Edward C. Lynskey
It was a shirtsleeves sort of a joint, Grant’s Tomb, a tavern just off Q Street in Washington, DC. Having just left his cardiologist, Lester Brand entered it to buy a much-needed gin. He cringed at the bumptious crowd swelling his hanging post, nixed his original plan to grab a stool at the bar and spread out the Post flat to ramp up on current world affairs. He decided to wait just inside the door.
His bloodshot eyes roving to a stuffed shark and barracuda over the blue-lit bar mirror, Lester conjured memories from his Army days. Hurry up and wait. Yep. That was one reason Corporal Lester Brand had volunteered every dawn for the burial detail. Yes sir, Corporal Lester took his time burying the dead and they never once complained.
“Coming through, pops!”
A blonde girl young enough to be Lester’s granddaughter squeezed by, her breasts brushing against him.
“Pardon me,” she smirked in a smoker’s rasp, an explosion of mint mouthwash in Lester’s face. She wore no bra. He half-nodded at her.
A matchstick of a girl, she was a slouchy skeleton. Just then feeling dirty, Lester clawed his five o’clock shadow with a shaky, liver-spotted hand. Gin was a cleanser. Did anyone say “Cheers”? That was not going to happen for at least the next ten minutes. Mashing both eyes shut, Lester concentrated to blank out a blaring jukebox, its brash clefs clinking against his eardrums like a shovel tip biting the flinty dirt.
Operating like a machine, Corporal Lester interred Americans clad in pressed khaki uniforms. A few French meandered onto The List. A Dutch boy, maybe. British, okay and fine. No Germans, however. What had his lieutenant insisted? The only good Kraut is a dead Kraut but not in our bone orchard, damn it.
Tired of maintaining without his infusion of gin, Lester knifed his way through, surprised at the rabble’s docility. A nudge of an elbow and a bump of a knee parted avenues. Oh-uh. He gasped -- indigestion flared again through his ribcage as he bellied up to the bar.
Styrofoam vases balanced above tiers of liquor bottles overflowed with showy, fragrant flowers. Funny how he had never viewed them before. They were nice, soothed his aggrieved nerves.
“Can I snag a gin on the rocks down here?” he shouted over the general hubbub.
“Got it,” replied the bartender; a round-bottom shot glass materialized at his cuff.
“Loose lips sink ships,” is how Lester toasted the bartender who reciprocated with a bemused smile under a black bandit mustache.
While tossing back the first gin, Lester’s eyes locked on the gray pressed-tin ceiling. Gray. Gray the overcast skies, gray the ball turret’s armor, and gray the wet-turned loam -- oh how, he came to rue gray. Yes, gray -- all the shades between black and white. Lester teetered at a gray age.
“Their ghosts will not follow you,” the garlic-breathed Chaplain had first advised a jittery juvenile Corporal Lester.
“Yes, Father. B-b-but what if they do?” Lecky stammered.
“No. It’s my personal guarantee.” The Chaplain smiled. “They will not hound or haunt or harm you. Look. You have my word as a Man of the Cloth.”
Kilroy stood there. Corporal Lester stood there. The dead lay there. Having no fixed address though, they could follow him. It made perfectly rational sense. That explained their ubiquitous presence anywhere anytime. Ghosts of dead soldier grayed his days and nights all this time.
“One more dose of poison down the hatch?” the bartender inquired, a near full gin bottle tipped to free pour.
“Sure,” Lester gloated. “Why not?”
Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable mounted with a thumbtack on a tent pole smiled back evenings Corporal Lester returned feeling dirty. No amount of cold shower and green soap helped. Only diving into a gin bottle scrubbed off that deathly dreck.
Lester half-turned to peer into rectangular lengthy mirror reflecting on Grant’s Tomb. Forty years reeled by, a quicksilver flash. Every morning while shaving in front of a bathroom mirror, Lester confronted a new dead soldier that Corporal Lester had disposed of. It was little wonder then well past fifty that Lester sported a surly spade beard.
The Chaplain sipping red wine from his chalice and sounding right as rain had lied. The dead G.I.s did trail after Lester, espied in mental snapshots the burial detail took. Their sad sack psyche was a scrapbook. That queue of alcoholics at Veterans Hospitals for immeasurable treatments wrapped to Neptune and back. Yep. Lester had gleaned that statistic from where else? The latrine wall at the Moose Lodge early one Easter Sunday. The Lodge had been the only place in town serving liquor.
Milling around, the rabble Lester beheld in the bar mirror shuffled toward him, their backs to his eyes failing to see whatever engrossed them. Gin clear and cold sloshed into his bottomless shot glass. Lester yearned to crawl back into his boy skin, to feel tight and cheerio again. To recapture those pre-war years swimming co-ed at a local abandoned limestone quarry. Talk about utter futility though.
What were the bar patrons behind him carrying? Frozen to the spot where he drank, Lester felt reduced to watching their actions caught in wavy mirrored images.
“Corporal Brand? You here?” a voice boomed.
Just then, double chevrons bloomed on Lester’s shoulders, combat boots burped on his feet. He dropped fifty pounds, his spine ramrod straight.
“Present, sir,” Lester heard himself shout out.
In unison, the bar patrons, all boys now, did an about-face, planted boots apart, leaned on long-handled shovels. Their gloved hands didn’t escape his notice. A bayonet scraping down his spine, Lester recognized them as the burial detail.
He next looked slantwise down the narrow aisle as the bartender tricked out in a shave-tail Lieutenant’s uniform approached.
“You have rotated to the top of The List,” he informed Lester. The ranks stepped up, shovels ready.
“I ordered a gin on the rocks,” replied Lester. “Nothing more.”
The Lieutenant said: “What? Then I will have to pencil you in at the bottom of The List. You’ll have to wait your turn again.”
“I don’t mind, sir.”
Lester dared not step back because the burial detail had excavated a deep trench mere inches behind him in which to tumble.
Once the mirror cleared, Lester saw himself clearly again, drooping on the barstool and clutching a hand to his chest. The waves of pain abated. Only then did he realize the heart attack had passed. The spectacular noise in Grant’s Tomb increased to its normal level.
Ed Lynskey's science fiction/fantasy short stories have appeared in Demensions, Would That It Were, Planet Magazine, and Quantum Muse.
Visit his web site.
Published by permission of the author.