Winner of First Annual Short Story Contest
September 1, 1993
Sep 1, 1993
16 Min read time
Winner of First Annual Short Story Contest
I was at war for a full year and never saw an enemy. I served my time in the Da Nang PX, dispensing gifts of guilt and love for belated birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and like occasions. Over time I became something of an expert on the cost required, discount or retail, to mend hurt feelings or to demonstrate a precise degree of affection. There were many factors to consider: ethnic group, age, married or not, and, of course, order of magnitude. For instance, was a present late because of forgetfulness or because of some other, less innocent excuse? That could spell a difference between a tape recorder without a built-in microphone and one with.
I had no prior experience as a store clerk, and had enlisted on impulse without the provision of promises. The army had no obligation to train me as a communications specialist or a machinist, and perhaps that very lack of designation, that space next to the line labeled "duty," was what sifted me into a role without a numbered category. My resume in those days, if I had ever tried to record my life on the single side of a blank page, would have been distinguished only by my business diploma and my election, in my junior year, as secretary of the accounting club. Otherwise, I was normal.
I was born into a family that watched the highest-rated TV programs, that followed each new fad without the loyalty of a backward glance, that rooted for the home team in every seasonal sport. We voted for the winning ticket in elections, ate out at McDonald's slightly more often than at Burger King, wore green on St. Patrick's Day. We went to church on the holidays that required greeting cards, stayed home together on New Year's Eve, playing Monopoly until the ball dropped and Guy Lombardo struck up the band.
When I drew a low selective service number there was no doubt but that I would enlist. Why wait for the bus when you can walk? I had seen on the news, of course, about some who went to jail or to Canada but those weren't options for people like me. Dodging could ruin your life, and besides, Dad had served in France and Italy. He was on the phone all night bragging about his patriotic son the day I put my signed papers on the supper table for dessert.
I don't know what he told his clients when I was assigned to sales. Probably that ours was not to reason why, one of his favorite sayings, or that there were no unimportant jobs if done well, which was another. Maybe, like father, like son. I personally took a certain amount of grief from other GIs, not that most of those guys wouldn't have traded dog tags with me in a minute.
"Oh, man, what a fucking cush," my customers from infantry or armored would accuse as they rested their elbows on my counter, as they leafed through the catalog binder and made their selections from its laminated pages. Money was less a concern than the calculation of cost and intended message. Did a 35-millimeter camera with built-in flash promise too much? Did a Sony Trinitron overstate with a 21-inch diagonal screen, say, what might more accurately be conveyed with a 13-inch? Toilet water, cologne, or perfume? Domestic or imported?
They often asked my advice, painted a detailed scene of where and to whom the item would be delivered, and I gave each purchase the benefit of my experience. Who knew the real stories? Who could distinguish gifts to wives and mothers from those that paid for services rendered? Some boys hoarded, accumulated boxes in their rooms back home in accord with their expected futures, and some bought as if tomorrow was behind them, like today was all that counted. My job was not to judge. Though I received no commission, I came to feel a certain proprietorship, to support one brand over another, to urge a man to spend a few dollars in order to buy a product that would last.
I had learned the tricks of subtle emphasis from watching my dad, who managed a Dodge dealership. There's no such thing as impulse, he once advised me. It's all in the display, the comparison. He decided a year in advance which models would move, and stocked those in quantity. The purchaser came in to be convinced, and there was nothing wrong in that, nothing sly. Who dealt in volume, after all? Who had read the fine print, the specifications? Dad respected his customers. He was doing them a favor by steering them in the right direction.
There were some soldiers I'd see each payday who aimed to escalate the value of what they bought. The important thing was for the graph to keep rising, whether it was toward "Mom, I'm thinking of you on your special day from far away," or toward "Forever yours." The message was in the movement, since transactions themselves were impersonal as a signature, an address in the States, the yellow duplicate of the order as receipt. But some guys would linger, browse with their gazes the shelves of display merchandise that stretched behind me. Those times we'd pretend together that they were just regular working men, thoughtful enough to have stopped off on the way home from the office to pick out a little something.
• • •
I saw it more than once in my tour, the homesickness turn to fear turn to boredom turn to crazy indifference. Where a man came from got further away, where he was going got less clear. Even regulars didn't talk much to me about what went on away from the base Ñ yet I heard enough to know not to ask for more. They left the war at my door, wiped it off on the mat I kept for mud. We shared the same color uniform, often the same year of birth, our ID numbers ran in a common sequence, but that's where the union ended. I was different from a desk jockey or a chaplain Ñ the only reports I filed were in dollars and cents, and the only confessions I heard had to do with bad credit. I was ordinary as home.
I was lonely, too, but I was safe, so I kept my mouth shut, kept to myself, maybe out of embarrassment, maybe out of how easy a target I could become. I didn't even hang around with the other clerks, it was that bad. Sometime after my first quarterly report, I switched from two letters home a month to one, and mostly wrote about the hot weather, implying I was forbidden to reveal my exact whereabouts or the particulars of my daily activities. Probably I let myself get fixed too hard on my special clients, the ones I thought about and waited for. Of all of them, Joe Peck and Bob Diggs were at the top of my list, from that first day they came in together.
Joe was the one you had to notice because he never shut up. He'd ask me, upon entering, "What are the specials of the day?" He had a way of winking when he talked, as though he was letting you in on an idea nobody but you and he understood. Nothing brought him down.
"Going out of business," I answered when he tried the line the first time. "Prices slashed. Chance of a lifetime."
"Stereos two for one? A fine gold chain with every purchase over 100 dollars?"
"Green stamps," I said. "Sign up now for our tropical vacation holiday."
Joe stopped, looked me over. Up until then I had been pure woodwork, an excuse for the sound of his voice.
"We got us a live wire," he joked to his buddy. "A regular Bob Hope, here to entertain the troops."
"Ann-Margret's in the back, changing her dress," I said. "Next show in 20 minutes."
"I'm a Martha Raye man, myself." Joe introduced Diggs, who barely nodded.
"Where you guys from?"
"Ohio," Joe said.
"I hear the Buckeyes are running low on cultured Japanese pearls. A sad fact on Mother's Day. Luckily I have a few strings in stock, direct from the oyster ranches of Yokohama."
"Pearls," he considered. I didn't have to quote the price.
"Eighteen- or 20-inch strand?"
"Twenty. One for every year."
"A wise choice," I agreed, and wrote up the order. Diggs, the other guy, didn't buy a thing. Tight, I decided.
The second time I saw Joe I was crossing the yard on the way to the barracks and he was with his company, getting ready to head out. Without thinking, I waved and was relieved when he saluted back.
"See you next week," he called as he piled into a jeep next to Diggs.
"Washington's Birthday in July." I spread my arms wide.
Joe elbowed Diggs. "Crazy Eddie." He pointed at me. "The bargain hunter's best friend."
That's how I came by my nickname. When the two of them showed up at the store ten days later, Joe's left arm wrapped in an Ace and splint, his dark face was tired, his lips cracked. I produced no discount but recommended a new Bulova to replace the one that had shattered.
"What do I get for $59.95?" he wanted to know.
I read the description. "Self-winding, water resistant, shockproof, ten-year guarantee."
"Starting now." Joe signed the chit and pushed it toward me. "Ten years of perfect time or you'll hear from my lawyer."
"Crazy Eddie stands behind his word," I said and raised my right palm.
"A wild man." Joe shook his head, used the counter to fold his receipt one-handed into his brown wallet. Diggs wasn't wounded but he seemed nervous, on the run. He left with Joe, then returned alone almost immediately, got me to himself.
"You do layaway here?" he wanted to know. "Longterm?"
I slid the green account book forward. "Fill in your name, serial number, item desired, and amount to be automatically docked from your wages," I instructed. "Then don't give it another thought."
Diggs turned the pages of my catalog slowly, waiting for inspiration. He'd keep a place with his finger, then surrender it for somewhere else. Finally he made his selection, pushed the book back to me. I looked where he pointed Ñ the one-carat diamond solitaire set in platinum. At the price quoted, I didn't get many takers, so my interest was up.
"That ring is top of the line. A one-of-a-kind keepsake. Someone pretty special back home?"
Diggs's face was grim and didn't reveal a thing.
"Sure. Dozens." He slammed the binder. "It's the most expensive thing you sell, right?"
"Absolutely. Primo." I watched him enter the amount he wanted deducted Ñ almost half his wages every check. "Even at that rate it'll be nearly a year," I warned him.
"You'll mark it every time? I can come by and see, like in a passbook?"
"First National," I said. "US-government insured."
And Diggs did show, two or three times the first weeks and regular after that, but always when he was by himself. He opened the ledger to his page, stared at the growing column of figures that marched toward the diamond. And over those months he changed. By the halfway mark Diggs had become one of those who grin too much, who mumble to themselves. He wore a charm around his neck, something Joe bragged that Diggs had "found" in the jungle. After the first glance I didn't inspect it closely. He never bought anything else, just stashed his earnings, built equity. When the ring was two-thirds paid he varied his routine and asked a question.
"What would happen now, if Ñ you know Ñ I failed to make the final installments?"
I was just back from my R & R at Waikiki. I had stayed at a big hotel with a balcony facing the beach. Every time I looked at the water I heard the theme music from "Hawaii Five-0" in my head, and it had made me homesick. I didn't want to bear bad news, but I had no choice but to give Diggs the regulation answer.
"The money you've paid would be returned to your account," I explained. "But no interest. That's the downside of layaway."
"And the ring?"
I shook my head, wanting to apologize for the heartlessness of bookkeeping. I expected Diggs to be pissed, to demand that the ring go anyway to whatever girl he intended it for, but instead he flashed that private smile, went deep into himself for a second before he spoke.
"I'll make you a deal, Eddie," he said, calling me that name for the first time. "Keep the goddamn money. I miss one time, it's your pot."
Joe Peck happened to be in the store that day, scoping out a set of audio components shipped in a single unit to wherever they were sent: turntable on top, receiver on the bottom, eight-track deck sandwiched between. It was listed at $499 and he had offered $350, then $400, and was up to $450-not-a-penny-more. He couldn't believe what he was hearing from Diggs.
"Keep the money? Keep the fucking money? Man, you've been in the jungle too long. How about I stake you, buy into the deal? Take over the payments if you miss a couple? You can owe me." Joe turned to me. "That ring's all he lives for. He don't want to lose it."
But Diggs was already out the door, still laughing at the joke.
• • •
When the big day of the final installment arrived, I was prepared. I had the actual diamond there in a jeweler's box, though ordinarily I never kept valuable items in active inventory. Diggs showed up right on schedule to check the debit and I set the ring on the counter beneath the hooded bulb. It rested on crushed blue velvet, a hundred facets reflecting dark light.
A full house was assembled for the occasion Ñ guys who served with Diggs who'd heard about his layaway so often that it seemed a part of their own tours. Joe leaned against the doorjamb, crowded in with lots of others. I felt something myselfÑpride at completing a sale so costly, of an item that would appreciate. Relief, too, that it had all worked out without a hitch. Maybe even a little sad that the game was finally over.
Diggs picked up the ring, examined it from every angle. Then he put it back, shook his head.
"Changed my mind," he said, low but loud enough. "Can the last deduction. This time I'll go for the Rolex." He opened my green book to the page he knew by heart and pointed to the next blank line.
There was a pause, a silence like the smooth band that separates the cuts between two songs on an album. I didn't get it, not for a minute. I was disappointed, you might say my reputation was insulted and at stake. Every eye in the room was on the ring, as though that rock was some crystal ball, as though it had a mysterious life of its own.
I broke the spell. I told Diggs I was prepared to reapply his accumulated total Ñ which was more than plenty to pay for the watch. I told him he had his choice of anything in my catalog, just say the word.
But Joe Peck must have remembered what Diggs had told me about a missed payment, must have thought I'd be low enough to take Diggs up on that offer, and he cut me off.
"How much, man? What's the final hit?"
"No way," I interrupted. "My call." I reached into the register and counted out the amount needed from his next paycheck. "The ring's yours," I said to Diggs. "Special GI Bill discount. Crazy Eddie will not be undersold."
The thing was, there were no whistles, no hoots of approval. No one even applauded. The guys took their cue from Diggs, who was staring at me, his face drained and white, trying for his grin and not finding it.
"I'm serious," I said. "You bought it."
I took the ring from the box, lobbed it to Diggs, but when he made no move to reach out, it struck his chest, fell to the floor. You could hear it hit the plywood, the room was that quiet.
"Fuck you, man. Just fuck you." Diggs backed away, turned, shoved a path through the standing men. You could hear the rain through the door he left open, hear it pound and blow without cooling the air.
The grunts shuffled out, pulling the hoods of their ponchos over their heads and ducking their faces, careful of the ring where it lay. Finally only Joe was left.
"Take it," I said. "He'll change his mind. Talk to him. Tell him there's no obligation."
Joe looked at me, not in anger, I'm sure of that, just kind of hard and steady. I thought he was about to say something, but instead he gave a low whistle, then left.
There's a hollowness you feel the minute after a full room empties. You're aware of other possibilities, of something missing. The space seems like the inside of a bell. I opened the gate and walked across to the diamond. The sound of my footsteps was heavy and dry, each one as crisp as the turn of a page.
• • •
After Diggs disappeared, my business turned to poison. Soldiers still bought, but from the other clerks, timed their visits to the PX for when I was off-duty. Even Joe Peck let anniversaries pass.
"How's things doing in Ohio?" I asked him one day in the mess hall, and he just answered, "Hanging loose."
Since Diggs was officially MIA, his wages kept coming through, and every second Friday I entered an installment into the ledger against his watch. In my last two months on that job, he was my solitary customer. Then my supervisor noticed, canceled the order, and paid back his account.
• • •
I never saw the enemy face to face, never heard his voice. I never fired a shot in anger or in self-defense. I never got my face on the TV news or my name in Stars and Stripes or carved into a granite wall. I never went AWOL, never smoked dope but twice, never had a date with a bar girl.
But I like to think I lightened a few loads, helped give pleasure to the friends and relations of my customers, honestly recommended quality when asked to do so. I opened on time and stayed late if there was a line waiting. I've got not a damn thing to be ashamed of.
But I don't have much to contribute when other vets start telling their glory tales. At the Ridgeway Post VFW, where I'm a member with my dad, I drink a beer and listen as they go around the table Ñ an ambush competing with an asshole sergeant, a stint as a POW versus a Purple Heart for valor. On late nights when they've all had their say, when they don't want to go home and they signal for a last round, it comes my turn. I dig the chain with the ring on it from under my shirt, drop it in a clean ashtray, let them wonder. The stone still quiets a room with its gleam.
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September 01, 1993
16 Min read time