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Outside the Lines


Harry Buschman

Floyd lay stretched out on his narrow bunk, his hands behind his head and his fingers interlaced. He wanted a cigarette badly but the cook wouldn't let him smoke in their room, not since he burned his blanket. He had a lot to think about, and it was hard to think without a cigarette.

It hurt his head to think in the first place, it always did, right from the start. "Floyd is not capable of thinking things through," his teacher told his mother. He knew differently though and so did his mother. "You're smarter than the rest of those kids," she used to say. She told all her friends, "Floyd's a genius, just like his father was. You watch, some day Floyd's gonna do great things, just like his father did."

He never got to know his father and he never saw any of the 'great things'  his father did, but from what his mother said he must have been special; too bad they broke up. "Your father was a free spirit," his mother would cry a bit  and say. "He just couldn't stand settling down."

His mother told all her friends that Floyd was an officer in the army, "He's in the Intelligence, you know. He can't talk about it." Then she'd go on to say what a true patriot he was. "Floyd loves his country so -- I'm so proud when I think of him defending the flag."

Now here he was lying on his back in his underwear, wishing the cook would  let him smoke in the barracks. There was nothing to do now that he cleaned the latrine and shook down the furnace. Well ... he could have scrubbed the porch and raked the leaves out of the scrubby grass between the buildings, but it was too late. "B" company would be coming back from rifle practice soon and he'd only be in the way -- and they'd laugh at him too. "What'cha doing  Floydi-Toidy -- why ain'tcha scrubbin' the latrine? Scrub them bowls clean now Floydi-Toidy!" He didn't like it when they did that -- he wondered what his mother would have to say about that. She thought the one stripe on his sleeve meant he was a major. She thought the Good Conduct Medal on his jacket was given for  bravery in the face of overwhelming odds.

All those guys in "B" company. They'd move on, be transferred overseas where they'd get extra pay, new uniforms, and the pick of the broads too.  Floidi-Toidy would have to stay behind. He was cadre -- fit only for limited duty -- KP, tending the furnace and cleaning the latrine.

When "B" company left for rifle practice this morning, they left the rifle  rack unlocked. They always did that because everybody went -- but Majewski had  a week's leave, and his rifle, a Garand semi-automatic, was left behind. It was Floyd's gun now to play with, he never had one of his own. Everybody said they'd never issue a weapon like that to a guy like Floyd.

He saw it standing in the rack after the company marched off. He walked up to the rack and ran his fingers over the walnut stock -- felt the heft of it. He  took it out of the rack and brought it up to his shoulder and aimed it down the length of the squad room. It was heavy, not like the toys he played with when he was a boy. He took it outside and walked around to the rear of the barracks, holding it at port arms like a soldier on patrol. He was out of sight  here and he suddenly knew exactly what he was going to do. He walked to the eight foot high chain link fence with the razor wire on top that marked the border of the camp next to Company "B" and stood there trembling. He would throw the rifle over the fence, then he would get himself a weekend pass, steal a shipping carton from supply and dress up real sharp-like as though he was headed into town. Just outside the gate he would double back outside the fence and get the gun. His hands were sweaty and he wiped them on the legs of his fatigues -- then, just as he was about to throw it over the fence, he stopped and shook his head, turned around and carried the rifle back to the barracks again.

He lay there on his bunk making future plans -- once he got to town he'd head for the post office before it closed and mail the gun back home to his mother. He'd tell her not to open it -- it was a secret. Who said he couldn't do great things!

Floyd's hitch was up in three months. He wanted to re-enlist but the cook said they'd never let him. "You're a f***-up, Floyd. The army needs brains these days -- you ain't got any. Why should they pay you good money when they can get somebody with brains to do the same thing you do?"

He'd show the cook who had brains! It was a shame he had to keep this plan to himself. He stretched out flat on his back and yawned. The only thing left to do was to get the ammo -- half a dozen clips or so. He would have to get the supply sergeant drunk for that. He dreamed of what he could do with that gun when he got home. The armed man is always in charge, when he says, "Do  something," by God you better hop to it. He wanted a cigarette so bad he could taste it -- damn cook!

Floyd rarely had an idea of his own, and those he did have were aimed at  getting even for all the injustices, real and imagined, that life heaped on him.  His mother expected great things of him, she was his champion -- "Oh Floyd,  look how you've colored in that elephant, and the pretty pink clouds behind him. You're a great little artist, Floyd." He basked in her praise and in time, he  believed he really was better at coloring elephants than anybody else. But his teacher had different ideas -- "Floyd! Don't you see the lines? You're  supposed to stay inside the lines." She would hold up David's picture. "See how nicely David stays inside the lines? Try and do it like David does."

Floyd seethed inside and made plans to hurt David -- some way of hurting him without being caught. He pushed David downstairs when they were on their way to the cafeteria, and the teacher gave him hell for that too. Floyd remembered all of that now, and he remembered the justification he felt in proving that his elephant was better than David's. With this gun in his hands he would do great things just like his father did.

He lay on his back with the gun cradled in his arms as though it were a lover  ... he had second thoughts about mailing the gun home. If he could only think of a way to get it out of here, some way to get it home. Maybe he could hide it in the coal bin until an idea came to him.

As soon as one idea came to him, a dozen reasons why it wouldn't work followed close behind. In this foggy state of mind he dozed off and dreamed of David and the neat, orderly way he stayed inside the lines when he colored his elephant. When he woke he was aiming the rifle at the ceiling with his finger on the trigger.

He heard the trucks coming back from rifle practice and he panicked! He would never have time to get the rifle back in the rack before the company arrived and all he could think of was hiding it under his mattress. He quickly lifted the foot of the mattress and stuffed the rifle under it, it left a lump but it  was between his feet and it didn't bother him.

But what else should he do? Why couldn't he think of something he should do?  He could hear their voices from the latrine, "Where's Floydi-Toidy! There's no paper in the john! The soap dispenser's empty! Toidy! Get'cha ass in here Toidy!" Then the cook barged in. "C'mon Floyd! Where d'ya think you are -- some kinda hotel or sumthin'? I need'ja over at the kitchen -- I gotta crate  a'carrots need peelin' f'supper!" The cook pulled him out of his bunk and Floyd staggered to keep his balance.

Something snapped in Floyd; how could he think about the gun if they wouldn't let him alone? How could he do the great things he knew he could do if they'd never let him alone? He ran to the foot of the bunk grasped the mattress with both hands and almost disappeared beneath it -- the cook had no idea what he was up to until Floyd re-emerged from under the mattress with the rifle in his hand.

"Get back Cookie. I swear I'll kill you. I swear I will." The cook froze in his tracks, convinced the gun was loaded.

"Where did you get that, Floyd? You ain't supposed t'have no gun." The cook  was terrified at the thought of Floyd armed with a loaded weapon. He backed  out of the room and slammed the door. "Everybody outta the barracks! Everybody outside! That nut Floyd's in there with a loaded rifle!"

Floyd could hear them out there -- a wild scuffling of feet as everyone made for the door. Then sudden and absolute silence. His own breathing and the  thudding of his heart pounding in his ears were the only sounds in the room. Just like he always thought! The man with the gun calls the shots -- everybody makes way for the man with the gun.

He stepped out into the squad room, holding the gun before him protectively  and stood between the rows of double decked bunks. There were signs of hasty retreat. A hat. A pair of shoes. A cigarette burning in an ashtray. Scared sh**less, all of them, scared of the man with the gun. He opened the front door and walked outside. He knew they were all out there -- looking at him but hiding well back in the shadows. He felt like a great actor on the stage putting on a show for a spellbound audience.

He'd show them! He turned the gun around and put the muzzle in his mouth -- he could almost hear a collective intake of breath from his cowardly buddies in
Company "B."

He took the gun out of his mouth and laughed at them -- then he held it high and pulled the trigger. It fired and bucked in his hand like a wild animal. Floyd threw it to the ground and stood looking at it as though it was alive.

Faces began to appear in the dark and finally someone rushed in, grabbed the rifle and ran back around the corner of the barracks. Floyd hardly noticed -- he stood there wondering how it was possible for an empty gun to do such a thing. His legs gave way and his hands still trembled from the recoil. He looked
down and saw the shiny shell casings in the grass. It was somebody else's fault, not his. How could that happen? He knew he'd get the blame, just like he always did. How can a man stay inside the lines when it's somebody else's fault?

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