Defender of the Faith
by Philip Roth (1959)
IN MAY OF 1945, ONLY A FEW WEEKS AFTER the fighting had ended in Europe, I was rotated back to the States, where I spent the remainder of the war with a training company at Camp Crowder, Missouri. Along with the rest of the Ninth Army, I had been racing across Germany so swiftly during the late winter and spring that when I boarded the plane, I couldn’t believe its destination lay to the west. My mind might inform me otherwise, but there was an inertia of the spirit that told me we were flying to a new front, where we would disembark and continue our push eastward-eastward until we’d circled the globe, marching through villages along whose twisting, cobbled streets crowds of the enemy would watch us take possession of what, up till then, they’d considered their own. I had changed enough in two years not to mind the trembling of old people, the crying of the very young, the uncertainty and fear in the eyes of the once arrogant. I had been fortunate enough to develop an infantryman’s heart, which, like his feet, at first aches and swells but finally grows horny enough for him to travel the weirdest paths without feeling a thing.
Captain Paul Barrett was my C. O. in Camp Crowder. The day I reported for duty, he came out of his office to shake my hand. He was short, gruff, and fiery, and-indoors or out-he wore his polished helmet liner pulled down to his little eyes. In Europe, he had received a battlefield commission and a serious chest wound, and he’d been returned to the States only a few months before. He spoke easily to me, and at the evening formation he introduced me to the troops.
“Gentlemen,” he said. “Sergeant Thurston, as you know, is no longer with this company. Your new first sergeant is Sergeant Nathan Marx, here. He is a veteran of the European theater, and consequently will expect to find a company of soldiers here, and not a company of boys.” I sat up late in the orderly room that evening, trying halfheartedly to solve the riddle of duty rosters, personnel forms, and morning reports. The Charge of Quarters slept with his mouth open on a mattress on the floor. A trainee stood reading the next day’s duty roster, which was posted on the bulletin board just inside the screen door. It was a warm evening, and I could hear radios playing dance music over in the barracks.
The trainee, who had been staring at me whenever he thought I wouldn’t notice, finally took a step in my direction.
“Hey, Sarge-we having a G.I. party tomorrow night?” he asked. A G.I. party is a barracks cleaning.
“You usually have them on Friday nights?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he said, and then he added, mysteriously, “that’s the whole thing.”
“Then you’ll have a G.I. party.”
He turned away, and I heard him mumbling. His shoulders were moving and I wondered if he was crying.
“What’s your name, soldier?” I asked.
He turned, not crying at all. Instead, his greenspeckled eyes, long and narrow, flashed like fish in the sun. He walked over to me and sat on the edge of my desk.
He reached out a hand. “Sheldon,” he said.
“Stand on your feet, Sheldon.”
Getting off the desk, he said, “Sheldon Grossbart.” He smiled at the familiarity into which he’d led me.
“You against cleaning the barracks Friday night, Grossbart?” I said. “Maybe we shouldn’t have G.I. parties. Maybe we should get a maid.” My tone startled me. I felt I sounded like every top sergeant I had ever known.
“No, Sergeant.” He grew serious, but with a seriousness that seemed to be only the stifling of a smile. “It’s just-G.I. parties on Friday night, of all nights.”
He slipped up onto the corner of the desk again-not quite sitting, but not quite standing, either. He looked at me with those speckled eyes flashing, and then made a gesture with his hands. It was very slight-no more than a movement back and forth of the wrist-and yet it managed to exclude from our affairs everything else in the orderly room, to make the two of us the center of the world. It seemed, in fact, to exclude everything even about the two of us except our hearts. “Sergeant Thurston was one thing,” he whispered, glancing at the sleeping C.Q., “but we thought that with you here things might be a little different.”
“The Jewish personnel.”
“Why?” I asked, harshly.
“What’s on your mind?” Whether I was still angry at the “Sheldon” business, or now at something else, I hadn’t time to tell, but clearly I was angry.
“… We thought you… Marx, you know, like Karl Marx. The Marx Brothers. Those guys are all… M-a-r-x. Isn’t that how you spell it, Sergeant?”
“Fishbein said-” He stopped. “What I mean to say, Sergeant-” His face and neck were red, and his mouth moved but no words came out. In a moment, he raised himself to attention, gazing down at me. It was as though he had suddenly decided he could expect no more sympathy from me than from Thurston, the reason being that I was of Thurston’s faith, and not his. The young man had managed to confuse himself as to what my faith really was, but I felt no desire to straighten him out. Very simply, I didn’t like him.
When I did nothing but return his gaze, he spoke, in an altered tone. “You see, Sergeant,” he explained to me, “Friday nights, Jews are supposed to go to services.”
“Did Sergeant Thurston tell you you couldn’t go to them when there was a G.I. party?”
“Did he say you had to stay and scrub the floors?”
“Did the Captain say you had to stay and scrub the floors?”
“That isn’t it, Sergeant. It’s the other guys in the barracks.” He leaned toward me. “They think we’re goofing off. But we’re not. That’s when Jews go to services, Friday night. We have to.”
“But the other guys make accusations. They have no right.”
“That’s not the Army’s problem, Grossbart. It’s a personal problem you’ll have to work out yourself.”
“But it’s unfair.”
I got up to leave. “There’s nothing I can do about it,” I said.
Grossbart stiffened and stood in front of me. “But this is a matter of religion, sir.”
“Sergeant,” I said.
“I mean ‘Sergeant,'” he said, almost snarling.
“Look, go see the chaplain. You want to see Captain Barrett, I’ll arrange an appointment.”
“No, no. I don’t want to make trouble, Sergeant. That’s the first thing they throw up to you. I just want my rights!”
“Damn it, Grossbart, stop whining. You have your rights. You can stay and scrub floors or you can go to shul-“
The smile swam in again. Spittle gleamed at the corners of his mouth. “You mean church, Sergeant.”
“I mean shul, Grossbart!” I walked past him and went outside. Near me, I heard the scrunching of the guard’s boots on gravel. Beyond the lighted windows of the barracks, young men in T shirts and fatigue pants were sitting on their bunks, polishing their rifles. Suddenly there was a light rustling behind me. I turned and saw Grossbart’s dark frame fleeing back to the barracks, racing to tell his Jewish friends that they were right-that, like Karl and Harpo, I was one of them.
The next morning, while chatting with Captain Barrett, I recounted the incident of the previous evening. Somehow, in the telling, it must have seemed to the Captain that I was not so much explaining Grossbart’s position as defending it.
“Marx, I’d fight side by side with a nigger if the fella proved to me he was a man. I pride myself,” he said, looking out the window, “that I’ve got an open mind. Consequently, Sergeant, nobody gets special treatment here, for the good or the bad. All a man’s got to do is prove himself. A man fires well on the range, I give him a weekend pass. He scores high in P.T., he gets a weekend pass. He earns it.” He turned from the window and pointed a finger at me. “You’re a Jewish fella, am I right, Marx?”
“And I admire you. I admire you because of the ribbons on your chest. I judge a man by what he shows me on the field of battle, Sergeant. It’s what he’s got here,” he said, and then, though I expected he would point to his chest, he jerked a thumb toward the buttons straining to hold his blouse across his belly. “Guts,” he said.
“O.K., sir. I only wanted to pass on to you how the men felt.”
“Mr. Marx, you’re going to be old before your time if you worry about how the men feel. Leave that stuff to the chaplain-that’s his business, not yours. Let’s us train these fellas to shoot straight. If the Jewish personnel feel the other men are accusing them of goldbricking- well, I just don’t know. Seems awful funny that suddenly the Lord is calling so loud in Private Grossman’s ear he’s just got to run to church.”
“Synagogue,” I said.
“Synagogue is right, Sergeant. I’ll write that down for handy reference. Thank you for stopping by.”
That evening, a few minutes before the company gathered outside the orderly room for the chow formation, I called the C.Q., Corporal Robert LaHill, in to see me. LaHill was a dark, burly fellow whose hair curled out of his clothes wherever it could. He had a glaze in his eyes that made one think of caves and dinosaurs. “LaHill,” I said, “when you take the formation, remind the men that they’re free to attend church services whenever they are held, provided they report to the orderly room before they leave the area.”
LaHill scratched his wrist, but gave no indication that he’d heard or understood.
“LaHill,” I said, “church. You remember? Church, priest, Mass, confession.”
He curled one lip into a kind of smile; I took it for a signal that for a second he had flickered back up into the human race.
“Jewish personnel who want to attend services this evening are to fall out in front of the orderly room at 1900,” I said. Then, as an afterthought, I added, “By order of Captain Barret.”
A little while later, as the day’s last light-softer than any I had seen that year-began to drop over Camp Crowder, I heard LaHill’s thick, inflectionless voice outside my window: “Give me your ears, troopers. Toppie says for me to tell you that at 1900 hours all Jewish personnel is to fall out in front, here, if they want to attend the Jewish Mass.”
At seven o’clock, I looked out the orderly-room window and saw three soldiers in starched khakis standing on the dusty quadrangle. They looked at their watches and fidgeted while they whispered back and forth. It was getting dimmer, and, alone on the otherwise deserted field, they looked tiny. When I opened the door, I heard the noises of the G.I. party coming from the surrounding barracks-bunks being pushed to the walls, faucets pounding water into buckets, brooms whisking at the wooden floors, cleaning the dirt away for Saturday’s inspection. Big puffs of cloth moved round and round on the windowpanes. I walked outside, and the moment my foot hit the ground I thought I heard Grossbart call to the others ” ‘Tenhut!” Or maybe, when they all three jumped to attention, I imagined I heard the command.
Grossbart stepped forward, “Thank you, sir,” he said.
“‘Sergeant,’ Grossbart,” I reminded him. “You call officers ‘sir.’ I’m not an officer. You’ve been in the Army three weeks-you know that.”
He turned his palms out at his sides to indicate that, in truth, he and I lived beyond convention. “Thank you anyway,” he said.
“Yes,” a tall boy behind him said. “Thanks a lot.”
And the third boy whispered, “Thank you,” but his mouth barely fluttered, so that he did not alter by more than a lip’s movement his posture of attention.
“For what?” I asked.
Grossbart snorted happily. “For the announcement. The Corporal’s announcement. It helped. It made it-“
“Fancier.” The tall boy finished Grossbart’s sentence.
Grossbart smiled. “He means formal, sir. Public,” he said to me. “Now it won’t seem as though we’re just taking off-goldbricking because the work has begun.”
“It was by order of Captain Barrett,” I said.
“Aaah, but you pull a little weight,” Grossbart said. “So we thank you.” Then he turned to his companions. “Sergeant Marx, I want you to meet Larry Fishbein.”
The tall boy stepped forward and extended his hand. I shook it. “You from New York?” he asked.
“Me too.” He had a cadaverous face that collapsed inward from his cheekbone to his jaw, and when he smiled-as he did at the news of our communal attachment-revealed a mouthful of bad teeth. He was blinking his eyes a good deal, as though he were fighting back tears. “What borough?” he asked.
I turned to Grossbart. “It’s five after seven. What time are services?”
“Shul,” he said, smiling, “is in ten minutes. I want you to meet Mickey Halpern. This is Nathan Marx, our sergeant.”
The third boy hopped forward. “Private Michael Halpern.” He saluted.
“Salute officers, Halpern,” I said. The boy dropped his hand, and, on its way down, in his nervousness, checked to see if his shirt pockets were buttoned.
“Shall I march them over, sir?” Grossbart asked. “Or are you coming along?”
From behind Grossbart, Fishbein piped up. “Afterward, they’re having refreshments. A ladies auxiliary from St. Louis, the rabbi told us last week.”
“The chaplain,” Halpern whispered.
“You’re welcome to come along,” Grossbart said.
To avoid his plea, I looked away, and saw, in the windows of the barracks, a cloud of faces staring out at the four of us.
“Hurry along, Grossbart,” I said.
“O.K., then,” he said. He turned to the others. “Double time, march!” They started off, but ten feet away Grossbart spun around and, running backward, called to me “Good shabbus, sir!” And then the three of them were swallowed into the alien Missouri dusk.
Even after they had disappeared over the parade ground, whose green was now a deep blue, I could hear Grossbart singing the doubletime cadence, and as it grew dimmer and dimmer, it suddenly touched a deep memoryas-as did the slant of the light-and I was remembering the shrill sounds of a Bronx playground where, years ago, beside the Grand Concourse, I had played on long spring evenings such as this. …It was a pleasant memory for a young man so far from peace and home, and it brought so many recollections with it that I began to grow exceedingly tender about myself. In fact, I indulged myself in a reverie so strong that I felt as though a hand were reaching down inside me. It had to reach so very far to touch me! It had to reach past those days in the forests of Belgium, and past the dying I’d refused to weep over; past the nights in German farmhouses whose books we’d burned to warm us; past endless stretches when I had shut off all softness I might feel for my fellows, and had managed even to deny myself the posture of a conqueror-the swagger that I, as a Jew, might well have worn as my boots whacked against the rubble of Wesel, Munster, and Braunschweig, and finally Berlin.
But now one night noise, one rumor of home and time past, and memory plunged down through all I had anesthetized, and came to what I suddenly remembered was myself. So it was not altogether curious that, in search of more of me, I found myself following Grossbart’s tracks to Chapel No. 3, where the Jewish services were being held.
I took a seat in the last row, which was empty. Two rows in front of me sat Grossbart, Fishbein, and Halpern, holding little white Dixie cups. Each row of seats was raised higher than the one in front of it, and I could see clearly what was going on. Fishbein was pouring the contents of his cup into Grossbart’s, and Grossbart looked mirthfill as the liquid made a purple arc between Fishbein’s hand and his. In the glaring yellow light, I saw the chaplain standing on the platform at the front; he was chanting the first line of the responsive reading. Grossbart’s prayer book remained closed on his lap; he was swishing the cup around. Only Halpern responded to the chant by praying. The fingers of his right hand were spread wide across the cover of his open book. His cap was pulled down low onto his brow, which made it round, like a yarmulke. From time to time, Grossbart wet his lips at the cup’s edge; Fishbein, his long yellow face a dying light bulb, looked from here to there, craning forward to catch sight of the faces down the row, then of those in front of him, then behind. He saw me, and his eyelids beat a tattoo. His elbow slid into Grossbart’s side, his neck inclined toward his friend, he whispered something, and then, when the congregation next responded to the chant, Grossbart’s voice was among the others. Fishbein looked into his book now, too; his lips, however, didn’t move.
Finally, it was time to drink the wine. The chaplain smiled down at them as Grossbart swigged his in one long gulp, Halpern sipped, meditating, and Fishbein faked devotion with an empty cup.
“As I look down amongst the congregation”-the chaplain grinned at the word-“this night, I see many new faces, and I want to welcome you to Fridaynight services here at Camp Crowder. I am Major Leo Ben Ezra, your chaplain.” Though an American, the chaplain spoke deliberately-syllable by syllable, almost-as though to communicate, above all, with the lip readers in his audience. “I have only a few words to say before we adjourn to the refreshment room, where the kind ladies of the Temple Sinai, St. Louis, Missouri, have a nice setting for you.”
Applause and whistling broke out. After another momentary grin, the chaplain raised his hands, palms out, his eyes flicking upward a moment, as if to remind the troops where they were and Who Else might be in attendance. In the sudden silence that followed, I thought I heard Grossbart cackle, “Let the goyim clean the floors!” Were those the words? I wasn’t sure, but Fishbein, grinning, nudged Halpern. Halpern looked dumbly at him, then went back to his prayer book, which had been occupying him all through the rabbi’s talk. One hand tugged at the black kinky hair that stuck out under his cap. His lips moved.
The rabbi continued. “It is about the food that I want to speak to you for a moment. I know, I know, I know,” he intoned, wearily, “how in the mouths of most of you the trafe food tastes like ashes. I know how you gag, some of you, and how your parents suffer to think of their children eating foods unclean and offensive to the palate. What can I tell you? I can only say, close your eyes and swallow as best you can. Eat what you must to live, and throw away the rest. I wish I could help more. For those of you who find this impossible, may I ask that you try and try, but then come to see me in private. If your revulsion is so great, we will have to seek aid from those higher up.”
A round of chatter rose and subsided. Then everyone sang “Ain Kelohainu”; after all those years, I discovered I still knew the words.
Then, suddenly, the service over, Grossbart was upon me. “Higher up? He means the General?”
“Hey, Shelly,” Fishbein said, “he means God.” He smacked his face and looked at Halpern. “How high can you go!”
“Sh-h-h!” Grossbart said. “What do you think, Sergeant?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “You better ask the chaplain.”
“I’m going to. I’m making an appointment to see him in private. So is Mickey.”
Halpern shook his head. “No, no, Sheldon-“
“You have rights, Mickey,” Grossbart said. “They can’t push us around.”
“It’s O.K.,” said Halpern. “It bothers my mother, not me.”
Grossbart looked at me. “Yesterday he threw up. From the hash. It was all ham and God knows what else.”
“I have a cold-that was why,” Halpern said. He pushed his yarmulke back into a cap.
“What about you, Fishbein?” I asked. “You kosher, too?”
He flushed. “A little. But I’ll let it ride. I have a very strong stomach, and I don’t eat a lot anyway.” I continued to look at him, and he held up his wrist to reinforce what he’d just said; his watch strap was tightened to the last hole, and he pointed that out to me.
“But services are important to you?” I asked him.
He looked at Grossbart. “Sure, sir.”
“Not so much at home,” said Grossbart, stepping between us, “but away from home it gives one a sense of his Jewishness.”
“We have to stick together,” Fishbein said.
I started to walk toward the door; Halpern stepped back to make way for me.
“That’s what happened in Germany,” Grossbart was saying, loud enough for me to hear. “They didn’t stick together. They let themselves get pushed around.”
I turned. “Look, Grossbart. This is the Army, not summer camp.”
He smiled. “So?” Halpern tried to sneak off, but Grossbart held his arm.
“Grossbart, how old are you?” I asked.
“And you?” I said to Fishbein.
“The same. The same month, even.”
“And what about him?” I pointed to Halpern, who had by now made it safely to the door.
“Eighteen,” Grossbart whispered. “But like he can’t tie his shoes or brush his teeth himself. I feel sorry for him.”
“I feel sorry for all of us, Grossbart,” I said, “but just act like a man. Just don’t overdo it.”
“Overdo what, sir?”
“The ‘sir’ lousiness, for one thing. Don’t overdo that,” I said. I left him standing there. I passed by Halpern, but he did not look at me. Then I was outside, but, behind, I heard Grossbart call, “Hey, Mickey, my liebschen, come on back. Refreshments!”
“Liebschen!” My grandmother’s word for me!
One morning a week later, while I was working at my desk, Captain Barrett shouted for me to come into his office. When I entered, he had his helmet liner squashed down so far on his head that I couldn’t even see his eyes. He was on the phone, and when he spoke to me, he cupped one hand over the mouthpiece.
“Who the hell is Grossbart?”
“Third platoon, Captain,” I said. “A trainee.”
“What’s all this stink about food? His mother called a goddam congressman about the food.” He uncovered the mouthpiece and slid his helmet up until I could see his bottom eyelashes. “Yes, sir,” he said into the phone. “Yes, sir. I’m still here, sir. I’m asking Marx, here, right now-“
He covered the mouthpiece again and turned his head back toward me. “Lightfoot Harry’s on the phone,” he said, between his teeth. “This congressman calls General Lyman, who calls Colonel Sousa, who calls the Major, who calls me. They’re just dying to stick this thing on me. Whatsa matter?” He shook the phone at me. “I don’t feed the troops? What is this?”
“Sir, Grossbart is strange-” Barrett greeted that with a mockingly indulgent smile. I altered my approach. “Captain, he’s a very orthodox Jew, and so he’s only allowed to eat certain foods.”
“He throws up, the congressman said. Every time he eats something, his mother says, he throws up!”
“He’s accustomed to observing the dietary laws, Captain.”
“So why’s his old lady have to call the White House?”
“Jewish parents, sir-they’re apt to be more protective than you expect. I mean, Jews have a very close family life. A boy goes away from home, sometimes the mother is liable to get very upset. Probably the boy mentioned something in a letter, and his mother misinterpreted.”
“I’d like to punch him one right in the mouth,” the Captain said. “There’s a war on, and he wants a silver platter!”
“I don’t think the boy’s to blame, sir. I’m sure we can straighten it out by just asking him. Jewish parents worry-“
“All parents worry, for Christ’s sake. But they don’t get on their high horse and start pulling strings-“
I interrupted, my voice higher, tighter than before. “The home life, Captain, is very important-but you’re right, it may sometimes get out of hand. It’s a very wonderful thing, Captain, but because it’s so close, this kind of thing:”
He didn’t listen any longer to my attempt to present both myself and Lightfoot Harry with an explanation for the letter. He turned back to the phone. “Sir?” he said. “Sir-Marx, here, tells me Jews have a tendency to be pushy. He says he thinks we can settle it right here in the company: Yes, sir: I will call back, sir, soon as I can.” He hung up. “Where are the men, Sergeant?”
“On the range.”
With a whack on the top of his helmet, he crushed it down over his eyes again, and charged out of his chair. “We’re going for a ride,” he said.
The Captain drove, and I sat beside him. It was a hot spring day, and under my newly starched fatigues I felt as though my armpits were melting down into my sides and chest. The roads were dry, and by the time we reached the firing range, my teeth felt gritty with dust, though my mouth had been shut the whole trip. The Captain slammed the brakes on and told me to get the hell out and find Grossbart.
I found him on his belly, firing wildly at the five-hundred-feet target. Waiting their turns behind him were Halpern and Fishbein. Fishbein, wearing a pair of steelrimmed G.I. glasses I hadn’t seen on him before, had the appearance of an old peddler who would gladly have sold you his rifle and the cartridges that were slung all over him. I stood back by the ammo boxes, waiting for Grossbart to finish spraying the distant target. Fishbein straggled back to stand near me.
“Hello, Sergeant Marx,” he said.
“How are you?” I mumbled.
“Fine, thank you. Sheldon’s really a good shot.”
“I didn’t notice.”
“I’m not so good, but I think I’m getting the hang of it now. Sergeant, I don’t mean to, you know, ask what I shouldn’t-” The boy stopped. He was trying to speak intimately, but the noise of the shooting forced him to shout at me.
“What is it?” I asked. Down the range, I saw Captain Barrett standing up in the jeep, scanning the line for me and Grossbart.
“My parents keep asking and asking where we’re going,” Fishbein said. “Everybody says the Pactfic. I don’t care, but my parents-if I could relieve their minds, I think I could concentrate more on my shooting.”
“I don’t know where, Fishbein. Try to concentrate anyway.”
“Sheldon says you might be able to find out.”
“I don’t know a thing, Fishbein. You just take it easy, and don’t let Sheldon-“
“I’m taking it easy, Sergeant. It’s at home-“
Grossbart had just finished on the line, and was dusting his fatigues with one hand. I called to him.
“Grossbart, the Captain wants to see you.”
He came toward us. His eyes blazed and twinkled. “Hi!”
“Don’t point that rifle!” I said.
“I wouldn’t shoot you, Sarge.” He gave me a smile as wide as a pumpkin, and turned the barrel aside.
“Damn you, Grossbart, this is no joke! Follow me.”
I walked ahead of him, and had the awful suspicion that, behind me, Grossbart was marching, his rifle on his shoulder as though he were a oneman detachment.
At the jeep, he gave the Captain a rifle salute. “Private Sheldon Grossbart, sir.”
“At ease, Grossman.” The Captain sat down, slid over into the empty seat, and, crooking a finger, inviting Grossbart closer.
“Bart, sir. Sheldon Grossbart. It’s a common error.” Grossbart nodded at me; I understood, he indicated. I looked away just as the mess truck pulled up to the range, disgorging a half-dozen K.P.s with rolled-up sleeves. The mess sergeant screamed at them while they set up the chow line equipment.
“Grossbart, your mama wrote some congressman that we don’t feed you right. Do you know that?” the Captain said.
“It was my father, sir. He wrote to Representative Franconi that my religion forbids me to eat certain foods.”
“What religion is that, Grossbart?”
“‘Jewish, sir,'” I said to Grossbart.
“Excuse me, sir, Jewish, sir.”
“What have you been living on?” the Captain asked. “You’ve been in the Army a month already. You don’t look to me like you’re falling to pieces.”
“I eat because I have to, sir. But Sergeant Marx will testify to the fact that I don’t eat one mouthful more than I need to in order to survive.”
“Is that so, Marx?” Barrett asked.
“I’ve never seen Grossbart eat, sir,” I said.
“But you heard the rabbi,” Grossbart said. “He told us what to do, and I listened.”
The Captain looked at me. “Well, Marx?”
“I still don’t know what he eats and doesn’t eat, sir.”
Grossbart raised his arms to plead with me, and it looked for a moment as though he were going to hand me his weapon to hold. “But, Sergeant-“
“Look, Grossbart, just answer the Captain’s questions,” I said sharply.
Barrett smiled at me, and I resented it. “All right, Grossbart,” he said. “What is it you want? The little piece of paper? You want out?”
“No, sir. Only to be allowed to live as a Jew. And for the others, too.”
“Fishbein, sir, and Halpern.”
“They don’t like the way we serve, either?”
“Halpern throws up, sir. I’ve seen it.”
“I thought you throw up.”
“Just once, sir. I didn’t know the sausage was sausage.”
“We’ll give menus, Grossbart. We’ll show training films about the food, so you can identify when we’re trying to poison you.”
Grossbart did not answer. The men had been organized into two long chow lines. At the tail end of one, I spotted Fishbein-or, rather, his glasses spotted me. They winked sunlight back at me. Halpern stood next to him, patting the inside of his collar with a khaki handkerchief. They moved with the line as it began to edge up toward the food. The mess sergeant was still screaming at the K.P.s. For a moment, I was actually terrified by the thought that somehow the mess sergeant was going to become involved in Grossbart’s problem.
“Marx,” the Captain said, “you’re a Jewish fella-am I right?”
I played straight man. “Yes, sir.”
“How long you been in the Army? Tell this boy.”
“Three years and two months.”
“A year in combat, Grossbart. Twelve goddam months in combat all through Europe. I admire this man.” The Captain snapped a wrist against my chest. “Do you hear him peeping about the food? Do you? I want an answer, Grossbart. Yes or no.”
“And why not? He’s a Jewish fella.”
“Some things are more important to some Jews than other things to other Jews.”
Barrett blew up. “Look, Grossbart. Marx, here, is a good man-a goddam hero. When you were in high school, Sergeant Marx was killing Germans. Who does more for the Jews-you, by throwing up over a lousy piece of sausage, a piece of first-cut meat, or Marx, by killing those Nazi bastards? If I was a Jew, Grossbart, I’d kiss this man’s feet. He’s a goddam hero, and he eats what we give him. Why do you have to cause trouble is what I want to know! What is it you’re buckin’ for-a discharge?”
“I’m talking to a wall! Sergeant, get him out of my way.” Barrett swung himself back into the driver’s seat. “I’m going to see the chaplain.” The engine roared, the jeep spun around in a whirl of dust, and the Captain was headed back to camp.
For a moment, Grossbart and I stood side by side, watching the jeep. Then he looked at me and said, “I don’t want to start trouble. That’s the first thing they toss up to us.”
When he spoke, I saw that his teeth were white and straight, and the sight of them suddenly made me understand that Grossbart actually did have parents-that once upon a time someone had taken little Sheldon to the dentist. He was their son. Despite all the talk about his parents, it was hard to believe in Grossbart as a child, an heir-as related by blood to anyone, mother, father, or, above all, to me. This realization led me to another.
“What does your father do, Grossbart?” I asked as we started to walk back toward the chow line.
“He’s a tailor.”
“Now, yes. A son in the Army,” he said, jokingly.
“And your mother?” I asked.
He winked. “A ballabusta. She practically sleeps with a dustcloth in her hand.”
“She’s also an immigrant?”
“All she talks is Yiddish, still.”
“And your father, too?”
“A little English. ‘Clean,’ ‘Press,’ ‘Take the pants in.’ That’s the extent of it. But they’re good to me.”
“Then, Grossbart-” I reached out and stopped him. He turned toward me, and when our eyes met, his seemed to jump back, to shiver in their sockets. “Grossbart-you were the one who wrote that letter, weren’t you?”
It took only a second or two for his eyes to flash happy again. “Yes.” He walked on, and I kept pace. “It’s what my father would have written if he had known how. It was his name, though. He signed it. He even mailed it. I sent it home. For the New York postmark.”
I was astonished, and he saw it. With complete seriousness, he thrust his right arm in front of me. “Blood is blood, Sergeant,” he said, pinching the blue vein in his wrist.
“What the hell are you trying to do, Grossbart?” I asked. “I’ve seen you eat. Do you know that? I told the Captain I don’t know what you eat, but I’ve seen you eat like a hound at chow.”
“We work hard, Sergeant. We’re in training. For a furnace to work, you’ve got to feed it coal.”
“Why did you say in the letter that you threw up all the time?”
“I was really talking about Mickey there. I was talking for him. He would never write, Sergeant, though I pleaded with him. He’ll waste away to nothing if I don’t help. Sergeant, I used my name-my father’s name-but it’s Mickey, and Fishbein, too, I’m watching out for.”
“You’re a regular Messiah, aren’t you?”
We were at the chow line now.
“That’s a good one, Sergeant,” he said, smiling. “But who knows? Who can tell? Maybe you’re the Messiah-a little bit. What Mickey says is the Messiah is a collective idea. He went to Yeshiva, Mickey, for a while. He says together we’re the Messiah. Me a little bit, you a little bit. You should hear that kid talk, Sergeant, when he gets going.”
“Me a little bit, you a little bit,” I said. “You’d like to believe that, wouldn’t you, Grossbart? That would make everything so clean for you.”
“It doesn’t seem too bad a thing to believe, Sergeant. It only means we should all give a little, is all.”
I walked off to eat my rations with the other noncoms.
Two days later, a letter addressed to Captain Barrett passed over my desk. It had come through the chain of command-from the office of Congressman Franconi, where it had been received, to General Lyman, to Colonel Sousa, to Major Lamont, now to Captain Barrett. I read it over twice. It was dated May 14, the day Barrett had spoken with Grossbart on the rifle range.
First let me thank you for your interest in behalf of my son, Private Sheldon Grossbart. Fortunately, I was able to speak with Sheldon on the phone the other night, and I think I’ve been able to solve our problem. He is, as I mentioned in my last letter, a very religious boy, and it was only with the greatest difficulty that I could persuade him that the religious thing to do-what God Himself would want Sheldon to do-would be to suffer the pangs of religious remorse for the good of his country and all mankind. It took some doing, Congressman, but finally he saw the light. In fact, what he said (and I wrote down the words on a scratch pad so as never to forget), what he said was “I guess you’re right, Dad. So many millions of my fellow-Jews gave up their lives to the enemy, the least I can do is live for a while minus a bit of my heritage so as to help end this struggle and regain for all the children of God dignity and humanity.” That, Congressman, would make any father proud.
By the way, Sheldon wanted me to know-and to pass on to you-the name of a soldier who helped him reach this decision: SERGEANT NATHAN MARX. Sergeant Marx is a combat veteran who is Sheldon’s first sergeant. This man has helped Sheldon over some of the first hurdles he’s had to face in the Army, and is in part responsible for Sheldon’s changing his mind about the dietary laws. I know Sheldon would appreciate any recognition Marx could receive.
Thank you and good luck. I look forward to seeing your name on the next election ballot.
Samuel E. Grossbart
Attached to the Grossbart communique was another, addressed to General Marshall Lyman, the post commander, and signed by Representative Charles E. Franconi, of the House of Representatives. The communique informed General Lyman that Sergeant Nathan Marx was a credit to the U.S. Army and the Jewish people.
What was Grossbart’s motive in recanting? Did he feel he’d gone too far? Was the letter a strategic retreat-a crafty attempt to strengthen what he considered our alliance? Or had he actually changed his mind, via an imaginary dialogue between Grossbart pere and Grossbart fils? I was puzzled, but only for a few days-that is, only until I realized that, whatever his reasons, he had actually decided to disappear from my life; he was going to allow himself to become just another trainee. I saw him at inspection, but he never winked; at chow formations, but he never flashed me a sign. On Sunday, with the other trainees, he would sit around watching the noncoms’ softball team, for which I pitched, but not once did he speak an unnecessary word to me. Fishbein and Halpern retreated, too-at Grossbart’s command, I was sure. Apparently he had seen that wisdom lay in turning back before he plunged over into the ugliness of privilege undeserved. Our separation allowed me to forgive him our past encounters, and finally, to admire him for his good sense.
Meanwhile, free of Grossbart, I grew used to my job and my administrative tasks. I stepped on a scale one day, and discovered I had truly become a noncombatant; I had gained seven pounds. I found patience to get past the first three pages of a book. I thought about the future more and more, and wrote letters to girls I’d known before the war. I even got a few answers. I sent away to Columbia for a Law School catalogue. I continued to follow the war in the Pacific, but it was not my war. I thought I could see the end, and sometimes, at night, I dreamed that I was walking on the streets of Manhattan-Broadway, Third Avenue, 116th Street, where I had lived the three years I attended Columbia. I curled myself around these dreams and I began to be happy.
And then, one Sunday, when everybody was away and I was alone in the orderly room reading a month-old copy of the Sporting News, Grossbart reappeared.
“You a baseball fan, Sergeant?”
I looked up. “How are you?”
“Fine,” Grossbart said. “They’re making a soldier out of me.”
“How are Fishbein and Halpern?”
“Coming along,” he said. “We’ve got no training this afternoon. They’re at the movies.”
“How come you’re not with them?”
“I wanted to come over and say hello.”
He smiled-a shy, regular-guy smile, as though he and I well knew that our friendship drew its sustenance from unexpected visits, remembered birthdays, and borrowed lawnmowers. At first it offended me, and then the feeling was swallowed by the general uneasiness I felt at the thought that everyone on the post was locked away in a dark movie theater and I was here alone with Grossbart. I folded up my paper.
“Sergeant,” he said, “I’d like to ask a favor. It is a favor, and I’m making no bones about it.”
He stopped, allowing me to refuse him a hearing-which, of course, forced me into a courtesy I did not intend. “Go ahead.”
“Well, actually, it’s two favors.”
I said nothing.
“The first one’s about these rumors. Everybody says we’re going to the Pacific.”
“As I told your friend Fishbein, I don’t know,” I said. “You’ll just have to wait to find out. Like everybody else.”
“You think there’s a chance of any of us going East?”
“Germany?” I said. “Maybe.”
“I meant New York.”
“I don’t think so, Grossbart. Offhand.”
“Thanks for the information, Sergeant,” he said.
“It’s not information, Grossbart. Just what I surmise.”
“It certainly would be good to be near home. My parents-you know.” He took a step toward the door and then turned back. “Oh, the other thing. May I ask the other?”
“What is it?”
“The other thing is-I’ve got relatives in St. Louis, and they say they’ll give me a whole Passover dinner if I can get down there. God, Sergeant, that’d mean an awful lot to me.”
I stood up. “No passes during basic, Grossbart.”
“But we’re off from now till Monday morning, Sergeant. I could leave the post and no one would even know.”
“I’d know. You’d know.”
“But that’s all. Just the two of us. Last night, I called my aunt, and you should have heard her. ‘Come-come,’ she said. ‘I got gefilte fish, chrain-the works!’ Just a day, Sergeant. I’d take the blame if anything happened.”
“The Captain isn’t here to sign a pass.”
“You could sign.”
“Sergeant, for two months, practically, I’ve been eating trafe till I want to die.”
“I thought you’d made up your mind to live with it. To be minus a little bit of heritage.”
He pointed a finger at me. “You!” he said. “That wasn’t for you to read.”
“I read it. So what?”
“The letter was addressed to a congressman.”
“Grossbart, don’t feed me any baloney. You wanted me to read it.”
“Why are you persecuting me, Sergeant?”
“Are you kidding!”
“I’ve run into this before,” he said, “but never from my own!”
“Get out of here, Grossbart! Get the hell out of my sight!”
He did not move. “Ashamed, that’s what you are,” he said. “So you take it out on the rest of us. They say Hitler himself was half a Jew. Hearing you, I wouldn’t doubt it.”
“What are you trying to do with me, Grossbart?” I asked him. “What are you after? You want me to give you special privileges, to change the food, to find out about your orders, to give you weekend passes.”
“You even talk like a goy!” Grossbart shook his fist. “Is this just a weekend pass I’m asking for? Is a Seder sacred, or not?”
Seder! It suddenly occurred to me that Passover had been celebrated weeks before. I said so.
“That’s right,” he replied. “Who says no? A month ago-and I was in the field eating hash! And now all I ask is a simple favor. A Jewish boy I thought would understand. My aunt’s willing to go out of her way-to make a Seder a month later:” He turned to go, mumbling.
“Come back here!” I called. He stopped and looked at me. “Grossbart, why can’t you be like the rest? Why do you have to stick out like a sore thumb?”
“Because I’m a Jew, Sergeant. I am different. Better, maybe not. But different.”
“This is a war, Grossbart. For the time being be the same.”
“I refuse. I can’t stop being me, that’s all there is to it. “Tears came to his eyes. “It’s a hard thing to be a Jew. But now I understand what Mickey says-it’s a harder thing to stay one.” He raised a hand sadly toward me. “Look at you.”
“Stop this, stop that, stop the other thing! You stop, Sergeant. Stop closing your heart to your own!” And, wiping his face with his sleeve, he ran out the door. “The least we can do for one another-the least:”
An hour later, looking out of the window, I saw Grossbart headed across the field. He wore a pair of starched khakis and carried a little leather ditty bag. I went out into the heat of the day. It was quiet; not a soul was in sight except, over by the mess hall, four K.P.s sitting around a pan, sloped forward from their waists, gabbing and peeling potatoes in the sun.
“Grossbart!” I called.
He looked toward me and continued walking.
“Grossbart, get over here!”
He turned and came across the field. Finally, he stood before me.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“St. Louis. I don’t care.”
“You’ll get caught without a pass.”
“So I’ll get caught without a pass.”
“You’ll go to the stockade.”
“I’m in the stockade.” He made an about-face and headed off.
I let him go only a step or two. “Come back here,” I said, and he followed me into the office, where I typed out a pass and signed the Captain’s name, and my own initials after it.
He took the pass and then, a moment later, reached out and grabbed my hand. “Sergeant, you don’t know how much this means to me.”
“O.K.,” I said. “Don’t get in any trouble.”
“I wish I could show you how much this means to me.”
“Don’t do me any favors. Don’t write any more congressmen for citations.”
He smiled. “You’re right. I won’t. But let me do something.”
“Bring me a piece of that gefilte fish. Just get out of here.”
“I will!” he said. “With a slice of carrot and a little horseradish. I won’t forget.”
“All right. Just show your pass at the gate. And don’t tell anybody.”
“I won’t. It’s a month late, but a good Yom Tov to you.”
“Good Yom Tov, Grossbart,” I said.
“You’re a good Jew, Sergeant. You like to think you have a hard heart, but underneath you’re a fine, decent man. I mean that.”
Those last three words touched me more than any words from Grossbart’s mouth had the right to. “All right, Grossbart,” I said. “Now call me ‘sir,’ and get the hell out of here.”
He ran out the door and was gone. I felt very pleased with myself; it was a great relief to stop fighting Grossbart, and it had cost me nothing. Barrett would never find out, and if he did, I could manage to invent some excuse. For a while, I sat at my desk, comfortable in my decision. Then the screen door flew back and Grossbart burst in again. “Sergeant!” he said. Behind him I saw Fishbein and Halpern, both in starched khakis, both carrying ditty bags like Grossbart’s.
“Sergeant, I caught Mickey and Larry coming out of the movies. I almost missed them.”
“Grossbart-did I say to tell no one?” I said.
“But my aunt said I could bring friends. That I should, in fact.”
“I’m the Sergeant, Grossbart-not your aunt!”
Grossbart looked at me in disbelief. He pulled Halpern up by his sleeve. “Mickey, tell the Sergeant what this would mean to you.”
Halpern looked at me and, shrugging, said. “A lot.”
Fishbein stepped forward without prompting. “This would mean a great deal to me and my parents, Sergeant Marx.”
“No!” I shouted.
Grossbart was shaking his head. “Sergeant, I could see you denying me, but how can you deny Mickey, a Yeshiva boy-that’s beyond me.”
“I’m not denying Mickey anything,” I said. “You just pushed a little too hard, Grossbart. You denied him.”
“I’ll give him my pass, then,” Grossbart said. “I’ll give him my aunt’s address and a little note. At least let him go.”
In a second, he had crammed the pass into Halpern’s pants pocket. Halpern looked at me, and so did Fishbein. Grossbart was at the door, pushing it open. “Mickey, bring me a piece of gefilte fish, at least,” he said, and then he was outside again.
The three of us looked at one another, and then I said, “Halpern, hand that pass over.”
He took it from his pocket and gave it to me. Fishbein had now moved to the doorway, where he lingered. He stood there for a moment with his mouth slightly open, and then he pointed to himself. “And me?” he asked.
His utter ridiculousness exhausted me. I slumped down in my seat and felt pulses knocking at the back of my eyes. “Fishbein,” I said, “you understand I’m not trying to deny you anything, don’t you? If it was my Army, I’d serve gefilte fish in the mess hall. I’d sell kugel in the PX, honest to God.”
“You understand, don’t you, Halpern?”
“And you, Fishbein? I don’t want enemies. I’m just like you-I want to serve my time and go home. I miss the same things you miss.”
“Then, Sergeant,” Fishbein said, “why don’t you come, too?”
“To St. Louis. To Shelly’s aunt. We’ll have a regular Seder. Play hide-the-matzoh.” He gave me a broad, black-toothed smile.
I saw Grossbart again, on the other side of the screen.
“Psst!” He waved a piece of paper. “Mickey, here’s the address. Tell her I couldn’t get away.”
Halpern did not move. He looked at me, and I saw the shrug moving up his arms into his shoulders again. I took the cover off my typewriter and made out passes for him and Fishbein. “Go,” I said. “The three of you.”
I thought Halpern was going to kiss my hand.
That afternoon, in a bar in Joplin, I drank beer and listened with half an ear to the Cardinal game. I tried to look squarely at what I’d become involved in, and began to wonder if perhaps the struggle with Grossbart wasn’t as much my fault as his. What was I that I had to muster generous feelings? Who was I to have been feeling so grudging, so tighthearted? After all, I wasn’t being asked to move the world. Had I a right, then, or a reason, to clamp down on Grossbart, when that meant clamping down on Halpern, too? And Fishbein-that ugly, agreeable soul? Out of the many recollections of my childhood that had tumbled over me these past few days I heard my grandmother’s voice: “What are you making a tsimmes?” It was what she would ask my mother when, say, I had cut myself while doing something I shouldn’t have done, and her daughter was busy bawling me out. I needed a hug and a kiss, and my mother would moralize. But my grandmother knew mercy overrides justice. I should have known it, too. Who was Nathan Marx to be such a penny pincher with kindness? Surely, I thought, the Messiah himself-if He should ever come-won’t niggle over nickels and dimes. God willing, he’ll hug and kiss.
The next day, while I was playing softball over on the parade ground, I decided to ask Bob Wright, who was noncom in charge of Classification and Assignment, where he thought our trainees would be sent when their cycle ended, in two weeks. I asked casually, between innings, and he said, “They’re pushing them all into the Pacific. Shulman cut the orders on your boys the other day.”
The news shocked me, as though I were the father of Halpern, Fishbein, and Grossbart.
That night, I was just sliding into sleep when someone tapped on my door. “Who is it?” I asked.
He opened the door and came in. For a moment, I felt his presence without being able to see him. “How was it?” I asked.
He popped into sight in the near-darkness before me. “Great, Sergeant.” Then he was sitting on the edge of the bed. I sat up.
“How about you?” he asked. “Have a nice weekend?”
He took a deep, paternal breath.
“The others went to sleep.” We sat silent for a while, and a homey feeling invaded my ugly little cubicle; the door was locked, the cat was out, the children were safely in bed.
“Sergeant, can I tell you something? Personal?”
I did not answer, and he seemed to know why. “Not about me. About Mickey. Sergeant, I never felt for anybody like I feel for him. Last night I heard Mickey in the bed next to me. He was crying so, it could have broken your heart. Real sobs.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I had to talk to him to stop him. He held my hand, Sergeant-he wouldn’t let it go. He was almost hysterical. He kept saying if he only knew where we were going. Even if he knew it was the Pacific, that would be better than nothing. Just to know.”
Long ago, someone had taught Grossbart the sad rule that only lies can get the truth. Not that I couldn’t believe in the fact of Halpern’s crying; his eyes always seemed red-rimmed. But, fact or not, it became a lie when Grossbart uttered it. He was entirely strategic. But then-it came with the force of indictment-so was I! There are strategies of aggression, but there are strategies of retreat as well. And so, recognizing that I myself had not been without craft and guile, I told him what I knew. “It is the Pacific.”
He let out a small gasp, which was not a lie. “I’ll tell him. I wish it was otherwise.”
“So do I.”
He jumped on my words. “You mean you think you could do something? A change, maybe?”
“No, I couldn’t do a thing.”
“Don’t you know anybody over at C. and A.?”
“Grossbart, there’s nothing I can do,” I said. “If your orders are for the Pacific, then it’s the Pacific.”
“Mickey, you, me-everybody, Grossbart. There’s nothing to be done. “Maybe the war’ll end before you go. Pray for a miracle.”
“Good night, Grossbart.” I settled back, and was relieved to feel the springs unbend as Grossbart rose to leave. I could see him clearly now; his jaw had dropped, and he looked like a dazed prizefighter. I noticed for the first time a little paper bag in his hand.
“Grossbart.” I smiled. “My gift?”
“Oh, yes, Sergeant. Here-from all of us.” He handed me the bag. “It’s egg roll.”
“Egg roll?” I accepted the bag and felt a damp grease spot on the bottom. I opened it, sure that Grossbart was joking.
“We thought you’d probably like it. You know-Chinese egg roll. We thought you’d probably have a taste for-“
“Your aunt served egg roll?”
“She wasn’t home.”
“Grossbart, she invited you. You told me she invited you and your friends.
“I know,” he said. “I just reread the letter. Next week.”
I got out of bed and walked to the window. “Grossbart,” I said. But I was not calling to him.
“What are you, Grossbart? Honest to God, what are you?”
I think it was the first time I’d asked him a question for which he didn’t have an immediate answer.
“How can you do this to people?” I went on.
“Sergeant, the day away did us all a world of good. Fishbein, you should see him, he loves Chinese food.”
“But the Seder,” I said.
“We took second best, Sergeant.”
Rage came charging at me. I didn’t sidestep.
“Grossbart, you’re a liar!” I said. “You’re a schemer and a crook. You’ve got no respect for anything. Nothing at all. Not for me, the truth-not even for poor Halpern! You use us all-“
“Sergeant, Sergeant, I feel for Mickey. Honest to God, I do. I love Mickey. I try-“
“You try! You feel!” I lurched toward him and grabbed his shirt front. I shook him furiously. “Grossbart, get out! Get out and stay the hell away from me. Because if I see you, I’ll make your life miserable. You understand that?”
I let him free, and when he walked from the room, I wanted to spit on the floor where he had stood. I couldn’t stop the fury. It engulfed me, owned me, till it seemed I could only rid myself of it with tears or an act of violence. I snatched from the bed the bag Grossbart had given me and, with all my strength, threw it out the window. And the next morning, as the men policed the area around the barracks, I heard a great cry go up from one of the trainees, who had been anticipating only his morning handful of cigarette butts and candy wrappers. “Egg roll!” he shouted. “Holy Christ, Chinese goddam egg roll!”
A week later, when I read the orders that had come down from C. and A., I couldn’t believe my eyes. Every single trainee was to be shipped to Camp Stoneman, California, and from there to the Pacific- every trainee but one. Private Sheldon Grossbart. He was to be sent to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. I read the mimeographed sheet several times. Dee, Farrell, Fishbein, Fuselli, Fylypowycz, Glinicki, Gromke, Gucwa, Halpern, Hardy, Helebrandt, right down to Anton Zygadlo-all were to be headed West before the month was out. All except Grossbart. He had pulled a string, and I wasn’t it.
I lifted the phone and called C. and A.
The voice on the other end said smartly, “Corporal Shulman, sir.”
“Let me speak to Sergeant Wright.”
“Who is this calling, sir?”
And, to my surprise, the voice said, “Oh!” Then, “Just a minute, Sergeant.”
Shulman’s “Oh!” stayed with me while I waited for Wright to come to the phone. Why “Oh!”? Who was Shulman? And then, so simply, I knew I’d discovered the string that Grossbart had pulled. In fact, I could hear Grossbart the day he’d discovered Shulman in the PX, or in the bowling alley, or maybe even at services. “Glad to meet you. Where you from? Bronx? Me, too. Do you know So-and-So? And So-and-So? Me, too! You work at C. and A.? Really? Hey, how’s chances of getting East? Could you do something? Change something? Swindle, cheat, lie? We gotta help each other, you know. If the Jews in Germany:”
Bob Wright answered the phone. “How are you, Nate? How’s the pitching arm?”
“Good. Bob, I wonder if you could do me a favor.” I heard clearly my own words, and they so reminded me of Grossbart that I dropped more easily than I could have imagined into what I had planned. This may sound crazy, Bob, but I got a kid here on orders to Monmouth who wants them changed. He had a brother killed in Europe, and he’s hot to go to the Pacific. Says he’d feel like a coward if he wound up Stateside. I don’t know, Bob-can anything be done? Put somebody else in the Monmouth slot?”
“Who?” he asked cagily.
“Anybody. First guy in the alphabet. I don’t care. The kid just asked if something could be done.”
“What’s his name?”
Wright didn’t answer.
“Yeah,” I said. “He’s a Jewish kid, so he thought I could help him out. You know.”
“I guess I can do something,” he finally said. “The Major hasn’t been around for weeks. Temporary duty to the golf course. I’ll try, Nate, that’s all I can say.”
“I’d appreciate it, Bob. See you Sunday.” And I hung up, perspiring.
The following day, the corrected orders appeared: Fishbein, Fuselli, Fylypowycz, Glinicki, Gromke, Grossbart, Gucwa, Halpern, Hardy: Lucky Private Harley Alton was to go to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, where, for some reason or other, they wanted an enlisted man with infantry training.
After chow that night, I stopped back at the orderly room to straighten out the guard duty roster. Grossbart was waiting for me. He spoke first.
“You son of a bitch!”
I sat down at my desk, and while he glared at me, I began to make the necessary alterations in the duty roster.
“What do you have against me?” he cried. “Against my family? Would it kill you for me to be near my father, God knows how many months he has left to him?”
“His heart,” Grossbart said. “He hasn’t had enough troubles in a lifetime, you’ve got to add to them. I curse the day I ever met you, Marx! Shulman told me what happened over there. There’s no limit to your anti-Semitism, is there? The damage you’ve done here isn’t enough. You have to make a special phone call! You really want me dead!”
I made the last notations in the duty roster and got up to leave. “Good night, Grossbart.”
“You owe me an explanation!” He stood in my path.
“Sheldon, you’re the one who owes explanations.”
He scowled. “To you?”
“To me, I think so-yes. Mostly to Fishbein and Halpern.”
“That’s right, twist things around. I owe nobody nothing. I’ve done all I could for them. Now I think I’ve got the right to watch out for myself.”
“For each other we have to learn to watch out, Sheldon. You told me yourself.”
“You call this watching out for me-what you did?”
“No. For all of us.”
I pushed him aside and started for the door. I heard his furious breathing behind me, and it sounded like steam rushing from an engine of terrible strength.
“You’ll be all right,” I said from the door. And, I thought, so would Fishbein and Halpern be all right, even in the Pacific, if only Grossbart continued to see-in the obsequiousness of the one, the soft spirituality of the other-some profit for himself.
I stood outside the orderly room, and I heard Grossbart weeping behind me. Over in the barracks, in the lighted windows, I could see the boys in their T shirts sitting on their bunks talking about their orders, as they’d been doing for the past two days. With a kind of quiet nervousness, they polished shoes, shined belt buckles, squared away underwear, trying as best they could to accept their fate. Behind me, Grossbart swallowed hard, accepting his. And then, resisting with all my will an impulse to turn and seek pardon for my vindictiveness, I accepted my own.