A midnight clear, p.1
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       A Midnight Clear, p.1

           William Wharton
 
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A Midnight Clear


  PRAISE FOR WILLIAM WHARTON’S BOOKS

  A MIDNIGHT CLEAR

  “[A Midnight Clear] is a modest inquiry into war, youth and extinction. It is also remarkable.

  —Thomas R. Edwards, The New York Times

  “Wharton’s books could not be about sadder, crazier people and circumstances, and out of the insanity, out of the pain, he lifts ... spirits, teaching... tenderness.”

  —San Francisco Chronicle

  “William Wharton has distilled the essence of degradation, of the utter awfulness of battle, into a terse, poetic statement. In its power to surprise and to haunt us, it ranks among the best of our celebrated war stories. I’d put it on the same shelf with Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, it has mythic quality.”

  —Chicago Tribune

  “There are surprisingly few ‘classic’ novels of World War II... A Midnight Clear joins the best. Read it. Want to weep.”

  —Eliot Fremont-Smith, The Village Voice

  BIRDY

  (Winner of the American Book Award for First Fiction in 1978)

  “A writer’s triumph and a reader’s delight.”

  —Toni Morrison

  “It soars!... Part psychological thriller, part mystery... a portrait of a friendship as firm as it is unlikely, and an utterly plausible account of an unbelievable obsession.”

  —Time

  “One of the strangest and most memorable stories to come out of America in many years. William Wharton is quite exceptionally gifted.”

  —John Fowles

  DAD

  (A National Book Award nominee)

  “This is a great American novel. Wharton’s eye is sharp as an eagle’s; his pitch, perfect; his understanding of the emotions deeply moving. He reaches us, crucially, naturally, where we live.”

  —Rebecca Sinkler, Philadelphia Inquirer

  “Splendid... extraordinary ... I don’t know of another novel that treats the relations among several generations in a family during times of crisis with such absolute and convincing authenticity, with such genuine feeling unsullied by the slightest hint of sentimentality.”

  —Allen Lacy, San Francisco Chronicle

  “A luminous book.... With each little turn, we see a new facet of forbearance and ineffable love.”

  —Chicago Sun-Times

  “For three-quarters of its intensely readable length [Dad] is bolted firmly to the ground—and then it takes off into charming, heartbreaking dreams and wish fulfillment without once breaking the slender filament attached to familiar reality. It is a stunningly good book. ”

  —Clancy Sigal, New York Magazine

  SCUMBLER

  “A marvelously vital novel about the power of the imagination to create and recreate life.”

  —Valerie Miner, Los Angeles Times

  “A fascinating excursion into the mind and temperament of an artist.”

  —George Core, The Washington Post

  “Scumbler is about the pleasure of creation and the pangs of ordinary existence. Its prose is as exuberant as its subject matter.”

  —Doris Grumbach, Chicago Tribune

  EVER AFTER: A Father’s True Story (Memoir)

  “Wharton writes with the skills of a born storyteller... Ever After reads like a grippingly dramatic novel, and its blend of sorrow and a healing anger has a bracingly cathartic effect.”

  —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

  “A piercing cry from the heart, a resounding call for reform—and that rare thing: a unique book.”

  —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

  “A powerful story of devastating loss and spiritual healing... highly recommended.”

  —Library Journal

  PRIDE

  “Two stories and several meanings of the word ‘pride’ interweave in Wharton’s poetic novel about families, love and coming to terms with reality.”

  —Publishers Weekly

  “Mr. Wharton has a special gift for portraying filial relationships, and his portrait of Diċkie and his father... possesses a sweetness and felt emotion that leaves a warm, pleasant afterglow in our minds.”

  —Ṁichiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  “Pride works its magic by allowing the darkest and most threatening forces to invade a luminous and enchanted landscape. William Wharton knows precisely how to cast such spells—and his magic words are extracted dirẹctly from the American grain.”

  —Chicago Sun-Times

  By William Wharton

  BIRDY

  DAD*

  A MIDNIGHT CLEAR*

  SCUMBLER*

  PRIDE*

  TIDINGS

  FRANKY FURBO

  LAST LOVERS

  EVER AFTER*

  HOUSEBOAT ON THE SEINE*

  *Published by Newmarket Press

  Copyright

  Copyright © 1982 by William Wharton.

  Grateful acknowledgment is made to Lewis Music Publishing Company, Inc., for permission to reprint from the lyrics of “The Jersey Bounce,” words and music by Feyne, Plater, Bradshaw, and Johnson. © 1941 Lewis Music Publishing Co., Inc., Carlstadt, N.J. Copyright Renewed. Used by permission.

  All rights reserved. This book may not be reproduced, in whole, or in part, in any form, without written permission. Inquiries should be addressed to Permissions Department, Newmarket Press, 18 East 48th Street, New York, New York 10017.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Wharton, William.

  A Midnight clear / William Wharton.

  p. cm.

  eISBN : 978-1-557-04990-2

  1. World War, 1939-1945—Campaigns—France—Ardennes—Fiction. 2. Ardennes (France)—Fiction. I. Title.

  PS3573.H32M5 1996

  813’.54—dc20

  95-25713

  CIP

  Quantity Purchases

  Companies, professional groups, clubs, and other organizations may qualify for special terms when ordering quantities of this title. For information, write Special Sales, Newmarket Press, 18 East 48th Street, New York, New York 10017, or call (212) 832-3575.

  Manufactured in the United States of America.

  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Praise

  By William Wharton

  Dedication

  FEAR

  Chapter 1 - Briefing

  Chapter 2 - The Longest Night

  Chapter 3 - Foo Kit Lur

  Chapter 4 - Throw Me a Why Not

  Chapter 5 - Don’t Tell Mother

  Chapter 6 - A Statement of Charges

  About the Author

  Copyright Page

  Dedication

  To those ASTPRers who never reached majority

  ... We need you now.

  FEAR

  I gasp in the still of one breath;

  A wisp of bird feathers burning,

  The smell of death in a flower.

  Nothing to see and nothing to say;

  Afraid to look, I can’t turn away;

  My blink of emptiness pearling gray.

  I watch myself watching me watching me.

  The names in this

  wintry Christmas tale

  have been changed to

  protect the guilty....

  —W.W.

  1

  Briefing

  “Holy God, Mother! What’s the matter?”

  He pushes me back hard against my shelter half. He struggles, elbows, presses himself to his feet, boots sinking ankle deep in mud and melted snow at the bottom of our dent. He stands there, looming over me, staggering, slipping, not saying anything; staring into the sky.

  Then he unslings his MI, grabs it in his right hand, arches his lean body into a tight spring and tosses that rifle, like a javel
in, out of our hole, in a long, twisting arc at least a hundred feet downhill. He throws so hard his metal-rimmed GI glasses fly off his face, bounce against my chest and slide slowly into mud and water. They’re going to get smashed for sure.

  He doesn’t look at me. Without his glasses, Mother’s face seems empty; he probably couldn’t see me anyhow, even if he did look.

  We’ve been squatting in what could be a leftover one-man trench from World War I, but is probably only a root hole from a rotted, blown-down tree.

  Over the past two and a half hours we haven’t said much. We’re on for four. Sometimes I think Mother might be crying but I don’t look; I’m so close to it myself, I don’t want to start anything. Mother’s scrambling now, rifleless, up onto the edge of our hole. He’s pulling at his webbing equipment, trying to unhook it.

  Normally, the band would be standing this perimeter guard, but they’re in town with the officers entertaining Red Cross ladies. The Red Cross battled its way up to our regiment yesterday and sold us doughnuts, ten cents apiece, two lines, enlisted men and officers. I didn’t peek to see if officers paid. I bought one and shat it half an hour later.

  Squatting there with Mother, I’d been watching one of those little buzzing L5 artillery observation planes circling over us. The motor has a peaceful sound like an airplane on a summer day at the shore dragging an advertisement saying in the sky. Only now it’s winter and it isn’t peaceful.

  I lean down, carefully pick up Mother’s glasses, then shove myself off from the bottom of our hole, pushing against my muddy shelter half. The frame’s twisted but nothing’s broken; the lenses are thick as milk-bottle bottoms; they’d be hard to break. But they’re slippery, gritty, wet and smeared with mud.

  Mother’s up on the lip of the hole. Now he’s crying hard but isn’t making much noise. I start scrabbling my way out; I want to pull him back down before someone sees us.

  We’re on the side of a hill at the edge of a forest. In fact, we’re surrounded by hilly forests. It’s snowed a few times but green’s showing through today and mostly everything’s either thin hard-crusted snow or mud. I know it’s somewhere around mid-December, but that’s about all. Even though we’re in reserve here, for some reason neither mail nor Stars & Stripes has been getting through.

  Now Mother takes off. He’s gotten himself unhooked and slings his ammo belt, his pack, entrenching tool, bayonet, canteen; the whole kit and caboodle, looping, twisting through the air, downhill. Just before he disappears into the trees, he flips his helmet, discus-style, off in the direction of his rifle. He acts as if he really is quitting the war!

  I’m torn between running after him and not deserting the post. After all, I am sergeant of the guard; can you believe that? I don’t.

  First, I run down to get the rifle, helmet and webbing equipment. Then I run after Mother, picking up his things as I go. When I reach down to snatch up his field jacket, I peer back; nobody’s watching. Everybody with any sense is sleeping, taking advantage of all those missing officers. I know both Ware, that’s our platoon leader, and Major Love, our S2, are off playing “hero” for the ladies. We still don’t have a new platoon sergeant, either.

  I prop my rifle against the first tree, with Mother’s things, and run after him. He’s speeding like the wind, not looking back. Without his glasses he’s liable to smash into a tree. There’s no use hollering, so I squeeze tight and keep on. Who knows, maybe he’ll run us both right on out of the war, through division, corps, army, the whole rear guard. Maybe we’ll find a French family with a lovely daughter and they’ll hide us. If we get caught, I can always say I was only trying to catch Mother, trying to salvage government equipment, picking up Mother’s clothes.

  The trouble is we’re going the wrong way. He’s headed south; all we’ll do is run into the perimeter guard for some other tired, mixed-up regiment. We’re all so scared we’ll shoot at anything, especially some bare-assed, bare-eyed skeleton in boots.

  From what I’ve scooped up so far, Mother is down to boots and socks. I almost caught him while he pulled off his pants, but when I stopped to pick them up, he scooted away again. We’re playing a unique version of Hänsel and Gretel with strip poker overtones; or maybe something of Atalanta’s race.

  Because of the exertion, I’m having my usual problem; the stomach’s turning upside down; soundless, burning squirts are slipping out. I’ll smell like a portable latrine when I catch up with Mother. Big headlines: POISON GAS USED IN ARDENNES!

  Mother’s definitely outdistancing me. I determine to grit it hard for another burst of two hundred yards, then I’ll have to give up. Christ, what’ll I tell Ware?

  The next time I look, I don’t see Mother anywhere. We’re still in forest but we’ve gone down a steep hill. Then I spot him. He’s flopped into a streambed and is digging in it, throwing rocks left and right like a dog searching a bone. I slow down, stunned, and stop, staring, while I catch my breath.

  I start moving slowly downhill toward him, wondering what’s next. What happens now? What sergeant-like thing am I supposed to do? I’m sliding and slipping on a combination of iced snow and pine needles. My entire body’s shaking. These days, I’m so shaky most of the time I need to wait for a good quiet moment to draw or even write a letter. I’ve taken to printing in capital letters, short quick strokes; not much chance for a wild, erratic, uncontrolled twitch to give me away.

  I squat at the edge of the stream beside Mother. That water’s got to be ice cold but he’s kneeling in it on naked, white legs. I know I’m thin, what with my GIs and all, but Mother’s so skinny it’s hard to believe he’s even alive.

  I stay there quietly, watching him toss stones, concentrating between his knees. I’ve got to do something.

  “Here, Mother, I have your glasses. You forgot them up there in our dent.”

  He turns and stares blankly at me, stops digging, kneeling in that fast-running, cold, clear stream. I hold the glasses out. Slowly he crawls toward me, takes hold and slips the glasses across his eyes, carefully hooking behind his ears. He’d stopped crying but now he starts again. I help pull him out of the creek and we don’t say anything. I can’t think of a single word I can possibly say to make any sense and I’m not sure Mother could talk if he wanted to.

  Piece by piece, I hand him his clothes and he puts them on. He dresses slowly, taking deep breaths, as if he’s in a barracks on a Sunday morning. His boots and socks are soaking wet, but after he buttons his field jacket, he looks almost normal; except for his blue-white face and the crying.

  “Mother, I’ve got your rifle, helmet and webbing stuff back there at the edge of the forest. How are you feeling?”

  Mother looks into my eyes for the first time since he started running. Snot and tears are smeared across his face. God, it’s so weird seeing our Mother Wilkins like this.

  We call him Mother Hen Wilkins because he’s always hounding us for being sloppy, bugging us about leaving things around or not cleaning out mess kits and canteen cups. Once Fred Brandt complained how Wilkins would sneak up on everyone after breakfast and give the sniff test to see if we’d brushed our teeth.

  Mother’s one of the oldest in our squad and he’s married. He had his twenty-sixth birthday two days before his baby was born dead. Mundy told me that. Some birthday present!

  Mother’s still staring at me through his fogged-up glasses. He’s leaning slightly forward with his arms dangling in front of him, a puppet waiting to be used. He starts talking in his slow, careful way, thinking out each word, every phrase, sentence, as if it’s going to be engraved on platinum.

  “You know, Wont, I don’t know if I have combat fatigue or not. One whole part of me knows everything I just did, from tossing my M1 to scratching in this frozen creek. One part of me knew and wanted to stop, but another part kept going, wanted to keep running, throwing off things, doing any kind of crazy business it could think of. That part was definitely bucking for Section Eight. That part, the deepest inside part of me, will
do anything to get out of all this and go home with Linda.”

  “Want me to turn you in, Vance? I could write up the most beautiful Section Eight certification evidence anybody ever heard of. Between the actual wild things you just did and the stuff I’d make up, you’d at least get back to some psychiatrist in a hospital.”

  Mother lowers himself cross-legged onto the ground. He props his head in his frozen hands, his elbows on his knees. He’s thinking about it all right.

  “No, I’d never make it. I’m still not scared enough. I’m too scared of them and not scared enough of myself. I couldn’t fool anybody. Part of what let me go through all this shit was it was only you there and it didn’t really count.”

  “You sure fooled me, Mother; I’ll tell you that. You also broke a squad rule.”

  He lifts his head off his hands, straightens up.

  “What rule? What squad rule did I break?”

  “You said ‘shit.’ What would Father say? Don’t let them get to you, Mother. No matter what happens, don’t let them get you.”

 
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