George Wolfe


Chapter 1





     To hell with the war.  Sergeant Dante Gabriel Larocca figured he was done.  Horn blaring, pedestrians scattering, he sliced through the afternoon traffic in a green surplus Army jeep.  Riding shotgun beside him sat an elegant, over-sized, gray weimaraner, the dog's princely decorum somewhat compromised by the aviator goggles it wore to guard against the slipstream.  Larocca, 28, black-haired, battle-scarred, hard-muscled, and lately of the United States Army, was deeply pissed.  

     "Stinkin' civilians," he muttered, flipping the bird at a yellow cab that cut him off.  Dante tailgated the cab to the next red light, then forced his jeep between two traffic lanes, pulling up tight, nearly clipping the cab driver's beefy arm.

     "Hey, pal," shouted Larocca, "you ever hear of hand signals?

     The cabby looked at him, looked at the jeep.  And spat.

     "War's over, hero.  Back to work," the cabby said, and drove off.

     Although he'd mustered out of the service that morning, Larocca was still in uniform, his unbuttoned tunic open to the early fall air.  Pinned on the tunic's left breast were three rows of battle ribbons topped off with two purple hearts and the Silver Star.

     Larocca turned to the dog.

     "Sir Plus, it appears we ain't in Berlin any more."

     The weimaraner barked. 

     Three minutes and ten blocks later, Larocca wheeled into a parking spot in front of a movie theatre and right behind a shiny, black 1939 Buick.  He eased the jeep forward until its bumper kissed the Buick's, then cut his engine and sat for a moment, staring at the immaculate sedan.

     "That's Bruno's.  Dead certain."

     The dog peered at him through the goggles, hoping this pit stop meant food, water, sex or all three.  Larocca reached out and slipped the goggles off Sir Plus.

     "Stay here.  Anybody approaches, you know what to do."

     He eased out of the jeep and looked around, buttoning his tunic and feeling the heat.  Passing cars jostled for position with trolleys.  Sweaty kids chased each other down the sidewalk, weaving and cursing--and being cursed--through the late afternoon crowd of shoppers heading home.  Two drunken sailors drifted by, arm-in-arm--their white uniforms smudged with victory, hats slanted at rakish angles--singing at the top of their voices something that sounded like "Angers Await, My Goys." 

     Dante didn't see anybody he knew.    

     "Hey, Sarge, over here.  I got just what you need.  Tents, tarps, bayonets.  You buying or selling?"

     A rancid little toadstool with a big paunch, a small mustache, and a failed comb-over beckoned to him from a storefront.  Inside, Dante could see mountains of surplus military gear.  He glanced back at the Buick, felt his pockets for something that wasn't there, and turned to the toadstool.

     "Bayonets you got?"

     Inside the store, he fingered the business end of a like-new blade.  The fat guy watched, then gestured toward Dante's ribbons.

     "Two Purple Hearts.  Looks like you got into some real shit over there.  Is that the Silver Star or. . .?"

     "I forget.  Let me borrow this a minute."

     "Now, wait. . . ."

     Outside, Dante worked through the crowd toward the Buick, easing the bayonet out of its sheath.  He paused, lit a cigarette, dropped the pack near the car, bent over, and with a lock-picker's skill snicked the long blade into the right rear tire. 

     With a gentle whoosh, it collapsed.

     He sauntered around the car, watching for cops and repeating his game three more times until the Buick had eased onto its rims like a high-paid hooker.  The sidewalk throng kept moving.  Nobody seemed to notice; however, inside the Army/Navy store, the little fat guy watched.  Then he picked up the telephone and began dialing.  Before he finished, Dante was standing next to him. 

     "Calling your wife?"

     "Uh, yeah, um, no, I was. . . I was calling. . ."  He put the phone down. 

     "There ya' go.  Careful.  This thing's sharp."

     Dante dropped the bayonet on the counter, wiped his hands on the fat guy's shirt and walked out.

     Back on the street, he tied a length of nylon parachute cord around Sir Plus's neck, ordered the dog out of the jeep and led him toward the theatre.  In the ticket window sat a dour older woman wearing a bad wig, chewing gum, and smoking a cheroot.

     "One for the feature," he said, pushing a dollar through the little hole in the glass.

     The woman looked at Sir Plus.

     "What is that?"

     "Weimaraner.  It's a highly bred. . .

     "It's a dog, and dogs ain't allowed."

     Dante pointed to his head and looked doleful.

     "War wound, ma'am.  He's my seeing-eye dog."

     "I don't care if he's your freakin' brother.  No dogs inside."

     Dante watched the woman chew and drag on her cigar.  He'd never seen anybody do that before, but her smirk reminded him of certain Army MPs he'd confronted in England, Italy, France and Germany, nasty little pissants from places like. . . like Idaho and. . . goddamn Iowa.  It was the pleasure the ticket woman took in barring him that did it.

    "Okay, right, lady.  We'll do it your way."

    He dropped the ersatz dog lead, told Sir Plus to 'Sit,' turned and walked through the red, padded-leather theatre doors to the right of the ticket booth. 

     "Where the hell are you. . .?" Her voice was muffled.

     Once inside, he spun left, spotted the door that led to the booth and saw the key in the lock.  Snake-fast, he locked the door and pocketed the key.

     "Hey. . . Hey!  You bastard!"  The woman pounded on the door.

     He wheeled, pushed open the front doors and motioned to Sir Plus.  The dog leaped forward, and together they entered the darkened theatre where Dante could hear Bugs Bunny amusing the crowd.  Inside the carpeted lobby, Dante paused to savor the air conditioning. 

     Jesus, that was nice.  How long had it been?  Two years?  Three?  Air conditioning.  Jeez.   

     Jagged memories thrummed through his brain:  dead guys; blood; butchery; a dismantling fear; images of his former ringmaster, General Patton, swearing at some hapless lieutenant, those big pearl-handled, Colt .45 single-action revolvers on his hips.  Dante flashed on the suffocating heat inside his Sherman tank fighting its way through Sicily and across France.  He caught a fleeting sight of Scapoli, of Rosenberg and Fenster, and half a hundred other dead guys. 

     And particularly of Buddy Fooshee.  Old Buddy, who used to say, 'It ain't nothing but luck, boys, and there's only two kinds.'

     And then proved it.

     Pausing in the lobby was a tactical error.  The sergeant and his 110 lb. weimaraner had attracted the attention of a uniformed usher now hastening toward them.  As the man approached, Dante started to lead Sir Plus into the theatre proper.

     "Hey," a stage whisper from the usher, "you can't bring dogs in here."

     "Seeing-eye. . . The ticket lady said it was okay."

     Skeptical, the usher hurried nearer, brandishing his flashlight until, at about ten feet, a low growl began leaking from Sir Plus.  The sound seemed to originate from some mist-shrouded, Teutonic valley deep in the dog's immemorial Wagnerian past.  Sir Plus's purplish lip curled back, revealing what struck the usher as remarkably long ivory tusks.  He stopped, flashlight extended in defense.

     "Mabel okayed this?" he said.
     "Right.  Mabel.  Lady selling the tickets."

     The usher paused, trying to reassemble his dignity.

     "Well, all right, then, enjoy the show. . . But no barking."

     "Thanks.  Come on, boy.  Let's find our pal, Bruno."

     They entered the theatre just as the Movietone news-reel was beginning.  Inching down the aisle, Dante could see the house was only about a quarter full--snuggling couples and retirees looking to fill the void in a hot afternoon.  The news-reel was all about the returning war veterans.  Over a patriotic score, Ed Herlihy's voice declared victory in Europe!

     The wonderful, dreadful new Atomic Bomb!

     Hiroshima!  Nagasaki!  Tens of Thousands Dead!

     The Genius of American Invention.

     Victory in Japan! 

     On the screen, troop ships full of celebrating soldiers steamed beneath Golden Gate Bridge.  They hollered.  They waved.  They kissed the girls.  Grinning sailors downed bottles of beer.  In New York, Times Square went mad all over again.  Ticker tape rained down.  Old women wept.  Young women laughed and pushed children into the arms of uniformed men the kids didn't recognize.  And didn't particularly like the smell of.  And maybe never would. 

     Herlihy continued:


                That's right, folks!  Our GIs

                are heading home at last!  With

                the war over in the Pacific, these

                boys are returning to a heroes'

                welcome in the good old U.S. of A.!

                Well done, fellas. . .!

Dante made Sir Plus sit, then eased into an aisle seat next to a young stud who was chowing down on his date's ear.

     "Hey, Vinny, you seen Bruno?"

     Vinny whirled, "Dante! You're back!  How you doin', man?  Hey, Lucille, look who. . ."

     Dante clapped his hand over Vinny's mouth.

     "I'm good, Vinny.  Never better.  Bruno around?"

     Vinny's eyelids nictated.  Dante removed his hand as Vinny's mouth worked nervous little figure-eights.  Even in the darkened theatre Dante could see he'd hit pay dirt. 

     "It's okay, Vinny," Dante said.  "I know."

     Vinny glanced at Lucille who focused on the screen.  Then he too looked at the screen, where veterans, loaded down with books, hustled across university campuses, past admiring co-eds and jealous freshman boys.  The vets were intercut with their wives tending babies in cramped apartments and hanging out diapers and sheets on clothes lines strung between knockabout temporary housing.  The audience cheered as Herlihy continued his PR assignment:


                . . . Now here're some ambitious

                vets:  going to college on the G.I.

                Bill!  For most, the first in their

                family to do so.  Good luck, men!    

     For a moment, Dante thought Vinny had forgotten the question.  Then he saw that his old stick-ball pal was just assessing the options.  Finally, Vinny pointed his chin at a spot several rows ahead, looked at Dante, raised his eyebrows and gave a little shrug--what the American GIs in Europe had called a `French salute.'  The gesture wove together equal parts of loyalty, friendship, sympathy, fear, schadenfreude, and rat fink.  Dante nodded his thanks, touched Vinnie on the shoulder, and grabbed the dog lead.

     Ten rows ahead, he slipped into a seat behind a courting couple whose heads were nearly touching.  The man had his left hand up the woman's dress, while the woman's right hand fumbled with the man's zipper.  Both were breathing hard and whispering over each other's lines:

     "Can you. . ."

     "I can't get it. . . Lean back. . ."

     "Wait, let me move my. . ."

     "It's stuck or something. . ."

     Dante leaned forward:  "Can I be of assistance, Bruno? Maria?"

     The two lovebirds jumped, then froze.

     "Dante?"  Bruno's voice came out an octave high.

     "The same." Dante said, grabbing a fistful of Bruno's zoot suit jacket.  "Get up, fucknuckle.  I'm late."

     With his scrunched-up coat serving as an ad hoc noose, Bruno couldn't fully turn, but he flailed backward with his left arm trying to strike at Dante.  Instead, he had the ill luck to smack the patient Sir Plus on the end of his urbane snout.  The startled dog roared to life.  A frenzy of barking rose in the cooled air of the theatre.  There, it was joined by dueling profanities from the men.  Then by a fishmonger screech from Maria. 

     All in all, it was enough to overcome Mr. Herlihy's filmed paean to Armed Victory.  And to bring ushers boiling like cockroaches from every hatch, each armed with a lit flashlight and professional outrage.  As five of them converged on the melee, their beams swung crazily in all directions, like tiny versions of the great London searchlights that had recently probed the night sky for Marshall Goerring's Heinkels and Junkers during the blitz.  Within seconds, the two cursing principals, the roaring dog, the screaming woman and five grunting ushers formed a roiling throng scrabbling toward the nearest emergency exit. 

     Meanwhile, other audience members fled to opposite sides of the theatre, men buttoning their pants, women their blouses.  A few drunks slept through it all.  The newsreel had now shifted to President Truman's nasal Missouri twang welcoming two uniformed Medal of Honor winners to the White House in an ecstasy of patriotism.

     The young pilot was missing a leg.  The dogface, both arms and an eye.

     Crashing into the theatre exit door, the two biggest ushers gained a tenuous control over Dante and Bruno, while Maria, following close behind in her bright yellow sun dress, kept reaching past one usher to bang Dante over the head with her matching handbag.

    "Get the bitch off me," shouted Big Usher #1.

    "Open the door," shouted Big Usher #2.

    "Watch the goddamn dog," shouted Usher #3, grabbing Maria's purse in mid-bang. 

     Usher #4 flung open the exit door. 

     Usher #5--the original fellow in the lobby--stood by, summoning alibis as to how all this might have begun, with special emphasis on explaining the weimaraner's presence.

     The exit door opened onto a fetid alley separating the theatre from the Army/Navy store.  First to spill out was the dog, ears back, at full cry.  Following him came Dante, Bruno, and Ushers #1 & #2 locked in a ball of sound and fury.  Sweating, their uniforms ripped, the ushers heaved the miscreants as far as they could into the alley, then tried to slam the door, only to be blocked by the body of their bellowing comrade, Usher #3, to whose left ear Maria clung by her teeth like a deranged weasel.

     "Somebody kill this cunt," shouted Usher #3.

     Usher #4 grabbed Maria by the nose and throat, forcing her mouth open and releasing Usher #3 who, bloodied but unbowed, kicked Maria in the ass, thrust her through the exit door and slammed it behind her.  Inside the theatre, management had turned up the house lights to reveal a hundred terrified patrons huddled along the farthest wall.

     "It's all right, folks," said Usher #1, his voice hoarse between gasps for breath.  "Party's over.  Please take your seats."  As he straightened his little pill-box usher-hat he nodded to the nice young couple, Vinny and Lucille, hurrying past him to the rear.


*   *   *


     Outside in the alley, Dante was completing a brutal whipping of Bruno Kretchmer, while Sir Plus, trembling with anticipation, had Maria pinned against the brick wall, his teeth bared at knee-level, his hackles standing upright in a bristly line from head to stubby tail. 

      Bruno lay on his back.  Dante sat astraddle his chest, one hand gripping Bruno's shirt front, the other slapping either side of his ex-friend's face, emphasizing each blow in a sort of syncopated rhetoric of violence:  "That's (slap) for my thirty-seven months (slap), thirteen days (slap) overseas (slap), you slack-assed (slap) draft-dodging (slap) gold-brickin' son-of-a-bitch! (slap) Yo', Kretchmer, you listenin' to me? (two slaps).

     "Dante, stop. . . Stop it, you bastard!"  Frozen to the wall, Maria was in tears.  Mid-stroke, Dante stopped, seeing her and Sir Plus caught in their standoff.

     "Sir Plus: Back!"  Dante was panting, his face flushed, his knuckles bleeding.  The big dog cut his eyes at Dante but didn't move. 

     "Back!  Heel!"  Sir Plus released only a milierg of tension, but he did back away a couple of steps.   

     "So, Maria, looking good.  How you doin'?"

     "You animal!"

     "Hey, I'm a war hero."

     "Yeah, it was in the papers."

     "I'm also your goddamn husband."

     Bruno groaned. 

     "I hate you!" Maria said.

     Dante stood up, breathing hard. 

     "Now you tell me!" he said.

     "Whatta you expect?  You been gone fuh evah.  I was lonely.  I didn't think. . . ."

     The fight had torn Dante's Army tunic at the pocket.  His decorations hung by a thread.  He ripped them off and thrust them at Maria.

     "Lonely?  You see these here," he said, "these little colored ribbons?  You know what they mean?  They mean I just spent the last three years writing you four letters a week and getting my ass shot off while you were back here humping this no-'count Kraut motherfucker."

     Maria looked away, silent. 

     "You got nothin' to say about that?  No explanations?  No 'helpless-war-widow-lost-without-her-man excuses'?"

     She turned back toward her husband.

     "I love him, Dante."

     He stared at her, processing this piece of raw data. 

     "You love him?  That's it? . . . Okay, I get it.  I loved you, but you loved him, so fuck me.  Love!"  In his mouth the word sounded filthy.

     "Jesus wept," he said, and stuck the ribbons into his pants pocket.  Bruno rolled onto his side, blood seeping from his nose and mouth.  Dante looked from one to the other, then kicked Bruno's ass.

     "I ought to kill the both of yous," he said.

     "Bruno. . . darling?"  Edging around Sir Plus, Maria knelt by her fallen hero.  Dante stepped back.

     "So, Maria," he said, "how's old Kretchmer the Kraut in the sack, eh?  Good as you and me way back when, before I went overseas like a good Boy Scout to defend liberty and justice for all?  Can he go all night with you, like I could, huh, with those long, slow, deep strokes you use to beg for?  Or, what about my little thing with the tongue, you know, that drove you nuts that time up on the roof?  Made you pass out, as I recall."

     Maria didn't answer.  Murmuring Bruno's name, she used her skirt to blot the blood beneath his nose.

     "Hey, Maria, I'm talkin' to you!"

     When she looked up, her face had contorted into a mask of pure malice.

     "I hear you, Dante.  And let me tell you something, you big jerk. . ."  She stopped, uncertain that what she was about to say would not lead to the double homicide earlier threatened.  Dante leaned in toward her, making a 'So'? gesture with his eyes.  She saw his sweat, the pulsing of that vein in his neck, his thick arms hanging limp. 

     She knew him totally, and she recognized in his face a more crippling pain than any she had ever inflicted on another human being.  At that moment, she was not proud.  She did not gloat.  She felt no sense of triumph.  Still, she may have been a faithless, two-timing bitch, and she was certainly frightened, but she was not, finally, a coward.

     "Well?" he said.

     "I'm. Pregnant."