Essay by Allen
Essay by Steven
by Reid Mitchell
by William Rainbolt
by Thomas Mallon
by William Rainbolt
Man Under Authority
by Reid Mitchell
by Allen Ballard
The Heavenly Kingdom
by Steven Leibo
virtual conference session
A Man Under Authority
The tall lieutenant vomited blood into the white porcelain sink.
Grease and sweat shone on his white forehead. “You’re too highly
strung,” the colonel said.
buy this book from Amazon Books click here
“No sir,” the lieutenant replied. “It’s
The colonel shrugged. He’d been joking.
Of late the grub had been black bread baked from unbolted flour and greens
no better than grass boiled in the hope they contained nutrients and the
certainty they provided bulk. Stuff that might well make your stomach
“Rinse the damn sink out,” the colonel said.
“Let’s maintain dignity.”
The tall lieutenant turned the tap but the
water had long since been disconnected. They were in a bombed-out
farm labor cottage. It smelled of the hens once kept there.
Muddy yellow concrete walls, a poured concrete floor painted green, with
a slope to the doorway. Its roof was now open up to the sky.
There’d been a bed in the room, but it’d been chopped up for firewood,
or just for meanness. A scattering of empty tins showed that other
soldiers had sojourned here as well. Americans or perhaps civilians
eating American supplies.
“The Americans are too generous,” the colonel
said, feeling glum.
“Perhaps there is a bucket,” said the lieutenant.
“I could fetch water.” He kicked a clump of empty tins out of the way,
kicked through the slats and springs that’d been the bed, put his hand
into a large aperture in the wall and found a starling’s nest. He
held the nest up for the colonel to see and then carefully restored it
to its hole. The colonel watched his plump rump as he stood on tippy-toes.
Next the lieutenant began to examine the empty
tins. He did so with system, first collecting them in a pile in one
corner of the room, not looking inside until he had gathered them all in.
Even the pile was orderly, with a few out-sized tins constituting the base.
Once it was built, the lieutenant lifted a single can, the smallest, toward
his face, looked-and apparently smelt-for remnants of food, and then placed
it carefully to the side, the start of a new pile. Then he repeated
the process with the next smallest can. And so on, although he occasionally
varied procedure by trying to read the English language label.
Outside and above, it was half-rain, half-snow,
a dreary mixture that drizzled from pale gray clouds that resembled the
color and texture of cigar ash. What was left of the roof kept most
of the slush from their heads. Still, the cottage was cold and there
was muck underfoot. Mud and snow and cinders. The colonel went
to close the door against the wind, but only half the green door was left,
hanging on one loose hinge.
Two men, no longer quite officers but not
yet merely fugitives. Not fleeing, but pursuing the remnants of an
army dissolving like the clumps of muck and snow melting on the concrete
floor. Yesterday they had been part of the general retreat.
Last night, they’d left the main road and lost themselves. This morning,
the car broke down and they abandoned it. They’d come here on foot.
Their last meal had been yesterday morning,
the black bread baked from ersatz flour. There’d been a smudge of
a solid white oleaginous product, something like candles and something
like lanolin, and something like lard. He’d said it was a petroleum
product, but that’d be stupid: they had almost run out of petroleum.
Whatever it was had a look and texture almost like margarine but no flavor.
The taste of defeat had turned out to be the taste of sawdust.
It has been weeks since they’d changed their
clothes. The colonel wore a short zippered leather jacket with a
torn lining, a wool underwear shirt-a perfect haven for lice-and muddy
wool trousers, once brown, with holes burnt into the front and cuffs.
His boots had gotten soaked and then dried on his feet; he could barely
hobble now. His hat had disappeared. He couldn’t remember when.
He did manage a dry shave daily. The tall lieutenant’s pants were
split along the back seams- his tunic had far more buttonholes than buttons;
the fingers on his gloves had burst open and he often complained his hands
were always cold as if he expected the colonel, his superior, to remedy
the difficulty. He clearly believed the army owed him a satisfactory
pair of gloves.
If they continued their journey in the same
general direction, they ought to encounter elements of the army.
They were only about one hundred kilometers from the border. But
the Americans, with motorized divisions well-supplied with gasoline, travelled
much faster than they could. This time pursuit moved with greater
speed than the retreat. As he’d told the tall lieutenant weeks before,
the Americans had won this war.
Still, a single man ought to be able to slip
through the American divisions, and go home, so long as he stayed off the
roads, travelled at night. Even so, he’d have to walk and the colonel
did not believe he could walk much farther. And he was undecided
whether the tall lieutenant was more help than hindrance.
“Ha!” The lieutenant had found something.
He held his finger out toward the colonel as if displaying a prize.
On the end of his finger was a gob of something that stank like rotten
fish and looked like dirty motor oil. The tin had held sardines.
“Waste,” the lieutenant said, his voice a combination of scandal and glee.
“They’re a rich people.”
The lieutenant stuck his finger in his mouth
and swallowed. Then he sucked lovingly, like a confident baby at
an ample breast. The colonel felt the turning of nausea in his own
stomach. Continuing to suck, the lieutenant raised the tin hopefully
to the level of his eyes; he wanted to see if there were any more tidbits
remaining. The colonel slapped the tin out of his hand.
“You’ll poison yourself, man.” The tin lay
between their feet.
“I’m hungry.” The lieutenant stooped to retrieve
the tin, but the colonel kicked it away, brushing the lieutenant’s fingers
with the side of his boot in the process. The tin crashed against
the ruined wall.
The lieutenant picked up the next tin in his
“You’ll make yourself sick.”
“I’m just looking for a stray portion of jam,
sir. Or a little oil. Something not immediately perishable.”
“That stuffs gone bad.”
“Do you suppose they tin bread?”
“I thought you were looking for a bucket.”
“Oh yes, sir. Forgive me. I was
The lieutenant cast a yearning took at the
stack of tins, but went outside nonetheless. The colonel wondering
if there were any bits of jam or jelly in the tins; he kicked the stack
“Idiot.” He meant himself. Now his right
foot blazed with pain. He wished he could unlace his boots and soak
his feet-God, not in the sink, not now-but if he did so, he might never
get the boots back on. His socks stuck to his feet with the dried
residue of blood and lymph. To take them off he’d have to tear them
off. All the minute wounds would break open. He might as well
take off his boots by cutting his feet off.
“I’m a tank commander,” he said to himself,
with an affected whine that was not entirely in jest. “In God’s name,
I’m not supposed to walk.”
He sat down with his back again to the wall
and his legs stuck straight before him. He knew that he sounded like
a twelve-year old and now he held his body accordingly: a picture of adolescent
misery. It was foolish to become angry with lieutenant. An
angry man rarely thinks straight.
If he were back at his father’s, he’d ask
to have his clothes steamed off him, steamed and peeled as if he were shedding
dead skin, and they would wrap him in a feather comforter and he’d eat....
What? Radishes, he decided, radishes sprinkled with salt and a light
lager. Then he’d order dinner to be prepared for when he awoke and
he’d sleep for four days. His mother would put the first spring flowers
in his bedroom.
He was almost asleep now. But the lieutenant
called out loudly. “My colonel, we are in luck.”
“Could he be so excited about a bucket?”
Outside, the colonel could not see him.
There were the nearly identical cottages, some brownish yellow and some
greenish, and a barn. Up a slight incline was a larger, older house,
where the proprietors no doubt lived. The lieutenant must have been
in one of these buildings or behind it. The colonel remained in the
yard. He lacked any desire for searching out the fool.
“Here, colonel, here.” The lieutenant had
grown excited, to be calling out what might be considered orders to his
superior. Then he appeared, wheeling out a dilapidated bicycle from
the shadows of the barn.
It was missing a wheel. It needed cleaning.
Perhaps it’d been run over. It looked like it had been run over.
But the colonel had to agree: it was a find.
“The wheel’s in the barn too,” said the lieutenant.
“I’m sure I can repair it.”
The colonel hobbled into the barn. The
smell of hay but no hay left, save wisps on the ground. Shadows and
empty stalls. Even the manure had been cleaned out. At the
back of one stall, a battered rim propped against the wall, a tire drooled
along the floor.
Whatever tools had been used to bring the
bicycle mending this far along had been taken when the mechanic had been
interrupted. It must have been noise-airplanes, a convoy, soldiers
calling to one another-he had slipped the tool already in his hand and
held poised over the wheel into the side pocket of a coat and had run,
away from the road and up past the ruined house. Perhaps it was a
she, the daughter of the house or a local schoolgirl, stopped in here to
repair the bicycle that was the best means of escape left her. She’d
taken the wheel from the frame, the tire and tube from the wheel, and then
shadows in the doorway, a man’s curse or laughter, her hands and feet suddenly
cold with fear but the blood pounding hot at her temples, she’d raised
the screwdriver or wrench or crowbar as a weapon, realized how useless
it was, and rising quickly from her knees to a crouch, she’d sprinted through
the back door to the barn, through paths she knew better than her pursuers,
still carrying the screwdriver, wrench, or whatever it was, and disappeared
successfully, the colonel hoped, in the hills above the house.
The tools to repair the bicycle were gone.
There was, however, a bucket in another corner
of the barn. The colonel took this and the bicycle parts along.
When he reached their cottage, the lieutenant waited at the door.
He reached out for the wheel but the colonel handed him the bucket.
“You missed this,” the colonel said.
“I know I can repair the bicycle.”
“Fetch water.” The lieutenant frowned, but
did as ordered. Lieutenants, the colonel knew, were ordained to be
hewers of wood and drawers of water.
How to fix the plagued thing? One mercy:
the bolts had been left on the frame. But the wheel was bent so far
out of true that he couldn’t fit it where it belonged. The tire and
tube couldn’t be mended without glue and a spare strip of rubber, but he
could always ride on the rims if necessary.
He wanted this bicycle badly. The lieutenant
came in groaning, as if the bucket was heavy. He just wants me to
look up and see he’d performed his duty. “The sink, lieutenant.”
“I can repair that bicycle, colonel.”
Pouring the water on the mess brought the
smells back to life. Oblivious, the lieutenant squatted next to the
colonel and reached out to string the inner tube between his hands, as
if he played cat’s cradle. The colonel glared at him. “We need
water too,” he said to the lieutenant.
This time the lieutenant returned with a fresh
bucket of water in his right hand and a large rock from the yard in his
left. He stood the bucket in the middle of the room and shifted the
rock to his right hand. The colonel’s hand went to the flap of his
holster. But the lieutenant sat down next to him, reached for the
wheel, and began hammering the rim into shape with the stone.
“We’ll take turns riding, eh, colonel?” He
smiled, a rare occurrence for the lieutenant. The colonel didn’t
With only this caveman technology-a rock shaped
vaguely like a pestle-the lieutenant worked with surprising delicacy and
lightness of touch. He might have been a jeweler, hammering thin
strips of gold into a bracelet and setting it with precious stones.
Quickly, he flattened the wheel, restored it almost completely to a circle.
After a brief check, to make sure it would fit correctly on the frame,
he began straightening the individual spokes.
Graceful work for such a coarse man.
In spite of himself, the colonel admired the job.
Once the wheel was true, the lieutenant turned
his attention to the inner tube and tire. Like a jeweler again, like
a jeweler examining a watch with his eyepiece, he scrutinized the tube.
He felt its surface all over with his fingers, and then put its valve futilely
to his lips. “We have no pump,” he said sorrowfully.
“You have done well as it is.”
“But with a pump. . .
“We’ve no patches.”
“I could have used cloth patches. First
you’d ride, then I’d ride, then we’d pump the tires back up. Ride
and pump.” He sounded dreamy.
“You’ve done well. Clean yourself up.”
“First let me put the tube and tire back on
the wheel.” This chore took him almost no time at all. Then he turned
the bicycle on its back, put the wheel on and spun it once-it cast a whirling
shadow on the opposite wall-and leaned the bicycle upright against the
sink. “Voila,” his gestures seemed to say.
The lieutenant dipped his hands in the water
and tried to rub the grease from his hands. Without soap, there was
nothing he could do, and he did not even know about the spot on the tip
of his nose. Meanwhile the colonel tested the bicycle, walking around
the cottage as if it were Christmas morning and he’d just received it as
a present but was forbidden to leave the house so early.
The lieutenant was taking off his shoes.
First, he worked both sets of laces from their eyelets, and stored them
in his tunic pocket. Then he pulled the tongues forward and worked
his fingers underneath the edges, tugging the leather away from his ankles.
Finally, he pulled them off.
The colonel, who’d watched all this in silence,
said, “You shouldn’t have done that. You’ll never get them back on.”
Peeling a sock and exposing a stark white
foot, the lieutenant said, complacently, “Oh, I’ll manage.” The skin had
a blue tinge in it and the whole foot looked like something that’d been
killed and stored in a cool place. The lieutenant prodded his heel
with his thumb. He folded the stiff sock and put it neatly in the
shoe. Then he peeled the other sock from the other foot and deposited
it in its shoe as well. The shoes he lay up precisely along the wall.
He stood up, as if he were proud.
“You’ll feel much better if you follow my
example,” he said. He walked to the center of the room and stepped
into the bucket.
“That’s our drinking water.” The colonel was
“We can get more.”
“Get out of that bucket.”
“Just a minute, colonel.”
“Colonel, it is the most blessed thing in
A clown, with his blackened nose and one white
foot in a bucket. Who could take him seriously? Who could sympathize
with such a clown?
The colonel jerked his arm and he stepped
out of the bucket, knocking it over. The water spread all over the
floor, made rivulets through the filth and the ashes. As if he’d
forgotten that he’d just soaked his feet, the lieutenant tried to sidestep
the water, jumping here and there as it spread. “More water,” the
colonel said, and the lieutenant fetched it. He patted the seat of
the bicycle both leaving and entering the cottage.
Later, the colonel used the water to shave,
standing at the sink as if a mirror hung above it. If he returned
to his home, after his four day nap, and his glass of lager and dish of
radishes, he would ask his sisters to come with a pot of hot water, and
his old shaving mug, and they would lather him and shave him while he still
lay in bed.
“I wish we had soap,” he said to the lieutenant.
“If we had soap, I’d eat it.”
In the evening, the skies cleared and the
moon, becoming visible, made things visible on the earth: the scattering
of buildings, the ruins of the house, the barn casting a huge shadow.
It was a crisp night, a good night for travel. Tomorrow would be
clear as well, but that just meant that the bombers would come out.
Much of the evening, the lieutenant complained
about his gloves. He also washed his socks in the bucket and, subordinately,
offered to wash the colonel’s as well. The colonel kept his socks
on. From the doorway, the colonel tracked the progress of the night by
the diminishing length of the shadows. Would the bastard never sleep?
Finally he did, gently snoring. He had
folded his head over his knees and then collapsed onto his side, so that
he looked as if he hid his eyes as he slept, as if he were a dog or a cat
or a child snuggling in on himself. The colonel whispered to him
several times, inconsequential things as if they were continuing a trivial
conversation, but the lieutenant moved only to snore. As lightly
as he could on his tired and battered feet, the colonel snuck to the bicycle,
took it by its handlebars, and went out the door and into the yard.
Now his own shadow lay against the muddy earth.
Mount. For a second of panic, the colonel
believed he’d forgotten how to cycle. There were no memories that’d
help him, no youthful scenes of cycling down country lanes or racing his
friends, no recollections of riding the damn things at all. Fortunately,
his muscles remembered better than did his mind.
The wheel wobbled. Both tires were flat.
It needed oil and he pedalled it with difficulty. Nonetheless, it
was locomotion. In the moonlight, he guided it successfully through
the yard and to the lane that led to the road.
“Colonel!” The tall lieutenant stood in the
doorway, shaking his head to clear it of sleep. “Colonel, where are
“Don’t worry,” the colonel shouted.
“I’ll be back. “The lieutenant didn’t seem to believe the lie, because
he began running, barefooted, across the muddy, freezing yard.
The colonel pedalled harder, feeling the blisters
on the arches of his feet break open with the effort. He outdistanced
the tall lieutenant easily, and left him bent-over, chest heaving, crying
in the lane.