Monday, May 16, 2011

Furlough Bridge excerpt by Jardonn Smith

In Furlough Bridge by Jardonn Smith, it's December of 1944. With the German offensive soon to be known as The Battle of the Bulge one week underway in Belgium, folks in the United States are enduring a Christmas filled with concern. Forrest Barton, who fought in the Great War of 1918, visits Kansas City's Union Station hoping to lift spirits of traveling soldiers. He meets an Army private who's missed his train home, and Forrest decides to drive the young man there himself, but as the 100-mile road trip in a blinding snow storm progresses, Forrest becomes skeptical that his charity case soldier is all he claims to be.

Furlough Bridge
MLR Press (A "Got 15 Minutes?" Read) (December, 2010)
ISBN: 978-1-60820-280-5 (ebook)


As they passed the Independence city limits, Forrest found he could see even better in the darkness of the countryside — no street lights. He slouched down a little, relaxed his body, took one hand off the wheel and unbuttoned his overcoat. "Sure am glad I filled up with gasoline earlier. Add some extra weight to this heavy machine."

"There's a truck stop open all night outside of Wellington, if you need to fill up on the way back."

"What do they sell?"

"Skelly," Gower answered, while turning and reaching to the back for his Army bag.

"That'll work."

Gower removed a small bottle from his bag, and then set the bag at his feet on the roomy front floorboard. "Would you like a snort of whiskey?" He opened the cap. "It'll keep you warm."

"Makes me sleep good, too, but not tonight." He reached for the bottle and took a short swig. "Focusing on this highway will keep me wide awake." Forrest passed the bottle.

"It's a hell of thing, ain't it?" Gower tipped back the bourbon for a swallow. "All that white coming down, and a black ribbon of asphalt cutting straight through it."

"Yep. Almost like somebody dug us a tunnel to Lexington."

"That's exactly what it is, sir." He offered the bottle. "Want another?"

"No, son, one will do for me, and I'd like for you to call me Forrest from now on. All right?"

"Can do, if you'll promise to call me Vernon."

"It's a deal."

Vernon replaced the bottle cap and returned his bourbon to his bag. "I've got to tell you, Forrest, being in that station with all those people made me real uncomfortable."

"It's a busy place. Third in the country, you know, after the two in New York."

"Hmm, I didn't know that. Of course, I get jittery on a train, too. All those people crammed together. Give me the wide open spaces any old day."

"Same here, Vernon. That's why I enjoy working for the highway department. Outdoor work. The only humans I've got to be near are the men working under me, and I can tell 'em to shut up and give me space if I feel like it." He reached for his stub and his Zippo. "You want a smoke?"

"No, thank you."

Forrest decided against it, too, thinking it would be smarter to keep his eyes on the road at all times. "Sounds like you plan on being a farmer." He stuffed the cigar stub into his shirt pocket. "Am I right?"

"That's the idea. My step-father always said he'd give me the land my real father had owned. Good soil north of the river bridge. Said he would deed it back to me when I come of age, but me getting Myrna pregnant soured his attitude. He put us up in a little house on the edge of town and told me I'd have to work for him until I'd paid him back. Other than that, he wanted nothing to do with me or my family, and he still doesn't."

"What did he think about you joining the Army?"

"Didn't like it, but he had no say in it. I would've joined the day after Pearl Harbor, but I wasn't old enough and he was still in charge of me, legally. I spent time in the school library reading about my rights, so I knew that once I turned eighteen, I belonged to me. I signed up that very day."

Forrest noticed that not only was Vernon's demeanor more relaxed, he now spoke as a man who had been places, not some naive youngster from the boon-docks. Vernon Gower had thought things out, found the answers he needed to plan his future for himself, his wife, and his children.

"So, I take it Myrna and your children are living on your Army pay?"

"I'm their only source. Whatever I can send them. I think Myrna wrote that she was looking for Christmas gift-wrapping jobs, so she might be doing that. I don't know. How about you, Forrest? You have family?"

"Oh, uh..." Forrest was caught a bit off guard by the sudden switch of subject. "I was married once. She contracted the influenza while I was overseas. You know, the epidemic of 1918, and she died from it."

"Did you get to be with her before you shipped out? I mean, you know, intimate-like?"

"Yes, I did. Several times."

"Naked?" Vernon's fist lightly tapped Forrest's bicep. "Making love skin to skin?"

Forrest chuckled. "Yes, indeed. It's the only way to be."

"Ah, there's nothing like the warmth of a soft body laying next to you."

"Or under you."

"Or on top of you."

"Mouths open. Lips locked."

"Hands running up and down your back."

"Or my hands running up and down theirs."

"Breasts pressing against mine."

"The quiet moan you hear when you kiss their neck."

"Or the louder moan you hear when you kiss their chest."

"Their surrender when you slide down to kiss their belly."

"Or the way they suck in that belly when your tongue pokes their navel."

"Or they way they smile and brighten their eyes when you raise their legs and drape them over your shoulders and..." Forrest stopped himself.

"So, Forrest, tell me about Ernest Surbaugh."

They'd reached Wellington, and at the perfect time — one-o-nine — so Forrest could momentarily switch topics. "That must be the truck stop you were talking about." Forrest checked his dash. Fuel tank three-quarters full, good to go. He gathered his thoughts and prepared his answer. "I met Ernest Surbaugh in a WPA camp. 1938. I was foreman on the project. Fixing the bridge over the Gasconade River and Highway 66 several miles in both directions. Ernie and I hit it off real quick. You know how you run across a man who thinks like you do? Same interests? Same outlook on things?"

"Kind of like you and me hit it off?"

"Sure... well, sort of. Anyway, that's me and Ernie."

"So, I take it he's in the Army and looks like me?"

"Yes. From where I was standing you looked like him. Of course, like I said, there was no reason for him to be there, but I just had to be sure."

"Makes sense. Is he about my age?"

"He's twenty-eight now. Twenty-five when he joined up."

"Do you know where he is?"

"Last letter I got he wrote in August. He was in France with the Third Army."

"Patton's men?"

"Yes." Forrest suddenly realized that despite all the questions he'd tossed out, not once had he asked this soldier about his military situation. His company. His function. His history, or current, pre-furlough assignment. "Vernon, I'm sorry. I can't believe I never got around to asking, but what company are you with?"

"7th Armored Division, 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion."

Somehow, those words and numbers, that Division and Battalion label, struck a note with Forrest, but he couldn't recall when or why. "Where were you when you got your furlough?"

"In Belgium, near a little town called Baugnez, or something like that."

"Belgium?" Forrest turned and took his eyes off the road, looking at Vernon for a second or two. "Now, son, that just doesn't make sense," he resumed looking at the highway. "I read the papers. I listen on the radio. All you men positioned in Belgium have been in a hell of a fight since last Saturday. How in the world could you get furlough?"

"Nothing was happening when my papers were approved. I got a transport out just in time."

"Well, I'll be God damned. You are one lucky son of a gun, I'll hand you that."

"Yes, I am. Proof being this snow hasn't let up one bit, but it's still melting soon as it touches down."

Voices gave way to silence. Only the heater fan, wiper blades, purr of the engine, and whine of the tires rolling on wet pavement were heard, as Forrest considered the seemingly impossible good fortune of Private Vernon Gower. He couldn't believe it. Even if Vernon had received his papers, the Army would have called him back before he got to the States. Maybe not to the front lines, but somewhere, some position where he could be put to use. At least, that's how it would have been in Forrest's day.

His heart sank as they passed the city limits sign of Lexington. Forrest turned on his interior lights and checked his watch — one forty-three. He refused to believe Vernon Gower's story, and he felt that he'd been duped after all.

The tiny house sat on a corner lot. Two steps led to a wooden porch with an overhanging roof. The front of the house had one door and one window. A light was on inside and a small tree without lights was visible. Forrest also noticed the silhouette of a service banner hanging in the window. He stood behind Vernon with shopping bag in hand, as Vernon knocked on the screen door.

The porch light came on. The wooden door opened, and a woman wrapped in a robe stood behind the screen. "Yes?"

She looked right past Vernon and directly at Forrest. Or, more precisely, she looked through Vernon, and he turned around to face Forrest. "Go ahead, give her our presents."

Dumbfounded, Forrest shifted to his right. Looked at Vernon, and then at the woman, who asked. "Can I help you, sir?"

Vernon nodded his head toward the window. "That blue star service banner will be replaced by a gold one soon." He took a step toward Forrest, stood with his left breast a few inches from Forrest's. "Sorry I had to tell you a lie, Forrest. I never left Belgium. She's not expecting me or these presents, so go ahead, give her the bag."

"Sir?" she pressed him. "What is it you want?"

"Oh, uh... here," Forrest held the bag forward. "These are for you, Mrs. Gower, and Thomas and Debbie."

"I don't understand," she stayed behind the screen door. "Who are you?"

Vernon placed his hand on Forrest's shoulder. "Just a good friend. That's who you are, Forrest. Tell her."

"Yes, uh, I'm a friend of your husband, Vernon Gower, and he wanted me to bring these for you." Forrest set down the bag, as Vernon moved behind him.

"You know Vernon Gower?" she asked.

Forrest turned away from her and faced Vernon, who spoke to him. "Thank you for doing what I couldn't do." He took two steps backward, stopping at the edge of the porch. "I've got to walk over to that river bridge, now. You got me here just in time."

"Mister?" the woman barked with frustration. "How do you know my husband? And what are you looking at out there in the yard? Mister? Can't you hear me?"

Forrest ignored her, as Vernon turned and descended the steps. With Army bag in hand, he faced Forrest once again. "One final thing. Your Ernie, he's all right. He's on the march with Patton's Third. He's a good man, Forrest Barton, and so are you."

Private Vernon Gower walked into the darkness, leaving Forrest gawking in puzzlement and a woman nearly in tears.

"Please, sir. I don't know who you are, and you're scaring me. I am going to close and lock this door if you don't..."

"Yes, ma'am, I apologize," Forrest picked up the bag and stepped to the door. "My name is Forrest Barton. Your husband wired me money awhile back, and in his telegram he asked me to purchase and deliver these Christmas gifts to you, from him."

"How do you know him, Mr. Barton? He's never mentioned you in his letters."

"Let's just say our paths crossed for good reason and leave it at that." Again, Forrest held up the bag, chest level.

"Well, Mr. Barton, I will have to trust you, because whatever you've got in your bag is the only Christmas presents my children are going to have this year." She unhooked the screen door. "Other than the goo-gaws I'm making for them." She pushed open the screen. "Won't you come in?"

Her home was a matchbox. One open space, twenty-five by twenty feet with ceiling ten feet high. The front window was the only one in the house. The floors were bare, unfinished wood, no throw rugs. To one side of the back door was a sink with a hand-pump for water. Short wooden planks on either side of the sink were supported by wooden cabinets, no varnish, no paint. Near the sink against the side wall was a big metal wash tub for bathing.

Moving counter-clock-wise, Forrest quickly scanned the rest of the room. To the other side of the back door was a metal frame bed, springs in the frame and a mattress about two inches thick. A wooden chest beside the bed served as a dresser. Rope tied to hooks from two spots on the ceiling was left to hang loose, forming a U shape, and a few wire hangers with articles of clothing hung from the rope. In the center of the side wall was a free-standing, wood-burning stove. Fire crackled inside, the room's only source of heat, and the flue pipe, leaking sporadic wisps of black smoke, ran straight up before curving to its exit through the wall near the ceiling.

Near the stove was a ratty-looking couch, its dull gray fabric worn and with holes. A white-turned-to-gray sheet covered its seat cushions, and two children slept foot to foot atop the sheet and beneath one pink blanket, badly faded. In the corner was a scraggly-looking cedar tree plopped into a hand-made wooden stand. No presents were under the tree. Ornaments hung by string were made of white paper cut into shapes of stars or bulbs, with designs drawn by black lead pencil.

Next to the tree, the window framed the back side of a blue star service banner hanging proudly. Past the front door sat a rough wooden table with four chairs, no finish, no table cloth, just some paper, a pair of scissors, and a pencil — the table being used for her construction of ornaments.

Illuminating the entire room was one bare bulb dangling from one bare wire three feet from the ceiling, a string hanging from the short chain for the off and on.

"Your step-father-in-law doesn't think much of you, does he?" Forrest stepped toward the tree. "What does he do, intercept the money Vernon sends to you?" He pulled gifts one by one from the bag and placed them under the drying and dying cedar.

"They're held at the post office. Mr. Hantz gets the money, and I get the letter afterward."

"Yes, well, that is highly illegal, if you ask me." He bent down and picked up one present. "Here, this one is for you."

At first she hesitated, and then she stepped forward, grabbed the package and ripped away paper like a cat shredding mouse flesh. "Oh, my goodness!" Her eyes welled up and she covered her mouth with her fingers, trying to hold back tears.

"Try it on," Forrest took the box with its plastic window, opened it for her and removed the watch. She held out her left arm, and he wrapped its elegant-looking, thin band of tan leather around her wrist, securing its clasp of pin through band hole, excess hide tucked under leather loop.

She held it in front of her face, extended her arm and twisted, viewing her watch from all angles. "It's... beautiful."

"Merry Christmas, from Vernon. Here, let me set it to the time I have."

"He's dead, isn't he?"


"You know who. Vernon."

"Well, now, you don't know that. Sure, he's in a tough fight, but that doesn't mean..."

"Yes it does. His fight is over and I know it. More reports come in every day about the massacre. I hear it on the radio in the shop where I've been working part-time wrapping presents."

"What massacre?"

"Malmedy. That was his unit."

The light came on inside Forrest's noggin, his memory stirred. That's where he'd heard the Battalion number. News reports. He almost blurted it out, but caught himself. "Oh, yes. It's a rotten thing, from what I've heard about it. What unit did you say Vernon was in?"

"The 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion. I memorized it long ago. Those are the men who surrendered, and the Germans took them to a field and shot them dead."

"Not all of them," he tried to console her. "A few got away. That's how we're getting reports about what..."

"Mr. Barton," she broke in. "Please, please get me and my children out of this place. I hate to ask you. I have no right to ask you, but I will simply die here without Vernon to protect me."

As she burst into tears, Forrest wrapped her in his arms, his hand nestling her head against his breast so she could hide her face. The wool of his coat muted her outburst, so as to not awaken the children. He let her cry. He gently rubbed her neck with one hand, patted her back with the other, and slowly swayed back and forth as though comforting a child. "It's all right, dear one. You go right ahead and cry. You've got every right to cry. Everything's going to be fine."

Forrest had it figured. Undoubtedly, Marvin Hantz carried a lot of weight in Lexington. If he said Myrna Gower was trash, she was trash. Sure, it might still have been fairly common in small towns for a teenage girl to get pregnant, but it dropped her social status to that of a dog turd. Whether she had blood relatives in Lexington or not, Myrna Gower's future, and therefore her children's future, looked rather bleak.

As Myrna gradually regained control of her sobbing, Forrest separated enough so she could see his face. "Myrna, if you are one-hundred percent sure you want to leave, gather up whatever belongings you want to take with you and pile them on the porch. Forget the furniture. It's all junk."

"It all belongs to Marvin Hantz."

"So I suspected. Get the clothes and whatever. I'll load your stuff into my Buick's big ol' trunk. We'll wrap Thomas and Debbie good and warm, and I will take you all to Kansas City. There are plenty of jobs for women in the cities. Good jobs. Factories need women because the men are at war. Good schools for your kids, too. So, what do you say?"

"Give me five minutes and we'll be ready to go."
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Victor J. Banis said...

Ah, Jardonn, that is so lovely, thank you for this little gem.


Mykola ( Mick) Dementiuk said...

Nice Jardonn, I could see myself drinking from the same bottle.

Jardonn Smith said...

Eric: Thank you for posting my excerpt.

Victor: Thank you for reading, liking and commenting.

Mick: I would like to have been that bottle.