It is, after nearly a year under the worried eyes of his parents and the hot Alabama sun, a lapse in his stubbornness that leads Eugene to find himself on a train platform one breezy Thursday morning, fingers fraying the edges of a ticket to New Orleans as he waits. His backpack leans lightly against his leg, filled with little more than a spare change of clothes, a toothbrush and a razor. It’s impulsive, impractical, all the things Eugene never was before the war.
He feels as if it has been eons since he slept a whole night and he finds himself zoning out, staring off. He refuses to feel guilt for his mother, leaving without her knowing and nothing but a scribbled note on the dining room table, and finds himself thinking about what lies ahead. He worries his lip, pulls at the skin with his teeth as he does. Much like his smoking and his rashness, another bad habit.
The initial anger he felt at Snafu – Merriell? He wonders, war nicknames seeming near inappropriate – for leaving him alone on the train as though they were strangers has long since settled. Now, more than anything, he finds himself somewhat wistful.
There have been nights where he’s laid awake in bed, the cold and empty expanse of clean sheets beside him and silent night air drifting through loose curtains, where he can almost taste the wet mud of the foxhole, hear the sound of guns in the distance, feel Snafu’s warm body pressed gently against his own.
Eugene tastes blood in his mouth and he’s pulled back to reality. He brushes his lip with his thumb, wiping away a spot of blood. The train whistles towards the platform and he stands, slinging his bag over his shoulder with one hand and holding his ticket with the other.
When he steps onto the train, he takes a seat opposite an elderly woman who doesn’t look up from her book. A spot of blood stains the corner of his ticket, and he shoves it into his pocket.
As the train pulls away from the station, away from Mobile, he stares out the window, unsure of when he’ll see Alabama again. He considers getting his notebook out of his bag, writing a little, like he has done for years whilst travelling, but he doesn’t do anything, nor could he do it anyway over the sound of his blood rushing in his ears.
Instead, he leans his head against the window, feeling the rumble of the train on the tracks like he once did the roll of explosions as he slept on the ground in Pavuvu.
Most men have moved on from the war, it seems to him. He hasn’t kept up with his company, but he has met plenty of soldiers who are back working normal, nine-to-five jobs. Even Sid, who has been at his side since Eugene could barely talk, has drifted to do such benign and ordinary things like get married and start a family.
Sid has told him time and time again that none of them have moved on, not really, but he struggles to believe him. He seems to be the only one giving up his hobbies and his prospects and his passions, just to smoke a pipe in the garden and think about gunfire and crying babies and his foxhole partner.
Eugene wonders if Snafu moved on. He wonders if he has a job and an apartment and a nice pretty wife. The thought makes his heart clench, and he hates it.
He isn’t as naïve as others seem to think – he knows, or at least he thinks he does, that the feelings he has surrounding Merriell Shelton aren’t solely about friendship. They run deeper within him, taking root in his heart and his veins like ivy. They’re feelings that good Southern boys like him shouldn’t be having.
He’s sure that a nice pretty wife isn’t Snafu’s style though, and he contemplates what is. He imagines a strong-willed and strong-boned woman to compete with Snafu’s own belligerence, or a lifetime of solitude, but Eugene can’t help but toy with the idea planted in his head by the scuttlebutt on camp.
Whispers of queer and fairy behind Shelton’s back, however derogatorily intended, had always made Eugene’s ears prick up, although at the time, he wasn’t quite sure why. He doesn’t know if there was any truth in it – the men outside of those closest to Shelton tended to come up with stories to explain why he behaved as he did – but it sure makes him wonder. No smoke without fire, his father always said.
They’re words that have been used on him, too. No smoke without fire there either, he supposes, but he’d grown out of those feelings long ago. He held no residual emotions for Sid, or George, his father’s protégé a few years before he shipped out. At least, he had thought so, before the war.
He’s sure Sid would tell him that he’s running away from his problems, from dealing with things, that it’s a bad coping mechanism. But really, he’s running towards the danger, towards New Orleans, towards Snafu. In some ways, he supposes, Sid would see that as running away – from normalcy, from confronting his issues, from whatever new-age nonsense Sid was spouting now.
Eugene doesn’t know what he wants from Snafu. Closure, maybe, but the thought of saying goodbye is bitter, acidic, rising in his throat like vomit. He never wants to say goodbye, and he hopes that may be why Snafu never woke him on the train. If he can find him, he wants to hold him close, never lose him again.
He feels the weight of his Bible in his bag like a grenade in hand.
The journey passes slowly, painfully, and Eugene feels his eyes drooping and his head nodding as he nearly falls asleep. He doesn’t want to, though, not least because he doesn’t want to miss New Orleans for a second time.
When the train finally pulls into New Orleans station, it’s mid-afternoon and the sun still hangs high in the sky. Eugene walks off the train with shaky legs, and is immediately hustled off the platform by the crowd. It’s busy and loud and he is suddenly struck with the realisation he has no idea where to start.
New Orleans, is as generally advertised, varied and ostentatious. Eugene thinks he’s seen more types of people in about half an hour in the city than he has in all of Mobile in twenty-odd years.
He wanders aimlessly for a long while. Nothing there is familiar, not that he ever expected it to be, and he begins to consider finding somewhere to stay the night. He looks distractedly for an inn or a hotel.
The bar he ends up outside, somehow, he recognises. He thinks he saw it in the one photograph of Snafu’s he’d seen, the one he was unable to resist sparing a glance at when the other man had gone outside to shower as heavy tropical rain began. It was battered, corners dog-eared, and in it were two young girls under the sign of a bar. They had dark hair and large eyes, and Eugene had assumed they were Snafu’s sisters. It was the only glimpse of anything of Snafu’s life he’d seen.
The sign he stares up at is the same as the one under which the girls stood. He doubts Snafu is in there, or even the girls, but it is his only link to his whereabouts, so he enters.
The bar is empty save for an old man who seems to be asleep on his crossed arms at the bar and a slightly younger man with a dark beard stood behind it. He looks to Eugene expectantly, coldly, but doesn’t say anything. Eugene feels slightly unsettled, similar to how he felt when he first met Snafu himself.
“Afternoon,” he manages, clearing his throat and trying his best not to stutter. “Do you know where I can find Merriell Shelton?”
The man’s stony expression doesn’t change. “Ain’t seen him for a long while,” he says. “Can’t say I’d know why you’d want to find him.”
Eugene pulls apart a tissue he has in his pocket distractedly. “He’s a war buddy.”
“That what you’re calling it?” The bartender says. Eugene doesn’t really understand what he means, but he nearly flinches anyway. “Try Café Lafitte. Bourbon Street,” he answers shortly, and Eugene can’t help but think he’s just trying to get him out of the bar.
“Okay,” he replies. “Thank you.” He leaves hurriedly.
It takes him a while to find Bourbon Street, and he wanders distractedly through the French Quarter until he ends up on the right street.
Eugene walks for a long while before he finds the Café, traipsing down the paved sidewalk of Bourbon Street until he reaches a corner. The building looks old, with a hipped roof and dark wooden doors in its raw bricked structure. A tall woman leans outside the door, cigarette in between her long, nail-polished fingers. Her dark hair is styled immaculately, her red dress matching her lipstick.
“Is this Café Lafitte?” he asks as he approaches.
She looks him up and down like she’s assessing something, before she nods. “You got it, sugar.” Her voice is rich, kind. When he doesn’t immediately enter, she pushes the door slightly ajar and raises an eyebrow. He steps inside.
It’s fairly quiet, nothing like the last bars he’s been to (Sid’s stag night and his arrival back in Mobile). The door closes loudly behind him, and he jumps. The young man behind the bar looks up.
“It’ll liven up soon,” he says in a soft voice, a face much kinder than the previous bartender. “Come on, get yourself a drink.”
He takes a look around. It’s clean, and empty but for two young women sat particularly close to each other in one corner, along with a group of academic-type middle-aged men making quiet conversation over their wine glasses. It’s well-lit, and the bartender looks at him with a friendly face.
Eugene has grown up a little sheltered, a little coddled, but he knows exactly what type of bar this is. He’s heard about them, whispered and mocked by his classmates, although he never thought they were real. There were never any in Mobile, by any means. He knows where he is, and yet it’s nothing like he’s been told, like it was some reprehensible den of sin. It is, at its core, just a bar.
He wants to leave, but he doesn’t really, and his feet slowly draw him to the bar before his mind can fully process it. He sits on the barstool, and the bartender smiles at his apparent anxiety.
“First time?” he asks. Receiving no reply, he continues. “What can I get you, doll?”
“Uh, beer. Please.”
A bottle is placed in front of him fairly quickly. “What brings you here, stranger?”
“I’m looking for a friend,” he says.
“A friend,” the bartender repeats coyly and brushes his pinkie across Eugene’s knuckles where they sit against the condensation on the glass bottle. Eugene’s surprised when he doesn’t flinch. “Shame,” he says, and steps away, beginning to clean the shelving behind him.
Eugene watches him work for a beat, the tautness of his white shirt across his broad shoulders. It’s too small and too tight, and he’s sure it’s not because he’d grown out of it. When he catches himself staring, he coughs and takes a swig of his beer. “Don’t suppose you know a Merriell Shelton?”
The bartender turns, raising an eyebrow. “That your friend?” he asks. When Eugene nods, he leans back and puts his cloth down. “You’re in his usual spot. Sure he’ll be in soon to kick you off that chair.”
He feels a well of something that could be excitement, could be anxiety.
No smoke without fire, indeed.
He and the bartender make easy conversation for a while, and Eugene is loosely aware he is being flirted with. He finds his eyes on the door quite often, whenever the bartender turns his back so as not to seem rude.
Snafu manages to surprise him anyway.
“Sledgehammer,” he hears to his right, and by the sound of his voice, he’s surprised Snafu too, the nickname phrased somewhere between a statement and a question.
Eugene turns and his eyes meet Snafu’s for the first time in nearly a year. Snafu looks good – tanned, un-muddied skin and dark, curly hair that’s been cleaned in the last few days rather than the last few months – save for the dark circles under his eyes that match Eugene’s own.
“Hey,” he says weakly, and wonders why he didn’t put more thought into it.
There’s something like shock in Snafu’s eyes, something like wonder on his lips, and Eugene’s heart lurches. He sits down on the stool next to him, and Eugene sees the bartender’s surprised look at his not being asked to move.
Snafu doesn’t even have to order before a glass of whiskey is placed in front of him. He nods his thanks and takes a gulp.
“What you doing here, Sledge?” he asks.
It is a reasonable question, and one for which Eugene doesn’t particularly have an answer.
“Why’d you leave?” he asks instead.
Snafu glances sideways to him with a slight smile to which Eugene couldn’t assign an emotion. “I asked first,” he says.
“I don’t know,” Eugene replies. He looks at Snafu pointedly. Your turn.
“I don’t know,” Snafu repeats in turn.
Silence hangs in the air between them like a stench. Eugene thought he had so much to say, but he can’t seem to construct anything passable as a sentence. His heart is in his throat, threatening to choke him, and he can’t get any words past it.
“You staying someplace?” Snafu asks, at last. It feels awkward, loaded.
“No,” Eugene replies simply, because it’s the truth. His plan barely reached further than the New Orleans platform.
“Well,” Snafu says, eyes on his drink, “guess you’ll be needing somewhere.”
He looks at his bottle. The condensation has all but gone now, and a small puddle surrounds it on the wooden surface of the bar. “Guess I will.”