Vector -1- Poison?

Being shipped off to war is not the worst thing that could happen to a person...

Vector -1-


by Lainie Lee

PVT Gerald Jones made it back to his barracks, still feeling sick. He shouldn’t have drunk so much but in two more days, he would get on a plane and fly to Viet Nam. So why not get drunk every chance he had? And in the last place he'd been, no one would let him even buy a drink but kept pushing whiskey and cocktails at him until the bartender had cut him off and told him to go back to base.

Officially, he wasn't even old enough to drink anywhere off base, but no one begrudged a soldier in greens on his way to kill or be killed. He swallowed a mouthful of something nasty and decided to get a drink of water from the fountain next to the door of his barracks. He rinsed his mouth twice, but he could still taste the sourness of too much alcohol and the bitterness of bile.

Good thing he’d thrown up in the gutter at the bus stop and not on the company lawn. Before going upstairs, he stopped in the latrine to throw up again, careful to not get any vomit on his shoes or clothes or the floor. It was only a transit company, but the CO could still put a guy on KP ten hours a day if someone messed up. Gerald wiped the toilet ring with paper and flushed that, too. He'd done most of his growing up in foster care and orphanages and habits of keeping things clean to avoid trouble ran deep.

He glanced in the mirror below the dim latrine nightlight; he couldn't see anything but his bright blue eyes, already bloodshot. His Army issue black-rimmed glasses were in his jacket pocket because he hadn't wanted them to get lost while drinking but he only needed them for close work like reading or reassembling an M-16. "I sure do look drunk," told himself, smiling, before heading up the stairs to the cubicle he called home for his three days in the transit company.

The stairs were steep and dark, but he managed to navigate. He should have taken his shoes off downstairs and carried them; he would make less noise that way. Too late for that but at least his bunk was right at the top of the stairs, just past the dayroom. These old wooden barracks creaked and groaned like some of the houses his aunts had lived in back in Louisiana.

His bunkmate, Jack Smoot, hadn’t come back yet, but he could hear some guys snoring in other cubbies. Walking around quietly in the dark took some care, but he reached his bed without obviously disturbing anyone. Nearly a miracle considering how drunk he was. He clapped a hand over his mouth not to laugh out loud at that thought.

The little twenty-five-watt bulb at the top of the stairs gave just enough light in his cubbie for him to find the door to his locker. He hadn’t left anything in it, keeping his valuables in the packed duffel in the footlocker, so he didn’t have to mess with a combination lock in the dark.

Think ahead, he told himself, if you’re going to get drunk, plan on getting drunk. He choked off another snicker at his own fatuous thoughts. Opening the locker as quietly as he could manage, he took out some black wire hangers and lay them on his bed.

He didn’t want to sleep in his dress greens in case the transit company CO pulled an inspection or something. Thinking ahead, he undressed in the dark and stowed his clothes and shoes in the locker. He put his little foldable garrison cap on the shelf above his uniform. The other guys called it something obscene and again he had to stifle laughter.

Someone somewhere in the room called out a name when he made a tiny noise closing the locker door. He paused in the dark, trying not to make any noise at all so whoever had roused up would go back to sleep. He swayed gently in the drunken darkness, but he didn't notice. After half a minute of quiet, he decided to climb into bed. Late June in Oakland, California wasn’t particularly cold, but it wasn’t warm either.

Clean sheets and a warm wool blanket sounded very good, and soon he had snuggled down into his bunk with his pillow wrapped around his ears so he wouldn’t hear if anyone else came in late or got up to go to the latrine. He kept his black dress socks on because, at a couple inches over six feet, he usually ended up sleeping with feet sticking off the bed, getting cold.

He lay in the dark, his head still spinning a bit from the beer and whiskey, but he couldn’t stop thinking. Two more days, or technically, just one since it must be early Wednesday morning by now and his plane would leave Oakland at 4:40 a.m. on Thursday. He felt very strange about that.

Life had changed a lot in the six months since he’d reported to the Los Angeles bus station on a similar early Thursday morning. Now he might have not much more than 24 hours left in the United States before he flew halfway around the world where he would be given a rifle and told who to shoot at.

And they would shoot back, trying to kill him, just as he would try to kill them because war was like that. He did not want to kill anyone, and he did not want to die, but he knew that he might not come home again. He tried to think about something else, so he could go to sleep which had really been the reason for going out and getting drunk.

The Army was sure a different way of living, he thought. Different from growing up as he had, but maybe not that much. When to get up, when to eat, when to go to bed; in the Army, they even told you what to wear, but he had lived according to other people's rules since his parents and sisters had been killed in a hurricane when he was only six. Happenstance and unreliable relatives had caused him to end up living in Southern California for most of the last ten years, and his occasional visits back to Louisiana convinced him that it was better that way.

At least, in the Army, he wasn't missing any meals; he had, in fact, gained weight during Basic and Advanced Infantry Training. Despite the drill instructors ragging on him for not having lost all his baby fat, he felt and looked good. All his clothes were new issue, to fit the new slightly larger self, from green G.I. boxers out, including the combat fatigues and jungle boots packed away in his duffel. And they all fit, wonder of wonders. He’d gotten used to the way the gear he’d been issued in basic had not fit after he gained twenty pounds of muscle running up and down hills carrying his rifle and full pack and yelling “Bravo Team, move out!”

A dozen or so of the guys he’d gone through training with would be getting on the same plane early Thursday morning. His buddies. Maybe they’d all be assigned to the same unit in Viet Nam and could watch out for each other. The four guys he’d gone drinking with had all been together since induction, but he’d caught a late bus back to the barracks when they had decided to pay a cab driver to find them some whores.

Gerald just didn’t have a taste for whores; the thought didn't even appeal to him. He could never stop thinking that even a girl like that might have brothers and how would those guys feel if he took advantage of her need for money?

He had no girl of his own at home; he didn't even really have a home. He'd enlisted almost right out of high school, as soon as he had turned eighteen, leaving his most recent foster family with mutual relief. Juanita Parker, the last girl he had dated, would graduate from high school right about the time he got back from Viet Nam. Maybe he could look her up if he got back….

Damn. The very thing he had tried not to think about....

But the distraction had worked well enough; he fell asleep before he could start worrying again.

* * *

Sometime later, deeper in the night, Gerald woke up, cold and shivering. He felt drunker than he had when he’d reached the barracks, and now cramps wracked his arms, his legs, and his belly. He’d kicked the cover off, apparently, and lay there, cold and sick in just his G.I. drawers, olive green t-shirt and black dress socks, all of them soaked in sweat.

He almost fell, getting out of bed, the room spinning again. Wrapping the scratchy wool Army blanket around him for warmth, he staggered toward the stairs, hoping to make it down to the latrine before he got sick. Or had some other sort of messy accident, he thought, feeling his guts roil inside him.

Four steps from the bottom of the stairs, he tripped on his loose socks and fell into the little foyer between the latrine and the ground floor bunk room; his head and then somehow his feet banging against the barrack door.

“Sh, sh,” he said and added, “Ow.” He tried to lay there for a minute to get his wind and balance back, but gurgles inside him compelled him to crawl down the three more steps to the concrete-floored latrine lest he puke on the pine boards of the entryway.

Another 25-watt bulb hung over one of the sinks in the G.I. bathroom, enough light so he could see that the room was empty. It was dark; it was cold; he rubbed his arms in an effort to warm himself up, wondering vaguely if his skin was really as smooth as it felt at the moment.

He lay there wondering if he should try to wake someone up, now. Maybe he needed to go to the clinic. Food poisoning? He’d never had food poisoning, but whatever was wrong with him felt worse than the flu he’d had back in junior high. His head throbbed and not just from where he had collided with the door.

He doubted if he could stand up at all for the knotted pain in his belly. I shouldn’t have been worried about going to 'Nam, he thought. I’m going to die right here on the bathroom floor. Struggling, weak and dizzy, he tried to sit up or at least crawl closer to one of the toilets. More cramps wracked his body, and nasty fluids came out of his mouth, his ass and every pore in his skin. Slime ran off him like dirty slush melting off mudflaps in a thaw.

The smell hit him then, and even more misery forced its way up his throat. His teeth felt loose. Everything reeked of rotting meat and rancid grease. I don’t smell like I’m dying, he thought, I smell like I’m dead.

“Help,” he tried to call out, but he couldn’t be sure he had made a sound at all. “Help me,” he struggled to make enough noise that someone would hear him. “Poison,” he whispered before he passed out.

* * *

After a sixty dollar taxi ride, Jack Smoot and the other guys finally admitted to themselves that they weren’t going to find any whores after midnight in Oakland, at least not ones that didn’t look scarier than a drill sergeant’s shiny boots.

Disappointed and relieved at the same time, they directed the cab driver to take them back to base.

“Ain’t gonna let me in this late, I’m-a have to drop you off at the main gate,” the cabbie warned, his Puerto Rico accent worn smooth by thirty years in California.

“Yeah, yeah,” they agreed. Anything to get closer to a nice warm bunk, even a lonely bunk by this time.

The driver smiled. He had a nice fare, and he’d shown these boys the worst Oakland had to offer precisely to get them back to their barracks before they got in trouble for missing roll call in the morning.

“Now, doan you let them Military Po-lice think you is drunk going in the gate,” he told them as they clambered out half a block from the guard post.

“Yeah, yeah,” they agreed, too tired to point out that the M.P.s wouldn’t just think they were drunk — it would be impossible to think that they weren’t.

After only a customary amount of hassle at the gate, the young G.I.s were directed to their barracks and told that reveille would be at 0515, and they had less than three hours to get some sleep and look alive for roll call at 0530.

Twenty minutes later, after hiking across the base, they staggered through the door and down the three cement steps to the concrete floor of the latrine. They had all puked themselves out during stops on the cab ride, but now they needed to piss.

“Holy shit!” one of them whispered in the dimness. “It smells like something died in here.”

“Fuck!” said a second, a little louder than he had intended. “There’s a body on the floor!”

“Help me,” the sodden lump moaned. “Poison.”

Jack, a bit braver than the other boys knelt and pulled the reeking G.I. blanket away from the body. “It’s a girl!” he squeaked.

“Holy fucking shit,” said another of the soldiers, uttering a trifecta of profane, obscene vulgarity.

"She's alive," said Jack wonderingly.

"Don't touch her," said one of his buddies. "Anyone who smells like that is not going to live till morning."

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