Hystopia: A Novel

Hystopia: A Novel by David Means Page B

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Authors: David Means
the Black Forest, and the gung-ho vibe was replaced by fear. The old man paused, trying to find a way to describe the way it had felt. He muttered to himself. He wanted to find a way to say it. He mentioned the snow, of course, and the fresh-faced innocence of his buddies. He talked about the wind through the pines, foxholes, plans for movement when the word came down. Just a bunch of ignorant doughboys, he said. We got there, dug in, and waited. The old man’s words had an offhandedness from countless retellings. Nothing he said sounded doubtful. The story was a block of stone with the following contents: they waited in the Black Forest. Scouts were sent ahead on recon missions. Scouts spotted the German reinforcements. Scouts sent information behind the lines. Brass gave a fuck. Men waited in trepidation. Germans attacked. At this point—again predictably—the story took a personal twist. Singleton already knew from what Wendy had said that the old man had been captured by the Germans. He was a lieutenant and had command of his unit and was captured. He was one of the men who’d let the Germans, dressed as Americans, through the line.
    Singleton listened while Wendy, having heard the stories a hundred times (no wonder she’d joined the Corps!), tried to locate something new. There was nothing but lies, Singleton thought, when a man began talking about combat. The truth of what had really happened was beyond words. In the truly mad, like wheelchair guy out there in the yard, the haze of lies was thick and serene. Amputees had a hard time with their stories. The listener knew the story would end with a blast of some sort, a flying sensation through the air, a gaping disbelief as the man groped around to locate his missing legs. The listener was always ahead of the game when it came to a wheelchair guy. (And maybe that was why enfolding didn’t work on them. Maybe the story they had was trapped in the missing arms, lost like some shadow memory of feeling that kept coming back again and again, mirroring the leg, or arm, or hand.)
    What bothered Singleton, as Wendy’s father spoke on about his internment, the forced march to Dresden, the escape during the bombings in a firestorm unleashed by his own troops, was the old man’s voice. It seemed to say: I’m going to go deep into the memory and give you my war and my experience and then I’m going to come to a full stop, maybe dab away the tears, and you’re going to say, Man, sir, that’s heavy, and then in turn, as part of the deal, you’re going to have to tell me your story. You’re going to ante up with some words, and the words must convey a sense, at least, that you’re down there in the memory of some hidden truth you’ll never divulge: but you’ll give me a chance to find it, because we went over and saw something that no one else has seen except for other grunts.
    In the old man’s voice was the older-vet-talks-to-younger-vet tone, and it occurred to Singleton that there was a generation gap that he might put to use. Maybe, when it was his turn to speak, he could signal to Wendy to say they had to go.
    Now the old man was speaking in tight phrases. He was running away. He made a run for it. The guards were lost in the chase. He somehow got out of Berlin. Then he was in the countryside. He hid out. He burgled a few homes. He slept in haylofts. He met friendly peasant types. A month he spent on the lam until he came upon an American unit …
    Singleton had his foot on Wendy’s leg and was moving it up along her shin. He couldn’t see much of her face. She had her elbows on the table and was running her spoon around the rim of her empty cup.
    The story would end, Singleton guessed, just as suddenly as it began. It would come to a dead stop. The poetry would flutter away and the old man would sit silently, shaking his head at the enormity of his memory. (There was always a head-shake at the end of a war story.) Then he’d say, Jesus Christ, didn’t mean

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