Story Excerpt

Finite Jest

by Chris Muessig

Finite_Test_NoahBaileyArt by Noah Bailey

Jake was dreaming about his father when something bit him hard. For an instant, the pain and the dream were one. Then he was awake and out of his seat, stomping at the agony inside his right boot.

Guffaws. “Took you long enough to feel that, Miller!”

The train jounced. He backpedaled off-balance, but his hobnails found no purchase, and so he fell on his ass to add to the general merriment.

“What’s happened?” said Boswell. Jake’s seatmate leaned owl-eyed into the aisle.

“Some damned fool just ruined my boot shine,” said Jake, pretending not to be enraged. He remained on his butt and inspected the scorched cowhide, not looking up at the faces of the complicit bastards surrounding him. A matchbook smoldered nearby on the floor, having separated from the gum wad stuck to his trench boot. It would take careful scraping and considerable polishing to get it back into shape for inspection.

Boswell got up and extended a hand. Jake waved his friend off, calculating that the skinny clerk would be pulled down instantly were he to accept his assistance. He made it back to his feet on his own rather than risk more galling hilarity.

From his full height and with a firm grip on the seatback, he deigned now to scan the faces of the soldiers in the nearest seats. Fruitless—any number of possible suspects was within easy reach. Besides gambling, playing practical jokes had become a leading pastime among the enlisted when not under the thumbs of the officers and noncoms. How men do waste their precious time and money, Jake thought, and resumed his seat.

“How’s the foot?” Boswell said.

“No worse than after a twenty-mile hike.”

“I suppose we should take turns sleeping.”

“You go ahead; I’m wide awake now.”

“This puts me in mind of when Hurley told me the best way to cure the ringworm was to step into a bucket of alcohol.”

“Surely you didn’t.”

“Alas, I believed him. He was part of the Veterinary Detachment after all, and he prepared the bucket for me himself.”

“Of course he did.”

“It felt like I’d stepped into a campfire. Hurley and friends were greatly amused. He said I shot out of the bucket like a Roman candle.”

“How’d the cure go?”

“Completely successful, yet I still felt bitter toward him.”

“You’d think a man would be more careful about offending the head clerk. Where has Hurley gone, by the way?”

“He’s still at Camp Greene, but somehow he got orders for the permanent work detail.”

“Some men would prefer that to going ‘over there.’”

“He will not.”

Boswell dozed off again, the smugness gradually fading.

The troop train was somewhere between Richmond and Washington. Gloomy, rural countryside rolled by under an overcast sky; they had not stopped at any of the little towns.

A voice addressed Jake from across the aisle, and he turned to look into the pale, Scandinavian face of Corporal Rasmussen, who was just settling into his seat.

“What happened to your boot, PFC Miller?” the noncom repeated, pointing.

Jake looked down at the gummy scorch mark and feigned surprise.

“That’s all right. I’ve set aside polish and a brush for the untidy.”

Jake continued to bite his tongue.

Rasmussen had been a replacement come late to the regiment. He had the air of a well-educated man, and it was said he had turned down officer’s training in favor of seeing action sooner. But he was a cold fish, at best, who kept a constant, supercilious eye on his underlings. The privates dreaded attracting his baleful attention. He would not be interested in the truth of this matter, nor was Jake inclined to bellyache about his fellow soldiers. Then he noticed the charred matchbook in the corporal’s hand. Rasmussen held the blackened cover up to his eye.

“Some sort of clown or joker pictured here,” he said. “I enjoyed the circus clowns when I was a boy—to a point. They do serve a purpose.”

“What’s that?” Jake said.

“They patrol the trench line between genuine and false dignity among other things, don’t you think?”

Jake did not say what he thought. Something in Rasmussen’s manner signified he had witnessed the fiery prank and chosen to ignore it.

“Private O’Neill is brushing his boots back there. Why don’t you join him and mend your appearance.”

Jake got up carefully and headed for the rear of the day coach.

“Miller.”

Jake looked back.

“Police your ass too. You have a cigarette butt stuck to it.”

 

Jake didn’t mind killing time in restoring his boot; he worked until the superficial wound was hidden beneath a brown sheen. Afterward, he went out onto the platform between the cars. Two other boys had sought relief from the funky, interior haze and were out there exchanging pleasantries with Chaplain Kiernan, shouted words and phrases vying with the clank and clack of metal. Kiernan gave him a nod.

Jake held on as the train bounced along, watching watery twilight saturate the land. Occasionally, the plate beneath his boot soles seemed to drop away like a trap door, but he was a veteran commuter in civilian life and barely noticed being airborne.

The two privates went in, and Kiernan moved across the vacated platform to be better heard. He had grown as brown and fit as any in the regiment and, companion to their travails, was on good speaking terms with all ranks, high to low.

“Well, Miller, we’re not far from the capital. I’m told we’ll be getting down to stretch our legs there.”

“I’d rather just barrel straight through to Jersey.”

“I’m sure Lloyd George and Marshall Foch appreciate your eagerness, but you know we’ll have the usual ‘hurry up and wait’ when we get there. Perhaps you should savor this part of the journey while it lasts.”

Jake’s impatience was in keeping with his character but had also been encouraged by newspapers describing the relentless German offensive, which had also fueled a vexatious goading from above to get the Army across the Atlantic.

“This country looks all the same to me—puts me to sleep. Which left me open to having my boot set on fire—not to mention bringing on a strange dream at the gallop.”

“Ah, has our court jester struck again?”

“There’s a regiment’s worth of them.”

“Yes, though of late I suspect a mastermind at work, tricks of a distinct and consistent design. But tell me about this dream; I have a medical friend who’s sold on the idea that dreams hold the secret to one’s actions. And then there’s my mother, too, who puts great store in them as harbingers. Two authorities for you.”

Jake sought after the tracery of his dream.

“It had something to do with my father.”

“Father? Or stepfather?”

Kiernan knew Jake’s history, that his father had extorted trusts meant for his children and squandered them on habits that had proven fatal, a theft not discovered until long after the fact. His mother had not made any better a choice in her second husband, who, once he got his hands on the remainder of her inheritance, headed for the Territories.

“I’m not sure which one,” Jake said. The paternal wraith had become faceless. “But I know he was a thief, true to form.”

“Did he steal something in the dream?”

Kiernan watched Jake’s eyes probe the far reaches of the passing countryside.

“My girl . . . Lily. In the dream, he was leading her off by the hand, and she was looking back at me. She wouldn’t be one to cry out, yet she was looking for me to step up. At which point, I felt the fire.”

“Somnia terrabilia et interrupta.”

“The Church has a term for everything, doesn’t it?”

“You still connect losing that girl with your financial setback.”

“Her father grew very cold when he heard of my reverses.”

“But what of Lily?”

They had arrived at a topic the soldier had always been reticent about.

“I didn’t want to force her into defying her parents.”

“Would you act differently now?”

“It’s rather late for that. It’s been over a year since we last saw each other.”

“Perhaps the dream points to a resolution.”

“Not for a common soldier off to the trenches.”

Kiernan ignored Jake’s finality. “Would you object if I shared this dream—and your familial circumstances—with my psychological friend?”

“I certainly would. I spoke in confidence.”

“You’d remain anonymous, and this man has a professional obligation to maintain secrecy, much as I do. You might benefit from his opinion.”

“You have a strange variety of friends . . . but it’s between you and me. Now, who do you suspect is this kingpin of pranks?”

“I have no particular face in mind—just an idea that there’s a singular wit in the shadows.”

 

An hour before twilight, the train was put on a siding in the outskirts of Washington. The noncoms rousted the regiment out of the cars and formed it up along a shaded suburban street that paralleled the tracks. Few soldiers complained as they stepped off and stretched their legs after hours of confinement.

Folks exited their houses and stood on the sidewalks as the batteries smartly cornered one street after another. Small boys ran alongside the formation, mimicking the cadence calls with birdlike cries. Some of them waved tiny American flags.

Jake had walked off all his steam by the time the column encountered a large field with enough area for close-order drill. Young ballplayers ran over from a diamond in a corner of the field. The older, bolder ones shouted questions to the ranks: What unit were they? Where were they coming from? Where were they going? All the things a spy would want to know. Someone in the battery shouted back: “We’re the Battling Battery from Timbuktu, and we’re on our way to parlez-vous.”

Half the battalion laughed out loud, as much at the tone of mock earnestness as the silly words themselves.

“Shut yer yap, Private Aurik!” the first sergeant said. “All o’yas, shut yer yaps!”

Aurik. Now there was a likely candidate for Kiernan’s grand jester. His feats of foolery went all the way back to the unit’s first days in Vermont. Jake could easily envision that tireless wit attaching gum and matches to his boot with the pretended panic of a jumpy demolitionist.

“Really, now!” shouted a boy whose voice had begun to crack. “Where are you from, and where are you going?”

One of the lieutenants took the little crowd of inquisitors aside while the noncoms ran through the entire repertoire of dismounted drill. On the field’s verge, adults had joined the younger audience. Jake, feeling on parade, took care not to stumble in the grassy footing lest some pretty girls had strolled down to watch.

When the sun descended behind the neighboring trees and chimneys, the regiment reformed and headed back to the train. The first sergeant, whose ear could barely distinguish a glee club from the stock exchange, nevertheless shouted from the flank, “Clear yer pipes, gals; let’s serenade these nice civilians so they know where we’re off to. Y’all know ‘It’s a Long Way to Berlin But We’ll Get There.’ Ready . . . sing!”

The band’s instruments had been left stowed with the packs in the Pullman overheads, so the singing was a cappella on the hoof. Despite the humidity and their exertions, the entire regiment took up the song and then several more that promised a reckoning for the Huns. Jake, a musician and possessed of a good enough tenor to flesh out the regimental singing groups, was transported beyond his stiff muscles and scorched foot. He marched full-throated and in lusty step with the other popping boots.

As they rounded the last corner before the waiting train, some small boys got up the gumption to charge the column, offering their tiny American flags to the marchers. One of them fastened his fervent eyes on Jake, but as the child skipped closer and extended the little pennant, one of the flankers stepped between them and snatched it away.

 

 

Boswell turned from the window as they left the darkling capital behind. “You think it was Aurik?” he said.

“Could be, though he’s as much a comic as a prankster. You’ve seen how he imitates anyone he chooses and raises a laugh just by cocking his eyebrow.”

“Remember when he set up everyone’s footlockers like a line of dominoes in the barracks at Fort Ethan Allen?”

“I should—I was the dupe who pushed open the door and set the row falling. Pure vaudeville, wasn’t it? But God, it was loud!”

They talked of other famous stunts, especially the time when, weary of simulated firing drills, Aurik had limbered up the crude imitation cannon that ornamented regimental headquarters—barely more than a pipe on wheels—and galloped with it to the drill field, unaware that the battery commander had chosen to observe in person that day.

“For a moment, I thought there was going to be an impromptu firing squad,” Boswell said. “But then I looked closer at the captain and saw the twitch of those little-used laugh muscles.”

Jake remembered the old man saying something like, “Private Aurik, I suggest you gallop back to headquarters as fast as you came before the colonel notices that his pride and joy has been tampered with.”

Jake looked around but did not see the subject of their conversation. “I suppose there’s a certain amount of prestige in being the butt of one of his jokes,” he said.

“It’s a compliment.”

“I’ll take it as such.”

Having made room in his philosophy for the high road, Jake let his upright, jouncing body subside into slumber. If he had dreams, they left no trace, having not been fixed by fire.

 

Private Aurik bent over at the waist and looked down the rank of his battery mates. His face was possessed by wide-eyed whimsy.

Behind him, an officer with a star on each shoulder and a cigar in his mouth bent also, to see whether Aurik’s equestrian history had made his trousers unserviceable.

“Watch this,” Boswell said. “He’s wearing trousers that he ventilated specially for the occasion and also the skivvies his gal sewed him for Valentine’s Day.”

“Doesn’t he realize the man’s a general?”

“Not a real general. A few weeks ago he was running a railroad. This is just a patriotic hobby.”

“Still . . .”

The general straightened abruptly.

“Good God, man! What kind of horse riding did you do in these? And those are not government-issue under shorts, are they?” He turned to the adjutant. “Put this man down for a complete uniform replacement—under shorts and all. And you, Private, tell your immediate superior to come see me. Christ!”

Boswell said, “I don’t believe the general found those tiny hearts very romantic, do you?”

The ersatz brigadier bravely continued his close scrutiny of their clothing. Production had finally caught up with demand, at least for men headed overseas, and anything with the slightest detectible wear was being swapped out.

As Jake awaited his turn, he watched with great amusement as Aurik reported to Corporal Rasmussen.

“Oh, my,” Boswell said. “The corporal is making a point!”

The noncom stood nose-to-nose with Aurik, delivering a tirade too tight-lipped for public consumption. Well, to each his own—the first sergeant would have made a grand production out of dressing Aurik down so that every fool in the building could hear and profit from it.

Jake had forgiven all now and could actually feel sympathy. He trusted, however, that Aurik would be able to reassume his puckish self once Rasmussen had finished transferring the ration of humiliation that was headed his way.

 

Well-wishers were actually out in the early morning air as the men marched in full packs to the Hoboken pier. Jake had strolled the cool, predawn streets of this town in his civilian days, but now there was nothing leisurely in his pace. A ship was waiting to take them through the murderous gauntlet of U-boats in the Atlantic. And if they ran that safely, the dubious prize was a front-row seat on the Western Front. The loom of these long-awaited events retained an imaginary quality, yet here he was, drawn forward at quick time, powerless to resist.

He looked from side to side in a deliberate effort to distract himself from any foreboding. The occasional bystanders were mostly deliverymen, but others seemed to have come specifically to look on and call out encouragements. Were they relatives or friends of men in the formation? He knew a number of soldiers from the local area had smuggled out letters or notes and attracted visitors who came to see them at the camp in an awkward breach of secrecy. Jake had refrained, though his mother and brothers were barely two miles away. He took seriously the admonition to censor himself; yet, he had been much tempted to communicate somehow with Lily, who was likewise near, especially since this sea voyage might well be a one-way journey. His heart twisted as he realized in sudden fullness that he might never be in her presence again, a person to whom he had once vowed all his love and loyalty.

A tall, gaunt figure passed along the dark sidewalk, hurrying westward in the opposite direction as the regiment sweeping by, which made the man’s progress all the swifter. Jake craned his neck to look back, thinking that the form was a familiar one.

“Miller! Eyes front!” Rasmussen called from the flank. Jake obeyed automatically, wondering why the receding shape had put him so much in mind of his dead father.

From ahead came the big-throated blare of a ship’s horn, a trumpeting giant, and Jake felt smaller than ever. The regiment did not miss a step though. The sergeants tapered the marching formation into a long column of fours and shouted the men through the street entrance of the embarkation building.

Far down the long, echoing space, stevedores were transferring hundreds of barracks bags to the waiting cargo nets. Trestle tables had been set up for the noncoms and officers to tally and take one last look at the embarking men. While the battery waited its turn, Red Cross ladies came round and poured hot coffee into mess cups and handed out doughnuts. One lady had postcards for the men to address home, saying they would be mailed once it was certain their ship had reached its destination. Jake looked at her helplessly, his hands occupied with a steaming cup and half-eaten doughnut; the matronly woman tucked the card into the ribbon of his campaign hat like a press pass.

Their captain strode over, and the battery formed up for yet another minute inspection, after which they were told to reorganize themselves alphabetically. Once that complicated, milling maneuver was accomplished, they were led to a table where the first sergeant ticked each man off his list.

A few strides farther on, a big door had been slid aside to frame the open air and a gangplank that seemed to rise up vertically against the tall, iron hull of the transport. At the foot of the ramp, where the slap of small waves could be heard from below, Boswell was posted to deal out the personalized chits upon which he had labored all night. The slips matched each man to a particular berth and mess location.

“I’ve written mine so our bunks are side by side and we take meals together,” he said as Jake took his and began the steep climb, leaning into it so that his haversack wouldn’t pull him back upon the man behind.

At the top, Kiwi sailors were handing out cork life vests from a vast stack in the passageway. Private Miles gave cheerful thanks for “the drowning jacket,” which called to Jake’s mind the infamous life preservers aboard the General Slocum. He hefted the thing suspiciously; it seemed heavier than it should.

Another seaman with skewed English was examining chits at the end of the passageway. Jake’s section was assigned the steerage hold two decks below, and the man pointed toward the stairs—actually, a wide metal ladder—that descended through the wooden deck into the lower depths.

The descent seemed more precipitous than the climb up the gangplank, and the burdened soldiers went down sideways or even backwards, clutching the handrails and watching where their boots were placed in the dim light. A crewman stationed on the next landing kept them moving downward, and Jake reckoned they would end up below the waterline.

The gloomy steerage section, however, had portholes high up on the bulkheads, thankfully opened wide to the outside air. Below these, metal-framed bunks stood three-high to port and starboard, and another line of them ran down the middle of the hold. Narrow tables and benches filled most of the aisle space and above these hung hammocks attached to hooks screwed into the beams.

The artillerymen searched out the sleeping spots that matched their chits, and the room filled with bumping, muttering men and their bumping, bulky gear. Jake did not have far to go, however, just a few steps from the hatchway and thus close to the stairwell in the event of abandoning ship in the nighttime. The thought of scrambling up those steep ladders as water poured in at his heels put a damper on his excitement—but not for long. It was too theoretical a thing. Plus, good old Boswell had given him a top bunk, saving him from being smothered beneath two fart sacks.

The noncoms had the men break out their blankets and hang their packs on the pegs and hooks by each bunk and hammock. The sleeping berths were made up with many collisions, mostly good humored. They were shipping out at last, and the relief and excitement that circulated throughout the unit far outweighed any dread or enmity.

The XO came in, accompanied by two sailors who immediately separated and climbed onto the port and starboard tables to show the men how to fasten their life jackets. Jake had a spot of trouble deciphering his instructor’s words but quickly got the hang of the straps.

“Leave them on!” the XO said. To better address the men, he had pulled himself up on Jake’s tier of bunks like a man in the rigging of a sailing ship. “And you’re required to wear them at all times during waking hours until you step ashore on the other side.”

“Where’ll dat be, suh?” That was Aurik’s voice raised in a burlesque accent from the port side.

“You’ll know when you get there. Now, even if you don’t wear them in your sleep, keep the vests immediately to hand at night. I’m told they serve quite well as pillows.”

Jake patted his vest. He supposed he could sleep in its grasp, having learned to doze off in a variety of uncomfortable positions. He was pretty sure he’d even slept once while he was marching.

“There are three meals a day from two kitchens,” the XO continued. “We’ll eat on deck in good weather and at these tables here in bad. The first sergeant will be assigning men to mess duty, submarine watch, and fatigue assignments. And hear this, everyone stays below until further notice.”

Groans came from aft and the port side where the faces were hidden from the XO. Aurik’s hilarious moan was quite distinguishable and mounted like that of a soul crying out from a molten crevice somewhere between purgatory and hell.

“Pipe down! We’re not on a vacation cruise. Do you want to give the Huns a perfect head count on our way out of the harbor? Believe me, this won’t be your last disappointment. Now listen to these seagoing gentlemen, who will tell you all about the ship’s routine.”

“Who’s agwine tuh translate de Kiwi fo’ us, suh?” Aurik again. Jake imagined the joker’s infantile, innocent stare and choked down a laugh in spite of himself.

“Corporal, get that man’s name,” the XO said. Rasmussen jostled past Jake with a hard elbow, heading for the offender.

 

Feeling like a kid who’d been sent to his room, Jake gazed out the small opening above his bunk. Boswell sat on the opposite side, and a third man clung to the frame, all three focused on the exterior scene. Not that there was much to see beyond the hull of the ship at the opposite pier, but the porthole did offer an entryway for cooler air—a draft heavy with salt, coal smoke, and a tinge of rottenness. From the city, church bells chimed their first calls to the faithful. Had the men been allowed on deck, Kiernan would surely have had a Sunday service in progress beneath the blue vault of heaven.

“Hello!” Boswell said, leaning toward the porthole. “There’s a tug coming our way, maybe two.” Even as he spoke, a rumble and shudder passed through the hold.

“They’re getting up steam,” said their companion, levering himself to see from Boswell’s angle. Men stirred all around them, and soon every porthole was crowded with curious heads. Jake worried that the framework of the bunk would not hold all the spectators who had come to his vantage point. He tried to control the number of men piling on at one time.

Eventually, the windlass added a persistent whine to the engine noise as the anchor was weighed. After a few minutes, it stopped, and observers on the port side shouted that the linesmen were letting go. Jake watched the opposite ship slide by as the feisty tugs pulled them into open water and turned them toward the sea.

In the channel, the ship steamed unassisted toward the lower bay. Jake made way for eager boys who had never seen the Statue of Liberty, feeling quite the cosmopolitan for being used to the sight. But then one of the triple bunks down the line collapsed, and he said, “Sightseeing’s over, boys. Hop off!”

The receding monument was soon the size of a souvenir miniature, and the less dramatic landmarks of Staten Island stood out sharp in the clear morning. They too were left behind, and the ship ended its progress in open water a good distance from the nearest skyline. They heard the anchor chain sliding out. A disappointed silence reigned until the first sergeant leaned in from the ladder well.

“All right, it’s up on deck with everybody—Hey! In an orderly manner, or y’all’ll be down here for the duration. Form up! McCarthy, Moran, where’s your damned life vests! Go get ’em!”

 

The ascent did not go as the topkick desired, being an instinctual stampede toward fresh air and sunny skies, an urge that would have to be quelled during future lifeboat drills. Once on deck, they beheld at least ten more transports in the panorama of the calm anchorage, and others en route, all painted like their own ship with lurid stripes and curves in black, white, and vivid color. Jake hoped the Germans would have as much trouble as he in grasping shape and proximity beneath the surreal designs.

A few steps away, an arm pointed out at the nearest ship, and its owner said, “Holy Christ! Look at that optical allusion!” Aurik again; it was as if Jake’s senses were standing sentry for every word or gesture the comedian made. Why was that? And it was impossible to suppress a laugh.

Boswell nudged him and said, “Guess the name of that stretch of water over yonder.”

“I’m not exactly the maritime expert, Bos.”

“I’ll tell you. It’s called Gravesend Bay—Gravesend.” The clerk had that thoughtful look that preceded his occasional bout of the blues.

“Well, our ancestors had a gloomy way of picking names, didn’t they? I wouldn’t put much store in it.”

Noncoms began shouting for their sections.

“Cheer up, Bos. They’re going to show us which lifeboat or raft we belong to if the ship goes down. Doesn’t that ease your mind?”

“Don’t be an ass, Jake. And if you didn’t want your postcard, you could have given it to me.”

Jake reached up to touch the forgotten card, bemused by the open sea and the long, limitless line of the horizon where German submarines waited for them. Chastised by Boswell’s rare reproach, his unguarded heart thumped with fear. . . .

 

Read the exciting conclusion in this month's issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2019. Finite Jest by Chris Muessig

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