October 8, 2018

“Rearguard,” A Short Story by Robert Perron

“Rearguard,” A Short Story by Robert Perron

Jana backed off from Barry’s fart. No odor but a blast, a massive rip that blossomed the seat of his Royal Robbins convoy shorts before undulating out a leg hole. Okay, maybe she imagined the blossoming and undulating, but not the acoustics. Barry, a meter ahead, uphill, his left boot perched on a stone set in the trail for that purpose, twisted his body and said, “Sorry.” A wide tan hat protected his balding pate and shadowed the mien of sincerity on his salt and pepper face.

“Quite all right,” said Jana. “Some things can’t be helped. I suppose.”

Barry turned, applied hiking poles to path, and lifted his right foot. Jana let him gain several steps, and several steps later he ripped another, his head making a half turn and his shoulders shrugging. Oh, thought Jana, why did I sign up for this? But answered her own question, for an overseas adventure on the cheap, airfare her only expense. In exchange, she helped Mike with logistics and co-led the hikes, working the sweep position. She let Barry get ahead a few more steps.

The trail leveled and entered a stand of thin hardwood. Barry stopped, dropped his pack, and unzipped an outer pocket. He glanced up from his bent-over rummaging and said, “Afraid I need a bio break.”

Jana put forefinger and middle finger to her lips and cast a sharp whistle. As Barry tucked in his head, the eleven hikers ahead stopped and turned.

“Tell Mike we’ll be delayed,” said Jana.

Sound waves rippled to the front of the group and back. Number eleven, a stocky blond, turned,  and said with New York elocution, “Can’t it wait ten minutes?”

Jana said, “Doesn’t look like it.”

Sound waves again rippled up and back, and number eleven said, “Okay, we’ll wait for you at the next trail junction, but try to make it snappy.” The front eleven resumed their march.

Barry entered the hardwoods, trail right, clutching a quart baggie of toilet paper. He paused mid-step and said, “You can go on. I’ll catch up.”

Jana shook her head. “You know I can’t. I’m the sweep.” Barry disappeared into the trees.

Jana took assigned responsibilities with their deserved seriousness. Her job as sweep entailed, if nothing else, security: to be the last one through, to make sure nobody wandered off trail, to alert Mike of any issues—an injury, an equipment failure, an urgent call of nature.

She leaned on her poles and peered rearward. On in-and-out hikes, rearward glances helped with trail recognition coming out. On any hike, they alerted the group to happenings from behind, such as overtaking trekkers, or animals.

Jana leaned further over her poles. A four-legged critter, tan in color, head down, ears up, had emerged at the last bend in the trail. As the animal approached, Jana confirmed its species: a canine, a domesticated dog, a lab, she decided, it being hefty but not a shepherd or collie. The animal stopped and lifted a back leg—a male lab.

Jana advanced a step, putting herself between the dog and Barry’s pack, between the dog and her group. She knew that vagabond dogs in foreign countries posed danger, not so much of attack, but disease. They carried insects and harbored viruses. They could scratch and nip and emit fluids. When they approached a group, people could not resist reaching out a hand or bending from the waist.

Dogs back home were different, pampered, picked up after, neutered, immunized, bathed. The couple in the next apartment had a terrier, no children but a terrier. Jana recalled the day they brought it home, over eleven years ago, ringing her bell, double smiles from the hallway, the puppy giving a yip. She remembered the timing because behind her, the phone had rung and she’d stepped in to glance down at call waiting. Her ex-husband, not in the habit of making frivolous calls. Jana gave a wave to her neighbors and picked up.

“Ronnie’s dropping down for a visit,” her ex said.

“That’s nice,” said Jana, but wondered why her son wasn’t calling himself. “Do you think he’ll stay over a night?”

“Yeah. I’m sure, yeah.”

“Because I could get tickets for a show.”

“Yeah, I’m sure he’d like that. Look, Jana, he wanted me to mention something before he got there.”

Jana squeezed the receiver.

“He’s dropping out of school.”

“Well. I know he’s been struggling. But I don’t think he’s giving it a proper chance, do you?”

“I know, I know,” her ex said. “But he’ll talk to you. He wanted you to have a heads-up, that’s all.”

“Of course. Well, he’s put you in an awkward position, the bearer of bad news.”

“It’s okay. It’s okay. Look, there’s more.”

“More?”

“But Ronnie will tell you.”

Ronnie arrived that night, a Friday night. Jana had tickets for Les Miserables, Saturday matinee. They sat on stools in the kitchen nook, her with a glass of white wine, Ronnie with an underage beer. He thumbed the theater tickets. “Great seats.” He slipped the tickets into their envelope and placed the envelope on the counter. “What happened—it’s just, you know, I got there and it wasn’t like high school. I couldn’t deal with it.”

Jana had discarded her first impulse, to lecture Ronnie on sticking it out, chin up, first semester’s always tough, it would get better. She said, “Maybe you’re right. Maybe a year off isn’t a bad idea. What do they call it? A gap year?”

“It’s more than a year,” said Ronnie.

“Oh?”

“I’m going in the army, mom.”

“Now that,” said Jana, “might be a bad idea.” She gave a short laugh.

“It’s a done deal. Off to basic next week.”

Jana lifted her wine and wet her lips.

“It’ll get my head straight, mom. It’ll give me discipline. And there’s the GI Bill coming out.”

“Ronnie, your father and I can afford to give you an education.” She tried a joke: “We don’t need military intervention.” Ronnie’s eyes remained locked on his glass of beer, half gone, a thin head remaining. Jana said, “So this is okay with your father?”

“He’s totally on board, mom. Says he wished he’d done it himself.” Her ex in the military? What a laugh. She hadn’t been able to get him to walk around the block. She hadn’t been able to get him to pick up his dirty clothes.

“They have specialties,” said Jana. “Right? Which one did you sign up for?”

“Mom, if I’m going in, I’m going in as a straight-up infantry soldier.”

“But, Ronnie, honey, look at you, you don’t weigh a hundred and thirty. You can’t stand the slightest pain.”

Ronnie flushed. Wrong approach—stupid, stupid. She reached along the counter and took his hand. “Sorry, honey, you know me, just being a mom.”

Saturday evening, after the show, after dinner, after Ronnie caught a Metro-North train up the east side of the Hudson, Jana dialed her ex. She assumed a neutral tone. “Wasn’t there anything you could do to prevent this?”

“Jana, he has his own mind. You know as well as I—look, maybe this is good for him.”

“Good for him? There’s a war on. Boys are being killed.”

“It’s not that bad. Casualties are light. Hell, you’re more likely to die here in an auto accident.” Jana’s head slumped. “You still there, Jana?”

“Yes. How’s Elizabeth?”

“Oh, fine, you know, busy as always.”

“And the kids?”

“Fine, fine.”

Eight months later Jana caught a flight to Columbus, Georgia, the Metropolitan Airport, then the shuttle to Fort Benning. She listened to a speech on a stage in Infantry Hall by a one-star general and watched her son walk across for his ranger patch and a handshake. Outside, standing in the parking lot, Jana surveyed Ronnie and wondered how he’d done it. Dress pants bloused in paratrooper boots, airborne wings above his left pocket, ranger patch for his left shoulder, beret.

“A chip off the old block,” her ex said.

“What do you mean?” said Jana.

“I mean you, with all your mountain climbing and outdoor adventures. He doesn’t get it from me. Let’s have a picture.”

Ronnie extended an arm over her shoulder. Jana wrapped an arm around her son’s waist. Her ex-husband snapped and two weeks later sent a five-by-eight proof. Jana and Ronnie stood leaning into each other, same height, same gray eyes, same full-lipped smiles.

#

The lab tried to slide by on Jana’s right. Jana planted a pole and stamped a boot. “Stay,” she said. “Vamoose.” The dog raised his eyes and consummated a tail wag. “Vamoose,” Jana said. He folded his legs and lay in the trail with raised head and panting tongue.

“That will get you nowhere.” Jana widened her eyes. “It’s nothing personal.”

Jana glanced at her watch, turned her head to the woods, and raised her voice, “Barry, I don’t mean to be intrusive, but how’s it going?”

His voice arrived from ten meters into the trees. “Need a few more minutes.”

#

Two months after Ronnie’s deployment to Iraq, Jana took a call from the garrison chaplain at West Point. Ninety minutes later he sat in Jana’s kitchen nook with another officer, a captain, both in dress greens. The captain explained that they’d first notified her ex because that was her son’s legal residence. They then drove downriver asking the ex not to call ahead.

“Of course, you must have had a premonition,” said the chaplain. “But in a way it’s better than us just showing up at the door.”

Jana nodded. “Would you like some coffee?”

“Absolutely,” said the chaplain.

They stayed for an hour.

In the days that followed, Jana received a letter from Ronnie’s commander and emails from his buddies, and remembered she’d told the captain correspondence was okay. She pieced together the incident, a foot patrol through a village, Ronnie sensing something amiss, taking it upon himself to act as the team’s rearguard. Militants appeared on the patrol’s tail, gunning fast pickup trucks, firing RPGs and AK-47s. Ronnie’s holding action saved the patrol.

The post-funeral reception was at the ex’s, Ronnie’s boyhood home, a spacious house with wide windows, sliding glass doors, and a view of the river. An eclectic mix. His high school chums, neighbors, work associates on both sides, relatives on both sides, plus the military. The reception had passed the solemn stage, had entered the chat stage with nods and laughs, aided by whiskey and wine.

Jana’s ex stood among a circle of green uniforms. He extended an arm toward Jana and said, “Here’s the one.” She didn’t know what he meant but felt obliged to walk over.

“Tell these guys,” her ex said. “How many times have you climbed Breakneck Ridge?”

Faces craned in her direction.

“Breakneck,” said one of the airborne rangers. “Wow.”

Jana smiled. “It’s not that difficult.”

Her ex lifted his palms. “What did I tell you?” The soldiers laughed. “That’s where Ronnie got it from. Not me.” Her ex stared at his shoes. The light laughs from the soldiers trailed off.

A while later, Elizabeth took Jana in an extended embrace. “Oh Jana,” she said, “this is so awful.” True, thought Jana, but you have the second family. I only had Ronnie. Jana pushed the hard-hearted thoughts away, for Elizabeth had raised Ronnie from age ten, had been an admirable step-mom.

#

The lab, flat on his stomach, gave a low moan and wiped a  paw over his snout. He raised his eyes to Jana.

“Mind yourself,” she said.

Leaves crunched, twigs crackled, and Barry exited the woods. He leaned over and pushed his half-depleted baggie of toilet paper into the outer pocket of his pack.

Jana said, “Where’s your carry-out?”

“My what?”

“Barry, you know the protocol. Leave no trace.”

“Jana, I’m not carrying out a bag of shit.”

“I realize it’s distasteful—”

“Distasteful? There’s no fucking way—”

Jana rapped Barry’s pack with her pole. “You will kindly watch your language.”

Barry’s face reddened. “Jana, where do the animals go?” He pointed at the lab. “Where does this mutt go? There’s shit all over the woods.”

“You have,” Jana said, “a tenuous argument for the feces, but not for the soiled paper.”

Barry had closed his pack. He picked up his hiking poles and faced Jana. “It’s covered up, for God’s sake. Nobody’s ever going to see it unless they go searching.”

“I’m very disappointed in this breach of etiquette, Barry.”

“Etiquette my ass,” said Barry, spraying spittle like a Shakespearean actor. “You want to carry it out? Come on.” He motioned toward the woods. “I’ll show you where it is.”

Jana wondered if she, in Barry’s place, would carry out a load of shit, or even soiled paper. The point being moot, since she avoided such contingencies with an early coffee and the pre-hike movement it induced. She glanced at her watch.

”Okay, perhaps we’re getting carried away.”

“Yeah,” said Barry, “I mean, I don’t—”

“Let’s forget it.”

“Amen,” said Barry. He shouldered his pack and cinched the hip belt. As he stepped off, the lab unbent its legs and rose. And this sad mutt, thought Jana, what harm can he do?

“Go on,” she said with a wave. The lab lifted his eyebrows. “Go on,” said Jana. “Permission granted.”

A little lecture, Jana thought, this evening. She’d discuss it with Mike: people, for your own safety, do not pet or otherwise consort with domestic animals.

The lab caught up to Barry, went to pass on the left, but his snout caught a scent. He veered right and took two loud sniffs from the seat of Barry’s convoy shorts, making contact on the second whiff. Barry thrust his groin forward, bent his knees, and twisted his head.

“Hey, watch it,” he said.

The lab sidestepped left and barked. Oh, no, thought Jana, but the dog picked up its trot and disappeared around the next bend in the trail. A minute later, Barry disappeared. When Jana reached the bend, she stopped and took a look to the rear.

All clear.

***

 

Robert Perron lives and writes in New Hampshire and New York City. Past life includes high-tech and military service. His stories have appeared in Prick of the Spindle, The Manchester Review, Pif Magazine, Sweet Tree Review, The Icarus Review, and other journals.

 

 

 

 

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