He learned about whorehouses. No one talked about home, girlfriends and wives, or anything else like that. And no one cared about Boston.
Roxanne was telling Nicky that if he didn’t leave Boston soon, he was gonna end up dead. “I’ll give you six months,” she said.
Nicky said, “Till you kick me out?”
Roxanne said, “No. Till someone puts a bullet in your head.”
Nicky nodded. Six months would give him the summer.
“Nicky, I’m serious.”
“I know you are.”
“Then wipe that look off your face.”
Nicky sat down on the stoop and looked up at Roxanne, careful not to grin. “What d’you want me to do? You’re my girl. I’ll do whatever you say.”
Roxanne put her hands on her hips and stared into the street. “Well, since I’m your girl, how about you get a job?”
“In Boston?” Nicky said. “Isn’t that how we got into this mess?”
“We?” Roxanne looked down at Nicky. “I got nothing to do with it. You got yourself involved with those morons. I still can’t believe I let you stay here.”
Fair enough, Nicky thought. He sat there, scratching his face. “I got an idea.”
“And what’s that?” Roxanne said.
“I could go talk to that recruiter again.”
Roxanne’s eyes narrowed. “When are you gonna go?”
“You really think they’d take you?”
“C’mon,” Nicky said, smiling. “How could they say no?”
The recruiter was standing behind his desk when Nicky walked into the office. “Do I need an appointment?” Nicky said.
“For what?” the recruiter said.
“To come in.”
“What’s your name?”
“Nicky O’Keeffe. I was here a little while ago.”
“When was a little while ago?”
“Maybe three months. I remember you. You told me to come back anytime. I’m ready to join.”
“You’re ready to join. Okay.” The recruiter sat down, eyeing Nicky from behind his desk. “Why do you wanna be a Marine?”
Nicky looked around the office and said, “I don’t know. Maybe do some of this shit?” He pointed to a poster of camouflaged men jumping out of a helicopter. “Does it matter?”
“Yeah, it matters. We don’t just take anybody. You think you got what it takes?”
“I got what it takes.”
“Can you pass a drug test?”
The recruiter laughed. “How old are you?”
“High school diploma?”
“Anything on your record?”
Nicky shook his head, grinning just a little.
“All right,” the recruiter said, “fill out this form and we’ll get you started.” He held up a clipboard. “Where you from?”
Nicky took the clipboard. “Dorchester.”
“And your record’s clean?”
“As a whistle.” Nicky put Roxanne’s address and phone number on the form.
The recruiter said, “Don’t forget to sign it when you’re done.”
Nicky filled out the form, scribbled his signature, and wrote the date. February 2, 2001. He handed the clipboard to the recruiter and backed away from the desk.
The recruiter looked over the form and said, “Okay, come back when you can pass a piss test.”
They shook hands and Nicky walked out of the office.
It took the recruiter two months to place Nicky at Parris Island. He called Nicky one afternoon with the good news: “Next Tuesday, O’Keefe. 1900. I’ll pick you up. All you need is ID and the clothes you’re wearing. If you’re drunk, I’ll make you sweat it out.”
“Okay.” Nicky subtracted twelve from nineteen in his head and wrote Leaving at 7pm under April 10 on the refrigerator calendar.
The evening he left, Roxanne kissed him goodbye and said, “You did it. I’m proud of you.”
“You gonna write me?” Nicky said, pinching her ass.
Roxanne pushed his hand away. “I’ll think about it, just stay out of trouble.”
Nicky let his arms drop. “You know I can’t make any promises.”
“Yeah, Nicky, I know. And I can’t either.”
Nicky picked up his wallet and started to leave. At the front door he paused and looked back at Roxanne. She wiped her eyes and turned away from him.
“Hey,” he said.
Roxanne sniffed. “What, Nicky?”
Nicky stood there for a moment staring at her back. “Nothing,” he said. “I’ll see ya.”
At Parris Island, the recruits had an hour to themselves every evening to read mail, write letters, and relax. For the first two weeks, Nicky used his personal time to take long showers and sleep underneath his rack. He sent Roxanne a couple letters, but she never wrote back. He thought about writing to a few of his friends. Or maybe their mothers. He wasn’t sure.
“Would you write a letter to another guy?” Nicky said to the recruits who never received mail.
One of them said, “Depends. Is he cute?”
“Right?” Nicky said. “I mean, what d’you say to another guy? ‘Dear Bobby, I miss you. See you soon. Please don’t fuck my sister while I’m away.’”
Nicky graduated from bootcamp in early July and returned to Boston, wearing his dress blues. He had ten days leave and enough money to take Roxanne somewhere nice. Letter or no letter, he thought, she deserves it.
He dropped his bags on her stoop, rang the doorbell, and adjusted his cover. A guy he had never seen before opened the door.
Nicky tilted his head back and made eye contact. “Where’s Roxanne?” he said.
“Who the fuck are you?”
“I used to live here. She home?”
“The fucking tooth fairy, who d’you think? Roxanne. I wanna see her.”
The guy looked down the street, cracked his knuckles, and stepped out of the house. When his foot touched the stoop, Nicky grabbed him by the neck and threw him onto the sidewalk. The guy rolled a few times, then started to stand. He was balancing himself against a car when Nicky landed a right hook on the side of his head, then gripped his hair and kneed him in the face. The guy flopped onto the sidewalk and Nicky stomped his head. Twice. Then Nicky walked back to the stoop, checking his uniform.
“Roxanne! It’s Nicky. You home?” Nicky picked up his cover, gave it a look, and placed it on his head. He peered into the house.
Wonder if she moved, he thought, turning to the guy on the sidewalk. “Hey, pal. If you see Roxanne, tell her Nicky stopped by.” He picked up his bags and left.
Three weeks later, Nicky turned twenty-one during a field exercise for the School of Infantry in Camp Lejeune. He was digging a fighting hole, thinking of Roxanne, and talking to himself.
“Wonder where she is.”
“I should be in Boston right now.”
“Instead of here.”
“The saddest fucking place on Earth.”
“Can’t see Roxanne.”
“Can’t tell her how I feel.”
“Fucking mosquitos everywhere.”
Thump, thump, thump.
He threw his entrenching tool and clawed at his neck. “This can’t get any worse.”
When the Marines returned to the barracks, Nicky got the news.
“O’Keeffe,” the sergeant said, “you’re going to Okinawa.”
“Japan?” Nicky said. “Shit. Do I get leave before I go?”
“You don’t have any,” the sergeant said. “But they’ll let you take thirty days since you’re going overseas.”
“They’ll give me thirty days?”
“Did I say that? They’ll let you take thirty days. You’ll be in the hole for a year.”
The sergeant said, “Why the hell you wanna go home anyway? You got a girlfriend?”
“Something like that.”
“O’Keefe, just go to Oki. All you’re gonna do back home is get in trouble.”
Nicky heard the man, even agreed with him, but he was already making plans.
I’ll call a few friends, he thought, maybe have a proper twenty-first. Gotta find Roxanne too. She’s not answering her phone.
“Go pack your shit, O’Keefe. You’re going to Oki.”
“But you just said I could take leave.”
“I changed my mind.”
From North Carolina, Nicky flew to LAX on his own. On the flight to Japan, he sat next to a tall, tough-looking lance corporal named Reed. Reed was from Texas and had just passed Amphibious Reconnaissance School. He was on his way to Oki after taking leave.
“How many days did you take?” Nicky said.
“Thirty. I had twenty saved up and they gave me an extra ten.”
See, Nicky thought, I got fucked. “Thirty days. That’s a long time. What do people do in Texas with thirty days off?”
Reed said, “I’m from the city.”
“Yeah? I didn’t know Texas had cities.”
Reed gave him a look.
Nicky said, “Was recon school hard?”
Reed grinned. “Hell yeah, it was hard. I almost drowned during the amphib phase.”
“Early morning ocean swim. I got seasick real bad and threw up. My swim buddy had to yell for the boat.”
“Damn,” Nicky said. “One time, at Camp Lejeune, I dug a hole and shit in it.”
Reed laughed. “I know how that goes. What’re you doing in Oki anyway?”
“I’m joining a grunt unit that’s already deployed.”
“You’re a grunt?”
“That’s pretty cool,” Reed said. “I used to be a grunt.”
“That’s all they’d let me do,” Nicky said.
“How long are you staying in Oki?”
“Six months, maybe less, then we go back to Twentynine Palms.”
“Dude, Twentynine Palms after Oki? Who did you piss off?”
After a brief orientation, Nicky checked into his unit and was assigned to a barracks room. Over the next three weeks, he called Roxanne at least once a day.
“Come on, baby,” he’d whisper as the phone rang, “answer this time.”
She never did and he never left a message.
In early September, Nicky’s platoon did a field exercise in Okinawa’s Central Training Area. Nicky held up well in the heat and impressed his platoon sergeant during the live-fire drills. He returned to the barracks five days later, feeling good about the respect he’d earned. His squad leader even invited him out for a drink.
“Just take it easy tonight,” the squad leader said. “I know how you Boston guys are.”
“Corporal,” Nicky said, smiling, “I never started a fight in my life.”
“O’Keefe,” the squad leader deadpanned. “Don’t fuck with me.”
Nicky cleared his throat. “Roger, corporal. I’ll take it easy.”
At the bar, Nicky sipped a beer and listened to stories about deployments and life on ship. He heard about mishaps on the demo range and nights in Pattaya Beach. He learned about whorehouses. No one talked about home, girlfriends and wives, or anything else like that. And no one cared about Boston.
I could get used to this, Nicky thought.
Towards the end of the evening, he left the bar by himself. It didn’t take long to find a phone. Inside the booth, Nicky looked over both his shoulders before dialing the number on the back of the card. He entered the PIN and called Roxanne. After two rings, she answered.
“Nicky, is it you?”
Nicky closed his eyes and exhaled. “It’s me, Roxanne.”
“I thought something happened to you.”
“I haven’t talked to you in months.”
“I know, but you stopped calling.”
Nicky shook his head. “How the hell do you know I’ve been calling?”
“You’ve been calling since you left. No one else calls me.”
“Why didn’t you answer?”
“I told you I couldn’t make any promises.”
“Promises? I just wanted to talk to you.”
“When have you ever just wanted to talk? Look, Nicky, I’m glad you’re okay, but I’m done with that life. I don’t wanna be a part of it anymore.”
“A part of what?” Nicky said.
“A part of you.”
Nicky bit his lip.
Roxanne sighed. “Listen to me,” she said, “as long as I’ve known you, all you’ve ever thought about is yourself. Who you’re gonna drink with, where you’re gonna stay. It’s always been about what feels good for you. Right now. Today. I can’t live like that anymore. I need to start thinking about tomorrow, and so do you. Your whole life’s ahead of you.”
At least thirty seconds passed.
“Are you listening to me?” Roxanne said.
Nicky nodded. She was right. He wanted to tell her that. And thank her.
Instead he said, “I’m listening, Roxanne. I’m gonna start thinking about tomorrow.” He heard her sniff. “I promise.”
Roxanne said, “I have to go.”
Nicky waited for her to hang up. He stood there for a moment, staring at the phone. Then he stepped out of the booth and flicked the phone card across the street. He started walking back to the bar. On the way, he took out his wallet and counted six dollars. Enough for another round, he thought, checking his watch.
“Hmm, tomorrow’s the tenth,” he said. “Five more days till payday.” Nicky put his wallet away. He turned around, crossed the street, and headed towards the barracks. “The beers can wait. We’re gonna figure out tomorrow first.”
Nicky smiled, thinking of the stories he had just heard.
“Yeah,” he said. “This Marine shit ain’t so bad.”
✽ ✽ ✽
David Blome is a combat veteran of the US Marine Corps. He earned a PhD in history and taught at Stanford University before leaving academia for a career in urban education. He began writing fiction in 2019 after publishing a book on the ancient Greeks. To date, his work has appeared in As You Were, Line of Advance, The Penman Review, and The Wrath-Bearing Tree. A father of three, he lives and works in Philadelphia.