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Tobias Wolff
From The Night in Question
(Knopf, 1996)

The Other Miller

For two days now Miller has been standing in the rain with the rest of Bravo Company, waiting for some men from another company to blunder down the logging road where Bravo waits in ambush. When this happens, if this happens, Miller will stick his head out of the hole he's hiding in and shoot off all his blank ammunition in the direction of the road. So will everyone else in Bravo Company. Then they will climb out of their holes and get on some trucks and go home, back to the base.

This is the plan.

Miller has no faith in it. He has never yet seen a plan that worked, and this one won't either. His foxhole has about a foot of water in it. He has to stand on little shelves he's been digging out of the walls, but the soil is sandy and the shelves keep collapsing. That means his boots are wet. Plus his cigarettes are wet. Plus he broke the bridge on his molars the first night out while chewing up one of the lollipops he'd brought along for energy. It drives him crazy, the way the broken bridge lifts and grates when he pushes it with his tongue, but last night he lost his will power and now he can't keep his tongue away from it.

When he thinks of the other company, the one they're supposed to ambush, Miller sees a column of dry well-fed men marching farther and farther away from the hole where he stands waiting for them. He sees them moving easily under light packs. He sees them stopping for a smoke break, stretching out on fragrant beds of pine needles under the trees, the murmur of their voices growing more and more faint as one by one they drift into sleep.

Hear Tobias Wolff read this passage (in RealAudio 2.0):

  • Part One (3:57):
    RA 28.8, RA 14.4

  • Part Two (4:07):
    RA 28.8, RA 14.4

    (For help, see a note about the audio.)

  • It's the truth, by God. Miller knows it like he knows he's going to catch a cold, because that's his luck. If he was in the other company they'd be the ones standing in holes.

    Miller's tongue does something to the bridge and a thrill of pain shoots through him. He snaps up straight, eyes burning, teeth clenched against the yell in his throat. He fights it back and glares around him at the other men. The few he can see look stunned and ashen-faced. Of the rest he can make out only their poncho hoods, sticking out of the ground like bullet-shaped rocks.

    At.this moment, his mind swept clean by pain, Miller can hear the tapping of raindrops on his own poncho. Then he hears the pitchy whine of an engine. A jeep is splashing along the road, slipping from side to side and throwing up thick gouts of mud behind it. The jeep itself is caked with mud. It skids to a stop in front of Bravo Company's position, and the horn beeps twice.

    Miller glances around to see what the others are doing. Nobody has moved. They're all just standing in their holes.

    The horn beeps again.

    A short figure in a poncho emerges from a clump of trees farther up the road. Miller can tell it's the first sergeant by how little he is, so little the poncho hangs almost to his ankles. The first sergeant walks slowly toward the jeep, big blobs of mud all around his boots. When he gets to the jeep he leans his head inside; a moment later he pulls it out. He looks down at the road. He kicks at one of the tires in a thoughtful way. Then he looks up and shouts Miller's name.

    Miller keeps watching him. Not until the first sergeant shouts his name again does Miller begin the hard work of hoisting himself out of the foxhole. The other men turn their gray faces up at him as he trudges past their holes.

    "Come here, boy," the first sergeant says. He walks a little distance from the jeep and waves Miller over.

    Miller follows him. Something is wrong. Miller can tell because the first sergeant called him "boy" instead of "shitbird." Already he feels a burning in his left side, where his ulcer is.

    The first sergeant stares down the road. "Here's the thing," he begins. He stops and turns to Miller. "Goddamn it, anyway. Did you know your mother was sick?"

    Miller doesn't say anything, just pushes his lips tight together.

    "She must have been sick, right?" Miller remains silent, and the first sergeant says, "She passed away last night. I'm real sorry." He looks sadly up at Miller, and Miller watches his right arm beginning to rise under the poncho; then it falls to his side again. Miller can see that the first sergeant wants to give his shoulder a man-to-man kind of squeeze, but it just wouldn't work. You can only do that if you're taller than the other fellow or at least the same size.

    "These boys here will drive you back to base," the first sergeant says, nodding toward the jeep. "You give the Red Cross a call and they'll take it from there. Get yourself some rest," he adds, then walks off toward the trees.

    Miller retrieves his gear. One of the men he passes on his way back to the jeep says, "Hey, Miller, what's the story?"

    Miller doesn't answer. He's afraid if he opens his mouth he'll start laughing and ruin everything. He keeps his head down and his lips tight as he climbs into the backseat of the jeep, and he doesn't look up until they've left the company a mile or so behind. The fat PFC sitting beside the driver is watching him. He says, "I'm sorry about your mother. That's a bummer."

    "Maximum bummer," says the driver, another PFC. He shoots a look over his shoulder. Miller sees his own face reflected for an instant in the driver's sunglasses.

    "Had to happen someday," he mumbles, and looks down again.

    Miller's hands are shaking. He puts them between his knees and stares through the snapping plastic window at the trees going past. Raindrops rattle on the canvas overhead. He is inside, and everyone else is still outside. Miller can't stop thinking about the others standing around getting rained ont and the thought makes him want to laugh and slap his leg. This is the luckiest he has ever been.

    "My grandmother died last year," the driver says. "But that's not the same thing as Iosing your mother. I feel for you, Miller."

    "Don't worry about me," Miller tells him. "I'll get along."

    The fat PFC beside the driver says, "Look, don't feel like you have to repress just because we're here. If you want to cry or anything, just go ahead. Right, Leb?"

    The driver nods. "Just let it out."

    "No problem," Miller says. He wishes he could set these fellows straight so they won't feel like they have to act mournful all the way to Fort Ord. But if he tells them what happened, they'll turn right around and drive him back to his foxhole.

    Miller knows what happened. There's another Miller in the battalion with the same initials he's got, W.P., and this Miller is the one whose mother has died. The Army screws up their mail all the time, and now they've screwed this up. Miller got the whole picture as soon as the first sergeant started asking about his mother.

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    Copyright © 1996 by Tobias Wolff. All rights reserved.