Hollings is the best man in training, the strongest, the fastest, the toughest, but Sarge still gives him a hard time. Maybe he gives him a hard time because Hollings is the best man, even better than Sarge himself, and Sarge can’t stand knowing that, and knowing that Hollings knows it too. So he gives Hollings shit over small things – he doesn’t like the way Hollings makes his bunk, he doesn’t like the way Hollings ties his boots, he doesn’t even like the way Hollings eats in the mess hall. It’s all bullshit – Hollings’s bunk is impeccable, his shoelace bow is a work of art, and he is the neatest eater among us. No food ever slops down his chin or slips out the side of his mouth, and you only see his teeth, which are glossy white and well-formed, when he is smiling between bites. It is, in fact, an honor and a pleasure to watch Hollings eat. On the other hand, watching some of the boys eat is disgusting, and watching Sarge himself eat is scary. He doesn’t drool, he doesn’t chew with his mouth open, but he stares down at his meat as if it’s his prey, then slices like a murderer. When I watch Sarge eat, I think of those wildlife shows where the lion leaps on the gazelle’s neck.
When Sarge gives him shit about his bunk, pointing out a nonexistent error and screaming in his face, “Do you see what I am talking about?” Hollings nods affably. “Yes, Sarge, I see now that the corner of my blanket is ill-shaped. If anything, you are being too kind in your critique.”
Sarge would clobber Hollings at such moments, he would clobber any of the rest of us, but Hollings is a fourth-degree blackbelt in karate, a jiujitsu expert, a college wrestling champion. As well as being the strongest, the fastest, the toughest, Hollings is also the smartest of us. He enlisted when he was one semester short of a degree in English Literature with a minor in philosophy and a minor in micro-biology. Sarge knows that compared to Hollings, he is a chump, and he knows that Hollings knows it too. The rest of us don’t mind that Hollings is the smartest. We love Hollings. We trust that he will look after us once we go over.
Hollings can answer just about any question we ask him. But the one question he can’t answer is why he joined up. We are sitting in a field. It is the last night we will have off before we go over. It’s warm, the moon is out, and fireflies spark in the night. We’re all drinking, getting drunk, though Hollings is only sipping on a beer. He says drinking dulls his senses, dulls his mind.
“Hell, that’s what’s it for,” Buddy says, “I like having my mind dulled out.” We all laugh, even Hollings.
“I guess so,” he says. “I just like thinking. I like seeing where my thoughts go, and if I drink, I can’t follow my thoughts as well.”
“Where do your thoughts go?” I ask. I would like to know. I would like to know where Hollings’s thoughts go because I would like to think like Hollings thinks.
He laughs. “That’s the second question I can’t answer. I could try to answer it.” He sips his beer. “No, I guess I don’t want to answer it. Maybe the answer would be disappointing. It would be disappointing to you, and it would be disappointing to me. Maybe it would be best if I just stared out and looked thoughtful and let you imagine that I am thinking about something profound.”
We laugh, but we’re not letting him off the hook yet. “So why? Why the hell did you join up? Or why didn’t you finish college and come in as an officer?”
“That’s the last thing I would want to be. An officer. The very last.”
“If I were an officer, I would have to order you into combat. I would have to ask you to risk your lives. I couldn’t do it. If you wanted to charge a machinegun nest, I would try to talk you out of it. There will always be another machinegun nest, but there is only one you.”
He leaves us thinking about that for a while, but we come back at him again. “So why? Why did you join up?’
He sighs. “I could give you the usual reasons – patriotism, duty, my old man served, that sort of thing.” He swallows. “I believe I will have another beer after all.” He hands off an empty and we eagerly give him a fresh one. “Or I could say it was for adventure, for experience, to say that I was there. There may be some truth in all of that, but it misses something. To be honest, I bet none of you can really say either.”
We fall silent. We watch the fireflies light up in the night and feel the warm breeze until finally Winslow says, “Hell, I know why. They were going to throw me in jail otherwise.”
We all crack up. We offer reasons. Getting away from home, from a girl, a bust-ass job. But it all sounds like bullshit in the night.
Hollings says, “Maybe the most truthful answer is that I don’t know, or if I do know, it’s not that I don’t want to tell you, but that I don’t want to tell myself. Maybe I’m afraid of what I would say. Maybe I’m afraid that it would sound false, or maybe I’m afraid it would sound too true and it would frighten me, or maybe I would realize what an idiot I am to be sitting in a field with you dumbfucks, going to get our asses shot off for no good reason at all, or a reason we can’t even name. Does that make sense?”
“Yeah,” we say. “Hell yes. Sort of.”
He swallows, stares into the night. “Does it?”
When we go over, Sarge isn’t reckless exactly, but he’s committed to getting the job done. He favors foot patrol, old-school style, while the rest of us would rather go into towns on a Humvee or a tank, take a look around and get the hell out, or, better yet, call for a drone strike. That doesn’t do shit, he says, you need to kick down doors, you need to look under the floorboards, beneath the beds, find the bomb-making material, shit like that.
We patrol into a town on foot and in a narrow street lined by stucco houses the enemy appears suddenly on a rooftop across the street from us. Hollings spots the ambush in the nick of time and signals us to safety in a cobbled street around a corner, while he himself rolls in the street like the gymnast he once was and flips up to hurl a grenade over the rooftop, a perfect throw as one summer he set a record in minor league baseball, Double A, seventeen strikeouts in a row.
So we are not unhappy when Sarge is wounded and flown away in a chopper because Hollings takes over. Lieutenant Adams is technically in charge, but for all intents and purposes, Hollings is our leader and the Lieutenant knows it and lets Hollings call the shots. It’s not like we neglect our duty, but we’re more careful about the way we enter towns. And we’re careful with the people too. Only shoot if absolutely necessary, Hollings says, only kill if absolutely necessary.
We go deeper into the country. We suffer in the heat. The sands blow. At night Hollings reads us passages from War and Peace. Even during the peace sections he reads in a dramatic way that holds us captivated, voice rising and falling in the perfect pitch he developed from his roles in community theater. When we have gotten sleepy and turned in, Hollings disappears into the desert. In the morning, he reappears. From town to town we go, and no one fires upon us. It is as if Hollings has worked some magic in the night, cast a spell. Villagers wave. Children follow our Humvees. We toss them candy.
Sarge comes back and early one morning he leads us into a shit-fire battle, scrambling from street to street as the enemy fires from above. Buddy goes down and Hollings drags him into a doorway as Sarge and the rest of us tattoo the rooftops with rifle fire, until there is stillness except for the lingering resonance of gunfire that swells the head, fills the ears even after the shooting is over, but there is nothing that saves us from the sight of Buddy, blood spurting out of his throat, while Ransom, our medic, frantically bandages, and Hollings pumps at his chest to try to restart his heart and he keeps pumping, long after it doesn’t make sense to do so anymore.
Sarge touches his shoulder and I think maybe this is it, where they’re finally going to have it out, but when Sarge says, “Let it go, he’s gone,” it’s the quietest and softest I’ve ever heard Sarge’s voice, and for a moment I think they might become friends. Hollings stops pumping and kneels over Buddy, murmuring some sort of prayer. It’s hard to tell what prayers he’s saying or even what faith he’s calling upon, but he kneels over Buddy as if he’s trying to send his spirit home, to its true home.
We’re pulled back, set up in tents and sandbagged in and we have a good week of playing cards, drinking beer, and even Hollings has a few beers some nights. A new guy comes in to take Buddy’s place. One night Sarge comes into the big tent where Hollings and some of the guys are resting on their cots. “We move out tomorrow,” Sarge says. “We’re going back in.” He looks at equipment and weapons scattered about the tent. “This is a pig-sty,” he screams. “This is a shithole. You, new guy, pick this shit up!” The new guy, not much more than a kid, trembles a little. He tries to pick things up, but Sarge’s screaming voice makes him awkward and he drops a box of ammo which makes Sarge scream, “You trying to get us all blown to shit!”
Hollings is on his cot, staring up at the tent top, looking thoughtful like he had that night beneath the stars. “Lay off him. I’ll clean it up.”
“I didn’t say you. I said him! You! New guy, move your ass!”
We’re all looking at Hollings. We know we’re going back into the shit tomorrow and no one should be yelled at, not tonight, not when it could be the last night, and we all know it’s not really the kid he’s yelling at.
Hollings slowly rolls on his side. “Leave the kid out of this.”
A kind of shudder goes through Sarge’s shoulders. He breathes out hard like a man who has been fighting something inside for a long time and is now giving himself up to that thing he has been fighting. “Okay, Hollings,” he says, “Okay. It’s time. You and me. How do you want to do it, bare-hand or with gloves?”
Hollings sighs and rises from his cot. “Pistols at twenty paces.”
Sarge is not one to stammer or to blink hard, but that is exactly what he does. He blinks hard and he stammers before he finds his words. “What do you mean pistols?’
“Pistols. A duel. Old-school. We march off twenty paces, turn and fire.”
Sarge’s eyes flutter as he calculates. Sarge is a crack shot, and the one area where Hollings tested only average was in pistol shooting at close range. Only men on the verge of insanity would engage in this duel, but a cruel grin comes to Sarge’s face. “You got it. See you outside in five minutes.”
“Don’t you want to wait for morning?” Hollings asks. “That would be more traditional. Pistols at dawn.” And I get it, I think, and for a moment I think I might be thinking like Hollings thinks. Hollings has been joking, trying to point out the absurdity of the whole situation, the whole absurdity that has led us here, to this place and time, to this desert, and now he’s trying to let Sarge in on the joke, get him to see this trap we’re all in, the trap of life that gets everybody, here, back home, wherever it might be, the trap of time and place and the very nature of life and death and the way time kills us all, slowly, or all at once, and on a more practical level, he’s simply giving Sarge a chance to cool down, to back off, giving them both a chance to back off and cool down. But Sarge’s voice breaks with a high note of hysteria. “Why wait? Let’s get it done.”
Only men on the verge of insanity would not stop such a fight, and when Sarge heads for his own tent to get his gun, we urge Hollings to stay put, to forget it, but in fact we are all a little insane after all and maybe we are secretly urging him on because we want him to kill Sarge for us because we’re afraid Sarge will eventually get us all killed.
Still, we make an effort. One of the guys runs off to find the lieutenant and the rest of us take hold of Hollings physically, try to hold him down on the cot, though we know he could throw us all off if he wanted to. But he only chuckles and says, “Boys, let me go. I’ve got a plan here.”
We let him go as he picks up his pistol from under his cot. He turns from us, checking it over. He turns back and says, “Don’t worry. We’ll just fire over each other’s heads. Then we’ll shake hands and we’ll be done with it. That’s how these things work. We’ll hug and laugh about it.”
They meet in the narrow corridor of sand between the tents on either side. They nod at one another with little expression on their faces, like two boxers meeting in the ring and touching gloves before a fight. The moon is full, the night bright, the hot air breathing over us. They stand back to back and walk off the paces, no one calling out, but each man counting quietly to himself, but they’re being scrupulously fair about it because they both turn at the same time and raise their pistols. The sound is deafening in the night, despite all the gunshots we’ve heard, and it’s as if the explosion keeps us from noticing for a moment that only one gun has fired, a moment before it registers that Hollings is falling backward, his body straight as a tree. You would think such a strong man would put up a fight for his life, that he would not be killed easily, but Hollings never moves at all, makes no sound as we try to hold in the blood pouring out of his chest and we cry for him to hold on, but none of it matters at all to Hollings. He only stares up at the stars, eyes wide and unblinking.
We surround Sarge, watch him as one might watch a mad dog, watch him as if we expect him to bolt into the desert. But we don’t move in too close because he’s still got the gun in his hand. Lieutenant Adams runs out of the night, calling out desperately, “Stop! Stop!” as if he can turn back time. Sarge just stands there, without moving, his head hanging slightly down, until I go over and take the gun out of his hand.
When the military police come to drive Sarge away, they discover Hollings’ gun was never loaded.
Before they take us off one by one to get the full story, we stand in the moonlight with the lieutenant. He stares at us in a kind of horror. “Why would he do this? What was he thinking?” he asks of us, though it’s really Hollings he’s trying to ask. It’s the last question Hollings can’t answer, so I try to answer for him, but the lieutenant just stares at me as if he thinks that I too have gone crazy.