Joining Up

Charlie Jack needed samething, or someone, committed to him, and the Army might be the answer. All he had, to do was pass the physical, something he’d tried before and failed. The author, a 1960 graduate of Barnard College, has lived for the past six years with her novelist husband, David Shelzline, and two small children in a forest ranger’s tower in the Oregon woods. This is her first published story.

An Atlantic “First" by M.F. Beal

You not going to make it, Charlie,”the fat brown woman said, turning the pancakes and meat on the black griddle. “No more’n last time.”Her flabby arms shook as she considered the humor of this: “You not half sober right now — look at you.” She dished the food onto a plate and pushed it to the young man along with a loaf of lard, on the cover of which was printed:

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE SURPLUS FOOD For Distribution Only to the Needy and For Use In Federal School Lunch Program NOT TO BE SOLD

The young man scraped his knife across the lard and spread his pancakes slowly with the fat. He waited until his aunt had turned, grinning, back to the stove, and cutting the cakes in two, speared up great chunks, just as if he was hungry.

The night before, after butchering out a forked horn, he and the old man had put down a quart of the newest run off the still, and the strong taste of bay rum his uncle’s liquor always had was still in his mouth. The cakes did nothing to help, so he put it out of mind and settled into eating mechanically. He had to get some gas. He had to park the car where it would be all right for a while. He had to get some tobacco.

“What time is it, Sally?”

His aunt turned from the stove, still smiling. “Your uncle got the watch.” She pried small sizzling chunks of meat from the griddle and stuffed them into her mouth, and he peered past his headache out the window; it was still quite dark. Maybe six, he figured. Early. He might take a couple traps and get some crab. If he could find gas. Otherwise he would have to walk, and it would take an hour at least . . . but the Office didn’t open until nine . . .

“Where’s the guts off that deer?”

“In the shed.” She stared suddenly, with squashed-up dark Indian eyes. “You not going anywheres, Charlie Jack?” she said, kneading together crumbs of pancake into a small ball, her fingers curving like smiling mouths at the still warm griddle, as if it was no longer possible for all of her to be dignified. “Your uncle, me, got a good fire in this place.”

The young man did not seem affected by this. “Yes, I’m going.” He settled his shoulders into a webby rain jacket. “Tell the old man I took two traps and some of his last run — ” He was eager to be off. He lifted his kit, bounced it in his hand once or twice, stuffed it into his game pocket. “Well —I’ll send you a card with a pretty picture, Sally.” He watched his aunt subside into faint murmurous giggles, and her dark eyes squash down until they disappeared, and he slipped out the door. It was as if she had caused him to vanish by closing her eyes. He saw her go back to eating the scraps of his breakfast.

In the shed, though it was too dark to see, he found by touch and memory what he needed; the two crab traps, a smelly rope of deer guts, long much-knotted line, and lead sinkers. He went from one end of the shelf to the other, shaking cans: when one sloshed, he opened it and smelled the contents. Finally he found a little gas.

He towed the traps over his shoulder to the brightening shape of his car. Not much gas. Maybe enough, if he could get her to turn over. Maybe everything would go good. Maybe he would get crab to trade for tobacco, and maybe, this time, there wouldn’t be too much alcohol in him and he would pass the physical.

He threw down the empty can, loaded the traps, and in the first light, turned the engine over. He let it warm just a minute while he wiped the dew coat from the glass and shoved away his bedroll; then he was off. The roar of the engine startled the dawn.

THE lights at Pikorny’s flicked off as he came even with the house; it almost seemed like a signal, and it made him think a little as he eased the old Ford up the grade by the Grange Hall. He was still eating breakfast; the pickup was in the drive. She must just have turned the lights out because it was bright enough inside. Sally said she was going to have another one. That must make two — no, three. She was a year older than Charlie Jack, and once, when he was still in school, in the back seat of her brother’s car one night at the drive-in with her brother and Velma Monroe in the front seat —

He twitched on the seat like a speared fish. There had been a blond girl he’d sat behind in English, a girl on the reservation when he visited his grandfather, an afternoon in a pile of drift logs. Last date he’d had was summer before, when hhe was working the Forest Service Suppression Crew and he’d asked around until somebody’s sister agreed to come and they went all the way into Portland and pretended they were over twentyone. In the bar, as he became more and more aware she was ready to go the limit, he began to feel embarrassed she was so ugly. Not really ugly — more or less unconscious. Unconscious of how she walked and held herself. She’d slump and get a roll under her ribs. She didn’t think much about how her mouth looked. There was something, too, about her dress. In the latrine his buddy turned to him and said: “They ain’t no movie stars.”

A few weeks later his job was rained out; they’d plugged in four hundred thirty-seven thousand dollars of automatic machinery at the mill, putting him twenty-fourth in line for a chance on the greenchain. He didn’t have any money to take out a girl, and besides, they knew who was making wages and wasn’t. So he started drinking his uncle’s stuff. Private first’s money looked good.

He didn’t notice the warden’s car until he heard the horn. He swore as the sound stabbed, and pulled over; the engine quit, and he sat for half a second and swore again before he got out and walked warily to the dark-blue Jeep. The game warden greeted him and smiled. “H’lo, Charlie. How many deer you got in the back seat?" The warden always said that and then laughed. Charlie smiled and said, “Oh, four or five.” They walked together to the old Ford and peered into the back. “Going crabbing,” the warden said, almost to himself. He continued to peer through the glass, as if he expected something to materialize. From the way he stood, Charlie thought he was too lazy to look closer; but the bluish rope of deer guts seemed suddenly very shiny and obvious.

“Nab. I’m going to join up.”

The warden looked at him quizzically. “Join up?”

“I’m on my way to the Recruiting Office.”

“You don’t say. Well.” The warden smiled. “Good luck, Charlie Jack.” He went back to the Jeep. Charlie stood and watched as he pulled away, splashing mud into the ferns. Then he tried the motor. Sure enough, it wouldn’t start.

THE creek wound through Watson’s lower meadow where fat Jerseys slogged muddily from the barn and the morning’s milking. For a second, Charlie Jack’s mind associated the cattle with Watson’s white house and painted barns, with the yellow tractor which could be seen just over the top of a new Buick, with the eighteen-foot twinengined Chris-Craft that could be taken out over the bar. Then the tinkling of bells as the methodical cows limped over the threshold caught him, and a thought like Haul up every morning and after them damn cows chased the others away, and he shouldered the crab traps more comfortably. It was not far to town.

He eyed the stream as he walked. It was high, but there had been no rain for a day and the runoff was clear; he could see the old soreback salmon struggling along the sides, where the current was weakest. His feet found the road, and his eyes followed the water, automatically looking for the bright green of a Chinook still fresh enough and firm. The carcasses of fish that had spawned and died and been pulled out by raccoons gleamed on the grass, and he noted among them the smaller skeletons of the jack salmon, fish which for some unexplained reason stopped growing and became sterile, yet returned with the others to the natal stream to die. The first fish he ever caught was a jack. He gaffed it through the back when he was down playing by the stream, and it pulled him into the icy water up to his thighs before he could grab an alder and yard it out; not that it was a big or fighting fish, but he was only four or so. He landed it and dragged it through the mud up to the house; as he dried in front of the fire, Aunt Sally fried it and gave him long segments of oily backbone to suck.

With the first splash of the crab traps over the dockside, the overturned dinghy began to move, and finally Joe Siltcoos ponderously appeared, dragging the silken khaki cocoon of a U.S. Army officer’s down-filled sleeping bag. He squintingly watched the young man pull up an empty trap.

“Hey, you, Charlie Jack,” he said then. “Catching big crab today?”

Charlie Jack let the trap fall back and looked sideways as the old brown man pulled the sleeping bag around himself in the lee of the dinghy and settled back with a sigh.

“Joining up,” he answered, pulling the other trap, glancing at three undersized crabs and splashing it back.

“Yeah?” Joe Siltcoos chewed his empty mouth a few times and grinned. “Joining up? You make a big mistake, Charlie Jack, no fooling.” He began to laugh in small grunts. “How’s Sally?”

Charlie Jack nodded and pulled the first trap. Bending over, he noticed the round green bottoms of beer bottles under the dinghy. Joe Siltcoos had his social security. He pulled, considered one crab almost large enough, decided no, and lowered the trap again.

“How you doing, Uncle?”

Joe Siltcoos hissed. “Not good, Charlie, not good. Weather too damn wet, too damn cold; cold winter, getting old.” He chewed emptily again. “You joining up, hey? Young feller like you want your guts shot out? Nothing you can think of better to do?”

Charlie Jack shrugged. “No money.”

The old man grunted and pulled the down bag closer around his knees. “Make a fire.”

Charlie Jack smiled. “That’s all done, Uncle. You know. Nowadays they send Forest Service to look into fire, find out who made it. Don’t hire Indian to put it out, neither. Roads in — no more packers, no more mules.” He was pulling the traps again, and his head came thudding in as his shoulders worked. Damn luck; the crabs all undersized and not many of them. Behind him the old Indian hummed and spat over the dockside, a brittle blob which struck the water and immediately sent rings outward in eternally increasing shapes.

“More than one kind of fire, Charlie Jack. Paycheck fire, drinking fire, woman fire. You can have any kind you big enough to build. Right now you go down to beach, find you a log drift, build you a drying-out fire. Then pretty soon you ready for more hunting, eh?” Joe Siltcoos closed his eyes and seemed to muse. “I made them all.”

“Aah—” It was a sound like a baby’s cry, a complaint about the realness of what the old man said. A great loneliness within Charlie Jack longed for something different, and if no better, new, something he could set himse f to without a responsibility for shaping the outcome. He longed to be carried into a world he had not made. He was piercingly aware of the whole clear jarful of his uncle’s liquor in the sack beside him; it was for later but could as easily be opened now. His fingers sought gently in the canvas, and he took a long drink before holding the jar out. Joe Siltcoos shrugged and accepted.

IT WAS becoming difficult to remember how, in a time of peace, the long low ugly cement-block building had been a roller-skating rink. But last time he tried to join up, Charlie Jack found a multicolored pompon of yarn in the urinal trough with the cigarettes, unsinkable. In the front hallway, posters showing blue-eyed young men asked “Are You Good Enough?”; a fat little woman in a pink sweater explained that if they volunteered for the draft and signed the form she offered, others could be given deferment. There was a hollow hum in the air.

They grouped themselves together, waiting to speak with the woman, Charlie Jack, a blond boy, and two or three others. The blond boy was telling how he had lost three hundred forty-two dollars equity in a black Chevy II Nova hardtop with red upholstery. Charlie rolled himself a cigarette from the can of Velvet he’d bought with the dollar Joe Siltcoos gave him. He watched the woman’s face, how she smiled when each young man huddled into the chair, how her lips framed questions and her eyes slid over them. His head was buzzy and loose, and his throat a little acid as the liquor rose almost unpleasantly every few minutes. He explored a recent awareness; once again he would not make it.

It chilled him. In the first moments of knowing it, he had impressed himself with his predicament; the car abandoned, gasless; the traps with their blue rope of deer guts rotting in the warming day; his drunkenness; the seventy-eight cents in his pocket.

But the thought of himself at dusk retracing, rewinding the skein, hefting the traps, finally finding a car from which he could steal a gallon of gas or maybe even buying it, getting back to the shack and finding his uncle up, propped on his unbendable legs ready to start another night’s drinking, chilled him. This time he had to join up.

They moved from desk to desk, and the room grew warm. Buses unloaded more young men, who buzzed angrily at the long front of the hall so it seemed a great pressure was building that perhaps not even the authority of the clerks and medical corpsmen could handle. Charlie Jack smelled himself, strong and afraid, and on the reddish-fair forehead of the blond boy a haze of sweat bloomed. They were handed tickets for lunch. If he was destined to fail, he could leave now, he thought. He was not sure; perhaps you had to wait again, until they dismissed you; perhaps it was like school again, a gigantic School for all of them, with room passes, dismissal and starting bells, rules, grades, salute-the-flag, and Thursday night basketball. He heard dimly the blond boy describe a sonofabitch yarder on his last job who had tried to kill him, the blond boy, personally, and then had lied to the boss so he, the blond boy, wasn’t even paid when he quit. Their hands slipped on the slick metal of belts and buttons, and they muttered as they clothed and unclothed. The thoroughness of the prodding examinations at once annoyed and reassured them. They swore respectfully about it each time they passed further into the machine.

He could leave, he believed, but he wanted badly not to have to. The pressure at the front continued to increase, and the desire now finally to do this thing possessed them all. One of them expressed a need to make water, and they considered whether it would be better to wait until the urine specimen was required. Where along would the specimen be taken? Charlie Jack, considering the probable content of his own urine, told them it was after the eye test. And that was after the reflexes test. And that was after they got their clothes off this time. Another, joking, said: “Ah, go ahead. I’ll lend you some of mine if you need it.”

And Charlie Jack saw he did not need to leave.

He had a warm awareness of the other land he was to enter. Before him a bulletin board promised pay, training, travel, a part in a curried, prideful Force. His fingers moved eagerly down the brown cylinder of his handmade cigarette as he painstakingly dissected the paragraphs and their unfamiliar symbols and designations. He wanted to engulf it, absorb it so completely that he became part of it. He wanted to savor the commitment to him, Charlie Jack.

Base pay, hazardous-duty pay, overseas allowance — he would learn radio and get a car, he would be set up. Three years; he could see Vietnam and Japan, maybe Europe; there would be fighting and leave time, pretty places and glossy brightcolored postcards to send Sally. And some of them would die, he thought almost righteously; what the hell, they were in it. But all America was behind them. He reviewed his fitness. He had tobacco. He had a stake in penny ante, and a good knife. He had a scrawny, stoop-shouldered body which had been much used, and he thought he understood how far he could take it, as suddenly he had understood on the stream bank staring at the jack salmon that it was unequal to his four-year-old strength.

He looked with penetrating new eyes at his comrades, realizing they did not yet know they had joined up. Really know it, as he did. To know as he knew set him apart and made him stronger. He was shocked by the long white sweep of the blond boy’s back and realized the boy’s mortality. Maybe that guy will get it, he thought. He inspected the others furtively, to see if there was some special mark on them as well. It made him tremendously proud of his own body, of every mauled finger and all the scars from days of splitting alder for a buck an hour, nights of sleeping in dew-soaked blankets on long summer hunts, years of imitating the silence of the owl and the cleverness of the bobcat. I have got it. I have got it in the bag.

AFTER lunch they stood on another line, each wrapped in the cocoon of his own sweat-smell, which was no longer even perceived as a smell but as part of the closeness and rank dimness of the shortening afternoon. They understood they were near the end. As they puzzled directions and asked clerks and translated abbreviations, they heard others curse, with an energy they lacked, the lateness and improbability of getting done this day. But they understood they were nearly done. Through an open door bus engines could be heard. “Maybe that’s our bus,” someone said in awed tones. “Hey, yeah, we’ll be in Portland tonight.” “Did you see in the news where they got fifteen of them in an ambush?” “Jesus, I’m hungry.”

Charlie had a headache again. He needed a drink or at least coffee, but the solidity of his achievement still sustained him. It had been so easy. When the time came he held back the flow of urine and casually accepted a laughingly offered contribution. When he handed in his bottle the clerk did not so much as look up. His head, shaved like all the other heads, moved below them at an angle which made it faceless. Now Charlie Jack found himself wondering: What are they like?

They inched along in the last line before the open doors and the buses revving; this time it was their arms which were solicited by a corpsman at a little khaki-colored table with rows of numbered blood samples, jars of needles. The corpsman was tired, too, his lips cursed as he fumbled and had to reach down for another needle; they stood with the awestricken placidity of sheep as he wound the rubber tube around each biceps, jerked it tight, rolled the veins under his thumb and selected one, jabbed, drew off the thick blood.

The blond boy was telling about an uncle or cousin of his mother’s who died when a nurse accidentally injected air into his bloodstream. His voice was monotone, dull, weighted by heat and fatigue. They shuffled closer.

Then it was the blond boy’s turn, and the corpsman stoically chased the blue veins under the very white skin, jabbed, missed, jabbed again and missed, took up a new needle and jabbed again, missing.

Charlie Jack saw sweat leap out on the blond boy’s forehead, and a curious sympathy overcame him. The boy stared into the air, down at his arm, back up. From behind his body’s affront he ground out: “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

Slowly the corpsman’s face swam up, and Charlie Jack was startled to see how suddenly vivid it had become, reawakened. There was a moment when even breath was suspended as the other corpsmen looked into the slightly freckled, liver-eyed face staring at the blond boy while the vial filled.

“Oh,” said the corpsman, as his finger teased the glass. “I’ll have to take another sample.”

Now they all had faces; young recruits’ faces, dulling with fatigue; thicker older faces, comprehending with almost palpable pride. As they watched, the corpsman’s fingers parted so slightly that the vial left them almost slitheringly, traveling infinitely slowly to meet the floor, where it made a bright stain and a brittle clatter. With a mirroring shoe the corpsman crunched to a firmer stance, reached for a needle from the jar, and jabbed the blond boy even once more.

“Next.”His eyes leveled with Charlie Jack’s.

The word released the low buzzing bustle, and facelessness reconstructed itself negligently around them as Charlie Jack moved forward. What had he touched? he asked himself as his scalp slid back into place. There was something here, an animal tension he had not expected. He had to tell himself it was no skin off him because the truth lurked waiting and there was no bottle this time; the needle’s jab was real. It was all real; he could touch any part of it, from the yellow mimeographed promises of pay and advancement to the white thin back of his soldier brother to the impassive liverish eyes of the corpsman, who now again muttered “Next!” and sent him a step further into it.

It was all real, and the next time was his time, because he had joined up.