Fiction -- May 1996
It drifts just out of range. He said he could
feel his house going down while we were
talking on the phone
by Charles Portis
I called up Neap down in Orange, Texas, and he said, "I live in a bog now." I hadn't seen him in forty-odd years and I woke him up in the middle of the night and that was the first thing out of his mouth. "My house is sinking. I live in a bog now." I told him I had been thinking about the Fox Company Raid and thought I would give him a ring. We called it the Fox Company Raid, but it wasn't a company raid or even a platoon raid, it was just a squad of us, with three or four extra guys carrying pump shotguns for trench work. Neap said he didn't remember me. Then he said he did remember me, but not very well. He said, "I don't talk service no more."
We had been in reserve and had gone back up on the line to relieve some kind of pacifist division. Those boys had something like "Live and Let Live" on their shoulder patches. When they went out on patrol at night, they faked it. They would go out about a hundred yards and lie down in the paddies, and doze off, too, like some of the night nurses on D-3. When they came back, they would say they had been all the way over to the Chinese outposts but had failed to engage the enemy. They failed night after night. Right behind the line the mortar guys sat around in their mortar pits and played cards all day. I don't believe they even had aiming stakes set up around their pits. They hated to fire those tubes because the Chinese would fire right back.
It was a different story when we took over. The first thing we did was go all the way over to the Chinese main line. On the first dark night we left our trenches and crossed the paddies and slipped past their outposts and went up the mountainside and crawled into their trench line before they knew what was up. We shot up the place pretty good and blew two bunkers, or tried to, and got out of there fast with three live prisoners. One was a young officer. Those trenches had a sour smell. There was a lot of noise. The Chinese fired off yellow flares and red flares, and they hollered and sprayed pistol bullets with their burp guns and threw those wooden potato-masher grenades with the cast-iron heads. The air was damp and some of them didn't go off. Their fuses weren't very good. Their grenade fuses would sputter and go out. We were in and out of there before they knew what had hit them. It could happen to anybody. They were good soldiers and just happened to get caught by surprise, by sixteen boys from Fox Company. You think of Chinese soldiers as boiling all around you like fire ants, but once you get into their trench line, not even the Chinese army can put up a front wider than one man.
Neap said, "I don't talk service no more," but he didn't hang up on me. Sometimes they do, it being so late at night when I call. Mostly they're glad to hear from me and we'll sit in the dark and talk service for a long time. I sit here in the dark at the library desk smoking my Camels and I think they sit in the dark too, on the edges of their beds with their bare feet on the floor.
I told Neap service was the only thing I did talk, and that I had the keys now and was talking service coast to coast every night. He said his house was in bad shape. His wife had something wrong with her too. I didn't care about that stuff. His wife wasn't on the Fox Company Raid. I didn't care whether his house was level or not but you like to be polite and I asked him if his house was sinking even all around. He said no, it was settling bad at the back, to where they couldn't get through the back door, and the front was all lifted up in the air, to where they had to use a little stepladder to get up on their front porch.
You were supposed to get a week of meritorious R and R in Hong Kong if you brought in a live prisoner. We dragged three live prisoners all the way back from the Chinese main line of resistance and one was an officer and I never got one day of R and R in Hong Kong. Sergeant Zim was the only one who ever did get it that I know of. On the regular kind of R and R you went to Kyoto, which was all right, but it wasn't meritorious R and R. I asked Neap if he knew of anyone besides Zim who got meritorious R and R in Hong Kong. He said he didn't even know Zim got it.
He asked me if I was in a nut ward. I asked him how many guys he could name who went on the Fox Company Raid, not counting him and me and Zim. All he could come up with was Dill, Vick, Bogue, Ball, and Sipe. I gave him eight more names real fast, and the towns and states they came from. "Now who's the nut? Who's soft in the head now, Neap? Who knows more about the Fox Company Raid, you or me?" I didn't say that to him because you try to be polite when you can. I didn't have to say it. You could tell I had rattled him pretty good, the way I whipped off all those names.
He asked me how much disability money I was drawing down. I told him and he said it was a hell of a note that guys in the nut ward were drawing down more money than he was on Social Security. I told him Dill was dead, and Gott. He said yeah, but Dill was on Okinawa in 1945, in the other war, and was older than us. He told me a little story about Dill. I had heard it before. Dill was talking to the captain outside the command-post bunker, telling him about the time on Okinawa he had guided a flamethrower tank across open ground, to burn a Jap field gun out of a cave. Dill said, "They was a whole bunch of far come out of that thang in a hurry, Skipper." Neap laughed over the phone. He said, "I still laugh every time I think about that. 'They was a whoooole bunch of far come out of that thang in a hurry, Skipper.' The way he said it, you know, Dill."
Neap thought I must be having a lot of trouble tracking people down. I haven't had any trouble to speak of. Except for me and Foy and Rust, who are far from home, and Sipe, who is a fugitive from justice, everybody else went back home and stayed there. They left home just that one time. Neap was surprised to hear that Sipe was on the lam, at his age. How fast could Sipe be moving these days, at his age? Neap said it was Dill and Sipe who grabbed those prisoners and that Zim had nothing to do with it. I told him Zim had something to do with getting us over there and back. He said yeah, Zim was all right, but he didn't do no more in that stinking trench line than we did, and so how come he got meritorious R and R in Hong Kong and we didn't? I couldn't answer that question. I can't find anyone who knows the answer to that. I told him I hadn't called up Zim yet, over in Niles, Michigan. I wanted to have the squad pretty much accounted for before I made my report to him. Neap said, "Tell Zim I'm living on a mud flat." I told him he was the last one I had to call up before Zim. I put Neap at the bottom of my list because I couldn't remember much about him.
I can still see the faces of those boys who went on the Fox Company Raid, except that Neap's face is not very clear to me. It drifts just out of range. He said he could feel his house going down while we were talking there on the phone. He said his house was going down fast now, and with him and his wife in it. It sounded to me like the Neaps were going all the way down.
He asked me how it was here. He wanted to know how it was in this place and I told him it wasn't so bad. It's not so bad here if you have the keys. For a long time I didn't have the keys.
Illustration by Robert Yarber
Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May, 1996; I Don't Talk Service No More; Volume 277, No. 5; pages 90-92.