"Whispers" is an absorbing story about a soldier who discovers that different people judge different people differently, much the same as they do love and hate.
John Warren Scully becomes a womanizer at an early age. His older brothers teach him well, but fail miserably in one area of his "street education." They never teach Scully that there is a big difference between tolerance and intolerance, and between compassion and brutality. Scully has to learn that for himself. At the age of seventeen, Scully joins the army, where he soon comes face-to-face with the concepts his brothers never explained. Along the way, the new knowledge almost gets him killed, especially after basic training when he finds his best buddy, Howie Sullivan, brutally murdered. Howie was recently recommended for a Soldier's Medal for saving a mother and her child's lives. But the homicide investigation reveals that Howie may have been a homosexual. The Soldier's Medal is put on hold, pending clarification. Now, Scully is faced with a new dilemma. Should he disclaim his past friendship with Howie, or should he continue to honor that close friendship despite the ugly suspicious that could adversely affect him and his military career?
On the bus pointed toward Syracuse, John Warren Scully felt cold fingers clutch his neck, much like the time when he'd been alone, naked, in the woods with Miss Heckman that day. Uncomfortable, he glanced out the side window into the early morning light.Dark shadows crisscrossed the open fields that were powdered with recent snow.
For the thousandth time he wondered if he was doing the right thing, charging for the city like this so early in the morning. "There are other things in this life besides running," his older brothers would likely lecture, if they were still alive.
Despite what they might say now, though, he knew it was time to be somewhere else, away from Vilnus, somewhere where he could show all of them once and for all that he'd grown up, had finally become a man, despite an eerie uneasiness that continued to plague him.
His mother called it, “feelings of youth, little more than a boy’s brain in a fight with itself, trying to become a man before his time.” But his older brothers used to call it something else. They suspected that he might be borderline “weird,” and often told him so.
“Just don’t go shopping around for groceries you can’t have, Scully, and don’t be so damn curious about things that you shouldn’t be so curious about neither,” Charlie, the oldest, used to lecture. “Your growing up could be a hell of a lot easier on everybody, if you wised up and listened to me.”
Scully glanced at his wristwatch: He remembered his mother had given the watch to him as a going away gift on his seventeenth birthday, several weeks ago. Another ploy. She'd probably been reminding him of the time much like his brothers used to do whenever they’d taken him to the city, searching for thrills.To them, there was never enough time in a person’s life to grow up and have fun.
Fidgeting, he sat back and closed his tired eyes, more apprehensive. He tried to sleep, the hoarse whispers of his brothers at his ears, reminding him of the good old times, times when he'd been much younger, not yet a man, when things had been different for all of them. Life had been simple then, when they'd been musketeers, strolling arm-in-arm on North Salina Street.Young and carefree, they’d charged indifferently for an elusive fate that waited in the shadows.
Twenty minutes down US 20, he felt the bus slow, and then come to an abrupt halt at a familiar stop sign, jolting him straight. Stretching, he glanced out the window into the early morning light. He immediately noticed a jagged column of Holsteins moving slowly across the snowy field. Their jaws were busy with early morning cuds, as they strolled away from a familiar barn, partially hidden by a clump of crackling oak trees in the distance. Steinman’s farm.
He used to pitch hay there when on summer vacation, and pick up potatoes in the fall. That was before he'd gotten the job at one of the local woolen mills last year when he'd turned sixteen, after the state cops had caught him just outside of Scranton in the dead of winter. He’d been a young runaway from upstate New York, trying to join the army early, or so he’d told them then. Deep down, though, he knew that he might have been running away from the truth, or maybe a lie. Whatever it was; not even he knew. Not even now.
Pressing closer to the window, he saw that the cows’ udders appeared different today, free and loose like after a morning milking. His cheeks suddenly felt warm as a new image flashed. He remembered Miss Heckman’s nakedness that day when he'd met her unexpectedly near Nine Mile Creek in the woods, beyond the upstream woolen mill.
She'd been a middle-aged grade school teacher then that had been fifteen or twenty years older than him. Still, in his eyes, she’d been beautiful, smart, professional, and, in the end, fondling. He thought about her often, especially whenever he was alone at night. Squirming, he wiped steam from the side window. He saw a vague reflection of his face: a wisp of shadow, distorted, almost free.
He'd always had a special interest in Miss Heckman, even when he'd still been in school, but he hadn't been able to do much about it. She'd always put him off, thoroughly lecturing him about his and her responsibilities to each other and to the school.
"Teachers and students just don't go to bed together," she’d told him many times when he'd been one of her problem students, repeating eighth grade, before he'd finally quit for good. "I wish you'd understand that, Scully. I'm here to teach you, not bed you like a darn female dog in heat. I'm afraid your unwarranted attention, although flattering, could only lead to trouble for us both. Even you must realize that by now. I don't have the time or the patience any longer, and I don't intend to lose my job because of you."
"You know all I want to do is take you out, Miss Heckman. Nobody'll ever know. I know some places near Camillus, this side of Syracuse. We could be alone."
She placed her hand firmly on his shoulder and said, "Don't make this more difficult for us both than it has to be. It just won't work and that's the end of it. There'll be no more talk about this matter ever again, not while you're a student here and I'm your teacher."
He scratched his head as a new thought brushed his brain. Finally, he said, "Okay, but I don't intend to be a student my whole life. I still think that someday things could work out real good for the both of us."
"Let it go, will you? How old are you anyway for gosh sakes? Fifteen, sixteen? I'm in my forties. Way too old for you. It's a dead-end street for the both of us. It can never be. Let it go, please." She ran away from him then, sobbing, into the empty classroom.
* * *
Later, when he'd no longer been her student, he'd been fishing near the creek early one sunny Saturday morning in July, wearing blue jeans and sneakers, nothing much else, not even a cap or socks. She'd been strolling alone. He could still remember the tight denim shorts that hugged her muscular thighs like a jealous lover's hands, relishing the touch, protecting her supple skin from any others.
Her short-sleeved cotton blouse was tied loosely at the waist, exposing a firm belly, outlining rounded breasts, creviced invitingly at the knot.
He swallowed hard.
Gray walking shoes clung to her trim ankles, and her blond hair had been tied into long pigtails like an innocent teenager's, he remembered. Her cheeks had been pink from the long walk from the village into the woods, and the sun oozed hazy through the treetops. It reached for her moist forehead and shiny hair, which was parted in the middle, making her dark eyes sparkle even in the shade. Her sudden appearance had made him catch his breath. He'd stuttered at first when she'd approached him almost like from nowhere.
After friendly greetings, they'd talked a while about past school days, his job at the mill, the local gossip. Then, casually, he'd put the “touch” on her like his older brothers always told him to do whenever he found himself alone with a young girl or a mature woman of any size, age, shape or color. Life was love, and love was life according to them, especially later, when they were called up for the war in Europe, leaving him alone.
Greedily, he'd unbuttoned and unzipped and undressed her and himself just enough, so they'd still be ready to dress again quickly if someone happened upon them half naked in the woods. After the first frantic urges had been satisfied, and a short rest in the shade of a thick tree had let them reclaim their quickened breaths, they'd stripped completely and had done it all over again, although much less urgent this time than before. Afterward, they'd lain together at the foot of a thick oak, exhausted and happy and satisfied.
He'd like to have her here with him now, this very instant if he could; but that wasn't possible, not anymore. Death's ungentle fingers had crushed her throat months ago, taking her away, gone for good.
He squirmed in the bus seat when he remembered what else had happened under the tree that day, when he'd felt so naked and alone when she’d tried to leave. He'd felt his entire body turn cold like an icy hand had been placed on his neck, prodding his thoughts to other things besides lust and sex, Miss Heckman, the others. All of them that he'd had over the years, beginning when he’d only been twelve. He'd prayed hard that day, harder than ever before, but the cold on his neck had persisted like an icy wind on a wintry day.
He thought at the time that it had surely been the hand of death, come to take him away early in his youth for his corrupt thoughts and wicked ways. Shivering, he'd thought about his lonely grave. He’d prayed fervently to stay out of it, promising everything.
On his knees, he’d whispered, “God, I'm not ready to die yet. Please. I still got plenty of things to do; but I guess we all know that to be a fact. Just give me a chance, that’s all I ask. Just a chance to get out of Vilnus, be a good soldier, do somethin' good with my life.”
* * *
Now, settled on the bus, he was glad that it had not left on time, leaving him behind, late for an important appointment in the city. He’d received his final reporting notice, ordering him to report to the army recruitment center in Syracuse at 0900 hours, a couple of hours from now. If his brothers could see him now, they’d be mad as hell. To them, the army was not a good place to be for a kid like him, still wet behind the ears, and filled with too much curiosity about things he shouldn’t be so curious about at his age. He smiled, thinking about their lectures, and how they’d tried to make him into a man before his time.
When home on leave during the war, they’d urge him to choose anything but an army career when he’d gotten older. “Soldiers die too young,” they’d say, “so don’t be a damn fool. Live to love, be happy; that’s what life is all about.”
A bump in the road jolted his thoughts back to the day when he’d gone into Syracuse to enlist, ignoring his brothers’ earlier warnings about being a soldier, and its likely consequences at an early age.
“Man, where’d you get them muscles?” the recruiting sergeant had asked the first time he’d visited the center. “You work on a farm or something?”
“Once,” Scully said, “but mostly in the woolen mills near Vilnus lately, ever since I quit school last year, you know.”
“Come, take a seat. Tell me about yourself.” The sergeant nodded toward a chair near a cluttered desk in the corner. “I’ll help you fill out the forms.”
“Do I need a stupid physical?” Scully asked, suddenly concerned. “And will there be a lot of tests?”
“Yes and some,” the sergeant said, smiling, “but nothing a strapping’ fella like you should worry about. Come on; let’s get these forms filled out. You do have your parents’ permission, right?”
Tall, trim and muscular, Scully ran his hands through his short dark hair. “Yeah,” he said slyly, “they’ll be glad to let me go.” He flopped onto the hard chair by the desk, crossed his long legs, and began to scan the pile of enlistment forms. He suddenly felt warm.
He was wearing a red and black-checkered shirt, badly frayed at the cuffs and gashed at the elbows, and blue jeans and dirty sneakers. Twisting in place, he hung his thin, tan jacket over the back of the chair, letting his fingers linger on its ragged collar. His oldest brother had given it to him one winter during the war, he remembered, before he and the other brother were killed fighting in Europe. One in Normandy by a German panzer’s eighty-eight, the other in a Paris bar by a prostitute’s switchblade knife.
Pencil poised over the enlistment forms, he suddenly recalled the early times, back when he’d barely been a teenager, a time when things were not so complicated, at least at first.
As he’d gotten older, they used to get him tipsy on quart bottles of Genesee beer before they’d take him by bus to the city to “chat” with some of the “ladies” there that loitered beneath the streetlights or at the edge of dimly lit alleys. To his brothers, a boy could never become a man until he’d bedded an appropriate number of women. They’d never really defined the appropriate number for him, though.
He laid the pencil down and sat back in the chair, not seeing the sergeant’s eyes on him, across the desk.
He remembered that the booze had been bubbling in his head that one night, and the smells and sounds rushed back, as did the face of the guy who’d been standing next to him at an adjacent urinal. He didn’t know why, but he glanced cautiously out of the corner of his eye at the man’s hand, which was busy replacing his manhood back into his trousers.
Seeing Scully staring, the man smiled as he turned for the door. Suddenly ashamed and awkwardly confused, Scully’s face felt hot like whenever he’d eaten overly peppered chili. Maybe the man had felt sorry for him and his obvious embarrassment for looking, or maybe he was one of them, a so-called “other” his brothers always warned him about. Or maybe he was just another man out on the town, wondering why a dumb kid was looking at him and his manhood, while he stood at a urinal doing a natural thing?
Charlie and Eddie were at the sinks washing; but both saw the man’s smile, too, and Scully’s pink face. They rushed to the urinals, and shoved Scully aside. Charlie grabbed the front of the man’s jacket, and punched him in the face. Eddie kicked him behind the legs, making him fall up against the wall. The man tried to fight back, but he was no match for them. They beat him to the floor, and then began to kick him until he was finally out cold.
“Come on, Scully,” Charlie said, standing back and taking his arm. “We got to go. This is not a place for you.”
Outside, Charlie put his arm around Scully’s shoulder. “You got to be real careful, kid,” he said. “The world is filled with dangerous people like that faggot inside.”
“Yeah,” Eddie said, taking up the step on the other side of Scully. “They even got some in the army, but we know how to take care of them there.” He smiled crookedly as he ran a hand under his chin.
“You got that right,” Charlie said, his words slightly slurred. “One of them tries something funny with another GI, and that ends it for good, like it should.But don’t worry, kid, we’re going to make you into a man before the friggin’ war kills us all, so you can take care of yourself better.”
Stopping in the dimly lit street, Eddie tried to calm Charlie, who was sobbing now, almost like he knew even then that neither one of them was ever coming home from the war again, alone or together.
Scully sensed the impending disaster himself.That was the last night he ever saw them again, at least all in one piece or alive and well.
* * *
“Hey, Scully, what the hell you dreamin’ about?” the sergeant shouted, moving around the desk to slap Scully’s shoulder.
Like he’d been poked with an electric prod, Scully jerked his head up from the desk where he was supposed to have been filling out the enlistment forms. “I was just thinking a minute, Sarge, that’s all.”He pulled some papers close, wet the end of a pencil with his tongue, and then began to fill in the blank spaces on the first form as fast as he could.It was time to move on; the quicker the better.
Then he remembered Misty holding him tightly last night, saying a special farewell.
Charlie and Eddie would have been proud of him, especially last night. He had fully explored the other side of his “youthful curiosity,” and found the answers to many questions. For now, he felt safe; he was beginning to understand who he really was, and what he wanted to do with his life. Now, he would have to see to it.
Extracted from “Whispers.” Copyrighted Jan 30, 2002 by Robert A. Gallinger.