Round 1 submission for the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge, 2015.
Challenge: 2,500 words in 7 days
Genre: Historical Fiction
Subject: Hiking through a forest
Character: Army General
I entered the dimly lit booth with the shiny new telephone mounted on the wall. The contraption was new to me but I had heard a rumor that I was too curious to leave alone. I stepped inside and slid the bi-folding door shut behind me. The shadows of the patrons toward the front of the restaurant danced on the back wall and spied on me through the glass panes.
The ear piece hung heavily in its hook. I lifted it to my ear, waiting for an operator’s metallic voice to chime over the line. All I heard was silence and the echoes of restaurant noise. I tapped the metal hanger on the ringer box – still nothing. Just as I decided to hang up the receiver and be done with this idea, I noticed a small red button behind the hanger.
My curiosity was peaked again, and I felt a small rush of electricity shoot from my stomach to the base of my neck. I hadn’t felt this excited about anything since before the war. My mind had been too focused on fighting and winning and coming home that I had not allowed myself the freedom to wonder, dream, or give over to fanciful ideas. This felt like something out of moving picture. I imagined myself as the lead character, even though I knew better. Black men aren’t allowed on the silver screen. We can fight for the country, but we can only be painted circus monkeys for entertainment.
I pushed the idea out of my head. Political injustices could wait. I wanted to enjoy this.
The little button was seductive, just in its existence. It was a dream come true, in its own right – a rumor that was real. I debated not pressing the button; leaving the restaurant as if I had made my telephone call and completed my business; letting the dream live on in my head.
But I had to know.
I switched the ear piece from my left ear to my right. I reached up with my left hand as if I was going to tap the hanger again, but instead I let my finger slide passed and press the red button.
Still silence. My hope started to fade. I let out of a breath of defeat and started to curse myself when I heard it.
It was so faint that I thought I may have imagined it. Did I really hear it, or did the clatter of plates and silverware sing together for one brief moment to mimic the tinny, distant voice?
I said the password I had learned along with the rumor. Only quiet rang out from the ear piece and I wondered nervously if I had missed my chance. Passwords change frequently, no matter what they are protecting. In France, we changed codes and passwords and directions to avoid the enemy knowing our location and movements. It would make sense that a password to find out what was behind the fancy new phone booth at the back of the restaurant would change frequently, also.
I sighed in defeat. The password had changed, or the information I’d received had never been correct in the first place. I placed the ear piece back in its golden hanger on the side of the ringer box, and straightened my tie. I was about to open the door to the booth, when I heard something unlatch behind me. I turned and saw the back corner of the phone booth open up at the corner. The slat of wood slid quietly and opened a couple inches. I turned and checked to see if a queue had formed for the phone booth, to make sure nobody else could see this happening. I turned back and saw the dim outline of a profile.
“Be quiet about it.”
I stepped forward and pressed my shoulder through the small space first. I was worried my broad chest and shoulders would not be able to squeeze through. The slats pulled at my suit and I had to take my hat off, as to not damage the brim. When I was all the way to the other side, the faceless password guard moved the slat back and we were doused in darkness. A hand closed around my wrist and I was pulled what felt like North.
The invisible hand led me through the darkness. It felt like we walked blocks, but I’m sure it was only a few feet. Darkness disoriented me. We stopped and I heard the rustle of fabric. The echoes from the restaurant had changed tones. The voices had grown from a mellow drone to a higher timbre. Instead of flatware being clapped together in sinks, I heard glasses being struck together.
A curtain was drawn aside and warm, electric light filled my vision. Chandeliers hung low and the room was paneled in rich, dark wood. Patrons packed the entire space, almost shoulder-to-shoulder. Ladies wore beaded, drop-waist gowns. Most of their coiffures were clipped short and combed slick. Feathers and pearls adorned their headbands, and draped around their exposed necks. They all had their eyes lined with smoky kohl and their lips painted the color of berries.
The gentlemen were all in suits. Some were better quality than others. Every class of men packed into this room, from the poor to the wealthy. During times like this, when enjoying a drink at the end of a long day – or for me, a long war – had been made illegal, you couldn’t be too picky about the company with whom you commiserated.
I drank it all in, letting it intoxicate my senses before touching a drop of alcohol. This is why I fought. I fought with my brothers by my side to come home to see Americans of every class mingling, dancing, and drinking together. I was in heaven.
I began shouldering my way to the bar. The perfumed ladies smiled at me and the men moved aside without hesitation or judging eyes. The lacquered wood of the bar top was cool and slick to the touch. I stood sideways to fit between two couples who stopped kissing only to sip on sparkling drinks out of crystal glasses.
“What can I get you, Sheik?” a silvery voice asked me.
I turned and felt myself falling into a pair of green eyes from the other side of the counter. She had smooth, pale skin, and like the rest of the dames in the room, her green eyes were lined in kohl. Her hair was naturally curly, and longer than the style. She had it pinned back and out of her face, but a few curls fell in her eyes.
I was staring, and I knew it. I was jostled back to earth when the couple behind me got too rambunctious with their relations.
“Hey, hey. You’ve got enough cash, the bank’s closed.” The lady behind the bar told them.
They giggled and stumbled away together. I laughed and looked for a menu.
“Not much of a choice tonight. My supplier’s under the gun and I only got half my shipment of whiskey. I got white lightning – that’s moonshine – some gin, and champagne. Or I can mix you one of my favorites. I call it a General Pershing – my small toast to Patriotism. What’ll it be?”
“Let’s toast Black Jack, then.” The password made more sense, now. It was November eleventh, after all – the anniversary of the end of the World War.
She smiled and electricity shot through me again. I watched her turn and fetch a tumbler glass from a shelf. Then she bent and found a various glass bottles. Clear liquids sparkled and swirled together in the tumbler, against the alternating electric lights and candles in the room. Everything felt warm, and I hadn’t even had any juice.
“ANNABELLE!” A loud, grimy voice that sounded like it was coated in tar shouted over the cacophony of party goers.
“What do you want, Jim?” My bartender – Annabelle, apparently – turned with a roll of her eyes. She set my glass down and winked at me, before facing the drunken man who climbed onto the barstool where the lovers had been sitting. I wished they would come back. At least they smelled like licorice and pipe smoke. This gentleman smelled like old sick and older alcohol.
“Gimme a glass o’ hooch.” He slapped his hand loudly on the bar top.
“Not happening, Jim. I cut you off three days ago and you’re staying cut off until you can walk in here without seeing double.”
He wailed like a child and rested his forehead on his arm. I was worried he would start a scene, but he started snoring almost immediately. Annabelle smiled and shook her head.
“Want me to move him?” She asked.
“No, he’s fine. Who is he?”
“He’s one of my regulars. He drinks more than most of my customers combined, but that’s been great for business. Last week he had a fit and broke half my glasses and at least three noses of the guys who tried to calm him down. He was shouting about ‘the General’ over and over. I think the war really got in his head.”
“He was in the war?”
She nodded. “In Belgium, I think.”
I was in the 369th Infantry. We never lost a man to capture, and we never lost a foot of ground to our enemy. Not every soldier was lucky enough to be in a Regiment as successful as mine, though. We won, but we still had some guys come back not quite right in the head. I didn’t see Flanders Field, but it seemed Jim had.
“Can I buy him a drink?”
“I’d say yes, but he’s already had a case of the Jake Leg. Not from my hooch, of course.”
Jims face was hidden in the crook of his arm. His jacket was dirty and it looked like he’d spent more than a couple nights sleeping in gutters.
Without warning, Jim shot bolt upright.
He dove under the bar, and startled the boozers. On his dive for cover, he grabbed my jacket sleeve and took me down with him. He covered my head and shoulders with his body.
“Keep low, soldier. The Germans are closing in.” His voice was a hoarse whisper. I wondered how many times he’d said that and meant it.
“Jim. Jim, look at me.” I pulled myself to face him. His eyes were wild. Jim was not in a speakeasy behind a phone booth in New York. Jim was back on the front line, though I couldn’t tell where. The Germans and their allies covered a lot of ground in four years.
“Where are you, soldier?”
“Flanders Field, of course!”
“Soldier, we’re safe. The enemy has been neutralized. We’ve won. You’re home. WE’RE home. We’re safe. Wake up soldier.”
“MAKE FOR THE TREES!”
Jim bolted. He snatched me up again and began weaving through the drunken crowd. People were beginning to notice. The piano player in the corner faltered as Jim crashed into the piano with his hip. He ducked under a table and pulled me with him.
“We’re in a good thicket now. The field doesn’t give us much cover, but we’ve got these trees. We can lose them in the forest.”
He was completely immersed in his hallucination. I’d heard a lot of horror stories about what alcohol can do to a man. There were more women protesting the terrors of alcohol than protesting anything else. Prohibition started inching its way across the United States a couple years after I got home. We were in full swing, now.
I once heard a woman screaming about the effects alcohol had taken on her husband. He had been a heavy alcoholic and by, what she claimed, was the grace of God, had decided to quit, cold turkey. Not three days later, he fell into screaming hallucinations, his brain seized up on him, and he dropped dead. I worried for Jim.
“Where do you see trees, Jim?”
“All around us, look! We found a nice forest. We need to get to a radio, so we can get word to the General!”
“Of course Pershing! The Black Jack himself!”
The anniversary of the war ending.
The drink to honor Pershing.
It was all too much for Jim’s mind. Between whatever rot his brain had from his years of drowning himself in bathtub juice and all these reminders floating around him, he went right back to hell.
“Where’s Pershing now, Jim? Where are we going?”
“Follow me! Stay low!”
He wound his way through the crowd. Upending tables and knocking ladies to the floor. The music had stopped and the patrons were growing more aware and angrier by the moment. Jim pointed.
“There he is.”
I followed Jim’s gaze. There was a sophisticated-looking gentleman alone in the corner. He had an impressive mustache and was cloaked in cigar smoke. It wasn’t Pershing, but to the confused mind of a drunken soldier, he looked close enough.
We made our way through Jim’s forest of people. When he ducked, I ducked. When he paused, I paused. I had never been in this situation before, but I didn’t have the heart to leave him alone on whatever battlefield he was imagining.
The mustached man arched an equally well manicured eyebrow at us as we approached. Jim stood erect and saluted.
“It is an honor, General.”
I pleaded silently with the gentleman. He had a worldly air about him. I prayed that he understood what was happening. To my relief, he nodded and stood at attention for Jim.
“State your business, soldier.”
“The Germans have us surrounded, General. We must move our unit.”
“You are an honor to your unit and your country. At ease, soldier.”
And with that, Jim fell to the floor. His body convulsed, his mouth frothed, and his eyes rolled to the back of his head. Annabelle was next to me suddenly, and had four of the largest men I’d ever seen pick Jim up and take him out of the room.
“They’ll get him to a hospital.” She said. “What the hell was that about?”
“The war and bad hooch don’t mix. His brain doesn’t hit on all sixes anymore. I’ll tell you, though, this man was a big hel-..”
I was going to say “help,” but the man was gone.
“What man?” Annabelle asked.
I didn’t know what to say. I had heard the man’s voice. I saw him stand from his booth. But now, all I saw was a portrait of General John Joseph Pershing, our dear old Black Jack, staring back at me from a frame on the wall.