by Adam Kotlarczyk

I met him in a faded restaurant in a small, rainy town on the main line between Brussels and Paris. There were mirrors on the walls all around the room. The meeting had been arranged by our editors, and I had every intention of convincing him of the value of the collaboration. Working together, I thought, we could craft the book that defined this war for a generation.

His appearance when the door jingled open jarred me. I’d met him the year before in North Africa. In Africa he had been an unpopped kernel of kinetic energy. Older than some of us, yes; humble and plainspoken, certainly, but sharply alert – to the point of restlessness, as though perpetually on the lookout for some hidden thing, some discovery he might lay plain to the rest of us, or at least understand himself.

The small-framed, balding man in the doorway now looked twenty years older than his forty-some years. He averted his eyes from his reflection, which gazed back from a hundred angles in the mirrored walls. Retaining only the simple modesty of that man I’d met in Africa, he wore a mudded field jacket and had traded his familiar infantry cap for a sodden beret. He seemed shrunken now, an undersized husk, gaunt in face and body in a way realized only by those unhappy few who have been intimate with war.

He quickly found me.

‘Harrelson?’ he said, offering his hand.

‘Call me Ron,’ I said, trying to hide my disappointment that he had not remembered me.

‘Ernie Pyle.’

I motioned to an open chair. A waiter came for our drink order – a Schlitz for me, black coffee for Pyle.

‘To liberation,’ I said when the drinks came. He gave a faded smile, like he knew he was supposed to but couldn’t quite remember how. I touched my bottle to his chipped mug.  To anyone else in Belgium, we were just two old soldiers having a drink – a common sight at the restaurants and cafés as the front pushed north and east.

The coffee seemed to help. Up close, you expected a legend to retain some of that unbreachable majesty. You hoped for it, and in a way, you probably needed it. War needs heroes, whatever it does to them after. Patton had it; so did Monty. But up close, Pyle looked exhausted. Seeing him, I wasn’t sure I still wanted to co-write the book with him. And like all writers, I harbored the secret suspicion that I could do it better alone.

I’d read his dispatches, of course. Even before the war, when he was traveling America during the Depression. Once the war started, he covered the Blitz from London. And when America got into the war, he’d seen some of the worst of it in Africa and Italy, where he wrote ‘Captain Waskow,’ the best damned writing out of the war so far. He’d even won the Pulitzer earlier in the year. You never knew just by looking what a man could do at a typewriter, but the man before me now didn’t seem capable of any of that.

‘Where you coming from?’ he asked.

‘Paris,’ I said. ‘Writing a piece on the Transportation Corps.’

‘I always wanted to write one about them,’ he said. ‘The work they do. How is Paris?’

‘Still celebrating,’ I said. ‘I don’t think anyone has slept in a month.’ A half-smile puckered his lips. ‘You were there when they liberated it, weren’t you? How long did you stay?’

‘Long enough,’ he said.

He had an unsettling habit of avoiding my eyes. I had seen it in soldiers at the front too long. But what in others might have seemed a peculiar sense of modesty or even pain did not seem so in Pyle. It almost seemed he wasn’t protecting himself but me, sparing me from something. Only when he did meet my eyes, to ask a question or emphasize a point, did you feel it, the old piercing.

‘Hemingway’s there, you know,’ I said. ‘Paris.’

‘Still?’ said Pyle. ‘Le Grand Capitaine himself. Sober yet?’

‘Why start now?’ I said. He seemed to appreciate that.

‘What about you?’ I asked. ‘Where are you coming from?’

Pyle studied me for a moment longer than was comfortable. He let out a long, slow breath. Then he sipped his coffee and examined the brim.

‘I went back to the beaches,’ he said.

‘Normandy?’

He nodded.

‘Did you know there’s a unit there that refurbishes rifles?’ he asked. ‘That’s all they do.’

‘Refurbishes?’

‘M1s whose prior owners…don’t need them anymore. They use sandpaper to get the rust off, then polish them down with gasoline solvent. Then they give these refurbished rifles, the dead men’s rifles, to the new soldiers when they get off the boats.’

‘I didn’t know.’

‘Then it all starts again. It never ends really, does it?’

‘What?’

‘Any of this. War.’

‘It ends. The war’s almost over,’ I said, before reciting the refrain that was taken as gospel at the correspondents’ pool: “Berlin by Christmas.”

He gave me such a look that I felt as though I had just told him Ike had put Marlene Dietrich in charge of the Third Army. We sipped our drinks in silence, only the clicking of crockery from other diners in the restaurant.

‘I almost bought it,’ he said.

‘Really?’

‘With the Fourth. Bombed during Operation Cobra. By our own bombers, like old Byron Darnton. Worst experience of my life. I don’t know how I survived. Did you know he was in the war? The last one?’

‘Byron?’

‘That’s right. He was a doughboy. Can you imagine surviving that and getting bombed by your own guys, an ocean apart, as a reporter?’

‘Bad luck.’

‘Luck,’ said Pyle. ‘Maybe. Maybe it’s just time. The Great Clock is always ticking. For all of us.’ Then he paused. He frowned and pushed his coffee away.

‘I’ve had it, Ron,’ he said.

‘What?’

‘I’m wobbly. I’ve lost it as a writer. I’m confused all the time.’

‘You’ve been at it a long time,’ I said, uncertain why he was confessing this to someone he barely knew. Maybe that made it easier somehow.

‘Twenty-nine months. It’s enough. I’m leaving Europe.’

With those three words it felt as though Atlas had surrendered the heavens. 

‘But the war here is almost over,’ I said, stunned.

‘I don’t think so,’ he said, so quietly I wasn’t sure I’d heard him. ‘But it is for me.’

‘We’re on the verge of victory.’

‘Victory? Or more chaos? I’ve gotten so I can’t tell them apart.’

As if on cue, a convoy rolled through the narrow road outside, rattling the dishes and the mirrors for a full ten minutes. In another life, the scene would have been absurd, us looking away and checking our watches. But absurdity had become our reality, and we accepted it and waited, with slight annoyance, for the long drab line of trucks and tanks to pass, like a motorist waiting at the tracks for a freight train.

In one of the quaking mirrors I watched his unsteady reflection. Part of him was still somewhere else. Home already, perhaps. Or still in Oran or maybe Rome. He was a man divided, a threadbare soul.

‘What’s wrong?’ I asked when it was again quiet enough to be heard. ‘You should be happy. Going home. It’s cause for celebration.’

He nodded, eyebrows high.

‘I’ll be back.’

‘They won’t make you come back. You’re a legend.’

‘Make me? No. I will want to come back.’

‘Want to? To the war? For God’s sake, why?’

He sat back in his chair and jutted out his legs, so skinny the uniform looked two sizes too big on him.

‘The front. I need it. There’s no other way to put it.’

‘I thought you said you’d had it,’ I said.

‘I have had it. I can’t take it. But I can’t give it up. I need it. Nothing else is important. I’ll be back in the war. Maybe this one will be over; maybe it will be the Pacific. Or maybe it will be the next one. But I’ll be back. What else is there?’

He looked then so resigned I fought the sudden urge to reach out across the table with both arms and embrace him. I wanted to put my arms around him and tell him it was okay, was going to be okay, that the world would go on from this, but you felt like if you did, you’d squeeze and there’d be nothing there, just a puff of air and an empty uniform, two sizes too big.

I cleared my throat.

‘We met before, you know,’ I said. ‘On a troop ship going to Tunisia. The men were putting on a show. To kill the boredom. I sat next to you in the audience.’

Then his face uncreased into a smile. It was a real smile this time, swift and spontaneous, emerging unexpectedly from the storm cellar where damaged men lock dear things to protect them.

‘They played a burlesque,’ I said.

‘I remember that!’ he said, and he slapped the table and burst into laughter. In the mirrored walls, a thousand men in dirty fatigues laughed too, deep, belly-shaking laughs that filled their eyes with tears.

And when he did, I knew it all was a fantasy – the book, the collaboration. That laughter came from a human depth I didn’t know and could never find. But he knew exactly where it was. He found it in others. They offered it to him and he could see it and he put it in his writing and somehow, through art or some dark magic, he made people care. What he had I would never have.

We talked and laughed together about what we remembered, and we remembered together: the kid from Brooklyn who did a spot-on striptease impression of Gypsy Rose Lee, his act climaxing in kissing a colonel atop his bald, blushing head. There had been music, too, from those boys, and laughter.

Back then it had all been a horrible adventure, but at least it had been an adventure.

Pyle let out a long sigh, like someone who had discovered anew that hidden among the rest were some things worth remembering.

‘Wasn’t there something you wanted to talk to me about?’ he said. ‘Some project?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘It’s not important.’

He rose from the table. We said goodbye and he shook my hand again. He pushed open the door, turned, and tipped his beret. We found out later he was right about Europe – the Germans weren’t licked, and the only person in Berlin by Christmas was Hitler. Even while we’d spoken, the British were stuck at Arnhem, and that Christmas, while Pyle was at home in the New Mexico sun, I shivered with American paratroopers, surrounded by Germans in the frozen woods of eastern Belgium.

In less than a year, he would go back to the war. I don’t think he could have stayed away, because by then Pyle and the war were no longer separate things. On a tiny island near Okinawa, a jeep he was riding in with a marine colonel was ambushed by a Japanese machine gun. A bullet hit him in the head just below the helmet and killed him, four months before it all ended.

But that moment at the restaurant, none of that had happened yet. So he smiled and winked and was gone, the door jingling shut behind him. I sat at the table alone with a thousand reflections of myself, Salieri watching Mozart shrug his shrunken shoulders against the cold and driving autumn rain.

Winner of the Tillie Olsen Short Story Award, Adam Kotlarczyk’s short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Adam has work recently appearing or upcoming in The Tishman Review, Pif Magazine, and Madcap Review, among others. He teaches at a gifted school near Chicago.

For September Slam writers were invited to submit stories based on the following prompt provided by writer, novelist and publisher Nicholas Royle: “I met him in a faded restaurant in a small, rainy town on the main line between Brussels and Paris. There were mirrors on the walls all around the room.” We end seven days of September Slam with Farewell To Europe in which the narrator describes an encounter with famous war correspondent Ernie Pyle.

Nicholas Royle is the author of three short story collections – Mortality (Serpent’s Tail), Ornithology (Confingo Publishing), The Dummy and Other Uncanny Stories (Swan River Press) – and seven novels, most recently First Novel (Vintage). He has edited more than twenty anthologies and is series editor of Best British Short Stories (Salt). Reader in Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University, he also runs Nightjar Press and is head judge of the Manchester Fiction Prize.

Nightjar Press is an independent publisher specialising in limited edition single short-story chapbooks.