YOU HAD A GOOD JOB
We were already halfway through our meal when the soldier came in. He sat in the middle of the diner at a table facing the windows and kept his hat on looking at the menu. He sat so still I thought he must have had a different menu than us, and that it must have been more interesting than ours. The waitress came by and asked for his order. The soldier spoke quietly to Jone but even from where I sat, I knew he was saying Ma'am Ma'am Ma'am until he was tired of it.
"You ever met a soldier before?" I asked Rae.
"Where would I go that you haven't been to meet a soldier?"
"Alright, fine. But you ever see one?"
We watched the soldier drink his coke and we thought we could tell, though it was dumb to think it, that it was the first coke that he'd had in long time. That soldier must have read the whole, long menu and looked at every picture, too, before Jone got back to him. She took his order and the menu and left him to himself with nothing to read and no one to look at.
“You think he's here alone?” Rae asked.
“Do you see anyone else looking like him here?”
“You think he's waiting for somebody?”
“No, he'd have waited.”
“Mm,” Rae said, and looked at her plate. “You think we should invite him over?”
“Eat with us.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, that'd be nice of us.” I didn't move, though, because I knew the soldier would say no, and I didn't know but he might also arrest me or enlist me or tell me not to talk a soldier while he was working. It was hard watching him sit over there alone, though. Rae had to get me to do it but finally I went over, and when I was in front of him, I saw first how clean he was, and then how tired, and then how very solitary. I thought he was pretty young to be looking so indifferent. He looked mostly like he was focused on waiting.
"Sir," I said.
The soldier looked up and then stood. He shook my hand and said, “Sir.”
"Sir, I'm here with my sister over there," I pointed over to the booth. "And we thought if you were going to eat alone, you could come eat over there with us. If you like."
He thanked me and started to say he didn’t want to both us and I knew it was wrong to interrupt a soldier but I said, “It’s fine by us. We’re inviting you.” He said thank you and picked up his coke and came to sit across from me and Rae.
He said Ma’am to Rae and she said hello back. She asked where he was from and he said the Carolinas, and that he was driving back home after serving with the US Army. He was stationed over at Camp Bullis and this was his first day of his long way back to life.
"How do you like Texas?" Rae asked.
He looked out the window. "Hot."
“We hear that everyday,” Rae smiled. The soldier tried to smile back. When he was talking and when he wasn’t talking, he kept that focused look on his face.
"You folks live here?"
We said we did.
"Nice little town," he said to me. "Nice people," he said to Rae.
The waitress came around and gave him his plate. He looked up and thanked her and looked back at his plate. I was glad he was leaving her alone. He was a nice enough guy and I was sure he could do nice enough things for a girl like Jone, but I was glad he just left her to walk away.
“How old are you?” Rae asked.
“Twenty-two,” he said.
“How long have you been in the Army?”
“Since four years when I was eighteen.”
"Got any scary stories?" I asked.
"No." He thought about it. "No, nothing scary.”
“Got any regular stories?”
"I can tell you about Basic Training.
“Alright. It was my first week in Fort Jackson. We were twenty guys in my platoon, and we had a drill sergeant like every other drill sergeant. Loud and angry and expecting more from us than the other platoons he had before, or would have again, just like every drill sergeant.
"Well, we were marching one day in full gear and every third count we were supposed to do this maneuver, what the Sergeant called a ‘Seven and Sevens.’ I can’t show you now but we would raise our rifles up to one shoulder, and switch hands, and switch shoulders, like I’m sure you’ve seen the drill teams do. But anyway, we were supposed to do this every third call and every third call, this same ass hole kept messing it up. Excuse me,” he said to Rae. “But anyway he kept messing the goddamn drill up and the sergeant couldn't do anything but yell at his fat ass, and make us go back over it again way into noon when the sun turned our helmets white.
“Sorry for swearing. Well I got sick of that idiot pretty quickly so on the sixth time when he missed the turn, I threw my rifle down and knocked him to the ground, and started beating the crap out of him until Sergeant broke us up and told us to run our sorry asses to the barracks and back and to the barracks and back until he told us to quit.
"So we got up and ran and while we were running, at least the platoon had a break until we got back."
“All you had to do was run?” Rae asked.
The soldier shrugged.
“For fighting a soldier? I thought they’d kick you out for something like that.”
“No, we had to run because our rifles hit the ground.” I laughed at that and Rae looked embarrassed.
"What'd the soldier say who you beat up?" Rae asked.
"Randall? He just kept apologizing about the stupid rifle he was fucking up."
"He wasn't angry?"
"Angry? We were all angry. Not a stupid minute in that place where nobody's angry."
"Yeah, well it's done now," I said.
The soldier raised his coke. "Done now."
“And how long’s your ride back home?” Rae asked, and he said it was about twenty hours. “And who’ve you got back home?”
The soldier looked very concentrated. He didn’t look sad and he didn’t look angry and he didn’t look like he wished Rae hadn’t said anything, like I did, but before he could speak, Jone came over and asked how we were.
“Doing fine,” I said.
“Can I get y’all something else?”
Rae kept on looking at the soldier and she asked him, “Sir. Would you like to have a piece of pie with me?”
He said he did and Jone took our plates away.
“You met a lot of nice people?” Rae asked.
“Yeah, I met a lot of people.”
The soldier looked at me like I could tell him or not whether he should explain the world to us or not and then he looked back to Rae and said sometimes.
Rae nodded. “Yeah, I guess not everybody knows about soldiers.”
“Some people are nice about seeing us,” he said, “and they wave from their car or they'll stop and say hello. Sometimes some people thanked me. A lot of people don't think twice when they see me outside, though. They just see a man who just finished working for the day. That's all I am, anyway, is working."
Rae sat quietly looking across the table at the soldier. She wanted something more from him so he said, “There was one family that was really nice. They saw me waiting in the airport for my flight and they sent their daughter over to buy me a Christmas cookie.”
Rae said that was nice. She said that it must have been nice going home for Christmas.
The soldier looked at me quickly again. “No, I was being sent out on my first deployment.”
He shrugged. “It becomes that the Army is your new home.”
Jone brought the pie over and we thanked her and ate, and looked into the restaurant that was getting more crowded with people.
“You know we’re not from this town,” I said.
“No, we’re from twenty minutes away down the road.” I pointed at the street in the direction of the highway that narrowed down to two lanes and crossed in front of our old front yard, maybe twenty five minutes away.
“I didn’t think there’s anything over there.”
“There really is not.”
“What are you all doing here?” The soldier asked and Rae said that we were going to school. “You still in school?” She nodded that we were. “And what are you going to do when you're done with school?” She shook her head because she didn’t know. “Alright, well just don’t join up the Army.”
“Not them either.”
The best thing and the worst thing I could have done for Rae would have been to get up then and give her some money for the meal and shake the soldier’s hand and go home, but I stayed around. I loved Rae and the soldier was fine and I knew they both knew enough not to do it, but the last thing I needed was Rae driving off in a truck the soldier didn’t even own off to a state he didn’t know anymore where nobody was waiting for him. I stayed sitting and drinking my coke.
The soldier looked out the window at the evening that was still hot from the day, and would stay hot when it turned into night. He looked at the streetlights that worked and the streetlights that didn't. He watched the moths at the window. He looked into the glass and saw the people behind him, coming into the restaurant and ordering food and sitting with their families. They looked over at us and thought how strange it was, that for the soldier's first night back in town we were eating in a diner instead of at home.
“You staying in town tonight?” I asked, so Rae didn’t have to.
“Sorry not to be.”
“Where are you staying then?”
Jone came back then and started gently taking the plates away. “Think I'll drive another three hours, then wherever that is, I’ll stop.”
“You should stay in a nice hotel,” Jone said, which was kind of her.
“Can I pack you something to take with? More pie---”
“--- some coke?”
“----there’s got to be something.”
The soldier looked at me and looked at Rae and looked at Jone with that focused look he had moving into something less soldierly and he said that he thought he had plenty already.
She laid out the bill and the soldier paid even though we didn’t want him to, but I guess it was the Army paying anyway, and I could see he put down a lot more than the bill, and I could see that Jone had written a lot less than what we ordered, and we got up together and walked to the truck together and shook hands, and Rae gave the soldier a hug and he hugged her back, and offered us a ride, and we said no and then he was driving slowly down the straight road that widened up ahead and turned back into the highway.
“You know what I bet?” Rae said when we were walking up to our door.
“I bet he doesn't stop in three hours.” She turned and looked back at the highway where it started at the end of town. “I bet he just drives the next twenty hours back to Carolina.”
“Yeah,” I said.
Kristyn Bacon is a freelance writer with a focus on short fiction and sports writing. She has been published in running magazines, literary magazines, and will soon have her work published in a book of short stories. This year, she lives in Berlin, Germany studying German.