An Uncapped Pen

March 19, 2008

Chapter 14 – It’s a Guy Thing

Filed under: Dickens Challenge — cindylv @ 5:51 am
Tags: , ,

May, 1981
Technical Library

The burger place at the traffic circle was as far as she’d ventured on her own. This morning, with the key in her pocket, she turned left and followed the sidewalk around against traffic. Past yet another row of beige wooden buildings, she repeated Frank’s directions. You’ll see Colonel’s Row. Just follow on the left where it turns into Grierson. The main parade field and the flagpole’ll be across the street. Don’t forget to salute. It’s right in front of the General’s house and he’ll know if you skip it. Keep going to the end of the row. Can’t miss it. And it’s the only stone cottage on the whole damn post.

The sun shone brightly without a cloud in the sky, just like yesterday and the day before that. She’d heard it was supposed to get up to 98. It was just after 0900 and she was already starting to sweat. The constant breeze kept the temperature just this side of bearable. If she were home, she’d be in the lake floating on an inflated raft. But at home, it was probably still only in the high 70s and she’d most likely be in the kitchen shredding potatoes for hash browns with Sophie.

She turned at the corner. Another block of beige wooden two-story buildings, but further apart, arranged in a semi-circle block with front yards covered in grass. She stopped to stare. Thick, green grass. Each yard was lined with rows of flowers that spread into an arc around the base of each set of front steps, two per house. And toys. She saw a plastic doll carriage. A tricycle. A Big Wheel. This must be Colonel’s Row. She’d never thought about officers living in houses with flowers in their front yards. Children.

A pale yellow butterfly swooped and dove into the maw of a scarlet tulip reminding Bridie of the summer of her lepidopterist phase. She’d spent hours chasing butterflies with her net, carefully transferring each specimen in a screened jar, then checking her fingers to make sure she hadn’t stolen their powder. She carried a log where she recorded each species and the details of its capture before releasing them again in the garden. She’d had an ongoing dispute with Miss Clark, her third grade teacher, about the magical properties of butterfly wing powder. Miss Clark maintained that the powder was in fact, tiny scales that reflected sunlight giving the insect its color to attract a mate or serve as camouflage. Bridie knew better.

She spent a lot of hours hiding in the woods from Vinnie Caruso who liked to chase butterflies, too. Only when he caught them, he “zinged” them, pinching their wings and then snapping his fingers to launch them with a triumphant warcry “Hii-Yah!” Few butterflies survived more than a few seconds with Vinnie. She remembered the day she’d stalked a swallowtail for a while and Vinnie swiped it right out from under her net. She cried when he zinged it, and watched as it crashed to the ground. She wanted to kill him with her net, but he ran off. All she could do was lie down on the ground next to it, and watch its legs claw the empty air, shattered wings twitching. That night, she’d told her father what he’d done. Her dad shook his head and said, “Ain’t he the boy goes to Catholic school?”

Eighteen sidewalk squares and the next flower border began, petunias planted in bands of red, white and purple. Maybe they didn’t come in blue, she thought. Eighteen more squares to the next row. The street curved and turned into Grierson. Bridie saw the parade field with the post canon and the flagpole. Twenty-four squares between the rows of flowers here. These must be bigger colonels than the ones who lived on the other street. And don’t forget to salute. Was she supposed to stop, face the flag and salute? Or just keep walking and salute as she passed? There was no one on the street for her to watch as an example. She decided to err on the side of more respect and halted, executed a right face, whipped off a snappy salute, a left face and continued walking. Twenty-seven squares of yard for the General’s house.

The sidewalk ended at the edge of the last wooden house, leading to a gravel driveway for the stone cottage. A sign out front confirmed she’d found the Tech Library. She stumbled, catching her boot on a warped step and kicked a large rock next to the front door. “Dammit!” How long had she spent polishing last night? She tugged the scrap of stocking from her pocket and wiped. Who keeps a boulder on the front steps?

She pulled out her key, unlocked the front door and ducked under a lacy cobweb. At least it’s not a spider web, she thought. As she fumbled in the dim light for the light switch, her hand found the spider web. She yanked back and wiped away the tickle on the leg of her trousers. What a mess!

A wave of stink broke over her and rushed outside. Sweat, rotten food, dust and, please don’t let that be old dirty diapers. The only way through it is to DO IT, SuperTroop! Thank you, SFC Barrett. She folder her arm over the bottom of her face and pushed her way in.

The lights warmed up, casting a greenish glow that revealed a long, narrow room, shotgun style, with most of the interior walls removed to make a single bay. Someone had boarded up and painted over all but one of the windows, and that one was covered in some kind of wire mesh. The wooden floor sloped unevenly and creaked beneath her feet. Two wooden doors were centered on the back wall, one with a gaping hole where the doorknob was missing, and a second one secured with a military-grade padlock. A sign declared that whatever lurked behind the locked door was considered to be a restricted area and admittance was strictly forbidden. She pushed open the broken door with the tip of her finger. She’d found the source of the diaper smell.

Somewhere in America a Greyhound bus station was missing its men’s room, a filthy toilet with a sink to match and a stack of dirty magazines tucked behind exposed pipes. No toilet paper or even a dispenser, for that matter. The only decoration in the room was a speckled flystrip dangling from a thumbtack in the ceiling. Correction. Miss October 1978 peered down over mammoth breasts from her post behind the door. Was that camouflage she was wearing? Bridie leaned in closer to see. Yep. The bottom of a string bikini the size of a silver dollar lined with white bunny fur! She hoped that was not an officially-sanctioned uniform for female soldiers.

She heard a noise and froze in place. The wind? It sounded like a child crying. Must have been the wind creaking something. From somewhere below her feet. She waited with an ear cocked. Maybe it was one of the ghosts Frank and Val told her about, back from the time when this building used to be the post morgue?

She announced, “Well, if you promise to behave and be quiet, I’ll bring you back some cookies from the chow hall after lunch.” She waited. Still nothing. She hoped ghosts liked oatmeal raisin.

She turned around again and looked at the maze of tables, desks, counters, book shelves sagging under the stacks of black binders, notebooks, reference books and maps. And everything coated in a few years worth of dust. You don’t have to do nothing. Just answer the phone.

Nothing obviously included cleaning, opening windows, or even flushing the toilet. No way was she going to sit here for eight hours a day and watch dust gather. Two and a half hours later, she’d emptied all the trash she dared to touch and tied up the bags outside against the front wall. The boulder on the top step she’d drafted into duty as a doorstop. How convenient to leave a rock on the top step! She’d discovered the switch for the heavy-duty exhaust fan in the latrine. Between the open front door and the exhaust fan running for an hour, her eyes stopped watering from the stench. She wasn’t sure if her ears would recover, though. The bathroom fan sounded like it had been kludged together from parts stolen from a 747 jet engine.

In the center of the main desk, she found a low spot between the stacks in front of the chair. This must be her new workspace. The blotter calendar held a single page from November 1972. On the seventh, someone had drawn a cartoon labeled “Tricky Dick says Go Home, McGovern!” She bumped a stack of binders with her hip, knocking them to the floor. Once the mushroom cloud dissipated, she realized she’d discovered the infamous Class A phone. It looked like a normal everyday desk phone, but black. A smudged white label with a red boarder stuck to the center of the handset declared the phone was not secure, and not to be used for classified conversations. She picked up the handset and turned it over to check it for the kind of sludge that collected on public phones. She wasn’t disappointed. She also found two buttons on the underside of the handset between the earpiece and the microphone. Buttons? She wiped most of the dirt off and put it close to her ear. No dial tone. She hung up. Not just a Class A phone, but a broke-dick Class A phone. This detail just keeps getting better and better.

Underneath the phone, taped to the corner of the desk was a Fort Huachuca bulletin detailing the procedure to be followed in the event of a telephonic bomb threat. It was covered in doodles and scribbled phone numbers. Someone had added their own note, “Lemmit calls to 5 min — Collect. Dont fuck it up for everone!”

She was wiping the tops of the stacks with a remnant from an old olive-drab bath towel she’d found in a desk drawer when she heard boots on the wooden steps. A Specialist Fourth Class with Gruber stenciled on his pocket tab entered. He held an envelope in his hand and pointed at the phone.

“Uh, I need to use the phone, okay?” Without waiting for her reply, he grabbed the phone and started dialing.

Miffed at the thwarted opportunity to flex a little of her phone muscle, she snapped, “Five minutes. And be sure it’s collect.” She didn’t bother to add the last line, figuring it was understood. The phone seemed to work just fine for him.

He turned his back to her and said into the receiver, “Yes, ma’am, I need to make a collect call to a number in Asheville, North Carolina. From Michael.” Pause. “Yes, I’ll hold. Thank you.” Then back to Bridie, “And could you cut that fan off? I can’t hardly hear.”

Disappointed that she wasn’t able to see how he worked the phone, she made her way back to the latrine and wondered about the informal protocol for phone conversations. She couldn’t very well step outside every time someone came in to use the phone. And she had no intention of hanging out in that latrine for a minute, let alone the allotted five minutes, but she couldn’t exactly sit at the desk and stare either.

“Sheila, honey, please. Don’t do this. It’s just another three months or so. Ninety days, that’s all I’m asking.” Quiet. Well, not exactly quiet. Bridie could hear Sheila screaming all the way from North Carolina. And she didn’t have a sugar maple drawl like her husband did.

* * *

Bridie accepted a plate heaped with something that had most likely been over-salted and boiled for far too many minutes after it came out of a jumbo can. Maybe the white stuff peeking out underneath it was actually rice. She slid her tray another foot and waited for her turn at the tongs to pick a roll.

“At first I was pretty disgusted with the whole place, the dirt and cobwebs. And the latrine! Disgusting! So I cleaned up what I could. Not the bathroom, of course. Not that there was anything to, you know, clean with, or anything. Except I did dump out the trash. And I went through about 100 dried up pens, testing them out on scratch paper before I found one that still worked.”

“Then I started in on sorting all those stacks of binders and books and all. I sorta got the system figured out. There’s manuals, and reports, and regulations. Circulars, some are maintenance and some engineering. I think I even saw some flight ones, too. And plans, bulletins, and publications. Although, I can’t figure out what the difference is. I’m just going by the labels. So I figure if I can get them all sorted into type, they organized by date or something—“

“Hey, take a breath,” Frank interrupted, holding up his hands in surrender. “Top wants to see you ASAP. You can probably finish your lunch, though.” He helped himself to a carrot from her salad and popped it into his mouth.

Now what, she wondered. I’ve already signed for my new room key, and I was gonna move after chow tonight. She picked up her tray at the end of the rail and carried it over to the beverage station. She poured herself a coke and looked up to see where Frank and Val had settled.

She sat down and scooted her seat in. Before she could continue her barrage, Val preempted. “So what’d you do with the, um, any magazines and stuff?”

“The porn?” She shot him a surprised look. “That was disgusting. Old people. Fat people. And some other stuff. I just couldn’t . . .”

“Like what kind of stuff?” Val asked.

“Animals? Circus freaks?” Frank offered.

“So you’ve seen that latrine, have you?”

“Maybe once. Or so.” He looked down at his plate.

She stared at him.

“Maybe more.” He put his fork down. “Look, I didn’t buy it and I didn’t go every day. It’s just something. A guy thing. You wouldn’t understand.” He looked at Val.

Val missed his cue and kept shoveling food.

“And Miss October?” she asked, not relinquishing her stare.

“Miss October?” Val looked up.

“She looked kinda cold. I thought.” Bridie took another bite, smiling to herself.

Frank choked on a mouthful of bread. He still didn’t look at her.

“Miss October? You didn’t tell me about her,” Val complained to Frank. “And some of that other stuff, too.”

Frank pushed back his chair. “Val, my man. Your future wife will thank me one day.” To Bridie, he said, “Let’s hit it. Can’t keep the old man waiting.”

She remembered to grab a couple cookies for the ghosts on her way out the door.

* * *
Outside the orderly room, a tall, black guy leaned against the block wall. The guy from Georgia, she’d met on The Line a few weeks ago. What was his name, Charlie something or other?

“Watkins! Still on The Line, dude?” Frank offered his hand for a complicated ritual. Another guy thing.

“You better watch who you hang out with, Bridie from a small town in Wisconsin.” Charlie said pointing his head at Frank. “Girl get herself a reputation.”

“My mother raised me to be kind to animals and small children,” she quipped as the door closed behind them. Bridie tucked the brim of her cap in the back waistband of her fatigues, took a deep breath as Frank knocked on the platoon sergeant’s office door.


She trailed in and positioned herself at Attention slightly behind Frank in front of SFC Simpson’s desk. Frank looked over his shoulder and moved aside, leaving her to stand by herself. Maybe he was a little pissed that she’d teased him about the porn.

“You out at the Tech Library this mornin’?” Simpson asked without looking up.

She glanced at Frank. What was the problem? “Yes, Sergeant. I got there around 0900 and locked up when I left for chow at noon. I’m going straight back.”

“Change of plans. New directive down from the post commander. No females can be assigned to solo duty at remote locations. Tech Library’s a solo post. And it’s on the remote list. Ain’t a goddamn thing I can do about it. Got nuthin’ else open right now.”

He raised his head and swapped his pen for his coffee cup before he looked up at her. “I put you on Advance Party for the Exercise. You wait out front with Watkins, and go along with Staff Sergeant Jackson. Do what he tells you.”

She stood fast. Even if the detail sucked. It was her detail. She had the key. She was in charge of the phone. There must be come kind of mistake. “But . . .”

“That’ll be all.”



  1. Great description of that gnarly “tech library”. I like that now I’m wondering about why it’s suddenly dangerous for her to be there alone — must have been another murder? And I’m glad you alluded to her new room assignment because I’m still very interested in what happened in that motel the night before she signed in. I also chuckled at the discussion about the porn. I’ve had chats like that before myself — seems to be a unique position females in the military are put into. We get a little too close a look at the world of our young male counterparts, but that gives us the right to grill them about it and express our opinions. Looking forward to reading Chapter 15.

    Comment by lisakenney — March 22, 2008 @ 5:01 pm | Reply

  2. Vinnie Caruso’s pretty creepy. No relation, I’m sure, to the great tenor. That little story will stick in readers’ minds–it has for me.

    The men’s room took “the guy thing” to another level. Miss October was absolutely wholesome compared to the other stuff. Just don’t tar all of us guys with the same brush, please???

    Glad to see you’re well enough to post a chapter. Looking forward to more.

    Comment by Steve Wylder — March 23, 2008 @ 3:45 pm | Reply

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