So a priest and a doctor walk into a bar . . .
Okay, I lie. The Swamp can’t technically be called a bar even if we do serve booze twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Most bars require payment, and the barkeep doesn’t tend to live there in the off-hours. That is, if our still had off-hours, which it doesn’t. If we don’t want our sanity taking breaks, the still can’t take them either. The selection isn’t great—the vodka is gin, the bourbon is gin, and the wine is gin with a judicious application of food coloring—but there’s plenty of it and we’re always restocking.
So when I say that a priest and a doctor walk into a bar, what I really mean is that Father Mulcahy and I stumbled into the Swamp after a marathon twenty-hour surgery session. Every time I closed my eyes I could see more injured kids, and the empty spaces left by fellow doctors. Trapper had gone on leave without me, the fink, and even though I was due to take leave when he came back I felt betrayed. Henry Blake, that indecisive, loveable marshmallow of a CO, was scattered across the Sea of Japan and I was all alone with no one to share my shock but Frank the chinless wonder, a dead-eyed Radar O’Reilly, and a priest bucking for sainthood.
We’d held things down between us, but barely. Frank was still insufferable, but he was shaky. I think that having command temporarily was fun for him, but getting dropped into the role without relief, and knowing exactly how he got there took a toll on Frank’s already cowardly heart. Shaky was fine when we weren’t in the OR, but Frank couldn’t shut it off. That made me the only functional doc in the room. By the end of twenty hours Hot Lips was a temporary surgeon, and we had both Radar and Mulcahy scrubbed up and elbows-deep. It doesn’t happen often, but the Father isn’t a half-bad nurse. If he took off the crucifix and flashed a little leg I just might be in love. I’ve always been a sucker for a doe-eyed blonde with a steady hand.
After the flow of the wounded and dying ground to a halt Radar rushed off to the latrine to be sick. I’d like to think that it was because Radar doesn’t handle colons quite as well as the rest of us, but he’d been sick every night since Henry died. You didn’t have to be a doctor to see the signs of grief and shock. I wanted to help. God knows I wanted to help. Henry was like a father to that kid. I could maybe take Radar for a drink, and Mulcahy could talk to him, but what good would that do? Henry was gone. There was nothing we could say to make that right.
While Radar broke away at a run, Houlihan and Frank make their not-so-stealthy way off to Hot Lips’ tent. Coping came in all shapes and sizes. They clung. I hadn’t been able to look at a nurse without feeling queasy for a week. The hunt was no fun without Trapper at my side, or without Henry to look the other way. The one thing that still worked as well as it ever had was booze, and I intended to make very good friends with the still that night. And because I didn’t want to look at empty cots and think about who should be filling them, I dragged an innocent priest into that mess, who was already half-gone on exhaustion and the numbness that comes from staring into the belly of a sixteen-year-old torn apart by shrapnel.
Me and the Padre stumbled into that little slice of disordered heaven—my mess and my still the same as they’d ever been—and I could almost convince myself that nothing had changed. That it was Trap at my side, and when I patted his chest it was dog tags that dug into my palm and not a crucifix. But when I turned my head he was too short, and far too angelic to be Trapper. Moon-faced, wide-eyed and bespectacled, Father Mulcahy didn’t deserve to be the recipient of my particular brand of alcoholic neediness, but he was the only person in camp who didn’t seem to be looking to do some leaning of his own. Radar needed someone to lean on; Klinger needed someone to lean on. I was thrilled that Frank and Margaret were leaning on one another, because I’m not a good enough person to comfort a grieving Frank Burns.
That night I needed someone to lean on, and it was the good Father or no one. So I deposited Mulcahy on Trapper’s cot and went to the still. “Martini, Padre?” I offered. “Made from only the finest rotgut.”
“Oh, I really shouldn’t,” he said. That odd, nasal lilt to his voice was more pronounced when he was tired.
“What? You got a hot date with your Bible? Heavy traffic in the confessional?”
“Now, Hawkeye,” he said, and he didn’t need to say any more to make me feel like I was twelve and being chastised by the nice teacher I never should have razzed in the first place.
I held up my hands in surrender. I didn’t want to drive Mulcahy away. My mouth keeps working long after my brain shuts down. “Sorry, Father,” I said, and knew he was a sucker for the repentance act.
“Half a martini,” Mulcahy said. His blue eyes were wide and guileless. It was why I liked him so much. As nice as he was, you never got the feeling that Mulcahy lied about anything. Softened the truth sometimes, maybe, but never a direct lie.
In behavior he’s my opposite number. I love booze and nurses; he doesn’t touch the nurses, and he’s pretty moderate about his drinking, particularly for the 4077th. I’ve got something of a smart mouth; Mulcahy has a sweet nature, but is not one of God’s gifted speakers. I can see why he likes to do his services in Latin: it cuts down on the amount of material he has to come up with for himself. Hell, he doesn’t even know what I’m talking about half the time, because slang, innuendo, and lewd jokes go so far over his head he can’t even hear them. It’s like the man has one foot in Korea and one in Heaven, and he’s never certain which locale needs him more.
My own money is on Korea.
“Half?” I asked.
“Yes, well, I’ll need to walk back to my tent after.”
I laughed a little, but there wasn’t any humor there. I grabbed the beaker standing at the ready, filled a glass all the way, and then dropped an olive in it. “If you haven’t noticed,” I said, “there are a few vacancies in here tonight. Have a drink. Stay a while.”
He sounded concerned. “Hawkeye . . .”
“I’m fine, Padre. What do I care that Trapper’s left me high and dry while he’s soaking in the Seoul night life? So long as there’s questionable foodstuffs to hide in Frank’s pillow, I’m fine.”
“Hawkeye . . .”
Boy, some people just aren’t convinced by unconvincing excuses. “Drink, Father. Don’t talk. I’m all done with talking right now. If I have to talk about Trapper leaving and Henry—” I couldn’t bring myself to complete the thought yet. I hadn’t once said it aloud. “If I have to talk about anything that isn’t drinking, girls, or drunken girls I’m going to say something unkind. So drink up, and leave that particular pleasure for Frank.”
He took the martini from my outstretched hand. One sip set him coughing. Vintage Wednesday was surprisingly dry. It might have tricked his body into thinking it was air. We drained our glasses in silence. And then we drained them for a second time.
After the second martini he tried his luck again. “Hawkeye?” he said.
“Ah!” I held up a hand and tried to pour more gin, only to realize we’d just run out. I hadn’t made another batch since Trapper had gone to Seoul. “What did I say about talking?”
“It may be a peculiarity of my calling, but I find it very difficult to just drink.” Mulcahy’s words slurred a little. Who knew that two martinis on top of twenty hours’ surgery could make him such a pushover?
“What am I supposed to talk about, Father?” I was aware that my voice was harsher than I’d intended it to be, but there wasn’t much I could do about that. “What is there to say?”
“What would you normally do in the evening, if not talk?” he asked, and sounded cautious. Great. The only good thing to come out of my dry spell was that I wouldn’t embarrass the celibate.
“Recently? Sit here drinking. Try to think about nurses. Think about Henry’s plane blowing up instead. Or Henry surviving the crash just long enough to drown.” I shook my head. “And then I drink more and hope it goes away or Frank comes and distracts me. I’ve been waiting up nights for Frank, for God’s sake! So, you tell me, Father. You’re supposed to be the guy with all the answers. What is there to say?”
And, yeah, I felt like I’d just kicked a puppy. Mulcahy stared at me with those great big blue eyes, aghast. He wasn’t ready to deal with a grieving agnostic. Grieving Catholics? Probably his stock in trade. He could even stretch and cover the grieving Protestants, Jews, and Buddhists of the camp. But me? The guy who wasn’t certain about anything but the next body on his table? Who would probably start shouting if Mulcahy breathed one word about the unfair man upstairs who would kill a wonderful guy like Henry Blake and leave the rest of us miserable bastards to rot in Korea?
I bet they never warned Francis Mulcahy about guys like me in seminary.
I lurched to my feet. Everything in me wanted to lay down and pass out for the next ever, but I couldn’t sit there with him looking hurt and worried and useless. I stumbled out of the Swamp with some vague intention of making for the latrine and letting the smell bring all the martinis back up. I knew that Mulcahy followed me, but didn’t really care.
I ran blind, goaded on by the tentative calls of “Hawkeye?” behind me. The calls became hands on my shoulder which I shrugged off, and “Oh, God, please stop”s that I tried to tune out. It took about fifteen minutes to finally do what he asked.
I looked around and felt blearier than I had when I was running. I stood in rumpled scrubs that were still splattered with the blood of a kid with a femoral bleed, and I realized I’d found a clearing in the nearby woods. Behind me was Mulcahy, one hand gripping his crucifix, and the other clapped over a slash that had torn straight through the sleeve of his black turtleneck.
“Oh, hell, Father,” I muttered. “Let me see.”
He held himself stiffly, and I realized he was trying to rein in anger. I’ve only seen Mulcahy get angry once or twice, but a shaking, red-faced priest with a voice like a trumpeting goose is a funny sight. Weird how I didn’t feel like laughing.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Really. I don’t—I just wanted to get away. You shouldn’t have followed me, Padre. I would have stumbled back eventually.”
“And let you get lost in the woods and die? A fine priest—a fine human being I’d be if I let you do that. I know you don’t think much of my clerical abilities, but grant me common decency.” Mulcahy let out all his air in one long huff, then shook his head like he wanted to clear it. “I’m sorry. That was an overreaction. Let’s just go back to camp before the search parties are sent out.”
I tried for a smile. It reached my mouth but refused to climb any higher. Probably as tired as the rest of me. “Don’t want to let Frank get too excited, do we?”
We’d left a trail a blind man could follow. I almost started walking just for the Padre’s sake, but I couldn’t bring myself to go. Back at the camp, all I had to face was the reality of our situation: the deaths of friends, an assembly line of kids full of enough lead and shrapnel to start a foundry, and the knowledge that all good things pass and the only thing left will be the war. Because the war is endless, or at least it feels that way on the ground.
No, I didn’t want to go back to camp. I wanted to be out in the night away from everything. I wanted to pretend, if only for a little while, that I was a kid in Crabapple Cove again, and that I wasn’t involved in anything sketchier than a camping trip in cool autumn air.
Mulcahy’s hand fell against my back, and I startled. “What?”
“Hawkeye,” he said, “come back to camp. It’s not safe out here.”
“Right now an entire battalion of North Koreans couldn’t make this day worse. You go back. I’m going to sleep under the stars.”
I planted my backside on the ground. The dirt was dry, and the stars above the clearing were brighter than I’d ever seen them. After a second Mulcahy joined me, his head tilted so far back his hat fell off. The wind ruffled his hair. He said, “I find it comforting to realize that even amidst such horrors there is beauty.”
I turned on him, angry all of a sudden. How dare he be so reverent? How dare he focus on beauty? I opened my mouth, certain I was going to shout at him, when I saw his mouth trembling and heard his hitching breath. If my medical training and observational skills weren’t lying to me he was about ten seconds from sobbing his guts out. My ire wasn’t gone, but it paused in the face of my uncertainty.
“Do you really believe that?” I asked.
“I have to,” he said. “If I didn’t believe that the world held as much goodness and beauty as evil and horror I couldn’t live in it.”
My anger was back, and it had been building up for days. Some part of me that had detached when my plane touched down in Korea and never bothered reattaching itself to the rest of me knew that everything was about to boil over on poor Father Mulcahy. He didn’t deserve it, but who did? That’s the way this war had gone since the beginning. “What about Henry? Is he in a better place?”
Mulcahy’s voice was strident with suppressed emotion. “I have to believe that.”
“You don’t have to do anything. You choose to believe it.”
Mulcahy turned on me. Even in the moonlight I could see that he was red in the face. “Don’t you dare act as though your skepticism gives you better perspective than me. If I didn’t believe in Heaven, Henry Blake would be no less dead!” He clapped a hand over his mouth. Over his fingers and behind his glasses I could see his eyes well with tears. I felt like he looked. Henry Blake was dead. No one had yet put those words in that order in front of me. Not even when Radar had announced it. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered. “I just . . . I need this to make sense.”
“It’s death, Father. It doesn’t make sense. One minute you’re alive and the next minute your plane has spun out into the Sea of Japan.”
And suddenly I had an armful of priest. Mulcahy’s sobs were just audible, and he was shaking like a leaf. I thought back to everyone who was leaning on me during this. How many more people were leaning on him? This was his job, and it never stunk more than it did right then. I’m sure God’s a great guy, but he doesn’t give bear hugs.
I gave it a whirl. It was strange being so close to someone after those weeks of just keeping away. There was the odd moment when I would pat Radar on the shoulder, or bump into someone in the OR, but without the nurses I was pretty much isolated.
And then there was Mulcahy, who wasn’t curled up into me so much as he was clinging for all he was worth. When was the last time someone had crossed the boundary and held him? He hugged like he didn’t know where to put his hands. When did the 4077th decide that being a priest equated Mulcahy to being untouchable? Temptation was one thing, but every man needs to be reminded that he’s not alone now and then. I pressed my face against his fine blonde hair and tried not to cry right along with him.
My laughter wobbled into his neck. “I’m not usually this maudlin when I’m drunk, you know. I leave that to Frank.”
He pulled back but not entirely away. “Now, we mustn’t pick on Major Burns, Hawkeye. He’s been through as much as the rest of us.”
“But Mom,” I said in a theatrical whine. “Even God couldn’t stand sharing a tent with Frank Burns.”
“There are those who would say that God is everywhere.”
“Hawkeye!” Mulcahy always looked adorable when he was torn between laughter and the feeling that he should be scandalized.
I grinned at him in my very best imitation of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It burst the dam and I heard a soft, strained chuckle. He leaned into my shoulder. His forehead was pressed against my clavicle, and his arms were tight around me in that weirdly chaste way he has, like he’s not even aware his actions could be taken the wrong way.
I’d noticed him from time to time. So sue me. He looks good in a t-shirt, and during shortages of nurses my eyes might just have wandered to something a little closer to home. Please believe that Hawkeye Pierce did not earn his reputation as a lover of women by sending in box tops. Long hours of diligent field work were put in to make me the lothario I am today, but there are times when eyes are eyes and lips are lips and it doesn’t really matter what accessories they come with. I’ve always prided myself on my adaptable nature. Mulcahy might have been the epitome of ‘look but don’t touch’, but that still let me look.
So maybe there was a little guilty indulgence on my part when I stroked his hair, feeling fine strands between my fingers. Natural blonde, not the frizz you get with a bleach job (just ask Hot Lips). The skin at his temple was soft and a little damp, and the back of his neck was warm.
And it was still within the bounds of heteronormativity for me to press my cheek to the side of his head and kiss whatever my lips happened to plant themselves on, which turned out to be an eyebrow. There’s nothing inherently sexy about an eyebrow, and the kissing of said brow is far more associated with parents than romance.
Then he raised his head too quickly, and I was pretty certain that my lips brushing against his wasn’t quite so heteronormative. And I was definitely certain that lingering there—neither of us having the wit to just pull away and laugh it off—that might have entirely abandoned Chastity City to get a mortgage and a job in Queersville.
I swear I had good intentions. I wanted to help. I have a thousand excuses to explain away that moment, and each is worse than the last. The truth is that some things just happen. So it happened.
His eyes were wide behind his lenses, and I knew that there was something one of us should be doing to get ourselves out of this with a little dignity intact. But for the life of me I couldn’t think of what that was.
He figured it out sooner than I did. Mulcahy fell away from me, but not all that far. We were still maybe a few inches distant from one another, and at that close range I got a good look at his shock. It probably wasn’t every day some crazy, drunken doctor lured him into the woods and kissed him, even if none of it was intentional. I wondered how many Hail Marys an accidental kiss was worth, or if the Church took intent into account. Sin was sin whether you meant to do it or not, right? Thank God for confessional, where anything you do can get cured with a strict prescription of prayers. Catholics, I tell you. I just don’t get it.
But if a kiss was a kiss no matter the intention, did that mean that we should indulge in a lot more kissing before he needed to atone? Just to be certain he got his prayers’ worth?
It was a wild thought, but I’ve had a lot of those since coming to Korea. Most of the wildest came from somewhere near the bottom of a martini glass. I’d seen a lot of martini glasses in the past few days, and not enough of anything human. The people around me could just as well have been on television: black and white and grainy. But even in the darkness Mulcahy’s eyes were blue.
I rubbed my pinky over his lower lip. He was warm, and that was wonderful. His eyes got huge and his breathing got shallow. The problem with celibacy, I’d decided after one week’s worth, was that it gave you a hair trigger when it came to anything relating to sex. Imagine the trigger on a guy who’d never gotten any. At least I assumed he’d never gotten any. He acted like it.
“Hawkeye,” he whispered, shocked and confused and more than a little breathless. It didn’t sound like an objection.
I slipped his glasses off his face, leaving him blinking at me. I folded their arms and tucked them into his breast pocket, and then I let my hand linger. I could feel his heart beating. He was alive. That had significance.
“Hawkeye?” He sounded uncertain now, and hushed. Here we were, far away from camp. We wouldn’t be found or heard. It was as good a place as any.
“Francis,” I said as I slipped the hand that had been on his cheek around to the back of his neck. I swiped at the hair at his nape with my thumb, enjoying the catch and bristle of it. His eyes closed and he gasped.
“Hawkeye, I don’t think—” His words choked off when I stroked my other hand up his throat.
“That’s a good start,” I said, and then I kissed him.
He shook, his lips quaked under mine, but he didn’t pull away or knock me flat. And he could do it. I’ve seen his left hook. Instead there was a strange sort of tense passivity in him. For a crazy moment I wondered if there was some loophole for priests that said that as long as they didn’t respond they could get as many kisses as they wanted.
Then he was responding, and I’d forgotten that he told us he was the spin-the-bottle champion of his little Catholic High School. Because, wow. He might not have had the first clue what to do with his hands, but the man could kiss. He settled for his arms wrapped around my neck like we were dancing, and his lips tracing mine. Stupidly good kisses with absolutely no tongue: I guess I found his limits.
And, like the jerk I am, I decided that maybe I should surpass them a little, at least one-up his High School classmates in technique. A skillful tongue against the bottom lip is hard for anyone to deny, and Mulcahy was a pushover. He took about three seconds to figure out what I was doing, and the next thing I knew I had another tongue wrestling with mine.
I eased him backward, kissing him all the way to the ground. My hands were under his shirt, discovering skin I was pretty sure no one had discovered before. I claim this land in the name of the Swamp.
His stomach was smooth, and my fingers could fan around his ribcage, counting the hollows of his intercostals. Everything about him was so damn soft. I moved one hand down his front and teased my fingers under the waist of his fatigues. The skin was even softer and thinner there.
He made some little, broken noise in his throat and I kissed him harder. His hands shifted to my shoulders. I stroked at his stomach lightly enough to raise goosebumps, and then slowly worked my fingers lower. His legs tangled up with mine. I latched onto his throat.
And he said, “Hawkeye, stop.”
Let it never be said that Hawkeye Pierce doesn’t know how to apply the brakes when told. I sat back and looked down at him, sprawled out in the dead and dying leaves with his lips swollen and his eyes not quite focused. His hat was half-squashed under his shoulder.
I pulled away and decided on my standard Plan B: make a joke. I grabbed the hat and held it over my head. Mulcahy, like the good man he was, gave me my out. “What are you doing?” he asked, grabbing his hat back and planting its slightly crushed self on his head. He only sounded a little breathless.
“Waiting for the lightning.”
“I thought you were an atheist.”
“I’m an agnostic, Father. We don’t know whether there’s a God or not, but if He is up there, I really don’t want to find out what He does to poachers.”
It got me a laugh, and that was the point. We could go back to being the prankster doctor and the straight-laced priest like this awkward little incident never happened. It was why a guy like me needs to be able to think on his feet: there aren’t enough bridges in Korea to make burning them acceptable.
I got to my feet and offered Mulcahy a hand up. “I won’t try anything,” I said. “Scout’s honor. I won’t even bring it up again. No hard feelings?” Mulcahy looked at my hand and then at me. I kept myself from fidgeting. I couldn’t keep from talking. “Seriously, the camp is way too small for hard feelings. Things get awkward. It’s no good. Trust me on this.”
After a second he took my and I hauled him to his feet. I stepped out of his personal space before either of us could get embarrassed. Apparently that was what he needed to see. “I do, you know,” he said.
And, yes, that was more of an honor than a cad like me deserved, particularly after what I’d pulled on him. He would be justified in never speaking to me again, or at least laying me out with one good punch. Any other priest would be running for the hills, but Francis Mulcahy was made of sterner stuff. I had to admire a guy with that much chutzpah.
Reality settled back around us when he started walking. I wanted to stay out in the woods, but there would be more wounded, and I would have to take over for Frank in post-op. The world wasn’t going to stop for some dumb schmuck like me; I was lucky I’d gotten a moment. I was lucky I had a friend who would give me that.
“Come back to camp,” Mulcahy said.
I followed him.