyes. He cupped his hands around his mouth and made his voice sound as though it were coming through a loudspeaker. "Why are you here?"

"I don't know, sir."

"You don't know?"

"Honest." Rudy held up his mitt.

The colonel planted both feet on the floor. "Well, what's your MOS?"

"PIO, sir."

"You're kidding."

"No, sir." He held his hand up again. "I swear."

The colonel scratched his head, let out a sigh. "A fuck-up."

"Sir?"

"Not you. You're not a fuck-up. We don't even know you yet. Although that blood donation you pulled out on the tundra leaves you open to speculation. I'm talking about the army. Well, no, not the army, God love it. But something about the army. It always fucks up. Sends a chaplain's assistant to repair half-tracks. Sends an MP to direct a USO Christmas pageant. Sends a barracks thief just out of Leavenworth to run a recruiting office. And evidently...sends you to me."

Rudy looked at the colonel, who was shaking his head. Rudy had the impulse to apologize. He wanted to get another look at the woman at the door. The colonel had said she was a sergeant.

"Well," the colonel said, "you'll find out soon enough that we've got no P, no I, and no O."

"I was told that already, sir."

The nurse and the orderly shifted on their feet and shot Rudy a dirty look. The colonel didn't pay attention to this. "So it looks like we're in for a little holding action here," the colonel said. "Which should fit your recovery plans just fine. You look like shit, by the way. Hurt much?"

Rudy shrugged. "Some," he said, "sir." His eyes felt watery. Saliva might be dripping out the corners of his puffed lips. It was hard to tell.

The colonel took a step back as if he were about to leave.

"Sir," Rudy said. He didn't want to let the colonel go. Here he was, granted an audience with a commanding officer after days--or was it weeks?--of being shunted and shuffled through transient barracks, waiting areas, and holding detachments, getting the runaround or shrugs from Fort Benjamin Harrison to Fort Dix to McGuire AFB to Pease to Keflavik to a couple of God-knows-where landing strips to here. The last time he'd been near anyone with this much authority was when he stood before the judge who got him into this whole mess. And that time his lawyer had told him to keep quiet and take what comes. This time, though, he was speaking up.

"Begging your pardon, sir," Rudy said. "But I hardly know where I am or what this base is or anything."

The colonel stopped and raised his eyebrows. "No one told you?" he asked with a small upturn in his voice that made him sound almost British.

"No, sir."

"They just shipped you here? No explanation?"

"Yes, sir. They couldn't say. Or they shouldn't say. That's all they'd say."

"This is your first assignment, troop?"

"Yes, sir."

"You're fresh out of PIO school? An army-issue ink-stained wretch?"

"Yes, sir."

The colonel threw his arms out and whipped them back to clasp his hands behind himself. He cocked his head back. "And the question on the floor from the freshman member of the fourth estate is, 'What goes on here?' Is that a good way to put things, troop?"

"That's fine," Rudy said.

"We're a hospital," the colonel said quietly and smiled. Then he went on, "But putting things any more precisely than that gets a leetle delicate."

The colonel paced some at the foot of the bed. The nurse and the orderly stepped back to give him room. As the colonel moved from side to side, Rudy could see the sergeant by the door. She was more relaxed, in a less military posture, than anyone else in the room. She leaned lightly against the door frame and watched Rudy. She had a half smile on her lips and fine, high cheekbones.

"A hospital," the colonel said. "Or a terminal. Take your pick."

The nurse and the orderly rolled their eyes. The sergeant cocked her head, her smile faded; she kept looking at Rudy.

The colonel hooked his thumbs in his belt and said, "There's a horror movie in the mess hall. Think I'll go catch it." He turned. The sergeant gave Rudy a little nod, then she turned too as the colonel passed her. Rudy saw Woolwrap's hand give a deft, sculpting stroke down and under the sergeant's ass as he went through the door. She was smiling as she followed him.

The nurse put a paper cup on the metal chair beside Rudy's cot.

"Well-breasted," the nurse said.

"Well-legged," said the orderly.

"Well-derriere'd."

"Well done, good and faithful servant."

"What?" Rudy said. He was getting tired of their stupid routines.

"Sergeant Teal," said the nurse. "The colonel's good and faithful aide. You noticed her? You noticed her."

Rudy folded the mitts over his stomach.

"Sure," he said.

"Take the pills in the cup about midnight, when the sun's at its lowest. You'll feel better in the morning. Up and at 'em in a couple of days."

"So, how many patients in this hospital?" Rudy asked. "Besides me."

The nurse and the orderly were on their way out the door. They both stopped and turned their heads.

"Oh," said the nurse. "You don't count. You're not a patient."

"Not by our standards," said the orderly.

"That's nice," Rudy said. "I suppose."

"Believe me," said the orderly. "It is."

"Well," Rudy said, "how many of your patients do you have?"

"Seventy?" the nurse asked the orderly.

"Sixty-five?" the orderly asked the nurse.

"Call it sixty-six and two thirds," the nurse said to Rudy. "It fluctuates."

"Downward," said the orderly.

"Ever downward," said the nurse.

"Who are they?" Rudy asked.

The nurse and the orderly looked at each other. Exchanging signals, Rudy thought. Something telepathic.

The nurse looked at Rudy.

"War wounded," she whispered.

The orderly nodded.

Rudy said, "There is no war. What war?"

"Korea," the nurse and the orderly whispered simultaneously.

"But why are they here?" Rudy asked. "This is Greenland."

"He's telling us," the orderly said to the nurse.

"War is hell," the nurse said to Rudy. "And we're what's next."

The orderly waved, the nurse blew a kiss, and together they left. In the distance a motor hummed. Hot air pulsed through the heating ducts overhead. Rudy lay back on his bed and began to itch.

NO ONE THINKS OF GREENLAND. Copyright (P 2001 by John Griesemer