When Johnny comes marching home again
We’ll give him a hearty welcome then
The men will cheer and the boys will shout
The ladies they will all turn out
—Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, When Johnny Comes Marching Home, 1863
And at this moment, Gretchen is feeling glorious. She is nineteen years of age, or at least she thinks so, although really, she has no firm sense of birthdate, or birthyear.
It has been some while since she’s been able to slip away from her work, from all the others, and she feels that with a little more luck, she’ll be able to get past the gates and really be alone.
The way she needs to be. The way she rarely can be, because she is either working, or getting rest so that she can work, or helping out with the household chores—Which I goddam hate, she tells herself, almost mantra-like, after all these years.
It could be worse, she thinks, she knows, thinking back to those years when she had to live in that house with all those grown-ups, Gus, that royal asshole, and Sandy, who is dead now, these past five years, killed by someone never caught, a wilder, probably, who is also as likely as not dead by now, starved, sick, or the victim of others’ violence.
Not quite fourteen years of age and finally cast off to live on her own, and Gretchen still can recall the feeling of relief.
Almost five years ago.
Gretchen has to think for a moment, to recall the others. There was Mary, of course, The Cow, who Gretchen could always seem to fool, at least until Mary The Cow had caught Gretchen fucking that guy she can’t really remember beyond an impression of his having been as quick in her as he was skinny, but Gretchen had no complaints, because it was the start of Mary’s campaign to get Gretchen out of the house, and Gretchen will always be grateful for that unmemorable fuck, because of that. The others, Gretchen remembers, seemed happy enough by the turn of events, with Mary, the last of the adults that had been at all sympathetic toward Gretchen, taking the lead in kicking her out.
The last one sympathetic, anyway, after Sandy has got himself killed.
She was probably just jealous, Gretchen thinks not for the first time, firm in her assumption that The Cow had probably not gotten any dick for years, with her pasty flesh, her weird, sagging, pillow breasts.
That initial relief of that day had been tempered quickly enough, of course, as Gretchen had come to see the unavoidable, since she had fast learned that there would have been no way to live on her own, not in any good way, anyway, and so she joined a young women’s household, still the youngest, but closer in age to the others, and pretty much thought of as a peer, except by the house lead, a woman almost as old as The Cow. At least the others enjoyed or were at least entertained by Gretchen giving that hapless idiot—The Harpy, Gretchen had nicknamed her—a hard time.
The new house was crowded, of course, and Gretchen at first missed her own bedroom, but that was the only thing she had ever really missed of the Gustave House, Mr. Beebum.
Well, except Sandy, maybe, a little bit. But he is dead, so what did that matter? Gretchen wonders.
Even though she still has to work enough to avoid censure, she was freer, even for those first two years still working in the fields, and still too often seeing Pauline, or Mary, or Alex out there, but then Gretchen had gotten herself work in the garages, working on the vehicles, becoming quite good at figuring out how best to retrofit the newer ones for action, piecing together carburetors, points, and distributor caps to replace injection systems, by-pass emissions operations and protocols, and whatever else might be needed to get a car or truck moving.
If, of course, there was enough fuel for it, but fuel was other peoples’ concern.
She was good at what she did, and she had done well even before she fully understood the reason for the cars needing change overs, from all the EMP of nuclear warheads, some nearby, some high up in the atmosphere, which, she had someone tell once, were more damaging to circuits than closer such detonations.
It had been some time before she had even thought to ask why so many of the vehicles needed the change overs she’d become so good at doing, some time before it occurred to her to wonder why and how the cars and trucks and vans had parts that kept them inert, she couldn’t explain what any of it meant, only that the boxes, modules, that were scattered about the new vehicles no longer worked, and had to be re-routed, or entirely by-passed, or replaced, substituted with mechanical pieces from the junkyards, tap-drilling mounts, running cable, hose, solving the right configurations from one car or truck to another.
People tended not to talk about such things, from before.
It hadn’t been until she had started the mechanic work that she had even realized what had happened back when she was a young child, and what exactly the adults around her meant by Post, but once she understood that the world had once been a very different place, she became a reader, stealing as much time as she could stand reading anything and everything she could get her hands on, wondering how she ever could have been so unaware.
Early on, her supervisor, seeing her aptitude, had sent her to the Public Library, which turned out to be one of the buildings under guard, one of those places she had therefore always put out of mind, a place of restricted access that she had passed many times, but not otherwise ever further thinking of it.
But then, one day, her garage boss had sent her to collect some technical automotive manuals, and the world became a place without limits.
It hadn’t taken her long to parlay that specific access into an any-time access. Men seemed to think she was pretty, their interest of her, her offered body, her don’t-give-shit-attitude was a passport, a magic key.
Or whatever, she thinks, with a mental shrug.
Bill had taught her to read, of course, and she read quite well, having learned so well in those still compelling memories of playing school with Bill, the regular time of the day when Bill would turn his attention from other demands, or simply playing with or teasing her, or cooking, cleaning, organizing the inventory, as she clearly remembers him calling the stacks and piles and shelves, or his regular ventures out, mainly to get rid of the waste buckets they’d fill and refill over days and months, the stink runs, as they called it, those white mud buckets, as he had called them, their green lids still a vivid image, his stacking them on a wheeled platform she was years later shocked to recognize as a mechanic’s creeper of the sort she used all the time at work. Those sorties of Bill’s, those rare instances he’d slide open the panel, were pretty much the only times she’d be alone, at least until toward the end, when Bill had become a different person, anxious, trying but failing to keep her from understanding what the dwindled inventory meant, a new type of being, fear, that she increasingly seemed unable to comfort, despite her desperation to do so.
She still thinks of Bill with love, an aching love, despite other, newer feelings. He had been everything for her: father, mother, friend, playmate, lover.
She now understands that this had been a strange thing, the priests and other adults she first was given over to had bewildered her in their shock and horror, their inability to see Bill as she saw him, and she had hated them for that as much as she hated them, blamed them for Bill’s absence, a disappearance as complete as death disappears a person, although it had taken her some time to know that Bill must be dead, that the adults would never come to their senses, let her rejoin with Bill. But at some point, Gretchen had come to recognize finality, that he must have been killed by these people, these people who fluttered around her, told her they cared for her, would take care of her, poor her, those people that Gretchen had long and fiercely hatred.
She understands now how this explains her active antipathy to the household into which she had been placed. That some part of her still blames, still hates them.
On her own, away from those she had hated so directly, with the fierceness only a child can possess. But in the last few years, more independent, engaged in work, she had grown into a woman, a young woman who possessed the power of her body, and she often still reeled from the echoes that a certain touch, a specific act might sound out from the dark, as confusing as yearned for, fucking men often both a distraction and comforting slip into a feeling of safety and control, before her world was Post, too, as others saw it, back to just Bill, Bill and his attention, his love, his everything.
Gretchen can look back and understand that she had first only sensed, and then, as time went on, clearly noted that the adults around her resisted talking about what had been, never mentioned what had happened, neither about her or the past world, a chronic refusal, or unwillingness, and she quickly saw that it wasn’t only when she was present underfoot, often lurking, if escape to her room was not possible, and so she had come to realize that it wasn’t just the discomfort about Gretchen’s circumstances, about Bill, that drove their reticent, unease, silence, but for those older, those who had lived in the world that was, they tended not to talk about that past, not just her past.
Gretchen had long assumed that it was only her existence in that first household that caused this strangeness, that had set a time without a past, the others marking her presence but not acknowledging her, not embracing her, afraid, upset, judging. She had thought that had to do with Bill, and what had happened to her, the shock she came to imagine, the surprise of the community finding a nine- or ten-year-old who had spent the first several years Post hidden away, being cared for by a man who had thought of everything, who was her everything, her comfort, her world.
But it was the weight of Post that accounted for the silence, the absence of past, not the gulf between their sense of horror and the pain and terror she had felt after her emergence.
My rescue, Gretchen thinks, that term still freighted with wide-ranging feeling for her: derisive, puzzling, invasive, confusing. As the years went on, as she grew toward adulthood, she had largely stopped thinking about it all. Over her years out among the larger world, Gretchen came to understand how strange her life with Bill had been, how it had been seen by the others, had seemed.
Other children were cherished in such a different way than she had been, but how tentative the connections between them and others seemed, but with a fierceness of care, she could see, how careful and separate the infants and children were treated, how alone.
Those few children, anyway, the surviving ones, the ones whole, healthy, precious, loved.
There were fewer yet her age, any contemporary she might come across was a rare and shocking find those infrequent times that had happened.
Gretchen couldn’t help but understand that the others ,, the young, were loved, sought out and cherished relief to the grown-ups, and she chose to avoid these young ones, something that didn’t take much of an effort, she knew, something that was hardly a frequent challenge,. It didn’t take much effort to prevent these encounters, easily enough avoided usually, to evade the heart-dead feeling such an encounter would engender powered her will to steer clear, or failing, to drive her to seek out a man, any and indifferent, to devour her, to clasp her, shaking, hold her tight, release her tears, her body, her aching heart.
The streets are almost empty, and no one minds her.
She knows that she should be getting to work, but some days she seems compelled to take a long route, to wander.
She hurries through the streets at a brisk pace. She passes the public pool at the south side of North Common, and sees with a start that Costa, a wizened old man she knows only from the church services, is there pulling water from the pool for the little vegetable plot that runs wild looking around the playground equipment and the playing field, bean vines still thick on the jungle gym. She takes her broad brim hat, one of those most people wear these days, woven out of some local sort of straw, and she uses the hat to wave at him, remembering that he isn’t likely to mention seeing her. He ignores her wave or doesn’t see her.
It annoys Gretchen that she still feels worry when it comes to Gus, , Gus and his kind, but she understands how things work in Chez Nous, one of the two names for the place she lives, which she knows most people still call Lowell, and her derision for the other names—Chez Nous and La Maison—are as much derision for those making decisions for everyone else. And Gus has risen among the bosses. There’s talk, even, of Gus getting on the Board.
She knows that Lowell had been a much bigger place, a city, and that there were other cities even larger, that Lowell had been in a state called Massachusetts, in a country called United States of America, and that there was once something called democracy, which, best she can figure, had meant that people got to choose who was going to be a boss, but she hasn’t bothered to try too hard to understand the structures and government of the old time. There’s little point, she thinks.
She’s poured over the old maps, and in her mind has tried to lay over them the sense of how things now are, mostly from conversations with the truckers, or those rare people who can let themselves talk about things before. Sometimes even going out with a truck or vehicle, if she can present a good enough excuse about why a mechanic better go with it.
Or hold out a fuck.
Everybody knows about the Argentines, although Gretchen is pretty sure she is not alone in not quite understanding what they are doing here, or, really, why they are here, although this is a common topic of conversation, with her housemates at any rate, and at the garage. There had been food aid years back, back before Lowell could grow enough food for themselves, at least with confidence, and that aid continues, she understands, as part of Lowell’s working with other communities. There are things like coffee, medicine. Types of help, like setting up the shipping area, heavy welding and machines needed for the dock place that lies well into once-Lawrence, just where the Lawrence canal empties into the lower dam structures, as far up river that mid-sized boats and barges can go. She’s been there, a couple of times, to help fix one or another of the loading mechanisms, the cranes, the ones busy with loading the barges, the barges that head toward another loading facility, at Newburyport, although Gretchen has never been that far, has never seen it, has never seen the large freighters waiting off shore.
She has been to Lawrence. It’s a devasted area, the whole city having burned, fire-stormed, some called it, twisted and distorted remains of large structures, rubble-filled foundations of smaller ones, piles of fallen rubble, blacks and grays, and the green of plants more and more aggressively asserting themselves within the damage, in ways Gretchen can’t quite figure out. The area is safe enough, apparently, just destroyed, not irradiated, the Argentines building a work camp there, some housing for their people, some bunk houses and tents for workers that Lowell supplies, or manages. The workers are there to pull iron, steel, and other metals from the wrecked city, to round up appliances and machines and god knows what else from other less damaged areas. It is a very busy place, with long, large areas of piles of material, mountains. The size, the activity had shocked Gretchen the first time she saw it. And the second time.
North of the Lawrence dam and canal system, the river can carry flat-bottomed barges and small boats, like the inflatables—Zephers, Gretchen is pretty sure they are called—the boats Argentines and others still often use to get to Lowell. The truck route to and from Lowell is open, has been for several years, back when the number of available trucks or other vehicles was less than problem than the dearth of diesel and gasoline. Route 133, which is Andover Street down near the old mills complex, and which turns into River Road, which turns into a different Andover Street, and then Gretchen just knows it is several turns and a short distance from that point, to the Lawrence facility.
Travel outward from Lowell has grown more extensive, with more material crews, and farms flung ever farther from the city, and there are some other towns, other groups. There’s talk about getting Interstate 495 back in operation, she knows the area, but not why that particular road is called what it’s called, but just that it can provide a quicker route for material to the ocean port. Some damaged sections and some weakened on/off ramps are problems, though, that still need fixing. There is even an airport just downstream from one of the closest 495 crossings, but that is just talk still, too, at least for a while.
There aren’t many airplanes, so rare, in fact, that Gretchen will always stop and look up at one, whatever she is doing.
Well, there was that time in a truck cab, with Wilson, he could eat, Gretchen is thinking, but even then, she realizes, she’d gotten a glance through the tree branches, just as she was arching her back, her hips, rising to his mouth.
He had been talented, Gretchen still well remembers, but she had by then already learned of the dangers of being with someone too many times.
Gretchen has pieced together a pretty solid picture of the Lowell environs. Belidere, an eastward neighborhood of Lowell, is fully cleared of debris, and planted, now, in its second season, putting to use the large area toward Lawrence that had been part of, or too close to the Lawrence firestorm, and now, because of the result, this large area had been turned to corn fields. Just a bit north of this area was Trull Brook Farm, which Gretchen had been told used to be a country club, but her mind had wandered when—What was his name?—had started trying to explain what that was and tried to describ golf to her. Produce grew on Saja Farm and Farmer Dave’s, further northwest of the Belidere neighborhood, across the Merrimack. And then there was Gage Park farm and McPherson, which was also called Playground, which Gretchen had thought was weird until she looked at an old Lowell map, and pretty close by was Hovey. All these were outside the wall, of course, including one of the westmost farms, Vesper Farms, which Gretchen come to learn had also been a country club.
Before she had left the Gustave house—Well, kicked out—Gretchen had actually liked going to the Vesper Farm because they had to take a pull boat across the Merrimack, and the farm was an early one, despite the troubles at that time with threats from the wilders who had camps in nearby forest, especially around the tech school, as they called that area of that farm. Gretchen now knows the wood was the Lowell-Dracut-Tyngsborough State Forest, which had seemed like wilderness to her, but she now knew it wasn’t that big, and it had been cleared of wilders for at least four years now. A lot of the trees, too, had been cleared, for firewood, winters so cold, so long.
A benefit of her work in the garage was that she sometimes got rides on the trucks and cars, ostensibly to test them, although the likelier reason had to do with there being plenty of drivers who wanted the chance to get into her pants, an activity in which she often enough had some interest, but she especially likes exploring, getting a better sense of the bigger and bigger area, and her hook-ups followed that interest.
By the time she had left the Gus house, she had been familiar with several of the western farms, and she had worked quite a bit at Vesper, although no one ever thought to tell her about country clubs and what things used to be. Her curiosity had blossomed when she was gone from the farm work.
Thank god for the garage work.
The vehicles, especially the trucks, were ranging good distances these days, although her ride-alongs usually remain close in, since it is hard to come up with excuses for being out of the garage for long, although her boss knows that a mechanic is sometimes good to have along, depending on the state of retrofit.
Northward, Gretchen has been past the burnt Nashua area once, almost as far as the White Mountains, until the Plattsburgh Plume made going further too dangerous. It was on that trip that she learned about the difference in air-burst and ground-burst and yields and how Plattsburgh, which was, had been, some military place. An airbase, she’s pretty sure, although she has no really clear sense of what that means, something that needed a heavy hit, something that had received ground-burst that threw up significant radioactivity south/southeast, which was what her friend Nick had explained. Nick was older, but he liked to talk, and he knew a lot, including which were long-lived radioactive isotopes, like strontium 90 or cesium 137, and that the area further north and east was, as he had put it, “completely fucked.”
Unlike her and Nick, she had found herself thinking when hearing him use that particular descriptive phrase, “completely fucked.” Nick had had no apparent interest in her, and to him she was simply a mechanic.
He had also raised the question of prevailing winds, saying that when everything happened, these winds were east/south-east, which was unusual, he had told her, but probably a good thing for them, for Lowell. She had decided to read up about the things Nick had talked about, but still hasn’t had enough actual interest to do it.
What did interest Gretchen more was how big the world seemed, and things like seeing the White Mountains, even from a distance, was overwhelming, but in good ways. A lot of places looked okay, north, although there were plenty of burned areas, too. There were some people, but many of the areas looked sparse with people, and when Gretchen had asked Nick about that, he hadn’t answered for a while, until telling her that the first couple of years had been tough on every one, and that a lot of people died, because of not having food, or because of sickness, or the cold, or those who had stupidly been outside, when the “quick radiation” would burn people, made them sick. Gretchen had had a lot of other questions, but Nick had finally told her to Shut the fuck up.
For a while, seeing the world, hearing about what had taken place, coming to understand Post, Gretchen was confused, upset, but mainly because all this was so different from what she had known, what she had thought was the world with Bill. She came to realize that her sense of the world at that time had been utterly fantastic, and she could see how Bill had chosen books and stories with care, all princesses, castles, safe places, and wicked powers that had to be avoided at all costs, that the books he had used to teach her how to read were all fairy tales, literally. She became convinced that Bill had shaped her sense of the world so that her tiny world seemed normal, a fairy tale, just like the stories Bill typically told her.
Well, except for the magazines, as she later figured out that’s what they were called, that is what they were, with the pictures of the other people in the world as she had thought it was, in their special places, with their special loves.
Gretchen knows she needs to get back to work, that it is one thing to come in late after a walkabout, and another thing to come in too late. She’d made it as far south as the group of cemeteries on the south side of Ayers that were being used for grazing animals, since planting among the stones was hard, unproductive. And people could still be buried there, in the areas still not used up.
She often walked around the three grouped cemeteries, but today she just hit the northern end, knowing she really had to get to work. There are only a few grazing animals, some cows, some sheep, a goat, she thinks, and a donkey. They don’t look so good, she thinks. Whenever she comes by, it is always pretty much the same thought.
And then she’s finally at work, doing a lot of the same old things, although she notes that there are more than the usual numbers of the Humvees and big trucks called Deuces that had been among the first vehicles she had worked on, their simple, huge engines had made a good starting point for her, had been what made her change to grease monkey.
She loves that term.
She’d been told that many of the military vehicles had been retrieved from all the way out in Hudson, from a National Guard armory, sometime after the Argentines showed up, but back when she was still a kid, still in her hidden world, so she hasn’t a lot of faith that any timetable of events she possesses is all that accurate.
What she does know, what she is confident about, are these vehicles. The Deuces get used for all sorts of stuff, including hauling, but the Humvees are almost exclusively scout and security. She knows other vehicles, of course, including a 1971 Ford F-Series that had once been part of some outfit called AT&T, according to the almost completely faded markings, and which she keeps going despite the sloppy rings, the rusted bed.
All in a day’s work, she thinks.
What she doesn’t think is so normal is the number of prep orders for the military vehicles, which keeps her busy until after supper time. The boss likes that she stays late when needed, and that she says she likes his wife’s weird casseroles, dishes of which he’s always willing to feed her on late nights like tonight.
What is even stranger is that Joey, from the East Garage, shows up on the pedal cart, his badly scarred face, the bottom half, around his mouth, scar twisted enough to make it hard to understand him when he talks. But she understands what his parts lists mean, and his answer that they’re working late there, too, and too, on military vehicles, doesn’t surprise her when she asks.
Then the boss is heading home and lets her close shop when she’s done, which is why it is full dark out when she’s closing the overhead, heading home to collapse, bone tired, yet again.
The last two days have been long nights in the garage, working hard—Like a pig dog, she says to herself, another of the expressions she likes, although she has no idea at all where she’s heard it, or what it really means. These past two days has also seen her on some runs down to the Lawrence staging area, picking up gun and ammo crates and various boxes of who knows what.
She’d seen Argentine soldiers before, here and there, mostly just the Specials, the advisors, passing through or training up in Lowell, each one different from the other in garb, or beards, or weapons. But Lawrence seems stuffed with what Gretchen now knows are regular soldiers, hardly able to tell one from another, all dressed the same way, which had seemed weird to Gretchen early on, but now was just another part of the place.
Probably one of the guys, yeah, Gully, Gretchen realizes, had taught her that pig dog expression, although, really, Gretchen has seen some pigs, and fewer dogs, but never a pig-dog, but that was hardly the weirdest thing about Gully. He had nubs for some fingers, his right hand. In fact, he had bad burn scars along the whole right side of his, she was pretty sure, and although she never saw whether the scars running down his neck or up his right wrist ever connected under the collar or sleeve, scars disappearing under cover, but it had to be. She had seen Gully’s toes nubs, too, once when he had his boot off for some reason she never knew. From the toes to his ear, the right side, in that tiny slice of burn at the side of the back of his head, scar instead of hair, although most of his head had a good amount of hair, dark, slightly curly.
She hasn’t seen Gully for quite a while—one day a while back he had been reassigned, she’d been told.
Gretchen had had plenty of chances to learn the map of Gully’s scars, since it was under his tutelage that she had first really learned much about mechanic work, having been assigned to help him with stuff his partial hand couldn’t easily do. He had been okay, and he really knew his cars, and not just the retrofitting, although he had been extraordinary at figuring out the puzzles of all the different models and types of vehicles they’d worked on.
And then there he is, just as she’s about to shut down the lights, another long day, but the garage door is racketing up, and her boss stands with Gully, and a Deuce is backing up behind them, and Gully and her boss are guiding it in, Gully looking over to Gretchen the moment the truck wheezes still, Gully nodding once at her, than attention back to the truck, the driver and her boss letting the back gate drop with a bang, the bed jammed with oily crates, and Gretchen is walking over, saying, “Do you need a hand?” and she hears her old boss grunt out a laugh and Gully, straight-faced, repeats the old joke.
“Waddya talking about?” he says, raising his arms. “I already got one and a half.”
Oddly, the two downstairs lights are on, Gretchen can see as she approaches her house, weird for this time of night. Scandalous! she tells herself, amused by the probable upset the waste of energy will cause Harpy. As she is climbing the front stoop, she sees in a glimpse through the window that it looks like everyone is still up.
It gets weirder. As Gretchen walks through the front door, she sees that she has walked into a house of upset, and not the everyday kind, but something else. And Harpy is not there.
All the other girls are there, the housemates, each and every one at least two years older than her, some a full decade, some nice, like Marie, who happens to be hunched over at the kitchen table, face in hands, shoulders working what looks like silent sobs. The way Alison is rubbing Marie’s shoulders, and her own stricken look makes the silent laughter alternative a lot less likely.
In the parlor, or as some call it, the living room, the girls Gretchen had spied through the window are in varying degrees of distress, it sounds like everyone is talking, or something like talking, but the high stress in the voices makes this seem different, unreal.
“What the fuck?” Gretchen says, to no one in particular.
She’d rather ride than drive, but she manages okay behind the wheel of one of the retrofitted cargo vans, a rusty white Dodge Ram Van 1500, a 1987 year model she recognizes having done a lot of work on a while back, and she wonders if it may need some time back in the garage, since the engine sounds like its fifth value is skipping, or maybe the ad-hoc rotor points needs re-setting.
Gretchen is on her way back from the Lawrence docks, the back of the van filled with crates of weapons, with box crates of ammunition wherever they can be crammed in between.
A bit much, considering the tires, she thinks.
Her second trip of the day.
The route is busy. She’s never seen so many vehicles on the loop.
The whole place is in a tizzy, Gretchen thinks, using the word her housemate Alexandra loves, and taught to her, when Gretchen had asked after hearing Alexandra use it one night, early on after Gretchen had moved in.
“I’m dizzy, I’m dizzy, this tizzy, this tizzy,” Gretchen says, low, under her breath, as she watches a long line of guards move past across the open area in front of her from where she stands in the shade of an old storefront.
These aren’t the regular guards, but are different in some way she hadn’t thought of before, even though she’s seen such guards plenty of times, but usually in small groups, or one or two, either dropping off vehicles, or those rare times she’s been on a run, but seeing the dozens of them trot past across the asphalt spaces, Gretchen realizes that these guards are dressed more like each other. It isn’t that they are dress exactly like each other, but mostly in some sort of green clothes, the big jackets, anyway, and they are all carrying packs on their backs.
They look sort of like the Argentine soldiers, Gretchen realizes, The regular ones, the ones she been seeing a lot more of in the last couple of days, running stuff up from Lawrence. The Argentine soldiers had looked so much alike that Gretchen thinks that she would have had trouble figuring out one from another, if she had had to.
It is all the same look that stands out to her, what she is worrying away with, until it comes to her.
Jeeze, you fucking idiot, she tells herself.
Her fiancée, is what Marie calls him sometimes, when talking to the other gals. Gretchen has realized that he had the same look as those guards just disappearing behind the buildings half a block away.
She is surprised about this in the same way she was surprised when she saw Marie weeping, crying out that he had been called, he was moving out, was going to be away, the previous night when the house had been crazy, surprised that it should be such a big deal, since it sounded to Gretchen like a good thing, something she’d like to do more, she doesn’t get enough chances to go on runs, and when she had said something about it, Marie had only cried harder, and Alison had spoken sharply, and Gretchen, with a shrug, had gone up to bed, happy to collapse into sleep.
In the morning, Gretchen had been up out of bed late and most of the other housemates were off to their work, two the them—Alison and Jen—no doubt to one of the hospital places where they helped the sick or injured, but it turned out that Margaret was still home, when Gretchen had gotten down stairs. Gretchen’s tearing pieces off a tough loaf, pacing around while she was chewing through the crust, and there’s Margaret, sitting in the flowered armchair, looking up as Gretchen steps into the living room, Gretchen stopping mid-chaw to nod her way, before stuffing the last chunk of the bread into her mouth, turning back toward the kitchen, but Margaret had called out in her soft way of speaking, so Gretchen turned back around to ask what’s up, but Margaret was already telling her that she’s pregnant.
Which had been a surprise to Gretchen, since out of all the girls in the house, she would have picked Margaret last for that sort of news, but Margaret was standing up, looking shy, maybe, but with a pride, maybe, Gretchen had thought, and then Gretchen wasn’t so much thinking as trying not to freak out, because Margaret had taken her hand and was placing it on the blouse over her stomach, and sure enough, there seemed to be something there, a bump.
Gretchen wonders now if maybe she’d said Gee or something to Margaret. Margaret was smiling, grinning, actually, and saying again that she’s pregnant, was going to have a baby, and a rush of other things Gretchen only half-heard, because she was trying to figure out just when and how and with who Margaret had gotten fucked, and why she had let this happen, although Gretchen knew that most women probably would like just that thing. And then Gretchen found herself wondering because Margaret, when not working, was mostly at mass with Harpy, or doing things around the house, and Gretchen thinks that maybe she had said Wow, and Margaret was telling her how she hadn’t had her period for a while, like Gretchen wanted to hear that sort of thing, it sounded like luck to her, she’s no fan of having her period, it either makes her tired, or she’s crampy, or a lot more snappish than usual or all those things, and it is such a god damn mess, the rags, the rinsing, the scrubbing out spots, Jesus.
I’m a goddam period champion is what Gretchen is thinking, thinking about Margaret this morning, just standing there, spacing out, after the guards have disappeared around the corner of the far building.
And then, Thank god I went up to bed, is what Gretchen is thinking, about the night before. And wondering when her own period is going to hit, and hoping that it will be awhile, but pretty sure she’s on the verge of it.
And then another group of guards is marching by, a bit fewer, maybe, but Gretchen is placing her hat back on, hitching up her trousers, suddenly quite impatient to get to work.
And work is as weird as the day had started, maybe even weirder from what she is hearing, standing around the garage floor with the other mechanics, plus some soldiers, plus whoever, getting a briefing, as the soldier leading it, along with Gully, calls it, except that Gretchen is realizing that soldier is called an officer, which is a boss soldier, she’s figuring.
What Gretchen isn’t fully figuring is what she’s doing there, the what, and the what the fuck is going on of what’s happening before her. She tries asking one of the guys she works with about it, but all he says is something about some of them from the garage going with them, but she can’t get more from him because, first of all, it looks like he’s gone white, about to fall over, and can barely get out one word she can understand, and second, because everyone around her is shooting daggers her way when she opens her mouth in the first place.
The soldier next to Gully is clapping his hands, to get everyone quiet, so he can start in by telling them that the Canadians are on the move, which doesn’t seem weird to Gretchen, but what does is the officer using the phrase recon in force which she has no clue, but can see from the others around means something big, and the officer is standing in front of a big drawn map, big, and she recognizes it is supposed to be the Northeast, even with some of the Canada places, although she thinks it is kind of a crappy job, but she is still fascinated.
The man is talking about Kingston, which even she knows is the place of the Canadians, the Federals, as he also calls them, and he’s talking about Cornwall, that other place of the Canadian Federals, like La Maison is for Lowell, the place that runs things around here of course, but even she knows that the Canadians are a lot more, a lot bigger, although she really gets that she doesn’t know enough to be comparing them.
The man is saying that the Federals are trying to push he says, to a port, which makes her think that the Canadians are coming to Lawrence, but then that doesn’t seem to be it, and then Gretchen is really trying hard to figure out what is going on. Apparently the man doesn’t know what the Federals are really trying to do, but the thinking is that a port move is being made, maybe Portland, or another Maine port, and while Gretchen kind of understands that Portland is a city on the ocean north of them, in what was a state called Maine, like Lowell was in a state called Massachusetts, Lowell doesn’t have a lot of contact with Portland, because between the Plume and a place called Portsmouth, which is on the ocean, closer to Lowell, and which was cratered, so even now it is hard to go that way, which Gretchen had thought was too bad when she had first found out about the area since it had to do with submarines, which are boats that go under water she knows about because of one of the books as a kid.
Bill, she thinks, in that sudden way that sometimes comes on, but she’s gotten really good at just ignoring it.
Which is when she is looking around and see this asshole who is looking her over, leering her, which if she is in the mood can be fun, but she is not in that mood, and the guy is ugly, and looks like he’s been sleeping in dirt.
Fuck you, she beams over at him, and goes back to listening.
The man up front is named Captain, the man talking, she hears that when another soldier shouts a question at him, from the front, but Captain tells him to hold the questions until the end of the briefing, which Gretchen figures is this guy talking about the map and what he calls movements and pickets.
I’m at a briefing, she tells herself, thinking of a couple of funny things about that, not least is that it looks like a briefing can take a long time. She’ll keep jokes to herself, she decides.
And then Captain is talking about areas of the map she knows nothing about, really, except for a name or two, like Kingston, but she wouldn’t be able to tell anyone anything else about it, so she’s all ears, listening to Captain talking about how Kingston is likely to go through Thousand Islands, to 81, south, not likely to see resistance until closer to Syracuse—Whatever that is—until closer to the Utica Line, which she has heard of, something about the north of it being the Canadians, kind of, running things in some way.
“One approach would be 90, or before, actually, we’re thinking Route 12 at Watertown, New York, southeast, to Route 28 at Forestport,“ and then he starts talking about that going through state and national forests, in a place he talks about as “the Adirondack range,” marked by a green circle on the big map, and then Gretchen sees a bunch of smaller maps, and squinting her eyes, and standing as tall as she can, she is pretty sure are some road maps.
She wants to get a closer look. She loves the old road maps. She knows that if she can just see them, then the strings of numbers Captain is saying will make sense, since she now knows about route numbers and highway numbers from some of the runs.
She’s slinking her way toward the front, annoying some of the men, but Fuck ‘em.
Captain is talking about different routes that they think forces from Kingston and Cornwall will take, with them meeting up at Lake George, rendezvousing, he says.
The soldier who had called out earlier, and who Gretchen is now standing two people away from, raises his hand and calls out.
“Captain Allenson,” the man says, getting Captain’s attention. “Sorry,” he says,” but maybe why the Canadians are doing this, might be interesting, important to say?”
Captain’s looking at the man, Captain’s mouth still half-open from talking, but then he shuts it, Gretchen can almost hear it.
“Huh,” the Captain says, with something like a laugh, reaching up with his hand to mess the hair at the back of his head. “Right, good point,” he says. “Thank you, Lieutenant.”
“The Lieutenant,” Captain nods back toward the crowd, “raises an excellent point.” He looks over the assembled men, along with a couple of women Gretchen can see.
“Quebec has closed St Lawrence access,” he says, which sparks reactions, a growing murmur to which he responds by speaking a bit more loudly as he continues. “and it looks like the Federals will try to secure other port options. For supply logistics, probably, but perhaps a permanent port, so the force recon is probably a probe into southern approaches, which is why we believe that the Saratoga Springs force merge is likely.”
He lets everyone have a moment, and then he nods to a soldier off to the side, the murmuring has become arguing, and that soldier explodes “Attention!” and Gretchen sees a bunch of the soldiers around her jump stiffly, and everyone shuts up, which seems something of a miracle to Gretchen.
Captain Allenton gets back to the briefing, outlining different routes and pushes Federals might pursue and the disposition of counterforces, including talk about New York State Militia, and someone else—Gretchen doesn’t see—asks something about the Militia and someone else is starting to ask something, but the soldier up front, to the side, the one who had shouted attention kills the noise by shouting “Hold questions!”
At which point Gretchen is feeling overwhelmed, whether because of the long nights, seeing Gully, the barrage of maps and routes for which she already has no clear recall, and then as she sifts toward the front of the garage, to her left, she looks back at the briefing still in progress, and she notices for the first time three Argentine officers, older men, and several younger men who she assumes are some sort of aides.
I’m wiped, she tells herself, and she needs to get out of the space, get beyond the talk, the noise, indecipherable, but as she heads toward the side door a guard—A soldier—blocks her, telling her, low voiced, that no one leaves until the briefing is over, so she makes her way to her work bench area, sitting down on the low box that is there that she uses for a stool, but Gully is there, on her stool, sees her, and drag pulls a five gallon bucket of grease over, patting the lid, the man upfront now speaking says something about some Niagara Plume.
The bucket is unopened, so clean, or clean enough. She sits, and then she leans toward Gully, placing her head on his shoulder, already fading, dropping off, but wondering, for a moment, if she can feel the scarring through his heavy shirt.
Gretchen is dressed in several layers, the outermost is one of her grease monkey outfits, grease and all. She’s got a shoulder bag, which at the moment is dropped at her feet, the canteen of water, the sandwich, the spare underwear and sundries in it, she, it, everything dancing a bit as the deuce bounces and rolls, one of a line of vehicles, more than she’s ever seen on the move, at once.
She’s plenty warm, the day is clear and sunny and warm, but it is more likely the press of others against her, the sway against and apart as the truck moves forward, still on roads long cleared, not far out of Lowell, on Route 2, just having been met by more vehicles no doubt from the Tyngsborough Hold, maybe others, maybe some of the Worcester Group, their Boxborough Houses, anyway, who might have collected there, waiting for the convoy.
Convoy is just one of many new words and terms Gretchen has been learning, like it or not, over the last two days, time with no let up after the briefing, except for the garage group’s own logistics support, the assignments of her workmates, even others she has, to her surprise, never had met before, other grease monkeys, every three or four vehicles carrying one or another of them, the occasional heavy truck, two tow trucks, with the heavy tools, the supply parts kits, tires, and the fuel trucks, old oil heat deliverers, both from C. P. Cooke Oil Co., if she’s reading the flaked and faded paint on the sides of the tanks, on the doors.
Gretchen had some idea, a general sense of what lay beyond her familiar world, from people she’d met, from talking with any number, she supposes, and even back when on farm table duty, the last year, or two, with Gus’s house, or out in the farms, even on runs, but this is different, and she’s already feeling overwhelmed by the scope of it, half feeling like carnival, but the other pieces of the feeling is more like trouble, fear, shock.
Gully pushes at her shoulder, asking, with a nod of his head, if she’s okay. She nods back.
Gully had insisted that she’d be assigned to his truck, that is what he had said, when meeting with the Lieutenant after the day before, Gretchen and a bunch of the other mechanics surrounding them, listening to Gully talk about the roles, the people they’d be going with, what was important, what their jobs were, which is, as far as Gretchen can figure, to keep any and all the vehicles moving when they had to be moving, fix breakdowns, repair, keep going. The troops—Troops!—were counting on them, letting them get stranded, the same, might as well be, as killing them.
What the fuck, Gretchen has said to herself, many more times than just once, since climbing up into the back of their truck. She’s pretty sure it’s become something like a prayer, or chant.
She may be rather overwhelmed with whatever is going on, but she’s also feeling a pride, or something like that, after Gully had told the Lieutenant that he wanted her on his staff, that was the word he used—staff—telling everyone in earshot that Gretchen was the Best goddamn grease monkey, a goddamn natural, called her savant, a word she’d never heard, but figured it was good, even if some wise-guy—she’s pretty sure it was Eddie—got a laugh when he said, I think you mean, idiot, boss.
She sneaks a peek at Gully, who is bouncing around like everyone else, except he’s got a boot up on a wood box she knows is stuffed with tools, his gloved hand, the good one, fixed tight on the top rail. He’s wearing a hooded jacket, the hood up over a cap, pulled tight, none of the scars visible, although Gretchen knows, without a doubt, that that is only coincidence. Gully was never one for style, looks, never seemed to think of that, at all.
Not like me, if I’m honest, she tells herself, knowing well enough that she likes turning heads, her choice in caps and hats, even today, letting her blond hair shine, tied back now in a loose tail, letting her face be seen, meeting looks and stares, but today, underway, even in this truck back full of men, many little older than she, she’s not getting much in the way of glances, never mind anyone coming on to her. We’re all asking, what the fuck, Gretchen figures, which almost makes her laugh out loud.
What the fuck.
Gretchen had thought she had like to ride, but after today, as she’s finally about to lie down, after a quick supper of some sort of stew, late to dinner, having been grabbed to help with a major engine fuck-all that defeated everyone that had tried, and she sees the shadow of a man approaching her, and she’s rolling her eyes in the dark.
Jesus, no, she groans, inwardly.
But then he is close enough for her to see that it is Mike, one of the regulars over at her gal house, and so something of a friendly face, which surprises her, her being glad of it.
“Hey,” he says, or something like that.
“What’s up?” she says, turning back to spread the nest of blankets out better, checking that the crinkly plastic is underneath, protection from the wet in the ground.
“So, Margaret,” he says, something in his voice makes her look at him, in the dark, some fires letting her see his expression, but she can’t tell what it is, exactly.
“Yeah, I heard that she was pregnant,” he says.
“Yeah,” she says. Oh shit! Is this the guy? she’s wondering, but he keeps saying something.
“Yeah, a fucking tumor,” he says. “Got the word right before we moved out.”
It takes Gretchen a moment to realize how he means move out, thinking for the moment that he moved out, or they moved out together, he and Margaret.
“A tumor?” Gretchen finally says.
“Yeah,” says Mike.
Gretchen doesn’t say anything.
“Yeah,” says Mike, scrubbing at his face with his hands. He looks at her.
“So much for the virgin birth,” he says.
Gretchen is busy trying to figure out what the fuck he’s saying, and then whether she should slap him, and then she is looking at him, the wet of tears on his cheeks in the reflecting fire light.
Sleeping on the ground isn’t much fun, Gretchen tells herself, feeling years older, stiff, grumpy.
It’s the second day, about mid-morning. Bouncing around in this fucking truck is adding years, too, she tells herself. The convoy is just past North Adams, with another eight vehicles joining from the town, right in the middle, off Route 2, near a sign, big, on the roof of a large brick building, that reads MassMOCA. This town has done a lot of greenhouses, but very different from their way, up top on many of the big mill buildings and other flat-roofed structures, plastic pipe hoops, studs, plastic sheeting, all looking worse for wear.
Someone in the bed, toward the back, when they’re underway again, says something about the place they’re driving through, that it looks better now than it ever did before, which makes another person laugh, but Gretchen can’t be bothered turning around to see who says this.
The furthest out this way she’d ever been was Athol, last spring, picking up a load of engine parts.
A little further, the line of vehicles is climbing, and then starting back down, slow, where a steep hairpin makes it difficult, but it provides a new perspective on the number of vehicles, since Gretchen gets to see the convey in a glance front and down, and back and up, nothing but trees near, mid-ground, and in the distances, the sun already almost overhead, warming the truck bed, helping melt the stiffness in her.
And then Gretchen hears some popping, and her first thought is that a nearby truck or car engine has blown, but then a rapid series of ripping noises is following the pinging of metal on metal, and people are shouting, weapons coming up, firing, hot spent casings stuttering through the air, some hitting her in the face, a fleeting string of hot, some clicking off the truck bed side panels, and she’s ducking down, sliding, hands up around her head, wrapping her head, people screaming things she can’t make out, everything is roaring, stinking of the powder, the smoke, and Gully is bending down toward her, a pistol in his good hand, he’s yelling something to her, she’s trying to look at him, he’s standing back, his head is surrounded in a cloud of mist, red mist, his body flying back against a soldier shooting over the rail, the truck is sliding sideways, and she’s dreaming, grasping, pleading into the surrounding growing stillness of her mind, she hears crying, a five-year-old crying, clasping herself tightly, clasping Bill, in the dark, with all her strength.