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by Brian Grover

"Yesterday's Heroes," the sign said, "75¢." I tried to make a joke out of it to the clerk behind the lunch counter but I guess she thought I was trying to come on to her or something. Definitely not into humour. Instead of girlish giggles I got a brow-beating between the bagels and the pita pockets. You know the look: icicles. And what if I was making a little time? She's lucky to get it. But all I could say was "With sprouts and easy on the cranberry sauce." Whimsey had solidified on my face by the time I paid for the sandwich.

The patio was deserted so I sat outside. For November it was actually quite nice, clear and certainly no more chilly than the girl's glance. Besides, eating alone, apart, offered some solace after being so effectively shot down.

Naturally, someone else decided to join me even though there were plenty of other tables. I did my best to ignore him, feigning interest in my lunch, in a magazine but I had the oddest feeling that he was staring at me.

"Eugh," he said. Or perhaps just "Unh." Something with plenty of spit and gargle in it anyway. I looked up. He was staring at me. That is, if he was aware of the presence of anything at all. He must have been because next he pointed a shaky finger in my direction and, attempting to squint for added drama, closed both of his eyes. Then he sputtered more sounds.

"Eh?" I said, making similar sense. He tried again, this time clearly punctuating his sentence with anger. He wiped his nose on his blazer sleeve as if in exclamation.

"Was I a nor?" I repeated, a bit mystified.

"You weren' no war." He had me now so I agreed with a slight nod. "Chicken!" he slathered as an after thought.

"No. Turkey," I replied though by now I wasn't interested in the sandwich at all.

Then he pulled from amongst the folds and layers of his clothing a half-gone bottle of wine and banged it down on the table. "Chicken shot... you...." His voice trailed off into a groan as he fingered an ear.

"Were you a tank?" I asked cheerfully.

"Merchand mareen."

"Oh, a bulkhead then?" I glanced at my watch.

"Kaptin too.. I'll tell you....

"Captain?"

"Yeah... Admiral... Commander of the fleet...."

"Commander of the grog barrel, you mean."

"Mine... yeah... mine... 18 ships and a destroyer escort...." His eyes gazed into the street as he swept the wine bottle across some distant horizon. "The whole damn convoy...."

"Ahoy, Captain Crunch, I think your convoy is sailing. You'd better hurry back to the brig like a good sailor before you're counted AWOL."

"Victory... That's what it's all about... You know that, punk? Victory... Ha!... We had "em...."

"Great! Onward to Victory! Listen, Captain Kangaroo, why don't you go over to Victory square and fight your battles there. I'll stay here and attack my sandwich. Agreed? Good. Hurry now, it's a long, long way to Tipperary. "

He looked at me like I was some kind of raving loon then scoffed, "You don't know nothin', punk."

"Well, isn't that something?"

"...Nothin' "bout nothin'... Ain't nobody...." he started then lost his way. Another neuron nullified. "You... You..." he stammered in confusion then blurted, "U-Boat."

"Huh?"

"You betchya. I seen it.... The whole damn wolf pack. Yeah."

"Like, as in submarines?"

"German... yeah...Nazi kraut buzzards...." he ranted.

"Aye, aye, Cap'n Blye, blighters they be. Scurvy dogs not fit for keelhaulin'," I said, mimicking something vaguely salty.

"Gutless water rats...yeah....Ain't no nothin' about it... There it is...." he suddenly shouted, leaping to his feet and pointing at a rusty Volkswagen Beetle.

"...Periscope off port bow...Prepare for evasive action...."

His arms waved frantically at the vehicle and wine sloshed onto his jacket. "Shiver me timbers, Cap'n."

"...Sound general alarm...hard starboard rudder, hard a starbord, man...full speed ahead ....."

"A-ou-ga... A-ou-ga..." I said, jumping into the melee. "Captain Ahab, burly beluga sighted off port wine...fire starboard martinis... all hands on daquaris... A-ou-ga...."

He stared at me suddenly, intensely, like I was the enemy itself. The muscles of his face tensed, ready for action. Then gradually he retreated. His eyes unfocused and he slumped back into his chair, rocking gently from side to side while muttering fragments to himself.

"Achtung! Herr Kapitane. Like what are you saying? That's right move your lips. No, not "mumble, mumble.' Up and down like this," I said grasping my mouth in both hands and flapping it like a platypus. "And then you blow out air like this." I flapped again, this time blowing babble and bubbles like Lawrence Welk. "And out come words, herr dumbkoff. He ignored my antics, preferring his own tired soliloquy.

"Sunk...yeah...yeah...sunk..." Abruptly, startled, he looked around and asked, "Where's Petey?"

"Sunk? What? Petey? Who got sunk?"

"I GOT SUNK" His voice boomed, momentarily clear. His eyes widened with a look that shook me. A shiver stroked my back, a shudder drove it away. "Did you survive?" I asked, trying to regain my mirthful composure.

"I been roun' a world, you punk... Everywhere... yeah... I seen...." His eyes drooped again and the muttering resumed. He tipped back the bottle. A drop drooled from the corner of his purple mouth and I noticed that he was missing a thumb. "...everythin'." The scream of a siren started up across the city, approaching. He paused in his gibberish and stared at the air. He let escape a yelp and covered his head with his arms, whimpering.

"Oh god," I said and picked up my magazine again but in a moment he had regained control; he had regained his stupor. "What did I tell you? Shore patrol. They're coming to get you," I prodded but my words failed to reach him.

"Not Petey too... no, there he is, over there..." he pointed to a group of Japanese tourists huddled over a map. "...not ded, ha!... don't you see?...Ha!...No, jus' fakin'... help him... yeah... throw a line...Ha!... a line... yeah...a line...

"Don't hand me that old line."

"...line... a line... the line... He gestured wildly like an orchestra conductor leading some hellish, demented symphony. His face contorted but could not be read. "...Oh!... Ohhh!...No, not Petey!... Ga-a-agh!."

I felt self-conscious when people entered or left the cafe so I tried to distract him. I parodied his face.

"Have you been waiting long?" I heard and turned. It was the woman that I was supposed to meet there. Late again. Her parcels explained why.

"We've both been waiting for hours. Meet my dad. Dad, this is Trish."

"Nunh?" One of his eyebrows raised enquiringly though the effort closed his eye.

"Can you fix him up with someone for tonight? He just flew into town."

She looked at me, unsure, but only for a moment. "You jerk," she said, visibly relieved. "Who is he?"

"Dunno."

"Torpedo... yeah..."

"They call him 'Torpedo' when he really gets bombed," I smirked.

"Will you cut it out? Is he okay? He doesn't look well."

"Doesn't see well either, at least not at this stage."

"But shouldn't we do something? Maybe he has nowhere to go. Can we call someone?" "

The pound. Here, eat my sandwich." She was getting annoyed so I added, "Look, if we call the cops they're just going to throw him in the drunk tank."

"He'll be safe there."

"He won't be safe anywhere."

"N-jin room...jerk...punk...yeah....

"Hey Torpedo, we gotta blow, okay?"

"Nuh?" He looked up as if aware of us for the first time then his head sank back down between his shoulders and he focused vaguely on the green glass bottle.

"Are you sure...?" Her voice trailed off, the urge to play Florencee Nightingale subsiding.

"Come on, we've got places to go, remember?" Trish looked back once but went. A block away we were approached by a dumpy, middle-aged woman dressed in some kind of uniform. "Would you like a poppy?" she asked.

"We gave at the office," I said and we hurried past, arm-in-arm.

Comment By Audrey Thomas: "This is a very, very good story"




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