The Death of Private Dicey
Behind the counter a round man with a Polish face chewed a cigar and wheezed when his giant chest breathed up and down. He was more content than most people when he was lording over his racks of mints and shelves of canned vegetables.
It was a warm afternoon and the thousands of city clerks and office typists had come out of their cubicles for lunch, either at a cheap diner or from a brown sack on a bench somewhere. The shopkeep reached over his shoulder and clicked on the little radio he kept behind the counter. Bing was crooning through the static.
“He’s a lyin' sonofabitch!”
The front door blew open and shopkeep eased up in his chair. A man in uniform was fuming like a boiler, his broad shoulders were tense and the face behind his thick glasses was sweaty. His friend came in behind him, also in Army green, but leaner and placative.
“You need to calm the hell down,” the second man said in a heavy drawl from somewhere below St. Louis.
“I ain’t calmin down till I taken care of this,” retorted the first one, who sounded like a Virginian.
“So what are you gonna do?”
The irate soldier turned to the shopkeep.
“Two packs of Old Golds.”
The round man picked himself up and pulled two of the dark yellow packs from the shelf.
“You don’t even smoke,” his friend said.
“I’m gettin' off the wagon then,” he threw a quarter on the counter and took a book of matches from the cardboard display.
“What’s the matter, friend?” the shopkeep asked returning to his throne.
“None of your business, grocer,” the first soldier said quickly. He turned and made for the door.
“Duke’s been in camp too long,” the other said trying to smooth out the air in the shop. “He wants to get at some action.”
“It ain’t got nothin to do with that,” Duke snapped.
“Well save it for the Japanese then,” the shopkeep said.
Duke swore against the man behind the counter and against the as of yet unseen Japanese. His friend from Mississippi apologized again.
There wasn’t much that could get Duke Murray so livid as he was that afternoon. Deployment was never on his mind and had never been visibly upset about anything, at least as far as Stevie knew. The two had shared a barracks since Stevie had come up from Natchez on the train with the other draftees.
They had both been conscripted but Duke was at home in Richmond. He knew it blindfolded, but he never showed off his hometown, even when his comrades from dirt road sharecropper towns and family farms were constantly taken in by the neon and halogen of the city.
Duke had quieted but hardly cooled down once they were at a table in the service canteen two blocks away. One pack of Old Golds was nearly gone.
“You’re burnin through those quick,” Stevie said. Duke stared at a crumpled napkin on the table. “Do you want a Coke or sumthin?”
Duke was silent. His cigarette burned down and he lit a new one.
There were soldiers and officers coming and going in the canteen. U.S.O. volunteers in clean aprons filled coffee. The usual lunch crowd. Not too rowdy but not too content. Stevie shifted in his chair.
“I don’t know what to tell ya, Duke.”
His companion across the table finally looked up.
“You already said everythin that’s gotta be said.”
“I’m gettin' a drink then,” Stevie replied.
Duke had gone back to his stare. Stevie went to the counter.
“Hullo hullo. Who you having lunch with?” a familiar voice said. Duke didn’t look up.
Stevie had returned with a Coke. The visitor waved.
Private Dicey smiled a straight-toothed smile.
“Duke’s uppity today. When did he start smoking?”
Stevie put his drink on the table and sat down. He didn’t touch it. Dicey looked at both of them.
“What’s the matter with you guys?”
“You know what the matter is,” Duke snapped, crushing his cigarette.
“What?” Dicey reached for a chair.
“Don’t think ya can sit down!”
Duke was sweating now. Dicey put his hands in his pockets.
“What’s the problem?”
“You think ya can just stand there and act all casual?” Duke was yelling. “How bout you admit it?”
“What’s going on over there?” A sergeant said looked over the back of his chair.
“Nothin,” Stevie said quickly. “Just a lil disagreement.”
“Alright then. Keep it down.” The sergeant went back to his lunch.
Dicey leaned in.
“What’s your problem? I didn’t do anything.”
Duke looked like he wanted to bust out of his chair, he softened his voice, though it still cut at Dicey.
“You’re gonna spill it, ya sonofabitch.”
“Spill what? What the hell are you talking about?”
Stevie opened his mouth to say something but Duke rolled right over him.
“You tried to take advantage of her.”
Duke cut him off, the spit from his words flying on the table.
“What in the hell were you thinkin? You were thinkin' my sister was some kinda whore?”
“I didn’t do anything with her! We were just going to the movies.”
“You were goin' somewhere else. I’m callin' you out.” This was louder. Dicey backed up a bit.
“Why are you acting like this?”
“If ya were a man you woulda known to keep your damn hands off,” Duke’s knuckles were white.
The sergeant at the other table set his fork down and stood up.
“If any of you are men you’ll take whatever it is out of here. They don’t want any rough house.”
Dicey put his hands back in his pockets and looked at the two of them.
Stevie lay on his bed at the William Byrd, the lights on the clock at Broad Street Station glowing from across the night. Below him he could hear laughing and carrying on, a group of soldiers and the girls they had brought around. He wondered if he would join them if they asked.
The hotel room was small and had the faint smell of a wet dog. It was better than the barracks though, he didn’t have to spend time traveling back and forth and waste his three-day pass. It was better than home too, the hotel had electric lights and he wasn’t sharing a bed with his brothers.
There was a knock at the door and he rose to check through the peephole. The face on the other end was all too familiar.
“I need to sleep on your floor,” Duke mumbled, stepping in the doorway.
“You ain’t stayin with your sister?”
Duke went to the writing desk and turned on the lamp.
Duke reached into his uniform pocket and produced a yellow envelope. Stevie shut the door and went to sit on the edge of the bed.
“Did ya see her?” Stevie asked.
“Well how is she?”
“Told me she was fine,” Duke looked at him. “She don’t want me to go through with it.”
“Maybe it ain’t worth it then.”
Duke’s eyes were harsh, though also unmistakably sad.
“It's worth it 'cause it’s the family name. I ain’t gonna let Dicey just think he can do whatever the hell he wants to my blood relations.”
“This ain’t the 19th century no more.”
“A principle don’t change just cause of the century.”
“And ya can’t just get at him some other way?”
Duke rubbed his forehead, tired and irritated.
“You don’t seem so worried about killin Japs and Germans. What that bastard done is comparable as far as pullin cheap shots.”
Stevie rolled a pencil between his fingers quietly. Duke continued.
“I wanted to ask you to be my man for this thing.”
His friend was silent. “I thought you were gonna be agreeable to it,” Duke said flatly.
“Well I didn’t know you were set on killin Dicey. You tell me you wanna get back at him and they you start talkin about killin. That’s two different things.”
“I ain’t gonna try to kill him,” Duke said, his voice breaking. “He just needs to get what’s comin to him. If you ain’t with me then I’ll get out.”
Stevie got up from the bed and reached into the desk drawer. He went back to the lamplight.
“Then you swear on the Gideon Bible you don’t kill each other,” Stevie said setting it down on the table.
Duke put his hand on the cover.
“You’re a man of honor, Stevie,” Duke said.
Nobody had ever said that to him before.
Sunday morning before dawn they took a streetcar down to the river and got off halfway across the Mayo Bridge. The mills and the Tredegar works had already let out their early whistle amid the still fog that covered the waterfront. The war had already burned up two continents and the city had to be at work seven days a week.
They wore their dress uniforms. A gold watch chain hung from one of Duke’s buttons. This was the proper thing to do.
It had taken all of Saturday to arrange it. Stevie had talked on the phone with the other party, an unseen man named Frank, and settled the question of when and what ground to choose. They would meet on the Mayo Bridge at the second shift whistle. Things would get underway at the third.
They had some time yet and Stevie found himself leaning over the railing. The water was a choppy gray.
“Hell, he might just call it off,” Stevie said, flicking the remnant of a cigarette into the river.
“Dicey’s a slimy philandering jackass but he ain’t a coward,” Duke replied. “At least he better not be.”
There was silence on the bridge. Some time passed, the fog didn’t. The streetcar they had ditched came rolling by again and once it had gone the silence resumed.
Stevie was about to say something when they heard footsteps on the stone pavement. Two men stepped out of the fog and into view. The parties stared at each other.
The first was Harold Jefferson Green, called “Dicey” by his friends, whose dark eyes looked about all corners of the quiet bridge. His Army cap was tiled back and his greasy brown hair uncombed.
Next to him could only have been Frank, a partly hunched-over man acting as the second. He looked nothing like what Stevie had constructed from their phone conversations, but from his voice he had thought New England.
They also wore dress uniforms, as it was the proper thing to do.
“So why don’t we get this horseshit done with?” Dicey said. The wounds from yesterday were back.
“You wanna admit what you done then?” Duke retorted. Dicey frowned.
“I’ll admit that I’m gonna beat your ugly hick face so bad you’re gonna see backwards.”
“Why don’t ya quit mouthin' off and act respectable? Keep this fair and clean.” Stevie responded.
“Hey Duke, tell your boyfriend to keep his trap shut,” Dicey said taking a step forward.
“Are ya’ll gonna follow the rules laid out or are ya’ll just gonna rip each other apart?” Stevie asked.
Dicey said he would, among other things, and tossed his hat aside. Frank gave a heavy nod.
“Duke? Do ya agree to the rules laid out?” Stevie said to his silent friend.
Before he could answer the factory whistle shrieked from across the canal. The two locked eyes.
Dicey hurled himself at his stoic opponent, charging like a boar straight into Duke’s polished buttons. Duke shoved back and Dicey recoiled from the larger man’s bulk. A fist dug into Dicey’s face. Another struck Duke’s shoulder.
Stevie watched the two men throw themselves into each other. Everything seemed slower, even the breathing of Dicey’s awkward second.
They staggered into the street. Duke’s mass pushing back against Dicey’s frantic punches, the smaller man now had blood on his face. Then quickly in not even half a breath Duke let out a shout.
He went down. Dicey leapt back erratically, then got his footing and started furiously kicking Duke in the gut. He damned and cursed the man on the ground and slammed his boot into groaning flesh.
There was another shout as Stevie grabbed Dicey’s shoulders and threw him to the other side of the bridge. Frank held the boar back as he struggled to get at his opponent.
Duke’s foot was still caught in the streetcar rail.
It was well into the night and Stevie lay on his narrow bunk at the barracks. Word had come that the company was shipping out in twenty-four hours. Naturally things had been louder earlier in the evening.
Under the metal-frame cot was his green Army bag, all packed, with a bottle of rye buried amid the socks. He had padded it nicely with towels from the hotel room.
The company was shipping out and Duke wouldn’t be with them. Maybe good luck, Stevie thought. A bum ankle could’ve got him out of worse things to come.
Then he took it back. There were more important things than the Germans. At least that’s what Duke would’ve said.
But then again Dicey wouldn’t be coming along either. Maybe there was comfort in that.