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Fiction #129
(published April 10, 2003)
Taking Leave (part 1 of 2)
by Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz

Early morning Eddie hitches a ride off the military base with five days of freedom due him. Asked his destination, he's tempted to say, "Wherever you're headed." He knows he's supposed to be going home to make love to his wife, but he's been considering going AWOL. No doubt, he'd be hunted down if he disappears, and sure that he doesn't want to face the punishment Leah would mete out, Eddie simply says, "The bus station" as he gets into the car.

His regulation boots hit the Harrisville pavement just after four that afternoon. He wanders into the bus terminal, in search of a pay phone, though he's directed back outside. He collects his duffle bag first, then heads toward the far side of the terminal building, working his way through the crowd of people arriving and those departing. His wife, who knew three months ago when he'd arrive, isn't in the crowd; she's scheduled to work until one the next morning.

At the phone booth, Eddie drops his duffle at his feet and rummages his pockets for change. He listens to the coins rattle their way to the metal depository, as he poises his finger over the number keys, dialing when he gets a tone. He rests the bill of his cap against the phone as he listens to the ringing from the other end. Be in a good mood, he whispers in response to each ring. Be in a good mood. Be in a good mood . . .

Leah answers, as he expects her to. The phone is kept under the bar where she stands all night, mixing drinks and dodging lonely drunks, telling them she's happily married. Eddie doesn't know how she can hear it ringing, what with the bar noise when it's especially busy, but she always does.

"The Casbah," she says. "This is Leah. What can I do for ya?"

Eddie tells her she can let him fuck her.

"Oh, no can do, Sir," she teases. "I'm expecting my husband any minute."

Her deliberate cheerfulness allows Eddie to relax.

"You're here," she says.


She asks about the trip down and Eddie gives her his assessment. In order to make his destination, he had to be reminded to change buses twice, but Eddie doesn't tell her this.

He asks her how work is going and she says it's slow.

"Everybody's still workin', but you Eddie Boy."

"I deserve time off," he tells her.

"If only for good behavior," she adds.

Eddie is silent, unable to read what's in her voice. He doesn't know if she means it innocently or if she's commenting on his last period of leave, when he didn't make it home, and had sex with someone else instead. "Hold on," he says and he moves the receiver from his ear to the metal shelf supporting the red partitions of the booth. He loosens the top buttons of his jacket, feeling suddenly constricted, and he tells himself it's the heat. When he picks up the phone again, he asks, "Has it been hot for awhile?"

"It's not hot, Eddie. No hotter than it ever gets."

Eddie can't think of anything else to say. She's not talking either and he wonders if the silence is worth the fifty cents he's spent.

"How much time do you get on pay phones?" he wonders out loud.

"Not much," Leah informs him.

He's reading the laminated instructions on the phone, looking for the answer. "I don't have another quarter," he tells her, so she'll know it's not his fault if she decides finally to say something to him and they get disconnected.

Breaking the silence, Leah says, "Look across the street."

Eddie turns.

Three cars and a truck going opposite directions pass before him on the two-lane street. When the traffic clears, he watches his wife emerge into the bright sunlight as she stands in the doorway of the bar across from the bus terminal. The traffic signal stalls things, a Honda Civic in front of her, and he can see Leah bouncing around on her toes, attempting to look over it. When it moves, she is there, phone in hand, the receiver to her ear. She says, "You're looking good, Eddie."

Maybe the traffic is obscuring his view. The sun is shining too much or his cap is too low on his head, but he can't see her clearly. He says simply, "I need to shower."

Leah is still looking at him from across the street when she speaks. "Come over," she tells him, "and I'll give you the key."

Eddie nods. She disappears back into the bar and he turns and hangs up. Flinging his duffle bag over his shoulder, he reminds himself to "step lively" as he dodges the light traffic, crossing the street to the bar.

Leah is talking to the one male customer in the place, who, Eddie observes, is more interested in her unrestrained breasts bobbing around in her thin t-shirt than her chatter. The entire wall behind the bar is mirrored. It makes the room appear larger than it is, and in the near empty bar, Eddie thinks Leah looks small and fragile. Maybe it takes a crowd around her to make her noticeable.

She doesn't acknowledge Eddie until he's propped up on a stool, three away from the other guy, his bag taking up the bar space before him.

"Want a drink?" she calls down from where she's standing.

Eddie is examining the writing on the luggage tag attached to his bag. Without looking at her, he shakes his head and repeats his need to clean up.

Leah nods and reaches under the bar for her purse, which she keeps next to the phone. In doing so, she leans toward Eddie, pinning her long hair behind her ears. Her shirt falls forward and her husband sneaks a peek at her breasts. He turns away quickly, embarrassed, although he doesn't know why. He's further embarrassed when the other guy, munching noisily on some peanuts, lifts his eyebrows and grins approvingly at him.

After rummaging through her purse, Leah steps toward Eddie and smacks the key ring down on the counter, pushing it in his direction. "You do remember where the apartment is?" she asks.

Eddie nods awkwardly, but he meets her gaze, nevertheless, to let her know he's clear on how she's feeling. He snatches up the keys and slips his hand around the cloth handle of his bag, about to slide off the stool when Leah says, "The tags." Wordlessly, Eddie reaches inside his shirt and pulls out the chain with his dog tags on it. He slips it off his neck. Leah smiles at the tags dangling before her. She takes the chain and slips it over her head.

He's heading toward the door when Leah stops him again. She comes from behind the bar with two twelve-packs of beer in two separate plastic grocery bags. She holds them out to him and says, "Welcome home, Eddie."

Out of the bar, Eddie is relieved they didn't argue. He doesn't like to fight. He's a soldier, but one unfit for battle.

Eddie enlisted in the military just after he turned twenty. He discovered he'd graduated from high school a few years earlier with two things: a diploma and no plans for reaching the goals he hadn't set. Uncle Sam was his only relative who had no qualms or complaints about supporting him as an adult.

He had met Leah at the bar the night before he was leaving for boot camp and she'd given him her address so he'd have someone to write home to. They exchanged haphazard letters during basic training and before he was stationed anywhere, Eddie found himself headed back to Harrisville. He was unwilling to return to his parent's house, so he asked Leah to marry him and he had someplace to stay.

The apartment is not in the most desirable part of town. But it's cheap and close to his wife's job. Eddie trudges down the couple of blocks it takes to get there, his head down, carefully avoiding what's going on around him. He ignores the heavily mascaraed woman pursing her lips at him. Makes himself overlook the way her shirt is unbuttoned and tied to keep her breasts from spilling out. Besides, he reminds himself, the only cash he had on him went to call his wife.

He continues on.

Eddie is only momentarily interested in stopping the minor drug transaction taking place in the alleyway, deciding, finally, against it; him being in the Army, after all, and not the Coast Guard.

Outside the apartment door, he sets his baggage at his feet and stares at the key chain in his palm. He doesn't know which key opens the lock. He figures it will be the last one he chooses and so he chooses the last key on the link, only to find it doesn't turn the cylinder. He is halfway through Leah's key collection before he gains entrance.

The door open, he kicks at the duffle bag until it's made its way inside the apartment. He strips his cap off his head, tossing it near his bag and picks up the two bags of beer. He heads toward the kitchenette. Setting the bags on the counter, he pulls the cartons out, tears open the packaging to one and takes out a can. He downs half of the beer quickly and then sips at it more leisurely, as he puts the other cans of beer away in the refrigerator.

Realizing that he hasn't eaten since he left the base, Eddie looks at the appliance's contents and wishes his wife were a girl that liked to put it away.

She might bring him a plate of soggy nachos, though, when she gets off, he thinks. Or a cold hamburger — the meat, cheese, pickle and onions congealed into one, even that he won't mind— so Eddie tries not to think about his hunger and thinks instead about taking his shower and maybe getting a nap in, although Leah had given him strict instructions NOT to get into the bed.

He closes the front door, and takes his beer to the bedroom where he stands in the doorway.

The bed is new. One of the few pieces of furniture Leah has been able to acquire with the money Eddie sends her. It is first bed, their only bed (the futon in the living room previously serving their slumber and sexual needs), and Leah has this thing about their "christening their marriage bed" together.

It's queen-sized and takes up much of the room. There are no nightstands but a dresser with an attached mirror is pressed tightly against one wall. The bed is made up — pretty is the only word Eddie can think of — with an ecru-colored spread finished in scalloped lace edging with maroon flowers blooming across it, scrolls of hunter green leaves and vines framing the bouquets. There are seven pillows leaning against the wooden headboard. Four are regular pillows and the others are shaped as a heart, a roll and a square. The pillowcases match the pattern of the spread. Scrunching up the coverlet to look underneath, Eddie is not surprised to find that the sheets are a red plaid print.

Eddie finishes the beer and heads to the refrigerator for another. He stands in the open door, gulping it, willing a loaf of bread and a package of bologna to appear on the shelf. When his wishful thinking fails, he swings the door close and takes his near-empty beer can into the living room.

He plops down on the futon and stares at the television before him, unable to recall if his wife ever thanked him for making it possible for her to be stimulated daily by Jerry, Matlock and Oprah. The remote sits on top of the 36-inch cabinet, but Eddie is too tired and too distracted to get up and retrieve it.

He is thinking about Leah. Because he's hungry, he's wishing she'd take a break and bring him something to eat; otherwise he's not wishing her home sooner than she's scheduled, and he hopes she has a few drinks before she gets home. He wants her drunk, a sappy drunk, not an angry one.

Eddie finishes the beer and sets the can on the glass top of the coffee table. He knows better than to leave it there to make an unsightly ring, but he reminds himself it's another purchase he afforded and he has the right.

His eyes wander aimlessly around the room, realizing that little of what is here belongs to him, except by marriage, and he's not sure how much that really counts. His eyes come back to the table and are caught by a heavy scrapbook on the shelf underneath. He reaches for it.

Inside pictures and memorabilia are pasted onto the pages or held down by plastic sleeves. Much of it is unfamiliar to him, it chronicles Leah's life anyway, but halfway through the book, he comes to their wedding picture. Eddie stares at the couple, smiling in fear, as they hold on to one another. Actually, hold one another up. They were drunk, he recalls and he wonders, despite himself, if he had been sober, if he might have suggested they forgo the wedding and just drunkenly enjoy a honeymoon.

Eddie knows there is only this one picture of them together, but he continues to flip through the album, feeling a tinge of guilt that he has never asked much about the life Leah had before he promised her forever.

He continues to comb through the album until he comes to a portrait of himself in uniform. He studies the solemn face and wonders if he really knows that man. He's unsure because he's done some things in the past year that he isn't sure about or proud of. He's becoming flawless at making mistakes.

Was it stupid of him to spend his last three days of leave with a woman he doesn't recall or was it just stupid to admit his sexual escapade to his wife, when she hadn't even known he'd taken leave and he hadn't felt particularly guilty concerning what he'd done while on it.

His was a drunken confession, made over the phone. "I'm sorry, " he'd said in response to her silence. "Do you want a divorce?"

"No, I don't want a divorce, Eddie, although that's probably what you're hoping. What I want is to know why you did it."

"It just happened," he'd said again.

"A flat tire just happens. A run in my stockings just happens . . . An affair does not just happen!"

He wanted to tell her that it wasn't an affair; just sixty-three hours (he recalled they'd slept a little) of mindless, drunken copulation. "Do you want a divorce, Leah?"

"No," she said. "But I don't want to talk anymore either." With that, she hung up the phone.

He continued to write her, because it seemed to be the right thing to do, even though she didn't waste a stamp in reply. After awhile, it was easier to just call and let her hang up on him. This didn't last long, however. Leah began to miss the pay that didn't accompany the letters that Eddie wasn't sending.

She began to write him again, her anger seeming to dissipate over time, although Eddie believes it was quelled to let it seethe for when they were together again, face-to-face.

His stomach grumbles and he thinks about getting up for another beer, but instead he leans back against the futon cushion and closes his eyes. When Eddie opens them again, it is because of the slamming door, something being slammed against the counter.

He looks up and Leah is hovering over him, her hands on her hips.

"You didn't even lock the door, Eddie," she's complaining. She snatches his shoulder and shakes him roughly. "Damn it, you are not going to pass out on me! Do you hear me? You were supposed to be ready for me!"

Eddie blinks at her, stares at her blankly. He was supposed to shower and rest, be over the lag of the trip so he could spend some time with his wife when she got there.

That was the plan, her angry eyes remind him.

Leah doesn't know him well enough to realize that what's on his face is really just a dumb look. He's still a bit asleep. She fears it's disinterest, proof that she isn't appealing enough to him. Shaking a bit with irritation, her voice buoys up. "It's party time, Eddie Boy!"

Eddie watches her bare feet back her body into the kitchenette. She stops at the counter where there are several bags that weren't there previously.

"I brought spirits and treats, Eddie!" She grabs the hem of her shirt and pulls it over her head. She joggles her breasts a bit and smiles. "Lots of treats, Eddie," she continues, her voice dropping as quickly as her pants.

Eddie tries to shake the fatigue from his head as he runs his hands through his hair several times. He says he needs a beer.

Leah reaches into one of the bags on the counter. She retrieves a can of beer and shakes it vigorously. Slipping the dog tags between her lips, she pops the can open, letting the contents explode against her, pouring what remains across her body. She does this a second time and Eddie watches the foamy ale flows down her skin, beading on her stiff nipples, pasting the material of her panties against her pubes, spilling down her thighs, calves and ankles before pooling around her feet.

Leah smiles at him fearfully. "Drink up, Eddie!" she encourages when she releases the tags from her mouth and reaches for another beer.

Eddie rises, unsure if any other part of him will follow suit, still he can't let her waste another beer. He stands before her. "Bottoms up," he says with a smile, falling to his knees and dropping his head between her legs.

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Taking Leave (part 2 of 2)
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