The Sergeant Major’s Many Wounds

For John F. Eisenberg, Zoologist, 1935-2003.

So it’s like ten thirty on a Saturday morning and I’m in my room, in bed, sleeping like I’ve got every right to. I knew Sarn’t Major would call anyway, though, I knew when he was coming back, and I’d seen his yard which I couldn’t not see, and my phone rings and I pick it up and there’s his voice, like that thing people always say about sounding like gravel or whatever, all raspy, yelling Kim! sharp and loud, I mean when you’ve been in the Army long as he has I think you forget how to talk like normal people talk, he’s like Kim! You sleeping Sergeant Kim? and I just groaned and rubbed the crap out the corners of my eyes, tried to not sound like I was still in bed, and I’m all, Not anymore, Sarn’t Major, and I ask, even though I know, I ask him if he’s back.

Hell yes he’s back, he tells me, he tells me I’m lucky he didn’t have me pick him up at the airport, which wouldn’t have happened with where I’d been, and so I just rubbed my face some more and coughed and told him yes and told him I counted my blessings every day, counted how lucky I was.

He cackled and acted like he knew, which I hoped he didn’t, but so he just went into this thing about how he knew I’d be out at the NCO club or whatever, and then he goes at it even harder, trying to yank my chain, it’s the way he is and it’s the way we work, back and forth, and mostly I don’t mind too much but sometimes he pushes a little too hard, too far, and sometimes it’s more than a little, and he did, like saying how he knew I was out at the club chasing — his words, which is what I mean by too far or too hard — that roundeye poontang and started asking if I got myself hooked up while he’d been gone.

I made myself bite my tongue. Way he is, it’s pointless to do anything besides go along, and I didn’t much think he’d care to hear the real deal, so I go along, I play the game, like telling him how he knows how I don’t tie myself down, and he cackled again, told me that’s the way to do it, his whole thing on don’t let them get a hold on you, and it’s passed, that quick. I could hear Muffin yapping in the background. Get my goddamn shoes on and get out of the barracks and get over there, he tells me.

It wasn’t like I wasn’t expecting it, either, I knew I’d probably be the first person he called or at least the second, and I didn’t really mind, I mean like I hadn’t seen him in a while, and Muffin’s an all right dog too, but I wasn’t so hot on killing my whole day over there, so I at least tried to make a show of it, tried to tell him all like how it was Saturday and I had things to do, and he comes back and bellows, literally bellows, like Goddamn right I had things to do, his mower’s busted and his grass is eight feet high and didn’t he tell me to mow it while he was gone, just going off at the phone but it’s not real, or at least most of it’s not real, and I just held the phone away until he got done and said No, Sarn’t Major, you didn’t tell me to mow it while you were gone and no it’s not eight feet high and I knew because I drove by that Wednesday, like I said I couldn’t not see the grass since I was going by twice a week, but he wasn’t hearing any of it, just told me not to argue and get my butt over there, he had three cases of beer and Varnes was on her way and Sarn’t Major damn sure wasn’t going to drink a case by himself, even though I’ve seen him drink and he probably could put away that much and still hit a target center-mass at three hundred meters, I mean I’m on the big side and he still can drink twice as much as I can, and I was kicking myself but I asked him anyway, asked him what was wrong with the lawnmower and if I should bring my tools.

The problem was that Varnes was on her way. I’d run into her a few times while he’d been out of town, at the Commissary or the Class Six Store, and I’d seen her car around. Her husband’s one of the poor folks stuck in Haiti because the people in Washington can’t figure out which way they want to go, so they just keep extending the task force’s tour: nobody rotates out or in there, and it just keeps going on. From what she says about her husband’s letters, morale is in the toilet, and it’s only going to be a matter of time til a civilian gets shot. Which I think was also her way of telling me she hadn’t told him about her and Sarn’t Major yet, and I didn’t think she was going to, which was even more of a problem because Sarn’t Major, like the week before he left, had this serious conversation with me about how he knew he was fuckin up and he couldn’t let this go on with Varnes and he had to call it off before he left town, and then I didn’t hear anything about it, and now he gets back and all of a sudden the first thing he says is that Varnes is coming over, but see even that’s all dicked up because you’d think the first thing he’d want to do would be to get her into bed and stay there, and I hoped that wouldn’t be the case if I was going over there.

I like Varnes. Her full name is Amy Jane Varnes, Corporal type, but she says she hates both the first two names, so the boys in the barracks used to call her A.J., at least before she got married and moved into post housing, and now she doesn’t hang out anymore, at least not with the boys in the barracks. She was wild, though; she could drink more than most of the boys, and I still recall one buck private straight out of Kansas by way of basic training, a good corn-fed Mennonite boy, knocking on my door one Sunday morning convinced he was going to hell cause of what he’d done with her the night before, and looking at me all wide-eyed and whispering that he hadn’t never seen a girl with her business all shaved like that. But so well her business is her business, and I don’t worry about what she does in her down time; she’s got her shit together and she’s a damn good MP, I’ve been on training missions with her, and it’s not like what the Sarn’t Major does with her is anything uncommon or surprising: the Army keeps you away from your significant other long enough, well, some people aren’t as strong as other people.

My name’s Vincent Kim. I’m from Valdosta, Georgia, about an hour’s drive from here. I was the only Asian kid in my high school class. My folks are Korean, and but like about as Americanized as you get. I mean, I’m talking Americanized like grilled cheese and tuna casserole for dinner, no kimchee, no bulgogi, none of that speakee-speakee shit I always got in school from the local redneck kids, which in Valdosta is all of them, but so like nothing but straight English, all the time. And the reason I’m on this, right, the Korean thing and whatever, is because it bugs me, Mom and Pop, like they don’t want anything to do with who they are or anything, like keeping it in the closet, like if they act that way it means they’ll be that way, and so all it means is they’re American, same as anyone else.

They run a mom-and-pop hunting and fishing goods slash video rental slash convenience store slash barbershop slash gas station slash bar and grill on Georgia 196. It’s a mess, a bunch of all different sized wood buildings stuck together, rubbing up against one another so to go from the bar and grill into the barbershop which people have done, stone drunk, I’ve seen them getting drunk haircuts, mom smiling while she runs the clippers and their heads roll all over the place, and I figure the only thing that would be worse would be if the hunting goods were between the bar and the barbershop, but so to go from the bar to the barbershop it’s a four-inch step down and from the barbershop to the convenience store slash register for the gas pumps slash video rental with the guns and rods and ammo and lures upstairs and the live bait in the basement it’s a six-inch step up, but anyway what all this means is that mom and pop make decent money. Not enough for me to go to college, but money.

So Mom and Pop were talking about money one night over dinner, meatloaf with green bean and cream of mushroom soup casserole and slices of buttered white Wonder bread for everyone, and I suggested, joking, but I guess not joking enough though, that they could make a lot more money by adding a tattoo parlor, and Pop kind of looked at me with one of those thoughtful looks where he does something with his eyebrows and sort of smiles with his lips tucked in, and then he shook his head and said how he didn’t draw so good, or Ma either. Totally serious, like, and that just pretty much shut me up right then.

Fort Stewart’s my first duty station, first place I came to after basic training, which pretty much figures because I went in, into the Army, to get away, get the hell out of Dodge or Georgia at least, and they send me right back to the stink and the swamp, which I don’t know which is worse, because Fort Stewart’s downwind from the paper plants on the Savannah River and with all the sulfur from the paper plants on a bad day the air at Fort Stewart smells like one big boiled cabbage dinner. I think it’s just a condition of Georgia in general, though, because if it’s not the paper plants here, it’s the onions in Valdosta which probably sounds familiar because Valdosta is about thirty miles from Vidalia and in the spring the whole air smells like onions, like a whole lot of onions, like about a fucking million onions, and if it’s not onions or sulfur it’s chicken shit from chicken farms, these corrugated sheds a quarter-mile long, or else it’s just that general swampy decay smell. Even the beach at Solomon’s Island, which is supposedly some kind of resort type place where rich people from Atlanta go because the rich people from Savannah never go anywhere which I think it’s some kind of old money holdout type thing from the civil war because people in Savannah still, still talk about how Sherman gave the place to Grant for a Christmas present, but so the beach has this horrible smell like canned creamed corn. Which I’ve smelled. And eaten.

I took my time going over to Sarn’t Major’s place. Shaved and showered, nice big greasy breakfast at the chow hall, eggs over easy hash browns links grits with butter and two cups of coffee, played a couple rounds of PlayStation MechWarrior with Butler and Kehoe next door, and I figured Butler and Kehoe would spread the word, tell people Sarn’t Major’s back. I’m one of the ranking NCOs in the barracks, so I’m one of the people who’s got to keep things straight, make sure all the bottles outside on Saturday mornings get policed up when the Sarn’t Major’s around because he likes to get himself a wild hair sometimes and show up at seven in the morning and start hauling people out of bed if shit’s a mess outside, and it always is on Saturday morning, butts and bottles and cans all over the place.

The whole screwy deal was that the Sarn’t Major got himself shipped off as a guest lecturer to Fort McNair in Washington, D.C, where they have the Army War College for higher-up field officer types, which for most soldiers you’d think was cush duty, like being in the city, no motor pools, no Georgia heat, no bug-fest training gigs in the swamp, but you’ve got to figure the way Sarn’t Major is, he can’t abide clerks and officers, always wants to be around soldiers, he’s not happy unless he’s kicking ass and raising hell, pushing things too far, I don’t know how many times I’ve seen him like out on a field exercise running on nothing but adrenaline, no sleep for thirty-six hours and but he’ll have everybody lock-step and rock-steady, like he runs the smoothest operations you’ve ever seen, logistics locked up tighter than a cat’s ass, and he’ll fuck it up somehow, he’ll always fuck it up, the first time I drove for him he was literally walking around in a night convoy, walking around in the middle of this five mile an hour convoy where no one’s allowed to use headlights because it’s a tactical situation and all, and so naturally he got himself run over by one of his own tractor-trailers, like pow just plowed down with that right front wheel, and you couldn’t blame the kid who was driving cause there’s no possible way the kid could have seen him but the kid got all freaked out anyway because he knows Sarn’t Major’s reputation, and the kid was all crying and shaking and Sarn’t Major limps over — like, with a broken arm and dislocated shoulder — and he puts his good arm around the kid and tells him Don’t worry troop it ain’t your fault, and the next two days he just sits in the humvee with his cast on and tells everyone who’ll listen how the convoy still got through on time, like this complete martyr act, like his sacrificial thing is the only way to make the mission go through, and but so anyway he bitched and moaned about Fort McNair, but the word from the chain of command was that there wasn’t any way he could get out of going short of going to jail or starting a war.

His wife’s got family in Virgina, so she went up there to be near him, or more likely to keep an eye on him, and so the thing was they put their little dog in the Fort Stewart kennel, which the dog is like the berserk little yappy bulgy-eyed Boston Bull type which is pretty much perfect for Sarn’t Major because he’s on the short and ugly side himself, like the amazing ugly where people kind of like looking at his weird craggy-lined twisty face, the kind of face they cast as bad guys in cheap movies, and on top of that his wife named the dog Muffin, but anyway so no one was at their place, in post housing, for like four and a half months. And the way I figure it, the reason he got sent up there, which is probably what happened because I know the way he is, Sarn’t Major pushed things too hard one last time, maybe he used some of his knucklehead language with the wrong person or barked at somebody he shouldn’t have, and his bosses decided to put him somewhere where he couldn’t make noise, where he didn’t have his buddies to back him up, and probably where he couldn’t hurt himself too badly either, but basically I think it was more about letting him think about simmering down some, which worried me, because it was like people knew there was a problem, I could see even in the battalion people were starting to talk, there were whispers, people were starting to lose their respect for him, and I think that would have killed him worse than anything.

His full name and title is Command Sergeant Major Rudolph Wilhelm Fritsch. He’s about five foot six, a hundred and seventy, and black, or at least brown, with the shiniest straight black hair you’ve ever seen. He told me to drive by the house once or twice a week, make sure there weren’t any windows broken, crap like that. He gave me the keys. Told me not to go in unless it was on fire. His exact words: Don’t go in less it’s on fire, Sergeant Kim, and I’d learned a long time before that not to ask him questions — just yes, Sarn’t Major, on it, Sarn’t Major, moving, Sarn’t Major — and I know if it burnt down he’d expect it to burn down right when I was driving by just so he could grab me by the collar and bawl up in my face, ask why the hell I didn’t go in and save things.

Sarn’t Major pulled strings, like he does with everything else, to get a nice place in post housing, like the type place they usually save for visiting generals, set back from the road in the corner of a little dead end near where the field officer types live. Most of post housing is shoulder-to-shoulder packed in, but Sarn’t Major’s nearest neighbor is Varnes, A.J., who lives four hundred feet away, and Sarn’t Major’s got pines on all three sides of his lot because Fort Stewart is practically nothing but pines, the most acreage for a military base east of the Mississippi and they rent out sections to Georgia Pacific, the same folks who run the paper mills, and it makes it creepy for on-post field problems, like you’ll be on patrol in the woods and all the Georgia Pacific pines will be in these exactly even parallel lines, perfectly straight row after row as far as you can see, and but so anyway Sarn’t Major’s front yard is like the only hill on all of Fort Stewart which makes me think his house was probably built on an old landfill or something but I’d never tell him that because I know how he gets, he’d give me a shovel and tell me to dig up his front yard and prove it, he always says he’s from all over but his last duty station was in Missouri and you got to show him, by God.

Which isn’t to say I don’t like him, because I do. I mean, he’s a monstrous roaring asshole, but he’s dedicated, he’ll put his back to the wall for you if he likes you. He’s helped me out of a jam more than once, and most of the officers I’ve met owe him some kind of favor.

Which is another part of the problem. Soldiers are gossipy, just like anyone else, and it never takes too long here for someone else to know your business, especially if you drink or hang out with people who drink, which the Sarn’t Major definitely does. Lots of people owed him, and it’s a good thing, because people were starting to talk, like A.J. was far from the first, and then there was the whole thing about rank too, and Sarn’t Major knew people were starting to talk which I figure is part of the reason he’d said he was going to put an end to the relationship before he left, and I was pretty sure the Battalion Commander already knew but he probably didn’t want it to go any further, not up to Brigade and definitely not up to Division, cause he’d bawled out more than a few folks who outranked him up there, so anyway the whole point being that favors only go so far.

Like I said before, I get along with Varnes, with A.J., pretty well. If I know her unit’s on a field problem with mine, I make a point of keeping tabs on where they’ve got their operations set up, and truck a little something extra out to them every couple days — ice in summer, eggs in winter, and always a case of chocolate milk for A.J. A.J. likes chocolate milk, has it on her cereal in the field, and she watches my back, too: I’ve never had a Fort Stewart speeding ticket make it back to my commander. But so all this is to say that Sarn’t Major got back from Fort McNair, and his wife had decided to stay up in Virginia for another week or so, and Sarn’t Major’s grass was about waist-high.

I got over there about thirteen thirty; and A.J.’s military police cruiser was parked on the street out front. It’s how you can tell she’s from California; she doesn’t walk anywhere if she doesn’t have to. I mean, she drives to her mailbox. Sarn’t Major started out as leg infantry, too, so he always gives A.J. shit about driving everywhere; whenever there’s a road march, A.J.’s the last one in, not because she’s out of shape — I mean, I’m not one to notice, but she’s far from overweight, and there’s a lot of men she can out-sprint — so it’s just that she can’t stand walking, and, like she puts it, especially not for twelve goddamn miles. So I let myself into the house, and A.J. and Sarn’t Major were sitting at the kitchen table, and the two of them were already through the first case of beer and into the second with their empties all over the table, and I could tell A.J. was kind of half-cocked already with some of her hair coming out of her ponytail and she had these two little spots of red in her cheeks the way she gets when she drinks, and her eyes had this kind of funny look like I wasn’t quite sure what to do with and it was pretty clear they hadn’t been doing anything but talking, and so I like started wondering if he’d told her already, but I didn’t think so. Muffin came running up, all bouncy and spastic and yappy, like her front legs never go quite the same way her hind legs do, and but so she’s jumping up my leg, and I reached down and scratched her behind the ears some, and A.J. asks me how it’s going, and I told her it was going a lot better before my phone rang, and she laughed and Sarn’t Major scowled, all hurt in his weird martyr way, and he’s all like is that the nicest thing I got to say about him, and starts off on this thing about how he goes away for half a year and nobody’s glad to see him back, and I just grinned, playing it off, even though he’s being kind of weird, like more so than usual, and so I figure again it’s maybe the deal with A.J., like usually he would have been all bellowing and talking about all the crap he put up with in D.C., but so it’s not that, and so I just come back and correct him, tell him four and a half months isn’t half a year and it’s good to have him back and shit was going to hell while he was gone, and he scowled again, slipped his dentures out and back in, the way he does when he’s annoyed, says I don’t need to tell him that cause he already talked to the Colonel and the Colonel’s got his head so far up his ass he needs laxatives to talk.

Now, I know Sarn’t Major’s in his early forties, because he volunteered for Vietnam when he was eighteen, and did two tours, but so forty or forty-five tends to be a long time before most folks need dentures, and the supposed reason he got sent to Fort McNair is that he’s been in every conflict since Vietnam and he got a Bronze Star in the Gulf, but what he doesn’t tell people, I found out from one of his cronies, is that he lost his teeth in the Gulf from riding around hanging out the top hatch of a Bradley, like a mini-tank, they call it an armored infantry fighting vehicle, and the driver slammed on the brakes and Sarn’t Major’s mouth hit the machine gun mount and he couldn’t eat solid food for eight months. He boasts about the Bronze Star, though: this was at Rumaylah, the Republican Guard crossed paths with the main support convoy and Sarn’t Major was in the lead truck and the only way out was across a minefield; he took his sidearm and held it to his driver’s head and made him lead the way, made him drive across the minefield. They gave him a Bronze Star for it.

I asked where the mower was. He told me hell with the mower, told me what I needed to do was have myself a goddamn beer and sit down cause we had things to talk about, things to catch up on, and I felt a little weird about that, like this was some kind of mandatory counseling and I was in trouble or something, and I was starting to wonder if like having me there was some kind of moral support thing for him to break it off with A.J., but I didn’t think about it too much, I just sort of played it off, reminded him he’d be in serious trouble if the yard wasn’t mowed by the time his wife got back, and A.J. opened the refrigerator and handed me a beer and told me the mower was still in the shed and I could probably take it out in the driveway if I didn’t park too close, which she knew I already knew where it was cause I’ve fixed the thing a couple times before, and she gives me kind of a look when she does it, and so whatever this thing is just gets another notch weirder.

The mower’s a three-year-old Craftsman, the push type not the riding type, the kind that doesn’t have a bag on the back. A.J. and Sarn’t Major watched me while I spread my tools out on a rag. I checked the air filter, banged out the dirt. The plug was fine, not fouled; I flushed oil through the system while I turned the blade until it came out clean and put in new oil, and the thing still wouldn’t run for longer than four or five seconds before it started acting like it was out of gas and shut down. Stinky blue smoke everywhere. They watched me check the fuel line, the fuel line was fine, I figured it had to be the carburetor. I was sitting cross-legged on the driveway, both of them standing, drinking, and I told them it was probably going to be a while, and so the two of them watched a while longer while I tore it down, laid out all the parts, and shot everything with GumOut. I got up, and the Sarn’t Major asked me if it was done, and I told them it had to soak a while and then I’d put it back together.

The dentures aren’t the only thing. He was a drill sergeant at Fort Sill when the Army was testing the new Paladin 155 howitzer and underestimated the range. The trainee platoon he was in charge of was forming up at the field kitchen during the final exercise when they started taking fire: like artillery rounds landing in the middle of the formation. Two kids died, one had his eye splattered all over the inside of his kevlar, Sarn’t Major took a sliver of shrapnel in his right cheek that killed a nerve so the right side of his face is kind of droopy, and it took five rounds — the one that went farthest destroyed half a trailer park just outside post — before Sarn’t Major was able to get range control to cease fire. I’ve heard people talk about it, it’s practically like an Army version of an urban legend or whatever, like somebody hollered incoming and all of a sudden shit’s blowing up all around them and everybody’s running for cover except for Sarn’t Major, and Sarn’t Major’s yelling at the sky, telling those cocksuckers with the howitzer they couldn’t hit him if they tried, his face all bleeding and he’s still out there in the open, dragging wounded kids to cover. On top of that, there’s the eighteen steel pins he’s got in his right leg from a bad jump at Fort Bragg, and besides that, there’s the first time when I was over at his house and he told me to feel the back of his hand, which made me confused and a little worried, like somehow he was thinking something even though I know he’s as straight as they come, but like I said he’s not the type of person you say no to, and it turns out the back of his hand is full of shrapnel, like lumpy-full, from not getting out of the way of a Vietnamese RPG fast enough, and he told me about that time too how he was drawing fire, like making a lot of noise so the rest of the squad could get out of the kill zone.

Back inside, I pulled a chair up to the kitchen table, and took it real slow on my beer. A.J. and Sarn’t Major both started new ones. By this point, I was completely weirded out, like I’d been trying to figure out what the deal was and not knowing if there was something I ought to know or if it was just the two of them and whatever they’d been talking about before I got there, and I felt like I couldn’t say anything, like there wasn’t any small-talk topic asking either of them how they were doing that wouldn’t be unsafe, and it was like that moment of not talking kept getting longer and I could see it getting even longer and longer out in front of us, like I felt like I had to say something before we had ourselves ten miles of silence, and so I’m like, So, A.J., how’s your husband?

Which of course with the situation, with Sarn’t Major there, was the totally stupidest thing I could have said anyway, and I know it just totally floored the both of them, like I could see that ten miles turning into a hundred in the second we were sitting there, but she rescues me, rescues all of us I think, she takes a swig from her beer and she says he got good news, they got a set of orders cut, they’re going to get relieved down there, there’s another unit and some Marines finally rotating in, and she says she talked to him on the phone a couple nights ago and he asked her if she might be ready to think about starting a family, and she’s all happy when she says it, like I know she’s trying not to smile too much cause Sarn’t Major’s there but she can’t help letting a little bit of it through anyway. And so I’m thinking that’s a seriously fucked up thing to say in front of the person you’re cheating with, and this is going to be one bastard of a day and maybe I’d better have a couple more beers if there’s any way I’m going to cope with this, and Sarn’t Major just like totally out of the blue says well at least somebody here’ll be getting some, and we laugh a little, uncomfortable, and then A.J.’s like, Well, yeah, but not for long.

It takes us totally by surprise, and even more so when Sarn’t Major just like totally busts out laughing, like genuinely, like it’s the funniest thing he’s heard, and I realize it must be some weird kind of relief, like as fucked up as it is he’s relieved to have a way out, and A.J.’s laughing too, and I can’t help but shake my head and laugh myself, until Sarn’t Major starts in on me again, he’s like, when’s the last time I got laid, and I just rolled my eyes, told him to ease off, and he pounds his fist on the table, all like Goddamn it Kim it’s just a damn question and it’s not like it’s a matter of national security, the last time I dipped my wick — his words, that’s the way he puts it — and he like goes off, like wants to know what the hell’s wrong with me, and all of a sudden A.J.’s got a weird expression again, I don’t know quite what’s going on here, like I’m getting less and less comfortable, and still Sarn’t Major kept it up, asks me if I’m fucking ugly women, asks if that’s what I don’t want him to know, and I just put my hands up, I’m like, Sarn’t Major, and he drains his beer and takes another one from the fridge and tells me I’m not drinking fast enough either, and I’m speechless, but I guess that just encouraged him, like gave him room to work his rant into overdrive, like asking me what kind of girls I like, asks me if I like the roundeye girls, asks me if I like the mama-sans — his words, and I feel the blood shoot up in my cheeks and ears, like that quick hot feeling when you can’t help yourself from being pissed off — and he just keeps at it, asking me if I hang out over at Four Seasons. Four Seasons is the kind of place you find in every military town: a run-down, seedy little bar, not a topless or a nudie bar, but you go in and there’s eight or ten Korean women working the bar, going from patron to patron, asking if you want to buy them a drink, and you get the idea, you buy them a nice enough drink, it’s pretty much the way it goes.

I was floored. I mean, he was doing one thing, I thought I knew what was going on, and he just pulls this change-up, and I know he’s just trying to yank my chain with it, but I can’t let that go, I’m like, All due respect, Sarn’t Major, but I damn sure don’t need you saying any racist mama-san crap around me, and all of a sudden he just like relaxes, like sits back in his chair, he’s like, Shit, Kim, gives me a little punch on the shoulder, says he doesn’t mean nothing by it and takes a long pull on his beer. He held his hands in front of him and studied them, flipping them over like he was surprised, looks at us and says there’s no way we’re going to call him a bigot, right, look at his skin, and A.J. just shook her head, and Sarn’t Major looked at her and asked her where she thought Sarn’t Major was from. A.J. shrugged, said she had no idea; Sarn’t Major told her to take a wild guess, and A.J.’s like, Well, Sarn’t Major, which her calling him by his rank is weird enough in itself but I guess even if everybody knows there’s still appearances to keep up, like you have to at least act like rank matters, like you have to at least act professional, and so she’s like, You look more Indian than anything, and Sarn’t Major’s like Shit, you best guess again, Corporal, and then he turns to me, asks me what I think, and I’m like, What?, and he says Where do you think I’m from, Son, and I got no idea what to say to that, so I’m like, Hell, Sarn’t Major, I tell him I figure judging from his name he’s a Deutschlander. He laughed so hard, this half-wheezy roar kind of laugh, he nearly lost his dentures, and he tells me Good, Sergeant Kim, he tells me Outstanding, and he looked at A.J. and told A.J. he was from Suriname, told A.J. his dad was a German sailor. Like somehow what just happened made for an easier distance between them, like things weren’t quite as uncertain, as weird as they were.

Outside, the GumOut had worked most of the crud off the carburetor, so I wiped the parts down and put it back together and reset the float. The mower started up perfectly, ran like a dream. A.J. and Sarn’t Major were standing beside me, and Sarn’t Major nodded, all appreciative like, says the thing runs better than it did when it was new. I asked if he wanted to give it a try, and sort of shrugged towards the hill of the front yard. A.J. frowned, said how the grass was awful high, said how she wasn’t sure the mower would take it and maybe Sarn’t Major ought to be a little careful, and Sarn’t Major’s like Goddamn right it’ll take it, he starts on this thing about how I’m the best damn mechanic he knows, and he starts playing with the throttle, adjusting the speed, and looks at Varnes and asks her how her beer is, and A.J.’s beer is dry, and Sarn’t Major tells A.J. to get him another beer too, and says he’s going to test out the mower. A.J. went back into the kitchen; Sarn’t Major turned the mower around and pointed it down the hill, and it worked fine, maybe struggling a little bit, but the grass went down. By the time A.J. got back outside, Sarn’t Major had the mower pointed back up, and did the hill at a trot. He stopped at the top and came over to us and took the beer from A.J. He looks behind him, back down the hill, asks us if we saw that, says it’s goddamn beautiful, says he can get the front yard done in an hour the way the mower’s running, and A.J. raised her eyebrows, asked if Sarn’t Major was going to do it all right then, and Sarn’t Major put the beer to his mouth and drained half of it in a single chug and wiped his mouth on his arm and grinned all lopsided like and said, Watch me.

We watched him go down and up a few times, then A.J. put the beer down on the driveway and we went back inside and sat down at the kitchen table. We could hear the mower get louder when Sarn’t Major would come back up the hill, and quieter when he went back down again. Muffin came and sat down by my feet. A.J. asked me if I thought he could do it. I said I figured it would take a while for the blade to get gummed up, probably half an hour before we had to clean out the underside, and I figured Sarn’t Major would be tired by then.

We were quiet some, listening to the mower come and go. We didn’t really know what to say. I mean, I figure people talk in the barracks; I’d heard what some people thought about my habits. I figured at least in terms of the way I looked and the people I hung out with in the barracks, I would have been someone A.J. might have gone after back when she was there, and she and I both knew I was one of the people she hadn’t ever been with. But it was like neither of us would talk about it, just like her and the Sarn’t Major wouldn’t ever bring up breaking up directly. Things get done in a roundabout way, and that’s good enough for most of us.

I asked her if she was really ready for a baby. She smiled, nodded. Like that, we knew we didn’t really have to talk about Sarn’t Major; we knew it was a done deal, and I figure both of us knew enough about people talking to know that it had to be that way. We didn’t want to see him lose any more respect. So we talked more about babies, about when her husband would be back, and how long they could count on the two of them staying at Fort Stewart. I asked her how the money was, and she grimaced. She said it was going to be hard; said her husand’s parents already helped them out some.

We were quiet a while longer. A.J. cleared her throat. So you weren’t at the NCO club last night, she said. I shook my head. I wondered how long she and Sarn’t Major were talking before I got there. No, I said; told her I was in Savannah, which I was, at the clubs, but I hoped he didn’t ask which ones, even if she had an idea already. She gave me a look. She looked like he was about to say something when we both heard the mower clatter, like this whump-whump-whump and the motor straining and then roar back up full speed, and a bellowed string of curses from outside. We looked at each other. The curses kept going. She asked if I thought we should see if he needed help, and I shook my head, said he probably just hit a branch.

The door banged open and Sarn’t Major came limping in, one shoe in his hand, and his left foot’s this one huge bloody mess, like blood everywhere in a solid trail from the door across the kitchen floor, and Muffin scrambled up and ran over and sniffed and started licking it off the floor, and Sarn’t Major flops down in his chair and drops the shoe and gives this big bellowed animal roar, and me and A.J. were just like paralyzed for a second, staring at all the blood, and then I get up and tell A.J. to get the first aid kit from the cruiser, and A.J. goes and I take a dishtowel from the sink and wrap it around Sarn’t Major’s foot and he’s missing his three smallest toes, like the toes are clean gone except for maybe a quarter inch of mangled meat, like I’ve seen bone before and I always hate it when I see it and I see it this time all wet and slick-looking and the blood’s steady flowing out, streaming, and I do a quick pressure dressing but the towel loads up with blood almost as soon as I finish it. Sarn’t Major looks down at the dressing and looks at me and says his wife’s going to kill me for using those towels and Jesus fucking hell it hurts, and I tell him to take it easy, tell him we got to get him to the hospital.

A.J. came back in with the first aid kit and saw how bloody the towel was and I saw her lips tighten into a line, and she knelt down beside me. Bad, she said. Three toes, I told her. She didn’t say anything, just shuddered a little. Sarn’t Major had his eyes closed and his false teeth clenched and his head back, and he groaned a little, and talked through his teeth and told A.J. to please go get him his goddamn beer, sweetheart.

Muffin had lost interest in the blood. She was standing by Sarn’t Major’s chair, looking up at him, like she knew we were scared the way dogs have that sense when they can tell things are fucked up, and she started making these whining noises in the back of her throat and Sarn’t Major reached down and scratched her behind the ears and said it was all right, girl, told her he’s going to be fine.

A.J. said we got to call him an ambulance. I told A.J. we couldn’t wait for an ambulance, told A.J. he was bleeding too bad, and Sarn’t Major said no ambulance, he like lurched up from the chair on his good foot, steadied himself on my shoulder, and he looks around and he says where’s my shoe, where the hell is my shoe, and it’s right then I figure out how drunk he is, like he’s half-sagging on my shoulder and his words are starting to slur. And but so A.J.’s all like Sarn’t Major, you don’t need to be worrying about your shoe right now, and Sarn’t Major just bellows at her, straight-up yells at A.J., It’s got my goddamned toes in it, Corporal! A.J. about jumped out of her skin and scooped the shoe up off the floor super-quick, trying not to hold on to it at all and just put it in Sarn’t Major’s hand as quick and easy as she could, and she’s like, You got to get a glass of milk, baby; you put those toes in a glass of milk and take them to the hospital and they’ll put them back on for you. Sarn’t Major calmed down a little bit then, like got his voice going more even, and told A.J. to give me her keys. A.J. sort of did a double take, like she didn’t understand the order. The keys to the cruiser, Corporal, Sarn’t Major told her, said You’ve been drinking; give Sergeant Kim your keys. I looked at A.J., A.J. looked at me. I shrugged. She took the keys out of her pocket and handed them to me. Sarn’t Major’s like, Let’s go. He sort of half-hopped with me walking towards the door, still leaning on my shoulder, and Muffin’s following a couple steps behind us all nervous and tentative and still making her little anxious whiny noises, and Sarn’t Major stopped a minute and told me to hold on. Muffin, he says. C’mere, girl. Muffin came over, tentative-like, sniffing at his hand, at the shoe, and he turned the shoe over and shook it out over her dish. Three toes.

Oh, Jesus, I said.

Muffin buried her face in the dish, her little stumpy tail all wagging happy, and we heard the crunch-crunch-crunch, Muffin’s little jaws working, like the sound when a dog’s got a good bone, and Sarn’t Major’s leaning over scratching her behind the ears, telling her, Good girl, good girl.

A.J. turned and barfed in the sink.

We made it out to the cruiser with him leaning on both of us. None of us said anything except for Sarn’t Major keeping up this steady stream of curses, and we put him in the passenger side and I got in the driver side. A.J. had wiped her face. She put her hand on my shoulder, told me to be careful.

I nodded. Sarn’t Major asked her, like sweetly, quietly, calmly, asked her if she could get that blood wiped up inside, and he’d be back as soon as he could.

Varnes turned and walked back up the driveway, a little unsteady. I didn’t think she’d be there when Sarn’t Major came back. I knew I’d wind up dropping the cruiser at her place once I got him taken care of.

Kim, Sarn’t Major said to me. I put the key in the ignition, started the car. Yes, Sarn’t Major, I said.

Drive slow, he said.

I looked at him. Sarn’t Major? I asked.

He closed his eyes. You’re a good soldier, he said. I like you, Kim, he said. Your business, it’s your business. I won’t ask.

I reached over and switched on the lights and the siren. We’d be like a parade, I figured. Just one car, driving slow, on parade for everyone to see and wonder.

The Sergeant Major’s Many Wounds

2 thoughts on “The Sergeant Major’s Many Wounds

  • August 22, 2003 at 10:39 pm


    When did you write that?

  • August 23, 2003 at 10:43 pm

    It’s been on my hard drive, in various forms, for a few years now. My dad sent me John Eisenberg’s obituary last week, and though the characters are mostly based on people I knew in the military, the heart of the story is really John’s, so I thought this week was a good time to do some heavy-duty revisionary work and put this up. I barely remember him — I wasn’t born yet when he got back home from a long trip to Sri Lanka that the Smithsonian had sent him on to do a census of the wild elephants there, and returned to an overgrown front yard and asked my dad for some advice about lawnmowers.

    If I recall the anecdotes correctly, he returned the favor by offering my dad advice about the Java Macaque named Hubert that my dad had adopted. . . Shortly after I was born, or so the tale goes, my dad dropped off Hubert at the zoo and picked up me and my mom from the hospital on the return trip.

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