Soldier Grace©


   Chico Peralta drained the last drop of coffee from his cup and held it out for more, reveling in the fresh aroma as his refill rose to the brim.  This was his favorite mug, one with a picture of Snoopy on it.  For a long while, he had taken great pleasure in having a new mug evey time he drank coffee, sort of trying them on 'for size' as he'd told the other guys.  His little hobby had caught on, and there had been quite a rash of creativity, everything from hollowed-out gourds to intricate, ornately-carved gold and silver chalices from the sixteenth century.  The funniest experience had been the two days during which they all competed to master the art of drinking from demitasse cups.   These cups, originally conceived in France, were made to be used almost exclusively by the women of those times. They were hardly bigger than a shot-glass, of a porcelain thin as eggshell, and painted with flowers so beautifully rendered it seemed they would grow before one's eyes.  In the clumsy hands of the men, the demitasse cups looked incongruous, their tiny handles pinched in the desperate grip of big thumbs and forefingers.

    "I don't think it goes with my outfit," Zippo had commented, dubiously looking down at the now-stained legs of his fatigues.

    He and several others had just returned from Night Patrol to find the whole camp near hysteria as one after another made a heroic show of drinking from the tiny cups without spilling the contents, pinky fingers earnestly extended. 

    "That's okay, Zip," said Peaches, white teeth shining in his good-natured ebony face.  "When it's your turn to call it, you can elect the good ol' tin cup again."

    The corpsman, Blue Velvet, held his cup up to the firelight, squinting.  "I can see right through this thing," he said.  "No -- wait -- I see letters forming!  Why, my goodness me, I should have known...this floweredy little teaparty piece has 'Peralta' written all over it!"

    Chico grinned, remembering.   Well, the other callers had been so into what came naturally, ordering up pewter flagons, copper tankards, and inscribed clay vessels, that he really had not been able to resist the urge to shake them up when his turn came. 

    The cup spree had passed, of course, except that the days of the demitasse had led to what was now an established tradition.   When they were joined by a newbie now, the first time he sat down to a meal his coffee was served in one of the tiny cups.  There was a gentle purpose to this; it hinted at his new reality, opened another door. 


    He was up for Patrol tonight, which meant he would follow his usual custom of sharing the contents of his Care Package to round out this meal.  Lighting a pinch of C-4 in the bottom of his cracker can, he put the can of spaghetti and meatballs on to cook.  There were faster ways of getting dinner ready, but he enjoyed the simple complexity of going through all these motions.  

    Unsheathing his K-bar, he used the tip of the blade to slice the tape on the Care Package, then laid the knife carefully to one side and pulled back the cardboard flaps. 

    "Whadja get, man?" asked Peaches, strolling over and dropping to a squat, arms dangling from his raised knees.   "The usual?  I hope, I hope."

    "Man, you are such a moocher," Chico grinned.  "I didn't even get to look at it myself, yet, and here you are already with your tongue hanging out!"

     "Yup.  One enthusiastic son of a bitch, that's me," Peaches said. 

    Reaching into the box, Chico drew out a foil-wrapped packet.  "What could it be?" he said.  Pulling back the foil, he revealed a stack of thick, warm tortillas.  "Mmm-hmmm," he sighed, closing his eyes while he inhaled the aroma.

    "Hey!"  Peaches' hand slapped at Chico's leg.  "Get your schnozzola outa there if that's my serving!   You ain't supposed to be breathin' on other folks' food.  Didn't nobody never teach you no manners, Peralta?"

    Chico aimed a playful punch at Peaches' shoulder.  "Ah, shut up," he said amiably.  "It's not like it's gonna kill ya."

    Laughing, Peaches rocked off balance and fell on his side.  "Yeah, but I'd die a thousand deaths if it would keep your big old beak out of the food!"

    "I said, 'shut up'," Chico growled.  "Here, catch this."  He tossed a second foil-wrapped packet.  

    Peaches caught it deftly.   "More like it," he said.  "Is there any hot sauce?"

    "Chili," Chico corrected.   "Yeh, here y' go."  He handed over a peanut butter jar filled with homemade green chili sauce.  Then he raised his arm and waved.  "Hey, guys," he called, "anybody going on the Patrol tonight, come an' get it."

    He didn't have to announce it twice.   They crowded around eagerly. 

    "Thanks, man," Blue Velvet said.  "I love it when you do this.  Just like old times." 

    "Yeh, isn't it?"   Chico said.  "Remember me when you get those oatmeal raisin cookies."

    Blue Velvet took a hefty bite of tortilla.  "It's a deal," he mumbled. 

    Zippo, spooning chili sauce onto his plate, pointed his chin at the spaghetti and meatballs beginning to bubble in its tin.   "Chico, don't tell me you're going to eat tortillas and chili on top of that.   You're not, are you?"

    Chico shrugged.  "Sure.   Why not?  It's not like it's gonna give me a bellyache, after all."  

    "I know, I know.  But still..."  Zippo moved off, shaking his head. 

    Chico finished handing out packets, then loaded his tin plate.  The food tasted wonderful, and the tortillas and chili made the meal special.  He had decided long ago that, even though he could have them any time he wanted now, the real pleasure was obtained by making himself wait, and by waiting he experienced again the feelings of special love that such a gift carried.

    "Hey, guys," he said.   "Forgive me for saying it, but just remember -- you better really enjoy it now, because you sure will pay for it in the morning."

    "That's my cue!" Peaches leaped to his feet and did a little dance.  "Come o-o-o-on ice cream!"

    In the wake of the laughter that followed, Chico sat back smiling to himself and lit a cigarette.  He'd made a moment for them, the recall of good times that had occurred in the midst of bad times.   Reminders of things to be thankful for.  Looking around at the men sprawled amongst their gear, eating and talking, he was aware of the greatness of his contentment.   "Everybody ready for tonight?" he asked.  "It's getting to be about that time." 

    "We're still waiting on Tranh," called Rudy.  "He had something to go do for his village, first." 

    "Okay," Chico said.   "But it's past oh-dark-30 already."

    "What's your hurry?" said Trump, blue eyes twinkling.  "As if I didn't know."

    "Oh, that's right," Jo-Jo said.  "This is one of Chico's."

    "Not just 'one'," Peaches reminded, "this is his special case."

    "Hey, man," Zippo said, "if you want to get your recon in, you've got time since we've got to wait for Tranh."

    "Like that matters," Sandy snorted.  "If he didn't have time, he'd just make some." 

    Chico stubbed out his cigarette and rose, brushing at his pants.  "Well, I think I will go," he said.   "You know how it is."  He shrugged into the straps of the radio and picked up his rifle.  As soon as he had passed beyond the soft glow of the firelight, his form was swallowed by the mist. 

    "Guy's got it bad," Rudy commented.

    "Yes, he does," said Blue Velvet, dunking his last piece of tortilla in his coffee and popping it into his mouth.   "One of those endless beauties."

    "And there isn't a one of us here who can't relate, completely," Trump said.  "I know I can."

    A murmur of assent went around from the forms leaning on their packs near the fire. 



    Chico stepped out of the mist onto the carpet that was dimly gray-blue in the faint light coming through the livingroom windows.  Her cat, lounging on the padded footstool in front of the old rocking chair, looked at him briefly and yawned.  He was a well-known and familiar sight.

    Other than the ping of a small block of ice dropping from the refrigerator ice-maker in the kitchen, and the soft sound of snoring from the room overhead, the house was quiet, peaceful. 

    He went soundlessly up the stairs and through the door into the bedroom.  Leaning the rifle against a dresser, he slipped off the radio straps and set it on the floor, then approached the near side of the bed. 

    The clock radio said the time was 2:40 AM.  Actually, he knew the time was wrong -- it was really just 2:10, but she kept it set thirty minutes ahead. 

    Leaning over her, he breathed her fragrance, a combination of shampoo, toothpaste, soap, warm bed, and still a hint of the perfume she'd worn that day. 

    She was deep in sleep, eyes closed, face smooth, lips slightly parted.  And dreaming.  Briefly, he checked her dream.  It was about her work day again, and he withdrew mentally, not wishing to cause so much as a ripple in her thoughts right now. 

    Lovingly, gently, he traced the curve of her eyebrow with a finger.  To her, his touch felt like no more than a stray small current of air from the open window, and she did not stir. 

    "Sleep on, doll," he whispered.  "Get it while you can."

    Straightening, he looked across the bed at her husband -- Wizard, tonight's objective.  The man's big, rangy body lay sprawled over half the king-sized bed.  He snored rhythmically with each breath.   He, too, was presently dreaming of work, and Chico couldn't help smiling with affection and amusement.  These two were a pretty good match, if he said so himself.  

    Jessie had needed a good man, and Wizard had just the right gifts to enable him to understand the things about her that none of her previous husbands had even been able to grasp, much less care about.  And Wizard had his own needs, the longings and yearnings that he was discovering only Jessie could fulfill. 

    Orchestrating to bring the two of them together had required precise timing on Chico's part.  It wasn't as if they had lived right around the corner from each other, after all!  He still was very proud of the skill he had demonstrated -- this was by far his best job.  The Old Man had been very pleased.  Such selflessness had not been easy. 

    Chico heard a far-off scuffling and clinking.  Time to go.  He cast a last glance at Jessie, resisting the urge to kiss her.  Then he gathered up the radio and his rifle and left the room.

    The guys were waiting for him out on the front lawn.  Tranh, in black pajamas and bare feet, gave him a big toothy grin and a thumbs-up. 

    "Did you behave yourself in there?" Peaches asked, his tone mock-stern. 

    Chico grinned.  "Of course I did.  Hey, what do you think I am?"

    "That's the problem," Zippo snorted.  "We know what you are."

    "Give him a break, fellas," said Blue Velvet.  "He's doing real good.  He and Trump are 'way ahead of the rest of us on this road, and I, for one, appreciate the example."

    Jo-Jo stepped close to Chico, fastening the strap of his helmet.  "Is Wizard ready?"

    "As much as he ever is," Chico said.  "It's been a while since he's had one of these."

    "Hey, man, you better put some of this on your face," Rudy said, handing Chico a small can of paint.  "You weren't there originally -- if he recognizes you it's gonna put a twist on things."  

    "Thanks, Rudy."   Chico dipped two fingers into the paint and applied it in broad stripes across his cheekbones.  "Are we all set?"

    They checked their gear.   Rifles, web belts, ammo, flak jackets. Boots.  "Here's the blooper gun," Jo-Jo said. 

    "Be sure you hand that off in time," Blue Velvet cautioned.  "Just one second makes all the difference." 

    "I'm on it,"  Jo-Jo nodded. 

    Chico tugged his helmet into position low above his eyes, then bent the long whip antenna of the radio down with his left hand.  "Okay, men," he said.  "Let's rock and roll."

    All their training paid off.   Stealthy as the slide of silk on silk, the Night Patrol walked into Wizard's dream.  

   Sweat dripped in his eyes, but he paid it no more attention than he paid the hungry weight of the grenade launcher in his hands.  Where had that little fucker got to?  The blood on the track told him it could not have been too far.

    All right -- there's a sandal sticking up from the side over there.  Got to be him -- the little shit!

    The body of the VC lay face down, black pajamas wrinkled, one leg of the material rucked up to his knee.

    Wizard signaled the rest behind him by holding up a hand and then urgently pointing to the still figure.  The rest of the patrol halted.  "Psst -- is he dead?" came a whisper. 

    Wizard shrugged and took a careful forward step. 

   [In the bed, the man called Wizard began to tremble in his sleep.]

   He took another slow step.  He was sharply aware of the men behind him, the etched tension of their faces, the grim set of their lips.  But his focus was on the body before him.  Unshouldering his M-16, Wizard jabbed the point of the barrel into the middle of the VC's back.  Not a twitch.  If he wasn't dead, he was close to it.  Probably beyond worrying about, anyway.  Feeling sufficiently reassured to try, but eyes traveling everywhere, looking for movement, breathing, any sign of an object that might be lying beneath this body -- it couldn't be booby-trapped, there hadn't been time --  Wizard bent down and reached to turn the body over.

   [His breath began to come in jerky gasps.  Sweat broke through his pores, and his legs kicked out at the sheets.]

      From long ago and far away...from near as her breath and close as her heart, Chico directed a thought into Jessie's sorting-out dream of her workday ("Get up now!).

   [Groggy, the scene of her office dissolving in shreds, Jessie Black swung her legs out of the bed.  She felt no alarm, but for some reason knew she must move.]

   Wizard grasped the black-clad shoulder of the VC.  At his touch, the 'dead body' came around like the uncoiling of a snake.  Wizard saw hopeless, terrified eyes above the twisted angry sneer of the mouth, and something about the size and shape of a dark-skinned lemon hurtled up at him.  With a grunt of shock, Wizard hit the deck, the grenade boucing off his flak jacketed chest and landing a foot from his face. 

   [She was three steps away from the bed...]

    [The man who had once been known as Wizard lashed out with a powerful fist, striking the warm pillow that just seconds before had cradled his wife's head.  The blow was followed by another, and then he kicked viciously with both feet.  His breath whined and growled in his throat.]

    [Jessie stood hugging herself in the middle of the bedroom floor.  He was dreaming about it again, and somehow she had gotten up and was well away from his flying fists.  Even in sleep he was a powerful man.  "J.D.," she said in a calm, even tone.  "J.D. -- honey, you're dreaming.  It's a dream, J.D.  Wake up, honey, time to wake up.   You're okay, it's just a bad dream."

    Her husband, the man once known to his buddies in Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, 3rd Marine Division, as 'Wizard', wakened suddenly, choking on the fear and rage of his dream.  "Shit!   Shit!" he gasped.  "It didn't go off!  It was a dud!   Goddammit, I saw his eyes, he was looking right at me!  Oh, God.  Oh, shit.  Honey...are you okay?  What did I do?  I was dreaming, I was back there again.  Goddam Vietnam."]


(Copyright 1999, Barbara -- material may not be copied or reproduced in any way without express permission)