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Out of all the places there was to go, I never did figure out why Betty wanted haul our asses back to Leicester. In my book it stank. Just the kind of shit hole I’d been busting to get out of most my life.
My war had been in Europe. My war! Why the hell do I keep on saying that? It was as much mine as Fort Knox. Like thirteen million other GIs, I just got to fight the darned thing. That’s all.
Mr Roosevelt chewed the fat with Mr Churchill so we got to spend time shooting krauts in Europe. Along with a whole heap of other guys who didn’t know why either. By the time we got there old Fritz had just about knocked the crap out of most of it, and there didn’t seem a whole lot left worth fighting for. Anyways, we knocked the crap out of it some more, all the same, right up till we were the only guys left standing. The Second World War was over. That’s what they told us, anyhow.
When time came to ship back home, figured I’d stay on awhile. Both my folks dead, and me being an only child, there weren’t no home to get back to. Time for some time out. Quality time. So I skipped camp in France. Figured I deserved it. Seeing how Uncle Sam had paid for my ticket and all, seemed only fair to see what all the warring had been about.
Who gave a shit? In continent full of dead and missing soldiers, I was just a statistic.
Hell, I was almost more French than I was American. Both sides of the family had emigrated out of France back in the 1880’s. Barely spoke a word of English till I was going on five. My grandpappy didn’t speak a word till the day he died. I figured I might as well look up any Touchettes who might still be kicking round in France.
They were a dime a dozen. Guess I expected them to fall on me like I was the Prodigal Son. I should’ve known better. They’d just about had it up to here with Uncle Sam. All they wanted to do was to be left alone and forget who’d won the war for them. I couldn’t blame them none; pop had been just the same when folks outstayed their welcome back home.
Leaving that aside, France seemed about as good a place as any to stay at the time, and it was about as far away from Kansas as I had always wanted to be.
Getting a job was easy enough. In no time at all I was teaching English to rich folks’ kids in Paris. I could’ve been teaching hogs. We were made for each other. They didn’t want to learn, and I didn’t want to teach them. I left them alone, and they left me alone. Two hundred bucks a month for letting folks be, it felt like the mafia.
Five years seemed to roll on by quicker than batting an eyelid, and my feet started itching. I wasn’t getting no younger, so I thought I’d head back to the States before I got to settle down any place.
Took no more than a month to realise the mistake I’d made. Things had changed. Leastways, I had. And how. There weren’t no regular jobs. Not the kind I wanted anyhow. So I took to drifting. Hopping freight trains, picking up work wherever I found it. Pumping gas, picking cotton, flipping hamburgers and washing dishes. Stealing, when I had to. I got by.
Thanks to Henry Ford I got introduced to Mr Benzedrine. Endless nightshifts on the production line a man needs something to pick him up. Boy, did I take to those little pills. Pretty soon I was flying like sleep had gone out of style. Drinking more than I’d ever done. Stands to reason a man can’t stay that way forever. Sooner or later, I was going to have to come down.
Took twenty-one days in the pokey on a vagrancy rap, for me to see the stranger staring back at me from a washroom mirror. He looked ten years older than I was. What’s more, he was a bum. Right there, I knew something had to change. And pretty, damned quick.
An old aunt of mine bought my ticket back to France and gave me enough dollar bills for a few weeks in a hotel room. And more than a couple of beers besides. Reckon she figured I could do with a break. Or maybe she thought it better for me not to be around for a while. Either ways, I was grateful.
Betty breezed into my life while I was sitting in a bar trying to figure out if being a bum in Paris was any better than being a bum stateside. She was just a kid. English, you could tell at a glance. All peaches and cream. She had that scared look a lot of lone broads get when they’re someplace different. Eyes wide open, staring straight ahead, at the same time looking all round. Like she expected to be jumped by the very same guys she’d come to lay. Just like me, she found out she made a mistake too late.
I took to her right off. A guy gets tired of French dames. Once in a while he wants some home cooking. An American dame would’ve been real nice, but English was almost as good. I was knocking on forty, and the war had left me with a glass eye that scared a lot of broads. Betty didn’t even notice it at first. And when she did, she said she liked it. Made me look kinda distinguished. I told her if she liked it so much, she could have it, and made as if to take it out. Boy, did she scream. Then, when she sees I was fooling all along. Well, you never did see a French dame laugh that way. It began to feel like I was back home. Back home like it used to be, before the war came along and messed things up. Loaded to the eyeballs, we got hitched ten days later. That was when I found out she was barely nineteen. I was too hung-over to give a damn.
Back then I was still dumb enough to think being married changed your whole life for you. But I carried on drinking just the same, like I always had. Only now, it started to cost twice as much. Betty matched me drink for drink. I got to hand it to her; she could drink. And fight. Boy, could she fight. She made a polecat look like Christmas kitten.
Things came to a head all about the same time. The hotel concierge started shouting and hollering, saying as how there had been complaints about the noise, and seeing as how a friend of his needed a room, maybe it was time for us to move on. We hadn’t paid rent for the best part of two weeks. I didn’t have a dime. Betty was flat broke. Seemed as good a time as any to pack our bags. We snuck off the same night.
When Betty said how we should go England, so as I could meet her folks, I had no reason to say why not. Hell, I’d never even spoken to them.
Never did get round to telling her, seeing as she never got round to asking, just how I got the money for those tickets. I figured she knew all along I’d have to roll a drunk or something.
Leicester lies about a hundred miles due north of London. Might as well be on the moon it’s got so much atmosphere. We moved in with Betty’s ma and pa. We were on the moon, all right. Having about as much fun, anyhow. Her folks never could get it into their heads we were married. The whole time I was there I got treated like some teenage delinquent over for the weekend. Longest weekend I ever knew. Betty said things would work out soon as we got a place of our own. If I hadn’t been so crazy about her, I might’ve took off right away, but I figured, as she was about the best thing ever happened to me, I’d stick it out.
Never could get used to the way I got jobs in Europe. Easy as pie. In the States I was lucky to be mopping floors in a diner. In France I’d been a professor of English. In Leicester I became a French teacher. Nobody asked too many questions. I was what I said I was.
They got this crazy system in England. The best private paying schools are called public, and the worst are called private. The others are called state schools.
The private school that hired me couldn’t make the grade to public. It looked more some sort of rundown correctional institute for pint-sized hoodlums. Took a long while for me to understand what the place was, and even then it made no sense. Public, private, whatever they called it, I couldn’t see how folks would want to pay out good money to have their kids’ brains addled, but sure enough, they did.
Suppose I must’ve been too drunk to show up the first couple of days. Anyhow, Betty calls them up with some excuse. Must’ve been a good one, I managed to make it last out three or four weeks. But then Betty’s pa starts nagging me like it’s him I’m married to. Said he was tired of me hanging round the house all day drinking.
To tell the truth, I was pretty much tired of it myself, but didn’t seem a hell lot more to do. But I took his point and started going to pubs. After a while, I figured I was due some sick pay, and I would have to show up in order to draw it.
British high schools have got to be the pits; don’t let nobody tell you no different. Seen better zoos with fewer chimpanzees. The guys teaching them, bigger kids than the kids. Sour-faced runts with chips on their shoulders big as California redwoods. The only guy I ever saw smile was the principal. I guess anybody seeing all those little faces as so many dollars in the bank couldn’t help but smile. He floated round the old schoolhouse in his flowing gown like it was ancient Greece or some such place.
Well, kids are kids wherever you go: nasty, dirty, smelly, little things, always cheating, lying and stealing. These kids were no different from any others; they hated me as much as hated them.
Couldn’t have been there much more than a month before I decided it was time to quit. Leicester was beginning to give me the creeps. I told Betty I was going to London to look up an old buddy of mine I heard from through the grapevine. Working at the US Embassy. Maybe he could fix me up with a job. It would mean having a place of our own.
Betty was none too taken with the idea. She couldn’t see what was wrong with the job I already had. At least it was in Leicester. At least it was in Leicester that was very thing wrong with it.
I went anyhow. To get away from Betty as much as anything. Needed me some time to think. Of course, there was no buddy at the embassy. No buddy, nobody, leastways nobody I knew.
I was having myself quite a ball right up till a girlfriend of Betty wrote me. Christ! I had only been gone a week. How’s a man find a job in a week? She wrote seeing as how I was a married man, shouldn’t I be thinking of my wife? The last thing I needed reminding of. Next thing I know the broad’s been round to the hotel I was staying. Asking after me. I was going to run into her sooner or later, so I decided to make it sooner. I wish I’d made it never.
She started straight off telling me how Betty was missing me, and if she’d known how unhappy I was, she wouldn’t have gotten so sore with me. If Betty knew she was in London telling me all these things, she would kill her. Limeys were always saying how they’ll kill each other, but they don’t mean nothing by it. Then she asked me if my buddy had got me the job. What job? I’d forgotten all about it. She went on and on, saying seeing how as Christmas was coming up shouldn’t I be getting myself back home to Leicester? And seeing how Betty’s mom and dad were looking mighty forward to having me over then.
Well, money was running a mite low, and perhaps it would hurt none to see Betty again, after all, she was my wife. To tell the truth, I was missing her some.
Her folks greeted me like I was World War III come early. They managed to contain all the excitement they felt at my arrival by buttoning their lips when I said, “Hi, there! Mom and Pop, how you doodle doing?” Any yuletide goodwill they felt was spread as thinly as gold on a dollar carnival pocketwatch.
Betty made up for it though. Guess she’d figured me gone for good. Somehow or other, the gal managed to keep my job at the school open by telling them how ill I was, and how it was from my war wounds. Then again, maybe nobody wanted it so bad. Whether I wanted it or not, I was going to have to go back. I didn’t have a cent to my name and I owed Betty’s dad almost twenty pounds.
So come the start of spring semester I was back at school along with the rest of the deadbeats. I got given a couple of dirty looks, but I just kept on smiling. I didn’t give a damn; I was there strictly for payday.
The first lesson turned out real bad. The sight of a class full of the noisy little bastards I remembered from the semester before got me all riled up for no good reason.
Though I’d gotten used to the way older folks make a point of not looking at my glass eye, on account of them finding it a mite disgusting, I couldn’t get used to the way most kids stared the hell out of it.
There was one kid sitting right at the front of the class. Sure enough, there he was trying to sneak a look when he thinks I ain’t looking. He had his desk lid up, and starts peering at me from behind it. Then he starts acting like I got no eyes at all, staring over his shoulder right out of the window. Boy! Did it rile me! So I thought, “Right, you little bastard, you’re asking for it.” As soon he turns round I’m looking right at him.
“You!” I growled in my meanest voice, “Recite the verb être.” I could see him praying for that there floor to open right up and swallow him. He looked as if he was ready to bust into tears. And I was all set to let the little bastard go right ahead. “You can’t have forgotten it already, we just did it last term,” I needled. He just sat there. As stubborn at stopping those tears from falling as I was willing them on to. I goaded him some more. “Cat got your tongue, huh? Or maybe you spent most of last term gaping out of windows.”
Then Collins, the fat little bastard sat next to him pipes up,
“Please, sir,” he starts hissing at me. Why the hell English kids hiss all the time, I don’t know. Must figure themselves to be the snakes I know they are. “Sir!” he’s waving his fat, chubby hand in the air now. I was having none of it; the kid was going to bawl even if I had to stand there all day to make him.
“No,” I wagged my finger. “Let the boy speak for himself,” But Collins kept right on hissing so much I thought he was going to pee his pants. So finally, I had to give in. “Okay, okay, what is it?” I wasn’t going to let the other little bastard off the hook yet though. No, sir!
“Sir, Henderson didn’t do French last term, sir. He was away, sir.” That threw me. Then another little bastard has to go and stick his cent’s worth in,
“He was in hospital, sir. Having an operation in his head.” It hit me like a rocket. How dumb! Out of all the kids there were I had to go and pick the one kid who had some kind of brain tumour. Time to figure something out. And fast.
“Oh,” I was thinking out loud, and not too much. “Could’ve sworn he was sitting right there last term.” I coughed to cover. Ideas were sticking in my throat like fishbones. If the principal got to hear about this I would be back out on the sidewalk with nothing but a couple of holes in my pant pockets. I tried a smile. Came out as crooked as a four dollar bill. “Away, huh?” I said in my nicest voice, “Well, in that case we better take another look at this here verb, être. Okay, Collins, you seem all set to go there. Recite the verb être for young Henderson here. From the top now, je suis, tu es.”
And then the little bastard did. Made a real hash of it on purpose. I just walked up and down in front of the class with my hands behind my back, nodding my head, making out he was doing real fine, while all the time thinking how I was going to have to watch myself in future.
From then on in, I was Mr Niceguy and then some. I cracked a joke or two, and told them stories about back home. I won’t let on it did their French a whole heap of good, but it kept me out of trouble, and everybody else off my back. The little bastard was not going to die on me even if he did his damnedest. To be truthful, after a while, I almost got to like the little bastards, right up until one of them tried to bushwhack me, that is.
A craze had started up fooling around with rubber bands. They bastards made these little catapults outa their fingers, firing off little paper pellets at one another whenever there was nobody round to stop them. But then this one little bastard starts to get smart. Waits until my back’s turned to write something up on the blackboard, when he lets me have it. Whistled past my ear no more than an inch away. My first instinct was to give whoever done it the thrashing of his life. But then I remembered his brain tumour. So I stood there steaming, counting to ten while I figured out what to do.
The idea hit me on nine. It would scare the living daylights out of all of them. Without turning about, I took out my glass eye with my right hand, and slipped into my jacket pocket. Then I turned round real slow. You should’ve seen their faces. Greener than grass. They had to cover their mouths just to stop themselves puking up. I could hardly stop myself from laughing, but I managed to look each one of them in the eye in turn with a straight face. And I made sure they all got a good look to, especially the little bastard Henderson, just so as he knew I knew it was him who done it. I forget just what it was I told them as to how I lost it. Didn’t matter anyhow. I just knew none of them would try to pull the same thing twice
After a while Kansas was starting to look like the sweetest place on earth to be. Betty wasn’t a whole lot of help, always on to me about starting a family. Hell! I’d seen enough kids in that school to last a lifetime; I wasn’t about to start having any of my own. That’s what finally decided me to cut on out back home. But it didn’t get me the money to do it.
Looking back, I suppose I was bound to run into the guy who would help me get it. Sooner than later, way I felt. Just a mite too desperate. Desperate men do desperate things. When he told me how robbing banks in England was as easy as knocking tin cans off a wall with a soccer ball, I believed him. I was ready for anything. Thing was, it was. Getting caught was pretty darned easy and all. Eight years in the slammer ain’t so easy though. Even though I did get shipped home after five for good behaviour. Never did get to see Betty again. Best gal I ever knew.
Copyright ©2013 Bryan Hemming
An American Abroad is the second story in An American Trilogy. Click on An American Husband for the next, and The New Teacher to read the first.
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