Black-and-white photo of a WWI machine gunner in a trench, smoke rising up behind the gunner.

FRIDAY FICTION: Demon of the One Year War

by K.D. Senior

Percy tied his apron in the back and took a deep breath. He knew it was going to be a long day. He grabbed the broom by its handle and began to sweep the floor; he knew Mr. Hopkins would complain if he didn’t at least see him sweep. This is what life after war was like. At least it was not the trenches, he thought to himself. During the course of his day, he reminisced about what his life was like before the one year war. Percy didn’t have to wonder what it was like after; he lived that day by day. He figured that this was the best it was going to get for a negro veteran in 1922. Still, he was grateful to Mr. Hopkins for taking him in, ’cause work was scarce after the war. While stacking cans, sometimes out of the corner of his eye he would see grenades. Some of those times when cans dropped, a slight gasp would escape his lips, followed by a sigh of relief when he realized he was not in the trench but a grocery store in Harlem, where he now, in contrast to his former glory, grudgingly swept the floor and stacked cans. 

He tried to remember the smell of his mother’s cooking, but like many things before the war, the memories seemed to evade him. He remembered how that memory carried him through hours of kitchen detail. He wished it would somehow carry him through this. One thing the Army taught Percy to do well was how to hate menial tasks, such as the one he was currently engaged in. Mr. Hopkins sauntered in from the back with a morning paper wrapped in his chubby fist. “Mornin’ Percy, I see you’re sweeping, and I ain’t even have to tell you!” said Mr. Hopkins as he took his seat at the counter, unlocking the register. “We got four cases of canned peaches that need stacking, so after you’re done with the store, take a break and then get to it.” Percy paused for a moment and recalled a portly master sergeant named Wilkins. He talked rot sometimes, but he was still good people.“Yessir.” Percy grinned to himself and popped to attention. “Don’t you start with that army bullshit.” Hopkins said. “No, sir, wouldn’t dream of it.” Percy went back to sweeping. He laughed to himself.

Percy wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead and grunted then sat down on wooden crates behind the store. Mr. Hopkins left out the two extra cases behind the four he had originally counted. His bookkeeping was getting sloppy. He’d need someone to go back over them. Percy knew it would fall to him. Percy’s grandmother always said Mr. Hopkins would forget his head if it wasn’t attached to him, and for the two years Percy had been working here, he saw she was right. Percy didn’t mind it, though. He liked the old man just fine, and as long as he knew him, Mr. Hopkins liked him just fine too. There was an unspoken bond there. He remembered you couldn’t be sloppy in the service. It annoyed him slightly, but he learned to forgive the old man. Although there were things he would never forget, he knew what it was like to forget things. He guessed it came with age. Maybe the older he got, he would forget some of the things he wanted to.

Percy undid his apron and threw it down next to him as he took out a pack of cigarettes from his breast pocket. Smoking became something he did whenever he found himself with nothing to do. He remembered his sister telling him to quit after he came home from the war, saying now that he could take showers and smell like a gentleman, he should behave like one, and true gentlemen don’t smoke. Percy resented her sentiment; it annoyed him, but he learned to forgive her for it. She didn’t know about life in the trench, no one gave a damn about being a gentleman. He’d have to pretend to be one in front of his mother at dinner tonight though. His mother often teased that he forgot to smile, but that was a lie. He smiled plenty. Especially in the times he took his little brother fishing by the Hudson. They never caught anything, really, but it was something to do. He remembered the time his brother caught a tramp’s boot. They laughed about it all day. He wanted to go fishing again, but it was too cold to go fishing now. Autumn has a chill that would sweep through your clothes and into your bones.

Percy thought of his grandfather, but his memory returned nothing but faint recollections of his mother telling him that his grandfather smoked too. He never met his grandfather, but in the trench, that didn’t matter. Very few things did. He felt that the war was fought for naught. He couldn’t drink. He didn’t understand what the government hoped to accomplish by banning spirits. He could use some, but he was too unsettled for speakeasies. They were too loud, and the smell reminded him of German whorehouses. The music was good though. He would stand in the alleyways and listen to the bands play. It pleased him. He wished the government would let him drink.

Percy looked down at his hands and could feel gloves on his skin, but could see no gloves. He stared at the pack of Lucky Strikes in his hand and remembered how similar it was to the first 12 he was ever rationed with his gear. Like a fool he gave them away, parroting his older sister’s well-intentioned but fallacious wisdom on gentlemen. A mistake he never repeated when it was time to replenish his rations. He took out a dull, slightly rusted zippo that bore a faded eagle insignia out of the same pocket he kept his cigarettes and began to open and close it repeatedly while hearing it click. The click made him feel comfortable. It reminded him of his rifle. He looked into the sky; it was a clear and serene blue, a clarity he learned to treasure. A clear blue sky, unmarred by gas and smoke, was as rare as gold on the front.

People that knew him often asked him what the front was like. He often just muttered, “real bad,” and left it at that. Percy felt the question insensitive. His family didn’t understand. They couldn’t. What would factory workers do with knowledge of how to shoot a Lewis gun, anyway? What did they stand to gain from knowing the horrors of the war? Was it really worth knowing? It’s not like they had to live it, which was good that they hadn’t, he thought. He didn’t like people much, but one of the reasons Percy liked Mr. Hopkins so much was that he never asked him about what happened in the war. He said the army didn’t agree with him. He could help more people selling them groceries. Percy agreed.

Percy put a cigarette in his mouth and lit it. He stood up and stared across the street while putting the cigarettes and the lighter back in his breast pocket. He saw kids playing war. It saddened him. He thought about his role in the war. He thought about being able to kill white men while getting paid to do it. That was the recruiter’s pitch. People said he should be grateful. Many of these sorts of folks thought this kind of thing was good, perhaps some delayed restitution for the horror of slavery. Many would daresay it was as fine a job a negro could get, since they could kill as many whites as possible and come home to their wives or the girls who wrote them. He remembered the others who left with him.

He remembered how eager they were to leave, and he remembered how few came back. Some of the faces he remembered, most of the faces he did not; he tried his best not to remember. Only fools thought of war as good. Percy knew better. He knew that once you went to the front, part of you never left it, no matter how bad you wanted to, no matter how far away from it you physically got. It didn’t matter how many white men you killed, you were still there, and so were they. He put his cigarette out and went back to work.

When he left the train station, he crossed the street and lit a cigarette. The faint stench of raw meat filled the air. Percy was the most terrified at this time of day. The smell put him in the trench. He could hear them screaming. He could hear them wailing. Sometimes he felt them pull at his uniform; they often did. He walked past the butcher’s shop, and he remembered. He wished he could trade places with Mr. Hopkins. He recalled how the first time he saw what a Maxim gun could do to a man, his belief in god waned, and how shells ripped the earth and flung whole trees from where they were rooted. He remembered the scent of raw wounds, feces, and death. He remembered his job. He was a gunner. He was one of the best. He took pride in that, and then he remembered when his first lieutenant had told him to mow down weaponless, fleeing German soldiers once they were routed. He still remembered being disgusted with himself after being patted on the back and told, “You shoot so good I almost forgot you were a nigger!” It didn’t stop there. Things like this were common on the front. He recalled what the foreign white men called him. “Verdamnte dieser erder!” they cried. “Der Schwarze Tartar!” they hissed. At least they had a reason to hate him. He was ashamed these things made him a better killer. The more of them he gunned down, the more he wished it was him instead. He remembered being the harbinger of despair. He remembered the choir of bullets and the symphony of steel. He grew nauseous. He hated himself for sort of missing it, but he did always like music. He wished the government would just let him drink. He could use it right about now. He remembered how he wanted to cry. He remembered now that he couldn’t.

Percy tied his apron in the back and sighed. It was another day. Very little changed. It calmed him. He swept the floor and stocked the shelves. For now, his mind was calm. There was no screaming, no smoke in the sky, no sergeants, no shelling, and no German names. Just the broom swishing back and forth and Mr. Hopkins reading the paper. He felt safe. It’s not the best, but it’s not the front he thought. He wasn’t comfortable with it, but he was learning to be. He still wished he could drink. He cracked a hard smile as the old man reeled. “Whatchu smiling about boy!? I don’t pay you for your good looks! You gonna earn every last penny you get outta me! Don’t stop sweeping that damn floor—” Mr. Hopkins started. “Wouldn’t dream of it, sir,” Percy replied.

K.D. Senior is a sometimes-friendly neighborhood scribe in Seattle. Run-of-the-mill fly boy in the buttermilk. A ’90s era culture nerd from the Bronx. Thinks Stanley Kubrick is the greatest film director, Stan Lee was actually a superhero, James Baldwin essays are national treasures, and that Al Pacino was definitely on coke in ‘Heat.’ Wears Yankees ball caps and radiates big disputatious energy.

📸 Featured image attributed to Vail Marston (under a Creative Commons, CC BY-NC 2.0 license).

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