As a peace keeper, Billy had never been in actual field combat. He had kicked and punched the enemy, shot his rifle in unreported skirmishes, sidestepped IEDs, gathered pieces of torn flesh, and zippered up body bags. He had never dug down into a trench and repeatedly fired at the enemy, although he had smoked while waiting for bullets to zing at his helmeted head. Isaac watched Billy polish the dress boots, the brisk and swift swipe against the toe with the stiff-bristled brush, an action repeated beyond counting, a concentrated fixation upon an inherently meaningless task. Despite the deeply grooved wrinkling of the leather, no cracks had yet appeared, and the polishing raised a sheen like obsidian. Now and then Billy spat on the leather, then applied the shammy, spit and polish, and Isaac was getting restless. Hell, he hadn’t come to this crappy apartment to watch a soldier polish his boots.
“Are you going to be doing that for long?”
“As long as it takes, buddy.” Billy wore his fatigues as usual, bare-chested, his dog tags swinging with each swipe over the boots.
“I mean I’ve got to leave in a half hour or so.”
“Go now, if you want.”
“Then sit still and watch me. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”
Billy didn’t look up for an answer nor did Isaac reply. He indeed watched, almost fixated as Billy’s taut hand stroked pneumatically over the boot, repeating this duty he had been taught years ago. He could drink another beer, smoke another cigarette, lean back in the brown sofa, and watch this soldier repeat this duty he had been taught years ago.
Home from a protracted tour of duty in the Middle East, Billy had registered for Isaac’s university extension course, The Literature of War. During the first couple of weeks he had remained silent in the class of twenty-odd students, none of whom had any military experience. One evening during a break Billy approached Isaac over coffee in the student lounge where his classmates generally avoided him, lit a cigarette, and blurted out: “You don’t really know what the fuck you’re talking about, do you?”
“I know the literature which you don’t.” Isaac had bristled like a professor assured of his own rectitude and infallibility, unaccustomed to student challenges of this nature. Billy in his mid- thirties, almost twenty years younger than Isaac, wore his experience like his fatigues to class and spoke with a safe assumption of authority. He commanded respect by strong body, abrupt voice, a general manner that warned people away, and a life lived virtually in a different world than his teacher’s soft and vicarious existence. Don’t even think of pushing… his very stance warned, and Isaac, not daring to push, nonetheless became intrigued, unable to explain his attraction to the soldier.
“Put the cigarette out. You know perfectly well smoking is forbidden on university premises. I suggest you put it down.”
“Yes, sir.” Billy had chuckled, grinding the butt under his black boot. “Let’s go out for a drink after class, and I’ll tell you a few things about the army you don’t know.”
And so one drink led to other evenings together after class, and when Billy dropped out of the course, Isaac had phoned. He accepted the soldier’s invitation to come to his apartment where he watched videos taken by Billy and his fellow soldiers deployed in various parts of the world, and he listened to Billy answer his myriad questions about what it was really like being a soldier who had to obey orders and carry arms and risk his life. He found himself constantly watching, as if removing his eyes for a moment from Billy’s body constituted an act of betrayal or desertion. He saw Billy as often as he could now, savouring the proximity to a real military life about which he had only read and studied and lectured. Once Billy confessed that he didn’t really talk much with civilians, but he believed that not only could he trust Isaac, but, shit, he also liked what he saw in the teacher.
“You’ll know soon enough, my friend.” Billy stopped polishing, lit his third cigarette of the hour. “You do it.”
“Polish my boots. I’m tired.”
“No way, I’m not polishing your boots.”
Billy put the boot and brush on the floor, dragged long on his cigarette then blew out the smoke in circles at which he was very adept, keeping his eyes on Isaac. He stubbed out the cigarette, breaking it in half, stood up, adjusted his crotch, stretched and clasped his hands behind his head, a position that tightened the pronounced musculature of his body. He had begun lifting weights in the army to kill time, and now worked out religiously. He didn’t need that black belt with a silver lion’s head buckle to hold up his fatigues. Ninety-percent mind-fucking boredom, he had said once, only ten percent action.
“You’ve got two choices, boy. Polish my boots or leave now.”
Isaac examined the boots, black and compelling as if they were a strange kind of animal he had never seen before. He did not move, aware of a qualitative difference in Billy’s tone of voice—joking, friendly, an edge of harshness. Billy remained standing, arms flexed behind his head, and stared down at Isaac who edged forward on the sofa, searching the soldier’s face for signs of playfulness. His cigarette burned in the ashtray. He didn’t really enjoy smoking and only did so because Billy smoked.
“Polish them,” Billy repeated after a drag. Isaac was going to protest, demand why he should complete a soldier’s unnecessary task as far as he could see. Billy relaxed his arms and sat next to Isaac, pressing against his friend’s thigh and grabbing onto the belt buckle as if to undo it. For a moment, Isaac imagined the whack of leather against his own body. Billy stretched the other arm along the sofa back behind Isaac’s head. “I’m tired of doing it. Polish them. I won’t say it again. Make up your mind.”
If he chose to leave, Isaac wondered if that also excluded the possibility of return. He certainly didn’t wish to leave, nor did he wish to polish the boots; but then, why should he not? Friends did favours for friends. A real friend, which he hoped Billy now regarded him, would consider it a gesture of familiarity. Billy had not requested, though, he had commanded.
By not saying anything, Isaac feared a loss of authority. His silent confusion might be taken for surrender. Anger held his tongue. He wanted to speak, to use obscene terms like Billy, but as he had never been a soldier, they did not spill out of his mouth easily and naturally. He had never developed the lingo of imperiled men, language born from violence and slaughter.
“Pick up a fucking boot now or leave. Do it.” Billy maintained the pressure against Isaac’s thigh. His hand dropped and gripped the teacher’s left shoulder, not digging hard, but firmly enough to remind his friend that in the improbable event of a grapple, he would lose to Billy’s expertise and strength. I should leave, Isaac thought, but he couldn’t immediately move because humiliation and a desire for what the boot represented, a knowledge of the language of violence stayed him. Was it such a terrible thing to obey? Serve a soldier? Somehow, his shame would be greater if he left than if he humbled himself in front of Billy and followed orders. Still, an iota of resistance had to be demonstrated, a manifestation of self-respect, independence, irritation.
“For fuck sake, all right, I’ll do it, why make such a bloody deal about it?” He bent over and reached for a boot and brush.
“Good choice. Now, get to work, boy. Don’t stop until I tell you to. You need to learn how to obey. Got that? I want to bench press while you do what you’re told. Let me see results.” Then he laughed and tousled Isaac’s hair as the teacher inserted his fist deep into the darkness of the soldier’s well-worn boot to get a secure grip while he brushed.
“Yes, Sir,” Isaac had almost shouted, trying to sound ironic and amused, but it came out both sullen and compliant. Heat flamed in his cheeks.
“Damn right! And don’t get polish on the couch or you’ll have to clean it up. Here, you can wear my dog tags like a real soldier. I know you want to.” Billy quickly removed them from his neck and slipped the chain over Isaac’s head, momentarily resting a hand on his friend’s neck. Isaac’s anger receded, the fire suffused with a new kind of warmth. The tags on their chain reminded him of the weeks he had spent listening to Billy tell stories of his adventures in the Middle East, sometimes fingering his dog tags, explaining their purpose. Isaac rested the boot on his lap, and without looking at Billy began snapping the hard bristled brush over the wrinkled leather. Billy went to his bedroom, which he had crowded with weight-training equipment.
With dog tags dangling and jiggling on their silvery chain under his shirt, Isaac leaned into the task of polishing the boots. He held a hand inside, against the worn leather, and whisked the brush steadily, repeatedly over the outside. His face simmered with anger, gratitude, love, sentiments that motivated his arm to move faster. He brushed and would not stop without Billy’s express command and slowly, minute by minute, the anger softened into a sort of relief blending into the steady warmth. If he produced a glassy shine, he would accomplish what Billy wanted; he would deserve the tags.
In his imagination, age differences dissolved. He’d be incorporated in Billy’s world of action and boredom. He’d be a dusty soldier bearing arms in deep regulation and comradeship. He would know these men. The dog tags were almost hot on his skin, now, as if they radiated a reservoir of Billy’s body heat. Outside the dirt-covered window pane he saw a gray sky stretching over the city, a sky without energy, without signposts, without the drama of cumulous clouds, flat and unremarkable.
Where had all the years of his unlived life gone? Married, raised children who now lived on the other side of the country. He travelled to requisite art galleries, museums and restaurants, regular friends no more exciting than he. Vanished. He lived only in this fierce moment. For as long as Billy wished it, he existed solely in the here and now, serving the soldier who pumped iron in the other room and wore his boots in faraway parts of the world where Isaac had never been.
The dog tags indicated Billy’s identity and blood type, invisibly inscribed with cold nights in the North African desert, hot days in Turkish bazaars tinkling with brass and beads, women in foreign places who gave or sold themselves. The smell of leather and boot polish intoxicated and he breathed in the aroma like morphine, no longer able to choose the drug but addicted to it. He had become Billy’s boy, yet his sense of masculinity surged. He heard Billy huffing as he pumped iron.
“You doing a good job, boy?”
“Sir, yes, Sir!”
Isaac brushed vigorously, pushing his hand as far as it could go inside the hot, much-worn boot, fulfilling his duty, the dog tags tickling against his warm chest.
Kenneth’s Radu fiction has appeared or is forthcoming online in vis a tergo, Foundling Review, Tattoo Highway20, Danse Macabre, Spilt Milk, The Medulla Review, The Tower, and elsewhere. The author of over a dozen books, his last collection of stories Snow Over Judaea was published by Vehicule Press of Montreal. A new collection of stories is forthcoming this year from DC Press, also of Montreal. He writes or putters about the edges of actual compostion several hours daily and lives in Quebec.