We were sitting in a half-moon booth at Pierre’s, nursing pitchers of cheap beer. It was the last day before winter break and everybody still left on campus was winding down before the time off, feeling giddy and confident because we were in the homestretch of our educations, ready at long last for the real thing. A group of frat boys with worn-out baseball caps turned around backwards shot pool on the other side of the room, sorority sisters perched here and there on stools like flamingoes, homogenous, giggling. They were all good, young people.
The three of us—Jan, Jenny and I—had met our sophomore year, each of us English majors. Jan wanted to be a writer, like me, except she wanted to write books for children—stories about pirates and magical frogs and Prince Charmings. I liked pirates and fantastical stories, too, but what I was really after was the heart of the matter, the heavy-duty stuff, dramatic things like life and death, where a lot of the time the endings to the stories aren’t happy.
Jenny was interested in French literature. She said the language was romantic, but I never got that from it. Jenny was hoping for grad school and then maybe a PhD so she could earn her living teaching somewhere. What I think Jenny failed to understand, though, was that that somewhere would most likely be a small community college deep in the South, or out on the West Coast, a long way from family and friends.
A gaunt, disheveled man with a salt-and-pepper crew cut and chin whiskers approached our table and stood there silently, at attention. In one hand he held a large, frayed duffel bag and underneath his other arm was a crumpled stack of the free weekly newspapers—called LET’S GO SHOPPING—distributed in the entryways of businesses all around downtown.
“Pardon the interruption,” he said finally, having lingered there at the edge of our table for some time, erect, like he was waiting to be noticed. “I just wanted to make sure that each of you got one of these,” he said, carefully placing copies of LET’S GO SHOPPING in front of us like a distinguished waiter presenting dessert menus. After he’d arranged the papers perfectly, he straightened back up and smiled, though it was a strained smile. “Colonel Gerald Allan!” he hollered, snapping a salute to his forehead. “At your service!”
I looked over at Jan. She was sort of laughing quietly, staring at the Colonel there at the end of our table. Jenny sat wide-eyed, partly because she was a little bit drunk, but mostly because of the Colonel.
He was wearing an Army surplus jacket with holes in the elbows. His bluejeans were no better off and his tennis shoes had once been white and new, but they weren’t anymore. It was four below zero that night outside Pierre’s, too cold even for it to snow.
“Care for a glass of beer, Colonel?” I asked him, a private citizen’s way of telling a rigidly saluting soldier: At ease.
“Nope. Don’t touch the stuff,” he said, lowering his arm. “You ever tried to howl at the moon for too long?” he asked me, leaning down onto our table, looking me square in the eyes. “I have,” he said, “so I simply don’t touch the stuff anymore, that’s all.”
A frat boy broke a rack of balls across the room with a crack and the Colonel whipped around into a jaguar-crouch stance. He surveyed the room, stood back up and faced us again, at ease, satisfied that the coast was clear.
“What do you have in the bag, Colonel?” Jan asked him, still laughing quietly. I shot her a look as if to say: Are you crazy?! The guy’s obviously armed to the teeth! Jan sent me back a look that said: Oh come on, he’s a teddy bear. The Colonel looked down at the large, tattered bag he was holding as if he’d forgotten it was there at all.
“I’m a veteran of sixteen foreign wars, but you’d’ve only heard about just the one of ‘em,” he said.
With a jerking motion he set his canvas bag down on the black-and-white tiled floor and worked at the zipper holding the thing together. He dug around for something and stood up, back into the yellow light of our booth.