devastation made the GIs in the truck silent. Heck had seen destroyed towns in newsreels and in the papers, but he had not understood the scale until now. The destruction was vast, the things and homes of many lives reduced to a great acreage of rubble, none of it reaching higher than eye level. And soon the same firepower that had done this would be aimed at himself. The native French were moving the rubble by hand, sifting through the remains of their homes. They turned long, blank stares on the passing Americans. As the truck exited the far side of the village, a group of boys hurled small, rock-hard apples at them. The fruit made sharp pinging noises off the side of the truck and one soldier was struck on the neck and yelped loudly. No one laughed and no one made any gesture or threat toward the boys, although the GI who had been hit muttered curses implicating the boysâ mothers. One towheaded boy seemed to stare directly at Heck and to aim for him particularly, but his apples fell short, and soon the boys had receded from sight.
The road had been torn up by the treads of tanks and the convoys of supply trucks feeding the front, as well as by the shell craters, which the engineers had hastily filled. The driver of Heckâs truck seemed to make wholly arbitrary decisions about which holes to plow through and which to avoid by violent swerving. Heck shifted continually in his seat, but it did little goodâalready, in every position his flesh felt bruised and raw. He closed his eyes awhile, but the battering caused vivid, malevolent geometries to spiral and throb on the black of his eyelids, and soon he could watch these no longer. He felt ill, and he thought it would be absurd to go across the entire Atlantic without getting sick, only to be hit with it here on a road in France. He tried to follow the advice he had overheard a sailor offer as they crossed the Atlantic: watch the horizon or the sky. The depth of the sky, however, did nothing to console him, and on the horizon bloomed dark clouds of smoke. His eyes had the sensation of being loose in their sockets, as though they would fall out if he tilted his head forward. Inside his gut burned a small hot flame. He held his M-1 between his legs and his fingers on it were moist. Repeatedly he wiped them on his pants.
Then, despite all the distractions, his thoughts turned back to Claire. The night before he had thought of nothing but her. Now, without warning, he felt again her ribs under his hands, heard her breath in his ear. In his pocket was the music box.
He felt like a coward for leaving and abandoning her, but he saw no other choices. Iâll have to return and look for her when I can, he told himself. Although, in truth, the idea of seeing her again filled him with profound embarrassment. She would be justified in scorning him after the way he had fled her. But then he seemed to touch again the smooth knuckles of her spine. The presence of her music box in his pocket was comforting. It gave him a secret distinction, separating him from these others, all in the same uniform.
The man across from him began saying, intermittently, âFuck. Fuck fuck fuck.â He gazed down at the barrel of the gun between his legs as a man might gaze at a hole from which he expected a snake to erupt. The manâs evident fear irritated Heck, even though he also felt it, and it caused him for some miles to be able to look around with a spirit of contempt. A soldier stood and shuffled unsteadily down the length of the pitching truck, and when he reached the tailgate he urinated onto the passing road. Then he shuffled back to his seat, stepping high over duffel bags and packs, putting his hands on the heads of the seated men. He looked drunk, which Heck attributed to the movement of the truck, but later he noticed this same man tipping a small flask to his lips.
Heck decided that his own fear definitely annoyed him. It felt now like an object, exactly as if someone