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Contraband

By Michael P. McManus

One hour after lights out, while everybody was asleep in their racks, Mulligan began tugging on Gilliam’s leg. Two minutes later Gilliam woke up in the top bunk. Mulligan’s blue eyes narrowed and he smiled. In his big right hand he held a $100 bill, which he thrust towards Gilliam. An M-16 lay in the bottom bunk where Mulligan slept but tonight he had the duty watch. The wind rattled the barrack windows and blew snow in from the ocean and up and over the Virginia Beach sand dunes. Mulligan and Gilliam had been in the Navy for eighteen weeks. They were going to Operations Specialist “A” School.

“I changed my mind. The price has gone up another hundred dollars.”

“What? You said a C-note.”

“Yeah, I did. But now I’m saying two.” Gilliam made a peace sign with his left hand. “Two hundred dollars to take over your watch.”

“You sorry bastard,” Mulligan said. He pulled another bill out from his right front dungaree pocket and tossed the money at Gilliam. “There. Get on with it.

Gilliam climbed down in his skivvies, grinning. He put on his dungarees and blue shirt and black boondockers. Then he grabbed the M-16. “Why don’t they give us bullets for these?”

Mulligan didn’t answer. He opened his locker and took out a book and flashlight. Then he propped up his pillow and settled in his rack. In Dam Neck the barracks were old. In this one when the wind blew a certain way it whistled through the cracks in the walls. Mulligan clicked on his flashlight and began reading A Moveable Feast. There was a small library on base and the past weekend he had discovered Hemingway for the first time. He had spent much of that weekend reading The Sun Also Rises. In the evenings he had gone out drinking. The beer and whiskey made him dream even more about becoming a writer. Those next mornings he wondered how well Hemingway had handled his hangovers. Mulligan was 22 and recovered quickly.

At 0100 it began to snow hard and fast. Mulligan looked up. The windows appeared as if they had been covered with white sheets. He listened to the night sounds. There was snoring and bodies shifting in their racks and young men dreaming out loud and the creaks the cinder block building made when the wind slammed into it. Mulligan believed that if he listened well enough he could carry the memories forever.

At 0300 Mulligan paused to think about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Tolklas. He wondered why Fitzgerald could not hold his drink and why Zelda was a bitch. Mulligan wished he could do a shot of absinthe and made a mental note to do so the next time he went to a bar. He wondered why Ezra Pound hated Jews and what it would be like to walk the Left Bank at sunset with the wind blowing in off the river as the café owners turned on their gaslights for the writers and artists and expatriates who sat on metal chairs at small tables and under the rising moon talked passionately about whatever came to mind. Now for the first time in his life, Mulligan knew what it felt like to be truly alive, happy, and driven by a purpose. There had been an epiphany in which he knew he wanted to become a writer.

Mulligan shut his eyes. It was 0430 and he had to get up in one hour. The snow had not stopped. A blizzard had blown in off the Atlantic. He wished he could talk about his discoveries, but he knew no one would understand. He smiled as he slept.

“What the fuck do we have here! Jesus H. Christ. What the fuck do we have here!” The voice bellowed from Chief Petty Officer Wallace Stevenson. He was a short man with huge shoulders. He shaved his head, walked with a limp, and it was rumored he had been blown up in Iraq but no one had the guts to ask him about it.

Gilliam shot upright to attention. He had been sleeping on the floor, his back against the bulkhead. Mulligan rolled out of his rack. He slipped on the polished floor. He regained his balance and began running towards the sentry post.

“Mulligan. Where in the fuck have you been? What is going on here! And what is that piece of contraband?”

Stevenson pointed. Mulligan looked down at his right hand. In it he still held A Moveable Feast.

“Sir, there’s no excuse, sir!”

“I said, fucknuts, where have you been!”

Mulligan winced when Stevenson’s spit hit his chin. He looked past the Chief and out the window, where he saw the snow and the strange light it made. Paris, he thought. He had been to Paris. When Mulligan smiled it was because he knew that some days the truth was never any good.

 

Michael P. McManus has published short stories and poems in numerous publications, including Contrary Magazine, ONTHEBUS, Atlanta Review, Prism International, Burnside Review, Pittsburgh Quarterly, West Wind Review, Square Lake, Rattle, Louisiana Literature, Texas Review, and Dublin Quarterly, among others. He is the recipient of a Fellowship from the Louisiana Division of the Arts. 

Photo "View From Montmartre" courtesy of Leila Haj-Hassan, Amman, Jordan.


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