He said he’d been in Algeria. Algiers, Algeria. I’d asked him how a country could have a city named the same thing as the country, but he’d ignored me. He was smoking an ugly smelling foreign cigarette, and wearing a pair of pants that were bloused into shiny black combat boots. Paratrooper boots.
“Why are you smoking those here? And why are you wearing those boots?” I’d asked him, as we were standing in the foyer of an expensive restaurant right under a no smoking sign.
“Can’t stop. Was there,” he blew out a big puff of obnoxious white smoke,
“It was bad. I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t stop. The cigarettes, the boots, they make me feel right.” He’d stared at me, the smoke between us fading slowly away, before finishing our discussion with a question. “I’m alright,” he asked in a deep French accent, and then stared for seconds before going on, “Aren’t I?”
I’d been a child when that had happened. I’d never forgotten that man, nor the haunted look of his deep black eyes. But it was the tone of his voice that had indelibly burned everything else into my young mind. It had been a dark tone of pathos driven despair. The tone had riveted my attention, like the deep single play of a very low piano note.
Although I’d not forgotten that time, I also had never associated with it.
I looked down at my boots. Desert boots. The new cool ones. The one’s with inserts. Not like the old French Paratrooper boots. His had been polished to a high shine.
My desert boots would never know the touch of anything except a brush. They were the most comfortable things I’d ever worn on my feet, which was why I always wore them. Sitting alone on the park bench, my long legs sprawled out before me, I breathed out slowly, watching smoke play down over my body and feet. I ground out the cigarette, not even half done, on the stone handle of the bench support.
It’d been years since the war. The wars. First Vietnam, then Desert Storm, and finally Afghanistan, with some little inconsequential actions in between. I’d been tested several times for post traumatic stress. I didn’t have it. Not even a touch of it.
But I could not get the Algerian-serving Foreign Legionnaire from my mind.
Had that old guy from Algeria killed any of his own men? Out of pure necessity?
Because they were too badly wounded to get Medivac’d in time, or because they were going to kill the commanding officer for their opinion of his poor leadership (the C.O. being him)? Had that guy been shot, knifed and fragged? Had that guy spent a full year in the hospital, being told he would likely die at any moment, being force-fed with morphine until informed he was an addict, and then delivered back to his family wherein they walked right by him at the airport because he was a mere shadow of what he once had been?
No, I would have bet not. The poor son-of-a-bitch probably had seen some people killed, their guts left drying in the sun. The French Two-Rep bastard had probably shot a few people and then had them ask him why he had done that while they died in front of him. Not exactly tough stuff. Not normal stuff, but not that bad, in the scheme of such things, either. French Paratroopers of the Legion were notoriously emotional anyway. They fought at the drop of a hat, or Kepi in their case, at the least insult, not like Marines at all. United States Marines could take it. Whatever it was. Oooorah, was the expression. It said it all. One Marine to another. One Marine against the world. Fuck the Army of One thing. It was Marine Corps. All the way, up the hill, and on to the next one.
A film was out called The Hurt Locker. What a joke. Who the hell is dumb enough, in the modern world, to try to defuse bombs? Nobody. Blow the fuckers in place and move on. Done all the time. You don’t need idiots wearing dog collars and armor to do it for you. Just place the composition ‘B’ and move out. Boom. Problem over.
The movie should have been made with Marines, and it should have been called Troub City. The City of Hurt. The City of Pain. The place where real Marines spent time, knowing that they were cutting years from the sentence they would have to spend in purgatory. Then going out and screwing every woman they could find, in order to balance the books.
I shifted uncomfortably on the bench, looking down at my watch.
I had twenty minutes before I went on. I was going to give a speech in front of a thousand people, about life. About truth, lies, justice and mythology. I’d become a published author of thriller novels. And here I was sitting on a park bench looking out over the Santa Fe downtown plaza, wearing an expensive suit, desert combat boots and smoking a cigarette. Smoking was totally stupid, with what was known about lung cancer and all, and I knew it. The boots were so out of place with the suit, and the occasion, that they didn’t even bear consideration.
I field-stripped the cigarette. I tossed its remnants into the warm winds of autumn. They flitted away across the newly sodded grass surface. I was wearing the boots and smoking because those things made me feel right. I closed my eyes, trying to keep my world from spinning about me.
I felt the wind sweep across my body, then die out to sudden stillness. I saw myself standing in a foyer, looking down at a little boy.
“I’m alright, aren’t I?” I whispered, but the boy just looked back at me in silence, his eyes large, his body motionless.