Authors: Thomas Berger
Tags: #Reinhart in Love
Reinhart in Love
To my father and mother
In a shed of unpainted boards, a kind of swollen privy, on a compound of like structures in a field of dirty snow somewhere in Indiana, an anonymous major after an eleventh-hour pitch for the Regular Army or at least the Reserve, bade goodbye to thirty-odd soldiersâamong whom was Corporal Carlo Reinhart, 15302320, the oddest of the lot, take it as you would: clinically: his last six months' service had been as patient in the neuropsychiatric wards of sundry military hospitals abroad and at home; emotionally: as near as he could tell, he was the only man ever released from the U.S. Army who was sorry to go; legally: the official typist had printed an error on his discharge certificate. Instead of having been born in 1924 as he had always assumed, he was but four years old; according to the War Department he had been sprung from that first imprisonment in 1942, and there were all manner of officers' signatures to prove it and perhaps even to confine him in Leavenworth if two months hence he applied for some deserved privilege in his authentic person of twenty-one.
So, although now a civilian, he reported his problem to the major with nostalgic military courtesy, and got for these pains a rather wry direction to the typing building. The other jokers all rushed out towards the camp gate and the waiting bus, not having a minute to lose in getting back to brown-nose their civilian bosses. Reinhart was unfair because he didn't know any of them; the shitty thing about a separation center was that you were there for only three days of signing papers (which were sometimes faulty!), and everybody arrived slightly hostile to one another, already halfway back to civil society.
In the typing building a skinny T/4 looked as if he would spit in one's face.
“What's eating you?” Reinhart asked forcefully, using his new technique of the direct approach, learned from Europeans though perhaps ruder than theirs. But when challenged in a genial yet tough manner, your average man sheathes his fangs.
So did the T/4, who was suffering a bad case of dandruff, which allowed him some leeway in Reinhart's judgment. With a none too careful eraserâone that looked like a pencil, with rubber where the lead should be; Reinhart at first thought the jerk clerk was sabotaging him by merely blacking out the offending entryâhe obliterated the wrong date and asked the right one. The finished job looked very fishy.
“Don't I need an officer to initial this, or something? Aren't you going to make a memorandum about it? Isn't there a duplicate that will read otherwise?”
The T/4 scratched his head, causing a minor blizzard. “You're out. What do you care?”
“Oh,” said Reinhart.
what's eating you!” He prided himself on his understanding of people.
Of course by then the Indianapolis bus had left, and the paper schedule pasted on the board that marked the stop was illegible, having been defaced by the elements and the kind of malefactor who delights in dirty deeds towards the world at large. The ground was flecked with cigarette butts and frozen sputum. Two girls from the PX waited five minutes alongside him for the local. Naturally the fan-toothed one had a friendly mien and the pretty one not, though he haughtily turned away from both, preserving the exaggerated dignity by means of which he had at last got free of the nut ward. Actually, he was sane enough and had been so all the while except for a few weeks at the beginning of the therapy, when furthermore the temporary goofiness owed rather to a head wound sustained in a fight than to any natural predilection for maniaâthat is, any more than average. Which was no more than to say he knew right and wrong or anyway the theory of it subscribed to by civilized people in the Western Hemisphere: everyone who exalts himself shall be abased, while he who abases himself will be exalted.
At the moment he was sane with a vengeance: lonely, bereft, coldâbecause he was twice as large as your typical Homo sapiens, there was more to freezeâhungry, and utterly hopeless. It was just sheer luck he had remembered to pee before leaving the discharge building, or in addition to everything else he would have been shifting from one foot to the other like a schoolboy: you had to join a club to find a public toilet in America.
He waited forty-seven and a half minutes. A peculiarity of the Army overcoat was that it weighed like chain mail while deflecting the wind like gauze. Two civilian cars stopped and offered him rides: the first, a maroon Grotesque, apparently new though automobile production had been halted in 1942, was driven by a dark man who grinned like a dog rubbing its ass on the carpet. Reinhart had been warned by the Army against confidence men who lay in wait for veterans wadded with mustering-out money. The driver of the second, a chattering old heap that burned oil, was a fat, morose queer who had no real hopes that Reinhart would accept his offer, some stricken 4-F traveling salesman with his own irony on the myth. A sergeant, alone in his jeep, spun onto the highway without a look. On the other hand, a paternal colonel in his chauffeur-driven staff car did stop, but he was going the wrong way.
At last the bus arrived, slaying every living thing for a hundred yards with its mustard-gas exhaust. Reinhart paid the outrageous fare and went down the aisle to the back, where he could find room for his yards of leg; over his shoulder was the barracks bag of free clothing from Supply. He inadvertently clobbered the hat of some middle-aged woman and there ensued a demonstration from which he retreated. No unaccompanied girls, no other GI'sâbut through the window he saw the newest wave of dischargees hurtling down the camp road like hyenas who have sighted a cadaver. And so did the driver, and made haste to pull away before they could reach him.
Reinhart attempted to put into action his device for surviving civil life, cynicism, but it was especially difficult in the rear of a bus, where, he now remembered, he was as liable to car sickness as a Girl Scout. Not even his great strength sufficed to open the window sealed years ago by some Detroit assembly-line sadist. So he went to sleep.
He went to sleep again on the train going towards Ohio, having an entire seat to himself after the girl, who had gathered tightly against the window so that it was impossible to play sneaky leg with her, got off at a place called Rushville without a backward glance. He snoozed fitfully. Leaving the Army! He was still twenty-one and had never had another profession; he feared America, people, and lifeânot really but poetically, which was worse.
He awoke as a rat-faced vendor swayed through the car hawking sandwiches, and tried to see himself in the window montage of moonlit corny cornfield and fat-faced ex-corporal: for so he had become in six hospital months, unfortunately not enough of them on the light diet. Neither had he shaved that morning; however, his beard did not reproduce well upon the glass. But he had spilled coffee on his suntan shirt and that did, so long as the ETO jacket hung open; which, too bad, was necessary because one jacket button was broken and wouldn't hold and another had disappeared.
Vanity. It was clear to Reinhart that Reinhart had none. His unkempt ghost, imposed on the passing countryside, grinned back peevishly. Some rain began to slobber the window. Masochistically he bought for twice the standard rateâat least it was in a paper envelope, for the vendor's fingernails were in severe mourningâa sandwich of gristle, vaseline, and unidentified vegetable garbage. He drank a leaking cup of tepid water from the tap at the end of the car; the overflow served to wash his hand, which he wiped dry on his rump. His cigarettes had been crushed; the one he lighted looked like a twist of crepe paper and tasted ill in his mouth, which had been open while he slept.
Reinhart saw half his rumpled self, clear, in the toilet mirror; unseen beneath the Army shirt was the life preserver of useless flesh about his waist. The last time he had bathed, now a dim memory, he had soaped arms the color and consistency of uncooked bratwurst, and his pectorals had sagged like a woman's.
The figure he cut nowadays was unusual for a man who until six months before had been blond and pink and muscled as Hitler's prescription for the
. Reinhart was no longer even blond; what sprang from an untended crewcut grew snot-mottled and here and there dark with grease. To get away from the psychiatrists he had been forced to replace one kind of pride with another; thus his honorable discharge, which breathed no hint of how his service had ended; and thus his will, which was nonexistent. For example, if he had not been able to get a seat, he had just as soon have rolled up on the washroom floor between sink and W.C. Or if someone had encountered him and said: “Stay on the train till Newport, Kentucky, I'll get you a job there making beds in a cat house,” why, Reinhart would have answered O.K. He cared as little about women, or money, or esteem as he cared aboutâhis fingernails, which he noticed would give the sandwich seller's a run for the Filth Cup.
On the other hand, he could be a bright man again almost instantly: bath, shave, clean clothes, haircut being a matter of hours; and regular work with the dumbbells would sculpture the old Reinhart from the flab in a mere month. If he so chose. For his will had not really been destroyed but just lay dormant. He delighted in his capacity for alternation, believing that it made him more human than your ordinary
homme moyen sensual
who stayed the same from cradle to grave. Not to mention that it gave some point to freedom of choice: he knew the differences between options, had experienced being a fop, then a slob. He had also been exposed to a host of other things in the British Isles and occupation Germany, and was certain he had at least dreamt of most philosophies. In his time he had been both sane and mad. The only trouble at the moment was in what he wanted to
. But he might decide that as early as the morrow.
With an open mind and the everpresent barracks bag, he detrained at the grandiose station in the Ohio city nearest his town, and wandered about under the mosaic murals of heroic pioneers and workingmen, in search of his father, whom he had requested by wire to appear with transportation. At the central newsstand leaned an elegant old person in gray homburg with cane. A great bald vulgar man and a small gracious woman annexed a skinny son at the gate of Track 3, and Reinhart was shocked and then touched to see that Dad kiss his PFC on the cheek, and the soldier wearing the Indian Head patch and Purple Heart, no pansy he. A swarthy gangster type swaggered at the side of a larger replica of himself home from the paratroops, where he had no doubt got invaluable experience in mayhem. One attractive ladyâseeing whom stand alone Reinhart had to admit he considered moving in on: she was a touch old but had conniving green eyes and make-up laid on with a trowel; and lucky he didn't make his move, for out of the men's room shining from a shave stalked a young lieutenant and kissed her like a lover. A May-November liaison in the French style? The horny aunt of legend? Reinhart the rubberneck lurked behind their linkage and heard the officer murmur into her hennaed hair: “Momma! There's nobody like you.” In retreat Reinhart struck and floored a man shorter but fatter than he; anyway, knocked off the old fellow's hat, picked it up, ran its nap along his arm like a haberdashery huckster, gave it back, and voided the area.