Little Tin Soldiers
Keith's oh-so-successful, bored, handsome attorney's face was still stuck in the guide book as the train crawled past tired factories, wan in fading October sun-light. Louise sighed and touched her belly. The baby flexed reassuringly. There was still an outside chance if she handled it diplomatically.
"The thing is Paris would be romantic, Keith, and we've got the money," she said, thinking of how "the complication" as he called it needed a bright, happy respite and a placid mother.
"Knocked up is not romantic," Keith said. "Now if you hadn't screwed up and used protection."
"Let's not go back through that again, Keith. Having a baby is not something awful. Why do you have to be so harsh?"
"You don't understand the financial implications of these things, Louise. And this was not planned, and I want my life planned!" Keith's lip were set in prosecutorial mode. "Just like when you suddenly went and bought those tin soldiers."
Carefully peeling an apple, the Frenchman opposite in second class raised an eyebrow, concealing something with his eyes. A livid scar ran down his left cheek. The compartment smelled of vin rouge. For a minute she thought she might be ill as the Frenchman examined her body clinically as though she were a center-fold.
"Please, the tin soldiers were for the baby, Keith. They weren't expensive," Louise said, hearing the tin soldiers murmuring restlessly among one another.
"That's stupid and irrelevant. You don't even know what sex the brat will be. And those toys were over a hundred bucks. I don't call that inexpensive. You don't have the first clue about how weak the American dollar is this year, do you, Louise? Paris equals big bucks! Look, we can't afford Paris. Besides I'm not crawling out of the rack to jog at 5:30 a.m. in smog. Like I said before--Amiens will suit us fine."
"All right. You win as usual, Keith." Why argue? Who needed another war? She had argued this and that all the way from Madrid and lost every skirmish. If she held out for Paris, she knew how he'd be. But bypassing Paris for his jogging schedule and to save twenty five dollars!
The Frenchman sniffed, chomping apple and nibbling cheese. Meanwhile he continued to stare at her legs. Turning away, she amused herself with a daydream of a man and a woman, holding hands, sipping kir in sunlight at a cafe along the Boulevard Mont Ste. Michel. The train halted in faint, struggling sunlight that dappled the platform, so she could almost feel the couples embracing in the shadows along the banks of the Seine. The tin soldiers rattled their sabers approvingly.
She and Keith lugged their bags through the station to the steaming Metro tunnels and stumbled into a jumble of signs and maps. She felt a little faint as a yard in front of her, Keith hesitated, uncharacteristically confused. Suddenly the baby twitched; she winced.
"Which way?" she said. "I feel a little dizzy."
"Relax, Louise! I'll have it in a second!"
It was all very impressive--his command of French geography, his bad temper, his successful law practice, his leadership. Except they wound up in the wrong car and had to change at Longeaux to get there. Finally at Amiens they dragged their bags out of the station into the gritty sunshine of mid-afternoon.
The city had all the charm of bad plumbing. A drab jumble of concrete and brick under hard sun stared back at them as they humped their gear two blocks to the hotel the station-welcome girl, whom Keith had eyed attentively, had arranged.
It was as they lugged their baggage in the second sun-dazzled block Louise set her flight bag down in the middle of the sidewalk. "Keith, there's someone following us!"
Louise took a deep breath. "That man with the scar on his cheek who sat opposite us on the train from Madrid. I saw him."
Keith looked back at a hundred yards of empty sidewalk. "Oh, you mean the invisible guy behind us, Louise?"
"No, Keith, I really saw somebody. It scares me." The tin soldiers kneeled in firing position.
"Hell, the guy probably lives in Amiens. Every damn thing scares you, Louise. Don't be so paranoid. C'mon, the hotel's right up ahead." Keith hoisted the bags and began to trudge again.
In a moment they were standing opposite a sorry-looking heap with a grimy hotel sign. Louise glanced back over her shoulder for the man with the scar as Keith stared dubiously at the hotel's boarded-up windows. "Looks like a super dump, Louise. Let's try the fleabag across the street over the café."
Louise nodded and followed.
The Hotel Unic squatted between a second-hand furniture store and a tabac run by an Indian. The proprietor, thick-chested in a dirty undershirt, stood in the doorway, his bloated, red face distorted by a moonscape of cancerous-looking craters.
"I don't like the looks of this place, Keith?" she said.
"C'mon. He's an obese, harmless snail-chewer."
Keith asked to see the room. The proprietor, looking offended, limped up a dark stairway to a mildewing chamber on the third floor. Their footsteps echoed in the vacant halls. The room was a shabby, grim, wall-papered affair with a single bulb hanging from a cord. There was no security lock.
Louise stared doubtfully at the tattered bedspread, thinking of the placenta and what a delicate thing it was, how it needed cleanliness and harmony as it developed into their child.
"Combien?" Keith asked.
"Vingt cent franc."
"Twenty five bucks," Keith translated. "A bargain. We'll take it," Keith said.
The patron's lips lifted in a dog-like half-smile, and he rubbed his hands together as the money was exchanged. When he had limped away, Keith opened the shutters.
Louise looked around dubiously. "Keith, this place makes me nervous. There's no security lock."
"No security lock, eh? I suppose somebody's going to come charging in our room with an Uzzi, huh? Besides you know I've got the little gun in my luggage, Louise."
Louise sighed, staring at her belly in the cracked mirror.
Keith sprawled on the bed. "Man, I am bushed. Nap time."
Of course exhausted again! How had they made this child anyway? They certainly hadn't made babies in Europe. She unbuttoned her blouse as he closed his eyes. Her abdomen had definitely begun to swell. The timing of the discovery had been so poor--a week before the vacation began. Morning sickness all through Spain. In the distance she could hear the drumming of soldiers.
She pushed opened the flimsy curtains and stared through the shutters at a dog-run littered with droppings. An enormous Doberman paced moodily back and forth while a smaller, yellow bitch dozed submissively in the corner. Off to her left by the fence she thought she saw the figure of a man, but when she looked again, she saw nothing. No use to mention it to Keith. Turning back to the wardrobe mirror, she stared at the bulge in her tummy.
"You don't think the owner's dangerous, do you Keith?" She covered herself defensively as a lethargic fly buzzed around the dangling light-bulb.
Keith didn't open his eyes. "Come off it, Louise. He's a lush with some weird Frog disease."
A sharp rap rattled the door.
"Yeah?" Keith yelled.
"C'est moi, le patron."
Keith got up from the bed and pushed open the door. The proprietor groveled there in his dirty undershirt, his red eyes bulging with expectation. "You have cigarettes to sell? Whiskey perhaps? I pay very good prices."
"We don't smoke."
"I pay good--anything you want to sell or buy. Lebanese not French."
"Forget it!" Keith closed the door in his face.
"You didn't have to be so insulting, Keith. You might have made him angry. We can't be certain what might happen here." She thought of hotel rooms she had heard of where the owner watched couples through peepholes in the ceiling; she cringed as the baby rolled over and the tin soldiers presented arms.
"You're paranoid as hell, Louise. You’ve begun to imagine things. What do you think he's going to do, come in and rape you?"
"No, I'm sorry, Keith, this place just upsets me."
"O.K., O.K., we should have blown a fortune in Paris so you wouldn't have to feel paranoid. I'm sorry you're paranoid!" He lay rigid on his back, eyes closed.
"You don't have to be nasty. I don't understand what it gets you." With that she dropped it before it got major.
That evening they argued again over where to eat, and at Keith's insistence wound up in a bad cafeteria picking at eels because they were cheap, and when they got back to the room the black and white T.V. only picked up one channel, and Keith fell asleep instantly as she paced the floor listening to the smoky laughter of the card-players in the bar below.
At dawn Keith woke her from a restless dream where she was having thousands of deformed babies that wouldn't stop coming. He was pulling on his Nikes as lazy drizzle tapped ominously on the tile roof.
"I don't feel safe here by myself, Keith; do you really have to run?" she said, clutching the covers, hating her own lack of self-sufficiency.
"No, I don't have to, but come off it, Louise. This place is harmless. This isn't Baghdad. You'll keep the door locked."
"What if you get hit by a car?"
He laughed as loud as the strangers in the bar. "I could get hit by a car back in Tulsa."
"Don't go! You don't have to jog! A day of rest is good for you! You might over-train. Even you say that. We could snuggle up together."
"I guess you haven't looked at yourself in the mirror lately, Louise. You're not very snuggly."
She fought back tears. The bastard! Didn't who she was count in this relationship? Wasn't half of the trip paid for by money she'd earned teaching? Wasn't their child a joint creation of love? Where were those soldiers?
"You don't care any more, do you, Keith?"
"Look, don't act like a woman scorned and blow things into a federal case. I'll be back in an hour. Just relax."
Bitterly she listened to the key turning in the latch; then she thought of the peephole in the ceiling and rolled up on her side into uneasy sleep, as an army of tin soldiers looking like Keith marched past hurling insults. A little while later she awakened to the drumming of rain on the roof. What time was it? She fumbled for her watch.
8:02. Where was he? She flipped on the T.V. A talking head babbled incomprehensible French. Why didn't Keith hurry up? She washed herself in the cold water sink and stared out the shutters into a drizzle. The patron was feeding the Doberman.
Suddenly the patron glanced upwards towards her; their eyes brushed; he seemed to gesture with his right hand. What did it mean? Then she saw the second man, thick, disheveled, a scar down his left cheek. The man with the scar was talking earnestly with the patron, heads close together like players in a football huddle. A surge of fear shot through Louise.
She lurched back from the window, terrified. The man with the scar had really been following her and Keith. Why? He was outside in the garden now. She sagged onto the bed in confusion. A girl-child would be at the mercy this kind of terror; a boy was in danger of becoming one of them. There was no way to win.
Such morose thoughts clogging her throat, Louise slowly became aware of muffled thumps on the steps. Too heavy for Keith's footsteps. First floor. Second floor. Closer now. She gathered her robe around her. The steps were coming down the hall, stopping before her door. She stumbled to the window. The garden was empty now. Even the dogs were invisible in their cages.
There was a muffled knock.
"Who is it?" Louise's voice was barely audible.
No answer. A key was inserted in the lock. Slowly it turned; the door swung inwards. Louise screamed. The man with the scar was standing there, calm, thick, imperturbable, staring at her.
"What do you want?" Louise cried.
He pushed the door shut behind him and suddenly dropped his pants. He was not wearing underwear. Cowering, Louise shrank back towards the open wall-closet as with glittering eyes, the Frenchman began to manipulate himself, murmuring something as he went about his business.
Repulsed, heart in her throat, Louise looked away then she remembered. The thing he had bought in Spain was in Keith's blue flight bag under the top layer of T-shirts. She had never touched it in her life before, but she understood the concept of a trigger.
The man with the scar was leaning backwards now, shouting obscenities, oblivious to Louise as she whirled. The tin soldiers screamed, "Ready, aim, fire!"
The barrel flashed hot red, and the explosion of the shot threw her hands upwards. She screamed again.
This time her scream was met by the echoing scream of the man with the scar. He crashed backwards, reeling through the door, jerking his pants upwards all in the same motion. A nasty smear of blood slimed down the doorjamb as he fled. Louise sank to her knees, weeping, in a terrible mixture of horror and confusion.
When he was gone, Louise dropped the gun to the floor with a leaden thump and staggered to the bed too distraught to move. The next thing she knew she heard a welter of angry voices in the hall. She stood up in a daze; suddenly Keith burst in the room.
"Louise, Louise, are you all right?"
She stared at Keith woodenly; nothing escaped from her mouth.
A crowd of angry Frenchmen stood yammering in the hall. Keith turned and shouted to them to "Get out!"
Slowly they backed down the hall. Keith threw his arms in the air and shook his fist. "What the hell's going on? As soon as I got back, that crazy frog started shouting at me. 'You got to get out! You got to get out! Your wife has a gun!'"
Louise struggled to put it in words as Keith finally registered his gun lying haphazardly on the floor. "What in the hell? That son-of-a-bitch didn't try to rape you, did he?"
Tears gushed down Louise's cheeks. The baby lay inside her, stiller than a stone. "No, no, nothing, Keith. Let's just leave here, please. Fast!"
"What the hell's wrong with you, Louise? Can't you give me a simple explanation? I thought this was a great morning. I was running my best times of the year, six minutes miles along the beautiful Somme, and now this. Why does there always have to be something to screw up the works?" He peed in the bidet.
"Keith, can we just hurry and leave? I want to get the hell out of this place!"
"Well what about breakfast? You're pregnant now; you need to eat breakfast. We'll leave our bags here."
"The hell with breakfast, Keith. Let's just go!"
"OK, OK, let me just jump in the shower, but I still don't get it."
"Later. I'll explain to you later," she said, slumping back to the sagging bed, staring into the rain, thinking of perverted men with jagged scars and the uselessness of little tin soldiers. Like a woman carved out of dead bone, she felt so terribly realistic now she no longer needed Paris, romance, or anything else any man could offer. Let the baby die!
Meanwhile in the shower, she could hear Keith whistling "Bridge Over the River Kwai." Without even thinking about it, she closed her ears, set her teeth, searching for the lock that would secure their flight bag.
And far off she could hear the murmuring of drums as somewhere nearer, little tin soldiers slapped one another on the back and laughed at her, their uproarious laughter acid in her ears.
Latricia L. Lane is a middle school art teacher who teaches to exist and writes to live. Currently fighting a losing battle against her tobacco habit, she loves walking her dog and watching the sun come up over the city.
Read another story by Latricia - "Angel Eyes"
Published by permission of the author.