Chuck watches the raw cane run down the conveyor belt on the roof of Spreckel's sugar mill outside Paso Robles. He peeks at the night sky. Chuck breathes deeply. He thinks, so nice to be out of the mill and working in the fresh air. No more of that sickly sweet stink in my nose.
Chuck literally worked his way up the sugar mill. He loaded barrels of semi-refined cane onto Gio's flatbed trucks for his first few weeks. Then Chuck moved from the docks to filling the barrels with cane sludge that poured out of the huge vats jammed in the mill's ground floor. Only slightly less nauseating was the job on the floor above, where Chuck shoveled the raw cane into a grinder that fed it into the vats. Finally Chuck made it to the mill roof, where he earns good money working six hours, two nights a week.
They barely miss him at the base. For almost a year Chuck has been training new recruits as a drill instructor at nearby Camp Roberts, though he spends most nights off base. Gianni set Chuck up with a cottage in Paso Robles soon after he got him the job at Spreckel's. He also arranged Chuck's off-base privileges.
At three a.m. Chuck leaves the mill at the end of his shift. Parked next to his jalopy (also from Gianni) is the mystery lady's Ford coupe. "I was hoping for a couple hours of sleep before mess," Chuck says as he gets in the coupe's passenger seat. The driver takes off in a rush.
"Is there a reason we're going the wrong way?", Chuck asks the driver.
"Who says this is the wrong way?", she replies. "Take a nap, Sarge."
When Chuck wakes up, the car is parked behind a closed roadside diner. He gets out of the car, stretches, and walks toward the back door. Chuck isn't surprised to find the door open. In a corner booth of the unlit diner sit Gianni and Nora. The driver stands behind the counter.
"Too early for coffee?", Gianni asks Chuck. The driver pushes a mug across the counter.
"Reveille is oh-600," Chuck says. "I got two hours."
Chuck thanks the driver for the coffee. She ignores him. He takes the seat next to Nora in the booth. "What's this about?", he asks Gianni.
"We're looking for some trucks at the base," Gianni says. "Somebody's selling the Army black market gasoline. Least that's what we heard."
"Somebody besides you?", Chuck asks.
"Nora thought she'd come down to see you for a few days," Gianni says. "Take a break from the City."
"Sure, Gianni," says Chuck. "I'll find out who's muscling in on your sales of hijacked gas to the Army." He adds, "Nora's always welcome."
"Why don't you two take the coupe," Gianni tells Chuck. "We'll be back on the weekend." Gianni leans across the table to give Nora a peck. He nods to Chuck and walks out of the diner. The driver follows him without so much as a glance Chuck's way.
"Jerk," says Nora quietly.
"Him or me?", Chuck asks Nora, who motions him out of the booth seat.
"Take your pick," she says. "Now gangway and let me at that grill. Make yourself useful why don't you and brew a fresh pot." Nora tells Chuck. She finds an apron behind the counter and lights the stove.
"It's gonna be a long day," Chuck says as the coupe speeds down 101 toward the Camp Roberts gate. Gray starts to show in the eastern sky. Nora downshifts as the camp gate comes into view.
"Just remember," she tells Chuck, "while you're playing soldier, I'll be fast asleep."
"Nobody's playing on that parade ground," Chuck says. "I got 10 weeks to teach them how not to get themselves killed."
Nora shakes her head. "Some'll live, some'll die," Nora says. "Neither because of you."
Now Chuck shakes his head. "I'll save one or two," he says. "Try, anyway."
The coupe stops short of the camp gate. Chuck tells Nora, "You'll feel better after some sleep." He leans across the seat to kiss her.
"How do you think you'll feel after 10 hours of drills?", Nora asks Chuck. "Maybe you should just bunk here tonight, eh?"
Chuck smiles at her. "Eighteen hundred hours," Chuck says as he exits the car. "I'll be waiting for you right here. Then we'll see about who it is needs rest."
"I'll bring a pillow and a blanket just in case," Nora says before she drives off with quick wave. I won't make it to lunch, thinks Chuck.
Chuck makes it past lunch all the way to 18:05 hours, when he's standing outside the camp gate. He perks up when the coupe comes into view.
"Guess who they want to make an officer?", Chuck asks Nora after he takes the passenger seat.
"How does that happen?", Nora asks right back.
"A major calls you to his office and tells you you're going to Georgia," Chuck says. "I'm thinking, 'Where's the MPs,' but he says 'OCS'."
"Officer Candidate School," Chuck explains to Nora as she heads the coupe south on 101.
Nora laughs. "I thought you said we were winning the war."
"Who knows who's winning?", Chuck says. "All I know is, I'm out of the sugar business."
Nora adds, "And into the shooting."
"I shoulda shipped out a year ago," says Chuck. "With my first unit." Nora considers the casualties suffered by Chuck's original company.
"Be sure to send me an invitation to your graduation," Nora tells Chuck. "When does school get out?"
Chuck yawns. "Fall, maybe," he says.
Thirty seconds later, Chuck is asleep with his head against the coupe's window. As she drives down 101, Nora considers the possibilities. Going on three years, she thinks, and this war is showing no signs of ending. Working for Gio Bartoli is a good way to get myself killed. She regards Chuck asleep in the seat next to her. How'd he get mixed up with the Bartoli's?, she wonders.
Nora parks the coupe on the patch of dirt in front of Chuck's cottage under the oaks. "Wake up, Captain," Nora says and gives him a nudge.
"Still a sergeant, last time I looked," says Chuck as he stirs himself. "I'll be lucky to keep my stripes 'til I get my orders for Georgia."
"Aren't you the champion D.I. butt kicker or something?", Nora asks as she and Chuck make their way into the cottage. "With those sticks?"
"Pugil sticks," Chuck replies. He kicks off his shoes and reclines on a lumpy love seat in the living room. "That's what they're called."
Nora heads for the kitchen and comes out holding two bottles of beer. She hands one to Chuck and then squeezes next to him on the love seat. "Pugil sticks," Nora repeats. "And you're the champ pugiller?", she asks Chuck.
"Mock away," Chuck says. "There's a trick to it, you know."
"There's a trick to everything," Nora says. "What's the pugil trick?"
"Never mind," says Chuck. They tip their beer bottles back in unison.
"The shoulder," Chuck says a minute later. "Over the back foot." He sips his beer. "That's the trick."
Nora says, "Good to know, thanks. For the next time I'm attacked while holding a pugil stick."
"Could happen," Chuck says. "A bit too big for your handbag."
"What's the point of it?", Nora asks. "They're not fighting with pugil sticks over there."
"You fight with whatever you got," Chuck replies. "I'm teaching the dumb saps how to use the other guy's momentum against him. That's hand-to-hand combat in a nutshell."
"What was that you said about the shoulder and the foot?", Nora asks.
"You don't really care," Chuck answers.
"Sure I do," Nora laughs. "War effort and all. Support our boys."
Chuck squirms on the love seat. "You brought it up," he says. "'Butt-kicker D.I.
After another long pull on his beer, Chuck continues: "I pick the biggest, toughest recruit in each new bunch, throw him the stick, tell him, 'Five bucks if you touch me.' He charges, I hit his back shoulder when he's in range, he goes flyin' 'cause his weight's on his front foot. That's it."
Pugil sticks and back shoulders, thinks Nora. The key to victory. "Dinner," she says as she rises from the love seat. Chuck snores in reply.
"You missed a good fried chicken dinner," Nora says as Chuck joins her in bed. It's well past midnight.
"I didn't miss a thing," Chuck says. "Well, I did miss one thing." He nuzzles the back of Nora's neck.
"Did you bring me a chicken leg at least?", Nora asks.
"I brought you something," Chuck says as Nora turns to face him.
"Don't say a pugil stick," she says.
"You don't like sticks?", Chuck asks.
"Right now I like chicken legs," Nora says.
"What's stopping you?", Chuck asks as he hugs Nora tighter.
"Shut up," she says and kisses him.
"Don't know why you want to go to Georgia," Nora tells Chuck. "You got it made here." Daylight is coming through the small kitchen window.
Nora and Chuck are munching on the last of the fried chicken for breakfast. "Some of these boys I'm pugilin' aren't coming home," Chuck says. "And I'm done helpin' Gio scam the Army."
"He told me he loses money on the Army deals," Nora says. "Calls it his contribution."
Chuck hmphs. "He's not buying war bonds with the money he takes off all those servicemen," he says.
Nora replies, "That money's in play. Those poor saps will spend their dough somewhere, so why not Gio's joints?"
"He's a crook," says Chuck. "What's that make us?"
"Friends of Gianni's," Nora replies.
Chuck stands up. "I gotta go," he says. "Due at the camp gate at 07:00." He thinks, my friend Gianni.
Always both brothers in the same breath, thinks Chuck. Gio won't waste time smiling, Gianni laughs everything off. Both serious about money. Neither brother much concerned about the law. Chuck remembers his father once mentioning the old shop the Bartoli's had in San Francisco. That would be the brothers' great-grand parents, thinks Chuck. Wonder where the Bartoli's store was? Gio and Gianni might stake a claim.
I should've paid closer attention to the old man's stories, thinks Chuck as he changes into his olive-drab Army kit. He laughs at the idea. Chuck's father Deuce didn't tell his children many tales of old San Francisco, yet Chuck felt he knew the city before he ever set foot in it.
Maybe Nora's right about riding the war out here, thinks Chuck. But it's cheating. Cheating the recruits heading for hell by the boatload. That's not why I need to get out of California, though. It's to get the hell away from the Bartoli's. Their kindnesses are killing me.
"Why don't we go to Rossi's for dinner tonight?", Chuck asks Nora as he puts on his coat and hat. Nora stands up and walks him to the door.
"The pride of Paso Robles," says Nora. She kisses Chuck in the open door and watches him get in the coupe. He takes off without a look back.
"News travels fast," says Chuck as he enters the cottage. Gianni and Nora are drinking coffee in the small kitchen. Nora shakes her head.
"When do your orders come through?", Gianni asks. Without waiting for an answer, he says, "OCS way across the country. So long, California. I thought you found a home here?" Gianni smiles, sips his coffee.
"Knock it off, Gianni," Nora says. "He goes where the Army sends him."
"Just like Nora goes where you send her," Chuck tells Gianni.
"Is that so?", Gianni asks Nora.
"No," she replies. "I go where Gio sends me."
As she says it, Nora realizes she wants her name back. It has never done her much good, but her name is about all she has to call her own. Nora looks at Chuck, who's standing in the kitchen doorway. He smiles back, although he's still steamed about Gianni's unexpected arrival.
"You're the one who's found a new home," Chuck tells Gianni. "You and Gio both. My home's years away. Couldn't find it now if I wanted to." He leans against the door jamb with his arms folded.
"No more favors," Chuck adds. "No more rule bending, no more late-night rendezvous. And especially no more driving any of Gio's trucks."
"I just gotta say," says Gianni as he stands up from the kitchen table, "I've heard that one before." He drains his glass and winks at Nora.
"Send us a postcard from Georgia," Gianni adds as he sidles past Chuck in the doorway. "Too bad. You were always money behind the wheel."
"Nora's coming with me," Chuck says as Gianni reaches the cottage's front door. Gianni turns around, smiles, nods, and skips out the door.
Chuck takes the seat at the kitchen table that Gianni just vacated. He looks across the table at Nora. "I am?", she asks him. Chuck shrugs.
"Sure," Chuck replies. "I mean, why not?"
"What's the Army gonna say about that?", Nora asks.
"We'll tell 'em we're married," Chuck says.
Nora frowns. "Uh-uh," she says. "You just told Gianni you're going straight, now you're lying to the Army? That's some officer training."
"I'm quittin' Gio," Nora continues. "But not to start over with a whole new pack of lies. If I go with you to Georgia, I go as your wife."
Now Chuck frowns. "Deal," he says finally and raps his knuckles hard on the table.
"One thing," Nora says. "My name's not Nora. It's Mavis."
"Mavis," Chuck repeats. "Mavis what?"
"Topolowski," Mavis answers. "Well, the Topolowskis took me in." A frown forms slowly on Chuck's face.
Chuck stands up from the kitchen table and motions toward the cottage's front door. "Tell me the story at Rossi's," he says. His smile is back.
Mavis unspools her young life over three courses and two jugs of Rossi's chianti. Chuck barely utters two syllables through the entire meal. Orphaned as an infant. Rumors of an older sister who found a home, perhaps with relatives. No room for a baby. Sent to the nun's charity.
"It's embarrassing," says Mavis. "Not having a past. Like I'm defective."
"You're not defective," Chuck tells her. "In any way whatsoever. In fact, you're probably better off not knowing. Family's really what you make it. People come in and out all the time."
Mavis looks at Chuck like she's waiting for the punchline. "Some of those people are your blood relations," Chuck shrugs, "and some aren't. All family just the same."
Mavis laughs. "You got one big family," she says. "How about we stick with just you and me for now, eh?"
"Just you and me it is," Chuck replies. He signals Rossi for the check. "You know, this officer thing could work out pretty good after all."
Or it could get your head blown off, thinks Mavis. She pushes the thought away just as Chuck takes her hand and dances her around the table. Chuck throws a handful of bills on the table, enough to cover the tab many times over. He and Mavis samba out the restaurant door and into the coupe.
Chuck considers the Monterey pine trees out the cottage window. The moonlight turns them monochrome. Mavis is asleep. Nora is forgotten. Forgotten by Chuck if not by Gianni and Gio. Chuck knows the price Gio will exact for Mavis's rebirth: Set up a branch office in Georgia.
That won't happen, thinks Chuck. Mavis won't allow it, and I'm fed up with it too. Call Gianni and Gio "profiteers" and they just laugh. The Bartoli brothers I can handle, thinks Chuck. Talking Mavis out of getting married -- that'll require a plan. But marriage? Now? Uh-uh.
Chuck looks at the clock on the nightstand next to where Mavis is sleeping. In three hours he'll be back at Camp Roberts, ready to pugil. Chuck tries to recall the phrase his father used to describe Mary Bartoli, the brothers' grandmother. "Eye of the storm," Deuce called her.
Chuck asks himself: What would Mary say if she could see her grandsons? He imagines the face of a woman he never met, who died some forty-odd years earlier. Chuck wonders, Why didn't the old man ever talk about his family? He regards the moonlit pine out the window. Better off not knowing.
Softly, slowly, Chuck takes his place in bed next to Mavis. He's dreaming seconds after his head hits the pillow. His father is on a horse. Chuck marvels at the look of his father as a young man, close to Chuck's own age. Same upright posture, even while shivering from the cold.
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