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Idle Hands

My old grandmother always said that idle hands are the devil’s workshop. I heard it all my growing up years, since she was the one who mainly raised me. I didn’t get in a lot of pure leisure time, as you might expect. A less-known maxim, except to devotees of a famous writer born three years before my grandmother, says all true evil begins in innocence. Forty years ago, a single incident during my Army service drove those dual truths home to me. Not an easy incident to forget even all these years later.

Which is why today I am circulating through a milling crowd that is soon to become an audience. They have come to see one of these “cluster” debates presidential hopefuls nowadays attend in important primary states long before a clear front-runner emerges.

The political pundits this time are saying George Wade is the real deal.

I will have a prominent seat in the front row. My usual station in one of these circuses would be behind the scenes, working the spin for whichever candidate could afford my firm’s services. Today I need to be out front where I can see the candidates. More particularly, I need to be where one candidate has a clear view of me: George Wade.

It still seems a bit surreal to see George Wade’s name up there in big block letters on one of the four speakers’ podiums. Forty years ago Wade was just another National Guardsman who had completed his Basic Combat Training and been assigned to my unit for training as an Army Information Specialist. After eight weeks of this training he would be released from active duty and sent home to Salt Lake City and weekend warrior status, thus effectively dodging the Draft and Vietnam. A lot of young men with political connections did things that way when the body bags were coming back hot and heavy from that hostile little Southeast Asian country; only the unconnected ran away to Canada and disgrace.

My specialty these days is crisis management. I’m so good at it my colleagues call me an action junkie. Tight deadlines and impending disasters are just my cup of tea. About the time everyone else panics, I am calm and serene, on top of my game. Even now, balding and overweight and considering retirement, I think pretty quickly on my feet. It was this nascent ability of mine that spurred the evil little incident one dreary Christmas at Fort Lewis, Washington, when all of us were young. Since then I have tried to use my powers only for good. Or mostly.

It all seems so long ago, but remains achingly vivid in recall. Vietnam was my generation’s war. The last draftee’s war so far. I guess whichever was your war always will be more vivid than wars dissected in history books, or reported breathlessly on the evening news.

I actually started out in all innocence to try to save Wade’s tender sensibilities from a sordid little barracks-room practical joke. I wound up as his hated nemesis. Tonight I’m in this Midwest auditorium out of a morbid curiosity, to see if he remembers.

But I’m getting ahead of my story.

I was NCO in charge of the Fort Lewis Training Center Information Office, teaching Army trainees the elements of military journalism. The recruits they sent me were a mixed bag of National Guard, like Wade, and draftees. The NGs would go home when they completed the training. Draftees of course went wherever the Army sent them. Any draftee I flunked out of journalism went straight back to the infantry and Vietnam. A lot of power to wield for a 23-year-old cops-and-courts reporter from Jacksonville, Florida.

Wade had the bunk above mine in Headquarters Company, so you could call us bunkmates. Not friends. He was a self-righteous asshole then, too. Just as stuck on himself and his own opinions as you see him now in televised debates and sound bites. No; never friends.

Wade’s young career already was on the fast track, getting his advanced training in before he went home to be positioned for an ROTC commission through some Utah university. No sleazy VC was ever going to get Wade’s classic Mormon mug squared up over the sights of an AK-47.

If I still sound bitter, well I could have had strings pulled too. My executive editor in Jacksonville sat me down in his office the day I got my draft notice. He called the local Guard general and said Bob we’ve got another one for you; find him a billet. He wasn’t asking, he was telling. Newspapers still had a lot of clout back then. But I weighed two years in the Army versus who knew how many years of quid pro quo commitment to the newspaper, if I took the deal, and decided to roll the dice. I told my editor no thanks; I’d do my hard time straight.

Surprisingly enough, there were no hard feelings. When I got tired of rousting drunks and chasing Canada-bound deserters as a Military Policeman, an ironic job for a police-beat reporter, I asked for help. My executive editor interceded with a senior member of the House Armed Forces Appropriations Committee, who happened to rely upon our newspaper’s endorsement to keep his seat. The Congressman called the Pentagon, and with a plunk of the magic twanger I became an Army information specialist. By the time George Wade came along, I was the newest sergeant in HQ Company. My draft term only had a few months to run. I was too “short” in the military vernacular to be assigned my own NCO bedroom, so still slept in the squad bay with the peons.

You could make rank fast in those days even without congressional drag. I made mine when I saved the commanding general’s ass during an outbreak of hepatitis in the Basic Training camp. Two trainees were near death, and whole training companies were in quarantine. It was all hush-hush until some terrified kid called home from a pay phone, and his mama called in the press.

I’d love to brag here about the plan I scratched out on an envelope in the back of a staff car with my major, racing for a panic pow-wow with the commanding general. But this isn’t that story. I’ll mention just one move, because it was the first time I moved men and jet planes around the continent like chess pieces. I recommended the CG have the Air Force find the parents of the kid most likely to die, jet them to the nearest helipad, and then chopper them to the hospital; meanwhile alerting the media to what is known these days as a photo op. Cover-up? Us? His parents were with him when he died, and joined the General for his press conference to express tearful gratitude for the Army’s compassion.

I said I was good.

So now I was a short-timer sergeant, all NCO privileges except a private room, and George Wade had the bunk above mine. It was Christmas break. All the Basic Trainees had graduated and gone home for Christmas. Most of the cadre took annual leave. The rest of us, who were too short to burn up annual leave or National Guard types who would be home in January anyway, found time heavy on our hands and the whole dreary rain-washed fort to ourselves. We played endless games of poker, drank whiskey straight from the bottle, and let the barracks go to hell.

I wasn’t the only one who was bored.

The night the two maxims, about idle hands and evil begun innocently, collide in my memory, I was in my bunk reading Ernest Hemingway, a favorite author of mine. I still had plans to be a great writer of prose then, and trying to study how it was done. I had a hard time concentrating, because one of those stupid barracks arguments had broken out between George Wade and Harry Reeves, a red-faced good ol’ boy from Georgia.

Reeves was a three-year man, meaning he enlisted rather than wait to be drafted; he was my copy editor for the base newspaper. He got along with Wade, the uptight Mormon, like possum hounds get along with Siamese cats. Reeves was telling Wade he could hypnotize anyone and get them to do stupid things. Bragging about the fools he’d made of some Georgia Tech frat brothers who had disbelieved him.

Wade, as almost everybody in America knows by now, is a devout and obstinate religionist, even when it costs him votes. Forty years ago, smug in the sureness his faith would protect him, Wade knew he could not be hypnotized by anyone short of Brigham Young, and then not without his consent. He was real prissy with it, too. I said the argument was stupid.

(I should insert here, by way of acknowledging these politically correct days, I am not a Mormon baiter. But — full disclosure — as a child I read Zane Grey stories, and admired depredations against thinly disguised Mormons by Grey’s lethal Lassiter as much as later generations loved Dirty Harry.)

“Your goddamn religion can’t protect you, boy.” Reeves was goading Wade. “The world don’t begin an’ end with Salt Lake City.”

“It can’t be done to a man of faith and that’s final,” Wade snapped.

He was lying on his bunk above me, working up to his well-known rant about how he was Chosen of God and therefore protected from evil. He had clearly decided involuntary hypnosis was one of those evils. Reeves sprawled on a footlocker. Dan Cunningham and Sol Weinhard leaned on bunks, listening in, siding with Reeves just to goad Wade. “I’ve got ten dollars,” said Reeves.

“Congratulations!” Wade said snippily. “So what?”

“My ten to your ten says I can.” My ears perked up at that. I marked my place and closed A Moveable Feast. Reeves was notoriously tight-fisted. He was a tense, worried poker player who always fiddled with his money before calling a raise. Never seemed to have cash when it was his turn to buy a round at the beer hall.

The upper bunk squeaked a little under Wade’s shifting weight. “You serious?” Wade asked.

“Ten dollars serious,” Reeves said. “Put up or shut up.” This was a different Reeves, now full of calm confidence.

“Hey, hey,” Cunningham said, “Now he’s listening! If Reeves is willing to bet ten bucks against God!” Everyone knew how cheap Reeves was.

“That’s sacrilegious,” Wade said. Then to Reeves: “Ten dollars?”

“Ten dollars, by God,” Reeves said. His Georgia drawl was softer than ever, closing the deal.

“You’ll give me ten dollars if you can’t hypnotize me?”

“Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints!” Reeves smacked his own crew-cut head. His lean red face had the look of a fox about to slide into the hen house. “Ain’t I speaking English?”

“Of a sort,” Sol Weinhard put in. New York Jew, garment district: wiry, tough, and a smart ass.

Sol was enjoying this too much, since he considered Reeves a redneck hick. When I saw Reeves tip him the wink, my antennae went up another notch. They were ganging up on Wade in some obscure way, their mutual disgust overcome by a shared dislike of Wade. Idle hands and the devil’s workshop — the phrase drifted through my thoughts for the first time that night.

The bunk rocked. Wade’s combat boots dangled in my light. If I still had been reading I would have been irritated. Wade never much observed barracks niceties like not blocking light to the lower bunk. “Ten bucks,” he said. He hopped down to the floor

“Good, good!” Reeves was flushed with victory, rubbing his hands together like a used car salesman. “I need a towel.”

“What do you need a towel for?”

Reeves was fully into his shtick now, whatever it was going to be. He drew himself up. “A magician needs his props, boy. Legerdemain and all that!” I was remotely surprised at Reeves for coming up with a word like legerdemain, Georgia Tech or not. Maybe I thought he was a hick, too.

“Got a clean towel right here,” Sol said. He produced it with a flourish, a standard issue Army towel, clean and snowy white. Sol’s gear was always pristine; he sent his laundry out to a Chinese place that delivered on the fort. But he was too quick with the towel. He had known Reeves would ask.

Wade of course didn’t notice a thing. “What’s a towel got to do with it?” He was getting belligerent

Reeves smiled a crocodile smile. “Relax, Wade. The towel is just to blot out distractions, see. Help you center and concentrate your energies. It’s really just to help you focus, see?”

Wade had his arms folded tightly across his chest. That noble brow the female voters now swoon over was knotted in distrust. “This is all bullshit, right?”

“Ten dollars to find out,” Sol reminded.

“Yeah. ” Reeves dug in his fatigue shirt pocket and produced a rumpled bill. “I still don’t see your ten dollars.” Again, he seemed far too eager; he would squeeze a penny until Abraham Lincoln got a headache. But Wade was missing all the signals.

Sol said, “Let’s see the color of your money, Wade. I’ll hold the bets.”

That was finally too thick, even for Wade. “No way. Let the sergeant hold it.”

Okay now I was in it whether I wanted to be or not. I sat up on the side of my bunk. “All right Reeves, what the hell are you pulling now?”

“Just a little scientific inquiry,” he drawled. He was laying the drawl on heavy now. “Science versus religion. You know, empirical demonstration and all that.” He kept springing surprising words.

“What a bunch of total crap!” Wade said.

“Reeves?” I said.

“Honest, Sarge. It’s no big deal. I’ve hypnotized dozens of guys. He’ll be a cinch.” Reeves hated having to address me by my rank during working hours. We’d shared a barracks too long before I was promoted. He had put two years in at Georgia Tech before he let his deferment expire. That plus his small-daily sports reporting should have trumped my five years in the newspaper business, the way he saw it. He thought he should have been promoted instead of me. Calling me Sarge when he didn’t have to was his way of trying to get under my skin.

“Hypnosis as frat game,” I said.

“Honest, Sarge. It’s no big deal. I’ve hypnotized dozens of guys. It’ll be a cinch.” Then he tipped me a wink, just as he had Sol.

I looked up at Wade. “I think you better forget it, Wade.

“No.” That classical jaw was locked stubbornly. “No way. I’m going to show this drawling cracker what he can do with his hypnotism.”

Reeves just laughed right out loud. If I needed any more to know something rotten was afoot, that was it. Reeves had punched guys for less; he was real sensitive about slurs on his Southern-hood. If he was willing to forego immediate violence, whatever he had planned for Wade was worse. That was the second time I thought about idle hands and the devil’s workshop. Wade was just asking for it.

But I took their money and watched. Down at the other end of the barracks, the nightly poker game droned on beneath a mixed cloud of reefer and tobacco smoke. Reeves got Wade flat down on his back on the floor, with the towel draped neatly over his face. Cunningham and Weinhard closed in, bending forward slightly for a good view. Reeves lowered his voice and began to almost purr.

“Comfortable? Don’t speak, just raise your right hand. Okay, put it back down. Just relax. Just completely relax and listen. I’m going to talk for a while, and then I’ll stop. Then, when I tell you to sit up, I want you to try as hard as you can to do it. But you won’t be able to, understand?”

“What bullshit!” was the muffled response.

“Don’t talk now!” Reeves said sharply. “If you talk to try to keep from going under you gonna forfeit the game. You gotta play fair.” No answer. Reeves squatted by the still form on the floor for a long count. “If you agree,” he said finally, “raise your right hand again. Okay good, now we can begin. Don’t talk, now. Just listen.” Reeves told him to count slowly and silently to ten. Then to count slowly backwards from ten to one.

“By then you’ll be completely relaxed, okay? It will be quiet for a moment. The moment may seem longer or shorter. But it won’t bother you, because you are so relaxed. The first thing you will hear me say is try to sit up. Save your strength for when I do, to give it a good try. But you won’t be able to move. Okay, start counting.”

Reeves stood up and tiptoed away from Wade, his face glistening with excitement. He made no sound in his sock feet. Two bunks away, he bent over and took off his fatigue pants and underwear, wrapped another towel around his waist. Then he tiptoed back and stepped astride the prone figure, facing Wade’s head. He removed the towel and handed it to Sol. If Wade sat up, he would bury his face in Reeves’s crotch. Reeves was pretty heavily endowed that way, and cock-proud. He loved to parade through the barracks on display, so to speak. It was difficult that moment to tell if he was partially engorged from some twisted excitement or just his usual pendulous self. I didn’t want to know.

Frat joke; just about disgusting enough to be exactly what Reeves said it was. Sol’s eyes were glittering with interest. He kept wetting his lips with his tongue. Cunningham had the grace to look embarrassed, but ready to see Wade’s humiliation through to the end. I stood up and put my palm out at Reeves like a traffic cop. He glanced at me, surprised, face slack with excitement. I motioned him away. He started to frown. I did it again. This time, I put the same MP snap into it I used to pull a confused motorist through an intersection. Reeves carefully stepped away from Wade. I sidled along the bunk, and motioned him to follow me down the barracks.

“You can’t do this,” I said quietly.

“Why the hell not?” he came back, hoarsely. “The shithead deserves it! Always taking on his snooty airs around us.”

Sol joined us. “Sarge gone sissy on us, all of a sudden?”

I glared at him. “You want some of this sissy?”

Sol dropped his eyes. “I just meant…”

“This is really shitty, even for you guys,” I said. “Wade’s probably a virgin.” I didn’t know what that had to do with anything. I was just trying to think of something to say to get them to stop.

“Okay, okay.” Reeves held his hands out to placate me. “I’ll just moon him, okay? He can kiss my ass. Like I’m always telling him to do. Okay?”

I could have let it go at that. Make that should have let it go at that. But I didn’t. “No,” I said.”

“Then what, dammit?”

I was stuck. I didn’t have the moral courage to just shut it down and be thought a sissy. In a couple of months, I would be gone and never see any of them again. But it didn’t seem to matter. Wade would be insufferable for as long as he was there, more self-righteous than ever, if that was even possible. And I really didn’t like Wade any more than the rest of them did.

It was suddenly eerily quiet in the barracks, quiet enough to hear the incessant rain tapping on the windows. I looked down the barracks. The poker game was suspended. The blankets they’d draped from bunks to contain the reefer smoke had been pulled back so they could see what was going on. Now everybody was in on it. My alleged authority over them, tenuous at best, hung by a frayed thread. And there lay poor Wade, waiting to prove God was on his side, ten bucks’ worth.

That moment, precisely, is when the whole idea came to me in a flash. Where the true evil Hemingway said begins in innocence reared its head. I have never been more innocent in my life than when I stopped Reeves’ sophomoric prank. But in trying to save face I let in the evil, though it seemed a wonderful idea at the time. “Put your pants back on, and come with me,” I said. “Now.” I led him and Sol back to where Cunningham kept watch on Wade.

“He hasn’t wiggled,” Dan whispered, “Not an inch.”

I put my hand on Reeves’ elbow to hold him in place at the end of the bunks. “Tell him to sit up,” I whispered. Reeves’ mouth set in a stubborn line. I closed my hand. Hard. Right on the nerve under the elbow they taught me in MP School, before I became a flack by an unpublished act of Congress. He winced. “Tell him to sit up and don’t say another word until I do. Then just follow my lead.”

Reeves really was a clod. He just kept looking at me, then at Wade, then at me. “Tell him!” I hissed. “If you want to use this arm anytime soon.”

“Okay!” he yelped. “Okay! Wade, sit up!” And Wade smoothly came to a sitting position, the towel falling away as planned, to reveal an almost insufferably smug expression. It is hard to describe the level of self-satisfaction radiating off George Wade at that moment. I had one instant of regret I hadn’t let crude barracks nature take its course.

“See?” Wade said. And he smirked. I dropped Reeves’ arm and stepped toward Wade. His glance jerked up at me. I shook my head.

“I don’t believe what I just saw,” I said.

Doubt filtered across Wade’s face. “Believe what? I told you…”

“C’mon, Reeves, you cooked this all up with Wade beforehand, right?” I looked back at Wade. “I can’t believe you’d do the things you did just to sucker me in. But you did them anyway. I guess I’m amazed.”

Reeves just gaped at me. His mouth hung open slightly, increasing his resemblance to a bottom-feeding catfish. “Wade really wasn’t hypnotized at all, was he?” I said. “How’d you get him to agree to do that disgusting shit he did, just to fool me?”

“Wait a minute!” Wade said. “Wait a minute…” There was a strange uneasy undertone in his voice. The frightened undertone seemed to wake Reeves up; anyway, he snapped out of it.

“Oh, hell yeah he was hypnotized,” Reeves said. “I told y’all I could hypnotize him into making a fool out of himself.”

I shook my head. “Will he ever remember the things he did?” I tried to make those things sound as awful as possible.

Now Reeves had the idea, grinning, ready to play. “Nah, that’s a standard part of hypnotizing somebody just for fun like this. You want to fix it so they won’t remember anything that might make them too upset, see.”

“Like a post-hypnotic suggestion,” I said.

“Yeah! Just like that.” Reeves was an okay follower, but that was all he was ever going to be. He forgot all about his original nasty intent, now he saw how worried Wade was. He was happily going along now.

Wade’s voice was a lot higher than normal. “I didn’t do anything, damn it! I wasn’t hypnotized!”

I kept on ignoring Wade. “That’s probably best,” I said to Reeves. “I mean, for ten bucks Sol would French kiss a goat, of course. Let alone some innocent Mormon boy far from home. But the church would probably drum Wade out, if they found out about that kiss. Or him licking the bottom of that urinal…”

“What? What?” Wade scrambled to his feet. Sol slipped his arms around Wade, burying his face in his neck, making wet kissing sounds.

“One more, baby, C’mon, just one more kiss. Was it good for you as it was for me?” Sol’s reflexes were rat-quick as his Yankee brain. When Wade threw a frantic left hook, Sol slipped it like a pro and pushed Wade away. Then collapsed on a bunk laughing like a madman. I kept talking to Reeves as if nothing had happened.

“I read that in hypnotism you can’t make somebody do something against his basic nature,” I said. “But some of the things you made him do…”

“I wasn’t hypnotized, damn it!” Wade’s voice broke.

I finally gave Wade my most baffled look. “You really don’t remember? Not any of it?”

“Not even the urinal?” Reeves said softly.

Worry and confusion warred on Wade’s face. “There was no urinal!”

“No urinals?” Cunningham joined in, affecting astonishment. “This is an army barracks, of course there are urinals! Right down there in the latrine. You use them every day.”

“You sure used one tonight,” Sol chimed in, still laughing like he couldn’t help himself. “You tell him, Sarge!”

Wade was swaying on his feet, head lowered like some caged wild thing. He was surrounded now. All the poker players had come down the barracks to join the fun. Wade searched their faces desperately. Somehow I knew he was looking for one friendly face, someone to tell him what really happened while he was under that towel. Turn his world right-side up again. But he was fresh out of friends in that assembly. Something that never worried him before. Abruptly, he began to curse with a fluency you wouldn’t expect from a devout Mormon lad. So I changed tactics: “AT EASE!”

What a lovely Army phrase to bellow in a parade-ground voice. The tableau froze momentarily. Everybody looked at me like I’d grown two heads. Or shot nervous glances toward the front door to see if a lifer had sneaked up on us. “Now this practical joke has gone on long enough,” I announced. “It is officially OVER.” I shoved a ten-dollar bill in Wade’s fatigue-shirt pocket. Flipped the second ten at Reeves. He caught it against his chest.

“You guys trumped this up to make me look like an idiot,” I said. “I know Reeves is too cheap to risk ten dollars on anything. Anything! So okay, you had me going. Now I look silly because I believed you. But Jesus, Wade! Stick you face in the urinal, and reach up and flush” — I demonstrated — “I mean, that’s going a long way to make me look stupid.”

Wade made a sound. A gagging sound. He threw his hand over his mouth and ran toward the latrines at the end of the room. Everybody was laughing now but Reeves. “Dammit, if he believes I hypnotized him, he owes be ten dollars!” he said.

Can you believe a cheap asshole like that? “Don’t start,” I told him flatly. “I mean it, Reeves. It’s over. All over. Right now. Get it?”

He dropped his gaze. “Jesus, we were just bored and having a little fun…”

“Idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” I intoned. My grandmother should have heard me. “You want to keep busy, I can always slot you in some extra KP.” He didn’t know whether my threat was serious or not. For that matter, neither did I. The poker players drifted back to their corner and pulled their blankets down. Wade came back from the latrine slowly, pale around the gills, smelling faintly of puke. One by one he stared at the four of us. Nobody would meet his gaze.

“Nothing happened,” he said faintly. “I know nothing happened.”

I shook my head. “Did you throw up in the same urinal you licked, you phony?”

He scowled at me. Reeves was out of it. Sol was quiet, too. But Cunningham had to put in his two cents worth. He patted Wade on the shoulder. “It’s okay, George. Don’t think about it.” Then, talking past him at me: “I really think he was under. You know George wouldn’t cook something like this up with Reeves.”

Wade looked like he had been kicked. He tried to think of something else to say, then he climbed up on his bunk and turned his face away. The others wandered off. It was normally time for lights-out. But during the holidays we didn’t bother. I retrieved my book, tried to get back into the flow of the story, and couldn’t. After a longish while, Wade’s voice came, muffled against his mattress. He was telling off my ancestry against the mattress. I didn’t answer, and he shut up. But long after the lights were finally out, he thrashed and turned, fighting his bed covers. When I woke in the morning he was already gone. So was almost everybody else. It was still raining. I was brushing my teeth in the latrine when Cunningham came in grinning.

“Wade’s going to be after you with blood in his eye,” he said. “He jumped Reeves at breakfast in the mess hall.”

“Did Wade whip his ass?”

“Nope. No fisticuffs. Reeves caved in and confessed to the whole thing.”

“That yellow bastard. Including the part about waving his pecker in Wade’s face?”

Dan kept grinning. “Nah. Just told Wade he was going to moon him, and that’s all. That the full-blown mind-fuck was your idea. All yours. So be ready.”

Everybody knew I never ate in the mess hall if I could help it, so I expected Wade to ambush me at the civilian cafeteria, and I wasn’t wrong. He was all cleaned and pressed in civilian khaki pants and a ski sweater, but his face was contorted in anger, and some other emotion I couldn’t read.

“You rotten son of a bitch,” he said. “I didn’t get any sleep at all.”

Since I was in civvies too, and since Wade was a privileged sort and a short timer too, I kind of expected him to try to punch me out. To hell with military niceties like rank. Maybe I even deserved a punch or two. Dammit, I started the whole charade in all innocence, to save him from gross humiliation. But in the clear light of another day, he wasn’t in any mood to appreciate my effort. Reeves was a rat-fink for blowing the whistle, after the whole shoddy affair was his notion in the first place. Now here was Wade in my face, demonstrating Mormon efficiency at profanity all over again. Even if he was beginning to repeat himself. At least that’s my excuse for what happened next.

I assumed my most guileless expression. “Don’t take it so hard,” I said. “I really thought you and Reeves cooked it all up to embarrass me for being gullible. I feel like a patsy too.”

“What?” His face mirrored warring emotions. Confusion won.

“I’m really sorry,” I said. “It’s kind of amazing that cracker asshole can really put somebody under like that. Especially somebody strong-minded as you.”

“You can’t pull that now,” he said. “Not now. Reeves told me the whole thing this morning, you son of a bitch.”

“Told you what?” I said. “That he never really hypnotized you?”

“He didn’t! I wasn’t under, god dammit.”

“That’s fine.” I chose my most soothing voice. “That’s just fine. You believe that, if you need to. Reeves did say that he’d have to reassure you nothing happened, after you got so upset. He thinks if you just believe him it was a joke, that’ll take care of it, ” I paused. “But if you keep getting those dreams like last night, you might want to talk to a shrink back in Utah when you get home. Guys like Reeves shouldn’t mess with dangerous stuff like hypnotism. But that’s between you and Reeves. I’m gonna go eat now…”

“Wait, God damn it! Are you just guessing about what I dreamed? Did I talk in my sleep?”

I was really tired of George Wade. “Maybe you ought to hire a lawyer. Sue Reeves for practicing without a license. I’m sure he doesn’t have one.” Nor did I know if they issued such licenses, but it was something to say.

He inhaled so hard I thought he was going to explode. “You’re trying to do it to me again,” he said. “Give it up. Reeves told me everything. Just a college prank. Not hypnosis.”

I let my words take a sarcastic twist. “Yeah sure, just a prank. Whatever you want to call kissing on that giant cock of his.”

Finally, finally, he swung on me. He was standing flatfooted and threw an overhand right cross; no more effective than the left hook he tried on Sol. It was almost child’s play to pick it out of the air and spin him into a come-along hold, face pressed against the snack bar wall. A tall guy in civvies stopped on the stairs. “Anything wrong here?” He had the erect carriage and gray temples of a senior ranker. It never hurts to assume upward when assessing rank.

“No problem, sir,” I said. “Just demonstrating a come-along hold to my trainee.”

“Sergeant First Class, not sir,” the tall guy said. “You could fire a cannon on this fort and not hit an officer over Christmas break. You an MP?”

“That’s my primary MOS, Sarge.”

Wade stirred, but I bore down on the nerve nexus and he went quiet. I let him go and swung him around to face me. “And that’s how that works.”

“MPs!” snorted the old NCO, and went about his business. Wade was massaging his arm and his face was pale. Maybe he had never been manhandled before.

“I suppose you’ll report me now, for attempting to strike a non-commissioned officer.” His tone was bitter. “There goes my clean record and my shot at ROTC, and everything else I planned.”

I shook my head. “Report you? For what? For being hypnotized on military time? There’s no Army regulation against it I know about.” I gave it a beat. “Though there should be, after what I saw last night.” And I bent my face, reached above my head as if to flush something, and made a whoosh sound.

He blinked. Whatever color he still had blanched away. He blinked again, a kind of flutter of eyelids. I thought he might pass out. “Calm yourself down!” I felt a little like a jerk. “If Reeves is right, and it’s easier for you just to believe nothing happened, believe that. Believe Reeves was just going to trick you into sticking your face in his crotch and then changed his mind.”

“He didn’t say anything about crotch! He said he was going to moon me. That’s all!”

“Just forget it,” I said. “Go sit down somewhere. Get a glass of water. You don’t look so hot. It was all a bad dream, okay?”

He gulped audibly. “You are the most rotten son of a — “ In the famous Owen Wister novel, the Virginian says when you call me that, smile. It was far too late for me to use the line with Wade. But I was way past tired of him. So I ducked my face, reached up and made the whooshing sound again. “What are you trying to do to me?” It was a pathetic croak.

“It’s your post-hypnotic suggestion,” I said. “Every time you think of this gesture, you will instantly relive being completely under Reeves’ control.” He stared at me so hard his eyes bugged out. “You’ll smell Sol’s aftershave again,” I said. “Taste Sol’s mouth wash again.”

He was done denying. His mouth hung slack. The power my voice had over his sorry brain was palpable as 220-volt electricity, humming in the damp air between us. Maybe I felt my neck hairs lift. Maybe I imagined it. I did not imagine the power. “You’ll remember sticking your face in the urinal,” I said. His knees buckled as if preparing to kneel before the urinal. “You’ll remember it the rest of your life, you self-righteous little prick. But you’ll tell yourself you don’t.”

I turned on my heel and left him, and went on in to breakfast. I didn’t have much appetite. The feel of that much power in my grasp frightened me some. I never thought I was the kind to kick a dog while he was down. I had learned it depended on the dog. I took the local bus to the other side of the post and caught a movie on the main fort, and stayed away until after lights-out.

When I woke up again, George Wade was gone for good. The orderly room told me he’d been admitted to Madigan Hospital with an unexplained malady, running a fever. Everybody was still jumpy about hepatitis. They came and packed up his stuff a couple days later, said the fever was a false alarm, and his heart was stable. But they gave him an early release to go home to his own doctors. That was the end of George Wade as far as we were concerned.

We didn’t talk about him after he was gone. After a while I didn’t even think about him. Didn’t think about him for decades. Until the coincidence of names for the latest hot political candidate, who happened to be out of Utah, surfaced in the national media. I couldn’t believe it was George Wade coming back to haunt me. But there he was on the evening news, pontificating, an older and stuffier version of himself. More self-righteous than ever, making all the right moves, building up a campaign treasury with amazing ease, getting face time on all the political talk shows. His National Guard rank of lieutenant colonel and his long career as a public servant, to which no scandal had adhered, were reported uncritically and with approval.

His steady rise in key polls alarmed primary opponents, who had slogged the partisan trenches faithfully to get their shot. They viewed the new hot kid from Utah as a crisis for their own dreams of glory. Perhaps it was inevitable, but seemed to me a massive irony, when one of the worried politicians hired my crisis-management firm. (After my baptism in Army public relations I had veered away from a writing career and never looked back.) The contract came through just before this “cluster debate.” (Substitute the F word for debate, and you will have my opinion exactly of these circuses.) The contract gave me entrée, and my excellent vantage.

The crowd has assembled now, and the debate begins. George Wade has aged well. He looks very distinguished in his bespoke suit, American lapel flag prominent in his lapel, symmetrical gray temples frosting a haircut that probably cost more than my suit. Wade was always impeccable, even in starched and tailored fatigues. With a little covert intelligence work, I have ensured Wade’s staff got a seating chart with my name and seat boldly encircled thereupon. I even had my secretary pen a marginal note, in case his operatives were dense: “Who IS this guy??” Call it curiosity; I wonder if Wade’s recollection is as vivid as mine.

His darting eyes give me the answer in the first five minutes onstage. I look nothing like I did forty years ago. But my name and the query were all it took. Even TV makeup can’t mask a certain pallid aspect to his cheeks. When his opponents speak, his eyes keep flickering back to me, as if trying to reconcile this rumple-suited hulk with the sergeant of old. When it is his turn to speak, his delivery is slightly off his previously well-known smoothness. His famous deft timing is absent. Because I know where to look, I see pundits and spinners off-camera in the wings, shifting uneasily. Wondering what’s wrong.

Wade keeps clearing his throat. He remembers all right.

The beaded sweat standing on his forehead and the twitching flutter of his eyelids, hugely magnified in studio monitors, make it look as if George Wade is about to faint. He has to ask for a question to be repeated, as if he hasn’t been paying attention. The moderator shows irritation. Then he completely botches the answer. In the infinitesimal pause before the moderator moves on to the next candidate, Wade sucks down half a glass of water, his throat working spasmodically. When he lowers the glass, the tremor in his hand is glaringly evident in the studio lights.

Now the audience has caught the nervousness of the pundits and his spin doctors. A rustling murmur of unease spreads through the seats like the first ripple of a tide change. I sit perfectly still in the first row. Hands folded in my lap. My curiosity is satisfied: he remembers. Now I need to devote a moment’s consideration to my firm’s newest client. Does he really deserve the shot more than Wade? It is time for me to decide.

Shall I raise my hand slightly above my head when the question-and-answer period begins? Then make the urinal-flushing gesture, for the first time in four decades? A hand-signal between old bunkmates, nothing more. I can hear myself telling that to inquisitive reporters later, regardless how Wade reacts. Time to decide. Make the gesture? Or sit quietly and watch him stew, hands folded quietly on my lap?

My idle hands.




Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.

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Bill Burkett

Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.

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