Old Timer

(Part 3—this story continues Our shaving grace)

Having the whole platoon shaved was not Fink’s best move. It gave us an identity, to be sure, but not the one he had intended. We were punished because of Andy, because of his mocking defiance of authority, but in his absence he quickly became a martyr in whose name our hardships were endured. When he returned at dusk, with fresh bruises and a long cut above his eyebrow, he entered the barrack to eager sympathy. Even the fat guy was friendlier.

“You were right,” he told Andy.

“About what?” Andy asked as he eased himself onto his bunk.

He winced with pain when the fat guy sat down next to him, moving the mattress.

“Fuck this place,” the fat guy agreed. “And fuck Fink.”

Andy smiled and looked around at our bald heads.

“What happened to you?” he asked Doc who had a large band-aid stuck across his.

“It’s stupid,” Doc said. “I should ask you that question.”


Over the next few weeks we talked to Old Timer every day. Each time Fink made us go back and forth repeatedly. Sometimes Levin couldn’t keep up. Sometimes we didn’t shout out in unison when we returned. Now and then someone turned around short. When none of this happened, Fink invented another reason, and we went again.

And again.

But in the end, Fink was no match for Andy’s jelly-like flexibility and fake incompetence.

“To avoid being pushed around you must offer no resistance,” he told us.

He sat on his bunk, folding his socks. They were supposed to be rolled into a ball that made a little smile and placed in a row in our lockers for Fink to inspect.

“It’s a sock,” Andy said, holding it up. “I’m planning to wear it on my foot. I don’t care what it looks like until then.”

For Doc, compliance was the way of least resistance.

“Why don’t you just roll them up?” he asked.

“I don’t feel like it.”

“How’s that no resistance?”

“What I meant,” Andy explained, “is that you must offer no resistance when they punish you. This isn’t the sort of prison where they can beat and torture you. They have to get you to do it yourself. Don’t, and you’ll be fine. They can’t squeeze a marshmallow through a keyhole.”

When Andy was sent to talk to Old Timer he jogged at a pace he could sustain indefinitely, despite Fink screaming for him to hurry up. When Fink made him do pushups instead, he gave out after a few even though he could easily have done a hundred. Whatever punishment Fink invented, Andy performed in a slipshod way. When Fink tried to punish us for Andy’s transgressions, we did the same. Fink had little choice but to stop after a while. We weren’t volunteers and so we couldn’t be fired. He couldn’t have Andy charged for every breach of discipline or he’d risk unpleasant questions about his own competence.

Once, when we were drilling as practice for an official parade, Andy continued marching in a straight line after the platoon had wheeled to the left. He marched off into the distance, deaf to Fink’s shouting. Fink had to run after him. He sent Andy to talk to Old Timer and then he made him do pushups when he didn’t seem to have tired from running. Fink ended up standing over Andy while he slowly grunted and heaved in the dust, doing only a few pushups before Fink had to give up in disgust.

On another occasion Andy wore his boots on the wrong feet. It gave his walk a weird lilt and made him look like a duck nearing a dam. Fink took all morning to figure this out and Andy looked pained and puzzled when his boots were finally identified as the source of the problem.

“What the fuck’s wrong with you!?” Fink shouted, kicking at his boots. “Have you got rocks in your head!?”


“Rocks! Are you deaf too!?”

“I heard you perfectly, Corporal,” Andy said in a level tone, “but what were you saying?”

Fink was blinded with rage. He leapt at Andy and knocked him to the ground. Then he restrained himself.

“Get up!” he snapped hastily.

Andy ignored him. He sat in the dust and swapped his boots, taking his time. He got up when he was finished, dusted himself down and stood to attention. It was clear to us then, as it must have been to Fink, that Andy was the inmate the prison would never break.

On our last day of basic training a soldier was run over in the street beyond the fence of the parade ground. There was a dull thud and the shudder of wheels skidding along the tar. Fink made us wait while he and other instructors ran out through the gate to help or have a look. But the man was dead, his body bent and wrong.

We watched while the men in the street gave up and talked and smoked and told one another competing versions of what they’d seen. Fink leant against the fence, his one boot pulled up under him. He made a long arc with his hand and slapped it into the other, demonstrating how the man had been thrown on impact.

Andy watched all this without a word. As he watched, he played with his beret. He flattened it and pulled it down the wrong way, slanted to the left. He looked like a French peasant.

Beyond the fence, the instructors exhausted the possibilities of speculation. Traffic began to back up in the street and Fink directed it around the scene of the accident. When the medics arrived, he returned to the parade ground.

“Come, come,” he barked. “Show’s over!”

We slowly assembled in drill formation. In the street, a man in civilian clothes photographed the body.

“Ri—ight face!” Fink cried.

Andy faced left.

“Your other right,” Fink hissed through gritted teeth.

Andy turned his head, facing as we did, but something bothered Fink. He came around until he could see down the ranks of the platoon. Then he spotted Andy’s beret.

“No fucking wonder!” he bellowed.

He tore the beret from Andy’s head.

“What the fuck’s wrong with you!?” he howled.

He threw the beret to the ground and stomped on it. Then he held his hand in the direction of Old Timer.

“Go talk,” he said.

In the street the medics had put the body on a stretcher. Andy stepped forward and stood next to Fink. Together they looked at Old Timer.

“Now?” Andy asked. “After all this?”

Fink shut his eyes and controlled himself.

“He’s waiting,” he said.

Andy shrugged and started walking in the direction of Old Timer. He didn’t lift his boots and scraped along in a drifting trail of dust. Fink watched him, transfixed, as did we. When Andy reached the tree, he remained there, nodding and pointing in our direction, as though he was actually talking to Old Timer.

Fink stood with his hands on his hips, flexing his jaw muscles. Andy talked for a while and then started on his way back. In the street the medics had driven off with the body of the dead man.

“So—!?” Fink heaved and quaked when Andy finally arrived. “You talked to Old Timer?”

“I did, Corporal.”

Fink made what looked like a superhuman effort to remain calm.

“And what you tell him?”

Andy considered his answer carefully.

“Everything, Corporal.”

Fink feigned surprise.

“You did?” he said. “And what’s he say?”

Andy hesitated like someone bearing bad news.

“Corporal,” he said, “he’d like to talk to Corporal now.”

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We’re all transparent in the dark

When I was a kid I was mystified by the existence of my sister. Why, for example, had my parents wanted a second child? Was I not good enough? And why did it have to be a girl? These questions bothered me and because I never got sensible answers from my parents, I took it out on my sister. Demri was four years younger than me and so it wasn’t hard to convince her that she was invisible. I pretended to get a fright whenever she spoke and then I looked straight through her. Demri ran off to ask my mother if she could see her.

“What’s wrong with him that he cannot see you?” my mother wondered.

Demri returned out of breath.

“Ma says there’s something wrong with you,” she announced.

“You’re transparent in the dark,” I said.

Demri ran off to my mother and returned in triumph a minute later.

“Ma says you’re right,” she said. “We’re all transparent in the dark.”

“Yes,” I said, “but you’re adopted.”

“I’m not!” she cried.

“Why’s your hair like that then?” I asked. “Why are there no pictures of you when you were just born?”

Demri wailed like a banshee and my mother came into the garden. I scurried up a tree and sat in a forked branch beyond her reach.

“We moved just after your birth,” my mother told Demri. “Plus, you were sick.”

“I’m adopted!” she wailed.

My mother came and stood beneath the tree.

“Come down here,” she said calmly and lit a cigarette.

“You’re going to hit me,” I said.

“Of course I’m going to hit you,” she said, more calmly. “I’m going to hit you even harder if you don’t come down right now.”

But I stayed up the tree. My mother went into the house to comfort Demri, and then she returned.

“How long do you think you can sit up there?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

Demri and Grandma stood behind her. Demri made the universal sign for a hiding with her fingers.

“Look what she’s doing!” I yelled.

“She’s invisible, remember?” my mother said. “How can you see what she’s doing?”

By then I was aching from sitting in the narrow fork. They went away and I waited. I toyed with the idea of climbing down but it was obvious that the standoff had to be broken by something else. I wished it would rain and that there’d be lightning, that my mother would come and beg me to get down out of the tree, but nothing happened. Demri came and played on the lawn where I could see her. She did cartwheels and ran in circles while I ached up in the tree. Then she fetched a picture of herself as a baby. My mother had shown it to her.

“I’m not adopted,” she insisted.

“You were adopted when you were smaller than that,” I said. “That picture was taken later.”

You were adopted!” she cried.

“I know,” I sighed. “We both were.”

Demri was stunned by this new possibility and began to cry. My mother came from the house again.

“I called your father,” she lied. “He said he’d deal with you when he got home.”

“I don’t know how he plans to do that,” I said. “I’m not coming down from here. Ever.”

“Look,” my mother said, “you’re going to come down eventually. If you don’t come down by yourself, you’ll die up there and fall down. But down you’ll come.”

Of course she was right. But long before I died, someone from the school would call. My mother would have a hard time explaining that I’m hiding up a tree because she’d threatened to hit me. News of this would leak out. I’d be famous. People would talk about the boy who refused to come down from the tree. There’d be a picture of me in the papers, taken from far away. The old woman up the street would bring a hamper of food. Men with coats would come and talk to my parents inside the house.

“Jesus wants you to love your sister,” Grandma said.

She’d pulled up a chair and now sat knitting in the shade.

“Sure,” I said. “He was alone. He never had to put up with a sister.”

Grandma put down her knitting and lit a cigarette.

“Remember how your mother said that we’re all transparent?”


“We’re all alone, too,” she said. “We’re all adopted.”

My father came home from work an hour later. I watched with some trepidation as his car turned into the driveway. My buttocks were numb and I hurt all over. I’d begun to feel like an orphan myself, thinking about what my grandmother had said. Now my father went in through the back door, and then nothing happened. I expected him to come marching out, but he didn’t.

When it was almost dark he came and stood beneath the tree. He was smoking a cigar.

“How long have you been up there?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I mumbled. “Since 3 o’clock.”

He nodded and seemed to think this over.

“Well,” he said at length, “it’s supper time. Maybe you should come down now.”

“What about Demri being adopted?” I asked.

“I heard about that,” he said. “What do you think?”

“Are you going to—you know—like, hit me?”

My father rolled the cigar between his fingers as he savoured it.

“Remind me,” he said. “How long have you been up there?”

Then he turned and went back into the house.

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