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Ben Greenman

In The Presence of the General

In the presence of the General, I scratch my nose. It doesn't itch, so I'm not sure why I'm doing this. Maybe I'm nervous.

The General calls the Colonel, who has a coil of rope. "Here," the General says, throwing me one end. I pull. The General pulls. We've been through this before.

Later, much later, after the pulling stops, the Colonel and I go to visit my wife, who lives in an apartment with my baby. I don't live there anymore. But we're on good terms, me and the wife and the baby. My wife offers glasses of iced tea to me and the Colonel. He accepts, but he won't drink it. I know he won't. That guy never drinks anything, best as I can tell, or eats anything either. It's amazing that he keeps his strength. But in that rope-pulling competition, he never loses, except when he pulls against the General. You don't show up the General. The reason is rank. The reason is obvious.

My wife pours our tea, hers and mine and the Colonel's, into three identical glasses. The baby has its own glass, which is smaller and has flowers all over it and has a rubber stopper-top and is actually plastic. My wife fills that with apple juice. The baby slaps the table with open hands to show how much it wants the juice. I have also seen this baby wrap its arms around my wife's neck, and cry until its face is scarlet, and crawl across the kitchen floor. What a baby.

"So, Alice" says the Colonel, "did your husband tell you about today's tug-of-war?" He knows I haven't. We arrived together, the Colonel and I, have been in the kitchen with my wife and the baby the entire time. Telling my wife anything that the Colonel didn't hear would have been impossible, and he knows that. But the Colonel is not the kindest man, and he has always been sweet on my wife, and I think he wants to show me up in front of her.

"No, Percy," says my wife. "Am I to assume that Jim had his ass dragged across the line again?" My wife smiles when she says this. She smiles often, actually. All the time. In fact, now that I think about it, I can't honestly remember a single time I've ever seen her with any other expression on her face, even during the cancer scare, when she was on a chemo routine so powerful it made her hair disappear entirely and then grow back in coarse, curly, and reddish. It had always been soft and brown. I moved out to live on base shortly after that. It wasn't her hair that made me go, not only, although I must admit that the last time we talked on the telephone, I imagined that her hair was brown again, and it was harder to forget about her when I put the phone down. My wife is also funny, which is a different thing than this smiling. I mean to say she tells jokes. She used to leave me little notes that had funny parts in them, like "Jim--Went to the moon--will be back in three years. Dinner is in the freezer for you to heat. Love, Alice," when in fact she had just gone to the supermarket or the hardware store. Once at a party, one too many officers tried to buy her a drink or offered her a cigarette. "Goodness, no," she said. "I drink like a chimney and smoke like a fish." One officer laughed, either because of her smile or the joke. He had a light in his eyes the way that men sometimes do. I think it might have even been the General.

In fact, I'm sure it was the General, because later that night we got into a shoving match about it. "You were looking at her all night," I said.

"Which night?" he said. The question threw me for a second, and then he shoved me, and I shoved him back, and we went like that for a little while until the Colonel came outside to separate us. My wife was with him. "Jim," she said, "let's go home. Give me your hand." I did. "You," she said in the car on the way home. "You you you." I didn't know what she meant. That night, she spoke against the General, calling him a boor and an octopus. I found myself defending him. I spoke of his accomplishments in battle and his loyalty to his men, of his enthusiasms for new fashions and his aptitude for numbers. I explained to her why he needed to keep his nose clean. If you are a woman in the presence of the General, I remember saying, the kind of man he is needs no explanation. "I don't know what you mean," she said. I told her that it's just a fact that some women can't help but smile at men, make them feel larger and more hopeful, except for the men closest to them, who they make feel small and hopeless. Often these women smile at men in power, who then feel even more powerful. "Some women?" she said. "I could get angry, but I won't."

"What?" I say now to my wife, who is standing by the kitchen sink, emptying the Colonel's untouched glass of tea.

"What what?" she says.

"I thought I heard you call my name," I said.

"Nope," she says.

"Funny," I say. "I could swear."

"I've been sitting here the whole time," says the Colonel, "and I didn't hear anything."

"Jim," my wife says.

"What?" I say.

"What what?" she says.

"Didn't hear a thing," says the Colonel. He scratches his nose. I'm not sure why he's doing this. Maybe it itches.

"Jim," my wife says.

"What?" I say. I could get angry, but I won't. We've been through this before.

"Could you bring me the baby's glass?" She is smiling broadly.

"Sure," I say. "It's right here." I take the glass from the baby. It's empty. The baby drinks everything, and eats everything, and grabs everything. When I extend my index finger, the baby grabs it. The baby has a light in its eyes the way I sometimes did when I was a baby, and even when I was a younger man. I pull. The baby pulls. What a baby.
Ben Greenman's short story "Snapshot" appeared in the Blip Magazine Archiveonline edition in 1995. He lives in Brooklyn, where he has recently finished one novel and is at work on his second.

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