The clerk was sweeping cigarette butts up on the sidewalk in front of C’s when he spotted Joe Nelson across the street waiting for the traffic signal to turn. After dumping the butts into a metal trash container chained to a lamp post the clerk bought a newspaper from a kiosk chained to a stop sign. When he was back in the store he lit a Marlboro then sat down with the newspaper and didn’t look up when Joe Nelson leaned heavily against the sales counter. “Starting a little early today aren’t you, sport,” the clerk said.
The old man looked at the stubble on the young man’s chin, at his wisp of a mustache, at the stringy blond hair poking out from beneath the turned around baseball cap, at the dangling earrings and the thick, braided necklace. “Anything in the paper about the invasion,” Joe Nelson asked.
“You know what date today is?”
“It’s Wednesday,” the clerk said.
“I said do you know what date it is.”
The clerk gave Joe Nelson a disgusted look then glanced at the date at the top of the sports page. “June 6,” he said. “What of it?”
“Nothing,” Joe Nelson said. He took six crumpled one dollar bills and a handful of change out of his pants pocket and laid them on the counter. “Give me a fifth of Old Crow,” he said.
“Since when do you drink Old Crow?”
“On June 6,” Joe Nelson said. “On June 6 I drink Old Crow.”
The clerk stubbed out his cigarette and rang up the bottle of bourbon. “You’re short nineteen cents, sport.”
Joe Nelson carefully recounted his money and then looked up at the clerk. “Last week when I asked Mary she told me it was eight twenty-nine.”
“Well guess what, sport? It went up.”
“Front me the difference. I’ll pay you when I get my check.”
“No credit,” the clerk said.
Standing at the sales counter the old man looked around the store. “Is Mary working?”
Joe Nelson looked at the clerk then picked up the bills and coins and slowly walked out the door. Fifteen minutes later he slowly walked back in with two empty beer cans. “Here’s your nineteen cents,” he said. “Now give me that goddamn bottle.”
It took Joe Nelson an hour to walk the mile to Riverside Park and then another half hour to find a good spot along the river bank to sit. While walking down the hill through the run-down neighborhood, over the abandoned railroad tracks, past the warehouses and factories and then across the busy four-lane to the wide expanse of the park, he thought about Private Jack Carter. Jack Carter, big, strong country boy from Kentucky. Self-proclaimed expert squirrel hunter. Wise-cracking, gum-smacking, bourbon-loving, toughest son-of-a-bitch in the platoon. “We’re gonna get through this,” he told Joe the night before the invasion. “When this shit is over you and me gonna drink us some Kentucky hooch,” he told Joe while they were crossing the channel on the troop transport. “Let’s push them damn Huns back to Germany!” Jack Carter yelled over the noise of the engine while they were going in on the Higgens boat. When they hit a sandbar the coxswain lowered the ramp and the Germans opened up with the MG-42s. Private Jack Carter never made it off the ramp. He was twenty-two.
With the bullets from the machine guns splatting around him Joe Nelson hoisted himself up and over the side of the Higgens boat. When he realized he couldn’t touch bottom he let go of his rifle and it was only after he released his pack and tore off his assault jacket that he was able to keep his head above water. He knew that the only way he would make it to shore was by floating in on the surf like a dead man. When he was finally able to stand he began running for cover towards a burning tank and it was then that he was hit. For Joe Nelson, the war was over.
When the bourbon was gone he stood and threw the bottle as far as he could into the fast moving current. “Another dead soldier,” he said to himself. On his way back through the park he came upon a baseball field. There were people sitting on metal bleachers behind each dugout, more people sitting on lawn chairs along the baselines and a man leaning by himself against the left field fence. Joe Nelson walked up and leaned next to him. “Whatssa score?” he asked him.
“Nine to one,” the man said.
“The blue team.”
“You got a kid out there?”
“Yes,” the man said. “The pitcher.”
Joe Nelson stopped leaning for a moment and brought his hands up to his mouth. “Throw the heater!” he yelled. “Throw the goddamn heater!”
The man moved a few feet further down the fence.
“Whatsa matter?” Joe Nelson asked him.
Joe Nelson decided to try again. “You know what date it is?”
“It’s Wednesday,” the man said.
“Do you know what date it is?”
The man moved a little further down still, and was relieved when Joe Nelson finally turned and walked away from the ball field.