Blaze of Glory
Hank expected awkwardness when he returned to base. Surely he'd be mobbed by rowdy, cackling soldiers wanting all the sordid details. Or he'd have to face a red faced, downtrodden Gretchen, pretending to hide her body behind a couple of her svelte German girlfriends. He expected something or someone to get in his face or under his skin, and make a big stink of the whole weekend.
The other shoe never dropped.
He didn't even see Gretchen during the first few days of his return, having been thrust back into his duties at full throttle. Rather than spending his time with the rest of the men on the base, the small group he was part of was shuttled off most of the time, to resume fire training in the abandoned ruins at the outskirts of the city. From sun up to sun down, the men wrangled with heavy hoses, crumbling old stone and rotted wood, barely containable blazes, and the wrath of the elderly locals who occasionally came to shout words that Hank didn't actually understand, but whose intent came through loud and clear.
By the time the group trudged back to base, no one had any energy left for anything except crawling into their bunks and dying for the night. Where the rest of boys still seemed to have half an eye out for the frauleins after dinner, the green cadets newly assigned to the fire brigade rose as a single entity and spread like locust, hell bent on nothing but sleep.
Hank found the extra work strenuous, but doubly welcome - he didn't have to worry about modulating his reactions to the bawdy talk that bounced around the base because no one talking to him gave a good goddamn about sex anymore, and he didn't have to worry about what he was going to do with himself when it was time to muster out. He'd already made Private Second Class, and was well on his way to First Class as soon as time would allow, and was being groomed for leadership in the fire brigade.
He'd have been happy to spend the remaining three years of his tour in a work induced coma, but with time came experience and stamina. In only a few weeks, he'd adjusted to the new workload, just like he'd adjusted to the intense work load that had come with basic training. By season's end, a good half of the new men assigned to the fire brigade were able to resume somewhat of a normal routine at the end of their daily duties. They'd proved themselves worthy of their assignment, and so were rewarded with a permanent slot on the team for the duration of their individual postings. Some of the men refused the honor, having signed up with the image of the gun wielding fighter in mind, but Hank was one of the few who welcomed the opportunity with open arms.
He still pretended to be too exhausted to fraternize with the boys in his barracks at the end of the day. He wanted to be left alone, to read letters from his family and to daydream quietly about a sweetly shocking encounter in Zurich. He didn't want to have to navigate the minefield of feelings that came with rejecting (or being rejected by) a girl who knew perfectly well she was a pity lay. He didn't want to examine his own feelings about being a pity lay himself. He didn't want to think, he didn't want to feel, he just wanted to keep his head down and do good work.
Only, doing good work sometimes meant showing up to house parties to wish fellow soldiers farewell, gatherings that overflowed with boisterous young men and hopeful young women on the prowl for an army man. Sometimes it meant being in close proximity with the brass, and their phony charming wives, and their reluctant children. Sometimes it meant remembering that some of those reluctant children weren't children at all, but grown women who ought to be starting families of their own. Sometimes it meant encountering those women after a one night stand, and acknowledging the deflowered elephant in the room.
Hank didn't know the man getting shipped back to the States, other than he was a low level officer, with just enough importance to force everyone to show up for at least a few minutes of well wishing. He didn't know most of the civilians at the shindig either, though he'd seen them often enough through the gate, milling about on the family housing grounds as if they were still back home on Main Street, U.S.A. He smiled vacantly at everyone, saluted when necessary, and nursed a slowly warming beer while he counted down the minutes before he could tear out of the place without pissing off anybody important.
Hank jumped at the small voice at his shoulder, and whirled around to see a cowed, red faced Gretchen huddling nearby. He swallowed his surprise. "Hi, Gretchen."
She opened her mouth like she was going to speak, but snapped it shut again so hard he heard her teeth clack together. She shook her head, a small, quick, frazzled movement, and shuffled back a step.
A quiet, hysterical little bubble of laughter escaped before Gretchen could hold it in, and her down cast eyes became wide and round.
Hank grabbed her by the elbow and steered her through the crowd, scanning the place for some place quiet, some place private, some place where the poor girl might let herself open up without exposing herself to the entire base. He found a door cracked to a dark, empty room, and shoved her inside before shutting the door behind them.
The flick of a light switch revealed a child's room, probably a girl's room, judging by the number of stuffed animals scattered across the floor, and the lack of warmongering toys in the bunch. The yellow glow of the overhead light and the gathering of plush toys made Gretchen look like an oversized child. She seemed to shrink even further into herself.
Hank sighed and tried a different approach. "I haven't seen you around. You been up to something lately?"
At first he thought she wouldn't answer. She just stood there, tugging on her cardigan sleeves and staring at the floor. But he waited quietly, and his patience was soon rewarded. "Have you been up to something?"
Hank blinked. "Uh... no...? Just my duties? What do you mean?"
Gretchen frowned, just a tiny crease between her eyebrows. "You're not avoiding me?"
Hank laughed. "Well, yeah, but that's because I'm avoiding everybody. I'm tired!"
"Oh." She looked around the room for the first time, before settling on the edge of the bed and grabbing a stuffed monkey from the menagerie on the floor. "So - no, never mind."
"What?" Hank asked.
"It doesn't matter."
"What doesn't matter?"
Gretchen groaned and flopped back on the bed. "Can we just forget this whole thing and go back to never running into each other?"
"Forget what whole thing?" Hank sat on the bed and leaned over Gretchen. "Would you just talk to me for crying out loud?"
She narrowed her eyes at him. "If you weren't so tired, would you have called on me?"
Hank blushed. "I don't know. Probably not."
She turned her head away and huffed. "I knew it."
"Well don't get sore at me - you were the one who disappeared after we went to sleep! How was I supposed to know you wanted me to talk to you later?"
"You're the boy - boys are always supposed to call after if they like a girl!"
Hank jumped up and yanked the door open. "Well excuse me for not brushing up on my what happens after you fuck a girl for the first time etiquette! Next time I lose my virginity I'll be sure to know exactly what to do!" He stalked out and slammed the door hard enough to shake the floor.
People were looking in his direction when he reentered the main party, but he didn't care. He didn't care if he offended the entire base with his outburst, he didn't care if he offended the hosts or the guest of honor by leaving, and he didn't care if Gretchen Whatshername lived or died. He wanted to hole up in his bunk and be left the hell alone, damn it.
He didn't make it two whole steps off the porch before he heard her calling his name. Hank picked up the pace, but he heard the slam of the front door, and then more clearly, "Wait, Hank! Hank, I'm sorry! Wait!"
He couldn't make himself keep walking. But he kept the scowl on his face, and hoped like hell it scared her into leaving him be. It didn't. She drew up short and gaped at him for a moment, but she bit her lip and reached for one of his hands with both of hers. "I didn't think about how foolish or mean that would sound, Hank. I'm sorry. Don't be mad. Please?"
"Okay," Hank said, scowling all the while.
Gretchen looked lost. "Do you... you think we could maybe see each other? Sometimes? You know, when you get a break."
Hank found his anger dissipating without his permission, and he frowned deeper, trying force his face to hold on to the last fragments of irritation. "Only if you don't mind me hollering in the middle of the street for you, since I don't exactly know how to find you."
To his surprise, she laughed and wrapped her arms around his unyielding body. "I'll give you my address and phone number." She pulled back and looked at him with a keen, pleading expression. "But promise you'll call? If you don't want to call, just tell me now, and I won't make a fuss, I promise."
The last of his resistance melted into nothing. "Give me your number. It might take me a few days."
In the end it took a week. But Hank began to notice that some of the couples he'd seen at the party were pairing off again for a few hours on the town after their duties were logged, and for once he wasn't looking forward to spending his downtime alone.
He went to his bunk and found the paper that he'd scratched Gretchen's address onto. He couldn't decide if he wanted to call ahead or just drop in. If he called and she wasn't there, he'd never get the nerve up again. If he went and she wasn't there, he'd be mad that he'd made the trip for nothing and exposed himself to a commanding officer. But if he called and she was there, that didn't mean she would go out with him, nor would she necessarily let him come sit with her in the living room, which, frankly, would have been good enough for him. If he went up there and she was there, he doubted seriously she would send him packing, no matter how busy she was.
After several seconds of staring blindly at the paper, Hank decided that decision making was for the birds, and that he was going to leave his approach up to the hands of fate. He dug in his wallet for a coin. "Heads I call..." He tossed the coin in the air, watched it peak, and caught it at eye level in a clenched fist. He unfurled his fist slowly, revealing the wheat crown that bracketed the words One Cent. "...and tails I walk."
Gretchen's house was one of several clones in the family living units. The only difference was that while every other house on the block was some muted awful shade of sickly flesh, the house with her address was painted a sharp, brilliant white. Everything else was exactly the same - perfectly manicured lawn, perfectly shiny US government issue vehicle, perfectly balanced and maintained US flag flying in the breeze.
Hank forced himself up the concrete walkway to the porch, and reminded himself that he was there with an invitation. He could approach this officer's home, because there was a young lady inside waiting for him to call on her, and he'd be remiss if he didn't try at least once.
He knocked, a little too loudly he thought, and locked his knees so he wouldn't turn tail and run. He was a soldier and a firefighter in the United States Army. Cowardice was not an option.
An older, heavy set woman with kind eyes and long, black hair opened the door. The resemblance to Gretchen was uncanny. "Can I help you, friend?" The resemblance wasn't just visual - she had the same springy Texas twang as Gretchen.
"Is Gretchen home?"
The woman blinked, like she couldn't believe her ears. "May I ask who's calling on her?"
Hank smiled, and hunched his shoulders a little, so he wouldn't tower so over the lady. "My name is Hank. She asked me to call, but I was feeling jittery and wanted to take a walk."
"You're a GI," the woman said.
"Yes, ma'am. Private First Class Henry Stanley."
A look of wonder flickered over the woman's face, before she went back to her mask of indifference. She studied him for a moment before opening the door a little wider. "Come in out of the cold," she said.
Hank thanked her and stepped into a warm front hall. He smelled chicken and bread and wondered if he'd interrupted the dinner hour. He bit his lip and silently willed the woman to accept his unspoken, intangible apology for any faux pas he was committing in her foyer. The woman gestured to the opening behind her, where a couch and a pair of arm chairs were arranged artfully around a roaring fireplace. "Take a seat, Private Stanley. I'll be just a minute."
Hank crept into the living room and folded himself into the armchair nearest the foyer. He could hear the woman's footsteps somewhere in the house, while she called for Gretchen. The house quickly grew quiet, and all he could hear was the crackle of burning wood on the hearth. The silence soon became unnerving, and he gripped the arms of the chair to keep from popping up and running from the house.
When he thought he couldn't stand the wait another second, the pounding of feet overhead startled him from his tailspin, and he jumped to his feet.
The footsteps never quite faded, just ebbed as they moved through the upper floor of the house, to the stairs in some unknown area, and then finally grew louder again as Gretchen appeared from some turn off by the front hall. "Hank! You came!" She threw herself into his arms, toppling them onto the sofa in her enthusiasm.
"Gretchen! You were not raised in a barn!"
Gretchen giggled wildly and pushed herself off Hank. "Sorry, Mama. I just..."
Hank sat up, expecting the woman to glare at him and demand he leave, but she was smiling almost as goofily as Gretchen. "I'm sure you were. You going to invite the Private to stay for dinner? Or are you making your escape before your father gets here?"
Gretchen looked back at Hank like a deer in headlights. "Um, did you want to have dinner with us?" Her voice came out like a mouse who'd been sucking a tank of helium.
Instead of answering Gretchen, he turned to her mother. "Ma'am, would you be terribly offended if I declined what smells like a heavenly meal to take your daughter into town for the evening? I promise to have her safely home at whatever hour you'd prefer, if she has a curfew."
"I don't," Gretchen grumbled.
"She doesn't," her mother said, "but her father might worry if she's out too late without calling - even if she's with a fast moving recruit who's likely to go home an officer."
Hank tried to puzzle out what the heck Gretchen told her mother, while the girl grabbed his hand and dragged him to the foyer. "We'll be back by midnight, Mama. I'll call if I'm going to be late." By the time Gretchen finished speaking, they were out the door and halfway to the sidewalk.
Two years passed in the blink of an eye, and slower than a faucet of molasses in January.
When he was on duty, Hank was a star, the likes of which the Army had never seen before and likely wouldn't see again. He went from a lowly grunt fresh off the bus in dusty California to commanding the fire brigade at the base that kept a watchful eye over post-war West Germany. Many officers hinted that if he chose to continue on past his contracted commission, he might be groomed to be a commissioned officer himself. While Hank worked, life was beautiful.
When he was off duty, he either had to hide from everyone to have a moment to himself, or he was escorting the surprisingly gregarious Gretchen around most of Munich. She was vivacious and full of life, always quick with a smile and words of comfort and encouragement for whatever ailed him. She was affectionate, and loved to lean into him, to cuddle him, to hold his hands, to brush kisses on his cheek whenever she could get his face down to her level. And she bubbled with delight whenever Hank referred to her as his girlfriend, which meant she spent as much time as possible trying to maneuver him into conversations where he'd have to do exactly that. When Hank wasn't working, life was one long, drawn out, awkward conversation.
He thought he'd have been relieved to have been obviously and publicly paired off with a young lady - especially the one his comrades had specifically set him up with - but instead of relieving the increasingly simplistic problem of keeping the men from wondering why he didn't chase girls, instead he had the difficulty of being expected to constantly entertain the one girl AND keeping the men updated on the success of his love life. He was surprised by how many of them opened up to him, either privately looking for advice on how to handle any number of problems he couldn't begin to fathom, or in macho aggressive groups out to prove who had the most... satisfied... girl in West Germany. All the subterfuge and posturing made Hank all the more exhausted, and all the more desperate for time to himself, and that gave him an air of standoffishness that made everyone press more for his company.
Still, it was nice to have someone bring him hot chocolate on a cold evening, and listen to him ramble about missing the palm trees back home, just because. As much as she exhausted him, Hank couldn't help the little flutter of joy that sparked through him whenever he saw Gretchen trotting toward him. He also couldn't help the blanket of dread that immediately followed, but he stuffed that down and hid it the best he could. Another year in the service, and he'd fly away home, and let time and distance do the dirty work of severing his attachment to Gretchen. She was a sweet and understanding girl. She could forgive him for that.
One evening, while drinking in a local bierhaus with some of the soldiers and all their girlfriends, a fight erupted amongst the locals. At first, the Americans steered clear of the trouble, until one of the brawlers got a little too close to them for comfort. The fight went from inconveniently amusing to potentially deadly in an instant. Hank hung back, more concerned with helping the ladies to get out of the building in a hurry than in being court-martialed for disorderly conduct.
In the pandemonium, a cry went up, more piercing and urgent than the rest of the din - fire! Panic ripped through the crowd, and people began to stampede.
The guys looked at each other, and seemed to be on the verge of joining the stampede. If he'd had the time, Hank might have been embarrassed or ashamed of these so called soldiers. But fire service drilled one thing into him - time wasted was life wasted. He called the boys to attention, barking orders in a voice cultivated by months of training. Together, they created a path of safety for the terrified civilians, and smothered the blaze before the local fire department showed up. Though the restaurant was essentially lost and a few people were knocked up either in the original fight or in the panic to escape, everyone lived to tell about the American GIs who braved the fire.
In a matter of days, Hank found himself the center of attention. The town council wanted to take his picture for the local newspaper, the family who owned the burned building wanted to invite him and the men who'd been with him to a thank you brunch, and the wife of the man who'd lost his business in the fire wanted to kiss Hank's face for getting the owner out safely. Hank was flattered, if a little dumbfounded by all the attention. He'd wanted to escape the flames as much as anyone else that night - he just happened to have the right skill set to make sure he (and everyone else) could.
The attention didn't stop there, though. Suddenly, all the girls who'd hung around hoping to catch the attention of any passing soldier, all made a beeline for him. And the other soldiers seemed to jockey for position next to Hank, like he was a big man on campus. The officers seemed to know Hank, greeted him by name when they saw him, like it was just a matter of time before he joined their ranks, so to speak.
He soon learned why - Hank was decorated with a medal for exemplary service in front of the entire base. The locals crowded around the perimeter fencing to watch, and peppered the air with cheers that Hank only half caught. He was too busy trying to stand at attention while Gretchen's father pinned the medal to his chest. Hank pretended not to recognize the captain, though he was sure that he had a giant sign painted on his forehead that marked him as the jerk who was using the captain's daughter. Hank struggled to keep his attention on the ceremony, and not to sink into despair over the myriad ways he was probably going to be ripped apart privately for putting his daughter in danger in the first place.
When the ceremony ended, Hank scrambled away, wanting nothing more than to hide in his bunk until all the attention blew over, so that he could get back to his life. But before he could get to his barracks, Gretchen fell into step next to him. "I need to talk to you, Hank."
"I'm beat. Can it wait until tomorrow?"
She skipped ahead and planted herself in his path. "My folks really like you. But you can probably tell." She gestured to the medal on his chest.
"I figured your father was just doing his duty, because the townsfolk are making a fuss. He's probably not too happy I had you in harm's way, I would imagine."
Gretchen smiled tightly. "He's glad I was with you. Things happen. I could get hurt anywhere." She looked at the ground and swore softly. "He's not gonna be happy with me, actually," she said almost as softly.
"Why is that?"
The silence stretched on forever as she stared at the ground, like it held the secrets of the universe, secrets she could unlock if only she glared at it hard and long enough. When she looked up, her face was pinched with some unknown pain. "You have any plans, when you finish your tour, Hank?"
Ho boy. He'd wondered when she was going to get around to trying to pin him down. "Not as such, just yet. I've got some time to go before I really have to think about it, though."
She narrowed her eyes at him. "Nothing to think about, Hank. You're in charge of the fire brigade for a reason."
"Uh... I suppose so..."
"You are. I- I saw your face, Hank. You were made for this life. No, not this life. That one."
"I'm sorry, Gretchen, I'm not following you."
She shook her head. "You've never looked at me that way, you know. Not once."
She threw her hands up. "You have no idea. You're so clueless. You try so hard, and you just don't... I feel like I'm kicking a puppy, here."
Hank laughed nervously. "I've got a pretty thick skin, Gretchen, I'm not insulted."
She smiled back sadly. "That's because I still haven't made myself clear. You'll probably hate me, actually, but I think it's better for both of us."
"Why on earth would I-"
"I want to see other boys."
Hank snapped his mouth shut in surprise.
"Wait," she said. "That's not it. I want... I want to leave here. Leave home, so to speak."
"I am so confused," Hank said.
Her laughter was a little giddy, maybe hysterical. 'Hank, you're a good man. You've been so nice to me, talking to me, taking me with you, treating me like a girl would want to be treated. But I knew you had other things you wanted to do, there were other places you wanted to be. I ignored it because you were ignoring it, and I thought that since you were being so wonderful, it would be rude of me not to accept the gift of your company - especially since you don't give it out to just anybody.
"But when the fire broke out the other night, you went from being your usual shy self to... something else. You came alive. Almost like there was nothing more important in the world than that fire. Than putting out that fire."
"Gretchen. There was nothing more important in the world at that moment. It could have killed us all, with the way everybody was acting!"
"No, Hank, that's not... You looked like your life had meaning. Like this was what you were put on this Earth to do. I want... I want to find that kind of thing out for myself. And I want you to be able to fulfill your destiny without holding you back while I look for mine, you know?"
"No, I don't."
She nodded. "I know. You don't understand now. But you will. I don't know if you'll ever be able to forgive me. I hope you can, one day."
"So... you're breaking up with me?"
"More like setting you free to do what you will. I made a decision, Hank. I'm going to travel, do some hitchhiking with some friends. I've spent my whole life tied to my parents' apron strings, and now I've met you, and I can see myself falling into the trap of trying to set up house and home for you, and I haven't seen anything anywhere. I don't know what I'm made of. I wanna find out what makes me tick. What made me want to throw all my eggs in your basket. For all I know, it's just because you're the first boy that ever paid me any mind, and you might not even want a girl like me when you get back home."
"So you are breaking up with me."
"If that's the way you want to see it. I just... if I don't take the time to figure this out now, then either I'll end up an old maid with no other prospects, or we might end up married and resentful because I never took the time to find out what kind of a life I could find for myself that doesn't depend on a man who might not come home from work one day."
"Why would I not come home from work? I'm not the kinda guy who goes out for cigarettes and doesn't come back!"
"Let me rephrase that. A man who comes home from work in a hearse."
Hank shook his head, completely bewildered. "You're going steady with a soldier, but you don't want to keep going steady because the soldier might be a fireman... I don't even think of myself as a fireman! This is crazy, Gretchen!"
She took both his hands in hers and pressed his knuckles to her lips. "You're no soldier. That's why I bothered with you. But now I gotta let go, because you're a fireman through and through. I'd heard all about it every night with my folks. And I finally saw it for myself. You're a fireman. And I'm in your way." She let him go, gave him a watery smile, and stepped out of his path.